Tuesday, January 11, 2011

sardine cans and second chances.

Listening To: Windows Are Rolled Down by Amos Lee. Reminds me of summer :)
I discovered the song because I loved the way: Scott Frampton described it in this month's Marie Claire: "Burnt-Sugar vocals catch your heart as much as your ears. Backed by 0pen-road roots rock and a slide guitar that howls like a coyote, Lee's heartbreak feels so big, it could fill the landscape outside your car."

Last week I happened upon strawberries that looked like real strawberries. In January, I typically find lots of strawberry-shaped red berries. They look the same as their sweet-summer counterparts, but they taste like gummy-water. But these smelled for real. So I bought them.

I devoured them.

They were delicious. My mother, the pie-wizard, has promised for some time that she would show me how to make strawberry freezer-jam. So we bought some more. We chopped berries and boiled sugar and turned up the Eagles. I pulsed the food processor in rhythm to "Take It Easy" while we jammed (zing!) and, in very little time, we had a delicious pink-sugar goo that is surely what dreams are made of.

I was twisting the lid off one of the jam jars when my mom shouted, "Your arm! Look at your arm!"

And I freaked out and nearly dropped the jar onto the ground, where it would have surely shattered into a thousand strawberry-gooped shards, because: 1.) the jam process involves knives and food processors and stuff with blades. Ninja stuff.

And thus: 2.) I assumed I'd accidentally hacked off my arm. That sort of plot-twist would not be uncommon in the ongoing saga of Natalie vs. The Kitchen.

Before I could inspect my bloody stub, my mom grabbed the camera and snapped a picture and shoved the camera in my face and screamed, "Look!"

I said, "Is it a flesh wound?!"

She said, in a voice that contained no small amount of shock, "There is a muscle in the back of your arm! Your arm looks great!"

I grabbed the camera. I zoomed in on the picture. I squinted. I zoomed more. I craned my neck around to look at the back of my arm. I shrugged my shoulders."I don't see it ... but it's about time!"

This is why it is about time for the phantom muscle to show itself:Of all the shocking things that happened in 2010, not the least of these is the fact that I now exercise regularly. Since May of 2010, I've worked out 4 or 5 days a week. If you'd told me a year ago that I would be typing that sentence, I would have suggested you were crazy-go-nuts.

Fact: I used to start exercising a couple of weeks before my yearly physical so that I could say I worked out "regularly."

Now I seriously workout regularly. In fact, on many occasions, I have moved things around in my day so that I can make time to workout. Before you stop reading, please hear this disclaimer: I am not super-fit. I do not have the strong or graceful physique of an athlete (but I think it's cool if you do!). I'm not obsessed with calories or fitness or endorphins or anything like that. This blog will never become a fitness blog. I semi-jokingly say that I workout so that I can eat dreamthings; like strawberry jam-goo, like truffle fries, like those glorious white chocolate Oreos that only come out at Christmas.

But, if I'm being for-serious, I started working out because I needed to get healthy. I hesitate to type that for so many reasons. I know many women, especially young women, think they need to lose weight even if they don't. This was particularly true for me in high school. Now that I have 10+ years on my high school experience, I can look back and see that I was way too self-obsessed - not in a mean-girl "I'm so pretty" way. But I thought about what I hated about myself so much that it became a whole other kind of self-obsession. A kind that is no less detrimental. A kind that still makes you no fun at all to be around. I wasted way too much time looking in a mirror and picking out the parts of me I hated. I hope you don't do that. I hope you can see how gorgeous you are, already. No sit-ups required.

My decision to be healthy wasn't grounded in poor self image. I had a few bad habits I needed to squash. In a very un-dramatic, un-trendy way, I made a few changes.

Before this year, the whole "getting healthy" thing was something I committed to no less than a thousand times in a 365-day span. This year, I really did it. I look very different than I did before. Working out was not the biggest thing that changed in me (or about me); but it was one of them.

Now, when I exercise, as corny as this sounds, I do it for other reasons besides the occasional free pass for tacos. I work out:

1.) to stay mobile. Cause writing just isn't conducive to moving.

The only physical attribute writing contributes to a person's body is an unwelcome phenomenon called "Writer's Butt." It is not awesome.

And 2.) because I am crazy grateful for my body. And I am so crazy-grateful I can move it.

My body is about a million photoshop effects from anything "perfect." I will always be soft in places. I have scars and quirks and twists. But because of the BIG thing that happened this year (a thing that has nothing to do with the working out) (a thing I want to write about ... but I'm not sure how to write about), I no longer obsess over that stuff like I used to.

And when I workout, in those rare moments that I'm restraining myself from screaming inappropriate things at the screen, I think about how much I love having a body that moves and works and lifts weights and builds muscle.

The human body is a miracle.
A machine.
A work of art.
Mud and star-breath
and bone and heart.

Which brings me to my phantom muscle:

For a while now, I've been doing a new, quite intense workout (well ... intense to me) that I can only describe as a psycho ballet-yoga-pilates hybrid with weights and very small, specific movements and


My. Lanta.

When the instructor says, "Now let's begin thigh work."

... Every muscle within my body screams NO THIGH WORK!!! I've tried lots of workouts, but I've never tried any that look so deceptively easy (this thing is no impact) and are so very difficult to do. This workout involves being wholly engaged - physically and mentally. My legs go jello. My arms shake. I am sore the next day.

And yet, for reasons I cannot understand, I am addicted to this workout. I love the rush that comes with finishing something difficult. I was drawn to it, initially, because I read about how much it focuses on posture and movement and positioning of the body. Also, the instructor had lots of modifications listed for people (like me) with serious back problems. (I had seen the workout recommended for people with chronic back problems - the founder rooted the movements in both dance and physical therapy - interesting combo, yes?) As silly as this may sound, I feel elegant when I'm doing this workout; even though I'm not a graceful individual. I'm becoming more conscious of how I stand, and how I walk, how my posture looks when I'm sitting in front of the computer. But more than the elegance of it; I feel tough when I do it. This workout is not sissy stuff.

I read feedback about the exercises that said muscle tone shows up fairly quickly because of how isolated the movements are. However, I didn't think muscle tone would show up on me. Cause I'm me.
My body hasn't undergone some pyscho-crazy makeover, but I can see how, if you commit to this thing, you could eventually see changes. You would have to. Each workout lasts an hour and, when I'm finished, I feel muscles that I didn't even know I had.

I was pretty darn excited that my mom noticed my phantom muscle. Because the exercises for that area (the muscle on the back of the arm ... what's that called? Trapazoid?) are killer.

There are weights. Then push-ups. Then comes the killer move that makes the backs of my arms feel like little furnaces. I approach that portion of the DVD with no small amount of dread.

A few days ago, I tried to do the second level of the workout, just to see how it was different than the one I'm doing now. When the instructor came to the arms-of-fire portion of the DVD, I set my mind to finishing, and I did. "Perhaps this is getting easier!" I thought.

*cue the sound of the universe laughing at me*

And as if the instructor could read my mind, she said, "Take a deep breath now. Because we're going to do that set again."

And I thought, "I am not doing another set!"

And then I screamed, "Biscuit! I cannot do another set!"

Biscuit wiggled her tail.

(Biscuit mostly lays around and chews on her toys while I work out. Except when I do floor-work ... at that point, she likes to blow her squeaker in my face. I jokingly called her my personal trainer once. I think she took me seriously.)

The instructor leaned toward the camera and said this: "Life is full of second chances. Make the most of this chance. Commit to finish. See this through."

Now. I realize that may sound very corny. Maybe it is corny. Do you remember the part in The Holiday, when Kate Winslet's character says, "I like corny! I need corny in my life!" I am so like that. I like corny. And I needed that particular reminder in a big way. I have lived that reminder this year. I used to be a chronic commitment-phobe. Last year, I committed in several areas and I saw major big changes.

I don't just like beginnings now. I like the rush that comes with finishing something difficult.

So I took a deep breath. I gritted my teeth.

I finished the next set. For the rest of the day, my arms burned. And my mind whirled.

I thought about how life is full of second chances.

I thought about New Years Eve; the most celebrated second chance that comes around every 365 days or so.

This year, on New Year's Eve, I was reading when the sparkle-ball tumbled down. My lamp was the only light still shining. There was no TV. No music. I had planned to read until midnight, then go turn on the television and watch the confetti-storm in Times Square. But I forgot and kept reading. I didn't even know the new year had fallen until my neighbor ran down the street with a bicycle horn screaming "Happy New Year!" (Tis a quirky little neighborhood ;)

I guess I'm a little meh over New Year for a big reason:

I think every day can be a new year.

Maybe you just screwed up big. Maybe you just made a mistake that makes your heart feel taffy-pulled in a thousand directions. Maybe the past few hours, days, and weeks have utterly, totally sucked. Maybe everybody around you is throwing confetti. But you are still grieving, or still searching, or still waiting for your life to start happening.

I was reading about Alex Haley this week when I found this gem of a quote:

"Living in a New York basement apartment as a struggling writer just after World War II, Haley found himself down to these "two cans of sardines and eighteen cents." Not to be discouraged, he took this as a sign that, "there is no way to go but up," and kept these mementos to always remind him of his humble beginnings." (from Historic Tennessee by James A. Crutchfield)

Some years are full of sardine cans, yes? The good news is that there is no where to go but up. Jo Rowling said it like this in her speech to the Harvard grads: "Rock bottom became the foundation on which I built my life." That gives me chills.

Last year, April 30th was my rock bottom. And May 1 became my new year. That was the day I took hold of my second chance. I made a commitment that I had made hundreds of times before. In 2010, I saw it through. My sister asked me why I haven't blogged about it yet and the truth is that I don't know how. For now, I can most confidently blog this: Thank God for second (and third and forth and fifth) chances.

Maybe your Year of the Rabbit hasn't been hoppity-boppity so far. If not, please don't stress. I'll try not to stress either. Because today can be our new year. And so can tomorrow. And ten days after this, too. Throw some confetti if you want. Or run down the street and squeak a bicycle horn. Or maybe just light a candle and let this beginning fold over your heart all quiet and bright. Shiny and hopeful. New.

This is what I was reading when 2011 swooped into town:

"Why would you ever complain, ... saying:
'God has lost track of me. He doesn't care what happens to me'?

Don't you know anything? Haven't you been listening?
God doesn't come and go. God lasts. He's Creator of all you can see or imagine.
He doesn't get tired out, doesn't pause to catch his breath.
And he knows everything, inside and out.

He energizes those who get tired,
gives fresh strength to dropouts.
For even young people tire and drop out,
young folk in their prime stumble and fall.
But those who wait upon God get fresh strength.
They spread their wings and soar like eagles,
They run and don't get tired,
they walk and don't lag behind." (Isaiah 40:27-31 The Message)

I'm not sure if I was reading that at the end of one year or the beginning of another. I like not knowing. I like it when endings fade into new adventures.

I don't do resolutions because they're too easy for me to bust and break and bend. (Resolution doesn't have the same ring to it as a goal. I do set goals.)

But, when this year is over, I want to be able to look back and say these things:

This was a year when I set my heart to finish what I began.

This was a year when I lived fearlessly.

This was a year when I flew.

And when I fell ... I got back up, shook the dust out of my feathers, and flew again.

So here's to the year of the rabbit. May it be full of second chances, sardine cans, and strawberry jam. And workouts that make me feel like a machine. A ninja-girly, jam-making, story-telling, cowboy-boot-wearing machine. ;)

(How beautiful is this video?)

I would love to hear your hopes for this new year in the comments!


  1. Lovely post, Natalie! I'm so proud of you for sticking to your work out plan. :) This is coming from the girl whose idea of working out is walking on the treadmill once every few months, and who just finished scraping the melted chocolate chip mass from the bottom of her huge cup of hot chocolate. :)

    By the way, those white fudge Oreos are some of the bests things ever. My brother and I each got a box for Christmas. His was gone in a few days. I ate one a day to make them last as long as possible. :) It's just a rip-off that they only come with like 12 cookies, instead of the normal amount!

    My hopes for the new year are to be content and satisfied with what I have (which basically means stop buying so many books, fabric, and DVDs). And to face some of my fears and get out of my comfort zone. Though this wasn't an intentional resolution-it just sort of happened. I have public speaking and first aid/CPR classes this semester. So between making speeches in front of a class and spending time giving chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth to a dummy, I will definitely be shoved out of my comfort zone.


  2. P.S. I love the idea that every day is a new year.

    "Tomorrow is fresh, with no mistakes in it." -Anne Shirley

  3. Beautiful post, Natalie! :) I always love reading about other's views on New Years. I always make goals as well, some that are good for my spiritual health and physical health (like working out, drinking more water, cooking more, and spending more time alone with God) but I also like to make goals that cause me to be challenged. Like seriously making time in between finals, work, and family to spend time with my close friends. I make an effort to be aware of the world around me, and to make some sserious time to read lots of books. I make money goals, and school goals. All fo which are good, and I am a list person, so I sort of need them, but nothing compares to having a relationship with God that penetrates every aspect of my New Year.

    For this year, my goal is to be a full-hearted servant to Him. To love, give, pray, and worship with all that is in me, every day. :)

  4. amen! i love this! my aim this year is to live fearlessly, to "hold unswervingly to the faith {i} profess" {hebrews 10:23}.

  5. My hope for the new year is peace, That's it!

  6. I hope 2011 will be one where I can become more confident in who God made me. I want to make friends and love crazily. I want to be unafraid of heartache & to walk into this new season with a love song of joy ringing out on the coldest and darkest days.
    Natalie your words are so positive & beautiful, that they dance!

  7. Another beautiful post, Natalie, and exactly what I needed to read at this moment. Thank you. :) Congratulations on sticking to your plan and being such a testimony to the rewards of faithfulness! I hope I can say the same at the end of 2011, for taking better care of myself, not taking that for granted, is one of my goals.

  8. Wow. Just wow. I love your writing, but this was simply beautiful. And inspiring. I needed to read it tonight!

    Way to go on working out! This year I'm committing to the same thing! I actually just got back from kickboxing! Even if I don't feel any change, it makes me feel better that at least I'm trying to stay in shape! :) My dog loves doing workout videos with my mom and I! She thinks it her play time, so cute!

    As far as New Year Resolutions I kinda blew the whole thing off. Though my friend showed me this really cool website (http://myoneword.org/ ) where you choose one word and make it your word of the year. I chose joy. I like that kind of goal so much better because it's not one single thing and it's not a million little things. It's working on something in the inside that will change everything on the outside.

    I hope you're having an amazing week! Thanks for sharing. :)

  9. Beautiful. I'm glad you have arm muscles, my arms seem to be like bags full of pudding:) I really liked this. J.K. Rowling's speech at Harvard was amazing. I truly like the idea of every day having the possibility of being a new year.

  10. That was just what I needed to read today. Exactly it. The only thing is though, I tend to tell myself everyday that, "I can start new today, this can be my new year," and then when I do one thing wrong, such as eating more than I should, I think, well I can just start tomorrow.. and keep eating. How do you get out of that habit?
    Don't get me wrong, I exercise too! And on a regular basis. And I absolutely loved! reading this blog.
    Thanks so much for posting it :)

  11. natalie...this post was inspiring. so inspiring, in fact, that i feel obligated to ask, after months of being a silent lurker...WHAT is this killer DVD you're using? one of my hopes for this year is to give myself second (and third and billionth) chances to get in shape. :) your description of your workout here is downright convincing! want it. :D

  12. Natalie, what blogs do you read? I've read that your Google Reader is always full (much like mine!). How many blogs do you read?