My physical therapist stands in front of me, pulling back his shoulders and lifting his sternum towards the ceiling.
“Like that,” he says, demonstrating the latest addition to my ever-growing list of shoulder-improving exercises.
His movements have triggered a memory. “Oh, man, Mike. That posture-improving move there reminds me of taking ballet lessons when I was a kid. My teacher, Miss June, attempted to get the gaggle of girls at the barre to stand up straighter by telling us to imagine we had helium balloons attached to our chests with string. We’d have to picture a balloon pulling our clavicles up, helping our shoulders fall back,” I gush, excitedly, some small part of me crowing: I came to physical therapy, and I already know some of the moves! I’m a natural!
Mike stares at me blankly as his brain attempts to move from standing in his office, instructing a patient in a clinic, to giggling at the barre with a bunch of girls in tights. After two seconds of slow blinking, he smiles and agrees, “Yes, it’s always important to work into the upper thoracic region. Do this exercise at least four times a day, and if it helps, go ahead and picture a helium balloon pulling your sternum up to the ceiling.”
Like Miss June told me to when I was seven, and fat lotta good that instruction did for this 48-year-old hunchback, I mentally tack on.
Dutifully, I complete my thoracic exercises four times a day. Less dutifully, I imagine I’m wearing a leotard as my sternum reaches for the rafters.
Another week, when Mike comes out to the waiting room and calls my name, his eyes take in my limping gait even though I’m trying to walk normally. There’s no fooling a sharp-eyed PT.
When he comments, “You’ve got a bit of a short step there,” I admit that I’ve either injured my Achilles or am suffering from extreme plantar faciitis or tendinitis. Since the flare-up happened a day after I zipped around a golf course, taking photos at a cross-country race, the most likely conclusion is that I hurt myself.
Each step hitching, I follow him to the room where we’ll deal with my shoulder–which is feeling dramatically better thanks to a buffet of exercises ranging from helium balloon lift-offs to yanking a stretchy band looped over a doorknob. Also contributing to my shoulder’s improvement has been a change in how I sit at the computer. More than anything, I suspect radically improper mousing and typing postures threw my upper right hand quadrant into mayhem. I do not belabor this point with Mike, as the realization came for me early on in PT, while he was on vacation.
I would hate for Mike’s intense, informed efforts to feel minimized in any way. All credit to thoracic stretches, Mike. All credit.
It also so happens I stopped using a mouse with my arm a foot-and-a-half out to the side, up on a high table. But let’s never mind that. Let’s stretch some stuff.
Once I take a seat, before we focus on the feeling-pretty-good shoulder, Mike kindly asks me questions about my heel. He shows me a few exercises that might aid in its recovery, one of which involves me grasping my arch with one hand while bending my toes back with the other.
Diminished by the pain emanating from various sectors of my body, I refrain from pointing out to Mike that while I don’t have a dancer’s body, I do have a dancer’s feet. With uncommon restraint, I do not ask him to admire the height of my arch.
The next time I see Mike, he again notices my limp. Wryly, he tells me that if I want to get a referral, he can start treating my Achilles, too. Because my shoulder is feeling 80% better, I wish he could be on call to whatever body part ails me on any given day.
We talk about how I’ve gone no-impact with my physical activity, how I’m using the elliptical machines and spin bikes at the gym, how I’m not running except in the pool, how I’m nervous doing Downward Dog in yoga. We talk about his problematic hamstrings causing him to stop running.
Filling the space between our sentences is a mutual melancholy. We two movers are smarting at our bodies’ betrayals, pining for just a little more time on the trails, crunching through the fallen leaves during this season when nature’s beauties are simultaneously peaking and waning.
Not one to sense feelings writ onto the spaces between sentences, Mike doesn’t know it, but I sure do: he and I are having a moment.
In the spaces between physical therapy appointments, I devote hours to the computer, sprinting hard after my work yet always panting to keep contact with the pack of 125 students tossing multiple weekly submissions my direction. Doing what I can with my body, relying on activity as a mental health refuge in a semester that is Too Much, I also devote hours to non-impact, semi-satisfying bodily movement. I discover I can go for walks–if I wear a heel of 2″ or higher. My Achilles yaps at a flat foot but loves elevation.
I text my best friend a photo taken in a shoe warehouse, asking her, “Which of these pairs of wedges is less ugly?” Limping around the aisles, biding time until she replies, I stop periodically to try on yet another heel. I go home with a pair of ankle booties: my new walking shoes.
An hour later, I weave around trails behind Byron and Paco, navigating roots and rocks. I am in the middle of a forest. I am teetering on shoes Beyonce would rock in a music video while wearing an armor breastplate and a wig. I am ridiculous. My Achilles feels great.
The next time I hobble into see Mike, before he does some deep tissue work on my shoulder, I show him how I’ve been stretching my Achilles, in an effort to help it heal. He corrects my form, explains to me how short the muscle leading up the back of the human calf is. I can ease up on the stretch and still have an effect.
As Miss June would note while adjusting my middle finger a quarter inch, transformation is in the details.
Boring. That’s what running in the pool is.
A huge floatie belt strapped around my waist, I paddle across the shallow end; then, when I hit the line of tiles on the bottom of the pool that signal “it’s gettin’ deeper,” I start running. More specifically, my body carries out the motions of a run, but it’s actually like running in place–except I do move through the water, plus also I could be riding an imaginary unicycle, but mostly it’s just churn-churn-churn-bicycle-the-legs-crank-the-arms. It’s the slow motion version of a run, but I’m not in a red swimsuit, nor am I Pamela Anderson, nor am I bouncing across the beach during the opening credits of Baywatch.
I’m so bored, I’d actually welcome Hasselhoff in the lane next to me. With The Hoff splashing sloppily five feet away, I’d have something to gawk at.
Gawking is a recommended cure for boring.
Then again, I don’t have my glasses on, so gawking is a trial. I can’t see the clock up on the wall. I never know if it’s time to stop yet.
I would like it to be time to stop.
One day, just as I’m gaming out how many months I’d have to be poolbound before I could rationalize the purchase of a waterproof iPod to amuse my brain with podcasts while running slowly back and forth across a thirty-foot stretch of water, a voice is raised.
Something is happening. The lifeguard pauses in her walk around the perimeter. I turn my body to face the noise.
Someone is angry.
From inside the adjacent room, the room where the warmer kiddie pool is, a large man huffs out. He is yelling at the other lifeguard, a 19-year-old guy who had been watching over the swimmers in that smaller pool. Immediately, it is obvious that anger is only one of the yelling man’s problems. My vision is blurry; I make out a mass of hairy dough waving its arms around in front of the young lifeguard. The mass of hairy dough is revved up–puffing–and hollering, “They kept splashing me, like little assholes. You didn’t do anything. Why don’t you try doing your damn job instead of standing there like an idiot? Why don’t you do your god damned job?”
In response, defensive, the young lifeguard puffs up, too.
I am at the far end of the deeps and should turn around and start churning back towards the shallows. Or. I could tread water for a bit in the deep end. I mean, what if tangled testosterone and youthful testosterone keep revving up, bashing harder against each other? What if fisticuffs ensues? What if an unconscious body comes flying into the pool, propelled by rage in swim trunks? Would it not be helpful if I were in the vicinity, able to call out, “I’ll get him! No worries. Let me just run over to his floating body, ‘k?”
Silence would fall over the pool as everyone watched me become not The Hoff but The Joce, racing in slow motion towards the save.
Periodically, I would call out, pedaling my arms and legs frantically, “Almost there! Hang on. I’m coming!” Then silence would fall again as onlookers marveled at my glacial progress towards an imminent corpse.
Had she been there, Miss June, observing my ability to command the stage and hold a room rapt, would have preened proudly.
There are many ways to be a star student. Even 40 years after the fact.
As this scenario plays out in my head, the real world, as it does, carries on. The hairy mass of dough continues to verbally assault the young lifeguard. The young lifeguard continues to defend himself. Eventually, the unhappy bellyacher stomps to the locker room. Ten minutes later, one of the managers of the gym shows up, poolside, to talk to the young lifeguard. A complaint has been lodged. As the 19-year-old lifeguard–he who has had better days–explains his version of the events, I consider heaving myself up onto the side of the pool and adding my firsthand witness account. Then I realize all the world knows an unhappy bellyacher when they see one, and although process calls for a formal addressing of the issues, the manager is merely going through the formalities.
Plus, The Joce in a floatie belt beaching herself under the diving platforms is a fearsome sight, apt to cause heart murmurs. It’s best to just keep churning.
Mentally, I send a message to the young lifeguard: When people suck really hard, it’s not about you. It’s about them.
As I turn my body, readying to crank my way down to the shallows, I absentmindedly contemplate the cost of self-publishing a book of Pool Platitudes.
Lately, yoga is all about the modifications.
I ease carefully into Downward Dog, slowly, tentatively pedaling my feet, waking up my tight Achilles. My aching shoulder demands I drop to my knees during chaturanga. Sometimes it tells me not to reach skyward. I no longer feel strong and able in class.
But I am there. And I’m so very glad about that. In one quiet moment, I realize my body is acquiescing hesitantly to the modifications, yet I am still fully in the room. Maybe that’s what matters. In my head, I don’t feel any differently about yoga; it’s just that my body has changed within the practice.
I sure would like to be able to lift my knees during chaturanga, though.
Despite the modifications, something diverting is happening with yoga. Over the last few months, a friendship has cropped up between me and a woman named Angel. It surprises me.
Angel is everything I decided to fear in a woman when I was young. She is tiny. She is blonde. She and her husband do Iron Man Triathlons together.
Last spring, when I was out for my evening constitutional, I ran into Angel; she was walking her dog before dark. Having some sense of each other from the gym, where she had worked for years before accepting a job as the Director of Wellness for the city, we stopped to exchange a quick hello.
Who saw it coming? Not I. We stood on the corner for half an hour, chatting, savoring the unexpected joy that comes with the realization of “I think this is one of my people. Everything I say, she gets.” Highly important to our feeling of communion was the moment when we both acknowledged we find women exhausting.
When next we ran into each other in the cardio center, we exchanged phone numbers. She and her husband came to our competitive potluck. We really, really like each other.
As it turns out, Angel is having some hip problems that keep her from running. She’s suggested we could run in the pool together. My one condition of acceptance would be that she allow me to save everyone who falls into the pool after being knocked unconscious. I suspect she’ll grant my terms.
When I suggested yoga to Angel, she agreed that it would be good for her–while conceding she lacked motivation for an activity that isn’t a big calorie burner. Cleverly, I used myself as a lure, noting that the energy of my presence burns calories at an astonishing rate. Thus, in recent weeks, we’ve met a couple of times to attend an evening yoga class, one that runs 90 minutes.
My self-esteem demons have been getting progressively lazy in recent years. They can’t even show up to plague my mind when I drop my knees to the mat for chaturanga while positioned next to a lithe woman who completes Iron Man Triathlons. Angel and I are shoulder to shoulder on our mats, and all that arrangement does is make me happy. I like to be in yoga class with my new friend.
She doesn’t care if I put my knees down.
She doesn’t know that sometimes I want to lean over to her–so radiant!–and whisper, “I’m kind of an awful person, and what I mean by that is I never would have imagined I’d have a friend named Angel. However, I want to tell you something: you are perfectly named.”
I don’t lean over and whisper this. In general, I like to give a friendship a solid foundational year before I get overtly creepy.
My shoulder, which for a time felt 80% better, is back at it. With a deep soreness that feels rooted in the marrow, it aches all over. Again, even though I still prop myself at a 30-45 degree angle on a wedge pillow, I am losing sleep.
Most frustrating is that it often feels fine. Then it bothers me for four hours. Then it wakes me at 4 a.m. Then it’s great. An hour later, it’ll hurt down the bicep. Into the elbow. In the rotator cuff. Into the pectoral. Another day, I’ll have knots down the vertebrae. I’ve never before been so conscious of my scalene muscles.
And then it’s all fine.
Save for long stretches when it’s not. On one such occasion, when short-stepping my way towards Mike is the least of my problems, he decides we’ll try ultrasound to treat the shoulder. He asks if I’ve ever used Kinesio tape. I have not.
We start with ultrasound. I enjoy having a towel tucked into my bra strap to protect it from the gel. When else in life does my bra get to meet a towel?
Once again, my memory’s ear can hear Miss June as she adjusts the tilt of my chin a hair to the right: it’s the little things.
I’ve been doing physical therapy for a few months, sticking to no-impact activities for a few weeks. I am restless.
It is time to find a new challenge.
Last year, in the Core Pole class I would attend every Wednesday morning, I often stood next to a slight, delicate woman with a curly ponytail dripping down her back. While this woman, Linda, would participate in the exercises using the stretchy bands attached to the big maypole in the center of the circle, she would go off and do abdominal exercises on her own during the part of class that involved a series of stations, a mini-boot-camp. Eventually, I asked her what it was about the weight lifting and plyo stations didn’t work for her.
Her response was harrowing.
Three years ago, Linda’s car was t-boned at an intersection. She was badly injured, spent time in the hospital receiving serious, prolonged care, and has not been the same since. The most lasting effect from the accident has been traumatically induced arthritis. Very specifically, she now has limited mobility and ability in her hands and feet.
Linda is, was, a ballerina.
Originally from Rapid City, South Dakota, she started dance lessons when she was four. At fourteen, she received a scholarship to study with The Joffrey in New York City. Later, she danced for the esteemed Ballet West in Utah and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada. Eventually, when she started suffering from ACL problems, she married and started to teach.
A wife, a mother to five kids ranging in age from their early twenties to their teens, Linda had been a natural fit for teaching the little kids’ classes at the Minnesota Ballet. Since the accident, though, she can no longer demonstrate the moves to her charges; able to explain only with words, she now must teach more experienced dancers.
That’s why Linda doesn’t participate in the aggressive, boot-camp part of the Core Pole class. At the end of her explanation, my stretchy band hung slackly, as did my mouth. With admirable equilibrium, Linda continued. In addition to teaching for the Minnesota Ballet, she also teaches Pilates classes on the Reformer machine. She told me I’d love the Reformer, if I ever wanted to head to the Pilates studio across the street from the gym and give it a try.
A year later, I am ready. I need a new challenge. There was a point late in my years of dance lessons when Miss June decided to mix things up. She added jumping rope to the start of every class, started offering tap and jazz lessons after the regular ballet and modern classes. With the wisdom that comes from a focused life of discipline, she knew that our bodies and brains benefit from fresh tests.
So, the Reformer.
The first Reformer class is free. Attending that class are a woman who’s just come back after five years; a strong, lean woman who attends frequently; a man who has had two hip replacements and puts my limp to shame; a woman who has leukemia. By the end, I am hooked, and not only because I have pretended for at least forty minutes that I am training for a career in the circus. Also appealing is the feeling that, like a bra meeting a towel, I am experiencing something new.
Returning the following week, I purchase a set of classes. As well, I bring Angel. Like me, she enjoys the class hugely–especially the part where we take a stick, put it between the straps, and using feet-on-stick, feel that we are swinging in the air while lying flat on our backs.
In the free-ranging landscape between my ears, I am a trapeze artist. The next day, Angel’s abs are sore. Strangely, that feels like a win.
On my tenth physical therapy visit, I work my way across the lobby towards Mike with something like a normal gait. Day by day, the heel is feeling more within the realm of “normal bothersome.” When I’m out walking, I’ve even jogged a bit on those downhills that approximate the incline of a Beyonce-worthy wedge.
But, oh, gravy, the shoulder.
When I detail the depth of the pain to Mike, he completely reassesses the area and decides we should start a plan that addresses the glenohumerus as a whole rather than smaller areas of specificity.
During his explanation, I stop Mike and say, “Can you spell glenohumerus for me?”
He obliges and then asks, “Why?”
“I just have a thing where I see words inside my head, maybe across the back of my forehead or inside my eyelids, and I like to know how they’re spelled so I can see the letters scrolling by. Probably, also, I’m trying to figure out word roots, so I want to make sure I have it right.”
It’s as though I’ve just told him my ballet teacher used to advise me to attach an invisible helium balloon to my sternum. His flummoxed look reminds me I’m speaking magic in the land of literal.
As we replot my shoulder’s course of treatment, Mike demonstrates a new exercise for me, The Pendulum.
My left hand rests on a desk or table. I should bend at the hips but not hunch my back. Almost immediately, I hunch my back. Showing me the correct posture, Mike straightens his spine, jutting his rear end out and back.
“I hate to break it to you, Mike, but you totally look like an ape right now, ready to eat bugs off a hot rock while the others groom you.”
As my words fade, melting into the floor next to the examination table, Mike wants to say something. He can’t figure out what it is. The resulting silence screams “HUH?”
After a baffled moment, Mike continues his instruction.
Totally relaxing my shoulder, letting the ball roll within the socket, I am to shift my body weight from side to side so that my arm swings back and forth, around in circles.
Attempting to speak my language, Mike describes, “It’s kind of like when you were a kid and would pretend to have an elephant’s trunk.”
Attempting to repay the favor, I pull out one of the few phrases I know in Physical Therapist, “Does this mean I’ll no longer be doing my sternocleidomastoid muscle exercises?”
During my third Reformer class, there are only two of us attending, so we have the time and space to get chatty. Eventually, Linda asks me about where I grew up, what my parents did, if I ever took dance.
Billings, Montana. Voice professor and executive director of the symphony. Yes, for nine years.
I don’t realize it, but Linda sure does: she and I are having a moment.
Before the end of class, again at the end, as we wipe down our equipment, she offers, “Run out and plug your meter, if you need to, but why don’t you come up to the 8th floor with me? I’ll show you the home of the Minnesota Ballet. They have a performance this weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the company, so they’ll be rehearsing.”
I may be a crabby stickler a lot of the time, but there are a few offers that don’t have to be extended my way twice: “Another cookie?” “Lie in bed all morning and read?” “Watch teenagers run cross-country?” “Refill on that beer?” “Listen to a monologue by the twelve-year-old dissecting the personalities on his Knowledge Bowl team?” “Cut flowers from the garden for a bouquet?” “Hold your husband’s hand?”
And, of course: “Watch the ballet company rehearse?”
Linda and I exit the Pilates studio through a back door that leads into the historic Board of Trade building.
As we enter the elevator, I fancy that Don Draper, a few scotches coursing through his system, would have my back pressed against the wall, his hand down my girdle, before we got to the 8th floor. In the absence of Don, I simply lean back against the wall inside the elevator, feeling my sternum, my all of me, rising up, up, up.
When the doors open, Linda says, “We can either stand in the rehearsal area or–better yet–head up to the viewing deck. Nobody really knows about that.”
I very much want to go to the place nobody knows about.
We climb a set of creaky stairs, up to a balcony that overlooks a large wooden floor with tape running around its edges. The tape signifies the edges of the “stage.” Three young women in a motley assortment of leotards are jeté-ing in unison across the middle of the floor. Around the edges, outside the tape, are the other members of the company, some sitting on the floor, some practicing turns, some checking their bums in the mirror. I feel like I’ve walked onto the set of Fame.
For twenty minutes, Linda and I stand mostly in silence, observing the details of the run-through. On an elevated platform at the front of the “stage,” the director sits, sharp-eyed like a physical therapist noticing his patient has a short step. Next to the director is an assistant who scribbles a stream of notes onto a clipboard.
Every time a song ends, those not performing applaud. I can tell from their distracted golf claps that they are simply making the noise; this, too, is part of the exercise of rehearsal, for it imitates actual performance, gives the dancers a chance to practice their bows.
When I took ballet, every class ended with all of us, together, carrying out a final révérence–a closing series of movements imparting respect and thanks to the teacher. Part of me still wishes more of life ended with a révérence.
Periodically, Linda leans over and whispers information about individual dancers. Of a group of women working the background of a piece: “Those three are apprentices.” Of a young woman who is figuring out how to project confidence: “She’s from Iowa.” Of a stunning ballerina in a maroon leotard, someone from whom I can’t tear my eyes: “That girl is new, just up from Florida.” Of a short, powerfully built young man who devotes time to plucking at his tights until they lodge favorably in his buttocks: “He’s a sweetheart–from Boston.”
Other times, the teacher in Linda has notes. After three of the men channel leprechauns to the tune of “Feeling Groovy,” she remarks, “Well, that was weird.” Later, as the young man from Boston completes a dizzying set of pirouettes, she comments, dryly, “He barely saved that.”
On the floor below us, finely tuned bodies surge, lift, retreat, spin, leap, flirt. All is quiet and soft, save for the hard raps made by the cardboard and glue inside the women’s pointe shoes. My cheek drifts to lean on my fist. My posture is one of reverie. So is Linda’s.
At the same time, I am standing on a sore heel, slouching away from a debilitated shoulder. Next to me, Linda’s face rests against one of the hands she calls a “claw” since it can’t open and close properly; the feet beneath her can no longer point.
An accomplished redhead takes the floor; her cropped workout top is lacy, a mock turtleneck. From the moment she sets a pink-clad foot on stage, it’s clear she is no apprentice. For the first minute of her solo, I forget to breathe. Delicate, authoritative, using her small frame to dominate the space around her, she makes me light headed. I am not alone. When she is done, the director, perched on the edge of his folding chair, clasps his hands to his heart and emits a hushed, “Lovely.”
I will never have a better view of the ballet. I am perching in a privileged moment, spectator to a lavish expression of youth, beauty, skill, mastery. Never, even with Miss June’s most concerted efforts, could I have been one of these dancers. They are a breed apart.
Then there is Linda, having been one of these dancers, having been one to inspire involuntary exhalations of “Lovely,” now consigned to the viewing deck, cradling her chin with her claw.
We have met in a common space, we two, on the stage of age, injury, limitation, diminution. We are united in reluctant accommodation of the things we cannot do.
We have met in a common space, we two, doing the things we are quite able to do. Core Pole class. Teaching. Parenting. Pilates. Sighing at a grande allegro. We are united in framing our days to accommodate all the things we can do.
Below us, a pas de deux is unfolding, with the captivating boy from Boston partnering the charismatic girl from Florida. They are so fully in possession of their powers–so gloriously beautiful–that they seem untouchable.
And then, as the dazzling girl glides across the stage, I notice for the first time the Kinesio tape running across her back.
Naturally. She, too, is chasséing towards her future, a time when the indignities of her body will challenge her self-definition. At that point, she can collapse into despondency, forever fixated on what she once was.
Or. She can find a good physical therapist, buy wedge heels, take to the pool, make new friends, relax into a Downward Dog, challenge herself, give over to imagination.
She can tuck her chin to her neck,
pull her scapulae towards each other,
and let an invisible helium balloon lift her sternum to the sky.