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I Was Nervous Because I Was Ready

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Pink-faced and pretty damn proud of myself.

 

I dreamed that I had overslept, missed the race, and was so mad about it. When I awoke that morning, I knew I was ready.

The temperature was in the low 30s, which worried me but I chose not to think about it. I dressed in layers. Smoothed Vaseline on my face and hands. I stayed true to what works during my daily runs: I ate a banana, drank a cup of coffee and sipped water, but not too much. I made sure my playlist was downloaded to my phone.

I was a lot more worried than I thought I would be, or probably should have been. I told this to a friend the night before. “You’re worried because you’re ready, and you know you’re ready, and you’ve challenged yourself and want to succeed.” Her words solved my quandary. My goal was to finish in under 40 minutes, which is a slow pace for a skilled runner but a healthy pace for me. And I knew I could do it.

The race started at the 69th Street pier in Bay Ridge and wound along Shore Road to the Verrazano Bridge and then back again. As I waited, I ignored the icy winds and focused instead on comparing myself to the competition. This was an all-women’s run and so there were lots of groups of women — women in pink tutus likely running for some admirable cause, girlfriends together running their first race, and packs of young whisp-thin women with all the right running gear. And then there were the solo runners, including me, who I imagined were also competing against no one but themselves. The horn sounded and I was off.

I hung towards the back of the pack but felt myself carried ahead by it anyway. I let the faster runners bolt ahead of me. I steered around people slower than I. The Verrazano Bridge was before me, the Shore Road walkway under my feet, the water of the Narrows splashing against the rocks. As I looked up at the grey sky and took in the vista around me, an unexpected small sob caught in my throat. That was the bridge that was my north star as a child, the constant backdrop whether I was walking along Eighth Avenue to get to junior high school, riding my bike with friends in Sunset Park, or, years later, heading toward home from Newark Airport. The bridge is home and childhood and history and family, the reminder of generations of my people who lived and loved and labored in its shadow.

I pulled my eyes from the bridge to look down at Shore Road’s asphalt path. I remembered all those weekends my family spent riding our bikes, flying kites, having picnics along the small patches of green, my mother packing pillowy soft peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut into fours, a tall thermos filled with sweet iced tea, a picnic blanket, the four of us, living in the city but finding a small pocket where the city was around us but not upon us, where you could close your eyes and the sound of cars along the Belt Parkway almost sounded like the ocean.

My eyes filled again and I shook it off, focusing on the music in my ears, the wind at my back, the runners whom I passed and who passed me.

I reached the halfway point, raised my arms to celebrate being closer to the end than the beginning, and turned around. The wind was strong but its chill did not bother me. I knew it would slow me down, which was the greatest irritation. I looked up and saw the downtown Manhattan skyline, punctuated now by the Freedom Tower. But in my mind’s eye I could see the city as I saw it as a child, and knew exactly where the Twin Towers used to be and should have been. No matter how many years go by, I don’t think I’ll ever become accustomed to our skyline’s new geometry.

I kept moving, fighting against the wind that seemed hellbent on making me work for victory. When I saw the marker indicating the last mile, I tried to be optimistic rather than sluggish. Others had told me that once the first two miles are done, adrenaline will fuel the third. But all I could think was that I was ready for it to be over. I could see the finish line but it was annoyingly far away. And so I started focusing instead on small victories. I’d reach one park bench and then aim to reach the next. And I got closer and closer, and I could see the pier, and see people, and see a small body in an orange coat waving his arms and jumping up and down, and knew that had to be my 7-year-old son. I raised my arms again, this time to wave and accept their excitement. I smiled. I sped up. I saw the race clock at 38 minutes and realized — I am going to do this in under 40! I sprinted to the end. I did it: 38:37.

Motherhood, marriage, career — I think to survive we create routines and schedules that we can rely on to propel us through the day, the week, the month, the school year. And while I find comfort in routines, I realized they are restrictive. My life has come to resemble an assembly line, filled with the same responsibilities and priorities and gauges of success. It’s comfortable. But in that comfort lies an undercurrent of fear. What happens if the routine is rocked? What happens if something throws off my delicate balancing act? I spend a lot of time reassuring myself that as long as we continue calmly along the charted path, everything will be fine. And it will. But nothing will ever change, either. I won’t change.

On Saturday, I changed. I took a challenge, overcame a fear, found a strength deep inside that allowed me to aspire, plan and execute. And it left me thinking — what else in my life have I surrendered to routine? Where else am I not striving toward something better? Where else am I telling myself that the same-old is okay because it’s safe and sure?

The answer? Many, many places.

And so yesterday I started to write a business plan for a new writing endeavor I want to launch. I signed up for another race, the next one a 5-miler. And I’m feeling more alive than I have in a long time.

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5K is Tomorrow and I’m Freaking Out!

On January 1, that universal day of self-reflection and self-flagellation, I decided to focus my crusade toward self-improvement on fitness. I was going to start running again, and I was going to stick with it this time. The best way to assure this was twofold: proclaim it on Facebook, and sign up for a 5K. That was three months ago. The race is tomorrow.

Ahhhhhh!!!!

In my belly is this strange mix of anxiety and confidence. I’m in week 10 of the Zen Labs 10K Trainer program. I am now running 3.5 miles without dying, and a 5K is effectively 3.1 miles. My last 5K was five years ago, and while I hadn’t effectively trained for it, I did finish. Now I am ready. And yet, I’m doubting myself. Why? Because that first 5K didn’t go as great as I’d hoped.

It was hot, for one, and the air was thick. I was used to running along the beach, where the morning air is crisp and clear. The heat and humidity at the race site caught me offguard. For the entire run, I felt as if I couldn’t regulate my breathing. I also made the mistake of starting in the middle of the pack. I am a slow runner, and feeling everyone whoosh past me made me want to run faster than I should have in the beginning, and also was a bit demoralizing. I also hadn’t trained for the few weeks ahead of the race — finding time for long runs while having what were then a 3- and 6-year-old was impossible. And the bagel I thought would give me energy instead sat in my stomach like a boulder. Halfway through the race I felt as if my breakfast was lodged up against my esophagus, and I had to take a break and walk. I was so mad at myself for that.

Could all those things, or something similar, happen again? Tomorrow’s weather forecast is windy and cold — 33 degrees. I can handle the cold but the wind is scaring me. I’ve spent the last few months running on the treadmill, thanks to this too-long winter and the recent dismantling of my favorite outdoor run spot, the Rockaway Beach boardwalk. What if I’m running against the wind? What if I’m not dressed right? My stomach wigs out again? My music won’t play? What if it’s just too damn hard?

Oh boy. I really need to stop this. To do so, I Googled “pre-race anxiety.” The best advice I found came from Dean Karnazes’s Running World blog:

We cannot control the competition. We cannot control the weather. We cannot control the struggles that will undoubtedly arise during the run. All we can control is ourselves. Standing at the starting line, I make the simple commitment to myself that today I will try my hardest. No matter what happens during the race, I will give it everything I’ve got and won’t give up without my strongest fight.

This, I realized, I can do. I can give it my best. I can pledge not to give up. I will aim for the finish line and stay focused on the excited, happy (and hopefully not too cold) faces that will greet me there. I will focus on setting a good example for my children, show them that the mom they’re most used to seeing in front of the stove or staring at a computer screen can actually move, and fast. I’ll give it my all, and prove to myself that if I can accomplish this, maybe I can also realize some other dreams I have.

I’ll let you know what happens.

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What Happened When I Gave up Agita for Lent

Earlier this month, I put serious thought into what I should give up for Lent. Chocolate? Wine? Social Media? Discussions about the topic end up sounding like a parlor game. Wine? Are you mad? Aren’t you afraid you’ll wind up strangling your husband instead? or Do you think Jesus really cares whether you eat chocolate, and do you think that’s what he was pining for during those 40 days in the desert? Ha ha, religious humor.

I participate in Lent mostly because I like the idea of spending roughly 40 days focused on spiritual self-improvement. Giving up wine or chocolate or even Facebook might make me a different person — grumpier, perhaps? — but does it really have the power to change me in a lasting way? My answer is no.

So instead, I decided to give up agita for Lent. Now, for those of you unfortunate enough to grow up outside of New York City, you might wonder — what the hell is she talking about? Agita is this fantastic word, of Italian origin, that describes that nervous anxious feeling you get in your gut whenever you think about something that scares you or deal with something stressful. For example: Ugh, watching my kids on the monkey bars gives me such agita. Or: I just did my taxes, and I thought I’d die from the agita. Great word; feel free to use it liberally (pronounced a-ji-DA.)

So whenever I woke up at 3 a.m. wondering: ACK! Where is that Malaysian plane and is it being weaponized by terrorists who have a nuclear bomb? (yes, I did that) I stopped, slowed down my brain and reminded myself that no, I gave up agita for Lent. So I’m not worrying about stupid crap anymore.

But here’s the thing about life. Try to improve yourself, and you will be tested. Aim to lose weight? Of course that’s when your sister will come to the house with homemade cupcakes. Want to swear less? That’s when you’ll slam your finger in the car door. Trust me, and think about  it, and you’ll know — whenever you try to pick yourself up something will try to knock you down.

So here’s what happened once I decided to give up agita:

  • My most-regular, reliable client had its editorial budget slashed which meant bye-bye regular, reliable income.
  • My CPA called to say that I owe three times what I expected to owe on my taxes. (A total amount that does not correlate with the amount of cash we currently have.)

Now here’s the genius of this: As a self-employed freelance-writer, money in and money out is my biggest worry. So of course, this is what would be thrown at me. AGITA! Right? Except, remember, I gave that up for Lent so…

Whenever I became gripped with panic over the money thing I reminded myself — you’re not going to go there. I didn’t let my heart race. My stomach was forbidden from either churning nor gurgling. I inhaled, I exhaled and I just Let It Go. I decided that if history is any guide, the amount of energy I have expended worrying about my income has, in the end, always been a complete waste. Because things always seem to work out. Why? Not because I buy a winning scratch-off or find myself a Sugar Daddy but rather because I GET SHIT DONE.

And this is the epiphany of being 40. Lose a client? Guess what, I made up those lost sales and then some and will end this first quarter having surpassed my sales goals. The tax man is after me? Eh, I’ll set up a payment plan. The feds be paid when they get paid. Every problem has a solution that does not at all involve my breaking into a cold sweat at 3 a.m.

This all boils down to know-how and confidence. If I believe more in myself, I’m able to keep agita at bay. And if I accept what I can control (finding clients) and what I can’t (finding that airplane), then the scope of what I should worry about and shouldn’t changes dramatically.

Am I saying I’m never going to worry about anything ever again? That’s just not my nature. Of course I’m going to worry. But I hope I can carry with me this Lenten lesson that focusing on solutions, rather than the enormity of the problem, is both empowering and sleep-inducing.

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Overwhelmed? Yes, Brigid Schulte, of Course I Am

My husband came home early from work today to find me in bed, under the covers, and crazy enough to think these two kids would let me shut my eyes for just a few minutes. Daylight savings must have caught up with me, and combine that with bad news from a client this week (read: income = gutted) and anxiety over my husband’s upcoming business trip (I hate it when he travels) I was ready to check out. Just a few minutes, I swear. That was all I needed.

It was 1 in the afternoon.

Now, I know there are people out there that think this is exactly how the freelance life works. You nap when you want to. You have kids performing circus acts while you’re doing phone interviews. And truth be told, sometimes that is what happens. But most of the time I sit myself down at 9:30 and don’t get up again until 3 p.m. when the kids come home and I leave my second job for my more demanding primary one, the one filled with kids quizzing me on their homework questions, my corralling them into the car, the words “Can we please try not to be late this time?” having long ago taken on a rhetorical tone.

Most days I power through but today, the world just descended upon my shoulders. My husband crawled into bed next to me and made the kids scatter. “Did you hear this segment on NPR today about being overwhelmed?” he asked. “I heard it and thought of you.”

He then proceeded to play it for me from his iPhone. It was an interview with Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte, whose book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time was published today. If you had been with me as I was listening, you’d have thought I was in church listening to a sermon.

One of the main differences is women are still doing so much of the housework and the child care. … There’s physical labor that goes along with that, but there’s also mental labor. You’re keeping track of everything, you know? You’ve got all this stuff going on in your mind: the to-do lists, and “Did I remember the carpool?” and “Oh, my goodness, I gotta fill out the Girl Scout forms,” … all this stuff that kind of gets crowded in there along with all the stuff you’ve got to do at work. Men generally don’t have that. They have one sphere, which is work.

“Mmm hmm” I muttered. “Mental overload.”

“We had started off, I think like most people in our generation, wanting to have a true partnership, wanting to be equal partners,” she says. ” … We had a very low moment where I thought, ‘Wow, we have really gotten off track. What happened?’ “

“Yeah? What happened?” (I’m not sure that I said that aloud.)

Schulte proceeded to tell a story about a day when her work life and mom life collided, when she had to meet a deadline at work but also had to get her daughter to ballet on time, and she ditched work in order to do what a good Mom is expected to do. In the process, she realized that she was giving her daughter an inflated sense of her importance and in doing so, was not being the proper working mom role model. (Something many women of our generation never had, which is why we struggle so much with the equal partnership idea.) Sometimes the kids can’t come first, and sometimes that has to be okay. Because mommy’s work is just as important as daddy’s, and should be equally respected. And plus, bosses don’t care about ballet lessons.

I listened to the seven-minute segment and sighed. Here we are again, talking about the same subject, but no closer to a solution. Instead, I’m laying in bed at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, hoping to shut the world out and finding that nearly impossible to do.

“Let’s take a 20-minute break,” my husband said.

My mind reeled. No. I had work emails to answer. The kids needed to pack their bags for swim. Had my son eaten lunch? And 20 minutes would barely give us enough time to get to parent-teacher conferences on time. My instinct was to throw off the covers, get up and get working. But then I looked at my husband. He was seconds away from snoring. He was not thinking the things I was thinking. So what if, as Schulte proposes, women started acting more like men? Would the world come to a crashing halt?

I closed my eyes. Twenty minutes later the alarm went off. I grabbed swim supplies while my husband made Miles a cheese sandwich. We were late getting out the door but arrived at our appointment on time. Teachers were effusive in their praise of our children. It all worked out… even though I took that 20 minutes.

Later in the afternoon, I had an errand to run. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get dinner made and get the errand done. And then — Eureka! — I remembered. Sid is home. He can make the meatballs. I asked; he complied gladly, almost happy to know what it was he could DO to make things easier for me. I relaxed. And when he augmented my mother’s recipe to include horseradish and sundried tomatoes, I said nothing except, “Wow, this is really good.” (It was, but don’t tell my mom.)

Now it’s after 5 p.m. The smell of meatballs I did not make fill the house. The kids have finished their homework. I have some interviews to do tonight but after that, I’m going to let it all go again. I’ll brew some tea or drink some wine. I’ll try not to let my worries control my mind. And I’ll find confidence that no matter what challenge I have, if I just let them go maybe the solutions will begin to present themselves in the most organic ways.

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Lent: How Technology Became the New Alcohol

For years, Lent was about depriving myself of gastronomic pleasure.

I’ve given up sugar and chocolate and fried foods. I’ve given up wine and beer and all alcohol For years, a poll of anyone I know would have revealed the same top picks. For 40 days (plus Sundays) let’s give up our comfort foods, the ones that we turn to at the end of a long day or when the kids have pretty much But Mom‘ed you out of your last ounce of sanity.

But the tide is shifting. Whereas food used to be my generation’s most oft-selected vice, now technology has become the serpent we require a religious proclamation to ignore. On Fat Tuesday, my Facebook feed was filled with people signing off for the Lenten season. In 2012, Twitter was the No. 1 habit to be scorned (according to a list based on Lent-related tweets), followed by Facebook at No. 6. In 2013, “social networking” came in fourth on the list (following soda, swearing and at No. 1, “being pope.” Oh, those witty tweeters.) So far this year (as of 10 a.m. March 5), social networking is No. 3, followed by Twitter at No. 4, beating out swearing, sweets and soda.

Staring at our social media feeds has become the equivalent of that third glass of wine — you know you shouldn’t but wow, that was fun.

Maybe what people are giving up for Lent is changing because where we seek pleasure is changing. At the gym I see people tapping away at their phones while working an exercise bike. How many times have I told my kids “give me a minute” while I am so immersed in a text conversation that I can’t help my son spell “treasure” or watch my daughter’s latest dance move?

So this year, I’m joining the masses and giving up my work email and my phone outside of work hours. I’ve pledged not to check my work email before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m. And when my kids need my attention, Facebook will be shut down.

I’m one day into this and see already that it will be hard. I am used to turning on my phone as soon as I wake up to check my work email. I’m also used to Facebook’ing whatever cute, interesting or strange event I just experienced or noticed. And I’ve realized that the urge to post isn’t about getting information out — it’s about seeking feedback. How clever can I be? Can I make someone laugh? Can I elicit “oh, your kids are so cute!” validation? I’m taking myself out of the moment and have become a voyeur on my own life. It’s fun and there’s nothing wrong with that, but when I realize my kids have called my name three times before I come out of the zone — yeah, maybe I’ve taken it too far.

Social media is to 40-year-old me as alcohol or sweets were to 30-year-old me. I used to give those up with the hopes that I’d lose a few pounds. Now I’ll be putting my cell phone in solitary with the hopes that I’ll gain some more insight into the world and people around me.

 

 

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Who’s the Mommy? I’m the Mommy

“But Mom!”

It’s become a chorus in my house. “Do your homework” is met with, “But Mom, I can do it later.” “Clean your room” elicits “But Mom, I’m tired. Can’t I do it tomorrow?” “Eat your dinner” is followed by “But mom, I don’t like it.”

My kids are 6 and 9 and this week it became apparent to me that I am slowly losing my dominion over them. I had been blaming this on their march towards tween-dom but I realized today that the problem isn’t gurgling hormones or natural rebellion. It’s me. I’ve gone soft.

There was a time when if I made a threat, the kids knew that I’d make good on it. When I said I’d end a playdate if they didn’t behave, and then proceeded to drag a mischievous and screaming child out of the house, my authority was secure. When toddlers threw tantrums and I simply walked away, they knew that their theatrics had no power over me.

Then Superstorm Sandy hit. And my resolve withered.

At first we were living with family and then we were living in disarray, and I myself had no desire to deal with the kids’ homework let alone force them to do it accurately and neatly. Each of our bedrooms was festooned with leaning towers of clutter, the saved remnants from our destroyed first floor. How could I require that the kids clean their rooms when I had a 4-foot-tall pile of unfolded clothing, books and assorted holiday decorations perched on my armchair? I let them live on the foods they ate without complaint: hot dogs and chicken nuggets; pasta and bagels.

I got lazy, and the kids got lazy. Trouble is, the laziness didn’t go away once the house was rebuilt.

I’m going to cut myself some slack here. The reason might come as a surprise to someone who has only witnessed a natural disaster from afar. The neglected truth is that life doesn’t instantly return to normal once your house is rebuilt.

For months, people would ask me: “How is the rebuild going? When will it be done? Why isn’t it done yet?” Once it was finished, and I had a couch to sit on again and stove to cook with, those around me breathed a collective sigh of completion. Phew! Now we can all be done with that! But the truth is that the structural rebuild is only one part of restoring the whole of what was lost during Sandy. We all need to rebuild ourselves from the inside out, and that takes time.

I’m still on that journey, and reclaiming the take-no-excuses Mom I used to be is part of that journey. So last night, my daughter stayed up past her bedtime so she could finish cleaning her room . When my son decided he didn’t like what I served him for dinner, I told him he could either eat what was in front of him or get ready for bed. He chose the latter and I, for the first time in a long time, was okay with that. I’m remembering that my kids aren’t as fragile as I feared they were during Sandy. I’m remembering that while they’ve been through a lot, I can’t give them a pass for all they have yet to have to go through. Losing some sleep or going to bed hungry isn’t torturous; it’s a reminder that there are rules to be followed.

I still have a lot to work on in this rebuilding process. Part of it is reclaiming my own mojo, my own inspiration to do more, be more and ask for more both personally and professionally. For the last 16 months I’ve been stuck, working so hard to get the external life together that the internal went neglected. Survival mode was necessary for a while but its time has passed. It’s time to remember that I’m not just protecting children for the now; I’m trying to teach them the responsibility they need to be productive adults.

So don’t “But Mom” me. Why? Because I’m the Mommy, that’s why.

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Yoga Challenge — Week 1 Update

I decided to kick off 2014 with a one-month yoga challenge. My goal is to do yoga five days a week with the hopes of healing my ornery lower back. I’m day three into week one and all I can say is, if I could figure out a way to bottle yoga and sell it, I’d be a billionaire.

On day one I felt 100 years old. I couldn’t lean over to touch my toes without the help of a yoga block, and even then my knees were bent to protect myself from the shooting pain. I felt weak. I hate feeling weak. Any movement that required up and down action — from cobra to downward dog, for example — had me cringing and kneeling for support. If someone has a voodoo doll with my picture on it I wouldn’t be surprised because that’s what the pain feels like — sudden, unexpected, piercing jolts. I am glad I decided to do day one in the comfort of my own living room rather than at yoga class. It would have been too pathetic.

But the unexpected happened after day one — my back felt great. I went through my workday and while there was the occasional out-of-nowhere twinge, it was nothing like what I was used to.

On day two, things got even better. Today, day three (It’s only day three!), I was able to not only touch my toes but reach the floor. I could sit upright while on the floor which, previously, had been sadly difficult. It was as if my body would not fold to a 90-degree angle, forcing me to balance myself at about 110 degrees instead. I could even arch forward from a seated position, reaching toward my calf. I felt slightly flexible. I am starting to feel strong.

I have to admit that getting myself to do yoga every morning is a stretch (ha!). I hit the mat once the kids have left for school and my mind wants to be other places — there’s so much to do at work, so much to prepare for and plan. Settling my mind is difficult but that might be part of the healing process. By letting go for 40 minutes I might actually be gaining more control over my tasks by summoning the energy to get them done.

If I feel this good on day three, I can’t wait to see how  I feel a week from now. I’ll definitely check in and let you know. In the meantime, I challenge you to challenge yourself. What can you commit to for five days a week that will leave you feeling stronger, more energized and healthier? Let’s encourage each other.


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