What sinews enwrap the mind? What muscular disciplines foster mental persistence in the face of life's regular resistances? If I had to pick one, I'd say my mind was tougher than my body. Countless times, watching or playing sports, I have said out loud, "It's a mental game." Over the decades, I have faced deep loss without losing my capacity to continue a daily beat. I have never broken down. I would like to swear that I never will.
And yet, I don't think of myself as tough, physically or mentally. Or, to be accurate: I don't think of myself as tough as; by comparison, I lose the battle, every time. It's not a competition, I suppose, but I grew up trailing an older sister who set the standard for toughness. Nearing 50, I concede that in every way, she is tougher than I am.
Academically, perhaps, I have the advantage. At least that is what I meant when I wrote earlier that she had every advantage except one. I was book-smarter, or I thrived more in that environment, insofar as grades are concerned. I graduated with Honors, went to college, then to grad school. Twice. She graduated high school with middling grades, then enrolled in a veterinary technician program which she never finished.
The challenges that academics provide me, however, are ones I know I can meet. I work hard and study, write well, complete assignments on time, thrive in the soup of immersion and inquiry, analysis and argument; there is no real question of whether I can do it. I know I can do it; I chose the discipline of English precisely because I knew I would not be immobilized, as I was by Trigonometry, which baffled me so much I never took Physics. But I am not anyone's star student. No one has ever mistaken what I do for brilliance; I make no claims for genius, since I'm really more a plodder, a work horse, a good but not great brain.
My sister, on the other hand, showed more persistence in her high school years than I have shown, ever. Trig also tripped her up but she took Physics, meeting the challenge by going in early to tutor with the teacher, until finally he told her that she had tried as hard as she could. It would not make her pass the course. She should not feel bad--on the contrary, she had done everything she could, against the odds. She could withdraw confident that she had done her best.
There's the advantage, the mental toughness, the head-down pursuit of what seems impossible. What I lacked--still lack. If I thought teaching, writing, all the classes I took to get there were impossible, I would have done something else.
And so it is with physical toughness as well. Both my sister and I stay in shape by walking, running, biking, playing sports--whatever we can do to keep fit. Even though she is inches shorter than me, and has asthma and allergies that affect her breathing, I think she's a better athlete. She remains in better shape because she's simply tougher and more persistent than me. Nothing postpones her workouts, which begin most days around 4:00 am. When her children were in high school, she got up and lifted weights in the unheated garage and then rode an exercise bike. On weekends, she walks with her husband or runs by herself. She works full time and takes care of a cabin, landscaping, painting, sandblasting. Focused effort.
As I age, my workouts are postponed by weather, injuries, tiredness, scheduling. I allow them to be postponed, I should say. My schedule of alternating days has remained more or less intact, but often now I let two days lapse between workouts. This summer, I have been plagued by a foot injury; it has literally hobbled me. But don't I allow myself to be hobbled? I have not searched very hard for an alternative. I have not sought out a place to swim or biked more than twice a week. I have not dusted off the weight machine nor consistently performed the ritual of ice, ibuprofen, incline.
Though I am sidetracked this summer, in truth this has been coming for some time. Since 2006 I have been trying to get back in shape. It has become my mantra. My journey has been uphill, toward an imagined summit where equilibrium, a schedule, a routine, gets reinserted as the centerpiece of my life.
The reason I have not been successful, the reason I am still trying to get in shape, is a combination of physical and mental. Yes, my muscle tone has deteriorated somewhat; middle age plays a role, too, as weight settles on me and keeps me anchored, close to the earth, difficult to move. But the real truth is that my mental toughness has deteriorated. It was never equal to my sister's, or anyone's who trains for a marathon, for instance, or works out every day. Now, because I worry that I can't do it, I let myself off the hook with excuses like lack of sleep or a hectic day or the belief that I'm in pretty good shape for someone my age or the belief that I can't work out in the morning. My physical toughness rarely gets tested or challenged these days. My brain prevents it. Real fear deters me--real doubt about my physical abilities, which are harnessed to a mental engine that begins to sputter and stall.
If it were only as easy as a mental tune up. If only the spark plugs of confidence and persistence and daring could be replaced. If only I could return to my childhood, when I followed my sister's lead everywhere, heedless of my own fears, anxious only to be there behind her, to trail the wake of her great strength and courage, fueled by endless reserves of devotion.