Free Your Inner Turkey

30 10 2014

A couple of weeks ago, as my friends and I biked through a state park nearby, we happened to see a wild turkey. He had somehow gotten inside a fenced enclosure, and was running back and forth along the fence line in a state of obvious panic, unable to find a way out. At first, I felt terrible for the poor thing. The few times I’ve felt that kind of feverish panic have been really awful, and I immediately identified with his distress. And then my friend, Victoria, said something simple yet incredibly profound. She said, “Hey, you dumb bird! You can fly!”

Wait. What?

Yep, despite rumors to the contrary, turkeys are capable of flight. In fact, they roost in trees, so they not only can fly, they do fly. Regularly. (It’s true – I googled it!)

As we rode on, I felt reasonably certain my feathered friend would figure it out. But the encounter got me thinking. I said that Victoria’s statement was simple yet profound. Simple, because she merely pointed out the obvious – the turkey could easily fly out of his predicament. Profound, because each of us experiences moments of panic, fear, anxiety in which we mimic the turkey’s pointless, frantic energy drain. So often at these times we overlook the simple truth that we already possess the skills, talent, or self-knowledge to extricate ourselves from, or to materially alter, the situation.

Why do we do this?

As I’ve asked myself this question, I’ve identified three possible reasons that make sense to me:

1. We’ve told ourselves a story that isn’t true. I wasn’t there for more than a few minutes, but I’m certain the panicked gobbler we came upon had not yet tried flying over the fence. Instead, he was running around looking for any other way out. Like the erroneous story that turkeys can’t fly, we’ve all told ourselves stories about what we are, and are not, capable of doing. Quite often, we are certain we can’t fly (or take risks, or attempt something new, or do what we see others routinely do). We say, “I could never do that” when, in fact, we’ve never even tried. It would be more appropriate to say, “I don’t know if I can do that.”

I was talking with friends about creativity recently, and I said, “I’ve never really been disciplined as a writer.” The first response to my comment was, “That’s not true. You publish your blog every Thursday. How many years have you done that? Seems like discipline to me.” How might it affect my creativity if I began to think of myself as capable of a disciplined approach?

There are other, more insidious stories, we tell ourselves. How about the one that says, “I not only can’t fly, I’m not worthy of flying?” Or the one that goes, “I’ve never flown before, so it’s obvious I never will.” As long as we keep telling these versions of our stories – the versions that say we can’t, that underestimate us, that bully us into keeping our lives smaller than they need be – that is how long we’ll be wasting our energy running around in circles but getting nowhere.

2. We’re afraid of what we don’t know/can’t see. As I watched the turkey running back and forth along the chain link after Victoria pointed out that he could fly out of the enclosure, I realized something. He was so close to the fence, and so much shorter than it, he couldn’t see that the fence ended a few feet up. Perhaps he wasn’t attempting to fly out because he didn’t realize that there was open sky above him.

We are so close to our own fears we bump up against them day in and day out. Living in such close quarters with them, our fears begin to feel both familiar and insurmountable.

As a personal example, I’d like to share how I stopped being afraid of the dark. For much of my life, being alone in the dark was a debilitating fear. One of the ways I dealt with that fear was to have living arrangements that made me feel as if I wasn’t alone – I either had roommates or lived in multi-unit buildings (a career in college housing helped immensely, as I spent two decades living amongst my students). Then I had the opportunity to move into a little cottage by myself. I was feeling burned-out from living in my workplace, and the house was adorable. The first few nights, I couldn’t sleep – I left the lights on, I started at every noise I heard. Finally, about a week after moving in, I was exhausted. I clearly remember having a “come to Jesus” talk with myself. “Jen,” I said, “you can either keep this up and live exhausted all the time, or you can stop being afraid of the dark.” And so I made a different choice.

Holy crap! The most surprising thing about this change was that it worked! I simply chose differently. For example, w hen I heard an unidentifiable noise, I chose to think it was nothing – instead of thinking it was someone trying to break in. At first, this was a very deliberate process. I had to engage in a lot of self-talk. Eventually, though, I didn’t need that anymore. This process taught me that my fears might be familiar, may even sometimes be understandable, but they are rarely insurmountable.

3. We feel overwhelmed by what it would take to change our situation. So poor Mr. Tom Turkey may have forgotten, due to erroneous information, that he could fly. He may not have been able to see that the fence was not, in fact, endless and insurmountable. Or he may have panicked because he was simply overwhelmed by the effort he would have to make to escape his accidental cage. For many of us humans, this feeling of being overwhelmed by the effort of change is a very real phenomenon that prevents us from effecting real changes in our lives.

Of course, we blame ourselves whenever we stop to think about it. But the truth is, we also live in a culture that is continuously encouraging us to accept the status quo. Select comfort and ease over discomfort and hard work. Today’s obsession with inspirational quotes and daily feel-good memes is like my past penchant for gardening shows on PBS. Watching an hour of someone else gardening fulfilled any need I had to do so myself! Why make something happen today when, “It is never to late to be what you might have been” (as the oft-repeated saying goes)?

Perhaps one of the most frequent questions I am asked when people learn I’ve lost half my body weight is, “What was your ‘aha’ moment – what was the trigger that forced you to actually do it this time?” Thanks to popular culture, we’ve gotten used to thinking that only realizations or experiences of seismic proportions will move us enough to make real change happen in our lives. The truth for me? I stopped thinking I needed some big reason to change AND I stopped thinking that only BIG changes mattered. Instead, I allowed myself to make one decision/choice at a time. Right this minute, am I hungry? If yes, am going to eat a brownie or am I going to eat a Greek yogurt? If no, am I going to eat anyway or not? Simple choices. Not overwhelming at all when made one at a time, rather than the kind of all-or-nothing thinking that leads us so often to experience failure.

It turns out that, quite often, change overwhelms us because we simply psych ourselves out.

“You can fly,” Victoria told the turkey. Why didn’t he realize that for himself? Perhaps he just forgot he could fly, suffering from a turkey-version of memory loss. Whatever the turkey’s reasons, it seems certain they are less complicated than the reasons we humans forget or willfully ignore what we are capable of. One of the things I appreciate about observing animal behaviors – which are mainly, I believe, instinctual, – is what it teaches me about my own behaviors. And it helps me to differentiate between instinctual behavior and choice behavior; between reactivity and proactivity. Freeing ourselves from our own fenced-in places requires that we seek this kind of clarity, and that we act on it once we’ve found it. When it comes to what we’re capable of achieving, let’s agree to stop being turkeys and remember that we can fly, too!

 

 

 

 





Natural Magic

23 10 2014

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“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”
— Herman Melville

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“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
— John Muir

I remember, as a child, laying down in a patch of lilies-of-the-valley on a warm spring afternoon. I was searching for fairies or pixies among the tiny bell-shaped blossoms; I fell asleep waiting patiently for the magical creatures to appear and woke drenched in the flowers’ perfume. I never saw pixies, but the memory of that afternoon has remained with me, a moment of magic nonetheless.

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On the previous downhill, I had cut a corner too tightly, preventing a nasty fall by grabbing a tree trunk and hugging it as if my life depended on it. That moment had left adrenaline coursing through my veins – a good thing considering the rocky, twisting, dusty climb that next had me standing on my pedals, breath wheezing out of my labored lungs, muscles screaming at me to quit torturing them. Then, at the top, I did stop: breathless now because of the breath-taking view. Alone in the woods, every sense alert and heightened, I understood to the depths of my being why my friends call Sunday mountain biking “Church On Two Wheels”.

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My childhood was spent, to a large extent, outdoors – early on, mostly in manicured and cultivated spaces but later, in junior high and high school, there were woods and ravines to be discovered. I explored winding paths, gloried in views from river bluffs, searched a creek-bed for agates among the other, ordinary, stones. As I grew older, though, I grew away from nature. By the time I was fully into adulthood, I was mostly an indoor creature. Instead of reveling in nature, I saw it as something to be occasionally endured – comprised of temperature extremes, requiring physical activity I was incapable of comfortably engaging in, leading to mosquito bites and chafing and poison ivy. Not to mention my conviction that, should I go into the woods alone, I was vulnerable to attack by any random opportunistic rapist or axe-wielding murderer. I became a person who ventured forth in my imagination, rarely in my reality.

One of the lasting joys of making the change to healthier habits in diet and exercise has been the opportunity to reconnect with the world in a physical sense. Slowly, the conviction has been growing in me that being outdoors and communing with the natural world is something basic and necessary to my happiness, to my spiritual and emotional fulfillment.

October 2014 has been a spectacular month for learning the truth of this. First, I visited the North Shore of Lake Superior. Mike and I hiked in the woods at Split Rock, spent hours climbing around Gooseberry Falls, walking in the misty rain on the beach and at Canal Park in Duluth. Kate, Victoria and I spent a Sunday afternoon biking in Fort Snelling State Park, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. We saw wildlife in its own habitat: coyote, turkey, bald eagle. And last Sunday, I spent the better part of four hours alone in the woods on the singletrack at Elm Creek park. Each of these days offered me a mixed bag of regret and euphoria. Regret that I came so late to understand the need to be out in, and a witness to, the natural environment. Joy that I have finally come to the mountain, so to speak. It is a measure of the importance of this lesson that inner peace and euphoria far outweigh the regret.

It was easy to fall into the trap of indoor living, of moving from one controlled environment to another. It is comfortable, entertainment is readily available via television or online, food and water always at hand. I now know, though, that we lose something of ourselves, fail to live in a grounded way, when we do not create both space and time in our lives to be outdoors. We breathe in shallow breaths, when we are meant to take in huge lungfulls of oxygen. We make ourselves small, when we are meant to be expansive.

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On a sad summer afternoon in the mid-1960s, several stately elm trees that had lived in our yard were cut down, victims of Dutch elm disease. I remember going to the largest stump, breathing in the scent of freshly cut wood and sawdust, and placing the palms of my hands on the splintery, damp surface. Young as I was, I felt myself connected to that stump, to the tree it had been, to the life not-quite extinguished inside it. And through that trunk, I felt roots – the trees and my own – reaching down, into the deep black soil of Iowa, and further, into the limestone bluff, into the water beneath it.

“Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons: It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.”
— Walt Whitman

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Treading Water: A Zoo Story

16 10 2014

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The moment we entered the polar bear exhibit, I saw him. A giant of a bear, up against the glass wall of his habitat’s pool, treading water. His powerful front paws paddled at a frantic pace, constantly working to keep him afloat. I was fascinated by his size, his concentration and his seeming oblivion to the spectators crowding the glass in front of him.

As we stood there, other visitors began commenting on the energy and exertion required to keep him afloat. The human tendency to project our own experience onto other beings asserted itself quickly. I heard comments such as, “Poor thing, he looks scared!” or “He looks so tired! Why doesn’t he just stop?” Most people in the room were enthralled by the bear treading water, myself included. I snapped several quick photos to capture the moment. However, there was a growing concern among the humans that something might be wrong. We knew nothing about polar bears, really. But if it were one of us in that pool, the activity we were witnessing would indicate a problem. So we engaged in blatant anthropomorphising, worried about the poor bear.

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Then I noticed a small child with her face pressed against a panel of glass several feet away. She giggled, then looked at her adult companion with awe-filled eyes. I moved over a step, and saw a second polar bear. This one was swimming laps, backstroking across the pool. On the far side, he executed a perfect turn (one even Michael Phelps would be jealous of), then swam low across the bottom of the pool, facing the glass. When he arrived at the glass panel, he practically rammed it with his nose, coming face-to-face with the child before swimming vertically up the glass to the pool’s surface. Once there, he put his powerful hind paws against the glass and pushed off.

Most of the spectators in the room remained fixated on the bear treading water. However, my friend Kate and I moved into the child’s spot when she and her adult moved on. This lap-swimming bear swam with a steady rhythm, each rotation exactly the same as the previous rotation. However, he appeared happy, playful, even joyful by comparison to the bear who shared his habitat.

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I put my forehead against the glass in order to come face-to-face with the bear as he arrived at the glass. We made eye contact, and I found myself giggling almost exactly as the child had previously. On another lap, I placed my hand on the glass so that it met his hind paw as it pushed off – the massive paw was more than double the size of my hand.

I was so fascinated I forgot to take any photos of the second bear. When Kate and I finally left the polar bear enclosure, I felt happy, infected by the positive energy we imagined flowing from the backstroking bear.

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All told, we spent maybe ten or fifteen minutes observing the polar bears that morning. But I’ve found myself thinking about them frequently and have, I think, discovered a meaningful allegory for myself in the swimming bears.

Like the first bear, I have spent a lot of time treading water – maintaining the status quo, remaining in the same place, holding steady. At times, treading water is a good thing – it allows us to conserve energy in the midst of turbulent times, can act as a respite from exhaustive or strenuous activity. But treading water can also be about fear – of the unknown, of change, of moving into the open water that signifies life’s many possibilities. The equivalent of treading water in our lives requires the same kind of frantic paddling we witnessed in the polar bear, as we avoid people, dodge opportunities, make excuses to remain the same. To remain unchanged and unchallenged – even if that also means we remain unhappy or unfulfilled.

The lap swimming bear, by contrast, was striking out boldly in a direction. On each circuit, there were similar actions, though each time he came along the pool’s floor toward the glass, there was the possibility of discovering something/someone new! His whole energy spoke of play, joy and willingness. In our lives, we have to accept that we don’t get to know everything in order to move forward. In order to experience the wide range of life and experiences we wish for and want.

As I’ve ruminated on these two polar bears, I’ve realized that each of them was working hard as they engaged in their different activities. They were likely burning similar calories, using similar reserves of energy. Yet their demeanors and the meaningfulness of what they were doing was experienced by those watching very differently. For us humans, treading water is an activity that outlives its usefulness fairly quickly. If we want our lives to have meaning, a sense of purpose, of growth, we have to swim. We have to strike out into unknown and uncharted waters. We must learn to do so with our eyes open and with a readiness to see whatever is waiting for us on the next turn.

I can’t speak for polar bears.  But for me, if staying in the same place or moving forward require roughly the same amount – though different kinds – of work, why not move? In the future, when I find myself treading water in life instead of proceeding in the direction of my dreams, I hope the images of those polar bears will come to mind. I hope they’ll remind me to pick a direction and go. I won’t know for sure where I’ll end up, but I’m certain that I’ll come face to face with something new – and in the process, become someone new.

 

 

 





To My Post-Weight Loss Body

9 10 2014

I have been told I should love you.

I have been asked why I hate you.

Love and hate: the extremities of emotion. What I feel toward you is neither, yet both: extreme in its measure of complexity rather than its static position on an axis.

When it comes to their bodies, even poets vacillate between love:

Clifton swinging her jazzy hips;
Piercy belly bumping her lover;
Whitman singing the body electric…

And hate:

Roethke’s “rags of anatomy”,
Amichai betrayed by hair’s sprouting and Corso by it’s routing;
countless unnamed others using their words to reach an armistice on this war’s very personal front…

If much of humanity swings on that pendulum, loving you and hating you, how am I to reconcile my own internal tug of war?

I am proud of you:

The vigor of muscle and bone, their strength;
The tenacity of heart and lungs, their endurance;
The willingness to rise to the occasion when I mistreated you and, again, when I needed you to recover myself.

Am I also ashamed of you?

I keep you covered from the eyes of others;
I avert my own gaze in bath and dressing rooms;
I refuse the sleeveless and eschew summer beaches.

Or is what seems to be shame, instead, a self-protective instinct? A desire to hold safe and sacred “this skin, this sac of dung and joy” described by yet another poet*? Am I afraid that eyes will see not the triumph,but the scarred aftermath of the battle we waged to regain wholeness?

Will see not your death-defying resilience, but the false, sagging appearance of its opposite?

I am not touting this ambivalence as either good or bad. I’m attempting to come to terms with the “what is”

As opposed to the “what I wish it was”.

It’s one of the things you, my own body, have taught me:
What IS is always infinitely greater than we anticipate,
While also often less than we hope for.

If I need a reason to hate you, that might be enough.

In the end, though, we’re in this together. Wherever we go, however I feel about you.

If I need a reason to love you, that ought to suffice.

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Note: This piece was written as an exercise for my writer’s group – our assignment: to “write a toast to someone or something important to you”. Thanks to the Rider Writers for the inspiration, and the encouragement to experiment.

* The poem quoted, above (“…this skin, this sac of dung & joy”) is Yusef Komunyakaa. Here’s a link to his poem, “Anodyne” – a must-read exploration of body-love! I love his closing, which I quote here in case you don’t go to the poem in its entirety:

I love this body, this
solo & ragtime jubilee
behind the left nipple,
because I know I was born
to wear out at least
one hundred angels.





Hold It – Let It Out

2 10 2014

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“This is the beginning: to let out what you have held hidden.”   —Natalie Goldberg

I am just plain sick of it. Sick of holding back, holding things in, holding my tongue.

I know there are some of you who think I blab about everything. After all, in the history of this blog, I’ve shared about eating binges, flatulence, passion, moments of grace, even anger at the All Knowing. And in real life, I sometimes say things that the more circumspect among you might not publicly utter. Even so.

The reality of my life has been that I worry about everyone else and how they will feel, react, respond to what I might say. I worry, and I fear – fear that if I say the truth, share my feelings, let out the things that have been kept secret that love will be withheld or withdrawn from me. Fear that, like Helen Hunt’s character in the movie “What Women Want” my reality will be that “…the price you pay for being you is that you don’t get love.”

Newsflash, folks. We pay the price whether we are ourselves or not. Because people can’t truly, authentically love someone they don’t know. It turns out, then, that the only person harmed by keeping yourself a secret is…you. Others will or will not love you, but if you keep your truth inside in an effort to be palatable to others you won’t love yourself. And this self-abuse will slowly destroy you.

You may wonder where this rant came from. After all, last week I was all about being kind, and how to respond with generosity of spirit when others hurt you or take advantage or don’t even notice your efforts on their behalf. To be clear, I don’t believe one has to be unkind to be truthful. But to share your own truth, no matter how carefully, is to risk. You can control what you say and the manner in which you say it – you cannot control how someone else responds or feels about it. (Good thing too, because they are responsible for their own crap. We all have more than enough to handle just managing our own loads.) So this rant actually follows somewhat logically on the heels of that kindness post. Because finding my way through the Land-of-Sharing-How-I-Really-Feel while treading the Path of Kindness isn’t always easy, my friends.

So why try?

I received a gift this week that has helped me begin to gel into a coherent whole my far-flung thoughts on this. An old friend from far away sent me a book by that title (Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg). Goldberg’s advice is for writing authentic and meaningful memoir, but it is also good advice for living authentically. She says, “Go for the jugular, for what makes you nervous. Otherwise, you will always be writing around your secrets, like the elephant no one notices in the living room. It’s that large animal that makes your living room unique and interesting. Write about it.”

This is true for writing memoir, and it is also true for speaking up for our own lives. It is our perceptions, feelings, unique perspectives that make us who we are – that make us interesting and that allow others to connect with us. When we edge nervously around our feelings – the ones we are afraid of, those we are ashamed of, the feelings that are petty or that are expansive and wise – we do avoid conflict. But the cost of avoiding that conflict is high – we teach others that we will accept anything, any behavior or treatment at their hands; we teach ourselves that we are not worth fighting for, not worth engaging in conflict over.

And I am just plain sick of it. Sick of holding back, holding things in, holding my tongue – sick of betraying myself in order to maintain the status quo, to get through another day without conflict. I’m not looking for a fight – no cruising  for a bruising here! Even so.

This is the beginning: to let out what I have held hidden.