Life, Texturized

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My head feels as though it wants different nerve endings, ones that cannot transmit this particular pain. It starts at the top of my spine, crosses to the base of my skull and thereupon spreads out like tenacious ivy overlaying my brain’s domain. I have had communication issues all day due to the fog that has made itself a barrier between internal and external stimuli. My eyes have felt like tiny balloons waiting to explode. My mind whirls and floats a bit like when I have had migraines only with less intensity. I need a new neck to hold up my head.

Last night’s sleep was heavy and tinged with dreams about visiting a hotel in a village that felt familiar, where people were vaporous yet colorful, half-ghosts or characters let loose from stage left in a play. I knew this place yet not every corner or staircase. There was also an unnamed man whose hand on mine felt familiar and vibrant. Our words meant things without spoken language as often happens in my dreams. Some of these people and rooms glowed. The furnishings were beautiful, brocade and velvet curtains, furniture to last centuries. In the end I slowly made my way out, then didn’t know where I was and asked myself, “How could I be lost?”, irritated, as though I was responsible for knowing my way around a seemingly infinite and complicated structure. But it was the architecture of dreams, an oddly cantilevered netherworld, supported by one thing only: REM sleep.

Why would I write of this today? Why not lie down nice and easy? The answer is three-fold: 1) I know many others can empathize, 2) I write daily and 3) pain is not generally a good enough reason to not do whatever I want or need to do. I have had familiarity with all sorts throughout my life due to a few chronic health issues. I know its nuances and what each kind augers, how I can best handle it as well as when to ignore it. I don’t mean deny its actual existence. I give it a nod but then deny it its fearsome and full power as long as possible. Often it dissipates when I am busy looking elsewhere.

So I wonder: why the odd dream? Why do we tend to dream of unusual spaces mingled with the common? Why do both loved and unloved, alive and passed on all appear like sudden visitors, as though they have been waiting for us to swing open the door? And they inhabit the same conversations as strangers do, making me feel there are no strangers, really. And that landscape that is so familiar to me, as though a second home… Who knows what exactly happens as we close our eyes? It is an adventure which allows us to experience things differently. Sometimes it is a revelation.

In the morning, icy air sneaked in through a cracked window. And that old companion, pain, told me I had slept askew. I took stock of the past week as discomfort drummed against sinew and bone, squinting past the quilt that wanted to be pulled closer.

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It has been a Christmas season that I would note as a “10” on the rating scale for holiday satisfaction: three of five children with their families here for various events, a perfect tree from an Elysian tree farm, food that fed us well, made us happy. A candle light service at our Presbyterian church: music sung from the core, flames casting flickering halos, communion as conduit for mysteries of faith. Not even once was perfection my goal; I wanted to share love and it happened. I embrace my family’s quirkiness: five children who include an artist/professor; a grad student who will manage a performing arts venue; a professional skateboarder/painter; a budding sociologist/activist; and a chaplain. They each are called to do service for others in some way, are strong-willed and live a bit (or more) on the edge. Five grandchildren, as well. Two daughters were visited via Skype, something I never expected when they were born. How good it was.

Actual gifts were the extras. Among other things I received three fat books to savor. One is about American residential architecture, one about exceptional children (dwarfism, autism, genius, and other traits that fascinate me), another a biography of great composers. They reflect some of my interests; my spouse knows me well. I can’t imagine a lifetime long enough to learn all I want to learn. Sometimes I gaze out a window at the scenes unfolding before me and think of it: in this sixth decade of my life there is so very little I have mastered yet I remain passionate about learning. It both distresses and thrills. The engine of curiosity thrusts me forward.

The days will proceed of their own accord and rhythm as before, now that Christmas is over. If all goes reasonably well. It is just as likely not to, I know. Last January started out with challenges including an inner ear disorder accompanied by a nagging malaise I loathed to call depression. The last half of the year I have been recovering from severe muscle toxicity due to taking a statin for thirteen years. I have to save my heart from its disease now only through beta blocker, blood pressure medicines and vigorous exercise. I can and will do the best I can. My siblings are older, too, I notice. But the world is ancient and confounding. Marvelous and horrid. Who knows what is next? It keeps me present and attentive to what matters. How swift, how tenuous life on earth can be, like dandelion fluff carried far, then no longer visible.

So I move through time on faith, flying on light wings of grace so I may engage in life’s creation of a rich warp and weft. I want my being and doings to make some difference. I sweep up this fullness of life in my arms and wrap myself in it, unfurl it like a flag, throw it around another’s shoulders, offer it as a bridge over deep chasms and use it with gusto, pain or no pain. We all suffer somehow; we all make our way as we see fit.

Ah, you see? That pain in my neck and head is lessening. Writing makes me strong. Love makes me brave. Music (today: Bach and Gilberto) grants me pleasure and peace. Spiritual practices keep me lithe of soul, unifies the pieces. And I think I’ll head to the gym or take a brisk walk to give my heart a chance to work with me better. What is it that you will nourish and honor as one day slips into another, then soon–so soon!– melds with a whole new year? I trust you are making good weavings of your own distinctive threads.

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Heart Chronicles #18: Risking Our Lives, Part 2

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( Map engraved by Daniel Stoopendaal, 1730)

Each body is a map of a universe, a living, breathing cartography. We carry the routes of our life travels within our flesh and bones, and our powerful feelings and thoughts can detour or bolster health. Just ask any heart patient how the most responsive and crucial organ in the body must be cared for: just like a beloved. Most of the time we can count on microscopic cells and complex systems to respond heroically and rejuvenate what is necessary.

But on the stairway that day, perched between safety and peril, it seemed all my body’s wisdom was failing. It was clear I had to start the brainstorming phase. But how to explain to anyone else what I didn’t understand?

By early March 2013 an old problem with low-level dizziness worsened. It hit me before I opened my eyes in the morning, unmoored my day, then haunted my nights. Between my vertiginous head and trying to stay upright on increasingly unsteady feet, life certainly lacked buoyancy. I ended up in physical therapy for the inner ear issue and it resulted in excellent results. Of course! I thought. It was that old beast, first diagnosed as labyrinthitis in 1999. Relief replaced dread. I could handle this one. Six weeks later my head quit its surprise spinning.

Still, if I was honest, my gait wasn’t yet quite right. I couldn’t perform basic balance exercises well. D., my physical therapist, noted my legs were far weaker than they should be for someone my age and activity level. I was still trying to stay active daily by walking two miles, and would hike on week-ends.
I took a breath and started to enumerate the odd symptoms. It had been gradual, cumulative. I had ignored most things, like little spasms and ticks or the day-long cottony brain. The drugged feeling like I hadn’t gotten sleep enough although I usually did. I had not been alarmed a long time. The last six months? A bit frightening.

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( Da Vinci’s Study of Arms and Hands, 1474)

It was the first time I stated it all aloud and fear grabbed me, made my innards quiver.

“Poor muscle control, weakness in legs, arms with a weakening grasp–have a very hard time opening jars or holding onto pens or really anything. Cursive is terrible when it used to be nice. I have burned myself badly with a curling iron many times because my hands and arms are so weak they just lose their grasp. I can’t seem to routinely control where I want to place my feet or hands. I drop way too many other things. I even just…fall over. I lose strength as my feet hit the ground. I have deep random leg pain and cramps that wake me up at night. In fact, I have little muscle spasms all over, at times. I can’t calculate what to do with my body like I should. I mean, we usually don’t even think about it, do we? It’s like it belongs to someone else…I reach out a foot or arm…and nothing works right. I feel… spongy, unstable even sitting, tired out. I get funny nerve shocks. My mind is pushing through a cloud and sometimes I feel like I lost a minute… Each day takes all I have, especially the last six months.”

There. Done. I had lowered the last barrier to finding out the truth. I wanted to laugh and say “I feel like an alien sometimes–body snatchers got me..” but it wasn’t humorous now that I had spoken of it. Speaking dragged me out of denial, that age-old coping skill I had taught my addiction and mental health clients about. It works well, until it doesn’t.
Still, I worried D. would find it strange, extraordinarily so. I waited as she put a finger to her lips and thought a minute.

“Well, I have to tell you I have some other heart patients I have treated. Some of them take statins like you do. They at times report symptoms like you describe. I’m going to get you some research I found and then you might consider calling your cardiologist.”

My mouth dropped open. Statins? The now-common cholesterol medication that also supposedly decreases arterial inflammation? I didn’t have high cholesterol but with heart disease “high” means another thing altogether. I did have inflammation issues. I had taken a statin since the first stent implant in 2001, a second in 2003. It was deemed necessary. What would Dr. P., trusted cardiologist, think?

I took home the research and studied it. There were my symptoms and more on pages of paper. “Statin myopathy”, translation: muscular weakness. “Statin muscle toxicity”. Muscle pain, fatigue, heaviness, stiffness, cramps, balance problems with attendant coordination issues. The papers went on to describe much of what I experienced but not all. The most startling note was that physically active patients experienced more symptoms due to intolerance of lipid-lowering therapy. I read one study that stated around 10% of those who took Pravastatin at 40 mg, like myself, suffered from muscle-related symptoms. Many patients didn’t note the symptoms as they were gradually induced and often dismissed at first. (Note: taken from Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine June 2001 vol. 78). No less than fifteen other diseases could be confused for statin muscle toxicity. I read the other indicators of those most at risk of myopathy but they did not ring a bell. It could be just my luck of the draw. I made an appointment to talk with Dr. P. for whom I hold much regard.

As always, he opened the door with a warm smile, shook my hand and got down to business. I had expected that he might take it all in and say, sure, there is some reason to think the statin might be the issue, and then remind me that I had aggressive coronary artery disease and required this treatment for as long as I lived. The end.

“Get off it at once, ” he said. “You look ill, you’re having a terrible quality of life and I wish you had complained before. One to two percent of my patients can’t tolerate statins and have similar negative effects.”

“It’s been subtle over the years; I didn’t realize it could be anything serious until recently. But it has been bad…”

His green surgical scrubs and rubber clogs were still on and for a second I wondered if the person he had operated on was recovering well. His eyes held mine. “I want to make sure it’s the statin. If it isn’t, there are some sinister diseases like MS and ALS that we need to investigate…”

Dr. P. always tells me the truth. It is what I like to hear and part of his skill. He noted it was a risk to take but my cholesterol was quite low at least on the statin, blood pressure was very good and I had taken excellent care of my overall health. I was to return in six weeks. I would either feel better or I would not. After he listened to my heart–“sounds good”–he put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a small squeeze. I knew that gesture. It meant he was hoping for the best, cared that I get better.

What does a person do with information that is affirming while not necessarily reassuring? I did nothing. I stopped taking the statin and went on with my life. I prayed for Divine guidance and compassion and got both. I wrote and walked every day and enjoyed the outdoors as always. After a week, I felt something change, a little less fatigue, a few less twinges and spasms. I said nothing to my husband but waited for him to remark on my gait and energy. Within ten days Marc told me what he saw.

“You seem different. It’s hard to explain, but you’re thinking and moving faster and better. You’re stumbling less, I think.”

“Yes,” I breathed and went on with my life.

And so it went. Each day I felt more awake in the morning. My feet hit the floor solidly. I could get to the bathroom without tilting and grazing the walls. I reached and grasped onto things. My feet recovered quickly if they stumbled; they rarely got hung up. Walking felt so good and I felt so strong that I wanted to walk another ten blocks, crest another hill in the forest. My mind cleared so that words clicked along without hesitancy and words rose out of a sunny place, not a gray, misty one. My typing could almost keep up with my thoughts so writing was a sweeter release.

The experience that told me I was on the road to health was how my feet wanted to dance. I am not a dancer now but I love to be in a lot of motion (unless writing) and adore music. One morning I felt acutely attuned to vast energy moving through my limbs, down to my toes, throughout my whole body. My feet felt strong, steady on the floor. I began turning and dancing. It felt like being set free. It was a perfect combination of lightness and gravity. I knew then I was going to be alright. In fact, I feel better than I have in years, long before I fell gasping to the dirt in the Columbia Gorge years ago, on the precipice of death.

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When I saw Dr. P. in six weeks he said upon entering the room, “You are so much better! I can see how you sit, like you are ready to get going. You LDL went up forty points, so we do need to watch that. You owe it to yourself to stay alive in the best way possible, which means having a good time being here. You’re tough–most people wouldn’t put up with those symptoms so long.” He laughed softly. “So since you’re so tough, get out there and get to work! You must increase your exercise so it is more vigorous and eat even better. Call me if you have any problems, and don’t wait to call. I’m very glad you’re better.”

Can we celebrate? Is there a truly happy ending here? I don’t yet know. It’s much more than I had hoped. I thanked D., my physical therapist, for her knowledgeable response. Medicines can help or harm; this one is no good for me, at least right now. I have relied on it a long time so getting off it is risky in a way. I will research alternative aids. I will eat more fish and take fish oil, ramp up my exercise until I can’t do any more, get my lab work and meet Dr. P. in six months to re-evaluate. I was never told coronary artery disease would be easy to treat or I would live a long time. I agreed from the start of this business to do whatever I must in order to be able to keep diving into this treasure hunt called life. I want to keep this body in the known world. We all take risks, some even unknown, but in the end we exit anyway. I just want to make the most of it.

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Heart Chronicles #18: Risking Our Lives, Part 1

Lilac Farm in WA. 5-10 032For over a year–no, let me be honest, a couple years–I had been struggling through a too small entryway into each new day, legs becoming more unreliable, arms and hands slower to respond, balance off enough to make me shake my head. I had to avert falling over when stepping out of  bed and reaching for my hoodie. The hallway seemed to have contracted, leaving little room for me so that a shoulder grazed, then hit, the wall. I splashed chill water on my haggard face. Put in my contacts and blinked. Stared at myself and frowned. Another morning, another day of something… interesting. Maybe an experience gratifying in some small way at the least and at best, invigorating and even shot through with a brief mystical moment. But where was the get up and go, my genetically-derived indomitable spirit? Come on, I urged myself. Go forward. Complete shower, eat food, get organized.

And so I did. I learned from the onset of life that to fully activate one’s mind and body meant activating one’s will as well. It is the historically American way, anyway. And there was so much to learn, accomplish, and puzzle and even laugh over. Whatever the days and nights brought, a primary rule that powered my living was getting up and going despite days feeling ill or blue or just plain distracted by multiple options. I tell you this so you have the stage well set. I naturally have some less than sterling characteristics, but not sloth. A modicum of eccentricity, yes; a lack of motivation, no. A loquacious complainer at times but not a self-pitying bore when life gets bumpy. And for those of you new to my blog, it is important you know I was diagnosed with aggressive coronary artery disease at age 51. There were nearly zero risk factors for early onset of any heart issue. It seemed a mystery. (See  other “Heart Chronicles” personal essays if that diagnosis resonates.)

Anyway, by the start of 2012 I simply “acted as if”–as if I felt energetic, well, able as ever. Unworried. I addressed all tasks at hand and attended to others’ needs. After I quit my job eleven months  later (I was done with that situation; I wanted to write), I luxuriated in newfound freedom from twelve hour days as a counselor. Still, I had expected to feel better than this, to fairly leap from bed after soothing hours of sleep. I’d imagined a garden pathway that took me to–well, how cared?  Stress levels had finally decreased which was great–less cortisol production equaled less inflammation in the arteries. If I was in a quandary about my life at moments it seemed reasonable: what came after the paycheck that afforded us some nice bonuses? What came after years of assisting others because it fit me well and I, it?

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Maybe I was depressed and didn’t realize it. (I was a counselor–didn’t I know the signs by now?) But the fog that inhabited my brain increasingly harbored a voice echoing from an unknown frontier. This isn’t right! I heard, and told it to pipe down. Be calm. That was the way to do it, do anything. Patience, calmness, and thorough assessment of a problem were excellent tools, especially if intuition did not quite cover it. Brainstorming would help but it could wait a bit. Prayer was a necessary ritual. I daily clarified inner and external vision:  Dear God, most Loving Light, walk with me and guide me on the path hewn of compassion; keep me humbly grounded in Your power.

I reached for my teal mug but missed it, hand sliding by with just enough velocity to knock it over. I said a bad word. How did that happen? I stood firmly and snatched the tea towel to mop hot liquid off me, the book pile, The Writer and Architectural Digest and my daily list of goals and priorities. The damp pages and pulsing spot on my leg brought a sting of tears. I got up with empty plate for the kitchen counter: made it. I headed to the washer to start laundry. Each armload of clothing felt heavier; my arms began to ache. I turned to the dryer and the effect was forgetting where my feet were. Catching myself as I fell sideways, my hands hit the wall. Steady now.

Another day under the Big Top of life, where the show limped on. I was getting aggravated by it all, chastised myself for not overcoming this trial. It had to be an old vertigo resurfacing as it did occasionally. I took some OTC motion sickness medication a few times a week. It helped but not enough.

I had already injured my shoulder from a fall earlier in the new year. Climbing rocks around Pacific Ocean tide pools, jumping carefully from spot to spot, I had mis-stepped, slipped on a mossy area and could not catch myself. My arms and hands heroically rallied to stop the slide down toward the sea but too slowly. The right shoulder took it hardest. I had been stunned. Not by the pain but by the fact that this was the second time in six months I had fallen at the beach. The other time left extensive bruises that hurt for a couple weeks and a testy scrape. I should have been able to avoid both. There was a reason why I loved the outdoors, had been a figure skater as a youth, loved to dance. I had trusted the strength and agility of my body even as the decades slid by. But now nothing was paying attention to the automatic cues of my biological systems.

A shiver of anxiety, then again the thought was tucked away to ponder another time. I had a life to live and live well.

But no matter how much good rest, exercise and nutrition I got, the symptoms continued. Why was writing checks harder? I had stopped enjoying handwriting cards to friends and family. The pen would not cooperate; the letters were unpredictable, sometimes loping away from me. My daily walk habit–for my heart, for peace of mind–had become more than small adventures. It became a challenge to see how long I could go without stumbling over a tiny buckle of sidewalk, tripping on a twig, stubbing my sneaker toe and nearly falling once forward movement began. Gravity was not a reliable friend. I felt like a barely contained drunk on the loose some days, when I hadn’t had a drink in well over twenty years. I was chagrined.

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Marc, my spouse, noted the changes more often and asked me what I thought was going on. I laughed it off. See? I have great reactions ultimately so I don’t splatter all over the pavement! But he wasn’t too impressed.

“You stumble over your words more, too,” he said softly.

“Well, I don’t talk as much as I used to every day. I am not any longer addressing groups, presenting material. I write in solitude so I get out of practice, you know? Besides, I was actually in a coma for a bit there in 1986, remember? I lost some fluidity in all faculties. Took awhile to reset my nervous system.” I half-laughed. It was long ago, something I can mention without horror, anymore.

“Yeah, but you almost entirely recovered. You’ve always had a very fast mouth and a quick brain…” he noted fondly, then fell silent.

I married a bright man. He likes to create his own Sudoku puzzles, design labyrinths, solve logic puzzles. I caught him taking a Mensa quiz; I know it wasn’t that tough. He reads about statistics for fun, which strikes me as arduous pleasure. He is paid to be an expert problem solver. But I didn’t feel like consulting him one bit. He likes to think of me as in overall glowing health, for one thing. I need to stick around. I just did not want him to know the whole scenario. So we kept walking daily and hiking on week-ends. I did my exercises. And danced when alone, wheeling about the living room, feeling a bit like a top out of control. I pushed myself. When things are challenging, overcome them–that’s how human beings do it. I more often slept in later,  ate better and less, felt more relaxed than I had in years of working in the non-profit sector.

It had to be because of aging; small changes occur and then voila! you are older than you ever imagined. White hair was finally worming its way into the brown strands, making it a bit curly. Plus, as a woman with a tricky heart I knew I was already enjoying extra years. I decided to take extra care of myself and keep going. Maybe call my cardio guy if my chest started to flash me any warnings.

I embraced writing daily which feeds my entirety, every inch. I stuck to my goals, and soon my poetry began to be accepted once more for publication.

I had been adapting, I realized, to the symptoms for a long time. Rallying human that I am, I adjust a little here and there and fix my attitude. It often works well. Great health had never been a given, anyway, with one chronic ailment with me since childhood. I was writing, learning, discovering. I got to be outdoors any time I chose. I could read all day if desired, listen to music I had long missed. There were people I loved and who loved me.

I had gotten on a boat to a potentially sweeter way of living–perhaps it was “semi-retirement” or maybe a lovely detour–so I wasn’t going to turn around any time soon, no matter the obstacles or risks. I settled in. Then one day I was going up the stairs with a grocery bag in one arm. My legs felt both wavy-boneless and heavy. With a twist of terror I felt myself falling backwards, my hand catching the rail just in time as the bag tumbled down. I started to see the future. It was not looking all that kind.

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(Please come back next week for Part 2 of this post.)

Attending to the Essence

DSCF7871There are surprises that occur while living with a disease that may have exclusive rights to my final demise. One is that life is still a great open stage and I can do with it what I want. And I am still granted opportunities to decide what stories to direct and participate in. This is noted despite the fact that I realize I can be struck down any moment.

I had begun to think I was a bit of a puppet, as we can at times suspect. It seemed I was not infrequently subject to the unreliable winds of life, the whims of confounding, surly natured, occasionally dangerous people who crossed my path. It appeared I shared these experiences with many others. But I wondered if I was purposely situated in poorly designed scenarios despite my goal to explore only the very best. By my late teens I decided I had been duped. Too many hard things occurred, and not only to me, to convince me otherwise. What was this being human?

Victoria Trip 7-12 398But, then, I grew up in a world of culture and classical music, Sunday dinners generally shared with intelligent, kindly people. Duly civilized and all. There was much to love. But it was also like being a hothouse flower (with a few toxic influences thrown in) and then set outdoors, exposed to the rawness of real atmospheric influences. My first visits to Detroit and Chicago were terrifying and fabulous. I suspected there was much more to learn and wanted to get to it. And gradually I figured out bits and pieces, some useful and others discarded. Then I started to lose power along the way. I misplaced that critical, pervasive sense of a life-sustaining essence. The thing that gave me both gravity and joy. One can come to doubt enough that rescue has to occur; a decision must be made to stay alive. The years seemed full of exigencies and I did not understand as much as I believed.

Not everyone is fortunate to have more than a couple of cracks at life. But people who cared, along with a few angels (reader, you know I claim them), dragged me to my feet before I went down for good. God waited until I found a better foothold so transformation could begin. I gathered clues to better living long before that forest hike commandeered my heart and took me down to the dirt. It’s a good thing I had helpful life skills because employing any victim stance again required more energy than I could squander. But it shook me up, that ton of pressure on my chest that left me reeling. I barely, with my husband’s help, made it out of the trees. I have decent intuition, sometimes very good, but it took me until the next morning to understand my heart was getting ready to kill me. And I needed a lot of mental and physical stamina to devise a new game plan. When I cold-called cardiology offices and found Dr. P., who listened and knew exactly what to do, I found liberation. A damaged heart, yes, but freedom was in the making.

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My scheme included full-on healing. Not the sort that exercise, heart medication and diet support. All very good, but not enough. I took three years off work and began to re-learn how to be fully present in my body, in the moment, in my life. Dare I say it? Prayer and surrender. Expectation of health. Call it meditation if you like, call it conscious development of an awareness of Spirit. Call it Step 3 if you attend AA. But I needed a reminder and I had gotten it: personal power begins with surrendering stupidity. Well, perhaps more accurately the tyrannical ego that is constructed from lifelong illusions. What a mess it can make.

So, if my heart was to become strong, harmonious organ, didn’t it make sense to heal it from the inside out? The bitter words still echoing in the night, regrets that soured more with time? What is the value of vilification in the end? How about the lost passionate teen-aged love that was just that–a love that served adolescence, not this time, this person? Or the worst of the lot: nightmarish assaults and a legacy of addiction that hurt my family, my several failures to thrive and achieve, the grief that bound me still to the burden of living, not the sheer joy of it. The list of things that haunt and damn us. In truth, we are missing the ancient campfire to swap our troubles and then sing it all away.

Still, you wouldn’t have seen this at a glance. You would have found a woman competent and quick, hard-working and accessible. You could count on me. Yet I was a woman also driven to exhaustion, bruised to the marrow though a believer in hope–which was given to others, not so often to myself. I had to unclench my hands and let my own tears flood them, then fall away. I had to make a nest in mercy. Room was needed for the purity of wonder left behind in childhood. Space big enough for the essence, for life-giving light. I did not want a life lived and coming undone, like ruined skin peeling off. Impotence did not appeal.

I had to change, fast, before there would be three, not just two, stent implants or worse. Work began in earnest, because that is the only way I have ever known how to live. Intensely. Now. The panoramic experiences that wanted my embrace lay before me. I felt I was asked to take a step into, at best, intriguing but hazy possibilities. And because I have always needed to see what is around the next bend, I stepped forward despite becoming unmoored from my known life. Oh, the beauty I found. The way life insinuates the fibers of our being with its beneficent force. The elegance of faith that will not shake loose despite setbacks. When in mid-stream and the water keeps rising, float. What I have found is that there is no end to what we can manage and discover and in the process of discovery, act upon and give.

I did go back to my chosen field, counseling the mentally ill and addicted. Some folks advised against it–too stressful, they said. But the truth is, it has always been a calling. It was a fulfillment of a promise made long ago to be of good use to those with too little hope and resources. After more years I stopped working and threw caution to the wind again. This time to write every day. Stories were intruding on work, or perhaps it was the other way around.

Our hearts know us first and last, beat to cavernous beat. It knows us best although we try to hide. It will remind us important things we have forgotten, secrets we thought we might never know, avenues to God and ways to live on earth in full, unadulterated color. Every moment has potential magic. I feel this in its primal rhythm as I rest, sweat, play, ponder. So when I awaken, I do wonder what scenario will unfold today. What will I bring to the fore and let recede? Maybe directing is not so much the need but narrating the story is. As a child I wrote plays and poems. I rounded up a motley neighborhood cast and crew and we threw it all together for ticketed performances, all in the name of fun. It was so easy to create and share the pleasure. So now, here, I will hold on to this recaptured essence that infuses my living, without hoarding the wonder.

Let me traverse the path with eyes wide open, unflinching; look for the whole truth which can be perfected only with compassion. I want to hold an ongoing conversation with humanity as well as the starry canopy and beyond. I care to live within the transducing power of life, its wild center, until the very last moment here. Let me not hold back one good thing.

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How I am Being Alone in the Here and Now

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I flung open the louvered closet doors. The sight of colorful skirts, sweaters, shirts and pants crushed between one another made me wince. It is time to make a seasonal change, trade the winter group for spring and a few items of summer. It’s a chore, but usually painless. This year, it felt like something else: an anxious moment that brought me face-to-face with remnants of a previous way of life. The work-for-a-paycheck life.  I sorted for charities, hesitant about several pieces. Since I am no longer working four, ten to twelve-hour days at a community mental health clinic, how often would I use these?

So far, most of them remain. I haven’t given up hope of finding part-time work so that I can keep on writing more. And there are other occasions to get a little fancied up, even in Portland, the only place I have lived where one can wear jeans and sandals to a symphony concert.

I intended on working for several more years but when I became ill with vertigo I identified cause and effect. The job I had didn’t fit; stress was gaining. The answer? Time to go. I have been happy to fulfill a true calling for twenty-five years: counseling many at-risk populations including addicts, alcoholics and the mentally ill. The hardest thing was saying goodbye to my clients. I found a way to let them know I was doing what I advised them to do: taking care of myself, making prudent decisions to support my well-being. I planned on doing just that.

So what have I done the last four and a half months? I wanted to be happy with my choice, while the pretty attire seemed to accuse me of sloth as I stood there in jeans, t-shirt and an old grey sweater. And slippers covered my feet after a long walk in the damp morning. But I stopped to reassess. What constitutes work? Am I not managing household business affairs, running errands and taking care of my husband, who works in an intensely demanding position? I spend time with adult children and grandchildren as often as possible.

But there is more to be done, much more.

All those years of raising five children, getting more college credits when possible, working outside of home and then doing laundry until midnight, I longed for one thing more: time to be and do all the other things I loved. I have never been truly bored. That may have come from my history of growing up in a prodigiously active family; we did not have time to do nothing. We seem to have excellent stamina and reserves of energy. And if I even hinted about being restless, my mother told me to find something to do. I was expected to comply.

So I show up each day to fully experience and utilize my time, just as when I had an ID badge. It would be dishonest to state it has been a simple transition. I am still a person moved to be of use, to aid those in dire need and listen with unerring attention. To be centered and calm, to not derail the client, to maintain clarity of thought and keep an open heart yet not to be swallowed whole by the suffering: this takes rigorous practice. It became second nature.

So, to be without people around much of the day has been strange and hard. But here is the time I craved so long; it was either use it or lose it to something I have never known before–a lack of direction. Solitude has much to teach me. I will continue to give thought and prayer to possibilities that must be within my reach. But this is what I am doing, in between numerous household chores and seeing family:

*I read as soon as I get breakfast, starting with magazines. I have subscriptions to The Writer, The Smithsonian, Vogue, Architectural Digest, VIA, and American Craft. Oh, yes, also People and Entertainment Weekly. And I sometimes buy Glimmertrain or Tin House (literary journals), Real Simple, and Sunset and The New Yorker. I peruse Willamette Week for area events and arts offerings.
I enjoy newspapers online as well as blogs of many. I also read non-fiction and fiction off and on during the day and at bedtime. Currently I am reading The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields (a novel about author Edith Wharton), Neighbors and Wise Men by Tony Kriz (about spiritual experiences of the author), Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran, and A Book of Luminous Things (poetry anthology) edited by Czeslaw Milosz.
I read a few hours daily, more if I am researching something. I have to set a limit or nothing else will get done.

*At night I schedule my time for the following day and the bulk of my day is reserved for writing. When I write or research writing issues, time can cease to exist. The work includes: research on agents and publishers as well as lit journals both online and in paper and writing competitions, revising my work, writing blog essays and poems, working on new fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry, preparing and submitting work according to the specifications of various editors, editing my novel for the umpteenth time. I have an abiding passion for writing. I want to write pieces that will move, surprise, and engage people so that after they are done, they have something interesting to take away.

*I walk or hike. Every day, rain or shine, cold or hot. The only thing that will stop me is serious illness. I walk because I love the rhythm of walking, the way it relaxes and clarifies my mind, and I so appreciate nature, architecture, people and random and surprising moments that occur. I also walk and hike because I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease at age 51 after an apparent heart attack while I was hiking in the beautiful Columbia Gorge. I don’t worry but I am aware of my “borrowed” time as heart disease does not go away. I keep the inevitable (but who among us doesn’t leave this world eventually?) at bay any way I can.

*Daily I pray, sometimes read meditations and the Bible. I think about and sense Divine Love/God in my life and others’ routinely. I cannot imagine my life without God in it daily, every second, whether or not I am fully conscious of it. I would not be alive without God, could not have endured and healed from dangerous and painful experiences, would not have stayed alcohol-and drug-free all these years, would not have the gratitude and peace that permeates my life. There are times I am not totally clear about the next step in this earthly life, but I am never uncertain of God’s eternally compassionate guidance.

*I am learning to draw and use watercolors after many years of not painting and drawing. I used to paint large acrylic paintings so this is new. It is a wondrous thing to see what pencil and paint can do on paper. It is scary because it is new but that is part of the adventure.

*I am happy when photographing things, mostly nature and architecture but also people. I have a passion for

* I either call (or text or email) my children at least weekly if not more if I am not going to see them. I talk to a sister often. I call my mother-in-law and email my other siblings. I visit with a few close friends. Despite being introspective, I have extrovert tendencies and miss people at times. So I get out in my neighborhood and enjoy shops and restaurants.

*I am thinking about taking flamenco dance classes, engaging in voice lessons so I can actually sing again, enrolling in a tai chi or QiGong class, taking more writing workshops, volunteering again, finding more botanical gardens and also forests to explore, self-publishing my novel. I’d like to make some new friends. Appreciate my family to the very fullest. I don’t know how many more days and nights I have to immerse myself in all there is to hold close, then let it go.

This is my slice of life, alone, in the here and now. I don’t think too hard about the future; it will come, or it will not. I am still a good friend to myself after all these years, but I can always learn more. It has been a slow letting go (for now) of service work. But when the heart breaks open even a little it has room for so much more life. It creates space and insight needed for change. For me, that means making more stories and sharing life’s bounties. I hope that whoever reads this can find time alone to explore all that wants to awaken and better serve your life.

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