Not Everyone Wants to Hear an Exercise Evangelist

When I was in college I remember putting on a pair of cut-off pants and sneakers and trying to jog four blocks in the Park View residential area near campus. I weighed much less than I do now, and though my heart was younger and stronger, I was completely exhausted, sweating profusely by the time I finished my jog. The next day my leg muscles hurt so much I could barely walk up the hill from my dorm room to class. I was convinced then, that a lifetime of exercise was not in my future.

The only reason I’d attempted a run that day was to lose weight and a four-block jog did nothing to the numbers on my bathroom scale.

Fast forward forty-seven years, an aging body and the beginnings of arthritis, and now I’m an exercise evangelist.  Movement, I told my 87-year-old mother, is key. Mom grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s when people believed preserving energy was more important than expending it.

“Back then we didn’t have to exercise.  We worked!” mom told me. “My mother stood over a hot iron and ironed clothes for hours.  Dad came home tired every day from working in the Dupont Powder plant.”

She almost sneered comparing modern-day notions of physical activity with how hard people labored when she was a girl.

I was a little frustrated because mom has some heart problems, and yet she enjoys sitting in her grey recliner watching the neighbor kids play outside her big picture window. When I went for my yearly physical, I complained to my doctor about mom’s sedentary habit.

“Oh,” the doctor told me matter-of-factly, “lots of older people like to sit in their chair much of the day. Their energy levels are low, and they’re often worried about falling. Sometimes it hurts to move. I understand why they feel this way. Find some ‘exercises-for-seniors’ videos for your mom. That might help.”

I made my doctor laugh when I recounted what a farmer friend told me once about movement and cattle. The farmer said if cows don’t stand up and move around, they’ll “go down and stay down.” He said it’s important to get new-born calves up and moving, looking for their mother’s milk.  And, if a cow is injured or sick, she’ll often do better if you can get her on her feet and foraging, as opposed to laying in the barn stall.

Mom is taking drugs to combat her heart problems, but I wanted her to read an article with a compelling title:

“Closest Thing to A Wonder Drug?  Try Exercise!” (New York Times, 6/20/2016).

She batted away my outstretched hand when I offered my cell phone to her.  I thought she might want to scroll down and read the article online. I knew I was being pushy, but I couldn’t help myself.  I cared about her.

Elderly woman in glasses thoughtfully looking out the window.

“Why don’t you just tell me the gist of it?” she kindly suggested.

“It says,” I gazed down at my cell phone, “‘…of all the things we as physicians can recommend for health, few provide as much benefit as physical activity.’ And then here it says that exercise is the ‘miracle cure.’  It helps your heart, your arthritis, depression, diabetes, and other diseases. It says to realize a benefit you only need to exercise just 30 minutes—on weekdays. That means weekends are off!”

I looked up excitedly from my cell phone to gauge mom’s reaction, only to find her eye lids drooping, ready for her nap. I was reminded then the many times she’d tried to school me: “You just don’t know what it feels like to be this old,” or “When you get my age you’ll think differently.”

The clock ticked quietly in the kitchen, and I waited a moment before I pocketed my cell phone and left. I lightly patted my mom’s hand, “Hey, I need to go. I’ll give you a call this weekend and see how you’re doing.”

As I gently clicked the front door shut behind me, I sighed thinking how ironic life is.  I didn’t like exercising when I was a young college co-ed, and now my old mother feels the same way. The burden of movement is life-long.

 

Image credit:  Jogger     Image credit:  Old woman looking out a window

 

The Past is Not Dead

 

I had a time travel experience.

No, it wasn’t a dream, but I felt dazed, like I’d taken too long a nap. Maybe I time traveled because I’d spent part of this winter in a motel room in Salt Lake City—relocated here since my husband’s surgery. I needed to get outside, smell fresh air, and feel the sunshine on my face. Yes, I wanted to shake the cold off, and move around—but not necessarily travel in time.

My experience began with a simple walk. Some of my best flights (of imagination) happen walking. I’d seen a city park driving through downtown Salt Lake that had a nice footpath circling a pond full of ducks.  Finding the entrance to the park though, proved difficult. I drove past tennis courts, an aviary, and an outdoor stage, all located within the park confines, but couldn’t find the entryway. This park seemed a world of its own–and at 80 acres (I read later)—it was its own sphere. On a side street, I finally spotted the park entrance and central pathway, lined on either side by poplars and mulberry trees.

It was amazing such a large park was located in the middle of this big city. As soon as I got out of the car, I took a deep breath of fragrant wood-scented air, and closed my eyes. In the background I heard traffic honking, an ambulance siren, and faint, car-radio music.

I can’t explain the rush of feeling at that moment, but suddenly I was in Central Park, New York City, several years ago.

It was the time I’d taken my teenage children to New York for a “cultural experience.” But they, being teenagers, weren’t interested in culture. Aubrey kept dodging around corners in Little Italy, trying to avoid my camera. And Sammy had his nose so deep in a fantasy novel, he hardly noticed the Statue of Liberty.  Liberty Park, that was the name of this urban escape in Salt Lake.  I saw it clearly labeled on a nature-friendly, green sign. As I read it I felt such a deep longing, a missing of my younger children.

A good heart-pounding walk, not just a stroll, would probably clear my head and shake me out of my fugue.  I saw plenty of power walkers and joggers around me, so I joined the flow. Fifty minutes later and just past the Chase House, a folk art museum in the park, I was gratifyingly flushed and sweaty.

I leaned an arm up against a tree for a brief rest-stop, and soon found myself staring at a little girl skipping along the park sidewalk near me. It was late afternoon and the shadows on the sidewalk caught my attention. Maybe it was the angle of the light, soft and buttery, but an ancient memory arose, and then, I was a little girl again, in Chicago in the 1950’s. I was playing in front of our big, white apartment building. As I hop-scotched I saw my shadow on the cinder block wall.

What stood out was how rich my emotions were, the joy and wonder I felt then, not yet muted by time and age. 

Next to my tree in Salt Lake, I felt momentarily elated.

I slowly made my way back to the parking lot.  As I opened my car door, I glanced above the park trees and saw the high, snow-clad peaks of the Wasatch Mountains. I smiled to myself.  The great American author, William Faulkner, once wrote, “The past is not dead, it’s not even past.” This late afternoon, at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

 

Image credit: Diana Hooley      Image credit:  Diana Hooley

 

 

Becoming a Hindu

We might know our height and weight, even our blood cholesterol levels, but do we know our life stage?  Or do we even care?  In my late 30’s I didn’t care.  I was busy raising my children—and what felt like everyone else’s—teaching history at a junior high school.  After work, like many teachers, I took night classes to keep up with the profession and get yet another degree, this one in English.  It was in one of those night school classes that a professor, an Indian man, spoke about the ancient Hindu teachings regarding life stages.

He told my class we were all in the “productive” stage of life, building families and careers.  Yeah right, I thought.  When can I move to the next stage?  

I was stressed and tired from overwork and too many commitments.  I couldn’t see beyond where I was—to where I was going.  I felt swamped.  Interestingly, an older woman in my neighborhood, Margaret, told me once, “Oh, you’re at the best time of life . . . when your family is young and growing.  Enjoy it.  Time passes so quickly.”

My Indian professor also spoke, rather eloquently I thought, about the last stage of life.  Maybe this was because he, himself, was probably in his late sixties, early seventies, and close to this stage. He said near the end of life we turn into ghosts; we are still in our bodies, but our hair becomes white and our skin, more translucent.  We’re walking spirits, he said, waiting for the next life.

The professor had a name for this Hindu teaching, but I quickly forgot it.

Last week though, I picked up a copy of The Atlantic magazine and read about Hinduism and life stages.

Arthur Brooks wrote about growing older. He said he left his job as the head of a Washington think tank to go to more humble pursuits—teaching at Harvard (not quite as humble as being a Walmart greeter).  He noted professional decline was all part of aging, and said that the Hindus called the teachings on life stages: ashrama.  There it was.  That was what my Indian professor was referring to in my night class.  Ashrama is about the order of life.

There’s some comfort in understanding my current life stage: I finally get to lower my expectations of myself.  Maybe I’m not dancing until dawn or knocking down Pulitzer’s—but neither are my peers. We’re all on this galactic ship heading toward the unknown—and we’re nearing three-quarters of the way there.  At this stage, a good day is a peaceful day filled with small projects and reading and music.  What more could I ask for?

Yet Ashrama also teaches that at each life stage a work must be performed—and, as Shakespeare wrote: there lies a rub. What if you don’t follow the ashrama pattern?

In ashrama, spirituality is work set for the last stage of life, but I was more spiritual as a young girl, when I found myself dutifully praying each night on my knees. 

Fortunately, the life span is only chronological in some ways.  This is another thought that comforts me. In some sense, we are all we’ll ever be, no matter what our age.  In youth there is the potential, and in old age there is the experience: two sides of the same coin. I’ll not claim this as an ashrama teaching—but it has a vague Middle Eastern ring.

 

Image credit:  adult education  Image credit:  The Atlantic  Image credit:  Hinduism