Boxing Lessons for Life



There is nothing like turning fifty, fat and unfit, to make a body feel old. It did mine. Combined with encroaching arthritis and an orthopedist who called me “dear”, before I knew it, I was hobbling down the road to my own old age, not quite sure how I got there.

Too young for knee replacement surgery, too wary of long-term NSAIDS, what, really, was my body to do? The last straw hit in February, when I took my 11-year old on our annual ski trip. Despite warnings from friends whose own artificial knees keep them upright, I hit the slopes. By the end of the week, I could barely move.

An MRI confirmed what my body knew: I’d damaged the knee, and badly. When I limped into the orthopedist’s office, he pulled up the images and asked me what on earth kind of spill I had taken, to have created the contusion he could see. I told him it was all physics: My overweight body, torqueing around a bend on that tiny pole and those little sticks.

He told me I needed to lay off it, wear a brace, walk with a cane, lose some weight. So every once in a while, I’d haul myself to the gym or walk a few blocks, but my aching knees and a bout with chronic nerve pain took my heart out of it.

I’d spent most of my life swimming and doing aerobics, bellydancing and, more recently, boxing. In fact, for a few years in my late 40s, boxing brought real joy to my experience, trimmed inches from my waist, and bolstered my confidence (it helped that the handsome trainer called me “baby,” somehow less patronizing than the doctor’s “dear”).

But chronic pain froze me. I put my gym membership on hold, and began to count the two-block walk to my office as exercise. Who was I kidding? Not my body. When I went to pull out my fall wardrobe, nothing fit.

You can acquire an amazing number of bad habits, just sitting around. Eat too much ice cream, for instance. Spend way too much time online. When even my fat pants proved to be too tight, I knew something had to give.

So I signed up for a yoga class at the gym, and slowly, slowly, moved my aching body enough that, literally, it stopped creaking when I stood up. Every beautiful summer day that came along, I’d email my friend and neighbor to join me for a long walk. Strengthened—but still hauling too much weight—I decided to hit a few Zumba classes, too, because there is nothing like fast music and lots of dancing women to make you feel exhilarated, if only for a moment.

For a few steps, I felt out-of-place and awkward, unable to jump. But a grapevine replaced that, and no one else cared.

In the midst of my sit-still-I’m-in-pain-summer, my college roommate cheered me on with links to old sketches by Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon. I laughed so hard, I choked. When I saw that Justin was Jimmy’s guest recently, I watched a bit of his live-from-LA concert, then Googled his song, TKO.

Which is why Wednesday morning, I was back in the gym, this time for something called BodyCombat. An apt name, since the real battle is within and with myself, the struggle to get the upper-hand on pain, the relentless war on calories, fat and sugar.

It turns out that the class features mixed-martial arts moves, but mostly consists of boxing, made girly. Before I knew it, the two years I’d spent training with a boxer came back to me. It was like riding a bike, only better, because in the course of boxing, I’d also picked up lessons about living, too.

While I jabbed and snapped and crossed, my brain was remembering all the things my trainer had shown me, and all the metaphor hiding in the glove.

It reminded me, for instance, how vital it is to stay in the moment.  The present moment is always the last thing on my mind, which often strays to and regrets the past, or frets about the future. The physical challenge of boxing makes even my worried brain hush: The only way to get through difficult times is stay present.

Focus on the one moment: The feel of the body’s weight, for instance, or the strength of the thighs. The knowledge that any single moment can be endured—and even celebrated. The realization that moments build to minutes to hours to a lifetime.

I remembered to keep my guard up.  In the aerobics studio at the gym, you can’t escape your own image, surrounded on all sides by mirrors. There is no looking pretty when sweat is pouring from your eyebrows, and there is no chance to straighten your hair. You have to resist the urge to primp and care what others think: You need to keep your guard up.

No matter what is happening, no matter what you see, when you are boxing, you always keep your guard up. And as much as I like to embrace the world and open wide to things that come my way, it is a good idea, sometimes, to exercise caution. Reach out and reach in—see what’s coming, and be ready to respond. Guard up, and you won’t take it on the chin.

Learn to slip.  When challenges are coming fast and furious, slip by them. In boxing, you bend the knees, plant the feet, and slip under the punches headed your way. It is not always necessary to respond immediately, to fight back, to lash out. Better to slip a little, duck, and figure out some other response.

In the ring—as I never was or will be or want to be—boxers take the full measure of their opponents. As I understand it, sometimes their weary embrace is just a façade, a chance to test for weak spots and vulnerabilities. In life, too, it helps to see the full picture, to embrace the things that come our way, to know where and when and how it will move in relationship to us, and to know how to respond.

Boxers rely on their trainers to call combinations, series of punches and moves that they have rehearsed for hours in the gym. As someone who lives with chronic anxiety and depression, it has helped over the years to learn a few combinations to keep sadness at bay. To see the triggers before they hit, and to respond with strategies and tools that allow me to stay standing.

You are stronger than you know.  When my trainer first had me hitting the mitts, I held back. Having been a girl in the 1960s, I learned to keep my aggression to myself. Back when I was boxing with a group, I’d be paired with some twenty-year old guy on the other side of a punching bag. All my ladylike skills could not withstand that punching bag when he clobbered it, setting it swinging wildly in my direction.

The only thing to do—short of jumping out of the way—was to hit it back. It turned out I could do all kinds of unexpected things: Run across the floor with a 50 pound weight. Pump weights overhead for three minutes while jogging in place. I learned to snap a jab, and I learned to breathe. I learned that when I let go of fear and all the habits that came with it, my reserves were endless.

By the time Wednesday’s class ended, I was drenched and exhausted. But I felt better than I had in months. For hours, the neuropathic pain vanished. And my knees didn’t crack or creak till that night.

My clothes still don’t fit, of course, but my heart and mind feel better. I remember who I am. I know who I have been. And I know where I’m going.

Dear? Baby? I’m just Janice, ready for the world.


Reposted from, original posting 10-28-2013

Life Is a Discotheque: Dance, Whatever They Play

I had gone to bed early last Mother’s Day, exhausted by the energy I’d spent trying to cope with a recently acquired chronic pain syndrome. Sleep had become my friend and my remedy, a respite from the burning pain of a nerve injury.


I was halfway to sleep when my 11-year-old came in my room and laid down beside me, facedown in the pillows, head nestled against my elbow. I could tell from a shudder in his shoulders that he was crying.

When I asked what was wrong, he said, “Who would shoot people on Mother’s Day? Who?”  Via social media, he had seen news of a shooting rampage: 19 injured during a New Orleans Mother’s Day parade.

“I’m not going to go to Philadelphia on Friday,” he said. Philadelphia was the destination for his fifth-grade class trip, something for which they had prepared all spring. A coach bus! The Liberty Bell! Money for trinkets and lunch! A day with friends!

“You’ll be fine,” I said, slowly coming back to the world and the reality of his pain—the psychic pain to which all of our children are exposed these days, when violence erupts so constantly, so nearby.

“I’m not going,” he said. “I’m just not.”

I rifled through my maternal stash of platitudes and reassurance, and finally decided that the best advice of all has been circulating for months now, courtesy of Mr. Rogers and what his mother told him: When bad things happen, she said, look for the helpers. They will always be there.

I riffed on that, telling my son that the world is, in fact, more good than bad, and that we live among people who are more good than bad. Each day, we encounter them: teachers and day care workers, cafeteria ladies and crossing guards, hospital workers on the night shift and firefighters, paramedics, physicians and nurses, pharmacists.

We live among people who feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, comfort the sad, and care for the sick and the dying. Our lives are touched by the imagination and creativity of people who explore the universe and the earth, who look for cures for disease and disability, who build our schools and homes and hospitals, who protect our borders. We are enriched by people who create art, literature, music, film, theater, and culture.

It is true that, as my son puts it, some people have dark hearts. Indeed, their dark hearts can make the world dangerous and frightening place. They people our nightmares as they disrupt and destroy lives. Some days, it seems, they out-maneuver us—they implement any number of weapons aimed to destroy, cripple, and overpower others.

Yet no matter how much they try to defeat us, we mostly end up still standing. We emerge from the dust and the dark, the bullets and the chaos, and we fashion our lives and move forward.

The dark-hearted ones may take over the headlines on CNN—but they cannot take over our thoughts and how we choose to live each day.

I did not say all of this to him. Instead, I held him closer, and told him the short version—that the world is mostly a good place and, for most of us, life is a rich experience. We have good days, and not-so-good days.

In the midst of learning to live with my own pain, I have focused on keeping up with work. I thought about a recent cab trip across town. It was a rainy day, and I complained about that to the cabbie.

“Any day you wake up is a good day!” he said. As we drove down Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, he told me about his life: conscripted in the Eritrean military at the age of 15, the war-time deaths of both of his parents, the war in which he himself was badly injured.

Through it all, he said, he remembered his father’s advice: If you are alive, it is a good day. It may be a challenging day, but there is no such thing as a bad day. As the cabbie put it, “Life is like a discotheque. You need to dance, no matter what music you hear.”

So that’s what I told my son: How important it will be as he grows up to dance—with and despite the music, to find a place within and around it.

Living afraid is no life, and worry gets us nowhere.

Posted originally, October 9, 2013, by

Image credit: ancagray on Etsy