Why Menopause? (Part 2 of #makingmeaningofmenopause)

This is the second post in my “making meaning of menopause” series.

Why do humans have menopause, anyway? And what is it good for?

That’s the central question of historian Susan Mattern’s very comprehensive history of menopause, The Slow Moon Climbs.

I’m making my way through the book in chunks (did I mention how comprehensive it is?), and using that as the foundation for an ongoing inquiry into the meaning of menopause in my current context — as a middle age, north american White woman who’s never reproduced.

Here are the fascinating things I’ve learned in the first few chapters.

First, I love a good glimpse into the feverish arguments of a field I am at more than arms’ length from. Turns out historians and evolutionary biologists REALLY don’t agree on why human women* — unlike almost any other animal — long outlive their reproductive value. (NOTE: When I’m discussing the book, I’m using the term “women” in the way the author does, which is, so far, an unexamined assumption of binary gender where the people who menstruate and experience menopause are presumed to be cis-women in cultures that assume most such humans will become wives, mothers and grandmothers. I’ll talk more about the constructs of menopause in a more diverse understanding of gender in a later post.).

In her early chapters, Mattern exhaustively and convincingly explores the science about how long females in other species outlive their capacity to reproduce. And while there a few examples of creatures that stop reproducing and then perform a different, non-breeding function in their social worlds, humans are unique in the length of post-reproductive lifespan. (Well, there are aphids, who undergo a kind of menopause and then become selfless, self-sacrificing protectors of their colonies by flinging a sticky substance at attackers, to defend the colony at a cost to their own lives. But this kind of kamikaze protective role is anomalous).

Essentially (and I’m wildly oversimplifying here), evolutionary biologists recognize that post-reproductive human females play an important role in the development of long life spans in humans. The current prevalent theory (though also contested!) is the “grandmother hypothesis”: By being freed up from breeding and keeping small children alive, older women have been a critical part of the evolution of social groups by foraging for and growing food and supporting younger relatives. This ability to augment food supply, foster cooperation and support weak or ill members of a group is believed by many to have directly contributed to the increasing life span of humans over time, the evolution of skills and knowledge, the capacity to withstand climate cycles of drought and food scarcity, and the spread of humans across the globe: “once weaned children could be supplied with hard-to-acquire foods, it allowed humans to live in new environments and to colonize the world. Once adult lifespans lengthened, longer childhoods evolved as a result. Humans took advantage of these longer childhoods to develop higher levels of foraging skill; social skills also developed rapidly as cooperation became more important at all ages.

The grandmother hypothesis points to menopause as an “evolutionary adaptive” strategy. By evolving a category of skilled, experienced adults who are not preoccupied with the keeping alive of babies or taking on the risks of childbirth, menopause is a critical part of the evolution of social worlds, human skills and knowledge, and human capacity to do more with their lives than simple survival.

There’s a nice overview of this hypothesis here.

(I’m not going to go into detail about the critiques of this hypothesis — most are grounded in thinking of menopause as an “epiphenomenon” of genetic changes — an accidental byproduct rather than an adaptation; a common theme is that evolution is competitive, with men needing to reproduce with a variety of younger women to ensure the propagation of the species; having older women around may be helpful, but isn’t a direct, desired adaptation).

So. If post-reproductive life evolved as a way for humans to have a life cycle that allows both intensive investment in offspring AND a large role for experience and the evolution of knowledge and technology, menopause is a transitional point to a different life stage. In forager cultures, this role might be elder, grandmother or mother-in-law. In our western industrial culture, what is the equivalent?

I’m going to leave this here for this week, with a question: what are your narratives about menopause? Do you see it as a transition to a potentially vital life stage? As a physical phenomenon and nothing more? Or as something (as more than one commenter put it last week) to fear or a reminder of not having “fulfilled” the expected role of reproduction?

How does the “grandmother hypothesis” influence how you think about menopause?

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is now on her fifth month without a period for the first time since 1977. Here she is with HER grandmother, learning to bake something, around that time.


What’s your bakasana?

A few months ago, I wrote a post called “what’s your drishti?“, using the yoga concept of focusing on one point while in a balancing posture as a way of grounding ourselves in a time of chaos. Since then, I’ve also been kind of quietly obsessed with a particular asana: bakasana, also known as “crow.”

This is bakasana, beautifully held, on Day 18 of Yoga with Adriene’s 30 day “Breath” series.

She makes it look so effortless.

But for a lot of people, crow is one of “those poses” that can generate a lot of internal self-talk of the “why can’t I do this thing that everyone else can do, what is wrong with me” variety. Where we lose track of the fact that all bodies are different, and that is a good thing.

After we did crow in the Breath series this week, someone posted about in our “221 workouts in 2021” group how crow “had seemed so absurdly hard (and honestly a bit scary to me) that I would resent when it was a part of beginner or “all levels” yoga classes.

I was the same, for literally decades. I’ve been doing yoga since about 1995, in many different modalities. Some years, I practice intermittently, some years, every day, but it’s been a pretty steady part of my life. And for 24 years, every time we got to the crow part of a class, I’d just do some squatting and hop a bit, fruitlessly, on my arms. I thought it was one of those things I “couldn’t do” — and I had a fair bit of negative self regard about that.

But up until about three years ago, I’d thought the same thing about handstand — that it was one of those things that Younger People or More Athletic People or Prettier People (WTF? I KNOW!) did. But there was a moment in a class where the teacher encouraged us to play, and I swallowed my considerable fear and kicked upside down against a wall. And, voila.

Remembering that, I started working harder to really focus on what was actually needed for crow. It became a lockdown project for me, with my mat always unfurled in my living room. I started working on malasana (low squat), doing a lot of springy hand balances. Kept actually trying, feeling my way through the posture, rather than sort of trying to hop onto my elbows and failing. I came at it from the yoga perspective, and in my virtual superhero workouts as a natural companion to a million pushups and pike pushups and handstand pushups. And then suddenly, sometime in the middle of 2020, for a moment or two, I was up and holding, wobble but strong.

I was hooked. I was defying gravity, and I felt stronger than I ever had. At first it was still super sketchy and unpredictable. I set the timer on my camera and took a photo for a yoga teacher friend, and she gave me excellent advice: look ahead, not down, and pull your core up toward the ceiling, almost like an upside down hollow hold.

I’ve set myself a little challenge of doing crow at least once a day during January. Two weeks ago, in a live streamed class with one of my favourite teachers, I successfully held bakasana, transitioned into a headstand, held that and then back to bakasana.

I felt like I’d lifted a car off a baby.

I did this bakasana while listening to the US inauguration ceremonies, breathing metaphorically deeply for the first time in more than four years

I didn’t know I had that in me.

Now that I’ve found my centre of balance, it’s a really powerful pose for me. Some of it is obvious — look what I didn’t know I could do! (Much like my revelation when I made my mother’s tourtière recipe for the first time this Christmas that I know how to make good pie crust).

But it’s not just about untapped strength. Bakasana — like every yoga pose — is different every time. I have to pause and take a deep breath before I start, because it’s beginner’s mind every time, requires deep attention and presence. I still don’t “know” any time I’m on the mat if I’ll be able to achieve it — it’s a very “this moment is only this moment” practice. Which is humbling, in a good way. It distills me to be really clear about intention.

Being able to do bakasana now doesn’t mean I’ve hit “a new level” in yoga — it means that sometimes, now, I can do bakasana. It makes me more aware of the “simpler” practices that I still struggle with, like feeling suffocated in “easy” twists. It puts me deep in the space of “what am I doing, right here, right now? What am I capable of? And what do I need to listen to?

And that, as they say, is the lesson that I want to take off the mat.

If you want to play with bakasana, Alida in our 221 workout group found this terrific video, showing progressions and how you can use the wall for support.

But bakasana is also a metaphor for those things that remind us that we can do more than we thought. And that things that seemed far away can be nearer than they looked.

What’s your version of bakasana, right now? What new things are you working on? How is that going for you?

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is really trying to figure out how to breathe deeply and twist at the same time.


A menopausal inquiry: the start of a series

I wrote a post in 2018 about being 53 and still menstruating, and every month when Sam looks at the top ten most read posts on the blog, it shows up. (Well, along with one on upskirt shots that clearly isn’t being search from a feminist lens. But that’s another story).

For a while now, I’ve basked in the pride of being a Menstruator Emeritus, having periods well into my mid-50s. But my reign with this particular sash is coming to an end: I’m turning 56 in three weeks, and I haven’t had a period since September. That doesn’t mean I won’t have another one, but it’s definitely a signal that things have changed.

Photo of fan by Ronan Furuta on Unsplash

What I have had is constant hot flashes, disrupted sleep, and a special kind of aphasia where I can’t remember names. (I had to google the name of our previous provincial premier the other day, the first out queer premier in Canada, a woman whose farewell convention I went to last March, a woman I almost named my cat after). I wake up with sweat dripping down my back. I invested in two expensive Dyson fans, one in my bedroom and one next to my desk. I’m the woman in bare feet and tank tops deep into a Canadian winter. I am still having steady, weird cramps related to changing hormones.

So, true to form, I’m going to do a little inquiry into menopause and what it means at this moment in history. This is the start of a series over the next few weeks, structured around the ideas in this book: The Slow Moon Climbs. In it, Susan Mattern argues that menopause has historically been seen as a powerful, transitional time to a new phase of life. When we medicalize it, we pathologize it. There’s a good discussion of the book on this CBC Ideas podcast.

I’m going to read the book (the publisher gave me a review copy), and write about it one chapter at a time. (It’s a LONG book, and the first chapter seems to be all about Genghis Khan). I’m going to explore other books about power in post-menopausal life, like Women Rowing North and The Last Gift of Time.

A lot of the writing about post-menopausal life presumes a traditional earlier life of marriage, cis-femaleness wifehood, motherhood, and looks at one’s 50s and 60s as a reprieve from those roles. That’s not my experience and nt my life story. But I do think this is about a new space in life. I want to look closely at what does it mean to shape middle and older age with meaning, with intention, with continued fitness and strength. Like these folks at the Feisty Menopause podcast, whose motto is “it’s time to hit play, not pause.”

Most of all, I will explore what it means to me. I made a comment to a friend that if I’d known September might be my last period, I might have done something ritualistic. I joked about “burying the last tampon,” and I didn’t exactly mean it, but I felt a kind of loss that I hadn’t marked this moment.

So I’m investigating.

What do you want to know about menopause? What are you experiencing? What are you afraid of? What are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to exploring with you!

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is spending a lot of time in barefoot inversions in Toronto right now. This series will be tagged #makingmeaningofmenopause


Cate asks, Why do movement if we don’t “enjoy” it?

Like about half the people I know, it seems, I’m doing the Yoga with Adriene 30 day January yoga series. It’s my third or fourth time doing it, and so far I’ve been badge-worthily consistent.

This year’s theme is breath. Which means there’s a lot of, you know, breathing.

Ujjayi breathing, alternating nostril breathing, just plain breathing. Breathing and feeling our bellies. Breathing and listening to our stillness. Lots of breathing.

There’s yoga too, but there sure is a lot of breathing.

With my brain, I understand why she’s focused on breathing — for all the reasons I’ve struggled over the year of covid to still myself, for the very reason I wrote about last spring in a post called “my empty yoga mat.” When the world around you is a swirl, it can be very hard to slow down and experience it, calm yourself, be with it. For all the reasons I made my word of the year “steadfast.” I know it’s the right theme.

And yet. And yet! I do not love it.

More to the point, sometimes it actively irks me.

I’m not alone in this. Many of the people in my 221 in 2021 workout group are also doing this series, and how we feel about this slower, breath-heavy series is the subject of some serious discussion in the chat. Some people appreciate it — “I’m really liking the quiet inwardness of the focus on breath.” “Me too! I was surprised to discover it’s exactly what I need right now!“, others find it irritating — “I have to really work on not checking my email” — and others acknowledge that they find it challenging but that probably means that’s what they need — “the slow pace help me accommodate some movements. Also, I am so bad at the breath stuff that I can definitely do with some practice.”

I have developed a habit of light-hearted complaining about the breathing when I log the sessions in my workout group, and I noticed some people hear my comments as more negative or snarky than I intended. It prompted someone to start a discussion the other day about “why do you do it if you don’t enjoy it?”

That took me aback — I do so many movement things that I don’t actively “enjoy”! Interval workouts on the bike, hill workouts when I’m running, the first 15 minutes of any run, rehab exercises from my chiropractor, animal flow and kickboxing in Alex’s Virtual Superhero classes, burpees, stretching, the latter part of any endurance ride, hiking or riding in the rain…. There are so many aspects of movement that I grumble about but do, or cheerfully describe as “I hate this!”

This made me think about how so often, things I don’t “enjoy” — or actively dislike — are an integral part of the overall experience of movement. And of so many things that are important to me, like travel, or writing.

With Adriene’s breathing, specifically, what I don’t “enjoy” is feeling slowed down when I’ve ramped myself up to get motivated to get on the map. It’s a tension, especially when I’m trying to slot movement into a narrow window of time. I’m sure I can benefit from more meditative moments, but I tend to really be able to inhabit them either when I am deliberately choosing meditation, or when they come after movement, not at the beginning. I love a good shivasana; I don’t love a lot of sitting at the beginning of practice.

So why do I continue with this series when it’s called “Breath”? Instead of repeating last year’s series (“Home” — I blame her for invoking a year when we all had to stay home!), or some other yoga series?

It’s not even a question for me!

My daily habit tracker

First, I’m ridiculously motivated by completism and badge-acquisition. I started this series, I’ll finish it. Just like I’ll finish my quest to do every route in Zwift, even the one that will take me about six hours. I get pleasure from crossing things off lists, filling out habit trackers, using a bullet journal approach to my work tasks, getting the dopamine hit when I get an electronic notification of a new meaningless badge, like riding the “virtual height” of everest in zwift or walking the length of Africa in fitbit. It gives me joy to cross each day off the calendar, fulfills something important about the kind of person I like to be. I finish things I start. Finishing it faaaar supercedes elements I don’t care for.

Second, following a series creates a container for me to do a daily yoga practice. Of course I could just make it myself, but I never do. I don’t follow her rigidly — I take her “find what feels good” mantra seriously. Sometimes I make myself do the quiet breathing, and sometimes I fill in the slower pace with other movements. I throw in extra vinyasas when we’re staying still in tadasana listening to our breath, or I use some of the sitting time to practice bakasana (crow) and headstand, which I’ve been working on for a while. I stretch my much beleaguered hips when she gets chatty. And I feel my strength, mobility and calm improving every day.

Third, I do it because I like being part of a bigger community all doing the same thing – the abstract community out there in the world, and my actual workout community, all logging our workouts every day. I like that light, virtual tether to connection, the camaraderie. The same reason I do the animal flow practice in Alex’ classes. I don’t like animal flow because I’m bad at it and find it confusing and hard. But I do it partly because I know it’s good for me — both the mobility and the cognitive challenge — and partly because I like doing it with other people — some of whom are also falling over.

Finally — and most importantly — I do it because I like Adriene. This particular series isn’t my favourite thing she’s ever put out into the world, but I love that she brings her authentic voice, that she explores, that she makes something I really value accessible. I like that she tries new things, and all these things come from a deeply committed, deeply caring place. I appreciate that, and I value it. As I wrote in our 221 workout group, “It’s like if a friend I really like has taken up cooking something completely new, like, say, eastern european food. I don’t love all the meaty things but I like the perogies and I really love the friend, so I go for dinner. I don’t love the food but I like the experience of doing it. It’s like that.”

And, as Sam said, I keep doing it because I want to know where she’s going with this. I trust her. For whatever reasons — my monkey mind, my overstuffed calendar, avoidance of stillness — right now, I’m getting impatient with slow, breathing heavy yoga practice. But that doesn’t mean something more might not be revealed. It doesn’t mean it won’t click for me. And it doesn’t mean I want to leave my friend Adriene breathing there alone on her mat.

What about you? Are you doing YWA Breath? How are you finding it? And how do you feel about doing movement you don’t “enjoy”?

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is locked down in Toronto, where she is still trying to get comfortable in wheel after 25 years of yoga practice.


Cate’s word of the year: steadfast

As I sat down to write this post, I got pulled away by the unbelievable images in the US Capitol. My plan was to write about my cute little habit-trackers for exercise and other daily practices. But that will have to wait. Instead, after Mina’s inspiring post yesterday, I decided to join other bloggers in naming my word of the year: steadfast.

I first started thinking about this word when I read a piece on Lionsroar, a Buddhist site, last April, called Steadfast in the midst of Samsara. Samsara refers generally to the mundanity and suffering of life; being steadfast is about being truly present to the moments of fire. The writer of that piece talks about the blue lotus that needs fire to bloom, how only by being steadfast to our wisdom and compassion can we be truly realized.

Image by Cesare Burei on Unsplash

I don’t consider myself Buddhist, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve resonated more and more with its core teachings. Life is embedded with suffering, with loss. There is no certainty. Being at peace with those truths, learning to not attach to outcomes, knowing that the only thing you can truly control is yourself, cultivating compassion and presence for the very people and experiences that throw us off balance? This is the practice of life for me.

We are certainly in a time of uncertainty, of fire. The world is <gesturing at everything>. I had a death in my family a month ago that is still a hard, hot knot in my heart that will never really heal. And what I have noticed is how much I value the people who have truly shown up. In my personal life, that means simple things like checking in, taking me out for a walk, making me caring food, not quailing from talking about death. Just… showing up.

That’s what steadfast is to me. To be present to what is — the chaos of the political world, the surge of COVID, the fragility of my clients who are trying to manage a trembling healthcare system while also trying to shift historical structures of racism and colonialism. This work is not comfortable. This world is not comfortable. Being with the discomfort — noticing it, being with it, being present to it, not resisting it but trying to breathe it out again — that’s the practice. Staying in my deepest values: compassion; showing up; gratitude; equity; acknowledgement; love. Trusting that there is always a new page to turn.

There are some basic structures that help me with this — working out every day, getting on my spin bike when I feel anxious, gratitude practice, trying to do some writing about things that matter. Recognizing that my work matters. Trusting in and calling on my communities. But mostly, it’s intention. Breathing in in the moments that knock me off balance, cultivating curiosity instead of reactivity. Showing up and checking in with the people I care about are struggling. Taking a moment to remember and acknowledge the people who quietly do the things — like managing our 2021 workout groups — to create community.

I have not typically had a practice of choosing a word of the year — and last year, the word “present” found me. Transforming it to “steadfast” reinforces that strong blue flame in me. We can be with what’s happening. And with wisdom and compassion, bring more balance and connection to the world.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is trying to practice Bakasana — crow pose — at least once a day in 2021 as a way of fostering balance and strength.


What new year story are you writing?

On December 31 last year, I woke up in Bangkok and went to bed in Singapore.

Running in Bangkok on Dec 31, 2019

In the morning, I went for a run in a Bangkok park, where, like everyone else, I stopped and stood in solemnity when the national anthem blasted over the loudspeakers at 8 am, as it does every day. I ran back to my hotel through empty holiday streets, past temples, feeling lucky, free and joyful.

I landed in Singapore just as night was descending, ate a simple street meal and wandered with extremely well behaved crowds down to Marina Bay. Realizing I didn’t want to hang around in a squished crowd (unbelievable to think of, now) for three hours until the fireworks, I wandered back toward my hotel. I had a gin and tonic at the UR-colonial hotel Raffles, and then went to my room at 10 and did Adriene’s “transition” yoga series.

New year 2020 fireworks in Singapore

Just before midnight, I went up to the roof of my hotel. The lovely concierge had urged me to join the rooftop party, despite not having paid for it. Someone handed me a glass of bubbly and I watched the most spectacular fireworks in the world, complete with drones forming a countdown clock. I danced two dances and went to bed. Content, tired, optimistic, grateful.

In the morning, I took the yoga mat that came with every room in the boutique hotel out of its cunning little drawer under the bed and went back up to the now pristine rooftop and did a full Yoga Mala, 108 sun salutations. Every one focused, attentive, present. Infusing 2020, the new year, with intention, gratitude, presence.

New year’s day 108 sun salutations Jan 1 2020


My last two workouts of 2020 were, like most of 2020, completely virtual. Workout #449 for the year was a long-planned feat of riding 105 km in Zwift, the epic 25 laps of the volcano. It took me three hours and three changes of shirt. Workout #450 — my goal number — was Alex’s virtual superhero workout, the movement community that has kept me sane this year.

As we started our workout, Alex asked us to reflect on the year. “What are you proud of?” she asked. “Maybe it was accomplishing something new like a handstand, or maybe it was showing up when it was hard. I’m proud of choosing fitness that actually resonates with my body, not exhausting myself trying to do something that doesn’t.”

I reflected on that as I moved my zwift-sore body into the mobilizing lunges we started with. I thought about those 450 workouts, each one a bead on a long steady prayer to stay strong and resilient and centred through this wildly unpredictable year. Runs in Singapore and gym workouts giving way to virtual strength classes, filling my living room with weights and bands and mats. Achieving crow pose for the first time, handstand pushups. Yoga with Adriene and Chi Junky online, and out of my own head. Distanced walks, alone and with local friends, spotting luminescent hearts and community art all around my neighbourhood. A summer spent more outside, gratefully, runs and longer bike rides and spinning in an alley. Two weeks sojourn on Salt Spring Island on my little folding bike and on my feet, rolling over and climbing hills. Then back inside, grateful for my prescience in ordering my bowflex spin bike on Labour Day, more Alex, more Adriene, more alone time.

Those movement beads on my internal prayer were all about resilience. When I move my body, I find joy and strength. When I zoom into Alex’s classes, I situate myself in community. When I push myself to head outside into the wind or anxious streets, I’m reminding myself to breathe deeply, find embodied pleasure. Moving every day has been a somatic practice of being, being with what is, whether it’s hard, unexpected, joyful, difficult, easeful, delightful, accomplished, devastating.

Wee snowy creek in northern ontario

By moving my body every day, I navigated 2020 with some grace, a sense of adaptation, a sense of the absurd that served me well. I couldn’t have predicted any of this when I infused the year with those 108 sun salutations — but that movement, that practice, set me up to absorb whatever came.

What are you proud of about this year? What are you writing for 2021?

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who will be seeing in 2021 at a cottage near Algonquin Park.


What’s your sixth gear?

“OMG, I just realized this car has a sixth gear.”

I voice-texted this to Susan last weekend, after having driven my brand new car nearly 700 km. It took that long to actually LOOK at the gear shift. And once I found it, traveling on the highway was just… easier. D’uh.

I was thinking about why I hadn’t twigged to the actual full function of my car, despite driving on the highway several times. In my last car with a manual transmission, the highest gear was 5th. I just assumed this one (12 years newer) was the same. I did wonder why the engine wasn’t purring the way I expected it to at 120km/hr… but it wasn’t until I had a bit of an issue downshifting into 4th and looked down that I noticed.

As Susan said, it was like finding a secret room in my house. Or more literally, like finding I had more capacity than I knew I had. Which, you know, metaphor for 2020.

So — for the non-manual-car-drivers (most of the world), a car with six gears means that the transmission is designed for greater efficiency in every gear — and when you shift into sixth, a higher speeds, you have an “overdrive” mode that allows the car to operate at lower RPMs and save fuel.

This is a super useful metaphor for me right now. What IS my sixth gear? What am I doing that’s allowing me to keep moving without wearing myself out?

One of the things that’s been so trying about the Covid Times is how much effort it takes to do the simplest things. One silly example — we’re on lockdown, so I ordered holiday cards from Indigo a couple of weeks ago. They shipped them via a courier who didn’t bother to buzz in to try to get into my building (even though I was home — it’s lockdown!), and left a slip saying “you weren’t home.” (I was). “Here’s your tracking number.” The tracking number takes me to a site where every option for “where is my package?” takes me to a “this option not available” screen. The chat is overburdened. So I trot over to Indigo, who tell me I can’t claim a parcel is lost until 30 days after it’s shipped.

In the Before Times, I would have sauntered into a local shop and picked up three boxes of cards and sent them out.

So much for holiday cards.

So much effort, so much palaver. And every day seems to have something like this, some small irritant that takes up an unreasonable amount of energy, leaving aside the constant Groundhog Day of zoom meetings, the constant navigation of virtual and simulated spaces. I know I’m not alone in feeling an edge of burnout. December is often exhausting — but this time, I have no enticing, enlivening travel to look forward to.

Even my FakeTravel is not enlivening. When it was PouringNovember and 1° C outside in real life on Monday, Zwift decided it should also be pouring and dark in my FakeLondon ride. It felt like… too much.

As we head into the year end holiday time that doesn’t look like any other year, it’s helpful for me to reflect on what my metaphorical sixth gear is. How can I structure my life so I can purr along just slightly more easily, with just a little less effort?

For me, the first thing is my habit of movement. Movement is, for me, absolutely essential to my wellbeing. Like many others who write for and read the blog, I’ve been doing the “220 in 2020” group for a few years now, aiming at a yearly total of workouts. I’ve written before about how I worked hard to get to just over 217 my first year — and yesterday I logged my 410th for 2020. For me, the *habit* is that sixth gear. I don’t question where I need to move my body every day, I just do it, once or twice a day. Sometimes it’s an intense day where I do a virtual superhero workout in the morning and a ride in the afternoon — and sometimes it’s just a walk or a quick yoga. But I move every day — and the habit, the lack of negotiation about it, has kept me in way more harmony with my physical and emotional wellbeing this year than I could have expected.

A close second Sixth Gear is the investment I’ve made in making it easy to work out at home. The Bowflex spin bike, mats and weights (though I’m still waiting for the kettlebells I ordered in August), subscriptions to Alex’ Virtual Superhero classes, a subscription to Zwift, a subscription to my spinning studio’s library of virtual classes. Routines and equipment inside my house make it much easier to do that movement. I could run — I know that — but for me, putting in the effort to clothe myself and actually get outside is more like gearing down to climb a big hill. I can too easily talk myself out of it. My sixth gear mode is just hopping on the bowflex, firing up the playlist my niece made me and riding in a fake world.

A third thing that’s keeping me in flow is a direct parallel to Marjorie’s post about make ahead breakfast. I do that too. This month it’s a blueberry apple oatmeal bake. I make it with oatmilk and add granola and walnuts, then heat it up with a banana. I wake up to a gastronomical hug.

Finally, the fourth thing — and the biggest — is to just not do some things. To let go of the non-essential. See: holiday cards. And, apparently, underwear and hair product. But it’s also not adding things to my schedule, even if they seem fun, saying no to some work things, making a meal and eating it three nights in a row. Being okay with just lying around and watching The Crown and the baking shows in the evening. Being here, on the other end, for the people who need me, but minimizing the outlay.

When I minimize the effort on the simpler things, I have more energy for the bigger stuff — the work, fretting about everyone’s health, having space for the relationships and human contact possible in this strange times. And the little furls on the world that make life a bit more beautiful. Like hanging holiday lights for the first time in my six years in this condo.

What about you? What helps you shift into sixth gear, to move along with less effort?

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who loves her new Subaru Crosstrek.


Body image and self-compassion: Guest Post

I got an announcement on a listserv earlier this week about an eight week supported group about Body Image and Self-Compassion, and the topic intrigued me. So I contacted Naomi Reesor, the organizer, to ask her to share its intentions and background with FIFI readers. I interviewed her via email. Thanks so much, Naomi, with being so generous with your time and heart.

Can you start by just telling me a little about yourself?

I am a registered psychotherapist (qualifying) working out of The Compassion Project in Hamilton. I work with a variety of individuals who struggle with anxiety, depression, trauma, OCD, gender/sexuality identity, body image, and more. This has been my first year working as a therapist in private practice, but I have been involved with the mental health field for the last five years working with a variety of clients through crisis counselling over the phone and providing supportive case management to homeless individuals living in the shelter system.

I identify as a white queer woman and use “fat” as a descriptor for my body. While I have had my own struggles with body image, I recognize that I also have the privilege of existing in what would be considered a “small fat” body in which I can still shop in most department stores and fit in common spaces. My whiteness, cisgender, and able-bodied identity also means I do not experience the same discrimination as others who face intersecting oppressions. 

Outside of work, I am a person who loves taking care of houseplants, watching RuPaul’s Drag Race with friends, and doing outside park workouts with my inclusive fitness trainer!

The title of your workshop — “body image and self compassion” — really intrigued me.  Can you tell me a little bit about the purpose of the group?  

The idea for the group originated by seeing both personally and professionally the impact that the pandemic has had on our relationship with our bodies. In general, people have been more confined to their homes and have less access to movement. At the same time, there has been an obvious increase of fatphobic jokes about gaining weight during the pandemic that only increase this negative feeling towards our bodies.

This group has been developed to help explore these complicated feelings towards one’s body particularly during this time, and specifically by deepening our self-compassion.

Tell me a bit more about self-compassion in this context?  

The basic idea of self-compassion is having the same care and empathy to ourselves as we commonly extend towards others. In this context, it is allowing ourselves to engage in kindness and understanding towards what we consider as inadequacies and imperfections with our bodies. We will also be taking a look at how we can extend compassion towards ourselves as a person who is going through a difficult time during the pandemic, and help normalize the changes that may be occurring in our bodies by recognizing the shared experience with others.

Naomi in “professional mode”

What’s your hope for what participants will experience around their relationships to compassion?

I’m hoping that through engaging in exploration and experiential exercises, clients will be able to foster compassion for their own struggles and discomfort, as well as gain a better understanding of how certain oppressive structures work against the idea of showing kindness to ourselves.

What led you to this topic?  What made you want to step into this space?

I began becoming involved with body positive spaces about 10 years ago when it was more of a niche internet movement. It helped me immensely to see others who looked like me showing themselves love and kindness, I have learned that self-love is a journey that ebbs and flows. These days, the idea of body positivity is more understood by the layperson but it has also been commodified and capitalised on in a way that sometimes pushes out the more marginalised individuals in our society in order to seem more sellable and palatable. It is important to note that the body positivity movement originated from plus size black woman who are now often pushed out of this same space.

There is also the fact that we may find ourselves feeling guilty if we are not able to engage in feeling positive towards our bodies while they go through changes. I want to be able to explore the complexity of these topics and allow ourselves the capacity for empathy during the low times, rather than sticking with the presumption that body positivity and self-love is always a linear journey. While the pandemic has really accentuated the need for this exploration, this has also been a topic that has been on my mind for a while as body positivity becomes more mainstream, yet seemingly also more exclusive.

Who are you hoping will participate in your group?  What will you be doing?

I am hoping that anyone who is looking to explore negative or conflicting feelings towards their body will be open to joining us! We will be working through how we develop negative perceptions about our bodies, what we want out of our relationship with our bodies based on our own comfort levels, and exercises for developing a kinder and more compassionate relationship with our bodies. This will involve both in session activities as well as homework exercises to try outside of the group.

What would you like readers of this blog to know about body image and self-compassion?  What message would you like them to carry?

Approaching exploring body-image through a self-compassion lens does not mean that we are going to increase your self-esteem or encourage you to embrace your own beauty. We want to be able to explore the idea of being worthy of compassion and respect regardless outside of how we feel our bodies look to others. If you are eventually able to get to a place where you are comfortable and happy with your body – amazing! If you are struggling to accept your body or going through re-occurring feelings you thought had already been processed, let’s explore how we can find compassion for this struggle and compassion towards your body instead of constant self-criticism. I want to hold space for this idea that there are so many ways to show kindness and respect towards our bodies whether it be self-love, body positivity, body neutrality, or body liberation.

If you are interested in participating in Naomi’s group, leave a note in the comments or contact her through this link:

Thanks so much to Naomi for sharing herself with the blog!


Alistair’s story: fitness as a trans man (Guest Post)

It’s Trans Awareness Week, and like Nicole, I wanted to bring in a voice we don’t usually hear on this blog. I interviewed my dear friend Alistair via email; most of this post is his words.

First, just a brief introduction?

I’m Alistair, I’m one of your friends and I’m a white trans guy with passing privilege, and a chronic disabling illness. I’m 40, for perspective.

Can you tell me a little bit about how your relationship to fitness has been related to your experience of being trans?   

Growing up, I wasn’t involved in organized sports, but I was involved in dance and theatre as a young kid.  As I approached puberty, my only experiences with fitness came in the form of PE class, which was uncomfortable for me – I was Very Bad at Being A Girl, and sex-segregated environments always left me feeling like an alien, though I didn’t understand why at the time.

I came out as a lesbian at 19 and presented in a progressively more butch fashion as time went on. The first time I experienced fitness in a positive way was in the explicitly feminist environment of the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club in the early 2000s.  Founded by a queer woman as a body-positive female boxing club, this was a space in which my larger, study body became an asset – in boxing, the more mass you have, the more force you can deliver at the end of a punch.

When I joined the group of amateur boxers training to compete, the dynamics of the gendered space became inescapable; on the weekends when the recreational classes happened, the Newsgirls were the only people in the boxing gym. On weeknights, the competitors shared space with an almost entirely male boxing club. We constantly had to assert ourselves to maintain our space to work out, or we would be gradually squeezed away from the equipment and floorspace. We also learned to constantly watch out for each other, because while people like me were mostly invisible, feminine-presenting women attracted a lot of attention from the boxing club guys, and usually not in a good way.

Life factors and injury resulted in a drift away from the boxing gym. I gradually put on weight over the next five years or so while physical fitness took a back seat to other things, exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t comfortable in any fitness space available to me (university athletic centre, YMCA, commercial gyms). My gender presentation became increasingly masculine, and wearing a chest binder was not, for me, compatible with exercise (constriction, temperature increase, chafing as sweating happened, etc etc.) As a visibly queer, masculine-presenting woman (at the time) I got harassed in women’s bathrooms enough that even considering using changerooms was always extremely difficult.

What, if anything, has shifted since you transitioned?

When I came out as trans at 32 and began to transition, those spaces were out of reach entirely. There was a “family changeroom” that was available at the Y but you had to ask for access to it, which never felt good to me – once you start being read as male, you need to be careful about entering spaces designated ‘family’ if you don’t have children with you. Once I started testosterone, my voice and facial hair started to change, but I didn’t feel safe in the mens’ rooms either. I’m a sweaty person, so changing after working out isn’t something I can skip, and at the time I was reliant on public transit so it would be a long ride home in wet clothes.

Alistair at his wedding in 2016

My first partial access to fitness settings came after I had completely healed from my top surgery (double mastectomy with reconstruction). Getting rid of the chest binder let me at least take a full breath while exercising, and having a flat chest made changing in the mens’ room possible, if not always comfortable.

I’m extremely lucky in that I have passing privilege now – I’m always read as male by people I interact with. In fact, most of the time people think I’m a straight white cis man, which is its own kind of uncomfortable. Even my overweight body isn’t othered, because the rules are different for men. In any context that doesn’t involve genitals or taking off clothes, I’m almost always safe.

What are you doing now for movement?

I didn’t find a fitness modality that works for me until earlier this year, and it turned out to be one I never would have expected: a kind of dude-yoga developed by a former professional wrestler who severely injured his back doing pro wrestler things and was desperate to save his career. He didn’t go back to pro wrestling, but his yoga-without-the-woo system developed a life of its own, with workouts accessible via DVD or app. It’s yoga with an emphasis on isometric exercise: increasing your heart rate by maintaining full-body muscle tension while holding poses and moving through series (use of a heart-rate monitor is encouraged so you can tell how hard you’re working). Most importantly, it is endlessly modifiable no matter what your level of fitness, injury, size, or disability – seriously, there’s a series of workouts for people who can’t get out of bed. The founder has a big, barky personality that’s not to everybody’s taste, but he is also surprisingly positive and gentle in attitude, and the guided workout clips are full of unexpected pep talks while you’re sweating through a plank pose.

This system seems to work for me in a bunch of ways that others haven’t.  As a person who was once operating at a much higher level of fitness, I tend to get warmed up, think “oh this is good, I can do more” and then overdo it and can’t move for two days, so systems like Crossfit that exalt maximum effort aren’t a good fit for me. This is the opposite, embracing the idea that something is better than nothing, and that consistency leads to slow incremental improvement. So, if I overdo it one day, I can increase the modifications the next day but still complete the workout, giving me the benefits of movement and exercise, and perhaps most importantly, I can experience success and a feeling of accomplishment.  Another incredibly important factor is that I can do this at home by myself, where I can pause if I need to, I don’t have to wear a shirt, there’s nobody to see me shaking and walrusing around on my yoga mat, and I don’t have to use the mental and physical energy to go to a different location and be around people.

Alistair with his groomspeople, me and Naomi

What do you pay attention to to determine if a space is welcoming or safe for you to work out or do a sport in?  (Suddenly I’m reminded of your axe-throwing bachelor party). 

Safe space can be really tricky, and there’s a complicated sort of calculus around safety. Vibe is a key if difficult-to-define factor — is it “girl power” or feminist? Are there safe space signs and symbols (triangles, rainbows*, explicit statements of safe space or ‘everybody is welcome here’)? What does the staff look like? Do people have pronouns on their nametags? Most importantly, are there individual spaces available for changing and showering, and do you have to ask for access to those spaces?

*This is why I have a big problem with people appropriating the rainbow for “we’re all in this pandemic together.” That symbol already has a specific meaning, and it’s a critical safety indicator for some people.

I’m safe in my passing privilege, until I’m not.  My top surgery scars have faded and I’m furry enough that they’re not terribly obvious, but that doesn’t help me if I accidentally drop my packer (prosthetic penis) while I’m trying to change out of my wet bathing suit quickly and facing a corner (believe me, silicone bounces).Bathrooms are ok, until the stall doors don’t lock, or there’s no toilet seat, or twenty-seven urinals and one stall (I’m looking at you, Rogers Centre), or everything in sight is covered in urine and there’s no toilet paper. Men are generally fairly good at minding their own business in bathrooms – thanks, latent homophobia! – compared to the policing that happens in women’s spaces, but the threat is always there. NB, this is nothing compared to the dangers that trans women face in bathrooms.

What one thing do you wish people knew or understood about what it means to navigate health and fitness as a trans person?

I have two things. 

First: private spaces for anytime nakedness is involved are critical, and they need to be freely accessible.  That lone one-person bathroom stall or ‘family changeroom’ isn’t available to me if I need to ask Ryan at the front desk for the key, outing myself in the process.

Second: There are as many ways to be trans* as there are trans* people, but for lots of us, transition isn’t so much an event as it is a mode of existence. I came out as trans and began my transition eight years ago; I told people to call me Alistair, I legally changed my name and gender marker, I started hormone replacement therapy and had top surgery because those were the right decisions for me and I was lucky enough to have access to them. However, I’d still be trans* if some or all of those things hadn’t happened.

Eight years later my body is still changing, and I can’t say that my transition is complete because I may decide to have further interventions later. I’m in a constant state of becoming – I think we all are, but for some of us it’s more explicit.

Thank you so much… please write more for us!

Me, Alistair and his friend Naomi at his wedding


What’s your perfect bath?

Image from Thomas Despeyroux on Unsplash

I’m a bath person at the best of times. I love a good shower, but if I had to choose between a bathtub and a great shower in my house, I’d always pick a bath. And my bath ratio has gone waaaaaay up since March, both morning and night. There’s something about soaking into a hot tub, even for 15 minutes, that brings my emotional temperature down even as it brings my body heat up.

I think I’m not alone in adding baths to my self-care regime in the uncertainty and just plain weirdness of the past several months. Last week, my friend Elena noted the same thing on facebook, and asked people to chime in on “what makes the perfect bath?”

So my gift to your self-care this Thursday: inspiration for the perfect bath.

Start with: the water. Have some. Have it be super hot. And have it smell good or be oily or bubbly depending on your preferences. My personal favourite is small bath bombs from Saltspring Soapworks. Other suggestions from Elena’s post include a squirt of shower gel as the tub is running, epsom salts, sweet orange oil, lavendar oil, l’occitane lavender foaming bathclary sage oil and Johnson’s soothing vapour bath.

Add: Beverages: I myself am not allowed to bring drinks into the tub any longer after dropping two cups of coffee (and breaking the mugs) and a blueberry smoothie into the bath in recent months. Elena’s friends mentioned water bottles, wine, cheap red wine, scotch, really good scotch, gin and tonic with an ice water chaser, and mint tea. One said “I often have a beer or glass of wine in the bath, but I also always have a big bottle of cold water to drink.” I like a person who brings a backpack to the bath experience.

Surround yourself with sounds and light: create your perfect environment of soothing and solace. Scented candles. Music. Silence. Cat sitting on the toilet, staring at you.

Add diversions: books are the time-honoured classic, with waterproof e-books like Kobos making their way into the soak these days. Some of Elena’s peeps talked about video diversions like youtube or Oprah. Others read the news on their phones. I am well known for being That Weirdo who reads in the shower, and I translate that into the bath as well. (Once you decide it’s fine if the book gets wet, whole worlds open up! Right now I’m reading Above All Things, by Tanis Ridout, in the shower. Novels with some good straightforward plot are perfect for reading in chunks and taking me out of my day to day for a few minutes every morning.

Image from unsplash, from we-vibe.

My search for bath images also suggested some people like the diversion of a discreet sex toy in their tubs. I’ll just leave that suggestion here.

Infuse with: comfort. A lot of people like a handtowel or washcloth for wiping their hands or their sweaty brows. Bath caddies or trays or nearby stools will hold all of your accoutrements. Bath pillows also remain popular.

Drizzle with chocolate. Despite the diversity of beverages, chocolate was the only food that showed up on Elena’s post. Curated, careful chocolate, from the looks of it: “a single piece of amazing chocolate.” (I know I’d just drop it in the bath, and like a blueberry smoothie, the truly desirable becomes very gross when splooged in the bath).

Finally, be ready to head back to the world. Some swear by a quick cool shower for “shiny hair.” Others like a deeply comforting transitional object like a huge bath sheet or the perfect robe. I recently acquired the perfect towel — a turkish towel on the outside and absorbent terry on the inside. Hint: brooklinen also has robes made of this “hammam” fabric.

I was lucky enough to have two visits to an historic hammam when I was in Istanbul a few years ago, and nothing will replace having two people sluice you and bubble you and scrub you in a marble room with gold taps. But until we can ever travel again, I will keep bombing scents into my bathwater and agonizing over my husband climbing Everest in the shower, in a brief moment away from the world.

What about you? What’s the perfect bath for you?

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who has a lot of lumpy books.