Heavy bear

“That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.”

From “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me,” Delmore Schwartz, 1938

As much as I want to be one with it and to befriend it (as I wrote about here), most days I feel at war with my body. My mind is agile, quick. My body is a heavy bear. I know I should exercise, yet as I make another cup of coffee and settle into my writing chair, I convince myself that it’s not really that important. In August, I hired a personal trainer, thinking she would somehow fire me up, inspire make me to get fit. I had a few sessions with her, and she was lovely and encouraging. She set up a practical plan of cardio, weights, abs, and stretches for me. And then I found dozens of excuses not to go to the gym.  Well, getting motivated to exercise is an inside job. (I knew this but was in denial.)

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Clambering around a playground yesterday with the four-year-old girl I sometimes hang out with, I felt old, tired, heavy, and sore. I stumbled and floundered like a shaggy she-grizzly, a version of Schwartz’s inescapable animal. Then I realized on the bus home that I need to treat exercise like I treat water or food. A need. A requirement for living well.

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Today I accompanied Michael to the rec centre where he goes for his daily run. I took my iPhone and headphones and tuned into Apple Music’s app, looked under “Music by Mood’s” Fitness category, and found it is crammed with playlists of every kind—“R&B Workout,” “Alternative Workout,” “Latin Urban Workout.” I went straight to the “’80s Workout” because there’s nothing like the Pointer Sisters singing “I’m So Excited” to get your heartrate up to its maximum. The record’s needle drops down into the disco groove and before I know it, my past self, my young body, is moving fast, moving sexily.

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A year or two ago, I was leery of paying monthly for Apple Music, and I loathed the idea of the playlists, prepackaged music pabulum. I didn’t want to be just another baby boomer nostalgic for the sounds of her youth. I should select my own favourite music, make my own mix tapes. But I surrendered. Apple Music’s fitness playlists make me happy.  I warmed up on the rowing machine to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and Rick James’ “Super Freak.” I had memories of going to aerobics classes with my sister in the big gym at the University of Toronto. After we sweated it out, we’d go out for a beer at a bar on Harbord Street (and for me—multiple cigarettes).

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Moving to the treadmill, my heart beat faster with the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men,” Madonna’s “Material Girl,” and Wham!’s hit, “Wake Me UP Before You Go Go.”  Peak heart rate with the Pointer Sisters, sweat pouring down my face. Following that, I did weights to the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams,” remembering a summer in my twenties when I was obsessed with that song, playing it over and over as I lay on the floor in a melancholic haze. Finally, my housemates started to complain about hearing the same song 50 times a day.  I forwarded through some songs, and came “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson and “Let’s Dance” by Bowie. Wonderful.  As I stretched post-workout, I shifted over to Botswana’s hit songs, another Apple Music feature (Daily top 100 in dozens of countries).

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Sometimes my body is a heavy bear, fumbling like “a stupid clown of the spirit’s motive.” My mind is electric and agile, my body a “caricature, a swollen shadow.”  As I age, my body can feel like a slow prison for a quick mind.  Her “mouthing care,” her “scrimmage of appetite” always playing out—wanting this, wanting that, buttered toast with jam, too many coffees, lounging for hours on the couch.  How good to feel, at least today, energized, young, strong, and compatible with my animal. How can we become one?

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La Passeggiata

IMG_2057A passeggiata is the Italian tradition of a gentle stroll taken around the neighbourhood after dinner.   It’s also a vital part of the “Always Hungry?” (AH) diet developed by Dr. David Ludwig. He writes that “the passeggiata is a moment of joyful movement that helps support healthy digestion and insulin action, while simultaneously relieving stress and helping you sleep better.” (p. 123). That’s true, but I have also experienced intense pleasure in observing the phenomena in our neighbourhood during our evening passeggiata.

Michael and I have been following the AH diet for almost 8 weeks.  At first I resisted the passeggiata. We work hard all day, often biking to and from work (16-18 km round trip), and after preparing and eating dinner, I want to relax.  So we decided to keep it short. We walk around the block, just over a kilometre, alternating clockwise and counterclockwise. Now I look forward to it, as we walk slowly, encountering people, houses, trees, animals, and cars.

Head across the street passing the maple tree with the variegated leaves. Stop to admire those green speckles. We curve around the corner, down broad Colquitz, past front lawns, the van with “HOP GUY” license plate (he runs a small brewing company).  The houses become more familiar each time we stroll past, noticing details.  As we rounded the corner onto Middleton one evening, we saw a mother and her three kids getting out of their car. A dark-haired woman  helped her young daughter attach a grass skirt around her hips. The boys, perhaps 10 and 12, wore Hawaiian shirts. “Hawaii theme party?” I asked. Somehow the passeggiata leads to these chance meetings. We talked to her about the beauty of the Hawaiian Islands and fare prices while walking with them. In front of the party house many people with colourful leis around their necks  congregated, holding potluck dishes.

Another evening, as we walked by another house on Middleton, upbeat music blasted from the backyard and a catering truck, Food for Thought painted on the side, was parked in the driveway. A young man in a crisp white shirt and black pants approached the truck. “Is that your company?” I asked. “No, but I’m the manager.” “What’s going on?” He explained it was a wedding and in 20 minutes they would be eating dinner. He recommended the catering company as “good food and reasonable,” and went off to do the job.  Music, laughter, and cheers were heard all evening from the wedding house. Mazel tov!

Then there are the animals.  A flock of ducks frequent the neighbourhood. I think they live on Colquitz creek nearby, and travel over to the Gorge. We see them flying overhead almost every night, doing great loopy circles over the neighbourhood, an aerial version of the passeggiata. I can hear their wings creak as they plow the air over our heads.  Then they land on a front yard on Austin St., where the owner has put out plastic tubs of seeds for them to eat and bowls of water to drink.  A brown flurry of moving bodies with flashes of purple and teal as they peck at their food, jostling one another. Sometimes they walk out on the street. Last night a guy in his truck with his daughters had to wait as they slowly made their way to the side of the road so he could proceed. I remembered Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings.

Two mourning doves also live in our neighbourhood. I noticed them appear several months ago when the construction up at Admirals Road and the highway got intense and we lost part of Cuthbert Holmes park to the bulldozers.  They have found a new home in the tall trees on our streets. I see them on every passeggiata now, usually together, on branches and telephone wires, cooing. Their mournful cries wash over me, making me feel an old yearning for some other world.

There is another special bird that has perched on the same wire two nights in a row, and trilled out the most complicated melody. We stopped to listen.  A guy pulled into the driveway in his yellow Alfa Romeo. He saw us, necks craned, looking up at the bird on the wire. I explained, “That bird sings such a lovely complex tune—I am just wondering what kind of bird it is.” “Songbird,” he laughed and opened his front door. (I have since searched through my copy of Birds of Victoria and identified the bird as a starling, perhaps mimicking the songs of other birds.)

We saw a cat yesterday, a white cat resting on a moist emerald lawn. Most of the lawns are straw brown, in these late baked summer days. But there she was, looking at us coolly in her stark white elegance against the green, one paw thrust forward.

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Then there are the flowers. Perfect white dahlias the size of a baby’s head. A huge hydrangea bush, the purplish blossoms weighted with summer, bleached by the daily heat.   Sunflowers. At one house, they tower twelve feet, their heavy bronze heads hung as if shy about their size.  Tonight as we stopped to admire those beauties, their owner drove into driveway and got out of her car. She told us this was the first time they had grown to this height. “I think it was the chicken manure from North Saanich.” When my husband congratulated her, she said it wasn’t her, it was the manure.  “Life is like that,” Michael responded. “Equal parts magic and chicken shit.”

Each day I notice something new or talk to another neighbour. All because of the passeggiata.