Archives for posts with tag: friendship

self careA few weeks ago, I started this post by writing:

“I am eating cold chicken fried rice out of the carry-out carton and watching flight tracker, which has suddenly and mysteriously changed my son’s arrival time from 9:30pm to 3:40am. He is on his way back to school for his final semester. And then … who knows?

“He says that the underclassmen have learned that “What are you going to do after you graduate?”  is the worst possible question to ask a senior. I suspect he told me that preemptively, in case I had planned to ask him That Question. I hadn’t. When he has firm plans or good news, he’ll tell me. Meanwhile, I believe that he has ideas brewing and interesting options ahead. He is resourceful and creative and I trust him to take good care of himself and his future.”

Now it’s almost March and I am thinking again about taking care of oneself. I spent time with a dear friend (DF) who had had a painful health scare and had decided to go vegan as a result. It wasn’t easy but DF was committed and is now feeling good, feeling healthy, and is hopeful that this will be life-prolonging as well as life-improving. DF talked about veganism not as a prison or punishment but as a choice DF makes every day to “take care of myself.”  Veganism is also in line with DF’s belief system.

I was very happy to see DF feeling great and doing so well. At the same time, I am aware that I usually recoil when someone says “take care of [one]self.” Usually a recoil is a sign that something has crossed a boundary or triggered a sense of violation for me, so I spent the next couple of days thinking about how and why I could be so happy about the idea of DF and my son “taking care of” themselves, when often those words make me want to scream and shake someone. After some thought, I concluded 1) that context matters and 2) that biased assumptions, hierarchy, judgment, paternalism, and lack of respect for others’ autonomy are often involved in the making of such statements.

Regarding context, it matters whether someone is talking about themselves (“I am taking care of myself by doing such-and-such”)  or whether they are speaking of someone else, as in “I wish he would take better care of himself” or “She should take care of herself.” DF had identified some priorities  and is taking specific steps to honor those priorities. DF is deciding for DF what DF wants, needs, values, and is willing and able to do, and then is choosing each day to act on those.  I find that inspiring and admirable and not at all triggering.  All too often, though, I hear people making the second kind of statement about someone else and about what that other person could or should be doing. That’s what activates my scream-and-murder impulse.

It used to be that when I’d hear that gendered phrase about some woman not “taking care of herself,” it referred to her physical appearance and her failure or refusal to follow social norms involving makeup, hair, and clothing. It was often linked to another homicide-worthy phrase, “letting herself go.”  These things were almost never said about men. They indicate a willingness and desire and assumed right on the part of the speaker to judge another person and to find them inferior on the basis of appearance and behavior. These statements also represent moral judgments, because if a woman is not doing what she “should,” then it must surely indicate a moral lapse (such as laziness) or faulty judgment or improper socialization (in which case the blame extends to the previous generation, particularly the ever-problematic Mom). In each case the speaker is placing hirself on higher ground than the person being discussed. In each case the speaker is assuming to know better than the person being discussed  what the person being discussed needs.

Now when I hear that someone is not “taking care of herself,”  it’s often a statement about weight or body shape  and their presumed connections to health.  Again, the phrase is applied more often and more heavily to women than to men, and again the speaker is assuming superiority (physical, mental and moral), a right to judge,  and better knowledge of what the other person needs. Most of western society seems to believe that large body size is itself proof of “bad” habits or behaviors, that fat people must surely eat too much (all the time!), must never exercise (or they wouldn’t be fat!), and must certainly be walking time bombs set to explode and die at any moment. Being fat, then, is evidence of failure to “take care of yourself.” Bring on the concern trolls.

In addition to being monumentally arrogant and irritating to a mandatory-throat-punch degree,  these statements are often based in ignorance or denial of scientific findings or the actual behaviors of the person in question, and they display a harmful paternalism which cements a social hierarchy holding fat people down. Worse still, these statements deny fat people’s – particularly fat women’s – autonomy. Having a thin body does not confer super-powers of judgment or omniscience or moral strength, and having a fat body does not require anyone to forfeit basic rights. Fat people don’t need anyone to tell them that they are fat; they know. They don’t need unsolicited advice on what or how much to eat or how and when to move (especially from people who don’t know them well enough to know how they DO eat or how they DO move). Fat people don’t benefit from bullying, ridicule, shaming, or hateful assumptions from biased idiots. And most importantly, a fat person doesn’t need someone else to define their self-care needs and goals. Like everyone else, fat people get to decide these for themselves.

“Taking care of ourselves” comes in many forms, some with a big social stamp of approval, and others discounted, dismissed, or invisible to society and those who would judge. The assumption that there is a fixed, finite one-size-fits-all set of ways to care for oneself is harmful and flat out wrong. For someone suffering from depression, getting out of bed and showering can be a major self-care accomplishment.  For a disabled person, successful rationing of spoons can mean the difference between a bearable day and a nightmarish one. For anyone of any size who struggles with disordered eating, learning to listen to one’s body and eat without shame or guilt is a huge self-care victory. And for members of socially-despised groups (including but not limited to fat people), getting through a day without succumbing to self-hatred is a triumph, and whatever you need to do to get there  is self-care.

Nobody else knows as well as each of us what we need and value. Nobody else lives in our skin and experiences our lives and our unique challenges. Nobody else gets to define our self-care for us, and nobody else gets a vote in how we are doing on that. We don’t owe anyone explanation or “perfection” or “health,” and we certainly don’t owe anyone anything that interferes with our autonomy. In my presence, then, you can safely say “I take care of myself by…” followed by pretty much anything you want that doesn’t involve infringing on another person’s rights.  I cannot guarantee your safety, however, if you try to tell me how I or anyone else should take care of ourselves. People who say such things in my presence tend to need a lot more care afterward themselves.






ChristmasLeaves“You shoulda named me Joyful Noise,”  said W a few days ago before he went back to campus. I couldn’t answer, laughing as I was at his singing, dancing, stomping, and clapping, or whatever it was he was doing that was so dang loud.

My semester ended a week before his. W’s dad B and I had worked out that B would get W to his house after W’s finals week  and would keep him there until Christmas day. Then I would bring W back home with me.

I had decided that I needed to see family, starting with sis P 1200 miles away. After my students turned in their final papers and exams, I hit the road, driving 4-500 miles per day, stopping in a hotel and grading for several hours, then sleeping before getting up and repeating the process.  I coasted in to P’s driveway on a cloud of frigid snowflakes on the 3rd day.

Her youngest daughter, a true sweet earth child, was out by the road celebrating the snow when I got there. The house was lit up, pointy windows glowing. The building was old and had been a church, a bordello, a different church, and then a family home for 30 years before sis and her husband bought it. It perches at the feet of mountains and gets semi-regular visits from bears seeking P’s wild-growing concord grapes  and from cougars seeking the family’s smaller pets.

The three girls had grown so much since 2005! The oldest is now a little taller than me, confident, funny, capable and beautiful. Middle niece is quieter with a simple ballet dancer elegance and a wicked dry sense of humor. Youngest niece is always moving, always sharing, and always smiling. Sis P’s house is comfy and welcoming like a favorite pair of shoes. Sliding in on a cold snowy night it seemed the perfect place to go for holiday warmth. P and her husband are the ideal hosts for me, making me feel welcome and comfortable and not like a visitor at all.

We had four lovely days together filled with fun excursions, good food, and a lot of laughter. We celebrated Christmas together before the real day and it was lovely. Then I headed east and, after driving all day, arrived at big sis (P2)’s house. She hadn’t known I was coming and held me so tight we both just stood and cried for a few minutes, swaying and hugging. Big sis had had a really tough year and her youngest child was to marry in a few days. I met her fiance for the first time. Turns out he had been offered a job up near W’s college and they would be moving up there in mid-January. Big sis and I sat and talked for hours in her big pretty old farm house around which a city had grown, and two of her other children came over to join us, bringing spouses and beautiful sweet children I hadn’t yet met. That too was lovely and warm and perfect for Christmas.

The next day (Christmas Eve) I drove to the house of my brother and sis-in-law  who live only a few miles from W’s dad. They welcomed me into yet another warm fragrant house and we too talked for hours, exchanging funny stories and catching up on each other’s lives. We had a very laid back Christmas morning. It was quieter than most of ours because their son and his wife and their new baby had gone to visit the baby’s other grandparents. The weather report promised a snow storm. I called W’s dad (who has a second job clearing parking lots of snow) and arranged to get W a few hours earlier than planned so that we could head home well ahead of the storm.

Even before I had W snugly beside me in the warm car driving the few hundred miles home, this felt like the best Christmas in a long time. I hadn’t cleaned the house before leaving and hadn’t set up any holiday decorations. Didn’t have a single gift for him except one Terry’s milk chocolate orange I had happened to see in the grocery. Instead of setting a day to celebrate Christmas with wrapped presents and favorite family foods, we went out to eat and had an after-Christmas shopping trip.

W had a nice long break – just went back yesterday – and we spent it going all our favorite places, doing our favorite things, seeing our favorite people, and talking about all our separate adventures. He snuggled and sweet-talked his furry sisters, hugged me a lot, and told great stories. He shared his thoughts on his classes and his work/study job and the books that he’s reading. We rented movies and caught up on our favorite tv shows. There was a lot of Joyful Noise.  It was wonderful.

me at W’s age

I am remembering the Thanksgiving I was W’s age (18). I was in my 2nd year of college, too far away to drive home for the weekend. Instead I made the much shorter trip to Philadelphia, to the apartment of a sweet acquaintance (C, the best friend of the sister of my boyfriend, who went to the same university my boyfriend did). She had offered me her studio apartment for the long weekend while she was out of town. The plan was that I would go there on Wednesday, spend a quiet Thanksgiving by myself, and then on Friday my boyfriend would come back to town from his family’s home and I would cook him dinner and we would spend the rest of the weekend together.

The apartment was tiny and adorable, a few stories up in an old brownstone on a well-traveled street. The  kitchen was in a closet, the bathroom had a claw-foot tub with a puzzlingly clingy shower curtain, and there were  three tall sunny windows overlooking the mostly-leafless trees at the sidewalk edge. Wednesday I settled in, learned which keys fit which locks and how to unfold the couch into a bed, located the nearest store and bought groceries. That night I learned how it felt to be all alone in a grownup apartment in a grownup building on a street which felt as if everyone else had gone home to somewhere far away. I listened to C’s albums and fell in love with Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. Thursday was even quieter. I’m sure I had books; I don’t remember C having a TV. I didn’t go out – just listened to Alice’s Restaurant on WMMR and replayed all of C’s albums, feeling at once grownup and very very alone. I pictured the family gatherings at my parents’ house and at my boyfriend’s parents’ big city apartment. I could almost smell the warm scents of the Thanksgiving-day kitchens and hear the voices and laughter of family members drifting in from another room. Thursday was a long day.

Friday I set up the folding card table (C’s apartment was too small to have it up permanently), found a table cloth and nice dishes for two place settings, and put together two salads (fresh greens with tiny bits of carrot, diced tomato, mushrooms). I wasn’t a very experienced cook at 18 but I probably marinated the steaks in something. Those were for Boyfriend; he loved steak. I put dinner rolls in a basket on the table with the salads and set about cleaning and slicing potatoes for homemade French fries (which I had never made but figured how hard could they be?).  Boyfriend arrived, I was overjoyed, and grownup homemaker-type bustling ensued, including the pouring of two cold glasses of milk. Boyfriend also liked milk. At some point I turned on the burner under the pan of oil in which I intended to cook the fries. The steaks went in the oven.  Here’s where my ignorance becomes obvious.

Me: I don’t know why the oil isn’t getting hot. It’s been on for a while. The burner looks hot. Oil bubbles when it boils, right?  Why is it not bubbling?

BF: Maybe throw in a fry and see if it start cooking.    [I throw in a fry. Pooffffff!  It bursts into flame.]

Me: What do we do for a grease fire? I don’t think we’re supposed to put water on it.

BF: I think I heard that you can use milk for a grease fire.    [I take one of the glasses of milk and pour some into the flaming pan. Booooooom!!  The  flames explode outward. Boyfriend and I leap backwards, crash into the table, knocking it over, breaking all the dishes, and scattering salad and milk across the tiny apartment.  One of us calls 911.]

BF: Don’t tell anyone this was my idea, okay?   [He said that a lot.  I’ve kept this particular secret for over 30 years now. It’s time to go public.]

The firefighters came and had the blaze out in about 30 seconds but the apartment was a wreck and there was no eating THAT dinner. Turns out there were enough neighbors still around to be worried that we were trying to burn down the building. The next day I made Boyfriend help me scrub down the walls with the hope that the smoke and soot would come off with enough effort. It did not. I dragged boyfriend and another friend who had come back to town early   around Philadelphia looking for paint stores, determined that C would not come home to a blown up burned out smoky wreck of an apartment and that she would not have to forfeit a damage deposit on account of us being stupid enough to pour a glass of milk onto a raging grease fire. I had enough money for a few gallons of paint.  We spent the rest of the weekend repainting her apartment and airing it out with cold November air.  I cleaned up the kicked over shards of dinner dishes and salad, wishing I had enough money to replace all the broken, blackened and otherwise totally ruined stuff. A couple of months later I did send her some replacement pans and plates and bowls, all filled with homemade chocolate chip cookies. I still feel bad that her act of generosity literally blew up in her (well, my) face.

Anyway, I did not mean for this post to be about how I blew up Thanksgiving.  I meant it to be about how it feels to be alone and far from home and family in a brand new and very grownup situation.  Turns out it feels weird, good, bad, and difficult all at once.

Tonight I am thankful for the family who took W in this weekend  when he was too far to come home for Thanksgiving.  I am thankful for the friends who took me in here today  recognizing that this would be a very lonely time for me if no one made me get in the car and join them for the afternoon.  I am thankful for delicious food and I am thankful that no one kicked over the table before we could eat it. I am grateful for a warm whole unburned house and I am grateful that there are so many kind and generous people in the world.

Happy day of thanks to you all.

I have been worrying (not a lot but some) that W will be bored out of his skull when he comes home for winter break. He will be trading days full of interesting classes with heavy workloads, several-hour shifts at his job in the school’s Annual Fund office, evenings and weekends with a wacky and varied group of friends, and his new addiction to foosball    for a quiet sunny house, his mother, and two adoring cats.

Yesterday we were email chatting and he confessed to feeling ‘world weary.’   He was tired and overloaded, his cough was back, and he had called in sick to work and to the teacher of his one Thursday class. I wrote, “If you were home I would make you a nest on the couch and bring you blankets, hot soup, and kitties.”

He replied, “I know you would. I am jealous of my old life.  I was a lucky bastard.”

I knew it was a comment born of his tiredness and his need of pampering. I knew it didn’t reflect any real desire to be anywhere else pursuing any other path than the one he has chosen. I felt sad that he was unwell and exhausted …. and I felt good that, however fleetingly, he was thinking of his ealier life with me as ‘the good old days.’

Earlier this week in an email conversation with D, a friend from my youth  who is recovering from a heart attack, he was telling me of the difficulty of adjusting his life, his diet, his very personality to a new way of being. He lamented this ‘rusting’ of our bodies that brings unwelcome new rules and limitations as we age.

The old days seem so effortless, looking back from this distance. In our teenage years, D and I and a big bunch of friends used to gather in the parking lot of our employer after closing the place for the night. We brought Frisbees, blasted music from our car stereos, and tried to see who could throw the farthest, who could most spectacularly chase down a far-flung disc, and who could do the fanciest most complex catch of a close throw. We ran at full speed, never thinking of injury.  We leapt and twisted and stretched and threw, and our bodies uncomplainingly did whatever we asked and didn’t punish us later. Those were definitely good old days. Of course for me and my friends, they were also sometimes the bad old days. Parents fought and sometimes divorced, heartbreak lurked around every corner, and teen angst became intense self-loathing. Some of us self-medicated to dangerous degrees. A few didn’t survive to adulthood.

This morning I read the blog of another friend. In it he expressed a hope/wish/prayer that next election season would be kinder, less full of rancor and the snarky words of people believing they know more than others. I agree with him wholeheartedly … and yet I am one of the people he was talking about.  I DO often believe that I know more than people who express opinions which differ significantly from mine. I responded to my friend’s blog with a musing question: Was life better before I became interested in politics? A lot of relationships were easier for me then, but were those better days?  And was I doing my share of citizenship work, back when I didn’t know anything about the issues?

I don’t know the answers to those questions and I don’t know if I ever will or if that matters. I don’t know if the politics-less years were better than these more recent political ones for me. Life is different now. Things have changed. I have changed. My friend D and his world have changed; now his wife and daughter watch him anxiously to assure themselves that he is really okay. W’s world has changed; he has many more obligations and opportunities and choices and people clamoring for his attention. My world has changed; ‘home’ has become quieter and cooler and rattlier and the rest of life looms outside, pressing in more obviously and insistently than before. Old things rust and we have to decide whether to try to sand and oil them in an attempt to make them new again, to replace them with new things, or just to let them go.

Today I’m thinking that to ask which times were better or worse  is to miss the point. There are good things and bad things at every step in our lives. Some of the bad things we have to deal with; to try to ignore them would be irresponsible or foolhardy. My new goal will have to be to not lose sight of good things past and present. I know good people, I have a warm house equipped with 2 furry critters who love to crawl onto my lap and nap, purring. I have a job I love and a son whose company I cherish. I have books and music and interesting things to do.  I too am a lucky bastard. Always have been, probably always will be. No matter what happens.