Running, Powder, and the Better Life

Running, Powder, and the Better Life

A few weeks ago, I got home from a long run, soaked in sweat. It’s the kind of sweaty I didn’t know before I took up running in the sub-tropics. The kind of sweaty that screams I need a shower – and now. 

But when I reach the bathroom and turn the knob, no water comes. Oh great, I think to myself, what a horrible time for the water to be off. What on earth am I going to do? 

And then I have a very Thai thought: get the powder.

I used to think powder was for babies, but in my host culture, powder is second to water when it comes to hygiene. People use it to dry off, to freshen up, to keep their skin soft, even sometimes to spiff-up for an event. So that day when water was unavailable, I was able to somewhat clean up, thanks to some trusty baby powder and a tip I learned from Asians.

We hear often that having an attitude of a learner is of utmost importance for living abroad. This lifestyle has us asking hundreds of questions, learning a plethora of new things with every trip around the sun. Undoubtedly, your host culture has taught you so.many.things. Some things you would not have chosen to learn, and some things that make your life richer, sweeter, deeper. 

An individual, independent American has a lot of things to learn from a collective culture. Running has taught me this lesson.

I first took up running when I admitted that transition had brought some unhealthy habits into my personal life. I needed to start building time into my schedule to invest in my health. It was a personal, private decision. So, I started going to the track at the university, plugging in my headphones, putting my head down, and plodding along. 

But horrible things started to happen; I was constantly meeting up with people I knew, and they were, gasp, saying hello. I didn’t want to say hello, I didn’t even want to be recognized. Exercise is one of those things in the private/personal file for me. It’s my zone. My personal zone. And people were crashing their way into it. 

It all culminated one particularly hot summer evening. I felt like I was heaving like a horse and sweating like an ox, and I saw so.many.people I knew, including the dean from my workplace. And no one seemed to acknowledge that I probably don’t want to be recognized.  Everyone kept being friendly. And I wasn’t pleased. 

So, I stopped running there. Or, if I would run at the track, I’d go at night when no one was there or I could hover under the cover of darkness. And I was happy again. No one saw me in my weakness, and no one interrupted my podcasts or my tunes. My privacy was mine once more. 

But then I started to hear people make comments like “I was talking with so-and-so at the track last night,” or “Last night while so-and-so and I were running together, she told me . . .”  And I’d feel a bit like I was missing out on something. One time, I went to the track at prime time and you know what I saw? A lot of people having fun together. Either chatting while they were running around the lake, or even seemingly stopping mid-workout to share a laugh with a friend they ran into. 

I saw community. And I kinda wanted it. 

But it meant giving up my ideals of private workouts. And that was hard. But slowly, I saw that it was ok to let people see me in my sweatiest of states. They didn’t care. They were inviting me into their community, sweat, heaves, and all. 

So I slowly started to accept invitations to run with friends. I cautiously took out my headphones from time to time and tried to just be a part of my surroundings. I stopped averting the gaze of people whom I might recognize. 

And do you want to know something? I love this new way. Now, exercise is not just time built into my schedule for self-care, it’s also time for friendship. I’ve become the one initiating the hellos, giving the invitations to friends to join me for a run. I’m loving the feeling of being a part of this community.

In the Chronicles of Narnia, when the great lion Aslan finishes creating Narnia, he gathers the talking beasts together and says “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” 

And their answer echoes his cry, “Hail, Aslan, we hear and obey. We are awake. We think. We speak. We know.”

Earlier this year, those action verbs jumped off the page of The Magician’s Nephew and into my heart. Aslan calls the Narnians to awaken, to love, to think, to speak. I think those four action verbs sum up what it means to be a learner. It starts with being awakened, leads to love, changes our thinking, and shapes our words and actions.

Let’s be like the brave talking beasts of Narnia. Let us be the people who are awake, who love, who think, who speak. 

And I’m pretty sure we’ll find that the things we learn bring a new sweetness to our lives. Even when it requires a measure of giving up, because that’s when space opens for joy to fill. 

So I’ll chug around the track, saying my evening sawatdiis because I have found it to be a source of joy. And I pray my heart is open to learn the next thing that this culture has to teach me.

Because I’m pretty certain that there’s a next thing. 

What is something valuable your host culture has taught you that you initially resisted? 

Photo by xandro Vandewalle on Unsplash


  1. Michele October 3, 2019

    Wow, this brings up some memories! Not of running- which I only do if I’m being chased or about to miss the bus- but of giving up privacy. I’m an enneagram 5, which I didn’t have a clue about when I moved to southeast Asia 21 years ago. But I did know that I was happy to work hard all day if I could only have my evenings free to chill in my room- ALONE! I quickly learned that if I wanted to practice language in the community , which was the center of the LAMP method I was expected to use, it would have to be in the evening, as the hot sun was setting and people were done with work and school and all sitting outside talking. I’ll never forget the day about 7 or 8 months in, when someone asked me if it was ‘like this’ in America, referring to the way everyone came out to hang out together every evening. I told him, no, that we generally just go to our own homes and watch TV. He asked the question I was always asked about every comparison that could be made between the two countries: “Which is better?” I always said it was better in Indonesia because that made them smile and I wanted it to be true- and usually neither was better, just different, and I needed to tell myself that. But that day when I said, “It’s better here,” I realized that I really meant it. It WAS better. I loved this new part of my life. I still need alone time and have had to figure out ways to get it. But the where and when can be adjusted to the culture I’m living in.

    1. Maria October 4, 2019

      This is so interesting – I can really relate to wanting to hold onto my evenings. And I love the “aha” moment you describe of knowing in your heart that this new way was better – it was something you truly loved. Our words surprise us sometimes, don’t they? Giving us a window into what we actually feel.

  2. Phyllis October 3, 2019

    Yes! Amen! What you wrote about Aslan gave me chills.

    1. Maria October 4, 2019

      Ohhhh Aslan is a chill-giver for sure!
      I re-read the Chronicles of Narnia this summer and his words put chills up and down my spine so many times.
      That un-tame, good, good lion.

  3. Bayta Schwarz October 4, 2019

    Maria, I love this sentence:”And I’m pretty sure we’ll find that the things we learn bring a new sweetness to our lives. Even when it requires a measure of giving up, because that’s when space opens for joy to fill.” That is so true! Letting go of something can feel (and often is!) so hard. Yet the blessing of hindsight is being able to see the sweetness and joy, as well as the struggle. May I remember that the next time I find myself having to make this sort of decision! I am also grateful for the way you shared your journey of getting to the point of being open to “different”! We can so easily beat ourselves up for not being open and yet more often than not, it is a journey! Or is that just me?

    1. Maria October 4, 2019

      You’re so right! I spend so much time beating myself up over what I missed –
      And that idea of making space for joy first caught my attention in a book called “Every Moment Holy” by Douglass McKelvey (I think I’m spelling that wrong??) – he writes a liturgy about loneliness saying that sorrow is carving the space for future joy. I’ve pondered that so much, and I think it’s so so true. I really like to think of surrender in that perspective – it’s a space maker.

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