Sunday, January 26, 2014

Matter over Mind

“There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy”

I have been trying all week to get myself to exercise. I am recovering from a cold and haven’t worked out much lately, but the physical symptoms are mostly gone now—except for a speaking voice that would make Leonard Cohen sound like a choirboy. It is time, I thought, to get coax my lazy body back into the saddle.
I thought that’s what I thought. In fact when I woke up this morning, it was my mind that was feeling lethargic and dull. My body was all set to go.  

Muscle need work, said my Neanderthal body. Must move.

But, protested my brain elegantly, we are just recovering from an illness, and causing the immune system any undue stress might not be indicated. Besides, it is deepest winter and the overly oblique rays of the sun are not conducive to motivating physical effort.
Get off couch, said my body. Put bum on bike.

So I let my legs carry me to the trainer and hoist me up onto the saddle, where my body worked out for 75 minutes. My legs felt terrific; my mind, on the other hand, kept looking at the clock to see how much time was left. When I finished, however, both body and mind felt great and my body allowed itself to gloat.
Put bum on bike.
Years ago a government fitness program ran a jingle that went something like: Don’t just think about it; do it, Do It, DO IT! (I have often wondered if some American advertising executive was inspired by this humble Canadian effort to create the famous Nike slogan). They were right though: thought and contemplation are valuable parts of our human existence, but sometimes, like overriding the brain and splitting an infinitive,  we have to just do it.

As Olivia Newton-John did, I believe that our bodies talk to us. Often they are telling us that they are too tired to continue, and we find ourselves in a bargaining session between will and physical reality. We are tired and sore, say the legs at mile 90 of the Ironman bike. What are you trying to do to us? Sometimes they have a point. I listened to my physical self when it told me to slow down 10K into the marathon at Ironman Canada a few years ago. I believe that if I had ignored the messages and continued at the pace I was going, I would have passed out, tumbled off the road into Lake Skaha and sunk without a trace.

In the Race Across the West a few years ago, my body left me no option. It had been pushed so far beyond its limits, in conditions that were so far from body-friendly, that eventually the choice was taken away from my mind. Something primeval rose from deep inside me and everything just stopped.
Other times though, it is our thoughts—with all their attendant fears and excuses—that get in the way. You still have 16 miles to run, the mind will say; you can’t possibly keep up this pace. You know you are going to stop and walk eventually, it purrs in a siren-like tone. Why not do it sooner rather than later, and save us all the discomfort?

I have listened in this way too many times. I have nearly given in to despair and exhaustion in the early stages of a race, only to pick up the pace towards the end and finish feeling fresh as a daisy. Where was my body during all this? Waiting patiently for my mind to stop pissing and moaning about how far it was, and decide that we were going to finish the sucker. The flesh indeed was willing; it was the spirit that was weak.
The greatest skill a distance athlete will acquire is the ability to negotiate between body and mind; to know when to listen to each, to know how much to weigh the information, and to know which one to favour. One certainly cannot function without the other, but there must be mutual respect if anything productive is going to happen.

If I have a mission in the coming years, it is to fashion a happier, more equitable union between these two very important partners.
I let my body take control of my workout today, and my mind was glad that it did. For the moment they are friends again.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

I Do

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves: who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?
Marianne Williamson

I stand on the beach at the start of an Ironman and have no idea how I am going to get to the finish line. That is, I know what activities I have to do—first swim, then bike, then run—but I have no inkling of what obstacles will rise up to meet me on any given day. This became painfully manifest to me last summer, when I had to drop out of an Ironman for the very first time ever. Knowing what you want to do, and doing it, are often worlds apart. As Mike Tyson reminded us, everybody has a plan, till you get punched in the mouth.

I stand on the stage behind a curtain that is about to be raised. Through the heavy material I can hear the orchestra playing the overture. In a few moments I will sing to a large audience who have made my show their evening’s entertainment. I know the words and music, I know where to stand and where to move. I know what I want to do. Is it enough to succeed?
Is success the only criterion? Or is it that, to some of us, the doing of a thing is more important than the prospect of failure?

As this year begins, I am standing on a new beach,behind a new curtain. I am waiting to get punched in the mouth.

In the 1970s and 1980s I was a professional opera and concert singer in Canada. An Internet search for my name will yield nothing; I was not brilliant enough to be memorable and I never became famous enough to be Googleable. But I worked most of the time, and I had the excitement and privilege of being involved in many stimulating projects with lots of terrific people (and some downright awful ones).

It’s time I wrote a book.

Just as I turned my star-struck moment as an unpaid teenaged extra on the opera stage into a career as a soloist; just as I transformed myself from a heavy smoker who couldn’t run a step into a multiple Ironman finisher; so I intend to realize my longtime dream of writing about my years as a singer.

It’s a frightening prospect, but if I think about it, no more frightening than the sinking feeling that infuses my body ten seconds before the starting gun goes off; no more daunting than the prospect of filling a huge concert hall with music made simply by passing air over my vocal chords. Anything could happen; or worse, nothing could happen and the audience could be left wondering why they had come at all.

I know that I am a talented, caring wordsmith. I love the process of choosing, assembling, and rearranging words until they say exactly what I want them to. To me, words have always been like a box full of IKEA parts with the instructions missing. You either love figuring out how to put them together on your own or you don’t. Sometimes you end up with the SNARG coffee table and sometimes you get something that looks like a deformed ironing board. But you have to love the process, and you have to love what you create.

I know that I am a talented wordsmith and I wish to be more. A successful work of art is greater than the sum of its notes, or words, or brushstrokes, just as a triathlon demands more than the sum of its three events. The indescribable, untouchable fourth event in my writing is what I will be searching for this year.

Heading in a new direction
Socrates supposedly warned us that the unexamined life was not worth living. This is nonsense; I know people who have never examined anything more challenging than the restaurant bill and they are as happy as clams. But perhaps, to invert the maxim, we can say that the unlived life is not worth examining. I will try to examine my life in the words that I write, and to make those words meaningful enough to be worth the effort.

It’s true that hundreds of thousands of others have the same dream as I have, and likely many of them are telling the same kind of tales as I will. But I can’t think about them for the moment. They are writing their stories, but they are not writing MY story, the one that only I can tell.
Just for now, I can’t worry whether my book will be published, or read, or appreciated; or whether anyone even cares if I write about my life. Just for now my focus is on the process of discovery and communication, and how I can become better at both.

As to the question of who cares whether I do this, author and memoirist Judith Barrington has provided the only answer I need:

 I do.