I have a short list taped to my bathroom mirror, writ large in black magic marker, to remind me of the priorities I set when I retired a year ago—pay more attention to my health, write more, see the grandkids more, and get rid of a lot of STUFF!
It’s been a matter of public record and great personal lamentation that all of those things got swept clean off the table for many months as I dealt with serial family emergencies in 2018. But as the Old Year waned and the New Year waxed, I looked at the beginning of 2019 as a time to restart my engines. So I perused the catalog of the local YMCA and signed up for a twice-weekly Tai Chi class.
This is a bigger deal to me than it would seem. I haven’t made it to a regularly scheduled exercise class in thirty five years. My oldest child is thirty eight. You do the math.
For many, many years, given the random nature of being a soccer mom with four kids, I had given up any hope of ever arriving anywhere at a predetermined time once or twice a week. It seemed that there were always cookies to bake or diapers to change or lessons to drive to or… you get the picture. And so exercise became a solitary pursuit, squeezed in between checkups and field trips and toddlers who didn’t want to put their shoes on quickly.
For years I walked, swam, lifted weights, and rode exercise bikes at random times to keep the body moving. In bad weather I walked the track at the local “Y,” in good weather I indulged in walking around our home in the country. Three laps of hills and flat, woods and fields, added up to roughly two miles.
Then, after I started law school, exercise time was even more sporadic and lacking. But once I started working as a prosecutor in a charming Art Deco building only blocks from Lake Michigan, I picked up the pace of walking again. In good weather I walked along the lake front, and in bad weather, I paced laps in the allegedly haunted realm of the sixth floor of the courthouse. Then plantar fasciitis and a few other health hiccups got the better of me during my fifties, and my middle-aged spread just kept spreading.
I have often fallen short in the self-discipline department, and turning a page into 2019 seemed to be a good time to change things up and connect with a group of people who would be doing the same thing at the same time! Tai Chi had long been on my “to do” list, ever since I had turned my aches and pains over to a massage therapist about three decades ago who happened to also teach Tai Chi.
“Breathe,” he would constantly remind me as he stretched one body part of mine or another in therapeutic fashion. “Yes, Grasshopper,” I would reply, making sport of his enthusiasm. He took it in stride. I always remembered.
And so shortly after the New Year dawned, I found myself in the basement of the local “Y” amid an on-going Tai Chi group. To my delightful surprise, the instructors were a well-known local musician/songwriter and his wife, Jon and Jane Doll, who I recognized from several years of going to art gigs. He’d even composed a song to go with one of my photos as part of an art/wine/music event we’d participated in a year or two earlier. So I was in friendly territory already!
This, however, was not an “introduction to Tai Chi” class I’d landed in. This was a “keep up and learn as you go” event, and I dutifully tried to mimic and follow along. It was harder than I thought! Somewhere along the line and months after I started, Jon mentioned that the sequence of motions that we repeated three times during a class each contained 110 different positions, and required shifting our balance 220 times.
All I knew on that first day, though, was that during my first class ever, my quivering knees gave out after executing the first two “forms,” and I had to sit out the third, simply watching the rest of the class with admiration as they moved in grace and unison. On my way out of the building, my knees were so wobbly that I didn’t dare even try walking down the few steps to the sidewalk, but used the handicap ramp instead. And held on to the railing for balance.
Little by little, class by class, my knees grew stronger and steadier, and my shifts in balance became more natural and more fluid. I could still find myself hopping from one foot to another when my understanding of what position came next proved to be off by a mile. Blessed with a vivid imagination, I attached mental images to every one of the moves which involved, from time to time, repulsing a monkey, spreading wings like a white crane, parting a wild horse’s mane, and carrying a tiger up the mountain.
And a word about that poor tiger!! I’m sure that there is some well-grounded historical or mythological or folklore related reason for all these names, but when I have to navigate between shooting the tiger, boxing him in the ears, and then carrying him up the mountain I’m not sure that I could stitch together a narrative that reasonably covers all three. Mostly I just focus on the mental image of tenderly carrying a wee tiger cub up a mountainside while he purrs in my arms, and try to ignore what we plan to do with him later.
As time and Tai Chi classes went on, I noticed that it wasn’t just my knees that were feeling different and better. I seemed to be bending and stretching with more deliberation as well. My sense of balance, overall, felt subtly improved, and I found myself embracing a newly felt confidence of movement. Hey, it was all GOOD!!
But Tai Chi knees, it appeared, only got me so far. As I drove home after visiting friends in Iowa, I took the road less traveled (but still marked by a small road sign) to The Maquoketa Caves state park, which I’d heard were absolutely magnificent. I found a shady parking space, inspected a large map of the entire cave system, and set off down a large, wide staircase leading to “Dancehall Cave.”
“No problem” navigating the long staircase, I thought. “I’ve got my Tai Chi knees!” And so off I set, after tying my sneakers a bit more tightly, descending step by merry step closer to my destination in the mysterious underground.
The staircase was equipped, at first, with a handrail, always welcome on such an adventure. I stopped to take photos, and was absolutely overwhelmed by the beauty of the lush, green scene. Ferns and moss dripped downward like wet silk from dark rock walls. Trees arched overhead like cathedral vaults. Birds swooped diagonally across the incredible depth beyond. I felt like I was standing in a scene of primordial grandeur straight out of Jurassic Park.
I continued downward, but noticed that the handrail had disappeared. No worries, I thought, my knees and my sense of balance were doing just fine. Then a few steps later I noticed that the stairs were wet, no doubt a result of recent torrential rains combined with deep shade. No worries, I thought, I’d just take them a little slower. And then, a few steps further on, the steps went from being simply wet to covered with slippery mud. And I finally stopped short of the mouth of the cave which beckoned invitingly, and took stock.
The soul searching didn’t take long. Faced with the facts that I was 300 miles from home; absolutely NOBODY knew that I had taken this detour; and that if I slipped and broke an ankle inside one of the caves I wouldn’t get a cell phone signal and would have to pray for a random hiker to summon help, I called it a day. Reluctantly, I turned to make the trek back up to the parking lot, promising myself I would return to the caves again one day with friends along for the adventure.
And discovered, after trudging up just a few stairs, that despite my Tai Chi knees and improved sense of balance, I had no stamina whatsoever. Let’s face it, walking the dog on perfectly flat city sidewalks does not put much of a strain on the heart or the lungs. Huffing and puffing, sweating and sighing loudly, I finally reached the top of the staircase and came to two simple realizations—one, that those stairs would be much easier to mount if I lost twenty pounds, and second, taking Lucky for longer walks wasn’t really going to make much difference.
So nearly thirty years since I took a running step, I’ve invested in a new pair of jogging shoes. Lucky is being pretty game about this new development, although he’s happy about every step we take outside that gets the two of us out of the house. I jogged for a whole forty seconds the other day.
Clearly, this is going to be a long road toward getting into better shape and fighting trim for the next time I want to tackle anything like the Maquoketa Caves. One tiny step at a time, one tiny measure of progress after another.
Pretty much like my Tai Chi classes and the first time I carried that tiger up the mountain.