Sumptuous destitution

Our dear friend Kyo came to visit for the weekend, which was a real delight, as he always brings a lot of levity and thoughtfulness to every conversation. One of my favorite conversations oriented around this Emily Dickinson poem, which he shared with us:

In many and reportless places
We feel a Joy —
Reportless, also, but sincere as Nature
Or Deity —

It comes, without a consternation —
Dissolves — the same —
But leaves a sumptuous Destitution —
Without a Name —

Profane it by a search — we cannot
It has no home —
Nor we who having once inhaled it —
Thereafter roam.

It has been rolling around in my mind all weekend — the fluctuating, dissolving nature of mundane joys. I have been thinking of these vanishing delights as I light the beeswax candles or repaint the grout on the bathroom floor or pick up Moses in the morning from his crib.

Perhaps it is fruitless to dissect or name these pleasures, as Dickinson suggests, or even to try to replicate them. They come and go as they please, and we’re left in that ineffable state, resting in our sumptuous destitution. As summer burns away and fall approaches, I find that I am more mindful of these domestic, everyday joys. It shall soon be time to stay in the dull, reportless places, and yet even there, we are experiencing the richness and fullness of life.

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Kyo, Guion, and Moses at Blenheim Vineyards.

The poem hits me strongly because of autumn, but also because of baby.

Now, in month four with Moses, I sense a return to old ways and old pleasures. I didn’t think I’d feel this way in those traumatic early days. I kind of felt ruined, if I’m being honest. And now, things are forever different, of course — gone are the days of spiriting away to a restaurant on a whim! Ne’er shall we leave the house without a tremendous amount of infant paraphernalia! — but the small activities that buoyed the spirits are now capable of being rediscovered. Such as: Painting one’s toenails. Reading a book. Making oatmeal the slow way. Writing words down in a notebook.

Yesterday, for the first time since Moses was born, Guion and I enjoyed one of our “quiet nights” — a screen-free evening for reading and writing. In our recent childless days, we used to enshrine them in our week. These evenings are much harder to come by since we’ve added this little person to our home, but I felt last night how deeply I have missed and needed them. I read a little of Nell Zink’s new novel, Doxology, and tried to get through John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara but couldn’t (it’s almost too lyrical) and felt a vast pleasure wash over me. The days with Moses are full and heartwarming, but the evenings without him can be also (especially now that he’s sleeping through the night!).

(Upon copying the text of the poem, I’m also reminded that Anne Carson has played with it in Men in the Off Hours, splicing Dickinson’s letters to Thomas Higginson with some thoughts on the way we read women. Have you a little chest to put the Alive in? Dickinson! What a bone-chilling genius! I have come off the weekend convinced that we do not talk about her nearly enough and feel that I need to read the giant tome of her complete poems daily, like a liturgy.)

. . .

Obligatory baby photo: Enjoying his first flight! Visiting dearly beloved (and missed) friends in Chicago.

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Strange little big-eyed alien

Before having a baby, I appreciated hearing from other moms that the deep/eternal/life-altering mother-love doesn’t always happen instantly. Even my mom, the paragon of virtuous motherhood, admitted she didn’t love me at first. “You were this strange little big-eyed alien,” she said. “I loved my nephew a lot more than I loved you, and you were my baby!” My dad also chimed in to add that he didn’t really love any of us until we were at least six or seven months old.

Thus established, it now feels freeing to confess that I don’t think I loved Moses at first. The primary emotion I had, after giving birth, was Thank God that’s over, not Bring the light of my life to my chest so that I can gaze upon his perfect brow! I liked him, sure, and I wanted to meet all of his needs and keep him safe and happy, but I wouldn’t call it love. Especially during that brutal first month, my primary emotional state was a mix of bewilderment and exhaustion.

Today, now that we are three months in, I am pleased to say that the feeling has come. I think about him all day long now. I want his little body to be close to mine as much as possible. Securing his joy seems like the only task that matters in life. He is also so CUTE. Just the cutest. I don’t care if I’m blinded by bias; it’s all I can think when I look at him. I mean, look at this little doofus:

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The boy.

All this to say: I am happy that the feeling has come. I suspect it will last. And then, soon, in a matter of months, when he becomes more cognizant, his father and I will both have to work hard to keep him from becoming a spoiled little princeling, lest all this overbearing love make him totally unbearable.

. . .

Perhaps it is a sign that I am getting old, but I long for moderation. I want to regulate and conserve my life. I want to use what I have. I want to keep the company of temperate people.

. . .

“The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption. … If the woman artist has been trained to believe that the activities of motherhood are trivial, tangential to the main issues of life, irrelevant to the great themes of literature, she should untrain herself. The training is misogynist, it protects and perpetuates systems of thought and feeling which prefer violence and death to love and birth, and it is a lie.”

— Alicia Ostriker

. . .

A lovely neighbor, the mother of two beautiful boys, sent me an email after Moses was born, asking me how I was adapting to my new life. She wrote, of her own experience with her firstborn son, “I was all strung out and anxious and generally uncomfortable and homesick for my old life for a lot of those early days.”

I loved her use of the word homesick, because I think it perfectly captures this new state of being. It’s a curious homesickness, because all of the trappings of your old life are still there: Your home hasn’t changed. It is the same, and yet your experience of it is completely altered. It is hard not to miss the old ways. I find myself frequently telling Guion, “I miss you.” I feel like I never see him anymore, even though we arguably see each other more than we ever did before.

It is a long period of adjustment, I suppose. At least the reason for all of this internal upheaval is very cute. That helps.

Little lessons learned

Things Moses has taught me

  1. I apparently have a wretched memory for lyrics, demonstrated by my fraught desire to sing hymns to him while he drifts off to sleep. I can only get through a verse before I start making up lines.
  2. I have, perhaps, idolized having a sense of “control” over my daily life.
  3. It is therefore hard to have one’s idols toppled.
  4. I consistently miscalculated how hard this would be.
  5. It is silly to be frustrated with a baby.
  6. Babies cannot be reasoned with.
  7. But I will still try, and I will drive myself to the edge of madness trying to apply reason to the baby’s behavior.
  8. I thus become comfortable with living on the edge of madness.
  9. This edge of madness seems like a new (albeit claustrophobic) home.
  10. So I settle in to this new habitat, congratulating myself for showering, remembering how to drive, and speaking a full sentence in the morning without mixing up any of the nouns.
  11. The new habitat also reveals that kissing babies is extremely delightful.
  12. It is best to do it as many times as possible on any given day.

. . .

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I have an iPhone 5 (yeah, I’ll brag about it); this is the best I can do.

As I suspected, I continue to be very interested in dogs, but I am also more interested in babies on the whole, babies as a universal concept and lived experience. This I did not expect. I even find other people’s babies pretty interesting now. I want to stare and them and find out what they know.

. . .

Pyrrha, our German shepherd, has been a silent angel during these past two months of life with Moses. I wasn’t sure how she’d behave, and I’ve been impressed and grateful for her calm acceptance of this new, often bewildering, creature. She greets him in the morning with a gentle lick to the back of his head or feet, and then she quietly lies down on her rug in the hall, waiting for someone to give her a little attention. She doesn’t stress when he screams (making her the calmest family in the moment).

The other afternoon, I was in the kitchen when he woke up from a nap, and I swear Pyrrha had the purest Lassie moment. I didn’t hear his cries at first, and so Pyrrha got up from her post in the hall, walked up to me in the kitchen and looked me in the eye with concern. She then walked back down the hall toward the baby’s room and stood in front of the door, glancing back at me, as if to say, “Lady, the baby needs you! Please follow me and perform your God-given duties before I have to intervene.”

She’s a good girl.

. . .

During my maternity leave, I was a little depressed to learn that reading is rather difficult while nursing. I can do it if I have a lightweight and semi-floppy paperback that I can hold with one hand, but because Moses has been a rather high-maintenance feeder, I’ve only read a few books during my leave, which is almost up. This has been a bummer. (And no, I don’t want a Kindle. I hate reading on them so much that I’d almost rather not read anything at all.)

As a consolation, I’m really into email newsletters right now. Nicole Cliffe’s has been a daily delight, along with her wise and often hilarious advice column at Slate, Care and Feeding. (Leah Finnegan’s Leah Letter is my other favorite newsletter, but she only writes once every few months. But when she does, it’s worth the wait.) I just wanted to give some public thanks to Nicole Cliffe for getting me through much of my maternity leave with amusing ideas and great articles to add to Pocket and read during that long 3 a.m. feed.

. . .

My esoteric titles are a holdover from my moody days as a teen blogger, which is a real shame, but I can’t help it. I don’t often write posts focused on a single topic, and so choosing some title that could have been a tantalizingly vague AIM away message, circa 2005, well, it continues to appeal to me. No regrets.

To raise a little boy

In my current state, I am not to be trusted with basic tasks. I rarely know the day of the week. I was once very adept at remembering names, and now I have a hard time recalling the names of people with whom I’m casually acquainted, people whose names I really ought to know. The burners on the stove have been left going for an uncomfortably long time. Four or five times since Moses was born, we’ve left the front door either (a) slightly open or (b) with the keys in the lock all night long. It’s amazing we’re all still alive, unmurdered, safe in our beds. We may have all of our limbs, but we do not have all of our faculties.

I am also strangely clumsy, in a way that I was not before. I trip over things; I stub my toes; I catch myself going up and down stairs. Moses has been an unfortunate victim of my clumsiness as well. The other day, I dropped the small portable sound machine on his face while trying to put him down for a nap. He released that scream of betrayal, winding up with soundless rage and then releasing a florid wail; it’s such a genuinely heartbreaking sound. I bumped his legs against the outdoor umbrella. I caught his foot under the arm of a rocking chair. I somehow scraped his temple with the prong of my engagement ring. Guion watches me do all of these things and looks at me with silent (but still gentle) reproach. I know, I know; I don’t know what’s wrong with me either.

Despite these notable declines in my ability to function, I have become extremely efficient in simple domestic tasks. In the hour or so of free time I get between feeds (if I’m lucky), I run around the house, possessed. I can finish a small calligraphy print in half an hour. I can clean both bathrooms in 10 minutes. I can unload the dishwasher, get dressed, and make our bed before the little dragon wakes.

I am not sure how to relax. Everyone tells you to “sleep when the baby sleeps,” and I’m all for that between the hours of 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., but I can’t seem to master the art of daytime napping. I’m too distracted; there are too many (little, meaningless) things on my to-do list. To sleep in the day seems to squander what little productive time I have. It is difficult to give up this mindset. Perhaps I am not meant to be productive right now. I have already done a hell of a lot of producing. See example below:

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He is six weeks old now, and while we are still in the thick of it, I feel less afraid. I no longer dread nights. (By all accounts, for his age, he seems to be a pretty good sleeper. Some nights are much better than others.) I do not spend my waking hours wondering if he is OK. I am pretty sure he is OK. He will live. One day, he will be a small boy, and then a man.

. . .

I loved reading this column by poet Sabrina Orah Mark in the Paris Review while pregnant, and it has taken on a greater resonance now, now that I too have a son. She writes beautifully about fairy tales and the intersection of these long-held fables with her work raising boys.

This passage, from her latest essay “Sorry, Peter Pan, We’re Over You,” stuck with me particularly:

I dropped Noah home, and ran off to Target. I pass the girl’s department, and a T-shirt flashes at me: THE FUTURE IS FEMALE. Sorry, Nibs, Tootles, Slightly, Curly, Twin One, and Twin Two. Sorry, John and Michael. Sorry, my sons: the future is female. Sorry, Peter Pan, we’re over you.

I think a lot about boys. About raising mine to be sensitive, and effective, and strange, and lovely, and kind, and funny, and brave. I want them to be boys who keep their shadows on, and who belong to a future. Boys who understand the difference between a thimble and a kiss. Worry picks at me like Hook’s metal claw. I want their boyness to bloom. I want to keep them safe.

In our well-intentioned desire to give girls as much chance and confidence as boys have been historically given, I sometimes fear that we have swung too far. Our feminism for our daughters is notoriously shallow, rooted in empty slogans and engineered to pit girls and boys against each other. These days, among adults of our social order, girls are better; girls are prized. Boys are difficult; boys are troubled.

I’m guilty of buying into it myself. While pregnant, I wasn’t shy about expressing my hope that our baby would be a girl. Everyone else seemed to want a girl too. Girls are marketed as easier to raise and temperamentally superior.

Now, of course, I feel differently. I want to openly reject this paradigm; I lament that I was seduced by it. Girlhood ultimately does not profit by our denigration of boyhood. Both girls and boys must be allowed to blossom in free, natural ways, ways inherent to their natures. Specifically, I reject this expectation that boys, if they are to be labeled “good,” should conduct themselves — in play, in public, in school — like girls.

I don’t know anything yet about raising a child. I’m still figuring out how to keep a baby and myself fed every day. But I want to be more thoughtful about raising a boy. I want to start pondering that work now, to consider how I can help Moses’ boyness bloom. The future is his as well.

A happy haze

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Looks can be deceiving. This little darling looks so gentle and calm, but he is extremely demanding. He does a fabulous interpretation of the demon possessed between the hours of 6 and 8 pm; really, you should stop in for the show. My most common nickname for him is Little Dragon. This is not news to anyone who has had a baby before, but it still feels like news to me.

I am tremendously needed right now, and I can’t say that I perceive it as fun. I would like to be less necessary. From my nursing chair, I watch people walking and biking and running along our street, and I feel envious of all of them. All people who don’t have to worry constantly about a newborn. How carefree and happy all other humans must be! This is a thought I have every day. The other day I think I had three total hours, out of the 24, during which he was not attached at the breast. He is five weeks old now, so we’re apparently in the trenches of baby care, with the expectation that his murderous rages and constant feeding will start to taper off soon. Some days it feels more relentless than others.

We’ve had an army of wonderful support, and I don’t know how we would have made it without our generous community: Family who came and stayed and cooked and cleaned and held Little Dragon while we slept. Friends who brought and keep bringing us food. Doulas who made us feel sane and guided us on all aspects of postpartum life. Neighbors who check in on us regularly. A dear friend who babysat for us so we could go out for dinner. Unbelievably generous mothers who donated their own milk during the week we had to supplement his feedings, so I could work on my own supply and avoid formula. And of course, Guion, always and forever Guion. I knew I liked him before all this, but now I know for a fact that I could not live without him.

Things I am trying to treasure up and ponder in my heart: How frequently the mothers of older children tell me, “Oh, I miss this phase,” when gazing upon my squalling infant. And I think, “You must be insane, lady. I can’t wait until this creature can tell me what he wants and sleeps more than a few hours at a time.” So there is some shift that happens. Perhaps it’s simply that everyone recalls and longs for the seasons past, because they always seem easier than the one you’re currently in.

But there are lovable aspects, which even I can discern in my incarcerated, sleep-deprived state: His milk-sweet breath. The smell of his little head (now beautiful and round, after looking like an old potato right after birth). Wearing him in a wrap. Cuddling with him on my chest while he naps. Getting eye contact. His small animal noises while he nurses. These are lovely things.

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He has no idea how much he’s in charge. But look at that face. Would you dare cross him?

Heart lifting

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Baby Abby and baby Guion, engaging in favorite activities. (Photo from a sweet baby shower.)

The joys of spring are so apparent that they’re almost not worth naming. I part the curtains with anticipation every morning, noting the growth of my long-nurtured perennials and the return of familiar weeds. We continue to walk every day, observing how quickly the trees shed their blossoms and mature, how insane the songbirds have become in courtship and competition. I walk slowly now, but I am still walking. This seems to be what counts.

I have always tended toward loving home and domesticity, but this instinct seems to have kicked into high gear, now that I’m nearly nine months pregnant. I don’t want to go anywhere or do anything. My first instinct at any invitation is to say no, definitely not (much to my extroverted lover’s chagrin). I am staying put. I am waiting here, where I have been planted for the time being.

. . .

Perhaps one of the strangest sensations I’ve encountered, poised on the brink of motherhood, is the fact that even though I am reading copiously about babies and parenthood, I don’t know anything more than I did before. All of this knowledge hasn’t transformed into preparation or prediction. I still have no idea what it will be like. In almost every other realm, I can read dozens of books and walk away with at least some increased knowledge. This does not seem to be the case concerning child-rearing. It’s all still a grand mystery. Maybe it always will be.

These days, most people ask us, “Are you ready?” And I always say no, of course not. Who is ever really ready for this?

I skimmed an interview with a designer, a mother of two, who used this metaphor for the voyage from childlessness to parenthood: You lived on Earth, very happily, for many years. Then you’re packed onto a spaceship and sent to another planet. You can always see Earth from your new planet, and you know you can never return. Sometimes this stabs you in the heart. This other planet is very different and strange at first, but you come to love it. It has its own joys and pains and secrets and pleasures. You accept it as your new home, remembering Earth as a distant, fond memory.

. . .

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.

— Susan Sontag, lecturing on Nadine Gordimer, quoted in Brain Pickings

Unseen inheritance

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My grandmother, Loretta, with one of her beloved dogs.

I had always expected that once I got pregnant that my adoration of dogs would wane. But here I am, lumbering well into my third trimester, and I continue to find dogs far more interesting than children. They catch my eye on the street far more than babies do. Perhaps I will love dogs less once I have a child of my own. I will, at least, expect to be less focused on them. But I think they will always matter to me. My grandmother, Loretta, shown above, never lost her lifelong love of dogs. We used to joke that she knew more about the family’s dogs than she did about her own grandchildren. And yet we did not resent her for it; it was part of her everlasting charm. She craved the company of dogs, perhaps because they shared her boundless enthusiasm for life.

Whenever I’m away from home, I look for dogs everywhere. They make me feel less homesick; they instantly brighten my mood. While in Charleston, Guion knew I’d want to linger by a dog park and so he let me ogle like a creep by the fence, just to watch the pups play for a bit. I recently returned from SXSW in Austin, where there was no shortage of street dogs to admire. A dog-loving colleague and I would take pains to point dogs out to each other. And then, when I come home to Pyrrha, I am Lazarus, fresh from the tomb: You never saw such rejoicing! Such disbelief! Such yips of ecstasy!

How can you not harbor a lifelong obsession with such a creature? A silent, joyful, juvenile wolf who sleeps in your home and gives you daily offerings of unending love?

. . .

In thinking about our unknown child, our fast-approaching firstborn, I wonder about the unseen inheritances that he or she will receive. I am particularly interested in the personality traits that skip a generation or two. Will she have her great-grandmother’s infectious laugh (and fixation on canines)? Will he have his great-grandfather’s gift of playing music by ear?

“Unseen” is the word that comes to me, although it is perhaps not quite right. “Unknown” or “unanticipated” are probably closer to what I mean. But I like the idea of being blindsided by a familial similarity. You look at your kid one day, when she is six years old, and you realize she has her grandmother’s eyebrows and her great-grandfather’s genteel manner of storytelling.

This interests me. I am not sure how to say more about it than that.

. . .

“The digital clutter of our lives doesn’t merely make us anxious, interrupting our train of thought and blocking us from longer periods of silence and the deeper thinking that can go with it. Our digital clutter redesigns our world around the temporary. Constant interruptions turn us into amnesiacs who are required to respond, reply, and react from moment to moment. This is why we have so little memory of what happened last week, let alone what happened last year or twenty years ago. We are constantly threatened with interruption, so we experience each moment as something that could easily be discounted, could easily be erased or subsumed by some more important message. Our minds, in other words, are filled with the clutter of what comes next: messages and tweets and texts yet to be received. We live in a world of past and future clutter. We are boxed in. There is no space for where we are right now.”

— Heather Havrilesky, “Stuffed,” from her new book, What If This Were Enough?

. . .

Learning more about birth continues to cement my feminist leanings. I continue to trust in the incredible power and strength and wisdom of women. The main things I have gleaned thus far are that women should labor in the place they feel safest, and women should guide other women through labor and birth, as they have done for millennia. I’m not sure this is a realm where men get to have much say (and, in this way, it feels right to treat birth as holy, in the “set apart” sense of the definition). We’ll see how it goes. I am trying not to have any expectations, because I know that none of it can be organized or planned. It will be a great exercise in surrender, an act that I do not typically welcome.

Already given

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Charleston in late February.

We went away to Charleston for a long weekend, a final, celebratory jaunt as a family of two. We walked miles and miles every day and ate incredible amounts of delicious food (on any holiday, walking and eating are my primary ambitions). And then we spied some of the most grand old rowhouses, cheerful dogs, a trio of dolphins, and an injured bald eagle and maimed kestrel (at the aquarium, where they somewhat incongruously reside).

After eight years of marriage, we’ve become very compatible travel companions. He knows that I will be unnecessarily anxious about the airport (not about flying, but about being in an airport, for which I reserve a special kind of loathing) and accommodates in advance to reduce my fretting. I know that he will find the best restaurants in any given city, so I don’t spend any time researching them. He knows that I will want to find some animals to admire, wherever they exist, and I know that he will want to stop and photograph unfamiliar flowers or vines or shrubs. We rarely need to even voice our desires, which frees us up to have conversations at dinner about inconsequential abstractions (gender politics, music theory, creative expression, the value of performance art, the frequency with which one should shampoo).

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If there is anything I fear, it is the dread of the unknown, the simmering concern that a new person in the family will ruin our happy relationship. Parents we trust and respect tell us that raising children will, in time, deepen our relationship. Our sorrows and joys will both be more extreme. But as an emotionally illiterate person, I can’t help but hear this reassurance as deeply troubling.

. . .

“Lord, give us what you have already given.” — A character in Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa

. . .

I’m feeling burnt out on baby books, so I have been reading a history of the heroin epidemic, a field guide to North American trees, and a hefty novel by Elsa Morante. I am now feeling a little bit more like myself. Baby books are stressful.

A meditation for winter

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Pyrrha in the snow.

I despise the cold, but I’m finding some joy in the winter this year. This attitude has been helped along by daily walks, with the aid of competent warm-weather gear and my good German shepherd, the perfect walking companion; more time to read, and read by the fire; and the quietness of the landscape. This winter, more than others, feels like this restful season of anticipation. Spring brings new life (literally for our household this year), and I am enjoying thinking of winter as a time for appropriate dormancy.

A poem along those lines:

“The Cold”
Wendell Berry

How exactly good it is
to know myself
in the solitude of winter,

my body containing its own
warmth, divided from all
by the cold; and to go

separate and sure
among the trees cleanly
divided, thinking of you

perfect too in your solitude,
your life withdrawn into
your own keeping

to be clear, poised
in perfect self-suspension
toward you, as though frozen.

And having known fully the
goodness of that, it will be
good also to melt.

. . .

You don’t need to go to the gym

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Walking around Praiano on our last night there.

I love our doula for a number of reasons, but one of the first moments in which she stole my heart was when she looked and me and said, “You don’t need to go to the gym.”

She didn’t say this because I’m exceptionally fit; she said it because she believes that no one has to go to the gym. I have always believed this, but now, thanks to her, I finally have a more comprehensive philosophy to back up this long-held personal conviction.

Before sharing a short primer on what I’ve learned, here are the cards I brought to the table.

Gyms are a waste of time, money, and emotional energy

The American relationship to “exercise” has always struck me as counterproductive. It clearly has roots in our Puritan heritage, in which “no pain, no gain” breeds a vicious cycle of guilt and self-flagellation, then more guilt and more self-flagellation.

“I’ve been bad,” my friends say. “I haven’t been to the gym in a week.” We create a direct relationship between our personal worth and our time exercising. If we’ve been “good” at working out, we can call ourselves righteous and actually feel superior; we love ourselves (and our bodies) a little bit more. If we’ve been “bad,” we feel guilt—but a guilt that only has a superficial effect on changing our behavior (i.e., we don’t actually end up going to the gym more or feeling joy in our hearts when we do). And then we get trapped in this hellish, Spandex-y cycle. The problem with this legalistic approach to our bodies is that it doesn’t work.

Gyms haven’t made us any healthier. The United States has far more health clubs and gyms than any other country (although Brazil is gaining on us), and yet our nationwide obesity rate continues to rise with no sign of slowing down. (Six states last year saw their obesity rates increase, and no states saw their obesity rates decrease. Another interesting side note: Brazil’s obesity rate has also skyrocketed. The gyms aren’t working for them either.) Furthermore, gyms are generally a big waste of money: 67% of gym members don’t even go to the gym that they pay so much for.

(Diet, of course, is an enormous part of a holistic portrait of health, which I won’t address here. There are a million polemics and books about it from far more qualified sources, and you already know the Pollan dicta: Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much.)

So, here’s the rub: Americans love to strip pleasure out of everything. Eating? It’s a chore; let’s do it as fast as possible, preferably in our cars or in front of a TV. Let’s obsess over calories and carbohydrates and develop deeply unhealthy relationships to our bodies! Physical movement? It’s a moral obligation; let’s pay an absurd monthly fee to do it indoors, on machines, and judge each other and ourselves while we do it!

The whole concept of “doing exercise,” as if it were this one-hour cardio burst you have to check off your list and then you can laze around on the sofa for the next eight hours, is ludicrous. I lived with a young woman in college who lived on a diet of chicken breasts, literal platefuls of ketchup, and egg whites. She’d then go to the gym for an “intense workout,” in the hopes of earning herself a “free pass” for the rest of the week, but then she’d collapse at home on the sofa or on her bed, exhausted and malnourished.

This is nonsense, and, I think, a terrible way to live. (And I have thought this for years; see a post from 2014, meditating on my time in Japan and how Japanese women don’t get fat and don’t go to gyms.)

If you enjoy the gym, that’s fine; knock yourself out. I also like spending money on unnecessary things, like Korean skincare and handmade beeswax candles! We all have our thing; we’re American, after all. But we’re all so overworked and undernourished. And gyms aren’t helping us with these problems. Our American approach toward “exercise” creates a deeply messed-up attitude toward our bodies and the way we move them. It’s no wonder we’re so fat and so sad.

Learning from people who never go to the gym

Thanks to my doula, I now have a more unifying worldview in which to place these long-held convictions. She introduced me to Katy Bowman and Nutritious Movement. Bowman is a biomechanist who advocates, in a nutshell, for moving a lot more, in highly variable, natural ways, to break us out of our deeply sedentary modern lifestyles. (Watch this 5-minute video for a quick introduction to her philosophy.)

“Modern living does not require that we move, and to add insult to injury, it actually limits full use of our body. For example, a couch, although super comfortable, limits the full use of your ankles, knees, and hips. It sets the distance over which your legs and hip muscles can work. If you’re leaning against something right now, that something is doing the work your core muscles would be doing were that thing not there. We’ve effectively outsourced the use of our bodies to our stuff. And then when we ask our bodies to hold us up, and hold stuff in, they fail. Make no mistake, it’s not only the tissue that’s broken; it’s the habitat.” — Katy Bowman, Diastasis Recti

Before I had even heard about Bowman, I thought a lot about the locals we saw and lived next to in the Amalfi Coast this past May. We were worn out by the extremely terraced layout of the towns of Positano and Praiano, which are carved into cliffs. Furthermore, we were gobsmacked by the very old people who were climbing hundreds of stone steps a day with no assistance, no walkers, no human aides. (Praiano is perhaps the least wheelchair-accessible town I’ve ever seen.) They passed us easily on the steps, while we (many of the family in knee braces) had to pause often to catch our breaths.

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A typical road in Praiano.

This discrepancy made sense, though, once we started watching the locals a little more closely. Almost everyone had a garden, and all throughout the day, senior citizens could be seen tending their little plots of land: their tomatoes and olive trees and rows of tidy vegetables. We also watched them walking back and forth from the little markets, carrying their bundles and baskets with aplomb. Old men and women spent time eating and drinking with friends on balconies, hanging their laundry up to dry, and fastidiously sweeping and cleaning their homes. They had lived their entire lives moving up and down these impossible and endless flights of stairs. Living there is hard work, and that’s the point. They’re all probably going to live to be 115.

“The Mediterranean lifestyle is walking with friends and family. Instead of thinking of exercise as something that you have to do, just walk or dance or move in joyful ways.” — Kelly Toups, nutrition director for Oldways, quoted here

Likewise, my time in Japan influenced me profoundly when thinking about lifestyle and movement. There are hardly any gyms in Japan. People eat well and walk everywhere. They take good care of their homes; they garden; they participate in neighborhood clean-up day with their children (photo below). And they also live forever.

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My neighborhood in Japan participating in clean-up day as a community (June 2008).

I remember feeling like I needed to “exercise” and go for runs in Japan (this, even though I was bicycling and walking miles to school and eating the best seafood of my life). My host mother Keiko was utterly baffled by this. “But, Abby-san,” she said, “why? I don’t understand. What are you running for?” She was worried about me. She looked at me like I was crazy. Indeed. What was I running for? Because that’s what college girls did; that’s what they were supposed to do so they wouldn’t hate themselves later. Thankfully, I grew up and out of this toxic attitude.

The healthiest people in the world—people like the elderly men and women in Praiano and my Japanese host family—don’t go to gyms.

Because who has time for the gym, really? No one does. Instead, movement should just be a part of our everyday lives, worked into every part of our day.

How I’m moving now

I share all of this with you with great joy, not at all with judgment! I am simply so happy to have discovered an approach to movement in life that is free of gym memberships and guilt and polyester tank tops with built-in bras. I just want to share the good news with you. So, here are some the happy ways that I am moving.

  • I’m walking as much as possible. We’re lucky that we can walk to work and to church, and so I have been walking every day for the past few weeks—even though it’s winter, even though I hate the cold, even though it gets dark so soon. I now walk at least 2 miles a day, and I’d like to work up to more than 5 miles a day (which I accomplish only on the weekends, when I take Pyrrha for longer jaunts around town). We use the car so much less now, and when I do, I park as far away as possible from my destination.
  • I’m sitting as little as possible. This is difficult, because I have a desk job, but I’m moving around a lot at work. I downloaded a Chrome extension that reminds me to get up and walk every hour, and I change my position a lot. I will sit in seiza on my chair; fold my legs in different positions; refuse to use the back of the chair and sit in straight alignment instead. When my boss or clients aren’t around, I will also sit on the floor in various positions with my laptop. I also realized that I don’t need to sit when I’m offered chairs. When I’m in a waiting room, I now stand awkwardly near a wall. It’s fun.
  • I’m resisting the inclination to sit when I get home. Now, I try not to sit down when I get home at the end of the day until dinner. While Guion cooks, I sweep; I tidy; I walk the dog; I read a book or write a letter standing up. If we watch TV, I sit now on the coffee table or floor or on an exercise ball.
  • I’m rejecting supportive shoes and heels. This one threw me for a loop. Birkenstocks and Dansko shoes are not helpful, and heels are absolute murder on your body’s alignment. Heels turn us into misaligned monkeys, and supportive shoes are big casts for our atrophied feet, which have been ruined by decades of walking on flat, manmade surfaces with cushy soles. The most minimal footwear possible (zero rise) is preferable to re-train and strengthen our feet. I’m also trying to walk on varied terrain as much as I can, which means walking in the grass or in the woods or on pebbles instead of on concrete or asphalt. Pyrrha also prefers this.

There’s a lot more that I can do, and I’m far from breaking myself out of a sedentary mold, but I feel energized by the progress I’ve made thus far. I’m excited about the weather warming up and returning to gardening, which is one of my favorite activities.

In sum, I feel very joyful about moving through life this way. It has been a pleasure to adopt these new practices, because it doesn’t feel like a chore. It’s honestly been easy and pleasant. Treadmills and yoga classes have always felt like absolute drudgery to me. I’ve always hated being in a room with other sweaty people, performing exercise. Now, I can just live and move and breathe, with a little more philosophical support behind this lifestyle I had already bought into without knowing it.

Further reading