I’m out of shape. I’ve fallen out of my not-exactly-Olympian but relatively consistent get-up-and-move exercise habit. I need to get back into it because 1. it’s good for my health, 2. it’s an indispensable mood elevator during long, dark Chicago winters and 3. it builds endurance. That third thing, I’ve found, has much farther-reaching benefits than just logging mileage on the treadmill.
As a kid, I lived very much in my head. I built forts and sandcastles, I swung on swings and climbed jungle gyms—but really taxing, sweaty, whole-body-limbs-and-heart engaged movement, not so much. Team sports sent me into a spiral of panic. I didn’t really come home to my body until I signed up for jazz dance in high school at Feet First! (The exclamation point was part of the name.) Our teacher was pixie-sized; we danced to Prince and Duran Duran in black and electric blue spandex. In college I picked up my roommate’s running habit, bundling up on winter afternoons and running past fields of rasping cornstalks. Since then, I’ve stayed active—weights, yoga, biking. Exercise is not always comfortable. Sometimes it’s a slog. Sometimes it’s a long string of swear words. But, pushing through discomfort you learn what you can achieve. It’s exhilarating to go farther or faster than you know you could have done in the past. Exercise teaches about momentum and second winds. And then there are those blessed endorphins—the rosy afterglow that results from a hard workout.
Exercise reminds me of something that’s easy to forget: how to tolerate discomfort. Endurance is really just a matter of not letting discomfort throw you off your game. Something that surprised me about exercise is that there’s joy in it. Things don’t have to be easy or even fun to be joyful. An awesome side effect of my exercise habit is that these lessons—about endurance, discomfort and joy—carry into the non-exercise parts of my life. For example, when I sit down to write. Generally there are approximately one million other things on my mind, which is yammering about how it would be nice to watch Netflix or make cookies. Or fantasize about how great my book will be when it’s done instead of wrestling words that won’t come together in the way that I want them or trying to figure out the structure of chapter ten.
Writing a book brings one up against things. Obstacles. Resistance. Time. Energy. In rare moments it can be exhilarating, but I’ve never found it to be comfortable. Abounding in discomfort, as a matter of fact. Actual physical discomfort: tight shoulders and lower back, dry and blurry eyes. (I’ve found if I get up every thirty minutes or so and stretch or amble about and pick things up, wash a dish or two, I can sidestep stiffness and headaches. Fortunately, at my house there are always things to pick up and a dirty dish or two.) That kind of discomfort has the easiest fix. Emotional discomfort’s more complicated. It comes about when I’m writing about something I don’t really feel like thinking about—something troubling or maybe something I’m still working through myself. Or sometimes it arises from the simple act of sitting down to work—the disquietude that results from what Anne Lamott so brilliantly dubbed your internal radio station, KFKD (K-Fucked):Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on. (Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott)
Finally, writing engenders intellectual discomfort: when I can’t think of a particular word though it’s on the tip of my tongue or when I can’t figure out what I’m trying to say though I’m certain it’s something REALLY BRILLIANT.
Exercise has taught me (to borrow a phrase from, I don’t know, some company – I think they make shoes) to just do it. Sit down and do the work. Be okay with discomfort. Sink into it, don’t let it eat you up, just let it be. Swear if you must – gripe and groan, but try to find the joy in it.
My friend Sarah texted the other night to ask me to dinner. I said I had to write. I was stressed. I texted, “I have to remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Sarah texted back, “Yes. Sustainable speed with 20 minute breaks. Hydrate and tell yourself you can do it.” There’s joy in exercise and writing. There’s joy in pressing on and through discomfort. It’s breathtaking, really, to meet ourselves at those places of resistance and to pass through and beyond where we thought we could go, what we thought we could do.