Sunday, August 9, 2009

In Training

Neither of my parents followed sports, nor were they particularly athletic themselves. My father had played handball as a boy in the upper west side projects; my mother had a passion for Jackie Sorensen aerobics, which she did with other leotard-clad middle-aged women in a stinky Catholic school gym on Tuesday and Thursday nights. And both of them had a mean side-stroke, which they could do for hours on end along the perimeter of our town’s man-made lake. But, in my household, intellect, art and culture were valued over blood, sweat and tears. My mother took me to piano and ballet lessons. My father took me to jazz clubs and foreign films. As a family we went to galleries, museums, and festivals.

Not surprisingly, I grew up a wimp. A cultured wimp, but a wimp just the same. While playing bombardment, I hid behind every other player until I was the only one left, a slight, but easy target for the sadistic, ball wielding maniacs on the opposing team. In the outfield, I linked dandelions to form golden chains, which I used to adorn myself. In gym, I was picked last (or nearly last) for every team…from elementary school straight up through high school. And when, in a gesture of cruel generosity, my friend Stephan, who was athletic, picked me to be on his all-star volleyball team senior year, I single-handedly destroyed the team’s hope of being number one. I can still hear Stephan yelling at me, frustrated as I, once again, dropped the ball, “Use two hands, Melissa. TWO HANDS.”

I began running in spite of physical education. In spite of my parents. I began running by accident.

It was my 16th summer. My parents were fighting. Again. I can’t remember the specifics. (Was it over how much my mother had paid for a grapefruit? Whether or not she had placed a fork next to my father’s plate?) Somehow, I was brought in. (Was I trying to restore peace? Was it me who set the table?) I hit a breaking point and sprinted from the house. I ran without destination. My legs carried me across the street and into the woods. I ran until my lungs burned. I probably went a mile…or less…but it was enough to generate a sense of freedom. Of release. Of escape.

After that one night, I was hooked. I kept on running. After my freshman year of college, I ran through my first real break up, exhaling anger, pounding out despair. From there, I ran through dysfunctional relationships, job stress, writing a dissertation. I ran through wedding planning, my isolation in Asheville, and one very bitchy boss. I ran away from stress and anxiety…and ultimately towards health and strength.

And now that I have a daughter of my own, I want to be a model of this strength. I want her to experience the self-confidence that comes with athleticism. I want her to be proud of her body and what it can do.

There is a fine line between encouraging your children to pursue the options open to them and living out your own dreams through them. The latter requires a lot of money tossed into the therapy jar. I don’t want push Sophia into running…or any other sport, but I want her to know that she can. That it doesn’t have to be brains or brawn, art or athletics. I’m still trying to figure out how that works.

Yesterday, when I woke at 6:00, it was pouring rain. I snuck up to the attic to knock out 12 miles on the treadmill before Sophie woke up. She roused at about 7:30, and Kevin took her up to see me. Sophia, who had never witnessed me run on the treadmill before, stared, wide-eyed and intrigued. “Mommy’s running,” Kevin explained. I finished up, showered, and joined them in the kitchen. “Upstairs.” Sophia told me. I followed her first to the second floor, and then up to the attic. The room was still cool from the air-conditioning I had cranked during my run. She made a gleeful beeline for my treadmill, and climbed aboard. Hopping from one foot to another on its stationary belt she said proudly, “Sophie running!”

Off and running, indeed.

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