Sunday, November 4, 2012

Jogging, Math and Music

When I was in elementary school, I was somehow chosen to be part of a special, city-wide math group. I say "somehow" because I attended Catholic school, so I have no idea how they even knew I existed, let alone invited me to be part of the group. We had to report to one of the public elementary schools early on Saturday mornings. Special workbooks full of shapes and symbols were passed out; I recall circles and half-circles, ovals and squiggly lines. We spent an hour or so each week practicing some sort of advanced mathematics.

I remember perusing the workbook, closely studying the shapes and symbols. They never meant a thing to me. But somehow, I always intuitively knew the right answers to the problems. I couldn't show my work; I had absolutely no idea what work to do! But I chose the right answer almost every time.

Eventually, I complained enough about having to get up early on Saturdays to do more math than was already required as a result of attending school, and my mom gave in and let me quit. (Seriously, whose idea was this anyway!? Saturday mornings? Extra workbooks? It's like punishing kids for being good at math!)

As an adult (and an educator) I've come to realize that I probably understood the work on some level, but was stymied by the language of visual symbols. I'm not a visual learner, and when I think back on that experience, what stands out in my memory is the feeling of complete befuddlement while looking down at a page full of circles, ovals, and squiggles, followed by a strong, intuitive feeling that the answer would be X, even though I didn't understand the question.

* * *

My mom made me take piano lessons for a couple years as a kid. One Monday, she didn't mention getting ready for my lesson. Being wise to the ways in which things work in a big family, I stayed the heck out of her way and laid low, assuming she forgot. Relief rushed hot through my body. I played happily in a quiet corner where she would be unlikely to stumble upon me and suddenly remember.

Later that week, she told me I didn't have to go anymore. After years of supervising my practices, she realized I literally could not hear my mistakes on the keyboard. If I couldn't hear them, how could I correct them? Which explains why I never got any better, despite regular practice.

I grew up with the idea that I lack musical intelligence. For the most part, I think this assumption is correct. It's been borne out by most of my life experiences (never made a mixed-tape, nor a playlist; can't tell an electric guitar from acoustic, unless I see the cord plugged in). With one notable exception.

Home from college one summer, I worked for my hometown's Parks and Recreation Department, driving between the various city parks with art supplies for the children to do weekly projects. One morning I arrived at my scheduled park to find another activity already in progress. There was a troupe of African drummers in a huge circle, with hand drums for anyone who wanted them. I dropped my supplies off to the side and joined the circle, full of kids, staff, and neighborhood families. The lead drummer taught us how to beat the drum, how to hold and angle our hands to make different sounds, how to count out loud and then match the movements of our hands to the sound of our voices.

For the first time in my life, I was there, with the music as it was happening. He taught increasingly complicated sequences of beats, and I could follow and reproduce them almost immediately. I got it. I didn't understand why I got it, but I got it.

Years later, a handsome stranger handed me a leaflet about drumming. It claimed that the human heartbeat was the very first rhythm, reproduced as a drumbeat. Maybe that's what I need to learn music. Start at the very beginning. Begin with the beat of my own heart.

That handsome stranger is my husband, now.

* * *

I think it was sixth grade when my best friend decided we should get up before school every morning and jog. It sounded like the worst idea ever, but she was one of those bossy and convincing friends who always gets her way.

I was the sort who pretended my shoelaces were untied repeatedly, far more often than they were ever likely to be untied. Every city block I stopped and knelt down, retying a perfectly tied shoelace. Thinking about how much I hated jogging.

Over the years I tried it again and again, never liking it any better, never sticking with it. And then last January, for no particular reason I can remember, I decided to give it another go. Surprising myself as much as anyone else, I'm still at it! I run around a reservoir near my house. I think of it as a circle, but it's really more of a squiggly oval.

There's something about the rhythm of my feet hitting the gravel path that brings to mind both math and music. I count while I run: laps around the reservoir, total mileage covered, circles and ovals and squiggly lines taking on meaning in my mind as I jog. I sneak peeks at my phone each loop around, when I reach the starting gate, and calculate speed: dividing time by distance, or maybe it's distance by time, until I discover a per minute mile, round and whole, a number that feels as intuitive as the answers in a long ago Saturday morning math class.

I count the crunchcrunchcrunchcrunch of my sneakers crushing gravel, beating time as I move through space, finding a rhythm that echoes a drumbeat, chasing and matching and pushing my heartbeat faster and faster, as the sky turns from daylight to night. Circles and ovals and squiggly lines left written in the earth where my feet beat a rhythm in the autumn mud.

I run rhythmic, count and calculate shapes, create drumbeats of feet on dirt.

I do everything I've ever been bad at, and I feel so free.

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