Be a Guide Dog, Not a Pack Mule

Wednesdays at 5:30 AM, my favorite gym class is totally insane. It's hard to believe that many people in the Portland suburbs are willing to get up at the crack of dawn to stake out a 3'x5' piece of territory in a mirrored room, but it's true. I take this same class every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the same time, but the Wednesday instructor has a following that borders on celebrity status. By 5:15, it's literally wall to wall people, jockeying for position and laying claim to the required implements of torture-barbells, dumb bells, and mats. I'm often amused by the gender differences in the class, with the dudes racking and stacking their weights even if it means their form sucks and they risk injury. The ladies tend to use too little weight to do any real good, for fear of looking overly muscular.

I gave my niece a 3-month membership for her 20th birthday and since she's living with us to go to college in Portland, she comes with me, even though the hour is rough for a young adult who stays up way too late, making Snapchat videos and Facetiming friends. Most nights she spends the night with her #notmyboyfriend and meets me there unless she forgets to bring her gym clothes with her. I know she's not really accustomed to getting up this early, nor to working out on a regular basis, but when she says she wants to get in shape and be more independent, I choose to believe her. And with the full recognition that she has no idea what that even means, nor how to get there. Luckily, I was 20 once, and I've learned a thing or two since then.

By the time she rolled into class this morning, it was 5:25 AM and there was literally no place to fit herself in without asking a couple of people to move to each side and make room for her. She knows how packed Wednesdays are and that in order to get a spot and be ready when the class starts, she needs to arrive no later than 5:15 AM. I was already set up and ready to go, as was everyone else in the room. She rushed in breathless and I said hi and gave her a quick hug. I had a decision to make and instead of doing the easy thing, the most comfortable thing and the thing that the majority of other people would do, I did the right thing. I did the thing that would have the biggest payoff for Rachel, the thing that would move her game piece the farthest toward the goal of independence. I did nothing.

Rachel had to get a step platform, 4 risers, a bar, a mat and 4 sets of weights of various sizes to add to the bar. This meant multiple trips back and forth to the other end of the large room, where all of them are stored. And she needed to do all of this after first asking two adults, total strangers to please move their stuff to make room for her. It was a perfect moment, an ideal opportunity to learn from the consequences of not being there on time. Everyone else was ready, the instructor would most certainly start on time. It was a lot of effort in a very short window of time and I did not help her, even though I could see the confused and judgmental looks of some of the other women who know we are related.

But what would she learn if I had saved her ass? How will she grow if I'm the one who picks up the slack, carries her weight, and makes up for her lack of planning? That might sound harsh or even mean spirited, but I can assure you that I am absolutely devoted to this girl. I want a better life for her than one in which she always has to rely on others because she can't seem to get her shit together. I am holding space for her to learn to take full responsibility, show up for herself in a way that ensures success and most importantly, makes herself proud. In order for that to happen, I can't be co-dependent with her. I need to be her guide dog, showing her the way, not her pack mule, carrying her weight.

I remember how many times I didn't think ahead, waited until the last minute and totally underestimated how long things would take, guaranteeing I would show up unprepared, late and slightly disheveled. It felt like ass and my self talk in those moments was a complete shit show. But, it motivated me to get my act together and break those habits, precisely because it felt like ass. I never would have learned from my mistakes if I'd had a pack mule, carrying my weight, dragging me up the hill and making me dependent on others. I can deal with the discomfort of knowing I'm doing the unconventional thing, because my eyes are on the prize, standing at the top of the mountain with my niece, together.


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