At six months short of my sixtieth birthday I have a six pack. Well, practically. I can see the ripples of muscle more clearly than I ever had before even if they are covered in a small layer of post C-section, well-past menopause fat. The muscles are discernible.
My arms are strong, too, the bat wings of old age less distressing than they might be. My legs can carry me miles and miles. I use my strong back to hold up my torso, my self, straight and tall (or as tall as a short woman can be!) and I move through this pre-apocalyptic world with more grace and confidence than I have ever had. The ripples across my belly mean I am disciplined and steady. They mean I don’t allow defeat to destroy me, nor sadness to make me immobile for more than a few days at a time. I can’t lose my muscle memory because that memory is as fine and important as the things I struggle to retain in my mind.
There is a photograph hanging on my wall that shows my grandmother at around sixty. She is wearing a sensible dress and sensible shoes; she has a doughy middle. Her gray hair is wound up into a bun. For most of my life that was what sixty looked like to me. And then I woke up so close to that age I can taste it and suddenly sixty isn’t my grandmother at all. I may share her sensibility but it is on the inside not the outside. On the outside is the shell that keeps me from declining into too much of the sensible. That reminds me that wisdom is fleeting and that memory of any kind must be constantly trained.
In my wedding photo my mother is fifty-five. She looks glamorous. Her hair is still dark. She is dressed beautifully. But on that day I saw her as an old woman: my mother only. It would be years before I got the sadness in her eyes, before I really knew that she was so much more than my mother and so much less. I did not model myself after her because I had no idea who she was. Nor did she. She kept up the front for twenty more years and then she let it drop all at once when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She aged thirty years in five. She had no memory, muscle or otherwise, to keep her moving.
As much as I write and read and love and live I keep moving every day, working my body, honing my muscles, strengthening my bones. It is partly, I realize, to counteract the myriad medicines I take for various conditions. Each day and night as I go to open my pill box I feel older than Methuselah. But each morning as I shrug myself into a sports bra and tie my training shoes the feeling begins to abate. Each weight I lift, each yoga pose I put my body into, each moment when I am moving and not thinking is a moment when age doesn’t matter. I haven’t given or given in or rested on some past laurels. In fact I push myself harder and harder just to see if I can do more and more.
In my writing I reveal secrets. I tell stories about myself. I work at laying myself bare. I am not always successful. Sometimes I pull back, I retreat. Just as sometimes I put myself into child’s pose and rest, or set down the weights and take a deep breath or two or ten. Pushing forward is hard. I understand why people stop. But I am a shark and always have been, I must keep moving or I will die.
Tragedy has entered and left my life but it leaves vestiges. Panic attacks, sleepless nights, days when I look in the mirror and wonder who I am. It will come and go again and then I suppose it might come and stay at some point. I may lose my mind and then my body. I may forget the notion that muscle memory and memory at all exist. There is precedent. There is no precedent for what I do now, though. No history of six packs and writing till you drop. No legacy of the hope and faith that keep me lifting all the heavy weights, real and metaphorical. No past lesson that tells me not to give up or give in or settle. That is a history I have to write myself.
(this post originally appeared in The Broad Side)