Josna Rege

57. Toughening Up

In 1960s, 1970s, Greece, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on July 11, 2010 at 4:48 am

During the summer that I worked at the Merit gas station, a boy of seven or eight used to come by to visit.  He must have lived in the working-class neighborhood on the Allston side of Cambridge Street, behind the old-world market that always had sun-faded, handwritten signs in the window for delicacies like pickled pigs’ feet and blood pudding. He might have been Romani, or perhaps Italian American; in any case, he was a serious person, clearly someone who thought about things. One day when we were both washing our hands at the station’s industrial sink, he remarked on my using hot water in the summer. When I asked why, he explained that he did not wash with hot water unless it was absolutely necessary, but made it a point to use cold as much as possible, “to toughen myself up.”

We used to toughen ourselves up when we were children, too. In Athens at the same age I played with a group of neighborhood boys at the base of Mount Lykabettos. We would make bows from string and supple green branches and arrows from straight sticks which we notched at one end. I don’t remember what our targets were, but I do remember that after playing bows and arrows in the woods we would set ourselves the challenge of racing up a steep, cliff-like face of the mountain. This involved leaping and clambering over a rocky moraine and then making the steep ascent up great jagged boulders, finding clefts and footholds where we could. But first we had to pass bare-legged through a lightly wooded area thick with stinging nettles. It was a point of honor not to flinch at the stings, simply to push on through until we had reached the rocks. It was probably even more important for me to prove what I was made of, being the only girl in the group, though to be fair to the boys, they never made me feel like an outsider.

In our garden in Kharagpur I set myself a solitary challenge: walking barefoot on the coarse red gravel paths around the house and up to the front gate. I perfected a way of treading lightly enough, and with the muscles under the balls of my feet relaxed enough, that I felt no pain and my skin was never scathed. My goal was to toughen up my soles so as to be able to walk freely on any surface.

Interestingly enough, I don’t remember boasting about these exploits to anyone else, especially not to any adults; meeting the challenges we set ourselves was a matter of personal pride. I suspect that my solemn little Spartan in Allston had never told anyone else about his cold-water pact with himself. He knew, and that was enough. It made him hold his head a little higher and face the world with greater confidence and self-respect.

Alas, I have grown soft these many years. Perhaps a cold shower and a run through a field of nettles is just what I need.

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  1. dear josna: nettles sound like self flagellation to me at this point… i’m thinking that softness might not be the worst weakness these days, but a cold shower: wonderful for slimmings and trimmings and, by the way, the thing to dream of in 38 celcius degrees in tropical bremen today…it’s not letting up!

  2. Hi Sabine, Thanks for the endorsement of softness. Now that you mention it, running through nettles does sound rather like self-punishment, though it was more exhilarating than painful at the time, and the herbalists say that nettles are supposed to be very good for the circulation—bracing! I’ve was just reading about how extremely hot it’s been in Germany. Hope it cools down for you soon, and in the meantime, here’s to cold showers! x J

  3. Josna, This is another lovely piece. It reminds me that at seven and eight kids used to roam their neighborhoods freely, but I can already see this toughness with my more restricted boys, especially the nine-year-old. It’s an odd kind of toughness though. It can still evaporate if there’s a chance he can get some Mommy sympathy.

    • Yes, Maureen, so true. I hope our kids’ generation have some equivalent of that free roaming that is a place for them to nurture their own independence. They have to hold some part of themselves apart, private. But yes, at the same time they need to be able to melt freely as well, and to know that they will always be enfolded in soft and loving arms.

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