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.)

That Funny Moment

A couple of weeks ago, on my way to work to co-facilitate a group, while I was walking to the El and talking on the phone, a little fruit fly circumvented the shield provided by my glasses and flew straight into my eye. I was feeling a bit emotional before the fly thing happened. As I had left my home, I had noticed within myself my intention: I wanted to do a particularly good job of facilitating my group that night.

When the fly got suctioned into my eye by the swirling currents therein, I was on the phone, and holding bags, so I had to announce my predicament to the person on the phone who wanted me to note their phone number, and put the phone on speakerphone while I flipped the camera so I could see my face as I moved my eyeball around, hoping the fly would make its way back to the front of my eyeball where I could pluck it out. A few tears and long seconds later, the fly showed up under my eyelid, and eventually floated down to a snatchable location, like the worst biological contact lens breakaway piece.

I had never had a fly in my eye before, though I had written a short story based on that premise (foreshadowing?) years ago.

I got on the El, which promptly came to a screeching halt at Market and Fifth Street, the light were low and it seemed like the whole system had powered down. So I got off the train, went to the street, and got on a bus. At 9th and Market, there was the beginning of a terrible traffic logjam due to the NFL Draft road closures. I felt that my commute had already been hard enough so I toughed it out (kinda lazy) for another two blocks. I walked from 11th and Market to 13th and Sansom.

By the time I got to work, and at each slight mishap, I was wondering whether my troubled commute was some universe-driven warning sign. Or signs. I’m not superstitious, typically, but sometimes I start noticing that I’m getting the same message over and over again and I wonder if I’m ignoring the obvious. So I gave myself a brief talking to in my head. I decided that my commute did not have to impact my intent. That I could still summon my skills as a professional, and do my job the way I wanted to. That power to chose the theme of my life, is a kind of brilliant freedom. And I was glad that I had the inner power to be amused by my minor travails, but not overwhelmed by them, and still had the bandwidth to step into my professional mindset and do the work. That space to move through my thoughts and feelings, in a kind of mindfulness, is one of the big gifts of being a therapist, and perhaps that gift was born of the gift of being a writer first.

Balancing Identities: Writer and Therapist

Ferns unfurling

Ferns unfurling

I’m finally able to call myself a psychotherapist. I earned my License in Clinical Social Work, and I am starting a private practice. It’s an exciting, nerve-wracking time, full of potential and joy. But one of the pieces I’m still wrangling with in my mind is how to make a life as both a therapist and a writer. Which piece do I prioritize when, and why. How do I create balance? How do I set aside time for both pieces of my identity?

I don’t have any good answers right now, but I’m going to try to create a process that might lead to some answers. Because sometimes process must precede understanding in order to lead to knowledge. My goal is to get up every morning and write. Or at least make time in the evening to think and write. I always feel more grounded and purposeful when I actually think with my hands and type. I love the unfolding of my mind: the way I touch parts of my experience that have remained wordless within my body when I finally sit and write on a keyboard. I like that sense of mental chaos falling into place — words shaping the mind’s process, the mind’s processes clinging to language and settling down so I can contemplate my mind’s life, my heart’s life, my body’s experience.

I find myself writing this post in part to acknowledge that before I knew I wanted to be a therapist (age 12) I knew I wanted to be a writer (age 6?). That both bring great meaning and satisfaction and surges of joy and terror into my life, and both are worthwhile. If I knew how to draw, I might draw a picture of myself with a pen in one hand and a mandala in the other. (I was trying to pick which representation of the human experience I should hold in my hand, and of course I considered holding a brain, but then I wanted to hold a brain and a heart, and then I wanted to hold the thinker, and then it got abstract and complicated, so I thought perhaps an abstract symbol of unity and integration would be the best option.) It gets complicated. But maybe these layers of complication are the richness of life. The delight of the unknown.

Creating a Self-Care Plan Part I: Using your Senses

Using your Senses to Care for Yourself

I’m putting on my psychotherapist hat to write this post. Rather than tell you what steps you should take to take care of yourself, I’m going to help you craft your own self-care plan. This approach allows your wisdom and expertise in the topic of you to shine through.  With my approach you can engage your wisdom, resources, friends and mentors, body and spirit, to manage your well-being.  Pick a calm day to do this activity. When you’re calm and centered you can think more clearly. The goal is to plan for a bad day when you’re having a good day, so you can prepare the path.

Read More on my psychotherapist website.

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

To be cool

I met someone unbearably cool on Thursday night. She had dyed silver hair with purple streaks framing her lovely face. She was middle aged, perfect smile wrinkles around her eyes. She had a bass guitar strapped to her back. She oversaw a software development team and she knew my friend because she also plays ice hockey. She was in an adult rock band.

In my twenties, I deliberately cultivated certain skills that I believed were critical to becoming the kind of person I wanted to be as an adult. These skills included kissing, playing pool well, drinking whiskey on the rocks, cooking, writing, fearlessly (and indulgently) following my heart, working on the craft of repartee and generally doing things I had a sense women weren’t supposed to do (like driving taxis). Many of these skills have stayed with me, some have dropped away. I now suck at playing pool: I used to carry a roll of quarters in my purse. For a moment I could, from time to time, put sexist presumptuous persons in their places. At least with cue in hand.

In my thirties, I decided that making lists and having top tens was a bit silly. Life was nuanced and complex. I was satisfied with whom I had become. (Perhaps I grew complacent, or smug, or just plain happy.) I had certain goals in mind, but they were focused on scholarship, writing, and my romantic life. They were not about the craft of becoming. I know what I look like and how I present, and I suspect what people think when they behold me. “A very nice, conservative lady” as one of my former clients put it.

On Thursday, Purple Streaks reminded me that there are choices to be made. I am faced with the becoming of middle age. And questions about coolness. Hipness is out of reach (and, honestly, not exactly desirable). I have some culture. I have opinions of taste. I have a sense of being worldly. I don’t want to be cool to others, but I wouldn’t mind being cool to myself. That’s a kind of cool worth working toward, and my reach needs exceed my grasp if I wish to keep growing. Plots and lists are to be made.

New York: Love and a Whiff of Mortality

When I visit Manhattan, I feel seized by that New York excitement, a state of being which resembles my hyper teenage self. (I know there are songs written about this, and the reason there are songs is because it’s real: That NY state of mind.) The great mix of people and the sounds and the smells, and the pace, and the way I feel each street due to the light and the architecture, and how ornate and ever changing the interior design flavor of the moment. Right now, on 9th Ave, there is a return to “rustic authenticity.” I have a choice: upscale, or downscale. I can eat cheap pastries on a stoop, or tapas in a heated indoor winter garden. I make the city mine by engaging it with my personal blend of whimsy and interest, and (unavoidably) spending power.

I first came to live in NYC when I was 21. New York has become a personal measurement tool, like those childhood height marks on doors. I go back and I measure myself to the city: How is my energy? Who is with me and why? What am I attracted to? What do I wish to see again? What do I wish to see anew?

DarthColbertThis last visit, we went to see the Colbert Report on Monday and the Daily Show on Tuesday. The warm-up comedian made a point of reminding the audience that we were splurging with free tickets. Both shows were great, with interesting similarities and style variances in the handling of the audience. My partner and I also walked around, ate good sushi, and caught by chance the loveliness-drenched end of The Marriage of Figaro, simulcast on the Lincoln Center Plaza. My spirit was soaring to the music. It had to be Mozart. Out of all the wonders, that will probably be the moment that sticks with me: The dream of visiting Lincoln Center with my sweetheart, which has preoccupied me since I first saw Cher in Moonstruck. Going to see La Boheme was sweepingly romantic in the movie and stumbling onto Figaro was beautiful in real life, more than 25 years after the movie came out. Funny how movies and New York City can conspire to make life dreamlike. (This dream of life which whose end is unknown, but probably unlike The Marriage of Figaro.)

Figaro

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).

Frank Lloyd Wright: Beginnings

In keeping with my new-found passion (to visit as many Frank Lloyd Wright [FLW] buildings as I can), I went to Oak Park a week ago to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s first home and studio. I found the experience both anticlimactic and bracing.

As an artist preoccupied with words, languages, and story telling, I often take nourishment from other forms of art–looking for particular narratives or themes, or the emotional resonance of the work, or the intellectual energy of specific choices. In my life, I have been greatly moved by painting, poetry, theater, architecture, landscapes, dance, textiles, and pottery. I’m very receptive to beauty, movement, light and joy, and also melancholy.  Thus my favorite seasons are Spring and Fall (could I call them renewal and maturity?).

I very much enjoyed my afternoon in Oak Park because it encouraged me. In museums, we typically encounter artists at the height of their powers, when they have worked out their concepts and executed their master works. Retrospectives allow some insight into the creative process over time, but the works selected remain the most polished and impressive. Seeing Mr. Wright’s early accomplishments reminded me that the person who would later author the amazing FallingWater had his own slow creative evolution: Refining ideas, tuning concepts, using an iterative approach to his work. Mr. Wright seems to have had sophisticated taste from an early age, and to have collaborated with master craftsmen who excelled in their own right. I believe that this dialogue between artists invigorated his work–it certainly invigorates mine. But I was reminded that even great geniuses have moderately sized successes in the beginning. The homes I saw were lovely and impressive, but they were first steps in a very long journey. Stamina and dedication over time are key ingredients–it’s helpful to remember these aspects for my own creative journey.  OakPStudioHere are visitors on a tour of his studio, which is next to his first home. I enjoyed visiting the studio more than the home because it was a working space, but also a marketing space, so he had made it clever–with modular stations that could be moved around–and a bit grand, with lots of natural light, high ceilings and low hanging ceiling pieces that were anchored by an interesting pulley system.

Having been so impressed by the work of his late career, it was instructive to see work from the beginning of his career and consider the through-lines, the preoccupations and themes, that withstood time.

Some themes (according to me):

  1. Light versus dark–where light is allowed and where light is limited in his spaces.
  2. Containment versus expansion (this the tour guides emphasize as compression and release)–narrow hallways leading into large rooms or outdoor spaces.
  3. Privacy versus view–setting high windows in busy neighborhoods that only show trees and sky as a view.
  4. Geometry and order–lots of repeating themes and patterns.
  5. Spaces within spaces–creating little rooms within larger rooms–like the high-backed dining room chairs he preferred, creating a center of intimacy during dinner. Or delineating sub-spaces within larger rooms, so there is a reading/library corner, and a music corner within a larger living room.
  6. The primacy of the living spaces over the bedrooms, kitchen, or bathroom spaces.
  7. Finding the right furniture for the space and the theme of the space. There are story-telling murals on the walls of his Oak Park home, which influence the rest of the furniture, colors and patterns in the rooms.
  8. A dislike for clutter. Working after an era with more elaborate decorative patterns and fabrics–FLW’s style is relatively sparse and geometrical.
  9. Fitting homes into their landscapes, creating a dialogue between man and nature–Organic Architecture is the term Mr. Wright coined, with FallingWater as the preeminent rendering of this philosophy.

Mr. Wright belonged to a Unitarian Church in Oak Park, which was a relatively new suburb to Chicago in the 1890s.  He built many homes for others in his congregation–there are about 30 FLW homes in the area, and there are about 20 on the walking tour near his studio.FLWFirstMayaYou can see the rapid evolution of his taste through his early houses. This grand home was at a time when he was experimenting with Mayan decorative themes.

FLWFirstJapanThis private home illustrates his interest in Japanese temple architecture.

FLWFirstPrairieThis private home is considered the first of his prairie-style homes–which feel to me Japanese influenced, with an added concern for the privacy of the family, protecting them from onlookers. (Strangely prescient considering the number of visitors to Oak Park circling the streets scavenging for his legacy.)

Visiting FLW’s home helped me understand why his later designs have such limited and oddly placed windows. When Mr. Wright moved to Oak Park, it was mostly plains and dirt roads, with very few houses. However, over his ten years in the neighborhood, the lots started filling up with new houses, and he soon had a next door neighbor, uncomfortably close to his dining room windows. He filled in his original windows, and installed high windows in his dining room, so he would still have light and privacy. This experience must have been formative because privacy for homeowners really influenced his architectural choices going forward even for homes with many acres of land in rural areas like the Kentuck Knob house.

I can’t wait to discover more of his mid-career designs like Taliesin in Wisconsin.

OakPInsignia

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.

Pages will turn, doors will open

It’s 2014, finally. This year has been long awaited, since I started my Master’s of Social Work odyssey in 2011. I’ve had many beautiful and touching experiences during this journey to my chosen profession and I feel excited and ready for the next turn in the road. I can’t wait to take my new skills out and join my profession as a full fledged member.
I don’t know where I’m headed next, but I like the road I’m on very much.

What more could a girl ask for?

The Thought of India

Even though it was six months ago, I still get asked “How was India?” The question is so huge, it leaves me either rambling or wordless. The scope of the question might be, “What are your thoughts on being a woman?” Or perhaps, “Tell me about your childhood?” (Childhood I could tackle, that’s a narrative I have shared and shaped again and again throughout my life.)

I keep hoping my seven weeks in India, or the country in my head, will finally become manageable, just an epic travel experience. But the flashes of color and feeling that rise up in my mind when I hear the word India aren’t so easily packaged for external consumption.

So here’s what I’ve got, just a few more reflections that I hadn’t yet articulated, or that have crystallized further.

1. I have never left India. It has been inscribed within me. My emotional relationship with what I know of the country reminds me of my first love. There were many beautiful and many terrifying moments. I know this is all cliche, but cliche is sometimes the best way to express something universal: All that is left are my memories, and the way my senses and perspective were transmogrified. I resemble my prior self, but I am someone else.

2. Intellectual and emotional humility. There are many forms of wisdom, many of which do not issue from formal learning.

3. It’s okay not to know where I am going. I have hungered for states of certainty for a long time. India obliged me to become a bit more flexible. I may not trust the road, or the driver, but I can trust that the journey will maintain my interest, and charmingly, most outcomes will be harmless or at least manageable (and some enchanting). Near helplessness is a very uncomfortable state to inhabit for seven weeks, of course (if necessary) I had a privileged kind of relief at my disposal–my wallet.

4. The state of understanding another being is not to be taken for granted. Neither the being, nor the understanding. There are many ways of being understood and many ways of being misunderstood. These are in constant flux, even within a lasting relationship. Triangulating meanings across languages and cultures exposes the many gaps between us. It also exposes how amazing each moment of rapprochement really is.

5. Resilience, resourcefulness and desperation are all incestuous cousins. They are awe-inspiring and they distasteful. Making use of very little can be really moving. It’s also awful to witness because it proposes a reality that cannot be argued with.

6. Whatever can be done with a human body is being done. Yay. Boo.

“Yay. Boo. Yay.” would be a fitting (highly reductive) three-word answer to everything I witnessed: 7. My moral self was never at rest. I was constantly trying to assess, understand and evaluate both my experience and the experiences of those who were around me. I was trying to give it value(s). For example, as a westerner, beautiful things could be bought, but the buying and the beauty were both imbedded with multiple other meanings–colonialism, US imperialism, privileges of race and class, my astounding amount of education and its basic uselessness in this context, the smugness of my wallet and its credit card contents, plain commercial lust, my responsibilities as a tourist, my responsibilities as a human being towards others. What each of my gestures, commercial or non-commercial, said about my identity and my intentions, about the countries I come from, and how I perceived the country I was visiting. What each gesture from Indians also represented as a comment on our interaction.

I have never felt more morally sketchy. Being back in the U.S. is so much more comfortable. Here I can nurture an illusion of living more or less as a “good” person. In India, walking down the street, I stepped over bodies that might have been (but I dearly hoped weren’t) dead.  In the U.S., I have a slightly better sense of the boundaries of what I can and should or might do in any given circumstance, and what the basic order of things is supposed to look like among my countrymen… I step over fewer literal bodies.

8. There is hope. We will each have to find our own.

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.

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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.