Each breath, a step closer to the finish.

It has been six months since I left the Marine Corps.

In that time, I have grown the required just-reentered-civilian-life beard that most veterans attempt to cultivate, part of a casual pact that myself and three others have agreed upon. I have experienced that strange feeling of missing something that I so often hated, then realizing that it wasn’t so much the structure that I am longing for but the camaraderie with those that I served alongside – the small collective of men that I lived in the deserts of Afghanistan with, the few that are able to wholly relate to what it is like to wake up with a rifle slung across your body and then go to sleep with that rifle still at your side, those that were willing to kill in order for me to live.

What I haven’t done a whole lot of is running. There have been no upcoming Physical Fitness Tests to motivate me to remain in fighting shape, and my infrequent gym sessions and weekly slow-pitch softball games are no substitute for the heart-pumping adrenaline rush of competing against 150 fellow Marines through obstacle courses and during the duration of an out-and-back three-mile run.

I own a GPS watch, a decent one at that, the Garmin Forerunner 110 (cheaper, refurbished models are another option) which also came with a heart rate monitor chest strap. It tracks distance, pace, elapsed time, lap splits, and heart rate. But it was getting no use without the military forcing me to get up and hit the pavement.

And so, to prove to myself that my willpower is strong enough to refuse the temptation to enter that quiet death, the one where my capabilities regress to the depressing state that is the American “average”, I started running again.

The Marine Corps standard of three miles is a sprint away from equaling the 3.1 miles that are a 5k, so after a couple weeks of late-night runs, I entered a race. I ran a local 5k and finished in 23 minutes, 42 seconds. Then I ran another local 5k the following week and finished in 22 minutes, 44 seconds.

These are not incredibly fast times, but the important part is that they are getting faster. Already I have my sights set on 10k runs, and then possibly something that I have never done before – a half-marathon early next year.

I find something powerful in that moment of isolation and self-doubt, when each inhale burns and my chest heaves irregularly as I attempt to control my breathing, when my legs are screaming at me and I can feel the tightness in each stride, when beads of sweat run down the side of my nose and find their way into my eyes and then my vision clouds and it burns to keep focused on the finish line in front of me, just a little farther…

And then I keep going.

1280px-Flickr_-_Official_U.S._Navy_Imagery_-_Racers_cross_finish_line_in_5K_run_for_Navy_Chief_birthday.

Search within, unearth mystery – go participate in “Plenum”.

The 2015 graduating cohort of Oregon State’s low-residency MFA program have put together an intriguing capstone project. They have created a website/blog called Plenum, with a beckoning tagline of Enter here. Disappear.

Each week, there is a new prompt to encourage creative writing. As an incoming MFA student, I decided to participate in week one (which is now over) and will soon submit my entry for week two (which is open through Sunday – the 5th). The week one prompt involved a number of questions, and asked the writer to answer them in whatever way they felt compelled.

Though the first week has come and gone, there are quite a few weeks left in the project, meaning that you also have time to head over there and contribute.

My week one entry is posted below, as an example of what to expect. Check it out, then head over to Plenum and post some writing of your own.

(Questions posted as prompts for all by Oregon State MFA students, these specific answers are mine.)

1. How is it that you have come to breathe?
With heart beating and lungs burning; I inhale and decide to live through all of this.

2. In which ocean has your heart landed and how did it get there?
In an ocean of ink – black waters so thick that I find my way by feel, and by hope.

3. How will you let it be different every time?
By removing all expectation, and also by noticing the details.

4. What does underwater smell like?
Like a dream, a word stuck on the tip of a tongue, or an image seen through the heat rising from an asphalt roadway.

5. What value do you place on your sacrum?
It’s not for sale, but then again, nobody has attempted to purchase it.

6. What does it mean to be made in the image of god?
To understand that everything is flawed, everything is broken.

7. Where do you go when you cannot move?
To a small town on the river, apple trees in the front yard. To a time when the world could have become anything, and then it did. I go home.

8. What is the sex of your language?
Scientists have yet to decipher.

9. What do you remember about tomorrow?
That I rose, fell, and got up again.

10. What is the meaning of the color of your eyes?
A storm is on the horizon – greens and hazels, specks of gray, a dark border. In one eye, a tiny black freckle disrupts the color and reminds me that even if nobody notices, the details are still there.

11. What are the consequences?
Bleeding out, fading away.

12. Who told you it was okay?
Is it though?

13. Where is your impetus?
Soaked in a fear of failing, and wrapped in a fear of flying too high.

14. How will you continue?
Just by stretching letters into words; words into sentences.

And so that is what I will do.

Will you?