Elijah and I are walking to the gym.
This is a sentence I have never uttered before. Every piece of it feels foreign. A few years ago, I was talking to my friend Katherine about how at home a morning swim makes me feel, and she interrupted me amusedly: “You … work out? I never pictured you as working out.”
I never did either. I loved to swim, but swimming was not “working out” in my mind, and “working out” was not something I associated with myself or to which I aspired. I blame my childhood in Greece, where–between the complete lack of sidewalks and seemingly collective disregard for the state of our arteries–nobody ever seemed to jog back then. My mother’s sense of exercise extended to imitating the aerobics segment of morning television programs that self-professedly catered to housewives. On the screen would be a supermodel in Jane Fonda socks, counting “and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4” while gracefully swinging long limbs everywhere. Across the screen, my petite mother in her leggings-worn-as-pants (in an era before that was taboo) would flail about in some combination of kicks and grunts. By the first commercial break, she’d give up, in favor of worthier pursuits. As for my father, the sports he embraced were a vociferous support (from the couch) of Panathinaikos’ soccer club, which vicariously made him a devoted athlete, coupled with competitive chain smoking.
It was not until my freshman year of college that I realized that “working out” was a part of my peers’ daily routines, right alongside lunch and going to class . They put it on their calendars, they dressed for it, and they descended on the Charles River with synchronized looks of determination. I, too, loved the Charles River, but in the sea of crimson Harvard T-shirts and bouncy ponytails, my nostalgic amble to feed my need to be by the water felt like a tiny dam against a tide.
Because at the age of 17, you feel you can try selves on for size, one day I, too, put on my brand new Harvard T-shirt and only pair of sneakers in an attempt to Be a Jogger By The River. I lasted two blocks, wore the full spectrum of agony on my face, and would have Googled “am I having a heart attack” if I had had a cell phone. It was at that point that I developed a lifelong awe mixed with bitter envy for the people who make disciplined exercise feel easy and ‘natural’.
Athleticism is a badge of honor. People proudly share the mileage and time of their runs on Facebook. They wear their shiny gear to brunch-after-yoga and post Crossfit selfies. And why shouldn’t they be proud? They have the sense to take care of their bodies, and the discipline to develop that routine of care — a sense and discipline I have lacked. My friends look forward to working out. They find it interesting to talk about. Some would identify it as a hobby or favorite activity. Others find joy in being good at it. In my universe, there is a certain amount of shame — or, at the very least, peculiarity — associated with being an able-bodied female in the 21st century who knows the benefits of exercise and chooses not to practice it.
It is this shame, and the recognition that I ought to like exercise, or at least engage in it out of an awareness of its benefits, that prompts statements like this: “I have always appreciated movement and feeling my body be pushed to its limits, but I have primarily enjoyed that sensation in natural settings: on the surface of a mountain, in the hug of a wave, on the back of a tandem bike going downhill with breeze drying off sweat.” Charming as that sounds, never has the romanticism of those moments translated into anything that would resemble a ‘fitness routine.’
Here I am, however: walking to the gym with Elijah. He walks with purpose, the way I am told you are supposed to walk to warm up before the gym. I walk with dread. I have chosen to be on this icy path on this day, wearing all the athletic clothes I own in one go. I am here because of that mix of shame and hope, of mortal fear that if I do not take care of this body it will begin to crumble under me, and optimism that I can train this mind to not resent every step of the process.
When we finally get to the gym, he splits off from me and I look at the runners with the nose-pressed-up-against-the-glass kind of observation reserved for people on the other side of one’s reality. I am not them. I listen to Dear Sugar podcasts while I run on the indoor track with elderly men consistently lapping me. Cheryl Strayed whispering her thoughts on grief straight into my earlobe is a more familiar reality to me than lycra shorts and calories burnt per hour.
When Cheryl’s podcast ends, it clears space for the angry, wheezing explanations to bubble up.
“I need to model this for my daughter,” I think to myself, even though I don’t have a daughter.
Is that even true? Given the choice of what to model to my hypothetical, imaginary child — kindness, a giving spirit, a curiosity about the world — would I model a commitment to exercise? Maybe if my parents had modeled exercise to me, I wouldn’t be quite so miserable as I hear my own pulse in my ears and my feet pounding across this track. Maybe if I had grown up in a culture in which people valued working out regularly and visibly, I would have grown accustomed to it “when I was younger.” Perhaps if there were more space to talk about how unpleasant exercise can feel, particularly to the uninitiated, if there were space to admit to our unpopular dislike of what is popularly known to be good for us, there would be more of us suffering together and collective suffering would one day miraculously make athletes out of us. The logic is tenuous at best in this delirium, but I need it to explain away the shame of being nearly 30 and a clueless beginner at offering my body this type of care.
Unlike other forms of care, it does not feel tender or even desirable, but it is born from that same place of aspiring for radical (self-) kindness: That nagging place that reminds you that even when you have neglected it, your body keeps showing up for you every morning, accompanying you on your journeys. The responsible place that resists denial and connects the dots between your father’s sedentary chain smoking and his sudden loss, between your anxiety about the world evaporating suddenly and your resistance to doing anything to prevent it. The irrationally optimistic place that believes both the narratives of your being impervious to exercise and your ability to learn to be otherwise, just because this time you “really mean it” . . . whatever that means. And that hereditary, nurture-or-nature place from which the voice of your father emerges, somewhere between Cheryl in your ears and the wheezing in your chest, to remind you that he stoically believed in persistence, that we stick to some of the Not Pleasant But Good For Us things in life, because that is just the thing to do.
Is this what they call a runner’s high? Will I ever be good at this or will I have visions of my father mixed with Cheryl Strayed mixed with my imaginary daughter every time I set a hesitant foot on an indoor track? And all this, in the name of what? Being a New Englander who can run alongside the Charles in her bouncy ponytail with purpose?
The steps slow down. My too-cheery running app tells me that I have met my goal for the day. I’m not any less skeptical, resentful, or cynical — traits I seem to bring to the track with much more readiness than in any other arena of my life. Perhaps this is what these moments are reserved for: For carving out room to be the selves we aren’t used to being, the selves we weren’t bought up to be, the selves we thought we couldn’t be. The athletic, sometimes resentful, sometimes cynical, motivated by shame and optimism alike selves that we thought belonged to others. Perhaps on the other side of this process, on the other side of acceptance, there is a less discordant, dissonant version of all this. Perhaps there can be a self who finds herself by the river and appreciates both the water that reminds her of home and the mostly painless way in which she runs along its side.
But first, you have to run there to find out.