And Breathe.

My puppy smells like corn chips. I inhale her sweet little scent just like I inhale the lavender scent of the sheets at my mom’s house – deeply and with relish.  When Ethan sweats, he smells like vinegar. It’s a sharp, acrid scent that does not suit him at all.  He usually smells like soccer fields and forests. Laura smells like my perfume. When I get ready for the day, she comes in to watch me. She asks for either sparkly eyes or pink cheeks and for a spritz of whatever perfume I am wearing that day. My cats sometimes smell like their litter boxes. I send them away to clean themselves up when they track that scent near me. Then I go clean their litter boxes.

Like so many people, I have a strong connection to scents.  I smell new tires whenever I go to a dentist’s office because the first time I got gassed before having a tooth pulled, the mask smelled like new tires. It made me sick. 24 years later, it still does. When my kids are congested, I can smell the mucous on their breath. It smells like sick – green and dank.  I can still smell the Polo cologne of my high school boyfriend.  Most likely because a bottle of his cologne shattered in my backpack after he haphazardly lobbed it next to his backpack, but it hit the wall instead. I held it at arm’s length and carried it to my locker where I stashed it before running down the hall to homeroom. The entire hallway of our high school smelled like Polo for a couple of weeks. Some things stick with you.

My ex-mother-in-law was an empty woman. She had so many cavities of sadness within her, so she filled her home with trinkets, baubles, sticks, bowls, anything antique. No tchotchkes, though. She was never quite sure what a tchotchke was, nor did she care to learn about them. When she couldn’t find any more nooks and corners inside her home to fill, she filled the air with scent – apples and cinnamon. There was potpourri, candles, cinnamon sticks, dried apples, small “cinnamon brooms,” faux apple pies that smelled “like the real thing!” as she would proudly exclaim. It was sickly sweet in there. I could smell the pie-filling inside of the 140-year old Victorian house from the front porch.  And just like the stuff carefully placed in the crevices and on shelves, the scent was an apt distraction.

Before my parents sold the home where I lived as a child, the front and the upstairs hallways smelled like sweet peaches.  Potpourri. Mom liked dabbles of scent here and there. But the peach potpourri stands out the most. Now that they live at the beach, the house smells salty, briny, and a little like the many pine trees in the yard. It’s a natural scent that I savor when I am there. Mom has gotten away from the potpourri. Sometimes when she cooks fish, she’ll light a delicately scented lemon candle to cleanse the air. The heaviest scents are in the bathroom. In the past couple of years, since receiving a bottle as a wedding favor, mom has begun buying Bath and Body Works liquid hand soaps. Everybody knows when you washed your hands, and, perhaps most importantly, when you didn’t, once you enter a room after leaving the bathroom. The dense scent of the soap lingers like little, puffy clouds around your hands. When I first told her about, and when she later visited, my ex-mother-in-law’s house, mom began consciously avoiding cinnamon and apple scents.

My own house smells like puppy pee. Not everywhere. And not all the time. And maybe I’m the only one who can smell it (or so I’ve been accused) because of the many puddles of pee I’ve cleaned since puppy Penny Lane arrived. My dear friend, Vector,* gave me two nature-inspired scented candles. One is “Sun-Kissed Leaves” and the other is “Cool Serenity (Relaxing Moments).” He was buying candles for his house, thought of me, and bought extra. Of course, this furthered my conviction that my house smells like puppy pee. He insists it doesn’t. I always forget to light the candles. He lights them when he is here.

I splurged on a rather expensive reed diffuser for my writing desk this summer.  My favorite home scent is fresh fig. I have a candle (that I always forget to light), oils (that I forget to put in the diffuser or forget to light the tea light to warm the oil and release the scent) and a spray (that I can’t find) in varieties of fig scents. Given my history, and my desire to have a figgy-scented home, I went the path that requires the least memory, and I purchased the pricey diffuser. When I brought it home, I simply pulled the stopper from the curvy bottle, dipped the reeds in the amber-colored oil, flipped them over, and was gifted with scent. Continual, fresh, musky, figgy scent.   My room is not filled with the scent, however. It stays on my desk. I love this most about my delicate reed diffuser. I am seduced to sit, relax, and breathe. Then I begin to write. Despite the cyclone on my desk – the papers from work, school, my children’s schools; bills; the empty, and half empty, water bottles; the mints; the highlighters; the four Sticky Notes pads; the binders; the checkbooks; the makeup; and my hat. Despite the chaos, I breathe.

 

*Not his real name.

Zen in Cold Water

Three mornings a week, my alarm clock screams at me, and I am bullied from my sleep at 4:50 AM. After hitting snooze once, twice, I fumble through the familiar darkness to the bathroom where my bathing suit waits for me to shimmy it on. I creep down the squeaky stairs, try to avoid tripping over the dog, collect my keys and swim bag and groggily drive myself to Towson University. I deftly sleep-drive my way into the parking lot and find a spot for my car. I slide out onto the cool asphalt and nod at my fellow swimmers as we shuffle our way up the stairs and into the aquatic center. The bright lights inside the women’s locker room of Burdick Hall shock me a little more awake, as I ready myself for yet another grueling hour of swim team practice. Flip-flops, fins, goggles, swim cap, Gatorade – I juggle my supplies and join my teammates at the edge of the pool.

At 5:20 a.m. I slide myself into the chilly water and start the 1,000-yard warm up. The first 200 yards are manic, fueled by stress, anger and anxiety. I grumble and growl, complain to no one, push off the wall too hard and glide, annoyed at the cold water, tightness of my goggles, creeping up of my cheap practice suit.  After my little underwater bitch session, I find my rhythm and settle in to complete the last 800 yards of the warm up.

“Hold it!” our coach shouts, signaling the end of the warm up. My teammates and I stop at the wall, sip sports drinks, and exchange good mornings. The chatter gives way to silence as Coach Matt walks to the dry-erase board to translate the 2,000-yard workout. The swimmers, sometimes up to 35 of us, gripe and complain good-naturedly, select the pace for the workout, and move into position. We stare at the time clock. Matt’s voice booms, “In five…Go!” The silent pool explodes in a crescendo of splashes as one swimmer after another gracefully tuck under the water, push off the wall and surface, arms pulling and legs kicking as they test themselves against the relentless time clock.

In my lane, lane three, I am the last swimmer of four; the anchor, a spot I covet. The swimmer ahead of me varies – sometimes Bill shows up, but he travels often for work. Sometimes Mary joins us, but she has been spending more time at the gym with her daughter. Frequently, I am last of three, behind Shauna, a furiously strong swimmer who keeps speed in reserve for the end of the workout. I struggle to stay in her bubbly wake. Leading the group is Dave, a 65-year old powerhouse. Dave competes in triathlons and wins. Not just in his age group – the whole thing. He competes internationally, sometimes twice in a year. I am in awe of his athleticism and humility. His swim caps speak for him – Australia, Beijing, Germany. He leads the lane and sets a pace that pushes the rest of us way beyond what we thought we could accomplish. I breathlessly thank him at the end of every practice.

It is during these 2,000-yard workouts that I exhaust my inner critic. I settle him down with rhythmic chanting, a necessity for me to hold my pace, keep up with my lane mates, and relax in my body. Sometimes the chanting gives way to thinking and planning. I practice lessons in my head, make to do lists, or yell at those who have annoyed me.  That’s when I know I have found Zen…when I can maintain pace during a hard workout while designing discussions questions for my 10:10 English class.  I climb from the pool physically spent, emotionally awakened, my body chilled from the cool air. As I pad to the locker rooms, I note the griping and complaining around me. I grin, grateful that I pulled myself out of bed, pushed myself hard, and remembered to set the timer of the coffeepot at home.

Frogs

Early, rainy spring brings me into my small backyard garden. It’s a frustrating little place – there are areas where the flowers are flourishing. Green leaves are speckled with buds or supporting vibrant blooms. Then there are the areas that are barren. Dirt and half-decomposed mulch and weeds mix with dog pee. I obsess over those areas.

Every time I walk down my garden path, I look at the empty spaces. I bend slightly and squint, hoping to see a glimmer of growth. Hoping that the smattering of green is more than another weed. I make mental notes to buy more bulbs, seeds, and plants to fill those barren spaces.

I pay little attention to the areas that are thriving. Even among my herb garden, I tend to discount the strong plants as a result of something out of my control. The soil is better; the plant is established; the sun shines brighter there. I pay too much attention to the emptiness, to the damaged areas, to the destructive weeds.

And then there’s my lawn. Bumpy and half-overgrown; the other half patchy with muddy, weedy areas that scream, “You suck at this!” I sit on my deck stairs, glass of wine or cup of coffee in my hands, staring at my angry lawn and my mangy garden and feel utterly paralyzed to do a damn thing about it except dwell on the emptiness and the damage.

To say these are dark days would be utterly melodramatic. They aren’t happy days…but they aren’t completely horrible. I’m grieving, and that is something I don’t do gracefully.  I’ve had months of heartache – one frog that didn’t turn into a prince, no matter how much I kissed or fucked him, after another. Six, to be precise. Six suitors who pursued me hotly, insisted they wanted to build a future with me, then stopped communicating with me. No more emails, texts gone ignored, calls not returned. Poof, they disappeared leaving me to beat myself to a pulp for not being thin enough, witty enough, tall enough, rich enough, pretty enough, smart enough…for simply being not good enough.  Or for being too much – too eccentric, too emotional, too busy, too compulsive or quirky.

Cognitively, I know none of that is true…I’ll be good enough to the right frog-prince.  But emotionally, I’m as muddy and bare as those patches I obsess over in my lawn and garden. All I can do is drink – coffee in the morning, wine in the afternoon – and feel paralyzed. Which is ridiculous, I know. But that’s what this sort of paralysis does.  It reduces me.

I’m a relationship girl. I like being in a relationship even though I have proven time and again that I am sufficiently inept at creating healthy, romantic partnerships. I need that label, that safety and security of knowing he is ‘mine’ and I am ‘his’. The rest will work itself out. Let’s skip Courting and jump right to Relationship. Then we can court without the anxiety and insecurity. At least I wouldn’t have anxiety and insecurity. He would have increased anxiety because what he had gotten himself into was sinking in. The thrill was fading, the gild coming off the lily. All the while, I stood clueless in my happy, dreamy world of denial and fantasy.

When I muster the strength and make the time, I go into my garden and yank out the weeds, their roots desperately clinging to clumps of soil. I shake the excess, still useful, soil back into the garden and discard the weed. I pull out my rake and till the bare patches of grass to a fluffy loam, creating a welcome environment for seeds. The dark sky is going to handle the job of watering the freshly-groomed gardens and lawn. Back on my deck stairs, bottle of water in my hand, I am satisfied with the effort. The sweat mixed with soil has formed a paste on my face, hands and legs. A long, hot shower is in my immediate future. Right after I admire the hard work I have done in my yard.

It’s Food, Not Love

I fired my seamstress seven months ago. She closed her dry cleaning shop early, without warning, the day before New Year’s Eve, thus holding my fabulous NYE 2011 party dress captive. This sent me screeching to Nordstrom, shell-shocked kids in tow, to find a new dress for the party. It wasn’t just the one dress this one time; although she does beautiful tailoring at a reasonable price, she is terrible at meeting deadlines. Promised dates for pick up were often pushed back again and again. I was generously discounted for my patience. But my patience wore thin on December 30th. On January third, I turned in my last ticket, collected my tailoring and dry cleaning, and left her.

Her absence didn’t have much of an impact on me until now. As part of my back-to-school ritual, I try on my ‘grown-up’ clothes, after months of lounging in t-shirts, tank tops, bathing suits and tattered shorts, to get a feel for what needs to be replaced, altered, augmented, donated or dry cleaned. This year, I am feeling her absence as my son is feeling the absence of his newly lost tooth.  This year, all my pants are too tight. I need to have the trousers she so lovingly altered in, let out.

Last year was a wonderful year. After making many difficult and necessary changes within myself, I realized the woman I am outside a marriage – independent, resilient, confident. My children and I grew closer as a result of my spiritual connection to myself, and my acknowledgement of the need to nurture myself. I did yoga frequently. I meditated. I dated, had my heart broken, recovered and learned from rather than resented the breakage.

I was happy, and as a reflection, I lost weight…35 pounds. It slipped off my body as my unhappiness slipped away from memory. I brought armfuls of clothes to my seamstress, who exclaimed, “These clothes! They are too big! Why did you get them so big?” I laughed and explained that they used to fit me, snugly. I couldn’t stop grinning. I was now a slip of a woman at 125 pounds, size 4-6.

The weight loss also put me in the holy graces of my doctors. My blood sugar levels had dropped and stabilized, which meant I could stay off insulin and continue to treat my Type I Diabetes with medication.  Delicately, for several years, my endocrinologist had been mentioning that if I lost a few pounds, I’d see an improvement in my HgA1C’s. He knew I was exercising aggressively, and that I was frustrated. But he had to do his job. When he saw me, six months later and 35 pounds lighter, he was both pleased at my accomplishment and visibly relieved that the awkward ‘weight speech’ could be skipped.

Due to sudden, nearly unbearable stress, more weight fell off – fifteen pounds in two months’ time. I looked gaunt. It wasn’t a healthy loss.  Then I began to get sick – a three-week flu, followed immediately by a cold that lasted a month. Pneumonia. Bronchitis. A sinus infection. I spent about six months sick. My weight had bottomed out at 110 pounds; I was too thin. My internist determined that a healthy weight range for me is 120-125 and told me to get there as quickly and safely (read: no junk food) as possible. I followed doctor’s orders and gained weight. Ten pounds slathered on my ass and waist easily. Too easily. 5 more pounds followed. Then seven more. Now, I am fluctuating by 8-12 pounds over my ideal weight; This has smacked my emotions back to some dark days when my five-foot frame carried 160 pounds, and everything I owned fit my gelatinous body tightly.

Those 12 pounds got here through something more powerful than laziness or gluttony. They are here because of a need for comfort. I eat to comfort myself. Technically, it’s called emotional eating. I call it weakness. The frustration emotional eating causes pushes me into a depression. So I eat to combat the sadness. And I gain weight. And my blood sugar levels rise. So I get scared and even more depressed. So I eat more and move less because depression staples my thighs to the couch and tunes into “Toddlers and Tiaras” which renders me incapable of switching off the TV to do yoga or Pilates. It’s a painful, vicious cycle to be in and to watch. My friends and family are afraid to say anything when they see me reaching for a second or third helping at dinner. They know it will shame me if they comment, and I’ll eat more to comfort myself out of feeling shamed. Which will frustrate me. And around it goes.

This summer was unusual. It didn’t have the gentle ebb and flow my summers at the Jersey shore usually enjoy. My parents and I shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. We chose words carefully or avoided them altogether lest the wrong word were to tap a hole in the flimsy walls keeping the sadness in.

My brother and his family moved across the country in July. We have never been this far apart. The life we had known has been cut short, altered. It’s different and sad. My dad has been in terrible pain from aggressive osteoarthritis in his ankle. He can’t walk very well. Mom has been keeping everyone calm and happy and organized. She has run herself ragged getting my brother and his family packed and moved while taking care of my father. This is her role in the family, but it’s taking its toll on her.  I had my own angst. The beginning of my MFA writer’s residency program was approaching frighteningly fast. I was battling my self-esteem demons, and losing.  There were other woes as well…financial, social, negotiations with the ex. These changes, emotions and insecurities rendered me sleepless and sent me to the refrigerator on late-night snacking binges, bringing me to my current quandary.

While I miss the smaller sizes and loose-fitting trousers, it’s the decline of my health that tortures me when I see the 130’s stare at me from the digital readout of my scale. I can’t feel the Diabetes killing me, but I know it is. And I know how I got here. When I’m away from the scale, my tight pants are an uncomfortable reminder that I failed myself. Again. I have learned to identify the difference between emotional hunger and stomach hunger. I have yet to learn how to deny my emotional hunger. Or how to satisfy that hunger – the yearning.  Each day I whisper to myself, “today you will stop yourself.” But, like the addict too soon out of a twelve-step program, I relapse.  And I start over.

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