In an interesting casting choice, my nephew Tim and I played twins just in from the rice paddy in a family dinner mystery one Christmas. I don’t know if there is a name for the type of twins we were – identical doesn’t quite work!
Today, I want to look at the past. Not the generic past – my past.
When I was a kid, I loved the Wizard of Oz. In those days, it truly was a special occasion when it aired on television, and I watched every second – even the scary parts with the flying monkeys. Over the years, I’ve seen the story used as a metaphor for a variety of things from women’s empowerment to college graduation advice. So I’ve decided today to use it as a metaphor for my life.
Since the inception of Jenion, I have tried to write honestly about my life – “the good, the bad, the ugly pizza binges”. What I haven’t done is spend much time or blog space talking about the realities I experienced when I tipped the scales at 350+ pounds. In part, I haven’t wanted to hang on to a past self that has (literally) disappeared. But part of the reason I haven’t spoken too directly about my life as a morbidly obese person was my own ambivalence about my worth as a human being during that time period. It is hard to admit, even now, the embarrassments, indignities and huge burden of self-loathing – coupled with the disgust of total strangers – which comprised my daily life for twenty years or so. In many ways, I embodied Dorothy’s companions from the Wizard of Oz.
Like the Scarecrow, I felt stupid, and acted that way. I chose faulty logic over clear understanding so that I wasn’t required to change. Moreover, other people acted, sometimes, as if I was incapable of normal thoughts and emotions. It was a symbiotic relationship: they treated me rudely, with cruelty at times, dismissively at others – and I believed they were right to do so. But I always had the brains to figure things out, if I chose to use them.
Like the Tin Man, I had a heart full to overflowing. I just didn’t know how to feel it or express it, so I covered it up with food, then fat. I loved. I yearned. I hoped and dreamed. I blocked those feelings and hid my heart – most of all from myself. But it was there, all along, if I only chose to feel my emotions instead of pretend they didn’t exist.
Like the Cowardly Lion, I feared everything. My own shadow was terrifying (and huge). Not to mention the things I ought to have been afraid of, like health risks and chronic pain. My fear paralyzed me from making choices, moving forward, loving wholeheartedly. But there was courage waiting, untapped, if I only decided to reach for it.
And like the Great and Terrible Oz, I was only acting a part. Hoping no one would look behind the curtain and see the creature cowering there. I didn’t realize it, but the curtain was only fooling me. Those who loved and worried for me could see right through it. I could have pulled it back and revealed my true self anytime.
Finally, I set out on an unknown road as someone who didn’t even know herself. I wasn’t sure whether I could find the thing I was searching for, and I was terrified of bogeymen (lions, tigers, and bears are not scary to me compared with looking foolish, failing, rejection). I wore my layers of fat like Dorothy wore her Kansas naivete – for all to see, both a protection and a problem situation to work my way out of.
Today, for the first time, I am posting a weight with a one at the front – not a 3, not a 2.
Today, I am a much different person than the woman who hid inside that real-life fat suit. I finally realize I don’t have to revile her, hate her, deny her existence in order to become the person I want to be. I simply need to accept who and what I once was. And as I’ve watched this moment approaching it has become clear that, in order to take my life where I want, I have to say a final, loving, goodbye to that frightened fat girl. Goodbye to timid Dorothy-from-Kansas. I’m letting her go for good and all.
Standard weight charts still list me as obese. Whatever. After following the spiralling yellow brick road into “One-derland” the old thought patterns, fears, negative self-talk simply won’t do anymore. Here, I am the central character of my own life: I am Dorothy of the Ruby Slippers. I’ve had the power all along, but here is where I truly take hold of it – no more looking elsewhere for strength of mind, a stout heart, and the courage of my convictions.
I don’t know about you, but St. Thomas Aquinas isn’t the first historical figure (or saint, for that matter) who comes to mind on Valentine’s Day. Or he wasn’t. But he may well be in future years. And all because my niece, Myka, posted the video (below) by an oddly compelling priest and professor, Father Michael Himes, which elucidates the great Scholastic’s definition of love.
So, in case you skipped the video, or didn’t watch the whole thing, here’s a brief recap: Aquinas defined love as the “effective willing of the good of the other.” Therefore, love is not an emotion or feeling, something that happens to us. Instead, it is a choice, an act of will – something we do. I’ve heard this much before, but Fr. Himes goes on to say that love is not simply a choice, or mere benevolence. Love is more than wanting the best for the beloved and hoping they get it. “Love is no less than acting to make that ‘best’ real for the beloved.”
Wow, talk about setting the bar high! Thanks, Aquinas. After watching the video, I spent a great deal of time thinking about the people in my life I say I love…and wondering if what they receive from me is the effective willing of their good.
The sticky wicket I kept rubbing up against was the word “effective”.
I think I can “will” the good of those I love with the best of them. I will for my friends to discover and achieve their heart’s desire. I will my family to achieve and maintain their optimal health. These are good things that I will for my loved ones. But how am I to effectively bring them about?
And that’s when it occurred to me that Thomas Aquinas was a theologian and philosopher. He dealt with the realm of ideas and lofty concepts. This doesn’t mean that what he says, such as his definition of love, can be ignored as too high-brow for the more pedestrian among us. It just means that we need to translate it down into language and experience that is human-sized. Fr. Himes waxes eloquent as he “unpacks” Aquinas for us. But even he is a college professor, a man at home in the cerebral realm. On the daily-living-of-our-puny-human-lives level, both are kind of silent.
So, here are three ideas, guaranteed to be “unlofty”. They might be effective if practiced with intent. (I don’t really know, for sure. They are based on things my loved ones do for me that have worked. My practice of them has been spotty.)
Tell those you love the truth..
…but with loving kindness. We need to have people in our lives who tell us the truth. However, it isn’t very effective when shared in a brutal manner. When I haven’t taken the time to think about the fact I love the other person, my attempts at honesty are brutal – and then I justify the harshness by calling it “the truth”. Folks, brutal is brutal. Honesty can be approached with generosity of spirit. My friend, Molly, has a gift for this. She’s a straight-shooter, but she is also incredibly kind. She can tell me that my thinking is completely screwed up, yet I leave the conversation feeling supported and loved.
Actually think about the other person…
…instead of thinking about yourself. This sounds easy, and I’m the first one to justify thoughtlessness with, “I was only thinking about you”. In reality, most times throughout my hectic days, I am busy thinking about myself. The people I love come in second to that. Not because I don’t care, but because I am wrapped up in what I need to get done, what my deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise) are, etc. I fail to carve out moments to stop, focus on the other, and allow my brain to shift gears. My friend, Colette does this really well. She’s incredibly busy, yet when you are with her, her attention is laser-focused on you. I’m not going to lie, it can be disconcerting because it is so not the norm in my experience. But I always leave time with Colette feeling more sharply focused myself.
Offer both words and tokens of love…
…and don’t be stingy with them. I’ve learned over the past three years just how important this one is. I’ve learned this from my family (my Dad’s messages of “Way to go, Jen!”, my cousin Stephanie cheering me on daily). I’ve learned this from the amazing women with whom I work who check in with me, who don’t just go through the motions of polite interaction, but who have been there for me on good days and bad. And I’ve learned it from my closest friends – from the guys at coffee reassuring me that the colonoscopy I’m scheduled for will be easy-peasy to Wendy showing up with tea roses on Valentine’s Day; from Sara always remembering my minor life events and calling to ask to Sue who has stuck with me for nearly 30 years. Be profligate with these words and tokens: most of us don’t hear them enough. When we do, we grow and we shine with it. And we take courage from it to step a little outside our comfort zone, because we know we have people who believe in us.
In the end, I believe that effective willing of the good of the other involves helping them to be effective on their own behalf, in their own lives. My experience has been that I am best able to act in my own life with the honesty, loving focus, and generous support of the people who love me. If I can provide those gifts in return, then I think its possible we will all experience what St. Thomas Aquinas was defining: deep, true, love.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, POP!
A few rose-related snapshots, leading you down the meandering path I’ve been following this week:
1. My mother and sister grow roses in their gardens, and over the years have picked up quite a bit of knowledge about them. I, on the other hand, love roses without understanding them at all. The wilder and more old-fashioned, the better. (Unless you plan to send me a bouquet of cut roses – then make them yellow tea roses, if possible – a preference I developed in college which I no longer remember the reason for.)
2. One year, a student organization on our campus was selling singing telegrams for Valentine’s Day. For a dollar, one could select from a group of four or five “love” songs, and the students would go to your friend’s room or office and sing it – along with a spoken message from you, the sender. My friend, Al, sent a telegram to my office: he picked “The Rose” for them to sing. He thought it was the cheesiest option and that I would laugh at it. Instead, I cried. In case you missed it, THEY SANG “THE ROSE” to me ON VALENTINE’S DAY. In my office. Duh. Any self-respecting woman of my generation would have done the same.
3. My maternal grandmother’s name was Rose. And while there aren’t many in my generation named after her, the next generation is a garden of Roses: Atalie Rose, Abi Rose, Aubrey Rose, Zoe Rose. All of them named after a grandmother beloved, but unknown, to them.
So, what led to these meandering thoughts about roses and my grandmother, Rose? One of the “joys” of having what appears to be a genetic predisposition to certain cancers, is the extensive family history taken, then distributed among family members (in our case, mothers, sisters, cousins – women related via the maternal line). I received a copy of this family history in the mail the other day, from my sister Chris. And I’ve been thinking about all these Roses ever since.
My grandmother, Rose Postel, died in 1965, days after the birth of my sister, Gwen. Gwen, our blue-eyed, blonde-haired beauty – the only one in a family sea of brunettes with dark eyes. Family lore is that Grandma always wanted a blonde grandchild, and that this was the final wish granted in her too-short life. I was four when Grandma died, she was 50.
Maybe there are those among you who think fifty years isn’t that short, as lifetimes go. Rose lived to see her children grown, married, starting families of their own. On the other hand, she only met half of her grandchildren, and the oldest was only five when she passed away. I don’t know what my sister remembers, but I only have one memory of Rose that I am sure is authentic (she is stirring up a batch of peanut butter cookies in her kitchen; they’re my favorite). But I do remember my mom, overwhelmed by her life with six kids, living with her widower father, being alternately sad and angry that her mother wasn’t there. I think I would have liked Rose, my dad says she had a keen eye and a sharp wit. Is it strange to say I miss her, when I barely knew her so long ago?
As I’m sure you’ve deduced, the fact that I turned 50 this year myself impacts my own perspective. I think of all the things I still hope to achieve and experience in my life – no longer the youthful yearning to have a meteoric impact on the planet – rather, the desire to live my own life as fully, as deeply, as possible. And I think of this garden of young roses – Atalie, Abi, Aubrey, Zoe…and their sisters and cousins. And I want to say to them: “Don’t hold back.” “Don’t let anyone (especially yourself) make you be smaller than you are.” Do. Be. Love. Live. So that at any age, you can say, “I’ve really lived my life.”
Because there are no guarantees. 30, 50, 60 – even if we hit the jackpot and live to 100 – we never know how many years we will have. But we do know we have today. Cancer sucks. But the only way to truly beat it – and/or all the other life-sucking things we might encounter – is to fully inhabit our lives, each day we are graced enough to wake up to them.