My parents' attempts to make me exercise were largely futile.
Whenever my mother rummaged in the video cabinet beneath the TV and popped in a VHS of Richard Simmons' Sweatin' to the Oldies, I might join her for the first song or two, but wimped out after a few minutes. The half-hour following lunch and recess at our home school was slotted for exercise, but I dawdled about and rarely did more than a few jumping jacks. My father tried to take me on a walk around the neighborhood once, but after a quarter mile I was done. Sorry, Pops. Time to head back home now.
I worked very hard to avoid any kind of movement that would put me in a sweat or out of breath.
Except climbing trees and dancing. I forgot exercise when I danced, caught up in the rhythms of the music. And one night, when I was about sixteen, I went into Manhattan to a Swing dance with some friends where we twirled into the wee hours of the morning. That wasn't exercise. That was heart-pounding, blood-racing, skin-shocking joy.
Exercise was a bane. Ultimate frisbee days were the worst. I went to our weekly homeschool frisbee practices primarily to hang out with my friends, but the cost was high. Running was arduous. It wasn't so bad once we got to the frisbee part--then I could choose when I felt like running to catch the frisbee and when I felt like lazing in the field. But the team captain required us to run a lap around the field before starting practice.
This lap was a constant source of embarrassment to me. I was the slowest runner and always came in last. If I was lucky, I could find another slow runner who could share my shame as we lagged together behind the clump of runners some yards ahead of us.
I was also a rather well-endowed adolescent, and not even a sports bra could quite reign in my ample bosom. I could feel it moving conspicuously up and down with each step of the lap. Probably no one else cared. No one was looking at me and thinking, "Why is that girl's chest flapping around her neck?" But I was always relieved when the lap was done. I could stop feeling so seen without being seen.
My mother (wisely, I think) never pushed me too hard when it came to exercise. She just continued to get up every morning at 6am for her 40-minute walk. Every day. No skips (unless we were going to travel or had an unavoidable appointment). Every day.
When I went off to college, I started to walk in the mornings. Living with roommates and seeing students and teachers constantly pressed against the introverted parts of me, and I needed a quiet space every morning in order to breathe. The only empty space in that crowded college existence was the morning hour before everyone was up.
So I walked. Just before the sun was up, I was, too. Langhorne Manor became my Westminster Bridge: The City now doth, like a garment, wear / The beauty of the morning; silent, bare.
And I just kept walking. I wanted to walk. I needed to walk. My body grew used to it, and my muscles ached without it.
Over time, my routine changed. When it was too cold to walk, I'd go to the dorm basement lounge and put on some music so that I could leap and twirl around the couches. The regular morning walk turned into several hours of walking hither and yon when I spent a year in Oxford. In England, I ate everything and walked everywhere. I was at my heaviest in Oxford, but didn't have regular access to a scale and really didn't care. Because I was just doing what I wanted now. Not worrying about what I'd see when I hopped on the scale the next morning.
My body started to crave more rigor, so I incorporated a short routine of other exercises for indoors. This became my primary routine after I gave birth since I couldn't go out in the early morning when Marshall was still sleeping. It's short and intense, but it's enough. For now. Enough to make me feel at home in my body. To keep the bad aches at bay, to stretch myself, to keep my day ordered so that I do what I really want to do and don't get distracted by feelings of inadequacy.
Everyone has different ways of managing their lives and desires. I do best when I don't have some grandiose vision of a body I don't have, some imaginary body I work towards, but instead make decisions about what to do as my body right now. Instead of dreaming for a smaller this or a bigger that, I focus on what will make my body feel most alive today.
This is my approach to writing, too. I forget my wild ideals of writing something that will change the world, of being a Writer. A writer is one who writes. So write. Just do it. A little every day or every week or every month--whatever time you can carve out. Work on this piece. Right here. Right now. This is your plot to tend, your space to love.
Forget the visions of all you could be and leave your guilt over what might have been. Concentrate on the world that is and the self you are in it. The world to come will come, but not tomorrow or the next day or the next. It will come today, as you listen to the rhythms of the world, to the pulsing of bodies. As you dance yourself out of oblivion.