Confronting existential weariness and Sunday school memories around my city’s dike system
It is January, and it is the late afternoon. I plan to run along my city’s dike system: a flat, exposed, lonesome stretch of gravel that outlines a wide tributary until it empties into the sea, separating the waters from the land.
These are my favourite kinds of paths. They are quiet enough that the rhythmic ‘squish, squish, squish’ of my shoes becomes a snare for chickadees, and I can be alone with my thoughts. Near this dike is a melting pot of pea fields, a packaging factory, a dog day care centre, and a wastewater treatment plant, all of which take turns controlling the dominant odour throughout the day.
I feel incredibly awkward when I’m in running clothes in front of my neighbours but haven’t actually begun to run yet. So, before I leave my home, I pause and listen carefully before opening the front door. This hesitation is to detect whether or not there are any people in the driveway. The townhouse I live in is close enough to the others for me to be able to see what unit two is having for dinner from my bedroom. Since this naked communality is extended to our driveway, each run is delayed by a few seconds as I check for others.
Eventually, I make it out of the complex — no one’s in the driveway — and shuffle west through my neighbourhood. I will pass by a three-garager in construction, several lower-income apartments, and a French immersion school. It is mostly elderly Chinese people walking today — their baby blue masks wrapping their faces, parkas squeezing their chests, and track pants swishing around their legs.
Unlike my childhood’s old version of suburbia, my present neighbourhood is refreshingly walkable. A woman smokes a cigarette outside the now-empty school, staring at me. I slouch and look away. With my five-inch running shorts and baggy polyester long-sleeve shirt, I stick out like a flag.
Submissive, slumped postures increase your sensitivity to pain, scientists say. This is a confusing finding. Two rounded shoulders, a concave chest, and a rounded back have been the default positions for my body for as long as I can remember.
The concerted motion of all my parts to form a slouched posture seems to indicate, somehow, that my whole body yearns for the slouch’s consummation: nose near crotch, ears pressed between knees, eyes shuttered shut. My mother — not a scientist but a social worker — would reprove me following each public performance for my kyphotic stage presence. “You are so hunched!” she would say afterward, still envisioning my perpetual bow.
Running, I see the western border of my neighbourhood now. It is a two-lane arterial that will narrow into one lane near the start of the farm roads. This road connects the three kilometres from my neighbourhood to the dike. This road is a liminal space — ‘already-but-not-yet.’ The arterial’s airy buzz of cars, however, reminds me that I am still at the ‘but-not-yet.’ And I already need to pee.
The two lanes of the street narrow into one, and I merge from grey pavement to a gravel shoulder. I pass by Little Friends Preschool and I see the reflection of my hunched stance; I pop my chest out in defiance. The farm roads will officially begin when I pass by the United church. Or do they begin when I pass by the Alliance church? Does it even matter?
It does to me. I should know churches well. As soon as I could walk, my parents funneled me into the assembly line of our church’s Sunday school, where I would be entertained by colourful felt boards every week. I do not recall ever thinking about my faith.
One exception to this, however, was during a summer camp when, as a nine-year-old, I experienced my first altar call, which is a call to the altar to make a new spiritual commitment. In that moment, I made ‘the decision’ to believe that Jesus Christ had died for my sins. But later that night, I was distressed.
Laying sprawled over my lumpy bed, I repeated The Sinner’s Prayer continuously for an hour, distraught that my lips wouldn’t stop making the smacking sound each time I uttered certain syllables. “Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words,” I said again and again.
The air stings a bit now. Once I reach the southern tip of the farm road, I turn a sharp right, stepping onto the dike, and begin running west against the wind. The cold air, smelling of iodinic manure, lovingly slaps my apricot thighs. I relax. As I settle into a comfortable jog, I look around: the great mountains poke in and out of delicate birches to the north; the silver moon pulls silver waves to create tides to the south — but the sky! The January sun is nearing the horizon, emanating tangerine hues on a cloudless canvas in front of me. Cloudless skies in winter are rare occasions in my city.
Consider the sacredness of the sky! The earth has been filled and subdued. Exploited is the pulp of the redwood, taken is the territory of the lion, and conquered is the leviathan of the sea. But the sky has not been — and is not to be — touched. The Bible teaches us to not try otherwise: after an attempt to build a tower to reach the sky, God confounded the once singular language of the Babylonians to multiplicity, scattering the primordial peoples over the Earth. The void of the sky, devoid of creaturely interference, has been set apart.
Have you ever considered how vast the sky is? How empty the sky is? It is a big nothingness on cloudless days, making everything feel devoid of meaning. Cloudless skies mirror the Earth, revealing the vacuity of everyday life. They are honest friends of the Earth, reflecting the triviality of our ephemeral existence. These are overwhelming thoughts, and they overwhelmed me as I ran.
The sky has always seemed to hold an invisible string on me, yanking my eyes upward at its whim. Usually, though, the string is thin as a spider’s web — I can break it easily — but not today. I do not remember why I stared so long at the cloudless sky. It may have been the right combination of cloudlessness and tangerine sun and polar air and postmodern despair, but all I remember is that, after a few minutes, the sky evolved into something terrifyingly bleak: a hegemonic doom.
And when confronted with something so terrifying and bleak, it is only natural to become small and shy. I stopped running and became my seven-year-old self again, trying to order a McDouble without Mommy for the first time, slouching under the big scary sky.
But as I continued to stare upward, a strange feeling began to hit me: the maker of the big scary sky was also the maker of me. And this was a secure feeling, as if I had found safety in a tiny crevasse during an avalanche. And unmistakably, I began to feel a visceral, gnawing ache for this maker of the sky and maker of me; I longed to know and to be known. And, as if I was heard, I was instantly flushed with the overwhelming realization that I was loved by this maker, my God, my God.
The sky has not talked to me since that run. Some days, I try to connect the confluence of events that collided into this one late afternoon and piece together the whole thing. How much of this was conditioned by my Christian upbringing? I am not sure. I do think, though, that much of the event had to do with my desire to find meaning. It is disorienting to ignore the spiritual, transcendent truths that I ache to grasp. There is an existential weariness to hold that all meaning is to be created out of the self, as if you must become your own god.
On that day, I cried. My briny tears were pushed back to my ears by the wind-swept manure, and I smiled too, my Derridean despair forgotten. I started to run again and became what I can only describe as a prelapsarian Adam: innocent and free, joyful that I could work my muscles and tendons and ligaments, and exceedingly aware of the sublimity of the Earth. The mountain, moon, and cloudless sky became terrifyingly beautiful because they were created, and I was content.
Cover visual: Caleb Chan jogging in Richmond, British Columbia. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY