by Diane Barrett, Becketwood Member
- Read at Becketwood on the occasion of Diane’s 70th Birthday
Since March of 2017 I’ve been working with a trainer, Matt, at the Episcopal Homes Fitness Center. I did this reluctantly, I’m afraid, never having been much interested in “machines.” I’m an outdoors gal, preferring to get my exercise by walking about, whether in the city or countryside, looking, pondering, looking some more. Aware of my body to some extent: legs getting tired, creaky knees, annoyingly running nose, craving for a good cup of coffee. These were fleeting awarenesses, though, hardly registering, unless the slight twinges of discomfort became “embellished,” raising the decibels on the “I want attention” scale or if my craving for caffeine reached a fever pitch. Mostly I just rambled, glad to be outside in life, not confined to an indoor space with cold-hearted machines, which never seemed to be particularly accommodating to my vertically challenged, five-feet-tall frame—those times that I actually did attempt to make their acquaintance.
And then there’s the gym culture, with those overly enthusiastic exercise buffs—oh, how prejudices, mine, can easily take hold, I acknowledge to myself in my more generous moments. (However, that Red Foxx joke about physical fitness and health food nuts being hugely surprised when they’re in the hospital dying of nothing, always tickles me greatly when I think of it!) No, give me space for my wanderlust to be let loose, rain or shine, cold or hot, although the very extreme temps do keep me homeward bound, and then I will just daydream about rambling to unknown, but imagined landscapes, like the Arctic tundra or the craggy surface of the moon.
But, wouldn’t you know, for the past couple of years I have begun to get a sense that I needed to up the ante a bit in the exercise department, as my body began to convey subtle and sometimes not so subtle messages, the raising of the decibels on the “I want attention!” scale, that, yup, the aging process was indeed progressing nicely as I approached seventy. Bone density not so good; back problems appearing out of the blue; balance alarmingly off. (Of course my 95-year old friend Donna informs me that I haven’t seen anything yet!) Maybe my nonchalant attitude toward indoor exercising and my silly prejudices about gym culture needed to be reconsidered and maybe even cast aside with this new state of affairs.
It was then that the Episcopal Homes Fitness Center, with its “family” relationship with Becketwood, began to have some draw for me. There was buzz around the ranch about it, and it was evident that a number of my neighbors were availing themselves of this perk. What I was really wanting, though, was a trainer, some specialized attention as I walked more intently into the inner landscape of my physical self. Ask and you shall receive. When the student is ready the teacher appears. The day I met with Julie at the Fitness Center for my introductory meeting, I learned that a trainer was about to be hired and that the new guy would be on-board mid-March. Perfect. I thought, I’ll go that route and see what happens.
So, last March I trotted off—no, not “trotted,” that’s a little too eager—I reluctantly drove to Episcopal Homes on a Wednesday morning for my first meeting with Matt. I felt like someone who had consented to taking castor oil each morning for the good of her health and, in defeat, would dutifully stand before the dispenser of the unpleasant, noxious goopy stuff, mouth open, gulping it down fast to mitigate the icky taste. But the more mature me did prevail, reassuring the part of me throwing a fit that this will be fun, you’ll see, you’ll have a good time. Right.
Miracle of miracles, that is indeed what happened. I have even had a “conversion” experience! Wednesday mornings with Matt have truly become an enjoyment in my life and the learning was well beyond what I had imagined. I still get flutters of performance anxiety when we start off, just as I do when I sit at my writing desk, but once the process starts, in both cases, the concentration required anchors me in the present, in the Now. There’s very little sense of time passing, only absorption in the mystery of my body when I “pump iron” and in the mystery of imagination when I write. On occasion there are even revelatory streams of awareness. Maybe with the writing I’ve known the revelatory part, but within the confines of a smallish room and even more contained personal corporeal structure.
However, the first few training sessions with Matt were challenging, not physically—Matt easing me into the process—but emotionally and psychologically. I was a complete novice, a position I’m not used to being in at this stage of the game. I’d arrive flustered and insecure, my mind and body scampering to follow the instructions. I remember the first session when Matt directed me to hop on the treadmill. Now, I had never in my life been on a treadmill and freaked out by the strangeness of those first few steps with the ground moving underneath me, not how the ground usually behaves. Matt was kindly amused, as was I myself, despite the embarrassment. Maybe this is how a toddler feels upon taking her first tentative steps on the earth, except in the toddler’s situation, the earth doesn’t move but she does, on her own two legs no less.
I was a complete neophyte, awkward, slow on the uptake, afraid of the machines, worried about getting hurt, this body of mine a complete mystery—it’s directed to go one way, but goes another; this body part is connected to that way over someplace else, muscles I didn’t even know I had coming alive and letting me know of their displeasure for ignoring them over lo these many years. Nevertheless, I’ve become rather intrigued by the mysterious workings of this traveling companion who has accompanied me all the way along the varied terrain of this 70-year long life of mine.
Take, for instance, the psoas muscles. They are probably the most important muscle system in our bodies. According to Dr. Christiane Northrop: “Your psoas muscles are the deepest muscles in your core. They attach from your 12th thoracic vertebrae to your 5th lumbar vertebrae, through your pelvis and then finally attach to your femurs. In fact, they are the only muscles that connect your spine to your legs.” So, they’re really, really important, as they affect posture and spine stabilization and support our internal organs, as well as influencing psychological well being because of their connection to our breath.
Pursuing this budding interest in the human body further, I went to the Menschen Museum when I was in Berlin last summer. The Museum, the first of its kind in the world, is dedicated to portraying the mysteries of the human body through very compelling and vivid displays of the various organs, muscles, and bones taken from cadavers, presented tastefully and respectfully. I found out many fascinating things and quizzed Matt when our sessions resumed. Do you know how many itty-bitty bones there are in the hand? (27) and what the largest organ in the human body is? (the liver, weighing three and a half pounds). Yes, he did know, my teacher knows everything.
The exhibits at the Menschen Museum are not for the squeamish, but I personally found the movement through the subtly lit and tranquil rooms, with slightly stronger but not harsh light almost reverentially illuminating the displays, to be truly beautiful and uplifting. Seeing the intricacies of our physical beings sparked in me one of the Big Questions: How did this come to happen? How did this come to be so? No definitive answer thunder-bolted into my mind, just an image of the forefinger in a hand pointing to a glowing, lit up display with the gold embossed letters spelling MYSTERY, the not- knowing of Mystery surprisingly comforting and trustworthy.
Those initial meetings with Matt reminded me of another learning situation I experienced a few years ago when I took a five-week introductory Irish Gaelic language class. It was a small class, maybe six or eight of us, half of whom were language majors from St. Kate’s, young things who were talented at picking up the incomprehensible words and crazily difficult pronunciations. I was pretty uncomfortable and had the feeling of being over my head, metaphorically sinking into my chair, hoping not to be called upon to answer a question in the language of my ancestors. I would on occasion resort to whispering to a student seated next to me, it being particularly fortuitous if he or she happened to be one of those smarty-pants undergrads, “What did she say?” “What does this word mean?” I hope that this pathetic display of insecurity wasn’t the primary factor in the departure of the three St. Kate’s students halfway through the class. I stuck it out, though, and was proud of myself that I was willing to stay with the discomfort of not knowing, to be a vulnerable beginner.
And so it has been with my weekly lessons “pumping iron” at Episcopal Homes Fitness Center—psychologically navigating the insecurity, while physically, step by treadmill step, beginning to develop more confidence and competence, very much to my astonishment. From March to May the goal was to prepare me for hillwalking in Ireland. Now, hillwalking in Ireland isn’t as casual and “sauntery” as it sounds, especially if you’re walking with an experienced group of hill walkers, as I had foolishly done a few years ago. It’s walking on uneven ground, climbing up rocky slip-slidy hills, climbing over ancient stone walls and modern aluminum fencing to access the “mud-pie” rich farmers’ fields, sometimes walking over thankfully even ground for miles, however, more often than not, in the pouring rain. (Who would sign up for this?)
I wanted to be in better shape to undertake another such adventure, though of a more modest type, this next trip. The game plan was to introduce me to those suspicious machines for overall body strengthening, such as the leg press, leg extension/curl, the bar press, the dip/shrug, the chest press, the machine for adduction and abduction (I thought “abduction” meant to be kidnapped—see, those machines really can’t be trusted!), the abdomen and back strengthening machine, dead weights (didn’t sound too uplifting to me, either), and the speed bag. Interspersed were exercises for balance improvement, a very good thing, and a bit of endurance training on, yes, that aforementioned treadmill that has an incline program, just the ticket for the particular hike I had in mind, up Diamond Hill in the Connemara National Park.
I felt quite committed to this undertaking and showed up religiously for my weekly sessions with Matt, who was extremely encouraging, kind, and trustworthy; I knew I would be pushed a bit, but safely. I began to spot improvement in myself. I was still somewhat apprehensive and slow on the uptake, but this was beginning to feel good. The end of May came, and it was time for me take off for parts known and unknown. The process did feel incomplete, however, as though I had just begun, which was, in fact, true. But my body took what it had learned so far and, awakened to our new sense of possibilities, off we went.
Now, I wish I could say that I nailed that hilltop ascent in Connemara National Park but, alas, I made it only three-quarters of the way up. It was steeper than I thought and the wind, oh my, it was ferocious. When the wind comes up on the west coast of Ireland, you feel as though you could get hurled over a cliff as easily as if you were a leaf or picked up in wind’s powerful currents and transported across the Atlantic to the States in one fell swoop. It would be an inexpensive way to travel, there’s that.
The upshot here is that I couldn’t quite catch my breath and told my hiking companions, Liam and Stephen, that I was heading back for a cup of tea. Beforehand, I had said to my Irish friend Liam, a man a few years older than me but an avid hill-walker all his life, that I reserved the option to turn back if something like this should occur, but I wanted him and Stephen to carry on. He agreed only because we were going to a place where there would be a fair number of people around and an easily discernible path. A strict rule in hillwalking is that if you’re out in the boonies and someone needs to go back, you never let them go back alone. Now do I feel bad about not making it to the top? Not really. I actually felt good about the decision. An important lesson learned; shoot for the stars but know your own earthly, bodily limitations.
And so, I did turn back, greatly enjoying the slower personal pace that I kept for myself, relieved of the pressure of keeping up with the guys, who, by the way, are ever so kind and nonjudgmental about these matters. At the bottom, walking the flat road leading to the Visitors’ Centre, as if rewarded for my humility and wise decision-making, I came upon the most glorious sight of a mare and her newborn son nuzzling each other in the pastureland adjacent to the road. I stood completely enthralled, transported by the loving absorption in each other that I was witnessing. I paused there for a long time. With gratitude for the everyday miracles encountered by walking the earth, I eventually made my way back to the Visitors’ Centre, found a cozy spot in the enclosed courtyard, and savored that hot, milky, strong cup of Irish tea.
To be continued....