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,