“You have a righteous body. You don’t need to get any stronger. But what are you going to do with that strength?”
I was getting a massage at the woo woo spa in Northern California. It was February, and my 50th birthday, and softly raining, and my best friend and I had just spent half an hour packed naked into a box full of heat-generating, composting sawdust. This was billed as a “cedar enzyme bath,” but the only moisture was the sweat pouring off us as we reclined, our bodies mounded under the cedar flakes, only our heads exposed. Every few minutes an attendant wearing a clinical smock came in and gave us sips of water from metal cups with bent straws, as if we were trapped in a iron lung instead of indulging in an overpriced “detoxifying treatment.”
I’d booked a massage to follow the enzymes, stiff from flying and anxiety, and sad and sore at the cellular level. A milestone birthday in the middle of a breakup with the woman I’d had the same breakup with just before my birthday the year before. My birthday is six days after Groundhog Day, and I don’t learn.
Michael was exactly what an aching 50 year old yearns for in a massage therapist. Yoga-muscled, focused, firm, the kind of facial hair that says “hey girl, I was too busy having righteous sex for the last three days to shave.” He got deep into every crevice, and then started lifting me by the hips, shaking me and letting me drop. He repeated. “What are you going to do with this strength?” Then “you need to move your hips more. You need to writhe.”
My muscle was built from 20 years of running, riding, yoga, hours in grimy gyms, hiking. I started running when I turned 30, and decided to quit smoking and accidentally found my body. My late 20s were a mess of racking up billable hours in a PR firm, smoking at my desk (I’m that old), drinking beer, eating crap and never moving. I still can’t look at photos from Christmas 1994, my 5.2 frame packed to more than 150 lbs.
I vowed not to turn 30 smoking, after noticing that my colleagues who were now 40 and living on coffee, cigarettes and booze seemed to have aged 10 years overnight. I didn’t think about movement, at first. I had noticed that my friends who were quitting smoking were all doing substitute behaviours – nicotine gum, playing with a little ball, snapping elastics on their wrists – and it just seemed to make them jittery, smokers who were being temporarily deprived of cigarettes. I had a brainwave that maybe the way to do it was to define myself as a non-smoker. I didn’t know what that was. What do non-smokers do?
I fumbled my way to the gym, for the first time in my life. I had been a bookwormy, pedantic, proto-feminist teenager, aggressively reading Sartre at pep rallies. I rolled my own Drum tobacco and smoked my way through my master’s in literature, drinking Guinness. A round 30 year old woman who hadn’t spent a single minute on a sports team or run a step. I pedaled clumsily on the stationary bike and watched people run around the track.
The closest gym to my house was U of T, where students and profs share the track with elite athletes. As I pedaled, I wondered if I could do it. The first time, I ran 600 metres with a towel around my neck. Three months later, I ran my first 10K.
I found movement, and there was something in me I hadn’t known before. I ran more, moving to half marathons, then full. I injured my knee running Boston and never ran that distance again. But that was 15 years ago, and I steadily run two or three times a week. My body has carried me up and down Kilimanjaro, up and down peaks on the Isle of Skye, in Myanmar, into the Ugandan rainforest in search of mountain gorillas, under the sea, across Germany on a bike. I found road biking 9 years ago, and discovered that the sound of cleats clicking into pedals is a click of rightness in my soul.
There’s a constant thread of movement in my life, now, that is about adventure and exploring. But it’s also strength I’m starting to understand in a new way. I ran a half marathon last year that was great for 18 km, and then the last 3 were an epic fight between who I imagine myself to be, who I have been, and what my body is now. Run too fast, get pushed back by gravity, shrink to a stop, pull myself up, find a moment of energy, get pushed back.
Those three kilometres are what fitness is to me in this incarnation of being 50, and they are what life is. A constant toggling between openness and possibility as I finally learn things I’ve been trying to learn since I was 8, closings and regrets as pathways disappear, gently and not so gently, behind me. Letting go of the imagined “someday” of having a baby, having a 25th wedding anniversary, being a grandmother, going to medical school. Letting go of the being-checked-out by the guy sitting next to me as I eat dinner alone at the bar in a restaurant in Reykjavik. I didn’t expect to be 50 and single, to feel simultaneously competent and so good at my work, abundant in friendships, to be doing volunteer work that makes a hands on difference – and to still feel like I don’t know how to do this business of being an adult, to be learning hard lessons about intimacy.
I read a memoir once of a woman who finished her career as a headmistress of an English girls’ school and simply got on her bike, heading for Italy, and then didn’t stop until she’d circled the world. She wrote about how all that time alone, every turn of the wheel, made her reflect on her life, the hurts she’d caused, her regrets.
That’s what the strength is for. Tapping into the hundreds of kilometres run and ridden, the intensity of effort in fighting gravity, assessing whether pushing that micro-push harder will build strength or cause a heart attack, forcing myself outside when I want to lie on my bed. Teaching me to be present, to listen, to trust. Teaching me that even when I can’t see it, I have a righteous body, strength that I’m not using. That I should writhe more.
Cate works as a consultant and teacher in the space of strategic system change in academic healthcare in Toronto, focusing on creating sustainable, socially accountable healthcare communities. She also co-leads a learning and development project for orphaned and vulnerable youth in Uganda, and takes every chance she can to explore the world.