Write like a Runner

On the first day of September in 2012 I woke to a damp, dark morning. I had slept poorly, as I always do the night before a momentous event, and my hands shook as I donned my running clothes, drank my single cup of coffee, and took a few nervous bites of my pre-race bagel with peanut butter. Even though I still had time, I couldn’t write in my journal, a daily ritual, because my hands would not stop shaking.

Finally I left the house, all my essentials packed into my running belt—phone, ID credit card—the morning eerie and still as I pulled away from the curb to make my way downtown. I looked back at the darkened house one last time, mentally saying goodbye to my still-sleeping husband and daughters, wondering if they would wake up in time to meet me after the race.

After arriving downtown and parking on a side street, I realized I didn’t know how to get to the starting gate. Soon enough I saw other women, their spandex and headphones suggesting they were headed to the same place. And so I followed them.

Morning light barely illuminated the grey morning as finally we approached the starting line. It felt as if I’d turned a corner and found myself at a rock concert. Scores of animated women paced, chatted, and jogged in place on the packed street. Within seconds of working my way into the crowd, hands and legs still unsteady, the countdown began, blaring over a loud speaker.

Like a car on a backed-up freeway, I couldn’t run so much as shuffle in the dense crowd. But as my adrenaline picked up, I eagerly wove around other runners, a bolt of energy pushing me forward. I was increasingly irritated when I couldn’t pass someone, suddenly determined to make good time—even though I swore I was only running this race to see if I could.

Somewhere around mile three a few familiar faces jumped out from behind a tree—my two younger daughters and my husband. My adrenaline surged again, and off I went.

As I continued along the route, my stamina didn’t seem to flag; all that nervous energy seemed to channel itself into my feet, and even though I didn’t run fast, I kept at a steady pace, slowing down when I needed to recharge. I’d pass women I’d seen earlier, only to be passed by them a few blocks later.

My husband and daughters made at least two more cameos before the finish. I wasn’t jogging so fast that I missed their delighted smiles, or the girls’ unbrushed hair—but it wasn’t a school day so it didn’t matter. I felt the love, and it gave me energy, especially during the last couple of endless miles.

As I rounded the last curve near White River Park and pushed myself to the finish, pop music blaring across the overcast morning, I realized I was going to make it. Sure, my body ached and I felt like I might never walk again, but by sheer force of will, I pushed myself over the line.

When I look back on this memory now—five years have passed—it seems an apt metaphor for any undertaking that stretches and nudges us beyond what we thought we were capable of. At that time in my life, I ran regularly, but had never challenged myself to run more than six or seven miles, at least until I started training for this, my first half-marathon.

I did it because I wanted to prove something, but only to myself. I knew instinctively that having a concrete goal would help me achieve my aim, which, at the time, was to honor a regular running habit despite the many obstacles I faced at home and professionally. Running was my therapy: my time to be alone, to think and process, to feel my own strength and endurance when so often I felt their lack. Signing up for the women’s half-marathon reminded me this was important: I needed to keep running, even on days when it seemed impossible.

Although I haven’t run a half-marathon since, having done so changed my perspective. I often travel back to that day in moments of self-doubt, remembering the rush of crossing the finish line, and the joy I felt when I hung my finisher’s medal around my neck, my family supporting me all along the way.

While running a race is not exactly an original metaphor, it has carried me the distance over the few years since. I’ve finished many things I might not have even started otherwise, because I learned how to put one foot in front of the other—and I realized that even difficult goals can be reached in that straightforward manner. One step at a time.

As I contemplate my next big goal—completing the final edits of my novel, and then beginning the process of finding it a publishing home—I think back to that race, and remind myself that the only way to cross the finish line is to lace up my shoes and get back on the course.

Time to write like a runner.




Life in Boston

The following is a glimpse into a day spent in the city not long after we moved to the Boston area, a return for me after decades living in the Midwest. I have enjoyed reacquainting myself with this beloved place—a process that continues nearly three years later.


Morning started at 50 degrees and quickly moved up into the 60s and then broke 70 by noon. I had brought along my flip-flops, hoping against the October chill that the prediction of warmer temps wasn’t a lie, and I would be able to switch out my suede knee-high clunker boots for the scantier footwear, and it looked like I was in luck.

What was the reason for my urban adventure? Turns out this was our first tradition in Massachusetts since moving here summer of ’14: take-your-kids-to-work day at my husband’s employer in Cambridge. I, on the other hand, having just begun a newish part-time “mom hours” job to supplement my creative writing and teaching, took the day off to spend the day city-side—and, I hoped, get some writing done.

So we rose at our usual school-day time on this sunny Columbus Day, rushing through consumed-at-the-counter zucchini bread punctuated by verbal pushing from the parents to get the two girls out the door, neither one happy about the early departure on a holiday. We make it to the train station in plenty of time—if only because the train is running late—and have a few minutes to breathe on the platform as we wait for the train to screech into view from Salem.

As always, the train ride itself is a swift 25 minutes, easy with banter and window-gazing. The morning sun casts shards of light onto the water as we wheel through derelict industrial areas and swampy tidal flats before reaching the river, the Tobin Bridge arcing overhead, and into North Station. On this day the train is not packed, but with a Boston Bruins game brewing that afternoon at the adjoining TD Garden, the station is abuzz with sagging jeans, sneakers, and backwards baseball caps with the iconic spoked black-and-brown “B.”

As the train cruises to the end of the line in a clickety-clack woosh, we line up in the aisle, my 8-year-old announcing “I love walking in the train while it’s moving.” This, of course, suggests a great deal of experience doing just that; and while we’re relatively new to this adventure of train riding to and from our new home city, she’s taken to it like a little pro.

We leave the station stage right so my husband can take the girls via bus to Cambridge; soon after, I head to the left to find a coffee shop, ending up at Boston Common Coffee on Canal Street, strictly by accident. I order a vegan bagel sandwich and take a seat. As often happens when I’m in the city, there’s too much static for me to write anything of depth or profundity. All I can manage is a brief and dull description of where I am at the moment.

Giving up on penning anything meaningful, I give up and start my three-mile trek across town to the Museum of Fine Arts. While on foot, still in my clunky boots, I make the mistake of returning a call to my mother and proceed to get quite lost—ending up in China Town amongst the chatter of spoken and written mandarin and cameras slung about the necks of slight men with salt and black pepper hair wearing loosely fitting windbreakers. China Town feels like an alternate universe. I stand out as a non-Asian amongst high-heel clad young women with glistening onyx hair, older women with short cropped or piled grey hair shuffling past in embroidered slippers. Despite the sushi and sashimi signs everywhere, not a fishy smell is to be discerned, just the intoxicating odor of baked goods wafting from pastry shops.

I push on through the same intersections I’d passed moments ago—retracing my once over-confident steps back to where I first took a wrong turn. Finally I find the right path, turning at Copley Square and its famed russet church with tourists clumped in front as the guide waxes on about Boston history. Now I can reach out to my college-age daughter, having spoken with Mom already, this time sure I won’t get lost. I’ve been down this road before.

After I find my way to the MFA, logging more than 4 miles when it should have been 3, I see that the Rembrandt and Vermeer exhibition is on view—it had just opened the day before—so I decide to take a look. And that’s all I can manage: the crowds, the frenetic energy carried over from downtown Boston into the museum, is just too much for me to process in my tired brain. So after an hour and a half I find my way to REI on an errand for my husband who is in need of a new helmet to go with his commuter bike.

From here I begin the walk back: this time a bit more sure of my footing, pulling out the flip-flops after stuffing my clunker boots into the bag with the helmet. I happily flip-flop across Boston on Boylston Street passing the New England Conservatory, Berklee School of Music, Back Bay shops and restaurants, and Beacon Street neighborhood, finally arriving at Boston Common where a foot race is underway: I look for the break and jog into it, computer and REI bags slapping on my shoulder. I make my way through the park with the scattering of other folks—those who have finished the race flushed with exertion, mothers and grandparents pushing strollers, homeless snoozing on park benches, burka-clad women in clusters, sneakered teenagers in spandex—and find my way back to the North End.

I cruise past the West End branch of the Boston Public Library, the Government Center, and then past TD Garden to my second Boston Common Coffee Shop of the day—this one in North End. This is where I sit now, contemplating the city and its many travelers: shoppers and sightseers, businessmen and businesswomen, park regulars, music students lugging their ubiquitous black cases, parents herding their children through the city on their school holiday. I may not have accomplished what I set out to accomplish, but I did enjoy the show: Life in Boston.


If you’re like me, you groan when you see headlines like this. Such vague pronouncements suggest that just because the calendar flips to a new year something is bound to change–and for the better. But isn’t the year’s end an arbitrary change agent? Change is happening always, whether we want it to or not. As humans we like neat beginnings and neat endings, I suppose; it’s how we make sense of things, or give closure to one idea or way of being in favor of another.

I’ve long since given up on notions that the “new year” will bring a “new me.” Sure, I make goals; I reflect on the year gone by and wonder what could have happened differently. But if I get too hung up on some lofty accomplishment, I only set myself up for failure. Who needs that kind of mental baggage?

With all that has gone over the past few months–make that the past year–I, for one, am simply glad things haven’t fallen apart. I’m grateful for stasis, for the lack of too much change. I look to the year ahead, cautious about my expectations, be they positive or negative (admittedly, I’m feeling a bit of both), and instead have been focusing my attention on being open to what the universe dishes up.

If there’s one thing I can commit to, other than trying not to stress over the things I can’t control, then it is this: to continue to be aware of the cultural shifts that have been visited upon us–the negative surprise of so much divisiveness in this country that is home to me, to you, and to so many others with different points of view, religious practices and beliefs, sexual orientations, ethnicities. There is a place for each one of us, as long as we treat one another with respect. The right to be who I am without fear of reprisal is a thing I have taken for granted, but for many others that right is being challenged. Many of us have been oblivious to the fact that the rights and privileges we hold dear as Americans are not givens. They never were, but now, for many, they are severely threatened.

So my promise in the new year–my resolution–is to maintain an awareness of what is at stake, and to do my civic duty of sharing that awareness with others, and to mobilize when mobilization is required.

How about you?


New writing

Since my family’s relocation to the Boston area just over two years ago, I’ve spent much time adjusting to our new hometown and building a local teaching practice. At long last, I’ve published my first local review since leaving Indianapolis, where I wrote regularly–most frequently reviewing visual art–for NUVO Newsweekly.

Check out my latest (and first) art review for Big Red & Shiny, a Boston online magazine covering contemporary art. And please keep in touch!

Intersections: Anila Quayyum Agha


When the North Pole Came to Town

Reflections on the Storm of 2014

Two winters ago, before we moved from Indiana to Massachusetts, I wrote the following reflection on the storm that shut Indianapolis (and much of the Midwest) down. Now in our second North Shore winter in Massachusetts, I found it interesting to take a look back on the not-so-distant past. Some things remain the same: Friends, community, Arctic winds, and hunkering down when the going gets tough. –Julianna


I stand in the frigid kitchen and watch my husband don his navy blue parka, purchased while he was a graduate student nearly 15 years ago, the winter he moved to Indiana from Louisiana. The way he tells it, when he arrived at Purdue University back in 1998, he didn’t even own a winter coat. He didn’t need one. South Louisiana temps rarely reached below freezing, and even when they did, Stefan relished the cold air, having grown up in a place so hot you couldn’t sleep.

I recall his stories of that time: restless nights without air-conditioning during summers working bridge construction, even though his family owned a heating and cooling business. Meals were prepared in a detached outdoor kitchen, a sort of culinary garage, so the main house wouldn’t become even more unbearable. There were also tales of snakes and alligators, encounters that may or may not have been entirely true, but that continue to make our children shiver with delight when he tells them, no matter how often.

This morning, when Stefan puts the parka on, I wonder if he is still happy to live in a place that gets so cold in the winter, if only by Louisiana standards: Typical Indiana winters might see a few single-digit days, but nothing like this morning, -13 degrees Fahrenheit at sunrise, with wind chill plunging it to -40. The news anchors and meteorologists tell us it hasn’t been this cold in over 20 years. Such a phenomenon has a name: They call it a polar vortex, this swath of cold Arctic air swooping down into the US, settling across the Midwest, shutting down entire cities, even states.


Just before the onslaught, the Sunday evening before the kids were supposed to return to school after winter break, a snowstorm had left behind almost a foot of snow. And then the winds came, along with plunging thermometer readings, which made it untenable to spend more than just a few minutes outside. So we hunkered down inside, watching with dread as the lights flickered, looking out the back windows anxiously as the snow weighted down tree branches brushing against our power line. We pulled our sweaters and blankets closer. All over town pockets of residential areas and individual homes had already lost power, leaving many stranded in cooling homes, unable to drive to warmth on nearly impassable roads as the snow began to drift.

I begged Stefan to go out and try to knock the snow off those branches, anything to reduce the possibility of losing power, as the thermometer continued to dip towards zero. He was skeptical, but I was desperate. Finally he obliged, and for the next couple of hours, the flickering seemed to stop.

Friends of ours just a mile away were among those who had lost power, but not mobility—they had a 4-wheel drive SUV—so we suggested they come here. It was heartening to know they received many other invitations for refuge; I hoped that the thousands of other city residents without power had equal opportunities. I couldn’t help but wonder what those without invitations did: those who didn’t know their neighbors—a sad truth for far too many of us these days, even when we’ve lived in a place for many years.

Moments later our friends and their two children arrived, stomping off the snow and cold inside our front door, armed with food from their ironically thawing freezer and refrigerator. We cooked up a collaborative feast. Our new potatoes roasted with their cherry tomatoes; our pasta, and their roasted pork for the non-vegetarians; their cilantro salad dressing, our mixed greens—right down to the past-their-prime Christmas cookies.



We played gin rummy while the younger kids—one of theirs and two of ours—ventured off into imaginary worlds, playing hospital and princess, sometimes at once. We drank wine; some of theirs, some of ours; we laughed at YouTube videos; checked text messages as other friends dealt with their own storm-related dramas; I checked for my oldest daughter’s updates from Florida, where she was vacationing with a college friend and her family—overjoyed to be there when she saw what was happening back at home. It was a sort of multi-tasking free-for-all, all taking place around our dining room table.

When it started to grow late and we could hear the wind whistle into a frenzied whine, sending tree limbs thudding to the ground and crashing onto (and in one case, through) patio furniture, we readied the futon for the kids.

After our friends received word from neighbors that their power was back on, they contemplated staying over anyway, at our urging. But their own teenaged daughter, home from college, wanted as many nights in her own bed as she could manage before returning to school that weekend, so off they went into the wind-whipped night, leaving their 7-year-old snuggled up between our 6- and 9-year-old and our two dogs. The temperature was now in free-fall.

Even after I knew they’d arrived home safely, I couldn’t sleep. All I could think of was the possibility of our own power going out, waking up frozen, the kids and dogs stiff in their beds. I couldn’t help wondering—my psychologist friend had called it “perseverating”—how long it would take for our house to reach the subzero temps that were now outside, the only saving grace the lack of wind chill indoors. I thought of those families who were still without power and had no place to go, or if they did, no means to get there. I wrestled with these worries through restless sleep in my warm bed, as the wind continued to moan and knock, the lights seeming to flicker in response.

When I finally slept and woke to a still-warm house, I was exhausted but breathed more easily. Everything seems more tolerable in the light of morning: and this one was stunning. The sky had cleared, snow clouds and fog leaving behind a sharp clarity in the air that was made all the more surreal because of the cold.

I looked out the sliding glass doors to the backyard, everything still. Not a single bird flitted by; no cars on their morning commute. It was so tranquil it seemed a picture: a beautiful snow scape, tree boughs weighted with pillowy rounds of snow, like great gloved hands cupping giant snowballs.

I grabbed my camera, unable to resist. I knew we had reached -15, and I also knew that winds were still gusting up to 30 miles an hour, leaving the air a life-threatening -45. Eskimo weather. Every few minutes I cracked the back door open to snap a photo, each time feeling my nose hairs stiffen. I was never out long enough to allow the cold into my pores, to get a real taste of its lethal power. A mere 15 minutes of exposure, I knew, could yield frostbite, and not long after, hypothermia and death. Not many would willingly go out in such conditions unprepared.

I thought these things and yet I was lured by the beauty of it—the curvaceous mounds of snow clinging to every surface, from the kids’ blue slide to the old-fashioned grill with its domed lid, calling to mind a towering Russian hat or a slick iced cake. The shrill blue sky against the evergreens and brilliant snow were seductive, a lover who occasionally whispered sweet nothings in the soft whine of wind glancing through the trees.

Under our Arctic air-induced quarantine—the Mayor of Indianapolis had issued a code red travel warning—we spent the day draped in blankets, reading, napping, watching Netflix, interrupted only by meal preparation, snacking, a visit to Lego works-in-progress, more make-believe, and various small but necessary tasks. I wish our Sundays were more like this: the only day we suspend our productivity and any sort of routine, opting for a true day of rest and rejuvenation for the week ahead.

If something is to be gained from days like these, it is this: the relinquishing of a need to be productive, all the time. And yes, it’s also an opportunity to give thought to others, especially those who weren’t as lucky as we were—warm beneath blankets, our furnace reliably thrumming.

So this morning as my husband donned his parka, along with sub-zero boots and gloves—things he loves to wear, since he adores winter—I wondered if this was what he meant when he once told me that when it came to winter, he couldn’t get enough: the Louisiana heat had been assimilated into his pores, lodged deep into his psyche.

I watched him trudge out to the garage and make several attempts to get the garage door to open (and stay open), saw the plumes of exhaust lift over the back of the garage as he warmed up the car. Several more minutes passed as he sat there waiting for the engine to thaw. Finally, I saw his orange Honda Element back out and the garage door descend, and watched my husband easily make his way down the un-plowed alley. I thought, “In his Element,” and laughed aloud at the pun, as he made his way down the still-desolated, ice-covered streets to work.

When I received his text a half hour later announcing he’d made it, I returned to my day, wondering what to do with this second day of no school. I couldn’t bring myself to lounge as I did the day before—I couldn’t put my own work deadlines off any longer—so I got the kids to practice their instruments and pick up the breakfast dishes before I let them play some supposedly educational computer games. And then I sat down to write, so I could always remember the last few days when our routine changed so dramatically: from the beautiful dumping of snow which allowed the kids to go sledding and me to take a long walk on snow-covered streets, snapping photos with freezing fingers as the snow came down—to the descending of the Arctic, and the ensuing days indoors.

These variations to our normal days often cause us to reflect on what we have, and perhaps what we don’t have: but in the end, if we pay attention, even if it’s a subtle shift, somehow we are changed—one hopes for the better.

My husband will arrive home this evening as the temperatures rise up to the single digits and the wind slows, possibly allowing us to venture back out into our routines—getting up early, packing lunches, hurrying to school and work on time, along with squabbles over homework and music practice, not sitting up straight at the dinner table, whose turn it is to use the iPad. Life as usual.

If only I could approach these routines with as much wonder as the last few days, in the year the North Pole came to visit.


Castle Rock Diary

Castle Rock at sunrise


I’ve claimed this rock as my office.

It isn’t wired, there’s no desk, just ledges of rock in seemingly infinite variety. I can recline, as I am now, against a sheer face of granite, my butt leveled on a jutting rock below it. But the problem with working out here is that I get distracted: today I’m pulled by the mustard sky, a belated sunrise to the southeast, where a fishing boat has dropped anchor against the glowing horizon line. I take too many pictures here—hungry to capture the enormity of it, the possibilities, the fickle mood of the water.

As an artist, my work is done for me: all I have to do is show up, point, and click. But I want more than that. I want to dive into it, this beauty; to find a way in so that it trickles through my cells, replicating in wondrous, happy bursts.

As an artist, my work is done for me: all I have to do is show up, point, and click. But I want more than that.

Continue reading “Castle Rock Diary”