On pain and forgiveness

pain_scale_graphic_499_202It’s cool and raining now. I woke up this morning to the sound of the rain on my house and the maple tree behind my house. There is always a moment when I wake up and don’t judge myself or the day. I just hover in my renewed consciousness, my new awareness of my body, its breath and skin, bones and sinews. Then I ask, not in words but a kind of probing: What kind of day was it yesterday? What did I do, and what happened to me? Am I waking up proud and grateful, or disappointed and frustrated? Do I need to talk myself through things? Do I need to tread lightly because I exacerbated my foot or back injuries? Did I have a migraine yesterday and is it still there? Did I stay up too late? Did I overeat? Did I fight with a friend?

Yesterday morning I woke up after a really bad migraine, probably a nine out of ten on the pain scale for parts of it. I didn’t have to have such a bad one. Unlike some of my migraines, which ebb and flow into each other, this one had a clear beginning Friday evening, and I have meds that might have kept it from getting full blown like that. But the neurologist told me to try to take breaks from the meds when I can, so as not to develop medication-overuse migraines. She said if it’s a day I don’t have much to do to consider just riding it out. Sure, I thought Friday night. I can do that. Saturday’s free and I’m used to the pain. But this one got really bad, and by Saturday evening I was having trouble coping.

When it was at its worst I craved ice cream — and specifically Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia — so badly I cried. I’ve been eating pretty well lately, so there were no sweets of any kind in the house. I ended up pouring milk and honey over some of Mark’s oatmeal, and that sort of worked. While I was eating, and for half an hour afterwards, the pain went down to an eight. And I thought, as I have many times in the past few years, of how hard it had been when the migraines were this bad almost daily. I thought, as I have many times, that I forgive myself for things I did trying to cope with the pain, for overeating so much that I gained fifty pounds, for leaning too heavily on Mark which was really hard for him, for not being able to gently and gracefully navigate all the community stuff which was going on at the time, for being panicky and self-focused sometimes in ways that hurt other people.

I’ve been through this process already, and have been able to forgive myself, but this weekend I felt like that forgiveness settled even deeper. The mind has mechanisms to make us forget how bad pain really is, so as much as I feel I remember it, when it returns that intensely it brings back the memory of exactly what that particular pain means. When I was in it on Saturday I forgave myself again, and felt a settling deep inside me. I know I hurt people, and I don’t minimize that. But I think it’s miraculous that I did as well as I did, and that I’m doing as well as I am now. I did my best. I really did.

Yesterday morning I woke up and took stock. The worst of the pain was over, but the other migraine symptoms were still there: fatigue, vertigo, difficulty thinking, and sensitivity to light and noise. It was the perfect spring day for a hike or bike ride, but I took it easy and drove the mile to the soccer field instead of walking. The eleven year old who I’ve known since he was two months old played a fierce game, running around out there like a miniature MLS player with his blond fauxhawk. I was having trouble concentrating, but I happened to be paying attention at just the right moment, when he scored an amazing goal from almost midfield. It was awesome to be a part of his pure joy and pride, and awesome that my presence there meant a lot to him, that he came over to me after the game and basked in my praise.

I thought about yesterday’s pain and self-forgiveness, and I found, as I have before, again and again, that forgiving myself had freed me up to forgive others. Just as my self-forgiveness settled in deeper, I found myself able to let go even more of wrongs that others had done to me. Coincidentally, I had happened to watch a short video of Nadia Bolz-Weber talking about forgiveness earlier that day. “I really believe when someone else does us harm, we’re connected to that mistreatment like a chain.” She said that forgiving someone breaks your connection to that hurt. Forgiving someone, she said, means saying, “What you did was so not okay that I refuse to be connected to it anymore.”

I was thinking about the video throughout the day, and suddenly I realized I was able to cut a few more of the strands connecting me to not only my own shame from that time, but the pain that others caused me as well. I don’t minimize what they did, either, but just as I was doing my best through a lot of pain, I feel like they probably were as well. I’d believed that before, and forgiven them before, but yesterday felt like it settled in a little bit more. Like when you’re lying still on your back at the end of a yoga class, and without even realizing it you suddenly relax a muscle you didn’t know you were tensing, and your back cracks with relief.

After the soccer game I drove home, but then walked the quarter mile to the store to get something for dinner. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was on sale, two for $7, so I bought myself some Cherry Garcia and some Half-Baked as well. This morning when I woke up, after a moment of pure joy at the sound of the rain, I had that movement of coming into awareness. And I remembered that I’d eaten more of the two pints than I’d intended to. But I also remembered the pain of the weekend, and the new, deeper forgiveness. So I took a deep breath and let that shame go, stretched my stiff body, made myself some coffee and peanut butter toast, and began my week.

To all of you who may be struggling with shame, or with a tie to wrong that has been done to you — I know it’s so hard. Keep at it. Keep recklessly forgiving yourself, and very carefully forgiving others, recognizing that part of forgiveness is learning what boundaries you need to set to be safe.

Love to all of you, and happy Pride!! “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love. Cannot be killed or swept aside. Now fill the world with music, love, and pride.” ~Lin-Manuel Miranda

Jessica

***

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Devils and angels

migrainedepression

from Deviant Art — I’m looking for the artists name, hang on…

“If you take away my devils, my angels may flee as well.”
~Rainer Marie Rilke, my paraphrase

 

There was news of a medical breakthrough this morning, and it was relevant to me. There’s a medication that prevents migraines. I don’t say there’s a new medication to prevent migraines, because there really weren’t any old ones: Everything doctors use is off label, which means it was developed for another purpose but was found to improve migraines in some people. In other words, if it works it’s kind of a fluke. For my migraines right now I’m on an antispasticity medication developed for cerebral palsy, and an anti-psychotic developed for bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. I don’t have cerebral palsy, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. But those meds help enough for me to work 32 hours a week, so long as I rest most of the other 136 hours. It used to be worse. But it could be a lot better.

When I woke up this morning — with a really bad migraine — I opened Facebook and saw that two of my aunts had sent me the article about this new medication called Aimovig, I read the headline and then ignored it for the rest of the day. I had just been to see my neurologist a couple of weeks ago, and she hadn’t mentioned anything about it. In fact, she’d had me start another off label medication, this one for high blood pressure. (I don’t have high blood pressure.)

I don’t have a lot of hope, and I don’t need much right now. I’m doing a lot better than I was, though it was hard to explain that to the doctor after she’d asked how many times a month I had a migraine and my answer was almost every day. See, I have two kinds of migraines, sort of: An underlying daily mixture of fatigue, nausea, dizziness, light sensitivity, pain, and other symptoms that almost never goes away but that I can function under, and more painful breakout migraines, that are much harder to soldier through. I have the latter about 10 days a month. But I used to have the breakout migraines almost daily. There were a couple of years that I could barely get out of bed, much less hold down a job, exercise a little, and find joy in life. It could be a lot worse.

My dad commented on the link my aunt shared, leaving such a lovely compliment to me and my writing, and said, “I have often thought and prayed about how much more she could do if only she could be freed from these awful migraines.” He and my aunt discussed whether insurance would cover it. But I didn’t think about it much. I didn’t even read the article until later in the day when another person shared it and said if it was true it would change her life. Then I thought: It would change my life, too. But how would it?

I let my thoughts wander to fantasy, where I’m more comfortable sometimes than reality. I can’t really think about getting better — I have to concentrate on getting through each day. But I can fantasize about it, like I fantasize about winning the lottery sometimes, or getting my dream house. What would I do? With all that extra energy, extra time I didn’t need to spend taking care of my high-maintenance head? The answer, in part, came easily: First, I’d exercise. I’d have such a go at that elliptical machine, ride my bike miles and miles, swim till even under the water I could feel my body sweat. I love exercise so much, during and after. I love how I feel when my body is in shape, the muscles under my skin, the strength. But now I get a migraine every time I have a cardiovascular workout. I have to limit myself to 20-30 minutes, and even then I have to walk carefully afterwards to avoid head rushes, eat within half an hour of the workout, make sure I don’t have anything important to do in case I need to lie down. Without the migraines — I’d get in shape, that’s what I’d do. And then?

I think I’d do what I’m already doing. Nannying. Writing. Cultivating friendships. I’d just nanny a few more hours a week so I can start putting money into savings. I’d write more, not just when the migraines allow me an hour or two of reprieve. I’d make plans with friends without worrying about whether I’ll be able to go out for lunch AND go to work the next day. Oh, and I’d actually do some social activism, instead of just thinking and writing about it. Basically, I’d show up more.

Some things I’d hope to keep, like the space that the migraines create to rest my body, mind, and spirit. It might actually be harder without them. I rest now because I have no choice. Maybe I’d fill up my time too much, get captivated by the money I can make by working more and more, spend so much time with wonderful people that I lose the centeredness that being along brings. Maybe I’d lose the drive that having something to fight against gives me. Or the depth of insight that pain offers. Maybe my angels would leave with my demons.

I don’t think so, though. I’ve made friends with both the angels and the demons now. I’ll be okay if this new medication doesn’t work, and I’ll be okay if it does. But I know there are so many people who suffer more than I do, whose lives would be vastly improved. It really could be a miracle cure for millions.

I hope so.

Peace and health to all of you. I hope whatever pain is in your life teaches you what it’s there to teach you, and then leaves gracefully.

Love,
Jessica

 

Getting to yes

Photo by Jordan Sanchez on Unsplash

I’ve been trying to teach six-year-old Louise about the improv rule of “yes, and.” Louise and I have a lot in common: We’re both big sisters with a little brother, we’re both creative, we’re into colorful clothes and jewelry, we love reading and imagining ourselves inside our our favorite books. We both half believe in fairies and tell each other stories about them. We’re also both pretty stubborn and like to have things our way, and we don’t like anyone else telling us what to do. We have a lot of fun together, but I think it’s hard for her that I’m not a parent or teacher but I’m still in charge of her. She pushes back against that, often preemptively, by telling me what to do, and correcting me whenever I make a mistake — and often when I don’t. Like,

“Let’s get our coats on, Louise!”

“No. It’s not a coat, it’s a jacket.”

Or, if I call it a jacket,

“No, it’s a coat.”

I like to think that I’m a fairly patient person, but being constantly corrected is hard on a girl. I find myself tensed, knowing it is coming. I try to choose my words carefully, to not say anything inaccurate or open to misinterpretation, but of course that’s an impossible thing in general and wouldn’t do any good in this situation anyway. I try to shrug it off, but it builds up. And so, one day last year, I told her that I try to say, “yes, and,” to people, instead of, “no.”

“Like, ‘Yes, it’s a coat, and another word for coat is jacket.”

Louise glares at me. “I already know the words yes and and. Stop trying to teach me things.”

I smile in what I’m sure is an irritating way and switch to the ever-useful tool of distraction: “What should we do after school today?” or, “What earrings do you think I should wear tomorrow with my blue shirt?” Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. She really would only be satisfied with me saying I’m wrong and she’s right. But even though kids push against us and argue, I know it’s good for them on a deep level to believe that the adults responsible for them are smart and competent. I try to admit when I’m really wrong — that’s good for kids to see, too — but I also want Louse to know she’s safe and in good hands.

“Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing. I’m actually one of the best nannies in Boston,” I tell her sometimes, and she smiles. I tell her some of my nanny tricks for kids her little brother’s age: “Make everything into a story. Like when you’re changing their diaper, say, ‘Once upon a time there was a little boy named Manny who did NOT like to have his diaper changed.” Manny, listening to us, says, “Tell me another story about Manny!” Louise laughs and tells him a story about himself. Sometimes she tells me she wants to be a nanny when she grows up. We really do have a lot of fun together.

“You’re fired!” she yells at me another time, in February, when I make her put on her snow boots to go out instead of her ballet slippers.

***

This is the rule of “yes, and” as described by Tina Fey in her book, Bossypants:

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. “No, we can’t do that.” “No, that’s not in the budget.” “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of way is that to live?

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.

***

I read Tina’s essay four years ago, and I’ve been pondering it ever since then. It’s instinctive to react defensively when someone says something I disagree with. I think it’s instinctive to feel misunderstood and to try to argue, to explain myself. What would it be like to start with a yes instead of a no and see where that takes me? And if there’s really nothing there I can say yes to, then maybe there’s just nothing to say? Maybe I can just walk away from that conversation, or that relationship, and refocus my energy on places and people that are moving the scene along. “This can’t be good for the wax figures,” they say, and I am suddenly seeing what we’re doing in a whole different light. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the same people whose ministries are deeply healing are also deeply funny. Glennon Doyle. Laura Parrott Perry. Matt Bays.

I invited Matt to a contra dance last week and his response was, “I don’t even know what a contra dance is, yet somehow I’m still ALL IN.” I need people like that in my life. Also people who understand that I will probably be in bed by the time the dance actually starts this Saturday but fully intend to make it one of these days.

***

I try again to introduce the yes, and concept to Louise, on a day that she’s being particularly no-ish.

“There’s a game of make-believe that grown-ups play onstage,” I say, “and the rule is that you always have to say, “Yes, and,” to the person you’re playing with.”

“Grown-ups play a make-believe game?” she asks, laughing, fascinated.

“Yes!” I say. “One says something like, ‘We’ve been walking in this woods a long time, I hope we find shelter soon,’ and the other person has to say, “Yes. And…’ and then add something to the walking in the woods idea, like, ‘Look, there’s a fairy in that tree!’. If the second person says, ‘No, we’re not in the woods, we’re in the desert,’ then the first person says, ‘No, we’re in the woods,’ then we never get to find out what happens when they meet the fairy.”

“Let’s tell the story about the fairy!” Louise says, and Manny says, “I want a story about Manny!”

“Yes! And a story about Manny!” I say.

So we begin. After all, everything is a story, if you tell it right. And an even better one if you tell it together.

Love,

Jessica

***

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We need less sticks, or, the one with the chalk is in charge

img_7549.jpgLast week was February vacation for Boston public schools, so I had the six year old in addition to her two year old brother. I call them Louise and Manny when I write about them, and Louise thinks that’s sneaky perfection. Caring for a six year old requires me to be more of the kind of nanny you read about in The Babysitter’s Club, who shows up with supplies and a plan. Normally I’m the kind of nanny whose plan is mainly to go outside and take it from there. This works really well with babies and toddlers, whose main job is to notice things, and we spend pleasant days meandering around Boston’s many parks and cafes having conversation like,

“A helicopter!”

“A school bus!”

“A chickadee!”

“Coffee!”

But I can be a fun Super Nanny when it’s called for, so I showed up Tuesday morning with bubbles, birdseed, sidewalk chalk, and a plan. I got Manny diapered and dressed while Louise dressed herself, then I put Louise’s hair into a pony tail.

“I like how you did it a little on the side!” she said, and I pretended I’d done that on purpose. We grabbed light jackets and sun hats, because it was already in the 60s, and getting warmer by the minute, and headed to the playground. I set my sidewalk chalk — big, chunky pastel pieces — out on the path and reminded Louise that I share it with all the kids.

“One time I forgot the chalk,” I told her, “And when I came back for it later, the kids had decorated this whole path, all the way around the playground.”

“Wow, the whole thing?” she asked.

“Yup. It was like a beautiful rainbow.”

There were lots of kids there, and as I followed Manny around making sure he didn’t fall off of the play structures, I realized that several of them were not being watched as carefully as mine. I don’t judge other caregivers for this. I stay close to the kids I nanny because I’m their nanny and it’s my job, but I don’t think they really need such close supervision. Certainly we children of the 70s played outside with only occasional check-ins from our parents, till the sun set or we were called in for dinner.

One of the less-watched children was an adorable toddler with wrap-around glasses, not more than two years old, if that. I smiled at him when we crossed paths, and he babbled back with pre-language syllables, easily climbing the stairs by himself as I hovered over Manny.

Another of the less-watched children is a three year old named Becca, as she told me when she came over to ask if she can use the chalk. Louise decided Becca actually did need supervision with the chalk, so she followed her over and the two started drawing together.

A couple of minutes later, Becca came over to me and said, “Excuse me, excuse me, he’s trying to hit us with a stick,” and I saw that the toddler had a small stick he wasflailing around.

“Oh,” I said, “Well he’s just little, try to stay away from him.” I didn’t feel I had the right to actually take the stick from him, even though Becca seemed to have granted me the authority of a teacher, by virtue of my ownership of the chalk. I took out the birdseed and Manny and I started walking around looking for sparrows to feed. A couple of minutes later I looked around for Louise and saw that she, Becca, and another girl had opened the playground gate and were collecting large sticks and bringing them back in.

“No, guys, no sticks in the playground,” I said, finally accepting my role as Chalk-Imbued Leader.

“But he’s hitting us with a stick, so we need sticks to fight back!” Becca exclaimed.

“No,” I say firmly, shaking my head and corralling them back out the gate, “We need less sticks in this situation, not more sticks.”

Just then the spectacled toddler noticed the open gate and dashed out. I dashed after him and herded him gently back into the playground, then closed the gate.

The children ran off, weaponless, and I turned my face to the sunshine streaming down through the leafless oaks and maples. Winter trees, summer sun. For a moment I closed my eyes and let the kids wander as they would, while I became just another fellow creature out in the fresh, clean air, savoring the brief reprieve from the New England cold. I became my younger self, out wandering the neighborhood after school, free to explore and imagine all I wanted, as long as I came home in time for supper. Then I opened my eyes and turned again into Super Nanny, catching up Manny and calling to Louise to come eat the snack of crackers and strawberries I’d prepared.

***

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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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