Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Integrated Life is Worth Living

I bet many or even most of you already know about the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Apparently, there was some buzz that he was in the running for the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, but it went to Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. I’m sure he deserved it too. But as for Murakami. Wow. With spare, clean writing, he tells stories of deep imagination and sensitivity. I was introduced to his writing by Meredith Cole, a writer and the wife of Peter Krebs, an artist Rob and I represented when we had our gallery. I will be forever grateful for that gift.

It would be impossible, I thought after reading his novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, to ever have anything in common with Murakami. Then I heard he was a long distance runner and published a book of his reflections on his sport and his writing: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I was going to buy it, but I forgot about it in the crush of life. Then I saw this book one night when I was working the closing shift at Barnes and Noble. My job that night was to straighten the right side of the store. And Murakami’s book was all akimbo in the Sports section on the right side of the store. I read the first page while no one was looking, reshelved it properly and bought it the next day. I would have bought it that night, but we had already closed the registers. I felt like I had discovered chocolate or beer or something equally as wonderful and sustaining and decadent.

Here is the first page:

“There is a wise saying that goes like this: A real gentleman never discusses women he’s broken up with or how much tax he’s paid. Actually this is a total lie. I just made it up. Sorry. But if there really were such a saying, I think one more condition for being a gentleman would be keeping quiet about what you do to stay healthy. A gentleman shouldn’t go on and on about what he does to stay fit. At least that’s how I see it.
As everybody knows, I’m no gentleman, so maybe I shouldn’t be worrying about this to begin with, but still I am a little hesitant about writing this book. This might come off sounding like a dodge, but this is a book about running, not a treatise on how to be healthy. I’m not trying to give advice like, “Okay everybody, let’s run everyday to stay healthy!” Instead this is a book in which I have gathered my thoughts about what running has meant to me as a person. Just a book in which I ponder various things and think out loud.”

Why did this capture me so? Well, three reasons: 1) the prose is magical - pointed and simple and effective, and it has a rhythm to it that you can feel, 2) I’m a runner (and a swimmer and a biker) and 3) I dislike people who obsess over their exercise routines and make it the focus of their conversations with you. So, I guess, Mr. Murakami had me at hello.

The book so far (I'm only at page 55 - but I was impatient to share) has lived up to its promise in my eyes. Murakami writes about running and writing and weaves the two together beautifully. It’s part biography - he introduces you to the journey of his life and the major changes in it - but mostly he explores himself and his art and what it means to be the kind of person he is. It’s not a memoir in the current style, where you had to have something awful happen to you so people who slow down at car wrecks will read it. No, it’s a quiet book. He writes about the solitude of running, the void. This, of course, is where a writer has to go if he or she wants to do anything real. It can be lonely, but for those of us suited to it (and by saying us, I am in no way whatsoever implying that I am the same caliber of writer with Mr. Murakami) it is rich with rewards and strange kinds of relationships. He says it best, of course:

“I can’t see my readers’ faces, so in a sense it’s a conceptual type of human relationship, but I’ve consistently considered this invisible, conceptual relationship to be the most important thing in my life.”

This is why art is important; I felt a weight lifted off my chest when I read that. My mother always said that a person’s deepest emotional need is to be understood. Reading this book had affected me profoundly; I found understanding in it. He has helped tie the disparate strange parts of my solitary self into something. I am a writer. And a runner, too.

I hope desperately to make someone else feel understood by something I write, because I think these conceptual relationshsips (or virtual relationships, or even brief eye contact with a stranger over a shared experience) are incredibly valuable in a world where we have to interact so frequently with people we do not like or who do not understand us. I think it is possible for me to succeed, probably not on a level like Murakami, but not being able to be the best is never a reason to quit. So I’ll keep writing, keep running, keep swimming and biking. Keep trying to be a good friend to the people I care about. Keep trying to manage the demons. Keep trying to grow up. I think that is what everybody is doing if you stop and think about it. Some are just better at it than others.

You may feel differently. You may think running is stupid, or that conceptual relationships are stupid. You may be a flesh and blood person. And there is a writer out there who will make you feel understood. I know it.