Twenty years ago I began working out, starting with short bursts of pedaling a stationary bike (the only activity I could do for 10 minutes), then progressing to intervals on the Stairmaster and runs along Victory Memorial Parkway in Minneapolis where I lived. Within three or four months, I was hooked, committed to a regular schedule of sweating. I bought sports bras and a fine pair of Reebok cross-trainers. I increased my stamina and muscle tone; my sister remarked that my legs had “definition,” high praise from someone who got on the workout train a lot sooner than I did, who rode it a lot harder. But I went from 15 – 20 minutes of endurance to 40 or more, a fact about which I was gleefully proud.
I am still doing it, the grind, though now earnest is more the key word than work out—not as regularly, nor as intensively, but still dedicated to the proposition that the benefits extend beyond the body. I think and work better if I push myself physically; I am less tired; I feel strong and groove on the feeling. Strength, perhaps, was always the point, something I earned that no one could take away.
I have needed that strength to get through the ups and downs of the intervening twenty years. At the time, newly separated and soon to be divorced, I relished feeling capable of steering the bus of single motherhood, careening down a road that drove me through graduate school and the many hairpin turns of the adolescent years of my three sons. Strength was what I needed when someone got caught stealing from Cub foods, someone else was suspended from the bus for fighting or caught at school with marijuana. I had to plow through sleepless nights worrying about this one’s failing grades and that one’s accident that totaled my beloved Accord, another’s depression or ADHD or the cigarette smoking two of them took up suddenly. Fortified and confident and slow to excite—my resting pulse was very low—I could muster patience I didn’t normally possess when my youngest said he wanted to quit high school, when the middle one did quit after leaving home on his 18th birthday, when they were all ferociously angry with me for dating the man I eventually married.
Oh, strength. Ah, power. What a nail point on which to hang twenty years of my adult life.
I never meant to become obsessed with it. Perhaps obsessed isn’t the right word. Dependent, maybe. Believing it would save me, keep me afloat. The physical feeling of pushing off the back leg going uphill was accompanied by an almost transcendent sense of pride and the ability to breathe deep in the face of calamity, keep the bus on the road at all costs.
I never meant to use my workouts as a substitute, a way to avoid the awful fragility of expressing emotions. I never meant to polish my surface bright as tempered glass, slick and impenetrable. I never meant to trample feelings downward, hide them as if at the bottom of a silo, a gas-like form of them escaping, not their substance.
Recently, my ex-husband called me, 20 years after our marriage crumbled, to apologize for his behavior, for limiting me and us, for being a controlling force, for not working hard enough to love me. For, ultimately, not being committed.
It was not a conversation I was prepared to have; we spoke slowly, sorting words, speaking carefully (each of us has remarried). Twenty years is long enough to feel guilty, he said, I want to finally put it behind me. Nodding, I held the phone delicately, tenderly, the way I would touch the hair of one of our newborn sons. I meant to say I forgive you but what I did say was truer and more difficult: Sometimes I think, even now, it would have been better if we had stayed together. Better for the kids. I’m not unhappy with my current life, but that’s the truth.
Writing those words down may constitute a betrayal. They seem more private than a secret, than dreams can seem. I did draw for my husband the general contours of the conversation, but I have not painted a full picture because I have not shared those details.
Capturing emotions is like trying to fish barehanded. You can see them undulating and sense a fleeting presence as they skim across your skin. But hold one up and say A pike or a bluegill? Almost impossible.
My great strength does not help in this regard. Since the phone call, I have not been able to—not wanted to—figure it out. Sort out my emotions, we so glibly say, forgetting that emotions are not like fabric samples, distinct and varied, but more like the rag rugs my grandma made—all of a piece.
I am 50 years old and my legs are tired. My arms and back are tired. Since the phone call, there's been a persistent tug of sadness and even, almost, regret. No, not regret. Helplessness.
No strength can beat it back. The past is the past, it could not have unspooled differently. Except, it could have, and I am helpless before that idea, aching with emotion that is almost physical in its power.
Twenty years. Enough time to raise children to adulthood, log hundreds of miles, forget a similar ache that crept into my body the weekend I decided the marriage was finally over.
I am not used to admitting weakness. Pride in my own strength blinded me even as it gave me what I needed; it subtly engendered self-righteousness, a stubborn conviction I could endure anything without flagging or flinching.
I will wait this out, wistful. The physical weight will pass, I'm sure. I will not, I think, welcome any revelations or epiphanies. Enduring will be the point.