After years of interest, last autumn I finally found a Tai Chi teacher. I approached learning Tai Chi with hopes and expectations about the benefits it could provide, but I was unprepared for the power of the practice and how important it would become in my life.
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Tai Chi is a form of Chinese martial art intended to teach defense and support health. It’s a multilayered practice, elegantly complex. Learning the gross motor movements is only the first baby step. One layer is connected to and leads to the next. Tai Chi is not a linear activity to learn from beginner to master, but a dynamic, fluid practice best approached with humility every time. It’s constantly challenging in new ways, depending on what my state of mind, body and spirit is on any given day.
The Tai Chi I practice is called 24 forms, all of which gradually blend into one smooth, flowing whole with practice. The forms have delightful, poetic names like The Crane, Windmills and Clouds.
Tai Chi is about finding one’s center, physically and emotionally, and building on the strength and balance residing there. In order to facilitate this, one crouches slightly with bent knees throughout the whole routine. This is obviously quite challenging, and for some people impossible. However, with proper foot position, body dynamics and a crouched stance, we can immediately feel the solid, stable center at the core of every Tai Chi form. Crouching for long periods of time immediately informs us about the strength of our ankles, knees, hips, hamstrings and quadriceps, information we might not otherwise receive as we move upright through the world.
Crouching assists with balance because it lowers the center of gravity. Many people take up Tai Chi to support balance issues, in fact. Several forms require balancing on one foot or another with the supporting knee bent. This, too, can be unexpectedly challenging. Once again, our body has a story to tell we might not otherwise hear as we move normally. I’ve always been aware I have sloppy posture, but I’ve been habitually lazy about doing much about it. Tai Chi demands I stack my bones on top of one another and tuck in my tailbone. If I don’t do that, I can’t balance. I notice I now move through the rest of my life standing tall, with more grace and confidence and better posture. I don’t slump, crowding my lungs and abdominal organs. I don’t tilt or lean. I know where my pelvis is and I stay over it. My back is happier. I feel better.
Every movement counts in this practice. Each foot is placed just so in order to support a fully centered crouched stance. Shoulders, wrists and elbows stay in line with several of the forms, which necessitates holding arms straight out from the shoulder. My arms ached for months as I built strength, and I’m a strong swimmer who works out in the pool once a week. One form requires placing toes down and heel up, and another the heel down. At times we turn on our heel, and at other times our toe. In one form we turn one foot on the heel and the other on the toe at the same time. Everything about Tai Chi leads me inward on a spiraling journey of deeper focus and mindfulness.
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It’s amazing to practice over time and begin to feel the forms smoothing out into a cohesive routine with some kind of elegance and grace. Such fun and so rewarding. Then, however, the instructor started to talk to us about our eyes. It turns out every form requires a very specific eye gaze, often on our hand movements. I was doing well with balance, but when I took my gaze off the middle distance and looked at my hand in front of my face, I lost my balance. This was advanced balance. I added in the appropriate eye gaze and started all over again with balance.
Then, the teacher began to talk about breathing. Crap. I hadn’t even thought about my breathing! Breathing is connected to energy, and Tai Chi was originally a practice for working with energy as well as defense. All the forms have to do with pushing, pulling, deflecting or defending. Now that we had some mastery of the physical challenges, we began to work on feeling our field of energy and moving it with our bodies and breath. A push is an exhalation. A pull is an inhalation.
Breathing then leads to pace and rhythm. We practice Tai Chi to meditation music — very slow. Balancing on one leg is not so hard when you do it for two or three seconds. Balancing for sustained periods of time, especially with a bent knee, requires a lot more strength and, well, balance! Every movement takes far more concentration when slowed down. This is one of the few activities I’ve ever done where the goal is to slow down. We seem to be running faster all the time, overstimulated, overscheduled, multitasking, trying to earn more money, perpetually on call via technology. We’re all in pursuit of … something. What? Does anyone ever find it? Is it worth the cost of the chase?
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Tai Chi demands we slow down. In that slowness we discover our fatigue, our aches and pains, our half-healed injuries, our distractions and our distress and unmanaged feelings. We remember our center. We recover our balance. We make time to breathe.
Some people call Tai Chi a moving meditation, and I now understand why. When I’m practicing Tai Chi, I’m not doing anything else. When I’m walking or swimming my mind goes right on with whatever it’s busy with. Those activities are good for creative inspiration, prayer and processing feelings. Tai Chi, though, takes me to a deep, restful, quiet place of no thought, focus and present mindfulness, so rich and so empty. It opens the door for awareness, too, of the degree to which I’m captive to distraction. The instant I’m distracted by a sound or a stray thought, I lose my balance and center, I lose my breath, I lose the flow and I don’t know where I am in the forms. I think of myself as fairly focused, but I’m just as susceptible to distraction as anyone else, and I don’t want my life to become an uncontrolled blur of noise and stimulation in which I forget there’s anything but distraction. Tai Chi brings a precious and necessary balance into my days.
All these layers have brought health and healing into my life, but the greatest grace Tai Chi brings me is the opportunity to be in the body. I’m saddened by the ever-more strident body politics in our culture. I don’t remember a time in my life when it seemed so many people were locked in self-hatred and hatred of others based on some kind of physical characteristic. It reflects in our suicide and addiction rates, and it touches each one of us. We no longer honor the sacred feminine and masculine, we have few invitations to fully inhabit ourselves physically, and no one encourages us to honor and respect our physical form as it is.
Just like dance, Tai Chi calls us home to ourselves. My home is not nipped, tucked, plucked, lipo-suctioned, dyed, shaved, made-up, compressed, surgically reconstructed or uplifted. My home is my oldest friend, my most loyal companion, the loyal record keeper and diary of childbirth, breast-feeding, menopause, a lifetime of Colorado sun, slipped kitchen knives and barbed wire fence. My home is lines and wrinkles, lumpy thighs, softened breasts, grey hairs and thinning skin. This amazing, adaptable, resilient, hard-working body is the shelter and haven for my spirit.
I often move a chair aside, open the windows, take up the sheepskin rugs lying on the wide plank floor in my attic space, shut the door at the bottom of the stairs, turn on music and take off my clothes to practice Tai Chi. I like to look down at my bare toes and toe ring on the sloping grey-painted floorboards. I like to glance at my strong knees and make sure they’re in line with my heavy ankles. I like the gentle slope of my belly, cross-hatched with silver stretch marks, under which two children grew into life. I like to stack my bones carefully, tuck in my tailbone and feel the subtle realignment that opens up my center and my balance. I like the clench, pull, stretch and relaxation of my muscles. I like the combination of strength and loosening skin and flesh as I move my arms. I’m grateful for the ability to breath deeply, and the ability to sweat. I relish the air coming in the windows and touching my bared breasts.
We started with a large Tai Chi class, and over the weeks and months people dropped out, one by one. I suppose for some it wasn’t a good fit. For others it wasn’t a priority. Still others were discouraged by their physical limitations, in spite of the fact that the instructor was and is eager to modify the practice to accommodate anyone. One lady had trouble with balance but was unwilling to stand next to a chair for safety and support. Others were ashamed of their weight, their muscle weakness and/or learning a new thing in public. It made me sad. I think many would have benefitted if they could have moved past their shame and self-consciousness, and if they’d been willing to work with their physical reality instead of resenting and arguing with it.
Our Tai Chi group is small now, but we’re good friends. We laugh a lot. We learn from one another. We greet and part with hugs and affection. We enjoy the music; share our distractions, worries, aches and pains and support one another in centering, grounding, calming and mindfulness.
I’m entirely grateful.
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My partner has trained in Aikido, and he relates hearing the above advice years ago from his teacher. Ever since he repeated it to me, I’ve been turning it over in my mind.
We lately found a Tai Chi teacher and joined a class. I’ve wanted to do Tai Chi for a long time, and it’s every bit as much fun as I always imagined it would be. I practice every day, and part of my practice is meditating on that wonderful piece of subtle Eastern wisdom: Don’t be where the blow lands.
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Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art focusing on energy manipulation, practiced for defense and health. Many of the people in the class we joined are there to address balance and strength. I’m happy to support both my balance and my strength, but I’m learning Tai Chi primarily as a grounding and centering tool.
We’re learning a series of specific slow, repetitive movements that flow into one another. Each movement is called a form, and each form has its own, often poetic name: The bow, the crane, windmills, the lute. Tai Chi emphasizes locating and moving from one’s center, and it’s interesting how difficult I find that.
Learning the forms and stringing them together is no problem for me. It takes a lot of repetition to get arms and legs coordinated and figure out proper positioning, but I like repetition and want to practice. What I notice, though, is how easily I lose my center. I reach or step too far. I find myself up on one toe or another when I’m not supposed to be. I put one foot directly in front of another, like a model on a catwalk, instead of maintaining a more stable, wider-based stance. My ankles are weak and unsteady. If I’m doing one form at a time in isolation, I can tighten my core and be solid, but Tai Chi is flowing movement, albeit slow, and after a few different forms my center is gone.
Losing my balance in this way is a perfect metaphor for the way I’ve lived my life until recently. My energy and attention were always directed outward. I had very little ability to support myself; I relied on external support and I didn’t distinguish toxic inputs from healthy ones. I was too hungry and had too many unmet needs; I took a lot of poisoned bait. Not only did I stand where blows landed and bullets sped, I made a camp there and called it home. I believed I needed those blows and bullets, that they meant love, that it was my responsibility to endure them, and that I deserved them.
We can’t avoid life. Harsh words, verbal attacks, physical violence and unexpected events like fire, flood, riots and sudden public violence are going to happen. Even so, there are ways in which to meet life’s blows with all the grace and elegance of Tai Chi, and as I practice the forms and movements, I think about the skills that allow me to absorb the blow, to flow with it, and to step away from where it landed before it can be repeated.
I’m a big proponent of self-defense and I always carry a knife. I’m not afraid to fight. One day soon I’m going to learn to shoot and buy myself a gun, which I will carry. That kind of self-defense is a separate thing from my practice of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is not about any kind of an aggressor lurking in an alley or a parking lot; it’s about emotional and energetic safety.
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Tai Chi, along with swimming, dancing, ritual work, walking and writing, is a way to call myself home, back to the center, back to my bones and the source of myself. Maintaining my center absolutely requires my undivided presence. I can’t center properly if I refuse to know all of who I am. I can’t maintain balance if I refuse to love all of who I am. The minute I try to amputate bits and pieces of myself, deny my thoughts and feelings or start tearing myself down in any way, I’m standing (again) where blows are guaranteed to land. When I catch myself justifying; pleading; waiting for external validation; trying to please; choice-making out of fear, denial and self-doubt, I know I’m standing on the shooting range with a target pasted over my heart and head.
I’ve spent too much of my life staggering under loads of other people’s shit, carrying vampires and dragging chains. Confusion, fear, perfectionism, disempowerment and constipated unacknowledged feelings have all kept me standing where the blows land. Arguing with what is has cemented me in the path of bullets. Clarity, self-confidence, making friends with my feelings and reclaiming my power allow me to deflect, block or better absorb the blows that come my way.
I’m intentional about living with the wisdom of choosing not to be where the blow lands. Reclaiming my center and moving mindfully from danger, not only physically but creatively and emotionally, all but eliminates my fear and anxiety. Concentrating on grounding leaves no room for anything but strength and rootedness. The meaning of my life is not out there, in the noise and chaos of what others think, say and do. The meaning of my life is in here, centered within the container of my body, expressed by what I think, say and do.
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Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see if I can remember the windmills and the lute from yesterday’s class.
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For many years, I’ve been a story teller. I’ve told stories in nursing homes, schools, at seasonal events and in women’s circles. I think of stories as medicine, as guidance, as blueprints for living. Old stories from cultures around the world contain information we’ve forgotten or lost about how to live well.
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It’s striking how often I share a familiar and oft-told story with an audience that suddenly turns out to be what I most need. Oral stories, if written on a page, look static and lifeless. They’re not. An oral story lives. It twists and turns and wriggles unexpectedly in the mouth. Every time I tell a story it’s a different telling than I’ve ever done before. Every time I tell a story I’m different than I was the last time I told it. Every audience is different.
I’ve discovered blogging is like that. As I blog, I think of the reader. I blog to make an external connection. As I create posts, though, I also discover deepened connection with myself. My writing reveals my truth to me, and shines a light on the places where I’m not living what I know is my truth.
Last week I posted about quitting. In essence, I gave permission to all of us to change, to grow, to seek happiness in our work and in our lives. Ever since I resigned from my job (last day will be Saturday) and wrote that post, I’ve noticed an internal feeling of rediscovery, freedom and fizzing joy.
I only worked 20 hours a week at that job, but the choice to force myself to do it, even though it didn’t make me happy or meet my needs, cast a shadow of apathy over the rest of my life. It dulled my response to my own distress. It fed all those powerful voices that tell us there’s no help for it. We have bills to pay. We have responsibilities, duties and obligations. The most sinister voice of all says this is the best we can hope for or deserve.
I was empowering fear, not love.
All of a sudden, I’m operating with new clarity, the kind of clarity that the right story at the right time brings. This week I’m acutely aware of what’s working well for me and what’s not. I feel my power to choose afresh. I’m not motivating out of fear. Somehow, fear is taking a vacation. I’m motivating out of curiosity, pleasure and the desire to actually be happy.
For me, this is a crime of immense proportions.
I want to be happy. It occurs to me this isn’t a childish pursuit. It’s the pursuit of real personal power.
I follow a blog by Dr. Sharon Blackie, who is a writer, psychologist and mythologist. I’m reading one of her books, The Long Delirious Burning Blue, which has a passionate delicacy I haven’t experienced in a new read for a long time.
Dr. Blackie recently returned to the place she calls home in Connemara, Ireland, and her last couple of blog posts are about taking a walk with her dogs on the land that she loves.
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That’s all. Taking walks. She posts pictures of the lochs, a stream, the bog and the mountain. There are pictures of her dogs, and I imagined wet, muddy paws and soft black and white coats tangled with leaves and stems. I think these posts are among the most joyful and powerful things I’ve ever read, not because Dr. Blackie is an extraordinary scholar and writer, which she is, but because she writes as a woman who’s come home to the place she belongs after a long time away. Her delight and reverence for the land and the life it supports radiate from every word and picture.
That’s how I feel this week, but my homecoming is internal rather than external.
I’m familiar with some of my terrain. Over the years, I’ve learned some of what I am. Always, though, there have been caverns, edges and deep forest I haven’t explored. Perhaps I knew all of myself before my memory in this lifetime begins, but if so, I’ve forgotten.
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This week I’m a wanderer, an explorer, a solitary traveler in my own psyche. I leave my well-worn internal paths to roam under trees. I follow the sound of water. I read my own spoor and run my hands over moss-covered rocks. I hunt in vernal pools for singing frogs the size of my toes. I wade through bogs of memory, getting my feet muddy and losing my shoes.
I’ve found old, abandoned structures smelling of rot and damp where birds nest and bats cluster. I’ve stumbled upon shallow graves where, once upon a time, I discarded and abandoned parts of myself. I’ve tripped over fallen idols, are now covered in a lacy blanket of ferns, found forgotten altars and pulled mats of dead leaves out of fountains I haven’t seen in years so clear water can flow again.
I’ve found shed skins whispering and rustling with memory, nearly invisible overgrown paths, and ruts and scars from old burns, floods and landslides.
I suddenly remember the happy feeling of waking early in the morning and going straight outside. I release myself from the expectation that I’ll work well in the last third of the day, a thing I’ve never in my life been able to pull off. I listen to music I love. I read what interests and moves me. I write lists and journal entries, blog posts and edits for my book.
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Like Dr. Blackie’s dogs, I follow what catches my attention. I move along scent trails, noting the passage of all my selves, spiraling from what I’ve been to what I’ll become and back again. I dance from thought to thought, from word to word, from dream to dream. I cast myself into a wider pattern of life.
It’s not that I don’t want to do anything. On the contrary, I want to do a hundred things. I want to do much more than I did when I was structuring my time and energy around my job. I can hardly wait to get out of bed and see what the day brings. I want to play outside, take care of tasks inside, read, write, watch the birds at the feeders, stretch, dance, swim, listen to music, make a list and check things off, be present in my relationships, make new friends, pursue intriguing new connections, earn money joyfully, and see how much I can want and how gloriously I can dream.
I’ve written about leaving home before, and in that post I wrote that in some counterintuitive way leaving my old external home in Colorado allowed me to begin to finally come home to myself internally and reclaim my power. I’ll never think of home solely as a one-dimensional place in the world again. Home is not just a house, not just a beloved landscape, but the place where my dearest friend, my most passionate lover and my most loyal companion reside, along with my deepest power. Home is my own wide-flung arms, my own pulse and breath, my own joy. Home is me, myself.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot that the most important things are also the simplest. There’s great power in being happy. If happy is missing, life is muted and apathetic at best. This is when the power of boredom and the power to quit come to our aid. This is when choice becomes something we must fight to reclaim as if our lives depend on it … because they do.
Claiming the power of happy. My daily crime.
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Last week I came down the steep stairs from my little attic aerie, sat in a chair in the living room and cried while I asked my partner if he thought I would ever have a less effortful experience of life.
It’s not that anything was really wrong. What I was feeling was an old, familiar feeling of trying to manage my life and myself as efficiently as possible and feeling worn out and unsuccessful.
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Trying. Manage. Efficiently. What am I, a machine?
I was tired that evening, and worried about diminished workflow and subsequent diminished paycheck. I wasn’t seeing a way out of my work/income situation, which is a place I’ve been in for several years.
One of the things I did last week during a work shift devoid of work was join She Writes, an online community for, obviously, women writers. I’d been procrastinating about doing so for a long time.
For years, I’ve been trying to find a writing community, both locally and online. I’ve joined a professional local organization, but their programs are rarely offered up here in Central Maine, as Portland is their headquarters. I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to find beta readers for my first book. I put up an invitation to start a writer’s group at the local library and didn’t get a single call. I tried a give and take partnership with another writer so we could read one another’s work and provide feedback, but my partner had other priorities and needed to drop out.
And, of course, I need to work for that paycheck, so my time and energy are largely gobbled up by my financial needs rather than the joyful work of my life. This produces a chronic background tension that grinds away at my soul.
Anyway, I decided the time had come and I was ready to join She Writes and see what possibilities might open up through that community. I had to apply to join.
I knew they wouldn’t take me.
They accepted me (probably some kind of mistake) and the day after I sat in the chair and cried, I had another shift with no work and began exploring She Writes. I came across a blog post titled “The Only Reason to do Anything is Love,” by Bella Mahaya Carter, and had an epiphany.
Engaging with life from a place of love rather than fear is not a new idea for me, or probably for anyone reading this. It’s the kind of thing we hear and read all the time. I would have said I do that. It’s always my intention to show up in the world with love, which is to say kindness, compassion and respect.
The wording of Carter’s post, however, indicates motivation, an internal thing, not external action. Make choices with love, not fear. Decide what to do based on love. Do nothing for fear.
Right, I thought. I treat others and myself well. Of course.
I treat others well because I think it’s effective and I’m afraid of violence, hatefulness, rejection and just plain crazy.
I treat myself well because I’m afraid to be unhealthy, unable to earn a living and/or unable to be independent.
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It’s all for fear. It’s not for love.
Furthermore, treating myself well doesn’t equal loving myself. I caretake my physical form like a good property manager takes care of a rental. I exercise, eat well, brush my teeth, wash my body and take care of injuries.
What I think about myself is that I disappointed my parents, drove my brother nuts (not literally!), failed two marriages and made unforgiveable mistakes as a parent. I think I’ve never made a successful career or had a good enough job. I think I’m ridiculously hard to live with. I think I eat too much, use too much hot water in the shower, like obnoxious music, try too hard and am too sensitive. I think I’m unattractive and few people want to hug or touch me. I think I’ve spent years writing a 300,000-word book that, for all I know, has less value in the world than a roll of cheap toilet paper. On sale.
Those are some of the things I’m conscious of. When I look at my fear-based choice making, it appears I also think if I don’t hold my own feet to the fire at all times I’ll become a lazy, irresponsible, selfish slacker; demanding, mean, dishonest and greedy.
Carter’s post made me realize I could hardly think of a choice, any choice, whether important or mundane, that I haven’t made based on some kind of fear. Ever. From earliest memory.
The greatest motivator in my life is and has always been fear.
Not only that, but I’ve created a whole pantheon of idols I obsessively and ceaselessly worship in order to avoid the vengeful, punitive God I’ve made out of fear. I make daily bloody and brutal sacrifices of time, energy and life to appease them, but insatiable fear just gets more and more powerful. Here are some of the idols:
I read that post on Friday. There and then I decided to start making choices based on loving and believing in myself rather than fear of consequences and see what happened.
Without leaving the chair, I asked myself what the hell I was doing messing around with a job that wasn’t meeting my needs and I was unhappy in.
On Saturday I applied and tested for a job as an independent contractor to do transcription for an online company.
On Sunday I applied and tested for a job as an independent contractor to do transcription for a second online company and was hired on the spot. I also wrote the publisher of She Writes Press and asked for help with the next step for my book manuscript.
On Monday, when I ran out of work, I began getting qualified (via testing) to do various kinds of transcription through my new job and looked up the resignation process from my current medical transcription job.
Yesterday the second online business hired me.
This morning She Writes Press wrote me back with support, suggestions, a recommended professional who might read the manuscript, and what it would cost.
The fear is not gone. In fact, it’s louder than ever because I’m challenging it on so many fronts at once. The difference is I’m not standing nose to nose with it right now. Playing with the new toy of making choices based on what’s loving for myself gives me another option, which means now I can make a real choice.
Fear is not a bad feeling. We need it to survive. It’s just that mine has grown bloated and swollen on all the power I’ve given it over the years. The bigger it gets, the more space it takes. At this point I’ve become its thing. It thinks it can do as it likes with me.
I’ve had a belly full of life based on doing things out of fear. It’s exhausting, demoralizing, joyless and hag-ridden. It doesn’t work well and I’m sick of it. When I think about it rationally, I know I don’t need to beat myself with a stick through every day for fear I’ll become lazy, selfish, etc., etc. If I was going to turn into any of those things I would have done it long ago.
How would it be if I used regard for myself as a motivator and refused to do or not do out of fear? What might a life based on doing things out of thinking well of myself look like? What if I stopped giving anything to fear?
The funny thing is life looks much the same. The difference is largely in the outwardly invisible motivation behind my choices. Am I going to relax with music or a video and stretch because that’s the right and responsible way to treat my tiresome physical needs after a long day sitting in which I earned inadequate money, or am I going to do it because I love the way it feels after a tiring day in which I worked hard, whether I earned money or not?
Life is crazy right now. Everything feels like it’s in transition. I hardly know what to concentrate on in any given moment, there’s so much on the table. Even so, now when I run out of energy in the afternoon I spend a few minutes writhing between making a choice between demanding more from myself out of fear or doing something pleasurable and relaxing. So far, every day I’ve managed to choose rest and relaxation after another wild day.
It appears I’ve begun a new practice. I didn’t know that evening I sat in the chair and cried I was standing on an important threshold. I didn’t know by the end of the week I’d have not one but two new jobs. I didn’t know I was going to finally get serious about putting my manuscript into a professional’s hands and risk failure and rejection. I didn’t know in just a couple of days I was going to begin making a habit out of rolling out of bed and stepping into the day’s embrace with curiosity and a resolve to think well of myself as I navigate, rather than wondering fearfully what would happen next and whether I would manage it adequately.
So far, so good.
Nothing more for fear.
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Last week I considered several questions about the politics of food. This week I want to share a reluctant personal journey.
Before going further, I want to clarify I’m not a dietician, a nutritionist, a doctor, or qualified to give any kind of diet or medical advice, nor am I interested in doing so. I am, however, the number one expert on my life and my body.
Until the last three or four years, it never occurred to me to be baffled about why eating by all the latest advice and rules hasn’t helped me with chronic pain and some of the other issues I listed in the first post on this topic. My whole life was like that. I’ve always felt I played by all the rules and things didn’t work well in any arena. Eating well and not feeling well didn’t exactly stand out. I assumed it was because I’m broken and flawed.
On the other hand, I know from my years of medical transcription work many people out there try desperately hard to adhere to their healthcare team’s recommendations in regard to diet, exercise and medication, but they still struggle with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, pain and mental illness, to name but a few. There are cheaters, of course, but most of those patients freely confess they’re noncompliant. Are all these compliant patients, and I assume hundreds of thousands of others like them, as broken and flawed as I am?
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And what about the frequent headlines regarding young, fit, athletic, active people, including vegans and vegetarians, having heart attacks and/or dropping dead? This week it was the ‘Biggest Loser’ host and trainer, Bob Harper. According to all official guidelines, those folks should live to 100, right?
So, I ask again, what the hell is going on here?
I realize now I’m not broken and flawed, at least not more than anyone else. The problem has simply been my diet. It’s always been my diet. Eating the way we’re all supposed to eat has not, does not, and I’m convinced will not ever work for me.
Three years ago, I was introduced to the idea of a ketogenic diet. It’s gradually become more and more present in the popular press, but I’d never really heard about it. I didn’t think I had a problem with gluten, and my own homemade bread formed an enormous part of my daily intake, so low-carb eating had no appeal. The other half of ketogenic was even less appealing — eating meat and animal fat. I hated feeling worn out, used up and too skinny, but I didn’t want to be fat. Eating high fat is bad for you — everyone knows that. I’d never eaten a lot of meat and didn’t feel I had the money to start. I’ve never had a great appetite, though strangely, I was usually snacking, but meat wasn’t that appealing. When I wanted a snack, I wanted a thick slice of homemade toast with margarine and a cup of tea with honey.
I formed a relationship with a ketogenic eater, who I thought was frankly boring about diet. He was a converted vegetarian and believed his plant-based diet had given him a near-fatal heart attack. On the other hand, he was (is) smart and had done a lot of research, which I respected. Unwillingly, but curious in spite of myself, I began to look at some of the information he shared.
At the time, I was hypothyroid, on medication; suffered from constipation, insomnia, and my usual mild-to-moderate mix of anxiety and depression. All of that was a cake walk, though, compared to my problems with muscle spasm and back pain.
For most of my adult life I’ve had pain problems. At one time, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, but I refused treatment, which consisted of pharmacology. I had frequent spasm in my neck, shoulders, back and hips, at least every couple of months, lasting for several days. The spasm at times made it impossible for me to sit at my desk and work, drive, and sometimes even shower. Triggers would be things like putting my foot up on the edge of the tub to put lotion on my leg, or sneezing. I walked every day, danced when I was able, worked in my garden and generally was active, but if I did any kind of exercise routine or repetitive motion I was sure to get into trouble. I couldn’t do yoga without dire consequences.
It was truly miserable, and I’d tried every modality I could think of over the years. Nothing gave me more than short-term relief. I had no hope of ever solving the problem, or even understanding what the problem was.
I knew low-carb, high-fat couldn’t possibly be the answer, because it’s not the well-rounded, well-balanced, high-fiber healthy eating I knew we need to do to stay well. I didn’t want to give myself heart disease or cancer on top of everything else. On the other hand, my friend claimed to have cured his heart disease eating keto, and he had the blood work, strength and endurance to prove it.
So I read. I read about the biochemistry of inflammation, the essential biochemical role of cholesterol in our bodies, and early studies on cholesterol and its supposed link to heart disease. I read about saturated fat. I read about studies of indigenous people and dentistry. I also read criticisms and counter-arguments to most of those studies. I read about cherry-picking data and bias. I read studies and data paid for by the sugar industry, the beef industry, the dairy industry, Big Pharma and Big Ag.
My conclusion is that it’s difficult and time consuming to get reliable scientific data that’s unbiased about food. There’s “evidence” for just about every diet being The Right Way To Eat.
Then I started reading blogs and articles written by real people who are trying to get and stay healthy and understand what their bodies need. They’re not selling anything. They’re not trying to tell everyone else what to do. They’re living in their bodies, just like me.
During all these months of research and reading, a few things really stood out. Eating keto has a profound effect on diabetes, inflammation and a host of other maladies, and there’s plenty of science to back it up. I found whole communities of people healing themselves, learning together and exchanging information about what works in their bodies, many of whom have literally transformed their health with a zero-carb diet.
Keto diet is not mainstream. It doesn’t incorporate the food pyramid. Most doctors don’t recommend it.
Does that make it invalid or (even more ridiculously) morally or ethically wrong?
In the meantime, I moved to Maine and started living with my low-carb, high-fat eating guy. Gradually, I began to eat more like him.
Photo by Helena Yankovska on Unsplash
I fought it every step of the way. I was like a bag of weasels when I gave up my morning (and midmorning and afternoon) tea with honey. What was tea without honey? I craved bread, homemade oatmeal, homemade scones and homemade gingersnap cookies. I was afraid to eat real butter. I decided this nonsense about vegetables and fruit was just that — nonsense, and I retained those in my diet, but I gave up bread and all grains. No flour. No rice. Goodbye amaranth, quinoa, cornmeal. No more homemade pancakes and waffles. No more buttered popcorn. I ask you, what is life without buttered popcorn?
I was feeling better. In fact, I noted I hadn’t had a back spasm since moving to Maine, an unheard-of period of time. I was also sleeping better. I had less bloating, water retention and gas.
I was disconcerted to find that I need to eat a lot. Much more than my male partner. It’s embarrassing. I discovered I had a lot of unconscious rules about Appropriate Eating For Women. I stopped worrying about keeping weight on and waited to get fat. I was eating more than I ever had before, and most of my calories were coming from animal fat.
I continued to feel better. I didn’t get fat. I’d read that fat doesn’t make you fat; carbs make you fat. I began to believe it. I felt healthy and strong and my weight was perfect. It stopped swinging up and down. I wasn’t cold all the time any more. I had more energy. My carb cravings stopped. I didn’t snack anymore. I got up, ate four or five eggs scrambled in butter on a bed of fresh spinach for breakfast, along with several strips of bacon and some fresh fruit, and then I started my day and didn’t even think about food until sometime in the afternoon, at which point I ate a ½ plus pound burger, mixed 70/30 with fat. Just the burger, mind you. Well, maybe a piece of cheese melted on top. When we were in funds, I ate a ¾ pound ribeye with lots of delicious fat.
Usually we are not in funds, however, and one day I ran out of spinach and fresh fruit at the same time. For a few days, there were only bacon and eggs for breakfast. Then we got a paycheck and I happily went and bought spinach and tangerines again.
Not spasm, but pain in all the old places — hip, low back and neck. I ached. I was stiff. I couldn’t sleep.
I was furious. I was scared. People HAVE to eat vegetables to stay healthy. They’re essential. I love fresh fruit.
Photo by Brenda Godinez on Unsplash
I was not going to give up fresh fruit!
Eventually, I gave up both vegetables and fruit.
As of this writing, I no longer take vitamin or herbal supplements, with the exception of magnesium, one a day, and a melatonin at bedtime. I take no prescription meds. I drink lots of water and unsweetened tea, mostly herbal and green. I’m no longer hypothyroid, proven by blood test. I’m almost never cold. I still struggle with eating enough, but if I eat more than a pound of meat a day (not counting eggs and butter), I don’t get faint or hypoglycemic. My migraines are less frequent. My weight is dead steady. I have no trouble at all with my digestion. My BMI is perfect. As long as I eat enough, I have loads of energy. I stretch, dance, swim, walk, shovel snow and lift weights with no problems. I’m not short of breath. I sleep like a rock but rarely need to nap during the day.
I haven’t had a muscle spasm now for more than two years. I haven’t had a cold or a sinus infection. My nails are supple and strong. My hair is curly and wild and thick. My skin is great.
I’ve never felt so good, and I’ve never been so healthy.
I’ve broken most rules of mainstream “healthy” eating.
This discussion of diet continues here and here. Please see my Resources page for links to diet and nutrition information.
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