This past winter was the coldest on record for most of the United States, particularly in Chicago, where it was gut-wrenchingly, beyond imagination, bone-chilling cold for month after unrelenting month.
So cold in fact that the mere act of taking my dog out for a quick walk was enough to make me want to die. As spring rolls around and the temperatures warm, it’s given me pause to contemplate my many experiences during my first winter living in downtown Chicago.
First, living in the city is vastly different than living in the suburbs, especially during a brutal winter –not only did I have to take my dog on real live walks (versus quickly opening the back door of my house in the suburbs long enough to shove the little one out into the elements to do her business alone), but I also had to walk to work (nine blocks), the grocery store (six blocks), the bank (two blocks) and the pharmacy (three blocks).
When it’s minus 40 degrees outside, with sideways blowing snow, a two-block walk is unbearable; a nine-block walk is a veritable death march.
This winter was also the “season of boots.” Boots are a normal staple in all cooler-weather climates, but for whatever reason, this winter I seemed to notice far more boots than I ever had before: riding boots, over-the-knee boots, those cute and colorful Hunter rubber rain boots.
Everywhere I looked, boots, boots, boots.
In fact, the “season of boots” was just about the only solace most of us in Chicago could take this past winter. We might have been freezing to death (literally, not figuratively), but we had an abundance of really cute boots available as a vital distraction from what affectionately became known as Chiberia.
Now when I use the word “we” I’m using it in the collective sense, because in this context, the boot context, when I say “we” I actually mean every single person in Chicago except myself.
You see, I cannot wear boots.
In fact, I’ve never been able to wear boots, because for as long as I can remember, my calves have been too big. Regardless of my eating habits (carb/no carb, clean/not clean, vegan…kidding!), or my exercise habits (jazzercise, step aerobics, elliptical, Pilates, yoga, yoga-Pilates, yoga-Pilates-step-aerobics), I have never been able to fit my overly-muscular calves into normal-sized boots, and if I gained 10 pounds, I swear five of them went straight to my calves.
Now I know I could buy the wide version of almost any boot on the market, but since that would force me to actually admit that I may not be just a few jog-walks away from a brand new pair of Stuart Weitzman Renegade riding boots, I stubbornly resisted the “wide calf” section on the Zappos website.
All winter long, every time I walked out of my new chic luxury apartment in Chicago I was reminded that I wasn’t quite living the life I’d imagined—my fantasy of how I pictured life in the big city, because I was the only woman in Chicago who didn’t have a cute pair of zippered winter riding boots to match my cute North Face winter jacket (which incidentally, cost almost as much as my big-city rent).
On most days I didn’t give this dilemma much thought—what kind of person would I be if I did?
I was a 53-year-old, financially not-as-insecure-as-I-used-to-be professional, surviving the loss of my son (to college) by immersing myself in several exciting new adventures. Certainly I was not so superficial as to concern myself with the pettiness of not being able to squeeze my calves into stylish boots, particularly when there were people in this world who couldn’t afford shoes.
So there I was, striking out each day into the glacial streets of Chicago, with a (frozen) smile on my face, proudly sporting my UGG sweater-boots.
Because I’m an optimist at heart, not being able to fit into normal-sized winter boots has not stopped me from buying them. I buy cute boots all the time, purely on sight certain that within a few weeks I’ll be able to zip them up with room to spare. Thus, along one side of my large walk-in closet, standing at attention and waiting to be called into action at any time, is a full row of absolutely darling knee-high boots.
The truth of the matter is that regardless of the superficiality of it all, sometimes I am bothered that I can’t wear boots, especially when it appears as though every single other woman in this world can. And on certain days, when nothing seems to be going right, I’m bothered a lot.
In fact, one particular day last winter I was downright obsessed.
I was in a really awful mood, slipping and sliding down Michigan Avenue in my no-tread-snow-caked-UGG-sweater-boots on my way to the grocery store. I was strategically pointing my head at a slight downward angle to minimize the snow accumulation on my brow, which unfortunately provided me with an impressively broad circumferential view of every single woman’s calves out and about that day. And what I saw depressed me beyond words—everywhere I looked, and I mean everywhere, I saw tiny, little, petite calves sporting tiny, little petite boots.
At first I found it ironic…in a city of 2.7 million people, couldn’t I find one other woman in sweater boots? Just one? Nope – everywhere I turned, everywhere I looked I saw woman after woman after woman (after woman) wearing beyond cute fur-topped knee-high riding boots, over-the-knee wedge boots, knee-high shearling boots (at one point I pondered kicking some of these women with my no-tread sweater boots, but I was afraid that anything beyond shuffling would cause me to go flying into traffic).
By the time I got to the store, I was ready to cry. Why couldn’t I be like everyone else? What was wrong with me? I was a wide-calved girl in a thin-calved world and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
After I got home, I took a deep breath, peeled my snow-caked sweater boots off and curled up on the couch with a hot cup of tea. I then set about to deconstruct my day and my brain. Why was I over-focusing on something so seemingly trivial? Why was I allowing something so minor to influence my universal self-perception?
After some time, I realized that it wasn’t really about boots (well, not solely). Rather, it was about feeling different—and not in a good way.
Once I seized on this—my larger-than-life calves—it became the portal through which all of my “other-ness” manifested, serving as a constant reminder that I was different, not quite good enough, set apart in some way… “Maybe this is why love has been so elusive and maybe even why I don’t have a thriving social life like Carrie and the other girls from ‘Sex and the City’…yes, yes, yes, it’s my lack of boot-fitting calves….”
Of course none of that is true—those are the lies I tell myself when I’m feeling a bit too much on the outside and can’t stop looking in at all of those imaginary people with petite calves and perfect lives. I’m ashamed to admit that my calves aren’t my only self-deprecating portals; there are several others as well, featuring things about myself that bother me just as much and make me feel just as bad (in the summer it’s totally about my arms).
I’m convinced I’m not the only one who tortures themselves in this way, and in fact, I know I’m not because as a social worker, who once had a semi-thriving private practice, I’ve talked with hundreds of people who identified and then over-focused on one trait, one characteristic, one mistake, one fear, as evidence that they didn’t measure up, or didn’t belong, or didn’t deserve and if this one trait, characteristic, mistake or fear could just be fixed (or even well hidden), then life would be okay—no, life would be perfect.
I’ve never been one to rush to finding a solution (in fact, I’m convinced that any mad dash to a hidden-blessing/silver-lining is actually a sign of weakness), but I made a promise to myself that sub-zero day to stop engaging in this very self-defeating behavior—of selective abstraction, of over-exaggeration, of self-deprecation, no matter what.
In fact, I realized that we had it all wrong—maybe we shouldn’t be judging ourselves according to some arbitrary list of culturally-defined idealized characteristics (I’m certain that in some cultures large calves are an object of adulation), or one set of values that are placed in higher esteem over another.
Maybe we should see self-acceptance as a precursor to everything good we are capable of accomplishing in this world.
Six months later and I’m still doing it—still finding those perceived undesirable traits, characteristics, mistakes and fears that set me apart, make me unacceptable, keeping nirvana at bay. But at least I’m now a more self-aware self-deprecator, and I’m more determined than ever to find my place in the world amidst an abundance of self-acceptance and grace, alongside all of my flaws.
So let me introduce myself: My name is Michelle.
I am a middle-aged (and yes I will live to be 106), creative, compassionate, empathetic, strong, smart woman who earned a Ph.D. while working full time and raising a son alone, who decided a few years ago to fulfill my dream of going to Africa, so I went (and then went again and again and again), who loves Armageddon movies, who writes and paints, who researches armed conflict and genocide with the hope of stopping them, who adores being a mom to a teen-aged son and who has a room available for just about anyone else who needs a mom (and a home).
I am also a twice-divorced single mom who wears sweater boots in the winter and quarter-length sleeves in the summer, who has a heart that at times is a bit too soft, who cares too much about what other people think, who sometimes looks backward more often than I look forward, who drives down the street far too often with a coffee cup on the hood of my car, who can write a 700-page book, but can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning and who imperfectly and chaotically, passionately and with fervor is committed to getting up each and every day and trying again, with the hope that this day, today, I will do better than yesterday, but not by much, because imperfection, after all, is far more interesting than getting it right the first time around.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Amanda Fleming Taylor / Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Erica Rauhuff/Pixoto