…And…

11 08 2016

The genesis of this blog was a challenge to myself to make and keep in my mind and heart a connection between my own struggles with weight and the growing numbers of people in the US who were living with food insecurity, if not outright hunger. It began with a profound moment of humility – what right did I have to live a gluttonous life while others starved?

Over the first couple of years, Jenion became a repository of self-revelation: what I was learning about myself in the process of awakening to and changing my life. As I lost weight, I also shed many self-deceptions, delusions, limiting beliefs. In each post I tried to share as honestly and completely as I could what I was learning, discovering, or feeling. Sometimes, it was painful to share. Sometimes, it was joyful. Always, it was as honest as I could make it – what I was experiencing without glamor: shame, vulnerability, binges, loneliness, gassy bloating. (I also shared good and positive insights and experiences!) A number of people, you perhaps, resonated with those posts. I heard from people who felt I’d put their own experiences or feelings into words. Sometimes, people called me brave for sharing so openly and for uploading photos of myself on a scale each week, in order to hold myself accountable to the truth of my choices.

Eventually, my posts shifted again. I had made many changes in myself and my life – and I wanted to keep those changes going. My posts, at least to my mind, shifted toward positive self-talk and inspirational messages. If I look over the past several years of Jenion, key words like perspective, love, openness – pep talks and rainbows – show up quite a lot. There wasn’t less honesty, but there has been less personal sharing – which is a very fine distinction when one is writing a blog that purports to be about truthful self-discovery. I began shying away from the “warts and all” philosophy I originally brought to Jenion. I became less brave.

Why was this the case? In part, I didn’t want to let everyone down. I began to feel like I wasn’t living up to the promise of those early years of awakening. Shouldn’t I be happier? My life, my self, had changed for the better – wouldn’t it bum everyone out if I didn’t continue to express the inspirational joy those changes wrought? I had taken some risks -wouldn’t my friends and family worry more if I wrote directly about how I was struggling? How could I fully share my feelings of failure or depression or anxiety without offering an uplift in the end? That would depress everyone. It would depress me.

Yesterday, I came home after a day at work where every five minutes brought another crap-bomb detonation. I came home after a painful first visit to a physical therapist for shoulder pain. I came home after a disappointing workout at the gym, where I barely managed an elevated heart-rate (in part because I am taking medication which actively prevents an elevated heart-rate).

Who am I kidding? I’m already damn depressed.

I sat at my computer and typed into Google: menopause and…Even before I typed in the word I intended to use to complete that phrase, up came a list:

anxiety

depression

fatigue

hair loss

headaches

You get the idea, even without reading the entire alpha listing of symptoms. Throw in weight gain, fear of death, existential anger, and an incredibly divisive political climate tearing families and friends apart…and you have the picture of my life right now. The difficulty is in parsing out which of these symptoms is physiological in its genesis, which emotional or psychological. This distinction is probably only academic – the real question being: what can I change and what do I just have to find a way to manage?

I never intended Jenion to become a blog about life as a middle-aged woman coming to terms with what that means. As an “elevator speech”, that sentence sucks. Perhaps that’s why I’ve contorted so many posts to end with some kind of hopeful upturn, even when it felt falsely peppy. What I did intend Jenion to be – an unflinchingly honest account of my own quest to be a better person, life a fuller life, make some kind of difference in my world (and if that helped anyone else in their quest in any way, that would be great) – got a little off track. I love Jenion; I love posting once a week – in some ways, it has taken the place of a journal. But I love it most when I speak from my heart, not from my self-delusions. If that doesn’t feel peppy and uplifting enough for anyone else to read, so be it. For those prone to worry about me: I’m ok, just struggling with this ordinary thing called life. Just like everyone does.

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

–from “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz

 

 





Finite Math

13 08 2015

At 5:15 a.m. my neighbor begins making breakfast. A strange trick of acoustics in this building means that, in my upstairs bedroom, I hear every rattle and bang in their downstairs kitchen. I roll over and attempt a return to slumber.

Some days, that works. Some days I stretch my sleep-sore muscles and fall gracefully, gratefully back asleep. But not today. Today, I stretch and wonder about that heaviness in my leg – is it a sign? Should I see the doctor? From there, the worries and anxieties held at bay while I sleep come marching forward, a neurotic, necrotic parade.

Knowing sleep will not return at this point, I get up. In my kitchen, I begin the morning ritual of making my double shot Americano. Add hot water and the finely ground espresso becomes the rich loamy soil in which I will plant a new day. Whether it will be a good day, productive and interactive – or not- is often determined in this moment.

My friend Wendy has spent the last seventeen years telling her children that they have a choice – if you don’t like how you feel in this moment, choose to feel differently. Happiness isn’t a destination, its a choice you make in every moment of action or reaction. I watch her girls, all teenagers now, and see them apply this choice. It is like the sun emerging from clouds, that moment.

This morning, as I sip my coffee, it feels like a herculean task, that reframing of mindset. I’m not sure I’m up to it. I turn on my computer, and find Parker Palmer’s weekly “On Being” blog post, this week called “Poetry as Sacrament: Disentangling from the Darkness”, in which he meditates beautifully on Mary Oliver’s poem “Landscape”:

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive.

So far, I think (using the calculator function on my phone) that is 19,726 mornings. I google the question, “How many decisions per day?” and read:

According to multiple sources on the Internet, the average amount of remotely conscious decisions an adult makes each day equals about 35,000.

690,410,000 decisions and counting. My first thought is “No wonder I don’t want to decide where to have dinner or what book to read for book club.” I think of texting my younger friends and letting them know they haven’t used theirs up yet, so from now on they must choose – my decider is worn out from overuse.

My next thought, “How many of those ‘remotely conscious decisions’ were good ones? How many were ‘the right’ ones?” No function on my smartphone could ever calculate that number. This I know: it falls somewhere between 1 and 690,410,000.

That’s as far as math will take me; there’s no point in attempting to calculate the incalculable. There’s no point in lingering over that parade of worries that began its march through my head while I was still in bed this morning. Of the approximately 35,000 decisions I will make today, some will be good ones. Some will not. Mistakes will happen. Anxiety in advance and obsessive second-guessing afterwards won’t change that reality.

Like Wendy’s girls, I have a choice. I can hold the doors of my heart open so that my choices can be made from the place of infinite things (like mission, like compassion, like gratitude). Or I can close those doors, out of worry or indecision or just plain inattention, and be “as good as dead”, rendering my choices lifeless as well.

When I think of it this way I say: let my inevitable mistakes be life-affirming ones; let my errors of judgment emerge from seeing the best in others; let me work to stay centered enough that my infinite humanity, rather than my finite ego, decides. Choose; then move on.

19,726 mornings. And every morning, so far, I am alive.

 

 

 





You had me (and maybe lost me) at “Hello”

27 02 2014
Molly and I got pedicures at different times before a trip to Florida last spring and, unplanned, selected the same polish color.

Molly and I got pedicures at different times before a trip to Florida last spring and, unplanned, selected the same polish color. Talk about connection!

“Loneliness is the first thing which God’s eye named not good.”
― John Milton

On Monday afternoon, I forced myself to bundle up and head out into the late afternoon sunshine for a walk. This long, brutal winter is taking its toll on so many of us. I confess to feeling isolated, compounded by a low-level anxiety sitting squarely on my solar-plexus. Getting outside despite the ice and cold helps. As does good old-fashioned self-talk. So, as I walked, I was thinking over the changes that I’ve made in my life in the past year. So much happiness and light on one hand, so much difficulty and anxiety on the other. I wondered, “Am I happier than I was this time last year?”

Just as I pondered the question, a young man walking toward me stepped out of the tiny footpath carved in the deep snow and ice, giving me room to pass. Our eyes met, and he said, “Good afternoon! Would you be willing to be part of a documentary film project? I have one question, and you can say as much or as little as you like to answer it.” He went on to say that he is an art student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design working on a class project. I’m a sucker for college students, so willingly agreed to be filmed (despite my resemblance, in my winter gear, to a Minion from “Despicable Me”.) He lifted his camera, started rolling, and asked, “Would you say you are happier today than you were last year?”

I started laughing. What are the chances he would pose the very question I had been considering? Synchronicity on this scale cannot be ignored! For a brief moment, I felt the sun on my back and glanced at the cityscape in front of me and felt the magnitude of change my life has gone through in that year. I can’t recall exactly what I said, but in that moment my answer was, of course, “Yes!” (and that I had just been pondering that very question). After I finished speaking, the student stuck out his hand to shake mine and said, “My name is Boris, by the way. What an amazing coincidence! Thanks for helping me out.”

I’ve written quite a bit, lately, about these brief encounters with strangers. I’ve said that striking up conversations with people I’m not required to talk to has enriched my days in a variety of ways – and has helped me feel less alone in my new home. Meeting Boris was one of many happy exchanges. You can imagine, then, my immediate reaction to the new project from Oprah/Skype – “Just Say Hello” – was a positive one. The project proposes to battle loneliness, endemic in our modern,  socially isolated culture by encouraging people to simply say hello to one another. It enlists enlists a cadre of celebrities and even has a theme song, written and performed by Rita Wilson. I 100% endorse the concept – and, as you know, I really work to practice it.

But.

Meaningful connection is what is needed to combat loneliness. It isn’t simply a matter of how many people say “hello” over the course of a day, though that can help. It is much more important that we find and connect with people who understand us, love us, upon whom we can rely. In her August 2013 article on Slate.com, Jessica Olien cites the research and concludes: “Social isolation impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, type II diabetes, and heart disease. Loneliness is breaking our hearts, but as a culture we rarely talk about it..” (see the article, here) We don’t talk about it, because admitting we’re lonely, no matter how many of us are, makes us feel like losers. In my experience, we tend to hide the things we think make us look bad – which, when the issue is loneliness, means that we tend to shut ourselves off and self-isolate even further.

My fear is that the “Just Say Hello” campaign will turn out to be just another one of those touchy-feely-celebrities-making-themselves-look-approachable campaigns that will dissipate into nothingness. And reading the #justsayhello on Twitter didn’t exactly allay my fears – 140 characters is way more than double what it takes most people to say “Hello, Oprah” (even the ones begging her to follow them back, plz!). In my humble opinion, we have more than enough sound-byte inspiration and motivational memes. What we don’t have is enough people making it past that first 140 characters of interaction into the realm of real relationship. And I’m not dissing Twitter here (or other social media, for that matter) – I know a number of people who have developed friendships IRL from Twitter interactions. My own life has taught me, though, just how hard that shift from “Hello stranger” to “Hello friend” can be – how much more work, time, shared experiences it takes.

Over this past week, I’ve followed Oprah Magazine’s on-line efforts with the “Just Say Hello” campaign, and I’ve been heartened to see that they are taking it further. There have been stories about how that first howdy has led to lasting friendships, stories attempting to de-stigmatize loneliness by sharing statistics and causes, stories encouraging people to reach out. The focus is often on how you may not know what your “hello” means to someone else, though. On how you can help someone else who is lonely. I don’t take issue with that – I simply want to add to it:

My name is Jenion, and I am lonely. Even though sometimes I feel like a loser right now (and I HATE admitting that and would prefer to pretend I’m fine) I know it will change, that I won’t always feel this way. The power to change that resides within me – and I can be proactive in bringing it about. First, instead of curling into myself and isolating, I need to make extra effort to stay connected to loved ones both near and far. Rather than hiding my loneliness, I need to expose it so that those who WILL support and love me CAN. Second, I need to keep saying hello. Right now, most of the people I see in a given day are strangers. None of them will become friends if I remain silent when we meet. Third, I need to stop being ashamed of my loneliness. Given my current life circumstances, it’s pretty normal to feel this way.

If, like me, YOU are lonely, I encourage you to do the same. Being lonely does not have to be chronic or debilitating. If it makes it easier to reach out, focus on helping someone else – in the end, the life you save may be your own. By all means, just say hello. But whenever possible, take it one step further. Don’t let it stop at hello, take it one step beyond hello into the realm of true connection.

“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers & cities; but to know someone who thinks & feels with us, & who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Matt and Zoe Rose being silly at the park!

Matt and Zoe Rose, part of my “world garden”, being silly at the park!





The Post that Almost Wasn’t

26 12 2013

In all the years since the inception of this blog , I have never come this close to NOT posting on a Thursday. The reasons for this are both simple and complicated.

On the simple end of the spectrum, it was Christmas week. A week that did not go according to plan, so was more rushed than intended, but was also wonderful in spite of a few set-backs. The busy week meant that I had not written a post in advance of this morning, so when I awoke at 3:20 a.m. nauseous and chilled, the next eight hours of physical illness and discomfort did not really lend themselves to sitting at a computer capturing my thoughts in words. When I felt well enough to sit up and log on, I also felt empty. Which leads to the complicated reasons for almost missing a Thursday post.

Had I found the time to write on Monday, I would have written about the incredible example of patience and acceptance provided by Mike. We got on the road at 6:45 a.m. Monday, intending for Mike to be at an important appointment for his son, leaving directly from there to head to Iowa for Christmas. We blew a tire less than four miles from home, during rush hour on I35W. Not only did he remain completely calm while maneuvering  out of traffic, he was remarkably sanguine about missing the appointment, despite the fact his son had made it clear he wanted Mike there. While I was starting to ratchet up toward hysteria, he refused to be flummoxed, reminding me there was no point to drama – there was nothing we could do but make the best of it. Through a long morning of waiting for the vehicle to be road-worthy, missing the appointment, and eventually getting on the road, his calm demeanor remained intact. Even though it meant missing dinner and an evening hanging out with his sisters, Mike entered fully into our stops in Cedar Rapids, visiting friends who had newborns to show off. Not once did he attempt to rush our time with friends in order to get back on the road, no matter how much he may have wished to. Yes, if I had found the time to write on Monday, I would have written about patience and gratitude, and the deep examples of each from that day.

If there had been time to write a post on Tuesday, I would have written about being cared for by family – even though the family was not my own. From the delicious home cooked breakfast, to a Christmas Eve celebration 27-people strong. Laughter ruled the night, dinner was direct from Pizza Hut, and love was expressed in hugs and words and hijinks. While I missed my own big family, there is something recognizable as “home” in spending a chaotic night with any loving, large family. Had I somehow, miraculously, found time to write on Tuesday, I’d have written about the spirit of love at Christmas, and how wonderful it is to bask in its glow.

Then there was Wednesday, Christmas itself. If I had found the time, between bouts of sitting and chatting in three different homes, between moments of sharing and silence, I would have written about kindness and generosity. I would have written about the happiness of watching someone you love relax completely and be at home. I would have written about a surprise Christmas gift that touched me deeply. I would have written about how little it mattered that we never showered – after all, there was a phone call which said, “Come over, I’m frying eggs”, but which meant, “Come over and I’ll show how much I love you by cooking for you.” A shower doesn’t rate next to that. If I had written yesterday, I definitely would have had plenty to say.

To say I feel empty today is only half true – physically, my body rebelled against and rejected all of the rich indulgences of the past few days and emptied itself in the early morning hours. Emotionally, I feel flat, not empty. The rich experiences of family and friendship over the past few days make today seem flat by contrast. But the reality is so much more complex. All of the amazing feelings and examples of the past few days – the love, kindness, laughter and generosity – were not fleeting. They are abiding and real. That we don’t taste, touch, see, feel them daily is our human failing.

So, when I finish writing today’s “post that almost wasn’t”, I am going to put on some Christmas music and sing along. I’m going to reconnect with the many feelings of the past few days, and I’m going to celebrate them all. Why waste a whole day feeling empty and flat when I can feel  filled with light and joy?!





From Half to Whole

10 01 2013

People magazine’s annual “Half Their Size” issue is out (here). I noticed it while in line at the supermarket, then picked it up to take a closer look. The women who made it on the cover look good, having lost 137 and 126 pounds respectively. The subheadings read, “No surgery!” “No gimmicks!” I contemplated purchasing a copy, thinking, “Wow, I wonder how they did it?”

This question was not one of idle curiosity. The people being highlighted in the “Half Their Size” stories have accomplished something spectacular. I imagined reading their stories,  learning the secrets of their successes, and finding something useful that would rub off on me.

And that’s when I stopped myself.

What was I thinking? My own weight loss total is 154 pounds (give or take a couple pounds on any given day) – a bigger number than either of the cover women put up. And I did it without surgery or gimmicks, too. This doesn’t mean I should no longer be interested in or celebrate other people’s weight loss journeys. What brought me up short, though, was the realization that I had just been thinking of these other people as “successful” and myself as “not”.

The reasons for that are complex, and I’ve been trying to sort them out in my head. One time some young friends asked me to help them untangle the embroidery threads they were hoping to use to weave friendship bracelets. Unpacking my thoughts and reactions to the “Half Their Size” issue has been a lot like untangling the mass of threads those kids handed me. So far, I’ve managed to separate a few threads from the rest:

  • Comparisons are at the root of discontent. Looking at what someone else has/has accomplished is a sure-fire way to feel less satisfied with what you have/have done. Not only does the grass look greener over there, but we are not privy to whatever is lurking below the surface. This is very true for physical appearance issues like weight – the women on the cover of People look great. When I look in the mirror, I see rolls and flab and the pounds that still need to be shed. But it is also true for our inner selves. Many people appear happy, positive, well-adjusted and relatively problem-free – in comparison to us. When we look at our ourselves, we see the inner struggles, the warts and blemishes, the imperfect whole – and we end up feeling like an inferior mess. Comparing ourselves to others is a red-herring. It diverts our attention from our true focus, which is being our best selves.
  • Perfectionism derails a sense of accomplishment. Our culture regularly proclaims the importance of cultivating a relentless pursuit of excellence. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive for excellence. However, this push can cause us to denigrate “pretty damn good”, as if the only acceptable or worthy-of-cheering result is perfection. And if we do achieve something praiseworthy, we celebrate quickly and move on to the next challenge – “Woo hoo! What’s next?”
  • Failing to self-reflect keeps us in deficit-thinking. In our hurry to move on to the next thing, we don’t take the time to incorporate our new skills, achievements, recently discovered strengths into our self-definition. When we face a new hurdle, we forget that we have assets we worked hard to attain. Instead of seeing our real strength(s), we continue to operate from a sense of self that is outdated and underdeveloped.
  • Success and happiness are not the same thing. We often trip ourselves up by thinking that this thing or that accomplishment will make us happy. The truth is, we can be very successful at something that we don’t enjoy. We can also be very happy without meeting outward measures of success. The reason for this? Success is about what we do. Happiness resides in who we choose to be.

So, in the face of People’s “Half Their Size” issue, who am I choosing to be? I am choosing to be someone who can celebrate others’ success without downgrading my own. I’m choosing to remember that, regardless of what goals I have set for myself, I am already whole and valuable as I am. And I am choosing to find happiness inside my own heart and inside this present moment. I hope you are choosing well for yourselves, too!





Wherever I go, there I am!

7 10 2010

One day last week (like Alexander in the children’s book by Judith Viorst),  I was having a terrible, horrible, very bad, no good day I updated my Facebook status to say, “I don’t mean to be a whiner, but today totally bites.”  That evening, I had a voicemail from one of my oldest friends.  She said, “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I was so happy to see your Facebook status!  You’ve been so chipper for so long, I was beginning to wonder who you were, and what you did with my friend!”  Was there any way to take that message other than to laugh and admit she had a point?

Dear readers, I have often shared that my life has changed materially in the time since I began this blog.  It is true, I am happy for probably the first time in my adult life.  The kind of happy that penetrates deep below the surface of daily ups and downs.  The type of happy that prevents me from writing depressing status updates or complaining incessantly about minutiae.  I am “big picture” happy — and that is a really great place to be.

If you don’t know me, or if, like my relieved friend above, you stay up-to-date through electronic means and infrequent chats, you might not be getting an accurate picture of how my newly happy self interacts with the world.  Those who see me daily were less surprised, I am sure, to read my complaint!  Being happy doesn’t mean I have stopped expressing emotional ups AND downs, or that I have magically overcome all hurdles in my emotional, physical, or professional life.  Far from it.

Example #1:  I am able to go for relatively lengthy periods of time having what I would call a “right relationship” with food.  I eat and truly enjoy fresh, healthy food prepared by my own hands.  In fact, this begins to feel so right and so normal for me, that I start to believe that I have conquered the old “wrong relationship” of using food to feed my emotional needs — I mean, anyone can overcome an ingrained, lifelong coping mechanism, right?  And then a really difficult hurdle pops up and I find myself eating my way through a Thursday night and most of a Friday.

Example #2: Negative self-talk is something most of us have experience with.  I have sometimes taken it to the extreme of hatefully loathing self-talk.  (If I heard someone say to another person the things I’ve said to myself, I would be unable to refrain from physical violence.)  Even on good days, I sometimes catch sight of myself in a mirror and that voice in my head starts in:  “You think you look good?  Who are you kidding?  No wonder you’re alone. Look at you, who would ever be attracted to that?”

Example #3: When I have a bad day at work, I am tempted just like everyone else is, to rail against the other people who are clearly, patently, responsible for my bad day. Some days I totally give in to that temptation, and suddenly the number of miserable people multiplies exponentially. Who doesn’t start to feel worse when they spend time with Debbie Downer?

But the big difference about these situations now, what causes me to seem so changed to my old friends —  none of those things defines me, nor do they set my agenda for days and weeks to come.  Fell off the food wagon?  I’m no easily bruised peach, and I’m certainly able to catch up to the wagon and jump back on!  Talking smack at myself?  It may not always be easy, but I tell that biach to shut up if she doesn’t have anything constructive to offer.  Having a bad day at the office?  Get in line! Or better yet, stop complaining and find something productive to do.  I really have learned to stop my negative spirals and bring my spirit and mood back up to even keel.  Some days I can do that immediately, others it takes longer.  But I do get there, and that is the biggest gift happiness brings to my life.

So, to all my friends who have wondered where the real me went, SURPRISE! She’s still here.  She’s just the new and improved version: more resilient, more self-confident, less cranky…most, but not all, of the time.