Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book Review: The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta

Years ago, a close friend of mine was cleaning out her books and let me have this one.  Up until that point, I had read very few books by Nigerian novelists and none by female Nigerian novelists.  I don't know why it had never occurred to me but I was happy to be introduced to that world by Buchi Emecheta through the novel The Joys of Motherhood.

Nnu Ego, the main character, goes from being in an ideal marriage (to an ideal man, in an ideal setting, surrounded by both material and "people" wealth) that unfortunately does not lead to any children to being in a situation she could never have imagined (to an overweight, domestic servant who she does not respect in an urban setting totally different than any thing has ever known and abject poverty) that does lead to many children.  Too many children.  Children that Nnu Ego regards as blessings though we as the reader cannot agree.  The more children she has, the more difficult her life becomes.  However, she is locked into a very traditional view that she can't shake: that motherhood is what makes a woman and is therefore main goal in life.  Once one has children, everything becomes more bearable; you can put up with any kind of nonsense.  Even when in reality, children often times complicate things and make it more difficult to bear things.  Here's a more detailed synopsis of the plot.  I am always haunted by how the book ends.  It is, to me, quite profound. 

I have read The Joys of Motherhood a few times now and each time I grow to appreciate this book more deeply.  Emecheta is a talented and brilliant writer and it is a joy to read any of her work but this particular book stands out to me.  It is such a great story.  And though at times Emecheta can become a bit heavy handed with the lesson she is trying to convey, the greatness of her storytelling never gets lost.  For me, that means that through the vehicle of a wonderful story, I am encouraged to sort out all kinds of issues surrounding my ideas of motherhood and how they have been influenced by the society I've grown up in and also (surprisingly and to a great extent) the society my mother grew up in.  After all, many of us take our first lessons on motherhood (and on wife-dom) from our mothers.  But there are so many other issues Emecheta tackles in this novel: ideas of manhood, criticisms of colonialism, analysis of what happens when colonialism and traditionalism collide, what children owe parents, the place of education and so much more.

Anyway, it's wonderful to read stories from folks who have the same kind of cultural references.  It's fun to read in print sayings that you've heard over and over or interesting to have ways of thinking/traditions questioned and explored.  I also find it so ironic that Ms. Emecheta has five children of her own!  It just elevates the irony of the title to a whole new level.   Hilarious! 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

One thought at a time. Step by Step.

It's funny how sometimes one life experience correlates to another in a really profound way.  My weight loss has amazing correlations to my struggle with self-esteem.  

I've struggled since the fifth grade with intense self-esteem issues regarding how I look.  I remember that during middle school, I would literally cringe if I caught my reflection in the mirror.  That is how badly I felt about myself.  That's how ugly I thought I was.  

I went through a whole lot of mental anguish and torment for years and years.  I dealt with a great deal of foolishness from men because of how badly I felt I looked.  I spent lots of time thinking I had to settle because most likely, that was the best I could do.  I really believed that the world valued beauty much more than intelligence and so I was out of luck, despite how bright I might have been.  I classified myself as an ugly person and going through life, I also categorized other people.  I empathized with other "ugly" people and felt really low around "beautiful" people.  Being dark-skinned didn't help my cause at all.  Growing up, pretty usually meant being "fair" skinned with cooperative hair.  I didn't fit the bill.

Anyway, long story short, I'm in a place now where I can look in the mirror with ease and I like what I see.  Sure, there are times when parts of my body irritate me (like my post-pregnancy belly) but overall, I'm happy and satisfied with who I am and what I look like.  I wouldn't change anything.  Ten years ago, I had a whole list of things that I would love to be different.  

I think to myself that getting to this place where I'm reasonably comfortable with myself was a real process, a journey.  Sometimes I think folks who haven't struggled with these intense mental issues surrounding their look have a hard time understanding how paralyzing and difficult it can be to deal with those issues and also how daunting it can be to recover.  They often offer up simplistic explanations that boil down to "Think positively."  

For me, it's been helpful to devise small techniques to train my mind to think differently and to encourage myself when I feel down about myself.  My Buddhist practice has been tremendous in helping me to get here because finally, I realize down to the bottom of my soul that my worth doesn't have much to do with how I look.  To the contrary, I am inherently valuable.  I don't know what it is about the way Buddhism teaches this that resonated with me but it did and I got it.  This doesn't mean that I don't have to meditate on this truth consistently.  I really do.  Accepting my inherent value has also helped me do something that I had heard forever: stop comparing myself to others.  Instead, when I feel like I'm about to get super critical of myself in light of how someone else looks, I just observe the person's style and think about ways that I could maybe do something like that.  Negative thoughts are never far but doing this helps redirect my attention and I'm able to stifle those thoughts that would tear me down.  I also started to avoid certain publications, websites and books and surrounded myself with books like Meditations to Heal Your Life.  I read these kinds of books so much that they played like tapes in my head.  I got to the very root of my self-esteem issues and in so doing, was better able to heal myself. 

There are many other little things, baby steps, I've taken to move myself along on this journey to total self-acceptance.  I'm still on the road and I love it when I'm able to add other tools to my toolbox.

It's kind of like weight loss in that way.  It's difficult to fathom dropping 30 or 40 pounds.  But if you take it one pound at a time, one meal at a time, one bite at a time, the daunting becomes so possible.  

When I first decided I didn't want to feel so badly about myself any more, I was totally overwhelmed.  "Just love yourself!" "Just know that you are beautiful!" "How!?!" I would ask desperately.  But it's the same as weight loss. One thought at a time.  Step by step.  

Monday, August 16, 2010

Which should come first?

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that last year I got serious about fitness.  I started exercising regularly and began my yoga practice.  At the time, I was not working and our budget was seriously tight.  There was no way I could afford to take a weekly yoga class and even the specials that many yoga studios offered were out of my league.  But I knew I wanted to incorporate yoga into my fitness routine as a way to become more flexible and strong.  

Yoga has become much more to me over these past few months and I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to be introduced to it by . . . a DVD.  I can acknowledge that it would probably have been more ideal to have worked with a certified yoga instructor but I can also be honest and say that if I had waited to start practicing until I could afford it, I would probably still be waiting.  Doing yoga DVDs at home was not only cheap but convenient since I didn't have to travel anywhere to do them.  I'd simply wake up in the morning, toss on some comfortable clothes and get to it!

I know many recommend that you start practicing yoga under the guidance of a real instructor to avoid injury.  A yoga teacher would know about alignment and help his/her student get his/her body into the proper form.  That one-on-one is missing with yoga DVDs.  But happily, many yoga DVDs today are actually very detailed and precise.  One such DVD is Living Room Yoga Strengthen and Lengthen.  Other DVDs while not as precise, are slow enough and simple enough as to be easily accessible to even the most rank beginner.  One such routine is the Fat Burning Yoga program on Crunch: Perfect Yoga Workout.  

I've read a number of times that sometimes yoga practicitioners struggle to develop a home practice. since they practice primarily under the guidance of teacher in a class setting.  I think since I started at home, I really developed a love for my practice at home in solitude.  Oh, I enjoy the energy of a class but I find home practice invigorating too.  Another wonderful thing about practicing and studying on my own first is that when I first arrived at class,  I had a pretty good idea of terminology and of what was going on in general. 

I'm not advocating that people begin their yoga practice the way I did.  But I will say that it worked for me.  These DVDs gave me a way to start practicing.  They made it accessible to me.  I won't lament how expensive yoga classes can be now that yoga is a trend.  I won't point out that only folks who are doing pretty well financially could swing unlimited yoga classes.  I will point out that I can practice yoga as often as I want at home with my DVDs and not worry about breaking the bank.  I will also say that there is a book out there that really helped me maximize my yoga DVDs and it's called 30 Essential Yoga Poses.  The book offers detailed explanations as to what the body should be doing in each pose and why each pose is beneficial as well as warnings and contraindications.  So I don't have to worry about breaking something.  

I do want to deepen and extend my yoga practice (physical and spiritual) so I hope to one day soon be able to find an instructor who can help me.  I actually want to find a guru.  I'm not in the position now, but I want to take classes on a regular basis at some point. Certain poses I refuse to try at home on my own such as plow pose or headstand.  But I want to get there with the help of a teacher.  So please don't take this post as minimizing the importance of yoga instructors and yoga teachers.   

So if asked which should come first, classes or at home, I'd say that's a very individual decision that is largely based on one's own personality (will you try to force your body into doing things it's not ready for or are you able to listen to your body), likes and dislikes (some folks don't like any form of solitary exercise), and last but not least, intuition (see the post below). 

That little voice: intuition or unconscious reasoning?

I read an article in the July 2010 issue of Oprah Magazine called The Power of Eureka.  

I honestly believe that we know the answers to every complex question we are faced with and that deep down, we always know what to do next.  At times, we may be confused about the answers or the next step, but if we give ourselves a chance to be still, the answer will bubble to the surface in the form of a little voice.  After years of trying to hear the voice of God, I realize that for me, it's that little voice that I was searching for.  And that little voice it is nothing more than our own intuition.  Now some may say that when you get to that place where you can hear that little voice, you know that you and God are connected.  I tend to think that it is a certain intelligence that the Creator/Creative Force hard-wired into us when creating us.  

So this article intrigued me because it posits that:
While intuition may seem to arise from some mysterious inner source, it's actually a form of unconscious reasoning--one that's rooted in the way our brains collect and store information. 
It amazing to me that sometimes folks won't acknowledge "the mysterious" when "the mysterious" happens every day.  We don't know how the Earth stays on it's axis and night becomes day.  There's so many examples of "the mysterious" happening all around, things that we don't really have an explanation for that we accept and even embrace.  Who sits around agonizing about whether the sun will rise tomorrow?

In a similar vein, I think sometimes we know certain things without ever having experienced them and without being able to explain how we know it.  So it's not quite so accurate to reduce all our intuitive power to simple unconscious reasoning.  Sometimes, you just know.  And the more you pay attention to your intuition, I think, the more effectively your brain (the thinking part of you) is able to size up situations and make instant decisions that are right in line with your intuition.  In other words, your thinking self and your spiritual become more and more unified.  

The article says that "your intuition may not always steer you right" but I disagree.  I believe that you can't go wrong listening to your gut but here's my disclaimer: your heart and mind must be in the right place.  And I think that happens by cultivating a consistent time to go into yourself, be still, and figure out how to hear that little voice even when there's whole bunch of noise and nonsense going.  Some call it meditation but if you don't want to give it a haughty name, call it quiet time. 

In giving advice, the article says, "your intuition may be based on something superficial".  To me, that's so untrue.  Intuition, I think, is what grounds and connects us.  Something that powerful could never be superficial.  

And from my own personal experience, my head has lead me wrong a number of times.  My gut?  If I can hear it and if I choose to listen, had never done such a thing.  I'll trust my gut, thank you very much!

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