Week #15 – EDGES
You know that scene in the movie about an insecure middle age guy who thinks he still has the chops of a 20-year old and tries to prove his virility by taking on some physical challenge that, completely inappropriate for his years and fitness level, lands him in the hospital? There are tons of them, but the first one that jumps to mind is that scene in Daddy’s Home where Brad (played by Will Ferrell) tries to skateboard off a roof onto a half-pipe and hits a live electrical wire that leaves him singed and having to be resuscitated by his nemesis, Dusty (played by Mark Wahlberg). A former skater, Brad attempts to nail a move he probably hasn’t done in 30 years, but thanks to his inflated ego, and the memory of his glory days, he believes he will succeed. Of course, he doesn’t, and we all laugh hard at the absurdity of the stunt. But I ask, how absurd, really? I have, for decades now, allowed my enthusiasm and competitiveness to commandeer my given years and ability and catapult me into challenges that I have no business trying: the 99 chaturanga challenge in 2000; the 30 day yoga marathon in 2010; the black diamond trail after only 5 days (ever) of downhill skiing just last year; and my first long training run two weeks ago, embarked upon and concluded without warm-up or post-workout stretch, that rendered me laid up with a two-day migraine due to shoulder stress. Idiot! But more so, dammit. I hate this part of aging: the injuries, the long recoveries, the undeniable and irreversible decline of my body.
If I would only listen. If only I would listen to my brain’s fully developed (not teenage) frontal cortex that urges me to go slow and think things through, to consider the consequences of my actions. Or to my body that reminds me each morning, with the consistency of Reveille, that I am shy one squishy disc in my vertebrae, that my cranky hip needs a good long warm-up before I run, that my right shoulder doesn’t like surprises. La-la-la-la-la, I taunt with my fingers in my ears. I can’t hear you.
My god, I am obstinate. And immature. And such a sucker for every contest of will and strength that gets dangled in front of my face. I am no different than I was at 12, when I relentlessly battled my brother, Victor, for rule over our cul-de-sac. Eighteen months my junior, I had to be better than him and would attempt to prove this at every turn. A sideways glance or provocative oh, yeah? on his part would send me barging into whatever street sport he was playing–hockey, football, basketball, capture the flag, it didn’t matter—where I would throw down with all the grit I could muster until a winner (preferably me) was declared. It was visceral and bloodthirsty and awesome. I learned how to hit a ball, make a touchdown, handle a puck, even throw a fist. We warred on the asphalt, and I came of age, indifferent to the sacrifices. Until Victor hit puberty and grew to about 6 foot 2, which is when our rivalry ended and we became best friends.
I would love to blame my baby brother for the reckless tomboy instincts that still get me into trouble by urging me to jump first and question later. (Plus, having one last go at him would be kind of fun.) But I am 51, and by now (by now!) I should know better. Especially given that my current nemesis is age herself, and she has proven to be stronger and more unyielding than any childhood rival. I should know better than to goad at her, and test her limits, to push her buttons and wait for her to snap. I should. But I don’t. So what is my problem?
The answer to this question arrived, quite unexpectedly, at a college advisory meeting for my 15-year old freshman daughter. We met with a wise friend of mine (who happens to share my devil-be-dammed spirit) to talk casually about high-school choices and how to find the hook of your own personal narrative. To open the conversation, she asked, Do you know your edge? And though she directed the query at my daughter, I sat up straight in my chair instantly intrigued. What is your comfort level, she continued? Do you only do things when you know that you’ll succeed? Or are you willing to take a leap of faith because you want the experience, even if it means failing? Do you stop yourself short? Throw up the caution signs? Do you shrink back from teetering on that laser-sharp fracture of rock or are you able to find your balance and hold strong while you peer out at the sweeping panorama of possibility?
Okay, maybe I’ve embellished this slightly to reflect the excitement that welled up in me as she spoke. I’ve read enough memoirs and books on personal growth over the years to know that the edge, what I’ve been chasing after all these years, is where transformation happens. That unknown place of discomfort and fear and heart-pumping thrill when cells rearrange themselves and you suddenly know yourself better than ever before and are able to push yourself farther. And maybe the impossible becomes possible, or it doesn’t. But at the very least, you bow down with gratitude for the effort at having tried and for reaching the outermost edge of your limits.
I love to teeter on that edge: to try, and fail, and fail, and stop, and go at it again, to muscle up, and lick my wounds, and jump back in the game having learned something new. I acquired this resolve from bumping up against my brother over and over. But the edge is my own, and it’s changed as I’ve grown older. At 51, it isn’t flashy or awe-inspiring like climbing Kilimanjaro or swimming the English Channel or attempting 99 chaturangas. Maybe one day it will be, and wouldn’t that be fun. But right now my edge challenges, Can I run 13.1 miles? Can I write 50 blog posts? Can I embrace and honor my age while fighting my hardest to make sure she doesn’t win the game?