Last night, I erased the past week from our dry erase five-week family calendar and filled in the dates for five weeks from now. I gasped when I wrote October 1 on the board. It’s hard to believe that I’m nearing the last couple of months of being 36, with a birthday in November.
I am amazed and comforted and excited about how my sense of self has continued to grow so much stronger and deeper in the past year.
During #thisis36, I became a full-time freelancer. I broke up with a bad therapist. For the first time ever, I pulled off my shirt in the middle of hot yoga class to move in just my sports bra, something I thought I could never do five years and twenty pounds ago. That is, when I weighed twenty pounds less but wasn’t as fully at home in my body. The image in the mirror has grown older, but I’ve grown kinder towards her. Not that the process has been seamless. There were about two weeks over Christmas when I was aghast and ashamed of a large new wrinkle that seemed to appear overnight. I was thinking about all the ways I could fix it, then suddenly, like a ribbon above my head, appeared “Or…” Or, I could accept it. It is hard to adequately convey in words how that Or shocked my body. The power of acceptance rippled through me and propelled me through a doorway, set me free in a place that I hadn’t been before.
To feel my increasing sense of agency and power makes me happy to be alive. This is 36.
In the past few months, I’ve been dealing with age-related angst in a serious way for the first time.
“When did that start looking like that?!”
“Is this supposed to be happening so soon?”
I’ve found renewed solidarity and humor in Nora Ephron’s book I Feel Bad About My Neck.
Strangely, though, I would say my self esteem is higher now than it’s ever been (we humans are messy and full of contradictions), even higher than just five years ago when I would have considered my self pretty evolved in terms of self acceptance. Today I realized perhaps that’s because five years ago I was working at a yoga studio in Southern California.
Life tip: if you want to feel good about your self, don’t hang out with people who are habitually on juice cleanses.
I discovered the OR Principle last year while standing in a fitting room, and it changed my life.
My wardrobe includes what is essentially a dozen variations on the same loose, soft material, you-can-breathe-in-it Loft blouse. One can never have too many of these blouses, and I was trying on a new one for summer. I looked in the mirror at my bare arms and thought, “I really HAVE to work on toning my arms.”
The words floated in my brain, and each letter was tipped with the same stones that line a flagellant’s whip. This is always how such thoughts appear to me. A whip that was handed to me in a fitting room many, many years ago when I was just a child, when someone pointed to my stomach and told me I needed to “lose that belly.” The whip was given to me as if it were my birthright as a woman. I was to carry it with me for life. It was to be used as necessary to force both body and soul to submit.
As women, whenever something doesn’t fit – whether it’s a blouse or a job or a relationship – our first instinct is to think of how we can change our selves. That is the default solution. That is the norm. Our realities and our bodies are the aberrations to be controlled. Squished, contorted, fit into the appropriate space.
But this time, as soon as I began to calculate how many gym classes I needed to take and how many calories I need to not take in order to get my arms in shape, a new thought formed and even escaped through my mouth: “OR.”
That’s exactly how I said it. It was a bold, 20-point font OR.
“OR, designers could start making shirts with some damn sleeves on them,” I said.
And everything changed.
In the year since, every time the whip appears above my head, there is an OR right behind it, gently placing its hand over the one holding the whip.
When I am feeling trapped by a problem at work or home, OR opens a door: “This situation is hopeless. I’ll never get it right. I’ll never be good enough. OR…… there may be a different way that I just haven’t thought of yet.”
OR is an invitation to a bigger life. OR opens up space.
OR has a great sense of humor. OR is the wise woman I’ve always wanted to be. The one who has seen it all. Who knows that the energy of her wild spirit should not be used up in keeping a running mental log of calories. OR knows that the way to get a bikini body is to put a bikini on her body. OR knows that it is also perfectly fine to want sleeves on her shirt. OR’s body is soft and strong and sturdy. It exists outside the purview of others to judge. She is soft and strong and sturdy. She exists outside the purview of others to judge.
I am soft and strong and sturdy. I exist outside the purview of others to judge.
You do, too.
* * * * *
Yoga classes are like church services for me in that they are a time when I am open and honest and vulnerable with my self. Last summer, I was dealing with some challenges, and being with the heaviness of those challenges in the rawness of yoga was too much. It had moved from discomfort to pain, and it stung. I had to stop attending classes for awhile.
And that’s ok.
In yoga, the whole point is your breath. In vinyasa flow yoga, teachers will tell you that if your breathing becomes too labored during practice, if you can’t maintain that steady, long inhale & exhale, come back to child’s pose, where you lay your forehead on the mat, chest draped over your knees. All tucked into a safe cocoon, resting your weight on the earth, sinking back into a rhythmic breath. Because yoga isn’t how far you can lift your leg in the air or behind your head. It’s breathing.
Not going to yoga class for awhile was my returning to child’s pose.
It was easing up for as long as it took for me to catch my breath. As long as it took for things to become lighter again.
Of course, it was also a sign. When things are heavy, it can mean an opportunity for us to grow stronger. It can also indicate that something needs to change. Sometimes, as it was in this case, it is both.
Last week, I gave myself a present of a month-pass to yoga. I’ve been to several classes since then, and it feels so, so good to be in that room again, breathing, expanding, being strong.
Breathe with me, wherever you are. Let your breath carry comfort to the hidden places where pain is stuck. Let it open you up to possibilities, those you can dream of and those you can’t, for joy and wellbeing.
Breathe with me.
PS I call this image Tree Pose with Trees. The best kind of tree pose. Obviously.
On Monday, I engaged in nature therapy down at the creek near our house. Nature therapy is a very sophisticated form of self care, involving mud and sunshine.
One of the benefits of being married to a neuroscientist has been a clearer understanding – and, subsequently, acceptance – of the anxiety that has accompanied me from a young age. I better understand anxiety to be a physiological activity of my body (some people say brain, but you know our brains are part of our bodies, right?). The activity is a result of my genetic make-up and its response to circumstances. It is something I experience. I used to think it meant something about who I was, but, while my sense of self and anxiety have some interplay, they are not the same.
In the past couple of years, I have begun talking more candidly about anxiety, which has helped take some of its sting away. I have told friends that I had to change plans because I was feeling anxious and needed to give my self a time out, in the same way I might have said, “I’ve broken my leg and can’t make our hiking trip.”
On Monday, I was feeling anxious. I put one foot in front of the other as we traipsed through the woods down to the creek. I breathed in and out. I paid attention to how the ground felt bumpy beneath my feet and to the temperature of the air on my skin.
For years, when I’ve talked with close friends and my husband and my therapist about depression and anxiety, I’ve said that I’ve dealt with them since I was 13. On Monday, I realized that I’ve actually dealt with anxiety since I was 9.
This thought crystallized in my mind as I sat on a rock, using a long stick to stir the creek water soup that my toddler and I were making together.
In addition to my toddler, I have Emma, an eight year old who turns nine in April. I wonder what nine will be like for her.
Maggie and I stomped around in the mud to feel it squish up between our toes. We knelt and built mud castles. Being Mama means to be making constantly. Making dinner, making doctor appointments, making children’s hearts and my own heart.
It is not in isolation that I walk with anxiety, that I breathe through it, that I learn how to recognize when it is rising and step away from control. Let it flow away. Like the creek over our feet.
I am doing it while holding the hands of my baby girls, which makes it easier and harder, but – for me – it is also the only way. In cupping their hearts with gentle hands, I hold my own. I put broken pieces back together, the crevices filled in with mud and spit and love. In other words, with grace.
For a friend who comes over at the end of a long day to sit with me while I cry and talk and cry some more, I give thanks.
For friends and family who don’t even vote the same way but still care for and hold my heart and grief with gentleness, I give thanks.
For a pastor and community of faith that is far away in geography but close in spirit, that is right now lighting candles for ALL the people in our country who are hurting, I give thanks.
For little girls who ask, “Why you eyes wed (red)?”, then put their small hand on my cheek and draw me in for butterfly kisses, I give thanks.
I light a candle,
As I putter about the kitchen,
A candle for the mothers
Who are tired
Who want to live freely
But that path was not cut for them,
So they – so I –
Am cutting it now.
In the kitchen
In the office
Through our home so our children may follow
I am preparing dinner
But my soul is kneeled
With my hand on the soft, green
moss covering a rock
And the other on my heart.
Today was my first day at a new job. Having worked from home since I became pregnant with my oldest child, it was also the first day in eight years that I have stepped into an office as an employee. (Not counting my stint as the front desk girl for a yoga studio, when I checked in students and folded towels and sprayed mats clean and wore stretchy yoga pants and tops and long, dangly earrings for fun. Let’s not count that as an office job.)
The day went well – I love my job description and my colleagues are smart and friendly – but I came home feeling anxious. Of course I did. Our brains and bodies are smart. They are evolved to be wary, especially of change, yet it is the ability to adapt to change that allows them to survive.
So how do we get from anxiety to survival and, in time, wellness?
We take good care of ourselves.
After work, we walk with our children to the park, in the sunshine. We take off our shoes and walk in the splash pool. We feel the cool stones beneath our feet, and we breathe. All the while, the kids are talking talking talking, always with the questions, ohmylord so many questions. The toddler looks directly at you, hears your “No!” and throws her new shoes into the pool anyway, giggling. And we breathe again.
We take them home and bathe them and put them to bed. Tired and irritated and with fear in our throats, but we keep breathing. We cry with our spouse, because tears are a form of stress relief. We listen to a favorite album. We call a friend. We make plans to go to yoga class tomorrow. We light candles and break out the special lotion – the one we spent too much on or is hard to find or otherwise reminds us of happiness – and rub it in and feel loved.
And we breathe.
“Our breathing is a stable solid ground that we can take refuge in. Regardless of our internal weather- our thoughts, emotions and perceptions- our breathing is always with us like a faithful friend. Whenever we feel carried away, or sunken in a deep emotion, or scattered in worries and projects, we return to our breathing to collect and anchor our mind.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh. Read the entire passage here.