An Incomplete History of My Body

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Grade school, maybe grade six or seven. Sitting in a circle with my girlfriends at recess. We go around the circle in turns: “My thighs are so fat. I hate them” “Your thighs are not fat! They’re so skinny! Look at my stomach. It’s flabby.” “Your stomach isn’t flabby, look at mine!” Around and around like that. I have a brief realization that none of us are fat, that this is ridiculous. I try not to feel bad about my body.

I am twelve, maybe thirteen. I’m playing at the school yard. A boy tells me I look good. I’m wearing a bit of makeup that I got for my birthday, a hairband, a brown corduroy collared shirt and khakis. I am pleased. Aware that I am noticed. I sense power in that, but don’t understand it. Won’t understand it for many years to come.

All through my young adult life, the women around me are on and off Weight Watchers. My mother, my aunts, my sister, my friends, all struggle with their weight, with their bodies. I subscribe to YM magazine, and read articles instructing me how to dress for my body type, what bathing suit I should be wearing, how to work out. For a while, I do workouts in my bedroom, push-ups and sit-ups on my dusty-pink carpet. I notice muscles growing, and I like it. I feel strong. It doesn’t last long, though. I know that I should care more.

Any time my dad’s family gets together, we eat all day long: cookies, squares, potato chips and dip, cheese trays, veggies and dip, and then we have dinner and then we have dessert. It is normal to eat to the point of feeling ill: that’s what the Borin girls do. In preparation for holidays, we are “good”,  we save our calories for an all-day binge. One Christmas eve, I vomit when we get home from my grandma’s, because I’ve eaten so much.

Throughout my late teen years, my twenties, I continue to spend the currency that is my body. I start waitressing in a bar, and the combination of attention and cash is intoxicating. I am so powerful. A low cut shirt, a push-up bra, pants that hug my ass: it’s so easy. These guys are so easy, so dumb. It feels like power, but in retrospect, I’m not sure it is. I go with it, though. Careening just a little bit, like going downhill on a bike and you’re on the edge of losing control, the handle bars wrenching back and forth in your hands.

Twenty-seven. Pregnant and keeping it. My body swells. I am the epitome of Earth Mother. All of the cliches: glowing, fertile, goddess. I birth my baby in the backseat of the car because I didn’t understand that I’d already started pushing at the house. Afterwards, I wonder how I could be so unaware of my body. Childbirth is different, though. I was in a different head space, I was out of my body and yet so firmly in it, of course I didn’t know. It was my first time. Pushing is feet in stirrups, doctor yelling instructions at you. Pushing is not in the dark of the bathroom against a washing machine. Bearing down is maybe a better descriptor.

Through the next two pregnancies, my weight fluctuates. Just before I become pregnant with Colm, I’m at my lowest weight ever. People tell me how good I look. What have you been doing? You look great, they tell me. I’ve lost enough weight that I need new bras, new pants, new shirts. My jaw, my cheek bones, are more pronounced. What have I been doing? I’ve been anxious about food, entire food groups or tiny molecular portions of them. Sugar and gluten are suspect: I try to avoid both with spotty success. I don’t want to eat things that come from far away, and this is partly a good thing and partly concerning because eventually I’m not sure what to eat. I am obsessed with “real” food. With toxins. I fall for pseudo-science and charismatic Internet food bloggers.

During my second pregnancy, my midwife encourages me to eat more, to put on more weight, as insurance. It’s not until my third pregnancy that I do. I eat with abandon and now, two years post-partum, I continue to do so. I eat oatmeal for breakfast, and then after Paul and Aedan leave for the day, I eat the rice leftover from dinner, with hot sauce. Then I find a chocolate bar stashed somewhere and I eat that, too. The kids want a snack so I eat a half a dozen crackers with them. A few cookies when they’re not looking. I finish their toast crusts. Then we make lunch and I eat mine plus what they don’t. We go to the grocery store and I buy a big bag of potato chips and then it’s empty before I realize it. I eat more crackers while I cook dinner, and then I eat seconds at dinner, too. I pay no attention to my body as I eat, as I go through my day, and then suddenly I can’t help but pay attention to it because I think I might throw up. Shame sets in. What the fuck is wrong with me?

For five years, almost six, my breasts have been on demand. My body constantly stimulated by little hands patting, reaching, clinging, wanting to be carried. I am adept at distancing myself from this body. I look in the mirror, naked, at my lopsided breasts hanging down towards my stomach. My stomach that could pass for six months pregnant. (People ask me, occasionally, if I’m pregnant again). None of my clothes fit right. My feet have gone up a half shoe size in the last couple of years and I wish that clothes came in half-sizes, too. Everything is either a bit too loose, or a bit too tight. I want to live in leggings. I want to cut my breasts off. I am a stranger in this body. This body that has climbed mountains, has hiked fifty two kilometers on the Chilkoot Trail. This body that can dance, and run, and grow and birth and nourish new humans. This body that was once my currency and that now feels like a crumpled bill in the bottom of a pocket. My body the afterthought, my body the inconvenience.

Still, though. It’s a woman’s body. I no longer wear low cut tops to work, but just this past Sunday, a man who once threatened to kill me because I cut him off told me if he were a bit younger, he’d take me home. As if that’s a compliment. In the summer I wear a red dress because it makes me happy and a man buys me a drink, expects conversation, is disappointed when he sees my wedding ring. I try to be invisible, wear jeans and a sports bra under a loose band t-shirt, and still they notice, tell me I look good. I’d like to tell them to fuck off, but I smile, I fumble, I walk away.

This body is mine and not mine. I’d like to come to a place of acceptance. Of some measure of gratitude. A truce, even. I try. I’d like to offer you more than this disjointed collection, had intended to, but it turns out I’m not there yet.

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Balance Point

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In a recent personal rejection from The New Quarterly, the editors noted that while they often publish work “engaged with the dark side of the human condition and family” those works typically have a “point of balance.”  It got me thinking about my tendency to gravitate towards that darkness, to the exclusion of the light. It’s something I’ve done for as long as I can remember; there was a time where I was sure I wouldn’t have kids because how could I raise kids in a world I had no hope for? These feelings have been exaggerated lately, to the point where I actually feel paralyzed to write anything at all (I do, though, continue to write daily).

I feel like it’s disingenuous to write pretty things, all light and air, when the world is dark and getting darker. Even in the microcosm of family life, I feel like it’s a disservice to the truth if I don’t talk about my struggles. Parenting is hard. Marriage is hard. If we don’t talk about it, everyone continues to suffer in silence, alone in the dark. But it seems like my devotion to the hard truths of life has become an unhealthy obsession: if I’m not writing about hard, sad things, I’m not writing. I can remember this being a part of my writing life as early as my teens. I wrote in my journal most often when I was going through heartbreak, either romantically or with friends. Writing through the darkness was how I made, how I continue to make, sense of things. That is a part of my depressive nature, I suppose. So maybe a part of my practice must be to continually choose to turn towards the light. To document the neutral times, the happy times. To learn the language of levity.

In the days since Trump’s election, I’ve seen it suggested by a few different artists that to continue to make beautiful things is, in fact, a radical act. I feel this responsibility to the truth; to not look away from all of the horrific things happening in the world. I feel like, as artists, we must witness and document. But people need to rest, too. I write so often about self-care, and for me, self-care is sometimes turning away from the endless feed of news and towards something so beautiful it takes my breath away: a favourite poem, the light on the hillside at sunset, my kids holding hands as they play. This leads me to wonder if my power as a writer might be in creating things of beauty. Safe places to rest the mind for a while. Because we can’t afford to look away. We have to stay engaged in order to fight what is coming, what is already here and has been here beneath our notice for decades. But to look for the beauty in each day, to turn towards the light, is the balance point I need right now. It’s a gift I can offer, first to myself, and then to my kids, and then to the rest of the world.

Remembrance

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As I came into the kitchen after putting Charlotte down for her nap, the opening notes of The Last Post came through the radio. I sat down, and, as always happens when I hear this music, tears began to fall. I sat with my eyes closed, and thought of my poppa and of all the men and women who have fought and died in the two World Wars, and who continue to fight and die in wars today. When I was little, I used to imagine my poppa on some barren battlefield, hearing a worn trumpet play this song as the sun rose.

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship to Remembrance Day. In the past I’ve wondered, does it glorify war? How is it a movement towards peace? But of course I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t glorify war to honour those who have fought against their will and those who went out of their way to fight (my poppa was one of them). To take a moment to remember what they’ve lost, whether we call it sacrifice or tragedy or both.

Each year that we mark Remebrance Day while wars still rage around the world, while soldiers and innocent people die, I feel hopeless. I feel like all of this death, in the end, is for nothing. The highest honour we could give our fallen soldiers, more than a poppy pinned to our lapels for a few weeks, more than wreaths laid at the foot of so many monuments, more than a collective pause before we continue our daily rounds, would be peace. We teach our children about the horror of war so that we can have peace. War upon war, horror upon horror, still we fight. We continue to mark this day, wishing for change, never seeing it. May part of our remembrance today be a prayer for peace tomorrow.

Image via Flickr user Hennasabel

Potential

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Dried bits of rice from dinner two nights ago and curled clementine peels from this morning litter the floor and the kitchen table where I sit to write. One baby is in bed, another watches Dora, and the oldest baby is at his Tante’s house, due home for lunch. This morning I have made oatmeal, poured bowls of cereal and almond milk, and shuffled the dishes back to the sink. I have changed clothes, and diapers, and I’ve poked through poop to confirm that a little glass bead swallowed days ago has made its exit. I’ve dressed children as dragons, been chased around the house, taken the costumes off. I’ve arbitrated toy disputes, disciplined little scratching fingers, been kicked hard in the back as I sat on the floor, working a wooden puzzle. I’ve made a pot of lentil mushroom soup. I’ve eaten soft bread, piece after piece folded mindlessly into my mouth while I stand at the kitchen counter and stare at my phone, reading U.S. Election coverage.

Outside, it snows.

Internally, I wrestle with the looming decision to put Aedan in kindergarten. With feeling like a failure because I don’t wish to spend all of my days with my kids. I know that’s not true; I admire the women for whom childrearing is ultimate fulfilment, but I have to come to terms with the fact that it’s not for me. I need others to step in and take the wheel.

I think of Hillary Rodham Clinton, also a mother, and the fact that she is very likely to become the next president of the United States, and how that bears on my little life in this snow globe town. I’m no politician, I’m no HRC, but I watch the flakes coming down, Dora on in the background, and watch my sleeping daughter on the baby monitor and I wonder what I could be, given space and time. And although they drain me, exhaust me, frustrate me, these three new humans I’ve brought into my life and this world have made me take a hard look at who I am and where I’m going. Where I could go. For that I am grateful. It’s still surprising to me that they’ve shown me I don’t want to be a full-time mom. I still feel like I should want that.

Women like Hillary, women like those that fill my life, women like myself, have to find our unique path in this world. Once we discover our truth and our purpose, we owe it to ourselves and the rest of the world to live it fully, no matter how difficult, how uncomfortable, how challenging it might be. That includes everything from the challenge of being a full-time, homeschooling, stay-at-home mom to that of running for president of a country and everything in between.

Wine Gets in the Way

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I went on a bit of a bender this weekend. Which, for me, is nowhere near as wild as it sounds. Friday night happy hour with a few friends, and then more wine at home after the kids were in bed. Saturday a complete write-off for me. And then Sunday, after my weekly bar shift, I had a few glasses at the bar and then another at home with dinner. Today, I can hardly keep my eyes open. My head feels foggy. Writing this post is excruciating; in fact, I’d like to not write it. But I wanted to write every day. I didn’t write yesterday because I was too busy pretending to be a woman with no responsibility. So here I am today, showing up even though it ain’t pretty.

I suppose this weekend was different because I didn’t feel like I was drinking to numb out the overwhelm of a day spent with kids. Although, in retrospect, given the number of times I turned to my friends and wailed “I wish I didn’t have to go home!” I actually was drinking to numb out. It just felt fun because I was in the company of other adults, somewhere other than in my own chaotic home. But at its root, it was still a means of escaping my reality.

I spend a lot of time contemplating my relationship to alcohol. My grandfather was an alcoholic, and it’s what killed him. I was given my first drink when I was thirteen: my grandma made me a screwdriver on Christmas Eve. Vodka and orange juice was my drink of choice throughout my teens. Like most people, alcohol emboldens me. It makes social situations easier. It makes me feel brave and like I can say or do all the things I usually am too restrained to act upon. And now that I have kids, it feels like something I’m sort of expected to do. My mommy juice at the end of the day. An easy ticket to unwind.

Except that, for me, it keeps me from doing the things that actually help me to unwind. Yesterday it kept me from writing. Saturday it kept me from doing…most things. It’s kept me from getting any exercise over the weekend, or from meditating or reading. I’d like to be the gal who can have a glass on occasion and then walk away. But it takes me a lot of mental effort to actually make that choice to walk away. I wonder, could I have had as much fun this weekend drinking soda water? And would the people around me have accepted my choice to just drink soda water? So often, I wonder if it’s best for me to just not drink at all, at least for now. What would that look like? How might my life change?

I feel the need to add a disclaimer here: I’m examining my own experiences. I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to stop drinking. I’m not trying to shame anyone. Drinking is getting in the way of my life, as I would like to be living it. It’s getting in the way of my efforts at happiness in such a way that it allows me to live briefly in an alternate reality: when I come back to the truth, though, it’s a let down. I can’t accept this life I’ve got if I’m constantly trying to escape it. Maybe there’s a way to make alcohol a part of it, but right now, I’m not so sure I’m capable of that.

Image via Flickr user Evan Wood.