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Over the holiday weekend, I had an epiphany. Actually, a few epiphanies.
As my husband, Alex, and I threw routine out the window, we borrowed a couple of mountain bikes, made some snacks and hit the road down south for some much needed clarity. The moment we made it seven blocks east to the lake, the spirals of buildings shrinking smaller behind us, I felt my shoulders soften. My breath deepened. Bikers and runners thinned out, until it was just the cool breeze, my thoughts and the strong back of my husband, gallantly leading the way.
Nearing a gorgeous building by the water, we stopped and spread a blanket out on the rocks. We feasted on thyme tea biscuits and grapes. The city’s noise, the daily stressors – all of it was dwarfed by the sound of the crashing lake against the rock, and the clear sky that promised snowfall in the months to come. I laid back and closed my eyes and breathed – thinking not about my phone or deadlines or rent or the next step in my writing career: only the breath in and out of my lungs, the warmth of the rock and the brisk spray of the water at my feet.
After a while, Alex asked if I wanted to ride down to the University of Chicago campus (where he received his undergrad degree).
“Sure,” I said. “I’ve never seen it.” As we pedaled over, I felt like I stepped inside Europe. “Maybe you don’t need to go to Europe,” I said, trying to take in every element of the gorgeous, historical structures without crashing into a parked car. “You had Europe for four years.”
My college experience differed drastically. My “campus” was confined to a building or two on Michigan Avenue and Wabash. I worked and wrote and boxed – I didn’t have the crunch of fall leaves beneath my feet as I traversed the quad, or the ancient glass weaved behind iron to inspire as I gnawed on the end of a pencil. I had duct-tape on the floors and stacks of novels. While I wouldn’t change my experience, I envied his. It was breathtaking.
As we worked our way around campus, I absorbed the sound of his voice, getting lost in his experiences. I could see myself, arm in arm with him, loving each other even then.
On the way back, we passed a playground. “Want to swing?” he asked.
We pulled our bikes into the bank of grass, startling a little girl. We raced each other to the swings and flew high. Instantly, my elementary days leapt back to me. I could smell the brown paper bag lunches and feel the gritty chains around my hands. I used to jump from the highest point without abandon, feeling the sharp pangs in my Achilles as I came crashing down. Then, I knew only to leap and to leap high.
Now, I tread carefully. My knee aches. My Achilles are tight. I could land wrong and end up with another painful knee surgery. I slowed the swing, and hopped back on the bike. On the path home, there were pull-up bars and places for people to do dips and crunches. We saw adults performing push-ups; boot camps with a few miserable looking adults; women doing jumping jacks.
And then there were the children, playing on the beach, running and falling, wide grins on their faces. I thought of the definition of play: to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.
And I asked myself: When did movement become practical? When did sweating become serious? When do we stop wanting to play and start telling ourselves we have to exercise?” When does movement become a chore on our to-do lists?
All the hours I have spent in the gym could probably equal several years of my life. But, as a child, making mud pies, riding bikes, throwing footballs and doing gymnastics – they weren’t activities completed because I wanted to burn X amount of calories or develop strong-looking biceps. Playing was what made me smile. It gave me energy. It’s just what kids did. You went outside, you played, you fell down, you got up, you climbed trees, you built forts, you played in creeks. You moved until exhaustion. And then you got up and did the same thing the next day.
As adults, we don’t have time to play. At the end of a long day, we don’t “play” with our friends. We sit on our couch after dinner and perhaps watch a movie. And however enjoyable this is, it doesn’t remind me of the blood pulsing through my veins, and it certainly doesn’t give me the pleasure I got from smelling air that isn’t clogged with exhaust, or swinging high and free, just as I did when I was nine.
And then the strangest thing happened: as we neared the city, I could feel my body language shift. I could smell the cigarette smoke and exhaust, hear the fire trucks and honking, those impatient horns blaring to my left as we wound our way back to cross at Harrison. I could see the throngs of people, all seemingly learning to just walk, as we started and stopped and darted and yelled, “Excuse me!” as politely as possible, dodging pot holes and eager cars who didn’t care much for cyclists.
My relaxation had melted away as quickly as it had come. I was no longer thinking of the day and the moment, but only, “Get me home and off this bike. Now.” I could hear Alex sighing heavily behind me as people blocked the entire sidewalks and cars clogged the streets. It was at that moment that I realized how annoyed we get… just by the simplest things. While pondering this, we passed a very angry man, leaning against a building, shouting into a cell phone: “They don’t call it Shitcago for nothing!” he screamed.
When we entered our home, I felt like a stranger, looking around, longing only for the lake and the bike – an experience that had cost us $0.
“What are we doing?” I asked Alex. “What have we been doing this whole time? Where have days like that been?”
And though I don’t have the answers, I know that I am ready for something different. Just as I knew that my body belonged on those rocks, away from everything – I know that it is more than a vacation I am craving.
Just as we can’t expect our partners to stay the same five, ten or 20 years from now, we can’t expect to want to stay in the same place, living the same experiences forever.
For now, the city seems to be a beautiful stop on a bigger journey.
And I am ready for the unknown. I am ready to play like no one is watching…
I am ready for something new.
To read more about Rea Frey and why she is so Cheeky, please click here.