Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: Susan Tarshis
Susan is a full time Registered Psychotherapist who is seriously sick of being physically distanced from her clients and everyone else. She enjoys all manner of outside activities and apparently, can walk up walls. Who knew?
Waaaaaaay back in January, the before times, as we say, I wrote this post about an unexpected inner journey that occurred when I was doing a lot of Yoga. I touched on a part of me that was not strong or graceful or confident. She was awkward and thought of herself as weak and deficient. She didn’t know what she could do and she was about 12 or 13. This part was not in touch with much of what the 51.5 year old me had accomplished in her life. I marked for myself that she needed attention and some reassurance. I also knew I wanted to show her the life we were living now, as opposed to being stuck in middle school with bad middle school gym teachers and not nice friends.
Then, all hell broke loose. I sunk into a hole of despair that was really profound. On the surface, I was functioning, working, coping and doing pretty well. I was busy spouting inspiration and holding up all the people in my world. But that was a front. Underneath, I was suffering and I don’t think I really knew it until well into May. As a person who works in the realm of human contact, the lack of it was like acid wearing down my soul. To be clear, I had some contact. I had my adult kids who are delightful. My girlfriend and I decided we were family enough even though we didn’t live together (yes, it’s Cate, a blog romance). I have pets. I had a lot more than many people I know both because of who is in my world and also the risk I was willing to tolerate. What I did not have was my clients in a room with me and day after day I spilled out my energy into an abyss documented here.
Meanwhile, that part of me that had just started to get some love, the middle school student with gangly arms, was also left languishing. I had no space to deal with her and her whiny crap, I was too busy trying to look like I wasn’t falling apart.
Then for some blessed reason 9 weeks ago, I decided I needed to do something more. I couldn’t tolerate self directed fitness because it was just too lonely. So I signed up with the mysterious “Alex” that Cate goes on about often, to see if there was anything more left in me than dog walks. I was suspicious about the idea that a trainer over Zoom could offer much value. Oh boy, was I surprised in the best way. My goal was to prep for the probably-not-going-to- happen trip back to Iceland to ride some more horses (see here for my first adventure). We immediately stumbled upon my imbalances and wobbly right side (I couldn’t stand on my right foot and balance for more than a second or two). So I’ve been working on these things twice a week now for just over two months.
The other things that Alex stumbled upon was realizing that I did not appreciate much of what I could do. I presented myself as a person who couldn’t balance, had little upper body strength and had given up on fitness for a lack of energy and hope. Yet she saw someone with tremendous core strength and excellent form when I did core work. She saw strength in my strong places and technical issues in my other places but everything had a solution.
Over a very short period of time I have acquired enough balance to access my strength. More than the physical balance, there has been some sort of emotional balance that has come upon me. She is over the top with her praise and sometimes I just laugh to myself listening to her. Yet, the 12 year old in me is wide eyed. That was something that occurred to me just today. Alex had basically tricked me into a wall-walk as I was talking about my horrible middle school experiences of trying to do hand stands. I told her how much I wished she had been my gym teacher and how different my physical life would have been. But then I realized that now, today, this moment, she IS my gym teacher. I’m not saying I’m going to do a hand stand in the next month or two, but I might. Certainly, I will walk up walls and hang out with strong shoulders and perfect form and feel like a frickin’ superstar.
This has been a long road back from wherever I went. It’s not over, as this virus just keeps building it, the end appearing and disappearing as the horizon undulates. While I’m walking on it, there’s a little one that has maybe caught up more into real time. She’s doing one legged squats and generally being a badass.
I got my trainer tire off my bike and the road tire back on. Maybe I will venture back up a hill or two in the next weeks. And if there are no hoof beats on the steppes of Iceland this year, I will hope for next year, ever stronger and more grateful.
Just been flopping around, dragging from one prone position to another mostly? Ya, I know, it’s been a time.
What’s that? Yes, things are stiffening and there’s that weird thing where you don’t eat anything for 10 hours, unless you count coffee as a food.
Ya, well you don’t ALWAYS have to finish that project before you are allowed a sandwich. Yes, I remember those chicken mushroom crepes too. We could check to see if they are still in business. Yes, that would be nice.
Hey body, do you think maybe you’d consider moving a little more? No no, I don’t mean running. You hate running, especially when you are totally stressed out. I mean, maybe something that’s good for you, a strength/balance sort of thing.
Well, yes I know you’ve kind of had it with pre-recorded videos. No no, I’m not suggesting some kind of weird app. I was thinking maybe of a person, like a trainer?
Is it on Zoom? Well, yes, everything is on Zoom. Yes, I did read the last post we wrote, I was there, writing it. Yes video is not real life but body, that SI joint isn’t going to lubricate itself. I think you need some help.
Well, I heard that Cate’s trainer is online. She’s smart and funny and loves a puzzle. You know us, we are a bit of a puzzle. What do you say?
Hey body, you okay? You sound like you are about to cry (and I would know, seeing as I’m right here). Well of course I’ve been paying attention to what we’ve been doing to ourselves. It’s not been great, all this sitting still and slouching and general malaise. No, I was not intending to march us into age and immobility without so much as a glance back. I was just very very very bummed out. Yes, I know, it hurts and not just the stiff SI joint. I’m sorry, I really am, this has been hard on both of us.
Okay I will email her right now. Twice a week? Done, for a few months. Let’s see what’s happening and then we can make some more choices.
I’m glad I checked in too. I’m sorry I was ignoring you so much. This all just sucks so terribly.
Yes I can feel you are hungry. We should go eat something. Of course there will be cookies. I know, I love you too. Really I do.
My alarm goes off at 7:15am every morning. I don’t snooze it.
Get out of bed, start coffee maker, let dog out, feed dog and cat, get cup of coffee, get back into bed.
I sit up in bed, drink my coffee and try to get my head around . . .whatever this is. I get myself into the shower, get dressed, walk the dog. I come home, set up my computer on my bed on top of a book on top of a pillow and look for the Zoom link I sent my client the night before.
I peer at the screen, at the person that I know so well, at the person I used to go seek out in their chair at the end of the hall and invite into my office. “How are you?” I ask. I mean it. I want to know and I want to know in ways that are deeper and somehow more desperate than they have ever been. “How are you?”
More than that. . .”Where are you? What are you?”, I seek them out in the picture, in the pixels, trying to parse what they are telling me, trying to feel them, trying to know what used to be so easily known. My signals echo back. I turn my thumbnail off, then on, then off. I try to open to what is there, static, noise, words, an echo of another life. I speak, they speak, we struggle to be in this space that doesn’t exist between us. I am lost, but I can’t say that. I can’t say I’m not okay, this isn’t okay, neutered, mangled, cut off, adrift from the body, I can no longer see what is there, only what was and what can be imagined to be.
I am a body alone, even in motion, even along with my trainer who coaches me from this distance-less distance,
“Move the screen so I can see your feet.”
“Back up a little so I can see where your knees are”
Without her, I would do no more than walk with feet and paws around the same block twice a day. Yet, I am not with her either, a headless form demonstrating lunges, a laugh or praise I can only imagine in its fullness.
I don’t want to bike alone in my basement. I don’t want to run alone in a park. I don’t even want to do yoga alone with Adriene because I don’t want to be alone. You don’t either and it’s okay, you weren’t built for this.
You weren’t built to be a body by yourself holding all your cares and the weight of the world without another body somewhere, sometimes. You like your time, your space, your distance but in your 6×6 ft cell, you come to understand that you need the occasional resonance of another form within your sphere, a kind heart that beats close enough to feel for just a moment. Even the store clerk. Even the food courier or the stranger on the bench next to you. You can come to know them in a moment of synchronicity, and you need that, you were built for that.
You were built to be with, to be known, not just for your words, but for all the unconscious poetry in your body. You were built to speak with your mouth, but also your eyes and your shoulders, the sound of your breath and the way your hips shift in the chair when you are afraid. You were built to tell me implicitly, powerfully, what it is you really need to say, your truth underneath the thousand ways you can’t speak. I can’t hear you six feet away even as we shout across this abyss.
You weren’t built for this and you don’t have to say it’s okay, or good enough, or the same, or tolerable. Day after day, your nervous system seeks and searches and wonders when it can dare to be soothed, when it is allowed to declare a need to just be with, without being accused of. . .something. . .bad. It doesn’t understand and that’s okay, you weren’t built for this.
Yes, I know there are no Zombies. Not yet. I’m not sure I can write a post that is somehow linked to feminist fitness. More “this is what I am doing at home to keep my body moving” stories are great but that is not my headspace right now. I think this community is often about more than that of course. Inherently, this blog was founded to shift perception and change narrative around the purpose and potential of women moving in ways that make them alive and strong.
So, update: Still alive. Still strong. Still moving although it has winnowed down to walks and a little yoga. The world has winnowed down to my bedroom, my bathroom and my central area. I did not mention my kitchen, because I DON’T HAVE ONE RIGHT NOW. Somehow, three weeks ago, the idea of starting a renovation wasn’t as ridiculous and frivolous as it now seems. I love camping, so I’m still good. Not at all the worst thing happening is it?
I’m a therapist. More specifically, I am a Relational Psychotherapist. The way I engage in my job with people is not only to be helpful or give advice but to look for ways to know, connect with and be fully in present moment experiences with them. When I do this, and deal with all the blocks, hiccups, side trails and deep crevices that we encounter along the way, my clients learn that they can be seen as who they are, that they are valuable and worth knowing, that they matter. Through this fundamentally developmental experience, people grow and change and feel better.
So there I was, bopping along, dealing with all the usual, and the world fell apart. It fell apart for them and also for me, all at the same damn time. That is not the way it usually works! I have spent years in training and my own therapy so that I have a handle on my things, so that I know about the outcomes, so that I can carry hope for what it looks like on the other side. Sure it’s uncertain after you break up with your boyfriend, but eventually, you come into yourself and you feel more whole than you ever have, blah blah blah.
The theme that is coming up the most is about meaning making. We start off with check ins and reports about family and friends. They want to know I’m okay before they tell me about themselves and that’s normal, especially when there is a chance all may not be well. As we move through the sessions, so much reflects back to “But what can I do? I need to do something!” That something may be about their own stuckness or the plight of others. Many of my people are so paralyzed with worry about EVERYONE, the Uber drivers and the warehouse workers and the nurses and the restaurant workers.
We can’t help them. At least, not directly and we are consumed by the enormity of what is consuming them, of what is consuming us, of what could literally consume us if we are unlucky, vulnerable, in the wrong place at the wrong time. The universe is not benevolent. It is neutral. It does what it does and today, it’s a very successful virus having a big ‘ole party in the population. But what are we? We are meaning making creatures. We are social beings. We are good and bad. We are Moral Actors.
So, what are you going to do to make your life more meaningful? What good moral choice will you make today? What will you value? Is there a deeper value and meaning in things that you haven’t paid attention to before?
Part of my work with people these past weeks has been to tune them into these choices in their every day lives where they actually have agency, as opposed to worrying about the things they have no control over. Can they recognize the value in connecting with their family more often or reaching out to a friend? Can they organize an online community event and realize that the community would want it, that it would have value? Can they tip the Instacart person more? Can they thank the woman wiping down the grocery carts?
Other things people are doing: Giving blood, supporting really vulnerable populations with money (support Maggie’s House here and support sex workers, I don’t know how much more vulnerable you can get than that), waving at all the delivery truck drivers and giving them a thumbs up, physical distance with social consistency. Our social cohesion is the only thing that actually makes us a functioning society. Survival of the fittest is not a thing (it actually isn’t, it’s a misreading of Darwin). Survival is in the collective, in our variability within our webs of connection. It is in sharing and caring and we do this, in spite of the neutral universe that favours no one and no thing.
The virus is having its day as viruses do. Who will we be when it is all over? We are in the liminal now. If you didn’t set your intention, there is still time. There is still time to make meaning that is good for all of us, to be better than you were on the other side.
The small school I teach at has a midwinter break of two weeks. Given the intensity of the level of work both before and after that break, I have learned it’s a good idea to take full advantage of it and try to stop working as much as possible while I have a chance. The best place for me to hide from the world is in Ontario’s near north where there is a family cottage I can use. I determined that I would do everything delightful while I was there. Basically, I have spent this week pretending I am Scandinavian. What does this mean?
Every Day in Nature:
It isn’t hard to achieve this as the place is nestled in the forest and perched on a little lake like the dreamy thing you imagine it to be. I wake up and stare out the window at my tree friend. One time this tree was struck by lightening and given that it’s only about 25 meters away from the building, I thank it for saving the house. I like to gaze at the scar that streaks down it’s trunk, sometimes for almost an hour while drinking coffee. It’s much better than what’s on Instagram, I swear.
After coffee there is dog walk. Sometimes, that is the main event and sometimes, that is the thing I need to do before the main event. We tromp up into the forest where there is a well packed path and I watch her roll down her favourite hills. I rarely capture this one video because it’s way better live.
On this one I fudge a little. Very special humans get to come up here with me sometimes. Fellow blogger, Cate, was able to find a few days between all her running around and deadlifting and hip mobilizing and saving the world in small ways to come be with me here. The other ways I remain social is by text with friends and, while this gets me sucked into my phone sometimes in ways I hate, being totally isolated isn’t good for me. I’m also tracking a kid in Australia so that’s fun. I think talking to your dog about life and future plans totally counts as socializing. I’m not sure about the cat but he’s a good listener when he feels like it.
Embracing The Winter Sports
I was deliberate about this intention this time. I brought my downhill skis and my skates. There are snowshoes here and there is a place to go x-country skiing. I decided I was going to do every winter sport that was reasonably accessible for me while I was here, even if that meant I was doing it myself. I have never gone downhill skiing alone and I wondered what that would feel like for me. It turns out that it’s a good time, good enough that I’d do it again. I’m a rather good skier, which I kind of forgot about and flying around on the hills with only my own choices to contend with was rather liberating. It’s still a much better sport done socially but alone skiing is not bad at all.
Alone snowshoeing is also totally delightful and to be fair, I’m never really alone because, dog. I was rather glad, however, that the episode of snowshoeing that involved following random paths in the woods heretofore unknown to me was not alone, and that Cate had her cellphone and that she was gentle in wondering if we were going the wrong way, and that she doesn’t get mad at me when I insist it’s right and then it isn’t. So, we weren’t exactly lost but it’s a good thing we have grit. That was a lot of wandering around in the forest.
I’m also glad that we chose to skate together. There is a skate trail through the forest only 20 minutes from here that is a little magical. I had grabbed the skates in from the basement that looked like they fit me. I have no idea where they came from or whose they actually are. This, I think, is one of the most Canadian things ever, “Just go down the basement and take a look, there should be a pair that fits.” Unfortunately, that was a poor choice because they were not at all a good fit and I was wobbly and off balance and a little terrified. Cate was in her glory, however, and I persisted. I learned another rule of life, “Let someone else tie your skates for you” and things got a little better. It was a good time but if I had been alone, I would have been sad. Next time, I will just rent the skates, they seem a lot more comfortable, even if other people that I don’t know’s feet have been in them.
Hiking without snowshoes is the other staple activity up here. The shorter hike/dog walk doesn’t require them but it has it’s delights and challenges. The last time Cate and I were here we went on an 8k walk without snowshoes and we were exhausted and sore from all the wobbly walking and balancing. Cate also wore Very Bad Socks that ate her heel (Have you thrown those out yet? Throw them out!).
I chose to x-country ski on a perfect day, sunshine and a high of 4 degrees. I chose an easy trail and classic skis. I sailed along, rhythmic and without strain or stress. I could ramp up the intensity if I wanted to but I didn’t have to and then I recognized the feeling I was having. It was like biking! I have found a winter sport that is the equivalent of road biking! I am seriously considering buying some of my own equipment at the end of the season because I really want to be able to noodle around the lake like the old days. (The x-country boots in the basement are literally turning to dust so I think it’s okay to buy a new pair).
All the Scandinavian countries seem to have their own version of this idea of snuggling up in the dark and the cold. It’s seems like an appropriate cultural evolution. My first night here, it was too cold to sleep in the bedroom so I just drifted off to sleep on the couch by the wood stove. It was the ultimate in cozy. I continue to be intentionally cozy every day here, whether it is snuggling human, dog or reluctant cat.
As I finish up this post, I’m aware of needing to leave this place in a few hours. It has been a joyful gift to be able to spend this week here tromping around and eating well and watching two seasons of Peaky Blinders. I am sad to have to go but content in having done all the things, every one of them. I’m watching the snow fall like fine mist and aware of lengthening days. Perfect winter.
I am doing the 30-day yoga thing. Me and nearly everyone on the blog and half my clients and half my world. Cate did a round-up of reasons why a few weeks ago. Today I want to explore some of what has come up for me during this commitment to movement nearly every day. I’m especially interested in some of the surprises it has held for me, the things I didn’t expect, the kind of stuff that yoga promises but takes one by surprise nonetheless.
This is the second year I have engaged in this project. Last year, I was in the throes of break-up grief and held onto it like the lifeline it was. It reminded me I was human and loveable. I suppose for some folks that is pretty profound but I feel fortunate in my personality constellation, that it doesn’t take too much to remind me of that fact, even when I’m being painfully let down by a human that loved me. So last year, the experience was visceral but kind of literal. Show up, move in the ways that feel good, breathe like you love yourself. Done.
This year, I was excited to engage in the project again, knowing what to expect a little more. I also had a better capacity and commitment to do it nearly every day. I think I finished the 30 days sometime in the middle of February last year. This year, I have been able to double up some days to make up for the days I miss or do something else. I’m still appreciating all the stuff I appreciated last year. I like how short they are. They are sometimes very technical but it’s only one thing, not a whole class of difficult stuff. I like the way she invites me into mindfulness and I love how gentle and forgiving her language is. Yet, in spite of this spaciousness, I have tripped over myself in a surprising way.
I have been pretty diligent in looking to get better at yoga. I’m paying attention to the next level of awareness of my body and where it is placed in space. I am trying to challenge the parts of me that have been traditionally stuck (in the physical or metaphorical sense). I’ve been digging deep where invited and hanging on a little longer. When I lower from plank, I do it s l o w l y. When I rise up before a twist, I really visualize and try to actualize growing taller, making space in the vertebrae before moving a little farther around. When I fold, I’m looking for ways to fold more fully.
The truth is, it’s working. I am getting better at it. I am stronger in my arms and shoulders. I am more flexible in my hips. My feet are definitely stronger. When I sit up, head over heart, heart over pelvis, I know where I am in my body and I’m carrying that sense all over the place. AND YET. . .
I have discovered a really sad little part of me that isn’t happy with all this objective progress and accomplishment. I have noticed that she thinks we should be stronger than this already and that the progress isn’t as much as it should be. She is craving some kind of transformation into an idea of graceful yogi that she simultaneously does not believe is possible. She is rejecting what is and longing for what could be, or what should have been if we’d been doing this diligently all along.
In examining this part, I realize a few things. I am struck by how similar this expression is to the expression of a longing to be “thin”. That “if only-I should already-I could have-why didn’t I-what’s wrong with me” thing that I see a lot of in my work but has never felt this kind of “alive” in me before now. That makes me wonder where it is from and how much of it is really mine. It also makes me wonder if this little part’s fixation on her lack of willowy strength and flexibility is masking a whole lot of her experience of willowy strength and flexibility. So much of the “I don’t look right” felt sense of the body manages to ignore the clear and present beauty that exists. Even when we try to move away from any idea of “beauty” and shift it to strength, flexibility, balance, function and presence, there is still a risk of sliding into the not-good-enough space that is lurking always for almost all of us.
I’m having a memory of me at 12 walking along a street with storefront windows. I am catching my reflection and fixating on how my knees seem to stay bent in a weird way throughout my stride. It makes me seem like I’m tromping along in a galumphy way and I hate it. I long to be lengthy and graceful, not the angular, flailing and awkward human in the reflection of the windows. I imagine that if I could be that person, that I will find the acceptance and friendship that I think I don’t have. I imagine I will be popular and loved and happy. I feel I am none of these things.
This memory has come stumbling in, so very unexpectedly, yet entirely predictably given the practice I’m in. Every day, I’m sitting and noticing. Every day, I am tuning into my body and wondering what’s up, what’s there. I guess it’s a 12 year-old, a super sad and alone 12 year old that doesn’t imagine anyone but her parents will ever love her. She is someone detached from the growth, progression and accomplishments of the rest of me. She got left behind somehow and she is so vulnerable.
It turns out my task this year in the 30 days of yoga is to discover and tend to that aspect. This has not a thing to do with whether I will ever have the strength and form to do a good chaturanga to up-dog. I mean, I might if I keep it up but that’s not really the point. Oh, Yoga, WTF? Why you gotta be so. . . .real?
Breathe in. Breathe out. Lots more to learn still.
I’ve done quite a few big things in my middle age meandering in the world of activity and fitness. When I was 35, I decided to do a C to 5K program. Let me be clear, I was really starting from the couch. There had been nothing aerobic in my life up to that point except maybe dancing. I was coasting on my youth and maybe also a little messed up from bad gym class experiences of childhood. I think it took me over a year to actually get up to 5K running and that felt HUGE. Little did I know where all that would lead me.
16 years later, I’m a person who has cycled from Toronto to Montreal a few times, run a half marathon, cycled up the coast of NFLD in adverse circumstances, hauled people all over Algonquin Park with a canoe on my head, rode a lot of horses, experimented with lifting heavy things and much more. Running 5K is a thing I could just do right now, if I wanted to. I’m super proud of all the big hard things I have done with this body, yet I am also aware that I’m not really chasing the next big thing. I hope there will be some things, I have some plans, but I’m more focused right now on the immediacy of moving and how it seriously doesn’t have to be much to make an impact.
One of the points of advice you read a lot on this blog is “find a thing you like to do and do that thing”. Think about it. Isn’t that the most delightful fitness advice ever? Isn’t it better than telling you that you are going to die young if you sit too much, or that you have to work out intensely 30 minutes a day or you will die young, or you will die young if you don’t walk fast enough, or any of the other sensational headlines around fitness that we are assaulted with constantly? Just find something small and do it.
The benefits of that became very alive in me last January, when I was doing Adriene’s 30 at home yoga thingy. I wrote about how I loved it here. None of those practices were over half an hour. Not many of them were particularly intense. It was the only exercise other than dog walking I was doing as I was in the middle of a life implosion and the respite of her daily uploads kept me from falling off a cliff. My osteopath was the person who commented that my musculature was “enlivened”. ENLIVENED! What more can you ask for, seriously?
Now, I did not continue to do yoga every day for the whole year. But, when I had no ability to do anything else and I needed to move, I would do a 15 minute practice and feel better. At this point in my life, exercise has to, at core, be about feeling better.
There was this piece carried by the CBC (Canadian national broadcaster) that impacted quite a few of us and I thought I might do a whole blog post about it but decided against it because, at the time, I was just angry. She is an Instagram star and I guess that’s how it got brought to their attention. The woman is 73 and she got fit (with the help of her daughter’s fitness program, which she is also clearly promoting) after getting fed up with herself at age 69. I heard her interviewed on the radio as well as reading the article and I was angry about it because it is a story of hating herself. She hated herself and then she went on a quest to find a solution. That solution came in the form of beating her 200lbs body down to 138lbs and then presenting herself to the world as finally acceptable. It is also the case that her other health markers improved which is awesome. My concern came in listening to her voice, where I heard vestiges of fear and self-hate looming to take her over the minute she lets up on her vigilance. She is so pleased to be able to “look at herself in the mirror”, yet it comes with the fear of loss if she doesn’t keep going big. This just isn’t the kind of fitness I’m interested in. I’m not blaming this iron pumping grandma for her fear fuelled odyssey. What I really want for her is to find out why the journey didn’t lead her away from that lingering body hatred. The virtue of movement is not only found in suffering. In fact, I think if it is only about pushing and suffering and achieving, we are doomed.
I am counting down the days (6 left!) to the New Year and another 30 day Adriene yoga thingy. I’ve been brushing up with doing more at home practice when I can and I feel better every single time. I’m also eating a lot of cookies and walking my dog all over the country side. Life is lovely at last, my implosion having settled, and adventures are coming my way. I hope you can find a small thing to do when big feels beyond you, and love yourself while you do it.
I love me a good TED talk and is there any TED talk that speaks more to the white middle class North American woman than this one right here on vulnerability? This thing hit the internet in the face like a sledge hammer back in 2010. It’s the story of a qualitative researcher who realized that the secret to overcoming the paralyzing effects of shame (about everything. .. body image, parenting, career, class. . .) was vulnerability and its sibling, authenticity . This controlling, perfectionist, driven woman, faced with this truth that she discovered, promptly had a breakdown. It was a horror to contemplate that being authentic in relationship was a necessary part of overcoming the paralysis of shame. It felt like a trap. So, she did what any self-respecting woman of privilege might do and put it all in a TED talk so that we could learn from her experience. It struck a chord. I’m sure that many of you are well aware of this talk, the subsequent books and the Netflix special that was recently released. I also quite loved the original talk. In this basic idea, that we cover up our shame with a myriad of false selves, each more impermeable than the last, she is bang on.
Certainly, she has been a commercial success for herself and with that has come the scrutiny of the public eye. In this revealing interview, she is somewhat honest about her discomforts and the way people interpret her intentions. I can feel the tension in her as I read the interview. She has something to say that she wants people to know. It’s important and it’s so hard to do. She wants to find a way to teach it so she can help but it keeps getting reduced to “Oprah Approved” and “Self-Help Queen”. She resists having her ideas over processed even as she markets them like a meal at slightly better than McDonalds food chain (I couldn’t pin one that I wanted. . .Milestones maybe?).
Then, into my feed this past week comes this blog post of hers on midlife. Since that’s what I’m up to these days, midlife-ing, I was interested in hearing what she had to say (she is 54 and when this was published, she was closer to 53). It has some parts that really resonate for me, like this passage:
If you look at each midlife “event” as a random, stand-alone struggle, you might be lured into believing you’re only up against a small constellation of “crises.” The truth is that the midlife unraveling is a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control. By low-grade, quiet, and insidious, I mean it’s enough to make you crazy, but seldom enough for people on the outside to validate the struggle or offer you help and respite. It’s the dangerous kind of suffering – the kind that allows you to pretend that everything is OK.
In this passage we again see the core struggle of Brené’s life, that being exposed as not capable of handling all the things is unfathomable, a no go, a hard stop, a nope. If she is allowed to pretend it’s okay, she naturally will. This is the story of many many many of us.
Also in this post, there is the force that is pushing the other way. In her first go around, it was her research that was screaming in her face “You won’t get anywhere by pushing, perfecting and controlling!” Her research said, if you don’t want to suffer shame so much, get real about who you are and express it. In this writing, it’s morphed into “the Universe”. The Universe says:
I’m not screwing around. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go. Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy and lovable, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever. Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through your veins. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.
Basically, this is the same message. Stop worrying, show up, be seen. I mean, I love it. Yet, something was missing. There was a sort of screaming in my own head. It came up most especially in this passage:
What bubbles up from this internal turmoil is fantasy. We might glance over at a cheap motel while we’re driving down the highway and think, I’ll just check in and stay there until they come looking for me. Then they’ll know I’m losing my mind. Or maybe we’re standing in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher when we suddenly find ourselves holding up a glass and wondering, “Would my family take this struggle more seriously if I just started hurling all this shit through the window?”
Most of us opt out of these choices. We’d have to arrange to let the dog out and have the kids picked up before we checked into the lonely roadside motel. We’d spend hours cleaning up glass and apologizing for our “bad choices” to our temper tantrum-prone toddlers. It just wouldn’t be worth it, so most of us just push through until “losing it” is no longer a voluntary fantasy.
Brené! Where is the next obvious paragraph? The one that notices that the reason we alone are responsible for emptying the dishwasher, picking up the kids, contemplating the drink ware and the sound it makes as it shatters, is not ONLY about our lack of courage to be seen. The layer of resistance is not ONLY about us hiding from our very personally held experience of shame generated ONLY by our close family of origin experiences. Brené, if we don’t include the systemic effect of, at a MINIMUM, patriarchy and colonialism, we will continue to fail and fail and fail.
In her interview with the Guardian that I linked above, she actually does show an awareness of how patriarchy has impacted her career. She explains the struggle with the double standard regarding her work:
“That article that was written about me,” she says at the end. “The one where it said: ‘America Has a New Queen of Self-Help’? I’ve got to tell you, I cried for four hours, because I don’t think they’d ever do that to man who had been a researcher, a scholar, for 13 years. And it’s not unusual for me to be the only female speaker in a day-long list at a corporate event. With a predominantly male audience and to be paid half of what the men are. So I double my fee and then everybody leaps on me. Saying, who do you think you are? You know who I am? I’m the person trying not to vomit into my mouth when I hear what my male counterparts are making. That’s who I am. I’m just trying to stave off the throwing up. It’s difficult, difficult.”
Yet, 3 years later, she publishes this blog that fails to explicitly acknowledge that our experience of being squashed, unheard and unseen in our lives, careers or even on the bus has a good deal to do with the fact that we apparently cannot rely on our families or broader communities to notice we are losing our gourds trying to do every f-ing thing. We cannot rely on them because they tell the same story about us (and by “us” I am talking about those the patriarchy does not include in it’s power structure) that we are telling ourselves. This story, is the story of the dominant power structure, not just your withholding mom. It’s SYSTEMIC, Brené!
This post, and my use of poor Brené, as a counterpoint, did not come out of nowhere. In fact, I was contemplating writing about my kind of recent knowing that I am really quite fabulous exactly as I am in this moment. I am recognizing that all the choices I have made (although they looked chaotic at the time) have led me to a place of relative peace. That ole Universe whispered and I said oke doke. But you know what? That’s crap. Like Brené, I have lots of education and I have an overabundance of resources, both financial and community. It still took me until I was 50 to fully move out of and get radically pissed off at the role I was playing in ways that didn’t endanger my children or my own well being. This wasn’t just a matter of me listening to the inner whisperings of my soul, although I’m totally guilty of believing that at times, I love that narrative. This was me finally having enough power and financial security to be able to see my way out of the stories I was telling myself, without running into the block of fear. To hear Brené tell it, this fear is imaginary. We’ve made it up because we don’t want to feel the shame of our failures and all we need to do is be brave and poof, the way will be cleared.
Except it’s hard to be brave if you can’t afford decent housing and you don’t have pay equity and your can’t get a job because of how your name sounds and you are sexualized at work or you are misgendered constantly or you are not believed and you are not supported in your parenting or your health and all the ways this seemingly increasingly cold hearted community is abandoning people and telling them to suck it up.
Brené never talks about that and I really want her to. I want her message to make a difference to more than the middle/upper-middle class mostly white women who can actually use and execute her advice. But how?
What if, included in her message of personal empowerment, there was also an exhortation to give back somehow? In some ways this is counter-intuitive to the message. We are already giving and giving, this is about being real and brave and taking ourselves and our choices and our realities back. But if you can do that, as I can, it really doesn’t feel right to leave people behind. Maybe this is the evolution of Brene’s work that I long for (and maybe she IS speaking about this already, I didn’t do a deep dive). When we have benefited from our self-discovery and our bravery and our steps out into the light, we need to turn around and grab someone else and take them with us. It should be a person who can’t reach critical velocity of exit from these stories of the patriarchy because they can’t amass the resources, usually because of multiple points of marginalization. Ideally, it should be someone not at all like me and Brené. It could be through recognized charitable orgs, or even better, pick an individual and really make a difference. In the past 4 years or so, that’s been my choice. I don’t get a tax receipt but the impact on that one person is big. If everyone who followed Brene’s every word did that, what a difference that would make. It would empower an army of previously silenced people who could war more effectively against these narratives, continue to put good work in the world, maybe run for public office!
That’s what I hear the universe saying to me right now. Take someone with you.
This has been a truly draining week. First there was massive election angst and I don’t do well with that I will admit. My strategy is to over involve myself up close with every minutia so I don’t miss anything that might give me hope. Of course, when I find a thing that qualifies as “hopeful” I am immediately terrified it will change or be wrong or otherwise disappear. I started this pattern after 2016 and it’s just continued. Even these days, where there are things that should technically give me hope or at least tamp down the horror (a Liberal minority up here with the balance of power in parties even farther left and a burgeoning impeachment case down south), I am not soothed. The speed at which this world has gone from something approximating a “right track” in some places to a general decent to tribal warfare is horrifying. I want to hide. But if I hide, that’s one less voice in protest, one less ally, one less person sandbagging against the flood of hate. So, hiding is not an option.
Around here, activity, rest, fitness, food. . .we think of them as in the service of something other than the dominant narrative. Nourishment, pleasure, strength, an outward impulse to go beyond zones of safety in order to gain a sense of aliveness. . .these are the things I think about when I try to write about how feminism and fitness intersect. These are the things that are necessary also to shore up my strung out heart and body so that I don’t hide. Extra important in that task is my choice of activity and whether I can like it. Because if I don’t like it, things will only feel worse in the end.
I have started weekly Pilates training again and I really like that. In part, I like how it is finicky and specific. I like how it is efficient in its impacts. I already feel stronger and more balanced, even though I can’t deadlift as much as Cate ( 170lbs, that is 2.5 yellow labs worth, that’s me plus a decent sized beagle. Can we just measure weight in dogs from now on? That would be fun right?).
I have also been running again. I try to go out once a week. I try not to push too hard. Running should not feel punishing and desperate and it has often felt that way to me. I think that is likely because I have run while comparing myself to people who are very much faster and more efficient than me. I have poor body mechanics for running and at some point I need to just accept that. Run how I run and leave it at that.
So, it was in that spirit that I went out yesterday. It was early evening and the sun was still shining. It was about 11 degrees which is perfect running weather for me. I did not want to go. I felt tired and weak and headachy. As I was walking out of my office, I had passed the open door of my colleague’s office. “Tell me to go run”, I said. She said, “Oh that’s a good idea, I should run too. I’ll go if you go.” I promised her I would and left to go home. I came in the door and didn’t pause. I changed and put my shoes on and grabbed the dog and went outside. The air was fresh and perfect and the leaves were spectacular. I started to move.
I was aware of how I was holding my shoulders around my ears and I dropped them down. I was aware that my hip girdle was also tensed and I tried to move more fluidly. These are the benefits of Pilates, btw. I have reacquainted myself with a more nuanced sense of what my parts are doing and their state. So, I was moving along and noticing my breath. It was not very laboured and I thought, “That’s nice”. Then another thought occurred to me, “Could I enjoy this? Is there any pleasure here?” I realized, as I put one foot in front of the other, that I have never explored mindfully if there is any pleasure to be found in a run. I have found achievement. I have pushed boundaries. I have felt accomplished but, as I have said many times, I have never really liked it. I proceeded on for the next few kilometres and looked into my body experience to see if I could enjoy myself. I am happy to say that I found some success there. It helped that I deliberately didn’t try to run faster or push in anyway. I stuck to my 10 minutes of running and one minute of walking pattern. I noticed that after my one minute walk, I actually had a sense of feeling refreshed. It was, overall, a very hopeful experience.
I started this post talking about the election and my general fears about the world. Running isn’t going to solve anything. Running, and my engagement in what it has to offer, does mean that I am out in the world as a moving being. I’m not hiding and I’m not giving up. I won’t disengage. I will do things that are strengthening and find the pleasure in them. Something about that feels hopeful.
I started running again. It’s fall, it’s cool and it’s getting dark early. The days of long cycles are almost gone and the truth is if I don’t have a goal, I won’t do anything. I don’t love running much. I have never loved it or really liked it at all to be truthful. Upon being encouraged by Cate, I signed up for a run in the spring and now I guess I’m prepping for a 10k. I took my old dog out with me today and we both slowly and just a little bit painfully squeezed out 4k. But that’s what it’s like at our age. Everything is a little slower and a little more painful. It would be so easy to just let it all go and just stop trying. That’s what I was thinking about as I ran, feeling that familiar uncomfortable burn in my chest and the weight of my legs as I willed them to move. “Why am I doing this?”
“Why AM I doing this? Why Why Why Why” the rhythm of my feet in time to the question. It’s not because I will win any races. I am no performance athlete. I am not doing it to change my body in any profound way. I don’t have to do it to maintain anything, I walk enough to meet all the minimum standards of movement for health. I’m trying to get hold of what is going on with me these last months, some seriously profound shift in who I am is bubbling up. Somehow this choice to run again is part of it.
About a year ago, the final chapter of the second book of my life trilogy, if you will, was coming to a tragic end. I clung to movement to ground my grief. I would get up and walk or stretch of lie on the floor in Shavasana weeping and tending to my body, my literal heart, holding pieces together with remembering I was still a whole physical being, if not a whole emotional one. I tried running a few times in the spring but each run left me with a feeling of being broken somewhere, like my body was a minefield and I made a wrong step. I stuck to the bicycle. The rhythm of my legs going round and round was more tolerable to me in more than just my body. Cycling has more range of experience. I could be gradual about it ramping up and down in the intensity based on the way a hill rolled. They physics of cycling is just kinder in all the ways than running. I needed kindness.
I was learning to live alone, preparing to live totally alone as my youngest child made her way through grade 12 and out the door to her adult life. There was relief in it, and frustration, and an exhaustion that pulled me down flat so much of the time. I guess that’s depression, to be technical, a deep nearly unreachable grief. I actually can’t run from that, as much as I have said so in another blog of mine. This was a grief about myself and I couldn’t escape. Running pressed buttons that seemed to make it worse.
Then the summer happened and the ridiculous intensity of that cycling trip to Newfoundland. Cate wrote about it here, using the experience to explore the idea of Grit. Upon reflection, that trip loomed up, surprised me and broke something else. It wasn’t the kind of breaking that the attempts at running were creating. It was more like it broke me open and exposed the seeds of what was next. The intense physicality and emotional strain of that trip (there was some weeping in a ditch) reminded me I was alive in ways I did not expect. It reminded me I wanted more life and I wasn’t settled and I wasn’t done and whatever the heck was happening wasn’t quite right either. After that trip, the physicality of my life became more joyful, even as it was trying. I realized that my sense of internal brokenness had abated and my body synced up differently. I still felt pain and fatigue but I no longer felt wounded.
When I did the TriAdventure weekend in August, I decided to run the loop once (about 4.3k) and it was not horrible at all. I ran another time up north, no hills, and that wasn’t gross either. Then there was today.
It’s seems I can’t run with a broken heart. When I think of my life and with whom I have run and why, that makes complete sense to me. It’s just one of those weird mind body expressions that I have learned to pay attention to. Here I am, in the first chapter of the third book in the trilogy. I don’t know how long this book will be or whether there will be one of those really meaningful epilogues at the end. Yet I do know that I have found my way to being more profoundly embodied than I was before, with more connections and more attention paid to what that means. Moving through to menopause ups the ante even more, as I drop into the netherworld of societal location that is the post-fertile woman. Lots of attention is being paid in the media these days to this process. Maybe Gen X can make a mark after all as we question the significance of our state change. Perhaps it IS significant, this emergent Crone in running shoes who is not clinging to youth but rather embodying something else.
So ya, I’m running again and it’s kind of okay. My heart pounds but it feels in one piece now. I’m on my own but embedded in community and other people’s lives in the best ways. I’m just getting started, it seems. Watch out :).