Not today.

It has been a while, but yes, I am still writing. I am actually writing a lot, and regularly, and most of what I am writing at the moment is going into the daily Morning Mantra podcast, created by Coach MK Fleming and now co-hosted by me. Earlier this year, I started guest-recording an episode every now and then, but now you can hear my voice on there every Tuesday and Friday. I think I am also getting better and better at it. The episodes are short - 5-10 minutes tops - and the challenge is to get a long train of thought boiled down into a pithy mantra, a phrase to keep you sane and focused as you address a tough situation. A mantra isn’t necessarily aspirational, because repeating “I am strong” or whatever when you are actually scared doesn’t really help. It needs to be something that cuts right to the truth and gives you something to grasp, something concrete and specific, something evocative and relatable. It’s fun and it’s challenging and, like this blog, I find myself filling up with new things to say and new ways to frame them. Today’s mantra is Arya Stark’s mantra (sans spoilers!), but it’s definitely for you even if you’re neither a trained assassin with a hit list nor even a casual Game-of-Thrones watcher.

After Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, I woke up having slept far too little and feeling a little overwhelmed by all the work ahead. I am lucky - the work in front of me is good, exciting work. With two months left at my job, I am trying not to suck at it as I balance its demands with those of my family and the business I am launching with Coach MK. I still, however, wake up on some days wondering where all the work is going to lead. At 5 AM, my coach/mom/associate director of the Language Center day starts: in the dark, I answer questions and check our various social media outlets and tweak whatever podcast episode I happen to be working on. I try to start my warmup at 5:30 so I can be out the door for the run at 5:45. Then I come in and do my PT exercises (coaching other runners means taking my own advice), get Ros dressed, pack her lunch, take her to school, go to work, take breaks to write/record/answer coaching questions when I can during the day, pick Ros up, cook dinner, eat dinner, clean up from dinner, answer more emails and questions, read stories and put Ros to bed, watch some TV (which I’m sure to write about at some point) with my husband, do one last round of social media maintenance, and go to bed myself so I can do it all over again. I have definitely worked this hard before - graduate school comes to mind - and if anything, the work of starting a business has a far less certain outcome than any pursuit I have undertaken before. It’s pretty frightening. Among other things, coaching and podcasting and writing all involve amount of public sharing of personal stories and long-hidden feelings that I never thought I would be comfortable turning outwards. There are voices in my head telling me that no one wants to know these things about me, and that they’re no use to anyone anyway. The work on that front - the work of telling those voices to shut the hell up - never ends. But it is worth doing, and I love it. I love finding the words for these big huge things that I know other people are confronting, and I love it when they tell me that they hear themselves in my voice. It hasn’t gotten any less terrifying, but I love it more every day.

In the weeks to come, look for podcast episodes here and on MK’s website, Don’t worry, my TV takes will still find their way to Slow Twitch Prose when they can. Getting to write about things I love is a gift, no matter how daunting.

Hi, this is Coach Sarah and this is the Morning Mantra.

There are few things as daunting as a mountain of hard work with no peak in sight. That isn’t to say that the work will never end. But you don’t know when it will. Whether it will. And you don’t know whether doing all that work is going to get you the result you want. Arya Stark should know - she spent what, four seasons of Game of Thrones stranded on another continent running away from people trying to kill her? But what did her teacher - her coach - tell her to say to death? “Not today.”

We have a lot of phrases that stand in for “don’t give up yet.” We say “just put one foot in front of the other,” we say “run the mile you’re in,” we say “keep showing up.” Those phrases can work for a certain mindset. It’s fine to run the mile you’re in when you’re out on a 5-mile run. There are only 5 miles! If you run the mile you’re in and then you do that again four more times, you’ll get to the end of the run and your patience will have been rewarded. You know this; that’s why “run the mile you’re in” gives you the cue you need to focus for just a little longer. It works because it gives you a roadmap to the end.

But sometimes there is no roadmap. Sometimes the work feels totally futile because there is no way to see whether you are actually progressing from mile 1 to mile 2, whether you’re getting any closer to the objective. If you’ve ever rehabbed an injury, you have been here. My most recent lay-off from running was two years ago, when I developed a calf strain that I really hoped against hope was a total nothing-burger, a problem that would resolve itself with a couple of days of rest. Instead, I spent a month barely running at all, and two more months after that rebuilding fitness. It was an unglamorous, unimpressive injury, but it felt stuck on me the way “Let it Go” gets stuck in my head - it was just there, all the time, and a part of me genuinely wondered whether a portion of my brain would be forever dedicated to the maintenance of the stupid thing.

The regular visits to my physical therapist ate away at my spare time as the co-pays added up. Plus the fact that I had to shlep to the gym twice a week to get some cardio exercise on a stationary bike instead of just putting on my shoes and heading out the door for a run. When I did get to run a couple of times a week, i got to do little sets of one-minute-on, one-minute-off run/walk intervals. It was boring, frustrating work, and it didn’t feel like anything was getting better; every time I ran for that one minute, I still felt the pull in my left calf. I knew I was doing all the right things; I knew I needed to listen to my P.T. and do what she said, and I wanted to believe her when she told me that it would keep getting better and better if I just stayed the course. But I didn’t believe her. I was afraid. I cried a lot during those months. Every time I drove to the gym for my dull stationary bike workout, every time I went through my P.T’s interminable warmup sequence in preparation for maybe ten minutes of running, every time I went out for a 30-minute “brisk walk”, I felt like screaming and yelling and quitting.

I think that if I could have known in my heart that my silly little calf strain would heal, that I would in a few months no longer even think about it when out running, that I would indeed go on to train for a marathon that fall, I could have gotten through those three months of rehab and rebuilding without so much angst. But I had no such conviction. I’d never been coached before, and I’d thus never successfully rehabbed an injury without just taking weeks (if not months) off from running, and the comebacks had always been halting and slow and uncertain. I had no reason to believe that just “putting one foot in front of the other” would get me where I wanted to be.

It didn’t help that during this same period of time, I was rejected from a job at a really good college for which I had been one of two finalists. I know it was at the same time because I remember going for one of my little walk-runs on their campus on the morning of the demo class I had to teach, wishing to god that I could just run the nerves away. Getting rejected from that job after pouring all my energy into the interview (which I thought couldn’t have gone better) put another slow leak in my confidence. Once I got the definitive rejection, It was time to just...keep applying for more jobs. One cover letter at a time, one foot in front of the other. Run the mile you’re in (or, you know, run/walk). But I couldn’t see the finish line, and I had lost faith that there even was one. All I knew was that there was work to do and I had to do it, no matter how little I believed that it would take me where I wanted to go

Here’s where the mantra comes in. Hard work that leads you to somewhere you can’t see is scary. But the only guarantee is that if you don’t do it, your feet will stay right where they are. Yes, you can be angry about it. Fucking eccentric calf raises, again? A fifteen-minute warmup for ten minutes of walk-running? Another one-year visiting assistant professor position?

I’m not going to tell you to tolerate a shitty situation indefinitely. The day may come when you decide to say FUKKIT - it did for academia and me, eventually. We have a mantra for that, too. But if I had quit rehabbing my injury three weeks in just because stationary bikes were driving me crazy, I wouldn’t have been standing on a marathon start line six months later. Yes, I cried and raged a lot during that rehab cycle, because the work was dull and frustrating and I was scared, but every day, I decided to put off quitting for just one more day.

If you have your work in front of you and it scares you, bores you, annoys you, intimidates you, just cut to the chase. Come right out and ask yourself. Is it time to quit, right now? You don’t have to know what tomorrow’s answer will be; all we’re talking about is today. And if the answer is no, then you have your mantra.

Not today. Not today.

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