Monday, February 23, 2015

Finding Beauty in "Ruin"

The title of this blog post refers to the notion of some in society that "pregnancy ruins a woman's body". This does not reflect my actual feelings about my postpartum body, but it does affect my feelings, and I hate that. Today, I am in the midst of my third cycle of "finding the new normal" after a healthy pregnancy. I love my three boys more than anything. My struggle is in making peace with what I see in the mirror once they have found their way into the world.

Due to the large carry that runs in my family (see picture--a month or two before I delivered baby #3), I am left with a large, loose pouch of skin at best, and usually some extra rolls on top of that. This pregnancy I was already carrying about 25 more pounds than I like to have before I even got my positive test. I am working my way back to my preferred weight in a slow, healthy-eating manner.

Don't get me wrong; I am proud of what my body has done. I have three very healthy and adorable little guys. I know I am capable of bringing myself to be fit again; I have finished a marathon (albeit very slowly) as well as many half marathons and ten-milers. I am currently training for a 10K (6.2 miles) in May.

I think part of the struggle this time around, in addition to the extra weight I was carrying pre-pregnancy (I have already dropped the weight I put on during the pregnancy), is that I am still emotionally dealing with my birth experience. My first two sons were delivered vaginally while my third ended up being an unplanned c-section. I went through nearly 24 hours of labor with 3 hours of pushing before my doctor determined that my son wasn't progressing down the birth canal. It turned out that his head was just too big to fit through my pelvis, and I am grateful for modern medicine that allowed him to be born safely anyway, even though it was not what I had hoped for. The experience was slightly disappointing and fairly terrifying in the moment, even though my doctor and nurses were lovely and took great care of me. While rationally I understand why things happened as they did, there is still a part of my brain that mourns the relatively quick and easy birth I experienced with my second son and that I expected with my third.

I am finding it hard to reconcile the parts of my brain. One accepts my appearance as normal and to be expected from multiple pregnancies, two after the age of 30, and large babies taking up a small amount of real estate in a petite, short-waisted frame. The other is too susceptible to the images of the latest starlet to bounce back miraculously from a pregnancy and look as if she had never been pregnant in the first place--never mind that she has a nanny, a chef and a personal trainer to help. Or to a Facebook post by a friend sharing a photo project meant to celebrate real postpartum bodies (stretch marks, "pooches", and all) with the caption "this is one of the reasons why I'll never have kids."

I have never considered myself a vain person, but I am too sensitive to the inconsiderate comments of acquaintances asking if I'm pregnant again. No, I'm not. I have a nearly-7-month-old and was not allowed to do much exercise for the first 4-5 months postpartum because my pelvic muscles actually separated with all the stretching that happened during the pregnancy and I had to undergo physical therapy to bring them back together again. But thanks for making me feel like a huge cow.

Getting back into running is really the best therapy. I started running before having children, realizing that I would get in shape faster if I pushed my pace on our secondhand treadmill. Before long I was entering--and enjoying!--5K races, and it snowballed from there. I loved the way I felt after a run, and the changes in my body--getting stronger and replacing flab with muscle--were a big plus. I was a bit worried after my c-section that it might hurt to run. I had a friend whose scar bothered her when she ran. Luckily, that has not been an issue for me. My biggest challenges have been simply carving out enough time for my workouts--a few have been after the kids and even hubby went to bed!--and remembering to continue strengthening my core with my physical therapy exercises. I had never had issues with my knees, and I was starting to really feel them during runs until I recalled that core strength can adversely affect the joints. So now I'm trying to remember, in all my spare time, to take care of cross training on my off days from running.

When I run, I feel strong and I lose the self-consciousness I tend to get in other situations in public. I want to channel that feeling and carry it with me all day. I admire the women who have stopped caring about others' impressions of their appearance; they take care of themselves because they love themselves and not for anyone else's benefit. I am working my way towards joining their ranks.

Whatever the results of my weight-loss and fitness journey on my body, I resolve to be proud of what I have done to care for myself and make myself a better mom and wife for my family. I will have improved my health and boosted my energy to look after those I love, and that is more important to me than anything else in this life. I hope that when I look in the mirror in the coming months, I see achievement and power, and never "ruin." To me, childbearing is a bit like rebirth for the mother as well. The mother is faced with the challenge of finding a new normal for herself, adjusting to the new life she has created as well as the permanent and temporary changes in her own body. The challenge is accepting and affirming these in the most positive way.

Challenge accepted.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Belated, but still important.

I wrote this poem for the 20th anniversary of my father's death. It was a painful day, but I have gained some perspective on it over the past few decades. In some ways it seems like he'll be right back, and in others I realize how much he's missed (and I've missed him). He never met my husband or my sons, although I know he would love them. Anyway, I was inspired by Penderecki's "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima." It is a powerful piece which, given the subject matter, I can't manage to finish listening to. I understand his purpose in making such a piece, however, and its visceral feeling reminded me of my own loss, however small it is in comparison to the magnitude of tragedy in Hiroshima.


For K.B.E. 5/9/42-12/28/94

My heart screams like the strings
written by Penderecki for Hiroshima.
Loss rips through my soul
with the force of atomic bombs.
This is a chasm that can never be filled,
a crack beyond repair.

Even now, memories blurry with distance,
emptiness threatens to consume my consciousness.
But then, a tiny hand reaches for mine,
a small voice raises in questioning.
Little arms encircle me with quiet unknowing,
calming my furious thoughts
and deepening my shallow breaths.
They need me, and for them I can move mountains.

While physically the vacant space remains,
I feel you here in small moments
all the time. Hearing virtuoso piano concerti,
in a gesture or expression on a small boy’s face,
in my uncontrollable urge to sway in an embrace.
Yes, you are not gone, only gone subtle.
With an alert eye, there is no need for loneliness.
Until we meet again.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Story Time, or what I've been up to.

Once upon a time, there was a young woman who wasn't sure what to do with her life. She loved reading and writing, but she knew writing jobs were difficult to come by and jobs that paid one to read are even more rare. It occurred to her that she loved English and it made particular sense to her, so she decided to become a teacher.

After a year in a master's in teaching program, she got her first job teaching high school freshmen. As is typical, her first year was not the easiest but she had a great time and felt affirmed in her career choice. She had a supportive team of teachers helping her along and giving her advice. But then she had to move across the country and she could not find another school that had the same environment. She taught 8th grade for a year in a very cold and unsupportive environment (everyone was "on their own" with no help from the front office). She taught 7th grade in an amazing school with a wonderful team and terrific parents, but then was restructured out of the job and ended up taking another 7th grade job in a much more rural district with fewer resources.

When these three years had passed, her husband had finished his training in law and they moved to Chicago, where she stayed home to care for first one, then two young sons. Those five years were precious and amazing times in which she was able to slow down and really enjoy the time she had with her little ones.

Financial circumstances changed suddenly after this, and she found herself scrabbling to try to find another job. She found one as a part time teacher of middle and high schoolers at a very rural school, and her children were able to attend preschool at the same site, which made the separation easier.

The following year, she found what she thought would be her dream job: teaching high school English at a school devoted to the performing arts. She loved the students and the other teachers, but for some reason unknown to her, administration was not satisfied with her best efforts and she was not invited back for the following year. While she would have missed the first few months anyway (she was having her third baby over the summer), she was initially heartbroken to have to leave her students. They were invested in their art and motivated (for the most part) to do well in the rest of their classes so they could continue to attend the school. Before the end of the school year, however, it became evident that many teachers were unhappy with how the school was run and chose to leave it and teach elsewhere. She then realized that even if she had stayed, the school would have been very different with such high teacher turnover.

Now, the girl is at a crossroads. She has determined she will stay home probably for at least a few years while the newest baby is small, but she is uncertain whether she has enough courage to put herself out there to teach in a high school context again or if she will figure out a new line of employment. It was extremely discouraging to put her whole self into a job and still be told it was not good enough.

The girl knows she wants to be a writer, but it will be awhile before she will have consistent time to carve out a writing schedule. Until then it will be piecemeal at best since small babies do not follow a set schedule. So for now, she will do her best to give her new son the best start she can and shower her children with love and support.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Two-Minute Personality Test: My Answers

I realize that it has been inexcusably long since my last post, and for this I apologize and can only chalk it up to crazy life events. For any reader’s amusement, I was inspired at dinner tonight to answer the questions on my soda cup from Chipotle. Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Two-Minute Personality Test by Jonathan Safran Foer

What’s the kindest thing you almost did?
I’m not sure if this applies, but when I lived in Chicago I saw a man a few blocks from my house sitting against a tree near the street. He didn’t look like he felt particularly well. I tried to assess the situation by talking to him, but he did not speak very good English and was out of it enough to be slurring his speech. He asked for help, so I called the police non-emergency line on my cell phone and waited there until they arrived. When they did, they seemed rather rough in getting him to his feet, but it also seemed like they had seen him before so maybe it was more of an act or he was drunk. I felt at the time like this was the best I could do since I was very pregnant and was walking my older son in his stroller.

Is your fear of insomnia stronger than your fear of what awoke you?
This gets an “it depends” from me. Sometimes I wake up from a nightmare that seemed terrifying until I regain consciousness, and then I realize whatever seemed scary in the dream is now ridiculous. Like the dream I had last week when I had a high school friend living below me and she came up to tell me that I was watching TV too much and proceeded to try to stab me with a five-bladed Samurai sword. Luckily it was a retractable sword like they use in stage shows. In these sorts of cases I have no problem going back to sleep. Now if I have a real nightmare about something that could actually happen, sometimes it keeps me up for awhile, but usually I can overcome it and eventually go back to sleep.

Are bonsai cruel?
I hadn’t considered this before. I would have to do some research into how much we know about whether plants feel pain from being growth restricted. I used to have one for a time, but it died when I went on a long vacation once. It was beautiful. I have always loved tiny things, and this one had delicate jade green leaves and dainty pink flowers. I was very sad to see it had perished.

Do you love what you love, or just the feeling?
I believe I love what (and who) I love, not just the feeling. I am a thoughtful person and I enjoy putting as much of myself as possible into everything I do and everyone I care about. If I don’t feel like I am getting much out of an activity, I will move on and find something else on which to be spending my time.

Your earliest memories: do you look through your young eyes, or look at your young self?
Again, this depends. If it is a painful memory (an embarrassing or sad event), it’s hard for me to look at it as my grown-up self; I tend to revert back to the feelings as they were when they were more fresh. If it is just a run-of-the-mill sort of memory, I am much more likely to view it impartially through my current viewpoint.

Which feels worse: to know that there are people who do more with less talent, or that there are people with more talent?
I think the former is much worse than the latter. I am OK with people naturally possessing more talent in things than I do. That does not determine that they will be more successful than I will and I am not jealous of that. Now, that there are people with a higher drive that helps them to achieve more than I do, that grates on me. While I like to think I work hard, I always feel like I could work harder, particularly at my writing.

Do you walk on moving walkways? Should it make any difference that you knew it was wrong as you were doing it?
Yes. I actually went and looked up the rules on moving walkways at my local airport because I was fairly certain it was completely fine to walk on half of the moving walkway. Sure enough, the sign says “Walk on the left, stand on the right.” As far as I am aware, all other airports I’ve been in have followed this protocol and I follow the rules and walk on the left. Unless I have to go around someone who is directionally challenged and is standing on the left.

Would you trade actual intelligence for the perception of being smarter?
No. I would rather legitimately be smarter than to have other people see me as smarter. Public perception is less important to me than actual reality.

Why does it bother you when someone at the next table is having a conversation on a cell phone?
This is much easier to answer as “when does it bother you.” It bothers me when people are obviously ignoring whoever is joining them for a meal in favor of a caller or a text message or Facebook. Granted, I’ve been guilty of this in the past, but I have made a point in the past year or so to try and curb that habit. The reason it would bother me in general would be if they were having some sort of heated argument that they should probably be having in person and in private.

How many years of your life would you trade for the greatest month of your life?
This is tough. I’m not sure if I would knowingly sacrifice years with some moments/days of joy in favor of 30 consecutive happy days. I am a fairly happy person most of the time, so this doesn’t seem like a good trade to me.

What would you tell your father, if it were possible?
I would tell him I love him and I miss him, and if he needed it I would reassure him that I wasn’t angry that he had to leave me so early in my life. I feel like I absorbed his love and encouragement from the brief time we had together, and hopefully I have and will make him proud.

Which is changing faster, your body or your mind?
At the moment, I’d say my body is changing much faster than my mind. I’m still fairly young in the grand scheme of things, and in my ninth month of pregnancy the belly literally takes precedence in everything I do. When this child arrives I hope the body will still be changing faster than my mind until I regain some shape other than completely round.

Is it cruel to tell an old person his prognosis?
I feel that it is probably crueler to keep it from him. There are obviously ways to tell him that would be very cruel indeed, but I believe most people would probably rather know. I would, and I am not old yet. Once someone has reached older ages, he has probably already come to the realization that someday he may get a dire prognosis, and will hopefully take it well.

Are you in any way angry at your phone?
Actually, yes. My phone has had some issues with battery life over the last few months and will sometimes decide to turn off due to low battery when minutes before it registered 75% charged. That, to me, is not low battery. If I am not near a charger, it will not turn back on until I get to one and plug it in, reminding it that it has lost whatever a cell phone has instead of a mind.

When you pass a storefront, do you look at what’s inside, look at your reflection, or neither?
This depends on what kind of store it is and what I’m wearing. If it’s a store I like, I’m more likely to be looking at what’s in the store. If I’m wearing a new outfit, I may want to sneak a look at my reflection to see that I didn’t leave a tag on it and it looks OK.

Is there anything you would die for if no one could ever know you died for it?
Probably the same thing I’d die for for any reason, which is my family. I would protect them at any cost. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do everything possible to keep my children and husband safe.

If you could be assured that money wouldn’t make you any small bit happier, would you still want more money?
No, I wouldn’t. Money is not something I’m particularly obsessed with; I feel like if I had more than I needed I’d be pretty generous with charities and such since I don’t see the value in being ostentatious.

What has been irrevocably spoiled for you?
This is a tough one. I guess the pure joy you have as a child eating junk food. I now am fully aware of what I’m doing when I indulge at a drive thru or with a bag of some fat-laden snack, and I can’t really escape the guilt for my poor choice. Not to mention the indigestion.

If your deepest secret became public, would you be forgiven?
I’d like to think so. I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m not even sure what I would classify as this secret, so I am not sure how to answer it. Perhaps whatever it is is so dark to me that I have repressed it.

Is your best friend your kindest friend?
Yes, he is. My husband is one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. He is supremely patient and understanding when I’m being moody and unreasonable, and will tell me the truth in a way that doesn’t often make me defensive. Even if it does, I realize even at that moment that while it is bothering me, he’s right. He is a treasure and I’m very lucky to have him.

Is it in any way cruel to give a dog a name?
I think this is only cruel if you give them a terrible name, like Stinky or Loser McAssnugget. Even then, the dog doesn’t understand what it means and will probably still come running with the same joy as if its name was Max or Lulu.

Is there anything you feel a need to confess?
Um. I’m a procrastinator, particularly on things I am insecure about. This is probably why I have several WIPs I’m studiously ignoring in favor of blog posts, knitting, and sleeping.

You know it’s a “murder of crows” and a “wake of buzzards,” but it’s a what of ravens, again?
I would have probably cheated and looked this up, but it is answered in a few more questions. I couldn’t remember if I had ever heard that one before.

What is it about death that you’re afraid of?
It’s probably a combination of a slight fear of the unknown and not knowing when it will happen. I just hope I have a chance to make a mark on the world, or at least my family, before my time is up.

How does it make you feel to know that it’s an “unkindness of ravens”?
I feel that this is unkind to ravens. They are beautiful birds and regardless of their reputations, this is an unfair categorization. Even a “cacophony of ravens” would be better, in my opinion.

Mr. Safran Foer, if you are searching people who answered these questions you asked on Chipotle cups nationwide, what are my results on your quiz?

Monday, March 18, 2013

At the bitter end of winter...

Winter seems to be taking a cue from Dylan Thomas and is raging against the dying of the light this year. Despite the first day of spring approaching, my town was under a blizzard warning this morning, mostly due to high winds rather than a lot of additional snow. While I enjoy snow, I do not enjoy dangerous snow-related conditions, so despite my school district not even delaying school today (they later released them early, though), I chose to burn a sick day rather than risk traveling against the recommendation of The Weather Channel. Needless to say, I am about done with the icky weather this year. I'm also done with the illness our little family has been struggling with over the winter. Everyone is well just now, but I'm not loving the clinic bills coming in. Sigh.

December/ March
Gossamer flakes dance
drifting gracefully as swans
creating a fairyland
of ice and frost.

Transforming barren trees
to otherworldly creatures,
softening hard edges
to velvet marshmallows.

Once the alabaster blanket nestles,
a deep, peaceful stillness descends,
muffling once-harsh sounds,
soothing and refreshing the spirit.

When at last the clouds part,
the diamond-encrusted landscape
is too much to take in,
so much light overwhelms the senses.

Globs of wadded tissue
dribble from the sky.
Clumsily splattering to earth,
the frozen slush conspires.

Unsuspecting feet
make unscheduled express routes,
leading to wet posteriors
and strings of expletives.

The joyless gray sky
yields nothing but jagged glass,
tearing at tender cheeks
and obscuring vision.

When at last clumps cease descending,
the wicked wind kicks up,
throwing Mother Nature's vomit
at unlucky travelers again.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Woman, love thyself!

Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life. 
I was fortunate enough to introduce the above poem by the Nobel Prize-winning Caribbean poet Derek Walcott to my junior and senior high school students a few weeks ago, and I was struck by the tenderness of the poem.

He is not suggesting the kind of self-absorption that becomes destructive or all-encompassing; he merely exhorts people to stop rushing around for a moment and take the time to notice and appreciate how far they have come, how they have changed, and who they are becoming.

This particularly needs to be heard, in my opinion, by women. As mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, we are often tempted to ignore personal needs or wants in favor of a family member, a spouse, a child, or even a friend or co-worker. We sometimes lose ourselves in the various roles we play in our daily lives. I have seen too many times the woman who, once her children are grown and her husband has passed on, realizes she has completely lost her own sense of self-identity.

This is precisely the type of thing Walcott is pressing for us to prevent. It may not be original, but nevertheless it is true: it is impossible to truly love others before you love yourself.  Go back and find who you are, what you want out of your life, what you want to become. Define your own inner beauty. Then figure out how you can get it. Become the woman you want to be, and your happiness will spill over to all of the people around you--husband, wife, children, parents, co-workers, friends... Your self-confidence will be contagious and those around you will wonder what you have done.

It's so simple, really. Why is it so relatively rare for women to take time for themselves? Perhaps we feel guilty spending time on something we see as purely "selfish." But if we never take time for ourselves, we really diminish our capacity to give to others. We shrink and become a little more bitter with each request made of our limited resources. It may not become evident right away, but eventually the day comes where we feel hollowed out, with nothing more to give. We need to replenish the well by filling ourselves with love. Find your joy and do what gives you a sense of accomplishment and fun regularly. Our children will see us treating ourselves with love and respect and will model their own self-treatment on our behavior. It could be writing, exercise, visual art, music, or even something as simple as a few minutes of daily meditation or a bubble bath. Just take the time for YOU. Make an appointment with yourself. Write it in pen on your calendar and refuse to reschedule. You deserve it. You are beautiful.

This post was written in conjunction with the marvelous author August McLaughlin's Beauty of a Woman BlogFest. To read more posts from the Fest, click here

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Lyric Christmas

After a tough year, and especially after the terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I wanted to write some lyrics for an eventual Christmas song. I have always wanted to write a song, and I love Christmas music. The odd combination of all the negatives recently somehow allowed me to get into the right frame of mind to write what I had in mind. As I was preparing to write, I realized that I don't recall ever hearing a Christmas song that was a lullaby sung by Mary to her newborn. There are songs Mary sings (Breath of Heaven) and there are lullabies (the rocking carol), but I don't know of someone combining these ideas. So I wrote this.

Mary's Lullaby

Heart of my heart
Love of my life
Sleep with the peace
Of heaven tonight.

Sent as a miracle
Of God's selfless love,
You give us a glimpse
Of life up above.

I don't understand
Why I am the one
Who was entrusted
With God's only son,

But I'll give my heart
And soul to the cause
To nurture this spirit
Despite all my flaws.

Remember, my baby,
Though long be the night,
Though cold may be gripping,
God always shines light.