master or weedhopper?

I wrote the following talk for the opening of Through Women’s Eyes, by Women’s Hands, a juried art show featuring North Carolina Women artists. I was humbled and overwhelmed by the task of speaking to and for artists … because, as I say, I’m not an artist. Or am I?

In Their Eyes Are Watching God, Harlem Renaissance writer, Zora Neale Hurston achingly observed, “Black women are the mules of the earth.” If I may, I’d like to amend Hurston’s observation to include all women; “All women are the mules of the earth.”

We carry the burden of taking care. We take care of our men, our children, our aging mothers, our dying fathers, our sisters and brothers, the dogs, the cats, the house, the lawn, the children down the street, our next door neighbor’s houseplants … we take care.

When Ashley Wilson invited me to speak to you today, my first thought was, “Why, I’m not an artist. What can I contribute to this celebration?”
But I am a woman and I do know what it means to carve out space in one’s life for creating; I can see through woman’s eyes and I know what women’s hands are capable of.

I was well into my career as a professional runner when I had my first child. I had yet to make it to the Olympics, but I’d been selected for several world road racing and cross-country teams. I was training nearly full-time (sponsored by New Balance Athletic shoes) … running, lifting weights, swimming and running some more. Twice a day, every day. When my first baby, Sarah Jane, came along – even though my husband did more childcare than most – there were still times I had to place the baby monitor on the mailbox, then run up and down the ½ mile long hill in front of my house… stopping at the top each time to listen for any crying on the monitor. After each interval, I ran in through the front door, dashed to the crib, then out the back door if the baby was still asleep. It was far from ideal training conditions, but I somehow found a way to get the work in. I had to. I was hanging on to my very identity as a woman who wasn’t defined solely by the people I took care of.

I did take care. I took care of my people, and I took care of my talent.
It was a nearly back-breaking balance. I was a pack mule carrying the dual work-load of wife/mother and runner/artist. I longed to throw the pack off of me and just run. I wanted to be a pure, pampered thoroughbred… racing fast and getting luxurious rub-downs afterward … but my fate was sealed as a mule. Women are mules of the earth … yes, this was true for me, but maybe I could figure out a way to be a fast mule!

Famed novelist, Virginia Woolf, proposed women must seek a room of their own (and 500 pounds a month) if they hope to create anything of importance. She also said, “Across the broad continent of a woman’s life falls the shadow of a sword.”

Throughout history women have had to fight for the time and space to create despite the societally imposed female responsibilities of running households, raising children, caring for elders, and nurturing friendships. Essayist, Anne Morrow Lindberg literally found space to create by leaving her home to go to a separate building on her property, her “little house,” (as husband, Charles Lindberg called it) to be – and write! – alone.

Depression-era photographer, Dorothea Lange, took week and month-long solo excursions to feed her artistic appetite. We might never have experienced the power of The Migrant Mother dust-bowl photo had Lange not put her art before her family for that precious, creative time on the road. We might never have received Lindberg’s Gift from the Sea had she not traveled across her own backyard to the little house.

How far did each of the artists in “Through Women’s Eyes, by Women’s Hands” have to travel to get here? (And I don’t mean how many miles does it say on Google Maps). I spent nearly two decades of my life in pursuit of my own artistic excellence. I started my quest to be an Olympian when I was a senior in college at UNC. That was way back in 1984 when the longest allowable race on the track for women was a 3,000m (around 2 miles). In 1984, I made it to the semi-finals of the Olympic Trials; then in 1988 (after training 4 more years … pre-husband, pre-children, as a sort of running bum) I managed to work my way up to the finals of the 10,000m (around 6 miles). By 1992, when I finished 4th at the Trials (first alternate and one spot away from making the team), eight years had now passed and “the real world” was telling me to move on, grow up, give up … but my soul needed expression through running fast. I began to see myself as an artist at this time in my life – a struggling artist, to be sure (and, yes, I was also waiting tables!), because I was struggling with self-doubt and self-criticism over not choosing the common path that most American women take. College, job, marriage, kids, minivan, face-lift.

I did get married and checked at least one of those boxes, but I couldn’t quit running and racing … not until my promise was fulfilled, not until I ran my best race. Like Bob Dylan, I believed “Someday, everything’s gonna be smooth like a rhapsody, when I paint my masterpiece.” So, I continued training twice a day, every day for four more years. I had long been a self-coached athlete, but in 1993 I realized that I needed to coach others to perfect my art. I took over the head distance coach job at Carolina and discovered the power of mentoring. Only by coaching and teaching others could I see what I needed to modify and tweak in my own training.

Athletes and artists, alike, need feedback to improve. We need both time alone to labor over our craft and time with others to hear and see what works and what doesn’t. My athletes taught me as much, or more, than I taught them. To me, that’s the beauty and mystery of teaching – when the line between mentor and mentee becomes blurred. Was I the master or the weedhopper?

By 1996, in my 4th of 5 Olympic Trials, I finally painted my masterpiece. I ran the perfect race … or, as my mom said when I found her in the stands after my victory lap, I “ran my very best.” What more can one do? It took me 16 years and many, many canvases but I finally got it right. On that day, in that race, over 25 laps … around and around Atlanta’s 108-degree broiling track, I was the fastest mule! (two thoroughbreds beat me out for 1st and 2nd, but three make the team)

So where does that leave me today, twelve years later? I am still taking care. I am a woman; there’s no way around it! I care for my three daughters, ages 14, 10, and 6. I care for seejanerun, a group of running moms in Chapel Hill – now going on eight years. I care for a newly formed elite racing team called The Carrboro Athletics Club, where I coach post-collegiate runners in search of their own perfect race. I care for green space, and my church, for music, and art.

Earlier, I claimed I am not an artist, but that’s not entirely accurate. For the last four years I have contributed to the community art project in Chapel Hill. This year the theme is “The Elements” and I brought my piece with me to show you today. I had my daughter take a close-up photo of my eye so you could see all the wrinkles that 30 years of running outside, exposed to the elements, has caused. I am not ashamed of the lines on my face. I am quite proud of them, actually. Each deep line was carved out of a life that should have allowed little or no room for self-expression. This wrinkly eye worked hard to see … to really see … and understand. Believe me … dear women, glorious artists, friends, sisters, fellow mules of the earth … I see through women’s eyes and I know what women’s hands (and legs!) are capable of.

exposed to the elements

4 thoughts on “master or weedhopper?

  1. Kevin

    Your blog post has removed the cola nut from my hand. You are now ready to leave this place and become a Master (but don’t put your eyes out—you don’t have to be blind to be a Master…wrinkles are masterful enough!)

  2. Joan Post author

    Oh my gosh, are you Sage’s Robyn from Yoga class?
    Thank you for reading. You are my muse when I try to do my yoga poses at home. I envision your strength and grace – specifically, your hands. Yoga is hard, but you make it look so easy.

  3. Robyn

    Yep! It’s me! Thank you for the very kind compliment. Now, if I can only make my running look and feel like my yoga!

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