Re-view

brocFor more than six months I’ve been ingesting and digesting thoughts from many disparate sources, regarding shame, body image, addiction and fat stigma.  Chewing and pondering these various bits of information and insight, sometimes semi-publicly on the blog and also in private writing, has helped me move toward shame reduction. At moments when I feel most ‘out of body’ (which is a hysterical turn of phrase when talking about body size), I feel ‘shame-less’ or shame free.

That is, without shame, in a positive way.bana

This reminds me of my desire to re-frame the words self-ish and self-less, which desperately need to have their connotations expanded. To be self-less is actually not always positive.  It can mean not acknowledging or valuing the self. In fact, it can indicate blatantly negating the existence and value of self, as if others – people & things – are of greater importance, to the point where there is no room for self. Oh yes, there are positive meanings of self-less, but for women, I dare to say that being without self, as part of serving others, is far too common and self-destructive. Of course, destroying the self  implies having a self and, to speak for my self, the insubstantial and mightily distorted sense of self with which I came of age didn’t require much effort to destruct. Addiction is a speedy tool of destruction.

clemmySelfish, of course, has virtually nothing but a negative connotation. Greedy, not caring for others… It is thus a perfect word to use when accusing a woman of not taking sufficient care of others. In fact, any lapse in care taking, of spouse, children, parents, friends, colleagues, who-ever, is a spot-lit, glaring event. Over the course of centuries, patriarchy has inscribed the edict quite deeply, (like the Harry Potter character writing, scarring his own skin, as punishment), that females exist to service males.

This invisible writing, the tattoos of the established female role, has been diluted bit by bit, over the last century or so. And there were always exceptional women, (the exceptions) who were not, for whatever reason – and I would love to understand the hows and whys – fully oppressed by the code, the cultural norms. But for a woman to elevate self-care, even to the level of other-care is still a radical notion.

Mothers, particularly, speak of needing ‘me time’. It is a commodity, marketed now, of grapishcourse. (I think of those intensely sexual television ads for chocolate, where a woman swoons while nibbling a small square of chocolate while in the background a man stirs & pours sensuous vats of molten chocolate…)  ‘Me time’ for a woman is promoted as if it is something apart from ‘normal’ life.  On the other hand, with the exception of ads showing men driving cars or drinking alcohol and watching sports (since cigarette ads have been banned for many years), one rarely sees males yearning for ‘me time’.  They freely ‘indulge’ in these pastimes as a matter of course, every day.

It is the ‘norm’.

Okay, I went off on a bit of a tangent.  I drifted into this diatribe on self-less and self-ish rhub(behavior) due to their similarity to the expression shame-less. Another generally negative expression, with the implication that some wrong is being done and one ought to ‘be ashamed’ of the behavior. In fact, this connotation is not inaccurate for some situations. When I think of particularly obscene avarice or bigoted behavior, I wonder:

‘Do they have no shame?”

But this is a far cry from the shame of which I have been writing: the inlaid shame which hobbled me for so many years.  I feel tremendous gratitude that I walk comparatively unencumbered today.

 

HowTo

I once read an article about the genesis of Self-Help books. As I dimly recall, there were scores of pamphlets produced soon after printing became commonplace. People are always ready to tell other people how to solve their problems or share the secrets of their own success. Certainly by the middle of the 20th century, printed advice was pouring into the marketplace. Diet books and cookbooks were, and have continued to be major players in this field. Help is offered for learning and improving skills of every kind: interpersonal, business, parenting, fitness, even, and not surprisingly, writing. With the birth of the Internet and our 21st century post-Google lives, the HowTo howl has become a cacophony.

open bookThere is a recently published book, which I’ve requested from the library, called Promise Land: My Journey through America’s Self-Help Culture, a memoir by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro. As I understand it, she set out to research and write a book about the self-help industry. In the end it became a memoir. The snippets I’ve been able to read on the Amazon website were entertaining and thought provoking. What motivates the proponents and writers: altruism or commercialism? She shares some scathing commentary on a conference headlined by the man who co-authored the gigantically successful series of Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She also comments on the uplifting ‘words of wisdom’ that appear everywhere, including a yellowed sign hanging in her local auto body shop, which says WE CREATE OUR TOMORROWS BY WHAT WE DREAM TODAY.

Which takes me back to my email inbox. One glance at the contents and you would recognize me as a soul with a weakness for inspiration. Also seeking answers to HowTo questions and, well, just seeking. Nothing wrong with that. There are a few healers, writers and guides whose words have had (and still have) extremely positive impacts on my thinking and choices, therefore, on my daily life. I’ve written about and quoted some of them on this blog: some repeatedly. But a couple of thoughts slapped me in the face when I looked at my inbox today.plate-1

The first is the excess of HowTo opportunities that come my way, every day. Some are offers to take a course – online or in some beautiful, perhaps exotic locale. I am assured that my life will be changed by the experience. Many I delete immediately. Some raise a whiff of fantasy and I read on a bit before I hit the disillusionment wall. Delete. But I wonder, what is getting stirred up in me, time after time: hope or dis-satisfaction? The same responses arise when I hear of a book that seems to speak to my issues… Gotta have it? This could be the one? Why is there often a feeling somewhere between disappointment and disgust? Is that with the author or myself?

A seemingly more benign type of missive that you would find clogging my inbox is the inspirational quotes. I am hungry for wisdom; I am a word-lover who is endlessly searching for someone who has distilled experience into a pithy, beautiful sentence or two. Could be a poem or a quote from the Dalai Lama, Emma Goldman, MLK Jr., a Native American elder or – gasp – a Self-Help guru. There are days when the words that show up on my computer screen seem prescient; “Exactly what I need to be reminded of today!” Sometimes a link posted on Facebook by a distant friend hits just the right mark. And some days, many days, there is just too much. It can’t possibly all be wisdom and its drowning out, rather than stimulating, my own knowledge.

pageWhich brings me to the second, and more thorny thought, with regard to my own writing. It may not be clear to a reader of this blog, but I am heading somewhere with all of these words, written and posted over all of these months. There is an urge in me to share my ‘experience, strength and hope’, my journey of de-constructing shame. And today I wonder if I am just another HowTo Self-Help voice adding to the din. Not saying that I’m going to stop what I’ve begun here.

Just sayin’…

The site

The other day I took a look at the other pages on this website and realized how incredibly out-of-date they are…  The page entitled The Beginning speaks only about the EAW drawings and what I say is still true, but so limited.  It’s also not accurate to call it the beginning, as I currently see the history of the project.  The Pages page just shows the full image of the first couple of pages of drawings and that’s fine, but there have been so many more.  And I haven’t been using the blog to follow the The Whole Story of the drawings for almost two years…

Yep, quite out of date.  If someone follows a link to the site, well, it doesn’t represent me, or my work, and I think it would be confusing.  So it’s time for a re-vision of the site.  I’m working on that.  I started by calling it The Middle, which in a way it is… I am in the middle of something.  I have also considered Along the Way or In Process as page titles.  One of them will stick, or maybe I’ll be adding pages.  But the process now is to re-view and understand what I have been doing.  Which will clarify what I am doing; what I am in the middle of.  (Dangling participle… poor thing, hanging out there alone, as if off a cliff.)

I honestly don’t read a lot of blogs myself.  And I am aware that only a few people read mine with any regularity.  That is fine with me.  I have never been much of a self-promoter.  But perhaps if I read more blogs, I would know why people blog.  Okay, that’s sort of ridiculous, because of course people have millions of different reasons for blogging.  Why am I blogging?  Wish I knew.  Honestly, sometimes it seems like I just woke up here in the blog-o-sphere.  Like the dreams where you are in public doing something embarrassing.

Now, wait a minute.  Reframe!  If I believe any of Brené Brown’s work, and I do, then what I am doing is making myself vulnerable, which is NOT the same as embarrassing myself.  I am ‘owning my story’ and spitting out the shame I have carried about being who I am, having the thoughts and feelings that I have.   So there!

Revising & emending

“If your mind carries a heavy burden of [the] past, you will experience more of the same. The past perpetuates itself through lack of presence. The quality of your consciousness at this moment is what shapes the future.”        Eckhart Tolle

Revision is about re-seeing.

Revision:  1. emendation, correction  2. reconsideration, review, reexamination, reassessment, reevaluation, reappraisal, rethink,

Revise: reconsider and alter (something) in the light of further evidence

ORIGIN: mid 16th cent. from French réviser ‘look at,’ or Latin revisere ‘look at again,’ from re- ‘again’ + visere (intensive form of videre ‘to see’ ).

As the stories from my past, those little blots of shame, are exposed to light and air, they lose their substance, do a little cartoon-like “poof” and virtually disappear.  I honestly didn’t believe it could happen.  I took it on faith that sharing them was a good thing to do; I hoped it would sap their power.  I’ll be damned; it did.  If I search for the hurtfulness of that comment by my grandfather’s friend (see post on 2/27), even the memory is as insubstantial as a bit of fog. And the sting?  I truly cannot summon up the pain and shame, even if I try.  It’s gone.

“Revise:  To reconsider [my life] in the light of further evidence.”

Further evidence.

“Most of us can remember shaming events from childhood that felt defining.  But more than likely we remember them because we didn’t process those experiences with parents who were open to talking about shame…  I don’t blame my parents for that… They didn’t have access to the information we have today.”            Brené Brown

For months now I’ve been asking “Why?” these shaming episodes have retained so much energy all these years… and the answers keep coming.  With each new insight, my life story can be emended.

Emend:  to correct.  It’s not about changing the facts, altering what happened to make a prettier story.  It’s about correction; in light of new information, correcting the story I’ve been telling myself for 50+ years.  As I cast off the ugliness of the events I’ve used to define myself, the spaciousness is hard to describe.  The challenge & delight now is choosing how to move forward.

“The quality of my consciousness [today] is what shapes [my] future.”

Game on.fog

Shrinking patriarchs

I want to express profound gratitude to two individuals whose writing and insights have given me enormous comfort and courage as I proceed with the examination of my life story.  They are not alone in the pantheon of the wise and kind, but they are stellar.   Star Fruit 1 Thank you, Brené Brown and Eckhart Tolle.

I will begin with this quote from Brené Brown:

“Our stories of worthiness – of being enough – begin in our first families.  The narrative certainly doesn’t end there, but what we learn about ourselves and how we learn to engage with the world as children sets a course that [may] require us to spend a significant part of our life fighting to reclaim our self-worth…   (Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, p 216-217)

Here’s one of the first memories that comes to mind.  I’m a preteen, visiting my paternal grandparents.  We spend an evening at the home of their long time friends, people who have known my siblings and I since we were born. After supper we play a game of Scrabble.  I’m enjoying the experience; not exactly a ‘grownup evening’, but special nonetheless.   When there is a debate about the Scrabble acceptability of a word, I am sent to the next room to fetch the dictionary.

The moment I am out of sight (but not ear shot), Mr. G pronounces “It’s a shame Cathy takes after her mother; she could be a very attractive girl.”  My grandfather concurs, deriding my mother’s body size and agreeing that I am not likely to marry well. At the time, I didn’t even notice that their wives did not speak up; I shut down completely and didn’t hear another word all evening.

How or why has this ‘minor’ incident continued to be so charged?  Well, I’ve answered this question before:  I have given it power for years.  I enhanced its strength because I never spoke about it.  I never even imagined telling my parents what I overheard.  Never.  Why?  Did I believe that they agreed?  Was I already so convinced that I was unworthy and therefore had no reason to complain, since they were just speaking the truth?  Was I scared of what my parents might say?

                                                          * * *

Owning my story does not mean making it my life story – creating my reality by perpetuating the story line.  So, I’ve made a museum.  Actually I think I made it long ago, enshrining the incidents and people who caused me to feel pain and shame; those who shamed me.  The central gallery has contained larger-than-life-size images of my father and his father.  That has been the core, the heart of the collection:  Childhood.  There is also an Adolescent wing.

For many years I’ve wandered these halls, having locked myself in; I was trapped inside.  While there, I regularly re-lived these events and the figures of these men grew with each replay, like characters in a tale by the Brothers Grimm.  In silent action clips, I fed their looming shadows, swelling their images for decades.

As I’ve begun sharing these stories, owning them and sharing them, owning them by sharing them, I realize I’m no longer alone in the halls of my museum.  As I stand in and walk through these halls of shame with others, I see the images I’d created of these men are beginning to shrink into insignificance.  They no longer dominate my life story.  Powerful shame-loss.

The tightly sealed doors, now open from the outside, have allowed others to enter and join me in the museum.  As the enshrined figures shrink, the storybook power that had sustained them is broken, triggering the release of the interior locks.  I am able to leave, to exit these galleries built of my stories.  I own them and now I can leave them.  With the shattering of the spell, I awaken, seeing where I have been trapped and discover that I can walk away!  As I take each step, with each bit of distance, my vision clears.  The museum shrinks and I begin to see so many other elements of my life: things that are also and now my life.

Connections

I write a post for this blog twice a week.  When or if possible, there is a connection, however tenuous, between one post and the next.  Much of the time daily life intervenes and what I write feels quite separate.  I try to make my peace with that. Then again, sometimes it takes a short remove from the writing to perceive the linkage.  Since I do largely believe that the best of what I write “comes through [me] not from [me]” (cue Khalil Gibran poem **), this experience of awakening to connections is not entirely surprising.

**I apologize for the digression, but I must offer you two links:  first to a printed version of the Gibran poem from which I’ve borrowed the phrase quoted above.  Then a link to a recording of the amazing A capella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, performing a song based on the poem. I’ve been fortunate to hear them in concert a number of times and I love this piece more each time I hear it.

The post ‘Unapologetic’ apparently resonated with a few people.  I’m very glad about that. This morning I found myself contemplating the ‘Why?’ of excessively saying ‘I’m sorry’.  What popped into my head was: ‘Oh yeah, resentment.’   Hustling to meet the needs of others, to be of service in order to feel worthy (from 2/19 post) is linked to reflex apologies for being alive.  Does this make sense?  Well, of course it doesn’t actually make sense… it’s maladaptive behavior.  What I might privately call ‘stupid’.  However I want to poke around here a bit and see if I can unravel the thought.

Perhaps if I start with anger the picture will be clearer.  Even when I am thoroughly caught up in the unholy pattern of ‘feel unworthy, therefore serve others in order to create a sense (an illusion) of self-worth’, that’s not all that’s going on.  Although I may deeply believe in my unworthiness, at the same time I am pissed.  Underneath, inside, in a parallel sense of self, I’m angry.  The situation, that is, the behavior, is self-perpetuating, so a LARGE quantity of anger gets pushed aside, repressed and, in fact, saved.  Yeah, saved.  That’s scary, but true… I’m not sure that it can be called righteous anger, but a perverse value gets connected to ‘being wronged’.

Okay, that begs the point that I made in the 2/19 post, that while deeply ingrained, this ‘serving others’ behavior is still in some way my choice.  But therein lies a link back to shame.  If I blame myself for my choices, then I shame myself.  If I hoard and hold close my anger, then I feel shame.  In fact, in the universe of my childhood, to feel anger, much less express even a tiny speck of anger, was prohibited and therefore, quite shameful.  What I’m getting at is that collecting anger = resentment.  Yes indeed, there is a connection here.

steamA stockpot of anger, pushed onto a back burner where it simmers for years, yields a potent and volatile reduction called resentment.  One of the by-products of this stewing is the pervasive and scalding vapor of shame.  The thickened and reduced sauce is sometimes served as bitter and sarcastic apologies. Uh huh.

That analysis relates to the angry/resentful wellspring of sorrys, but what of the others… like the ‘sorry for being alive’, the sad, hurt, pathetic apologies?  I don’t think that the stew of anger, which becomes concentrated into resentment is necessarily what produces the sad sorrys.  There’s disappointment in the mix.  Some blend of ‘I’m disappointed in something or someone’ and ‘I believe that I’ve disappointed others’.  This linguistic and culinary de-contruction obviously needs further investigation.  Anon.

Angles

Started thinking again about beauty, which led me back to this essay.  It’s another de-construction piece, digging back into the experiences that I’ve carried for so many years.  There is a small burst of joy that comes with sending these stories out into the world.  It takes the sting out of them.geometry

Thinking about harassment I received from my geometry teacher, James Love, in high school.  It’s called sexual harassment now; at the time (1969) it was called teasing and considered complimentary.  (Okay, first of all, what a name, who would believe it, right?)  Mr. Love teased me steadily, day after day in class, his comments laden with sexual innuendo.  I was mortified and definitely believed that it was me who was ‘wrong’, that my reaction of embarrassment and discomfort was somehow evidence that I was ‘to blame’ and ‘asking for it’?  He was certainly blameless, I mean, he was a teacher, for heavens sake.

I heard rumors about other, (more attractive and more sexual), girls who spent time with him outside of school, maybe even were intimate with him.  I was still somewhat nerdy, but finally thin ‘enough’ and quite shy.  I blushed easily, which added to his delight in teasing/harassing me.  Naïve.  Ignorant?  I certainly knew enough to be shocked by the sexual comments he made to me in front of the class.  In fact, he made a fool of me, for the entertainment of my more sophisticated (sexualized) classmates, highlighting my inexperience as the root of my discomfort.  Somewhere there is a photograph that was taken of me, mid-blush.  I was trying to hide behind my hair; wishing I could crawl under my desk.

All the adults, faculty and staff, joked about Jim Love.  “What a tease.  What a card.  Great teacher.  Maybe he’s a bit full of himself, but the kids love him.”  (Yuck, yuck…) Not funny for me.  There I was, struggling to be thin and fit in and be acceptable, to meet the standards of female desirability and at the same time, (or as a result?) I was praying for invisibility.

I can’t really claim that I knew, in some above-it-all way, that appearances were not what mattered; that I was beautiful on the inside.   I didn’t believe that.  I’m sure I heard those words, but they were hollow, because the opposing message was pronounced LOUD & CLEAR from every rooftop. Yes, Dylan was singing and the times were a’changing, but the message had not been incorporated into the culture.  Despite the brilliant writings of second wave feminists, the residue from the socialization of my mother’s generation was still the dominant force.  You are second best.  Always.  That’s it and it is/will be the overriding factor in every aspect of your life: family, home, school, media, relationships, college and the work world.

on Beauty

Some thoughts on beauty.  Last Friday evening I saw a local production of the play, Hairspray.  I remember seeing the earlier movie version, with cross-dresser Divine as Edna Turnblad, but I didn’t really love it or get it at the time.  The more recent film with John Travolta in that role is a favorite.  The music is fabulous, the teenage take on the 1950’s becoming the 1960’s is fun – and somewhat accurate – and the treatment of the civil rights issues of prejudice and integration are moving.

And then there is ‘the fat stuff’.  From the first time I watched the movie, there were a few lines that just exploded for me; that’s not the best description, but as close as I can get right now.  When the teenage heart-throb sings to the fat girl, “Tracy, I’m in love with you, no matter what you weigh…”, there’s a little pop in my heart and brain.  Just to hear those words spoken.  And I’ve got to admit, the zing is still strong, even after hearing the line multiple times.  I wait for those words.  I do, I wait for them.  It feels rather sad and pathetic to admit it, but I do.

Earlier in the play/film, during the fat girl’s fantasy about winning the heart of the heart-throb, triumphing over the pretty girl, Tracy sings to her ‘rival’, “Amber, much to your surprise, this heavy weight champion takes the prize…”; fat girl triumphant, with a tinge of revenge?  Stirs me up a little.  When the fat mother of fat girl sings about not being seen by neighbors since she was a size 10 (?) and not having left the house in years, I feel a little sick and scared.  I guess I relate to that wish not to be seen.  The daughter’s response “Welcome to the 60’s…things are changing out there…” leaves me wishing that had really been true in the 1960’s, my years of adolescent suffering.  Things were changing in many ways, but fat acceptance was not one of them.  It was the era of Twiggy.

In the rousing, closing musical number, the fat mother shakes ‘it’ on the dance floor, singing: “… if you don’t like the way I look, well I just don’t give a damn!” and my heart rises up at the cheer leading positive declaration.  I wanna feel that way.  But I feel acutely aware that this is fiction.  An internal battle between Yes! and nope, is activated.  Generally I push it aside and enjoy the upbeat passion that wraps up the show.  Those see sawing emotions are too familiar and the battle is never resolved for more than a split second, so why bother?

An earlier scene, which is powerfully delivered by Queen Latifah in the Travolta film, carries the refrain “Big, blond and beautiful”, which led me to begin writing this reflection on beauty.  It’s a rallying cry, of sorts, toward self-acceptance and owning one’s right to take up space, to define beauty for oneself.  I don’t find this number as moving as the integration/civil rights anthem that comes later.  As I ask myself why that is, I wonder if it’s because racial integration and civil rights for people of color are so widely agreed upon.  The wrongs of slavery, segregation and racial profiling are so profound and the path toward righting those wrongs is (and will be) the work of generations.  We are clearly not a ‘post-racial’ society, but many/most of us are cognizant of the issues.

The right to feel beautiful, to believe you are beautiful, even when you are fat, seems trivial and self-absorbed in comparison.  Clearly the writer of Hairspray, John Waters, was drawing some parallels.  To what end, I wonder?  A last note about the stage production, as opposed to the more recent film… the script contains considerably more fat-bashing dialog.  There I was, 60 years old, sitting in the audience and not personally receiving the abuse, but the sneering and mocking was stinging. It wasn’t sufficiently mitigated by the positive messages embedded in the play.  Again, hard to admit, sad and dis-empowering, but I guess echoes of traumatic moments, even second (third, fifth?) hand, carry barbs.

So, it turns out what I have to share right now are these thoughts about the play, Hairspray.  My thoughts on beauty will come another time.

When shame…

Here’s what I wrote this morning:

When shame is buried, it poisons the soil; soil that is the primary source of nutrients for growth.  When shame flourishes above ground, the shifting branches and foliage obscure one’s vision, creating a kaleidoscope of uncertainty and fear.  When shame is exhumed and exposed, as I have been doing, its fumes are released into the environment.  The air is tainted; when inhaled, the toxicity leads to more feelings of shame.  Given time, this nasty contagion disperses, floating away and losing its ability to harm.                                        A fresh breeze helps to diffuse it.

Here’s what I read this afternoon in the book Shame, The Power of Caring, by Gershen Kaufman Ph.D.  This is from the introduction, written by Silvan S. Tompkins for the 1980 edition.  Would that I had read this sooner…

“In order to understand shame, one must have experienced deep shame and have confronted it sufficiently to have assimilated it personally, and pursued it cognitively wherever it led, and finally, to have had the courage to risk further shame by exposing oneself in writing.”

Oh.

But would knowing the risks of re-shaming myself have stopped me?  I hope not.   De-constructing shame is the work that I’ve been approaching (and avoiding) all my life.     I am out of the Slough and back to work.

Meaning…

What was the meaning of the quote I posted on Wednesday?

Since I took the sentence out of context and it was significant for me because it spoke to my personal situation at that moment…  Let me first provide a link to the works of Eckhart Tolle.  The friends who suggested I read his work several years ago told me:  “Either it speaks/makes sense to you or it does not.”

I sincerely hope that you find some meaning there, as I have.

“Life isn’t as serious as my mind makes it out to be.”

This stuck a chord, because I was ‘taking myself far too seriously’.   I had chosen to respond to a situation through my shame filter.  In fact, I had chosen to enter the:                SLOUGH OF DESPOND

You may say…”What the…?”

Allow me to share a wee bit of literary history.  In the 17th century, a writer named John Bunyan (not the American folk hero, Paul) wrote a book called The Pilgrim’s Progress.  It is an allegory, describing the journey of a character named Christian, who encounters characters named Evangelist, Hypocrisy, Pliable, Obstinate and Help, among others.  I think you can get the idea.

It’s not my cup of tea, but apparently it spoke loudly to the 19th century writers, Louisa May Alcott and Emily Bronte.  It was in their works that I first encountered the Slough, when I was a girl.  The expression spoke to me as well.  The Free Dictionary defines the Slough of Despond as:  “Depression, a mental state characterized by a pessimistic sense of inadequacy and a despondent lack of activity.”

“The name of the slough was “Despond. Here, therefore, [I] wallowed for a time… because of the burden that was on [my] back, [I] began to sink in the mire.”  (from The Pilgrims Progress, The First Stage)

So there I sat, in the 21st century, wallowing in the Slough.  I suppose one could say that the writings of Eckhart Tolle and the support of some good friends took the place of the character Help and pulled me from the Slough.

I am no longer sinking, but doing a lot of thinking.  I hope perhaps this digression was at least slightly entertaining.

And wasn’t that a gorgeous display of radishes and beets in the photo I posted?  Taken at the Brattleboro VT Farmers Market last October.