Your Life Reset in Motion

Father's Day, beach, other 154

Over the past six decades, I have been adversarial towards my body as well as its greatest ally. Especially since I have so far outlived the prognosis given me at age fifty-one. I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of coronary artery disease and I get check-ups every year–and as needed.

So I recently had my yearly treadmill stress test with an EKG and heart ultrasound plus a new one (to examine carotid arteries along the neck) two weeks ago. I got the results Monday. My brilliant, effusive heart doctor arrived with his usual intense focus. Technical language rolls off his tongue like a romantic foreign language. He quickly but carefully explained each test result, the whys and wherefores of a couple of anomalies and the improvements. The results were encouraging–over fifteen years, I have had mostly good news. Despite two carotids in my neck starting to clog up a bit, one moderately so at 50-70%.

Wait a minute. I sat forward. What did he say?

But he wasn’t particularly alarmed.

“There are six of them feeding the brain– a great delivery system God provided. You can manage fine with a couple not entirely in prime shape for much longer. Plaque builds up gradually in everyone’s carotids as we age, not just yours. We’ll check next year unless you call me first with any complaints. Something will be done when it is necessary, but not that soon.”

And that one stiffening valve noted the last two years?

“Gone. I see no evidence of it now.”

But what about the slight enlargement of one heart chamber noted last year?

“I almost suspect it only looked a bit larger for a number of reasons…it’s showing nothing more, it operates beautifully, and you have a small rib cage so parts of your heart can appear bigger at different angles. In short, I make note of all but nothing concerns me about this, either. I will keep an eye on everything, of course.”

We talked a bit more; I am a patient who asks many questions. But since he had been up since four  in the morning and he was in scrubs (hospital conveniently next door), I went easy on him.

“So. I’m holding my own, still–I will just keep on keeping on. Live with the arrhythmias as best as I can, as before.”

“Cynthia, in truth, you somehow have the strong, hard-working heart of a fifty year old woman, rather than a sixty-six year old, despite coronary artery disease. But the heart disease is still a reality. You have done amazing things by staying nicotine-free, exercising so much daily, eating healthily, taking great care of yourself. You know you’ve outlived life expectancy–and you’ve even reversed a few things! You look fantastic.”

I think he really meant my heart, but I blushed a little, anyway. I had gotten up way before my usual time to get to an early appointment and felt bleary, more so due to feeling some anxiety about these visits. But now: relief. He extended  open hands to me with a warm smile and I reached back. We are a partnership and he is just as responsible, no doubt about this, that I still stand and well enough. He listens and he takes excellent action at the right time–so far so good.

“How much do you exercise now?” he asked reaching for the doorknob.

“Still about 2-4 miles  a day; I tend to power walk those. On week-ends, I hike up to two hours or so at a time. I love both. One recent fun time I walked through a nature refuge for nine miles. I could have gone more–I was not that tired–but I was hungry and my husband felt done long before then.”

“That’s great work, Cynthia. You’re a star patient, as ever.”

As I exit, out flows a long fast breath, tension ebbing once more.

It significantly delineates my life, this yearly meeting. It is a marker, tells me if I succeeded in staving off further damage one more year, keeping the disease from progressing, maybe making it recede a bit. But right after I underwent the first medical intervention, I was terrified to walk more than a block by myself. I envisioned my glaring lack of health and nearly sabotaged my progress. Then I thought: I will either die on the sidewalk as I walk around the block or I will go on living and my heart will get stronger again. I better get going.

Dr. P. had been the only cardiologist able to see me the day after my heart event. It had happened on a hike in the Columbia Gorge; I was brought to my knees by chest pressure and pain. After Dr. P saw me, the hospital and stent implants to prop open an artery 95% occluded. I came out of recovery and thought: At barely fifty-one, what will I need to do to get back? 

So when I got out of this week’s appointment was I more than relieved? One finds happiness comes with a dose of caution regarding heart disease. I found myself thinking of that carotid artery being more than 50% closed. Then I just let it go. I trust him. And I trust my own body to tell me when I need to get help.

I didn’t always trust it. I tried to ignored it. Too often took poor care of it, even disrespected it. I thought it tricked me, perhaps hated me many times. And this was long before I was fifty and headed for a fatal heart attack. It has been a long run of challenges. Yet, truly, I remind myself how fortunate I am every day, even the hardest days. I know my life could have been another tale told, one that was far more intolerable and ended early.

In the illustrious and checkered annals of history, no one will note much less recall this woman’s tiresome battle with and burgeoning love for her own body. For one thing, we all have body concerns and issues, beginning perhaps from that initial burst and flow of oxygen into lungs at birth. How easy is that, to be expected to step forth and embrace another sphere? We are built for it,  and yet it seems an uncertain thing desired since infants often require encouragement. The new body is smacked, the breath is sharply taken in and a cry erupts, the arms and legs tremble and tight fists punch the air. Bigger arms of newly appointed guides reach to embrace. Welcome to life on earth.

Unless, possibly, one is born as my youngest daughter, via the LeBoyer Method, quietly. Into a large basin of room temperature water, in a bedroom, with classical music flowing about our ears. She doesn’t remember this but she was an unusually happy, peaceable baby. I do. She made her way up my abdomen and chest like a part-water creature, making friends with air and gravity. But neither do I have memory of my birth; I am sure it was quite ordinary.

But the following complicated times shared with a cantankerous, wise and spirited physical body? I recall them well. So do you, I am sure. We inhabit this compact gateway to life that carries most all we need to operate (I suggest spirit or soul, whichever you prefer, also has mighty input). Such a marvelous system of sensory information. The mind incorporates diverse bits and pieces to create a comprehensive understanding of what is happening at any given moment. Chemicals, hormones, neural pathways–our brains thrive when given what it needs. And we are meant to get up and go. To set ourselves into motion, no matter shape or size or gender.

But it gets more complicated. Our flesh, muscle and bone do not just comprise a convenient vehicle with which to roam and interact. Our bodies are part and parcel of our identities. Which, I have often wondered, comes first? Most all parents are powerfully drawn to their new creation, such wondrous flesh of their flesh, blood of their blood. Beyond basic nourishment, the manner in which they react and engage with that infant goes a long way toward determining how the infant grows–and grows up. Our personhood appears to develop the moments we are cradled or not, picked up or not, spoken to and sung to, or not. We are born with all essential equipment–if we are fortunate. And then we have to figure out how to live comfortably within its confines, with and without our caretakers’ adequate assistance.

And that has been an undertaking frequently felt as defeating when I got started on my journey, before getting anywhere close to halfway along the path. The other side can look like the same place as where you started if you have chronic fear or stubborn self-doubt, combat spiritual, emotional and physical pain. Because I think it can be helpful to others who’ve suffered, I haven’t kept it a secret here that as a child I was sexually abused for a few years by a man (not of my blood family). And then lived through attempted rape and beating along a railroad tracks beside a park as a young teen, an actual rape five years later, and more abuse as I became an adult. I began to feel like a target for anger or hate by then.

These leave a deep imprint on body and soul; they can go a long way in defining who you think– then believe–you must be. Or are no longer. It spreads in your being, stealthy, silenced, potentially deadly.

It took some years to face the damage squarely, to bit by bit heal the gaping rawness of those hidden wounds. But if there was one thing that motivated me, it was first an angry resolve that nothing and no one would stop me from living more of the life I wanted. There would not be lasting defeat. I would not give up rightful ownership of my own true self due to crimes committed against me. The past would not dictate my present or future. Even when I was on my knees praying through tears, body aching, mind spinning, my soul overcome, I believed I would get through it all because the alternative was not part of my deepest desire: death or sentenced to lifelong pain and misery. I needed to live a rich life with optimistic curiosity. Fearlessness again. I could feel this stirring, still.

But before that could come about I experienced adolescent breakdowns–due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder undiagnosed until age twenty–abused alcohol and drugs, and developed dangerous alliances. Teetered on the thin edge of a lifestyle that eventually cost me dearly. It becomes easier to live recklessly when you are not longer clear about how to live and stay safe.

I gave up high academic goals (though I attended university later), lost opportunities, including a possibility of becoming a professional singer. My dreams fell apart. Moment by moment, I sought any minute flickering light within darkness. It seemed each time I got to it there was something else to blot it out for some years. I began to suspect this was going to be life as I knew it, with no more good chances.

And yet there remained a soul-deep longing for a fulfilling life and so I held on to what hope could be mustered. It was centered on God, Whom I had still known and loved. God was yet moving in my life despite my sneering, my new hardness and that subterranean despair. But it was also the person I still yearned to be, calling me forward out of the muck and disarray and a long-buried outrage against merciless perpetrators who had derailed my life. How to recapture what I once knew? There remained, somehow, a slim belief that I might deserve more. That I was born into this mean and beautiful world both worthy and cared about.

That I would one day not be–or feel–so unsafe. That I could rest without nightmares awakening me from the moment I closed my eyes. That I could walk on a busy street or quiet forest trail and not be readied for a fight every other moment. That every man did not seem an enemy in disguise–I had brothers and a father who were honorable, trustworthy, so why did it all have to come to this?

That I could count on body, mind and soul to hold my life up like a colorful flying flag, not a pathetically broken thing.

I recount these times for a good reason so bear with me. I found some excellent, useful solutions, alternatives to a cheerless life.

I have always thought these were at the core of my earlier childhood: vivacious engagement physically, a happy abandon to the many offerings of daily life, fearless exploration of my communities, (neighborhood, church, school). I was not afraid for many years. I was cared about, for I had family and friends who were there day in, day out. But I think, too, during my growing up, that my own physicality had a hand in my survival and process of healing.

Since being very small I felt strong and confident inhabiting my body. I felt sturdy on my feet, felt free within my skin. There was perpetual delight in movement: dancing, climbing trees, riding my bike and doing tricks with it, ice skating, tobogganing, playing Kick the Can and Red Rover, badminton and volleyball, swimming, track and field games/competitions, softball, water and snow skiing, a bit of boating and sailing…well, the list goes on. There was little I did not have an interest in at least trying out, then practicing if I liked it. If it involved the body in motion, count me in. There was such excitement and satisfaction in it. Heart pumping, I was off . I got right out there and played some pick up football with the boys, prided myself on outrunning them. I wasn’t much conscious of any gender divisions. At home we were all encouraged to be in sports.

It wasn’t that I was only an active girl. I was able to be still, was introspective. Books enthralled me for hours and I liked to study for the most part. The passion for story and poem making started by age seven; I could focus for long periods. I loved making art, making up plays with neighbor kids, sharing music with family and at school. So there was a variety of activity I enjoyed.

But the allure of physical activity was magnetic no matter where or with whom I lived, or what was happening in my life. If for some reason my choices were seriously curtailed, I would find boring cleaning to do and, with music, I could dance about as I worked. Anything to get blood coursing, limbs reaching. There would be a car to wash, a closet to organize, a dog to walk, a yard to mow, loads of laundry, wood to split for wood stoves and fireplaces I’ve enjoyed (and sometimes relied on for heat). Sitting and doing nothing did not and still does not agree with me–unless reading, which is, arguably, activity of another sort even when mostly sedentary. But body and mind in a better balance has translated into greater well-being.

Years later while counseling others affected by addictions and the traumas that fed them, I increasingly observed something interesting: if they had little to do, they stayed sicker longer, and often more helpless about getting better. It’s tricky, as depression and fear can paralyze. But with strong support and ample ideas, a person can learn skills to overcome paralysis. Having one small goal accomplished, an activity explored, an ordinary hobby taken up–these can rouse a person enough to enable them to begin to perceive differently. Then they can reconsider more matters. As this positive momentum increases, it can trigger real changes for the better. After all, the human brain–that lively master planner and doer–manufactures chemicals and hormones that it needs, even if they seem to be flagging. We, ourselves, can trigger dopamine, serotonin, endorphin and Adrenalin production to heartily aid in a good fight for health–by taking more and vigorous action. We can begin to slowly reprogram our brains, our very neurology, how we respond to stimuli within and without us. How we determine our lives this very moment. It is nothing short of miraculous once you experience it and find it holds up time after time.

Personal experience certainly does show me this works out very well. I have had options to engage me at any given time; I have a variety of interests and am glad to seek more. Many require little to no financial investment so that is no excuse. And I know the longer I participate in them, the more well-rounded a person I become. More relaxed and present. Open to others. This has a ripple effect in all my doing and being.

Once when I was in residential treatment for a hidden and damaging alcohol problem, my therapist suggested two things:

1) that I get back to paid work, any work I could find, 2) that  I become more physically active again.

I was flabbergasted. Wasn’t I moving all the time? I was raising five children, ages ten to sixteen. I was running all day long and into night, my husband was often gone with a career that required long hours and travel. Plus, I was still under-qualified for much more than what I did, I thought. Still, she asked, weren’t these the two things that had not been put into full-throttle action? For just myself, no one else, by the way. They might make the difference. It rang a bright bell within me, as if being reminded of what was already known as truth. I prayed it was so. Little did I know.

First I found a bare bones gym. I was short on weight and energy. I ignored the muscle-bound men and phenomenal women. I just tried all machines, then asked for suggestions. In a couple of weeks I felt some improved. And gradually I discovered more serious weight training. Several times a week, I worked with free weights as well as machines with guidance from a good trainer. The regimen revved me up yet relieved stress. I started to eat better with more protein. The work outs challenged me, bolstered stamina and I developed more bulk. I was too thin most of my early adulthood, and now I gained weight with the muscle, looked better. Was actually stronger.

More than this, I felt more confident. Less skittish in the world. More self-possessed. All senses became even more responsive but in a calmer way; my attention was focused more clearly. I observed pleasant alterations emotionally, mentally and even spiritually. I found the workouts meditative as well as invigorating. It was a perfect combination for me at the right time in my life.

We bought weights to put in our basement so I could train there; my husband joined in as he could but cheered me on. My children were impressed and even, hilariously, liked to show off my significant biceps to their friends. I have to admit my abdominal muscles were excellent while my legs powered me better than ever. I was fitter than I had been for years, ate better and had more sustainable energy. And I felt satisfaction that I had regained some coping skills and this had improved all.

I stayed with weight training for about four years but when I felt I was getting too muscular, I backed off and then eased out of it and got into other exercise options. But after two decades, I still have free weights and I use them from time to time when to doing other exercise.

And I found it wasn’t nearly so hard to refuse a drink. I wanted to maintain better health. Then to my surprise I was hired to do what I found fulfilling– helping the frail elderly and disabled, and a new human services career took off well, leading to a managerial position. My life was back on track in a way that it hadn’t been for too long. Taking action worked; I worked harder because of that.

Remember the recent visit to Dr. P? And that he informed me I was to keep on doing what I was doing because it has worked so well? I stay alive by doing what works. If I find something with helpful results, I am persistent about the practicing part. I don’t like to lose out on good things. I don’t really like to lose, period. But most of all, ever since childhood, I have appreciated the thrills as well as practical benefits received due to being in motion, actively engaged in a silly game or a serious goal. This coming year I want to take dance classes again (tried and loved flamenco last time). And investigate kayaking. Ice skate more. Swim–how I used to love to dive! Who knows what is next? The choices are mine to make.

So let me move and count the miracles of sinew and bone. My body has lived many tales. We have had an adversarial relationship in the past. It has at times been bitterly betrayed. But it is forgiving. It is resilient. Mighty in its healing capacity. Its natural wisdom guides me, takes care of me, tells me things my intellect sometimes misses and that my soul can forget. It is braver than I ever imagined it to be, rallying when it falters. It is my home on earth. I am thankful for this shelter in which I reside. For the opportunities it provides as my heart keeps pumping,  carries me forward into the next moment. May I ever tend to it with respect and gratitude. Praise its Divine Creator. Eventually, though I hope not soon, this vital and repaired beating drum of my life will slow, pause, be silent, and I will take my leave. Until then, I am staying in motion as best I can, celebrating all the years left.

A letter of thanks (and fixing a glitch)

DSCF3728Dear readers:

I so appreciate each of you as you follow and read “Tales for Life” posts. There are untold numbers of excellent bloggers, scads of fascinating information and ideas to ingest. I know you all live demanding, at times tiring, lives. And I remain faithful to my weekly posts not only because I am passionate about writing but because you come back for more. It is humbling to see the “like” button clicked. I encourage you to leave a comment so I know what struck you and what you’d like to share otherwise. I follow many of your great blogs, as well.

But writing hurdles certainly occur for me, generally related to the computer. The post just published on 1/2/14 had many formatting glitches–my computer was having a fit, or the site was. It was a very lengthy process to get it posted, and even then, imperfectly. I’m not sure what happened to its title but now it’s in place: “Afternoons at the Ice Palace”.

This short story is based in part on my lifelong love of ice skating. It was one of the saving graces of my childhood and youth and continues to bring me pleasure and fitness. Although I have lost some figure skating skills, the ice still calls me. I plan on going to my local indoor rink soon. I do miss wintry blasts of wind and snow swirling around the rink. But joy will embrace me as soon as I hit that slick surface and pick up speed. It takes  my breath away.

Well being is more important each passing year–spiritual, emotional, and physical. My coronary artery disease is being managed well overall even as I accept my life will likely be shortened by its presence. So please don’t put off any concerns you have about your own health; early interventions can save us from much suffering.

I care about people, their struggles and breakthroughs, the complex questions and epiphanies that arouse wonder. Seeing and encouraging Divine Love in others is a priority. The most important thing to me is the knowledge of God being here, now, close to each of us. We are never abandoned; we digress and move away of our own accord. I have wandered down some twisty, tangled paths of my own and made unwise decisions.

I notice that atheism is getting more press. And there continues to be violent verbal and actual attacks on various religions. The world never wearies of dissent. I am Christian although my writing is about many topics and imaginings. My beliefs may not match yours or yours, mine. But we each can vow to improve our work or play, carry out actions enlivened by healthy risk and extra effort if they are informed by a faith that grants us stamina, inspiration and peace. May your own spirits and minds be so strengthened.

So may your coming days and weeks of 2014 be fruitful and active, buoyed by contentment and love. Thank you for making my past year one of good steps forward. I have gained more readers weekly, in large part to being Freshly Pressed. You have kindly supported my efforts. It makes a difference as I scribble away, seeking the words that convey a few worthy tales about living a life on earth.

Tell me: what tales do you want to design and live today?

Regards,
Cynthia

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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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The Heart Chronicles #17: A Heart that Flies

Today I was thinking about the ways poetry has helped my heart become better literally and figuratively.

I became lovestruck by the fourth grade. We were instructed to write a poem after having been read children’s poetry from a big anthology. My classmates wiggled impatiently in their seats, stared out the window, tapped their pencils, whispered of other things. But I sat with head down, pencil racing across the paper as though in a trance. I saw on the vast canvas of my mind an old man on a raft; it was raised aloft by the sea’s heaving green waves. He was sailing toward a place that he loved, a far away home that drew him forward, but he was tired. A flock of seagulls called out, soaring and diving. The old man, though both hearty and wise, thought he might not make it. He raised his eyes to the strong-winged birds and they brought him sea plants. He tied them to the raft and the seagulls took the other ends into their mouths. The wind blew mightily. The seagulls pulled the raft with the old man on it to his beloved destination.

It was a rather long poem, the teacher said, but she liked it. Still, just where did that poem come from? I had no good answer. It had just visited me and I got to write it down. That year it was chosen to be read at a conference on childhood education and creativity. That seemed a bit odd to me,  as the best thing was the happiness I felt in the making of my first real poem. That it had given pleasure to others was a pleasing side note.

And so I continued to write poems as I grew up. I liked to write plays and stories but poetry was the strongest voice, the one that took all the feelings, thoughts, ideas and crystallized them one by one. I read Theodore Roethke, Denise Levertov, Muriel Rukeyser,  Elizabeth Browning, Rainier Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, ee cummings–the list grew each year as I was left amazed by their prowess. A poem was the undiluted experience, the truth of one moment, a sage that taught me what I needed to know. They brought to the light many things that were wandering in the shadows. A poem could, and did, change my thinking and clarify my feelings, even alter the course of my life. 

Writing poetry has saved some part of me more times than I could recount. It has at times been the one companion or help available regardless of the time of day or night,  state of my love life,  health of my body,  or life circumstances that brought me plenty or paltriness. Many kinds of writing have upheld me but poetry’s brevity has perhaps taught me more.

After I was diagnosed with heart disease, I found I could write little other than poems. Most were not shared; they were vulnerable poems, poems needed to cleanse and heal myself, akin to prayers.  There were not the words for big stories at first, nor the energy. What I could not explain in speaking with others, I could say easily in poems. The deepest or hardest experiences would often have no voice at all if not for them. When I grappled with losses spanning the years–of health, of love, of family or friends, or of simply time, itself–a poem would rescue me from self-pity, self-importance, self-abnegation. It freed me and brought closer the center of all that I loved, to God and a sense of the numinous. More clearly part of the whole, I rested.

I read today about several meanings of the phrase “the flying heart”.  The winged heart symbol of the Sufi movement is reflective of the belief that it lies between the body and the soul, a conduit between matter and spirit.   Egyptian symbology indicates that wings are the symbol of spiritual progress and the heart was the only organ not removed from a mummy–an emerald stone was placed upon the chest to assist the journey from matter to spirit. In Christian scripture there are phrases that refer to a person’s spirit being lifted by wings of the heart. The Old Testament mentions the heart 814 times; it is seen as having higher intelligence than the brain. Psalms instruct us to “lift up your hearts.”  This is what poetry can do for me: my heart can fly and, in so doing, it can make more rapid connections to mind, matter, heart and spirit.  I become humbled and liberated by the truth I am made to discover. 

And so, I offer you one poem that surfaced as my heart dis-ease was still healing.

 

Lake Language

These are damaging times,
when all the words left seem
too little or self-important,
and since I had ridden the tail end
of the procession of grief,
not one syllable could tell me anything good.

So, I left for the lake, its imperishable
silences and soundings,
its mutations ranging from deep to deeper,
the sterling surface exhaling blues and greens
while I slept, innocent.

That next day the sun rose like a crown.
What seemed to be rain drops
were branches shushing the world.
Leaves flew across
my face,  burning with color
and clinging to my shoulders in
an impromptu cape that streamed
all the way to paradise.

Every small mystery bounded the trails
so I wouldn’t lose my way: 
moss and lichen clinging to
heavy nurse logs,
black beetles in shining armor,
bees feasting til the very last moment,
streams rumbling ancient warrior ground.

I would have danced among the cedars,
risen on plumes of scented mist,

but the lake called,
waves glimmering and thrusting toward
the shore, stones turning over
like happy creatures,
clouds drinking at the edge,
its enormity clearer than light,
its pure glacier heart warming in my hands

(Poem written at Crescent Lake in the Olympic National Park, 10/02)

The Heart Chronicles #16: A Case of Mistaken Identity

The ocean sings a brilliant song tonight in Yachats, like a Greek chorus in full voice. I sit by the woodstove fire: the smokey scent, running waves, brisk wind coming off the ebony water inform me that I am inarguably alive. On the south central coast of Oregon I have found territories known for years and yet they seem new to me still. A four mile hike through scrubby woods to find gentle sand dunes; a climb amid volcanic rocks to discover amber agates and sea urchins; a stop in historic Florence for a meal, good coffee, and a stroll. It was there that I was called by a necklace made of brass, blue and green inks, and epoxy. It is reminiscent of a mandala, or the wheel of life. It surprised me with its vibrant symmetry and textures. The pendant reflects a sense of the eternal, much as nature does, and that is central to what matters to me.

Ten years ago this date I was awaiting surgery, as well as remarriage (after divorce many years earlier) to my husband. And before either came to pass, 9/11 happened to us all. I was up early that morning to go to the dentist when I noted that there were several messages from my oldest daughter. I got the next call. I had never heard her pierced with such anguish as she told me what was happening. And my sister-in-law was in the Pentagon when it was hit by one of the planes. We waited all day until we got word she had raced out in time, smoke and terror and chaos chasing her. Everywhere I went that day people were weeping uncontrollably. Disbelief and horror brought us to our knees at the church across the street, strangers alongside neighbors.   

Two days later we decided to go ahead with the marriage. My husband-to-be, a few family members and I set off for the courthouse for a civil ceremony. I gasped for breath from the walk up a small hill, and dearly hoped the familiar burning sensation in my chest would pass, that no clenching chest pain would disturb the event. It was a quiet group that assembled. When we stood before the judge she noted that marrying us was the best thing to happen all week. A pall covered us momentarily. I also secretly worried a bit that it might be the one good thing to happen to me for months if not years to come. It seemed a strange if beneficent thing to experience, considering what had just come to pass for our country and myself–and what was before us collectively and privately.

This is how my thinking can be when I mistake a significant event as the most defining moment of all. I suppose we each do that, and usually it is for very good reasons: a milestone, a tragedy, a turning point that is precipitated by a failure or success. But those days before and after the stent implant were molded by all of those and more. It was easy to reconsider who I was, and to conclude I was a woman forever marked by not only defeats and  triumphs over a lifetime but also by a diagnosis. Coronary artery disease. It sounded and felt decidedly like an enemy. I believed it had already changed me beyond recognition in many ways. 

The first day I went to cardiac rehab I felt anxious and alone. Everyone around me was at least ten to twenty years older. They seemed sicker, as well. Wanting only to leave, I got on the treadmill and worked up a sweat. My pulse was taken at intervals by the nurse, my chest tightened and then expanded more easily. My mind was focused on one thing only: I would not die of CAD this day. In fact, I had to get healthier. Stronger. And also grateful–for the challenge, for all I still valued. For life amidst the brokeness of the world and the frailties of humanness. I am simply one person with a health condition; it doesn’t get to dictate the whole narrrative.  

After all, as a species we are good at finding purchase again on the rockiest of paths. We mend what has been damaged. We endure, can and do regain our dignity.

Despite the progress and prayers the next couple years, the identity that wanted to persis, however, was Heart Patient. I carried all the vital information in my wallet “just in case” and saw it as more important than my name. Nitroglycerin accompanied me everywhere; it was the amulet, the lifesaver I feared living without. It took more than imagined to overcome the diagnosis and the label. I was worried it meant I was less than, weaker than,  defective and therefore not as capable. No one had warned me of these intangible side effects. I could see I needed to be fearless, to live more in faith so I set myself to the task. That is when transformation picked up speed. With each 911 call lived through, each walk and hike more demanding and pleasurable, and every important person in my life offering support, I rediscovered the core of who I was: altered but not truly different than before. For I am certain who I am. I will blink in the face of difficult times but I will not long close my eyes. Call me greedy for life: give it all to me. 

When I mistook myself for a minor invalid, the specter of self-pity hovered and made the task of living well that much more daunting. Stepping out and away from the familiarity of my losses cracked open my world and the wiser world we share. The dynamic beauty of it infused me with numinous energy once again.  Who we are is who we want–and choose–to be.

My sister-in-law seems near tonight although she is with the Washington Chorus, along with my brother, performing at a commemoration at Trinity Wall Street sancutary and St. Pauls’ Chapel, New York City. She survived the heinous attack. Truly, she is a humble, heart-centered and joyous being. Both she and my brother are  examples of what we can do with what is given.

Here in Yachats, the Pacific Ocean is a constant symphony of wonder on a gentle night. I am filled with quietude. Blessings on everyone, both here and gone.