When I grow up…

I have always hated my birthday. My childhood birthdays were pretty horrific. I was the party planner in the family and this was the one event each year that I did not coordinate. I’m not sure why, since it would make sense to just plan and be done with it. Doing your own party seems (then and now) like you think too much of yourself.  Somehow my sixth birthday was forgotten or overlooked and six months later when there was a lunar landing (still a novelty back then) a post grad group of hippies were watching it on our TV getting stoned. Their forgotten progeny were put outside to look for the spaceship and I was told it was my belated birthday party.

Whoopee.

On my thirteenth birthday, my mother had newly rejoined the ranks of the conformist bourgeoisie after marrying a doctor the year before. She threw a fabulous surprise party for me to encourage my new stepfather’s admiration of her maternal skills. She invited the hot surfer boy I had had a crush on forever, but had never actually had the courage to talk to, and all the other misfit nerds, geeks and brains who I really belonged with. I was mortified. To this day I still cringe every time I think of it. I had a fabulous birthday at sixteen, when my parents (still the same stepfather) flew to San Francisco on my birthday weekend. They left me in the house alone, to have a party of unsanctioned debauchery, drunk driving, kamikaze shots and eventually vomiting on my Vice-Principal’s shoes. It’s a great story. 

But the first birthday that really and truly profoundly sucked was when I was twenty five and realized that a quarter of a century had passed and I really had very little to show for it. A divorce and drug addiction under my belt, a nomadic existence, a career of fits and starts, and a journey filled with as many stamps on my passport as I could get to hide the fact that I had no ultimate destination. I had blown the one legitimate opportunity I had at happiness up to this point. I grappled on that quarter century birthday about what I wished to accomplish in my life. So much of my life was already gone, I thought. I reasoned that I was already a complete failure by not doing something notable.

In retrospect I really was as much of a self centered, egocentric, pretentious little fuck as I sound like.

I was raised in the Southern California that was still a hamlet of tiny little towns populated with perfect surf gods. I was not one of those skinny beach girls, born with perfect tits and abs and a perky little bum just large enough to hold up a string bikini. I had enormous buck teeth, huge cheeks, and the fashion sense of a commune dweller. I was also the ridiculously bright savant who cooked by three and read Shakespeare at five. Yet, I was told repeatedly, after the age of twelve, by my perfect and beautiful mother, that she could not relate to me, since I was fat. (True. I was, and yes, she actually said it.) Accordingly, I spent the next four decades doing my best to remedy my un-relatable fatness and emulate the perfect Southern California look. So if somehow I have managed to arrive in the first blush of middle age looking damn good for my age (a back handed compliment if there ever was one), it is because I have spent a ridiculous amount of time working at not being fat, and now not being old. I was taught to evaluate myself for the standard of how I looked, and not for what was inside my skin. Yet, rather than throw out the broken and archaic record of her voice, I have held it inside my head and allowed it to play for most of my adult life.  Consequently, I am terrified of the love handles and flabby excesses that most people laugh off. If my size goes over a certain number, I panic. I have learned not to weigh myself, so I don’t go into a tail spin of bulimarexia. The question I should ask myself is not why I look the way I do as I brush middle age, but why I have thought it was so important to do so.

I always thought that life had to be a collection of vast accomplishments: a hit parade of “I did,” and “I have,” and “I am.”  Living an existence that was somehow extraordinary, but most importantly as part of a life where I was always considered beautiful. What did it matter if I won a “Best of” this or that award if I was not thin when I did it? In reality, I look at the overlay of my life as a composite of what size I wore. My memories are defined by how I felt about my weight at any given moment; not by the actual event. No memory or time that I perceived myself to be fat has any positive connotations whatsoever.

I partied far too much in the 80s’, and snorted cocaine and starved myself so I could model and have the perfect NYC heroin chic figure. Into my twenties, I worked in swanky Village gastro pubs and never ate the food. If I did, I threw it up religiously, so my size never went over a double zero. For the next two decades, I mostly drank my calories as a substitute for actually eating any of the food I cooked to nourish everyone else. Pregnancy was the worst. The memory itself is overlaid with an internal horror of body dysmorphia.  After my last baby, my size increased permanently to a new number, so I tried every over the counter diet aid and skin smoother in the world. As far as my ass and thighs go, you name it and I have done it to them. Any cellulite remedy in existence has been injected, swallowed, rubbed, slathered, jiggled, sliced, popped, wrapped and rolled on the offending surface.

More money than I care to think about has gone onto my epidermis in the form of skin creams and facials to perpetuate the illusion of youth. As the quintessential consumer, I have desperately consumed every new remedy, technique, pill, exercise aid, diet, and internet scam. I have read every post regarding 5 foods that you really shouldn’t eat. I have clicked on every link about what this housewife discovered about Ellen’s wrinkle secrets. I have spent far too much time trying to make that which physically defines us last longer than it normally does. I wince and cringe, rather than look in the mirror. I cannot take a compliment without a self deprecating remark.  

I never felt I was beautiful, because I haven’t been.  Nothing ever worked, because what was missing was not on the outside, but inside within the banality of my value system. I understand that sounds harsh. But let’s be really clear here. For most of my adult life I have used the operating system that I was taught, and those are very low standards indeed. I was raised thinking that if I wasn’t skinny, then I didn’t have any value. I was ‘unrelatable.’  What I did not have to do was take those lessons with me throughout my adulthood. I did not have to continue to believe that my thunder thighs meant a bad person lurked inside me, with no will power and no redeeming value.

There was a point in time during the horrific divorce to Holly’s father, that I had nothing and nobody to mark what and who I was. He struck the first crippling blow in a divorce that would last for the next four years, and finish well into the mid six figures, solely to the benefit of the lawyers. As I was reeling from the Napalm of his preliminary attack, I took a job in a restaurant far from home under an assumed name. In my early thirties, I lived what was essentially a freshman dorm lifestyle. All my assets were frozen. Thanks to the completeness of his preliminary and vicious filing, I had no possessions (not even clothing), no career, and no attachments. My life was stripped of family and the trappings of success in the most brutal way imaginable. He (and my mother) had finally and completely and viciously figured out the way to make me toe their line.

It was at this point in my life that I could have potentially grown; stepped away from the person I had become – shallow, narcissistic, vain, and selfish. I chopped off my red hair and died it dark brown in an attempt to be someone else. But changing how I looked on the outside did not change who I was and how I felt about that person. I was so angry: angry at the injustice of my upbringing, angry at the abuse they had both heaped on me throughout my childhood and adult life. Mostly I was just angry at being valued as chattel. Who’s fault was all this? My mother was the one whom I automatically blamed. Then I added Holly’s father to the list for good measure. The bottom line was that I was the victim, right?  I was the one born to the family with all the baggage of having to be perfect or not being loved. I was the one that deserved the sympathy.

Right? Right? Yeah, right…

It was beginning to ring hollow. Even to me.

 So I began the second half of my life with the realization that something was deeply missing. Somehow I had missed the part where the teacher gave you instructions. I was just beginning to realize halfway through the test, that I had no fucking clue what was happening. Obviously I was supposed to be learning something here. But it was like taking the SAT in kindergarten. I was in completely over my head. I was acting out a part that wasn’t really me. But I had been trapped in the role so long, I didn’t even think about whether it was my true identity. I was searching constantly for something that would bring me ‘peace’ or ‘happiness,’ without even understanding what the words meant. I had numerous affairs because casual sex is always a good remedy for a confused heart. I focused on making my body absolutely perfect. Tummy tuck, Botox, laser everything … five hour workouts daily… I consumed my calories entirely in vodka and red meat, and I wondered why I couldn’t get enough endorphins to take away the sadness.  I thought that you somehow got a pass simply for being the one that had it tough. But then somewhere in the midst of this rather ordinary life and this rather ordinary story of angst and self absorption, something extraordinary happened. By being stripped of everything that defines you (unfairly or not, turned out to be irrelevant) it turns out that you have to discover if you are the person you thought you were. The whole question of victim or perpetrator and right or wrong somehow became unimportant. I belatedly learned that we are not a sum of our accomplishments or our possessions. But rather we are the actions we take to change things in our world; the strides we take on our individual journey. It turned out that over the time it took me to “win” the divorce and fall in and out of several more relationships; I discovered that I am not defined by any standards that I had previously considered important. I was the person who was contained within the skin and not on the surface. I discovered that the challenges that I had been agonizing over my whole life were merely lessons that I needed to learn. If I didn’t get them the first time, the universe would obligingly be offering them again and again and again ad nauseam, until somehow I finally figured it out. Somehow I had to get past the point of just seeing myself as a physical being that was merely a sum of the desirable parts, and start seeing myself as a person who had value independent of ass or dress size. I went back and relearned the lesson of listening to understand what people were trying to tell me. I started becoming the chef that I was supposed to be who cared about what people wanted, cared about what made them happy. Most of all I learned to listen to what they needed. I had been the chef that was so self-absorbed with my own brilliance and creativity that I couldn’t see what was on the plate. I realized that I could let go of the need for recognition and the need to always know what was best. It was amazingly freeing.

 

I’d like to say that it happened all at once, but it didn’t. I’d like to say that I had that grand moment of enlightenment that was profound, and I was held in the hand of God, but I wasn’t. It took several more years. But the change had begun, and over the next few years I discovered what did not matter was the grand accomplishments or the fame and fortune that I had thought I needed to make me happy. What mattered was the smallness of my life, the little tiny intimate details of love and gentleness. The things that made my life big and important were not the best of this, the best of that, the best blah blah blah awards, but the meatless meals that I made for people, kind food that made them truly happy. I discovered that happiness was what we chose it to be, and where we chose it to be, and most importantly that we had a choice on whether we wanted to be happy or not. It is the moments of your everyday life that matter. It is the giving of yourself completely without ego or agenda. It is the change of a belief system that allows you to become committed to a cause and a way of life that is bigger than your own. It is the surprise birthday present to a dear friend of vegan cake, the snuggle and chocolate avocado pudding that you bring to your cranky teenager, the vegetables that you dice into funny shapes in order to make your picky eleven year old eat them, and the late night hummus and cracker bed picnics with your lover. I made the decision when I met Michael that I would never raise my voice or fight with him. Quite simply, I have discovered that I do not need to be right over being happy. And I have found out that happy actually means listening to other voices rather than the ones in my head. Happy means making a choice to live a plant based life because by doing so I make the world better for other living things. Happy means realizing that the universe is not responsible for your happiness. I have discovered that while I still am completely obsessed with whether cellulite has found its way to my thighs (and if I told you I stopped fighting it, that would be a complete lie) my children and Michael really do believe that I am the most beautiful person in the world, not because the mirror says so, but because they see me that way in their heart. I am beautiful now because I love my family and friends in a way that makes me so. I am beautiful now because it is no longer all about me. They each know how completely loved they are and that they are loved without judgment, condition or doubt. And that is the most profound gift I could wish for; I finally have become beautiful inside.

I posted yesterday on Facebook “I have discovered that if I take off my glasses I am ten years younger and 15 pounds lighter.” What a perfect solution. If I can merely look at myself with a different lens, then why can I not soften the glare?  There are a lot of things I look at in a different way than I have ever done before. I am beginning to unpack the baggage that I was hanging onto. The messages of my childhood, girlhood and womanhood that revolved around my size and how my value as a human being is inextricably entwined with my waistline are still a nagging whisper in my consciousness. But I can also look back at a lifetime and know that I have done things that matter and that I have had grand accomplishments. I have made thousands of meatless meals for so many wonderful people and each one of those has mattered. Maybe it was not what I had initially intended at 25, but the reality is that life is about doing something for others and not about accomplishments for my own self aggrandizement. I look back over the last ten years and I don’t see a dress size. I see a life. I no longer have, or never have had, the body I visualized. But now that makes me no less of a mother, chef, vegan, activist, or woman.

The ravages of age are what they are. I am in no way the eighteen year old who starved and vomited her way to physical perfection. I have an ass that sags, a neck that wobbles, wrinkles in spots that I didn’t know you could wrinkle. I have aged in ways I could never have imagined. I turn my mirror to the farsighted point of view and remove my glasses, so that I don’t obsess about that which is unchangeable. What concerns me is that I have not evolved enough over the last several decades to not be the person who despairs over my image in the mirror, even though I no longer equate that image with self worth. If I am not above caring about such things then what good was all the traumatic growth? I desperately want to be that person who is ok with aging. I still am not no matter how hard I struggle. I want to say that being vegan and being happy has made me not care at all what the mirror says, but I would be lying.

This week before my birthday my children and Michael were going through trunks of photos from my life. Michael said that I “have not changed a bit” since my modeling glamour shots of the 80’s. The girls were giggling about pictures of me pregnant. They did not see the enormity of my belly, but wanted to know which of them it was inside that belly. They kissed the pictures and hoarded their favorites in their bedside drawers and baby boxes. Michael picked through some saucy sex kitten modeling shots in the excessive style of the 80’s  and told me I was more beautiful now than then. Of course, it was laughable to see me as unchanged, but why could I not see it from his perspective? I would not trade my life now for that size double zero body. That is progress, I suppose.

He sees me as the woman that he loves, and to him I am beautiful. He is completely smitten (still), and kisses me every time as if it were the first. My children still call me ‘mommy’ and battle ever night over who gets the first or the longest snuggle. I have friends that love me regardless of whether I am a celebrated chef and award winning restaurateur or an unemployed writer spinning stories into the dark void of the internet.

My life is a gift that I am just beginning to unwrap.

Happy, happy, happy birthday to me.

 

Champagne and Birthday Cake

1 cup Organic Cane Juice Sugar

1 2/3 – 1 3/4 cups unbleached flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 tablespoons vegan margarine

1 tablespoon champagne vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 cup Champagne or Proseco

Directions

Preheat oven to 340 degrees and use convection setting if you have it.

Grease and sprinkle some flour into an 8 inch cake pan or round of your choice. I like to cut rounds of wax paper for the bottom and grease them. Cakes never stick that way

In a large bowl combine sugar, flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt

Cut the vegan margarine into your dry ingredients

In another bowl combine vegetable oil, vinegar, vanilla extract, and champagne to the bowl, mix well

Pour wet ingredients into dry and mix well.

Pour cake batter immediately into pan and bake.

Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes or, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

Remove cake from oven and allow to cool in the pan before turning over. Makes one nine inch round.

 

Frosting

2 cups confectioner sugar

½ cup vegan margarine (very slightly softened)

1 TB vanilla extract

Dash champagne

Whip everything together and chill well. Drink the rest of the champagne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 Responses

  1. Ah, sweet Gretchen, you are such a fabulous writer. I could feel your pain in every word. Having come from that same culture of pounds equals worth, I was right there with you. My mother is now banned from asking, “How much do you weigh?, What size is that?” etc. Basing a woman’s value so much on her appearance was something created by men and bought into by women of the past. Beauty is so ephemeral. Yesterday I was putting together an alphabet book for my new great niece and my mother suggested writing “P is for pretty”. “No”, I said, “P is for play with whatever you want!” Of course, my mother is 98. Times have changed and aren’t we lucky they have!

    You should make this blog of your life a book! You are such a fantastic writer.

    1. dear one, we sure got handed the best and the worst of being women in the twentieth century didn’t we? I only hope that our children and grandchildren grow and change how we perceive our self worth and value. From your lips to Gods ears. Manuscript is finished, just waiting right now for some magic.

  2. Sorry for your pain. You have expressed your life very clearly and I believe you have truly moved on to what is now a happy ending. I say, You go girl!!! Have a wonderful birthday now and many more to come. You do have so much to be thankful. Best to you in your journey.

    1. My point was not about MY pain, but about the journey of our generation. Hope that came across. We need to do a better job with our daughters. You and I have both raised strong and capable girls who believe their value is not skin deep but heart deep. We can, and will, make future generations of men and women who are not valued by themselves, and others, for their color, their size, their looks, their acceptability. They will love each other and accept differences as part of the beautiful rainbow fabric of our country.

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