Mirror mirror

I’ve been crafting a post in my head regarding two distinctive thoughts that crossed my mind about my appearance in the past couple of weeks, and then I clicked on this story from Ravishly, and I couldn’t believe the timeliness of it.

After a teenage life that made me self-conscious about my weight, my skin color, my thick lips and broad nose, I’d like to think I’m more comfortable in my skin than I’ve ever been. However, there are always moments. Like last week when I glanced at my reflection in a window I was passing and thought, “god, I am really unattractive.” Or earlier this week, when a member of Toastmasters asked to take my picture for the Facebook page and when he showed it to me and I looked at my moon-pie face and thought “jeezus, I need to lose weight.”

My mom is guilty of making these proclamations against herself, too. She grew up with her own grandmother telling her she was ugly, her uncle telling her she had skinny stick legs—the woman never wears anything but pants because she believes her legs are too skinny (as if that’s a thing (coming from a woman who has always struggled with weight))…that’s the kind of damage criticism can do to a young person—and she always hated having her photo taken. My mom was (is) crazy gorgeous. I mean stunning. And I think she’s starting to see that now when she looks back on photos of herself, but she lived her young adulthood believing otherwise. Even still today, when she sees a photo of herself, she immediately recoils and names off all the reasons she doesn’t like how she looks.

It was on my drive home from Toastmasters, when I thought about how quickly I recoiled from a photo of myself that reveals something I don’t like to see and immediately noted to myself a need to fix it.  And if that’s how I look, why not embrace it, imperfections and all? What good comes from viewing oneself negatively? I also wondered if men have the same sort of thought processes about their place/appearance in the world.

The next morning, when Spence was drinking his coffee and reading the paper, I entered the living room and said, “I have a question to ask you.” He put the paper down. I continued: “Do you ever pass your reflection in a window while walking down the street and think, god I’m ugly?” The look of confusion was answer enough. I continued, “Or do you ever see a photo of yourself and think, gosh, I should lose some weight.” I won’t get into the specifics of his answer, only that it had me in hysterics, but suffice it to say, the answer is generally no. (And I clarified immediately that he shouldn’t be thinking these things, obviously, but neither should the women who do think these things. That’s the rub.)

But I do have a hard time imagining a man passing a reflection of himself and making much judgment on it one way or the other.

So back to the essay at the start. Is it possible for women to wipe out the inner critic? Or is the goal to simply quiet her so that she doesn’t override all the beautiful, fun, fleeting, remarkable things happening around us all the time in this life? Because while I have ideas in my mind of how I’d like to age and what I want to look likeand what I want to be able to physically do, I can’t (no one should) allow the disparities between what I want and what I have determine my outlook/mood from day to day. Particularly when what I have is good health, good friends, a loving husband, a great job and what I wish for deals almost solely in issues of vanity. Who knew vanity could be so pervasive? I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly vain, yet here we are. (Another post coming soon about this with an interesting story about madre!)

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Cleanliness/godliness/nature/nurture

Holy shit, I have a high tolerance for uncleanliness. Not with myself–I shower daily, wear clean clothes and wash them regularly. And not with food related things–I always put dirty dishes in the dishwasher and clean the table after I eat. But everything else. I have a shit ton of stuff on the dining room table (that’s in the kitchen because we don’t have space for it in the dining room of our too small house). Papers, cards, pens, unopened mail, untouched magazine, my bamboo flute I want to practice, etc. There is dog hair all over the shit brown carpeting in the living room. (Honestly, who the fuck puts dark brown carpeting in their house?) There are throw blankets hanging off all the furniture because it’s always cold in this house right now since we turned off the heat. (It’s spring after all.) Sometimes the blankets are on the floor. There is a stack of New York Times sitting next to me that takes up nearly all the space on the small end table. There is incense ash, dust, cat hair, dog hair, aspen wood chips on the floor upstairs as well as Timothy hay pieces (that’s where the guinea pigs live, obviously). Some days it makes me crazy, but generally it doesn’t. 

Part of that is the shithole we live in. Now, I try to remain grateful for having a roof over our head. I don’t want to take that for granted and the fact that it’s so close to work I can walk there, which is really nice. However. We have literally unpacked maybe 15% of our boxes. There are boxes stacked throughout this house. One entire room is being used as storage. The house is old (built in the 1870s); it has brown fucking carpeting; it is small. And cleaning it doesn’t seem to make a huge difference because you still have brown carpeting, it still feels dark and depressing, and there are still packed boxes lining most of the walls. We have framed photos and paintings leaning against walls, our queen box spring for the guest room is leaning against the wall behind the television in the living room. Basically, we live in a storage unit.

(On a side note, I have come to hate carpeting with a white hot intensity. I would be happy to never have it another of my homes. I don’t know if that will be possible, but I’m trying to weed out carpeted homes as often as I can during our current house search.)

In our Illinois home, a house I loved, I enjoyed cleaning because I loved the house and making sure it looked great. I didn’t clean it daily or weekly even (though with dogs and cats, I probably should), but it was a beautiful house that only looked better when the papers were recycled and the dust bunnies were swept away. 

When I look around my current rental, I think, “My mother would die if she saw the state of this place.” My beloved mom is a clean freak. She has lessened her militancy about cleaning as she’s gotten older and dealt with health issues, but she is still more militant than I have ever been. She grew up with a strict cleaning regime–there was to be no sitting or resting until all the house was cleaned and all the chores complete. This routine has lasted her entire life and she told me during our most recent visit that she literally cannot sit and relax if there is work to be done. My stepdad has no problem sitting for hours reading a book or watching a tv show while my mom is literally breaking a sweat while mopping the floor or doing the laundry or cleaning the closets or sewing new curtains. He’ll reprimand her for working too much and tell her to sit down and relax and she simply cannot do it. The only thing that sidelines her from keeping up this habit on occasion is her health. Sometimes she hurts too much or is dealing with chemo side effects so that moving around the house becomes difficult. But the moment she’s feeling even a bit better, she’s up and cleaning. It’s not until 7:30pm or so, when everything is done, that she’s ready to relax with the newspaper and television. Often she falls asleep while trying to enjoy these two things.

She was like this when I was a kid too, of course, more so because she was in the prime of her health, but once she left my dad, and I moved in with him and my brother, cleanliness of the house took a backseat. Not that it was terrible. I do recall the bathroom getting a bit disgusting (because no one wanted to clean the bathroom…ick) and I recall the place where my dad would stack the firewood left all sorts of small wood pieces behind that no one bothered picking up. I suppose part of this is laziness, too. 

And then I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house, who lived just down the hill from me. She had a house full of dogs and the fleas that went along with them. For a long, long time, I thought fleas were an inevitable part of having dogs, and they did not bother me at all when I was at her house, even when they landed on me or when I saw a them crawling around on the snout of one of the dogs with white fur. (Today, I would lose my shit if we got fleas–happily we’ve never had them in the house, knock on wood, but we always treat our dogs for them.) There were cobwebs and dust bunnies in grandma’s house and dust and dog hair and ashtrays with cigarette butts and ash. And the counter that was in her dining room was overflowing with papers–so much mail, so many magazines…just everything. It all got stacked on that counter until it was mountainous. I look back on it now and I’m perplexed at how I absorbed that stacking method of “organization” as my own without even realizing it. Osmosis.

I don’t know why I didn’t become more like my mom with her inability to sit still if the house wasn’t clean–I witnessed that throughout my life. Perhaps since she was doing the work, she allowed me to go have fun, allowing me to disassociate the need for a clean house before relaxation. She didn’t have that luxury growing up and she wanted me and my brother to have a very different childhood than she did.

And also, I take after my grandmother in many, many ways. From the way my body is built, to my love of statement jewelry, to me my efforts of developing an eye-catching personal style (my grandmother once wore a fantastic yellow suit and slayed it…not many people would wear yellow from head to toe. And she probably got the outfit from Goodwill.), to my love of dogs and my love of naps. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I would start stacking all sorts of crap on the dining room table.

But this is something I need to work against, for my own sanity. This is where I need to ask, What Would Mom Do? And I already know, the answer is not Take A Nap.

Atonement

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou

Rebecca surrounded by our cats. The cats never bothered her. And she liked eating grass.

This quote is everything to me. It’s a way to forgive myself and to aspire to improve. I’m really, really fortunate that I’ve had a fairly drama-free, tragedy-free, trauma-free life and I can say the same about my childhood. There is little I would want to change in my life.

One thing I do regret, deeply. Deeply. The way animals were treated in the area I grew up. Dogs were mostly kept outside, tied to dog boxes, even our two dogs. They received food/hay/water, but not the companionship they should have had. Of course, I was a kid and had little control over this, and my parents lived in a culture where this was the norm, and I didn’t question it much until I became a teenager, and the dogs had passed away. I can feel forlorn over these memories at times, but I remember the quote above. When I worked at a vet clinic in Illinois, I told my friend and colleague about my regret and she reminded me that this was a common living condition for dogs in the country during the 1970s and 80s and that, at any given time, we can only do our best, and to not look back with regret but to look back remembering we were doing the best we could at the time. A corollary of the Angelou quote.

And so I live my adult life atoning for actions I wish had been better when I was a kid. One of those include my first guinea pig.

Her name was Rebecca. I named her after my friend. I remember so clearly everything about adopting her. She was in the pet section at Meijer and she had a bite taken out of her ear, likely from another guinea pig. I implored my mom to allow me to adopt it and she said okay (which is surprising when I think about it now). She lived in my bedroom. And I have all sorts of memories of her being out and about with me (I have a photo I love of me sitting in a chair, striking a pose, ribbon in my hair and Rebecca on my lap). However, I also know she was terribly neglected. She was kept in a fish tank for the first few years of her life (a big no-no) and I HATED cleaning her cage and avoided it for as long as I possibly could. The filth in her cage would build and build until mom threatened me with a punishment of some kind, and I would take the aquarium out to the edge of the woods to dump it and I did it with such attitude that I broke the acquarium at least twice. Thinking back on how I let her live in such filth literally makes me cry today (as I write this). 

Eventually I think my mom took over taking care of Rebecca as I become a preoccupied teenager, too busy thinking about other things and trying to (unsuccessfully) fit in. Surprisingly, Rebecca lived for five years…a decent lifespan for a guinea pig that didn’t receive any sort of vet care. I was in Texas with my mom when Rebecca died. My stepdad was with her and her discomfort during her death brought tears to his eyes as he kept her company. I’m actually embarrassed and ashamed when I think about it all today.

In my twenties, I adopted two guinea pigs (at two different times) knowing how to be a better caregiver. They both lived shorter life spans–one for three years and the last for only one and half years–in spite of having better care.

Now, as a 41-year-old pet owner, I have added a guinea pig to the mix and plan to add another (as early as tomorrow, depending on how things go this weekend). I’ve learned you can rescue guinea pigs rather than buying them from pet stores, so that’s the only way I will bring them into my life. I’ve learned they are incredibly social animals, so I’m hoping to adopt a second one so Penny (my current pig) will have company; I’ve learned they shouldn’t live in cedar chips or wood chips because of the dust (prior to this, all my pigs lived in chips) so instead I use recyclable fluff and I’m trying to figure out how to change over to fleece blankets; I’ve learned they shouldn’t eat iceberg lettuce (poor Rebecca ate ONLY iceberg lettuce) because it can give them diarrhea. 

I learn. And I try to do better.

Small things

HeartI don’t know what determines if a marriage will last or not. I know I tend not to dwell on such things; I’m just grateful that I feel as happy now as I did 16 years ago, when we first started hanging out together. More so now, because our histories are intertwined more tightly. We’ve been through a lot together. Health issues; family issues; personal issues. It’s not always been easy, but we’ve been honest with one another, brutally honest at times, and we’ve made our way through difficult times. And I’m grateful that the difficult times are few and far between compared to good times or simply content times. More often than not I find myself laughing hysterically with my better half or sitting next to him and reflecting on something he’d said earlier and giggling to myself, and I think, I’m just so thankful to know such happiness.

Two recent small things that made me feel thankful. On Sunday, after I’d spent part of the day working at home, I went to a lecture on campus to hear our state senator. I was so hungry when I returned home and I walked in to find DS had dinner ready–my salad was waiting for me on the table and he was just starting to dish out my pasta and sauce when I walked in.
This morning (and what spurred me to write this post), I was working from home for the first part of the morning and I saw DS getting his pans ready to make eggs. I said, I’m going to make eggs, too. He asked if I wanted toast and I said yes, so he cut some slices from the loaf he’d recently made. I had every expectation of making my own eggs once he was finished, but the next thing I knew, he set a plate down next to me with eggs and toast. “You made my eggs?” I said. “Of course,” he said. It was not a big deal to him but it meant a lot to me. And he does stuff like that all the time. As well as accepting my nose piercing and my septum piercing and my guinea pig adopting and my head shaving and my dog adopting (when he’d always had cats) and my girls-only vacationing. (Not to mention dealing with all the snow, refusing to let me help with the shoveling, even when I’m requesting a potty area for the dogs so they can go out more easily…he even handled that. Without complaint. First thing in the morning.)

Prior to committing suicide, Virginia Woolf wrote a heartbreaking letter to her husband. In it, she says, “What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you.” This line brings a knot to my chest each and every time I read it because I know she’s writing it as a goodbye to her husband, and I kfeel completely the same toward my husband. It is the one thing I would want him to know, should I suddenly disappear from this world. And it is written more beautifully than I could have ever written it.

And so each day, I try remember THESE are the good ol’ days. I hope we have many ahead of us, but I know we at least have this one we’re living today.

Kay

Kay is my great aunt. When I was five or so, I would spend my days with her and my great grandmother when my mom and dad worked and my brother went to school.

I would pour them imaginary tea and they would drink it and eat my imaginary food. I would take their mail and pretend to be the mailman, delivering to them important messages. They were a lot of fun. Especially Kay.

Kay never learned to read or write. She had (and has) the mind of a child. The only difference between her and me was that she looked like an adult. She could be convinced to do anything in the way that you can convince your playmate to get into trouble with you.

She also has a speech impediment. You had to be around her an awfully long time to be able to understand her speech.  I remember one of the neighbor kids thought she was speaking German. When I was younger, I could understand her with no problem. During my most recent visit with her at the nursing home, it is more challenging. She throws out names and memories and with no context, it’s hard for me to follow along. But she’s perfectly content to keep talking if I nod in agreement and laugh when she laughs. And I understand her better when I can stop her and ask a question, and I have context for her answer.

The only reason Kay is in a nursing home now is because she’s unable to read and write, so she can’t really take care of herself if she’s totally alone. For a long time, she had friends who lived with her, or she’d stay with the neighbors (we lived out in the country where everyone knew each other and Kay was a local fixture, walking up and down the road, picking blackberries or strawberries or mushrooms and jabbering at anyone who stopped by. (And I use jabbering intentionally–it likely sounds like gibberish to anyone unfamiliar with her and she will go on and on and on.) ) For a long time, my grandmother (her sister) lived right down the hill from her, so she had someone to turn to if she had a problem. Once my grandmother died, and once Kay’s roommate moved out, she was placed in a nursing home.

I’m thinking of Kay now because I recently made a presentation to a group of colleagues and in it I mention how important higher education is to my life and career. And I think of Kay, who was sent home from elementary school when she was quite little, diagnosed with an unspecified learning disability. The teacher told my great grandmother she was unable to learn. And so that was it. She never learned reading or writing. She never went to school again.

As an adult, I don’t even understand what Kay’s disability is. I recall asking my grandmother many, many years ago what Kay would be diagnosed with today. What is the name of her disability? I don’t recall her answer, but I think that’s because she didn’t have one. I mean, Kay’s alert,  she has cognitive ability. She can cook her food and watch television and find her way around her spaces. She has an emotional life. She cries over past loves and losses. She hugs me tightly when we part ways. She has no physical handicaps. If she could speak more clearly, her inability to read/write would be completely hidden.It’s only when she talks that you can tell something is not right. My grandmother called it Lazy Tongue, but I think it’s not that simple. Also, her decision-making process is quite stunted. If a stranger pulled up and said to Kay, jump in and I’ll give you a ride to the mall, she’d likely get in without a second thought, even if she didn’t want to go to the mall or even know which mall the driver was talking about.

And still, I don’t know what her diagnosis is. She grew up at a time when labels for children like her were given easily. Feeble-minded. That may have been what they told my great grandmother. Kay was feeble-minded and couldn’t learn.

But that couldn’t possibly be true, right? If they had lived in a place with more resources, perhaps her life would have been different. Perhaps if they had had more financial resources, her life would have been different.

Instead, she lived a child-like life, trusting everyone, befriending everyone, visiting everyone. Perhaps she wouldn’t want things to be any different.