Testing the limits is women's work -- and also play


Janet Daley and her friends spent a day in the woods, where they climbed a 30-foot tree and jumped off. Then they rappelled down a wall and crossed a river on a tightrope.

While her 8-year-old daughter cruised through swim-team training in a lane nearby, Nancy Roberts pushed down years of panic only to find she was not strong enough to complete even one length of the pool. It would be weeks, battling anxiety attacks, before she had stamina enough to do it.

Margie Lawlor kept dancing when her daughters quit. And if you did not notice the subtle signs of age in her graceful arms, you could not tell her from the dancers on stage young enough to be her grandchildren.

The lives of women are, by definition, physical. From childbearing to grocery bags, we test the limits of our strength every day. What compels us, now that the toddlers are off our hips, to find a new form of exertion?

"There is something about now that makes us want to do this," says Janet, of Towson, who celebrated her 40th birthday at an outdoor challenge camp.

"It is a biological clock thing. The same clock that said, 'Have kids,' is now saying, 'Go for it!' "

This is beyond exercise class. Not something we do to flatten our tummies. We are looking for ways to walk the boundaries of our physical lives before we are stuck in a rocking chair on the porch. And to face the limits of our courage.

"I did it mainly because I wanted to be in the pool with the kids," says Nancy, an Annapolis mother of two who wondered what she would do in a crisis now that her children have outgrown the shallow end.

"As soon as the water went past my shoulders, I had this horrible panic, worse than high anxiety. I didn't want to be ruled by that anymore."

She signed up for swimming lessons, and her fear was so great that she began by dangling her feet in the water and talking with the instructor. When she was brave enough to attempt a lap of the pool, she was devastated to find that she did not have the strength to do it.

"I was really aggravated and annoyed and disappointed and surprised," she says. "I'd look over and see these 8-year-olds swimming back and forth for 40 minutes, and I couldn't do it one time."

The panic has receded now, and Nancy can explore another sensation. "I feel more comfortable with my body and what it can do. I like to feel my muscles move."

Margie is no newcomer to dance. She began 14 years ago, at the age of 36, when an exercise instructor suggested she try it. Since then, she has found a dance studio in each of the stops in her husband's Navy career. Now in Annapolis, she was one of the most accomplished modern dancers in Stephanie Powell's ambitious student recital this spring.

"Physically, I feel very privileged," she says. "I started when most women are starting to get back pains. Now, I feel very attuned to my body."

Margie dances three or four times a week for several hours -- ballet, modern, African. She loves dancing in the summer heat best. She feels the sweat begin and then her muscles unfold, growing supple and fluid as oil. "I like those feelings."

The Genessee Valley Outdoor Learning Center in Parkton is no state-park fitness trail, but neither is it something out of a Marine Corps commercial. The challenges Janet Daley and her friends faced were within their physical abilities -- just slightly beyond their guts.

Among them: Climb a tree by digging fingers and shoe tips into glorified staples. Once at the platform -- 30 feet up and no bigger than a sheet of paper -- jump, trusting friends to hang on to the cables that held them in an elaborate Peter Pan harness.

"I loved it," said Mindy Roche. "It was like free-falling."

"I was terrified," said Laura Nusbaum. "I told them to go on with the rest of their lives. I wasn't coming down.

"The instructor told us to think of letting go of a fear, and that helped," said Ellen Xanders.

After that, the rappel wall and the rope across the river were child's play for the women. More or less.

"After it was over," said Mindy, "I felt like it was the best day of my life."

The young women guides, who began the day unimpressed with this pack of mothers from Towson who had demanded to get dirty, ended the day with new regard.

"We wanted to see if we still had it," says Janet. "They told us we did."

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