body, Change, Fitness



Some people have spiritual journeys. Like the woman at the pool today. She gave me a copy of her book, the one she’s self-published about her awakening. Praise and bible verses sing their glory from the pages. She told me Satan still tempts her sometimes.

I’m going to have to read this because we’re neighbors. We need each other more than I need the security of my convictions. I’ll learn about her journey. No matter how indirect its impact on my life, a person’s story is a big deal. Reading a slice of it is a small task.

Lately, my journey has strayed far from the spiritual. I’ve gone on a physical detour, as if I’ve stumbled upon some hidden hatch and tripped into my own body. I wander through this wondrous machine, in awe of what I’m witnessing. Connections! Understanding! Everyone needs to hear about this transformation — You! Yes, you! — because it could be this good for you too! Really! This one simple set of practices could give you back life you didn’t even know you’d lost!

Because who doesn’t love hearing yet another opinion about how to improve oneself?

This feels uncomfortably like a religious conversion.

Restraining the evangelical urge is proving more difficult than I imagined. I’m keeping my mouth mostly shut in public (unless you ask, and then all bets are off). As for writing? Well, this is one place where my story gets to take up ALL the space. If something in here helps any of you — you, my three loyal readers — find your own anatomical awakening, then hallelujah!

You may recall that less than two weeks ago, I wrote on this very blog a story about my astounding recovery from back pain. In Bouncing Back, five simple exercises a couple of times a day turn me from a shriveled specimen of middle-aged resignation into a frolicking, leaping, running, wholly reborn poster girl for spinal health.

Right when I clicked “publish” on the post,” I stood up from my chair, and ping! A tiny shock rocked some deep part of my back. It zinged along the side of my spine opposite the previous injury. You’ve got to be kidding me. I conjured McKenzie, immediately lay face-down on the floor, and pushed up into a cobra.

Over the next two days, the shock turned into a stab. I ignored it, trusting wholly in this new approach to recovery: focused, ongoing, non-pain-contingent exercise. In other words, do the correct activities even if they hurt, and do them every day. So I did.

Then I couldn’t get out of bed. Working from home devolved into Percocet paralysis. Day 4 required a panicked trip to urgent care — a trip requiring both of my parents coordinating a rescue. I had folded in on myself and could barely breathe. First in the car and then in the waiting room, I writhed, twisted, howled. No position relieved the relentless sonic booms, not lying or sitting or standing or curling up in a fetal ball. I kept trying to crawl up and away from the pain like some kind of feral creature with its pelvis in a trap.

This is a girl who’s had knee surgery, busted two wrists, and suffered a brain hemorrhage. Now comes along some unidentifiable, not-at-all-broken back twinge, and it’s the most intense pain of her life short of giving birth.  At least during 20 hours of labor, trusting a big reward was waiting at the end, everyone cheered me on. Here, they just handed me tissues and looked bewildered.

As the docs do for every other ragged patient who limps through the door, they ordered a bunch of tests. Blood, urine, pain scales while prodding my spine. I begged them to put me in a coma. They ran me through the doughnut for a CT scan instead. The doc shrugged. Rest, heat, massage, he said. He gave me five prescriptions for zero diagnoses and sent me home.

I describe this not because the experience stands apart in any way. Everyone has injury and trauma, everyone has an ER story. I describe this only to mark the bottom of the page — a baseline, more or less. This is how bad it got. The injury, some deep mystery, had caused enough spasm and torment to knock me flat for five days.

I didn’t have much else to go on, so I decided to keep the faith.

Through all of this, even through the six hours in urgent care, I kept stretching. Kept doing as many sets as I could of extensions and bird-dogs and curl-ups and two kinds of planks. As you can imagine, they hurt. I wondered if they might be making things worse. This was a distinct possibility. Even so, if a team of medical professionals could offer nothing more concrete than “some trouble in the soft tissue” and “maybe constipation,” what did I have to lose?

Every morning, mid-day, and bedtime, I did my exercises: extensions, bird-dogs, curl-ups, and planks (two kinds). Sometimes I cried.

The day after urgent care, I hobbled to the pool in my complex and lowered myself in to bob and stretch. Freed from a measure of gravity, the pressure diminished and I could indeed move.

Two days after urgent care, I went twice to the pool and swam slow laps.

Three days after urgent care, I drove across town and attended the funeral for a colleague. I sat for nearly two hours. I actually sat. Then I went home, walked in the pool, and did my extensions, bird-dogs, curl-ups, and planks (two kinds).

That same night, I took the metro into DC, walked nearly two miles across town, and sat through a delightfully zany Mystery Science Theater 3000 live show.

Four days after urgent care, I worked in the office half a day.

Five days after urgent care, I worked in the office a full day.

And yes, every morning, and every mid-day, and every bedtime, I did my extensions, bird-dogs, curl-ups, and planks (two kinds). Sometimes I cried. But less.

Then I stopped counting, because it stopped mattering. A little over a week had passed since the initial injury. I went to the gym. And walked the dog for miles. And stayed out late after work doing bar trivia with friends. And lifted weights. And went to the gym again to hit the high resistance on the elliptical. And swam laps, and walked with friends, and washed the sheets, and did everything.

I could do everything.

I posted “Bouncing Back” on July 3rd. Here we are at July 15th. This is what comprised today:

  • Got up and walked the dog the long 1.8 mile loop
  • Ran two loads of laundry and vacuumed
  • Went to the gym and lifted weights for 30 minutes
  • Ran to the supermarket and carried several huge loads of groceries, watermelon included, up the stairs to my condo
  • Hopped on the metro and rode downtown for a 3-hour scavenger hunt that crossed the National Mall through two massive museums and the Smithsonian Castle in 90+ degree heat
  • Came home and walked the dog again
  • Went to the pool to swim laps
  • Oh, and of course… extensions, bird-dogs, curl-ups, and planks (two kinds)

Not a twinge.

I believe with the whole of my much frayed but intact soul that those five exercises add up to zero pain.

But we’ll never know for sure, will we?

Isn’t this why zealots and converts drive us nuts? They so fully believe the reason for their good fortunes — the lasting marriage or financial wins or blue-ribbon kids — derive from the Thing They’ve Figured Out. These gifts must flow from their choices, be they prayers, family dinners, professional networking, or a gluten free diet. Winning must come from playing the game well. Fortune born from Right Action.

You, watching this go down, you’re rolling your eyes. You can see how privilege fills that well. Or how Lady Luck tipped the dice.

Yes, I’m here saying, Bipeds of the world! Listen up! You’ve GOT to try this plan! It’s the thing you’ll never believe you lived without! Also this: my dad at 72 years old still goes to the gym every day and plays tennis every weekend. Today, right here on July 15, the old man is building a shed by hand in his back yard. Also today, my mother disembarks her plane in England where she’ll be going on a three-week Mystery Writer’s walking tour of the Lake District. I get it. I was born stocked with fitness genes and raised in a family that hikes for fun.

Also, I have a great health care plan, 24-hour doctors, money to afford prescriptions and PT and massage, a job with sick time, a boss who lets me work from home in a pinch, a co-parent up the block that can take the kiddo when I’m laid up, a safe neighborhood and a community pool, and and and. . .

I’m oozing privilege.

The causation I proclaim between my five magical exercises and my 100%-in-under-12-days recovery is specious at best.

But still.

That pain has not yet faded into a yellowed page in memory’s scrapbook. It’s as close as the pill bottles sitting on my bathroom counter. The calendar page hasn’t even turned. A week ago, I had to take opioids just to crawl to the bathroom. And here I am in my forties rebounding from injury ten times faster than I did twenty years ago.

The only variable that’s changed this time around is extensions, bird-dogs, curl-ups, and planks (two kinds).

So please forgive me this fervor.

And please don’t take my faith in its source.

I’d like to hold onto my conversion, such as it is. In a life guided by randomness, when we have to grapple every day with the merciless fact of our existential impotence, we need our Right Actions. We need to believe that something — just one small something — works.

For now, I stand on this simple daily practice and find solid footing — momentarily, at least — on a forever unsettled earth.

To you on your journey — anatomical, spiritual, musical, vegetable — if you’re seeking purchase and you want to give this a try, please. Come on over. I can hardly wait to show you the way.

Image: Katie Clark, “Spine”

1 thought on “Conversion”

  1. i’ve had to learn that self-doubt doesn’t come naturally to most people when it comes to what they feel certain about let alone saved by, but than the Greeks knew they were doing when they named patho-logos as that which we are in the grips/thralls of.
    glad yer up and able, my better half lives with something similar and in addition to stretching her PT dad gave her some strengthening exercises to do daily for abs, obliques and all to keep her stable and supported and that’s made the difference more days than not.

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