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Staying in Shape

I’m always glad on Sunday mornings at the end of our spin class that I can still do the stretches our teacher asks us to do to loosen our bodies after all that work on the bikes. It reminds me that moving is keeping me flexible. And, if I want to keep walking, and running, and spinning—and travelling and playing and having adventures—being able to do lots of different things with my body is essential. Most people my age are well aware of the long-term payoff of staying physically nimble. What I forget more often is the value of staying emotionally adaptable, as well.

When I was younger and just filling in all the parts of myself, I held tightly to what I thought and how I felt. I was cautious about someone trying to change my mind because it made me feel like I was being a pushover. Letting my brain and my heart do some bending and stretching made me feel as if I was being weak. I’m not talking here about deeply held issues of politics or social justice. When I think of emotional flexibility, I really mean letting myself look at things from a different angle or a different point of view. I also mean letting things unfold as they will or as they need to.

I really see the value of mental malleability when creativity is required.

More often than not, I forget the significance of this practice. Instead of waiting to see what’s going to happen, I plan, perseverate, and worry. Then, when things don’t go the way I had imagined they might—I stiffen, panic, and forget my ability to improvise. It’s like trying to go for a run when I’ve done nothing physical but lie on my couch for the last three months.

I also see the value of mental malleability when creativity is required, whether I’m making something or trying to solve a problem. If I haven’t stayed in shape—practiced being innovative and thinking outside the box—my initial ideas are flat, unoriginal, and I'm always a little cynical. It’s so easy to fall into the routine of thinking in a pattern. Do this, say that, go here. On some unconscious level, it’s simple to stay on the same thought and feeling track and not let myself venture into unknown territory. It’s safer, I guess, to just keep an emotional and intellectual fence around things. That way, I know what I’ve got and what I can handle, and I don’t need to feel the anxiety of the unknown.

At this age, though, it doesn’t serve me, or anyone in my life, to let my brain and heart slip into laziness. But even knowing that doesn’t make it easier to stay in good intellectual and emotional shape. I’m trying to view it the way I see exercise, because that’s an arena with which I’m familiar. In the same way that I know I have to start small and not go out too fast, I’m practicing resilience and flexibility in small arenas whenever I can. I don’t have to immediately say no, for example, if someone asks me to do something that sounds chaotic or anxiety producing. I can say yes just as quickly, and then train myself a little to manage the stress I might feel.

One of the strongest feelings I have about getting older is that it would be so easy to just let myself go. No one would even fault me if I said I wanted to stay in my house and read books and eat cereal. When we get older, the world stops requiring us to be lithe and athletic—physically and emotionally. But I caution myself and my older friends about taking that position. We are the wise ones, the elders. We can set the tone and the example. We need to stay alive and growing and changing. If we don’t, the knowledge stops with us and our own worlds get smaller and smaller. In her late 90s, my old friend Lowry used to unravel tiny necklaces to keep her fingers nimble. She read herself to sleep at night while listening to Larry King interview world leaders on the radio. That’s the direction I want to go. Every. Single. Day.

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