Relaxation is better than tension

What story do I want to tell today? I want to tell about yesterday, when I learned a lesson on my run and then forgot this lesson as soon as I stopped my watch, walked inside, and began the real part of my day.

My run started out okay, not great. I was a little sluggish and uncomfortable as it seemed that everyone in my neighborhood decided to cut their grass at the same time, leading to massive amounts of grass particles in the air. My skin itched, my eyes burned, breathing was an exercise in itself. On days like this, when the air is filled with grass and allergens, all I want to do is hide in bed. It feels like the flu but more annoying because I am not actually tired or sick, but my immune system is working extra hard, leaving little energy left for other activities.

But, I made it out the door and was running along, feeling like crap, when I noticed my mile times were actually pretty acceptable. Not record-breaking, but on-par for my current fitness and certainly faster than I had expected, given how awful I felt. This realization, unfortunately, morphed immediately into self-competition (because being what fun would there have been in contentment with my accomplishment ). My attention locked on my pace.

I had not been preoccupied with my mile splits until I looked at my watch; my time was not part of a conscious effort, it was organic, an expression of my current level of fitness. The moment I became conscious of my speed, however, I was worried I might slow if I were not vigilant. And this possibility, that I might lose a few seconds per mile because I was admiring the design of a house, or staring at the clouds, or becoming preoccupied with my non-running thoughts, strangled my stride with fear. I did not trust myself to maintain my pace.

My shoulders tensed as I focused on each step, my legs became heavy, and what had been an uncomfortable but manageable run became, in the course of a few minutes, unbearable.I began to fantasize about stopping, coaxing myself to make it just a few more feet. As my shoulders crept closer to my ears, my arms swinging more tightly across my body, my hips straining to move my legs forward, my body heading toward total shutdown, a tiny but annoyed voice in my head shouted “NO! STOP! RELAX!” Relax? Relax.

I thought back to the countless races I have blown, in which I allowed fear and tension to cripple my performance. And I remembered the countless successful workouts I have run (I was always better at training than performing), in which I relaxed my body and was rewarded with faster times. I remembered the lightness and power that come when I have fun with running. And I remembered that even if the trick of relaxation did not work in this moment, and I slowed by a few seconds because I let down my guard, there was zero consequence. This was an easy run, I have no race on my calendar, I am running for no one but myself. I have the choice, in each run, to find joy or struggle. Yesterday, in that moment, I chose joy.

And that next mile, in which I relaxed and moved my focus from my pace to the stunning blue of the sky and the almost-fall coolness of the air, was four seconds faster. I went on to run two miles longer than I had anticipated. I finished feeling strong and happy, my allergies a footnote to the successful run.

And then, I walked inside and the magic and wisdom of the run evaporated. I remembered my to-do list. I remembered to feel shitty about myself for being unproductive, for sleeping in fifteen minutes and being behind schedule. I remembered to be snappy with my boyfriend for not being enthusiastic about our day of chores and family obligations. As I had been on my run, I focused only on the immediate result and made each task harder than it needed to be. My shoulders tensed again. I tried relaxing, but dismissed the endeavor as indulgent and slow. I had a mostly shitty day. (Of my own making, I should note.)

Thank goodness I have a boyfriend who hates feeling stressed and who openly acknowledges he needs to take breaks to recharge. Thank goodness I have been doing some hard work on myself so I understand (although I do not always accept) I need breaks as well. Thank goodness I was convinced (after a bit of a fight late in the afternoon and some sputtering on my part) to meditate.

As I slowed my breath, and focused my thoughts, my morning run came to mind. The ease, the increased stamina and speed that had come from throwing away expectation. I relaxed and, therefore, I performed.

The experiences I have while running often provide a framework for understanding the rest of my life. I don’t want to sound preachy, nor do I want to generalize or simplify, but I do hope that maybe I will be able to keep this lesson close and relax when I am inclined to tense.

 

Weekend Diversions 8.12.16

Deep breath. Every time I take a break from writing here, I am overcome with anxiety about returning. I know this is a common theme in my writing, and I apologize for the redundancy. But I am still always awed at how quickly I can fall out of practice and then confidence with writing.

Writing is one of the most difficult things I do, but also the most rewarding. I forget, though, about the rewards when I am mired in fear that I will have nothing good to say. That it will be too hard to find words, that my ideas are asinine, that I have lost my ability to articulate thoughts. And then comes the excuse of not enough time, that I would write, if only I didn’t have to (fill in the blank with absolutely anything, from eat breakfast to wash dishes to call my mom to work). Everything becomes an excuse when I allow anxiety to take over.

And somehow, no matter how many strategies I try, worksheets I fill out, solutions I write about in my journal, I have yet to find a way to make writing, here or anywhere, stick. I do write in my many notebooks daily, but those are private thoughts and are often left unfinished. My notebook writing does not feel legitimate because it has no purpose. I guess that begs the follow-up question: does writing here have a purpose? Somehow, sharing my thoughts with the world, however small my readership, does feel more like “real” writing, because it has the chance to connect with someone.

My favorite writing to read is honest, raw, authentic and makes me feel less alone in my crazy head. My hope is that my words will have a similar influence.

Admitting I want my words to reach others, to have an impact, leaves me feeling vulnerable. Will you, reader, judge me harshly for this hubris? Will you laugh at my overly-large intentions?

Because I do not know if my words have worth outside of my own head. This doubt is what has kept me from writing consistently in public. The fear that I am silly, and my desire to connect through my words is foolish.

I do not know how to dismantle this fear, other than to continue showing up here to write as often as I can manage. Because I can’t grow if I do not do the work.

I recently listened to an interview with Olympian Kate Grace in which she talks about her struggles with commitment to running and how she rededicated herself to the sport. I often think of running and writing as linked in my life, with running often taking priority even though writing is provides equal (sometimes more) fulfillment. Kate’s words resonated and reminded me that if I want to write, if I want to see how far writing can take me, I must show up. I might not succeed once I am here, but I cannot make any progress if I stay away from my computer.

My graduate school program begins in less than a month, and I know I will have to be extra vigilant to ensure that writing for pleasure is not subsumed beneath class and stress. I enjoy having this outlet and I hope it will provide a good counterbalance to the demands of academia. This space provides me with a freedom of expression I have not felt in other places. Once I begin typing, my anxiety about writing diminishes. I am relaxed here. I do not want to my excuses to take this away from me.

As a way to failsafe my writing, I am going to schedule time here on my calendar. I am going to make my words a priority. I really hope that this sticks.

And now, for a bit of weekend reading.

  1. Simone Biles: “I’m not the next Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, I’m the first Simone Biles.” This woman is my new hero. I am awed by her ability to propel herself multiple feet into the air, do somersaults, and land with grace (among other superhuman feats). I am even more impressed, though, by her poise. Throughout her competitions, she has forced the media to focus on the sport. And she demands equal treatment for her accomplishments. She is an athlete in her own right, and she is amazing.
  2. A closer look at Simone Manuel, Olympic Medalist, History Maker:Simone Manuel made history last night with her tied win in the 100m freestyle. She is the first African-American woman to win an individual medal in Olympic swimming. I missed her full race because I was at work and NBC is very proprietary with the footage (only the last few seconds are available for free online without a cable subscription). But I am overjoyed that she was able to create this historic moment out of years of dedication to swimming. Like all Olympic athletes, she performed at an unfathomable level. She is open about the historic nature of her accomplishment, and hopes her performance inspires more diversity in the sport.
  3. Olympic sprinter Morgan Mitchell on being a vegan, tattoos and her dreams of designing: A quick profile of Australian sprinter Morgan Mitchell, who credits her vegan diet with gains in fitness and speed. She will compete in the 400m trials on August 13, and will move on from there.
  4. Lauren Fleshman: From retiring to rewiring: Not an Olympic runner, but a world champion and multiple-record holder, Lauren Fleshman has made the decision, after years of battling a foot injury, to retire. In this piece she explains, with eloquence, what the change means for her in her daily life, and how she has made peace with giving up on her dream of competing again at an elite level. Lauren is a beautiful writer, and her perspective on running and balance is always wonderful to read. The New York Times also ran a profile of Lauren at her retirement, which is worth a look as well.

That’s it for today. Have a wonderful weekend, and I hope to be here again soon!

 

 

Weekend Diversions 7.22.2016

Last week (was it really last week? it feels like it happened long ago but also maybe yesterday) I found out that a dear friend had died. Chris. He did not have a terminal illness, and his death was far from expected. He is the first close friend I have lost. His absence is penetrating. We did not talk every day, or even every week but he was always there when needed. He helped my boyfriend through the early stages of his sobriety from alcohol. He helped me learn to handle the negative voices in my own head. He was generous. He was caring. He had turned his life around after a long and harrowing addiction to heroin. He was sober, and dedicated to helping others regain control of their lives. Because we did not talk every day, it is hard to remember he has passed. At the same time, the thought of his absence is everywhere in my mind. When I drive past his street to go to work. When I hear about the neverending political circus of America (he had many choice words about both political parties). When I have a quiet moment to myself. When I hear about more grief and violence in the world, more tragedy that (if tragedy were a contest) outweighs my own by multiples. I cried when I read the email confirming his death while still in bed. My boyfriend cried. And then I stopped crying, as he continued. I couldn’t sit still. I practiced yoga, it wasn’t enough. I went on a hard run, it wasn’t enough. Grief was there, but I could not look at it. I needed distraction. And I was embarrassed that my emotions were not as free as my boyfriend’s. I felt cold. Worried I was apathetic. Unable to process anything. Grief is weird, as is death. Hard concepts to comprehend. Really, beyond my understanding.

There was little space to process, that first day and for many days following. Our house was filled with out-of-town family. My boyfriend’s sister and her two daughters (5 and 7); that night 11 more of his family members came over for a dinner party, and my mom flew in from Los Angeles. The day was filled with the chaos of food prepping, multiple trips to the grocery store, and last-minute cleaning. And grief, crammed into the edges of my mind.

The most healing I felt that day came when I baked a cake with the help of the two little girls. I had to be fully present to ensure I didn’t forget an ingredient or a step, and to make sure that both felt included in the process. They helped force me out of myself, if only for an hour, and it was grounding. At one point the younger girl hoped aloud that people would like the cake; her older sister corrected her, saying it was more important to focus on the present moment because it does no good to focus on the future. My daily dose of wisdom.

I held this notion of mindfulness (one that Chis approved of and espoused in most conversations) close during the following days when family obligations and work kept me from space for long contemplation. Focus on the moment. Be here, now. The only things we can control are our own actions. I felt the weight in my chest, the pull toward ungulfing sadness, noted it and moved on. I did have some moments in which I broke down, once in private and once in public but they did not feel sufficient. My tears were real but they somehow felt selfish. He was a close friend, but not someone I had known for a long time. We weren’t even Facebook friends; was I even allowed to grieve?

Yes, of course. The answer is always yes. There are no rules for grief. There is no manual to follow, no guidelines for whom you should or should not hold sadness. I miss Chris. I miss him horribly. I want everyone to know that he gave an enormous amount of time and energy to the people about whom he cared. He was honest. He was insightful. His perspective on addiction and change powered countless people through their recoveries. He was always eager to share pictures of cats. He will be missed by so many people.

A week after his death, I had a dream in which he appeared. I walked toward him, and we hugged for a long time. When I woke up, I felt a better sense of peace than I had in days. I don’t know if this dream had any more meaning than as closure for me. But it helped. My chest is less tight and I am worrying less about whether or not I am doing grief right. His memorial service is next weekend, and I know that will provide another layer of healing and closure. Until then (and, really, afterwards as well) I hope to continue his legacy of mindfulness, self-care, and listening to others.

And now, a few readings for the weekend:

Mercy Now: Parker Palmer on senseless death and violence, and how to cope. He speaks to the need for creating moments of silence in our lives to escape the barrage of media. I, too, have felt bombarded with sadness and this was a helpful reminder to take time to step back and just be.

Joan Didion on Grief: Grief does not come in expected ways; it is strange and unpredictable. The passages on Brainpickings from Joan Didion are reminders that mourning is personal and does not usually come when it is expected, but rather waits until the busyness of life subsides.

Anne Lamott on Grief, Grace, and Gratitude: Also from Brainpickings, excerpts from Anne Lammot’s book Small Victories on how strange and fragile bodies are and how hard living can be. I am endlessly inspired by Lammot, and always feel better after reading things she has written (although secretly wishing I could have written them myself).

With that, have a wonderful weekend.

 

Weekend Diversions 7.8.2016

Every time I have an articulate thought about how to make sense of all the shootings and violence and public hatred in America right now, it disappears into confusion. I have written my response over and over again in my head, but nothing feels right. I almost had a panic attack when I opened my computer to write this post, because I feel compelled to say something, but everything feels inadequate. I am filled with grief, and also with shame to know that I will probably never feel the same fear that minorities feel when they walk out their doors into public spaces. I rode my bike home from work last night, an hour-long commute along mostly empty streets, with varying degrees of lighting. I worried a bit about being raped or assaulted. I usually do when I am alone at night in deserted areas. I wondered, then, if this is the same fear that black and brown people carry with them, always. And then I wondered if it was presumptuous of me to even make that comparison. I am white. I live in a homogeneous suburb. I work in a job that is segregated (white people in the front of the restaurant; everyone else in the back; bussers are the one exception to the color barrier). Am I complicit in this mess? Do I have a right to call out for a new structure, considering the parameters of my life?

I am living in confusion right now. The news doesn’t help; I just feel more sadness, more shame. I do not understand hating someone so intensely you feel compelled to shoot them. I do not understand why police use guns as the first line of defense. Police, as supposed arbiters of peace and justice on a community scale should also be masters at mindfulness. Their job is not to kill innocent people, and in this country everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Routine traffic stops are not high stress situations. They should not be treated as such; nor should civilians live in fear that they will be shot to death for a missing taillight; for selling CDs or loose cigarettes; for walking down the street; for looking too suspicious; for having a reaction time slower than a police officer would like.

Centuries of oppression, systemic racism, unconscious and conscious bias all contribute to these horrendous killings, as does a lack of officer training.

I do not know how to reconcile my white identity with the events in the news. I do not know the correct response, or the correct next steps. I will continue to shine light in my own very small corner of the world as I figure out how to live with integrity.

Below are a few responses to the current tragedies, much more articulate than my own.

  1. Death in Black and White: All of the reasons being white feels very complicated, as outlined by a black man who knows our culture of oppression is at the root of this current crisis. It was an uncomfortable read at times, as I do not like being lumped in with the perpetrators of violence. Still, discomfort is necessary to create change, and I hope this will provide some inspiration for me as I move forward.
  2. This is what white people can do to support #BlackLivesMatter: A list of ways to work from within whiteness to create change and lend support to a truly progressive movement.
  3. Deafening Silence: White silence and Alton Sterling: A indictment to white people to end the silence about race and to call for justice. Whenever a white person chooses to remain silent about racial violence, the author contends, permission for continued violence is granted. I agree. Anglo privilege has created this mess, it is our duty to call for cultural restructuring.
  4. 30+ Resources to help white Americans learn about race and racism: Finally, a thorough list of resources to better understand the history and culture of racism in America. I haven’t begun to read through these yet, but they are high on my list of articles read over the coming weeks. As passionate as I feel about equality, I know I have a lot left to learn and to implement in my life.

 

Finally, because I need some happy diversions in order to process the violence, here is a lovely profile of vegan strongman Patrik Baboumian for CNN’s series on environmental activists. And an interesting history of modern eyeglasses.

Have a good and safe weekend, everyone.

 

 

Weekend Diversions 7.1.2016

I submitted an essay this week (about my body image and running and many of the challenges I have faced post-injury) to a magazine. Sharing myself like that made me feel vulnerable and unstable. Even though I know the readers will be strangers, I still worry about judgement and being thought unworthy. I worry that the concerns in my essay will be construed as whiny and irrelevant to a cultural discussion of body image. I worry the readers will laugh at me for being so critical of myself. I worry I will be told I don’t deserve to criticize myself, because I am ablebodied and fit. Submitting this essay was hard. But also liberating because my story is no longer pent up inside myself. I have kept my body-hatred as much of a secret as possible for most of my life. Sharing in this way marks a huge progression in my journey toward self-acceptance. So, I am proud of myself even as I worry about how I will be perceived.

To celebrate my successful submission, here are a few things I have been reading this week. Enjoy!

  1. Strawberry rhubarb crumble bars I have a fridge full of strawberries as well as some rhubarb leftover from recent CSA pickup. I made these bars last year when strawberries and rhubarb were in season and I was impressed with how easy they were to make (and then eat!). They are this weekend’s baking project.
  2. Can you get over an addiction? Or are addicts doomed to live a life of degeneracy if they do not repent and succumb to a higher power?
  3. All U.S. medical school training is now animal-free! Until I read this announcement, I did not realize medical training has required extensive animal testing (often using dogs as the experimental model -after they are injected with various drugs and substances the dogs are killed by the doctors for dissection). After years of lobbying and legal efforts led by the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, Johns Hopkins University and University of Tennessee (the last two holdouts) have removed animal testing from their curricula.  Current technology makes using live models for anatomy unnecessary and, therefore, unethical.  Advanced medical training still includes animal testing, as does veterinary training, but with concerted efforts from PCRM and animal advocacy groups, this practice will hopefully become an anachronism.
  4. Why I don’t give toothpaste advice A funny (and short) lesson about taking nutrition advice from someone who is not qualified to give such advice. As Dr. Davis points out in his rant, dentists know a lot about dentition and oral health, but do not usually immerse themselves in nutrition research. As such, in his professional opinion, dentists should stick to recommending toothpaste and not specific diets (especially when the diets they are promoting have no scientific validation).

Have a lovely long weekend! I will be working for most of it, but I do have off on Monday (4th of July), which I plan to spend working in the garden with my boyfriend.

 

Mitigating risk from my comfort zone

As I wrote last week, untangling my body image from fitness goals has been a difficult and triggering process. During my injury and for several weeks following my return to running, I felt good about my body. I ate what I wanted, without much second-guessing. I was running a bit, but also practicing yoga and resting as needed. I enjoyed feeling myself grow stronger without feeling tired. My main goal during this early recovery was to re-acclimate myself to running. I did not even measure my pace or count my miles. I ran for time and for ease. This was a lovely period.

Unfortunately, my competitive drive started creeping back after a while. For the past few weeks I have struggled to know how much I can (or should) push my body to increase my speed and endurance. Always in the back of my mind is the caution against returning to a life or restriction and overexercise. I want to stretch the boundaries of my current fitness, but I also want to stay in this happy mental space I have constructed, in which running is a fun addition to life and not the driving force behind my existence.

As I explore the possibility of running more, I am flooded with anxiety about what might happen if I use even a slight increase in mileage as an excuse to increase more and more and more. I am afraid of losing control. I am afraid of losing my progress.

At the same time, I am not content with my mileage or my pace. Running slow for short distances is relaxing, but only when contrasted with harder efforts. Easy runs become monotonous when they are the norm.

The few times in my life when I have been content not to vary pace or distance have coincided with vitamin deficiencies, illness, or impending injury. My desire to stretch out of my comfort zone, therefore, is a good sign of health. I am happy that I have a drive to improve, but I don’t know how to approach a change in training, just as I don’t know how to approach a change in diet, without inviting a relapse into maladaptive behaviors. I do not fully trust myself to make the right decisions.

My thoughts are tending to loop these days: I am happy that I have returned from my injury without incident; I am happy that I am growing stronger and enjoying running; but I want more out of the experience; I don’t know how to achieve more without the risk of losing the moderate behaviors I have learned; if I don’t expand my running regime, I will be bored and increasingly frustrated by an activity that usually gives me joy; but if I do expand my running, I might lose the joy and replace it with the anxiety of restriction and overexercise and, probably, reinjury.

I know I cannot remove the risk from this equation. It will remain. The habit of resorting to extremes is too ingrained in my life to be eliminated just yet. For now, I can try to accept that the risk of relapse will always remain. It was present before, during, and after my recovery from this year’s stress fracture. Risk has formed my recent running. So far I have done a good job creating a training plan that minimizes this risk, and keeps me healthy. I have found comfort in running again. Before my injury, running felt like a chore. My mileage was low, but I was still overexercising in that I was extending myself further than felt natural. Most runs required a pep-talk in order to leave my apartment. (As I mentioned above, this should have been a red flag that injury was looming in my future.) I do not want to return to that fraught relationship with running.

If I make small, safe changes (an extra mile here or there throughout the week) I can push the boundaries of risk from afar. Touching on the edges of my comfort, knowing I can retreat if I become uneasy. I am at the beginning of what I predict will be a long, possibly forever, process of being comfortable with moderation.

 

Understanding my eating disorder is a hard process

I have been delving, over the past few weeks, through my relationship with my body, with food, with running and the way all three are interconnected; the effort has resulted in a lot of good insight but also a lot of mental instability. I am having a hard time concentrating, or finding motivation to write. And, as I’ve said  before, the longer I stay away from writing the more daunting a task it becomes in my mind. And the less I write, the harder it becomes to focus on life. And so on and so forth in an annoying cycle of anxiety and diminished productivity.

Or, at least, diminished perception of productivity. Because I know that the hard work I am doing now is important to creating a stable mental outlook. The more I talk and think and write about the role food, and control of food, has played in my life the more I realize the complexity of the problem. I have only recently had the courage to acknowledge that I struggled with eating for more than a decade. And that I still struggle, although in different ways, today. I thought that by becoming vegan, by cultivating a more forgiving understanding of my body, implementing fewer rules and allowing more freedoms I would be healed. Although veganism and self-compassion have worked wonders for creating freedom around food, they are not panaceas.

As often as I experience joy around food, I also experience stress and doubt. I do not trust myself to make the correct choices; I often second-guess the ingredients on my plate. I worry I am eating too much, or not enough. Simply put, I am not comfortable yet around food.

I have latent phobias of fat that emerge when I am anxious. I have noticed myself recently using food as a reward for exercise, and withholding meals until after I have burned a requisite number of calories, without regard to hunger.

This past Monday, for example, I slogged through a twenty-mile bikeride instead of eating lunch. I did eat when I returned home, but I had not allowed myself a meal beforehand. I think my reasoning was that I did not deserve anything because I had not sweat. I wanted not only the high of exercise, but the euphoria that accompanies eating after pushing my body. The problem with this thinking is that the euphoria is never as good as I imagine, and the letdown leaves me irritable. I snap at my boyfriend. I fall into self-loathing. And then I scheme ways to reconnect with the hunger-high.

This is not healthy behavior. It is not behavior I want to identify with. It no longer describes me, or the version of me that I am cultivating.

The person I envision myself being eats when she is hungry. Eats to fuel her body, and also her soul. She has cake without shame. She does not think much about food, other than as a vehicle for pleasure or utility. Food, in terms of quality and quantity is a minor part of life. Food is delicious and satisfying. It does not occupy my thoughts all day. Food is an accent, a benefit of living in a life of privilege and love.

I am not there yet, to this rational, empowered identity. But I can see it, peeking out beneath the years of maladaptive patterns. As I venture through memories and beliefs, I will probably experience a lot of triggering moments. I can foresee days when I will not want to eat. Days when I have to remind myself that food is good and nourishing. Days when I will not want to do anything but sit in my own thoughts. This is okay, because it is all part of the process of change. I am doing the hard work. I am becoming myself. I am learning to love my body and accept its needs. I am me. And I am doing my best to remember that the messiness of this process is okay.