Fat Lady on a Bike: My Journey to Peace and Fitness

Join me and my wonderful Electra Townie bike on my continuing journey to inner peace and both inner and outer fitness.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"I'm On a Diet of Love"

I collect 78rpm records, specifically Yiddish and Hawaiian records, but part of that work is reviewing general auction lists, and I take great delight in some of the song titles I encounter there from the 1920's-1940's.  Today my attention was caught by "I'm On a Diet of Love," a fox trot recorded by George Olson in 1929. 

Let me begin my musings with a disclaimer.  Green Mountain at Fox Run teaches a non-diet approach to weight management.  By discussing this song title, I am NOT advocating any sort of "diet" -- heaven forfend.  I have NOT gone back over to the dark side! 

In fact, this song uses "diet" in its original sense of "habitual nourishment" and includes lines such as, "Breakfast kisses by the bunch, sweet as raisins for your lunch."  This is certainly not about deprivation; in fact, it is about the very opposite of emotional eating. (Though the song does play on the other definition of diet.  The next line is "One thing that makes it great, you can eat more than your share, it won't affect your weight.")

Much has been written on all the reasons people eat that aren't physical hunger:  to stuff down feelings, to comfort, to fill an emotional or spiritual emptiness, to feel in control, to reward oneself for a job well done, to console oneself for an opportunity lost, etc. etc.  I've experienced them all, at various times in my life.  I think that a lot of my life-long difficulties with weight management were the result, first, of seeing my mother use food in all the ways I just listed and second, of using food to stuff down my grief after she died when I was 13 and not allowed, encouraged or helped to mourn her.  It took a round of therapy to get past that one.  Later, I also stuffed down feelings of anger and betrayal after being disowned by my father and stepmother.  I was finally able to exorcise that demon during one of my visits to Green Mountain.  I've used food as a buffer against the shame and hurt of rejection, the frustration of dealing with the fallout from having a partner with undiagnosed attention-deficit disorder, and countless slings and arrows that have flown my way during the course of living a fairly interesting life.  I've been working hard to deal with all of those issues in ways that don't involve eating when I'm not hungry, with some considerable success. 

Yet here I am, grappling on a daily basis with strong compulsions to put food in my mouth when I don't need it for energy.

My life is full and fortunate; I am much loved and appreciated by my wife, my family, my friends and my colleagues, and I have a list of passions that I am able to pursue with much greater ease than most of the people I know.  Probing into the nooks and crannies of my mind, heart and spirit, I find no hidden voids, no cluttered closets needing attention.  So what exactly is going on?

I've been thinking about this question and meditating on it and discussing it in counseling sessions for a few weeks now, and I think the problem is that I need to be on a diet of love, or at least of connection.  My tendency, when things aren't going so well, is to turn inward, go back into my shell, circle the wagons, and every other metaphor that paints a picture of willful isolation.  And that isolation feeds on itself; the more cut off I am, the worse I feel and the less likely to reach out to connect with a warm hand that can help pull me out of the hole I've dug for myself.  Recognizing that tendency in myself was one of the reasons I decided to start this blog.  It means more to me than I can express to know that people from all the corners of my life are reading my words, responding to my feelings and experiences and reaching back to me with love.

To change metaphors:  Yesterday, Carol and I went to Auntie Marjie Spenser's Advanced Ukulele Class at www.tutushouse.org in Waimea, as we usually do on Tuesday morning, and Auntie Marjie began by telling us that, to put it simply, she loves and needs her students.  "I think of you, I see your faces, and each one of you is a rose in my heart," she said.  "I love to spend time in that garden." 

Personally, I prefer the tiare (Tahitian gardenia) to the rose.  You are all tiare in my heart, and I need to spend time in that garden. 

Monday, February 22, 2010

Momona, Zaftig or Fat?

This weekend I hosted a meeting/retreat for the board of the Mohala Hou Foundation, on which I am privileged to serve.  One of our tasks was to review a video about Aloha Music Camp, which is one of our major programs and a place where people from all over can come to Hawaii and experience not only the arts and culture of the islands, but that ineffable gift that is the Aloha Spirit.  In the course of our discussion about the film, someone brought up the point about wanting to use images of some very large people dancing hula, even if they might be somewhat off-putting to potential campers.  That got me thinking about the place that being in Hawaii has played in dealing with my own feelings of shame and self-loathing about my body.  And that got me thinking about the words we use and the power they have over us.

I am very fortunate in that the two non-mainstream cultures I know best are both much less narrow about body size and beauty than the Western norm.  Here in North America we call people fat, but that word is not permitted to be the simple, neutral descriptor that it actually is.  In contrast, one of the Yiddish words to describe a curvy, larger than "normal" woman is zaftig, which literally means "juicy."  The images that spring to mind are, on the one hand, the juices that run from a ripe, delicious piece of fruit or the juices that drip from a nicely marbled piece of meat roasting on a rotisserie -- both, I think, positive images, as the juiciness is a quality that makes each of those foods more delicious and desirable. 

In Hawaiian, there is an even more positive word:  momona.  It means, literally, "fat," but more in the sense "fat of the land," and is often translated as "rich" or "fertile."  It can also have the sense of culinary richness, that quality in food that makes you smack your lips and feel satisfied, and if you add the prefix "ho'o," which means to make something become whatever word you add it to, ho'omomona means "to sweeten."  These are all very positive qualities, and if you call a person momona, it is definitely not an insult.

A few years ago I was studying Hawaiian using a wonderful book, Ka Lei Ha'aheo by Alberta Pualani Hopkins, and at the end of the third lesson came across the following passage, which astonished and delighted me:

In the first two lessons you have learned the words u'i (handsome, beautiful) and momona (fat, sweet, fertile).  But what makes a person handsome or beautiful to an English speaker's eyes might not be the same as being u'i to a Hawaiian's eyes.  In the same way, fat and momona may refer to different weights, depending on the cultural context.  Someone who is fat in a haole [Caucasian] setting may not be considered momona in a Hawaiian community.  Beyond that, whether it is good or bad to be fat or momona also depends on cultural values.  It is "bad" to be fat in a haole world, but to be momona in a Hawaiian world is a desirable quality.   (p. 17)
Here in the islands, momona people dance hula, are admired as beautiful and attractive, and dress in ways that are comfortable and appropriate for the climate even if it means exposing parts of their bodies that they would be humiliated for exposing in a mainstream American context.  They give themselves permission, as I said in my last post, to live.  When we first started coming to the islands, in 1988, I was often in that weird state of magical thinking where I believed that if I dressed in a certain way, no one would notice my size.  Being here and seeing those wonderfully momona local people walking proudly through their lives helped bring me back to a much more compassionate and livable reality.

As Popeye says, I yam what I yam, and what I yam is fat, zaftig and momona.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Shame and Permission

I've been thinking about shame a lot today, after a Facebook friend linked to an article about discrimination against fat people by airlines.  The author wrote about feeling not only embarrassed, but humiliated and ashamed, for taking up more than his share of space on a plane.  I've certainly experienced my share of feeling those emotions, but I think the distinctions among them are important to consider.

Embarrassment arises, I think, from the sense of having one's shortcomings obviously displayed in public.  We are embarrassed when we belch or sneeze during a quiet moment, when we drop food on our bosom (my own personal nemesis), when we need a seatbelt extender, when we trip, and the like.  Humiliation comes, generally, from someone else's lack of compassion and empathy.  We feel humiliated when someone else points out our shortcomings, often in public and with malicious intent.  Bullies know all about humiliation.  Both of those emotions are real and unpleasant, but in my opinion, they can't inflict nearly as much damage as shame.

Shame is, at least in this context, about not feeling entitled to do whatever it is one feels ashamed about, or even to exist.  In my various times at Green Mountain, I've met many women who feel too much shame to allow themselves to dance or go swimming or enjoy any activity that would require them to expose themselves physically, even though most of us there have similar issues to deal with.  The kicker is that many of those women are often what the world would consider "normal" size.  And it isn't just weight that makes people feel shame;  many of us have other things that make us feel we have no right to enjoy life.

What's even worse is that shame often drives us to do things in secret.  Thought the things we feel shame about might be obvious for all to see, the behaviors that result often take place in the dark, or when we are alone, or when we are alone in the dark.  I've struggled for years with secret, nighttime eating, an act of which I have been profoundly ashamed.  Sure, part of the secrecy was a kind of denial, maybe even a guilty kind of pleasure.  But I think it mostly stemmed from my feeling, very deep inside, that I didn't have the right to feed myself well.  Part of the healing process for me has been trying to keep eating out in the open, because whatever my size, I have a right to nurture myself and take pleasure in the food I choose to eat.  Just as I am entitled to be comfortable when I ride my bike, even if it means wearing clinging bike gear that may not be wonderfully flattering but prevents chafing and blisters.  And I have the right to dance my fool head off, even if that means shaking the rafters of the house.

It's all about giving ourselves permission to be who we are and live our lives as safely, comfortably and joyously as possible. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

One of Those Days

One of the things I've had to grapple with increasingly lately is my inability to make things happen the way I think they ought.  For the past couple of years in particular I have been trying to make peace with listening to my body and accepting my limitations.  This was hard enough when it involved only physical limitations, but has gotten even harder since this fall, when I was felled by a pretty serious H1N1-asthma-pneumonia combo that caused my physical limitations to affect my ability to focus and concentrate.

I spent many years clothed in cape and tights -- first as office superhero, then as band superhero.  I confess, it was a role I relished.  I loved everything about it:  the feeling of competence, the way others could (and did) count on my to make things happen, the praise, even the exhaustion after a task was completed.  As I moved into the brain fog of menopause, the cape got really tattered and the tights became riddled with snags and ladders, and a couple of years ago I had to throw them both away, leaving myself feeling incredibly naked and vulnerable.  With a lot of help and support, I've been trying to find a more comfortable outfit, one that is suitable for both work and play.

Today is one of those days when all my plans have to go out the window.  Last night I had visualized myself waking early and going out for a sunrise bike ride, then eating breakfast on the lanai and getting a bunch more work done before Carol and I headed into Kona to do some errands.  Unfortunately, though I woke up early, I couldn't bring myself to get out of bed till after 7, and then when I did get up I immediately started coughing asthmatically.  Eventually the coughing stopped, but neither meds nor coffee have yet fully cleared opened up my bronchial tubes, and I'm sitting here thinking I probably won't go into town with Carol.  Unless this clears up by evening, I probably won't ride today, either, and the chances of my getting any meaningful work done (apart from this post) are also pretty slim. 

Wonder of wonders, I think I'm okay with that.

I can't tell you how many hours of angst, meditation, and therapy have gone into that simple statement.  But I'm finally understanding, feeling in my very core, that tomorrow is another day, and nothing that I have to do, either personal or professional, is so terribly urgent that I need to push myself beyond what feels comfortable today.  I've also had ample proof, time and again, that if I try to push past and do the things I feel I have to do, I don't do them very well or very easily, but if I wait till I feel okay, they come to me as easily as they ever did.

So instead of riding my bike today, perhaps I'll strum my ukulele on the lanai and watch for whales.  And enjoy feeling okay with that.

In Case You Were Wondering....

I thought tonight I would write about why I chose "Fat Lady on a Bike" as the name for this blog.  It was in my mind as a name long before I actually contemplated writing a blog and came to me without thought, but there are actually quite a few reasons why it resonates so profoundly for me.

First, using the word "fat", which I (like so many of us who struggle) have studiously avoided most of my life, feels like an important step to taking its power away, and the shame.  I try now to think of it as a mere descriptor.  When my young grandchildren comment on things that they notice about the physical world, including people's appearance, for the most part they use words as purely descriptive without any baggage or negativity attached, and I'd love to be able to do the same. 

Saying "lady" rather than woman, with the circus overtones, seemed to offer a bit of whimsy and humor, both of which felt very important to me.  Before I decided to go with my picture from Hub on Wheels, I actually tried to find a cartoonish clip art image of a fat lady on a bicycle.  But then I thought the real thing would be a more powerful image, especially in contrast to the cartoonish title.

Why the bike?  I don't plan this to be a chronicle of my various rides or even of my training regimen, so why feature it so prominently?  Two reasons, really.  The first is that my bike has led me back to joy in movement and activity, and to pursuing, systematically yet flexibly, a long-term fitness goal.  But beyond that, my relationship with my bike is a wonderful metaphor for the way I want to live my life.  If you told me to walk as fast as I could down the street, even on a flat surface, I'd resent you, and walking, and be in pain both physically and psychically before too long.  But put me on the bike and point me down the road, and I function quite happily at the upper end of my target heart rate, loving the feeling of the wind in my hair and the sun or mist on my face.  Being on the bike, for me, is living life with joy, working hard at what I love and savoring the delight of it.

I didn't have time to go for a ride this morning, as I woke up full of energy to do a bunch of tasks I haven't been able to manage for the past week or two, which was delightful in itself.  But you can bet that I'll be out there tomorrow.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Aloha, everybody.  I am writing from my winter home on the Big Island of Hawaii, where I will be till mid-March when I return to Massachusetts. 

Does the world really need another weight management/physical activity/spiritual journey blog?  Maybe not, but I need to write it and I'm hoping that along the way my struggles, insights and achievements may be of interest and/or help to others. 

I've had weight/food issues my whole life (I'm currently 58) and done the usual merry-go-round of diets etc., to no avail.  In September 2005 I took the first step on one of the most important and most interesting adventures of my life by attending, for the first time, Green Mountain at Fox Run (www.fitwoman.com), a woman's health and fitness retreat in Ludlow, Vermont.  Their approach towards weight management and fitness is holistic, realistic and compassionate -- check out their web site and wonderful blog (www.aweightlifted.com) for more on the program.  Though I have not lost pounds permanently yet, for a variety of reasons which I will inevitably discuss as we move along this phase of the journey, my whole life has been profoundly transformed.  I continue to work the program and discover things about myself and my attitudes every day. 

One of the most amazing changes was that after allowing a series of injuries and illnesses to turn me almost completely sedentary, Green Mountain transformed me back into an active woman and helped me rediscover my joy in that activity, especially biking.  The picture at the top of this page was from the exhilarating time, in September 2007, that I rode in the 26-mile Hub on Wheels bike ride around Boston.  I had never done anything like that before, and it was as satisfying and informative as it was difficult.  I continue to grapple with both illness and orthopedic problems, but I continue to ride my bike as often as I can.

Enough for now.  Thanks for joining me on this journey.