The Education Can Begin: Meditations on Midlife

Middle age keeps surprising me.

I keep running into things I think I know only to realize that I was

mistaken

misinformed

under a false

but lasting impression.

These surprises are not always pleasant

or friendly.

some carry a force upon arrival

that’ll knock you down

flat

especially if you haven’t been paying close attention.

I thought I knew love,

thought I knew racism,

thought I knew how to show the former

and counter the latter.

Middle age presents the tests

but doesn’t ask if you studied;

doesn’t question your readiness.

Middle age says

work this out.

And there you are

grasping at straws

watching the clock

scouring your memory.

And there you are

stuck and stuck and stuck

unprepared

to be so utterly clueless.

But middle age saw you coming,

sees your indignity

at being caught

unawares.

Now, she says,

the education can begin.

 


 

Middle age has been on my mind A LOT lately. I identify as middle aged and regardless of how many folks kindly remark on how young I may appear, I know exactly how old I am and how many years this particular body has been in operation. On the one hand, I have some decades of life experience to draw on – full of family, work, and accomplishments, on the other hand, I face a great unknown of what will come next. After 60? 70? Even after 80? I’ve learned a great deal up until now, how much more will I learn before my days are at an end?

I’ve been reading bell hooks’ trilogy on love: All About Love: New Visions (2001), Salvation: Black People and Love (2001), and Communion: The Female Search For Love (2002). It’s a course of study I didn’t know I needed until I was deeply immersed in the material. Bell hooks is a patient truth teller as she guides us through museums full of mental models we apply to make sense of love; how we crave, practice, misunderstand and shun it. She speaks from a specifically American frame which helps me to connect it to my own upbringing in the Midwest and understand the ways I’ve applied those beliefs in adulthood in Europe.

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At the same time I am making my way through Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist (2019). Similar to hooks, Dr. Kendi leads us step by step into a steadily more complex and nuanced definition of what an antiracist is, but more importantly he shows us what a true antiracist human does on the micro and macro levels of life in progress. What’s interesting is that both authors share episodes of their own lives – of their youthful fears, adult struggles and bracing insights along the way. Their lessons are personal AND intimately connected and embedded in the social structures they illuminate. We learn about personal actions and decisions and then witness how these can be seen in light of what we know about the impacts of race, gender and class.

I take note: None of us is operating in a vacuum as we lead our private little lives. On the contrary, our private spheres become sites of social interactions deeply impacted by the dominant culture’s overarching messages in favor of racist, sexist and classist ideas. Resisting all of these influences requires more of us than we often realize.

In an early chapter on dueling consciousness, Dr. Kendi introduces duels in Black and White, in the past and present, between assimilationist and segregationist thinking. In a remarkably poetic passage he describes the duel within the Black body:

The Black body in turn experiences the same duel. The Black body is instructed to become an American body. The American body is the White body. The Black body strives to assimilate into the American body. The American body rejects the Black body. The Black body separates from the American body. The Black body is instructed to assimilate into the American body – and history and consciousness duel anew. (How To Be An Antiracist, p.33)

Every time I reread this passage, I see it play out – sometimes in my own childhood, or on a recent news report – this back and forth without ever fully arriving: I know this duel. In my own ways, I live it. Then it hits, the other duels happening within.

Reading about love in heterosexual relationships, I am struck by the recurring duels that appear in hooks’ considerations: between feminism and patriarchy; power and love. She laments that feminists of the ’80s and ’90s while able to demonstrate significant gains in jobs, money and power, failed to share the discovery “that patriarchy, like any colonizing system, does not create a context for women and men to love one another… that domination and love do not go together, that if one is present, the other is not.” (Communion, p. 71-72)

I don’t remember ever having thought about relationships with that kind of clarity. I am familiar with the draw to compete; the unspoken patterns of one-upmanship that couples can fall into. To claim we want to love and be loved, but at the same time show with our actions that we also want to win. These are features of the dominant culture coming home to roost. Even when we believe ourselves to be beyond such influences. It’s the cultural air we breathe.

Given that lesson, the path to love that hooks sketches for us in Communion demands new lenses, above all for seeing ourselves. And she suggests that midlife lends itself particularly well for this endeavor. The timing of this reading could hardly be better.

I’ve had 4 lines written on a notepad next to my computer for about a month which means that I keep seeing them, rereading them, imbuing them with further meaning.

It doesn’t matter if I say

how much it hurts

the answer is always a question:

what did you expect?

Again a duel, playing itself out: answer and question. Midlife seems to be asking: What did I expect? Now I see that it is homework of a whole new variety. Work that may, in time, bring me home to myself.

“Now, she says,

the education can begin.”

 

References:

hooks, bell, All About Love – New Visions, William Morrow, 2001.

 – Salvation: Black People and Love, Harper Perennial, 2001.

 – Communion: The Female Search for Love, Perennial, 2002.

Kendi, Ibram X., How To Be An Anti-Racist, One World, 2019.

 

 

 

 

The Day After: A Reckoning

I shared:

I was happy to disclose the positive result after the fact. Now it’s the day after and I’m wondering.

My learning

I’m still OK although running this distance untrained was punishing for my joints, especially my knees.

I would actively discourage my friends of a similar age from doing any such thing.

Nevertheless, I signed up (without telling anyone) because I think I know my body. We have a long history together, have even run this course several times in the last 25 years. And while I know I’m not in “running shape”, I know that I have remarkable fitness reservoirs – considerable leg and upper body strength, well tuned joint and muscle flexibility, plus a baseline cardiovascular fitness level that is highly adaptable. I also went into this race with years of experience. I knew how to pace myself for a safe return, how to build in recovery during the race and also let go of any other expectations beyond completing the course in good health.

That’s important. At almost 54, with two knee operations behind me and a job which requires substantial physical investment, I could not run “as if there were no tomorrow.” On the contrary, I ran precisely with tomorrow and the next day and the day after that in mind. I took it slow from the outset. I paid attention to my limbs letting me know if something was amiss. I let myself speedwalk with a smile in some spots, or jog backwards downhill to relieve pressure on my knees. All of these techniques worked.

The final 4 kilometers are a steady downhill in familiar territory. I was able to run the last bit with surprising energy. As I got closer to the finish I was reminded of the hundreds of training runs I had done on this same stretch over the years. I let those layers of muscle memory carry me through the finish line.

 

My body

issued a few murmurs of regret this morning, especially my knees.

My knees and I went for a neighborhood walk up through the vineyards and back down past the posh houses and apartment buildings. The left knee wore a brace and both were forgiving since I wasn’t making extraordinary demands like yesterday.

I may keep the brace for a couple of days just as a comfort measure. I owe my knee that much courtesy.

The rest of me appears to be fine. I never struggled to catch my breath yesterday. Slow and steady didn’t win the race but it did return me to my car safely.

My ambition

grows contextually explicit.

My husband runs long distances more regularly. I don’t envy his training rhythm as much as I might. I had my time in the competitive limelight of middle and long distance running. I won’t be back. Knowing this is a help and relief. It leaves me open to surprise myself at will.

My ambition now consists of outrunning the menaces one comes to expect in middle age: the prospect of disease in one form or another. Not even the healthiest lifestyles are immune to disruption by illness. I think of this often when I choose to spend time writing on my laptop rather than hitting the trails for a hike, bike or other outdoor exertion. It’s not that it has to be either or. My point lies in acknowledging the scope and efficacy of my efforts wherever I apply them. Like my peers, I have no guarantees or significantly better prospects of a longer than average life.

I do have a body that mostly still cooperates with whatever I am asking it to do. That constitutes a blessing in every sense of the word. My ambition becomes one of seeking agreement with my body and its blessings. Satisfying needs, curiosity, and even spontaneous wants – my body, mind and heart are in constant negotiation with each other. Middle age seems a season built for keeping such negotiations as positive and mutually beneficial as possible.

That may be what I wanted to achieve by participating in an event for which I had not specifically prepared and yet could hardly have arrived better prepared to enjoy the experience the way that I did.

Differences

Choosing alone as a feature not a bug. I didn’t ask anyone to join me. I did not recognize any other runners as in the past. I spent most of the time pleasantly on my own while moving along. I appreciated the space to be alone in a dispersed mass.

My inner dialogue during the run was much gentler, forgiving and encouraging than in my competitive days. What a glorious discovery to make!

Given the time without other commitments (son & husband away for the weekend), it was a pleasure to challenge and surprise myself almost secretly. (I only shared the outcome with my husband hours later.) Maybe it’s a guarded selfishness, a way of preserving dignity in the event that the outcome is not so rosy. I’m not sure but I will say that I derived an odd satisfaction at revealing an unexpected morsel of news about my accomplishment.

Truth

I’m moving a bit slowly today and need sufficient warm-up to walk smoothly. That said, I am curious to see where my curiosity may strike next.

It rained and I did not melt.

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Fitness: My New Terms of Engagement

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  • I teach physical education. I advocate for fitness, being fit, leading a healthy lifestyle and enjoying those aspects of being alive.
  • I have a history of movement success from an early age up to now.
  • I have also lived in a body that has largely cooperated with whatever I wanted to do. No significant illnesses or incapacitating injuries. I’ve mostly been able to recover well after setbacks.
  • I have landed safely in middle age with few physical complaints and with the accrued social capital that derives from thinness and a visual indication of relative fitness (muscle definition, ongoing participation in various sporting activities).

Here’s what’s new: after 40, after 50 keeping that extra kilo or two at bay requires seemingly 1) more physical effort and 2) much more restraint in what and how I eat.

My last marathon is 13 years back. The last time I was in the habit of riding my bike to and from school 2-3 times a week over hill and dale is at least 8 years back. Running on a regular basis? 4 years back.

So I’m not doing as much as I used to but during the school year my work schedule means that I’m on my feet a lot, have occasion to work on my strength along with the kids and I feel strongly about being able to model capable movement. I enjoy throwing myself into a steady headstand (or making 4 attempts before I get there). It pleases me greatly that I can pull off a cartwheel without fear of injury.

But. Once that work day is done I want to sit down. I want to write and read and be as sedentary as my schedule will allow. I also now think a glass of wine or some pre-bedtime ice cream is not entirely undeserved. So I indulge.

And here’s what I do now instead of what I used to do:

  • I take myself for a walk/jog around the neighborhood. It’s fairly green and it doesn’t take long to get up some hills.
  • There is no rhythm to this. I go when I can and when I feel like it.
  • I do sprinting drills along the way (high knees, kick butts, soldier walk and several others). The last thing to go will be my flexibility, at least that’s what I’m banking on by keeping up this habit of drills. I’ve been doing them since I was 12!
  • If I decide to run some, I look for a nice incline – not too steep – and do a few strider runs. Not full out sprints but I do focus on good form: strong arm swing, high knees and quick cadence in my footfall. I love these when I do them. I remember who I am.
  • I walk backwards downhill (good for balance, takes pressure off the knees) and uphill (nice strengthening effect for quads).
  • Sometimes I do a few cycles of Sun Salutes at home which also make me feel flexible, capable, not entirely like gone-to-seed.
  • I like to hold the plank (push up plank, not elbow) for 2 minutes or a little more sometimes before I go to bed.

All in all, I’m not ready to give in to the march of middle aged, round the middle softness but I understand that it’s here anyway and how I come to terms to that will be instructional.

I have no desire to lead a fitness cult. To discover 1000 ways to beat the odds of aging. I do want to be able to continue teaching well and enjoy activity both at work and at home. Maybe I’ll choose to compete at sprints a couple of times per year. And I want to savor the time I get to sit and think and write and still stay healthy.

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