Body Image, Food, The Poetry of Life

Taking care of my belly

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Photo borrowed from https://hilldalehouse.wordpress.com/2012/05/

It’s always nice to let your belly out now and then. Growing up, probably as far back as first grade, I spent most of the time concentrating on “sucking it in” to look skinnier. Now this is second nature, and I don’t even have to think about keeping my tummy muscles tense. This morning I had a bowl of cereal with raisins (comically, we buy fruit-free muesli and then every morning I add the raisins back in to my bowl just to make it sweeter) and a cup of jasmine tea with milk. Afterwards, since this week I’m not going into the lab, I turned on the heater in my room, crawled into bed under the fluffy, white wool duvet and shut my eyes. Resting after eating always gives me a sense of bliss. Feeling full and happy, I rolled up my shirt half way and let my smooth belly balloon out to all of its glory, much as I’ve seen a few old Latino men do on hot days. Just to give my belly its own place. Just to say, “It’s okay, today you don’t have to suck it in. Today you’re good just how you are.”

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Self-discipline, The Poetry of Life

On Becoming Superhuman

megamonalisa_mona-superwoman

First point: It doesn’t work. So look elsewhere if you’re looking for a real guide to becoming superhuman (http://www.wikihow.com/Pretend-to-Be-a-Superhero).

I’ve powered through January and the first part of February without letting any emotion bubble up. I’ve gotten a lot of work done, made many plans, and come up with a better idea of my career path. I’ve exercised regularly, I’ve budgeted scrupulously, and I’ve indulged minimally. I even bought a book written in German and read a few pages (this is big). But actually I can’t say that I’m proud of any of this. Even though these were the very things I strived for, now they seem meaningless. Because in the process of becoming superhuman, I lost the soul, the funk, the zeal, whatever you’d like to call it…the vibrancy of being human. 

There’s something really appealing about feeling nothing. You can appear strong and confident to everyone watching (or at least you think), and you can even do a good job of fooling yourself sometimes. You feel limitless in your ability to take on new things. Sometimes it feels like there aren’t even enough new things to take on for you to keep your rush going. Last week I wrote to the coordinator of my Ph.D. program with a detailed plan of my next five years of research. Her response essentially said to chill out, that she will work with me to achieve my goals when the time comes, but that it’s too early to be worrying about it. This was upsetting, because I wanted to worry about! I wanted to plan the future with cold clarity. In that future world I’m the star of my own show. For the soap opera that is presently my life, I barely got a callback. Knowing that the present world outside is painful or scary, I thought shutting down emotionally and becoming a superhuman seemed like a good plan.

The only problem with that is that you can’t selectively shut off feelings. Out with the bath water goes the baby. Start replacing cocoa-dusted cappuccinos with low-fat Greek yogurt in order to become more awesome, and you might feel healthier, but are you really? What if when we follow these crazy superhuman ideals of the grocery-store-check-out-aisle magazines, we grow further from our real selves, we run 30 minutes a day farther from the nest of comfort and sensuosity that nurtures our souls?  What if, as model Cameron Russell admits (http://www.ted.com/talks/cameron_russell_looks_aren_t_everything_believe_me_i_m_a_model.html), the closer you get to superhuman, the worse you feel? The art of being sensuous, of accepting our humanity, is an art that merits more attention among today’s fast-paced, strive-until-you-make-it, dehumanizing messages. I’ve decided–at least for today–to take off my cape, add another sugar to my cappuccino, and return to being “just” me.

The Poetry of Life

Afraid

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My new year’s resolution for 2013 was to conquer fear. I’m tired of letting fear keep me inside a tiny box, and my imagination comes to life when I ponder the question, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” I started off by swimming in the ocean off the Gold Coast of Australia. I’m not a good swimmer, so waves are quite intimidating for me, and I’m afraid of jellyfish, sharks, and well, even fish. Also my friend told me that in Australia there’s this octopus called the blue-ringed octopus that hangs out in tide pools and around coral reefs and will kill you within minutes of contact. So I was terrified the whole time I was in the water, but I swam for maybe 10 minutes and came out feeling like a hero. I wanted more of that hero sensation upon returning to Germany, but instead my fears overwhelmed me.  In the first few days back, I felt anxious about walking out the door and getting on a bus, anxious about all that I needed to be doing and was not doing, anxious at the thought of the many dark, cold months ahead. I was quite happy to abandon my new year’s resolution, to instead stay in bed where everything was familiar and comfortable yet stagnant. I was happy there until one day when I had to make some revisions on a paper up for publication, and there was a deadline in just a few days. I panicked. Even though I had written almost the entire paper successfully, these few minor changes now seemed impossible for me to make. I stayed in bed trying to calm myself down, trying to overcome my fear, but I just couldn’t. Eventually I had to get up, walk over to the computer, and make the revisions to the paper. And afterwards, of course, I felt great. I felt that hero sensation once more. Now I’ve decided come upon another fear: writing this blog. I’ve put off writing an entry for so long because I’ve been too afraid to write. Is the content even worth posting? Does my writing just sound like well-thought-out complaints to everyone reading?  Then I realized that the first step to conquering fear is to notice when you’re afraid. I had started to notice that I was afraid to write a post, and I knew that the only way to feel better was to write a post. So I’m writing a post saying, “Hey, I’m afraid.” Maybe fear isn’t something that necessarily should be “conquered.”  Fear tells us exactly what we want to do but feel we can’t. Instead of conquering it, maybe we should greet it–“Hey, I see you, and I know I’m afraid”–and then just keep walking in that direction that we feel we shouldn’t go, whether it’s into the water or up to the keyboard. Maybe I can get to know this fear inside myself, become friends with it, and use it as my compass. Now when fear comes around, instead of conquering it, I’ll try to take it as a sign that I’m doing something worthwhile.

Culture, Self-discipline, The Poetry of Life

An Italian-German Speaks on Work and Worry

I had been driving myself crazy for the past month worrying that I wasn’t accomplishing enough while here in Germany. I had made game plan after game plan to try to make the most of my research experience while earning plenty of course credits to transfer back to Miami. I was worried about timing, about what people would think of my work ethic, about money. Then on Friday the guy who has been my kind of mentor in the lab for the past month, an Italian-German student in the final year of his Ph.D., stopped me and changed my whole experience here for the better. I had just come from this Molecular Biology class, which I hated and which was going to mean way too much study time, I feared. I had come into the lab and was sitting with my mentor as he contemplated whether to drink  his cold coffee from the day before when I decided to ask for his perspective. I said, “I’m in this Molecular Biology class, and it’s really complicated and detailed and I have to study a lot. It’s so boring. Will I really need to know this amount of detail in my field?” He replied that molecular biology is always useful and of course applicable to what we are doing and then asked, “How many days is it?” I answered, “Well, it’s a semester-long course. It’s every day for a semester.” “A whole semester!?!” he exclaimed. “No way should you do it!” I laughed uneasily, wondering how anyone would get through college on that stipulation alone. He went on, “I thought it was for a few days or something. You should definitely not do it. I will tell the boss if you do it and he’ll have you kicked out.” He laughed. I laughed too, relaxing a bit more. I explained, “I just feel like this whole year will be a waste if I don’t at least earn some credits and do some important research.” “You worry too much,” he answered. “The purpose of your year here should be to have fun and to travel. You’re looking at going to see some labs in Greece and France. I think this is good. Your focus should not be on finding the best labs; it should be on location. Do they have anything in Spain? You speak Spanish.” I laughed as the worry clouds started to clear from my head and my shoulders began to relax for the first time in weeks. He went on, “Do you guys really care so much about work in America or what?” I answered that we very much do. “Well you’re in Europe now,” he assured me, “so you should adapt to the mentality of Europe. Travel and try to relax. You have your whole life to worry in America if you want to.” He was right. I knew he was right. And after almost three months in Germany of stress, a light switched on thanks to him, and since then I have been happy.

The Poetry of Life

Packing Up Shop

I’ve managed to settle into the routine of Marburg, and of course now it’s time to leave. For as many moves as I’ve willingly pursued, you would think that I wouldn’t be fazed by them anymore. But when it comes to moving, I’m still like a child screaming until I’m blue in the face. I hate change, even when I know it’s for the best. And every change weighs on my body: My immune system weakens, I sleep all the time, and I cannot focus for weeks. It’s a full-body protest to change. It’s not so much that I fear a new environment (although perhaps my body does). Rather it’s my prospective inner environment that frightens me. During change the lack of control tears away at my nerves, and the loneliness chills my core. I’m afraid of the negative thoughts that will come along with these and the horrible things that I’ll tell myself in an attempt to make sense of my nonsensical new situation. Many would say that this worrying is completely useless, but try telling me that! I once heard the Dalai Lama say something like, “You should never worry about anything. If it’s something that can be changed, then you shouldn’t worry about it because you will be strong enough to deal with it when it comes. And if it cannot be changed, then you shouldn’t worry because there will be nothing you can do about it. Either way, there’s no need to worry.” And then he grinned his child-like peaceful grin. Oh Dalai Lama, I wish I had your simplicity! They say that humans are different from all other animals in that we’re able to play through situations in our heads before they even happen and anticipate possible outcomes. I wonder sometimes how well this part of our brain is developed. I mean, maybe we’re just the half-step in evolution between a creature that only lives in the present and a creature that can actually anticipate the future, you know? Like we’re still the test run for this new capability. For now we’re just stuck with worries, these troubling thought cycles, which are rarely true previews of the future and like the Dalai Lama said, are never useful. Still, my brain is screaming as if in detox. My heels are digging into the ground. I don’t want to go. But in just a few days it will be time to pack up shop again. Next stop is Heidelberg, the first place in the past year where I will live for more than 5 months. I’ve never looked forward to settling down so much. I’ve never been so sick of change.

Culture, The Poetry of Life

Chicken Noodle Soup for the Culture-Shocked Soul

I’ve traveled quite a lot for my someone of my ripe age, but I’m still not immune to culture shock. For several years I dismissed culture shock as a description of some superficial feeling of loss due to the absence of one’s comforts (like NetFlix or favorite bars/clubs). I judged it as materialistic and shallow. That was until I stayed in a foreign country long enough for it to actually creep up and grab me. It was when I was spending a summer in a small village in Guatemala and was not traveling around much. I was doing some research here and there on introduced fish species in a particular volcanic lake (I know, the reasons I come up with to travel…), but mostly I was just loafing around in a pseudo-routine, staying with a family I had known well for a few years. I remember being shocked and actually looking up the symptoms in my international health guidebook—it actually resembled a sickness! I judged myself for falling prey to this silly condition, but it was undeniable: when I looked at the symptoms, I fit the description of culture shock to a tee. There is a so-called “crisis stage”, during which “perceived differences in language, values and symbols between the own and the foreign culture cause feelings of anxiety and frustration” (Culture Shock- Causes, Consequences and Solutions: The International Experience). In the case of Guatemala, I started to hate all of the food, I became an obsessive cleaner, and I saw all of my relationships through judgmental eyes. I was irritated all the time for seemingly no reason. It was terrible. I found that the only way to overcome culture shock was to wait it out, and most of what I’ve read concurs. This is a frustrating prospect when you’re in the situation, but having experienced it myself a few times now, I have some further suggestions for dealing with culture shock that may be helpful:

1) Let yourself have one or two good venting sessions with a fellow expat. Be careful to limit it though, as relying on the expat community for too long can sometimes make your culture shock last longer.
2) Don’t force yourself into any new activities or relationships. It’s tempting to want to integrate quickly, but added stress during this period is only going to make things worse. Make sure that if you do find friends, you genuinely like them and are not just using them as place holders. Being surrounded by fake friends can be even more lonely than being alone.
3) Phone home as much as possible to keep in touch with family and friends, as it’s important that you feel you have a good support system even if you’re thousands of miles away from home.
4) Stop judging yourself for your lack of integration or communication abilities. You don’t need the added stress of impatience.
5) Ease into the language so that it’s not so intimidating. This means first self-study, then attending public seminars, movies, etc. where you won’t be forced to talk but can listen, then speaking in professional or distanced situations such as at shops, train stations, work, etc., and finally you will feel comfortable using your new language in casual settings to make friends without getting so stressed.

As you can see, the themes in these suggestions are relaxation and comforting communication, which is why I think of them as Chicken Noodle Soup. We don’t have to be so hard on ourselves! Culture shock is an opportunity to practice self-compassion and non-forcefulness, two practices which can do wonders for one’s growth. So if you’re feeling stuck and agitated, as I am in Germany now, remember that some day when you least expect it, the culture shock stream will turn off. For now please consider trying a little tenderness.

The Poetry of Life

My favorite diet so far: get a life

Today my friends and I were discussing being fat. This is a favorite topic among women, but it’s sometimes an underlying theme in conversations with men too. Thinking about fat always makes one think about diet and exercise too, and this of course makes one argue with oneself and with others about what the most effective dieting and exercise strategies are. This afternoon I was looking at some old pictures and thinking about how my weight has remained relatively constant over the past few years despite the many diet and exercises crazes that I temporarily adopted. Obsessing about my body has never once done me any good! Then I saw my pictures from my summer in Nicaragua, where I ate wonderfully delicious things and hung out at bars and went on trips with strangers (that I really shouldn’t have) and sweated a lot and went hungry sometimes. I realized how non-regimented it was and how I didn’t care at all about what I ate or how much I exercised. And of course I lost weight. Am I saying that you or I should start eating Nicaraguan food to lose weight? Or that we should walk on a treadmill as much a Nicaraguan would in order to simulate this lifestyle? No, of course not! (Although the food would be delicious!) I’m saying that the reason our bodies sometimes shut down on us is because we’re killing them with our worry-filled meaningless lives. Namely, our lives of calorie counting and low-carb cookbooks. Our lives of half-hour runs and pilates sessions. We’re trying to calculate what the exact nutritional and motional needs of a human being would be if she were living in similar conditions to ours, but the problem is, we’re not really living so it doesn’t work. We’re not out there exploring, laughing, starting up conversations with strangers, losing ourselves in new passions we discover, getting to know the people we love, getting lost for hours. People who do those things don’t have time to worry about what they eat or how much exercise they do. They’re too busy living. We’re too busy worrying about our weights to get out there and do anything worthwhile. The body, as it did for me in Nicaragua, will take care of itself when the soul pushes forward. So this is my diet advice for you and me: stop dieting and go get a life!