The Stairmaster

In the world of workout machines, I never liked the ones known as step climbers or stairmasters. You probably know this machine. It simulates the action of climbing stairs and keeps track of how many floors you have climbed in a given session. For some reason in my winter workouts, I always shied away from these machines, preferring the crosstrainers and treadmills. And of course, my real preference was to be outside, getting in a run before my knees went, or biking for an hour in the cool of the morning. Stairmasters were just not an aerobic workout I wanted to do. On the other hand, I used to take the stairs every chance I got. I’d see it as a little gift to my heart, waking me up for the next meeting, giving me a little adrenaline rush. Taking the stairs was as good as a cup of coffee.

Now, as a part of dis ease, it is hard to describe just how difficult stairs have become. I can walk pretty well on a smooth surface, at least with a cane and an ankle-foot orthotic, but stairs have become a real physical challenge. I’ve come to the point where I will do almost anything to avoid stairs, even if there are only a few. When I start up the stairs, it requires great concentration. I have to remember to lift my left foot carefully, exaggerating my step above the normal rise of the stair. With atrophied muscles, I just don’t have full control of my legs, so I end up using a lot more energy than usual. When I head down the stairs, I have to think hard about maintaining my balance. I turn my foot to the side and focus on keeping an even keel. Anything in my hands could tip me, so the need to pay attention is immense. The act of negotiating stairs with the new disabilities that go with dis ease requires specific concentration on what I am doing in the moment, stair by stair. However, this is a lot harder than it sounds.

Stairs make me face my able-bodied past. As I grab the railing with one hand, push hard on the cane with the other, and engage more muscles than I would have ever thought possible for such a simple act, thoughts and questions pop into my mind unbidden. Suddenly, I am aware that I’m thinking/muttering, “What happened to me,” or “How did this come to be?” Of course, I know the answer, but it is like an out of body experience—”who is this guy that struggles up or down stairs?” It is so tempting to remember the old normal body that used to take stairs two at a time without being winded, and of course in that remembrance is sorrow for things that were and will not be again. It is a focus on the past without relief in the present. And of course, the past isn’t the only place I naturally go. Questions about the future seem to appear out of nowhere.

Stairs focus me on a future of less and less muscular control, inspiring little fears and anxiety. They are symbolic of movements that will be less likely, and more difficult with each passing day. Now, I see a set of stairs before me, and the temptation is to look up to the top or down to the bottom and cringe. How in the world will I make it to the top when each step is such a challenge? How can I put 10 or 12 or 18 steps together, one after the other, descending into a less stable sense of physical well-being? The act of negotiating stairs causes the future to manifest itself, both symbolically and physically, and I concretely face the me that is becoming. Symbolically, dis ease is a giant staircase, and somehow dis ease stairs get larger and larger as my future steps grow smaller and smaller.

If you have been reading me, you know that I just cannot stay in a place of despair for too long. My physical experiences with stairs are not unique. All of us have our own stairways that cause us to grieve a past that was or fear a future to come. Mine is just so increasingly tangible. Living a human life with the gifts of cognition and meaning requires that past and future are constantly a part of our present existence. We couldn’t survive without this. Remembering the past is how we learn. Predicting the future is how we keep going. So in my stair challenged state, I am not being overly sensitive to past and future. Humans often get so caught up in our past ways of doing things, either by mourning something that cannot be or being held hostage by things that went bump in the night, that we forget to locate ourselves in the moment that is. Or we become so dependent on our prediction of an anticipated future, we forget to realize this moment of presence. As a conductor, I would often see both of these phenomena in my choirs. We’d focus on a past great performance and miss the fact that we were singing now, or we would hold ourselves out for the future song, not realizing that we were singing beauty to a world bounded only by our practice space. There is nothing in the act of making music that requires any more than paying attention to the moment we are in, but music like life, takes will power to focus on the joyful production of the present.

There is a discipline to integrating past and future into the present, and it is worth it. Such discipline brings discernment. For my new normal, stairs are a discipline. If I am to make it through the stairway’s challenge, I cannot allow the grief for the past or the fear of the future to dominate. The past and future are present, but it is far better to live in the moment, even the second of each individual stair. It is a consciousness of the now that says, “This body, as it is now, is climbing this stair, as it is now. There is a way to make this climb today, and I am finding that way.” I know this sounds like a lot of concentration for a stair, but it is in the small steps of each day that I find the strength to handle the larger things to come. I appreciate the lesson the stairs teach me, each and every day. I used to climb the stairs one way, now I do it this way, and in the future, I will take stairs a new way.

The past does not have to be mourned, and the future does not have to be feared. Both exist to be embraced in a new present moment. For me, now is a good time to be living, and living is about being open to the gifts and challenges of each step one by one. I’ve got lots of stairs in my past, and lots of stairs in my future. But for clarity and grace, I must continue to learn to focus on stairs one step at a time.

And sometimes, I just choose to take the elevator.

Yours in ALS,



9 thoughts on “The Stairmaster

  1. Ah, stairs…. They are always there, and sometimes do seem impossible. At least, to me, recently with the fallen arch, orthotic, a cane at times – you know the whole scene, Bruce. Now, with Mike recovering from spinal cervical surgery , it becomes more real again. So, we keep telling ourselves to keep moving, keep resting, and keep on keeping on. We think of you and Ev often – you are in our prayers. Thank you for sharing your many perspectives on this dis ease – you are amazing! Carol and Mike

  2. Bruce, Each of your posts bring new insights and opportunities for reflection. I appreciate this one particularly because stairs are such an issue for me. And I had not taken the time to think about the implications or to contemplate the larger meaning as you have. I just cursed the fact that they were so damn hard and would get harder. Thank you for helping me look at them in a new more meaningful way. You are offering such great gifts with your posts.

  3. I think of this life as a car traveling through the dark of night. If I look too long in the rearview mirror, I will probably have an accident. If I peer ahead into the dark beyond my headlights, I may miss someone right in front of me changing lanes. But if I concentrate on the road right in front of me – the here and now – I can go for a very long distance, singing along to my favorite tunes, sharing the drive with my favorite traveling partner. Road trip, Bruce. I’m in it for the cross-country odyssey with you.

    Love, Ev

  4. Just going through the aging process we begin to experience things we can no longer do, or can no longer do well. I love your suggestion that we just pay attention to the music instead of dwelling on what can no longer be. Carol Smith

  5. Bruce, I have been reading your blog and trying to absorb it all. You are often in my thoughts. I like what you are saying about living in the moment. So important for all of us. I have been so busy in my job and life lately but decided just to enjoy my time with my students today. What a great day I had. Thanks for sharing all of this.

  6. Bruce, your thoughts and experiences are expressed so beautifully, like those moments in music when the choir’s voices are poised to begin a new refrain when the conductor’s hands delicately send them on their way. Thank you for expressing important ideas for all of us. My prayers are with you each and every day.


  7. Bruce,
    Thank you once again for beautifully expressing another life lesson of great value to us all.


  8. Bruce, do you know the author Eckhart Tolle? His book The Power of Now relates to just what you are talking about. His book Practicing the Power of Now has been very helpful to me at times. I have always been a planner. To me looking to the future for happiness was the way to live. What I have discovered in my 52 years is that both the passed and the future are just illusions. This illusion can really make you miss the present. Life is all about the present. Just read Eckhart Tolle. I think you will agree.

  9. Great reflection, Bruce! The elevator! The day will come when we’re all on it on the way to the new reality. Thanks for sharing.


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