My tennis shoes squeaked like a wheel that needed grease. I glanced down at my feet framed by hardwood. The hot pink laces stood out amongst the shoe’s black material.
These sneakers require some oil, I thought. Or fuel. Or flames.
Or bananas. Mario Kart-style.
Something slick and slippery. Hot and bothered.
Anything to turn up the heat and make me kick it up a notch.
With the winter winds waltzing outside, I needed a little spring in my step. I needed to run, to move my legs, to put one step in front of the other even though I was running on empty.
I waited in my living room.
Sure enough, my guilty conscience arrived. It always shows up during my down time. Oprah beckoned from beyond the television screen. “I eat bread!” she exclaimed, raising her hands in carb-loaded victory. “I love bread!” The couch’s arms released me. I grabbed my car keys off the kitchen counter.
Now I stood still, facing the track in my sneakered, sweatpanted, ponytailed glory. The gym was packed with people, their invisible hopes stacked tall like poker chips. People were betting on themselves this year.
With each person that walked into the gym lobby, I pictured thought bubbles popping up with promises above every head:
2017 will be different.
The smell of willpower lingered in the air with the disinfectant used to clean the elliptical machines. Sports announcers recapped a football play on the television screen hanging in the corner. Basketballs bounced on the court while jeers and cheers from the players echoed in the linoleum-lined hallways.
I inhaled, exhaled, and stepped on the track. My iPod ear buds pulsed with music as I tried to align my steps with the beat. I mean, I like running. I do. But some days I like it more than others. On this day, running was lower on the list of enjoyable things to do.
Just focus on the song, I thought. Get through the workout so you can put a check in the to-do box.
As I ran, my movements were canned and repetitive. Robotic. My black patterned pants stretched, but they felt like metal.
I was a Tin-Man.
Clunky and clanging.
But hey. I was here.
Suddenly, I felt someone brush past me. I turned my head. She was a mop of dark curls swept up in a high ponytail. Black leggings. A shirt that read “Girls Rule.” She pitter-pattered on the edge of the track, her little legs moving a mile a minute.
No taller than my knee caps, the girl continued around the track. Her mouth stretched from ear to ear as she ran, revealing a grin so wide and pure and downright adorable that I couldn’t help but feel my own lips stretch over my teeth. I continued clip-clopping around the circle, intrigued by the Little Runner that Could.
A blonde woman with a bob cut jogged ahead. She smiled a mother’s smile as the girl ran past her, looking back at the woman’s face with eyes that screamed, “Look at me!” I’m running!” The woman nodded and smiled in response. There was no sense of pressure or expectation from the mom. She wasn’t trying to turn her daughter into the next female Usain Bolt. She simply looked happy that her daughter looked happy.
I continued along, assuming the little girl would stop after a lap. But she kept running. And running. And running. Fast.
I was in awe of this energizer bunny. I slowed my jog to a walk, mesmerized by the little girl’s abilities.
It wasn’t her ability that mesmerized me. Her speed —though impressive—didn’t completely captivate me. It drew me in at first, sure. But I’ve seen a lot of fast on this track and in gymnasiums. I’ve seen talent. I’ve seen skill. I’ve seen competition and anxious and relief and willpower.
But this little girl? This girl had happiness. And It was her genuine happy that felt unique. It was her joy that inspired my intrigue. You don’t see a ton of open-faced, unapologetic, old-fashioned, pure enjoyment these days.
I mean, there’s glimpses and shades of happy mixed with other emotions or fears. Expectations by society, from parents, within ourselves, cloud and confuse us. They make us forget why we started what we started in the first place.
But this girl in the black leggings and the dark hair and the big grin had 100% HAPPY splayed all over her face for the whole world to see while she ran around this track. It radiated off of her like water rising and returning to the clouds on a hot summer day. Watching this girl run, I wished for a mason jar so I could capture the excess joy beams flashing like fireflies behind her footsteps.
The mom paused by the track entryway and said to her daughter whizzing past, “Honey, you can go around one more time, yes.” And so she did.
“She just doesn’t quit!” I couldn’t help but remark to the mom as I walked by, exchanging eye contact and a smile.
“Right?!” The mom laughed, her eyes wide in that “I don’t get it either” way. “She just loves it so much.”
“How old is she?” I asked.
“Four.” We both turned to look at her daughter, now halfway around the track. “She loves to come here. She’ll ask me, ‘Can we go running today?’ My husband said to me the other day, ‘Is this normal? I don’t think this is normal. I think she may be really fast’.”
“Definitely,” I nodded. “She’s amazing. I want her energy.”
“Thanks,” she smiled. I walked on.
“God gave her a gift to run,” I told my husband later that night. “Like, she just kept going. For no reason. I swear we are going to hear about her winning the Olympics in 20 years.”
She’s a 4-year-old girl. She doesn’t run to lose weight or because the guilt monster is snarling from the inner corners of her conscience. She isn’t running to be the fastest or prove something to someone.
She runs because she likes it. End of story.
I think about the activities that have brought me happiness in my life: Dance. Volleyball. Writing. I started each of them during different times in my life because I enjoyed them. And at one point or another, each of the activities have gotten tangled up in the wicked webs of fear and doubt and all of the other junk that simply serves as distraction from the fact that I started doing them because I liked it. I had to fight back against the web and go back to the beginning of why I started. I think we all have to do that a time or two. Or four. Or more.
When was the last time you did something you loved because you enjoyed it? Not for praise or prizes. Not for affirmation or inclusion. Not to meet expectations or calm fears. Just straight up love for whatever it is: Making music. Art. Movies. Hunting. Hockey. Baking. Running.
Fear and competition can be healthy. But not when it erases the enjoyment from whatever you are doing. Do things because you love them, and try hard not to forget why you started in the first place.
Don't forget to take the happy with you.