It would have been so easy to skip taekwondo class last night. I’d had a long but productive and satisfying day at work (complete with key lime pie from the break room fridge) and was ready to relax and turn off my brain. It’s been cold and rainy for the last week, which is to be expected for February, but as a native Texan I just can’t abide anything below 60 degrees and didn’t want to get out into the “bad weather” any more than I had to. My Netflix queue is bursting at the seems. The bottle of wine I was saving for Thursday evening was softly calling my name.
I’d already missed a week of taekwondo due to a busy work schedule, and as I discovered at the end of last year, it was seductively easy to fill my time with other activities.
But instead I went to class.
I knew I’d made the right decision after about twenty minutes of practicing forms before my class began. I was just beginning the last black belt form I learned (the rarely practiced and even more rarely discussed Nopei) when I felt some sense of release and ease. Ahhh. I was in my element. I had finally shaken off my professional and personal responsibilities for the evening. My corporate persona had dissipated. I was in BLACK BELT MODE.
I spent the rest of the hour doing speed drills, practicing advanced kicks with my fellow black belts, and did some leg conditioning, which my heart thanked me for and my still-aching (but protectively braced) right knee grudgingly accepted. I caught myself smiling as I wiped the sweat from my face and panted for breath. I was having fun!
A simple decision topped off an already good day and helped me remember why I got back into this martial arts game in the first place. Confidence and athleticism aside, taekwondo makes me feel freaking amazing, both physically and mentally.
You can tell when someone is in their element. My mom loves to knit, my dad is a painter, and my brother is a musician. They’re all very talented, but “being good at it” isn’t why they do it. Sometimes they don’t care what the outcome is; they just want to DO it. That’s how taekwondo feels for me. I just want to DO IT, no matter what. I am in my most heightened physical, mental, and emotional state when I am practicing taekwondo.
What puts you in the zone? What makes you feel most present and alive? What is that thing? If you don’t have it, look for it. Read a book, try out a new hobby, drag your ass to the gym, find some peace and quiet or a place that heightens your senses.
After twenty-five years of disordered eating and a poor body image I think I can finally, ultimately, safely say…I’m over it…for the most part, anyway. I’ve had a few false starts before, but something would trigger me, and I’d go right back to restricting or overeating, obsessively weighing myself, and glaring at my reflection with dismay as I pawed at my flabbier (and much despised) body parts and somehow hoping something had changed overnight.
I got pretty stressed out this year, as did everyone else since we all know 2016 has been a shitstorm. When I get stressed out, I turn inward and become more self-destructive. Anger and anxiety about what was going on around me morphed into self-loathing and hyper-criticism. I turned to comfort foods and would then punish myself with restriction. I hadn’t forgiven myself for putting on a few pounds since my black belt test last fall. I further isolated myself so I could spend more time at the gym but got antsy and depressed when I missed a workout. I told no one. There was no point. No one has ever believed me when I complained about my body, and many have been annoyed and flippant with me on the subject, so I learned long ago to deal with this problem alone.
At one point I was finally so tired I couldn’t take it anymore and willed myself to be grateful instead of hateful. I’m too old to still be dealing with this crap. I’m an adult with a job and a mortgage. I will turn forty in a few short years. Why am I still wasting my time and energy on something that has haunted me since I was thirteen years old? Why am I letting it ruin my life? I turned to sports to help boost my body confidence.
Every time my eyes (or thoughts) drifted to the parts I didn’t like I would remind myself of how badass my body was: Look at you doing box jumps like a ninja! You just swam 1.5 miles and you still aren’t tired! You can do more push-ups than the teenage boys in taekwondo class, Black Belt! You are standing on your toes and doing leg lifts in ballet barre class like a boss, and look at how strong and graceful you are! You. Kick. Ass. If I can do all those things despite my soft middle or cellulite-studded thighs then I must be doing something right.
I realize I may be using my athleticism as a crutch. Taekwondo has helped immensely in improving my confidence and overall happiness level, but it’s not a magic bullet. If I weren’t fit or had sports as an outlet I’m not sure I could just be with my body and accept it. I don’t know if I could love myself in a larger body, and I have thoroughly convinced myself that no one else would either. I try to remind myself that when I am sick or injured or just plain really old I’ll probably give anything to have back the body I have right now. (Whatever, I’mma still be kicking ass at ninety.)
Body acceptance (or lack thereof) aside, there’s nothing wrong with exercise and in fact, in my opinion, exercise is crucial to staying healthy mentally and physically. Bodies are meant to move whether it’s running a marathon or simply walking. Movement keeps the body healthy and functioning. I’m at the point where I don’t exercise to try to lose weight anymore. I just happen to like it, and I really do prefer exercise over shopping, watching TV, or other activities. That endorphin high can’t be beat. I have fun when I work out, and I only do sports that I enjoy. I’d still swim, do taekwondo, and go to my ballet barre class if there were no health benefits. To me exercising is like recess for grownups, whether it comes from a healthy mental motivation or not.
Appreciating my body for its athleticism helped me, but what really gave me the final push was, of all things, a Mario Puzo novel. During the Thanksgiving break I read a copy of “The Fortunate Pilgrim,” a story of a family of Italian immigrants living in New York in the late 1920s. I had picked it up out of curiosity after hearing director Francis Ford Coppola mention it in an interview. Coppola worked with Puzo to adapt his most famous novel “The Godfather” into the movie we know and love today.
I was especially interested in the book because my maternal great-grandparents came to the United States from southern Italy around the turn of the 20th century. I’ve always been curious about their experience and thought Puzo’s novel might give me a little insight into what their daily lives in America might have been like.
“The Fortunate Pilgrim” wasn’t the easiest book to read. It had a good storyline, but the dialogue was very stilted. Chapters were bloated with sentences like, “Today you are not going to your beautiful school!” or “He gave us our bread. He protected us all when no one but Zia Louche would even spit on our doorstep.” Who talks like that? What’s with the formality? Was it because English was their second language? Imagine if the entire “Godfather” movie was filled with stiff lines like, “And you come to me on this, the day of my daughter’s wedding, to ask of me a favor.” No…just…no. And if I had to read one more sentence about a man having to earn his “bread.” Ugh.
Cardboard-y dialogue aside, what really caught my attention was the food. The main characters were poor so they ate simple but hearty fare: homemade pasta, eggs, beans, leafy greens, freshly grated cheese, a cherished piece of fruit, bread slathered with olive oil and vinegar. I wanted that food. I craved it. That’s typically how I cook anyway, meaning, I can make marinara sauce in my sleep but I still don’t know my way around a good stir fry or platter of enchiladas, nor do I care to try. I cook everything in olive oil. I’ve been known to toss an egg or a half can of beans in a bowl of pasta and call it lunch. Hell, I even put olive oil on my SKIN at night. So I decided to eschew peanut butter sandwiches, frozen food, and my weekly pan of boring roasted vegetables for something a little closer to home.
Gnocchi to the Rescue
The Tuesday after Thanksgiving I spent over an hour at home preparing potato gnocchi after I got home from work. I hadn’t made gnocchi in years, and when I had made it I usually took short cuts like substituting a blob of ricotta cheese for the potatoes. This time I went old school. I had peeled, boiled, and mashed the potatoes a day or two before, and when I was ready to make the dough I plopped an egg into the center of the potatoes, added a cup of flour, and got to work. Eventually I got into a meditative rhythm kneading the dough, rolling it into ropes, and rolling the individual pieces with my finger, just like my grandma (daughter of the aforementioned immigrants) had taught me to do. I didn’t have the TV on for background noise. I didn’t even listen to the radio. I was completely in the moment. Just me and my gnocchi. I was very proud of my work.
After my gnocchi triumph I began to incorporate simple but delicious Italian-inspired food into my daily meals: fettuccine with butter and hot peppers, farfalle with asparagus and olives, fresh fennel and escarole with oil and vinegar for my side salads, small squares of fresh pecorino and mozzarella cheese nestled in my refrigerator. If I was in a hurry to make my lunch for work I would boil a cup of quick-cooking brown rice pasta and toss in sun dried tomatoes, oily roasted red peppers, and artichoke hearts. I excitedly dug into my Mario Battali cookbooks and frequently updated my half-Italian mom on what I was making. After Christmas I plan on making lasagna with homemade marinara sauce, and for New Year’s I’ll make (or attempt to anyway) ravioli al uovo, or ravioli with egg….yuummm.
Something about being away from my daily routine during the Thanksgiving break kick started something in me. I just ate when I was hungry and didn’t put much thought into food other than when I was daydreaming about a recipe I wanted to try. Sometimes I used whole wheat or alternative grain pasta, but much of it has been the good old-fashioned white flour kind. It’s not like I ate big ridiculous Olive Garden-sized bowls of pasta covered in obscene amounts of piping hot cheese. The more love, care, work, and pride I put into my meals made me slow down, appreciate, and feel satiated with the food in front of me, even in smaller portions.
I let myself eat sweets when I felt like it–turns out I didn’t feel like it all the time. I kept a stash of peanut butter crackers in my drawer at work when I needed a snack, and I’m still making my way through the package. I didn’t save up for a “cheat day” that would inevitably morph into a “cheat weekend.” I stopped cringing and feeling resentful when I felt full. I just ate, no strings or meanings attached. I envy people who have always eaten that way.
And what do you know…I stopped glaring at myself or frantically looking for a minuscule change in the mirror every time I passed by. I continued with my fun playtime sports, ate my pasta, and enjoyed them both immensely. To my surprise (and bewilderment) I noticed I was looking leaner, and after a few weeks of hiding the scale in my closet, I discovered I even lost a few pounds. I realized that I just wanted to be happy, and wasting my time obsessing over my body and all its made-up flaws was going to hold me back even further. I don’t care anymore. I can’t care anymore.
I’m not out of the woods yet. The void of body image troubles has been filled by the realization that a sense of contentment and optimism I’d had for a while has been sneakily replaced by an overall sense of unease, emptiness, and unhappiness, as I’ve hinted at in some of my other blog posts. Or maybe my mind is just whirling like an endless roulette wheel, looking for something to criticize or hate, and it’s panicking that the opportunity is dwindling. It’s not quite sure what to do with this newfound freedom.
Either way, I’m glad to have this weight (no pun intended) off my shoulders.
My brother’s dog has been so depressed since I left after a weekend visit that he won’t eat and had to sleep in bed with my brother and his wife. They said they’ve never seen him so despondent before.
Either that little dog has a pretty smooth racket going or we are witnessing grief in its simplest and most innocent form.
Unless we are unbelievably fortunate or are hermits we have all experienced loss—the loss of a job, of a friendship, of an opportunity, of a romantic relationship, some of us have lost our minds, and most of us have witnessed the loss of life. I’ve recently experienced a major loss in my life. At first I was like my brother’s little dog—I couldn’t eat or sleep and I wandered aimlessly around the house looking for a ghost who had long disappeared. After getting through the initial stages of grief I seem to be at the stage that’s not as glamorous as denial or anger:
The “now what?” stage is that moment of clarity: well, X happened, and I’m still here so…now what? Experiencing a loss doesn’t mean you have to immediately fill that void with something else that will superficially cover up the pain. In fact, I recommend giving the void some breathing room. Let it be and see what happens. Then look around and see what else is already in your life that you haven’t been to experience something fully. Or, you know, do what I did and begin an intense contact sport.
A few years ago I’d emotionally hit rock bottom and decided to go back to taekwondo after a twenty year hiatus. For years I had focused on the loss or lack in my life and was blind to all the wonderful things I did have. The emotional pain was still there even as I mastered low block, middle punch, and roundhouse kick, but as it dissipated I knew I had gained something special. I still can’t put my finger on it, but it broke me of the habit of dumping all the responsibility of self-worth and validation on another person. I know I have more confidence, a better sense of priorities, and…OK, well, I also love the way my lower ab muscles pop out. Taekwondo opened my eyes. I gained the Me that had been buried for decades under decay and darkness.
Taekwondo was there long before I experienced my recent loss and will be here long after the pain has lessened. It’s a great source of comfort—I’m learning something new, I have a goal to focus on, there’s never a lack of endorphins, I’m out and around people–which is a nice break from being in my introverted head all the time, and we laugh a lot more than you’d think in martial arts classes.
Yesterday during class I felt a little tug—the sense of community that I have shrugged off my entire life. The sense that even though the ache of grief and loss is still there, it is surrounded by something positive that I love to do and embraced by people who care about me….and who also won’t think twice of kicking the crap out of me or throwing me on the floor. We’re weird like that.
If you are grieving for a loss and don’t know what to do…let it be. It’s here and it’s terrible, but you’re still standing too. You might not be able to erase the pain, but you can gain new insights and ways of experiencing joy that you might have overlooked before. The answer to “now what?” is “anything you want!” Fight back by continuing to live.
Happy update: my brother reported that his little dog’s spirits are back up again. I almost felt bad for even visiting and letting him get attached to me since my absence caused him so much pain. But my little puppy “nephew” was just experiencing what anyone (or any animal) who is capable of loving is bound to experience: loss. It’s encouraging to know that after experiencing loss and grief there is love, hope, and happiness around the corner.