I recently saw my in-laws and complimented my father-in-law on how trim he is looking. He assured me he was making an effort in this respect and it was important "not to let one's self go." I remember my parents using that phrase when I was growing up. "Oh, look, it's Mrs Barnes. Gosh, she's really let herself go, she used to be a great beauty." Or, "Geoff has gained a lot of weight since he stopped the gym - he's let himself go." My mother spoke of people who got married, let themselves go, and got divorced.
But what did letting oneself go mean? If I thought about the people my parents had pointed out, perhaps it meant steadily getting fatter and fatter? Or going from being a smart dresser to wearing old stretched out sweat pants or tent dresses and not brushing ones hair? Or maybe turning out like the angry woman who worked at Jughead Burgers? I imagined myself being any or all of these things and my husband turning around to me one day and saying: 'You have let yourself go. I am leaving you for a young woman who has not.' It didn't occur to me that people don't just 'let themselves go', it's more a case that life happens. As you get older a myriad of changes take place in your life and within yourself that are far more complex than the loss of a head of hair, a little waistline or the washboard stomach you may have had in your early 20's. For the record I have never had a washboard stomach, so my husband has got nothing to compare my far from washboard stomach to now. Maybe there's something to be said for not setting one's self up.
Now that I am what people refer to as a grown up myself (although I'm not entirely sure what that's supposed to mean or how I'm supposed to be one), I get that letting oneself go implies that somehow you stop holding the law abiding, healthy eating, regular exercising, good citizen shit together and release the inner slob, or sex addict, or over eater, or procrastinator, or disco dancer. That you don't trust yourself to have some kind of internal balance to just get on with life with an equal measure of stuff you ought to do and stuff you actually enjoy doing. The fear being that if for even a minute you let one of the masochistic self control balls drop, all hell is going to break lose. God forbid we stop flossing every night, have that second glass of wine or start smoking again right? The earth will gather its petticoats and climb off of its axis. Or not, as it turns out. Maybe that's the ultimate fuck with you head thought and why we busy ourselves with all this useless stuff in the first place. The truth of the matter is that ultimately, the universe does not care if you take off all your makeup at night or run an extra mile. But that's an entirely different subject for a different time. Gather all ye nihilists ... .
Letting go is a problem for me. I live my life a lot like I ski: shoulders up by my ears, all joints clenched, and feet grimly gripping ski's and in turn the snow. Holding on for dear life and anticipating every worse case scenario. I had an American ski instructor years ago - a lovely man - and he'd sing to me as he skied backwards gracefully to face me: "Let it go, just let your body go." And sometimes, by some small miracle, I could switch off the neurotic inner voice that was telling me that like that Kennedy who died while skiing (backwards trying to catch a football) I too was going to die. Even though I struggled to ski forwards, let alone backwards while doing a sport. And when this happened when I managed to stop worrying and trust what by now my legs and body knew how to do, it was heavenly. Frightening, exhilarating and a relief to pick up speed and feel the wind in my ears and just, well, let it all go. It remains a very physically embodied lesson for me on the importance of living life fully and without fear.
I read a book a year ago that sold really well - it was Paul McKenna's 'I can make you thin,' aiming to to help people lose weight and keep it off. And when I read it, I thought, 'dear god, how disconnected from ourselves have we become that we actually have to pay someone to tell us what is so obvious?' To summarise it's this: Eat what you like when you like, but eat only when you are hungry and stop eating when you get full. With some self hypnosis techniques thrown in for good measure. Yup, I can see McKenna sitting back on his leather chair laughing out loud while counting his money. And I imagine even though it seems so obvious and simple his book is a revelation to many and some will even benefit from it. I told a friend about his weight loss theory a few weeks back, and she said to me: "Oh, but I could never have such a relaxed attitude. If I told myself I could eat anything I would eat everything and get very very fat." She almost visibly held her breath as she said this as if she was terrified of just, you know, breathing, never mind eating.
My grandmother spent her life obsessing about food. As a child she was deprived of it due to poverty and as an adult she deprived herself of it in what seemed like a constant stream of diets and breaks from diets. The carrot diet, the mango diet, the all you can eat just out of the oven bread-roll diet. She told me she wanted to fit back into the beautiful dresses and clothes she wore as a younger woman. In the week that she died (she was in her 80s) she was asking my mother to order her pizza and cokes - food she never really ate. I never forgot that and told myself that I didn't want to live my life like that. I didn't want to spend my life depriving myself of things only to be on my death bed regretting it all because of some tragic self imposed life sentence.
There are people who take vacations where they run with the bulls or go climbing dangerous mountains. Personally that sounds too much like hard work to me, but I get that society and how we live our lives has very much removed us from what makes us feel truly alive - that core sense of survival. We are no longer chasing after or being chased by saber tooth tigers, so we pay a lot of money to climb into a cage and get lowered into the sea to be surrounded by dangerous sharks to remind us that we could be dead at any moment but as it turns out, we aren't. And for a few minutes after, we take a deep breath and as it fills our lungs, we feel exhilarated and thankful for the life we have, and we promise ourselves to live more fully. And much like when a friend or relative dies, we take stock: We promise ourselves to call our family and friends more often. To have the courage to chase after love even with the risk of rejection. To quit the job that is slowly killing us inside and do something that we really love. To feel genuinely proud of our children even if they don't fit into some unrealistic version of the people we thought they/we ought to be.
In that moment, when we have faced death, it's as though we are exposed the the truth; the very heart of who we are, why we are here, what we want, and what we need. And we feel all of these things in our very being. At least until we are back in the office a few days later and all the usual noise (ours and other people's bullshit) continues and that truth gets drowned out. And all too soon we are back to our disconnected alienated self that needs the internet or news to fill us with its daily dose of fear and tell us what not to eat, what to read, what to believe in, what to do, and how to feel. This is what it has come to.
Then there's perspective. Whenever I feel myself obsessing about my waistline, money, schooling for the children, or the fact that my one glass of wine an evening has now become two, or about the ever mounting garbage in the world and the ever decreasing rain forests, or the fact that there are terrorists at large, I stop and think of people in the world that are struggling to find food for themselves or their families. Or of those that are right now, this minute, fending off rapists and ethnic cleansers and wondering why the rest of the world is not helping more. Or of people who have their passports confiscated and are being forced to work in slave labour conditions. Or people that are disappeared, beaten and killed for their so-called political beliefs. Or people that are forced to leave their small children and travel to a different country so they can provide. Do you think these people are standing in supermarkets worrying about the benefits of organic versus free range chicken or how many minutes on the Stair Master it will take to burn off a cappuccino? Or whether or not their kids spend too much time on the iPad? My god, our priorities have become so fucked up.
Something I also came to realise soon after having kids was that my husband and I spent and continue to spend a lot of time arranging play time, play dates or holidays with play facilities for our children, and yet at some point in our lives play has failed to be a priority. If it's such a fundamentally important part of a child's development and happiness, when does that stop for us, and why should it? I'm not talking about watching TV or getting drunk or high - although I appreciate the escapist merits of these things. I mean, actively engaging in an activity not because you have to, or ought to, but because you enjoy it. That it challenges you and engages you and you experience pleasure and frustration and exhilaration and excitement while doing it. Where you even feel a little bit guilty because for once in your life you are doing something that is fun and by choice and not because you are getting paid to do it or because you were told to do it.
So, why don't we eat food that we enjoy, and eat when we are hungry instead of starving ourselves? Walk because it's good to feel the air on our faces and not have to sit in traffic, as opposed to doing so because of the calorie burning deficits? Go out on week nights? Have an occasional cigarette if we want one? Take a day off of work occasionally and go to the movies on our own instead of missing films because our partner or friends aren't interested in watching them? Dance or play tennis or run because we like to not just because we're told we need regular cardio? Turn off the bloody TV and make love instead? When did simple living become so complicated? And why are we so afraid to live our lives without an internal policeman who's voice is not our own?
In my search to have a more meaningful existence and I suppose deal with anxiety and sadness in a non medicated way, I've made a conscious effort to just let it go a bit and start living more. Like everyone else this doesn't come easy. Your parents tell you what to do, you are told what to do at school, and later at work. And so it's hard to switch that all off and trust in yourself to live your life in a way that is true and meaningful to you and has nothing to do with other people's opinions. I'm not about to switch to caffeinated coffee, wear a bikini without a coverup or actually read the Conservative door drops before chucking them in the recycling box. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. But these days my jeans are a little tighter and I don't quite fit into the Hervé Léger style dresses I have and which I had to practically starve myself to fit into in the first place despite wearing Spanx! I'm tired of depriving myself and struggling with something which should be a simple and natural act - you know, eating to survive right?
And what a relief to go out and not have to sit up poker straight and suck in one's gut all evening because of a fashionable outfit that was designed by a sadist, with admittedly nice taste. And to enjoy food. Bliss. I goof around more with the kids with stuff that they want to do - as opposed to just the stuff that's interesting or convenient for me. So we do the wrestle mania-type stuff or pretend we are wolves and I find I enjoy it too. It's fun to be silly. I use my spare time to paint or do this, write, because it makes me happy and it's my thing. Also I am very fortunate to derive a lot of love and support from my family and my parter, which I genuinely appreciate is a gift and something I do not take for granted. And I'm trying not to ruminate on things that worry me or make me unhappy - so not too much on the news sites, never the crappy Daily Mail, and not too much FB. And occasionally, I'll have a wonderfully decadent sugar filled cookie and a cup of tea and sit with my cat on my lap, and this simple thing will feel like a small slice of heaven.