Spring finds many runners in the autumn of a training program, with about three-quarters of the miles leading up to a May race now in the bank. Like fall, it’s a time when things start changing colour before dropping from limbs.
Two of my toenails have turned black and are on their way out. They should be ready to peel off effortlessly, like shells from hard boiled eggs, in a week or two, casualties of the beating they’ve taken on the trails this year.
“Black toe” is a common affliction among distance runners. The skin under the nail bruises from repeated impact, and given time, the nail tends to slip away, painlessly.
I’ve lost about four feet’s worth of toenails this way over the last 10 years, and learned early on not to try to rush the process.
Grossed out by the sight of my first black toe, and annoyed the nail was bending upward and getting in the way every time I tried to put on a sock, I unwisely intervened. I gave the nail a forceful tug, ripped it clean off, swore loudly, pounded the floor, bled a bunch, and gave myself a limp that lasted two weeks.
I might have spared myself some aggravation had I been a Buddhist back then. Right around the time of my toenail-ectomy, Gil Fronsdal was sharing this bit of wisdom in a dharma talk at the Insight Meditation Center:
“By making conscious, willful effort, we can actually interfere with a natural process … which can unfold best when we don’t interfere. … If you have a wound, if you have a cut on your skin, the best thing to do is to clean and to cover it maybe, and then to leave it alone. If you pick on it, it doesn’t heal.”
A similar message was imparted by the Zen monk Ikkyu some 600 years earlier, through words much more poetic and palatable than those of my toenail tale:
“Break open a cherry tree and there are no flowers, but the spring breeze brings forth myriad.”
The lesson that has been reinforced both by dharma teachers and my missteps as a runner: Some things can’t be rushed. Allow them to follow the course they’re meant to take.
This truth came to the fore again this week in a sad and unexpected way, when I learned of the death of my childhood friend, Tom Davis.
Tom and I hadn’t seen each other since high school, and we had reconnected online only a few weeks ago. I’m grateful to have had that chance, to get a glimpse of the full life he led and the positive impact he had on others in his short time here.
I’ve read many beautiful tributes to Tom this week, some from mutual friends who stayed close to Tom since childhood.
After reading them, I decided not to write anything about Tom. I didn’t feel it was my place to insert myself in Tom’s story, having not been a part of it for some time.
So I resolved to shed some tears, and leave it at that.
But I soon realized no amount of rationalizing can cut short the grieving process. Deciding to limit how I responded, rather than act from the heart, was to keep the act of mourning from unfolding as it should, to pick at the wound before it had healed.
The many loving responses to Tom’s passing reminded me of another truth expressed through Buddhist teachings: holding fixed views isn’t very helpful.
I’ve long thought writing messages to people after they’ve died is a bit of a waste, as they’re not around to see them.
Reading the heartfelt words friends and family have sent Tom, I can understand just how valuable these messages are, for the people writing them and for others sharing in the loss.
So, Tom, I just want to say thanks for the fun times we had.
The 7-11 we’d hit after shooting hoops at Holy Cross has six new Slurpee flavours. My wife and I took the kids to try some the other night.
I hope you’re laughing at my persistent foot problems. Remember when we’d play Double Dribble on the NES, and the loser had to put one of my shoes up to his nose and inhale to the count of five? My feet sure stank that summer.
I still don’t know how we earned that A+ for our history presentation on the 1960s. Playing the Beatles over it probably helped.
You were right – I haven’t won a March Madness pool since.
What a life you lived. I’m proud of you.
You’ve been a great friend, Tom.
Smell ya later.