Thursday, August 28, 2014

Lost in Thought: A Week Without Wifi.

We rented a cottage on Lake Michigan last week. The cottage was "rustic" in that it was made of actual logs and was located down a winding, dusty road, far from neighbors or the hustle of a city. It was also "rustic" in that it didn't include wifi and had no cellular reception.

It was excellent timing to see how I did without being connected to technology for a week. I'd just read an article in the New York Times about how necessary it is for your brain to unplug. In the article, "Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain, " Daniel J. Levitin discusses the brain's two dominant modes of attention. While one mode is for focusing on tasks, the other allows our minds to wander. He explains the significance of this latter mode:
This brain state, marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight, when we’re able to solve problems that previously seemed unsolvable. You might be going for a walk or grocery shopping or doing something that doesn’t require sustained attention and suddenly — boom — the answer to a problem that had been vexing you suddenly appears. This is the mind-wandering mode, making connections among things that we didn’t previously see as connected.
I've noticed the lack of daydreaming in my modern life. The more plugged in I am, the more busy my mind is. My mind is one that naturally likes to daydream. As a child I was frequently gazing out of windows, imagining another life, another world and new stories for me to inhabit. Though I spent much of my childhood alone, I found a way to cope with that by listening to the voice in my head that I called "The Narrator." The Narrator has been my constant companion. I can have imaginary conversations with The Narrator. The Narrator composes my stories before I sit down to actually write or type.  The Narrator describes what's around me in interesting and complex ways. The Narrator fantasizes, dreams, works out and puzzles over everything it sees.

But I can't hear The Narrator when I'm reading the phone, typing on the computer or watching TV. The Narrator's voice and observations are drowned out by the millions of voices vying for my attention in every Facebook status, tweet and Instagram photo. By constantly reaching for my phone, my laptop or some form of distraction, I am not pausing long enough to hear what The Narrator has to say.

And The Narrator is the voice of my inner mind talking to me. The Narrator gives me the greatest insights, the most interesting stories and the most magical combinations of words. The Narrator sings to me a lullaby that makes this world sweet. By driving five hours north and resting on the banks of Lake Michigan without the ability to connect to the world via the Internet, my mind was once again full of that symphony of words that only The Narrator could share.

I sat on multi-colored rocks along the beach, dazzled by the soft pinks, light grays and dusty whites of nature's interior decorator. I watched the sunlight sparkle and dance on the water. I stared at the tiny struggles of a winged ant that tried to carry a spider to its lair for dinner. I watched the patterns he made as he repeatedly worked over and over the general area of where he dropped the spider, not realizing that I had buried it in order to try and save it in some misguided attempt at heroism. The rocks along the beach were suddenly bustling with life and drama, a tiny metropolis which I'd been wholly unaware of as I stomped across it to dip my toes in the lake.

I don't know how much of this I would have seen if I'd been able to connect to the Internet on my phone and read articles on the New York Times as I sat on the beach. There's nothing wrong with reading articles on the New York Times, of course. I've gained wisdom and insight there. But by forcibly disconnecting from technology, it enabled me to reconnect with the real world and very the real drama that was unfolding right before my very eyes, or right beyond my cellphone screen.

My mind was able to buzz and dream and narrate once again. I felt a peace that seemed to resonate right down to my very bones. I felt the warm sand under my feet. I touched the smooth rocks along the beach. I watched my daughter dance in the waves. I was filled with beauty within, without and all around. I felt the hum of the earth and I was one with it.

It was good to come home again. It was good to reconnect with The Narrator. If you're involved in any kind of creative endeavor, whether it be writing a blog, a memoir or advertising copy as I do, you need to allow your brain to switch back to this neutral mode. Technology captures our attention and keeps our brains on the active mode for too long. It's important to remember to turn off the phone. To close the laptop. To reconnect with the dreamer within you, so you can let your mind sing with the world around you.

Like we were born to do. We were born to dream. We were born to connect. And while technology enables us to connect with a much broader swath of the world via social media and the Internet, we also need to connect with the inner world of our own minds. Let's make sure we make time for both kinds of connecting, connecting within and without, and returning to the mesmerizing world of our thinking, dreaming, synapse-firing minds.

Photo credits go to my husband, who was using our pretty sweet Canon EOS 70D.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When I Stopped Being Skinny and the World Fell Apart.

The first time I was called fat I was actually told I wasn't fat. That may be a strange way to begin a blog post about the first time I was called fat, but there it is. It was a boy who said it and I had a major crush on him. I was 14 years old, tall and still reasonably thin despite the onset of puberty.

"You're not fat," he said, answering a question I hadn't asked. "You just need to tone up."

I stood in my first bikini at the lake's edge and froze. I felt naked and exposed. I wished I could sink into the sand and never re-emerge.

Having been skinny my whole life, the observation was in itself shocking. I'd always been the tall skinny girl who ran through the neighborhood in short shorts, legs and arms windmilling down the street without a care in the world.

Adults often commented on my appearance. I got a lot of praise for being tall, skinny and blond. Grown women would grab my chin and turn my face back and forth in their hands, admiring me.

"Such gorgeous cheekbones," they said.

"Do you know women pay a lot of money to have blond highlights like those?"

"When you get older, you'll love being so tall and thin. You'll look like a model."

I was Tall and Skinny. Long and Lean. It became my identity more than I realized. In fact, I didn't realize how important it was until I lost it.

I stopped wearing shorts after The Crush told me I needed to tone up. Sure I wore the polyester uniform basketball shorts when I played on a team, but I tugged at them during the game and ran to the locker room afterwards to put on sweats to cover how my body was changing. My once stick-like legs were becoming curvy and strong.

"You could be a plus-size model," a girl told me at lunch one day.

By then I was still tall and fit, but I had developed more of an athletic build rather than a slight willowy one ... which is a perfectly acceptable thing to be. But I was surrounded by tiny girls who talked about weighing tiny petite girly numbers. Wearing tiny petite clothing sizes. Inhabiting bodies with such tiny petite bones. I was starting to feel like a linebacker. I'm sure the girl was trying to say I was pretty … but all I heard was that I was fat. She had no way of knowing that I was descending into an eating disorder that would hold me in its grip for decades.

You see, being imperfect was unacceptable. If I wasn't perfect, no one would love me. If I could just attain perfection, then everything would get better. My mother wouldn't drink. My dad wouldn't leave. My brother and sister would move back home. A boy might even like me! I'd make more friends. Get better grades. Everyone would love me and no one would criticize me. The kids down the street wouldn't yell, "Your mother's a drunk!"every time I walked past their house. If I could only be perfect enough, then everything would be okay. I just knew it.

And so the refrain played over and over again in my brain. Look perfect. Feel perfect. Be perfect. Anything less means you're trash. A loser. A disgusting piece of filth that no one will love. If you  allow yourself to eat, if you eat your feelings and shove food down your throat like the love you crave, then you've ruined everything.

It became a vicious cycle of trying to starve myself thin so I could be lovable, binging on the food/love I so desperately craved, and then trying to erase the whole messy affair by vomiting. It was a brutal cycle of failure and disappointment. Which left me alone in the darkest hours of the night when I was at my loneliest … and then I'd do it all over again. I knew with 100% certainty that I was a disgusting beast who no one would ever love. I believed I deserved everything that I got, which was loneliness and despair.

The irony is, 30 years later, I don't think I'm fat but do think I need to tone up. But it's not the end of the world. I know you love me anyway. And I sorta love me too.

Of course I have therapy to thank for that. It took a lot a lot of work and a bit of courage too. For so long I was imprisoned by the shame of admitting I had this problem. That's another great irony of this disease. The shame of it keeps you silent, but the silence keeps you sick. What I learned in therapy was that when I was finally able to let go of the shame, I was able to let go of the disorder too.

I've been in recovery for over ten years and yet I rarely talk about it. Shame is a funny thing. It sticks and clings to us like a dirty scent we're afraid other people will notice. I still battle with trying to appear perfect. I'm afraid that by admitting that I have struggled with an eating disorder, you'll find me disgusting and unlovable.

But I know that's not true.

Nobody ever loved perfect things. Perfect things are scary. You're always afraid you'll drop them or break them or scratch them. We're so much more comfortable with worn things. The chipped glass. The stuffed toy with the missing ear. The girl with the imperfect past.

We can relate to imperfection.

Perfect is a mirage. You can chase it, but you'll never attain it. And if you think you have to wait to be perfect to be loved, you'll spend your entire life alone. It's funny, the more imperfect I've allowed myself to be, the more full my life has become. Now when I sit down, I instantly have two kids, a cat and a grown man all vying for space to get the closest to me on the couch.

"You know what," my husband commented the other day, looking at me with a kid sitting on each side and a cat on my lap. "You have the thing you always wanted. To not be alone."

I may never have attained perfection, but I did attain love.

This is a response to a writing prompt hosted by the indomitable Brittany, Herself. To participate in the August Writing Prompts, click here.