As a repeat offender, my Weight Watcher “Lifetime” status has always felt more like a prison sentence than an achievement. Chained forever to this body of mine, staying in shape (or rather, keeping a shape) means constant awareness and self-discipline. For the first 20 years of of my marriage, days began blurry-eyed on the treadmill and ended blurry-eyed at the fridge. I’d stand there petulant, demanding to know (in that bottom-of-the-barrel-last-fraying-knot tone-of-thought): “Who cares what I eat right now or how far I ran today? Why am I killing myself like this? What’s a body for anyway?”
There is an answer, but I didn’t get it until my mother-in-law passed away.
She and I were alone that day. Minutes passed to the rhythm of the respirator. Scared and bewildered, I took her hand in mine and began analyzing it in a way that you would never do with a person were they aware. I memorized every wrinkle, every fingernail, and every blood vessel. I wondered about all the things those hands had held, all the people they had touched, all the work they had done. Most of all, I thought on how those fingers had caressed my husband, as an infant, as a little boy, as a man…and how they had been nearly the first to wrap around my babies the moment they entered this life.
Two days later, in preparation for her memorial service, my sisters-in-law and I volunteered to dress Mother’s body at the funeral home. Arranging her skirt and buttoning her blouse, we were filled with reverence. Tenderly, we painted her nails, styled her hair, and brushed pink on her still cheeks, remembering the way she rocked a baby, wiped a tear, stroked a forehead, tied a shoe, fed a family, kissed a cheek, supported an elbow, packed a bag, waved good-bye. Her loving spirit had cherished us, but it was her physical self that had actually carried out the desires of her heart.
Mother’s last lesson revolutionized me. It was clear now that I had been trying too hard to “master” my physical appearance. Better to focus on working in harmony with my body, I realized, if its real purpose is to love others. Mother, for instance–though pretty and well groomed–definitely showed wear-and-tear: but her stretch marks and dishpan hands were marks of love. In fact, they made her all the more beautiful to those who really cared and really counted.
Because of this singular experience, I began to see and treat my body very differently: the way I would treat a cashmere sweater verses a worn-out sweatshirt. I called my new perspective the “Cashmere Resolution” (because Mother preferred cashmere), but keeping that resolution through the years since has not been easy. Frequent reminders are a must. Here’s how I repeatedly convince myself that my body is—in and of itself, regardless of its present shape—luxuriously wonderful.
- Awareness through journaling. Occasionally I write in my journal about an experience where my body was the star. Did I soothe with a touch, lift with a hand, love with my eyes?
- Focus on the physical. I love setting aside a day, an evening, even a vacation, for pure healthy physicality: letting go of all my mental exertions, zeroing in on (and letting myself really take pleasure in) physical sensations.
- Choose to value function over looks. Instead of critiquing my body in the mirror, I use intentional affirmation to prioritize accomplishment over appearance: “With that strong back, I created a garden.” Or “That belly is stretched because it carried a human being four different times!”
- Gain perspective through service. I’ve also found that doing something nice for, or with, a person(s) with physical limitations grounds me. Elderly friends, for instance, help me appreciate my relative youth.
Because I try hard to regularly employ one or more of these reminders on a regular basis, I am happy to report that the cashmere resolution is alive and well. In fact, I was thinking about it just the other midnight, when Honey, shivering under a blanket-too-thin, drew me in tight like a skein of soft wool. “You’re welcome,” I whispered (though he was already asleep). “What’s a body for anyway?”
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