Alison Bechdel seeks enlightenment through fitness

Last week I wrote a photo of my bruised face to a doctor friend and asked, “So do you think I need stitches?” It had happened hours before, during my fifth surfing lesson. After briefly catching a whopping 1 foot wave, I tumbled off my board into the Pacific. My body whipped like it had been tossed in the washing machine along with my massive foam surfboard. Before I could cover my face I felt it – THWACK! – a plastic fin on my eyebrow. I felt dizzy and touched my temple. The cut was bleeding dramatically, like head wounds, more bark than bite. As I paddled back to the beach, I heard a 12 year old boy nearby scream, “Whoa! Holy shit! ”

While surfing, I learn 90 percent of the time how to read the ocean and change your actions to take it into account. In no other sport does the track, pitch or field change like the ocean from day to day and from moment to moment. Bleeding from the face felt humble. Not just because the wave that caused it was a foot high, nor because a 12-year-old clocked it. But because it reminded me of how insignificant I am, barely a drop in the Pacific, totally subject to its whims. Maybe it was the dizziness caused by blood loss, but when I dragged my board to the beach I felt like I had lost my confidence. It was Liberation. I suspect that Alison Bechdel would understand the feeling.

Bechdel is better known for her cartoons, especially Fun Home and Dykes To Watch Out For For, than her athleticism. But her latest book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, published this week, makes a strong case for the intrinsic interconnection of creativity, spirituality, and an increased heart rate. As detailed in the new graphic memoir, Bechdel spent her 60 years on earth trying out every solo sport and workout fad under the sun. She has studied swimming, running, karate, skiing, cross-country skiing, biking, yoga, and hiking – the list goes on. Bechdel doesn’t talk about surfing in her book, but I channeled her athletic enthusiasm during my recent morning beach trips.

(Photo: Courtesy HMH Books)

The book begins with an introduction by today’s Alison, and then we jump back to baby Alison at the hospital, who was instantly wiped out of her mother’s arms. Bechdel was born in 1960, so each decade of her life fits perfectly with a new calendar decade. The secret of superhuman strength is divided accordingly. We follow the writer through her youth, through her years as a writer in New York, as an illustrator in Minnesota, and finally as a settler in Vermont. These memoirs overlap with Bechdel’s others – Fun Home is about her relationship with her father and Are You My Mother ?, your mother, both of whom play a supporting role in this book. We meet Alison’s girlfriends (many of them), her workaholic tendencies, and her fears over the massive, unexpected success of Fun Home.

Each of these phases of life is explored through the lens of athletics and nature. In her freshman year of college, Bechdel proudly climbs a 20-foot wall designed for team building exercises – only to find out in retrospect that she planted the (false, harmful) idea that she just needed someone herself, a resonant subject through their 50s. After her father dies by suicide, Bechdel copes by immersing her physical and emotional energy in training at a karate dojo for women. While Bechdel delves into the stresses of full-time cartoon writing in her thirties, she runs up and down a mountain in Vermont during the Deadline just to maintain a sense of control.

Sure, The Secret to Superhuman Strength could stand alone as a fun throwback to the rise of various American training trends. But it is much more than that, because Bechdel’s running, cycling and skiing serve as a backdrop for their own spiritual and creative development. In her 30s, Bechdel moves to rural Vermont where her obsession with work ravages her sleeping schedule and feeds into her relationships. “If I had to decide whether I wanted to go all downhill or just uphill for the rest of my life – an existential question that I’ve thought about a lot,” writes Bechdel of Vermont racing in his thirties. When a friend asks Bechdel what life could be like if she doesn’t always go uphill metaphorically, Bechdel says to her: “I … I didn’t deserve to exist?” Many perseverance-minded readers could relate to it.

With this book, Bechdel establishes her place in a long line of progressive thinkers who have sought spiritual growth through physical activity. Bechdel vacillates between her own biography and that of other prominent writers whose passion for movement and nature shaped her creative life: the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who went on week-long solo hiking tours and abandoned his wife and children in the process; Margaret Fuller, the transcendentalist who often escaped the hustle and bustle of Cambridge, Massachusetts to go for nature walks; and beat writer Jack Keroac, who found Buddhism in his semi-autobiographical novel The Dharma Bums while climbing Matterhorn Peak (named for its resemblance to the Matterhorn in the Alps) in California’s Sierra Nevada.

in the Bechel connects her story with that of the greats and positions herself in the Jock Literary Canon. (She’d hate if I call her a jock – she rejects the term in the introduction to the book – but come on. You wrote a full book on training, you’re a jock.) In her words was physical Activity always “gave me the illusion that there was some way to ward off death.” It’s common knowledge that regular exercise is linked to increased life expectancy, but Bechdel isn’t that literal. Through rigorous movements, she always tries to find the solution that unlocks something in her – and makes her healthy.

It is clear that Bechdel put Kerouac’s experience on a spiritual pedestal, as described in The Dharma Bums. The novel follows Kerouac and the poet Gary Snyder, who climbs and camps on Matterhorn Peak, talks about Buddhist ideology, escapes city life and finds unexpected serenity on the expedition. “The fact that they did this before it was really a thing has always fascinated me,” says Bechdel early on in her book. Indeed, this is her MO: Find her Matterhorn, write her Dharma Bums. She was doing laps of her town in central Pennsylvania in the 1970s when jogging was hardly a thing. She practiced yoga in the 80s before there was a CorePower on every corner. She was exercising bodyweight in the 90s when they became fashionable. With every new training session, there is a new glimmer of hope in Bechdel: Maybe this is what fixes me, maybe this is my Matterhorn.

You shouldn’t read The Secret of Superhuman Strength if you are actually looking for the Secret of Superhuman Strength. No new way of exercising brings spiritual ecstasy. Towards the end of the book, Bechdel and her wife Holly climb Matterhorn Peak. And wouldn’t you know You do not reach nirvana. In fact, closest to enlightenment, Bechdel is in an early afternoon of the book, in his early twenties, enjoying Central Park with magic mushrooms. “I could see that my self – the self that is stated on my driver’s license, locked in this skin and thinking this thought – was not real,” says Bechdel. “I knew I had gotten a glimpse of the true nature of things.” She always tries to chase that feeling. Sometimes she almost gets it back, but it always fades.

Even though I cut my face open on a fin, I spent the last week browsing the Facebook marketplace to buy a used surfboard. I am excited about the new sport. I hope that this is not just due to a facial injury, but that I am pursuing the same athletic euphoria as Bechdel in The Secret to Superhuman Strength – the feeling of losing myself to my own sense of utter exhaustion, even when nature feels the day. Reading Bechdel’s book during my early surfing days made me feel existential. Maybe I can be part of the Jock Literary Canon too.

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