Tag Archives: self-esteem

A Gift Just in Time

It was in yoga just a few weeks ago when I stopped hating my body. There was no great ah-ha-a-la-Oprah-esque moment, no mid-forties screech and halt, no drum roll or tears of joy. There was only silence and the thrum of heat in my ears as I poured myself into a downward dog, grumbling at my sore elbows, wrists and ankles as I asked them to release. Then I suddenly thought, Hey this body is doing its best, lay off it already!

And just like that, I became its friend.

For decades I’ve acted like my body was my enemy, something to be vigilant about, hard on, like I was its personal drill sergeant marching it to a cacophony of jeers from an imaginary audience, whose voices hovered above me like comic captions: ‘c’mon, you can do better than that, just look at those thighs, my god, what is happening with your hair? To a point where my body was in fear of my mind, always trying valiantly to contort to the must’s and the should’s and the early morning prods. Like some kind of vaguely Russian Olympic gymnast coach from the seventies, my mind asked my body to be things it could never be and wondered why it failed me year after year? When in fact it was I that was failing my dear, imperfect hard-working, slightly pale and in parts doughy but sincerely loving body.

My body eventually caved in with all that unkindness surrounding it. This year was the year my body gave up and said fuck it. Or more to the point: Fuck you. It rose up in all its pale five foot glory and said, you know, I’m not serving you anymore. I’m tired.

I got very sick and stayed sick for a long time. I still have an immune system that is misfiring, like a spaceship that has righted itself but can’t communicate with NASA anymore. This is what happens when your body goes off the rails with a lonely, bereft wail of its unlovable nature.

Recently, while reading Anne Lamott’s brilliant book on writing, Bird by Bird,  I was struck by her recounting of what a friend told her about ’emotional acreage’. Her friend said that “every one of us is given an emotional acre all our own.” Lamott explained that we own it and can do with it as we wish; it has a fence and a gate. As a child, I didn’t live in a home that recognized I had a defined acre of emotional land. Mine was more like a closet with gaping holes in the door and hinges that wouldn’t allow it to close properly. My acre was never my acre.

Later, because I didn’t know I had a whole acre, people camped out in it, leaving refuse and anger and leftover half-hearted love that I was never sure what to do with. Recycle? Bury? Burn? Publish? Who knows. And in my body I felt it was wrong–knew it was wrong– but couldn’t say it out loud. They were squatting on my life but I didn’t really own it so it was okay. I apologized and stayed indoors.

When your body doesn’t belong to you, you don’t notice when it is hurt. Sometimes I would tell someone something that happened to me and they would look shocked and I’d wonder why? Because I hadn’t felt the pain; it had only happened to my body. But I knew, by looking at their faces, that something wasn’t right and there was more to this picture than I was seeing. Or feeling.

It finally came together in, of all places, an upside down pose in a hot yoga studio just before Christmas. What I came to–among many other things that slipped into place like a Rubik’s Cube–was this: the moment you befriend your own body is the moment you defend it. You put your arm around it and say, you’re actually trying very hard and you are actually doing quite a good job. In fact, you are so beautiful it hurts my heart a little. Your hardworking toes, your delicate clavicle, haunting veins, and persevering breath. All elegantly formed and intentionally unique.

Your mind stops ordering your body under the stairs. You say instead: sit with me, breathe deeply, don’t rush, I’m here with you for the whole day and night–take your time.

You get the acreage thing. You see your boundaries. You feel your whole space and the abundance of beauty within it. Fragile beauty, broken beauty, learned beauty, another day beauty. Wisdom.

And when someone rushes onto your acreage, demanding this or that–or confessing, loitering, bartering, intimidating, or worse, telling you what is really happening–you can pause and consider it and say yes or no. You can say Get on out of here if the spirits are dark and hold no love for you. You can hold up your imaginary rifle and fire a warning shot. You own your body and its acreage is sacred.

When you finally, at long last, love your body with all its peccadilloes and late night habits, its public crying at movies, its soreness in the morning, its drying eyes and swelled knees, elbow or neck, you begin to really see the edges of that acre, the beautiful waving grass that has grown wild over the years, the small shrubs with hints of new white blossoms, and the tall Oak trees in dignified repose, as though they had been patiently waiting all along for your awakening.

When you sit on your deck (I imagine now my body like a graceful, simply designed modernist house in the middle of a field) and look out over your land you will realize what a gift it is to have it. And when someone comes along and just tosses open the gate and starts camping out or dumping garbage and saying your acreage is kind of messy and disorganized and doesn’t have any proper landscaping, you can say, Well, that’s just fine, here’s the exit.

But if someone raps gently on your gate and says, I have some homemade soup to share, interested? You say, Yes, I’ll get the bowls, come on in. Pretty sure I have some crusty bread we can break together. You sit together, with your old or young bodies or brown or white skin, your green or gray or brown eyes alight with life, with friendship and sharing that comes from a deep place of security, safety and love.

Because you love your body. And you are grateful for it.

640px-Coastal_prairie

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The Self Comes Out Of The Closet

I’ve been reading some Joan Didion lately and while I adore and marvel at  her writing ability, she doesn’t hold back any punches and you can sometimes feel like she has repeatedly nailed you in the kidneys.

Reading her now, I can’t believe how much of it slid past me as a younger woman. I was too riddled with illusions to really ‘get’ much of her writing. I think for maybe even a decade I must have been in a foggy haze of self-sacrifice for relationships which I see clearly now was not in anyone’s best interests.

I smile a little wryly when I read her now, and in fact, I’ve posted an excerpt of her writing up in my closet to remind me, daily, of a new habit: Self-respect. It can really be a bothersome thing to those who’ve had the luxury of knowing me without it, but it has to be cultivated and not a moment too soon. In her essay from her book ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’, she wrote eloquently, if not mercilessly, on self-respect:

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out — since our self-image is untenable — their false notion of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan; no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.

See what I mean about the kidney punching? In the healthiest way of course. Admitting your ego is a compulsive Liza Minelli-type that feverishly squints out into the dark theatre to see if there is an approving face is not easy but it is required as we get older. According to Didion, the ‘alienation from self’ in its ‘advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game.’

Ever avoided an email? A phone call? An ex? Alienation from self. In my case of alienation from my self, I would lie awake for hours next to the one I supposedly loved, unable to let go of the false self and simply collapse into my snoring, teeth-grinding, pillow drooling sleepy real self. I’m so thrilled to be over all of that.

Though, I still have my moments, which is why I’ve put up a sizable chunk of the text from her essay in my closet in case as I get dressed I do so through someone else’s eyes. As Didion warns, if we lose our self-respect, we are in grave danger of running away to find ourselves only to find “no one at home”. Liking your ‘home’ doesn’t happen overnight but inch by sometimes white-knuckled inch you can begin to make your life really your own.

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Transformation

Birthdays require reflection. For me, this year, it requires transformation. Sometimes an emotional tsunami sends you reeling out into distant ether where you are lost to yourself. The gift is the view of your life as it was–bombed out, shelled by pestilent emotions, annihilated–which you can never return to again. Last year at this time I was struggling to understand why the person I loved had left me. Now, a year later, I can see everything so clearly: the disfigured flotsam and jetsam of lies, the idle promises that I held like they were Frodo’s ring to my heart, the blind beliefs in an imaginary world, and the rose-coloured glass through which I looked at my life so as to keep myself isolated from memory.

Picking over the bits and pieces, the disconnected selves, the shattered illusions, and reams of words, words, words, I can poke around like a calm character from CSI; I think out loud to myself, ah so this is objectivity then feel internally that it is, in fact, wondrous.

It isn’t easy to re-build. You’ve got to say no to those things that want to come back, those weeds that you’ve never had the strength to resist or didn’t notice growing there so viciously, wrapping themselves around your ankles and weighing you down like a virus. Sometimes it will require gently saying, ‘I’m sorry, will you come back?’ Sometimes it will require saying ‘I know you thought I was that but I’m this‘. There will be people that don’t like your new life. That is good. It means they weren’t supporting you anyway. Maybe they are your mother. Maybe your brother. Or wife. Or friend or sister. Doesn’t matter. Being true to yourself isn’t for the faint-hearted. The work of transformation is not a walk with Oprah in a lavender farm with puppies frolicking all around. It has to get a little messy, ratchety, dirty even, before you sow the seeds that will grow into beautiful, loving flowers who smile when you walk past whispering your true name with deeply rooted certainty.

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