This is what 40-ish years of friendship looks like!
But what do I see? In my vanity, I see me. I see pudgy fingers, too full face-chin-neck, an oversize sweatshirt stretched over the too round belly. I see fluffy white old lady hair. This is not the me I want to see. This me doesn't look like... me.
Little N picks on me mercilessly about my current weight and size. He calls me "fatty" and criticizes my too big butt. His father, L, didn't talk to me exactly that way, but he, too, made it clear to me that I didn't look the way that he wanted me to. According to him, and to Little N, I used to be beautiful. I must complete an ambitious series of changes in a short amount of time in order to be beautiful... and worthy, and not teased or criticized, and good enough, again.
Usually I can resist the harsh criticism of my appearance. I can say back that I'm working on my health and that human bodies change with age. I can tell myself that the ideal they are comparing me to is a societal norm and unrealistic. But then I see a photo of myself and I'm startled and sad to see what I've become.
I don't like how I look.
I don't need to look young. Right? I need to look like me. So what does "me" look like at 40+? What do I want my physical appearance to convey to my partner, my friends, my critics, and everyone else about myself?
I want to exude qualities like: capable, competent, strong, smart, creative, present, attentive, real, genuine. Translating these things into cultural or societal parlance is tricky. Because so often they are only seen as young and thin. I'm not getting younger. I may get thinner but I doubt I'll ever be thin again. So how and where do I, as me, show up?
There's another piece to this besides how I look. I'm 43 and a half. My father was 44 when he died. So I've set myself a goal of practicing good health habits in such as way that they're my baseline lifestyle by 44. Roughly six months to adopt all the good information I've learned from the naturopath and therapist and make it mine. Make it me. Six months to transform my body inside and out.
It took years for my body to take on its current appearance. Years of struggling with an unsupportive spouse. Working dead end jobs. Wrestling with my mental health. Comforting myself with food. Flailing in the absence of the skills and information necessary to make my body healthy.
So I don't expect six months to return me to a lithe 120-ish pound size four with a lustrous bob and stylish clothes. I do expect to improve my bloodwork for sugars and cholesterol. Shed a few pounds. Drop a size (or two...). Decrease my windedness. Increase my stamina. Live a more active lifestyle. And generally feel more like me.
My hope is that when I feel more like me, then I'll look more like me. A makeover from the inside out. Where the inside is more important and urgent, and the outside is granted patience and grace. From me, to me.
Little N and I have been suffering a terrible cold. It's brutal - coughing up crud, oozing goo out the nose, headache and body aches, firey throat... But let me tell you, I like being sick. Not the sickness part of it so much, but the permission to rest, to detach from the haste and obligations of daily life, to watch the light make its way around our rooms until darkness settles in. The time and space to just be.
That is how we recover from illness - sleep and fluids. It's one way that I recover from life. A little respite from the requirements. A little grace for something more real.
The dissonance is a kind of pressure on me. What is real to me versus what is required. The requirements get so much more time, attention, and money, than what is real. And the pressure makes me so very tired. It's hard to think, hard to make decisions, hard to create anything, to connect with people, hard to find any inspiration.
My younger self, even up to a couple of years ago, rarely got sick but often took mental health days. I would just get so fatigued... I'd check out for a day or a long weekend, recover myself, and return to work. But since starting this job I've seen my sick days increase - to include actual illness. I try to manage it pretty closely so that I'm not penalized for my days off, but between "reactivated mono" last year and this terrible cold this year, my data points aren't looking very good. I care and I don't. Because I know that I need the job to pay for my life. Because the job is so stinking meaningless and gets in the way of what is meaningful to me.
Meaningful is friendship, care-giving and care-receiving. It's creating. It's movement. Thinking. Reading. Sharing ideas, time, creations. Autonomy. Interaction. And in my current configuration of job, commute, parenting, money... I don't get to meaningful as often as I seem to want to... need to. I suspect that if my job offered more meaning, or if my daily routine offered more time for what is meaningful to me, my body would be healthier, my immune system stronger.
So I get sick.
Of course, sickness isn't actually a solution to the problems of meaning. When I'm sick I can't actually do the things that are meaningful to me. Sickness is a limbo space. Where I float between rote obligation and meaningful connection. Where I rest and regain the energy and perspective to continue to live in the tension between what affords my life and the little bit of life that I get to live genuinely.
I've been in therapy for the last seven years. And I think I'm burned out on it. I'm tired of talking about myself. I'm tired of listening to a therapist's perspective, questions, and suggestions. I want some quiet in my mind. I want some time to synthesize what I've heard; practice what I've learned. I want a pause from all the chatter.
This is a tricky decision to make, because I'm just coming out of a funk and still really struggling to do the daily self-care that my body needs. But that's just what I want to do - the doing part of these years of learning.
I expect that my therapist won't be keen on the idea. Maybe the naturopath won't be either. I believe that they see their work, together, as support for me to do the doing and since I haven't been consistently doing it maybe that looks like I need more support.
But it doesn't feel like support, these days. It feels distracting and disrupting. It feels like one more thing I have to do for someone else - keep an appointment. It feels inconvenient and, due to a billing error, suddenly expensive. A break, a pause, looks so freeing and open.
So what do I want to do with this pause that will make it worth the risk of declining my practitioner's support? How will I make this work for me? I'm drafting a routine for myself to include the daily practices necessary to heal my body and sustain my emotions and mind. Here's some of what that entails:
Tangled up in all this striving for good health and self care is something about my beliefs about myself and my life. Am I worth taking good care of? Do I want to be alive and for a long time? Is my life worth living and my work worth doing? Depression says, No. And again, no. Over and over until I'm too tired to resist and I yield to believing that the answer is always no.
It requires a vivid imagination and a good sense of humor to say, Yes.
The world is a big and chaotic place and I am small and, yes, meaningful, in the midst of it. My work as a secretary and as a mother is repetitive and mundane, and yes, it's worth doing well. My body is temporary, already bearing the toll of the years and, yes, it warrants persistent care and tending. Yes, because my tiny life touches other tiny lives and we matter to each other. Yes, because good is worth doing and being for each other. Yes, for laughter. Yes, for beauty. Yes, for comfort, sanctuary, and justice. Yes, for remembering important things and returning to them with the passion of awakening for the first time. Yes, because connection is real. Yes, because where there's a breath there's a hope. Yes, because I am here, now.
I don't and probably won't always remember to say, Yes. My imagination falters and my humor is pretty dark. But deep in my gut, where intuition and faith reside, yes simmers and bubbles up to my memory. I make a fresh list, again, of how I choose to live. I start to practice, again, the routine that heals me. And I look for the reminders of yes.
Those reminders, for me, right now, aren't revealing themselves in my therapy appointments. That might be the biggest reason to take a pause from sessions. And seek new places and people who say yes.
I thought about calling this post "part 1... of infinity" because I think that there are that many opportunities to catch a glimpse of and understand self-care. Because I think that there is that great of a spectrum of what self-care means. For now, I'm starting with what I'm learning in therapy sessions, naturopath visits, and my inconsistent, fumbling practice to take care of myself.
For a long time, I believed that this is what self-care looked like - the gentle drowsing in a hammock. Decompression. Rest. Recovery from the work-week or workday. Checking out from responsibilities, roles, and relationships.
I still maintain that going slow, for me, is part of self-care. And... my work with the naturopath tuned my ears to hear something else. Self-care is also doing the good, even challenging, stuff that I don't feel like doing. It's taking action now, and again, and keeping it up, using my calendar, smartphone, gold star stickers, rewards-along-the-way, falling-off-the-wagon-&-getting-up-again to develop the healthy habits that care for my body, mind, and heart.
Weekly sessions with my new counselor harmonized with the naturopath's voice in my head. My counselor calls it, "a life worth living." It's a concept I've been toying with for years. I even own a book titled Creating a Life Worth Living. I've been moving this book into every new apartment, setting it on the shelf, staring at the title, and not reading it. I so want a life worth living. I haven't any faith that I can have it nor imagination of what it looks like.
Until, maybe, now.
When my counselor talks about a "life worth living" he's referring to a life that embodies my values. He points to "self-validating" actions that make me feel good just for doing something that embodies or reinforces one of my values. Then he requires that I get concrete in my answers as to what those values and actions are.
For example, I was recently diagnosed with "metabolic syndrome." It's the All-American coexistence of truncal obesity, high cholesterol, borderline high blood pressure, and pre-diabetic levels of blood sugar. I'm a stroke waiting to happen. It's discouraging. But! I value health, vitality, active longevity. So! I commit to and practice the new habits that align my body with my value. That means taking on some challenging and occasionally boring new behaviors that I don't always (or maybe ever) feel like doing. In fact, right now, at the starting point, they feel like more work and not like the lounge-y self-care of my daydreams.
Fortunately, I have a smart, supportive care team - the naturopath, the counselor, a nutritionist, and even my son and my ex-husband. Together, these folks provide me with the information, accountability, and motivation to get my actions in line with my value. With their help, I'm exercising to a sweaty degree, refining my diet to cut sugar and increase fiber and nutrition, drinking gallons of water, and generally incorporating daily habits that demonstrate and embody the value of my health.
Today, it's a heavy lift. Change is hard. Change that requires me to plan and adopt new activities within my limited schedule - feels impossible. I'm already worn out, how can I possibly be expected to plan meals, cook new recipes, log a food diary, work out... and not reward/appease myself with sweet treats and vegging out! How can I truly care for myself and inhabit a life worth living if I don't make these changes? I dust off my calendar and find the time to take care of myself in new ways. I practice mindful breathing during my bus commute. I prepare and pack healthy meals to eat at the office. I pull on my gym clothes as soon as I get home and start moving along to the work-out video that makes me sweat heavily and laugh at myself, too.
Change isn't just repopulating my schedule with healthy activities. It's also reassigning value to different things in my mind. What's a sweet treat in the post-sugar lifestyle? What's relaxing after raising my heart rate to a beet-red-face level? These are new delights to discover and enjoy. Even the idea of work as self-care is a new idea for me to unpack and understand. And that illuminates other areas of my life and other values I say are important to me: creativity and play, connection and compassion, community and service...
I still love the feeling of being held in a gently swaying hammock. Maybe in six months (or two years...) I'll love the feeling of a hot work-out after a day at the office. For now, I'm clumsily, reluctantly, grateful to my care providers for the gift of a new-to-me way of doing self-care.
Since I started feeling sick a couple of months ago I've been wishing for my mommy.
I don't actually have a mommy. Maybe no one has a mommy and no one ever did. Maybe she's an imaginary character in a fairytale. An archetype we dream about taking care of us, kissing boo-boos all better, snuggling us in her arms, unconditional and expansive. An unattainable standard I subconsciously compare and contrast both myself and my mother to.
Oh, but I want my mommy, right now.
I'm so very tired and there's always so much to do - for my son, for my boss, for my home - for me. I come last, every single time, and I want - so badly it feels like a need - someone to take care of me for a little while. Not only the pressing physical and financial needs, but also the emotional and mental needs for comfort, reassurance, vision, hope.
In my imagination, my mommy is good company. She is present with me saying, "This is hard, and you feel crummy. That's ok. And, we're going to get through this together." When I'm feeling fatigue or despair, she wraps me in a firm hug, "It sucks right now. I see you struggling and doing your best." Then she provides me with creature comforts - runs a hot bath or tucks me into my covers for a nap. "Let's take good care of you." Her compassionate presence and practical support remind me that I'm valuable, provide me a bridge or some internal elasticity to get over the hard parts, and give me a little more energy to keep going.
My mommy gives me a reprieve from the all the aspects of "adulting" that are bearing down on me and wearing me out. She pays the bills, brings home the groceries, cooks us a healthy and yummy dinner, and puts the laundry away. When the day's work is done, we sit together in quiet companionship, reading or watching tv or whatever it is that mommies like to do when they get to rest with their loved ones. And I'm bundled up in my p.j.s and a blanket with my head on her shoulder.
There's no one in my real life to care about and take care of me the way my mommy does. Most days this occurs to me as a fact and with a feeling of isolation and scarcity. My life is hard and no one is coming to help me. Until recently, there was judgment caught up in that, too. Something like, "My life is hard, because I make poor choices and generally suck at being an adult, and no one is coming to help me, because I'm not worth anything nevermind the resources and effort of helping." But the diagnosis of Mono stripped away the judgment, at least for a moment - the reprieve I've been pleading for. Now, right now, there is room for my mommy to slip in to how I care about and take care of myself.
I can be my mommy. A slightly less idealized version of her, since I am an in-real-life-human and not an archetype, but her nonetheless. I can remain present with myself when I'm exhausted and hopeless - feeling the feelings, jotting them down if that helps me to recognize and experience them and let them be. I can literally, sincerely, hug myself. I can draw that bath or snuggle down into those covers to give myself good care. I can practice compassion for myself. I can follow through on practical remedies with faith in my goodness, significance, and value.
There's no pause, really, in the tasks and responsibility of being an adult, especially as a divorced single mother. The reprieve is in my mind and heart. It is my mommy's compassion extended to myself. I forgot about compassion as life got harder and I got harder with it. But compassion was once my most closely held value and it's been remembered to me, first for others and now for myself.
Being my mommy to myself doesn't change the quantity of stuff I need to do to maintain my son, my job, my home, my health... It changes the qualities with which I approach and engage in each of those things. I may move more slowly, allowing myself rest. I may enjoy more comforts, like a hot bath. But in addition to those tangible actions there's the intangible grace that my mommy grants me and that's what I'm learning to give to myself. It's a practice; it's not automatic or immediate. It's good work that renders greater compassion in my life.
It’s been a long season of doldrums, for me. I keep waiting to feel differently, better, engaged, inspired… but I can’t wait any longer. I’ve started making decisions to do the good stuff that I want to do but don’t feel like doing.
I started, like I always have, with lists. Intentions and goals for how I want to live this year. Changes where I’d like to develop momentum until they become just how I live, just my life. A new day-planner for 2017 helped by providing prompts to think about and a place to jot it all down. That spurred me into creating my own little curriculum or syllabus for self-care. Recipes, movement goals, books to read, practices to adopt into habits.
It still feels like work, right now. I am making progress, in a staggering, uphill, pause-out-of-breath kind of way. I’m starting a new yoga class. I’ve cooked two new recipes. I’m writing again.
Writing. That revealing, self-discovery, expressive, often creative craft that I’ve always turned to and returned to over the years. Creating and expression are things (“things”?) that I’m missing in this season of doldrums. So this evening I chose to write. Regardless of how I feel about writing, right now. To sit with a blank page and meet myself in my own words.
"Hold your heart in all tenderness. Something healing this way comes."
- Jen Lemen
These words have been on my heart a lot lately. Because they are beautiful and hopeful. Because there's so much that needs healing - in my body and my heart, in the bodies and hearts of people I care about, in this country, in the world...
To me, these words are an invitation to be softer, compassionate, unguarded and vulnerable. Open to pain, my own and others'. Faithful to myself and others in the midst of severe trials. To accept hope and healing, to believe that it is coming. To carry hope and healing into my relationships. To be one who bears hope and tends others as they heal.
It's been a long time since I've felt myself to be an open, compassionate person. Post partum depression and the end of my marriage rendered me harder, less emotional, disconnected from other people and myself. The last couple of years, and moving forward, have been about my healing in terms of reconnecting and re-membering myself to those parts and practices and tending their life and expression. Lately, I find myself invited to engage with others, beloved friends, with depth of feeling and healing presence. These invitations challenge me to be the best version of who I am today and to keep growing into someone tender, attentive, and tending.
My dear friend's health crisis is one of the invitations I'm accepting right now. Losing faith in those dark hours last week is probably what rose this quote to my mind. It reminded me of how to show up and who to be when life is so very hard. It reminded me of who I am.
I resumed treatment with the Kind Naturopaths several months ago and I just received back some lab work on my blood. It’s not good. I’m nearly diabetic and have ridiculously high cholesterol. Like, one of the categories could not be calculated it was so high. That news, through the lens of my family’s history (Dad losing his fight with heart disease at the age of 44), felt like a death sentence. My mortality jeering in my face, demanding that I respond.
I’ve been struggling with making changes to my eating and physical movement habits for a few years. A one baby-step forward, two giant-steps back kind of struggle. I’m an emotional eater who comforts herself with food and lounging on the couch or buried under my covers in bed. And while I’m getting better at feeling my feels it’s not happening quickly enough for my physical health.
I expect that lots of American women are in this place. Life is hard and I don’t imagine that I’m so unique. But the numbers tell me that I’d better get unique when it comes to making big changes for my whole health, my whole life. My son’s life with his mother.
It’s a lot terrifying and a little bit exciting to take this on like a challenge. My body wants me to win. It’s giving me information that says, “Tend me and here’s how...” I’ve collected enough data to form a response. It will be a creative, mixed media type of piece applying body, mind, and heart.
Here are some of the ways that I’m working with my whole life to heal my body:
That’s where I’m at today. There are more good things to add to this list but I need to be gentle and realistic. A long list feels overwhelming and exhausting to me right now. The list is part of remembering myself, putting myself back together, with the good stuff that’s nurtured and engaged me in the past.
In this way, my blood is reminding me who I am and how I want to live. It’s a good message via a hard medium. And it’s got my full attention.
A few weeks ago I finally settled on the idea and accepted that there is no unifying meaning to be made of life the way it is. The lessons of my childhood and a spiritual walkabout through Neo-Paganism and Wannabe Buddhism all fell away with a clattering clumsiness confirming their unreliability. This very prospect of accepting the emptiness had followed me for years, threatening to unravel my tenuous and tentative commitment to life. And in this moment of acceptance it called to me again, with a bellowing vow to suck me into a void where nothing really mattered. Where I and my love, my Little N, didn’t matter. But I held my ground.
Sitting cross-legged on the bed in my bright little room, I spoke softly to the emptiness inside of me. "You can stay with me. I'm not running from you anymore. And you can speak with me. I'm not afraid of your noise and words. I understand you a little better, now, and you are precious to me."
The emptiness is valuable. It reminds me of my agency. I can choose how and what I assign meaning to. Like some sort of spiritual anarchist, I'm declining and refuting the religious law and order that defined how I became who I am. I retain a hermeneutic of love, grace, and justice as my lens on life, but I reject the prescribed social order and the shoulds of personal piety, of judging our neighbors, of accepting and yielding to an unjust social, political, and economic status quo.
There’s no inherent meaning, for me, no obvious goodness or rightness, to the way Western society is ordered. It’s not God’s Law that we live in heterosexual legally married nuclear families, that we prioritize private wealth and comfort, that we amplify a narrow view of individual morality over a broader view of public health, economic and environmental sustainability, justice for the marginalized and the poor, that we define those in need as “deserving” and “undeserving” of aid and support… It goes on. It’s all been better said and sometimes solved by folks wiser, more experienced, more effective than me. But it bothers me. And the religion of my upbringing hasn’t helped any of it get better.
The same critique applies to my personal life. There’s no inherent meaning in my marriage and divorce. It doesn’t mean anything that my ex-husband, L, now lives with me and Little N as a roommate and my partner in parenting. I assign no value nor criticism to my leaving home and my birth family to pursue my education and plant myself in a new place with new people in my life. There’s no particular meaning to rejecting the religion and politics I come from. There’s no particular meaning to my current financial struggles and career anxiety. These things just are, and I get to choose what sense to make of them.
It’s easy to wax on about the big bad world out there. And it’s easy to hunker down into my tiny personal world. The common theme in both scenarios is my choice. The ordained law and order is an illusion. It’s refutable. It’s synthetic. I can and must choose something true in order to keep going in my life.
The search for something true sends me right back to the prophets and good teachers who have walked this path before. I’m thinking of guides like Buddha, Jesus, and even today’s pagan teacher Starhawk. Their words, lives, and choices, illuminate true things for me about non-attachment to stuff, people, and notions, drawing in the marginalized, supporting the weak and the poor, heeding, tending and defending our home planet.
In some ways it would be easier to yield to the illusion and accept the myth of a divine law and order that structures our public and personal lives giving us meaning and righteousness. But that doesn’t ring true for me and my life. It doesn’t fill the emptiness and it never has.
I've been away from this space for well over a year. It's been a full and challenging time. So much learning.
Learning the people of a new job. Learning to establish and hold healthy boundaries. Learning a new, much heavier, body. To love it. To take good care of it. To patiently change it into a more physically fit and cherished vessel. Learning to co-parent with L. To tend Little N with him, my most precious person with the person I least want to share my life with. And there's more that won't fit into one tidy post.
Old memories are rising - both painful recollections and wise encouragements from my past. The memories point to how I got here. Intimating the sources of deeply held beliefs. Recalling me to nurturing habits I once held sacred and practiced regularly. If I resume those old good habits they could carry me into and beyond this new phase of learning.
Out of the Attic
This blog started in 2006
on Blogger as
Out of the Attic.
I began posting here in April 2014. Please visit the original site for the rest of the story on topics like: