It’s funny the little habits that you get used to. The everyday comforts that make up your daily routine; things you don’t really notice until they’re gone. The gym is one of those comforts for me. I’m a person who never stops going – I’m always working, juggling projects, tackling a to-do list that continually rolls over – and exercise is a crucial tool I use to not only stay healthy and feel good about myself, but also to manage stress and to release the tensions that build up in the course of my busy life.
The other day I found myself working out in an unfamiliar gym. It was weird. All of the equipment was different and suddenly I didn’t know which settings to put the machines on or how much weight to lift. I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out what I was doing, all the while trying to look like I knew what I was doing so that some testosterone-fueled meathead didn’t offer to help me. Ugh.
Wandering around this unfamiliar place, a song I always skip on my iPod (because it’s too damn sad) came on, and suddenly it was a year ago and I was back in Olympia. After our Dad died, my sister Deirdre and I spent a week camped out in the house he shared with my Mom. We sorted through old books and music and photos. We did everything from ordering flowers to placing obituaries in newspapers to picking out gravestones to meeting the lawyer, to booking travel to Medford, Oregon for the memorial, to figuring out how we were going to transport Dad’s ashes to said memorial (that is a story in and of itself), and about a million other little things. I spent a couple days essentially living in my Mom’s closet, going through piles of clothes and jewelry and beauty products, and her epic collection of Stephanie Johnson bags that I’d given her over the last eight years.
We worked hard and it was sad but it also felt good to work, to do stuff. We’d collapse each night and wake up with the sun each morning, the to-do list never ending. We’d talk over coffee first thing in the morning and review the day and write absolutely everything down because our brains were so frazzled with overwhelm from impossibly hard jobs and the utter emotional exhaustion of sorting through a house filled with a lifetime of memories.
After several days of this, I hit a breaking point. The never-ending freezing February Olympia rain made the thought of running outside unappealing, but I knew I had to exercise or I was going to lose my mind. So I told Deirdre I was taking a break from the vortex (our term for this weird, disorienting time in our lives and the Olympia house in particular; time disappeared inside the vortex) and getting a guest pass to the local 24 Hour Fitness.
And there I was. In a gym full of unfamiliar equipment, unfamiliar faces. My Dad had a membership there and saw a trainer 2-3 times a week until very close to the end of his life. Dad’s trainer’s name was Dave, an exceptionally wonderful soul who, when he found out that none of Dad’s kids were able to get to Olympia for Thanksgiving, delivered a turkey to his home so that he wouldn’t miss out on his Thanksgiving meal.
I wandered around the gym, wondering what type of exercise Dad could possibly do when he was so sick, wondered at Dave’s patience, wondered if I should ask for him so that I could meet this man who’d been so kind to my father, but also knew if I met him I’d break down instantly and I couldn’t do that because I was barely, barely holding it together.
I wandered around the gym like a zombie, tried and failed at a few machines. I finally settled on a treadmill because that I knew how to do. And I ran and ran and ran. And that song that I always skip came on my iPod, with lyrics about trying your best and not succeeding, about losing something you can’t replace, about learning from mistakes (fuck you, Coldplay) and this time I decided to let it play. I can only imagine what I must have looked like. Between the endorphin release of the run, and that stupid song and fighting so hard against the vortex that was sucking me in. Scanning the gym in this unfamiliar place, looking for my missing father (did I somehow think he’d still be there, that I’d find him?), in a town that used to be my home but was so far away from home now.
I don’t know how long I ran. I was exhausted, I was weeping, I was drenched in sweat, but I couldn’t stop. I knew that back in the vortex more sad jobs were waiting and I didn’t want any part of them.
There’s a lyric from a new Ingrid Michaelson song that as of late has been running through my head: I’m a little bit home, but I’m not there yet. That’s how I felt in the vortex. That’s how I felt in that 24 Hour Fitness in Olympia. And that’s how I felt in the unfamiliar gym the other day. I’m a little bit home, but I’m not there yet.
So I guess I’ll keep running.
Until next time, friends.