The person we meant to be

Runner at night on a Hong Kong track, with city behind

I write a lot, or I think a lot, about the difference between the person we are and the person we meant to be. This gap changes over time, and can be between our hopes, or between our actions. I could say I or my, for all these things are true of me, but I think they are true of many of us.

One of the quotes I repeat most, both on this site and in daily life, is Jan Chipchase’s the distance between who you are and who you might be is closing”. It’s succinct, and encapsulates so much of the fear of getting older and the challenges of relationships. We are all so far from who we hoped to be, and yet we are running out of time.

Mostly I think about who we said we would be, when we started a relationship. When we were first dating, first flirting, and trying so hard to be the best version of ourselves, to convince both our now partner and our then self that we were as good as we could be, as we hoped to be. I think so much about this version of myself, aged twenty eight, working his first real job, managing people, traveling, spending hours on his blackberry on bus rides to cold Chinese factory towns. I think about this boy constantly, wanting to quit his job and move somewhere with central heat, wanting to move somewhere with blue skies, wanting to write. He wrote, he studied, and he wanted to do more. He wanted to learn, to put out, to create.

In the intervening years he has done that, the boy I used to be. He’s written dozens of letters, hundreds of posts, and several drafts of a novel. He’s written journals and filled notebooks with Chinese characters. He’s grown in other ways as he has learned new industries, new cities, new sports. He has met so many people, and tried with each introduction to be a little more of the person he wishes to be and a little less of the person he wants to leave behind. He tries to be more curious, and less judgmental. He wants to be more open, and less sure.

In relationships there is an art to letting one’s partner make these changes. The trick is to make space for growth without expecting it, without demanding it. People don’t change, and we should never expect them to. But when they do, when they move past what’s comfortable to a new reaction or a new choice we should be ready to embrace them there, to welcome this change.

When bored, be it in Saitama in 2002, San Francisco in 2010, or Hong Kong in the lockdown days of 2020, I run. In the park, on a track, on a road. Whatever. It’s a habit born out of boredom and the inability to sit still. But because I am a person who does not like to run neither do my friends. And so, one morning this year, when I said I’m bored, I’m going to go for a run,” and my partner said I’ll come,” I had the perfect opportunity to react how I hope to be.

The easy snark, of Oh really, but you hate to run,” is death in this phase, when someone’s trying hard to do a new thing.

Great, I’m getting changed, 10 minutes?” I said. Build a bridge together to the people we both want to be. It was fun, running together in the park, walking back sweaty and tired. A new kind of fun, for people who are still trying to close that gap.

My partner tells me she’ll be ready when I decide to cook. Meanwhile she’s happy making dinner, figuring out new recipes that I might like. It’s love, in the best form.

All we can see

The story of growing up, for me, is the story of learning how to manage my body. This story doesn’t happen all at once, or evenly. There are good years and bad, months of quick progress and months lost to sloth and adventure. Some years I take up running in the mornings. Other years I rise early to bike to the climbing gym before work, sliding into my desk at nine thirty am having ridden 6 miles and spent an hour on the walls of Dogpatch Boulders.

There are other years, like perhaps this one, where I am held back by injuries and instead focus on muscle control, on single-leg squats, on planks and on the ability to raise my left arm above my head. These years are productive too: in twenty fourteen I spent much of the summer learning how to walk in the pool of the Park Lane in Dongguan. That stretch remains a high point of patience and growth.

Our lives, I have written, are written on our bodies as much as on the rest of the world, a topography that can be learned by others, or hidden from view. Our skills are not stagnant, they require maintenance and patience, diligence and some semblance of desire. Ten years ago I had never bouldered, had not yet taken climbing seriously. Perhaps I still have not, unwilling to put on harness or rope, unwilling to follow rigid routines on fingerboards. I still prefer the small self-built habits of the amateur over the youtube rituals of the practitioner. In this preference so much of my life can be found; the habit of writing five new characters a day to remember my Mandarin born of the park in Xujiahui some fifteen years ago is still with me in our Hong Kong apartment, though my knowledge of words has not improved as it should have given such repetition. In some ways this desire to build my own rituals is invigorating, and in some ways limiting. As with the body, the mind is an exercise in growth that rewards both dedication and new attempts.

For the most part I manage to avoid this kind of introspection, focusing instead on the expansion of scars, the patchwork of criss crosses that now adorn my left shoulder. They compliment the two slashes that match the gaps between ribs on my left side, now mostly faded and unremarkable. All are, when clothed, less visible than the scar below my right eye. None of these are large, a minimal presence like the first scattering of stars as night falls. In this I am lucky, the product of a body that tends to good balance and has benefited from good medicine, in not-quite-equal parts.

And still, doing repeated exercises in our apartment in the quarantine days, trying and failing to raise my arm over my head with both hand and elbow flush against the wall, I am grateful for the slow pace of both recovery and growth. Halfway through my forty first year I am still learning new sports, still learning new exercises, and still able to devote hundreds of hours to each. This is the clearest kind of luck, and so I try to record my gratitude, despite the discomfort and tedium.

Gone running

In the spring of twenty ten I take up running in the mornings.

At work for much of the last two years on a novel that is taking its time, the chunks of story assembling like the preface to a giant Tetris game on my computer, in my notebook, waiting for the busts of inspiration that will fit them together without seams, I am restless.  Like Gibson, I force myself to turn up every day, in case the writing also decides to.”  Often it does not, and my body, unaware of our shared dedication to a craft that requires hours spent seated, grows antsy.  So, in the mornings, through Golden Gate Park on the edge of the Pacific, I run.

Only one other time have I run regularly, independent of sport. The two years of my life in Tokyo that were without Ultimate drove me to action, to waking up early on my days off and putting five kilometers under my feet before beginning anything else. Strangely those were productive days too, for the writing, and I wonder if Murakami is indeed on to something.

Living here, in the San Francisco of chilly mornings and fog-filled skies, I do not hesitate to challenge my body. The weather will not, an entirely predictable space of days that veer between fifty five and sixty eight without producing sunshine or true rain. At thirty I am slower than twenty two, a change that others have discovered before. Where once I would hurdle the obstacles that separated car traffic from pedestrians in quick repetition for several blocks as I wound my way around Yono Honmachi I now pant up the hills of the park, their dirt surfaces tricky on the ankles. The cold ambushes my lungs, and some days I walk a block or two on each end of the steeper sections, an acceptance of age I gave no thought to in Saitama. There are other things I do less frequently as well now, the climbing of water towers on apartment buildings, or light posts, or tiers of balconies. Yet slacklining has strengthened my ankles, and my throws are better, proof that not all things have been neglected. So too does the habit of jumping random object return, in opportune moments like New York afternoons or Shanghai evenings. But in San Francisco, in the early morning after lunches are made and carpools departed I put on shoes purchased in Los Angeles for this very purpose and wear my body down. Half an hour is sufficient, a fifteen block loop through foliage that sometimes contains cats and sometimes homeless people. Back in my house, face flushed at the sudden return of warmth, I celebrate with pull ups, jumping jacks, sit ups and a shower. It is not Murakami’s religious devotion to the road but it does seem to help.

With coffee fresh and mind full I then can sit at this window, looking out at the world, and compose, my mind awake and body stilled.