Mind in Motion

Years ago, to celebrate an anniversary, Jennifer and I spent a night or two in Saratoga Springs. I’d spent time there in college and loved it, and thought its leafy streets and big houses would be a nice relief from the city in summer. I thought of Saratoga Springs mostly as an arts town, what with all the writers holed up at Yaddo and the dance troupes and music ensembles that had their summer residencies there.

But of course it is even more a horse town, and though we were not particularly horse people, we went to see the thoroughbreds at their morning workout on a track across the street from the famous racecourse.

We got to the track early, as trainers led their horses from the stables to the track. The horses were terrifying: impatient, angry, enormous. They stamped and pulled at the reins, jerking sideways, nostrils flaring, eyes bulging. Their movements were almost spasmodic, and I worried there might be something wrong with them. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be here after all, to witness what looked to me like a scene of abuse or perhaps even the throes of death.

But the minute those horses were spurred into action on the track, they were transformed—from something monstrous and awkward into the very symbol of beauty and power. They coursed around the track like balls of mercury spinning in a bowl. It was impossible to peel your eyes away. We felt their hoofbeats through the ground as they approached us around the turn to our left; we heard their breath as they flew past us. Their beauty made my skin buzz. When they were running, the world was theirs and we were lucky just to be in it.

Watching them, I remembered a similar scene with a pack of sled dogs in the Sierra Nevadas. It was just after dawn, and we were on our way to ski. The dogs were gathered off the side of the road, preparing for an expedition. They were a cacophony of howling, yipping, and snarling, a tangle of fur and trace, until the sled driver called out for them to go—and then the dogs went silent and the pack charged off as though it were one organism flowing across the snowy field.

And even our own dog, a numbskulled pit bull named Chester (R.I.P.), showed signs of this. We learned when we adopted him that he would never be happy in our apartment unless he got exercise, got to act like the working dog he was bred to be. So we walked him for miles (he would never run longer than a block), chased him around the apartment, played tug of war with him, made him work for his dinner. The more he worked, the happier he seemed.

Nothing made him happier than finding a good sparring partner at the dog park. Most of the dogs there weren’t up for his kind of play, as he’d learn after a few unreciprocated feints. But when he found another dog willing to wrestle—best of all another pit bull—he would transform into something more like a spirit than a dog. Chester and the other pit would chase each other around the park, then turn and charge one another, leaping and spinning midair, briefly becoming one animal and then pulling apart again, never hurting one another, never making a clumsy move, just being dogs at their happiest and most beautiful. It was astonishing to watch, making it look like all the fabled danger and violence of the pit bull was just beauty misdirected.  He’d leave those sessions exhausted, come home and sleep peacefully, and I’d look at him with a renewed appreciation for his brilliant…dogginess.

When I was still working in my restaurant’s kitchen, the good days were when I’d feel more like those sled dogs or a race horse than like the human beings we were feeding. There were moments of grace, when everything was going well, and the cook I was working with was good and we were communicating effortlessly: our hands and feet seemed to bypass our brains, reading the hand-scrawled codes of order tickets (BGV, G+E OE BAC, 1/2 FT) as a kind of choreographic notation. Orders were translated through our limbs into a pan of eggs, a pot of gravy, a tray of ham, all moving on and off the stove, in and out of the broiler, onto plates and into the pass in a way that could feel almost magical. We were working smoothly together as a team but we were also working effortlessly within ourselves, our minds organizing information into commands for our bodies in a way that didn’t feel conscious or even controllable.

For someone who’d been raised to believe that intelligence was best expressed in abstractions, whose whole life was pointed away from working with his body, kitchen work was a revelation. In college and graduate school I’d trained myself to sit still for hours in a library carrel, to read and write while ignoring my body’s hunger for movement. I loved that cerebral work, and even enjoyed some of that struggle with my restless body. But working in a kitchen made me wonder what I’d failed to learn by suppressing what my body was trying to tell me, and what we miss as a culture by valuing the intelligence of the mind at rest over the active intelligence of a body in motion.

When I stopped working in the kitchen, it was partly because I felt I couldn’t keep up with the younger and better cooks we’d hired, and partly because I had a second child to help care for and a wife with a never-ending job with an inflexible schedule. I was grateful that I was able to adjust my schedule to accommodate my life, but I missed the satisfactions of cooking the line. Running helped fill the hole. When I started training for races, I’d wake up with the same tired legs, the same groaning muscles that I’d had cooking. Just as they had in the kitchen, my muscles needed a minute or two to warm up, but then they would spring into action like they’d wanted nothing more than to be there, churning away like dogs on the trail. And I’d feel that same kind of grace in motion on the road that I’d felt pirouetting in the cramped space between refrigerators, griddle, and stovetop.

What do you think about when you’re running? non-runners love to ask, as though an hour or two in solitary motion would be unbearable mental tedium. I’m never really sure how to answer the question. Maybe I should say that I have trivial, technical thoughts about running—I notice I’m off pace, or I note a twinge of pain somewhere and try to assess what it means. Maybe I just notice where I am, admiring the light on the side of a building or a cute kid in a stroller. Sometimes I’ll think more elaborate thoughts, or I’ll purposefully try to work my way through a problem. But running is often more like a relief from the work of abstract thinking, a way of sifting the silt out of my mind until it runs clear again. To the extent that I’m aware of my mind, it’s like I’m reconnecting something that had frayed, tightening up something that had gotten loose. My mind is merging into my body and no longer feels like a processing unit that’s grinding away in the case of my skull, disconnected from my flesh.

There’s a lot of talk about the mental benefits of running, and a lot of research to back it up—it rebuilds brain tissue, staves off cognitive decline, improves mood. I’m pretty confident that running has made me a more tolerable person, that it’s enhanced my ability to cope with stress. Maybe it’s improved my memory or kept my brain pliable and nimble. But those are derivative benefits. It’s harder to talk about the value of motion for its own sake, the mystery and beauty of an intelligence in motion. The more I try to sit here and wrap my head around it, the more I want to go for a run.

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