There was a lady in our old neighborhood who used to walk up and down the sidewalks backwards. Sometimes she carried what appeared to be two gallon jugs of drinking water, one in each hand. She was very thin, made all her own clothes, and had a very complex relationship with her health. She was extremely concerned about air quality, for example, and yet was married to a man who smoked so much that not only his teeth but both of his hands were yellow from nicotine. I hated seeing her, not because she was so odd, but because I recognized her as a fellow neurotic. Even on days when I was feeling completely normal, catching a glimpse of her lurching down the sidewalk was like a magnet for all of my wacko health fears. They would just come shrieking to the surface like little monstery kids who jump up and down and yell “BLAAHHH!” right in your face.
Despite my previous post on hypochondria, it is not really as much of an issue for me as it used to be, meaning it’s not my full-time job anymore. I’m pretty much part-time now, with occasional extra hours when special projects come up, such as when I put both of my contacts in the same eye and spent a good part of the morning worrying I had optic neuritis. One of the main things that has helped diminish the power of my health worries has been exercise, which ironically, I ended up doing because I had some neck pain that I felt sure was multiple sclerosis, until I woke up one morning and couldn’t walk upright or turn my head to the left. It was a pinched nerve, a very PAINFUL pinched nerve that required a cortisone shot and a few months of neck rehab.
That was one of the best things that ever happened to me because it led me to a small gym that specializes in training and rehab. Because the gym does training AND rehab, it seems to be populated mostly by high-level athletes and middle-aged women like me who limp in with their wimpy little injuries and then become addicted to wearing those weight lifting gloves (and perhaps to the adorable young whippersnappers who are the personal trainers). I started out to rehabilitate my neck and shoulders from years of bad posture and computer use, and I stayed because I learned that I could become strong.
Then I took up running, or more accurately, moving in a forward direction for some period of time, as my friend Ann says. I used to have this personal goal of running a marathon by the time I was 40, but thank God that time has come and gone, and now my goal is to run a 5k in April without wanting to die or come in last. I can’t run for 3.2 miles yet without stopping to walk, but by April I might be able to. Breathing still seems to be a considerable problem.
One of the pieces of advice I’ve heard over and over while “training” is to keep your eyes on small goals–what my dad, a former runner and lifetime exerciser, calls going from telephone pole to telephone pole, and what my husband, a cyclist, calls riding from mail box to mail box. On some level this is very helpful, but there is something about it that never quite clicked for me, and today, out on the road, I finally realized why.
I was shuffling along, looking for a place to spit where no one would see me, keeping my eyes on the pavement, not the endless horizon, and telling myself that I just needed to get to the next stop sign. I run/walk the SAME 1-mile route over and over, and I KNOW where the stop signs are. So I felt confident in telling myself that when I exerted the extra energy it would take to raise my eyes from the road to the middle distance, I would see the next stop sign. But when I looked up to where there should have been a stop sign, there WASN’T one. I totally panicked–could I still stop when I got to the place where I thought the sign should be? If I couldn’t stop, how much further did I have to run until I could? And was I developing some kind of neurological disease marked by short-term memory loss?
In that moment I realized the critical flaw in the “just get to the next stop sign/mail box/telephone pole” strategy: it feeds on your sense of desperation instead of accomplishment. Instead of focusing on how far I had already come, all I could think about was the 10 more yards that I couldn’t cover. A giant lightbulb went on over my head, and I thought, “I should be looking backwards.”
Perhaps not running backwards, but at least keeping in mind the series of events that led up to that moment: I did put on my running shoes, I did walk out of the house and down the driveway, I did turn left and start jogging, and even when there was a little unevenness in the road that made the three extra steps I had to take feel like three extra miles, even when I felt like I was dancing and not in a good way, like in an Elaine from Seinfeld way, even when my shadow looked like someone having a seizure, I was still moving.
One day my friend Ann told me that she knew what she wanted to do for the rest of her life: “I want to wake up happy.” This moved me very much because I almost never wake up happy and really wish that I did. I usually wake up frightened by all of the hours of the day stretching ahead, all of the things I have to do that I will surely not be able to manage. The Great To Do List approach to life. I don’t think this is that different from other people, except that some people are better able to shake off their morning dread than others.
Out on my run today, I thought, maybe instead of thinking of all the hours looming ahead, I could think about all the hours I’ve already lived, all the calendar pages I’ve already managed, the lists I’ve completed, the words I’ve written, the miles I’ve covered. And not out of achievement, because lots of those hours, tasks, miles and words were damn hard or just plain mediocre, but just out of simple recognition–I’m here. I’ve been here all along. And I chose to keep moving forward even when I didn’t want to. What an extraordinary gift that would be–giving myself back to myself instead of abandoning it to the maw of anxiety that is the future.
I’m here. And so are you! No matter if you cried in the shower this morning, or ran for 20 minutes and were still in the driveway, or got out of bed feeling like it was the worst decision you could possibly make. No matter if you had to take yourself by the hand, over and over, and lead yourself through the day as if you were a kindly but feeble relative, as Anne Lamott says. You are here. And you were here yesterday and the day before that and all the days before that. If you could do that, you can do this–keep moving forward. There may even be a moment, like there was on my run today, just a three-second moment, that felt like being alive was the best possible thing ever and I was the luckiest person in the world. You can have that moment, but even more than that, you can let yourself believe that it’s the absolute truth. I promise.
A short but powerful quote today from playwright, author and psychologist Florida Scott Maxwell’s The Measure of My Days: “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done…you are fierce with reality” (in Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, 70).