A triumph of hope over experience

The lastest from the Holland Sentinel’s community columnist:

Oscar Wilde famously wrote that second marriages are “a triumph of hope over experience.” I feel the same way about exercise.

Sometimes I’m not sure why I bother.

After the holidays lots of people resolve to lose weight, get fit, and feel better. At the gym yesterday I was surprised by how many people around me were sweating, breathing hard, and not appearing to enjoy themselves very much. The place was full.

Last summer, when I joined and signed a membership contract more intimidating than any mortgage I’ve ever signed, there were very few people around. I never had to wait for a treadmill, stair climber, or rowing machine.

On a hot afternoon in July I counted exactly one other person in the gym, and in addition to gray hair we both had the self-assured look of men our age, a look that says, “You know, with only two, maybe three, days of training I could have my 18–year–old body back again.”

Sadly, I haven’t had my 18–year–old body since the day I turned 19.

In spite of my best efforts—heroic efforts, actually—I have been on a steady and unforgiving physical decline. But I stay with it. I have run several marathons, climbed a few mountains in Switzerland, and pedaled my bike around most of Idaho. At the moment I am getting ready for a 500–mile trek across northern Spain, known as the Camino de Santiago. If you see someone in the next couple of weeks trudging through your neighborhood with a fully–loaded backpack, please don’t call the police. That will mostly likely be me getting ready for my next challenge.

And yet, I am not getting any stronger—or younger.

With all of my hard work over the years (and expensive gym memberships), I’m not sure what I have to show for it. I’ve lost an inch in height and gained a full shoe size to what were already large feet. Please don’t ask me about my weight. And anyone brave enough to look at my bare feet would have to turn away in disgust. My five–year–old granddaughter recently pointed to something on my face and asked what it was. I had to introduce her to the term “skin tag.” I’m a wreck.

The person who cuts my hair told me last week that I “have nice hair … for a man my age.” I should have been flattered, but I wasn’t. “You should have seen my hair when I was in college,” I wanted to tell her. “There was so much more of it.” And there was. An unbelievably full head of hair, grown to shoulder length with the most glorious waves. Today I keep my hair short, which befits a man my age.

And yet, here I am, still trying, still giving it my best effort. I suppose I have my father to thank in part. He set a good example. He exercised throughout his life. He played racquetball every noon hour until he was 70, often—to his delight—against much younger men. But one day he suspected that his much younger opponent was giving him points. And it was then that he quit playing racquetball, though he continued to exercise.

Until his late 80s he would walk daily around the neighborhood, and if there was snow on the sidewalks, he walked laps in the living room. I’m glad to say that I inherited his determination, which has mostly been a good thing.

People who walk the Camino de Santiago, which is what I plan to do in March, are often asked, “Why are you doing this?” And I have been told by others who have made the same pilgrimage (it began centuries ago as a religious thing) to be prepared for the question. Why am I doing this? What am I hoping to achieve? If there is a goal, what in heaven’s name is it?

To be honest, I don’t know the answers. I’m certainly not trying to recapture the way I once looked, though losing a few pounds wouldn’t be a bad outcome. What I feel at this point in my life is an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I’m grateful for the work I was able to do for nearly 40 years. I’m grateful for the family who put up with me all those years. And I’m grateful for the good health that allowed me to do that work, plus those adventures I mentioned.

The truth is, I will walk the Camino because I can. I get up early on Saturday mornings and fill my backpack with 20 lbs. of stuff and then walk over to the state park because, well, I can, because God gave me these legs. I am amazed every time I think about them.

I walk, and I keep walking, because I am grateful for what I have been given.

Photo: If you see this man walking through your neighborhood, don’t be alarmed. He’s mostly harmless.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

6 Responses to A triumph of hope over experience

  1. Phil Goodchild January 25, 2019 at 5:19 pm #

    Doug, I walked the Camino in September, 2015 with Deb and Hannah. Alright, just the last 110km or so (starting from the monastery at Samos) because I was a still a working stiff at that time and couldn’t spare 30 days for the whole glorious trek. One of the most memorable experiences of my life. So much so we may do another route to Santiago. No doubt you’ve seen the movie “The Way” and perhaps you’ve read “Fumbling” by Kerry Egan. Not that you asked, but be prepared to be wet the last quarter. Also, unless self-mortification is one of your goals, consider availing yourself of porter services that drive your kit from stop to stop so you don’t have to carry absolutely everything on your back. Regardless, I think you’ll love it.

  2. Doug January 25, 2019 at 5:33 pm #

    Phil, good to hear from you as always. I’m delighted to know that you walked the Camino! I can’t wait. Am very excited, Am leaving a month from today, but have been ready to go for over a month. I’ve seen “The Way” and cried throughout. I don’t know “Fumbling.” Thanks for the suggestion. Unfortunately, so much has been written about the Camino Frances that the world doesn’t need another book about it, though I might still try. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

    • PHILLIP E GOODCHILD February 11, 2019 at 5:27 pm #

      If you write one, I will buy (and actually read) it. Buen Camino!

      • Doug February 11, 2019 at 5:36 pm #

        Not to drag out this thread, Phil, but wanted to thank you for suggesting Fumbling. I finished reading it this weekend and thought that it had the best writing of any books about the Camino I’ve found so far. So, thanks for that. (I’m also pretty sure I couldn’t have walked 10 miles with her, so I’m impressed by her husband who apparently walked all 500, though often eight feet ahead of her.)

  3. Dave Bayer January 27, 2019 at 2:38 pm #

    What a happy coincidence to get a blog from my favorite blogger today as I wake up on a Holland American cruise ship in Aruba having spent yesterday snorkeling with Jackie off Bonaire! Some folks would say that we are just doing our best to”keep on keeping on.” Like you, I give thanks every day for being able to do just that. Of course, skiing in the snow or a 500 mile hike across Spain are no longer on my bucket list but am still enjoying golf twice a week and shooting my age from time to time is getting easier. Keep the blogs coming and stay dry.

    • Doug January 27, 2019 at 6:08 pm #

      Hi, Dave. I’m so glad to hear from you. I think you mentioned your cruise to Aruba because Michigan is going to -14F tonight and won’t be above zero (day or night) until next Sunday. So, I won’t think about about where you are right now. Greetings to you and Jackie!