When I was four years old, my mother asked me if I wanted to play the piano. I suppose even then I was an intuitive, pleasing young girl, because I still recall the plaintive look in her eyes as she asked me this simple question. I didn’t know why, but for some reason playing piano seemed important to my mother, so I said yes.
My mom went all in. She bought my first upright piano when I was five years old. She sent me to lessons with Mrs. Selvig, a talented, patient, kind old woman who put stickers on my practice books. As it became clear I had natural talent, my mother sought out a better, more credentialed teacher. She found one, a state legislator’s wife, who lived more than an hour away from my hometown. Since my mother was a working woman, there was no way she could take off three hours to drive me to and from piano lessons each week, so she asked the teacher if there was any way to persuade her to come to Plentywood each week. She gave my mother an impossible task: convince at least six other students and their parents to switch teachers.
Anyone who has met my mother knows that she is resourceful, determined, and can be charming when she wishes. She not only convinced six other students to change teachers, but she also convinced the school to let each of us, one by one, sign out from school each Tuesday, and walk the block and a half down the street to the church where lessons would be held.
My new teacher was strident; she had high expectations and would reprimand me when I didn’t meet them. I had a problem with bouncing my hands too much when I played, so she’d place quarters on the backs of my hands. If the quarters fell off, I was punished. Playing piano at home wasn’t much better. I was required to practice piano for at least an hour a day, sometimes two. When I first started playing, my mother used to sit on the bench next to me and stop me every time I made a mistake.
“What did you do wrong, Amanda?” she’d ask.
“I didn’t cross my fingers between the E and the F,” I’d reply.
“Yes, that’s right. Now start again.”
When I surpassed her musical ability in technique, she no longer sat on the bench with me, but she often stayed in the room. Even though she was busy filling out crossword puzzles or reading a magazine, she’d still have her ears tuned to my pieces, and I was obligated to start over if she caught my mistakes.
My mother expected perfection. After each of my recitals for the thirteen years I played classical piano, my mother would tell me how many mistakes I made during performances.
“You did great, honey! I only heard two mistakes.”
Two felt like too many.
Like athletes are asked to watch game tape to analyze their mistakes and correct them in practice, my mother also recorded my performances and played them back so I could hear the things I’d done wrong, even though I almost never played the same piece of music more than once for performances.
I wanted, with every fiber of my being, to never make any mistakes. I hated that even after years and years of performances and hours upon hours of practice, I’d still get nervous and shaky before I played, which meant that sometimes my fingers moved too quickly and fumbled over one another. I wanted to control my body and my mind, to practice away the possibility of an error. It just wasn’t possible. I always made at least one mistake.
If this wasn’t already clear, this persistent push towards perfection created a very particular neuroses in me. I don’t like to be bad at things, or even mediocre. I don’t even want to try something unless I know I’m going to do well at it. And when I do step out of my comfort zone and try something new, I get discouraged very easily by what I perceive as failure (see: last week’s attempt at poaching eggs in which I nearly gave up).
I am a quitter. If I can’t master something or come close to it, I give up, especially if the new thing I’m trying is something to do with athletics or sports. I was never particularly talented in this area, and was told as much repeatedly by classmates, coaches, and my mother. To some extent, of course, they were right. Every time a basketball rebounded off the rim and bounced in my direction, I’d wince. But I also lived in a small town that was isolated from the rest of the world. Who knows what kind of athletic skill I would have had in dance, gymnastics, martial arts, or soccer.
This fear of failure, of humiliation, of people recognizing and remarking on my mistakes has meant that going to gyms or exercise classes is not something I’m willing to do. What if I look weak in front of the others? What if the teacher has to work with me too much and everyone else sees what a loser I am? What if I can’t do what is asked of me? What if, when we walk out of the class, I see my classmates whispering and pointing at my failures?
Even though I know, intellectually, that most people don’t give a flying fuck what I’m doing, I am still irrationally convinced I will be laughed at or criticized. And my ego couldn’t handle that.
Most of my friends and acquaintances in Spokane know me as a runner. In all of the posts I’ve done thus far, I don’t believe I’ve brought this fact up. Isn’t that odd, readers?
There’s a reason for this omission.
I’m out of shape. Like, really, really out of shape. Embarrassingly out of shape. Like, in October of 2015 I ran a marathon in the mountains. I could knock out a 5k race in 27 minutes or less. When we visited Abbie’s family in February of 2016, her sister was training for a half marathon and wanted me to join her on a training run. Even though it’d been four months since my marathon and I hadn’t done a run longer than eight miles in that time, I was able hit the trail with her and knock out ten miles and still had energy to spare. My last race was the first leg of a marathon relay team in October 2016. I ran about 6.5 miles that day.
And then Donald Trump was elected President of the United States by 53% of white women, and a lot of what I thought I knew about human decency was eroded, as was my own mental stability.
For the most part, I’ve been sedentary since November 2016. Eight weeks ago, I laced up and headed outside for a run for the first time in over a year. I couldn’t run for more than thirty seconds at a time. Since that marathon two and a half years ago, I’ve gained thirty pounds. Even now, after attempting to build up my distance and endurance for the past seven weeks, I’m still barely eking out an eleven-minute mile, which I can sustain for only 2.5 miles.
Mental illness is a motherfucker.
I am heartbroken that I’ve fallen this far. I wish I could wind the clock back to last November after the election and tell myself that as hard as it is to continue to get up each day, as grotesque and awful as you feel about America, about the world, about yourself, you’ve got to put your shoes on and run.
But I can’t. I can only help myself here and now.
Because I am so out of shape, and because I have a recurring hip injury that requires strength and balance, I decided that I needed to add some yoga to my sluggish running routine. The last time I went to a yoga class, I was a slender, flexible twenty-something in college. Now I am a thirty-something, chubby lady with lower back and hip issues. Oh, how times change.
So despite the fears and anxieties about my abilities, my looks, my shape, I walked into FatGirl Yoga on Thursday afternoon and I did a yoga class with strangers. Actually, there was only one stranger there, the instructor. No one else showed up for class that day, so lucky me, I got a private lesson!
As the name suggests, FatGirl Yoga is meant to welcome women of all body shapes and sizes. On their website, they address the very issues I’ve had with going to classes in the past: the intimidation and fear that many women like me feel about our bodies and exercise. FatGirl Yoga “aim[s] to empower women to love their bodies, to stretch themselves physically and mentally, to have fun learning weird new yoga poses, and to know, unequivocally, that they can be in a space free of intimidation, judgement, and fear.”
I needed this more than ever.
Amanda, the instructor, was soft-spoken, but assertive. She didn’t seem flustered or perturbed by the fact that I was her only student, and that, because it was my first class, I wasn’t a paying one. And she didn’t cut the class short or hurry it along, even though I was the only one there.
Because this wasn’t my first time in a yoga class, most of the poses were familiar to me. So when I couldn’t stretch as far as I used to, or bend the direction I was being asked, or hold the pose for as long as I was supposed to, I heard that little voice telling me to quit and never come back.
What’s the point? You’re no good at this. Why are you even trying?
I tried my best, and sometimes failed, to be present in the practice, to let my mind be blank. When I meditate or practice mindfulness, I like to imagine I’m in an empty, long room, surrounded by wood floors and walls, with a window at the end that lets in lots of sunshine. When the stressors of the day enter the room, I see them as words in the air that fall abruptly to the ground when I recognize that they do not belong in this space. Then I sweep them up with a broom and toss them out the window into the bright unknown. I had moments of mindfulness success during yoga class, but not many.
When I finished the practice, I wasn’t sure I would return. Classes really do give me anxiety, and I don’t want to pay for something that I won’t do.
As I rolled up my mat, Amanda chatted with me about my history with yoga.
“You have really good form,” she said.
“Oh, well, I’m really out shape and it’s been at least ten years since I last took an actual yoga class,” I replied. (I can’t take a compliment.)
“Well, you’d never know. You have really good form, so that made practice enjoyable for me.”
I thanked her and gathered my things from the cubby hole in which I’d placed them. Maybe she sensed I needed to hear that I was good at something. Maybe she saw my defeated expression when I couldn’t lay my head on my shins, or lean back farther than an inch or so. Maybe she was telling me that because it simply came to mind. Whatever the case, I walked away feeling confident and at ease.
That night, I slept better than I have in weeks, and today I purchased a ten-class pass and signed up for tomorrow’s afternoon practice.
Depression can suck it.