The Big Relax

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After week-two of being back at home, I knew that what I felt wasn’t jet-lag. I couldn’t clear my head; I felt drowsy and dreamy; I thought I might be catching what a lot of people on the flight back from Montreal seemed to be passing around. (Is there anything more unnerving for the weary Traveler than a plane chock- full of hacking, sneezing people? Almost – but not quite — up there with the ‘Mechanical Trouble’ announcement.)

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As soon as I arrived home, I lined-up my natural remedies, hoping to boost my travel-stressed system against whatever was trying to get me. It seemed like I was losing the battle when, three days after landing, I botched my portion of a group presentation. At least, that was my ‘read’ on it – I didn’t press my groupmates for their input; didn’t really need to, sadly. But as I walked away from that particular humbling experience, it was only a minute that I felt bad. (Humiliating myself is one thing, but I hate to reflect poorly on my group.) Before long, I was feeling ‘Whatever !’, in mind, body and soul.

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And then the ‘dominoes’ began to fall in my head:  I didn’t care at all about the topic that I’d presented on. My heart wasn’t in it. What’s more, I was annoyed with the way my colleagues had been fussing with one another about work responsibilities. (Really?) I realized that people and situations in my immediate surroundings were making me feel like, “Enough, already!” Lastly, even my urge to write seemed to have waned. What the…? That never happens.

And it came to me:  What if I stopped trying so hard at everything I do? Having recently completed my doctoral program (a major accomplishment on my cosmic To Do list), I never missed a beat before I was on-to-the-next-thing. Where was my Off, or even Pause button? Do I even have one of those? Where did all of this ‘drive’ come from?

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Not long ago I was doing my four-mile racewalk and came across a guy riding one of those funny little collapse-able bicycles (they’ve always appealed to me, so small and so low to the ground – packable?). We chatted for a bit (he was quick to tell me he was the proud papa of a local, somewhat famous chanteuse in my city). He asked me about myself and I told him about my doctoral work. “Oh,” he said, “You’re one of those super-ambitious women.” Say what? Rather than get into the whys and wherefores of how ambition becomes a different kind of trait when a woman possesses it, I proudly said, “Yeah, I am.” Did that kill the guy’s interest in further conversation? I don’t know, and didn’t care that he suddenly pedaled-off.

Despite the odd (sexist and judge-y) way he framed it, bicycle man was correct. I do have more than my fair share, it seems, of ambition. But after my recent international trip (celebrating the official conclusion of my doctoral work), my body, mind and soul said Hey. It began with a foggy brain and less than stellar professional moment. Then came the acceptance that it’s probably ‘ok’ to down-shift for a minute. I eased-into what I’ve been calling The Big Relax. Staying up late, sleeping in; ignoring The News of the day, phone calls and texts. Most importantly, ignoring my need (compulsion?) to produce:   the evidence that I’m not just taking up space on the planet but actually making each moment count for something.

The Big Relax is already over, but my takeaway is that I can slow down, without stopping. The sky doesn’t fall if I’m not productive. Bingeing on Netflix and Talenti has mental health benefits that, for some reason, I’ve truly overlooked.

Things We Do For Love

This recent trip overseas, I decided to guinea-pig myself in an experiment. Always seeking remedies to reduce the dreaded Jet Lag, I’d read about how face masks – the kind that filter germs – can actually shorten your ‘lag time’. Something about breathing moist air, reducing overall dehydration caused by flying, which apparently contributes to feeling so rotten. So, on the roughly 13 hour flight over, I wore the mask pretty much the whole time. Whether it was the excitement of landing in a new country, or the mask actually working, I perked-up  after only a day and a half of feeling rough. The second half of the experiment:  I didn’t wear the mask at all on the flight home. What a difference. Four full days of a spacey head and not wanting to do much beyond sleep. I’ll definitely be packing a mask from now on.

Back home, while I was still feeling like a zombie, I decided to go to my local grocery store for a pick me up ‘shot’ of immune booster. (What I eventually settled-on was an eye-watering, nose-running, cough-spluttering combo of really hot fresh ginger, turmeric, black pepper and some exotic berries I’d never heard of.) While I was trying to read the teeny tiny print on itty bitty Alice in Wonderland bottles, all in psychedelic colors (is that part of their appeal, I wonder), I felt a person behind me. As I scooted out of the way, the woman began talking to me.

I’ve never heard a person talk so fast. Of course, she didn’t know my brain was ‘toast’ from flying. I smiled, and nodded, and she talked. And talked. Some of what the woman said filtered through my mental fog – she seemed to know a lot about those little super-shots and had tried most of them. Helpful. But then the topic meandered a little…to her battle with all kinds of Life stressors and her body’s ‘breakdown’ as she put it.

This happens to me a lot. I’m in a store. Any store. Someone wants to know, “Does this melon smell ripe to you?” “Does this dress look good on me?” “Do you know anything about the benefits of celery juice?” This last question came from the woman in the store yesterday. Far from being annoyed, or anxious to be on my way, I was transfixed by her story:  it just kept rolling out as I continued to read labels, hoping that one in particular would whisper, Choose me!

In a span of the past five years, said the woman, she’d endured the following:  flying 2,000 miles to support a niece through rehab; caring for her mother-in-law until her death from breast cancer; taking-in her brother and his wife when he lost his job; losing another brother to alcoholism; and coping with the death of a dear aunt who meant more to her (she said) than her own mother. After sharing an impressive (and scary, to me) list of meds she’d been prescribed by various doctors (“I had a full-on breakdown and was hospitalized”), the woman told me she was intent on getting well naturally. Clean foods. Juicing. Ah – that explained her super-shot knowledge.

It was time for me to try to edge – gently and tactfully – away from this encounter. I wished the woman luck – she seemed better for having talked non-stop for a bit — and almost immediately flashed-back to when I was a care provider for my own father. How it wore me down. How my love and care for him caused me to almost get into a similar state of total physical, mental, emotional and spiritual collapse. I can’t imagine a succession of caregiving demands. Love is strong. Love is the greatest power on earth;  but we are fragile systems, often unaware and unable to realize when our breaking point is near. Love allows us to endure unimaginable hardship without a thought for our own welfare; love blinds us to any and all things that are not a part of our impulse to care, to sacrifice, to find strength when strength is gone.

I was glad, suddenly, that I was there yesterday in that store isle. The woman who unburdened herself to me didn’t know I had a minimally-functioning brain. It didn’t matter. She talked. I listened. We both connected, intimate strangers. I walked away marveling at her strength, and at the amazing things we do for Love.

“Just Relax & Breathe Through It”

I hate going to the doctor. Any doctor, any time (even when I’m sick and might need one), for any reason. Even benign check-ups. It’s not quite at the phobic-level, but close. Recall what early American pioneers took note of as they moved out West, and encountered Native Americans for the first time. If a newcomer wanted to take a photograph of an indigenous person, they were refused. As American folklore explains it, these original Americans felt that a photograph would rob them of all, or part of, their soul-essence. Thanks, but no thanks. That’s how I feel about most of the medical profession. Irrational, maybe, but there it is.

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When a person reaches his or her 90’s, even in relatively good health, more and more doctors creep quietly onto the stage. Yesterday, as I do every week, I spoke with my uncle who lives about 2,500 miles from me. He’s 91 and still able to be independent; mentally and physically active. And yet, his health has to be ‘monitored’. As he puts it, “At my age, it’s always something.” So off he went, to one of his half-dozen doctors two days before our talk, feeling fairly strong and fit, considering. But as soon as he was put into a room to wait for the physician’s assistant, my uncle said he began to feel anxious. When the P.A. arrived and did a blood pressure check, my uncle’s was abnormally high. “You know,” he later told me on the phone, “it doesn’t do a damn bit of good for them to tell me to ‘relax’.

I can relate. The next day I went to get a flu shot (which I always argue with myself about, but end up doing it anyway). Waiting for the nurse my pulse was amped and my breathing was shallow. When she arrived and was ready to jab my shoulder with her needle, she put her arm down, eyeballed me, and said, “Relax this muscle and try to breathe through it!” as she poked the target on my arm. Easier said than done.

As I was leaving that place (as fast as I could), I began thinking about all of the scenarios in which someone had told me to Just-relax-and-breathe-through-it. Labor pains, and the birth of my son; a therapist I went to, when my entire organization was melting-down and people were literally ‘keying’ one another’s cars and slashing tires out of spite; trying to focus on my attorney’s words, as we discussed my brother’s lawsuit over my father’s inheritance, robbing me of two years of peace of mind.

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Relax. Breathe. Sometimes I play a mental game with myself during stress. I compare what I’m presently going through to the absolute worst-case moments I’ve had before.  Just to keep perspective. Which, I know,  isn’t the same as breathing-through whatever ‘it’ is. Because breathing-through it means allowing the terror to enter my heart, to lie coiled there for as long as it wants (while I try to ignore it), until it gets bored and goes away. Intellectually, I understand that a tensed muscle equals resistance, which equals more pain. But something much deeper, and more primal closes my ears and makes me want to hide from scary moments. When I hear, “Relax and Just Breathe Through It”? Well, the expression “Hold my beer…” comes to mind.

Ditching the Rectangle

Heads-up: This Blog Post is all about body issues related to women going through Transitions. But just in case my younger Readers think they should probably “pass” on this one, I’m here to tell you that I underwent ‘menopause’ (after an extremely stressful life event) at age 40. So, changes can happen anytime.

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Another heads-up:  This Post is going to provide some straight talk about what our bodies do and why, as we age. So, anyone thinking that they might be unhappily ‘triggered’ by brutal honesty (with suggestions, I promise!), please proceed with caution. I am not a medical doctor, nor am I related to one. I do have a few friends who are doctors, but I didn’t consult them on this topic. This Post is based on my own experiences, observations, research and discussions with friends. It’s also going to offer how I Ditched the Rectangle.

What’s the ‘Rectangle’ I’m referring to? It’s the body shape that many women develop over time. We lose our waists by gathering a little padding in our upper backs, hips and tummies. So, from the back view, we look like rectangles from the hips up. Now, this might not be a big deal to some women, but not having a waist anymore…? Well, I wasn’t having it, so to speak.

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How did my ‘rectangle’ develop? It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t ever related to being overweight (so my doctor tells me, I’ve always been in the correct ‘range’ for my five feet and ten inches). But happen it did. It crept into my life while I was paying attention to more important things and believing I was behaving myself:   eating healthy food, exercising, and trying to address ever-present stress levels that fluctuated between medium and high. Long-term stress (my life), as I found out  (“What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause”), messes with our hormonal levels. Specifically, with a stress-related hormone called cortisol. Think of cortisol as your favorite, most decadent mac ‘n cheese recipe. Comforting, soothing, stress-relieving. But too much cortisol can create extra fluffiness – around our middles, primarily.

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Hormonal balance is, in general – as I learned – the absolute most important factor in staying healthy and looking the way I want to. As our bodies move away (thankfully!) from baby-making, Mother Nature creates shifts in our hormone levels. Most recent medical science advocates not messing with the perfection of this system (in other words, avoiding hormone replacement therapy). For at least ten years, I didn’t listen and grew steadily more out of whack. On my own, I went online to ZRT labs for a test kit. But your doctor can also give you an Rx. I asked my doctor to review the results I got back from ZRT.

So, how did I lose my ‘rectangle’? It. Was. Not. Easy. I began by deciding that I wanted my waist back. Next, I got my hormones straight, with the help of an outstanding Ob/Gyn (like ‘gold’, when you find the right one; took me a minute). I kept exercising (alternating days of walking four miles, with at-home stretching and weights). Hardest of all? I gave up all processed foods, any kind of sugar and…cocktails. The weird thing is, as my body re-gained its equilibrium – hormonally – cravings for low or no-nutrition ‘junk’ went away. I also used my now-favorite Cleanse.

Patience. It doesn’t happen quickly and it takes persistence. But my shape returned (never had, never will be ‘hourglass’, but my waist and hips are no longer one long expanse). I’m also no longer partial to ‘midriff concealing’ blouses and sweaters, or still scandalizing my jeans with a muffin-top. One final word:  when you do get there, maintenance has to become your new religion. No lipo, no freezing, no spanx, no body-tubes. Just you and your beautiful inner strength brought this about.

The Invisible Woman

As I pass the standard “mid-life” markers, I find myself laughing more often, more ironically, and with more gusto. Laughing at myself, mostly. No, I don’t think it’s generic old-age loonies; instead I think it’s an accumulation of wisdom overheard in my younger days finally getting through to me. There’s a group of women that visit me, as memories, from time to time. I can still see their faces and hear their conversations on topics that were totally disconnected from my reality at the time. Not anymore. I’m remembering, and I’m listening more closely than ever.

While in college in my early twenties, I taught an aerobics class on weekends at a gym exclusively for women. The proprietress (“Ginny”) was a statuesque former beauty (you could still see it in her bones) somewhere in her seventies. She walked like a model, wore a silver bouffant wig, tons of bangles on her wrists, and kept a bottle of vodka in her personal locker. I liked her, a lot. Most of Ginny’s clients were well past middle age. Some of them were in their eighties. They were a different breed of gym-rat back in the day: always dressed in fashionable gym-wear and always in full makeup, perfumed and wearing jewelry. Perspiration was to be avoided.

These ladies eased-into their “workouts” by having coffee with Ginny when the gym opened, around 7 a.m. on Saturday. When I got there a little before 10, ready to teach my class, Ginny was in high spirits (Coffee Lace, as they say in the south, I always thought.) and usually welcomed me with a bangle-jangling hug and cloud of fragrance. During stretches, the women continued to talk amongst themselves non-stop. After about 20 minutes of low-impact Step, I’d guide them through a mild bit of circuit training. Through which they all talked. I don’t think anyone there (besides myself) ever broke a sweat. That wasn’t what this gym was about.

Menopause. Cheating husbands. Feeling ‘invisible’. Slowing metabolism and weight gain. Sagging body parts and wrinkled skin. It was pretty much the same loop every weekend, and fairly easy for me to tune-out. Not only did I tune them out, but I actually thought “What bizarre conversations they have, and what boring lives these women lead.” I had the total impertinence and smugness to think that their concerns could never in a million years be my own one day.

Turns out, as I laugh at myself these days, I do so in the company of these women — now long-gone, most of them. I remember the 85 year old who always washed her face in ice water and never used any other moisturizer than Crisco (I kid you not). Nowadays, almond, olive, apricot and other oils are “de-rigueur” for skin. Then there was the woman who told me that my metabolism would some day slow to a sluggish crawl; that I wouldn’t be able to snack on nachos at midnight without packing on the pounds. My, my — do tell. Finally, there was the woman who complained that becoming Invisible was the worst part of aging for any woman (she eventually became one of the Red Hat Ladies, which I didn’t “get” at the time, but now I do.)

No question that in Western culture we value youth above all things (next to celebrity and celebrity-athletes). But there’s a time period of ‘limbo’ for women — before our kids start joking about pushing us out in a canoe or leaving us on an ice floe — in which Invisibility is a definite problem. Doctors try to convince us that 20 pounds is ‘normal’ weight gain, post-menopause. The fashion industry follows suit by creating Mom Jeans with Tummy Panels to console us. Eye doctors tell us, “Get ready for cataracts — they’re inevitable!” With the aging process, apparently, comes a whole complement of things we’re to assume we must accept. To my thinking, this is the very definition of the Invisibility that my gym-lady was describing so long ago. “You’re a woman, you’re growing older, your body is going to hell but it’s really ok because no one cares, unless you can compete, which you obviously can’t.” Reinforcing this invisibility is the husband who trades his wife in for a model “with fewer miles on it”. Not just a cliché, but a common reality.

What’s a woman to do, when facing Invisibility? Start wearing a red hat, a crimson lip and leopard stilettos? Commit to a strict Paleo and prep for a 10k? Give up cocktails and chocolate? Resolve to find summer and winter-weights of sweatpants? All women will face versions of these questions, and more, as they age. Speaking as one well-into this phase, I can offer two pieces of advice: the first is that Invisibility has distinct advantages, and becoming older brings a certain wisdom and cunning that comes in really handy, when used correctly.

My second piece of advice is to know — or learn — what feels right to you (body weight, fitness level, diet, makeup — clothing- accessories) and jump on that, with all you’ve got. Challenge doctors, dentists, stylists, nutrition and fitness “experts” if or when their suggestions clash with your own inner knowing. Learn to flow with aging according to your own rhythm and sense of well-being. I don’t have a red hat, but I do have a very dramatic, femme fatale black cloche with an iridescent peacock feather perched jauntily on one side. I don’t wear it that often because, when I do, the ‘drama’ of the hat attracts a lot of attention and questions about where I bought it. Sometimes I enjoy that, but sometimes I enjoy being invisible.

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