My friend and I are in the part of the gym reserved for stretching, lying on our backs, right legs in the air. Mine is pointed up at the ceiling, knee straight, hers is in a similar spot but her knee is bent, her leg is shaking, and she is howling.
"You're so flexible! I used to be flexible!" she laments, glancing at me.
I hear this often from friends and I never know how to respond.
I'm not actually that flexible, for a former dancer?
I know, right. I used to be more flexible too?
Mulling my options, I say nothing and chuckle in what I hope is a supportive way but is probably just ambiguous and weird. We breathe together, imagining what our sixteen year old bodies could do, or what we think they used to be able to do, or what we wish they could have done. I close my eyes and fight the urge to push further, instead letting my shoulders drop just a little of their near constant effort.
Next to us is another woman, a girl really, with her ipod dialed up to DEAFEN and one leg up by her ear. I try to keep my eyes on my own mat but inside my head I can't help but enviously imagine, for the millionth time in my life, hip sockets that are carved open, nearly flat like dinner plates, rather than the curved, deep cups that are mine.
I also guiltily imagine her in fifty years, with hearing aids.
I was sixteen when my hips and knees started to bother me. I was dancing most days of the week, spending hours on pointe. Standing at the barre, forcing my toes out to form a straight line with my feet, I was acutely aware that my body was never meant to do this, even more so than most bodies. My natural turn-out is closer to ninety degrees than the desired one eighty; my knees and ankles twisted and torqued to make it happen, more or less, but I wasn't fooling anyone, least of all my hip sockets.
In college, I took the train down to New York City to see a highly esteemed doctor whose office walls were crowded with a thrilling photo gallery of famous ballerinas and sports figures.
"You're a dancer?" he asked incredulously, looking at my x-rays. "Your hips are built for marathon running, my dear, not dancing."
"Yeah, well, I'm not a ballet dancer anymore, mostly modern now, so...."
"I'll give you a prescription for physical therapy but at a certain point, your limits are your limits," he shrugged, resignedly handing me a piece of paper.
As I walked down his hallway to leave, this time ignoring the brilliant faces of ballerinas I've admired since I was a little girl, I balled up the paper in my hand. Though I would later carefully smooth it out and send it through the proper channels to get as much help as I could for my poor battered hips, right then I just wanted to squash his words.
Squash them and throw them away.
We are fully into the swing of the school year and it's still study in adjustment. Z is clearly tired by the end of her school day and laments how little time she now has by herself. Every day it seems something brand new and yet completely, exhaustingly old blows up in our faces.
Recently it was suggested to us that we start experimenting with less structure in her home life, giving her a safe space to practice dealing with a world that is unpredictable and chaotic. Messing with her schedule is something we have been loathe to do since she was a small baby and loudly expressed her dislike of change and variety. Most of the time, we eat and sleep and play in timed chunks specifically calibrated to maximize the potential for smooth transitions.
"So she's not fond of change and she's struggling with flexibility and transitions? Hmm.... who's she like?" I was asked.
"I have no idea," I said, smiling cheekily at my obvious lie.
Last week Z woke up sick. From her first wincing swallow, my mind raced ahead to every cancellation that would be necessary in the next few days. My list started with the kids' cancellations and progressed quickly to the total reorganization that my life and personal plans that would need to happen with a sick kid at home for at least a day or two.
It took me a few minutes to realize I was writing a to-do list instead of bringing Z a spoonful of honey and giving her a hug.
I resolved - again - to hug first next time.
My limits are there. They are real. My emotional structure, like my hip structure, feels restricted and compressed most days, frustrating me even as I stretch myself up to its' edges.
I don't fear the wrinkly sagging of old age nearly as much as the deep, entrenching rigidity.
I know it is my job as a parent to help Z accept who she is and reach past what she thinks she's capable of. To teach her that her personal limits are strengths, are weaknesses, are real, are worth accepting, are worth stretching past.
How do we simultaneously teach, and work on ourselves, acceptance and ambition?
I know I will never, ever get my leg up to my ear. I know I will always struggle when my day changes course suddenly.
But that doesn't mean I should ever stop stretching.