I did not want to go to the gym today. I mean I never want to go, but today, it seemed particularly pointless.
It’s gorgeous outside. I’ve got some Kohl’s cash burning a hole in my wallet.
And I’m going to be eating chicken fried chicken and cheesecake in a few hours.
I can hardly combat those kinds of calories.
But, my jeans fit tight yesterday, so begrudgingly I got dressed to go.
I put on the same black stretchy pants I bought 20 years ago at The Limited. I didn’t know their true purpose at the time, only that they were comfortable, long enough, and ten bucks: a winning combination.
So I bought them, and I’ve worn them. Over and over, for the last 20 years. In that time I’ve worn them to funerals, jobs, and as they started to age, as my most comfortable pajama pants.
I was less than stoked to put them on today, though, as “workout” gear, with holes and fraying seams.
Last time I wore them I learned they have a tendency to droop after a few minutes on the treadmill, revealing whatever heinous granny pants I’m wearing beneath. (Lucky fellas on the weight machines, getting to see bleached cotton Hanes.)
But it was these awful pants, or shave my legs and wear ugly men’s shorts. So, saggy pants it was.
And off I was, aggravatedly, to the gym.
When I walked in I thanked God (in my head) that the treadmills were all free, despite the slews of tiny basketball players filling the foyer and gym.
I was ecstatic to have free pick of any of the four machines, and grateful not to feel rushed during the 45 minutes it took to untangle my headphones (5 at least).
When Katy Perry radio started to play on my Pandora, I realized I was actually glad I had gone through the hassle of driving ten blocks across town, to find myself in stupid pants, on that treadmill.
But then you came in, and selected the treadmill beside me.
So much for sweating profusely and gasping for air in relative privacy.
Still, I avoided eye contact and thought all would be well.
When you sneezed, loud enough I could hear it over whatever Pink! song was playing, I had no choice really. Instinctively I broke my own vow of silence.
“Bless you,” I said, without removing my headphones, or any real sincerity behind my panting voice.
Again, “bless you,” when you honked snot for the second time.
Still I kept my headphones on, averted eye contact, and marveled at my ability to finish a mile without passing out.
I kept pushing myself, without pausing to look your way, until I had finished my second mile, at which time I was ready to kill over.
By the time my cool down began I was regretting my increased coffee consumption and abysmal water intake yesterday. I was also downright remorseful about my decision to have Taco Bell at 9 o’clock last night.
Then I took my head phones out.
And you did something astonishing.
You spoke to me.
In the months that I’ve been going to that gym (off and on) you are the first person who’s said as much as “hello” to me.
Not counting the green-t-shirt wearing folks who get paid to be there, no one else has even acknowledged my existence.
What’s more remarkable, though, is you didn’t stop at saying “hello.”
On the contrary, you struck up a whole conversation. A conversation that started in the most unlikely of ways.
Not with small talk. Not with questions.
“Wow, you are really good,” is what you said.
Wide smiled, and without the slightest hint of sarcasm.
Per my usual, I tried to be self-deprecating, while secretly dang proud of my much-better-than-usual time.
But you would have none of it.
“No. You did really great,” you said again.
At which point I really didn’t know what to do.
“Thanks,” I said. And I tried to compliment you for your exercising while sneezing.
Immediately I regretted my inability to speak clearly to strangers, or anyone.
I have really gotta work on my verbal communication.
But somehow my stumbling didn’t throw you off course. And in the matter of maybe ten minutes, you managed to ask me if I had kids, told me I would be a great mother, and that I was really beautiful.
Talk about cutting to the heart of a woman.
You, a stranger, with gorgeous hair, a winning smile, an intoxicating accent (South African maybe?) and not a hint of sweat, managed to give me the best string of compliments in my whole life.
But far more importantly, you managed to get me out of my me-me-me-me shell.
You see, for a very long time, Mimi, maybe all my stupid-privileged-American life, I’ve thought of humility as thinking less of myself.
Knowing it to be a great virtue, I’ve strived to be humble in the worst possible way.
By belittling my intelligence, criticizing any steps towards improvement I might make. And probably, most of all, nearly loathing the very body God gave me, the one scripture speaks so highly of, not-to-mention the only one I’ll ever get.
But today you, in living flesh and with conviction in your voice, taught me something I missed in 18 years of Sunday School teaching and well-intentioned preaching.
I know inspirational speakers, and posters, and sentimental birthday cards may have aimed to say the same thing.
I’m sure I’ve seen words and phrases about it all over PInterest, and in self-help books.
But I never really felt the truth until today.
When sweaty. Exhausted. Pushed to my limit.
Feeling gross and empowered all at the same time.
Scraggly grey hairs sticking out from under my bobby pin. Blue underwear trying to peek out from under my pants.
You looked me in the eye and told me everything I ever needed to hear.
Sincerely. Earnestly. As if your life depended on it, crazy as that seems.
There we were. Side-by-side. At the City Rec Center.
Two women, who couldn’t have been more unalike.
In appearance. In attitude. In life circumstance (you, the mother of 3; me the stepmom of 1).
But you created community.
You celebrated our similarities.
You encouraged me, selfessly.
Which compelled me to try my best to encourage you.
I didn’t recognize it at first, in my hurry and my selfishness mislabeled as “humility.”
But we were, and are in this together, you and I.
Not just as women. And as nurturers.
But as humans.
Frail bodies and all.
MiMi, by speaking to me, by seeing me, you opened my eyes.
You reminded me what this living and breathing is really all about.
And it’s not about trying to achieve Jennifer Aniston’s thighs. (NEVER gonna happen.)
Or having cute clothes to wear to the gym.
It’s not about bragging on social media about what I accomplished today (though I’m quite sure I will).
Or being Martha Stewart, or some famous mommy blogger, who makes every organic meal from scratch, and never ever forgets there are wet towels in the washer.
Life is about being the best me I can, while encouraging others to do the same.
Life is about seizing the opportunity to be part of a community, whether that’s in the four walls of a church or the sweat-scented space of a gym.
Life is about being grateful for the breaths we’re given, and the wonderful world we share.
And humility, the true and noble kind, isn’t about hating yourself (though many a comedian has made quite a living doing that, and many a martyr has gone to the grave believing that).
Humility is thinking about yourself less.
It’s thinking about others more.
In its simplest, truest form, it’s simply opening your eyes to the world around you.
It’s seeing the woman beside you on the treadmill struggling. To keep down the Taco Bell moshing around in her stomach, yes. But also to overcome three decades of self-loathing that have left her utterly exhausted.
Mimi, today your beautiful voice spoke over 30-years of internal dialogue that has been haunting me, and keeping me from moving forward.
“I’m not good enough. I’ll never be good enough.
Why bother. I’m a mess.
I am less than. I wish I could be someone else.
I don’t want to be me.
I hate who I see when I look in the mirror.
I hate who I am, when I search my heart.”
I know (ironically?!) this letter was mostly about me.
I didn’t talk about your two boys having basketball games this afternoon (I hope they win!) or mention your 7-year-old daughter.
I know so very little about you.
I didn’t ask where you are from, what you do, or any of the usual questions.
But as far as I’m concerned you’re an angel, or as close to one as I’ve seen.
You are light in a dark, gloomy world.
Hope at a time when it’d be easy to give up.
You are wonderful. And beautiful. And all that is right with the world.
Thank you for choosing the treadmill beside me.
Thank you for standing beside me.
You may never know how much that means to me.
I hope someone sees you soon, Mimi. And that she marvels at the beautiful woman you are.
Because you are the kind of person the world needs more of.
Thanks for being a blessing to me today.
I’ll be delighted if I see you again, on a treadmill beside me someday.