Julia Sweeney and Muscle Memory: Going Through the Motions

During a recent trip to Los Angeles I sat in the studio audience during a taping of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show, “Letting Go of God.”

Sweeney is best known for her hilarious portrayal of Pat, the person of indecipherable gender on “Saturday Night Live.” (My favorite episode: Pat’s colleagues try to trick Pat into revealing his or her gender by asking what Pat’s mother said when she first saw the newborn Pat. “My mother said, ‘Oh good! It’s a …. baby!'” Pat replies.)

“Letting Go of God,” which Sweeney said she hopes will debut in movie version at the Toronto Film Festival, is a serious story told with Sweeney’s signature humor. When Sweeney informs her mother she no longer believes in God, her mother says, “But you’re not going stop going to church, are you?”

Sweeney and I met at my brother’s wedding because my brother (Peter Martin Nelson) is her attorney. After the show, I asked her about focus. “How can you say the same lines over and over without getting distracted by things that are going on in the audience, or in your own head?” I asked.

“It’s all about muscle memory,” she replied, surprising me by quoting my own book, We Are All Athletes, back to me.

“I keep thinking about how you say you’ve got to do something a thousand times to groove it. That’s true whether it’s throwing a ball or delivering lines. I can’t possibly be fully present for every line I deliver, especially not during a taping, when it goes on for hours.

“But my body knows the material now. So I can be thinking about that guy in the front row who’s snoring, and feeling annoyed at him, and worrying that everyone’s going to walk out — but at the same time I can talk about Mormons or Buddhists or my cat. Because it’s in my muscle memory. My body knows it.”

Our bodies know so much. And so much of what we do is based on muscle memory — a fancy term for habit. How and when we get out of bed. How we relax, or don’t, in the shower. What we reach for, when we reach for food.

Buddhists urge us to be aware of each moment, and I admire that goal, and even strive for it (though striving is very un-Buddhist) but total moment-by-moment awareness is unrealistic for modern Americans.

Mostly, we “go through the motions.”

Those motions are based in large part on what we’ve “rehearsed” thousands of times in the past.

Mariah Burton Nelson

American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation



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