A couple weeks ago I went to an adult gymnastics class. It was the first time in 26 years I’ve been a student in a gymnasium, being encouraged and instructed by a coach. I was looking forward to it and at the same time I was terrified.
I wasn’t scared of actually getting on the mat, getting on the bars, going upside down, daring to ask my forty-one-year old body to bend into a front walkover or swing around a wooden bar or even of being judged negatively for being different and slower than most of the other people in the gym. I was moving through a haze of old emotions, the ones that asked me to quit long ago because I wasn’t good enough, because I wasn’t worthy to follow this path. I was moving through the internalized critical messages I had heeded in 1997 when I walked away from the gym for what could have been the last time.
As the hour for class drew nearer I could feel myself reeling through the years all the way back to the fifteen year old Heidi on the second floor of the high school, practicing with her team into the evening. I could feel her aching adolescent heart and it made my grownup heart ache with her. I traveled back to eight-year-old Heidi winning five ribbons, including Best All-Around in her first competition and I wondered why she decided to begin giving up little by little, more and more with each competition thereafter.
At the family lunch after that first competition
These memories and a host of faceless, timeless others gathered around me, whispering messages I couldn’t translate word for word. It felt like all my sadness in those years needed to finally be heard and acknowledged. I listened with respect knowing all the while I needed to keep moving forward, and not turn back just to quell the emerging pain. In fact I was aware that I simply had to walk through this valley in order to reach higher ground and the joy of getting back to a sport I dearly love.
When I finally re-entered the gym at 7:45pm, I could feel the burden of sadness and the weight of years between then and now begin to evaporate. The bright lights, children in leotards bouncing all over the place, the excited voices bouncing off cement walls, seeing my class gathered in the middle of the large blue spring mat, the newness and yet absolute familiarity of my surroundings; all of this drew me effortlessly into the present.
We began with stretches and goal setting for the new term. Voicing my goals, stretching my muscles, allowing myself to be one among rather than “the one who took 26 years off,” I soon felt back at home, and happy. In the background I could feel a golden thread sewing together the past, not just the sadness but also the delights and the mundane hours, with the present, to create a kind and beautiful tapestry, one of the many in my life. As this integrating process unfolded, without fanfare or even another whisper, the pain and sadness I had been carrying much the afternoon faded away.
I have a lot to relearn, both intellectually and physically, and I may never get back to executing all the skills I could do before. In fact, one of my favorite moves on the uneven bars isn’t even done now since the “new” standard is for the bars to be set much farther apart than when I was competing. But I’m not in this class to retrieve old glory. I’m back in the gym because it’s a much loved childhood home I never really had to leave. Every Olympics I get incredibly emotional. Now I see it as homesickness, a longing for a place and an activity that has always held my heart.
My teacher kindly took this photo after the first class
This is only the beginning in a surely unfolding process of healing and also of claiming joy. I’m sure there will be more memories, realizations, valleys, letting go of old misconceptions about myself as a person and an athlete. I’m also sure there will be new shades of wonder, new delights and a greater peace and contentment in my being. Really it’s a mysterious, adventurous path I’m following because it’s time and I have to if I am to be true to my soul.
I think most of us have at least one thing like this, a something-beautiful we gave up as childhood eased into adulthood, something we never had to walk away from but we did anyway and we may not even know why. Maybe we loved theater, or riding our bike around town for no reason. Maybe we spent our most contented hours drawing with colored markers while listening to music, or just singing with friends on long road trips.
Whatever it is, I believe if more adults allowed themselves to revive the old loved activities and arts that, in a way, are still a part of them, and really enjoyed themselves in the doing, we would be a much happier society as a whole as well as on an individual level. Maybe I’m being too idealistic but I also believe that the children of today would see us, the regular people on the street, as their role models, potentially allowing the present rift between young and old to mend, to gradually transform into a common bond of fellowship around shared interests, creativity and joy.
If there were no obstacles, what art, sport etc would you like to take up again?