Running Home with Runner & Author Katie Arnold #173
My guest today on Work Life Play is Ultrarunner, Author, mom, and Outside contributing editor Katie Arnold. Katie’s book, Running Home serves as the backdrop for our conversation, “A memoir about grief, motherhood, adventure, and finding your stride”.
About Running Home
“I became a runner by accident,” Katie Arnold writes in her wrenching, exhilarating memoir RUNNING HOME (Random House, March 12, 2019). Katie’s first race was a local 10k at age seven, which she and her sister entered on a spontaneous whim of their father’s. They came in dead last, but it didn’t matter. In those painful, breathless hours, she had discovered a powerful force within herself, and realized that “Suffering and perseverance were their own rewards. They could make me stronger. They could make all the tricky bits of life seem easier.”
Katie carried this sense of adventure and physicality into adulthood, where she worked at Outside Magazine, reporting on extreme athletes who walked gravity-taunting high lines and ran a hundred miles at night, and often joined them in these feats. (She ran her first marathon by accident while interviewing someone.) She and her husband were determined to raise their young daughters with this same sense of wildness and freedom.
But when Katie’s father died of cancer, she was forced to confront her own mortality, and developed a paralyzing fear that she, too, would die suddenly. In an attempt to heal, Katie turned back to running, venturing out alone, into the mountains and wilderness, logging longer and longer distances, first a 50-kilometer ultramarathon, then 50 miles, and 100 kilometers. At the same time, she also began to peel back the layers of her relationship with her father, discovering that much of what she thought she knew about him—and her own life—was wrong.
From the depths of her loss, Katie taps into an indomitable spirit and stamina, reminding us how important it is to pursue what we love most in this life, even when it scares us. (Source: Random House)
About Katie Arnold
Katie Arnold is a Contributing Editor at Outside Magazine, where she worked for twelve years. Her “Raising Rippers” column about bringing up adventurous children appears monthly on Outside Online. She has written for The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Runner’s World, ESPN: The Magazine, Elle, and many others, and her narrative nonfiction has been honored in Best American Sports Writing. She is the 2018 Leadville Trail 100 Run champion. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband and two daughters.
Katie’s upcoming workshops
Join Katie for a women’s Running Home weekend in southern Utah February 28-March 3, in which you’ll create daily flow practices in running, writing and sitting. Here’s the link to register! Not into running? Join her for Writing in Motion, May 11-14 at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops’ Writers Lab to explore the connection between motion and inspiration, nature and creativity, writing and walking—and experience how when we move our bodies, we move our minds. Together explore the landscape and hidden lanes of Santa Fe and your own imagination. Click HERE for more information!
Transcription of my interview with Katie Arnold
WLP: Today, my guest is Katie Arnold and she’s a contributing writer and editor at “Outside” Magazine for more than a decade. I found her work through a column that she writes called Raising Rippers, and what I love about Raising Rippers is it’s this idea of raising kids. She has a couple of daughters and I really connected with, as I’m raising daughters as well, this idea of how do we raise adventurous, gritty, resilient, curious, beautiful young humans? She does that through her home base there in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband and two daughters, and she just recently wrote a book called ”Running Home,” a memoir about her life.
One of the things I find fascinating about her life is not only her career as a runner, she won the 2018 Leadville Trail 100 race, but that she was raised by her father, a “National Geographic” magazine photographer. Her whole life had adventure in it. She’s an amazing writer and a really cool human as well. She and I worked on this for probably about two and a half years, maybe more, to actually find a time to schedule to connect, and this conversation we had was really beautiful. I hope you enjoy and check out all things Katie Arnold at katiearnold.net.
Katie: I’m six and a half years old and I’m running. Behind me, my mother in her pale pink belted dress is screaming, “stop.” I have no idea where I’m running or why. The urge to flee overwhelms reason, outweighs my deep-seated desire to be good. All I know is the sensation of flight, a brief flickering freedom, the sudden realization that my legs can carry me away where no one can catch me. A million steps along a crooked path have led me here. This is why I run.
I think I spent most of my childhood kind of going back and forth, betwixt, in-between, kind of neither here nor there. My parents separated when I was very young and divorced when I was five or six. We ended up moving, my mother and sister and I, a few states away. So we were separated from my father. We went back and forth. And in both homes, we were privileged. We were taken care of and loved, but it was that kind of in-between feeling that plagued me my whole childhood. I didn’t have a true home, I think. I think my true home really was my imagination and my body.
And I learned really young, like the photo of me on the cover of “Running Home” that is me at seven or eight. At that age, I made this really cool accidental discovery when I moved my body and when I was outside in motion, which was always the place I wanted to be, because being inside, at home, there were just complications. I had a new stepfamily in New Jersey and different allegiances. Being outside was where I felt most free and myself and the safest.
So I discovered around that age seven or eight that when I moved, whether it was riding my bike or shooting baskets in my backyard or running around, I made up stories in my head. It was a creative process and it was sort of moving my body that moved my ideas and unhooked my imagination and let it sort of fly free. I was at home both in my imagination and in my physical body.
WLP: I’m just aware of the gift of being comfortable in your own skin. Because your skin is actually a place that is your friend, you know?
Katie: Yeah. It’s totally true. I feel so fortunate to have had that relationship from an early age that, you know, that my body really was my ally and helped me with my imagination and my feeling inspired and kind of a way of being awake in the world.
WLP: I resonate a lot with the seven to eight year old too that…. I didn’t know that was your picture on the cover. That makes me love it even more.
Katie: Yeah. We say in the back flap, you know, photograph by David L Arnold. That was my dad, obviously.
WLP: For those listening, you’ll have to not only buy the book, ”Running Home” but you just definitely need to zoom in on the cover photo. When I looked at it, I thought the same thing. I thought, wow, this is a really great photo and I wonder if it’s actually her or if it’s just the spirit of, you know. How fun that your dad took that photo too. How beautiful.
Katie: The photos are something I’m really proud of in the book. My dad obviously in his career at “National Geographic,” where he worked for more than 30 years, took incredible photographs for his work and on assignment. But he also took tons, as you would expect, of our family and my sister and me, and our time together with him. When he died in 2010, we were left with his massive archives and he’d been sort of furiously trying to finish these archives before he died. He spent much of his retirement holed up in his basement, digitizing his photographs. He was so intent and dedicated to his craft, and at times it was frankly a little maddening. My sister had kids and I then had my first daughter, Pippa, and you’re just like, ”Dad, come out and let’s hang out. Let’s do trips.” He’s like, ”I’ve got the photos, the project.”
Literally he was like in this hole, and then after he died and we got the archives, I was blown away and I realize what a gift that he’d given us and others. It’s not just personal, you know. I hope that his photographs see the light of day. But, you know, he has incredible images and, and just the way he saw the world was so remarkable. I’m really pleased that we were able to include a smattering of his images in the book. Because in a way it’s, he never said this, but my intuition and gut sense is that he was working on his own memoir with photographs. That was his dream and his intention and he ran out of time. I’m really honored that I could show some of his work.
WLP: I’m curious, as you’re processing your own life through writing a memoir and processing his life in this passing of his memoir to you and the family, do you have a new appreciation for him that you didn’t before? Looking back, have you had more clarity of some of his imperfections now than before?
Katie: That’s a great question. I certainly feel like I know my dad better now than I did when he was alive, which is a strange but also a kind of a cool feeling because it keys on this sort of really deep theme in the book and also the structure of the book as a circle, right? I was describing earlier, that time is not this linear. If you just add up in one direction, it doesn’t add up to the fullness of time. So my dad’s death was the end of his life, but it was also the beginning, accidentally, of this book. For many years I didn’t know it was a book and I didn’t even think of it as a book. It was more just a discovery process, a sort of self discovery of what I was and who I could be as a runner.
Running really was my way through my grief and it was a discovery of all the material he had left behind. So as I mentioned, he was really diligently cataloging all his photographs, but he was also a very prolific writer and he had incredible letters. He was a beautiful letter writer. He saved everything. So he saved sort of both sides of the conversation with whomever he was corresponding with. He was also a journal keeper and he had started to write his memoirs, so I had all this material. I was assembling this picture of him in this very organic way that’s just true to how I move in the world.
What I discovered about my father was that he had made some hard choices and he had a lot of regrets about the choices he’d made in his personal life. It’s fair to say he was very happily married to my stepmother and… but that the regrets could exist along with that. So my dad in this way was sort of this unintentional Zen master in what he showed me. One of the big things in Zen is no dualities. It’s not this or that, but it’s both together. After his death, he showed me that you can make these choices that you regret, and you can make these mistakes, and then at the same time you can be this incredibly present father. You can be distant physically, but you can be present emotionally. So there the contradictions create a full picture.
My dad was very honest with me toward the end of his life actually, well before he knew he was sick. He had sent me this letter, which I excerpt quite extensively in ”Running Home” where he explained some of his choices. There was such generosity in the letter in that he was owning it. He owned his story in a way that just felt very honest and generous. And I have clarity around that, as humans, we all make mistakes. We all have things we wish we hadn’t done or secrets, and that’s okay. If you can own them and accept them, that’s what makes us human, right?
I appreciate that because I’ve never been a perfectionist. I’m too aware that I have many shortcomings to be a perfectionist, but his example shows that you can have a lot of imperfections, flaws, and contradictions and yet you can still leave this incredible mark and change people’s lives.
WLP: What was it like to embark on writing a memoir now at age 47, 48 and not be at the end of your life, but be at the place that you are today? Young kids, young family. Where was the self-talking of, I’ve totally got this?
Katie: Yeah. It was a very natural process. The book always had its own energy for me right away when it started coming out. And I’ll just back up by saying none of it was premeditated. I didn’t think, well, my dad is sick and he’s dying and I’m having this intense anxiety because that’s a big theme in the book. And a real catalyst for my running is that my grief after he died manifested as anxiety. I thought I was dying too. And part of it was that I had a new baby. My daughter Maisy was about two months old, three months old when he died and there was postpartum stuff thrown in with grief. But I had very acute anxiety for about 18 months, health anxiety.
And now I know that that’s not that uncommon to sort of take on the symptoms of the person that you’ve just lost, but I was terrified I was dying and running was really the only thing that gave me lasting relief. I tried lots of things. I’m a super open person and you know, Santa Fe has tons of healers and natural healers. I’m very natural in what I do. But running and running into the mountains alone, right? The running was very, very important because it was that physical repetition in your body that could sort of let the mind and the thoughts drop away. But it was also being in nature. So, you know, I wasn’t running on… around the neighborhood, I needed to be in nature and to feel that connection to something larger than myself that was big enough to hold my grief.
So I did that just for two years after my dad died and I got through that initial really intense anxiety, and I didn’t think ‘I’m gonna get through my grief by running and I’m gonna write a book about it at all.’ There was never that thought. It was just doing what was in front of me, which when you’re in a grieving state, you can’t see around the next bend. You’re just in that… I describe it kind of as this fog. I was just running because it felt good and that was when I could sort of escape those worries in my mind.
I did that for about two years. Writing all the while, because I’m a journalist and I’ve been a writer since I was seven. I always have kept notebooks and diaries and journals. And that was partly my dad’s influence because he always had a notebook, you know, shoved in some pocket that he would write stuff down. Just jotting. Love that word, jotting. He was a total jotter. So I kept notebooks, during his illness, not because it was going to be for anything, I just wanted to capture it. As my dad had really tried to capture his world in pictures, I wanted to try to document mine in words.
So I had all these notebooks and I would write about my running and my grief. It wasn’t until a couple of years after that I started to understand that what I’d been writing in my notebooks was the beginning of a book, so it was an organic process. In that way, it felt very natural. I wasn’t like, now I need to go find a book idea or now I need to manufacture this thing out of nothing. It was just welling up in me. When I started to write it, it just poured out in that way. I felt more like my job was to shepherd it, to bring it out, but that it had its own life.
I was fortunate enough to feel that pretty much the whole time writing. I had a few bumps, but mostly I felt just in service of my book, that story that wanted to be told. There were definitely some days when the voice in your head is like, oh my God, everyone loses a parent. There’s nothing new about this. This story’s been written, blah, blah, blah.
WLP: But you pushed passed it anyway.
Katie: Yeah, that’s where running was good training and good practice for writing because you have thoughts like that while you run like, what’s up with my Achilles? Why is it so tight? What I learned in sitting meditation, I started doing a little bit in the course of running and it’s in the book, is that you see your thoughts. It’s not that your brain has no thoughts when you sit or meditate, it’s just that you don’t attach to them, right? You see them as clouds and you let them pass like a cloud. So likewise, I learned that while running like, my knee feels a little weird so I’m gonna revisit that in two miles. If it’s still a problem, I can come back to that, but I’m gonna let it pass right now. It’s the same with that self-doubt about writing. Like I hear that thought, but I’m not gonna stick to it right now because I’ve got work to do.
WLP: Yeah. Amazing. So as a runner, 2018, you ran and won your very first ever Leadville 100. Same year, your head’s down in this book release process, right? Young family. Then also you have this book that you jotted over a series of years not knowing it. And then all of a sudden you dive in and it happens. So I’m just curious, what are you noticing in particular, 2018 and then now? What is some of the convergence that has surprised you? And then what is it that now is clear that was all already at work, it’s just now that you know, it’s more visible to you?
Katie: Yeah, I mean, your word is exactly the word I was going to use, which is a convergence. 2018 really was sort of this incredible convergence of all the parts of my life coming together and getting behind me and enabling me to do incredible things that I never thought possible, which was running and not just winning a 100-mile race, but even finishing it. And just as a side note, I’d had a traumatic wilderness accident in 2016 where I broke my leg. You know, long story short, my orthopedist said, “If I were you, I would never run again.” So that was preceding 2018 and I reclaimed my own story around my running and my body because that doctor’s voice was really loud in me for a long time. You know, sort of echoing with that sort of doom voice, like ‘you’ll never run again, again, again.’
WLP: The canyon echo.
Katie: Yeah, the echo. And his voice would be in my knee. Like if ever my knee was aching, I felt like the doctor was living in my knee for a while. Finally, I had this moment where I realized that was his story, but that didn’t necessarily need to be my story.
My book was mostly cooked and it was sort of in production process. The daily writing of it was over so I had more space for my running and my training, but like everything in my life, sometimes I wish I were that person who could do the five-year plan and map it out and get my race schedule lined up for the year, all spelled out. But that’s just not my process. I have to do a little bit more in the natural flow and some spontaneity, which also leads to some feeling a little chaotic and some self-doubt. But I’ve learned to trust my process. And for me, number one, it has to come from within me. I am inspired by other people and they sort of juice me to think about things differently, but ultimately, the big projects or objectives or missions or dreams have to be my own. I have to let them percolate and bubble up naturally and come out in their own way.
So 100 miles. I’d had this relationship with Leadville in that when I first moved to New Mexico in my 20s to work for “Outside,” I was really into mountain biking. That was my thing. I always wanted to race the Leadville 100 on a bike, but I never got up the nerve because it seemed like just an insane amount of time to spend on a bike.
WLP: So I’ll run it instead.
Katie: Exactly. Then I had kids and you know, biking right away fell by the wayside because a bike is like a machine. You have to maintain it, and I had these babies and I was breastfeeding. I was like, I am maintaining my babies. I cannot pump my bike tires or put air in. That was already my weak link in mountain biking, that I was not diligent. So that just dropped away and running was an easier way to be in the wilderness and to get out. All I need was sneakers and I could just bust out 40 minutes between breastfeeding.
So I had this connection with Leadville. Then a few years earlier, I had done this multi-day stage race called TransRockies that goes up and over Hope Pass, which is the major climb in the Leadville 100. I’d had this incredible day on that. I was the first woman over Hope Pass, so I had an emotional connection to Leadville. I just put my name in the lottery and then I got word that I was in and then I could organize my year around that. It became the structure that I needed because, as you can probably hear, I’m very creative. It’s sort of about being in the flow and fluidity and staying open to things, but it also helps to have a bit of structure, so that you’re not winging off in every direction or feeling really chaotic.
So Leadville became this very helpful structure. That said, I didn’t fixate on results at Leadville. I wasn’t thinking like, ‘I’m training to win or training for the top five’ or anything, having my history with my broken leg. I was just in awe that I could even contemplate doing 100 miles.
WLP: Right. The doctor talking in your knee to winning a race of that caliber.
Katie: It had this sort of magic alchemy of both, like a bit of structure but also a total presence and ability to let go of any fixed results or desire for an outcome except finishing. I did want to finish, but I didn’t even know if that was possible, so I was able to be really present with my training but not getting way out in front of myself. That’s always how I’ve done my best work. The metaphor is the same as my notebooks and writing in my notebooks, right? It’s the same kind of in Zen, it’s called practice, right? I was writing daily about my dad’s illness and his death and my grief and my running, but I wasn’t trying to funnel it into a book project. I was just present to the practice of doing it.
So that is sort of that beautiful balance between this structure but then total freedom within it. And it converged in this incredible day at Leadville where I really was in a flow for pretty much all 19 hours and 53 minutes. I maybe had a couple of little sticky points, but it just felt like a validation of how I’m living, you know, as a writer, a mother, and an athlete.
WLP: Did you run Leadville again in ’19?
Katie: No, and that was like an intentional decision because I didn’t want to have to defend anything. I mean that’s our culture, right? You did this amazing thing and almost immediately, it’s like what’s next? Are you going back? Right away I knew that I wouldn’t run it again in 2019 because I wanted to honor what had just happened. It was so profound for me, and not just as winning a race, but sort of how your life can converge and you can tap into this power that’s bigger than yourself. That’s really what had happened. I knew that if I went back right away that I would risk correcting that or eroding that. It’s human nature and our egos want to win or to do better, and I knew I could never replicate that day.
I knew I could have another incredible day, it would just be very different. It’s part of my Zen practice of not gripping onto things or holding or clutching at things. I wanted to let that be what it was and not try to hold it too tightly. I am going to race it, you know, body and mind and spirit willing in 2020. So it’s exciting to go back, but I wanted to celebrate it. We don’t celebrate enough, right? We’re always onto the next thing.
WLP: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting as I’m just listening to you today, I really resonate with a number of the cores of how you live and operate in the world of being intrinsically motivated. I found that to be, for me, very true. If my heart’s not attached to it, then I’m not going to get very far. I have to know what the through-line is, what’s the meaning, the purpose, and then I can do anything. If I don’t have that, I’ll wait for it. I’ll wait until I’ve opted out of lots of races or careers or all kinds of things in life.
Katie: You have to be patient.
WLP: Then being a marinator is what I would call it, this slow-cook process that you’re talking about. I can get frustrated with myself at times.
Katie: Right. Because you’re like, why am I not moving faster? It forces you to be patient, which is not something is really prized right now in our culture.
WLP: Right. Your phrase too about moving my body moved my ideas, that’s super helpful for me. The first time I remember running as an adult was freshman year of college I went out for a run with a friend and kind of discovered like, oh, I really like this. I was probably into my early 30s and I had finished an Ironman Triathlon and had told a buddy of mine, and I considered him a real runner because he ran competitively and won things, “Well, I’m not a real runner.” He’s like, “What are you talking about? What do you think a real runner is?” But it was that place of ownership of just like beginning to say, “I’m an athlete.” I didn’t know that about myself because I always viewed it as in reference to someone else.
You can always find someone who’s at a higher level than you, they’re out there. But what’s more helpful is to say, how is this helping and serving me? When I move my body, I move my ideas. This is my creative process or whatever it may be. I’ve just really been tracking and enjoying so many of your sound bites. I’m capturing and enjoying.
Katie: I’m glad. I will say too that there’s this misunderstanding sometimes that writing is not a physical practice, and writing is incredibly physical. It takes all your senses to be aware. When I would go running, and I would generate that feeling of flow and flight even in my body and freedom, and then I would come home and I would put that energy and that feeling into my words. The two were so tightly connected and symbiotic. I think sometimes we have this idea that writing is this thing you do sitting at your desk, you know, and it’s stationary and it’s all cerebral, right? But it’s such a physical act and I’ve kind of bumped up against that. You would ask me about 2019 and you know, I’ll just say that it’s been interesting like writing the book was this incredible flow state for the most part. Publishing has been very different, you know.
WLP: Where has it added to your life and where has it subtracted?
Katie: Well, first of all, it’s incredibly gratifying. I’ve heard from so many readers around not only the country but elsewhere in the world who have been moved or inspired or seen parts of their own story in mine, which is ultimately the deepest gratification I can have as a writer, to know that I’ve touched someone. So that has been amazing, hearing from the readers. The sort of publishing business end of it has been trickier because that’s all about external measurements, right? That is not about how it feels inside but how it’s performing? It’s all about this external validation, which can throw you off balance when you’re really building this internal strength and this deeper practice within, of listening to my intuition and being guided by that and doing what feels good on the inside. And then all of a sudden you put this out in the world and it becomes this product.
What I found is that people love to label. They love labels. So it’s like this running book, or she’s a runner who wrote this book. As I said earlier with my father showing me that like, there’s not a duality, right? You can be both. And it’s like a writer and a runner. I’m not a runner who happened to write this book. I’ve deeply been a writer my whole life, and running is part of my process. I was thinking about this the other day, and I would definitely put writing first. I always, since I was seven, knew that that’s what I wanted to do for my life.
I always knew I would love to move, but I never thought I would be an elite athlete. But always, my deeply-held dream was to be a writer. It’s just funny to see the book in the world and people trying to put it in a box. It’s a memoir, it’s a literary memoir and running is certainly this through-line. It is hard to not get caught up in all of that external validation, which is really the book business. That’s just been a place that I’ve had to deepen my practice.
WLP: Right. You have to make sure you can go to your power place as you call it.
Katie: Yeah, my power place. It pulls you out of your center so quickly. And I think that’s just circling back to Leadville, why I was successful there. I had this power center, which was just this deep focus on doing Leadville not to compete or to prove myself. I spend the month of July every summer on the East Coast at sea level, right on flat terrain, which is not, you know, especially conducive to mountain training. I came back from there and I started to do my mountain running here in Santa Fe and we have mountains that go up to 12,600 feet just out the door pretty much. It was only then that I started to even get on my watch and see what my pace was. I try not to again use those sort of external markers, I go by feel. But it was really only then that I saw that my pace was good and competitive. That’s when I started to realize I could do well, but I never oriented toward winning.
This captures it more than anything. I was driving into Leadville a few days before the race by myself. I had to pull over on the side of the road because just the sight of the mountains were so humbling. I was so overcome by emotion that I was even healthy enough to be at the starting line, and I had this moment where I knew that everything that followed good or bad or hard was just going to be a celebration of the work I had done to get there. It was really that mindset of gratitude and humility, which for me are huge precursors to that flow state. I’m not trying to control anything. I’m just here to receive what the learning is.
WLP: Katie, if you had mentioned over email about reading a piece from your book?
Katie: Yeah. This is from the epilogue and it’s called Ghosts 2015. ‘There’s one last thing I find. A box of cassette tapes pushed into the back of a cupboard in dad’s office embossed with the same bumpy red letters as his notebooks. I shove them into my duffle bag and fly home to Santa Fe where I stash them in my loft and forget all about them. A few months later, I remember. I’m going on a road trip 500 miles from Santa Fe to Wyoming to write and run for two weeks. I don’t have a tape deck, but my 13-year-old Subaru wagon does. I drive alone through the Utah desert doing 80 with all the windows down. It’s 95 degrees and the air conditioning is broken.
Just over the Colorado state line, the interstate joins the Colorado River glittering in its canyon. I want to dunk my feet in the water, but when I pull off the exit and drive past strip malls and gas stations, I make a U-turn and drive straight back to the highway. If I stop for too long, I’ll lose heart. I’m stuck in between here, not here. It’s too late to turn back, but it seems an impossible feat to keep driving 300 miles, three states, harder by far than running.
Now, it’s night. I’ve left the interstate for a much smaller highway. I’m tired and my eyes are bleary. Through the windshield, something is wrong with the moon. It’s as fat and orange as a tabby cat, but part of it is missing. It’s being gnawed away by the night like the flesh of an apple losing bits of itself by the minute. I blink, remember it’s a super moon eclipse, a total eclipse on the moon’s closest approach to earth the rarest of the rare.
All along the rural two-lane road, the animals are going crazy spurred by the strange calamity in the sky. Elk stock the roadside rearing up in my high beams. Deer jump out from fences, click their tails and bob away. The moon is on fire. I squint into the night one mile at a time, just like running. When I lose the country station out of crag, the car’s too quiet, so I fumble for the bag of cassette tapes on the front seat. In the faint green glow of the dashboard I can just make out one label, Maine 1976. I push it into the cassette deck, hoping it won’t get chewed up and spit out in a tangle. It clicks into position whirling miraculously to life.
“Once upon a time, there was a ghost in a haunted house.” This is the chirpy clear voice of a young girl, vaguely familiar, instantly charming. This is a girl telling a ghost story into the black Panasonic cassette recorder with its wide buttons and big handle that dad slung under one arm wherever we went. The voice is too crisp and mature to be mine. The voice is Meg’s. That’s my sister. The story is the same one that my daughter Pippa told last night on the river. Goosebumps rise on my arms and I feel a strange vertigo. I’ve fallen through a crack in the world back to Maine the summer after dad left home.
The burning moon has been replaced by a pale disc drawn with a white crayon shaded in gray. The constellations seize their moment. Big Dipper, Cassiopeia and Orion beam out from the blackening sky. My father’s voice comes on young and high pitched as though he just sucked helium. He’s 39 years old. ”This is the evening of August 13th, 1976 Friday night” dad says, “and we are in cabin number four at Bonnie Ridge Cabins.”
It is September 27th, 2015 a Sunday night, Colorado flashing by through the glass. I am singing the ABCs. I am forgetting the order after T. Dad is saying, “Good night Katie. Good night Meg.” His voice is deeper now. The gravelly rumble. I would know it anywhere always, how I miss it. All our lives we’ve been coming together and separating like mirror images of the same parabola, two lines approaching and then diverging over and over. Even after dad died, the pattern didn’t stop. It just changed. Our chance encounters radiating outward on a continuum. Now you see me, now you don’t. Here again our stories have converged in a dark car in the middle of the night, dad somewhere, just on the other side of the thin line.’
WLP: Beautiful. Thank you. Very generous of you.
Katie: Thank you. I like reading that.
WLP: It’s a great story. So what comes up for you as you read?
Katie: How magical and miraculous it is when you stop trying to control everything and go with what’s flowing and what the process is. It’s exactly as I wrote it, like that I had found those tapes and forgotten about them. I was driving away and I was missing my kids and my husband and lonely and I put the tape in and it was this tape from my childhood. My dad was always recording us when we were kids. You know, we had the black Panasonic recorder.
WLP: I remember. Yeah, I know those. The shoulder strap and all.
Katie: Yeah, it was magical. When I found it was the exact right time to listen to it. I had just been on a river trip and literally the night before on the Green River, we were at a campfire and my daughter was telling that story. And then the next night I hear my sister telling it from 1976 and I didn’t know that I’d known that story as a child. You know, I just knew that when my daughter told me it was so familiar. When I read this, it reminds me to trust the process because again, there are moments where I think I should be more organized or systematic. You know if I had found those tapes earlier, I wouldn’t have had that moment that I was literally back in time. I felt that time had collapsed and that I was both in Maine in 1976 and in Colorado in 2015 at the same moment.
It was this really new understanding of death really. That’s a really deep theme in the book of that circularity of life and of time, but I haven’t been able to talk about it much since in all my talk about the book, people wanna talk about the running. But that death is not the end. I really do believe that my dad’s energy is somewhere out there. It has shifted forms, it kind of rises up to the surface sometimes and drops a little deeper other times, but that I continue with this relationship with him.
WLP: Katie, thanks for sharing that. I again resonate a lot. My wife and I and family, we lost our 12-year-old daughter almost 9 years ago next month.
Katie: Oh, my God. I’m so sorry.
WLP: Thanks. And yeah, but we absolutely feel she is alive. We’re even specific about, her name is Hadley. It’s not was. You know, people say, “What was her name?” I’m like, “No, no, what is her name?” There is a reality to our spiritual lives that we are alive and she is alive and she is with us and it just looks totally different.
Katie: You have an ongoing relationship with her. It’s just different than the way it was. That’s really powerful. I think that is just really comforting too to think about because we all face loss and we will face it going forward. It’s hard to put into words. It’s more like a feeling that it’s not over right. A theme that death is not the end.
WLP: And it is not. No, I will see her again.
Katie: Hey WLP, it’s Katie Arnold calling. I hope you can hear me. I have pretty crappy reception where I am. Totally thinking about our conversation yesterday. I loved talking to you. Thank you so much for all your insightful comments. I just couldn’t stop thinking about your story, what you shared with me, and I just wanted to tell you that in the same way that I feel my dad’s presence when I talk about the book and think about it—and I certainly felt that yesterday—I also at that moment that you shared your story about your daughter Hadley, felt she was there with us. I can’t stop thinking about it and I wanted to relay that. Thank you for your generosity and your spirit, and I can’t wait to hear the podcast. I hope you get this. Take care.
WLP: In the message translation of the Bible it says when two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, which I consider our conversation, one of those, my father in heaven goes into action and when two or three of you are together because of me. We had this soulful resonance Katie and I, you can be sure that I’ll be there too.
All right. I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation with Katie Arnold. To check out any of her writing workshops and running workshops, definitely check out her website at katiearnold.net. She has two different workshops upcoming. One is in late February, early March in Utah, and that it is for women and it is a running and writing workshop. She has another one that’s in Santa Fe, mid-May, and that’s a writing workshop. If you could use some help as a writer, could use some inspiration as a runner at any and all levels, katiearnold.net. Check it out. All right. Cheers.