body, Change, Fitness

Conversion

spine

Some people have spiritual journeys. Like the woman at the pool today. She gave me a copy of her book, the one she’s self-published about her awakening. Praise and bible verses sing their glory from the pages. She told me Satan still tempts her sometimes.

I’m going to have to read this because we’re neighbors. We need each other more than I need the security of my convictions. I’ll learn about her journey. No matter how indirect its impact on my life, a person’s story is a big deal. Reading a slice of it is a small task.

Lately, my journey has strayed far from the spiritual. I’ve gone on a physical detour, as if I’ve stumbled upon some hidden hatch and tripped into my own body. I wander through this wondrous machine, in awe of what I’m witnessing. Connections! Understanding! Everyone needs to hear about this transformation — You! Yes, you! — because it could be this good for you too! Really! This one simple set of practices could give you back life you didn’t even know you’d lost!

Because who doesn’t love hearing yet another opinion about how to improve oneself?

Continue reading “Conversion”

Brain, Mindfulness, Purpose

Add In the Good Stuff

fairy pot

When we stop trying to find the solution, the solution finds us.  The idea of “adding in the good stuff” is all the rage healthy living.  Don’t worry about giving up cheese fries and soda.  The pull of the food industry is powerful, and fighting it grinds our sense of efficacy down to sawdust.  Instead, do a few leg lifts while brushing teeth.  Put leafy greens beside whatever else is on the plate.  Keep the focus on adding the wholesome.

This same bubbly counsel showed up in a recent parenting class.  When an attendee began slipping down the shame spiral about their ineffective parenting, the instructor reminded us not to worry about what we’re doing wrong.  “Do more of the good stuff,” she said.  Put special time on the schedule.  Focus on connection over correction.

Eventually (the theory goes) these little bits of goodness will crowd out the destructive patterns.

If this works with diet and family, why not mental health?

Continue reading “Add In the Good Stuff”

body, community

Injury Reconstruction

Crouching Aphrodite

Follow me here: your brain will begin to change as you do.


– Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

The gait is an oddity.  You scoop now, or maybe swoop.  To walk forward, you have to cover distances along the vertical, an axis you’ve rarely considered. It is as if one torn hinge down below popped a hasp hidden along an adjoining edge.  The door swings upward now.  You must believe in this way of opening.  You must be willing to shift the fulcrum and lean against places you thought were solid.

Adaptation reconfigures the concept of self-reliance.

You are unable to chase down your wild one.  You find people who can. The children of the neighbors whose names you vaguely remember, they invite you because you invite yourself.  Their friends come, chatter and thump, with chocolate glass and athletes’ names stitched onto their backs.  Meat hisses and blackens over a grill.  Your little man plucks a fallen tree from the ground and hurls it across a blossoming acre of sky.  The other one rips a PVC frame from a soccer goal and turns on him.  They tear around the side where ropes and fence posts swallow them up.  Inside, girls scream.  Grease pops, a baby reaches with his crystal mouth for a slice of fruit left on raw wood.

You scale concrete steps and marvel at mechanics which you thought your birthright.  Undeserved, as is every blithe entitlement.  Fleeting, as is every aspect of the truth you trusted enough to ignore.

Pain is a flavor like coffee gone cold.  Good coffee, though.  Oil gleaming on jeweled beans.  Smoke at the edges.

Your joint is a broken tongue slipping around the memory of speed.  This is a small inconvenience.  You are grateful in a wholly unexpected way to those who have tripped over this earth in imperfect bodies.  All the ones who have scrabbled with impossible latches that bar the way to gardens too narrow anyway, or too terraced.  You thank them for every smooth paving stone, every ramp, every handrail.  You are ashamed of your earlier blindness, that disability of of the unimpaired.

The lips of those who see your hitch at first pucker with scars.  Then they chuckle them loose.  “This is just the beginning, you know.”  They are your comrades in arms.  In hips, ankles, in sciatic nerves.  Together with these allies in mortal combat, you watch an enemy front advancing over the horizon.  It moves fast.  It swells in on your flank.

Defeat is inevitable, a foregone conclusion.  You resist nonetheless.  You hold it off and clutch at your inch of territory even as it shrinks in your grip.

You lift your arm and ride its arc.  It will go too, soon enough.  It is here now, though, that crescendo, that cascade.  You lift your ears to the buzz (engine, wasp, feathered wings dipping then gone) and let heat squirm against your bare face.  This wash and flurry grates awake sinew that in its younger, uncracked state felt barely anything all.

You may return to ignorance.  Luck, they say.  This could heal without blade, just a dimming of pain, a steady return to familiar physics.  You welcome the liberation of your attention.

But you know better now.  You know that luck never holds out.  Bones will hollow.  Fluid will vanish from the eyes and reappear in lungs, in ankles, in tiny bubbles scurrying through veins.  Forward motion is a fleeting state.  As is independence.  As is hubris.  Soon you will need bodies stronger than yours to escort you across your days.  The same will happen to your children and neighbors, to your heroes, to everyone you’ve ever loved.

Like the shattering of childbirth, this crack and shift will fade.  Like childbirth, its footsteps will echo.  Its ghosts will walk your body’s locked corridors.

Keep all the hinges oiled.

Hold the keys close.


Image: Crouching Aphrodite (Venus) at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (National Roman Museum)

Career, Change, Choices

81. Things I Can Celebrate: Five Years

Anniversary Bed

August 23, 2010: first day on the job. This was another shift in the surge between a tidal wave of beginnings and a fierce undertow of endings. Landing a position at a university — one that had deigned to give me a graduate degree before I took off on a fateful, cross-country marriage odyssey — meant more than compelling work with college students. It meant benefits and a way to rebuild a gutted financial base. At a time when the best I dared hope for was chalk dust, this was gold.

So many things whirled and roiled to push me onto the metro that morning in August. Selling everything, leaving a home in the mountains, separation and divorce, going back to work, single parenthood. . . Every stroke felt like the last one I could possibly take. Then I took another, just as grueling. And another.

I wish I could tell my sisters that the other side of divorce is less of a slog. Isn’t that the line? “It gets easier.” Much like what my boss has been telling me every time the pace picks up at work. “Things will slow down soon.”

Five years, they still only ramp up.
Five years, single motherhood is still a steep ascent.

That said, the frantic anxiety about how to make it all work has quieted. When I press the gas on my work week each Monday morning, my mind leaves much of the domestic uncertainty behind. Eventually, my boy and I did manage to buy a home. We know our neighbors. He is rocking the classroom at school. We have a rhythm to our days, plenty of eggs and veggies in the fridge, a little cash in the college fund, a little more in the 401K. Within the few realms we control, we are doing as well as we can. Truthfully, we are faring far better than I ever imagined.

This relative peace at home allows for full presence at the office. I have attention to tackle the new set of pressures and commitments that greets me each Monday. Change keeps churning, wicked as whitewater. Like many universities, mine is trying to grow its influence under suffocating pressure to shrink its operating budget. Resourcefulness is as important as a bold voice; careful consideration as necessary as high-octane exertion. Most critical of all lately? Blind faith in the germination of sloppily but copiously scattered seeds.

I nourish and water. I pray to an absent god.

At this milestone, I can see and even feel what has broken the surface. Sturdy roots, infant limbs. Promotions and raises, geographic flexibility, new projects. People making decisions include me in conversations about the direction of our school.

All of this has meant growing up hard and fast. Five years is really just a blink. I understand now that maturity — at least “maturity” as it takes shape here at the 40+ year chapter in the story — involves going after more and more of the hardest stuff even when presented with the option to coast. This is a tough lesson to learn and a tougher habit to establish, especially when the young adult tendency is to dabble and blame, to shift responsibility and do a good-enough job. To hold out vague hope for something better down the line.

Growing up means understanding that “down the line” is stamped on the ticket I already bought and the miles I’ve already covered. My choices on Monday morning, on every morning, forge my destination.

I am learning to take on creative and difficult tasks that I’ve long assumed were the domain of people with talents and capacities entirely different from mine. I would sooner imagine myself capable of learning Mandarin than write computer code or keep tabs on a several million dollar research budget. But here I am.

This all comes at a cost, though, and it is a cost I still struggle with accepting. My days increasingly belong to tasks I would rather leave to someone else. The work I most love is crammed into the spaces between. My body is weary, my mind is sapped, and my sense of pleasure in just about everything is so far beyond reach it may as well be dandelion fluff in the last gust of summer.

So I celebrate in the least celebratory way imaginable.

I sleep.

This one weekend on the 5-year anniversary of life catapulting me into a foreign land, I finally let myself rest. Two nights ago, I clocked a solid eight hours. Yesterday, I took two naps. Last night, I managed 10-1/2 hours, and today, another nap. I dream long and luscious stories about dusty road trips and strange mountain men in dapper white suits. I wake up exhausted, walk the dog, and go back to sleep.

Tomorrow is Monday morning and I head back to the office. I’m excited to kick off the next half of this decade refreshed and restored. If the first half has taught me anything, I’ll need all the fuel I can get.

Fitness, Things I Can

77. Things I Can Honor: The Body’s Cry

Sleep is one of the most important predictors of how long you will live — as important as whether you smoke, exercise, or have high blood pressure or cholesterol. . . Unhealthy sleep remains American’s [sic] largest, deadliest, most costly, and least studied health problem.

Sleep scientist William Dement in Secret Life of Sleep by Kat Duff

It’s possible to plug my ears and soldier on, but who’s the hero of that story? Push too hard for too long and you end up with blistered hands and a dead battery.

The weary frame begs for rest.

This family, this work, this creature living out her days in this one-and-only body has to release her stranglehold on momentum. It turns out that the slick promise of Forward Harder Better More actually pays out in stumbling weakening poisoning collapse.

What we knew once we can know again:

Sweet dreams invite sweeter days.

I return to chapter one to learn this lesson all over again.

Last night, I clocked eight hours. Tonight I will do the same.

 

Fitness, Poetry, Things I Can

54. Things I Can Pamper: This Flagging Frame

It is 10 minutes past 10 on the first night of summer. The boy is asleep. The dryer bumps and tumbles, smoothing our wardrobe for the trip ahead.

The computer at work is powered off for the week. Tasks huddle in their restive limbo behind that dark office door.

Here, crumbs dust the counter.
Free weights squat in the corner.
A story cocoons between silent covers.

This body is so weary.

Rain came then went again. On the dark balcony, pepper leaves sip at the sky. Petals curl into sleep.

Tonight, for once,
I turn from the eternally unfinished
everything.

I turn off the light.

At long last, sleep draws closed the curtains
and tucks me into her blue
furred throat.
 

 

Learning, Reading

Woman, Mine: Eat, Drink, Overthink

When women are faced with a difficult situation, they turn inward to control or change themselves rather than focusing outward on the environment and individuals that need to change. Whereas men tend to externalize stress — blaming other people for their negative feelings and difficult circumstances — women tend to internalize it, holding it in their bodies and minds. When something bad happens to women, they analyze everything about the problem — how they feel about it, why it came about, and all its meanings and ramifications for themselves and their loved ones.

– Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Eating, Drinking, Overthinking: The Toxic Triangle of Food, Alcohol, and Depression — And How Women Can Break Free

The self-help stacks are my first stop. Over in biography and history, the finds are nourishing but bland in comparison. Substance rarely wins. On any given week, some bestseller on living the full life accompanies me home. I gulp down the first chapter for a fix of the hottest therapy-couch trend. When I get up to run the dishwasher or my fidgety legs, I plop the earnest analysis on the coffee table as a reminder of all that needs to be explored. It’s three days overdue when I dig it out from under the board games and magazines. I’m still the same stumbling, unpolished creature I was five years ago and undoubtedly will be in another twenty.

Sometimes these finds are good, a few are great, and most hover somewhere below mediocre. I paw through them, hopeful and willing. The self, after all, is a mine. A precious vein cuts a find thread through acres of the most primitive matter. It’s hard to resist skimming to see if any can offer up a new kind of pickaxe.

Nolen-Hoeksema is a diamond drill bit.

First, the qualifiers: her writing falls short of art and her research is miles from the cutting edge. Much of what she’s exploring has already turned itself inside-out in every issue of Psychology Today. That said, she strikes oil in her depiction of this one woman’s experience: mine. I doubt the insight ends here —  this work must speak to others or it wouldn’t have made it to the shelf.

If you are out there experiencing what I experience. . . well, you have my deepest sympathy.

Also, go find this book.

Nolen-Hoeksema layers description of the emotional experience of depression with the behavioral coping strategies that are common among women. The dynamic interplay of thoughts, feelings, and actions is not a new concept, yet the insight here strikes a bright chord. I have tried to pick each of these predilections apart as its own unique concern. In my disordered world, here are the areas of most pressing need: Food issues, compulsive/addictive issues, depression issues. Also, motivation issues, anxiety issues, perfectionism issues. Daddy issues are as loyal and true as gum stuck to my shoe. Oh, then there are the communication issues along with trust issues which contribute to sleep issues… You get the idea.

Culture, biology, and family paint the backdrop upon which these actions and reactions play out. While my sleepless internal critic insists otherwise, it is not all just chaos in here, and none of us is a hopeless mess. Indeed, giving up is another form of indulgence. It’s no small gift that Nolen-Hoeksema writes for popular consumption. Those of us who are working on something-or-other all the time would wilt at the idea of another task, even while reaching for it. The analysis here requires little more than a shot of receptiveness and a few quiet hours.

The book begins at a point central to the ways women cope. At that place, a kind of behavioral and cognitive Bermuda triangle — depression, drinking, and compulsive eating — draws other aspects of the self into it. With the same insidious force, it infiltrates what seem to be unrelated spheres of our lives. Careers suffer, bodies weaken, marriages falter, children pay.

Rooting out sources, subsequent chapters explore the patterns of over-identifying with other folks’ feedback and perceptions, the role physiology plays in stress and emotional responses, and the tendency even among successful women to swallow anger but wallow in sadness. These lines of inquiry will be familiar from feminist theory, neurobiology, clinical psychology, and human development theory. Nolen-Hoeksema tugs loose the component parts and assembles them into a new mechanism for self reflection.

After digging up the thickets and landmines, it’s time to lay new ground. The final section dedicates several chapters to concrete strategies for designing an alternative to the triangle. Practical guidance complements theory, providing tips for replacing avoidance and remorse with “approach goals,” and walking through simple problem-solving skills. The book finally urges the reader to think forward and beyond herself. The closing chapter guides offers readers tools for supporting girls and teens — particularly daughters — in developing practices and vocabulary for a healthy adulthood.

As I write this, I notice a force that seems to want to pull me away from focusing and finishing. Giving in to it would lead me to the refrigerator, or bed, or wandering through an electric smog of doubts and plans and urgencies about the unfinished business of my life. The force, of course, is less than an “it” and exactly as strong as the breath I waste fighting it.

Mine, this mind. I’m grateful Nolen-Hoeksema pieced this tool together and handed me the map. With them, I might be able to reconfigure the landscape to invite the bold step and a lifted gaze.

 

Change

Small Act

In the office next door, a co-worker is hammering at the walls. New art is going up. She strolls along the hallway glancing into our offices, gathering ideas. “I just want to do something about this big space,” she says. “It isn’t inviting.”
 
Another co-worker tells me that she left a plate in the sink last night. Unlike me (or just about anyone I know), her challenge is to become more messy instead of less. She has a tendency to put things like sleep further down the list than, say, dusting her bookcase. “And you know what else?” She smiles. “My husband took his shoes off in the hallway, and I just left them there.”
 
It is the last day of January. The New Year is well behind us along with most of the resolutions. Tomorrow morning, treadmills around the world will stand in blinking perplexity at their sudden abandonment. Thousands of just-started screenplays will languish on bedside tables. We return to our familiar selves.
 
Despite this tendency to regress, just about everyone around here is making improvements. Arriving on time, looking up bios of therapists, sending thank-you notes. Marathon training may have fallen off, but one friend actually does bring her own re-usable grocery bags now every day.
 
Sweeping transformations rarely take. Folks create a little more rightness in their lives one simple step at a time. It is the small act, trained into practice, that becomes the way we are.
 
I had fun doing a little research on habit formation recently. The piece I wrote on the topic is up on my department’s website here:
 
Habits in Training: Six Tips for a New Year
 
Hang a picture, hug a friend. The official start of 2013 is behind us. The real New begins right here.
 

Fitness, Happy Days, Home

Happy 100 Days: 22

Inside the gray morning, a storm churns. No one looking down from a weather balloon would ever know. Calm skies lay a low blanket of mist over this patch of concrete. Upstairs, my boy dreams on. He will wake on his own and climb into my arms so I can carry him down to our waking day. For this singular pleasure, I continue to press my weight against the porch step. I jump skyward straight up from a squat 20 times over, roaring past my own screaming heart then begin again once the stars dim.
 
Inside the neighbors’ homes, small thunderclaps fall on deaf ears. Who would know? Secrets, stillness, fury, love. White lights twine around poplars and oaks dotting the unfenced green. In the low dawn, other women walk their dogs at a racer’s clip or jog in nylon sheaths. I wonder who these people are. Even the ones whose names I have learned over wine and block-party gossip are exotic, sleek-billed things. They married the ones who became captains and commanders. Very few of wives themselves hold such sway. They feather their nests and pine for more yet seem to possess a knowledge that eludes me. Gloss and curl, breast and fawn. Perhaps just dumb luck? Whatever the code, I have not cracked it yet. I rely on pulse and sweat. I bend and crunch my belly, powering the core which sustains me. It is, after all, the only one I’ve got.
 
Next door, the couple stands bickering over the placement of a red bow on the new porch light. She wears the teal track suit, he the familiar scowl. The stout pillars of their new portico twinkles with lights. Their long-legged girls soar past on in-line skates, hair swaying. The silent distance of proximity has me hungering and recoiling. What quiet thunder brews there? Any? None? They have lived here since the girls were toddlers. I have never seen the inside of their home, yet I long to inhabit it, whether it be the shelter or the storm.
 
I lunge 50 times on my patch of damp concrete. I get to 51 and keep going. Past 75, past 100. These thighs will never fail me. I will climb the stairs. I will scale these walls. I will leap over rooftops, up past the front that taunts us with its constant pressure and threats of deluge. Up into clear skies this surging heart will carry my boy and me, winging us into the place we are meant to be.
 

Uncategorized

Cessation

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
-Marianne Williamson

When he was eighteen, Giovanni’s father offered him $1000 to quit smoking. The kid refused. “I didn’t want to quit,” he says with a shrug.
 
My own parents never ponied up cash to entice me to kick the habit. Maybe if I had grown some cojones and smoked in the open, they might have given bribery a whirl. I have no doubt I would have rejected their offer. It was not until I was in my twenties and weary from the merry-go-round of quitting and starting that I finally found whatever storehouse of desire I needed to be ready to stop.
 
A pregnancy scare accelerated my readiness. The moment I had even a crumb of suspicion I might be carrying a child, I quit. This was before any confirmation the crumb was an it or even if I would keep said it should it come to fruition. The details were irrelevant. My sense of responsibility for giving that little being its best chance trumped all my self-deluded chatter about dependence and ill-gotten pleasure. I stubbed out the smokes, flat and hard, and tossed the pack.
 
A week or so later, my body sent a clear signal that the phantom child was never more than a slip of the clockworks. I could have launched an America’s Cup contender with the force of my exhalation. As I made haste to the corner store and stood outside lighting up that next cigarette, I considered the object in my yellowed grip. Sure, I was no longer – in fact, never had been – carrying a child. Did that change anything? If not that life, what of this one? What was I to do with the pesky problem of the beloved being in my care, still me?
 
The sudden arrival of a sense of duty for the small, mighty force living in my skin was most inconvenient. Also, I had been able to forego the smokes without a moment’s hesitation. That pesky fact was a hungry dog that kept following me home.
 
I puffed away feebly and with an increasing sense of dissonance for a few weeks until I realized I could not stomach the dithering. Was I a smoker or not? A choice had to be made. I could either return to the fiction that nicotine is both more valuable and more powerful than I am, or I could give it up.
 
The terrible truth was that I loved life more than that cigarette. The mind games came to an end. For too long, I had been singing that stale refrain, “Oh, I would love to reach a point where I could just enjoy a cigarette at a party from time to time.” Forget it. One becomes ten, and I am back at a pack a day. Even if I could just light up here or there, the gratification would not be worth the price. I knew as plain as day that I did not want anything to hold that kind of sway over my mind and body. Lasting pleasure is never so easy. Vices are gingerbread houses. They get you every time.
 

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.
– Alice Walker

So, that was it. When I crushed out that last American Sprit fourteen years ago, I said, “I will never smoke another cigarette again as long as I live.” It was a commitment between me and my very own juicy, living self. I have never once faltered. Why would I? It has been so much simpler than I ever imagined it would be. This, I have come to understand, is how such things work. When the path ahead becomes clear, confusion falls away. The only hard part is in willing oneself to lurch up out of paralysis and begin walking.
 
What do we grasp? Since dispensing with cigarettes and television, what I notice is that the conceptions I lug around are a greater drain than any single behavior. I see myself as only just so brave, only just so capable, only just so energetic. Or worse, that I deserve special treatment and that the normal rules do not apply to me. I fool myself into thinking these ways have laid claim to me, even imprisoned me, when I am the one with my arms threaded through the bars. The reward is $1000. The reward is $100,000. The reward is a treasure chest inlaid with golden beetles and inhabited by a family of genies. I refuse to open my grip. The reward is my own full and electrified power, and still I hesitate. What can possibly be the compulsion? What hold does this thing I keep pressed between my stained fingers have over me, even after the satisfaction has burnt away, even when the Everything is right there for the taking?
 
I picture Aron Ralston again, sawing away when it became clear his attachment to his own arm was killing him. He cut off a part of his own body. He did this unimaginable thing, just for piddly ol’ life. No one offered him a dime.
 
Of course, kicking a habit only gets you so far. Sustained practice writes the epic story. Letting go is just a clearing of the clutter and an opening of the blank page. The joyous discipline that follows makes it possible to ink into being the scholar, painter, athlete, nurse.
 

Life is very short and what we have to do must be done in the now.
– Audre Lorde

We all know it, though. Deep down, I know it, and you do, too. Nothing is more precious than the next glorious incarnation waiting on the other side of the abyss.
 
No one among us is innocent. No one has more than a brief, long-forgotten visit to the garden before crashing into the first of many nauseating, bottom-dropping-out transitions. Every time through, you learn your power. You become fuller, and your vision sharpens. Like a stone cut and cut again into impossible brilliance, the in-between chisels you into an ever more distinctively patterned version of yourself.
 
It beckons. That other self over there, it calls. Drop that banged up old satchel. There is nothing in there you need. Set it down, and leap!
 
Giovanni was onto something at eighteen. Rewards mean nothing if you do not want what comes next. Once you arrive at the lip of the cliff, rewards still mean nothing. Only the wanting matters. Only the courage to want will lift your foot and send you over that edge.