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.

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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!

Compliments and Doubts

Most days, someone tells me I look great. Usually, it is someone I haven’t seen in a week or two, sometimes longer. After many years of rarely being told this, it felt really good at first. Then it began to make me uncomfortable. My internal pendulum keeps swinging, from delight to chagrin at the number and level of compliments. Mostly, I try to acknowledge the compliment and move on to other topics, knowing that the compliment-givers are expressing care and support, wanting to celebrate my successes with me.

Lately, though, I have begun to think about this surplus of compliments and a new discomfort is surfacing: I wonder what I will feel when they stop coming?  Inevitably, I will come to the end of this seemingly endless weight loss marathon (hopefully by reaching my goals). I will stop looking different to those who haven’t seen me for a few weeks or months, my “new” self will become my “old” self.

How much have I come to enjoy these favorable comments on my physical appearance? How much have I been relying on them to feel good about myself and my slow progress? How much energy have I been focusing on my outward appearance? Too much? Am I more vain than I used to be?

Having spent most of my life being unhappy in my own skin, feeling dowdy or fat or just plain unattractive, I’ve taken refuge in thinking I’m above all that superficial stuff. “Looks don’t matter, its what’s inside that counts.” “I’d rather be smart than pretty.”  I might be fat, I’ve sometimes thought, but at least I’m not shallow. (No, never shallow!)

One day, not too long ago, I wore new clothes to work. I thought I looked pretty good, as I conducted that last quick check in the mirror on my way out the door. But no one commented on my new outfit, or how I looked in it. By 11 a.m., I was wondering if I was wrong. Maybe the new clothes weren’t as flattering as I thought. Perhaps they were in bad taste. Maybe I actually looked hideous, and people were kindly refraining from telling me so. I hurried to the restroom, the closest mirror that would show me more than whether lipstick had gotten on my teeth, to see. And there I was, looking the same as I had in the mirror at home. Was that good or bad?

As I’ve grappled with this concern – am I becoming more superficial and vain – I’ve come to a realization. Even though I went decades without feeling good about my own physical appearance, I was always focused on it to a degree. I live in and am part of a culture where this matters. We all do: Spanx, padded bra manufacturers, and Ulta stores are banking on that, for sure. Accepting that, the issue then becomes one of degree. To what degree will I allow my physical appearance, and the comments of others about it, to determine my sense of self-worth and satisfaction?

It feels good to feel good about how I look. I don’t need to look perfect, nor do I allow how I look on any given day to determine my agenda anymore – no more skipping things I want to do because I don’t want people to see me a certain way. (Maybe even if the event involves bathing suits.) And when it comes to compliments, I’ve been paying closer attention to my emotional response and I’ve discovered that my response mirrors the depth of the compliment. So, perhaps, my ego is taking things in stride, after all (as opposed to becoming a voracious compliment-hungry monster). I’ve also noticed that I am more likely now to compliment others on a wide range of things – from kindnesses I witness, to their successes, and yes, their appearance. Everyone appreciates being recognized and congratulated for things they’ve taken pains with.

The other day, a colleague came up to me in the dining room at work. She said, “I don’t know if I’ve had a chance to tell you this, but you look amazing…just so happy and so healthy! It is wonderful to see you like this.”  This particular comment really touched me, because happy and healthy are what I’ve been striving for and working so hard to achieve. Looking better, though also nice, is just a side benefit!

Acquired Tastes

The other night, I joined friends for Indian take-out. The selections included two kinds each of lamb and chicken curry, sag paneer, samosas and two flavors of naan. I had some of each curry over savory rice, plus a samosa and the garlic naan. A couple of the dishes were quite spicy, but the flavors were rich and layered. I loved all of it.

Later, as I drove home, I remembered the first time I tried Indian cuisine. I hated it. What were those pungent smells and earthy flavors? None of it tasted right, all of it was unfamiliar. These thoughts brought to mind other items I disliked at first blush, but grew to like (or in some cases love): country music, bald dudes, the smell of Quaker Oats. Below are a few other acquired tastes that may need a little explanation:

  • Bike shorts: All of my adult life I have joined friends in making fun of people who wear bike shorts. Especially if they are wearing matching jerseys (or, like the couple I saw on Saturday, BOTH wearing the same matching shorts/jerseys outfits). “Really?”, I’ve thought. “You need to wear a diaper in skin-tight spandex in order to ride a bike?”  With the purchase of my first pair of biking shorts this summer, I have had to take it all back. I may still be less than comfortable with the skin-tight spandex, but I am loving the diaper part. Comfortable doesn’t begin to describe it – those shorts have literally saved my butt.
  • Squats and lunges: A number of years ago, when I still weighed close to 350 pounds, my friend Ryan designed a workout routine for me. He included lots of these moves, and I told him I couldn’t do them. He said I could. We went round and round on it, but the truth is, I nearly fell over when I tried a lunge and I thought I looked like a weirdo when I attempted a squat. I gave them one chance, and refused to consider them again. Once I joined Sisters’ Gym, the fitness classes almost always included squats and lunges. I did them as gingerly as possible, and complained frequently about how they hurt my knees. However, this summer I have turned a corner – all the bike riding has strengthened my knees, increased my physical confidence, and allowed me to see that squats and lunges just add to my body’s strength. I don’t wait until my trainer’s back is turned to fudge on them anymore.
  • Top 40 Radio: To be fair, this is a re-acquired taste. I loved it as a teen. I despised it throughout my 40s. Last year, I was exposed to it while riding in a van with Mike and his teenaged sons. I had to listen, because the volume was cranked. I distinctly remember hearing “Magic” by B.O.B. and thinking, “Wow, I’ve never heard this before, but I can already sing along!” When it came time to update the workout songs on my iPod, I turned to the ever-popular popular music for songs which might be inane (Brittney or Ke$ha) but have a good beat (Flo Rida or Usher).
  • Power bars and sports drinks: Back in the days when I was always looking for the most delectable snackfoods, I thought these were terrible. The bars were sticky and tasted like sawdust, while the beverages were sweet with a strange aftertaste. Also, when you never break a sweat, they seem dumb. Now I know better. Early morning physical activity benefits from food intake, but I just can’t do breakfast sometimes. And long bike rides during severe heat advisories are just safer when electrolytes are replenished. I have come to appreciate (yes, even like) these items. 
  • Movement: There was a point in my life when I avoided things that required extra movement, or really any movement. My mother often commented on my strange talent for finding a way to complete household chores while seated. Sometimes, I was actually jealous of the people on motorized chairs in the grocery store – why did they get to ride while I walked? When friends needed help moving or completing work projects in their homes, I usually volunteered to bring food rather than engage in the labor. Now, some days I feel lazy. But most days, I need to fit in some kind of physical activity, even if the day is a long one, in order to feel truly well. It turns out, I like moving. A lot.

I didn’t include any people on my list. However, experience has taught me that first impressions should not be allowed to determine the course of relationships. I have a number of treasured friends whose personalities or styles were an acquired taste for me – and I am certain that the same is true for them with regard to me. I know all about the research on first impressions, their tenacity and the lightening speed with which they are made. But I also know that first impressions can strike deceptively far from the truth. The important thing, whether I’m talking people or curry, is to keep an open mind. Like most important life lessons I’ve learned, this one bears repeating. Luckily, the opportunities for having it reinforced are many!

A RAGBRAI Story – Part 1

A Saturday afternoon, July or August, 1978, Loveland, Ohio (just outside Cincinnati). Flipping through the television channels, my father and I start watching a documentary. It is about a bike ride across the state of Iowa – our home state, which we still love. More of the family wanders in while we watch, and by the end of the show at least my Dad and I are convinced: RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) is the coolest thing ever. We SO want to do it (never mind the small fact that neither of us rides our bikes voluntarily.)

##########

8:15 a.m. Friday morning, July 29, 2011. My friend and training partner, Sarah, and I crested a hill on Highway 6, outside of Grinnell, Iowa. Morning fog was just burning off the cornfields covering the rolling hills which spread off in every direction. We looked at each other, grinning, but also misty-eyed. A brightly colored river of people on bicycles, its current weaving and undulating, was visible for miles ahead on the pavement that lay before us. We were finally riding on RAGBRAI!

For every rider on RAGBRAI, there are two narratives: one that is purely individual and another which is all about community. The individual narrative is about the motivation, preparation, and determination required to successfully complete what can be a physically grueling test of endurance (even for someone, like me, only riding one 75 mile day of the week-long event). In all of my training rides, every mile I rode leading up to that morning’s start in Grinnell, I thought that this individual story was the story. I was completely inside my own head.  Had I progressed far enough away from the 350+ pound sedentary couch potato I once was to successfully complete this challenge? At 50? For me, this individual story is an important one – but it pales by comparison to the other narrative – the one about community that took me by surprise and brought me to tears numerous times throughout the day.

The second story began at 5:16 a.m. when I was standing in my driveway, in my bike shorts and Mustang jersey, trying not to freak out because my ride and the other bicyclist embarking with us, weren’t there yet. Then I heard a honking horn and my friends, Layne and Kristen, shouting “Yeah, Mustangs! RAGBRAI here we come! Woo Hoo!” Did my neighbors appreciate this serenade? Doubtful. But it brought a smile to my face. We loaded my stuff, and my friend Tricia’s, into the back of the borrowed pickup truck, then rendezvoused with the two other trucks loaded with our team and their bikes.

Once we arrived in Grinnell via gravel roads (the main access to town was blocked due to RAGBRAI), it was time to wipe off the road dust, pump up the tires, and meet the rest of “Team Mustang” at the park in town. Before leaving the park, our “road crew” got out the sharpie markers and wrote on our legs, telling the other 10,000 riders that I was celebration turning 50. Talk about a birthday celebration – nothing like having hundreds of birthday wishes shouted to you by passing strangers! Anyway, at 8:02, it was time to mount up and take off. We rode through town to the cheers and well-wishes of Grinnell’s citizens.

There are so many details of that day etched in my mind. I would love to share them all, but in the interest of time, I will share those which most illuminate the story about community. My friends Colette, Wendy and Tricia chose to participate on the ride primarily to join me in the celebration of my birthday. They, too, have their own individual narratives about the ride, but I know that they chose to put themselves through the experience in support of me. Sarah spent countless hours with me, the slow-but- slowly-improving rider, leading up to the day. While we were separated on the road, it helped to know that, somewhere in that sea of polyester and spandex, were people who love me.

We met up with our support team again in Marengo (the halfway point) for lunch and some much needed companionship – not to mention rest. I was daunted by the morning’s ride. Not ready in any way to give up, but very unsure if I had the reserves to finish the day. Truthfully, after the initial happiness of seeing the group together again, we were all a bit sober – having discovered that the day would be harder than we anticipated. But the hour we spent, eating and laughing on a stranger’s front lawn, reminded us that we were in it together, no matter how alone we necessarily were in pedaling our bikes. We left Marengo in a pack of matching blue and gold jerseys, to the cries of “Go Mustangs” from passing cyclists.

After lunch, I lost Tricia, who had been my riding partner most of the morning. I rode the entire first leg of the afternoon on my own. The road from Marengo to Homestead, Amanas, was a long, flat one. It wound through a valley so beautiful that I could not believe my good fortune – no hills AND the best of Iowa to look at! My spirits lifted, and I was so overcome by gratitude, I pulled out my phone and called my parents in New Mexico just to tell them how amazing it was. I wanted my Dad to know that we were right, back in 1978 – RAGBRAI is the coolest thing ever!

Heading into Homestead was a long hill, but I could hardly complain after the miles of flat terrain just completed. I shifted into low gear and took as long as I needed to crest the hill. Just as I did, my phone rang – my friends were in Homestead and waiting for me in the beer tent!

In front of the concession tents were hundreds, maybe thousands, of bikes. Some were very expensive, most had bags attached crammed with valuable items for the ride. Not one was locked. Such was the community feeling. The party in the beer tent was one of the happiest I’ve ever participated in. Not one person looked anything but sweaty, dirty, tired and completely exuberant. As the Mustang team congregated, the live band performed “Mustang Sally” for us. Amid the dancing and cheering, every 50 year old woman in the tent found me to wish me a happy birthday and offer me a drink (which I politely declined because I don’t trust myself to drink and ride). Serendipitously, I literally ran into a college friend, Sue Sweeney, whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years. But it was the hugs and congratulations of my teammates and friends that put joy in my heart. When Ryan Scheckel, who had been sleeping off the effects of the previous day’s ride (and party) finally caught up with us, proudly wearing his Mustang jersey, I thought the day was complete.

Except that we still had 25 miles to go. And the final 17 were expected to be the hardest, with over 1,000 feet of uphill climb.

(Tomorrow: Part 2)

Triple Word Tuesday

LET’S GET PHYSICAL!

I had an awesome class this morning with the TRX and weight bands. I was so jazzed, I found myself dancing to the music during the instructions, waiting for everyone else to change stations, and a little bit while I was lifting. I don’t know why this video came to mind – after watching it, I know I look more like Olivia’s “victims” than like Olivia. But I was having WAY MORE FUN than the men in the video!