Like any other Catholic baby, I was born with the proverbial millstone around my neck—the burden of Original Sin—but baptized and therefore saved in the chapel of the U.S.S. Vulcan, a naval ship docked in the Norfolk shipyards. It was a regular, low-key baptism documented with Polaroid photos—no champagne bottle cracked over my head just because it happened on a ship—and it should have set me up for a life of Physical Purity and Holy Perfection ensuring eventual return to The Garden and the old days when nudity and being one with God and nature and the universe was a given. Once tossed in the ocean of life and treading water, however, and looking to better my situation, I grabbed onto one P.F.D. after another only to discover, too late, that each was yet another sin-drenched millstone dragging me down and threatening to sink me into the rivers of self-forgetting and self-loathing—the River Lethe, the River Styx. I’d meant to save myself with one of those Coast-Guard-approved inner tubes, a self-care survival floaty that would carry me toward the Pure River of Water of Life, the waters of Heaven, that eternal stream of cosmic cleansing that washes away our blindness to our divine purpose and restores our sense of earthly and eternal worth. Not so. Due to physical inadequacies or spiritual deficiencies, or both, I ended up collecting a slew of millstones and feeling the unworthiness, guilt and sense of weight and suffocation they bring. And I’m not the only one; millstone production and consumption is booming these days; it’s an integral contributor to our Gross National Product.
Not to sound heavy—but these millstones we carry weigh heavily indeed; we wear them because at some point in our lives, we’ve mistaken them as Personal Floatation Devices promising to lift us and leave us happier, fulfilled, and better-off. But now we’re stuck with them. They’re our promises of salvation and success that have turned into excess: Our back fat and love handles and pot bellies. All that stuff in our attics and basements, the stuff that promised a better life and has left us feeling trapped, immobile and ashamed of our houses. Our “retail therapy” debts and our minimum payments on high-interest credit cards. Our jobs that seemed to promise another step up the ladder to prosperity and instead left us bloated and red-eyed and tinged with that coffin-parlor pallor. Our large lives with their big boats and eighteen holes and dinners out that are somehow permeated with that Essence D’Ennui. Our secret Fear of Florida—once upon a time the Magic Kingdom but someday, for us “lucky” ones, our last investment and final resting condo address. Our addictions to the noise, our ever-alertness to the pings and e-mails and notifications that promise human connection but often leave us disappointed because they’re promotions for more adorable and can’t-resist stuff, stores, meetings, events, emptiness. Our guilt at our gluttony (it was all delicious!) and our lust (bliss!) and the hurt and sense of unworthiness they’ve caused us and our loved ones. We want it all; we deserve it—or so we’ve thought. We thought they’d keep us afloat, those decoy P.F.D.s. We were just trying to take care of ourselves.
Instead we’ve sunk ourselves into private, personalized Hells. No wonder we feel guilty and twisted about the whole idea of “self-care.” We’ve screwed that notion up to some extent; we’re haunted and exhausted by the mental and physical leftovers from our efforts. No surprise then that, in RLSG’s 51st Episode, “Brainstorming the Chapter on Self-Care,” we may not really believe our conversationalists when they repeat that we shouldn’t feel guilty about taking time out to fix and find ourselves, that we deserve to get better. What does that mean, especially since we’re still confused about what we deserve and what’s “better?”
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I was never easy with the notion of “self-care”—at least when it fell under the category of “self-help.” Years ago when I was a freshly minted PhD, a friend and I were discussing books we liked. “Self-help books,” she said. What? No way would I ever admit that! Those who wanted to get ahead in the race, to rise up from the masses to the classes, to establish themselves as above corporate branding and commercialization, knew the correct answer to books you liked was “Anything by Flaubert.” Self-help books turned readers into promotional tools; they were ads for videotapes and miracle creams and make-up kits and energy bars and juices and investment seminar opportunities and Travel-diet cards and therapeutic magnets and mail-order vitamins. “Self-help” wasn’t help so much as a dominant corporate ideology out to perpetuate our sense of deserving more and our addiction to consume, consume, consume. These books didn’t save you; they brainwashed you into a sense of perpetual inadequacy unless you kept buying.
In truth, I didn’t want to ask for help or admit I needed it. But after the twins were born and I had forty unplanned pounds to lose, and my life was spinning out of control all day and all night, and it became obvious I’d never be able to leave the house in the next few years, and the days were lonely and free time came at most in thirty to fifty-minute increments, I splurged on a Billy Blanks’ Tae Bo video and hopped around with new friends Billy, Shellie and Debbie every day while the babies reclined in their bouncy seats and took it all in. “Reach for your higher power!” Billy Blanks encouraged me during the leg lifts, and I did, and between Billy Blanks and Somersizing with Suzanne Somers’ diet concepts, worked all that weight off. One purchase led to another, and soon I was practicing ujjayi breathing and sun salutations with Ali McGraw and friends in her Yoga Mind and Body video. No out-of-body experience came close to lying on the desert sands under that zen-blue sky with Ali and yoga master Erich Schiffman and those totally ripped demo-students, relaxing every muscle, letting go and merging with the cosmos—at least until the twins started screaming.
“Ask for help.” Yes, but. So many of us seek and receive “help” that doesn’t work for us, “help” that piles up in boxes: books, videos, product, resistance bands and Thigh Masters, discarded gym membership key cards. Help clutter, stuff we bought and bought into because we thought we deserved it, more P.F.D.s turned millstones.
What we deserve, really, is the time to reconnect with our own minds and bodies because we’re losing them. We deserve the opportunity to make ourselves new again, to regain freshness and rediscover our strength and recharge our brains. (As studies show, exercise improves thinking more than thinking itself!) Unfortunately, unlike dragonflies, we can’t molt; we can’t dock ourselves on a wooden piling, shed our old flesh and skin and emerge naked and open and anew. We’re stuck with our emotional baggage and spiritual alienation unless we embrace the image of who we know we can be and transform ourselves accordingly. This transformation through shedding our layers—mental and physical—hurts to the point of tears, sometimes, and it takes a lot of effort and control and some deprivation, but we deserve to help ourselves get there.
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(Warning: This section contains references to nudity. Look away.)
Meditation helps facilitate this self-transformation, too. I tried it, once. My own ongoing journey toward newness and nakedness probably began with the Log-at-the-Bottom-of-the-Lake Guided Meditation. A friend gave me the C.D.; he said meditation had cured his insomnia (I couldn’t sleep, either, as millstones were weighing down my dreams). I popped in the C.D., hit “Play” and quickly lay down so as not to miss a second of relaxation. The narrator, his voice soothing and assuring, invited me to visualize myself as a log sinking to the lake floor, deeper and deeper until I could no longer see the sun shining on the surface. Down, down, down I went, deep into the abyss into total darkness and silence unless you counted the “Dora the Explorer” theme blasting from the downstairs T.V. I felt my own substantiality, the sense that I was matter that mattered. I let it go: the noise (mostly) and the weights (millstones don’t scare you anymore if you’re already sunk and have nothing left to lose). I lay on the lake bottom, a naked log, and just was. For about a minute or two. But I got it: Real power and knowledge comes from going deep, not only by closing yourself off from all the superficial clutter and excess of daily existence, but also by going deep into yourself—by reconnecting with and knowing your body in a way that’s comfortable, confident, relaxed. If our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, we really need to be okay with them. And to “get better” we need to pare them down and/or build them up to the best of our abilities.
Basically, we need to strip ourselves of excess fat whether it’s psychological, physical, material, or “noise.” We need to know who we are without all the accoutrements if we’re to figure out what we’re passionate about, to have the space and time to act on our passions, and to reclaim the power and energy to be truly us. It’s about getting naked again, finding our place in the Garden.
According to the ESPN Body Issue 2012, we’re “past the point of controversy” when it comes to nudity. At the same time, however, it’s probably not right to appear unclothed on Facebook as I did last week, accidentally, when my husband (a Facebook virgin) “liked” a certain photo of me on Instagram. More on that in a minute.
Both my husband and I, in a quest to improve our bodies and spirits, have recently shed twenty pounds. We were tired of recalling how we “used” to be: me, the high-school high-jump record holder and East Washington Bench Press Champion and him, the former First Team All-Colonial Conference Offensive Tackle, formidable Kung Fu opponent, and race-winning cyclist. We’d let ourselves go (hello, back fat!) and we had all sorts of excuses for our decline: four kids, hectic schedules, travel, socializing, Flaubert novels, health issues, our son’s juvenile diabetes, my husband’s bout with spondyloarthritis and consequent loss of his heart’s AV node and two rounds of pacemaker implants.
We worked out and we changed the way we looked at food. If the body’s the temple of the soul, then the food we ate naturally would affect our spirits as much as our cells. We adopted one rule: Avoid the Inedibles. To make a long story short, we stayed away from refined carbohydrates. Sugar, basically. That’s harder than it looks because Inedibles are everywhere—behind the Starbucks counter, in wine, in bread and nachos, even in so-called “health foods.” Visualizing Inedibles as Legos helped because really, they were as good for us as plastic. We learned to bring our own food with us when we traveled. We ate a lot of homemade guacamole, nuts, plain Low-Fat yogurt artificially sweetened with Stevia and stir-fried spinach with caramelized onions. The weight melted off pretty quickly. Deprivation, yes, but it really hasn’t been bad at all, plus I’ve learned to make a delicious buckwheat tabouli. It seems paradoxical when we change our idea of what we deserve to include self-control and deprivation, but in the long run we’re doing our bodies and souls a big favor. We like our bodies more. We like each other’s bodies more. We’re healthier and happier. My husband’s pacemaker is setting off airport security scanners; it’s never done that before. “You must be losing weight,” the TSA officer remarked.
Life is precious to us, and since we only live once, we’re staying the course. We’re shedding our millstones and molting as best we can; with the loss of excess flesh comes a newfound sense of joy in our bodies, a new passion for life and an acute awareness of our potential: We can really do it if we put our mind and hearts into the goal and work for it. Time to put down the tasty Lotus snacks and row home, get ripped, and get our bodies and minds back to the Garden.
Oh—and just in case you saw it for the ten minutes it was up—as far as that naked shot of me on Facebook goes. It happened like this: We were on vacation last week and my husband and I hiked into the vineyards and took pictures. And naturally when you’re in the vineyards surrounded by all those grape leaves and grapevines, all Renaissance-ish and Bacchanalian, and you’ve lost twenty pounds and you’ve gotten yourself back to the Garden psychologically and physically, you think why not? Those athletes did it for the ESPN Body Issue! What the heck, we’ll take a few shots for posterity and the grandkids! And then you crop your personal favorites and highlight them just right on Instagram and e-mail one to your husband who gives it a “Like.” And then, seconds later, you go to Facebook to log off for the night and see a link to that very same photo on your “Newsfeed” and it’s been up for ten minutes, enough time for anyone to download it, copy it and blackmail you.
So in conclusion, yes, listen to Real Life Survival Guide’s Self-Care chapters, ditch your millstones, dump the guilt, transform yourself into a new and strong naked you, love yourself. But be very careful and never, ever “Like” yourself.
Mary Elliott is a stay-at-home Mom with four children, one husband and two leopard geckos. She has a Yale B.A., a Ph.D. in English from Boston College, and—in her old life—taught writing, English and American lit courses at B.C., Gonzaga University & Whitworth College in Spokane, WA.
Upon the birth of her twins in Colorado, she perished rather than published, but has written a couple of novels that need serious rework before they see the light of day. She contributes to Real Life Survival Guide’s Guest Editor blog, is active with the Madison Land Conservation Trust and likes to play the fiddle, hike, bike-ride and unwind with good friends.