Thursday, August 9, 2012

The House at Pooh Corner

 Today is my daughters' last day at preschool.  After our vacation, they'll leave our immediate sphere and start their long walk away from us and toward the horizon.  It's a walk we've worked very hard to prepare them for, with love, and hugs, and lots of reassurance.  All the same, my heartstrings are stretched to the breaking point today.

Today, my babies leave the House at Pooh Corner.

Christopher Robin and I walked along
under branches lit up by the moon.
Posing our questions to Owl and Eeyore
as our days disappeared all too soon.
But I've wandered much further today than I should
and I can't seem to find my way back to the wood.

Last night, both girls asked for the rocking chair.  It's been months since we rocked at bedtime, but they are, understandably, regressing a little.  So we snuggled up and rocked, one at a time, and they told me how sad they are to leave their teachers.  I reveled in the little arms clinging around my neck, and remembered our first days together in that chair.  For a long time, I could rock both of them at once, one behind the other, two babies spooning on my lap.  Their dear sleepy heads would lean against each other into my chest, one blondie and one brown, drifting off into baby dreams while cuddled into their twin.

My baby girls are far too big to do that now, but they never stopped hugging each other and I hope they never will.

So, help me if you can, I've got to get
back to the house at Pooh Corner by one.
You'd be surprised there's so much to be done,
count all the bees in the hive,
chase all the clouds from the sky.
Back to the days of Christopher Robin and Pooh.

In May of 2009, we crash-landed into San Francisco in an emergency move prompted by my mother's very serious illness.  Those days are now a blur.  I had transferred offices within my large law firm and had to take the California bar exam about two months after we got here; my husband was initially gone in Massachusetts half the time working on his Ph.D.; my girls were barely two; and my mother was very sick.  It was a real challenge to hold everything together, and I often worried whether the chaos and stress would harm my girls.  I remain convinced that St. Paul's Littlest Angels preschool, where there were fortuitously (miraculously?) two places available that terrible May, has played a tremendously significant role in ensuring that my girls came through that era as unscathed as they could be.  For over three years, the same teachers--absolutely no turnover in that time--have nurtured our girls, played with them, comforted them, and loved them.  I'm thinking about them today, with a heart overflowing with gratitude for their steadfastness, humor, and caring, and for being there for us all this time, day after day, with smiling faces to greet them every morning.  We will all miss you.

Winnie the Pooh doesn't know what to do,
got a honey jar stuck on his nose.
He came to me asking help and advice
and from here no one knows where he goes.
So I sent him to ask of the Owl if he's there,
how to loosen a jar from the nose of a bear?

Since they were babies, I've always read Pooh stories to my girls.  They just love Pooh Bear, and they know I do too.  Pooh is good to have around in a pinch, even if the "pinch" results from him eating too much at Rabbit's and getting stuck in the door on the way out!   Mostly, Pooh is a great friend.  He loves people without judging them, and always shares his honey.  Among the lessons my girls learned during these peaceful, beautiful preschool years, I hope that's one they keep.

My talented, brave, kind, precious little ones.  Watching you leave your preschool and walk away from the House at Pooh Corner toward the amazing and unpredictable lives that await you is at once one of the saddest and one of the most inspiring moments of my life.

It's hard to explain how a few precious things
seem to follow throughout all our lives.
After all's said and done I was watching my son
sleeping there with my bear at his side.
So I tucked him in, kissed him, and as I was going,
I swear that ol' bear whispered "boy, welcome home."
Believe me if you can I finally came
back to the house at Pooh Corner by one
and whaddya know there's so much to be done
count all the bees in the hive
chase all the clouds from the sky
back to the days of Christopher Robin
back to the ways of Christopher Robin
back to the days of Pooh

--Lyrics by Kenny Loggins

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Race brain: flow and the art of running

Calm, float, detachment, immersion.  One foot in front of the other, again and again, in the predawn mist.  Given that it's been many years since I was last a competitive athlete, and in a different sport, I'd forgotten what race brain is like.

From the points race at the 1995 collegiate national track cycling championships, I'm left with a vivid memory of sweeping from turn 3 into turn 4 just before my teammate Thia and I successfully attacked and stayed away for the rest of the race.  I knew the crowd was roaring, but I couldn't hear them, and I didn't see them either.  I didn't feel any pain or fatigue.  The shape of the race in front of me carved itself into my brain.  I felt both a hundred miles away and everywhere in the pack at once.  My eyes found my teammate's.  Everything was still for a moment.  And then we jumped.

I call that "race brain."  It never operates during training, when I'm often subject to fatigue, mental reservations and self-doubt (I don't think I can make it!), random pains, distraction, you name it.  I almost never have the "perfect" training session that I've heard other athletes talk about.  On the bike, I used to struggle up hills.  On my feet, I struggle to complete a 14-mile run at 9:30.

But put me in a race, and suddenly my everyday brain flips off and my race brain comes online.  Race brain is exceptionally calm, in a strange way both removed from the immediate environment and preternaturally aware of it.  Race brain calculates pack placement, looks for holes to move up, monitors heart rate and breathing, evaluates pains (race brain somehow knew that the sharp calf pain I felt at about mile 5 of the SF half-marathon would resolve if I backed off a bit on Lincoln Hill, and remained unconcerned), reminds me to take water at the stops, reassures me that my arm warmers alone are enough to defeat the fog and wind on the Golden Gate Bridge before dawn even though I'm shivering.  Under the influence of race brain, I ran a 1:40:58 first-half SF marathon and took second in my division, in my second half marathon ever, and almost never felt out of breath.  That's not to say I didn't work hard:  it was a very difficult race, and I'm not sure I could have gone any faster.  But it felt controlled and smooth.  Race brain was in charge.

 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a more elegant term for race brain: he calls it flow.  The "flow" state is characterized by immersion, absorption, and complete attention to the moment.  It resembles mindfulness practice.  Faced with a very difficult task, you must focus, engage creativity, and reject fear, even when fear feels like an insurance policy.

I remember what it was like to let go of fear on the bike.  Bicycle racing is not for the faint of heart.  It's dangerous, sometimes extremely so, and to keep yourself in one piece until the finish-line sprint takes self-possession and a good dose of calm.  For me, the key was not to think about it: "don't look where you don't want to go."  That's not to say that I didn't think about technique, pack placement, trajectory, and line; you have to think about that stuff to avoid crashing in corners and flying off cliffs.  But you have to transform a lot of that into subconscious calculation, reserving the conscious brain for several dimensions of strategy.  And then the conscious body just feels, and deeply, the joy of efficient movement.  It feels as close to flying as we get in this world.

Letting go of fear is really different in running, but you still have to do it.  Certainly, you can't crash, and we may feel relief in that.  But on the other hand, unlike cycling, in running you can't coast; you get no rest.  That means if you miscalculate and go out too fast, you can be cooked for miles.  But if you go out too slow, you've lost your chance at peak performance.  So letting go of fear means letting race brain take over and tell you how fast to go.  No fear--just you, flying and flying.

Now if only I could figure out how to access flow in training...let me know if you have any hints!