Ain’t That a Shame?

28 04 2016

Back in 2010, I began a weight-loss effort that took me from a high of 354 pounds (possibly higher, but I lacked the courage to get on a scale for a long time) to a low in 2014 of 176. I had reached that magical place where I could declare, “I lost half my body weight!”

2015 was a difficult year for me, for many reasons. Importantly, my lifestyle changed dramatically. I went from very active on a daily basis to very sedentary, and from planful about meals mostly eaten at home to meals mostly grabbed on the go. The weight began to creep back on – well, creep suggests a slow accumulation; perhaps a word suggesting a process both more swift and more dramatic would be most appropriate (I just can’t think of one).

Anyway, the point is I’ve gained back a bunch of weight.

Why am I writing about this today? Well, for the past several days I’ve seen snippets of a former television weight-loss contestant talking on TV and in my Facebook feed. Basically, all of the bits I’ve seen have focused primarily on her feelings of shame over regaining much of the weight she lost during her televised contest*.

Here’s what I am feeling about the weight I’ve regained:

  • Disappointment
  • Discomfort
  • Discouragement
  • Determination.

I would certainly say that my weight gain is a shame. I would not say “I am ashamed” of my recent weight gain. There is a world of difference between these two sentences; it is not just semantics. I am disappointed that, in pursuit of other goals I lost sight of my own personal health goals. I experience discomfort because all of my clothes are too small, because I feel the extra weight as I attempt to become more active again, and because my body just doesn’t feel as good at this weight. I am discouraged – that it is so easy to gain weight but so hard to lose it and that, so far, my efforts to arrest the gain have been less than successful. But I am also determined to refocus my efforts, primarily to bring my physical health and the daily experience of being in this body back into healthful alignment. Secondarily, to make clothes shopping easier again (#truth).

Shame: the debilitating, self-pummeling toxic emotion has little to do with it (and that little, I remind myself, is internalized from external factors).  Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change,” says shame researcher Brene Brown. “Shame'” she says, “erodes our courage and fuels disengagement.” If I learned anything in the process of losing a lot of weight in a healthy way, I learned that the shame I had nurtured and held on to for so many years, thinking it was the only correct response to being obese, was the very thing that prevented me from taking action for change. When I stopped hiding in the house of shame I had constructed, I was finally able to move forward in my life.

It is such a different experience to take a look at my current weight and see the daily choices, the environmental factors, the emotions that feed into it and to feel generally ok in my own skin in spite of them. Some days, I’m mad at myself for allowing it to happen – but in the way you are sometimes mad at a friend when you discover she gave you a “nice” response rather than a “brutally honest” response – you get over it and the friendship survives.

When I met with my doctor recently, she said, “I’m confident that you know how to and will get back on track because you’ve already done it. ” And while, for a moment, I ruefully wondered if her confidence was justified, in the end all I could do was agree. I have done it. I can do it.

Whether I will lose these regained pounds or not remains to be seen. If I do, I believe I will be more comfortable, encouraged, and satisfied. But I don’t believe the outcome will determine whether I am a more worthy person. So don’t be looking for me to take to the shame-based talk show circuit anytime soon. I wouldn’t offer the viewers enough drama on the subject: just me, doing the best I can to make one good choice at a time.

To all of my friends who are out there, attempting to do the same, I say:

“your worthiness is a birthright and not something you have to earn.” — Brene Brown

(To be fair, I believe she is trying to promote a more positive message, but I haven’t tuned in for the full episodes of her appearances.)





Chausson’s Bicycle

21 04 2016

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In 1899, Romantic composer, Ernest Chausson, went out for a bicycle ride. While riding downhill, he hit a brick wall and was killed instantly, cutting short a promising career. In her poem about Chausson’s death, Denise Levertov imagines him riding, his mind filled with music and the colors of the countryside, both gaining in intensity as he gathers speed, takes flight on his bicycle. And then the wall, and a sudden silence.

I’ve owned Breathing the Water, Levertov’s collection of poems in which “From the Image-Flow — Death of Chausson, 1899” is printed, for twentysome years. I’m uncertain how many times, in those years, I’ve read this poem without real comprehension. I didn’t know who Chausson was and never felt enough curiosity to look him up. Furthermore, as someone who didn’t ride a bike, I didn’t catch her allusions to cycling.

This week, I happened to read the poem again and, although she never uses the word “bicycle”, I knew. I finally understood the poem (not just the words she used), and I caught on to the manner of Chausson’s death without resorting to Wikipedia (though I did look it up just to be sure).

What made the difference to my comprehension, this time around? It wasn’t imagination, I’ve certainly had the same ability to conjure thoughts and mental pictures at other times. And I doubt it was merely a matter of timing. No, what opened me up to the imagery of the poem was experience: the flash of recognition that comes with having practical contact with and observation of facts or events.

There was a time in my life when I did not seek out experiences. A long period in which it seemed enough to imagine, dream or surmise how a thing might feel; to use books or other people’s life stories as a guide. “Practical contact” might lead to things I feared, things like pain or grief or disappointment – so I avoided it. I anesthetized myself with food, and protected my tender possibilities with layers of fat that held other people and direct experience at bay. Eventually, I protected myself into near self-obliteration – both literally and figuratively. Almost worse than the erasure of my own life was the discovery that I had completely blunted my ability to feel empathy or compassion.

I had lost my ability to feel my way into a poem.

That changed when I began to say yes to new experiences. I even made it a New Year’s resolution one year: “Say yes to people and doing, no to staying home and sitting.”  Today, a few years down the line from that sterile space I once inhabited, I have not quite become an advocate of stockpiling experiences for their own sake. I still don’t understand the adrenaline-junkies among us, for example. But I have become a vociferous supporter of trying the things that call to you. This has led me to experiences I wouldn’t exchange for “safety”, even though some were emotionally difficult – experiences that opened my heart and engaged my intellect, experiences that allowed beauty to blow open my perceptions or that drew forth gifts I had hidden deep within.

If I hadn’t allowed myself to open up to experience, I wouldn’t have felt the grief  of this past week following the death of a friend. But I also wouldn’t have felt the balm of connection or the solidarity of shared loss.

After such a week, this is the two-fold gift of Chausson’s bicycle. First, the realization that my capacities (to see, to feel, to express) are enriched by engaging with new or broader experience. Second, that life cannot be fully lived if I’m always looking fearfully for the unseen brick wall ahead. Like Levertov’s imagined composer, I intend to ride fast and free, to hear arpeggios in the passing stream and revel in the flashing colors of this world. The wall and the silence are somewhere ahead: this I know. Even so, I will keep my feet to the pedals.

 

 

 

 

 





Turning Our Scars to Beauty Marks

14 04 2016

We have no scar to show for happiness. — Chuck Palahniuk, Diary

When I left the house with my ice skates, Mom told me not to stay out too long in the sub-zero temperatures. It was cold enough that my face felt like it might crack into a million pieces every time I smiled. But I was ten and my friends were skating so I skated. It was too cold for leisurely touring around the rink, practicing my backwards skating or making imitation figure-skating moves. No one had brought their sticks, so hockey was out. Which left speed races or whiplash – the two options that would keep us all moving briskly enough to stay reasonably warm in the bitter cold.

If you’ve never played whiplash on ice, you’ve missed out on a truly exhilarating, yet terrifying, experience. Everyone forms a line, holding hands with the people in front of and behind them. The “leader” skates around in whatever erratic manner s/he prefers, while those in the line behind attempt to follow suit. Invariably, the pace picks up, and the whole line is suddenly skating faster and faster. Those toward the end of the line begin to be whipped around at astonishing speeds. Their task is to hold on for dear life! When, inevitably, they drop hands or fall, everyone shouts “Whiplash!”. The game stops while the line re-forms, with the last person moving to the front of the line and becoming the leader.

It wasn’t much fun to be the leader. Even if you tried to be creative, there was really only one point to the game: get the whole line moving fast enough that those at the back would be whipped around significantly enough to lose their balance or drop hands. The fun, as every kid would immediately guess, was had at the back of the line.

Anyway, on that particular afternoon, it was finally my turn to be at the end of the line. I usually managed to keep my feet in the game, but that afternoon was epic. Our Whiplashes were phenomenal! We kept congratulating one another on the way we were whipping each other around on the rink. I took my place at the end of the line with great anticipation. We picked up speed, going faster and faster. Then, just as I began to be propelled at high speed, I hit a divot in the ice and my left skate stopped dead. I fell, launching forward like a projectile, my arms out in front of me. I heard it was breathtaking, the way I flew threw the air stretched out like a parka-clad superhero. I landed in a belly-flop on the ice, which didn’t hurt so much as it left me unable to catch a breath. What did hurt was my right wrist, which landed immediately in front of someone else’s moving skate. Their jagged toe-pick immediately sliced into my wrist, and a pile-up of memorable proportions ensued. Eventually, those on top of the pile of bodies were able to regain their feet, and those of us at the bottom began testing our limbs to make certain nothing was broken. There was a jagged gash in my wrist, which the others gathered around to gawk at. Finally, my cold-addled brain registered the pain signals being sent to it, and I quickly headed home so I wouldn’t embarrass myself by wailing in front of the whole neighborhood.

I remember every detail of that afternoon, although it took place decades ago. (I admit I may have embellished the story a bit over the years.) Every time I notice the tiny white scar on my wrist, it all comes back to me. I don’t notice it that often, but frequently enough to keep ahold of those details.

And that’s how it is with scars. They serve as life-long reminders of the events that caused them. We don’t forget. This is true with emotional scars, as well as the physical ones. We seem always able to touch the scarring event or experience with an immediacy that can take us right to that moment, directly to that emotion. Sometimes, we wear the scar like a badge of honor, the way I wear that tiny white patch on my wrist – a sign of my own badassery or resilience. Sometimes, the scar serves as a warning system, reminding us of the pain that can happen if we don’t protect ourselves. We wear our negative and painful experiences on the surface of our bodies and our psyches, keeping those feelings and experiences – for good or ill – always accessible.

Unfortunately, the same is not also true of happy feelings and experiences. They do not imprint themselves on our surfaces, with similar easy access to memory or the same immediacy of emotion that scars produce. This can lead us to a lopsided recollection of our lives – we readily see the times that scarred us, but have to work harder to recall the times of happiness or positive growth with the same detail.

I think this was the impetus that led me to get a tattoo a few years ago. I wanted a visual reminder of my own growth and the positive changes I was enacting in my life. It was the thought behind the social media campaign “To write love on her arms”. In some ways, it may be the impetus behind our need to document everything in our lives these days with cell phone photos, snapchats, instagrams and selfies. See? we seem to be saying. There was beauty today. Or laughter. Or one shining moment that deserves to be remembered.

Earlier this week, my dear friend Amy passed away unexpectedly. She was too young; her death is a shock to all who knew and loved her. First, there were the tears and expressions of disbelief. And while the pain of loss and grief is still fresh, I’ve been watching the steady stream of photos and memories being shared on social media. As friends and family have stopped to remember, it is the happy moments they are bringing forward and sharing: Amy’s beautiful and irrepressible smile, her positive energy, her kindness. I can’t count how many times in the past few days I’ve said to myself, “Ah, I had forgotten!”

Not only that, but many of us have reconnected over our shared grief and our happy memories. It is so easy to forget, in the busyness of life, the people we’ve loved with and laughed with, the moments and experiences that have fed our souls, the happinesses that enhance our lives – they do so without leaving scars behind to keep them available to us, to remind us to touch them with the same care (and reverence) with which we touch our scarred places.

Was that cold afternoon on an ice rink in Hastings Minnesota really a defining moment in my life? No. What did I learn? I learned that there’s a down-side to being the last person in a Whiplash! line. I learned that injuries in bitter cold don’t bleed as profusely as they do once they warm up. Conversely, were the many happy and laughter-filled moments with Amy defining experiences? I believe they were – I was reminded to take myself less seriously; I discovered that it is possible to work to physical exhaustion and still be enjoying the moment; I learned the fine art of the inside joke from a master. And I learned that happiness is something we have to work for, to take risks for – Amy taught me that through the example of her life, not because she died.

If happiness leaves a scar, it is only when we realize we’ve not attended to it as fully as we ought to have. Perhaps that is just the way it is. But what if we practiced holding happiness at our surfaces, the way we hold our painful scars? What if we looked for ways to write/imprint love and joy on our bodies and our psyches so that we have inadvertent and regular reminders to attend to them? We could call them beauty marks and it wouldn’t be a euphemism! What if, every time we saw or felt a scar or scarring memory, we taught ourselves to also recall a happiness or positive growth moment? Would this help to correct our lopsided vision of ourselves, our capacities, our realities? All I know is that I’d like it to. And that most of us could stand a little self-correction toward a more positive vision of ourselves, our experiences, our lives.  Here’s wishing us all plentiful beauty marks!

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After the Bonk

7 04 2016
bonk*:  Expression used by cyclists to describe excercise-induced low blood sugar levels; being a feeling of light-headedness and weakness in all limbs. Similar to ‘The Wall’ in running. Has fallen out of usage in recent years due to alternative meanings. — Urban Dictionary
One of the realities of life for true afficionados – whether it is books, movies, running, or some other thing that is loved – is that even at times when we aren’t engaging with the thing, we talk about the thing. For the better part of the last year, this has been the case with me and bicycling. I’ve read about cycling, I’ve talked about it and written about, I’ve participated in the Thursday night twitter meet-up called #bikeschool – but I haven’t been riding.
I’m making a concerted effort to change that, primarily because I miss the way biking makes me feel when I do it – calmer, fitter, more engaged with my community and with nature. I do love riding – even more than I love talking about riding.
April is the month that I pledge (for the past three years) to ride every day. It’s called #30DaysofBiking. Begun by friends in Minneapolis, it has become a worldwide movement with teams in cities all over the place – including Spain and Belarus**. April, at least in east-central Iowa, is also a mixed-bag of weather, which is part of the challenge of keeping to the pledge.
This year, the first three days of the month offered a cycling challenge in the form of high winds (which I gladly faced rather than the sleet I rode in last year on the #30daysofbiking kick-off ride in Minneapolis). Friday and Saturday I dutifully rode, pushing against headwinds and trying to remember the tricks of countering gusty crosswinds to remain upright on my bike.  Dressed in layers and wearing gloves against the early spring chill, I was excited to be out riding my new bike.
Sunday, April 3, was a beautiful day; sunny, with temperatures climbing into the 70s. I had social commitments early in the day, but I was itching to get out for the day’s ride. It was mid-afternoon before I managed it, but as soon as my tires hit the pavement, my spirits soared. I headed south on the trail, nodding or calling friendly greetings to the other trail-users, plentiful on such a gorgeous day. The winds were still gusty and strong, but when I set out they were manageable. And at my back.
When I last rode regularly, it was not at all unusual for me to easily ride thirty or more miles in an afternoon. My mind remembered that – overriding any signals from my body that I hadn’t stayed in shape to do that easily. So I rode and rode, loving the experience. Eventually, my brain received the message my body had been sending for a while: turn back or you’ll regret it! When I did turn around to head back into town, I was immediately struck full-face by 40-mile an hour winds. Um, yeah. The ride back was going to be a bit more difficult.
In one section of trail, surrounded on all sides by open fields, the wind threatened to sweep me right off my bike, and my bike right off the trail. Suddenly, my awesome Sunday ride had become (in my mind anyway) an epic battle between me and the elements. My knees painfully protested the degree of force necessary to crank the pedals. My mind contracted – gone were the sweet fancies that had flitted through it on the ride out. Now, my only thought was a repetitive, “Keep going.” When I allowed myself a rest stop, I rationed the water in my bottle so it would last a bit longer, even though my mouth felt bone dry. Because it was my third ride in as many days, I was sore from getting accustomed to my new saddle. My knees had commenced screaming. I considered calling a friend to come pick me up, but rejected the idea with stern self-talk. At the downhill section where speeds well over twenty miles an hour are typical even while sometimes coasting, fighting the wind I never got above 13 mph. My attention was so concentrated that I hadn’t noticed the clouds massing until it started to rain. And then, weirdly, my feet started cramping. I got off the bike and walked until the cramps subsided. Then I rode some more.
As suddenly as it had started, the feeling that I was locked in an epic battle against the weather ended. I was simply exhausted with another two miles to go before reaching home. The rain had been brief, but the wind continued unabated. My internal dialogue went silent. There was nothing to do but keep moving. And so I did.
Later, after a shower and food, my body was sore and tired. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the afternoon’s ride. When, I wondered, would I be able to get out again? How would I keep challenging myself to push my limits? I realized, with real surprise, that – miserable as I had been – I had been enjoying myself! Not the kind of enjoyment that results in warm feelings and easy laughter – not even the enjoyment I felt after riding in last year’s sleet, because that was derived in part from the camaraderie that develops when friends share difficulties. No, this brand of fun was definitely a more serious kind. I hadn’t been in any real danger – I could easily have stopped and called for assistance. But I didn’t, and the serious fun of it was exactly that. I pushed myself to do more than I thought I could. In doing so, I realized that I was capable of more.
I bonked hard that day. But what I learned was this: what I am truly capable of doing is only visible after the bonk. And that is an important lesson to keep hold of in other parts of my life. I wasn’t embarrassed that I crashed and I didn’t waste time berating myself (though I could have taken some measures to mitigate or prevent it). Instead, I was proud of myself for keeping on. Why is it so hard to generalize that experience to the other parts of life? Lord knows, I crash and burn in my personal and professional life with regularity, and sometimes it is my own fault. But why should I allow the crashes to define my sense of self-worth, when what comes afterwards is often more revealing of who I am and what I’m capable of achieving?
I think that is what “serious fun” is all about: challenging limits, not solely for the sake of doing so, but in order to learn and grow. And that’s what I’m taking with me this time, after the bonk.
*Yes, I know bonk is a word used in other contexts that are sexual in nature – try to be mature enough not to snicker about this every time I use it in the context of cycling, please!
**My friend, Patrick Stephenson, is the driving force behind this movement of “joyful cyclists” which contributes, through sponsorships, to cycling charities – check it out online!.