As the World Turns — By Jennifer Shipp
Asia Myanmar South Asia Southeast Asia

As the World Turns — By Jennifer Shipp

Every morning John and I go for a jog together. During the first month of our tenure here, it was over 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit during both the daytime and nighttime hours, but now the air is cooler so we can survive longer runs that take us out into the countryside.

There are several indigenous tribes in Mexico and Guatemala and even in the states that run, not for personal health or for competition, but rather as a form of sun and moon worship, paying homage to these essential vital bodies that are constantly in motion. The sun runs and the moon runs and their movements create the day and the night and earth exists with all its beauty, the oceans, the plants, and the animals because of these celestial bodies. Without the running there is no time. And without time, nothing exists.

And so, for the members of these tribes, running is about recharging the sun, the moon, and the planets by giving something back to the Holy in Nature. Running, according to this idea, is itself like a prayer, but not for selfish things. It’s just a prayer, like song or a hymn about beauty and our gratitude for it, a thought that is, itself beautiful and worthwhile which is why, I’m sharing it here.

As a teenager and throughout most of my adulthood, I spent a lot of time jogging. In the early days of my jogging career, I would run to avoid getting fat. But I learned very early that the energy that I put into the jog, the Intention I put behind my steps, played a role in the final result. This fact was unspoken and obscure. I’ve never talked about it, but I knew that if I ran to avoid gaining weight that weight gainoften happened anyway and that it was always better for me if I ran for other reasons. My weight would take care of itself if my thoughts were balanced about running. But, before I could discover and really understand the other reasons to run, I had to run and run and run and run….

I ran in the heat. In the cold. In the day and at night. I ran in sleet, wind, and snow. Once I went jogging during a tornado and on another day, I was pummeled with hail. But at the end of that hailstorm, the whole world turned gold for just a moment…maybe just 30 seconds. It was magical and worth the blood and the bruises. I learned to run for these sacred moments when my Self would align with the planets, the sun, and the moon and I would feel myself like it was all One Thing. All of my miscellaneous anxieties of daily life would melt into The One and it was a resonance that I tried to hold onto for as long as possible, like hitting the perfect pitch of my single note as part of a choir. 

Often, I would run to the top of a hill and stand at the zenith as the sun was setting and listen to the coyotes howling to the north and the faint sound of the highway buzzing in intermittent wisps to the west. Sometimes, it was so quiet that I thought I could hear the world turning.

But my favorite time to go jogging was in the winter when an icy freeze had gripped the plains for days and suddenly one morning a violent wind blew warmth back into the air and by evening, as twilight settled over the horizon, the wind died down. If there was a full moon rising in the east as the sun set in the west, I could jog into those young hours of the night with the orange glow of a full disk rising slowly over the shadows that fell across blue drifts of snow while an array of teal, red, purple, and cerulean would swirl away into the western horizon. 

One night, Dad went jogging with me and we ran between the hills that marked the edge of the slight valley where our house was situated between two long rows of cedar trees. While he ran up the hill to the south, I was running up the one to the south. We ran at our own paces, but it was reassuring that he was there, since it was night and the coyotes howled in the distance. On my final pass, as I geared up for the sprint to the end of our driveway, a young skunk jumped out of the ditch and both of us froze, frightened, with our tails in the air, ten feet away from each other, a look of surprise on our faces, hair on end. We stayed in this position staring at each other for a long moment, both of us contemplating worst case scenarios. 

And then, the young skunk decided that I was “okay” and trotted off nonchalantly into the moonrise.

John and I lived together on the farm for 3 years right after we were married, but since that time, I haven’t gotten to jog in a natural setting like that with trees and grass and cows, sunsets, moonrises, snakes, wild animals, and the wide open spaces. I’ve done a lot of urban jogging and tons of jogging on tracks in various places throughout the world. I’ve jogged on treadmills in hotels and gyms, but what really drew me to jogging in the first place was not the jogging but rather, watching the seasons change, the leaves turning colors, a rainy spring followed by the return of migrating birds and the heat of summer with the theatrics of great thunderheads bubbling up on the western horizon to roar acros the plains, the sudden emergence of animals from a long hibernation to play tag with me at times as I ran past them in the road ditches, the budding of wheat and corn plants in neat rows that grew tall enough to have their own rattling, whispering voices in the wind, and the feeling of being a part of something larger than myself. 

Several weeks ago, John and I found a jogging path that takes us from Bagan to another village via a sandy road along a two mile stretch of palm trees, acacias, and ditches bursting with milkweeds and plants I don’t yet know or recognize. The path begins at a bridge where we say our Mingalabas to passers-by in flip flops and longyis who are walking to and from the temples or the pagodas or to the vegetable market or perhaps work. Many of them are carrying small children and the parents encourage them to say, Halo to us. Several mornings of every week, a little girl of four or five years old runs out from a group of kids at the corner where we turn toward a trail road and she smiles broadly, says Halo bravely and then she offers us a high five. John gives her one “down low” too and she has recently started giving me one “to the side”. And then we carry on past the family seated on the cement, fully clothed but completely wet except for a bare-bottomed baby crying forlornly as they bathe in the traditional-village-way at their cistern which is located just a few feet from the road. They wave at us, the adorable baby crying plaintively and onward we continue toward the Futsal court and the mother dog who lives at an iron gate with her litter of six pups. 

The manager at the hotel on the corner is also our landlord and if we see him, we say “hello”. And then we head through thickets of weeds along a narrow path that leads to yet another Futsal court and a man who seems to be perpetually cleaning his scooter. There we turn onto a sandy stretch where the sun beats down on us mercilessly. Bright green snakes slither across the path and leave a swirly print in their wake. We hold our noses past the rattan hut leaning perilously on its stils about a hundred feet back from the road. Every morning, they make mohinga or some other traditional recipe that smells a lot like dog food to our Amerian sensibilities. At the corner ahead, we turn right onto a quiet, rural road that takes us to the next village.

Often, we have to stop and walk behind the cebu-pulled carts as they make their way up the occasional steep hills, yelling Mingalaba! at young women or old farmers managing their teams. They come up onto the road off of frontage trails with weeds growing up in their center lines because the carts are made with heavy wooden wheels and a high center. The cebu are easily spooked, so we’re careful when we pass as we are with horses “parked” in the road. 

Over the course of the first half mile, there’s a gentle curve and still no shade in sight until we hit a slight downhill run and a series of tall trees that run the length of several fields of plants we don’t recognize yet. Through the gaps between the trees, we see women threshing a grass-crop of some kind by hand in long-sleeved dresses, wide-brimmed straw hats held on with fabric chin ties, and gloves. They work together at a heavy wooden table-of-sorts that sits on top of a big pink-orange tarp. Now that they’ve seen us many times, they wave at us and yell Mingalaba! 

As we near the village, we often meet a few scooter and sometimes ebike riders who look at us with mild suspicion since the Burmese people rarely run for fun. The roads in the village are made up of deep sand and John and I battle for the ruts where the sand is shallower and easier to navigate. We run to the crossroads just beyond the thatch-hut rice mill that smells perpetually like wheat harvest on a Nebraskan farm. 

Sometimes, when we run this path, a light breeze will tickle the leaves of a small tree for a moment, but otherwise, the air is almost completely still all the time. In the village, cebu-pies dot the roadways so that everything has an earthy, 4-H county-fair smell to it. At times I smell distinctive foods being cooked outdoors, over an open-flame which reminds me of how foreign this place is to me still. 

Several days ago, flags marked out a path along this exact road for marathon runners, a race I’d considered doing myself about five years ago. I’d looked longingly at Myanmar and the Adventure Marathon there and thought that it would really be something to do a marathon in a country like this, but the cost was so high, it just seemed like a silly thing to spend money doing. And in retrospect, it would’ve been. 

When we jog at night, John and I watch the sunset, which is peach-colored in these parts. In Cambodia, which is nearby, relatively speaking, where the earth is a bright red color, the sunset makes everything golden during the early evening hours. But here in Myanmar, the sand is a pale and beige, and the sunsets look peach. They’re not the same as Nebraskan sunsets because the humidity makes the light and the air at twilight into something almost palpable, like custard, but as the sun begins its descent in the sky during the tourist season, people scramble to the top of temples and hills to watch it set. It’s a pasttime that makes sense to me.

Through the trees, along a deserted stretch of nothing but wide-open fields, is a large temple. The hot-air balloons land here in the wee hours of the morning and tourist disembark to ride back to town on colorful buses. 

I’m glad I’m not one of them and I suppose that I’m getting something important out of the simplicity of these morning and evening jogs that John and I are doing now. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to watch the sunset over an empty field. 

…It’s been many years since I’ve stopped long enough to listen to hear the world turning. 

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