In a lovely little chapel on the campus of Houston Baptist, I received kind words, a pen, and a pin. This was the last Friday night in May. I had taken the classes, put in the work, and completed requirements for my MFA.
Now, I hear Frank McCourt in my head, and he says, “Stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it.” I notice his two polysyllabic words and the strength of his monosyllables. Now, I will work with my tools, read books, study language, and hone my craft. I will put my bloody manuscript in a drawer and let it rest. Same for me, sans drawer, just rest. I’ve learned that good art takes time.
Even though my angel mother grew up in the Baptist church, the “B” in HBU filled me with trepidation. I leaped with faith anyway. God played a role in my story, and I wanted to do Him justice. Still, I never imagined I would find my tribe of like minds at HBU. Now, I see God’s plan. I’ll be forever grateful for these people—my cohort and professors. They became my friends and family, encouraging and inspiring me with their ideas and insight, persistence and growth, love and prayers. All of this without judgement. Even their criticism was kind.
At HBU, I’ve learned to make time and space for my writing and for me. And I’ve realized we all feel like imposters sometimes. I’ve learned to be scared and do it anyway. And I’ve realized the power of continued progress. Anything is possible with belief and persistence. I’m still learning trust and patience in God. At the same time, I believe He is using my story in a way I never could’ve imagined.
The truth is — my clothes weren’t fitting, and I refused to buy bigger ones. I even noticed being short of breath from time to time when doing simple things like laundry. Something needed to change. April seemed as good a time as any, and so I chose to take some action.
My eighty-one-year-old father wakes up around 5:30 each morning and does a whole routine of calisthenics, and I mean seven days a week. Weekdays he still works full-time, and knowing him, I’m betting on some major overtime. He’s the picture of health. I’ve asked about the particulars of his workout, and he has told me. I would’ve needed to write it down to remember. It’s a lot, but I know he exercises in sets.
On the first day of April, I decided to come up with a routine of my own. I wanted to keep it simple and doable. Situps, pushups, and squats. “I can do that,” I said to myself. I had a plan. I started with ten situps, ten pushups, and twenty squats. Each day, I would add five. After the first Sunday in April, I decided to take Sundays off. On another day, I decided I would quit adding five when I reached one hundred repetitions. Modifications are sometimes necessary. Progress is progress. By April 14, 2021, I was up to seventy situps and pushups and eighty squats. The squats were not a problem. The push-ups were harder. And the sit-ups were f-ing ridiculous. I broke them down into sets. If it took me all damn day, I would do them.
But, I sort of hated my life mid-situp and needed some motivation. You know what I did? I Googled the benefits, and Healthline.com gave me nine great reasons to just keep going:
Core strength. By strengthening, tightening, and toning your core, you reduce your risk of back pain and injuries.
Improved muscle mass. According to research from 2016, older women who were able to do situps were less likely to have sarcopenia, which is the natural loss of muscle due to aging. Women who were able to do more than 10 situps had higher levels of muscle mass and function.
Athletic performance. A strong core gives you proper posture, stability, and form, allowing you to perform at higher levels during any sport or physical activity.
Better balance and stability. A strong core helps to keep your body balanced and stable. It helps your pelvis, lower back, and hip muscles to work together with your abdominal muscles.
Increased flexibility. Situps make your hips and back more flexible, which increases mobility and relieves tension and tightness. Increased flexibility improves circulation and concentration, reduces stress, and boosts energy levels.
Improved posture. A solid core improves posture, and good posture includes less pain and tension, increased energy levels, and improved breathing.
Reduced risk of back pain and injury. Situps also build strength in the lower back, hips, and pelvis, making injury less likely.
Diaphragm strengthening. Situps cause compression of the abdomen, which can have a positive effect on your diaphragm. A strong, healthy diaphragm can improve your breathing patterns, alleviate stress, and enhance athletic endurance.
Academic Achievement. Studies link high fitness levels to high academic achievement levels.
On Monday the 19th, I reached one hundred squats, and yesterday, I reached one hundred situps and pushups. I must admit — I feel stronger, my shape is slowly morphing, and my lower back pain (of the past few years) has improved. Benefits aside, I’m not sure 100 situps a day is sustainable. April is proving I can do anything one month at a time. When May rolls around, I may reassess.
In 2013, I received an opportunity to teach a Creative Writing class at the high school where I also taught English. As a new elective without an established curriculum, I had the freedom to teach it however I wanted. I adopted a two-part philosophy. First, writers must be readers, and I structured classes with time to read for pleasure with an eye toward author’s craft. Next, writers must write—every day. I gave the students daily prompts that they could use or not for their writing. The point was sustained practice.
In the beginning, I felt like a hypocrite, and so the second part of my own philosophy forced me to write—almost every day. I kept a journal and notes in my phone, bits of dialogue and scenes. As I wrote alongside my students, I often stuck to a theme of my son Drew, our new normal with schizophrenia, and our quest for help. Little by little over the next few years, I realized my story might help someone else. Finding help had been hard, especially when my son didn’t see a need for help. Maybe I would write a memoir. I quested ahead with my writing practice. My structure was episodic. My ideas were fragmented. Some of it was pretty good. Some of it was horrific. I didn’t know how to make it all publishable.
For my fiftieth birthday, I gifted myself time for grad school and started a new quest for my MFA. Who knew I could study Creative Writing? As my program winds down, I’m questing toward my degree and the latest draft of my memoir Help in the Time of Schizophrenia. When I submit this work on April 26th, two of my professors and a third contracted reader will read it and provide a final round of feedback. I’m super thankful for the extra perspective.
And soon, I’ll be on a new quest. To be determined.
My goal out-distances the utmost star,
Yet is encompassed in my inmost Soul;
I am my goal—my quest, to know myself.
To chart and compass this unfathomed sea,
Myself must plumb the boundless universe.
My Soul contains all thought, all mystery,
All wisdom of the Great Infinite Mind:
This is to discover, I must voyage far,
At last to find it in my pulsing heart.
Around nine o’clock on a Sunday morning in March, I rocked in a swivel chair on the covered deck out back. I took a deep breath, looked around, and listened to the day. The doves cooed from the tops of nearby trees. A neighborhood rooster crowed about a block away. The sun shone gold in the grass, and the good earth called my name. I remembered once hearing that the soles of your feet can absorb the earth’s energy. There were more benefits I couldn’t quite remember.
I slipped off my house shoes and stepped barefoot into the grass. I wonder if a fifty-one-year-old woman could do a perfect cartwheel—I said to myself. I turned one just to see. It was imperfect. My groin pulled—I probably should have stretched—but it was a cartwheel. My legs made it into the air. I can only guess they were nearly perpendicular to the ground and that my toes were not pointed. No one videoed or saw. I landed on my feet. I can only imagine that was the ugly part. My legs didn’t quite make the circle. Instead, they fell forward at an angle, and I settled into some sort of squat. I decided perfect cartwheels needed practice and that one cartwheel a day would be enough practice for now lest I hurt myself.
On the following day, Monday, I decided to give the cartwheel another try. This was close to ten o’clock after my morning walk. Another attempt at perfection. This time I stretched out a bit in the living room on the area rug in front of the television and read a few pages of book I hadn’t been able finish, The Confessions of St. Augustine. I closed my book, rose to my feet, and to speed along the process, left my tennis shoes on. I walked out my back door and around to the side of my house where I was sure my neighbor who raked leaves in his back yard couldn’t see me. I raised my hands in the air and pointed my right toe. My form had already improved. I have no idea how bad this cartwheel looked. Thank God my husband missed the spectacle through the window. This time I came crashing down. Somehow, I ended in a somersault of sorts on the soft green grass. I was fine all the way down to my groin, and I sat there in the grass and giggled.
On the third day, I stretched once more and then didn’t have the energy to try one lousy cartwheel. What’s the point? I thought to myself. What does it matter if a fifty-one-year-old woman can do a perfect cartwheel? I did ten pushups from my knees. And twenty squats instead. Surely that’s greater than a cartwheel, I reasoned.
Feeling sure that the grass held a mysterious power, I took my shoes off once more on the fourth day. A cartwheel a day keeps the doctor away, I said to myself, or is it apples? Maybe I should add more apples into my regimen. For some reason, I had some fear, but I tried again. I want to say this one was better than the other two. Still, I decided if the grass holds power, it isn’t strong enough to perfect a cartwheel in three attempts for this fifty-one-year-old woman. At this point, I’m asking myself, how important is a cartwheel at this stage in my life? And here’s my own answer: If the cartwheel gives me joy, even the joy of telling this story, then I suppose, it’s worth a try.
I appreciate you for reading my A-Z Challenge post today. That means a lot to me. This April, I’m sticking to a theme of action, mental and physical, things I might already do or haven’t attempted in years or maybe never. You might not want to try this at home. Then again, maybe you do. Let me suggest some stretching for whatever you choose.
People like to make New Year’s resolutions. I like to make New Month’s resolutions. Anything is doable a month at a time, and the first of the month seems like a good time for a new beginning. For April, I’m abstaining from alcohol. By the way, I realize the irony of the announcement on April Fools, but I do not jest.
As far as the A-to-Z challenge goes, I’m choosing a theme of action. My actions of the past year have largely involved sitting on my butt and typing words and reading books. Speaking of large and butts—something must change. And so this month instead of imbibing daily, I will attempt to take more action. I have a celebration planned in May that includes sun and a swimsuit and a beach. So let’s see what sort of headway I can make concerning my beach body, and let’s see if I can take twenty-five more actions to distract me from my alcohol habit. My action plan is somewhat sketchy, but I suppose I will figure it out, like I always do. One day at a time.
Back in July, Monday the 13th to be exact, I made a friend while walking in my neighborhood. I remember the date because the previous Friday I had a doctor’s appointment, and I saw an unfamiliar and frightening number on the scale. Though I had walked every day in April, I nursed an injury in May, and then June and July rolled around. Summers in Houston are a sweaty hot mess. My walking habit suffered leading up to my visit with Dr. Fong. On July 13th, I resolved to walk every day and make headway on my weight situation.
I don’t remember how the conversation started. She probably said something like, “Do you walk every day?” or “Is this your house?” That morning around 7:30, we stood sweating on the street near my driveway, and she asked me if I wanted to walk with her the following day. I swear, God places people in my life. I needed some accountability.
“Okay,” I said.
“6:30?” she said.
“Um, that’s a little early for me,” I said. I had just met this woman. Since I’m not currently working, I couldn’t remember the last time I had set my alarm.
“6:40?” she said. “I have a five-year-old. I have to be back before my husband leaves for work.”
“Okay,” I said. “I will try. My name is Crystal.”
“My name is Rosa. See you tomorrow,” she said. From my house she walked north to her home at the opposite end of our street.
Rosa is my age, fiftyish. With a five-year-old. Her oldest is thirty-three. Another one, twenty-eight. Another, twenty-one. And a stepson eighteen. Can you imagine? She moved to Houston from Mexico, a child bride at seventeen. She knew NO English, and she had babies in this country with no other family except for her husband’s brother. For the next thirteen years, she did not learn the language, and her husband was a drunk and had a girlfriend in Mexico. Pregnant with her third child, Rosa realized she held the future in her own hands.
I’m not sure of all the details. Rosa and I have a slight language barrier. But this I know. She divorced him and chose to stand on her own two feet in the USA with no other family here. She sucked it up. She had to be strong for her kids, and the United States held opportunities. She took a job cleaning while her older kids Cesar and Jackie were in school, and she carried her baby Kimberly with her to work. Rosa attended classes to learn English, and she studied to become a citizen. She told me about driving round trip from Houston to Iowa and back in a car with her children and parents visiting from Mexico. Throughout the vacation, she listened to CD’s in English to help her prepare for the citizenship test. Her dad said, “Do you know what they’re saying?” He spoke in Spanish, of course.
And Rosa shook her head and said, “No.” The same word in either language. Rosa kept trying and kept taking classes, and her English improved. She supported herself and her kids with no help from anyone. Then, she passed her citizenship test. In English, of course.
Eventually, Rosa remarried. Her husband has a successful painting business, and Rosa accounts for the money. She owns and leases a couple of condominiums. She makes home-made tortillas every week. Flour one day. Corn on another. She has lunch on the table for her husband at noon, and supper on the table by 6:30. Since I’ve known her, Rosa had some sort of electrical problem at her house, and she fixed it herself by Googling help. She takes an online upholstery class, online nutrition, and online cake decorating. And last week for Independence Day in Mexico, she cooked enchiladas and posole and shared with me and my family.
Meanwhile, I sit on my couch and read books and write words and let my husband cook for me. I know I’m spoiled and a little complacent. I’ve never had to work that hard in my life. Is this white privilege? You better believe—Rosa inspires me.
Since it’s dark now at 6:30 in the morning, Rosa and I have moved our walks to a beautiful little park with a walking path and lights. She picks me up in her Infinity QX something at 6:15, and we drive a short distance to walk and watch the sunrise. I failed to mention that we run some. If she can run, so can I. Even if I have never claimed to be a runner, I decided it’s not too late to give it a try. Like I said, she inspires me.
Sometimes Rosa’s daughter Kimberly comes along for the workout. Now Kimberly is a real-deal runner. Anyway, last Friday Kimberly was in the car, Rosa and I chatted, and Kimberly said, “I don’t know how you can understand what she is saying.”
I said, “I just understand about every fourth word and somehow get the gist of it.” I was exaggerating. Kimberly and I laughed.
Then she translated for her mother in Spanish, and we all laughed.
“Seriously,” I said. “I just listen and try to understand.”
And do you know what I understand most of all? Good energy.
Some of you might have noticed I left out the Monday Re-Make. I had an idea and scratched it— “Jolene” by Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus. I like the song and both versions, but I never understood the woman who fought so hard for her cheating husband. I’ve officially concluded the Monday Re-Make Series. Sometimes, life calls for a new song entirely.
That crazy thing
I thought might happen
and that’s okay.
For 2020, I have enough.
Who needs extra
But the possibility
in the way
that you never know
until you try.
And so on to the next—
as opportunities arise.
my new mantra,
when things don’t go
And so I adjust—
my thoughts and plans,
my words and days.