Signs of spring

If you live in New York, have you been outside today? Yesterday? I certainly hope so, because even though it's still April, it felt like summer arrived this weekend.

I had some fun yesterday on an 80-mile ride that took us through orchards and along meandering rivers in Rockland County, northwest of New York City. My seatpost kept slipping down during my ride -- it has been slipping in spits and bursts for the last few weeks, but yesterday it slipped about an inch in a matter of minutes, and I spent the first half of the ride feeling like I was riding on a kiddie bike, my knees up in my chin. A riding buddy came up with the ingenious solution of attaching a clamp hose, begged from an auto repair shop along the route, right above the original clamp. That got me through the ride, and by the time the entire group met up for some beers by the river, the repair job was the talk of the day. Photo courtesy of another rider in our. Cyclists are such tech geeks! Imagine someone taking a picture of this repair job, just because it was clever. But I'm slowly seeing the charms of this way of thinking about bikes, and you can be sure that one of my first stops today was the bike shop, to get a real replacement clamp.

Like last spring, I feel so grateful this year to spend so much of my time outdoors. My biking habit exposes me to so many of the green spaces of New York and its environs, that there are times when I really forget that I'm living in one of the most densely packed cities in the U.S. This morning, for example, I rode my bike across the Hudson River, over the George Washington Bridge to Fort Lee, New Jersey, where I cruised for 10 miles down "River Road," a paved trail through the forested banks of the Palisades Park. I have seen coyotes on this route, and hawks above, and I have picked raspberries from the rocky hillside -- enough wilderness to satisfy this city girl.

This is the time of year when the cherry trees are blooming in New York, when the daffodils are just about to pass, and the magnolias have been with us for a few weeks (oh, the magnolias!). Growing up in Minnesota, where only a few hardy crab-apple trees could survive the cold winters, I was surprised to move to New York and discover how many trees, and not just bushes and flowers, can actually bloom! This evening Chuan and I took a walk down the main pathway through Columbia University, just as the sun was setting orange above the Hudson. We walked through Riverside Park, where we saw tulips and daffodils, bleeding hearts and Dutchman's breeches, periwinkle and dogwoods. We turned at Grant's Tomb, entered Sakura Park (with its namesake cherry trees all a-flutter with pink blooms), and then headed home.

At our return, I promised Chuan a special dessert. "You know," I said, "How there are always things that are strawberries-and-cream flavored? Well, we're going to have the real thing and you can see what it's like." (This is what is delightful about having a spouse from a different culture: I get to show him all sorts of things for the first time, and see his wonder.)

When I was growing up, and we spent summers in Maine visiting my grandmother, my mother would sometimes serve my sister and me blueberries and cream, or strawberries and cream, or whatever wonderful New England berry was in season. This is a summer treat, to be sure, and though the calendar says that it is still spring, New York seems to have jumped from winter to summer in less than a fortnight's time. So Chuan and I had strawberries and cream for dessert, after our sunset on the Hudson. Not a bad way to end the weekend, or to celebrate this inter-season.



Today I want to talk about menstruation (without sounding like your junior high health teacher!).

I am having my period again for the first time in over eight years.

Let me explain: My doctor recently removed the intrauterine device (IUD) that I have been using ever since my first year in college, when my periods were long and painful. After one particular cycle when I bled for over a month straight, my doctor suggested that I might benefit from hormonal birth control, which would regulate my periods. I tried taking "the pill" but I had trouble remembering to take it every day, and so I switched to the Mirena IUD. About 30% of women who use this IUD will stop having their periods after a few months, and I was one of the lucky (I thought at the time) few.

So now that I don't have my IUD, my periods are coming back. And, surprisingly, I am quite happy about it! I felt a little burst of excitement when I saw blood again; it reminded me of the first time that I had my period, how grown-up and mature and womanly it made me feel. Of course, it's messy, it's inconvenient, and I keep forgetting that I need to bring tampons and pantiliners with me everywhere -- but some part of me is still really happy to be having my period again.

These eight bloodless years remind me of Federico Garcia Lorca's play Yerma, about a barren woman in a barren land who longs for a child but cannot conceive. The whole landscape of the play is desolate, empty, desperate. Part of my life during these years felt like that, too: the part connected with my eating disorder. Many women with eating disorders stop having their period (amenorrhea is still a criterion for anorexia); in my case, it is hard to tell if my period stopped because of my IUD alone, or because of the IUD and the eating disorder. My doctors never knew what to think, either, when I told them that I hadn't had a period in years.

Well, now I know that it was mostly the IUD that was responsible, because as soon as it came out I started to bleed again. I mean, almost immediately -- within hours -- as if the blood was just waiting to start flowing again. But even though I can attribute my barrenness to a medical device, I still feel that the return of my cycle signals another step towards healing myself of my eating disorder, by replacing the desolation of my inner landscape with a fertile course.

What else has been dammed up inside me, waiting to get out?

What sources of creativity and fulfillment have been blocked in my life?

How can I release the pent-up waters and bring bounty back into my life?

I don't have the answers, yet. But I am profoundly grateful for the blood between my legs, for the spring that is rising, and for the irresistible pull I feel towards wholeness, and redemption, and sanity.


Unfettered but still (a bit) fearful

A few things have been on my mind lately, regarding those oft-touched upon subjects here: food and weight.

As you may know, I have recently taken up road cycling with a heady enthusiasm. Yesterday I rode 71 miles with my cycling club; today I did a (briefer) 22 mile morning ride on the Jersey side of the Hudson. All these miles translate into a lot more food for this busy body, and I have to admit that it makes me somewhat uncomfortable to have to re-set my appestat yet another time.

What I mean is this: for the last four years or so, ever since I re-established "normal" eating habits, I have had a pretty good sense of how much food my body needs every day. (Disclaimer:
Such knowledge didn't come easy!) Sure, a run here or there could change the equation, but in general I knew how much to eat. Any deviation from that "normal" point for me was an indicator that other things were going on in my life -- non-food issues -- that were somehow getting translated into eating behaviors. Thus I knew, for example, that if I really really really wanted a third cookie, it probably wasn't about the cookie. I could have it anyway, but eventually I would have to deal with whatever issue was behind the cookie-longing in the first place.

Now, however, I'm not sure about that cookie. My rides are making me HUNGRY like I haven't felt in years. So when I come home and finish dinner and still want to eat, I am not sure what that is about. It may be just that I have had a really long ride, and my body is begging me for more food (most likely). But I am uncomfortable with my own hunger, and I am sure that this stems from how I dealt with hunger in the past: it could be that the hunger I feel after a ride is a reminder of how it used to feel when I forced hunger on myself and then chased it down with excess food and a large dose of regret.

Right now, I find it hard to "listen to my body" and distinguish between hunger-that-comes-from-hard-exercise and the memory of hunger-that-sets-up-a-binge. I find it difficult, but not impossible: I haven't slipped back into out-and-out binges, nor have I purposefully sought out hunger for its own sake. At the least, I feel that, by writing about this and admitting it, I am one step closer to getting a better handle on my hunger this time around.

Getting into cycling has reminded me that there are so many areas of my life that have been touched by -- and limited by -- my eating disorder. I would not dared have tried cycling even a few years ago, in fear of getting back into the old pattern of deprivation/binge. But now that I am doing it, and managing my fears as best I can, I can see other ways in which my eating disorder, and even my recovery from it, have constrained my behavior. As the fetters gradually come loose with this one new activity, I wonder where I'll find other sources of growth in my life.


Music for the better times

I don't write about it much here, but I love music. I played viola in youth orchestras when I was growing up, and from that time I retain a love for Beethoven, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Mozart, Sibelius, and Mahler. But I also love bossa nova and fado and American folk music, West African music and tabla music from India, obscure Baroque masters and modern Cape Verdean geniuses. Music gets me through the day, from the moment I wake up to the hour I go to bed; it's rare for me to make it through the whole day without listening to something, and more often than not my iPod battery is worn out by the time I get home at night.

I even think that music has played a role in my recovery from my eating disorder. Sometimes, when things were really bad and I was avoiding the urge to throw up, I would shut myself up in my room and listen to my favorite songs over and over again, grounding myself in the music so that I could focus on something besides food. Nowadays, when I am in a bad mood, feeling lonely, or simply bored, I can find so much meaning in music.

Take Leonard Cohen's "Anthem." I don't care so much for the honky arrangement (if you've heard it you know what I mean), but I love the words:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in...

This winter, when I was dealing with all of the drama and humilliation at work, I listened to this song almost every day before I headed out. It did me good to remind myself that I needn't be perfect -- nay, that my very imperfections were what made me human, made me beautiful. I clung to this song like a lifeline, as it indeed was.

What songs get you through the day? What songs do you listen to when you want to celebrate the good things in life? What songs fill you when you are feeling depressed? Please share them with me -- I am always looking for good music!

Lately, these are the song that have made their way onto my "Feel good list" on my iPod:

Joni Mitchell -- Come in from the cold, Carey, California, All I want
Cry Cry Cry -- Cold Missouri Waters
Cristina Branco -- Há palavras que nos beijam
Jewel -- Jupiter
The Be Good Tanyas -- Lakes of Pontchartrain
Ceumar -- Pra la, Dindinha
Clara Nunes -- Canto das tres raças
Luciana Souza -- Eu nao existo sem voce
Roberta Sá -- A vizinha do lado
Abigail Washburn -- Song of the traveling daughter
Leonard Cohen -- Anthem

Please, let me know what you're listening to!

~Ai Lu


Cycling around

I have been thinking about some of the comments on my last post, especially those from Katharine and the Jenninat0r, about men and sports and eating disorders.

Maybe I came across as a bit naive in my last post, thinking that by participating in group sports with men, I am exposing myself to fewer eating issues than if I were with women. (Note: avoiding other athletes with disordered eating is not the reason that I have taken up cycling -- it just seems to be a side effect of the fact that more men than women are road bikers.) I do recognize that men also have insecurities regarding their bodies and what they put into them; these insecurities are probably accentuated, not diminished, among male athletes in comparison to other men. But for me, as a woman, I enjoy being in a place where the focus is not on my body as a female body per se, but as an athletic, fast body. Maybe this would still be the case if I knew more serious female athletes, but my cycling club happens to have more men than women.

To date, I haven't spent enough time around the club members to know what hidden fantasies they might have of getting fitter and buffer from cycling (I have already written about my own!); for now, I am enjoying the apparent absence of such longings, as it gives me the space to focus on more important things (like the fit of my bike, not my clothes!).

One good thing that I have seen so far, was a message from one of our group leaders before our first ride. Instead of advertising cycling as a weight-loss activity (as some people might), he drove home another point, saying: "Now is not the time to start a diet. You'll be working really hard on these rides in the next twelve weeks, and your bodies will burn thousands of calories on each long ride. So don't diet or you won't be able to get through the season!"

I liked hearing that. It reminded me that, in some arenas, we simply cannot eat enough good food. Cyclists, marathoners, cross-country skiers and other endurance athletes know this intuitively, but it did me good to hear it stated outright.

~Ai Lu

P.S. Thanks, also, to Tiptoe for gently reminding me of the fact that some of the men in my club might like the sight of a young woman in spandex tights -- but I'm OK with that, because these days I like what I see, too. :-)