Taming the Demons

Six weeks into the new decade and we are already faltering. We vowed to eat right, work out, and battle all those destructive habits—but folks are bogging down again. Each January we gird our loins for another war. We study the beast and muster an army of advisors from Al-Anon to Weight Watchers. We buy smoking cessation drugs and post our progress on Facebook. But by February we’re avoiding friends and promising to get back on track.

The human body flawlessly orchestrates an unbelievable number of functions, but like the Water Spirit, there are mysterious currents beneath the surface that need to be honored. When you attempt to battle your way to health you may win a skirmish or two, but fundamental change is improbable. Like the spring under our hill, Life will not be forced.

A few highly disciplined individuals seem to triumph in their personal wars, but I suspect it comes at great cost. I’ll admit it hasn’t worked for me. It’s easy to write myself off as weak, but it’s more productive to listen for a deeper tone. I don’t like straight lines or strict routines. When I try to make myself “buckle down” it feels like punishment and inevitably generates a backlash. When I’m harsh with myself the small child within me feels hurt and angry. I can keep my Weight Watchers diary for only so long before I discover her crouched by the open refrigerator scavenging for cold turkey when she thinks I’m asleep. There’s a guilty and defiant look on her greasy little face as if daring me to stop her.

My Little Girl has been whining at me much of this winter. Not about food, for I placate her with chocolate and nuts (a healthier alternative to cookies). She doesn’t have to sneak food anymore; what she wants is my attention. As I sit in the dawn, planning another day that looks very much like yesterday, I catch sight of her watching from the shadows by the stairs.

“Later,” I say absently. I don’t want to face her. I’ve been negligent. “Maybe we’ll go for a walk later.” But she knows I’m lying. I have too many important tasks: taxes, a new computer to learn, grants to write. My mind is a labyrinth of lists.

“It’s so beautiful outside,” she whispers. “I want to play in the snow.” She’s about six years old. She moves to the window and gazes over the bay where points of light describe cod boats against the lavender sea. Her eyes are wistful. Her head is tilted to one side; tangled blond hair in two thin braids brush her slender shoulders. Her bare feet are dirty and she has dressed herself in pink corduroy pants and a dingy shirt.

“It’s ten degrees out,” I tell her reasonably. “Maybe we’ll walk to the post office today.” That would be good for me. I’ve put on ten pounds this winter. I pinch a roll at my waist. “I ought to join the Bay Club.”

She makes a face. “Let’s play outside,” she insists, “like we do in the summer at the cabin.”

“I’d like to write your story sometime,” I tell her. “Maybe we can work on it together. Would you like to help me with that? You have a lot to teach me…things I have forgotten about myself.”  I remember playing in the trees with my sister, Annie, and walking the Arctic mountains for no better reason than to see the next slope.

She shrugs. “I guess.” She sounds doubtful. “But not all the time. I’m tired of sitting at this computer.”

“We’ll play this summer,” I bargain. “We’ll take long hikes again. We’ll climb King Mountain.”

“You promise we won’t spend every day writing or digging a new outhouse?” She is looking at me intently and I squirm. She wants to believe me, but she knows me so well. I break from her gaze and pull her into my lap where she nestles against my body like she belongs there. It’s a good feeling. Her little hands and feet are cold. She folds her limbs up like a colt and pulls the blanket over her back.  She never thinks about dieting or exercise. She eats what she wants and runs all day. She does have a lot to teach me.

“All you ever do is work,” her voice is sad. “You work at the hospital and then come home and spend all day on the computer. Other people get out. They go skiing even if they are ninety years old. They dig clams and go hiking and fishing. Why can’t we do something fun?”

“We have friends over for dinner,” I say helpfully. I can see she isn’t buying it.  She’s right. I am out of excuses. I stroke her hair and gaze at the snowy mountains. It is beautiful out there. “Maybe this spring…” I temporize.

She puts her small hands on each side of my face and pulls my head around to look right into me. Her eyes are gentle. She doesn’t approve, but she forgives me.

I smooth the hair back from her face and tuck her close, enjoying the smell of her scalp. We are becoming friends, even though I neglect her. I no longer find her in the kitchen gulping cold food. “This summer,” I promise with conviction.  She smiles then wriggles like a puppy as she settles comfortably against me. I hear her sigh. I know that for her, summer seems a long time to wait.

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