Letting Go of the Old

I stood facing the water and my legs felt strong beneath me. The cool breeze prickled my bare arms and whistled through my thin cotton shirt as I wrapped my arms across my chest. I’d built up some heat on my walk, had stripped off first my jacket and then my sweatshirt, and now it felt good to be cool. When was the last time I felt the wind on my skin, I wondered. Did it always feel this good?

The shell felt familiar in my hand, like I’d been holding it there forever, though I’d selected it less than an hour ago from the box in my closet. It fit perfectly into the curve of my closed palm and I rubbed my thumb contentedly against its concave surface. I’d held it that way as I walked, rubbing it absentmindedly, and already it had the familiarity of an old friend. 

*******

I had known the answer would come to me as I made my way here, but still the force of it caught me by surprise. I’d felt sure the right answer would emerge, but only once I’d started to gain some momentum on my walk, once the swirling in my head started to fade into the background and I was in my body once more. It had happened the last few days, the perfect answer, appearing as if out of nowhere. From somewhere deep within me, the answer I needed most in that moment had arrived.   

“What am I letting go of today?” I asked myself as I started my walk, stepping onto the path that runs along Marina Boulevard. “I don’t know, I don’t know” answered the frantic part of my brain, so unsure of itself, crippled by the pressure of always wanting to be right. But that wasn’t the voice I was looking for. That voice has enough sway over me as it is.

So I kept walking, only half hearing the cars to my left droning by in a predictable rhythm, knowing I would be free of their noise soon enough. Soon they’d be replaced by another sound, a sound that never fails to ground me, and I trained my ears for the moment I would hear it. As my path curved away from the road and toward the bay, I rubbed the shell with my thumb and asked it again, “What am I letting go of today?”

Still nothing.

*******

I crossed the parking lot toward the water, leaned back against the concrete wall facing the shore, and waited. I watched the lines of swell roll in, peak up, and crash along the thin beach while the rhythmic whoosh and drag filled my ears. I let my head fall back against the wall, soaking it all in.

I still wasn’t there, and I still didn’t have my answer, so on I went, my soundtrack now the crashing of waves and the chirps of little birds drinking from puddles along the path. I felt my pace pick up and it struck me how good my legs felt, how strong they felt. So unlike they’ve felt before, even just weeks earlier. I let my arms swing in time and I could feel the power now, the sheer joy of movement, and how much my body needs this.

I could feel the grit of the pebbles through the thin soles of my shoes, and the power from my feet travel up the backs of my legs and into my hips. The forward momentum took hold of me and I was striding now, legs gliding freely and smoothly beneath me. It hit me then, my answer. A moment of clarity so profound it almost took my breath away.

Yes, that was exactly it.

I walked a little further, revelling in the strength of my legs and my newfound certainty. Oh, this felt like a big one. The shell felt larger in my hand now, heavy with meaning. The sun peaked out from behind the persistent clouds, and for a minute it was warm, so warm that I peeled off one layer and then another.

I turned onto the wooden boardwalk and followed it toward my little spot by the water. I can’t remember the last time I had this spot completely to myself, and yet there it was. No tourists, no questionable characters, no dog walkers with their packs of hounds. There was not a soul in sight, and it felt like a gift.

I wanted to be alone for this.

*******

I walked to the water’s edge and stood waiting, watching the white spray climb the beach and kiss my shoes. I’d been holding the shell within my closed hand, buried in my pocket. Now I took it out and studied it in the light. It was a thick one, layered. Soft around the edges and worn down by time and the crush of the waves. But it was solid, substantial. It wasn’t like those pretty shells I keep in a tray on my dresser. This one had some weight to it.

I stood staring out at the blue-green waves as the wind cut through my shirt, glancing around in disbelief that I had this spot to myself for this length of time. I could see some people down the beach, but they probably weren’t even within shouting distance. I was completely, blissfully, alone. To my left, the downed branch of a nearby tree rocked back and forth as the waves broke over it, slowly dragging it out to sea.

The tiny patch of sunlight I’d managed to stand in dropped back into shade, and immediately I felt the urge to retreat. It was time. I reached for the shell and traced its contours one last time, then arched back, shifted my weight, and threw it as far as I could into the rippling blue. “I’m letting go of the idea that my body is damaged” I said to myself as the shell took flight.

Other thoughts followed immediately, bubbling up from that same mysterious place within. “I don’t believe my body is damaged. I don’t believe I am damaged.” I felt the thoughts wash over me, felt their truth in my bones.

*******

My right shoulder tweaked from the force of the throw, and the response was immediate. “Oh god, now you’ve done it again. What if it doesn’t heal for months now? It just started feeling better after hurting it in November, and now here we are again…”

I heard the familiar chatter, but this time it didn’t pull me in. I simply restated my position. I do not believe that my body is damaged. I don’t believe that anymore.

I hadn’t even realized that belief was in there, let alone that it had such a hold over me. Thinking back, I can see I’ve been carrying this idea around for years now, this belief that I was damaged in some way. Damaged beyond repair. I’ve been attached to this belief, willing to defend it with years of evidence, with my laundry list of aches and pains and all the failed attempts at diagnosis and treatment. It never even occurred to me that I carried this belief, let alone that it was part of the problem.

*******

Yes, I have some things going on with my body, and still much work to do in terms of healing my gut and getting my joints healthy again. And yes, I’ve had some illnesses and accidents and injuries along the way, and I’m right to be cautious with certain things. But I do not believe that my body is damaged. I don’t believe that anymore.

I kept my attention on that truth and resisted the familiar pull of the pain. Resisted my urge to study it, analyze it, hypothesize about its origins and predict its expansion. And perhaps most importantly I resisted the oh so familiar thought pattern of “If my joints are so weak and sore at 35, then by the time I’m 60….”. I just didn’t go there.

I do not believe my body is damaged. I won’t entertain those thoughts anymore. They do not serve me, and if anything, they perpetuate the problem. Believing that my body is a hopeless mess, which has pretty much been my attitude for the last five years, lets me off the hook. If I’m damaged beyond repair, then there’s nothing I can do to fix it, so I don’t have to try.  

If I’m damaged beyond repair, then I get to give up easily when something doesn’t ‘fix’ me right away, and feel helpless and sorry for myself. Instead of taking the power into my own hands, I get to absolve myself of responsibility and play the victim. I see now that this is a sneaky little habit of mine, and it’s not one I’m interested in carrying with me anymore. Add that to the growing list of things I’m letting go of this year.

*******

As I started my walk back, the pain in my shoulder faded into nothingness. It wasn’t a catastrophe, a sure sign of my frailty and a future of suffering. I simply threw something as hard as I could without warming up in the least, and my shoulder needed a minute with that. That seems reasonable enough.

In the weeks since this moment on the beach, I’ve had good days and I’ve had bad days. My shoulders feel strong and healthy, and my knees only bother me occasionally. I’ve woken up too many mornings with stiff old lady hands and wrists too sore to open a jar, but still I do not believe my body is damaged. I just don’t believe that anymore. The cause and effect is so clear to me now that I can no longer hide behind old beliefs.

So I don’t spend those mornings imagining the worst and picturing myself with my grandmother’s gnarled hands before I even hit 50. I simply feel the pain in my joints and I notice the weather. I notice the foods I’ve been eating and how much movement I’ve been getting. I notice where I’m at with stress and sleep and alcohol, and the picture becomes clear.

*******

I’m reasonably certain now that the problems with my gut have led me to the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis, but even that doesn’t feel like a death sentence. If anything, it feels like a relief. An answer. A way forward.

Because if I eat a certain way, avoid alcohol, and get (gentle) exercise EVERY. SINGLE. DAY., I have every reason to believe I’ll be completely fine. Symptom-free. Healthy.

I believe this because I’ve felt it, for glorious weeks on end, and because I’ve read countless stories of people with illnesses far worse than my own, who have been able to do exactly that.

And that’s a trade I’m more than willing to make, now that I fully understand the stakes of this game. And now that, most importantly, I realize I’m the one holding all the cards.

K

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The Path is Made by Walking

I’ve done the impossible. In fact I’m doing it right now. It’s been 18 weeks since I’ve had a taste of sugar or even a piece of bread. Twenty weeks without alcohol, six without dairy. I haven’t even eaten a single potato in 2018.  

Of course, none of this is actually impossible to do. It only looked that way from a distance, before I took the first step. Before I started I was filled with doubts and fears. What if it doesn’t even work? What I’m hungry the whole time? What if I’m miserable for months because I hate what I’m eating? What if I just can’t do it?

******

Fast forward four months, and things have started to feel pretty comfortable. Normal, even. I’ve long since stopped counting days and weeks. To be honest, I haven’t even been paying attention to my end date recently because I’ve stopped caring about it.  

In truth, I think I’m a little scared to ever stop eating this way. I am finally starting to feel better, a LOT better, and I really don’t want that to change. I don’t wake up feeling like an old lady anymore, hands tight, knees sore, neck achy. I haven’t woken up with sore knees in over a month now. I had a friend visit last week and we spent two full days trekking up and over almost every major hill San Francisco has to offer, and my foot only started to protest at the very end of the second day. Even then, it didn’t last for days or weeks like it used to.

“Things are starting to shift” is how Brooke, my nutritionist said last week, and that felt like exactly the right way to phrase it. Things are not perfect, not 100% resolved, but there is movement happening. I am beginning to feel it now, the shift.

******

At first it was really hard. I was hungry a lot. I didn’t know how to eat this way, so every meal felt like a struggle. What was I going to do for lunch? How was I going to stay full? I couldn’t bring myself to eat yet another salad. I felt so deprived. The hunger really messed with my head and my emotions. I started to wonder about my weight. Was I losing any? I should be losing weight if I’m putting myself through all this. That’s the reward I’ll get, right? Some part of me didn’t really believe that I was going to actually feel substantially better, so I was hoping to at least get some vanity rewards out of the whole ordeal.

I was at a really low point when I wrote my last piece about this. The hunger was constant and my body was still sore too much of the time. It all felt hopeless, and frankly I felt like a victim. Why me? Why this? Why were other people able to eat terrible diets and seemingly be fine? Would I ever feel better?

In some ways it felt good to feel sorry for myself, to get sympathy from others about my body and about food. I’ve been able to eat pretty much whatever I want all my life without gaining weight, which is not something one usually admits out loud. It’s probably the easiest way I can think of to provoke the resentment or downright hatred of other women.

So it felt good to share that I struggle with food and my body too, even if it’s not visible from the outside. That I can’t eat whatever I want anymore, and that maybe I never could. That maybe I wasn’t “getting away with it” all this time after all, but really doing damage on a deeper level. That despite I look like from the outside, I’m struggling too.

******

I had my catharsis with some good cries and a few posts about my struggles, and then things slowly started to shift. It took me a while to notice because things were so gradual. I started to say “I feel about 10% better” when people asked, because I didn’t have the answer they were looking for. I wasn’t able to give them the grand success story “It’s all worth it! I feel amazing!”. But I also wasn’t ready to give up yet.

“It’s been months and you’re still not feeling substantially better?” I could hear the judgment, the assumption that I was wasting my time with all this diet stuff. In someone else’s mind this was a failure and that discouraged me, made me question myself and my plan. Then a client of mine, herself no stranger to health challenges said “10% in two months isn’t bad”, and I realized she was right. I’ve had joint problems for almost 10 years, gut problems dating back even longer than that. What was I expecting, that a few months of this diet and it would be like flipping a light switch? I guess I did kind of expect that at first.

The truth is it may take me years to get my body back to a healthy place, to get everything optimal again after so many years of neglect. I get that now, and I’m okay with that. I am laying the foundation now, that’s how I’ve come to see this phase that I’m in. I am fixing my gut, that’s step one. A month ago it seemed like this would get me 10% better, and now it’s starting to feel more like 50%. I’m also rebuilding my stores of the vitamins and nutrients I’ve been low on for years, letting those go to work on my blood and my bones. When I get all that sorted out, I’ll tackle step three, whatever that may be.

Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking. Antonio Machado

 

“I’m laying the foundation” has been a much easier perspective to inhabit on this journey. I stopped waiting for miracles, stopped feeling sorry for myself, and started noticing the small wins. I also figured out how I could still enjoy eating and stay full, thanks to both my nutritionist and a few of my clients who are on similar journeys. I eat a lot of meat and a lot of eggs and a lot of fat. I feel satisfied by my meals. I enjoy what I’m eating every day. I’m not even craving the things I thought I’d miss most, like french fries or pizza or parmesan cheese, because my savoury needs are being met.

Most importantly, I’m not hungry all the time anymore, which is probably the biggest thing. It’s pretty hard not to feel sorry for yourself when you’re hungry. Sure I have the occasional dream about apple pie or warm chocolate chip cookies, or catch myself squeezing and smelling bags of marshmallows at the grocery store, but for the most part I’m handling my sugar cravings too. I’ve discovered a deep and abiding love for all things coconut, especially coconut oil blended in my coffee every morning, and that goes a long way these days.

It’s amazing how much can change in the space of a few months. In January I stood starting at this ‘impossible’ chore ahead of me, and now I’m here. Here is not perfect, but it’s more than halfway through ‘impossible’, and I’m still going strong. I can’t wait to see what the rest of this year has in store for me now that I’m finally getting my stride.

K

The Adventure Continues

It’s been seven weeks now since I’ve started a complete overhaul of my diet, and I’m happy to report it hasn’t all been the sufferfest I anticipated. It’s been surprisingly easy in certain respects, but really challenging in others.

Let’s start with the good. I have been fortunate enough to have a lot of support with this process, which is where the “easy” part comes in. My coach Allie put me in touch with a Holistic Nutritionist who sourced SIBO-friendly recipes for me and taught me how to cook them. Brooke has come over three times now to help me prepare meals that are in line with the protocol. This is huge because I basically didn’t cook until I started this whole thing. Jamie cooks, and I clean. This is how it’s always been in our house, each of us sticking to what we’re good at and comfortable with.

But I’ve begun to see this as an opportunity to learn to cook and discover healthy foods I will actually enjoy eating. I had been framing this whole protocol as an exercise in deprivation, the taking away of things I loved. Aside from the hope of eventually feeling better somewhere down the line, I saw no other upside to this. The fact that I’m actually having fun and becoming comfortable in my own kitchen has been a huge bonus.

*******

We tend to eat pretty simple meat and veggie dinners, and my go-to breakfast would only require a small modification, so my main concern was lunch. Lunch is my nemesis. For as long as I can remember now, my MO has been to wait until I’m well past hungry before even thinking about lunch. Ravenous and panicked, I grab a burrito or a sandwich somewhere, eat way too much way too fast, and then feel terrible for hours afterward. That’s just how I do lunch.

Brooke came over for a four hour cooking session the day before I started the diet. The plan was for me to wake up the morning of Day 1 with a fridge full of healthy yummy lunches, as well as some quick sides for dinner. She sat me down at our table and asked me what my anxieties were about this process. I found myself getting surprisingly emotional, telling her I was afraid that I’d just be hungry the whole time, and that I can’t deal with hungry.

I am basically not a functioning human being when I’m hungry. I can’t think straight, I get super anxious, and I cannot make even the simplest of decisions because everything is a jumble in my brain. Not to mention the hanger. The hanger is real. Being in a constant state of hunger would put a strain on my mental health, not to mention my marriage. This frightened me. I also felt bummed about having to withdraw from my social life. Eating out is simply not an option with all these restrictions, and it’s not like I can meet people for drinks either.

*******

Just talking through my fears helped me to realize why I’d been so resistant to starting this. She assured me that she wouldn’t let me go hungry, that we would make sure I was eating lots and lots of fat in order to stay full between meals. On the protocol I have to wait a full four hours in between eating, so her plan for me included lots of meat and hearty vegetable dishes, and supplementing with bone broth in between meals, if necessary.

We cooked a lot of great stuff that first day, and the main take-home for me was how easy so many of the recipes actually were. I’ve never been terribly comfortable in the kitchen, so it was wonderful to have someone guide me through everything. I found myself actually enjoying cooking, and feeling excited to create things and learn something new. The second week I managed to replicate a few things she’d taught me, and even went off book in making a new salad I dreamed up, casually toasting some pine nuts and adding pomegranate seeds in for crunch. This from someone who, in the not-too-distant past, would have crackers with cream cheese and hot peppers for dinner, if left to my own devices.

*******

As far as how I’m feeling, it’s been up and down. The first two days I felt like I normally do, but desperately hungry. Like my guts hurt hungry. Waking up and showering and feeling like my stomach was cramping with hunger. It didn’t help that for days our whole place smelled of the bone broth I had cooking in a borrowed crock pot. Then the third day everything hurt, a lot. My left knee, which is usually more of a low grade ache, was suddenly sharp and angry, pain under my kneecap haunting every step. I was discouraged and grumpy, ready to call this whole thing a failure when I’d just begun. By day four I was still hungry and achy, but my knee had returned to normal.

Then for a week I felt good. Really good. My knees weren’t obvious first thing in the morning, and I found myself waking up before my alarm feeling excited to get out of bed, ready to face the day. I figured out how much I needed to eat in order to stay full, and my stomach felt tight, but in a good way, even after I ate. I realized that what I’d always thought of as feeling “full” was actually feeling bloated, and I didn’t feel that way anymore. By the end of that week and into the second weekend, I felt like a superhuman.

I felt clean, I felt strong, I felt inspired. I woke up early and exercised Saturday morning, did a massive clean-up of our apartment, started writing again. Things were looking up, way up. Even though my knees weren’t 100%, they felt less vulnerable somehow. I was less afraid to crouch down and pull things out of the kitchen cupboards, little stresses like that just felt less risky. When people asked me how my diet was going, I told them I felt amazing, the best I’d ever felt. “I feel like a superhuman”, I would say.

*******

And then I had a down day. Well, a few down days. An excerpt from Jan 29th, when I first started writing about all this:

Last night my foot started to really bug me again, like it hasn’t for over a month now. I slept poorly, and woke up this morning exhausted with a shitty headache. I didn’t want to get out of bed, and when I did I was a grump to Jamie. I started feeling hopeless again over breakfast. I had to straighten my left knee to let it crack literally every 5 minutes, it was just so uncomfortable. What the f_ck is wrong with my knees??? Am I going to go through all of this only to discover that I need surgery because there is something mechanical wrong, and I’ve ignored it long enough to be at a crisis point? This is the quality of my thoughts this morning. And I’m hungry again, really hungry. Ravenous within hours of breakfast, my head in a fog.

It’s been up and down, clearly, but I’m doing what I can today to prepare for a better day tomorrow. I hope that as I get more familiar with the foods I can eat, I will have more satisfying meals with ease. I hope that with my cooking lesson on Wednesday and my new crock pot, I’ll get comfortable with some relatively easy meals. I hope that as I continue to clear up my gut, other systems will come back online and help me out with all this joint stuff. I hope that acupuncture will help to bring blood flow/circulation to my injuries to help them heal, and help calm my nervous system so it stops believing I am constantly under threat and need to be on high alert.

I hope, I hope, I hope.

As down as I have felt today, I am conscious of forward momentum. I am moving toward where I want to be, however slow and halting my progress. Dr. L told me to expect flu-like symptoms as the bacteria started to die off and release toxins into my system. Maybe that’s what this is all about.

I love the positive spin I was putting on this for the intended reader, conscious that no one wants to read something that leaves them feeling down. It’s been a challenge to find the line between being deeply honest about this, and just being negative. It’s a fine balance.

*******

After a bad week at the end of January, things were on the up again, for a couple of weeks this time. Again I felt like a superhuman; minimal pain, feeling great after eating, loads of energy and motivation. On a particularly inspired Friday morning I rode my bike to Crissy Field and ran sprints, something I have not done for, quite literally, 20 years.

I loathe physical discomfort. I’m much more into gentle/mindful stuff like yoga and Pilates, rather than heart-pounding, chest-heaving, excruciating cardio. But I felt good enough to try it, and even better afterward. The next morning I did my first-ever ride up Hawk Hill with a good friend who’d been pushing me to commit to it for months. We biked for over 20 miles that day, and my knees barely protested. Jamie and I started joking about Karen 2.0. This chick was for real, running sprints for god’s sake.

Four weeks passed relatively quickly, and just as I was starting to think this wasn’t so bad, it was time to switch to the more restricted diet. I was now losing the 1/2 cup of rice or quinoa I’d come to depend on at lunch and dinner. The limited dairy I’d been allowed previously would be cut as well, although I’d already given up butter weeks ago because it wasn’t sitting right. I still ate the occasional slice of cheese, but had noticed an undeniable link between eating cheese and having headaches and knee pain within hours. So cheese would go too, which probably wasn’t a bad thing.

*******

Then just like that it was time for my re-test. In preparation, there’s a 12 hour specified diet (baked chicken, eggs, white bread and white rice), followed by a 12 hour fast. I really debated whether to have bread again after all this time, but Dr L said it was helpful to eat things that would provoke the bacteria for the re-test. Truthfully, I’m sure I could have done without it, but the second I imagined myself eating a piece of freshly baked white bread, I couldn’t let go of the idea. This was going to happen, and I couldn’t wait. Suddenly planning the re-test seemed like a great idea!

The day before the test, I stood in the bakery section at Whole Foods debating different types of fresh sourdough. Finally I made my pick. It was crunchy but soft, and it smelled like heaven. I damn near cradled it in my arms as I carried it to the cash, and as soon as I got home, I tore into it. I didn’t even bother taking my shoes off as I carried the bags into the kitchen. The groceries sat unpacked all around me while I cut a beautiful thick slice and devoured it in seconds. I started getting ready to take the compost out, but stopped halfway through for a second slice. 

My plan was to toast a piece of bread and dip it in some fried eggs for lunch, but I managed to devour two full slices before I even got to that. I had another piece (or two?) later on, then was horrified to realize I’d basically eaten half a loaf of bread in the space of an afternoon. And boy, did I feel it afterward. My stomach was in knots the rest of the day and I had a headache by 6pm. 

*******

I got up Wednesday morning and started my re-test, drinking the solution then breathing into a tube every 20 minutes for 3 hours. As I got to the end, I started making breakfast so I could eat asap. I was overjoyed that I would get to have walnuts, delicious walnuts! And my most treasured ritual, a coffee blended with coconut oil. It’s amazing what foods start to feel like an indulgence once they’re forbidden. The night before, I had stared longingly at the scraps of broccoli on the baking sheet as Jamie made his dinner, and thought “I would kill for some sweet potatoes right now”, as I watched him eat. Sweet potatoes, for god’s sake. What a ridiculous thought. But I love that this is happening. I love that I am starting to crave healthy foods that I once ate mostly out of obligation. The power of the forbidden fruit.

Speaking of, the bananas have been taunting me from the fruit bowl in the mornings. God I wish I could have a banana. I was allowed half a banana and a quarter avocado with the last phase, and had been eating those religiously each morning. Losing them has been tough. My breakfast has dwindled down to eggs, a handful of walnuts, and some olives. And I’m hungry again within an hour, despite the generous tablespoon of coconut oil I load into my coffee.

The hardest part of all this has been having to wait at least four hours between meals. It’s just not realistic to turn that into four meals a day, so this means I often end up going six or seven hours between meals, and am painfully hungry in between. I know this isn’t ideal, but I’ll work it out with time. After my third cooking date with Brooke, the kitchen was a hot mess but I had four delicious smelling veggie dishes on the stove, and was anxiously counting down the hours until I could get into them. The plan for this phase is lots of tasty and filling veggie dishes to have as sides at lunch and dinner. I’ve got to get on that bone broth too, I know. It’s a struggle though. The smell gets to me.  

*******

The last two and a half weeks have been rough, ever since I switched to the fully restricted diet and stopped taking the herbs. Here’s me from Feb 26th:

Today sucked. I was so discouraged that I almost cried over breakfast. I would have, but I already had makeup on and didn’t have time to be a mess before going to work. My foot has been worse the last couple of days than it’s been in months, and my left knee is super sore. I woke up with my stomach aching and was a grump to Jamie as soon as I got up. At breakfast I stared down at my sad little meal. No more banana, no more avocado, only 10 walnuts. That’s right, 10. I don’t know if I can do five more weeks of this, I really don’t. And I don’t know why I’m even bothering. It’s not like anything is helping anyway…

It was a bad morning, but later that day leaving work, I made an offhand comment to a client about getting groceries for my weird diet and she jumped on it immediately. I found myself telling her everything. She told me about her own journey with the Autoimmune Protocol Diet, and said massive diet changes were the only thing that helped her manage debilitating chronic pain. That night she sent me an email filled with kind words and helpful resources, with the subject line “This is not forever.” Again I choked back my tears. I really hope she’s right.

*******

I really wanted this to be a sunshine-y post, encouraging anyone who read it to make the sacrifices, try new things, and claim their best health. You can do it too! Look how well it’s worked for me! But that’s not the reality, because reality doesn’t work like that. Things take time. The path is not linear. There will be peaks and valleys on this road to recovery. Expecting issues I’ve had for almost a decade to miraculously disappear in a couple of months is unrealistic. I see that now.

My re-test results came in on Friday, and I learned that I still have SIBO, that the herbs and the diet didn’t knock out the bacteria this first time around. I’ll have to do it again, go back to the “semi-restricted” phase and the herbs and give it another shot. To be perfectly honest I was relieved. I have been feeling really rough these last few weeks, waking up exhausted and limping around with this mysterious foot pain again.

I am so relieved to understand WHY this is happening again. I was terrified the test results would come back negative for SIBO and I’d be back to square one; in pain for no explicable reason. It comforts me that this uptick in symptoms corresponded exactly with the end of the herbal protocol. I’m excited to start on the herbs again and overjoyed at the prospect of eating rice and quinoa and bananas again. What a luxury that will be.

I had been warned that SIBO is really hard to kill. That sometimes it takes multiple cycles of treatment in order to eradicate the bacteria, and that it’s very prone to returning if you do not keep a careful diet. I had hoped this wouldn’t be the case for me, but here we are. Allie had counselled me from the beginning that this could be a long road, and I see how right she was. I’m grateful she tried to set realistic expectations from the beginning.

*******

I had a phone consult with Dr L yesterday to discuss how I’ve been feeling, and to make a plan for next steps. I told her about my foot pain, how it’s the worst it’s been in six months, that I’m really struggling. “It’s been really hard”, I said. “I’m feeling really discouraged”. I could hear the cry creeping out of my throat and I held it down, though I’m sure she heard it too.

I’ve been holding back tears a lot lately. I finally let them go yesterday as I stood at the sink washing dishes. I turned the water off and slid down to the floor. Leaned my head back against the cupboard and pulled my knees into my chest. I finally let it out, sobbing into the tea towel I still held in my hands. Crying for myself. Crying for this little body that I love and resent so much.

It was such a relief to finally let go, to let myself feel the weight of it all. To surrender for a moment, instead of trying so hard to “be strong”. I needed that, felt like I could breathe again afterward. Then I picked myself back up off the floor and went on about my day.

*******

Earlier this week I bought a card for one of my clients who is going through a really hard time. The message was simple and beautiful and I immediately knew it was the right one.

This is hard, and you are strong.

I’ve liked seeing the card on my desk every morning, waiting to be written. I think I’ll buy the same one for myself and post it up somewhere I can see it every day. Something for me to look at when it gets hard, a sentiment that honours the full truth of the situation. This is hard, and you are strong. Yes, and…

As I write this, I’m also conscious that I must say “I know many other people have things so much harder. I’m so grateful it’s not cancer. Etc, etc.” And I am grateful, I truly am. There are people dealing with far greater challenges than I am, but that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to my pain, that I’m not allowed to feel it. 

Yes, other people have way bigger challenges, and this still sucks for me. 

*******

This whole thing sucks, and it’s okay to acknowledge that. It’s okay to say it out loud. It sucks to be hungry, it sucks to be in pain. It sucks to be working so hard on something and not see the results I am hoping for. It sucks to be constantly thinking about and preparing food, yet be unable to eat so many of the things I love.

Denying how hard this is will not help me on this journey. If anything, it will keep me stuck. I must fully own this experience in order to move through it. I see that with certainty now.

And I will move through this, I will. I will put in the time and do the work and I will feel good again, better than good. I will feel great. The healthiest I’ve ever been. This will happen for me, I feel that truth in my bones.

This is hard, and I am strong. Amen.

K

 

My Newest Adventure

2018 was not off to a great start for me. The morning of January 1st, bundled up against -15C weather and nursing a pounding headache, I trudged across the salt stained parking lot of a McDonald’s in East Toronto. It hit me as soon as I opened the door, that patented McDonald’s scent. Familiar, disturbing, and mouth-watering all at the same time. This is how I was starting a new year, the irony did not escape me. All the same, I wasn’t too fussed by what I was about to do. I was hungover, it was unbearably cold outside, and we were already late to meet my sister. If I didn’t get some calories into myself stat, this was going to be a rough day. I had big ambitions for the year ahead, but today was clearly not the day to put them into action.

The restaurant was not uncrowded. We were not the only people starting their year off with a McDonald’s breakfast. A depressing concept. I looked around and wondered if other people were feeling the same way I was. Were they amused and vaguely ashamed of their first meal of the year, the promise to take better care of themselves pushed off once again? Or perhaps they had no qualms at all about their breakfast of choice, and I was the only one furtively glancing around, trying to process the situation I found myself in.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never felt too terrible about eating an Egg McMuffin. It isn’t super greasy, it’s pretty recognizable as actual food that I could make at home, and it never leaves me feeling sick afterward. The hash brown, on the other hand, I knew I’d regret before I even picked it up, grease soaking a dark halo on the napkins below. I’ve always known these to be the culprit in feeling terrible after McDonald’s breakfast. Though I was completely conscious of this fact, I ate it anyway. I stopped a few times through, set it down, then picked it back up again. I contemplated leaving it unfinished, but ultimately I just couldn’t do it. I ate the whole damn thing. This morning was an absolute disaster, a pristine example of exactly why I needed to make big changes in 2018. If I ended up feeling nauseous after having such a gross start to my year, well that would be rather perfect too.

See the thing is, for the very first time in my life, I was about to start a very strict diet. I didn’t have a start date yet, but I was committed. I was all in. This was going to happen. For real this time. I was also going to cut out alcohol for six months, just as soon as I got back to California and settled in after the craziness of the holidays. My significant overconsumption of drinks last night further evidence that I needed to make drastic changes.

*******

I don’t drink a ton by any stretch, and I know I’m far from an alcoholic, but I basically have two modes: I’m either not drinking at all for a month here or there, or I pretty much accept a drink whenever one is offered. And once I’ve had one drink, I always want a second, even though I know I’ll be tired, grumpy and anxious the next day as a result. I’ve wanted to change my relationship with alcohol for years now, but so far I’ve been stuck. I don’t want to cut it out completely, and since I’m an all or nothing kind of gal, I’ve struggled to come up with rules I could work with. Six months seems like a good amount of time to lay the groundwork for a new approach.

I was also going to start my “protocol” to treat SIBO, the overgrowth of bacteria in my small intestine that was diagnosed back in November. The diet portion of this is extremely specific, with surprising items limited or restricted altogether. For my purposes, I knew the big challenges would be: no bread, no garlic, no onions, no sugar, very limited grains, very limited diary, very limited alcohol, and no potatoes of any type. I’ve known I needed to start this diet for months now, but it took me some time to get myself mentally prepared. I also knew I couldn’t impose these limitations on the family and in-laws I’d be staying with over the holidays.

*******

To be clear, I am so not a dieter. Having to use the word “diet” irritates me, conjuring up images of miserable women, starving themselves for impossible standards. But here’s the thing; I need to change. I really, really do. For what feels like as long as I can remember now, I have had low-level but chronic pain throughout my body. Pain that is well out of proportion to the level of  injuries I’ve sustained, as well as to my age and fitness level. And because I’ve spent the better part of 8 years learning and teaching proper joint mechanics, I know my own biomechanics are actually pretty decent. They’re significantly better, in fact, than many of the people I teach every day, people who don’t have any pain. There is something wrong with my body.

My knees started bugging me in 2010 and they’ve never stopped since. They’re not unbearable, but they ache when I wake up in the morning and I randomly get shooting pains when I’m doing stairs or even just walking or biking. When I’m sitting, I need to straighten my legs every 10 minutes to get my knees to crack and relieve the buildup of tension. I can’t tolerate most kneeling exercises, so I stopped taking group Pilates classes. I got tired of the looks of concern on everyone’s faces when I explained that no, I can’t do that, and no, I have no idea why my knees are always so sore. They’ll be really painful for a while, and then fine for weeks at a time. Just when I start to think I’m all better, I wake up one morning with “my knees hurt, why do my knees always hurt???”

I hurt my right shoulder in 2013 and it just never healed. It was a mild injury, but I guess I never allowed it much of a recovery period. Since then it has flared up on and off when I’ve had to carry something heavy, or god-forbid slept on my right side. After four years of this, I finally got an MRI in April to reveal…. Nothing. Well, I have slight arthritis in my AC joint, but this does nothing to explain my continued discomfort. I’ve just sort of tolerated this situation for many years now. I went through phases where I felt motivated to tackle things, and would do rehab exercises and go to my Osteopath or Physiotherapist regularly, but because I never noticed any real improvements, I struggled to stick with it.

In the last two and a half years, things have started to get worse. Seemingly out of nowhere, my right shoulder has developed a second issue, but the most disturbing development has been this mysterious left foot pain that started last year. The pain starts on the top of my foot and spreads out over the whole surface, making it painful to put any weight on that foot or move my toes at all. It comes and goes with surprising intensity, and when it’s been really bad, I would be limping around our apartment for days. I stopped walking to work, stopped taking yoga classes, and basically withdrew from activity altogether. I know being sedentary isn’t healthy, but everything I did seemed to make things worse, and frankly that was demoralizing.

Over the years, I’ve been in and out of physical therapy and other treatments, first in Toronto and again after moving to San Francisco. I started 2017 feeling motivated to finally tackle this for good, with the goal of being “pain free by the end of the year”. I really went for it, getting x-rays on my foot and setting up a schedule of chiropractic treatments and twice weekly Physical Therapy. This lead to an Orthopaedic Surgeon and some MRIs because treating my shoulder flared up a new issue with my neck. The MRIs came back basically clean, and I stopped treatments because they weren’t helping. I gave up. Again.

*******

I suspect much of this comes as a surprise to many of you who know me. This isn’t something I love to discuss more than necessary. It’s been easier to withdraw from things that cause me pain than to repeatedly explain that even though I teach movement for a living, I still can’t figure out my own f*ing body. I’ve helped so many clients go on to become pain-free, and yet I can’t do this for myself. It makes me feel like a fraud and a failure, and frankly the conversation is a bit of a downer. I dread seeing that look – a mixture of pity and disbelief –  in people’s eyes when I explain my situation. They feel badly for me, but they’re not quite able to believe things are as bad as I suggest. It doesn’t make sense even to me, so I suppose I can’t really expect others to understand either.

I’m very conscious of being judged as either crazy or a hypochondriac. I couldn’t tell you the number of doctors I’ve attempted to discuss this with over the years and the disappointing responses I’ve received. I think my favourite was a doctor handing me a questionnaire that was clearly intended to measure depression, which contained questions such as “how is the patient’s affect?” It was obvious she should have been asking me these questions herself, but that she couldn’t be bothered to take any of this seriously. Female patient complaining of lack of energy and multiple chronic pain points? Must be all in her head, get out the prescription pad.

“Karen, want to join us for run club this week?” Questions like this make the conversation unavoidable, and I find myself explaining the weird pain in my foot. Am I seeing anyone about it? What’s the diagnosis? Well, I did see that foot specialist and get x-rays back in April, but all she did was poke the top of my foot, look up ailments on her computer, then write a prescription for a $15,000 MRI she admitted would likely show nothing.

*******

To say that throughout this whole process I have felt hopeless would be an understatement. Without really realizing it, I’d come to believe that this was simply the way things were going to be for me. I dreaded getting my hopes up over some new specialist or treatment only to have them let down again. So I just went on about my life, resigned to the fact that at 33, I couldn’t tolerate exercises I routinely put 65 year-old women through. It wasn’t ideal, but nothing I tried seemed to make a difference, so just I put it out of my mind as much as possible.

A rock bottom moment six months ago finally jolted me out of my denial. For what felt like the millionth morning in a row, the first thing I was aware of was pain. My knees ached, and so did that mysterious spot in my left foot. I could feel it throbbing the second I woke up. My neck and even my hands were tight, it felt like a stretch to fully spread my fingers. I limped into our sunlit kitchen for a glass of water and stared out the window at an unbelievably clear blue sky. Not a trace of fog, a true rarity this time of year. I felt a burst of excitement, what a beautiful day for a walk!

Then it hit me. I couldn’t go for a walk, I was in too much pain to go for a walk. I was 33 years old, and I was in too much pain to go for a walk. No hills to contend with, no snow, just the most casual stroll along the waterfront. Even that was too much for me right now.

Who was I going to be at 60? At 85? If this is how I felt now, what would I be reduced to by the time I was actually old? The reality of my situation hit me full force. If things continued like this, if I kept collecting new injuries year after year and never recovering from any of them, I would be a miserable human being. I was already grumpy too much of the time. Waking up in pain is like “waking up on the wrong side of the bed” every day. If I couldn’t even exercise or spend time outside on a beautiful day, I would be seriously depressed and unhealthy before too long.

Something needed to change. Now. Conventional medicine and my own focus on mechanics were getting me nowhere. I was finally desperate enough to try something new.

*******

One of my clients had debilitating back pain when we started working together. It was bad enough that she couldn’t even tolerate the most gentle and spine-safe workouts without suffering afterward. She started seeing an acupuncturist who recommended she take time away from exercise and take a herb to enhance her circulation. Within six months she came back to Pilates completely cured. The difference in her body is unreal. I marvel at it every time we work together. After close to 10 years of chronic pain, acupuncture. A herb.

She was about the tenth person to tell me acupuncture had worked miracles, so I decided to give it a try. It seemed to help a bit with my foot pain, and generally made me feel less tense, which is something I need. I’d heard a lot about the anti-inflammatory effects of Turmeric, so I started taking it twice a day with meals. It’s been about 6 months now, and my shoulder has improved to the point that I can sometimes sleep or carry a purse on that side without issue. It’s not completely healed, but it’s a lot less of a burden. My foot isn’t as bad lately either, and as a result I’ve been able to get back into a light exercise routine again. A virtuous cycle.

Perhaps most importantly, I finally went to see Allie, the Wellness Coach my book club friends had been raving about. Among other life-changing things, Allie pushed me to see a naturopath, something I’d considered for years but never committed to. I was excited but wary. Would this be another big let-down? Would I get all excited and hopeful, commit more time and money, only to discover this couldn’t help me either? I really hoped not.

*******

I liked Dr L immediately. She asked me a million questions about my health history and listened to my responses with genuine interest. I mentioned getting really sick on a trip to Cuba in 2006 and she dug in, asking more about it. She asked and she listened, and I found myself telling her that I’d been violently ill on that trip, and that my stomach had never really been the same since. It was much better now, but for quite a few years things were pretty rough. The truth is I just got used to always feeling badly after eating, that was my normal. It had been that way for such a long time that I didn’t really notice it anymore. I was here to talk about joint pain, not stomach issues.

By the end of my first appointment, she had a theory that something had gone wrong with my gut a long time ago, and that this was wreaking havoc throughout my entire system. She told me I may have multiple issues at play, but it would be useless to start treating other issues without ensuring proper gut function. “It’s the foundation,” she said, “we start here.” She sent me home with orders for blood-work and other tests, among them a breath test to evaluate the Hydrogen and Methane I produced after eating. It took me a while to complete everything, but finally the tests were all done and shipped off to various labs.

*******

On the drive to my follow-up in November, I found myself hoping for a diagnosis of arthritis. It made a lot of sense, based on the type of pain I have, and I was just so desperate for an answer that any answer would do. Then I could stop feeling crazy, stop my endless wondering. I would finally have a nice clean answer for people when forced to explain my situation. I’d also have some sense of what I was dealing with, and be able to build an action plan around it. I know of people who have dramatically reduced arthritic symptoms with diet changes alone, and I was hopeful I could do the same.

I sat down in front of her big wooden desk and she took me through the results one by one. “You don’t have arthritis…” she started, and I felt a twinge of disappointment. I had been so sure. The familiar wheel immediately started turning in my head: “Here we go again. Another non-answer, another thing it’s not. I am never going to get to the bottom of this.” She cut my rumination short with “…but, the breath test came back that you have SIBO, which makes a lot of sense, given your symptoms”. Oh.

She explained that SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth) means there is bacteria in my small intestine that shouldn’t be there, and this bacteria is fermenting foods in a place foods shouldn’t be fermenting. This can lead to all manner of problems, including malabsorption of nutrients, food sensitivities, and chronic inflammation, which in turn play roles in joint pain. Consistent with malabsorption issues, the blood-work revealed that I was low in various vitamins, so supplementing with vitamin D and getting regular B12 injections would be part of my treatment plan as well.

The protocol she laid out involves a ‘semi-restricted diet’ and antimicrobial herbs for 4 weeks, followed by a more restricted diet for 6 weeks afterward. Beyond that, the plan is to gradually reintroduce foods (only one new item every 72 hours) and monitor how they affect my system. If you’re curious about the actual diet, you can find it here, but in general, my diet is limited to certain vegetables, meat, eggs, limited fruits, and nuts. Say goodbye to carbs, cheese, and garlic, three of my greatest loves.

*******

Staring down American Thanksgiving and then Christmas, I knew I couldn’t pull this off, so I settled on a January start date. It seemed like an appropriate start to the New Year, and the timeline helped me get my head around how this was all going to work.

In the course of planning, I decided to give up alcohol completely for six months. I’m limited to ‘clear spirits’ only on this diet, and swapping out wine for tequila didn’t strike me as the best move. I figure if I’m going to all these lengths to feel better, I should probably tackle the low-hanging fruit as well. Even small amounts of alcohol leave me feeling tired and anxious the next day, and since motivation (aka energy) is something I will need a lot of in the coming months, it seems wise to cultivate it wherever I can.

*******

The good news is that after my wonderfully indulgent holiday visits, and how terrible I felt New Year’s Day, I actually started getting excited to make real changes. At the time of writing, I’ve just finished my four week ‘semi-restricted’ diet, and am moving into the more restricted phase. I’m happy to report this hasn’t been the sad and hungry ordeal I’d expected, but a surprisingly empowering experience filled with learning and even some fun

Things have been up and down and back up again, but I’ll save that for another post next week. In short, I feel things starting to shift in a big way, and you won’t find me darkening the doorway of a McDonald’s again anytime soon.   

K

 

Finding My Feet

Way back in November I taped this picture up inside my closet door. It grabbed my attention at a card store and my eyes were drawn back enough times that I decided to buy it. I was having a hard time last fall. I was new to San Francisco and had been travelling too much since we’d moved. Three trips back to Toronto and two long assignments in Korea left me with no real sense of a life here yet, let alone any friends. I’d made a few good connections with girls through my book club, but nothing really panned out immediately. People were flakey and non-committal, and I took it personally, feeling rejected and like I’d never make friends here.

I took the card out and studied it when I got home that day. It didn’t take long for me to realize why it had jumped out at me. A group of girls at the beach, obviously friends, happy and free. I looked at the card and thought “This is what I want. This is what is missing”. I cut the picture out and taped it up. Something in it spoke to me, and I liked the idea of seeing it every day.

******

Starting over in a new place has been hard. I know it’s supposed to be, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to go through. For the first six months, part of me truly felt that I’d never make any friends here, never build up a client base, never really belong here in any meaningful way. Jamie was more settled than I was right from the start, having work to pour himself into, and immediately getting into the cycling scene here. In retrospect, I realize how good it is that one of us was happy and connected, otherwise we could have been a couple of real downers only making each other more miserable. At the time though, it was hard for me not to be resentful that I was going through this alone. I also felt jealous of his time, when he was gone all day, and then still want to do a workout or a bike ride some evenings, and I’d been home alone all day.

Getting our apartment sorted was a major priority for me, but I hardly knew where to start. We’d gotten rid of almost everything before moving, something I’d long wanted to do, but starting from scratch was daunting. I only wanted to buy things I loved, things we could see ourselves still liking 10 years from now. That’s all well and good until you’re sleeping on an air mattress for two months because you can’t find a bedframe that “inspires” you. But I started small, flipping through catalogues that came in the mail, tearing out pictures I liked and studying them to figure out what spoke to me and how I could make that happen here.

******

I missed our old apartment and the ease and familiarity of home, my friends, my family, coworkers and clients. I really didn’t realize until we’d left how many daily interactions I had with people I liked, how wonderful my clients truly were, and exactly how much I was losing by leaving that all behind. I struggled with the realization that I had taken so much for granted, and I feared that maybe I’d made a mistake in taking such a big leap. What if Toronto wasn’t the problem, what if it was me? Would I ever be happy anywhere?

Confiding my insecurities to my dear friend Rebecca, she told me she had no doubt that I would attract wonderful people into my life, and that it would just take time. It takes time to start over, this became my mantra. I reminded myself of this when I worried I’d never have a steady income again, never get our place together, never be one of those girls walking down the street and laughing, going to yoga and getting coffee together.

I wasn’t brutally unhappy, but I was lonely. I missed my life, the one I had willingly given up in order to take a chance on this new one.

******

Then things slowly started to happen for me. I met one girl who things felt really easy with, just a genuine person I felt comfortable around immediately. On our first “date” we had dinner together and then joined some other girls to watch in horror as Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. A night to remember, certainly.

I liked all the girls I’d met that night, so I followed up the next day, suggesting a rock-climbing date to the group, and we made it happen a few weeks later. Over the next few months, I put myself out there whenever possible, uncomfortable and exposed as it made me feel. Slowly I started to feel some momentum building. I said yes to any invites that came my way and slowly started connecting with more girls in the larger group. I floated the idea of a ladies’ surf date at book club in February, and by March we put the plan into action.

******

I kept smiling to myself on the drive to Santa Cruz the morning of our first surf date, not quite believing it was really happening. As much as I love surfing with Jamie, it’s long been a dream of mine to have girlfriends to surf with. There is something so comforting and supportive about learning and playing sports in an all-female environment. I always found it heartwarming to see groups of young girls surfing together in Australia, and I watched them enviously, wishing my teenage experience had looked a bit more like that.

We had a blast that first day, and it was fun to be the fearless leader, advising on everything from zinc application to paddling technique. I’m far from expert, but being with mostly beginners made me realize how much I actually do know, and how far I’ve come over the years. They’d ask me questions about the waves and my technique, and I found myself having much more to offer than I’d realized. I’ve spent almost all of my time surfing with Jamie and others at a higher level than I am. Always looking up, I’ve never really given myself any credit for the progress I have made. Being able to do that gave me a big confidence boost and an impetus to keep pushing forward.

We’ve gone together a few times since then, and I’m officially crew commander, deciding which spots and tides will be best, strapping the boards on the car, and driving us all there. Things like checking the surf report and securing the boards are hardly rocket science, yet I’ve always deferred to Jamie to take care of those things. He likes to geek out on Surfline, and I pack towels and wetsuits while he gets the car loaded up, a division of labour that evolved naturally over time. Simple as it may be, being comfortable strapping my board on the car makes me feel more legit now, more like a real surfer.

After our second ladies surf, one of the girls texted me a picture taken of us that day. Looking down at my phone, suddenly it hit me. Here was my picture. Here I am, at the beach, happy and surrounded by new friends. It happened. Little by little so I barely noticed it coming, and then one day, there it was.

******

I’m falling more in love with surfing all the time. The waves here are more suited to my level, and I’m more confident each time I go. Since we started surfing here, Jamie and I have gone our separate ways in the water, and it’s amazing how much of a difference that has made for me. Long ago I let him know I’m not keen on being told what to do, which wave to paddle for, etc, but we still stuck reasonably close together in the past. Now after paddling out, we’ll basically not see each other for at least an hour or so while we both find the spots that work for us.

I’ve realized I hadn’t been fully taking responsibility for myself in the water. Without meaning to, I’d been looking to Jamie and others for where to position myself and which waves to go for, rather than training my instincts to recognize what felt right to me. Now that I’m out there alone, I take my time getting comfortable, figure out where I want to be, and then paddle hard for every wave that I can. A couple of weeks ago a guy made the comment that I was “charging” after we’d battled for a few waves. When he paddled away I started grinning so hard my cheeks hurt. I struggle so much with doubt and hesitation, and have been deeply frustrated with myself for being timid in the water much of the time. It was amazing to realize that this too has been shifting, little by little, until one day a stranger could say I was “charging”.

I’ve also discovered that there is something very comforting to me about wearing a wetsuit. It makes me feel like I fit in, that I’m inconspicuous as a female. It’s basically the dead opposite of paddling around the lineup in a bikini. Somewhere along the way I’ve internalized the idea that by being female, I am immediately perceived as less competent athletically, less of a real contender. Despite being a pretty natural athlete all my life, this has crept into my self-perception and negatively impacted my confidence and performance more times than I could count. I guess that’s the cumulative effect of hearing “you’re pretty good at _____, for a girl” for 30+ years.

So I pull on my wetsuit, braid back my hair, cover my face with zinc, and top it all off with a visor to keep the sun out of my eyes. It’s not a pretty picture, and there is something refreshing about that. I don’t feel the familiar pressure to please with my appearance, I’m out there for me and me alone. The self-consciousness is gone and I’m able to actually be in my body, free from the awareness of being seen. I put girl on the shelf for a while, and go out into the ocean simply as surfer. It’s unbelievably liberating.

******

All this to say, the northern California cold suits me just fine. Yes, we have wetsuits drying in our tub and a sandy floor probably 30% of the time, but I can think of worse problems to have. The novelty of going for a surf and coming home to hang my suit in our own bathroom has not worn off yet, and I hope it never does.

As this starts to become my new normal, I’m conscious of not taking it all for granted. I want to revel in the beauty of this place, really take it in and appreciate everything about our life here. Driving home from work some nights, I round the corner onto Marina Blvd and the view of the bridge literally takes my breath away. “My god this place is beautiful” I have said to myself more times than I could count. Even the fog still charms me, hiding the bridge from sight on my morning rides until I’m right below it with the foghorn bellowing all around me.

We have a bench in our front entrance, and from it you can see into both our living room and bedroom. About a month ago I sat down to put my shoes on and suddenly it hit me. Our living room looked like a living room, like people actually live here. Our bedroom too, the rug, the pillows, the little plant in the corner. I leaned back against the wall and smiled to myself, let it sink in. It had happened little by little, until there it was one day, a home.

K

 

Korea!

This is a very belated post! It’s been over two months since I got back from Korea. I can’t believe how much time is flying by me right now, but I want to share a little bit about that experience before it’s too late and I forget it entirely.

My experience of Korea this time was worlds apart from my first trip back in January. The way I see it, this difference boils down to a few very key points: the weather this time was significantly better than the sub-zero winter temperatures, I managed to sleep through the night almost immediately (thank you melatonin), and I ate proper amounts of protein the entire time. I became very very sick on my first visit, which obviously hindered my experience, but I suspect if I had simply been able to eat and sleep properly, I would not have gotten nearly that ill in the first place.

I also owe a lot of my enjoyment this time around to my hosts Erin and Yoon, the couple who own Pilates the Fit, the studio that hosted me. Erin and I are the same age and had met previously in Toronto while she was studying, and she also took me out for dinner when I was in Seoul in January. We hit it off really well on this trip and had lots of fun together. Yoon is super sweet and generous too, and they both made it their absolute mission to make sure I was well taken care of, knowing how sick I had been my first trip, and wanting to give me a better impression of Korea this time around. We had some great dinners together, and they put me up in a super modern hotel with a full, if somewhat odd breakfast buffet selection, and my room was on the 19th floor with great views of the city.

Not a bad view on a sunny day!

Not a bad view on a sunny day!

Seoul, June 24th

It’s the second morning of the course, and my host Erin picks me up outside my hotel. The first day of any course is always the hardest – my opportunity to ‘prove’ myself and also the  method – so I’m eager for feedback when I get in the car. I don’t ask, but I kind of hold my breath and wait for her to spontaneously say something about how Day 1 went. I’m in luck! Erin tells me that she talked to a number of the students last night, and that “they all said that they love you…”. Immediate relief. I felt like I did a great job, my delivery was smooth and confident. I’m so glad. Erin finishes her sentence “…because you’re so pretty.”

Oh. Well there’s something I can feel good about. I’ve earned that.

I mean, I’m grateful, obviously. It’s not like I’m saying oh poor me, people treating me well and liking me for no good reason is really hard on me. No, of course not. It’s obviously an advantage, but let’s just say this comment touches on a nerve for me. I also have a suspicion that when Koreans consider me to be “so pretty”, a big part of what they’re really saying is “she’s so white”. Ugh. What a messed up thing to be validated for.

In reality, I know I’m good at my job, and I know I did a great job yesterday. I know my sh*t, I’m articulate and reasonably confident, and I believe 100% in everything that I am teaching them. It looks as though I’ll have to get by on my own assessment of my performance for now, which is actually not a bad skill for me to develop. That being said, of course I’ll eagerly examine the training evaluations when they come in at the end of next week.

**********

Over the course of the first week, I got to know the students gradually, and we all got more comfortable with each other. They started actually asking me questions through Jenny, the interpreter, and became more outgoing and engaged in the sessions as we went along. I could also begin to get more of a sense of their personalities, which was fun. I made a point of working on my Korean expressions as well, at least my hellos and goodbyes, which seemed to charm them or at least make them laugh.

By halfway through my trip I was confident in my delivery of a polite hello, the two different forms of goodbye, as also yes, thank you, yummy, and cheers. Those seemed like some important bases to cover! In terms of Pilates specific phrases, the Korean expressions for “inhale” and “exhale,” as well as “quickly, quickly”, and “squeeze your bum” came in handy a surprising amount of the time. At first the students would laugh every time I said something in Korean, but by the end of my second week there, they didn’t even seem to notice anymore, which I took as a sign of my good pronunciation.

The weather was pretty up and down, with some brilliantly warm and sunny days, and then quite a few rainy grey days, which unfortunately always seemed to coincide with my days off. Because of the rain, I wasn’t able to do much sightseeing, but Erin and I visited a few crazy shopping centres and I had my first and second experiences with another Korean speciality; the 4D movie. That’s right, 4D. We saw Independence Day: Resurgence on my first rainy day off, and The Legend of Tarzan on my final one. They were both fun and fluffy, mindless entertainment filled with beautiful people and crazy special effects.

The fourth D would be best described as “touch”, I suppose. The seats in these movie theatres move like crazy, to the point that I was worried about getting motion sickness and/or spilling my drink all over my lap. We also got jolts in our backs from the seat when someone was electrocuted on screen and puffs of air pressure to the side of the head when there was a fight or any commotion on screen. Perhaps the most surprising was being hit with a small jet of water in the face when an alien’s guts sprayed all over the screen. I think I actually jumped out of my seat at that point. The whole experience was super cheesy and over the top, and also awesome and completely engaging. I will definitely go again on my next visit!

Taking a walk with Erin along the Yangjae Stream

Taking a walk with Erin along the Yangjae Stream

I had so much fun getting to know Erin better day by day, on our rides to the studio, dinners, and little outings on my days off. We actually became real friends, having honest conversations about everything from our fears about having children, to the racism she experienced during her school years in Australia. It was so nice to just be real with someone so quickly. We covered some serious conversational ground over the weeks, and it made me realize how starved I have been for female companionship ever since leaving Toronto.

Because talking to Erin was so easy, I was able to ask her more about the great elephant in the room, North Korea. She admitted that it is a big concern, but that it has always been that way, and people don’t really enjoy talking about it. I also learned that through her church she has done some work helping North Korean refugees settle in South Korea, which I thought was really interesting. As a result of this, she has become friends with a girl who escaped North Korea, but whose path to freedom included being raped, and also witnessing her own mother’s rape and murder by the Chinese “broker” who smuggled them over the border.

Such heavy stuff that I would have never imagined possible, but of course this is happening. Wherever there are vulnerable populations, there are those who seek to exploit and abuse them. It’s horrendous. Such atrocities seem so distant to us in North America, but in Seoul they’re less than 40 miles away. Although there seems to be very little the people or government of South Korea can actually do to assist their neighbours, I feel like North Korea must be a big shadow hanging over their collective psyche.

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I always feel like it is my responsibility to learn at least a few key phrases in the language of a county that I am visiting, in order to be polite and respectful. I didn’t even bother to do this with certain countries on our trip because the language was so incomprehensible and English was so prevalent, but in general I feel it is arrogant to arrive in a foreign country and expect other people to speak to me in English, simply because that is my language. To some extent, English as the international language is just a reality of the world we live in, but I guess I try to minimize my “white guilt” by learning basics like hello and please and thank you. That’s often about as far as I get, but I try to do it out of respect for the people I am speaking to.

Ironically, it often seems that people prefer to be addressed in English. In Korea, I got the impression that people believed my addressing them in English demonstrated my respect for their ability to speak English well. So there I was, trying to use the local language to be respectful, and people almost seemed offended, as though I didn’t think their English was good enough. Erin also pointed out that a lot of people are eager for opportunities to practice their English, rather than struggle with me awkwardly trying out my Korean.

Erin’s husband Yoon is learning English, taking sessions a few times a week, so I kept encouraging him to practice with me as much as possible. It was fun to see him get more comfortable over the time I was there, making a point of asking me questions in English and engaging as much as possible. I know from my own attempts with Spanish (and now Korean) that confidence is such a major part of actually utilizing what you know, and that you just have to force yourself to say the words out loud until you stop feeling ridiculous.

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After about a week of mostly western food, Yoon and Erin took me to a well-known restaurant for a traditional Korean dinner. It was a beautiful spot with traditional architecture and even a little stream and waterfall running through the courtyard. We ate in our own little room at a low table, seated cross-legged on the floor, and I marvelled at how much cultural behaviours shape people’s bodies, thinking of how many people at home can’t even sit like that because their hips are so tight. I noticed this on our trip too, that while so few North Americans can sit down into a full squat, in so many countries in Asia we would see men in their 60s ‘sitting’ like that to eat and chat with their friends.

Check out all those side dishes!

Check out all those side dishes!

Our table was laid out with tiny dishes of various pickled and fermented vegetables, some spicy beef and pork, as well as makgeolli, traditional Korean rice wine. We were also presented with Doenjang jjigae, a traditional soup that had an insanely strong and not entirely pleasant smell. I have a super sensitive nose, so I basically had to hold my breath when I was getting the soup close to my face, or I never would have been able to try it. I was honestly afraid that I was going to gag from the smell. It was fermented soybean soup, which was crazy flavourful and crazy salty, and I liked it a lot, but I had to take small spoonfuls because it was so potent.

Yoon taught me the proper way to hold my cup when someone is pouring me a drink, either taking it with two hands, or touching my free hand to the inside of my arm as I held the cup. This is because using two hands to pass something or pour a drink is a sign of respect, and of course you want to reciprocate. I also impressed Erin and Yoon with my chopstick skills, which made me feel good. Thanks Mom and Dad for that weird insistence on us eating stir-frys at home with chopsticks when we were kids! After dinner we moved on to the Harbor Café, a beautiful little spot by the river, and ate Bing Soo, a Korean desert of shaved ice topped with sauce and/or fruits, with which I am now obsessed.

Yoon pours some makgeolli

Yoon pours some makgeolli

Over the course of the three weeks I also had quite a few solo dinners at the Outback Steakhouse beside my hotel, one time even opting for the ‘California Steak Salad’. How very American of me, I thought to myself, to be halfway across the world and still eating western food. A salad named after my own state, no less. But sometimes a girl just needs to eat some protein and vegetables in a recognizable format, and it had to be done. Korean food can be a bit intimidating, and I’m much more comfortable eating it with people who can give me a bit of guidance.

Gagnam, Seoul, July 10th

Towards the end of my stay, Erin and the students take me out in the heart of Gagnam for traditional Korean Barbeque. We sit on wooden benches around little rectangular tables with charcoal grills in the centre kicking off serious heat. The first plate arrives, piled high with what looks like extremely thick-cut raw bacon and a few mushroom caps. Dong-Hee, one of the student leaders of the group, starts grilling. Apparently it is both a sign of respect, and also an honour, to grill meat for someone special, and I am the VIP for the evening! After a few minutes, Erin and I are presented with grilled mushroom caps filled with crazy hot ‘mushroom water’. As the VIP, I’m given the mushroom that released the most water upon being grilled, because, apparently mushroom water is very healthy. We wait about a minute for the steaming mushrooms to cool, and then I manage to spill most of the precious water on my plate in my attempt to eat it with chopsticks.

Once the pork starts sizzling, there are flecks of hot old spitting all over the table in front of me and also occasionally into my face. I, of course, begin to worry that this might stain my clothes, but no sooner does this cross my mind than some aprons appear for us all to wear. It is lovely being a guest in a culture with such generous hospitability, but I also feel badly at times, knowing that I don’t hide my feelings well, and that if I am even slightly uncomfortable, Erin feels it is her job to somehow fix it.

I make a few faux pas like stepping on the bench with my shoes on, and also attempting to put my purse on the floor, and quickly learn that Koreans consider the floor to be very dirty, so these things are simply not done. I make sure to touch my left hand to the inside of my right arm when accepting a plate or a drink from someone, and I can tell the students appreciate this. Lots of beer is poured over dinner, and Erin tells me that I am “so good” at drinking beer. I take the compliment, but I’m not really sure this is something I should be proud of. I also gladly consume a ridiculous amount of meat, which seems to please everyone as well.

We grill delicious thinly sliced beef, and eat it wrapped in lettuce leaves with rice, radish kimchi and onion stems. The whole meal is a meat and salt and spice overload and I couldn’t be happier. The students, especially Dong Hee and Sa Min, the two student leaders in charge of picking the restaurant, seem so pleased that I’m enjoying the food.

After the grills are taken away and cold noodle soup and spicy cold noodles are served, the students inform me it’s now time for phase two. Erin has told me this before, that there is always phase two to any evening. Unlike North Americans, apparently Koreans don’t like to linger somewhere after the food has been eaten. They move on to a new place for more drinks or dessert, or both.

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Phase two sees us all seated in a private room around a large square table talking and laughing. Someone arrives at the door and things are ordered, I have no idea what. Two pots of makgeolli and shaved ice arrive, along with a plate of meat skewers and a plate of French fries, as though there was any way we could have needed more food, specifically more meat. Sa Min, being polite, is pleased to present me with a meat stick, and though I am completely stuffed from dinner, I accept and slowly eat it. It’s delicious.

Erin is the only one who speaks English fluently, so she sits next to me and conveys things once in a while. The students can understand me to varying degrees, more so than I had realized at the start of the courses, and we talk and laugh well enough. Once we’re into the makgeolli, Erin tells us it’s age sharing time, so we go around the table, everyone stating the year that they were born. We use the birth year to ensure there is no confusion between their age and their ‘Korean age’, because Korean’s define age slightly differently that we do. For example, Erin is 32 like me, but is 33 in Korean age, which includes her time in utero. Kind of a funny concept.

Once the students realize that I’m their elder, they tell me that I’m Karen Unni, “older sister”, the phrase another sign of respect. Sa Min, the only male of the group, calls me “Nuni” (the male way of referring to an older female). All the girls giggle, as do I, and he is visibly pleased.

It has been so fun getting to know the students these last few weeks. They are such diligent students, so focused and so quick to understand the subtleties, they have been a real pleasure to teach. It’s really fun seeing them outside of the studio, as people, and having them see me that way too. The girls all tease Sa Min about his girlfriend being so much younger than he is, and he blushes and seems pleased. The girls tell me that Korean guys always like younger women, and I laugh and tell them that’s true everywhere.

Tonight I can tell how much the students like me, and that is such a nice feeling.

They told me to smile and that they'd make me look extra pretty by making funny faces...

They told me to smile and that they’d make me look extra pretty by making funny faces…

I am so glad I had this second chance to experience Korea and Korean students, otherwise I probably would have painted the whole of the country with my first impressions. I came back to Toronto in February with the impression that Korean students were exceptionally shy and simply didn’t ask questions, which I realize now was a completely unfair generalization. The group I taught this time was much more confident and willing to ask questions, which, I suspect, has more to do with the age of the students than anything else.

Despite the differences between these two groups, I do feel it’s fair to say that Korean students are very different from the students in Toronto in some core ways. My experience has been that the students in Korea are extremely respectful to me as the Instructor, are willing to work very hard, and come to class prepared. They have paid to be there to learn, and they work hard to do exactly that. In the courses I teach at home, there is almost always one ‘problem student’ in any group. This student is either constantly pulling focus and wanting to discuss themselves and their own body the entire time, or they are trying to challenge either me or the validity of the STOTT PILATES method.

I saw no traces of these behaviours with the Korean students. They seemed so grateful for whatever individual feedback I gave them on their bodies or their teaching, but they would never seek this out, and appeared shy and embarrassed when they were made the center of attention. It seems like it might be safe to say that there are some cultural differences at play here, both in terms of attention-seeking behaviour and also respect for ‘authority’. During my Korean visits so far, the students were also remarkably helpful, both to one another during the courses, and also to me afterward, staying late to put away all the props and mats and help clean up the studio.

All in all, this group was a dream to teach and were so sweet to me, taking me out for a second goodbye dinner and even giving me a farewell gift on the final day of the course. One of the students, who had seemed the most shy during the course, wrote me out a wonderful goodbye message, had it translated to English, and read that out loud to me from her iPhone. It was so sweet I almost cried.

Being silly with the students on the last day of the Matwork course. Teasers for all!

Being silly with the students on the last day of the Matwork course. Teasers for all!

This is the part of my job that is deeply satisfying. To spend such an intense period of time with a group of people, to challenge them, to watch them learn and grow, and to witness their transformation over the course of only a few short weeks. It is intensely gratifying to know I have had a hand in their development, especially when I remember how hesitant and unsure I was when I began studying Pilates. In Toronto, we always share courses with other Instructor Trainers, so there have been only a few of times where I really felt fully responsible for guiding the group along on their journey. It is such a treat to have a group like this all to myself, to get to feel proud of how far they have come, and know that I was their guide.

I am learning and growing too, with each course I teach. With every group, I am challenged to become a better Instructor myself, to be more clear, more concise, especially with the challenges of a language barrier. It’s a pretty awesome thing to get to do, an honour even, and it was hard to say goodbye to my wonderful students on our last day together.

I was feeling sad my final morning in Seoul, and the sky responded accordingly, sending down the gloomiest rainstorm I’d seen my entire time there. I knew I was going home to an empty apartment that wasn’t even home yet, which wasn’t exactly an exciting prospect. It felt strange to say goodbye to my little room on the 19th floor, and I could hardly believe it was already time to go.

I head back to Korea on October 1st, and I can’t believe how quickly these last few months have flown! It’s been a really great summer of visits home and family weddings, but all of the back and forth has really started to wear on me. As much fun as I have been having, I am very ready to be settled somewhere for a length of time. I am craving stability in a big way.

Plus I have my own new city to explore, so that will be my mission going forward!

K

Starting Over – Mixed Blessings

Settling in to a new place is harder than I thought it would be. We moved around so much during our year away that we got pretty good at making each little place home, but this is much different. This time it is for real. We are planning to stay here for a while, to build a life here, and that is a different thing entirely. This place has a great feel to it, and I believe we will be really happy here, but I also realize that  it will take some time for me to really feel ‘at home’.

One thing about our trip that was really helpful for this move, is that I have become much more comfortable leaving places behind. We said goodbye to so many beloved spots over that year, and I think that has made it easier for me to let go of our old home. That said, during our first week here, I stumbled across a photo of our Toronto apartment on my computer and had to quickly close it, afraid that my sense of loss and longing for the familiarity of that place would completely overwhelm me.

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We arrived on a Monday in the late afternoon and immediately unpacked the trailer. It took no time at all, since we brought so little with us. Jamie left to return the trailer, and I got all set to take my first shower in our new home. A good shower ranks pretty high for me on the list of important qualities in an apartment, and this was the moment of truth. I was distinctly unimpressed. The water pressure sucked, and I kept getting frozen and then scalded, over and over again, without ever touching the dials. It didn’t seem possible, but it appeared that this shower was even worse than our shower in Toronto, which is saying something. I was tired and hungry and I let this upset me more than it needed to, dramatically stating that this was, in fact, the worst shower I had ever experienced, in North America, that is. Strike 1 for the new place.

After getting out of the shower, I went to close the blinds in our would-be bedroom so I could get dressed. Instead of coming all the way down to the bottom of the window, the blinds left about a 10-inch gap, so people walking by on the street could easily see up into our bedroom. Strike 2.

The rest of the week was a bit up and down. I had days where I felt super motivated and got lots of unpacking and organizing done, and then days where I felt so overwhelmed that I could barely bring myself to do anything. Week two came quickly and I started to get into more of a groove. I made trips to IKEA and Target to get the necessary daily things, and was torn between being excited about getting such good deals and setting our place up, and realizing just how ridiculously wasteful and consumerist our culture is, and finding my experiences in those stores to be nothing short of soul sucking. I am so glad that part of my work here is done!

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I had about three days to indulge myself in thoughts such as “oh god, how am I ever going to learn to drive here?”, and then, of course, I learned to drive here, and it is not really a problem at all. I’ve figured out now to pace myself when going up super steep hills so that I don’t have to come to a dead stop more often than necessary. I’ve also employed the parking brake on a few occasions when stopped at the top of a really steep hill, and that’s been fine too, although I can’t even imagine driving a standard around here. I had one tiny victory, parallel parking the car on a steep hill, on the left hand side of the road (it was a one way). Turns out parallel parking on the left is wayyyy easier than regular parallel parking. I had just assumed it was harder because it was unfamiliar to me. Classic.

I’ve also figured out how to handle the shower – better water pressure and temp at odd hours, and hot tap all the way on, always – and we got our blinds replaced, so things are turning around. Our bed frame was delivered yesterday, and I bought some flowers for the entranceway, and those both make the place feel a bit more like home.

When I’m feeling completely overwhelmed by how much there is to do, I imagine myself as that girl in the movie, any girl movie really. You know the montage where day by day, we see her adding paint, new furniture, flowers, etc., until one day the music stops, and she hangs that final picture and stands back as if to say “I’m done”. I remind myself that day will come, and that when it does I’ll likely look back on our early days here, see us watching movies on a laptop in our bed because we have neither a couch or a tv, and think it was such a romantically imperfect time. So I am just trying to enjoy this transitional time time for what it is, instead of only focusing on the finish line.

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A major highlight my first week here was my book club meeting. I’m in a book club! I was invited to join by Steph, a friend who recently moved out here, through a lose connection of hers. We were both newbies to the club, and neither of us had read the book, so I was a bit nervous. Me, nervous in the face of novelty? Big surprise. I was also excited though, because this was the first time I was doing something in our new city all by myself, without Jamie, which I know is super important to my feeling comfortable and happy here. I need to feel that there is a place for me here, that I belong too, rather than just being the spouse along for the ride, no matter what the visa in my passport says!

Steph and I arrived at the house together and rang the bell. A girl peered down at us from the top of the stairs, broke into a smile and said “new faces!”, and I was immediately glad we had come. The girls were super welcoming, and many of them seemed to only know each other tangentially, which was a relief. Coming in to a firmly established group of female friends is a daunting experience, and that was kind of what I had imagined this to be. Over the course of the evening, we had a bunch of interesting conversations about the upcoming election and the major homelessness problem in this city, among other things.

One by one the girls all revealed themselves to be in tech. It came up casually, like “oh that’s so great, Slack is really great about promoting diversity, at Uber I’m basically the only female in the place”, or “how’s the corporate culture over at Yelp?” and things like that. All in all, Google Maps, Slack, Uber, Sprig, Yelp and Twitter and one other app I wasn’t familiar with were represented at this gathering. To say I felt out of my element would be an understatement, but it was an exciting novelty to me, and I kept thinking that I couldn’t wait to tell my friends at home about this. It was just such a San Francisco stereotype, and I loved being right in the middle of it!

The apartment was cool, three girls living together in an older space with lots of character, and it made me nostalgic for a different time in my life. Towards the end of the night I asked Allie, the host, how old she was. She told me she was 27, and that she thought most of the other girls were probably around the same age. She leaned a little closer and half-whispered “I think Olga’s almost 30” as though she was revealing the details of a concerning illness. I laughed and told her that I’m 32, in a way that hopefully conveyed that I don’t mind being considered basically ancient.

When the meeting was over, I got into my Uber Pool, and the two other passengers nodded hello politely and went back to their devices. We turned a corner and were suddenly at the top of a steep hill that made my stomach jump a little bit, with a straight view down toward the Marina, and my next thought was “home!”

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My only weekend spent here so far involved a dinner party on Friday night and then a trip to wine country on Saturday for a tasting party at the Unti vineyard, both of which introduced me to more nice new people. So far not a single person I’ve met is actually from San Francisco, which I’m sure partly explains why everyone is so open to making new friends. Everyone has been in the same boat that Jamie and I are in right now, and that is very comforting.

When it came time for me to leave for Korea (post on that trip is in the works!), I really didn’t want to go. I felt like I was just starting to feel normal here, and I realized that I would miss this place. I would also be spending just over three weeks in Seoul, longer than I had even spent living here. It seemed like a strange thing to do, and I wished that I hadn’t committed to it. Of course, it ended up being a really great trip, and I am so glad I went!!!

I got back from Korea on Saturday afternoon and as soon as I got into the car, I couldn’t wait to get home, even though I was coming home to an empty apartment, with Jamie away for the whole week. That day was a complete blur because I hadn’t slept for over 24 hours, and I fell asleep by 7pm. I woke up at 6am the next morning, peaked out our bedroom window, and was struck by the beauty of the bougainvillea climbing up the house across the street from us, and the palm trees blowing gently in the wind. “I live here” I thought to myself in somewhat of a daze, I live here in this place where I can see a palm tree from my bedroom window. It felt too good to be true. On my left, the water was buried in fog, a little boat just barely visible through it all. To my eyes that morning, the fog looked cozy and romantic, and I got right back onto our ridiculously comfy new mattress on the floor, and fell asleep again until 11.

The last few days I’ve been slowly reorienting myself again, and I am appreciating the little things I already love about our new home. The view from where I’m writing would be hard to beat – people running and biking past, dogs playing fetch and happily jumping around on the ‘Marina Green’, and then the ocean, sometimes clear, sometimes foggy, but always so beautiful to me. The air here smells unbelievably fresh, and in the mornings I love to take my coffee out onto the fire escape and breathe it in.

There are two little novelties that always make me stop and smile when I’m sitting here. I love seeing VW Kombi vans go by on Marina Blvd, and I see at least two, every single day. There is something just so classic and charming about those little vans, and they always conjure up images of this city in the 60’s. There is clearly a company that runs tours out of these vans because I am starting to recognize the regulars. The yellow and blue ones both always remind me fondly of my New Zealand adventures. It is a marvel to me that they can keep those things running in a city this damp!

The big cargo ships coming through the channel into the bay always make me stop and stare. They are absolutely enormous and seem somehow very grand to me. I know they’re probably filled with all kinds of plastic crap from China, but that’s not the point! They’re just so huge and foreign to me, at least for now, and I stop whatever I’m doing to watch them sail past.

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Because I know this move is an amazing opportunity for me to re-set and focus on new career directions and other opportunities, I am putting a lot of pressure on myself to have everything figured out immediately. Everyone here seems so interesting and ambitious, that if I’m not in the right headspace, I can feel like a total failure. Starting over feels so daunting sometimes.

When I’m being gentle with myself, I remind myself that things will take some time, and that not knowing exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life is perfectly okay. I also believe firmly in the idea that “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room” so I know that being surrounded by successful and sometimes intimidating people is good for me, even if it is not always comfortable.

I know that I will figure myself out, just like that girl in the movie montage, one day at a time. Then, before I know it, I’ll be looking back on where I am right at this very moment, thinking, wow, such a romantically imperfect time. So much freedom, so much possibility! I hate looking back on other exciting and uncertain times like falling in love, and thinking ‘if only’. If only I’d let myself enjoy that fully, instead of being so worried the whole time. So I am making a point of enjoying this uncertainty too, for the sake of Future Karen. She always seems to see things much more clearly…

K