Things That Make Me Teary on the Way Home

Let me set the stage. Downtown Boston, skyline, mostly pink in sunset against a hazy blue summer sky. 4:45pm; maybe "sunset" is too premature. Pretend it's sunset anyway. In my car, in the parking lot, looking at the city, I'm sweating. The windows are down but the A/C is out, and the slow chug in traffic to Roxbury/Dorchester heats up the box until it's an oven on wheels. I've got my notebook (sample entry: march in place, touch step, add knee---circled---elbow to knee---here 'elbow' is circled---and on the next line, arm change REACH. Then repeat that knee on the right for 8.) and my CD case with the requisite hair clip knawing on the strap.

It's just a moment, but I'm gathering something here besides my belongings. I guess it's wits, or guts, or some other vague term that refers to the pressing down of fear when it ebbs up. Just a few hours ago I still hadn't figured out exactly how to teach tonight, and I was messing up, practicing in my living room, right up until the end. The overhead fan, sweat rolling down my back, chest, arms, countless glasses of water, the cat as an audience, spread out on the couch with one eye peering at me from underneath a hot paw. I yelled at her: "We're going to change the arms! Watch me and join in when you're ready! REACH! REACH! Nice! You look beautiful!" My hips aching.

Sometimes I still think, I'm a writer, I don't teach boxing or stretch or aerobics. But I haven't been writing much lately. And I've been teaching a lot of aerobics.

All I wanted was 15 perfect minutes of cardio. Not jumping jacks or push-ups, like I usually make them do, or shadow boxing, or me, walking around the room, coaching. Like I said to a mentor recently, "I want to be confident about choreography. Because everything else is just coaching." Just 15 minutes of choreographed cardio that they can master and feel proud about and count down in strong voices. 15 minutes is a long time when you're standing in front of a group of tough, vibrant women who are all waiting to do exactly what you do and exactly what you tell them. It's a lot of moves to think up. But I had the moves. And I was still scared. Too scared. I had to beat this fear.

I got my wish about an hour later. OK, it wasn't perfect, but it made the whole day worth it. My partner was late, as it turned out, and when she showed up with her three kids in tow to see me leading class, her face flooded with relief. After class, she said, "You're shining."

And I was. I had to start class myself, a first. It doesn't sound like much, but to decide the point that a chatting collective is going to become a small but meaningful powerhouse of energy and will, led by you, takes a deep breath (and in my case, 20-year-old Sam at the front desk telling me, "You're going to be OK").

The day was a ragtag collaboration. I'd purposely cleared my own plate of the work required by my day job, and they were tolerant. I tuned out the noises from my second job (a side, online job). But in the morning, I couldn't get the beat right, or my moves weren't right, or something. My heart fell. I fled my hot living room for my own gym, where a yoga teacher taught me how to use the stereo, my instructor friend Lisa invited me to co-teach spinning with her, and I saw Sam, she of the front desk, working out. I begged for her help as she hit the elliptical. "You've got to come and tell me what I'm doing wrong."

I put in my hip-hop CD (a loan from another adored instructor) and played it for Sam and Lisa. We could all hear the beat. "OK, now look at me," I said. I had no time to be modest, discreet, embarrassed. The clock was ticking. I did a step-touch ("I'm on the beat, right? "yeah," the girls chorused), then brought my knee into it. They both started to smile. "Now I'm offbeat, right?" "It's the music." They'd diagnosed weeks of awkward cardio. My music had a slow beat, and I kept trying to speed it up with my moves alone, which, incredibly enough, doesn't work.

When I left the gym, Step CDs 1 and 2 in hand ("Just take them," said Lisa, "they've been here forever"), I felt much better.

And it wasn't perfect. I fell offbeat and lost my students right at the very first repeating knee. But I pulled them back onto beat. Later, we marched in place. I looked into their faces through the wall of mirrors in front of us. There were only three of them, but that's to be expected. Our members are homeless, or living on low incomes as single parents, or they are at-risk teens struggling for their sanity, and anyway, there's a small but sacred number of those women who come to me, in a small gym in a tough neighborhood, hoping to recharge their day through body awareness and physical power.

I looked at their faces. "I'm sorry I fell off beat," I said. "I've got another chance to make it right." They smiled, blushed. My heart thumped as I yelled out the next round of instructions and we banked a sharp left toward that same transition. "Here we go," I said. "Ladies, stay with me." And they did. "Now help me count!" I yelled. And they yelled it out, a small chorus, but strong, loud, clear when I faltered. "8!" they yelled out. "7!" "Let me hear you!" "6!" "You look beautiful!" "5!" "Don't think about your day! "4!" "Think about your body!" "3!" "Pull that knee!" "2!" "Last set!" "1!" "Switch!"


Four years of blog-aville

This month has been filled with many feelings. Deep relaxation as Blue and I canoed across a small pond in Vermont on our cabin grounds. Embarrassment as I fumbled through teaching boxing and deep stretch to women who, ever generous, helped me. Trepidation as I led (kind of) my first high-level meeting. Overwhelmed with new responsibility. Pride as my project at my company grows. Fear at the idea of us raising a family with little outside help. In awe as friends prepare to bear twins. Pleasure as I cook meal after meal in a satisfying new kitchen. A little Eyes-Wide-Shut-ness, too. There are so many feelings that people don't talk about. And, I guess, by extension that I can't blog about. But enough about that. A good quote from today's Times story on boomer funerals:
“I have a pet peeve,” he said. “No more than three minutes [per speech]. It doesn’t matter how much you loved someone, after you’ve heard someone drone on for five minutes you’re annoyed. It’s about poignant moments. Maudlin is not poignant.”



Wet summer air, just after a rain, makes secondhand cigarette smoke smell deep and pungent. In fact, if you are standing behind a woman who has just lit a cigarette, you might linger, as I did, while she shakes out the match and makes that first exhale. Tobacco leaves, burning paper, a touch of sulphur and all those hundreds of additives hang in the air so richly you can taste them, and you almost close your eyes, standing there by the entrance to the gym, remember what it was like to light a cigarette. Bright orange flame, long slow pull into the lungs, a light headrush, exhale, enter the 10-minute zone of space and time set aside to smoke.

It's eight years (this month) since I lit a cigarette, but the taste of smoke on a humid day enlivens the eight years I did spend smoking. I always wondered when it would even out, when I would finally reach the point when I had not smoked for as long as I had smoked. How would it feel? And here I am. I forgot entirely about the anniversary until the other day, when I stumbled on my joyous secondhand smoke experience. It feels like a long, long time has passed. Thinking of what it was like to be so young and rebellious makes me feel pretty old, although I think (and I do this check an awful lot) my 14-year-old self would highly approve of my life today. She would want me to be published, sure, but other than that, she'd be pretty happy.

Though, after quitting, it took two more years for me to stop smoking in my dreams, these days I don't ever think about it. Unless, coming around a corner, thinking of work, money, travel, family, I am suddenly reminded.