A Run in Boston

This is about my musings on a run in Boston, not the Boston Marathon, but the kind of run that the majority of people do – to clear their mind, to get some fresh air, to escape the buzz of their busy lives, to listen to their body and mind, to improve their health and fitness, to escape from their problems, or find solutions to them, to exercise control over their life, to explore a place, to socialize. It was the kind where the body’s not constantly hurting and, mainly, where conscious thinking happens.

At 6.30 AM, I took an Uber from the hotel I was staying at to go to Charles River Esplanade, a park near MIT, for an easy long run. The driver asked me if I was going for a run and started a conversation with me about running. The fact that the first person I met in the city started talking to me about running and marathons made me think about how common and deeply wired running must be in the city for it to become a part of the vernacular. After he dropped me off, I oriented myself by looking at Google maps and checking it against the streets and landmarks around me to see where I was and where I was supposed to be going. Although I saw a few runners on a nearby bridge, I didn’t know enough about the place and the people to trust or follow others’ leads. My mind, like Tom Vanderbilt says in his book Beginners, was alert, inquisitive, and cautiously skeptical. I was a beginner trying to navigate this new place on my own, both physically and mentally. After a few minutes of running toward the river and the bridge close by, I found myself on the trail that ran along the river. My mind then loosened up, going from a mode of figuring to a mode of exploring, from problem-solving to observing.

As much as I knew how big the Boston Marathon is in running circles, I had never quite associated the city with running for some reason. It didn’t occur to me that Boston was where the Boston Marathon happened. What came to mind when I thought about Boston were MIT, Harvard, Boston Globe, the newspaper, and the movie Spotlight. The thought of going for a run occurred to me only the day before when I was sitting in the rear seat of the rental car that my brother was driving. We were returning to Boston from Maine, where we had spent the last few days experiencing the fall foliage. I had a few hours to kill the next day before we left for the airport back home. Given that others were exhausted from the trip and were looking forward to a warm shower and a good night’s sleep, I thought I could make the best use of it by getting up early and finishing my run before others woke up. Among the many benefits of early morning runs, one is that you get to do what you enjoy but also be present for the people you’re with. As far as they are concerned you never left.

And so I started the run, from MIT to Harvard and back.

Structures and Influences

Every structure in and around the college campus was a distinct reminder of the imperial, Christian, and Caucasian history of the place. Their presence to this day, or rather the absence of anything that relates to the native tribes, hints at their hegemony. Streets, benches, and buildings with White names, the vestigial language of the feudal times that describe certain areas as a place for “commons”, the Christian influence on the architecture – all make it seem like the city still largely reflects the culture and beliefs of the time it was constructed in like it’s a snapshot, frozen in space, yet moving forward in time. I had always wondered why marginalized minorities fixated on the removal of historical remains that remind them of the oppressive times. I used to think of them as futile attempts at trying to change the immutable – the past. But it dawned on me that it’s not so much as rewriting the past as it is about selectively removing the traces of pain, to make space for communal healing. In that sense, it’s not very different from the methods we use to get past grief in our lives, like time spent in a bad relationship. We delete the photos, unfriend the person and throw away anything that reminds us of it/them every day, in order to move on. Although the methods we employ are the same, it’s relatively easier to move on from the individual past than the shared past. From that perspective, I see how it could be useful, even important, to remove the signs of the tragic past.

Here’s the thing about structures: people build structures based on their own and the collective ideas, beliefs, and norms of their time, the structures outlive them thus capturing the essence of a certain time and of the people at the time, the structures then embody the past and shape the future. It’s as if the artifacts of a time were uploaded into a flash drive and then passed on to the next generation. The world we construct is the flash drive that gets passed on, the form and structures of the world we build are the contents of it. It’s hard to see it that way because the carrier and the contents are bigger than any one individual. Much like the workings of human memory which optimizes storage by retaining only a gist of the events in the past and recalls or reenacts it by filling the gaps, the thoughts and decisions of the past are captured and retained not in every brick of a structure, but as the structure itself. The structure is the gist

The Dark Irony

The city’s demographic, although changing, is largely white and that shows in the running groups out on the trails too. In a loop of about 8.5 miles, I saw only a handful of non-white people, and if you knew the number of runners you would stumble upon in Boston in a stretch that long, you’d know that that percentage is minuscule. The fact, then, that the Boston Marathon podium is dominated by Black runners year after year is a kind of dark irony of the whole system. It’s a slap in the face of not any individual entity, but of the manufactured myths of the superiority of race that are so blatantly and gracefully proved to be false time and again.

From Myth to Reality; From Feeling to Reasoning

After the run, I wondered how fascinating it was that an idea, a desire to run, that originated in the mind, became a reality in the physical world. Although forces outside our control have to converge for us to realize our dreams and desires, deliberate effort is what sets things in motion for them to happen. It makes me think about the kind of free will Daniel Dennet talks about, that he argues is the kind worth having, even if it’s theoretically an illusion. We don’t often care as much about how some thoughts occur to us as much as we do about the sense of agency we feel to make them happen when we want. Even if the theory of determinism about our realities was true, it doesn’t discount the fact that the kind of free will we think we possess is what brings a sense of fulfillment and meaning to our existence. This stress on physical reality, or more importantly, the rejection of psychological or subjective reality that the scientists openly and proudly partake in, the denial of the tools and frameworks that are only mythical in nature yet serve as a guideline for our lives is what strikes me as a setback introduced by the age of Enlightenment. The shift is not completely accidental either. It serves the purpose of the people who came up with the ideas. To feel you merely need to be alive, but to reason or debate, you need resources, both intellectual and physical, resources that, although seem free to acquire, can be denied to you, and the denial of which takes the power away from you.

Back as a Changed Person

I took the flight a few hours later to fly back home and started the grind of the job the next day, as a slightly different person, with a slightly different perspective on things. The change that happens after travel is seldom as transformational as the culture or the media wants us to believe. It often is more subtle than that, so tiny or obscure sometimes that it takes reflection to bring them to the surface of consciousness. It’s that unquantifiable yet real change that happens that we travel for, or rather we should travel for, that we started to travel for. The real value of travel is neither in satiating the craving for novelty that the consumerist culture wants us to have, nor in telling other people about the adventure to seek validation, but it’s in the places we get to in our mind from the change in the physical landscape, it’s in the food it feeds our senses, it’s in the change that happens within us. I have often asked myself and failed to answer why it’s bad to be engaged in social media when you’re out in nature. It’s like going to a train station wanting to experience a train ride, but having come back being content merely with the sight of the train. There’s nothing right or wrong about that, but it’s the missed opportunities and experiences that we could have had but didn’t, and worse yet, that we did want to have but didn’t.