Returning, with a Wrinkle

This post isn’t an essay on the dangers of sun exposure, though (as the daughter of a melanoma murder victim) I always encourage SPF. Instead, it’s an assembled collection of thoughts on the meaning of home, personal growth, and the pitfalls and privileges of having a home and a town to return to every once in a while. It’s not as romantic [cheesy] as it sounds– this article was inspired by that most elusive of muses, Netflix and a pretzel binge. If you read on, I’ll keep it brief 🙂 Bargain?

One of my professors at Columbia particularly likes to point out moments in a text where the author has chosen to repeat something, either verbatim or paraphrased. Even if it’s the exact same set of words, he explains, it can never just be the same thing twice. Whether a word has changed, or because you’re seeing it again, in a new context, or even just because of the inevitable passing of time since the first instance, repetition is always “repetition with a wrinkle”. You can never say, or do, the same thing again without adding a new dimension of meaning to the utterance.

In life, this feels similar to me to the old adage “there’s no going back”. I think about this a lot when I return to a place– because, spatially speaking, I have “gone back” a lot in my life, bouncing back and forth between my first home in NH, my second home in NJ, and various adopted homes in New York for vacations, jobs, and in-between-times. I’m home now, just for a couple of days, heading back to the city tomorrow to finish out the semester, but even this brief little respite has brought latent doubts and fears crawling back into the light. How can I return, “go back”, and still feel like I’m progressing as a human? What does it mean to leave and return and leave and return again?

Mindfulness has made this process easier than it once was. Sleeping in my childhood bedroom once felt strange, even dangerous– when it was comfortable, I freaked out that I was regressing, and when it felt weird I freaked out that I was losing the concept of home I’d always relied on to ground me. I’ve found that these fears are both untrue and, in fact, nothing to be afraid of. I can be aware when I start to revert to old habits, slipping into behavioral and emotional patterns that no longer serve me. I felt this on my first night home, as I mindlessly grazed on foods that I would never normally eat, stayed up late watching Netflix, and forgot to meditate. Now, as ocular proof of my own self-awareness, I’m writing about it. With these words, I remind myself that I can inhabit this old, familiar place as a new, evolved me and still feel at home. The memories are all still here, but I don’t have to become them– I can feel gratitude for the wonderful childhood I had in this house while returning to it as an adult. Like the decor, the appliances, and the handmade art on the walls, home has grown with me. As I return once more this summer to teach dance, practice yoga, and reconnect with this community, I can reach into the familiar world of my childhood with new skills, new eyes, and renewed curiosity; as a young adult, who has gone out into the world to learn and grow and who will continue that venture, pausing every-so-often along the way to return here, to give back to the place and community that gave me my start in life, and to remind myself how far I’ve come.

Thoughts for the Future: Unexpected Success

I wasn’t planning on applying to Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet Training Program in San Francisco, but after not being invited to the trainee program I was planning to attend in the fall, I decided to apply– on the day of the deadline. I already had an audition video put together, but it didn’t fulfill all of the audition requirements, and while I was pretty proud of the ballet footage, it had just earned me a ‘maybe’ from a program I’d been accepted to last year. I hastily wrote to my ballet teacher and asked her to send along a letter of recommendation (thank you, Cynthia!), filled out the online forms to the best of my ability, and thought I was good to send the whole thing off into cyberspace. I scrolled down and realized, with a slightly sick feeling, that written work was required as well– an artistic Letter of Intent discussing my goals as an artist. My goals as an artist? I thought. The whole point of attending Columbia this year is that I’m not so sure what my goals as an artist are, that on most days I have no idea what I want my future in dance to look like, and now I have a couple of hours to make up and eloquently describe some kind of convincing future for myself that will magically convince this program (which I’ve been rejected from before) to take me?

Well, to make a long and egotistical story shorter, I buckled down and wrote the thing. But I didn’t make anything up. I didn’t sugar-coat my struggles, gloss over the vagueness of my plans, or add false goals for rhetorical impact– I just gave the prompt serious thought, and tried to be as absolutely open and honest as I could possibly be, imagining what attending this program might allow me to do with my life that would bring me toward my goal of being artistically fulfilled while helping others in a truly meaningful way.

A few days ago, I got an email congratulating me on my acceptance to the program! I know it must have been largely due to my writing. It just goes to show: sometimes an unwelcome writing assignment can be an unexpected gift, and clarity can spring from the unlikeliest of situations. I’ve included a copy of my letter below, so you can see what I mean; this document is, without a doubt, the most coherent articulation of a possible future in dance that I have undertaken, and were it not for this last-minute application, I would never have written it.

Read the letter here:

LINES letter of intent

(Photo Credit: Serena Ingram Photography)

Rash Decisions

I’ve kicked off the spring season with another allergic reaction. At least, I think that’s what it was; over the course of three days or so before my birthday (April 3, if you’re interested) I developed an itchy, bumpy rash on my arms and legs, a wheezy, sore feeling in my lungs, and increased sinus pressure in my head. It wasn’t as bad as the reactions I’ve had to antibiotics, but it’s been an itchy and largely unexplained presence in my life for two-and-a-half weeks now (campus health diagnosed it as ‘heat rash’ and sent me on my way), and it was enough to tip me completely out of my daily rhythm of school and dance to which I had acclimated and into an oatmeal-bath-filled, Benadryl-fogged pit of despair.

I’m a bit better now, and trying to get back into a semblance of daily routine that actually involves me leaving my apartment, but working through physical and emotional problems concurrently is tough! As I’ve said to my mother, if I was dealing just with anxiety or just with allergies, I could probably have pushed through and done the two dance performances that I dropped out of last-minute, feeling shaky and unprepared for new performance venues, the physical demands of choreography, and the feel of unfamiliar costumes against my misbehaving skin.

It’s amazing how a small thing like a rash can completely alter one’s daily life so quickly. I stopped dancing, one of the mainstays of my existence– refrained from all physical activity, in fact, fearing it would make the rash flare up into an itchy nightmare once more. I dropped out of my dance classes (I would have failed them because of the absence policy otherwise) and stopped going to even my academic classes for several days. I just wanted to hide in the safe, predictable comfort of my apartment until it was over and the mystery trigger found.

I was trying to help myself, but between sleep deprivation and anxiety I ended up making myself feel more weak and isolated than healed. When you have anxiety, it can be so hard to distinguish rational avoidance (I’m going to stay home from class today because I might have a contagious illness) from anxiety-induced avoidance (what if I’m too itchy to sit through all of class?). For me, the wires of logic and fear simply got a little crossed, and figuring out my motivations was really tough, even in hindsight. While my mother was visiting, it was briefly easier– having the accountability and rationality of an outside person to bounce my experiences off of was helpful, not to mention comforting. When she left, though, the unknowns and self-doubts insidiously reinstated themselves, and I started leaving the apartment less often than I probably should have. This, of course, brought on a disempowering cycle of anxiety and self-doubt, which I trapped myself in even though I was self-aware enough to know the ramifications of what I was doing. The less I did, the less I felt I was capable of– and the more I berated myself for avoiding things that just a few days ago had been perfectly manageable, the more unhappy and disengaged from my routine I became.

It took a long, tearful phone call to my mother, the advice of a dear friend, and a fair bit of journalling to realize that, actually, I did a lot of things right in this situation as well. The reality is that my allergy symptoms aren’t and weren’t a figment of my imagination; the rash and its accompanying symptoms represent a real situation that anyone might have found uncomfortable, physically and psychologically. Not knowing the cause of my symptoms is legitimately challenging, though I now have few good guesses, which helps. Being far from my home community is tough; I don’t have a lot of friends and mentors here, but instead of just freaking out and feeling alone I’ve employed such wonderful modern inventions as the telephone and the internet to create a long-distance network of supporters, and I’ve used this time to remember that creating a community around myself is a goal for me for next year. Most importantly, while I did make some less-than-ideal decisions in terms of avoidance, I have finally broken out of a major pattern that I created for myself in the past: when faced with an anxiety-inducing situation, I didn’t immediately run for home. I came close, twice: minutes before my mother left to catch her train home, I tearfully asked if she thought I should come with her and see my doctor; she encouraged me to try to stick it out for a few more days at least, and I did. When a friend came to visit, a week of very itchy, uncomfortable nights later, he offered to take me home if I felt I needed it, and once again I ultimately decided to stay here and stick it out for at least a few extra days. I’m now getting close to three weeks out from the day the rash started, and while I don’t really have answers, I’ve been managing my symptoms in accordance with my home doctor’s telephoned advice and lots of guided meditations, and I’ve managed to continue to take care of myself, at least getting my basic physical needs met, here in New York. I’m now working on improving my mental state as well; I’ve started going to the park again, despite my pollen allergies, because I know that being outside helps me feel better. I started practicing daily yoga, first in my apartment from videos found on YouTube, then at a wonderful studio in my neighborhood– a healing step toward getting myself back into the world. I’ve kept up with my schoolwork, stayed in touch with my professors, openly and honestly, about my physical and mental situation, and have continued my daily practice of mindfulness, both in formal meditation and in my life beyond it. I have used this as an opportunity to connect more deeply with family members and to feel increased empathy for others’ suffering. I’m recognizing how high the standards are that I set for myself, and am trying to work on developing an attitude of ‘compassionate curiosity’ toward my own mind, to be nonjudgmentally self-aware in the present moment. Writing this, I realize, more and more, that I am not a failure. Perfect? Certainly not. A work in progress? Definitely. There will always be room for improvement, but I have a willingness to grow, and I think that’s kind of the point. I don’t know what choices I’m going to make beyond this moment, and it’s possible I will still feel the need to go home early to be closer to the support systems I have established at home. But no matter what I do with the next two weeks before the end of the school year, I’ve made progress toward learning about who I am, what my values are, and how to take care of myself when the going gets tough– and that’s undeniably significant. When I dedicated Year 22 of my life to resilience and growth, I didn’t think I’d be tested quite so soon, but it seems I’m on my way to passing this test, as my dad would say (I miss him!), with flying colors. Baby steps add up to survival, and survival builds strength.

Here’s to being a work in progress!

Love and gratitude,

S

(Photo credit: Serena Ingram Photography)

Folding Laundry: A Small Epiphany

Menial habits save lives. Or at least, they save days.

I woke up this morning feeling a lot of anticipatory anxiety. That’s not quite true, actually- I woke up this morning feeling fine, and then somehow, between climbing the ladder down from my bed and finishing breakfast, weighed myself down with many thoughts filled with anticipatory anxiety. I then took ownership of those thoughts, and found it hard to release them. I felt vertiginous, scattered, and fairly run-of-the-mill freaked out.

What set all this off?

A small thing, really. I live with my sister, and she’s leaving this afternoon to go home for a couple of nights. It’s by no means a big deal, but it leaves me alone in the apartment while she’s gone, and that brings up a lot of old, reflexive doubts and fears about my own capacity to handle solitude, mental and physical habits that I hope to outgrow. The second I knew she was leaving, I immediately started “trying to make life easier for myself”. I imagined that I would feel a lot of anxiety leaving the house while she’s away, so I started giving myself ways out of my Tuesday and Wednesday commitments. I could not show up to classes for a day, I told myself; or maybe I could show up to just one, or take cabs both ways instead of the bus. These are old habits, vestigial attempts to protect myself from my old fear: functioning alone in the world with anxiety. The constant planning I was using to ‘conquer’ it, though, masquerading as useful mental preparedness, is actually a feeder for anxiety and the antithesis of mindfulness. By anticipating a negative future for myself for the next couple of days, I’m assuming a worst-case scenario, and causing myself suffering and stress in the meantime. In other words, allowing oneself to wallow in dread can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s definitely what I was doing.

It’s amazing how hard it can be to accept the simplest of propositions:

Out thoughts only control us when we allow them to. Or, more accurately:

We choose which thoughts we allow to control us. Often, succeeding feels as scary as failing. We feel out of keeping with our usual selves, our old fears, the limitations we normally have. This feeling is necessary for growth; otherwise we’d all just stay the same. That doesn’t mean it’s pleasant, or easy. It also is completely worthwhile. If nothing else, remember that last bit.

All this mindfulness business is great in theory, but what are we to do on the days where staying present and non-judgmentally self-aware feels impossible (or just very, very hard?)

Step one is to meditate, and do some yoga or physical activity if you feel up to it. But if even that doesn’t feel right, as was the case for me this morning, or if you don’t have the luxury of lots of space or time, just start doing something. The more boring and routine, the better. For me, today, this ‘something’ was folding laundry. Which progressed to doing another load of laundry, which turned into needing to go to the ATM down the block for cash, which got me out of the house and allowed me to buy bananas. That became #My5MinuteWalk for the day, and led to me generating enough bravery for a trip to the grocery store a few more blocks away later. This cascade effect of small successes got my day going, and though I still don’t feel wonderful, I’m finding moments of presence and productivity where I can, which is important progress.

Now I’m going to bake something nice for myself, another small but useful accomplishment. Yum.

We are all works in progress. This is both a big responsibility and a beautiful thing. Blame is unproductive. Do what you can, no more, no less, and then congratulate yourself for it.

How do you deal with days you’d rather not face? Let me know in the comments ❤

S

A Mindful Breakfast

Ask anyone who knows me well, and they’ll answer unequivocally: I love breakfast. It’s hands-down my favorite meal. Eggs in any form delight me, oatmeal is a daily staple, and the smell of soft, warm sprouted grain bread popping out of the toaster makes me instantly happy. I’m smiling just thinking about it.

Yet, a couple of weeks ago I realized that while I enjoy the thought of breakfast, I wasn’t necessarily making the most of the experience. I’ve been experimenting with easy ways to bring mindfulness into my life, and I decided to give mindfully eating breakfast a try. It didn’t sound particularly appealing, paying so much conscious attention to my eating process. Would I feel gross or greedy? I wondered. Or…horror of horrors… what if I realized I actually didn’t love breakfast that much?

Practically speaking, a mindful breakfast also seemed like it would take foreeeeever. I imagined myself in slow-motion, reaching for yet another bite of toast. Still, I figured, I’d give it a try. Spoiler alert: I’m now in love with mindful eating.

Here’s what I did.

First, I made my usual breakfast. Two slices of sprouted grain toast, one buttered, one turned into an open-faced sandwich with two fried eggs, kale, and a slice of yogurt cheese (though I’m in the process of going dairy-free, and have replaced the cheese with avocado. YUM). As I prepared the food, I allowed myself to really be present, smelling the delicious smell of eggs sizzling in butter and feeling the textures of the ingredients in my hands as I went through the familiar process. I didn’t linger on anything, just allowed my thoughts to focus on being present in the experience, instead of distracting myself with memories, plans, or generating interesting ideas. The preparation process took no longer than usual, but was exponentially more rewarding. By the time I popped the eggs out of the pan, I was absolutely ready to eat.

As I took my place at the table, I made a couple of goals for myself. I decided I would treat each bite as a complete process, placing my food back on my plate in between mouthfuls and not beginning a new bite until its successor was completely down the hatch. This seemed like it would be very challenging, but it wasn’t, as long as I stayed present and didn’t let my thoughts wander. And boy, was it worth it. I placed my feet flat on the floor, picked up my food, and bit in. Just for good measure, I closed my eyes.

BEST. Choice. Ever.

It turns out that when you close your eyes to eat, all the energy that was being channeled into making sense of everything in your visual field gets redirected to your other senses: hearing, smell/taste, and touch. The familiar food was an explosion of sensations; I could pick out the individual ingredients in every mouthful, and even the regions of my tongue where  different flavors were received. I appreciated the juxtaposition of textures, the layering of flavors, the harmonic interplay of salty cheese, savory egg, and bitter, earthy kale in a way I thought was reserved for the most self-indulgent of food critics. The most important part of this, for me, was that I knew exactly when I was full; being present in my eating experience took the anxiety of “should I eat more?” out of the equation entirely. I resolved a FOMO I didn’t even know I had. And I didn’t feel gross or weird– just happy.

I also timed myself, for practicality’s sake. Just under 15 minutes. Who can’t make time for that?

Since that morning, I’ve eaten breakfast mindfully almost every day I’ve been alone. The benefits are numerous: I look forward to eating without guilt, I feel less anxious, and I’ve started losing a little weight again, which I’m happy about. I’m back in love with breakfast, only this time I know it’s real. Most wonderfully, I’ve found another small, simple, significant way to use mindfulness to make my life better.

What do you think? Would you give one mindful breakfast a try?

xo

S

The Food-Mood Connection

As a young teenager, I truly didn’t see a relationship between what I put in my body and how I felt, apart from my immediate emotional reaction. My idea of happiness was consecutive bowls of cereal with milk, giant bites of cheerios with slices of sweet banana. I loved the indulgent feeling of taking a huge bite of food, filling my mouth completely with the twin sensations of texture and flavor. My family ate fairly healthfully, but I didn’t particularly enjoy many vegetables, though I would choke them down on command. My ultimate nemesis was broccolini.

I wasn’t obese in high school, or even clinically overweight, but as an aspiring ballet dancer I felt insecure about my body’s seemingly immutable softness. I had muscles from dance, but I didn’t look as much like a dancer as I wanted to. I tried to watch what I ate, but the social nature of food meant I often felt I had to choose between eating right and fitting in. Needless to say, as I attempted to navigate the social circles of public school for the first time, I often chose the latter.

When I left home for Manhattan, I was confronted by a way of life with many more options and far fewer rules than I was used to. I was also often quite lonely, and would use food to reward myself for accomplishments or just for getting through the day. I would eat as little as possible in the mornings so that I could reward myself by sitting in front of the TV at night with a jar of peanut butter, a jar of cookie butter, and a jar of raspberry jam lined up on the coffee table, dipping a spoon into each and savoring the salty-sweet richness. I kept track of my caloric intake religiously, but allowed myself to pretty much eat whatever I wanted if I had budgeted the numbers for a treat. I still felt little to no connection between the nutrients (or lack thereof) I was ingesting and my feelings of wellbeing. For me, diet was still a numbers game. Calories in vs calories out. I was constantly trying to lose weight, and while my set-point was lower than it had been in high school, I remained, for better or worse, within ten pounds of my starting weight.

When my dad got sick, I began to read about diet’s role in health. My roommate at the time, a cancer survivor himself, gave me Keith Block’s book, Life Over Cancer. This was my first serious exposure to the power diet can have to harm or heal us. I learned that sugar is a primary source of sustenance for cancer cells, and decided to go dairy-free based on Dr. Block’s cancer-preventative dietary guidelines. I made large batches of kale with oranges and sliced almonds, packaged them up, and sent them home to my dad. It was soon apparent that he was beyond the help of food, and his cancer beat my best culinary intentions. But the importance of diet’s role in health stayed with me, and I began to experiment with my own eating habits. Food became more than a momentary pleasure; I felt that my very survival was at stake.

Still, it wasn’t until anxiety hit with a vengeance that I started really looking at my own food-mood connection. The hypersensitivity that led to (or perhaps resulted from) my anxiety also allowed me to learn what foods were affecting my mental state, and how, and when, and why. I’ve been many “things”, dietarily speaking, some more fashionable than others: Dairy-free, Vegan, Low-Carb, Vegetarian, Paleo– but none of the prepackaged diets stuck, and they certainly didn’t make me feel better. Why? Because I resisted above all the notion that diet, like all other forms of self-help, is an individual practice. This year, after months of experimentation, I have started assembling a diet that actually works for me. It’s based on a combination of nutritional research, self-observation, defining my values, and trusting my gut (yes, literally). I’ve learned that sprouted-grain bread does in fact keep my blood sugar much stabler than flour-based bread, that dairy makes me feel bloated but full (and I’m currently questioning the humaneness of even the most well-meaning dairy farms) and that, despite the “caveman-approved” rhetoric of Paleo, human beings actually aren’t evolutionarily adapted to be carnivores, regardless of whether or not the planet can sustain a meat-based diet and an exploding global population simultaneously (it can’t). Most importantly, I avoid sugar as much as humanly possible, and don’t generally drink alcohol or caffeine, as these spike my blood sugar in a way I find unpleasant. I eat lots of nuts and seeds, and I love baby spinach and kale, though eating kale raw is a little tough on my digestive system. My love for eggs is passionate and enduring. I also believe that exceptions to my own rules are not cause for guilt: if I’m offered a unique opportunity to try a new food, or join in a social situation by eating a few bites of something I normally wouldn’t, there’s room for spontaneity. My ultimate goal is to consume food in a way that fulfills both my responsibility to myself and my responsibility to tread lightly on this planet, and doing everything I reasonably can to work toward that goal makes me even happier than being a member of a fad-diet community. Above all, choosing food is just another opportunity to get to know myself better, and eating I diet I can defend with my values and my sense of wellbeing is another important step toward becoming the person I want to be.

How has diet affected your life? Are there changes you want to make/have made that have significantly affected your physical or emotional wellbeing? Please share in the comments!

xo,

S

The Agoraphobia Workout

Let’s briefly revisit December 2012, almost three and a half years ago, when three consecutive days of panic attacks took me from a fearless life alone in Washington Heights to a sobbing, nonfunctional heap on my childhood bed. This was one of the most difficult, terrifying periods of my life so far.

In the weeks after I moved home with my first acute round of debilitating agoraphobia, I wasn’t doing much other than lying in terror on my childhood bed and tearfully calling my mother at work every few hours. That was my ground zero. But little by little, following the advice of my doctor, I started to force myself to do a tiny bit of physical exercise each day. It was nothing major; a few sets of ab exercises on the floor, perhaps, or a couple of sun salutations. But this baby step toward taking care of myself was the first achievable goal in a chain of events that would eventually allow me to move out of the house again and return to New York to pursue dance, work, and college.

Physical activity is great for anxiety for several reasons. First, a workout (no matter how small) represents a goal that can be accomplished anywhere, any time. When I first started bringing movement back into my life, I was still to afraid to leave my bedroom by myself. If you’re dizzy, lie down; do leg lifts, crunches, or planks. Yoga-and Pilates-based movement is great, as it’s slow and deliberate, so there’s no need to get frantic or bump your heart rate up if that still feels uncomfortable/scary (though it’s a sensation you can learn to enjoy!). If you’re feeling uninspired, or don’t know very many movements, go on YouTube! There are hundreds of guided workouts, from yoga to hip hop, for all fitness levels. I use it all the time for free, at-home movement ideas.

Second, a workout (no matter how small!!) represents a meaningful accomplishment. If you are housebound, chained to your desk for long hours, or just feeling stuck in a rut, doing something physical (like walking for just five minutes!) is proven to lift your mood, help with feelings of depression and hopelessness, and contribute to your physical health as well. Even if it’s a seemingly minuscule goal– adding five seconds to your plank each week, or walking up and down your driveway twice a day– that bottom line is that you’ve done something, specifically something to help yourself, and that is an achievement to be proud of. Positive self-talk is an important part of this.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, exercise gets you out of your mind and into your body, into the present moment. Simply put, focusing on movement means diverting attention from your own catastrophic, critical, or self-questioning thoughts. It’s inevitable; your brain can’t focus on freaking out if you’re using its power to, say, make sure your knee is completely straight in a leg lift, or moving from your upper abs and releasing your neck tension in a crunch. This is a powerful way to show yourself that freedom from such thoughts is possible. Having even a few seconds where you realize you haven’t been dwelling on anxiety is an incredibly liberating experience. I  know, as I’ve been there. In the first few weeks after I came home the one thing I wanted was just a glimpse of a mental state free from anxiety, a moment or two of ‘normalcy’ so I could remember what it felt like, remember that the person I’d been before panic took over was still in there somewhere. Exercise gave me this, and it was the catalyst for the majority of the progress that came afterward.

A few helpful hints:

  1. Non-judgement is essential. You must begin with a beginner’s mind: anything is better than nothing. When you feel you might be ready for more, work from there; I moved from small bedroom workouts to larger ones, then on to walks up and down the driveway, and finally out of the house to ever-increasing portions of ballet class, my life’s work. It helps to find a form of movement that is meaningful to you in the long run, but begin with the first workout idea that feels possible wherever you are now.
  2. Non-judgmental noticing is also essential. Notice when your mind is free of worry during a workout, and allow yourself to reinforce that moment with positive self-talk, even if your mind slips almost immediately back into anxiety. You are building habits here, and reinforcing those instances of healthy letting-go will make you brain want to reward itself by doing that more often.
  3. It may be helpful to write about the experience. Writing creates new neural pathways in the brain, helping to lock in learning and reinforce progress. Write down what you’ve accomplished in your workout, moments that felt like progress and why. Write down how this workout brought you a step closer to living by your values, and how you now have one more thing you know you can do, simply because you’ve done it. When you’re ready, consider how you might bring this mentality into other areas of your life.

 

Give it a try, and let me know how you feel in the comments!

xo

S