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It is said that a monkey will reach into a jar to grab fruit and becomes trapped by his own clenched fist when he stubbornly refuses to let go.

In his quest for the prize, the monkey trades freedom for frustration.

The moral is that sometimes we are so focused on what’s in the jar we miss out on bigger rewards. 

I’ve played the primate more times than I’d like to admit.

For several months, a friend and I have been working on a book I feel will benefit many families. It is the culmination of years of experience and provides a new philosophy regarding traveling with children.

But it is much more than a travel book: not only can it help improve relationships between parents and children, but it has the potential to help families build bridges cross-culturally. I believe in the project with every fiber of my being.

But somewhere during the process, things got complicated.

I became stressed, and the harder I held onto the project, the more anxious I became. 

The project I loved became my own monkey trap.

So, I let go.

I let go of fear and worry about the project’s future and simply went on living, running, and writing.

This week I was informed that not only was the project back on, but my prior concerns had completely vaporized.

Jenn and I can write, publish, and market the book how we want.

The prize fell freely into our hands.

I had no idea two years ago how similar the journey through life is to long distance running.

You see, when a runner is anxious or stressed, muscles tighten, endurance crumbles, and pace slackens. It can even come to a point where the harder you try, the worse you perform. The best remedy for a runner in that situation is to relax, release the anxiety, and simply run.

Whether you are running, writing, or walking the unique path of your life, if you find yourself frustrated or fraught with stress, it is best to look down and see what exactly you’re holding onto.

Anything you grasp too tightly can become a monkey trap.

Stats:

Miles: I fell short of last week’s goal, but this week I’m back in the groove. It’s funny how easy it is to ignore running when you haven’t registered for a marathon.

Weather: Gray, clouds, cold, gray, clouds, cold…I want fake spring back!

Wildlife: 4 crazy kids with cabin fever. Lots of little blue and yellow birds. Unfortunately, I’ve been hearing lots of gunfire outside and haven’t seen my deer all week:(

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Good day:

The weather was cold for running, but not so cold as to question your sanity. We’d had a bit of a thaw the days prior, but now the temps had dipped again, solidifying the muddy mess of tractor ruts. Though the sky was gray, and my eyes were streaming with tears from the wind, it was a beautiful run.

Along my path for the day, trees had been planted at regular 200 meter intervals (you have to love German precision). So, I sprinted between two trees, then took two trees rest, and then sprinted again, all the way down the lane. When I came to my first roller coaster hill, I decided to skip like a schoolgirl.

It quickly became tough, but I didn’t quit; I didn’t give up; I felt strong.

I went over the hill and ran along the bottom of the valley, where I passed the compost heap, which, unfortunately, had not frozen. Once again, I dug in and skipped up to the plateau of canola fields.

Relieved to be almost done with my workout, I reached the final hill, only to discover deer standing along the ridge.  

My mind flashed to the image of the car I had seen parked on the other side. Hunters? Or Farmers? If the village hunter was armed and ready on the other side of the hill, it would probably not be wise to go joyfully skipping up behind his group of targets.

For the first time ever, I was a little upset with my deer, because if they had informed me this would be a five-mile workout, I wouldn’t have expended so much energy.

But, I reasoned, the deer know best.

I retraced my path, taking the long way home.

When I came around the side of the hill, an old man and an old woman were chopping at the frozen ground with hoes.

Farmers.

I smiled as I ran past them.

It was a good day.

 

Bad day:

It was the most perfect day for running you could imagine. The ground had no snow or ice, and the mud was frozen solid. Plus, the sun was shining with the type of faint warmth that wakes something dormant inside you.

I was at the spa with my family, having a great time toting my little water monkeys in circles through the outdoor heated pool, but all I could think about was going for a run.

As we drove home, and the winter sun began to lower itself towards the horizon, it seemed every slow-moving vehicle in the country arranged to be directly in front of us. They took turns. First a tractor, then a semi-truck, then a Peugeot…and on and on. We were trapped in the most depressing parade you’d ever seen, all the way to the autobahn.

But the sun continued to bathe the countryside in a warm golden light, and if Amelia, my GPS, was correct, I would have time for a good run before the sun sank completely.

Autobahn, yes! We zipped along. Soon, we passed Rothenburg. Almost home!

As we approached the last hill before our exit, our car was suddenly enshrouded with fog: thick, icy, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face fog.

Our entire village was covered in it, yet not five miles away, it was a perfect early spring day.

It was a sick joke.

I MUST have done something wrong. Bad karma? Was God punishing me for thinking about running the entire morning?

Even with my neon green jacket, running in that fog would be dangerous.

Fine! I thought.  I’m just going to be lazy!

I made myself a big bowl of popcorn, sprinkled some peanut M&Ms on top (my particular weakness), and watched TV (which I normally do only while folding laundry).

If I were a little German kid, I would have thrown myself on the ground, kicking and screaming—it was the same idea: the same frustration and rebellion motivating me.

It was a bad day.

A few days later, I reflected that while my moods do not actually generate the weather, my mindset dictates what kind of day I’m going to have.

Good days are only good if I make them so by overcoming difficulty.

Bad days are bad because I wallow in difficulty.

Some people, myself included, have very real symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which cannot be overcome by simply thinking happy thoughts (trust me, I’ve tried).

But when I stand at the crossroads, and I have the choice to work towards my goals or to give up, I should always choose the higher path.

I want to be the kind of person who takes challenges head-on and overcomes them.

I just need to hide the M&Ms.

I want flat abs, and I’m not sure why.

I can’t blame Hollywood or the media or peer pressure. 

My husband is innocent too. During the course of nearly 17 years, he has seen my stomach stretched into shapes that defy the laws of physics. He currently thinks I can leap tall buildings in a single bound. So, if he doesn’t have a problem with my flabby abs, why do I?

Can’t I be content with how things are?

I contemplated this while doing crunches on the ridiculously big blue ball in the basement. The reason I desire flat abs is the same reason I wanted to run a marathon: because goals, no matter how great or small, make me feel truly alive.

Without goals, I begin to wither. I physically/mentally/spiritually need a trip to plan, a book to write, or a marathon to run. 

Life is more than shuttling kids to activities—my life has worth too, even if it’s not in mint condition.

I kicked the ball across the room, and as I quivered in plank position while keeping a close eye on the stopwatch, it occurred to me that my quest for meeting high goals, at the core, comes from an ember of low-self worth, which faintly glows inside me.

It is an uneasy feeling, which periodically fans the message:

“I am not quite good enough.”

I used to pray it would go away. For a while, I pretended it went away. When that didn’t work, I took meds to make myself think it went away. Finally, I worked hard to force it away. Despite all my efforts, nothing could completely extinguish it.

Insecurity, once it scorches the land of the heart, cannot be forgotten.

Despite new and more vibrant growth on the surface, the evidence lies forever in the soil record—never rekindled but always revealed if you dig a little.

The strange thing is, without this charred ground, I would not be motivated to reach new heights.

Insecurity is part of me, and I should make peace with that.

After all, without it, I would be a completely different person.

With it, only God knows what I might accomplish.

I may have flat abs someday.

Stats:

Miles last week: 23

Plan of action: Increase mileage until I’m up to 30 miles a week. Continue physical therapy for the knees. Be faithful to my hand weights and old-school upper-body festivities. Keep philosophizing about my abs.

Weather: We had a week of rain, which turned the lovely snow into mud, whereby I was forced into the dungeon, I mean, basement, to use the treadmill. Then we had a break of sunshine (temps in the upper 40s to low 50s), which makes me feel like I might just go a couple more days without fleeing the country in a gray-sky induced panic attack.

Wildlife: the deer are plentiful, and so are the hunters. To be honest, it’s only one hunter, the Village Hunter, also known as the Jaegermeister (some of you are familiar with that word), who has built a new deer blind. I try to scare the deer away from his lair (I waved at him up there during a run–he waved back), and I am always sure to wear colors not found in the natural world.

Snap, crackle…

I wasn’t listening to my crispy rice cereal but to the sound of my right leg while lacing my running shoes.

Slowly unbend the knee. Snap!

Wiggle the toes. Crackle!

Stretch the hip…

Instead of the anticipated moment, which brings simultaneous pain and pleasure, my hip stubbornly refused to pop. It wasn’t the temperamental rebellion of a toddler, who can easily be tricked or cajoled into acquiescence; this was the resigned, set-in-her ways rebuff of an elderly woman.

That was three days ago.

The old biddy still won’t pop.

Absurdities like this only add to my suspicion that my body is doing things without my consent: creaking without motive, sagging in mysterious places. 

Are the rumors true? Am I getting old?

Sunday on Facebook, I was added to a group called Class of ’91 Twenty-Year High School Reunion. When I went to remove myself from the group, because, obviously, someone was in error, I found the avatars of people I knew.

Shocking!

Mavis (of course it would be Mavis, who has known me since the days of puffy hair and shoulder pads) triggered a discussion that brought back a flood of memories. The pipe bomb! The machete incident! The chemical spill in the bathroom! The hairspray-plus-lighter induced fire in the gym!  

It WAS my class! But had twenty years REALLY gone by?

Aside from the pains that have me periodically reaching for Ibuprofen, I don’t feel much different than I did in high school. I have a lot more knowledge now about English Literature, thesis writing, German slang, and the biological functions of infants. And if I’m picking you up at Frankfurt International Airport, I know EXACTLY where to park, but it’s a secret I won’t divulge here.

In high school, I took my first international trip (if you can call it that) to Puerto Vallarta with Mr. Hollingsworth’s Spanish class. I’d never flown on an airplane before. I remember packing enough Dramamine to drug the entire class–just in case. These days, I’m trying to decide whether to spend the long holiday weekend in Pompeii or Cairo.

I distinctly remember running twice in high school: during a Commedia skit; and away from that pervert who stopped Mavis and I along Urbandale Avenue. Now, a medal from the Königschlosser Romantik Marathon hangs from my bulletin board; and if I don’t run every 2-3 days, my kids gently ask if I’m “stressed.”

Life was full in high school: emotional, turbulent, despairing or triumphant in a bipolar sort of way (with no middle ground). I buried my insecurities in drama class and played a role every day without knowing who I truly was or where I was going. The kicker is that in all those adolescent years, I felt I knew everything, except myself.

And now, while I am evolving into the woman I’m meant to be, I realize there is a LOT I don’t know. But that doesn’t frighten me as it would have 20 years ago—it inspires me.

Fullness in life is derived from constant learning; learning not only in the sense of intellectual knowledge, but in matters of the spirit, and of the heart.

My body tells me it has been twenty years since high school, and I’m okay with that.

While I don’t enjoy the growing pains of this stage of life, I love who I am at this moment, and I often wonder who I will become.

For me, life keeps getting better, despite the snap, crackle, and…

Zum kuckuck!

How do you say”chiropractor” in German?

It was 2:30 in the morning, and I couldn’t get comfortable. My legs had an odd, yet vaguely familiar feeling in them, like I couldn’t fully extend them. Then it occurred to me this strange phenomena was muscle pain.

Apparently the running hiatus over the holidays had taken its toll.

Monday was my first run of the new year. I had been gazing out my window periodically, watching the farmers cutting down trees in Snail Forest. I was hesitant to run while they were there. It wasn’t that I didn’t want them to think I was crazy, as it is much too late for that, it’s just that I didn’t know how slippery the road was, and I didn’t want to do a faceplant right in front of them.

By the time the kids finished their schoolwork, the farmers had vacated the forest. So, I donned my new neon green jacket and set out at a brisk walk.

After ¼ mile of warming up, the paved portion of the trail came to an end. I could either follow the road to the left, or continue forward, along a packed path blazed by tractors.

Since I don’t enjoy running on the narrow country roads, recently made even narrower by enormous amounts of unplowed snow, I opted for the road less traveled.

I followed the tractor path until suddenly, the marks veered off to the right, in a direction I didn’t want to go.

I had run this path enough times to do it blindfolded, and the snow didn’t look too deep, so I kept going forward. I was quickly punching through the crunchy crust up to my ankles. I worked on getting my knees up, which was fun until I punched through snow up to my knees.

My heartrate skyrocketed. I briefly thought of what it would be like to call in an airlift on my iPhone, or if that was even possible: “Hello? Can you send a helicopter to the country road next to the line of apple trees?”

I stopped running and walked through the snow like a show pony with a high-stepping trot.

After a quarter of a mile, I arrived at the cutoff for the tree-lined road. The snow had melted, exposing the gravel below. It was another crossroads: I could turn left towards town and traffic, or I could continue deeper into the countryside. Ahead of me, the only thing to distinguish path from field was a rambling swath of deer tracks. 

The deer are a sort of talisman for me—they have been known to encourage and inspire me at moments when I felt like giving up, and now their tracks appeared, leading me forward.

As long as I followed the tracks, no matter how wildly they swung from one side of the path to the other, I could run without stumbling. As soon as I took a more “direct” route, I plunged into snow past my ankles.  

As I ran, I felt a sense of reverence, as I realized the only tracks visible would be hoofprints punctuated with Mizuno tread. No tractors, no boot prints, nor any tell-tale sign of dogs—just the deer and I, running across the snowy hills.

Upon reaching the muddy farm road, I saw a large group of deer, more than I’d ever seen in all my runs, standing nobly at the top of the hill.

Every day you wake up at a crossroads: you can grab a box of highly processed factory food, punch a hole in the cellophane, toss it in the microwave, and eat it while sitting in front of the TV; or you can experiment with new recipes, learn to throw together whole foods, so you have adequate energy for your workout, which there’s no doubt you will do.

Few travelers choose to follow the healthy road because with every uncomfortable step, there is the chance you may fall on your face.

While the easy path is more comfortable, the challenging path yields the most satisfying, most enduring rewards.

As for me…

“I took the road less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

Robert Frost was right.