In January, we went to a town in the mountains outside of São Paulo that’s built to look like Switzerland or Germany called Campos do Jordão. I took my hiking pants that I had worn in September ’19 on a trip to caves with students. They fit great in September 2019. Friends, I could barely snap them. And I was so uncomfortable. When I came home at the end of the day after a 4 km hike, I had to lay on the bed, pop the pants open and moan.
I had spent 9 months of the pandemic doing a lot of self-soothing with food. I’m not judging myself for that. It was what I needed to do. But there I was in January, on a 5 week break from school. I was travelling (safely) and getting outside. What was my excuse? I needed to take this added well of resilience and use it to take better care of myself.
I decided that I would make myself my next project. I don’t know if you know me, but I am goddamn achiever. (I wouldn’t dare say “over-achiever” since the original meaning of that word was a person (usually a girl) who achieved beyond her capability. Fuck you, I am so capable.) I am really good at getting shit done. My NYU ladies know what I’m talking about because we are total badasses. We are the class of late 90’s early 00’s girls who got perfect GPAs, scored big scholarships, were selected as valedictorian or salutatorian, we start businesses and/or run businesses parallel to another career. We hustle.
I love projects. I’ve written 3 novels. I’ve (unsuccessfully) submitted these novels to agents close to 750 times. I ran a 5K and then a 10K. I ran a triathlon. I learned to knit and crochet. I sewed a slip cover for a chair. I birthed three kids. I taught myself the mandolin and the Irish banjo. I learned to watercolor. I’ve won awards that come with plaques suitable for hanging on the wall; I’ve won scholarships that came with money. Hell, I got a perfect 4.0 in college. I am good as shit at achieving things.
So why have I never turned that sense of achievement on my body? I have to confess with a little bit of shame, that I sometimes thought it shallow when other people got really into exercise or eating well. (Sorry, Internet Vegans, you are not helping the cause.) My achievements tended to be of the mind, or producing a tangible external product. Chuck Wendig, a writer I follow on Twitter, said years ago that we are a computer wrapped in meat and we need to take care of the meat or the computer doesn’t run well. That really got me, and I’m finally taking his advice.
I also realized a few years ago that while I was working on something (writing a novel, say) I consciously chose not exercise. I reasoned that I couldn’t be good at everything. I had to cut something out, I told myself.
But wait, you said you ran races and did a triathlon, Meg? You’re right. But I did only that, and usually I didn’t stick with it after I was done. Race completed, metal scored, I’m laying on the couch. It’s not that I didn’t want to exercise, it was that I saw exercise as part of something to be achieved and then abandoned for another project.
For a long time, I also resisted calling exercise and eating well “self care.” There is a whole military industrial complex of “self care” that makes its money telling women they aren’t enough and are doing everything wrong. I didn’t want to associate with that. But there isn’t a better word. Self care. That is what I am doing. I am taking care of myself.
Exercise and self care are a life project. This isn’t radical. People reading this are probably saying, “Duh,” at the screen right now. Exercise is a practice. It’s not an achievement. You don’t do it and then get a diploma and then never do it again. You do it every damn day. I had not really accepted this before now.
I’ve struggled to write during the pandemic. It may feel unrelated, but at first I resisted exercise as a new project because it felt like I was putting the nail in the coffin of my writing. It doesn’t make total sense, but that’s how I thought about it. It felt like I was cheating on writing if I dove into taking care of my body. It felt like either/or. Either I write or I exercise and take care of myself. Maybe any new endeavor would have felt like it was crowding out writing. But the writing had already stopped on its own.
Yes, I’m contradicting myself in multiple ways. The point is, in January, on January 6, in fact (I’m good with dates) I decided that I was my next project.
It’s amazing how focused I got. My competitive streak fired up, even though there was no competition to train for. Maybe that’s the secret for some of us achievers, we can feel competitive and be motivated to “win” even when there’s not really anything to “win.”
Around this time, I read an article in the New York Times about new research around exercise and eating. If you’re like me, I get super hungry when I’m working out a lot and then I overeat. But this article gave me hope. I could eat and satisfy that hunger as long as I worked out 300 minutes a week. I set my iWatch exercise goal to 45 minutes a day and I met that or beat it almost every single day. I got back on the stationary bike we own. I started walking more. I did Essentrics classes on the iPad (my mother-in-law turned us on to this). Once I set that tangible goal of 45-60 minutes of exercise a day, it wasn’t hard to achieve it.
Then, I started paying attention to my eating. I’m working on mindfulness with my therapist and she told me to pay attention. Am I eating mindlessly or am I really enjoying the moment I’m in? She encouraged me to just slow down and only do things that I was really soaking up, including eating. I started just saying out loud “I want to eat, but I don’t actually feel hungry.” Just saying that would make the urge to eat dissipate and then I’d stand in the pantry having a little moment with myself. My internal dialogue went like this:
Hey, what’s going on?
I don’t know. I just want to eat another dinner.
You already ate dinner.
What do you think you really want?
I just want to feel better. It’s been a long shitty day, I feel totally ragged, and I deserve to feel better. I want to feel like I’m doing something for myself.
Yeah, but are you going to feel better after you eat this?
Okay. So how about don’t do something that you will regret later. How about some online window shopping?
Or an episode of Queer Eye? A trashy TV show with people in a beach house stabbing each other in the back?
Honestly, the trashy TV shows were key. It felt self-indulgent and selfish and I loved it. I watched two seasons of Are You the One? and one season of Too Hot To Handle. All while pounding away on my stationary bike.
Lo and behold, I discovered that when I exercised with a nice hard bike ride, or a fast walk, I felt better afterwards. I started to get on the bike when I felt myself getting angry or frustrated–the kind of angry or frustrated I couldn’t shake. It didn’t make the feeling going away completely, but I did dull the rage.
What you exercise people have been saying forever is totally true! (Ugh, I sound so gross even to myself. Of course they were right.)
Now, I go for a walk every day or every other day. There’s a path through the woods in our condo and it’s through a small section of Atlantic rainforest. There are butterflies, all kinds of birds, and stunning flowers and plants. I feel like my head is cleared when I walk through there. I pretend for a moment that I’m not in a mega city. I feel better afterwards.
I hesitate to even mention weight, because it’s so tricky and so loaded and definitely not the only measure of health. I feel weird talking about it. But I now weigh what I did before I got pregnant with Calvin. If you’ve had a baby, you know what a big deal that is. Hey, 27-year-old me. Nice to see you again.
I’m trying not to be orthodox about anything (no new orthodoxies!) because I don’t want to burn out. I try to make all of these choices about me and putting me first. About doing what makes me feel good tomorrow and not just standing in the pantry at 10:30 at night eating a bag of chocolate chips. (To illustrate a point, I ate a handful of chocolate chips in the pantry last night, but I’d done a spin class, eaten a salad for dinner and I really savored those chocolate chips.) I also hate it when people propose a solution to a really complex problem with a platitude or a single word, but I’ve found a balance. I made carrot cake last week. I didn’t eat a piece every day. I made sure to keep up with my exercise so that I balanced out the cake. Today, I had yogurt and fruit for lunch because we’re getting ice cream after school and ordering burgers and fries for dinner. I’ve built myself a safety net.
Ugh, have I become an Internet Vegan? I don’t want to tell anyone what to do. If I had told myself to do this 6 months ago, I would have punched me in the nose. But I do think it’s worth telling you this. I’ve become somewhat devout about exercising and eating well. A lot of vegetables, very little sugar, very little super processed food. It’s much easier to eat that way in Brazil where fresh food is cheap and processed foods are not as common. Fruits and vegetables are amazing and cheap. I’m not tempted by giant chip and cracker aisles.
I’m at the point where I’m afraid what I’d be like if I didn’t do this. As I sort of start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I’m thinking about how to keep this good part. I worry that I won’t be able to return to old passions like writing if I want to keep exercising like this. I wonder what life will be like when this is over. Whatever it is, I want to keep this: I’m treating my body the way it deserves. Nobody puts Baby in a corner. That’s me. I’m Baby.