Body Love

I have been traveling the world as a cruise lecturer for over a decade now, and I always came home actually looking forward to going on a diet. I’ve done quite well managing my weight throughout my adult life, learning from childhood obesity that I never wanted to feel that uncomfortable in my body again.  I’ve been told that fat cells don’t disappear once they are established.  They are greedy little buggers that lurk in a shrunken state eager to fill up again. Maybe that isn’t all that scientific, but ask anyone who has ever been overweight how easy it is to gain weight, and compare that to someone who has never been anything but thin to average, and I rest my case.

In the past, whenever I finished a cruise assignment I stepped on the scale at home to assess the damage and got rid of any gained weight by the time my next contract started. This wasn’t entirely vanity—I have a thing about the expense (and admittedly a feeling of defeat) in having to buy larger clothing.  But something in my attitude has been changing in the last few years (see my entry “Dear Feet, I Love You”), and a new mental calculus has recently taken over. I am moving away from “how much do I weigh?” or  “am I going to need a larger size?” to “how does it feel to be in this body?” And the answer is  usually “pretty darn good,” and when it isn’t, I make changes to get back to that.  

When I moved to Victoria, I threw away my scale and switched to assessing my weight by whether I could button my pants.  Now I have pull-ons—the best fashion innovation since cute flats!—and that enables substantially more denial. Overall, I am not sure how reliable weight is as an arbiter anyway, because changes in body mass index and fat distribution are natural parts of aging. As a result my pear shape is starting to resemble an apple, and I accept that I would need far more motivation than I currently possess to change that.  

And that’s okay. When I look in the mirror, what I see is an amazing organism that has served me so well  for so long, and continues to do so. It doesn’t matter if my stomach isn’t flat, and that so many parts look, well, kind of doughy. It is the story of my body’s survival to this age, and I am getting so much better at being grateful rather than judgmental.  

Since losing Ivan, I tend to view everything through a new lens, trying to find what messages are there for me to take into this new chapter.  One things rings loud and clear: my sons, wherever they are now, see me for all I was to them and who I am today, and that has nothing to do with my body at all.  ‘Love yourself, “ they tell me, “because we can’t love you in the land of the living anymore.” It is up to me not to look negatively at how my body has changed, but simply to love myself however I am.  

Which leads me to the insight that made me sit down to write this blog entry today. Because I was the only real stability in Ivan’s life, it was probably scary for him to watch me age. Though we rarely touched on the inevitability of my death, I know we were both rattled by what this would mean for him.  As he saw my hair go gray and my skin get more wrinkled, did he have moments of panic?  I suspect he did.  It wasn’t just vanity that made me want to continue to look youthful; it was critical to his sense of well being that I did.  One of the few ways my life actually feels better now is that I am free not to have to live up to what Ivan needed.  And of course, he will now be spared going on without me.

We all know our children can’t help but see the swollen blue veins in our hands, the loose skin around our joints, the droops and creases in our faces.  We want to reassure them they don’t need to worry. We have always wanted to comfort them in ways we—and they—know we cannot.  We try as hard as we can to convey that really nothing has changed, that we are as vibrant, and energetic, and youthful as ever. I escaped this feeling of responsibility in the most brutal way possible, but now I can see what an unacknowledged burden it was.  

In the horrible deflation I experienced after Ivan died, I thought to myself, “I guess this is how it feels to grow old.”  It was a strange thought for me, because even though I am in my mid-seventies, I feel scarcely older than I did ten or even fifteen years ago.  I have since recovered at least some of my energy, and I intend to take good care of my wonderful body because I want it to be a help and not a hindrance to the life I want, creases, sags, and all.  I can hear my beautiful boys cheering me on.  They don’t notice the wrinkles at all. 


This Without That

I arrived back in Victoria yesterday evening after a month in the Canary Islands, the south coast of Spain and France, and a week in Paris. After the fitful sleep and predawn awakening typical of jet lag, I went out this morning shortly after daybreak to walk along the city’s Inner Harbour. Unexpectedly, looking out at a beloved place, I started to cry. I so wanted to find a place of beauty and potential for growth to call home, and indeed I have done that. But I wanted to have that without the accompanying loss I have experienced this year with the death of my son. I wanted this without that.

I hope both of my sons, from wherever they are, listened as I poured my heart out, telling them that I hoped they knew that I had been the best mother I could be, and that any way in which I might not have been the audience they needed as they neared the end of their time here in this world was because I needed to protect the part of myself that would have to go on without them. I bore them into a world that would not love them enough, with minds and bodies that would betray them.  A world in which my role at its core would be to give them the absolute faith that they were indeed loved, despite all of that. Yes, like everyone else who has had a part of their guts ripped out by such losses, I feel guilty about thriving, at the same time I know that is what my own spirit calls on me to do now that my beloved children no longer need assurance of my love.  

Only when I let my heart be this open does the universe reply.  I pulled out my camera to record the early light over the harbour, and frowned because there was this log marring the image I wanted to retain. Then I realized that the log was the message. How long ago had it begun its journey from seed to a soft green shoot, to a tree on the rocky shoreline somewhere north of here?  How long had its roots clung to the crevices before it lost its battle with the pounding surf and fallen into the sea? From then, how long until it had been stripped down to just this last bit of itself?

Every living thing comes from somewhere and takes a journey to somewhere else. Sometimes the journey is long  and hard enough to strip us bare.  ‘That’s how mine feels much of the time these days,” I said to myself. And just then, an otter poked its head out of the water, lolled for a moment, and disappeared.  In another way the journey is all about the present, because that is how we live it.  I don’t know how an otter’s mind works, but my guess is it doesn’t focus on more than what juicy morsels lay under the surface of the water. No past, no future.  Those are our burdens, though they both exist only in our heads.

Having these thoughts, I was calm again, ready for my spirit to tell me what it had been thinking while the rest of me had been too busy to stop and ponder. What is emerging as a theme for me in this period while I adjust to the new reality of life without Ivan, is a stronger sense of compassion. In Singapore, my friend Megan bought me a statue of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, whom I first fell for because of his awesome name and then later for his message as he sits, one leg dangling, overlooking the world with the beatific smile of love beyond measure. I find myself stopping before every image of the Buddha I see now, asking for greater patience and more compassion, which I am beginning to understand are intrinsically linked.  

After Adriano died, I found a message a math professor at the community college he was attending had sent to him, telling him how disappointed he had been that Adriano had not finished the class because he had been doing so well. More that two decades later, my eyes still well up as I think of this, because that is how true compassion works.  It’s no more than genuinely noticing others and finding something to brighten their path.  I took this message to heart in my own teaching and asked myself a simple question whenever a stressed student came to me: “How would I want a professor to act if this were Adriano standing at his/her office door?”  Or, as a mentor once said, the only real question to ask is, “what would I do if I loved this student?” 

Since Ivan died, I have felt a surge of compassion, perhaps coming from a need for an outlet for maternal instincts that now have no place to go.  I try harder to see the crew on ships, and other people just going about jobs in roles that often make them close to invisible, as people connected by webs of caring to friends and family I can’t see, who worry about them, rejoice with them, and sustain them. Maybe just by knowing their name without looking at their name tag, I am supporting them on behalf of those who love them and cannot be there. It breaks my heart to read messages on Ivan’s Facebook page, to see how many people really did care about him when he thought he had no one except me. Maybe it falls to me—to all of us really—to make amends for how hard the world can be by treating everyone as beloved. 

Strange how that piece of driftwood became a sermon about compassion. But there’s one more realization it brought me.  Often people talk about how great a life I have, traveling everywhere, free to be wherever I want to be, without much in the way of obligations. Yes, all that is true.  But the part that would make no one want to trade places is what I had to lose in order to be in this position—the security and familiarity of a home, for one thing.  The loss of my entire family and a beloved husband.  Most people don’t even want to try that on for size for even an instant.

I had to lose everything in order to be where I am. In this chapter of my life, stripped bare, may I continue to grow in compassion for all sentient beings struggling with the difficulties of their own journeys. 

May I be a guard for those who need protection;
A guide for those on the path;
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood,
May I be a lamp in the darkness;
A resting place for the weary,
A healing medicine for all who are sick.
For as long as the earth and sky endure,
May I assist until all living beings are awakened.

—Santidevi Prayer