Yesterday I found myself lying on a table in an unfamiliar examining room talking about how I breathe, how I use my body to accomplish the tasks of living.
A man I had known for 30 minutes or so extended his arms and made circles with his hands, saying, "You use these muscles to do everything instead of moving from your core."
It’s easy to reduce a core to the piece of the apple we throw away, or the part of the nuclear plant we fear will melt down, or the term from Pilates we’ve heard people use but isn’t that a weird expensive form of exercise for wealthy Californians having nothing to do with middle-aged pastors in New England?
Busy and troubled about many things, like my Biblical namesake, Martha, I feel a moment of resentment at this suggestion, but I quickly recognize its essential truth. I learn that I have a big, broad muscle at the center of my body that I have not only underdeveloped, but ignored, failed to recognize, despite pressuring it by carrying developing children in the womb and growing children on my hip. I have stressed it by weighing too much and by exercising too little and by depending on something I did not know existed.
And we all need attention, don’t we?
I came home with breathing exercises that take me back to the vocal training I had long ago. I expand my diaphragm, but this time I inhale and exhale through my nose. Five minutes a day, he says, five minutes a day for the rest of your life, these will be your exercises.
I try it in the car, for like so many of us I seem to live in the car most days. I am on a mission to stop eating in the car, even though it sometimes seems to be the only opportunity, so I decide to breathe instead. And I soon understand why he has instructed me to do this for a minute at a time. My body is not used to so much oxygen! My head begins to feel light!
I breathe at the gas pump. Lord knows we need to breathe there, to look away from the numbers spinning past and pay attention to our breath, to the life force of our breath.
What will I find if I keep breathing, if I strengthen those muscles at the core of my physical being?
I arrived in his office due to a complaint about back pain and numbness in my hands, and he asked me, "When does it NOT bother you?"
"Ah," I said. "When I am sitting still, doing absolutely nothing." Except breathing, theoretically.
All my life I’ve carried the image of the Biblical Martha, frowning in the background while that nice Mary sits at the feet of Jesus. Wearing her name felt like a burden. Surely I was not really like her? Or surely she served in her own way? I’ve written sermons and essays about it, about how much it meant that she is the one to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah in John’s gospel, a job performed by a man in the other three. Martha must have mattered a lot, even if she was blunt and practical.
And I am not all that practical, really, I’m not.
But the image of my new adviser standing beside me waving his arms in the air is a strong one, and although I have always pictured Mary as soft and maybe even a little bit useless, I now have an image of the kind of strength it takes to sit upright, and attend to someone, and to breathe.
In my bag today there is a beautiful Crispin apple, one from a bag given to me by a church member. When I bite into it, I will look at the core differently. I will not see the useless part, the inedible segment, the rough bits and the seed to be discarded. Instead I will see the center of what is, the source of being, the promise of health and the potential for new life.
And I will breathe, deeply, expanding that muscle I did not know about yesterday, finding my own center and paying attention to what God might have to say about it all.
(This is my piece for Saturday’s paper.)