Friday, February 18, 2011

Semper Fi (In Other Words: Have Some Heart, Rebecca)

** This is a blog post I did for the lovely Amanda Hoving and wanted to share it here, too.

Semper Fi (In Other Words: Have Some Heart, Rebecca)
By Rebecca Rasmussen

The first time I walked off the course and back to the starting line I felt justified in my choice to quit. I was in terrible pain. I had lost my breath. I had cramps in my legs, in my heart. Girls were passing me on all sides. Their ponytails were swishing right out of my view. So here’s what I did: I simply walked back to the place I’d started.
            The year was 1992, and I was a freshman in high school, thirteen years old. I had a shaky relationship with just about everyone in my family, though I remember my mother coming to this cross-country meet, my first. I remember she wore my dad’s boxy old yellow windbreaker, which I took from his closet the last time I visited him and my stepmom in Spring Green, Wisconsin, though I don’t remember why.
            “You’ll do better next time,” my mother said, when she saw me near the starting line.
            I’ll tell you this: a part of me wanted to get in the car with her. To stop and pick up pizza at Malnati’s on the way home. To rent a funny movie and eat sour cherry candies. To forget about cross-country and move on to field hockey or dance. Or chess even.
             But I’ll also tell you this: an even bigger part of me wanted something else entirely, something I couldn’t put a name to, but knew as a secret deep in my heart. And that’s what I got—exactly what I wanted—that early Saturday morning in September, while girls sprinted into the chute and parents cheered and brightly colored ribbons flapped in the breeze.
            “Come here right now,” my coach, Mr. Baker, said to me, in a voice I thought only parents were allowed to use.
            “I think I’ll take her home,” my mother interrupted.
            “Not yet,” Mr. Baker said and pulled me away from my mother, which I remember thinking was impressive. People didn’t say no to her.
            When we were alone behind a grand old Illinois oak tree, Mr. Baker asked me why I’d stopped running, why I came walking back, why I gave up.
I told him what I told you. Cramps. Pain. Breath.
            “I don’t care if you’re the last girl out there and you crawl in on your hands and knees,” Mr. Baker said. “You don’t ever give up like that, do you understand me?”
            “I couldn’t go on,” I said, looking at the electric leaves up in the tree.
            Mr. Baker put his hands squarely on my shoulders and looked me directly in the eyes, which nobody had ever done before. (I come from a long line of side-glancers.)
“You can always go on,” he said very seriously.
            I don’t know why, but I wanted to wrap my arms around this man. His strength and strange, unwarranted belief in me was what I’d been looking for in members of my family and what members of my family couldn’t give me just then, and here Mr. Baker was, a man I barely knew, a man with the bluest eyes I’d ever seen.            
“I wasn’t going to win,” I said, knowing then that that was the real reason I’d quit.
Mr. Baker smiled. “This is the first brave thing I’ve seen you do.”
            “What?” I said, beginning to smile, too, though I didn’t know why.
            “Tell the truth,” he said, and hugged me so securely I thought I’d turn blue. “You’re a good kid, you know. I think you’re going to be all right.”
            (Words that were so wonderful I started to cry.)
            I don’t know if you can teach someone to have heart or not, but that’s what Mr. Baker did for me that day and that strength of heart is what I’ve carried with me all these years. If a door closes, I find another one to try to open. If ponytails are passing me, I go after them instead of giving myself over to negativity and turning away.
Crossing the finish line, having guts and grit, is what’s important to me. Knowing that I didn’t quit—that I don’t quit—makes me proud, confident, happy.
            These days, I’m a writer more than I’m a runner, though I still try to hit the pavement four or five times a week. Writing, I’ve learned, takes the same tenacity, the same hard work and hard-won belief in one’s self. I’ve seen so many talented writers give up, and I want to grab them by the shoulders and look directly in their eyes and tell them what Mr. Baker told me. Keep writing even if you have to crawl on your hands and knees.
            My first novel is coming out with a large New York press in April. From the outside, my story looks so easy and breezy and, well, full of beauty. The truth is that I fought for my book every single step of the way. I fought for it when people kept saying no for months and months and months. I fought when they said, “we need to think about sales figures.”
I am fighting for it even now.
            And you know what: it probably won’t sell a million copies, I probably won’t be able to quit my job and shop at Whole Foods for herbs and nuts and fish, and I probably won’t wake up and see my name in The New York Times any time soon.
            But on April 12th, I’ll be smiling. I promise you that.
Writing a book, finding an agent and an editor, finding my way through all of the no, you can’ts! has been the longest race of my life and I’ll have finally made it to the chute—without fanfare, maybe—but on my own two feet.
(A thought so wonderful I know I will cry.)
            I haven’t seen Mr. Baker since I was a senior in high school. Is he alive? Is he still coaching running? I don’t know.
That warm September day at the cross-country meet was the beginning of a relationship that changed my life. He taught me about being brave, about being bold, about fighting for what you want and deserve in life. He taught me about nourishing myself in every sense of the word.
He told me about his time in Vietnam, about never giving up even when people around him were dying in muddy rice paddies.
I’ll never forget what he said.
            Right before the next cross-country race, Mr. Baker and I exchanged presents, if you can call them that. I gave him my father’s old yellow windbreaker, which he wore to most every meet for the next four years, and he gave me a Semper Fi flag he’d had since the war and which I still keep in my treasure box in the closet.
Whenever I find myself alone on the course now, in the middle of a race that’s even less defined than when I was a teenager, I think of Mr. Baker—those blue eyes and that flag—and I keep going.
I keep hearing him say, have some heart, Rebecca.


DazyDayWriter said...

April 12th, indeed! Your journey has been arduous but rewarding, I can tell, Rebecca. The book world is changing and I'm not sure anyone understands those changes ... yet. So good for you, getting your book to print! An unforgettable journey, I'm sure. When I published my book about prairie wisdom (more info in SunnyRoomStudio) ... way back when ... William Morrow was bought by HarperCollins just as the book released. NIGHTMARE. Editors and many folks fired in an instant. So, alas, the process is fraught with obstacles most every step of the way, but love for your book and your literary talents will prevail. Have a lovely weekend, relishing this very sunny moment. -- My best, Daisy @

Melissa Sarno said...

This is such a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it with us. It's just what I needed to hear today because it's been a crummy week where I felt like giving up on a lot of things. I'm glad you fought to get to where you are and I look forward to reading the book that won the good fight with you :-)

Heather said...

Tell it, sister! :)

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Thank you ladies so much! Your comments have all made me smile in their own ways :) Love to all of you today!

Amanda Hoving said...

I smile every time I read this. Such a wonderful, inspiring story. Thank you! :)

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Oh Amanda, you are such an inspiration for this story, as well as your lovely website. XOXOXO

Lynn(e) said...

firstly, i'd like to say that i am so glad (still) that we got to speak breifly at awp.
secondly, i'm glad that because of that interaction, i now follow your blog. this story is not only amazing to me as a writer, but also as a runner (i ran cross country for 6 years, even after a surgery on my knee at 16).

i just started the process of submitting my work to an agent, and every day i've been opening my e-mail to find another lovely rejection waiting for me.

but i, like you, have heart. i'm not in this for the millions of dollars (as i told you at awp, i'm super broke and my manager funded my trip)...i'm in it to get published, to tell a story i wrote and fell in love with, and share it with others.

i am so excited for you that the book is finally coming. i think i may buy it for myself as a birthday present :) (woot woot, april 19th!)

just saying, we're all in the same game, same race. keep your head up, from this piece i can tell you're an amazing writer.

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Hi Lynn(e) honey,
Thank you so much for stopping by the blog! I am so thrilled that we are connected now and that you are such a passionate person. I am still so very impressed that you made it to AWP and so thankful that you came up and spoke with me after my panel. It's so nice to meet another writer with such heart and love for what you do, money or no money. And that's awesome that you used to run in school and even after surgery. Now that is true heart right there.

Happy weekend to you, honey. You let me know if I can help you with your submission process in any way, okay. I am so happy for you! And I am so rooting for you at the sidelines!

XOXOX Rebecca

p.s. April is a great month indeed -- launch time and your birthday!!!

Anonymous said...

I read this at Amanda's sight and I just love it. One thing I missed before was that you said you were a freshman in high school in '92. I was horking late night tacos and 25 cent draws like it was my major (I was a sophomore in college) in 1992. I used to like you. ;)

Kidding aside, I can't wait for April 12th. You are going to nail it. Regardless of sales or the number of people at your signings, you did it. You ran the race and you did it beautifully. XO

Kara Garbe Balcerzak said...

What a beautiful story! Thank you for sharing it.

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Thank you Kara honey! XOXO

Kristin B said...

All those miles running together, the .3 seconds that kept us from running in the state track meet, and I had no idea this story existed. Thanks for sharing... :) Those days feel so long ago, yet almost like yesterday.

Congrats on all your successes!

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Oh Kristin honey -- I remember our running so fondly. I can't believe still that .3 seconds kept us from that meet. If only we had known, I know each of us would have run faster. But I love our track days with all of my hear. And I love my track girls. I hope you are doing well, honey, and that you are as happy as can be. I am coming to tour in Illinois and Wisconsin and it would be so lovely to see you!


"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."