Last year, my mom was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease. My sister and I decided not to be tested for the hereditary gene and instead to take the advice of the neurologists who offered tips, research, and articles on how to keep our brains healthy and functioning for as long as possible.
- Maintain strong, healthy social relationships (easy!)
- Eat foods that feed the brain (got it!)
- Exercise regularly (hold up….)
Exercise is not something I have ever prioritized. I was more of a bookstore girl than a weight room girl, and while I’ve been a runner my entire adult life, I say that loosely. I never ran far, or very often, or even that well, but I still ran, and I felt like that was enough. Until it wasn’t. The older I got, the more I realized how out of shape I really was, and it was only going to get worse if I didn’t do something about it. I needed to make exercise a regular and consistent part of my life if I wanted to do what was best for my body and my brain.
Six months ago, I decided to do it. I was ready. The neurologists’ research revealed that weight training was a key to brain health, and it was important and incredibly valuable for women as they age (which it turns out my body is doing, quickly and stubbornly and against my will).
My husband, who was a high-level athlete well into early adulthood, helped introduce me to a weight room and kept his sweet, patient mouth shut while I bitched and moaned my way through a few sessions. He was my spotter, my trainer, and my cheerleader for three months, and the last three months, I’ve been kicking it all by myself in the weight room, squatting and bench pressing like a goddamn professional, well, a very, very, VERY amateur goddamn professional. At the end of each weight training session, I usually do 10 minutes of cardio. I prefer the spin bike or the stair stepper, but I drag myself onto the treadmill at least one day a week. I’ve been told that my cardio health is just as important as my strength, so my “trainer” has been forcing me to do one long run every week on my day off from the gym. It turns out, even though I call myself a runner, I actually hate running. I hate every part of it.
Today was my long run day. Today also had a daytime high temperature of 37 degrees. I hate running, but I really, really hate the cold (I am a real pain in ass. Just ask my trainer). I could barely get myself out the door, but I made a commitment to myself months ago, so I bundled up in my winter gear, and got my ass moving.
The first few minutes of any of my runs are always the worst. My head is usually on overdrive – this collar is rubbing wrong, I think my laces are too tight, my calf hurts, seriously, what is up with this collar? I hate this, blah, blah, blah). But today, all of that was drowned out, and all I could think about was how fucking lucky I was to be able to run. How lucky was I that my lungs were clear – because I have friends who are still struggling to catch their breath after suffering Covid months ago – and how lucky was I to have strong legs – because I have another friend, as strong and brave as they come, about to have surgery to remove cancer from her body. I’m sure she’d rather be running – How lucky was I to be able to keep this pace, to have the time to take a long run in the middle of the day, to be healthy, to be capable, to have the choice.
This afternoon, during my Zoom writing class, my student wrote I love this class in the chat, and another student responded me too, and it broke my heart because if talking about micro essays in this weird ether space that we are connecting in twice a week for an hour is the thing that is saving us, then so be it. Thank god for it. One of my students lost her father to Covid a few months ago. We have been talking about her taking a semester off to grieve, but she wants to stay busy. So be it. My first-year teaching, I had a sweet student named Gabriela. She was an incredible writer. She died from a brain tumor before she could graduate. Another student I had the same year was in a wheelchair. He had earned a full ride football scholarship to another state college, but the summer before, he was shot in the back and paralyzed. Another student’s father had a stroke. He never fully recovered and one night had a psychotic episode and tried to kill my student, his mother, and his brother. They were hospitalized. His father is in jail.
So be it. So be it all.
While I ran today, I thought of my friend, Katie. We met for a social distanced beer the night before they called the election. We talked about our fears for the country, our anxieties over the health and safety of our families. I was almost brought to tears talking about how hard this semester has been, how I’m struggling to connect to my students, to feel like I’m making an impact. Katie (who is always right because she is a genius and a saint and a mindfulness guru) told me that as long as we are leading each class with love, showing our students that we see them, that we get it, then we are doing the big work, and that’s all any of us can do these days. We shared sweet stories of students who were falling behind but then snapped out of it and came back, full force, cameras on, assignments turned in on time, and we shared stories of the one on one Zoom meetings, full of soft crying and feelings of failure, where we did our best to push all of our love and strength right through the screen.
Katie’s generous, brave, and loving voice was in my head today as I ran. It spoke of compassion and reminded me to have it for myself too. And I thought about another friend who earlier this year taught me about the power in renegotiation, how life is a series of renegotiating relationships, with those we love and want to keep loving and with ourselves. I’ve spent too many years of my life in a complicated relationship with my body, hating it, abusing it, literally and figuratively starving it, and I realized today that it was about time I started giving it the love it deserved. I thought about all of this while I ran, my students and how hard they are working to make it, and the faculty and staff and how hard we are working to make it while we steer those sweet students to the end of the semester, and my body and what the last six months has taught me about self-love, about strength, about nourishment, self-regulation and self-forgiveness, trust, and doing what I can to help myself live the life I deserve.
Today, I ran, and I fed my body, and I thanked my body, and I gave myself grace when I was breathless, and I talked to myself when I was getting tired, I told myself anyone can do anything for ten more minutes, five minutes, two, and I thanked my strong students and my brilliant and fierce friends who lifted me up and carried me the entire way. And I hated every minute of it. So be it.
So fucking be it.