The Ascetic Body: Robert Veeder’s Prison Marathon
This is about running for others’ lives, but let us start with the Girl Scout cookies.
Your daughter trudges up my disintegrating front steps and to my front door as you wait by the curb, apparently looking for a cab on the western outskirts of Chicago. She rings the bell, invites my participation in the buy, her dark brown hair crossing up and over her left shoulder as she leans in to show me the list of the possibilities for a sugar high.
She sells, I buy. I eat (too many), she brings back (a little) money to fund her troop’s autumn camping trip. I may be willing to pay a bit more for a box of cookies than I might have at the grocery store because your daughter seems like a sweet girl, or because I was once a Girl Scout and remember those days warmly. Soon the cookies are gone. The camping trip will be remembered fondly by some of those who went on it.
This transaction is kind of like what happens in a public radio fund drive, which offers valuable or branded giveaways (to “members” rather than “donors”) in return for a pledge. I love to listen to these quarterly fundraisers even more than to the regular programming, simply to hear my favorite radio personalities improvise their ways, often ingeniously, out of the tight corners their on-air fundraising partners may have created for them. To compel listeners to become donors without ever uttering a negative or guilt-provoking word, one needs infinite creativity and goodwill, especially toward those who listen regularly to the programming without helping to pay for it. Both the sale of the Girl Scout cookies and the public radio fundraising drive, with rewards offered for the “gift” of a donation, are more business transactions, exchanges, than is asking someone simply to write a check for environmental protection or a political candidate or the protection of basic human rights around the world.
I first became aware around 1990 of a very different kind of fundraising effort, now quite popular, when I decided to participate in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis “Dance for Life” marathon. Bringing together those willing to work (dance, sweat), those willing to give (money), and those willing to organize for a cause (the Gay Men’s Health Crisis), the Dance for Life event had three apparent constituencies and an exponentially greater opportunity than one-on-one transactional fundraising for long-lasting personal and communal impact.
We dancers, many of whom had family members or friends who had died from or were dying of AIDS-related causes, would solicit contributions based on how many hours we danced. We danced against death: at the time, dancing felt like dying’s antidote. We gave our bodies’ sweat, exertion, energy to support our loved ones’ and others’ fight to live. The body felt like the perfect site for our devotion.
This September, I learned of an even more moving, more perfect three-way, transformational partnership to raise money. This contemporary expiatory ritual bound a cause–Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)–the members of a virtual community who offered not only money but hope, and one who would do that community’s, along with his own, sweating.
On the night of Saturday, November 1, 2003, Robert “Blinker” Veeder had driven while drunk and killed six people, several of whom had stopped to help the victims of a just-previous collision, when one SUV ran a stop sign and hit another. Serving the last two and a half years of his sentence in a North Carolina prison for six counts of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon (the van he was driving), Robert joined with his beloved, Dr. Kara Grasso, a dentist living in South Carolina (and a close friend of mine), to create an event that could help him atone for the deaths of the innocent victims of his having driven while drunk: he would raise $5,000 running a marathon as he marked the sixth anniversary of the lives-changing accident.
While initially the practice was meant to allow Robert to birth some good out of the harm he had done, the use of his body as the place where his penance was done created a profound connection between those in the prison and those on the outside. On the inside, fellow prisoners trained with him and would eventually run alongside him for encouragement during the marathon. In the essay that he wrote for Kara to send to potential donors, Robert asked for the partnership of those on the outside:
I can’t do much from in here. My daily job in the kitchen only earns me a dollar a day. They won’t let me give blood, I’ve asked. But I can run. I can run a long time. I can run around this yard 184 times which would be the 26.2 miles and some change of an official marathon. What I can’t do is donate money to support M.A.D.D.; but you can.
I know that I can never give the lives back. God, I wish I could, but I can’t. I can’t take away the ache from the lives which were endlessly changed by this tragic event. There’s nothing I can do to take back the hurt. There is simply nothing that I can do.
But WE can do a lot.
MADD already had a “Walk like MADD” event for fundraising. Robert’s event became a “MADD Dash for Recovery,” as he planned to run the full 26.2 miles of a marathon in laps around the prison yard. As he described it, this writer, clown, and ukelele and blues harmonica player would “head up to A and B dorm and start running. I’ll run across the top of the horseshoe pits, past the weight pile, in between the chaplain’s office and the cook school trailer, past the library, the clothes house, the multi-purpose room, down the side of the chow hall, past the guard at the front gate and cut in front of the sergeant’s office, past A and B dorm, across the top of the horseshoe pits. The inmates won’t know why I am running. The guards won’t know why I am running. But you’ll know. I’ll know. We’ll know why I’m running. We’ll be running together. Running for life.”
Family and friends joined in the cause, not just by donating money but by circulating Robert’s statement of his intention to generate good out of the victims’ families’ losses. Money to meet the $5,000 goal poured forth. Perhaps even more important, people outside the prison engaged emotionally and physically with Robert’s bodily labors and offered him forgiveness and the prospect of redemption. One donor wrote, “I’ll be thinking of Robert in the morning as he does his marathon. We lifted him up in prayer tonight at church.” Another: “Rob, run like the wind. Feel yourself being powered by those of us behind you. Good luck, I’ll be thinking of you next week, while you run.”
By twelve days before the run, Kara had received notes from many of Robert’s supporters declaring their intention to pray, chant, meditate. Others were inspired to designate drivers, keeping with MADD’s education efforts. Some intended to take up their spiritual practice, or to run, too, during the hours Robert was slated to run his marathon.
As Kara and her parents and Robert’s watched him through the prison gates, and with prison friends running alongside him, Robert completed the marathon on November 2, 2009 in 4 hours, 3 minutes, 15 seconds. Afterward, he wrote, “Today while running, with so many people praying, chanting, meditating, and holding me next to their hearts, I felt the spirit of unity, peace, oneness [as] I made my way toward that magical 26th mile.”
Robert Veeder’s ascetic action reminds us of images and figures of bodily redemption from world religious and spiritual traditions, where the sweat or suffering of one pairs with a community of belief. The power of the physical body to endure trials carries special poignancy in engaging us toward meaning that can be held in common, in community.
Perhaps a place to end–for now–is with a passage from Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s Women Who Run with the Wolves:
The idea in our culture of body solely as sculpture is wrong.
Body is not marble.
That is not its purpose.
Its purpose is to protect, contain, support and fire the Spirit and Soul within it, to be a repository for memory, to fill us with feeling-that is the supreme psychic nourishment.
It is to lift us and propel us, to fill us with feeling to prove that we exist, that we are here, to give us grounding, heft, weight.
It is wrong to think of it as a place we leave in order to soar to the spirit.
The body is the launcher of those experiences.
Without body there would be no sensations of crossing thresholds, there would be no sense of lifting, no sense of height, weightlessness.
All that comes from the body.
The body is the rocket launcher.
In its nose capsule, the soul looks out the window into the mysterious starry night and is dazzled.
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