Experiencing My Heart’s Healing Through My Body

I’ve been having the most fascinating relationship with my body these last three months. (I assume, though I’ve never specifically surveyed my friends, that everyone has a mixed relationship with their body–mine does some things with great grace and a lovely capacity for enjoyment, and the ability to deeply drink in my environment, and it does some things really poorly, with difficulty and discomfort, like running half a block and experiencing Panda Asthma.)

I’ve started doing craniosacral massage (a little scientific backing) and having a very intense and healing response to the experiences. I’m so grateful to my healer for her ability to stay attuned, present, and give me support through a wide variety of physical and emotional reactions to our work. In some ways I feel I’ve been in rehearsal for this moment my entire life.

In their spiritual journeys, both my parents were ordained Zen Buddhist monks, and part of their training was in massage. As a family, we used massage to relax and take care of each other. I know this idea might be uncomfortable to body-shaming Americans, but it was one of the nicer aspects of my childhood–having my parents rub my shoulders and stomach when I was anxious. The adult mutation of this early conditioning is that I love bodywork–whenever I am in a new country, I sample the local version of a massage. I also use bodywork to improve the quality of my life and manage stress: massage, reflexology, body scrubs, acupuncture, restorative and yin yoga. I’m a friend to all body-based approaches. I’m also really attuned to the different types of touch, professional touch doesn’t feel erotic to me. (Intimate touch with my lover is what’s erotic to me.)

As I’ve been using mindfulness with my clients and myself, I’ve grown more and more comfortable using deep conscious breathing to help regulate my nervous system. I’ve also been experimenting with talking about feeling states and their places in the body with my clients and checking in with myself about this too throughout the day.

I didn’t have much of an understanding of what craniosacral therapy would feel like when I decided to give it a try. I understood the touch would be much lighter than regular massage therapies. I didn’t expect it to do much, but thought it was worth paying for one session and checking it out.

My first session was overwhelming. I found myself sobbing hysterically and hyperventilating about 45 minutes in. This was in response to having the back of my head very lightly touched. My healer took care of me very gently while I calmed down, which felt incredibly generous. Even though the experience was difficult–I hadn’t had such an extreme emotional and physical experience in years, as soon as I calmed down, I realized that I knew something beneficial had happened to me, despite the challenges of the experience. My impression is that my first sentence, as soon as I regained the power of speech, was: When can I do this again?

Every session has been extremely different. I’m learning more and more how I respond both emotionally and physically and what I can tolerate–what will challenge me within my acceptable zone of tolerance.

I’ve done four sessions so far. I’ve decided to titrate the pacing–I visit with Julia once every three weeks or so, just because I learn so much about myself each time, and it leads me to a lot of contemplation and integration of my life’s experiences. I feel more self-compassionate and self-aware overall.

Humble brag–apparently I’m really good at tolerating my own distress, remaining present through discomfort and relaxation, using my breath, and continually monitoring my ever shifting internal states.

Emotion is in the body. I knew it before, but it’s undeniable now. Memory is in the body too. Remaining attuned to my body sensations, both positive and negative, has helped me re-process some 30 year old memories I hadn’t given a thought to in decades. Of course, all this is also shaping my interests as a psychotherapist.

(As a therapist, I’m often aware of the limitations of language-based, brain-in therapy in offering healing. Human bodies and human brains need all kinds of healing experiences. I believe there are many paths to healing–some are found in speech and reflection, some are emotional, some are spiritual, and many are in our bodies.)

Surviving Intact

In periods of difficulty, when I achieve a little distance from that difficulty, I start thinking in more hopeful terms. I start thinking about joy and humor and hope, and how they are magnificent stars that can keep me oriented towards the things I wish for in life.

So I’ve been thinking about moving towards, as opposed to moving against. And I’ve been thinking about what grounds me, moves me and inspires me. And this is my little blog tribute to some of the forces (or google searches) for beauty and joy in my life. Because keeping your sense of humor is the best revenge. And keeping my hope intact (from time to time) is one of the more challenging aspects of adult life.

As Jodie Foster put it so beautifully: “Often people think of strength as surviving. But I think it’s surviving intact, and there’s a big distinction.”

So here are a few of my sources of joy, humor, beauty (wholeness and strength will have to wait for their own blog post):

Beauty:

NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)

See Explanation. Clicking on the picture will download the highest resolution version available.

http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap161023.html

Music videos with awesome dancing. Here’s Sia’s Chandelier.

In less dazzling news, I’m a sucker for a beautiful gown. Throw in some celebrity gawking and I’m a little obsessed. Google image searches for the Met Gala always pay off. But let’s get you started with some Vogue Magazine coverage of the 2016 gala.

Humor:

Hyperbole and a Half has my favorite comic for bad days: The Sneaky Hate Spiral.

David Thorne is a hilariously cruel and witty person. Missy Missing is my favorite of his blogs. But there’s also the Ten Formal Complaints filed by his coworker in six months, which makes me really glad I never shared an office with this gentleman.

The Oatmeal, for example this post about the mantis shrimp, or ten words you need to stop misspelling. Or this terrifying and informative bit about cats. Here’s a small taste of his coverage of fear of missing out (fomo):

JOMO

Celebrities reading mean tweets, always a good youtube search. Here are movie celebrities reading mean tweets.

Some other fun blogs:

  • http://www.passiveaggressivenotes.com/ (self explanatory)
  • http://thebloggess.com/ (funny lady blog)
  • http://iwilbloom.tumblr.com/ (blog written by an angry and intellectual baby)

(This post is really making me ponder what I find funny after a day of reigning in my sharp wit.)

I’d love to hear what media keeps you going, please share in the comments below.

Resistance

Resistance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “The refusal to accept or comply with something; the attempt to prevent something by action or argument.”

(I wrote this draft several weeks ago, but it took until today to feel ready to post.)

I’ve been thinking about injustice a lot. About violence and fear. About grief and pain. How daily life is steeped in horror at times. How I get overwhelmed. How I can take care of myself. How I can take care of others. How change is made. How I can participate in that change: Money, votes, activism, professionalism. In times of trouble, I often reflect on my profession as social worker and psychotherapist. My roles, my skills, my contributions. As a therapist and social worker, I want to work with artists, entrepreneurs, and activists. I want to be an ally in the struggle. I want to work towards a more just world. I want to help sustain world changers.

I also want to engage in direct action, but I am still formulating what that will look like for me. I want to bring multiple pieces of myself to bear. I want art, and activism and community. One of the groups I am thinking of engaging with: The League of Creative Interventionists.

I’ve been thinking about the privilege that my grief and fear embody. How I have been aware of injustice, but more often than not, don’t worry about getting out the door and managing aggressions to my soul, heart and body. I lucked out in my society: a cis white woman married to a cis white man living in the US. I think about how friends and clients of mine are subject to multiple isms and sometimes live in fear and worry moment to moment, day after day.

I have been thinking about how to nourish myself so I can struggle for justice, weep, laugh, find community. How to remain an activist throughout my life. How not to become complacent. How not to be demolished by grief, fear, worry. I want to nourish my hope. The troubles we are going through are not new. The solution will not be tomorrow. Endurance and joy, as well as consciousness and accountability, must be nurtured within me.

One small step forward: Reading quotes about resistance. Here are a few that are resonating with me today.

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”
― Steven Pressfield

“It is necessary to remember, as we think critically about domination, that we all have the capacity to act in ways that oppress, dominate, wound (whether or not that power is institutionalized). It is necessary to remember that it is first the potential oppressor within that we must resist – the potential victim within that we must rescue – otherwise we cannot hope for an end to domination, for liberation.”
― Bell Hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black

“We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.

“The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.”
― Susan Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive.”
―Thomas Jefferson

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
―Audre Lorde

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
― James Baldwin

The Silence the Pope Brings

The pope came to Philadelphia. A full assortment of feelings were expressed by the Philadelphians I spoke with–a few were delighted, most were inconvenienced. A friend of mine, closer to the gathering on the Parkway, said her block socialized the whole weekend, taking advantage of the car-less streets. In my neck of the woods, across town from the devout, it was near total silence, with the exception of helicopters overhead. While I envied the faithful the comforts of faith, I treasured the contemplative silence in the city, making room for reflection and rest, the pope’s gift to me.

One deserted neighborhood street.

Empty

When you have to say goodbye too early: Robin Williams

I found Robin so sensitive and so perceptive, and so gentle. He was the first comedian I noticed. He influenced me deeply: My sense of what someone cultured and funny might sound like, think about, care about. How to be honest about life on this planet without giving up altogether. His death has made me profoundly sad. I’m trying to work around it, with it, through it, sideways. Trying to celebrate my memories of his beautiful soul, trying to see more clearly the deep sadness he held (maybe because of his kindness). I make no judgment on his choice, though I hope that going forward anyone feeling that sad, lonely and desperate will reach out and give those around them one more chance to help. I’m just sorry the now obvious overwhelming love we had for him was not loud enough when he needed it–or maybe that would never have been enough. Depression is tricky; it is exceptionally good at blurring the ability to think critically, or to think beyond the moment. I have found a few things healing, or helpful in this moment of grief and I wanted to share them, because they offer both real sadness and real humor/insight/humanity/hope.

Anne Lamott wrote a really touching tribute to pain, mental health, addiction and recovery. Here’s a snippet: “If you have a genetic predisposition towards mental problems and addiction, as Robin and I did, life here feels like you were just left off here one day, with no instruction manual, and no idea of what you were supposed to do; how to fit in; how to find a day’s relief from the anxiety, how to keep your beloved alive; how to stay one step ahead of abyss…

Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity. You know how I always say that laughter is carbonated holiness? Well, Robin was the ultimate proof of that, and bubbles are spirit made visible.”

I got amazing comfort out of hearing Marc Maron’s wonderful reflection of Robin and his 2010 hour-long interview with Robin Williams, which gives us a really nuanced, textured sense of him as a very vulnerable man. The podcast is currently available on Marc’s WTF home page.

Resources:

For those who aren’t familiar with the impact of severe depression, I recommend these two short articles for perspective: Andrew Solomon wrote a useful piece for the New Yorker about the loneliness of depression, and the incomprehensibility of suicide from the outside.  He reminds us wisely that trying to find reasons makes no sense. This couples nicely with Kay Redfield Jamison’s piece in the New York Times. “How can you say what it feels like to go from being someone who loves life to wishing only to die? Suicidal depression is a state of cold, agitated horror and relentless despair. The things that you most love in life leach away. Everything is an effort, all day and throughout the night.” She ends the article by taking stock of options those struggling with depression can put in place with their doctors and loved ones when they have a respite from their symptoms.

If you are thinking about suicide, the Mayo Clinic has good information.

If someone you love has committed suicide, Victoria Hospice has a good guide.

How to Balance

Over our decades, my body and I have had many long conversations about our perceived shortcomings, and in particular about my resentment around my inability to balance on one foot. I’m the yoga practitioner who goes over to the wall and still manages to tip over whenever we try to hold a one-legged pose for a few seconds. Since this has been going on for four decades, I’m pretty convinced that I have no balance.

Here’s what happened at the gym last month. My trainer looked at me and said, “You always fall the same way.” I agreed. I already knew that my feet supinate–they roll outward at the edges–the insides of my soles don’t touch the earth much. He then said, “Why don’t you overcompensate by putting more weight on the inside of your foot?” I did. Voila! Balance. I can balance.

The Culprits

The Culprits

Four decades on these feet. For at least thirty years I knew that my feet leaned out. For thirty years I tipped outward and fell over exactly the same way, over and over again. One thirty-second conversation later and I could solve my own problem. It seems so obvious now, it’s totally infuriating.

It turns out, even when you are conscious of the solution, miracles are exceedingly demanding. If I want to stay balanced on one leg and do my warmup exercises, I systematically do the following every single step of the way:

1. Concentrate, but just enough. Too much concentration will doom me to failure.
2. Keep abs tight.
2. Bend knee slightly.
3. Think about my stance: Try to keep weight evenly distributed between inside and outside of my foot.
4. Have my planted leg more or less in the middle below me.
5. If balance is compromised, over-adjust toward the inner edge of foot, but not too much (because now I’m having the entirely novel experience of tipping the other way and falling inward).
6. Repeat.

Addendum: Keep trying despite typical start-of-exercise hopeless flailing. Get to the middle point of reps–from 1/8 done to 6/8 done and maintain good form. For 7/8 and 8/8 done, manage exhaustion and track form.

There are lithe and balanced gym ladies and men running around doing amazing tricks while jumping and twisting on one leg. I’m just beginning to understand the standing one leg part. I’m so proud (and so very tired of concentrating).

Art & Nourishment: Frank Lloyd Wright

It’s been an exquisite banquet of stress in graduate student land of late, as I wrap up the eighth and final consecutive semester of my part-time MSW program. (Starting in September 2011, I’ve had classes in Fall, Spring, Summer, Fall, Spring, Summer, Fall and now Spring. The experience, drawn out, exhausting, was chosen by me, and I am glad to reach the terminus of this particular leg and start off on new pursuits in new directions.) Enough with the whining.

And now, a refreshing serving of good news. I had a rather vivifying, soul-searing encounter with the work of Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) two weekends ago.

FallingwaterVisiting FallingWater in Mill Run, PA, did great soothing and inspiring things for my soul, my mind and my heart. When those aspects of me are basking in the comforting presence of beauty and vision, my body tends to do rather well also.

Art! Great art. It’s practical magic (for me).

The snippets of stories about FLW reveal a complicated egomaniac with impeccable taste and a pretty amazing imagination and understanding of light, space, materials, human function, the need for beauty, functional design, community, and communion with nature. Neat.

I also visited Kentuck Knob, so I had two homes, designed two decades apart by my new friend FLW, to give me a sense of his trajectory as an architect and designer. There are bones to pick with some of his choices. He was a man’s man in a man’s world. His family rooms and incorporation of outdoor spaces are awesome, but he (seriously) neglected bedrooms as spaces (his are quite small), but more gravely, his bathrooms and kitchens are really tiny–my interpretation is that he did not take that aspect of the human experience into much consideration. In FallingWater, the whole house is oriented to the outdoors, and this is clear in his design, every room has a large terrace–you are constantly being ushered out and closer to the stream and cliffs.

I had wanted for years to see FallingWater. When I first learned of its existence, it sounded like an improbable miracle. How could a building be ushered into being out of my dream? Maybe wanting to live directly over a stream in the woods is a secret ancestral dream, a common hidden human notion? In any case, the concept resonated and I was terribly excited to go there in person and measure my immense hope to the physical space.

I knew I would respond to the experience, but I did not expect to be so moved. His intent is everywhere. His taste is pretty much flawless. I love his fabrics, his furniture. The whole world should live like this.

FallingWater is right out of the future and it was designed in the 1930s.

And then there’s the very homey Kentuck Knob, which had an interesting coziness and warm darkness to it. It has an understated front and a proud prow of a living room, jutting out into the hill below.

kentuckKnobThat was two weeks ago, a bit before Spring sprang into its fullness, and now, before the tender baby green leaves peek out, we are showered in an outrageous fullness of flowers. I thank thee Cherry Blossoms–cheerful hopefulness embodied.

SpringFlowers

My Pants and My Health

So I grew up, as I’ve probably mentioned before, in a house where physical activity was not a priority. As someone who loves to read, nap, eat food and drink wine, my lounging and eating were manageable for a while–I guess they were mostly manageable in my 20s because I also happen to love dancing and did so often. In my more studious and therefore less active 30s, my pants took several steps forward in amplitude, which I managed to rationalize with judicious not looking too much in mirrors at my butt, and a heaping serving of misapplied feminism (I’m too smart to care about what my body looks like.) I guess my notion of being healthy summarized into: fit into pants, ride a bicycle sometimes, and occasionally visit the gym. Do not let the media or the man, or those skinny yoga bitches get you down. Romantic partners who would “get me” would not be so focused on the size of my pants.

Fitness was not a quest, it was an obligation to maintain what I thought was a moderate (but now realize was a mediocre) status quo–equivalent to and slightly less enjoyable than flossing. Also, I was a more of an intellectual, the body was not my medium, it was an envelope for my appetites.

It’s interesting in retrospect to examine how I derived my beliefs and the perspective I gained on those beliefs over time. I am now earnestly in my forties. For better or worse. A few bits of new thought have penetrated my insulated cranium. There’s no aha moment here, just a slow turning around of a large ship, slowly over time into uncharted … (please to meld your own seafaring/fitness questing metaphor at this juncture.)

Bits and pieces that started influencing me: I went to see a shoulder doctor about my shoulder, and the nurse and doctor had an exchange in front of me about growing older… that the weight you gain is weight you carry when you are old and your bones are frail. (I’m also regularly treated to the spectacle of mobility limited elder folk tackling the SEPTA stairs and wheezing through their turtle-like progress–ghost of christmas future, here we go!) Then there’s my knees. My grandmother always guilts me about my knees when I visit. Which I scoffed at in my 20s, but I no longer scoff. Now my knees are arthritic and bitchy whiners. Apparently my knees care a lot about the size of my pants, but I did not read that memo promptly. I really don’t want a sucky old age–my genetics kind of guarantee an old age, and I guess I’m in future ache minimization mode.

I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that said “Strong is the new skinny” and I liked that. The smarty pants feminist wants to be strong, not skinny. So that’s something I can aim for without feeling like I’m plunging into the vanity pool.

Then there’s my friend Kyle Cassidy who has transformed his understanding of mind and body, his socializing and his body by becoming a pretty avid runner over the last couple of years. I’ve linked his name to his awesome blog. He calls it the fat tax. He runs for hours each week so he can avoid becoming fat.  There’s also my friend Jess who has redoubled her running efforts and has gotten faster, and fitter, and (always pretty) better fits in her pants.

Then there’s Hugh Jackman, whose body I love. I saw a short clip of a slightly disturbing interview between Oprah and Hugh, where she asked to feel his abs and she asked what it took for him to get into Wolverine shape. (In the long version which I can’t find) Hugh said something I had never heard before–he said you are either improving or you are degrading and this applies to your body. There is no status quo–there is no maintenance program. This thought annoys me, because it implies constant vigilance. But I also find it convincing based on my own trajectory.

Then there’s the fact that I now I train with a trainer and with four random other people twice a week, which means that I get to see someone else’s progress over time, and it’s kind of amazing. I’ve witnessed my own progress over the last few months, and it’s definitely slow, and it’s less impressive, but still good news. There are new muscles. It’s honestly odd feeling new muscles beneath my skin. But watching more fit people work out with a trainer has been transformative–I finally get it–people who are Very Fit and look really good in clothes, work Really Hard to keep it that way. There’s no magic, no special gene.  Having a beautiful body takes amazing amounts of work. I have seen the sweating and the effort in person, and it is significant.

The problem with my progress is that it makes me more honest about where I am and how far I have to go. That’s mostly good, a bit painful, but highly informative. I now know so much about my blind spots, my ability to disconnect from my body and not really examine it, its functions or my assumptions about my future mobility.

There’s a bit about love in here too. I love my partner’s body and I want both of us to love mine as well.

I’m not sure how to summarize my current notions or goals about being healthy–they are a work in progress. My hope for the new year is that I will double down on my current progress, and accelerate it. Right now, I’m trying to do something healthy every day. I want to be more comfortably mobile (particularly on stairs), able to dance and move for long periods of time without being winded, I want to fit in all my clothes, I want to enjoy my body, feel stronger, feel more confident, and I no longer want to fear aging as a long and very uncomfortable decline. To achieve these goals, I am willing to sweat often.

Ironic Almost Fitness

I recently have bought a lot of gym gear, because I’m going to the gym and having my ass kicked regularly. And sweating more than I ever have. And having a huge case of red face that lasts a good hour after the workout ends. These developments feel not exactly good, but somehow meaningful and important to me. I’ve committed to going even when I would rather nap (most every time). Despite my ill will, and lack of motivation, I AM getting stronger, faster, and a bit more compact in circumference.

So while I’m basking in my incremental fitness improvements (the final test of which will be a humble return to the 1.5 hour Iyengar level 1 class that crushed me before I began my fitness regimen), I’m eating really terrible food, much of it fatty pork. I’m not sure what this particular combination of behaviors signifies. I mean, I’m much hungrier more often now that I’ve got a few more muscles occupying space below my fat. I’m craving protein. I’m tired a lot. These are pretty typical feelings (hunger, fatigue) for Fall. (When will decency require that I stop blaming Fall for my love of meat and fat?)

I question why I can’t espouse nutritional purity while making efforts at the gym. I have a notion that eventually I’ll wake up craving salad with protein and that this craving will last for the better part of four months. Alternatively, I am hoping that the recent gorging signifies the death throes of my bad habits. Alternatively, these are just my habits, and at least I’m shaking my tail more often, giving me more room to enjoy my habits without the typical guilt.

So yes, I’m more fit-like. But no, health in one arena does not mean that health in other arenas will follow. Sometimes this makes me feel bad. Sometimes I’m fine with it. The balance is tipping, ever so slightly, fit-ward. Sometimes this makes me feel like “come on, how many efforts can I possibly sustain in any given period?” And here we are. Impasse: Well-fed me, feeling good, tonight full of sushi and one pint of beer, last night full of pork and a bit of cognac. And that’s what my fitness looks like. I’m in touch with the ironies.

Sucky Workout

I got up late to go to the gym. Then I came home, had a quick lunch, showered and went and got a massage. Now I’m on my couch writing. I am treating myself. I’m living my fantasy day, but it started out as a bad day. I had a terrible night of sleep. I’m preoccupied and it stays with me no matter how many episodes of Louis CK I watch in a row.

At the gym, my body felt like a heap of disorganized bricks. There was no whole to my body. There were only grumpy parts, each with a specific broken rhythm. I haven’t been this weak since I started working out a month ago.

Everything hurt, everything felt too hard to do.

I was constantly out of breath.

All my joints with glitches were acting up. Knees, ankle, wrists, lower back–they were all on the edge of injury. My body had suddenly regressed. This offends me. Body must report for duty and behave as anticipated. My body went about being terrible and uncooperative despite my resentment.  I know about trending towards the mean–I was doing pretty good for a while there and now comes the backlash. I should resign myself, I’m probably going to suck for a bit, just so my average remains average.

It’s inevitable–the universe mandates occasional bad days. I have trouble accommodating bad days. I don’t have time for feeling crappy–I’m already dealing with mid semester schoolwork exhaustion–I don’t need other reminders of life’s inherent cruelty. I realize I am being a bit of a whiner here. Allow me to contemplate how far I’ve come, how far I still have to go, and my biggest struggle, my body’s default inertia.

At the same time, there is a recognizable pattern. I know that when I’m doing any exercise, I start off okay, then I have a terrible middle part where all I want to do is go home and never come back, and then if I manage to persist, something subtly changes and I am suddenly doing better, feeling stronger and more competent (unless I’m too exhausted, in which case my morale improves but my body can’t keep up and my form sucks).

It’s likely there’s some interesting metaphor for work, for progress, and for life somewhere in these paragraphs, but my insight, like my stamina, has been momentarily exhausted.

Mammogram world

I’m at the hospital for my annual mammogram screening. Totally banal. They cover the walls in pink-framed nature and flower scenes–this does not calm me down. I still feel like a beast at a slaughter facility. It will be a narrow escape.

It’s a feeling more than a thought–wearing the antiseptic gowns that smell like frozen meat makes me utterly vulnerable.

There’s the total silence (except for the bad news tv channel playing) and the dim yellow green lighting in the waiting room.

We waiting women do not bond. We sit in fearful stillness awaiting our moment of radiologic scrutiny.

Then there’s my lifelong irrational thought that I will get breast cancer at some point. It’s just a matter of waiting. There is a history in my family. I’m not just a breast pessimist.

The silence in the waiting room is accompanied by a lethal clinical silence from the administering professionals.

No one tells you your odds. There is no attempt to calm you down with human empathy. Pull the random trigger of gene expression and wait for your lottery results.

20131016-143219.jpg

ps: As negative as I am about this womanly right of passage, I am deeply grateful for the care. Knowing is always better than not knowing–it gives me the freedom of options.

Relief and Stress and Jewels

Life is rich and rewarding and exciting and … gosh I get tired sometimes.

This year, I have a little bit of time back in my schedule, and I’ve been trying to diversify my routines. Mix it up a bit. Try new things, or go back to old things that fell out of my routines in last year’s crazy medley of internship, full-time work, trying to see my friends and loved ones and going to class. I want to be me again.

I just want to find new ways to reconnect with my self, in all my dimensions: creative, emotional, physical, and … I’m still wrestling with the spiritual bit. The intellectual bit has been over-engaged over the last seven semesters of Social Work school. So I’m shopping for food and planning some meals, and doing some cooking, which I love (and sometimes gets me in trouble). I’m trying to pamper myself, from time to time, as my budget allows.  Today I got a pedicure, and then I got a manicure, because it was a good deal, and now I’m sitting with my lovely shiny totally unnatural nails feeling posh, at least until I chip my hands (which I will very soon!). I’m pushing myself to get more physical–I’m from a family that lives in its cranium, and many of us barely acknowledge the body as we lounge and devour books.  Even my one major hobby, writing, does nothing for my body, though it feels nearly spiritual, it fills me so with joy. There’s also the beauty and wisdom of my friends, which I totally rely upon. They humble me in the most wonderful way.

So that’s my goal, before I graduate with my new minted Master’s, I’m just trying to reconnect and re-engage all my aspects, so I can be be a multifaceted jewel of a person, and not just a string of brainy pearls. (Don’t take that personally, brains.)

The Fitness Dance

I have finally fallen down the fitness hole into the care of a fitness trainer. This was many years in the making. For two decades I took myself to the gym, forced some cardio, perfunctorily performed sit-ups, and with pleasure used the weight machines.

I got reasonably far if I stuck with it, but there always came a time when I ran out of steam. Repetition, boredom, loneliness. I do not like sharing my fitness journey. No one needs to see me sweat or grit my teeth. I like to plug into a Pandora Fitness radio station and go. As best I can. There always comes a setback. This year it was India, in 2012 it was a back injury.

I am passionate about my new social work career, but it is emotionally exhausting, and the end of the day leaves me ready for a long nap and warm blankets. While napping is my go to stress relief option, I realize it’s not the best or most effective choice I can make to manage my body or my mind.

I’ve decided to take (some) choice out of the equation and avail myself of professional services. I went to the trainer in dread of the bullying. I can worry about anything. In this case I worried it would be either too hard or too easy. I worried it would be great and I’d be starting a new expensive habit. I didn’t know how I would feel about being exhorted to ever greater effort. The most terrifying thing about having a trainer is seeing other people at the gym who are further along in their fitness journey doing terrible looking balance, strength and endurance exercises. I look at them and then I look away and pretend they are Aliens–what they are doing will never apply to me. They terrify me. I don’t want to be them. I hope I will be them. Dragging a weighted sled to the yard mark and dropping for push ups before the timed sled run continues. It’s crazy. What the trainers make people do is amazing.

One of the nice things about no longer going to the Penn gym, where 20 year olds abound, is not having to see a bunch of fit 20 year olds, who aren’t really striving, they’re just using their young bodies with ease. At my new gym, I see a variety of people at various levels of fitness using their bodies, working through sweat to meet personal goals.

I am awkwardly one of them. It turns out, despite my array of misgivings, that I love having a trainer. First, and most important, the two trainers I have worked with are wildly more inventive in the array of tortures they devise than I ever dreamed. Whoever is responsible for fitness science, bravo–you’ve really perfected the art of fitness in the last twenty years. The trainers (try to) make you fast, they make you strong, they make you lean.  Every exercise uses  upper, core, and lower portions of my body. There are lots of interesting props. There is anguish. And there is a lot of discomfort the next day–once my body cools, it slows down as though it were weighted by leaden sheaths, but it’s just my skin, laying gently over my exhausted muscles. I’ve learned that I can still work out when my body is sore–something I’ve never done before.

And being constantly watched and constantly accountable changes the game. I push harder, I am also pushed harder. It sometimes borders on fun, but mostly I’m grateful for the kindness of having someone full of hope try to help me transform. It’s amazing what external sources of hope can do for me.

Food Is So Freaking Good

I made some ratatouille last night. My secret ingredient was the expired wine in the back of the fridge. I have a purple veggie stew and it tastes absolutely delicious. I thought it was just my biased opinion, but a friend came over and confirmed my suspicions. When I get the time and gumption to cook, the end result is usually pretty tasty. This is my downfall. I love what I make. Last night I had two heaping servings of these veggies. My tummy was all stretched out, ratatouille-iffic. I could barely move off the couch to go lie in bed, read and wait for digestion to occur. I justified the second serving because I was eating veggies. Impeccable logic, clearly.

I love food. I’m not sure what food’s feelings about me are, but it really doesn’t matter, this one-way crush is going nowhere.

I keep trying to change our relationship. I ping pong between health-seeking solutions and the total satisfaction of eating a very good, juicy medium rare hamburger with blue cheese and bacon, and plenty of ketchup. Sometimes I double down on fruits, nuts and vegetables. I try to meet my deliciousness quotient sideways. I distract myself with a large volume of berries, and organic heirloom grape tomatoes. Stuffed full of baby carrots doesn’t count. I’m sure of it.

(I wonder what it is about feeling really full that makes me feel so happy. It’s like the world is bountiful and I am now a vessel of that bounty. I am full of nature’s boundless generosity.)

My fruit-stacular evasive maneuvers work sometimes, but not all the time. After my veggie burger lunch, I’ll have an evening cheddar snack, a salad for dinner, and a heaping serving of chocolate and a shot of calvados later in the night. Maybe it’s my tapas-inclined personality. I thrive on flavor variety. I am bored by repetition. I cannot cook two dishes for the week and alternate between them. It would suck the joy out of my food fun. Basically, I need to keep my mouth entertained. It’s a demanding organ with a short attention span. It’s not me, it’s my mouth, it has its own agenda.

In the summer, when there are plenty of good things that come out of the ground, my good intentions get ground to dust by the smell of charred meat. The flavor of crisp, burnt animal fat is amazing. If you don’t believe me, buy a fruit pie made with a lard crust and see if you notice the difference.

Sometimes I fantasize about becoming a vegetarian. It’s a solid move, morally. But my taste buds would just mope around in my mouth. I would gripe about lentils and chickpeas. I try to imagine some halfway measures that might be sustainable for the long term, like eating seafood, bacon, and fruits and vegetables. Who am I kidding. Instead I eat a lot of tofu, flip-flopping between carnivorous and well-meaning.

My current efforts are focused on increasing my exercise to give me a bit more leeway in pursuing my one-way food crush. I’ll provide some updates as this initiative continues. For now I bid you a fond good evening, from the couch, where I have indulged in three salt free spelt squares as an alternative to delicious fondant maples sugar candies. Compromises.

Creative Energies

Sometimes I feel like a plant, or maybe a vampire. I find myself feeding off the vital energy around me. I used to love writing in bars–so much gregarious energy unleashed. Last Thursday night, September 12, I watched/listened to the Philly Song Shuffle at XPN. There were 55 acts in attendance, and they each got a four-minute set in which to play one song. I found myself filled with the sudden need to write. I’m going to blame the impulse on the 55 bands crossing the stage. Lone singer songwriters were interlaced with multiple-person acts, each with their voice and sound. Band members mixed between sets and there was some impromptu spillover, singers become dancers, rushing to others’ performances.

xpnIt’s been awhile since I’ve written, though the goal is on my to do list, staring back at me every single day.

During the Philly Song Shuffle, I wrote a first draft for a short essay where I declare myself to be a bonbon eater possessing a particular life esthetic. The essay felt terrific coming out. I was handwriting it on the back of the band set list. I rarely hand write, I tend to think as I type, but that night the pen in my fingers, the pen on the page, felt both natural and urgent.

I’ve noticed the importance of other people’s art for my personal productivity before. I feel rejuvenated and strangely full of thoughts and impressions (closer to my identity) when I visit paintings or photography, sit for theater, or watch a dance performance. Nature also has some of this effect on me. Movement, music, color–communing with someone else’s creative process, it all works to renew my own passions, my own sense of direction, purpose and drive.  Maybe it’s time to stop noticing the beneficial effects of art and start being more deliberate in my consumption/exposure.  I could take my laptop to see bands with me at The Fire, for instance. This will take some pondering and some conscious planning. To be continued.

Re-Entry

photo(1)Everybody talks about the culture shock of going to India, but no one I spoke to did justice to the psychic shock of returning home to the United States. Everything is simultaneously familiar and alien. Right now, when a CVS invisibly opens the door as I approach it, I feel like I’m entering a magical cave of delight. I expect sprites and fairy dust. But it’s only candy, crackers and beauty products inside.

After the magic wears off, I think about the nature of a society where even the doors don’t need to be pushed open.

Which brings me to the big thing I noticed at the Zurich airport, sharing a gate with college kids coming back from a trip to Africa organized by their church: Americans have the luckiest body language on earth. The at-home-in-the-world vibe I get when I see Americans amble around–that’s the most shocking thing of all. The kind of luck and plenty that makes that body language possible is astounding. Is my walk so entitled and confident? Is this what people see when they see me? The uncomplicated joy in being, the expectation of great things–these are all conveyed to me in the simplest movements, like a young American man reaching into his pocket.

I had no idea. The only reason I have an idea now is that I have walked streets where most I walk past are scraping a bare minimum of a livelihood together. They are not starving. That is the good news.

Back in the U.S., my privilege has many aspects. Since I’ve returned, sometimes my privilege is the delight of ever-present climate control; sometimes it’s the perfect taste and texture of ketchup. Or eating bare vegetables (no curry), fresh from a city garden. Every day, it’s the marvel of flushing used toilet paper away: Such a little thing, which provides such freedom–I never have to think about my bodily waste or the huge systems of infrastructure and public health that I benefit from every time I yank on the flush handle.

Many times in my life, I’ve been taught about the invisibility of privilege to the privileged. I get it now (a little). I get how lucky my society is. I get how lucky I am. And I have a sense of what’s left to do. How much work is ahead.

Nobody Knows (Decision making as crap shoot)

A recurring theme this weekend, as I struggle with minor health issues and a general feeling of being run down from the humid heat, is that no one knows what to do. We have a set of external guidelines, suggestions, common wisdom and personal opinions, but there’s no definitive knowing against which I can make decisions. Outcomes will vary: Is that just life, or is it India? Maybe I should start praying to the local gods for better health?

kaliTo illustrate my point: Everyone has mixed feelings about the anti-malaria pills we’re supposed to take (I’m having odd dreams). Some in my group are taking them, some have stopped, some may start after stopping. Despite medical advice, and after some googling, we’ve each formed our own  opinions on how to handle the need for this medication. I suppose all human decisions are equally personal — with some information seeking married to gut feeling, but I also note that without the comforts of my typical (home) compasses, I have become more random in my decision making. I remember what the nurse at the travel clinic said about stomach issues, but then I wonder when I consult with my peers about what’s truly appropriate. What level of discomfort should trigger prescription use?

Similarly, the U.S. state department has guidelines about avoiding crowds for safe travel, but crowds are where the action is. What do I consider each risk level to be, and what levels of risk do I choose to tolerate and why? (And can I avoid crowds in India?) These are big questions and they come up again and again. No answers here. I’m just amused by the range of adaptations to these common quandaries in myself.

We went to a street festival last night. Here’s a picture of two in our group making friends there.boys

Distraction as Medication

Yesterday was my last day of work. I said goodbye. A lot. This took its toll. My composure transmuted into more of a wet sponge facade. However, it turned out I had the following arrows in my quiver (some lucky, some planned for):

1) A long walk to the museum to distract me and give me the opportunity to take cool pictures of Philadelphia to look at in Kolkata’s heat.Rails2) Seeing trees invariable calms me down.

LongWalk3) Plus there was white wine waiting for me in the Philadelphia Art Museum. But also, 4) one of the world’s greatest entertainers, Miss Martha Graham Cracker, a local treasure.

MarthaAnd, 5) because I need to know as I’m moving (feeling naked and unprepared) into the future that the relationships I’ve built come with me, two lovely friends met me to watch Miss Martha sing and banter on the steps of the Museum.

The walk, the laughs, the wine, the art in the museum, my friends, and Miss Martha reminded me that what I love in life is still abundantly present in it.

stepsAnd I felt better.

The Terror of Dreams Come True

I’m in the process of changing careers. It’s a dramatic shift – from administrator to therapist. I suppose there’s an argument, or a joke, to be make about how the two professions overlap. I’m struggling with the speed of the changes both internal and external. My life is suddenly super exciting and terribly exhausting. Change makes me anxious–and it’s hard to know exactly why. This was a measured, deliberate, even handed venture. I weighed the pros and cons, the costs and time. I made spreadsheets. I conducted informational interviews. I prepared. And now I’m contending with the reality. I’m surging into the future. If I think about what I know so far, it’s quite good. My new work fascinates me. Demands all of me.

But despite the evidence, I cannot discard my weathered inner skeptic. My wish for this new career is too often counterbalanced by my glass half full mentality. I try to remember the hope that brought me to this juncture, the inner compass that envisioned this path forward. I wish the sense of certainty that got me into grad school still covered me like a cloak. Instead, I’m vulnerable–I’m starting something big and new. I haven’t started something big and new in quite a while. Often my vulnerability leaves me feeling raw and exposed–it’s very much how I remember falling in love in college–how I was so excited and full of dread. On good days, I can set aside my worry momentarily and just be.
I did not know dreams come true would be so demanding of me. I thought my age would protect me. Instead I have to find new ways of thinking. Here’s my new wish: that when I am past this moment, I will remember the beauty rather than the terror.

Argonauts/The Future

It’s been an intense period of “what next?” I’m trying to figure out what would be nice to see happen in 2013 and 2014. It’s requiring spreadsheets, some dreaming, some internal negotiations, conversations with multiple parties, overcoming fears, and letting some of my hopes run free (which tends to make me antsy).

Plus, this rummaging in my hope closet has been accompanied by a thick layer of mucus– three consecutive colds in a row, despite the constant hand washing.

Most days it feels like my heart is beating a zillion beats and my mind is a layer cake of different flavored thoughts, some pink, some grey, some sweet and fluffy, some grittier.

Often I’m just grateful I haven’t lost my hat or gloves in the course of the morning commute.

The good news is that I’m one of several Argonauts, all shipmates in the MSW program, pursuing our individual journeys, but sticking with each other, side by side. Our circumstances vary, but our targets vastly overlap: To become kinder and more thoughtful in our humanity. To connect with our selected communities. The skills we’re being taught are great. And the experience is, more often than not, surprising. Richer, simpler, more demanding, more generous, more layered than anything I could have anticipated. It’s nice to know that this is a place I want to be, both intellectually and emotionally.  My new professional community is pretty delightful. So I’m spoiled, I’m stretched thin and I’m in good company. 2013 Ahoy.