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.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Instant Gratification, Long-Term Joy

It's Friday today, almost the end of my first week here at Green Mountain, and I am reminded of something I figured out a long time ago.  If you want instant gratification, a constant sense of progress and achievement, there is no better endeavor than strength training.

Most people with weight management issues focus exclusively on the scale, which is a recipe (pardon the food reference) for disaster.  We have absolutely no control over how our body metabolizes what we feed it, or the schedule by which it eliminates waste products and stores or utilizes fat.  We do have control of our actions.  So, right off the bat (pardon the exercise reference), physical activity represents a much better arena in which to measure progress than what we eat.  And while aerobic activities can also provide a steady sense of accomplishment, there is nothing like feeling your muscles get stronger and more flexible by the day, doing an addition repetition or going up in weight, or simply feeling better able to do those reps without huffing and puffing and turning purple.

For the first three years after my first visit to Green Mountain, I embraced strength training almost religiously, clinging to it when everything else was falling apart.  There were good reasons for this.  For one thing, I had learned that strength training is just about the only way a short, middle-aged female can increase her metabolic rate.  For another, I can usually manage strength training even when my asthma and/or orthopedic issues make cardiovascular effort too difficult or painful.  So I did my alternating upper- and lower-body conditioning routines every morning almost without fail, despite various kinds of tendonitis and a medication adjustment that left me with 8 weeks of intense fatigue until my body got used to it. 

Sometimes it would take me all day to complete the lower body routine, as I could manage only about one exercise per hour and would lie on the floor staring upside down out the window at the palm tree next door (this was in Hawaii) until I could muster up the will and the energy to go on to the next muscle group.  It would take me several hours, but I would do it.  I felt stronger, I was fitting better into clothes, and I felt really good about myself.

Then I suddenly found myself unable to bridge whatever the hurdles were, and I began dreading strength training with an intense, consuming dread that left me paralyzed.  Every morning I would dress in my fetching exercise attire and mope around the house, feeling as though I couldn't do anything else until I completed my strength training for the day, yet not being able to bring myself to do it.  This meant, of course, that I never got anything at all done, which increased my stress level and flooded my brain with negative self-talk, so that the next day I dreaded the strength training even more.  And on and on and on.

Since my major illness last fall, I have had no problem getting to be more active; I rely on my joy in bicycling to motivate me to ride as often as I can.  But I've been waiting, in vain, for similar intrinsic motivation to strike me regarding the strength training piece.  On the other hand, what led me to sign up for these two weeks at Green Mountain was feeling so weakened at my core and yearning for the feeling that exercising my muscles gives me.

I am happy to report that after 5 days, I feel like a different person.  I still find the exercises, especially lower body, hard and occasional uncomfortable, but I'm starting to feel a kind of delight in doing them, as they allow me to feel my body getting stronger by the day.  By the time I leave next Saturday, this ember of pleasure will, I hope, have been fanned into a flame of enthusiasm so that I can keep things up after I get home, even while traveling.  Perhaps that is all that intrinsic motivation needs to be.  Perhaps one day soon I will long to do quad lifts and biceps curls the way I now long to be on my bike.

A hui hou.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Knitting Up the Ravelled Sleeve

I never used to have sleep problems, not that I remember, anyway.  But when I developed asthma, in my thirties, for about a year and half I was up till 3 or 4 in the morning coughing and hacking, until we finally hit on the right regimen to manage it.  Then after that, I was up till 3 or 4 in the morning because I was taking theophylline, which is in the same pharmaceutical family as caffeine, with similar effects.  Then I became a gigging musician who frequently had to drive home after midnight; while I have the welcome ability to stay awake while driving, even when I'm tired, when I get home from such a drive it takes me a long time to reverse the effects of whatever it was that allows me to stay alert.  Then came menopause, and nearly 3 years of springing totally wide awake at 3am, no matter what time I went to sleep.  Now, my ability to fall asleep is frequently compromised by aches and pains and gout as well as respiratory infections, so all in all, I do not have an easy relationship with Morpheus.

But that's not the only problem.

I've always been a secret eater, much to my great shame.  I remember the most humiliating moment of my young life being when the cleaning lady found a paper bag with empty cookie boxes in my closet and told my parents, who took away my allowance and made me come right home after school so I couldn't buy extraneous food.  In my adult life, I've done most of my eating for other than hunger reasons late at night, waiting till everyone else in the house is asleep.  This frequently means staying up well past the point at which my body wants to go to sleep.

Over the past five years, as I've dealt with a lot of the underlying issues that have kept me from successful weight management, my urge to eat inappropriately has lessened a great deal, and as a result I've been able to sleep much better and more easily.  But there are times still when I get into bed at a very reasonable time, feeling tired and ready to sleep, but the minute I hit the mattress, my knee and my ankle and my toes all start to hurt, and/or I start coughing, and within minutes I'm wide awake and feeling anxious and completely stressed out about not being able to fall asleep.  Meditating and listening to soothing music don't help, nor does focusing on my breath, so I end up feeling like a rotisserie chicken until I finally feel compelled to get out of bed and head for the kitchen.  Food still soothes, most of the time, and quiets something in my brain (something about seratonin) so that I can finally fall asleep.  If it doesn't soothe, it helps pass the time until I get so tired I can't help but fall asleep.

This is obviously not an optimal situation.  Recent research has suggested that lack of sufficient sleep can contribute to weight gain (or failure to lose weight) through a number of mechanisms.  Sleep deprivation can also contribute to feelings of stress, and hamper one's ability to problem solve or be mindful.  And last night I got first-hand knowledge of another benefit of a decent night's sleep.

I've been plagued, since I arrived on Sunday, with a lot of ankle pain and pain in my knee, presumably the result of being much more active, especially on stairs.  I've also had some break-out gout pain in my big toes, and some asthma.  The net result is that when I lie down in bed, everything starts to hurt.  And, as I described above, I start to agitate about not being able to sleep or wake up early and can't fall back to sleep, etc. etc.

Of course, since I have been doing a lot of strength training since I've been here, I had acquired a whole lot more aches and pains and stiffness.  In fact, by dinnertime last night, I could barely get up out of my chair to hobble back to my room.  So when bedtime came around, I decided to take a tramalol, which is one of the few painkillers I can take that doesn't interact adversely with my blood pressure.  I usually take it only when I am in such discomfort that I can't sleep, and it seems to allow my muscles all to relax.  Consequently, I slept really well, and this morning it was like magic -- all the muscle aches and pains were gone.  Better living through chemistry!

Clearly, I need to do something about my difficulties with sleep.  While I don't see a clear way ahead at this particular moment, I am confident that with the help of the folks here and my own prodigious problem-solving skills, I'll figure it out eventually.  Until then, I have to do whatever I can to keep the sleeve of care from ravelling further.

A hui hou.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Plan B and Beyond

Here I am, back at Green Mountain at Fox Run, which has truly become my home away from home over the past four and a half years.  I could go on and on about how wonderful and transformative the program is, how knowledgeable and compassionate the staff all are, the delicious meals and the beautiful surroundings, and maybe I will in another post.  But today I want to focus on one aspect of the Green Mountain experience that I most appreciate, which is the empowering attitude of always finding a way to deal with (and get around) impediments. 

One of the main reasons I came here in the first place, in September 2005, was that the program literature promised a safe environment in which women with physical challenges could learn how to become active without hurting themselves.  This was essential for me, given my old knee injury and frequent tendonitis in my foot, not to mention my asthma.  I figured I could try out all kinds of physical activity and find ones that I didn't hate too much, at the very least, and learn to do them without injuring myself further.

I was a total tomboy as a child, and all through college remained quite physically active despite not being the fastest runner.  I was great at softball (having spent my childhood playing catch in the backyard), could swish baskets on demand, rode my bike all over the place, and do just about any other sport involving good hand-eye coordination.  Yes, I was overweight, but I was strong and loved moving.  Then when I was in England I was following a public footpath home from a Slimming Club meeting (just another example of diets being bad for your health!) and ended up going over a wall that was twice as far down on the other side, landing in a deserted monastery garden and tearing the cartilage in my left knee.  Back then no one even said the words "physical therapy," so I was left with a chronically weak joint that would get reinjured just about every time I played tennis or ran across the street or even landed funny on that leg.  Ten years later I developed asthma, and that really put an end to my active life as I had known it. 

By the time I arrived at Green Mountain, in addition to living pretty much entirely in my head (as dealing with my body was no fun at all), I had also become afraid to move, especially if it involved raising a foot off the floor.  Walking was manageable, but dancing was out of the question, and going up and down stairs was the bane of my life.

 What I discovered when I started the program here was that being physically active is the closest thing to a magic bullet for all sorts of issues, not just weight management, and that there is always a way to exercise all the muscles of the body, including the heart (ie, aerobic activity), even if you are orthopedically or medically challenged.  I also learned that while being active may be hard, at first, if it hurts that means you aren't doing the activity correctly or are doing too much of it.

LynnAnn Covell, who was fitness director at that time and currently manages the lifestyle coaching program here, is one of the most inspirational people I have ever encountered, and one of the first things she said to my class of Green Mountain newbies was that if Plan A didn't work for us, she would come up with Plan B, and if that still didn't work, she would come up with plans C through Z, until she found a way for each of us to exercise comfortably and in a way that would allow us to become more fit and more comfortable in ourselves.  And I've learned that she was telling the truth.  If you can't do quad lifts on the floor, you can do them standing up or in a chair or on a fitball or in bed or in the pool.  If you can't walk, you can swim or bounce on a fitball or ride a bike.  If you can't dance on your feet, you can dance sitting in a chair or on a fitball and feel the joy in moving with the music.

This approach works for other aspects of life as well.  If you can't meditate on your own, you can listen to a recording of affirmations, or do some guided imagery, or a walking meditation or simply take a mindful walk in a beautiful place.  If you can't bear the thought of giving up eating in front of the television you can eat a meal there and set a timer to tell you when food needs to go back to the kitchen so you don't end up eating mindlessly for hours.  If you can't make a healthy lunch every day you can cook a whole bunch of things on the weekend or buy prepared foods that fit into how you want to eat or bring a stock of such foods into your work environment or figure out how to make healthier restaurant choices.  There is no one perfect answer, and searching for it can get in the way of finding a functional solution.

The trick to making this work is not letting disappointment and frustration at being unable to carry out Plan A get in the way of recognizing plan B and beyond.

A hui hou. 

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Finding My Heart Space

Part of my journey to increased calm and healthfulness has involved learning to meditate.  I started with guided imagery as part of the Green Mountain at Fox Run program, and then started doing actual meditation when I began phone coaching sessions with one of the behavioral specialists there.  Being the perfectionist that I was/am, I spent much of the first weeks trying to figure out if I was doing it right, and really concerned that I wasn't.  Eventually I got over that and became much more comfortable with the notion that meditation is a practice, in the same sense of that word as I am familiar with from my musical life;  there's no way to be perfect, but the repetition makes the whole process occur with a greater sense of ease.

Then my coach started talking about getting into my "heart space," breathing into it, feeling and acting from it, and I was lost.  I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.  Three years later, I still didn't, not really, but had made enough progress so that I was no longer worrying about why I was "failing" at this piece of my task.  I guess that eventually I started to believe that I was probably there, whatever that meant, but simply unable to feel what that meant.

Fast forward to our time in San Francisco, where at Carol's meeting she learned about a company that makes a product called "emWave" -- a combination of software and sensor that helps train you to achieve what they refer to as "coherence," a synchronization of your heart rate with your autonomic nervous system.  This sounded intriguing, so we saw a demonstration of the desktop computer program and promptly bought a system to try at home.  The program suggests that you "focus your attention in the area of the heart and pretend you are breathing in and out through the heart area."  Since I had never been able to do that in any reliable way, I thought using the software might help me attain that connection, which seems to be pretty important to inner peace.

I installed the software when we got home and have now had several sessions.  I think this is just the tool that I need.  I'll try to describe what a session entails.

After opening the program, you attach a sensor to your earlobe; the other end plugs into a little unit that plugs into a USB port.  It looks a lot like a thumb drive.  Then you press start and your session begins.  For the first 30 seconds or so, the unit calibrates your heart rate, and you can check whether the sensor is well-placed to get a good signal.  Once it has calibrated, you start hearing a chiming every five seconds to tell you how your state of coherence is.  Here's a rather fuzzy screen shot of a basic session:

The squiggle along the top represents your heart rhythm.  You are shooting for a smooth and regular pattern rather than something that looks like High Sierra.  The three bars in the lower right are the three levels of coherence:  red is low, blue is medium and green is high.  The greater percentage of the time you spend is blue or green, the more relaxed and centered you are.

The default has a low bonging for low coherence, a medium chiming for medium coherence, and a spritely high ringing for high coherence.  I found that I wasn't budging off the low level and thought it might be because I find the low bonging quite restful, so I reversed the low and high sounds assigned by the program and have had much better luck.  It's very helpful to have the immediate feedback, and it's getting easier for me to bring myself back out of the low level by focusing on my heart space, so I guess I've already done better at finding it than I ever did before.

The program also has interesting visualizations to help you stay focused and motivated, as well as three games that you control by keeping yourself in the more desirable states of coherence.  I'm looking forward to spending more time with these as I practice centering myself with this interesting and helpful tool.  Maybe future posts will actually originate from my heart space.  One can but hope.

A hui hou.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Getting Ready for the Next Round

After our intense, exhausting time in San Francisco, capped by a seriously uncomfortable overnight flight home to Boston, I am now getting ready to go back to Green Mountain at Fox Run for two weeks, starting Sunday.  The part of me that has to unpack and repack and get organized is feeling a little overwhelmed, but the part of me that is yearning to be healthier is excited and eager.

I love Green Mountain.  I love the vastness and solidity of Okemo Mountain, which watches over our days there.  I love the staff, who have become practically family after all the time I've spent there, and I love the other women who take part in the program.  Being able to spend the bulk of my days taking care of myself and making my health my top priority is a wonderful gift, and one that I appreciate deeply.

It is a place where mindfulness comes easily.  The clarity and quiet of the Vermont air form a magnificent backdrop for the act of paying attention.  Sometimes, when I am meditating at home, I can hear my feet crunching on the track as I walk my laps, a gentle, rhythmic sound that I find enormously grounding.  I look forward, always, to the wonderful meals so lovingly prepared by chefs Jon and Lisa, who are so generous in sharing their knowledge with us in the hopes that we can learn to cook mindfully and with joy.  If I want quiet and solitude, I can spend hours by myself, coming out of my room only for the occasional class and meals.  If I want company, there is always someone interesting to talk to or to provide a hug, an encouraging word or a little commiseration.

I'm looking forward to my time there as an oasis in a very busy spring.  I'm just above the weight where I feel comfortable in my skin, and the two weeks in Vermont should get me back to a more tolerable level, in addition to helping me figure out what my next focus needs to be.  I hope that two weeks of regularly engaging in strength training will help make that a routine again, and that two weeks of upping my cardio and walking (of necessity) up and down stairs many times a day will make moving a little easier.  And finally, I am planning to use my various physical therapy aids regularly, so that my ankle pain will recede to a more manageable level.

Of course, the dangers of having expectations are always lurking.  If I get there and have a flare-up of orthopedic issues or asthma, I won't be able to do all the activities I've been imagining, and that will be disappointing.  But I've never been there without learning the next thing I needed to work on, so I am confident that this will be a good use of my time, whatever I take away from it.

I'm also planning to try to post every day while I'm at Green Mountain, so that I can share what I learn and help solidify it in my mind.

A hui hou.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

I Am What I Am

Have you ever been sitting in an overheated room or car or airplane wearing too many layers?  And when you get to where you can finally shed the excess, have you ripped off the heavy, damp garmets and exposed your skin to the cool air and felt so much lighter, and so relieved to be comfortable again?  I had that experience just last night, walking back to our hotel from a wonderful dinner.  When I got to the room, I ripped off my sweater and my shirt and flopped down on the bed, experiencing, for just a moment, delicious relief.

Then it occurred to me that I craved an even deeper level of relief.  I wished I could unzip my skin and peel off the extra layers of me the way I removed my clothes. 

Being here in San Francisco, where we need to walk everywhere, is a challenging experience.  When I'm at home, I can ride my bike, which doesn't hurt or stress my body overmuch.  Here, I have to walk, which, in addition to the strain of moving my heavy body through space, also aggravates my ankle problem and until this morning my gout as well.  So I'm not exactly a happy camper walking around, as much as I may enjoy being outside in a beautiful, interesting place.  The night we arrived, as I forced myself to walk along to dinner and back, I was feeling exhausted (it was 3am, body time) and disheartened by how hard it felt, but from somewhere deep inside I mustered up the will to mutter to Carol, "I am what I am." 

"I Am What I Am" is the name of a very sweet song by Roy Sakuma, a teacher and ukulele advocate in Hawaii, who wrote it to inspire and encourage people, especially kids, to love themselves as they are.  I first came across the song this past winter in Aunty Marjie's ukulele class, where Aunty Marjie shared how she feels that the song is an anthem for her as she joyously walks her own path in life. 

When I said that to Carol the other night, she very sweetly replied, "And I love what you are."  I wasn't feeling love for myself at that moment.  At least not for my physical self.  Yet if I can't love my body and treat it with compassion, I won't be able to do what I need to get healthy.  It's a conundrum.

And so today, I'll go out into the warm sunshine again and walk the city, wishing I could be flying along on my bike, trying to make peace with the effort and the discomfort and the struggle that are so much a part of what I am right now.

I am what I am.  Right now.  In this moment. 

A hui hou.

Friday, April 16, 2010

When an Old Friend Lets You Down

One of the most startling ideas presented to me as part of the Green Mountain at Fox Run program was that I should be grateful to my fat, and to my overeating, for taking care of me all those years.  Obviously it did something positive for me, by way of comfort and/or protection, at some point in my life.  Certainly, food equals comfort for many of us, beginning with our time as infants when all of life is either eating or sleeping.  In my own history, I have used food to stuff down grief and anger, and I've used my fat both as a buffer against a notion of femininity which was totally foreign to me and a grand gesture of defiance, daring the world to see me for the beautiful, sensual, sensitive woman I am. 

I've never drunk alcohol, smoked, or used recreational pharmaceuticals, but I've used food the way an addict shoots up, seeking numbness and calm.  During the difficult, painful days of my youth and young adulthood, the oblivion came quickly and worked well, and for that I am grateful.  As I've grown older and wiser, and as my life has gotten easier and more satisfying, the triggers that have sent me back to my habitual comforts have gotten smaller and more subtle.  Instead of eating to numb myself against crushing grief, I now eat to allay the momentary anxieties of a difficult task or a deadline; instead of tamping down anger with calories, I now use them as others might use a sleeping pill, to help my mind grow calm enough for sleep.  Food is my oldest and most trusted friend, celebrating the good times and helping me through the bad.

So what do I do when my old friend lets me down?

Twice since I've gotten back from Hawaii, I've deliberately turned to food to help me deal with some discomfort and disappointment (see yesterday's post on Expectations for a discussion of one episode), and twice it has not helped.  Not even a little.  Maybe it's because I'm more mindful of how I really feel and what I really need, but when I ate the last chip or put away the bag of cookies, I was an anxious, agitated and uncomfortable as I was when I started.  And unlike the addict seeking ever larger doses in pursuit of the high, I knew that eating more would only make me feel worse.

Those of you who have never struggled with food in this way probably won't understand how totally, devastatingly shocking this was.  Obviously, in the great scheme of life, the eating never really helps and in fact contributes to my problems; nevertheless, in the moment, it has always seemed to calm me down and make it possible for me to take the next step. Even though I have been actively working to learn other tools to deal with the feelings and situations that have always led me to food, I guess it had never occurred to me that at some point my standby would cease to function.  I thought that foresaking food would be my choice, not a necessity.

Unfortunately, now that that day seems to have arrived, I don't yet feel equipped to deal with this new reality.  I don't have my new arsenal in place; while I've come up with a list of lots of possibilities, so far nothing has resonated for me with the same calming effects as eating.  And that scares me.  I feel abandoned, bereft, and extremely vulnerable.

And yet maybe that vulnerability is a good thing.  Perhaps if I sit with the fear and the grief at having lost my old friend, I'll be able to reach out in other directions, to healthier and more supportive companions.

Wish me luck!

A hui hou.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


This past week, I've been trying to pay attention to what sets off the negative feelings that lead me to eat inappropriately. I know that being tired is a big one for me, and that my sleep issues are a major arena that I have yet to deal with successfully.  But beyond turning to food rather than sleep when I am exhausted, what is it that drives me to attempt to drug myself with food?

I think I've discovered a clue.  So often when I feel the urge to eat when I'm not hungry, I have just bumped up against a reality that differs from my expectations.  Yesterday was a great opportunity to have this realization, as I spent most of the day reeling from those collisions. 

It started in the morning.  All week, the weather forecasters had been saying that Wednesday would be the warmest, sunniest day of the week, and I'd been looking forward to taking a longer-than-usual bike ride.  But I slept later than I had hoped and had a couple of things I absolutely had to take care of before I could take off, so it was almost 3pm before I left the house.  Since we had somewhere to be at 5pm, I couldn't go ride where I had wanted.  Moreover, three pm is the worst time of day for me, energetically speaking, so I found the ride that I did harder than usual.  Then, when I got home, I learned that I would not be able to go to Green Mountain at Fox Run for the two weeks that I had just decided I really, really needed because they didn't have space for me. 

The net result of all this frustration was the worst episode of night eating I've had in months.

Looking a little deeper into what had happened, I realized that having expectations at all is a dangerous thing to do, because it not only sets you up for frustration and/or failure, but it takes you out of the moment and into the future.  Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment, accepting it for what it is, appreciating it, learning from it, and not looking beyond it.  Straying from mindfulness is, at least for me, a prelude to trouble.

My explorations of mindfulness these past few years have led me to make a lot of changes with respect to expectations.  I can see them most clearly in relation to my winter sojourn in Hawaii.  I used to send or bring tons of stuff to Hawaii to work on during my time there and would spend most of the winter not doing those projects and feeling bad about that.  And when I had to shlep or ship all of it back to Massachusetts in the spring, the feelings of frustration and failure would overwhelm my homecoming and cause me to start out my time back east feeling like I was already in a huge hole with no obvious way out.  Eventually, I came to understand that my expectations for the few months I spend in Hawaii were totally unrealistic, especially given that I often arrive there totally depleted from the very intense week of KlezKamp if not actually ill.

This year, I took very little with me and had nothing more on my agenda than continuing to recover from my bout with H1N1 and pneumonia, and as a result was more productive and happier than I have been in many years.

When I first encountered the idea of non-striving as part of the mindfulness practice taught at Green Mountain, I didn't understand it.  In fact, the idea that ceasing to push myself could actually help me get done the things that I felt unable to accomplish was completely counterintuitive.  Yet I have experienced, over and over again, that this is so.  Which is why I have been taking a laid back approach to biking this season:  not training for Hub on Wheels, not following a specific program, but going out to ride as often as feels comfortable and desirable and finding that, when I'm healthy, that's pretty much every day. 

I am reminded of the famous line from Pope's "Essay on Man":  "Whatever is, is right."  Surely, that is a rallying cry for mindfulness.  Yes as someone who feels compelled to try to make the world (and herself) better, how can I actually believe that?  If whatever is were right, wouldn't I be content with my fat, hypertensive, arthritic body?

The task, I believe, is to find a balancing point between a long-term, global expectation of growth and improvement and an active embracing of what exists in the moment.  In Lifetime Channel terms, this amounts to the truism that until you learn to love yourself as you are, you won't be able to change.  In mindfulness terms, I think it means not getting too attached to any vision of the way you think things ought to be so that you can stay focused on what actually is there, learn from it or let it go, and move on to the next moment.

A hui hou.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Who Do I Think I Am?

Yesterday was a strange and disturbing day.  I don't know if it was simply that I overdid things physically the day before, that I didn't get enough sleep, or the drastic change in barometric pressure, but I felt seriously compromised physically, and that led, as it so often does, to a drastic disturbance in my mental state.  I hate when that happens.  I've been trying to stay out of that particular set of well-worn ruts in my thinking, with a fair amount of success, but during times of stress, the wheels always want to return to the familiar.

Here's what happened.  Feeling too ill to ride my bike, especially given the cold air, I decided to explore bike trails in Chicago in preparation for getting a bike to keep at my sister's house.  On the surface, this seems like a healthy, relatively positive alternative to actually biking.  And as I was reading about the various trails and bike paths, I started to visualize myself riding along them, as I often do.  Usually I can feel the wind in my face and feel the sun on my skin as I fly along the miles, and these feelings are a source of comfort and pleasure to me, but for some reason, the image went dark and I found myself in the middle of the following internal dialog:

"Who are you kidding?  You aren't a real cyclist.  Everybody else is getting out and riding 15 miles the first nice day, and you have to struggle to keep going for 3."

"Yeah, but I can work my way up to 15 miles, or even more.  And I love it."

"You'll probably get that bike and it will sit around in your sister's garage, the same way you've never used the pool at the place you stay when you visit."

"Yeah, but if I don't have the bike there, I'll never ride it.  And besides, I love biking even more than jumping around in water, and I really want to be able to share riding with my sister and my Chicago friends and my niece."

"You think you are a cyclist.  Huh!  You're fat and slow and no one is going to want to ride with you because you can't keep up.  And besides, Chicago is a big, scary place."

"Yeah, but I have a cell phone and my friends and family love me."

"Just who the hell do you think you are?"

So, feeling bad and having no answer, I shrank quietly into misery, where I moped for the rest of the day.

I knew how irrational I was being.  I knew that I really am an active person, in between bouts of illness and orthopedic challenge.  That was the first lesson I learned at Green Mountain, and the one that has perhaps done the most for me during the past few years.  But I just couldn't feel it.

It's hard, when injury strikes or your body just isn't working right, to feel in touch with the child in all of us who would rather run than talk, eat or sleep, but getting in touch with that joyous, active soul is, I believe, my first responsibility as someone who is trying to become healthy and fit.  My bike usually gives me the best and quickest access to that soul, and I find myself longing to be out on it even when I can barely breathe.  Those visions that I have of myself flying over the pavement are very real and feel incredibly important in this process of transforming myself.  If I can feel it, truly feel it, I can be it.  And so when the doubts hit, as they did yesterday, I have to learn to let them wash over me and dissipate into the ether.

Who the hell do I think I am?

I'm a fat lady on a bike and don't you forget it!

A hui hou.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Passing of Passover

The passing of Passover, with its dietary rules, has got me thinking again about something that I read when I first got back here from Hawaii.  Last fall, I had gotten a book called Food for the Soul:  Traditional Jewish Wisdom for Healthy Eating, but hadn't yet had a chance to read it, so I picked it up in the wee hours of my jet lag. 

Before going on, let me interrupt myself to give a little background for those of you who aren't familiar with the kosher laws and what they mean.  Observant Jews have a lot of rules of about what and how to eat:  though I am not Orthodox, when Carol and I moved to our apartments in Watertown, we decided to keep our home kosher, partly as a way of connecting with our traditions and exploring what they might mean, and partly as a way to organize our life, which is spread out over three units on two separate floors of the building (hey, it sounds crazy, but it works!).  Two of the main rules of keeping kosher are not eating pork or shellfish and not mixing meat and dairy products.  And then, of course, there is the whole prohibition against leavened grain products (and anything that might remind you of such products) during Passover.

Truth be told, I don't find most of this a problem, despite all my various issues about deprivation.  While my family did not keep kosher when I was a child, it was definitely kosher style, and I simply never got into the habit of eating pork products or shell fish, and when I tried them later on, I simply didn't like them, except for bacon, but I'm just as happy eating the vegetarian version of that.  The meat and cheese thing is a little more of a sacrifice, but most of the time I don't have a problem with that either.  And I quite happily trade in my bread and pasta for matzo during the week of Passover.  No big deal.  I just do it and don't usually feel deprived at all.

So in Food for the Soul there was a chapter about eating for good health where the author likened the act of making healthy choices about what to eat to following the laws of kashrut.  She said that just as an observant Jew would not allow herself to be tempted or pressured to eat a bacon cheeseburger but simply and matter-of-factly say "no, thank you," a healthy, mindful eater could use that same, matter-of-fact discipline to decline second helpings or overlarge portions, etc.

Reading this was a revelation to me.  In my efforts to combat the evil effects of deprivation and too much diet mentality thinkiing, I had been feeling that the answer for me was somehow going to involve only being extremely mindful of what I wanted and needed rather than having to impose any sort of discipline.  I had already been thinking beyond that notion, as I mentioned in one of my earlier blog posts (Pathology or Punishment - Part Two), due to some gastrointestinal issues, but it wasn't until I read the passage in Food for the Soul that I really understood something about what this might really mean on a day-to-day basis.  It was just a glimmer, but I get the feeling that there is something to be learned here.

Interestingly, this is the first Passover in as long as I can remember by the end of which I wasn't absolutely longing for some of the "forbidden" foods.  Perhaps because I was trying to be so much more mindful of my bodily needs during the week, especially during my illness, perhaps because I was feeling so much calmer about food in general, when the holiday ended last night, I just ate some more matzo and cheese and went to sleep, ate some more matzo for breakfast this morning, and then for lunch made some salmon, boiled potatoes and spinach, all of which would have been perfectly acceptable on a Passover table.  We did some shopping on the way home from an evening with grandchildren so now have "normal" food in the house, but there was really no urgency about it.  Usually I'd have been longing for pizza or a doughnut or ice cream or something on the prohibited list.  That seems significant also, though again, I'm not exactly sure of the specifics yet.

Have I reached some sort of turning point?  Maybe.  Or maybe I'm just sojourning in a calm, lovely valley before I get to the next mountain.  Whatever this landscape is, I'm enjoying it.

A hui hou.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

My Lifetime Movie Moment

As soon as we got through the first seder, the incipient crud that was causing me problems last week turned into the full-blown respiratory infection I thought it would, and by Thursday I was in the throes of a full-blown asthma attack as well.  Yesterday I went to the health center and came home with drugs and am feeling much better now.  But I spent most of this glorious day not out on my bicycle, as I had hoped, but nestled in my recliner appreciating the breeze coming through the wide open window and watching television.

When I ran out of things I wanted to watch from my DV-R list, I ended up on Lifetime, the channel for women, watching Queen Sized, which purported to be a typical feel-good movie of the week kind of offering from this particular outlet.  But I was feeling kind of bleah and not up for any more substantial choice and the premise was at least vaguely interesting:  a fat girl (Maggie) gets nominated for homecoming queen by the very cruel popular clique as a joke and goes on to win both the contest and the day, transforming herself in the process.  Little did I know that watching this made for tv movie would lead to a moment of painful, blinding insight.

Don't worry; I have no intention of  relating the details of the entire plot -- if you have questions you can check out the link above.  About three-quarters through the film, there is a scene between the main character's mother and her plus-sized colleague (they are both social workers), where the friend essentially calls the mother out for not being much different from the cruel, daughter-bullying popular kids at school.  She says to the mother that she has basically made Maggie feel bad about herself by always focusing on her weight, even if she was doing so out of health concerns, and that was leading Maggie to feel as though nothing she did could ever be good enough.  When I heard those words, I felt as though someone had stabbed a knife into my heart and I started to cry.  That reaction is always a clue that I need to pay attention.

A couple of years ago, towards the beginning of this journey, my wonderful therapist/life coach was helping me see what a perfectionist, all-or-nothing thinker and merciless taskmaster I am to myself, and she asked me where I thought my extreme expectations had come from.  I told her I thought they had come from myself, that I didn't believe I had been under pressure from my parents, since my ambitions for myself were always much higher than theirs.  Last year, when I reconnected with my younger sister after an estrangement of 35 years (and a lot of suppressed memories), she told me that it always seemed to her as though they did put a lot of pressure on me, but I still couldn't reconcile that with what I did remember, which was being supported in any endeavor I undertook and valued for my many academic and creative achievements.

But tonight, watching that scene on the television, what came to me in the same instant as the heart ache and tears, was that maybe the need I've always had to do more and do everything to the very best of my ability was the result of feeling that if I did enough, maybe they would stop feeling disappointed in me for not being able to control my weight or my relationship with food.  Because I realized in that flash of insight that I had felt (and maybe still feel) that that one area of failure trumps all my many successes, that nothing that I do will ever be good enough unless and untill I can lose weight.

I'm still a bit dazed by this.  It feels like an important piece of my personal puzzle, and one that I will be examining more in the days to come.  And to think, I owe it all to Lifetime.

A hui hou.