He's keeping pace beside me.
My childhood playmate's dad; our middle school track coach. He's in wind pants instead of his traditional wranglers; tennis shoes laced up in place of his worn work boots. And he's telling me, "You have to breathe, Laura. Just breathe."
Easy for him to say. He's a middle-aged man casually trotting along a 20-foot stretch of the grassy infield. I'm a middle school girl who's been lapped and left as a lagging spectacle in every track meet of the season. I'm on the humiliating side of the orange snow fence; he's a sympathetic but somewhat unnoticed cheerleader.
But he sticks with me, jogging around that same corner eight times in that painful two mile plod to the finish line, reminding me: "Just breathe, Laura."
You see, I wasn't fast enough to sprint, and I certainly wasn't coordinated enough to jump, vault, hurdle or throw. So I became a distance runner, which is the middle school equivalent to t-ball's left field. No one at that age really picks that position; it's just where kids like me were sent to stare at butterflies and daydream about our books while the others played the real game.
But butterflies are still just sluggish caterpillars in the spring track season. So I inched my way around the gravel track. Often, I'd get so focused on the finish line that I'd forget the immediacy of a measured inhale and clearing exhale. My face would burn red, my chest aching for air, but my brain was oblivious to the cure.
Almost 20 years later, I choose to run. I get a little giddy over miles of gravel road stretching in front of my electric purple Brooks. I still plod, slow and steady. But the rhythm of each step makes a melody in this morning meditation. And sometimes, I still hear his voice: "Just breathe, Laura."
Last winter, I spent some time sharpening my social recluse skills by caring for a 100-plus-year-old farm house with the family's accompanying border collie cow-dog in training. When she'd get tired of herding me around in the snow, we'd load the fireplace full and count all the reasons we were grateful for zero cell phone service and a pile of books to plow through. One night, I sucked in sharp enough to raise Sadie's ears when I turned the page to this sentence:
"Reading is my inhale and writing is my exhale." — Glennon Doyle's "Carry On Warrior."
I stopped; shut the book over my hand. My index finger held the sentence tight.
It's simple. Just breathe.
This winter, as I prepared to plod my way through an overwhelmingly large writing project, I looked for an infield coach willing to help me keep pace. I found William Zinsser's "On Writing Well." Like that night by the Two Dot fireplace, I highlighted and held tight to most of Chapter 22: The Tyranny of the Final Product.
"The writer, his eye on the finish line, never gave enough thought to how to run the race," Zinsser writes. "Don't visual the finished product: the grand edifice you have vowed to construct. That will only make you anxious."
Instead, he suggests, go to your desk and write about something fresh; something vivid in your memory. Just. breathe.