Alison Bechdel seeks enlightenment through fitness

Last week I sent a picture of my bumped face to a doctor friend, with the question, “So do you think I need stitches?” It had happened hours earlier, during my fifth surf lesson. After briefly catching a huge one foot wave, I fell off my board and out into the Pacific. My body jumped like it had been thrown in the washing machine, along with my massive foam surfboard. Before I could cover my face I felt it –CLICK!– a plastic fin on my eyebrow. I resurfaced, stunned and touched my temple. The cut was bleeding considerably, as do head wounds, more bark than bite. As I walked back to the beach, I heard a 12 year old boy swinging nearby yelling, “Whoa! Holy shit!

Surfing, I understand, is 90% of learning to read the ocean and modify your actions to accommodate it. In no other sport does the track, court or terrain change like the ocean, day by day, every moment. The bleeding from the face was humiliating. Not just because the wave that caused it was a foot tall, nor because a 12-year-old timed it. But because it reminded me of how insignificant I am, barely a drop in the Pacific Ocean, completely subject to its whims. Maybe it was the dizziness from the loss of blood, but dragging my board to the beach felt like I had lost my sense of myself. It was release. I suspect Alison Bechdel would understand this sentiment.

Bechdel is known for its cartoons, especially Fun house and Dikes to watch, rather than his athleticism. But his latest book, The secret of superhuman strength, released this week, makes a strong case for the intrinsic interdependence of creativity, spirituality and a high heart rate. As detailed in the new graphics brief, Bechdel spent his 60 years on Earth trying out all the solo sports and all the trendy workouts under the sun. She has been swimming, running, karate, alpine skiing, cross country skiing, cycling, yoga, hiking – the list goes on. Bechdel doesn’t talk about surfing in his book, but I channeled his athletic enthusiasm on my recent morning beach trips.

(Photo: Courtesy of HMH Books)

The book opens with an introduction to today’s Alison, and then we return to little Alison in the hospital, immediately out of her mother’s arms. Bechdel was born in 1960, so each decade of her life fits perfectly into a new calendar decade. The secret of superhuman strength is divided accordingly. We follow the writer through his teenage years, his years of writing in New York, cartooning in Minnesota and finally settling in Vermont. This memoir intersects with the others of Bechdel.Fun house talks about his relationship with his father, and Are you my mother?, his mom, who both play supporting roles in this book. We meet Alison’s girlfriends (many of them), her workaholic tendencies and her anxieties Fun housemassive and unexpected success of.

Each of these stages of life is explored through the prism of athletics and the outdoors. During her freshman year of college, Bechdel proudly climbed a 20-foot wall meant for team-building exercises – which, she realizes in hindsight, seeded her the (false and damaging) idea that ‘she didn’t need anyone but herself, a theme that resonates throughout her 50s. After his father’s death by suicide, Bechdel copes by dipping his physical and emotional energy into training at a female-only karate dojo. As Bechdel delves into the stress of writing cartoons full time in her thirties, she rides up and down a Vermont mountain by the deadline, just to maintain a sense of control.

Sure, The secret of superhuman strength could represent an entertaining look at the rise of various American training trends on its own. But it’s much more than that, because Bechdel’s running, cycling and skiing provide the backdrop for his own spiritual and creative development. In his thirties, Bechdel moves to countryside Vermont, where his obsession with work ravages his sleep schedule and bleeds into his relationships. “Whether I had to choose between only going downhill or only going uphill for the rest of my life – an existential question that I often thought about,” Bechdel writes of road biking in Vermont in his thirties, “I would take the climb.” When a girlfriend asks Bechdel what life might be like if it didn’t always rise metaphorically, Bechdel tells her, “I … I wouldn’t deserve to exist?” Many endurance-oriented readers could relate to this.

With this book, Bechdel establishes his place in a long line of progressive thinkers who have sought spiritual growth through physical activity. Bechdel bounces between her own biography and those of other eminent writers whose passion for exercise and the outdoors has influenced their creative lives: the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who took week-long solo walking tours, abandoning his wife and children to do so; Margaret fuller, the Transcendentalist who often escaped the hustle and bustle of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to take nature walks; and Beat the writer Jack Keroac who, in his semi-autobiographical novel Dharma tramps, found Buddhism by climbing Matterhorn Peak (named for its resemblance to the Matterhorn in the Alps) in the Sierra Nevada of California.

In interweaving its history with the great ”, Bechel is located in the Jock Literary Canon. (She would hate if I called her a jock – she rejects the term in the introduction to the book – but, come on. You’ve written a complete training book, you’re a jock.) In her words, the physical activity has always “Gave me the illusion that I could somehow avoid death.” It is common knowledge that regular exercise is linked to increased life expectancy, but Bechdel is not that literal. Through rigorous movements, she always tries to find the solution that will unlock something in her and heal her.

It is clear that Bechdel put the experience of Kerouac, as detailed in Dharma tramps, on a spiritual pedestal. The novel follows Kerouac and the poet Gary Snyder climbing and camping on Matterhorn Peak, discussing Buddhist ideology, escaping city life, and finding an unexpected serenity in the expedition. “The fact that they did this before it was really a thing has always fascinated me,” Bechdel says at the start of his book. Indeed, it is his MO: find his Matterhorn, write to him Dharma Bums. She ran laps around her central Pennsylvania town in the 1970s, when jogging was hardly a thing; she practiced yoga in the 1980s, before there was a CorePower on every corner; she did bodyweight exercises in the 90s when they were becoming all the rage. With each new training, a new ray of hope comes to Bechdel: Maybe that that will be what will correct me, it will perhaps be my Matterhorn.

You shouldn’t read The secret of superhuman strength if you are really looking for the secret of superhuman strength. No new way of working brings spiritual ecstasy. Towards the end of the book, Bechdel and his wife, Holly, climb Matterhorn Peak. And wouldn’t you know? They don’t achieve nirvana. In fact, the closest Bechdel to enlightenment is an early book afternoon, early twenties, enjoying Central Park on magic mushrooms. “I could see that my self– the self indicated by my driver’s license, locked in that skin, thinking that thought – was not real, ”says Bechdel. “I knew I had caught a glimpse of the true nature of things.” She always tries to drive that feeling away. Sometimes she almost gets it back, but it always fades away.

Despite cracking my face open on a fin, I spent the last week browsing the Facebook marketplace to buy a used surfboard. I am addicted to the new sport. While I hope it doesn’t just happen through a facial injury, I’m chasing the same sporting euphoria Bechdel does all along. The secret of superhuman strength– this feeling of losing myself in the face of my own feeling of total exhaustion, of what nature felt that day. Reading Bechdel’s book during my early days of surfing breathed existential meaning into my quest. Maybe I too can be a part of the Canon Jock Literary.

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Main photo: Steve Jennings / Getty

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