Splotches

Featured Image:  “Close up on Monet,” © Peter Boothe, Jul 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Everything now is preparation for something else. Nothing is as it seems. I cannot help but wonder how it will all fit together in the end. Where am I going? Where will I be in a year? What will amount from the events of these disparate days? It is all building to something more, something else, something that I cannot grasp. To paraphrase St. Paul, I see only in shadows and mists, in fragments of the whole. I see splotches of color and flashes of light, but I have no concept of a sunrise or of the full brilliance of day. I am reminded of a great Monet waterlily painting that once captivated me in the gallery at MoMA. It was so expansive that it could only be best appreciated from a second-floor landing on the opposite side of the vast room in which it hung. It is as if I am staring at it with my nose pressed to the thick globs of paint and my feet cemented to the floor. I have no scope of the complete masterpiece, its majesty, or the transcendence of its beauty. It isn’t even within my power to step back, that I might survey the wholeness of the work. To do so would require an omnipotence and omniscience that I can’t even pretend to possess. If I clenched my fists, shook and heaved, screamed, shouted, and wailed, I would only exhaust and frustrate myself in futility. If I pummeled and clawed at the canvas, pulled at my hair, or cried, I would only hurt myself and further obfuscate the image. The only logical conclusion is to… relax. Let be what will be, though I am flooded with curiosity and intrigue.

Plunged into the simplicity of the void of the unknown and the complexity that my imagination creates there, I try to surrender. I cannot help but remain intrigued, perplexed, captivated… There is an eagerness inside me that isn’t quite the same as impatience. It is more like a sublime excitement. The status quo is blissful. I soothe myself with the expected, which allows me the delusion that I am masterfully in control of my little sliver of the universe. Excitement is about as unwelcome an emotion as anxiety. The energy and intensity that surges from novelty and anticipation upsets my equilibrium in a way that once provoked binges and furious activity – anything that would allow me to numb and avoid the discomfort of my thoughts and feelings. Now, I exercise tolerance of that empty hollow contained in my chest that resembles breathlessness. With practiced patience, I watch the energetic tides of enthusiasm, bewilderment, and fretfulness roll in and gently recede.

On Tuesday, I woke early and set about my morning routine, with a few notable exceptions. By the front door, my well-traveled suitcase was packed and my new backpack stood ready. It was not just any travel day. With my tickets for Paris purchased and the hotel booked, every trip now offered targeted opportunities to train myself for that next adventure. As a frequent flyer and someone who both values efficiency and cherishes the coziness of the familiar, my traveling was steeped in rather exact habits and routines. With every trip, I discovered some new pearl of an insight that allowed me to tweak my preparations for my next journey. Unfortunately, my methods evolved to suit domestic jaunts. An international expedition was going to require some radical departures from my comfort zone.

Mentally, I ticked off all the differences I would face as I crossed national borders and that great expanse of the Atlantic. No rental car, only a theoretical understanding of the ground transportation system at my destination, a language barrier, no local contacts or support network, no fresh fruits or vegetables allowed through French customs… even cell service and a mobile internet connection weren’t guaranteed. I would need to be ready to navigate a foreign train system and metro with all of my luggage. This trip would involve more walking than ever before!

In December, I decided that I would ditch the duffle-like, Samsonite carry-on that served me so reliably on almost every excursion since I was sixteen. My Christmas treat to myself was a new, black, backpack from my favorite German outfitter, which could also double as a large daypack during my weeklong vacation. Last week’s trip was my first flight after the holidays. The time was come to break in my pack with an inaugural adventure! It didn’t fit nearly the volume of my Samsonite, but it was made for long-distance trekking in a way that the Samsonite was not. I faced a tricky decision. What was non-essential? I was under the impression that I whittled down my packing list to the absolute necessities long ago, but when I re-examined all the gear I was consistently lugging around with me, I confronted an unsettling realization. I was capable of greater adaptability than I allowed myself to believe. A word coalesced in the back of my mind, a word that creeped into my thought once or twice in the preceding months but which was not yet one I was ready to invite into my organized consciousness. Recovered.

Items that were once essential to ensure I could maintain my coping skills in any eventuality were no longer required. My flexibility with food and my trust in my ability to “make it work” in any situation meant I could pack fewer snacks and exchanges. As I pared the contents of my bag down to my new basic necessities, a knot twisted in my gut. No reassurance from the rational part of my brain could alleviate the gnawing pain that gripped my stomach. Just as so many times in the past, I needed to prove myself to myself. My destination was Denver, and my purpose was personal as well as professional. I was headed to yet another conference, but the focus of the three-day intensive was related more to the career I hoped to find myself in someday than it was to my current work. Before I left, I ordered new business cards and printed several copies of my résumé. From the forgotten corner of a bookshelf in my study, I rooted out my black, leather portfolio with the gold embossed seal of my alma mater. The last time I used it was when I applied to graduate school 10 years ago. Then, I checked my expectations, reminding myself that my experience would be imperfect, I would invariably say or do something I would regret, and I would not be surprised if I was plagued by self-doubt and self-criticism. “This is hard,” I reminded myself gently. “It’s ok to make mistakes. It’s ok to doubt.” I said a little prayer, and I put my trust in God.

During the conference, I met some wonderful people, gained a wealth of new information, exchanged ideas and business cards, and exercised an unprecedented flexibility around food. With so many networking luncheons and dinners, I ate more prepared meals in a shorter period of time than ever before in all of my recovery. Each morning, I descended the eight floors from my room to the street below, turned the corner, and picked up a coffee and croissant at the café halfway down the block. When I wasn’t dining with the other conference attendees, I stopped at the grocery on the corner for the fresh fixings of a lone supper. “What good practice for Paris!” I merrily applauded myself.

Will anything emerge from all of the goings on of these last days? Will any of the connections that I made develop into something more? Will I ever grow beyond Vanillasville and the little, under-fulfilling job I occupy here? It is good, but I cannot help wondering what better possibilities I am not yet imagining. Where will I go? And when? Is what I think I want really what’s best for me? All I can see are flashes of color and wet, sticky globs of paint. Reflecting, I can recall countless stages of my life when I stood ankle-deep in these waters of uncertainty. I remember all of the interviews that I went on during my application to college, then graduate school, and later my first job, always imagining “What if?” and wondering, “Is this the one? Is this the place? Will I be back here again? Or will I never return?” It’s unpleasant, it’s disconcerting, and it’s confusing… yet, I feel so alive! Oh, how grateful I am for this vast, uncomfortable, blind void. The greater sorrow is to sit in my small, windowless office, content but under-stimulated all the rest of my working days. I don’t know what is coming next, or whether anything is coming at all, but there is something breathtaking in the bewilderment.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

~ Thomas Merton, Thoughts on Solitude

lilies
lilies,” © Josh, Feb 2011. CC BY-ND 2.0. (license).  “Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond,” by Claude Monet. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.

 

 

Breakfasting

Featured Image:  “Night Street,” © Roman Boed (own work), Oct 2014. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Morning is my favorite time of day. However, don’t let me fool you. When I declare my love for morning, I do not claim that I am a “morning person.” Though I tend to arise earlier than most, I generally arrive late for my first commitment of the day. I once read that lateness arises from arrogance – the belief that my own time and priorities are more important than those of anyone else. While I see the truth in this statement, my delinquency is also the result of chronically underestimating how long it takes me to complete those basic self-care tasks that are generally non-negotiable parts of my morning routine, such as brushing my teeth and making my bed. If I wake up so early, why do I not simply leave myself more time to choose clothes to wear, apply my makeup, and blow-dry my hair? The answer is straightforward. The more time that I spend on these chores, the less I am able to linger over that which actually makes morning my favorite. It is in the soft, dark, almost mysterious minutes when I sit with my cup of tea (or coffee, but lately, tea), savoring the stillness of the world before daybreak that I truly delight.

The earth is at rest. The streets are quiet and empty. From my bedroom, if the air is very calm as I listen carefully, I can hear an occasional, faint whoosh of a distant truck speeding along the highway where it crosses under the main road a few miles off. It is amazing how the sound carries when the rest of the world is asleep. Usually, I hurry to ready myself before I nip downstairs. Splashing water on my face, rolling on antiperspirant, and fussing with my hair, I can’t get through these onerous bits of my morning ritual quickly enough. It takes ten minutes to boil the water for my tea and prepare my breakfast. While my other meals throughout the day vary according to my mood or taste (or the expiring contents of my refrigerator), my breakfast is rather consistent. I choose between a selection of teas or coffees, and I alternate the type of chopped nut that I add to my piping hot bowl of oatmeal, but the remainder is always the same. With a cup of soy milk and an apple, the meal is complete. I can be flexible when the situation demands it, such as when I am traveling, but that flexibility usually ends at bringing a packet of plain instant oatmeal, some chopped nuts, and an apple with me in my carry-on, then grabbing some hot water and a cup of soy milk on the go.

There is something sublime about the predawn hour. It possesses a subrosa, almost transcendental quality. In my very active imagination, there is a magic here that is reserved for we early risers. It is as if by awaking before the rest of the world, we are in on some mutual secret that we each experience individually and share only with God. The day is a black canvas, awaiting the light and color of the artist’s brush. It might yet become anything at all. It is a stage plunged into opacity, before the blazing spotlights shine upon it and all the myriad supporting actors crowd the scene, bringing the set to life. What will be of this day; who will I be within it? What challenges will I face, and how will I respond to them? In these moments before I exit my apartment into a stream of noise and busyness, I can hope that I will maintain some small amount of mindfulness, live purposefully, and respond to the circumstances I will encounter with actions that are in accordance with my values. I can still hope that I will not react in fear, attempt to control the uncontrollable, lash out at others, or fall into the often-automatic trap of blaming, shaming, and judgment. I can still hope that, by the end of the day, I will be able to reflect on what was with some sense of joy rather than the deflated exhaustion of one who feels like she was dragged behind a truck over an uneven road all day.

Leaning over the steam that arises from my mug, I relish this breakfasting. A small candle flickers in the center of the dining room table. The cat sits on the chair next to me, at first watching me eat, then arching his back for a scratch, then hopping down to nibble from his own bowl, and finally curling up on the chair once more to nap. My journal is spread out before me, and my hand alternates between spoon, mug, and pen. Sometimes, I reflect on recent personal events or conversations with my therapist, at other times, I write about a book that I am reading. Often, I write about the sights and sounds and smells around me, and oh, how much I love the morning!

coffee-winters-morning
Coffee on a Winter’s Morning,” © Stefan Lins (own work), Mar 2013. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

“Before you go to Paris, you’re going to have to go out to breakfast,” declared Kelly, my dietician, several weeks ago.

“Psssshhhhh!” was my almost immediate rejoinder. “As if,” I laughed, while simultaneously acknowledging the essentiality of the challenge. My eyes were rolling in my head, and from my tone, she could tell that I knew she was right. “Ugh, this is going to suck, isn’t it?” Even one lost breakfast experience seemed a major blow, so attached was I to my ritual. Making accommodations for a flight or fasting bloodwork or some other necessity was one matter. To voluntarily sacrifice my favorite meal and my favorite moments for no purpose other than to practice eating other breakfasts was something else entirely.

“I didn’t say you had to do it now,” Kelly emphasized. “You have a few months.”

It turned out that I didn’t need a few months. The day of the breakfast challenge arrived last weekend. It came without any fanfare and without much anticipation. On a Friday evening, the thought occurred to me, “I could go out to breakfast tomorrow.” It was an unbidden inkling of an idea, to which I attached no pressure or expectation. “Where would I even go?” I wondered. It was years ago that I last dined out for my first meal of the day. There were two or three restaurants nearby that served breakfast, but when I looked up their hours and menus online, I was a bit flabbergasted. Even the smallest plates were overwhelming. I certainly did not need TWO eggs, AND sausage, AND hash browns, AND two toasts. Couldn’t I simply order one egg and one piece of toast and some fruit? This undertaking was supposed to be preparing me to eat a reasonably portioned meal for everyday of the week while on the road. My objective was not to induce a food coma. Perhaps I was going about my search with the wrong approach. If I was setting off to visit the Louvre or to spend the day touring the Eiffel Tower, I likely wouldn’t sit down at a formal restaurant. “Where would I eat if I was traveling?” I asked myself. A few more clicks took me to the website for the Panera around the corner. Open at 6 am! Well, I would see how I felt in the morning.

When I stirred from my restful slumber at just about 6 am, the thought of a breakfast adventure was still on my mind. I pet the cat, made the bed, fixed my hair and makeup, and pulled on the same comfortable slacks that I frequently wear when flying. After pausing to wash the dishes from the night before, I cast off into the deepness of the dark. The streets were empty, and the world was silent. Inside the café, the light shone brightly upon a half-dozen patrons quietly sipping their coffees and studying their newspapers. A minimal staff took my order with pleasant smiles – to think that other people knew how to prepare oatmeal, too! Sitting in a cushioned booth, angled rays from various lights cast translucent layers of shadow upon my journal page. I bit into my apple. The heat radiating from the mug of coffee brushed against the side of my face. “What a treat this is!” I wrote in my narrow cursive. “To be out to breakfast! My secretive morning! Now, I am sharing it with these people who are all drawn together in this little haven. I was so concerned that my favorite time of day would be ruined. I never considered that, under the proper conditions, it might be enhanced!”

There I sat, writing, savoring, and soaking in all that my senses perceived until the sky was soft blue and a crowd was beginning to materialize. The last words that I wrote? “So here I am, and it is delightful. It is 10 minutes until 8 am, and the magenta stripe on the horizon is melting into a lovely pink. The whole day is ahead of me, but it is off to a decent start.”

cafe-noir
CAFE-NOIR,” © Sam Leighton (own work), Jan 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

These Ordinary Days

Featured Image: “Winter Forest,” © Ya To (own work), Feb 2015. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

~ Socrates

On January 9th, a rather unremarkable Monday, the Catholic Church in the United States commemorated the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and with it came the official conclusion of the Christmas season. Though my local Barnes and Noble began selling pink and red heart-shaped boxes of chocolates on December 26th, I was still lighting pine-scented candles and singing “Joy to the World” all through the first week of the new year. However, after enjoying the full twelve days of Christmas (plus a few), I felt ready to let go of the carols and the holiday films on TV. The tips of the evergreen boughs twisted into a wreath on my front door were starting to turn a bit ochre. It was time to move on.

In past years, the post-holiday transition would trigger a period of depressed mood with fair reliability. Yet, as I swapped out the playlists that streamed in the background while my tea kettle came to a boil on January 10th, I didn’t feel a hint of melancholy. Was my readiness for change related to my more modest and restrained decorating? Without a tree or lights, the thought of putting away the detritus of Christmas past was not nearly so overwhelming. Did my willing mood reflect more realistic and less idealistic expectations for Christmas 2016? Whatever the reason, I felt acceptance and peace with the onward flow of time. I was ready for a fresh start to a new, less ornate season.

In the liturgical calendar, we are entering Ordinary Time. The feasts are over, the celebrations complete. It is the beginning of the longest season of the year. These days may not be illustrious or renowned, but they are arguably the most important. This is where we labor at life. It is when the gifts are packed away and the magi go home that the real work begins. Every day, we face innumerable choices, and how we respond to the circumstances of these ordinary times defines who we are and the world we live in. It is during the course of these ordinary days that our love and compassion matures… or it doesn’t. Our values are practiced… or they aren’t. It is in this ordinary time that we become what we repeatedly do. This is where we cultivate the simple joys of the everyday. It is where we learn to appreciate the beauty of the sublime. We either stop to notice… or we don’t. We train ourselves to count our daily gratitudes and graces… or not. It is imperfect. It is hard. It is complicated. It is delightful. It is boring. It is awe-inspiring. It is exhausting. It is perplexing. It is so many things, but one thing is certain. This is the time of growing.

And so, once more, it begins.

“There isn’t any such thing as an ordinary life.”

~ L.M. Montgomery, Emily Climbs

snow
Snow,” © Andy Walker (own work), Jan 2013. CC BY-ND 2.0. (license)

It’s Christmas… Once Again…

Featured Image:  “Crossroads,” © Carsten Tolkmit (own work), Jul 2011. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Midway along the journey of our life

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

for I had wandered off from the straight path.

How hard it is to tell what it was like,

this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn

(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),

a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.

But if I would show the good that came of it

I must talk about things other than the good.

 ~ Dante, “The Divine Comedy,” Inferno I, 1-9

It would seem that I am at a crossroads of my life, and it is difficult to write about, mainly because it is hard to describe and confusing to experience.

When I first relocated to Vanillasville from Washington, DC, I never intended to stay. I welcomed the reprieve from the traffic, the expense, and the intensity of the city, but it was supposed to be a temporary respite. My family, my friends, and the cultural identity were all on the East Coast. I meant to work for three years, gaining experience and knowledge in my field, and then my company would relocate me somewhere else in the country. I was 26 at the time. I still believed that my life was something that I planned and controlled.

Those three years passed, and indeed I was offered an opportunity to relocate to the West Coast. By then, I was disillusioned by the sacrifices I was making for my career. I was working 80 hours a week, and there was no existence beyond my job. I dreaded moving west only to continue the same self-destructive pattern. It was the wrong move both geographically and existentially. At the same time that I was facing this transition, another position opened within my organization that would allow me to remain in Vanillasville but would effectively remove me from my competitive professional ascent. With 40-hour work-weeks, it would both give me a life and suspend my career. Neither option was perfect, but I chose my mental, physical, and spiritual health. I stayed in Vanillasville.

It would still take another year or two, a brush with my own mortality, and boatloads of therapy for me to begin to understand what Lucy’s father told her in one of my favorite movies, While You Were Sleeping. “Life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan.” I would never wish the severe, debilitating, life-altering colitis that affected throughout that next year on myself or anyone else, but the devastation of that disease led me to mental health for the first time and started me on a path to mental, emotional, and spiritual healing – the most meaningful and important journey of my life.

When I stepped away from my power-career trajectory, I took a position below my potential. It was what was necessary at the time, and it provided space for me to grow in ways I never imagined were possible. And yet… the job itself was never exactly satisfying or fulfilling. I always imagined there was something more out there that I could be doing. “One day,” I would tell myself. “When I am better recovered. After I am able to build some better professional connections and broaden my experience. When I’m strong enough. When I’m ready.”

When is that day? How will I know when I’m ready? I will never be strong enough, or prepared enough, or recovered enough, or experienced enough. The truth is that my recovery is going well. After more than two years, I continue to remain in remission from binge eating disorder. I never thought I would be able to be so flexible, adaptable, and relaxed around food. From time to time, I even find myself experimenting with the word “recovered.”

Two weeks ago, I emailed out my resume. Two days ago, I was given a telephone interview with the director of a program that would be a “perfect” fit for me, from all outward signs. Perfectly imperfect – it is still located in the Midwest. I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know what I want to happen. What I do know is that there is no going back. My job is a good one, providing a stable salary, excellent benefits, and allowing me to dedicate my energy and free time to what I value the most, but I recognize now that I can’t stay in one place forever. It is said that part of the temperament shared by many people with eating disorders is an aversion to risk, and I believe it. To leave behind this familiar world, where I am confident in my abilities, secure in my surroundings, and supported by a nurturing network of wonderful people, is both exhilarating and devastating at the same time. Yet, I can’t unlearn what I am coming to know about myself, and I can’t grow backward.

As Christmas Day nears, I am considering how far I am from where I was at this time last year. I can’t help wondering where I will be when next Christmas arrives.

“Don’t be afraid to give up the good and go for the great.”

~ Steve Prefontaine

adventures-in-averell
Week 27: Adventures in Averell,” © Alexandria Lentz (own work), Jul 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Resigned Acceptance

Featured Image:  “Wedding Invitation,” © Rachel Knickmeyer (own work), Jul 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“What is the reason that you don’t want to attend this wedding?” Kelly queried from across her desk during my nutrition appointment several weeks ago. “Are you avoiding a social situation because you don’t want to face the food aspect of it?”

The idea that she thought it likely that, after two years of recovery, I remained so dreadfully afraid of eating in situations beyond my control that I would avoid them entirely caught me by surprise.  My shocked reply was genuine. “No!” I exclaimed. “Not at all! I don’t want to go because the trip itself is going to suck, and I’m going to come back exhausted and feeling like shit.” As I spoke, I recognized the alarming nature of these predictions, and for an instant, I wondered if they were the result of my catastrophic, all-or-nothing thinking. It didn’t take long for me to conclude based on past experience and knowledge of my itinerary that there was sufficient evidence to support the prognostication. Departing Friday at noon, I would fly west to catch a connecting flight to the east coast, spend one night at my parents’ house, then drive an hour north. On Saturday, I would attend a wedding that was not scheduled to begin until 6 pm, and then I would awake at the crack of dawn the next morning so that I could drive another hour back to the airport to rush onto the only plane departing westward on a route that would return me to Vanillasville before midnight. After logging 10,892 airline miles already this year alone, I was practiced enough to know that I would be utterly drained, and familiar with myself enough to appreciate how much of a toll that physical and emotional depletion would truly exact from me. I was utterly dreading the trip. Yet, the tickets were purchased, the rental car booked, the hotel room reserved, and my RSVP was in the mail.

It seemed that there were certain events in life that demanded a choice. What type of person was I? Who did I want to be? This wedding was one of those occasions, and I was going to show up and be present. Period. No matter what. End of story.

Alexandra, Greg, and I were in college together. For four years, we studied together, endured together, celebrated together, and grew to approximate adults just a bit more closely together. Finally, we graduated together, and from that day, we continued to show up for each other at those major life events, despite being scattered to different corners of the globe. When Alexandra married George, we were both there, though it required Greg crossing multiple continents to be at their wedding. When I completed a grueling second degree, they were both there, though Alexandra and George were in the middle of moving halfway across the country. During those first, sleepless weeks after Alexandra’s daughter was born, I was there to keep her company and offer what little emotional support I could, though by that time, I was struggling desperately to cope with my own eating disorder. When I fell seriously ill with colitis, Greg was actually living in Vanillasville and working on his master’s. Though we didn’t see much of each other or speak very often, he was the one who brought me to my colonoscopy and drove me home when there was nobody else for me to call.

There was no doubt that I was less than enthusiastic about sitting on four planes, traipsing through six airports, and transiting more than 2,000 miles in order to spend a few hours at a wedding where I would know precisely three people, including the groom. Neither Alexandra, George, nor I ever met Greg’s fiancé prior to the reception, nor did we know his family, nor were any of our other college friends going to be in attendance. Yet, I was going, and so were they. Though the last time Greg and I spoke was probably a year before, I could not imagine an excuse worthy of keeping me from being present for my friend at his wedding.

vancouver-airport
Vancouver Airport,” © Matthew Grapengieser (own work), Jul 2011. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

As the day of my departure neared, I prepared myself with stoic resolve. I was genuinely excited to see Alexandra for the first time since spring, but I was steeling myself with realistic expectations. There would be joy in spending time with my friends, and the wedding would be a jubilant occasion, but I knew full well that it would be a trying weekend, and it was not because of the food. A single “off-nominal” meal did not give me palpitations. Considering where I started two years ago, the ease that I felt about the dinner was alone worthy of celebration. However, the greater victory for me was my resigned acceptance of reality. I dreaded how depleted I would feel as I dragged myself out of bed on Sunday morning, and I recalled how crummy it was to endure a full day of traveling with barely any physical, mental, or emotional reserve. Yet, I would survive. The sole reason that I was able to forecast these predictions was because it would not be the first time I stretched myself so thin, and it would not be the last. Been there. Done that. The travel would not be fun, but the world would keep turning, and I would be fine.

Without building up fanciful dreams of what would be and without overly dramatizing the challenges I would face, I set off. “It is what it is,” I told myself when my connecting flight was delayed. “I was ready for this,” I told myself when I walked through the doors of the only motel in the tiny town and discovered the place decorated with mystery stains and reeking of tobacco. After a few rounds of deep breathing, I decided that I really would not be able to sleep if I remained there, and I settled on my plan B – driving the hour back to my parents’ house after the reception ended and leaving from there for the airport in the morning. When dinner wasn’t served until 9 pm, I wasn’t fazed, though my heart did skip a few beats when the waiter brought us each a tiny plate of ravioli before serving the salads. “Where are the vegetables?” I bemoaned to Alexandra and George while reminding myself that it was just one meal, and telling myself that three raviolis would not harm me. The night was not about me, and I wasn’t there in search of fun and enjoyment. I was there to be present and to support a friend. So, when the music began and nobody rose from their tables, Alexandra and I didn’t hesitate to awkwardly and conspicuously dance alone through the excruciating length of an entire song, until two, then two more, then gradually many others joined us on the floor.

In the end, it was a lovely time. The night was imperfect, and that was ok. It was a delight to see Greg so happy, and Alexandra, George, and I relished each other’s company for the evening. I accepted all the elements that were beyond my control without resistance or anxiety, I adapted to every hiccup and snafu, including nearly missing my return flight on Sunday morning. I was thankful for every moment of grace and for every small consolation. It took me an entire week to rebound, and I wound up leaving work sick on Tuesday, but ultimately I managed to recover my sleep and my sense of wellbeing. Through it all, I proved to myself that I was capable, not of physical endurance, but of mental flexibility and emotional regulation. I demonstrated to myself that I could be loyal and place others first, while maintaining a healthy sense of boundaries and remaining aware of my own needs. Finally, I found myself humbled with gratitude for the strength of the connections that united us all. Relationships worth undertaking such a journey were the greatest gifts of all.

“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.”

~ C.S. Lewis

wedding-gift
wedding gift,” © Julian Wylegly (own work), Mar 2009. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Critical Moments

Featured Image:  “American & Italian Cuisine,” © GmanViz (own work), Nov 2007. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

An extrovert trying to be an introvert to avoid being hurt… that was how my first therapist described me. Isolation and feelings of loneliness were always sources of pain for me. Exploring my need to be in the company of other people and embracing the discomfort and uncertainty inherent in the swampland of forging personal connections was a first beyond the entrenched cognitive-behavioral-emotional loops of my chronic depression. Reengaging with old friends and building new relationships were dramatic shifts outside of my comfort zone, and these efforts were challenging enough. At a time when I was also waging a pitched war for my life against binge eating disorder, the fact that many (perhaps most) social situations involved food only heightened the drama. My recovery from my depression and my eating disorder were too interdependent to be dissected apart. As I battled on, my friend Amelia was a close ally on both fronts. We fell into a routine of meeting up after work every few weeks for dinner, making our way through a circuit of the best local restaurants in our little area. Over seltzer with lime and decaf black coffee, we shared all the details of our lives, from the most mundane to the deepest and most heartfelt. Each meal was anticipated with delight as an opportunity to be genuine and authentic for a few hours. In the comfortable cocoon of merry conversation, I grew increasingly resilient as I coped with one menu and then the next.

In April, Amelia accepted an offer of a new position and relocated to a city five hours away. It was a long-expected move, and there was nothing sudden about it. I was excited for her, and I was prepared for the change, but there was a difference between predicting loneliness and then actually feeling it. Over the summer, I continued to travel frequently, remained involved in all of my meaningful activities, and maintained my connections with all of my long-distance friends. Yet… I spent much of my time alone. It didn’t always feel like loneliness. I remained connected and I didn’t dwell in any sense of isolation or entertain self-pity. However, every once in a while, I felt the definitive absence of my friends. At times, my therapist and I spoke about the subject, but we never arrived at any useful conclusions. I continued to participate in yoga, I lingered after mass each Sunday to chat with my casual acquaintances from my parish, and, every so often, I went out to lunch with some of my coworkers. None of those fleeting connections filled the empty space in my heart that longed for a kindred spirit.

It was a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, and I was leaving work in just such a state. I was at the nadir of a several-day funk, and I was not looking forward to a solitary weekend. My mood was low and my anxiety was piqued, triggered by automatic, alarming, all-or-nothing type thoughts about an upcoming professional conference and all the logistics of another trip. To an entirely new city. Alone.

My phone buzzed, and a lengthy text message popped onto the screen. It was Amelia! “Pete and I are headed your way for the weekend! There’s a cycling convention in town. I know it’s last minute, but we’re going out for dinner at Giovanni’s on Saturday night if you want to come. Let me know!” Amelia was returning at precisely the moment it seemed that I needed her most! My heart perked, but my head reeled at the name of the restaurant. Giovanni’s was decidedly unsafe.

“Lord, you have probed me, you know me: / you know when I sit and stand; / you understand my thoughts from afar. / You sift through my travels and my rest; / with all my ways you are familiar. / Even before a word is on my tongue, / Lord, you know it all. / You formed my inmost being; / You knit me in my mother’s womb. / My very self you know.”

~ Psalm 139:1b-4,13,14b

Competing ideas zipped into my consciousness. “No,” was a prominent voice. “No” to the menu, “no” to the restaurant, and “no” to everything that they both represented to me. Giovanni’s exemplified everything that I found repugnant in American food culture. It was about as far from authentically Italian as one could possibly find. The fare was entirely Midwestern American, featuring pasta with a side of bread, served with meatballs, sausage, salami, and pepperoni, heavily doused with cheese, cream sauces, and more cheese, and served with a garnish of tomato sauce. The three salads on the menu consisted mainly of iceberg lettuce, croutons, and, you guessed it, more cheese. The only entrée that included a vegetable was fried eggplant parmesan. There weren’t even any vegetable sides offered.

lightly-breaded
Lightly Breaded,” © Gexydaf (own work), Jun 2012. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Against these objections, I also heard myself stating a decisive, Yes.” My memory of a recent appointment with my dietician resonated, and I couldn’t escape the echoed repetitions of Kelly’s voice, “You may not skip social things because of food.” I was grateful for her clear, direct manner, which left little room for quibbling. “Yes” to Kelly, “yes” to Amelia, and “yes” to connection, friendship, and wholeheartedness. I couldn’t conceive how I would manage the menu, but there was little utility in obsessing over it. Reading and rereading the descriptions of the unappealing choices would not alter them or make them more acceptable. Memorizing every deplorable detail would only make me more anxious. I admitted to myself that there were no safe choices; I replied to Amelia that I was not in the least bit comfortable with the restaurant; and I expressed my tremendous joy at the prospect of seeing her again, committing myself, for better or worse, to whatever this dinner entailed. Decision made, I settled into waiting with a combination of exuberance and resigned acceptance.

As afternoon succeeded morning on Saturday, a familiar exchange revolved through my head. Yes/no. Excitement/acceptance. Tranquility/anxiety. Amelia and Pete were at their cycling convention, and I awaited their word on a dinner time. It wasn’t until 3:30pm that I heard from them. Could I meet at the restaurant in two hours? Typically, 5:30pm would be “way too early” for me to eat, especially given the typical later timing of my weekend lunch. However, on this particular Saturday, I was grateful that the short notice left me little interval for pre-planning, advance calculations, or ruminations. Still in yoga tights and looking a teensy bit too disheveled for a sit-down meal, even at the most casual of places like Giovanni’s, my main concern was making myself presentable and getting across town in under 120 minutes.

When I arrived (only 10 minutes late – which is just on time for me!), I was so flooded with the excitement of seeing my beloved friend that I could barely focus on anything else. It was impossible to read a menu and survey all the sights and sounds of my new environment while maintaining the bubbling flow of conversation that gushed forth the instant Amelia and I reunited. I tripped my way to the table, so distracted I was peering over my shoulder in an attempt to keep her in sight, as words tumbled out in all directions from both sides. It was after the waitress paused at our table for the third time to take our orders that I concluded it was time to settle into dedicated concentration for the task at hand – to hobble together some sort of manageable compromise from a truly abysmal list of choices.

“It is just one day.”

“It is just one meal.”

“It is not going to kill me.”

“I can do this.”

When the pleasant waitress returned once more, I smiled sweetly and asked innocently, “Do you have any side vegetable dishes?” I fully expected her negative answer, but I wasn’t yet discouraged or dissuaded. “Do you have any vegetables?” I asked in my most saccharine way. Like, at all? Like, in the entire restaurant? Like, could you go to the grocery store and buy me a carrot?

She twisted one corner of her mouth and scrunched her nose as if she was racking her brain. “You know what, let me check,” she responded kindly. I tried not to be too appalled that it seemed like such a bizarre, foreign idea that a patron would want to eat a vegetable with her dinner. A few moments later, she returned triumphantly with the answer: there were spinach and red peppers in the kitchen.

“Perfect!” I internally rejoiced. I asked her if it would be too much trouble to steam some spinach for me. She offered to sauté it. I asked her to sauté it lightly, ordered the grilled chicken with pasta and pesto, and said a little prayer under my breath that my meal wouldn’t arrive at the table swimming in oil. “It’s out of my control now,” I told myself as I settled back into the rhythm of conversation, happy, content, acquiescent, pleased, relaxed, and willing.

“It is just one day.”

“It is just one meal.”

“It is not going to kill me.”

“I can do this.”

It would be a lie if I denied that I was unconcerned about gaining weight. Those thoughts were present. I was upset and disturbed by the food selection and by the relationships with food and eating behaviors reflected around me. However, in a moment when I was faced with a choice to isolate within the safe, protective shell of my eating disorder or turn all of my self-protective instincts upside down, I committed to the uncertain path, and I forged ahead without wavering. It felt risky, it felt reckless, and it felt real. In a less-than-ideal situation, I did better than cope. It felt like progress.

day-148
Day 148,” © Flood G. (own work), Feb 2012. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Joy in a Broken Window

Featured Image: “Snowy Highway,” © Taber Andrew Bain (own work), December 2007. CC BY 2.0. (license)

As I type away, I am gazing out the big picture window of a downtown coffee shop. The street beyond is drowning in sunlight. The temperatures outside are expected to reach 60⁰F (15.5 C) this afternoon, and the sidewalk is full of people drinking up the first sips of spring. Yet, the forecast for the week ahead includes, of all things, more snow.

Just a mere three days ago, the fluffy white stuff was falling gracefully from a cloud-obscured sky while I drove along my morning commute. I rolled down the automatic window to greet the gate attendant as I entered the complex enclosing my office building, and as I pulled up on the little, black button to raise the glass again, I heard a tremendous crashing sound from the door. “Please tell me that was a rock kicked up by another car,” I thought to myself. There were no passing cars, though, and I knew that something was broken. I pushed the button down again, apprehensively. The electric motor made a strained, whirring sound, but the pane lowered all the way. When I pulled up once more, the whirring gave way to a choked clank, and the window stuck halfway. The gentle, wet snow continued to swirl toward the earth as I drove slowly onward. A few stray flakes fluttered onto my lap as an icy wind stung my eyes.

My first reaction was to think, “It happens. The car is eight years old, after all. Stuff breaks.” I pulled into a parking space, the wind whipping across the crest of the hill and through the open gap. “Good thing I know where we keep the heavy-duty garbage bags. Really good thing I borrowed that packaging tape from J the other day! I bet neither of us would’ve guessed I’d be using it to tape a trash bag over my window!” I mused. Locking the door, the irony of the action bemusing me, I continued my inner contemplations. “It’s still really early. Maybe the dealership will have service appointments available today if I call right away. Good thing work is slow this week, and my schedule is so flexible. Maybe the repair guys can pop that huge ding out of the passenger side while they’re fixing the window!” Someone with a white door inflicted quite the dent into the dark blue mental of my front right a few weeks ago, and I was meaning to call for an estimate on that repair, anyway. My imagination chugged on. “If it won’t take long, I could just wait while they work. I could sit at the dealership and read my book! That would be way better than work. They have free coffee there!” It surprised me that I was in such a good mood given the moisture that was collecting on my leather seats and the money that I was about to shell out. Even the negative “Oh no!” reactions of my coworkers when I told them what happened couldn’t dampen the glow of joy and gratitude in my heart.

It turned out that there were indeed service appointments available at the dealership that very morning. Driving along the highway in the far right lane, trying to limit merging as best I could, intermittently craning my head to look over my left shoulder and ducking low to peer out the half-glass at the bottom of the window, I tried to tune out the deafening noise of the double-layered black trash bag buffeting against the air currents. “This really isn’t too bad, I permitted. “I’m remarkably warm and dry for being protected by just these two, thin sheets of plastic.” There weren’t many people on the road, thankfully. The wintry landscape to either side of the highway was picturesque, and I reveled in its stunning beauty. Peace, joy, and gratitude washed over me.

It occurred to me that a busted car window was more of an inconvenience than an actual suffering. Nothing truly bad happened, and I wasn’t afflicted with any pain or loss. Yet, it also dawned on me that in the not-too-distant past, even such relatively simple inconveniences threw me into fits of anxiety and distress. Instead, on that day, I viewed my broken window as an odd but marvelous gift. I wondered if my sense of calm and my ability to find delight in my circumstances was similar in some small, barely-related manner, to what so many holy people described when reflecting on the joy they found in the hardships they experienced when they were living a life dedicated to love, service, and Christ. I certainly would never begin to draw any parallels between my broken car window and their lives, by any means. The situations couldn’t be more disparate. There was no sacrifice involved on my part in leaving work for a morning to drive to the auto dealer. I definitely wasn’t serving some higher purpose or worthy cause. Yet, there was something loving and accepting in my heart that morning, and it made all the difference. I found myself wondering… It must start somewhere, right? Even if it is such a little thing?

 “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Day 126 - For Rob
Day 126 – For Rob…” © Kate Sumbler (own work), February 2007. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Grace Breaks Through

Who remembers Taz, the incoherent Tasmanian devil animated by Warner Bros.? As an increasingly self-aware, recovering perfectionist, when an attack of perfectionistic fervor strikes, it feels like Taz is inside of my chest, whirling in a maniacal cyclone of destruction, tongue hanging out, panting, scattering saliva, and spouting indecipherable gibberish at a deafening level. Welcome to last weekend.

By the time I crossed Friday’s threshold, I was frustrated, angry, and entirely exhausted. I was guilty of foregoing sleep and self-care, the consequence of forcing too much into too little time while telling myself it was all completely necessary. Friday brought with it an enticing promise of relief and an opportunity to catch up on everything that needed doing.

Back when I set my New Year’s Resolutions, I mentioned that I wanted to become better at identifying when I was using anger as a screen to avoid feeling vulnerable, hurt, afraid, uncertain, etc.. When I spent the entire course of Friday feeling frustrated, bitter, and resentful, I persistently questioned myself, “What am I missing? What is really going on here?” My inability to answer my self-inquiry only deepened my irritation and impatience. Finally, I resolved that it didn’t matter. I was convinced that after a night of solid sleep, I would arise on Saturday feeling refreshed and renewed. Well, I woke up on Saturday to a messy house, a cluttered desk, and an excessive list of “must-do’s.” Of course, I jumped straight in, assuring myself that I was being necessarily reflective. I was prioritizing, taking one thing at a time, and “doing the next best thing,” mindfully. I even paused for a brief, guided meditation (on exploring anger) and spent an excrutiating four whole minutes sitting in silence, gazing out the window, letting the sunlight penetrate my exterior, simply contemplating. New Years’ Resolution #1 – to cultivate stillness, quiet, and peace? Yeah, that’s not going to be so easy.

By the end of the day, I was disappointed with my productivity, and I wasn’t feeling any better. When I sat up in bed on Sunday, at first appearances, it seemed like more of the same. I can’t exactly describe what happened, but in the midst of all that, light broke through. Figuratively at first, but then literally.

On Sunday morning, I awoke, and I did what I do on most Sundays. I reached for the phone, assessed the hour, and in an instant broke down the rest of the day and what I could expect to accomplish. Then, I picked up the little prayer booklet beside by my bed and tried to let the mass readings for the day penetrate my calvarium, underlining and annotating with color-coded pens.

“Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read. Then Nehemiah, that is, the governor, and Ezra the priest-scribe and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: ‘Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep’ – for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. He said further: ‘Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!’”

~ Nehemiah 8:8-10

In these words, I found something that I needed that morning. I found permission to be joyful.

You see, my perfectionism really arises from my deep belief that I’m not good enough. To borrow from Brené Brown, it’s my shuffle for self-worth. Yet, God knows that I am a sinner. He knows all of my darkest parts far better than I know them. And he forgives me. And he loves me. And he wants me to be happy. Because he also knows all of my glorious parts and all of my potential far better than I. The people who heard Ezra proclaim the law of Moses wept and lamented as they realized their failings, but they were then invited to resume a life of love, gratitude, and joy free from the burden of their past. Once I acknowledge my stumbles and make them as right as I can, I am invited to stand back up. And sing. And laugh. And dance. And eat rich food. (Still working on that last part.)

It wasn’t quite entirely so simple, though, old patterns being hard to break. Even as my glimmer of realization began to cast a hint of illumination into the hardened, self-hating recesses of my mind, I was simultaneously planning what I was going to wear for the day, mapping out my afternoon, organizing my bedside table with one hand, and scratching the cat with the other.

Finally, I came downstairs and opened the blinds, and I couldn’t close my eyes to the dazzling sun reflecting off the frozen snow. As the first rays of day shot over the horizon, I truly paused. It occurred to me that there must be some sort of atmospheric phenomenon that makes the sunlight of winter appear more clear, radiant, and bright than the warm, humid sun of summer months. In that moment, almost impulsively, I did something almost foreign to me. Even though Taz was whirling inside me, jabbering something about how I would be running late, I stepped outside into the icy air.

One of my favorite blogs to follow is alpha // whiskey // foxtrot, by the enormously talented Ashley Wilson Fellers. Her black-and-white photography is just as breathtaking as her mindful, poignant, thought-provoking reflections in poetry and prose. (Seriously, if you don’t already follow blog, go check her out). She is one of those artists and writers who encourages me to see the world differently, and on that particular morning, I almost felt like I was seeing the sunrise with her eyes.

I took a picture. And then I took another. Then I pondered, “I wonder how the light and shadows would look from that spot over there.” And I went. In black-and-white, there was no color to distract the eye. The brightness and darkness were just… there. It was an image of the simplicity and stillness that I spent the preceding 48 hours hunting relentlessly. No noise. Just peace.

Winter sunrise 1

Winter Sunrise 2

In the end, there was no great epiphany or single event that catapulted me to some new, profound plane of existence. Rather, it was a culmination of tiny moments, finally ending in a willingness to open my eyes to what was before me all along.

Wishing each of you who read this love, laughter, joy, and peace today.

“For I know well the plans I have for you – oracle of the Lord – plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”

~ Jeremiah 29:11

The Shedding

Featured Image:  “Cable car let go,” © Mr. Littlehand, Jan 2010. CC BY 2.0.

“Do you have a song that you want to sing to Lulu?” Alice asked. I could hear Elliot and Penny jabbering excitedly in the background. I was calling to ask Alice a question about coordinating upcoming travel, but it was a Saturday afternoon, and her two kids were sitting on her lap watching Frozen when the phone rang. Elliot seized the receiver almost immediately to declare, “Lulu, you’re MY Lulu!” I could feel my face cracking as a smile spread across my lips, crinkling the corners of my eyes and lifting all the little muscles of my brow. It was as if, with those words, not only my countenance but my very center changed, and a warmth and light broke through my rough surface, the way red-hot magma bubbles up through new fissures in hardened igneous rock.

“You’re my one and only Elliot!” I exclaimed, grateful that I didn’t know any other Elliots, and I could make such a bold proclamation with full honesty. There was some more fumbling as the phone was passed, and then the clear voice of two-year-old Penny came through.

“Leh ih GO! LEH ih GOO!” she belted. “LEEEEEH ih GOOOOOOOO!”

Her rendition of the signature Disney song left us all laughing. Finally, once Elliot and Penny could think of nothing more to tell me about their Christmas visit from Santa, Alice and I were able to spend more time catching up. Among various other topics, we chatted about our days in college, thinking ahead to our upcoming reunion in June. As we reminisced and exchanged news of mutual friends, I recalled some of my actions of which I was less than proud. “If I could do it again, I would do it so differently!” Alice exclaimed.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I don’t think I would be who I am now if I didn’t go through it the way that I did. I think I would need to do it the same way again.”

When I consider who I was during college, I think of a girl who was hot-headed, self-righteous, brilliant but amazingly egotistical and arrogant… a girl who lived in nearly constant shame and mortification, who was never good enough, who was an outsider, and who hated herself with an intensity that could crack a diamond. My self-perception now is radically different. I would like to think that I am intelligent, but certainly not brilliant. I am less reactive, and I am less controlled by my emotions, which (I think) are also less fiery and extreme. I hope that I am growing in humility. I know that I am more empathetic and compassionate than I once was. A compassionate heart and a more open mind is a strange gift that my prolonged illness and my eating disorder bestowed on me. Thankfully, with therapy and medication, I am not nearly as depressed as I once was. I hope that I am not the same person I was in college, but I think that I needed her experiences. I needed to feel the effects of her decisions and the way that she lived her life.

Reflecting on the conversation the next day, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that this dear friend remained so dear. I was also mindful that I was not entirely mindful during our conversation. As we started to talk, I was thumbing through my email, but once I found myself asking her to repeat a comment she made not two minutes earlier, I realized that my attention was divided, and I was able to put aside my distractions. However, that didn’t stop me from painting my nails twenty minutes later.

In the midst criticizing myself (“What part of ONE THING AT A TIME is so difficult?!” I was thinking), when it occurred to me that I internalized every word that Alice spoke. With a pen and my journal, I breezed through our 55 minute dialogue, which rambled and ranged over work, family, holidays, weddings, children, friends, the past, the present, and the future. I WAS engaged. Perhaps painting my nails was almost reflexive, like picking at a stain on the tablecloth. In an unusual turn, I decided to let go of my self-criticism, accept Saturday’s behavior during my conversation with my friend for what it was, and move onward. “I wasn’t necessarily unaware,” I concluded. “But,” I continued, “maybe I can keep this experience in mind the next time I am trying to hold a meaningful conversation with someone over the phone, and I will be a little more mindfully aware.”

“If there are people you haven’t forgiven, you’re not going to really awaken. You have to let go.”

~ Eckhart Tolle

Self-forgiveness is hard for me. It is even difficult for me to forgive myself for struggling with self-forgiveness. Forgiveness, in general, is always a challenge, but when it comes to forgiving myself, there is part of me that still couples forgiveness with forgetting. I worry that if I let go of my guilt, shame, blame, or culpability, then I won’t be able to move forward. I will be destined to repeat the same mistakes again and again. It remains somewhat counter-intuitive to me that the way forward is to let go, yet when I am able to discard the weight of those dragging thoughts and burdensome emotions, my heart seems to blossom, and I feel more open and malleable. I don’t expect that my weaknesses will suddenly mend or that I will overcome my chronic problems by forgiving myself, as if I could simply kick aside or step around those personality traits and maladaptive patterns that remain my frequent stumbling blocks. No. I think that I will continue to repeat similar patterns as I work toward progressive change. Slowly. Bit by bit. With lots of trips, falls, and scraped knees along the way. However, the wounds will heal, and often the scabs fall away without even leaving a scar. There will be deeper cuts that may continue to ache, and the skin that grows over the gash will be a bit thinner and a bit shinier than what was there before. But… to not forgive would be to continue poking myself, over and over again, in those same spots.

“It doesn’t take a lot of strength to hang on. It takes a lot of strength to let go.”

~ J. C. Watts

One of the items on my long-term “to do” list was “clean out old clothes.” When I returned from partial hospitalization last January, I was quick to bag up armloads of pants, too-tight shirts, and belts that I associated with too many past behaviors or in which I simply could not feel at ease anymore. My philosophy was, “I’m starting over. If it doesn’t fit or if it isn’t 100% comfortable, it goes.” I dropped off a few garbage bags stuffed with clothes, both old and new, at my local church. However, there were a dozen or so pairs of slacks that went into a box, and there was a rack of dresses in my closet that I didn’t touch. I purchased just a few essential wardrobe elements to get me through the winter. I was still left with many articles of clothing that didn’t trigger a strong emotional reaction, but I found that I wasn’t wearing many of them. Gradually, I added a t-shirt here, a sweater there, and eventually, even a skinny pair of jeans. Every once in a while, I would glance over my drawers and pull out a few more items to donate. Yet, I knew that another thorough overhaul was probably in order.

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.”

~ Lao Tzu

What possessed me to root through the hangars on the morning of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’m not sure. That is exactly what happened, though. I thought that it would be a time-consuming and onerous process of trying things on and debating what to keep and what to give away, but when it came down to the actual doing, I felt surprisingly free. I found that I didn’t care if these clothes fit. Pulling down that last box of pants from its shelf after clinging to it for over a year, I was surprised by my detachment. I didn’t want them. Once, I was convicted that I would somehow “reclaim” each pair and learn to wear them again, but on that Monday morning, as bright sunlight streamed through the frigid air outside, I didn’t need to reclaim anything. I just wanted… to let go. I piled the dresses that were hanging untouched in their plastic drycleaner bags into a heap on my bed. I hesitated for a moment, because some of my cocktail gowns were quite lovely, and the sheaths and pullovers were versatile classics. Finally, though, it didn’t matter if they were still in style, if they were too tight or too loose, if they might fit again with a little fabric taken up here or let out there.

“One of the most courageous decisions you’ll ever make is to finally let go of what is hurting your heart and soul.”

~ Brigitte Niole

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#1)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#2)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#3)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#4)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#5)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#6)

The extra space in my closet is really nice. What is nicer is the extra space in my soul.

Holding onto my eating disorder, to worries about weight and appearance, and to my fears about food is draining. It saps my mental, physical, and emotional energy. I am not where I once was, though neither am I where I’d like to be. What else am I holding onto? I have a sense that there is much more that I could let go of; the only question is… will I?

What about you? Are you holding onto anything that you don’t need anymore? At what costs to yourself?

“Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.”

~ Henri Nouwen

 

The Perennial Party Problem

Featured Image: “Eyjafjallajökull Eruption,” © Söring, May 2010. CC BY-NC 2.0.

As I begin to type, I’m sitting in my office, back arched away from my desk chair, shoulders pulled angrily up to my ears, forehead creased, mouth taught and frowning. There are five minutes until I need to walk across the hall for the daily 9am meeting, but my fingers are slamming the keys. If I can just put a few words on the page, maybe the hostility that’s seething inside of me won’t continue to consume me like a pyroclastic cloud, burning me up from the inside-out.

WHY am I so upset? What exactly is it that is compelling me to both lash out and to self-destruct. I can feel the forces of my anger directed simultaneously outward and inward. I want to scream at my co-workers, then grasp the mug that sits between me and the keyboard, in which steeps my steaming green tea, usually such a tranquil focal point, and fling it at the wall. I imagine the ceramic shattering into huge chunks and bits of powder with a satisfying jolt and crash followed by a tinkling rain. I want to punish myself. What’s going on? I realize that this reaction, now probably temporary, is the state that I once lived in nearly every day. Today, just under the surface, if I peel back a hastily applied, too-shiny shellac that barely obscures all my thoughts and feelings, there is a running list of my mistakes. Screw the Powerball. I will put my money on the underlying message that is playing on the tape reel in my head. Consciously, I’m deaf to it right now, but if I stop long enough to listen, I bet I will discover it repeating some version of, “I suck,” right now.

Ok. Meeting time. Good vent.

Narrow Passage
Narrow Passage,” © Marc Soller, Feb 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There’s something about the combination of sitting in a quiet meeting room, meditating on my breath and the tone of the voices filling the air, a blank page, and Yo-Yo Ma that is intensely therapeutic. Here it goes… Time to scrape at the layers.

Before I begin to write, I want to take a moment to be grateful. I’m grateful for a private office, where I can close my door, pump up the volume of Ma’s sweet sounding cello, and pause. I am grateful that I work in a place where this moment of introspection is possible. It doesn’t happen every day, but more often than not, if I need a bit of time for reflection, I can find the space. I know that I will be much more effective (and much more pleasant) if I can process whatever is going on between my heart and my head in this moment. If I continue to press on, then I am at risk of acting out. I’m grateful for this insight.

Getting down to the matter at hand, here is how I’m feeling. Defensive. Angry. Vulnerable. Not in control.

Exposed. Imprisoned. Captive. Trapped. Like a caged animal, I am ready to scratch the eyes out of anyone who comes near me or chew off my own arm to get away.

There is an obstacle in my immediate future that I cannot escape. Two obstacles, actually. Two work parties. On Thursday, some of my co-workers are throwing a “diaper party,” which is apparently an alternative to a baby shower, except all the gifts are diapers of various types and sizes, for one of our officemates. His wife is expecting their first child later this month, and I get it. A baby shower for a close colleague is one of those events like a birthday or Christmas, and while I’m not excited about navigating the food situation at work, I am supportive of the occasion and am excited for my friend. I’m not burning up over the diaper party.

But I am reeling about the barbecue banquet that is being planned for the following week. As a reward for winning the inter-office holiday decorating competition, our department chair is throwing us a celebratory lunch. The group-wide email soliciting input about date and type of food to serve is currently circulating through the “reply-all” channels.

Why are we so uncreative as a society that we continue to use food as both reward and punishment? Why can’t we be rewarded with a few hours off to go bowling as a team (there’s an alley close to our office), or brainstorm some other fun activity that we might all enjoy? I am not eager to attend another office lunch where my colleagues can demonstrate their individualized disordered eating patterns (either binging or restricting), while seeking external validation in the form of baiting others with comments about the new diet they plan on starting, their juice cleanse, new work-out routine, or, worse, observations about what other people are eating, how others look, or how much others exercise. I am often the object of many of these “others” comments. So… yeah. I tend to loathe forced socialization with my co-workers, and I especially abhor mandatory fun with food. Outside of these events and these conversations, my colleagues are wonderful, amazing, astounding people. They are kind, generous, well-meaning, funny, intelligent… I can go on and on. I even enjoy getting together with them outside of the office from time to time. Oblige me to sit in a windowless conference room with them and eat, though, and they are the enemy.

The seething is already starting to recede. I realize that I have a choice – continue along this path of AVERSION and WILLFULNESS, or search for an alternative way. What is the alternative? Is there more than one other choice?

Step one – Recognize that I am experiencing a strong emotional reaction. Identify when I am triggered.

Check. Definitely, definitely check.

Step two – Explore.

Well… isn’t that what I’m essentially doing right now? Here I am, sharing my explorations with the world, if the world cares to read them. It feels like groping through a bucket of opaque bile, searching for a nugget of gold.

Step three – Choose differently.

Crater Lake
Crater Lake,” © Andy Spearing, Aug 2008. CC BY 2.0.

Ugh. This is the hard part. My co-workers are good people. They are not malicious. They are caring, thoughtful, loving, and compassionate. From the number of emails flooding my inbox, I can tell that they are very excited for this celebratory barbecue lunch. They are almost more excited to join together for a few hours of fast-food pulled pork than they were for their festive “Star Wars Christmas” scheme, which was, believe me, quite elaborate. They deserve this win. This party isn’t about me, and it isn’t about my eating disorder. It isn’t personal. I still take issue with the “food as reward” approach, but my perspective and background on that matter is unique.

What am I going to do? Well, I am going to need to be OK with the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen or how I will react on the actual day of the lunch.

In the meantime, I dug deep (as Brené Brown might say), and instead of lashing out in bitterness and resentment, I called upon humor. Gratefully, it was accessible in my hour of need. My supervisor and I were joking about the terrible road conditions on the drive into work this morning (it was snowing pretty heavily during the AM commute), and I noticed that our banter was actually discharging some of my pent-up aggression. I felt the tension in my body slackening. Interesting, I thought. John knows about my history of an eating disorder, so without too much planning, I dove in. “Hey,” I started jovially, “I conscientiously object to using food as a reward. I vote that you guys throw your party on Tuesday so that I won’t be here and I won’t have to go.” Tuesday was one of the days initially proposed, and it also happened to be the afternoon of my weekly, standing appointment with my therapist. My words were light and my face was laughing, but my meaning was serious.

He smiled thoughtfully, gazing up and to the right in that honest, innocent way that people do when they are contemplating. “Oh yeah, I guess it is using food as a reward,” reflected the father of five. “Ok!” he agreed with a grin.

From the email traffic, it seems that everyone else is onboard with the plan for Tuesday, and some of my distress is alleviated. I am taking a (tiny) stand on an issue that is important to my values, without making too much of a fuss, and I am confident that I will navigate next Tuesday skillfully. In the meantime, I will keep trying to explore as I keep trying to cultivate ACCEPTANCE, WILLINGNESS, and COMPASSION, for myself and others.

Crater Lake OR
Crater Lake, OR” © Jonathan Miske, Aug 2014. CC BY-SA 2.0.