Can you feel this photo? What’s the first word that comes to mind?
This is my mother and her mother. The photo was taken probably around 1965 at my gay uncle’s first false wedding. Well not false, exactly, but a ruse, a show, a public event to prove his heterosexuality to those that could affect his opera career.
He loved this wife, I believe he loved all of them. But this was more of a business arrangement, they had an agreement. He could sleep with any man he chose, or as many men as he chose, but if he were to stray to another woman, he would be castrated, and probably slowly, without anesthesia. And so, the rings were placed, the papers were signed, and they moved into an elegant three-story town home in Connecticut.
But back to the photo. Elegance. Disdain. Contempt. Animosity. Acrimony. Secrets. Adultery. All the best ingredients for a steamy reality show.
Since I was not invited to this fete – probably because I was still in the prime of my drooling and relentless attention seeking season – I do not have first-hand knowledge. I do, however, know this relationship.
Let me catch you up.
My exquisitely dressed grandmother in her silk shift with the precisely placed brooch and oh-so-understated pillbox hat seems to be saying, “I can’t believe you’re still with that man, when is he going to marry you? What do you see in him anyway? I know you’re doing this to spite me. You’ve never listened to me. Well, now I guess you’re getting what you deserve.”
To which my stunning mother in her Audrey Hepburn hat and understated jewels, quips, “I love him, Mother. We have a child to consider now. He’s going to leave her. You don’t get a say in this one.”
This will not be the end of the conversation. It will continue openly throughout the years, silently simmering with an undercurrent of imminent eruption and outwardly with gin-laced venom and righteousness. I could feel their caution around each other as a child but never really witnessed – or don’t recall – any verbal assault in my presence. Instead, my grandmother would buy too many gifts for me on special occasions – things my lousy-no-good-cheating father could never afford. She would fly me to Florida to visit her. Alone. She would take me places and teach me the ways of the world she probably hoped would poison me against him. Turns out she didn’t really have to work all that hard at it.
This nonverbal tug of war left their relationship threadbare and my mother would work this out her entire life, how she felt about her own mother. She was clear that certain women that set her teeth on edge just by the way they said something or acted a certain way were reflections of her mother. She held them blameless but would not befriend them.
For my grandmother, she was sure she was right, so there was no internal conflict on her part, my mother just had to come to her senses.
But to be fair to my mother, there is another photo of my grandmother in this pile of proofs I’ve uncovered, in which she is reaching to shake the hand of the beautiful and happy bride, with a similar look on her face. In that one she seems to be saying simultaneously, “You’re not good enough for my baby brother and I feel sorry for you and the difficult future you have chosen.”
That look it turns out is genetic. An accident of birth. I have shot a similar look at my own mother – mostly in that adolescent black hole of junior high – and for sure my mother cast a disdaining look upon some aberrant behavior that was surely a genetic flaw on my father’s side that I exhibited. But outside of age 13 or 14 I don’t think we would have had the balls to go toe to toe like this.
Maybe they didn’t either. Maybe this was just a flash of a moment caught on film while they waited for the ladies’ room that I’ve crafted a story around. Albeit a yarn built on truth.
This is William Lincoln Palmer, my 2nd great grandfather. My great grandfather’s father – the one who married Mary, the almost famous opera singer but she chose him and a family instead, Mary. The father of that guy. My mother’s great grandfather. I, of course, never met him and don’t recall any juicy stories about him and his lovely, but quite stern looking, wife, Susan. But I really like his face. And I have unearthed evidence that he was a hard worker and good provider who continued to be off service until he died of pneumonia at 76.
Besides, he’s who floated to the top of the ancestry soup today.
He was born 102 years and some months before I was in York County, Pennsylvania. Almost all my kin hail from somewhere around Harrisburg and have been in this country for generations. The Palmers – this line – trace back to the early 1800s before I lose them. William’s wife, Susan’s roots go back to the late 1600’s and before that Germany, Switzerland, Estonia.
I’ve found similar results on other arms of this lineage. We were among the first Pennsylvania Dutch. Which has nothing to do with The Netherlands, by the way. Deutsch. German. Still fair skin, hair and eyes no matter how you slice it.
William was in the exact middle of nine children. Nine. That’s a lot of mouths to feed on his father’s blacksmithing salary. Of course, every boy was put to work laboring on the family farm once he turned 10 and every daughter helped her mother in the house as soon as she could walk.
There was a mysterious servant listed on one of his father’s censuses named Ida Gregg, but I’ve yet to ferret out any intel on her. If I were to embellish, I would say she was hired on when the young Palmer’s were midway through birthing their own baseball team, to assist the bedraggled mother and ensure the Mr. and the children were fed a proper meal. Could happen.
Throughout his adult life, William would rent several homes in and around Harrisburg. In this ward or that. Once he married he traded blacksmithing for railroad work, first as a Brakeman, then as a Lineman, then a Switchman on the Steam railroad. He worked on the railroad (please resist the urge to sing or hum the song) until he was 69.
Hearty stock, hard worker.
But by the end of his life he was a store owner – I have yet to uncover what type of goods – and he would own the title to his modest home valued at $1,400 in 1930.
He and Susan had six children, three of them lived less than a year. One of the survivors, my great-grandfather, John Calder Palmer – whom I did know until he passed when I was 21 – would follow in his father’s footsteps and take up blacksmithing as a young man, but went on to enlist in the Army for The War and work for the postal service after he discharged.
I have always felt very connected to my maternal grandmother and her lineage. Perhaps it’s because her birthday was one day before mine (plus 42 years) so we understood the gifts of stubbornness and the need for decisiveness. And a little bit of that confidence in whatever we were doing even if we didn’t know what it was. I don’t think I resemble her but I had a second cousin thank me for looking like her Aunt Mimi once.
All of his children – my grandmother and her five brothers – worked hard and made great lives for themselves and their families. I mean, they were somewhat scandalous, there were multiple marriages in one lifetime, children out of wedlock, a couple of gay uncles – that I know of – and aunt who realized she was gay, actually two, and a ex-wife who was accused of killing her husband before she joined our motley crew, but no one was broke.
Loving family? Fun party? Seething resentment? Monumental discomfort? Let’s take a look.
The Cast (left to right):
Mildred Lorraine Palmer Gough Tebbs (there will be three more last names added to that string before she takes her final bow). Also known as my maternal grandmother. She’s probably 42 in this photo. She’s feisty, out-spoken, opinionated, prefers men to women in all cases and loves a good cocktail.
Paul Tebbs, my grandfather and stepfather to my mother, although she will always consider him her true father. He is a man of few words and will speak up only when it will benefit someone else. He’s an engineer by day and raises cattle for fun on the weekends. He loves good cigars, which will eventually kill him. He’s 48 here.
My mother. Helen Louise Gough Tebbs Grimes. She believed she was controlled by her domineering mother until she met my father, who ripped the puppet strings right out of Mildred’s hands. Although, while everyone was still alive the mastery would pass back and forth between hands. She’s creative, talented and beautiful, but it’s not enough. She taught herself to like scotch but would prefer a glass of wine. She’s about 22 here. And I’m probably 11 minutes old.
Donald Earl Grimes, about 36 in this photo. Too intelligent for anyone’s good, charming, sarcastic with a side of mean, always right and incredibly artistically talented. And married. Not to my mother. With three daughters. Of which I am the youngest and the only one belonging to my mother. Oh, and he also loves a good cocktail.
I have no idea what occasion would put them all in such close proximity, but I would almost guarantee a minimum of one high ball each has been had. If gin is involved things will begin to deteriorate rapidly. My grandfather will begin to play interference and eventually guide my grandmother out the door or to bed. My mother will tug at my father’s pant leg or laugh, tilt her head and then say, we really should be going, or it’s getting late, but her words will evaporate before they reach the sensible part of his brain. The situation may escalate, words spat with enough venom to start a revolution. But there will be no apologies the next day or the next time they’re all in the same room. It never happened. And it will happen again.
Even so, I love this photo. For what it says as much as for what it hides.
Instagram didn’t invent The Brightside, it just offers a few more filters.
When I was little, you couldn’t keep me out of the water. I was like a fish, and if I wasn’t in the water I was begging to go to the water. The pool in particular, but lakes and oceans did nicely too.
I grew up in Suitland, Maryland in an apartment complex full of brick buildings with three stories, four apartments on each level. I never knew the people directly across from us, I don’t remember ever seeing anyone. Next to us lived a family with a daughter a few years older than I and we found common ground in our adoration for Donny Osmond. But I had to let her go when she did not share my affinity for the Jackson 5.
Diagonally from us, lived a woman named Ursula, who was a stewardess, and when she wasn’t working, she would wear these long flowey caftans in the bold colors and patterns of the 70’s. She would tease just the top her long blonde hair so that it made her head look taller than it was. My mom also did something like this, but she used a little upside down plastic basket to sit under a “fall” of hair that matched the color of hers, which was just a fancy name for what looked to be a fake ponytail. Wigs were perfectly acceptable accessories back then. Ursula’s husband, if they were even married, had dark hair and a mustache. I don’t know what he did, pilot maybe? While their living room was the same size and shape as ours, it looked and felt completely different. They had plants hanging in macramé holders, vibrant pillows and shag throw rugs, music on all the time and two little dogs running around. One whole wall was devoted to liquor and music. It made my own memories of my apartment seem very austere. And I don’t believe it really was. They were just very exotic and exciting.
Downstairs I had a friend named Kim. Her mom and my mom would have coffee in the afternoons sometimes at one of our apartments. Kim’s mom and her sister would join us one time at my grandparent’s 17 century farmhouse in Pennsylvania, where they heard footsteps on the long, carpeted stairway that led to the bedrooms, but saw no one. They never went back.
All the way on the bottom floor was a boy named Donald. He was from England and walked on his toes. I would be with him when he walked across a door with paned glass that was resting on the brick wall that formed the sides of the stairs leading to the common area from the laundry room. His foot went through. There was blood. It was no one’s fault.
We had a pool in the center of our complex ringed by a fence and I would swim there as often as I was allowed. Often spending my days with a long-haired hippie kid named Lucky and eating candy necklaces we bought from the ice cream truck.
By the summer of my ninth year, and six months after the birth of my brother, we moved to Springfield, Virginia. The public reason was the exemplary Fairfax Country school system, the private reason was that there were too many black families moving into our apartment complex. My father was a racist bigot, and somehow that was kept from me – thankfully – for quite some time. At least until I wanted to go to the 6th grade banquet with a black boy in my class. My mother deftly suggested I meet him at the school, and she would drive me.
In our new neighborhood in North Springfield, we lived in a house and there was a community pool. I wanted so badly to belong to it. I wanted to swim as much as I could with all my new friends all summer long. But instead, we joined a pool in another neighborhood that we had to drive to, probably for financial reasons. We continued to renew our membership at this pool for at least three summers, after which time we started going to Myrtle Beach for three weeks when school got out.
Anyway, at this pool, there was a lifeguard. A girl. I was probably about 11 or 12 and I had the biggest crush on her. I had always been boy crazy, always chased boys, flirted with boys, fantasized about the dreamy boys in Tiger Beat Magazine. But for some reason this young female lifeguard had my full attention. I would place her in all the same imagined romance and rescue scenarios I did with the boys. She looked a little bit like a boy. But she wasn’t. I can’t remember her name.
She was tan, of course, she was a lifeguard, and it was the 70’s. She had short dark brown hair parted in the middle that feathered back on the sides. She wore a puka shell necklace. Because everybody did. I wish I could remember her name.
During the summers, we would go to the pool every day. There was a parental rule that it must be at least 80 degrees. I often fought my mother on the baselessness of this arbitrary number. And sometimes I won, promising her it was bound to warm up and if not we could come right home.
The pool was on a hill, with a skin-peeling asphalt parking lot in front. If my feet were wet, I could bolt to the car before getting blisters. If not, like when we arrived, I had to jump from parking space line to parking space line to survive the angry tarmac. Wearing shoes was not an option. There was a small brick building that we passed through to sign in and prove our worthiness to be there with a laminated card. This structure held the locker rooms, slick with pool water and the office that had a half door with the sign-in sheet resting on a clipboard on a shelf on the bottom half of the door, the top half of the door swung open to reveal a wall of whistles hanging with the names of the lifeguards above them. Lifeguards were gods.
On the other side of the wall was the big glorious, shimmering, light blue pool. At its far end it hooked to the right to form the deep end. A guard stand was stationed at exactly the middle overlooking the danger zone. Two other stands flanked either side of the main shallower body of the pool. To the immediate right was the piss-filled kiddy pool behind a chain link fence. To the left was a big grassy, shaded area with picnic tables for what purpose I couldn’t fathom. Who would come to the pool to sit in the shade? This was the mid-70’s and the only reason to go to a pool other than to swim of course, was to get a tan. And meet boys. Or in this case a girl. Angie? Was that her name?
It was in the shade of these trees at the picnic tables that I met a boy named Mike with unruly blond hair. He was spending his summer in Virginia at his dad’s house. His real life was back in Colorado with his mom. It seemed really far away, but the heart wants what the heart wants. I felt like we probably loved each other, but I wasn’t even in seventh grade yet. I remember the painful popular song at the time was Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now and after he went back home, I would play that 45 ad nauseam so I could cry and prove how much I loved him. This boy I only spent a couple hours a day with at a pool.
There was a woman always at the pool, always in the same spot, named Rachel, who seemed like she was 100, but probably was just in her mid-30s. She had the most ridiculous tan. She brought her own lounge chair, the kind that’s in three parts and folds in on itself for easy carrying. There were plenty of lounge chairs already at the pool, so I didn’t get it. She was a professional tanner. Oiled up from head to toe, a cloud of coconut surrounding her. She would turn over at exact intervals and shift her chair like a sundial as the sun moved in the sky. Her bathing suits were all fluorescent. Her hair was an unrealistic blonde. I don’t know how I knew her name.
The lifeguard though, Debbie, was it? I’m not sure I ever had a conversation with her. You didn’t have to talk to people to fall in love with them when you were 11. Probably 11 is different now, though. I do remember feeling foolish when she called for break and I wasn’t old enough to stay in the pool. Instead, I would keep my eye on the clock and exit before she blew the whistle so that it seemed I just needed a break and it happened to coincide with the adult swim time. I’m sure I fooled her. I’m sure she wasn’t even aware of my existence. Tracy?
It was near the end of the summer, the light had shifted, become softer, more orange around the edges, and Mike was heading back to Colorado and I would never see him again. And I wouldn’t see the lifeguard again either. Lori? We didn’t even live in the same neighborhood. But that’s not why.
I would be at the pool when I heard the news. There had been an accident. The lifeguard was in the backseat of a Volkswagen Bug. She died on impact. Instantly. Her neck broken. They were coming home from a day at the beach. I was too young to know what to do with my feelings.
I have a project, a book idea, that I really want to start. At least I say I do. I think I do. My body, though, is offering some sort of different direction.
I have bazillions of family photos, maybe a literal ton. Somehow, I have become the family historian. I completely embrace it, but now that I want to do something with all this history I’m stuck. Memoir? Novel based on imagined histories? Something else yet to be revealed?
There is this clear chronological plan in my head: take all the photos from the 1800’s through today and organize them by year, or decade if the specific year is unclear. So I started. And as I am sorting I feel so much tension in my core. Angst even. It doesn’t matter what decade it is, my body does not like this. A tiny little voice, and sometimes “random” outside influences, whispers, “let go of the past.” But I’m not holding onto it. Am I?
I’ve said all along that I’m not sure what I’m supposed to glean from this project. There is not a ton of hidden history. I mean, I’m on a first name basis with all the skeletons. And deep dives into my ancestry show pretty solid hard workers, no slave ownership, northern stock, farmers, railroad men, way too many children for each household. For sure there are secrets I’ll never uncover in the way back. For sure there are hidden truths within my own lifetime. But that doesn’t resonate as a plan or feel like the source of this unease.
I’m shifting my focus, changing up my process. I will gather all the photos of one person regardless of decade and create a timeline. But what about the other people in that person’s life? Where do they go? Why am I doing this anyway? There is something I need from all of this. Maybe the clenching in my gut is a sign to keep going. To find the right path. I hope there’s juicy dirt or ridiculousness hiding for me.
Whatever the case, I am going to choose one photo a day to write about. Could be of anyone from any era. Whether my writing is rooted in the truth or a complete fabrication will remain to be seen. The process is to write. To connect words with the image.
So here goes.
This is a photo of my mother and an unknown friend. It’s the mid 1940’s and she is living in Texas with her mother, new stepfather and new little brother. Her new dad is in the military and will use his training and GI Bill education to become an engineer like his father. He loved my mother, adopted her the moment he could after he married my grandmother. Her young childhood was good, sandwiched between a traumatic entry into the world and the realization, around 7, that her step grandparents preferred to believe she didn’t exist. She wasn’t blood. They would shower her younger brother with gifts at holidays and leave her with nothing. They doted on him while turning away from her, adhering to some antiquated code that made no sense to a young child. Or even her grown parents.
But here, in this photo, at this time in her life, she was free and happy.
There are parallels between my mother’s life and my own. Her birth story is quite dramatic, mine less so, but still not ideal or average. Her younger brother would garner the lion’s share of positive attention. Mine did the same, especially from my father who already had two daughters by another before I came along unexpectedly. If he had to have another unplanned child, at least a golden boy child was bestowed upon him.
But back to mom. She’s not around anymore to query about the mysteries of her past, but she did share a fair amount while still living. I love a good story so every opportunity I had I would throw out a few questions while pouring her another glass of wine. Maybe as I pluck photos from the past some of these stories will resurface and I can share them.
If not, I’ll make something up that sounds feasible and hopefully entertaining.
I follow this badass, super-connected, multi-dimensional being on Instagram. I would say it was totally by accident, but… you know, there are no accidents. Anyway, she does these intense videos – of just her talking – that I am powerless to turn away from.
One of these videos popped up recently and I watched it more than once (it’s not important how many times) because her primary concept kept picking at a loose thread in my subconscious mind and I knew I had to unravel it.
She was talking about the new moon energy and how a lot of death was happening. Metaphorical death, the death of beliefs that were no longer useful, ideas of the ego that no longer held sway over emotions, aspects of the personality that were a waste of time and energy. Old grids on which our beliefs were built are disintegrating to make room for new light and new growth, and this thought came to me: I have to kill my “self.” I have to help the Allison that has been trying to protect and control and guide me away from things that may harm me or just make me sad – for about forty years – and toward false identification with the body and thoughts – deep breath – die.
The ego. I’m talking about having a serious sit down with the part of my personality that thinks it is helping me by steering me away from edges and sharp objects. By protecting me from growth.
This now feels like the only way to move forward untethered to the past. There was a certain clarity that came while she was talking, this vision of peeling back many veils, layers and layers of opinions and dusty old truths, that have been dulling my shine, obscuring – like Vaseline on glass – the power of my true “Self” with a capital S. There is a light that has been covered in the soot and grime of good intentions and procrastination and it’s time for it to shine.
I don’t know what this means yet. I just know that all the things I have been doing this year so far, the action I have been taking, is starving the beast and concocting the perfect elixir to reveal whatever is lying beneath.
I have to let her go, this outdated version of Allison. There are some insidious patterns there that whisper of not being enough, or loveable or some such nonsense. Because we all have this secret shame. And just so you know, it’s bullshit. No one is responsible for loving you, but you. No one else is allowed to tell you if you are enough or not. And just to reiterate, you are enough, you are lovable and I’m pretty sure you’re a secret badass too.
I imagine there will be a bit of psychological warfare involved, the ego is tenacious in holding onto its life. And truly, it is necessary – the ego that is – it just needs to be educated, controlled, handed a lollipop and sent to the corner for a while.
While killing aspects of Allison may seem harsh and possibly not even doable, it feels like a healthy portion needs to be excised nonetheless. Perhaps I can deny it attention, overcome its objections and dismantle its reassurances that its necessary for my very survival. Perhaps.
I’m interested in what’s on the other side, but more than that I think I’m interested in the process. Allowing absolute truth (yet to be revealed, stay tuned) to lift the hems of the veils and carry them away one by one. Dissolving back to wherever it was they once came.
This awareness thing is tricky. It seems there are multiple voices lobbing suggestions at me. The high one, the one coming from that space of awareness, the one that is not the me walking around, not the one entangled in my ego, is pretty distinguishable. But the voice I call my own, has quite a few personalities, it turns out.
There’s the one I think of mostly me. It’s the one that says “ugh” a lot when receiving a download from the smart one. Then there’s the doubter, never quite sure if the information being downloaded from the galactic realms of absolute reason is sound. “Maybe I should have chocolate?” And then there’s this judgy presence who reminds me of Patsy from AbFab. Mostly she sits in a corner with a cigarette in one hand and a martini in the other scoffing and rolling her eyes whenever I set out to make a positive change. “Here we go again.”
So, naturally positive change is what I’m trying to make. Break some unhelpful habits, add in some new healthy ones, hope something sticks this time. You know the drill.
To motivate me to get (re)started, I opened Marie Forleo’s book Everything is Figureoutable and it was the right choice. Yes, it’s a self-helpy kind of book and yes, I have read every single self-help and motivational book there is. Every. One. I’m pretty sure. But with each one I take away a nugget or finally get some key principle I’ve read 27 times. Or maybe I am able to let go of some worn out belief that didn’t belong to me in the first place.
This book asks some great questions and like the student of life I like to believe I am, I dutifully answered each question in my journal.
To back up a tiny bit, the book is about going for your dream – whatever that is, starting a business, getting healthy, financial freedom, ending a relationship, whatever – and figuring out what is standing in your way or what needs to be done. Marie Forleo is a business coach extraordinaire, but with heart and presence. She gets it.
She allows for you to have more than one dream but insists you choose just one to start with as she is working on helping you build focus and discipline, twin struggles for me. Once the first dream is solidly underway, any other dreams can be addressed.
Here’s how it emerged.
Dream 1: World Traveler Storyteller Shopper. I would love to travel the world and take photos and meet people and write stories and buy really cool things from artisans and flea markets and bring them back to sell in my own awesome shop. I know. I’m already kind of doing that.
Dream 2: Financial Freedom. I have a student loan that is like a bad rash, it will not go away. It’s my own fault, I have deferred it a million times hoping it would just evaporate. It didn’t. I am left with a hefty sum bearing down on my happiness and freedom. In addition, I have a sort of round robin thing going on with my credit card debt. It all gets paid off, then it magically reappears, then it gets paid off, etc. I’d like to crack the code and eradicate all eliminatable debt. (New word. Meaning: any bills that do not occur monthly like phone and power.)
Dream 3: Vibrant Health. Lifelong struggle. I can pinpoint exactly when I went off the rails and it has everything to do with family dynamics, but that was over 40 years ago, so let’s get on with this, can we? What I mean by vibrant health is: an appropriate weight for my height, age and lifestyle; physically active daily – walking, riding my bike, gym; eating foods that support me and not my cravings and habits. Overall it means having this boundless energy that will allow me to do all the things, sleep all the hours and go all the places.
I was sure Dream 1 was the one to figure out. But guess what? Dream 3 rose to the top. For a few reasons.
While my brother was visiting I was sharing my desire to be successful and travel and start another business that involved said travel (I already have a very successful business I share with two badass women, and a couple side gigs). I was a little wistful and maybe a tad whiny. Then he has the nerve to say, while gesturing like the greatest showman, “I kinda feel like you already have that.” He’s right. I have someone’s version of success. If I took the time to practice gratitude more often I would realize that. And he’s also not completely right. Entrepreneurs like to start stuff and I love a beginning. But still, I heard him, and it sunk in.
Everything starts with health. Everything. I have no excuses other than my resistance to something that I have not yet figured out, but I bet it has something to do with that mean girl in my head (you probably know her too) that tells me on a continuous basis that I don’t deserve what I want, that I’m not good enough or that I’m just fine as I am. “Grab a bag of chips, girl, there’s a Hallmark Mystery movie you haven’t seen yet.” I’d like to use an expletive here but I’m trying to keep it street level and stay classy, instead I’ll take a page out of CeeLo’s censor’s book: Forget her!
A huge part of my existing business has to do with health and often I feel like a fraud. Not practicing what I preach. Not meeting my own standards and expectations. (Side note: most women feel like they’re frauds, that someone will figure out that they really don’t know what they’re doing, but we’ll cover that another time.)
As a result, health moved up. Here’s another interesting insight I had regarding these three: When I think about starting a business I take the long view, I understand there will be setbacks and struggles as well as wins. I have measurable goals that are like signposts along the way, once one is achieved I reevaluate and move on, I pivot, I hold, I recalibrate and keep going. With both the health and financial dreams I don’t do that. I have a final destination and then I’m done. I pay off my student loan and credit cards and then I clap the crumbs off my hands, take a deep breath and book another trip. On a credit card. Or I get to the perfect size, maintain healthy eating habits and exercise for a while then forget and leave the door open a crack for the not so helpful habits to sneak back in. And voila, we’re back in the depths of the self-shaming cycle.
To truly achieve what I want with my health and my finances I’m going to have to reframe them entrepreneurially. There will have to be other things beyond the eradication of debt and the perfect size for me. A growing savings and retirement account with measurable balance goals, perhaps. A refinement of muscle tone or races or dance classes, cooking classes, something to keep my body happy and my mind engaged in the ongoing healthy living process.
Still working on that part, but for now I have a plan in place that starts smallish and manageable and grows. There are markers, a stack of healthy cookbooks in my kitchen and a hefty pile of inspirational books from athletes to badass women to keep me inspired. Plus my brother has the same focus on health this new year, so we are each other’s accountability partners, checking in once a week.
This is ongoing, I’m recommitting to my health for the 1 millionth time and this is why Patsy is pffting in the corner. That’s okay, eventually the juicing and roasting and meditation will bore her and she’ll wander into someone else’s personal drama and try to convince them to stay stuck. I hope it’s not you.
It’s the beginning of another year and for whatever reason – cultural, internal or driven by the all-powerful social media – I am pulled toward self-review. If I am being completely honest, my life is a series of perpetual self-evals. What is my purpose? What should I be doing? Am I on the right path? Am of service to others? To anyone? Followed by, I could do better, Habits are hard, and my all time favorite, Let’s figure this out.
So, here I sit before a blank screen pondering those same tired thoughts without a lot of fresh input. Instead, I offer the following…
Everything begins with awareness. Awareness of that higher, wiser part of ourselves. We all have it, and sometimes we use it. We all know we shouldn’t have the extra helping of pumpkin pie (or maybe even the first), stay up to binge watch something that is not really enhancing our lives, not getting up early to own the day, not planning meals and finances. I trust you’re familiar. I mean there are mythical beings out there whose finances are pristine, their abs are true, their kitchens are stocked with local, organic vegan fare and their relationships are nothing but love and light.
But I’ve yet to meet such a unicorn. If they don’t really exist, why am I spinning plates and hula hooping trying to live up to their imaginary standards?
I’m not gonna make this about resolutions or even intentions. Has that worked for you? I mean for more than a week? Me neither.
My gift to myself this coming year is going to be to listen to my gut, my higher self, the universe, nature, pretty much any voice that doesn’t come from my ego running rough shod with scissors through the night or any other actual well-meaning, yet mortally flawed, human being. I’m going to listen to the powerful, yet calm and quiet and simple promptings of my soul.
Put the phone down.
Go to your mat.
Drink water instead.
It’s a beautiful day for a walk.
I mean, her advice is spot on and so clear, there is no innuendo, no context needed, nothing cloudy or unsure. And usually it’s not about don’t do something and more about make a better choice. For my energy, my sanity, my peace.
My life will still be full of all that I love, travel, decorating, creativity, but I feel like it will be richer, cleaner, more spacious, maybe, if I pay closer attention. I kind of imagine myself – my human form – with all my to-do’s and passions and needs stuck to me, adding weight and making me itchy. Then I imagine creating space through nothing more than awareness and listening to that wise voice. (Conscious breathing and meditation never hurt, so I’ll throw that in a well) Then I begin to see myself with an inch of air between me and all that stuff. Then maybe a foot. Then maybe arm’s length, just far enough away that I can reach out and choose which task or project I wish to work on or play with. I mean everything we do involves choice. If we’re not consciously selecting where we put our energy and focus, those decisions are happening by default. And not very elegantly, I may add.
So that’s it. Just listen and follow directions. That’s my big plan. I mean, how hard can it be?
Is done really better than perfect? Maybe in marketing or bed-making, but perfect sounds like a good idea when engaging in say, heart surgery or packing a parachute. Habits, though? Where do they fit in? I’m siding with done. To any degree.
I’m two weeks into my made up Three for Three system. I’m counting the “dones” because there is no perfect here. This is life. It’s more about mastery than perfection. And it’s all 100% subjective.
There is a quote from Swami Kripalu that I have always marveled at and I’m on a constant quest to embed it into every judgmental cell of my being: “Self-observation without judgment is the highest form of spiritual practice.” And how.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Eliminating things is way easier than adding in new practices. At least the things I chose to let go of. It took absolutely no effort to deny alcohol. I mean aside from thinking somewhere on the periphery while preparing dinner that first night how lovely a glass of wine would be while chopping veggies, there has really been no thought of wine or alcohol of any kind.
While I was making my list of positive changes I wanted to adopt this year, there were other food items that I wanted to eliminate or greatly reduce: meat, dairy, gluten and sugar. I secretly bundled two of those into the curriculum of month one of “Project Me” and, like their buddy alcohol, they have not been missed. No meat or gluten for 14 days. Check.
BUT, if I do have meat and/or gluten, I have already given myself permission to let it go and not be judgmental. Alcohol is the focus. That was the one thing I promised myself.
I also want to clarify the reason I am doing this. To myself as much as anyone. I have identified those 5 foods as working against me. Or perhaps it is my affinity for them that becomes detrimental. Alcohol invites me to stay up too late and cozy up to lethargy. Meat has become more of a compassion issue over the years, but I also know too much of it too often promotes prolonged couch sitting. Gluten is glue to my digestive system. Nuff said. Dairy is inflammatory to everyone and I am everyone. Sugar is my best friend. I love sugar. I have let her go before and plan to move to another state to avoid her enticements if I have to to say bye-bye again. But not yet.
I always have these five frenemies in the back of my mind. I am hyper aware of each teaspoon of sugar that goes into my coffee and of how much butter I am using on my gluten-free toast. I have let go of cheese for the most part and don’t miss it. But just knowing this is the direction in which I’d like to go, keeps me from overindulging and seems to be working in my favor.
Plus, I have made no promises to let go of any of these things forever. Or maybe I will. But there is no pressure to label myself anything or any pride involved in being something-free. In fact, I would like to be the type of person that becomes so attuned to the needs of their own body that they eat and nourish it with exactly what and how much it requires.
Can you imagine? Not succumbing to peer pressure, advertising or non-supportive habits? Sounds kinda magical.
The side effect of eliminating all of these things, slowly and mindfully, is to create space and clarity. Clean energy to be used for higher pursuits. Give myself and my body the best opportunity to digest and thrive, thereby clearing my mind and sparking the moldering embers of creativity. To give myself every opportunity to be shiny.
Weight loss could also be a side benefit, but it’s not the driver. I haven’t weighed myself at all. I know I need to lighten up, lose weight and reduce inflammation and I believe that will happen naturally. I want to be my ideal size, but I’ve actually grown quite fond of my curves and thickness over the years. I like being huggable and grounded. But, if the universe decides my best body mass is 120 pounds I’m down with that too. I’ll adjust.
Now, for the moment of truth: The adding in of helpful habits. (Big sign, eye roll.)
The morning practice and daily writing? More difficult. For me it’s about structure and time. If I get up early enough these things will flow with much less effort. (That’s my belief.) The holidays and company have given me many convenient excuses not to do this. But honestly, even when I get up at 5:00 AM I manage to somehow fill the time with other things.
But I’m not giving up. Quitting would not serve me. These two practices are still tugging at me.
Let’s start with the morning practice. In my mind it was to be about an hour and include meditation, breath work and yoga. In reality, on my best days, it turned into 15 minutes of all of that. However, I am reading the book Atomic Habits by James Clear and one of the methods to skillfully adopt a habit is to commit 2 minutes to it daily. In the case of my little routine that would look like sitting on my mat for 2 minutes. Maybe eyes closed and breathing. Maybe looking around my backyard. The habit is rolling out my mat and sitting down however I spend that time is irrelevant. In theory this mat sitting will evolve into the hour I had envisioned. Maybe two minutes at a time. Better than avoidance.
The writing has had a higher success rate. I have wondered more than once why I chose writing. I love to write. I hate to write. I love to think about writing and to have written, but the process sometimes feels arduous and the words won’t flow and who wants to read this drivel anyway when I’m bored with my own sentences. But bad writing is still writing. Good and better writing comes with consistency. And lots pages of bad writing. I have been able to meet my goal of 1000 words per day about 65% of the time.
As I consider my choices, and that voice of lethargy disguised as common sense that tries to talk me into other distractions, I am also fortifying my decisions by reading about habits, by reading about food, by writing about what I’m reading about. I believe that is called studying. And I do not have a specific goal in mind for any of it. No weight loss or book deal, no financial gain or gold stars.
The process is the struggle and the reward. To let it go is to fail. To skip days, fight against it and whine, but still do something, anything? That’s progress. Process not perfection.
We have the opportunity to hit the reset button the first of every month, the beginning of each new day, even the top of each inhalation, yet somehow flipping the page from one year to the next creates in us the need for an entire life makeover.
I get it. I’m in that boat. Every year. It’s the possibility of change, of an updated version of the me I already like with better features; more energy, an easier smile and less stress.
But are we just kidding ourselves? Am I just kidding myself? Again?
Maybe. Yet the exercise, the review, the hope seem like a really good thing, so I persist.
Nothing really ever goes exactly according to plan, yet we plan. This year is no different. But hopefully it is. Hopefully I will stop breaking promises to myself, stop lying to myself and trust that way more intelligent higher self within me. She’s inexhaustible and patient. She sits quietly by while all the crazy lower selves run around in circles convincing me that one more glass of wine is not going to hurt anything, that gluten is fine for me taken in small doses – like two or three cookies at a time – that sugar has been around forever so it can’t be all bad and that going for that walk tomorrow makes more sense than getting off the comfy couch right now.
She’s waiting. I’m ready to hang out with her now.
That band of lazy, chaotic pranksters needs to be put in their place. So, we, my higher self and I, are going to employ some different tactics this year.
Quick Reader’s Digest version of a familial backstory here that has led to this “new” system: My brother and I are a lot alike in our desire to be better, do better and take better care of ourselves. We want to better ourselves and the world. We chat ad nauseum about such things. And sometimes we actually do them. This year though, we decided to create a structure in which to give ourselves a better chance for success. And a way to hold each other accountable. It’s based on not a single stitch of personal research, it is instead based on our desire to improve and the subliminal messages of millions of hours spent reading the books, and listening to the podcasts of, those who seem to have cracked the personal best life mastery code. So here goes…
Three things in three months. Three for Three. To be repeated each quarter. Different goals each quarter, same system.
We each have a list of those practices we’d like to add in to our lives and a list of items or practices we’d like to eliminate. In addition, we’re both entrepreneurial so there are some business benchmarks we’d also like to hit.
We’ve learned through trial and [mostly] error that we’re not so good at this, and that attempting a clean sweep of all the bad and adding a dump truck load of all the good all at once is not only nearly impossible, but also not recommended. On the other side of the coin, choosing a moderate path just seems to find us wandering back into the same bad habits full of colorful excuses. And the ‘let it go and just be’ tactic trips us up as well. Although there is a component of that in this plan.
Let me explain. We need structure. This is a royal we so you’re included here. When we automate certain positive habits, we have more time for creative pursuits because we are spending less time stressing about what we should be doing. Think: brushing your teeth. You just automatically do that. As a kid you may have whined, bargained and drug your feet on the way to the bathroom sink, but now you get it and it’s a natural part of your day. THAT’S what we’re going for here.
To make it easier (we hope), we created three categories under which to place three of the changes we wanted to make in each three month time block.
Assimilate: Folding a good habit or practice into your day – pick one and commit to it for three months. Weave it into your life. Every day.
Eliminate: Choose one unhelpful habit or item, kick it to the curb and commit to its absence for three months. Every day.
Dominate: These are achievable business/personal goals. They differ in that there will be an end point; something measurable. Pick one commit to it for three months. Work it every day.
Here’s where I’m starting:
Assimilate: Morning practice. What does this look like? A combination of meditation, breath work and yoga. Some days it may be 10 minutes, others may be 2 hours. The time is way less important than the commitment to the daily practice.
Eliminate: I want to pick all the gremlins, but I am settling on alcohol. No one needs alcohol and when we hang out together we eat poorly and stay up too late. She’s fun and all, but we’re gonna take a break.
Dominate: Daily writing. Not journaling, but actual writing. Book pages, blogs, articles, etc. This is more on the personal than business side, but it’s been a struggle to get me to sit down and focus in front of my screen on the daily. Now it’s a priority. The measurable part? 1,000 words a day. Maybe that book will finally reveal itself.
The idea here is if the habit just isn’t sticking after three months I can let it go guilt-free and move on to the next three for three. If it sticks, great, it’s automated and it continues without much thought and I still move on to the next three.
The rest of the list? It’s long and includes things like no snacking, planting a food garden, 10,000 steps a day and consuming lots of water.
I’m hoping along the path of this journey I will stumble upon my keystone habit; that one habit that shifts everything and all those lists and plans simply fall into place. I’ll keep you informed.
How about you? How do you plan to love yourself back to health this year?