Couch to 5K for Cellists, Week 4: Belonging

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Brisk five-minute warmup walk, then: jog for 3 mins; walk 90 secs; jog 5 mins, walk 2.5 mins; jog 3 mins; walk 90 secs; jog 5 mins.

I get up early in the morning to do my C25K workouts, partly because it’s cooler then and partly because there are fewer people on the track. I do not like other people to see me exercising.

*

I refused to do any exercise apart from walking until I was a 24-year-old graduate student. I only began for vanity-related reasons: I had grown into my adult body and realized that it wasn’t as naturally thin as I’d thought it was.

I decided to start going to the university gym because it was free for students. It took several weeks of procrastination and agonizing even to get started. It was hard even to enter the building. My hands were shaking so much that I dropped my student ID card as I tried to swipe myself through the barrier. I was terrified and sure that everyone was staring at me, judging me, and making fun of me.

In reality, they probably weren’t. But when you feel you don’t belong, reality is irrelevant.

I had literally no idea how to use any of the equipment, and I didn’t want to ask anyone for help. I chose an exercise bike because I thought I might be able to operate it. I punched a few buttons until I’d figured out how to put it on its lowest setting, climbed on, and cycled slowly for twenty minutes. That was the extent of my workouts for a long time.

*

If this doesn’t sound particularly brave by normal-person standards, please believe that it took considerable bravery for me. Even the thought of exercise brought up a lot of unpleasant feelings for me, because my worst memories of childhood were all about exercise.

I was a shy, bookish little girl, and I didn’t belong at primary school. I had no friends at all. Every day, without exception, the other children would tease me until I cried. They grabbed my pencil case and threw it around the room while I tried to grab it back, but I never could because I wasn’t fast or agile, and this made them laugh even harder. Other times they danced in circles around me, taunting me and shouting “We hate Miranda.” They ran away from me every day, knowing I couldn’t catch up because they were fast and I was slow.

Where were the teachers in all this? I don’t know. They certainly never intervened. When I tried to retreat to the school library at lunchtime to escape the bullies, some teacher would invariably kick me out, saying I needed to go outside and get some exercise in the healthy fresh air. I wanted to take a book but they wouldn’t let me. Books were my only friends, but there was a school of thought in New Zealand in the 1990s that reading bred idleness, and New Zealanders hate idleness. (See also “Calvinist work ethic” and “school uniforms that force you to go bare-legged in the middle of winter” and “refusal to install central heating in houses.”) Sport was valued, books weren’t. I had no friends. I didn’t belong.

*

So here I am, 30 years later, pounding around a middle school athletics track in Idaho. I’m breathing heavily. Every joint and muscle in my body is aching. I hate this. I hate panting, I hate sweating, I hate moving, I hate how slow I am, I hate how bad I am at sports, I hate myself, I hate everyone, I hate the entire world.

That’s when I notice that some other people have come in through the gate at the side of the field, a woman and two men. The woman starts out at a slow pace in one of the outer lanes, but the men appear to be timing each other sprinting. They look fit, lean, and muscular. In other words, the kind of person I do not want to see me running. I nearly quit then and there.

In my mind, I imagine they’re about to approach me and tell me that my running technique is bad and that I’m about to injure myself.

(Plenty of people have approached me in gyms to tell me I’m doing it wrong and I wanted to shout “I don’t care! Leave me alone!”, but being a New Zealander, I’m too repressed to shout at anyone so I just smile weakly and say thanks. When I mention this to my husband he says “But honey, do you think there’s a possibility they’re only trying to help? That they want to see you succeed?” “I don’t care!” I wail. “I just want to be left alone to be bad at things all by myself!”)

I don’t like being bad at things. I don’t like being told I’m doing it wrong.

*

The men don’t approach me. They’re only paying attention to each other.

*

The 90-second walk helps me to get my breath back. Then it’s time for the first five-minute run.

Until this moment, I’ve never run for five minutes in my life. Sure, we were made to do things like that at school, but I usually ran for a minute or so and then defiantly walked. Once I got to high school, I truanted from so many P. E. classes that the principal eventually stopped trying to make me go. She sent me to the library for extra Latin instead. I think it was supposed to be a punishment, but I loved it.

Running for five minutes probably doesn’t sound like much to normal people, but it is to me. It seems endless. I start counting. I figure that I take three steps per second, so I count the way through the seconds the way I count through music. One-and-a-two-and-a-three-and-a-four-and-a. I guess I run in compound time.

“Begin walking,” says the C25K robot voice in my headphones. Good lord, I actually did it and I didn’t die.

*

The other people on the track still aren’t taunting me. They aren’t even looking at me.

*

“Begin running for three minutes,” says the robot voice.

As I run and run and count one-and-a-two-and-a, a new thought occurs to me. Maybe some of the places I’ve always felt at home don’t feel that way to others. The concert hall, for example. The classical music profession always claims to want to attract more audiences, but there are certain barriers to attendance beyond the cost of tickets. The worst one is that a lot of people think they aren’t allowed to like classical music because they don’t know anything about it.

A classical concert could be quite a bewildering place if you haven’t been to one before. There’s a dress code. There are strange rules and rituals. If you don’t know that you aren’t supposed to clap between movements, you’re marked out as an ignoramus. If you have a coughing fit, you’re made to feel like a pariah.

When I’m on the stage performing, I don’t care about any of this. I wouldn’t care if the audience showed up in jeans and t-shirts; I just care that they show up. I don’t care if people clap between movements; I’m just grateful that they consider anything I’ve performed worthy of applause. I want them to feel welcome. Music should be for everyone, and people like me, the professionals, want to meet audience members where they are.

And yet, there are gatekeepers. And the more I think about this, the more I realize that I’m not innocent of it either when I’m a member of the audience. How many times have I shot a killing look at someone who was taking the wrapper off a cough drop too loudly during an exquisite pianissimo? How many times have I huffed and grumbled about restless children, creaking seats, and even people who were doing nothing other than…breathing too loudly? Maybe some of those people that I shushed were too intimidated ever to attend a concert again. Maybe they meant no harm, but simply didn’t understand the rules because they hadn’t been explained to them.

Maybe I’ve put people off classical music just as much as P. E. teachers put me off exercising by implying that they were doing it wrong.

*

The ninety seconds between the two last runs seemed like the shortest ninety seconds ever. I was not ready to run for another five minutes. I didn’t want to run another five minutes. I was so slow, so sore, so out of breath. I did it anyway.

By the time the robot voice alerted me that I only had one minute left, I was…just running. Me, the lonely little girl with the knock knees who didn’t know the rules to any of the games. Me, the scapegoat, the outcast. Running.

I was running.

*

The men had left, but the woman remained. She was jogging painfully slowly around the periphery of the track. She looked grim-faced and unhappy. She was even slower than I was. Good for you, I thought.

Read Couch to 5K for Cellists Week 1 – P. E. Trauma and Music Trauma

Read Couch to 5K for Cellists Week 2 – Permission to Be Bad

Read Couch to 5K for Cellists Week 3 — Slow-Fast-Slow-Fast

© Miranda Wilson, 2021. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission of the author.

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