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!

 

 

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My muse demands patience

Okay okay I’ll begin. I don’t really feel like writing, and haven’t for the past few days. I was doing so well last week, and the week before, writing for two or more hours at a time, multiple days in a row. I suspect this sudden increase in writing has caused my sudden malaise. 

I thought I was being measured in the amount of time I was spending at my desk, but it is possible that I let my excitement at writing on a regular basis cause me to take on too much too soon. I have struggled with creating a regular writing practice since I graduated college with a vague idea of becoming an architecture critic. Other than assignments for classes and a sporadic relationship with my journal, I did not write regularly for myself while in school. In the structureless real world, I could not find the motivation to write. 

I had a funny idea that writing for pleasure and for work would be easy. That I would be greeted each morning by a magnanimous muse, who would know to meet me wherever I was (which was never at my desk) and that words would flow from my fingertips. When the muse refused to show up on time, or at all, I diagnosed myself with writer’s block and moved on with my day. When this happened for weeks and months at a stretch, I assumed my case was very bad but I remained optimistic that if I thought about writing enough and fantasized about how great it would be to be a writer, the block would clear, and the muse would come, and my dreams would be realized without effort. 

Ha. Dreams, I know now, are never realized without effort and muses don’t show up without an invitation. If I am not planted in front of my computer or notebook, ready and starting to write, ideas do not come. 
Also, writer’s block probably only comes to people who are actively engaged in the act of writing; for me it was an excuse so I didn’t have to risk finding out that my writing isn’t perfect. 

Often, my muse is late, not showing up until I am tired and ready to stop for the day; in fact, arriving after I’ve spent thirty or forty or ninety or more minutes banging away, changing postures, doing dances, crying, swearing, sweating is my muse’s most beloved pastime. She wants me to learn patience.

I am a slow student, though, so sometimes I give up before she has time to wake up and prod me along. I am learning, though, to amuse myself with writing nonsense until she comes.

Learning, too, to trust myself to create away from her inspired gaze. 

It is hard work, writing, but I enjoy the process and I enjoy seeing my voice become stronger on the page. I am ready, now, to do the hard work I avoided for so many years. Ready to write with consistency, even if it means writing less each day. My goal, for now, is to spend forty-five minutes five mornings a week at my desk. Even if I write nothing but complaints about how difficult writing is, it will help build the habit. 

I can do hard work. I can write. I can learn to make space for my muse. 

Sometimes I can do hard things

Yesterday, after weeks of dragging my feet and slowly making plans and hoping that I wouldn’t have to follow through on any of them, I hosted my first SMART Recovery* meeting.

I was nervous (but also eager) as I waited for people to arrive. My head was a fuzzy bowl of anxiety, and if I hadn’t been familiar with the feeling after a lifetime battling through it to find my thoughts in times of stress, I would have worried about passing out in the cozy, calm room at the hypnosis center where my meeting was held. Fainting, in this moment, would have actually felt preferable to sitting with my feelings and facing the people brave enough to trust part of their recovery to me in my first meeting. 

I didn’t pass out. I never can muster the nerve. Instead I had to sit there, and think. 

In the days leading up to this meeting, I hadn’t wanted anyone to show up. I was hoping that I could sit in the room alone for thirty of forty minutes and then call it a day (and maybe, in this fantasy, call the entire facilitator experiment). But as I scribbled my fears into my journal I realized I had gone too far outside my comfort zone to fail. If I was going to put in effort of making phone calls to people I did not know, writing emails to people I only vaguely know and with whom I haven’t kept in very good touch, asking for help, choosing a day and a time and a space -all logistical things that, for reasons beyond the scope of this post, make me want to hide in a hole.

(Even writing about the process of setting up my meeting has caused my mind to go off on a memory-tangent about high school, of all things, and how I always felt totally uncool because, unlike my peers, I was unable to make friends with teachers or administrators. I guess the two (meeting logistics and high school uncoolness) points to the feeling of connection and purpose that I have struggled with for years.)

I began then to worry that no one would come, that whoever doles out wishes didn’t hear that my mind had changed. I worried my old wish would come instead of my new, more willing-to-be-held-accountable one. I worried that I had failed. 

But, guess what? I didn’t fail, because I had done the hard work and I had shown up at this meeting as I had at dozens of others over the past year or so. And my boyfriend came, and my friend from another meeting came and this friend brought a new friend who had never been to a SMART meeting. And for ninety minutes we talked and shared and learned. 

It was small, and I made mistakes during the course of the meeting and probably didn’t explain things well enough and there were lots of silent gaps in conversation. But I was there and they were there and for now I will call that good. 

SMART Recovery is a science-based mutual support group designed to help people manage sobriety from substances and behaviors. I started attending SMART meetings in 2014 in support of my boyfriend who was learning how to abstain from alcohol. I continued going for myself, to manage anxiety and the urges to self harm that still exist years after I stopped this destructive practice. SMART focuses on giving individuals control over their lives and sobriety and provides a variety of tools to mitigate urges and deal with triggers. I have found it enormously helpful in my own life and I have seen the good it has done for other participants. Because of what I have learned in SMART, I no longer live my life in a constant state of wanting to hurt myself; my internal life has reached a level of calm that I had thought was impossible. Becoming a facilitator is my way to give back and say thank you. I urge you readers to look at their website and pass on the information to anyone you know in need. 

Boundaries and mindfulness

Part of my process for healing and eventually returning to running is learning to be mindful. Mindful of my body, my emotions, my physical state. I realized the other day that many of my runs are done on autopilot; they are not products of joy but of habit. And while habit is not the worst motivator for exercise, for me it has become destructive.

I almost never struggle to find the will to put on my shoes and head out the door. Snow, freezing (or sub-freezing) temperatures, ice, rain, wind, suffocating humidity, scorching heat are secondary to my decision to run. I am not deterred often by pain or sickness, stress or lack of sleep. When in full training mode, I take one day off a week (because I’ve been told it’s good for me, not because I especially want to). 

Although this unrelenting pattern wins me the admiration of non-runners who cannot fathom that level of commitment to the tiring, sweaty slog that is running, it is not admirable. My unwillingness to rest, even for a moment, is foolhardy. It leads to injury, sickness, exhaustion. It can be linked to other self-destructive patterns in my life. It represents adulation of running above else; it does not represent my values. 

Running is important to me, but it is not everything to me. Running cannot replace the love I feel from my friends and family, the creative release I feel while writing, or even the pleasure of a quiet morning spent with my cats and my coffee. 

(You have no idea what a relief it is to feel this truth in my soul. I have spent years working to make this distinction between my self and my running; only now do I see it with clarity.) 

Because I am able and willing to run in any circumstance, I need mindfulness to help me understand when I want to run to fulfill a habit, and when I want to run to experience joy. I wrote a list of questions to ask myself before I run, to check in with my body and determine the reason for my  run. Here is an abbreviated version:

  • Am I in pain?
  • Was I in pain yesterday?
  • Am I afraid the world will end if I don’t run (because it won’t)
  • Do I just want fresh air? If so (and there has been recent pain) will a walk or bike ride be better?
  • Are family stresses at play? 
  • Do I smile when I think about the upcoming run? Am I excited? 

I used the list this morning, with success, to practice yoga instead of riding my bike trainer. I felt energetic and pain-free when I woke up, and was tempted to ride for the third consecutive day, even though I was in pain yesterday. The wheedling, cardio-obsessed voice in my head had a compelling argument against moderation or listening to my pain. As I contemplated listening to the voice, I remembered my list and I knew, hard as it was to resist, biking was out of the question. And now, I am as close to pain-free as currently possible. Positive reinforcement is good.

The list isn’t there to tell me anything I don’t already know but to help me commit to the healthiest option. I was perfectly aware this morning, as I considered a ride, that I had been in pain yesterday and that anything but the most gentle stretching would be counterproductive, yet it was not until I referred to the list that I yielded. The list provides much-needed boundaries. I grow past it, able to intuitively make the decision to run or not, but right now I am not that strong. So I will review my list, and listen to my answers, and learn to respect my body.

What methods do you use to cultivate mindfulness and keep yourself on track? 

Reflections and intentions

It is nearing the end of the month, which means time for reflection on the last four weeks and intention-setting for the upcoming ones.

This month was hard. I started January feeling strong, increasing my distance in running and entertaining the idea of signing up for a mid-winter half-marathon. I even bought a pair of pricey cleats to keep me from falling over on the ice-filled sidewalks. I was ready for winter, and ready for more running.

And then I happened to mention one day to my boyfriend that my back hurt. And that the pain happened to be a bit severe at times, and located near a previous stress fracture. My boyfriend is practical, more attached to the idea of my health than to increasing the length of my weekly long runs. And so he suggested I stop running until the pain went away.

I am not always practical. I am stubborn. And so I took three days off from running. Days in which I biked for an hour on a bike with a frame too big for my torso. Days in which I went to work as a waitress and carried heavy trays of food. Days in which I did nothing that resembling rest, except perhaps a little bit of foam rolling in the evenings (when my back was coiled in tension). And then I decided I was healed.

Three days is an awful long time without a run, therefore, my reasoning went, it must be okay to run again. Surely my body had ample time to make the necessary repairs (painful feedback from my nerves notwithstanding). So I ran on Saturday. And on Sunday. And again on Tuesday. (Monday, big surprise, my back felt tender, and so I practiced yoga.) By the end of Tuesday night, I could not stand up straight. The muscles in my back were spasming in a futile attempt to protect my bones. I decided to listen to my boyfriend.

Three weeks later and the pain has subsided for the most part, as long as I don’t bend too much, carry anything too heavy, or stand too long on my feet. In lieu of running, I have rested, practiced yoga, and biked on my indoor trainer (using a properly proportioned frame). I have also started to write daily.

I am so grateful that I chose writing over moping. Introspection over pity. I have uncovered a lot of truths about myself during this month. Perhaps the greatest of which is that the world will not end if I do not run every day, or even most days. I am still productive. I am still creative. I can still think and plan and hold a conversation. Without running, I am still me. I feel this truth in my core; this deep understanding of who I am is a revelation.

Below is an excerpt from a reflection exercise created by Nicole Antionette. (I highly recommend signing up for her weekly emails.) My response to the prompt is my attempt to separate running from my identity, without losing my passion for the sport.

***

The lesson I learned and am carrying forward with me from January is:

I want to learn how to be a runner, lowercase “r”. To me, this means patience, mindfulness, listening to my body. It means only running as far or as hard as I want on any particular day. It means running when I find joy in the act, and staying home when I know that it will be nothing but a grind. There are some days when running does not seem like the pleasant choice: when it is too hot, too humid, too cold; when I am too tired, too restless, too afraid of being out in the world alone with my own thoughts. There are times when running just doesn’t seem fun from the vantage point of my bed. But in those times I know from experience, that all the negative emotions can fall away within the first mile or two. That I can find my flow, enjoy the connection to my body. Sometime it doesn’t work, and the good feelings do not come until I am done, and can revel in a sense of sweaty accomplishment -the joy of pushing my boundaries. But I also know that I have completed enough runs, both good and bad, to tell the difference between the days when the run will be a horrid slog ending in a tired and horrid day, and when the run will be an uplifting and affirming experience. If I were to sit with the decision to run before heading out the door each morning, I could predict (with high accuracy) the run’s outcome. I won’t be cleared to run again until the end of February. When I do resume, I would like to carry with me a spirit of intention before every run, so that it becomes a sport of joy and not one of injury. Until then, I would like to enter each morning with intention, exercising as my body needs, and not necessarily as my mind (which is always eager to go longer, harder, faster) would like.

My intention for February is: to be patient with myself, both in terms of my healing process and my writing practice.

***

Although I cannot predict how February will unfold, I can be mindful of my intentions and work, every day, on becoming a kinder person to myself.

 

What running brings to my life, and two lists

I did not mean for this to turn into a blog about my running, but since I cannot run it is the topic occupying most of my mind. Tomorrow, I will have an essay about my relationship to running, where it fits into my life, and how I am rewriting my story. For today, however, two lists, written to help me understand why I run and how I can find fulfillment in other activities. I often feel like running is the only way for me to relax; when that is removed from my life, I panic.

Thus, lists. Lists are constant. Lists are solid. Lists show me all the things I do not want to admit, they remind me what I have to (or can) do, they remind me where I am going. I highly recommend lists, both the more common “to-do” variety and the “soul-searching” type, like these.

The first (and keep in mind: these were written stream-of-consciousness and have not been edited):

What Does Running Mean to Me? 

  1. An outlet for energy
  2. Control
  3. Interest
  4. Stability
  5. Peace
  6. Time for myself
  7. Connection to body
  8. A buzz
  9. Endorphines
  10. Sunlight
  11. Consistency
  12. Fresh air
  13. Movement
  14. Nature
  15. Contemplation
  16. Power over my body
  17. An excuse to eat
  18. Fulfilling a habit
  19. Part of my story
  20. Identity
  21. Mental clarity
  22. Rhythm
  23. Heartbeat
  24. Sweat
  25. Grit
  26. Pleasure

So many things! Most of them are positive, although a few (#17, an excuse to eat) I am trying to change. I love running. It feels like part of who I am, what I do, a basic part of living. Which is why, without running, I wanted to write the second list for today, filled with alternatives to running. None of them can quite mimic the high I feel after a good run, but they can approximate the elation.

What Other Activities Can Replace Running

  1. Walking
  2. Sitting outside
  3. Sunny window
  4. Writing
  5. Entering a state of flow
  6. Meditation
  7. Yoga
  8. Pilates
  9. Biking
  10. Reading
  11. Cooking
  12. Physical movement
  13. Deep breathing
  14. Yogic breath of fire
  15. Reading
  16. Learning
  17. Daydreaming
  18. Relationships
  19. Rest and sleep
  20. Conversation
  21. Habits
  22. Strength training
  23. Coffee
  24. Eating fruit

I did not realize this when I scrawled these lists in my notebook, but they are almost the same length! Proof that there are many things I can do if running is an impossibility. Biking is harder to achieve with a back injury, but I have been able to keep up a very gentle yoga routine. Yoga does not provide movement through space (one of my favorite aspects of running) but it does raise my heart rate, make me sweat and ground me in my body.

Until I meet with my doctor (Wednesday), and as I move into this period of recovery, I will revisit this second list and remind myself that I can exist without running.

 

 

 

I am not lazy, I promise

Today I decided to start the hard work of figuring out why I resist rest and why I insist on pushing myself even when my body is shot through with pain. What I realized, after several pages of notes, is that my perception of what it means for me to rest is flawed. Rest connotes laziness, failure, worthlessness. Rest is the opposite of growth, the opposite of a positive lifestyle.

The reasons for this negative connotation extend far past the purview of this blog (read: childhood trauma, growing up too fast, and lack of control or stability during my formative years compounded by a lifetime of resisting help in even the most banal situations) and are too interconnected for me to extract the one, single cause for my belief. For most of my life, however, I have attempted to attain and maintain autonomy through grit and perseverance. Taking a break has rarely been a tenable option. 

I have toiled through loneliness, heartbreak, injury, poverty, anxiety, illness. I have refused to be felled by physical or mental obstacles. This does not mean I have been a success at everything (or even most things) I have attempted. It doesn’t mean I have accomplished anything. It simply means that I prefer to move through failures and successes alone. 

Except that last sentence is false. I do not prefer to be alone. I am comfortable alone. My default state is independence. What I crave, however, is connection. I long for someone to put their hands on my shoulders and tell me to rest (until someone, like my boyfriend, does and then I fill with resistance). My desperate secret hope is to be in someone else’s care. 

A friend recently told me she has come to realize that all of her good friends (I am included in this group) are excellent caretakers. This is not a trait she actively seeks but, because she needs (and asks for) lots of care, less-giving people are weeded out. When she said this I realized that I gravitate toward people who (like her) seek out assistance from their friends for everything from illness to emotional stresses to company while running errands. In this way, we can create a bond of friendship but I do not have to ask for help; I can keep my needs hidden. 

I have created a network that does not require me to be vulnerable. In many ways this is freeing: I share what I am comfortable sharing and the rest I keep to myself, with no hurt feelings. In other respects, however, I feel cut off from even my best friends, unable to share my hurts and needs. I isolate myself emotionally. I am adept at focusing a conversation on another person, while still appearing to contribute. My pains stay within my self.

Today I decided to address this system of isolation by examining my conception of injury. My conclusions shifted my perspective, I hope forever. Here is an excerpt from my journal:
“By removing expectations of what it means to be injured -frail, weak, demanding, depressed, stuck in front of a television, helpless, alone, poor -I free myself to rest on my own terms. For me, rest does not symbolize weakness but: healing, contemplation, revealing the high quality of my support system, reading, exploring my mind, engaging with curiosity my new perspective on the world, rejuvenating, being kind to my body, filling myself with light.” 

My goal in the upcoming days, weeks, months (however long it takes for the concept to stick) is to embody my new definition of rest. 

I work well with visual cues, so I am creating a chart for myself on which I will make a tick mark every day I allow myself to revel in rest. This is not an edict to spend all of my time in bed eating bon-bons, but a plan to carve out a few minutes every day for sitting with my thoughts, listening to my instincts, and doing the hard work of asking for help.