Better & Bolder the Blog

Spring Cleansing

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I went for a run on Friday, which was unexpectedly beautiful. The clouds were dark with the promise of rain and the cottonwoods are still bare that they stood out like black sculpture. The breaks in the clouds let in sun and bright blue. The smaller trees are already in bloom, bright green, bright pink, bright purple, bright white. So even though I was feeling a bit sluggish and slow, and my achilles was complaining, I couldn’t help but be in awe. And grateful.

I was stopped mid-run by a very nice man who asked if I’d seen the porcupine nesting in a cottonwood. I hadn’t seen it and have never seen such a thing. I didn’t even realize that porcupines climbed trees or nested in them. When I couldn’t find it at first, this man took the time to walk me over to the best vantage so I could glimpse my first porcupine. He said it’s a good time of year for spotting them. I had no idea. More awe. 

When I returned home from my run, I was inspired to work in the yard, doing some of the pruning I probably should have done in fall. I cleared away some dead branches while leaving enough of the leaves to keep the plants warm through the coming freezes; we’re still hitting the 30s each morning and if we’re lucky, we’ll get a spring snow. As I made the cuts I should have made months ago, I couldn’t help thinking: there must be a poem in here somewhere. I’m not a poet but if I were, pruning the rose bush in March would be my spring poem.

I’m on spring break, a week off from classes, though it’s not yet spring. has a countdown to spring and as I’m writing this, it’s 4 days, 19 hours, 30 minutes and 46 seconds until spring. 38 seconds. 30 seconds. 

Before sending the students off on spring break, I started my favorite essay topic of the term, Happiness. We study happiness, how people can learn to be happy people. 50% of a person’s happiness is thought to be genetic, and I’ve always figured I missed out on the happiness gene. As I discussed this on Friday, though, I realized: I’ve been feeling pretty darn happy, so happy that it’s almost as if I’ve forgotten why I know I don’t have the happy gene. I’ve been creating my happiness, one day and one (running) step at a time, until I’m not sure we can tell the difference between the basically optimistic, usually happy person born with happy genetics and me. 

One of the best ways to get happy is to be grateful. This is a Psychology Today article by Alex Korb about our brains on gratitude. Grateful people are happier, and expressing gratitude regularly, even just journaling about it, is enough to ease depression. When people were less depressed, they slept better. When they slept better, their anxiety decreased. 

Another study showed that when people were more grateful, they exercised more. I’m guessing it’s a cascade effect: gratitude, sleep, energy, confidence, movement! As Korb explains, once we start looking for things for which we’re grateful, we get a nice confirming dose of dopamine. That spurs us to keep looking for more opportunities to be grateful. It becomes what we notice -- not a dark, cold world filled with bare cottonwood trees that signify it’s still winter, but the bright leaves that show the promise of spring. 

That must be why I’m feeling pretty happy on what surely must qualify as a nutritional spring cleanse. Once I took legumes and beans from my diet, I started noticing the effect of other foods. Sometimes it was subtle, just a runny nose or a feeling as if my ears were clogged. Sometimes even more subtle, just my gut intuition telling me, nah, don’t eat that right now. Sometimes the effect was huge, like the nausea following a deeply satisfying yogurt binge, the one with my home-made almond milk, very sweet and juicy apples, goji berries, cacao nibs. Apparently, all of that is on my no fly list because I was sick for several days, feeling stuffed and bloated and stiff.

I should be a lot more upset than I am. I made a list of all the things that I’ve felt might be setting off these symptoms, and the list is huge and full of yummy, healthful foods. My sadness is mild. I hold the firm, optimistic, and happy belief that my system will settle, the allergic high-alert will ease, and once again I’ll be able to enjoy salsa, avocados, yogurt, cacao, and maybe even those beans and legumes. The list is bigger than that, too, as those are just the highlights of foods that have set off reactions, small or large. I’d rather not eat them than suffer those reactions. It’s a choice. I figure it’s temporary. I’m planning on eating those foods again in my life.

If I don’t, I’ll live. And that is kind of a big deal because at certain times of my life, really, I thought I couldn’t live without chocolate. I had to have it. Now I have to have good health and feeling good in my body. No, that’s not right. The difference I have been feeling since modifying my diet has been hugely and paramountly spiritual. I feel lighter and clearer. I feel connected. I feel happy. 

I feel grateful. I’m grateful for the kale and brown rice instead of feeling despondent that it’s not topped with salsa and guacamole. It’s just a choice.

I’ll admit a little bit of the happy also may be due to being closer to menopause and out of perimenopause, which is a roller coaster ride and I’m not fond of roller coasters. Still, the influence of my diet is clear here, too. Once I took those allergens out of my diet, the warm surges (not quite hot flashes) I’d been experiencing stopped, completely. I’m feeling hormonally, blissfully calm. It’s not all over, possibly, yet I’m also feeling much more spiritually aligned with both my age and menopause. I’m feeling okay being me now.

Several years ago, or a bunch, I don’t remember exactly, I read a blog in which a woman declared she loved her body unconditionally. This fascinated me. I am totally conditional in my love for my body. I want my body to function well and I’m not sure I’d love a body that was sick or disabled. I want my body to be at a certain weight range, and outside of that, I don’t feel the same love. So it’s been my goal, to love my body unconditionally, the way one loves a child. 

I’m getting closer. Once I got rid of the allergens in my diet, I wasn’t as bloated. I realized it was that bloat, not the weight, that had been upsetting me. I’ve been feeling good in my body, which means I’ve been feeling good about my body. The same muffin top that distressed me months ago, that made me feel old and frumpy and even embarrassed, doesn’t phase me now. It’s just my body fat, and a good body has a good amount of body fat. 

After I read that post of the beautiful blogger who had learned to love her body unconditionally, I wrote this: “all I want is to be hopeful, not stuck in the past. I want unconditional love in my relationship with my body. Less attachment, more trust.” I wrote it down in my calendar so that each month I’d read it before shifting it over to a date on the next month. 

Today, at least, I feel hopeful and unstuck, and that makes today a good day. Today I don’t feel upset about what I choose not to eat and instead feel grateful for the wisdom, experience, and detachment that helps me make those choices. I don’t feel like Crazy Food Lady. I feel like Curious Assertive Nutrition Adventurer. 

There’s one last thing, one more idea or fear to release on this spring cleanse. Be careful what we ask for as surely we’ll create the opportunity to receive. I have a core issue around food and it’s this: I hate being hungry. It makes me anxious. I don’t like the sensation. It scares me. 

I eat more than I need out of fear that later I’ll be hungry. I carry snacks with me, always, usually more than I need, just in case. This fear is old, old, old. I have always loved sweet things, and going without them and being hungry both have been in the past cause for despondency. I have rewarded myself with sweet things and also with overeating, eating until I’m full enough to hurt. That way of eating throws off the stability of my blood sugar and results in my getting hungrier, not less. I am nurturing hunger. I am feeding panic. 

On this nutritional spring cleanse, I am doing my best to listen deeply to what my body needs and wants right now. Sometimes I think I must need more animal protein, and I force feed myself. If I eat more meat, I won’t feel as hungry. It doesn’t matter whether it’s apples or turkey or chocolate. Eating something because I think that I should means I’m eating out of fear. I’m eating out of fear that I’ll be hungry and fear that I need something I’m not getting. There’s a very easy way to know what I need. I calm the hell down and ask my body, and always my body is clear about what is necessary and truly desired.

When I calm everything down, no, I don’t need or want so many nuts and seeds, so much chicken or turkey. I really do want kale, onions, radish, brown rice, and, oh, yes, please, dandelion greens. I want less food, too, less to digest, and this means I end up hungry. I end up facing my fear, by choice. 

Because I have so many foods on my no fly list right now, so many foods I’m choosing not to eat, I have been in my mind calling this a food fight. It occurred to me that fear was driving my choices. I’m afraid of a bad reaction so I’m cutting food out of my daily diet. I definitely have a bit of Crazy Food Lady in me, the part of me that wanders the internet in search of diagnoses and magic supplements. Okay, all right, I have a boatload of Crazy Food Lady in me.

The thing is, I don’t feel afraid. I feel happy. I feel curious and excited and hopeful. I feel pretty certain that sometime today or tomorrow or the next day, I’ll face my core issue again -- I’ll be hungry, maybe very hungry -- and I am not at all certain how I’ll respond.  Here’s how I responded yesterday. I told myself that I was safe. I reminded myself that being hungry is good, and my desire is good. It’s okay to desire. It’s okay to want. 

I said it a bunch until I believed it was true, at least for right then, and I calmed down. 

Sometimes it feels like a merry go round. I lose weight, I gain weight, I do it again, I eat in ways that nurture me, I eat compulsively, nurture, compulsion, lose, gain. I think I’m supposed to feel bad about this. Books tell me this isn’t healthy for my body to gain and lose this way. 

Instead of a merry go round, I envision an onion, and this process is peeling off the layers. Each time I peel, I learn a bit more and I shift my attitudes and beliefs. The journey is in service to my ultimate goal, letting go of the fear and falling wholly and unconditionally in love with being in my body. 

On the way, I practice all sorts of stupid human tricks and seduce myself with all sorts of thoughts to rationalize my behaviors, all of that along with getting a bit wiser and more compassionate. 

This time around, this layer, I’m facing fears and consciously choosing to soothe those fears with kind words. I’m guessing there will be as many days of win as there are fail. It takes a whole lot of failing at something to learn how to win. 

Yesterday was a win. It was one day in which I’d rather stop on my run to see a porcupine than to keep going. It was one day in which I felt the hunger and told myself nice things to soothe away the fear. It was one day in which I listened to my body for all my food choices rather than to the fears in my head. Yesterday I could feel spring happening for me, in the dark clouds, in the bright trees. I could feel spring in my yard, with the apple tree and wisteria tight with buds, waiting, almost ready to bloom.

Beauties and Freedoms

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Both these things are simultaneously and frustratingly true.

A . I feel good in my body, and it’s been a long while since I have. My clothes fit fine, and I feel confident in how I look. My weight is irrelevant. 

B. I step on the scale every day. In fact, I do it several times a day. I get on first thing in the morning before I eat or drink. I step again after I exercise for the thrill of seeing it go lower. I really like weighing less, and when I don’t lose, or when my weight goes up, I am a bit depressed. I know weight fluctuates as we gain and lose water as well as gain and lose weight. I know scales are imperfect measures, not only because they give us partial pictures but because they are not entirely precise and reliable mechanisms. Still, some part of my happiness hinges on a number on a scale. Despite my knowing that this number is irrelevant, I am hooked into its power. 

Sometimes I hide the scale. I put it away or I put it outside in the shed so I won’t get on it. My husband weighs himself daily now, too, so I’d need his cooperation, which would mean ‘fessing up that I have a scale problem. I could. I could say, hey, let’s do this thing weekly, like normal people. Of course, his daily weigh ins don’t matter so much to him. He’s checking on whether he’s eating too much. His weight goes up, and he cuts back the next day. Simple. 

I know for sure that given a choice between weighing less and feeling worse, I’d choose weighing more and feeling better. It’s not the weight. It’s what I eat. 

For months, and if you’ve been reading this blog you know it’s disturbingly true, I’ve felt old. I lost my mojo. Everything felt limited rather than expansive and possible. I felt puffy and saggy and depleted. I thought I was feeling the extra weight and inevitable aging. I was feeling what I was eating.

Some people, apparently, can eat whatever they like in moderate amounts. They feel good and their weight is appropriately stable. I am not one of those people. There is a huge variation in how we experience nutrition, and that variation is the result of a complex cascade of variables: our thoughts and beliefs, our genes, our personal history, what our mothers ate and did (really! there’s evidence that it’s not just genetics but epigenetics that determine our health). 

I recently read a Gretchen Reynolds article about studies that show the effects of exercise on our bodies, brains, and moods. This article explores how excess body fat results in loss of cognition. This study showed that making rats fat resulted in “poor memory and learning skills." Cutting out that fat surgically resulted in a return to previous levels of cognitive abilities. 

What scientists think happen is that excess body fat weakens the blood-brain barrier so that substances released by fat into the bloodstream - substances which cause inflammation -  can reach the brain. That inflammation may prevent healthy synapses from forming and performing, which results in slower cognition. 

Here is the amazing and cool part: exercise worked like magic, once again. The scientists took “obesity-prone mice” (I’m assuming they were altered to make them prone to put on and keep on weight). After fattening them all up, half began to run 45 minutes a day on a treadmill while the other half remained sedentary. 

Fascinating part number one: after twelve weeks, both groups were equally heavy. The additional exercise hadn’t resulted in a net weight loss. However, some of the body fat was now replaced by muscle. More importantly, the mice had lost fat from their middle. 

Best of all, their cognitive skills improved. Reynolds writes, "More telling, they did much better on cognitive tests than the sedentary mice and, when the researchers examined tissue from their hippocampi, showed little evidence of inflammation and robust levels of the chemical marker of synaptic health.”

I feel kind of bad for the mice that run every day and don’t lose weight. Bodies are amazing and individual. Apparently, we’re not all going to respond the same way to cardiovascular training.  When we look at exercise as a means to lose weight, we’re missing the big picture. Exercise is how we keep not just our bodies but also our brains healthy. 

Just like the fat, exercising mice, some of us exercise and get leaner, and some of us do not. This is not a matter of not trying hard enough or doing the right thing or having the right mindset. Those mice stayed overweight. They were healthy, possibly healthier than sedentary mice at a normal mice-weight. 

Some of us eat ice cream and feel fine. Some of us do not. Some of us eat wheat and sugar and drink coffee and feel fine. Some of us do not. Get over it. Whether you’re the feel fine folk or the don’t feel fine folk, it ain’t nobody else’s business but your own. Your experience has no relevance on another’s. 

It’s human nature to compare. It’s human nature to think, “Well, if you just did X, you’d be fine because I did X, and I’m fine.” It’s kind, even, to want others to experience what we have. 

Truthfully, I’m that way about exercise. I’m pretty darn sure everyone would be happier and healthier with daily exercise, and there’s a lot of science to back me up. However, I’ll believe you when you tell me that exercise doesn’t make you feel good. I’d suggest you be sure to give it enough time -- consistent and at least 6 weeks, though 12 is better, because that’s what science tells us -- but I’m willing to believe that even if every science experiment known to man has shown that exercise makes our brains work better and our bodies fight disease and our emotions more resilient, that may not be your experience. 

Go ahead and tell me to get off the scale. You’re right. I know you’re right. Go ahead and tell me that my weight is fine now. I know it is. You can even feel a tiny bit superior to me that you don’t have this fixation with numbers from a machine, this fixation that has the power to alter my mood. 

I haven’t shaken my desire to be at a certain weight. But here’s where I’ve gone for the win.

I don’t feel so old anymore. I don’t feel puffy and saggy. I feel 50, sure, but 50 no longer feels like I’m 2 days away from 70. That’s not because I lost weight. I didn’t have to get down to a certain magical weight. I didn’t have to return to my most “I feel fly!” weight in order to feel good. I changed what I was eating because what I was eating was making me feel terrible and now what I eat makes me feel good. 

When I changed what I was eating, the results were magical. My spirit lifted. My sense of self strengthened. 

I still am working my way back to my best possible health and I’m not there yet. I need lots of rest and I don’t always have the energy to focus. Until today, for instance, I hadn’t written a blog post in weeks. I’ve got bills and taxes and a bunch of those little chores waiting for me and each day, I just can’t quite rally to focus on them. So I know I’m not my most vibrant yet. That’s okay. I’m at home in my body again. I’m myself. 

I look at my body and feel good.  You know, I envy a hard, tight body with rippling abs and long limbs. I could take 20 pounds off my frame and not look like those pictures of those athletes. I’m guessing those athletes don’t always look like their pictures either. I can live with my envy. I can appreciate what I’ve got and enjoy it even as I feel desire and envy when I see bodies that I believe are more beautiful than mine. This is the crux: other bodies are more beautiful than mine and that doesn’t stop my body from being beautiful. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.

I feel good in my body. This for me is the ultimate. I would not trade this for anything, not even a long-limbed, rippling abs, total athlete body. Not for youth, either, though sometimes I’m still jealous. That’s okay, too. I’m starting to appreciate being 50 a bit more, with its particular challenges and heartaches and its particular beauties and freedoms.