Militant Self Love (And Other Things A Vacation Can Teach You)

This Essay is by Elephant Rock's new intern, Evie Samuelson. Read more about Evie at the end of this post.

WHEN I WAS in the fifth grade, my teacher was into the concept of  “militant self-love.” In the middle of her lessons, she drank her tea out of Mason jars with a twisty straw, so make of her life philosophy what you will. The point is that I, at the age of eleven, came to vehemently disagree with her. What was the point of doing anything if things were fine the way they were? What was point of life if not self-improvement?

I decided to ignore her when she told us we should "respect ourselves" and "pay attention to our dreams.”  It didn't help her cause that I was desperate to please everyone, or that fifth grade was the time that people thought they ought to start telling me what I should do with my life. Nevertheless, I was fairly happy with my high-achieving, eager-to-please ways, and since my elementary school is still affectionately referred to as "the hippy granola school," I got along fine.

This is the story of how, five years later, that teacher and her Mason jars proved me wrong.

I ATTEND A Catholic college-prep school in Minneapolis. It's a good school, and when they write my biography they'll say I was lucky to go there. And I am. However, my classmates and I are all unhappy, in some way. The ways we have of being unhappy are unique, yet universal. Academic and peer pressure,  feeling socially ostracized, made to feel guilty for the way we present our bodies (what we call "slut-shaming"), or just plain listlessness are all common ailments. This isn’t the school's fault (at least not completely), but at the same time there's little anyone can do to help it. Some people switch schools, states, or even countries in search of greener grasses. The truth, however, is that it's adolescence, and nothing and no one (with the exception of time) is gonna make that better.

Anyway, this explains why—as I was leaving for Washington, D.C. on the eve of my spring break—self-love wasn't high on my list of things to deal with during my time off. The powers that be, however, had other plans.

FROM THE MOMENT you disembark from the plane (or whatever other mode of travel) and step into Washington D.C., the place infuses you with an anticipatory air of something really wonderfully important happening, and makes you feel that you, even with nothing more than your presence, are a part of it. I fell madly in love with the city. The independence the Metro allowed for, the gentle slope of the brightly painted brownstones on Capitol Hill, the warm spring air; all of it served to further infatuate me. And it gave me rest and a restoration of my sense of grand ambition. All of which was good. But it was not, I would learn, the end of my strange road.

I have always had a healthy appreciation for myself and my abilities. I have not always had, however, a healthy appreciation for how I appear. I hate looking at pictures of myself, mostly because how I've imagined myself looking in that moment comes nowhere close to how I actually look. I am unnaturally short, at exactly five feet tall, with terrible skin that reacts badly to anything but fresh Alpine breezes and 100% cotton. I have small eyes and a round face that doesn't quite sit right on my neck. My teeth, currently decked out in braces, are crowded, twisted, and crooked in every which way you can imagine, with a bite that doesn't touch in the front. I have large, dexterous fingers on even larger hands, with feet to match. I have wide hips and shoulders that take up far too much of my upper profile. Maybe, someday, I could learn to love these features as though they were my children, but for one problem: when I feel myself walking down the street, you know, that sense that you get of your own body as it lives in the world? When I feel that, I'm feeling a five-foot-eight ballet dancer that can kill you with her forearms.

You can imagine how viewing a picture of myself might present problems for me.

All of hit me in a spectacular fashion as I sat on the hotel bed viewing photos of my day trip to the National Mall. I had just finished talking with some new friends in an online feminist chat forum, and all through the chat I’d been running into posts about positive body image and loving yourself. It brought me back to the Mason jar-drinking teacher urging us to pay attention to our dreams. It also brought me back to every time I had ever watched the unhappy boys at my high school sizing up the equally unhappy girls on a sliding scale of "one to ten of hotness." I don't think I was even mentioned.

Viewing these photos of my day in the city brought me back to every lost friendship or missed opportunity, every time I had been passed over for what I could only assume was someone more beautiful. But what viewing these photos really showed me was what I myself lacked: self-respect. That night in Washington, I recognized that all day I had been taking pictures of this beautiful city, but I was not in a single one. I was not imagining myself in it. Because the city was beautiful, and I was not.  And that made all the difference in the world. I sat on the bed, dumbfounded, not quite sure what to do. I took out a piece of paper, and started to write.

I wrote, "Evie Samuelson is the most beautiful, talented, intelligent, desirable mother****er this world has ever encountered."

TRUTH BE TOLD, there was (and still is) only a small part of me that believed what I wrote. But that small part is enough. Because you've got to have something. For me, that something is the person I'm on my way to being. Through volunteer work and this internship, and maybe even real-life work, I've begun to use the incredible gifts and privileges I've been given to become a part of something greater. And who knows? Maybe it'll be my wide shoulders and crooked teeth and big hands, and my old teacher with her Mason jars and twisty straws that will carry me through.

 It's not the kind of self-love anybody ever taught me, but I'd like to think that that's precisely the point.

 

About Evie

My name is Evie Samuelson, and I'm Jeannine Ouellette's new intern at Elephant Rock. Ms. Ouellette (as she will forever be affectionately known to me) was my elementary school teacher for half a year, after which she taught my class English for another year. Since that time, she and I have kept in touch to talk about writing, books, and life. Last summer, I attended an Elephant Rock day camp for young women writers and I loved it. My internship now is in part a contribution to my attendance at the Madeline Island Writing Intensive for Young Women this July. I love the work I do for Elephant Rock, and I can't wait to write and read and learn on the lovely Madeline Island with an incredible group of people. I hope this essay helps to show that it's okay and natural to sometimes feel uncomfortable in your own body, and that self-love is not necessarily about always loving yourself, but rather, appreciating yourself however you can. I hope my story can find a place in the heart of the reader looking for someone else who has been there.  

Sincerely yours,

Evie

Upcoming Retreats and Workshops

Summer Solstice Retreat for Writing and Yoga

Write for Your Life Memoir Intensive

Madeline Island Writing Intensive for Young Women

 

 

 

 

This Is Not Beautiful

Mary Ann and me sitting side by side and having a laugh during a writing circle at the Summer Solstice Retreat.  

Mary Ann and me sitting side by side and having a laugh during a writing circle at the Summer Solstice Retreat.

 

I've neglected this blog over the last few weeks, not for lack of love for it but because since August I've facilitated  two big writing retreats and finished a book (in addition to my full-time writing job and usual mix of freelance gigs). My third writing retreat in three months and the last one of this year, Mystery of Yin, starts tomorrow, up on the beautiful and rugged North Shore of Lake Superior. Oh, baby, baby it's a wild world. 

So this is not going to be beautiful. It's going to be quick and to the point. Kind of like the sort of sex you are thrilled to settle for when time and energy are short but desire keeps calling. (More on that in a future post.)

For now, I want to say that last month, one of the writers at the Elephant Rock Summer Solstice Retreat died of the cancer she had been long battling. Her name is Mary Ann Johnson and both in the way she lived and the way she died, she moved me. And many, many others. This blog has two of her guest posts, here and here. It changed me to know this woman, and to briefly call myself her teacher.

That leads me to the next thing I'm burning to say, the thing that is the fiery drive behind this post, which is that death is inevitable. I imagine you've heard it before.  We only have a little bit of time to do the things we envision ourselves doing. When Mary Ann contacted me last March about the Solstice Retreat, she told me she had stage 4 cancer and that the retreat was on her bucket list. I told her that was a tall order for me, but that I would do my best to live up to that high standard. Part of what Mary Ann taught me is that you can't always wait for a better time, and you certainly shouldn't wait until you have only a small amount of time left (Mary Ann expected to survive quite a bit longer than she did, and was not certain her cancer was terminal last March).

My daughter Lillie in November, seizing the moment.

My daughter Lillie in November, seizing the moment.

The week that Mary Ann died, I bumped up one of those things on my to-do list--"apply to a writing workshop"--from somewhere in the muddy bottoms to the very top. I had my eye on a Tin House workshop for fiction writers serious about publishing, and I sat up late one night and finalized my sample and application. I'll find out soon about the outcome, which doesn't actually matter. What mattered to me then and now is that I applied instead of thinking about applying.

I also started making a point of being more present with the people I love, however I can, as often as I can. And let me tell you, I am no guru at this. I hope you are more masterful than I am at putting your phone down, walking outside, blocking Facebook (thank God I haven't figured out Twitter yet), and scrolling Ebay. Honestly, if I could harness the sum total of my time wasting I could easily have saved the dolphins by now, or at least learned to speak dolphin. Or, at minimum, Spanish. But instead, I ordered another amazing anti-aging potion from Amazon.

So lately, as I said, I'm trying harder to be present with these people I love like crazy (just ask them about the crazy part). And by present I mean not just more texting (oh, the love-hate texting god/demon), but also in other ways. Sitting next to my daughter Lillie, the only one of our six kids who still lives at home, when she is doing her homework on the couch. Calling my husband instead of sending another email. Running to meet him at the door when he arrives at night after his brutal commute and grabbing him where it counts. Sending handwritten letters to my daughter Sophie. We email constantly because she writes for me as a subcontractor, but because she lives in Florida, we don't get a lot of those heart-to-hearts that happen when you're under the same roof or at least in the same city. So I started writing the letters. I just included them in  little care packages (sending more of those lately, too), and at first she didn't say anything about them. But then, she did, and it was good. Very good. I've been trying to take this initiative with all six of our kids. While also reaching out to my friends more, even just taking a minute to say "I miss you" is better than nothing, but I'm making a point of setting up lunch dates and impromptu coffee meetings, too, instead of allowing November to pull its usual prison warden shenanigans (oh, couch, you are so tempting).

My day job is editing and writing at the University of Minnesota in the School of Public Health. The route I walk to get to my office is a long and winding maze of buildings, and the door I first enter is that of Fairview-University Medical Center, a hospital. Every day that I go to my office, I see people in their hospital gowns and wheelchairs, their tall tree things on wheels with the bags and tubes and IVs coming and going. I see couples holding hands and I see people with pain and fear etched on their wide open faces. Sometimes I see people on gurneys, as vulnerable as anyone can ever be, and sometimes I see people running through the hall in the searing hope that they are not too late.

I don't want to be too late. I know I am going to die, you are going to die, we all are. We don't know how or when, that's uncertain. In fact, all of life is uncertain, every single minute of it, except death. Death is the one certain thing. The uncertainty is the beautiful wild ride of today. Now. This minute. 

Doris Lessing, who died this week at age 94, said, "Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible." 

Bam. Thinking about death (and not fearing death by the way, that's not what I am talking about) can frame the way we see our lives. Accepting the inherently finite nature of our time here in the "soft animal of our bodies" casts a clearer light on the series of seemingly irrelevant decisions we make each day. Decisions which cumulatively come to define us. As Annie Dillard so aptly put it, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives."

So as I promised, this wasn't beautiful. It took me twenty minutes to write without stopping, a primitive attempt to capture a series of seemingly disparate but in fact finely interwoven thoughts I've been tracing the contours of for the past several weeks.

And now, I'm all fired up for the last Elephant Rock Retreat of 2013. It's been a huge honor to work with many of you this past year, and I hope to soon announce the offerings for 2014. In the meantime, keep writing ... or start writing. It doesn't have to be beautiful. Something mediocre now is better than nothing later. As Cheryl Strayed says, these useless days will add up to something. But that doesn't mean the clock isn't ticking, because it is, and today is the one day we know we have.  So start now.

 

Enough

By David Whyte

Enough. These few words are enough. 
If not these words, this breath. 
If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life 
we have refused 
again and again 
until now.
Until now 

In early 2011, artist, designer, and TED Fellow Candy Change covered an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood in chalkboard paint and stenciled on it a grid of the deceptively simple unfinished sentence "Before I die I want to ..."  which any passerby could complete with a piece of chalk and a personal aspiration. 

In early 2011, artist, designer, and TED Fellow Candy Change covered an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood in chalkboard paint and stenciled on it a grid of the deceptively simple unfinished sentence "Before I die I want to ..."  which any passerby could complete with a piece of chalk and a personal aspiration. 

Innocence is Overrated

This special guest blog post is by Mary Ann Johnson,  a participant in Elephant Rock's Summer Solstice Retreat last June. This essay was selected for inclusion in one of National Public Radio's forthcoming regional This I Believe collections. For more about Mary Ann, see her bio at the end of this lovely piece.

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Innocence is Overrated

 

By Mary Ann Johnson

On one of those special days when my oldest daughter was about 18, we had a heart to heart conversation. She told me, “You said something once which really made sense.”

I was surprised I had ever said anything worth remembering. Hey, I actually said something she remembered! I wondered which of my words had stuck with her. I was expecting something profound, something I had tossed out in a moment of unconscious genius.

“You said, ‘Innocence is overrated.’”

“Oh,” I said slowly. Out of all the advice, the hints, the suggestions I had given her over the years, she picked this one to emulate. Oh my God, what would my mother have thought? The world I grew up in revered innocence. I was sure my mother was turning in her grave at that very moment.

Innocence is overrated. I vaguely remembered saying this to her but couldn’t remember why. I think it was one of those flippant remarks I made one day out of frustration when talking about one of her friend’s conservative family. Innocence is overrated. 

Well, innocence is overrated. After all, what is innocence but a lack of knowledge? Babies arrive in this world in innocence and we try our best to keep them innocent as long as possible; but at what price to them? As a child grows we protect them, but at some point this becomes detrimental to their development. How can we expect them to learn how to deal with the real world if they are kept from it? Perhaps I feel this way because I was raised in that mode. I remember the struggles I had when confronted with new situations for which I was not prepared.

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One can never anticipate every aspect of what the world will reveal to your children. When my youngest daughter was about ten she typed girls dot com on our computer thinking she would find a website with jewelry, make-up, and other things for girls. However, when she hit enter, well, you can imagine what she saw. When I discovered this I was not angry, nor did I put parental controls on the computer. We talked about what she had seen, why some people go to these sites, and how to use search engines. Evidently I laughed, though I don’t remember it that way. She says I did.

But the point is that I helped her deal with the situation rather than make her feel afraid of it. I believe that can work whether discussing politics, controversial art, movies, discrimination, or any number of other things.

I don’t propose that we force children to lose their innocence. But an innocent young adult is naïve, and naïveté does not help a person think clearly or solve problems.

So I do believe innocence is overrated. I believe in curiosity. I believe in answering questions. I believe in respecting children and their rights to grow into thoughtful, worldly adults who can make their own decisions based on fact and not fear.

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After working as a nurse and wound-care specialist for over thirty years, Mary Ann Johnson (left) has shed that role to become a full-time grandmother, traveler, and lover of life.  She recently moved from Kentucky to Fairfax, Virginia, to live with her daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters.

*****

 

Upcoming retreats: You can still join us this October (mother-daughter retreat) or November (mystery of yin women's retreat) to experience the rejuvenating and healing power of writing, art, and yoga on Lake Superior's North Shore. 

The Mayfly and The Chair

I'm honored to share this guest post from Mary Ann Johnson, a participant on our June 2013 Summer Solstice Retreat.  For more about this piece, see the epilogue at the end.

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The Mayfly and the Chair

"Help!" cried the mayfly.  "I can't seem to move.  I am batting my wings but I'm not going anywhere."

"Stop moving," said the chair,  "you are just making your situation worse."

"Well, I just can't hang here," protested the mayfly.  "I will die."

"But you can't get away.  Haven't you noticed all of those dead mayflies around you?  My back is like a mayfly cemetery. Which I don't appreciate, by the way."

"Shit! Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!  Nooooooooo," wailed the mayfly.  "But certainly at least one other mayfly has escaped--please tell me one has gotten away."

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The chair paused for a moment, then said,  "if one has, I don't know about it.  I am sorry, so sorry.  Your wings are delicate, the web is strong.  It is not of my doing.  I am just the object on which this web was woven.  If it was up to me, I would be web free, and my bright green back would be a perfect spot for you to rest your wings in the sun."

"So I am to hang here with no hope?" the mayfly asked quietly.  "This is it?  My life is over?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so," the chair replied.

"But I should have eleven more hours left of my life," the mayfly once again protested.  "Eleven more glorious hours.  I want to find love again.  I want to float on a breeze.  Even two more hours would be nice--just two more hours.  Could I have that?"

After quite a long silence, the chair said, "it is not up to me." 

Epilogue

After working as a nurse and wound-care specialist for over thirty years, Mary Ann Johnson has shed that role to become a full-time grandmother, traveler, and lover of life.  She will soon be moving from Kentucky to Fairfax, Virginia, to live with her daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Mary Ann's essay, "Innocence is Overrated," is soon to be published in a new book collection called This I Believe, based on the National Public Radio series of the same name. 

"The Mayfly and the Chair" emerged spontaneously while Mary Ann was at the Elephant Rock Summer Solstice retreat, after several related writing exercises over the course of a few days. The exercises started  with a silent nature hike, then later a series of concrete sensory observations, followed by an exploration of metaphor and the relationship between inner and outer, and finally, a dialogue between two inanimate entities observed on the silent hike (plants, animals, objects, etc.). Mary Ann chose a mayfly caught in a web on the back of a green adirondack chair and the chair itself for her dialogue. As the dialogue emerged she recognized an allegory for her relationship with her oncologist. Mary Ann is fighting stage four breast cancer. She was surprised and moved by what the mayfly and the chair had to say, and so were we. 

 

Mary Ann Johnson recording observations during the silent nature hike. 

Mary Ann Johnson recording observations during the silent nature hike.