So, there I was, standing at the top of an 8% grade, about to go screaming down with all the protection between me and the scary pavement biking clothes can afford. Helmet and fingerless gloves on, check; odometer set to zero, check; final yes-I-want-to-do-this to my family, check. They pile into the car and start down. I let the sound of the car fade and then I launch into space, gathering speed down this crazy hill. I have twenty-five miles to go.
Somehow this summer I misplaced twenty pounds and I blame it on the 600 miles I put on my bike, in trips from five to twenty-five miles long. In the aftermath of this terrible loss I have had to reevaluate my previously cherished views on the value of exercise. (I considered just about everything more important.) I would like to confess three reasons why I will cling to this new habit and teach it to my children: I need the break, I enjoy the health benefits, and I find it is actually almost pleasant.
In 1932, Winston Churchill published a charming little book entitled Painting as a Pastime, an apologetic for taking up a hobby which is as unlike one’s daily occupation as possible. A statesman and wordsmith by vocation, Churchill painted with oils in his free time. He explained that intense activity in one part of the brain should be relieved with active use of another in order for the mind to experience true rest. I spend a lot of time kneading words and poking half-baked ideas, whether my own writing, my children’s papers for their Challenge classes, or in talking with my teens. Words, ideas, and words…all day long; I am awash with words. If I had my druthers, I would contentedly read, write, and write about reading all the day. But once I established the biking habit I found the time away from my studies gave me clarity and energy, the absence of which I only discovered in their presence. Churchill is onto something; recreation restores.
The middle age years are a span of remaking in a woman’s life. Am I the only woman who is stunned by the matron looking back at me from the mirror? What was so easy at twenty-four years old now takes mascara and dresses with backties to approximate. In order to see my future grandchildren, to meander with them down the lane or climb with them to the lookout, I have to lose some accumulated clutter. It has a two part solution: change eating habits and change activity habits. My favorite book for the former is French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano and my favorite for biking is Ride Your Way Lean by Selene Yeager. Both of these paper counselors speak to the whole family. Believe me, you do not know what you have lost until you find it again. It feels good to feel good!
Robert Frost completes the journey for me, when he tells the story in “Two Tramps in Mud Time” of splitting firewood and being interrupted by out-of-work loggers who hope to do his work for pay:
…The time when most I loved my task
These two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You’d think I never had felt before
The weight of an axhead poised aloft,
The grip on earth of outspread feet.
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat…
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.
(Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” 1934; excerpts)
This is the surprise: I actually like this sweaty work. Not just to keep my body healthy, not just for the pragmatic end of making me more productive in teaching my children, but for the love of the labor I pull on my biking shoes. No longer do I reckon a separation of education and exercise and worship—I experience them all whenever I ride.
So remember, our children need an active recess to break from mental activity, to enjoy health benefits, and to experience a quirky kind of pleasure. Young men especially need something active to do, as though their bones and muscles crave a pounding. As the ancient Greeks considered no education complete without training for the body as well as the mind, let us be deliberate about exercise, for our bodies house our souls. The prevailing gnosticism in our culture insinuates that what we do with our bodies is not nearly as important as who we are on the inside. But this passage both chides me and cheers me on:
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NIV)
This summer I worked up to that twenty-five mile ride. Two and a half hours later I was home, having left the hills in heart-pounding history. If I can do it, believe me, so can you.