I started spinning seven years ago against my certainty that I’d hate it. I was twenty-eight and had been exercising regularly since college, but still viewed myself as a non-athlete, uncoordinated and ultimately posing at the gym in my sports bras and moisture-wicking leggings. (In college, I also weighed 125 pounds and thought I was fat, thanks to body dysmorphia and a brief flirtation with an eating disorder). The notion of me—girl who walked the track in high school gym class and skipped breakfast as a matter of course—in a group fitness class that involved actual equipment (a bike of all things, which I’ve been embarrassingly afraid to ride since childhood) seemed laughable at best, stupid at worst.
Spinning became one of those things that forced me to reconsider who I thought I was. Within six months, I was going 2-3 times a week. I had friends in class, athlete friends who took their workouts seriously, and I became one of them.
Two years later, in October 2012, my father was diagnosed with renal cell cancer. For six weeks, as the diagnoses accumulated—metastasis to the lungs, Type II diabetes, congestive heart failure, severe anemia— my routines fractured as I traveled back and forth between Ithaca, New York and my hometown of Endicott to care for him. My father died quickly. Forty years of avoiding doctors caught up with him all at once.
I’d never experienced bone-crushing grief before. I was surprised to find that my usual instincts to seek out companionship were upended, that being with other people had an enraging effect on me. My body filled with feral energy. I went to the gym to relieve it, but was ashamed of how long I’d been away from spinning class, and the longer I stayed away, the more the (ahem) cycle of not going perpetuated itself. I planned my workouts around the class, avoiding times when I knew my spin instructor was likely to be milling around at the gym. I stuck headphones in, found the most remote treadmill in the place, and ran as hard as I could, weeping.
Avoiding shit is always temporary, of course. When I’d been gone from class about three months, my spin instructor—fifty-something, a local deejay, a man maybe ten years younger than my father—came in early one day and spotted me. He approached me as I ran on the treadmill and gently asked what was up, where had I been? I could feel how red my face was, exertion and embarrassment turning me scarlet. I told him how sorry I was to have missed so much class, but you see, my dad died, and I feel a little like I’m dead, too.
The spin instructor was not a loquacious man. In fact, one of the only words I’d heard him say was “breathe,” as if he knew when we were collectively holding our breath during hard climbs on the bikes. Now, he nodded in the way other grieving people learn instantly to recognize: a newly-identifiable body language that told me his dad was dead, too.
“Class starts in 20 minutes,” he said. “Just come, ride your own ride. I won’t even look in your direction.”
It was one of those times someone I hardly knew spoke directly to my broken heart from his own.
I went to class that day, and kept spinning all the rest of that year, until I found myself five months pregnant, my belly too large for the bike. My husband and I—mandated by my father’s death, it seemed, to change everything until nothing was recognizable anymore, until our world had become something I could live in without my dad—moved away to Wisconsin for new jobs. I gave birth to my daughter over 42 excruciating hours while a polar wind pounded against the hospital windows.
This time, years passed before I got on a bike again. More than grief, parenthood had landed me at the bottom of a steep learning curve that required all of my concentration: mental, physical, spiritual. I found the new world I’d been seeking, and with it came a new body, marked permanently with the evidence of exertion: spider veins mapping the strain of my blood, stretch marks sewing the places where I’d expanded, softened. I knew I was supposed to struggle with my new reflection. To work hard at undoing all that had been done by carrying my grief and then my daughter, these times when I was half-dead and then doubly alive.
But I am just so tired of finding ways to hate myself.
Last spring, I tentatively joined an all-women gym near work. My first time in the locker room, I saw that I’d chosen wisely. All around me were the pregnant, postpartum, transitioning, aging bodies that were not at the gym to preserve their youth, but to shed it with strength. One night, I arrived just as a spinning class was about to start with some extra seats in it. The woman at the gym’s reception casually asked if I’d like to join the class, and I could tell she noticed how my face changed when she said it. “You should do it!” she said. Though I was terrified of what I’d find out about myself on the bike—that I’d lost so much I’d never get back—I agreed.
I was right. There is a lot we never get back. I’m slowly figuring out how to be glad for it, to take my new body for a spin and see not what it remembers, but what it can still learn. I spin once a week now, and while my legs burn, inflamed with effort, I think back on a girl who always spent more time trying to understand her inner, untouchable self. Walking and walking the track, adrift in her inner pain, not realizing how much we live and speak in our bodies.
This is it, I think, this is what I want my daughter to know: Don’t diminish yourself. Don’t wish yourself away.
Amy Monticello’s work has appeared in The Iron Horse Literary Review, Upstreet, Redivider, Natural Bridge, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere.