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Food is Not the Enemy

We’ve got to stop seeing food as the enemy. Let’s stop beating ourselves up and shaming others, consciously or unconsciously, about what and when and how much we eat. Let’s just do our best to put good fuel into our bodies so we can use them to do things we want to do.

We owe it to ourselves to find ways to be active.  We need to feed our bodies what and how much they need to do the things we ask them to do. Being active and eating well are ways of being nice to ourselves.

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Why We Should Measure Success on Our Own Terms

As an undergraduate student, I did not start university with any goal other than to do my job to the best of my ability. I followed three rules from day 1. Rule number one was “never miss a class.” Rule number two was “go to class prepared.” Rule number three was “begin assignments and/or study for tests well in advance of the due date.” I used my grades to measure success.

I printed those rules and they were posted in my home office throughout my university career. I followed them religiously and they paid off.

I was, and am, proud of my academic performance as an undergraduate. Indeed, I’ve often said that you could take away my M.A. and Ph.D. However, you’d have to fight me to the death to take away my B.A. My B.A. is the degree of which I’m most proud because it involved learning how to learn. I treasure that document beyond measure.

What Not to Do When You Get a Grade You Don’t Like

As proud as I was/am of my performance as an undergraduate, I regret that my grades were the only way I knew to measure success. Once, as a junior, or third-year student as we say in Canada, I earned an A minus on an essay. I was devastated. I was also mad. So, I wrote the professor a letter telling him that he didn’t know good writing when he saw it. I also suggested that he reevaluate his career choice. (Note: if you’re a student, don’t ever do this.)

Not only did I write that letter–this was before we used email for everything–but I actually mailed it. The professor wasn’t impressed. He called me in and reminded me, in no uncertain terms, that he was the professor and I was the student. In the end, I learned more about writing from him than I did from anyone else. Years later, I sent him a copy of my book when it came out. My worst fear was that he’d write an A minus on it and send it back. He didn’t, thankfully.

How Horse Showing Taught Me New Ways to Measure Success

It has taken me much longer than I like to admit to find other ways to measure success. Showing horses has taught me that one can measure success in ways that have nothing to do with grades or ribbons or buckles.

I did not begin showing until I was 30. I was fortunate to have a very seasoned, competitive, show horse early on in my horse showing career. Tiffany Two Spots, who turns 25 years old today, was/is the kindest, most generous horse in the world. The less a rider knew, the harder Tiffany tried. Such characteristics are rare among horses. Not once, in the years I competed with Tiffany, did she ever cheat in the show pen. Cheating in the show pen can be anything from resistance or misbehavior to not focusing on the job at hand. I don’t think the idea of cheating ever even occurred to her.

With Tiffany, although there were ups and downs as in any competitive sport, winning came easily. Tiffany made me think I was a pretty good rider. Indeed, we did very well together until I retired her at 19–she was a 7 time World Champion with many Reserve World Champion titles to her name also.

Then, I bought a couple of young horses. My youngsters quickly taught me that I was not as good a rider as Tiffany had led me to believe. Whereas Tiffany said to me, in her own way, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this, Just sit back and let me take care of us,” the youngsters said, “Hey lady, you’re on your own. I’ve got my own stuff going on.” It was humbling, to say the least. I realized that, in the interest of my own sanity, I had to find ways other than winning to measure success in the show pen.

Role Model

My friend Dr. Christine Woodford would be the one to teach me that. Christine, a veterinarian who is certified in Animal Chiropractic and Acupuncture, is one of the most talented riders and disciplined people I’ve ever met. She has enjoyed enormous success both in and out of the show pen. She showed her beloved gelding, Jackson, for a long time, earning many World and Reserve titles along the way. Those wins didn’t always come easily though.

You see, Jackson could not trot to save his life. Christine would be the first person to tell you that. However, Jackson had what we call “try” and “heart” that made up for his lack-luster trot. Christine also has tons of “try” and “heart” and, most important, resilience, and so she and Jackson enjoyed a long and successful career.

Christine Woodford with Jackson and Rose

Make no mistake, though. Christine and Jackson had their fair share of struggles. Trail, a class in which the rider and horse navigate a series of poles arranged in a pattern on the ground at all three gaits without touching them and with style, didn’t come easily for Christine. Showmanship did not come easily for Jackson. Yet, Christine worked and worked and worked until eventually she and Jackson won a Reserve World title in Showmanship and a World Champion title in Trail. Those wins didn’t happen because Christine set out to win. They happened because Christine paid attention to the little things day in, and day out and because she worked her tail off.

Understand that Christine likes to win. Who doesn’t? However, she does not show horses so that she can win. She shows horses because she loves horses. She also loves the challenge of learning to excel with her equine partner in a range of events. What I admire about Christine is that she never enters the show pen without at least one or two very specific goals in mind. Often, I’ve heard her say that her goal is to “give clear signals” to Jackson or “to exhale” before transitioning between gaits in a pattern.”

Sometimes Stuff is Just Plain HARD!

When Christine exits the show pen after her performance, no matter how she has placed, Christine assesses whether she achieved her specific goals for that class. Sometimes she does; sometimes she doesn’t. One of our favorite “Christine stories” is about when she entered a bareback class on Rose, her young mare. Her goal was to keep her heels down. As she left the arena, she asked the trainer, “Did I keep my heels down?” “Nope” he replied. “Darn!” Christine exclaimed, “That s***’s f****** hard!” Understand that Christine is NOT a potty mouth, which is part of why her response was so funny.

Humor aside, Christine did not beat herself up for not keeping her heels down. She did not turn her not-down-heels into evidence of a character flaw on her part. She did not blame her horse. She did not blame her trainer. She did not cry. She did not pout. She just moved on to the next class, set her next goal, and committed to continue working on keeping her heels down.

Christine measures success in the show pen, and elsewhere I think, in a very calculated fashion. Long ago, she decided what mindset would be most conducive to her growth and development as a rider and as a person. Then, she went about the business of practicing the behaviors that would create that mindset until that set of behaviors became habit.

I am thankful that I have people like Christine in my life to show me other ways to measure success. Christine never fails to encourage me even when I feel like I’ve failed and respond like a butt. I admit that measuring success on the basis of anything that isn’t particularly concrete, such as buckles or placings, doesn’t come easily to me. For me, “that s***’s f******* hard!” The more I practice, though, the more I enjoy competition and the better I feel about myself in many realms of life.

Sometimes You Win By Just Getting On

Take yesterday. My mare, Bree, and I were competing at horse show in Mississippi in the Amateur Walk Trot division. This is a division in which the riders do not lope or canter the horses in any class. There are myriad reasons for competing in the division.

I am competing in the division this year because my confidence was badly shaken after having a fall last summer, which resulted in a broken back and shoulder. Physically, I’ve recovered 100%, but mentally, I’ve got a long way to go. Although the fall was the result of an equipment failure–Bree did absolutely nothing wrong–every time I climb on her back, I panic. I worry that something will happen to cause another fall. If Bree reacts to a sound or a sudden movement, however small her reaction, I panic and usually grab the saddle horn like a five-year old. It’s not pretty. Loping, for the time being, is out of the question.

My accident happened in August. I started riding again in October. Since then, my trainer has warmed up Bree for me. This makes me feel safer because, if she has any wind in her sails, it is gone before I get on. Yesterday, however, my trainer asked me to warm up Bree myself before our English classes. He had a lot of other riders and horses to get ready. I thought that would be fine. However, when I went to put my foot in the stirrup to mount, I panicked.

My heart starting beating quickly, my chest grew tight, and I started sweating. My eyes filled with tears. I felt really stupid and embarrassed. I stood there beside the mounting block for what felt like forever, putting my foot in and taking it out of the stirrup, trying to work up the courage to mount. Finally, the trainer came over and asked me if everything was okay. The tears that sat in my eyes slid down my cheeks and I said, “I’m afraid to get on because you’ve not ridden her yet.” He said, “okay, hang on. I’ll get my spurs.” For whatever reason, I replied, “no, that’s okay. I have to do this.” And I got on.

Invisible Victory

Bree was a little fresh when we started to warm up. I felt like I was on the edge of a panic attack while we were riding. Still, lo and behold, I did not die and nothing bad happened. We went on to do very well in all our classes and won the High Point Amateur Walk Trot award at the end of the show.

The wins felt good, of course, but they were not the best part of the day. After the show, the trainer asked me what my favorite part of the show was. I replied, “When I rode Bree without you having ridden her even though I was scared to death.” To me, warming up Bree myself was the most important measure of my success at the horse show. No one else may care and hardly anyone else even knows that warming her up myself was a huge deal for me. Nonetheless, I know and that is what matters.

I am thankful that I am able to take part in activities like horse showing and Crossfit where measuring success takes myriad forms. Learning to measure my own success without relying on grades or prizes has been liberating in ways I never imagined. In fact, finding new ways to measure success has allowed me to experience more fully the joy that ought to come from competition and challenge.

I think most of us have “head trash” that, from time to time, gets in the way of our evaluations of our own performances in many realms. How do you measure success? Where did you learn to measure success in the ways that you do? What lessons have you learned along the way? Please share your story with me!

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As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

“I Can Only Imagine”

“I Just Can’t Imagine”

When bad things happen to other people, we often say “I just can’t imagine….” Usually, we say this to acknowledge that something bad has happened and to express sympathy or regret. However, the phrase “I just can’t imagine” does neither of those things. In fact, saying “I just can’t imagine” is a bit of a cop-out. Our language needs to align more closely with our intentions. So, instead of saying “I just can’t imagine,” we should say “I can only imagine.”

Whatever our intentions, words speak for themselves. “I just can’t imagine” is code for “I don’t want to imagine what you’re going through.” “I just can’t imagine” is neither kind nor comforting. It allows us to create distance between ourselves and another person’s pain or misfortune. When we claim that we “can’t imagine” what someone else is going through, we protect ourselves. Protecting ourselves does nothing to help a person who is suffering.

Worse, when we say “I just can’t imagine” this or that we are lying. We can imagine anything we want to imagine. We imagine ourselves in others’ shoes every time we read a book or watch tv or a movie. Sometimes we worry about experiences we haven’t had and do not want to have. When we worry, we imagine what it would be like to have those experiences. Anytime we think about what has happened or what is happening to someone, we imagine it.

The truth is, we “can’t not imagine” what has happened to another person when we hear about it. We can, however, choose to stop thinking about it. Choosing not to think too much about what has happened to someone does not mean that we can’t think about it. It definitely does not mean that we shouldn’t think about it.

Historically Speaking

In my courses on African American literature and culture, I teach students about the history of lynching in the United States. This is a topic around which there exists much cultural amnesia to this day. Among other things, I insist that we try to imagine how white Americans were able to rationalize the terrorism they inflicted on blacks for over sixty years.
For example, why did it make sense to a middle-class white woman to leave church on Sunday, drive to a setting where she, along with her family and members of the community, watched the torture and murder of a black person? Why did it make sense to those present to pose for photographs with what was left of the victim? How could they have enjoyed a picnic after doing what they did and seeing what they saw?
“I just can’t imagine” is not an acceptable response to those questions for many reasons. For instance, the people who performed and saw those atrocities were no different from many of us. That ought to scare us a little. What didn’t they know they didn’t know? What difference would it have made if they had known what they didn’t know? What difference can we make in the world today knowing what we know now? Are we willing to use what we know to make a difference? If so, what kind of difference and how will we go about making it? Saying “I just can’t imagine” does not take us where we need to go in our efforts both to understand others’ experiences and to act as empathic human beings.

“I Can Only Imagine”–a Better Alternative

Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a 14-year-old boy. Gauge, the son of my former horse shoer, Brad Malone, and his wife Shanna, was killed in an accidental shooting incident. He died in his father’s arms. I have imagined what Brad and Shanna have been feeling and experiencing. I’ve imagined what they must have felt in the minutes and hours and days after they heard the gunshot and found their son. I have imagined what parents do with the dreams and visions they had for their child’s life once he is gone.

I am not a parent. I do not claim to know what it feels like to be a parent and to have that bond that apparently feels like no other. I do not claim to know what it feels like to be a parent who has lost a child, suddenly, or otherwise.

That doesn’t mean that I can’t imagine such things. What it means is that I can only imagine how such loss feels for parents. If I truly care about the people who have suffered such losses, then I will imagine what they have gone through, what they are going through, and what they may go through in the future.

It doesn’t matter if how I imagine someone’s experience isn’t entirely, or even at all, correct. What matters is that, even though I can only imagine, I imagine anyway. What matters is that I don’t cop-out by saying, “I just can’t imagine.”

Here’s the Thing

So, we need to stop saying “I just can’t imagine” for two reasons. First, sometimes people say it because they don’t want to imagine what someone else is going through. If you really don’t care, then drop the act. Second, and I like to think this is the more common scenario, most people say ” I just can’t imagine” when what they really mean is “I can only imagine what you’re going through.”

To admit that we can “only imagine” another’s experience is to say two important things. First, it says “I care enough to try to understand what you’re experiencing.” Second, it says “I acknowledge the likelihood of a gap between what I imagine and your actual experience.” The latter is important because it lessens our risk of imposing our own narrative on someone else’s experience.

If we really care about people as most of us say we do, then we must be willing to imagine what they have gone through or what they are going through. That’s what we call empathy. My friend Michael Cameron defines empathy as “the quality of being able to feel what others feel.” He claims that it affords us “the greatest insight into who [others] are, allowing [us] to find ways to make the greatest impact in their life.” The mission statement of The Empathy Museum (yes, it’s a thing) speaks to the transformative power of empathy: “empathy can not only transform our personal relationships, but also help tackle global challenges such as prejudice, conflict and inequality.”

When we imagine what someone else is going through we nurture the development of empathy, which is one of the most valuable human traits. We also nurture one another as human beings and honor one another as fellow travelers on this wonky journey we call life. I can only imagine where we’d be without one another.

Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.


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Ditch the Templates; Listen to Your Gut

The Rules of Life aka The Templates

My life has never fit into many of life’s templates so I have learned to trust my gut when making decisions. In fact, many of my best decisions have been bad decisions according to everyone else. Why? Because my decisions have rarely adhered to rules about what one is supposed to do and how and when one is supposed to do it.

High school drop out

People are often surprised to find out that I dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. Why did I drop out? At the time, I would have said I was burned out or I was bored. Looking back, however, what I was calling boredom and describing as burnout most likely was related to the fact that I am a narcoleptic. I would not be diagnosed till I was 38 years old, which is a typical pattern unfortunately, but all the signs were there. It is hard to explain to people who are not narcoleptic what it is like to be excessively sleepy all day, every day. Constantly fighting to stay awake is quite literally painful. Therefore, going to school was painful.

I moved to Toronto where I got a job working at the head office of an insurance company right downtown in the heart of the city. For a few years, I worked in a clerical position in cubicle culture. I made a decent salary for someone without a lot of education. I worked with interesting people.  I also became certified as an aerobics instructor and taught in the company’s fitness center on a volunteer basis. I acquired a few job skills as well.

“That’s where I want to be”

At one point, I took an in-house course on effective business writing. It was taught by a woman whose name was Leesha Van Leewan. Leesha had presence like I’d never seen before. She seemed at least 7 feet tall with a head of flaming red hair, and she moved through space like a dancer. As I watched her at the front of the room, I remember thinking, “that’s where I want to be.” Until that day, I’d never imagined myself teaching. Nonetheless, my epiphany was the beginning of my journey to the front of the university classroom.

I had a dream

The next step came in October, 1989. I had a dream one night in which my friends from high school were graduating from university. I woke the next morning knowing that it was time to go back to school. At work that morning I called several local high schools and found out what I needed to do in order to be eligible to apply to universities. By the end of the day, I had a plan. In February, 1990 I enrolled in courses at a local high school. In September, I enrolled as a physical education major at York University in Toronto.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not advocating dropping out of high school.  But I don’t regret having done so. My 17 year old gut, wise beyond its years, told me dropping out was the right move. And you know what? It was. I know this because I was exactly where I needed to be when my unconscious spoke to me in that dream and said, “Linda, your time is now.” Indeed it was.

When I was ready, I went

When I  started university, I was ready and therefore I was successful. I loved every minute of my undergraduate experience. Was it hard? Yes and that’s what I liked about it. The work was engaging, the professors were fantastic, and the courses were rigorous. In part, because university schedules are more flexible than high school schedules, it was easier to work around what I now know were the challenges of living with narcolepsy.  I loved the process of discovering what I didn’t know I didn’t know.

In 1995, after a change in major, I graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English with a minor in Humanities. I went on to graduate school at the University of Alberta where I earned an M.A. and a Phd in English with specialization in African American literature and culture. After a stint as a post-doctoral research fellow at NYU, I became a professor at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, Arkansas.

I’m glad that, even at 17, my instinct was to listen to my gut when making decisions. Some people might see my “I’m a high school dropout” story as an “in spite of…” tale.  They are wrong. It is a “because of ” tale. That is, I am a university professor because I dropped out of high school. My deviation from life’s education template, my bad decision, was the best thing I ever did.

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times: if one does not go to university or college directly out of high school, then he or she will never go back. Sure, that may be the case for some people. In my opinion, however, that’s not a bad thing. If someone does not go to college or university right out of high school and never goes back, thus deviating from one of many templates about how to have a good life, it probably means he or she was not meant to go in the first place.

Not going to college or university right out of high school is not a character flaw.  A university degree is not the only way to be successful. The world needs plumbers, electricians, welders, horseshoers, and other skilled trades people, all of whom make very nice livings. University degrees are not for everyone. They do not guarantee success or happiness; we need to stop pretending they do.

I wish parents, however well meaning, would stop shoving their versions of life’s templates down their children’s throats. It’s not just parents who are guilty of template torture though. We all need to ditch the templates–all of them–not just the ones related to education. Even if we live up to the expectations that go hand in hand with the templates, doing so won’t make us happy if our motive is that someone told us we should. As my friend Kelley is fond of saying, we need to stop “shoulding” all over ourselves.

Here’s the thing.

The answers to most of our questions about the paths we should take in life are in our guts. It is wise to seek counsel from others, but when you do so at the expense of your own inner voice, no one wins. Each and every one of us knows what we need. Like Dorothy, we already have the power to determine where we need to go. That power is with us all the time. We just need to believe that we have it and then we need to make sure we use it.

So tell me, how often do you surrender to the power of a template? At what cost? How often do you struggle to make decisions because others’ voices are shouting over what your gut is telling you? And deep down, are you okay with that?

Thank you, as always, for reading. I appreciate you.

 

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Why I am a Recovering Pentecostal

Hello my name is Linda and I’m a Recovering Pentecostal

When I say that I am a Recovering Pentecostal people often laugh. However, I’m quite serious; I do in fact identify as a recovering Pentecostal. I was raised in a Pentecostal church on the outskirts of my hometown, Port Elgin, Ontario, Canada. I don’t know if this is the case at all Pentecostal churches, but the sermons at ours were at least 8 hours long.

To add insult to injury, only the adults got to have a snack during those marathon sermons.  That was an injustice of the first order. Eventually, I found out that the little bits of cracker and teeny goblets of grape juice that were passed around to the adults were not snacks, but rather communion. Still, I would have been glad to partake. A kid needs a little somethin’ somethin’ during a 10 hour sermon.

Be careful what you wish for

Sunday school, which preceded the 12 hour sermons, wasn’t all that great either. On one occasion, the teacher brought a loaf of homemade bread to class. I don’t think she’d ever baked bread before because it looked more like a slightly burned blob that was crunchy on the outside and doughy on the inside. She set her lump on the table at the front of the classroom ever so proudly. (Bless her heart.) Then, she explained that the beige blob was really the body of Christ and invited us to taste it.  Um, no.

I should explain that I’m a little weird about food. I do not share food. Ask my friend Shannin. On one of our first lunch dates, she nearly lost her hand when she tried to take a fry off my plate. Also, as much as I love a good steak, I live in a fantasy world. As far as I am concerned, my meat never had a face or a mother and it comes from Wal-Mart. Yes, I am a hypocrite. I wasn’t much different as a child.

So, showing me a weird looking loaf of bread, calling it the body of Christ, and then inviting our whole class to tear chunks off it, wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. Not that anyone offered tea. The thought, and then sight, of everyone’s germ-covered hands ripping hunks off the lump and scarfing them down made me want to puke. I also saw nothing holy about make believe cannibalism, no matter which way one might slice it. Is it any wonder that I was famished by the time those 14 hour sermons ended each week? The only thing I was inclined to pray for on Sunday mornings was a decent meal that had not been manhandled by everyone and their sister.

If 16 hour sermons in the morning weren’t bad enough, Sunday evening services weren’t much better. In fact, they were worse. You see, that’s when they liked to scare the bejezzus out of folks so they’d get saved. One night when I was about 10, we were shown a film about the rapture. There are a bunch of films like it, and I don’t remember the exact title of the one we saw, but the plot resembled that of A Thief in the Night. According to my memory, the plot went something like this. In the opening scene, a whole bunch of cars start crashing on a freeway and bodies are floating into the air.

It turns out that the second coming has occurred and a bunch of pissed off people were left behind. Those left behind are mad as hornets because they had considered themselves outstanding Christians; they aren’t happy that Jesus did not see fit to take them home with Him. All is not lost, I guess, because those left behind get a second crack at making it to heaven. But there’s a bit of a catch. You see, to get to heaven, the left-behind-folks have to refuse to take the mark of the beast (666) on their forehead or wrist. The penalty for refusing to take the mark of the beast is death by guillotine. Nonetheless, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do and the left-behind-folks decide to do. This is where the s*** gets real. 

According to my memory, in the last scene of the movie, people wearing pink hospital-type gowns are standing in line waiting their turn at the guillotine. A woman who we’ve come to root for throughout the film obediently places her head into the designated place, the blades drop, and her head rolls into a laundry basket.

At that point, the lights came up in the church sanctuary, an altar call was issued, and I ran as fast as my legs could carry me to the front of the church where I was greeted by my older brother who was waiting to broker my salvation. Now, before anyone starts praising the lord on my behalf, understand that I did not make a beeline for the altar because I wanted to accept the lord Jesus Christ into my heart. I just didn’t want my head cut off so it seemed logical to take care of business while I had the opportunity. Child abuse every Sunday.

The Aftermath

I’ve since met lots of Pentecostals whose church experiences bear no resemblance to mine. I’m happy for them. But I’m not joking when I tell you that it is not easy recovering from the kind of terrorizing that went on in our church. Reviewer Captain Cassidy describes the effect of A Thief in the Night and similar movies perfectly:

“What’s so astonishing about this entire movie is that, as terrible as it sounds right out of the gate, it is apparently not only the granddaddy of Rapture movies, it has traumatized what might well be millions of young Christians. This movie was shown in churches. It was shown in youth group meetings. It was shown at camps.

Millions of kids have seen this movie, and it scared the ever-lovin’ pants off of them. Adults today right now still carry the barely healed over wounds this movie inflicted on their minds and hearts. It terrified them and informed their nightmares and unnecessarily panicked them every goddamned time they couldn’t physically perceive their loved ones right then and there.”

Cassidy’s description of the impact of watching such horror flicks is an accurate description of my own post-film, post-Pentecostal experience. Frankly, I’m not a fan of churches that try to scare people into heaven. Based on my own experience, I can assure you that the effects of the messages of terror delivered in 18 hour sermons on Sunday mornings and again during evening services were not what the powers-that-be in my childhood church were hoping for. In fact, they were the exact opposite.

I stopped going to church the moment my mom gave me a choice in the matter. Many years passed before I set foot in another church. Moving onto the buckle of the bible belt has challenged me to be sure. At the same time, over the years I’ve been here, I’ve developed a much more nuanced understanding of why people go to church–willingly–and what happens in churches where child abuse is not the order of the day. It’s been eye-opening, to be sure, amusing sometimes, and depressing at others. I’ll write more about those things another time.

Meanwhile, what are you recovering from and how have you made sense of it?

Thank you for reading. Please subscribe. I appreciate you.