To My Post-Weight Loss Body

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.

***********************************************************

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.

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!

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.”

Peeling

 
“The danger is not that the soul should doubt whether there is any bread but that, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.” — Simone Weil
 

When I named my blog Jenion, I thought it was a clever play on words – a combination of my name (Jen) with onion. My tag line: peeling away the layers. Like the onion, I had physical layers that needed to be peeled away. The peeling of those layers has slowed considerably, but the process has uniformly felt good. Like pulling off the dead skin after a sunburn, this physical peeling (a.k.a. weight loss) revealed softer, healthier, more glowing layers beneath.

At the beginning, I didn’t fully grasp that there were psychic and emotional layers that also needed to be pulled back in order to reveal both the person I hoped to become and the life I wanted to live. In part, I didn’t understand this because I had denied my own hunger, to borrow Simone Weil’s metaphor from the quote above. After all, I had eaten my way to more than 350 pounds – how could I possibly be hungry?

The soul, my friends, can be a powerful liar and deceiver in the name of self-preservation.

Not understanding what that process would involve, I began pulling away at the top, papery layers of the onion that is my emotional self. Some of it was easy – self-revelations seemed to come with each pound shed. Occasionally, though, the peeling skin wasn’t completely ready to detach, and there was a wince of pain. But with the support of others and the motivation provided by ongoing success, I persevered. And I discovered happiness in my life. True friendship. Joy.

That would have been a nice, happy ending, eh?

However, there was a deeper truth about this process of peeling away the layers that I didn’t understand, in fact am only now beginning to grasp fully. This truth has three parts: the layers never end; once you begin peeling them away to uncover your soul’s hidden truths, you have embarked on a journey that calls for your continued commitment; the deeper the layers you uncover, the greater the emotional pain you feel upon peeling them away. The pain, the emotion, comes from exposing hidden places to air and light. And even though you know that is good for healing and the process of growth, it still results in discomfort.

There may be those who think I’m being either pessimistic or melodramatic here. Why should life, why should being happy, be so hard? they might ask. I don’t know the answer to that. Why are things that come easily to some, so elusive for me? Why are things that are obvious and clear to me so opaque for others? Why is the sky blue?!

I am particularly short on answers as I busy myself with the questions that my life asks me to consider. I do think those elusive answers are bound up in the aftermath of having lied to myself, of convincing myself that I wasn’t hungry, that I wasn’t angry, and that I had nothing to feel sad about nor any right to feel lonely. All that hunger, anger, sadness and loneliness were part of a life-giving river of emotion which my self-deception damned up, creating a huge reservoir. Now, each layer I peel away from my inner-onion, creates a chink in the damn. The emotions start to leak out, and threaten to become a torrent. Onions, I should have realized, call forth tears.

After all that, there is still a happy ending here. Happiness, true friendship, joy – all these are part of the same river of emotion I once damned up through self-deceit. Un-damned, the river flows with all of the emotions: the good, the difficult, and the life-affirming ones. With tears and laughter, anger and love, hunger and peace.

I keep peeling with that vision in mind.

You Cannot See Your Future From Here

I’ve been thinking about the future a lot this summer. It has alternately filled me with excitement and dread. I have found my heart racing with anticipation and with sheer panic. Beautiful fantasies, check. Hyperventilation, check. One day I found myself asking friends, “Which do you think is most likely – that I’ll develop an ulcer or have a heart attack?” (They immediately voted for the ulcer, their reason being I’m in good cardiovascular shape from working out.)

With all this mental and emotional turmoil, it would make sense to pull back a bit and spend some time in calm reflection. Of course, that’s how I got to this point in the first place – calmly reflecting on what it is I want for my life: who am I, how do I intend to live, what is my heart desiring? (I guess you really can’t start out on a journey to change your life and then be shocked when your life demands that you actually change.) Anyway, I did what many of us do when looking for perspective these days, and sat down at my computer. I googled “quotes about the future”, and found some interesting statements, my favorite of which is:

The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.
C. S. Lewis
 

In other words, the future arrives in its own time, and all the hyperventilating in the world won’t bring it on any more quickly – or delay it, either. At the rate of 60 minutes an hour, there is time to breathe.

I quickly discovered, though, that a clever quotation – even from such an erudite source as C.S. Lewis – can only stave off anxiety or provide mental respite for a short time. I needed something more “meaty” to chew on. And that is when a friend reminded me of a book I read all the way back in high school. Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard.

This little book is an allegorical tale about poor Much-Afraid, who lives in the Valley of Humiliation, surrounded by her extended family, the Fearings. Much-Afraid is timid and suffers from physical disabilities and deformities which keep her feeling inferior and insecure. However, she has found employment working for the Shepherd, who promises to help her escape the Valley for the high places, The Kingdom of Love. If she will but trust and follow, she will be changed, her imperfections erased, and her feet will become “like hind’s feet”, able to leap gracefully and nimbly along even the steepest of paths.

Obviously, the reader is intended to identify with Much-Afraid. And I did (though not nearly to the degree I did when in high school). It is as she approaches the borders of the Kingdom of Love that the following passage appears:

“It did seem strange that even after safely surmounting so many difficulties and steep places, including the ‘impassable precipice’ just below them, Much-Afraid should remain so like her name. But so it was!”

Then, on the following page, the Shepherd places his hands on her comfortingly and says,

“Much-Afraid, don’t ever allow yourself to begin trying to picture what it will be like. Believe me, when you get to the places which you dread you will find that they are as different as possible from what you have imagined…”
 

And this is how God speaks to us, sometimes. In words or phrases which seem to appear in the moment of our need for them. It seems I read that whole book primarily for these few sentences. The first passage to remind me that everything in my life – my own weight loss, the journey I’ve been on to change so much about myself, the health issues and healings of my loved ones and SO MUCH MORE – should already have created a Fear-Less where a Much-Afraid once stood.

The second passage reminds me that there is no point in borrowing anxiety from the unknown – my creative imagination is not intended as a tool for anticipating, then dwelling on, worst-case scenarios. The reality is that worst cases, when they happen, are never quite what we thought they would be in specifics or scope or duration. Sometimes they are worse than we feared, other times, better or easier. In either case, we have to respond to them in the moment they occur. Having dreaded them in advance is not the tiniest bit useful in that moment.

As I adjust my thinking to encompass these two nuggets of wisdom, I find that my heart rate is slowing. I am not gulping big mouthfuls of air as if there will never be enough oxygen for me. I’ve mostly stopped worrying about an ulcer. Instead, I’m talking myself away from fear and into calm presence in the moment. And in that calm, I am able to identify the location of my next step forward – you know, a step that happens in this particular 60 minute increment of time. And then the next.

 
 
 

The Sunday Roast: Guest Post by Susan Stork

When Sue and I met, in graduate school at The University of Iowa, we kept trying to figure out how we knew one another. Eventually, we came to accept that while we had never met before, we were clearly meant to know one another in this life. We have been friends and professional colleagues for 26 years now, and the things we could share about each other…well, I’ll leave it at that! Trust is a huge part of this enduring friendship! I am truly excited to introduce you to my friend, Susan Stork!

Growing up, I didn’t have much confidence in myself or my body.  The reasons are immaterial at this point, but suffice it to say that I was awkward, and seemed only to reinforce that when I tried to do things that others did very naturally.  As a result, I tried to avoid doing anything remotely challenging – like throwing a ball, doing a sommersault, playing dodgeball or dancing.  It’s a wonder I ever learned to ride a bike!

Once when I was 8 or 9 years old I was rollerskating on the sidewalk in front of our house when I hit a crack where the sidewalk had heaved up.  I hit the pavement so hard it knocked the wind out of me.  My dad saw it happen and ran over to pick me up.  I can still remember the panic of being breathless and the shame I felt about not having seen the sidewalk crack.   That lack of confidence only increased throughout my childhood.  I was the uncoordinated kid who was picked last for team games at recess, and while I learned to swim, I was anything but smooth in the water.  At school dances I don’t know which I feared most – not being asked to dance or being asked to dance!

There were brief hints of the physical gifts I would later discover I possessed.  After high school graduation, I took a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park with a friend and climbed Long’s Peak.  We started in the dark of early morning (so we could be down before afternoon thunderstorms were a risk) with little more than some advice from hikers we’d met the day before, a flashlight and some water.  We didn’t “summit” – altitude sickness leveled us “flatlanders” – but before we turned around we knew we had done something physically challenging in getting to around 13,000 feet in elevation.  The peak is 14-something.  Not bad for a couple of out-of-shape Midwestern girls whose only prep for the trip had been hours of dreaming during breaks in band practice our final semester of school!  What we lacked in skill, we made up for in endurance.

Miraculously, I had learned to ski in high school P.E. class at our local ski hill, and it was skiing that provided the enticement to go to college in Montana. I loved the active, outdoorsy, and athletic vibe in my environment. Maybe I hoped some of the athleticism would rub off on me…?  I became a good skier during those years, but surprisingly, that didn’t bolster my confidence in my body.  I continued to think of myself as clumsy, soft and weak.

A few years later while in graduate school, my advisor asked me to be on the staff at a summer leadership camp.  Her confidence in my academic and social skills was encouraging, but I was worried about embarrassing myself if I had to do anything too physical.  When I arrived at the camp, I was asked to fill in for a last-minute staff resignation to team-teach a group of about 40 high school freshmen and sophomores for the two-week session.

One of the lessons on teamwork was to be conducted on the camp’s challenge course or ropes course.  This activity presents small groups of people with controlled physical challenges at a series of stations, each with a different goal and many potential solutions.  The learning comes as group members identify potential solutions to the “problem”, recognize and utilize each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and encourage each other to trust that the group will respectfully support each individual’s effort and contribution to the task, regardless of the nature of that effort.

Ropes course day was anticipated by campers and staff with both trepidation and excitement. I was so nervous I was unable to eat breakfast that morning.  A lifetime of angst, shame, and fear about my body and its shortcomings was about to be laid bare to a group of kids, a co-teacher and the ropes course staff.  I considered not going, but only briefly.  I felt obligated as a leader to demonstrate my faith in the power of teams, so I went.  What I learned about teams and about myself that day altered my confidence in ways from which I am still reaping the benefits.

I don’t remember much about that morning, except the station that required us all to cross an imaginary river full of piranhas using nothing more than a series of tires hung by ropes and suspended from a cable.  The first step was to launch yourself from a platform on a knotted swinging rope, and grasp the first tire.  I immediately slipped off the rope and into the “river”.  The entire team goes back to the beginning when one person falls off the course.  But somehow, my team supported me emotionally, got me back on that platform, and when I launched the second time, one of my teammates was there to hoist me up by the back of my pants onto my tire, while another person held his tire steady.

I don’t remember getting across the “river”, but I do remember talking about what that support had felt like as we de-briefed.  For the remainder of camp, whenever I was free, I was at the ropes course helping other groups through their adventures and encouraging the kids in whose eyes I recognized that familiar mix of fear and shame.  By the end of the week I had shimmied through a web of ropes, balanced on a log see-saw, climbed telephone poles and fallen backwards off a platform into the arms of a bunch of kids below.  On purpose.  More than once.

Now let me assure you, I was not a latent athlete waiting to come alive.  I was, and still am, kind of awkward at a lot of physical things.  I still hate dancing.  I still have a rotten throw.  I’m still not coordinated well for things like team sports.  But I am strong and I don’t quit.  I rarely back away from a physical task.  I can push wheelbarrows loaded with rock, carry heavy boxes and furniture up flights of stairs, grow things, stack hay bales and step safely from a dock into a boat.  I can assemble IKEA furniture, kayak two miles across a lake and back again, climb up and down a ladder all day to paint, nail shingles to a roof, and dig out old tree roots.  I like to ride my bike.  I like to train with weights.  I am proud of what I can do with this body.

I will not likely run a marathon, or dance gracefully, or golf.  But that’s ok because I can help the marathon runner unpack boxes and be completely settled in her new home in one day.  I can plant and grow a flowering landscape that the ballroom dancer with a brown thumb needs only to water to enjoy.  And I can skillfully drive a cart so the golfer can play 18 holes despite painful arthritis.  Yes, I am proud of this body.

My ropes course experience happened 26 years ago.   In the years since, I have led countless groups of students through challenge course activities in the name of teambuilding.  I am always conscious that on that day, in that group, there is someone who feels about his or her body the way I did about mine.   And I hope to catch his or her eye at some point and silently, confidently, offer the strength in my body to help them swing to that tire and grasp the power, as yet undiscovered, in her own body and mind.

What Defines Us

I didn’t post a weigh-in today because I didn’t want to share my current weight. The important thing about that weekly snapshot of my scale has always been, in my opinion, the concept of honestly sharing both the ups and downs of my path with others who might struggle with things in their lives, too. Today, I feel like copping out.

For a month now, my time and attention has been elsewhere than on my weight. In some ways, it has felt good to let my guard down a bit, to worry about other things, to enjoy other things, to just not let the central factor of my life be the scale. In other ways, I have felt stressed and out-of-sorts, with various life issues pulling at my focus.

I haven’t made horrendous choices in that time. I’ve continued to work out. I haven’t suddenly begun eating between every meal, or eating outrageous menus or triple helpings. I haven’t given in to temptations such as the Taco Bell drive through to try one of those Dorito-shelled tacos I’ve seen on TV.

But the scale has inched up anyway.

One of my favorite television moments ever was on the Roseanne show. The family is in debt, having trouble paying their bills, and at the end of the episode their electricity is shut off. From the dark screen, we hear Roseanne’s voice, “Well, middle class was fun.” I feel a little bit like that today, “Well, One-derland was fun.”

Except for this: I can choose differently.

Not every family has control over the financial vicissitudes in life. But each of us has control over where we place our attention, the choices we make on a daily basis, and the attitude we bring to each day.  These are the real lessons I’ve been learning via the process of losing weight. And while I can’t say the scale doesn’t have an impact on me, I can truthfully say my weight no longer defines me.

Because I am choosing to define myself.

One of the lessons I am still learning is to never underestimate the power of that. We live in a world that wants to define us externally (using standards set outside ourselves) – by our looks, our weight, our gender, our sexual identity, our politics, our socioeconomic status, our race…so many factors. But none of these is who we are, no matter how central that factor is to our lived experience. Who we are depends on us.

With that in mind, there’s one other thing I’d like to share with you this morning:

Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road

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.

Reframing

When my sister and I spoke for the first time about her second breast cancer diagnosis, she told me that considering her husband’s cancer, and  hers, there had been just too many times when they had to put their lives – all their plans – on hold in order to deal with a pressing health issue. She said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be learning from this, but I clearly haven’t learned it. Whatever it is, I need to get it this time, because I’m tired.” I heard her discouragement, couched though it was in self-deprecating sarcasm. My response to her was, “Perhaps you need to turn that around. Maybe you and Dave have learned to do it with such grace that you are asked to do it again to show others how. Maybe you’re not learning, maybe you’re teaching.”

Why is it so much easier to see different possibilities when we look at the lives, issues, concerns of those we love than it is when we look at our own? Reframing is an awesome tool I first learned while a graduate student, and I’ve used it in my work or when assisting friends and family who find themselves stuck. Often, as in the conversation with my sister, the shift in perspective immediately feels “right” – I know I’ve learned so much from watching her and, more important, others have told me they have too. Learning or teaching: I suspect she is doing both. It’s just that it’s easy to lose sight of the active/positive side of the equation when we’re staring straight into the reactive/negative side.

As you all know, I have been fighting to get my weight under 200 pounds. It is both a goal and a deep desire. But for two months now, I’ve been pushing and pushing and my body has been holding on tightly to each pound. The more tightly I grip my resolve (and track every calorie eaten, every calorie burned, turn down evenings out with friends, refuse a beer with my buddies at karaoke) the more tightly my body holds on to the weight. Today, I woke up after a restless night, thinking “It’s Thursday. God, I hope the scale is kind to me this morning.” It wasn’t until I was finished with the obligatory morning trip to the bathroom that I realized something was bothering me. The rings I wear all the time, and which in recent weeks have floated loosely on my fingers in danger of falling off, were cutting into my flesh. I could pry the one off my left hand, but the ring on my right hand wouldn’t budge. Severely. Bloated.

Clearly, I was not going to see a number on the scale that would make me happy.

What am I supposed to learn from this? More to the point, how can I reframe this to see an active/positive side to this frustrating situation? It wasn’t until this morning that I finally understood what my wiser friends have been telling me for weeks – I need to relax. I need to let my body do its thing and stop trying to manhandle it into submission. I need to stop seeing 200 pounds as the fulcrum point – above 200 and I am lacking, failing, still a fat girl; below 200 and I am replete, successful, thin. I need to let it go. (Which, by the way, I need to remember is not the same as letting myself go.)

As I often do in these moments of internal crisis, I looked for comfort from a favorite poet. So, I will end this post by sharing a poem – after nearly 350 posts, I can’t remember if I’ve shared this one before (sorry!). It reminds me that all I really need to do today is…be.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

–Mary Oliver

Saturday Night in Palo, Iowa

So, I am standing in a small bar in small town Iowa, watching the small crowd rock out to a local guy singing the karaoke version of Snoop Dog’s “Gin and Juice”. Standing next to me is a woman I’ll call Beth (because that’s her name) who is pretty much the exact opposite of me in most ways:

Beth                                                  Me_________________________________

Young                                               Not

Tall                                                    Not

Beautiful                                           Not

Married                                             Not

New Parent                                      Not

Pretty sure we are at opposite ends of other spectrums (spectra?) as well, but these examples will suffice to point out our differences. Despite these differences, though, we are in complete agreement on two things: the men in our group (one of whom is her husband) are among the best guys around and neither of us could ever do what the women on the “dance floor” are doing. And what, exactly, are they doing you ask?

Dancing. Dirty, uninhibited, take no prisoners, body-punishing drunken dancing. While screaming out the words to every song at the top of their lungs. Hugging and high-fiving each other. Challenging each other to shout a duet of “Love Shack” or “Baby Got Back” as soon as they can get their hands on the karaoke mic.

And while Beth and I are in agreement we could never behave that way, it isn’t because we are judging the other women harshly. Rather, we are judging ourselves and finding that we lack the ability to set aside self-judgement long enough to cut loose and just enjoy ourselves. Without regard to what the tall and short women standing by the bar watching us are thinking.

The atmosphere in the bar isn’t conducive to deep conversation, so Beth and I stand side-by-side, mostly silent. And I realize that it is fine with me that I will likely never be one of the dancing queens. But I do find myself wondering what I would choose to do if I could just silence my inner critic for a few brief hours. If I could just realize that the bystanders, like Beth and I, are probably actually thinking about themselves. Here are a few:

  • Wear sloppy clothes in public. My friends Molly, Colette, Wendy: all of them can head out wearing sweats or scrubs, unshowered, no make-up and they just look “natural”. I look hideous.
  • Rollerblade. This one has the element of personal injury folded in with the fear of looking stupid in public.
  • Ask questions in public forums. Of course, this would reveal that I am not all-knowing, and I’m not sure the rest of the world can handle that truth…
  • Take an art class. Really? Even as I write this I realize how supremely silly it is – the whole point of taking the class is that you don’t already know how to do it!

Well, those are probably enough examples to illustrate my point here. Like many other women – even women as unlike me as Beth – I have spent a lifetime being socialized to keep my behavior within certain parameters, and I have internalized those boundaries. Above all, don’t look stupid/slovenly/slutty: the adjectives vary but they are all cut from the same cloth. This is one reason so many women aren’t able to cut loose and fully enjoy themselves (without massive quantities of alcohol to loosen their inhibitions). We watch our own behavior and apply such tough judgements to ourselves.

I’ve heard people say that women are each other’s harshest critics. That hasn’t been my experience. In fact, quite the opposite. I have found that women tend to be fairly generous with one another. The problem is one of projection: if I look at the women in the bar and project myself into their midst, I judge myself very cruelly. With self-censoriousness as the starting point, it colors how I view others, too. When I sneer at a stranger (0r her behavior) I am really “hating on” myself.

I wonder how our lives would shift if we could extend the same generosity of spirit towards ourselves that we do toward others who are trying new things, cutting loose in public, arriving for morning coffee unkempt? I’m pretty sure one of the first outcomes is that we would feel less judged by others, simply by being less judgmental towards ourselves. Definitely something worth trying!