The scent of peppermint now wafts through every single room of my house. Courtesy of an essential oil diffuser I bought late one night on Amazon, the steady stream of minty wonder has grown so enticing that yesterday I contemplated licking the wall – you know, snozzberry-style.
Everyone’s got an opinion about my new aromatherapy habit:
You know, peppermint is an energizing scent, said the person I call My Most Informed Friend because she knows pretty much everything about anything. This pumping of peppermint could explain why you don’t sleep so well.
Your house smells like a spa, one guy told me – and I had to inform him the only massage that would be forthcoming was the one he was about to give me.
Your house does smell delicious, announced my mother when she arrived for brunch on Mother’s Day. And I love that you bought me a diffuser and some eucalyptus oil, but I’m sure I’ll never figure out how to make it work.
Only to my mother’s comment did I offer a reaction and that reaction was to show her how to fill the canister to the designated line with water, shake in a few drops of scent, and plug the diffuser the fuck in. She listened and nodded gravely, but my guess is the gift remains in a box somewhere. I don’t take offense; she was the Dean of a university, but it took her until last year to figure out how to work her own microwave and for years she believed that accidentally pressing the wrong button on the keyboard would cause her computer to spontaneously explode before her eyes.
People who are far stupider than you could ever be use laptops every single day, I told her calmly when she called for the eightieth time in a panic. The likelihood that you will break your laptop is very small, unless you throw it down the stairs or at someone’s head. Then I got off the phone and made a list of peoples’ heads that I hope to one day heave my own laptop at because it’s nice to have goals.
But it’s not just the way my house now smells like candy canes that’s different. I also have these scraped patches on the backs of my forearms because I’m halfway through some planking challenge I signed up for on a masochistic whim. The goal is to eventually work my way up to planking for ten minutes straight by starting small and increasing the clenching installments incrementally. The changes I was hoping to see – better posture, tighter abs, the ability to drown out discomfort by accessing whatever Zen some dime-store Buddha once claimed exists deep inside of me – are showing themselves slowly, but the chafed skin is something I noticed immediately; I guess I’m just better at picking out my flaws. Still, it’s undeniable: I’m getting stronger. I remember staring with longing at my stopwatch the first couple of times I planked, praying the numbers would whizz by science-fiction style, that somehow my own life would be overtaken in that moment by a Lost-like flash-forward complete with a whooooosh sound cue. I remember collapsing on my floor when the alarm sounded, my muscles aching – and I also recall how my dog saw that position as a form of submission and immediately hopped full-force onto my back and tromped up my body before sitting with a triumphant thud on my head. Now I plank for so long that she’s grown tired of barking at me or running in circles around my steady form. She goes instead into the kitchen and helps herself to a little kibble or she finds a box of tissues within reach and tears the whole thing into tiny shreds before I stand up and realize the carnage she’s just inflicted on some paper goods. The other day my phone rang in the middle of the exercise and I inched my finger out and answered it on speakerphone and proceeded to have a full conversation. Just a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been able to breathe mid-plank, let alone talk shit about some person both my friend and I am certain is a walking demonic flaming hemorrhoid.
I like how those changes feel.
I need to test myself, I thought a couple of months ago, and I took myself up on the self-inflicted dare that somehow manifested itself into the honing of personal wellness, something I’ve dabbled in but never entirely committed to. But a switch flipped in my head this time – does that kind of no-turning-back thing ever happen to you? – and the shift caused me to overhaul everything, even my reaction to pain…especially my reaction to pain. I squat and lunge now in a way that doesn’t cause me to fall hard on my face or burst into the kind of tears that, in the past, I would have sworn were tears of concentrated frustration when in fact they totally would have been tears designed to make the person standing above me feel badly and decide I was far too delicate to be forced to do ten more reps of anything. I don’t want to be seen as delicate anymore; I’m way fucking tougher than I look and it’s probably time people were let in on that little dirty secret.
Planking is part of the process, but I also now have a refrigerator filled with zucchini I like to spiral and a drawer in my bedroom stocked with workout tanks. Not a single one has “Rose All Day!” or “Twerkin for a Birkin” emblazoned across it because the only thing I hate more than a tank top with a cheaply rhymed generic saying are people who wear them. A friend called me before Christmas from some pop-up shop near her house where you could get a sweatshirt with anything written on it and what would I like mine to say? About a week later, a charcoal grey cozy hoodie arrived in the mail and printed across the front were the words Suck It. When I called to thank her for the thoughtful gift, she told me her own sweatshirt had just arrived and she couldn’t wait to put on the new piece of clothing embroidered with the command Go Away.
By the way, I fully realize my Suck It story makes me sound cold, dismissive even. I also realize that sometimes you don’t get what you want in life by being warm and fuzzy. The thoughtful and sweet part of me is still there, but I don’t beckon her to come out and play as often as I used to and – sick though this sounds – I’m seeing improvements after giving that side of myself a strict curfew. I find the kind version of me does far more damage late at night than the hardened girl who is ruled by confidence and some mild suspicion and can take care of herself.
With changes permeating most areas of my life, it was inevitable that the restructuring would make its way into the kitchen – a room that also now smells like peppermint – and I found the motivation to tackle a job I’ve been putting off for years. I began pulling things out of my freezer, stuff I cannot even remember buying in the first place. To put my prior lack of freezer organization into perspective, let me just say that I threw away chicken breasts that have been frozen for so long that I’m relatively certain I’ve since consumed that particular chicken’s grandchickens. Also tossed was a box of Trader Joe tilapia my sister brought to my house during Hurricane Sandy because her freezer had shut off and she wanted me to benefit from her lack of electricity. The excavating of ice-scorched foods continued. I heaved cups of old lemon Italian Ices and forgotten Tupperware bowls filled with pieces of sliced (and now completely brown) bananas into a garbage bag that I needed to double bag because of its eventual heft. As I lugged the trash outside, my mind suddenly raced back to an article I once read about a woman who took it upon herself to reduce the amount of garbage she put forth into the world. For about a year, she refused to use anything sold with any sort of packaging and an entire year’s worth of her trash had to fit inside of a small mason jar. I read her account with my mouth gaping open like I was a trout who had been sold without any packaging. Her desire to leave less of a garbage footprint was incredibly impressive, and I’d love to tell you if she managed to accomplish her goal, but I stopped reading the article when she began discussing how she had to forgo tampons and instead use one of those period cups. My already blown mind all but exploded at that point and I just knew the author would look down on me and shake her head as I cleaned my own brain matter off the walls with triple-ply paper towels.
Anyhoo, my kitchen is now looking glorious! The fridge is organized and all the labels are facing front and the shelves are stacked with sliced fruits and vegetables and the setup is so perfect and rarer even than an eclipse so I took a picture of it and sent it to my mother because if there’s one person roaming this vast planet who appreciates clean and skinny, it is my mommy. She wrote me back instantly and I could tell through the wording of the text and all the exclamation points that she was prouder of me for having some peeled ginger root on the second shelf of my refrigerator than she was when she finally got me to master the potty.
On the kitchen counter now sits a scale. I’ve turned into one of those people who weighs every bit of food I allow into my body. My Google searches constantly include How many teaspoons are in an ounce, a question I think pairs nicely with Besides his IRS issues, is there a reason Nicholas Cage keeps making all these shitty movies? I guess I’m just a girl who likes to understand things.
My closets came next and in one endlessly rainy day, I bundled five bags of clothing to give to Big Brothers Big Sisters. Anything I haven’t worn in more than a year – or anything I randomly purchased that’s orange – is about to be worn by someone else. I’ve taken what’s left and organized it by style and color. I literally have a section of camisoles that move from pure white to ecru to bone to beige and I stared up at the almost monochromatic rainbow just the other night and sighed with a contentment I didn’t know I could feel. I now have two drawers of bras that are neatly folded and divided by type. There’s a row of strapless bras – and every single last one of them sucks and the first person to invent and then mass produce a comfortable strapless bra that doesn’t end up flattening boobs into an unfortunate looking tit pancake deserves to make an absolute fortune – and they lay beside a row of unlined lace bras. Then there’s a drawer devoted to the kinds of bras that should only be removed by someone else. Once everything was folded and my bedroom looked like a mini Cosabella store, I stared at my lingerie and the bows and the beading and the chiffon and the mesh and that one bra that requires that you to all but unwrap me like I’m your naked present and I whispered aloud right there and then: Stop buying bras. You’re set for life.
It occurred to me recently that perhaps the reason I haven’t always stuck with certain goals relates in some way to accountability, so I thought it would keep me on the straight-and-getting-narrower wellness track if I shared what I’ve been up to. Over dinner one night with my parents, I told them I’d just reorganized the space underneath my kitchen sink and ordered shelves so my cleansers would look neater and be even more accessible. My stepfather’s response was to look stunned – which is fair – and my mother’s response was to smile while calculating in her head exactly how long this stage of mine might last – and that response is also fair. But I think both of us may end up surprised here because I’m not real interested in turning back anymore. Like I said, something turned on inside of me at the very same second that something turned off and I think these changes are permanent. These changes cause me to say things like, “Yeah, I’ve lost weight. And I don’t think I’m going to stop until rumors of me having an eating disorder sweep the town.” I’m joking when I say such a thing – of course I am – and I’m saying it to people who understand my sense of humor and how it borders on the slanted precipice of the subversive, but I’m also making my intentions clear through the joke. I’m committing to making these changes, both evident and unseen.
My regimented lifestyle is bringing me quite a lot of joy, and that’s not necessarily something I expected. But it’s undeniably satisfying to try on clothing you can locate immediately because it’s hanging in a perfectly lined closet. There’s something wonderful about having a skirt fit beautifully because you haven’t eaten sugar or white flour in several moons. There’s something utterly convenient about reaching down to get a piece of Tupperware and not having thirty other pieces of plastic come rolling out of the cabinet because everything inside now has its own space. And maybe nothing is lovelier than grabbing a mascara and knowing it’s a brand new mascara you’re about to apply to your lashes because you finally threw away the one that had been hardening in your bathroom vanity for well over a year. Everything in your home has been dusted and polished and the mirrors are clear and the floors sort of sparkle and even the plastic bags you get at CVS have been contained by being stuffed into an empty Kleenex box, a fun little tip you learned when you Googled smart ways to organize plastic bags, a question that followed your last Google search of exactly how do impeachment proceedings work?
But how about this: how about none of us – not even me – pretend that this commitment to the systematic arranging of my body and the things lining my home are merely about aesthetics? How about I acknowledge – even if it’s just for one second – that I went through a jar filled with glitter eye pencils so I could throw out the ones I no longer need and every single time I drew a line on my skin to test the color, I heard the taunting question I thought you liked difficult men? pass through my head. That memory has branded me more completely than even the Urban Decay liner you basically need a prescription form of makeup remover to get off. Let’s also not pretend that part of getting rid of jeans that are too big for me now is the need to change the dialogue, whether it’s whispered aloud or screaming inside of my head. Congratulating myself on the stomach I’ve always wanted is so much more enjoyable than hearing the sentence You don’t know everything, Nell, before being left alone in a room so I could feel entirely isolated as I began to understand all I hadn’t allowed myself to realize before. That room was someone else’s bedroom – and the symbolic nature of the setting didn’t escape me in the slightest, nor did the idiocy of leaving that room, walking into the kitchen, and being greeted by the very same person who then asked if I might like a nice cheese omelet because nothing goes better with emotional annihilation than dairy. And I suppose I could focus more often on those memories and the grave damage they had the potential to impose, but the hardened version of me has come to realize that it’s easier to move on when your new bikini looks better than you even hoped, just as it’s easier to inhale the pain when it smells like peppermint.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter