When the first post of this series popped up on my Facebook feed, I thought: “now THIS is something I can get behind.” Full disclosure: I spend a fair bit of my non-work time moving—biking, running, or walking to and from work; playing recreational hockey (emphasis on the recreational, but for a fabulous team named the Booby Orrs—or the boobs for short); honing my basement soccer, wrestling, and pull-up skills with two very special 9 and 6 year-old friends; skiing when there is enough snow to do so, which there hasn’t been of late; coaching rugby for a fierce and talented group of young twenty-somethings; walking with my 8-lb sporty-diva dog who is a better hiker than I am; and of course, lots and lots of stretching (apparently I am pretty stiff—go figure).
|Note sporty-diva dog in backpack!|
Most days I choose movement over social activity, not because I don’t adore my friends, or crave human connection, but because most socializing involves sitting still. When planning a trip, I often consider what opportunities for movement there will be, even before checking into local options for food or coffee. When traveling to a new city, I routinely opt for a bike rental over a car. And so on and so forth. I am somewhat maniacal when it comes to moving and movement, and until my early 30s I hadn’t really stopped to consider why (probably because I hadn’t really ever stopped).
Part of me never questioned my need for movement because I was a sporty kid. When I was first on skates, I sprinted (toe picks in ice and off I went). My summer camps were always sports camps. Gym and recess were my favourite ‘subjects’ in school (yes, I was that kid). And by about the age of 10, I was barred from playing driveway basketball with my older (less kinesthetically-minded) brother because I made him look bad. As a then tomboy and now butch identified person, my sportiness has been one of the ways I make sense (to myself and to others) in the world. I understand now that statements like “she’s sporty” stood in for “I know she’s not a normal little girl” (whatever that might be). I also recognize that my “rambunctiousness” and “excessive energy” served simultaneously to excuse and negate as well as to honour and acknowledge my masculinity—and in some contexts it still does.
I began my university path in sport studies because I assumed that’s where maniacal movement people like me went (and to a large degree they do). As an undergraduate student in sport studies, I learned that our kinesthetic sense is that which enables us to find the light switch in the dark. From the Greek word kin, meaning to move or set in motion, our kinesthetic awareness is the sensation of moving in space. In a physical and philosophical sense, it is the way in which our bodies come to know. While I eventually migrated from sport to health studies, I took the lessons of movement (and the analogy of the light switch in the dark) with me.
The summer after my first year in undergrad, my father died. It was also the same summer I took up outdoor running. Until this point, my running had only involved chasing a ball, avoiding a defender, circling a track, or, as previously explained, on skates. At 20, I had neither the emotional wherewithal or environment to talk through the impact of that tragedy, but running helped me come to terms with his loss in my own way. I ran carrying confusion, anger, guilt and sadness, and in learning to jog, I also learned to take these emotions in and let them go, one winded breath at a time.
Fast forward about a decade and I find myself struggling (as many do) in the often exceedingly slow, generally physically still moments of dissertation writing. In an opposite way of what Hannah writes—that some parts of academia gave her body back to her—I’m convinced that my body in movement gave me academia. Not only did I enter the academy through movement studies (the thing I knew and loved most), but my compulsion to move provided me the advice I needed to get through—and sit through—the stillest parts of my PhD. In 2007 I tried my first Bikram yoga class. Warranted critiques of Bikram yoga aside, for the next two and a half years as a chipped away at my dissertation I was reminded to sit through discomfort, without trying to relieve it. This lesson has continuing resonance in my intellectual labours.
With the finish line of my defense in sight, I received the news that my supervisor’s cancer had metastasized. I received this news away from home in Prince Edward County, with a rented bike in hand, a small (sporty-diva) dog in tow, and a local trail map. Unsure of what to do, I pushed, peddled, and rode in 25 degree heat. 50 kilometers later, reconnected with my beating heart, the news had sunk in.
As I approach 40, I still find movement one of the most reliable forms of care I have available to me. It has been one of the most stable and consistent presences in my life. I move because, quite literally, it keeps me together. And while I feel things deeply, I don’t always need to (or want to) talk them through—it’s just not how my body has learned to be in space. Instead, I move through space, and continue to fumble (as many do) for my light switch in moments of darkness.
Kaarina Mikalson is a PhD student in English at Dalhousie University, and the project manager for Canada and the Spanish Civil War. Her research interests include literature of the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, and the intersection of gender and labour in Canadian literature. Besides roller derby, she enjoys sewing, comics, and lipstick.
|I said I would dance anywhere. That includes near Parliament Hill!|
When I talk about dance, unless I am referring specifically to my time inside a studio rehearsing a piece or working on my technique, I am usually speaking about improvisation. Though I enjoy these other aspects of dance, and recognize they are necessary to expanding my control over my body, and consequently, my ability to express myself as limitlessly as possible, I find the most solace in improvisation. Give me a dark room and some music, and my body takes care of the rest.
|Throwback to high school.|
I thought I was going to use this much appreciated opportunity to write out some kind of overarching argument for the importance of the intersection between athletics and academics, particularly for women. But as I’ve thought about this issue over the last month, it turns out I can’t in good conscience make this argument at all as women still, by far, undertake the majority of both service work in the university workplace and caretaking at home, a dreary and undebatable fact that means I’d be truly wrapped up in my own privilege if I were to say, “hey all you women, you really need to try training for something on top of all the other duties and responsibilities and drains on your time! I mean, it’s really great and you’ll feel good about yourself!”
It is great. And it does make you feel good about yourself. But the time I’ve spent as a competitive cyclist and now runner/occasional triathlete have shown me how the barriers to participation, let alone access, are still very high. I’ll return to this point toward the end of my post but to explain how I’ve come to this point, I’m afraid I need to indulge in some autobiography about my history as an athlete.
I’ve always been active and in love with running around and doing things, whether kicking or catching a ball, riding my bike on dirt or on roads, running around a track, or running on trails. But I always did this activities without any support network, with no understanding of training or technique or even nutrition, and – with the exception women like Missy Giove that I’d see in glossy magazines – with almost no role models. This isn’t surprising considering I grew up in the 70s and 80s, on what was then the isolated world of Vancouver Island. Still, I had this lurking belief I could be good at sport – that I was capable and strong, even if there was no real evidence for this belief.
Maybe it’s no coincidence my history as an academic followed a similar path, guided by my belief that maybe I could do this thing even if no one else around me thought one way or the other. So, after a few nerve-wracking years as a perpetually insecure, workaholic PhD student, I decided I’d try to build up my self-confidence from having almost none to, hopefully, at least having some. I started by coming up with an arbitrary amount of body fat I wanted to get down to at the local gym (incredibly, my personal life remained completely divorced from the work by Susan Bordo I was teaching at the same time), moved on to trying to do a sprint triathlon, and then – when we moved to Boulder, Colorado – trying what was for me the most intimidating of all: road bike racing.
I threw myself into training and racing road bikes for five years and, for those years, the sport gave me everything I was missing in the academic workplace. I wanted community, friends and connection and I found these things in spades, especially as a beginning Cat 4 racer. These women I trained and raced with, week in and week out for months at a time, were incredible – we pushed each other harder than we thought was possible; we learned together; we cheered each other on; we suffered together. It was a remarkable experience, especially compared to the profoundly isolationist and individualistic culture of academia.
Those years racing and training also made me a more interesting person, one who became capable of talking with lawyers, accountants, physiotherapists, marketing managers, and sales associates. Not only did I learn about and engage with communities outside of academia but I also developed a more expanded sense of where exactly I stood in relation to my local and global community. It’s such an obvious revelation, that existing only in a university environment makes one uni-dimensional. It’s also obvious one cannot and should not work as many hours a day and days a week as one can hack. But somehow, academia – largely made up of type-A personalities who cannot stop striving seven days a week because of the lack of clear work-life boundaries – makes access to these obvious revelations very difficult.
I quit training and racing road bikes a couple years ago when I realized I’d achieved the goal I’d set out for myself (all I wanted was to become a Cat 2 racer, because somehow, narrowly, I thought that would mean I could finally tell myself I was “good” at this sport) and I was finding the 15 hours of training a week onerous rather than empowering. But still, the act of training taught me one lesson in particular that still hasn’t left me: the value of having clear and bounded goals coupled with an acceptance of what I have today, who I am today, instead of who I could be or would like to be or should be.
Eventually, the tiny, daily acknowledgements of what I had to give, given the circumstances of the day, turned into tiny, daily triumphs and then these triumphs came to influence both the way I go about my work as an academic and the way I think about my worth. Eventually, I came to ask myself, “Can I write 500 words today? Can I teach my classes with the knowledge and the energy I have today, rather than what I would like to have? Can I do this work in this two hours I have, before I spend time with my husband or my friends, rather than the eight hours I wish I had?”
All I have to offer here are my personal revelations about why my personal and professional life would be so much less if it weren’t for sport. I especially can only speak for myself here, as I’m reminded of the day I showed up for my first cat 2 race and I saw only women who were either professional bike racers or women who were retired or women whose children were now in college or women who were fortunate enough not to have to work at all. It’s a tremendous privilege to have the time and the resources I have to train, to hire a coach, to travel to races, to set goal race times and so on.
I know countless women who are tremendously gifted athletes but who cannot possibly add training to their already nearly impossible schedules involving work, committee meetings, student supervision/mentoring, not to mention their own childcare and housework responsibilities. I only wish we could find a way not so much to say, “You can do it! You can train for that event and compete in that race!” but rather, “We value your health, happiness, and sense of well-being! We support a shorter work week and after-school child care! We support a more even distribution of childcare and service responsibilities across genders!”
Then imagine what women could accomplish.
Lori Emerson is amateur runner, cyclist, and fresh air lover in Boulder, Colorado. She is also an Associate Professor of English and Intermedia Arts, Writing, and Performance at the University of Colorado and Director of the Media Archaeology Lab.
My alarm usually goes off somewhere around 5:15 am, and I ease myself out of bed and into the kitchen. The kettle goes on, I feed the cat, and I quietly try to empty the dishwasher while the coffee brews. Mug in hand, I walk upstairs to my desk and start to write. There aren’t all that many pages left now, and the pencilled in defence date in my calendar will be ready to be inked soon. The sun comes up as I work, and it is bright in the sky by the time I manage to drag myself away from the computer and back into the kitchen for breakfast. Moving from writing to getting ready for work never gets any easier, and I almost always want just a few more minutes at the computer. It usually results in me scarfing breakfast with one eye on the clock and resigning myself to still having cat hair on me somewhere, lint roller be damned.
I step out my door at 8:30, and for the next thirty minutes, I’m neither here nor there, neither Melissa the researcher nor Melissa the research administrator. I’m Melissa in motion, just me and my backpack and my feet. I ease into my working day. I walk along Harbord Street, inhaling the sweet, yeasty smell of challah and danish from Harbord Bakery, the heady whiff of chlorine from the university pool. I watch students playing soccer on the back field, listen to the Tower Road bells playing carols and hymns and show tunes. I cross the hustle of Queen’s Park Circle into Queen’s Park, and listen to the sudden hush once I step away from the traffic. I watch the fat squirrels and dogs and runners, admire the snow covered statues and black-barked trees. I always look up to marvel at the gold tiles on the roof of the government buildings on Wellesley, the last quiet spot before I step into the middle of the people and cars and noise and energy at College and Bay. I look out for the man reading while he walks past the pink elephant, also known as the McMurtry-Scott Building. One more block, and I’m through the doors and inside my office.
On days when I’ve had the hardest time walking away from my computer, from my writing, you’ll find me talking through my ideas as I walk to work. With my headset in and voice recorder on, you’d think I was leaving someone a long voicemail. And I am–only that someone is myself. I talk myself, walk myself, through the ideas and connections that come to me as I stride through the city. I get to go back to my writing, back to my thinking. I don’t have to snip the threads of my thoughts quite so soon, and I get to set the stage for doing it all again tomorrow. I do some of my best thinking during those thirty minutes, even better than when I’m running, and by the time I’ve gotten to the office, I’ve talked myself out and I’m ready to move on to the very different work that is my day job.
On the way home, I do the same walk in reverse — from busy to quiet, work to home, shedding stress and responsibility as I walk. Some days I stop in at the bakery for a loaf of that fragrant bread and a tub of ruby beets, or pick up a bunch of tulips at the corner. I walk into the house footloose and fancy free, ready to be home, be relaxed, be productive in different ways. I feed the cat, put the kettle back on. Later, I’ll ease back into bed, and I sleep like a stone. Work waits for me, but I’m home and it stays there. My walk that does that, and so much more.
|The Author! Photo credit: Martyn Boston|
|At my childhood home.|
|Mar the Dog. Not amused by my exhortations of “do downward dog!”|
|The much-missed Felix. My first dog and constant walking companion|
|My bike, 5:45 am, outside the yoga studio.|
|M. and me, early, laughing.|