First Person — Growing Down: Moving from MORE to LESS

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Remember when you were, oh, say, 6 years old? A few months after your birthday you were already counting. “I’m 6 and a half. In just three months I’ll be 6 and three-quarters. I’m growing up!”

Growing up was always the goal. To be double digits, sweet 16, 21. Sometime after 25, numbers drop out and growing up gets measured by status and possessions and activities. By homes and cars and jewelry, in moving higher up the corporate ladder, in taking more and longer vacations. Whatever the measure, growing up means having, and doing, MORE and MORE and MORE.

Same holds true even in exercise. I came late to free weights. I was 60 when I began my first workouts with my first trainer. Much to my amazement, it was exhilarating. The sense of strength in my own body, the pleasure and power of discipline and control, of measurable effort and measurable results. The more effort, the more rewards. From 2- to 5- to 8-pound weights, then to 10 and sometimes 20.

The formula always held: more repetitions, more weight. The more you work out, the more you progress. “You’re the strongest 65-year-old in this gym,” said my trainer one day. Wow, did that feel good! I swelled (modestly, internally) with pride. And figured it would go on forever.

Then we moved. The new gym was OK, but I didn’t find a trainer I really was inspired by, and the winters were harder so I skipped more sessions, and I got older. Mostly, I got older. Rounding 70, I wasn’t moving forward very much, but I was certainly holding my own. And I was sure that the slippage was my own fault. I wasn’t doing enough. If I did more, I’d be gaining more, right? Because growing is always up, isn’t it?

Then we moved again, and I was 75. I had a small heart attack. The miracle of modern science fixed me up right away with a stent, and I didn’t pause for long.

I was right into cardio-rehab, on the treadmill and lifting weights again. These are baby weights, I thought. Only 2- and 3-pounders. I can do better than that. And I could. Before I finished rehab, I was back doing 5-pound weights. But, cautioned the instructor, that’s probably it. Do more reps if you want, but don’t push the weight.

Along about now you’re probably waiting for the punch line, for the triumph, for the 10-pound weights again. Moving forward. Guess what? That’s not the way it goes down, guys.

At one point in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” the Red Queen grabs little Alice (since childhood my heroine and role model) by the hand and yanks her along, running full tilt, crying “Faster! Faster!”

When they finally stop, though, Alice sees that they are in the same place they began: “Everything’s just as it was!”

“Of course it is,” says the Queen, puzzled.

“Well, in our country,” says Alice, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” the Queen replies. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

That’s where I am now, friends. I am 80, and I dwell in the country of Old, where it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. Here we have stopped growing UP and have begun to grow DOWN.

“I’m not getting older,” I joke, “I’m getting shorter.” And I am. If we live long enough, we all grow shorter. We all begin growing down. I do my exercises with 5-pound weights, and happy to do so. I will feel lucky if when I am 81 or 82 I’m still able to hoist those same 5-pounders. It takes a whole lot of effort to stay in the same place.

But what I really want to tell you is, it’s OK. It’s all OK. Turns out growing down instead of up means, at least to me, simplification. Uncluttering. I don’t need or want so much. I don’t bother with useless frills like hurt feelings or worrying about what others will think. Most things don’t matter the way they used to. Liberation! Not of the body — that’s all too likely to be experiencing, what shall I call it? Slippage? But liberation of the spirit. Free to be me, as a reality. Not bad, I’d say.

In an odd kind of way (I’m only discovering this now, in this moment), growing down instead of up is simply a different perspective. It’s disconcerting like all new learning, but it’s interesting. It’s an adventure. In the end, what keeps life worth living is the adventure.

Come with me through the looking glass to Wonderland.

Judith Bruder lives at the Lathrop Comunity, Northampton, where she can often be found in the fitness room.

First Person welcomes reader submissions. Email essays of about 800 words to Suzanne Wilson at swilson@gazettenet.com.