Swimming

pexels-photo-261185.jpegMy black one-piece is a little tight, but it’s reliable, holding my body firmly but gently in an almost therapeutic embrace. I gained twenty pounds last year, partly because of a chronic foot injury and partly, I think, because I broke my no-diet rule with an allergy diet, triggering my body’s starvation signals with several weeks of brown rice and vegetables. I ruled out any food allergies, though, which I guess was worth it. But now I have some work to do, to convince my hard-pressed body that I won’t try to starve her again. She’s hyper-sensitive to that, since I have starved her in the past. When I count calories now it’s as much to make sure I don’t go below 1800 as above 2000. Either way can trigger weight gain.

But I’m not really thinking about that as I tie my short hair back with two cloth-covered elastics and step quickly into the shower at the gym. I rotate my right arm and smile when there’s no pain. A shoulder injury from more than a year ago had kept me from two of my favorite activities — yoga and swimming — but just this last week it has felt better enough that I’m going to go for a swim. I squeeze the excess water out of my hair and hold my towel at arm’s length as I pad damply through the locker room and to the pool. I hang my towel on a hook, pick up a blue kick board, and look for a free lane. I’m a little awkward lowering myself to a seated position on the cool tile, but once I slip into the water I’m in a different world, and my body is different, too. I position my goggles onto my eyes, make sure they’re watertight, then dive under the floating line to the free lane.

It’s not like I’m a skilled swimmer. But know how to put my head underwater and breathe out, turn it up to the side when the other arm comes forward and breathe in. I do a lap freestyle, (which doesn’t actually mean freestyle but a front crawl, but Hannah and Mark will laugh at you if you call it a crawl) and my arms feel tired, but I know they will loosen up. I give them a break by holding on to the kick board for a lap, letting my legs do the work. I used to think I hated exercise, but I finally figured out that I just needed to let myself warm up enough. For me the first ten or fifteen minutes are the hardest. Then my muscles loosen, my heart rate increases with a pleasant warm rush, and I’m in what must be what they call the zone. I pop the board up onto the tiles and do laps freestyle again, feeling the slight burn in my arm muscles and the almost effortless coordination of my abs, back, and legs. Nothing else is like swimming, when your whole body is in on the action, even down to your fingers and toes. The water streams around me as I surge forward. It’s warm and slightly chemically, but it’s not chlorine, I think.

When I was a teenager I felt self conscious in a bathing suit. We used to wear big t-shirts over our suits, which would get sodden and drag us down. At some point in my twenties I decided I was just going to strip and not worry about it. It helps that the people at the gym are strangers. And it helps to see women older than me, in their fifties, sixties, and even seventies, taking off their clothes without care for what others may think. I like to see other women’s bodies, in bathing suits, and naked in the locker room. It’s such a more pleasant variety than the ones in magazines. When I look around at all the ways it’s possible to be a woman, at all the different types of  beauty, it makes me suspect that I might be beautiful, too, even with those twenty extra pounds.

A man stands at the end of my lane, watching me, and despite the wide open space and many people around I’m a little nervous. I come up to the end of the lane and avoid eye contact with him, but he speaks to me and I realize he is asking me if he can share my lane. I say yes, of course. He didn’t have to ask, after all — he could have just jumped in. The lanes are wide enough for two, but there is always a moment of awkwardness when you pass each other, arms long in their stride almost touching, waves disrupting each other’s rhythm. I wonder what it was about me that made him decide to ask me instead of the other three solo-lane swimmers. But then I shake off this intrusion into my world and lose myself again in the water, movement, breath.

After twenty minutes I make myself stop and assess. Six weeks ago I pushed too hard on the elliptical and got the worst migraine I’ve ever had. The neurologist said what I already knew: Go slowly, short workouts, don’t push so hard. I love pushing myself. But I’m trying to be wise. I decide I can do another ten minutes, but not as fast. I had a little bit of a migraine when I started, but it seems to be better. After those ten minutes are over I really want to do more, but I make myself stop and stretch. Stretching in the pool is fun, too — I can lift my legs up to the edge with little effort. My lower back hurts a bit from arching while I swim, so I curl up into a ball to stretch it out, floating on the surface, enjoying the flush of my face, the slowing of my heartbeat. Then I send the kick board ahead of me and dive under the lane-divider again. This time I am more graceful rising out of the water, even though it’s bittersweet regaining full gravity. I return the board and fetch my towel, again holding it at arm’s length till I can get in the shower and rinse off.

My shoulder still feels okay, but I turn the shower to hot and aim it at my neck and shoulders for a few minutes. Outside it has started to rain, but it’s fifty degrees so I don’t have to worry about my hair freezing before I get home and take a real shower. Back at home, though, I’m hungry, so I decide to first make a quick pot of curried black bean and squash soup that I invented a few years ago.

I toss four cups of chicken broth, 1 TBSP curry powder plus a little extra cinnamon and nutmeg, two cans black beans, rinsed, pre-chopped butternut squash, and a can of diced tomatoes into a pot and simmer for 15 minutes. When the squash is almost soft I add a bag of frozen corn and return to a simmer. Then I stir in a bunch of baby spinach and turn off the heat. The flavors will blend together perfectly overnight, but I have two bowls right away. My body needs to know I’ll feed her when she’s hungry. I have to see the swim and the soup as caring for myself and my body, not punishing her. We’re on the same team, this fierce swimmer and I. And we’re getting stronger together, little by little.

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Selfies for self-love, part two

img_7204I’ve been posting a lot of selfies this weekend. There’s a reason for that.

I’ve been in pain almost every day since New Year’s Eve. A bad decision to push too hard at the gym led to one of the worst migraines I’ve ever had, with an aura that lasted so long I went to urgent care (and had an MRI, which came out slightly abnormal but probably just because I still had the migraine when they took it). That migraine lasted five days, but I’ve had what feel like after-shock headaches since then — more frequent-than-usual breakout migraines with a lot of nausea and vertigo.

I was at the gym because I gained 20 pounds in 2017, which happened because my foot problems have flared up, which has also meant that my feet have been in pain almost every day and also that I can’t go for walks (or runs, hikes, etc.). At the end of 2016 I injured my shoulder doing physical therapy for my foot problem, and that has hurt to some degree almost every day since, and also means I can’t do much yoga or swimming. Yoga was helping my feet, by the way. So.

It’s been discouraging. I keep pushing forward, though, doing a little yoga here, a short walk there (and then ice my feet and stretch), a swim when my shoulder’s not so bad, a short workout on the stationary bike but not too hard or it might trigger a migraine. None of this is going to burn off those 20 pounds, though, at least not quickly, so I need to learn to live with them in the meantime.

Here’s what I wrote a couple of years ago about my practice of taking selfies as a way of reclaiming my beauty and stepping back into my body.

I took my first selfie back in 2006 and it was a revelation. It felt like art, like self-examination and self-discovery. When I joined MySpace and then Facebook and could post and share those photos it became almost a political act. To post a selfie was to say, “Look how beautiful I am!” and society doesn’t quite approve of that. If you are beautiful, you are not supposed to brag about it, and if you are not conventionally beautiful you are supposed to accept your place and not go against convention. Either way, you are not supposed to believe in your own beauty. For one thing, where would all the makers of beauty products be if women got out of bed already loving ourselves? And there’s a snarkiness there, too, we women judging each other. A pretty photo taken by a friend is okay, but put the camera in our own hands and we start to whisper, “narcissist.”

I love the camera in my own hands. I love to paint portraits of myself, to see my different angles, to turn the camera on when I am sad, or celebratory, or angry, to see what that does to the muscles in my face. I have learned about myself through taking my own picture. And I have learned to love myself, too. We are strangely disconnected from our own outward appearance, especially those of us who tend to be lost in thought. Sometimes when someone speaks to me I startle, surprised that they can actually see me, when I myself feel far away, as if I am watching the scene around me through a screen. It’s good to see myself on the screen sometimes. It’s grounding. I feel more present, I feel like a spirit with a face and body, more like the people whose faces and bodies I see every day.

I take my picture in bed sometimes. I took it when I was lying in bed, sick with migraines and depression. I took it when I gained 50lbs and lost it. I took it when I cut my hair and as it grew back. I took it when I was brave and went for a walk in the autumn leaves, back when leaving the house was an act of courage. I took it when I was even more courageous and waited for the T to take me to a job interview. I took pictures with the kids I nannied, and with friends. Last weekend I took a series of selfies as I sat at Starbucks and the library, writing, investing in my dream, dressed in my favorite, most hopeful colors.

This month in my selfies I’ve been able to see the pain and fatigue in my face, the paleness of my skin that goes deeper than just summer’s faded tan, the double chin when I accidentally turn the camera on when my phone’s in my lap. I’ve been finding the discouragement sinking towards depression, and not being able to get a good selfie has become symbolic of that depression.

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So Friday night on the way home from work I bought a tube of Burt’s Bee’s reddest lipstick, Scarlet Soaked (look, it has a honeycomb on it!), and spent some time with my eyebrows and the tweezers. Then I took some selfies. I was determined to get a picture of myself that I could see the spark of life in.

Here’s what I’ve learned about selfies: You have to take a lot of them. You have to try different angles, different poses, different lighting, different settings. It’s an art form, like any type of photography. A few of my friends told me after my first essay that they didn’t like their own selfies, and so I feel like I have to make this clear: I don’t like most of mine, either. I delete nine out of ten. Some I delete so fast I re-injure my shoulder. I pick the best ones to share.

And here’s the other thing I feel it’s important to know: Sharing the best out of a series isn’t lying, to yourself or to others. I used to think that the bad pictures were how I really looked, and the good ones were a kind of self-deception. Here’s the thing — pictures aren’t how you look, anyway. You’re three dimensional. You’re constantly in motion, blinking, swallowing, drifting from one micro-expression to another. No photograph captures exactly how people see you. Pictures are a portrayal of you, a part that evokes the whole. When you take a selfie you’re creating a picture that evokes you, to you, in order to share that with other people. You’re searching for yourself, hoping you’ll recognize her when you see her.

This morning I was struggling, feeling like depression was tugging at my pant legs, trying to pull me down. I cried for awhile, then drank a glass of water and felt a little better. (Have you ever noticed how good water tastes after a cry?) Then I got dressed in a nice blouse, put on some earrings, some mascara and powder, and the Scarlet Soaked.  I took some selfies and then I sat for awhile and played games on my computer. I still felt low. But I was wearing make-up, so I decided to leave the house. I grabbed my notebook with the book proposal in it, and a to-go mug (save the earth!), and I walked to the coffee shop. No one seemed to find it strange that I was wearing red lipstick. I guess people do that.

I took my notebook out and realized I hadn’t brought a pen, so I looked though my selfies on my phone as I drank my coffee, and then I went for a walk in the Arboretum. The coffee and the fresh air were clearing my head. My feet hurt a little bit, but it felt so good to be outside and moving. I took a few more selfies, as well as some pictures of the brown-toned woods: bare trees, dried grass, and mud, with small patches of snow here and there. Back at home I took a selfie with my cheeks red from exercise and the cold air, hair mussed from the wind.

And I finally saw myself. There I was. I was still in there, still imagining and dreaming and hoping. Still able to shape my eyebrows pretty well, if I do say so. I think I’m going to be okay. Maybe you are, too? I think so. Stick around, we’re going to need someone like you here. Just like that — no, chin up a little bit…find your light…THERE you are. I see you.

Love,
Jessica

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Poetry 280 — A Twitter experiment

snow car

Boston, January

Metal, rust cars, packed in parking
spots like chipped paint sardines
ice scrapes glass, plastic –
all snow’s softness lost.

#poetry280

Good morning, friends! It’s a Monday morning in January after two weeks of record-breaking or -tying cold temps here in the northeast, and two snowstorms. I started the new year with a record-breaking migraine, in the hospital having an MRI and seeing neurologists just to make sure it wasn’t something more. It wasn’t — I’m okay, though a little bit frayed around the edges, and about as pale as my white car buried in snow in the picture above.

So I didn’t get the chance to do any vision castings or resolutions for the new year, though ironically it was a trip to the gym that triggered the migraine. But I did have an idea for a project that I thought I’d get going and do the planning along the way.

A couple of months ago, in a move that was strongly opposed by many of its users, Twitter expanded its character limit from 140 to 280. I was disappointed in the change, myself, because it felt like the 140 char tweet, and the “thread” of tweets used to express longer thoughts, had become an art form and a challenge that made me a better writer. When you only have 140 characters to use, you have to really think about each word, whether it’s necessary, and whether the same idea could be said more concisely. It was like each tweet was a tiny writing assignment, like I had an editor pushing me to write my best. The thread — stringing several tweets together — expanded on this challenge. I observed other writers mastering it, copied their methods, developed my own, and came to feel I was getting pretty good at it. I had a handful of tweets that were shared a couple hundred times, and one that went genuinely viral with 147,000 retweets. I even hosted a really fun, long conversation on the Enneagram with some writers, activists, and others.

When Twitter announced that it was changing to 280 characters, it felt like a genuine loss. I expected to miss the challenge of the 140, and in fact I do. The longer tweets feel sloppy and unedited. I thought Josh Groban had the best observation:

I know he was joking, but I thought that would actually be a brilliant way to teach essay writing. If you can learn to say what you want to say in 140 characters, then 280, then 560, et cetera, et cetera, by the time you are allowed 5,000 you will know how to choose the exact right 5,000 words to express your thoughts. Instead of prose, though, I found the 280 characters lending themselves to poetic thoughts:

The 280 characters gives you enough room to get an idea going, but cuts you off right when you might want to get carried away. There is also something both infuriating and intriguing to me about the lack of an edit feature on Twitter. You can always delete and rewrite if you make a mistake, but because Twitter is such an immediate experience, several people may have already read and reacted to your tweet. I find deleting and retweeting cuts down on interaction, and so I usually let small mistakes go. Writing poetry directly into a tweet ends up creating an interesting artistic environment that is a cross between plain writing and live improv. You are also making a commitment to the unique online venue —  of course you can copy and paste the poem into a word document or anywhere else, to save it, edit it, expand on it if you want, but for the moment you are casting it out into the interwebs, fully formed in itself at that moment. And the interwebs being what they are, you never know what will happen. Your poem may float away into obscurity, or it may go viral like Maggie Smith’s amazing 2016 poem, Good Bones. No one may read it, or many people may read it. My poem on Evangelicalism and the birds above was read several hundred times.

So I thought I’d start a poetry challenge for 2018. I’ve given it a name, Poetry 280, and a hashtag, #poetry280. (If you don’t know, hashtags are the way to loop people in to a Twitter discussion.) I’ll figure out the details as I go, but I plan on posting challenges and prompts regularly, and maybe having some contests with guest-judges and real prizes! We’ll have some haikus, of course, a limerick, and some lesser known short forms, as well as free-form and subject prompts. And I will be retweeting my favorite poems.

This is primarily a Twitter project, so the best way to follow along is on Twitter: Follow the hashtag #poetry280 and follow me at @jfkantrowitz. If you’re not on Twitter, I will also be posting the prompts (though not always in real time) on my Facebook writer page, where you can also post your poems.

The first challenge is a nod to Twitter of old. Write a four line poem, rhyming or non-rhyming, of no more than 140 characters. A title is optional but counts toward the 140 if you use it. Don’t forget to add the hashtag so I can read and retweet your poem! And since Twitter doesn’t tell you when you reach 140 characters anymore, here is an online tool to help you with the 140 challenge.

Here’s one of my attempts at the first challenge (the poem about cars and snow at the beginning of this post is another).

 

Poetry 280 is open to everyone, whether you’re a professional poet or have never attempted a poem. Have fun with it! Or be deep and broody with it! Whatever you like! Think of it as the karaoke of the poetry world — everyone can get up on stage and take a turn! Let’s see what we can create in 2018!

Love,
Jessica

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How to reach your goal weight (and maybe write a rock opera) in 2018

Yogalady

Not an actual self-portrait

It’s New Year’s Eve, and a lot of us are curled up with stale holiday cookies pondering yet another year of resolutions that never quite pan out. So I thought I’d share my revolutionary method of achieving your goal weight in three easy steps. I personally guarantee your success, though I won’t give you your money back because this blog post is free. Ready? Let’s go!

Overview
Step 1 . Eat healthy-ish for a month or two. Exercise a little bit.
Step 2. Weigh yourself. Write it down. This is your ideal weight.
Step 3. Put a big check mark next to your ideal weight. You did it, baby!

Details
Step 1.
A. Keep healthy food in your house. When you get hungry, eat some of it. When you are no longer hungry, stop eating it. If you eat too much, have a glass of water and immediately forget about it. Self-flagellation and recrimination will not make you either thin or healthy. (See How I Finally Learned to Feed Myself for more on this.)

B. Don’t cut out carbs unless you are allergic to or don’t like carbs, or unless you have perfect, superhuman willpower that will last the rest of your life. Low-carb diets will make you lose weight, but as soon as you glance at a slice of bread you will gain all that weight back and more. I am speaking from experience.

C. Don’t cut out sugar unless you are allergic or diabetic or have the aforementioned super-human willpower. Low-sugar diets are good to a point, but if you keep screwing up your willpower and denying yourself and denying yourself, your self will come back with a vengeance and eat two pounds of leftover Halloween candy one dark night in mid-February. I am speaking from experience. Don’t eat a lot of sugar but let yourself have occasional treats.

D. Don’t cut out fat. Just don’t do it. Low-fat diets are one of the worst lies ever told us. Our bodies need fat. Just maybe not the entire fat content of a party-size bag of chips. I am speaking from experience. Also, most low-fat foods replace the fat with sugar, which is much worse for you.

E. Exercise a little during these couple of months, but not too much. Exercise the amount you might reasonably expect to exercise after the two months are over. Skip the gym occasionally and lie on your back on the floor with your eyes shut. This is an ancient yogic method of relaxation called Savasana, and is, incidentally, also a good way to parent/nanny small children when you are exhausted. They will laugh like you have done the most clever thing in the world and come sit, climb, and jump on you. Be sure to cover up your sensitive bits. I am speaking from experience.

Step 2. Weigh yourself. Thank your body for all it does. Think of all the variety of bodies there are in the world and be grateful yours is part of that beautiful diversity. Write down your weight on the top of a new notebook and label it: “Goal weight.”

Step 3. Put a big check mark next to that number. You have now reached your goal weight! Congratulations!! If you have stickers you can give yourself a sticker, too, or maybe improvise a gold star. Now, move the heck on with your life. There’s a whole world out there! Live, love, create! Use the rest of the notebook to write lyrics to the rock opera you’ve always dreamed of writing!

Happy, healthy new year, my gorgeous readers.

Love,
Jessica

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I am not a doctor, and this is not medical advice. Consult your doctor, especially if you have health issues. But I truly believe that a lifetime of worrying, obsessing, and yo-yo dieting is so much unhealthier than being overweight in the first place.

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Let me sum up

“Let me explain. No, is too long, let me sum up.”
~Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Let me tell you, stupid, that we here are all of little faith only from carelessness, because we haven’t time! … The Lord God has given us so little time, only 24 hours in a day, so that one hasn’t even time to get enough sleep – much less to repent.”
~Fydor Dostoevsky (thank you, Laura Jean Truman!)

Gosh, I’ve been busy lately. All of my jobs have taken off at once, from writing to editing to nannying to bunny-sitting (don’t be jealous). I have three things to share with you, and only a half an hour before I have to get to work, so let’s get going.

I’m really excited to be up on Think Christian today, for the first time since they published Bake for them Two 2 1/2 years ago. They received some flack for posting it, and I really appreciated the thoughtfulness with which editor Josh Larsen and director Steven Koster engaged the discussion.  They’ve shifted their focus lately to the media (Josh has a really interesting-looking book out, Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings) and so when I found myself developing an obsession with Fixer Upper and spending my evenings crying with people as their dream homes were revealed, I emailed Josh to pitch an essay.

Even though this article is about a reality TV show, I get pretty personal in it, about my dreams, metaphorically and literally, and my hopes for heaven.

I dream about homes often. Apparently, this is common. Psychologists theorize that houses in dreams represent ourselves. For me, there is also a more tangible source for my dreams. Growing up we moved frequently, and as an adult I’ve moved often as well. Houses—and housemates—haunt my dreams, sometimes with nightmarish rehashing of conflicts, sometimes with glorious visions of beauty, space, and love. For me, those latter dreams represent my dreams being fulfilled, as scarcity is replaced with abundance.

Head over to Think Christian and check it out!

gloryhappening_approved-copyNext, a book recommendation. I finally got a hold of Kaitlin B. Curticle’s book Glory Happening, out as of last week through Paraclete Press. I had already listened to parts of it through Kaitlin’s story times on Twitter and Facebook, and the print version does not disappoint. Kaitlin tells stories about her everyday life, but looks deeper to find meaning and the presence of God in each moment. The stories are almost like paintings, with the writer-artist drawing our attention to the holiness in every detail. After each story Kaitlin crafts a poem-prayer, lifting her words to God and inviting the reader into that moment. To be honest, there was a part of me that had been thinking, “A peaceful little book will be nice, but what I really want to read is something profound.” It didn’t take me more than one chapter to realize that I’d found a book full of both peace and profundity. It’s out of the quiet paying attention, to the quiet or not so quiet of our everyday lives, that God speaks to us — and all things profound start there. Order Kaitlin’s book here!

And last, but not least, my friend Eliel Cruz had family in Puerto Rico when hurricane Maria hit last month. He didn’t hear from his father for several days, and I and many others watched anxiously until we saw his update that his dad had called. His father is now moving to the states and Eliel is doing a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for plane tickets for him, his wife, and her parents (Eliel’s step-grandparents). If you’re able to support him you can give here.

Thanks for reading! Okay, now to rush off to take care of a sick toddler. Poor little guy. Today will have lots of snuggling and hand sanitizer.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

Love,
Jessica

Sunrise, sunset

img_1738This is a difficult time of year for me. Tonight, sunset in Boston will be 5:33pm. Tomorrow, when daylight saving ends, it will be 4:32. The sun will set while I still have an hour and a half at work. By the end of December it will set while the children I nanny and I are making our way home from school. We won’t get back to a 5:30 sunset till the end of February. Almost four months. Four months of driving home in the dark. Four months of eating dinner with darkened windows. Darkness is descending, not just over me, not in certain places, but over the whole city, the whole country, and it feels huge and out of my control.

There are little things I can do, of course, and I do them diligently. Rituals, exercises, both of the body and the spirit. I light candles. I try to pause every evening when the sun sets, to mark the transition, to make it feel like something I am a part of rather than something that is happening to me. I stretch out on my yoga mat, meditate and pray, breathing in the presence of the Spirit. I try to make friends with the darkness. I learn to walk in it, and try to be open to its gifts and its lessons.

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a book called Learning to Walk in the Dark. It is about times of depression or doubt, but she also undertakes a literal examination of darkness, of what it means to move about in it. She writes,

I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.

I believe this is true. But it doesn’t make it easier to face dark nights, either those of the soul, or spirit, or the revolution of the sun (combined with coastlines and country-lines that force Boston into the wrong time zone). So I prepare myself, and I work hard to make sure I have the tools at hand I’ll need, my emotional and spiritual flashlights and night lights.

But I grieve, too. I weep today, watching this last 5:30 sunset from my window. And I want to hold space for others who weep. Seasonal Affective Disorder affects different people in different ways, but it is widespread. And if you are already dealing with depression it can be compounded by the season and the time change. If you are weeping today, whether because of the earth’s coming darkness or because of darkness in your heart, I see you. You are not alone. I’ll weep with you and honor your sorrow, and then I’ll light my candles for you with hope and trust. Hold on. You are not alone. We might have trouble seeing each other here, in the night, but there are many of us. Light a candle for me, too, so I can see you. We will make it through together.

Love,
Jessica

ubooknerd, you won the giveaway! Send me your address so I can get you Love Warrior and Hungry! tenthousandplacesblog@gmail.com.

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