Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Is It Ever Enough? A Frank Discussion About Body Image

I've spent the last nine months working toward an unattainable goal... my vision of the perfect body.  I'm sure you've seen her - that picture on Pinterest, the girl with ripped abs, killer arms, tight glutes, sweat pouring off her tanned, taut skin.  She looks perfect.  I think there's a little part of each of us that wishes we looked like that.  I started small.  First, I changed my diet.  I went from a junk-food, fast-food junkie to a clean eating vegan to a high protein, low carb, grain free diet.  I started counting calories and macros and figuring out what deficit I needed to get off these last ten pounds to hit my goal - an arbitrary number I chose because I liked how it sounded to weigh that much.  I started running, added in jumping jacks and crunches, then progressed to more intense circuit workouts and weight-lifting.  I started focusing on adding weight to my workouts while decreasing the number on the scale.  Anyone who knows anything about building muscle knows it's pretty difficult to simultaneously lose weight and gain muscle.  But try I did... and still am.  I've gotten addicted to working out.  I love the feeling of dripping sweat and sore muscles.  I love the gratification I get after finishing an intense workout.  I love pushing myself, even when my mind tells me to quit.  I workout an hour a day, six days a week.  If I miss my workout, I'm pissed.  My day is shot.  You might be reading all of this and thinking, “I wish I had that problem.  I hate working out.”

But growing alongside my love of working out has been an increasing dislike of my body.  It's been unexpected and crippling at times.  You see, instead of celebrating my accomplishments, I still look at myself as needing more work.  Instead of being proud that I can bust out 70 burpees, I look at my arms and wish my muscles were more prominent.  I don't see strong legs, though I am lifting weights I never imagined.  Instead, I look at my legs and I see “stubborn fat” that just won't go away.  Instead of looking at my abs and being damn proud that I can actually see my six pack (in the right light, anyway), I am depressed that my skin is scarred and stretched from three pregnancies.  Instead of being proud to have put on nearly eight pounds of muscle in the past nine months, I'm disappointed that I'm further away from my “goal weight” than when I started.  I'm less happy now as a size 2 than I ever was as a size 8.  Why?

I've gotten caught up in it.  We are all bombarded with it, the idea of “perfect”, like that's going to make us happy, or worthy, or whole.  It won't, it can't, it doesn't.  But we still feel the pressure to reach for that unreachable ideal.  Each of us carries our own set of strengths and weaknesses, our own perfections and our own flaws.  I've found myself focusing so much lately on my flaws that I can't even see all the awesomeness I used to see in me.  Time to get that back.  Time to shift my focus.  Time to stop focusing on what I'm not and be proud of who and what I am right now.  I don't have to weigh a certain number to be just right.  I'm just right already.  I don't have to see my imperfections as flaws, I can choose to see myself as perfectly imperfect, like every single person on this planet.  I don't have to work harder, eat cleaner, lose more to be enough.  I am enough already.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Dark Eye of Perfection

I used to think that being a perfectionist was a good thing.  But nearly thirty years into my life – I've come to realize it isn't at all the thing I thought it to be.

As a child, I was often called “conscientious” by my teachers.  In fact, every teacher I can remember noted that on my report card from elementary school on.  I never really knew the meaning of the word until I finally looked it up in high school.  It basically means wanting to do what's right, and doing one's best.  The word certainly sums me up.  It might seem that such a description would bring one the satisfaction of knowing that others notice their drive for things to be right, to be just so, to be perfect.  My perfectionistic personality served me well through school and into the workforce, setting me apart from my peers who could complete papers and projects and not concern themselves with minor defects and flaws.  The things they so easily dismissed were the same things that crippled me.  I could never turn in something I knew wasn't perfect.  I just couldn't.

Becoming a parent has cast a dark shadow onto my need for perfection.  I see now how foolish the strive for perfection truly is.  It hurts to know that the core of who I am is what – in the end – tears my soul into pieces day by day.  You see, just because I know that perfection is unattainable doesn't make it any less my aim.  My heart knows better.  My heart says let it go.  My mind refuses.  My mind allows the ticks of real life to shatter my perception of what my life should look like.  The blocks scattered about the floor, the crayon marks on the walls, the smeared food on the table.  For some parents, most I think, those things represent a well-loved, lived-in, happy home.  For me, those things highlight my failures.  Every little out-of-place trinket reinforces the fact that I don't have it all under control, that I don't have anything under control at all.  I follow behind my children, cleaning up the path of destruction they leave like they are little tornadoes destroying my beautiful town, when I should be dancing in the storm along with them.

This might sound silly or superficial.  You'd probably tell me to get over it, get over myself.  I wish I could.  I beg myself all day long to just let go.  Just let go.  Let the mess happen.  Let the dishes pile up.  Let the laundry sit-in-wait.  Let it be.  It's not an easy thing to do.

My heart longs to see the beauty in the mess.  To accept that life is not a series of perfectly posed photos.  It is deep valleys and majestic peaks, and without the valleys, we wouldn't even notice the peaks.  Life is full of messy, unexpected, fragile, blissfully imperfect moments of madness.  And in that bounty is where the true majesty resides.

Perfection steals away reality.  It dulls the beauty that imperfection creates.  It hides me from the people who need to see me in all my shades.  I'm neurotic, obsessive, verging on manic at times.  Other days I'm light as a feather, free, open, relaxed.  I'm both sides of a mixed metal coin – when I let my authentic self shine through.

The desire for perfection haunts me.  It doesn't serve me or those I love.  It imprisons me – a demon that dances in my soul, darkening the light of my glorious life.  It's the root of my frustrations, my sadness, and my disappointments.

Perfection never allows me to fumble – but it also never releases me to fly.  I need to see both sides.  To relish in the darkness while anticipating the light – for it is in that place of twilight that my eyes see the beauty in the landscape of my life.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Few Thoughts on Creating Habits

Have you ever watched someone play an instrument? I mean really play it. With every note, every key, every pluck, you hear the beautiful, powerful melody of practice. The sound of habit. The tune of dedication, perseverance, persistence. 

I've played piano since childhood, but I don't practice very often anymore. In my mind I remember almost nothing, but through my hands I can recollect one song. It's a great one, my favorite piece from high school, a difficult piece, and one I wasn't sure I would ever master. But I did, and since then it's a piece I have played over and over again throughout the years. And it's the one I play every time I sit down at the keys to this day. It's the only piece that gives me that sense of fulfillment and excellence, that reminds me of how – through time and work – anything can be accomplished. Of course, on many occasions, it's more likely that I'm tickling the ivories to the tune of Itsy Bitsy Spider or my girls' latest Disney favorite. But when it's my turn, I always come back to Passacaglia.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.

Lately I've been putting a lot of effort into creating new habits. It's a tough thing to do, to change the inertia of one's life, pulling away from the comfort of the familiar and tracking off course into the unknown. My habits are – for better or worse – the bricks that build the foundation of my life. To grow and evolve, I have to continue to create new habits, find new ways to challenge myself, learn new things. Wishing for the ability to play guitar, or become an author, or compete in a triathlon, wishing won't do anything to make those things happen. The only thing I can do to achieve my dreams is to create habits that guide me toward them. To reach my mountainous goals, I have to take little steps each day toward the summit. It won't be quick. When I start, I might feel like I felt when I first heard my favorite piano piece – like I would never get there. But each day brings the chance to keep the promises I make to myself. To do the things I said I'd do. To follow through creating new habits and leave behind destructive ones.

Stop the habit of wishful thinking and start the habit of thoughtful wishes.
Mary Martin

We could go through our whole lives never realizing that our habits, those little seemingly insignificant things we do each day, make up the whole of who we are. We are the sum of the things we do each day, the things we fill our time with, good or bad, mundane or meaningful. Our habits become our future. Whether we want them to or not.

People do not decide their futures, 
they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.
FM Alexander

If I look back on my life a year from now, will I be content with the way I filled my days? Will I live a life of regret, wishing I'd taken the time to practice music, play legos, eat healthy, meditate, get close to those I love? Will I find the strength today to reach the next summit, or will I stay in the hopeless land of wishful wondering? How will my life look a decade from now? If I don't change my habits, it'll look just like it does today. Am I okay with that?

Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it each day, and at last we cannot break it.
Horace Mann

So what do we do if we know we want radical change? If we want to embark on something brand new, something we know nothing about, something scary, something life-altering? All we have to do is start. That sounds so simple, and it is. But that's how life works. You see your goal. You set out to reach it. You find small, achievable steps toward that goal. And then you take those steps. Every. Single. Day. To redirect your path when necessary, going around obstacles you didn't see when you set out. But no matter what, you keep moving forward until one day, one day, you see the summit. You made it. You built the steps to your goal, and you climbed them until you reached the top. You didn't settle for wishing and waiting. You didn't let the momentum of life hold you down, but you used it to propel you forward on your journey of self-discovery. And when you look back on your life, and all you've done, all the promises you kept to yourself, you'll stand at the top of that mountain, basking in the glorious sunlight, arms held up high with the thrill of accomplishment spreading across your face. Don't wait until tomorrow to start living the life you want to live. Your summit is waiting for you.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Dreams of my Ten-Year-Old Self

It's been said that a person who makes a living doing the thing he loves never works a day in his life.  Sounds idyllic.  For me, that one thing has always been writing.

I was sitting on a hill in my backyard as a ten-year-old, working on poetry and journaling.  It was spring, the breeze tickled my neck and twirled my hair in its fingers, blowing the pages of my notebook up and making me messy my letters.  Tiny purple flowers surrounded me in my perch on the hillside.  In my mind, it's a picture perfect day.  Clouds speckled the sky like little ships sailing into harbor.  Birds sung happy, spring-time songs to each other.  It's the way one might imagine Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson spending an afternoon as a child.  Surely, I thought in that moment, this is what I'm supposed to be doing for the rest of my life.  My writings were far from extraordinary.  I had notebooks full of mediocrity.  Random words strung together.  Some were about nature or my most recent crush.  I often wrote about my family, my parents, feeling torn between them since they divorced.  But the subject matter was irrelevant.  That wasn't why I wrote.  I wrote because it felt good to write.  It felt good to be still and quiet and listen to the whispers coming from inside me.  Letting the moment dictate what I wrote was all the muse I needed.

As a child, teenager, and young adult, I was painfully shy.  My face would turn that not-so-charming shade of beet red whenever I was called upon in class or at work, whether I knew the answer or not.  Writing gave me a voice when I was too afraid to speak out in person.  Through my words and papers, I let people know how much I loved them, how much they hurt me, how circumstances affected me.  Words helped me discover who I was, and gave me a way to show other people the person that lived inside the shy body.  I dreamed through my writing, imagined great futures or distant pasts.  I relived past heartaches and found pieces of myself I hadn't known were missing.  I fell in love for the first time through letters.  Writing has always felt right for me, ever since that day on the hill.  Even when the words don't come out right, and I find myself starting again and again, there is always so much to learn through the act of writing, and there is the unending need to let out the images growing inside me.

I wrote religiously as a teen, even submitting some of my poetry to publications.  I read and wrote and read and wrote some more.  I was word-obsessed.  But I got busy as I got older, and as adults tend to do, I made less and less time for the thing my heart loved most.  I put my dream of writing into a little box.  I closed the lid.  I forgot about it all together.  I lost that part of myself for a while.  A long while.  I've been struggling to get it back ever since.

I never set out to be a best-selling author, though obviously that would be a tremendous accomplishment.  It's about so much more than recognition for me though.  As selfish as it sounds, I don't really write for other people.  I write for me.  It feels amazing when the things I'm sharing or feeling make a mark on someone else's heart because they identify with my experiences and sentiments.  I love how writing connects people.  I really love that.  But whether that happens or not, whether a thousand people read this post or no one at all, it is still worth it.  It still means something to me.  Because I created it.  I got to write it.  Writing is it's own greatest reward.

One of the most courageous things a person can do is to embrace the voice inside themselves.  To listen to the strings that are pulling at their hearts.  To pursue their dreams with fierce determination, not to box them up – but let them out to play once in a while.  To let their dreams guide their life and be confident that they are being led right where they ought to go.

If you could do one thing for the rest of your life, what would you do?  What's the dream that has hung around in your heart, when your interests shifted, when you grew out of things, grew into new things?  What has been the one constant thing you could never give up?  The thing that would never let go of you.  The thing your ten-year-old self was spent free time pursuing.  Do you still dream about that magical thing?

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