image courtesy of Google (from Google search for “grace”)
i used to be graceful. like, pride-myself-on-walking-in-quietly-while-commanding-a-room-full-of-respect-and-attention, graceful. at least, that’s how i imagined it. i was careful to convey the mood and intention of my interactions with the heaviness of my footfalls; i tried to move as close to silently as possible; and i always paid attention to how i held my body, whether moving or standing still. this was simply a way of being, and in my teens and twenties, was not meant to force attention or convey a pompous attitude, but as a camaraderie between how the world experienced me and how i existed and impacted the world in return. everyday was an adventure in this way, and always required me to hone intuition to get a sense of the energy of the day, the mood of an event, or the tone of a group. i studied and learned about the person in the room who wasn’t speaking or being spoken to. i explored the details of places to find secret spots, or books, or histories. i discovered things about the world this way, and it was exhilarating. it gave me a place to exist and a method of doing it. i had a place, and it was mine.
athletics: a (my) history
i’d never go so far as to say that this grace, as i’ve dubbed it, was by any means athletic. while i could do athletic things, i was not athletically gifted. coordination was not my problem – i could dance, stretch, mimic, and perform. it was athleticism – running, organized team-on-team sports, play-by-play instruction based on rules, plans, strengths and weaknesses of players – that never came naturally. i did make an effort, just never the connection.
two very particular experiences with organized athletics impacted me immensely beyond my natural disinclination in this area:
1) my middle school gym teacher made every non-natural-born-athlete feel like an inferior species and regularly taunted us in gym. i’m sure my pre-teen imagination exaggerated this to some extent, but i still remember the sentiment of gym class to this very day, including the sinking pit in my stomach when changing in the locker room. to my credit, i also remember being able to climb fairly high on rope-climb day (“for a girl”) which was the only smug moment i EVER had in his class.
2) my parents really wanted me to try a sport, club, or activity. as a young kid (elementary school-ish), i was really into books and writing and, while i had friends and played a lot, this caused me to spend a lot of time on my own. after a little prodding, i finally decided i would try soccer. i remember putting on shorts with sweatpants on over them to walk to the gym in the cold, finding a cool enough tee-shirt that i also wouldn’t be upset if i sweat all over, and lacing up my sneakers that i had no clue wouldn’t get traction on the turf. i don’t think i had ever really seen cleats up close before. but i felt good. i knew a little about soccer, and i thought i was going to keep my head down, listen to what the coach taught us, and eventually test it out with my own two feet. it took very little time to discover how SORELY mistaken i was, entering a gym full of 9 and 10 year old boys who had been playing soccer for YEARS (how were we even old enough to have been doing ANYTHING for years?!) and one, count her: ONE, other girl. who was athletic. and really (or as we say it at home, wicked) good at soccer. fan-freaking-tastic. i have no memory of a coach or any adult being there, though i’m sure there were a handful chatting over coffee in the corner, talking about the lack of funding and sharing town gossip. the horse blinders were on. all i could see were kids in adidas sambas (i still have an obsession with these) and cleats running around like mini-Beckham’s, making the ball do their child-athlete bidding. i was in WAY over my head. the worst part of all of this was not the overwhelming sense of lack of knowledge and skill- because i could have gotten over that. i didn’t like being bad at things, but i wanted to learn how not to be bad at something even more. i would have stayed and learned and maybe even been okay at soccer. instead, the jokes about a girl on the field incessantly began, not a grown up or my Mia-Hamm-like-girl-player-in-solidarity in sight to say a word. the derision was impressive for boys that age, though i imagine, as politely as i can say this, that they had good instruction (from all aspects). i had a decently thick skin for a kid that age (i hadn’t yet been to the gym class in example 1), but it didn’t take long before i was furious. and with the fury came the frustration. and the over-thinking. and then the reduced coordination. i’m pretty sure i stayed for the whole first game, which i imagine was shortened given our ages, although it felt like forever. even though i yelled back at the boys and i tried to learn the rules, the name calling, the intentional kick shots to the stomach and face, and the lack of ANY SINGLE PERSON stepping in to simply tell them to “knock it off” sealed the deal for me: i would not be returning to soccer. not then. not ever. this was one of the only times i can remember in my whole life when i’ve been that frustrated and managed not to cry, though i did power-walk home, fists clenched and shaking, my face red, to tell my dad “SEE! DO YOU SEE NOW! (of course he hadn’t seen what happened and was completely blindsided) THIS IS WHY I DID NOT WANT TO PLAY A SPORT!!!” i did, because i was coordinated and didn’t mind exercising, eventually become a cheerleader, and we did ironically cheer for the high school men’s soccer team when they were low on fans. although many of the players were different, more mature, and were really, genuinely nice guys, i remember thinking, “my how the tides have turned!”
a b i l i t y and commitment
this sets the stage for you. while i still felt a connection to my “grace”, never had a problem with breaking a sweat, was one of a handful of girls who used the weight room with the football players in high school, and could dance, do yoga, and take down a solid Tae Bo video, i never believed in my physical ability. i started joking that i only ran if i was being chased. and that stuck. and created a mindset. it wasn’t just that i didn’t – i couldn’t – and even if i could, i wouldn’t want to. once i got to college, it stood out to me more. friends went to the gym. they went running together. they played club, intramural, or even varsity sports. IN FRONT OF PEOPLE. and they liked it! my newly minted women’s studies minor self could only think back to the soccer turf, and i chose to find a team in clubs, organizations, and my job as a Resident Assistant. this attitude continued after i graduated. even after i took some time to really do yoga, discovered how much i enjoyed pushing myself in pilates, and took intensively long walks with friends and co-workers. i loved how these things made me feel, but i could never commit. i felt like i would fail before i ever began. habits were broken before they formed. and i could blame it on work, and then grad school, or both.
to sweat or not to sweat…
it wasn’t until i was in my mid-twenties that i discovered Bikram Yoga. it was the hardest physical activity i had ever done in my life – an hour and a half of yoga training in a 98° room filled with people an arms-width away. our teacher used to say “90 minutes of hell, a lifetime of heaven”. they told us that the goal of the first class was just to be able to stay in the room. laying down. not moving. i was sufficiently horrified and fascinated at the same time. when the class started, i was so focused on really hearing and doing what the instructor was communicating, that i suddenly found myself at the end of the class, having done every pose. my yogi later told me that i came to class with the best thing i could – what they called “an empty cup” – the ability to only focus on what they were saying and try, my very best, to go as deeply into the pose as i could push my body on that day with no care as to how i had performed the class before. aside from the fact that i would leave class feeling like an entirely different and much better person, my body felt different, my hair and skin were healthier (hello detoxification!), and i was sleeping better. i was TOTALLY in love. my grace was in her glory.
and then, not so much. after having a bout of optic neuritis flare up for the third year in a row, coupled with tingling and numbness in my feet and legs, i went through a battery of tests and pokes and prods, including a lumbar puncture (turn it up to eleven, because THIS is spinal tap!), only to be told at the ripe age of 27 that i had a mysterious, incurable illness that would most likely debilitate me progressively to the point of potential blindness, lack of motor skills, and memory loss: multiple sclerosis. my body was essentially attacking itself from the inside, confusing the good stuff for bad stuff, and going at it with gusto. fortunately, i had (and still have) a relatively mild case that did not seem to have done any major, permanent damage. one thing that came with this, and my new medication, however, was a sensitivity to heat. devastation station. my new found love for Bikram was pulled out from underneath me, the first time i had felt confident in my ability to do anything physically challenging. and the grace started slipping away.
don’t push it
i told myself for a long time that i should really be careful with how much i pushed myself. the fatigue with ms is mind-boggling, and days that i have over-exerted myself make it almost impossible for me to move, and sometimes even think, later on. i let fear replace the grace. and the worry curled up under my heart. and i just felt a whole lot of scared that every step would be one closer to my last. every single physical challenge i had faced had brought me to another, so why bother? it was like i could hear my 10 year old self yelling at my dad, but this time at myself, “SEE! DO YOU SEE NOW! THIS IS WHY YOU ARE NEVER GOING TO BE ABLE TO DO ANYTHING AGAIN!!!” while i really don’t think i was wrong to be mad about the “soccer pitch of sexism”, i had really devolved into a self-defeating pit of full-on “can i get some cheese with that” whine. all around me, every single day, were stories of people who beat the odds – with education, with new careers, with family, with love, and, of course, their health! i was staring it in the face and not even acknowledging that it was there. though i still dabbled in yoga and pilates and enjoyed taking walks, i wouldn’t dare RISK my health to try something new.
the times are a-changin’
after i got married, i had really found someone (luckily for me!) who didn’t put up with this attitude at all. while we still hadn’t made a set time for exercise in our daily schedule (especially when i started commuting 1,000 – yes, i’m totally serious – miles per week), we occassionally played raquetball, went for walks, and started playing pseudo-sports (bean bag toss, horseshoes, etc.). because my wife had been trained in physical education for elementary aged kids, she was perfectly suited to try to teach me anything sport-related (read: patient and capable of ignoring constant complaining). i started feeling comfortable with tossing the bean bag with friends, i didn’t feel *quite* so self-conscious learning a new game, and i started going for longer walks around the neighborhood. finally, a little over a year ago, i resolved to try running. i had just heard of a free app called “Couch to 5K”. i read the reviews of a few, and downloaded the Zen Labs version. i was pretty out of shape at first. and though the first few weeks weren’t too bad since i do a lot of fast walking, i definitely had room to expand my lung capacity, endurance, and strength. and suddenly, it got easier. and easier. i bought my first pair of running shoes EVER. and then the marathon bombing happened. and i thought to myself, how can you NOT run?! how, when you haven’t been debilitated by ms, when you can get up and move and walk and feel, are you NOT taking full advantage of what you ARE capable of? so you have ms. so tomorrow you might be tired, so in a year you might not be able to run as much, so in twenty-five years you might have a hard time walking – who knows? maybe none of those things will be true and every second you sit around not trying is definitely a moment you would regret with every fiber of your being if you couldn’t do it. so why not try.
Nike means victory
i got NIKE+ (first run recorded – April 30, 2013). i went for my first run outside. and other runners smiled and nodded. and there i was, in it. i felt the ground, i felt my breath, i felt the way my muscles worked. and around the bend, after that next lap, surprisingly, i found my grace again; a little different, maybe even a little worse-for-the wear, but still lovely, and thoughtful, and aware of the world around her. and i was so heartbreakingly grateful – after all of the people, all of the experiences, and all of my own inner monologues, telling me that i was not capable, that i could not do it, that i was not good enough – that grace could walk back in, quiet, and with ease and commanding confidence, and tell me, after all the times i had fallen and broken and failed and spirited myself away from the whole entire world, that i was everything i needed to be with one. simple. word.
here we are, nearly a year from my first Nike+ run and 215 logged miles later, still running. still growing, making mistakes, and working on letting the grace shine. i still give myself excuses as to why i will run tomorrow, or why i should eat a donut (do i really need an excuse?!), or why i should stay up just a little bit later, but i have never found a reason not to lace up my sneakers and run another round eventually. now more than halfway through “Couch to 10K”, i’ve finally found myself not looking for the reasons why not, but looking toward all of the reasons why i’ll have given myself by this time next year.
sometimes it’s the first step that’s the hardest. sometimes it’s the next one. either way, reuniting with the grace that helps me step at all has made this journey worth it. because it’s not just that you move. it’s in the way you do it.