…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

 

 





Revision and Connection

14 03 2013

Recently, I have been scouring the internet for photocopies of famous writer’s handwritten and edited manuscripts and notebooks. I am fascinated by the look of them – the humanity of crooked handwriting, misspellings, ink blotches and smears. More, though, I love seeing the layers of thought they reveal as writers edit, scratch out, write over the top of their original words. As they perfect their sentences and their articulation of an inner vision. (Click here to see a few images.)

Some writers grouse about revising and editing their work. Not me.

Not only do I enjoy editing my work, I love the feeling that, as I do, I come closer and closer to touching what I meant to say. In this way, the written word allows for something that my direct, spoken communication rarely does: removing the awkwardness from my expression. On the one hand, the carefully crafted written word is the ultimate in self-conscious communication – after all, it is finished on the far side of time and space to think and feel and reconsider and restate. On the other hand, the stuttering self-consciousness of face-to-face speech is utterly missing.

While I love having the opportunity to revise and edit my writing, I am also aware there are dangers inherent in this activity of revising. First, there is the danger of overcomplicating what should be simple (or at least simply stated). Any one of the few individuals who has ever received a card or letter from me in which I’ve tried to express my romantic feelings for them can attest to this – I don’t know how to write simply about my feelings. Of course, I can’t express them at all in person; complicated statements may be preferable to silence.

Another danger of editing and revision is the temptation to raise every thought or concept to the level of High Art or Philosophy (capital letters intended!). It’s easy to begin with a true, small story and end with an epic of mythic proportions. Just keep elevating the language. I have written a number of versions of a story about “Crazy Hats Day” at my Girl Scouts day camp when I was a child. They all start out as a little story about how thoughtless children can be…and all end up as missives on the great themes of Motherly Love, Shame/Guilt and Forgiveness.

A third, and probably the most insidious danger in revision is the temptation to blur the truth: to gloss over the parts where we behave badly, to obscure our own warts. In short, to fudge a little. C’mon, admit it, we all like to do some of this with the stories we tell. I know people in my line of work who, charged with addressing student behaviors through college judicial processes, will tell you everyone lies in their disciplinary hearings. I prefer to think of it as a natural human tendency to construct our stories in such a manner that we show in the best possible light. Few of us wish to be the villains of our own stories.We want to be the heroes.

For our own self-esteem, we may need to revise some of our stories to place ourselves in the hero role. As Tony Robbins has famously said,  “We are defined by the stories we tell ourselves… Is your story empowering you… or is your story causing you to fall short?” However, this commentary is about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, rather than those we are sharing with others.

When the point of telling our stories is to connect with others, this form of revision can hurt, rather than help, us. What if, as I believe, our connection with others depends on our ability to reveal both our breathtaking brilliance AND our deepest darknesses? What if the world wants and needs our flawed humanness to shine through, instead of the wart-free perfection of an airbrushed picture? Perhaps human connection requires our rough or broken pieces to find compatibly rough and broken spots in another before we can not only touch, but also hold on.

When using certain adhesives, we are directed to take sandpaper to the surface to rough it up a bit before applying the epoxy. This helps form a tighter bond. I’m not, we’re not, required to share anything – not required to expose our unedited selves or stories. But if we want better, tighter bonds with other people, we need to be willing to expose the rough patches. In the process of revising and editing our life stories, we would do well to remember this and leave a few of the honest imperfections and mistakes in clear view.





A Valentine from Me to You: You’re Not Alone

14 02 2013

Think about it, there must be higher love
Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above
Without it, life is wasted time
Look inside your heart, I’ll look inside mine…

—Steve Winwood and Will Jennings

When I was a child, then a teenager… even into the decades of my twenties and thirties…I never questioned that my life would be like most everyone else’s. I would meet someone, fall in love, get married, have a family. As I got older and it wasn’t happening, I told everyone that was a-okay with me. I didn’t want it. So what if it was a lie? I shrugged it off and didn’t dwell on it.

By my early forties, I’d told the lie enough times that I was comfortable with it. Besides, at that point I’d gained enough weight that mostly people didn’t ask me about it anymore – whether I was seeing anyone, or wished I was, became a moot point. We all knew no one wanted someone like me. We didn’t talk about it. Ever.

Later in that decade, when I decided to change my life, to come out of my lie-induced trance, amid all of the incredibly beautiful, powerful and positive experiences came this realization: my supposed “okay-ness” with being alone was the biggest crock I’d ever sold myself.

Around that time, at a wedding, one of the bible readings opened up a pit of anger so vast I almost couldn’t contain my ire and join in the celebration. The reading didn’t beat around the bush – I thought they were the most cruel verses I’d ever heard. From Ecclesiastes 4:9:

Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?

I stayed in that pit of anger for a long time, unable to claw my way out. At or to whom could I direct my wrath? I was just learning not to despise myself and that felt good enough that I didn’t want to turn my rage inward. So I directed it at the only other entity I could think of: God. And let me tell you, I am certain it was no coincidence that, during this time period, everywhere I turned people in my life were vociferously thanking God for the amazing partners He gifted them with. How that pissed me off, and fueled the fire I was burning up in!

At some indefinable moment, my angry defiance gave way to angry tears. I cried until the pit I was in filled with my own salty water. Suddenly, instead of being trapped in a pit I found myself swimming in an ocean of grief. After literal decades of choosing not to feel anything deeply, I felt every second of my mourning over what had never come to be. It wasn’t merely that I had no significant other at that moment, lots of people share that predicament. It was the fact that I have never had that. Never been cherished, wanted in a mature romantic relationship. Its a bit harder to find people who share that life experience – in part because who wants to admit that out loud? It feels defective. Deficient. I astonished myself with the number of tears I was capable of crying. I surprised (and frightened) my friends; seriously, we would look at one another in astonishment when yet another crying jag would take me in the middle of a seemingly innocuous moment. I was SAD. SAD. SAD.

One day, my feet touched bottom. On an emotional level, I was still doing that sniffly, hiccupy thing you do after a long hard cry, but I had come to the shore of that particular ocean. I wasn’t laughing it off, by any means, but I wasn’t in danger of flooding the midwest any longer.

Here’s the thing: even in the middle of my deepest anger and my soggiest grief, I was happy in a way I had never been before as an adult. Some days were downright joyful. Let me say that again so we all can feel the magnitude of what I’m saying here: some days, when I was angry beyond my ability to articulate it, or when I was so sorrowful I sat through dull work meetings trying not to cry, I was AT THE SAME MOMENT happy and sure of my own well-being.

How was that possible?

How is the reason I am rehashing all of this in a post on Valentine’s Day. In the three+ years I’ve been posting to this blog, I’ve discovered that the more honestly I share my true experiences, the more likely it is that someone – reading what I’ve written – will recognize him- or her- self in my story. So I feel confident that you’re out there. You know who you are – the person feeling so desperately alone. Unworthy. Defective. I want you, whoever you are, to know you don’t have to feel that way. Or at least, that isn’t the whole picture of who you are, or what your life can be.

First, it was possible to be both enraged and joyful because the more I opened myself to others, sharing my triumphs, failures, angers, and even my grief…the more others were willing to offer me love, friendship, and support. Incredible, amazing people in my life were able to understand that I was experiencing something profound. They couldn’t experience it themselves, not being me, but they could walk through it with me – and they did.

Second, it was possible to be both deeply sad and happy at the same time because the sadness was residual – left over from the past. Oprah (and therapists everywhere) always says that if you don’t let yourself feel it now, you’ll feel it later. With interest. So whatever you’re feeling, let it be felt. I ate to cover up my feelings, and while it seemed comforting at the time, it made things infinitely worse. I’ll take angry, crying, healthy and happy Jenion over my old dangerously overweight and sleepwalking self any day.

I came, eventually, to the shore of my ocean of grief with this realization: when you focus on what you don’t have, you will always feel deprived – even if you are surrounded by riches. And I am surrounded by blessings. When you focus on what you don’t have, you devalue not only the gifts you do have, but the givers of those gifts: the people who do care, who are there. And that includes my nemesis, God. This realization has recently allowed me to make my first, tentative, overtures of friendship toward God again. Don’t get me wrong. I still blame God. I am just learning to grudgingly accept that I don’t know everything God knows (including the big picture of my life).

In all of this I see the workings of a higher love, and it fills me with gratitude. That it would be possible to change my life never occurred to me until it started happening. That I could discover it possible to be happy with myself – even though I might wish some parts of my life were different – was a revelation to me. I know that since it was possible for me, it is possible for others, too. Possible for you.

There must be higher love, as the song says. Without it, life is wasted time. Look inside your heart and…stop wasting time. You may have to do work with yourself that is truly hard. And you may have to deal with feelings you buried in the past. But while romantic love, married love, is a beautiful thing – it isn’t the only thing. You are more than your relationship status, so much more! And you are not alone, no matter how utterly single you are this Valentine’s Day. In fact, you are loved.





The mightiest word

8 11 2012
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
 
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
 
–from “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander

Last week I wrote a post (Playing the Death Card) in which I related an experience I had with tarot cards back in the early 1990s. I knew as I wrote the post that there were members of my family, and likely some friends, who would be concerned on religious and/or spiritual grounds about my use of these cards. Sure enough, later that morning I received an email from one of my sisters. She was resisting the urge to comment, she said. She went on: “Instead, if you would like to know what I think, let me know and we can discuss it.  If not, no problem, and I won’t bring it up again.” She signed off with love.

Contrast that experience with the one recounted in this deeply sad post I read earlier this week, To Forgive. The author, Justine Graykin, tries to come to terms with the death of her only sister, whose terminal illness was kept a secret from her – at the sister’s request – because of Justine’s atheism. The sister refused to have a relationship with someone whose beliefs did not include God. And so she died, denying both sisters the opportunity to forgive or to choose love over implacability.

Two tales of sisters, one in which love fosters understanding and another in which love fosters alienation. So, as I’ve thought about these (among other things in an emotionally eventful week), I find myself asking:

Is love really hard, or do we just make it that way?

The only answer I can find is that we make love hard by our unending need to be in control. To have the people and events in our lives conform to our conception of what and who they should be.

What if we could let go of all that?

I have been trying to do this in my life and relationships, and I’m learning a few things:

  • There is a difference between not controlling and not showing up. Me being who I am and letting others see that, see my preferences, my feelings, my responses is important. When I don’t do that I am just a tabula rasa (a blank slate) for their projections. Like Julia Roberts’ character in “The Runaway Bride”, my favorite style of eggs are whatever style the person I am with likes. People may enjoy having themselves mirrored back, but it doesn’t allow for much depth of relationship.
  • Love and respect require honesty. And I don’t mean bluntness. Or “I just call it as I see it” approaches. These are typically masks for allowing oneself to steamroll over another person. I mean the kind of honesty that requires courage – sharing your true feelings, showing your insecurities and hurts, putting words to the fears that make you want to control the other person. 
  • Honesty is a two-way street. If love and respect require you to be honest with others, they also require that you ask for and seek honesty from the other person. Listen carefully. Ask questions, even if you are afraid of the answers. In fact, ask specifically the questions you are afraid to know the answers to – because all that secret fear is toxic to relationships and makes you want to grasp for control.
  • Definitions are not required. Our love for defining and quantifying things is deeply ingrained. But, except in a few specific instances (such as “spouse” “parent” “sibling”), we don’t have to check a box beside each of our relationships. This is why I have never been a fan of the term “best friend”. Best implies a hierarchy. At different moments, different people may fulfill the role of being the best person for me to be with or interact with. Relationships, even those defined by a title, are not static. They ebb and flow.

There are people in our lives who are not willing or able to meet us in exactly the spot where we stand on the path. Some are further ahead than we are, others are behind us with regard to maturity, confidence, ability to engage authentically with others. Instead of seeing these differences as problems and trying to force our steps to be in synch, what if we rejoiced in each other’s unique perspectives? What if our hopes and dreams for the others in our lives were not that they become who we think they should be, but rather that they become the best version of themselves – and allow them to define who that person would be?

Maybe love could stop being so hard. Maybe love could become free flowing and easy. Maybe love could cast a “widening pool of light” as Elizabeth Alexander’s poem suggests.

In the end, the question isn’t really, “What if the mightiest word is love?” Because it is. The question, I think, is: “What if we managed to let love be mighty?” How would our lives and the world around us change?





Why Am I Still Doing This?

4 11 2010

A few weeks ago, I was feeling pretty discouraged that my weight was stuck in the 230-233 range for a very long time.  One of the frustrations was that I would weigh myself daily, but Thursdays – when I take a snapshot of the scale and post it to this blog – were always my heaviest day of the week.  So, being the superstitious person I am, I started taking snapshots any day that the scale showed a lower weight.  In my (admittedly warped) mind, this was proof against Thursday — and my body wouldn’t dare put up a higher weight when I could prove I had weighed less the day before!

This morning, when I stepped on the scale, up slightly from last week, which was up slightly from the week before…well, I was pretty frustrated.  I had a photo from earlier in the week where the reading on the scale was 225.  I thought seriously about posting that photo instead of today’s.

As I sat at my computer, indecision gave way to resolve.  I have to choose the whole truth when it comes to this journey — the good, the bad, the ugly…that has been my internal contract since I started blogging about my weight loss.  Whether anyone ever looks at it or not, I have to tell my story as honestly as I can.  NOT being truthful with myself is, to a great degree, what made this journey necessary in the first place.

So, here are some truths I have to keep telling myself:

  • Losing weight is hard.  Even after all this time, despite ongoing daily commitment and more good choices than bad choices, it remains hard to do.
  • It would be nice to have the pounds drop off “Biggest Loser” style, but for most people who have large amounts to lose, and for me, weight loss is a long journey: a marathon, not a sprint!
  • Be happy about progress, even though it may not show in the way you want it to on the scale.  My body shape has been changing while my weight has not.  I am now uniformly wearing size 16W in pants, and regular XL or Large in tops.  Two nights ago, I bought my first size 14W skirt.  While it is strange to be straddling the “womens” department and the other departments at stores, it is also awesome!
  • Feeling good trumps everything else! This is the secret that is so hard to hold on to when I get discouraged at the scale.  Imagine, if you can, how it felt to weigh 352 pounds…panic attacks, labored breathing, never feeling good about how I looked, never fitting in chairs or public transportation…I can tell you that it rarely felt good.  Now, I pretty much feel great every day, both physically and psychically.

Posting my weight on Thursdays keeps me honest – with myself and with anyone else who looks at my posts.  I want others to know that, while there are plenty of them, it is worth the hard parts.  And I want myself to know that the truth has, truly, set me free. And that, friends, is why I am still doing this.





Extreme Makeover: Honesty Edition

3 06 2010

The other night at my friend Sara’s house, we were discussing swim suits and the fact that, while I now own one, I am not necessarily keen on the idea of wearing it in public places.  Sara’s daughter Abby, a precocious first-grader, piped in to ask, “Jen, why do you hate your body?”

The question stopped me short — and I experienced the (rare for me) sensation of speechlessness.  I looked to Sara for help, and Sara just shrugged as if to say, “Well, she’s a perceptive kid, whadda ya want me to do about it?”

What resulted was a conversation between Abby, Sara and I about choices.  The ones we carelessly make and live to regret, the ones we make that have incremental impacts we don’t think about until it would take a herculean effort to reverse them.  A bit heavy, you might think, for a kid Abby’s age, but she tracked on all of it.

And it brought home to me one of the things I have been learning, another “late bloomer aha”:  the truth is a powerful thing.  I’ve written before about my attempts to be more honest and how that has impacted me and my life.  But what I’ve been thinking about since my chat with Abby is how, when we make the effort to be truthful, it can make a huge impact on others as well.

When we cover up, sugar coat, or stay silent it diminishes the other people we are in relationship with.  It is as if we, like the Jack Nicholson character in “A Few Good Men”, are saying to them: “The truth?  You can’t handle the truth!”  Sounds pretty condescending when put that way, but isn’t that what we are doing when we decide it is in someone else’ best interest to fudge a little? or a lot?  And when it comes to the children in my life, like Abby, I want to think carefully about the messages I send and example I set for them.  So I told her the painful truth:  I don’t hate my body. I love my body, but I am embarrassed by what poor care I have taken of it.  Abby could handle it.

The other night, I was talking with Sue Stork, and repeating a story.  She was surprised by something I recounted saying to another friend, and said, “Good for you for being honest.  But really, this whole journey you’ve been on has been about being honest — especially with yourself, but also with others.  This part of your life could be titled: Extreme Makeover: Honesty Edition”.  Those who lived with me throughout my childhood would agree that I am an unlikely ambassador for truthfulness (they know I can tell some whoppers).  However, like a zealous convert, I urge everyone to make the committment to be more honest in daily life.  It is an important way to communicate your love, honor and respect for the people in your life.