Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
— Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
“I’m not a gym person.”
This is a declaration I have made often, and for the last 15 years or so, I’ve believed it and lived it. For as long as I have been a regular exerciser, I have been a runner who runs outdoors. I relish the bite of winter on my cheeks in January and summer’s humidity pressing heavy against my limbs in June. I love to glimpse what’s blooming as I run past – from the first hardy crocus pushing through the snow in early spring to the last of the goldenrod and purple aster in late fall.
Recently, though, sidelined by a chronic injury, I decided to accompany Brad to the Y to experiment with the elliptical machine. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed it – not so much the elliptical (which is frightfully boring), but rather, the whole gym “experience.” The camaraderie of exercising silently side-by-side with strangers before the sun has risen. The smooth vinyl under my body as I stretch on the blue mat and catch my breath. Watching people of every shape, age and size running, walking, pushing, pulling, lifting and climbing – striving toward whatever goal they’ve set for themselves that morning.
Turns out, I am a gym person after all.
“Those who attempt to work too long with a formula, even their own formula, eventually leach themselves of their creative truths,” writes Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. Cameron is referring specifically to the writing process, but I think a similar statement can be made about our own selves.
I am a creature of habit who thrives within routine and structure. This explains why I have run the exact same route three to four times a week for the past 18 years. It explains why I have eaten the same mid-morning snack (16 almonds) at the same time (10 a.m.) every day for the past 10 years. I could give you a dozen such examples. Suffice to say, routine is my default mode.
Routines can be healthy and good, to be sure, and the truth is, I feel most safe, secure and confident when I am clicking along within my familiar routines. But I’m also learning that this kind of contained living can, over time, inhibit growth and lead to stagnation. Ultimately, being too wedded to our structures, routines and habits – to our “formula,” as Cameron calls it – will suffocate our soul.
Recently my son Noah and I explored a new-to-us local greenhouse, and while we were there, wending our way between stately candelabra cactus and lush fiddle leaf figs, I felt an inexplicable desire to buy a plant.
I have a handful of houseplants positioned in various sunny spots around my sunroom, but I’ve never considered myself “a plant person.” Suddenly, though, immersed in all that fecund green, breathing in the rich, humid scent of new growth, I knew something new about myself. The realization was like the sharp chime of a church bell reverberating across an Italian piazza: I love plants. Plants make me happy. I want a life with more plants.
So I bought a philodendron and a white pot, transplanted it on the driveway when I got home, and placed it on top of a bookcase near my desk in the sunroom.
“There’s something enlivening about expanding our self-definition,” acknowledges Cameron, “and a risk does exactly that.”
True, going to the gym or buying a philodendron are hardly big risky endeavors, but at the same time, I believe there is something important and telling even in these small steps. Any step outside the boundaries by which we have defined ourselves is a step into newness, and stepping into newness, no matter how seemingly small or inconsequential, is always a risk.
But it’s in these smallest of steps, these smallest of risks, that we begin to recognize and embrace the multitudes contained within us. When we allow ourselves to open to these small moments of knowing, we unclasp something deep within us, which in turn opens the way to living more fully and wholly as our true selves.
Turns out, I’m a gym person. Turns out, I’m a plant person, too. I contain multitudes.
And so do you.