My Name is Jenion, And I’m a Backslider

I grew up Catholic, so there’s always been a deep-rooted desire in me to confess my failings. Like many children in parochial grade schools, I prepared a list of sins well in advance of kneeling on the padded bench in the confessional – there was nothing more humiliating than speechlessness when facing a dark screen, behind which sat the priest during this sacramental rite. So, also like generations of Catholic school children, if I couldn’t come up with something authentic, I made something up. Yes, that’s right, I lied during confession. I also had one or two generic sins to share, such as the ever-popular, “I fought with my brothers and sisters”. With five siblings, this was bound to be true, even if I was unable to recall a specific incidence.

The point is, I am a confession junkie of sorts. If I feel particularly badly about something I’ve done, I actually have a difficult time NOT blurting it out to someone. For example, there was the New Year’s Eve party when I introduced myself to a room full of strangers by announcing I had just eaten a large Papa Murphy’s pizza by myself and was feeling a little…full-ish.

And so I come before you today with a confession to make. Despite my best intentions, I have spent the past few weeks floundering. Oh, alright, backsliding. You may recall that I have spent the last year barely creeping forward with my weight loss goals. I plateaued. I dropped to a very low calorie diet, which made me cranky and didn’t help with weight loss. I upped my caloric intake and stepped up the exercise. My body shape rearranged itself slightly, but my weight barely fluctuated.

After a couple of years of posting my weekly weigh-in on this blog, in September I decided to post my weight only monthly (read the explanation here). And I made a valiant effort to feel positive and proactive without over-regard for the reading on my scale. As November rolled in, I was doing ok and holding my own. However, by mid-month, I was frustrated again with the lack of progress toward my goal. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results. Well, taking this thought to heart, I decided to shake things up a bit. Based on new research (yes, reputable research!) I began to increase the protein in my diet and added more dairy (something I’ve typically kept fairly restricted). And in spite of adding to my work out routine I just didn’t feel right. I stepped on a scale and was horrified to see that I had inched up by ten pounds!

We all know that such moments can be turning points. And so it was for me – a turning point in the wrong direction! So I am hereby confessing that I was so discouraged, I went out and bought a 10-pack of 100-calorie pouches of Goldfish crackers. And I ate all 10 pouches in 2 days. (For those of you keeping track, that’s 1,000 calories of crunchy, cheesy little fishies.) I wasn’t completely out of control. But I was too depressed to maintain self-discipline. A little temptation could easily overcome my resistance.

In the midst of this backsliding-palooza, along came Thanksgiving – the holiday devoted to binge eating in America. Interestingly, as the anniversary of Jenion, and the beginning of my own path to emotional and physical health, the eating holiday had the effect of helping me reconsider my backwards slide. The first step for me, as it is in any 12-step program, is to admit my own powerlessness – I can make decisions day by day, I can be proactive, I can manage. What I can’t do is ever live a life in which food isn’t an issue for me.

Until I sat down to write this blog post, I never really gave much thought to the 12-steps and whether they have any usefulness for me and this mighty effort to make lasting change in myself. However I can see that the other steps in 12-step programs are more or less instructive for me: make a fearless and searching moral inventory of myself; admit to God, myself and another human being the exact nature of my wrongs – these I’ve done using the vehicle of this blog and my penchant for confession!

Many of the remaining steps have to do with God, or whatever one’s concept of a higher power may be. I do know there is a spiritual component to this whole thing – and I must say that the following phrase (Step 2) struck me in particular:

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

On the one hand, as a person of faith, I read that Power to be God.

On the other hand, as a person who has benefitted from the power that is born of love – the support, encouragement, willingness to engage with my issues (and hear my “confessions”) shown by family, friends, loved ones and even well-meaning strangers…I have to read that Power also as community.

God and community: a backslider’s most trustworthy allies. You are there to restore my sanity, to remind me that I am cared for regardless of my weight or what is listed on my food tracker any given day. And I know you’ll be by my side as I hop back on the wagon – even if it means hearing all about my latest transgression or failing. For that, how can I be anything but truly grateful.

Note: The 12th Step can be summed up as “Helping Others”. As someone fully aware of the gifts that have been showered upon me, and the willingness of so many to walk with me, I want to reiterate that I am ready and willing to “pay it forward”. If you or someone you know needs help, someone to talk with, any support that I can offer, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Beginning today, I am back to a weekly weigh-in post. It turns out, I really benefit from the extra dose of accountability it provides. Please read today’s reflection post for background to this decision. Thanks to all of you for your ongoing support!

Ineffable Gratitude

This week we have been experiencing fog. I love fog, the way it takes the familiar and makes it strange and mysterious. The way it hides some things completely, yet reveals others in striking detail, highlighting these objects so that you see them with new eyes. Fog makes sound confusing, muffling it and disorienting the listener (on a walk Tuesday, a friend and I kept hearing a sharp report like gun fire, yet we looked in opposite directions for its source). I don’t have a word for the effect fog has on my psyche. It is enchanting, disorienting, occasionally even frightening. All at once.

The same words can be used to describe how I have experienced this year. 2012 has been odd for me, full of true peaks and desperately low valleys. Yet both have primarily been experienced on an interior level, visible only to me. It has been as if I have been walking in my own emotional landscape during a prolonged season of fog. There are occasional signposts, infrequent landmarks that suggest I have been here before, that I do in fact know this terrain. Still, it has felt strange.

I have often been reminded, this year, of Denise Levertov’s poem, “Zeroing In”. In it, we listen as two people discuss their interior landscapes.

“I am a landscape,” he said.
“a landscape and a person walking in that landscape.
There are daunting cliffs there,
And plains glad in their way
of brown monotony…

They suggest that there are places that we come upon, wandering our emotional landscapes, which without warning sink us in a quagmire or (worse) jump at us like a biting dog.

“I know,” she said. “When I set forth
to walk in myself, as it might be
on a fine afternoon, forgetting,
sooner or later I come to where sedge
and clumps of white flowers, rue perhaps,
mark the bogland, and I know
there are quagmires there that can pull you
down, and sink you in bubbling mud.”

They say we learn to leap away from unexpected contact with these places:

  “Yes, we learn that
It’s not terror, it’s pain we’re talking about:
those places in us…
…that are bruised forever”

(read the entire poem here)

Fog. Internal landscapes. Emotional pain. Not exactly the traditional fare of Thanksgiving posts. That said, this post is, indeed, about thanksgiving – mine. My gratitude for the unexpected breadth and depth of feelings experienced in this ethereally fogged-up landscape of my soul.

For many years of my life, I kept myself well-defended within a fortress of walls too thick to allow much feeling to permeate. Those of you who have been on this journey with me know that, by grace, those walls were sent crashing down a couple of years ago. In the aftermath, there was a rebound into joy, liveliness, excessive positive energy. It was lovely, but even as I experienced it I suspected it wasn’t sustainable. I had no idea what to expect on the next leg of the journey, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t remain at those heights.

It turns out that the current segment of my life’s path is the one that reminds me I am an ordinary human. I am being reacquainted with the reality of the human condition – we can use many means to escape into numbness, but numbness is not our natural state. Our natural state includes both joy and sorrow, hope and despair, love and loss, high and low. And not just these opposite endpoints, but the full spectrum of each.

Does it sound strange to say, “I am grateful for the lake of tears I have shed this year” or “Thanks for the epic roller coaster ride of emotions?” I suspect it does, and in some ways I surprise myself by saying it – because there have been days when I desperately missed my fortress of denial.

There is something ineffable here, though.

Ineffable:  1.  Too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words: “ineffable beauty”.
2.  Too sacred to be uttered.

Wow, did you catch that? Too sacred to be uttered. The gift of our humanity, of full participation in this life we have been born into and made for. It isn’t so much that I am at a loss for words, as that the right words cannot be found, cannot be uttered. And so Thanksgiving finds me able only to offer humble thanks for the bounty of a difficult (and fulfilling, and happy, and challenging) full- spectrum year.

Pulling a Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump: That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since I run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama. And that’s what I did. I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going.
 

Lately, I’ve been thinking I’ve lived my life, in some ways, a lot like Forrest Gump – at least during his running phase. In the movie, Forrest claims he just felt like it, so took off running and kept going. Until he didn’t feel like it anymore. Plain and simple, just like the character of Forrest Gump himself.

Those of you who have known me for any length of time are likely wondering in what possible way I have been like this image of Forrest – I rarely run, after all. And I am hardly considered simple (recent descriptions have included cantankerous, introspective, difficult and an overthinker – not one simple in the bunch).

As I look at my life and ask, “What next?”, I can’t help but look back and wonder – what the??? How did I get here? It is as if I just jogged along the path of my life, for no particular reason continuing on the same trajectory. When I came to a roadblock or a turning point, I made a minute course correction and kept jogging. I figured that since I’d gone this far, I might as well just keep going. This is how Forrest crisscrossed the continent, and it is how I passed a lot of my days. I just kept going.

Aside from the obvious oversimplification – there were, after all, moments of soul-searching, difficult decision-points, days when striking out in a different direction was a near possibility – this is a fairly accurate description of my adult life. It is only relatively recently that I’ve learned to recognize the truth – the downside of over-identification with your career, your social milieu, your physical condition or your whatever is not that others define you by it. The downside is that you define and limit yourself. You are so far “in”, you can’t even see that there is an “out”.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a place for “staying the course”, for commitment. But Forrest just ran. He thought he “might as well”, which is hardly the same as commitment. And while he ran, a series of events and adventures happened around him. But they didn’t actually happen to him. They happened because other people were seeking meaning, looking for answers, trying to discover a purpose or a passion. (In the movie, others mistakenly assume that these things will be found by running with or after Forrest. We are meant to see these others as pathetic, but I think that’s open for interpretation. At least they are searching for something.)

One day, Forrest stops running and begins a new phase of his life. Who can say why, for sure? The same thing happened to me. One day I realized that I was just mindlessly running on a treadmill and calling it “my life”. I decided to stop doing that. Many people have asked, primarily wondering about my weight loss. “What was different? Why did it ‘take’ this time?” I don’t have a ready or easy answer for that. The day I stepped on the scale and decided 352 was a really high number felt, otherwise, like any other day. So did the day I started working out. I refused to begin with a solid statement of commitment, “This is the day I change my life!”, because I’d done that before and it hadn’t been true. I began with more of a “Meh. Maybe I’ll give this a shot.” I might as well.

If that’s how it began, very much in the vein of Forrest’s running phase, that’s not how it continued. Stepping off the treadmill I’d been running on took daily effort, and continues to take daily effort. I wake up in the morning and decide to exercise. Decide to eat more veggies and less dessert. Decide that I can go one more day without pizza. And in the other areas of my life, my emotional and professional and spiritual selves also have to make active choices, set goals, decide. There is no room for “I might as well” or “for no particular reason”. Because that old treadmill (or hamster wheel if you prefer) is still in working order and, even after several years of wakefulness, it is easy to step onto it and forget to choose. To just jog along with the status quo, to somnambulate at pace.

Steve Jobs famously stated that you can never connect the dots moving forward in your life. You can only connect the dots looking back. We still have to move forward, trusting that the dots WILL connect. There are periods when living consciously is exciting – we feel our own forward momentum and it is exhilarating. And there are periods when making deliberate choices day in and day out feels really hard. Sorry, Forrest, but as endearing a character as you are, I don’t want to be like you anymore. I would rather choose the hard way and stay awake, live with purpose, than look back at my life and say, “I did it for no particular reason.”

Flashback Friday: Sharing the Love

Today’s flashback is a photo of my brother, Matt, and me at the Dickeyville Grotto. It isn’t an especially extraordinary photo, but there are so many elements in that are important to me.

First, one of the best things about that time of my life (late 80s/early 90s) was the fact that I lived in Iowa City at the same time as my three youngest siblings. We spent a surprising amount of time together – by choice – developing strong relationships as adults. My brother, Matt, in particular encouraged me to explore interests that were beyond the scope of my very mainstream, straight, path. With his girlfriend (and to this day one of my favorite people) Syndy, we visited galleries, attended readings and plays, checked out all kinds of odd and unusual things and places: St. Isaac of Syria Skete, anyone?!

The Dickeyville Grotto has loomed large in my imagination since childhood. This particular trip taught me to think of it as not just the result of a crazed religious fervor, but as outsider art. Matt took tons of photos of the grotto and its varied elements. My Dad took photos of us enjoying the lengthy exploration of the grotto (this was the umpteenth time we had been to the grotto, but we were seeing it with fresh eyes).

It is no accident that I am hiding behind Matt’s shoulder in the photo. Of course, I hoped to hide my bulk, as my weight had been creeping up. But it is also indicative of the fact that Matt boldly walked into life experiences, while I often crept along in his wake. However, I will always be grateful to have had the opportunity to learn and explore so much from and with my youngest sibling.

The mightiest word

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
 
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
 
–from “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander

Last week I wrote a post (Playing the Death Card) in which I related an experience I had with tarot cards back in the early 1990s. I knew as I wrote the post that there were members of my family, and likely some friends, who would be concerned on religious and/or spiritual grounds about my use of these cards. Sure enough, later that morning I received an email from one of my sisters. She was resisting the urge to comment, she said. She went on: “Instead, if you would like to know what I think, let me know and we can discuss it.  If not, no problem, and I won’t bring it up again.” She signed off with love.

Contrast that experience with the one recounted in this deeply sad post I read earlier this week, To Forgive. The author, Justine Graykin, tries to come to terms with the death of her only sister, whose terminal illness was kept a secret from her – at the sister’s request – because of Justine’s atheism. The sister refused to have a relationship with someone whose beliefs did not include God. And so she died, denying both sisters the opportunity to forgive or to choose love over implacability.

Two tales of sisters, one in which love fosters understanding and another in which love fosters alienation. So, as I’ve thought about these (among other things in an emotionally eventful week), I find myself asking:

Is love really hard, or do we just make it that way?

The only answer I can find is that we make love hard by our unending need to be in control. To have the people and events in our lives conform to our conception of what and who they should be.

What if we could let go of all that?

I have been trying to do this in my life and relationships, and I’m learning a few things:

  • There is a difference between not controlling and not showing up. Me being who I am and letting others see that, see my preferences, my feelings, my responses is important. When I don’t do that I am just a tabula rasa (a blank slate) for their projections. Like Julia Roberts’ character in “The Runaway Bride”, my favorite style of eggs are whatever style the person I am with likes. People may enjoy having themselves mirrored back, but it doesn’t allow for much depth of relationship.
  • Love and respect require honesty. And I don’t mean bluntness. Or “I just call it as I see it” approaches. These are typically masks for allowing oneself to steamroll over another person. I mean the kind of honesty that requires courage – sharing your true feelings, showing your insecurities and hurts, putting words to the fears that make you want to control the other person. 
  • Honesty is a two-way street. If love and respect require you to be honest with others, they also require that you ask for and seek honesty from the other person. Listen carefully. Ask questions, even if you are afraid of the answers. In fact, ask specifically the questions you are afraid to know the answers to – because all that secret fear is toxic to relationships and makes you want to grasp for control.
  • Definitions are not required. Our love for defining and quantifying things is deeply ingrained. But, except in a few specific instances (such as “spouse” “parent” “sibling”), we don’t have to check a box beside each of our relationships. This is why I have never been a fan of the term “best friend”. Best implies a hierarchy. At different moments, different people may fulfill the role of being the best person for me to be with or interact with. Relationships, even those defined by a title, are not static. They ebb and flow.

There are people in our lives who are not willing or able to meet us in exactly the spot where we stand on the path. Some are further ahead than we are, others are behind us with regard to maturity, confidence, ability to engage authentically with others. Instead of seeing these differences as problems and trying to force our steps to be in synch, what if we rejoiced in each other’s unique perspectives? What if our hopes and dreams for the others in our lives were not that they become who we think they should be, but rather that they become the best version of themselves – and allow them to define who that person would be?

Maybe love could stop being so hard. Maybe love could become free flowing and easy. Maybe love could cast a “widening pool of light” as Elizabeth Alexander’s poem suggests.

In the end, the question isn’t really, “What if the mightiest word is love?” Because it is. The question, I think, is: “What if we managed to let love be mighty?” How would our lives and the world around us change?

Playing the Death Card

Dia de los Muertos figure, photo taken by Mike Beck in Santa Fe, June 2012

Back in the early ’90s, I was living in a college town full of odd characters and interesting happenings: I discovered a love for beads and beadwork; Sunday evenings were spent at “reading night” (we gathered to read aloud, things we’d written or excerpts, poems, etc. that we loved); if you discovered the location of Secret Pizza your pie was free. It was during this time, one very hot July evening, that I met The Purple Lady.

She was a well-known fixture in town – a profusion of wild gray hair, hippie style, and always purple clothing. My brother, Matt, the soup cook at Great Midwestern (the coffee place in town) had met her and somehow gotten into a conversation which led to him arranging Tarot card lessons for himself, his girlfriend Syndy, and me. On the night of our first lesson, we arrived at The Purple Lady’s place and were invited inside. We sat quietly, while she urged us to send a silent message of peace out from our bodies, encouraging mosquitoes and flies to stay away from us so that we didn’t inadvertently crush them.

We went over the basic information about the cards: the structure of the deck (major and minor acana), and the suits. Then, we began learning the symbolism of the major arcana cards. The lesson ended with homework: over the next week, do a reading for yourself every day using only the major arcana. Also, pick one card a day to study in detail. In this way, we would (The Purple Lady assured us) begin to grow a personal understanding of each card’s meaning and how it fit within the context of a particular reading.

Armed with very little knowledge and a brand-spanking-new deck, I dutifully set about my daily readings. And in every single reading (which I recorded for my teacher) I turned up the thirteenth card: Death. On the night of our second lesson, the following week, I shared my notes with The Purple Lady, who made no comment about the frequency of the Death card’s appearance, and I was hesitant to ask. Instead, we spent most of the lesson talking about the suits of the minor arcana and their meanings within a reading. Again, our homework was a daily reading. However, instead of another class, the third meeting was to be an individual reading and consultation with The Purple Lady. I scheduled mine for her first available time slot.

Once again, I dutifully performed my daily readings. By day twelve, I had turned up the Death card twelve times. I was starting, as any novice might, to grow a bit concerned. Was there something seriously wrong with me?!

Day thirteen was my scheduled reading and consultation. We sat cross-legged on a blanket in The Purple Lady’s backyard as she drew and laid the cards in a traditional Celtic Cross spread. And there, in plain view, was the Death card. “How many times has this card shown up in your daily readings?”, she asked. “Twelve,” I replied (because it sounded less scary than saying “all of them”). After a moment, she said, “And this is the thirteenth time the thirteenth card has been turned up.” I nodded, wordlessly.

“Well,” said The Purple Lady. “You’re probably freaking out about that. People often misunderstand what this card is all about. But the truth is, the Death card is simply a powerful symbol of change.” She went on to say that the major arcana cards represent major life transitions, processes, forces (while the minor arcana represent daily life events). The Death card reminds us that change is both the passing of what has been AND the arrival of what will be. At that point in my life, I was in a time of tremendous personal change, needing to let go of who I had been in order to make room for the person I was becoming.

You may be wondering why I chose to share this story today? I started thinking about it in relation to Halloween and the occult. Which led me to the celebration, today, of both All Saint’s Day and Dia de los Muertos. All of this focus on death – not as the final event in life, but as a symbol of transition to a new way of being. These early November holidays are not about the cessation of life, but about the next life of our souls.

And as I thought about this, I was reminded of a passage from Gregg Levoy’s Callings:

“Eventually, our feelings of inauthenticity and restlessness, our envy of others’ successes, our panic at the passage of time and our own reflections in the mirror, all become like tombstones – they remind us of where someone is buried –and we will measure our fear of death by the distance between our desires and our actions, between the life we want and the life we have.”
 

They become like tombstones, remind us of where someone is buried, because they are the markers of our failure to heed our callings in this life. If we live lives that are wrong for our spirits, says Levoy, we are “lost souls”. Of late, I have especially felt that panic at the passage of time – the fear that I may have squandered too many years and will never get where I hope to be. And then I remember that I have to be willing to let go of the past, of who I was and who I am today, in order to transition into who I will be. And this includes letting go of the idea of “squandered time” – the past simply is. Accept that and move on.

So, whether we’re officially celebrating All Souls/All Saints Day, Dia de los Muertos, or just experiencing a sugar crash from Halloween, this seems like a good moment to focus on our callings and let go of what was. To remember that we have important things to do here before we join the ranks of those celebrated in early November holidays. Let’s not spend too much time, in this life, being lost souls.