Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In Which I Am Grateful to my Dead

I used to spend some time each summer at my grandparents' farm in eastern Missouri.  I'm sure my long-suffering mother viewed it as a blessed reprieve from her increasingly snarky younger daughter, but what it ended up being was a chance for me to really get to know my grandmother when neither of us was on 'company' behaviour.  I was a fully tempestuous teenager, and she was not as willing to overlook my attitude; we got along remarkably well despite that.

The year I turned fifteen, I suffered the agony of agonies, the most terrible trauma, that utterly awful experience: having to talk to an adult about my period because I had not planned adequately and had convinced myself that somehow, if I really really didn't want to deal with it during the visit, it would just...not happen.  Every woman reading this is snickering.  I can hear you all.

Mortified, horrified by my body's betrayal, I went to my grandmother and confessed my moon-bound shame in a barely audible mumble, wishing desperately that the earth would open and swallow me.  She merely said, "Well, then, I guess you need some of those pad things.  I got some in the mail once and I think they're in a drawer, and then you and I will just go into town to the Wal-mart and get you more."  With an utter minimum of fuss and angst (remarkable given my tendency to melodrama), the matter was resolved within an hour and I was left completely flummoxed by her practical, reasonable management of a situation that had seemed utterly daunting to me.

If anyone who knows me has ever been surprised by my ability to manage other peoples' crises pragmatically and swiftly, be assured that I come by it honestly; my mother does it as brilliantly as my grandmother ever did, and I strive to meet their example.

That hour, in which my shame and embarrassment and resentment of my own body were dispatched by calm acceptance and rational problem-solving, remains one of my core memories of my grandmother.  One of the other ones that stands out is a recurring one:  after I went away to college, got married, got divorced, and all through the years of living in Kansas and even living in Texas, every time I went to have dinner with my grandmother, she tried to have mashed potatoes on the table one way or another.  She knew they were one of my favorite foods, and for some reason they're just not a food people usually make for themselves.  Plus, she made way better gravy than I do.  Tonight, to honor her, I'm making roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, and those brownies she used to call the 'diet-busters', caramel and chocolate chips oozing in the middle.  I'm setting her out a little plate and a small glass of wine.

I miss my grandmother.  We only saw each other once a year, and rarely spoke on the phone, but the knowledge that she's no longer there affects my entire world.  It's been almost a year since she died, and I still occasionally look at something I've done, some way I've interacted, and hope that she would be proud of me.

As the sun sets on the last day of the year, and the night rises, I tend to think on the lessons my dead have taught me, and those I'm learning from the living.  I plan for my long winter's burning by remembering those who have brightened my own path one way or another.

From my grandmother, I learned not only that reassuring pragmatism and a delight in simple food prepared well, but an even more important truth:  kindness is never wasted energy.

From my stepfather, who made me welcome in his house and found ways to give me 'extra' meat and vegetables without either of us admitting I didn't have enough to eat in college, I learned that it's worthwhile to try and find ways to help others that allow them to keep their dignity and their sense of self-worth.

From my Aunt Justine and Uncle Warren, I learned that family is not just about direct bloodlines, and that the abundance of a home is never diminished by sharing its hospitality and laughter.

From my best friend Jen, I learned that just because you aren't the brightest star in a given constellation, that's no excuse not to shine for all you're worth, because your light adds to the beauty of the sky in ways you can't see.

From Tony, gone almost twenty years, one of the hardest lessons:  live your life for yourself, because you can't save people against their will.

From my maternal great-grandmother, a stronger woman than I ever understood while she lived, I learned that we are not only who we appear to be in any single moment of our lives.

From my father's mother, the first death I can recall, comes the understanding that the joy of freely sharing what you have is not necessarily dependent on whether the magnitude of that gift is fully understood by the recipient.

They stand around me, and more, cousins and great-aunts and friends and long-gone loved ones, each with a lesson or a blessing or a challenge, and as the veil thins between the worlds I open my heart to listen to them, to accept what they bring to me and offer my own gratitude.  I think of artists and musicians, of writers and speakers who have all added to the Beauty of this world, and I'm profoundly thankful that their passions live on.

I have been blessed in my life, to be touched by bright souls and strong ones.  I have been loved and challenged and shaped by them, and I continue to be.  Gods willing, I shall continue to be.

The old year is dying, the new one beginning, and I offer thanks and farewell to my dead for another year.  I release my own dead weight, my old habits and fears and resentments, and feed that which I do not need into my Samhain fire.  May it burn through the coming winter to illuminate my path, to give me fuel to stand as a beacon and kindle those whose fires burn low in the darkness and the cold.

So mote it be.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

In Which I am Shrinking But Not Diminished

I lost eight pounds this past weekend.  All my health-conscious friends, on hearing that, want to tell me how unhealthy it is.  It's become a festival reality for me, though.  Last April, I lost fourteen.  There have been some fluctuations, but that weight seems to have stayed off; I expect this weekend's eight to stay gone too.  The pants that were tight (but not uncomfortably so) last Wednesday are close to needing a belt today.

What am I doing?  My festival schedule is such:  I arrive Wednesday night and begin moving.  From Thursday morning to Sunday morning, I'm expected to cover 24 hours as a Chief Guardian, but the reality for all the Chiefs is that we end up working more like 40, because there's the person who finds his way into your camp with questions, there's the daily meetings, there's the training sessions, there's the emergency call that needs all hands to answer it, there's the situation you happen to be walking by and step in to address.  Because we have recently instituted changes that allow the Chiefs to patrol instead of being required to stay at our administrative hub, for these last two festivals I've been mostly standing or walking when I'm on duty.  I can expect to be in some form of motion for a solid twelve hours a day, not counting trips through the merchants' area for my own shopping, walks to visit friends' camps, or dancing around the fire at night after I'm off duty.

I'll let that sink in for a moment:  For three and a half days, I spend a minimum of half my time walking.  Not half my waking time.  Half my time (though, I do only sleep 2-5 hours a night at festival).

My fitness tracker tells me that walking, even at a slow pace, burns about 200 calories an hour.  Since I shift back and forth between a brisk 'walk with purpose' and standing in one place for 20 minutes to talk through something with someone, that seems a reasonable compromise.  That means that in walking alone I'm burning some 2400 calories a day.  I simply can't eat fast enough to keep up with that, let alone when I put in a couple hours of dancing, or a recreational walk around the back 40 to look at the stars without a radio.  It's no wonder I am losing weight.

The off-season habits are also part of it.  I've kept up regular workouts between festivals, which haven't caused much in the way of strict weight loss, but have building lean muscle and improving my cardiovascular efficiency.  So, when I ask more of my body for several days, it delivers, and it pulls extra-hard from my stored resources to do it.  Someday, I may run out of fat reserves I can healthily blow through, but for now I just keep a belt handy and buy pants more often.

I do, by the way, eat at festival.  I joke about not having time for food, but I actually eat more calories per day there than I do at home.  When I realised that I tended to be too busy to think about food, I asked a couple of friends if they would make sure to hurl tiny sammiches, veggies, hummus, figs, and apples in my direction throughout the day, and bring me meat on a stick if I wasn't in camp for dinner.  Most of my food at festival is meat, veggies, and bread eaten while walking, but I get about 2500 calories a day (as opposed to my usual 1600-1800).

This post is not actually about *weight loss*, though the weight loss is a convenient indicator of what this post is about.  What I'm talking about here is an example of what I talked about in my last entry.  I ask a lot of my body for about ten days a year.  I ask it to be better, stronger, faster, and sturdier than I do all the rest of the year.  I ask it to carry me through a lot of hard work and unplanned activity.  I couldn't ask this of my enemy.  I have to ask it of my ally, and I've been steadily making sure I give it the tools to do what I ask: resources and training.

And what, you may ask, am I getting besides the ability to finish a festival without being utterly exhausted and destroyed?  I'm getting fitter, not just skinnier (skinny is kind of irrelevant to me).  I am becoming a Fierce and Formidable Badass Badger, because I am building a body that can healthily do what I ask of it, regardless of its actual weight and shape, and that gives me a confidence and a strength that have nothing to do with my dress size.

I love us all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

In Which I Do Not Accept the Enemy I Am Given

I have a friend who has struggled with her health for some time.  She has undetermined health issues, which her doctors can't explain, that essentially make a simple diet and a good night's sleep her personal Holy Grail.  She's recounted her experience in detail, and I've been following it.

Recently, she had a moderate epiphany helped out by a friend, in which she decided to shift her relationship with her body to one of compassion and empathy, to address her difficulties by remembering that her body is doing the best that it can, and it is not her enemy.

This struck me on a deep and personal level, because I have spent much of my adult life struggling with my weight and body image and my perception of my own attractiveness.  I've often felt undervalued, because I undervalued myself.  I treated my life as something I had to ensure didn't interfere with anyone else.  Most of it has been rooted in the idea that my body is my enemy, that my mind is my enemy, that my desires are my enemy, that my own identity is my enemy.  I am too fat, too smart, too extroverted, too chatty, too passionate, too ME to be borne.  I make others uncomfortable when I am strong, and disappoint them when I am weak.

Words of war fly at me, from every angle.  The magazine covers tell me how to 'defeat that stubborn fat!' and 'overcome those cravings!'  A gym commercial consoles me that I shouldn't accept my heritage or body type, if they interfere with how I want to look.  Advice abounds on how to sublimate your own needs in relationships with others, to make sure you've tricked them into feeling the way you want.  At every turn I'm offered weapons to use against myself, under the guise of motivating myself to destroy the person I am and become the person I'm told I should be.

I've spent the last few years gradually rising to resist the battle being brought to me, slowly coming to peace with my body and my identity and my loves and desires.  For a long time, I worried that that acceptance would mean I stopped evolving, stopped improving, stopped seeking.  If I ever accepted that my body was beautiful, I thought, I would stop taking care of it.  If I accept that my strength is not a liability, I might stop handling others with gentle compassion.  If I embrace the fact that I am smart and competent, I might stop learning new things.

In my head, I think, I have been viewing my possible relationships with my self as twofold:  antagonism or neutrality.  Deciding that I am not my enemy seemed to mean a sort of apathetic live-and-let-whatever attitude, that if I stopped fighting I ceded the right to care about the outcome.

There is a third option, and I've been slowly coming to understand what it means:  I am not my enemy, because I am my ally.  I want the best for me.  I want my own health and happiness.  I want myself to succeed, and to flourish.  This alliance has begun to transform my entire relationship with myself.

When I eat nutritious food, I do not think that I am staving off obesity or thwarting my love of donuts.  I think, "Here, body, is some stuff I know you need to do your job well.  I have taken the time to prepare it in an appetizing manner so that your sustenance is a pleasant experience."  If I work hard or skip a financial indulgence to save up a little extra, I think, "Hey, Future Self, enjoy that vacation!  Take lots of pictures so Further Future Self can look back and enjoy the trip!"  When I take that vacation, I think, "Man, I'm sure glad Past Self did this nice thing for me!  I think I'll make it a point to say something kind about her!"

That's actually the easy part.  I can look at the choices I'm trained to believe are 'good' and find a reason to consider them self-loving ally acts.  But the other side is hard.  The first time I said, "Hey, self, you know what?  A bowl of ice cream would make you feel happy and cheerful!  Let's have one!" I struggled with the idea that I was 'getting away with' something, that I was validating or justifying a 'bad' choice.

The challenge is to view every single choice I make as active self-support, love, and appreciation.  As my own ally, I have to consider my choices in the light of "Would I want my beloved friend to do it this way?" because I am my beloved friend.  I would want my beloved friend to have a workout that was fun and enjoyable, so that she could become as strong and flexible as she wanted to be.  I would not want my beloved friend to feel shamed and guilty about eating cookies for breakfast.  I would not want my beloved friend to shrink from leadership because she feared assertiveness would cause her to be perceived as less friendly or desirable.  I would want my beloved friend to be proud of her mind and her strength, because she deserves to shine.  I would want my beloved friend to feel she could expose her own vulnerability to people she trusted, because she deserves empathy and support.  I would not want my beloved friend to downplay her own potential because she was afraid of the challenge it presented her.

For many years now, I've ended a lot of my writings with "I love you all," to emphasize my commitment to living a loving life.  I believe it's time for me to change that.

I love us all.