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, her kids, her animals and her people.
It’s my last regular post! I’m letting that lead me. Endings are something I’ve been exploring lately, letting go, allowing change to flow through me instead of resisting, struggling, raging.
It started with the pandemic, so much started with this goddamn pandemic. Everything I understood to be true about my world was up for debate. Isolation, constriction, struggle and then a refocus on what was really important. I started to let go. I began to understand that I couldn’t play the same character of me in my life under these different circumstances. It wasn’t that I wasn’t me, but rather that how I showed up and what I had with me changed. Social exercise, the bike rides, the group classes, all faded away. I was left with just me and what I wanted to do with my body, and my heart. It turns out, I still really dig the one on one interactions, even over video. Once I settled down, my therapy practice stabilized and zoom work became just fine. My supervision practice (supervising other therapists in their work and mentoring them) blossomed. Being a mentor fuelled me and I leaned in to that new and thriving space of connection.
Physically, it turns out, I really only want to walk my dog and do yoga. I patiently found ways to get to my mat, trying to be gentle and not push. I hurt my shoulder but I didn’t give up on practicing. It just got softer and softer, only as far as I could swim out and make it back alive.
All around me the world pulsed and convulsed. There was still a lot of struggle. There was a struggle to teach in group online. I still hate that, hate it with the passion of a thousand suns. We had a glorious in person masked term in the fall and having it ripped away from me again by the latest crisis has put my body in a raging uproar. I’m on fire in my spine. I know this to be my grief and struggle to connect with my family of students and colleagues through square boxes. I will never be okay with a group thing online. There just isn’t enough energy in the world to hold all those souls sufficiently to do what I need to do with them.
But back to letting go. I had been practicing and meditating and feeling into all the corners and I was so excited to do Adriene’s 30 days in January. But when I began that movement project, that should have been exactly what I needed, I collapsed. She was tumbling ahead of my body and I couldn’t keep up. There was something frantic about it. The words were right but the feel was wrong. I stopped after 7 days, went on an Adriene strike and I haven’t gone back. I’m staying true to my insides. It wasn’t right for me, danger, danger, danger. I’m on the mat still with others, staying true to what my body needs and says. I feel confident, and sad. I loved her and she’s gone.
Then there is this blogging practice. I’ve only ever blogged for my own good, hardly thinking about you, audience (sorry, not sorry, just how I do things). I would hit nerves or not but it was just about what comes out of my fingers. The more me I could be, the more true I could be to the exact moment of my writing, the better I felt about it. I wonder sometimes how it made you feel, to read mundane or very personal or very rant-y posts. In the end, that wasn’t why I did it. I just like to write. But now I am in some process, moving into a liminal space that is reforming something again. I don’t know what it will be yet, shadows just out of reach, but it feels important. I think it has to do with my teaching and an explication of the magic I’m finding there. I still want to write, I’m scared of letting go of this monthly practice, but I need to. I’ve said what I need to say for now.
So Adieu my friends, my dear fellow bloggers and the people who looked forward to what I had to say, or happened upon it and said “hmmm, cool” or however you were while reading. I have appreciated this space and your eyes and hearts that have been moved here and there. I may come back when I really need to say a thing in this community but until I do, keep moving your beautiful bodies and keep your precious hearts open as much as you can bear.
Well here we are, another year, another arbitrary marking of time. I was enjoying my time off. For the first year in ages and ages, I did not have some administrative nightmare to attend to on my break. I had plans. They were mostly plans to be alone in a forest but they were plans nonetheless. The universe cycles without regard for any plans of ours of course and, like many of you, COVID came knocking on my door. I’ll not bore you with the details of how. When I think about it, I get angry, imagine that the people involved were not careful enough, “if only you had thought to use that test earlier in the day” etc. The truth is, if not that day, then the next day or the next. It was inevitable. Now I find myself cooped up in my house with my two adult kids and one kid’s girlfriend. I am presented with the question of what to do with this time and for some reason, in this little family lockdown, it feels more like a moral question in addition to a practical one.
I often struggle with what to write in my monthly contribution to this blog. I mean what is feminist fitness? I think of words like permission and empowerment. I think about overcoming. I think about coming out from underneath something. I think about the picture Sam often posts of a little girl riding her bike yelling “Wheeeeee!!!!” She is using her body and speeding gloriously free in her joy. She seems unencumbered, uninhibited and free of the layers of expectation that will later burden her. What if she was never burdened? Who could she be?
That feels important and I know it’s just a fraction of the story.
In my “Isolation”, I have committed to walking my dog at least 6k every day and doing one hour of yoga. Seems pretty reasonable. Seems like good advice for any lockdown. I’ve also been doing some other things. I have been reading the revised curriculum for the first year of the program I teach in. My colleagues have revamped it to address our commitment to training with an anti-racist and anti-colonial perspective. As we have welcomed a more representative student population into training in the profession, we have realized that they not only need to be welcomed but they need to be seen in our welcome. That means teaching with more stories present in the room. So I have read excerpts from Legacy by Suzanne Methot and How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram Kendi, amongst other things. My colleagues have interspersed these readings along with the usual psychotherapist stuff (Freud, Rogers, Kohut, Schore, Wallin). It’s eviscerating to go back and forth but the point is to stop presenting the psychoanalytic canon as neutral and insert more of the world’s reality. The point is also not to just teach the white people to be better but to see everyone in the room. We need to hold everyone’s story and give it room to exist and its full implication unfold. We need to start with the students, who are not separate from the clients. We need to be “accomplices” instead of “allies” (D. Squire 2019).
I have chosen to take this time to watch The Wire, a show I missed because I had babies and other drama when it was originally released. After the first episode, in which I was left with a feeling of WTAF is this, I started to understand why it was so important, why it remains so important. Watch that show in the context of George Floyd, of Donald Trump and insurrections and voter suppression and you will see how it holds up. Bonus points for treating queer people like humans in the core story.
In my dog walk yesterday, I listened to this podcast about the Wellness Culture’s link to COVID denialism. It was a very depressing dive into the way the hunks of wellness industry, and pointedly yoga, has aligned itself with an elitist, individualist magical thinking laden perversion of an understanding of health and collective responsibility. Gwyneth Paltrow and all her ilk, scrambling for clicks and views and followers, selling us enlightenment and vagina candles and vaccine conspiracies.
I’m coming ’round to my point. I was walking my dog, listening to that podcast in my still feeling well triple boosted body that loves yoga and lives in an affluent suburban town on Treaty 19 territory. I was trying to decide what to write for my last blog of 2021 to be published on the last day of 2021 and realized I had nothing to say of any use that had to do with any personal feminist fitness journey. I have everything. I have more than my share. I have more than is fair and most of it isn’t even mine. I say that in terms of both stolen land and also that the idea of having things, devoid of how having them impacts the collective, is a road to hell too many of us are walking.
The other thing I listened to on my walk was this podcast, an interview with theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli. He was talking about how time does not really exist as we know it. There was so much interesting stuff in that interview but the best part was at the end, where they talked about his notion that our existence is not about our stuff, it is about our relationships. We are the interactive, always fluid nexus of an ongoing web of relationships. He got there using theoretical physics, the Intersubjectivists got there through psychoanalytical observations, Carol Gillian created an entire moral philosophy out of it and the Indigenous people got there through lived experiences. When are we gonna get there?
I’m in isolation. It’s fine. I have everything, more than my share and I need to ask myself instead, who am I going to be? Who am I going to love? Who am I going to uplift and put before me? Who will find me a worthy accomplice? I won’t stop the walking or the yoga but it has to be a means to a better end. It’s not enough just to get to the mat anymore.
Happy arbitrary New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one.
I’m driving on the Gardiner Expressway headed to the East end of Toronto. Just me, in charge of a car, going 95km/h on a busy highway. I start to feel this sensation in my chest, a tightness, a banging, “It’s nothing” I say and will it away. I take deep breaths and focus like I do in yoga to slow my heart rate. “I’m not actually dizzy. That is just my anxiety telling me I’m dizzy”. I don’t know, is it?
It’s 7:30pm and I’m uncomfortable in my own skin. My heart is slamming inside me again and my temperature is erratic, or it feels that way. We are going out to dinner with friends. In this second, I’d fail a COVID screen. “Cate, can I have a thermometer?” My temp is 36.5 degrees Celsius on three different thermometers (no, I don’t know why she has three). I look at my pulse on my watch, 65 beats per-minute. I eat an apple. I’m okay. We go to dinner.
I wake up at 3am, heart slamming again. I try square breathing. I slow everything down to one second at a time. I scan myself for other indicators. It’s so mysterious and awful. Is the world ending? I fall asleep.
The next morning, as she makes lists for some huge trip, I’m tapping my chest like my student does in group process when she is freaking out and needs to stay in the room, stay present, not dissociate into some abyss. There is no reason for this. I am safe, I am happy, all is well, I want to cry.
Later that evening, I’m home and still, every 15 minutes or so, my heart pounds. I idly wonder “am I having a heart attack?”. I ask Dr. Google, she isn’t sure but she can’t rule it out. It’s different for women you know, diffuse symptoms, tightness instead of pain, back ache, anxiety, neck pain, cold sweats. . .check check check. . .I’m through the looking glass now. I wake my son with the news “Your peri-menopausal mother needs to make sure she is peri-menopausal and not having a heart attack.” We drive 5 minutes down the road to the hospital.
I enter with this particular shame. What is the nature of this shame? That I am a bother. That I am bonkers. That I have enough education and whiteness to state my case with the expectation I will be taken seriously, while still constantly undermining my symptoms. They are reassuring. “You did the right thing coming to check.” I am treated with care and my kid puts on a brave face. I know that if it’s true, I will get treatment and if it isn’t, we are both taking the day off the next day anyway. Win-win.
The doctor comes in. He is maybe 10 years older than my child. He could be my child. He is handsome and perky and maybe on Aderal? Who knows what these guys do to keep going these days. He explains my blood work, it was good. My heart monitor looks good. “What about those big blips when I feel that slam in my chest?” They were right there on the screen. My son saw them too, sullying the otherwise regular beats of my little heart, a resting rate of 57bpm. Pretty good. The machine beeped at my because my breathing was too slow for it’s liking. It doesn’t understand I do yoga. “Heart palpitations. Totally normal. Hormone changes can cause them”.
I leave with a requisition for a stress test and a monitor, just to be sure. In this moment, there is no heart attack but that doesn’t mean this body belongs to me any more. It is off on its own, engaging in some process without my consent, devoid of any agency belonging to me. It just flips out whenever it wants to, in spite of my mindfulness and my coping and my measured breathing and my telling myself I am fine. I am fine. But I’m changing and there is nothing that can be done about this presently, only 79 days into the latest pause in the meno.
The wave after wave of palpitations has settled down now. Perhaps my sputtering ovaries are giving it a last go, a little respite? Who knows? No one knows. I don’t know. . .Is it?
(If you want to laugh about this more, take a look at this gem from Baroness Von Sketch.)
I love October. In my area of the world it usually means cooler days, colder nights and the opportunity to get cozy. It means I crack out my Halloween decorations, which are way more important than my x-mass decorations. Of course, I’m Jewish (a bit of a Jew-witch), so that makes sense. I’ve noticed it is also the time I contemplate running again.
Oh running, how I loathe thee. No wait, that isn’t quite true. Running is always calling to me. It has so many advantages. Put on your shoes and run out the door. It is a marvellous aerobic bang for the buck. It will make me sweat. But is exactly that intensity that makes it problematic for me. I have little heat tolerance in my peri-menopausal years. In the summer, if it’s above 23 degrees Celsius or so, I am unable to tolerate the combination heat on the outside and heat generated on the inside. Biking has a built in breeze. I am a sloooooow runner so there is no way I can expel my heat other than sweating like a pig and panting like a dog (do pigs sweat? OMG they don’t, but you understand my meaning). I never have a thought on July 23rd of “Hey, you know what would be good right now? A good old sweaty panty run!“
But in October? That is different. The air won’t trap my heat inside me, cooking me like a Thanksgiving Turkey. The sun shines through the changing leaves and the air is crisp. I start to think about my aerobic health, which, according to the data sucking device on my wrist, is still really excellent but it’s just barely excellent and it used to be more excellent. I want it to be more excellent and maybe I especially think about that as the veil thins and death is in the air.
Like many of my colleagues here, the first step is examining the gear. My shoes were about 5 years old and although they weren’t over used, they did train and run a half marathon with me, so I thought perhaps they needed to retire. I looked for a pair of shoes that were the most supportive, cushioned, protective that I could find. I determined that I was no longer interested in speed. I was interested in being able too do this and not hurt myself as I had so many times before. I am such a weirdly competitive non-competitive person. With the slightest encouragement, I overdo it and then I’m out of commission. That is another reason why I’m looking at my feet in my new shoes, I ruined my shoulder last January doing too many Chatarangas with Adriene. I still don’t know what is going on with it. Very sad.
So here I am. The maiden run was yesterday. . .1.3km. Not even a mile. I went to the park and ran around the path twice. I let my dog off leash there so she didn’t have to keep up with me if she didn’t want to. I mean, she is 80 dog years old so she can do what she wants. I am not broken. I did not run today and I might run tomorrow. I am trying not to have expectations. I like my shoes.
Meanwhile, my little orange spooky tree is spooking. My little black cat is looking decorative. My electric fireplace is on. I’m enjoying my Hygge. Happy Halloween and spook on 🎃.
A word of caution, I deal with suicidal ideation in this post.
This post has been brewing in me for a long time and I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write it. I think I have been in some sort of denial that this has been happening, is happening, KEEPS HAPPENING in the little sacred space of my office. I’m a Registered Psychotherapist. That is a designation specific to Ontario and it’s equivalent to Licensed Mental Health Counsellor in the states, or Registered Mental Health Counsellor in some other jurisdictions. It is a profession that focuses exclusively on the clinical work of talk therapy. I don’t diagnose people and I don’t prescribe meds, but after 21 years of practice, I have acquired a pretty extensive familiarity with the kinds of mental health issues that benefit from the assistance of medication. I like to say I’m “neutral” about medication in most situations. Many clients have benefited and some clients have not. Some clients have found meds to be more trouble than they are worth. Some clients have been manifestly overmedicated to the detriment of their capacity to function.
However, I’m not talking about any of that today. Today, I want to take you through an experience I have had and continue to have and continue to feel flummoxed and enraged and devastated by. There’s more than a few podcasts out there these days that take you inside the therapy space to hear what is really going on. This is going to be kind of like that. It isn’t any particular client obviously, I don’t have permission to talk about them. But it is an amalgam of experiences that resonate on the same frequency, that convey the same message and impact. If you are a client reading this (I mean, you might be, this is a public blog) this is emphatically not actually you, but if it is like you, maybe you can hear me in a way that you haven’t yet. Maybe the anguish and frustration and fear I have about the collective you that I’m writing about may penetrate in ways it can’t when we are together. I hope so. Because I’m worried about you.
Most often, this therapist/client relationship is pretty substantial. We’ve known each other for nearly a year and often more than that. We might be of a similar age or maybe a decade or two apart. You (client) have come to see me because of a pain, a grief, a stress or a loss. You have been confused about your direction or your worth. Maybe you have a story in your past that speaks of violations of trust and betrayals of compacts of care. Maybe the world as you knew it is suddenly upside down and you don’t know where you fit or if it’s entirely your fault anyway. There’s a lot of ways to get to this state but you felt pretty bad and you made the call.
We’ve been working together and I am coming to know you and your story. We see the patterns, how they were formed, how they are alive in your life. If we are lucky, they have been alive between us and we’ve been able to do something different with them in those moments. Always, I am listening, trying to know and trying to understand your story, your perspective, your pain and your strivings. Everyone who comes to see me is striving for something that feels like safe connection, a place to lay your head and not worry about your right to exist. Much of the time, my particular brand of listening and noticing and compassionate presence is enough to comfort and shift. Every single one of you is working so hard to feel better and all of you use me in the ways that you can to make that happen. I am right there with you.
Sometimes, that pain doesn’t move. We talk and reason. We know the whys and the whens and the hows. But every time you leave my office, and sometimes even when you are right in front of me, the feelings rise up and overwhelm you, dragging you back to a hell I can’t touch. It’s a despair so profound or a fear so gripping that you feel like you would rather be dead, sometimes actually, you would rather be dead. You think about how you are a burden and a trial and list the ways people would be better off without your troublesome self causing trouble and that the very fact of this ineffable pain is the reason enough to go. No one, including you, should have to deal with this shit.
Around that time, while staying with the reality of your experience, I am starting to wonder whether it’s time to explore more support. We are usually traversing a very difficult landscape together but you keep slipping into crevasses and slipping out of whatever anchor to the surface the therapy has been providing. I’m thinking, perhaps it’s time to explore medical assistance in the way of medication? I explain it as a tool to help regulate so you can do this hard work of unravelling the past and the way it lives in your present. I explain it’s a medium or long term support and that you can do this with your own agency at the forefront. I explain that there is no shame in asking for more help and perhaps you need more than I can give you, just me for an hour a week. When your system is so chaotic/activated/imbalanced, you can’t see the path through the dust and static. You can’t really hear me or connect with me. I don’t want to lose you.
You look up and say, “I don’t want to go on meds, I will gain weight”.
How did this happen? How did you come to a place that tells you that the possibility of weight gain means you need to die, or feel like dying for half your life, or lose your partner, or your job, or the connection to your kids or your friends? How is the imperative to stay small more important than the possibility of feeling well, of expanding into your possibility, of making the world better with your glorious and grounded presence?
Now, I know the answer to this. I know how it happens but what I’m trying to do here is capture how f-ing absurd this twisted trap of fat-shaming, body controlling, garbage really is. I have actually had people tell me that the possibility of gaining weight means they will continue to suffer so profoundly they might just kill themselves soon or maybe later, but eventually possibly. They don’t want to suffer. They want to feel better. Like I said before, they are all working so hard and they will work harder and harder and harder and wonder what else they can do. They will cry inconsolably, fall apart at work and at home, hide from the world, endure psychic and physical pain that is unabated and do all of that instead of trying a medication that may result in weight gain. And the collective response of the rest of us is far too often, “oh yes, we wouldn’t want that”. Doctors lead with this in their description of the side effects, “I need to let you know, you might gain weight”, with a knowing tone of “I will understand if you don’t want to take it because my gosh, gaining weight is so much worse than waking up and feeling like you want to vomit every morning and you can’t leave your house. I know Agoraphobia is hard but at least you still fit in your pants.”
Alright, so no doctor is going to say that, I hope, but how many are complicit in reinforcing this kind of logic? Lots of them. I have heard the stories, I have experienced it first hand to be honest but you know what? I TOOK THE DRUGS AND FELT BETTER.
Medication is not the only solution. It doesn’t solve the crushing weight and cognitive load of poverty or racism. If this society could wake up and take those things more seriously, maybe starting with a universal basic income, that would help. The existence of meds doesn’t absolve me of working towards a better world with you. It doesn’t cure PTSD. It doesn’t even really make you feel good. But you might feel less bad and the worse you feel to begin with, the more likelihood that it will make a difference you can feel. When you get some ground under your feet, you can come to therapy and have some psychic space to let the magic of that work unfold. What I want most is for you to believe that it is better to be in the world 30 lbs heavier, with more connection, resilience, contentment, expansiveness and satisfaction, than it is to be skinny and a husk of a human or possibly a corpse. I further want to rest of the world (I’m looking at you Fam Docs) to really think that too and work to make that true.
Fat shaming, fat phobia, body policing are killing us in so many ways and this is one more. I’m just going to keep doing what I can to counter it I guess. But what I really want is for all of us to cease being complicit in this system and tell everyone it is okay to just be happy and okay to be fat and best to be both if that’s what you are and that you love them and want them to stay and be.
This is a time of year that I am always writing about canoe trips. There is always something that a canoe trip generates worth writing about whether it’s noticing that whenever I go into the park with a group of only female/non-binary identified folks, we are the only group of that description we see, finding my strength, taking my 72 year old mom out or just hanging with my favourite people.
One consistent element of almost every trip is my best dog. But this year, my excellent adventure with adventure friend, Cheryl, did not include Shelby the wonder dog. She is, a last, too old for me to feel safe to take her. Gone are the days when she could easily and delicately hop in and out of a canoe like a bunny. There was that one time that she stood on a rock about a foot square with all four paws and then, one at a time, she placed them in the boat, carefully balanced like an Olympic gymnast. She can’t scramble up a rock face any more. She has unreliable shoulders and, most distressingly a sarcoma on her front left leg. So, the idea of bringing her in, when I could not carry her out felt dangerous. It was also achingly sad.
Worse even was the look she gave me when I packed all that tripping gear in the car and left her at home. She knew what was happening, that I didn’t take her. SHE KNEW. That dog is old and weaker and creakier but she is also SMARTER than she has ever been. It killed me, that LOOK. So. . . what is a dog girl to do?
Take the dog camping.
That’s what I did. I took my dog camping. Car camping of course. There was a small-ish problem, in that outdoor recreation has become super popular in the pandemic and the possibility of finding a Provincial Ontario Park camp site, with it’s reliable clean and practical set up, it’s running potable water and guaranteed accessibility, that did not exist. So, I took a flyer on a private nature reserve, Limberlost Forest. I have hiked here for years and day hiking is free. It is an impeccably maintained place with beautiful cabins and cottages that I was familiar with. They had recently developed car camping sites in the interior of the property on a small lake. They were not booked. My dog needed a camping trip, so I took the risk.
I’m always conscious of the fact this is a feminist blog that is notionally about fitness and I so often just write about my life with tenuous connections to blog like themes but here is the link. First of all, car camping is just as exhausting as canoe tripping. I forgot that for some reason. You can bring more stuff, but then, there is more STUFF. You can bring a cooler and coolers need ice and ice is heavy and all the cooler food is heavy. The two burner Coleman and the bigger camp chairs and the shade tent and all the things. So many things. Car camping is setting up your bedroom and living room on a sand and gravel pad in a thick forest at the end of a recently bulldozed road into bush. Car camping in a private nature reserve doesn’t have handy taps with potable water. I brought my ceramic pump and we were on a lake. . .”set back from the lake” it said. Cool cool, I didn’t bother to ask what that meant. It turns out it meant up a steep hill in thick bush from the lake. And that meant to get to said lake, it was down a steep hill in thick bush to a swampy, mucky inaccessible lake front. Water is not optional so, functional fitness FTW. I spent much time precariously balanced on rocks and logs with my pump intake hose in the one place that offered slightly less swampy water. There were frequent breaks to clean the filter then back at it. Core, balance, legs, flexibility were all on display. The other technique was going down with my 20 litre portable wash bin and scooping up as much water as possible to bring it back up to pump. I did that a few times but I let my kid fuss with the pumping while I recovered. Oh, and all of this in 30 degree weather.
We did have a marvellous time. On the Saturday, we drove to another part of the park for a big hike along an accessible lake where we could all swim when we got hot. Shelby bounded around in her doggy zen way, thrilled to run and sniff and roll and stroll. In the evening, after I made a fabulous meal and we cleaned up. We had a little fire and then Shelby declared it was time for bed, grumbling half way between the tent and the picnic table, as she does, “It’s dark! Don’t you know it’s time to be inside?” When she came into the tent, malodorous as she was, she curled up at our feet and happily went to sleep, the most content dog. It was all about her after all.
As I type this, I am staying over in my mom’s house in Toronto with my dog and by the time you read this tomorrow morning, Shelby will be in surgery to remove the sarcoma from her front leg. I’m trying not to think about all the things that could go wrong with that. Instead, I’m just grateful that I could find and pay for my dog’s care, and hope that my nearly 12 year old lab has a few more camping trips left in her. Can you all hope with me and send the vibes? Shelby appreciates it.
If you would have asked me three weeks ago whether I thought my post would be about the Olympics in any way I would have laughed at you. I can’t stand the Olympics in principle. From the bankrupting of Montreal, to the painting of lawns green in Beijing, to the murdering of Sochi dogs, to the removal of impoverished communities in Rio, the Olympics to me is mostly a legacy of arrogance, colonial mindset, wasting of public money for little social gain and general decadence while the planet burns. I had planned instead to write a post about how, while I’ve had to give up on my upper body strength work this year because of a shoulder injury, my attention to yin yoga meant my flexibility was off the charts. Kim had graciously remarked “that is just as useful in the apocalypse”. There is a cute little blog in that right?
But no, I can’t write about that, because I’m transfixed by the Olympics and what is going on there with these amazing young women in multiple sports. I am not particularly transfixed by their performances, although many are admirable. What I am transfixed by is their authenticity and their outright refusal to play the game that has been set before them by the rules that usually would eat away their little souls like lye on roadkill. I am flabbergasted at what they are saying out loud about how they feel about their performances, their lives and their mental health. Suddenly, the painful reality of the sacrifice and demand of sport, along with its stunning achievement is just laid out in the sun, exposing all the wet, rotten moldy realities and it is about time.
Let’s start with the home town gal, Naomi Osaka. She is the next gen superstar on the tennis circuit. She had pulled out of Wimbledon, frankly declaring that the pressure to not just perform on the court but perform to the media had overwhelmed her. She wanted to get her head on straight for the games. She lit the Olympic Cauldron, of course she did, representing everything the organizers wanted us to think the games were about, brilliant performance, diversity, the future. She was eliminated in the third round and let people know why.”I feel like my attitude wasn’t that great because I don’t really know how to cope with that pressure so that’s the best that I could have done in this situation.” She was honest, she is struggling to cope with this ridiculous situation she is in. There was a lot of support and a lot of garbage said about her, sexist racist garbage. We will come back to this.
Then there is Simone Biles, gymnastics superstar who has achieved things that are so spectacular, the system can’t cope with or understand the value of them. She has been dominant, envelope pushing and full of life . But in the profound weirdness that is this pandemic driven games, she lost it, literally. Her spatial awareness, so key to her capacity to execute these mind blowing moves, seems to have abandoned her. Instead of risking severe injury, she knew her own mind and body well enough to pull out. But that’s not all! She did something else that stunned the world, she told the truth about it. “The mental was not there”. She talked about “the twisties“, something that high performance gymnasts all recognize but has never been identified on this kind of stage. She spoke about the work it takes to stay in a sport she loves, even though she was betrayed by the disgraced team doctor, as so many other young women were in the US gymnastics program and of course other places in sport where hungry, young elite performers meet opportunistic predators in power. There was lots of support for her choice from her team mates and the public. And then again, waves of racist, sexist garbage.
And right here, is the conundrum I have about the Olympics. When I listen to these young women speak to the media, talking about their truths, their hopes, the fun they have had, the garbage they have endured, their depression, anxiety, perfectionism and the one perfect moment where they knew they gave everything they had, I want to cry. I love them and I am so honoured to be let in on the drama that is their achievement, medal or no medal. When I hear the honesty that is getting uttered into the public sphere about the mental health of the mental game, I’m floored. I think it really means something that these women have access to the language and can speak their truth about their experience, all of it.
But then, this honestly and authenticity enters the grinder of the hyped up commercialized nationalistic, racist, sexist pile of garbage as represented by the IOC and Twitter and I need to walk away. Most of the people competing at the Olympics are kids and young adults. They arrive in this realm, the so called “world stage”, just wanting to do their best and have some fun. This Olympics, staged as it is entirely inappropriately during a health crisis, is all of the work and none of the fun. No crowds to cheer, no other people to meet, no touring of the host country, no nothing. Do your event and get out. Try not to catch or pass COVID along while you are at it. Oh, and if you find this all a bit much, what with COVID, racial injustice, insurrections, fires, floods, bombs and the erasure of democracy in any number of your home countries, well, boo hoo too bad suck it up and dance for us. Like, I hate it.
I wish the Olympics was really the thing it purports to be, a place for the world to come together in friendship, respect and fairness. People of all the nations doing their best and having fun. Sometimes, in spite of itself, that does happen and in those moments, I tear up in the car, listening to the jubilance of a skate boarder and the elation of a rowing team. The chorus of support for Biles and Osaka swells and I will lend my voice to that. They made the best choices for themselves and drew lines where lines needed to be drawn. When the world pushed them too far and things fell apart, they tried to hold on to knowing it’s not all on them. That is a world I can feel better about, at least in this little corner, plague, flood and fire notwithstanding.
We all need rest. It’s a simple statement and a simple concept, isn’t it? Is it? I have been thinking a lot about rest as I have moved toward some time off from clients and supervisees. In each stage of trying to hive out this space for myself to engage in rest, I have had challenges. I’m not sure if the challenges are somehow greater than they were before or if I’m just more aware of them now that I am older, wiser and 17 months into a pandemic. I knew I wanted to explore this idea of rest for my blog post because it just feels so complex to me right now. Come with me will you?
What is rest? It’s partly biological and physical. We need to stop after we go. We need time to recover in our muscles and energy stores. It is in the rest between the movement that strength actually builds, our fibres knitting together more strongly than before or settling into a state of more length and spaciousness than they sat in previously. Rest happens when we sleep or sit or hang out in a hammock. It happens when we read a book or even watch a movie (ugh SCREENS ugh). The body gets busy with the rebuilding. It’s awesome. I have a fantasy that on vacation, I will take a day to sleep until I can sleep no more, sleep without the barest twinge of guilt for spending the day in bed, sleep and sleep and sleep and then I will feel rested. But you know what? I have realized that is not what I need. I actually get enough sleep. I have developed into a pretty good sleeper in my middle years, only occasionally woken by peri-menopausal angst, at least these days. (I know the future may hold something else.) So, physical rest is not what I’m really craving.
Rest is also psychological. You may have read about an idea called cognitive load. That is basically the amount of present processing that the brain is doing. When there is too much, things slow down, the quality of decision making drops and both cognitive and physical function are impaired. In fact, it is exactly like what just happened to my poor little laptop. Ever since I upgraded to the latest operating system, it is often in a state of too much in the moment processing and it gets hot and the fan is too loud and I need to shut it down and turn it back on. In people, cognitive load can come in the form of work roles, responsibilities and demands, family roles, responsibility and demands, but also systemic pressures and demands. Low income, poverty, racism and other discriminations all create cognitive load and it interferes with decision making and the capacity to do other needful things. This is one of the biggest arguments in my mind for Universal Basic Income. Relieving the constant pressure and worry of food and shelter will allow people to put more brain power to thriving. It is yet another excellent reason to work to make environments, programs and institutions explicitly anti-racist and anti-oppressive, so that the burden of navigating space is more evenly shared.
Cognitive load is big and real and exhausting. In my life, it is comprised of all my responsible roles: mom, therapist, teacher, school running person, dog and cat mom. Every one of them has pulled on me hard this year and when I go back to my fantasy of sleeping and sleeping, I realize that what I want is to be able to not think about any of these roles and what they pull out of me. I want to find a way to stop running all these subroutines and just let the processor sit idle. I am definitely not as good at that as just sleeping. My “vacation” is full of to do’s, curriculum review and marking. I’m going to have to work on actively forbidding myself to do things on particular days or maybe just going at a pace that doesn’t feel pushed like it does when I am not trying to rest. Wow, even that phrase, “trying to rest” reads like an oxymoron.
In these past three years, I have also come to understand deeply that rest is spiritual. The three years are utterly coincident with having extricated myself from a relationship with an alcoholic person. My spirit had been consumed with managing theirs for a really long time. This space, which feels less a space in the mind and more a space in the heart, is somewhere that I have found rest more easily, even in the midst of the pandemic. It has allowed me to access deeper different love and to be more present to the world, even as it burns. I’m accessing this spiritual rest, boringly, in my yoga practice, other physical movement and nature. It turns out that the divine really is that simple. Being attuned to a present moment and being in awe of the outer world sit in a balance. When that is happening, I’m resting, even if it’s biking up a rather unpleasant hill.
It’s evident now, as I write these last paragraphs, that my blocks to rest are highest in the psychological category. Quelle surprise! I’m also feeling very deeply that I have a good enough solution for the next two weeks of not seeing the people aka Vacation. I’m going to continue to sleep my 9 hours a night but I don’t need any more than that. I’m going to allow myself to complete some of my necessary, role dependant tasks every day but I will not consume entire days with these things. There will be lots of dog walks and hopefully a bike ride or two. There will be yoga, mostly in the Yin style. There will be some hard days too. My doggo has a no good very bad lump on her left front leg and some of these vacation days will be devoted to deciding what to do with that. There is going to be a lot of staring at trees and water. In fact, just now, I stopped writing for two minutes and stared at said water and trees. I am checking in with my body and there is the vaguest sense of unease, likely related to having to write a blog on my vacation, yet there is no regret there. This was a good exercise in figuring stuff out.
Yes, rest is simple, but it is also more than what an individual does or does not do. It’s essential to our health and we have an uneven access to it. We need resources to achieve rest in all domains. I’m super grateful for having those resources and when I am done this particular rest, I’m getting back to the work of making more space for the rest of others. For more inspiration about rest than I could ever evoke, go here: https://thenapministry.wordpress.com
Cate and I were sitting around yapping as we do when she said, “I remember when I was out for dinner with Ty a couple of years ago. . .” Then she stopped, mid sentence and said:
“Everything interesting is a couple of years ago.”
We sat basically in silence for about 30 seconds, which is a long time really, mid conversation.
Everything was a couple of years ago.
I was out on my bike today, for the third time in less than three weeks (yay me) and I was thinking about this idea, that everything feels like it was a couple of years ago. When I concentrate, I can recognize the year that has passed. One year ago this past weekend, we were wrapping up our final intensive, shifted online instead of residential and delayed from March. It was all out of sync, it was too much work, it was horrible. I was struggling hard with the adjustment to being an online therapist. I was hoping that it wouldn’t last past summer. I couldn’t contemplate any further than August. One year ago, I was cancelling travel and watching my kids suffer with online university.
There is a phenomenon in development where people don’t remember their childhoods either because there was so much trauma they dissociate or because it was so boring and void of stimulation there was nothing to keep track of the years. I think this past year was a little of both. There are varying combinations depending on who you are and where you are but we have all had some measure of crushing boredom coupled with trauma, acute or chronic. And so, who wants to remember any of it?
I want to be able to mark that a year has past and that things happened and that they were important. I don’t want this year to be a loss. So, I’m going to take this opportunity to mark down what happened that I think was important, inspired by or somehow pushed by this fricking pandemic. I’m focusing on physical things but also maybe some emotional/spiritual things. Why not?
I learned to lift weights. They weren’t heavy but I finally learned properly in a way that I could understand and relate to my body. I can even fling a few around appropriately if I feel like it.
I really sunk into my yoga practice. It started by clinging to my friend Adriene but has moved outward to something very deliberate and mindful that is extending my realm of flex and reach. I didn’t realize there was so much to accomplish by being still in a pose. It’s the best.
Twenty kilometres is enough of a bike ride. This year, in these three rides I have done, I’m recognizing that I do not have any reason to ride except that I’m having a fun time and getting some exercise. In years previous, I have been training for something big but honestly? Right now, IDGAF. I’m going to ride when I can and only as far as I want to go. It’s totally fine.
I claimed my space. I am one of those people who spent time, energy and money in-between hard lock downs renovating my space. It finally looks like I want it to look and feels like I want it to feel. It’s the first time in my life something has been entirely mine. I’m into it.
I still don’t like running. I don’t. So I won’t.
I am an expert in what I do. This one has been a process that certainly started before the pandemic but something about the intensity of having to adapt and make things work for clients and students and my colleagues who work with me has pushed me to a place that is different than before. I used to be plagued with imposter syndrome, even after 15 years of full time practice. Yet this year, something shifted. My teaching has become more solid and my confidence in my supervision and other work has just solidified. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s IDGAF. I don’t know, but I like it!!
I made adults. Two years ago, both my children were still children. Now, suddenly, we are three adults, living in the house over the summer, negotiating stuff and generally having a good time. They have adapted and survived so well and are coming out of this mess with energy and hope, even as they have the usual gen Z anxiety about their actual future. This time has made me pay more attention to them, be more deliberate about my engagement. I think we are all better for that.
IDGAF. . .about working to end white supremacy and patriarchy in loud ways. I’m working to get louder. I guess saying this here is part of that. My students and the work my school is doing to transform it’s curriculum, structure and student body is part of that too. I learn every day from beautiful people, especially my students.
I’m no longer cool. I have accepted this. My coolness, such as it is, is an “old person” kind. Not only is this okay, it’s a relief. I can let go of the longing and the shame that I have no idea who you are talking about when you mention some actor in a thing that was in another thing. Popular culture is no longer mine. Take it, I don’t want it any more.
There may be more but that’s a good summary. Actually, quite of bit of living has happened in the last year and, as we start to accelerate into a future that is the “after-times”, I am planning to take all these lessons into my expanding world. It’s going to take some effort, some mindful remembering, but I don’t want this year to pretend to disappear. It happened, it was real and it needs to be integrated and remembered as more than just some unpleasantness. It was more than just some unpleasantness.
What is important about your “lost year”? How do you want to make sure you keep it?
There are a lot of wonderful things about exercise in mid-life. We talk about them all the time on this blog. Fun with friends (my biggest motivator), overall health and longevity, quality of life, crushing the patriarchy etc. There is one thing that I do not like, Sam-I-am, and that is injury, especially a nagging, chronic, endless vexing type. The flavour of this season is bicep tendonitis. It’s been building for some time and I do believe it started with my 30 day yoga journey with my best virtual friend, Adriene. It’s not all flow but there is a lot of that sort of thing and I was really trying to increase my skill and my capacity to do more than 4 push-ups. Unfortunately, my bicep tendon was having none of it.
So, here I am, injured, in pain, prone to keep trying, then making it worse, then backing off and doing nothing and getting depressed and unmotivated and stiff and sad. It’s a cycle I endure over and over and sometimes it feels like it overshadows my gains.
I know that isn’t true.
I am doing my best to care for it, getting to the root of the problem maybe with my new chiropractor is a big part of it (my beloved osteopath is still not allowed to work in Ontario because of the way our pandemic rules are). He’s a beefy guy who likes to stick needles in me and zap them with electricity. I’m up for that sort of torture because I’m at my wits end with this baloney.
I think that I’m extra distressed this time because I feel the precious nature of my strength, balance and mobility more keenly with every passing year. When I was 40 and I injured my knee running, it didn’t feel like a big deal, I would just back off and it would heal and that would be that. But this year, perhaps because of the acute sense of fragility in the world, I’m just feeling defeated and a little scared. If I can’t do a downward dog any more, what does that mean about me? What if I can’t portage a canoe? Or wait, not even that, how will I paddle? All these things that are so precious, I know they will eventually slip away, but not yet damn it! It feels weirdly close right now, the end. It seems that bicep tendonitis has triggered a bit of an encounter with the existential givens.
Tell me it will be okay. I think everyone needs a little of that right now.