Promise Me You’ll Never Abandon Yourself Again


That J-shaped line over your right eyebrow. The thick brows you’ve only waxed once, just to try it. Those deep grooves in your forehead that remind you of the ways toddlers sometimes draw waves, or maybe clouds on an otherwise clear day. The shape your mouth makes when you almost smile. Eyes exactly the same in photos as they did when you were a baby, a kindergartener, a teenager, a new mama yourself.  The moles that you need to have checked. The vertical lines between your eyes, evidence of so much furrowing.

Remember how you always loved the skin on your mom’s forearms? How soft it was, you couldn’t believe it. Like satin.

How your nearly 12-year-old son likes to squeeze the skin on the top of your hand, to see how long it stays pinched. Is he testing your elasticity, subconsciously gauging how much time he might still have you near?

And your teenage daughter’s claiming of her own beauty, not letting the world define it for her.

The belly soft, skin puckery, a roll of fat you didn’t used to have and don’t much mind, though truth be told you are still learning. It is evidence, you decide, of your existence, your choices of sustenance over starvation and oxygen over nicotine.

Today, a high of 43 degrees, and you set out for a two-mile run, your first in close to six months. Will your lower back allow it? We’ll see. You go slowly — no phone, no iPod, no headphones, no tracking devices. Just you and your feet, like the first time you ran two miles more than a quarter century ago.

Now your friends who are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s don’t seem old. Old is maybe 80s, you decide. So at 44, you’re a spring chicken. But not exactly. You’re in the middle, if you’re lucky. You’re no longer a young woman, no longer chasing after small people, no longer chasing after a better life. No, you are a grown woman now. And for as grown as you felt after birthing each of your kids, you know now that this is different. Something has shifted. You’ve changed.

Your weight is 15 pounds more than it was  for most of the last two decades. You no longer wear the smallest size on the rack or eat the smallest portion on the menu. You also no longer inhale a dozen clove cigarettes a day or find yourself winded from making the bed. You know the value of health from the deepest interiors of life, having witnessed your wife’s close encounter with death and subsequent recovery.

You will never again take this body for granted. Not for a day.

Does this mean you take the best possible care of it you could? No. You eat sugar, which know is probably the actual devil. You have never owned a juicer and fall way short on the cooking front, both for yourself and your children. You don’t go to a gym or have a regular workout routine. But you have also softened on those fronts, and perhaps it’s for the best — you don’t obsess, over any of it.

When you were 17, dinner in your very first dorm cafeteria was a tortilla with a piece of nonfat cheese melted on it in a microwave. You called this a quesadilla, and I am so sad to think that this was your idea of eating. Later, you’d borrow your father’s car to go down to the frozen yogurt shop, where you would sample as many flavors as they would allow before ordering. Some nights, you felt embarrassed when you walked in. Embarrassed by yourself. Seen and yet knowing you were inside of your own ritual, which would likely end later that night with purging in the girls’ bathroom when you thought no one else was there.

You have healed so much. You have discovered the joys of libido, something you always just assumed you didn’t have much of. You have discovered the freedom of not worrying about gaining weight, because you have gained weight and life is more content and purposeful than ever.

Not fighting your body has opened up space to fight for the things that really matter — truth, connection, justice, courage.

You still often don’t feel beautiful.  You look in the mirror and whoa, you have aged so much. It’s a bit of a shock some days. Then you remember how young you still are, and smile. May you live to hold your great-great-grandchildren.

Loving yourself here is a practice. Just remember how you feel after that two-mile run and a hot shower midday — a little stronger, a little more glowing, a little more ready for whatever’s next.

You’re raising kids now. Kids with bodies and inner lives and thoughts and experiences you don’t know about. Kids with relationships to their bodies so very different than yours has ever been.

And you know what you want to teach and model for them: Self-love. That’s it. Unconditional, non-negotiable self-love. Not at the expense of anyone else — true love never demands that. And not at the expense of humility — that, too, is not what love is.

No, self-love that’s constant and spacious and gives them room to change, to grow, to relate to themselves as miraculous and capable.

Look at yourself with tenderness and amazement. You’re here. You made it to this moment. You are beautiful, exactly as you are. Promise me you’ll never abandon yourself again.

* * *
Join me and poet/herbalist Adrie Rose for two weeks of writing prompts and gentle self-care suggestions. The Body Now meets online March 19-30 and is limited to 20 participants. Register today to hold your spot. All bodies welcome.

The Reunion


Late this afternoon, I stopped by The Arbors, an assisted living facility here in town. Pearl’s piano teacher was sitting shiva for her mom, who passed away. Today would have been her 93rd birthday.

Walking into that building for the first time in nearly 15 years brought back a kind of visceral memory: The heavy scent of air freshener; the living room with the leftover holiday decorations; the long corridor lined with numbered apartments. My Grammy, Celia — my mom’s mom, and my Grandpa Max — my dad’s father, both lived out their final years there.

Sitting in the bright, nicely furnished apartment for half hour or so was poignant; Pearl’s teacher’s friends came in one or two at a time, with food and flowers. We looked at some photos and heard a story or two recounting her mom’s exuberant spirit — stories I’ve already passed along to Mani, stories that will now live with me even though I never met the woman.

**

After I said my goodbyes, I made my way back to the lobby. But the piano in the sitting room was whispering to me, so I asked the woman at the reception desk if it would be ok for me to sit and play a song or two. “I don’t see why not,” she replied.

I didn’t even take off my coat before pulling out the bench, lifting the lid, and exposing the 88 keys I’d known my whole life. It felt like a reunion. It was a reunion.

I stuttered through George Winston’s “Thanksgiving,” a piece I learned by ear in high school and used to play with great feeling. The piano was woefully out of tune, but this did not stop me.

Next came the angst-ridden crush song I wrote for Jamie Ferguson when I was 16 (hint: “I just can’t tell if you notice me”). And then I stopped trying to remember anything by heart and did what I used to do for hours on end: I improvised. And found myself in tears.

**

When I looked up, a woman with keys around her neck was standing at the end of the baby grand. “That was beautiful,” she said. Tears were spilling down my cheeks and I could hardly catch my breath.

“This is — this was — my piano,” I managed to tell her. We introduced ourselves; her name was Tiffany.

I played this piano from the time I began begging to take lessons like my big sisters. I played Suzuki and Bartok and later Bach and Beethoven on this piano. I practiced this piano every day from age five until I quit taking lessons, sometime in high school. I was stubborn when it came to working on the hard parts. But I never stopped playing.

This piano was where I went for comfort, for solace, for expression, for fun, for a good cry.

Then I moved out and moved on.

**

Eventually, I got a piano of my own, an upright my then-husband surprised me with for our third anniversary, not a week before Aviva was born. This was the piano both of my kids learned to play on. And though my technical abilities faded with time, my love of improvising never left me.

By 2003, both of my remaining grandparents had passed away. And my parents decided to donate the baby grand to The Arbors, where it would bring joy to many elderly residents for years to come — right up until this day.

One house and three apartments later, the sad day came when the movers broke the news: They couldn’t get the piano around the turn at the top of the stairs. I cried. We moved it to my parents’ living room,  to the same nook where the baby grand used to live. Now, we have an electric keyboard the kids play; I’ve tried to sit there, but it’s just not the same.

**

It’s like that, isn’t it? The locks to memory ride with us like quiet passengers, until something turns and clicks and suddenly we are awash in emotion we didn’t see behind the door we’d forgotten was there.

I have to admit, for a hot minute part of me — something childlike and irrational — wanted to say, “I want it back! It’s mine!”

Instead, I walked away, and asked Tiffany if I might come again to play some more. “I live right up the street,” I told her.

“Anytime,” she said with a kind smile. “Anytime at all.”

Same Sun, Same Moon

I’m in bed. It’s only 8:13pm but after a full day, it felt good to slip out of my clothes and under the clean sheets. In a little bit, I’ll turn off the computer and we will read a chapter from our current book before watching a show. Then Mani will put on a short meditation from the Daily Calm app (we call it the Daily Clam, after that one time I misread it), and with any luck, we’ll both get a decent night’s sleep.

This is more or less how it goes every night. When the kids are here, I read to Pearl and say goodnight to V before locking up. I try to motivate to wash the evening dishes, since it’s so nice to wake up to an empty sink in the morning when I go to make the coffee. Some nights, I get sucked into working late or just fucking around online.

Yesterday at the end of my run, I saw the fox again, the one who makes the occasional appearance in our driveway. He crossed the street and trotted down towards the woods near Sunset Farm. My mind wandered to tattoo daydreams.

Then I was home and the sweat was pouring and I was proud of myself for moving my body. I took a cold shower and shaved my legs and drank cold water and forgot what day it was.

Self-employment is a lot of things. One of them is flexible. Other than calls with coaching clients and my upcoming Monday night in-person group (which isn’t on my website, by the way, so if you’re local and you want to write with a small group of women for six weeks in Amherst, let me know), I rarely have to be in a particular place at a specific time. There is a definite rhythm to my days and weeks, but it’s one of my own making and shaping.

Sometimes I forget this and I revert to treating my life, not to mention my writing, like something to squeeze in around the edges. I’ll find myself bringing the same tension to getting to the kitchen table to greet a writing group in the morning that I used to feel driving to work — hurried, tense, late. Then I remember that no one in said group is checking their watch. I don’t clock in or out. There’s no payday or benefits office. I am all the things. This is both amazing and challenging. I wouldn’t trade it.

Today, I watched a video by a writer I admire. She’s very funny, irreverent, and ballsy. The video had nearly 35,000 views. I do not know how that happens. I do not know if that even matters.

Just now, I looked up from the screen and there was the waxing moon on the other side of our bedroom skylight, bright in the still-blue July sky as if to say: No, it doesn’t matter how many views you get. Thanks, Moon. The moon always has the best timing.

Today, I ran again. Just me and my tiny iPod shuffle and the midday sun. I ran north to UMass and around the little pond in the middle of campus. There was a group of young adults milling around with matching blue backpacks. Many of the women wore colorful headscarves and I imagined that they were a visiting group of students here for some summer program. I thought about the Travel Ban and wondered what country they were from.

Arcade Fire’s album “The Suburbs” has been my running soundtrack lately, along with some old-school Madonna and a smattering of other indie-pop songs that keep me moving. I didn’t run all winter, and then all of a sudden a few weeks ago, I started again. Just like that.

Summer and I are old friends. We share stories that don’t need to be revisited. We both enjoy fresh-water swimming and napping in hammocks and ice cream for dinner. Everything seems a little more do-able. My daughter is quick to correct me if I say there are more hours in the day, but she knows what I mean. I am a goner for heat and light.

On my bedside table, so many books. Half-read books, unread books. Paperbacks, hardcovers. On my head, more grey hairs every day. I pluck them, not in battle but more like a new hobby. My skin is changing. My life is changing.

Our lives are always changing. If we pay attention, we might even notice. But so much of the change happens while we’re so in the days, the news, the fury, the mundane, the passion, the questions, the sweat and tears of it all, that we don’t know until later. And then later is the new now and here we are: Kids older, bodies older, love a few layers deeper, understanding wider, with just as many places to be lost and found as ever.

I find myself running again. I find myself pounding the pavement, creating the rhythm of my own days in this life, loving my people, and not worrying about the numbers. I look up to find that the moon has already moved slightly further west as it starts out its nightly journey across the small slice of sky we can see. I marvel, like a child, that it’s the same sky, the same sun, the same moon, for you.

Fighting Something Off

xoxoxo

I am fighting something off.

It sounds like I’m being attacked. It’s strange when the “attack” is invisible to the naked eye. The only proof of it is in the lethargy of my muscles, the subtle ache in my bones, the hint of a scratch against the back of my throat. And the sleep. Good lord, the sleep.

Yesterday, after a very full week, I took a three-hour “nap” in the late-afternoon. I ate a bowl of homemade oatmeal with brown sugar and a banana for dinner while we watched the Bulls game and cheered them on through what’s proving to be a difficult season. Then I spent a few hours working in bed. We turned out the light around 12:30am and I slept for eleven hours. ELEVEN.

coffeeToday, Mani emptied out the entire contents of our shared closet and dresser drawers– all of which were overflowing — and while I made and drank my first cup of coffee and washed the dishes I was too tired to confront last night, she heaved a small mountain of clothes onto our bed. We then spent two hours sorting every single article of clothing we own, filled two large garbage bags with giveaways, and pared our wardrobe down to one that is both cute, functional, and manageable.

Our room felt much lighter afterwards.

Since then, I’ve done about five loads of laundry, and we have delicates drying flat and hanging  over the backs of chairs in both the bedroom and kitchen. We’re so thankful our landlord bought that new washer and dryer.

I left the house briefly around 4:00pm to deliver our donations to the Hospice Shop and stop at the post office with some mail to deliver, and an hour later, was already ready for a nap. I slept for 90 minutes or so.

Now, we’ve both eaten dinner. My thighs feel as if I spent hours running, which could not be further from reality. It can only mean one thing.

I’m fighting something off.

We didn’t get a speck of snow here. It’s bizarre, to see photos of a blizzard that didn’t make it this far north, and I’m finding myself remembering blizzards in years past, like the one in 2011 when my kids and soon-to-be-ex-husband were on vacation somewhere tropical and I was home–housesitting actually–and shoveling my way out of a dead-end street that was closed to the main road for two full days after the snow stopped falling. Or the ones in years prior to that, when we lived on a different little dead-end street and the kids went rolling out in their poofy snowsuits, veritably disappearing in the drifts. I remember the workout of getting those things on and off of them.

Now it’s just January. My kids can put on their own snowgear, there’s no snow here, and they’re at their dad’s this weekend besides. I’ve come down from the natural high of my birthday and am looking at the landscape that may not appear to change all that much for the next couple of months, reminding myself that it’s always like this, some variation on a theme of pale, dry, tired, dull, and hungry for color, heat, and warmth.

The main difference? The ease I’ve prayed for has begun to settle over our lives in some ways that feel new. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s something like the brick building I walked by the other day in town, with a wall of windows reflecting another wall of windows, so that I could play with my eyes with what was a window and what was a reflection.

And I dream during these long, deep sleeps 1,000 leagues under the sea, of places I used to live and people I used to know and climbing steep, nearly vertical, hills alone to the most beautiful views — crisp, like a living painting: A group of runners crossing a bridge, snow-capped mountains, hills and valleys. It was really special, a vision.

My desk is strewn with things I’ve printed out to read, in addition to the books on my nightstand waiting for my time and attention: An interview with Vivian Gornick in The Paris Review,  a long and important essay by Patti Digh about creating boundaries, and pages by women who’ve entrusted me with manuscripts and works-in-progress that need me to read not only with my eyes and brain but with my heart.

Is there another way?

I need more days, more time. Time is so very fast. I see it in my face and hair these days, feel it in my lower back, and taste it like the elderberry syrup I’m taking every two hours by the spoonful.

I’m fighting something off.

mugI’m tossing the mug that chipped this morning and the shirt that’s stained, both of which carry memories of 20+ years. I’m shelving the unread books and the draining compulsion to try to please everyone. I’m not fighting off age, but I am looking at my kids’ faces and bodies and listening to their stories and voices changing and watching this thing happening called time passing. I’m thinking it’s true, that it speeds up the older we get.

I’m dreaming about babies and beaches and I’m walking past windows within windows. I’m fighting off the urge to wait to write until I have something worth sharing. I’m circling back to where I began, coming here as a place to practice. There is something deep down, and it’s enough, because it’s January, to let it stay curled up like the fox my friends saw when they left my house last Tuesday night after we wrote together.

I hung pink Xs and Os today at the top of our stairs, a cute banner from the Target Dollar Spot and a seasonal demarcation line between the somewhat ratty entryway and our lovely, cozy space. I climbed on a chair and then had one foot on the sill and hoped I wouldn’t slip down the stairs behind me. Then I heated up the defrosted chili and plugged in the twinkle lights and watched a video by Glennon Doyle Melton about “Sistering” in silence because Mani was resting.

You know what? It was beautiful to watch without sound, so much color and love and I wished life always felt like those gorgeous faces and then realized: It kind of does. Sometimes. Except when it really doesn’t. And how both are always true.

It helps to know what’s important to fight off versus what gets admission into your space, your heart, your drawers, your closet, your desk, your days. Yes, Rumi, this being human is a guest house. / Every morning a new arrival.

But frankly, there’s so much we don’t get a say in that I’d argue for some agency, when there is a choice involved, as to who and what get to come inside.

I am fighting some things off. I am letting some things in. 

Might as well make the best of it. Might as well choose carefully and well, when and where we can.

The Best Part of Life by Glennon Doyle Melton from SALT Project on Vimeo. With thanks to Daniel Boylan for sending this my way. 

The Roar Sessions: Chris Leslie

ROAR:  Reckoning Our Actions Rigorously
by Chris Leslie 
Chris Leslie
Reckoning – Archaic for the process of settling accounts.

When Jena Schwartz invited me to contribute to her ROAR sessions I began to muse about an acronym for the word “ROAR.”  After considering several variations I settled on the one that means the most to me at this time of year and the title of this essay.  Having grown up in the south, the word “reckon” is among my favorite southern words so this works for me. Maybe it will for you, too.

Over the last 15 years I have learned a fair amount about reckoning my actions rigorously.  This has become a way of life for me, one that helps me address and remedy actions I have taken that were not in my best interest and/or in the best interest of others.  It has also helps me to acknowledge and commend myself for actions that have been in my best interest and/or in the best interest of others.

Settling my yearly accounts has become a very healthy strategy for me that is fun, meaningful, and readies me for the next year.  The origins of this practice are varied.  In the business world it’s called “auditing the books” or “taking an inventory.”  In some religions it’s called “the confessional.”  I like the term “reckoning” because it carries both spiritual and practical connotations in one word for “auditing the books” and visiting a confessional booth.

Marley’s ghost, the character in Charles Dickens, Christmas Carol, has played a part in why this process of “reckoning our actions rigorously” makes good sense to me.  Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner, comes to Scrooge on Christmas Eve laden in chains binding him for eternity. He wove the chains burdening his soul by being miserly and unconcerned for the welfare of those much less fortunate than he when he walked the earth. He comes to warn Scrooge that he will suffer the same fate unless Scrooge sees the errors of his ways, which he does with the help of three spirits: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future, who escort him through the process of reckoning his actions rigorously.

Scrooge is very moved by revisiting scenes from his life when he could have made different choices, and then again, when he reviews choices he could make differently in the future.  Scrooge awakens from his reckoning journey to discover that it is not too late for him and he can indeed live the balance of his life well by amending his miserly ways and by being kind, generous, thoughtful, and merry.

And so it is with me each year now.  I take a reckoning journey over the choices and actions of my life at the end of each calendar year.  I assess what was healthy and what was not so I can learn from and go on from my mistakes and, if possible, mend any harm done.  I also love reveling in the good stuff!

2015 was a challenging year, as well as a pleasantly surprising, good year!  The first six months of 2015 were filled with some very difficult circumstances that made life very stressful.  My spouse and I were able to weather this stormy period by supporting each other and calling out the best in each other instead of the worst, for the most part.  Yeah us!

CL-snowWe were able to do this because we tended our relationship.  We started by going to an amazing couples’ retreat in the snowy woods of western MA over Valentines weekend.  We laughed and cried a lot and we learned a lot. We left the retreat much more appreciative of each other.  After getting through a glacial winter, we spent 10 exquisite days on the Gulf Coast of Florida in mid-April. In late May we spent six days in D.C. so we could attend the wedding of one of our nieces, visit with dear friends and family, and take in some of the sights.

CL&MLIn mid-June, the Supreme Court declared marriage legal for all couples wishing to wed in this great country of ours, relieving our considerable worry that our marriage might never be legal in every state of the union.  At the end of June, we made the decision for Mary to end a job that had become very unhealthy for her and for her to retire.

Since making this decision, Mary has been able to rest, recuperate, and reinvent herself as we have reworked our priorities for the better.  Yeah us!

Over Labor Day Weekend, we made our way to north Georgia for our annual pilgrimage to the south lands to spend time with family and to welcome a niece’s new husband to our clan. Dionisio hales from Maputo, Mozambique, so my niece’s marriage to him crossed international as well as racial lines never crossed before in our family.  Mary and I were privileged to be present as my 88-year-old father conducted MJ’s and Di’s American marriage.

We were teary and joyful as they exchanged their wedding vows with the beloved words: to have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish until death do us part.  That we looked like drowned rats just in from the swimming pool did not phase us at all.  We were together.  We were strengthening our family and we loved every minute of it!

CL-TripletsTo top it off, the birth of their triplets was imminent in early September so we were all giddy with joy in anticipation of their arrival. We were relieved and thrilled when our two newest great nephews and great niece arrived on 9/15/15 healthy and raring to go!

Last but not least, in October Mary and I spent a week on Cape Cod enjoying the warmth of the late fall, walking on the beach, taking in the beauty that is second-to-none on Cape Cod, shopping in Provincetown, and eating lots of really good food.  Tending our marital tethers has been really good for us as has tending our familial tethers.  We highly recommend it!

Over the last year, I have made healthier choices, in large part, because I have a goal of living well into my 90’s in good health, God willing as the saying goes.  I have been more willing to go the gym and work out regularly.  I have been more willing to eat organic and unprocessed food, thanks in large part, to my spouse’s devotion to wonderful, well-prepared healthy food!  I don’t consume alcohol (stopped 15 years ago) and I don’t smoke cigarettes!  I ride my bicycle to work when the weather is good.  My spouse and I kayak in beautiful places in VT when it’s warm.  I downhill ski when we have ample snow.  Most important of all, I am taking more time to play, pray and meditate. As the above tells you, I am determined to be more intentional about spending quality time with my spouse, our family and our friends near and far. Every time I call and talk to my 88-year-old father, I thank God I still can.

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Now that I am well into my sixth decade, I am very mindful that I have lived two-thirds of my life.  This, too, is a reason I am more devoted to taking time to reckon my actions rigorously.  My goal is to live what life I have left with gusto, grit, generosity, and gratitude so when the time comes, I can leave this world with as few regrets as possible, with as many fences mended as needed, and with the unbounded joy that comes from having lived long and loved well.

Marley’s message was not meant just for Scrooge.  There is a Scrooge in all of us that, if left untended, can really wreak some havoc in our lives.  Hence, the process of reckoning my actions rigorously — on some kind of regular basis — helps me keep the Scrooge inside of me from reverting to some rather unattractive and less than helpful patterns/habits that once plagued me and sometimes still do.

Auditing my life’s books at the end of each year, settling my accounts, makes good sense and readies me for what is yet to come.  It takes a willingness, though, to be rigorously honest which is not for the faint of heart.  Looking ourselves squarely in the eye and making the decision to stop doing things that hurt us and others takes courage and spiritual fortitude.  In fact, I have found it necessary if I am to venture into the next year without the chains of mistakes and hurtful actions hanging all over me.

I will leave you with three mottoes that I strive to live by, ones you will probably know and perhaps take with you from this ROAR session:  we reap what we sow, we are known by the company we keep, and actions speak louder than words.  May the year ahead be filled with a bountiful harvest of love, gratitude, and joy; with people who are good for us and we them; and with actions that are thoughtful, helpful, inspiring, kind, forgiving, forbearing, and generous.  Then, when it comes time to reckon 2016, we might not have so much work to do!

Happy New Year!

**

Chris LeslieChris Leslie lives in VT with her spouse, Mary, and their dog, Indy.  Chris has been working as a Probation & Parole Officer with the VT Department of Corrections since May 2002.  Prior to this, Chris was in the ministry for 25 years and served in various capacities that included parish ministry, hospital and hospice chaplaincy, drug and alcohol counseling, and running the Habitat For Humanity affiliate in Newark, NJ that she helped to found in 1985.

Chris and Mary are looking forward to retiring in five years and moving to the Eastern Shore outside of D.C. where the hope to spend more time with their family, playing in D.C., and walking on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. And eating lots and lots of good food!