I was five or six. There was a race at school. The ground was stony with some patches of sweet grass. I ran hard, and enjoyed the feel of my feet on the ground and the grass. I was pleased with myself, and expected congratulations. But when I finished, one of the adults said, “Somebody has to come last, I suppose”. I could tell it was a bad thing to be that someone and resolved not to do it again. Since I always had short legs, this resolve meant that I didn’t run in races anymore.
Nevertheless, I tried it all – the long jump in the sand, and the impossible high jump, those cliquey elastics games (jumping around a stretched piece of elastics in various fancy ways) in the playground. But what I liked most was hanging upside down on the monkey-bars, while my friends and I played games about what colour panties we had on under our uniform skirts. I was also a squeamish child. The brutality and dirt of football turned me off. As a child, my family was as sports-minded as Australians are supposed to be. The more books I read, the less Australian I became. I wanted to live a more refined life.
Fifteen years after that race, I was at an open house event at a yoga school. I was newly pregnant, fresh from the women’s peace camp, not sure of the rules or ethos of the yoga event. I was hoping there’d be free food. In early pregnancy I was always hungry, but couldn’t eat everything. I struggled through the asanas but enjoyed the relaxation exercise (I’ve always been good at lying down). Then there was a lecture. One of the lecturers kept looking at me. Fresh-faced in my overalls and thick-rimmed glasses, I was probably the youngest and least monied person there. The woman next to me in the audience was eating brown rice crackers and offered me one. I was hungry and took it with gratitude. “Is there another one?” I asked. The woman withdrew, mouth pursed, shaking her head. A few minutes later I was approached by one of the teachers. “I’ll thank you not to be begging at my workshop,” she said, sharply.
I finally found some of my tribe a few years later when I went to a belly dancing class. My teacher was a down-to-earth, loud Irish-Koori woman — a beautiful dancer. She was open to many aspects of the dance, from the cabaret styles with overflowing sequins to the kohl-eyed tribal styles and the elegant classical styles. Several years later, she trained me as a teacher. I loved teaching. I enjoyed putting the music together and choreographing the lessons. The dancing made us all stronger and happier. My ear was educated for the tabla and the oud in those years. At the end of class, I got to use the sign-off line I learned from another friend who was a belly-dancing teacher, “Make sure you eat some cake so that you’ll fit into your costumes!”
For many people, however, exercise is not exercise unless it is hard work. This time last year I was staying in a hotel near the harbour in Hong Kong. Each evening through my windows, I saw legs and arms poking up in the studio across the street. At sunrise, I woke up jetlagged to see a phalanx of treadmill runners and cross trainers on the top floor of the Sheraton. As I watched, my lower back ached from tramping along pavements and lurching in the double decker bus up and down the island hills as we explored the wondrous city. On that narrow, winding street on the mountainside, we had seen a guy jogging up the hill, while I was trying not to gasp and flinch every time the bus passed traffic coming the other way.
Here in the desert we have a few determined joggers, a dysfunctional but well-intentioned gym and a swimming pool (empty now in winter) which was painted with the wrong kind of paint over five years ago and still turns the soles of your feet smurf-blue if you let them touch the bottom.
At the Indigenous community nearby (where we used to live), the people saved the very large sum of money needed to build a pool. They had to hold on to it for nine years while the various bodies that claimed control over the land came around to the idea of the community having a pool. After the beautiful pool was built there was an argument about whether the pool could be filled with bore water from under the community. Because the community is in a National Park, the traditional owners of the land were not allowed to draw the water from the bore under their land. The solution was for the water to be transported from the nearby town where we now live. The water is now drawn from the same underground bore, but outside the Park boundaries, at an ongoing cost to the community. After all that, the people do enjoy the pool, and the children in particular love it. The pool is safer than the household water tanks and the sewage ponds they used to swim in.
It’s a strange time and place we live in when exercise is such a discrete and purposeful activity. So many people feel that they have to be athletes to live healthy and happy lives. For myself, I love the pool and am especially grateful for its cold and quiet. The blue feet don’t bother me and swimming is how my body unfurls into itself. It’s a close second to hanging upside down by the knees on those monkey-bars, imagining colourful knickers.