Chocolate Poetry and Busy Life

CK is down in Mountain View and has been for over a week. These long trips are hard. Right now with everything going on with Mom, it has felt really tiring. Work is very busy, although I’ve come to understand that the nature of my new(ish) job is that my team is always busy. Right now I feel like I should be working, but I am letting myself take the evening off having done work the past couple of nights and over the past weekend. I’ll be working some this weekend too!

This evening Dora and I took a 40 minute walk up to the park and around the rose garden a few times. The moon was golden and beautiful and it was a chill, but dry evening. The happy result of the walk, combined with enjoying a big bowl of simple borscht and wheatberries for dinner, was finishing off a chocolate bar and enjoying every bite! I’ve been trying to be much more mindful about what I’m eating and how much. It is far too easy to fall back into mindless eating and it feels good to really savor the chocolate and make the bar last days!

The particular brand of chocolate includes love poetry printed on the inside of the wrapper. I really loved seeing part of Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney and I thought it would be nice to share it.

Sonnet 81

O kiss, which dost those ruddy gems impart,
Or gems or fruits of new-found paradise,
Breathing all bliss, and sweetening to the heart,
Teaching dumb lips a nobler exercise;
O kiss, which souls, even souls, together ties
By links of love and only nature’s art,
How fain would I paint thee to all men’s eyes.
Or of thy gifts at least shade out some part!
But she forbids; with blushing words she says
She builds her fame on higher-seated praise.
But my heart burns; I cannot silent be.
Then, since, dear life, you fain would have me peace,
And I, mad with delight, want wit to cease,
Stop you my mouth with still still kissing me.

Health Matters

I’ve gained some weight over the past four busy, stressful, joyful, hard years. The “why” is easy, I know myself and it isn’t hard to figure out. Stress makes me crave carbohydrates, preferably in the form of cake, and fat, in the form of fried potatoes. Portland has a number of awesome bakeries and numerous places to get very tasty potatoes fried in oil. I’ve been able to mostly look at this weight gain with compassion and try not to let my self-criticism over it get the best of me. It is a good time to practice Metta for myself, but then again it is always a good time for me to practice Metta for myself!

Mindful of the weight gain, and my desire to do my very best to be here in good health for those who love me, in the past couple of weeks I’ve committed to being very mindful about food, eating very healthfully, and making a point to exercise some every day, at least 25 minutes. I’m taking inspiration, particularly in regards to food from Eat to Live.

When I was losing a much more serious amount of weight I found tracking calories and exercise really helped me understand more about what I was eating. I used a site called FitDay for quite some time to do this. It worked pretty well, but was less than ideal.

The thing I found the most difficult with FitDay was a limited food database, at least for a vegan. I spent so much time meticulously entering nutrition details and trying to deconstruct what was in my food in order to add it. Doing so was worth it and taught me a lot, but it was tedious and took up a lot of my time.

Fast forward to now and I have a smart phone to add to the mix, so I set out to find out what else was out there for both a web site and an Android application for my phone. I started using a site called MyFitnessPal and am finding the site very easy to use and the Android application is very quick. What’s even better is the database of food!

I stumbled across several brand-name products, like Soy Curls in the food database. Then I started searching and found several recipes from favorite cookbooks and websites I use a lot. What I realized is that each time someone goes to the effort to manually input all these details, it is added to the database for everyone to use! There’s also a community access and I’ve connected to other vegans working on weight loss, fitness and generally focusing on a healthier lifestyle.

And it is working, of course. Since I started tracking things on October 12 I’ve already lost 6.8 pounds. In fact I want to be mindful of not losing too quickly, but things might slow down after this initial kick-start of energy.

When people ask me how I’ve lost 130 (at this point) pounds and I tell them that being vegan in and of itself it is a huge help, but aside from that I watch what I eat and exercise more.  That’s it. No magic formula. No pill. No miracle.

Calories in/Calories out

I’m focusing on the type of calories quite a bit, that’s the influence of Eat to Live, so even more veggies and more beans. I love tofu and tempeh, but am using a little less of it to keep calories down. Even with trying to keep to a fairly specific low-fat diet, it has been easy to mindfully include occasional indulges like a biscuits & gravy brunch, a pint of beer, tofu salad rolls with peanut sauce, and even a few kettle-style potato chips with my lunch today with CK.

The lastest delusion

Feeling fat… yep, that’s me these days. I have been feeling fat, frumpy and kind of uneven all over. Maybe it was getting on the scale at the gym the other day – in the evening – and finding it weighed me as 6 pounds heavier? Whatever source, it appears to be the latest delusion by my mind to undermine any sense of accomplishment for losing weight.

I gave away a few more bags of clothing that is too big last night. I felt a little strange, thinking to myself, “Oh no, what if I need those clothes again!”

Not that any of my clothes are too tight. None are too big now either. I’m down to clothes that actually fit for the most part and seem to have stabilized around a size 8/10 (small/medium). Regardless of the preponderance of evidence my mind has been stuck in the feeling fat mode.

In a sad irony about food cravings, the fatter I feel the more I crave cookies (really, baked goods in general). I am trying to watch this arise and crash around. I feel fat and lumpy, then I crave a sweet to make me feel better, which then gives fuel to feeling fat… And around and around we go! Thai food has been high on the craving list too – pad see ew particularly.

Instead I had a big salad for dinner and after we got back from the Dharma center I had a little sweet, sugary cereal. I spent the two sitting periods just working on Metta for myself some more. Trying to get back to answering the rising self-criticism and random anxiety with loving-kindness.

This Body

I was a skinny person who became obese. I was underweight at birth, throughout my early childhood, and was pretty thin until the last year of college when the combination of traumatic breakdown, plentiful rich food, a foundation of disordered eating habits, and injury combined to really add weight onto my frame. I left college at least two sizes larger than I started.

Then another injury while my brain was still fragmented from trauma, locked into silence. I broke my left ankle playing volleyball after work. Within a year I’d added a couple more sizes. Throughout my 20s that’s how it went, a size creeping on nearly every year until by the time I was 30 I had gone from a size 5/7 when I started college to a size 24/26.

I never was comfortable with my thin body, especially as a teen. This is the place where body issues, PTSD, and sexual orientation meet head-on. In my thin body as a teenager I was encouraged that girls wear sexy things. I was directed away from my “tomboy” style as much as possible, especially for dressier occasions. It didn’t feel right on so many levels.

Dressing up, showing off my thin body like girls were expected to brought attention that made me uncomfortable. Even at my largest I was never entirely comfortable in the various dresses, skirts, high heels and corsets. It was always a costume, I was always reserved, a bit stiff, and very self-conscious. When the attention of men lead to intimacy with men I felt incredibly awkward most of the time, sometimes I would feel entirely disconnected. It has been painful, but illuminating to figure out in my 30s that part of the problem all along is that my sexual orientation is strongly directed towards women, learning to use the words “Lesbian”, “gay”, and “queer” more openly.

Losing the weight has felt like this slide right back into adolescence at times especially being combined with all the sexual confusion. Yep, just like being 15 all over again, but with mortgage payments. Here I am back in a body that gets attention, especially from men. If anything I’m more hyper aware of my discomfort around my attractiveness because I’m no longer disassociated from the traumatic episodes. But I’m also not in exactly the same body and driven by the images of bodies we are surrounded with, so I’m quick to judge the way the extra skin moves very harshly and am sometimes so distracted by it I am not fully present to anything but feeling ashamed of my body.

I’m still trying to pick my way through it all. When I first lost all the weight I was entirely without all the girly clothes that had been my costume when I was obese. My back condition had already made it so I’d given away all my high heels. I swung back to being a “tomboy” with a vengeance. I even got into a fight with my Mom over it when I’d bought a really nice outfit for her wedding that was based around some green trousers.

I still have the skirt I bought in protest, I was wearing it last weekend. As uncomfortable as I felt with my body in the black dress I bought, there’s part of me that enjoyed wearing it a little bit. It is the same part of me that occasionally enjoys the way a skirt moves around my legs in a breeze. I am finding some element of compromise between the “tomboy” and the girl who never got to pick being the “princess” on her own terms.

Body

It was one of those realizations during zazen that felt like it kind of thumped into me. Why writing about, talking about the weight loss is so difficult.

I feel shame for having gained all that weight in the first place. For having abused my body so much.

Every day I’m reminded of it by the skin. I mention it sometimes, like wanting to wear something with long sleeves to cover my upper arms, the underside of which have a great deal of loose skin. People shrug and say how that happens to a lot of people, it is genetic.

Only really, this isn’t like that. It is extra skin. One of my dearest friends, who has had a lap band surgery, calls them her “Bat Wings”. More exercise and different body care products will not make the skin go away. There or any of the extra on my belly (upper and lower abdomen), breasts, and thighs particularly. There is quite possibly 10 extra pounds of skin. That’s what happens when someone goes from 290+ to 140 +/- (I stay within a few pounds of that in either direction).

I mentioned it to Chozen and Hogen after sitting. I was reminded that instead of shame I need to honor my accomplishment by helping others. I joked with Hogen, asking if he kept a tally sheet under the sazen cushion for how many times I’m told this lesson. He laughed and said only for me. Chozen noted that I needed to go back to the piece I’m writing for her with this mindset.

And Loving-Kindness, of course.

I haven’t done it yet. We were in Sacramento all weekend visiting CK’s family. It was an inferno there compared to Portland, painfully bright. There was a lot of family dynamics and tension I was getting introduced to at the same time. It brought up some tough stuff in my past.

On top of that CK’s step-dad, a professional photographer, took a series of photographs of me. Well over an hour of going through yoga poses again and again, turning to get different angles. It was exhausting on so many levels.

I shouldn’t have looked at the images mid-way, but he was making a light adjustment for me to do standing asana, so I looked. He was complimenting my chaturunga, how great it looked to get it in series. He does yoga, so often he had a comment or suggested a couple of poses I hadn’t done.

I couldn’t stop looking at the way the loose skin on my upper abdomen hangs down. Gravity being what it is there’s just this round line. It doesn’t matter how strong or lean my core muscles are in my abdomen, nothing will make that skin hang smooth against my body again.

I continued on with the asana, working up a real sweat in the warm house in my yoga outfit with long sleeves and pants. CK expressed surprise several times, noting how I could do some poses she didn’t even realize I was capable of. I wasn’t able to move away from feeling shameful about my body for a while, it wasn’t until I looked at other poses that I could work my way back to appreciating my alignment in the asana the way a teacher would. Moving towards looking at my body as just a students, not actually my own.

Back to the writing for Chozen. Now that I’m out of excuses and have zeroed in on at least one big reason I’m so uncomfortable with it. I suspect there’s others but this appears to be a good one to start with.

Writing About the Weight Loss

I’ve gotten OK with writing about quite a lot of stuff. I’ve now even managed to write three things to be put into zine-type publications and have the work be personal, from my own experience. Writing about the weight loss is tough, weird, and it is one of the topics I think I get asked about the most.

Chozen was at the Dharma Center tonight and thanked me for writing a nice review of her book on Amazon. This prompted me to blurt out that I’d finished a draft of my assignment from her but I was still unhappy with it. I noted that CK had thought my voice seemed distant in it. She said usually reading my writing seems as though I’m there talking with her.

Off to the zendo and zazen I went with that little burst of anxious, “bad student” guilt, courtesy of my Inner Critic. It struck me in that first period why I find writing about the weight loss so difficult, why I try to distance myself from it. I feel ashamed for having abused my body with gaining that weight. Every day I see the loose skin as some kind of testimony to my guilt.

Second sitting period starts. I breath in… and Hogen’s telling us to work on feeling satisfaction with ourselves, our breath, our bodies. Ugh! I feel like I’ve just been double-teamed by my teachers. Then I directed the madly spinning brain wheels to some Metta practice.

In chatting with both my teachers after sitting I was reminded of what I am told again and again. To take this history, the lessons I’ve learned from it, and use it to help others. Turn it all into potent medicine to heal the world. I sighed and laughed, feeling a bit sheepish (which is a variation on the bad-student anxiety, only with more kindness).

Chozen reminded me that she asked me for this writing because it means more for me to say that it is possible to change your life through mindful eating. She said that they might listen to hear about struggling with chocolate desires, but I truly speak the voice of someone who has successfully lost 150 pounds and kept it off. Proof that there is a way.

So I’ll pick it up again over the next few days. Read it aloud, feel the words and where my discomfort rises up around them. Practice Metta and remind myself why I’m writing about this stuff (to help others, not so I won’t feel guilty around Chozen… OK, maybe both).

A Vegan Way

It was in 2006, after being a vegetarian for a little over 5 years, I really decided to just switch to a vegan diet. Primarily I was making a final attempt to get my high cholesterol down. I also had started to seriously look at the way dairy cows are treated. It was bothering me.

When I started teaching yoga in October 2005 I also began to incorporate the other “limbs” into my practice. I started attending zazen, somewhat irregularly at first, with the Zen Community of Oregon. This helped me look closely at the cultivation of concentration, meditation, and wisdom. It was while I was taking a class on Life Vows from Hogen that I vowed to uphold the Yamas, the “Rules of Life” in yoga practice.

The first of the Yamas is ahimsa, non-harming. I’d read some things about the Buddhist Precepts at ZCO and found that the first Grave Precept is to not kill, but to affirm life. I also had spent a lot of time reflecting upon Thich Nhat Hahn’s book Anger which begins with a discussion of diet. He felt that it was important that we not consume, nourish these bodies which practice, with the panicked, dying, suffering energy of an animal slaughtered for food.

In the spring of 2006 those things came together for me after listening to Howard Lyman speak at the NW Veg VegFest. After spending a day listening to people talk about dairy I finally committed myself to doing what had been considering doing for months, I stopped eating all dairy products the next day. That was the last step, I became a vegan.

Because I live in Portland this was a fairly easy transition. I just became used to assuming that most places I went to, most gatherings I attended, would not have food I would eat. I would make dishes and bring them to share to be certain I would have something as well as show how tasty vegan food was. Most of the time it didn’t matter, sometimes it hurt to feel the way this choice put me even further outside of the mainstream.

My focus all along has been to improve my health. To avoid as many as the diseases that plagued the women in my family – diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attacks, angina, and obesity. Once dairy was taken out of my diet I began to lose weight again, finally dropping the last 40 pounds to have my weight fall into the “healthy” range for my height.

The weight loss alone caused my doctor to shake his head and smile, but when my cholesterol started to drop dramatically he told me not to change anything I was doing. By 2008 my cholesterol had dropped 100 points and I was still losing a few pounds. I went in for a chemical stress test to get a clear picture of how my heart was doing and was told that people 10 years younger than me should have a heart working as well. This spring my doctor called me “skinny”.

I feel as though my commitment to changing my diet to improve my health has created space for me to appreciate the choice of being a vegan even more. Over the past several years I’ve moved more and more to trying to buy organic products, local ones where possible. I have never lost the lessons of the Outdoor School program, of the interconnectedness of everything on the planet and how the choices I make do matter. A vegan diet is an environmentally responsible one that makes a commitment to improving the health of the planet.

When I was at the Loving-Kindness sesshin this past April I had a lot of opportunity to think about this. Because the sesshin really awakened some emotions long buried during my childhood the feeling that I was not included was rather intense at times, especially on nights where during formal tea everyone else would be served a beautiful, fancy cookie while I was served the same store-bought ones I’d brought out to the monastery. One night there were steamed carrots, but only a very small portion without butter set aside for me and it brought up sad feelings.

Later that night, in the dark, cool zendo I would have time to breath through and comfort the child inside of me who felt left out, hurt. In my mind I talked with her about the importance of not having the fancy cookie, that the cookies I’d brought from the store were ones I liked and that I still got a cookie with everyone else. By the time I was served the same cookie I had most of the week that child inside of me and I were both OK with.

What had hit me through keenly feeling the separateness of my vegan diet was that I have been slowly moving my life towards peace. That is what the path of yoga and zen is for me. It is the cultivation of tranquility and calm-abiding. For me there is absolutely no question that the literal foundation must be nourished by food that supports this path. Since we are constantly in change, our cellular structure constantly going through the death/birth cycle, then the base components for that structure must nourish peace. This is how my practice is built, it begins with what I put into my body.

Accidental Vegetarian

Several people have heard the story of how I “accidentally” became a vegetarian and I’ve talked with a few people about why I’m vegan. During the Loving-Kindness sesshin in April I had a lot of time to deeply look at how important my veganism is to my life. I commented on this during the sharing time at the end of the sesshin with my fellow retreatants, but it really seems like something worth sharing with a much larger audience. This is a part one of two posts that cover over 8 years of my changing my diet from the Standard American Diet to a very healthy, vegan diet.

How does one “accidentally” become a vegetarian?

Back in 2001 my cholesterol was 290. On top of that the “bad” cholesterol was really bad, the “good” wasn’t anywhere close to good, and those pesky triglycerides were just as sad. Yep, those levels where the doctor starts to use words like “statins” at visits. My blood pressure and blood sugar levels were OK, but when you added those bad numbers to my weight and a family history of women having heart problems — well, it wasn’t good.

I’d lost some weight, about 30 pounds, but was still obese and those numbers weren’t budging. Yes, “obese”, I’m not going to say “large” or “heavy” or any other of the nice words that take the sting out of it. At not quite 5’5″ I weighed about 260 pounds even having lost 30 pounds.

Facing all of this and the knowledge that statins can often have a side-effect of joint pain (since I already have chronic pain in my back I didn’t want that added to the list) I decided to stop eating as much meat. Meat is loaded in cholesterol and the foodie in my just saw trying vegetarian options as sampling a type of new cuisine. I was still eating sushi. This was back in 2001.

In 2002 the sushi fell by the wayside one afternoon over a spicy tuna roll and some seared salmon. These were two of my favorite things and sushi was the only flesh I was still eating. I was happy when I was presented my little plate of fish, took a bite, and while chewing my mouth reacted strongly. Chew, chew, chew…. “Ick, what is this!? We don’t want this in our mouth! EEEEW!”

A few weeks later friends were over for dinner. Some lovely smoked salmon ravioli had been picked out for the evening and I was looking forward to it. Great conversation, nice wine, yummy veggies… The ravioli? Same mouth reaction, only more insistent. Chew, chew, chew…. “Ick, what is this!? We don’t want this in our mouth! EEEEW!”

I honestly thought the ravioli were rancid. Something seriously wrong with the meal. I looked around the table and realized everyone else was happily munching away. I was the only one fighting the urge to gag as I spit out my second bite into a napkin. At that point it seemed obvious that I’d become vegetarian without even trying. My body just found meat gross.

In 2003, while answering a craving for scrambled eggs, my body reacted the same way to eating eggs. I knew the signs immediately. Chew, chew, chew…. “Ick, what is this!? We don’t want this in our mouth! EEEEW!”

By now I’d lost nearly 100 pounds. People were amazed. In a way it didn’t really feel amazing to me at all, I was there just eating differently, exercising more. It wasn’t until my shoes were too big that I really was able to acknowledge how dramatically my body had changed with the weight I’d gained. I certainly was feeling better, so I didn’t feel inclined to return back to the way I had been eating.

Cheese was the last great hold out. Particularly Gorgonzola, brie, Stilton, and strong Cheddars. I loved cheese and would happily have entire meals of nothing but an assortment of cheese with some bread. Yep, still vegetarian. Made sure everything I got was not made with animal rennet.

The side effect of this cheese love? Well, my cholesterol had started to inch down a little when I first switched to a vegetarian diet, however, the increase in all that high dairy-fat cheese in my diet sent it right back up again! Once that had happened my doctor was really wanting me to see a nutritionist and go on drugs. I asked him for one more year.

Remembering Dad

Kind of a heavy post today. These thoughts, the poem below, have been banging around in my skull for several days now. Nearly feels like the noise them make gets in the way of trying to write about things for my Zen community, a piece on my weight loss for Chozen to post to her blog site, or the poem that’s lurking around in there (an homage of sorts to Neruda‘s Ode to Tomatoes).

The other day I was looking for a safety pin and came across my Dad’s wedding ring. I’ve had it since the day he died. I very clearly hold in my mind taking the ring off of his hand and putting it onto my hand. For a while I wore it, when I was 130 or more pounds heavier. I was a bit sad when I’d lost enough weight that I could no longer wear it out of fear of it falling off.

That moment where I took off Dad’s ring has been fresh in my mind now. The further away I get from his death, the more I am able to pull apart the frozen way I felt at the time. He’s become a big part of the reason I changed my life, lost the weight and began steering my life always towards health. It hurt so much that he would choose alcohol and cigarettes over me. In some ways I now see more clearly how the nearly 25 years he was my step-father were never free of his addictions and that those addictions were closer to his heart than the love he tried to show me. It hurts to think about, but I try not to let that anger & pain completely obscure the ways he really tried to be a good father.

This December it will be nine years since his death. I still have some of his ashes in a glass jar in my house and his ring in a box in my room. I remain profoundly sad to have lost him and sometimes feel like I am one of the few people who actually remembers the ways he tried to be loving. He wasn’t very good at it but he was the only one who tried to fill that “father” role in my life when I was a child.

I was reminded of all this during a final scene in the last Battlestar Galatica episode. It combined a couple of things I hate about crying (I have a very long list of things I hate about crying) — crying in public (was watching with a crowd at the McMenamin’s Bagdad) and crying because some television show or movie is written in such a way to tug at my pentiful heart-strings. I feel like a weepy sap and embaressed there are people there who might see it. No, it doesn’t matter if other people are crying too.

It was a scene where a ring was exchanged between the living and the dead. I watched and felt the weight of my Dad’s hand in mine. How I had to move his fingers to remove his ring. He felt lifeless, truly. His body was an empty shell and I knew my Dad was gone. There was only his ring left, heavy on my hand.

Dad, December 11, 2000

I stood there; still,
Silent, holding tears.
Mom gestured at me
To take his ring.

His hand was
Still warm
As I slid off
The ring and put
It on my finger.

The heavy gold
Didn’t really know
The change from
One cooling hand
To one cold with
Grief and anger.

He didn’t look
Asleep, at rest.
He looked dead.
My heart was filled
With the enormity of
This final withdrawal
And I didn’t know
What to say
Or do, aside
From putting
The ring on.

Nine years later the
Ring no longer fits,
My fingers are
All too small.
It sits in a box
In my room.
My heart still
Pulls tight
In my chest.

My Picture in a Zine

My article came out today in the Sangha newsletter, Ink on the Cat. It seemed a little strange to me to see myself there, printed, in black & white, looking out from something I could hold in my hands. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had my photograph next to something I wrote. When I think about it, the only time my photograph has been printed is in things like year books. Once or twice in small, local papers when I was a kid participating in a school or civic event.

In high school and college I had things I wrote show up in the school papers or literary zines. Mostly poetry, I wrote so much poetry throughout my teens and twenties. I moved onto just having a website and putting up my own poetry there when I was in my twenties. The poetry seemed to just stop showing up, years ago. It feels strange sometimes to not have poetry swimming around my head all the time. Once in a while something occurs to me, just in a flash and mostly whole. Haiku shows up in those flashes.

At times it feels like the PTSD burned through that language. When the anxiety caused by it is at a peak it feels like I am entirely cut off from any ability to think coherently, much less communicate. Being able to get any words out is a physical fight. In finally naming what left me feeling like I was broken and trying to work on it, the words no longer arrive in the spare beauty of poetry.

And yet on all sides I am being encouraged to write. My Zen teachers and community, my Hatha yoga teacher, my loved-ones, and co-workers. Tell the story of my weight loss, my realizations about myself as I study yoga, coming to a place of peace. All of is why I write a blog, trying to come up with some practice that would help me figure out how to tell whatever story decides to come up.

I feel a little at a loss as to where to start. Really all of those stories are the whole story. The free-fall of personality I experienced, was because of my weight loss. That loss of my carefully constructed personae that I defined as me left behind the stark reality of my PTSD. Peeling back the layers of the trauma leads me inexorably back to my childhood. The way out of all of these things has been the yoga and Zen practice.

I feel a sick fear at my Mother finding out what I’ve written and still managing to punish, humiliate, or at the very least make me feel guilty for embarrassing the family. There’s a voice that says that I should wait until she is dead to write about her. I guess I feel like I don’t know how to write this story because I’m still living it and most of the time lately I feel like I have no voice of accomplishment to speak from.

Yet here is my picture, printed in the newsletter next to my words. Someone from the Sangha has already emailed a compliment to me on my words, adding their voice to both CK and AM’s.

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