Forager, Farmer, Fool

A straw bale

About 13 years ago, a good friend told me that I should just do one thing if I wanted to be successful. As I approach my 40th birthday, what he said to me all of those years ago is finally starting to make sense.

I have approached much of my life as a hunter-gatherer. With insatiable curiosity and a strong desire to learn and do as much as possible, I exposed myself to many different kinds of ideas and experiences. I dabbled in a multitude of areas, leaving many projects incomplete. For example, I have always been a writer and have long wanted to seek a publisher for one of my books. As I sort through old computer files, I find half written book proposals, lists of agents who have never been approached, and the remnants of a clever and ambitious girl who just couldn’t focus on one thing at a time.

While being a hunter-gatherer may not have resulted in me fully articulating and achieving all of my goals, it certainly has made me a wiser and more interesting person. I have foraged my way through the bounty of life, feeding my soul with a rich feast of ideas. Within me is the depth and breadth of one hundred ordinary people. Ordinary people who are, admittedly, enjoying the fragrant blossoms of the single seed they have planted and lovingly tended for so many years. So while I feel a certain level of smug self-satisfaction and gratitude for the life I have lived, I also feel a bit of regret and remorse for everything that has been left behind in my feeding frenzy. I feel it is time to transition from surviving to thriving, from languishing to flourishing.

I, too, have planted many seeds in my life. Thousands of them. A brilliant idea here, a dream for tomorrow there. But I abandoned those seeds for sparkling meadows and alluring forests. The seeds were left behind in the wrong places, not planted deep enough into the earth, untended and unloved. Quantity over quality, exposure but never intimacy.

As I enter the fifth decade of my life, I am drifting back through fond foraging memories to glean those that most deeply resonate with the person I am today, the person I always was but hadn’t quite discovered yet, the person I will always be. Those memories will shape the farm of my future, the place that will be my home, my salvation, a reflection of my most significant commitments to myself and to this planet. I will continue to plant seeds, but will do so selectively and with the intention of offering my love and attention through the last blossom, from season to season.

40 for 40 #4: Thongs

I have always thought that flip flops are ugly and uncomfortable. But there are times that they prove to be quite convenient, like during strolls along the beach and after pedicures. I once bought a pair of Minnie Mouse flip flops while staying at a Disney resort for a family literacy conference, and thus ends my adult thong allowance. This year, I indulged in a beautiful pair of gold orthopedic flip flops. They were very expensive, and I don’t often tend to splurge on things like that for myself, but I figured they would be useful on certain occasions. I now find myself wearing them at other times, when they aren’t even necessary, and thus I have joined the legions of modern women around the world who swear by the thong sandal. I even wore them on a semi-lengthy neighborhood walk and afterward my aging, arthritic feet did not ache one bit. The thrill of thong underwear shall have to wait for my 50th birthday.

Unloading a Weighty Taboo

This post originally appeared on Huffington Post on June 16, 2015.

I can wrap both of my legs behind my head. My triglyceride level recently registered at 62. My favorite food is kale. And in addition to all of these glorious qualities, I am overweight.

In American culture, weight is one of the most frequently used and faulty indicators for beauty, happiness, wellness, and success. It is a part of me that I can’t hide, nor would I want to do so; therefore, my mere presence provokes unsolicited reactions — both negative and positive — from friends and strangers alike. These reactions have varied from being called a “giant marshmallow” by a pre-tween visitor while walking my college campus as a body image-conscious student to a former boyfriend who had an almost neurotic fondness for my Rubenesque figure which, while a welcome antidote to the damage done by others who were less appreciative, similarly left me feeling judged and objectified.

Yet many other people view me, and my size, within the range of normal. A good friend, who I have known for nearly 10 years and with whom I often do yoga, was in total shock when I recently said something about being overweight. I have received several sincere compliments about various body parts, and the whole package, throughout my life. My own self-perception echoes the full range of what I have been told about myself, the insecurities, vanities, fears, and judgments of others which I have internalized in addition to their openness, love, and appreciation for aesthetic diversity.

This post was provoked by a recent conversation in which a self-proclaimed sensitive man asked if my stated weight was really accurate because I sure didn’t look it. Was this a backhanded compliment? A condemnation of other lovely women of impressive stature? Or a revelation of a particular form of ignorance that has occupied the collective conscience of western men and women alike, destroying our sense of common decency and furthering an all too common tendency to divide and conquer?

It is natural to respond to the world around us by evaluating what we see in comparison to prior and anticipated experiences; this phenomenon is part of the learning process. But when we make a judgment about another person or situation based on immediate observations, we have stopped learning; in fact, we are asserting that our gut reaction is all that could possibly be good and true. And when we take it a step further by placing a label on another person, derogatory or otherwise, then we have infringed upon that person’s humanity in a fundamentally harmful way.

There are many stereotypes about people who are overweight, reflecting the accumulation of these reactions over time. Being overweight is often viewed as a fault in character, a lack of self-control and discipline. Women who are overweight violate the quickly dying arrogant assumption of a social agreement that women ought to serve men in blissful subservient docility. Weight is a means of control and oppression, an expectation for all genders to conform to a sometimes unrealistic norm. It serves as the basis for a huge money making scheme that generates $20 billion in direct economic activity each year in the United States alone. It is also a political issue, as people may be denied opportunities because of this aspect of their appearance.

Last week, I went to see a brilliant community theater production of The Full Monty. This play, adapted from the popular 1997 movie, demonstrates the power that weight-related assumptions hold over people in our society. The build up to the strip scene at the end is provocative, not just because of the public nudity, but even more so because those who are going to remove their clothes do not perfectly represent social expectations for body size and shape. People who are overweight are expected to feel ashamed and to hide those supposedly undesirable features from public view. During several trips to the beach, I have heard comments about people who reveal themselves, along with their cellulite, ripe bellies, and gravity-affected breasts, by wearing a bathing suit. “She shouldn’t be wearing that.” These comments are almost always about women. Overweight people are expected to deny themselves of the pleasures taken for granted by others so that those others may enjoy their day without the inconvenience of viewing and sharing their space with people who do not reflect mainstream ideas about our bodies.

We have a lot of words to describe the body parts of people who are overweight, like muffin tops, thunder thighs, saddle bags, and love handles. We also have a lot of euphemisms to describe people who are overweight, such as chubby, pleasantly plump, and full-figured. A fellow student in my high school had a shirt that simply stated, “I’m not fat, I’m fluffy.” The language we typically use to describe weight, and all of its manifestations, is not very advanced. We rarely talk about strong, healthy women who passionately indulge their desires. We forget to think and talk about people in a holistic way that celebrates the totality of their human existence.

Rather than directly confront people who are prejudiced, I prefer to provoke deep, meaningful thought and then offer my love and support to others when and if they choose to confront their own demons. I anticipate getting a few “you’re so brave for talking about this” messages upon publication of this post. I sincerely appreciate the acknowledgment and support of others, I really do. But please save your accolades and continue the conversation instead. Nothing will change unless we destigmatize this topic by normalizing an open, honest, fair, and thoughtful discussion.

Three Daily Rituals to Restore Wellbeing

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As a person who all too often feels overwhelmed with the stresses of everyday life, I have found it helpful to incorporate three rituals into my daily routine: cleansing; stretching; and nourishing. When I consistently integrate these three simple rituals, I feel refreshed, renewed, and restored.

I usually begin my day with a fairly ordinary cleansing ritual, that of the shower. As the warm, soapy water cascades down my awakening body, I feel a sense of purity which allows me to enter the day untainted by whatever may have happened in the past. About every other day I head to the gym, where I release my worries and other toxins through the sweet sweat that trickles down from my brow. When I feel a great physical or emotional heaviness, cleansing through a one day juice fast or three week regimen of only whole foods makes me feel lighter and more free. Deep, intentional breathing is another means of cleansing our systems, and taking in the air from the seaside or deep within the forest has an unmatched healing quality.

My every other day visits to the gym are not only cleansing, they also provide me with an opportunity to move and stretch my body in new ways. Yoga and walking in-between further provide me with the stretch that I need. In addition to stretching myself physically, I try to expand myself intellectually at least once a day. I do this by trying new things, reading, and pushing myself to surpass my goals. Stretching rituals multiply the possibilities in my life and contribute to my continued personal growth.

My third daily wellness ritual is nourishing my body, mind, heart, and soul. I do this by eating healthy foods, exposing myself to enlightened ideas, practicing excellent self-care, indulging my desires, and planting seeds of hope through my work in the community. Nourishment provides me with the sustenance I need to pursue and fulfill all of my aspirations.

These three rituals — cleansing, stretching, and nourishing — serve as the foundation for my personal wellness practice. By making them a part of my day, every day, I am able to live a full and vibrant life.

40 for 40 #3: Beautiful Bathroom

When I first moved into my 150 year old house almost eight years ago, I immediately began the process of cleaning up and updating the house. The initial cosmetic work to be done was endless, from painting the walls to ripping out carpet and urine soaked floorboards to removing asbestos tiles in the hallway. I did not anticipate the amount of work and money getting my house in order would require, particularly because I did not anticipate my kitchen ceiling falling in three times due to plumbing problems, a furnace that completely stopped working because it had a hole in it which the pre-purchase home inspector failed to find, and all of the other little bits and pieces that add up over time. I also did not anticipate that when I removed the ugly, peach-colored, seashell-themed wallpaper in my upstairs bathroom that the disintegrating plaster walls behind would come along with the wallpaper as I peeled it away. In addition, the tub accumulated mold due to a poor caulking job (that of the prior owner followed by my own) and the tile floor became more and more cracked as time passed. Not to mention the ugliest medicine cabinet ever, its look finished off by an unhealthy dose of rust. Finishing the bathroom was cast aside as I dealt with the more immediate needs in my home. But this year, despite earning much less than I have in all the years I have lived in this house, I decided that enough was enough. I could no longer live with a half torn apart, uglier than ever, possibly unhealthy breeding ground of a bathroom. And so, with some of my own work and the help of a contractor, I have transformed that bathroom into the loveliest room in my house. Everything has been redone — the floor, bathtub, lighting, and, of course, the medicine cabinet. It makes such a difference in my everyday life to wake up in the morning and take a shower in a beautiful space that has a bright and natural, rather than a depressing and decaying, feel.

I’ll Sleep On It (Or At Least I’ll Try)

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I have always had a precarious relationship with sleep. The bliss of restful sleep has eluded me since I broke a dependency on a life saving opiate-laced allergy medicine after more than eleven years of daily use, at age twelve. From there, I turned to massive doses of coffee to stay awake which only made it more difficult to settle down at the end of a long day. Not only do I have difficulty falling and staying asleep, which is no doubt influenced by anxiety, I also occasionally suffer from sleep paralysis — a terrifying state of affairs during which I either feel like I am already dead or as though death would be a welcome relief from the terror.

I have tried all kinds of things over the years to help me sleep better — melatonin, tart cherry juice (which contains melatonin), caffeine elimination, extra exercise, light filtering, screen time reduction, meditation, fresh air, and long rides in the car. I have also tried over the counter sleep aids, thought I haven’t for at least 15 years, and for a few years I took Elavil every night which really, really put me to sleep. Of all of those things, nothing sends me into a restful sleep like a five hour journey on the highways and byways of Pennsylvania. Thank goodness I am able to postpone sleep until after the trip is over.

I also almost never remember my dreams, perhaps just four a five a year. Knowing my imagination, I am sure there are quite a few that would be worth remembering. This is a rich, vivid area of my life in which I wish I could more intimately engage.

Sleep is super important. Nothing restores and refreshes our minds and bodies like deep, restful sleep. I love the feeling of awakening in the morning feeling fully rested, peaceful, and alive — a joy I unfortunately only know a few times a year. Naps are a wonderful delight. I don’t take them nearly often enough. I usually feel more rested after an impromptu one hour nap than I do after tossing in turning in bed all night.

Sleep is easily taken for granted; I know that I am guilty of this. It is something that everybody does nearly every day, so we just expect that it will happen for us too — even when it doesn’t, or when the quality of our sleep is negligible. Yet, sleep is so fundamental to the way we function throughout every moment of the day — it influences our mood, our reflexes, our cognition, our metabolic function, and just about every other aspect of our lives. Perhaps nothing is so important to our physical and emotional health.

If you have any ideas for sleeping well or would like to share a resource related to sleep, please do so in the comments below!

Brilliant, Beautiful, and Bipolar

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on 5/26/15.

I feel most comfortable in a classroom. Whether I am the instructor or sitting in a chair soaking up intellectually tantalizing ideas, I love to be surrounded by wisdom and to be immersed in the process of learning. I have received many compliments from teachers and other students about my academic contributions, and it is something that greatly contributes to my identity and sense of self-worth.

I have also been complimented about my appearance — from my natural endowments to my penchant for quirky, retro fashion with a modern twist. Due to both ingrained insecurity about my appearance and an almost neurotic vanity, I delight in these suggestions that I exhibit the type of physical beauty which would inspire such commentary.

Brilliant and beautiful are subjective terms. Both have been used to describe me on several occasions throughout my life, suggesting sufficient evidence for me to accept such claims. But I have also been called air-headed and ugly, among other unsavory things — and I have felt the full range of just about every characteristic in-between.

Perhaps to your surprise and to the dismay of many an objective psychologist, I also believe that bipolar is a subjective term. Bipolar disorder is a mental health diagnosis that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, affects nearly 4 percent of the U.S. adult population at some time in their lives. But as a person who has experienced this specific type of mental illness, I strongly feel that each of us — the more than 5 million Americans (Treatment Advocacy Center) who will struggle with bipolar disorder this year — experiences this emotional disease in our own way that defies simplistic definition.

Bipolar disorder was not my first diagnosis. I have been labeled using at least three very different diagnoses in the past 25 years, and with each came a new host of medication and other treatment. Like the social constructs of brilliant and beautiful, bipolar was attributed to me, or not, differently based on others’ perceptions of me at a particular time in my life. Yet my unique brain chemistry and wiring has not diverged quite to this extent.

Perhaps those perceptions were based on other factors, like my appearance and cognitive ability. The convergence of those attributes, along with my personality and demeanor, may have served as a disguise that masked my true nature. In fact, people are often surprised to learn that I have a diagnosis — and I suspect this is because it hides behind what people immediately recognize and subsequently identify with me. It is also likely due to the fact that I have, intentionally or not, used my strengths to create a specific type of public perception as a survival mechanism to fit in and move forward in my career.

All of this makes getting the right kind of help very difficult. Mental illness still carries with it a huge stigma, and even though I am publishing this to a broad audience I do so with the fear that it might hinder my future professional prospects. Mental illness and professionalism are seen as discrete variables; this is just one manifestation of society’s silly insistence that mental illness is akin to a deficit in character or will — and the fear that it will no doubt lead to unethical or even criminal behavior if it hasn’t already. It is wonderful that bipolar disorder is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but employers, colleagues, and others can easily find another excuse to exclude in order to protect themselves from the potential manifestations to which those fears allude. Even when we finally find the courage to stand up and say, “Here I am, this is me, I need help,” this only invites the judgment of others, who even with the best of intentions may say or do something that is more harmful than helpful. And when we have obvious strengths, when we are “making it,” when we don’t fit those social expectations for a person who is experiencing mental illness, it is difficult to convey how much we are truly suffering, and how much others’ compassion and understanding would mean to us.

It is no wonder that less than half of Americans who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder are receiving treatment (National Institute of Mental Health). There are other challenges, such as expense and accessibility, which are far too complex to fully address here. But a good first step to creating a culture of emotional wellness in our country would be to cast aside our preconceptions and open up to the depth and range of experience and needs that we all have.

40 for 40 #2: An Evening with Andre

OK, so it wasn’t the first time I had ever seen Andre Watts. Nor was it the first time I ever saw him at New Jersey Performing Arts Center. And it really doesn’t compare to that magical night in the conservatory at Longwood Gardens last spring. But my yearlong celebration of my 40th birthday would not be complete without a night with Andre. No one can play Rachmaninoff like he does, except of course for the maestro himself. Hearing Andre play is always an ethereal experience during which I feel suspended somewhere between reality and a magical world where I embody my idolized purple pegasus and soar around the world at least 20 times. I always need to constantly remind myself to be present, to be focused on the experience, when I hear him play because, no matter if he is playing Rachmaninoff or a less favoured composer, he takes me to another world.

Interconnected Self-Sufficiency

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The concepts of interconnectedness and self-sufficiency may, at first, seem incompatible. Interconnectedness implies that all living things have a special, spiritual or natural relationship through which states of being, experiences, and consequences of action are intrinsically linked. In contrast, self-sufficiency emphasizes rugged individualism and reliance on each person’s own abilities, skills, and resources. How is it possible that these are two of my most cherished values? I believe that these two ideas are, in fact, complementary and mutually reinforcing — and that one without the other is insufficient and even destructive.

I resent being offered help or being told what to do; I think all people do to some degree whether or not it enters their conscious thought process. I strongly feel that I need to figure things out for myself, and by doing so, I will have both learned a great deal and produced something in accordance with my values, goals, and vision. Interference from others contaminates the creative process, whether I am creating a project or my life — the greatest project of all. While my insistence on self-reliance has roots in my need to prove myself in response to low self-esteem and bountiful prior life mess ups, in addition to the necessities of near poverty, I am grateful that I have the will and ability to accomplish a great deal on my own. An aunt once taught me how to make turkey neck soup using what would otherwise be discarded meat from the butcher, and while I am now a vegetarian, I shall never be hungry due to the skills I have developed through these and similar life experiences. I think a lot of my ideas about self-sufficiency comes from the poetry written in my epigenetic code through generations of farmers.

Which brings us to interconnectedness. Who I am, what I believe, and what I do all have roots in family and community, in the context of relationships with other people and with the planet. I could not exist as a unique human being were it not for the generations that came before me, nor would I be as I am without the many people and places who have influenced me throughout my life. I did not learn to be self-sufficient in a vacuum; I learned specific skills over time through intentional observation, informal learning, and lots of practice. I have also been supported, nurtured, and encouraged by other people, both with and without economic exchange, and the most helpful have been shared with love, not in furtherance of a personal, organizational, or political agenda. I only hope that I have been able to unselfishly offer the same to others.

We are all connected — through in and out breaths, through economic systems, and through the need to survive. But we can’t truly thrive unless those relationships and systems which connect us also give us room for our own little flowers to bloom.

Self-Deception

sunlight

Inauthenticity is a faint, futile fugue that robs life of its mystery and meaning. Yet, social survival compels us to hide, to shift, and to manipulate who we are for ironically what we perceive to be our own benefit within that system. Yet it is us who suffers, our spirits depleted and our dreams unfulfilled. We have doubly deceived ourselves.

Eventually, sooner for some and later for others, we come to a point in our lives when we recognize that self-acceptance and genuine self-expression are preferable to shadowing our most special and unique characteristics. We find that doing this not only brings about a sense of personal satisfaction, it also contributes greatly to the world around us. Our self-deception slips away to make room for our true selves, those selves that yearn to shine through all of the darkness in the world.