This week’s lecture take us in a slightly different direction than the last 3 weeks. Week 2 was about attention, weeks 3 and 4 about wonder as delight and curiosity. The emphasis in those weeks was on learning to pay attention and find, or be found by, wonder. This week is about our bodies in motion and using those bodies to help us translate our wonder into words. In particular, I want to focus on our bodies in terms of breathing and the rhythms of our striking feet: How can we notice our breath or our feet striking the ground as we move? What are some ways to sync them up with the spaces we move through? And, how might both help us translate our wonder into words?
Early on in my movement log, I became interested in breathing and rhythm. At first, this was motivated primarily by my efforts to train up for my first marathon. I needed to concentrate on my breathing so I could avoid pushing too hard and getting injured. And I needed to make some rhythms with my striking feet that kept me focused and steady, and also distracted me from my hard effort. But even before my marathon dream was over because of an injury, I started experimenting with new ways to use breathing and rhythm for noticing the world and then writing about it. And I discovered that giving attention to both of these things was not only helpful for my running fitness and form, but for my writing and my constant quest to find better words for connecting to the world and others. (It didn’t hurt my overall well-being either!) Plus, it was often so much fun!
Noticing your breathing and your feet as they strike the ground can be as simple as feeling your breath as it enters and exits your body. In and out. In and out. Or hearing the sound of your foot as it hits the hard asphalt in a steady beat beat beat beat. And, that might be enough of an activity, especially if you’ve never really noticed your breath or your feet before as you move outside. But, there’s so much more you can do with your attention, so many more things to think about in relation to breath and feet! Here is a mix of ideas about breathing and striking feet that might give you some inspiration for your movement log:
13 Ways of Looking at Breathing:
Breathing in bad air. Many of my entries in the late spring and early summer of my first year of writing about my runs involved the weather, especially the humidity and dew point, and how it affected my breathing. In some of these entries I tried to describe how miserable it felt, how difficult it was to breathe when the humidity was 85% or the dew point above 60. I researched what humidity does to the body, especially the moving body as it tries to breathe, and what the dew point measures. In other entries, I tried to cast a spell against the harmful effects of thick, humid air by playing with the words — turning humidity into an acrostic poem, making dew point the start of a whimsical sentence that involved the request: “Do point the way to the pool.” And, in one entry, I made humidity into a metaphor for the limits we face and how those limits humble us in a lyric essay that begins, It’s not the heat, it’s the humidityand ends, It’s not defeat, it’s humility.
Breathing in good air. When it becomes cooler, in mid October, then cold, in December, I notice how wonderful the cold air feels as I breathe it in. Crisp. Dry. Not draining but invigorating. So many of my winter entries involve praise for the icy, fresh air and the ease with which I can breathe.
A few things I’m constantly noticing and writing about are the spaces on my route that are open and airy and that give me room to breathe: clear views, not obstructed by leaves, to the other side of the river; the constant presence, which I feel even when I can’t see it, of the wide open space carved out by the gorge that hangs above the river; and the spot on the trail, when the path seems to float above the forest and where the trees open up into a wide, airy amphitheater-like space. Too layered with leaves to see sky. Up above is green, down below is too. Running by this spot, I feel like I’m flying or floating in green. Walking, I’m slow enough to notice the layers of green and brown, the lack of blue and the openness of it all.
Open space and breath are important for poetry. It is often suggested that a line of poetry is the length of a breath, and the blank open space on a page, between and around the words, where the poem breathes, can be as important to that poem as the words.
Writing in the introduction to her essay collection, Long Life, Mary Oliver says this about the small poems she scatters throughout the book: “Writing poems, for me but not necessarily for others, is a way of offering praise to the world. In this book you will find, set among the prose pieces, a few poems. Think of them that way, as little alleluias. They’re not trying to explain anything, as the prose does. They just sit there on the page, and breathe (xiv).”
Sit there on the page, and breathe. I loved this line so much, I wrote a response in a log entry:
No Explanation Necessary
What a thing to do!
To sit and just breathe.
how different from what is expected.
Who needs an explanation
when there’s inspiration
To take a breath, is to take a break, a breather. To pause. A moment of silence. A breaking up of the routine of constant motion.
Sometimes, I like to try and feel this break, not by stopping my motion, but by focusing on that moment when I breathe, the space between beats, before one foot strikes down, after the other lifts off. Did you know in running, that this is the moment when you float, when both feet are off of the ground? I focus on the steady feeling of the air as I briefly float and forget the moments when my feet touch the ground.
To take a breath is also a breaking open of the tight seal between the self and the world, breathing in the air of others.
How to breathe: Use your lungs. Breathe in deeply through your nose and mouth, with your diaphragm. As your abdomen extends, so does your invitation to the world to enter and fill you with wonder and gratitude.
“Walking causes absorption. Walking interminably, taking in through your pores the height of the mountains when you are confronting them at length, breathing in the shape of the hills for hours at a time” (A Philosophy of Walking/ Gros).
Take in oxygen
release carbon dioxide
Take in the world. Take in the sensations, the sounds, the colors: the greens and browns of the gorge floor, the greys of the sky on a cloudy day, the electric blue of the yarn bomb on the railroad bridge, the bright yellow-green of the runner’s shirt, the orange of the traffic cone, the red of the stop sign, the purple of the lilac bush, the pink of my jacket, the silvery-white of the river as the sun dances on its surface.
Breathe in and accept what the world is offering: energy. life. inspiration.
Release worries and doubts
expel that which is toxic
breathe out and offer up what you don’t need.
from the online Merriam-Webster dictionary:
Inspiration has an unusual history in that its figurative sense appears to predate its literal one. It comes from the Latin inspiratus (the past participle of inspirare, “to breathe into, inspire”) and in English has had the meaning “the drawing of air into the lungs” since the middle of the 16th century. This breathing sense is still in common use among doctors, as is expiration (“the act or process of releasing air from the lungs”). However, before inspiration was used to refer to breath it had a distinctly theological meaning in English, referring to a divine influence upon a person, from a divine entity; this sense dates back to the early 14th century. The sense of inspiration often found today (“someone or something that inspires”) is considerably newer than either of these two senses, dating from the 19th century.
the song that has made it onto several of my running playlists: Breathe (2 am)/Anna Nawlick
the bit of a poem that I’ve sometimes chanted this year when the run becomes difficult and I need distraction:
Life is but Life! And Death, but Death!
Bliss is but Bliss, and Breath, but Breath!
from ’Tis so much joy! ’Tis so much joy!/ Emily Dickinson
Smells I’ve smelled while breathing during a run:
- Fresh donuts from Mel-o-Glaze Donuts
- Bacon from Longfellow Grill
- Smoke from a fire, below me, somewhere deep in the gorge
- Rotting leaves
- Too much perfume on the runner I passed
- Chemicals after the rain
- A lilac bush
- the Sewer
- freshly cut grass
- The inside rim of the baseball cap I’ve been wearing, and have never! washed, for almost every run and almost every race for the past 5 years.
- my own breath when I wear a buff around my face in the winter
I love trying to listen for the sound of trees breathing — the oaks, maples, cottonwoods, basswood — their little lungs, the holes in their leaves called stomata, gobbling up the air. Last year, I read an article referring to trees as the lungs of the world. What a wonderful phrase! What wonderful trees!
I also love listening to them sigh. Why do trees sigh? Is it a gesture of resigned acceptance as they absorb the negative thoughts that we exhale? Or is it an offering of gratitude as they receive the carbon dioxide that is forced out of our bodies? Do trees sigh? Sometimes I think they do as I run by.
When I’m running, I usually breathe in a pattern of 3 steps, then 2. When I’m swimming, every 5 strokes. When I’m walking, I don’t often count my breaths. I use both the 3/2 and every 5 patterns as structures for some of my poetry.
Here are 2 poems that use those structures, and also reference them:
Running breathing pattern: 3/2
I go to
to find the
one foot strikes,
When I float.
through time’s tight
Held up by
the air I
spread out, slow.
This space —
no dream, a
was edge is
and what was
Swimming pattern: every 5
Every 5 strokes I
breathe — a quick sharp in
above, a long slow
out below. A time
to dream, a place to
remember some things
forget others, a
chance to wonder: which
of these lives is true,
which false? Is above’s
separate self fiction,
below’s fluid form-
lessness fact? Are the
borders between us
made up, our skin not
sealed shut but open,
able to be passed
through, dissolved? What if
the real me is a
we not an I? Fish
swimmer water us,
all lake all longing
to stay under, sub-
merged? Yes. For 5 strokes
at a time, we are
together. Freed from
hungry lungs’ demands,
gravity’s tight tug,
land’s need to divide.
13 Ways of Looking at Striking Feet
Cadence, in running terms, is how many times per minute your feet hit the ground. “Cadence” itself is a medieval word derived from the Italian cadenza meaning “rhythm” or “metrical beat.” That in turn is from the Latin word cadere, “to fall.” It refers to the falling of poetic feet, and the rhythms that are formed when those footfalls become regular. Indeed, the history of English poetry is, in a certain sense, a history of footfalls. The “foot” is the standard measure of stresses in English language poetry, taken from the Ancient Greek tradition (in which it is the length of syllables, and not their stresses, that make up “feet”)….Running is not itself a kind of poetry, as much as it might be tempting to say something of the kind. But both running and poetry are ways of feeling, inside ourselves, that steady beat of being human—the marker that, yes, we are alive, and living, and carrying ourselves forward on ever-moving feet.Counting Feet/ Chris Townsend
the 5 basic meters
Iambic: unstressed stressed
Trochee: stressed unstressed
Spondee: stressed stressed
Anapest: unstressed unstressed stressed
Dactyl: stressed unstressed unstressed
This meter is for English poetry. It can be a struggle for those with English as their second language, and it doesn’t really account for regional dialects. I often struggle to hear meter. Maybe it’s because was born in the upper peninsula of Michigan, and grew up in North Carolina and Virginia, then moved to Iowa, Minnesota, southern California, Georgia, then Minnesota again?
I like to write about the various surfaces I run over: grass, dirt, asphalt, concrete, leaves, grit, snow, ice, wet, dry, cracked, cratered, smooth, rough, littered with goose poop, studded with walnut shells.
I also like to write about what it sounds and feels like to be running over the sandy grit that collects at the edge of the path. It’s sibilant shshshshuffle, the gentle way it propels my feet, how it offers an interesting variation from the relentless thudding or slapping on asphalt.
Do you ever hear the shuffling whisper of phantom footsteps behind you, then look back, and no one’s there?
I like to wonder about who haunted the paths I run over, and to imagine, as I strike down on a dirt trail, that I’m adding to a poem that they began long before I was born.
In the winter, I love listening to the sound of snow creak or crunch or groan under my feet. One year, I started paying closer attention. Listening longer to it. Studying it. Recording it. One day, I noticed something. There were 2 distinct sounds. One, a steady grinding, like gears with small teeth turning rhythmically, constantly, the other a quick thrust, like a small shovel being stuck into sand or small pebbles. Having studied the biomechanics of walking, I realized that this was the sound of walking, as one fit lifts off (the grinding) and the other strikes down (the thrust)!
the rhythms of the gorge: a roller skier steadily strikes the asphalt with her poles; a pebble, wedged in the wheel of a car, repeatedly hits the road; nail after nail is driven into the new shingles on a roof; the bells at St. Thomas chime every 1/4 of an hour; the cicadas buzz; the traffic hums; the water drips drips drips out of the sewer pipe; a dog collar jingles with each step; a eliptigo saws the air with its swinging arms and feet.
On some runs, I try to sync up my steps to the rhythms around me: the birds, a song playing on a bike speaker or a car radio, the moving river. Here’s a poem I wrote about it — it uses my 3/2 breathing pattern:
I try to
my steps to
as they keep
and my feet
drips down stone
can’t match, taps
I beat out
learn to dwell
do more than
bring me back
Striking feet have many different sounds, depending on so many things: the surface, the weather, the foot, the gait, the shoe, the effort. Some sound like soft shuffles, others like slaps or thwacks. You might hear a quick snap or a hard pound. What sounds do your striking feet make and why?
One cold winter day, with less than a mile left to run, I started chanting a rhythm in my head: 12345, 12345, 12345, 321 then 54321, 54321, 54321, 321. I wondered, how would these beats work in a poem? So, I went home and decided to find out. Here’s what I came up with:
0 DEGREES/FEELS LIKE -11
Up from the gorge floor
Down from the gray sky
Under a jacket
Cold sharp air
jolting those deadened
dazed and dumb
Sober up quickly!
Sharpen your senses!
Notice the river!
Smell! Hear! See!
Frosted heavy sky
Hard path muffled steps
Trees sing lullabies
Go to sleep.
Not quick only slow
Dense thick covering
All thoughts frozen, stopped
Shhhhh. Hush. Dream.
Sink deep settle in
Dull numb blanketed
Wrapped in frigid air
In February of 2020, I tried a new experiment, which I frequently return to now: to regulate my pace and breathing, I chanted. Strawberry/ Blueberry/ Raspberry. Over and over again. One foot strike for every syllable. As I ran down the franklin hill I decided that blackberry fit better than strawberry and chanted that: Raspberry/ Blueberry/ Blackberry. I chanted this mostly in my head. A few times, I mouthed it and at least once, I whispered it. It was helpful in keeping me steady and in a dream-like state. I considered switching in other 3 syllable words but never did.
A few weeks later, I added desserts to the berries. Why? I’m not sure, maybe I was hungry:
- Apple Pie
- Ice Cream Cake
- Creme Brûlée
Almost always, these triples are dactyls: stressed unstressed unstressed.
I began turning everything about my run into triples:
- 4 way stop
- Split rail fence
- Railroad bridge
- 2 oak trees
- Garbage can
- River road
And one summer, these triple chants, or triple berry chants as I like to call them, helped me find a way into 2 poems about my favorite running route along the gorge. I didn’t keep many of those initial lines, but the ideas and images that appeared as I chanted in threes became the poems.
So, that’s it: 13 Ways of Looking at Breathing and 13 Ways of Looking at Striking Feet.
question: How will you notice your breath and your feet this week? What doors into wonder or delight might that noticing open for you?