balance

Spotty

There are a lot of things I see framed as choice, when they’re really about maintaining the illusions of free will, of not giving a fuck, or of resisting the dominant paradigm. I want to see my actions as autonomous, as a source of strength. But I’m coming up against the constraints of one so-called choice, and it’s a huge and tiny internal war, one that also shows quite plainly on my face.

When I discovered femme identity, I found a gender and aesthetic that felt like home. There was strength and softness there, and the recognition of beauty rituals for self-care.

Queer femininity taught me to uproot hidden strains of misogyny that lurked and lingered in myself and others, craftily masking themselves as authenticity, self-acceptance, or concerns for health. I could be pretty and tough and feminine, and none of these elements contradicted each other.

I never felt like I had to wear makeup. I enjoyed it. I’d go out without it sometimes, but more often than not I felt better with it. It was my femme armour and I wore it with pride.

Then this weird thing started happening on my face. It was a kind of acne or infection or I don’t-know-what. It hurt and itched, and it was always red and spotty. I’d never had perfectly clear skin, but I’d never been as blighted as this before in my life.

I tried maintenance and treatment: A different face wash, aloe vera, tea tree oil, and then concealer and some powder.

I soon realized that the spotty thing got a bit better when I was home all day, makeup free. The decision seemed simple, and an obvious tradeoff: take a break from wearing makeup, and let the spotty thing clear up. But I pouted. I insisted that I wanted to wear the makeup, it was my choice, and by my politics, my right.

Eventually discomfort won over. I committed to taking a break, just until the spotty thing went down, then I’d re-introduce bits of the makeup routine.

But the spotty thing would not go down. Just when I thought the last spot was healing, poof, another one appeared and brought its friends. And every morning I woke up to the same awful conclusion: My self-acceptance was bullshit. I hate my face.

It didn’t matter if I was in a good mood, if life or relationships are going well, if I was otherwise healthy, or felt secure in my strengths and successes. Every day, when I saw my reflection in the mirror, it was the same Face Hate voice. This sucks. There is no way you or anyone else could see this as pretty.

If I stay on that train, it hits all of the obvious points of self-deprecation, true or not. No one will love me like this. Anyone who says I’m pretty or even beautiful are clearly lying (and maybe they’re not, but they still say what’s going on with your face? No one loves the spotty thing.) The Face Hate voice is highly unoriginal, repetitive, and cruel.

I tried to embrace the face. I’d take a selfie and stare at my own mug, willing myself to find something to appreciate. That used to work in other periods of self-deprecation, but it was more like a pat on the head than a shift in vision. I stared and stared and saw nothing.

I tried to reason with the hate I have for my face, but it won’t budge.

Dear Face Hate: Don’t you know that aesthetics aren’t the most important thing about this human being? Why don’t you back off and consider all her other good qualities. Nope, it says. You’re cool and all but your face still sucks.

Dear Face Hate: Didn’t the gods of the spotty thing get that no-makeup sacrifice I made? I thought we had a deal here. Nope, it says. Spotty thing is gonna stick around, and so am I.

Dear Face Hate: You’re boring. Why are we doing this everyday? I don’t NEED to be pretty. And it laughs and laughs and laughs. It doesn’t need to say anything, because it knows that if I truly believed that, it wouldn’t be here. I have a choice, right? I can always pick up the brush, and apply pretty if I want it that bad. Do I?

I know that I have the privilege of choosing to wear makeup or not – none of my jobs require me to (overtly or not), so I can stick with this stubborn, uncomfortable experiment. But as much as it sucks, I’m learning that despite my femme politics, I’m so much more affected by heteronormative patriarchal standards of beauty than I’d ever want to admit.

The voice of the face hate sounds like mine, but it’s not. I didn’t put it there, but I also thought myself immune to it, and never noticed its insidious entrance until now.

I’ve come to treat it kind of like running the gauntlet. Get up, shower, brush teeth, then there’s the mirror and the tired refrain. Yeah ok, what’s new? Still hate the face. What’s next? Then I move on to breakfast.

Breakfast used to get quickly passed over in the morning chaos. But an unexpected benefit of skipping makeup is extra time for a tasty meal, and a little bit more room for groceries too.

I wish I could close with redemption, with some positive message about self-compassion, about accepting yourself, even about breakfast. I could post a token photo, bare all and invite reassurances, stand face-naked in all of my vulnerability and hope for absolution. But I know it’s not that simple. There’s no quick fix.

If there’s anything I can accept, it’s that love – for self and others – is turbulent and not always kind, it’s the imperfect state of progress and the slow nature of change. Something will shift, eventually, but for now it’s still spotty.

 

 

Five Star

My year in Canoe

year in review

This year feels like 3 years, at least. Somewhere near the beginning I set out to deconstruct my life and turn it into something now. And now it’s…well, it is something, though I’m not sure what to call it. It’s like looking back on a long canoe trip. The retelling depends on my current mood, the audience, and the ever-rotating whirlpool of memory.

I could just make a list of big moments and life markers, but drawing a map in retrospect is much less of an adventure. Let’s say, for the sake of narrative, that my life over this last year was a canoe.

If I said I spent a year in a canoe to someone who isn’t fond of backwoods travel, or who’s never been in a canoe, they might recoil and horror and exclaim, “Oh, that must have been so horrible and stressful!”. And then, of course, the most strenuous of memories would come to the forefront, and I’d regale this poor city-slicker with tales of long portages, of being eaten alive by mosquitoes, of paddling through the night, never sure of when rest might come.

I’d try to describe the feeling of my fingers slipping on mossy rock as I flailed about in the rapids, watching that purple canoe (if my life is a canoe, it’s definitely purple, ok?) being tossed about and trashed downstream from me. Of finding it covered in cracks, irreparable maybe, and spending days going over it, trying to pull it back together with a pocket knife and some duct tape (who am I kidding? I ran out of duct tape long ago. That canoe, among many other things, is held together with green painter’s tape. Don’t underestimate the resiliency of that green painter’s tape. It’s hardier than it looks).
I’d pull my trusted friend aside and tell them of how, under the cold, indifferent moon, I lay awake and wondered how I’d ever be able to get back on the river the next day.

But I would get back on the river. I’d paddle sluggishly through marshes, canoe overfull and sinking. How did I pack so much into this tiny boat? I wondered, but it all seemed to be stuck together, piled in like a Tetris master, except with no layers magically disappearing to make room for more. My back hurt. My neck hurt. I think at one point I leaned forward and touched my toes, but then they stretched out far in front of me again, as if they were four femurs away. Damn those unattainable toes.

If I was telling this story to someone who’d spent a year or more in a similar canoe, it would sound much different. We’d lock eyes and share a hidden smile, both knowing the delight of steering your own way in the water.

I wouldn’t have to explain how it felt to make a slight adjustment to the tilt of my paddle and see the path change before me, to have the freedom to go at my speed, lackadaisical in the morning and big hustle at dusk. To know that I was neither holding myself back for another paddler to catch up, nor holding anyone else up.

With these quiet moments unspoken, we’d jump right into the brilliant, crashing moments of pure joy. Of scaling a cliff and diving down into deep, clear unknown waters, then floating for a moment on top, held by the river, and climbing out to do it all over again. Of the 21st time the canoe flipped, and I burst out into hysterical laughter because what else was there to do, and then even after I put everything back together again, I still couldn’t stop laughing.

I’d tell them about the nights when I thought I was all alone, pouring my heart out to that same quiet moon, and then looked over to find other canoes pulling up beside me. When I found new friends that had been down this way before and who promised to ring their bells loudly and keep the bears at bay. I swore to ring my bell too, to build a chorus for fellow travellers.

And just when I resigned myself to the idea that I was just going to have to paddle this whole canoe by myself, never handing that paddle over, it seemed to grow a little wider and longer. So I invited some of my friends, new and old, over to paddle with me for a bit. We swapped tips on building campfires and commiserated about the lack of maps. We patched each other’s holes and sang silly limericks to liven up the journey.

I’d never ridden in such a full canoe, but it just seemed to get bigger and bigger, fuller and fuller, yet even with the growing crowd on board, it just got more buoyant. It seemed to be the size of a yacht, though without the same amenities. It wasn’t a yacht, I told myself. This is an aberration, it’ll be just me in a tiny canoe again soon enough. That’s how it’s always been, that’s how it always will be.

But I’m sitting here on the dock now, at trip’s end, and I can’t deny the fact that this boat can no longer be called canoe. It’s some kind of freaky cruise ship, and it’s full to bursting. It’s a really odd shape, as if an architect was tasked with building something called “big ship” with the dismantled pieces of a long-haul rig and no instructions. It’s definitely held together with a lot of green painter’s tape, and mostly serves frozen pizza and soda. Lots of its mail comes on fancy red paper, but it floats.

Perhaps this year sounds less like your typical canoe trip and more like one of those dreams you have after you ate a slightly mouldy muffin, but I swear, it’s the honest truth.

Day 26, or so

Well, it’s the home stretch, the final few days of blogging every day, or almost every day, at least. I may have missed one or two. I’ll have to go back and check.

I realize it’s a bit early to be reflecting, but at this moment, I’m really considering how this challenge has affected my writing and blogging practice.

There’s a lot I want to write about, and it crosses many genres and topic areas, and that’s fine. I think that there’s still room for all of it here. Room for politics, room for fun, room for reminiscing, room for exploring different writing forms.

But another thing I’ve realized is that if this is something I’m going to be doing, I need to make room for it too. This can’t just be an afterthought, as I’m brushing my teeth – oh, that piece that’s been swimming around in my head all day, it needs to be written (at 11 p.m.) And the night owl in me craves the night time for writing, but in the morning, I feel wrecked by the late nights at the computer, day after day after day.

In subtle ways, I’ve let go of other things to make space for this. Like writing for yeah write, which I miss. Like my bedtime routine, which was just getting its momentum back. Like a good chunk of doubt and self-criticism, which can keep running off into the horizon, thank you very little.

Continuing this kind of writing practice, I’m also reconsidering my role in a larger community of readers and writers. I’m considering my responsibility, and the kinds of messages I want to support and amplify. The world moves quickly, and if I’m to dive in to write about it, that needs its own kind of space too. Space to read, reflect, and then react in a measured way.

I often feel both relieved and nostalgic at the end of a project. As this commitment is coming close to wrapping up, I feel those, but I also feel motivated to move forward, excited. After almost a month of “just do it”, I know I mostly can. And now I want to do it better.

My cuss-loving self-care training wheels

CHILL THE FUCK OUT is a task, an appointment on my calendar from 6-10 pm tonight. It’s a stern warning to myself that I set early in the week, knowing I’d be stretching my physical, mental, and emotional limits for 3 consecutive days, and then expecting to return to a steady, regular pace immediately after. It’s relaxing. It’s self-care. It feels like it should be easy.

This is work though, real work, chilling the fuck out. Trying not to work is work. Taming my mind is work, after it’s been bargaining with me all week, juggling this schedule, trying to sneak a bit more transcribing or interview prep or house cleaning into CHILL THE FUCK OUT time. Convincing myself that I need this, I deserve this, that this is part of a healthy balance – that’s all work too, and working is what I’m trying to NOT do.

So I lay in my hammock in the backyard and read a magazine until the sun set. I wrote a bit, just my own thoughts, with no ambition attached. I packed up the hammock and came inside, unsure of how to chill the fuck out next, with two more hours to fill chilling the fuck out in some way before I could pull my only consistent move in chilling the fuck out and put myself right to sleep.

I don’t feel like chilling the fuck out in the bath. I could chill the fuck out with Netflix but they don’t like the numbers on my corrupted, cancelled credit card, so that option is out. I could chill the fuck out with the dishes or the vacuuming or maybe just pick up some shoes, slowly, in a really relaxed way – in jumps brain NOPE! That is NOT the definition of chilling the fuck out.

There’s an upside to being so hard on myself. If I’m determined to chill the fuck out, my brain will take that as a Direct Order to do nothing but chill the fuck out and anything else will Not Be Allowed. But then there’s the Procrastination Clause, sneaky like a mouse, tripping up every rule every single time. It led me here, and lo and behold, my fingers are skipping over the keyboard and I can’t tell if I’m chilling the fuck out or avoiding chilling the fuck out because I really am not sure that I know how to chill the fuck out anymore.

My brain is a constant stream of what’s next, of impending tasks broken down into steps. I look around and see a list growing in my head, laundry, dishes, catboxes, sweeping, that mail pile NOPE says brain, these thoughts are counter to chilling the fuck out so STOP IT.

Sometimes, my co-worker told me earlier this week, when your stress level is so high, self-care doesn’t look like walking away to chill; It looks like chipping away at that list so you can bring your stress down. In that moment, she was right, and I chipped the fuck out of that list and it helped me stay steady.

But now my inability to chill the fuck out is giving me chill the fuck out anxiety. I know that later, tomorrow even, when I’m back at a steady pace, all I’ll want is that elusive, blocked off CHILL THE FUCK OUT time. I’ll know that I had some and I squandered it, and I won’t know when I’ll get it back again. I will have chill the fuck out regret, chill the fuck out wastage guilt.

I’m already nervous anticipating the future regret I will have for my actions (or lack of non-actions) in this very moment. This is the economics of scarcity, aka how the fear of never being able to chill the fuck out again is keeping me from being able to chill the fuck out. But I NEED to chill the fuck out. It’s self-care.

Let’s be clear: self-care is a skill, and it’s one that I’ve heard a lot of chatter about but have only seen enacted in unobtainable upper-middle-class ways in upper-middle-class lives. I even thought that I was doing it, maybe, sometimes, but outside of so-called self-care time I was still really stubborn and hard on myself. But that was just ME, the way I was.

Me, the way I was, is unsustainable. Even if I keep believing that I can be a work-harder-horse, my body is telling me otherwise. I can keep this pace up in short bursts but I can’t do 12-15 hour days back to back for weeks on end. And it’s not that I didn’t know this before, I simply refused to listen or believe it. How could I be working too hard when the bills still weren’t paid, and the house was still a mess?

I obviously wasn’t working hard enough – that was the real problem. There would be time for self-care when I got that elusive balance, when I got ahead of the question of how to make it all work and still have room to live a little more kindly.

I don’t have the answer yet, and I no longer believe that there is one final way to make it work. Balance isn’t a stagnant point that you hit and then settle into, the magical centre where no winds will ever blow you off course.

It’s more like a bike with training wheels, sometimes leaning to the left a little until you feel that shitty plastic circle touching the earth and realizing you need to shift over a bit. Maybe you adjust your position on the seat, and then you’re leaning on the training wheel on the right. You shift again, maybe ride on two wheels for a block, but even when the training wheels are off, you never stay completely upright. You lean into a curve, you learn how to sway a bit from left to right without falling over and smashing your face on the ground.

I’ve smashed my face on the ground a few times now. It’s time to practice balance, even if it feels artificial, imposed, scheduled, rote, mundane. Even if it comes in all caps. CHILL THE FUCK OUT. 6-10 pm. A direct order from the self-care department of my brain, the one with its cuss-loving training wheels freshly wired back on.

Tonight, those four words feel more terrifying than a blank page waiting to be filled. I know, on an intellectual level, that I need to relax in order to sustain myself. I need it to live, like breathing, which I think my body is pretty good at most of the time. But then when I’m deeply involved in something, I forget to breathe. I realize in a moment that I’m holding my breath. AGAIN.

The computer informs me that it’s running on reserve power. All of this over-thinking has left me drained as well. I think I’ve stumbled on a new chill the fuck out trick – wear myself out until I have no energy for anything else. Maybe a bath would be nice.

Training wheel touch down. Only one hour of this interminable relaxing left; It’s time to get back on schedule.