Lost & Found: (re)New(ed)

“‘Lost’ is said in many ways. It is juxtaposed with both winning and finding. One can lose something and one can be lost.

When we lose instead of win, there is a permanence to loss that appears to make it different from losing, for example, the car keys. The keys, under the status lost, seem capable of being found. But the permanent loss of, say, the World Series can never be undone. Still, it is not the notion of competition—of winning versus losing—that is troubling here. It is this permanence. For we can lose our virginity to a loved one, lose a loved one to death, or lose a weekend to alcohol: all permanent losses with no mirror possibilities of winning. The issue, however, is still more complex. That which is lost can never truly be found. All loss is permanent. The lost dog who makes his way home is found to be a new dog” (Steeves, 2006, p. 55).

As a human, loss has been a large part of my existence. When I came out many years ago, there was a part of me that was forced to move forward. To progress. Like a snake shedding their skin, I took on a fresher outer layer, a slicker exterior, a mostly-new me. And as a result, I experienced an intense amount of loss – both literal and developmental. I lost friends and family members, yet gained new ideologies, philosophies, and world views. I lost (and gained) weight, left cities (and countries), and expanded my brain in ways that brought me to and from ideas – all only to leave me a better, and (re)new(ed) person. Like the lost dog who returned to its home (Steeves, 2016) or the snake with new, post-shed skin, the new me, albeit at one point lost, was still me…just newer, fresher, more seen and capable of seeing.

As an educator, I understand loss in the practical sense, and in the philosophical sense. Students attend and leave institutions. They learn and grow. And sometimes I am part of that learning and growing. Students develop. They fail tests, they get dream jobs, they disappoint, and sometimes they disappear. Some even continue to grow long after they leave campuses and classrooms. In that growth and development, I think of Steeves’ (2006) sentiments, and wonder, (how) is loss associated with growth? Even when found (or when we find), are we still, then, experiencing loss? And at this point, what have we left behind when we grow or develop? Are we growing and developing?

And is this, too, associated with the loss that Steeves (2006) highlights?

I apply this same frame of thinking to students and their development. This was an “aha” moment for me in a student development theory class last semester. In addition to growth and development, students also experience a sense of loss when they move into a new existence. They leave something behind. And at times, they leave some people behind. For example, as a student develops a religious or political identity different from that which they come from (“home,” or wherever), they might also grapple with turning their back on what they have always been taught – the loss associated with moving on from beliefs, and who or what gets left behind in those contexts. Ultimately, the student who starts to make decisions for their self – failing and/or succeeding – is on a journey to being more independent and autonomous than ever before.

When I left the world of full-time work to be a full-time student, I left parts of me behind. Now, with each academic semester, I leave even more parts of the old me – my former skin – behind. With each year, I try to become a better partner, friend, educator, and human. As I start a new and challenging semester of school, work, and life, I continue to process the connection between loss and growth.

Most notably, much of my experience as a student thus far has consisted of grappling with my perceptions of perfection, and what it means to fall short of that standard – to lose in the “game of perfection.” Papers and projects are graded; feedback is plenty. And while I resist perfection, a journey I will never fully conquer, the pressure still looms over me. What am I leaving behind when I acknowledge (and embrace, accept) the reality that I am not (and will not be) perfect? What does it mean to be imperfect? To get lost sometimes? And what does it mean to view perfection with a critical eye, and still embrace the finding that is involved within that losing?

As I (continue to) challenge what I thought I knew, and what is left to be known, I embrace that which will not ever be the same. Just as students fail, progress, and develop, I, too, am in that same space. Growing. Progressing. Developing. To lose (at perfection), in this case, is still to grow (as a student, friend, partner). It is still to find (that which makes me worthy; new strengths; myself).

While the threat of perfection was the skin I shed last spring, I am holding on to this same sentiment as I settle into 2018. I am holding on to growth, and to growing.

A better, new(er) person;
but still the same person;
still, sometimes lost.
And still, totally ok.

Michael

“This process of self-discovery is not easy; it may involve suffering, doubt, dismay. But we must not shrink from the fullness of our being in attempting to reduce the pain” (O’Donohue, 1997, p. 108).

References

O’Donohue, J. (1997). Anam cara. New York: Cliff Street Books.
Steeves, H. P. (2006). The things themselves: Phenomenology and the return to the everyday. Albany: State University of New York Press.

The light within me…

Yoga

For better or for worse, I have consciously experienced stress since I was fourteen years old. Much of this dissonance stemmed from life as a military kid, people moving all around me, taking on massive responsibilities at a young age, identity stuff, and generally not having the ability to let things go. To be calm.

To be collected.

To just breathe. 

Around one year ago, I started experiencing painful back-spasms. My back would give out at random, and there were even times where I was unable to move. So, I went to a back specialist. When the specialist returned from checking my scans, I assured him, “I’m broken.”

“No, you’re not,” he laughed back at me. “When’s the last time you did some type of meditation or relaxation exercise?”

“Never. Yeah…never,” I quickly responded.

“You need to relax. Your back and body are too tight. There’s nothing wrong with you except that you could probably use a bit of time to de-stress.”

I was annoyed.

De-stress.

I’ve received this feedback for the past sixteen years.

And yet, you’d think, at some point I would actually listen.

A few weeks ago, I finally listened.

I have a good friend at work who encouraged me to follow her lead and buy a two-month yoga pass for a studio down the street from where we both live. After sixteen years of believing I didn’t need to actually calm or slow down (or know how, for that matter), I struggled to accept that I could or might benefit from the opportunity.

Yoga has been in or around my life for over a decade. While I have never let myself enjoy the vulnerability involved in the practice, I appreciate the friends and community members in my life who have leaned in without fear or hesitation. I have one friend who travels out of the country each year for a yoga retreat, spending several days taking care of herself, her mind, and her body. I have other friends who make their living out of selling yoga gear and teaching others how to be in sync with their mind, body, and soul. Needless to say, yoga is present.

Acknowledging the impact yoga has had on these folk’s lives, I caved. I bought the pass, and this morning was my first class.

I rolled out of bed at 6:00AM, and was walking up the steps of Shaw Yoga around 6:22AM. I will be honest, I was very nervous. I was nervous about my body, my breathing, the fact that I sweat a lot. I wondered, was I am impostor in this space? What if this was something I was not good at? What if I was uncomfortable?

At some point during the hour, all of this was true. My body didn’t move like it use to. It took some time to regulate my breathing. I sweated a ton. I was incredibly uncomfortable at times. And all of this was okay.

By the end of the class, my sweating had ceased, and my mind was clearer than it had been in a long time. My body felt loose. I felt fully present.

There was a tone of kindness in the space – a tone of being kind to yourself and others, being kind to your body, being kind to the Universe.

Over and over, I replayed my sweet partner’s charge, “We practice self-love in this house.” We practice self-love in this house.

We practice self-love in this house. 

I can easily argue for self-care, for self-love, or for putting on your own oxygen mask before helping the person next to you. But it’s more than an argument – the practice of these beliefs must be lived, daily. Authentically. Today, I am practicing kindness. I am practicing self-love. I am practicing care. I hope you’ll do the same.

Here’s to the light within me, honoring the light within you.

Namaste,

Michael

 

 

Temporarily Beardless: “We practice self-love in this house.”

Beardless.

Partner: I want to cry.
Me: I want to cry too!
Partner: Wait, what? Why?

Me: Because I look like a troll! Why do you want to cry?
Partner: Because I love you even more. 

“It’s like your armor is gone, super vulnerable,” he says. 

Before I dive deeper into my new (and temporary) beardless state of being, I should admit something quite significant: I gained 30 lbs in 2015.

Yes, you read that right. Thirty.

I have since lost 5 of those lbs in the new year, however the truth remains – since moving back from China on December 2, 2014, I gained 30 full lbs. Needless to say, I was not kind to my body this past year. I’m now working on it.

Unrelated to the great weight gain of 2015, when I turned thirty back in September, I made a list of 30 goals, one of which was, “Shave my beard.” Not for any great cause necessarily – I mostly thought it would be a fun goal, one that would allow my face to breathe for a few days before going back to my beard-filled life.

Fast-forward to this weekend: I’m in the bathroom, post-haircut, using my new beard trimmer. I cut a chunk of hair out of my beard – an unfixable chunk. In a quick judgement call, I decided it would be the day to knock off, “Shave my beard,” from my list of goals. And so, I shaved.

As soon as the clean shave was complete, my eyes welled up and I looked into the mirror with angst and fear. I felt completely undesirable. I felt incredibly naked.

Cue the aforementioned conversation with my partner.

Partner: I want to cry.
Me: I want to cry too!
Partner: Wait, what? Why?

Me: Because I look like a troll! Why do you want to cry?
Partner: Because I love you even more. 

In a moment of, “I’m not worthy,” I realized so much of my pro-beard advocacy had come from 50% enjoying the beard and 50% enjoying the opportunity to hide any double chin(s) that existed under the surface.

I hadn’t seen a clean shave since March 2013.

An hour after the trimming of the beard, my partner and I walked to the grocery store, and over and over in my head, all I could do was repeat something he often says to me when I criticize myself or wade in a space of personal dissonance.

“We practice self-love in this house,” he says.

We practice self-love.

Self-love.

Last year, I wrote a post about my life of weight gain and loss, and reflected on the struggle I have consistently battled with food and self-worth. Here’s a snippet:

“If a cake pop falls in the forest, did the cake pop really ever exist at all?” Furthermore, if I fell down in a forest, what was I doing in that forest to begin with? Was I looking for cake pops? [Was I working out?] I digress. Years ago, I came to terms with the reality that what I saw in the mirror did not necessarily match up to what was actually happening with my body. And, at the center of this lack of congruence, existed a world of issues with control, self-confidence, and self love.

(June 16, 2015)

Whichever house you reside (figuratively and literally), I implore you to practice love. And to practice self-care. Rereading the piece above was particularly important for me last night. With my beardlessness comes great vulnerability.

Here’s to growing my beard back over the next few weeks, and not because I’m hiding behind it or need it to calm my nerves. Here’s to growing my beard back over the next few weeks, and constantly reminding myself that my beauty and worth are truly up to me. Here’s to growing my confidence, and marching onward toward a place of love and self-truth. Ultimately, here’s to resolve, and resolving beautifully.

Learning to love yourself in all forms, shapes, and sizes is one of the toughest and most rewarding fetes one can endure. I’m certainly well on my way.

So fresh and so clean-clean,

Michael

unnamed

 

I am not defined by a test.

I took the GRE last week.

I should also note, I almost didn’t. I signed up about a month ago, and after, “Register for the GRE,” collected dust on my summer To Do list.

It was the following “ah-ha” moment that aided in my eventual registration:

I am not defined by a test.

Specifically, my worth is not found within the confines of a 100-question and 2-essay exam. This ah-ha hit me hard, and it hit me raw. My fear of taking the test had nothing to do with preparedness. Instead, it had everything to do with a complete fear of being measured by an exam. I was terrified to take the GRE because I was scared of what it might tell me about myself. Because, while I may not be defined by the test, I am certainly still compared to and evaluated as a result of it.

Powerful note

And thus, the debate around worth and standardization continues.

I have a limited memory of my own childhood woes around testing. Mostly, I remember the stress, and next, I remember a constant inquiry of whether or not the test-makers would actually put four “D” answers in a row (or, what one would get on the test if they just filled-in, “A, B, C, D, E, D, C, B, A,” from start to finish).

Institutions for higher education are evaluating their admissions processes, and many schools are slowly moving toward an admissions process that does not include the ACT or SAT. Outside of the undergraduate requirements, when I was applying to master’s programs several years ago, I had friends and colleagues who only applied to graduate schools that did not require a GRE score. “It does not measure your capacity to serve students, nor does it reflect your ability to be compassionate, or empathetic, or trustworthy as a professional,” one school said to me while researching which graduate program I wanted to attend. And I tend to agree. 

Ultimately, I pursued a graduate program that did require the GRE, and my GRE experience of 2009 contained a matched level of anxiety as my current predicament.

Is this how kids feel within our preK-12 systems? Does testing support a healthy self-efficacy? Are tests really the most equitable way to measure a person’s ability? What is the area of triangle ABC, and how is x+3 divided by z-y?

These questions haunt me more than most.

“Just remember that this test and your scores do not equal your value or predict your future. It’s just a test. It cannot be won. It can just be taken.”
– My very wonderful friend, Diana

I have wise friends, right?

While I’m not proud of my score, I am also not proud of a system that puts so much emphasis on testing as a prime indicator of a person’s capability. “It cannot be won. It can just be taken.” When I think about work involving child, student, and human development, I am most hopeful that layers of empathy, understanding, and compassion are more true than a wonderful score on a test.

Of course, times are changing. The way we educate and how we are educated are both changing. Education is evolving. We are evolving. I certainly understand the foundation of the (perceived) importance of test taking, but more so, I understand the reality of testing’s ability to leave people behind (cue, “the sociology of education,” here). From a preK-12 perspective, even my own former school district has the possibility for evolution, which was apparent just this past week.

A good friend of mine from high school and college now works in the school district where I spent most of my preK-12 experience (previously referenced last year, “My high school was ‘pretty Black’“). While attending the back-to-school welcome for district faculty and staff, she captured a pretty powerful statement from the new Superintendent of Schools.

“Never say never…every child can be successful!” “You have to love the kids more than the rules, more than the test scores, more than a win/loss record!”
– New Mid-Del Schools Superintendent, Dr. Rick Cobb

This is what matters. This is how we actually and thoughtfully teach and inspire. This is how we adequately educate children and adults. Teaching is so much more than a prescribed version of ‘success.’ Success is scarily subjective – truthfully, subjective.

More than what I may or may not have learned prior to or during my own testing experience this past week/summer, I mostly learned that I was loved. I had two coworkers who gave me a gift or card almost every day leading up to the test. My significant other beautifully and patiently challenged me to pause and be kind to myself. I had friends and colleagues reach out with affirming arguments of, “…it doesn’t define whether you’re smart or worthy,” and, “…just a test in your life, not a definition of your brains and talents.” Of course, I did consider that perhaps all my friends and colleagues realized I was an awful test-taker, or just that I couldn’t use, “mercurial,” or, “obsequious,” in a sentence – either way and regardless of motivation, people showed up, and with love and support deeper than I could have bargained.

To amend my initial ah-ha (“I am not defined by a test”), I would now argue, “My worth is not found in my GRE score.” And neither is yours.

One of my very good friends put it beautifully:

“I care about you doing well, but I care most that post-test you still remember how wonderful you are. Regardless of the results…”
-My super sweet pal, Renae

I think we can all benefit from this understanding – our self (selves), our students, our colleagues, our friends.

Be kind to yourself.

I may not have achieved a perfect GRE score last week. And that’s okay. And, perhaps, my understanding of the role of an educator is skewed by my passionate belief that empathy and compassion are much more important than exam results. That’s okay, too. There’s even a chance that, if I did take the test again – which I do not intend to do – I still wouldn’t do well. And even in that second score and attempt, I am still okay.

There are two points happening here: one about the giant question mark that exists around standardized testing, and the other regarding my own experience with the GRE. And in both spaces, regardless of outcome, we are worthy, we are capable, and we are surely, certainly, undoubtedly not defined by a test score.

New wind,

Michael

Wheaties - KSP
*Bless all those who contend, “I love standardized tests.” You’re all robots.

Yes, ogre.

Starbucks_Birthday_Cake_Cake_Pops

I recently bought a hot tea from Starbucks, and mostly because I was embarrassed about the two cake pops my body was forcing me to purchase.

Yes, forcing.

You see, it took me twenty steps from Starbucks to remember that throwing away the hot tea wouldn’t get rid of the cake pops.

Or the cravings.

Or the guilt.

Or the ogre I see in the mirror.

Yes, ogre.

I’ve learned that no amount of therapy or counseling will erase the struggle or pain one goes through after years of hating the way they look. Or looked. Counseling did, however, help. And it does. And it’s ongoing. But moments of weakness happen.

I’m not perfect.

I struggled on my ten block walk home, balancing the hot tea and my beloved cake pops. Starbucks’ cake pops are pretty damn good. As are the doughnuts. And the lemon loaf. And most Frappuccino drink options.

Dissonance.

I walked ten blocks back to my apartment, while scorching hot tea burned my fingers as I devoured my cake pop within the first minute of leaving Starbucks. Of course, God forbid I wait until I get home to destroy the evidence. Burning fingers: the universe’s way of saying, “Slow down, you beast!”

Cake Pop One: down.

Cake Pop Two: down.

I could barely contain myself with CP2. And in one bite, I said goodbye to my fix.

You see, if I could make it home without the cake pops, I wouldn’t be reminded that they were ever really a thing to begin with. “If a cake pop falls in the forest, did the cake pop really ever exist at all?” Furthermore, if I fell down in a forest, what was I doing in that forest to begin with? Was I looking for cake pops? I digress. Years ago, I came to terms with the reality that what I saw in the mirror did not necessarily match up to what was actually happening with my body. And, at the center of this lack of congruence, existed a world of issues with control, self-confidence, and self love.

And getting help taught me this. Several years ago, I had a very good coworker who sat down with me and had the, “Michael, the way you talk about yourself is concerning,” and, “I think you might be working out too much,” conversation. This coworker introduced me to a counselor who specialized in men’s body image stuff. I was resistant at first, and mostly because I was a 24-year old know-it-all. And while I’m an almost-thirty-year-old know-it-all these days, it’s not hard to view a cake pop stress-fest as a vehicle for emotional time-travel, back to when food and image were much more obsessive. Back to when I mastered “appearing to be confident.”

And today, reflection is learning. And while processing, I am confident that years of counseling has helped me pause and acknowledge a few key life lessons:

1.  It’s okay to admit that, “years of counseling,” is even a thing.
2.  I am not defined by the hot, fit, and athletic men who run shirtless through the city.
3.  There will be good days, and there will be days when you can barely move after a spin class.
4.  People who struggle with food or image are not all experts on food and image.
5.  I am so much more than what I see in the mirror. I am so much more than what any scale will assert.

Of course, these takeaways continue to resonate with me (and are often accompanied by the points, “You can only hold your phone up so high to get rid of a double chin,” and, “Take many seats, Michael – you are not a candidate for TLC’s, ‘My 600-lb Life'”). And I am far from a 600-lb life. And I am thankful for that. And I am thankful that the haunting voice, one who frequently interrupts a cake pop rendezvous with hate speech and fat-shaming, is now easily ignored.

It’s a work in progress. I am a work in progress. And, in honoring the work, it is all certainly still progress. And I have such a peace about this (remember, “A work in progress is still progress,” and all of that). And I have such a peace about cake pops. You see, in striving to be more honest, healthy, and happy, I have learned that it actually starts with cake pops. Happiness, that is. Cake pops. Sure, I can scarf down two beautifully painted pops with ease. And yes, I can destroy a large pizza in one setting. But, I can also get to the point where, more times than not, I feel fine after these moments of consumption. And I can look in the mirror, and not feel defined by an extra-slice, or second-serving, or double-patty. I can look in the mirror and not be defined by the cake pops or my, perceived, moment of weakness.

Because, we can all be weak, right?

At the core of any insecurity, I am certainly not alone. None of us are alone. For years, I felt like I was a freak, as both a male and someone who struggled with the way I looked. And the more I talked about it, and the more I opened up to other people, I realized there was a community of love and support right in front of my eyes. And this community of support still remains.

I implore you, when ready and comfortable, feel courageous enough to talk about your struggle. Be brave in a space of love and care. Be open to disclosure. Address your body and image battles outside of the walls of therapy, and outside of the confines of your diary or journal. You are so much more than what you see in the mirror.

And you deserve to use your voice.

Yes, ogre. Yes, you.

In a world where, “Nothing taste as good as skinny feels,” make the conscious decision every single morning to choose to feel good. And to feel free from the chains you place on yourself every time you look in the mirror.

And, of course, to have a love affair with cake pops.

The pain never stops, and the struggle is real. But you are beautiful. And you are right where you are supposed to be. Now go, feel the love, you beautiful, wonderful ogre.

Forward,

Michael

shrek-fiona-cake-pops

*Huge thank you to a dear friend, Jenny Hainline, who inspired me to write this piece, and who constantly inspires me via her blog, “Ramblings on Recovery.”

**Photos stolen from somewhere in the interwebs, and after getting sucked into a page after page, “cake pops Shrek ogre,” google search. Oh, and… doughnuts: 

IMG_2960