part one: returning

chicago o’hare international airport: excited, happy, and relaxed. we make it to the airport with enough time for a giant frappuccino (heaps of whipped cream) and good bit of airport yoga, including handstand practice against a wall in which i almost kick a passing man in the face. i’ve actually never made it to an airport late, but after five years of nightmares of missing this very flight, this feels good.

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it seems like an overstatement to say i’ve imagined this day for five years, but it isn’t. two years of incubation, three years of research, pages and pages of drafts and notes and papers written just to organize thoughts and data that no one speaks of. and now this: in an airport with the man who snatched up my heart just before i jetted off to india for the first time at nineteen.

•••

frankfurt airport at the final gate: waiting, surrounded by indian travelers, and my confidence evaporates. what am i doing? i suddenly feel very young, very idealistic, and very inadequate. we are visiting three group homes and interviewing the staff and i’m simply trusting that they understand english, will understand my motives, and actually exist. all i have are slips of paper with lengthy street addresses, and one or two short emails saying, yes, please visit. and what of prema vasam? what will it be like to go back? three years that have shaped vast portions of my life and suddenly everything i’ve done seems distant and foreign. everything ahead is entirely unknown. on the flight,  i refuse to track the in-flight map, my stomach all knots. nine hours in the air suddenly seems too short. i write in my journal: when ego is lost, limit is lost, and pray, and remind myself to trust.

•••

we arrive at midnight.

that first deep inhale, even in the airport, smells exactly like india. i feel light and sleepless and very alive, and that scent is all i need. confidence returns and settles.

we collect our baggage and enter the hot, busy air, past lines of men holding signs scratched in sharpie with indian names. there!—my name, misspelled. we wait with our hotel pick-up delegate for our driver for twenty minutes, standing on the curb. everyone drives by, beeping horns to let drivers ahead know they are coming through. dogs sniff through plastic waste beside taxis and government cars. when we arrive at our tiny hotel on mosque street, a man is mopping our room so we wait in the lobby. our room is plain and functional: large bed, thin hard mattress, two plastic chairs, tv, sink, toilet, shower. one wall is painted a deep, golden yellow. we fall asleep at 2:30am, local time.

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we wake at eleven, shower, and take a taxi into the city to orient ourselves to chennai before heading to prema vasam in the evening. everything is so much like i remembered. the three sites i’ve picked are all places i visited in 2009, and want to show j. we stop first at kapaleeshwarar temple, a temple of shiva first built in the 7th century. the temple is mostly empty. men and women sit on the ground braiding jasmine garlands and a tv crew is filming the lead priest. a large annual festival takes place tonight and doors to storage units are open, showing statues of elephants, bulls, peacocks, all painted white and gold and turquoise. we see the seven chakras painted on a ceiling, wishes tied to the wish tree, and the holy cows eating hay in a gated room.

next, briefly, san thome cathedral: chalk white in a hot brick courtyard. san thome houses the tomb of st. thomas, who carried christianity to india and was reportedly martyred here in 72 AD. we walk to the tomb and sit on the cold polished benches and both of us say a silent prayer. the marble is cool on our bare feet. in the entryway to the tomb, pink lotus grows in a brass basin of water.

our final stop is marina beach. we buy chilled maaza (mango juice! finally!) and walk through the market, which is a dirty strip of sand leading to the sea and lined on both sides by stalls. we buy samosas topped with chickpea sauce, fresh onion and cilantro, and take pictures. the most common items sold are hanging fixtures of seashells pasted together, colored glass-and-gold bangles, plastic sandals, lays potato chips and popped rice, hot sweet corn in cups, sweetened flavored milk in glass bottles, simple beaded necklaces, and fresh fruit sliced and sold in plastic cups with a toothpick.

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driving back to the hotel, i am quiet. we gather our things, rest for a few minutes, and wait in the lobby. when a girl about our age walks in, i know she is there for us, although i can’t remember her name—anisha. she leads us outside to the car, where indra is waiting. after five years of emailing back and forth, it is so good to see her.

on the drive to gerugambakkam, indra keeps asking me if i recognize the place, but i can’t. gerugambakkam has grown so much and many of the rice paddies are replaced by buildings. everywhere: cows, water buffalo, palm groves, and water lilies.

we arrive at prema vasam in about twenty minutes. it is so familiar. i am definitely feeling jetlagged—a bit dazed, but happy and not uncomfortable. it feels strange but right to be here. the children surround us and sing their usual welcome song for volunteers: “happy welcome to you,” sung to the tune of happy birthday, and place heavy, damp wreaths of red roses and jasmine around our necks. amahl takes my hand and leads me into the office. he looks the same, but a few inches taller. we are given chai, and then anisha takes us for a tour. she asks if i remember the special children and i remember most faces but few names. barath and anandh, of course, i have never forgotten. and mani at the end! he is not very responsive and has a large bandage on his head. he is 10 or 11 now. it is not an emotional reunion for me, although i am very glad to see him and am impatient to spend more time with him.

i feel at ease as i walk through the room, and i am already slipping back into the habits that i formed here: touching faces and arms, lifting the little ones, scattering smiles over the faces that hold such distant expressions. it is sweet to see j. holding lively conversations with the talkative ones—conversations entirely unhindered by mutual inability to understand each other’s languages.

we are sent to our room to rest until dinner. we climb the roof and listen to the village, lying on our backs on the flat bricks. there is a light breeze. later, i fall sleep tired but happy.

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in the morning, i wake at six. we drank the last of the water overnight, so i slip into a skirt, wrap my shoulders in a pashmina, and carry our water bottles down four flights of stairs to refill. the schoolchildren are awake: sitting in the stairwells and leaning against the walls in the hallways. the girls comb coconut oil into their hair and plait the strands with ribbon. good morning, akka, they say, which means good morning, sister.

i leave the water at the door of our room, which opens to the roof, and wander barefoot through the potted garden. the plants are freshly watered and the bricks beneath my feet are wet and scattered with sand. the sky is salmon and gold, the air hushed and humid. fresh plumeria blooms are opening, and yesterday’s laundry rests damp on the line. i stand at the side and soak in the view below of the courtyard, the sky blue walls, the white-rimmed arched windows.

i’m home.

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travel light: minimal packing for 2+ weeks in india

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three words. international packing list. it’s true, they make my heart flutter. i love lists, and i love travel, and i have loved both for as long as i can remember. my family moved cross-continent four times during my childhood, and i remember waiting breathlessly for my mom to print out the packing list she’d created for me so i could start filling my little backpack.

when j and i were dating, he quickly learned to bring extra sweatshirts, water, and snacks to any date of any length or type. for whatever reason, he concluded that i am not a very prepared person—possibly attributed to crashing blood sugar levels, lack of shoes and sleeves, hopeless body temperature fluctuations, and onset of severe thirst with no warning. i was just an endearing free spirit with a propensity for living in the moment, but i don’t think j thought it was quite that charming. (although, he did marry me…)

anyway, despite my poor reputation for local events (i have improved!), i take the process of preparing for international trips to a level bordering on absurd. for this recent trip to india (in march) i think i made my first rough list in october, and whittled it down for months. our final pile of items left a lot of room in j’s 65L pack; on the way back, with gifts and purchased items, we still had extra space. our trip was 2 weeks, but we could have comfortably stayed for several more.

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here’s the list of what i needed/used.

excluded: items i didn’t use and j’s clothing.

destination: chennai, india
season: intersection of hot and hotter (low 90′s replacing high 80′s), high humidity
duration: 14 days
mode: air (one way: 24 hours of travel, 19 hours of flight)

tops

  • 1 lightweight, loose-fitting tee*
  • 2 tanks: 1 black* and 1 white
  • 1 cami with shelf bra
  • 2 lightweight, white button-ups (short-sleeved)
  • 1 printed tunic
  • 1 lightweight long-sleeve pullover* for airports
  • 1 scarf/pashmina shawl* for airports/temples
  • plan to buy one top while there

bottoms

  • 1 printed, straight-leg palazzo pants
  • 1 jersey maxi skirt
  • 1 yoga pants*, for airport
  • 1 capri leggings for yoga while there, or to wear under salwar kameez tops
  • plan to buy one pair of pants while there, especially if a rat eats a pair of your pants in your bedroom….

basics

  • 5 pairs underwear
  • 2 cotton sports bras (favorites)
  • 1 bra
  • 1 pair of socks

swim

  • tankini top, swimsuit bottom, athletic shorts for added modesty

shoes

  • 1 slip-on sandals (the ones in the picture above were a horrible idea. also – travel, heat, and lots of rice made my feet swell a bit for the first week or so)
  • 1 cotton shoes for the airport

toiletries

  • shampoo & conditioner
  • hair gel/souffle/product to help tame humidity frizz
  • bobby pins, hair ties
  • razor & pacific shaving oil 
  • body wash & loofa (traveler’s best friend)
  • lotion & quality face moisturizer (19 hours in a plane is so drying for skin)
  • liquid lip/cheek stain can do wonders for brightening your face
  • toothbrush & toothpaste
  • birth control / contraceptive(s)
  • extra 1.5 pair contacts & contact solution
  • glasses
  • small deodorant
  • lice shampoo (if you’re volunteering with kids, this is a good idea. you can also usually buy it locally.)
  • grapeseed or other light face oil for cleansing (using oil to cleanse, my face actually cleared up a bit while in india, which is absurd given the amount of dirt and dust it was exposed to. always remember that your face’s oil is a protection mechanism for your skin, and you don’t want to strip it all off, as most commercial cleansers do. using an oil to cleanse gets the dirt off while nourishing your skin)
  • nail clipper
  • mouth wash

other

  • kleenex & toilet paper (bring a couple rolls. obviously you can buy it locally, but when i’m in a place for a limited time, i try to avoid spending that time on trips to a convenience store.)
  • extra body wash or tide laundry detergent packets for hand-washing clothing
  • pack towel
  • water bottle
  • extra ziplocs
  • day bag (small messenger-type bag is my favorite)
  • alarm clock/watch (only if you won’t have a cell phone)
  • journal & pen
  • tiger balm (works on mosquito bites!)
  • electronics, cameras, chargers, adapter, and voltage converter
  • sleep mask for the plane (not all airlines give them out
  • first aid kit (including allegra for pollution/dust control, cold meds, headache/migraine meds, safety pins, cough drops, packtes of vitamin c / immune boosters, any favorite essential oils, etc.)
  • paperback novel

what to wear in the airport

for flights both ways, i wore every item in the above list that has an asterisk beside it (cotton tank top, lightweight tee, long-sleeve lightweight pullover, scarf, yoga pants, cotton shoes). it was perfect. outfit requirements for long flights to hot destinations: several light layers that stretch. you need to be able to move and stretch and possibly do a bit of airport yoga.

tips + tricks

roll all of your clothes and place them in a small mesh wash bag (such as this one). place underwear in a small zip-top bag inside of the mesh bag. a super convenient way to separate your clothing from everything else.

if your flights are long, you’ll probably be fed two meals. i brought snacks that we never really ate. the only snacks i wished i had brought, or did bring but ate immediately, were fruit snacks (tiny bursts of energy, sugar, and vitamin c) and fresh fruit.

in-flight: get up and stretch as often as you can, drink lots of water, and be generous with the moisturizers. take a bit of vitamin c and make yourself rest even if you can’t sleep. movie marathons might be tempting, especially if sleep alludes you, but they will ultimately drain your mind and energy. use a sleep mask, listen to relaxing music, and practice deep breathing, even if you stay awake. your body will thank you.

a note on culture & dress in india

modesty is so important in most of india. it’s a modest culture, and should be respected. unless informed otherwise by a local, general rules include covering your shoulders, avoiding low necklines, avoiding tight-fitting clothing, and wearing clothing that falls below your knee. never wear shorts or show your midriff.

we stayed in a resort for one night, and it had a private beach and pool, so i brought my swimsuit was for that. on the city beaches in chennai and in most other beaches in india, just plan on wearing your usual clothing. dress code at the beach is no different than dress code anywhere else.

a note on health

india presents a host of pathogens and health hazards that your body has probably never encountered. make sure your immunizations are updated before you leave, and bring a well-stocked first aid kit that’s heavier on internal care than external (less bandaids, more vitamins). respiratory infections can happen fairly easily as a result of pollution or dust, so bring anti-histamines as well as cold meds. immodium, fever reducers, itch relief, and energy/electrolyte packets are also good ideas.

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do you have any tips or tricks for traveling light to south asia?

i’m especially interested in holistic health tips for travel. if you have any ideas, or if any part of this list is missing anything, let me know!

if you enjoyed this post, check out minimal packing for a winter destination

india, india, india

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like a heartbeat, before the gunshot at a race, you crescendo in my chest. your orange and gold, your curry and chai, your traffic rushing like water, your kaleidoscope memory, your hot heavy scent of jasmine and refuse. your name, a fleck of poetry: india, india, india.

my hands move: writing lists, sealing lip balm and sickness pills into plastic bags, recording departures and arrivals on slivers of paper. my feet carry me from sheets and pillows to classrooms and back again, my limbs managing the daily bits of life here. but my mind is feverish: murmuring and exhaling, tossing and turning, simmering, waiting. waiting to be filled—rushed! overtaken!—by you. my heart bursting, bursting, bursting.

all this longing, stuffed gently and firmly beneath the floorboards of the room my hopes inhabit. all those years they lay, dormant and swollen. it was a necessary wisdom, freeing myself from the old things. being exactly where i landed. sending downward tangles of reaching, slender roots. but now! now you are almost here! a stone’s throw away, pulsing and humming at the very center of the present.

india, india, india. i taste you in my sleep.

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(#heartonmysleeve)
t-19 days. getting a head start on the travel journal,
also why posts have been so scarce lately…
so much happening, all at once

savoring + living well: a follow-up

life lately has been a lot. a lot of things. for the first time in my life, social media has taken a back burner not because i wanted a break but because other tasks demand it. (hi, adulthood.)

the one place in which i do share regularly is instagram (@handfulsblog – follow me there for more regular updates in the next few months). photography has always been a favorite method of unwinding and recharging. it cultivates gratitude, and staying open to beauty in the small things is one of my favorite practices.

also, despite the whirlwind of classes, assistantships, internship, work, and extracurricular necessities, i have actually stuck to my intention of savoring what i eat and making good food and keeping nourishing choices as a priority. (nourishing can be anything from fruits and veggies to a pint of ice cream in one sitting for no reason other than it was delicious. depends on the day). i share anything on instagram that helps me in this quest, brings me joy, or makes me feel alive. but i wanted to share a bit of that here, as well: current staples, and recent favorites.

briefly, i do want to put these pictures and recipes into context. it’s undeniable that food has become inextricably interwoven with emotion in our culture. there’s a lot of shaming that happens around what people eat or don’t eat. i try to be mindful of that and always hope that i what i share inspires readers to try new things and learn what makes them feel best. this is the first semester in five years on campus that i’ve made it a goal to keep my weight up despite the stress. it’s been tough for so many reasons, practically and spiritually. but one thing that helps me keep at it is making pretty food, enjoying that food, and sharing pictures of the pretty-ness. this isn’t a complete picture of my diet, obviously, it’s just the things that keep me most encouraged to pursue feel-good health over cultural messages of “healthy”.

breakfast

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instant raw muesli

when i was a kid, my favorite breakfast was raw muesli, a german/swiss dish of raw oats soaked in milk/yogurt overnight and mixed with fresh and dried fruits and nuts in the morning. as a college student, i always struggled with healthy but quick breakfast choices. recently, i started creating an “instant” version of that childhood breakfast. it takes about 10 minutes and i’m out the door.

combine raw, rolled oats with plain yogurt (whole fat is my favorite)
use just enough yogurt to coat the oats
let sit for 10-15 minutes
chop whatever fruits you have: apple, oranges, pears, bananas are great…berries are exquisite
mix fruit with yogurt and oats
add more yogurt to reach desired consistency
enjoy!

healthy, calorie-packed breakfast smoothies

healthy, calorie-packed breakfast smoothies

i love smoothies, and right now they are my go-to breakfast, but they will last me about 5 minutes if they aren’t full of healthy fats, proteins, and calories. no two smoothies are alike for me, but almost all include the following:

coconut oil (boosts energy! and no, you can’t taste/feel it)
protein powder (i use cyto-gainer because it was one of the cheaper ones. it might not be the “healthiest” but these types of protein powders are life savers for my stress-exacerbated metabolism)
chia seeds (keep me feeling more full for longer)
banana
almond/coconut/whole milk
berries, fresh or frozen

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i also ate coffee ice cream and a ruby red winter mojito for breakfast last weekend. it was delicious, but holy jitters….

juices

mid-morning or mid-afternoon, i love throwing fruits and veggies into the blender. i usually add half to one cup of water. i don’t have a juicer, but a plus-side of that is the fact that blended juices retain more fiber for consumption.

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this baby is grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange, green apple, spinach

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my absolute favorite: grapefruit, strawberry, ginger, raw honey

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+ raspberry, blueberry, lemon, grapefruit, green apple, carrot

lunch

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all-week salad bar

i tried something new this week. i never eat as many salads as i would like when i’m in school. during the summer, it’s easy to take the time to craft giant, filling salads, but as a student that seems cumbersome. but last weekend, i prepped a lot of lettuce, spinach, and arugula, 5 bell peppers, shredded carrots, shredded a head of purple lettuce, and cooked and shredded chicken. i also made tuna salad and pasta shells, and bought feta and shredded cheddar. salads have never been easier. i just don’t understand why i’ve never done this before!

being well

a few other things from my life recently that have brought me happiness and help keep life beautiful.

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7 positive ways to manage (or prevent) chronic injuries

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at sixteen, i fell in love with free weights; at seventeen, got serious about a dance career; at nineteen, enrolled in a university dance program; and right after my twentieth birthday, my body fell apart. in reality, it had been falling apart for a long time as i danced, ran, lifted, and restricted calories. i was addicted to exercise and i couldn’t stop moving.

i knew nothing about loving myself then. i hated who i was, and i wanted to look and be perfect. today, i’m twenty-four and still managing the consequences of those years of overwork and undernourishment, but these days, i nourish my mind and soul by giving my body grace and gratitude. the pain is usually with me every day, but my injuries have taught me so much about life. in many ways, they were the force that finally stopped a fiercely destructive streak when nothing else could, opening doors to a fuller, more vibrant life.

here’s what they’ve taught me.

1. slow down 

slowing down is not weakness. learn to listen to your body, remembering that rest is equally as crucial as movement to achieving your goals. if you choose not to give rest to your body, it will eventually demand it, so practice listening for the quiet signs before it’s too late. pain is never the absolute measure of gain. rather, use the feelings of confidence, vitality, and balance as healthier measures of success.

2. find worth in more than movement

my ability to dance shaped my identity, and when i lost that ability, i felt lost and devastated. slowly, i began to realize that i am so much more than my capacity to form a particular shape with my body, or run five miles without aggravating my hips, or lift the heaviest weights. my worth is intrinsic, and so is yours: it lies in who you are, not what you do. learn to appreciate yourself for your other gifts and talents, and the irreplaceable roles you play in the lives of those you love.

3. visualize success 

i imagine my body as free of old injuries and inflammations; a chronic hope to match my chronic injuries. i’ve successfully managed my achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis, so who’s to say that i won’t be able to do the same for my back and hips? visualization is powerful—it reminds your brain that you have a goal, and that you’re not giving up until that goal is achieved. almost daily, i visualize a pain-free, two-week-long backpacking trip with my husband, a backpacking guide. sometimes i lose heart; but usually, i breathe, i practice yoga, i continue to hone my diet to decrease inflammation and promote healing, and i imagine that trip.

4. practice gratitude

despite the hip pain, or the back pain, or the shoulder pain, so much of your body still functions—a constant, 24/7 miracle. be grateful for the organs, joints and internal processes of your body that work well. find gratitude in other places of your life, too, in the little and the big. keeping a gratitude journal may be trendy, but it isn’t overrated: gratitude, more than anything else, transforms the perspective you hold of your life.

5. be compassionate 

give compassion first to yourself, and also to others. there’s no point in blaming yourself for your injury, even if—especially if—your injuries were caused by your own poor choices. self-directed hostility will only increase inflammation in your body, and misery in your mind. use your pain as motivation to extend compassion to others. we all have parts that hurt, even if those parts aren’t physical; your pain provides you with unique abilities to extend kindness to yourself and others.

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6. positivity is crucial 

allow yourself to feel the emotions that come with chronic pain: confusion, frustration, longing, discouragement, heartbreak. but also smile for the sake of smiling, do at least one thing every day that makes you laugh, and always channel your thoughts with the power of positive thinking. a lot of healing can come from positivity. 

7. patience, patience, patience

time may not heal all wounds, but it might break down the scar tissue and regenerate healthy, supple muscle. don’t set goals and deadlines for being pain-free; rather, take it a day at a time, and be flexible with other specific goals in physical activity. and remember, never give up. your healing, your vibrancy, and your joy rely on your tenacity, optimism, and patience. and when in doubt, see #1.

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shoulders back, heart lit

“smile, breathe, and go slowly.” —thich nhat hanh

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today i practiced yoga for myself and no one else. i skipped the videos and trusted my limbs to move in whatever ways they needed. i played jeff buckley and bruno mars. i breathed deep, i closed my eyes, i moved with yoga, but my muscles remembered dance. i felt bright and happy whenever i caught a glimpse of my neon pink nail polish. in, out, in, out, reach, flex, settle.  i listened to what my body needed, and it felt really good. i didn’t instagram it, tweet about it, or blog about it.

oh wait.

on my mind: approval. some of us want it more than others, but in this age of sharing, follows, and likes, it can be so easy to succumb to the desire of immediate, albeit fleeting, approval. to succumb, instead of pausing, regrouping, slowing our thoughts, and acting for no one but ourselves. to give for the sake of giving. to move because our body wants to. to do well just because we can, forsaking the need of approval or grades or promotions. to do right because it’s right. to smile without any real reason for doing so.

succumbing to the desire for instant approval is a type of numbing.

it’s a way to drown out the silence.

a way to avoid the quiet and steady that comes with a well-practiced confidence not reliant on outside feedback.

so allow yourself to be who you are. the world needs you to be nothing but genuine. and the world does need you. no one has what you have; no one shines like you do. smile. breathe. go slowly. you don’t need their approval.

lift, rise, sweep, and fall.
breathe, hold, release…
you have it all.
shoulders back, ribs knit, heart lit.

keep quiet eyes,
a humble mind,
and remember, child:
all in time.

listening: requiem

letter to self: on “being healthy” and searching for worth

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“grace is not opposed to effort. it is opposed to earning.” —dallas willard

dear self,

you’ve always been drawn to the science of health. your life revolves in many ways around formal and informal studies of health, and you put a lot of effort into attaining and maintaining health and vibrancy in your own being. nutrients and necessities and possibilities bring you so much joy, and i hope that never changes for you. but i want you to know that we have turned “healthy” into a dangerous word. “healthy” has become a weapon. “healthy” draws a line between her and you, between this body and that body, between what you want and what you have, between what you’re able and what you’re not. “healthy” has become a world of the haves, and the have nots. but it doesn’t have to be.

somedays—most days—you confuse effort with earning. effort with earning, and health as a vehicle to worth. does the intensity of effort prove your worth? if you earn what you know you don’t deserve, will you then become more deserving? if you do everything right—eat right, move right, detox right—will you finally feel and look like you fit with the rest of them? will attaining perfect fitness, perfect diet, or perfect balance finally bestow merit on the tangle of flaw, grace, and personality that is you? you know that it won’t. not on its own.

i know that this isn’t very trendy, but you must not set your hope on “being healthy.” just as you never found those answers in weight lifting and weight loss, so you will not find your worth in superfoods, discipline, yoga, detox plans, morning routines or even in self-fulfillment. you’ll find joy and excitement, and very likely physical and spiritual healing. cultivate those and enjoy them. but never forget that what you’ve always been searching for can never be earned, because you cannot earn what you already have. worth: it’s yours. it’s you. it’s embedded in who you already are.

finally, remember that effort should always be life-giving, never crushing. if it’s draining, hurting, or depleting, you’ve probably crossed back over into earning. relish the effort, let go of the earning, and remember that grace is always there for you to grasp.

that’s it. just don’t forget.

sincerely,
yours truly