Every time I walk into a Batman movie, I silently hope we aren’t going to start by talking about his haunted past. “Oh, did his parents die, do you think? Were they murdered in an alley? Did the killer get away?” I whisper to my husband, usually as the screen comes up in grayscale, a young child precariously holding his mother’s hand. Something like that. It’s always something like that.

That’s why I’m tired of opening essays by talking about the brain stem stroke I had when I turned 31, or the Ehler’s-Danlos Syndrome that caused it, the constant dislocations and subluxations and harmful flexibilities. There are ways that people shouldn’t bend, you know, and I always bend, literally and metaphorically. It’s exhausting to go through the phase where I was on a walker, then just a cane, but it was still rough, barely moving throughout the day. Falling sometimes. Once I broke my tailbone in class and kept teaching. And then, there was a pandemic—my husband, who was on immunosuppressants, working at the hospital twelve hours a day, and my teenager and me sharing the 900-square-foot house with two confused dogs as we grew increasingly anxious.

I get why you always have to kill Batman’s parents first, you know. Motivation matters. There’s no reason for him to build a bunch of gadgets and fight bad guys with a hoarse voice if he’s not running from a traumatic past, and if I’d never been on a cane, I’d still be leading a happily sedentary, academic life. I’m just tired of my own origin story. So do me a favor and let me start a new way.

One day, I realized the younger of the two dogs, a Beagle-lab-pit Frankenstein named Sissy, seemed to be having a hard time with her hips. I hadn’t crossed the threshold of my front door for nearly nine months, teaching exclusively to black screens on Zoom from my living room, wearing the same Adidas tracksuit every day, hoping someone would catch the visible Royal Tenenbaums gag. No one did, or no one said anything. A few days went by, she missed a few jumps, and suddenly, I was terrified that she was getting hip dysplasia. She always loved going on walks, and I decided that was probably not too much of a health risk, me taking her out in the midday sun, hoping no one else was on the trails. So I leashed her up, grabbed my cane and headphones, and headed out.

“A Dying Blood,” Third Eye Blind

Sissy had probably been getting slowly worse for a long time, but I hadn’t been paying attention. I had received, not too long before that, the worst phone call of my life—someone who was in a moment of suicidal crisis, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to help. I was on the phone for 37 minutes. Everyone survived, but my obsessive-compulsive disorder went into overdrive, and my anxiety skyrocketed. That first walk, cane in hand, I put on Third Eye Blind’s then-new record Our Bande Apart and tried to see if I could keep my thoughts from going too close to the dark places they’d been living. It didn’t work. We’d barely made it down the street before I found myself wondering why so many people in my life call when I’m useful. The whole world had gotten so noisy, I often dream of changing my name, moving, and only telling a few people where I’ve gone. Right now, I have 705 unplayed voicemails, 12,095 unread emails, and 604 unread texts. Most of them are from people I love, but the anxiety of waiting for someone to say what they need from me before we even really catch up has gotten to me.

“I think my boundaries are bad because I thought I could make people like me if I was useful,” I told my therapist over Telehealth a few weeks before this.

She doesn’t say much. Maybe she doesn’t say anything about that one. I keep thinking about boundaries—I can’t help it. Here we are, I’ve lost a left vertebral artery to a stroke, and I’m still so bad at setting boundaries that people call me mid-crisis. He wasn’t even the only person to do so during the pandemic—it was just the worst, most explicit call, the one that scared me the most. The one that got me into therapy.

If I’m being honest, that’s where my brain went every time I had a few moments of silence for months, and so I shouldn’t have been shocked when walking Sissy turned into a strange meditation about suicidality and my own image as a useful conduit, a ghost who is there to help people through a difficult time and then who can slide back into the background when necessary. Like a ballerina of boundaries. Up on pointe, one leg all the way behind me, back swayed over the problem, I am somehow—

I am stopped in my tracks.

How to chit-chat, I can’t remember
Can you tell me how to be friends without being exhausted?
A dying blood

I have missed most of the song and I have to keep starting it over as my mind keeps drifting back to the darkness, but I keep hearing that line, and the phrase ‘a full year pandemic,’ and every once in a while, I hear the outro, echoing “And hope fades until I can’t remember (a dying blood)/ And hope fades until I can’t remember,” and I don’t think I was crying, but my memory is untrustworthy, and I cried a lot that year. Who knows what happened next. I can say this: I decided that Sissy needed to keep going on walks. I couldn’t let her health suffer just because I was depressed and in pain. I had always been in pain. What was best for Sissy was all that mattered. (I hoped no one questioned that: God, I hoped no one ever asked if I was actually doing it for myself. I don’t know if I had even figured out that we both needed the time.)

“Mariner’s Apartment Complex,” Lana Del Rey

I don’t remember how long before I was able to walk around the neighborhood without my cane. It took a while for me to convince everyone who’d lived through my recovery that I was safe, but I was, finally. Sissy was so happy. She’s a weird tube-shaped dog, tiny head and barrel-bodied. She strutted, she galloped, she stopped suddenly in the middle of heavily-traveled paths. And I was finally to a place where I was letting dramatic fictions sweep me away again. Sometimes I listened to podcasts or short stories, and more often than that, I called Charlie, my best friend, and we’d walk our dogs together in different cities. Sometimes it was the only way I felt normal. I had close friends in the town I lived in, but they were as cautious about the pandemic as we were, maybe more. I’d known them most of my life—about half of it—and we’d worked together for years. Now we texted memes from across town. Charlie knew more about my life than they did.

I spent more time thinking about Lana Del Rey and her strange other-world, the place her sometimes-plaintive, sometimes-lilting voice exists to tell stories that are halfway between reality and some big-budget version of the same thing. The piano line on “Mariner’s Apartment Complex” always grounded me, but nothing ever grabbed and accused me with the force of the line, “They mistook my kindness for weakness/ I fucked up, I know that, but Jesus/ Can’t a girl just do the best she can?” When she sings it, it gets to stay in the hypothetical, and I don’t have to think about all the ways my own kindnesses have been abused, the ways I’ve given until I am out of anything, even emotion. Sissy trots and suddenly the song feels slow. Towards the end of the song, as the whispers and the waves feel like they’re all crashing at the same time, “You want this, you need this” and “Are you ready for it?” I feel like maybe, just for a minute, I should let Sissy trot and jog a little. I’ve never been a runner. Don’t know how. The people who loved me through re-learning to walk would be more than a little frustrated if I started running after just having gotten to where I could get around without a cane—but, I reason, they are not here. Sissy is. And Sissy is a creature of pure joy, absolute dedication to delight and happiness. Movement makes her happy. I pick up the pace, and she sees me, and absolutely sprints at her fastest speed, looking over her shoulder with her tongue flying out to the side.

Are you ready for it?
Are you ready for it?
Are you ready for it?

I can’t breathe and I don’t care. Maybe I make it 30 seconds. Maybe less. It’s the longest I’ve run since high school, and for a second, I am an Olympic athlete, not a handicapped creative writing professor living through Lana Del Rey’s blue-tinged dark paradise. I’m panting because one lung has never functioned all the way, but Sissy turns around and comes back to lick my hand. It’s fine. Can’t a girl just do the best she can?

For a moment, all I have to do is survive. Just get through it, that’s all. My physical form will carry itself from one experience to another, and I don’t have to think about anything at all.

“Unpleasant Breakfast,” The Hold Steady

By the time I start jogging for about thirty seconds at a time, I’m obsessed with The Hold Steady. Craig Finn’s percussive voice makes it a little easier to try and time my steps in a way that’s healthy. I still can’t breathe. I finally have one day where Sissy and I hit a downhill I’m particularly fond of, and I wipe out.

This might not seem like a big deal, but consider it this way: I have been limited by my own abilities for so long that it is hard for anyone who loves me to fully trust that I’m as autonomous as I say I am, especially since I’m not letting anyone come along with me. I can’t have another voice. Remember what I said? The world is too loud. If there’s going to be a voice, it’s going to be my husband or Charlie and that’s all. By now, I’m not doing a great job keeping up with my friends in town, and I’m OK with that. There’s a line in “Unpleasant Breakfast” where he says “First it’s April, then it’s August”—

—No. I do this every time. My students, my friends. They’ll all tell you, I use music to explain things, but just as often, I use it to deflect. Let’s go back to the fall.

I can see the blood on my hands. By now, I have running clothes and a good pair of shoes. By now, I’m jogging for thirty seconds and then walking for a minute, panting the whole time. And when I get to the downhill spot, I know I should probably keep walking, but I like the way it feels like flying when I run it—and my ankle folds under me. I bounced back up and immediately started checking the right side of my body—which is still almost completely unfeeling due to neuropathy—for injuries. I can’t see any dislocations, but I’m starting to realize there’s blood on my arm, and slightly more alarmingly, my face, and I know when I walk in the door at home, Andy is going to worry.

I walked myself and Sissy to the local pet store and when I walked in, the woman behind the counter gasped. I explained that I’d just fallen a little, but I can’t imagine how strange I must have looked.

“Can I use your bathroom? Just to clean up a little bit?”

“Umm. Yeah, sure,” she said, clearly not supposed to let customers back behind the counter. “I can hold your dog.”

I smiled at her. “Thanks,” I said, not sure how bad the damage was, but not buoyed by her gasp. I got in the bathroom and it was better than I thought—all very shallow wounds—but worse in that they were all very visible. I hadn’t even stopped to ask myself if it hurt or not. I started trying to clean it up with cheap toilet paper and texted Charlie. “If I fell, and you were Andy, would it be better to know immediately or once I get home?”

“How bad is the fall?”

“Answer the question.”


I’d already started calling Andy, and I knew I was going to start the same way I do any time I call someone I love with bad news: “I’m OK, but…”

“Answer my question,” Charlie texted back.

“Not a big deal,” I texted between reassuring Andy he didn’t need to come pick me up.

“Are you lying?” Charlie asked.

We have this rule. If you tell a small lie, no big deal. But if the other person asks if it’s a lie, you have to think for a second and then cop to it if it is. I don’t remember what I said. I don’t think I would have known if I was lying. It felt like a big deal, because all my freedom felt like it hinged on no one being afraid to let me go outside.

Last summer, at the shoreline
When you walked into the water
Went out up to your waistline
And turned back to face the camera
Rolled your eyes back in their sockets
Then you raised your middle fingers
Defiant and undamaged
That’s when I took the picture

I was so invested in that moment from “Unpleasant Breakfast” being me, even though the rest of the song wasn’t. I just needed to still feel like I was defiant and undamaged, even though even the slightest wind felt like it threatened my ability to even lie to myself about how damaged I am.

“B.o.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad),” OutKast

In high school, if we needed to pump ourselves up, it was always OutKast. When I got to college, there was a lot of Kanye West, but when I started to run without Sissy, I had to go back to basics. The trick of a song as fast as “B.o.B.” is that it actually makes you slow down a little, because you can use a four count—God, that’s boring. I’m bored. You’re bored. In high school, we liked this song because the chorus was, “Don’t pull the thang out/ Unless you plan to bang/ (Bombs over Baghdad!)/ Yeah, don’t even bang/ Unless you plan to hit something/ (Bombs over Baghdad).” I’ve always been a huge Andre 3000 fan, but even I couldn’t always keep up with the lyrics on this song as they flew by. The new school year had started by now. I was able to run a minute or two at a time. Sometimes, between running and walking, I could get a whole mile in in thirty minutes or so. Sissy’s walks were starting to come secondary to my running. I stopped calling it ‘jogging,’ because that was increasingly not accurate. I might not have been a good runner, but it’s what I was doing, anyway.

Every time I ran, I asked myself ‘why.’ Since the fall, I asked myself ‘why’ every single time. I’d started to listen almost exclusively to hip-hop: a lot of Drake, DMX, A Tribe Called Quest, Jay-Z, Run the Jewels, and Eminem. I liked having beats to tune into, and even better, the narratives and wordplay often allowed me to think about literally anything except why I was running. I didn’t know the answer, and I didn’t want to. I did, no matter how tired I was, run every time I hit that downhill spot, just to prove to myself I could. Sometimes I’d get scared again. It was fall. I was still teaching online, but the students were hybrid. Why was I running at all?

It doesn’t matter. I remember trying to isolate the lyrics and being so proud when I’d pick up a new line here or there. I was surprised to find how much of the song was narrative, but also how playful it was within the world of the lyrics—both artists were great at saying something and then either doubling down or correcting it in the next line.

Got back home, things are wrong
Well, not really, it was bad all along
Before you left, adds up to a ball of power
Thoughts at a thousand miles per hour
Hello, ghetto, let your brain breathe
Believe there’s always more, ah!

But then I’d hit the chorus again, and I’d fall in step with the beat, and I’d wonder again, “Why am I doing this? I’m not good at it. I’m not ever going to be good at it.” Sometimes I would even imagine myself falling again, and this time, I’d break my ankle or my elbow or dislocate my shoulder again. Why?

Because I wanted to. That was as good a reason as I was willing to give myself.

“Warning Sign,” Coldplay

Then one day this song came on shuffle. I don’t want to talk about it. That’s as good a reason as I’m willing to give you.

“Waiting on a War,” Foo Fighters

I was eventually going to have to tell myself why I was running, but I wasn’t really prepared for it. Maybe no one is ever ready to know the motivation behind what they do. (I’m afraid I foreshadowed it too heavily: I run because when I was a young child named Bruce Wayne, my parents were murdered by—oh, dammit, that’s Batman again.)

But a few things all had to happen at the same time for me to understand what was going on. I had started just shuffling every song on my iPod, and it was a delightful mix of 90s hits, 60s psychedelia, 70s Cosmic Americana, 80s synth-pop, early hip-hop, and whatever Lana Del Rey record I was most into at the time. I had a ton of independent artists on there. I listened to so much Hole one month that I began seeing a million ways to argue about how Courtney Love’s importance cannot possibly be overstated.

There aren’t a lot of fixed dates on this timeline, because I don’t really know when everything happened exactly. I don’t know the exact day I decided Sissy needed exercise, and I don’t remember the exact day I fell. I do remember one thing very clearly, though.

March 25, 2022, Taylor Hawkins died. I was sitting in bed when the news broke, and I gasped. Andy asked if everything was OK, and I told him no.

“Taylor Hawkins is dead,” I said, texting a few friends in the industry to see if anyone had better information.

“That can’t be right,” he said. “He’s so young.”

“I—I think it’s right,” I said. I was already in tears.

Andy started choking up. We immediately started thinking of which Foo Fighters songs we couldn’t be around. My God, they talk about mortality a lot. It made it much harder to know how to mourn. If I’m honest, I still haven’t really figured it out, over a year and a half later. I’m still mourning the loss of Hawkins’s bombastic drums behind Grohl, the playful interchange between them in any concert. I never got to see them live. But what really struck me about the whole thing is I didn’t say, “Honey, the drummer of the Foo Fighters died.” I didn’t need to. Hawkins was a force on his own.

By now, I was running pretty well. Sometimes I could get a mile and a half in in 30 or 35 minutes. I was better at breathing, and probably as good as I’ll ever get. I was running religiously, too. I was back to teaching in person, but with a mask. I carried a Cowboys tumbler with a straw, but I never moved my mask, even for a moment, because I was still too afraid. My close friends on campus still felt so far away. No colleagues ever stopped by my office, and I still wasn’t technically cleared to go upstairs to visit theirs. I’d been in a library office outside of my department since my stroke. Most people who knew I’d started running assumed that meant I was OK, and I didn’t know how to say, “I can do one new thing, not every new thing.” I certainly couldn’t say the darker truth, which was, “Some days I can run a mile, and some days I can’t get out of bed.” I didn’t even want to. I didn’t feel like I owed my blood and my pain to anyone, and I think that made me seem sharper, like my edges were more clear than they’d been before.

Good. I needed boundaries. Remember at the beginning of this? I had none? Now, I slowly started to implement them, I think, but people didn’t like it nearly as much as they would have told you they would.

One day, a few weeks after Taylor died, “Waiting on a War” from their latest record, Medicine at Midnight, came on, and I just froze. I was actually keeping up at a pretty good clip, and I knew every word, but I felt like someone had punched me in the face. All of the sudden, I understood everything.

I’ve been waiting on a war since I was young
Since I was a little boy with a toy gun
Never really wanted to be number one
Just wanted to love everyone
Is there more to this than that?
Is there more to this than that?
Is there more to this than that?

“Oh my God, this is about death,” I said out loud to myself. “I’m running because I’m afraid I’m going to die.”

I was in my mid-30s and I’d been worried I was going to die for a long time. I was worried that my husband, who had a cocktail of scary disorders and diseases, was going to die. I was worried that my friends were going to die. I was worried about COVID. I was worried about having another stroke. I was worried about what happened if I got that close to dying again but couldn’t bounce back. And now Taylor Fucking Hawkins, who was only fifty years old, was gone, and I lost it. I just couldn’t function.

I sat down in the middle of the greenway I was running through and started to sob. I’d forgotten that eventually his drums would blast their way into the song as Grohl screamed, “There’s got to be more than just waiting on a war,” and I would keep trying to think of my pounding heart, the sobbing in my throat, and think of all this pain and fear as signs of life. I wanted so badly to be running on a planet where Taylor Hawkins was also living, and it didn’t matter that I didn’t know him. He was so joyful, so full of life, and so talented, and I was in my mid-thirties, and I had a junior in high school, and I was afraid I was going to die.

I wondered if I should be embarrassed about crying in public, but decided not to be. I went home and ordered Eddie Van Halen running tights—Hawkins often drummed in board shorts or leggings with the Frankenstrat pattern, and if I was running because I was afraid to die before, I wasn’t going to let that be the answer anymore.

Dammit, I was going to run because I wanted to live. Isn’t that the opposite of being afraid to die? Or is it the exact same thing, just phrased with that sweet, sweet toxic positivity I’ve been reading about?

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d told people about this moment in the spring. I mean, I told Andy and Charlie, but I’d become so insular by this point—I not only stopped expecting people to reach out and contact me, I’d started expecting them to be a little hostile when I didn’t reach out. After all, I’m a runner now, right? That means I’m healthy, right?

Sure. I’m healthy. I was the healthiest person sobbing about a stranger’s death on the greenway that day, for sure.

“Until St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out,” Conor Oberst

You don’t get to hear about this one, either.

“Careful You,” TV on the Radio

As the school year closed, I learned that even more of my colleagues were leaving—wait. I should explain. It wasn’t like this was new. In December 2019, a ton of faculty at my university got cut. We went head-first into the pandemic after that. No wonder I spent so much time afraid. We’d had a member of our department leave after the first round of cuts, and another move out of town. At the end of the Spring 2022 semester, I learned that the last people in town would be moving out of town, too. Suddenly, every song sounded a little off. I couldn’t begin to imagine my life as the only person physically present for my students. I didn’t exactly advertise my breakdowns, but again—I didn’t want to. I don’t want to.

I was actually relieved that my friends were finding other jobs, because clearly things didn’t seem stable, but I couldn’t quite see a way from where I was to where I needed to be by August. I had no intentions of leaving. I actually, maybe stupidly, love my university. Maybe this says something about my lack of boundaries. But my students, my colleagues—it’s a good place. I don’t know how to explain that in light of the other information I just gave you.

I started putting records by bands I didn’t know on, hoping to learn something new and maybe learn to fall in love with art again. I was going to have to be very much in love to make the next school year work: Andy would take care of me, like always, and I knew Charlie would help with syllabi and talking through creative problems, but I didn’t want to burden them, and I felt like I was a burden even to myself. I could feel myself detaching and going dark and quiet. Andy had just changed jobs and the sun felt like it was coming out there for the first time in a while—working patient care during the pandemic was dark. Charlie was moving from a city he loved to his PhD program in a city that is objectively less-good. We were still walking our dogs in different places, but he was the only one who had moved.

Then, thank God, I fell in love with TV on the Radio.

I know it’s best to say goodbye
But I can’t seem to move away…
Don’t know how I feel, what’s the deal?
Is it real? When’s it gonna go down?
Can we talk? Can we not?
Well, I’m here, won’t you tell me right now?
And I’ll care for you, oh, careful, you
Don’t know, should we stay? Should we go?
Should we back it up and turn it around?
Take the good with the bad,
Still believe we could make it somehow?
I will care for you, oh, careful, you

What’s funny is I know every word to this song, and I always forget that it sounds like it was dead-on how I was feeling. It wasn’t. Looking back, these are the feelings I was trying to access while I was busy feeling numb.

I actually had to walk away for a little while. Am I a liar? Was I really happy for everyone else? And if I was lying to myself, how will I ever know?

I take the question back. It’s one thing to say something and hope it’s true, but Charlie and I have this rule—if you are asked whether or not it’s a lie, you really have to examine it. I’m a long way from “Careful You,” but I’m not sure I’m that far away.

A BRIEF NOTE AND ONE SONG OUT OF TIME: I was listening to the Nike Running App over my music most of the time, but ONLY Coach Bennett. I needed someone to say things to me like, “Sometimes the best run is no run,” and basically, to be my own personal Ted Lasso. Eventually, I stopped wanting voices to cut in and encourage me because I’d learned, as he often asked me to, to be my own teammate. I now listen to his podcast and read his blog, but I don’t use the app while I’m running. I think it was around this time, at my numbest and most afraid, because suddenly, I learned how to listen for my own voice again.

“Flagpole Sitta,” Harvey Danger

I only mention this one because one day as I was flying past the downhill drain, this song came on, and I laughed out loud. Sean Nelson, the writer and singer of Harvey Danger, would be more surprised, I think, if I didn’t refer to him as a friend here. But because we are friends, I am well aware this is the last song he wants me to be listening to and thinking of his work (and to be fair, it is the least played song he’s written that I listen to). It came on randomly at a moment of trepidation and I said, out loud, “Good timing, Sean.” It’s still pretty catchy, and I still want to publish zines and rage against machines.


“Happier When You’re Gone,” alt-J

I skipped a few songs because they made me sad, but I couldn’t leave them out: it was essential to me to present a fairly balanced timeline of what led me through the end of the pandemic and, as everyone else’s life was opening back up, the culling of my professional and personal lives. It was complicated. I missed Charlie. Andy and I were closer than ever, almost moving to our own secret language. And then, much like TV on the Radio, alt-J released a record that became important to me. I remember feeling lost and like I shouldn’t be allowed to be sad. I assumed I was really angry, because I’m better at being angry than being sad, but then this song came out of nowhere, and it filled the vacuum of conversations I was learning would go un-had.

It’s not easy, it’s not easy
Homelessness at home
My life is bracing for your hug
You pass me to unplug your phone
Benzo timelines, cuts smiles to straight lines
I’m happier when you’re gone

Maybe I’d forgotten, as Jenkins said in “A Dying Blood,” how to be friends without being exhausted. Maybe that was all. But it felt like something bigger than that. I felt like in my life, at home and in class, I was more visible than I’d ever been, but then in every other situation—even just the ones where I didn’t know what to text and ask friends about the lives we’d been out of touch about for so long—I felt like I was a ghost in the corner of the conversation.

Worse? I found myself relieved when they passed me by. I was happier to have made the scope of my life a little more narrow. I could run, and I loved it, but I couldn’t always get out of bed. The fewer people in my life, the fewer people I had to explain myself to. I was spending more time with friends who knew everything about me and I was spending less time anxious about social engagements. Everything I’d been waiting for the pandemic to end for? It never came back for me, and I know I’m supposed to feel bad about that, but I don’t, and if you ask me if I’m lying, I can say no, I’m not. I’m relieved. Still.

I wasn’t happier because people were gone. I was happier because the pressure to perform, to be healthy, to make everyone in a crowded room laugh—that was gone. The show pony I’d become in my friend group no longer had to exist at all, and better than that, it seemed like no one expected her back.


“Faster,” Third Eye Blind

I went through a period of time where all I wanted to listen to was Third Eye Blind’s third record, Out of the Vein, which had been a favorite when I was a college student. When I was trying to get back in touch with that younger version of myself, these songs reminded me of her, and sometimes it was a damned delight. I had written in a journal entry dated sometime my senior year of college that I always dreamed I’d one day be brave enough to write something as explicit or bold as, “In bed she flexes her knees to try and abate the feeling/ She mouths the word ‘please’ to the poster on the ceiling,” and I still haven’t ever been that brave, except to quote songwriter Stephan Jenkins here.

It’s funny that this was the line I always liked so much: it was scandalous to me that Jenkins could write so well not just about female pleasure, but about a woman pleasing herself. That’s the opposite of being useful, being someone that people need. And even though I laughed it off, initially, I kept hitting back: “I saw you go faster/ I wanna get off one time and not apologize,” and then again and again. Absolute taboo when I bought the record. I’m blushing typing it out and it’s not my original content. I wish I could say I was embarrassed because it’s sexual, but my shame comes from something deeper, darker, more complicated.

I was always embarrassed to want anything for myself. I still am. Anything. Ice cream, medicine, a job. If it isn’t as important to someone else, then I am afraid I’m being selfish.

But it was this record, this part of things, where Andy convinced me to join a gym, to go inside and be safe. It was here that I could stitch miles together and not have to walk so much, that I realized I could watch TV or read or listen to podcasts, but I liked listening to music again.

It was here that I got the idea to do a collaborative syllabus with my classes that felt hopeless. It was here that I learned just being honest and open with them about how scared I was and how unsure I was would prove meaningful.

“Back to Back,” Drake

I have a shirt with Aubrey Graham on it in a wheelchair from when he played Jimmy on Degrassi. I have jokingly called it my “Drake” shirt for years. I asked a classroom full of students once if I was supposed to act like he was cringe even though we all know and listen to him. The athletes immediately said, no, you don’t have to pretend Drake is cringe. This makes sense, because as the music became more and more a way to connect somatically with myself, I got more and more into Drake. Worse, I really love the grandstanding of hip-hop, and I’m not sure if it’s that we’re the same age, but the insults he hurls feels like the ones I wish I could think of in the moment, and when he talks about how great he is, he does it with the words I want to actually, genuinely believe about myself.

I don’t, by the way. Like most writers, I suffer from a lot of imposter syndrome, and like most artists, I’m aware that my work might get worse, but I can’t ‘win’ at writing. I can’t really ‘win’ at running, either, because it’s not all a race, but I can feel like I’m winning at it, and that’s where “Back to Back” comes in.

Back to back like I’m on the cover of Lethal Weapon
Back to back like I’m Jordan ’96, ’97, whoa
Very important and very pretentious
When I look back I might be mad that I gave this attention…

He positions himself in the song as though he is the reason the rap industry is functioning. Insulting him is why other rappers get out of bed. His continued success is what makes them try over and over. And despite the pressure, he manages to keep having hits back to back. I’m writing about this a little tongue-in-cheek, but this is the best possible song to have come on as you’re turning up the speed running. I can also tell you that while I was on my own, a ton of students depending on me to graduate, I started to feel like I was getting asked to be the best back to back, and worse, like I was pulling it off. Is that cocky? Sure. But it helped. My students and I tilted toward joy, we worked together on projects and lit mags and contests and grad apps and then I’d go to the gym, turn on Drake, and for a moment, feel like a champion.

The first time I ran a solid 5K with no breaks for walking, I’d looped this song over and over and measured my footsteps to it. I don’t even remember what else I was doing that day.

“Drops of Jupiter,” Train

Things are different now. I can run for four solid miles, and I do every Sunday. I’m a huge football fan, and Dak Prescott, the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, wears a number four. He’s my guy, so I try to run symbolically: one mile for each quarter, so he goes out and plays the full game. One mile for each number on his chest, so he knows the whole city of Dallas—even those of us who are Tex-pats—are with him. Over the summer, he did a campaign with True Brvnd hats where he allowed them to embroider his signature in the side of several limited run hats, and then he donated all the money to suicide prevention. Obviously, I wanted to participate. I donate to his organization regularly, anyway, but I was so excited I’d be able to run in a hat that looked like it had Dak’s signature on it.

Some of them were actually signed, though, and I don’t know how to process what happened to my brain when I opened the box and realized mine had his signature, in silver Sharpie—that he’d held it and signed it. I bought another Cowboys hat from the company to run in and immediately ordered a display case for The Hat ™, the harbinger of good news, the proof that somehow, this is going to be my year.

I end every Sunday run with “Drops of Jupiter.” I remember when Prescott first said it was one of his favorite songs, people made fun of him about it, but I felt like I got it. (Hell, I’ve got an original Drops of Jupiter tour shirt with the lyrics on it: it was catchy.) But it’s an uplifting moment, the way the strings and the chords and the progressions all come together to create something soaring. So every Sunday, as I realize I’m rounding the corner into the fourth mile, I throw “Drops of Jupiter” on and I try to breathe and focus on the breath, the absolute impossibility of the whole thing: here I am, 37 years old, post-stroke, and running. Here I am, listening to songs from high school. Here I am, alone and OK and actually, more and more grateful for that every day.

Here I am.

Katie Darby Mullins

Timeline In Music of My Life as A Very Average Runner

Katie Darby Mullins teaches creative writing at the University of Evansville. She helped found and is the executive writer for Underwater Sunshine Fest, a music festival in NYC, and her first book, Neuro, Typical: Chemical Reactions & Trauma Bonds came out on Summer Camp Press in late 2020. Her most recent book, Me & Phil, is out through Kelsay Books.