Phoenix Over The Hill

The phoenix rising from the ashes doesn’t spare a thought for the ashes, the drab and random detritus of a former incarnation.  It moves forward and upward, buoyed by new wings, new eyes, new strength.  Ultimately, it finds itself exhausted and alone, at the brink of another incineration.

I am no phoenix.  My rebirths look more like horrible accidents than flaming pyres. My flight through this world involves a good deal of careening off immovable objects, punctuated by sudden apparently pointless shifts in direction.  I repeat old mistakes, often disguised as new ones to prevent any chance that I might learn from them.  My tears occasionally heal my pain, but mostly they are just embarrassing and make my eyes swell.

I’m okay with that, because every time I pick myself up off the dungheap of my latest adventure, I learn a little bit more about how I got there.  Unlike the phoenix, I have plenty of time to take a good hard look at the debris I leave behind, and to choose how much of it, if any, to bring with me into the next stage of the journey.    The debris is memory, the residue of experience and feeling that forms my impression of the past and predetermines my response to the future.   It’s the barnacles on my emotional hull that slow its steering and in time can disrupt the integrity of the ship itself.  Memory can’t be left fully behind, though.  For one thing, my brain won’t allow it.  For another, some of it is useful.  Unlike the phoenix, I get to figure out where memory has tricked me in the past and to leave that behind.  I also get to select the memories that give me strength and hope and bring them with me.  Every time my life requires me to regroup and start over, I get to stop and take a good hard look at the situation.  How did I get here?  What did I get from it?  What did I lose?  What do I want now?  And then, sometimes sadder but always a little wiser, I start putting one foot in front of the other again.

I find that as I get older and more experienced at screwing up, I also become much more comfortable with it.  I don’t seek it out, by any means, but I must say that the prospect of dismal failure is much less frightening than it used to be.   The opinions of others don’t carry as much weight in my mind as they once did.  A consequence has to be markedly more negative to dissuade me these days than, say, 20 years ago.  I find this extremely liberating.   It’s also a lot riskier than my younger self would have been comfortable with.  Paradoxically, I find that I make fewer mistakes and spend less time second-guessing myself nowadays.  Interesting.

There are so many more exciting things to do too, now that fear has loosened its grip somewhat on my faculties.   People have seen me mess up so often they’ve stopped looking over my shoulder and even given up on offering advice.  Many of them have even decided to accept that I don’t always behave as they would like and to engage with me as I actually am—a gift I have come to appreciate perhaps more than any other.  I am continually and delightedly flabbergasted by my friends’ willingness to overlook my faults and like me anyway.   I’ve even begun offering that gift to those in my life who simply refuse to conform to my idea of who they should be.  As I round the corner of middle age and look around me, I see no need for us to judge each other for our differences.  As long as we try not to harm one another, what difference does it make how we live our lives?  10 years ago I would have been terrified by such a notion; now I embrace it.

This started out as a meandering chat about the decidedly unromantic path of human beings along life’s unexpected paths.  And now it’s about something altogether different…the excitement of realizing that it’s okay to screw up, it’s okay to change direction.  It’s even okay to be wrong.  The important part is to learn from it.  As long as our missteps take us upward and forward, no matter how circuitous the route, then we have a touch of the phoenix in us.  Not the unthinking, if gorgeous, mythical creature, but the fiery, relentless, eternal spirit that transforms thoughts into life and life, ultimately, into flight.

©Mary Braden 2013

 

 

The Introvert as Stepmom

My children have gone back to school after a wonderful summer…my eldest to start college and my baby to start his junior year of high school.  The inevitable bleakness of their departure has been substantially enlivened by the presence of my two new stepdaughters who moved in a couple of weeks ago.  I really enjoy having these two blossoming people in my space, both physical and emotional. They’re not from my world at all, these two.  Different upbringing, different experiences, different expectations of life, adults, the future.  It makes me realize how the years of mothering my own children have smoothed the interactions between us into an intuitive, gentle dance where all the partners know the steps and can navigate the complexities of getting their needs met without a second thought.

Not so these two.  They know the steps to their own mother’s dance, not mine.  They don’t have any idea what to expect from me, or even what they want from me, let alone how to get it.  It shows in their awkward courtesy, their unwillingness to share their real feelings or their desires with me.   What an immense upheaval it must be for them, uprooted from their home to start a new chapter of their lives in a house and community they didn’t choose, under the eye of a woman whose only role in their lives so far has been to force them to share their father’s love.

This is an amazing experience for an introvert, most comfortable in quiet and solitude, at ease only in the presence of those she has known and loved for a very long time.  Now there are two young, frightened, infinitely dear new people here, and I have to come out of my shell and figure out what they want and how to make them welcome.  I have to find a way to let them know that I have no desire to trump their mother’s place but that I would be grateful and proud to be their friend, to help as much as they’ll let me.  Of all the challenges I’ve faced in my unconventional life so far, this one is the biggest, the deepest, the best.  These are not my children, and yet they are.  I love their father, and so I love them.  I can’t raise them; at 14 and 16 they’re already finished with that.  They have a full set of habits already, skills acquired during the years I wasn’t there.  My task is to learn to understand their signals, to become fluent in a language I was never taught.

And I must also avoid comparing them to my own children, who I know as well as I know myself.  Of course I adore them—they’re mine, and I have brooded over them and wept over them and rejoiced with them since the day they were born.  I wouldn’t trade a minute with them, and look forward to a long and close future with them as they build their own lives.  But these two new daughters are an unknown quantity.  Where my own children are an open book, these two are a mystery.  How inadequate and powerless I feel when I am unable to connect. How easy it is to turn that into a judgment against them instead of owning my own anxiety and fear.  This is quite a job for an introvert!

As the reality of being a stepmother starts to sink in, I’m beginning to understand what I have taken on, and the realization is both daunting and thrilling.  How amazing to be able to share with my husband these last few years before his nestlings spread their wings and fly.  What a test of myself and of what I believe about love and faith.  What a chance, to share in these young women’s lives as a loving, interested presence with no axe to grind.  I have nothing to prove, and thus nothing to lose.  My only role is to love them and to offer them my friendship and support to the extent they allow.  This is a gift—chaotic and scary and overwhelming though it sometimes feels to my introverted soul.  This is where the rubber meets the road, where years of watching and studying and mulling must be turned to action.  I am humbled and blessed by the opportunity.

©Mary Braden 2013

The Introvert Considers Transparency

Adjusting to life as a partner with another person is an epic journey.  This being my 4th marriage, one might suppose that I had done it before, but due to a certain failure in my powers of selection coupled with a matching deficit in self-awareness, this is the first time it’s really been a conscious activity.  And what an adventure it’s shaping up to be!

For one thing, I’m having to think a lot more than I’m used to about what I’m feeling and thinking.  A lot more.  This is not my strong suit, by any means, so I do it awkwardly and with a good deal of embarrassment.  And that’s before I even contemplate the possibility of couching those feelings and thoughts in words that might make sense to another person.  I’ve been a careful observer of my own inner landscape for a long time now, and feel pretty comfortable with what I know so far; trying to get it out of my mouth to another person (no matter how gentle and brilliant and tender he may be), is a horse of a different color.

The big revelation so far has been how terrifying it is for me to lay myself open for another’s inspection.  I’m used to thinking of myself as a brave soul.  I’ve weathered my share of convoluted and ugly storms in life and come out a little wiser than I went in, and there’s not much that really scares me these days.  But this, this opening of myself with deliberate transparency is downright hair-raising.  I’m starting to realize how deftly I have protected myself from such vulnerability in the past, how neatly I’ve hidden weaknesses and disappointments and fears in ways that protected me equally neatly from having them acknowledged or understood by those I claimed I wanted to be close to.  Huh.

The depth of my own resistance to sharing myself with the man with whom I want more than anything to share my future and grow contentedly old astonishes me.  My crankiness, exasperation, slippery rationalizations, lame excuses and flaring defensiveness all signal that my deep desire to be open and fully honest with my partner is at odds with some pretty deep anxieties.  I find the thought of letting someone else see my inner gnarliness horrifying, even though I have zero reason to believe that anything will come out of it except deeper mutual trust and understanding.  Although I feel fairly comfortable with myself even in my darker moments, the violence of my revulsion at the thought of being judged suggests to me that perhaps I am judging myself more harshly than is good for me.  Is an unexpected benefit of this foot-dragging slouch towards intimacy going perhaps to be exchanging my own ruthless self-assessment for the far more loving and tolerant assessment of the man who loves me? And could that perhaps be something I can also do for him?  Hmmmm.

I’ve encountered some surprising delights along the way, too.  There’s a comfort bordering on the sublime that comes from being accepted unconditionally, and I’m beginning to trust it and look forward to it.  There’s a deep relief that wells up at the thought of being free from the burden of repackaging the inner Farandwee for presentation to the outside world.  And there’s an amazing gratitude that blossoms at the notion that someone cares for me enough to hang in there with me while I walk this necessary but uncomfortable path.   It inspires me to strive to do likewise.  The knowledge that I am being heard and accepted without judgment makes me want to listen and accept the same way.  The joys of the first few steps along a path where I can find peace and safety in one person’s company make me want to be that one person for him too.

So I have my work cut out for me.  This is a lifetime endeavor, and one which is destined to be especially difficult for an introvert, who lives most happily in her own private inner space.  Shining a light into that space and letting another in, no matter how beloved, is a challenge.  But it is the right thing, the existentially hospitable thing to do, and the result is an inner space both warmed and brightened by the exercise.  I will always be introverted, most at home when undisturbed.  But there need be no further hiding or masking or deflecting.  This is a new kind of togetherness, and it promises to be a grand adventure indeed.

©Mary Braden 2013

Countdown to Launch

My teenagers ask me when they’ll know for sure that they’re adults, and I find myself at an utter loss.  At almost 45, I still have the same question about myself.  When will life stop being a cacophony of educated guesses, blind panic, dimly-grasped ideals and mysterious inspirations?  Although the problems I face seem to get more varied and complex as I get older, my capacity to solve them still feels much like it did when I started college.  At 18 I had a decent dose of native intelligence, the beginnings of an education, a noticeably acidic sense of humor and a profound cluelessness about how to understand the actions of other people.  None of that has really changed.

My eldest starts college in a couple of months, and she can’t wait to get started.  She can sense the host of possibilities ahead of her, the chance to spread her wings and experience the independence she has earned.  But she’s also a cautious soul, and has a healthy awareness of the pitfalls that may be lurking along her path.  She’s asking a lot of questions, this final summer, about how to make choices with no parent beside her, how to tell a bad choice from a good one, about how to be independent and a freethinker without abandoning real wisdom along the way.  My heart aches as I hear her words, for I know that there is no advice I can give her except “Follow your heart but don’t ignore the proddings of your mind.  And vice versa.”

There’s no way for me to protect her from the experiences I remember as if they were yesterday: the inexplicable rifts and splinterings that affect friendships, the betrayals and rejections and just plain weirdness that permeates the social lives of young adults just cutting their teeth on what it means to have a place in the world.  I can’t begin to describe to her the experiences that make all the struggling worth it either: the friendships that last for decades, the occasions when everything in the universe conspires to create luminous moments of unforgettable joy, the pride and burgeoning confidence that come with mastering the details of life outside the nest.  I try, of course, to give her some idea of what she might expect, but mostly I just stammer and misspeak, floundering in the impossibility of the task but too full of hope and pride and general breathlessness to keep my mouth shut.  She handles it gracefully, and I like to pretend she might glean something useful from it, but I’m not betting on it.

How do you tell someone that the girl she sees in the mirror at 18 will still be looking back at her in 25 years? A little more competent perhaps, at navigating life’s shoals, or maybe a little more sanguine about disappointment or more disciplined about getting what she wants, but not so very different at all, in the end.  How do you explain that all the experiences to come will equip her with tools and skills and perspective but will fail to change the exquisitely complete, glorious person she already is? How do you explain that time will show her who she is, but that it cannot tarnish her gleam or silence her truth?

If there is any lesson I wish I could instill into every one of her neurons, it would be this:  trust yourself, beautiful girl.  Believe in your own powers, have faith in your innate goodness of spirit and listen to your dreams because you deserve the best ones to come true.  If it feels wrong, don’t do it, and if you can’t tell for sure and make the wrong choice, chalk it up as a learning experience and let it go.  Figure out what risks you are unwilling to take and draw the line firmly, but don’t let fear of other people’s opinions keep you from expanding your horizons and exploring new frontiers.   You are young and strong and bright, and while there are bumpy roads ahead, there are also wide new vistas waiting for you to see them.   You are brave and smart enough to take your life in a thousand fine and useful directions and I trust your sense and good judgment to take you forward towards the woman you’ll now spend the rest of your life becoming.

These are long, warm summer days as I watch my fledgling gather her forces to launch into flight.  I think often of my own launch so long ago, and of the world I entered back then, which did so much to shape my life and gave me friendships that endure to this day.  I wouldn’t trade one day of those years, even though some of them were painful.  I only hope that when she’s my age, my girl will feel the same.  Only a few weeks left now, for me to see her face and hear her voice and bask in her presence, and I’m spending as much time doing that as I possibly can.  And then it will be time for me to send her out, with my blessing, to start the solo part of her flight.

Bon voyage, my dearest girl.  May you bring your best to the world and may it give its best to you.

©Mary Braden 2013

 

So Many Greens

So what to do when you have run amok at the Farmers Market or picked up a late-spring share at your local CSA and find yourself in possession of a mountain of crisp, gorgeous greens?  Kale, chard, bok choy, mustard, beet and turnip greens are all abundant and at their peak of flavor right now, and they’re delicious practically any way you cook them.  Faced with yet another refrigerator bursting with bags of greens clamoring to be eaten, here’s what I’ve learned so far:

If refrigerator space is at a premium—which means any day my family is in residence– it only makes sense to reduce the overall size of the greens invasion by the most obvious method .  Cook those suckers!   Once they’re silky, tender and flavored with garlic and salt, they can be stirred into polenta, tossed with pasta, festooned over rice or smashed into potatoes.  They can top a pizza, form a casserole layer or enliven a soup.  They’ll keep for days, and add delicious flavor and intense nutrition to any dish where you can put them.  And if it looks like they won’t get used right away, they can store flat and unobtrusively  in a plastic bag in the freezer until inspiration strikes.  Here’s what works here at Farandwee.

All greens can be prepared in essentially the same way, although cooking time may vary.  If they  have thick, tough stems, it’s best to strip them and cook only the leafy portion; in my experience it’s practical to strip the stems from mustard, kale and collard greens.  I separate the leaves from the stems on chard and bok choy and start them cooking 5 minutes or so ahead of the greens in the same pot, and serve them together.  I cook spinach, turnip and beet greens whole.

Once they’re washed, stripped from their stems if necessary and chopped into any shape and size that appeals, all types of greens are very happy being sautéed in olive oil over medium-high  heat until they’re bright green and tender.  The most fragile greens—spinach, chard and beet—only need to cook for a few seconds before they’re ready to eat.  The more substantial ones, like kale and collards, can take longer to soften; if they do, add a bit of water to the pan and cover to allow the steam to help with the cooking. The liquid, or “pot liquor” packs a delicious flavor punch.   There is absolutely nothing wrong with letting some salt pork, bacon or ham lend some piggy deliciousness to the overall flavor either. Cook right along with the greens or cook until crispy, remove from the pan and then add the greens, adding the meat as a garnish before serving.

When the greens are cooked they either go into the fridge to cool for another day or it’s time to eat them!  I usually add a few drops of olive oil or a small pat of butter to bring out their greens’ natural succulence, and salt and pepper to taste.  Then it’s time to get creative and add some raisins and toasted pine nuts for Sicilian flair or sesame oil and a dash of ginger and soy for an Asian-inspired treat.   If they’re too bitter, a drizzle of honey or the sweetness of an onion cooked at the same time may take the edge off.  A splash of lemon or vinegar will brighten the flavor and a sprinkle of hot sauce adds a touch of heat.   A can of beans and a little chicken stock create a terrific soup or pasta sauce, while a little shredded cheese and a tortilla makes a quick and tasty snack.

All the varieties of greens above are delicious as salad greens too, if you’re lucky enough to have access to them when they’re harvested as leaves only 2-3” long.  Once they get larger, they often become too tough to chew easily, and members of the mustard family can get painfully spicy as they get older, a flavor that is moderated by cooking. If the assertive flavors of baby greens don’t suit your family’s tastes, a handful tossed into a more mellow salad blend can add a touch of pizzazz without being overwhelming.  Dressed with a drizzle of olive oil, a few drops of wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, baby greens are an extraordinarily flavorful way to start or end a meal, and can easily support the added richness of chopped nuts or crumbled cheese, or the sweet undertones of berries or other fruit.

The abundance of fresh greens reflects the general abundance of life as midsummer approaches, the warm days and the long, dreamy evenings when family and friends gather to eat from the farm and the garden, savoring the flavors while the fireflies dance and the music of birds and insects fills the air.  No better time to see the kitchen full of goodness, and know that hungry mouths and hearts will be fed at the same table.

©Mary Braden 2013

 

The Introvert Remarries

Almost 2 weeks ago, and two months after our wedding, the Husband moved from Rochester, NY to live with me until death us do part. He’s an amazing and boundlessly goodhearted man, infinitely patient with my many foibles and brave enough to leave behind his own familiar haunts to blend his life and family with mine.  I’m indescribably lucky to have such a mate, especially considering the fact that I’m not only introverted to a fault but historically over-fond of having my own way.

It’s been quite an adjustment so far. He brought 2 dogs and 4 cats with him, which brings us to a current total of 3 dogs and 5 cats–although to be fair, one cat has opted for the outlaw life and taken up residence under the house where she apparently intends to stay. This proved even more taxing to my nerves than I had anticipated.  Who knew the pets of a sociable person could make so much noise! Yet we persevere, and the initial compromises seem to be working: cats outside at night, dogs ditto when they’re feeling rambunctious, strenuously discouraged from barking at passing pedestrians (and squirrels and blowing leaves and neighbors) . They’re actually rather adorable when they’re not actively fraying my patience, and I’m beginning to see why the Husband enjoys their company so much. Perhaps in a couple of decades I will fully share his enthusiasm.

Blending two full households’ worth of possessions is proving to be a mind-stretcher as well.  Despite vigorous attempts to pare back our belongings ahead of the move, we find my tiny house literally swamped with stuff.  Two middle-aged foodies get quite accustomed to their own cooking tools, it seems!  So two full knife blocks repose on the countertop, two sets of pots jostle for position on the rack, the already-excessive stacks of baking dishes and casseroles have become precariously teetering mountains and the crock of utensils next to the stove has spawned an equally overstuffed canning jar of wooden spoons, whisks and the like. The upside? In order to preserve the few unused millimeters of counterspace for actual cooking, even the resident teenagers are willing to pitch in on dishes!  With four skilled hands in the kitchen, we are turning out delicious food too, with what feels like a minimum of effort.

Before the Husband’s arrival, I had worried myself sick about whether I could handle sharing my space with another adult.  Having adjusted very happily to single life, it was surprisingly hard to think about giving up my comfortable solitude even for the innumerable joys of being with someone who exceeds all my hopes of what partnership and love could be.  Our long-distance courtship punctuated by intense long-weekend visits was wonderful; it gave me the room I needed to decide I was ready to share my life with someone again.  It did not, however, prevent a certain amount of panic in the face of the actual event.

Two weeks in, though, I think it’s going to be okay.  More than okay, actually.  Although I typically find the presence of people other than my mother, siblings and children at least moderately annoying, the Husband does not trigger my hackles to rise.  He has a near-uncanny ability to tell—often better than I–when I would rather be left alone.  And he intuitively grasps that I very much enjoy being near him without interacting.  So we take turns—we talk and laugh for a while, then he checks out the Interweb or watches TV while I curl up beside him with my knitting and we just bask in being in the same place at the same time.

The Husband is way better than I am at picking up emotional cues and figuring out what they mean.  He’s self-aware and insightful enough to tell me directly how he’s feeling instead of leaving me to guess, which prevents a myriad of misunderstanding that could arise from my cluelessness about such things. He instinctively looks at people and situations in terms of the feelings involved, while I look at them as objectively as possible.  As a joke once, we agreed that he ought to be in charge of all marital decisions depending on feelings while I should take the reins on decisions of practicality.  It’s turned out to be truer in reality than we anticipated!

I hadn’t planned to be a 45 year-old newlywed, or to be embarking upon the journey of building a life with someone when half my life is already over, but it is turning out to be exactly the right thing to do.  I’ve learned to be comfortable with who I am, good and bad. Now it’s time to take it to the next level, walking hand in hand with the Husband along the path to the next adventure.

©Mary Braden 2013

 

To forgive, divine.

Forgiving someone, accepting the need to lay down anger and begin to heal from being wronged, is the hardest thing there is. And life has a way of upping the ante so that the harm to be forgiven is more and more difficult as time goes on.  Forgiveness isn’t the only option, of course. Some people clutch their anger tight, relying on its power to protect them from the anguish of loss and betrayal that they are afraid to face. The grudge allows them to blame their pain on the person who has wronged them, instead of grieving and caring for their wounds and allowing them to start to heal. Old anger  is like a callous on the soul, with a painful, festering blister of bitterness and sorrow underneath that makes peace impossible.  It breeds loneliness and misunderstanding, and prevents spiritual growth.

I misunderstood as a child what it meant to forgive someone. I thought it meant clearing the slate, returning the relationship to the way it was before anyone was hurt. I had no idea then of how badly one person could hurt another, or that some actions destroy relationships.  I believed that forgiveness was my gift to the person who had hurt me, an olive branch extended to show how loving, how understanding I was.  It never occurred to me that true forgiveness is a gift to myself, a liberating of my own spirit from the burdens of anger and resentment, and that it can coexist honorably with the decision to end a relationship or refuse someone access to my life.

My youthful version of forgiveness was essentially self-serving, a way to tell myself that I was a good person without facing the question of why I repeatedly allowed people to hurt me without doing anything to protect myself.  I claimed the moral high ground by “forgiving” people, when in reality all I was doing was denying how much I had been hurt. I tolerated being hurt in order to preserve relationships that, in retrospect, would have been much healthier if allowed to end naturally.  My way of forgiving people only affirmed  the message that it was okay to hurt me, that I didn’t value myself highly enough to deserve better treatment.  The sad truth of the matter is that these were not bad people.  They didn’t want to hurt me, and I’m convinced now that if I had let them know they had hurt me and changed the boundaries of the relationship accordingly, they would have welcomed the authenticity.  In my desperate efforts to smooth over conflict and deny my own feelings, I misrepresented myself to those I claimed I wanted to be close to, something for which I ask to be forgiven, not the other way around.

Forgiving has to happen in the absence of the desire to control, something it’s taken me a long time to learn. Forgiving is the act of accepting a person and his or her actions for what they are, free from exaggeration or interpretation. It is also the act of self-acceptance, of looking squarely at whatever damage has been done and acknowledging it. It is the relinquishing of anger, blame and bitterness regardless of whether they are justified. Forgiveness is grounded in the recognition that other people are free to act as they choose, not bound to do what pleases me. In forgiving someone whose actions have caused me pain, I assume my rightful power to determine what I will and will not tolerate, rather than sloughing that responsibility onto another and then being angry and judgmental when I am disappointed.

Pain happens, it is inevitable; forgiveness is the path to abbreviating it.  Anger and resentment breed fear, anxiety and blame; forgiveness is the fresh air that clears our minds of these insidious clouds. We don’t choose to be hurt, but we can choose whether to prolong the suffering by clinging to our bitterness and grudges, or to pick ourselves up, correct our course and allow those who have hurt us to do the same.  Forgiveness is a radically selfish choice.  It gives us the power to reclaim our peace of mind by asserting our unwillingness to harbor toxic and destructive feelings. It affirms our innate power to control how we choose to think and live, and keeps others from usurping control over our happiness and autonomy. Forgiveness is the most powerful weapon we have against oppression and domination, because it prevents those who hurt us from controlling us.

Forgiveness is difficult work, requiring us to be honest with ourselves and to own responsibility for the role we play in creating our own pain.   It’s a gradual process, requiring not only understanding and insight but ongoing discipline of one’s thoughts and feelings.  It requires a counterintuitive gentleness towards those we instinctively perceive as our enemies, the intellectual daring and creativity to see them as parallel and essentially kin to ourselves.  And it requires laughter, at ourselves and at the self-absorption and delusion that allows us to hang our happiness on other people and how they choose to treat us.

Short of never being close enough to anyone to risk having to forgive, the only option we have to preserve our inner peace is to get good at forgiveness: not just good at the outer veneer, but at the inward revolution of letting go of our grudges and resentment and anger so that we can grieve and ultimately move beyond our losses.

©Mary Braden 2013

On The Run

On the brink of my 45th birthday, after a lifetime of Olympic-calibre inertia, I am astonished to find that I am, in fact, a runner.  In the last year, I have somehow turned into one of those people who puts on their shoes and hits the road in all kinds of weather and actually enjoys it!  After several months of walking, then walk-run treadmill workouts and finally running outdoors regularly, I ran my first 5K at the urging of a beloved running friend in November and was ecstatic to see my 11:36 overall pace.  In January that same friend suggested I join her for a half-marathon in May; instead of collapsing in giggles of disbelief, I signed up.  I ransacked the Internet for training schedules, bought really good running shoes (and cushy, moisture-wicking socks), started cross-training on the circuit at my local Curves, and cleared my weekend schedule so that I could devote Saturday mornings to gradually-increasing long runs.   I downloaded GPS-driven running apps to my phone so I could keep track of how far and how fast I was running. I learned that my left knee gets impossibly sore if I skip cross-training, but that it responds beautifully to exercises that strengthen my hip abductor muscles.   I iced and elevated that knee and took ibuprofen after long runs and found that it performs better and better over time, the stronger I get.  I ran the half-marathon and loved every minute of it; my average pace was 11:16 over the whole 13.1 miles, not a racer’s speed by any stretch, but I was pretty darn proud of it then and I still am!

This summer I’m trying to maintain the conditioning I built up for the half-marathon. I run 20-25 miles a week, 10 in a single Saturday long run. My average pace over 5 miles has dropped to about 9:45.  I’m going to try to run a 5K in under 30 minutes later this month, and plan to register for another half-marathon in October.  I want to incorporate yoga into my running routine to improve flexibility, mental focus and core strength, and to establish a routine of walking a couple of miles on my cross-training days to give my legs some variety.  I don’t think I’ll ever win a race, slow and easy runner that I am, but I intend to finish a whole lot of them.  I don’t mind a bit not being competitive with other runners, because external competition is the reason I’ve avoided sports my whole life.  I like beating my own PRs, but couldn’t care less what other people are doing out there.  When I’m passed on the road by a runner with 20 years on me and a graceful, effortless stride, I’m inspired, not crushed.  Hopefully someday I will be one of those!

Every day I bask in the rewards of running. I fall asleep within moments of my head hitting the pillow.  I get to enjoy a healthy, widely varied diet without gaining weight, my energy level is higher than I remember it being even as a child, my skin looks fresh and healthy, and I handle stress better than ever before. And of course my body is beginning to look more like a runner’s body; leaner, stronger, more compact, more resistant to the pull of gravity.  My body is accustomed to the rush of endorphins, the fabled “runner’s high,” that accompanies prolonged intense exercise, and it likes it…I actively look forward to it even when the weather or my mood or life’s other complications make it difficult to fit into the schedule.

It really never is too late to start to run, or to call yourself a runner.  Bodies are made to run, to ease into that gentle, loping stride that feels like it can go on forever, or to lunge forward in a burst of speed that energizes every fiber of muscle, joint and senses.  Our sedentary, stress-filled lives are crying out for something active to burn off the anxiety, for time in the open air, for chances to reconnect with the natural world, our thoughts, our bodies.  Running doesn’t have to be fast to be beneficial; my favorite running mantra, stolen from an unremembered article, is “No pace is too slow for a training run.” Common sense prevents the vast majority of running injuries:  take it slow, don’t increase mileage by more than 10% in a week, stop doing what hurts, be generous with rest days.  It pays off.  I’m here to tell you that it can be done, even in midlife, and that it can change your world for the better.

©Mary Braden 2013

Me-ganism on Summer Vacation

Forgive me for lingering between posts, but school is out, the house is blissfully overrun with teenagers and this introvert has been wallowing joyfully in the pleasures of the tribe.   My children both go to school out of state, so summers are family time in the Farandwee household.  Also cooking.  A lot of cooking.  My tightly-reined private dietary habits have given way to a free-for-all of varying schedules, opinionated palates and unpredictable appetites.  I was anxious at first, but I’m here to report that it has gone surprisingly well.  I added milk, eggs and cheese to the refrigerator, but continue to stock soymilk, flax meal and other vegan stand-bys. We’re eating legumes in salads, spreads and soups, demolishing mountains of fresh fruits and roasted veggies, stuffing our faces with salad.  One day I made a broccoli and cheddar quiche, another fateful day I made a wilted spinach salad with hot BACON dressing…5 slices of bacon made a memorable taste sensation for 7 people and delivered only a modest jolt of animal wickedness.  Oatmeal has been cooked in water, soymilk and dairy milk and drizzled with honey or maple syrup.  Friday nights we get vegetarian pizza on whole wheat crust from the local pizza shrine and savor every cheesy delicious bite.  I’ve simmered coconut/soymilk brown rice pudding on the stove until the whole house smelled sweet and delicious and the teenagers clamored to take turns stirring and stealing bites.

Yes, I’m taking in more animal protein than I do when I am alone in the house, but not much more.  I still eat vegan for days on end, and nearly everything I cook myself is free of meat and dairy.  My kids are being exposed to new flavors—Mexican pasta salad, anyone?—and still getting to have their favorite treats on occasion.  Everyone is eating whole foods cooked from scratch, benefiting from their wealth of nutrients and flavors and blithely untouched by the nastinesses of packaged foods.

It’s a balancing act.  I want my whole family to eat a healthy, balanced diet with the best possible effects on their bodies.  But I also want family meals to be a time of joy, of aesthetic delight in flavors, textures and aromas.  I want the kids to savor new foods but also to be comforted and nurtured by their favorites.  So I weigh it out in my mind…what is the optimum balance for my own family in this exact place and time?  Which days need homemade mac and cheese, creamy and savory with the pungent whiff of mustard and cheddar, and which days need homemade pita chips dusted with herbs dipped into luxuriously silky hummus with a salad of grated carrots and parsley on the side?  This is Me-ganism at its finest, expanded to encompass the personalities and inclinations of a whole family.  In this incarnation, it could be called We-ganism.

Food, the second most important necessity that we must voluntarily take into our bodies to survive (h/t to water, the first), is among the most powerful of cultural influences on a person.  Certain foods accompany their prescribed celebrations…ham at Easter, turkey at Thanksgiving, lentils at the New Year in Italy, Hoppin’ John in the American South.  Our palates become accustomed to the flavors our parents give us, as theirs did to our grandparents’ cooking a generation before.  We learn what is too salty, what is too spicy or too sweet, and we take those views into our own kitchens and our own supermarkets in our turn.  So the choices I make with my adolescents are likely to matter sooner rather than later as they head out into the world; if I repel them with too many unfamiliar ingredients or dishes, then I may be steering them away from experimentation and creativity in the kitchen or at the table.  If I continue to feed them the rich, delicious animal-based foods of my childhood, then I am encouraging them to make their dietary choices based solely on flavor rather than on a holistic view of food as a medical, political, and environmental as well as an aesthetic force.  And if I attempt to leverage my own dietary choices into a means of controlling them, then our family meals will devolve into pointless, grinding conflict.   My duty as a parent is to convey my own convictions to my children while remaining mindful of my primary responsibility to them, which is to nurture their bodies and their minds in every way I can.

These summer months are an inspiration to me to seek and practice moderation, to recognize that eating well doesn’t mean the same thing to all people at the same time.  While my house is full, I have the opportunity to share thoughts and recipes and meals with my children as well as to consider and reconsider my own dietary choices in the context of a shared life and shared kitchen.  These are sweet times, these summers of our great content.  They are about the basic principles of Me-ganism: joy, creativity, self-compassion and health.  And this summer I’m rolling up both sleeves and leaping in with both hands.  Eat well, my friends, and wring every last bite of happiness from every plate you meet.

©Mary Braden 2013

Eating Me-gan

SPOILER ALERT: The following is not a piece of erotic writing about lesbians or contortionists.

It is, however, a description of the way I have been eating for the last several months,as part of an overall shift towards increased mindfulness and simplification in my inner and outer life. I call it “Me-gan,” because it is intensely personal, as I think a person’s relationship with food ought to be. After all, eating is where we meet the world in the most intimate possible way; we take it into ourselves and it becomes us.

The hallmark of Me-ganism is flexibility. There are no absolute rules, no morality of “good” and “bad” foods, no program and no manual. Its guiding principle is that eating should be good for you at every stage of the process: before you eat it, while you eat it, and after you eat it. In other words, you should enjoy planning and preparing it, you should enjoy the sensations and emotions that go along with eating it, and you should benefit both physically and mentally from having eaten it.

This approach to food and eating requires cultivating self-awareness and learning to interpret internal messages with discernment and compassion. It does not require obscure tools, specialized knowledge or an expensive and exotic pantry. There is no guarantee that it will improve health or reduce weight. As of today, Me-ganism has exactly one practitioner, me. I’m not a dietician or a doctor, although I consider myself a well-educated layperson when it comes to nutrition and wellness.

Besides the guiding principle listed above, there are a handful of other ideas that have shaped and continue to shape the way I eat and relate to food:

If it doesn’t taste good, or makes you feel bad, don’t eat it. Life is too short to waste precious time making yourself miserable. You’re way more likely to make and stick with positive changes if they make you feel, well…positive!

Remember your roots. Long before supermarkets, we ate what we could grow, hunt or find. Bring your food home in as close to its natural state as you can, as free from chemicals and as locally-grown as you can comfortably manage. God won’t strike you down if you eat conventionally-grown produce (I do, often) or pop open a can of beans or tomatoes on occasion. Just do the best you can.

Start with vegetables and fruits. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of them in your produce section (or your farmer’s market or maybe even your garden). They cover a huge spectrum of flavors and textures from sweet apples to bitter collards to creamy sweet potatoes. They require only simple cooking like roasting or steaming to bring out their flavors and of course many of them are delicious eaten raw. Many of them contain surprisingly high amounts of protein. Don’t forget mushrooms and fresh herbs, which add richness of flavor wherever they go. And don’t forget the olive oil, the best quality you can muster.  The good stuff really does taste better.

Build a foundation of whole grains and legumes. Our bodies need carbohydrates for fuel, but they need them in a form that’s slow-release and rich in supporting nutrients to regulate metabolism. Enter whole grains and beans. Low in fat, high in protein and fiber, these are the workhorses of Me-ganism. Relatively neutral in flavor by themselves, they form the foundations of glorious breads, scrumptious soups and stews and hearty casseroles. They fill you up for hours and help your body recognize when it’s full, freeing your mind for long periods of focused attention.

Treat animal foods as treats rather than the norm. Our bodies don’t need animal foods every day, so make them a central part of feasts and celebrations rather than an everyday occurrence. Skip buying hamburger for two weeks and splurge on really great steaks at the end of it. Put PB or hummus or leftover grilled vegetables in your weekday sandwiches instead of meat and cheese for a few days, then bake a Brie on the weekend or crank up the blender and binge on Eggs Benedict. Forget your mom saying you need meat and milk and eggs to be healthy. That’s yesterday’s news. These foods are parties in your mouth, worth waiting and saving for and then going all out. These are the ones that provide the most pleasure before and during eating, but can disagree with you afterwards both short-term and long-term if consumed frequently.

Be compassionate with yourself about food. We all have issues about food and eating, and most of us judge our own eating habits harshly and negatively. Enough of that already. Me-ganism is about starting over, about building a new relationship with food and eating and ourselves based on what we really like and want. It’s about experimenting and evaluating, not judging. It’s about learning and comparing and observing how our bodies and our hearts respond to what we eat, and then using our new knowledge to nurture and respect ourselves. Everyone’s Me-ganism is going to look different, not only from other people’s but from his or her own from year to year.

Here’s what works for me, today. I don’t eat animal foods at home, because I’ve found I have more energy and feel healthier when my daily diet is animal-free. I drink wine and beer, one daily and occasionally two. I eat fast food on road trips and when I eat out I sometimes have meat and fish and usually cheese. I take a cheap daily multi-vitamin and mineral supplement with extra calcium and Vitamin D, and I make my own soymilk so I can eat my beloved oatmeal and bake. I use an app/website called MyFitnessPal (www.myfitnesspal.com) to track my eating (both the eating I’m proud of and the eating I’m not) so that I have real data to learn from as well as my subjective responses.

I wouldn’t expect my version of Me-ganism to work for everyone. It works for me because it was built that way. You can build your own for you. Food is supposed to be a pleasure and a fulfillment as well as a necessity, a gift to yourself from yourself. Give it a whirl and see what happens.

©Mary Braden 2013