My parents’ next-door neighbors keep binoculars on their window sill, next to a Birds of North America identification booklet. In the center of their lawn, an orange extension cord pumps electricity to a birdbath like a vein to a giant heart.
This is how my mom and dad can tell that Stan and Lisa are really serious about birds.
My parents are fascinated by this sudden pursuit yet unwilling to join, as if to do so would necessitate crossing a threshold. Today, they watch their neighbors watching the birds, watch Stan unhinging birdfeeder roofs and scooping birdseed, watch Lisa hanging suet in the maples, almost tripping over the family dog at her feet.
From their windowed vantage point, my mom and dad hold mugs of coffee and lean in close, their rings sometimes tapping against the glass.
How did they get so old? My mom asks.
When I was twelve, my journal contained strands of my own hair, carefully taped to the page. My blonde hair was darkening. I began sticking specimens to the white notebook pages, looping them up so the end was next to the root. In the mirror, the root-to-tip effect was hardly noticeable. Only by staring at the seemingly magnified version of my hair could I see the new pigment seeping from my roots. I was morbidly fascinated by the transition, and I’d take my journal out of its shoebox hiding-place just to stare at it—to steel myself against an embodiment of the future. I was mourning.
Around the same age, my mom returned home from a shopping trip and handed me a Kohl’s bag. Inside was a satin training bra on a plastic hanger. I lifted it out, touching only the hanger. It reminded me of the hand-me-down slips I never wore, with their glued-on rosettes, their Grandma-lace, their rose-shaped holes. I took the bag and stashed it under my bed for a year, trying not to think of it at night. But while I was afraid of what wearing it meant, I was also afraid of what not wearing it meant.
Maybe, secretly, my parents are plucking and taping and staring, too.
My dad’s briefcase was never without its bulky bow of tied-together running shoes. Neon soles, neon laces. Even at a young age, those shoes on that briefcase seemed like a triumph over something generic—like an antidote for a colorless office world. I thought, People must like him for that. My dad is a likable man.
My dad used his Asics every day. He’d coordinate lunch-breaks with a group of friends who worked across the street at the Leader-Telegram, and they’d take off running, a packed-together group of sweaty pale skin and muscle. Sometimes, riding along Clairemont Avenue, I’d see the group and shriek at them from the passenger window. It was always a thrill spotting my dad in the real world.
On Sundays he would speed home from church and change into one of his Buckshot Run T-shirts (there were fifteen of them, at least) and nylon shorts (the ones my mother was periodically hiding, to “send him a little message” that they were too skimpy). Then he’d stand at the sink and drink a whole glassful of water—not out of immediate thirst, but as a sort of duty to his body. He knew he’d need it later.
You coming along?” he’d say apropos of nothing.
You’re a runner at heart.
It’s in your blood.
It’s in your bones.
You’ve got the gene.
Everyone knew I had a predisposition to running; the only debate seemed to be where it lived in my body. I’d smile wanly. It was the grammatical tense that bothered me. They didn’t say, you’re going to be a runner. They said you are a runner. Everyone but my dad. He would just smile and ask if I was coming along, as a courtesy, just as he would ask if I was coming along to Menard’s, or the driving range, or the city brush pile. He’s a patient man.
Sometime during my college years, my dad stopped running, though I don’t remember exactly when. It was unspoken. Something about his hip. I wondered if my mom was finally purging the skimpy shorts from his dresser drawer. I wondered if my dad knew which run was his last.
I took note of his sudden interest in bikes, how he traced his thumbs over the lightweight frames at Scheel’s, squeezing his lips together as he squeezed the tires at eye-level. He’d duck his head beneath the frames to consider each mechanical aspect from the distance of a few inches. He never spoke as he appraised the bikes; his calculations were mysteries.
My maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather were both raised on farms, active and tanned well into their seventies. My grandma keeps her Green Bay finches well-watered and stuffed with seeds and suet, and my grandpa makes bluebird houses with kits. At Christmas one year they were both given bird clocks. Everyone’s grandparents were given bird clocks that year. Sometimes during weekend visits I’d wake up momentarily confused—was the birdsong real or battery-operated? Grandma’s or grandpa’s house? City or country?
Maybe the backyard birds are frightening because they are not an addition to a list of hobbies, but a replacement. Something else gets scratched off. We feel our lives tunneling down to inevitability. These standard red hummingbird feeders. These ubiquitous bird clocks. This repetitive song.
My dad was never deterred by the rain. Or, at least, he pretended not to notice the threat on days when the clouds thickened like fists. He needed running that badly. I remember one November evening my dad came home with a bloody smear on his forehead; he’d slipped on the glare ice and gashed his brow. His legs were mottled and red with cold. Hair-icicles were dripping on the linoleum. He was laughing, but also shaking. I was frightened by the blood, uncomfortable with a desire rising up in me to scold him. Relieved when my mom did it for me.
I like to think running was a way for my dad to engage with the natural world without having to apologize for it. It was an excuse to appreciate the weather and the colors of our tree-lined streets without calling attention to the noticing. If someone notices you noticing a leaf, you stop noticing the leaf. Thoreau said something about that. We look over our shoulders too much.
The only time I asked my dad point-blank about God, he mentioned this feeling he gets when the sky is suddenly deeper and bigger than he can bear, and wonderful for that very reason.
I would play softball again just for the colors of a wet day. When it rained the night before, the infield was saturated with color: a yellow ochre so pure it was like freshly-ground tincture. I should alert the paint companies, I thought. The bats got all greasy with this golden paste and clanged against the stone of the dugout, which smelled like cold earth.
From my new apartment, it’s a short walk to the local baseball diamond. But there would be no purpose to the day, no other team, no Bluejays in cursive on my back.
Did I make the decision to start running, or did my bones? The 12-year-old me hated inevitability, but acceptance isn’t a loss of agency. The inner “no” is stubborn and miserly, fending only for itself. It felt oddly comfortable to say “yes” to running.
I run on the gravelly shoulder of a county road called Lowes Creek, named for the creek bed that lies at the bottom of the embankment, out of sight but not earshot. Cars give me a wide berth. The tar is cracked. I notice that.
My dad doesn’t walk his old running routes, and I know why.
When the forest along Lowes Creek Road is backlit, the red pines expose the sun intermittently, like a strobe light. When we run, the strobe beats fast and the gaps are smooth like animation. But when we walk, the blinks are slow. Blink. Blink. Blink. Unbearable. Dogs don’t chase walkers. People don’t shout from cars—with glee—when spotting a walker. You don’t need expensive shoes.
You’re a runner at heart.
It’s in your blood.
It’s in your bones.
That may still be true for my dad, but people won’t say so. They’ll say, used to.
My dad keeps his worn-down Asics in a cardboard box marked Fragile from a long-ago move. In the garage, more accessible, are a pair of garden clogs and a shiny bag of birdseed.
Kinzy Janssen is an editor, essayist, and poet living in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is a 2014/2015 winner of the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series in nonfiction writing, and she currently serves as Associate Editor of The Riveter in Minneapolis. In addition to reading her poetry aloud on Wisconsin Public Radio, her work has been published by Innisfree Poetry Journal, Wisconsin People & Ideas, and Volume One.