Trudging down the steps into the basement, Arctic air follows me. I park my coat on a hook, grab my water bottle, and head toward the distorted blare of Seventies Rock. I don’t care. Everything I need is here: The room is large, but full of the smell of sweat and iron.
Mirrors watch me cross the room, but the stranger by the bench press does not; he merely nods as I head to my set. Pushing the pin into the stack, I begin.
It’s always a long way to twelve, on the first set of the day, but when I get there, I feel the blood beginning to move through my body, waking my muscles up. Today is a good day; I’ll be ready to add another five pounds soon.
Pagans talk about “embodied spirituality,” but I notice many of us don’t so much practice it as talk about it. There are a lot of couch potatoes planted along this spiritual path.
I’m not an exception to that rule. At fifty-four, my arches have fallen, my discs are herniated, and my knees and my rotator cuffs don’t love me like they used to. At the end of a day of work, it’s so much easier to collapse on a couch than it is to spend a little time in my body.
It wasn’t always this way. As a child and a teenager, I lived in the woods–a fact which probably led to becoming a Pagan. In my twenties, my coven and I typically celebrated Midsummer or Lammas by climbing a mountain. In my thirties, I celebrated my honeymoon by hiking with my beloved to a cabin without running water or electricity, and right into my forties, I walked to work and back in all weathers.
Even when I injured my back six years ago, walking, endless walking over woods trails was the way that I healed. (I am certain that it was the woods, every bit as much as the walking, that eventually let me put away my cane.)
But it gets harder as the years go by. As much as I want to be the ninety year old on a ski slope, or the eighty year old climbing mountains, that may not happen. Bodies wear out; they break, and sometimes they cannot be mended.
All the same, there is a joy in living into what we have, as fully as we can.
My turn at the bench press. Deliberately, I do not compare the plates on the bar with those I would have lifted, years ago. Instead, I compare my lift today with what it was when I found this gym, only a few weeks ago. That I lifted more when I was younger is not the point; that I am lifting now is.
All the same, it feels good to add a little more weight to the bar.
Today, I decide, today I will work to failure. Calling for a spot, I begin.
One… two… three…
At eight, the weight is getting heavy. I dig deep. “You can do it, you can do it,” the stranger chants: the
incantation of all weight lifters, everywhere. “It’s all you, allyouallyou–”
I know I’ve got nine. (Nine!) The question is… do I have…(the bar is wobbling, now, and my spotter stands near) TEN!
I had ten. Good. Good enough. Removing my plates from the bar, I fill my water bottle–then empty it.
Of course, there are Pagans who are disciplined and consistent in their physical practice: yoga, tai chi, tae kwon do. There are Pagans whose bodies are indeed temples.
But there are also Pagans whose bodies are broken. Fibromyalgia. Myasthenia gravis. Chronic fatigue syndrome, spinal fusion, hip replacements… cancer. The list of illnesses my friends must share their temples with is long, and getting longer.
One of the sad parts of being an elder is watching your friends who are elders too show the signs of their mortality.
Shouldn’t the bodies of the spiritually enlightened be healthy forever? Pretty to think spiritual work would assure physical health. But the truth is otherwise: none of us will get out of here alive.
Pulldowns, wide grip. I adjust the bar across my knees. Though the weight I am using is nowhere near enough to lift me from the bench, I must use my entire body with this machine, in order to keep my lower back completely, entirely isolated from the movement. If I am very careful, if I keep my form as crisp as a military drill, I can do it this one without harm.
If I am careless… I can’t be sure that this was the exercise that set me to walking with a cane again, briefly, for a few days last month. But I am careful all the same.
I cannot trust the resilience of youth to adjust for any errors. But I am old enough to understand: I’m mortal. I need to be wise as well as strong. I bide my time. I use care.
And, regretfully, though I eye the low-row wistfully, I do not set the pin. Low-row, aikido, Alpine skiing, sparring with boffer swords… the list of exercises I dare not do is also long. I do what I can, and I do my best to honor the body I actually have, not the body I remember.
“I feel like lifting weights is a spiritual experience for me,” a friend said recently. I hadn’t even known she lifted. I don’t share her view; not exactly. While I am in the gym, I am not thinking spiritual thoughts. I am not centering, or consciously moving energy, or contemplating peace. All I am doing is trying to get to the next rep. (One… two…) My mind is in my muscles, to the extent I have a mind.
And that’s the beauty of it, I suppose. For a little over an hour at a time, I stop letting my thoughts run the show. Asleep or awake, for much of the time, my mind spins on, like a hamster stuck on a wheel. But when I am in my body… my mind is quiet.
I remember a day, long ago in the dojo, when our teacher interrupted our drills, unhappy with what he saw.
He lined us all up, from the black belts through the lowliest white belt, and he made us run, one after another, down the length of the mat until we reached the point where he stood. There, he had each of us in turn execute a single breakfall.
“No!’ he would call, and point to the end of the line. “Again!’ And again and again, each of us ran the length of the mat, threw ourselves into a breakfall, and came to our feet.
And every so often, he would simply say, “Yes,” and point that person out of line.
At last, I understood.
When it was my turn, I ran the length of the mat. I did not think. I did not plan. For the span of perhaps a dozen seconds, I allowed my body simply to be itself, to be alive, in charge.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes.”
I don’t know what would happen if I tried a breakfall now. I no longer study martial arts, and I doubt I ever will again.
But I remember how to be a body, and how to live in that body, as fully and completely as if I were a mouse, or a bear… or a twenty year old, learning for the first time the pleasure of being herself, in a body, for no particular purpose at all.
I remember, in a way that’s deeper than words: I am alive.