Utopia in a Yard

I’ve been exercising more, in my own yard, as I mentioned last time. I know. Even running a bit. It’s not a huge area, but it’s definitely bigger than the area that some of those runners on YouTube who have posted videos of themselves running an entire marathon on the path traversing their postage stamp garden from their backdoor to their back gate have had to work with. Or the balcony of their apartment runners.

Someone commented on one of those videos about how much mental strength it must take to do that sort of thing. Personally, I wonder at the mental strength it takes to run (or walk or to stand waiting for a bus for that matter) along the six and eight lane highways around here as I’ve seen some runners do or to just cross them to get to a less car-ific area. Talk about fortitude.

So I’m grateful to have enough space outdoors for this running in circles. The bathroom is nearby, as are my kids should they need me. I don’t have to carry any water or even my phone. I don’t have to plan out a route or tell anyone where I’m going. I just plug in my earbuds and go.

And my yard? Well, it’s nice. There are shady spots I can stick to more or less when the sun is doing its thing. The concrete driveway is large when I feel like not having to negotiate with uneven ground. Sometimes one of my dogs will even run along with me for a bit. Ok, he’s actually running more AT me, thinking that I’m playing and usually slinks off pretty soon after realizing that what I’m doing is not playing and quite boring, for a puppy anyway.

On my last circuit around the garden, I was reminded of another person who I knew, ages ago who would do a similar thing next a house I used to live in. I once taught English in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. My house was a little bamboo and wood one next to the high school where I was teaching. (“Artistic” rendering below as I don’t have that many pictures of it. This was about 20 years ago before decent phone cameras which is a timeline that makes me feel suddenly quite old but in a good way.)

My house in Karenni Refugee Camp #3 in Mae Hong Son, Thailand. There was a latrine-style toilet off to the side and, later on, there would be a small dirt-floor kitchen to the left.

My current house is not made with bamboo, but a previous owner planted some which now grows between my yard and my neighbor’s providing some of the shade I mentioned above. It’s not native to this area but it is in Thailand. And with a strength to weight ratio higher than steel with greater flexibility, it’s a great building material.

In any case, a man that I knew there (who worked in what was called the Foreign Office and therefore helped foreigners such as myself) would, on occasion, go for a run around the high school, a loop which led him, repeatedly, past my house. Although he was a refugee, he didn’t actually live in the camp so it wasn’t every day that he did this but from time to time he would come and stay in the camp for work or to visit with friends and so he’d run along the dirt and rock paths.

He (Doh Say was his name) told me once that he liked to run right there because he there was a good hill there. The high school was along one edge of the camp and so it was quieter than the rest of the camp too, especially when school wasn’t in session. Previously the idea of “going for a run” had always struck me as a sort of western, even specifically American, thing to do, involving pricey gear and leisure time. It’s obviously a foolish misconception on my part, founded, I now think, on being raised in a western culture where my body (and health and care of and even understanding of) has felt like something a bit out of my control. I wasn’t a runner (or much of an exerciser) in part because I always feared that I would hurt or injure myself, that I required coaching from experts in order to do things properly. There were no coaches or experts out here on the edge of the jungle so I was surprised that people were exercising. And as someone raised in a urban place, this edge-of-the-jungle terrain was so foreign to me that an injury wasn’t out of the question.

Some of my students had set up a gym next to the high school too. I never used it but there were some bamboo and wood benches at different inclines and, if I recall correctly, different sized wooden logs and various re-cycled containers filled with water or rocks to add some weight to their training. They used what they had available to them.

My students, all the refugees in the camp, were indigenous people fleeing from the destruction of their lives at the hands of the Burmese Army. At first blush, they idea that they would set up ways to exercise upon arriving to the relative safety of the camps seemed incongruous to me. But of course it made sense, it makes sense that everyone wants to use and strengthen and protect their bodies. What else do we have?

Doh Say once told me that he ran because he felt he was getting fat. He placed his hand on his abdomen and laughed a slightly embarrassed laugh. It struck me as vain. At some point, however, I saw a scar along the skin of his belly. He’d been shot. I don’t know anything about the circumstances of his injury, but he said that he tried to keep his waist size in check because if he put on too much weight, his skin stretched painfully along the scar tissue. It was hardly vanity driving him.

And so it is that I’ve been thinking about Doh Say on occasion as I run or exercise in my yard. I think about how him, up and down the hill next to my bamboo and wood house in a refugee camp on the Thai side of the Burma border. He ran, keeping the pain at bay.

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