It’s the best church I’ve ever been to. Nine miles of me and the road, where my brain, body, and spirit attempt to commune with the universe. I’m sure I look like any middle-aged runner just shuffling along with ear buds. I’m hardly in church attire. I have no offering but my breathing—which alternates between strong, confident breaths on flat stretches and whiny, desperate panting on steep climbs.
These long runs are the most religious experience I’ve had since I left church behind nearly 30 years ago. I don’t begrudge those who opt for holy water and hymns. People should give their spirit what it needs. And come 11 a.m. every Sunday, mine needs me to put on running shoes and go.
Attending this church of mine starts with trying to get myself out of the house. The distractions mount: There’s one more New York Times story to read on my phone. The bathroom garbage can should be emptied. The cat wants to play hide-and-go-seek. Which running socks should I wear? Let me just check the weather app one more time!
My husband shakes his head and says, “It takes you forever to get out the door!” He doesn’t understand that this is how I like it. That it reminds me of Sunday mornings at my house circa 1984, when my dad would yell that it was time to leave for church right now, dammit! I can see him, standing by the kitchen table with his sideburns and overcoat. His dress shoes—fancier than the shoes he wore to work in his lab—clacked on the linoleum as he paced, his frustration mounting at this unruly crew. My mom would usually still be getting dressed and my sister would be fixing my hair, fashioning it into a “tree” (half of my hair piled into a cascading ponytail on top of my head) as various other siblings finished breakfast and listened to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40.
As I tie my running shoes, I think about the noisy sliding door on the blue and white van we drove to church. Its metallic harumph! was the sound of Kettelers on the move. I take a final drink of water, contemplating whether I should bring a bottle or if a drink at the water fountain around mile six will be enough, and remember how I would gingerly dip a finger into the holy water at the entrance to church before making the sign of the cross.
Now I warm up my spirit by stretching my calves on the stoop. I have new rituals, but my body knows the history. Our muscles have incredible ability to remember, our repeated moves, touches, and gestures lodged in long-term memory. It’s why I know exactly what it feels like to file into a pew and use the top of my foot to pull down the kneeler. The thin pad was always unforgiving to knees bruised from climbing trees and roller skating in the street. Standing was way better, especially once I was tall enough to lean on the pew and press my palms into the rounded top.
Was the pew made from oak? Maple? Whatever it was, it had a grimy layer of gloss polish, which made it look as dull as dishwater. I used to imagine tumbling across the tops of those pews. I can see myself in my mind’s eye, back handspringing through the crowd.
The memories of the people I was with in that pew make me smile, with our inside jokes and cocoon of just-right chaos. I loved to hear my mom sing and see my dad shake hands at the sign of peace (my brother and I would have a side contest to see which of us could shake more hands). But when I expand the lens further, all I see is disconnect.
I would sit there under a cloud of incense and behold the marble altar, the gleaming gold accents of the sanctuary, and the fancy fabric of the priest’s robes. I understood, even before I understood, the duplicity of having palace-like interiors as the setting for messages about humility. I remember the questions that tumbled through my mind like those handsprings across the tops of the pews. I see my 10-year-old self, and I know she’s going to have so much anger over the hypocrisy, brutal misogyny, and outright deception she comes to discover. She’s going to leave that place forever, returning only for weddings and funerals, and even then with an eye twitch.
And yet I learned how to use that peculiar interlude every week to take walks through my own mental landscape. During the dull homilies and forlorn spells of organ music, I contemplated gymnastics routines, thought about conflicts with friends, tallied up homework I had to do, let loose a mental tirade against the mean girls in my class, prayed that no one I loved would die, and planned the ways I could be a better daughter and more honest person. It was a little gift to have a space where the minutia of life and my soul could meet, even if the box around it was littered with human-made problems.
In her famous poem, Emily Dickinson wrote, “Some keep the Sabbath going to church. I keep it, staying at home.” She goes on to describe how a songbird provides the hymns and gives a sermon that’s never too long. Emily and I are of the same mind on this one. We make what we need.
As I run through the main thoroughfare in my little town, toward the less-traveled roads, I think about what I need.
Around mile five, there’s a house on the corner with a huge yard that dips down and back up. Their dogs—German Shepherds, I think, though I’m not a reliable source of dog breed knowledge—run along the hilly fence line, barking viciously at me. Sometimes, as I shuffle up the hill, I laugh and say, “Do I honestly look like a threat, you silly pups?” Other times, I yell at them to shut the hell up.
The point is, the Church of the Long Run takes me through the range of emotions, and I never quite know where I’ll be. A lot of versions of Judi sweat themselves out in those miles. Sometimes, when the sky is cornflower blue and it’s neither too hot nor too cold, I’m all inspiration. I brainstorm writing projects and story ideas. I find the metaphor I’ve been searching for all week and get the answer to some problem I’ve been turning around in my head.
Other times, all I can think about are people I’ve lost. My mind sees my brother, my dad, my mother-in-law and father-in-law, and nearly all my aunts and uncles, and I send a smile to their soul. But the sister I’ve lost to estrangement—not the tree ponytail one, who is a close friend, but my eldest one, who used to be—is almost unbearable to think about, because I can’t figure out what to do. How to emotionally find her again in her right-wing fog. I rage when I see the Let’s Go Brandon flag flapping like an obnoxious toddler in the yard of a house around mile seven, but it doesn’t make my sadness dissipate. Speeding up my legs gives my fury an outlet, but I’m no track star. I always have to find my pace again and continue slowly forward. Forward forward forward.
This advancing motion also provides the space to let my darkest fears out of their cave for a few minutes. With a teen and a tween at home, I’m terrified of the mental health crisis. What are they doing on their phones? Why can’t I keep better track? What kind of parent am I, anyway? I’m scared for them, for their friends, and for all teens. I think of the suicides among this age group that could happen. I see us all at the funerals. Stop it, stop it, stop it! I scream inside my head. We’ll find a way to fix it all, won’t we? I bargain and reason and try to find my breath again.
But then comes a downhill stretch. My god, the descent! It makes you think you have it together. Life is a brilliant pool of love when you’re gliding down a hill at a 6:30-per-mile pace. Everything is possibility and good intention, not unlike the prayers of the faithful. Reciting over and over Lord, hear our prayer was my favorite part of the mass. It felt like you were offering the sincerest part of yourself to something larger, in the service of making the world better. I pray now to the road, the sky, the trees: Keep kids safe. Keep families fed. Make despots fall. Stop the assaults on women’s health and teachers’ curriculum and LGBTQ students. Let my sister wake up from her alt-right coma. Heal us all.
A bird chirps. I think of Emily Dickinson and of how a thing you do repeatedly can have a meaning greater than the thing itself. And I keep going.