It’s a simple enough question: “are you an introvert of an extrovert?”. It’s a question that litters my tinder conversations, text-chats, and dinner-time discussions, and so I wasn’t surprised when I was asked it yesterday.
I rushed to reply, I had just pulled into the gym and if I didn’t answer now the message would go unanswered for another two hours.
I explained that I identify as an extroverted introvert. I get 80% of my energy from spending time alone: writing articles like this one, highlighting my favorite lines in a poem, reading books, people-watching in public, taking myself on lunch-dates, eating grapes on the couch while watching Orange is The New Black, or going to the gym. But I have to honor the extroverted amendment, because do get about 20% of my energy from others, especially from chance, pleasant encounters with strangers or people who have one reason or another become part of my routine be it the barista at Starbucks who has my order memorized, the book-seller at Barnes & Noble who talks poetry with me when I come into the store, or the chef at my favorite salad joint.
The series of interactions, conversations, and connections that occurred at the gym yesterday after I sent my text-response, have forced me to rethink the gym from a “Me Space”, a time to revel in my introverted ways, into a possible way to share and enjoy the presence and company of others. These series of interactions confirmed how energizing connecting with strangers can be for me.
After a four-day vacation with my mom and her boyfriend’s family, I returned the gym ready to de-stress from the forced social interactions and uncomfortable dialogue, I entered the gym ready to work. I entered the gym ready to narrow in on my two muscle groups of the day: chest and bicep, traipsed and tripped by way to the chest press bench and laid my towel over the leather before focusing on the feel of the cold tool against my palm, the feel of the weight as I lowered it to my nipple-line before pushing skyward with a hearty exhale.
Slowly, I progressed through this workout adding five pounds to each side of the bar between sets. As the weight added up and multiplied, as the bar began to carry more than my body-weight, I noticed a woman, about my mother’s age with a trim figure and steady-work out, had slowed her movements. She was watching me. I nodded my hello’s and continued my workout. When a forty-five plate found it’s way on each side of the iron, I found that she had not just slowed her movements, she had stopped them completely. She waved, gestured towards her ear, indicating that she had something to say, that I should take out my ear and listen. “Do you mind if I watch you for a while? I am so impressed by your strength”, her voice was innocent, pure in sound, revealing that she had felt vulnerable asking, exposed. I smiled at her, stuttered, “oh yes, wow, of course” and then quickly downplaying my bodies ability, “I can’t promise I won’t drop this bar on myself, you could be the witness of something very ugly”. We connected in our laughter. For the next ten minutes she watched as I slowly added weight, pressing the weight from my chest anywhere from two to four times.
Finally, I was on what was going to be my last heavy-weight set. I suspected she could tell, I had taken an extra thirty-seconds rest, had stretched my chest an extra few seconds, and was nodding my head in affirmation. As I get ready to lay beneath the one hundred fifty-five hanging above the lay bench, I look up at her, still watching, smiled, and she gave me the thumbs up. I pushed that weight, without a spotter (stubbornly, perhaps even stupidly) two times, before dropping the bar back into its home. When I set up she smiles appreciatedly, and I laugh off of the feat I had just accomplished, “well, lucky for both of us that went better than expected”.
She and I began a conversation about what I was training for, when I began lifting, and what foods I would recommend to help someone grow muscle faster, her son is getting ready to enter high school and is preparing for that grueling experience by trying to put on some muscle. We shared a few more laughs, thanked each other, and went on with our individual workouts.
Half an hour later I had finished with both the incline and decline benches and was ready to move onto some light free-weight work. As I begin, an older woman, hair greying, skin-wrinkling in soft waves form the corners of her eyes, decked out in Title 9 quick-dry workout gear (an outfit similar to that that I remember putting on a mannequin two summers ago), pulled on the right string of my ear-bud as I curled the weight from waist to chest, targeting my bicep. I was curling a 30 pound dumbbell, a weight that moves uncomfortably, requires focused-strength and tightened-core, the feeling of headphone releasing from my ear startled me, a surprised gasp of air released through my lips, my eyes crossed in frustration. I had lost focus. I felt a light tap of unfamiliar fingers against my sweat-slicked skin, I smiled politely, and she began talking, opening the conversation with “I want to be you when I grow up”.
I was absolutely humbled by her declaration. Surprise danced in my eyes, and my jaw dropped at the sentiment behind this unexpected compliment from this woman, this stranger. Our conversation continued, I told her about rugby, and she told me about the older women’s golf league she is a part of. As our conversation rounded to a close ten minutes later, she asked me how to do what I was doing. Embarrassed that she thought I was doing a complicated move, I admitted “it’s a simple bicep curl”, she told me, “I don’t know how to do that”. I balked, in that moment I had a decision to make, to teach this kind stranger how to strengthen her body, or to shrug away the request. While the decision to help is the obvious one, I took pause because the jokes between my friends and I about how terrible I am at teaching, how impatient I can be, and how for a poet, I really struggle to find the language necessary for teaching free-weight exercises in the gym, haunted me, reminded me that I could offer my help, and fail her.
We took the risk together, I began by suggesting she begin with five-pound dumbbells, one in each hand, and together we trusted each other. She trusted me to instruct her on the art of the bicep curl, she trusted me to be patience with her body, just as I trusted her to be patient with me if and when language failed me, I trusted her to ask for clarification if my teaching was unsatisfactory the first time.
The lesson, lasting no longer than two minutes, completed with her curling her five- pound free-weights next to me as I struggled to curl the thirties. When we each finished our set, my workout was complete. My FitBit reminded me that I had been there for over 90 minutes, my heart rate let me know I had worked hard, my sweat-salted skin reminded me of my own strength and the smile on my face revealed that I had absolutely accomplished more than I had expected.
I am an introvert, perhaps on my most social days, an extroverted introvert. I go to the gym to align my body, mind, and soul, to plug-in, muscle-up, and focus. I admit, typically when I am being watching at the gym, I respond with discomfort, at times disgust and annoyance. Typically, when someone tries to have a conversation with my about my body and its abilities, I quickly shut the conversation down before refocusing my attention on my workout.
But the graciousness of those of these woman changed that for me yesterday, I opened myself up to a broader experience, the experience of connecting with others while I connect with myself. I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone and welcomed the intimacy of working out with another, of allowing someone to watch me as my body tried to do what I intended for it. I went to the gym yesterday to connect with my body, and connected with two others along the way.