Changing the habit pattern of the mind

She woke up this morning before her alarm, as she often does. The loud birds were chorusing outside the window, tiny birds perched on oak branches. She lay there for some time. When her alarm sounded, she knew she wanted to lay in bed longer. She thought about coffee, and she felt happy. The unexpected voice of a dear friend was traveling its way from the kitchen to her bedroom, and she got up to investigate. The friend’s voice explained that he didn’t in fact drive home last night, as there was a tree on the road near the locked gate. All her friends drank coffee. The friend with the voice watched her as she stood on an outside table and played music, as he had watched her many times before. She thought she saw deep emotion in his eyes.

She was full of energy this morning, and happy. Life felt easy. She knew this wouldn’t always be the case, that one day she would feel challenged again, but she nevertheless enjoyed the moments of the morning: the shower and the coffee and snuggling a squishy, heavy, five-year-old girl in her arms.

Lately, the habit pattern of her mind has been of great interest to her. The curiosity is centered around fear of failure. The fear of failure is deep, deep. It has controlled her life for a long time, a menacing pilot seated in the nut of her consciousness. She has faced that fear in a very intimate way many times since the beginning of the year. She has woken up terrified that she would fail. She was perhaps more afraid that she would fail because she was too afraid to really try.

Letting habit patterns out to breathe is how she relaxes them. For weeks now she has gently massaged this habit pattern of the mind, talking with trusted friends, writing it all down, trying to logically piece this puzzle together. It is important to her to feel that she has tried her best. It is important to her to learn how to fail gracefully. It is important to her to recognize the gift of perseverance. And she is realizing that she can consciously change the habit pattern of her mind.

She sees that fear and love are two sides of the same coin, that failure and success are two sides of another coin, and that effort and ease are two sides of a third. She knows that comfort with failure means bravery in pursuing opportunity.

Overall, she is so grateful to be growing older, and learning more, and loving more. She is even excited by the gray hairs inspired by all this experience!

She felt radiant, clean, and well-fed. She left her friends and came into town. She tried on clothes with a dear friend, lots of clothes. She looked at herself in the large mirrors and noticed: her butt, her legs, her belly, her hair, her nose and smile and eyebrows in profile. She found an excellent pair of jeans. After dinner with yet another friend, she flew northward and reflected on her journey, how much can change in such a short time while nothing really changes at all.

mind art

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Adiposity

I don’t want this to read as just another woman’s experience with body image. It’s been done already, by myself and many, many others. I want this account to be different. I want this to be a vulnerable, personal portrait of what my journey with body fat has been and how I’m working to free myself and others from that prison.

It’s clear that our American culture has unrealistic ideas of what a woman’s body should look like, especially in terms of where it is appropriate for fat to deposit. Breasts, for instance, are obvious places. Finger pads, maybe selective deposits on the butt and hips. Ear lobes. But I think it’s safe to say that the majority of women walking the streets of our country are trying to get rid of fat somewhere or the other.

Think about that: millions of women going through life hating their bodies. Nearly every woman you see, unhappy with her form in one way or another. Unhappy women, everywhere.

Fat is a type of loose connective tissue called adipose tissue comprised of specialized cells. Adipose cells contain large vacuoles, or little cellular compartments, that are full of fat. If you look at an adipose cell under the microscope, you can see a tiny nucleus and a large, fat-containing vacuole comprising the rest of the space. Adipose cells are simply storage sites of reserve energy, used after our body has burned available glucose. Looking at fat on a larger scale, adipose tissue is used to insulate and protect organs, to insulate our bodies against heat loss, and to protect the nervous system. Our brains are mostly fat.

Fat is energy and fat is protection.

Where our body deposits fat is, I believe, mostly due to genetics. Where our body naturally deposits fat is largely beyond our control. Humans like to be in control. The world is so large and complex and chaotic that we consistently, to varying degrees and under varying levels of consciousness, work to maintain order. This can be exhausting and is fairly useless. We can’t control the world around us, what happens and how others perceive us. Cultural expectations regarding female fat, in a way, are providing women with exactly what they crave: something to control. If I can control my fat, then I’m in control of my life. I can navigate through my life if I can just manage the deposits. So we (many of us) do just this. We smoothie, cardio, and obsess our way to bodies that are five pounds lighter, ten pounds, twenty pounds, something that’s always less than what we are now. And if we ever get there, we expend more precious energy on keeping ourselves there, staying there forever, until we die and our perfect bodies are laid to rest for eternity.

I believe that shame is responsible for fat accumulation on our bodies. Shame of what and how much we eat, shame if we can’t get our run in, the special shame that comes when we are ashamed that we are ashamed of body fat. Since I was 18, I have weighed between 119 and 167 pounds. Nearly fifty pounds of difference. The 119 was during the height of control, the 167 during the height of shame. The journey I’ve been on with numbers and food and exercise and clothes and boyfriends and how they have all influenced my weight and body image over the past ten years is too complex and personal to go into here. However, what I’ve discovered along the way is to stop pretending that this isn’t and hasn’t been a personal struggle for me. That almost every woman alive has stressed about her body’s shape. And the cycle of weight loss celebration and weight gain dejection can be broken. It can be broken by airing out shame, observing our judgements, and altering our means of complimenting the women in our lives.

Notice the shame you feel around your body. Notice how it feels in your body when you’ve realized you’ve gained weight, or when you lose weight. You may feel flushed and your chest may tighten when you realize you’re heavier, and you may feel tingly and energetic when you realize you’re lighter. Talk about it with trusted friends. If a friend talks to you about her struggle with weight, and you’ve had a similar experience, try these two magic words: me too.

Notice how you judge others. Notice the assumptions you make about other women based on their body shape, about their level of physical activity, what they eat, if they have a boyfriend/husband, if they are or should be embarrassed about their fat. Notice how those judgements are likely the same judgements you heap upon yourself.

Notice when you compliment the women in your life. Have you ever told a friend or relative, “you look great since you’ve put on twenty pounds!” Likely not. Have you ever told a friend or relative, “you look great since you’ve lost twenty pounds!” More likely. Think about the messages you’re sending. Nothing against complimenting, just a recommendation to notice. If we are consistently receiving compliments when fat leaves and not when fat comes, what are we to think?

It is healthy to be strong, it is healthy to eat enough nourishing food, it is healthy to know when to stop, and it is healthy to physically exert yourself. With He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (hint: not Voldemort) entering the White House on Saturday, consider resolving to be an advocate for body shame resilience, resolving to become more aware of your judgements, and resolving to support the women in your life regardless of their size, instead of resolving to finally lose those ten pounds.

I now weigh 142 pounds. Who cares?

Conventional Candy

From August 2007 until July 2016 I ate no Conventional Candy. Not a Skittle, not a Starburst, not a Reese’s, not a Snickers. For nearly nine years I lived in dire fear of high fructose corn syrup, THB, and Yellow #5. It was unthinkable for me to pass a mass-produced, genetically-modified, artificially-flavored sweet morsel over my tender, pure, organic lips. Childhood nostalgia, Halloween, and “guilty pleasures” were non-issues concerning Candy. I simply did not partake.

Everything changed when I started working at Bun on the Run this summer. I’ve written about what it was like to work at the Bun here. Working at the Bun was magical. Working at the Bun was like being a little worker elf at the Big Rock Candy Mountain, except this particular little elf was working at the Big Monster Cookie Mountain. The Bun is famous (infamous?) for their monster cookies. Besides being Cookies of Unusual Size (COUSs), these monsters contain not only one kind of Conventional Candy, but two: Plain and Peanut M&Ms.

Something else you should know about monsters is that they break easily. This is due to their gluten-free nature and the fact that it is difficult to tell when the cookies are all the way done, so sometimes they are shelved slightly underdone and oversoft. Anyway, they often fall apart, rendering themselves unsalable, so they end up in the baker’s Vortex of Temptation (see here).

Now, for the first month or so, I stuck to my guns. Not an M&M, not a bite of Monster. As you will see, my well-intentioned, stalwart abstinence was short-lived.

One morning I was shaping buns and wanted a little snack. I had gotten into the habit of eating cookies before 7:00 am. I would come into the trailer, tying my apron, and Wendy would zoom in with some little baked good for me to sample. Sometimes she would zoom with a cookie. It’s surprisingly easy to just start accepting that it’s okay to start eating cookies at 6:35 am. This particular morning, it must have been nearly 7:00, and I must not have had a cookie yet. My eyes zipped up to the Vortex and I saw broken monsters. The transgression was nigh. I ate a chunk of warm, peanut-y, soft, M&M-riddled Monster Cookie; my first. Not my last.

Then Candy just naturally started coming into my life again. My friend Sophie, who is so darn cute, offered me a dark chocolate mini Reese’s. Sophie always, always has a bag of these. I ate it. One time Sophie and I were hanging out with my other friend Mary and Sophie had an XL bag of peanut M&M’s. I ate those too, in camaraderie. The big moment came when Wendy shared some discount Halloween candy during our epic fat bike misadventure. I popped down those little sugar bombs like no one’s business. The point of no return.

I remember Michael Henry telling me, in the wise words of Brian “Swifty” Swift, that it’s good to eat Skittles every now and then. I thought this was terrible advice at the time (circa 2012). I owe Swifty credit. I in no way endorse eating Conventional Candy, or encourage you to do it if you do not see ethically/morally/politically fit, or know it to be unhealthy and bad for your teeth (which it is, definitely!). Please continue to avoid Conventional Candy at all costs. All I want to say is that, upon returning to my childhood Candy roots, I have matured. As healthy as it is to not eat it, I personally feel it’s healthier to move on past dysfunctional and unrealistic rigidity. I have relaxed into the notion that it is okay and acceptable and lovely to eat Conventional Candy if I want. My body is so robust and awesome, it can process that shit no problem. Peace.

One Woman’s History of Hair

I used to have very long, luxurious hair. It grew unabatedly, in elegant waves and curls, golden-red and deep brown. Little wispy angel wings grew around my forehead. I could pile the mass of it on top of my head like a soft nest. Strangers would stop me in the grocery store to pet my hair. Women everywhere would readily share their feelings of envy. Long, thick, flowing hair is widely regarded as a treasure of femininity.

How unfortunate that hair growing on other parts of the body, often an accompaniment to a woman’s full head of hair, is perceived as the very opposite of femininity.

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I have a tangled history of hair. I have early remembrances of hair awareness: asking my mom about pubic hair after a trip to our family’s favorite hot springs in late elementary school. My friend Ali sharing with me when she started growing armpit hair. When I first started shaving my legs in our bath tub, asking my friends if they used just water or soap or shaving cream or what? Boys in middle school making fun of my mustache. Prompt subsequent tweezing of my mustache. Boyfriend after boyfriend encouraging me to spend more time shaving or waxing or tweezing. Being praised when I followed through. Being criticized when I didn’t want to, didn’t have time, or was tired of irritated, razor-burned skin.

I’m sure many women share similar experiences. I’ve spent years experimenting with what level of hair removal felt best to me. By my own perceptions, I grow a remarkable amount of body hair for a woman. I have dark, thick hair on my knuckles, my upper lip and chin, my nipples, my stomach, my toes, and my butt, not to mention the usual suspects. All of this hair regrows in seemingly record time following removal. I can easily grow a legitimate unibrow in a couple of weeks. I’ve dated several men with less arm hair than myself. I keep razor companies in business. Frida Kahlo is a heroine of mine. If I choose not to shave my legs or wax my upper lip, you will definitely notice. From across the room. Laser hair removal produces no permanent effect. Lasers!

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I have wanted to write about this for a while. It’s embarrassing to write about. I want to pretend like no one notices my hair. I also want to be accepted for my hair. I also want to feel that I can remove any of my hair without shame, the shame that obsessive hair removal is a bowing down to society’s pressure to squish women into a narrow beauty hallway.

Normally when I write it is very stream-of-consciousness and personal. However, I diligently focused long enough on a well-quoted feminist essay from 1988 by Sandra Bartky, titled “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power” to share these quotes:

In contemporary patriarchal culture, a panoptical male connoisseur resides within the consciousness of most women: they stand perpetually before his gaze and under his judgment. Woman lives her body as seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal Other.

and:

To have a body felt to be “feminine” – a body socially constructed through the appropriate process – is in most cases crucial to a women’s sense of herself as female, and, since persons currently can be only as male or female, to her sense of self as an existing individual.

Both of these passages really struck me. They are concepts, elegantly yet starkly presented, that I have pondered for endless hours over many years.

I feel lost when I try to come up with an elegant solution to the dilemma of how much hair removal I want to participate in. I do feel like a strong, independent woman, happy in her singlehood and proud to let my naturalness shine out to the world. I also feel less stressed and self-conscious when I spend time grooming myself, presenting a generally socially-accepted feminine form and face out to the world. The latter cannot be denied. I don’t want to feel stressed. Yet I don’t want to feel subjected to the patriarchal Other.

Pressure for a woman to regularly remove non-eyebrow, -eyelash, and -head hair.

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Pressure for a woman to accept herself as the evolved, strong, modern woman she is.

When I’m faced with challenging dilemmas, I sometimes remember to return to one of the most important concepts I learned through my Vipassana meditations: it is not the action, it is the volition that matters. The example given is one of a young child in two different situations. One: the child acting out so that the parent roughly grabs the child by its arm, causing the child to cry. Two: the child running towards a poisonous snake so that the parent roughly grabs the child by the arm, causing the child to cry. Same action, different volition. A volition of anger, a volition of protection.

The action does not matter! It is all in the volition. It is here I can find peaceful ground. I can empower myself to make whatever decision I want in how I groom my body. If I choose for the volition of my actions to be out of peaceful personal preference rather than a frightened deference to society’s standards, the decision becomes easy. I can remove all the hair off my body if I want. I can spend an hour every day maintaining my appearance if I want. I can go a year without shaving my armpits but can shave my legs every day if I want. And it’s in the I want that this woman finds her power.

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Looking at myself

I’ve spent hundreds of hours looking at myself. Thousands.

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I took this photo with my phone after I had been gazing at myself in my bedroom mirror. I’ve since taken all mirrors out of my bedroom. Sitting in front of one sometimes felt like a black hole in time.

I started young. There’s a photo of myself that I have clearly suspended in my mind’s eye. I’m probably about two-and-a-half, naked, and in our downstairs bathroom. I’m brushing my hair in front of the mirror. I have an innocent, absentminded look on my face. It’s cute.

The childhood years were full of innocent, playful mirror gazing. Silly faces. Playing in the sink without even considering the mirror. Once I hit puberty and grew things like pimples and more eyebrow hair the mirror started to catch my attention. I remember standing to the side of the sink counter so I could get really close to get all those new dark eyebrow hairs. Get them with tweezers. Find all of the blackheads. I remember those strips that squeezed dry on my little nose. I remember burning my hair to a crisp with Angela to straighten out the curls.

For all of middle and high schools I wasn’t really concerned with my body, but with my face and hair it was a battle. I never thought I was beautiful in high school. I was always checking. Mirror checking, or window checking, checking in bodies of water. Checking to see if I was beautiful yet, hurry up, come on beauty, where are you? My parents often told me I was beautiful, but parents are supposed to say that. I see now how blessed I was for such amazing parents.

The mirror. Such a powerful thing, to view your reflection. To not only see your physical reflection but to assess, compare, observe how your mental reflection of the physical is so transient. Elation at the accepted, at the normal; depression at the rejected, at the strange.

The whole world shifted when I went to college and was aware for perhaps the first time that I had a body that was different than others, and that certain women’s bodies were idolized, noticed, and talked about more than others. I became very small so I could become very noticed. And thus began my more conscious journey with eating. I can’t even remember what it was like to eat without thinking about it. I often wonder if I will ever reach that ease again, that innocent, carefree state of nourishing myself.

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This beautiful photo of me was taken at one of the saddest times in my life, when I first moved to Mount Shasta. It’s important to remember that it’s difficult to assume the state of someone’s heart by their outside appearance.

Still, I miss all that hair.

I still spend hours looking at myself. In my bathroom, at the yoga studio, in store windows, in the rear view mirror. I still spend time with tweezers, although less than before. I still spend time with those blackheads, although I’m slowly convincing myself to be more gentle with my skin. I still have moments when I’m terrified of what I see in the mirror. How did I come into this strange body? Why do I have so much hair everywhere? Why does my belly look like that? How does it feel to be delicate, blonde, and pearly, translucently skinned?

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This was taken four minutes ago. This is what my 27-year-old self has grown into. This is the face that I look at every day, with love or with fear.

I also have moments when I look into the mirror and see an incredibly beautiful woman, a woman who has traveled the world for music, who has traveled the world for inner peace, who has traveled the world for love, who has run a marathon, who has climbed mountains, who has fasted in the wilderness alone, who is preparing to move home to Alaska. A very strong woman with long dark eyelashes framing blue-yellow eyes. And I gasp at all that beauty.

The muscular aftermath

This morning I felt old.

Last night’s sleep was a time of bodily reparation. I was in and out of dreams, processing the experience of the race.

For those of you curious, I finished the race in 4 hours, 46 minutes, and 43 seconds. I ran the last two-tenths of a mile. Some new energy came coursing through my body once my feet stepped over the large chalked “26” on the asphalt, like my legs hadn’t been jelly worms for the last six miles. I crossed the finish line and finally stopped moving my body. For the first time in nearly three months, I drank a beer. A cold, bubbly, local microbrew, for free, out of a plastic Coors Lite cup, while I stood in an ice water kiddy pool and soaked in the feeling of doneness, all this shared with several dear friends.

Some of the more memorable aspects of the race were the entourages that accompanied me near the beginning and near the end. I started the race in the beautiful sunrise time at Emigrant Lake. I ran slowly the entire race. It seemed like almost everyone passed me in that first mile or so. Frank and Elizabeth were at the bottom of their driveway, cozied up in sweatpants and drinking coffee, cheering me on and giving a few last hugs. Their encouragement boosted me all the way to the intersection of the bike path and Mountain Avenue, where in the distance I saw my beloved bike. Not only my bike, but a young, strapping lad atop the bike. Not just any young, strapping lad, but my friend Travis Puntarelli, who had borrowed my bike to greet me and ride with me for a time. He had a tambourine and a big smile. I took the melodic shaker for a while, rattling it as I ran.

Travis and I had made it to around mile seven when I heard a cheerful ding from behind. I turned and saw B-Flat John and our friend Scott-from-Bend on old mountain bikes, cruising with the morning sun at their backs. It felt wonderful to be able to chat for a time. My energy was boosted and I felt loved and encouraged. They left me at one of my favorite stretches of the bike path, the several miles between Wellsprings and south Medford. I had been training on this section for the past few months and had ridden it countless times. It felt familiar and welcoming.

How did it feel to run for so long? It felt easy. I never felt like walking or slowing down. I never told myself I couldn’t do it, or that I could be running faster. Pains came and went: incredible all-encompassing knee pain, persistent pain in both feet, shoulder inflammation and tightness, headaches, stomach emptiness. Eventually I had those jelly worms for legs but somehow they kept pumping, back and forth, a seemingly tireless rhythm of forward motion. It’s not that I felt particularly strong. What kept me going was a blessedly still mind. I felt completely at peace for the entire race. I smiled at everyone along the track who was there to encourage or provide water, I smiled at the creek and at the trees and the warming sun, I smiled at my progress, I smiled at the other runners. I felt like my inner smile is really what carried me gracefully to the finish line.

When my body carried me over “20” I almost started crying. I spoke aloud: “Mile 20! So amazing!” I was awash in emotions, so proud of how far I’ve come in the race and in my life. Running this year has changed everything for me. And, in all honesty, I was pretty thrilled that there remained only 6.2 miles. That was nothing! A blink! And the surprises weren’t over.

I was between Medford and Central Point when I saw two hooligans approaching me on bikes. It was Dan and Jacqui, come to ride with me the rest of the way. They are, hands down, some of the best cheerleaders around. After running with them for a bit, I heard a familiar voice say “passing on your left”. It was Ian, wearing only boxer briefs and an old white shirt, running up next to me. Finally, about a mile from the end, Dani and Eowyn popped out of the grass with signs: “We ❤ U!” “Go Sara!” This six-person conglomerate followed me to the finish, Ian sprinting with me to the very end and all joining me for the foot ice bath beer experience. Elizabeth came with a little vase of roses. Eowyn eventually stripped down to swim in the foot bath. We all sat in the sun and relaxed together.

I fell into bed last night with the beauty of accomplishment and of a circle of incredible friends who wholeheartedly supported me through one of the most thrilling physical endeavors of my life. I woke up this morning barely able to rise up to join Dani in a cup of coffee and gingersnap cookies, but somehow I managed to join one of my dearest, most beautiful friends in a steaming mug and sweet delights before her daughter came bumping down the stairs, sleep in her eyes, wanting to snuggle.

Already planning my next marathon.