There are two words, that taken together, I am trying to love…self and care. Each word is okay individually, but together they’re a foreign concept. I do take a stab at the idea on occasion to imitate my friends who are more mature than I. They tell me that the notion of putting one’s own wellbeing before that of another should not make one cringe or judge. I cringe at myself. I judge them.
So, in an effort to get onboard the selfcare train, I’m making a commitment to daily exercise, and I’ve just hired JT, a personal trainer, to help me. There’s another reason I’ve come to JT as well, but I hold that close to my chest for now.
I introduce myself and drop into a chrome and black leather chair by his desk. His studio is a big airy room with scary contraptions. A masculine room. In Athleta leggings and a fitted white half-zip I look a bit like a child who wandered into the wrong neighborhood The walls are either mirrors or windows where a stratified sky, witness to first contact, shimmers in silver, dark blue, and pearlescence.
Me: “So, I’m here because I spend a lot of time at a computer and I’m getting inflexible. And I’m not as strong as I used to be,” I explain. “I look in shape but that’s genetics.” (I didn’t earn looking in shape, so it doesn’t count.)
“I looked like I’d be good at tennis too,” I continue, as JT takes notes, “but I could only hit honeybees on the tennis courts in college. (I’m sorry, bees.) Then early on, as a Navy wife, I tried tennis lessons again. The other wives were much faster studies. Then, in New Zealand, I tried for the final time with my American friend Melinda at a private club. Turns out there are 17 things you must remember just to hold the racket properly. I didn’t have the bandwidth. Melinda was very, very pretty.
“And I tried pickleball before it was a thing. I was excellent at running after the ball. Fast and intuitive—like a Labrador, actually. And I was exceptional at fooling opponents who expected the ball to land in their court.”
More me: “I looked like I’d be good at skiing too but broke my thumb on the first run at Whisp. And I couldn’t get off the ski lift in Wanaka, New Zealand. The kids yelled, ‘Just ski off, Mom!’ but it was too late, so I kind of fell off and rolled.”
JT: “Okay. Take off your jacket. Let’s see what you’ve got. Give me 12 reps.”
Me: Lifting free weights. “I don’t want to look like Popeye. Those forearms were disturbing.”
JT: “You won’t look like Popeye. Wow! Stop impressing me.”
Suddenly shy, and now committed to impressing him, I glance in the mirror alert to a new defect. “Are my arms abnormally short?”
JT: “I’ve seen shorter. Give me another 12 reps, here, start at your shoulders, then straight up over your head.”
My arms are starting to tremble. I look in the mirror again.
“Wait, is my neck too short?”
JT: “I’ve seen shorter. Twelve more.”
Me: smiling at him, my arms now on fire. “This is going to sound impolite, but I might be about to hate you.”
JT: “And you’re not the first.”
JT has been doing this so long there’s not one thing I can do or say that is original. I came in with my hair down and now need a ponytail tie. JT’s got one. He’s got lots of them.
I didn’t come with water. He’s got a fridge full.
After lifting a lot of weights, my arms feel like noodles, which I then demonstrate. I think it’s hilarious. JT has likely seen it before.
Here’s what I don’t tell JT: I’m not strong, I’m not flexible. What I am, is very sad. But when you are sad you can always move your body, right? Do something kind for someone else? I’m on an endorphin search. A fake-it-till-you-make-it quest.
We take a break from weights and try lunges and squats. I’m struggling with form because the correct position for a squat is the antithesis of ladylike. You know what I’m talking about. JT gets it that I’m a little embarrassed by the neutral scrutiny as I follow instructions. Again, he’s seen it before. Just as I’m sure he’s seen sad before.
Because he’s also intuitive. We like that, too. Back on weights he counts when I don’t think he’s counting, he’s a very sneaky counter, and he knows when to catch the cable pull that I don’t have the strength to release gracefully. I don’t have the strength to release anything gracefully, I think. That’s why I’m here. I’m a clinger. Wait. That’s attachment hunger, right? Or worse, attachment disorder? But doesn’t everyone have that? Can you genuinely love without attaching? Now I’m considering a new foreign, two-word combo: love and detachment. I decide they go together with all the appeal of selfcare.
So, I say silent mantras staring in the massive wall mirror as I try to lift burden after burden into the air. There is nowhere else to look. I certainly can’t look at JT. That would be awkward. So, I gaze in the mirror, and quote Florence Shinn to myself, “The Divine Design of my life now comes to pass. I now fill the place that only I can fill.”
JT can’t hear what I’m thinking, of course. So, he tells me to lie on a bench and adds five more pounds. “I am fully equipped for the Divine Plan of my life. I am more than equal to this situation.” My arms are going to break, and I don’t care. I hope something does break. Something visible.
I whisper, “All doors now open for happy surprises and the Divine Plan of my life is speeded up under grace.”
JT repeats, “Still impressing me.” Of course, I try harder.
He stands behind and over me now ready to catch the weights I could easily drop on my own head. “I’ve got you,” he says. “Let go. I’ve got you.” And it’s strangely intimate. I like thinking someone is standing behind me who is going to keep me from hurting myself, while I’m hurting myself.
I sit up and tell JT I write a column and he’s going to be in it. He hasn’t heard that before. “My sisters will tell you this is an unfortunate liability of being my friend,” I explain kindly. I do noodle arms again to make us laugh.
Before I leave, I hold a plank until I think I will die and say to myself, “My heart is a perfect idea in Divine Mind and it is now in its right place, doing its right work. It is a happy heart, a fearless heart, and a loving heart.
And I head home.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.