Monthly Archives: April 2014

Daring Greatly to be an Imperfect “Good Enoughist…”

Pure Barre 100 club Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.
Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness. 

Back in February, I set this small goal for myself:  before Easter, I would attend 100 Pure Barre® classes at the studio here in Naples.  And I did – I attended my 100th class on Good Friday, with two days to spare.  For me, this is no small achievement.  I am still in disbelief that I managed to accomplish this tiny feat (not to mention I got these “100 club” sticky socks for my feet).

As I have hit my mid-50s (in only a few short months I will be closer to 60), my listing of body trouble spots has grown to an impressive catalog –with bone spurs, herniated discs, menopause and osteoarthritis to name a few.  I would love to say that these practical signs of aging are the reason I’ve been out of shape, lost my core strength, and gained a few pounds.  And, when I’m practicing the art of self-compassion, I believe there is some truth to that.

But until recently, I haven’t been that compassionate towards myself, especially my body.  Over the past 50-odd years, whenever I do think about my body, it generally is with strong feelings of shame and remorse.  If only I was more perfect, was more athletic, ate the right foods, I would look better and be a better person.  I’ve had shame-free moments, of course.  Some even lasted for a few months.  But, overall, when I think about it (and I hate thinking about it), I generally have been totally ashamed of my body for most of my life.

I won’t bore you with the litany of sins that my body reflects or its countless flaws.  I often thought I learned about my body’s many shortcomings when it was too late to really do anything permanent about fixing them.  I learned about these many defects through interaction with a variety of sources, including messages from family and friends, as well as mass media (including but not limited to: Noxzema commercials, the cover of Seventeen Magazine, the Sears Catalog and TV in general).

As it happens, I’ve spent the bulk of my life (well, since 1971) focused on my diet: I’m starting a diet Monday, I’m on a diet, I need to diet, I can’t thinking about a diet right now.  I was always hesitant to be physically active as I had been teased (sometimes people can be unthinking) about how I looked (fat and/or stupid) when I rode my bike, ran, jumped or danced.  Many felt the need to instruct me on what I should eat and exactly how I should exercise – because whatever I was doing was wrong, in their eyes.  And I burned within from the shame of it all.  I also hid – a lot.  The scrutiny sucked the energy from me.

I had fleeting moments of “success” at different stages of my life and deep panic as I struggled in vain to maintain a certain weight.  But, overall, the idea of “healthy striving” was foreign to me and the goal was always unachievable:  perfection.  Judgment, shame, and blame framed my view of my body.  Despite the fact that I gave birth to a healthy son, finished college, law school, made partner at the firm, finished grad school, and managed to teach for 5 years, my body (which houses my mind, heart and spirit) was disgraceful, loathsome, vile.  I have pretty much talked to myself using these words on a daily basis for more than 40 years.

The two men in my life – my husband and son – are the antithesis of me.  My husband, despite his years, is an adept tennis player, swimmer, biker and hitter of groundballs. My son is a certified personal trainer who fields ground balls and played soccer and baseball in high school.  In fact, I don’t believe there are many sports my son doesn’t like, except maybe curling.  These two can get me on a tennis court (if no one else is playing) but I usually try to wiggle out of it somehow.  I’m petrified at anyone watching me swing a tennis racket, despite my husband’s encouraging words and shouts of, “great hit.”  My husband and son find me beautiful.  But I don’t believe them most of the time.

I am still slightly shocked that I ever walked into the Pure Barre® studio.

gifts of imperfection

Upon reflection, I think it has something to do with this work I started doing (imperfectly) on perfectionism, thanks to Brene’ Brown (check out The Gifts of Imperfection – it is a goldmine!).  I picked the book up in Target to give as a gift – and kept it.  As I have aged, I have grown so cynical about the “self help” books and theories as I find it all a bit self-absorbed.  But what is more self-centered than the human who spends so much time seeking the unattainable?  The idea that my flaws could be viewed as gifts was the hook. So I’ve read the book.  And for me, it has been so helpful.  Brown provides “ten guideposts” to help cultivate what she describes as a whole-hearted life.  The book is pragmatic, short, to the point, and full of resources and ideas that can help us change how we live our lives.  Not overnight, mind you.  Like Brown’s book “Daring Greatly,” The Gifts of Imperfection focuses on the power of being authentic and vulnerable.

 God, I hate not to be invulnerable.  Really.  I must be indomitable.  A badass.  Goes with my big ass. Vulnerability is not intuitive, let alone the concept that perfectionism is anything but the ideal.  And authenticity?  As Brene’ admits, it is not always the safe option.  For me, a daunting choice.  So much risk when I put myself out there.  The pursuit of perfection is the “perfect” suit of armor.  Who can criticize me when I already am criticizing myself?

not good enough itis

I have come to believe that, as Brene’ so wisely points out, seeking perfection is soul-sucking and obstructive and self-destructive.  Perfection is unattainable, but if it is our primary goal, it leads to self-blame (and self-centeredness):  “I’m not good enough.”  Brown makes perfect sense to me when she writes that we need to embrace our imperfections to find our “truest gifts:  courage, compassion and connection.”

So I’ve started to work on overcoming my desire to be perfect and to become a “good enoughist.”  And I started in my most vulnerable, imperfect place:  my body.

I’d done the BMI calculations and checked out the weight/height charts and knew that I was hovering on being unhealthy.  I needed to exercise and eat a healthy diet.  I worked to incorporate some fruits and veggies and more protein into my diet.  I added regular exercise: I rode my bike (wore dark sunglasses) and took Pilates (small or private classes so no one could see me) but had to stop Pilates because of bone spurs in my right shoulder.  Honestly?  I think I was hiding out in these forms of exercise and I wasn’t being “self-compassionate.”  In a way, I was still suffering from total perfection paralysis.

But one morning, after refusing to play tennis (again – worried about what the real players would think), I stared in the mirror at my aging 50-something face (artfully lined by life’s unalterable progression) and thought, “why do I work so hard at not working out rather than work hard at working out?”  So, rather than just agreeing philosophically with the guideposts in The Gifts of Imperfection, I actually began to deliberately and intentionally practice Brene’ Brown’s formula (she doesn’t say it this way exactly but it helps me to think of it this way) for letting go of perfection: (1) engaging in self-kindness (“I am trying my best”), (2) understanding that feelings of personal inadequacy are part of the human experience (“I am never alone in my struggles”) and (3) being mindful of, but not exaggerating my “painfail” emotions (I recognize my feelings but I try not to be “swept away by negative reactivity.”).  Practice is the key word here – some days are better than others, and I often am reminded of that phrase “fake it ‘til you make it.”

So – I walked into Pure Barre® Naples last November.  It was risky and I felt ever so vulnerable. I chose Pure Barre® because I love to dance (it is a low-impact, full body workout based in part on ballet) and I love losing myself in music. Of course, I took the introductory class first (the one that teaches you the basics so you can move precisely and perfectly (ahem – I added those “p” words) when you actually take a regular class…) but then signed up for ten classes. And then for a month of unlimited classes…every month.  I loved it but I really had to work hard at self-kindness (you do look in the mirror a lot and I had been hiding not just from others but myself – lord, my butt is huge – but booty’s are in, right?).   The studio set up is about a common humanity – the group classes are about a community working toward strength, energy and good health, all to the beat of the music.  The instructors are all incredible, supportive and encouraging (every time I hear an instructor call out: “great form, Karen,” it still takes a minute to realize they are talking to me).  The idea is that the 55 minutes at the Barre is a “time for you.”  It is not about comparing my body or my ability to someone else’s.  It is not about reaching some impossible standard.  It is about my physical well-being and me.  What a magical gift.   I even began to dress differently for class after the first month – hiding in baggy clothes didn’t help my form.  And yes, my body is still imperfect and flawed. But it is getting stronger and it feels healthier every day. And I’m not hiding it so much anymore.

pure-barre-4  100 club

And sure, a few people in my life have freely offered some negative critique of my new-found joy in working out at Pure Barre®  (and yes, they are poking at my vulnerability) and I’ve had to work hard on my “shame-resilience.”  But, after attending 100 classes, I realize I own this piece of my life.  And somehow, through a daily (sometimes hourly) practice of self-compassion, I achieved a minor milestone. I am looking forward to more moments like these, but I am savoring and celebrating this moment. Because many days I might still feel afraid, but still, more and more days I feel grateful and joyous – and very brave and very alive.  Maybe I can be a courageous and vulnerable badass.

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Swallow the Pink Fear Pill

pink pill

This weekend my husband, son, and I went to visit my family in Minnesota. Among other things, we participated in our family’s annual epic Easter gathering, complete with extravagant food and even more extravagant music, courtesy of my father and the musical friends he has accumulated over the past sixty years.

While at the party one of the guests accidentally dropped a Valium pill on the floor. I didn’t find this out until the next day.

Under normal circumstances this would not be a big deal. Heck, under normal circumstances I might be motivated to look for the pill for the selfish purpose of getting a few winks of sleep. But ever since becoming a mother, my definition of “normal circumstances” has dramatically changed. When I found out about the pill I panicked.

After calling poison control, my father informed us that Valium could make an infant stop breathing. The phone operator said to keep an eye on the babies in our house and take them to the hospital if they displayed signs of excessive drowsiness.

Let’s talk about my rationality when it comes to possible disease or crisis. One night the bottoms of my feet had started to hurt, like I had stepped on glass. I mentioned this casually to my husband, while inwardly starting to plan my last will and testament. My husband wondered if it was possible that my feet were dry and needed some lotion. My skin, after all, is very susceptible to cracking in the winter. I nonchalantly said, “Hmm, that’s a good point.”

When he asked me what I thought I said, “Well, it probably isn’t that my gestational diabetes has turned into full blown untreated diabetes, leaving me with feet that are one sugar spike away from amputation.” My husband thinks I’m hilarious.

So maybe the doctors shouldn’t leave it to my judgment whether or not my son seems overly drowsy.

My son, thankfully, saved us a trip to the ER by not acting even remotely interested in sleep, despite having been up until one in the morning, refusing to wind down until the adults had finished their fun. But the story of how my son deals with FOMO (fear of missing out) is for another time.

This one is about the crippling and devastating fear that grips me when I least expect it. This is about the fear that starts in my stomach and spreads to my limbs. This is about the fear that can keep me in the house on a Friday night instead of going out because I don’t want to get in a car accident with a drunk driver. The fear that turns dry feet into my final moments. This is about a fear that I fight hard to keep from controlling my life.

I didn’t really think of myself as a fearful person until I had my son. Suddenly there are monsters in every corner. The news stories are unbearable as I imagine the world he is inheriting. A world with movie theater shootings over text messages. A world with food shortages due to climate change and disease. A world where parents are abandoning face time with their children for texting with their friends. A world where pills are innocently dropped on the floor at joyous Easter gatherings.

When I was younger I would often overhear my mom telling people that the safest place her children can be is in the palm of God’s hand. I always liked that. That is, until I had my own child. As soon as his tiny body was placed on my chest, umbilical cord connected, I had a different idea. The safest place my child can be is in my arms. Scratch that, the safest place my child can be is back inside my womb.

Actually, scratch that, too. My child has never been safe. Period.

Apparently fear can make me wonder if I made the right choice to become a parent. By this I mean that fear can blind me to the miracle of the flesh and bones and skin in my arms, a beautiful baby boy who through a whole lot of biology I pretend to understand is made up of my husband and me and stardust and the breath of God.

I find it interesting that in the Bible when angels appear the first thing they say is, “Do not be afraid.” I can’t be certain, since I’ve never seen an angel, but I am pretty sure that my face would have been on the ground with everyone else’s, unable to look at the huge fireball of an angel suddenly appearing where there wasn’t one before.

Or for a more metaphorical approach to understanding my faith for my often-skeptical religious self–I am pretty sure that angels are appearing to me all the time. But in my fear I don’t recognize them. They are shrouded in the dark shadow of what might happen. They are in the present and I am off in the future, waiting for what might be, bracing myself for pain or tragedy.

What I am left with is a choice between fear and faith. And I’m not too good at faith. I am the person who much of the time has more faith in my belief that my son will probably find the pink Valium pill somehow tucked away in the belongings we brought back 400 miles from my parents’ home, than I have in the idea of my son sitting in my palm of God’s hand.

But maybe the best part about my parenting fear is that it drives me to want more faith. I don’t want to be afraid. I want to be the person who believes that my son is safe in the palm of God’s hand. I want to be the person who trusts that he won’t pick up the pink pill. I want to be the person who notices the angels all around me, the miracles big and small. I want to believe, as my friend Lenora says so eloquently, that love is greater than fear.

And maybe that stumbling, fumbling desperation, driven entirely by necessity, is itself a kind of faith.

And maybe one of the angels is my mom, reminding me again and again that in the absence of certainty we have the ability to trust, trust that God is holding my son in his hands, pink Valium pill or not.

And if my dry feet do end up killing me, there is really no other place I would rather be.

buechner,jpg


261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

 

Hugs, Duct Tape, and Learning to Be Brave

free hugs

I met David while teaching the youth group at my church. He was a freshman in High School, just starting to figure out who he was and what made him tick. But two things were certain: he loved duct tape and hugs.

I really liked David, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t really get him. Or maybe, I thought he was a little weird. Or maybe he made me a little uncomfortable.

While other kids were talking about movies and video games, David was making wallets and flowers and his tux for prom out of duct tape. And did I mention that he was hugging everyone all the time? Maybe it’s just my neck of the woods, but it is kind of rare to find a sixteen year old eager to hug adults.

But David did not allowed being different to stand in the way of being himself. He took his dream of giving hugs on the road, writing a book and using the money to travel across the country to give free hugs, over 50,000 hugs to date, tracking each with a counter hanging from his belt. He even has his own website, “Duck Duct Dave“.

I think he made me so uncomfortable because I was so miserable being a teenager. I worked hard to disappear, wishing I could blend into the crowd. I didn’t try out for the school musicals despite the fact that I love to sing and dance. I was too fat. Or at least, that’s what I told myself. I couldn’t imagine flaunting that fact in front of my graduating class of 500 students. From time to time I imagined myself trying out for the musical, applying for student council, or going to the extra curricular events, but in the end I stayed at home, convincing myself I didn’t want any of that anyway.

Why is it so hard to be seen? And why does it make me so uncomfortable to see someone willing to leave it all out there, heart on the sleeve, and dive headfirst into their dream?

Oh that’s right, because people can be jerks and the world can be mean.

David estimates that while standing on the street with his free hugs sign, about ninety percent of people walk past without giving him a hug. That’s a lot of rejection. I did a catering gig once and I felt rejected when I couldn’t convince the wedding goers to take the bruschetta I was offering.

Rejection hurts. When I hear ninety percent rejection a big mama piece of me wants to usher David into my house, feed him some chocolate chip cookies, hug him, and protect him from all of that.

But I’m pretty sure David is right and I am wrong. At least insofar as there is a right and wrong here.

I think in High School I thought there would come this magic moment when I would no longer be afraid to walk out on that stage. Or better yet, I hoped to avoid the fear altogether by having someone notice how amazing I was while I was sitting camouflaged in the corner.

But David has taught me a thing or two. LIke, don’t wait to be seen, just hit the streets with a loud neon sign. Maybe ninety percent of people won’t give a damn, but show up for the ten percent who do. Or better yet, just show up.

David is in college now so I don’t see him as often. When I do, I make sure I hug him extra hard, and I find it really satisfying to watch him click his counter and know I’m helping him live his dream.

And like all the best teachers, I am sure he has no idea how much he has taught me. But I am part of the ten percent who are thankful he has had the courage to show up and have the audacity to be himself.

courage

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Lessons Learned While Teaching the Alphabet

IMG_2013

This past week, I witnessed a miracle.

Let me back up. Last November I returned to work after spending the first three months of my son’s life figuring out how to keep a human alive, while also making most of the recipes I had pinned on pinterest. (But not the crafts. Why did I even pin those? I have been looking for a needle for three weeks now to sew up the hole my dog chewed in my pants and I can’t remember where I left my needles. Why I thought monogrammed anything was a possibility is beyond me.)

I sat down with my principal to make a schedule for working with small groups of students, my position this school year. I mentioned off-hand that I thought I should work with some kindergarteners because I believe in early intervention. Also, I’ve never worked with kindergarteners before and I wanted to know if it really is as hard as my kindergarten teaching friends say. (The answer to that question in a word: yes. In three words: I love it.)

I started pulling a group of three kindergarten students who did not know their letters. I very quickly fell in love with Alex. I already knew he was my favorite when he looked up at me after three weeks and said, “Ms. Wanson, you really meant it when you said you’d come get me every day!” Then he crawled into my lap for our read aloud.

This group quickly became the highlight of each day. When rearranging groups to prepare for our standardized test, my assistant principal looked at my schedule and asked why I was working with a K group. (Kindergarten not being a testing age.) Before she could say anything else, my principal said, “You can’t take away her K group. That’s why she gets out of bed in the morning.”

And it is true. When I cried about going back to work most days in December, my husband would say, “But what about Alex.” And he was sure to get an earful of Alex’s crazy antics from that day. Alex isn’t exactly a well-behaved student. My favorite students never are.

Last week it was my job to give Alex his reading test to see if he moved reading levels. He came to me in November without being able to pass the pre-reading test. In January he passed pre-reading (indicating he knows some of his letters and rhyming words) but threw a crying fit when I asked him to try spelling a few words.

I gave him the test. He knew all but three of his capital letters. He knew all but three of his lowercase letters. He knew all but eight of his letter sounds. He could match the beginning sounds of words. But then the miracle happened. I asked him to watch me read a book. I tapped on each word as I read. Before I could tell him it was his turn, he started reading.

And reading some more. He turned the page. And he read that page, and the next, and the next. And even when the pattern in the book changed, he ended the book with, “I like school.” The three words printed on that page.

I’ve always been an intermediate and upper grade teacher. I have never witnessed the moment when a child first starts to read, when the words are no longer sticks and circles but have suddenly become thoughts and ideas.

It was magical. It was this sacred miraculous moment. I am not exaggerating. My heart raced and the tears started forming. And all the while Alex just kept going, wanting to know what came next, not stopping once to think about the fact that HE COULD READ!

We finished the test and it turned out he can spell, too. Or at least enough to pass two more levels. I high-fived him and congratulated him. He grinned and jumped up and down. And asked if he could get a colored pen because he had passed his test and it was the nearest object to him. Who can blame him for being an opportunist?

Then he turned to me and said, “Am I not gonna come to you anymore?”

He realized what I had already known. That my time of working with him was ending. I had taught him and he had learned. He was ready to move to the next thing, and I wasn’t part of that next thing.

And it broke my mama heart.

Letting go. I am really not good at goodbyes, in whatever form they take. I am of the mind that every goodbye could be the last one, so make it count. Or better yet, avoid it altogether.

But the problem is that I can’t avoid it. And sometimes I get stuck in the goodbyes, near and far. It brings up the fact that I am not, despite my every best effort and a whole lot of wishful thinking, in control of those goodbyes or when they come. Which frankly pisses me off. And the people who console me by telling me that those feelings are hormonal can take a trip off a cliff as far as I’m concerned. Maybe my feelings are hormonal. But they’re also real.

And yet, today I pulled a new group of kindergarten students. Without Alex. And there was little Joel, waiting to be loved, his pants nearly falling off and his nose dripping with a cold, eager to climb into the lap that Alex left empty.

Saying goodbye to Alex left space for me to say hello to Joel.

Does that seem worth it when Alex comes up to me in the hallway and says, “Are you going to come get me today? Don’t say no.”

To quote Anne Lamott, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

What I know is that Alex wasn’t able to read and now he can. And that’s a miracle. And by the grace of God, I got to be there to witness it. So if goodbyes are a reality I cannot avoid, then I’m glad that at least sometimes they come served with a side of miracle.

And I’m extra thankful when those miracles are packaged up in the form of kindergarteners.

-Rachel261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n

 

 

Is This Really My Body?

I can safely say I have never not been aware of the space my butt takes up in a room. That includes right now (both when I’m writing this and when you’re reading it).

There was a short pause to this way of thinking during the nine months of being pregnant. I am firmly in the camp of pregnant body=beautiful body. I absolutely loved having an excuse for why my tummy was swelling. I wore maternity pants long before I needed to because, HELLO, not wearing elastic waistbands when it is socially acceptable is truly a wasted opportunity.

But now it is almost eight months past the birth of my son, and I still have a fanny pack made of skin that I’m carrying around my middle. I look at myself in mirrors or store windows and I do not recognize what my body has become. Is that me?

I was reading an article about women and body image in which Kristen Bell is quoted as having said, “I’m not a woman whose self-worth comes from her dress size.” She was responding to questions about her post-baby body. I wish I could write here that upon reading this my first thought was, “Go Kristen! Way to represent a healthy body image!”

But my real first thought was, “Whatever. (Expletive).” And then I imagined the giddy lightness of squeezing into a pair of jeans one size smaller. In those pants I could step in dog poop on the way to work, put curdled milk in my tea, be told I wasn’t getting a pay raise, and I’m pretty sure I’d still end the night with my head on the pillow thinking, “I am SKINNY!”

But seriously, what am I going to do about the fact that my body is still twenty pounds above my pre-preggo weight, which was twenty pounds more than my wedding weight, which was twenty pounds more than the weight I wanted to be? If you’re not a math person, we’re up to sixty pounds.

Everyone says that breastfeeding melts the pounds off your body. I’d say my post-pregnancy weight loss (with breastfeeding) has been more along the lines of the slow trickle of frozen pipes.

I went to the doctor yesterday and told her that I was a little concerned because, since giving up sugar and white carbs in January, I have only lost about 10 pounds. I was really hoping she would tell me I have a rare disease that makes it very difficult for me to lose weight. But fear not! This disease is easily cured by these tasty pills.

Instead, my doctor informed me that first, this was an appropriate amount of weight to lose, and second, if I was wanting to lose weight more quickly I should start counting calories.

And it dawned on me that I am never going to count calories again. I refuse.

My body has grown a human in it. It can run for long distances. It can dance and breathe and move and sing. And I am over counting calories. I won’t do it. I can’t bring myself to that place of stress and shame again. Ever.

Which means I have to be patient with the slow and halting weight loss that has defined the last eight months (twenty years) of my life. Uggggggghhhhhhhh. I believe in the cumulative effect of healthy lifestyle change. But wow does it take a long time. And wow am I not patient. (Pills. Pills. Why aren’t there pills?)

Right after our baby was born I would jokingly add “I’m a bad mother” to the end of any comment. My husband put the kibosh on that. He believes that words have power, and even joking words can be internalized and then believed. There is now no “I’m a bad mother” talk in our house.

Recently I was looking in the mirror and I found myself saying over and over again, “You are beautiful, you are beautiful, you are beautiful.” When my husband came home, I asked him over and over again, “Aren’t I beautiful? Aren’t I beautiful? Aren’t I beautiful?” (He’s a smart and good man and said yes.)

It’s not that I believe it. At least not all the time. Especially when I am contemplating the square footage of my butt. Or my mommy tummy. But I want to believe it. And thank God for the times when I do believe it.

If I had a magic wand I would drop sixty pounds. Today. But in the absence of the magic wand, I’m stuck on this long road toward self acceptance, a road of a life time. A road filled with detours with flashy promising signs that all lead me back to the road, sometimes worse for wear. And I know that inhabiting and loving my fourth trimester body is what the road is filled with for the next few hundred miles. So I keep putting one foot in front of the other.

When I get discouraged, when I find myself avoiding eye contact with the mirror, it helps to look in the adoring face of my beautiful baby boy. He is worth this.

And I am worth this, too. Even with feet sore from walking. And a big butt.

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261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n Rachel