Strength

I have been lifting weights again, an endeavour to which I am partial because my only goal in lifting is being able to lift more, the same the-ends-are-the-means process that motivates me to write. On my better days, I am trying to make a poem so that I can make the next one. On my worst: to satisfy my ego’s gaping maw, its endlessly open wound.

I started learning free weights when I was fourteen, from teammates on the track team, my workouts alternating between the sprinters and the jumpers. It wasn’t a remotely formal education: the upperclassmen taught the freshies, and there was always a coach nearby to keep an eye on things. (I have a distinct memory of our beloved Coach Harrington breaking into a laughing rendition of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” when my best friend and I were learning lunges.) After I busted up my feet one basketball season, playing through sprains that turned into stress fractures, I was heartbroken when the bone scans came back and Har delivered the news: no running or jumping for you. I remember thinking it was the end of my time on the team. But he barely missed a beat and smiled like a lit bulb, adding with the next breath: you’re going to throw the discus.

I loved track for its variety of athletes and events, the sheer number of teammates drawn from disparate social groups and cliques everyone forgot about in the spirit of making a stronger whole with a single cause: the very definition of teamwork. But every team has its standouts, and the shot and the disc have never been terribly sexy in the world of sport. Too, the program was nothing short of a dynasty when it came to distance running, fall’s cross-country successes turning each spring into dominance on the track. And while the rest of the field events took place in the infield, the throwing events required more space: shot circles tucked behind the tennis courts, the discus cage side-by-side with the javelin sector in a practice field hidden by the visitor’s bleachers. Out of sight, out of mind, until the occasional power workout meant the strange sight of thrower’s bodies sprinting 50s down the backstretch, much to the delight of the rest of the team. Having earned varsity letters in the infield, on the track, I was used to being visible. When I cleared a height or knocked a few tenths off my quarter-mile time, people knew, the points tallied by officials and spectators alike. Having never watched a throwing event myself, the discus sounded like exile. And having joined the laughter when the throwers tied on their running shoes, I was equal parts embarrassed by the relegation and ashamed of my own arrogance.

Despite my initial reluctance, I eventually understood, and accepted, my coach’s thinking: the discus was an event to which I was especially suited. You need the leverage of long arms, strong legs for driving, quick feet to corkscrew through the spin. I liked it: the timing of it, the rhythm and grace, not terribly different from life in the paint. Even more, I liked the throwers, young women I’d never spent much, if any, time with: B-Rob and Lydia and McClune, all of them a year or two behind me in school, accustomed to the relative obscurity of their events and throwing simply because they liked throwing. And I liked their coach, Gary, a gentle giant of a man who, if memory serves, came straight from a physical job every day to supervise our drills and guide our strength training, the drywall dust on his clothes mixing with gym chalk. They taught me the deadlift — conventional, Romanian, deficit — and how to max out my squat. No surprise that I’d not known how much time they spent in the weight room, nor how much fatigue they carried through the week as a result. For runners and jumpers, hitting the weights early had always meant shorting your real work outside, trading the crucible of intervals and stadiums for leisurely sets mostly performed with Nautilus stacks, the weights ancillary to the rest. Lifting with the throwers meant barbells, big plates, the skin on your palms toughened to knots. Lifting with the throwers meant getting strong.

Strength comes from damage and recovery. When you lift weights, you tear muscle fibres. As the fibres heal, they’re fused together by new growth, thusly increasing their size and number. The result: bigger muscles that can handle more weight. The greater the damage, the more recovery you need. The broken thing is braided with the new, not just returned to its use but made capable of more difficult work. The metaphors are obvious and many. Last night, reading and planning a new program, I was reminded of those unexpected friends who showed me how to plant my feet and breathe into my gut, to lock out the weight at the top and control the descent, feeling thankful for their graceful welcome. For Har, who saw what I could do despite my broken feet. (I did run again, at the end of that season, anchoring our 4X100 meter relay team during the annual inter-squad race between the throwers and the distance runners. The throwers won, and it was glorious.)

This morning, finishing up a long, lazy run — one of those pale blue winter dawns when the pearlescent plume of your breath catches the sun’s thin light and the grass is thick with rime — I was thinking of other wounds: the long incision and irradiated muscle that binds my left thigh, where after five years the scar tissue still grows haphazard, constricting the layers of skin and fascia and muscle, sometimes even adhering the end of my femur to my lateral quad. I was in the hospital for a week after surgery, limping laps around Mount Sinai’s seventh floor with my IV pole and tethered to a Jackson-Pratt drain, the watery red fluid weeping into the bulb for so long I thought it would never stop. When I finally got to go home, it was another week before I could walk unaided to the end of the block. Time may heal all wounds, but so do husbands and physiotherapists and faraway friends who write and send cards, cookies carefully packed, the box on the customs form marked gift.

I was thinking, too, about my rekindled interest in weight training, feeling grateful to remember how simply I love the pursuit. Like most who have found their flesh the locus — physical, emotional, psychological — of violence, exploitation, control, I have been at least partially estranged from my physical self for many more years than five, from its power and potential, its need and desire. Estrange comes from extraneare, “to treat as a stranger.” In our better moments, we know better than to fear someone just because we don’t know them, what they might do. In our worst, the what-ifs win out and we hide. Alone, though, a hurt thing only ties a knot: the white ridge of the scar cinched shut. Strength is unified: the damaged fibre woven back into use. This afternoon I’m thinking not just of iron, of the simple joy of lifting a weight so I can lift another, but of warp and weft, of the women who have shown me how the shuttle is passed back and forth — a thread made strong by its place in the design.

–for SMF & HMW

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