I have run in Central Park since 1993. I’ll let you do the math. When I first got here, I lived on 113th Street and came into the park at its northwest corner on 110th. Then, six months later, I moved to 85th street and then to Riverside and 79th. So, for 28 years, I have run into and out of Central Park at the entrances on 81st and 77th. One result of the demise of my marriage is that I have gone full circle. I run into the park at its northwest 110th Street entrance again. Welcome home. The cycle of life.
Except two things—it doesn’t feel at all like home. Not yet. While I still carry inside me that 27-year-old, who learned how to be a runner in Central Park, I am not her. The clock has ticked. I turned 57 a few weeks ago. I am trying to find my new running groove. And it’s super awkward. Sometimes, as I pass my old entrance/exit, my feet are confused when I keep going. Sometimes when I run out of the park, my feet think I’m abandoning my run too soon. Too long. Too short.
Well, it is actually too short. There’s the mile that’s been stripped from every run, because now I’m only one block out of the park and not five long New York City crosstown blocks each way. I’m so tired so much of the time now as a result of the stress that it’s sort of okay that my runs are shorter. And the reduced distance makes me feel old and feeble. Sure, self-care suggests I should be easy on myself during this time. And self-care, for me, is not always doing less. Sometimes, it’s doing more, to remind myself that I’m alive and strong.
I am surprised by how disconcerting it is to enter and exit in a different spot. I almost didn’t want to write about it, because it felt like such a slight topic. Then I was inspired by the poet Maggie Smith’s piece about google-mapping the demise of her marriage. If I were on Strava, all my statistics would need to be recalibrated to account for my new starting line. The pure physical sensation is strange. For one, I’m starting in the middle of the most significant hill in Central Park. So, I’m either headed up or down. I don’t get to enjoy the full challenge of the ascent, nor the full liberation of the descent. Unless I make a conscious decision to overshoot in one direction. For two, the landmarks take on different meaning. Each one now represents different mile markers in my progress. Belvedere Castle meant beginning and ending. Now it’s at 1.5 miles in or still to go. The east side 90th street entrance was approximately halfway. Now it’s also 1.5 in or to go. The Harlem Meer was part of all the north hills. Now it means I’ve just started, or I’m almost home. For three, meeting my friend Auditi for a Saturday morning run is a whole different time and distance calculation—including the question of whether to lengthen my usual run with her by 1.5 miles each way, for a total of around 12.5 miles (not insignificant in my current running shape) or ride Citibike to and from our meeting spot.
And all those facts and figures say nothing of the weight of grief. Each place I ran or walked or sat with my partner. We fell in love running in this park. The tree roots and mycelium have converted the residue of our passage into new life. Is our intermingled breath in that small overhanging branch that brushes against my arm as I run by?
In a podcast I was listening to while running today, Katherine May (author most recently of Enchantment), being interviewed by Dr. Sharon Blackie on Hagitude, the show I’m currently addicted to (possibly more on that next month), talked about how joy is only possible when we allow ourselves to live fully into our grief. There is joy in my new relationship to Central Park. Because I arrive into the park beside the North Woods, and because I’ve been tired lately and running shorter, more playful routes, I am spending much more time in the forested bits. On my birthday a few weeks ago, I was up in the woods as my podcast ended. I noticed the birdsong, which seemed unusually vivid. I had noticed the same thing waking up. I stopped running, closed my eyes and soaked up the song, tilting my face to the sky, as if I might catch the scent of the notes. Shortly after I started running again, I came upon a birdwatcher. I stopped to ask him what he was looking at through his gargantuan telescope. There are often clusters of birdwatchers focused on an owl or an eagle or some other extraordinary bird in the park. He said, all of the birds. Then he told me there had been an unusually large migration overnight and that there hadn’t been so many birds in Central Park for years. I took the migration personally. The birds were there to sing me Happy Birthday. My heart swelled to embrace the joy that bloomed alongside the grief. If I hadn’t been living in my new place, I might not have passed that way this day.
Meanwhile, with each run, I write new memories, which will begin to encode their patterns in my feet. Step by step.