Fear and Planning

frozen lakeMy dad had a volcanic temper. By volcanic I mean that it was powerful, unpredictable, and it hurt everything in its way. I’m not a doctor, so I hesitate to make an armchair diagnosis, but I suspect a history of untreated mental illness. He had long mood swings with big highs and big lows. He had an addictive personality – he drank copiously and his heavy smoking is ultimately what killed him at age 59. And then, of course, there was the temper.

I loved my dad. Despite what I said above, he was also smart, funny and could fix absolutely anything. He and I liked the same kind of books and movies. We liked to fish, cook and work on projects together. I still miss him.

However, when you grow up with someone with an explosive temper, life becomes tricky. The thing with my dad was that he was absolutely great when it came to big things. My sister and I both have smashed a few cars in our days, and every time, he came to our rescue and was nothing but supportive. However, if something small happened that offended him in someway, well, Lord help you. Here’s a quick example: I was in high school and my mother had bought me a beautiful pale grey mohair sweater. I loved that sweater and wore it as often as I could. I got home from school one day and was just lounging around watching tv. My dad, who happened to have the day off, was working on a woodworking project in the basement. He came up and asked if I could give him a hand and hold some boards while he cut them. I told him I would – but I had to first change my sweater. I didn’t want a bunch of sawdust on it. My dad threw a fit – went nuts. Accused me of being lazy and said things along the line of, “See if I ever help you out with anything again.” After the tantrum? He didn’t speak to me for over a week. I was fourteen.

This is what I grew up with. One of my first childhood memories is walking up and down the block in front of my house with my mother. I was less than 4 years old. It was a cloudy, cold spring day. Neither of us had coats. She held my hand as we circled our street over and over. Why? Because my parents had gotten in an argument. Mom took me out of the house so I didn’t hear dad yell. When she left, he nailed the front door shut.

Yes, you read that right – he not only locked the door – he nailed the front door shut so his young wife and 4 year old daughter couldn’t come back in the house.

Growing up the way I did, I quickly realized that I couldn’t trust anyone. When you are a kid and you have no idea what will set dad off this time, and your mom doesn’t know how to stop it – or defend you – you just learn to rely on yourself. That’s what I did. My mother claims I came out of the womb independent, and that is roughly true. I think it was a combination of genetics and good old fashioned fear that made me learn how to take care of myself.

I don’t blame my mom. Maybe when I was a kid she tried to stop him – I don’t know. Stopping him when he was on a roll though was like trying to stop a freight train. If she got in his way, he’d just flatten her too. I should say – he never raised a fist to me. His abuse was purely emotional. I don’t actually like the word abuse – at the time it didn’t exactly feel that way, it just “was what it was,” but I know now as an adult, it was no way to treat a child. The worst part of his temper was that he knew exactly what to say to you to get you in the guts. It wasn’t just yelling or name calling, it was saying the one thing or two that he knew would make you cry. And he could do it every time.

My mother’s coping mechanism was just to stop talking. She’d leave the room and just not say anything. It wasn’t particularly effective when the anger was directed at her – and it wasn’t at all effective if the anger was directed at me or my sister. Nonetheless, that seemed to be all she knew how to do.

So, what does this mean for me? He’s been gone for over 12 years, why write about this now? This off-kilter childhood of mine is part of what made me into the woman I am. One result is that I don’t trust easily. Relationships, friendships, they are like giant frozen lakes. I move across them slowly, always testing for weak ice. It takes a long time before I truly trust a friend. Honestly, I don’t mind if there is weak ice – I just want to know where it is. For example, I have a friend who is never on time. If I didn’t know that about her – and that it had nothing to do with me – I could be really hurt when she doesn’t show when she says she will. It could seem personal and unreliable, but because I do know it, I can still have faith in her… just not in her punctuality.

My friendships are all with people who are self sufficient. It makes me nervous to be needed too much. I’m not the type that will call regularly, or email, or even set up coffee dates. I may go months without seeing my friends. It isn’t personal. It’s just that I have so much to take care of, but only so much time, energy and willpower. They understand that about me. The also know I don’t do surprises well, I don’t like unexpected company and I sometimes have a hard time with unexpected changes in plans. I like my scheduled plans, my routines, my lists and systems. Since I am responsible for everything in my life, I need those systems to keep everything going.

I don’t ask for help easily, but when I do, I don’t actually expect that I will get it. On the other hand, I feel my own responsibilities very strongly. I take care of the people I love and I hate letting them down. I am loyal and I do my best to balance my time with others with my much needed time alone. I love long talks with friends and loved ones, but I need time alone just to breathe.

I feel very strongly that every responsibility in my life – my career, my homes, my health, my dog, my relationships, they are all on me to maintain. I cannot expect to lean on anyone. It can be a lonely place sometimes, but at least I never pull the rug out from under my own feet.

This is the first time in my life that I have looked at this stuff objectively. It’s how I’ve looked at life as long as I can remember, but now I’m seeing why – and how this is a perfectly logical reaction to what I faced as a kid. There are thousands of ways I could have handled it, (I’m sure each person who has had experiences like mine has dealt with it in their own way,) but this is it for me. Since I’ve been spending time examining my life, I’m seeing connections that I had only guessed at before. How this all fits in with my health and fitness, my plans for the future and this blog that I write… I have no idea, but it does, somehow. I’m going to keep exploring it and let you know what I find out.

 

Photo credit: bjaglin via flickr

 

Winter Messages

The River in winterI’ve been feeling out of sorts lately. As I mentioned Monday, I’ve fallen out of my routines. I seem to have a slight case of the blues. It’s nothing serious, there is nothing really wrong, I just feel like the Gods of Entropy and Apathy have taken notice of me and decided to teach me a little lesson.

I think I know what started it all. The Thursday before Thanksgiving I was in a minor car accident. Really minor – an inattentive driver rear-ended me. Fortunately, it was at a traffic light and I have one of those 5 mph bumpers. Though it felt like a lot more than 5 mph when he hit me, my car was fine – not even a scratch. I did, however, bang my right knee into the steering column. (I drive a stick shift.) That knee has been giving me some grief for a couple of months now, so it took me some time to realize that the new sharp pains came from the accident. There was no visible bruising or swelling, it just hurt like someone was repeatedly hitting me with a ball peen hammer. I thought I must have really messed it up somehow. It hurt to walk the dog and it was impossible to run. Weight lifting, with all the squats, got thrown out the window too. I could have done other things, but that’s when the vindictive nature of the Twin Gods of Little Movement struck.

We all know Newton’s First Law, right?

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

I seem to be at rest, but I want to be in motion. In order to change my state, I need some kind of force – a lever to pry me free of my inertia. With the holidays and rotten weather, I’ve been spending a lot of time indoors, much of it in front of screens. I decided it was time to get out in nature. I’m out walking the dog every day, of course, but I was feeling called to do something else.

I went for a walk in the woods.

I went on my lunch hour. It was dark, rainy, wet and cold. I was also inappropriately dressed, (since a muddy walk wasn’t my plan when I left for work that morning.) Fortunately I always keep a spare pair of walking shoes in the car. I was about 20 minutes in when I stopped to take a few photos, then walked a little further… and saw what nature wanted me to see: a pileated woodpecker. Many people see signs in every day things, like numbers or colors. I have a deep affection for birds. Some birds, of course, are particularly special. The pileated woodpecker is one of those. There he was, up in an old tree, proudly strutting his stuff.

Like me, my dad was also a bird lover. For many years I gave him books on birds and bird watching for Christmas, especially when he became sick and couldn’t read much anymore, but could still enjoy the pictures. He was amazed by the pileated woodpecker, and I remember him saying “Look at these huge woodpeckers! They are the size of a crow! I want to see one!”

As far as I know, he never did.

But I have, several times since he passed away. They are shy birds and usually found only in heavily wooded areas, like the areas up and around my cabin. Every time I see one, I think of him.

And perhaps that’s the message: Buck up, buttercup! Live large and follow your dreams. Life is a crazy thing, you can die of cancer at 59, so don’t waste it moping about – get out and do something. You’ll be glad you did.

Fair enough.

pileated woodpecker

 

Photo credit of the pileated woodpecker: Matt MacGillivray on flickr

I Used to Hate the Sun

The road near my cabin... so much sun.

The road near my cabin… so much sun.

I didn’t always hate the sun. When I was a kid during the summer, sunshine meant days I could go out and play: run around the woods behind our house, build forts, climb trees. My neighbors had a pool I could use, so sunshine meant days of swimming and making up games in the water.

I think I started hating the sun in Junior High, those terrible preteen years. That’s when we started paying attention to our bodies and our appearance back then. (I know it starts much younger now.) I’m old enough that tanning was still popular. Girls I knew started “laying out” to get that perfect summer tan. I tried it a time or two. I hated it.

My family weren’t beach goers, so laying out, if it was to happen, was going to happen at home. As I mentioned, our back yard was in the woods, so it was shaded and full of bugs. That meant one had to lay out in the (very exposed) front yard, something I was far from comfortable with in those awkward years. On top of that, it was dead boring, uncomfortable, and the minute I found a good position, it felt like an ant was crawling on my exposed skin. (Sometimes they were, sometimes it was my brain playing tricks.) I’m also pretty darn pale by nature, and of course, I had no idea what I was doing, so I inevitably got burned, and burned bad. Sunblock had a long, long way to go… and back then I knew girls who swore by tinfoil shields and cooking oil to get even darker.

So, I gave it up. I never did tan properly. It didn’t help that when I turned sixteen I got a car, thereby removing the last reason I would willingly ride my bike. Most of the popular girls, the ones who came to school sun-kissed and gorgeous, also played sports or were in summer cheerleading programs. If they didn’t have those, they had access to tanning beds, cottages or beaches. That wasn’t me. I was happier curled up in the shade with a good book, or in my later teen years, spending my spare hours working inside at my job.

It wasn’t just my pale hue that kept me from fitting in with the popular crowd. I was always too bookish, too artsy, too… odd. I had friends, but they were all like me, second or third tier odd ducks that were all funny, smart and great to be with, but also frequently socially awkward or a little too unfashionable to really fit in. At the same time I was meeting and spending time with a group of kids with dyed hair, white skin, and thick black make up. This post punk precursor to the goth movement defied the sun by only going out at night. My other friends, a bunch of theatre geeks, were too busy running from school to rehearsal to worry about things like getting sun, or “a little color” as my Mom always called it. (“You’d look nice with a little color.” she’d say.) All of this sort of snowballed into an extreme dislike of the sun.

Oddly, it wasn’t people who were tan that I didn’t like. My sister has that perfect skin that tans beautifully, my Dad did too. I knew plenty of people who worked outside or played sports that were tan and I didn’t think twice about it, but personally, I started to deeply hate the sun. Then all the findings started coming out relating sun exposure and skin cancer, and it cemented it for me. The sun and me – we just didn’t get along.

There are other factors as well. I‘ve mentioned before that because my legs have always been fairly thin, (despite me being larger everywhere else,) that I didn’t wear clothing that showed them off. The end result? From my freshman year of high school (when it was mandatory for gym class) until this May, I did not own or wear a pair of shorts. In the summer I wore jeans or skirts… long skirts. I didn’t even like capri pants much. Also, thanks to my fair skin, when I went out in the sun I covered up, either with clothing or super sunblock – the higher the spf, the better. (My sister called my sunblock “sweater in a bottle.”) Also, I didn’t “gleam” or “glimmer”, I sweated, a lot. Essentially, summer sucked – and it was all the fault of the sun.

I never got as bad as my mother, who (out of a fear of cancer) avoids the sun so completely that her doctor had to put her on Vitamin D supplements. I like nature and being outside – I just like it in the shade of a big tree, or in the spring or fall when it isn’t so stinking hot.

Then something happened…. I started running.

I started in the spring when it was still cold outside, but of course, that only lasted for so long. Then one day last month I went for a run in the middle of the day. I had appointments in the morning and plans in the evening, so I went out around noon. It was hot. The sun was high in the sky and there were no clouds. As I sat in the parking lot of the park, I realized that I hadn’t packed sunblock. I decided to go anyway.

It felt crazy and a little risky, but as I ran, I thought “How bad can it be?” It’s true, I was only out for a half hour and roughly half of that was under trees, so I don’t think I got any “color” at all. It was on that run that I started thinking about my relationship to the sun. For so long I fought for my pale skin that I had turned it into a point of pride. I considered the whole lot – athletics, tanning, shorts, exercise, sports, summer – all of it, as something that wasn’t me. The fact that I avoided it proved that I was different, and I embraced that difference.

But then I started running and it all changed. Later that day I stopped at the store to pick up some sunblock for my running bag. I went straight to the “sport” shelf. I ended up buying a small bottle spf 30 lotion for my face, but a spray on can of spf 15 for the rest of me. I have never in my adult life bought a spf below 45.

A few days later, I bought my first pair of running shorts.

Today, I’m sort of tan. Not dark tan by any means, but you can tell I spend time outside. (Admittedly, usually at 6:30 AM and 6:30PM, so we aren’t talking about a ton of exposure here.) I have three pairs of shorts and three pairs of outdoor walk/running capri pants and one pair of jean capris. Considering I own probably less than 5 pairs of pants, this has become a high proportion of my wardrobe. The sun doesn’t bother me now, and frankly, neither does the heat. I’ve mentioned that I have been running on days in the high 80s with 100 degree heat indices. I’m okay with all of it.

Running, and losing weight, first brought me to a place where I felt more comfortable taking risks. By taking those risks, I’ve started challenging my own long-held beliefs. Not just about the sun, but about how I dress, how I look, what I do – and don’t do. I know the fact I bought, own and wear shorts doesn’t seem like a big thing, but you have to realize that the last time I owned a pair it was 1986. It is a big deal.

We have these personal manifestos of all things “me” and “not me.” They are the very definition what we like, what we do, even who we are. They serve as mental shortcuts. When something new comes up we can check it against the list – is this me? Will I like this My taking up running is challenging, and changing, that manifesto. At first it happened subtly, but now I see it, and I embrace the change. When a friend recently suggested a climbing gym, “the old me” instantly started to demur, but I caught myself, and instead I said, “tell me more – where is it located again?” 

I’m not throwing away every long-held belief about myself, but I am holding them up to the light. I’ve decided to let the sun shine through.

 

Contemplating Christmas

Traditional ChristmasMom’s surgery went about as expected, which is to say that some things have improved, but others have not. We progress with her health at a snail’s pace …a very confused snail, one that keeps doubling back on itself. That, and the fact I presently have an aunt in ICU for other serious health issues, is casting a bit of a pall over the holidays. Ah well. Life is like that sometimes. Besides, I have two amazing, adorable, awesome nieces that always lift my spirits. I can’t wait to see them on Christmas day!

When I was a kid there was a set formula for the holidays. We had traditions – the family getting together in the formal living room and assembling the artificial tree. Dad spending hours untangling the strands of Christmas lights and tracking down faulty bulbs. Opening one special game or toy (or as we got older – movie) on Christmas Eve that could keep us entertained until it was bedtime. We had special ornaments, a special breakfast, a certain way we put up the stockings… countless traditions, big and small. Of course, as we grew up, things started to change.

We tried to keep things the same as they were for many years. Even though we were both out of the house, my sister and I would come back on Christmas Eve and spend the night so we could reenact our childhood the following day. But then, my Dad got cancer. That pretty much changed everything. I vividly remember that Christmas. My sister and I had come home Christmas Eve as usual, but that year everything was off. She and my mother both got the stomach flu and ended up sick in bed. They spent most of Christmas Eve and day huddled together, puking. My Dad, weak, pale coughing, was wrapped in several blankets and spent the day dozing in his Lazy Boy. We called the extended family and warned them to stay away. We didn’t even bother opening presents until 5:00 or 6:00 that night, when my sister and Mom were finally able to sit up for awhile. Me? I was fine. I spent the day in my pjs watching movies and hanging out with my Dad when he was awake. It turned out to be our last Christmas together.

Since then, things have changed even more. Years have passed. My sister and I each got married. I got divorced. She had children. The family is radically different, and we’ve had in-laws and other parties to arrange schedules around. It all worked out, it always does, but a lot of traditions have gone out the window. Honestly, I am not sure that that is such a bad thing. Sure, I miss some things, and I desperately wish my Dad could see his grandchildren, especially at Christmas, but it is what it is. We place such high expectations on this holiday, but Christmases don’t have to be perfect. Joy can be found in all sorts of things – having a few quiet moments alone Christmas morning to sit by my own tree and drink hot chocolate, watching my niece ripping the Christmas tissue into ever smaller pieces instead of playing with her new toys, getting text messages from friends all throughout Christmas day wishing holiday cheer.

This year is still up in the air. All I know, at this point, is that we are having it at my sister’s house. (With two small children it is much easier for us to come to her.) I don’t know what time we are getting together, I don’t know what we’ll be eating – or even what I need to bring. I don’t even know for sure if my Mom will make it. I assume she will, but I try not to have too many expectations when it comes to her right now. I’m going into this holiday blind, and that is okay. However things turn out, whatever happens, I’ll be okay, and I, like many others this time of year, will find my holiday spirit wherever I can.

 

Photo credit: luckyfish

When a Cup Isn’t a Cup

Yesterday I wrote about my project to clean out my house. I mentioned that it is a big task, not because I have so very much stuff, but because each object requires thought. How do I feel about this? Is it something I need, or want? If I get rid of it, how will I get rid of it. Do I donate it? Sell it? Can it be recycled? Given away?

Of course, part of the problem is that a thing is not just a thing. Each object is also all the associations built into it. Take coffee mugs. Simple things really – vessels designed to hold hot liquids and make them easy to drink. Coffee mugs are easily purchased and easily disposed of – but can be surprisingly emotional.

This photo was not taken with Instagram.

If you were to look in the back of my cupboard you would see a particular mug that would catch your eye, simply because it is so ugly. You can tell it isn’t a modern mug. It is too small, far smaller than our current coffee cups, and it isn’t a pretty mocha or taupe, but a flat utilitarian brown. It was made by Fire King, but even a lover of Fire King would have a hard time finding a place in their heart for it. This mug has had a rough life, and it shows. The brown is muddy and is chipped in places and the inside has permanent coffee stains.

It isn’t a practical mug either. If you microwave it, it heats to the temperature of the sun, guaranteeing that you will scald your lip the first time you try to sip from it. It keeps coffee hot, but too hot – by the time it cools down, your breakfast is done. And then, it holds so little coffee that you immediately want another cup, but have to go through the whole cooling off process all over again. If you were to sell it in a garage sale, you might mark it a dime. If it went to the thrift store, it would sit on a dusty shelf until the end of time.

When I hold this cup in my hand though, I become 8 years old again. It is covered in paint – speckles of blue, yellow, white, silver, and small chunks of bondo. My father does auto body repair, and this is his work coffee cup. The cup sits on a shelf in the back of the stall, getting dirtier by the day. My dad doesn’t wash it, he says the coffee residue just adds extra flavor. At best he might wipe it out with a rag, but that is rare. Once a month or so, it might bring it home to be washed. My mother and I make fun of him and his filthy mug. My dad jokes back that I shouldn’t mock the mug – it is my inheritance.

And in a way, that is exactly what it is. My father died ten years ago this September. When my mother cleaned out the childhood home, she found this in the back of the cupboard. Dad would never let her throw it away – it was my inheritance, after all. And while I have a number of things he built or made for me, and things he had owned, this is the one thing he always said he wanted me to have.

 

Photo credit: Me. It’s my mug, after all.