all of the selves we Have ever been
“The air between us is not empty space.”
I am an early bird. I love seeing the day in its infancy and experiencing the way the world feels in the first morning hours as the sun takes its place in the sky. The air is cool and fresh and filled with hope. World peace seems possible and brotherly love comes easily in this time of leisure and enthusiasm before rush hour traffic begins.
I leave my apartment for the shared-use path outside my door. As my feet hit the pavement, I feel a jolt of anticipation. Soon, I begin to pass other early birds jogging, biking, and walking. They are a friendly flock. Even speeding by on their bicycles, they nod their heads or shout “good morning!” With the children grown and out of the house, these cheery good mornings fill a void in me that is tender. I look for the familiar faces that I share this path with each morning. There is reassurance here, a sense of belonging. Each day there are new faces, and I wonder, will I see them tomorrow?
When I reach the corner, I step off the path to walk a few laps around the parking lot of a giant office complex. Scattered around this artfully landscaped property are small pavilions containing octagon-shaped picnic tables with attached benches. On the busiest corner I sometimes pass a small group of people huddled together for a smoke before the workday begins. In a less busy area, I pass a young woman who seems occupied by her phone or a notebook. We say hello each day. One morning I spot her sitting in a more remote pavilion. After we exchange greetings, I add, “You have moved.” She explains that she likes to read and think and meditate a little before going into the office. As the young woman says this, she stands and begins to gather her things. In the early sunlight, I can see the beauty of her face and the long hair that is pulled back in a low, loose pony tail. Dark waves ripple down her back. “You are strikingly beautiful,” I say as I walk by.
“Do you work here,” she asks me.
“I don’t work here. I just walk here.”
“Well, I wish you worked here.” She embraces me with her smile, a gesture that makes me wish I did work here with this lovely, meditating pavilion princess.
I pass others coming from or trying to find the only bus stop within miles of my home. Sometimes they walk with purpose, but other times, they are lost or confused and in need of assistance. Many of them are trying to find the nearby methadone clinic, their lifeline to the future. A missed bus or an encounter with the wrong stranger could end their recovery and maybe their lives. I look out for them as I approach the bus stop.
With the start of school just weeks away, teens begin conditioning for football and soccer. Teenage girls jog past me in their leggings and sports bras. Their pony tails swing in time to the music they hear from their earbuds. Small packs of teenage boys race past me. They are skin and bones in giant tennis shoes. Youth glistens on their moist, bare backs. I try to imagine these slender, dewy reeds potted in canvas and rubber as intimidating linemen wrapped in cleats and pads and helmets.
I am not alone in my wonder and curiosity. Nature gets in on the act. I share my observations with a bright yellow bird that watches while camouflaged inside a row of trees bursting with yellow-green leaves. A sprinkling of sassy dandelions applauds us all from the edges of the well-manicured lawn where, somehow, they have managed to avoid the mower’s blade.
An hour or more later, I return to my apartment. I feel at peace, connected to my neighbors and to nature, and I wonder: night owls, what do you see?
Following my usual route along a nondescript section of urban bike trail,
I spot something new! A row of tall banners blows in the breeze and forms a lively parade along the guardrail. I look for the cause of such celebration. Beyond the guardrail and down a small slope on the far side of an enormous parking lot, a new establishment is open for business.
One of the signs unfurls on an east-to-west wind, and I see the words, “Dry Needling” displayed on a banner that looks like a boat sail. I repeat the words to myself as I move along the path: Dry needling? What can that be?
I scour my mental glossary and come up with an ancient parental rebuke, “Quit needling your sister!” The tone made it clear that continued needling came with consequences. And needle each other in public? A girl better be prepared to grow her hair out like Rapunzel if she ever wanted to leave her room again. These needling memories increase my curiosity, and I imagine a business built on a model developed by kids in junior high school. If only I had known then that I could build a profitable empire on those sarcastic, uninspired, and mean years!
Making my way home with the words dry needling still jabbing my brain, I look up the word needling and find that it is “a teasing or gibing remark.” But then I have to dig into the word gibing – “to make someone the object of unkind laughter, deride, jeer, laugh at, mock, ridicule, skewer, scoff, or make fun of.” Yep, my parents knew what they were talking about.
I dig deeper. What can dry needling be? My parents were not that explicit. Perhaps they assumed that at age 12 there was no alcohol involved in these exchanges of psychic puncture wounds. Therefore, I assume that despite the fanfare, this new establishment along the bike path is not a bar. I guess people of any age can needle while sober.
I walk the short distance home and think of how long it has been since my parents scolded us for needling. If only they had lived a little longer, they would have seen that those junior high skills and the art of needling can have a big pay-off. Today, we call it Twitter.
I continue my battle with inertia.
Wintry weather and rich holiday food have not helped. It is a profound truth: a body at rest
does remain at rest…I am searching for that outside force that will get me moving in the
Stuffed with Thanksgiving Day dinner leftovers, mostly desserts, I rally the strength to lift a finger and find myself again climbing the tree of knowledge. Health experts and influencers abound on the internet. Surely, there is one who is right for me.
I survey the literature. It turns out that a square meal is not a brownie and a well-rounded meal is not a pie. Who knew? I need a new program. Diet? Exercise? Both?
I scroll down looking for a name I recognize, someone with history and credentials. I see something familiar: “Did you ever eat a pine tree?”
No, Euell Gibbons, I did not--not even a pinecone. I did try Grape Nuts once. I’m pretty sure that was a close encounter. Upon further reading, I discover that dinosaurs considered pinecones a delicacy. I’m not sure that piece of news is a selling feature with dinosaurs being extinct and all. Folklore suggests that a woman should place a pinecone under her pillow if she wants to become pregnant. At my age, that’s one more reason to keep pinecones out of the house. Not the abs I’m looking for.
Euell Gibbons was one of the first health food advocates I can recall from my youth. He was a well-known outdoorsman famous for eating pine trees, cat tails, and other bits of nature. I was pretty fascinated by the man when I was a grade schooler, but now I wonder: can the pinecone spokesman really be trusted? He died at the age of 64 with the cause of death in dispute. Some say he died from heart attack or ruptured aortic aneurysm. Others suspect he died from eating bad food. Bad genes were implicated as well. Maybe not the approach I am looking for…
I move on to another health guru of my young adult years: Jim Fixx. He started a revolution in exercise, making running a very popular sport with the publication of The Complete Book of Running. Fixx turned to running as he attempted to turn his life around. I guess gravity and inertia had gotten to him as well. A history of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day probably hadn’t help. Again, genes were not in his favor. Jim’s father died at a young age from heart disease. Despite his dramatic turnaround, Jim Fixx died of a heart attack during a daily run. He was fifty-two years old.
This is not looking good. I have already outlived the health legends of my youth. It was not through any conscious effort on my part; it was the luck of the draw. I had better genes.
I narrow my search. I need a guru with good health advice and good genes.
Enter Jack LaLanne, of course! He was a staple of daily television beginning in 1959, and he lived to the age of 96. Until his final brief bout of pneumonia which he refused to treat, LaLanne continued to work out each day and operate his fitness empire. As a kid, I admired LaLanne’s jumpsuit and ballet slippers. I thought he might be one of Santa’s more handsome elves.
LaLanne started out with a fifteen minute morning program. Well, I’ve got fifteen minutes. Things are looking up!
And Jack wasn’t so fancy. Low-tech all the way. My kind of guy. He used basic household items like a kitchen chair for his equipment. I’ve still got one of those, and there is not a week’s worth of clothes hanging off the handlebars.
Jack was focused on serving stay-at-home moms of that era. What a perfect time for a comeback. Stay-at-home moms are back in business and looking for curriculum for those remote learning gym classes.
Jack LaLanne referred to body parts as “porches.” The behind was the back porch, the abdomen the front porch…With all of this outdoor social distancing, it’s a perfect time to work on the porches. I go to YouTube and pull up a couple of his workouts. Not too bad.
I dig for his diet tips. The tide turns. It’s a bummer. (Or should I say porcher?) In his real life, LaLanne worked out two hours every morning. After that workout, his breakfast consisted of hardboiled egg whites, a cup of broth, oatmeal with soy milk, and fruit. His only other meal was a dinner of raw veggies, egg whites, and fish. Sounds like prison food. And yet, prisoners are allowed to wear comfortable, loose clothing. They are not tortured by tight waistbands and spandex. An exchange of freedoms…
Maybe I’ll stick with my program. Inert and alone on my big back porch seems like the patriotic thing to do in a pandemic.
“It requires courage to have a change of heart.”
This morning I found that quote in a little notebook I refer to in times of prayer and reflection.
During this shelter-in-place time, I don’t change my clothes much, but I seem to have a change of heart every couple of hours. Perhaps all of us in this boat are more courageous than we realize.
My daily wardrobe is sweatpants. I have three identical pairs, and except for the hours I am doing the laundry, my daily wardrobe remains the same. Not much changes.
But my heart…
What changes my heart with such frequency?
In the morning, I pull up to the drive-through window for a small order. It is a meager contribution to the economy. A young man leans out the window, hands me my food, and says, “It’s on me today. Take care of yourself.” My heart swells. I need a 3X t-shirt to accommodate the gratitude I feel from the kindness of this stranger.
The governor comes on television at 2 PM for his daily news conference. He addresses the ranks. Our leader provides his army of hearts with armor and a battle plan. Properly attired, mine is a courageous and confident heart.
I watch the evening news and see emergency rooms bursting with the sick and dying. Hospital workers and first responders fill every square inch of space with their hustle and bustle. Some lay prostrate on the ground outside the ER doors. Others weep on park benches. Yet, they carry on. My heart is broken. It needs a cast. Will it ever mend?
I see protesters on the streets and on the lawn of the state house. These people are armed and angry, yelling, and saying hateful things. I am bewildered. And frightened. I can feel my heart withering. It needs an oxygen mask.
I watch a fundraising concert on television. Through the wonders of modern technology, the biggest names in entertainment sing to me from their homes. It is simple, and elegant. My heart shifts in my chest. I might need a special mesh screen to hold my heart in place so moved am I by the beauty of the performances and the talent and generosity of the participants.
I turn on the computer and find my email inbox full. The emails come with attachments and YouTube links. My friends and colleagues are thinking of me. The messages they send are filled with clever, funny, charming, touching, and sometimes laugh-out-loud ridiculous jokes, stories, songs, dances, and interviews. My heart is comforted; these contacts are vacation beachwear for my overworked heart.
I have been lounging in my sweatpants for weeks. The only iron I’ve been pumping is the irony of being perpetually dressed for a workout while I stretch out on the couch. Now I realize that I am exhausted. My heart has been running a marathon.
Ever on the lookout
for the express train to health and wellness as I age, I read an article reporting that jumping twenty times twice a day can improve bone health in seniors. Wow! That sounds easy. I walk every day, stretch a few times a week, do some light weights. How hard can it be to jump?
I wait for the neighbor in the apartment below to pull out of the parking lot, and I head for the back bedroom.
I ponder for a few minutes. What did the author mean exactly by “jumping?” Is that just plain old up and down? Jumping rope? Jumping on something? Jumping off? Realizing I’m making this complicated enough to talk myself into giving up before I even begin (which explains why I am always on the lookout for the express train), I settle on the standard, time-tested jumping jack. How many of those have I done in my life? Sounds of Robert Preston, the Music Man, singing the 1962 Youth Fitness Song and visions of high school gym class come to mind: “…clap and jump and stride, known as the jumping-jack far and wide…” Yes, sir! Go, you chicken fat, go! I’m all in…
I take the first jump and immediately realize this is much harder than it sounds. My body feels dead and heavy like a wrecking ball. By the third jump I can feel my heart racing and hear it pounding in my ears. I wonder if the neighbors will be calling to complain. The window blinds vibrate, and stuff begins to shift on the shelves. I enter into negotiations with myself, maybe I’ll start with ten today.
By five I’ve called out my inner drill sergeant, and I’m shouting at myself, don’t be a loser! The intimidated new recruit in me is wondering if it’s possible for my knees to end up where my hips used to be. I realize that if my leg bones don’t crumble and I continue with this, I’m definitely going to need an iron support bra.
I deride myself onward, and I make it to ten. I’ve worked up a sweat, and I realize this takes some balance. My mantra becomes: Don’t fall. Don’t fall… How will I explain my injuries to the emergency squad? My eyeglasses flop up and down striking my forehead and slapping my nose. My sweatpants are sliding down my hips. I’m working up an appetite. By fifteen I re-open negotiations—maybe I’ll do twenty jumps once a day—just for starters.
Eighteen…nineteen…twenty. Yahoo! Everyone sing: Go, you chicken fat, go!
I plop in the recliner. Back to pondering. When was the last time I jumped? I try to think of why it is I haven’t jumped, but then why DO people jump? Except for basketball stars and gymnasts, I just can’t picture it. No wonder adult bones are crumbling.
And yet, I feel strangely invigorated and a little proud. I laugh at myself and my new definition of success. I chuckle at my memories of gym class and remind myself to call my best friend from high school. It will end up a long and hilarious conversation as it usually does when we get to remembering such things.
Why do people jump?
Why, for joy, of course. People jump for joy!
I think I will try this again tomorrow. Go, you chicken fat, go!
This essay first appeared in the New Hampshire Senior Beacon, November 2019.