Thursday, February 3, 2011

Dangerous Beauty

How amazing it is to feel alive! And, yet, many of my breathing hours have been squandered trying to numb how intense and overwhelming that very aliveness can seem. I have definitely developed ways to shut down or distract myself from experiencing the fullness of living.

It wasn't always like that. 

I have a picture of my two-year old self running with reckless abandon across some grass, my pink dress with white ruffles bouncing like my dark brown wavy hair. I can hear the precious giggles escaping that little girl's mouth-wide-open. And all the other pictures of me as a child exude an ebullience that only absolute aliveness can yield. In all those pictures, there is a sense of total fearlessness and trust in life. Now this could just be my romanticizing of myself as a child. Despite what "they" say, hindsight is not always 20/20. But this is to the best of my recollection.

I distinctly remember an experience when I was eight years old that seemed to bring that innocent freedom of pure aliveness to all but a screeching halt for me. It is a moment in my human story where I can see an enormous shift in how I experienced the world around me. I promise that the following disturbing story has a progressive point in my sharing of it.

A little girl the same age as me had just moved into our neighborhood with her family. Shortly after arriving, another one of our neighbors offered to take her fishing with his boys. She never came back.

I recall the urgency of blades slicing through air as a helicopter hovered in a field near our house, the spotlight glancing off my bedroom window, the police knocking on our door, my dad joining a search party to look for her. Although the reality of details and the order in which they happened feel hazy, what is not hazy is knowing how aware I was at the time of the events that followed.

The little girl, eight years old like me, was discovered chained to the bottom of a creek, having been raped and brutally murdered. And I was fully aware of this despite no recollection of hearing my parents discuss it. The man who had taken her fishing, and would end up being convicted for her rape and murder, was actually on the search party until his testimony did not match up with that of his sons.

A few summers ago, during a rough time, memories and dreams of this time in my life came back with ferocity. It felt like reliving those months again. In my work to reconcile this blindsiding internal turbulence, I listened and prayed to see what this might be here to teach me. I also called my dad and asked him what it was like to be the father of 3 young girls in the midst of that whole situation. His response was that it seemed like an isolated case. The man had just been released from prison, was caught and returned to prison. But one of the things I'd had wrong was my age at the time. I remembered being five. Dad set me straight, "No, you were the same age as the little girl. I remember that clearly." (We would later move to East Bay San Francisco and be faced with a rash of kidnappings and murders of beautiful young girls, some that were our playmates and classmates doing things as "normal" as going to our local grocery store - which is when my parents limited our out-of-home time.)

It was in that moment that a new awareness struck me: If this had happened when I was 8, then it occurred in the simultaneity of another childhood memory that had long confounded me. This was the exact same age when I began hoarding, hiding and binging on sugar. Eight year old fingers sneakily snatching bits and pieces from the baking cupboard and tucking them away in my pink Care Bears backpack with Friendship Bear and Sunshine Bear smiling up at me from the flap.

With this connection drawn, a freeing, cleansing compassion washed over me. I had spent years believing that I was inherently flawed, broken, not spiritual enough, too lazy, chubby, lacking in self-control and a million other self-defeating notions that I had entertained over the 24 years since this "habit" had mysteriously taken root in my experience.

But this new information set me free. It freed me to hold in my mind's eye that terrified little eight-year old who had realized a few simple and aggressive human beliefs: children are vulnerable, there is much danger to fear, even adults who are fathers can't be trusted. That is a lot to take on as a kiddo.  But the most impacting belief I carried out of that moment was this: IT IS DANGEROUS TO BE BEAUTIFUL.

And yet, my bubbling, joyful, happy self was the one that everyone loved, including me. So I discovered and adopted a very simple, readily available coping mechanism - binging. When I would eat mass amounts of sugar, a sense of ease would come over me - numbing uncomfortable feelings and nagging fears while at the same time creating a lift in my mood that made me really fun to be around. Brilliant!

The challenge was that over time, I needed more and more for the numbing to take effect. And this required being mentally consumed, always aware of where the next "fix" might be, and assuring that I'd have access to food in order to be okay around others. Talk about distraction and feeling less-than-alive!

In addition, it meant being the "chubby girl" - always feeling unattractive, slow and athletically incompetent.
But some part of me knew that it was dangerous to be pretty, so the padding was protection. And no matter what I did to lose weight, nothing would send me into a tailspin quicker than someone complimenting me on how good I looked or how much weight I'd lost. Right back into the blinding binging and weight-gain - but I did not understand the "why" of this. It was just an undeniable behavior I could not think my way out of.

Living such a socially-driven life did not help. In my mind, it was absolutely essential that I was "up" when around others for fear that I was not otherwise worthy of their friendship or company, in and of myself. I was "always-happy-Heather."

Further on down the line, early in my adulthood, this addiction was no longer enough to keep me okay, and resulted in an excessive need for sexual attention, and some risky behaviors. Oddly enough, this did not surface until adulthood because I had a series of other experiences with boys who crossed boundaries violating my trust and upping my hypersensitivity that no man could be trusted. But when I turned eighteen, something switched inside of me that replaced that fear with an unhealthy drive for sexual validation. It seemed that I could not be okay without the help of things to numb the fear and depression that constantly threatened to consume me. And all this in the midst of being a very spiritually-minded young person; a paradox that took years for me to reconcile the feeling that I was a "fraud."
From this long and winding journey, the capacity I have developed more than any other is a deep sense of compassion for all people, that each of us is doing the best with what we have and what we currently understand. This is not to dismiss or condone any sort of oppressive or violent behavior, but more a call to how we need each other to grow and develop, to learn from and teach, and to hold us accountable when we lose our way and forget who we are.

It is not dangerous to be beautiful. And no amount of padding can truly hide my beauty, or that of anyone else. Nor can it protect me anymore than a thin body can. And it is not better to be numb than to feel the full breadth and intensity of what it is to be expressing Life.

This is the freedom I have been birthed into through the past 7 years of this journey that now finds me here, slowly releasing the 50 pounds of padding consciously amassed over the past nine months. Feeling the aliveness of the sublime sunshine kissing my cheeks as I play in this winter wonderland is something I never want to dim or dull. Or any other more mundane, or even uncomfortable experiences.

As part of this journey, as I return to a lighter body that finds greater ease in doing what it loves, I see how all of the seeming tragedy in my life has been for the learning. Despite that, somewhere deep inside me still cringes when someone tells me how beautiful they think I am, and it often feels threatening to my ego somehow. But I can see when this is operating and am able to tenderly love myself rather than reach for some external numbing agent.

I am still learning to trust in divine Love to be the Source of my absolute safety, Love that continually whispers in my heart that who I am most deeply cannot be touched or destroyed by any one else or their misguided actions. Ever. Period.

As the marbled blue-gray sky outside my window begins to dim, I am drawn away from this story and into the aliveness of icy air and movement of limb and heart. This untouchable beauty, ever safe and never merely "skin deep," is the outcome of our willingness to experience total aliveness - the courage to walk each step of our lives unfettered by numbness, choosing breath and presence, wide open and available to work through, grow through, play through, love through, be loved through and dance through whatever crosses our path.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity-jig

My mom used to say this anytime we pulled into our driveway. “Home again, home again jiggity-jig,” she’d say in her sing-song voice. I heard it as usual pulling into my driveway in Colorado.

I am home.

The final stretch of my drive through the Wet Valley, flanked by the towering Sangre de Cristo (pictured in this post) mountains and luminous grasslands textured by enormous rock formations, lit my heart like the warm sunshine illuminated the early evening sky. There is just something about where I live that humbles me to no end, fills my heart with song, brings my soul alive like no other local on the planet ever has, and keeps bringing me back no matter what adventures call me away. It is a feeling of “Ahhhhh, I am home.”

I have been experiencing this feeling simply living in my own body lately too – regardless of location. This has been a freedom I wish for all. But it has been a long, windy, sometimes-dangerous road to this moment.

Back in my own space, I moved my body this morning, warming it up and stretching in a way I have not done in ages (as was the plan for this "research project”). I have done yoga off and on and taken walks, but have been inconsistent in order to create a true-to-life feeling of heft, physical burden and limitation. And it has certainly worked! This body takes so much more energy to move through the world, and there are many moments of sadness that strike my heart that I can’t just hit the trail in my rhythmic moving meditation of running.

Exercising for me is not about forcing physical movement on my body. Movement and fitness to me are about forming the mental models that I wish to manifest in my my physical experience. I move because I desire to express freedom from a place of wholeness and completeness, not because I lack anything or need to fix or change any part of my experience.

I began with some knee, hip and thigh strengthening exercises while holding in thought ideas of foundation, healthy structure, proper tracking. Then I moved into prayer planks breathing strong and bringing to mind notions of core strength, the ability to be centered and upright. Followed by yoga, which is always a moving prayer for me – I stretch my self-imposed ideas of limitation, I open my heart and thought to experiencing more of my limitless nature, I breathe into this moment exactly perfect as it is. 

This is not an easy thing, since I have a verbally hyperactive ego always exercising its voice in my head about how limited I really am, how I would rather just do something more “comfortable,” always working to distract me from what I truly desire.

So this morning was bitter-sweet: burning pain, thoughts of “I can’t believe I can’t even do (insert any task I used to be ‘good’ at)…” raging through my head, all mixed with the sweet peace of gratitude for the body I am experiencing in this moment, and the anticipatory joy of each bit of “work” opening my world back up to the possibilities of the activities I so dearly miss.

I am home, but not because I am back in my mountains. I am home because I have discovered unconditional love for being in my own skin. Now off for a hike in those beautiful Sangres!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Here's to How it Feels to Be Real

I don't care if it hurts,
I wanna have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul.

Radiohead's song, "Creep"

Have you ever had one of those "A-ha!" moments when more than just one idea occurs to you? A flash of knowing that is more like seeing a glitch in an enormous matrix? A profound learning occurred in my life this week when I came across the term "accelerated discontent" in a marketing webinar I attended.

According to what I discovered, “accelerated discontent” is an advertising mechanism for attracting consumers to specific products by making them so unhappy with what they have, they MUST buy your product/service to ever be "happy" again. And, as it is our constitutional right to pursue happiness, more often than not, we take the bait.

Here is an example, everyday you walk through your kitchen. All the appliances work just fine. It's a decade old but you don't really think about it much. Then the New Years sales begin. "HUGE SAVINGS ON KITCHEN REMODELS" start showing up everywhere. Billboards, television, mailers, radio ads. All of a sudden you start to notice how "bored" you actually are with your kitchen. You start to think how fun it would be to have a new breakfast nook here and a new light fixture there and maybe a shiny metal fridge rather than your old school one.

Seems harmless, but pretty soon your kitchen that was perfectly good at Christmas is driving you nuts by Groundhog Day. Yes folks, this affliction has a name: Accelerated Discontent. Look around. Can you see this idea being sold to you everyday?

In the small mountain town I call home, this sort of manipulation is not nearly as present. Our advertising tends to happen more through relationships with each other as interdependent community members and business folks. This is not to romanticize my town, we have a Walmart within driving distance and a Subway. But that is about it. And many of us are so busy working and playing we aren’t bombarded by TV commercials, and we don’t have billboards forced on us either.

What I have come to love so much about my community is how real everyone is. I rarely feel pressured to be anybody but who I naturally am. If I want to wear makeup, I can. And if I don’t, no one notices anyhow. No one cares what kind of car I drive, or clothes I wear, and the feeling is mutual from my end.

However, I cannot say that this was the experience I had growing up. I can still sing commercial jingles from the 80s that I heard while watching Saturday morning cartoons. "I'm gonna wash that gray right outta my hair!" "Calgon, take me away."

As I begin this blog, I am reminded of a moment that occurred the summer after my 6th grade year. We had a family membership to our neighborhood pool. I had a fabulous bright pink ribbed one-piece bathing suit. I recall lying on my back in the sun on my rainbow towel. Kid’s were screaming and splashing in the pool. Sounds of “Marco!” “Polo!” filled the air.

In the midst of all this chaos and joy, I remember staring down the length of my body over my little rounded belly to my sunkissed thighs, thinking, “Please, God, whatever happens, give me beautiful legs. I don’t care if I have a belly. Just give me pretty thighs. Please.”


I would spend a lot of money, waste a great deal of time, mental and emotional energy, and make dangerous personal choices in an effort for airbrushed-perfection legs. Images of Elle Macpherson and countless other supermodels and the products they advertised accelerated my discontent with being in my own skin. I have spent years, trying to get out of this skin – this beautiful, perfectly-me skin.

In fact, an After School Special, aimed at informing kids of the dangers of bulimia, gave me a brilliant idea: I don’t have to stop eating everything I love, I can just throw up after! I theorized that I wouldn’t die, because I would only do it for a little while. Just till I was skinny. Fortunately, I was physically incapable of making myself throw up. I tried and tried, but never succeeded.

In my life I have made friends with so many women that I used to envy, and men I could only dream would ever "want" me, only to hear stories of their lifelong fight against their bodies, and of their struggle with self-loathing. I have discussed these challenges at length with anorexics, bingers, purgers, exercise bulimics (people who over-exercise out of fear of getting fat), and people hypnotized by all sorts of eating disorders and addictions. And everyone is in the same battle, like Don Quixote and the windmills in his head. We are fighting lies about who we are and what really matters. The billion-dollar diet and fitness industry thanks us.

I spent 7 of the past 8 years of my life terrified to ever be as heavy as I was at the end of my marriage. I have under-eaten, over-exercised, run until I injured myself, and stressed about making sure “I (would) never be that Heather again!” I became so blinded by this obsession that at the peak of my physical fitness, I honestly felt as fat as ever, and more discontented than I'd known to be possible. Climbing at my peak, working on and summiting Mt. Rainier, running 10 miles of mountain trails effortlessly, spending 81 days out on a wilderness course - and I would look at my body with disgust if I glimpsed it in a mirror.

This past year, my mission became clear – face this fear and make peace with my body.

Today as I lie on my tummy completely vulnerable in all my glory under the loving hands of an amazing massage therapist (thank you Marcus of Massage Green in Frisco, TX!*), I had the most freeing realization – again. “I am just here. Home in my skin. And it feels so wonderful to be me, right here, right now, free of all judgment.”

I say “again” because I have had this experience of sudden joy at being in my own skin a few times now. But each time it happens, it is like the first time because I have spent nearly 30 years wanting to be in almost any other body but my own. So these moments remind me of how much I have to be grateful for.

After a lot of delicious reflective silence, Marcus and I began talking. We talked about our work. He shared that he is working on getting licensed as a physical trainer, with his goal being to integrating it with massage. We got on the topic of writing somehow and I shared a bit about the "Clan of the Thunder Thighs" project. I shared that a big part of my inspiration to do this has been the many young girls (and boys and adults) I've watched struggle with eating disorders and how I feel that it's time to change that trend.

We spoke about how until someone loves him or herself it does not matter how you manipulate the outside of a person, they will still see what they hold inside. At one point, Marcus jumped in excitedly, "Yes! You HAVE to love yourself first!" Self-loathing is one of the ugliest things in the world. And if you look in the mirror through that filter, you will never see your beautiful self.

It’s really good to be home. It’s feels so good to be real. As I told my sister Amy today, I want this freedom for the whole world. Let’s stop allowing others to think for us. We are being manipulated to spend money, not to get healthy. Being and becoming healthy begin with loving ourselves exactly where we are right now. This kind of love gives us the strength to let go of any harmful beliefs and subsequent unhealthy habits. This kind of love clears the deck of accelerated discontent and makes way for peaceful contentment to ALWAYS be at home in our own skin.

I leave you with the link to a Christine Kane song. This is my new song that replaces the old of wanting a “perfect body” even if it “hurts.” This link takes you to her new album “Wide Awake.” Click on the second track called “How to Be Real.”

Here’s to how it feels to be real.


*Massage Green is all over the country. Be sure to check them out and if you are in the Dallas area, Marcus is worth the drive (to Frisco), so be sure to request him! Or contact me and I can connect you with him as he does independent massage as well.