I have never been athletic and I have always been anxious. For years, I saw no connection between these truths—in fact, I assumed they were mutually exclusive conditions. Some people were athletic, coordinated, fit and others were like me—trapped in their minds, bookish and soft. Only recently has it occurred to me that exercise could cure at least one symptom of my neuroses: this existential panic of not being purposeful or present enough; this speculation that perhaps because I thought, I was, and life was truly so intangible.
Helena Fitzgerald has a wonderful subscription newsletter called “griefbacon,” and one of her recent entries reflected on going to the gym; Fitzgerald had a negative impression of the space.
She wrote, “It is one of the most determinedly un-poetic spaces anywhere. It has no larger conclusions, no great lessons. It has been designed specifically against these things. The gym is exactly itself, one’s body playing scales again and again with no intent toward symphonies.”
For the past six months, I’ve been going to the gym several times a week, and I was struck by this description because it is the exact opposite of my experience. At the gym more than anywhere else, I feel the weight of my body; I feel the presence of it. At the gym I learn to be kind to my body—to appreciate what it can do and to train it to do more. Fitzgerald is correct that the gym is somewhat of a “blank space”-- but it is far from unpoetic. It is a place removed, but not without intent. For me, the greater poetry of the gym is the tiny, intimate poetry of my own existence—the stretch of a muscle, strength, balance, sweat, pain. Nowhere do I feel more “in” my body.
I think this desire to feel grounded also made me a writer, and is the reason why I continue to fill composition notebooks with ink despite the advent of the laptop computer. There’s a defiance to putting pen to paper—of declaring, tangibly: I am here. I wrote these words. Here’s proof. There’s a comfort in the physicality of it, as well as the permanence.
When I’m at the gym, I have proof I’m alive. This set of weights? They’ll move; I’ll lift them. This Stairmaster? I’ll climb it, and my legs will ache. I’ll sweat. I’ll exhaust my body and, by proxy, my mind. It’s difficult to worry at the gym; it’s difficult to be preoccupied because so much of your energy and attention is dedicated to concrete action.
In six months, I have not gotten much stronger. I have not lost significant amounts of weight. I am not faster than I was before. But that’s not why I go—the draw is the rhythm, the symphony (if you will) that the practice brings to my life. The quiet build up and the orchestral rush and the victorious crescendo of a good work-out is calming poetry.