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Basic Skills

One of my favorite things about Facebook is when young parents I know—or even grandparents—post something about their baby’s first words or first steps. Of course, those adorable tiny people will never remember what it was like to say “Mama,” or to totter across the room. And, unless we’re around babies, most of us have no memory of a vocabulary in the single digits or seeing the distance from the coffee table to the couch as insurmountable. We learn these skills at such an early point in our journey that none of us has any deep appreciation for what our lives might be like without them.

You may think now that I’m headed to a point about how grateful we should be for our power to walk and talk because some people lose these abilities as they get older. But that is another essay altogether. My point here is simpler than that. I have been thinking this week that, of the talents we possess and the proficiencies we’ve developed, at the core of these is our capacity to move and to speak, and we don’t practice either enough. That probably sounds ridiculous to those of us for whom walking and speaking are second nature. “Why would I practice something I do hundreds of times every day?”

The answer is simple. Doing something every day is different than practicing it. Doing something every day is different than doing it well. As writer Malcolm Gladwell talks about when he explains his 10,000 hours of practice theory in his book Outliers, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

Practice doesn’t happen without consciousness, without paying attention to what we’re doing, not just going through the motions.

To me, movement and our ability to connect verbally with others are skills we ignore, downplay, and take for granted. And yet, I find myself sitting on my couch reading or watching television every night, when I really could be going for a walk after dinner, making physical activity a more conscious part of every day. Even when I go out to run in the mornings these days, I have to negotiate with myself to do it because I’m not as accustomed to the discipline of this daily ritual as I was when I was younger. Despite knowing I will feel better the more I move, I think, “I’ll just lie here in bed and read this book this morning and I’ll run or walk tomorrow.”

But, as a reminder that letting my movement skills lie dormant is a bad idea, researchers at the University of Maryland recently found that taking even a week off from exercising can reduce blood flow to the brain and affect overall brain health.

And there’s even more to moving than staying in healthy physical and mental condition. Movement changes our sense of ourselves, it connects us to our bodies, and it reminds us of how it feels to be us. The purposefulness of heading out on a walk, the time to think about our lives, and the power of really noticing what is around us in nature are all antidotes to that dragging dread we experience every time someone asks us how we are and we reply, “Tired” or "Busy."

Second only to being on better terms with ourselves (a true result of moving our bodies) is our connection to other humans. I mean connection here in the truest sense of the word. I don’t mean small-talk conversations about how awful Donald Trump is or how happy we’ll be when it gets cooler or warmer or when the weekend comes. When Jodi and I are deeply ensconced in the busy-ness of our lives, we can have five conversations in a row in which nothing substantive is shared. It’s a bad habit, and we both need to practice taking a deep breath and making a real connection. Still, as much as I like feeling connected to her, it isn't easy getting outside of my own thoughts.

Jodi is a much more outgoing person than I am and often asks me something concrete about an occurrence from my day. My fatigue and introversion immediately take over and my first reaction is almost always, “Oh no, I can’t possibly go into that kind of detail.” Of course she is gracious about this after 15 years of hearing this kind of initial response from me, but we both know how much better things would be if I just bucked up and told her about the event I attended or the conversation I had with a mutual friend.

This is true, of course, because talking in a real way opens us. If I feel open, I will move from talking about the meeting I attended to a thought I had about my life during that meeting that would be good to share with her. Then, with very little effort, we are connecting in a real way about a real thing.

It’s very much like moving my body. Just because I am still able to walk into the kitchen and open the freezer to retrieve a popsicle doesn’t mean I’m moving my body in a way that lets my joints open and my mind expand. Just because words are being formed and I am saying them to Jodi doesn’t mean we are connecting. They both take practice, and practice doesn’t happen without consciousness, without paying attention to what we’re doing, not just going through the motions.

We’re lucky if we can walk and talk. These are gifts never to be ignored. But we are even more fortunate if we remember to take the time to put our skills to the test, to get better at them, to use them both to become bigger and better people. The period of time from those first steps and first words to the last is really not that long. Take someone’s hand, walk outside, and say something real. It will change you.

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