Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The End of the Bench


1989

Sweat dripped down my face as I leaned over the end of the bench. A weight banged down behind me. Van Halen blared over the speakers. Beside me, two huge men in their late twenties were doing deadlifts. I stared as one of them began his set. 450lbs?
I want to be strong like that.
I laid back to do another set of bench press. One hundred and eighty five pounds. Not much compared to the others in the gym, but it was the most I’d ever done. I managed to lift it seven times, and while I struggled with the last rep, I was careful not to make any noise. I was the kid, the apprentice. I knew my place.


I sat up and looked at the old photos of competitive bodybuilders on the walls. Galaxy 2000 was Welland’s local gym for serious weightlifters. The smell of mold and decay and sweat marked the ancient rubber mats and steel plates scattered across the gym. Families did not work out here. Neither did old men. Even the women had arms the size of my legs.
I loved it.
I’d just turned seventeen, and from the first moment I’d stepped inside the gym, it felt different to me. It reminded me of a library or a book store. A place of possibility and growth and safety. A place where I could challenge myself.
A place to be.
I took a deep breath and leaned back for another set.

2016

I leaned over the end of the bench and wiped my face with a towel. Drake rolled through the speakers. The mirrors gleamed in the dim light. So did the trainers, with their bright red shirts and perky smiles. It wasn’t my kind of gym, but it was steps from my condo. I could make do.
I pounded out a set of eight chest presses and let the dumbbells thud to the floor. The gym had always been a place to forget about the outside world. Forget about my job. Forget about the emotional flotsam in my life. But lately it had become difficult to relax.
                I thought back to my first summer lifting weights and learning the rhythms of the gym. Little did I know that it would become a sacred place for me. A place where I could go when times were hard. A place to remember that time passed and healing came. The gym had seen me through three painful breakups, numerous battles with mental health issues and every form of displacement. Wherever I was, whatever happened, there was always another bench. Always another set to do. Always another weight to rack.
                I rolled the dumbbells into place and grunted as I propped them on my knees. I’d recently finished a book about being present in my life. In it, the author* discussed the importance of staying in the moment, of not getting lost in what was to come or what had happened in the past. It was a challenging idea. How could someone be in one place – physically, mentally and emotionally – when there were so many things that still needed to get done? When my “to-do list” numbered one to infinity? When my personal life felt like a wave pool?
                And even if such a thing was attainable, there were reasons for avoiding the moment. I’d just emerged from a decade long relationship. The memories were painful. Some days they bubbled to the surface, and to face them was hard. So was the understanding that I hadn’t always wanted to be present during that relationship. That I’d been unwilling to confront my unhappiness – our unhappiness – in a healthy way. That for all I’d fought for a good ending, too often I’d closed my eyes during the middle of our story.  
And it wasn’t just a recent phenomenon. I could point to far too many times over the course my life when I’d wanted to be anywhere but “here.” Sometimes it looked like sports. Sometimes it looked like rum. Sometimes it looked like work. The faces changed, but the notion of “escape” remained.   
                And for as much as I’d learned the past year, I still struggled with it.
                Instead of dealing with the bouts of loneliness that had plagued me for most of my life, I preferred to look at my phone and find the latest on my teams, lose myself in my novels or argue an arcane point on Facebook. There was always another world to explore, another place where I could escape the hurt and fear and anger bubbling to the surface.
                This week had been especially tough. Fresh memories of old wounds. Scabs peeled. New dabs of blood on my skin. I’d come to the gym to help me get back to the present. To help me stop running. To help me find the strength to remember that the pain would pass and time would heal.

I replaced the weights on the rack and carried another set over to my bench. A thick guy in his early thirties was doing curls near the back. I walked over.
                “Hey, man. Can I get a spot?” I said.
                “Sure.”
                He strolled with me to the bench and glanced down at the weights. “Wrists or elbows?”
                “Elbows,” I said.
I cleared my mind and took three deep breaths. I’d never lifted this much weight. I let out a loud grunt, and with help from my spotter, managed four clean reps.
The dumbbells thudded to the floor.
                “Thanks, man,” I said, standing.
                He shook his head. “Wow. I hope I’m as strong as you when I’m your age.”
                I smiled at the back handed compliment as he walked away.
How strong was I if I couldn’t relax at my sacred place? If I couldn’t face what I needed to face? If I couldn’t deal with the things that had risen to the surface.
I got a new set of dumbbells as moments from my previous relationship began to scroll through my mind. Moments of laughter. Of joy. And pain.
Relentless and ruthless, it was all I could do to even out my breathing.
Broken promises.
Broken vows.
And brokenness.
I let the memories roll through me as I continued to work out. Continued to breathe. Continued to be. I slumped onto the end of the bench as the film finally rolled to a finish. It would play again, but not today. I stared into the mirror and realized the man looking back at me was smiling, ready for the next exercise.
My smile widened as I leaned back for another set. Listened to the chatter behind me. Felt my hands curl around the steel.
It wasn’t perfect.
But I was here.
And that was something.
  

 *Rob Bell, How To Be Here
               
               
               



Friday, September 30, 2016

New Things


Rain slanted across my windshield as I pulled into Bayview Village. I parked at the edge of the lot. A narrow patch of grass and trees separated my car from the road.

“Well, that’s it for that contract,” I muttered.

I opened the window and lit a cigar. A cigar meant celebration, but I didn’t know if this success I’d enjoyed with this particular contract was something I wanted to celebrate. I didn’t know what to feel.

I’d spent most of my career in and out of schools. The nomadic nature of special needs work – of being brought in to help during crisis and being moved out when the crisis was over – made my job a transient one. I was used to moving on to whatever came next, but this one had been unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

I’d been lucky. Everyone, from the administration to the staff to the students, had been wonderfully accepting and respectful and empathetic for the entire contract. And today, my last day, they’d given me a card. Thanked me for what I’d done. And while I appreciated the gratitude, so rare in its own right, it was the empathy that made it so different.

It was the empathy that had changed everything.

My cell buzzed.

Dee.

I smiled when I read her text and stared back out the window. The leaves had just started to change color, and they danced in the rain, unmoved by the autumn chill.

I answered Dee’s text and sighed. I’d felt it all day. Felt the weight of my last year and the emotions strung along behind them. I felt them tugging at me, threatening to tip me over.

There would be other contracts. Other work. Other schools.

But this one…

My cell buzzed again.

I bit my lips. Trying to explain what it had been like and how this one contract had changed my life seemed impossible. And while Dee got it – she always got it – she hadn’t been there.

No one had.

Six Months Earlier

Sun glimmered red on the horizon as I pulled into the school lot. The trees in the school yard were just starting to get their leaves.  

“New day, new life,” I muttered, repeating a mantra that I’d started using in an attempt to move on from the explosion that had rocked my personal life. The mantra had yet to help.

I used it anyway.

I checked my laptop bag on the front seat. Everything was there. Whatever had happened in my personal life, however much the implosion of my marriage had drained me, I was determined to not let it affect my work. Over the past month I’d started to creep out of the emotional and physical debris – the inevitable result of my wife’s sudden departure – and was determined to start over.

“Just don’t bring it into your work,” I said softly.

I talked more to myself than I ever had, but considering the circumstances, was fairly certain that I hadn’t lost my mind.

Not yet, anyway.

The day went better than expected. The principal was welcoming. So was the rest of the staff. Even better, I did not think about my failed relationship the entire day. The particular case I’d been brought in to work on was too involved, too nuanced, and required my full attention. It wasn’t until I was heading home did I sink into my seat and reflect on the shattered remains of my personal life.

I hadn’t slept much since I’d suddenly become single, but that night I slept better. The days slowly piled into each other. Work was going as well as I’d hoped, and my relationships with the staff had tightened. They were – for me – an unusual bunch, in that they listened more than they spoke. I had determined to keep my private life separate, but time and space and the sheer rawness of my emotions conspired against me.

One day, it finally slipped out.

“Are you married, Stephen?”

“Um, no. My wife left me two months ago.”

Both Heather and Layla, the teacher and CYW I’d been paired with, stared at me. Silence descended on the room. I berated my tongue for its looseness and clamped my mouth shut.

You idiot. What are you doing?

“Oh, Stephen,” Heather said finally. “That’s awful. I’m so sorry.”

I pushed a smile onto my face. “It’s fine. Really.”

I was aghast at my error and swore that I wouldn’t do it again. I managed to keep that vow… for a week.

“I don’t know how you’re doing it,” Heather said the next week, her voice soft with compassion. “I mean, you’re doing a great job, but just to come here and deal with everything… I don’t know how you’re doing it.”

My lips quivered. I didn’t know how I was doing it either. The past two months I’d broken my day into thirty minute segments, all with the hope that time would close the fissure in my heart. I leaned heavily on my friends, who had rallied around me and promised me things would get better.

I was still a mess, however, and as the weeks passed, I shared more often than not. It was strange to come to a new work environment and not only feel welcome and respected in my job, but to find it a place of healing as well. I thanked God for bringing me there. I didn’t deserve the compassion from these almost-strangers, but I was getting it anyway.

By the time the school year ended, my confidence had reached new heights, and the remains of the emotional detonation no longer needed thirty minute intervals. The pain was still there, of course. So too, the hurt and anger and frustration. But the river had been dammed and the waters had begun to settle again.

I was almost myself again.

Almost.

TODAY

I watched the smoke curl up from my cigar and drift out the window. The rain had lightened. A young mother pushed her baby along the sidewalk in front of me. She paused to adjust the covers on the stroller, smiling down at her baby. Tears rimmed my eyes. Emotions played a massive role in our memories. And strong emotions – negative or positive – tagged our past in a way that allowed us to relive it. Learn from it. Bury it. It was a way for humans to hold onto good moments and deal with the ones that hurt the most.

Maybe that’s why my mind felt so jumbled. The school had been a place of healing for me, but it was also a reminder of where I’d been and what I’d gone through. So as much as it had helped me forge a new path, it also allowed line of sight into the most painful time of my life.

I rubbed my eyes. I could feel myself drifting back, remembering what the days had been like, how they’d crawled from one minute to the next, remembering how everywhere I went and everything I did reminded me of her. Reminded me of my failed relationship. Reminded me of my failure.

I still had moments where I berated myself for what had happened, and I still expended effort on “what if” questions, questions that haunted me less, but haunted me still. And yet, time had some done some healing. I could remember the emotions – the pain and hurt and sadness – but I could no longer remember her. Or us. The sun had hidden behind the clouds, and when it had finally emerged, we’d become strangers.

Sometimes I wondered if there’d ever been an “us,” or if that had been a construct. I wondered if every divorced couple asked that question. I wondered if it mattered.

I butted out my cigar. I hadn’t spoken to her in months, so those questions would forever remain unanswered. Maybe it was for the best. Sometimes the clean cut was the only way, even if it was painful. Even if it meant a lot of treatment and care. Even if it meant looking in the mirror and realizing the healing wouldn’t happen unless you had some help.

I thought about Heather and Layla. Thought about the way the rest of the staff had welcomed me. Thought about the principal, who had gone out of her way to praise my work.

My phone buzzed. Dee again.

I read her text and smiled.

My contract had ended, and my time with the best staff I’d ever worked with was over, but it seemed my luck hadn’t changed.

Not yet.

 -Steve











Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Exhaustion

I leaned over the counter in my kitchen. Sweat dripped from my forehead and ran down the side of my face. My condo was air conditioned, but it had little effect on the way I felt. My limbs creaked with every movement, and my brain moved in what seemed to be slow, concentric circles.

I pushed away from the sink and lurched towards the balcony. Outside, the sun had started its long descent, but the heat hadn’t diminished. My shirt clung to my chest as I sank into the chair.

“I did it, Nelson,” I said to my cat, who had followed me outside. “And tonight I’ll go out and have some fun.”

I scratched him behind the ear and leaned back. Sixteen of seventeen days completed. Twenty two of twenty five. Without question, it was the most lengthy and difficult stretch of work I’d ever experienced, and all of it on the heels of an emotionally exhausting year.

I glanced at the book I’d brought out with me and dismissed it. I was too tired to read. Too tired to do anything. I popped open a beer and let out a long breath.

Over the past month I’d barely written, and while I’d managed to stay in touch with my friends, I couldn’t remember what it was like to get a full night’s sleep. Couldn’t remember what it was to have it all together. Couldn’t remember what it was like to, well, remember things. It was like my brain had taken a vacation.

I lived in a city that pushed people to be constantly moving. Over the past month I’d done that, in a way I’d never done before. And with a full three day weekend looming, I expected to feel relief. Three glorious days of writing and sleeping and working out.

Instead, I felt anxious.
   
I sipped my beer and sighed. The sun began to skirt lower along the buildings, casting an orange nimbus about them, as if the steel structures had suddenly earned halos. As hard as I’d worked, as spent as I felt, instead of feeling the release that was supposed to come with it, I felt an urge to work harder. To push farther. To do more. I’d checked daily into my work account for my monthly earnings since I'd started the run of work. Felt myself smile at the number. Felt something like pride when I saw it.

I can do this. If I keep working like this, I’ll be ahead of the game in no time.

Understand, youth workers don’t get “ahead of the game.” Not financially. Not in a city like Toronto. The best you can hope for is a sort of equilibrium, where your bills are paid and you have a bit left over to save and spend. Unless, of course, you’re willing to be exhausted. Not just for a month. Not just for a few moments. But consistently. Until it becomes a state of being. I didn’t think I wanted that – hell, I’d never wanted that – but after surviving the past month, I wasn’t so sure.

Do I really need three days off? Maybe I should call work and see if they have anything for me. I’m not THAT tired.

As I stared down at the traffic, it occurred to me that I hadn’t written in a while. That my novels were beyond due. That I hadn’t kept up with my friends and family the way I would’ve liked. None of those things put money in my bank account, but they were important. At least, I remembered them being important.

I tilted my bottle. It was empty. I thought about grabbing another, but it seemed a long way to the fridge. I stared down at the cars and tried to think about my writing and where I was going with my next book.

It was like sifting through lead.

All I really wanted to do was sleep.

And work again.

I’d never been a “work at all costs and get ahead” person, so that I was actually thinking that way worried me.  Was I becoming that person? The one who worked endlessly for the pot of gold but never saw the rainbow? The one I’d seen I’d the subway with the tailored suit and perfect makeup and dead eyes?

I tried to convince myself I was being practical. That everyone got busy. That a little sacrifice now meant a lot towards the future.

It wasn’t working.

After more than a little effort I managed to find my way to the fridge for another beer and back on the balcony. I cracked it open. There was little to find in literature about the benefits of exhaustion. Generally speaking, Western society – particularly North Americans – tended to work too hard for things that didn’t really matter. It had been a long held criticism that we worried too much about keeping up with the Jones and Smiths. The criticism, as legitimate as it was, had been around for so many years it no longer seemed to matter.
Advertisers still spent billions on creating needs. We still held far too much personal debt and most of us lived from paycheck to paycheck because we lived beyond our means. I was guilty of it, too. Maybe that’s why creating some financial space was so important for me, why it felt so practical, why it felt like I was making too big a deal of things.
   
I sipped my beer and stared at the relentless train of vehicles moving and weaving and honking up and down Yonge Street like worker bees in a honeycomb. It didn’t seem to matter what time I sat outside. The cars were always there, as ever present as the buildings towering above them.

Maybe that was it. Maybe it was that in working so many hours at such an exhausting job I’d lost my sense of space. That everything around me suddenly felt narrow and restricted. I’d often lamented with my friends over the shallow tendencies of our culture when it came to things like history and critical thinking and the ability to be present. But when it cost so much just trying to get to the next appointment, the next shift, the next thing, those things became impossible. We’d become a society of selfies, not mirrors, where it was more important to document our life than to actually live it. I’d never really understood that, but it made sense now. We took pictures to prove that we’d been somewhere, not only to others, but to ourselves. At the end of the day, I could pull out my phone and say, “See, I was living! I went there. I ate that. I was with her.” Even if we couldn’t remember any of the details.

I let out a long sigh as Nelson rubbed up against my knee. “Yeah, I missed you too, buddy.”

As a lifelong weightlifter, exhaustion was part of the routine. I’d work out until I was sore, wait a day or two, and the next time I used that muscle they’d have repaired themselves. Exhaustion made them stronger. But that wasn’t true about this collective urge to get more and do more and make more. Sure, I’d learned that I could work a month straight without a break at a strenuous job, but the other muscles in my life had been completely neglected. Like the ability to see beyond my own tiredness and empathize with others. The ability to think critically about social issues. The ability to consider my actions in the light of the future.

I swigged the last of my beer and followed Nelson back inside. In my room, I climbed onto my bed, too tired to even pull back the covers.

I thought about the plans I’d made for my first night off.

Maybe tomorrow.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Uncomfortable

YESTERDAY

Sitting on the hard plastic seat was like sitting on concrete. A cold piece of cement wedged into my crotch. Why didn’t they make bikes more comfortable?

“Hey, Steve! You coming?”

I grimaced, but managed to smile as I jerked the handle bars straight. My client, Jerry, wheeled his mountain bike around like he’d been doing it forever.

“You’re slow!” he said.

“I’m coming.”

The group home had a few bikes that the clients were allowed to use, so long as they were accompanied by staff. Today, I was the lucky staff member. I cursed under my breath and began to pedal. It wasn’t even like spin class, and I’d hated spin class. Only the instructor had made it palatable.

The road tilted, and I overcompensated by swinging my handle bars to the right. I missed a parked old Civic by inches.

“Let’s go, Steve!”

I growled and followed my client down one of the back streets. Why was it so hard to pedal? Had I grabbed the only dysfunctional bike the group home owned? Why did people think this was a good idea?

There’d been a time when biking was a lot of fun. Until I’d bought a car. Cars were fun. They had padded seats. They were less complicated. And I never worried about driving into a parked vehicle.

I knew the refrain about riding a bike, about how it got easier and how once you learned how to do it you never forgot.

I could only snort. Yeah. I could do it. But it didn’t make it any less uncomfortable.

“Hurry up, Steve!”

I didn’t respond. My legs were already burning.


SHELTER

“Are you a cop?”

Three black teenagers stood loosely around a weathered table. We were standing outside. The sun was hot. They wore loose fitting clothes, and the one addressing me had a broad smile on his face.

“I’m sorry, what?” I said, struggling with his thick accent.

The teenager squared his shoulders and imitated a robot. “You a cop? You walk stiff. You have beard. Muscular.”

I shook my head. Smiled. “Nope. Not a cop. Youthworker.”

I was at a homeless shelter for young people. I’d been there for a week. I was the only white face in the entire place, staff included. It held forty five young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty four, and while I liked working there and enjoyed getting to know the kids, it was disconcerting to feel so pale.

I’d written often about privilege, talked about what it meant to be white and male and straight and all the advantages it held in our culture, but it was my first experience being such a distinct minority, if only for a short time.

“My name is Stephen,” I said, extending my hand.

He took it, laughed again, and introduced me to his friends. The shelter’s yard was dingy. A few picnic tables. Sparse brown grass. A rusted fence. Staff had laid out supper on a few tables. Huge silver tins with aluminum foil folded back over each one.

It’s impossible to imagine – with any idea about what it’s really like – to be a minority when you’ve never experienced it. I tasted it for a week, barely, in a work environment where I still held power and could leave to a more “regular environment.” So in a way it hardly counts. But it still gave me a glimpse of the challenges these youths faced, of the challenges that people of different cultures faced when they dared leave their country. I’d seen it before. Seen what happened when minorities spoke up and what it meant for them. What it cost them.

But it was a reminder.

And it was uncomfortable.


HOME

Cars stacked in a traffic jam below my balcony. Rush hour. I shook my head, grateful my work ended early. Sitting in a line of cars was stressful. Especially in a place like Toronto, where movement was tied to both efficiency and success. Hell, all you had to do was listen. You could hear it in the massive steel buildings that scraped the sky and the hundreds of thousands of people who packed the subway, their eyes empty and fully charged. If you weren’t getting ahead, if you weren’t full bore for whatever was next, you either lacked ambition or were falling behind.

And nothing was worse than falling behind.

My last month had felt that way. I’d worked nearly to the point of burnout. My place was a mess. I was still living in boxes. I was struggling to keep up with the bills and laundry and other basic tasks. I was grateful for the work, but it had come at a cost. I was still adjusting. Still learning to push the constant noise of the city to the side.

Still uncomfortable.


COMFORT

“Comfort” means different things to different people in different cultures, but we are all searching for it. Something to do with finding equilibrium about our circumstances. With reduced stress. Something more than just coping. It was a place that I, too, was anxious to find. It’d been a while since I’d experienced it.

We all feel that pull away from discomfort. I’m fine at work, when I’m with my kids, and when I can see the difference I’m making in their life. Or when I’m at the gym. Or when I'm at home, where I can call a friend and toss back a beer and relax. I can, and do, purposely avoid things that make me uncomfortable. I’m human. We’re all wired this way.

And yet, for all that the past couple of months hadn’t been "fun," they'd been rewarding. I’d learned new skills, gained confidence in a way I hadn’t imagined, found myself growing stronger as I faced each challenge – even if the challenge was as mundane as working sixteen of seventeen days without breaking down. I’d dealt with the stress, the discomfort, and the exhaustion. Dealt with it and surpassed my limitations.

That never would have happened if I hadn’t been pushed out of my comfort zone.

One of the great lies of society is that we should measure the status of our life by how we feel. If we “feel” good, which we often translate to ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ and ‘comfortable,’ than things are going well. This is true in everything from relationships to living conditions to our work.

And it is a lie.

Progress – spiritual, mental and physical progress – is never achieved when we are fully at ease. Though we try to avoid these situations, humanity is at its best when it is pushed and stretched and forced into new places.

For all my frustration about the summer, I’d been forced to go farther than I could remember, and my life had changed dramatically.

I wasn’t comfortable. I hadn’t liked it.

But I was better for it.


TODAY

I swiveled my handlebars around and coasted down the street, enjoying the cool breeze on my face. Heat swelled from the asphalt.

“Hey, Jerry? You coming?”

“Yeah!” he said, flashing me a grin as he peddled to keep up.

We passed a number of old houses that looked like they’d been around since the Second World War. One of them looked like it had been burned recently, with a blackened porch and smashed windows. It stood in contrast with the one beside it. A blue Honda Civic glistened in the driveway. Orange and red flowers dotted the porch.  

I twisted past a huge pothole. “So where do you want to go today?”

“Let’s go to the beach.”

 “Are you sure?” I asked him. “There’s a big hill to get there.”

“No problem. I can do it. I’ve done it before.”

I laughed. “Yes. Yes, you have.”