When I was in elementary school, my absolute least favorite activities involved the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. It was something President Johnson created in 1966 to ensure that generations of American school children were "physically fit" and dreaded gym class. I mean, seriously, fuck you Lyndon B. Johnson and your push-ups and curl-ups and sit-and-reaches and mile run. Want me to sit with my feet against a weird little wooden box and see how far I can stretch forward over my toes? Fine. Ask me to run a mile? Less cool, but I'll do it at a brisk walk. But demand that I pull myself over a metal bar in a curl up? Not going to happen. Even by the ripe old age of seven I knew upper body strength was never going to be my thing. Somewhere in my sixth grade year the tests were supplanted by the ominous climbing rope. The day that thing unfurled from the ceiling of our gym I lost a little faith in God. I don't remember ever climbing the rope. I don't remember even touching the rope. I'm sure my sadistic sixth grade teacher must've made me do it at some point, but apparently my brain has buried that trauma under the sweet fog of amnesia.
I wasn't strong. And I'm using the past tense pretty loosely there.
Thankfully, it turns out my adult life has had very little to do with climbing ropes or pulling myself up repeatedly over a metal bar. Go figure.
Adult life does, on the other hand, have a great deal to do with strength. It has a lot do with pulling yourself through things, with climbing and endurance. I might not be running around the lake by my high school, dodging goose poop, but I'm going to be honest--the metaphor is a pretty apt one for what it feels like to be a human in 2017, at least from this end.
At long last the year is drawing to a close and I've found myself thinking more and more about what it means to be strong. It's been on my mind mostly, I suppose, because this is a year in which I've felt incredibly weak. Things that normally wouldn't get to me somehow crushed me. Things I never struggled with became insurmountable. Habits I thought I'd kicked long ago resurfaced with startling intensity. And try as I might, I just couldn't get a handle on it all. There were days where I watched my life--and myself--spiral out of control and I was speechless. I watched myself make mistakes I knew would be disastrous. I watched myself do the very things I knew would push a person away, start a fight, or make me anxious. I did them anyway. Comments I normally would've brushed off--you're messy, you're over dramatic, you annoy me--I internalized. I let them break me. Instead of getting mad at other people, I got mad at myself. I apologized endlessly to everyone, often for reasons that were totally unclear in my mind. I was just sorry. All. the. time. For everything.
This year I disappointed people. I annoyed people. I lost the respect of people. And that sucks. But ultimately, what sucks more, is that I disappointed myself. I annoyed myself. I lost a lot of respect for myself.
This year I wasn't the person I wanted to be. I wasn't the person I've been in the past. And--I hope--I wasn't the person I am going to be next year. I've felt tired. Stupid. Weak.
So what I'm trying to tell myself as I stare down the last few days of 2017 is that I'm strong enough to start over and try again. I can't fix all the mistakes I made. I can't un-annoy people. I can't take back the one-too-many-texts, the comment that came out passive aggressive because I was in the middle of an anxiety attack, the long silences I inflicted on people who overwhelmed me. I can't fix those things. But I can stop carrying the guilt and shame of them. I can move forward and accept things happen that we regret but can't change. I can accept that maybe, just maybe, I'm strong enough to carry that burden and keep going anyway.
It's not a magic formula. I'm not going to wake up tomorrow and blithely be okay with all the mistakes. I'm not going to wake up tomorrow suddenly feel like a new person. I'm too old to think things work that way anymore. The truth is, I'll wake up tomorrow--and everyday for the foreseeable future--and feel a little heavier than I would like. I'll feel weaker than I would like. I'll carry more guilt than I would like, let my mind obsess more than it should, replay conversations that I could have salvaged but didn't. I'll beat myself up a little bit. But I'll keep going. I'll do better at reminding myself, as I told one of my students last week, that sometimes just surviving is enough. I'll do better at acknowledging the strength it takes to accept mistakes as a part of me without letting them become me. I'll just do better, day by day.
I'll keep doing my best. And sometimes, sadly, my best is pretty disappointing. Sometimes my best is hanging limply from the curl up bar, waiting impatiently for my teacher to recognize a lost cause and let me slink away. I'm strong enough to accept that my best, occasionally, isn't really all that great. And I'm strong enough to say that's okay. It takes a lot of guts to hang there helplessly in front of a crowd, weakness on display. It's not a type of strength that gets measured on the Presidential Test score sheet. It's not the type of strength that's going to win me accolades. Or friends.
But it's strength. I'm embracing it because it's what I've got right now.
I still can't do a curl up. Or a push up. Or run for very long... or at all. And I will never, ever be able to climb that damn rope.
But I'm done calling myself weak.