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Rethinking the Y

During the darkest days of the plague, I would often don my mask and go to the YMCA nearest my house. This essay came out of those days.

The first thing I always notice is the water fountains, the spouts tightly wrapped in plastic with hastily printed notices not to use them until further notice.

The wrapping is always neatly done and securely fastened with zip ties. In fact, everything I see at the Y is neat and clean, organized just so. Nothing is done halfway.

Before I step onto the second-floor walking track overlooking the gymnasium, I tuck my cane under my arm and adjust the volume on my smartphone for the James Lee Burke novel playing in my ear.

Most times the track is empty; other times one or two solitary souls trudge their own private way around. When we pass one another we smile and nod.

Sixteen laps around the track equal about a mile. Once I managed to do eight laps but haven’t been able to repeat that. I remind myself it’s a process, one step at a time.

A few yards in and my lower back begins to hurt. I should be used to it, but it’s always a surprise. In my head, I immediately hear the voice of my personal trainer reminding me to stand up straight.

Correcting my posture does help to ease the pain, albeit slowly. I continue onward. I know that by the time I’m on my third or fourth lap the pain will stop.

I am fighting a side effect of six months of chemotherapy that has wrecked havoc on my balance. There are no drugs that can help.

Two neurologists have assured me the condition will not get worse but can’t say if it will ever get better, only that regular exercise will help.

(Why can’t doctors ever say that chocolate cake and ice cream are the best cure for any ailment? But no, they’re always droning on about the benefits of exercise.).

As I move around the track, my hand securely on the rail, I watch a few young men throwing basketballs into the hoops below me. The thuds of the balls on the varnished floor echo around the gym.

The Y has always been a part of my life, one way or another, patiently waiting in the background. Before I entered the first grade my mother took me to the Y in Louisville for swimming lessons.

She was afraid of the water, but she didn’t want me to be. I never finished those particular lessons because my parents divorced, and I was sent to live with my grandmother.

When I was in junior (middle) and high school I and my best friend would always go to the sock hops at the downtown Y.

We girls gathered on one side of the gymnasium and pretended not to notice the boys clustered on the other side, who were pretending not to notice us. A simple record player gave us the latest music by the Beatles and Herman’s Hermits and other pop 

In high school, I often took craft classes at the Y with other girls my age. Once the local newspaper took our picture as we were making jerkins (sleeveless vests). We were all smiling as we posed, needles and thread at the ready, our hair teased and curled as was the fashion.

One winter holiday there was some party or evening event at the Y, probably a group of us Y-Teens singing Christmas carols. I remember walking down the stairs in a new pink dress with matching pink shoes as the audience applauded us.

I was practically an adult, at least in my own mind, for once fitting in perfectly with all the other young 

my 30s I made up my mind I would learn to swim properly and no longer be afraid of being in water over my head. I returned to the Y and made it through each session successfully.

I learned that it didn’t much matter where the bottom of the pool was — what counted was my breath and how I moved my limbs.

Through the years I would take an occasional class at the downtown Y. Belly dancing was the one I remember now, laughing with other young women as we learned to swivel our hips, smile seductively, and glide our hands through the air.

After my round with cancer, I knew I had to start taking better care of myself. I thought that hiring a personal trainer who wouldn’t let me get away with any of my flimsy excuses might help me get a good start.

Again, the Y appeared in my life. I found a personal trainer at the Y on the other side of town, just at the beginning of the plague. Once the Y and other gyms were allowed to open within strict limitations, I began going there for more sessions.

I joined the aquatics class for a few weeks and then settled into a twice-weekly exercise class for “seniors” that didn’t require a lot of sweating or acrobatics.

The instructor plays rock and roll and Motown, and we’re all encouraged to sing. (I expect we’ll be forming a rock group any day now.)

The Y claims to be a Christian organization, with its mission to “put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.”

I’ve never seen any evidence of religion at any of the facilities. No prayers before or after a class, no Biblical mottos hanging on the walls, no lectures on morality.

They welcome anyone of any, or no, faith without question. Instead, they practice values such as respect, courtesy, honesty, and inclusion — values not limited to Christians and in much less evidence these days.

Those values put into real-life practice sway me far more than any preacher warning me to avoid the pleasures of the flesh or “sin.”

A man named George Williams, along with 11 friends founded the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in London in 1844 as a way offering a “refuge of Bible study and prayer for young men seeking to escape from the hazards of life on the streets.”

Thomas Valentine Sullivan, a marine missionary, helped form the first United States YMCA in Boston in 1851.

The YMCA has grown to be a worldwide organization, serving more than 45 million people in 119 countries, adapting itself as always to the changing needs of youth and adults alike.

Everyone at today’s local Y is nice and almost always smiling, genuinely smiling, not the usual corporate grimace. They call me by my name, even pronouncing it correctly.

I’ve noticed I don’t curse nearly as much as I usually do, and I’m more willing to take my time at things. I don’t feel I have to prove anything to anyone any
longer. In an odd way, I have begun to feel I have come home because of the Y somehow. Sometimes it is almost as if I’ve returned to my childhood life when things were simple, neat, and organized just so. Nothing halfway.


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