Monday, December 7, 2015

Raising the bar

In my thirties I was a fairly serious weight-lifter, eagerly pumping iron at an all-ladies gym.  During my last years of teaching, I'd been dealing with incomparable stress, which left me with TMJ, carpal tunnel syndrome, and a wicked case of fybromyalsia.   My physical therapist suggested weight lifting as a good way to build strength and give my muscles a larger range of motion.   So, in addition to yoga, hiking, and gardening, I hit the gym at least six days a week.
One of my doctors says I'm a walking miracle, as everything's been healed except mild numbness in my hands whenever I garden or knit too much.  Still, I was dedicated to staying off medication, avoiding unnecessary surgery, and creating a healthier lifestyle.  When I moved to California 2008, one of the bonuses of my job was being on my feet at least nine hours a day doing some pretty heavy lifting in the Esalen farm and garden.  Sure, I went to the gym on campus now and again, but since I spent the majority of my time outside and walked at least six miles a day up and down some pretty steep hills, I found that the natural world provided a much better workout.
It's been eight years since I ventured into the world of spin classes, treadmills, and free weights, yet that's been something I've longed for since the beginning of 2015.  I missed the intensity, the variety, and the challenge.  Still, I'm not one to want attention while I'm working out.  In fact, when I was a Lifestyles member, I meditated in my car before I went inside the gym, mentally zipping up my energy so I wouldn't be over-stimulated by the blaring televisions, the shouting instructors, the music blasting from the overhead speakers.  In addition to not being bothered by the mayhem, I found others didn't really bother with me.  Once while I was taking a break on a bench in-between leg lifts, a woman actually sat on me.
"Oops!" she exclaimed.  "Sorry!  I didn't see you there."
"No worries," I told her.  "That was my intention."
Yet, since I joined a new gym here in the Toledo area, I've been setting much different intentions, and the bar's gone way up. 

The gym I belong to now is quiet, save for the upbeat music softly playing in the workout area and the locker rooms.  The classes are taught in an upstairs private space and best of all, there's a steam bath I enjoy after working out or taking a hike at Wildwood.  Exercise has once again become my favorite form of entertainment, recreation, and self care...and I'm loving every moment.
Most days I arrive between one and three or in the evening, so it's usually just me and bunch of guys lifting or running or swimming.  I don't mind at all since I spent a lot of time at Esalen working with men, learning how to do things efficiently and effectively on a bigger scale.  I've seen dudes bench press three hundred pounds when I'm lucky if I can do thirty.  They grimace and grunt and grit their way through set after set after set, sweating like dogs and slapping each other on the shoulders when they can add ten pounds to the bar for another round.
I watch them all, then try to up my game, just to see what I can do.  But I have to admit that my Type A personality crept in during the first couple of weeks so much so that I came home sore, fatigued, and sometimes in pain.  Once I set the bar so high, it would have been more productive if I had limboed beneath it.  I paid dearly for that workout and have now changed my ways, incorporating what I often tell my yoga students, "The practice doesn't have a has a purpose.  Discover what yours is today, because it might be different than it was the last time." 

Last week, during a yoga class, one of my friends said, "You're still a relaxed Type A, but you've mellowed even more over the years."
"Just wait another ten years or so," I smiled at Brenda. "I'll be even softer then."
"I hope I'm still around," she chuckled.
"Oh, you will be," I replied.  "You're the first person who helped me reframe my energetic personality so I don't feel like such a hard ass."
I recently took a personality quiz and discovered that I'm high in both alpha and beta tendencies, so that makes me fairly balanced and able to lead as well as compromise.  But after living with cats for the better part of my adult life, I've realized that, like them, I've softened my alpha tendencies, but still know how to go for what I want...especially if it involves attaining a long-held desire.  For them that might mean a highly-coveted, comfortable spot on the couch or a romp session in the yoga room.  For me it means a life-long career as a writer and a healthy relationship.
I've been spending more time with men this year and have come to realize they're not all that different than women.  Yes, their brains are more focused on one thing at a time.  Yes, they can get things on the top shelf of the cupboard that are far out of reach for me.  Yes, most of them are hard-wired to fix things, whether it be a broken toaster or a broken heart.  But most fellas want the same things that most women do:  to be loved, to be appreciated, to find meaning in their lives.
Still, I've come to accept that I'm more attracted to men who actively move matter what they're doing.  Maybe that's why I love to work out with them around.  I'm an alpha cat, and can wait patiently for things to evolve.  But there's something about an alpha dog who knows what he wants and goes for it, whether it be a promotion at work, another lap in the pool, or another ten minutes talking with me on the phone.  I swear, there's nothing quite like a man who assertively, yet not aggressively, finishes what he's started.
Take the man I had dinner with last spring, the guy who fearlessly called me a badass.
Pete's a long-distance runner and was lamenting about how he had torn a meniscus near the end of a marathon.
"Oh, man," I said, lifting my brows.  "I'll bet that hurt.  What did you do?"
"I finished the race," he replied nonchalantly.
"No kidding?"
"Nope...then I had surgery on it."
"I should have had surgery when I tore mine doing gardening work for a friend," I told him.
"How'd you do it?"
"I fell into a deep ravine while my foot was planted on the edge.  I ended up landing on a rock and got pretty banged up."
"What'd you do?"
I shrugged.  "I climbed out of the ravine and finished the job."
Then we both laughed, realizing we had more in common than a distaste for ultra-spicy food and a dedication to fitness.
Near the end of the evening, we were talking about the long, challenging road I've taken to find a publisher.  I was in the middle of writing The Lace Makers, and told Pete that I wasn't sure how I could get the finished manuscript into the hands of an agent who had both clout and integrity.  He listened patiently while I described the ups and downs of self-publishing and how all I really want to do is find my own place in the literary world.
It was enchanting when Pete smiled and said, "One day you'll be totally rich.  Your books will be sold all around the world and you'll be famous.  But you won't be happy because that's not who you really are."
At the time, I replied that even though I don't seek praise, I'd be overjoyed if my work touched peoples' lives in some way.  Now I wish I'd asked him what he thought might make me truly happy.  I still wonder, What would he say...this man who revealed that I'm now leading with who I am and not what I do?
Meeting someone like Pete raised the bar on what I truly want -- someone who's strong and kind.  Someone who knows who he is and also sees me clearly, no matter how much I might try to hide.  Someone who can both call me out into the space between us and invite me inside of myself into places I didn't know existed. 
Someone who will be the man, so I can be the woman.
Since that night, being a vulnerable badass has been an ongoing challenge, but it's been worth it...and after all this time, I know Pete was worth it, too. 

Ever since I graduated from college, I've had to exercise my masculine side to earn a living, pay the bills, run a household and a small business.  Over the years I've lifted the bar higher and higher, striving to improve every area of my life.  While developing this kind of strength is all well and good, it can never take the place of a real man.  And I don't want to lift weights like a man or talk like a man or even work like one for that matter, for I've come to fully understand what Bobbie Barrett said to Peggy in season two of Mad Men:  "No one will tell you this, but you can't be a man.  Don't even try.  Be a woman.  Powerful business when done correctly."
This year has been one of enormous changes, but not all of them can be seen on the least not yet.  These days, I no longer need to zip up my energy to be in this world, to work outside of my home, to date or go out with friends.  I find I can set the bar high and still work with my ever-changing limits, because every day brings something new.  I may not always be able to run as far as I'd like.  I may need to take a step back after taking two steps forward.  My yoga practice may need to shift and change as the seasons do. 
It doesn't really matter.
        What matters is the awareness I bring to what I'm doing, be it in the gym, writing a novel, or meeting someone for a cup of coffee.  I may succeed or falter, but at least I'm making the effort.  Raising the bar might not always be comfortable, but it always encourages me to grow...and that, too, is powerful business when done with an open heart.