January thaw

img_2122Good morning, friends. How are you doing this winter? Is anyone else having a hard time making it through? I’ve been fine, really, but even when the winter is relatively mild it feels like everything is just a little bit harder. Getting out of bed has been harder. I’m hyper-responsible (which comes from a deep fear that I’m irresponsible) so I hardly ever wake up late, much less get to work late, but there have been a couple of mornings lately that it was really, really hard to gather the energy to crawl out from under the covers. Life in general feels hard, but then there’s this upcoming inauguration and fears — which are already being realized — that some hard days are ahead for our country. I have an undercurrent of stress and anxiety that I think many Americans share, and I’m worried about us as a nation. This kind of constant stress isn’t good for us. I’d like to buy us all a coke, except not a coke because it’s full of high fructose corn syrup and chemicals. I’d like to buy us all a smoothie. Or a massage. Or a yoga class. Or, you know, affordable health care.

My own faith, and deep inner peace, comes from the belief that even though everything is not going to be okay, I am going to be okay, deep down in the core of me, where the one who created me and loves me breathes with me. Every breath reminds me of the presence of the Spirit. All I have to do to return to that presence is to breathe. That I am deeply known and loved and held is true, just as it is true that terrible things are happening in the world, and terrible things are going to happen. Holding these two truths together in my heart, in my body, in my breath is the challenge and the hope of this winter.

A friend of mine has chosen the word resistance as her word for 2017, and I wish I could join her. I want to be strong, I want to feel like I can do something to fight for justice and fairness in this scary new world. Or, you know, affordable health care. But I honestly can often barely get out of bed these days. I go to my nanny job, I run my errands, go to physical therapy for this foot problem I have and to the chiropractor for this back problem, come home and cook dinner, take my migraine meds, and then collapse into bed again. Just getting through the day is about all I can manage. I think my word of 2017 might be something like basic survival. Yet that is resistance, too. George MacDonald wrote:

Let us in all the troubles of life remember – that our one lack is life – that what we need is more life – more of the life-making presence in us making us more, and more largely live. Let us rouse ourselves to live. Of all things let us avoid the false refuge of a weary collapse, a hopeless yielding to things as they are…he has the victory who, in the midst of pain and weakness, cries out…for strength to fight; for more power, more conscious-ness of being, more God in him.

I woke up this morning sore from the chiropractor’s appointment, tired from work, and feeling a migraine coming on. But I woke up. I roused myself to live. And I sat on my couch and opened my computer to write to you. I greatly admire my friends, and those like her, who are gathering and organizing and doing something to resist, to fight. And I also greatly admire my friends who are fighting just to get out of bed in the morning. I am trying to admire myself for that, too. Weariness draws us into despair, but instead of giving into that despair, we rouse ourselves to live. We wake up each day and get out of bed. We take deep breaths and remember that God is with us. In the midst of our pain and weakness we cry out for strength and life. And while we wait for the winter to be over we keep moving through it, doing our best each day. That is resistance. That is courage. That is enough.

Love,
Jessica

P.S. If you do have a little extra energy and want to be involved, your local chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice is a great place to start. Among many other things they send a monthly list of action points, including a commitment worksheet and follow up encouragement. http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/about

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Winter survival guide

img_1948 “All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
and intense
round every living thing.”

from The Winter of Listening
by David Whyte

Has anyone else had kind of a hard year? Mine wasn’t bad — in fact it was very good in many ways — but there were a lot of hard things. Migraines were worse this summer and fall than they had been in a long time. Our housemate that we really liked moved to California and Mark and I had to put a lot of time and energy into finding and adjusting to a new one. My nanny job ended and it took several months to find a new one. And my dad, who has a degenerative muscle disease, transitioned this year from using a walker to a wheelchair. And the election was, and continues to be, hard.

One of the lessons that my forties has taught me is that hard things are not necessarily a tragedy, but a  part of life. If you spent all your energy trying to make life easy and good you would have very little time left to actually live. Pain and struggle is as much a part of life as joy and happiness, and in some ways are much better teachers. Living in New England teaches me this, as the ebb and swell of the seasons bring such joy and beauty along with pain and difficulty. The heat of the summer worsens the migraines, and the darkness and cold of the winter brings the emotional struggle of seasonal affective disorder as well as the physical challenge of shoveling snow, negotiating parking and driving in the narrowed city streets, dealing with my own colds and viruses as well as those of the children I nanny, and having limited options for activities with the kids.

If I could invent the perfect climate for myself it would have five months of spring, five of autumn, and one each of winter and summer. Just enough heat and cold to get a taste: We would have the month of summer and the month of winter off of work for intensive barbecuing, beach-going / skiing, Christmas and Hanukkah celebration, snowman-making, etc., and then the days would revert back into my sweet spot: 60-70 degrees during the day and just chilly enough at night to snuggle under a warm blanket.

But in real life here in Boston, winter seems to stretch out for five months. The days start getting dramatically shorter in November, and for many people the associated seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, starts even earlier. The end of daylight savings time plunges us into darkness at four o’clock. December doesn’t usually have much snow, but the cold and dark set in for real. And then January and February hit, with their frigid temperatures and the possibility of several feet of snow. Some years are colder and snowier than others, but you never really know what you are in for till you’re in it. March is called the beginning of meteorological spring, but every New Englander knows that, though you may get a day or two of warmish weather — a day or two of lambishness — March is really much more of a lion like its wild, sister winter months.

But the winter days are part of life just like those in the spring. I want to live those days, too, and not just count them down till my preferred days arrive. I don’t want to spend half my year watching the clock. At the same time, the coming spring is part of the winter. The joy to come is part of the sorrow, just as the sorrow flavors the joy. Just like life. And one of the most wonderful things about winter to me is that on its very second day the light begins to return. With the coldest months of the year still ahead of us the days are already lengthening, giving back the morning and evening light that the summer and autumn took from us. (And the bittersweet opposite is also true: On the second day of summer the days are already shortening.)

So one way I survive the winter is by marking my calendar for the light’s return. Since I’m not always awake for the sunrises I focus on the sunsets. The earliest is in mid-December, 4:12pm. By the winter solstice, December 21st, it has already inched back to 4:15, and we only have to wait till January 9th for a 4:30 sunset. 5pm is February 2nd, 5:30 is February 26th, and by the time we go back to Daylight Savings on March 12th we are already at 5:47 which then becomes 6:47, and even those who have to work till six have the light for their commute home.

img_1738Another way I survive the winter is by attentiveness. I have limited light so I try to pay attention to it more. I try to go to bed early and wake up to watch the sunrise. I try to get ready for the early sunset by going outside around 3:30, enjoying the slant of the winter sun and the sharp outline of the bare tree branches against the winter sky. If I can’t go outside I at least look out the window. And when I am home for the sunset I light a candle to acknowledge the transition. I can’t keep the sun from setting, but it feels good to be a part of the process. It isn’t just happening to me, I am allowing it, even welcoming it. And I celebrate the fact that I can recreate the light and warmth of the sun inside my home.

The winter has barely started. It may be another mild one like last year, or it may be brutal like the year before. It’s not going to be easy. But it is a part of life, just the same. And the joy that comes with the first thaw of spring would not be as pure and full if the winter were not so dark and cold.

***

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Dear February: A break-up letter

brokenheart

Dear February,

Hey, babe. We need to talk.

I don’t think we should see each other anymore.

It’s not you, it’s me. Okay, well, if I’m honest, it’s a little you. I mean, I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this before, but you’re kind of high maintenance. I don’t mind putting work into a relationship, but when it’s always you throwing tons (literally) of snow at me, and I have to spend every weekend shoveling out my house and car, it gets to the point that I just can’t cope. When was the last time we did something fun on the weekend? Maybe these blizzards *are* fun for you, I don’t know. But for me, I think I need a month with a little more warmth, the occasional sunny day I can just cuddle with and be myself. You know?

And, listen, I’m sure there are girls out there who can appreciate you more than I can. People who ski, for example, or who hate being able to feel their fingers and toes. You should hold out for someone who likes you for who you really are.

I can tell you were really trying this year, and I want to give you credit for that. Those days where the sun broke through and your temperatures got up into the 50s were just lovely. But, to be honest, they just made the cold, snowy days that much harder. I know you did the best you could, February, but I think we just have to admit that we’re not right for each other.

What’s that? Who told you that? Well, yes, it’s true, I have met someone else. His name is March. He actually reminds me of you a little, in a funny way. He and I have plans tomorrow and — guess what? — he might have a snowstorm. On our first date, I know. He’s a bit of a fixer-upper. But I really think he’s open to change. He’s working on himself, you know? I told him how hard your dark, lonely evenings were, and he promised me that within a couple of weeks he’d have sunset moved to six thirty, and even seven. I know you like to stay in at night, February, but I’m the kind of girl who likes a nice walk in the evenings, with the sun on my back.

Still, I think March might just be a rebound relationship. There’s this other month I met online who says he always brings his girls flowers. Flowers, can you imagine? Did you ever think of doing that, February? Or is that too much of  a cliche for you?

Oh. Well, this is awkward — I forgot it was a leap year. I guess we have one more day together after all. So…what do you want to do? Come on, February, don’t be like that. Let’s end on a good note. What do you say — want to go shovel some snow, for old time’s sake?

Your friend,
Jessica

How I finally learned to feed myself, part two

Mädchen mit Teller by Carl von Bergen

Mädchen mit Teller by Carl von Bergen

There are many different ways of wanting food, and many reasons for eating; there are many reasons for not eating, too. Last winter I gained seven or eight pounds because I couldn’t stop eating chocolate croissants — my daily rounds with the little girl I was nannying took us into cafes for bathroom breaks and for coffee, and there were the pastries, loaded with carbs and sugar, a perfect mid-morning treat, especially when paired with a second cup of coffee. Hunger for those croissants was primal, passed down from generation to generation over millions of years when not eating the food in front of you would have been madness, would have meant death. If any of those ancient people chose not to eat, they died, and their DNA was not passed down to me. Those who ate, survived. Our bodies developed complex, irresistible mechanisms to ensure that we ate — the hunger in our bellies is nothing compared to the synapses firing between our ears, the chemicals that light up our brain’s pleasure centers like a Christmas tree when salt or sugar hits our tongues. The frigid temperatures of last January and February, and the pounding of foot after foot of snow triggered every millennia-honed instinct to eat as much as possible, to put on extra fat to survive the winter. My genes didn’t care that I was wearing long underwear and sweaters, or that inside it was a cozy sixty-eight degrees. They had no concept that my body was already sufficiently padded with extra fat, that in fact losing rather than gaining seven pounds would have been healthier all around. They had been given one task, their prime directive: Make sure Jessica eats. And they did their job splendidly.

That summer, when I slowed down after a busy spring, I finally had time to look down at the scale (and to look at the pictures of myself at the Momastery event in June) and to realize that a little focus was needed to get back on track. I put myself back on probiotics which, beside their multiple heath benefits also had the helpful instruction, “Take three times daily on an empty stomach.” (The probiotics need to get to the intestines to do their work, which means they need to make it through the stomach without being digested. They basically sneak through while the stomach isn’t looking, i.e. while it’s not digesting any food.) This meant that I had to pay attention to what and when I was eating enough that my stomach was actually empty three times per day. I poked around online and made the guess that three hours would empty my stomach, plus another hour after I took the pill to let it pass through. Basically I stopped eating between meals, and in doing so, rediscovered the joy of eating when you’re really, truly hungry. I had big salads loaded with lentils and vegetables, an apple or two every day, toast and peanut butter in the morning, yogurt for a late night snack. Everything tasted so GOOD when I was well and truly hungry. I didn’t mess around with low-fat anything, I put olive oil and vinegar on my salads and ate cream-on-top yogurts, and I ate till I was full at meals. I began to feel at peace with the periods of not eating, enjoying the comfort of not having to think about food during that time. It just wasn’t time to eat yet, but it would be soon. No big deal. I could wait another hour.

I wasn’t starving myself, like I had in the past. The point of feeling hunger was so that I could eat well later. When I was starving myself, back in college, the point of hunger had been power, pure power over myself, my body, and my life. Nothing else mattered, and nothing felt as good. Then the pounds had melted off at 10lbs a month as I tried to eat around 500-1000 calories a day. Now, if I found myself at the end of the day having only eaten 1500 calories I’d have another apple, or a yogurt, or both. The goal wasn’t to starve myself. The goal was to feed myself. And I lost weight, but slowly, two or three pounds a month till I lost the seven I had gained and another seven after that. I wondered how I ever could have been so careless as to eat all those extra pastries. I laughed at last-winter Jessica. Then this winter came.

At first I didn’t notice much of a change. I breezed through December, eating a Christmas cookie or two here or there then calmly closing the box and putting it away. I stopped losing weight, but I didn’t gain any. Well, maybe I gained a pound. It was an exceptionally warm December, so that may have been part of it. Christmas Eve was 70 degrees. I made blithe plans to allow myself one chocolate croissant each winter month, since I liked them so much, patting myself gently on the head. Then January came and it got cold, and something switched in my brain again. I started eating two or three cookies at a time, instead of one or two, then following them up with chips. Instead of no snacks between meals I was having trouble eating only one or two snacks between meals. I tried getting back on schedule with the probiotics and letting my stomach empty before I took them, but a force greater than my will power had taken over. I laughed at last-summer Jessica. She obviously hadn’t remembered what it was like.

So here we are, one week away from February, and I have gained another pound, maybe two. My goal has changed from not gaining weight again over the winter to minimizing my weight gain. And, honestly, it’s not so much a goal as a hope. But I have come to accept this as natural. It’s okay. The winter will end eventually, and this year I will try to refocus earlier than June and get back to healthier eating. In the meantime, I’m not doing so bad. I make myself hearty soups with lots of beans and veggies, and some animal protein here and there. This afternoon I’m going to whip up some sausage, bean, and kale soup. And I allow myself a piece of sourdough bread with sweet butter on the side. Maybe in March I will give up the side of bread. But for now, I’d rather be at peace with my body than fighting against it. I’ve seen what happens when you pull the rubber band too taut: It snaps back with a vengeance. In college, after I lost sixty pounds in six months by starving myself, I gained all that back, plus forty five more. After months of not eating, the rubber band snapped and I couldn’t stop eating. Long after I was full, I’d keep putting food into my mouth: salty, sweet, savory, bland — anything to convince my body it wasn’t starving. Better to gain five pounds gently over the winter than to trigger my body into panic mode, into starvation mode.

Friends, be gentle with yourselves. Eat when you’re hungry. Do your best to stop eating when you’re full. When you don’t, forgive yourself. Nothing keeps the cycle of overeating going like shame. It’s okay. You’ll be all right. Brush and floss and go to bed. Wake up the next day, forgiven, and feed yourself again.

*****

How I finally learned to feed myself, part one

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Self-talk

Sisyphus by Titian

Sisyphus by Titian, and how I feel about this winter

Snow, snow, and more snow. I am about to head out to my nanny job and it is 8 degrees out, -16 with the wind. For the past week I have had a refrain running through my head, almost subconsciously: “I can’t handle this, it’s too much, it’s too much.” This winter is hitting me hard all of a sudden.

But while it’s true that I feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the winter and all it entails (see my last post, Boston in January), I want to be aware of that inner dialogue and take control of it. That *is* how I feel, but it’s not helpful to let it become my narrative. So I am trying, every time I notice myself thinking, “I can’t take it,” to replace it with a truth that strengthens rather than weakens.

“I am strong.” “I have made it through worse than this.” “I can’t handle the whole winter, but I can handle the work right in front of me today, and that is all I have to do right now.” Those are the inner truths that strengthen me, and what it’s helpful to focus on.

And, also, these: “We are closer to April than November.” “Sunset tonight is 5:01 pm,” (after two months of 4-something sunsets) “The average historical temperature in Boston is one degree warmer than it was two weeks ago.” “Spring is coming, it really is.” “Hang in there.”

Do you have “negative self-talk” swirling through your mind? What is it? What are some truths you can replace it with today?