Getting Big

I have always had a fear of being big. In grade school I was embarrassed at being taller for my age. Even now, around short, petite women I feel awkwardly oversized standing next to them. When I visited my relatives in China as a teenager, I remember my cousin and her friend commenting in the local dialect about me, “Gui da ka!”  – What big feet! The comment was not attached to any value judgment, but the way they said it made me feel freakish, out of place, and ashamed because my feet (and stature in general) were bigger than most tiny Chinese girls’.

What is it about big-ness that has acquired such a negative connotation for me? With other things, big can be good – big shady trees to sit under, big juicy peaches to savor, big plush beds to stretch out in. But when it comes to my body, somehow I have learned that big is bad. Small is good. Small is cute, pretty, graceful, even virtuous. Big is…well…ungainly, awkward, too much, not good.

I think this has something to do with being a woman. With men and boys, it’s good to be big. They get admiring looks and comments about their broad shoulders, tall stature, and large muscles. Big-ness is positively linked to their manhood. But overly-tall women, large-boned women, or thick women usually aren’t admired. Instead they are seen as oddities or viewed with distaste. Other times, their size is admired distortedly. Women’s big bottoms and big breasts become sexual objects detached from the people themselves.

Lily Myers’ viral slam poem “Shrinking Women” gets to the heart of this difference. “Women in my family have been shrinking for decades,” she says, “making space for the entrance of men into their lives.” Comparing herself with her brother, she describes, “I have been taught accommodation, I have been taught to filter…you have been taught to grow out, I have been taught to grow in…you learned from our father how to emit, how to produce, how to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence…I learned to absorb, I took lessons from my mother in creating space around myself… deciding how many bites is too many, how much space she deserves to occupy…”

That’s it. Women are afraid of being too emotional, too loud, too crazy, too opinionated, too much. This translates into a physical aversion – a fear of taking up space, a fear of getting big. Small and thin, quiet and submissive, becomes our ideal, and women learn to hold themselves in, deny their appetites and their voices, and shrink.

Pregnant_woman2Pregnancy has been freeing for me in this respect. While some women worry about their disappearing waistlines and expanding torsos, I have found it fun and exciting to watch my belly grow and track the numbers rising on the scale. Recently, I surpassed my husband in weight and told him gleefully, “Now who carries the most weight in this family?”

Part of my enjoyment of the physical changes I’m undergoing as a plump pregnant woman is due to the fact that it is probably the first time in my life I feel allowed to get big. Big is now good. Big belly means Baby is growing well. Big breasts mean my body’s getting ready to nourish my child. Big appetite means Baby is hungry for nutrients. So I’m more than willing to get big. I revel in getting big.

Ina May Gaskin[1] tells the story of a woman who was told by her midwife that she would get huge to have the baby. During her labor, this woman repeated “I’m gonna get huge, I’m gonna get huge” as a mantra to herself and resultingly pushed out a large baby with no trouble, tears, or unnecessary medical interventions. I love the fact that getting big in this story is a positive thing associated with empowerment, healthy womanhood, and the amazing God-given ability to bring life into the world.

Of course, I’ve had my share of worrying that I’ll keep my built-up pregnancy fat after the baby’s born, and that I’ll never get my old body back (I’m told I never will anyways, no matter how hard I try). After the birth, I’m sure I’ll be more cautious again about how much I eat and how much weight I gain or lose. But pregnancy has definitely helped me overcome my fear of getting big. I’ve learned to associate big women’s bodies with vitality and hospitality, not just with fear and shame. I hope this lesson is one I’ll carry with me as I continue to “fill-out” into the woman God has made me to be.

 

 


[1] Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth (2003, Bantam Books).

The Power of Dirt

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Though the Ash Wednesday saying rightly evokes repentance and humility by reminding us of our mortality, dust is not only a symbol of death. As I have come to realize in delightful new ways this year through poking around in my garden dirt, dead and decaying matter is a powerful source of life.

It is a ridiculously obvious fact that we humans have known since the discovery of agriculture, but something that I as a city-dweller still find wondrous: throw some tiny seeds in dirt, and, with some sunlight and water, they grow to produce delicious edible wonders! In a truly miraculous way, that brown and unassuming dirt, the bedrock of the food chain, sustains our lives.

Starting a garden this year has been therapeutic for me, not only because I have gotten to witness these small everyday miracles of creation and eat yummy vegetables, but also because of my contact with dirt.

It is good for us to touch dirt – not just as a way to symbolically acknowledge our mortality. Dirt is powerful on a physical, cellular level.

Enjoying the dirt and trees of the cypress grove in Colombia.

Enjoying the dirt and trees of the cypress grove in Colombia.

The power of dirt is something that therapists often utilize. When I was getting acupuncture for fertility issues at a Chinese medicine clinic, one of the student doctors there told me to regularly touch dirt to tap into the fertility of the earth. On a recent visit to Colombia where we walked through a cypress grove, our guide told us that people often come to this grove to walk around barefoot, touch the trees, and discharge static energy from always being around electronic gadgets.

It may sound like “new-age” fluff, but it makes sense too from a Christian perspective. God breathed his life into creation, and it means that each created thing – humans, animals, plants, water, sunlight, dirt – somehow resonates with the energy of the Creator. Even rocks, Jesus said, have the capacity to cry out God’s praises (Luke 19:40).

We often spiritualize this knowledge of God’s divine energy in creation. Spending time in creation is good for the soul, we say. But I think it is also good for our bodies, which are inextricably connected to our souls. When we come into physical contact with the goodness of creation – though playing in the dirt, through a walk in the forest, through an ocean swim – something shifts in the energy of our bodies, in our very cells. We are re-attuned to something basic in life. Like receiving the imposition of ashes at the start of Lent, we become more aware of our humanity – not only of our impending deaths, but also of our lives and bodies, which are sustained in the power and love of God.

 

God at Your Back

Yoga reverse prayer

In an impromptu yoga session recently, our leader, Ann, urged us to become aware of our back-bodies. We usually focus attention on our front-bodies, Ann said. It is the side of ourselves we present to the world, the side we examine closely in mirrors, the side we make sure is well put-together. But our back-bodies, Ann said, is a side we don’t often dwell on. As such, it is an entry-point into the unknown.

What do our back-bodies know that our front-bodies don’t? Well, for one, we can’t see from behind. In front, we keep a vigilant lookout on the world. But our backsides are vulnerable, unguarded, an open door to things unseen. Maybe that’s why we can sense things with our back-bodies that our front-bodies can’t. We feel the stares of others drilling into the backs of our heads. The hairs on the backs of our necks stand up on end when we sense danger.  We feel a tingle down our spines in the presence of beings from the spiritual realm. In short, our back-bodies have a keen sense of things unknown and unseen.

Maybe, as Ann suggested to us, our back-bodies are a place where we can find God – the unknown, unseen whisper of a God who showed himself to Elijah not in wind, earthquake or fire, but in “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19). How does one hear “sheer silence”? Perhaps Elijah did not hear God’s presence with his ears. Perhaps he heard God in the nape of his neck, in his shoulder blades, in the liquid spaces between his vertebrae.

As I was lying on the yoga mat, bringing my awareness into my back-body, feeling myself being held in the palm of the ground, I recalled Psalm 139. The psalmist says to God, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” The knowledge of being hemmed in by God, behind and before, was something beyond the psalmist’s grasp. Yet perhaps he knew it in his back-body as he was lying on the earth, feeling his weight being supported by the God who laid the earth’s foundations.

Between Chronic Pain and Healing

My article for Catapult Magazine’s Health and Wealth Gospel issue tells the story of my journey with chronic pain and the questions I asked along the way. Disease, dying, decay…how did these realities make sense together with the healing, restoration and rebirth that Christians speak of as signs of God’s presence among us?

Read the full article here: https://www.catapultmagazine.com/health-and-wealth-gospel/feature/living-in-the-tension

Doctors, Your Patients Are Human Beings

http://silenciorn.deviantart.com/art/Stethoscope-279190421I’ve seen a lot of doctors in the past three years – too many to count on my own two hands.  The number of doctors by whom I felt heard and truly cared for, though, is less than a handful.

Maybe my expectations are too high, but after running the gamut of doctors, I’ve come to believe that a doctor’s responsibility runs much deeper than simply diagnosing a physical complaint and running a treatment protocol. That’s because when we go to a doctor, we go not just as a bundle of body parts and malfunctioning cells sitting in an isolated exam room. We go as living human beings connected to families, communities, religious traditions, and a reality beyond the material.

All too often, doctors seem to miss this reality. Admittedly, we aren’t going to them to get our souls treated; doctors are tasked with treating our bodies. But then again, bodies are much more than anatomical parts and processes. Furthermore, western medicine is not the end-all-be-all authority on diagnosing what’s going on in our bodies. Reading physical symptoms, taking medical images, and running tests only reveal a partial truth. The truth of what the patient is experiencing, in my opinion, is just as weighty.

Melanie Thernstrom, in her book The Pain Chronicles, describes that in recent centuries, the question that doctors ask their patients has shifted from “What happened?” to “Where does it hurt?” It’s a subtle shift, but one that reveals a dramatic reorientation of perspective. No longer is the doctor asking the patient to tell their story about how they’ve ended up in the exam room, with all its starts, stops, hesitations, and implied meanings. Doctors now completely bypass patient understandings and instead hone in on the physical problem, minus patient narrative.

My own countless doctors’ visits attest to this fact. I would go into the exam room prepared to explain to the doctor when my ankle pain started, how I think it started, what I’ve tried to do for self-care, and my questions. Oftentimes, before I got a chance to get out more than a few sentences, the doctor would jump in. “Okay, take off your shoes and socks. Does this hurt? Can you rotate your ankle this way? Resist when I try to push your foot this way. Okay, now get up and try to stand on your toes. Hm…okay, take two ibuprofen three times a day for two weeks and it should be fine.” Before I could re-gather myself to ask questions, the doctor would be gone.

This description is only a slight exaggeration of my experiences. In short, the treatment of many doctors has left me feeling voiceless, like an inanimate object squeezed into a too-short time slot, cursorily poked at, and then ejected from the exam room right in time for the next inanimate object to arrive, and not a minute over.

My friend in her second year of medical school pointed out to me that a lot of the problem is the whole health care system in the United States. Unless they run their own practice, doctors don’t have a lot of say over how much time they are allotted to spend with each patient, and they are required to see a certain amount of patients a day in order to satisfy the group or hospital requirements. The system of which doctors are a part, willingly or not, simply doesn’t give them much wiggle room to take a more personal approach. I agree. I think the system needs to change.

Beyond the logistics of the system, however, lies a deeper issue of epistemology – that is, how knowledge is arrived at. Western medicine has evolved such that knowledge is believed to lie in concrete physical facts which can be measured, compared, quantified. Pain is rated on a scale of 1-10. (I’ve always disliked having to reduce my experience of pain to a number.) To be sure, numbers are helpful, and without such cut and dried measurements and processes, we might still be getting bled and leeched every time we saw the doctor.

The problem with numbers and cold measurements, though, is that human experience often gets cast to the wayside. How has the stroke affected Mrs. Farhad’s life? Does she see it as an act of God, something that she should resign herself to, or as a result of diet and lifestyle, something that she can gradually improve upon?

What patients themselves make of their ailments matters, not just for treatment, but also because how they interpret their experience through the matrix of their own cultural and metaphysical understandings of the world is a kind of truth. It is the truth of their everyday existence, of how they live their lives. Even if it is not the lens a medical professional uses to diagnose and treat maladies, this does not mean that it is irrelevant.

What am I asking for, then? I am asking that doctors listen to their patients. Not just listen to the number at which they rate their pain, but listen for what their pain means to them, how it has changed their lives, what it does to their sense of self. I am asking that doctors step down from their pedestals of lofty, scientific training and approach their patients in a collaborative eye-to-eye relationship. I am also asking them to take into account different kinds of knowledge – personal experiential knowledge and not just abstract textbook knowledge. Bottom line, I am asking that doctors treat their patients as human beings whose voices matter.