My Leaning

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It is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are forever wasted until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made and say the earth bears no harvest of sweetness—calling their denial knowledge.

(I’m sure I posted this several years ago, but it’s gone missing and so am re-posting as connnects to today’s post)

When I first read these great lines from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, I thought of the emotional, moral, psychological, the relationship side of life. And every time I have read them over the last thirty years I’ve thought of human behavior, morality, relationship. Of course, that’s the main thing, always worth putting effort into. But when you are 59, as I am, attention to the physical life begins to seem important too. Without youth, physical ‘sweetness’ or even reliability cannot be counted on. At some point beyond 55, I began to feel, literally, that I could no longer take my body for granted, hence ‘the mortification of the flesh’ I began in June last year.

I want to live actively for a long time – as long as possible – and I need this thing, this poor, bare forked creature I inhabit – to last. And to be frank, when I read this bit of Middlemarch now, I’m looking around (well, down) at myself with a haggard face and seeing the devastation, thinking of very different trivialities – the way my weight has ground down small but vital bits of my feet, for example. Fear of developing type 2 diabetes.

This devastation is not just Time’s damage, though there’s plenty of that. I could stand that. I hope to go gracefully into old age, wrinkles and white hair fully accepted. No, what I see that most bothers me is, as King Lear said of the poor, ‘oh, I have ta’en too little care of this.’

I’ve spent a long time and a lot of energy on the emotional, moral, psychological, the relationship side of life, but now I’m thinking, hhm, Jane, you should have looked after the heart and lungs, the veins and muscles, you should have prevented the accumulation of too much fat. To quote Pam Ayers (not something I’ve ever done before) ‘I wish I’d looked after me teeth.’ I wish I had taken care of the bodily trivialities, because they add up.

Nine months in, P.E. has become part of my life, though it can’t ever be completely normal for me because of the previous 58 years of not being the sort of person who plays sport or takes exercise. Those years of (non)experience don’t fade. I’m like a religious convert, a reformed alcoholic or smoker who can never forget their years of sin. And as I have got more into it, memories of P.E-related traumas have begun to surface: all those hours at school when I was humiliated or bored into hating games.

There’s a connection between this and the people I meet who don’t like reading.

Most of those people were actively turned off at school, just as I was turned off games. They don’t hate reading now they are adults, free to make their own choices. They just ignore it, and think ‘No thanks, not for me…’ as I have done for years about any sort of physical exercise. ‘It’s just not my lifestyle,’ as a man in a hostel once said to me of reading. Most non-readers could do it, if they wanted, as I could do sport, but they don’t want to, just as I don’t – didn’t – want to. How did the ‘seeds of joy’ get cast so lightly away?

When I say to myself: ‘games at school’, what I remember first is the charred cinder sanitary-towel incinerator smell of the enforced communal showers at Wirral Grammar School for Girls, the humiliation of menstruation mixed up with the chill of tiles and girls screaming with embarrassment, running naked, arms across their just-beginning-to-become-breasts chests, through not-enough-too-hot-water. Forgetting your kit and being made to do it anyway in stuff from lost property. The smell of my unwashed-for-weeks kit in the pump bag.

At that school – where I was a pupil for a year and a couple of months – they played lacrosse, hockey, tennis, did gym, athletics and swam. In the first year, I was praised by Miss Harris in lacrosse for cradling, the rocking action that keeps the ball in the net, also the following summer for having good technique in swimming and hurdling. That praise, perhaps just the moment of adult attention, made something happen. These are what George Eliot designates ‘acts called trivialities’, but notice her verb – they are only ‘called’ trivialities. They are not trivial, they are simply small. But small doesn’t mean unimportant: a radioactive isotope, a wedding ring, a seed is small. Miss Harris had noticed and praised me: I tried hard. She picked me to play in a Lower School lacrosse team, left attack, I think, a winger. I needed praise and liked being chosen for the team and so I liked lacrosse. I tried harder.

But I remember also the hanging around not getting picked by any team captain and walking sulkily around the pitch at Hockey, a refusnik, preferring detention to those bloody sticks whacking at your ankles. I’m not playing. Play! That wasn’t ‘play’ that was misery.

Those tiny movements – things we call trivialities – the moving of spirit towards or away from, finally add up, after tens or hundreds of what, in the gym, we call ‘reps’, to major life choices.

Miss Harris’s three praises did not add up to enough to overcome the failing, the flailing, the not being fast, not being picked, the bullygirls, the stink, the humiliation. I moved schools and at the new school they didn’t play lacrosse, and things were getting pretty bad at home so a P.E. kit was hard to keep track of, and by the age of twelve I had more or less given up on games. Perhaps all the more so because I had a ‘natural’ inclination to another thing – to reading. They noticed me for that, and I was often asked to read in class, in assembly, in the Cathedral at Prize-giving. If my sporting endeavours had been encouraged, if I’d had more of a leaning towards them, if they’d got that much attention… well, I might have become ‘sporty’. Even now, as I write that word, it seems very unlikely. But is it?

This happens with reading for lots, perhaps most, children. The trauma of learning to read, and then being left on your own with it, not noticed, not praised, not gently inched towards the positive, the trivialities of not being noticed, and years later, by the time you’re twelve, what have you got? A massive negative: I don’t like it.

When Patrice says to me ‘Good technique, Jane!’ as I’m doing a lift, I remember Miss Harris saying the same. This is a small undeveloped ability I haven’t remembered for nearly fifty years. It feels good to be paying it some small attention. Mondays and Fridays I get up at 6.00 to go to work early and work out for 45 minutes under Patrice’s direction. About four months in to this new life, we were in the park one early autumn morning when I realized I was feeling intensely happy.

‘I’m enjoying it!’ I told Patrice. Let’s say I was raising the weights forward and up, using my outer arm muscles, at the time.

‘That’s the endorphins,’ he said. ‘That’s the pay-off.’

I felt like William Blake seeing a cloud of angels in a tree at Peckham Rye. The sky was golden and rose and my arms were moving as if they could, as the adverts say, just do it. I was laughing with joy. Is this what people who do games feel like? I remember people who have got into reading. ‘Me!? Reading Shakespeare!’ as a member of the very first shared reading group, had said to me, with a mixture of astonishment, pride and delight.

A leaflet would not have got me exercising, no, nor a PR campaign about getting couch-or-desk potatoes moving. A telling off or urging on from my GP? I don’t think so. Information doesn’t do it. Information makes me worried, but it doesn’t motivate me to do anything about my fears, except perhaps blot them out.

Meeting a person once or twice a week, being in a relationship with someone, having a laugh, being personally encouraged, avoiding trauma, having tiny successes, genuine play. Trivialities, but good ones. This is how I have for years got people in to reading and this is how Patrice has got me into physical activity. I remember a woman saying to me ‘I’ve had to buy a bloody bookcase!’ This was a woman who couldn’t read even magazines, couldn’t concentrate, before getting into reading. Now I am like her*: a stressful day with a serious work problem has me longing to get home not for a slug of whisky, a bar of chocolate or the telly but for an hour with the weights, working the tension out of my body, and no Patrice in sight.

Miss Harris, thou should’st be living at this hour.

(*Fingers crossed. May not last.)

 

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