Looks Can Be Deceiving

The author in 1968.

            I recently came across my high school graduation photo from 1968. Granted, it was taken a long time ago, but I still recall how I felt. That time in my life was filled with confused emotions. I was excited about college, but knew nothing in my situation would change because my parents would only allow me to attend the local community college. That meant continuing to live at home, which was not an experience to look forward to.

            I’ve shared stories of what my life was like back then. Let’s suffice it to say that I was miserable. I understood that something was wrong at home, but I lacked the words or experience to understand what it was. As I aged and my knowledge base expanded, I learned the words.

            My mother smothered me and my dad terrified me. I was a middle child, close in age to an older brother who tormented, teased and at times, physically hurt me. I was many years older than a sister who commanded my mother’s attention and could manipulate mom into believing fantastical stories about the evil things I did when mom wasn’t looking.

            My sort-of-safe world was school. No one teased me there because I was invisible. My clothes were made from recycled material, pieces cut out of hand-me-down clothes. My mother chose the styles, so everything was old-fashioned and ultraconservative. I wore saddle shoes that had gone out of style years earlier but they were the only ones I was allowed to have.

            When I look at that photo I see a young woman with a forced smile. She’s showing just enough teeth to categorize it as a smile, but not enough to show joy. The woman is wearing wing-tip glasses which were in vogue back then and her hair is teased and lacquered in a somewhat popular style.

            When the photo appeared in the yearbook, anyone flipping through the pages might stop for a moment and wonder about the pearls. Would they think my family had that kind of money or that they were a gift from a relative? Or would they correctly surmise that they were a studio prop? Assuming they guess correctly that I never owned something so fine, then they might be able to see through the mask.

            I walked the high school halls as a nobody. Academics distinguished me from my peers, but in a social world, I blended into the bricks. To the best of my ability I styled my hair in a contemporary do. I was allowed to choose glass frames similar to what others wore.

            However my physical presence exacted no reaction. No smiles, nods, or words of greeting. I was alone. For four years.

            Is that loneliness reflected in my eyes? In the fake smile? The tilt of my head?

            I think it is, but then I walked in those shoes. All I wanted then was for someone to see me as a valuable human being, worthy to be called friend. Because of my poor self-esteem ingrained and reinforced at home I lacked the ability to initiate a relationship. The person would have to speak first, look my way first, nod first, wave me over first.

But who would want to do that? In high school you are who you are friends with. Anyone wanting to be known would not have called me over. You don’t invite a nobody into your social circle if you’re hoping to rise the ladder. My presence would either have knocked them down a rung or held them on the floor with one foot raised.

You didn’t know me then, so when you look at the picture you see a happy soon-to-graduate girl who’s got her hair done, a smile on her face and a glint in her eyes.

Looks can be deceiving.

Reliving a Moment


Every time we drive to Utah we travel past the spot where my daughter’s car slid off the road on a snowy winter day. Even though years have passed since then, goose bumps still break out all over my arms. Not only that, but shivers shake me to the core. You would think that time would dissipate the feelings, but it hasn’t. Just thinking about it now fills my eyes with tears.

At the time my daughter lived in Tooele, Utah; a bedroom community located about 40 miles from Salt Lake City. While it seldom gets deep snow, it is subject to what is called “lake effect,” meaning that moisture is pulled out of the Great Salt Lake, turned into some form of precipitation, and then dumped on Tooele.

When we arrived that January, there was already some snow on the yards and grass medians, but not on the roads.  No snow was expected; not a surprise considering our long drive from California was under bright blue skies, generally a harbinger of things to come.

On January 3 my daughter wanted to drive around the Oquirrh Mountains to West Valley, a substantially larger city with many shopping options. The purpose of the trip was to exchange some Christmas gifts that either didn’t fit or weren’t needed.

She was eight months pregnant at the time, with a nice round belly filled with a yearned-for little boy. I was excited to go, as shopping trips with my daughter had been few and far between over the years due to the distance between us. My husband and I figured out that if we drove, we could visit more frequently, which meant more opportunities to visit stores.

It snowed the night before our planned drive. Not a light dusting, but a sizeable storm that dropped a six-inch layer of snow. It continued to snow quite heavily all morning, depositing another four inches.

Footsteps were quickly filled and the increasingly heavy load caused tree limbs to droop. The roads which were normally clear had a thick covering.

Nevertheless, my daughter was determined to go, convinced that once we got out on the freeway, all would be fine.

We took the youngest daughter, now two, with us. Once she was settled into her car seat, we took off. It’s a twelve-mile drive from where they were living just to the freeway. No matter time of day the road is busy because it’s the only way in and out of the Tooele City. Because of the expected traffic, my daughter figured there would be safe paths despite the still falling snow.

She was wrong. There road was not dusted with snow, but rather held an accumulation of more than four inches despite traffic. And it was till snowing as we approached the I-80. In fact, the weather and roads worsened once we were heading east. Snow that should have been mashed was not. Blizzard-like conditions blurred our vision.

I tried to convince my daughter to turn around at the first opportunity, saying that we could go another day, but she was insistent that the highway would be clear the further we traveled. We moved on with windshield wipers working at high speed.

As a person who learned to drive in California’s East Bay, I was unfamiliar with conditions like these. I was nervous, terrified and anxious all in one. My hands gripped the armrests and my knees shook.

This stretch of I-80 is a major connector between northern California and states east. It is always filled with semis pulling multiple trailers, tourists, trucks of all shapes and sizes, and any other vehicle possible, all traveling at seventy miles an hour or more. It is two lanes in each direction, and because of the high speed, care must be taken even in the best conditions.

Due to the snow-covered roads and limited visibility speeds were down to sixty miles an hour, somewhat of a comfort since it was slower than normal. Even so I felt it was too fast to safely maneuver in case of an emergency.

Shortly after entering the highway we saw that the snow accumulation was getting worse. The sky was one huge gray cloud, so no relief was in sight. Because of the treacherous conditions I finally convinced my daughter to return home. When she agreed to get off at the next exit, I was relieved.

The sign appeared, but when we could see that no one had driven that way since the snow had begun, we chose to continue on. The next exit in the same condition, with deep snow and no tire tracks. The next one seemed to have tracks that were only partially filled-in, so she decided to exit even though we were still a mile away and our vision was partially blocked by swirling snow.

As we approached the exit my daughter made a slight pull on the steering wheel, heading us toward the ramp. Just as it was time to commit to leaving the freeway, we saw that no vehicles had passed that way recently, and although there were tracks, they were quickly filling.

Deciding that this was not a safe exit, my daughter corrected by turning slightly to the left.

That small movement was enough to send us slipping and sliding down the highway. We found ourselves in the fast lane, then into the slow. We drifted toward the shoulder, back to the slow, over into the fast, and at the last, we hit some hidden ice and gradually, in what felt like slow motion, slid closer and closer toward the shoulder.

I was in full panic-mode: I couldn’t speak, think, or offer words of advice. My brain was frozen as my wide open eyes stared at the embankment ahead, wondering what fate had in store for us. I should have been screaming, crying, hands up preparing for the impending impact, but I just sat there.

The minivan’s rear spun once more to the right, taking us completely off the road. I feared a rollover similar to ones my husband and I had seen on our drive to Utah. But for some reason, despite the combination of speed and slippage, we remained upright.

When we did come to a stop and all seemed well, we looked at each other and breathed a sigh of thanksgiving.

No one was hurt. The van was not damaged. No vehicle had struck us as we careened out of control. Although the lanes had been crowded with a variety of vehicles, any of which could have sent us to our deaths with even the slightest of impact, we had escaped without impact.

After a brief interlude of blessed relief, I decided to get out to see if where we had landed was safe of if we should immediately abandon the vehicle.

Because of the proximity to the Great Salt Lake, the water table is quite high all along that stretch of road. The freeway bed is raised so as to avoid flooding, but since the shoulders drop off steeply, the depressions paralleling the road often are filled with water. In this case, there might have been marsh to suck us in, a patch of dry land or a thin layer of ice that might crack.

I needed to see for myself what the surface looked like so as to determine our next steps. What I discovered would decide whether we could remain in the vehicle until help arrived or get ourselves and the baby out as quickly as possible.

Imagine my relief when there was no evidence of water lurking under the covering of snow. The ground seemed solid beneath the layers of snow and I sensed no layer of ice.

If ever my faith had been tested before, this surpassed anything I had ever experienced. I truly believe that my Lord and Savior was watching out for us because we had landed in a spot that, I hoped, would keep us safe from sinking.

Neither my daughter nor I had a cell phone which meant we had no way to call for help. Not knowing what else to do, I climbed up the hill to the shoulder of the freeway and began waving to passing vehicles.

I was not dressed for the cold and so my fingers and toes so began stinging. My breath came out in puffs and my face was freezing. I knew that I couldn’t stay out there for too long, so I prayed that someone would see me and quickly come to our aid.

I smiled when a semi driver honked and waved. A variety of trucks passed, many of them honking. This reassured me that someone was calling for help.

A woman pulled over on the shoulder despite the risk of being hit. She ran over to where I was standing, dressed in high heels and a tight skirt, waving her cell phone. She asked if I would like to call for help and was shocked when I told her I did not know how to use a cell phone.

While she made a call, a snowplow went by in the fast lane. The driver honked and waved, reassuring me that several people now knew where we were. Hopefully they all realized our predicament and that help would soon arrive.

The woman told me that someone had alerted Highway Patrol. I expected her to leave since she seemed dressed for work, but she stayed.

I was surprised when another vehicle pulled over behind the woman’s care. This time it was a young man wearing a Fire EMT jacket. He approached the car and immediately went into rescue mode, asking over and over if everyone was fine. He asked my daughter to open her window and unlock the back door so he could check on the baby. He asked my daughter how far along she was and whether or not she needed assistance.

A third vehicle stopped while this was happening, this time a man dressed in his winter Army uniform. He took charge in a confidant, militaristic way. Speaking softly, he asked my daughter to get out of the car. He told her to leave the baby, reassuring her that all would be safe.

He got in, strapped on his seatbelt put the minivan into gear. When he stepped on the gas the car crept forward, slowly, slowly, until the front wheels reached the solid ground of the shoulder. He turned the front wheels to the right, bringing the car entirely on safe ground. He put the car into park, and when he got out, he told my daughter to stay there for a while until she was calm enough to drive.

All three remained with us while my daughter sat with eyes closed. I know that I was giving thanks and I believe that she was doing the same.

When my daughter waved, indicating that we were ready to leave, the woman, the EMT, and the Army officer got in their own vehicles.

In the safety of the warm car we watched them pull away, thanking God for sending kind people our way. If not for them, we might have sat perpendicular to the highway for a very long time.

We knew, without saying it, that our trip to West Valley was not going to happen. My daughter stated that the best place to turn around would be the exit for the airport, as it would be heavily traveled, so that became our target.

Out on the freeway she drove at about twenty miles an hour, terrified that we would slip again. It was a good decision because about mile down the road we passed an accident scene. A minivan like ours had gone off the road and overturned into the water. Victims had been pulled out and lay there covered with body bags. It was chilling.

Another half mile along we passed another accident. This time a small pickup truck was in the median between east and west, facing the wrong direction. It was on solid ground and the occupants seemed to be okay.

Not too much further along, on our side of the highway, off the road and upside down in the water, lay what was left of a minivan. Emergency vehicles were there, lights flashing. As we drove past, we could not see the condition of the passengers, but I think we both knew.

We safely negotiated the airport ramp and came to a stop at the lights with only a tiny bit of a skid. We crossed the overpass and returned to the highway, now heading west without incident. Still going slowly, we drove in the far right lane, my daughter holding tightly to the steering wheel.

Perhaps we had gone two miles before we passed another accident, this time where body bags lined the side of the road.

We said little on our return trip because I think we were both in shock.

Once we were back at my daughter’s house, I fell into my husband’s arms, tears pouring down my face. I was grateful to be alive, grateful to be able to see him and the rest of the family.

Several hours later I fell into a deep sense of despair, thinking about how differently the ending might have been. I kept myself grounded by reminding myself that we escaped thanks to the grace of God.

I haven’t driven past the spot of our accident in quite a while, but I know that the next time that I do, the same feelings will arise. The space between survival and death was tiny. If we had stopped six inches along the freeway there was the possibility that our back wheels might have been in the muck. Six inches saved three people from impending death. Six inches allowed three people to return home to rejoice in thanksgiving.

People say that you should get back in the saddle after being bucked off. That by trying again, you can conquer your fear. I believe this is true because when I returned to the scene on our next visit to Utah, I was able to relive that terrifying journey, see how close to meeting my Maker I truly was, and rejoice in the time that I have been graciously given.

My Shadow Self

Peter Pan taught us that our shadow is a critical part of who we are. When visiting Wendy and the boys, the dog Nana barked, scaring Peter’s shadow so badly that it became unattached. Peter understands that he needs the shadow in order to live his life in a childlike trance and so he begs Wendy to help him reattach it.

For most people, a shadow is simply a dark spot connected to our feet, but to Peter it was a tangible sprite that could dance, play and roust about. It’s not unusual for children like Peter to believe that  their shadows are playthings simply because their shadow follows them about at times twisting into strange inhuman shapes. Growing up means giving up that belief, something Peter did not want to do.

As adults we understand that the angle of the sun on a clear day influences the outline and presence of our shadows. Our morning shadow is different from our noon shadow which is also different from our late afternoon shadow. It we are walking north it takes on one shape, but when we reverse and go south, it changes.

Normally our shadows are representative of our body’s natural shape. The shadow consists of head, shoulders, trunk, arms and legs. Rarely does our shadow approximate our actual size, instead taking on the outline of comic-book monsters with truncated upper bodies and elongated lower. Or the reverse.

There was a time not too long ago when I didn’t like my shadow. It wasn’t its fault, for it only showed bits and pieces of my true shape. That was the problem. My head was always round like a melon, my arms thick as tree trunks, my body wide as a truck. No one likes to look that way in real life, let alone as a shadow on a sidewalk.

But that was who I was: a short, fat woman.

Today when walking with my husband I noticed my shadow for the first time in years. It had changed! The fat woman had been replaced by a trim person. Everything looked in proportion. My head, shoulders, stomach and legs belonged to an average-build human being.

When it followed me, I wasn’t embarrassed. Instead I smiled. It made me proud that my determination to lose weight was reflected in my black shadow companion.

In a way, at that moment I became like Peter Pan. My shadow had been reattached, this time taking the form of the person I wanted to be, not the one I was. Peter might have wanted to stay a boy and live the carefree life of an adventurer, but he also knew the importance of being whole. When Wendy sewed Peter’s shadow onto his shoe, Peter was complete.

When I saw my new shadow, I also became complete. My shadow and I are now friends who can spend the rest of our lives together.

What a marvelously happy ending.

 

The “I Do” Moment

Forty-six years ago when Mike and I were planning our wedding, one of the first things we had to do was meet with our pastor. Because we weren’t active parishioners at the time, the man didn’t know us at all. He did, however, know his job.

After the preliminary questioning was complete, he handed us a brochure with the traditional Catholic vows inside. We could choose one of them, or, if so inclined, could write our own.

At that time I had neither the time nor the inclination to write my own. Because Mike was shy and unsure of his ability to craft something original, we made what we thought was the right decision: we chose a traditional vow.

As our day neared we discussed many things. We knew we wanted to buy a house, have children and travel. The fine details of wedding planning fell entirely on my shoulders.

I visited the tuxedo rental shop. I loved the blue one as it would to go with Mike’s deep blue eyes. However, the size-ranges available wouldn’t cover his groomsmen, so I chose white with black trim. The shirt was a deep yellow with ruffles, something Mike would never have worn in a hundred years.

My mom was going to make my wedding dress as the ones I had seen were too expensive. She chose a simple pattern then embellished it with tiny fake-pearls.

I had no idea what bridesmaid’s wore, but I knew they would have to be homemade as there was no money to buy premade ones. At the fabric store my mom and I sorted through rolls of fabric. The only one that looked like a gown was a Kelly green with large white dots. There was enough of it and the price was good. My poor bridesmaids had to wear ugly gowns with cheap white hats!

As the date neared Mike and I settled on our vows. I thought I heard him say the second one, so that’s what I memorized.

Meanwhile he kept me on edge by telling me that it didn’t matter what he said or did because all eyes would be on me!

By the time the day arrived and we were alone at the front of the church, stars filled my eyes and I had difficulty breathing. All I could think of was all those eyes, those eyes of our family and friends, staring at me.

When the time came in the Mass for us to exchange vows, I was prepared. I had the words down. There was no way I was going to mess this up.

Mike went first. He held my hands in his, looked into my eyes with a confidant and reassuring gaze and said, “I, Michael Connelly, take you, Teresa Haack, for my lawful wife, to have and to hold from this day forward…”

But, wait! Those weren’t the words! That was the first vow, not the second. I panic. Do I listen with a sick smile plastered on my face and recite the words I’d memorized or try to repeat what he was saying?

“for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer,” he continued.

I’m collecting his words, trying to plant them in my brain.

“in sickness and health, until death do us part.” He smiled such a warm, loving smile that I braved repeating his words.

“I, Teresa Haack, take you to be my husband.”

I pause trying to recall what came next. “to have and”, I can’t remember! What do I do?

He smiles and squeezes my hands. I continue saying the words I’d learned: “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love and honor you all the days of my life.”

It was done. With the final blessing we were married. We headed down the aisle with grins and exuberance.

Later on as we were driving away I asked Mike what had happened. He thought we had chosen the first version!

Well, in the end it didn’t matter. Our marriage has been a success. We love each other as much now as we did back then.

If I had to do it all over, though, we’d practice before each other to make sure our words matched.

An “I do” moment that almost failed, didn’t.

 

Research Junkie

When I finally learned to read I discovered that libraries are an endless source of information. I trolled the nonfiction section looking for anything that caught my interest. The first that I explored was my Native American heritage. Because my mom didn’t know what tribe we claimed, I read every book on the shelves.

I became an “expert” on all things related to the first people. I knew what foods they ate, the clothes they wore, how they traveled, what their homes looked like, all depending upon where they lived. Little did I know that those old books contained limited knowledge recorded as fact.

What was important, however, was the development of an interest in research that would last a lifetime.

I reveled in projects assigned by teachers. Write a paper on a famous person? It might take several trips to the library before I could settle on one.

Trace Hannibal’s journeys? No problem. Research Greek architecture? The same.

When I was at college I discovered the wealth of information in the stacks. I might have a broad idea for a paper which exploded once I got to reading journal after journal. I would sit on the cold floor and pull down one compilation, then another. I’d move to another row and resume researching.

The problem was that I loved the process of discovery so much that I couldn’t stop. It became a compulsion that I still fight to this very day.

For example, I needed to find out the names of countries during medieval times. That was easy. One click and a detailed map popped up. But then I needed an island in Europe, maybe off the coast of Spain. There are islands but I didn’t recognize the names.

I typed in an old name and research appeared! How wondrous! How clever! How enchanting.

But that wasn’t getting me any further than where I currently am.

I moved on to sample names of cities. That was an endless source of information.

What about names of rivers? Mountains?

What was the weather like? How did that influence clothes worn? What kinds of shoes did people wear back then? What did they ate and drink? How did they entertain themselves?

I got stuck in this cycle of discovery that lead me from one topic to another.

When my eyes got tired, I forced myself to stop research.

But then I moved on to another project: fining a recent photo of my daughter. That meant opening folder after folder hoping to find something good enough to print. I didn’t find one, but I did discover images that were ten years old that I would never use for any purpose. They are now gone.

I sometimes wonder why I love research so much. I’ve analyze whether or not it’s a form of procrastination. Do I delve into these projects in order to avoid that which I should be doing? Or am I really engaging in productive work? It’s usually a little of both.

On the other hand I am a curious person. I love meeting new people so that I can learn what their life is like. Part of this is to weigh how my life measures up, the other is to expand my knowledge base. The more information you have stored away, the more conversant you can be.

When I catch myself researching I now force myself to pause and reflect. Do I really need that information in order to write the story I am working on? If yes, then I give myself permission to continue. If the answer is no, then I quit even though it’s painful to do so.

It’s also an addiction. It’s not harmful the way drugs and alcohol can be, but it does prevent me from engaging in those activities that are most meaningful, that bring the most joy.

As with any addiction you need a rope to hang on: something to grab ahold of while an outside force moves you away. For me it can be a phone call or going for a walk with my husband. It could be a news program or a book that I can’t put down.

When the lifeline arises, I have to tear myself away. That’s why I consider myself a research junkie. When I fall into the allure, I need help to get out of the mire otherwise I will spiral out of control.

Choosing the Sunny Path

On any given day we are bombarded with stories of fear and intimidation, of cruelty and loss. When we read them, sadness fills our soul. That’s the expected reaction because if we didn’t experience the horror, one might question our inner light.

It’s not easy to push those thoughts aside especially when they are replayed over and over on social media. We can choose to learn from what evil others do and behave in some way to counteract the actions that offend us or we swallow it down, sending it deep inside us.

Being an activist is not easy. It takes courage to stand up for one’s beliefs knowing that out there are people who will spit on you, call you offensive names and even threaten your life. We should applaud those we choose to disregard the safety of their lives in order to bring injustices to the forefront, thereby forcing the public to rethink attitudes and beliefs.

The sunny path is not always smooth. There are pitfalls that can suck you in and hold you there, consumed by despair. You can sit there and wallow or pull yourself up and continue down the path.

Soon another obstacle will arise, making you choose, once again, how you will react. Too many roadblocks might cause you to give up. But if you jump over each, if you move one person to act with you, if you change one mind, think of the rewards.

No one will give you a medal, but many will follow in your shoes.

That’s why we choose to walk in the sunshine: to feel goodness and light, joy and power.

 

Reality Check

My friends know that I have always struggled with my weight. It defines me as a fat person. Many people see it as a symbol of slovenliness, laziness, and carelessness. Fat people are thought to be so stupid that they don’t understand the connection between what they ingest and how it manifests in the body.

Although weight isn’t supposed to be a factor when applying for a job, it is. I have sat on interview panels looking for teachers to fill particular positions. Despite being the most articulate, the most qualified in terms of experience and having the most confidence of all those interviewed, often they won’t get hired. Why? Because of a perception that weight will interfere with job performance.

What feels like a gazillion years ago I took a weight management class that my health care provider offered. I learned a lot about nutrition, self-talk and tricks to use to distract myself from eating. I did lose weight during the four-week class so I took it again. And again. As long as I was attending, I lost. It wasn’t huge amounts, but it made a difference. I felt in control.

A long dry spell without outside reinforcement passed before I broke down and joined Weight Watchers, now known as WW. I had stayed away because I feared being weighed in public. It’s one thing for me to look at myself in the mirror and be appalled: it’s another for a stranger to see the numbers. I’m not sure what I expected would happen, but in my mind, I imagined people gathered around the scale watching as each person was weighed. Everyone would see. Everyone would know.

That’s not the way it happens. From the first meeting I was hooked. I have been attending meetings for years. I would lose a little, and then put some back on. Lose a little, gain more. Up and down, week after week.

When my knees needed replacing I took it more seriously and lost more. Due to inactivity, it returned.

It seemed that I lacked discipline and focus. I wanted to lose because it would change my life in powerful ways. A skinnier me would be a respected colleague at work. When I spoke, peers would listen to the words, not gawk at my fat.

I would bring home the proper foods and stay on track. Except for the cookie that would turn into four and the M & Ms that fell into my palm in a cluster. There would be cake and pie at parties that I had to eat. Hamburgers and candy bars that I needed at the end of every shopping trip. Over and over I overindulged in things that I knew put on fat.

Thanks to WW I began to understand that I was not alone: millions of people are just like me. It’s like being in a club of like-minded individuals. Meetings brought us together to share our stories. We listened, knowing that the words spoken represented us.

Every week I was welcomed for who I was, not for who they thought I should be. Such acceptance from strangers was new to me.  Sometimes I was the fattest person in the room, but most of the time I wasn’t. Sometimes when I was frustrated I was silent and moody, but then someone would share an insight that opened my eyes.

Even so, my pattern of deprivation followed by indulgence continued. I’d lose a fair amount of weight, buy new clothes, then something would happen and the weight would return. I saw it as a natural process: something that occurred because of an injury or illness. That image allowed me to put the blame somewhere other than in my mind, in the things that went into my mouth.

Two years ago I needed an operation that was important enough to be done quickly. However the surgeon wouldn’t operate until I had lost at least thirty pounds. Do you know how embarrassing that is? The youngish, virile man looking at me as a slab of fat, like a roast to be trimmed. If I hadn’t been in tremendous pain, like other times when doctors told me I was overweight, I would have walked away and my pattern would have continued.

Instead I accepted his words for truth. For the first time I realized that I could no longer close my eyes and pretend that even though my clothes were huge, that it wasn’t all that bad. That was my first reality check.

I cried each time I wanted something unhealthy to eat. I walked past the package of cookies, the canister filled with candy with a sense of gloom. I couldn’t eat those things. I shouldn’t eat those things. I wouldn’t eat those things.

The pounds slowly disappeared because I embraced WW’s philosophy for the first time. I tracked what I ate. I stayed within my points for the day. I had been exercising for years, but I took things up a notch. Because I wanted that surgery, I took responsibility for myself being overweight and I lost the required amount of weight.

When I looked in the mirror in an honest fashion, I was proud of myself because of what I had accomplished. I still had more to lose in order to reach my goal weight.

Before I ignored the distance between where I was and where I should be, telling myself that I would never, ever get there. Now I told myself that I was on the way. All I had to do was keep following WW, keep attending reinforcing meetings, keep walking by temptations.

When I reached goal weight I was shocked and pleased. I also understood that because unhealthy food calls my name, that it would incredibly easy for me to put all those pounds back on. It might have taken me years, if we go back to when I took the classes, to lose eighty pounds, but if I fell back, those pounds would race back.

Two weeks ago my WW leader shared the message for the week. When tempted, we should pause and then do a reality check.

Imagine standing before a package of oatmeal cookies, your favorite. You pick up the  package salivating over the tender raisins, the oat texture. Then you pause with the package frozen in place. Conduct a reality check. Ask yourself if you’re truly hungry or if you’re just looking for something to put in your mouth.  If you’re hungry, ask yourself if there’s a better choice you could make. If not hungry, then question why you need food.

Recently I put this method to a test. I was in a grocery store and saw a package of prettily decorated miniature chocolate cakes. It called my name. I picked up the package and it was heading for my cart when it dawned on me that I should pause. I held the package, looking at the cakes. How many would I eat, I asked myself. I really only wanted one. I wanted to taste it, to see if it was as good as it looked. But then there would be eleven left. Who would eat them?

Anyone passing by probably wondered what I was doing. Imagine how peculiar I looked, standing there with a package of cakes hovering over my cart. Pretty comical, right?

The next step is the reality check. If I bought them, despite only wanting one, I would eat more. I would have at least one a day until they were gone even if they didn’t taste as wonderful as I hoped.

Did I really need them? Was it important for me to buy them? If I didn’t would I have other things to eat?

The answer to all questions was a resounding no. The package returned to the display and I walked away, telling myself if, after getting the healthy choices on my list, I still yearned for them, I could go back.

Guess what? The reality check really worked. Those cakes never entered my cart.

I have used this method several times a day since then. Every time I pass through the kitchen with the intent of grabbing something, I pause. Do the reality check. Reach for fruit or walk away.

Reality check keeps me focused on my health, my well-being, my desire to present myself in a positive image. I never again want to be the obese person that I was before. I could lose more weight, but I am pleased with who I have become. I am determined to utilize the reality check method whenever temptation arises.

Imagine if everyone utilized this method! There would be no fights, no drive-by shootings, no theft, no injuries to self or others. No hurting words would be said. No haughty smirks or cutting glances. No hurtful posts on social media. No angry emails or phone calls. The world would be a safer and happier place.

I am grateful to WW for sharing this with us. Reality check is a powerful tool that I intend to rely on as long as I have the cognitive power to do so.

How about you?

Learning to be Optimistic

Before I met my husband no one would have ever considered me to be an optimist. My heart was stuck in my miserable past, and although I tried to let it go, memories drug me down.

My dreams were minuscule and short term. Turn in that paper, make my bed, don’t say anything that would get me in trouble. Every morning began with a litany of pitfalls to avoid. You would have thought I’d learn, but no, I’d fall into the same trap over and over.

Before my family moved to California, my brother and I discovered that the community colleges were affordable That was when my dreams of getting a degree began to formulate. I had no idea what I would study. I saw it as a way out. An opportunity to break free of the bonds that tied me to people seldom showed love or compassion.

Every class I took for the next three years was chosen to get me into college. I had no idea how I’d pay tuition as I had never worked. When an opportunity arose to make some money, I seized it with both hands. Night after night I sat at the scorekeeper’s table at the local bowling alley and kept score for league competitions. The bowlers paid well, but when they saw that I was studying while keeping score, they paid me more. Then when asked if I was intending to go to college, they gave me more. Over the course f two years I save up enough for a year’s tuition and books.

I needed my counselor’s recommendation to be sent to colleges. She told me that I lacked the skills to succeed. That I would fail out after one semester. Considering that I already had low self-esteem, she sent me deeper into the basement. I cried for days.

One morning I woke up with a new feeling: determinination. I would enroll in college. I would take courses that would count when I transferred to a four-year-university. I would prove that she was wrong.

It was hard to maintain that optimism as my family situation had not changed and I still had no friends. I was a geeky kid, one of those weirdos who don’t fit in any group. I wasn’t pretty as my father had repeated told me. I was smart, but not as smart as my brother as my mother reminded me. I wore hand-me-down clothes, shoes that were too big and had a hairdo that was ancient.

The State of California gifted me a full-ride scholarship to any in-state college. I was happy, but not buoyant. In my mind the fear still lurked that the counselor was right, that I didn’t have the academic skills to succeed.

My parents wouldn’t let me go away to college the first year, so I enrolled at a community college. I had never been a good student of English. I loved to read, but it seemed that I was unable to perceive what others did from the literature. In fact, it was as if I had read completely different books. I could write papers that got good grades, but didn’t understand how to analyze written word.

After getting two miserable grades in my first college English class, I began to believe that the counselor was right. I dropped the class. However, my Spanish professor told me I was too advanced for any classes at the college! My spirits lifted a tiny bit.

I got a job at a clothing store. Big mistake. What shopper would listen to a lower-class employee clearing wearing used clothes? No one. I was fired after a week. Spirits fell.

Then the local KFC hired me even though I knew nothing about cooking. Working the counter was intimidating. I was so shy that speaking to strangers was challenging. I felt inferior every day. The customers dressed better, spoke clearer and knew what they wanted. I lacked all of those skills.

As time passed, however, I learned the job. I was excellent at making coleslaw and excellent at strawberry pie. I kept things clean and was polite and respectful. My confidence took a step up the ladder.

I transferred to USC in the fall. My parents moved to southern California in order to keep me close. Another KFC hired me at the first interview. Another step up the ladder.

When I arrived in my dorm I was filled with excitement as this was my first time away from home. When my roommate arrived with her personal maid and boxes and boxes of brand-new clothing, I realized I was out of my element. I was the white-trash girl trying to blend in with the ultra-rich. Down to the bottom I slid.

My life was one big board game: up two steps, down ten, slide two to the right, down, then up. Meanwhile emotionally I was frozen in time. I passed all my classes, earning excellent grades, but never totally lost the fear of failure. I was a loner. Sitting by myself in the cafeteria. Spending night after night alone.

Imagine watching groups of laughing friends on campus wishing you could join in. Picture yourself in class when discussion or group projects are assigned and no one wants you in the group. That was me.

After college I was forced to move back home as I had nowhere else to go. I was back to being inferior to my siblings. Back to being ridiculed by my parents. Back to being treated like an imbecile. What good feelings I had had disappeared.

It took months to find a job, but when I did, the first thing I did was buy a car. I needed my dad’s signature. The car I wanted he wouldn’t let me have because I was stupid. Instead I ended up with a Ford Pinto, an awkwardly shaped car. But I got to choose the color so I went with the one my dad hated: bumble bee colors. Hah. An act of rebellion.

Over time things opened up for me, but I still lacked confidence. One positive was that I made a friend at work. Another was that I did have a few dates.

I switched to a government job making enough money to get my own apartment. For the first time I was in charge of my life. I ate what I wanted. Drove around wherever I wanted. Watched what I wanted on television. Listened to my music and sang as loudly as I wanted without fear of being teased. Life was good and so my self-esteem soared.

I became a positive person because I was over being negative. It took work to make the change. I had to constantly remind myself, reset goals, reward myself when I felt good.

It was during this period that I me the man who would become my husband. He exuded confidence. Not in an over-the-top way, but in an I-know-who-I-am way. The attraction was immediate. I wanted to be like him and thought if I hung out with him at work his buoyant spirit would rub off.

It took time, but he taught me to love myself, reminded me that I was lovable, and kept me away from negative, overpowering people. He beloved in himself and then believed in me. Through him I learned that I could do many things.

Recently I was reading about a different kind of therapy for depressed individuals. Instead of dwelling on the past, which cannot be changed, look to the future and try to see yourself there. What would you want to be doing? Thinking? Feeling?

Patients were encouraged to write about future selves. Guess what happened? Over time attitudes changed and they began to see brighter days ahead.

If only I could have worked with someone like this. It would not have taken twenty-five years for me to be able to see the good in myself.

I try not to see the negative in people and want to believe that there is good in everyone. However, when I do encounter someone who drags me down, instead of blaming myself, I move away. Rapidly.

This is what positivity gives you: an ability to walk in your own shoes away from negative people. Let them be miserable in their own world: keep them out of mine.

Life is easier, too, when those you have chosen to be with echo the feelings you want to cherish in yourself. Life is too precious not to be positive. I will hold that thought dear to my heart.

 

 

 

 

 

Disaster Strikes

The weekend before Christmas my critique went on a writer’s retreat in Mendocino. The weather was spectacular despite being a bit chilly, but the skies were a deep blue. The four of us would meet, discuss our work, eat something, then repeat. By evening we were finished for the day and so decided to visit the Botanical Gardens in order to see the colorful light displays. While we roamed about taking in one spectacular display after another, the fog came in.

We decided to eat at Hotel Mendocino because of its charm and the quality of the food. After parking, we headed up the steps. I placed my right foot on the first one, and then found myself falling. I landed so hard that my right arm shattered. I knew it was broken despite not feeling any pain.

When the paramedics arrived they cut my sweatshirt off then slid a blow-up cast on my arm. I was then transported to Fort Bragg’s hospital. X-rays revealed that my bone was in there distinct pieces that would require surgery to mend.

The orthopedic surgeon was in Willits, a winding one-hour ride away. It was now almost midnight, so my friends left me in good hands. I must have been given something for pain, as I felt none and was a bit loo

The surgeon was waiting for me, but couldn’t begin until my blood was checked. I had been on blood thinners for years at this point and had recently had it checked. It was at 3.2, a good number. However, the surgeon reported that he couldn’t operate because it was 3.9! I was given three bags of plasma before the operation could take place.

I remember nothing of that morning except for the ride to the ICU. Just as they wheeled me past a door, I heard my husband’s voice! He had begged for a ride as my car was in front of the Bed and Breakfast. Knowing he was there lifted my spirits. I felt blessed in so many ways.

Falling was not what I intended to do that evening, but because of my friends who took care of me, the paramedics who kept me comfortable, a renowned surgeon who just happened to live in Willits and the support of my husband, the tragedy wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

Open Arms

“Welcome,” Aunt Lucy shouted from her front porch, waving my family into the front door.  She wore crispy pressed slacks, a bright floral print top, a shiny silver necklace, and dress shoes with heels shaped, in my mind, like skewers; her usual attire.  Her shiny black hair was neatly tucked into her traditional bun.  Despite her formal appearance, however, she was the friendliest of my relatives, and the only one who treated me as if I were more than a moron.

Standing before my aunt, staring at my too large oxfords, I whispered, “Hi.”

After pulling me to her chest with a suffocating hug, Aunt Lucy said, “Come on in.  I just turned on the television so you children could watch cartoons.” Her smile lit up the sky, making me feel instantly at ease.

Not to be undone, my mother pulled her sister away. “I brought an apple pie that I made this morning.  Fresh picked apples, too.”  Taking the pie from my brother’s hands, my mother proffered the well-stuffed pie, which Aunt Lucy accepted with grace and dignity.

“We’ll have this for desert with a dollop of vanilla ice cream on top,” Aunt Lucy said as she stepped into the house. “Come on, children. The couch is waiting for you.”

Following Aunt Lucy’s receding form, my older brother, younger sister and I scrambled up the perfectly proportioned red brick steps, through the glistening dark wood front door, down a richly carpeted hall lined with fairly large, golden-framed paintings evenly hung, and into the formal front room.  I chose to sit on the right hand side of the baby blue overstuffed couch, my sister plopped into the middle, and my brother squeezed into the other end.  In front of us sat the largest television we had ever seen: much larger than our eight inch black and white cabinet model.  The cartoon had animals taunting each other into performing dangerous daredevil tricks while living to do them again.

I hated the cartoon. My brother was a big tease who always tried to get me to do things that were terrifying, especially if they involved heights, so even though I didn’t want to watch, I was transfixed.

My mother glided past the television, choosing to ignore the loud cartoons that we were never permitted to watch at home.  “Don’t move until I call for you,” she whispered.

“Obey your mother or you’ll be sorry” my father added.

When an aroma of fresh flowers filled the room I knew Aunt Lucy had returned. “They don’t have to sit here like statues.  Leave them be,” she said while cradling a huge bouquet of brightly colored roses.  “Children,” Aunt Lucy pronounced as if by royal decree, “my garden is in full bloom.  Please feel free to go out back whenever you grow tired of the television.”  With a dramatic turn, she flounced out of the room, the floral scent lingering long after the sounds of her footsteps faded away.

I looked at my siblings who were glued to the show.  “Do you want to go outside?”  Neither responded, so I arose and headed toward the door all while expecting them to change their minds.  When neither of them so much as twitched a muscle, I placed my hand on the knob, ready to turn and open.

I hesitated though when I thought I heard someone calling my name. Expecting parental chastisement to float through the air like a sinister magic carpet, I was frozen in place.  When nothing untoward occurred, I opened the massive door and stepped out into the warm sunny afternoon.

With surprising nonchalance considering the unexpected freedom, I skipped my twelve-year-old body onto the yard humming a silly tune that echoed my jubilant mood. The sky’s shocking blueness lifted my spirits, making me feel as if I could fly. I danced down the granite walkway that led to a paved road that lead deeper into the yard, not really having a plan in mind other than relishing the beauty of the day.

Aunt Lucy’s brand new black Cadillac regally sat in front of the garage as if occupying a throne.  Glistening with newly applied wax, the sun’s reflection nearly blinded me as I moved close enough to graze my fingertips along the driver’s door.  Withdrawing my fingers as if electrified, I looked over my left shoulder, expecting to find my mother standing on the steps glaring with the ferocity of a challenged lioness.  There was no one there.  Nevertheless, I stepped away from the enticing vehicle.

Continuing my journey I walked past tulips in a rainbow of colors, baby’s breath with its miniature white blooms, bird-of-paradise resembling a flock of long-legged birds readying for flight, and multicolored chrysanthemums with blooms larger than the pumpkins we carved for Halloween.  Butterflies of all colors and sizes danced from flower to flower, and huge bumblebees, deadly dangerous to my severe allergic reaction, hovered and buzzed with excitement.

As if having their own mind, my fingers brushed the pink petals of a fully opened rose, the feathery frills of a yellow tulip, and the knife-like edges of the bird-of-paradise.  Checking to make sure that no bees were inside, I leaned over a cantaloupe-sized chrysanthemum and inhaled, calling the scent to my heart.  As I strolled along through the meandering garden, I noticed the greenness of the recently cut grass, the blueness of the sky, and the freshness of the air.

Where the garden ended, a large green hedge stood, taller than my father and so dense that even with my face buried in its leaves, I could not see through. Hoping there was a concealed gate as in a storybook, I followed the contours of the hedge, filled with a sense of exploration.  I pushed aside likely looking branches here, got down on hands and knees there, leaned left and right, and jumped and bent down as I went, enjoying the intrigue.

About twenty steps along I found an ivy-covered wrought ironed gate, lifted the latch, cautiously pulled it open, and stepped into paradise.  Deep green hedgerows stretched far off into the distance: one to the left, clearly visible, and one to the right, seeming to spring from the very house itself.

Directly before me lay an expanse of verdant grass larger than the playground at school.  Neatly mowed into a series of diamond shaped patterns, the yard did not immediately invite trespassing.  Its surprising perfection cried out, “Don’t step on me,” as loudly as my father’s admonishing voice.

Not one object disturbed the grandeur of the lawn.  No carefully placed wooden benches, no picnic tables or umbrellas to block the sun.  No garden decorations like windmills or pink flamingoes.  Not even a bubbling fountain.  Here and there, however, growing with a randomness that implied careful planning, grew huge maple trees, leaves larger than a man’s hand.

Feeling as if I were entering heaven on earth, I took a hesitant step onto the carpet of grass, instantly sinking into its cushiony softness.  No alarms sounded, no shrieks of anger, no grating voices chastised me for my audacity, and so I took a few more cautious steps.  And then a few more.  Moving deeper and deeper onto the lawn, feeling almost suspended in time, I moved toward one of the trees, searching for the perfect place to disappear into the loveliness before me.

Once I stood under a dense umbrella of leaves, the temperature dropped. A cool breeze rustled my short-cropped hair, feeling as if gentle fingers caressed my scalp.  An unexpected feeling of safety washed over me, something I had never sensed before, and with that came a carefree abandon that sent me flying across the lawn, arms making airplane wings and a smile springing across my face.

I ran and ran until my chest heaved with exhaustion, and then I fell into the enticing carpet.  Cool blades of grass tickled my neck and arms.  A pungent smell filled my nostrils: a rich, earthy odor like something decomposing.  Not repulsed, I relished the unexpected depth of both aroma and grass, rolling over and over like tumbleweed across an empty highway.

That done, I sat up, wondering what new experiences awaited my discovery.  Imagining myself a conqueror of a newly discovered world, I boldly stood at attention. Birds hidden in the heights of the trees commanded me in a joyful carol, saying, “Look.  Look at us.”  Craning my neck to an uncomfortable degree, I spied a family of cardinals sitting majestically amongst a nest of sticks and string.  The babies’ open mouths screamed, “Feed me. Feed me.”  I laughed as the parents took turns blessing the young ones with gifts of food.

Called by a distant pecking, thinking it must be a woodpecker, I squinted my eyes in order to see better across the verdant lawn, and instead of seeing the bird, I discovered a fence that divided the backyard into two distinct areas.

To my inexperienced eye, it was as if two countries coexisted in this place; one country thriving in the area closest to the house, and a second one, less lush, just beyond the fence.  As I approached the barrier I discovered that Aunt Lucy’s immaculately groomed lawn gave way to a meticulously tended garden. Forgetting about the peck-peck continuing in the background, I gingerly stepped close, not knowing what to expect, or whether I was allowed to enter what appeared to be a safely guarded place.

Brick walkways wound through the back garden as if through a maze, enticing me to follow, much like Dorothy heading toward the Emerald City.  Entranced, I opened a frail wire gate and stepped from the coolness of the manicured lawn into the desert-like heat of the garden.  No grass grew here: only a rich brown soil mixed with smoothed stones meticulously placed along the edges of the path.  Plants of various sizes and shapes grew everywhere.

Some flowers I instantly recognized.  There were Queen Elizabeth roses and yellow daffodils, cyclamen and crocus in full bloom.  Peonies and tulips, golden poppies and pussy willows. Pink flowers with white stripes and white ones with red stripes. Tiny orange spikes and fringed yellow petals. Others were a beautiful mystery, combinations of exploding blossoms and oversized petals coexisting in a cacophony of color.

As far as the eye could see, flowers sprung from the dark soil, some inches high with miniscule flowers, others sky-high explosions of hue.  I wandered into the maze, gaping at the spectacle before me.

A rustling sound behind me startled me, causing me to spin around, eyes agape and mouth hanging open in a giant oval.  Nothing but a common starling which bounced from one place to another, stopping to peck at a miniature something on the ground, turning over pebbles and crunching fallen leaves as it searched for whatever tidbit it could find.  I watched the bird for several minutes, fascinated by its lack of inhibition at my nearness.

The bird was on the vegetable side of the garden where giant beefsteak tomatoes draped over wire cages and tiny cherry tomatoes sprouted out of clay pots.  Long stalks of onions huddled in clusters and green beans dangled from vines twisting up long poles.  Green leafy carrot tops sprung from the midst of meandering pumpkins, while blackberry and raspberry vines draped over wires held up by huge poles.

“Do you know what those are?” Aunt Lucy’s voice came from over my left shoulder. After shaking off the initial surprise of hearing a voice amidst the beauty,, I followed her pointing finger, seeing a strange looking vine with elephant-sized leaves covering a brick-enclosed plot.

“No.”

“It’s squash.  Spaghetti squash some people call it,” she said as she indicated a rather odd looking vegetable.  “And these are ornamental pumpkins.  You can’t eat them, but they look really nice as table decorations.  Here,” she said as she guided my hand to a really odd looking one. “Feel the smoothness of the squash’s skin.”

With her guidance, I touched purplish eggplant, ping-pong sized Brussels sprouts, clusters of cauliflower, and crisp Romaine lettuce.  I felt leaves as soft as fur and others sticky like glue. My hands traced twisting vines of pole beans, and I stared up at gargantuan sunflowers that turn with the sun.

We meandered around her garden, touching this, smelling that, picking off dead leaves, and sprinkling water on thirsty plants.  Much of the time we said nothing, for there was something about the uniqueness of the afternoon that called for silence.

Every step offered something new to see and touch and taste.  The sweetness of a fresh picked tomato contrasted with the bitterness of a not quite ready carrot.  The powdery smell of a rose was obliterated by the breath-taking pungency of a bright red geranium. I reveled in the sensory overload, the serenity, and the peacefulness of Aunt Lucy’s special world.

“Well,” Aunt Lucy said after setting her watering can on the ground near a tightly coiled hose.  “We had better go inside.  I think your parents want to leave right after dinner and your father will be getting fidgety  for food by now.”

“Okay.”

“Here,” she said as she plucked a deep red rose near the gate.  “Take this as a reminder of my garden.  When you look at it, think of the peace you found here.”

We stepped through the gate and onto the lawn leaving behind the wondrous place of growth.  Aunt Lucy reached for my empty left hand, squeezing it as if sharing a secret society’s code.  We strolled across the lawn, taking time to feel the bark of a tree, listen to the song of a bird, and smell the richness of the loam spaded around the base of a tree.  We arrived at the back door, still hand in hand.  My soul soared with happiness, despite carrying the knowledge that I would soon reenter my known world of rules and expectations, frustrations and tears.

Before we entered the house, Aunt Lucy stopped and knelt before me.  Staring deep into my eyes, she whispered, “I know that life isn’t always easy for you.  That sometimes you don’t feel loved.  That you cry yourself to sleep at night.”

“How do you know that?”

“When I was younger I lived with your parents well before they had children.  It was a rough time emotionally.  I felt unwanted, unloved, and misunderstood, like a flower in a field of weeds.”

“I feel like that.”

“I’ve told your parents that I want you to spend a weekend with me very soon.  Would you like that?”

I nodded as Aunt Lucy pulled me into a tight embrace and planted a soft kiss on my cheek.  She opened the door into her mudroom and waved me inside.  We cleaned off the bottoms of our shoes, brushed leaves and petals off  our clothes, and then entered her bright yellow kitchen.

Something wonderful smelling simmered on her stove and baskets of bright red apples, fist-sized oranges, and bananas as yellow as the sun lined her counters.  “Sit here,” she said, as she opened the refrigerator and pulled out a pitcher of lemonade.  After pouring me a glass, Aunt Lucy busied herself with the meal, humming a happy sounding song as she worked.

“What are you doing in here?” my mother’s harsh voice demanded.

I dropped my glass, spilling what remained of my drink.  Ducking just in time to avoid a blow to the back of my head, I scrambled off the chair and huddled next to my aunt’s sheltering form.

“Get out of this kitchen, you disobedient brat,” my mother screeched as her finger pointed the way back to the television room.

“Leave her alone.” Aunt Lucy pulled me close.

“Stay out of this,” my mother said.  “She disobeyed and will pay for it.”

“Really, it’s my fault.  I told her she could go outside.” She stared daggers at my mom. “Let’s eat dinner and then have a piece of pie.”

When my mother left, Aunt Lucy ushered me into the dining room.  “Sit here,” she said, “and don’t worry.  I’ll take care of everything.”

Dinner crept by with a painful slowness, marked only by the clank of a fork or the ping of a spoon.  My siblings and I said nothing as we ate, as expected.  My parents participated in what conversation there was, but tension filled the air, spoiling the meal.

I ate every bite, even the offensive peas that my father dollopped onto my plate.  Only once my plate was clean was I dismissed from the table and sent back to the television room to await my punishment.

My aunt walked me to the car holding my hand all the way.  Before I got into the backseat she hugged me, whispering, “I love you,” and then planted a kiss on my cheek.

As we pulled away I waved until her shape disappeared behind an oversized hedge.  Ignoring the painful thorns that punctured my fingers, I held my rose to my nose and pulled in its sweet aroma.

Throughout the entire drive home the rose reminded me of all had I experienced that day as a smile graced my face and a crimson glow lit my cheeks.

I promised myself that I would never forget the loveliness of that special place and time and the open arms that made me feel welcome and loved.