My First Mile: Overcoming a Lifetime of Negative Beliefs About My Body

I wish someone had told me, years ago, that the way I saw myself at 10 or 15 could be the way I’d see myself at 25, 35, 45.

Certain self images can and will change but others will be stubborn as hell to budge.

I had weight issues growing up, but not the variety that our society pays attention to: I was underweight. In fact, I think I may have even fallen off the growth charts at some point. I remember catching colds frequently and being teased about my small frame. I turned down friends’ invitations to the beach because I didn’t dare get into a bathing suit. But most damaging of all was what I came to believe about my physical ability.

Moving was not my activity of choice. My mother said to me once that she could stick a book in my hands as a child and forget that I was in the room. I preferred daydreaming, reading, writing, and drawing. P.E. in school was an exercise in torture and humiliation from elementary school on through high school. Unlike the physical education that my son is now getting, my schools didn’t emphasize wellness, or at least that is not what I remember. What I remember is cringing at dodgeball, kickball, softball, and relay races. P.E. was about competition and winning.

And yes, when it came time for the captains to pick their teams, it would always come down to me or the fat boy as the last candidate. Maybe no one felt good about this because I remember their sympathetic and uncomfortable looks, even at 10 or 11. I was a nice girl, everyone liked me, but competition is competition.

Am I being melodramatic and overly sorry for myself when I say that I still tear up when I think back on that? Over 30 years later I can still feel the wind blowing over my hair and hear the muffled sounds of chatter as I stand there waiting for the captains to make up their minds and wishing that I could disappear.

As a teen I learned to forge my parents’ signatures to get out of P.E. and swim classes. I discovered that I could wear gym clothes that passed for regular clothes and sit out the rest of class after attendance was taken. I took myself out of the category of humans who could do things with their bodies. “I’m not an athlete,” “I’m not good at sports,” “I don’t exercise” all became part of the identity I would, for years to come, describe to others.

Thankfully though, life became more humane after high school graduation. I enrolled at a women’s college despite their graduation requirement of a year of P.E. credits. It was in college that my eyes opened to real physical education for the first time. The choices seemed endless, and kind: yoga, ballet, strength training, aerobics…yes, there were competitive or “hard” sports like lacrosse and squash but the menu was inclusive. I came to look forward to each semester when I could try something different. By senior year, I felt safe enough to even sign up for tennis. But my tennis instructor, also the coach for the women’s team, soon put me into the bottom group of the class so she could focus on the more talented players. “Your forearm is so thin,” she had said to me. “You’ll never be truly good at tennis.” I wasn’t trying out for the varsity team; I just wanted to try.

And so it went. I didn’t become a permanent couch potato as an adult, but I have been up and down. I joined a gym for the first time at 27, after a bad relationship break-up, and continued for a couple of years. And I tried yoga for the first time, as well as ice skating and rollerblading. With each sport the person teaching me would say the same thing: “You are really good for someone who has never done this before.” It was nice to hear, but my own messages about my athletic potential overpowered their words. I continued to dabble in yoga on and off over the years, but I abandoned the others.

It is ironic that I ended up marrying an athlete, seeing how I had always been intimidated by athletes. And then I birthed an athletic son. I also work with many successful professionals who had once been athletes. The last ten years of my life have been a gradual armchair lesson in the transformative value of sports, of believing in your body, of developing teamwork skills, perseverance, and a goal-setting mindset through sports. Most eye-opening was the fact that many “athletes” were not necessarily born but made…made over the course of many years if not decades of physical obstacles and self-doubt. It was this shred of belief that perhaps my body isn’t so different from everyone else’s that at 41 I overcame my lifelong terror of the water to learn to swim.

And last week, on Memorial Day, I ran my first mile without stopping. I never thought I could run. I was one of the last to finish in my high school running assessments, straggling in the rear with my lungs hurting. It was Max, who ran his first half-marathon at 48, who said that I could do it. Even after I had broken my ankle, even after undergoing surgery, even after believing for nearly 40 years that I didn’t have it in me to run more than 30 seconds before gasping for air. Max has been running with me, coaching me gently a few times a week. He didn’t know me when I was 10 or 15 or 20. He doesn’t know the person that has been occupying my thoughts all these years. Instead, he sees the woman I never met: beautiful, athletic, capable of anything.

Last Monday, when I could feel that I was running much longer than I ever had in my life and without any pain in my lungs, I began to cry, trying to juxtapose what my body was doing against all the pictures that were passing by of my days as a child. I did it. I finally did it.

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A Short Literary Trip in Boston

I was back briefly in my hometown of Boston a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to call up any friends except for my 76-year-old second grade teacher. We had a small family reunion and celebrated my mother’s birthday together for the first time in maybe twenty years. Next time I hope to be in town longer to see more friends!

One thing I did manage to squeeze in, between all the “family bonding” that my mother wanted to do, were several trips to bookstores. All those years I had lived in Boston I took for granted a historical literary world that was my backyard.

My first stop was Brattle Bookshop in downtown Boston, across the street from Boston Common, the oldest public park in the United States and the camping ground for British soldiers in preparation for the American Revolutionary War. Brattle Bookshop has been around since 1825 and is one of the largest and oldest antiquarian bookshops in the country. My most memorable experience with the store was finding a copy of the biography Gable and Lombard during my Gone with the Wind obsession as a teen. Pre-internet, this was a huge feat, given that the book was out of print and I had to search two years for it.

I like the idea of their outdoor book racks, which you can see in the photo below. There are three floors of books inside the store including a floor of rare and antiquarian books. And outside they sell a diverse mix of bargain books, all priced from $1 to $5. There were a number of old editions (pre-1900 and turn of the century) as well. The only problem was that it was pretty cold that day – in the 30s/40s F – but fortunately I finished browsing as soon as I was coming near the end of my comfort zone standing in the cold for so long.

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Brattle Bookshop Mural

“20 Authors Upon the Wall Mural,” by local artist Jeffrey Hull

My next stop was Harvard Square. Whatever your feelings on Harvard the institution and the elitism it represents, you can’t deny the eclecticism and vibrancy of the town that was birthed by the country’s oldest university. I’d worked in the area a number of years and remember walking past the sets of The Firm (Tom Cruise movie, for those who weren’t around then) and With Honors (a forgettable Joe Pesci film) during lunch breaks. It was pretty neat, too, to see academic greats like Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Howard Gardner in and around town.

And so that brings me to this gem of an indy bookstore, Harvard Book Store, which has been around for over 80 years. The store is open until 11 pm every day except Sunday (when it closes at 10), and every time I’m in there the place is bustling. They also have author events virtually every day of the week (and sometimes multiple times a day).

This is me, just window shopping this time.

This is me, just window shopping this time.

The Harvard Coop, founded by Harvard students in 1882,  was also fun and lively with its crowded café and four floors of books connected by a winding staircase.

I found a beautiful copy of Charlotte Bronte's Villette here, that I haven't been able to find anywhere else, including amazon.

I found a beautiful copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette here that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else, including amazon.

When I got tired of book browsing we took a break at Café Algiers on historical Brattle Street (the street where George Washington established his first headquarters during the Revolutionary War). Café Algiers is a tranquil, grand (in my eyes), and bookish Middle Eastern coffee shop and eatery and one of the few businesses in the Square that have remained over the decades.

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CafeAbookcase

The last time I was here was to meet an old classmate. He had kissed me at our reunion, igniting all kinds of dreamy hopes in me. After avoiding me for a couple of weeks, he offered to meet at the café, where he told me painfully and uncomfortably that he was still in a relationship. The tea tasted bitter that day, but this time I was with my husband, son, and brother, and I enjoyed the best (the only) mint chocolate coffee I’ve ever had.

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And then there were these shelves, the ones I spend the most time looking at whenever I am home.

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This was my bookshelf growing up, pretty much unchanged since I left home for college a whole lifetime ago. The stuffed animals are still on the very top shelf, now protected and wrapped in plastic thanks to my mom. My photos are still there, as are my trinkets from different trips, events, and friendships, costume jewelry, extra buttons that came with clothes I’ve long stopped wearing, and, of course, books. The shelves are a bit messy now as I’ve been raiding them over the years, either selling/donating or taking some books back with me. Since I left home I’ve lived in nine apartments/houses in five cities on two continents. The more my life has evolved the more meaning this bookcase holds for me, as an anchor in time, a tether to the self and life that exist now only in memories.

 

Have you been to Boston? What are your favorite literary cities? What are your favorite literary places where you live?

My Battles with Anxiety

I have to thank one of my readers/blogger friends for mentioning in a comment once that she suffers from anxiety. It was her honesty that emboldened me to acknowledge my own relationship with anxiety. Since then I’ve struggled whether to write about this personal issue but ultimately decided that if my words can bring comfort or validation to one more person – as this blogger friend did for me – then I am willing to do it.

I think that I’ve failed to acknowledge my anxiety until now because it has been a part of me for so long…so long, in fact, that it became my normal. As a child I suffered constantly from headaches and canker sores. I had trouble sleeping and eating, nearly falling off the growth charts, and I often dreaded school, gym class, doctors’ appointments, my father’s days off, swim lessons, the company of certain girlfriends, and the attention of boys.

Anxiety has evolved with me as I’ve gotten older, both increasing and decreasing in intensity and in ways that have baffled me. How did I once speak so comfortably before audiences of 200+ only to end up losing sleep over a dreaded Skype call with five people? Why was I once able to maneuver the maniacal streets of Boston but am now unwilling to drive further than five miles from my house in our small town? Equally perplexing, I was terrified of water my entire life and yet eagerly learned to swim just three years ago.

I was at my best during those first several years that I was bold enough to move to and live in Asia. From being the sole woman manager in a foreign company to entering a permanent relationship to having a child overseas, I was reveling in that wide space outside my comfort zone. And then one day, without my realizing why, my world began to contract. Once ordinary events and tasks became a strain for me: driving, being in groups, having a busy schedule. Since I work from home, I have a fair amount of control over my day-to-day. And I’ve been coping by managing my surroundings to meet my comfort level.

But like taking Tylenol to control your fever, you can’t really know how sick or well you are. By controlling my environment, I was comfortable, but also masking what needed to be healed.

I finally began looking for a therapist when I realized I was single-handedly downsizing my life. I love this quote by Anaïs Nin, which came to me two weeks ago as if from an angel: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” My therapist told me that the things we avoid eventually hold power over us.

I chuckled and cried when she complimented me for “functioning as well as [I am] – for having a job, for running a household.” What does that say, when you are praised just for living and surviving? But she was acknowledging the decades-old traumas that still have their grip on me. I cried for the majority of that session, in a catharsis that began to drain the stagnancy in my body. By the time I got home I felt a peace and lightness that was alien to me. I found myself breathing steadily and calmly, and looked forward to moving on with my day. Is this what normal people usually feel, I wondered. A few hours later Max and I went out for lunch and to run errands. We were on the freeway, with me in the passenger seat. I looked down the road that for once didn’t look so intimidating and said to him, “I would be able to drive today. If I can feel like this all the time, I can drive.”

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Love, loyalty, hurt and anger – the powerful world of mother-daughter relationships

I am so honored to be contributing to the wonderful writer D.A. Wolf’s series on mother-daughter relationships. This was by far the hardest piece of writing I have ever done, and more than once I asked myself why I had promised to contribute a piece. But I’m so glad for this experience writing and collaborating with D.A., which literally changed me.

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I’ve just spent my fourteenth holiday without my mother. In the years since I packed up two suitcases and moved from the States to Japan, a defining event in our relationship, we have been a long distance family, missing milestones and special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and the birth of her only grandchild.

There have always been reasons: the distance (even now that I’ve moved back to the States), her health, my work. I try to see her once a year and when I do I realize how much I miss her… how for so many years we knew the daily rhythms of each others’ lives and now that’s no longer the case.

For many years I had been the dutiful daughter. I acted as my immigrant parents’ interpreter from the age of seven when they moved from Peru to New England, and I helped them to navigate life in America. I attended college ten miles away from where they lived, and I moved back home after graduation. It was a shameful admission to my American friends that I was choosing to live with my parents, and a slap in my mother’s face that I was wishing I had chosen otherwise.

To continue reading this piece please click here to go to D.A. Wolf’s blog Daily Plate of Crazy.

The quiet of growing up

As if I needed any more reason not to clean…

On Friday I cleaned out my closet, a catch-all storage over the last half year for everything from clothes to bags to Fred’s toys when I needed to take them away from him. Within the first five minutes of entering this black hole I found the following “interview” I had taken in my notebook three-and-a-half years ago, shortly after Fred had turned six. Funny how I had thought nothing of his words then.

While reading it Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World also happened to be playing on Pandora and within a couple of minutes I had to switch the station. It was too much. (If you want the full effect you can click on the link above and listen to the song while reading my post, though I will totally understand if you are not awash in the same nostalgia and bittersweet melancholy that I was.)

Things I’ve Learned Now That I’m 6 [by Fred, and dictated by Mom]

Bugs don’t live that long.

This is something that I knew when I was 5: The earth spins around and around and around.

People make books.

Some people are strong, some people are smart.

Some babies write on books for the library or something.

Babies don’t know ABCs until they read a book on ABCs.

My dad can go fast.

Dads can read books.

My dad can do origami.

The grown-ups cook and the kids eat.

It’s not good to fight.

I love my mom and dad.

It’s not good to lie.

5 x 5 = 20.

6 x 2 = 12.

9 x 2 = 18.

If you use a magnifying glass, you can see bugs very well.

The sun is very hot. You would not want to live on the sun.

Making things makes your bones strong.

You can get hurt when you play a sport.

Some bugs like wet.

Flowers or any kind of plants die if you don’t water it. Almost everybody knows that.

If you tear a paper, you can’t put it back without tape or glue.

And in his writing: 

If you bracke a promas then that persen will be mad.

If you have 1 one pensle and you bracke it: you will have to buy another pensle.

~~~

At the time I thought it was cute, mundane…if anything I remember wishing he would come up with something deeper than how bugs look under a magnifying glass. But now having reached the median of my active duty as a mother, I appreciate this innocent list as a glimpse into my child’s world during the year he started school, when he was taking cause and effect and rules and being a good person to a next level, as well as admiring Daddy. There will never be another list like it.

I don’t see Fred growing in the way that I used to, when change meant such drama as going from traveling on all fours to walking upright. Nowadays I catch it in the quiet and in passing – the sighting of small wads of hair in the recycling bin because he has decided to fix his haircut by himself, or when I look up from my cutting board one evening to answer a question and realize that I need to raise my head higher now in order to meet his eyes.  I see it if I take the time to peer into and appreciate his world, a world that is constantly shifting, changing, growing, at a speed now so steady we can hardly feel it, not unlike the rotation of our planet or the blooming of a flower when we water it.

Sunday mornings, then and now

2009

Wake up from sound sleep and with a near heart attack at 5:30 a.m. to a little pair of eyes staring down at me, willing me to wake up. Wonder how long he had been standing there. Get pulled out of bed to play. Silently curse…curse a lot.

2010

Wake up at 6:00 a.m. to the pitter-patter of footsteps approaching our room, then stopping abruptly to read the “Come back to Mommy and Daddy’s room after 8 a.m.” sign on the door. Hear and can’t help smiling at child who lets out a very audible “Awwww!” and slumps down on the floor against our door to wait. Hear him giving up after 10 minutes, and allow myself to fall asleep again at the sound of his retreating footsteps.

2013

Wake up at 7:30 a.m. from the sound of husband closing the bedroom door behind him. Fall back asleep. Wake up again at 7:57. Reluctantly sit up and reach over for laptop. Check e-mails and Facebook. Go downstairs to say hello to child at 8:30. He is playing a video game, watching t.v., or reading quietly. Say good morning three times and make him respond. I wrap my arms around him and playfully squeeze him, asking him how he slept. I take his mumbled “good…” for now. He nods when I ask if he has already eaten something. I go back upstairs to bed, to my laptop. Twenty minutes later, I hear his footsteps running up the stairs, more staccato now, less pitter-patter. He gets dressed and washes up. He and his best friend Jack had already made an appointment to meet at 9, at his house.

All I ever wanted was sleep, and now the house feels so quiet.

What are your Sunday mornings like? 🙂

Boston

Fred woke up yesterday complaining of a headache and tried gently to twist my arm into letting him stay home from school. And yet, he was sitting up, smiling and, later, even laughing during sillier moments in our conversation. I said to him, “You know, when I broke my leg, all the doctors would ask me to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10. Getting you out of me was a 10, so I would tell them 7.”

He liked the scale, admitted he was a 2, and trotted off to school.

***

At around 3:00, I flew down the stairs to look for Max to tell him there had been an explosion at the Boston Marathon finish line. My high school friend had posted on Facebook that she was praying her sister, who had run in the marathon, would be okay. I was not getting any of this – why was everyone worried if the runners were okay? – so I googled the Marathon, and then turned on the t.v.

I watched in horror and indescribable sadness as the city that raised me went up in smoke. The historic library on the left of the scene that is replayed again and again on t.v. – that is where I fell in love with books for the first time. I went to the prom, met up with friends, had my first date, attended family and friends’ weddings, and transferred trains to get home from school daily all within a 2-block radius. A year ago to the month, Max, Fred and I went on an Easter egg hunt at the church down a little ways.

Watching my expressionless sadness and tears, Fred asked, “Mommy, how do you feel, on a scale of 1 to 10?”

I was not really up for talking, but I grabbed the opportunity to be consoled.

“Umm…I guess I would say an 8…I want to say 9 or 10 but that’s for the people who were actually there, who saw it happening, or for those who got hurt or had a friend or family member get hurt, or…”

“Die,” said Fred.

“Yes, the 10 is for those people who lost someone.”

“So you’re saying 8 because you grew up there?”

“Yes.”

“I think you can take a 9.”

***

I am grieving because, indeed, so much of who I am is tied up in this beautiful city and birthplace of America. Over San Francisco where the rest of our family was, my parents chose Boston – after fleeing China and Peru – to start all over again and to feel real hope for the first time.

Though we immigrated during a time of heated racial tension (I started school right at the explosion of the notorious court ordered desegregation in the 1970s), not once did Boston ever turn its back on us, not when my parents were struggling to learn English, not even when they had no legal right to even be here. Boston gave my parents work and community resources and a chance to rise out of their initial jobs as restaurant dishwasher and garment factory worker. By the time I was in junior high my father opened a new restaurant with a group of partners, and was now fluent enough in English to work the bar and to chat up all the customers. He became a loyal fan of both Boston sports and the Kennedys and is proud of the following four highlights in his life:  1) waiting on former Celtics great Dave Cowens in his restaurant; 2) shaking hands with former Patriots coach Bill Parcells in the Cleveland Circle theater restroom (my father is not shy); 3) shaking hands with Congressman Joseph Kennedy along the Charles River; and 4) being granted US citizenship after 20 years of waiting. His approval was held up in the red tape of the INS for years, until we wrote to Congressman Kennedy, who pushed his application through. Well into their 70s now and armed with a shed full of shovels and snowblowers, they refuse to accept my invitation to join us in a warmer, slower, gentler part of the country. But then again, my parents cannot move even if they wanted to; my mother is still working for the city, and she refuses to retire.

And the Boston Public Schools’ mission to elevate its working class children through opportunities and dedicated teachers allowed my brother and I to eventually attend colleges and universities that my parents never even dared fantasize about. My own greatest memories of childhood include piano lessons, advanced classes, trips to see the Nutcracker and the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe, a 4 year scholarship to study studio art at the Museum of Fine Arts, a chance to design floats and costumes and march in the city’s Walt Disney Parade, an invitation to become a cast member of a PBS talk show with Dr. Tom Cottle…all of this came not from my parents but from the schools. The Boston Public Schools gave us what our parents wanted to but didn’t have the means to.

Boston is my adoptive parent, my angel, and today I miss it with an ache I can’t describe.

Yesterday so many either lost or are now clinging to the hope that my family has had in abundance. I grieve for those children, those runners, those spectators, and those families whose dreams were unexpectedly cut short in this magical city. That the city that gave us so much reason to move forward could be juxtaposed with scenes of danger and fear is mind-boggling.

But Boston is nothing if not fearless. And resilient. And loyal. We know her winters. We know her schools. We know her sports teams and her fans. We know her history in the formation of this country. Most of all, we know her people. They are people like my parents, who have soared on hope during their own periods of danger and fear and who in turn will stand by Boston’s side to the very end.

On a scale of 1 to 10, today I feel a 10: for sadness, for anger, for hope, for gratitude, and for pride.

boston                                      photo credit: Barewalls.com