by Diane Barrett, Becketwood Member
- Read at Becketwood on the occasion of Diane’s 70th Birthday
After arriving back in the States in July, I resumed my weekly lessons with Matt and began to notice in myself less distraction, more focus. I was relaxing into it more, in part because I was beginning to feel less flustered, but also because the weeks before going abroad were busy and consuming and filled with the anticipation of being elsewhere. Now I was back, here for the foreseeable future, clear space ahead to resume my life along the Mississippi River. There was more focus but also a growing sense of life energy rising and even a feeling of empowerment. Now, I have to say that a couple of things contributed to this feeling. One was seeing the movie Wonder Woman and the other was viewing a documentary news clip on the PBS News Hour about a 72-year-old woman, Linda Leightly, who won the International Weight Lifting Competition for her age group.
I was quite reluctant to see Wonder Woman, envisioning this sexy mean-spirited babe going around knocking off people and performing all kinds of crazy, super-human feats, but a friend who had already seen it twice was pretty insistent that I MUST accompany him to his third viewing. OK, I’ll go. Well, I’ll be darned, I really loved it! The woman was beautiful and sexy and did execute all manner of beyond-the-realm-of-humanly-possible feats, but she was good-hearted and had a very strong moral compass. I was smitten and inspired. Here was a strong, capable, impassioned, fully embodied, dedicated –to-the-good, no-holding-back woman.
Of course the 72-year-old woman was a little closer to home. She was an average, unassuming woman, no visible bulging muscles, in fact, the normal older woman’s mid-section tummy fat visible, but oh, my, she was a sight to behold as she lifted that 272-pound bar bell to win the competition. I saw this clip on a Tuesday night before my Wed. training session with Matt. Man, I tell you, I was psyched to get at those dead weights! I immediately sent the You-Tube video to Matt, hoping that he would have a chance to see it before we met the following day, which he did. It was energizing for both of us, I think. However, a momentary panic overtook me as we were talking, and I blurted out, “Now buddy, don’t you be getting any ideas here!” No, as inspired as we both were with the possibilities, the facts are the facts; I’m doing well, but not that well. I can, though, bring up the image of Wonder Woman #1 and Wonder Woman #2 in my imagination, and as I’m working on achieving my modest personal best with the leg press, for example, feel into what they must feel when they power themselves (carefully) to their limits.
Now, considering that I’ve mentioned Matt several times since he plays heavily into this pumping iron story, and since my writing teacher Elizabeth is also central to the literary version of exercising those muscles, I want to say something about teachers. Actually, the teaching idea is really a way in to saying something about my father. I come from an avid baseball family, die-hard Red Sox fans, living as we did near Boston. My father was absolutely head-over-heels in love with the game, and from a very early age he taught me all manner of things related to his passion. I did come to appreciate the game, but truthfully, I think that my appreciation was more about having his attention, feeling close to him in those moments of instruction. James Patrick was a working-class Irish guy who was quiet, anxious, self-conscious, and overlooked in his large family. I came to realize that he felt intimidated by yet scornful of those intellectual “eggheads” and Boston elites populating the city and its environs, the supreme irony being that he grew up spitting distance from the most egregious of all the institutions of higher learning in the vicinity, Harvard. Dad was not a fan of academia, hardly keen on book learning himself, graduating from high school but just barely, the nuns giving him credit, I suspect, for being consistent in his excellent “comportment.” A student he was not, but an athlete and a dancer he was. I got to be his student in both. We spent hours in the summer at the beach or on the street in front of our house, throwing and catching high flies, fastballs, grounders. I was pretty good, I must say, and James was tickled. And when we took to the dance floor at weddings, our family and friends would applaud us, Jimmy and Diane, father and daughter, whizzing around the dance floor, how sweet and such good dancers!
The baseball lessons happened long before I ventured off to college and into that other world. Me, his only child, the one he was proud of but increasingly distant from, the one who broke his heart by committing the sin of betrayal in leaving the Catholic Church—just as he feared would happen should I follow my bookwormish proclivities—enticed into the world of the eggheads. I saw my father cry only twice, once when his mother died and the other when I told him that I no longer went to Mass. I know that there was love between us always flowing, but it was less apparent when I was in my teens and early 20s before his death at 59 when I was 26, six years after my mother’s death. I do take heart, though, in the belief that there’s reconciliation even after death and that the love flowing between us—playing catch on the sandy Atlantic beaches and dancing at celebratory wedding receptions with the sheer joy of being alive, in mutual alignment with the potent energy of embodied Spirit—carried us through and beyond the rough patches.
How wonderful it is in my 70th year to have found two teachers like Matt and Elizabeth, bringing me back to the childhood experiences with my Dad and others, “letting go” (after making the necessary ego adjustments) into the hands of generous, knowledgeable, and trustworthy individuals. Weary of being the teacher myself, how glorious it is to sink into the experience of, “Teach me,” and how especially luscious when the teacher and the student are impelled by the rightness of their coming together, a teacher eager to impart what enlivens and the willing student eager to receive, each meeting the other in the pulsing center of it all, the place of the Heart.
I’ve continued my weekly sessions with Coach Matt (note the change of title), progressing on the Leg Press (up to being able to push 200 pounds), walking with more assurance on the treadmill and climbing higher and higher on the incline setting, lifting those dead weights—stomach in, butt back, straight down, blowing out as I lift—and trying to get the hang of the darn speed bag, walking around my apartment making circular movements with my arms, one-two-three, one-two-three, talking to myself about the punching movement coming from my elbows, interspersed with, “Oh, my, and I’m a Quaker pacifist.” And, so far, no abduction.
My newest exercise challenge has been pull-ups. When Coach Matt introduced me to this exercise, pointing up to the very high bar I was to reach—get a load of this—and pull my whole self up, repeatedly, the slight flutter I usually get when trying something new turned into a powerful, “Oh, you’re kidding!” (in my mind I was saying something else like, “Oh ******”). Wanting to please the teacher, I warily conceded to giving it a go. Being of short stature, as mentioned before, I needed to make accommodations. First, I was instructed to stand on a chair. OK, I can do that. Second, from there I was to step on a “platform.” Now, when I think of a platform I think of something like a solid board, but this “platform” was a piece of fabric, which, it seemed to me, would provide me with absolutely nothing that remotely resembled support. However, being the obliging student that I am, and trusting Matt to the nth degree, I gingerly placed one foot and then the other on this wobbly cloth, and holding on the sides of the apparatus for dear life, straightened myself up.
Thank goodness I had improved my balance over the months, because I tell you this was a balancing act, which, I’m happy to report, I accomplished after a few more flutter-filled moments. I rather enjoyed the bouncy sensation of the so-called platform, it awakening in my body the pleasure of bouncing. Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy. It reminded me of being on a trampoline or a diving board. Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy. I loved it. Mustn’t linger here, though, I thought, bouncing not being the main aim of the exercise; it was time for me to reach for the stars. I was feeling a little more confident, so without too much hesitation, I reached up, grabbed the bar in the proper way as Coach described, and pulled and pulled and pulled, maybe three or four times. I could hardly contain myself. I was so ecstatic that I let go without retracing the maneuvers in the proper order, almost ending my physical fitness career forever and plunging Coach Matt into cardiac arrest.
I’m still here to tell the story, as is Coach, although another lesson was learned: Cool it on the bouncy, bouncy, Diane, you might just bounce yourself all the way to the stratosphere. Having mentioned my Catholic upbringing a bit ago, I do have a confession to make at this juncture: I could just end this little telling of my first encounter with pull-ups here, and I’m ever so tempted to do so, letting you, the reader, believe that I hoist my body up all by myself, but my religious upbringing coupled with my firmly held belief in the Quaker testimony of integrity, compel me to admit that I have a little help. Yes I do. Like training wheels, the weights on the machine are adjusted to give me a little boost, until that day when, perhaps, just perhaps, I will be able to do it all by myself.
I’ve now come to the ending of “The Pumping Iron at Seventy” part of my travels through time and space, these “momentary pastures” in my life, as Mary Oliver says. There have been a few glimmers of the “Other Weighty Matters” part of the story, but I want to hit it head-on here for the grand finale. I’ve had a recurring image in my meditations over the years of sitting on a tree branch, suspended between earth and heaven, neither here nor there. Yes, I’ve certainly been actively involved in life and from the outside it may appear that I’ve been “all in.” From the inside, it’s been a different story, especially during the first few decades after the deaths of all those close to my heart when I was in my late teens and early twenties, my mother, my father, my maternal grandparents who lived around the corner from us, and my beloved cousin Eddie, my mother’s unwed sister’s son who lived with my grandparents. Eddie drowned in the Mystic River, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not. As an only child, I felt bereft and orphaned at the age of 26, and I suppose it was around that time that I climbed the tree, sat on the branch and watched, afraid to be embodied because that would surely mean death, but, at the same time, who was I to live? What a predicament to be in. So there I sat for many years. Thankfully, though, during the last decade or two, and intensified over this past year of pumping iron and living into my story through writing, I’ve carefully crawled along the tree branch, my sore bum being most pleased to have the pressure taken off, cautiously climbed down the rough but reassuringly strong oak tree trunk, on to the blessed ground.
I kneel down to kiss the earth in this moment of telling and rise to put one foot in front of the other, moving over sometimes rocky ground, sometimes even, pumping iron and writing, loving and being loved, walking the Irish countryside marveling at the birth of new life, marveling at my own body making contact with the earth beneath it, until the unmattering happens. Sooner or later, slowly or quickly, it will happen, and off I’ll go into the stratosphere of Mystery, taken up by the strong current of the winds, delivered into the mists of Connemara, that then being the right time for the no-holds-barred bouncy, bouncies, the buoyancy of the Ultimate Letting Go.
Copyrighted Material, 2017