Feelin’ Alive

Last week I declared November Gratitude Month.  Immediately I began noticing an abundance of things to be grateful for:  my family, the ocean, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. These are no-brainers.  So I decided to challenge myself by cultivating appreciation for something that can draw a more mixed bag of emotion.

This week I am grateful for: My Body.

Before my total colectomy in 2011, I was a spaz pretty active gal: hot yoga teacher, marathoner, etc.  If I didn’t wake up with tight hips and sore hamstrings, I wasn’t working hard enough.  I will spare you the gory medical details, but let’s just say my post-surgery body operates by a different set of rules.  It took me a long time to admit that, and even longer to accept it.

Ok, I didn’t really accept it.  I kept trying to do the same things I did before, as if I were some kind of colon-less Wonder Woman.  Then, after failing miserably, would say to myself, You just need to try harder.  And then perform the whole song and dance all over again.

FarSide

I just re-read the memoir Waking by Matthew Sanford, who, at age 13, was in a car accident that killed his father and sister, and left him paralyzed from the chest down. Through the practice of yoga, he developed a keen mind-body awareness and a deep sense of compassion for his handicapped body.  It’s what he calls a “healing story.”

When I think of “healing stories,” a strong memory comes to mind.  Early in our relationship, Phil took me to a retreat run through Villanova called the HEC (Handicapped Encounter Christ).  Because that sounds like an obvious place to get laid for a third date.

The HEC, run by a gentle hippie Augustinian named Father Shawn and a group of lay people associated with the University, was an amalgam of Christian revival, Girl Scout camp, and a Grateful Dead show.  As one of the able-bodied participants,  you were responsible for changing catheters and other tasks I am pretty sure should have been handled by a licensed medical professional, not my boyfriend wearing a balloon hat.

But no one seemed to care who was doing the job as long as it was getting done.  Taking care of business left room for other activities, like dressing up in costumes, helping someone bang a tambourine with his elbows, and shot-gunning beers by an open fire. Safety was not a huge concern to the HECers.  They grabbed freedom where they could get it.

They just wanted to feel alive.

I was maybe 24 at the time, and was not the in a “grab freedom by the balls” phase of life. I was more in a rigid, neurotic, “I am going to control all the changes in my life by running 40 miles a week and eating only melon.”

I may not have known it then, but I really needed the HEC.  No one cared that I was such a hot mess, because they were all hot messes too, in their own unique way.  No one gave a shit if I ate the mashed potatoes or not, because most of them had mashed potatoes all over their faces.  I can say this with great fondness,  because we all laughed about it – no one took themselves too seriously.  Everyone made fun of themselves and each other, but in a loving way. It was pure, joyful madness.  It really wasn’t all that different from Thanksgiving with Phil’s family.  Relax, I’m kidding. Sort of.

In Waking, Sanford says:

My experience is not so different from yours, it is only more extreme…We all live on a continuum of ability and disability.  The process of aging guarantees this – everyone eventually will become less able.

The humility of his comparison blows me away.  All changes in our bodies – whether it be a spinal cord injury or the post-pregnancy curse of peeing when you sneeze – require some degree of adjustment, compassion, and acceptance.  I don’t mean forced optimism. You know, when people say things like: “Why would you need another baby?  You have two beautiful girls!”

Maybe for some that’s helpful, but it makes me want to respond with: “You’re right!  Who cares that I can’t absorb nutrients or procreate?  I can still go to the circus and eat ice cream and dream about rainbows and unicorns!”

A blessing doesn’t cancel out a loss, like some kind of spiritual Jedi mind trick.  It’s about holding space for both the disappointment and the gratitude. Running long distances and having my kids made me feel alive.

So what can I do to feel alive right now?

Recently, after a failed attempt at a run, I chose to NOT kick my own ass or plan a new training strategy.  Instead, I went for a walk.  And the next day I went for another walk. Then, a few days later, I walked for a bit, stopped, laid in the grass and looked at the clouds.  I haven’t done that in 25 years.

When I see my body as fleeting and impermanent with a No Moneyback Guarantee,  I am more inclined to stop and thank it for what it does for me right now.  Because while I may not be able to do this:

marathon

or this

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I can still do this…

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…and this….

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…and this.

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And that’s a lot to be grateful for.

What would make you feel alive today?

Marble Friends

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I declare November Gratitude Month.  This week I am grateful for: Marble Friends.

Let me explain.

Emma -my 2nd grader- has been experiencing some playground drama.  When she gets off the bus,  I can tell from her face what kind of day she’s had.  I take a deep breath and jump in:

“How was school today?”

“Terrible.  On the playground, I tried to play tag with C and N, but they kept running away from me.  So then I asked M if I could play with her and she said she had to go ask K since the game was her idea.  But then they decided to to go on the monkey bars so I just stood there ALL ALONE.  Do we have Pirate’s Booty?”

I was not ready for this.  I thought I had more time to prepare for the “Surviving the Shark Infested Social Waters” conversation.  I was banking on 4th grade. Now I had to come up with something wise to say before I got around to reading Queen Bees and Wannabees. Dammit.

When I was Emma’s age,  I was taught to be nice. Respectful. Be polite to everyone even if they steal your lunch and beat you with it.   As a people-pleaser, I was committed to being liked, so I focused on being nice and funny.  Being funny was my ticket to social acceptance, because even if you are not popular, smart, or athletic, most kids enjoy eating lunch with someone who is willing to snort pretzel salt for a laugh.

Having a sense of humor saved me from myself many times, but the “be nice” thing landed me in therapy created some internal conflict.  Because not everyone is nice in return. Some people are assholes, and others are assholes pretending to be nice.  Many times I found myself being nice to someone who wasn’t respectful, or oversharing with someone who wasn’t trustworthy. Then I would feel icky and desperate, or like the bastard child of Teddy Ruxpin.

teddy

I find it interesting that my parents always encouraged me to “be picky” when it came to potential boyfriends, because I deserved to “be selective.”  But no one ever said that about girlfriends.  Shouldn’t these early friendships lay the ground work for deeper relationships down the road? 

My dad would say, Make sure you can really trust a person before you date him. How about: Make sure you can really trust a person before you play “Girl Talk?  A game that instructed you to “lap water out of a bowl like a dog” and cover your face with red zit stickers was way more traumatizing than getting felt up at a Blues Traveler concert.

80s-girl talk game

The main points I wanted to get across to Emma:

  1. Not everyone is going to like you.
  2. You are not going to like everyone.
  3. That’s ok.
  4. There are different degrees of friendship.

It took me many years to fully grasp #4.  I am pretty much an open book (I know, shocking) and I had to learn how to not projectile puke my feelings self-censor my emotions in certain social spheres.  In order to do this, I had to just shut the hell up for a while – and ease up on the wine, because then everyone is my BFF.  The shame spiral that occurs the morning after you told your neighborhood book club about your Ambien-induced Cool Whip incident is more humiliating than your worst college hook-up.  Yes, even him.  Trust me.

overshare

But how do I describe this whole hierarchy of friendship to a 2nd grader?  I don’t.  I let Brene Brown explain it, because she’s awesome and I drink whatever flavor Cool-Aid she is serving. In Daring Greatly, she describes a situation with her then 3rd grade daughter, Ellen. Ellen shared a secret with a girlfriend at school, only to have that trust betrayed. Rather than find the little Benedict Arnold and force her to play Girl Talk, Brown likened friendship to a marble jar.

Whenever someone supports you, or is kind to you, or sticks up for you, or honors what you share with them as private, you put marbles in the jar.  When people are mean, or disrespectful, or share your secrets, marbles come out.

I relayed the marble jar metaphor to Emma while driving home from karate.  I watched her face in the rearview mirror as she absorbed this concept.

“So who are your marble friends?” she asked.

“Well, I am lucky to have a few.  Aunt Lynnie is one for sure.”

“Why?  What makes her a marble friend?”

“Well….she’s very loyal.”

“What’s loyal mean?”

“She sticks by me. Remember when I had surgery? Aunt Lynnie bought me really nice body wash before I went into the hospital.  That made me feel really loved.  And she lets me be myself.  I can cry and blow a snot bubble and she won’t laugh or make fun of me until at least two days later. Does that make sense?”

She nods.  “Yeah.  It does.  I think I have some marble friends, too.”

“Cool…who?”

“McKenzie.  Because she is kind and we both like to do art….and if I tell her a secret she won’t tell anyone.  And, probably Sophia too, because we’ve taken baths together and she’s seen my private parts.”

“Makes sense.”

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Since that conversation, there has been no mention of the playground.  The Marble Jar.  It’s f***ing genius.

As for me, I’ve been thinking more about how to be a better Marble Friend: Listen more. Don’t fix.  Be on time.  Show gratitude.  SHUT THE HELL UP.

Anne Lamott says:

Maybe we don’t find a lot of answers to life’s closer questions, but if we find a few true friends, that’s even better.  They help you see who you truly are, which is not always the loveliest version of yourself, but then comes the greatest miracle of all – they still love you.

Thank you, Marble Friends.  You know who you are.