Book of the Month: A Book of Migrations

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June’s book of the month selection is something a little bit different.

It is non-fiction. It is travel. But it is a meandering, in-depth sort of travelogue, a scouring of the history, culture, and collective consciousness of a country that managed to capture my own soul: Ireland.

Rebecca Solnit traveled around the country on foot in the early half of the 90s, ruminating on what makes Ireland so Irish. She covers a number of subjects, including ancient history, recent history, many public figures, and the roots of Irish restlessness, from their propensity for bird imagery to the necessity of mass emigration.

Solnit’s prose is not easy, but it is beautiful. She creates shockingly gorgeous sentences that probe to the depths of the matter, and are always concise, yet somehow view the issue from a slightly sidewise angle. I loved the way she made me think so differently about a place that I thought I knew a lot about. She weaves a few stories of her own experiences in the country amidst the other stuff, but those stories really just act as jumping off points for bigger things.

By the end of it, I felt like I understood Ireland a little better, as well as an aspect of myself that I hadn’t known was unknown. Not your average travel book, and definitely worth a look if you like a long, slow, savory reading experience.

What did you read this month? What was your favorite? Least favorite? 

(My least favorite was definitely Beautiful Disaster by Jamie Maguire. We have to stop perpetuating this ridiculous notion that possessive, violent men are sexy. Shudder.)

(Psst! Find the rest of my book of the month recommendations here.)

Book of the Month: A Book of Migrations

making friends with myself

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It feels as though I have been at war with myself for some time. I think that is an accurate description of depression: an introspective war. Part of my healing process has been to negotiate a peace treaty, a ceasefire, a truce instead of antagonism.

More than that, I needed to become friends with myself again.

It hasn’t been easy. But it has been easier than I thought it would be.

I started with affirmations. My therapist asked me what Bryan would say to me when I was in the middle of a bad episode, what sort of things would penetrate the darkness and bring me back to the light, even just a little bit. Even just a pinprick. Then she wrote them on a note card and I taped it to my bathroom mirror. That was three months ago. That note card is still there. It reads: You are amazing and I love you. 

My task was to say those words to myself every day. Look myself in the eye, and say, out loud, “You are amazing, and I love you.”

It felt ridiculous. It felt absurd. I was embarrassed the first few times I did it. I made Bryan leave the adjoining room once because I felt so self-conscious having him hear me saying these words to myself. But I did it. I made it a habit; every time I came into the bathroom, I’d catch my own eye, and say it. Sometimes I’d even throw in a wink.

Slowly, it began to feel less ridiculous.

Slowly, it began to feel more true.

And I noticed that some other things were changing, too. It became easier for me to focus on the good things that I was doing, rather than wearing “bad thing” blinders. I was able to look more objectively at the things I was attempting to achieve, to see the real progress I was making and not just the setbacks. To see my worth as a person. Bryan and I went for a long walk in the coulees in Lethbridge and on the way back, sweaty and dusty, I caught sight of my reflection in the sideview mirror and thought, “Hm, I’m really pretty.” It was an idle thought, a moment where my guard was down, and those words traipsed right on in as if they belonged there. Words that I had never thought before.

I think of myself in different terms now. Not “the depressed, complicated, hard to handle girl.” But smart, creative, capable. The girl who is good at her job. The girl who has a million creative outlets because she can’t contain it all within herself. The girl who is a great sister and a great friend. I used to think it was silly to think that men might be flirting with me, because why would they want to flirt with me, but now I shrug and think, Why wouldn’t they flirt with me? That subtle shift in thinking has led to a cascade of difference.

I look at myself with more kindness now. I practice self-compassion every day. I still tell myself I love you. I don’t know what it is, therapy or medication or becoming my own friend again, or some combination therein (definitely some combination therein), but I have never felt so good in my life. If I ever have, it has been lost in the mist and murk of childhood memories.

Nothing is perfect. I still have bad days. Days that are as dark as they have ever been. But for the most part, for the majority of my time, I am doing just fine.

More than just fine.

I am doing well.

making friends with myself

the gift.

The gift was wrapped in Christmas paper. Christmas in June. I could roll with that.

It was heavy and rattled when I shook it, but there was no sign that there were loose pieces rolling around. I’ve always been terrible at guessing at the contents of gifts, so I had no idea what was inside. I sat in the front seat of the car with my dad beside me, and tore the paper off.

It was an art set. I trailed my fingers over the color photo on the front, where the myriad colored pencils and other supplies were laid out in all their splendor. I had slowly been getting into drawing over the past year, and my dad had, too, one of those independent but simultaneous discovery things. We sometimes exchanged messages that contained pictures of our latest creations. My father was much better at realism than I was, but I appreciated the slightly cartoonish nature of my own drawings, as well.

“I have the same one,” he said, watching me. “I hope you like it.”

There was a bit of a lump in my throat, perhaps a strange reaction to an art set. But it was more than that to me. My family is a complicated web, as many families are these days. Being the oldest child and the only one from my mother and father, it is easy to feel like an outsider, an interloper, the puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit. I have been struggling with these feelings for a long time, and they have come up in therapy sometimes. The feeling that I am not known. Not a priority. The one who doesn’t belong. But this gift. It sat on my lap, staring up at me and saying, quiet but firm, I see you. I see who you are and what moves you and I want to help you bring that into the world. It was my dad telling me that he saw me, too, that he knew me and wanted to help me bring my art (my soul) into the open.

“I love it,” I said, smiling huge. I hugged it all the way home.

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the gift.

26.

I have always loved my birthday. For as long as I can remember, the month of June with the number 14 trailing behind it has given me a special little thrill. When I was working in an office and would come across the date on a random piece of paperwork, I would smile to myself and think, “That’s my birthday.” Historical events that took place on that day seemed to carry special significance to me when I heard about them (though admittedly they’d fall out of my brain almost immediately afterwards). I was almost inevitably disappointed every year, no matter how good my birthday was, because my expectations of awesomeness were so high, as I counted down the days with arm-flailing excitement (I remember one year in high school, I started counting down the days at 65).

This year, my birthday kind of snuck up on me. I blinked, and it was June 5. I blinked again, and it was June 12 (the day that I am writing this). I didn’t have time to anticipate my birthday with aggravating single-mindedness, I guess. Or maybe I’m just growing up a little.

My obsession with my birthday is a bit of a paradox when I think about it, because I look upon the passage of time with such deep-seated fear. I am forever scrambling to hold onto the passing moments, lamenting the speed with which days slip through my fingers. So one would think that I would abhor my birthday, marker of the passage of time that it is. But I don’t. Despite its tendency to disappoint me over the years, I can’t think of a single birthday that was less than good. It is still my favorite day of the year. Maybe it is because it comes on the cusp of spring and summer, when I tend to be fully emerging from my winter-induced depression coma. Maybe because it is a time when things get to just be about me. For whatever the reason, I continue to look forward to June 14 with child-like excitement every year. I wonder how long that will last, if I will always adore it the way I do now. Our society says no, that we are to fear aging with all the strength we have, and that women in particular have an expiration date, and I should wail and tear my hair at the thought of getting older. But I don’t. While I still think with discomfort at how quickly the years are passing, and that I am now in the late half of my twenties, I am grateful for the time that I have already been given, and hopeful that I will be given much more. Aging, after all, is a privilege, and one that I hope to take full advantage of.

This year, our plans were simple. We saw Jurassic World at the VIP theatre with my brother- and sister-in-law. We went to Julio’s Barrio for bulldogs and amazing Mexican food with a few good friends. We headed back home to Sylvan Lake to hang out with my family for the day, nothing special, just the people I love, a home-cooked meal, and a pie. Simple pleasures that weren’t killed by sky-high expectations.

So June 14 has passed for another year, and I am staring 26 in the face. I have a feeling it’s going to be a good one.

How do you feel about your birthday? What did you do for your last one?

26.

I am a runner

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It is the last half mile of my second half-marathon. I am on track for a 2:30 finish. I let myself slow down, just a little. The 2:30 pace bunny passes me on one side, a lime green clad volunteer on the other. “Come on, Jessica!” she yells. “You can catch the pace bunny!” Yeah, I probably can. I don’t even really think about it; I just pick up my pace, and within seconds, I’ve done it. 0.45 miles to go now. Maybe I can keep this speed up. It’s been 20.57 km, and, amazingly, there is still some left in me. I push on, hitting a faster pace than I’ve hit all race, my feet slapping the pavement, each breath rasping in my lungs, and there it is, the finish line, and then, there it is, behind me, and I’m done. Someone loops a blue-banded medal over my head, someone else thrusts a bag of snacks into my hand, and that’s it. Months of work, and I am done.

I am a runner, you see. Maybe I have always been, but I’m not sure. Do you remember the fitness tests they used to do, in junior high and high school? They ran you through your paces on a bunch of different exercises, and then they’d make you run for a while, I can’t remember how long, but you just ran and ran and ran, for as long as you were able. I remember one of the tall, lithe, athletic boys springing around those pylons like it was his job, no, like it was his passion, making it look so damned easy. And there I was, dragging my ass after only a few pathetic rounds. But still, I was running, even if it wasn’t very quick, even if it could barely be called running. Maybe it started then.

For a while, before I discovered my competitive streak, I was that girl in gym class who stood off to the side with my best friend, talking and giggling and giving the soccer ball dirty looks if it came anywhere near us. I’d always been a somewhat chubby youngster. Not necessarily overweight, but not a pixie, either. At some point, I transitioned from using my body in every way possible without a second thought, with real and unfettered joy, to thinking that I wasn’t athletic, I was out of shape, I jiggled in all the wrong places and therefore I shouldn’t really try, I shouldn’t embarrass myself by pretending that I could do things like run a mile without collapsing and probably dying on the gym floor. So I didn’t.

At the end of my high school career, I rediscovered running, but it didn’t awaken anything in me. It was something that I did because I wanted to be fit, I wanted to lose weight. I did it only occasionally, when it occurred to me, or when my outer body was feeling particularly out of proportion to how I wanted it to be. I slogged my way through joyless runs with the sun beating down on the back of my neck, wondering what the hell I was doing.

Running and I continued this way for several years, until, one day about four years ago, something clicked, and suddenly, running felt like joy. I started working on the Couch to 5K program, and I loved watching my distances increase. I loved plugging my headphones in and setting out from our apartment building at a brisk clip before picking up the pace and darting through the river valley. (Though “darting” might be overstating it; I’ve always been a bit on the slow side.) I tentatively ran the Run for the Cure instead of walking it like I usually did.

Then two words changed the trajectory of my running career forever: Mud Hero. I found myself registered for a 6k race replete with obstacles alongside my best friend. I looked towards that day with equal parts exhilaration and trepidation. I had never done anything like it. I didn’t know how it was going to go. Would I collapse halfway through and beg for mercy, having to be carted off the course by grim-faced first aiders while everyone turned their faces away so as not to witness my shame? Would I fall on my face while scrambling across the hoods of abandoned cars, soaked in mud, resulting in the same fate? None of those things happened, of course. What happened was this: Bri and I ran those 6k together, easily conquering each obstacle as it came to us (except the one where we had to use a rope to climb up the sheer face of a black diamond ski hill; my ass hurt for the next four days because of that one). I had to stop for a few walk breaks, but I easily crossed the finish line, and I was amazed with myself for what I had accomplished. My younger self would be astonished.

Maybe I was a runner after all.

So I started looking for bigger challenges. Last year, I ran my first half-marathon. It wasn’t a resounding success; I finished in 2:57:30. But it wasn’t a failure either; I finished. This year, I was determined to be faster. I was determined not to flake on my training for the month before the race like I did last time (I have really brilliant ideas sometimes). I was going to focus on getting stronger. I was going to push myself. I was going to do those 21.1k in less than 2:45.

Then, five weeks out from the race, halfway through an easy four mile run, I was in so much pain that I had to stop. I limped home, blinking back tears, frustrated with the pain in my right shin that had been growing worse and worse over the last few weeks. My doctor referred me to a physiotherapist. After my first visit, handsome and British, he told me I wasn’t, under any circumstances, allowed to run for the next week. I accepted his recommendation with the air of someone being handed an execution sentence. My race was five weeks away! I needed to be running!

wpid-img_20150531_103556.jpgBut I didn’t. I got on a stationary bike several times a week instead. I lifted weights. I tried to make sure that, even though I couldn’t run, my overall fitness wasn’t going anywhere. I went to physio twice a week, doing stretches and massages and ultrasounds to break up tissue. I changed from my beloved barefoot running shoes to the lowest profile sneakers I could find. Eventually, I went on no more than two runs a week, no more than six miles at a time. By the time race day came around, I hadn’t run more than eight miles straight since last summer.

As soon as I started running, though, I remembered it. The rhythm of my legs, the thudding of my heart, the feel of the early morning air rasping in my throat. I remembered the amazing feel of blood rushing through my veins, of pavement bleeding away beneath my feet, of sweat sliding down my nose and beading on my hairline. I remembered the times that running woke me up again, reminded me that I am a living, breathing, warm-blooded human being. I remembered that to run is to feel truly alive.

And I realized, finally, fully, that I am a runner after all. Maybe even an athlete.

 

I am a runner

the season of childhood

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Summer is the season of childhood. Do you remember when you were little, and summer meant unadulterated freedom? It was your God-given right to do nothing but run through sprinklers, ride your bike for hours, or take trips to the beach. It meant two months out of the year when you got to shrug your shoulders of all of those heavy responsibilities known as school and homework and just focus on having fun. It meant campfires and staying up late and fireworks on Canada Day.

Now, summer means something a whole lot different for me. It echoes with the jubilation of childhood freedom, with that long ago promise of endless sun-drenched possibilities, but it is no longer my God-given right to explore those possibilities. Now, it is up to me to wrest summer into my life with both hands. It is up to me to fight for it, for the right to swim in lakes and get lost in parks and go on road trips unencumbered by nagging thoughts of responsibilities left behind. Now, I am an adult, and a break from responsibility is no longer seen as my inalienable right.

But I firmly believe that summer is a time of rejuvenation and adventure. Summer is the time to grab life with both hands, to kick yourself out of doors and do a little living. Even if society as a whole doesn’t believe that I need to do those things, I know in my heart that I do. I know that when I take the time to step away from the sweet drudgery of every day life and into the myriad possibilities of summer, I come away a more whole, rested, engaged, passionate person. When I am allowed to nurture the adventurous spirit, the child-like sense of wonder, that still lives inside of me, I come back to my normal life ready to rock it.

Too many of us lay down and blithely accept the idea that being an adult means a loss of freedom, a piling on of soul-sucking duties, and an inability to do anything about it. But I say nay. I say grab the spirit of summer, the season of childhood, by the horns and ride it off into the sunset. Shake off the bonds of this debilitating belief: go to an area of your city that you’ve never been to before and explore it; try something a little bit crazy that you never thought you would, like stand up paddle boarding; simply drive out into the country, with no destination in mind. When was the last time you rode a bike just for fun, or drew a picture with sidewalk chalk? Go out, have an adventure, see how it enriches your soul.

I’ll wait over here, lazing on my balcony in the summer sunshine, beer in one hand, book in the other.

the season of childhood