Monday, March 21, 2016

Women, Academia, Sport: Finding My Light Switch in the Dark


When the first post of this series popped up on my Facebook feed, I thought: “now THIS is something I can get behind.” Full disclosure: I spend a fair bit of my non-work time moving—biking, running, or walking to and from work; playing recreational hockey (emphasis on the recreational, but for a fabulous team named the Booby Orrs—or the boobs for short); honing my basement soccer, wrestling, and pull-up skills with two very special 9 and 6 year-old friends; skiing when there is enough snow to do so, which there hasn’t been of late; coaching rugby for a fierce and talented group of young twenty-somethings; walking with my 8-lb sporty-diva dog who is a better hiker than I am; and of course, lots and lots of stretching (apparently I am pretty stiff—go figure). 
Note sporty-diva dog in backpack!


Most days I choose movement over social activity, not because I don’t adore my friends, or crave human connection, but because most socializing involves sitting still. When planning a trip, I often consider what opportunities for movement there will be, even before checking into local options for food or coffee. When traveling to a new city, I routinely opt for a bike rental over a car. And so on and so forth. I am somewhat maniacal when it comes to moving and movement, and until my early 30s I hadn’t really stopped to consider why (probably because I hadn’t really ever stopped).

Part of me never questioned my need for movement because I was a sporty kid. When I was first on skates, I sprinted (toe picks in ice and off I went). My summer camps were always sports camps. Gym and recess were my favourite ‘subjects’ in school (yes, I was that kid). And by about the age of 10, I was barred from playing driveway basketball with my older (less kinesthetically-minded) brother because I made him look bad. As a then tomboy and now butch identified person, my sportiness has been one of the ways I make sense (to myself and to others) in the world. I understand now that statements like “she’s sporty” stood in for “I know she’s not a normal little girl” (whatever that might be). I also recognize that my “rambunctiousness” and “excessive energy” served simultaneously to excuse and negate as well as to honour and acknowledge my masculinity—and in some contexts it still does.

I began my university path in sport studies because I assumed that’s where maniacal movement people like me went (and to a large degree they do). As an undergraduate student in sport studies, I learned that our kinesthetic sense is that which enables us to find the light switch in the dark. From the Greek word kin, meaning to move or set in motion, our kinesthetic awareness is the sensation of moving in space. In a physical and philosophical sense, it is the way in which our bodies come to know. While I eventually migrated from sport to health studies, I took the lessons of movement (and the analogy of the light switch in the dark) with me.

The summer after my first year in undergrad, my father died. It was also the same summer I took up outdoor running. Until this point, my running had only involved chasing a ball, avoiding a defender, circling a track, or, as previously explained, on skates. At 20, I had neither the emotional wherewithal or environment to talk through the impact of that tragedy, but running helped me come to terms with his loss in my own way. I ran carrying confusion, anger, guilt and sadness, and in learning to jog, I also learned to take these emotions in and let them go, one winded breath at a time.

Fast forward about a decade and I find myself struggling (as many do) in the often exceedingly slow, generally physically still moments of dissertation writing. In an opposite way of what Hannah writes—that some parts of academia gave her body back to her—I’m convinced that my body in movement gave me academia. Not only did I enter the academy through movement studies (the thing I knew and loved most), but my compulsion to move provided me the advice I needed to get through—and sit through—the stillest parts of my PhD. In 2007 I tried my first Bikram yoga class. Warranted critiques of Bikram yoga aside, for the next two and a half years as a chipped away at my dissertation I was reminded to sit through discomfort, without trying to relieve it. This lesson has continuing resonance in my intellectual labours.

With the finish line of my defense in sight, I received the news that my supervisor’s cancer had metastasized. I received this news away from home in Prince Edward County, with a rented bike in hand, a small (sporty-diva) dog in tow, and a local trail map. Unsure of what to do, I pushed, peddled, and rode in 25 degree heat. 50 kilometers later, reconnected with my beating heart, the news had sunk in.

As I approach 40, I still find movement one of the most reliable forms of care I have available to me. It has been one of the most stable and consistent presences in my life. I move because, quite literally, it keeps me together. And while I feel things deeply, I don’t always need to (or want to) talk them through—it’s just not how my body has learned to be in space. Instead, I move through space, and continue to fumble (as many do) for my light switch in moments of darkness. 

That, and I continue to stretch.

Alissa Overend is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta. Her research and teaching are in the sociology of health and illness; food studies; contemporary social theory; intersectional feminism; media and discourse analysis. She and her sporty-diva dog are often out on adventures. 

6 comments:

  1. What a great post, Alissa. I said my goodbyes to Sharon while running, too. I was in Melbourne, and I went for a two-hour run next to the sea, thinking of her the whole 20K (or whatever it was). At the farthest point from St Kilda I went out to the edge of a dock and paused, looking across the oceans, and let her go. And then I started running back.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She liked the water--a nice place to let her go. I rode 25 stinking hot kilometres out, doused myself in a lake, cried a little, and began the trek back. It was the Thursday before she passed (July 29, maybe). Perhaps we were shedding her at the same time? A nice thought.

      Delete
  2. I’m convinced that my body in movement gave me academia. --now there's a great line! Lovely piece!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Julie! You know it's true ;)

      Delete
  3. Great piece! I'm convinced I wouldn't have finished my PhD if it hadn't been for running.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. All the little steps add up! Are you still running?

      Delete

Drop us a line! We're angling for vigorous commentary, but we will cut loose any vitriol dragged up from the depths.