Can We Talk?

If last summer was the season of shoulder, this summer was the season of the glute. Each year, I learn more about how the human body functions via injury and physical therapy, so when it was time, once again, for PT in June, thus began the summer of 2014.

Like a team of sled dogs on meth, it seems my enthusiastic hamstrings have been first to volunteer for tasks that other muscles –larger muscles– should have done over the years. Hearty little things, it took four decades before I burned one out, but they should have known better. What were they thinking taking on the work of my glutes who rested back like regal pillows all these years?

My hams worked so diligently, so quietly, that I never noticed, only enjoyed the forward propulsion they provided. The poor dears were martyrs, really, suffering in silence yet begrudging every request I made. Oh, she wants to walk faster now? We’ll show her! A half marathon? Fine! Swimming?! You know, no one else down here is lifting a fiber, but if she wants power, we’ll give it to her! We’re struggling, but don’t mind us!

Even if my hamstrings had raised an early alarm, I probably would have powered through any twinges that limited my exercise. Aches are something to be worked through, strengthened. We’re accustomed to a certain baseline of fitness, after all, which we imagine will be ours always; it’s surprising when our bodies change, since they do so gradually. Our minds resist altering long-held expectations of health and fitness (or even lack thereof) because we believe we’re the same today as we were ten, twenty, thirty years ago.

And so, an ache arose this spring that I couldn’t quite place. For months, I treated it with massage, thinking it was a pulled muscle, but the pain increased to an unbearable state. I couldn’t move my leg, let alone squat to pick something up or even get out of bed, without discomfort. After all was revealed –acute hamstring tendonitis– my glutes, who should have been doing more work, and I had it out. You’re the biggest muscle in the body and you just laid there? This whole time I thought we were working together, but you were faking?!

During the first session, my PT asked me to fire one glute muscle by itself, but it just sat there in its sweat pants licking the potato chip grease from its fingers. I turned to gaze back at it, but it shrugged and took a nap. “Normal people can do this?” I asked, willing each cheek to move independently without calling on any other muscles. She nodded, gravely. “We have some work to do.”

How could this be? After all the squats, stairs, walking uphill… how could I have been so deceived? All this time, it was my hamstrings taking the brunt of the load while my lazy glutes fanned themselves and ate bon-bons? They had been hiding back there all this time like stowaways in the trunk, knowing that I wouldn’t go looking unless I was quite determined to find them — and that, as it turns out, would take years.

Rehabbing this part of my body made me think about all the things that we subconsciously turn off or buffer in our lives. We grow calluses and blisters in response to friction and pain, but they don’t cease the mortification to our bodies, just insulate us as we solider on. We grow cynical or emotionally distant in the face of break-ups, finances or losing loved ones, but that doesn’t stop the challenges from coming or help us meet them as they pile up. As embodied beings, our instinctual response to stress is to shrink, harden or redistribute effort in the hopes of avoiding suffering. We trick ourselves into believing that we’ve conquered challenges or that they’ve gone away when what we’re really doing is avoiding and deferring pain.

This is the most true of stress. We power through a tough work week then go to yoga only realize that we’re strung tighter than guitar wire, hunched over and mentally frazzled. We’ve told ourselves a story that we’re fit and resilient; instead, we’re burning through our physical and mental resources because we’re too numb to realize what’s happening. We’ve shut off our awareness to our own bodies. Then, one day, something small occurs and the house of cards falls under a light breeze. Stunned, we wonder why.

The human body is both highly intelligent and quite lazy. It strives for efficiency, so we must constantly challenge it in new ways, otherwise it adapts and relaxes under routine demands. Rather than calling upon every muscle to collaborate on a task, it learns to draw upon the few most willing and easily accessible to carry the load while the others rest. This was the year that my hamstrings were bucking for best actress, best supporting actress, best screenplay and best director at the same time my glutes took a sabbatical. Rather than becoming more fit from all my (ahem, over) training, I had unwitting created a cause for injury.

The cure? My glutes had to attend summer school. Everyone else was splashing at the pool while they stayed inside doing clamshell extensions, Romanian deadlifts, bound squats and bridge poses so that I could understand what it felt like when they were actually working. When a sensation has been absent long enough, or never there, it’s like discovering a new part of your body. As hikes and long walks resurfaced in my exercise regime, I found I wasn’t able to move as quickly as I did when powered by the fan boats that were my hamstrings, but I did move more steadily. My entire body felt more engaged; I could even sense the connection from my big toes all the way into my deep core muscles. This ability to not just look but feel these relationships body allowed me to explore my body’s function and sense its weaknesses more deeply.

As atrophied as my glutes were, my core was as well. It was deceiving how many stability-based yoga poses I could execute yet, when asked to do something different, like lower both heels to the floor in boat pose, I had almost no strength. I had to face how hidden, weak and unused much of my core was, even after decades of exercise. So often we call upon our extremities to do much of the work –they’re accessible and willing– that it’s easy to forget the very center of our beings, which is where real power, poise and health come from.

Our cores are so much more than muscles, though. They contain the central column of energy that weaves together our mental, physical and emotional systems. Our souls, or whatever you may call the forces that animate us, thrive deep within the center of these three. Think of someone you really love and you feel a warm, effervescent glow inside. When you press their body to yours –you hug your child, your lover, your dog– you can feel the same elixir stirring in them. Our cores are made to recognize and respond to each other, but when they are damaged, we shield them from the world, and even from ourselves.

With the deaths of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of comedy as it relates to our cores and how we view ourselves. After news of Williams’ passing, I listened to several interviews that touched on his struggle with addiction. I suppose I knew or heard about this over the years, but in comparison with his larger-than-life talent, it seemed like a footnote, or at least, predictable for someone in the entertainment business and thus, regrettably dismissible. He struggled, he conquered, he moved on.

But he didn’t. This is the lie we tell ourselves. Listen to him here, gracious and wildly funny as always, but beneath the quips, he’s tired. There’s something happening beneath the surface of his words that he’s not acknowledging, and neither do we; it’s enough for us to absorb the richness of his thoughts and wry perspective.

This interview made me question how I wrestle with challenges in my own life. How often do I cover over pain with jokes that cushion whatever tender spot has come up? Humor doesn’t make the root cause of the pain go away, but everyone feels good for a minute, including me, laughing at my lazy glutes or what a bad swimmer I am. When I want to distract someone from asking about what’s really going on with me, I’ll get us both laughing until we move onto the next task. As with physical injury, I don’t pause for a rest or to really consider where it came from and how to heal it; there isn’t time, and so I move on.

The key to comedy is self-deprication, and Robin Williams knew this deeply. Similar to memoir, if you want to be a successful comic, you must throw yourself under the bus first — then you peel yourself off the asphalt, poke yourself in the eye, drop a hammer on your foot and do it again. Few have achieved this as masterfully as Williams or Joan Rivers. It took her death to remind me that she went deeper into her core than most comedians do, poking at tender places to bring joy to others. She made fun of her own looks, her physique, her femininity, menopause–anything and everything to connect with her audience, especially women.

There are blue comics and then there is Joan Rivers, real as you want to get, banned from The Tonight Show for 26 years. By the time I was coming of age in the 80s, I knew her more for her fashion commentary than the performances she gave in the 60s and 70s (there was no You Tube back then, kids.) As I did just weeks before when Williams died, I took time to watch some of her clips to remind myself of what the world lost.

Recorded in 1967 on the Ed Sullivan Show, the first clip was stunningly relevant to life today, 47 years later. What struck me was not how depressing it is that dating, especially from the female perspective, has changed so little from the 1960s, but how well-pointed Rivers’ humor about it was and is. Her comments speak to an existential struggle related to the value of women in our society — a struggle that is little more resolved since then. Yet, it’s possible to listen to Joan Rivers and know that we are not alone, that someone else is paying attention; she sheds light on what many women experience. The power of her comedy comes from a central place of strength, offering not just laughter but connection.

Nothing with Joan was taboo. Over her career, she flogged every part of her body, her looks, her lifestyle, her intelligence. Similarly to Williams, she did this by accessing places that are often hidden or weak, places we are loathe to explore. Yet, she was able to turn on her emotional core muscles and make them work hard, work together. She offered up herself as sacrifice, not from a means of distraction or displaced shame, but strength.

Without a mother or grandmother to turn to as I get older, I often find myself searching for mentors of their ilk as I age. When I watch reels of Joan and her daughter, Melissa, I see something extraordinary happen between them, the kind of spark I imagine that I would have with my mother if she were still alive. They share a tenderness and sharp honesty that goes beyond a familial bond. It’s a master and her apprentice at work, the former encouraging the latter to follow in the honored tradition of the craft while making it her own using her own unique strengths. This is something missing in my own life, I realize: a safe place to test theories of how our bodies work and what happens to them over time, which is distinct between genders. I’m beginning to understand why women form coteries as they age, if only to discuss –and freely laugh about– such things in the closed company of those who can empathize.

Watch how she engages the audience on the show that got her banned, praising women as she abases herself. We trust her because she acutely pursues her own flaws, yet she uses the harsh light of her reflection to encourage us to go easier on ourselves and each other. No one –not our coaches or even our detractors– is ever as hard on us as we are on ourselves. We cover over what feels ugly and weak with the facade of material success, camouflaging ourselves with careers or spouses, community stature or finances, even our looks, to obscure our hidden weaknesses. They fade deep inside but don’t go away; we forget they’re there until we’re called upon to address them, often at the point of injury.

I feel blessed to have witnessed and learned from Rivers and Williams, who brought so much of themselves into their work. While I enjoy an occasional lampoon where people talk from their butts or throw wrenches at someone’s head, there is no substitute for the deep and true humor that these two masters gifted us with. They made careers of reaching into dark places that are inaccessible to most of us on a given day, sporting the wisdom and fortitude to examine what they discovered and the nerve to share what they found. All this for the purpose of tickling that same spot deep inside us and, I do believe, assuring us that we are not alone.

Every time they made us laugh, they helped us see that someone could know and understand all of the things we hold inside — and still love us anyway. The ride always felt perilous because their observations were so dead-on, but we kept coming back because it was based in truth. Especially with Williams, who could get at the soul through surprising channels of insight, I always felt like I needed a seat belt. His gentle personality is what made his humor that much more powerful. Audiences trusted him to take them to the brink of discomfort because they knew he wouldn’t abandon them there.

As summer comes to a close and my physical form continues to organize itself beyond the bounds of anything I can control or predict, my approach is to listen more than I ever have. I’m meeting a new version of myself in the body I have today; it’s not bad, just different. From my head and heart to my deep core, I’m capable of much more than I ever thought or tried to do before. The knowledge of one’s potential only comes with time, I think.

Upon releasing me from treatment, my PT underlined the importance of allowing my body to rest, noting that this–not just physical training–is how to build strength. And so I’ll continue to seek the places inside that I have overlooked all these years and find ways of getting my parts to work together instead of apart, and I will make time for rest, maybe even an afternoon nap and, most especially, I’ll make a point to stop and laugh at it all.

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