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take the first step off a five-inch step

On Wednesdays and Saturdays I go to the gym to take a muscle conditioning class. It's a combination of weights and cardio using a step, and I look forward to it every moment that I'm not doing it. I look forward to it the way a drug addict looks forward to his next hit. Which is to say, I look forward to exercising with a mixture of excitement that it'll come soon, and sadness that it can't be right now, and underlying fear and anxiety that maybe it may not happen at all.

Because given the actual demands of children and church that "twice a week" is sometimes only theoretical.

I really wish I could go to the gym every day, not only because exercising makes me happy, but because staring at myself in the mirror while I'm exercising connects me to a personal identity I've forged over the past 15 years. It's like if I can see myself exercising then I remember I really exist. I know it doesn't make any real sense, yet it seems to be true. I joined the gym last February after a two-year hiatus, and the first time I took an aerobics class I looked at my moving reflection and said, "Oh, there you are, Leah, an individual with goals and feelings that matter. I haven't seen you since you had that second baby."

But there are bad things about going to the gym too.

As a person who has worked out A LOT in my adult life, I can easily fall into curmudgeonly habits. I get into an exercise groove that I like, and I get really mad when anything about it changes. I like MY SPOT in front of the mirror, and I get cranky if someone else takes that spot before me. I like getting the same locker every time, and I'm peeved if "my locker" isn't empty. I like peeing one minute before I go into class. It's like my time at the gym is "my special time" and I want it to be especially perfect.

I am not alone in this, people. I see you other women at the gym. You with your weird routine with the towel - how you drape it over the step just so until it's precisely even. We are all in our little worlds aren't we? Making everything perfect in order to make ourselves perfect?

But this morning I was waxing a little philosophical. I got to class 20 minutes early to set up my equipment in MY SPOT. I went downstairs to put my bag in my locker, but I didn't get MY LOCKER, because that one was already taken. I got a locker 5 spaces down from that one and felt a twinge of irritation. Then I thought, "Is this it? Is this all your life amounts to right now? Happy about your spot, unhappy about your locker? Happy because the happiness about your spot outweighs the unhappiness about your locker? Is this all in the universe that matters to you these days? You're happy or sad based on whether things go according to your arbitrary little routine?"

And then I peed and went up to class and forgot about my little philosophical moment because I had a lot of energy and I was really kicking butt. The warm-up went awesome, I was jamming to the tunes, I was thinking I looked like one of those professional fitness models who work out in the background of exercise videos. I mean, one of the the token fat fitness models, but still...

Then something unexpected happened. The teacher demonstrated a new move, I turned my head to look at her, and something happened to me that has never happend in my 15 years of taking step classes.

I fell off the step.

It was not like I kind of slipped and lost a beat and then shuffled to regain my balance. It was like gravity suddenly attacked me and I completely wiped out. My foot went on the step but not all the way on I guess. My entire body came crashing down to the floor while my foot stayed on the step. My first thought was, "Wow, that was embarrassing and I just missed 8 counts." I tried to stand up but found that I couldn't. My second thought was, "Oh, I really just sprained my ankle, didn't I? Well, that was a waste of a morning; I only worked out for TEN MINUTES!"

The spot, the locker, the bathroom stop, the weights all lined up in front of the mirror. Not to mention the hour-and-a-half of freedom I negotiated with my husband. All for what? Someone else will have to put my weights away, I will have to get ice, I will have to hobble down two flights of stairs and out to the car and go home to put up my foot up. I will have to sit in my semi-damp work-out clothes and figure out how I'm going to run my life for the next few days, and I haven't even gotten a break of half an hour. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

The teacher looks over at me sitting on the step and asks kind of incredulously, "Did you just hurt yourself."

I mouth the word "yes" over the techno music, nodding my head up and down with an expression that I hope conveys brave resignation. I put on a steely face and hobble towards the door, slowly dodging the healthy, youthful, alive looking people still getting a workout.

Oh God it hurts so much to put weight on it. I am doing mental calculations. Like maybe if I rest it all day today and tomorrow I can get back to laundry on Monday? Dan can keep the house out of chaos until Monday. And maybe if I only walk the dog and don't do any running I can be back in class on Wednesday. I can't go next Saturday because I have a church thing, but maybe I can take it easy and still come on Wednesday. If I don't work out for seven days I might mentally cease to exist.

Taking a rational perspective, sports injuries happen. Falling down happens. People fall down and twist ankles all the time, both at the gym and at home on their front steps. Dealing unemotionally with these sort of set-backs is what grown-ups do. It's part of being a mature person. You say, "Oh, here is the situation now" and you get ice and find an ace bandage and take it easy for a few days to prove you know how to exercise common sense.

There is one side of my brain that thinks like this. Then there is the other side of my brain which is like a crazy fight-club-inspired saint-in-training who reads too much Old Testament while simultaneously being influenced by the theory of karma and random postings on Facebook. And this insane side says, "This is probably God punishing me. Because of my pride. Or because of my vanity. Or because of my faith in exercising over my faith in Him."

"Or maybe it's God HELPING me become more unattached from my pride and vanity and faith in exercising over faith in him. Maybe He wants me to care more about other things, to break free of my myopic obsession with my favorite spot and my favorite locker and my favorite feeling inside of my body feeling a particular way."

Because it could neve be just a sprained my ankle, could it? It's always "whatever happend to me just now is a bigger part of a bigger story. A story in which I'm at the absolute center. A story in which my smallest routine up to and including my thoughts at the gym is ever so celestially important."

I should have realized this morning when I closed my locker door that THIS is what I'm fed up with. Not the smallness of my life, the smallness of my hopes and desires, but the crippling impossibly bigness of it all. I started going to the gym because I wanted my feelings to feel important, but maybe being important is too weighty as task for my feelings. Maybe my feelings are too fleeting and changeable to focus on. Now I'm up, now I'm down, now I'm spectacularly down and someone else is going to need to put my equipment away.

That's too much pressure (psychologically, not physically speaking.) I'd like to be mature for once and act like a sprain is just a sprain.

But oh, what an indignant pain.

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