This Sacred Race

Hundreds of people filled New Orleans’ St. Louis Cathedral for the culminating event of the National Hymn Society’s Annual Conference: “Celebrations of African American Traditions in Song.” The evening’s facilitators, having found three different versions of this beloved spiritual, invited us to stand and sing them all. It was like being at a gospel concert, only we were the performers. And what a chorus we were with the harmonies and melodies blending together beautifully. We were a community of kindred spirits, brought together by our shared passions for music, history, and opportunities to infuse our souls with comfort and love. While the final note lingered, Pastor Luke’s baritone harmonies rang out behind me, as I pictured him leading us in song just a few months before.

Guide my feet, while I run this race.

This past spring, five hundred Unitarians traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, for a UU sponsored conference called “Marching in the Arc of Justice.” While the entire weekend was thought-provoking, with the primary focus being on engaging in courageous conversations surrounding racism, the experience that stood out for most took place on the final day. The day when eleven busses delivered us to the destination that would bring our time together to a close.

As Pastor Luke guided us in song, we clustered together on the green grass of that small city park, holding hands and singing our hearts out. While the spotlight only shines once a year on Selma and the horrific events leading up to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the rest of their days are filled with residents running races that I can’t even begin to comprehend. But this was our day to walk with them, side by side. And by the number of smiles and waves we received along the way, we knew they were grateful to be in good company. Today, they wouldn’t be running this race alone.

Donning our yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts, we waited to join 80,000 others who had made the same voyage, our feet moving together towards one common goal: to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday by marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Our connections went far beyond the t-shirts, our different colors of skin, and our numerous religious affiliations, though. We were on a journey together that honored the past, acknowledged the present, and brought hope to a nation who has turned a blind eye to the various races each of us has been running throughout our lives.

 Guide my feet, while I run this race.

This year, in particular, I feel I’ve been running a race in my personal life that has no finish line, no resting point for the weary, not even the chance to slow down and walk, rather than run. I’m reminded of my childhood and that one day out of the year when we were forced to run the mile during gym class. Each year, dread would pervade my entire being days before we convened at the bleachers next to the track. Having never been a runner, I already knew what would happen. How did I know? Because this scenario played out the exact same way each and every year. In complete agony, I would alternate walking and running, pant heavily while longing for a sip of the water that awaited me in my water bottle nestled in the grass, and hope I wouldn’t keel over before I eventually crossed the finish line. One by one, the track thinned out, and my classmates would congregate next to the fence. Laughter and chatter filled the air until I was the only one remaining in the race. My gym teacher waited, tapping his foot impatiently with the stop watch in one hand and a clipboard filled with names and our running times in the other. The closer my feet carried me towards him, I knew the end was finally in site.  For that year anyway.

I was not in good company here. In addition to feeling completely alone, I was also humiliated. The Presidential Physical Fitness Test may have had good intentions, but for me, it was just one more way to publicize my athletic limitations to my classmates. With all the individualized attention we seek to give our students today, it’s frustrating to recognize that I was on public display for everyone to witness my weaknesses. So what if I’m not athletic? I sure do love to sing! Even so, P.E. was valued more highly and just happened to be my Achilles’ heel. Only the winners were celebrated, and our teachers set us up for it. Can someone please tell me why it was so essential to humiliate those of us who had never and would never win that race, year after year after year? And how many of us continue to put the people in our lives in this same position? I suspect we do it more often than we care to admit.

 Guide my feet, while I run this race.

This race called life has become increasingly overwhelming for me, attacking my body and spirit, without my mind even being cognizant of its severity. Last week, the running finally came to an abrupt halt in my living room as I found myself out of breath, gasping for air, and clutching my chest, which hurt so bad it seemed to be squeezing the life right out of me. Restless and unable to swallow, I frantically wondered, “Am I having a heart attack?” Although the symptoms seemed to go on for an eternity, the pain subsided within a few minutes. After assessing the results of my EKG, which fortunately revealed it wasn’t my heart after all, my doctor asked, “Have you ever had a panic attack?” I didn’t know. Is that what one felt like? I’d been running the race so long that my tolerance for anxiety had developed a higher norm than usual. What worries me even more is that I hadn’t even realized it.

Two days later I would add to my list of symptoms:  the loss of balance.  Although tripping has become a concern for me since the beginning of January, on that day I took two full body falls:  one all the way down my wooden staircase to the cement landing in the basement and the other in my backyard where my head landed on the sidewalk.  Not a great week, by any means, in addition to the symptoms I will always live with.

Since I was diagnosed with my Cervical Dystonia five years ago this summer, I’ve been trying to walk a slow race. Somehow, though, I’ve passed all the other sprinters, taking the lead. However, I now know I get to choose the company I keep, the people who will walk beside me or even hold me up, no matter what section of the race I’m in. I’ve learned the hard way not to settle for anything less, to surround myself with people who cherish me as much as I cherish them. This is the kind of company we all deserve! Easier said than done, to be sure, but major life changes always tend to weed out the ones who aren’t there for us.  The issue becomes “How do we meet new friends who will guide us along the way?”  I’m finding that creating good company is a long process and can be rather lonely.  Have any of you ever felt the same?

Life throws us curveballs we can never prepare for. But what I do know is this: I don’t want to win this race. All I want is to be a part of it. How I do that is up to me, and I’m up for the challenge. I have to be because

I don’t want to run this race in vain.

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5 thoughts on “This Sacred Race

  1. I am very happy to read something you wrote. The other day, I checked the website to see if I had missed any updates. This was such a real, endearing, and powerful post. Absolutely beautifully described and I was right there with you throughout all the events you had mentioned. I am there for you. You are doing an exceptional job reflecting on experiences, connecting events, trying to make sense of some and accept others. You are a champion. I will always be right there with you in the race.

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    1. And that’s exactly what I’m talking about! It goes both ways. 🙂 This was one of my two submissions for the literature journal. I hope they like it as much as you.

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  2. I love your pace. Your pace. Your pace. Your pace. That should be my mantra every day, my pace, every day, my pace. Thanks as always for the reminder to consider and make things whole.

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  3. Fantastic piece, Michelle! WOW. I too was a failure at the President’s Physical Fitness test – how humiliating. I couldn’t do a pull up. And I too was good at singing! Sorry to hear about your panic attack and loss of balance. You are indeed continually thrown curve balls. It’s great philosophy of mind to just want to be in the race, not win it. That’s how I feel too. Keep on keeping on!

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    1. Can you remember how many music competitions there were outside of marching band? For choir, all we had was All-State, which was once a year and it wasn’t guaranteed that someone from every school would make it. But when I think about all the competing we had to do every day in gym, not to mention organized sports, it makes me crazy. I couldn’t do a pull up either, but the only thing I could do was hold my head above the bar for 30 seconds. I felt success with that. 🙂

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