The Aging Process— My New Mountain to Climb

hiking pikes peak

My friend Dina and me hiking Pikes Peak

“Show it who’s boss. No pain, no gain. Muscle through it. Just do It. Quitters never win” are some of the many messages that the majority of type-A, driven, perfectionistic people like myself tell ourselves on a very regular basis. For better or worse, this is the approach we often take in our jobs, relationships, parenting and often times, in our approach to physical fitness. We want to be strong, to be fit. We want to stay young, vital, mobile and maybe even flexible.

As we get older, many of us, out of habit or necessity, desperately cling onto this forceful drive and continue to fuel it even when it may not always serve us well: “This is what I do, this is what I have always done, and nothing is going to stop me.” Or, quite possibly, it is fear that propels us to keep pushing past our limits—fear of losing our shape, fear of letting go of activities that we have always enjoyed, or fear that we are inching closer to the inevitable time when our body will refuse to do what our minds ask it to do.

Throughout my life, I haven’t met many sports or physical activities that I didn’t like: gymnastics, tennis, golf, running, biking, hiking, skiing, basketball and softball. I loved the sense of thrill and accomplishment I felt in completing a marathon, triathalon and biathalon and in summiting Pikes Peak. The desire to share my passion for fitness and movement with others led me to become an aerobics, spinning, pilates and yoga sculpt instructor, and I have loved teaching all of these classes periodically over the past 25 years. Being physically fit and helping others keep their bodies and minds strong have been a big part of my identity. “This is what I do…”

Over the past few years, however, my body has begun to raise some red flags that have signaled to me that, much to my dismay, it is time for me to make some necessary adjustments, physically and mentally.

The above-mentioned, “muscle through it” theory has allowed me to chase many aches and pains away over the years, and even more recently has worked to fake out this 40-something body into thinking it was 20-something. But now, as I am knee deep in discovering the true meaning of self-care for my upcoming book, I find it harder to ignore the sizzling pain that begins in my lower back, shoots down my leg, prevents me from sitting for more than an hour and sometimes keeps me up at night.

It is becoming clear that I must grapple with the following question: What happens to me if I do indeed listen my body’s plea for me to back off?

Who am I if I can’t still jump in the lake on a whim and pop up on a slalom ski? Who am I if I can’t swoosh down the double black runs on the ski mountain? Who am I if I am no longer able to teach my high energy yoga sculpt class or lace up my running shoes and head out for a long run on a beautiful summer day, let alone train for a marathon or a 14,000-foot mountain hike?

My self-critical brain tries to persuade me of this:

I am washed up. A has-been. A former. An “I used to be…”

But then I decide that is pretty harsh so I tone it down a bit:

I am a middle aged, peri-menopausal, color-my-grays, can’t remember where I put my keys (or my cell phone or my readers…) mother of four children, two of whom are almost adults and believe only half of what I told them I’ve done. I am woman of 47 years and a wife of 21, who sometimes yearns for the “what was” and is slightly terrified of the “what’s to come.” I swim in a sea of ambiguity— neither young nor old. But if forced to pick one, I would have to pick old, because it’s tough to categorize inching closer to 50 as young.

I continually remind myself that getting older is definitely better than the alternative (yes!), and that aging is an “I’ve earned my stripes (in the form of wrinkles and age spots)” privilege, not a curse. “Embrace it,” I say aloud to myself, as I decide to go out for a walk instead of a run.

On my walk, I wrestle with feelings of frustration, nostalgia and fear, and nudge myself to open up to gratitude and compassion. I ask myself the truly important questions—questions about self-love, self-care and self-acceptance. I find answers when I flip some of my initial questions on their sides: Who am I if I do not take care of myself? What will I become if I continue to ignore my body’s signals?

I find answers in the realization that my body is guiding me right now and I am listening—really listening. And by letting go of what was and accepting what is, I am allowing my body to heal, and am creating new, exciting pathways for my body, mind and spirit.

This is my new mountain to climb.

 

 

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Being a Parent of an Athlete

my kid playing baseballI wrote a “slice of life” piece about my son’s baseball game last week but felt that it was important to include some personal background to give you some context for the story:

Growing up, I was a competitive gymnast, tennis player and golfer. I had a driving force that would send me to the gym, tennis court and driving range for hours on end (Too many injuries pulled me out of gymnastics and I fizzled out of tennis because I simply wasn’t good enough). Over time, when I hit a rough spot during my teenage years, my internal drive was still strong but it had shifted. I was motivated more by negative forces than positive ones, and my self talk often sounded like this, “If you don’t win, you are worthless, a nothing. Work harder and whatever you do, DON’T FAIL.”

Surprise, surprise, those messages, which pounded in my head for years, would ultimately destroy my ability and motivation to compete. I never developed the essential coping mechanisms for dealing with failure that all successful athletes must cultivate for times when they are in a slump, they lose a game or a match, or are not performing at the level to which they are accustomed. My lack of resiliency would explain why after shooting a terrible first round in the state high school golf tournament my junior year, followed by an equally terrible second round, I refused to pick up a golf club for decades.

Which brings me to today. I have now have a son who is a competitive baseball player, and anyone who knows anything about baseball knows that it is game of failure. The best of the best pro baseball players hit the ball three out of every ten times, and the scoreboard has an actual spot that highlights the number of ERRORS the players make (not fouls, like in basketball, but errors-as in how many times you totally screw up). And my son plays two of the most high-pressure positions out there: short stop and pitcher.

I love to watch my son play. But in all honesty, there are times when I think I will explode from the nervous energy that brews within me. As much as I try to push my old demons away, to try and separate my stuff from his, so that I can support him and love him no matter what successes or failures he experiences on the field, there are times when my competitiveness takes some of that joy away. Every single time I find myself feeling stressed or anxious about a game of his, I have to talk myself off the ledge and remind myself that this is my MY fear of failure and MY difficulty in dealing with competition—not his, and that it is crucial that I do not drop my old baggage on him.

I have seen him have moments when he did not deal with failure as well as he wanted to. But watching him work his way through these issues, and find coping and recovery strategies for dealing with failure has provided him with some of his most important life lessons and has been incredibly healing for me.

The Story:

I needed a break. I could tell that my energy wasn’t helping him. My perfectionism, my fear of failure, my feeling that I could some how control the outcome of his baseball game by willing him and his team to succeed. It was time for me to separate myself and let him play his game. He was in a slump, had had a tough game the night before, and I felt that my presence at his game was some how hurting him.

Could that be true? What if it was?

The section tournament game—a game not to miss.  The team wins, they move on; they lose, they are done. “I’m thinking of sitting this one out, hun,” I mentioned to my son the day of the big game, trying to sound casual about it. “It seems like that the games that you played when dad and I were out of town were the best three games of your season. How would you feel if I didn’t come? Do you think it’s less pressure for you if I am not there,” I asked him somewhat tentatively.

“Mom, it doesn’t matter if you are there or not. Do what you want,” he responded, like a typical 17-year-old.

Ok. Got it. But I still felt unsure. How could I really not go? Would the other parents think I am not supporting him? Am I being crazy? My husband said that it is okay either way. “He knows you love him,” David said, trying to ease my tension. And he repeated my son’s message, “Do what you need to do,” but added, “It will be okay.”

My youngest daughter and I headed out to the lake and she jumped thrillingly into the hot tub while I sipped a beer and sat on a deck chair allowing the blazing sun to warm my face and offer me some semblance of calmness. I exhaled and felt like I was a million miles away, and that a million pounds had been lifted off my chest. I knew I could support him better from where I sat; that my energy was positive and detached—not in an “I don’t care” kind of way, but in a spirit of letting go and practicing self-care kind of way. It was better for me to not be in the stands riveting with anxiety, and deep down I knew that this was most likely better for him.

But there was that all-too familiar feeling of guilt to reckon with—that frustration with myself and more questioning, ”Why can’t you just go enjoy your son’s game? What kind of mom doesn’t go to his son’s section baseball game?” Well, I guess this kind of mother, whose 10-year-old daughter splashed in the hot tub, thrilled that she would not be dragged to her millionth baseball game of the season. Thrilled to have time alone with me—a relaxed me (or at least trying to be).

“J just got a hit and drove in a run,” my husband’s text message popped up on my phone and pulled my eyes away from my daughter, and away from my here and now. I smiled and mindfully tried to stay focused on her, chasing the “I SHOULD be there” thoughts away. “Mom, watch me swim laps! Time me,” Jo blared toward me before submerging her entire body under water.

As I a concentrated on my stop watch on my phone, it buzzed again. “They are hitting us like it’s batting practice. We are down 6-2,” my husband revealed. O.k., another big inhale as my mind turned to the seniors who could be playing their last game, and then jumped ahead to next year when my son would be a senior (oh my!). Then my heart became even heavier as I thought of the 8th grader who made the varsity team and whose dad was rapidly losing his 3-year battle with cancer. Would his dad get to see him play another baseball game?

“Mom! How many laps did I swim?! How fast did I swim them? Mom, come on, please get off your phone!” I peeled my eyes away from my hand held device and back to the here and now. Back to my daughter’s youth and innocence—a reminder that despite the fact that life is filled with all different kinds of losses, there is also so much joy. I was reminded that it is okay to sit back sometimes and allow myself to just be, and to take care of myself, and trust that my son knows how very important he is to me, and how much I love and believe in him, no matter where I am or where he is. I hoped that all my children feel this.

“Twenty-five laps in 35 seconds! Best yet,” I shouted loud and proud, as if she had just beaten Michael Phelps’ record (there I go again!).

My phone vibrated. That magical and yet baneful piece of plastic and metal, which has the power to instantly pull me out of the present and split me in two—I’m here but I’m there—which is actually kind of nowhere.  I should just turn it off. Yep, I’m turning it off. I grabbed the phone out of my pocket and positioned my finger on the power button. As I started to press down, I glanced down for a split second as the words flew off the screen and and hit me on the head.

“J hit a home run.”

My eyes filled with tears and my heart began to pound so loudly I was sure my daughter could hear it from under water.

“No way,” I managed to type, half wondering if my husband was telling me the truth. My son had never hit a home run.

“Yep, first of his career,” my husband revealed (as if I didn’t know).

My daughter looked at me and asked me what was wrong. “Honey, you need to dry off, we are going for a ride,” I told her, and continued to explain to her about her brother’s milestone and that I just needed to be there when he walked off the field.

As we drove out to catch the last few innings of the game, I felt at peace. I didn’t know if he would have hit his first home run if I had been in the stands that night. But it didn’t really matter. I was truly and completely happy for him. And I was happy that I was able to let go and create some healthy space for myself and for my son.

This was a victory in and of itself.

The Struggle to Protect Sacred Family Time

The family vacation begins!

The family vacation begins!

I am not complaining. At this very moment I am heading off to a family beach vacation with my husband, four children, my parents, sister, brother-in-law and two nieces. I could not be more excited or grateful. I understand that all of us being together is truly a blessing and there is no certainty that this will be able to be repeated. Last year, our “family” vacation to visit my parents in Florida over winter break did not include my oldest son, J, who stayed home to attend mandatory basketball practices. Last spring, J left a family trip early to get back home for baseball practice.

A message appeared in my email inbox today that read: “Varsity basketball game, 7 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 26th.”  If my son had not taken this year off of basketball to train for baseball year round, he would not be sitting next to me on the plane, excited to be heading off to spend invaluable time with family (which includes his older sister, on break from college).

Next year, he may rejoin the basketball team. My older daughter wants to study abroad either next year or the following year…

I know. These are very much first world problems. Family vacations are a luxury. Kids have to make sacrifices and show dedication to their sports. However, I do see many parents having to make tough and stressful decisions because of their kids’ sports-related commitments, and it makes me wonder—when you really look at the development of a child, what is more important—time spent with family or more time spent at the free throw line?

These types of issues have caused our family to make some uncomfortable shifts. When our kids were younger, our family was on a roll. We had Shabbat dinner every Friday night, during which the six of us (or sometimes more…friends were/are always welcome) would sit down, slow down and connect as a family. As our older son hit high school, many of his basketball and baseball games were held on…Friday nights. I know several religious families who simply would not allow their children to play on Friday nights, but that is not the decision we made for our son and our family. We let him play. Quite often, there would be an empty spot at our Shabbat table, or sometimes our Friday night dinners would consist of hot dogs (kosher, at least) and a bag of chips, and our family sitting on rock hard bleachers, watching our boy play.

As kids get older, and life gets insanely busy with various commitments, it becomes harder and harder to grab family time, whether it is for a Friday night Shabbat dinner, brunch after church on Sunday or family vacations. I know of families who have spent a portion of Christmas together, but Christmas evening or first thing the next morning, Dad takes Jimmy to a hockey tournament in Rochester and Mom takes Susie to Duluth to celebrate Christmas (round two) with extended family. The family divided.

Even when parents are strong enough to draw the line and say, “We are all going to visit grandma for four days over Christmas break,” kids at very young ages will beg their parents to stay home as they are afraid of the wrath of their Pee Wee hockey coach, “If you miss practice, you will sit on the bench for three games.”  How cool would it be if the kid could say to the coach, “But I am going to spend time with my FAMILY over the holiday—to see my GRANDPARENTS who I only see once a year. How you can bench me for that?”  Maybe EVERYONE should take some time off to spend time with family, and then no one will be punished or rewarded for missing or not missing practice because there won’t be any practice or games for at least the few days that surround the holiday. How about society gives kids (and parents) the message that no matter what religion, if any, you practice—uninterrupted family time is sacred time? If parents are going to take time off from work (I would also advocate for employers allowing a few extra days off for employees around the holiday time—Europe does a much better job of this), it is important that the whole family is able spend time together and connect with each other.

My family does not celebrate Christmas, however, I view Christmas break/winter break as sacred family time. My husband takes time off from work and we try to do something special as a family for at least a few days. I know it is not always easy for families to do this because of work obligations, financial constraints and  kids’ sports commitments (and  divorced parents have an even tougher job of carving out family time). My concern, however,  is not so much about whether or not families can go on an actual “vacation” over winter break. A vacation could be just spending uninterrupted time at home together as a family. But I feel that families have to fight so hard to find time to be together because of all of the outside obligations that parents and kids face. It concerns me that family time is becoming less and less valued in society today.

I know many moms who struggle with this issue. When I interviewed moms for book #1, I asked a veteran mother of three children, ages 21, 18 and 16 to reveal the most important lesson she has learned in her years of mothering, and what she would like to pass on to other moms. She explained,

“Looking back, I can’t believe how much I worried about 8th grade basketball. Go on family vacations and do not worry about your 4th grader’s traveling soccer coach. You do have to teach your kid discipline, but to miss out on family time because the coach says he is going to sit your kid, I can now say, ‘Let him sit your kid and don’t miss out on family time.’ If your kid is good enough, she/he will play. Maybe not for that coach, but eventually. You have to decide what you can live with and not worry about what other people are doing or thinking.”

This mom’s oldest son went on to play college football at a highly reputable school. I am not so sure if she actually took her own advice with him, however, I do appreciate her hindsight.

For right now, I am going to appreciate the week I have with my family. All of us together—my daughter on break from college, my son able to leave Minnesota because he is not tied to a sport. My hope is that you are able to grab as much family time as you can, and enjoy each other during this holiday season.

Wishing you and your family a wonderful holiday season and a peaceful, happy, healthy and prosperous 2014.

The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

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