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Posts Tagged ‘strength’

Mother Earth Odjig

Mother Earth, Daphne Odjig

Eyes like a growling. Eyes like a treasure box. Storefront reflection, candid photograph, inverted glint on spectacle glass.

Eyes tethering me to corporeality.

They write their stories on my body. Make their confessions on my body. Cast the runes and decode the signs and plan their fortune on my body. Ink the map of their nightmares on my body. X the spot of their rescue on my body.

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chagall dreams

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

– Naomi Shihab Nye, “Gate A-4

Someone vandalizes a church and a Jewish community center in Northern Virginia. They paint swastikas on buildings and dark words over a sign supporting Muslims. This happens on the first night of Passover, at the start of the Christian holy week. The story is here.

Then the police track down a suspect. Dylan Mahone is a 20-year-old man who has found his way into white supremacist and neo-Nazi circles. A student at the community college. A neighbor who lives just blocks from the house my former partner shares with his two kids. A young man whose Facebook page drips with racism and hate and noxious fantasies of violence.

White. Christian. Educated. Male.

One of ours. One of us.

(more…)

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shavanaas

I take a deep breath and add another 2-1/2 lb weight to either end of the chest press bar.  These “graduation” days are bittersweet.  Each crossing of a threshold puts the lie to the comforting narrative that I’m only so capable, only so strong.  If I keep surpassing my own limits, I might start to believe that most of them are self-imposed.  How in the world can I avoid living my full life under those conditions?


Image: Mary Ellen Mark’s Photograph of Shavanaas Begum, the Indian Circus Strongwoman, 1989

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cave woman

Downstairs is the Cave of Dudes.  It is where the free-weights line up in rows by the mirror, where contraptions pierced through with grimy iron bars and corsets of straps hunch in the corners and dare you to approach.  Someone has squeezed a couple of treadmills in at the back.  They are the wireless kind that run on human power instead of electricity.  The robot machines are quartered in the vast gallery upstairs, a whole army of them blinking out their perfectly calibrated, simulated tracks on LED screens.

Down in the cave, incline benches.  Pull-up bars.  Clangs and grunts.  Some days, most days, I’m the only gal down there.

The Cave of Dudes skews young.  They cluster in packs, spotting each other and counting off.  Their tattooed calves flex with effort.  When they finish a set, they pace, flushed and breathless.  They turn their arms just so to see the cut in the mirror.  They try to look like they’re not looking.

The few older men who dare to visit are made of sinew and focus.  They grip through fingerless gloves.  Intensity makes their neck veins pop.  Even though they lift less, they seem stronger.  Grounded.  The old dudes are more likely to end up on a mat doing the peacock pose.

I am a 42-year old woman with cellulite and stained sneakers.  It takes an enormous force of will to peel myself from the whirring breeze of the elliptical and descend into the Cave of Dudes.  It stinks of testosterone.  The man-juice is thick as brine and you’ve got to churn your way through the miasma to get to the dumbbells.

I go because I love the place.  It’s a playground, full of toys to mess around with.  Yet every time I start down, up drifts the bass dialogue and the metal bang.  With it, a clench of dismay.  Couldn’t it be silence?  This time, couldn’t the room be mine alone?  It never has been, not in all the years I’ve been going.  There’s no reason to believe it would be now.  Still.  Traveling has offered up enough deserted, junky hotel fitness rooms that I know what a blast it can be to bounce around by myself.

Better yet, how about a gaggle of gals?  If my girlfriends in their saggy capris and cheap Reeboks joined me, that would be a party.  We could shut off ESPN and crank Throwing Muses and Flogging Molly.  We could do all the wrong things with the iron maidens in the corner.  We could dance between sets.

But in the Cave of Dudes, antics are unwelcome.  Talking, unless it’s about muscles and stuff, is also rare.  Dancing?  Who would dare to try?

To will myself through the throatfuls of male musk, I’ve learned to man up.  Every gal has a store of Dude inside her.  She knows how to act remote and invulnerable.  How do you think she survives the subway, the office, the bar, the street?  When it’s necessary, she taps  the supply, adopting tunnel vision and shooting straight for the target.  No distractions.

Even when — especially when — those distractions are the echoes of ancient patterns learned by a girl surviving in a universe of threat.

I know rationally that the dudes in the cave have things more compelling than me to capture their attention.  They may notice the arrival of a female of the species, but what’s it to them if I’m clumsy or old or weak?  What do I care even if they do care (which they don’t)?   I’m safe here.

I know all this rationally, but still, the sense of intrusion, of outsider-ness, as I walk in almost overwhelms me.  Among the dudes, the racks and incline benches look as sinister as they do inviting.  My toys, in the company of dudes, look like mistakes waiting to happen.

Stepping across the room, I try not to glance at the bench press.  It’s my favorite piece of equipment.  I started on it a year or so ago with just the bar.  Eventually, the weights went on.  Week by week, they increased.

It’s a strange kind of thrill to climb of my own free will under that iron bar.  Lifting it off the stand exposes my girly chest parts and delicate neck to a grimy mass, one that’s entirely in my control.  It’s danger, it’s power.  Nothing beats finding out how much this body can do.

Despite all this love, I start to stride past it over to the relative safety of the dumbbells.  A trio dudes are all gathered up near my beloved bench.  One of them is doing some sort of big-cock-lunge-squats while the other two watch with their arms crossed.  It looks like a dare.  Or a hazing.

As I pass, a little voice whispers, I wish he were here.

Oh, you again.

The voice accompanies me everywhere, all the time.  But I hear it right here, at this almost imperceptible moment of choice.  The timing makes me pause.  That wish is whispering up right as I am about to abandon my very favorite exercise on account of the presence of men.

I stop.  I let that wish bob and dance like a soap bubble , the little voice a song inside it.  Yes, we always got such a kick out of sweating together, punching stuff and finishing the run with a wind sprint.  Yes, this was one of highs we climbed together.  And yes, if he were here, every piece of equipment in this place would be fair game.  We’d mess around with it together.

All this wishing.  Wishing to be alone, wishing for the company of women, wishing for My Mister.  Wishing to be younger and stronger.  Or older and more free.  Can I actually change any of these things?  For the ones I can change, do I want them enough to take the leap?

Or do I choose this?

Wishing without action is a destructive habit.  It’s biting nails and picking at scabs.  It’s holding the fact of the terrain up against an ink-stained map of Rivendell.  It’s falling from a cliff then cursing the earth that’s caught you.

He’s not here, Smirk.  It’s just you, your grit, and your capacity to make your own bliss.

Get to it.

I touch that bubble with the tip of my courage and let it pop.

Then I slide on right past the trio of dudes, grab two 10-pound weights, and rack up.


Image: “River in a Cave,” John Spies, Thailand

 

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female atlas

I don’t have to carry all this
because I’m alone.
I get to carry it
because I’m strong.


Image: “Female Atlas” by Heretical Jargon

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Triathlon

In the neighboring lanes, retirees walk the slow churn. Sinew writhes under mottled hips, hearts chug in their loose cages of hollowing bone.  We turn the creaking millstones of our musculature and send low ripples along the surface.

Mid-afternoon is a world apart from evening here.  During the late rush, fierce middle-aged racers tear a wake between ropes.  Teen divers knife skyward before the plunge.

Now, the most animated bodies in the water are a half-dozen preschoolers gripping swim bars and kicking with all their might.  The rest of us sway.  We are seaweed, we are prey.

I stir the lapping shallows.  My feet somewhere down there take the long strides of a sleepwalker.  A faceless predator closes the distance of its asymptotic approach, forever almost crossing over into awakening.  The water is a tar that grips.  Also, it buoys.  These competing forces are reminders of its latent power.  So too are the lifeguards with red floats who pace the edges and peer into our unsteady depths.  Even as we come to it to carry us over our pain, we all know that this pool could lay any of us down for good.

Rinsed and combed, up from the locker room and out through the lobby I limp.  Lopsided steps favor the right leg and give the left a breather.  Even with easy breaststroke, the busted hinge in my left knee pops and yelps.  But I’ve moved, I’ve worked up an almost-sweat.  This is energy, back for a throbbing moment, a reminder of what it felt like before.  What it may feel like again after the surgeon fiddles with the clockworks and seals me up.

But even if the repair is unsuccessful or — as is inevitable — temporary, here is water.  This is reason enough to be grateful.

As I plod out the sliding doors, a man enters. Lurch-clunk-lurch-clunk, towards the welcome desk.  Another ancient one here for the healing waters.  He leans on a cane.  Thin layers of marbled skin drape from thighs and elbows.  Around his left knee, a black brace.  The red flesh trapped inside grates at its confinement.  He moves with such care.  Lurch-clunk-lurch-clunk.  His eyes are fixed on that low place on the floor one meter ahead, a place all too familiar to me now that avoiding a fall is more appealing than the vanity of vigor.

As I hobble past, I point to his knee and say, “I’m getting over one of those too. Thank goodness for the pool.”

He looks up at me.  His face cracks like the lid of a chafing dish.  Something in there simmers and pops,  steam and all.  A slow grin.  “I bet you didn’t get yours hitting a deer while riding on a motorcycle.”  He chuckles.  His wink, an invitation.  He holds his gaze a second, another.  Then he turns and limps on.

A buzz shivers through me, potent and odd and all the more startling from its unlikely source.  Out the sliding doors and into the parking lot.  Sun licks my shoulders.  A breeze cuts through the damp hollow where my hair lays across my neck.

There are no old folks here. Not broken bodies, no lost days.  We long for what we are, even now.  We are all younger than we imagine, as raw as we have ever been.

We are all being born.

We face the open water.  We surrender.  We surge.


Photo credit:  Uncertain origin; possibly from Triathlon Scotland

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Hand Wraps

His daughter sits on the basement floor and colors, if what she’s doing can be called that. The enchanted forest book was among yesterday’s Christmas loot. Green ink creeps in swirls as she embellishes the narrow space between the veins of a leaf. She barely registers the music screeching past as it thuds thuds in time to leather gloves pounding a heavy bag.

This is his three minutes. I squeeze into a corner of the blue mat on my back. My clasped hands are wrapped in ragged strips of fabric and swipe at the air as I curl into crunches, press towards 50 and then surge past. Close to my exposed flank – too close – he jolts and slips and ducks. The weight falls off as beads of sweat hit the mat. Shadows of sinew cut into his shoulders. Ropes braid his neck. He dances with power thrumming along every string.

The earlier chapters are carved into flesh hidden beneath skin. The tongue is lost but the meter of those verses is translation enough. Ghosts jammed their grappling hooks into his jaw and temple and laid their weight against the cables. Claw over claw, they tried to draw him with stubborn resolve down into that pit where they boil the tar and hemlock, where they chant their cold spells. Mother Gothel learned her arts there before planting her garden. You may know the place. The more you lean in, the stronger the scent of oblivion.

On the floor near my shoulder, his daughter chooses a darker green for the branches. “They’re supposed to be brown,” she says, “Like a tree. But I want them to be vines.” She paints the fine strands like jungle dusk.

He keeps his fists in his line of sight. I see how he grows muscle from sources both clear and buried. He laces up gloves and running shoes, of course. He pounds it out on canvas and asphalt. Yet under that, a core strength comes from a deeper exertion. He strains up, always up, forcing momentum to reverse against the compulsion to surrender, resisting that sweet temptation of relief.

To those whose bodies are matched to the pull of gravity, this effort is incomprehensible. But look closely and you’ll see the corrugated skin and voice, you’ll see the cuts like scars across the force field he emits from the moment he wakes even before the sun. You’ll see how his light’s flickering tempo jabs back against the black box of night.

He invites you into that basement where he does battle with an appetite for extinction. He powers up some deeper engine and keeps it running, makes it growl against the silent pulleys they use to draw him in. He keeps it humming, makes it fire, even when the key has gone missing, he pushes it from the hill and pops the clutch. He finds a way to spark it to life no matter how thick the rime obscuring a barely remembered green.

His daughter switches out jade for fern and loops spirals along the wings of a bird. She looks up, pausing to watch her dad’s fists fly against the bag. “Can I have a turn?” She asks.

“Sure, babygirl,” he pants. “Let’s get your hands wrapped after this round.” He smiles in her direction before turning a scowl back on the bag. It sways, creaking its displeasure at the assault.

I bend sideways to force my obliques into submission. I face him now, watch his bare feet shuffle over the mat as he circles his unyielding crimson opponent. He is strength here, he is courage. He is also their opposite. He is the admission of weakness, the acknowledgment of fear. He knows what is at stake. He’s felt the reeling sensation that comes when every treasure escapes his grip. He’s seen how close a man can come to failing to save the most precious.

He chooses fierce. Both coach and fighter, he splashes cold water in his own face and wakes the weary champion. He plays as if brave knight-errant, as if he was born for this, because he’s covered enough earth to know he is not. None of us is, and anyone who believes otherwise is Don Quixote, all fool and bluster.

This is why I love the softness there under the corners he’s trying to chisel back into his armor. Those tender places are just as welcome in my grip as the cut and thunder. Plenty of men are blind to their weak seams and show only scars that come with a good story. They have not been tested yet. They have not broken. It is always only a matter of time.

I want to see bulges and the crude patch job. These are the places where he stuffed whatever gauze and rotgut he could find. These jagged seams map his crossing, and they show him which way to turn if he finds himself back on that familiar route. The stitches hold the reminder of what happens when he loses his footing, when he almost falls so far he can’t climb back. I want to know he’s visited that place. Even if he stayed long enough in that pit to become a citizen, he chose to give up its Neverland promises and rise back up to life.

Evidence of that ascent is written into him. I see the callouses on his hands and know that he keeps them in shape both to hold his domain among the living and to keep climbing, even now, even when he could be justified in saying this is far enough.

The bell clangs, end of round. I stand. He lets out a breath and taps my hip before ripping off his gloves. I pull the straps tight on mine, bouncing on the balls of my feet as I wait for the seconds to tick down to my beginning. He touches his daughter on the head. She lifts her eyes from the twining vines and tangled leaves now waking to lushness across the page. “Let’s get your wraps on,” he says. “You’re up next.”

 

 

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