Fast approaching: My first swim meet in nearly two decades.

I’m swimming in a swim meet this Sunday. It’ll be my first in 17 years.

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See? It’s for real. I’m swimming the 100 IM in a swim meet for grown ups. I repeat the 100. Not the 200 IM, not the 400 IM. The 100. And a bunch of 50s. Cha cha cha.

Mysteriously, I ended up in a pool back in October. I suppose I wanted to take an interest in myself again, I wanted to give my body the gift of movement, to tell my arms and legs and everything in between, “Hey, I see you. You made a couple babies and you want to be strong again. I get it. And you deserve that. I appreciate all you do. Let’s spend some time together.” And swimming is what I knew, so I went for it.

I stumbled upon a soul sister of a masters coach and small crew of laid-back, smart-assed, superfun swimfriends. We don’t do crazy yardage; we just get exercise. We gab during sets. We take long rest intervals. We do social kick. We laugh. We goof around. We enjoy being in the water. It’s nothing like the intensity that permeated my olden days. Let it be known I was never a swimming phenom, but it was my entire life at one time. I may not have been bound for the Olympics, but I trained like I was. (Possibly because one of my teammates actually was training for the Olympics and ultimately won gold in 1996. I just kinda ate her wake.) I always adored my BFF teammates and did enjoy a good race back then but, compared to high school, my swimming do-over is a chilled-out dream.

And so here I am approaching Sunday, when I’ll swim four races, three of which I haven’t swum since I was approximately 10 years of age because only summer leaguers and Masters swimmers rock 50 flys and 100 IMs. That said, I did decide to try the 100 breaststroke, which I last swam the spring of 1997, at the Kansas high school state meet.

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State championships, circa 1997. What’s up, Manhattan, Kan.? I think this was snapped just before my last race. Also known as my forever farewell to 12.5 percent body fat.

Missing the mark

Long story short, this race was my thing. I was never the very bestest at it, not even regionally, but the 100-yd breast was my race. So when I missed my junior national time by two one hundredths of a second (the difference between a so-so college scholarship and a bigger scholarship at a slightly better swimming school) and ultimately never got back down to the time I needed, it devastated me.

Looking back, it’s clear I had more than college riding on that time (1:07.49, btw). Because, see, for a lot of years of my life, I thought swimming was all I could do, all I had to offer. I had school and I had swimming and I was fairly good at both. I wasn’t very pretty, I’d never have a fantastic body and I didn’t think I had a great many other gifts, but people told me that I was an elite athlete and that I was smart. Somewhere along the way, I decided my value in the world rested solely on two pillars: Emily Hughey is athletic and smart. Stop.

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I loved a pool from the beginning. Betcha I didn’t give a flip about what I was and wasn’t back then. What’s athletic? What’s smart? What’s pretty? I’d yet to identify with any of these things as constructs for self worth. Also, how cute is my mom?

Thanks to the encouragement of an outrageously cool boyfriend who saw me for way more than I saw myself (three cheers for Sam, y’all), I made the decision to see what else I could be, foregoing the chance to swim in college and quitting the sport after State, at which point I enrolled in the University of Kansas, joined a sorority and the newspaper and decided that Emily Hughey would be fun and smart. Stop.

Fast forward 17 years, a couple careers, an expat stint in Mexico, typhoid fever, eight years of meditation, an intricate soul mate relationship-turned-marriage, two children, one Enoughness Project and worlds of change later. I’m 34 years old and in the pool again—the same chlorine, the same black line and the same stroke count in from the flags to the wall—but this time around:

  1. I’m not all that smart, thank goodness. It’s such a relief not having to know everything.
  2. “Athletic,” “smart,” and “fun” aren’t even in the top five of things I have to offer these days. Oh, unless we’re out drinking, in which case “Fun Emily” reigns.
  3. While it’s just as unnerving to be in a swimsuit in front of boys as it once was, I’ve miraculously grown to (mostly) appreciate my body aesthetic for the first time ever.

Then what the deuce is up with the stuff that’s coming up right now?

If I’m supposedly so different from teenage Emily, so evolved beyond my adolescence, why are some of the familiar not-good-enough beliefs about myself cropping up as I get close to this meet? For example…

  • If I don’t swim less than 10 seconds over my best time from when I was 15 years old, am I not good enough?
  • If I don’t win all my races, am I not good enough?
  • If I lose, am I not good enough?
  • When there are other swimmer moms with way hotter bodies on that pool deck, am I not good enough?
  • If I take my race too seriously, am I not good enough?
  • If I’m not light-hearted enough about it all, am I not good enough?
  • If I don’t have an appropriate amount of fun…
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Is this fun enough!? Can I be laid back about swimming in a meet? Can I have fun racing again? We’ll see…

When I bore my friends, compassionate pals that they are (d’ya hear me, Sister, Brian, Jeff, cin and Kellie?) with this rant, they say, “Just have fun. Who cares? This is about fun. Your time doesn’t matter.” But, fact is, I’m not practiced at having fun swimming. Swimming was always a loaded thing for me. Swim fast; get props. Don’t; don’t. So if you want to feel good, you better do well.

It’s taken me a full four months just to get used to enjoying workouts—and I finally do. victory!—but this have-fun-and-be-chill-about-racing-don’t-link-performance-with-self-worth thing is new territory. How will it unfold?

I don’t know how it’s going to go, but the good news is I get to face it head-on at 8 a.m. Sunday, when the first gun goes off and my little guys, who’ve never even seen me in goggles, are cheering for me in the stands.

Wish me luck?

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I left this note, along with three lonely mozzarella sticks, for Brian and the boys before I left the house one recent Sunday afternoon. The swimmer Emily of old never would’ve had this on her training table–candy corns in abundance, yes, but never something loaded with so much fat. I invite that Emily to sit down. This time around is about fun.

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Enoughness Project #14: Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle

ENOUGHNESS PROJECT. This post is part of a series about my experiences in uncovering my own innate enough-ness. For three months, I  abstained from frivolous material purchases, focused on accepting all blessings that came my way and practiced gratitude for all that I have. It was liberating. And in so doing, I uncovered a quest for enoughness that went much deeper than buying stuff. So the project continues in a more freeform format. The idea came to me in a meditation-induced haze and it has nothing to do with politics or morality. I’m just a girl who’s hoping to: separate the association between looking good and being good; get comfy with receiving; become a glowingly grateful human being; get acquainted with my own motives and drives; grow my understanding of when/why I do things; and establish new habits that are more aligned with my values. We’ll see how this goes…

Like Kip, who's pretending to be a mean porcupine here, swimming used to hold a certain level of intensity for me.

Like Kip, who’s pretending to be a mean porcupine here, swimming used to hold a distinct level of intensity for me.

Remind me again, God, of when I’m going to rise above sense attachments and body consciousness? Just when I think I’m making all this progress in my Enoughness, I hit a speed bump. Make that a lane rope.

The background is that I’m swimming again after nearly two decades off. In short, I wasn’t ever a swimming superstar but, along with plenty of others, I trained like one. Thing is, I hated those long, grueling swim practices. Racing = fun. Workouts = miserable. I banged it out for six hours a day at a point during high school. By the time I hit age 18, I also hit an existential crisis: I can’t do this anymore. I am more than just a swimmer. I am more than my 100 breaststroke time. I am more than my body weight. So I quit the sport and began exploring other stuff.

By “other stuff,” I generally mean parties, sorority life, guys, freedom, study abroad-ness and journalism, the importance of which is reflected here in this devastatingly hot pic of my fellow campus newspaper pals on our last night of production, circa 2000-ish. If you were in college around this time, I’m pretty sure you’ll recognize the Charlie’s Angels pose. We were cool.

Fast-forward 16 years.

I inexplicably find myself in a YMCA pool talking hip rotation and intervals with a charming coach and masters team mate. It’s all going well, I’m having fun, feeling good, my shoulders aren’t revolting, I’m laughing a lot during the practices and I’m enjoying exercise for the first time in eons.

And then, one night, out of nowhere, it occurs to me that my flesh operates like Jello when I push of the wall. Subsequently, because of the way we push off the wall at the start of each set, others can see this gratuitous view. So I switch lanes in an attempt to hide. (It would take too long to explain why this made sense at the time, but just know that my crazy reared its head.)

This type of crazy is not who I am right now, today, at age 34, mom of two, wife to Brian. But pull on a swimsuit, stare at that black line, move through water and, on some level, I’m bound to be transported to another time, another unrelenting version of a younger, supremely unsure Emily.

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Just a little stroll down my swimming memory lane… (photos found in a duffle bag in my parents’ house.)

Clearly, as I immerse myself in swimming again, my old body stuff is surfacing. What’s next? Replacing food with Diet Coke? Not eating for two days before I plan to weigh myself? Throwing up when I feel like I’ve eaten more than I “should”? Well, no, of course not. Unequivocally, none of that is next for me. But the old themes are coming up, so I figure they’re asking to be looked at.

Observing my crazy

It’s interesting to observe how my beliefs about myself shift as soon as I end up half naked in a pool wearing a swim cap and goggles, the uniform of my past. While this new swimming-again thing is insanely fun on the whole, and I love how I feel as a result of my new exercise regimen, I’m noticing a familiar mean voice that comes up when I’m doing something really nice for myself and for my physical body.

My inner mean girl goes for the throat.

Despite my best efforts at being conscious and loving, when the inner mean girl pipes up about my physique, I give into her. If she were ridiculing my spirit, or my mothering, or my whatever else, I’d tell her to sit the hell down. But because she’s talking about my body, I sit back and take it.

My inner mean girl isn’t allowed at yoga class, so I’m kicking her out of swim practice, too.

It’s interesting to note the mean voice was far out of earshot last Saturday when I inexplicably–and ecstatically–worked my way into wall-supported pincha mayurasana in Keely Jones‘ tantric vinyasa class at Yoga Tree Chicago. (Forearm stand is the one pose in all of yoga I’ve always felt was out of my reach.) I almost didn’t believe it when I felt my feet touch the wall behind me as I perched on my forearms. I’ve never felt so confident, free and grateful. I was fully grounded in my present-day self, and fully in contact with my own power. So how can I bring that sense of self, freedom and gratitude into the pool and all other areas of my life? For one, I can ban the inner mean girl from swim practice.

Clearly, like yoga, this sudden swimming-again thing is another opportunity for me to get in touch with my body in a healthy, loving, relaxed way. And so it is decided: Through my twice weekly adventures in the laid-back-est masters team you ever saw, I’m going to move beyond this rash of negative body consciousness even if it means putting my rotator cuffs to the test. Until I can love my body for all the many ways in which it’s awesome, and detach from equating my physical form with my general enoughness, I hereby vow to let my curves jiggle off as many flip turns as it takes.

Paddling off into the sunset–without my inner mean girl.

SIDEBAR: Five ways I could’ve differently handled the impulse to hide my pool-cruising body, had I not instead jumped back into adolescent paranoia.

1.) I could’ve found it within to appreciate the fact that my body isn’t the same as it was when I was 16 and aiming for a Division I scholarship. For example, after bearing two kids, I could choose to be ok with the softness that comes with motherhood for some of us. What’s to hate about softness?

2.) I could’ve acknowledged my discomfort with public swimsuit-ness, put it temporarily on hold and decided to dive into that uneasiness with a nice, long meditation after practice.

3) I could’ve remembered that Marky Mark did not ignore me when I walked past him this summer. (Why did I not think of that? Admittedly, my mental picture of his gaze is not as elevated a tool as examining the true source of my discomfort within. But it’s certainly more fun.)

4) I could have remembered how much my husband loves the very flesh in question and taken refuge in that sweet sense of appreciation rather than fixating on imperfection.

5) I could have just enjoyed the fact that I’m having fun getting exercise in a pool and decided not to care that my un-Olympic curves were on parade.

#5 Enoughness Project Series: My inner mean girl rears her head just as I’m enjoying myself

Apparently now that I’ve managed to dress myself without buying anything new for a few weeks I’ve found something old and familiar to obsess on. My body, and all my physical imperfections. Namely, my stomach. And, newly, my arms.

I went to the beach with the boys this morning—it was the first such outing of the season. They took their shirts off and rolled around in the sand while I lied down myself, and lifted my shirt to catch some vitamin D on my midriff. It felt so good to feel the sun on my skin, on the part of my body I most, let’s call it what it unfortunately is: detest. To expose my stomach to the rays of the all-healing morning sun and the breeze off the lake was an amazing feeling. I felt like a 16-year-old, carefree and sunning face-up on a chaise lounge in a bikini at my boyfriend’s country club, just after he’d asked me not to turn over because he wanted his friends to see me. (He was and still is wonderfully empowering of me and all women, but he was, after all, a 17-year-old boy…)

I then got the idea to snap a photo of my kids playing in the sand and, in the glare of that wonderful sun, I didn’t realize I caught part of my midriff in the photo. As soon as I saw the dimpled, stretch-marked skin of my abdomen, which felt so young and lean in the moment, my heart fell. Darkness descended and the familiar old meanness began. “See? That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you? Do you really think you should’ve had a couple bites of the boys’ muffin this morning? You can forget your dreams of running in a sports bra or wearing a bikini this summer–or ever. For. Get. It. That part of your body is hopeless. It’s never been much to look at but, after two kids, it’s stretched out and there’s no saving it. You’d have to tummy tuck your way to halfway presentable abs. Ha. It’s a one-piece for you, missy. For.ever.”

Oh, how I dislike it when this voice pipes up. She is so abominably mean. I thought I’d cured myself of her appearances, but she’s still in there. Why is this coming up now? Does it have to do with the fact I’ve sworn off retail therapy for three months? Is it that, without having a little bandaid to slap on my physical insecurities, I’m having to look at them? It’s hard and not very fun. And, to get me through, here’s what I know: for me, meditating makes it all better. As hard as it is to get quiet, the act of sitting in stillness will put me back in touch with what’s real. And none too soon. Because my inner mean girl* needs an eviction. Or, even better, a transformation.

*To be fair, I got the phrase, “inner mean girl,” from two amazing women who are transforming and empowering thousands of people with their work. Amy Ahlers and Christine Arylo started the Inner Mean Girl Reform School and it’s worth checking out here.

Note: This post is part of a series about my experiences in uncovering my own innate enough-ness. For three months, I am abstaining from frivolous material purchases, accepting all blessings that come my way and focusing on gratitude for all that I have. The idea came to me in a meditation-induced haze and it has nothing to do with politics or morality. I’m just a girl who’s hoping to: separate the association between looking good and being good; get comfy with receiving; become a glowingly grateful human being; get acquainted with my own motives for material consumption; grow my understanding of when/why I buy things; and establish new habits that are more aligned with my values. We’ll see how this goes…

Gut reaction to The Enoughness Project, my study in gratitude, receivership and transcendence

I’m going out with some girlfriends tomorrow night. It’s not any place super fancy, but it is in Lincoln Park, which is a place the mommies tend to dress up a little more than they do in my neighborhood. As I sat in the bath last night thinking about what I wanted to wear tomorrow, it occurred to me I might need a floor-length skirt. Yes, that would complete my wardrobe and my girls-night look if I just had a very-now floor-length skirt to wear with the sheer polka-dotted, button-down, tie-front top I plan to wear.

A ha! But, Emily, you made a deal with yourself. No shopping for material things for three months. You are enough. You don’t have to go buy stuff to prove it. Make do with what you have. Get creative. And may I remind you, you are enough.

Without realizing what I was doing, I began pondering the idea of going to Marshall’s tomorrow to look for something appropriate for this one night out with these dear friends who, though decidedly glamorous and aesthetically inspiring, would love me just the same if I met them wearing faded yoga pants and a sweatshirt. After all, that’s what we were all wearing when we met five years ago, just after we’d birthed our newborns and were settling into a state of shock over suspending our careers and plunging into stay-at-home motherhood.

But if only I had the right kind of skirt to wear… Better yet, if only I was a little thinner. Then those really cool jeans hanging in my closet would fit without my having to conceal the side-bulge with a jacket. And, if I were a smaller size, if my stomach washboard, then not only would those jeans fit better, but they would look awesome with that top, no under tank necessary…

Stop! Red light!

I am enough. I am enough. I am ENOUGH, I remind myself. I have everything I need, and most of what I want. Life is good and, know what? Tomorrow night, despite not having the floor-length skirt or the daily-Crossfit-style body I desire, I will look lovely enough. Not because of what I’m wearing or because I’ve lost or gained weight or because my hair and makeup are in place, but because I just am.

Note: This post is part of a series about my experiences in uncovering my own innate enough-ness. For three months, I am abstaining from frivolous material purchases, accepting all blessings that come my way and focusing on gratitude for all that I have. The idea came to me in a meditation-induced haze and it has nothing to do with politics or morality. I’m just a girl who’s hoping to: separate the association between looking good and being good; get comfy with receiving; become a glowingly grateful human being; get acquainted with my own motives for material consumption; grow my understanding of when/why I buy things; and establish new habits that are more aligned with my values. We’ll see how this goes…

Introducing the Enoughness Project: My study in gratitude, receivership and transcendence

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Kip calls these my cheetah jammies. (I always hang my cotton Target nightgowns on a satin hanger. You don’t?)

“Cool jammies, Mudder,” Kip says, a talking baby koala hanging from my right side like it’s eucalyptus. It makes me laugh every time this three-year-old snuggle monster calls me “Mother,” so he does it often.

“Are you a cheetah?”

“Yes, Kippy, I am a cheetah,” I whisper.

“Mommyyyy?”

“Your mommy is a cheetah. And so are you because you can run sooo fast,” I say.

“I suuuure can! I sure can wun wiwy fast,” he sings, then pauses. “I wuv you, my mudderrrr.”

He leans his head into the curve of my neck and pats my back the same way I do when I want to let him know without words that I love him. It’s the first thing in the morning.

It seems blasphemous in hindsight to put him down in that moment so that I might return to fixating on what to wear for the day, but that’s what I do. The recent indulgence in birthday cake and pizza feels full in my midsection. I think I look a little bit pregnant and the weather has turned warm, requiring me to forego the layers I’d usually employ to hide myself.

If only I had a shirt that looked nice and also hid this stomach thing I’ve got working.

If only I had something other than last summer’s cotton dresses to throw on.

If only I had a different body altogether. Yeah, I wish I just had a different body…

Should this If Only voice go totally unchecked, it might say: “OMG, what is wrong with you? Seriously, what is up with your body? You know that if you want to look fit, you’ve got to get control of yourself, lazy. I’m talking about exercise. And no birthday cake. I don’t care if it is your five-year-old’s birthday. Get it together.”

In this moment, precisely 30 seconds after releasing Kip, the embodiment of joy, from my arms, I feel sad. I think about how much better I’d feel about everything if I had a new shirt. A new shirt would solve all my problems. I wonder if I have time to go buy one. Or a new dress. Something to make me look more fantastic than I feel in this moment.

But I’ve made a deal with myself and with the universe, and a new shirt is not an option. This deal–it popped into my head in a way that felt important while meditating one night– I’m calling it my Enoughness Project: A study in gratitude, receivership and transcendence. You could call it a sort of spiritual detox, a process of recognizing my own innate enoughness.

What the Enoughness Project entails:

-No frivolous shopping trips. I will not purchase any nonessential material items for three months. This particularly means clothes, beauty products and home accessories. I’ve never been a credit-card-debt-racking slave to beauty and fashion, and I don’t *think* my friends would describe me as a shopper, but when I want to make myself feel shiny and new, I often seek out Marshalls, Nordstrom Rack, TJ Maxx, Target or the makeup counter for things that will spruce up my body, my appearance or my nest at a low cost.

-I must accept blessings in whatever form they come. My gut reaction when I’m facing generosity, gifts, work opportunities, epiphanies, beautiful moments, etc., is to think or say “Thank you so much. But I can’t accept that.” In other words, “I don’t deserve that.” With this project, I must remain open to receiving all the wonderful blessings that come my way and leave it at “Thank you so much. I’d love that.” Because I need to buy the line I give everyone else: You are amazing, you are a child of God and you deserve all the blessings in the universe. (Everyone does.)

-Maintain conscious awareness of all the blessings I already enjoy. This means opening my eyes a little wider so I can take in all that I have—and be grateful for it.

The point?

If you’ll pardon some redundancy, there are several points to this project:

-Separate the association between looking good and being good.

-Get comfortable with receiving blessings

-Be grateful for all that I already have

-Get acquainted with my own motives for material consumption, grow my understanding of when/why I buy things and establish new habits that are more aligned with my values.

What was the impetus for the Enoughness Project?

I went to the dentist. That night, as I was meditating, I received a clear call, which may have been inspired by my conversation with the Bosnian dental hygienist who I’ve seen a hundred times but who has never made mere mention of the horrors she experienced during the ethnic cleansing of her people until that day. I listened to her tales of fear, torture, bleakness and not having enough food to feed her tiny children and, with tears in my eyes, I felt sickened by my own to-do list, which included things like “look for a new going-out dress” and “buy a turquoise accent piece for the living room.” The vision of my elegant dental hygienist huddled on the floor with her four-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter, both hungry, in a foxhole of couches and chairs, hoping to sleep all night protected from gunfire in the streets while her husband worked at the prison camp…

Her story brought an undeniable clarity within me: I have everything I need and almost all of what I want. In listening to her experience in her home country and in receiving her call to enjoy everything we have in this country, going out and buying stuff on a whim, though a regular habit, officially became an expired habit for me.

That said, it seems worthwhile to clarify I’m not foregoing shopping out of disgust for American mass consumption, although the trend does trouble me. The connection I felt with my dental hygienist was merely a catalyst for me to examine my own motives for consumption when, in reality, I have everything I need, no one is hungry and we are safe. This is not a political statement but rather a deeply personal exploration.

Send me some good vibes on this journey?

As most of us know, changing habits can be extremely difficult, and this will be no exception. My Enoughness Project is going to be a hard row, and I’ll be blogging about it as things come up. It’s sure to call up a whole slew of deep-down feelings, ideas, beliefs and experiences just waiting to surface; and, as this project is, after all, intended to induce transcendence, this is just as it should be.

With luck, in three months, at the very least, I’ll have the wherewithal to embrace life’s sweetest moments without preoccupying myself with material predicaments like what I’m going to wear. Instead of putting Kip down to stare at my closet, I’ll swing my little koala around in my arms, snuggle him close to my cheetah jammies, bathe him in laughter—and then get dressed.