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Posts Tagged ‘strength’

As I’ve grown to love running, and explored various running routes around the Boston area, I’ve been doing a similar thing with cycling.

I used to love riding bikes in my neighborhood as a child, and I spent hours on my jade-green bike as a grad student in Oxford. But I’d lived in Boston for eight years before I got up the gumption to try riding the city streets on a bike. The traffic terrified me, and I didn’t have a bike of my own.

My guy (though we were just friends then) convinced me to try out Bluebikes, Boston’s bike-share program, two years ago after I’d started a new job at Berklee. My first dozen or more rides followed the same route between Berklee and Harvard Square – much more pleasant than the 1 bus, except in driving rain. As I got stronger and more confident, I began trying new things occasionally: turning down a side street to see where it would go, trying out part of my commute on a bike, riding around Eastie when I moved here. I began paying more attention to bike lanes and traffic signals, and I’m still trying to make my peace with the hills in certain parts of Boston. This summer, I inherited a bright pink single-speed from a friend, and I’ve participated in several protest rides, plus a number of long rides with my guy (who is a cycling instructor, advocate and general bike fanatic).

As with yoga, I didn’t really think of cycling as having any connection to running. But they inform one another, sometimes in surprising ways. I’ve gained confidence on a bike in a similar way to the confidence I’ve gained with running: in this case, the muscle memory was there, but it needed to be revived. I keep learning that I can go farther, pedal stronger and even ride faster than I think I can. Sometimes I need a rest day after a seriously long ride. And in both cases, the main motivation is the sheer joy of moving through the world in this particular way.

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Running has brought me, as I keep saying, lots of unexpected gifts – many of which I didn’t even know I needed. Before I became a runner, I would have said I had a healthy relationship with my body, but it’s perhaps more accurate to say I lived in a state of neutrality toward it.

I’ve spent as much time as the average American woman trying to ignore the conflicting messages we get about our bodies: the magazines that scream at us about which kind of bodies are acceptable, the fashionable clothes that don’t seem designed for real women, the airbrushed images of Hollywood stars or elite athletes. I’ve made an effort to eat (mostly) healthy food and get some regular exercise my whole adult life. But I wouldn’t have said, prior to running, that I loved my body.

I grew up in a culture that prized the life of the mind: my early reading skills, spelling prowess and writing skills earned me a lot of acclaim as a child and teenager. I make a living these days by writing and editing, also activities of the mind, and the Christian faith in which I was raised also emphasized the brain and heart over the body. (The particular brand of evangelicalism with which I’m most familiar has often spoken about the human body in mostly negative terms: the need to subdue and control the body, or what the church believes people should do with their bodies. Those messages make an odd contrast to the notion – which I also heard growing up – that God’s creation is good, and that we, along with the rest of creation, are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”)

As I began and then kept on running (and doing boot camps and yoga classes), I started to marvel at what my body could do, how it felt to move through the air with fluidity and grace, the strength in my legs and endurance in my lungs that I hadn’t known existed. Under Erin’s guidance on Monday nights, I learned that I could lift weights and do push-ups and squats and other exercises in a way I’d never done before. I started learning more about my body’s capabilities, feeling more in tune with it. And overwhelmingly, I started to believe: this is good.

We all grow up absorbing some notion of the “ideal” body: through statues or magazines or the messages we hear from media outlets and the people we know and love. I was teased for my curves as they started to develop, and I used to feel inferior because I was short. I didn’t believe my body was the “ideal” body. But I’m starting to revise my definition of “ideal,” and to care less about that altogether.

My body, whether or not she comes up to anyone’s standard, is mine: she’s been supporting and sheltering me for 37 years. She is healthy and freckled, petite and sinewy, curvaceous and stronger than I ever thought she was. She deserves my loving care and attention, and on most days, she wants to run. And it’s a total joy to be out there, in my body, loving my body, moving through the world in this vessel I will always call home.

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Someone mentioned last week that we are six months into pandemic life, and I had to pause a moment. Six months? On some level, of course, six months is a blink – and in other ways it has been the longest, strangest half-year ever.

With wildfires on top of the pandemic and racial injustice, and a president who seems either unable or unwilling to respond properly to any of those, it can be tough to simply move through the days. My former colleague Juliette has started saying “pandemic good” when people ask how she’s doing – a response I love for its snark and honesty. (I follow her on Twitter because she’s a homeland security and logistics expert, and also because she’s reliably, relatably human.)

Doing yoga in Piers Park the other night (under a hazy sky), I stepped one foot back into a lunge and could feel myself shaking a bit. This multiplied when we got to crow pose, which I love but have not mastered yet. But I didn’t feel worried at any point that I was going to come crashing down: I felt shaky, but strong. And it came to me: that’s where so many of us are these days.

I am still furloughed (through the fall semester) and trying to figure out both freelance work and possible next steps. I miss my family, whom I haven’t seen since Christmas. Most of my friends are adjusting to new remote or hybrid school setups for their kids, often while working remotely themselves. My guy is still working at Trader Joe’s, a job he is thankful for but which carries a risk. We are all dealing with some form(s) of loneliness, worry, isolation and fear.

And yet: we are learning, slowly, what we need to survive or even flourish in these strange times. (For me: strong black tea before a morning run, in-person time with my people as often as possible, ginger-turmeric granola, bear hugs from my guy, good books, plenty of hand lotion to counteract all the sanitizing.) We worry about how we’ll keep going, and then we get up and do it. We are dealing with tech issues and unemployment tangles and trying to get our heads around a new season and waning hours of daylight. We are meeting for socially distanced walks and bike rides and picnics in the park. We have no real answers (does anyone?) but we are doing the best we can.

Shaky, but strong. That’s where I am today, and most days. We are building resilience even as these strange days take everything we’ve got. We are still here. There is still joy, and beauty, alongside anxiety and strain. And we get up each day, make another cup of tea or coffee, and keep going.

How are you really doing, these days? I’d love to know.

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tulips red back bay garden

Give me a garden full of strong, healthy creatures, able to stand roughness and cold without dismally giving in and dying. I never could see that delicacy of constitution is pretty, either in plants or women.

—Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth and Her German Garden

I was searching last week for that von Arnim quote on tulips, because it is tulip season in the Public Garden and I agree with von Arnim: they are my favorite. While double-checking that quote, I came across these lines, and was immediately struck by them: yes.

I love looking at the graceful potted orchids at my florist’s shop, but as Anne Shirley has said, I want flowers I can live with. Instead of sensitive hothouse orchids, give me this:

crocuses rock light flowerbed

Give me the crocuses, pushing their purple and golden spears up through the snow at the end of winter. Give me the daffodils, slender but steely, dollops of bright gold against crusted snowbanks and worn-out winter dirt. Give me the lipstick-pink tulip magnolias, petals winging their way off the ends of their branches like butterflies, and the blush-pink apple and cherry blossoms, ruffled and gorgeous even in the rain.

tulip magnolia tree bloom blue sky

Give me the tulips, holding up their vivid cups to sun, rain, brisk spring winds or anything else nature might throw at them. Give me the lilacs, budding even now as the nights persist chilly, and the shock of yellow forsythia, and the shy, trailing hellebores in cream and mauve and green. Give me the blue scilla dotting the ground, the blaze of azaleas and rhododendrons, the wild violets showing their faces here and there along the river trail.

scilla flowers blue

Give me, too, friends of stalwart courage and fighter hearts, those who don’t run away when life gets messy or tough or complicated. Give me a band of strong women who will bolster me up, and accept my help when it’s my turn to do the same. And give me a lion heart so I don’t fail those same friends, a fierce resolve and bold kindness to stand with them and for them, and for myself, when I need it.

Amen.

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neponset dusk moon

i want stars, strength, and balance in my soul
it’s been a while since they were last
together in me

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Unnahar is a Pakistani poet and artist. I picked up her collection, yesterday i was the moon, at Three Lives & Co. in the West Village this summer. (I love to go in there to browse and eavesdrop on the booksellers, and I usually walk out with a poetry collection or a novel.) I’ve been reading it slowly, and this is one of the poems that spoke to me.

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tea journal window cafe

Recently, the lovely and wise Jen Lee wrote about her prescription for strength, sharing a few details of her self-care routine and noting broader principles for tending to your own strength. That post came in the middle of a grey week, where I was feeling stretched thin, trying to do too much and growing frustrated when I ended up tired and frazzled.

I circle back to this theme of self-care every so often, devising recharge programs and lifesavers for myself, musing on the importance of taking care and moving toward balance when life goes off-kilter. My lists tend to include a mix of little treats (new books, chai lattes, hours with favorite movies or good friends) and old-fashioned nourishment (steaming bowls of soup, fresh fruit, hot showers, getting extra sleep). And as arsenals of mood-boosters and sanity restoratives, they play a vital role.

But I like Jen’s idea of operating from a place of strength, of knowing what you need for your physical and emotional health and then making that a consistent practice, even if taking care of yourself feels effortful, or complicated. We all know instinctively what we need to feel well and whole, but we don’t always think about it, or consciously put it into practice. This isn’t self-indulgence (though a little of that is called for every now and again). This is necessary care, especially since most of us are the primary caretakers of our own bodies and souls.

ballet flats yellow leaves fall autumn

The practices that nourish me and shore me up include the following:

1. Come prepared. Check the weather forecast; bring an extra book; pack snacks (or an umbrella or a cardigan – whatever will likely be needed); keep teabags handy. I feel so much less frazzled when I take time to prepare, even just for the day.

2. Wear good shoes. Living, working and walking in a city, I notice a difference when I wear quality shoes that support my feet.

3. Make time for tea. This ritual warms, comforts and relaxes me; clears my head and prepares me to deal with the world; and yes, provides much-needed caffeine on many mornings.

4. Get enough sleep. I am a night owl by nature, and I hold a 9-to-5 job with a commute. This one is tough, but I am making an effort.

5. Spend time in community. Not just the virtual kind (though I love it and am grateful for it), but the real, face-to-face kind.

6. Make time to journal regularly. When I am edgy or off-kilter, J will ask, “Have you been writing?” The answer is usually no, and it means I need to get back to the page, even if it’s just to rant for 10 minutes. I learn this lesson over and over.

7. Cook nourishing meals, and accept the necessity of takeout sometimes. These are different sides of the same coin. But they are both ways of paying attention to my body and accepting the realities of my schedule. J and I cook dinner together and eat at the table whenever possible, which grounds and relaxes us – but we also know the value of a meal out when needed.

8. Surround myself with good words. Books, blogs, a handful of my favorite magazines: wise, thoughtful, witty and engaging words are the air I breathe.

9. Get outside. Even when it’s freezing, fresh air blows the fog out of my soul – especially in the middle of the workday.

How do you nourish yourself and keep your reserves filled? I’d love to hear your prescription for strength.

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