Ruth Van Wormer, a Friend of a Different Generation

Ruth and her husband Marvin

Ruth and Marvin Van Wormer

Ruth Van Wormer was the mother of my best friend Jo, and Ruth was a best friend of a different generation.  Her house was the kind of place we all wanted to spend as much time as possible.  Her husband Marvin was one of the dearest men you could ever hope to meet, a conscientious objector who did alternative service during World War II.  He was a researcher in the Minnesota Starving Study.  This study involved research toward the end of the war, dedicated to figuring out how to feed the large number of people in Europe who were perilously close to starvation  For the rest of his life, Marvin could not stand to see food go to waste.

Ruth was the world’s best cook, bar none.  (My apologies to anyone else whose cooking I also love.)  We could appear by surprise at dinnertime, and she would come up with a delightful meal on the spur of the moment.  She also sewed all manner of clothing and decor, including a wedding dress for a classmate of Jo’s who proceeded to elope before the dress was finished.  (The marriage didn’t last much longer, as I recall.)  She must have sewn Jo’s wedding dress too, though I honestly cannot recall.  She was a master at knitting and needlepoint.  I still have the knitting needle case she needlepointed during her best years.

Helen Winnemore’s, a long-established shop in the German Village area of Columbus, was the beneficiary of her love for artistic paraphernalia.  Her children and then her grandchildren inherited some wonderful decor, and can think of her every time they look toward those items.

And what a conversationalist!  She was so wise, and versed in so many topics.  When I called to talk to my age-mate Jo, there were times I almost wished Jo would not be there, because I would wind up having about a 20-minute fascinating conversation with Ruth.  

As the adoptive mother of her two children, Ruth became an outspoken advocate for all children.  She was an integral part of the team that started the day care center at North Broadway United Methodist Church, which is still thriving today.  She told me with pride how one mother came to them explaining that she and her husband had checked out 17 day care centers, and if her child could not be accepted that that particular one, she would not be returning to work.  The other 16 just didn’t meet this mother’s standards.

Ruth left this world so many years ago that I cannot recall the exact year, though I can pinpoint it to the early 1990s.  Her husband and her daughter Jo followed during the ensuing years.  I miss them all.

There was one problem that hung over Ruth for most of her life, one that made many people instantly think less of her.  She never could manage her weight.  This beautiful woman suffered so badly due to body image issues.  Her doctor was always telling her that if she didn’t lost weight, it would be an early grave for her.  She lived into her 80s, so I am guessing she won that argument.

In her later years, Ruth had a smaller appetite, and a smaller body.  In those years she looked frail to me; it just always felt like Ruth’s previous set point was the weight she was intended to be.  However anyone chooses to regard her weight, it did nothing to detract from the beautiful person she was, inside and out.  It did nothing to detract from the powerful positive influence she had in so many lives.  It took nothing from who and what she was.

But it brought her underserved sadness and frustration.

My hope is that we can one day—soon, I hope—live in a world where people come in all shapes and sizes and everyone can just be the size they are.

Time to Talk Politics

Angry Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi yelling at Donald Trump

Yup, it’s time to talk politics.  I have studiously avoided political blog posts, because I would like to think that is not the main reason anyone comes in for counseling.  And I have zero interest in changing anyone’s views on the subject.  Yet it has become so overwhelming in the past couple of years, that I feel a need to address it.  Mostly, people come into my office with whatever issues they are dealing with at the time, and those issues tend to mostly not be politically based.  By the time a client has completed whatever therapy they have come in for, I usually have no clue what that client’s political leanings are.  And that is fine.

Unfortunately, though, with the current administration, it is being reported by many therapists that their business has taken a leap due to the problems people are suffering as a result of the political fallout.  People suffering from sexual abuse problems are being triggered by constantly seeing images of a chief executive who has been credibly accused by several women of exactly that.  Those who have concerns about immigration issues are inundated with images and information about families being forcibly separated at the border, then confined in for-profit prisons with a history of abuse.  And the children involved will suffer lifelong trauma.  A number of those children will never be reunited with their parents, since there was initially not even a good system to identify which child belonged with which family.  Rising inequality has reached even greater heights than before.  The LGBTQ rights that were so hard fought for, are now under threat.  That is only a smattering of the issues, and for many these issues make day to day life much more difficult.  In a number of cases, these ongoing issues lead to huge feelings of helplessness.  At best, they are constant background noise for those of us who are outraged.  And yes, I am outraged.

When I was in graduate school, we were encouraged to avoid discussing politics with our clients.  That was post-9/11, barely; I actually started grad school one week before that attack.  So, post-9/11, but before we ever dreamed this country could face the issues we are facing today.  I grew up in somewhat of a golden era, and could not imagine that things would not continue that way indefinitely.  Consequently, I was gobsmacked.

During previous eras that involved conflict, people found ways to go on with life despite the conflicts and/or stresses, and they will do the same today.  There will be those among us who devote every spare minute to activism, others will do their best to bury their heads in the sand, and most of us will fall somewhere in between.  But it adds an extra layer of stress for just about everyone.

In the event it matters to you, you now know where I stand.  If you are asking me to cheerlead for our current administration, you have come to the wrong place.  If you want to process your own personal issues with me, you have come to the right place.  And if you are one who is bothered by today’s political scene—we will not solve that in therapy, but you can at least feel secure I the knowledge that my sympathies are with you.

Body Image

Your body is fine

Loving your body

Way back when my sister was about 7 years old, our older brother was taking a very pretty classmate to a graduation dance. My sister was so impressed by this girl, especially since she was wearing a satiny dress that my young sister brushed her fingers against and said “Ooh, you feel just like my Dacron pillow.” This beautiful teenagers immediate response was to miss the compliment and apologize for being too fat. (Which she was not. At all.). This happened decades ago, and even then, we (females especially) had conditioned ourselves to constantly apologize for our size, regardless of whether it was an actual issue to anyone else on the planet. I suspect this has changed, but only for the worse.  Body image is a problem for too many of us.
When we are little we just use our bodies for things like running, stretching and playing and don’t think a lot about it. We give them food and exercise on a regular basis, just because that feels right. Assuming we are not raised in a highly oppressive environment, we don’t spend those early years sitting around worrying that we are too fat or too thin. We think often about our next opportunities to exercise, but we aren’t thinking in those terms: It is about climbing trees, swimming, running, bicycling, sledding, skating, building a snowman…So it is fun instead of a duty.
Then teen years and adulthood have a way of taking hold. Not that those are bad years; I certainly enjoyed my teens and the adult years that have led to where I am now. And there didn’t stop being some things I did for pleasure that also happened to provide good exercise: dancing and walking in the woods come to mind. But I also attended classes designed to encourage me to keep moving. Again, that is not a bad thing. Plenty of friendships are made and good conversations started while people roll up their yoga mats. And the ones who stick it out tend to be either very disciplined or in love with that particular way to keep your body moving. I vote for doing it for enjoyment, rather than taking it on as a chore.
Likewise, a great deal of nutritious food is truly enjoyable, yet a lot of the enjoyment is lost if you choose that diet simply for the physical health benefits. I know, we want to enjoy our food and we want to choose foods that will enhance our health, and we commonly can do both. So let’s, let’s enjoy movement that feels good and food that tastes good. And let’s try to not constantly measure and critique our own bodies in the meantime.
One of the joys of getting older is, competing for the best body becomes pretty pointless. We can enjoy our bodies for what they do, for how they serve us, rather than constantly comparing and focusing on where these bodies fall short.
Let’s think like children again. Let’s think like my sister did at age 7. Let’s enjoy the great feeling that comes from throwing our self-consciousness aside. In her book “Some Body to Love”, Leslea Newman suggests writing a love letter to yourself as a step toward becoming more comfortable in your own skin. Let’s start now, can we?

Do It Like a Girl–A Genius Girl

Basic Algebra at age 7

No Fear of Basic Algebra

When I took a recent trip and stayed in more than one perfectly nice hotel, I found myself having difficulty leaning far enough over the sink to be able to see well enough to apply makeup. The only hotel that didn’t have this problem was one that provided a portable makeup mirror. Why is this such a problem? I am a woman of perfectly average height, 5’4”, so it makes no sense that I should have to stand on my tippytoes just to get a good look at my own face. Then it occurred to me: I’m guessing no one asked any woman how this arrangement worked for the people it was supposedly designed to accommodate.
Women got the vote in 1920, and yet we are still not asked often enough for our opinions in male dominated areas, such as the design of buildings. I am not proposing that every third woman become an architect (though we could certainly use more women’s influence in the design of these hotel rooms), but it does seem we could use more programs along the lines of We Code, programs that encourage girls and young women to research nontraditional fields.
The first step is realizing we can do it. And realizing that if we do it like a girl—a genius girl—that is a compliment. The movie “Hidden Figures” depicts three black women who started out as genius girls, who were at the top of their field yet had to constantly prove themselves. They helped pave the way for the rest of us to take our own ideas seriously.
Part of knowing we can do it, comes from breaking a task down into simpler parts, learning step by step and not letting the enormity of the total task overwhelm us. The girl pictured in this blog, my friend’s 7 year old daughter, is doing basic algebra. Algebra? Isn’t that for high schoolers? Well, not the really basic form. She is looking at things like 5 + x = 7. Just subtract 5 from 7 and you have x. Her dad helped her cut it down to its simplest form. This is a child who will not be held back by fear, and who has already discovered that learning is such a joy. I congratulate her dad on conveying that to her, and I hope this early learning stays with her, that she does not become timid as a teenager, that she does not lose her nerve.
This mastery of concepts is beautiful, and our young girls need to be encouraged every step of the way. If we encourage enough girls and women to pursue these nontraditional fields, maybe the day will come when an average height woman can put on makeup in a hotel bathroom without having to twist, turn, and stretch to accommodate herself to some male’s idea of great design.