Girl Magic, Part I

My sons just spent a week dribbling footballs. They tackled, ran, shot on goal. While I watched my own kids, out of the corner of my eye, I was also watching the girls who were there. Some were thin and lanky, all giraffe legs up to their armpits. Many were strong and wide, thighs thick with muscle. They wore pink and blue and black and neon of all shades, pony tails flying as they thundered across the artificial turf.

Like my sons, they dribbled and tackled, ran and shot on goal. What they didn’t seem to be doing was wasting any time worrying they were too flat chested or too buxom or if their thighs were too thick or GodForbidIDon’tHaveAThighGap. They were just out there, under the blazing sun, letting their bodies be bodies.

*****

I have wasted literal years worrying about my body. I think of the glossy magazines I read as a teen and a young woman. The ones filled with advice, not about how to navigate the world, but how to give a better blow job. Nothing about how to play the stock market, but how to get the perfect brow. There were entire issues devoted to bathing suits. How to pick a suit to flatter your flat chest. Or minimize your wide hips. How to get the most ass coverage in your bikini bottom. Basically one giant how to.

How to get you to look the most like whatever body ideal was on offer that year.

They change like the wind, those ideals.

Which, I guess, is the point.

*****

51,840

That’s the number of hours I reckon I’ve spent dieting. Conservatively. Hours spent counting calories, going hungry, denying myself, starving my cells. As if starving them is going to cajole them into forming and reforming into something different. Something unobtainable.

51,840 hours spent chasing some unicorn, only to occasionally grab an ethereal horn and be told “Hey, not that unicorn! The one over there!”

Dieting? It’s nothing more than modern day foot binding. It is wrapping ourselves in restrictions and stifling our growth until what we are left with is misshapen and unhappy and bent and ugly. Oh, the outside may be thin. Or muscular. Or curvy AND muscular, whatever the shape du jour is, but the inside? As misshapen as a foot full of gnarled toes.

How can it NOT be? How can you possibly spend all those hours chasing some intangible nonexistent and not be warped?

If I look back and take stock at the number of hours, of years, I’ve wasted?

It’s devastating.

*****

Why are we so invested in making sure women are unhappy? Because that’s what it is. You can’t be starving and happy. You can’t be in a state of constant restriction and be satisfied. You can’t be in a forever state of denial and feel fulfilled.

Oh, trust me. I have felt the virtue of self-sacrifice, of denial, of restriction over my head like a halo, shining bright for all to see. Like a gold star pinned to my chest. As if denying myself, sometimes starving myself, is something to be proud of.

I am in my late forties. My body is changing yet again. And at times, yes, it absolutely feels like a betrayal–because it’s not the body I know or recognize. Yet rather than saying, ‘hey, this is the body I have now, let’s see what it can do!’ I still sometimes try and trick and starve and shame my body into thinking it is something else, somebody else’s.

For what? I don’t even know. It is impossible at this stage of the game to tease out what I like/want from what I’ve been told to like/want over the last forty years.

I do know all the hours we spend binding our bodies could be spent doing something else. I haven’t picked up a women’s magazine in years. Maybe nowadays they are telling girls how to stop volunteering their time and demand payment. To stop managing the emotions of everyone around them. Maybe they are telling girls that it is pointless trying to compete with boys because their achievements matter in their own right, not just in comparison to men.

Or are they still talking about how to pad out your double A cup with a chest full of ruffles and how to maximize ass coverage at the beach?

*****

Sometime in the last year or two I watched a video of a slam poet. In one riff she spoke about how women’s bodies synch their menstrual cycles.

Our vaginas talk to one another, she said.

What wondrous witchcraft is that? No wonder why so many are afraid of women. Our bodies speak to one another, silently and profoundly. Our bodies? They confer with the moon and the tides and whisper to each other in unison. 

Hell, you should be afraid.

Because if you ever needed any proof of magic, there it is right there.

*****

Serena Williams won the Australian Open while she was pregnant. Marathon runners pace themselves through 26.2 miles with blood running down their legs. At any given time, female athletes are performing at all levels from junior varsity to professional while they have their periods. Running, scoring, tackling, slamming, sprinting, jumping. All while bleeding, cramping, and fighting blinding headaches…and pretending its not happening.

Ask any woman you know what it’s like to work, to perform, to negotiate a deal, to run up and down a field for 90 minutes while she has her period.

Don’t you dare tell me women are not strong.

Women’s bodies are magical.

We are magic.

I see that magic every day. I saw it in those girls on the pitch. I see it in the women I know.

I just keep forgetting it for myself.

*****

I’m a smart, capable woman who studies the how and why of this. And I struggle. Because that is how ingrained it is.

All those wasted hours.

51,840

Sometimes I imagine, just for a moment, what I would do if I could get back the hours I’ve spent dieting. Or the hours of shaving, plucking, applying make up, drying, curling, straightening, cutting my hair. The money spent on creams and lotions meant to tan, tighten, remove, cover, conceal. What I would do if I got all of that back?

An embarrassment of riches–the hours, the dollars, the space in my head, the room to breathe.

*****

It’s a neat trick, right? Convince half the world’s population to spend untold woman hours on something unachievable. It’s one way to stop them from achieving greatness. Get them in on the act, they start policing themselves, and their own bodies.

Jedi mind trick shit.

Women have been achieving greatness and great things, of course, in spite of all this. But imagine the potential we could unlock if we got all that time and money back.

Just imagine what we could do if we unwound that cloth that is binding us as surely as any foot, and let ourselves breathe out.

Those girls playing football? They are magic. I am magic. You are magic.

Ideals come and go. But magic lasts forever.

Don’t forget.

 

 

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The Breakfast Club

It’s not often I drop my kids at school. The thirteen year-old is in charge of his own schedule and the ten year-old, who almost is, cycles in with his father. On the rare occasions I am in the a.m., I usually spot The Breakfast Club.

On any given school day the mothers of the Breakfast Club are there with boxes of cereal and loaves of bread and pots of yogurt and cut up fruit. Someone is inevitably keeping an eye on someone else’s kids, doling out napkins and juice and spoons. The entire thing is messy and full of spilled milk and crumbs and yogurt streaked faces.

Yet, somehow these mothers have managed to grab hold of an often stressful situation (and oh my God, why is eating and getting ready for school so damn stressful anyway??) and make it into something special and communal.

And really, when you think about it, what’s more communal and tribal than literally breaking fast together?

Many of The Breakfast Club members are sharpening their pencils to write new chapters this summer, and this week we did our ritual goodbyes. I listened as they wept at the idea leaving behind this extraordinary community they’ve been a part of. And then one said something which hit me directly in the heart: she mentioned that by watching the women around her she learned how to be a better mother–that among this tribe of expat women, and yes, it is a tribe, she felt uplifted rather than torn down, supported rather than burdened. That no matter how stressed out or angry or irate she was coming into that school building, whenever she left she always felt better. Someone was always there to shoulder a part of her burden, whether it was feeding her kids breakfast or lending a listening ear.

In the expat world, there are a lot of women and children left behind due to logistics. They have spouses who travel extensively, who commute not just an hour on a train but a few hours on a plane to be home on weekends, or every other weekend, or two weeks every two months. I used to call them lifeboat expats, women and children somewhere safe but slightly adrift. But that’s not accurate, because they’re not adrift, they are moored to the larger community.

When you’re in a foreign country alone with your children, finding a village to anchor yourself to isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

You need to have someone who is going to pick up your kids from school if you’re felled with the flu, or someone who you can call in case of emergency. You need sustenance and daily nurturing. You need a tribe. You need a village. You need a community, a group who can shoulder some of the burden of doing it on your own in a place where you likely don’t even speak the language or get confused by the currency.

You need a Breakfast Club.

Expats, especially women, fill these roles, mostly without even thinking about it. We form and reform, knitting and re-knitting groups and clubs and clans and tribes. Looking after one another’s kids, feeding them, comforting them, shepherding them around. Supporting and lifting up. Learning and teaching. Listening, nurturing. You lean on the collective village.

The Breakfast Club is just one example of village magic.

The ones who are leaving are, understandably, sad about losing all of that–the connectivity, the tribe, the village mentality.

To those leaving I have this to say:

You’re forgetting the role you played in shaping that community. Yes, you were welcomed into a village which already existed, but you molded it, changed it, and made it into exactly what you needed. And if you’ve done that once, you can do it again.

When we welcomed you in we taught you the words to the spell, and now that spell? It’s bound up in you. It’s a part of who you are.

The beauty is, the magic is portable. It goes with you, wherever you go. When you leave, wrap it up in bubble wrap and put it with the expensive stuff you don’t trust the shippers to handle, the magic is this too precious for international freight. Then, wherever it is you land in this crazy game of map darts, take it out. Unfold the tissue paper it’s wrapped in, pop the bubble wrap, and plant the magic.

You are the seed. Share that wisdom. Lift up instead of tearing down. Ask and offer help. Support rather than dismantle. Remember, you came in and helped to shape a community. You’ve seen how it works. There is no reason you can’t do it again.

Somewhere out there, there’s a lonely woman spooning yogurt into a pot for her kid’s breakfast. Find her. Join her. And then teach her the spell so that she has it written in her as well.

How to Make–and Keep–Expat Friends

And so another season of goodbyes is upon us. I’ve written extensively about the art of saying goodbye to good friends. I’ve walked the walk, talked the talk, and all the rest. Nearly ten years of saying goodbye to acquaintances, friends, good friends, and the ones who feel more like family than friends has left me with lots of feels, many days of runny mascara, and a handful of trite, but true quotes.

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened, right?

Dr. Seuss-isms aside, when you get through all the coffees and teas and tears and goodbyes…then what? 

Set up a group chat. And USE it. 

When we started this journey ten years ago, I was a social media neophyte. Facebook you say? Nah, that’s for the whippersnappers. What’s App? More like What’s That?

Touching down in Cyprus, little did I know what a huge part FB would play in my life.

At any given time, I’ve got five or six different message groups going. They are the first line of defense in keeping long-distance friendships up and running. There’s an ongoing dialogue: who’s doing what, who’s fed up with their kids, who got a puppy, or a job, or a divorce. It’s casual, like meeting for coffee. You can pop in and say hi, let loose with a rant about how your teenager is driving you crazy, or update the group. It works across countries, seasons, and time zones. My only advice is to make sure you’re replying to the right group before you hit return.

Keep up with the day-to-day 

Those Messenger or What’s App groups? They’re fantastic for  keeping up with the day-to-day maintenance of friendship. By sharing the tidbits and highlights, the everyday stuff,  there is no pressure to do a massive “this is what I’ve been doing for the last year” catchup. And when you do meet up in person, you don’t feel like you’ve missed out–because you’ve kept each other in the loop.

Understand it won’t be the same

When you’ve moved on or have friends that have, the original bond that held you together, being in the same place at the same time, is broken. You’re not experiencing the same endless shitty winter or worries about math class together. You may not be bemoaning the cost of a new pair of sneakers or even gossiping about a mutual acquaintance. Your conversations will flow differently because you’re experiencing different things. The sameness is different-ness. But that doesn’t mean the friendship can’t or won’t survive. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that expat friendships can’t–or shouldn’t–evolve. They can.

Technology isn’t going anywhere so you may as well use it

Skype or FaceTime work great for many expats. I can’t stand seeing myself on video but I have issues, so don’t use me as an example. My kids are actually much better at this than me. Technology allows them to play video games with a friends all over the globe. Social media means they don’t need to reconnect because they never really disconnected. For all my bitching and moaning about technology, this is the upside. And it’s a pretty amazing one.

Make plans

If ten years of expatriation has taught me anything, it is this: the people meant to stay in your life will stay in your life…as long as you make the effort. So make the effort. Make plans to see each other. Put aside an annual weekend to get together. (Hooray for the vajayjay vacay!) Make long-term plans for get togethers and reunions. Use having friends all over the world as an excuse to travel to far away places you might not have gone.

Just do it

Travel to see friends who have moved on is expensive. Traveling back to the place you left friends behind is expensive. Do it anyway.

Make Time

Sometimes friends travel back to the scene of the friendship crime. The timing almost always sucks. It may be a busy time of year. Maybe you’ve had a string of guests and all you’ve been doing is washing bed sheets. Make the effort and put aside the time anyway. If someone comes into town and invites you to lunch or coffee or dinner? Go. In the large scheme of your life it’s an afternoon. Someday you might be the one traveling backwards, hoping your friends will put aside the time for a cup of coffee for you. Karma is a mocha flavored latte, my friends.

It’s ok to make new friends

Not everyone you meet on your journey is going to be your BFF. Not everyone you meet is going to bring you to tears it comes time to say goodbye. And that’s ok. You’re moving on, they’re moving on. You have to live your life, and so do they. They will make new friends, and so will you, it’s the nature of the beast. You can honor the time you spent together and put it in a little special box somewhere. The hard truth is there are people who you meet, maybe even people who you really, really like, who you will likely never see again. It’s ok to be sad about it. None of that takes away from what you shared.

Just because there are new friends filling in the blank spaces doesn’t negate or diminish the friendship you shared. It’s like having another kid. You don’t love the first one any less–your heart expands to love the next one just as much.

Losing friends is never easy, no matter how many times you do it. Keeping those friends, especially when they’re hopping around the globe, is hard too.

But hard is different from impossible.

So as you get ready to say goodbye to good friends or casual acquaintances, or your BFF, whether you’re the one staying or going, remember, don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.

And then go set up that messenger group.

 

Tales From A Middle-Aged Marriage

I have a weak spot for sap and sloppy sentimentality, especially when it comes to music. I mean, truly. I get misty just thinking about Total Eclipse of the Heart.

So you can imagine how fraught with emotion my middle-aged self was last week when John Legend’s All of Me came up on my son’s Spotify playlist. It’s one of those songs you hear and think, Jesus, I want someone to write a song like that about me. One of those songs full of vocal yearning, embodying those feelings of early love when the sun rose and set with the person you were falling for. When you laid yourself bare and took a risk, said love me for who I am and the other person said, I do.

All your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections. 

You know what you never hear songs about? People who have been married for seventeen years.

There are lots of songs and movies and stories about falling in love, about that first flush of passion. And then?

And then we sort of skip ahead to the sweet, almost platonic, romance of old age. We look on in wonder at elderly couples who have settled into some sort of understated love where you’ve almost fused together into one being, two turtles sharing a shell.

What you almost never hear about is the bridge between those two things. How you got from one to the other.

You never hear songs about the quiet ferocity of middle-aged love.

You never see movies about couples who have been together for a few decades, unless it’s about the problems they face or hurdles they’ve overcome.

I guess songs about sitting next to your spouse on the couch night after night on your respective laptops and separate vacations just aren’t catchy. Maybe it’s hard to find words to rhyme with mid-life crisis, menopausal, and middle-aged spread?

But there should be more songs and stories a movies about it, because the truth is, falling in love is easy.

Staying in love is hard.

We tend to completely gloss over couples who have been quietly and fiercely keeping the flames of love under their relationship burning. It’s not really sexy, is it, to think of the regular maintenance that goes into keeping a marriage going. Far easier to focus on the rush of fire you get when the kindling and newspaper goes whoosh-all smoke and bright flame. Or to feel the pang of emotion when the fire is slowly dying, nothing but embers in the grill.

No one wants to read about forty yeas of buying logs and wadding up newspapers and for Christ’s sake, I did it last time it’s your turn and oh, shit, it’s nearly gone out we need to do something fast.

But of course it’s more than that. I can’t tell you how  many times I look across the room and see my husband and catch my breath. Or when I listen to him tell a joke, or recount a story, and want to reach out and touch him. How safe I feel in my life, in my love, and even in my rage. I know that when I lose my way, he’s there. And I know that sometimes, when I need to find the way myself, he’s waiting at the end. Recently I’ve taken to calling him my thunder shirt, because  after 17 years of marriage I finally realized I sleep better when he is next to me. It’s like he keeps me weighted and tethered, even in my dreams.

Take that, young love.

After seventeen years of marriage, we still have things to talk about. Granted, sometimes we talk about how we can’t remember it was what we were just talking about, but still. And maybe I don’t dress up in lingerie, but hell, I shave my legs and sometimes, that’s enough.

The hard work of staying in love isn’t sexy. Not the stuff of songs. But I promise you, we are out here, us middle-aged couples, quietly and yet fiercely keeping the fires burning, more in love than ever.

I am full of curves and edges, and plenty of imperfections too. My husband is not writing love songs to me–not on paper. But he has written rock operas and librettos worth in his actions over the last seventeen years. I laid myself bare and took a risk, said love me for who I am. And he did. And seventeen years ago today we said, “I do.”

Dear Reader, I stayed married to him.

Happy anniversary, my darling.