Monthly Archives: May 2013

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Haruki Murakami is most well know for innovative and surreal fiction like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84; he has described his writing goal as putting “Dostoevsky and Raymond Chandler together in one book.”  No easy task, I think, but his novels are exactly that.   However, this short book, “What I talk about when I talk about running,” really a collection of essays, is a memoir of his life through the lens of something he does every day—running.

“Long-distance running suits my personality, though, and of all the habits I’ve acquired over my lifetime I’d have to say this one has been the most helpful, the most meaningful.”

Starting his adult life as a bartender and jazz club owner, he never intended to be a writer, yet running and writing have intertwined to define his life—the running allowing him to write, to sustain himself and the well of creativity needed for the long distance test of writing.

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

The reason I picked up this book on running was that I had just finished his recent book, 1Q84, having been unable to put it down during a 14 hour flight over the Pacific, I felt like I had come late to a writer I should have discovered long ago.  I haven’t felt like reading could be so engaging and transporting, packed with poetry and meaning, since picking up Garcia Marquez’s books in university, or more recently with the Canadian poet Anne Michaels’ books.

I was raving to my wife about 1Q84, and she mentioned that he’d written a book on running.   I was curious to understand what his relationship was to an activity, a meditation, a discipline really, that I’ve also pursued over my lifetime.  I’ve never had a good reason to give people who ask me why I run every day, why I compete in events from the mile to the ultramarathon distance, why I so often find myself in what normal people would consider unpleasant, uncomfortable and intense situation.    So I wondered what Murakami had to say about it:

“Even if, seen from the outside, or from some higher vantage point, this sort of life looks pointless or futile, it doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s a pointless act, pouring water into an old pan that has a hole in the bottom, but at least the effort you put into it remains. Whether it’s good for anything or not, cool or totally uncool, in the final analysis what’s most important is what you can’t see but can feel in your heart.”

 Which, while not so much an eloquent articulation (though possessing a lovely double entendre!), he does capture something about the question of why we keep pouring water into a pan that has a hole in it.   What else can we do but make an effort?  What is the point of “meaning” and “purpose” except to access some deeper feeling?  Something of the holy in us perhaps?  Or our submerged animal? For me, the why of running has been as unanswerable as the why of breathing, eating and sleeping.  Stopping any of these things is unthinkable, though they all, including running, will come to an end some day.

“Even if he doesn’t break the time he’d hoped for, as long as he has the sense of satisfaction at having done his very best–and, possibly, having made some significant discovery about himself in the process.”


The Holy or the Broken


Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen song)

Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

” The Holy or the Broken:  Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah'” by Alan Light  Book Review

“It’s an amazing word to say,” says Bono.  “it’s its own kind of mouth music, just singing it.”

In the general theme of religion (see the review of The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen) I recently heard Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah for the first time.   This is pretty remarkable because I listen to a lot of music, and I like Leonard Cohen; so I should have heard this 20 year old song before now.  But this sort of thing happens to me.  For instance, I never listened to or appreciated Led Zeppelin.  All I knew of their music was Stairway to Heaven from the countless times it was played as the slow dance at Lesher Junior High School parties in Ft. Collins, Colorado in the late 70s.   I’ve since recovered this lost period of my life, now own the entire canon of Led Zeppelin, and count Kashmir as one of my favourite songs of all time.   I also love dancing to my daughter’s music with her—Carly Rae Jepsen is awesome.  I’m pro Taylor Swift too.   So music has always been a big part of enjoying life for me.

So I heard the song and was absolutely taken by it.  It’s a long song, with 5 verses and complex lyrics.  It has a compelling melody that is also easy to sing.  And it’s a religious song, especially for those of us who are agnostic or atheists.  (there aren’t many atheist spiritual songs out there—but there must be a market for them….)   And then I was walking past an airport book store and saw Alan Light’s book about the song.   I had just read the autobiographies of Neil Young and Richards, which made me like them both less and put me off of their music for a couple of months, so I wasn’t really  in the market, but I picked it up and could’t put it down.

The book is a great story about a great song.  Cohen’s decade long struggle to write it.  The lack of reaction to it’s release.  The tragic story of the promising artist Jeff Buckley recording the song (with haunting video ) then walking into the Mississippi River 5 months later and drowning before his version made the song popular.  Leonard Cohen then retreating to a Zen monastery, to reappear 8 years later, bankrupt, having been robbed by his manager, and then beginning a series of world tours, playing stadiums, at the age of 70.

English: Leonard Cohen

English: Leonard Cohen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a religious epic in itself, about a man whose purpose in writing the song was to “push the Hallelujah into the secular world, into the ordinary world.”   The song provides a bridge of faith into the everyday.   As Light says, “There is simply no getting around the power of that chorus: one word, charged with centuries of meaning, delivered ironically or solemnly or both.”

The magic of music and it’s ability to transport the soul and make connections makes me remember something from my childhood in the American south.  I was 6 or 7, and my babysitter had taken me to a Southern Baptist church in Nashville.   My parents weren’t churchgoers so I wasn’t sure what it was all about, but there was a lot of singing.   I remember asking her afterwards about the singing.  She said, “when you sing, you pray twice.”  Hallelujah.