The Winding Road Om--By Steven Bertozzi

Steven Bertozzi is a humanities teacher, a beloved dog-dad, and a devoted friend and partner. He's also got the best dance moves on the floor and a sense of humor that keeps the dark days bearable. I (Arrington) met Steven on the first day of our first year of college. He's been a best friend ever since. And this year, for my birthday, he shared his Human Becomings essay with me, which now I get to share with each of you. 


“Nope! Absolutely not.”

Needless to say, this was not the reassurance I was looking for as I lay on my back, my right leg lifted ever so slightly into the air.

After registering what must have been a particularly unflattering expression on my part, he conceded slightly, “Well, I suppose you can try…But, it’s not going to be pretty.”

His assistant gave a slight laugh, nodded her head in agreement and smiled at me warmly.

I couldn’t help but be a little obsessed with these two. I was going on my third physical therapy session, and, for better or worse, I had never felt more in touch with my body.

I relished any tidbit or insight they shared. Truthfully, they seemed equally fascinated by me. Perhaps this isn’t the right term – I was a rare breed, helpless in a way that triggered both their curiosity and pity. It was only ten minutes into my first visit that the PT shared with me, in a surprisingly bubbly tone, that I was, “without exaggeration,” one of the three most inflexible people he’d ever met.

Clearly this was not a cause for celebration. And yet, I found myself oddly excited by this worrisome achievement. I’d reached the bottom – and there was nowhere to go but up.

I signed up for two more sessions immediately.

“So, if yoga’s out of the question, what do you recommend?”  I was both genuinely curious and a little troubled. I hadn’t expected him to so emphatically reject the notion that I might join a local studio.

“You’ll need to start slow. Set aside thirty minutes a day – trust me, from where you are now, you’ll start noticing a difference in no time”. He handed me a double-sided page of what I assumed were simple stretches. I left the office convinced that things would change. I’d be touching my toes by the end of the month. But, as too often seems to be the case, thirty minutes the first day turned into ten the next, and, by the end of the first week, the list of stretches was buried under a pile of papers waiting to be graded on my desk.

*

In high school, I was lazy. Bags of Tostito chips, boxes of chocolate covered raisins, and reruns of Disney Channel original movies were all too common staples. I was anxious and insecure, and I had given up sports at the start of my freshman year. Attending a school that prided itself on its three-season fitness requirement, I found myself signing up for activities that I had little interest in but that fit inside my “comfort zone”: beginner’s self-defense, intro to aerobics, squash for newbies. They were enjoyable, certainly. But never once in my high school career did I feel proud of any athletic accomplishment.

I wasn’t always like this. As a kid, I loved being active. I was hardly the most talented player on my traveling soccer league, but I was fast, disciplined and a valuable asset to the team. I found fulfillment in the outdoors: growing up, my backyard was a treasure trove of possibility. I had an active imagination and would create dazzling pirate adventures and high-octane action sequences for hours on end.

As I came face to face with adolescence, however, my sense of adventure waned and my years as an “indoor kid” took shape.

So, what changed? I’m still working it out. As I became increasingly aware that I was attracted to men, I found myself embracing opportunities to hide myself away from other guys my age. Ironic, isn’t it? It’s hard to imagine growing up in a more accepting environment. And yet, no matter how tolerant my family was, or how many positive gay role models there were in my life (and there were many: teachers, friends, camp counselors, family members), I could not breakthrough my own unwillingness to accept the young man I knew deep down I was. I was confused, scared, and incredibly hard on myself.  Rather than face (let alone embrace) my feelings, I tried to create as “safe” a space as possible. The end result: not much.

Which is not to say that I regret all my decisions in high school. I’m still incredibly close with a tightknit group of friends. I took risks and embraced many of the opportunities I was afforded – but I could have done more. I should have done more.

Things began to change in the fall of my senior year when I went in for my annual physical.  At the end of the appointment, I found myself face to face with a graph illustrating my weight gain over the last few years. I was hardly obese, but it was clear my physician was troubled by my sheepish responses to questions about fitness.

“If you keep going at this rate,” he said, pointing to the graph, “I’m concerned you’re going to be unhappy”. Those words have stuck with me for over a decade. Unhappy. It was blunt. It was upsetting. And, while I couldn’t admit it at the time, it was just what I needed to hear. Someone else – someone who I had no emotional attachment to, someone who I could not lash out at or ignore – had, with such simplicity, challenged me to rise to the occasion.

*

I was first introduced to running in the winter of my senior year. Determined to get myself moving again, I hesitantly signed up for ‘winter running’ as my fitness requirement. It was brutal, and I looked for any excuse to avoid our daily practices. None of my close friends were willing to join me, so most afternoons, I found myself trailing my classmates at a distance as I jogged down blustery, slush-coated streets. Granted, a New England winter is not the best place to foster a love of running. But at the end of three months, with my final weeks of high school on the horizon, what hadn’t yet blossomed into love was certainly leaning towards appreciation.

By the end of that first summer, running had reignited a spark – something resembling pride, purpose, perhaps even self-confidence. Whatever it was, it had been missing, and I was happy to have it back.

Over the next several years, running played many roles in my life. In college, it allowed me to explore and appreciate the beauty of rural Ohio (it also didn’t hurt that I was burning off calories from the dining hall’s all-you-can-eat s’mores pizza buffet). When my mom was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, running cleared my head, and I was able to find an escape in my pop-heavy playlists. Four years later, as I was settling into my first job teaching outside of Boston, she passed away; it was these same upbeat playlists (now heavily featuring Gaga and Glee covers), and my feet carrying me forward, that helped me rebuild. At twenty-three, as I prepared to come out to the most important people in my life, running gave me comfort and inspiration. And the next year, when I moved to Scotland for grad school, it was through a gay urban running league (affectionately referred to as GURL) that I met my first long-term boyfriend.

That was also the year I decided to train for a half marathon. After seven years of running casually (for it really can only be described as that), I figured it was time to give it a try. Yes, running had kept me in decent shape, but it was rare that I would go for more than three or four miles at a time. My friend Jeff and I decided we would train together, pushing ourselves to the tops of Arthur’s Seat and Blackford Hill. For me, crossing the finish line was not about distance or time. It was about growing up. It was about finally saying goodbye to the insecurities that had held me back.

*

One year later, and I was lying on the table at the PT office -- a combination of having last stretched in early middle school and muscle weakness forcing my knees to overcompensate. I had taken a teaching and residential life position at a boarding school back in the States. My job was eating up my life. Perhaps more accurately: I was allowing my job to eat up my life. Having spent the last twelve months relishing in the independence and wonder of my time in Edinburgh, I was ill equipped for how lost I would feel upon my return.

The job provided challenges that I had never had to face – and in those early months, I found myself retreating from the self-confidence that had taken me so long to build.  I found solace in the company of other new teachers (many of them also lost in the haze of this unfamiliar environment), but I struggled to find joy in what I was doing.

It was not until a frustrated student yelled that I was faggot in the middle of a class that I was able to shake off my self-pity and begin to reclaim my voice. No one had ever used a homophobic slur against me so directly – and I was surprised by how quickly I agreed when the Head of School asked if I would be willing to talk about my reaction to the experience during a school assembly. I stood up, and I took a risk; I believe the positive response I received had less to do with me sharing about my sexuality and more to do with my willingness to share at all.

Students, like all people, respond to authenticity.

My experiences in high school had taught me this much: if I were too afraid to be myself, if I felt the need to hide or apologize for any part of me, I would always be holding back. In the weeks and months that followed, I started to seek out leadership opportunities, advocate for myself, and find opportunities to thrive as an educator.

And yet, while I worked hard to find success professionally during those two years, I was all too ready to shut the door on fitness. On the rare evenings where I had no work commitments, I was more likely to recharge with Netflix and premade frozen cookie dough than to hit the back roads of rural Connecticut.

When a coworker invited me for an eight mile run that first January, I wasn’t quite fully aware yet how out of shape I had become.  But as I limped around campus for the next couple of days, it became clear that I had let myself go for a little too long.

As is to be expected, the PTs recommended stretches didn’t do me any good hidden away under a pile of papers. But it was easier to make personal excuses than personal improvements, and over the course of my time at this school – a genuinely difficult, albeit rewarding, environment – the excuses added up. 

*

My move to Cleveland in the summer of 2014 provided an opportunity for me to rebuild and recharge. As I trekked out to Ohio along I-90 – Skylar, my adopted hound mix, looking particularly anxious on the passenger seat – I relished in the excitement and uncertainty of this new beginning. I had only been to Cleveland twice before – once for a few hours in the fall of 2008 for an Obama campaign rally, and again for two brutally frigid days in the March before my move to interview for my new position. I had two friends from college living in the area and a welcoming group of new coworkers, but other than that, Cleveland was an unknown.

I had moved into a small (I would argue adorable) house in Ohio City, an eclectic neighborhood on Cleveland’s near west side. For the first two weeks I lived there, I had almost no furniture other than a couch, a mattress-less bed frame, and a portable kitchen-island that I had purchased from the previous tenant. She had also generously left me a list of must-dos, an illustrated guidebook to Cleveland’s neighborhoods, and a celebratory bottle of champagne. And as I explored and adjusted to my new surroundings in those early days, it did indeed feel like a celebration. Skylar quickly became familiar with the baristas at dog-friendly coffee shops, I began to test the waters of online dating, and together we enjoyed strolling through many of the neighborhood’s music and food festivals.

For as long as I have lived in Cleveland, there has been a palpable sense of excitement associated with the city’s revival – a readiness to shake off the cobwebs that I could feel mirrored in my own experience.

The previous tenant’s brilliantly compiled must-do list never seemed to steer me wrong (as promised, it did indeed lead me to northeast Ohio’s most ‘kick ass’ margaritas); I am especially grateful, however, for one recommendation: a recently opened exercise studio in nearby Lakewood. The studio is located in repurposed factory that now houses, among other things, a t-shirt company, an escape room, studios for local artists, and a CrossFit gym. I began attending Zumba classes there multiple times a week – first by myself and then, just a few short weeks later, with Drew, the man I am now lucky enough to call my fiancé.

I’ve always been a sucker for self-empowering, “pump up” jams (it’s hard to express, for instance, how excited I get during the opening beats of Gloria Estefan’s “Conga”), so between the uplifting music and the pure joy that comes from dancing with a group of relative strangers (side note: in 2011 I’d proudly ticked being in a choreographed flash mob off my bucket list), I cannot think of a class more perfectly suited to my tastes. And while I cannot deny how much fun I was having, I wasn’t yet pushing myself out of my comfort zone in ways I knew I needed.

By the end of that summer, I routinely arrived to the studio early in order to watch the final minutes of the preceding yoga class. I remembered how liberated I had felt when I had left the physical therapist’s office two years prior: Nowhere to go but up. Perhaps, as the PT had suggested, I wasn’t ready; I was convinced I would feel foolish and out of place. As someone who had never practiced, I had always imagined yoga to be somewhat exclusive. Either you could do it, or you couldn’t. And if you couldn’t, why even try? But, I’d been down this road of insecurity before, and I knew that I needed to get out of my own head.

That Labor Day, I found myself on a yoga mat for the first time. It was just as uncomfortable and awkward as I imagined it would be, and yet, there was also something undeniably rewarding and exciting about this discomfort. I had gone into that first class with one (in retrospect, simplistic and irrelevant) goal in mind: to learn how to touch my toes. Two years later, and, I have to admit, I’m not quite there yet.

What I did learn, however – and I credit this to the overwhelming awesomeness of my teacher, Jennifer – is that yoga is, at its core, about authenticity. More specifically, it’s about the authenticity of self.

At the end of each class, Jennifer invites us to join her in the following recitation:

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness. May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May all beings never be parted from freedom’s true joy. May all beings dwell in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.

It’s taken me a while to wrap my head around the ‘attachment’ piece. Initially, I found it a bit nonsensical: How can our lives possibly have meaning without attachment to others? I’ve never had a conversation with Jen about it, but as I’ve grappled with it further, and have taken time to reflect on the defining moments in my own life (coming out, accepting new jobs, moving to Cleveland, proposing), I’ve come to look at it from a different angle.

Happiness is not something that has always come easy to me. For most of my young adulthood, I limited my experiences simply because I was afraid to be myself. My attachment was to fear, insecurity and self-doubt. Growing up, these attachments kept me from being active, from taking risks, and from fully embracing my identity. And while I still continue to struggle with them, I no longer allow them to be barriers to hide behind.

On Saturday mornings, Drew and I take Skylar on a walk around the neighborhood, stopping at our (and his) favorite coffee shop, before heading to a 10am yoga class. It’s been the same routine for two years. And honestly, there are few things in this world that make me happier. Nuzzled into the simplicity of this routine is the realization that I am exactly where I want to be.


This story is part of the Human Becomings Story Series. Please consider sharing your own story of becoming with the wider world. Submissions to this series will be posted as available. Visit "Your Story" for instructions and details.