Fit, Fearless and Fifty
Fit, Fearless and Fifty
I recently read and reread Gabrielle Bernstein's book "The Universe Has Your Back". Or to be honest, I "listened" to it over and over again on my long commute to and from work each day.
The suggestion to read "The Universe Has Your Back" came to me after I wrote a heartfelt, angst-ridden post on Facebook. In my post, I admitted to the Facebook world that I was struggling. It was early September or late August - I don't remember. I had just finished my 9th summer working at Appel Farm's residential summer camp. This summer had been my hardest summer yet for many reasons. I was consumed by overwhelming feelings of uncertainty; I reached out for help via a Facebook post and the universe answered with the recommendation of a book.
The premise of Bernstein's book is that if you make the shift from fear to faith, you will feel a sense of power in a world hellbent on making you feel powerless. I took the lessons of her book to heart and especially connected with the Kundalini meditation, "Satnam", where you repeat the sounds "sa - ta - na - ma" while pressing your thumb to your other four fingers. Practicing this meditation settled my mind and gave me a feeling of peace. Once my mind settled, I was able to examine what it was about this past summer that had made me feel just so powerless.
Camp is hard. You are working around the clock in an emotionally charged environment. As an empathetic person and a mom, I care deeply for the campers who are in my charge. I was, and am, especially good with helping homesick kids and their parents. But dealing with homesickness is draining and tough; your camper's needs come first - above your own needs and even above the needs of your own children. During camp, the needs of my kids, took a backseat to the needs of other people's kids.
I was also taking care of counselors who are not much older than my own kids. This summer, one of my counselors developed a seizure disorder. This was my first experience directly dealing with epilepsy. One night, I was woken out of a deep sleep by her co-counselor. She was having a seizure in the bunk while her campers slept. I went to her and held her through multiple seizures as we waited for the ambulance to arrive.
This evening was especially hard on me: my own child had literally just been diagnosed that week with epilepsy. They were at home with my ex-husband, their father, and I was an hour and a half away, worried sick, feeling powerless, consumed with mom guilt. Who was going to make sure my child was safe when they had a seizure in the middle of the night? Here I was helping someone else's child and I couldn't even help my own.
Mom guilt is real.
Apparently, my child has had epilepsy for quite some time. We just thought they were careless - a space cadet, a child who had their head in the clouds.
One time, they fell off the toilet for no reason when they were too old to fall off the toilet for no reason. Another time, they inexplicably stepped out onto a road and were hit by a car and had to go to the ER. One summer, while riding their bike at the beach, they unknowingly drifted directly into their grandfather's path who was riding by their side, resulting in another trip to the emergency room. This past spring, they walked into graduation and got lost and fell out of line as soon as they entered the auditorium. Throughout school, teachers would complain that they weren't paying attention in class. I would take the teachers' side and wonder, what was wrong with my child? Were they ever going to grow up?
Putting a counselor into my care who was suffering from the same disorder as my child was no coincidence. At the time, it made me feel frightened, overwhelmed and stressed out. But really the universe was showing me that it had my back. It made me confront my own fears about what a diagnosis of epilepsy means and it made me realize how important it is to be there to take care of those that you love the most. The universe knocked me down this summer, hit me on the head and opened me up to the realization that it was time for me to leave Appel Farm - a career move I previously had never entertained. My daily 3+ hour commute was no longer tenable. I needed to be closer to home.
In Bernstein's book, she talks about the importance of recognizing signs. One night I was dining outdoors. when I turned my head to see a squirrel directly behind me with a huge nut in its mouth. I decided that a squirrel with a nut in its mouth was my sign - reassuring me that I am on the right path, that everything is going to be okay, reminding me that the universe has my back. (Of course, it helps that it is autumn and there are a plethora of squirrels running around with nuts in their mouths. I may have just as well chosen leaves falling from trees as my sign!).
On my first day off after quitting my job at Appel Farm, I was greeted by my sign, right outside my window.
From the time we babies are plopped down in front of a TV screen or are handed a cell phone to occupy our curious minds, we are bombarded with images of what an ideal woman looks and acts like. As a young girl growing up in the 1980's, I remember clearly the images of prepubescent Brooke Shields sexualized in ads for Calvin Klein Jeans. She was absolutely stunning: thin, willowy, seductive. The message was clear - women are put on this earth to attract men - whatever it takes: we must starve ourselves to appear virginal and untapped. These ads were not meant for the women and girls who would be wearing these jeans - these ads were targeted at the men who would subversively tell us by their words and actions that this was the only acceptable ideal of female beauty.
I am around the same age as Christine Blasey Ford - the woman who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault last month when they were both teenagers. These images of Brooke Shields selling Calvin Klein Jeans were also ads they both saw while coming of age. I cannot blame these ads on that assault, but the portrayal of women in advertising is certainly to blame for societies skewed image of women and as a consequence, for the actions of men who behave badly towards women.
This representation of woman seen through the eyes of men has been going on since the beginning of time. During the Ukiyo-e period of art in Japan (1600 to the late 1800s), feminine beauty was idealized in wood block prints of gorgeous, pristine women dressed in the height of fashion. Ukiyo-e prints are one of the first examples of the use of the idealized women in advertising: these prints were used to sell cosmetics, especially white face powder, lip rouge and black paint for darkening eyebrows and the teeth of married women (why not just put them out to pasture and shoot them?)
When our consumer culture took off in the 1920s, so did our use of images of women to sell products. In 1928, Betty Crocker was introduced to American women to advertise instant cake mix. She was represented as demure, motherly, and soft. Over the years, the image of Betty has evolved: Betty is now a modern, working woman, raising a family while working full time and doing it all, with a smile on her face and not a hair out of place. Betty was definitely the precursor to Martha Stewart - another impossible feminine ideal.
One of the earliest and most iconic working woman to be portrayed in advertising was Rosie the Riveter. Rosie was used in 1942 as wartime propaganda aimed at recruiting women to work in the defense industries during WWII. These ads encouraged women to not only work, but also to be glamorous on the job while keeping a lovely home and being a good mother. After the war, advertising turned its back once again on the working woman: an ad by Adel Percision Corp portrayed a child asking, "Mother, when will you stay home again?" Working mothers never win.
The National Organization for Women was formed in the 1960's. In its efforts to eliminate gender-based stereotypes in media, NOW created the "Barefoot and Pregnant" Award, issued annually, tongue-in-cheek to persons in the community who had done the most to "perpetuate outmoded images of women and who have refused to recognize that women are, in fact, human beings."
I wish I could say that the Barefoot and Pregnant award was a turning point for the use of female stereotypes and unrealistic, misogynist ideals of women in advertising. It wasn't: examples persist throughout the decades since. Enjoli Prefume Ads in the 1980's used sexy yet capable, working women to sell their perfume. Women could not only "bring home the bacon", they could "fry it up in a pan" while never letting "you forget your a man". Kate Moss's heroin chic look for Calvin Klein in the 1990's helped make anorexia an epidemic.
In 1993, A young Meghan Markle (see video here) protested Proctor and Gamble ads that made it seem like only women did the dishes. As part of a social studies assignment, she and her classmates were asked to evaluate messages in advertisements. Of the P&G ad, she said, “I don’t think it’s right for kids to grow up thinking that mom does everything." Markle wrote to Proctor & Gamble asking them to change the wording of the commercial to "people all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans" and much to her surprise, they complied.
Her protest and P&G's response were a step in the right direction, but women are still leading impossible lives - held to unreachable, impossible standards by the media. Yes, we may be closing the gender pay gap and shedding light on sexual harassment. But, there is still a price to pay for "bringing home the bacon". We can have everything as long as we, like Rosie the Riveter, look great, keep our homes clean and raise perfect children. Nothing has really changed.
Just last year, Mr. Clean celebrated Mother's Day by shaming women into getting back to what is most important in life: keeping their homes clean. And just last month, United States senators sent a clear message to women - keep your mouth shut. Boys will be boys.
When I get something in my head, I have to do it. No matter what. If it passes through my brain, and gets lodged for even a second, I am done. I have to do it. This may seem a bit obsessive compulsive (it probably is). When the thought of running the 10 mile Broad Street Run passed through my mind, I knew I was done and I was slightly pissed off. Now, I was going to have to carve out hours to train in an already too-tightly-packed schedule. I was going to have to confront the boredom that is a long distance run. I was going to have to sweat. A LOT.
The longest run I had ever done up until that point was 6 miles and mostly, I ran 3 or 4 miles at a time, a few times a week. My training plan was to add one extra mile per week. All was good until I reached 7 miles. I never had any residual pain from running, but at 7 miles, my body started to complain LOUDLY. My muscles ached, my back and hips hurt and my knees felt like they were going to give out whenever I tried to climb a flight of stairs. After my long run every week, I headed straight for bed and would spend the afternoon recuperating in front of the television, making my boyfriend, Patrick, wait on me hand and foot. "Patrick, can you please get me some acetaminophen? How about a glass of wine? Dinner in bed?"
It took me 2 full days to recover. I started to reconsider. Was the goal of running the Broad Street Run worth spending two days doing absolutely nothing worthwhile in bed? And I began to worry - was I on my way to a hip or knee replacement?
Before giving up, I decided to try Plexus's Ease for my aches and pains and their 96 Protein Powder to help build muscle. I had my doubts - if acetaminophen with a wine chaser did absolutely nothing to relieve my pain, why would Ease work? I was literally amazed at the results. Ease and the 96 Protein Powder eliminated my pain COMPLETELY! I could not believe how good I felt after running for 2 hours. I would take an Ease capsule before my long runs and one after. I drank a 96 Protein Shake after each run as well. (Ease contains New Zealand Green Lipped Mussel. New Zealand’s indigenous Maoris have traditionally eaten these mussels, which are packed full of nutrients that help our bodies in so many ways including reducing inflammation and strengthening joint cartlilage. Protein Powder aids in the repair of torn muscle and helps build lean muscle.)
I 100% believe that I would never have been able to run the 10 miles of the Broad Street Run if I had not started using Ease and 96. They were an absolute game changer and were integral in my reaching my long distance running goal.
So now that I have run 10 miles, maybe I should train for a half marathon? Dammit! Did I really just think that and put it down in writing? You know what that means. Now I have to do it - I have no choice.
My ex-husband, Louis, and I adopted our daughter, Chloe, from China when she was 10 months old. Louis fell in love with her immediately. However, when the Chinese adoption officials placed her in my arms,I did not feel the same degree of love that I had felt four years before when the nurses laid my sleepy first born son on my chest. I felt a responsibility to take care of her like you would a puppy or kitten, I thought, "there must be something wrong with me", until the night, I literally felt my love for her bloom inside my chest.
This is how it happened. One evening, after dinner, I took Chloe for a walk by myself. I was feeling overwhelmed, sad and homesick and couldn't bear one more night hanging out in our lonely hotel room. I loaded her into a front baby carrier, facing out, and set off on a walk through the hilly neighborhoods of Chongquing. Her tiny bare feet kick-drummed my hip bones and she kept up a constant babbling dialogue with herself and every passersby who stopped to ask in broken English "Is it a boy or girl?" and "What is her name?" I would mispronounce "nu" (female in Mandarin) and her Chinese name, "Aihua". My reply would always elicit a huge smile and nod and they would reach out to still her kicking feet, saying "ni hao Aihua". I could feel my heart with each interaction grow one additional size. By the time I walked back into the hotel lobby that night, my love for her was as strong as any mother's love could be.
In Chinese, Aihua means "love flower". This name fits Chloe to a "T". She is full of love, kindness and joie de vivre and with her dark brown hair, doe-shaped eyes and tea-stained skin (the opposite of my freckled complexion), she is more beautiful than any flower. Unfortunately, her beauty is marred by painful, red, itchy patches of inflamed skin - Chloe has been plagued by chronic eczema since almost the moment we stepped off the plane in America. Her eczema keeps her awake at night, forces her to wear socks on her hands to keep from scratching in her sleep, and makes her dress in long sleeves and pants in even the hottest weather in order to hide her red and irritated skin from the world.
I have no idea what it feels like to have eczema. I know it drives her mad. Recently, I showed her a news article I had found that told the tragic story of a girl in China who killed her parents and blamed it on her eczema. I jokingly showed Chloe the article, asking, "you would never do this to us, would you?" To which she replied, "I don't know. Would I?". Did I mention she's funny?
Chloe has tried every sensitive skin lotion available. She has fallen asleep wearing long tube socks, dampened with water on her arms to hydrate her skin overnight. She has taken antihistamines and has used cortizone cream and antibiotic lotion. She has smeared the inside of an aloe plant all over her skin. She takes a nightly shower before bed to rinse away environmental allergens. One doctor inexplicably recommended bleach baths. This did not heal her eczema, though it did keep my tub shiny clean! Her bedroom door is always closed so her room is cat-free and we wash our clothes with detergent that has no artificial colors or scents. Nothing really has helped.
This past year, we finally found an allergist who correctly diagnosed her condition. She has an oral allergy syndrome where proteins in specific fruits, vegetables and tree nuts cause a cross reaction,and she has an over growth of yeast in her gut. Chloe had to change her diet. No more common fruits such as apples, nectarines or plums, no more hazelnuts or almonds, and she had to limit her sugar and gluten intake and other foods that feed yeast.
She started taking a daily probiotic (She takes Plexus's Probio 5) to combat the yeast in her gut and Vitamin D which reduces inflammation and strengthens skin barriers.
The combination of her new diet, Probio5 and Vitamin D have finally worked! When she cheats on her diet, or forgets to take her Vitamin D and/or Probio5, she immediately suffers the results. When on her diet, her skin is clear and itch free. It is almost miraculous how much this new diet has helped. She also uses Plexus Body Cream which has activated charcoal. Unlike a lot of lotions made for eczema, it doesn't contain colloidal oatmeal which she is extremely allergic to.
She sleeps much better at night, without an annoying itch keeping her awake. And so do I - the news story about the girl driven to murder by eczema is now only a distant memory Thank God.
Kids watch everything their parents do; so, for a mom, dieting and weight loss is tricky. We want to show our children good diet and exercise habits, but unfortunately, in our culture, thin = beautiful = self worth.
When I was growing up in the 70's, my mom was always dieting. She could never quite lose that last 10 lbs of the weight that she had gained from giving birth to 7 babies. Her exercise consisted of endless housework, gardening and nightly walks. She was not an extreme dieter and even when she was trying her hardest, her diet always included a handful of potato chips and a light beer while watching Primetime TV. But she talked about it constantly and so at a very young age, maybe 9?, I began to diet.
My dieting was crazy - I ate so little that I became light headed and faint. One scrambled egg for breakfast, a bun-less, boiled, hot dog for lunch, and a handful of grapes for snack. (My cooking skills were primitive.) I never drank any water - I was used to the hi-c we had in constant stock in the fridge. Water was just too plain by comparison. By dinner time, I was starving and dehydrated. We had a large family of 8 people and so portions were always small and there were rarely seconds. I took great pleasure in being svelte and when my friends and I would try on each other's pants to see who was the thinnest, I was usually in the top 2. (Yes, we actually did this as a fun party game. Kids are weird.)
Through my teens, twenties and thirties, I maintained a healthy weight that didn't fluctuate much until I became pregnant at age 33. I am petite (just over 5' tall); I put on 35 lbs, which was a lot for my frame. I would close my eyes when stepping on the scale at my OB-GYNs' and ask the nurse not to tell me my weight. If she slipped up and revealed my weight, I would cry. My OB-GYN was a sweet, unhealthy, overweight man in his early 70's who obviously smoked. (I know this because he would always be delayed examining me - a smoking break I presumed. When he finally bustled into the room, I could smell the cold winter air and cigarette smoke on his white doctor's jacket.) He was a sweetheart though and despite my weight gain, he always remarked at how wonderful I looked and how great I was doing on the weight gain front.
I breastfed and exercised and before long, I was back to or near my pre-baby weight. I kept it off until I was 47 when I put on 30 lbs. I was in a new and happy relationship with a person who is 12" taller than me and able to consume at least double the amount of calories. When he suggested going out for a meal and drinks, with appetizers and dessert, I was all for it. Actually, we both put on weight - I started to tell myself the story, that it was okay, that we were happy and fat together. That maybe I was not fat, but voluptuous, and that was OK.
But it wasn't okay. I hated my reflection in the mirror and my fat face in pictures. My normal resting stance became me with my arms crossed just below my breasts, using the ledge of my stomach as an armrest. My clothes no longer fit and I went up a size (or two).
I am going to really vulnerable here and share with you this video to show you just how "voluptuous" I was. This was a video of our Bunk Head Team in 2013 performing our version of the Bella's finale from Pitch Perfect. If I need to point myself out, I am the one making the dreadful mistake of wearing white jeans. The only thing that makes this video ok are the appreciative cheers from the audience of 200 campers and the fact that I had the guts to get up on stage and do it despite my lack of dancing and singing ability. Do not judge!
Bella's Finale, Bunk Team 2013.
Everything changed one Sunday morning (unbelievably months after I saw this video I might add!) when I woke up early, poured myself a cup of coffee and turned on the TV. One of my guilty pleasures is starting the day watching the Today Show or Good Morning America - whichever one has the better guests. This particular morning, the guest on the Today Show was a nutritionist. What she said about weight loss made complete common sense, but up until that particular moment, I was not ready to hear it. Simply said, the only way to really lose weight and keep it off was to keep track of calories in and calories out (what you eat and how much you exercise). And most importantly she recommended a phone app to help keep track of your calories - "Lose It". I immediately downloaded this app, added my current weight, my goal weight and my weight loss target date. "Lose It" gave me a daily calorie limit and an organized way to keep track of caloric intake and activity. That February morning was the first day of my weight loss journey.
By October of that year, I had lost 32 lbs and weighed less than I had even on my wedding day which had been my previous low. I was exercising more, eating better and feeling much more healthy. If you haven't tried "Lose It", you should.
About two months ago, I realized that I had gained back 10 of the 30 lbs I had lost. I had stopped using "Lose It" and I was purposefully increasing my protein intake to build muscle while training for a 10 mile race. My clothes still fit but just barely; weight gain is a slippery slope - it was time to go on another diet. Unfortunately, I am 5 years older and my metabolism is slower. (Actually, I am going to stop myself here. It is convenient to blame the inability to lose weight on a slowing metabolism. I think we have trouble losing weight as we age because of bad eating habits that are hard to shake and because of sedentary lifestyles.) For whatever the reason, losing weight was not as easy this time around.
I was already taking Plexus's Triplex to regulate my blood sugar and balance my gut health and "96" to build muscle with great results. I felt stronger, I had more energy, I was running 10 miles, my digestion was improved and most importantly, I felt happier. I knew some people who had lost weight drinking Slim Hunger Control so I decided to try it. I also added a Lean meal replacement shake every day. And I started logging my calories religiously on Lose It.
Within 4 weeks of drinking Slim HC and Lean, I lost 5 lbs. By week 7, I had lost 7 lbs. I drink Slim HC around 4 or 5 o'clock everyday when I am about to head home from work. This is the time of day that I usually start getting hungry and when snacking seems like the answer. Slim HC tides me over until dinner. It is all natural, non-GMO, vegan, and tastes delicious. It contains polydextrose which plumps up your stomach lining, making you feel less hungry. I drink Lean for breakfast (also all natural, non-GMO and vegan). I blend it in a portable shaker bottle and drink it on my 1 1/2 commute to work.
In addition to these products, I cannot recommend the Lose It app enough! Recording my calories daily holds me accountable. I absolutely dread exceeding my calorie intake for the day. When I meet it or come in below, I celebrate this achievement on a daily basis.
Losing weight is hard. Especially at first when you are building new eating habits and eating way below your normal caloric intake. You are hungry literally all time! Lean and Slim HC help me cheat the system. They are both low calorie alternatives to snacks and meals and they taste just sweet enough to satisfy my cravings for sugar.
Losing weight does get easier, especially when you start to see results.
Here are my weight loss tips:
The story of Fit, Fearless and Fifty is my evolving story of self-discovery, personal growth, reflection, and prioritizing health and well-being. Along the way, I will have to face my fears - my fear of being found out, my fear of not being good enough, smart enough, or pretty enough/thin enough and my fear of being too old. And in the end, the lessons of my childhood - lessons of alcoholism, turmoil and never having enough money - will have to finally stop making me forever a perpetual low-wage earner and under-achiever.
My story of course begins 52 years ago, but for the purposes of this chapter of my life, I will start my story the day my friend Cori gave me a sample of "the pink drink" Slim. Cori had just had a baby and when she returned to work after maternity leave (did I mention she was my boss?), I could see that she was overwhelmed and exhausted. At the urging of her friend, Darci, Cori started using Plexus's Triplex which includes Slim. Triplex targets gut health and since a significant percentage of seratonin originates in the gut, it helps with mood and energy. Cori was happier and less anxious, she had more energy, and she shed her pregnancy weight fast. At least this is what she told me when she gave me a sample to try. I was skeptical. The weight loss was obvious - she looked great. But the rest? I loved the way it tasted, but did I want to spend money on some possibly-a-placebo pink drink? My frugality won out and I decided "no" and didn't give it another thought for another year.
But then, a year later, this past fall, I found myself feeling even more overwhelmed and exhausted than usual. I was working long hours, not really making ends meet at a non-profit job that fulfills me, with co-workers and an executive director who support me, but includes a one and a half hour commute to and from work every day, each way, I struggled to keep my eyes open on the long drive. Sometimes, I even thought it would be easier to just fall asleep and drive off the road I was so tired and stressed out. Instead, I would pull over, close my eyes for 5 minutes, wake up and continue on my way. Most mornings, I left the house at 7am and got home at 8pm after picking my kids up from work or swimming practice. I would make dinner and by the time I finished cleaning up, it was well past 9pm.
I was 51 with a senior in high school (Jacob) and an 8th grader (Chloe). My kids were growing up and becoming more independent. I missed them. This year was particularly hard in that regard. Jacob had a job and when he wasn't working or at school, he was out with his friends. Chloe was also developing a social life and when she was home, she was holed up in her room, texting her friends. With my busy schedule, I felt like I never saw them. I missed their physical presence by my side as my constant companions. I would drive by playgrounds where we used to spend our afternoons and choke back tears. I can't even write this paragraph really without welling up it is so painful to think back on how unhappy I was. I found myself crying A LOT. And I had gained back 10 of the 30 lbs I had worked so hard to lose just 3 years earlier.
I hate to admit this, and I actually lied to my doctor during my annual check up, but I am pre-menopausal which may account, now that I think about it, for a great deal of my angst. I have night sweats, mood swings, teary outbursts and hairs popping out on my chin.
I decided to seriously give the Pink Drink a try. If it helped Cori, maybe it could help me? I reached out to Cori and enrolled as an Ambassador so that I could buy the products at wholesale. (As I mentioned before, I am frugal and had no intention of actually selling the products.) I started taking Triplex religiously.
I suffer from anxiety and depression and have been on Prozac for 15 years. Prozac levels me out - "changes the subject" in my brain so that I don't obsess and worry so much. The addition of Plexus's Triplex took my anxiety and depression relief to the next level. I began to feel more optimistic and happier. I had more energy - I was no longer falling asleep at the wheel during my daily 3 hour+ commute. And I was pooping like a champ. (I always held stress in my stomach, hence the saying, "I have a gut feeling", and constipation was a way of life for me. But not anymore.)
The night sweats are also a thing of the past. I actually didn't lie to my doctor about pre-menopause. I simply forgot because I no longer have any of the symptoms he named when he asked.
In June, I traveled to a Plexus convention in Orlando, Florida, for 2 reasons: 1) to see if I wanted to become one of the women who I was hearing about who were not only changing their lives by using the products but also by developing a second income and 2) to have a vacation. Cori's friend Darci was one of these women I was hearing about. Darci was earning six figures as a Plexus Ambassador; she had quit her full time job as a teacher and she was living her dream; she was in charge of her own destiny. At the convention, I met hundreds of women like her whose health, well being and wealth had been positively impacted by Plexus. Women from all walks of life - women just like me. Actually. I'm not going to lie: they were just like me, but maybe the 2.0 version of me -the one I want to be - not the one that I write about in paragraph 3 of this story. One speaker in particular inspired me - Christy White. Christy's speech was all about "doing it scared". Her message resonated with me. I was scared (see paragraph 1) but I heard her loud and clear when she said, "If you’re not scared, than you are not living up to your fullest potential."
I thought about it - what would it mean to live my life to it's fullest potential? I took a good long look at my life's current state of affairs and I knew, deep in my gut (where so much good and bad originates) that I could not continue to live my life just "so, so". I am 52 years old. I could live for another 50 years if I am lucky. To live my life to its fullest potential is scary. I left Florida with butterflies in my stomach.
What will the next stage of my life entail? Will I find more quality time to spend with my son and daughter? Will I lose those last 5 lbs? Will I run a half (or gasp! A full?) marathon? Will I challenge myself to do the things that I dream about, but am scared shitless to do - like playing my ukulele and singing on stage at a local open mic night? Will I parachute out of a plane? (Doubtful). Will I travel to India, meditate in an ashram and write the next great best-selling version of "Eat, Pray, Love?" (Also, doubtful). But who the hell knows?
This essay marks the very beginning of the story of Fit, Fearless and Fifty. I have no idea where it is going, or where I am going, but change is a-foot. I can feel it in my gut.
Last night, at a work event: all of our guests had left, save one. She had hung back to have one last glass of wine. We were chatting when out of the blue, she asked me my age. I told her. She replied, "are you okay with that because I just turned 44 and I am struggling."
I had to think about it for a few moments and I replied, "Yes, but I haven't always been."
And that is the truth. The first half of the 5th decade of my life was so painful I can't even think about it without re-experiencing the same acute gut-wrenching sadness that marked that part of my life. In my early 40s, I experienced a mid-life crisis so epic in proportion that it turned my life upside down. I left my husband and home, dated someone completely wrong for me, and drank way too much beer to dull the pain.
There was something about turning 40 that made me really look at my life - where I was, where I wanted to be. Was I happy? Was this as good as it gets? The answer was no and what was once tolerable, was no longer.
I met my ex-husband, Louis, when I was 23 and living in Beach Haven, New Jersey, during the summer after my first year of graduate school. I had never, ever met anyone as interesting, witty, adventurous and fun as he. We connected on a very deep level - we had the same moral code, we wanted the same things out of life - travel, adventure, music, art, laughter. I am silly and he was even sillier. He made me laugh all the time. Our relationship progressed quickly and within 7 months, we were driving a yellow Volkswagon diesel Rabbit across the country and moving to San Francisco.
We were in love and had not had one single fight in all our 7 months of dating. I thought he was my soul mate. In the car, driving through Arizona, we had our first fight. It was a doozy. It doesn't really matter what it was about - I remember well, but it was stupid. What matters most is that it set the tone for all of our future fights: demeaning words and name calling from Louis; over-emotional, over-the-top, way-out-of-proportion over-reaction by me, followed by the silent treatment from him, resulting in emotional devastation for me, and emotional hardening for him. The colder he became, the more fragile I became; the more desperate I became, the harder he became. But I loved him and he loved me. We married 7 years later and 3 years after that, had our first baby, Jacob. Four years after that, we brought Chloe home from China. With both kids, we suffered through infertility and IVF.
Our inability to fight well, or fair, coupled with the heartache of infertility and the hormonal fuck up of IVF, put our relationship on extremely shaky ground by the time I turned 40. Our dysfunctional fighting had only gotten worse.
The final straw in our relationship occurred after I miscarried the baby who would have been our third child when I was 41. We weren't even trying to have a baby this time and we were pregnant! Hallalujah! Shortly before the end of my first trimester, our baby's heart stopped beating. I had to have a D & C. I am sure now that I had postpartum depression. I was so unbelievably sad and I was holding on by a very fine thread. "If we could just try for another baby, it would be ok", I thought. But Louis would have none of it. His reaction was harsh and probably had more to do with his own grief than just being an asshole. I begged him to consider trying again. He would not even discuss it. He said, "You had your chance and you blew it." Ouch. I still feel the phantom pain from that phantom slap.
The tears of my disbelief at his callousness poured out of the arteries of my heart like a hole-y colander, leaving my poor, gasping heart, drained of all emotion, lying on its stainless steel bottom. I knew that I didn't deserve to miscarry, that I hadn't blown anything, that it wasn't my fault. And, I knew that our relationship was over.
It took me months of contemplation to finally decide to leave, but in the fall of my 43 year, I left Louis. I left behind a house that I loved, and a person that I loved (and still love). I moved into a small 2 bedroom apartment up a narrow set of stairs in an old building built in the 1800s. I painted the apartment with COLOR! with the hope that it would lift my spirits. The living room was painted robins egg blue, the dining room, lime green, Jacob's room was sky blue and the room that Chloe and I shared, light lavender. For the first few years, Jacob never slept in his own room. We three physically needed to be close to each other on the nights that they were with me: Jacob and I slept on the bottom bunk and Chloe on the top.
I am now 52. Jacob is 18 now and Chloe is 14. I have moved on to a new relationship and so has Louis. He and I are better co-parents and friends now than we were 10 years ago. He still drives me crazy; we still have the occasional fight, but now these disagreements are followed by sincere discussion and apology. Neither one of us want to go back to that dark place. I think often about whether or not our situation was avoidable. Perhaps if we hadn't married, if we had broken up one of the hundreds of times a fight threatened to wield the final blow. But I think things were meant to play out the way they did. We were meant to grow up together - to go through the joy of becoming parents, young love and first marriage and the heartache of losing love, having to share custody and the horrible stress of divorce.
I did not tell the women who asked me how I was dealing with being 52 all of this. Can you imagine, dumping that on a person during a casual discussion? But here it is: so Sandra, if you read this, you are not alone. I also struggled in my early 40's. It took some time and a lot of heartache but it did get better. Hang in there.
...because if you're not scared, than you're not living up to your fullest potential.
I heard this at a convention last week - it made me think back to the first time I did it scared.
I was 15, the summer between 9th and 10th grade, and I won a spot at The Governor's School for the Arts at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. The Governor's School was a free 5 week residential summer camp for 10th and 11th grade students that was funded by the state of Pennsylvania. Kids from all over Pennsylvania were awarded merit scholarships to study visual arts, creative writing, voice, dance, theatre, instrumental music and more. (Kevin Bacon was a notable alum.)
I was excited but scared. At 15, I had so much self-doubt! I knew that once people got to know me, they would realize that my being accepted into the program was a complete mistake - that I was a talent-less fraud.
On the first night of camp, we visual arts majors met to select our area of study. Our professors instructed us to step outside our comfort zone and choose a course of study opposite of that which we were most comfortable. I was primarily a 2D artist - I loved to paint and draw. So, obediently, I chose 3D - sculpture.
The next day, I found myself in a sculpture studio surrounded by the cutest, smartest, most interesting boys I had ever met. I was the sole girl and I was completely intimidated. I immediately developed a crush on every single boy in that class, including our male instructor. (Did I mention I am boy-crazy? Always have been, still am.)
I had woken that morning to a horrible case of homesickness. This was my first time away from home and I was unprepared for the overwhelming sadness and anxiety of homesickness. I could not stop my tears and spent the entire day hiding my silent crying from my adorable classmates.
That morning, we were introduced to our first project. We were instructed to work on a small-scale wax model of what would become a life-size steel sculpture. Outside the studio, stood a mountain of steel. Once our models were finished, the whole class were taken to the top of that mountain for further instruction.
Once we summited, our instructor demonstrated the use of an acetylene torch and gave us safety instructions/warnings. Here is approximately what he said or at the very least, what I heard him say in my state of panic:
1) If you are not very, very careful, you could get yourself blown off the mountain of steel and through the air and into the art building located about 50 yards behind.
2) If you smell gas, immediately turn off your torch to avoid said explosion and death and dismemberment.
What in the world did I get myself into? Choking back homesick tears, I was suddenly faced with death? Why did I choose sculpture? Why did I listen to them when they "suggested" we choose a major that we were unfamiliar with? Can I go home now? Please?
Too embarrassed to reveal just how scared and homesick-sad I was, I soldiered on.
The next day, I steeled myself up (no pun intended), put on a brave face, and, alone, climbed the steel mountain with my safety mask and gloves to face my certain violent, tragic end. Waiting at the top of the mountain was the acetylene torch. Goodbye life. Goodbye family. (Why wasn't an adult supervising me? These were the good ole days? I think not!) Honestly, I almost didn't care what happened to me, I was so homesick.
I meticulously followed the instructions for lighting the torch. After a few frustrating tries, success - it lit! Immediately, I shut it off, convinced I smelled gas. I struggled again to re-light. This pattern of attempting to light the torch multiple times before success, then imagining I smelled gas and shutting down, continued all afternoon as I attempted to cut two very simple steel shapes.
Eventually, I finished. Turning off my torch one final time. I climbed down the mountain, shaking. What the fuck! It was over, I had done it, I felt immensely relieved.
Until, I was given the welding demonstration!
My finished sculpture featured two large, sharp z-like, lightning shapes, one resting on top of the other at an angle. It stood about 4 feet high with its highest point, reaching up, towards the sky. My parent's drove it home, strapped to the roof of our 4 door sedan and proudly displayed it in our middle class, suburban backyard for years until eventually the elements rusted it away. My mother called it the "squirrel impaler". It stood between the garage and a tree. Squirrels would regularly leap from the garage roof to the tree, and back, narrowly missing the sculpture's threatening spike. One false step and it was lights-out for Mr. Squirrel!
Looking back on a picture of this sculpture in the backyard of my childhood home, I am impressed. Impressed by the sculpture and impressed by my 15 year old self. I did it scared and I did it while I was overcome with homesickness. I did it! And when I was done, so was my homesickness. I had a new-found, budding, sense of confidence.
Today, I am a fifty two year old, divorced, mom with 2 teenage kids. And I am embarking on a new phase of my life. I can feel it in my bones and I am scared.
Thinking back to my fifteen year old self and how I felt after facing my fear (and death! I am still dramatic), makes "doing it scared" easier today. I know that I will feel confident and invincible when I am done. And maybe I will even feel like I did when I was fifteen - that the future is wide open, the possibilities endless, and that life is still mine for the taking.
When I was a small child, I used to visit my paternal grandparents and aunts and uncles in Elmer New Jersey - a small, rural town in the heart of South Jersey that you probably have never heard of. My whole extended family lived in houses next to each other and across the street from each other on Main Street: the quieter part of Main Street - the part that crosses Shirley Road by the bridge over Elmer Lake, after the shops and the fancier Victorians end and the street narrows.
My family lived in Northeast Philadelphia at the time, in a cul-de-sac where all the houses looked like the same, nondescript box. Trees were few and far between, and, really, the only green were the squares of grass, sparingly planted between the concrete sidewalks and paved driveways.
Elmer was the opposite. The woods, the lakes, the fields of vegetables, the pens of pigs and roaming chickens! The sound of crickets and frogs at night were a welcome respite: not only from my urban neighborhood, but also from the nightly fights and angry yelling of my unhappily married parents. I loved our weekend trips to Elmer. Elmer was heaven.
My parents separated the summer before my first year in grade school. We moved to the other side of the city, to the suburbs. My dad would pick us up on his weekends to drive me and my three siblings to Elmer. (Again, another welcome respite as my mom had left one angry loveless marriage, to another that was also filled with nightly, violent fights. This time, not due to a lack of love, but to my step-father’s addiction to alcohol.)
I remember those weekends, colored in a warm-summer haze. Funny, I am sure that we visited my grandparents in the wintertime, but I only remember the summers. The heat of the hot South Jersey sun, the scratchy feel of August grass on my shoeless feet, hours spent outdoors, roaming the woods in back of my grandparent’s house, looking for snapping turtles, frogs and other wildlife, while avoiding the long, black snakes that call South Jersey home. I remember the double swing glider in my grandparent’s backyard, sitting across from my older sister, Lorie, at dusk, pumping our legs to make it go higher and higher, while belting out, “Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on?” into the oncoming night.
My dad eventually remarried and inherited 3 sons and another baby of his own. The weekend visits tapered off and then completely stopped and summers in Elmer became a memory, a thing of the past, a place I longed to go back to. It was Shangri La or Brigadoon to me - a mythical place. I would dream about waking up in Elmer, in my grandparent’s house, to the sound of a rooster’s crowing; I would fantasize about walking down the road, past the lake and up the stone path and through the front door and onto the screened in porch of my Aunt Nina’s house. Once I learned to drive, while listening to WXPN, I would hear the town of Elmer mentioned in radio ads for Appel Farm’s yearly music festival. Knowing Elmer - how small it was, how rural, how stuck in another time - I couldn’t believe that my Elmer New Jersey, was home to an internationally-renowned music festival. Elmer? Really?
Fast forward, 40 some years, and here I am back in Elmer, actually helping to plan and manage that very same festival at Appel Farm. How I arrived here is a story for another day.
The Appel Farm Music Festival has morphed into a two day festival (now called the South Jersey Arts Fest, June 2 and 3, 1 - 6pm) that unlike the original Music Festival, focuses on ALL of the arts - dance, music, theatre, visual arts - and specifically, all that South Jersey has to offer as a place to live and visit. It includes continuous performances on its main stage and a separate Kid’s Pop Up Arts Camp so parents can drop their kids off while they enjoy the festival kid-free. Three large interactive tents will have rotating workshops and smaller performances all day. Attendees can learn to Bollywood Dance in the Performing Arts Tent; they can discover how rainwater is collected and re-used to offset the effect of climate change and drought in the STEAM Tent; and they can lend their hand to painting a mural in the Visual Arts Tent. Food trucks, Flying Fish Beer, Auburn Road Vineyard wines, crafters and a South Jersey Cycling Tour add to the experience.
On Saturday night, attendees are invited to stay and listen to singer-songwriter Joe Crookston, as he performs at an evening bonfire. Then, they can fall asleep under Elmer’s giant night sky, and wake up on Sunday morning to the sound of a rooster crowing, just like I did when I was a child.
If you have never been to Appel Farm, the South Jersey Arts Fest is the perfect time to visit. Appel Farm’s 115 acre property is an artistic oasis in a small town, population 1300. In addition to hosting the SJ Arts Fest, Appel Farm is also a residential arts summer camp where quirky, artistic kids (like I once was) can explore the arts in an environment where they can be their best selves without the usual childhood peer pressures. There, they can make friends for life and find their people. And in 2019, Appel Farm is set to become home to an Arts Charter School for students, grades 5 - 8.
All of my paternal aunts and uncles have passed away, save for one - my Aunt Nina. New people live in their houses which have all been remodeled with updated exteriors. Everything seems smaller than it did back when I was a kid - as it always does. Back then, my world was a block of Main Street in Elmer. I had no idea that Appel Farm was just a hop, skip and a jump (literally) down the road. And no where in my wildest imagination, did I ever think my dream would come true - that I would wake up again on a summer's morning in Elmer.
But that is exactly how it is. I shake my head in disbelief that I am here, inviting others to visit my Brigadoon. It feels good to be home.
Join me at the SJ Art Fest! More information: https://www.appelfarm.org/south-jersey-arts-fest/
I wanted to share this blog post because it features my super creative sister and niece!