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In the back of a kitchen drawer, all my outdated Uptown YWCA membership cards are rubber-banded together. The oldest shows a woman with long dark hair, barely out of college: Hello, girl I used to be. The most recent shows a middle-aged woman with a messy blonde bob.
The day the Uptown Y opened — decades ago now — was the day I became a member. It was the first and only gym I’ve ever joined.
The Y holds the invisible ghosts of my past selves. There’s the locker I stood before, after showering, when I was nine months pregnant and turned to see a gaggle of high school girls staring at me — some unable to stop laughing at the sheer size of my belly, a kind of fascinated horror in their eyes.
There’s the Fit Kids Gym (which I privately nicknamed the Sick Kids Gym) where I used to leave my three little kids so I could work out. There’s the huge pool we used to haul them to on steamy Minneapolis summer days.
There’s the desk behind which a male staffer said, when he overheard me — the focused and quiet Y member who goes there solo and only to work out — laugh unexpectedly, “Whoa! You really should smile more! It totally changes your look!” to which I, long schooled in womanhood, internally responded, Has anyone in your life ever told you to smile more? but outwardly just smiled a weary, polite smile.
There’s the track around which, when it’s too hot or cold or icy outside, I have run, jogged, walked, lunged and intervaled approximately 3,000 times. There’s the drinking fountain where I have patiently waited behind others and where others have patiently waited behind me.
There’s the weight room where, over three years, I once observed in wonder a young, round, soft woman gradually transform herself into one of the most muscular people I have ever seen. She still goes to the Y, and so do I.
And there’s the hallway where, after an absence of months, I once saw a beautiful woman I’d worked out next to for years walking unsteadily between her two sons. The unrecognition on her face, the protectiveness of her sons, hushed me. Early-onset dementia. I watched her walk around the track, each son holding an arm. Her body remembered its routines — the comfort and calm of ritualized movement.
I can relate to that. Though I have moved many times, from various apartments to various houses, the Uptown Y, despite remodeling, policy changes, additions and subtractions of machines and classes, aerobics to Zumba to spin to body flow to vinyasa, has remained a constant in my life.
When I joined the Y, I was childless and driven and getting up at 4:30 in the morning to write and write in hopes that someday, somehow, I would write the beautiful book I dreamed of writing. Now — at mid-life, children grown — I am still driven. That beautiful book I dream of writing still hovers before me, invisible in the invisible air.
Once, a few years ago when I was leaving the track for the weight room, a man came up to me.
“Are you Alison? The writer?” he said. “My wife and I love your novels.”
I looked at him in surprise — this man I didn’t recognize — and thanked him. Has he too been coming to the Y for all these years? Over a lifetime, we return to certain places again and again and again. Physical manifestations of how and where we have chosen to spend our lives.
Sometimes I stop and close my eyes and breathe and thank my muscles and bones and blood and brain and heart for all the work they do on my behalf — day in and day out, year in and year out — to keep me alive. How they will keep doing so until the moment I die.
How magical our bodies are, and the memories they hold. In those moments, the Uptown Y — mundane cinder block building that it is — feels sacred to me, a temple of time and work and love and memory.
This essay was originally published in the Minnesota Star Tribune on Oct. 18, 2017.
This segment aired on August 18, 2018.
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