Stories for Lent: #23 Physicality

It’s been a long day, and it’s not over yet. The sky is dark, the air is cold, I’m rushing to get to the sports center, on foot, on a bike, in 3-inch heels. The dates are different, but everything else is the same. I’m in a hurry. I’m tired. I don’t want to train.

The feeling is strong, and it persists as I swipe my entry card, get into the dressing rooms, go through the motions – tying my bottoms, making sure my lapel is on the proper side, tying my belt so that the ends hang evenly and the knot is what it should be. My nails are almost always short, almost always a funky color (unless it’s grading time). My hair rarely needs a rubber band – I’m one of the few women in the club who doesn’t have enough to tie back. And I’m still not feeling up to it.

Even as we sit in the hallway, waiting for the dojo to clear, waiting for sensei to let us in, I cannot shake the malaise. What if I embarrass myself? What if I make a fool of me? What if? What if? What if?

And then I’m through the door, and taking my shoes off, and we’re either laying down the mats or we are adjusting them, making sure all is in place. We will most likely make a mess 5 minutes into the warm-up, but that’s not the point. When you make a mess, you fix it. Meanwhile, that’s no excuse to be sloppy.

*

Training doesn’t come easily to me. Even now, years on, when I can say in all honesty that I love what I do, I still dither right before heading out. Getting on the bus to town, or slipping on my shoes in the morning for a run… there is always some reluctance, some sleepiness, a desire to go back and stay where it’s safe and warm. Sometimes I have a legit reason for that – like illness or an injury – but even when I’m healthy, getting into it can be a struggle.

Not necessarily what you’d expect to hear – certainly not what I heard, in the months and years I tried to get into exercising regularly. People would tell me that I just needed to train harder, that I would develop a taste for it – and I did – but they made it sound like the reluctance would go away too. And it didn’t.

And I felt bad. I felt like a failure, for wanting rest from something I clearly enjoy.

Some people would say it’s because of the exercise itself – Jiu Jitsu can be brutal, especially if you’re a girl. Time and time again, I would show up and be the only girl, or one of a few, and we were not allowed to train with one another. It makes sense – you don’t get to choose who attacks you – but it is the sort of thing that can make or break you. I had a roommate who wanted to get into martial arts but wanted to train in women-only clubs. Others, I see come for the first few lessons and give up, because it’s too physical, too demanding. Someone told me once, women have a lot of conditioning to get over. We are told to look after our bodies, to not engage in violent sports, to be protective, to be gentle. It’s not to everyone’s taste.

But it is to mine.

Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. There is always a sort of triumph that I feel at the end of a session, at the end of a grading, even when I’m not entirely happy with what I did, I still tell myself – I showed up. I gave it all that I could give. I survived.

It’s that affirmation that got me through the final year of my undergrad. That small, I-did-it feeling made me feel like there was nothing I couldn’t do.

*

There is that secret fear that I have, that one day, I won’t be able to go on. Silly – everyone has to retire at some point – but I’m afraid that this retirement point, for me, will be much sooner than for anybody else. My body is strange. There are days, weeks even, when I don’t recognize it, and it certainly doesn’t recognize me. Whenever I find myself in agony, having an episode, or experiencing some strange side effect, or having a doctor shrug and tell me that they don’t know what’s wrong, I wonder – what if this is the last time? What if it all goes downhill from here?

It’s not the sort of fear I discuss with people, because it seems fatalistic and self-indulgent. I run half-marathons. I’m now a purple belt (and really, how did this happen? How?) I walk everywhere. I seem fit. Hearing me say that I’m afraid of losing all usage of my leg one day after I spent two hours running around and fighting… I wouldn’t want to hang out with me, and I cannot imagine anybody else would. (My parents certainly have a very strong “We are not discussing silliness”/”We’ll cross that bridge when we get there” thing going for them.)

Nobody wants to talk about bad things happening. Instead, we carry them on our backs and let them grow.

I try not to look at this thing on my shoulder, not to listen to its whispers as I head off to train. I’m mindful of my body, but not so much that I will stop enjoying it all together. It wasn’t mine during my teenage years. It wasn’t mine when I was struggling with disordered eating. Having it back is akin to being with an old friend – familiar, and also exhilarating. You want to do everything together. You want to see how far you can go. You want to enjoy it for all its worth because you know what it feels like when it isn’t completely there with you.

It’s a trap.

It’s also a blessing.

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