Strong Core

Swimming is one of my favorite things. I used to swim 2 to 3 times per week with a Masters swim program (don’t be impressed, it just means I am old). I was in super swim shape this year right up until, oh, March 10. And then it all stopped.

Let’s face it. During a global health crisis, many things we might love – and even things we didn’t know we loved but suddenly now miss (I am thinking of my kids and how they unexpectedly longed to go to school) – just aren’t a priority. So we shift gears and adapt. Personally, I did more crossfit, and I tried kickboxing and yoga (all on zoom). I made stuff up on my own, rode my bike, went running (sorry, joints, desperate times call for desperate measures). I just kept moving. The school thing is still a conundrum I have not yet solved so I am not going to dive into that one.

Anyhow, it’s summer now, our case count is low, and the ponds are no longer freezing or frozen, so I can swim again. And it feels SO good because I missed it (a lot) and my hamstrings were really, really sore (too many squats? I have no idea, but, as usual, swimming fixed it.)

As I paddle along, I have these moments of philosophical inspiration (oxygen deprivation can do that, apparently). Not only is swimming great exercise, but it has a lot of important life lessons to teach.

When I first got in the water, it felt familiar but my body was like, wait, what the what? Oh, we are doing this again suddenly four months later? And my mind was like, oh my gosh, was that a turtle? It was chaotic and ugly and, at times, terrifying (I prefer my swims wildlife-free). Yet it was also divine to bask in the soothing weightlessness of water again.

Life lesson #1 – It doesn’t have to be pretty; if you love it just get out there and do it (turtles welcome, ideally from a distance).

And then my lower back started to hurt. And I thought, huh, that’s odd. It’s a low-impact sport, after all, which is the whole point in my case. What the heck? So I mentioned it to the friend who I swim with and he said, “Are you tightening your core?”

BOOM! Right then I had this huge a-ha moment. I’ve been told to tighten my core many times before, but then I forget and need a reminder again. Sure enough, as soon as I tightened my core, my stroke became more efficient and less chaotic. I felt stronger, more whole, less floppy. And I realized that having a strong core matters more broadly as well. Sometimes I forget to engage my core in life – too often, really. When that happens I feel blown about by the shifting sands of time and public opinion. I am so non-confrontational that I will adapt like a chameleon so I don’t attract attention or get attacked. It’s a survival strategy (classic, in fact, if you’ve been bullied), just like it is for a chameleon. But in those situations, deep in my unengaged core, I am filled with misgiving, chaos, and confusion. When I remember to engage my core, I immediately feel stronger and more empowered.

Life lesson #2 – Engage your core! Live your values. Find your voice and speak it!

Once my core is engaged, I remember that I am supposed to stretch my body long with each stroke (or as a good friend told me when I got back into swimming several years ago – “You are not tall enough for this sport. You need every inch you can get” 🙂 – which means that the Olympic dreams of my childhood were pure fantasy, it turns out. Glad no one told me that then!). When I consciously stretch my body long, I suddenly realize that I tend to spend much of my life sort of shrunk. There’s a cool inch or two gained if I just stand up straight, or stretch all the way through all of my muscles, especially in my hips and spine. It feels so good to open those joints that mostly spend their time being compressed by my slouch, or by my lack of awareness that I am not reaching, stretching, extending, growing, lengthening. Like in life, a reach doesn’t necessarily feel good at first. And it requires conscious thought to make it happen. But once you start doing it, once you find that groove and stretch yourself, your stroke becomes much more efficient and so much more beautiful. You begin to glide across the water instead of battling against it.

Life lesson #3 – Stretch. Reach. Grow. Stand tall. Glide with the water, don’t fight it.

I can’t talk about swimming without talking about gratitude. Swimming is what brought me back to life after several years mired in emotional and physical pain with my RA diagnosis and my mom’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. When it was taken away, as with so much else during the height of our state’s efforts to curb the pandemic, I could have been angry or sad. And maybe I was those things a little bit. But mostly I accepted that that’s what needed to be done for the greater good, adjusted my stroke, and found some other way to channel my energy. Now that I am back in the water, I am filled with gratitude – for an accessible pond nearby, for a break in coronavirus infections, for summer, for my health, for the ability to swim. I know this time in the water is fleeting because summer is fleeting and indoor isn’t an option for me until the coronavirus takes its leave of us. So I am conscious of this gift and I cherish this time while it lasts. Which leads me to:

Life lesson #4 – Gratitude is powerful. Live and love consciously.

So many of us spend so much of our lives on auto-pilot, unconsciously moving through the world. We miss so much of the nuance, so much of the good in the simple things this way. The coronavirus has created a unique moment in history (and I am definitely looking forward to it being history!). If we take the time to be conscious and reflective about what’s going on in our world, in our communities, in our lives, it can be an opportunity. This period has pulled back the veil of what we have accepted as normal and revealed so clearly how abnormal, unjust and inequitable “normal” was. I think a lot about the notion that “if you win the rat race you’re still a rat.” Where are we racing to? Is it somewhere we actually want to be? A life we actually want to have lived? And at what cost?

finding-dory-movie

WE ARE THE SOLUTION.

Wear a mask.

BREATHE.

Stay well.

You will be alright.

What are We Without Our Memories?

My mom forgot my birthday for the first time six years ago. As an almost-forty-something, I didn’t need a big birthday party or lots of attention or anything like that. But it is a stunning milestone for a mother to forget the day that she brought her baby into the world. And for said baby, it was incredibly painful the first time it happened. There are some things that seem like they would be impossible to forget.

Especially for my mom, a woman who embraced motherhood fully and in every way. Raising my brothers and I was the best job she could dream of. That’s not just me putting on rose-colored glasses and saying so – she told me that. When I say our mom was our biggest fan, I am not exaggerating. She showed up in so many ways. She was on the sidelines for all of our games, only missing them if there was a conflict with another sibling’s schedule. She attended every ballet recital (a bouquet of flowers in hand), swim meet (day-long affairs in over-hot, heavily-chlorinated air to see your kid swim for 30 seconds), soccer game (sometimes taking up entire weekends for months on end, game after game), hours and hours of shuttling us to music lessons, baseball practice, soccer, tennis – you name it, we played it. Even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s she was there on the sidelines for Kindergarten soccer and witnessed her grandson’s first goal ever. It was 28 degrees, the field was covered in frost, her memory was failing, she was frightened about the future, her world was shrinking – and there she was. She showed up time and again – for us, for everyone in her family, and for her friends.

Don’t get me wrong, we were far from perfect and I am pretty sure she had her moments when she wanted to run out of the house screaming to escape from us and the insanity we were causing her. In fact, she actually did so on at least one occasion, prompting our next-door neighbor, who had been out gardening, to come over and put his arm around her to comfort her. It kind of became neighborhood lore. So I know she thought we were royal pains in the ass sometimes – and we were – and surely she was overwhelmed keeping track of us and our schedules and our issues and, of course, the never-ending laundry. I imagine she had her moments of cursing us quietly under her breath, or venting to her friends or sisters on the phone. I am certain there were lots of things that got missed. My mom was chronically last minute in her approach to life. Her desk was a jumble of papers, binders, and – to my mind – complete and utter chaos. It looked like she didn’t sweat the small stuff, but I think the truth is that she was the world’s biggest procrastinator. You could count on her, but she’d make you sweat it out, tumbling through the door with the cake or hors d’oeuvres or whatever she had promised to bring just seconds before the start of a big event.

For my birthday, she would hang streamers in the dining room and bake a cake from scratch. She took cake-decorating classes to improve her skills, and – as cliche as it is to say it – she baked love into every morsel of every item she made. She planned epic treasure hunts in the woods for my friends and I – two-hour hikes with elaborate clues and “treasure” hidden along the way that ended at a river where we would feed the ducks with stale bread she had been collecting and freezing for months. It only occurs to me to wonder in hindsight how she got the clues placed and the treasure hidden all while baking and decorating the cake, organizing the party, and keeping up with my brothers and I. While those more elaborate birthday celebrations faded away as I got older, if I was home my mom would always bake her famous chocolate chip vanilla cake with cream cheese frosting (recipe below). If I was away, she sent a card and called. She was never extravagant, more of a simple but elegant woman. But she always acknowledged what a special day my arrival was for both of my parents and how much I meant to them. Like I said, this is the stuff that you would think you could never forget.

But forget she did, first six years ago and increasingly each year since as time for her becomes more and more of a loose construct and words and their meaning elude her. This year I baked her famous cake for my daughter’s birthday and brought her a slice to see if the taste brought back any recognition of all of these wonderful, deeply held memories. She liked the cake, smiled while she ate it, but otherwise was blank. For my birthday, I brought tea and cookies to her care home to celebrate. Because, really, my birthday is about us, maybe even more about her than it is about me if you think about it! She was happy as usual to see me, springing from her chair with delight, her hands swinging dramatically in the air to wave me over, a huge smile across her face. She loved the idea of a party, but I don’t think she really understood the birthday part. She used to break into song, part of her brain holding onto familiar tunes like Happy Birthday better than other things. But she didn’t sing this time. She just enjoyed her cookie and her tea, and I enjoyed her company. Despite all that I have lost of her, I still have that.

I am left wondering time and again as we face into Alzheimer’s ever more deeply, what is life without a memory? I read Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and, while inspired, grateful for this new perspective, and appreciative of the recommendations for aging and dying well, I found myself wondering how one can have a meaningful, purpose-filled life and live life to the fullest until the very end if you can’t remember anything. Who are we without our past? It’s one thing to live in the moment, moment to moment. That’s enlightenment. But isn’t life, ultimately, a collection of memories? Isn’t that what we all aim for, to create wonderful memories? So many of my conversations start with, “Remember when?” What happens when you don’t? Without memories, what does it mean to be alive?

I don’t have any good answers. I just wonder. And I wonder what goes on inside my mom’s head, what she is seeing when she points to things that aren’t there, what she is trying to describe when she can’t find the words, what it feels like to entrust yourself and your well-being completely to another person.

Where is the hope in this? I don’t know. But there is definitely connection. There is some deep, biological recognition of one’s own, no matter what else has departed. And I guess there’s hope – or magic of some sort – in that. And there’s always cake.

Bethie O’s Famous Chocolate Chip Vanilla Cake

1 cup yogurt (plain or vanilla)

1 cup oil

2 cups sugar

3 cups flour

2 heaping teaspoons baking powder

3-4 eggs

1 bag mini chocolate chips

2 teaspoons vanilla

Mix. Bake at 350.

Tube cake – at least 1 hour

Flat cake – 30 – 35 minutes

Cupcakes – 20 – 25 minutes

Cream Cheese Frosting

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 ounces cream cheese

Confectioners sugar

Dab of milk

Mix to taste and consistency. And enjoy!

Just because you carry it well