I’m a sucker for gratitude. Some of you probably want to vomit every time you see yet another “how to practice gratitude” infographic but developing a gratitude practice over these past ~5 years has undoubtedly had a positive impact on my life, and so I will continue to preach the gratitude gospel. (Ooooooh, I like that: “gratitude gospel.” Nice lil alliteration for ya.)
As someone who is prone to picking myself apart, beating myself up, and focusing on my flaws, a gratitude practice provides an amazing respite from thinking about myself all the time and all the ways I am wrong or bad or stupid or worthless.
Before I get too on-my-soapbox about gratitude and how it’s changed my life for the better, I want to share the gratitude prompts I responded to in my journal this morning. Because it’s the holiday season and things are kind of hard I’ve been spending extra time in the morning on my practice. (Fuck- I hate the word “practice.” It makes it sound like a freakin’ chore or like some fancy-ass routine when really it’s just taking 30 seconds to acknowledge some good shit in your life…I don’t wanna be the “practice” person…like, I don’t even do yoga…)
A Person I’m Glad to Have in My Life
The best part about this prompt is that I could answer it with one of 30+ people because I am forever blessed with the most amazing friends and family. Hella gratitude!!!!!! But for the sake of being more specific today I’m going to answer with Thomas because I had an extra moment of gratitude for him last night. I was listening to a podcast on which two women (probably about my age) were discussing how many guys they had been on dates with who told them they were “too much,” or who had ended the relationship because the woman’s aspirations for herself and her career were “unattractive.” I’ve heard that sentiment expressed many times in many places: that a woman is told she is “too much” and she then carries that insecurity around with her eternally, or that a woman has diminished herself to appease a man. In listening to these girls talk about their personal experiences with men like this I thought to myself, “How lucky am I to have a partner who has never made me feel that way.” Thomas supports me in any dream I have for myself and, if anything, he prefers when I’m *loud* because – his words, not mine – “someone has to keep the conversation going.” Anyway, I’m thankful I found a partner who doesn’t make me feel like I need to diminish myself because I’ve felt that before and it sucks. And my wish for all women (and everyone else, really) is that they surround themselves with people who never make them feel that they need to be different.
A Future Event I’m Excited For
Visiting Leslie in London. This is a totally nebulous event, by the way – there are no plane tickets booked or dates decided (for obvious reasons) but it makes me happy to think about a time in the hopefully near future in which we are in London together. Activities include: jogging around various London parks, drinking wine, watching dumb TV shows on the couch, admiring flowers, eating my “favourite” white chocolate Milky buttons, drinking coffee, watching sunrises and sunsets.
Some Positive News I Received Recently
That I will get to lead another support group in the new year for those in recovery from eating disorders! (For the past few years I’ve led community support groups for individuals who can’t otherwise afford treatment, and I was selected to lead more groups in the coming year! Woo!)
A Memory That Makes Me Smile
I have been thinking a lot about previous Christmases and how lucky I’ve been to spend so many of them with family and in amazing places. This year Thomas and I are celebrating in Berkeley and of course we both miss our families (stay tuned for how much of an eight-person meal the two of us can eat) but instead of being sad about not being able to be with them I’ve been remembering the wonderful times we were able to spend together. Two years ago we spent Christmas with Thomas’ extended family in Belgium and I have the best memories of the dinners we ate together. I remember in particular a dinner we had at his grandparent’s house and – after Grapa was extremely generous with the wine, as usual – dancing in the kitchen with Thomas’ dad, uncle, and grandparents to Dire Straits. A lot of the time I spend with his family in Belgium is marked by me feeling stupid for being unable to understand the conversations being held French (why didn’t I pay better attention in high school!!!!!) so it felt amazing to connect with everyone through music (#theuniversallanguage). I have a picture of that moment, all of our teeth stained red from the wine and cheeks flushed pink from dancing, and am grateful to have this memory to carry with me.
One year ago today I got in an awful bike accident. I remember lying contorted on the ground in the most pain I’d felt in my life, being lifted onto a stretcher and into the back of an ambulance, then opening my eyes in an emergency room bed thinking that if I wasn’t dead I would definitely be paralyzed for the rest of my life.
And yet – here I am. Alive. Going to the bathroom without assistance (thanks, Thomas, for weeks of facilitating bathroom trips!). Walking down the block to the grocery store. Working regular hours at my job. Going for hikes and riding my bike through the beautiful trees of Northern California.
I wrote a lot during my hospitalization (once I was adequately conscious, that is…it’s crazy how little I remember from the week following my emergency surgery) and from my house in the lonely weeks of recovery after. I shared some posts here during that time but never talked much about my experience of the accident or the process of recovery. As I sat on my couch last night reflecting on the last 12 months I read everything I’d written during that time. Scattered among journals, notebooks, and unfinished blog post drafts I had generated pages and pages of jumbled thoughts, half-formed ideas, and unfinished sentences.
I suppose I never shared any of it because 1) I didn’t need to; its primary purpose was to help me make sense of my own experience (rather than listen to myself talk, which is – let’s be honest – the point of a blog) and 2) I never felt like I was articulating anything well. So many of my reflections from that time were abandoned when I got frustrated that I couldn’t accurately describe how I felt or that I couldn’t make any profound meaning out of my experience. But after 12 months of sitting on these words I decided to share some, no matter how half-baked or stupid they may sound. As with all the posts on my blog, they are a way for me to connect with others as I try to make sense of being a human. (So, if you want to leave a comment or share some thoughts or reflections of your own…that’s kind of the only reason I do this.)
From my journal, March 2019:
“Look at the moon,” said my dad, pointing up at the darkening sky. “It’s a perfect half!”
We both stood still for a moment, looking up at the white semicircle speckled with its brownish craters, then continued walking in reflective silence. After a minute he turned to me again. “So, Mads, I have to ask — is there anything you think you’ll do differently in your life after this accident?”
I have spent a lot of time over the past six weeks reflecting on how this injury has altered my perceptions, beliefs, and habits but no one – until my dad a few days ago – asked me to voice any of these thoughts. His question prompted me to better articulate my half-formed ideas; so, here I am, attempting to put them in writing. I hope that writing them down will 1) bring more clarity and succinctness to the jumbled mess in my head and 2) allow me to hold on to them more tightly as I recover and, more importantly, after I recover.
I’ve been told by multiple family members and friends over the past weeks that they “can’t believe I seem so happy and positive!” If I’m being honest – and it feels shameful to admit – I worry that I’ve only been able to stay hopeful because I know I will recover. I thank god every day that I’m expected to make a full recovery but simultaneously ask myself, “Would I have been able to stay optimistic if I knew I would be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life?” I don’t know. I’ve seen firsthand how difficult navigating daily life is when you’re physically disabled and how drastically my life as I knew it changed. I would like to think that in the same ways I’ve made temporary adjustments to both my lifestyle and thought patterns over the past weeks, I’d similarly rise to the occasion in the event of a permanent injury, but that would be holding myself in too high of a regard. I can’t get out of my head thoughts of people who have done that, and do that every day, and I’m in awe of their strength.
I thank god, too, for my job and my health insurance. Please never allow me to complain about my job again, even in the smallest, half-joking-with-my-friends-on-a-Sunday-evening of ways; I am so grateful for it and the stability, income, and benefits it provides. Everything else — the day-to-day ups and downs, the stressful weeks, the impending scary meetings — is trivial. (Insert rant here about healthcare in the United States because I’d be bankrupt right now without the health insurance my job provides and everyone deserves the right to healthcare.)
The gratitude lists I’ve always written in my journal each morning have been far too easy to write since the accident. I’ve never doubted that my relationships are by far and away the number one priority in my life, but if it were possible to realize this truth even more so that’s what has happened over the past few weeks. Saying that I’ve remained positive and optimistic every minute of this process would be dishonest, but I can say that it has been easier and more joy-filled than I ever could have imagined thanks to my family and friends. I never take for granted my family who has supported and taken care of me every step of the way. I never take for granted my friends who have sent me books they thought I’d like to read, or written me a card, or brought me flowers and mint chocolate chip ice cream because they know it’s my favorite flavor. I’m not sure I will ever be able to fully express my gratitude for the joy they have brought me…
Another reflection/realization: maybe people don’t hate me?! (Hmm, that sounds a lot more dramatic when I type it out but I can’t pretend it’s not a thought I have often.) There’s a part of me (and this is where I delve into territory that might make some people ask, “Why are you sharing this online?”) that believes that everyone – even my closest friends – might secretly dislike or hate me, and I often live in a state of anxiety because of this fear. I am constantly afraid that I’m doing or saying something wrong, or that I’ve messed up, or that everyone is just pretending to tolerate me when in reality they think I’m too loud or annoying or stupid. I’m not sure this belief will be erased entirely as a result of this process (hashtag deeply-rooted issues), but there has never been such strong evidence to its contrary. Why would my friends go out of their way to come visit me, or send me the most incredibly thoughtful packages, if they didn’t like me? Why would people who I haven’t known for that long come to the hospital with chocolate if I were perceived as stupid and annoying? I have to hand it to reality, here: you’ve made a strong case for yourself. I am sure the constant battle between my irrational thoughts and my objective reality (is there such a thing? I’d argue no, but that’s a more philosophical conversation I’ll save for a later time) won’t disappear, but I am thankful for everyone who has given me concrete evidence that lies in stark contrast to the long-held beliefs I have about myself.
From a draft blog post, November 2019:
Art and creativity have played a huge part in helping me remain positive throughout my recovery. Sure, a lot of the past weeks have been spent in pain and massive frustration that I can’t move or sleep or work but, on the bright side, I have never had so much time for reading and writing. Before my injury I was worried about reaching the read-50-books-this-year goal I’d set for myself, but that concern has flown out the window! I’ve had time every morning to write – time that I’d usually use to exercise, or to do some work before I head into the office -and to enjoy my morning coffee instead of chugging it on the bus on my way to work.
I could live without exercise, but I couldn’t live without the outdoors. I love you San Francisco. I love you California. I love you trees and ocean and flowers and skies.
From my journal app, December 2019:
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to get out and about; in the past ten weeks of recovery I haven’t ventured further than the 45-minute drive from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay. But despite not being able to stray far from home I have never felt void of adventure: a walk around my neighborhood, a short hike in Golden Gate Park, or even reading a good book in bed at night were enough to make me feel fully alive. There’s a lot to be said for exploring your own home, and I remind myself often there’s no need to travel more than two miles to have an adventure (extra credit to San Francisco, though, this city makes it easy). Maybe it’s an idea perpetuated by social media that you have to travel to a National Park or across an ocean to “have an adventure.” What’s wrong with going to the park down the street? I have gotten my fill of adventure simply by noticing and experiencing every small thing within a three block radius of my house…and I bet there’s a lot waiting to be discovered within a few miles of yours…
From a notebook, October 2019:
I thought being in the hospital, unable to move or do much besides sleep and stare at the ceiling, would be the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. In some ways, it has been that. But, in others, it’s been the biggest blessing to be forced to slow down.
And back to the present moment:
Looking back on these words I wrote I’m incredibly thankful I took the time to get them down no matter how frustrating or incomplete or stupid they seemed to me at the time.
I love how strongly I’ve held on to the thoughts and feelings I experienced during that time, primarily those of gratitude and blessing. I never took going for a morning walk for granted even before my accident, and I sure as hell don’t now.
While I’m at it, I thought I’d share a few pictures from those recovery months that make me smile. Those were (and it may seem ironic to some) many of the happiest and “my-heart-is-so-full” moments of my life.
How do we know which of our words and actions – however small – will be the ones that stick with someone else? The ones they’ll remember and hold on to, despite that never being our intention or expectation?
That’s a somewhat rhetorical question, since the common advice is to live your life with an awareness that any small word or action could have a bigger impact on others than you might expect. But, of course, that’s easier said than done, especially when we aren’t aware of the impacts – both positive and negative – of our actions. Sometimes we only discover the impact they’ve had on others in hindsight. Sometimes we may never know.
But the rhetoric around “being aware of the impact your words and actions have on others” is more often applied to unintended negative effects on another than to positive ones. For example: an offhand criticism of another’s physical appearance may drastically impact their mental and physical health for years to come. Hopefully that’s an idea most of us have come to appreciate, and adjusted our behavior accordingly.
Today, however, I’m reflecting on times when someone’s actions have a far more positive impact than they may realize. When someone says or does something that makes me feel good or appreciated, I like to let them know. Gratitude and appreciation are emotions that, like many other positive emotions, I’ve found only to be amplified when shared with others. And hey, if I’ve made someone else happy, it feels good to know!
Which is why, sometime last month, I sent my dad a text to let him know I was wearing a dress he’d bought me seven years ago (pictured below in the selfie I sent him). It was a small action, in the grand scheme of things, but one that meant more to me than he probably realized.
My dad came home on a Sunday afternoon seven years ago with a huge Macy’s bag and a massive grin on his face.
“Girls,” he said, beckoning to Leslie and I, who were sitting on the couch, “I’ve got something for you.”
(For those who haven’t had the privilege of meeting my dad, he has been known to get excited about the smallest of things, so Leslie and I had no way of knowing if this surprise would be exciting for us or something we’d mostly appreciate for the joy it was giving our father.)
“I went to Macy’s to get myself some new work pants since mine were in need of an upgrade,” he said, rummaging through the massive paper bag, “and while I was there, I noticed these on display that I thought might be good for when you start your summer internships.”
He pulled out two dresses, one dark purple and the other teal blue. “I got you this one, Mads,” he said, handing me the blue one, “and this one for you, Les,” handing the other to my sister. “They are very different, but I chose them because I think they’ll flatter you both and suit your individual styles.”
(His interpretation of our “individual styles” is something I would love to understand, given that most of the clothes he wears are ones that my mom has purchased for him, but that’s for another time. And, for what it’s worth, the dress turned out to be extremely flattering; I get compliments every time I wear it.)
Aside from the fact he’d gotten us new work dresses (it was item of clothing I desperately needed, as you can imagine), it was the thought behind the action that makes me smile every time I wear that dress.
Growing up as identical twins who played the same sports, had the same friends, took the same classes, looked pretty much the same, and had otherwise similar tastes and preferences (Leslie has since taken an affinity to country music, so that statement is no longer applicable), it was rare that people recognized us as individuals. We were known as “the twins” or “LeslieAndMaddy,” and therefore consistently received similar gifts, were invited to the same parties, and included in the same group texts.
So it meant a lot to me that my dad had gone to the store and picked out two very different (in both color and style) dresses, because it implied that he’d thought of us as two separate people and, more importantly, recognized how different we were in many ways.
Since then we’ve gone on to major in different subjects at different universities, develop different friendships, and live in different cities. (It makes me laugh to realize some of my coworkers don’t even know I have an identical twin.) But that day, seven years ago, was one of the first times I remember being acknowledged as just “Maddy.”
So thanks, Dad, for giving me more than just a dress that day, and for a reason to smile every time I wear it.
Feel free to call me out as hypocrite here; I know I’m usually the person running and riding and squashing around like crazy. But today, the only exercise I got was walking two blocks from my front door to watch the sunset (OK, fine, also to pick up dinner at the Whole Foods hot bar because I’m a lazy and impatient piece of garbage who didn’t want to wait for pasta water to boil). And as I watched the exceptionally beautiful sunset (again, probably played a role in my current sentiments) I thought to myself, “I don’t need any more from ‘exercise’ than this.”
By which I mean that even though I have spent the majority of my life playing sports or being active, there’s only so much the intense physical activity is necessary for my happiness. I run and ride and hike because for me, to be outdoors is to be happy, no matter what it is I’m doing. To be able to sit outside and watch the sunset, or to spot the new flower blooming in front of my neighbor’s house, or to smell the ocean or the eucalyptus trees when they’re nearby; that is happiness.
And the feeling of my legs underneath me and my breath colder against the becoming-crisper October air; that is happiness.
And to notice: the smallest corners of the earth, my breath, the simultaneous silence of a sunset and the background cries of a bird or a child; that is happiness.
When I heal I will return to my sports and my jogs, I can’t pretend I won’t. There’s something about my heart beating hard in my chest and the burning of my quads that gives me an endorphin rush. But after not having any of that for the past six weeks – and believe me, I never thought I’d say this – I genuinely think I’d be ok without it. As long as I have this sacred earth’s nature, and the ability to notice and feel even the smallest moments of beauty and awe within it, I think I might just be alright.
(P.S. I wrote this stream-of-consciousness while sitting outside, in the dark, on the sidewalk outside Whole Foods. When I say that these are my unfiltered thoughts, know it’s no exaggeration.)
I’m starting my Friday the way I’ve started every day for the past week: brushing my teeth (difficult because I can’t bend over to spit in the sink), sitting on the couch (well-equipped with multiple pillows and blankets for maximum comfort), washing down my morning pain medication with iced coffee (who needs water?), and listening to music. I have to say – aside from the always-dull-and-sometimes-sharp pain in my chest and back – I’m enjoying having the time and space for these slow mornings. In my dreams of retirement this is how I spend each morning, though maybe I’ll have to substitute the coffee for decaf, and ideally I’m in a log cabin in the mountains (and will I even be able to retire in this economy?!).
This morning I’m listening to one of the most beautiful songs dans le monde:
This song feels like a secret that I’ve kept hidden away in some deep corner of my heart… the kind of secret, like a hidden trail in the mountains, that you simultaneously want others to experience the magic of but also don’t want to give away because it feels like losing a part of yourself?
Every time I listen to this song I’m overwhelmed by the power and emotion and incredible beauty that Joan produces from nothing but an acoustic guitar and her voice, the closest humans will ever come to making true magic…
And then I think about this woman, this one woman, and how I wish I were so beautiful, and how there are so many beautiful women in this world making magic, small and tender magic, loud and powerful magic, some of which will be recognized but most of which the world will never see, confined to their minds and souls and maybe sometimes shared with those closest to their hearts.
I hate that women have been reduced to external beauty. I hate that we as women have reduced ourselves to external beauty. F*ck the modeling industry and the media and superficiality and Instagram and any place where a woman’s body replaces her mind as the voice people listen to. I despise the society that forces this superficial beauty on us; but, even more so, I am angry that we often force it in ourselves; that women take pictures and sell bikinis and sports bras and an image of themselves to other women.
Women like Joan Armitrading and Jane Goodall and Toni Morrison and Ida B. Wells and Ada Lovelace and Patti Smith and Nina Simone and Billie Jean King and my best friends and the barista who greets me my name every morning at Starbucks and my grandmother and the mother sitting with her kids on the bus on their way to school and all the little girls writing poetry in their bedroom are who come to mind when I think of beautiful women. I feel lucky whenever I get to experience the power and depth and passion of these women, and am angered and saddened when I think about all the other beautiful women whose souls I haven’t gotten to know because they’ve been silenced or afraid or forgotten. As I share my thoughts here I think of women who have so much more to say, so much that needs to be heard but isn’t, and I wish I had a voice like Joan’s or a heart like that mother on the bus or a brain like Maya Angelou’s and I want to know them all. I don’t want to see another picture in a magazine, I don’t want to watch as a woman congratulates another women for being “beautiful” on a post on social media. I want us to know these women, to know all women, to recognize their real beauty.
Thomas and I squeezed in a quick lil trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon over Labor Day weekend. We flew in and out of Las Vegas and managed to check just one under-40-pound suitcase for the trip (#SpiritAirlines) in which we brought some hiking clothes, a tent, and our sleeping pads, in the hopes the weather would be warm enough for us to substitute a bedsheet for our heavy and too-puffy-to-fit-in-a-suitcase sleeping bags. We spent the nights camping (fo’ free!) on the side of the road just outside the park boundary — which apparently is entirely legal in Utah (I’m so used to “no camping” California) — and the days driving and hiking and eating baguettes and chugging water because it was a zillion degrees outside and we were living in a state of perpetual sweat. Both places were prettttyyyy magical, but based on what I knew about the parks and myself going into the trip, I expected to feel that way.
Highlights from the trip included:
- Buying a bunch of bananas at the supermarket upon arrival that we hoped would last us the next few days, only to find that after a few hours in a hot car they’d all turned black and melted in the backseat
- Substituting river swims for showers
- Gaming the Zion National Park shuttle bus system by jogging two miles to the third stop on the Canyon route, thus avoiding a three hour wait in the line from the Visitor’s Center to get to the start of the popular hiking trails
- Eating multiple baguettes accompanied by avocados, peanut butter, canned tuna, and nutella, because baguettes are objectively the best camping and hiking food and can be a vessel for almost anything
- Ice cream, which is a highlight of life in general but also does taste better when you’re living in a sauna
- Sunrises and sunsets — again, highlights of life in general, but arguably more impressive when they’re lightning up a canyon
I brought a notebook and jotted down some poems that you can read below, after which you can decide which is worse: my prose or my poetry.
Heat, sweat, dirt, mouth dry as the desert we drove through —
and then the foreign feel of cold,
hair heavy on my shoulders,
the evening sun painting orange ripples on the water
and the sky glowing softly, a humble mother.
The days are long, a golden road fading into the horizon,
and the water smooths the rocks underneath my feet, slowly, slowly,
covering them like a blanket as the bedside candle burns.
I am dirt and skin and soul together,
here below the sky and the stars starting to show their bright faces,
all of us, together, sheltered in the growing darkness.
Red rocks pressed up against the blue sky
Imperfect in their crooked edges but unafraid to be noticed.
Why can’t I make such a statement
Even in the dark I feel them
Standing there in the quiet but ever-present as my shadow on a summer noon.
Does anyone even know I’m here?
I don’t want to scream but I want you to listen
and know I am important and have something to say,
so that you pay attention even after the sun sets and the stars take over
I’m either noise and shame
Or quiet and heartbroken
I don’t want to live in extremes, like the red rocks pressed up against the blue sky.
One of my best friends said to me the other day, “I like that you only post [on your blog] when you have something to say.” (She is also, un-coincidentally, one of two (2) people who reads this blog.) Unfortunately, I’ll be straying from this paradigm today – and likely in the next few posts as well – since I’m couch-ridden and have nothing better to do than spew my thoughts into the black hole of zee interwebs.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of my recovery process (my days alternate between sleeping and lying on the couch) is the lack of creative inspiration I’ve felt. Most of my (subjectively) great ideas and thoughts come to me when I’m in motion: walking, jogging, or biking, which is why this post and the following will likely lack direction and inspiration.
Anyway – trying to remain ~on brand~, if you will, during my hospitalization and recovery process has been challenging. Thanks to the appetite-suppressing effects of my medication, the drastic change in my lifestyle from (arguably too) active to completely sedentary, and the logistical difficulty of eating with a neck brace, the consumption of my favorite foods has proved to be a formidable endeavor. That being said, I managed to consume a burrito and some pizza and, of course, plenty of mint chip ice cream which, thanks to my amazing friends and visitors, has not been in short supply.
The frequent delivery of mint chip ice cream brings me to the most important reflection of my recovery process thus far: my friends and family fucking rock. I’ve never felt as much gratitude and love for the people in my life as I have these past few weeks. I can’t lie – I’ve spend a lot of time the past year or two wondering if my relationships are OK; I’m constantly anxious that I’m not a good friend or daughter or sister or colleague, and in my darkest moments I ask myself the question, “If I died tomorrow, would anyone come to my funeral?” I want so badly for all of my relationships to be perfect all the time, even when it’s unrealistic, and I have an unhelpful tendency to take everything extremely personally. So when I returned to consciousness after my surgery a few Saturdays ago, I certainly wasn’t expecting the outpouring of love and support I’ve received these past few weeks.
To everyone who has come to visit me in the hospital, or sent me a thoughtful text message, or had flowers and chocolates delivered: thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve had more than one of my friends who, after visiting me in the hospital or at home, have said, “You seem so positive and in good spirits!” and each time I’m surprised because how could I not be? I have never felt so supported as I have the past few weeks, and I’ve never felt so full of gratitude and love for the people in my life. I may be going slightly stir-crazy being confined to hospital beds and now to my house, but this process has confirmed for me that the people in my life are all that matter. My heart aches when I see people walking and biking and moving about the city, and sometimes the pain in my body gets so bad that I can’t think of anything else – yet I keep returning to this incredible feeling of fullness. Even when I’m back up and running (literally and metaphorically), I will hold onto this feeling. My life is so very blessed. Also, if we happen to experience a crazy snowstorm in San Francisco that confines us all to our homes, I definitely have enough chocolate to last for a few months.