The Exquisite Beauty of Fragility

Running to find America on Earth Day

I’d planned to run a sponsored half marathon from Hoboken up the east side of the Hudson and then over the George Washington Bridge to the Little Red Lighthouse.

With GPS devices it’s easy enough to go out on your own and track your route, but my back had been aching and I I feared it was something more serious. Worried about my twice previously herniated discs, I’d scrapped all training sessions and was thinking of scrapping the run itself. Plus the plan was to do it on Earth Day, April 22, when the weather is capricious: sometimes cold, often wet. So why would I do it? Would anyone notice if I didn’t?

Running is a high.

Literally there’s a sweet, clear endorphin rush that is life-affirming and addictive, but there’s also a figurative high of just being human in the world, moving under your own, unmediated power in a way that a Cro-Magnon would recognize.

Current reviews: Project Hail Mary, science fiction by the author of The Martian.  Blessing & Curse, modern Jewish books by leading Jewish intellectual, Adam Kirsch.

Every day I do the crossword to check my mind works. Every week I exercise to check that my body works. I’m running early diagnostics on systems that no longer self-repair the way they used to. I enjoy the challenge as I always have, but I now welcome the validation in a way I never used to need.

Humanity is fragile and, though running is one of our ancient legacies, it’s not an infinite possibility. I was celebrating a milestone with this series of charity half marathons (four on bike four on foot between birthday and Earth Day on behalf of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action). But every milestone you pass in life takes you one step closer to your final destination.

I was only running from Hoboken to Washington Heights, not from the Mojave to LA — but that was just as well, since I might need to jump on public transportation to get to the end. There was even a real possibility that I’d seriously aggravate whatever was happening in my back and this run could spell the end of a lifetime of sports for me.

There’s a Japanese concept of mono no aware which roughly translates as the exquisite sensitivity to the transience of all living things. It’s the thrill of added reverence in appreciation of how beauty is fragile and temporary. It is a term especially and frequently applied to viewing cherry blossom that appears, delicately bright, only to herald its own fall to the ground. And, as if to emphasize the point, the cherry blossom of New Jersey was blooming and falling around me as I made my way up the boardwalk on the east bank of the Hudson.

The sun shone as I arrived at the Hoboken Ferry Terminal just before 9. It was chilly but I was in no rush and got into an easy stride down the walking path, occasionally gazing over my shoulder at the Lower Manhattan skyline. One step away from climate change, from rapacious capitalism, from the brooding fatalities of the pandemic; a river away from the trickling masses heading slowly back to work in America’s capital, it was achingly beautiful.

Some people run with earbuds or headphones on. I run immersed in my surroundings, whether trees or cars, runners or solitude. I love that rare feeling of awareness akin to mindfulness. I love watching, hearing, smelling whatever is around me: Of doing one thing only, without screens or playlists, books or presenters.

I run up the East Coast of America gazing across the shining Hudson at the skyline of Manhattan. I am internally channeling Paul Simon songs, but I cannot say whether that’s Paul Simon of “Graceland” looking at the sun gleaming on a great American waterway or whether that’s the Paul Simon of “America” because “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” Either way, it turns out I’ve come to look for America.

Everything has aligned and, after about 4 miles, I know I can do this run today. The stiffness in my back has relaxed and receded. I’m lucky today, but how many years are left for my body as an instrument of exercise? How many years will my bones and muscles hold out. How many years are left for this city and this Earth while the sea is low and the sun is friendly?

I see the dog walkers, the coffee drinkers, the errand runners, the morning chatterers. I hear the New Jersey clang of the street cleaners, the clipping of the lawn trimmers. I run past a little terrier walking along with a twig in its mouth like it’s smoking a cigarillo. I approach the tree loppers just as they cut down a branch from 10 feet in the air. It falls plumb in the garbage can on the ground — “swish” — and, though I don’t even need to slow, we all cheer, making 3-point signs and doing air high-fives. All these things happen and they pass, I see them and I move on.

I run through the malls and the light rail stations. I avoid the marina and begin to climb. I revel in the pathetic fallacy of heavy diesel trucks straining and chugging up the Englewood cliffs as my own stride shortens and I face the slope of miles ten and eleven.

And then I’m at the top, running through the cathedral arch of the George Washington Bridge and glorying — through the safety net — at the vista of where I’ve come from and what I’ve seen. And it feels like a metonymic glimpse of that moment before death, when you see your whole life flash before your eyes. I scan my body to check I’m not dying, but it feels like it’s working well with appropriate mild aches and chafing.

Running the bridges and tunnels all through the pandemic has taught me the ins and outs of the approaches to the parks and roads. I duck and weave across bike lanes and under highways. I avoid the trash and the cars and the homeless folk stretching in the morning light as I turn and follow the path falling away to the riverside.

And then I’ve finished 14 miles and I’m at the Little Red Lighthouse, a toy antique underneath the monstrous, inspiring human construction of the GWB. The lighthouse is a relic of the time when we knew we needed constant warning about the dangers of nature scorned. It’s preserved beyond its primary use but lives on in the hearts of readers and the thousands of annual visitors.

It’s Earth Day and I’ve done — if not much — at least some little thing for our spinning ball of rock. It’s another day that my body has held up and maybe even shone a little light onto the approaching storm.

*A kind reader points out that in a wonderful recursive loop, Ken Liu has a science fiction story named “Mono no Aware” online from Lightspeed magazine.


Saving the Earth and Curating the People of the Book

I have a couple of new book reviews out in the world. Both are very readable books that I’d recommend but, of both, I have significant criticism.

For Book and Film Globe I wrote about “Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir who wrote “The Martian.” The vagaries of the publishing calendar mean that it’s science fiction by a white guy, but I should be writing about plenty of non-white non-guys over the course of the year for Book and Film Globe, LARB and other places.

And, for Sources: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, I wrote about Adam Kirsch’s “The Blessing and the Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century.” In it, he describes and contextualizes a series of Jewish books from the last century or so in very accessible fashion. I describe what’s good and what’s bad about the project.

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