A few months ago, I admitted my fear of suitcases to my therapist. Not my therapist-therapist (I talk to her about other fears) — my physical therapist, whom I see periodically just to keep tabs on an old, minor injury. And I’m not afraid of suitcases the way my dog is afraid of suitcases. No, my fear is different. Specific.
I can picture it vividly: me, boarding a plane, clumsily tugging on my suitcase but failing to lift it high enough to shove it into the overhead compartment, trying not to bump into the seated passengers watching me struggle, a growing logjam of people behind me, all cursing me for causing a pileup of traffic in the aisle.
This is no hypothetical scenario. It has happened countless times, and I knew when I ‘fessed up to my PT that if I didn’t make a change, it would happen again soon. I had a new book coming out and book tour travels loomed on the calendar. It was time to set a goal, albeit a humble one: to get strong enough to wrangle a suitcase with confidence.
A new manifestation of an old insecurity
What my suitcase problem boils down to, my therapist-therapist would probably say, is a fear of humiliation that stems from childhood shame. She would be right.
I used to make fun of myself as a kid in gym class, joking about my noodle arms and stick legs, but I cracked those jokes to cover up embarrassment. During soccer drills, I hid behind my classmates, scooting to the back of the line so I wouldn’t have to take my turn feebly kicking the ball, which only ever rolled halfway to the goal. When I hit a volleyball, it floated forward gently, falling to the ground before the net with none of the explosive momentum my classmates seemed to deliver so effortlessly. If we were told to do twenty pushups, I might manage three or four before collapsing face-first on the grimy gym floor. Coaches used to yell at me for not trying. “I am trying,” I always said, blinking back tears.
What was wrong with me? Nothing, or at least not medically. Genetics had handed me a puny frame; and when I found that I didn’t enjoy any of the activities that might have developed my physical strength, I simply didn’t do them. While other kids raced each other across the monkey bars at recess, I sat on the ground, writing one-act plays for a cast of acorns. I put zero effort into developing my physique as I grew, so the wimpiness problem compounded over time. Little did I know, even a writer would need upper body strength one day.
The writer's life doesn't usually require heavy (physical) lifting
Touring to speak with readers is an important part of my job, a huge privilege, and lots of fun. It’s also exhausting in a way that my work usually isn’t. I spend most of my normal workday standing or sitting at a desk. I do get decent cardio exercise roaming my hilly neighborhood on foot, and my Pilates routine keeps my anatomy more or less in alignment, but the heaviest thing I pick up on a regular basis is my laptop.
On my last tour, three years ago, I learned there’s not enough Advil in the world to soothe a body that repeatedly tries to out-lift its limit. I also learned never to check my bag if I had a tight turnaround between connecting flights — that’s how you arrive at your destination without shoes and underwear. And while I did my damnedest to pack light, there’s only so efficient one can be when packing for, say, six events in five different climates. Once, on a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles, my bag slipped as I tried to pull it from the overhead bin, crashing down and knocking me hard on the side of the head. I saw stars the whole time I was in LA, and I don’t mean the Hollywood kind.
I’m older now than I was then, not to mention out of practice. I want to enjoy this tour and focus on the reason I’m traveling — not whether I’ll end up lying flat on a sticky airport carpet, trying to calm my spasming back. I just want to be able to do my job.
My PT assured me I didn’t even have to buy a set of weights. I could use items from my pantry! So I chose some light canned goods (15 ounces of low-sodium black beans per hand, to be exact) and started with a few reps of bicep curls and rowing motions. Every couple of weeks, I added in more moves, gradually working up to some overhead lifting.
I had to learn to stop the comparison game
I don’t know if I would have followed through on this workout if I’d had to do it in a class around other people. At first, I was embarrassed by my little exercises. I had friends who could do handstands in yoga, supporting their whole body weight on their arms — and I was over here trying to master the chest fly lift with canned produce? Ridiculous! I felt bad about letting what should have been a perfectly healthy body get so dysfunctional, like I had wasted the good fortune of being generally able-bodied. But before long I’d have to lift my bag with a plane full of people watching, and that daunting reality kept me going. I remembered how it felt last time: the struggle, the impatient people waiting behind me, feeling once again like something was wrong with me for not being able to do what everyone else was doing.
The only way to get where I wanted to go without injuring myself along the way was to take the journey a little at a time. As a writer, I’ve long known how scary it is to exercise a developing strength in full view of others. Often I meet beginning writers who are sheepish about sharing their work. “It’s not good yet,” they say, “Don’t laugh.” I would never laugh. I know how they feel.
I also know that whether it’s writing, working out or anything else, there’s no point in copying someone else’s goal. The fact that my neighbor is training for a marathon has nothing to do with my ambition to lift a carryon bag. My friend who’s taking an advanced French pastry-making class is on a different trajectory than I am, as I try for the thousandth time to make a banana bread that doesn’t fall apart.
My goal is my goal. Your goal is your goal. I may feel alone in mine, and you may feel alone in yours, but in that simultaneous alone-ness, we are together. And if we each focus on our own steps, small as they may be, we have a chance at making progress. There’s no shame in that.
I am proud to say I have worked my way up from canned legumes to a nice pair of Chardonnays, and at the time of this writing am about to try doing my tricep squeezes with a small pair of weights I found dusty and neglected in the garage. Someone must have discarded them, too light to make a difference. They’ll make just enough difference for me.
Mary Laura Philpott's new book, Bomb Shelter: Love Time, and Other Explosives, will be available April 12, 2022 from your favorite bookseller. This essay is part of a series highlighting the Good Housekeeping Book Club — you can join the conversation and check out more of our favorite book recommendations.