About six or seven years ago I had a conversation with a woman with whom I had a somewhat difficult friendship, a conversation that has replayed like a tape in my memory banks ever since. (For you kids that would be like a MP3 on my internal iPod). We had just discovered we had a mutual acquaintance, someone I was just starting to know, and my friend said “you know a few years ago she lost SO much weight and now she’s gained it all back and then some. I just don’t understand how someone can do that, I mean, once you’ve lost it why would you ever gain it back? I just don’t get it!” Loaded with judgment and scorn and a bit of the smug satisfaction that comes with knowing your arrow has struck the bulls-eye, her comment stung and I whispered, “because it’s hard.” But, lost in her rant, she didn’t hear me. The irony of the fact that the comment came from someone with her own substance abuse demons was not lost on me. What I should have done was tell her that a struggle with food and weight is every bit as real as a struggle with alcohol or drugs. That those of us for whom food is the drug of choice face our dealers not on shady street corners but at dinner parties, and barbecues, at meetings where bagels or cookies or sandwiches are spread out in an array as tempting as the glittering bottles of the local bar. What I should have done was ask her how she could judge another person that way. What I should have done is remind her that she was talking to someone who has trod the well- worn path between weight loss and weight gain and perhaps she should be more sensitive. But I kept quiet. For at that moment I knew what was happening to my own body, then a year or two out of a great weight loss and new level of fitness. The fat was coming back, creeping back in with every bite of brie and glass of wine, with every morning that I slept in instead of working out, and with every lick of my treasured chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream cones. The fat was coming back. The yo-yo was on its’ way back up the string.
For the past couple of years I’ve chronicled the story of my weight with jokes, self-deprecating humor and with a whole lot of defensiveness, but I knew my day of reckoning was coming. So this fall I finally bit the bullet and did something I never do. I looked at myself in the mirror. A full-length mirror. Without the benefit of clothing. And I looked long and hard. Then I looked at photo after photo of me from the summer and instead of looking at the family and friends with me, or the scenery surrounding me, I looked at the rolls of fat, the lumpy thighs, at the way my face seemed puffy and bloated. I thought about the cute summer dresses I can never wear (What? It surprises you that I look at catalogs of cute summer dresses?), and the roles I’m too fat to play and I faced it all. And I took a deep breath and plunged once more into the weight-loss breach with Kelly by my side.
That was sixteen weeks ago. I know this because at our Weight Watcher meeting this week we were given our sixteen week “Stay and Succeed” charms for our key chains. You’re green with envy aren’t you? Sixteen weeks and 28 pounds into my weight loss escapade (I flat out refuse to use the word journey) and I’m actually excited over the tchotchkes. Oh how the chubby have fallen. And yes, you read that correctly. I have shed twenty-eight pounds from my oversized frame, my rock star wife has shed thirty. And yet, tonight we looked at each other and burst out laughing… “who’d have thought we could lose this much weight and still be fat?” Kelly said. And it’s true. I love the well wishes of my friends, I love the kudos, and goodness knows I love the support, but the fact of the matter is, I’m not even half way there. True, I’m leaving the realm of obese and corpulent, but I have to lose another fifteen pounds to get to where I was just considered “fat” and another twenty after THAT to get to where I was when I was “slightly overweight.” If I get really ambitious I can try for another ten to get to the tippy top of what is considered ‘healthy” for my height and weight. Now I know you were told there would be no math, so I’ll add it up for you. That’s a minimum of sixty-five pounds and an ideal of seventy-five. Mother of God, seventy-five pounds. But that’s fine I own it. All of it. The size 20 pants and the XXL sweaters, the up and down look of judgment from the naturally thin colleague, the need to immediately put on my elastic waist flannel pajama pants when I come home from work, the sarcastic comebacks and pointed jabs I make at the accomplishments of my exercising friends (because after all it’s so much easier to mock than to face what’s in the mirror), even the two-year old comment that still stings from the woman who told me I got ‘too much support for being fat” and after all it really “wasn’t that complicated to just eat right and exercise,” and most of all the desire to just make it all go away with a really big bag of Sour Cream and Onion Ruffles. Yeah I own it all. Finally.
In some ways being back counting points and obsessing over how much one cup of cereal is feels comforting and familiar and I’ve settled into my routine of individually-sized servings of snacks and saying no to the weekly office pizza gathering. But there is one thing that’s making all this even more bearable… and that’s my wife. Because, let me tell you, if you too have run up and down the yo-yo string like I have, and if you find yourself once again facing the scale and saddling up for the weight loss ride (how’s that for some mixed metaphors?), then I highly recommend doing it with someone who makes you laugh. Because what keeps me going back to those deadly meetings every week isn’t the “tips on responsible snacking!” discussion or the “Bravo!” stickers, or even the key chains, it’s hearing Kelly unleash another brilliant one liner and watching a room full of people fall under her comic spell. When one earnest participant recently declared Fiber One bars a ‘treat,’ my wife responded with “only for your colon!” Forget the local open mike night my friends, comedy gold is happening at our Monday night Weight Watchers meeting.
Look, I’ll never be skinny. I’ve known that since I was eight years old. And honestly I don’t really want to be. A skinny Katie would be really weird. Thin isn’t in my future but maybe healthier and happier is. But for now I’m just trying to get through to the next weigh in, get that next little charm for my key chain, and keep that yo-yo from running back up the string.
Wish me luck. I’ll need it.
Last week I attended mass. This is not an unusual occurrence for me. I was raised Catholic, attended a Catholic college, and am raising my daughter in the Catholic faith. She altar serves, and has sung in the choir shares my deep and passionate belief that praying to Mary for divine intercession can indeed work miracles. In fact, having her is what brought me back to my faith after years away from it. The birth of that tiny red faced, inhumanly loud creature shook something in me that sent me back to the familiar cycle of baptisms, first communions, Christmas pageants, and long-beloved hymns. When my mother died, having Liza by my side as we navigated her services was a blessing. To this day if the hymn “Here I am Lord,” is sung at a mass we exchange looks and, more often than not, a tear or two as we remember holding each other tight and crying through it at my mom’s funeral. Returning to mass with her as a child in the early days of my divorce was at times difficult, but as the years went on it grew to be something that I looked forward to sharing with her, a quiet moment in a busy weekend to reflect and pray. A time to beam at her singing in the choir or hold my breath when I watched her swing her ponytail a bit too close to the altar candles, a time to recapture the close community feeling I had as a child in the parish of my youth.
As I sat in the pew waiting for mass to begin last Saturday, a dear friend joined me, a woman whose children go to school with and perform in plays with Liza. I adore this family and treasure every moment we get to spend with them. We have a tendency to get too chatty together, even in church, and she leaned over and asked if Liza was attending Religious Ed classes. Now, being the admitted slacker mom that I am, this is something that completely passed me by. For the years that Liza attended Catholic school this was taken care of as part of the curriculum. Now that she’s in public school I have to make sure to enroll her in classes at church so she can stay on track to be confirmed in a few years. But when my friend asked this innocent, utterly normal, mom question, something surprising happened. I cried. Well not full-blown tears but my eyes welled up and I had to look down and swallow very hard. Taking a shaky breath I whispered. “I have to confess something. I’m…struggling with the church right now.” A look of surprise, then understanding crossed her face and she asked, (already knowing the answer) ”because..?” , “Because it’s so vocally against….,” I started. “…You,” she finished. I nodded and managed a weak smile. “Are you ok?” She asked. And instantly my mask was back in place as I laughed and made a joke, “oh sure… it’s fine…it’s all fine… you know, so much fun being a gay married Catholic these days!”
Frankly my reaction surprised even myself. For the past eight years I’ve been very good at reconciling being gay and being Catholic. As a matter of fact I got more flack from my gay friends for being a practicing Catholic than I did from my Catholic friends for being gay. When Kelly and I got married we had a civil ceremony not a religious one, and other than driving my rainbow-stickered Jeep to mass, and my dykey haircut, there’s really not a lot that could identify me as the gay mom in the pew on Saturday afternoons. And one thing I love about my parish is that the people I know there, who know I’m gay, are so welcoming and loving and never ever question my presence at communion. It’s a delicate balance but one I felt I was managing. Until lately, when I began to notice the cracks.
With more and more states becoming battle grounds in the right for marriage equality and the recent Primary bringing a whole crop of Republican Presidential candidates to town, the Catholic Church as a whole has become more and more vocal in its opposition to gay marriage — to my marriage. Now of course this is nothing new, but it’s getting harder and harder for me to ignore it, to pretend it’s not there, and to just go to mass and pray to Mary as I have always done. When cardinals and bishops compare gay pride parades to the KKK; when the Church pours money and efforts into blocking marriage equality legislation in Maine (successfully), and New York (unsuccessfully); and when I sat in the NH State House a year ago to testify against repealing our successful marriage equality law and had to listen to a spokesperson from the Diocese of Manchester – my diocese – testify about how gay marriage would destroy the institution of marriage, the cracks in the foundation of my faith g0t bigger and bigger, and I began to feel as though I was living a lie. I’ve been out of the closet for years now, yet am I really ‘out’ at church? What would my parish priest (who I like tremendously) do if he knew that other than being the mom of that kid with the great voice in the choir, I was married legally to a woman? Would he bar me at the steps? Refuse me the sacraments? When I die will I be allowed a Catholic funeral mass? Would Kelly be recognized as my wife at my graveside? (Yes, I know that’s grim but when you come from the cancer family you think about death a lot) I don’t know the answers to these questions and sometimes contemplating them is just too painful. But I do know this: divorcing my love of my faith with the politics of my church grows harder and harder, and the cracks between the life I live and the faith I love get wider and wider.
I do want to make one thing clear. This is not an opening to bash my faith. This is not an opening to tell me I should become Episcopal, or Unitarian, or any other welcoming faith. This is not an opening to tell me that God doesn’t exist anyway. It’s not that I don’t invite debate and discussion, I do, but through the years I’ve thought about all of those things and debated them with some of my smartest and kindest friends. Right now, none of these options are right for me. I have deep respect for my friends of different faiths and do envy them the ability to live, serve, and pray openly in their churches of choice. But my mother instilled a love and veneration of Mary that sustains me every single day and attending a church where her presence is not celebrated in the same way would feel empty. And honestly at nearly 46, I’m just too old to church-jump. So what do I do? Honestly I don’t know the answer. For now I’ll continue to take Liza to mass, continue to pray daily to Mary for guidance and direction, and continue to hope against hope that someday my Church will come to love me as much as I have been raised to love it. I have hope that even if I don’t live to see that day, maybe Liza will. In the meantime, I’ll pray, and sometimes I’ll cry, and I’ll continue to jump over the cracks.
Who’s that Woman I know I know… That woman so clever but ever so sad…
This week Kelly and I went to see the movie “Young Adult” in which Charlize Theron’s character struggles to be happy, believing that her best years are now behind her, when she was the high school beauty who every boy wanted and every girl wanted to be. Returning to her hometown she sees everything and everyone as it was and demands the same in return. She works hard to convince herself that her old boyfriend, now a solid if slightly dull family man, is still the high school jock of her dreams, even digging his old letter jacket out of her childhood bedroom. Repeatedly throughout the film she stares at herself in the harsh glow of her hotel room mirror for long, silent seconds before beginning the lengthy ritual of applying her makeup, trying to reconcile who she was – the high school golden girl, with who she is — the depressed, borderline alcoholic with a tendency to pull out her own hair when things get tough.
Her long silent stares in the mirror were unsettling and also familiar. It’s a routine I know well…that long look at myself wondering if what I see is what others see. There are days I can’t bear it and manage to look just long enough to run some gel through my hair and brush my teeth. Some days I stand and study the face that stares back at me… the laugh lines, the imperfect teeth (should have worn that retainer more), the spiky gray hair, the un-plucked and bushy eyebrows, and try to remember its’ previous incarnations and the stages they represented in my life. Was I ever really the mom with the overalls and the ponytail on the playground? Did this old lady ever really dance in her scanties as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls? Did this face ever sport the bold purple eye shadow and streaks of blush of a college girl in the 1980s? Did this body ever really ride 30, 50, 100 miles on a road bike? I echo my favorite song from Sondheim’s Follies and ask myself, “who’s that woman?” Is this what people see? Is this really me?
Please don’t misunderstand. This isn’t only about appearance or age (although to say that I’m critical of my physical self would be an understatement). The fits and starts of my weight loss efforts have been well chronicled on this blog, as has my grudging acceptance of my mid forties-ness. This is about the face we present to the world around us, the persona (or personas) we inhabit. It’s about the way we change with time and even to suit the company we are in. And how every time we let a new person into our life we make hundreds of tiny choices about how much of ourselves we will reveal. It’s about the shock to our system when we realize that how we see ourselves isn’t always how others see us. It’s about that naked moment in the bathroom mirror when we grapple with that person staring back at us.
In my twenties and thirties I got burned a few times too many by opening myself too much to others, by wearing my heart on my sleeve, by trusting too much, and feeling too deeply. So in my new life, I pulled back a bit, held things a little closer, relied on my sardonic demeanor, and saved my deepest feelings for two people: my wife Kelly, and Joe, my best friend of 26 years. My role of mom spilled over to the rest of my life where I could support and encourage my friends yet brush off the need for any support that flowed the other direction. “I’m fine,” my friend Tara will tell you, is my stock answer whenever someone asks how I am, even when things are difficult. My life with Kelly is so happy that I can’t believe I get to live it, and my relationship with Liza is strong and secure after years of learning how to be a better parent. Life is good. And yet… some days… when I look in the mirror all I can see is the woman who cried, who kept her friends on the phone for hours, the woman who needed so openly and so desperately that it scorched everyone in her path. The coming out, the deaths, the divorce, the parenting difficulties, and the neediness that accompanied me like a shadow now haunts and embarrasses me. Now, I use my writing and my acting as channels for those feelings instead. Then last week at an audition a director I’d worked with several times told me I was one of the most closely guarded people he knew and that I needed to push through that to show my “vulnerability.” I had to find that scared and emotional woman I’d been before and set her free again. My frustration grew as I was stopped again and again, at one point even told I didn’t have to continue, probably because he thought he knew me, and what I could do. The rest of my audition was a train wreck. Ironically the audition was for the part of a woman so close to who I was a few years ago that I ached to play her so that I could use all those hurts and scars from the past to find catharsis on the stage and off. And now my carefully crafted walls were the very things preventing me from winning the part. I wasn’t vulnerable enough. Oh irony thou art cruel indeed. When I learned I hadn’t gotten the part I came home, and stared into the mirror and wondered, “what don’t they see?” “What DO they see?” And for the millionth time: “Who’s that woman? Is that really me?”
Recently in the company of a dear friend whose presence in my life is just a few years old, the conversation shifted from the present and the every day reality that we share, and veered into the past: to the “how did you?”s ,and the “when did you?”s and the “where were you when?”s that are the natural building blocks of a growing friendship. He only knows the nonprofit careerist, the multi tasking mom, the out lesbian, the actress, the occasional writer, the musical theater and 1970s pop culture devotee. But he never knew the bullied girl, the closeted young woman, the terrified new mom, or the shaky divorcee and single mom who burst into tears multiple times a day. I found myself suddenly shy, struggling to reconcile the woman I had been with the woman he thinks he knows. To admit to the scars I carry was frightening. But by sharing his past with me he let me know it was ok to do the same. And I trust him. So I took a deep breath, and I shared as well. A little here. A little there. Not everything, not yet… maybe someday.
Unlike Charlize Theron’s “Young Adult” character, I tend to want to leave the girl and the woman I was firmly in the past and focus only on who I am today. But my talks with my friend reminded me that to do that dishonors both my past and my present and that it’s ok to remind myself of where I came from and, more importantly, where I have the power to go. So who knows? Maybe this New Year will be the year I can finally look in that mirror and answer, as Stella Deems does in Follies, “Lord, Lord, Lord, that woman is me.”
Happy New Year Everyone.