Essay - Denise Belanger

Denise Belanger (#48) was a quick Tam sprinter, made the state meet in 1984 as a part of their fast 4 x 100 meter relay team. On her Arete '85 train trip to Switzerland from Paris she joined the well remembered, "hysterics". In Prague she ran, perhaps, the fastest 100 meters by any female Arete runner on any of our trips. Denise writes that after "Arete '85, this restless sprinter spent her undergraduate years studying Psychology while campus-hopping from UC Davis to Humboldt State and then to UC Santa Cruz. She was then bitten by the human service bug, and started up and co-directed a grassroots nonprofit personnel agency for adults with significant disabilities while earning a MA in Vocational Special Education at San Francisco State. The success of the agency led her to a Ph.D. in Special Education from UC Berkeley, which she has used to implement federal grants to import the model into disability service systems and nonprofits nationwide. After 18 years in the disability field, she is now taking steps to enter the end of life care field, a long standing passion. She and her husband both work from home to have the freedom to travel, live in different cities, volunteer, and run trails".

Bill Taylor

Here I sit, settling in to write this Arete essay. I just finished eating a couple of egg and cheese burritos, moved the laptop out to the deck, and popped open the umbrella for a little shade from the soft Oregon sun. My hair is still air-drying from the shower I took after a 6-mile trail run. I'm letting it grow long. Maybe really long. I'm pushing 40 and I can have my slowly graying hair any way I damn please.

The other day, I fished my Arete '85 journal out of the firebox upstairs. Even though it shares the box with all the journals I've written since I was 9, I didn't have to open it to check which one it was. My hand went right to it. I've read that journal more than a few times over the past 20 years.

Upon first read, it doesn't appear to be about anything except boys, beer, shopping, youth hostels, and riding around in the back seat of a van. References to historical sites, cultural significance, and contemplations of these impacts are comparatively few. And there are no mentions of running. Not one.

Fascinating, given that the trip did nothing less than completely rewire me. But then, there's the reading of words, and there's the reading of the space between. And in those spaces, for me, was the real Arete.

Pause. I’m sitting here typing with a small smile on my face, because it would seem in the natural flow to now wax eloquent about what, exactly, that 'real' Arete was. How it defined me. How it rewired me, so to speak. But actually, the answer lies in the absence of these-the undefining, the unwiring.

We all accumulate many words, labels, definitions, and 'wirings' along our lives-for ourselves and for others, mostly. But for me, the real juice-the real 'Arete,' by my definition-is in their peeling away.

On the personal level, for example, the peeling away of 'Runner' has taught me how to really run. 'Runner' was the things I tacked onto running. The identity and its choreography. The focus, the dedication, the repetition, the clock, the competition, the play-each an asset as well as a liability, depending on the circumstance. Without knowing them, living with them, and feeling their effects, I couldn't have appreciated their absence-the pure joy of having this amazing body that was born to run.

The peeling away of 'Daughter' is something I do when I need help seeing my mother as a dynamic person rather than limiting her to just Mother. Originally, Daughter was something that was ripped off of me, rather than peeled-some things just have to come off that way, it seems. My father, whom I loved beyond description, was diagnosed with cancer when I was in my early 20's, and I spent that decade of my life growing up fast. When he died at the end of it, Daughter came off in shredded, raw sheets. I thought about running away from them, or throwing something else-anything else-on instead. But in the end I knew that what I really needed to do was just stand there, bare boned and shivering, and stare at the carnage. For a long time. It was only in doing this that I was able to catch the new and different life that eventually started growing from it. If I hadn't been watching, I would have missed it.

'Doctor' is a resident of my mind. She's the one with the Ph.D. from Berkeley, who flies around the country, changes organizations and systems, leads seminars, is completely at home standing up in front of 1,500 people with her powerpoint, is high-energy but relaxed-confident, wears corporate casual, and brings home the bacon. She has many uses, but when she's off her leash, she can get too cerebral, perfectionistic, and convinced that she's not good enough. The peeling away of her has come through humbling experiences and learning (slowly) how to stand still. Spending 5 years down in the hole of depression in college, thinking there was no way out. Sitting on the bed with my dad's body right after he died, broken wide open and awestruck by the enormity of both the beauty and the sorrow. Looking into the eyes of hundreds of survivors when volunteering for 3 weeks in the Gulf Coast less than a month after Hurricane Katrina, struck by an expansive core of resilience and dignity that underscored the suffering. Hospice work, where typically there is much more living going on than dying. Going on a month-long silent meditation retreat and learning how to see with my eyes closed. 17 years of changing together with my husband. A friend with Down Syndrome who once commented, in a loving way, that I 'think too much.'

These are just a sample of words, labels, definitions, 'wirings'-and their unpeelings-my words for the space between words. One woman's personal 'Arete.' They are fed by a lifelong and insatiable curiosity about the nature of being human, in all its creative forms and expressions. My intention is simply to keep showing up to see it.

With a bow to our Bill:

"This is my way; where is yours?"-thus I answered those who asked me "the way." For the way-that does not exist. -- Friedrich Nietzsche

Denise Belanger
October 2006