“All the trouble starts when people forget they’re human.”
–Oliver Sacks, A Leg to Stand On
In 2017, I moved to Minnesota – on occupied Dakhóta and Anishinaabe land. I moved to Minneapolis for love. An eleven-year love that had been ushered into existence by promises of forevers and tomorrows. Unable to see beyond our histories, we attempted what we thought was true. An eleven-year relationship that felt like a severing when it ended. Why do I begin here? I did not begin to run because of this. I ran to imagine a future self. I run to propel this vision into what I might gain. I began again. A part of this beginning was simply to run.
By all accounts, when I moved to Minneapolis from the homelands of the Cayuga Nation in NY, my life would look like it was falling apart. I had recently learned to walk again. A near death due to a car accident on July 4th of 2016. That summer of 2016, was a time I was looking forward to. I had just completed the first year of my MFA at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. As my car collided with an electrical pole, I remember thinking, “No, this isn’t right.” While there had been no water present during my accident, I had felt like I was weighted under a deep ocean. This feeling is still present from time to time: a strange curiosity.
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The helicopter that flew me to a hospital on Susquehanna land in Pennsylvania for surgery pushed the blades of grass up around me in a whirlwind. I remember finally passing out. I had been awake while trapped in my vehicle. I lost consciousness only after hearing the medic yell, “You are going to be okay.” It sounded like they were trying to convince themselves more than me of this future okay-ness – a hopeful prophecy.
Lighting was fluorescent and harsh and soft at the same time. I awoke after operations on my left femur and elbow. Metals inserted into my body are now a part of me. These new strangers were to hold together my broken and crushed bones. My skin torn. My skin sutured. I decided not to look at my face for the entirety of my recovery. I could feel the scabbing and that was all I wanted to recall. I diligently applied the creams offered by the nurses to these places where the blood and new skin clotted and formed small valleys and mountains. I avoided mirrors and reflective surfaces. My body had taken in so much that it seemed as if any more newness might be inconceivable if I was going to continue to move through this moment.
Every day in my Instagram feed there are ads that constantly insist on achieving glass skin. They remind me of my aging body, my scars. Of my wrinkles, and of time. Like many, I have, for more moments than I would like to admit, entertained these lying visions that promise a cocooning youth chamber. These promises of glowing skin that echo our own births back to ourselves in an unfamiliarity that is not confirmed by the real traumas of our bodily births. My body knows that the scars may fade but will never disappear. My body knows that wrinkles are markers of time lived. My body knows that my crow’s feet will never disappear – nor should they. They reveal that I laugh with all of me. I often do. My friends and I laugh all the time and their laughter is like sunlight breaking just before dawn. They do not know that I collect their laughs in my mind and they echo like an incredible chorus. It is a kind of beautiful choir that I can never access completely without them present.
When I was in the hospitals recovering, so many friends arrived. Friends who I even had never met. They brought time, conversation, books, touch, food and well-wishes. The nurses had to nudge people out who stayed past visiting hours and stop them from coming in. The nurses who laughed with me. Who held me when I cried. Who reminded me to sleep when my bed was covered in work to be done (the paperwork that is never-ending in a hospital). Who made sure my legs remained moisturized when I could not reach them. Who wrapped me in cloths and bandages. Who changed my sheets. Who replenished my water. Who emptied the reservoir to my catheter. Who made sure that people who I did not want to see were not allowed to visit. Who let me stay up after hours to watch a movie while I ate small cups of artificially flavored strawberry ice cream. Who helped me learn how to shave my legs and armpits and wash with one arm and leg. Who sampled the things I learned to cook in a mock-kitchen because I needed to learn to do so with my new body. They saw me out in the world after I was released from the hospital and every time I ran into a nurse they expressed incredible joy in my progress. They hugged me with the kind of care that seemed to come from many ancestors. All of my cells feeling this hug individually. Millions of embraces simultaneously.
I learned to walk again while completing my last year of graduate school and while teaching. I had slowly run a few times while in New York. It was really an amble. I moved to Minneapolis, MN. Then, I decided why don’t I keep running. I ran around the block I lived on. Then I ran a mile. I ran along Minnehaha Creek. I ran around lakes. I ran through the winter. I ran in rain, in snow, on ice, through dirt, on pavement, in mud, and on broken glass from last night’s parties. I ran to appointments, I ran to work, I ran on my lunch breaks, I ran to get groceries, and I ran with my dog. I ran alone. I was fearful I was too slow. Despite that I ran, I didn’t feel I was a runner. Much of this had to do with a pervasive toxic running culture that exists and upholds bodily hierarchies. Some of it had to do with my own thoughts of inadequacy that manifest because of a culture that wants us to feel irrevocably broken so that we can buy the next fix. A cycle that maintains itself on our endless comparisons and unending expectations.
Running for me is a spiritual and meditative practice. I return to myself when I run. I learn to understand what kinds of sensations my body can manifest and what this communicates. Because of certain kinds of pain, I learn that sometimes I need to slow down while other times I can befriend the pain and work with it. I learn to move through and beyond and with these thresholds. When I run in marathons and races I am not focused on speed – although this will soon change. It is exciting to know while running that I can finally think about time in a different capacity. My focus is less on just how to show up and get to a race -the logistics. My friend, Ann-Marie, heard I was going to bike to and from my first half-marathon – The City of Lakes Half Marathon. In her wisdom and good knowing, she insisted that she give me a ride to and from the race. At the end of that race, my friend Christina showed up to my home with sunflowers and ice cream. I joke that my friend, Acadia is my “race mom” as she has driven me to and from many races. I give her most of my race shirts. My friend Lizz has also driven me to a race. Ona, an incredible friend, taught me all about the many benefits of magnesium for my body after races. And, Heri and Bill sent me messages along the way. Tiger emojis and exclamations. My friends reassert what community care looks like in action.
Last year, I heard the first person to shout my name in a race. I had never heard my name cheered that way. I had once been one of the many strangers in a race. I look forward to one day having a family who will excitedly hold up a homemade sign for me after waking up too early to go with me to a race course. To this future family, when I run, I often imagine how grateful I will be that you are finally there. This said, it never gets old that if I show up to a start line, I automatically win every single time. This is not because I am the fastest runner. It is because many questioned whether or not I would walk again. I remember that I adapted to my wheelchair with ease. I would have run even if my life included a wheelchair permanently. I am not here to reinforce existing hierarchies. Legs are not inherently better than wheels. It was the rest of the world that seemed to label the thought of me needing wheels as a tragedy. However, now, I run with both feet on the ground.
So, how do we begin again? How do we imagine a future when all that we consider as a vital part of our identity to suddenly and abruptly fall away? I don’t necessarily claim to know the answers to these questions. What I can express is that running has allowed for me to meet myself again and to be there. To just be. Running has brought community in the form of teams like ReNew Earth Running and Mile in My Shoes. Running with purpose is an important part of how I run. ReNew Earth Running is a beautiful example of ways that athletes are coming together from many lands and territories to advocate for Land Back through fundraising for and honoring Indigenous land treaties and rights. Mile in My Shoes is an organization that supports those individuals who have been recently or formerly incarcerated through running mentorship opportunities. It has been an honor to allow my body to give back to these important community organizations. Running—like many forms of movement—can bring people together in powerful ways.
Running has allowed me to feel strong on days where I am weak. My weakness in turn has become synonymous with strength: an alchemy. While running I have listened to podcasts and audiobooks, and playlists of songs. Sometimes I have just listened to the sounds of the neighborhoods I run through. To trees and wind. To birds and squirrels. To tall grasses brushing against each other. I have laughed while running and have cried while running too. I have been angry while running. I have been too tired to run so I have stopped to walk or sit in the grass. I have slipped on ice while running. I have wondered why I am running. And yet, I run.
As I have left Minnesota for the next chapter of my life, I consider that for many it would appear like I moved to Minneapolis for a love that was lost completely. I do not see it this way. A certain love ended, yet, it was more loving to let it go. There have been immense and immeasurable gains. Through running and through the ability to continue to show up for myself and for my communities for the past five years, I redefined what love looks like. The redefinition includes how love should live in my life. I am forever bound to Minnesota for being the place where I learned to hold my humanness in the ways that can be most difficult and most joyful. Running allows me to hold all the complexities of my human body. In this strange embrace I am able to hear myself say, “I am sorry I abandoned you before. I am here now. Really, and as you already know in all of your wisdom, I never went away.”
Stevie Ada Klaark is an interdisciplinary artist, adjunct professor, and writer. She holds an MFA in Visual Art from Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP). Their work appears in Paprika! (Yale University), Chicago Review, and Mn Artists (Walker Art Center). Klaark lives on unceded Anishinaabe lands in Michigan where she runs with her dog.
Nayelie Avalos is a photographer and creative director based in Minneapolis, MN. Her work has been featured at The Vault Gallery in St. Cloud in a solo exhibition Land of the Free: Some Restrictions Apply* and a group exhibition Impulsions. Avalos was in a show curated by KOBI called Impending. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota. Where she had her most recent exhibition, Heart of the Matter. In addition to her own work, Avalos works as a freelance photographer and started the Alas Collective.