Long Enough to Matter

Sunday Letter | #331

Light through silhouetted trees.
Through the trees – Irons, Michigan (Ektar 100)

A reader, Jim, asked about my current routine. You might recall my update from a couple of months into lockdown, and while a few big things have changed since then, the biggest is probably this: I’ve started doing morning spin rides.

What brought this about was sifting through my archive of Sunday letters, and finding the one I wrote as a letter to myself on my thirtieth birthday. Just one line in it – “Exercise regularly; you get moody if you don’t.” – but the line I needed.

When we first got the bike last year, I approached it how I approach most things: with the intention of going for longer and harder – getting better – over time. And while I did learn that even a 30-minute ride, let alone a 45-minute one – was too long (fast-twitch muscles, remember?), it took me a while to shake my usual mindset – that the main reason to do something is to get better at it.

There is a joy in growth and mastery, for sure. But there is also a threshold when the dread and pressure of needing to improve stifles the good feelings of the practice. Unhealthy striving begets injury; basically every story ever told about artist burnout is about going too far past this threshold.

That said, I do think there’s such a thing as not enough practice. When it comes to the bike, five or ten minutes isn’t always adequate for me. With five or ten minutes, I don’t really get a chance to get into the ride. So where I land on the duration question is: go for long enough to matter (but not too long to keep you off the bike). Long enough that it’s a good ride.

I think there’s actually a perceptible moment, in the ride itself, that it becomes a good ride. Not necessarily an easy ride, but a good ride. A ride you feel good about. It’s when your preconceptions of the ride melt away, and you’re alone with the ride. Just as there’s a moment, on any loosely-planned trip, when the trip takes hold. When the trip itself tells you where to go next. When a hike or scene or story tells you what it wants to be.

It’s not necessarily stillness that’s required, but a constancy of motion – an inertia. You have to wait it out, wait for your distracted mind to settle, sediment at the bottom of the glass. You have to be riding, or walking, or thinking about the potentialities of your novel, for long enough to be able to hear a response. Journaling, warmups, stretches, are all ways in, ways of angling yourself toward this response.

At least that’s how I feel now. On some mornings, on the bike, that’s fifteen minutes. Other days it’s twenty. It’s intervals, low-impact rides, beginner rides, or, if I really need it, a extra day off. I do have a designated rest day, Sunday, when I do a regular yoga class instead. But otherwise it’s a practice of listening and, maybe newer for me, striving for a feeling, rather than progress for progress sake.