The Fall Equinox: Changing with the Leaves

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Flickr CC Kim B.

“Have you ever thought that maybe the trees would enjoy seeing you change color too?” an advertisement for sweaters asked me as I looked through a clothing catalog. That was several years ago, but I think about the question every year as I pull out the plastic purple tub containing my sweaters and scarves. The shades of yellow, blue, and red being packed away neatly for next summer are so different than the autumnal shades on the chunky cable knit sweaters that I gradually go through, welcoming back each one as I place it on a hanger in the closet.

This is how I celebrate the fall equinox. By changing color, too. “I changed color for you,” I’ll say as I walk past a tree in all the golden glory of early fall just to insure she hasn’t missed my own new color palette.

I’d wanted to do something a bit more this year to celebrate the fall equinox. I’d meant to put some research into it and maybe choose something that felt me enough to try incorporating it into my own private welcoming-my-favorite-season-of-them-all ritual.

“I missed the fall equinox,” I said glumly to my husband last night as he crawled into bed next to me.

“But that’s the nice thing about no longer being in your old paradigm,” he replied. I was raised in a religious paradigm that was seeped in legalism and guilt. “The fall equinox isn’t going to get mad.”

“But the fall equinox didn’t get mad before,” I said. “I didn’t even know when it was. It was demonic.” In my old world the observation of the equinoxes and solstices was seen as spiritually scandalous. Those were days for the Wicked Witch of the West and her gang; they were when all the dark and terrible things that hide in the shadows and under your bed come out to play.

“I mean that you don’t have to feel guilty about things like missing the exact day,” Ian said. “You don’t need to be legalistic about it.”

“I know,” I said as I rolled over in bed. There was no need for emotional flagellation or legalism, and I knew it. I’m sure the fall equinox would be understanding. But I still felt a bit sad. I mean, I didn’t even have time to take out my sweaters. That was going to have to wait for the next day.

This morning I sat in bed sipping my hot Tension Tamer tea (which, based on how much I drink it and how tense I tend to be, should really just be named after me). I could see a couple of trees out the window that had practically overnight developed red highlights. I thought about how they always change color, right on cue, even when I’m a little late to the party. I thought about how they don’t consciously think about pulling out their own autumn wear; it just happens, sometimes almost overnight.

And then I thought about how much I’ve changed, and how sudden the change feels.

In John Green’s book The Fault in Our Stars one of his characters describes falling in love like falling asleep; it happens slowly, and then all at once. This slowly and then all at once feeling is certainly true for falling in or out of love, and also true for falling in or out of faith (with a person, religion, hobby, or most anything else). And it also applies to growth. I remember when I was little I’d try on a pair of pants one morning and my entire ankles would be showing. “My pants are too short,” I’d inform the parental units, to which the reply was usually a surprised, “Already?”

I’ve changed a lot over the past year. I’m not entirely sure how it happened. I know that I made some deliberate choices towards self-care and freedom, but I also just changed in that slowly-but-then-all-at-once way, too.

I just finished reading artist Mandy Steward’s memoir Thrashing About with God: Finding Faith on the Other Side of Everything. I’m a fan of her art and I’d worried that I’d waited too long to read her book. When it was first recommended to me, I was thrashing with God. I was thrashing with Christianity. But somehow, I’m not entirely sure how, I changed. Sort of the way people fall into or out of love. They don’t mean to. It just happens. The tectonic plates inside them shift ever so slightly leaving their internal landscape altered, transformed.

I was afraid it might be too Christian-y for me now and that it’d even be triggering. But for me, because of where I’m at in my own journey, I found it healing. Mandy’s memoir is so intimately written that sometimes it felt as if I had stolen one of her old diaries. Or maybe one of mine.

It was strange while reading it to realize just how much I’ve changed. Mandy writes, “It can be a rattling thing to realize that what you thought you had figured out about yourself is really not you at all.” Rattling indeed. Sometimes I feel like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, unsure which side is up or down or anything at all. All I know is that since I first noticed that white rabbit, my white rabbit, and decided to chase after him, my life has never been the same.

However, unlike pulling out my winter sweaters, some of my internal changes have felt strange and uncomfortable, as if I’m adjusting to a world where I could suddenly grow or shrink at a moment’s notice. And maybe I can.

Sometimes it feels as if everything I’ve ever said or written was hypocritical because it’s not what I’d say or write now. It’s not who I am now. Mandy writes regarding this, “I am not being hypocritical if I fail to believe today what I believed yesterday. I am being hypocritical if I fail to admit today that what I believed yesterday doesn’t really seem all that possible anymore.” She continues, “In other words, I am not a hypocrite for being someone different today than I was yesterday. I am a hypocrite if I say I am the same today when I know full well I’m not” (emphasis mine).

People are never static. Mandy was changing, and already had changed tremendously, when she was in the middle of writing her memoir. And I know she’s changed a lot in the years since its publication. When I got to the point in her book where she told a friend that she would never get a tattoo (she’s now the owner of three tattoos, with plans she says for a fourth), I thought of all the nevers I’ve said. And how many of them have come true. Changes. So many changes.

The trees and I might enjoy flashing our new autumnal colors at each other, but there are a lot of hidden changes happening inside the tree before she suddenly pulls out her glorious shades of red. Changes are happening—slowly, and then all at once. From green leaves to yellow, orange, and red. There are changes happening. Can you feel them? Maybe I didn’t miss the fall equinox this year. Maybe being in tune with my own changes is the most fitting way for me to welcome autumn.

P.S. All you lovely artists (and artists that might not be comfortable calling yourselves that lovely word yet), be sure to visit Mandy’s website Messy Canvas and Instagram.

A baptism into self-love (or, the first time I wore a bikini)

There I was, standing in the sun, showing off the body that is mine.August 13, 2016. I feel like I should permanently mark the day on the calendar because exactly a week ago I accomplished one of the most radical acts of self-care and self-acceptance I’ve ever undertaken.

I wore a bikini in public for the very first time.

It was a hot day, so the husband and I decided to go to the lake after dinner. We’ve gotten to know the lake with its regular crowd rather well this summer — Pokemon Go players wondering around with their phones, guitar-strumming lifeguards singing when it’s too chilly for people to swim, hookah smokers camping out at their usual picnic table, Mormon missionaries attempting to catch a Pokemon Go player or two, children throwing rocks at ducks, and I even saw a baptism once. Baptism. The last time I’d swam in a lake I was in high school, and it was the lake I was baptized in.

As I’d watched the baptism out of the corner of my eye from the shady patch of grass that I’d claimed, I found myself remembering the baptism class I took when I was 12. “Baptism is an outward expression of an inward commitment,” the senior pastor had said. It was a way of announcing to the world what you’d already privately decided. It was a way of proclaiming that as a result of your commitment to Christ you were no longer the same person.

As I watched the woman being baptized come out of the water soaking wet and smiling, my own baptism felt like a lifetime ago. It had been a statement that I was different. But as I looked back, 12-year-old Kelsey felt so much different than 29-year-old Kelsey. I’ve changed again. I’ve changed a lot. I’ve left that world I once called home behind, the world I was baptized into. As I sat in the grass I thought about how it almost as seemed as if I needed a more up-to-date baptism-esque event to represent my current self and the new private commitments I’ve made.

I don’t even know how many years it had been since I’d last worn a swimsuit at a lake. As my body grew, I began to hate summers more and more. I went from swimming in the lake and running through the sprinkler to trying to wear jeans through even the hottest days in order to keep my body hidden.

I was raised in a religious subculture that taught me that my body was evil and needed to be kept out of sight. It possessed the power to push nice Christian men’s minds into the gutter; it had the power to cause sin. And as a curvy girl, this meant that my body was even more likely to invoke sin because there was no way I could ever fully hide the fact that I was clearly a woman. I hated my body type; I would have given anything to sand down my curves.

I internalized this so much that when I saw a girl from church in a bikini I would assume she couldn’t possibly be a Christian because good girls covered up. Even when I was baptized there was a dress code for being in the water — a one-piece swimsuit hiding under shorts and shirt (but a dark shirt, so it wouldn’t become transparent).

In addition to this, when I was 11-years-old my mother put me on a diet. I was tall and twiggy and if I’d consulted with a doctor, I would’ve been told that intentionally trying to lose weight wasn’t healthy or safe. I don’t know for sure but I suspect that my mother hoped that if she taught me how to diet while I was still young and thin, if she taught me how to maintain a culturally-approved waistline, it would save me the pain of yo-yo dieting when I became an adult woman.

We were sitting in the car together when she told me that she’d noticed I was beginning to develop stretch marks, which she said was a sign I’d been overeating. She said my thighs were getting jiggly but if I started exercising and dieting I could develop nice shapely legs, which would be more attractive. And what seemed to be the worst of all, my stomach was no longer flat. She reached over to tug on my stomach to emphasize her point.

As I sat in the passenger’s seat quietly listening, I folded my arms across my stomach, providing an extra layer of coverage.

I think my mother believed she was doing right by me, but it was her own body-image demons that were talking, warping her view of not only how to care for and think of her own body but how to care for mine as well.

My body was slowly beginning to become softer, curvier; the body I lived in was beginning to look less and less like a little girl. My stomach and thighs had changed a little and I’d developed some stretch marks — things I hadn’t noticed, and certainly didn’t feel self-conscious about until my mother pointed them out and told me about her plan to correct the imperfections and make my body right again. 

While it wasn’t her intent, this conversation with my mother marked the beginning of my journey towards developing an eating disorder. It was the beginning of my mother policing how much salad dressing I used and whether or not I had seconds for dinner.

It was the beginning of me skipping meals, sometimes several at a time. It was the reason that in middle school I began cutting my food into the smallest possible pieces and then quietly counting to twenty as I chewed every bite of food because the longer it took, the less I was apt to eat.

It was the beginning of me continuing to eat nothing but chicken broth and a few crackers for several days after I’d gotten over the flu in the hopes of losing a little more weight; my stomach would feel empty and I’d feel lightheaded but I’d push myself to wait a few more days before eating a meal.

It was the reason that when I developed asthma I didn’t take my daily inhaler. My mother had said that weight gained due to steroids was harder to get rid of, so I’d have to be extra good about watching what I ate. The battle with my body was going to get even more intense. And so I decided it was better to not be able to breathe than to gain weight.

In high school before I’d grow an inch or two, I’d gain weight. At this point my mother would tell me not to wear particular outfits because it showed off my not-flat stomach; it made me look fat. And fat was a horrible word. And then, when I grew, everything would stretch out and I’d look thinner. My mother would celebrate my new flatter stomach. And she’d tell me I could now wear my flatter-stomach clothes again.

Thanks to religious teachings at my home and church, my mother’s body policing, and the thin-obsessed culture we live in my relationship with my body has been complex to say the least. I’ve spent years trying to hide it and fix it. I’ve spent years being ashamed. Here I am nearly 30, diet-free for over five years, and I still sometimes cry after eating a bowl of potato chips because of the feelings of guilt and shame.

But on August 13, 2016 I had a new type of baptism. I stood next to the lake, wearing a bikini under my clothes.

“Are you ready?” Ian asked encouragingly. I took a deep breath. Smiled. And flung my tank top over my head. There I was, standing in the sun, showing off the body that is mine.

This year I’ve decided to love my body. I’ve started mending my relationship with my body by using gentle words when I talk to it. I’ve began to call it beautiful, I say those magic words to myself, rather than waiting for the day that I believed it when someone else says it. I’ve realized my body is alive — and that living things need to be loved and cared for. I’ve apologized for the hurtful way I’ve talked about my body; the words like ugly and disgusting that I’ve used to describe my body; the words I’ve used to describe me.

I have changed. I’ve made an inward commitment to self-care and self-acceptance. And for me, caring and accepting my body meant no longer hiding it. I don’t need to hide my curves. I don’t need to hide the parts of my body that are soft or have stretch marks or scars. I don’t need to hide because I have nothing to be ashamed of. This was my public declaration of my private commitment. This was my baptism into self-love.

It Is

It is so much more than you and me.

It is primal urges and rose petals.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Biological functions and a secret dance.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Evolutionary history and love songs.

It is haunting voices and sanctuary.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Memories and fresh discoveries.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Comfort and anxiety.

It is new life and old loves.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Passion and gentleness.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Security and vulnerability.

It is angels and demons.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Fulfillment and jealousy.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Insecurities and release.

It is magic and witchcraft.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Desire and despair,
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Love and lust.

It is all here, between our sheets.

Am I a real writer yet?

What I crave isn’t numbers or popularity, but legitimacy (2)“But would it be a real book?” I said, more to myself than to Ian as I weighed possible options in my mind. I’d spent some time that day investigating a self-publishing option through Amazon that would allow me to take the Word document that I’ve become rather emotionally attached to and transform it into a book available for purchase on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.

But would it be real?

“I want a real book,” I told my husband. Just like Geppetto wanted the Blue Fairy to transform his little wooden puppet into a real boy, I wanted her to work her blue magic and bippity boppity boo my manuscript into a real book. Only, unlike Geppetto, what I was really after wasn’t life but legitamicy.

/////

When I first started blogging I’d hoped I might be able to force some of my Facebook friends to read it by shoving the posts into their feed. I’d hoped maybe a random person I’d never met or two might stroll on over and say hello. But that was it, really.

Then, I had a post get some traction and I told Ian, “I might be able to make it to 500 followers if this keeps up!” I was almost afraid to say it out loud just in case it jinxed it (or at the very least gave me false hope).

I made it to 500. And then I felt like I might feel like a successful, legitimized blogger if I were to make it to 1,000 followers. And then that happened, too. So then I thought I’d finally truly feel like I’d made it if I could only reach 2,000.

Well, now I have nearly 10,000 followers and I still find myself feeling like I’m praying to the Blue Fairy. What I crave isn’t numbers or popularity, even though that’s probably what it sounds like; I just want to feel like I’m the real deal. I want to be real. Not famous, but legitimate. I feel like a poser. I feel like the kid who snuck in with a fake ID and is afraid they’re going to get caught. I want someone to tell me that I can relax because I’m old enough to drink, so no ones going to be kicking me out of the bar or calling my folks because I’m old enough to be here. I’m legitimate. I belong.

/////

I looked up to the regular contributors to Huffington Post. They were my blogging idols. I thought that if I were ever, someday way off in the future, to reach the point of being a Huffington Post contributor that I’d finally feel as if I’d made it. Not only would I be a blogger, I’d be a real writer.

And then earlier this year I got an email from Arianna Huffington, herself. She’d liked a piece I’d pitched to her. I ran around the apartment screaming about how the Huffington had emailed me. I ran around screaming about how she’d said I was going to be a regular contributor.

But Arianna Huffington was not my Blue Fairy.

I now have a nifty little writer profile on the Huffington Post. But I still find myself saying how I’m really “just a blogger” — as opposed to something that feels like it might be a bit more credible like a freelance writer or journalist or author or poet.

/////

I want to call myself a blogger without adding a qualifier.

I want to call myself a freelance writer.

I want to call myself a writer.

I want to call myself a memoirst.

I want to call myself a poet.

And very secretly, I want to call myself an artist.

But this horrible question of But am I a real one? keeps getting in the way.

I suppose it doesn’t help that I’ve spent too much time hanging around the fringes of academia, feeling inadequate because I don’t have a Master’s in creative writing. I worked for several years as an English tutor at a community college. I worked closely with members of the English department, and after a while it started to feel like I was part of a select few who didn’t have a Master’s degree in English. By the time I left that job I felt as if I was failing at life because I hadn’t earned a Master’s in English; the lone illegitimate one. But when I finally asked myself if a Master’s in English was even something I wanted, the answer was decidedly no.

I suppose it also doesn’t help that I spent too much time growing up around published authors. Or, as they liked to put it, “traditionally published authors.” They looked down on self-published authors because, unlike them, they weren’t the genuine article. Not all “traditionally published authors” are like this. I’ve known quite a few who weren’t. And I’ve known quite a few who were.

Seeing books published by my mother or family friends on the display table at Barnes and Nobel wasn’t a big deal. It was just a part of life. Sure, it was pretty cool I guess. But I honestly couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. That was just mom and dad’s friend, so what?

But now the words traditionally published author hang in the air, haunting me. I’d like to write a book. I have more than one partly-written manuscript gathering dust in Word documents. I’m just not sure how exactly to transform them from manuscripts to books.

Sometimes I wonder if I’d prefer self-publishing via Amazon so I could maintain complete creative control (even though, yes, I might not make a cent). When I can silence the voices chanting traditionally published author and when I can silence my questions of Would it be a real book? Would I be a real author? it seems like it has the possibility at least of being a good fit for me.

But then I worry that it might not be enough to just see a book with my name on it on Amazon. I still might not have finally found the Blue Fairy. My book might not be real. And worst of all, after all the work and emotional energy I might still not be real.

I could go the traditional route. Maybe I could get an agent’s attention. And if so, maybe I’d be able to get a publishing house’s attention. And then I wonder if this, if this, would be my Blue Fairy.

/////

I asked author and artist Mandy Steward how she managed to claim the word artist. A word that sounds so nice to me but has always felt like it applied to people who were more talented, more creative than me and have at least a Master’s tucked away in their back pocket. She wrote a blog post in response to my question, and this is what struck me the hardest:

In the next couple years [after the publication of my book] I went through another detour because my book didn’t “make it” like I had believed it would. So on the tails of my spiritual crisis I had an artist crisis as well. What if I’m not as great as I think? What if I gained creative control of my life and now can’t do anything with it? What if I now lost everything – my faith and my artistic dreams? This was my darkest hour yet and I don’t think I’ll ever hit that low again.

She did it. She’s a traditionally published author. She’s an artist with people like me following her, looking up to her, and hoping her creative and messy ways rub off on us a little. In my book, she’d become BFFs with the teasingly elusive Blue Fairy. But becoming a traditionally published author didn’t ward off fears of failure. It didn’t make her stop wondering if she was real.

And somehow thanks to Mandy’s response I realized that I’m never going to find the Blue Fairy. Maybe she’s just the stuff of stories. But that’s okay. I don’t think I really need her anyway.

Last year I decided to stop waiting for the day that I’d believe other people when they told me that I was beautiful. That I’d stop waiting to believe my husband. And, instead, I started telling myself. I look at myself in the mirror in the morning and I say to myself, “My you’re looking beautiful today.” At first the word felt uncomfortable, foreign, and even untrue. Sometimes I felt like I was lying to myself. But the more I say it, the more I believe it. It didn’t matter how many times my husband said it, I wasn’t going to believe it until I started saying it for myself.

And I think the same principle applies in my search for legitimacy. There’s always going to be people that are “more successful” than me. So if I determine my identity, my legitimacy, based on readers or compliments or money in the bank or where my book was printed I’m never going to feel real. But I am real, just like I am beautiful.

I’m a writer. A real writer. A new one, yes, but a real one just the same. And I’m going to start telling myself it. I’m going to be my own damn Blue Fairy.

And what about those other lovely words? Freelance writer. Memoirist. Poet. Artist. I’ll get to those, too. But today I’ll start with writer.

What do you need to start calling yourself today?

Aside: I’ve starting sharing poetry on Instagram, so come on over.