home (thoughts on expectations)

childhood brings forward memories of barbecues (in new england, that’s what we call a cookout), my mother putting hamburger and hotdog buns, humpty dumpty potato chips, and triscuits into wicker baskets lined with unfolded napkin squares. burgers and marinated teriyaki chicken on the grill. all of us cousins running around on a soda-induced sugar high.

one of my favorite things about my family was that, while there were always traditional gendered roles echoing in the aunts washing dishes and the uncles drinking beer and talking about tools and lawn equipment, there were just as many free and open positions that each family member took. my uncle, the family historian and memory-capturer, always filming and photographing our get-togethers with pride. my mom changing the propane tank on the grill. another uncle serving burgers while my aunt broke apart the giant ice bag from the gas station. all of the cousins asked to help clean things up. while these were small things, they expressed that work should be shared and jobs were equal. they also helped me to see the value of family. we were there for one another, functioned as a unit. celebrated successes. mourned losses. just got together to hang out. and this was what i always wanted for my future. i have realized that while my family wasn’t always perfect and we didn’t have a lot of money, they gave me room to be who i was and worked to give me a life that went beyond expectation.

but i had expectations. expectations i always felt were challenging to live up to. expectations that didn’t come from my parents or my aunts and uncles or cousins. expectations i created for myself. in many ways, i’ve resisted being closer to my family in recent years because i felt that i couldn’t live up to that. at 33, i do not own my own home or have children of my own to bring to barbecues and holiday parties. not having these things has made me feel like i have little to contribute to the unit, although they do not expect anything but my time and love. i’ve asked myself a lot about these expectations recently, and realized that i have them for myself in almost every area of my life, for no other reason than the “supposed to”s and “should”s i’ve mentioned before. it’s incredible how much power we give to living up to what we think others expect of us. imagine the accomplishments we could achieve if we removed that standard and started living for all of the things that bring us what we actually need and want in our lives. for some people that may mean following the dreams of their families. for others it may mean abandoning those dreams at all costs. but we must decide for ourselves. choose the path that brings us to the place we want to find ourselves in the world. and follow it until it ends, or we choose another. that is what will bring us truly beyond expectation. beyond the hopes and dreams of others and into the warm heart of what even we couldn’t see for ourselves. the real meaning of what it means to be home.

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the way she moves.

google result for "grace"

image courtesy of Google (from Google search for “grace”)

grace
i used to be graceful. like, pride-myself-on-walking-in-quietly-while-commanding-a-room-full-of-respect-and-attention, graceful. at least, that’s how i imagined it. i was careful to convey the mood and intention of my interactions with the heaviness of my footfalls; i tried to move as close to silently as possible; and i always paid attention to how i held my body, whether moving or standing still. this was simply a way of being, and in my teens and twenties, was not meant to force attention or convey a pompous attitude, but as a camaraderie between how the world experienced me and how i existed and impacted the world in return. everyday was an adventure in this way, and always required me to hone intuition to get a sense of the energy of the day, the mood of an event, or the tone of a group. i studied and learned about the person in the room who wasn’t speaking or being spoken to. i explored the details of places to find secret spots, or books, or histories. i discovered things about the world this way, and it was exhilarating. it gave me a place to exist and a method of doing it. i had a place, and it was mine.

athletics: a (my) history
i’d never go so far as to say that this grace, as i’ve dubbed it, was by any means athletic. while i could do athletic things, i was not athletically gifted. coordination was not my problem – i could dance, stretch, mimic, and perform. it was athleticism – running, organized team-on-team sports, play-by-play instruction based on rules, plans, strengths and weaknesses of players – that never came naturally. i did make an effort, just never the connection.

two very particular experiences with organized athletics impacted me immensely beyond my natural disinclination in this area:
1) my middle school gym teacher made every non-natural-born-athlete feel like an inferior species and regularly taunted us in gym. i’m sure my pre-teen imagination exaggerated this to some extent, but i still remember the sentiment of gym class to this very day, including the sinking pit in my stomach when changing in the locker room. to my credit, i also remember being able to climb fairly high on rope-climb day (“for a girl”) which was the only smug moment i EVER had in his class.

2) my parents really wanted me to try a sport, club, or activity. as a young kid (elementary school-ish), i was really into books and writing and, while i had friends and played a lot, this caused me to spend a lot of time on my own. after a little prodding, i finally decided i would try soccer. i remember putting on shorts with sweatpants on over them to walk to the gym in the cold, finding a cool enough tee-shirt that i also wouldn’t be upset if i sweat all over, and lacing up my sneakers that i had no clue wouldn’t get traction on the turf. i don’t think i had ever really seen cleats up close before. but i felt good. i knew a little about soccer, and i thought i was going to keep my head down, listen to what the coach taught us, and eventually test it out with my own two feet. it took very little time to discover how SORELY mistaken i was, entering a gym full of 9 and 10 year old boys who had been playing soccer for YEARS (how were we even old enough to have been doing ANYTHING for years?!) and one, count her: ONE, other girl. who was athletic. and really (or as we say it at home, wicked) good at soccer. fan-freaking-tastic. i have no memory of a coach or any adult being there, though i’m sure there were a handful chatting over coffee in the corner, talking about the lack of funding and sharing town gossip. the horse blinders were on. all i could see were kids in adidas sambas (i still have an obsession with these) and cleats running around like mini-Beckham’s, making the ball do their child-athlete bidding. i was in WAY over my head. the worst part of all of this was not the overwhelming sense of lack of knowledge and skill- because i could have gotten over that. i didn’t like being bad at things, but i wanted to learn how not to be bad at something even more. i would have stayed and learned and maybe even been okay at soccer. instead, the jokes about a girl on the field incessantly began, not a grown up or my Mia-Hamm-like-girl-player-in-solidarity in sight to say a word. the derision was impressive for boys that age, though i imagine, as politely as i can say this, that they had good instruction (from all aspects). i had a decently thick skin for a kid that age (i hadn’t yet been to the gym class in example 1), but it didn’t take long before i was furious. and with the fury came the frustration. and the over-thinking. and then the reduced coordination. i’m pretty sure i stayed for the whole first game, which i imagine was shortened given our ages, although it felt like forever. even though i yelled back at the boys and i tried to learn the rules, the name calling, the intentional kick shots to the stomach and face, and the lack of ANY SINGLE PERSON stepping in to simply tell them to “knock it off” sealed the deal for me: i would not be returning to soccer. not then. not ever. this was one of the only times i can remember in my whole life when i’ve been that frustrated and managed not to cry, though i did power-walk home, fists clenched and shaking, my face red, to tell my dad “SEE! DO YOU SEE NOW! (of course he hadn’t seen what happened and was completely blindsided) THIS IS WHY I DID NOT WANT TO PLAY A SPORT!!!” i did, because i was coordinated and didn’t mind exercising, eventually become a cheerleader, and we did ironically cheer for the high school men’s soccer team when they were low on fans. although many of the players were different, more mature, and were really, genuinely nice guys, i remember thinking, “my how the tides have turned!”

a b i l i t y and commitment
this sets the stage for you. while i still felt a connection to my “grace”, never had a problem with breaking a sweat, was one of a handful of girls who used the weight room with the football players in high school, and could dance, do yoga, and take down a solid Tae Bo video, i never believed in my physical ability. i started joking that i only ran if i was being chased. and that stuck. and created a mindset. it wasn’t just that i didn’t – i couldn’t – and even if i could, i wouldn’t want to. once i got to college, it stood out to me more. friends went to the gym. they went running together. they played club, intramural, or even varsity sports. IN FRONT OF PEOPLE. and they liked it! my newly minted women’s studies minor self could only think back to the soccer turf, and i chose to find a team in clubs, organizations, and my job as a Resident Assistant. this attitude continued after i graduated. even after i took some time to really do yoga, discovered how much i enjoyed pushing myself in pilates, and took intensively long walks with friends and co-workers. i loved how these things made me feel, but i could never commit. i felt like i would fail before i ever began. habits were broken before they formed. and i could blame it on work, and then grad school, or both.

to sweat or not to sweat…
it wasn’t until i was in my mid-twenties that i discovered Bikram Yoga. it was the hardest physical activity i had ever done in my life – an hour and a half of yoga training in a 98° room filled with people an arms-width away. our teacher used to say “90 minutes of hell, a lifetime of heaven”. they told us that the goal of the first class was just to be able to stay in the room. laying down. not moving. i was sufficiently horrified and fascinated at the same time. when the class started, i was so focused on really hearing and doing what the instructor was communicating, that i suddenly found myself at the end of the class, having done every pose. my yogi later told me that i came to class with the best thing i could – what they called “an empty cup” – the ability to only focus on what they were saying and try, my very best, to go as deeply into the pose as i could push my body on that day with no care as to how i had performed the class before. aside from the fact that i would leave class feeling like an entirely different and much better person, my body felt different, my hair and skin were healthier (hello detoxification!), and i was sleeping better. i was TOTALLY in love. my grace was in her glory.

and then, not so much. after having a bout of optic neuritis flare up for the third year in a row, coupled with tingling and numbness in my feet and legs, i went through a battery of tests and pokes and prods, including a lumbar puncture (turn it up to eleven, because THIS is spinal tap!), only to be told at the ripe age of 27 that i had a mysterious, incurable illness that would most likely debilitate me progressively to the point of potential blindness, lack of motor skills, and memory loss: multiple sclerosis. my body was essentially attacking itself from the inside, confusing the good stuff for bad stuff, and going at it with gusto. fortunately, i had (and still have) a relatively mild case that did not seem to have done any major, permanent damage. one thing that came with this, and my new medication, however, was a sensitivity to heat. devastation station. my new found love for Bikram was pulled out from underneath me, the first time i had felt confident in my ability to do anything physically challenging. and the grace started slipping away.

don’t push it
i told myself for a long time that i should really be careful with how much i pushed myself. the fatigue with ms is mind-boggling, and days that i have over-exerted myself make it almost impossible for me to move, and sometimes even think, later on. i let fear replace the grace. and the worry curled up under my heart. and i just felt a whole lot of scared that every step would be one closer to my last. every single physical challenge i had faced had brought me to another, so why bother? it was like i could hear my 10 year old self yelling at my dad, but this time at myself, “SEE! DO YOU SEE NOW! THIS IS WHY YOU ARE NEVER GOING TO BE ABLE TO DO ANYTHING AGAIN!!!” while i really don’t think i was wrong to be mad about the “soccer pitch of sexism”, i had really devolved into a self-defeating pit of full-on “can i get some cheese with that” whine. all around me, every single day, were stories of people who beat the odds – with education, with new careers, with family, with love, and, of course, their health! i was staring it in the face and not even acknowledging that it was there. though i still dabbled in yoga and pilates and enjoyed taking walks, i wouldn’t dare RISK my health to try something new.

the times are a-changin’
after i got married, i had really found someone (luckily for me!) who didn’t put up with this attitude at all. while we still hadn’t made a set time for exercise in our daily schedule (especially when i started commuting 1,000 – yes, i’m totally serious – miles per week), we occassionally played raquetball, went for walks, and started playing pseudo-sports (bean bag toss, horseshoes, etc.). because my wife had been trained in physical education for elementary aged kids, she was perfectly suited to try to teach me anything sport-related (read: patient and capable of ignoring constant complaining). i started feeling comfortable with tossing the bean bag with friends, i didn’t feel *quite* so self-conscious learning a new game, and i started going for longer walks around the neighborhood. finally, a little over a year ago, i resolved to try running. i had just heard of a free app called “Couch to 5K”. i read the reviews of a few, and downloaded the Zen Labs version. i was pretty out of shape at first. and though the first few weeks weren’t too bad since i do a lot of fast walking, i definitely had room to expand my lung capacity, endurance, and strength. and suddenly, it got easier. and easier. i bought my first pair of running shoes EVER. and then the marathon bombing happened. and i thought to myself, how can you NOT run?! how, when you haven’t been debilitated by ms, when you can get up and move and walk and feel, are you NOT taking full advantage of what you ARE capable of? so you have ms. so tomorrow you might be tired, so in a year you might not be able to run as much, so in twenty-five years you might have a hard time walking – who knows? maybe none of those things will be true and every second you sit around not trying is definitely a moment you would regret with every fiber of your being if you couldn’t do it. so why not try.

Nike means victory
i got NIKE+ (first run recorded – April 30, 2013). i went for my first run outside. and other runners smiled and nodded. and there i was, in it. i felt the ground, i felt my breath, i felt the way my muscles worked. and around the bend, after that next lap, surprisingly, i found my grace again; a little different, maybe even a little worse-for-the wear, but still lovely, and thoughtful, and aware of the world around her. and i was so heartbreakingly grateful – after all of the people, all of the experiences, and all of my own inner monologues, telling me that i was not capable, that i could not do it, that i was not good enough – that grace could walk back in, quiet, and with ease and commanding confidence, and tell me, after all the times i had fallen and broken and failed and spirited myself away from the whole entire world, that i was everything i needed to be with one. simple. word.

“begin.”

here we are, nearly a year from my first Nike+ run and 215 logged miles later, still running. still growing, making mistakes, and working on letting the grace shine. i still give myself excuses as to why i will run tomorrow, or why i should eat a donut (do i really need an excuse?!), or why i should stay up just a little bit later, but i have never found a reason not to lace up my sneakers and run another round eventually. now more than halfway through “Couch to 10K”, i’ve finally found myself not looking for the reasons why not, but looking toward all of the reasons why i’ll have given myself by this time next year.

sometimes it’s the first step that’s the hardest. sometimes it’s the next one. either way, reuniting with the grace that helps me step at all has made this journey worth it. because it’s not just that you move. it’s in the way you do it.

let me take a realie.

Realie

taken 14 April 2014. no make-up. no filters. no editing.
The Today Show calls it, a #loveyourselfie

so by now, most of us have heard about Lorde’s Instagram and Twitter posts, one of her with her acne cream on, and one showing the photoshopped and non-photoshopped versions of her performing, captioned “remembers flaws are ok :-)”. more recently, Lady Gaga posted a photo of herself on Twitter, breathtakingly bare and sans costumes. it’s gotten to the point where it is just as easy for us to find photos of stars with bare-skinned faces as it is to find photos of stars baring it all; no easy task. what i thought was interesting about all of this is that almost no one i actually know, myself included, leaves the house without something on their face and/or done to their hair. regardless of gender, i know very few people who feel comfortable without making themselves “presentable”.

once in a while, i leave my apartment on an early weekend morning to run an errand WITH NOTHING ON MY FACE <insert shock and horror here!>. although make-up and hair-styling is meant to emphasize what i have, to “enhance my natural beauty”, i have never felt more visible, public, and seen (judged?), as when i literally dash face first, naked skin and all, into the throng of the public eye. i typically wear hats and radical sunglasses (a cool pair of sunglasses is my most essential accoutrement), drawing attention away from my face and toward my persona.

it’s not that i think i’m ugly. or that i think supermodels roll out of bed with perfect bumble-and-bumble hair and sephora make-up. it’s that need to be seen as “put together” – perhaps to exert control, structure. perhaps to look like we walked out of a photo shoot to spend 9 hours in the office. perhaps it’s to make others feel more comfortable with a streamlined, digestible version of ourselves. and i’m not sure for who’s benefit any of that actually is.

this is not to say that i am giving up bare minerals. i have come to understand what make-up does for others, but also how it makes me feel. especially on those “fake it til you make it” mornings, make-up helps give me a confidence boost, a ready-to-do-this attitude, a sense that i’m still me underneath, just a little more polished. given that i’m not a morning person, sometimes make-up is to my face what coffee is to my soul nervous system.

the reason that i bring this up is that i’d like to challenge you, me, everyone, to try being a little more  e x p o s e d  once in a while. wash your face, slap on a little moisturizer to keep your skin healthy (it is your biggest organ, you know!), and tszuj your hair with a little water. see how people react. see how YOU react. see what feels different. and what doesn’t. no hats and glasses. no make-up. nothing but your beautiful, natural self.

because most people in my circle probably haven’t seen me without make-up in a very long time, and because Lorde and big Lady G reminded me that “flaws are ok”, i decided i’d post my own “realie”. not a perfectly shot selfie to show what i’ve learned about the art of make-up application (which, considering that i’m NOT a pro is actually a scary amount), but a real, filter-less, unadulterated, straight-on photo of my clean, undone, naked face. so there you have it. i HAVE taken a selfie, and it’s the real deal.

you gotta start somewhere. and the buck stops here.

you are perfect!

i took this picture at the Cambridge, MA location of the restaurant and general awesome place “The Friendly Toast” in summer 2013. 

so this is a rough place to start. to be honest, i don’t know that i’ve ever actually admitted it. but you’ve got to start somewhere and here seems as good a place as ever, so the buck is definitely stopping. what’s the revelation, you ask?

validation.
it’s a real thing.

for a long time, i would say that i wasn’t looking to be validated. that a subtle, peripheral respect would do. that my self-worth did not rely on the acceptance or approval of others. what i was really saying, every single time i denied that need, was that it did matter and it made me angry and sad when i was rejected, disapproved of, condescended to, lied to, disrespected, and so on and so forth. and even though i could see that most mean, miserable things other people did or said were at the core of their own need for validation and light, i couldn’t feel it. not really. so i lied. and i let the light go dark.

there is only so long, friend, that that light can go on keeping dark. and when you keep the light hushed down, like a cold, slate gray veil over something warm, it creates weight and cracks. and then it grows.

it was only once i realized that there was something underneath the pain, under the drying, splintering clay, that i even recognized the weight of carrying other peoples projection. that pain is like a cocoon. it feels uncomfortable at first, but you get used to it, and then you need it; you feel naked without it. taking it off is vulnerability.

the irony in all this is that validation (and not fake, cloying validation, but honest, real, namaste kind of stuff) is like a salve for vulnerability. it’s like a healing rinse, washing away the clay, softening it, removing the veil. and in discovering this, taking off that weight, there is suddenly light! now this is not to say that the simple recognition that i needed to be acknowledged, valued, was an apex moment of clarity – never a darkened star to be seen again! i have my moments. we all do. darkness is learned, and it permeates. Rome wasn’t built in a day and, let’s be real people, neither was good self-esteem.

what struck me most in recognizing this – and i mean recognizing in the truest sense, realizing i knew it, intimately, and was suddenly staring it in the face – was that i also realized i didn’t actually need it. it is just really nice to have. every day that i’m alive, every day that i make, that i do, that i exist, that i create (even if it’s just breath and space), i am validating myself. i am what i need. and in the moments that i see that and feel it, those are the times when the light shines. the veil comes off. and everything i ever thought i needed from somebody else i am suddenly capable of experiencing because i can give it to others. i can see their dark spots, their crust, and i can offer a little salve.

sometimes we are mean to one another. when you’re in the cocoon, the first reaction is to keep others in theirs. so keep that in mind when teeth are gnashing. it’s not your job to fight back, or fight it off, down, or away. it’s all of our jobs not to keep giving people permission to invalidate themselves or anyone else. and that, ya’ll, is why the buck really must stop here.
you and me, we got this; clay, light, and all.

 

a little context:
this all really came home to me the other day. if you haven’t met So Worth Loving, they are an amazing group started by Eryn Eddy Erickson to spread the message of self worth, positivity, and human value through the concept of “love you. love people”. they have a radical blog, twitter, and instagram, and because i’m an insta-fiend, that’s where i get my daily dose of them. recently, SWL had a instagram post of a neon SWL symbol with the following quotation underneath:

You can be the most beautiful person in the world and everybody sees light and rainbows when they look at you, but if you yourself don’t know it, all of that doesn’t even matter. Every second that you spend on doubting your worth, every moment that you use to criticize yourself, is a second of your life wasted, is a moment of your life thrown away. It’s not like you have forever, so don’t waste any of your seconds, don’t throw even one of your moments away.” ~C. JoyBell C.

to give credit where it is due, Hannah Brencher, an amazing blogger, writer, and world-changer, exposed me to SWL, but i’ll introduce you to her another day. 🙂 

i share this because when i look, i see light against the dark stars. there are a million different ways we can reveal light AND actually see it, know it, and feel it in and around us. and light – yeah – light permeates, too.