Not too long ago, I found myself sitting on the sofa, my hand going numb from the weight of my toddler granddaughter who was sleeping in my lap, settling down from the pain of an ear infection.
I was frustrated; I had plans for tasks I had intended to accomplish that morning, though I can’t for the life of me remember what they were. But I knew the clock was ticking, and I felt it like pressing on my spirit like a leaden weight; I wasn’t getting anything done.
But then… I stopped. I listened to Hazel’s sweet inhalation and exhalation, then expanded my awareness beyond just the two of us to hear the birdsong outside my window. I had a sudden realization:
I am simply going to stop counting the years.
It’s not worth it. The angst of aging, the fret of schedules, the tyranny of the clock. I’m weary of agonizing over it. It’s a waste of, well, time, which is too big, too expansive, and too weighty to be carried like a stone shackled to the ankle.
Marcus Aurelius said that time is like a river, it’s become a cliche’ that works: Time is a river everflowing. I choose to stand in that river, letting the cool water lap my calves and its burble tickle my ears. But it’s more.
It’s laughter gurgling. It’s a helium balloon floating. It’s a baseball game played without a clock counting down the seconds of a quarter. It’s the bent clocks of Dali and the poetry of the Psalm where a day is, to the Divine, like a thousand years.
A life without fear of time? Oh, yes.
Certainly, I will keep appointments at their intended times, that’s courtesy and professionalism. It indicates I respect others, and I am all for that. And I’ll be sure to note movie times when we finally get to go back to the theaters.
But quarantine has taught me that time as we have constructed and conformed to it is a cage. Who hasn’t looked at the person sitting next to them on the couch and asked, “What day is it?” at some point since the world paused? We’ve seen what life looks like when not lived with a metaphorical clock hovering overhead like Big Ben in London, clanging to move people along, heads down and destination-bent. I am learning to prefer to meander. To look up. To revel in the time which The Divine One has given me.
Rob Bell, on a recent episode of his podcast, says, “Previously [to Covid], it was, ‘How much can I fit in?’ It was about productivity. But in the future, time will start to mean other things. Like, what can we experience together? The experiences we love most in life are those when we lose track of time. I think in the future we’re going to see people move toward fewer activities, but fuller days.” Days that are less busy, but are richer.
That speaks a truth that resonates with me. It sounds amazing. May your days be blessed with time with those you love, doing what you love, making memories and living a rich tapestry of experiences.
There I stand, weeping in the dressing room at a higher-end lingerie store. The very accommodating young women there have cheerfully measured my chest without a hint of judgement and helped me to gather various styles; I’ve got some with lace and others with satin, but none quite work. I try a very pretty teal bra that gaps in the front, but more devastating to me in that moment, there are squishy blobs sticking out of the sides of the bra. Now, I had chanted to myself, before I took off my top, “No shame. No shame. No shame.” Literally, I did this out loud. I knew what my mind was capable of.
Bra shopping is just the worst, isn’t it?
I have, all my adult life, had issues with feeling displeased with my body’s appearance. Haven’t so many of us? But that’s not really the rabbit hole I want to plunge down at this moment (I know the mantras: “we are powerful women, no matter our size,” “beauty is as beauty does,” “exercise for health, not for looks.” All true. Every last one).
But you know the phrases that are getting to me these days? That are clanging around in my head like the clappers on the bells of a cathedral? They’re coming from my daughters. And they pinch a little (kind of like one of those ill-fitting bras I was trying on).
While on a visit to my eldest child’s home in Los Angeles last fall, I pressed play on the inner tape that I have been reciting since I was a teen: too fat, too fat, too fat. And my oldest daughter looked at me and said, “I have grown bored with your self doubt.” Ouch. Oh, wow. It struck me so that I even typed the exact quote into my phone within a few minutes of her utterance; I wanted to remember that moment. It was Sept. 2, and my 30-year-old had just abruptly, firmly, but lovingly drawn a boundary. My younger daughter, a fitness trainer by profession, tells me at least once a week to stop worrying about my appearance and exercise for strength and flexibility. The last time I went down a self-critical path for her ears, she actually became angry at me. She told me, “I won’t listen to the negative talk.” She’s raising a daughter of her own now, and she doesn’t want little Hazel to hear the messages that I transmitted, without meaning to, all those years to her.
This post isn’t about body love, though. Here is the learning I want to really contemplate: our Millennial kids, who happen to now be young adults, have wisdom to share with us. They have seen the shortcomings of their elders and they love us anyway. But they don’t want to be burdened with our angst, the self-flagellation and doubt that we have clung to since we watched an insecure-but-gorgeous Molly Ringwald apply lipstick from between her cleavage.
Our children don’t want to lug the baggage of our youth any more than they are willing to cart home the boxes of our discarded belongings. They’re “bored” with our blues. And we, their parents and grandparents, need to listen. My children’s generation has their own hurdles to face: climate change, an unfriendly economy, a sense of destabilization in world governments. Kids to feed. Dogs to care for. Jobs to find. But I have found that they manage to maintain a stubborn optimism in the face of all of it. They are growing into their own youthy wisdom. They have things to say. Good things. Challenging things.
Youth has always had the temerity to speak wisdom to its elders.
When Jesus visited the temple at the age of thirteen, the rabbis were amazed at his teaching. Yes, Jesus is Special, a unique case. And yet, I believe many of the young do have things to teach us. Kids say more than the darndest, cutest things; there can be a clarity to their words and a richness in their observations. When that richness evolves to be seasoned with life experience, it can create young adults capable of amazing perceptiveness and kindness.
There are many young people who have wisdom; granted, it is a different wisdom from that which comes of life experience. If you’ve ever done the laundry of a seven-year-old, you know it’s essential to empty the pockets, for there, treasure is gathered: feathers and pebbles and dice. Marbles and sticks of chewing gum. Silly Putty. Once, our own pockets were full of treasure, too. There is a thought, a whimsical wish, maybe, that when an infant is born, she still knows all the wisdom and beauty of Heaven, from whence she came. Little by little, it is forgotten amid the complexity of living on Earth. Perhaps, our ten-year-olds, twenty-year-olds, and thirty-year-olds are still just close enough to Heaven that they hear whispers of truth from there. By the time we’re fifty, I imagine our heads are too clouded to hear that particular strain of the purely Divine voice. Our ears are attuned to a different aspect of the Divine One: the weighty matters of self and world, nation and clan ring in our ears. I expect that will shift again in another twenty years, when we start to shed all the weighty matters and return to the glittering pocket fortunes of the soul: time appreciated, loved ones kissed, kindnesses both given and received.
Who are these wise youth? Where are they? There are obvious ones. Malala Yousefzai comes to mind. She speaks with a wisdom that is so anchored in truth born of suffering it is hard to imagine her faltering. Samantha Smith wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov that got her invited to the Soviet Union to share her message of peace. But not all of the wisdom coming from youth is of a scale that leads to book deals and international renown. Sometimes, it is revealed in the wisdom of advice given at the right time.
When I left the mall, I posted something on Facebook about my bra-induced tears, and within minutes, my California-dreaming daughter called me. We talked for an hour, she shared her own struggles and fears and listened to mine with compassion, especially when I explained that my dissatisfaction is not so much about appearance these days as it is age and the near-constant literal physical pain of it. She reminded me of my own goals, challenging me on my excuse making; she referred me to a website where workouts are body-positive and inclusive, a far cry from the exercise videos my generation grew into adulthood with.
If you’re blessed to have children, teens, or Millennials in your life, go grab an ice cream or an iced latte with them. Open your ears, your heart, your mind. Let them share some of what they’ve learned from watching us Gen-Xers and Boomers flail around a bit. There’s no shame in a little arm fat dangling over a bra cup. And there’s no shame in listening to whippersnappers in their young adulthood. No shame, no shame, no shame.
Wondering what littles carry in their pockets? Take a look at this joyful photo series!
In 2016, my husband and I bought a new car. It’s Ford Escape (we aren’t big spenders, no BMWs or Caddys for us, at least not in this current life), but I splurged and opted for leather seats and a sun roof. This was our first post-child-rearing car, it was the one I wanted to drive for a long time, and I kept its interior clean. No jelly smudges on the upholstery, no milk stains on the carpet.
Oh my stars- milk in the carpet! Once, when my kids were little, I smelled something truly vile in my car, a little red Ford Escort. Or maybe it was the white Ford Tempo. It’s all a blur (though it’s clear we’re loyal Ford folks). I searched and searched, until I found a bottle under the driver’s seat. The milk in it had curdled, was leaking gas and fluid, and smelled to high heaven. It was rank like a boys’ locker room laundry hamper; like rotten, sulfuric eggs or fresh skunk spray on a humid morning. The smell lingered for months, no matter how much scrubbing or Resolve I used.
This new cinnamon-red, tan-leather-upholstered, luxurious clean crossover was my reward for all the years of driving three kids around, pulling through McDonalds to grab them sustenance before a game, piano lesson, or orthodontic appointment. Since we were new empty nesters, we anticipated a good five years of clean, quiet road trips to little wineries and out-of-the-way art galleries. I even got my nose pierced to celebrate the Empty Nest! I was ready to rock!
Just last week, while cleaning out the SUV, my husband found a french fry wedged between the seats. A french fry.
You see, our life took a major shift lately. A good one, a happy one, but still: a shift. We became grandparents. And not just grandparents of one little newborn. Our daughter’s partner has two children, and so we are insta-grandparents (just add white wine and stir).
Thrown in the deep end, so to speak. In it up to our eyeballs. Trial by fire. Zero learning curve.
So now, we have added trips to the children’s museum and Chik Fil A back into rotation.
My husband just glommed right onto this grandpa thing. Maybe it’s his silver beard. Quite possibly it’s his jolly, extroverted personality. More likely, it’s his big heart. I took a little time to adjust to the idea. I am an introvert who likes neatness and order and quiet. I willingly relinquished those things while raising a family, and I was pretty excited about having them back for a bit. Also, being a grandparent means you’re in phase three- the last phase- and that’s sobering. Then I met the kids who would be joining our family, and fell in love. The girl is seven, a second grader who reads well and instinctively mothers her little brother, a four-year-old with a glimmer of impishness in his eyes. Now I couldn’t care any less about a french fry in my car.
There’s a single Lego sitting on my fireplace mantel. I found it under the TV stand while looking for the remote, just sitting innocently on the hardwood floor, thankfully out of stepping-upon range, waiting for its owner to get back down to floor level and play his games of imaginary build and destroy.
A friend teased yesterday, learning about my newborn grandchild, “I bet you have your own car seat in your car.” I do. I bought a car seat, a pack-and-play, and a swing. There’s baby shampoo, formula, diapers, and wipes in what has been my yoga room and is now a shared space. My asanas are now kept company with Pampers and that wonderful smell of baby shampoo. And atop my refrigerator I have current family photos with four new and welcome faces.
There’s no instruction book for being a grandparent, though I did stumble across an amazing book called Grandpa Magic: 116 Easy Tricks, Amazing Brainteasers, and Simple Stunts to Wow the Grandkids while at Barnes and Noble(see below for link). It was one of my husband’s favorite Christmas presents. I found him studying the tricks Sunday afternoon in his home office. He has big plans brewing, I think.
The kids? They’re the easy part. Spending time in the back yard playing school, coloring pages, bubble baths? I know how to do that stuff, though it’s exhausting. One afternoon of helping them ride their new bikes in our neighborhood wiped me out. Now I understand why my in-laws looked so frazzled after my kids visited.
I fear that the hard part is going to be knowing when to help my daughter and her partner and when to back off; when to offer advice and when to hush. When to let them stumble while they figure out the best way to parent. Parenting hurts. When your child is sick, when someone hurts their feelings, when they fail, your heart aches. I don’t think that’s going to get any easier.
I just want to be the safe place. The lap that offers the best cuddles for the little ones and the ear that provides unerring support and love for their parents.
Maybe I’ll even practice a magic trick or two. Everyone needs a fairy grandmother with a little magic in her wand.
I find myself in a corner. A prison of my own construction. This morning, I stood at the mirror, examining myself from several angles, bending to and fro to see how my body squidged as I contorted. I ate a very, very tiny breakfast when I got downstairs, let me tell you.
I want to take a moment to talk about weight. I know this is not an original topic, nor will my message be a great revelation. But I am okay with that, because I think we just have to keep talking about this. We have to own what we have done to women in this country, and that takes constant, repetitive chipping away at the wall.
Not too long ago, I went to the preview of a show my husband has been working on, a 1920’s murder mystery at the Prohibition Club in downtown Houston. Prohibition is the home of the Moonlight Dolls, a premiere burlesque troupe. Their photo is below. Look at them. They are all beautiful. And after weeks of rehearsing with them, my husband says they have body image issues, too. What the hell is wrong with us?
I knew it was going to be a rough afternoon for me. About ten minutes into dinner, after watching a tiny twenty-something girl in a cute, wee outfit spin on a trapeze, then having four tiny twenty-somethings do the Charleston in g-strings and bandeau tops, I fled to the bathroom, where I sobbed on a toilet for pretty much the remainder of the show.
When I emerged from the stall, I found a large woman bent over the sink, eyes squeezed shut, breathing deeply. She, too, looked traumatized. She finally stood up, squared her shoulders, and went back to her table. I didn’t. I stood in the lobby and read a novel on my Kindle.
There’s a tape that plays in my head, almost constantly. It goes something like this:
“You shouldn’t eat that…suck in your stomach…look how thin that lady is…I bet she has more self control…I bet she is more lovable…how many minutes have I exercised this week so far?” You get the picture. I count calories on an app and worry if I forget to enter something.
When I was a kid, I remember two media moments that embedded themselves profoundly in my psyche. The first was the Special K ad campaign “Can You Pinch an Inch?” The commercials showed people playfully pinching their tummies,and if they had more than an inch of pudge, they needed to go on a diet. For a twelve year old girl approaching puberty, that dangerous message sank its claws deeply. I understood that my body must stay thin to be acceptable. The second media moment came when Cosmopolitan magazine declared that thighs must not touch, and featured an article in which perfectly lovely women who were at healthy weights were shown at a ten pound weight loss, and trumpeted for how much more beautiful they were after that weight loss.
I was not getting affirmation from my family when it came to weight or looks. When I tried to get my mother to tell me if I was pretty, I was told I was shallow and vain for wondering about my looks, when maybe a simple compliment for an insecure girl would have done a world of good. When I was about thirteen, I remember I hugged my maternal grandma and when I told her how much I loved hugging her, her reply was something like, “I’m fat.” I protested, but she told me that my grandfather would love her more if she could just lose twenty pounds. How’s that for a message about weight’s affect on your worth? I believed her, because I had seen that same grandfather stand at the picture window in their lakeside cabin and make fun of his neighbor’s body in her bikini.
One time, though she didn’t think I could hear, my other grandmother, while looking at pictures I had just had made and was so proud of, commented that I looked like I had put on about ten pounds (I was fifteen and wore a size eight, which would now be a 4. See photo below).
In drill team, we weighed in once weekly, and the officers were allowed to know our weights. I was always on the cusp of being sidelined, at 5’6″ and 128 pounds. In my freshman year of college, the coed p.e. instructor, a man, did a caliper test on all of us, in front of everyone, and declared me “obese” on my form. I weighed 135 pounds and wore a size 8.
You see, I was coming of age in the 1980’s, when Jane Fonda was everywhere and Karen Carpenter was the first celebrity to die of anorexia. Now there are scholarly articles on the prevalence of weight loss articles and images in the media in the ’80’s and what effect it was having on women’s body image. Health was out, thin was in.
(Fittingly, while proofing this post, I heard a commercial for Medifast “Be the best version of you!” on Pandora. It’s everywhere and all the time, I tell you.)
I have never, ever been able to shake the worry about my weight. I worked as a fitness instructor through my twenties, and spent most of my thirties teaching beginning dance to eighth graders. Now, after one knee surgery, a severely sprained ankle, a bicep tendon injury, and a spinal surgery that removed two cervical discs and replaced them with a steel plate, I still work out as hard as my body will let me. I hurt, but I keep trying, because I want to be thin. I have ten pounds that I keep gaining and losing; it used to be the same ten pounds. I would lose it, it would come back. Something’s changed since menopause, though: I lose ten then gain back twelve. I had been wearing the same size for years, an 8 or ten, depending on fit. Now I am in tens to twelves. Some days I have equanimity about this, but sometimes I lay in bed, squeezing my pudge and mumbling my new dress size over and over, a litany of shame.
I tried my hardest to instill healthy messages to my two daughters about their own bodies. I knew how much I craved doses of reassurance when I was young. I fear my own insecurities rendered me a hypocrite, but I did try. Kate Winslet, an exquisitely beautiful and gifted actress, was recently cited on Huffington Post: “I was chubby, always had big feet, the wrong shoes, bad hair,” Winslet told Bear Grylls during an episode of his NBC show ‘Running Wild With Bear Grylls’ that aired Tuesday. “When I grew up, I never heard positive reinforcement about body image from any female in my life. I only heard negatives. That’s very damaging because then you’re programmed as a young woman to immediately scrutinize yourself and how you look…I stand in front of the mirror and say to Mia [her 14 year old daughter], ‘We are so lucky we have a shape. We’re so lucky we’re curvy. We’re so lucky that we’ve got good bums.’ And she’ll say, ‘Mummy, I know, thank God.’ It’s paying off.”
There has to be a place between Skeletor and Stay-Puft for this woman in her 50’s (child of the 80’s pop culture reference!) If I get too thin, my face looks drawn and skeletal, if I am too heavy, I look puffy and unhealthy. I must find the balance. More importantly, I need to change the tapes that play in my brain. I need to stop looking at myself in the mirror and castigating myself. And though I haven’t carved the word “FAT” into my own thigh with a pair of scissors since 2009, I still recite it to myself in a million ways every day. It’s time to move forward, to come out of hiding in the bathroom stall, to see myself for what is deeper than cellulite, and to be grateful for my healthy, strong body. Hell yeah, I can pinch an inch. What of it?
Kjerstin Gruys spent a year without mirrors. She researches how body image affects women, and wrote about it. What a gift to the world.