Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Stuck in a Blue Room (with Escapes)

Photo by Naomi Falk, Sunset Rain Sky, 2013,

I awakened a recent morning and stretched well, squinted at the window to ascertain what the sky was up to, then lay still again, as has been usual. Just coming back into this world. Through half slits of myopic eyes I scanned the soft blur of an inviting, comfortably large space around me. A thick warm dullness weighted me inside and out, and words arrived: stuck in a blue room.

I closed my eyes, drifted, wished for gold, wished for amethyst or vermilion or sage or flamingo pink.

The walls of my bedroom are painted a tender sky-in-lake blue. The quilt is Wedgwood blue. The bedroom light appears a sheer silvered blue early mornings, a soft navy at night. My mind, too, generally seems blue as I lay in bed. This usually reflects a peaceful ease, but it can also emphasize variable sadness or restless worry. Also, this blueness is a celestial dreaming that carries me, or a threshold to cross that reveals a poem or story that arrive unbidden. Then I must write and the blueness morphs into a span of colors–I use the word loosely here, color can be more than actual color– that rise and fade under my pencil.

Stuck in a blue room…

Blue is the way I live when at repose–not engaged in living with greater amounts of physical energy and movement. Those activities are differently colored. Though it may seem odd to others, this is what it is for me. Color means life. There is no such thing as colorlessness to me. White, after all, is all colors that show themselves on earth. Each reflects more, is a vibration of energy, physics made mystical. They can telegraph to me an active emotion, a deeper expectation or a simple state of mind. I accept these with delight –until it bears down, makes me think hard. Color, then, signals clues to life as I know it.

So that morning it meant something other and more. If blueness is a state of being I walk into when I open the bedroom door, it is familiar and I accept it’s character. It is the color always chosen for my bedrooms. But there are times it can feel oppressive, close around the edges. It can be such density of blue, creating a wide boundary beyond which I feel less able to experience fullness of life. If I was a long and languid sleeper, this would seem reasonable, I’d gladly succumb, but I am not,  by nature. I am used to jumping up and getting going. I prefer to not waste much time in that state.

But lately I often find myself captive in this blueness, and the room, for more than a little extra time. Floating amid watery light that fills the space.

I want out of there faster, more easily. I tell myself this as I lie there, let my eyes drink of this rich tone of palette, see early autumn’s cooler light chime its way in.I am not restive but becalmed.

I remind myself: it is grief, nothing more or less. I have been here before. My days and nights have not shown up the same since my brother got so ill and died late spring after a conversation with him shortly before. His gentle kiss stayed on my cheek a long time; I still can recall it. Then a sister-in-law who had my respect and friendship. Actually, it has been since four family members in total that have passed in three years. Like my world is shrinking. Rooms are emptied even as I sense presences. Just there…weren’t they….then not there at all.

Not that life should be the same as before. We lose parts of ourselves a little each time someone we love dies. They are not here for us to rebound off, to connect with, to herald similarities. Laugh with and be frustrated by. Those certain familiar meals/conversations stop. That part of my identity, of being sister and sister-in-law—only as I could be with them and they with me–has dissipated.

I get it. I don’t much like it. Nor the tears that rise and spill as I smell a familiar fragrance, hear a piece of music, catch sight of their images. Or just see a child reach for an extended mother’s hand: exquisite tenderness of blood with blood. Or read of more sudden deaths in the greater world. Such fragility  and rawness of life stun me anew; I want to turn away even as I want to wrap my arms about it, hold all close. It is a magnetic thing, human life. But it also can repel us when we have had enough for awhile. When we need a rest.

I thought today (as I power walked, admired green if drier rustling leaves) that if I still drank, if I still harbored that desire, I might be a little drunk by evening. Instead, I drink tea with my breakfast and an iced tea or coffee in afternoon. But there was a time when I’d dose my morning cup with a dab or two of whiskey. It made the hard, the tedious or loathsome qualities of living less damaging, I imagined. Way back then I couldn’t find the right effective remedy for that stuck state of mind–or perhaps I was too worn out to keep trying. But alcohol was a generous giver and soothed my fighting ego/wounded soul/aggravated heart/sleep-hungry body. My housewife boredom. Overwhelmed motherhood. The woman with displaced dreams. Well, just tamp it down and carry on. Put on a good show–but first, have a small drink.

It was the sweet escape discovered later than many (age 27) and when I did it was: Amazing, it’s not illegal, expensive or lethal and also is socially acceptable. Not many years after, I gained a more vicious experience in time. But meanwhile it was handy, it worked pretty well on inner and outer kinks, scars and blockages I’d wrestled with for so long. Or rather, the illusion of aid was convincing. One little sip was good, three big drinks or wine glasses were better or finally why not the entire blasted half pint of liquor…and more, who’s even counting. Somehow I carried on with life for a long time, so thought I fooled everyone. That thinking led me down an escape route from which it took a long time to safely emerge and when i did, I was blinking like a captive creature turned into brittle sunlight.

Alive by the skin of my teeth. That’s what alcohol does to some: strips us down to the core and then abandons us to try to survive in the human wilderness, anyway.

So I don’t drink. Not for decades now. I have far better coping skills. I seek spiritual help, pay attention to what feels (as in instinct) best and actually works. But at times I long for escape. Not with the old avarice for oblivion. Just a kindly breather. Another trail to traverse. A better vision to replace what I have. My story redesigned so that I fit it better–or it, me. I want to be happier again, and I want to be more useful to others. To feel more worthy of each day’s arrival. To slip these bonds of grief, the depression of the sorrowful.

Single out the spark in daily discoveries once more.

Is it so much to hope for? Maybe I was born rather too lucky…I have always felt able to find replenish-able joy despite the miseries that informed and bordered my life too soon. So when taxing times hang about I am still shocked like a foolish innocent who finally realizes the world is as it is. Like I have forgotten that this is part of it, we cannot be safe from it , and no one gets off easy even when it appears otherwise. Every time I ponder how it can be so sorry on this earth. And at times in my own life, which I used to feel was fabulous. Not me, but simply being alive– despite evidence otherwise. I know that heartaches reach and twist innards even as they teach us, and so deepen us at the seams,. Make us stronger and more aware.

I long ago created a life motto: Courage, Strength, Tolerance, Determination (“CSTD”, I said over and over to myself). I was 12 or 13 and decided it had to be that for me or sink. But before each challenge ended I’d experience resistance to being courageous, would rather claim my basic life joy in all its permutations. I think it’s human nature to shrink from and even fight off tribulations even as we rise to meet them head on.

So I still have to root about for it, dig deep and seek far until I can locate it– that shining thing, whatever emanates possibilities–then bring it close, spread it about for a look. I have to get out of bed, that room of waiting/dreaming/perseverating, out of that eternal blueness. The room inside me which offers a small protection. But not enough of what I realistically need otherwise. Right now.

Writing does this for me, as might be obvious. Who–if he or she is a writer or reader– can resist the cure of language that carries one inside other characters’ lives and their landscapes, creates a whole new, eventful territory? The horizon shimmers, tantalizes. Such force within the explorer words. Writing for me is the proverbial silver cord that attaches me to God. But also to earth and much that matters to me.

Any creative pursuit can provide remedial action. I am taking a world music choral workshop once a week for two months. I’ve learned a Zulu song (I haven’t mastered words yet) and a Native American-derived song. I like the people, how easily they sing out and share talk afterwards, though I sing with self-conscious reluctance (I am yet rather too blue) and it will take time to feel more chatty. I intend on taking a drawing or painting class this winter. When the hand moves the mind quiets, focuses, awakens to visualization of ideas that are freeing. I need to dance beyond my living room but also need to choose wisely how to expend such energy. One woman I met at choir noted she’d belly danced for 18 years. I try to imagine it… but am likely to do interpretive dance or Latin styles or perhaps Zumba again. To each our own.

I walk. Every day whether tired out or in poor weather. For my heart to stay better and become  stronger. To get out of the blue rooms of mind. To reconnect with nature’s potency. I hike in forests and on mountain trails, with or without my husband. Every walk cures something, a surly mood or a medium headache. Realigns my soul. Last Sunday Marc and I spent a couple of hours in Portland’s fine Japanese garden, enchanted at every step as I took photographs and breathed in the forested air. So much better than the blueness alone.

Reading is a favorite way to get me out of a confining head space, such an easy escape. I read several articles and pages of books every day. Recently my landlord had to check a window in my bedroom and I was a bit embarrassed by the two walls covered in full to overflowing bookshelves as well as neat stacks of books near bedside. Also, my dining room table tends to look as if designated for massive paper and print, but it feels like home to see it. I flip a page, am entertained but also instructed, moved, irritated, thrilled, shocked, healed. Given sustenance.

Movies and television serve a prime purpose of escape–last night it was the last of an Agatha Christie mini-series and a baking show. Tonight it may be a house renovation show or a wildlife documentary. Even a reality show, lowest of the low culturally, yet it can grab my attention a bit. I recently attended the fine film “The Wife” with one of my best friends, after which we went out for a great Italian meal. She prefers to escape into movies. I am happy to go along with her. Inhabiting another story, marveling at the artistry of film–a pleasure that broadens horizons.

This week-end we are attending the concert of glorious classical songstress Renee Fleming. Next week-end I am attending a musical based on Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” with another dear gal friend. Escape with intention of gaining intellectual nourishment.

I am fortunate to have these options, I know. It is a good thing I have them. I drank before, yes, and at a younger age also seriously abused drugs. But I have never escaped into gambling and my shopping is not much or pricey. I am far past the sexual hunt mode. No food addictions beyond intense desire for chocolate that visits me suddenly (I will pay well for superior quality). I am not a “techie” who buys lots of gadgets or even a fancy computer. Collecting items other than books or maybe t-shirts (so comfy) is not on my agenda. My love of music is upheld by fairly cheap transmitters such as radio and CD player plus a few concerts each year. Well, I do have a Sirius XM subscription for my car.

I could become a board game addict–a real draw for years, and I still love a competitive Scrabble game. I am as already noted quite enamored of frequent physical movement–hikes and walks, dance, exercise with out without weights, just wiggling about. I could see that taking up ore time. Exciting, aye? My escapes are manageable these days, and that works for me.

Travel has become more attractive though I tend to be reluctant initially. Last night Marc said he is longing for travel soon. Which is interesting as he travels too much for work. But now it needs to be for fun once more. So it seems we are escaping somewhere for a week or so. There is my being lately stuck and so slow to want to leave. Yet as he noted, travel can re-set or refresh the self, the body. It might be a way in which we both benefit after the year’s memorials, tears–and a fresh batch of questions about our family’s future. (We have several children, grandchildren and extended family and there is always another concern now or later no matter what  family.)

All escapes noted are fleeting, of course. They are still effective coping mechanisms. Far better than nothing. And without a doubt more effective than the drink (or other distraction that is problematic) that leads to greater losses. Healthier entertainment escape routes bring forward the relief desired. Or they are the beginning of small movements inside us, leading to inspiration, a glimpse of new viewpoints, an expansive moment shared.

Other people can steer me away from myself. Thank goodness and it is mostly good. I appreciate others’ ideas and experiences. People are a wealth of fascinating things, of wonders more often than not. And if I can be of assistance, so much the better.

When there are significant concerns about people it can get sticky. That’s a reason for tossing about in bed at night, counting the long list of “why life needs to be kinder” and naming names of those whom God must watch over even more, if God may please use my advice. In the morning I may awaken with residual memory of adrenaline spikes or tears, images of loss wallpapering my mind. Words of discouragement can erupt and tackle me like an adversary. I need them to stand down if I am to have a decent chance at making it a good day. I try to open to clues, to wisdom that floats from Divine Spirit to me. To us all. Because I know we are not left alone, even in blinding dark, echoing valleys.

So I get up at last, absorb the blissful blue of the walls, then watch how daylight shifts and illumines books and quilt and drifts over my bare legs, hear birds trill in an old tree and balcony chimes sway and speak into breezes. My heart ratchets up a few beats per minute as I exit through the first door into the new day, released from my haven, that small box of day and night, homey bluest of rooms. As my mind sharpens there are prayers for well-being and guidance, and the power to inhabit life as well as can be done this coming 24 hours –mine and others’.

I set out to discover what is good and true, whether in sadness or joy. It’s required, isn’t it, to go on, to hold onto another new morning. To be readied for what comes this way. To yet hope when all hope seems so small.

 

Friends for All Sorts of Weather

The voicemail was brief and to the point. She’d called to let me know her phone had been inoperable or she sure would have called me sooner to see how things were. I’d left her a voice mail a few days earlier about my spouse’s new worrisome medical issue. Just hearing her voice brought a sense of relief. I knew we would talk more and soon. B. is always there for me and vice versa, even if we must miss each other a couple times.

I had met her 25 years ago when working with addicted, gang-affiliated, abused and generally high-risk teens in a long-term residential facility. B. was about as different from me at first glance as one might imagine: big and tough, boisterous and prone to swearing, full of jokes and quick to aggressively make her views known. I often found her obnoxious while I gained respect for her insights, her firm boundaries yet good rapport with the clients. We often clashed over the simplest things. Then we began to share a smoke during our breaks, talked more, and became cautious friends, then good friends. It turned out she had a tender side, was often considerate and could be very good natured. We made each other laugh a lot. I was still new to Portland, and having her friendship helped usher me into a more welcoming, hospitable adjustment. In time she calmed down a little, got a bit softer though her boldness and strength are never in dispute. She has shown herself to be generous with time and resources. We are very close friends and I cannot begin to say how much I yet admire and appreciate her.

Developing friendships has never been easy as it was when I was a child. I moved a lot in my twenties and thirties. Life circumstances have often created barriers– living in the isolating country, lack of free time (five kids), work demands, health problems, a spouse who prefers to be more of a loner. I have had to more often carefully root out potential friends, and sometimes have even advertised for them (more on this later). I have also had to be ready to let go of them as work and life have demanded yet another move. Luckily, I have been in Portland the longest I have lived anywhere–and some good friends have remained here, as well.

Making friends used to be clear and simple: bumping into someone at the playground while playing catch, being asked to join a group or team, perhaps finding one’s self sitting next to the new kid and wondering who she or he was–so offering a smile, asking her or his name and maybe from which street, town or state the person had moved. One was connected in a neighborhood just by being present or from engagement in school activities, church events or attending a good weather picnic and special parties that grown-ups organized. In my childhood city of Midland, population about 28,000 when I grew up, it would be hard to get too lost in a crowd for long. We knew who lived on our blocks but even beyond, who delivered mail and newspaper (as well as their families), who participated and how in school or town events. I might make a new friend because an old one invited that girl to a pajama party. And we might even know of one another already. We inhabitants of smallish hometown were familiars more often than not, knew people via family name or accomplishments, as well as other basic information like who had a big family or had lost a parent or grandparent to illness or accident (with perhaps details of same). It was a fairly friendly town, (though it could be a closed place, as well–other cities found us a bit exclusive) and finding new connections was just a part of ordinary living and doing.

My first significant best friend (beyond my several neighborhood “besties”) attended the same United Methodist Church. We met in the fifth grade in Sunday school. We noticed we shared the same first name (somehow I was dubbed “Cindy” by my teens; I didn’t like it, though, and reclaimed my birth name at 18). We sat huddled in the airy balcony during services, passing notes back and forth as we scribbled away on church bulletins. We developed a Sunday afternoon tradition of meeting at nearby Nugent Drugs’ lunch counter to enjoy a cherry or lime Coke and split an order of steamy hot French fries and gab for an hour. I’d sometimes spend the night at her place and she, at mine. We hung out in junior high school, walking arm in arm down the hallway, both of us turning when our names were called out since we answered to both. She had dark wavy hair; mine was a light auburn and she was a few inches taller. I felt part of a set of unmatched twins.

It seemed we could talk about anything–from hunky but annoying boys to hairdo fiascoes to the meaning of religion to private hurts and dreams. We lived in different areas of the city–hers was a far wealthier neighborhood. Her father worked for Dow Chemical Company in a higher up position and my father was in music and educational administration. It created a disparity in economic levels though not otherwise; it didn’t seem to matter. We were introspective with extroverted tendencies, loved academics and reading, enjoyed competition, and had four siblings who drove us nuts. Admiration played a part: I thought she was pretty and smart; she thought I had plenty of talent. But mostly we liked each other’s company. Perhaps as important or more so we entrusted each other with our secrets, our real life issues.

We began to drift apart as we got engaged in more serious high school life a few years later. It appeared we’d slowly and radically changed–or I had–and prioritized different goals. She was a debater and class president; I was edging toward hippie/folk singer/poet who explored more liberal politics. I had, instead, become best friends with another girl, someone who seemed to better understand me as I faced various challenges and trials. This new friend, Monica, was an intense personality, a rebel. I found her caring and loyal, while very zany and spontaneous. We supported each other through ups and downs that no one else comprehended as fully.

I was also very close to a boy or two, and one in particular with whom I remained friends until his death four years ago. A year before El passed away he decided to visit all his oldest friends. He flew out from the Midwest and on his itinerary Portland was a stop. We spent the entire day. I drove him to the most beautiful places, and we shared food and drink at a lovely street cafe. His conversation overflowed with happy memories and a generosity of love. It pained me to see him so ill with congestive heart failure, saw how death lurked about him and yet he was vibrant in a profoundly intrinsic way, as ever. We hugged a long moment before he turned and walked away. I watched him go and then gazed at the space where he had been. I knew he was soon to leave us all. Through the decades we’d been first and last kind to one another, shared triumphs and sorrows. Reached out to each other with phone calls, long letters, spur of the moment emails that were about creativity, the great beating heart in music–he was a sound engineer–and life’s madness as well as its ineffable beauty. I so valued and still miss El. I always felt blessed to have a male friend who had remained just that–close to my heart, as my buddy.

Although my first friend C. and I stayed in touch with occasional phone calls and with later random newsy letters, the last time we met a few years ago the conversation felt stilted. At best based loosely on reminiscences, at worst without interesting focus, losing momentum as awkward pauses derailed us. We lived in the same city so I’d hoped we’d reconnect well. Well, she’d become a political professional, had been single and childless. I’d become a mother and wife, a counselor, was deep into writing and the arts. It felt like a second loss of the same friendship though it was a matter of life taking us in far different directions. And time passing–we had quite outgrown each other, I think.

My second best friend left our hometown and found substance troubles and drifted about the Southwest– while I kept up my own drug using lifestyle, then switched track to enter college, write and paint. Then got married, had children just like that, and remained longer in Michigan. We lost track of each other fast, only years later caught up with each other again via email. But that had its limits. Too much had happened to span the gaps sufficiently, despite our deep if brief friendship of yore. I was happy to find out she taught biology and math at a Southwest high school, had two sons she adored. It was good to hear she was well, that she liked her life.

I figured out by age 20 that friendship might not, and need not, last for a whole lifetime–though I wished it would, at times. People (and friends) came and went throughout college and when moving to and living in different cities, even states. When I look back, I realize I’ve had dozens of friendships that have enriched and opened up my life. But they have not all been intimate or long-term or even valued beyond a certain circumstance. They have not always come to a gentle end, either. One or two were wrenching. Thankfully, most have been bittersweet at worst, marked by sweetest farewells at best. I’ve also twice made sincere attempts over months to become part of certain apparently pleasant groups that center around my interests–but finally gave up. Cliques are cliques, no matter one’s stage of life; I have no patience with them. (One gym membership was ended after over a year of trying to make an inroad within a group of older adults. It became apparent most had been members for even decades; their friends were picked and that was that. I found it very odd–it was just an ordinary gym.)

Work is one place to connect with others, though I feel that such friendships function best within work; otherwise, things can get complicated. But such friendships are vital to ensuring a more genial, supportive environment. I could flop down in an office chair and process a half a dozen weighty concerns about work and some of my life with several co-workers, and they would do the same. but never had dinner at each other’s homes, and seldom if ever met partners beyond the family photos on our desks, the tales we impulsively shared. Still, I can name many people I came to respect and feel fondness for, whom I would call friends even now, despite changes in work environments and passage of years. I yet have lunch very few months with a couple of co-workers from the last agency I worked at four years ago. We catch up as easily as we did before, greet each other and say farewell with firm hugs. And that is valuable to me.

Some of my good friends were found using want ads: “Looking for an experienced writer, women preferred, who would like to share/critique our writing projects. Can meet in library, coffer shop, homes. ” Others were pleas for larger writers’ critique groups. I have been in three main groups and have had one-on-one interactions with three writers in the  past few years, I also have attended weekly writing groups for various periods of time as well as attended workshops. Those provide a lot of opportunity to get to know people who love to write. The individual meetings have provided good exchanges not only of writing, but also greater discourses and disclosures that led to closeness while always centered around writing/critiquing.

After a year or more, when our projects were each addressed and reviewed with one another, those particular friendships became less important to us both. Inevitably, we met less and less and finally no longer. One friend moved to Arizona and embarked on a whole different life. Another got too busy with her family and her teaching responsibilities. A third friend and I had a significant disagreement regarding the ending of my novel, leading me to think she had missed the point of what I was writing. I think she felt the same way about her poetry and my critiques. That’s how it can go…we never mended that rift enough to be as friendly as before. You never know what will happen when you advertise for writers who may or may not become friends. Most of the time I’ve had great fun and learned more about craft, about communication of ideas and story making than when revising all alone. Writers’ groups can be equally variable while also worth one’s time and engagement.

My closest adult friends have tended to be found in recovery groups. I became involved in Alcoholic Anonymous way back in 1980. I was not glad to attend, didn’t trust it all, and found the people to be sad, touchy-feely, and overly simplistic in their thinking. Eventually I figured out there were more than a few people who knew a lot more than I did about staying sober and reconstructing a rewarding life. And out of those more contacts arose, opportunities to make friends. I could call anyone I thought a good bet for supporting a recovery lifestyle; they would listen on the phone, meet me for coffee. We had lots of satisfying conversations; I well recall the contentment they brought when I was in need of more peace.

One thing the twelve steps promise and make good on is that whenever anyone needs help they will be there, even though we didn’t know one another very well. I found that remarkable and generous. A few women and I just clicked as we learned of each other’s needs/hopes/challenges. We became trusted confidantes as well as cheerleaders for our ongoing sobriety. I knew that just by saying I had a rough day, they would immediately know what I meant and care enough to listen as well as share insights and hope with me–and soon I was able to be there for them.

No matter where I have moved–to Tennessee, to different cities and towns in Michigan, to the Pacific Northwest–I have had a ready group of friends if I so choose. I can go to a meeting even while travelling. All I have to do is walk into one, shake hands if I want to and offer my first name–not even why I am there or w hat I want out of it. I just can sit there in the midst of others who are redeveloping their broken lives or just refreshing their peace of mind. It’s a remarkable function of A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson’s original idea that one person who has a little more sobriety can and should if possible help out another. And so we do, and in the process, we form bonds that are strong. My three best friends are women who’ve been in recovery for at least as long as I have been if not more. Hard to believe that all these years have passed and that we still love each other, will take care of each other. We have seen each other at our worst and at our shining best.

Sometimes as I sit here pondering or writing, or I run errands and see other younger women linking arms, I muse over the years when friendship making could be a built in-perk of raising a family or going to work day after day. My children are grown and for the most part have moved away–or are swamped with their own work and family matters. In fact, even my grandchildren are nearly grown up or already gone. I think about how I might make more friends; I don’t have a surplus. I do find solitude refreshing, fulfilling, full of creative options I can finally enjoy. But I also miss at times the company of more than the usual crew, the exchange of a vast mix of ideas and belly laughs. I wonder if I might return to working outside home, or dive into volunteer work. I guess as we age opportunities to meet others have to be created more deliberately. But I have such gratitude for the friends I have–even if they still go to work and we have to set a date, time and place to have lunch. They are fine people to know and it sure isn’t the number but the quality of friendships we have, in the end.

Come to think of it, I am going to a meeting to see one of my three best friends tonight; I need to pick a good movie to see on Sunday with another. And I need to get back to B., who left me that voice message. I know she has her own issues and would enjoy a chat over a muffin and herbal tea or just the phone. Thank God for the beautiful saving graces of tried and true friendship. It’s like a seaworthy boat in life’s restless waters that always has room for one more.

(P.S. B. called me just as I was finishing this post–she was in need of a listening ear. I am so glad to still be here to give it.)

 

 

Heart, Light, Snow

christmas-neighborhood-and-snowy-times-049

You never know what a new morning will bring. I awakened with what can be all too familiar: that clutch of pain in my neck and head, but then as I moved across the room, an increased heart rate that gathered steam, then thundered its way through morning preparations. A shower was not a good idea, at all; it ended fast. I was confounded. Often my myriad heart issues settle and improve with time but no. I felt breathless, not a good sign.

Once dressed, the question was: do I call 911? My cardiologist or my husband or both? I managed the blood pressure cuff and found the vitals alarming– very high blood pressure and heart rate still unstable. My chest felt better sitting. I didn’t identify any other sign of heart attack yet felt unwell.

I sat and thought about what had entered my mind when I had been awakened off and on by the creeping neck pain and various heart arrhythmias. I had said one prayer in the thick, long darkness: Lord, please let me know what I need to do about this. By morning I was getting the directive to not ignore things. I monitored my heart and tried to drink my tea and eat a little. Heart rate was falling; that was good. But I did not feel okay yet. I felt…stunned, unstable, faint at moments.

The night before had been wonderful. A grandson turned eleven and his dad–he is my son’s son–had made chili and I made the cake and added potato rolls. Their family came plus an aunt, an other “adult child” of ours. The food was good, the gathering even better as we lolled about the living room; the spaces warmed and filled with laughter and random stories. My son and his girlfriend just returned from Hawaii so shared videos and pictures. Young Asher was happy with his gifts–fancy iridescent silly putty being one of the best. His older sister smiled and chatted easily. I felt very happy to be a mother and grandmother.

In the morning it was so bitterly cold that when the snow came it lingered, heated up from all the traffic on roads and then got icy. In the Oregon valley, snow is not welcome, it is difficult, dangerous.I felt exhausted and shaky and uncertain. As a woman living with heart disease for 15 years, I have made countless trips in an ambulance. I always want to avoid it.

Doctor was called: come in, I heard. Husband was summoned and he soon arrived.

It is a mystery, how this pattern has emerged, a sudden shifting of heart rhythms and rates. How blood pressure has skyrocketed when it was not a problem for many years. I would likely only know the latter because I have the blood pressure cuff to take my own vitals–I generally have no discernable symptoms of that. The majority usually do not. I know what is not safe when I read those numbers.

My cardiologist, good Dr. P.– exuding compassion and intelligence while seemingly ignorant he is movie star good-looking—has never steered me wrong. He is the hoped-for combination of attentive listener, brilliant strategist and swift decision maker. I trust him with my life because he has saved it often. I have watched him get older as he has, me, and it is clear he is only mortal, after all. So we always put our heads together; he does the best he is capable of doing.

It wasn’t heart attack symptoms, which an EKG verified. It turns out it is likely the intense chronic pain I have had increasingly over the past few months. The idea is not so surprising; it is clear it has impacted me though I’ve become used to varying degrees of chronic pain throughout my life due to a different health issues. I guess I’ve learned to ignore it mostly, even believe it will not win the battle. I avoid taking OTC pain medicine. (As a person with coronary artery disease I can’t safely use ibuprofen much, though this helps most; it affects heart patients in negative ways as well as health of the stomach.) I do not take opiate medication as I’ve been in recovery from substance abuse for over 25 years. I am anxious even about the drug Dr. P. mentioned, which is not an opiate but perhaps a second or third “cousin”. It targets the same receptors in the brain as do narcotics. I was never an opiate addict, but being recovery means being cautious of all we put in our bodies. And I also know from experience pain can be managed in many holistic ways.

I might have ended up in a bit of a corner now, though. Being stubborn is not so good. I desire to–choose to–live a healthy life each day. I want to stay on the go, enjoy all I can every second. I have a hunger for the wonders and curiosities of life. And sometimes I choose to ignore a difficult need of my own rather than own up and relent. This is not helping me.

“It is time you take something to get the pain under control or you will likely continue to have high blood pressure and tachycardia. The body always reverts to alarm mode with daily pain. And you must find out what you can do next about those old disc issues. Let’s increase your heart medication for now, as well.”

I propped up my aching head on my hand, felt relief but also new fear. What would come of all this?

“I want another really good ten years, Dr. P. Can I do that? I have a lot to do.”

He took my other cold hand in his warm one. “Let’s work at doubling those numbers. Take even better care of yourself–you’ve done such a good job for son long and you can do more. Take your new medicine, too. And if this doesn’t do the trick, back to the drawing board we’ll go.”

Dr. P. remains a crucial light in my life. From the start when no one believed I had heart disease at such a young age (by 50, likely even earlier but diagnosed at 51 during an emergency) he believed me. He made fast and right choices to save me from death or at least serious impairment.

By the time my husband and I left the office, it was snowing mightily. I felt quiet watching the whitening air swirl about us. How much I loved the snow as a kid and even now, how it draws me–its softness and freshness, all those intricately patterned flakes, how it transforms the gritty world for awhile. I expressed my desire to take a slow, short walk when I got home. My husband shut down the idea fast.

So I took my medicine and I have been lounging around feeling like a very unproductive person. Yet resting when rest is needed is a wise thing to do. I will try the pain medicine tonight. I want to sleep long and well for once, and I  need to experience far less misery in this restless, hurting body.

So I decided to share this day with you. If you are a person who has heart disease, first stay as well as you can; the work and fun will still be waiting. And if you are in need of more assistance for any reason at all in your life, don’t hesitate– reach out, find and use it.

My gratitude for every moment runs deep. And even for this trying day–for all human and Godly light that illumine my way. The fiercely exquisite snow. This tough, resilient, tenderly beating heart.

Eyes to See

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The morning was bleaker than it had been in weeks. Fog had arrived in a villainous blur, then crept through the blinds. I glanced a second time at the clock, then yanked the quilt over my head. Tiredness clogged my brain; it begged for a longer time out. I drifted and awakened, drifted, awakened. I was trying to get comfortable on the tightrope between waking and dreaming, to put off the inevitability of daylight and its requisites.

Then dangerous thoughts erupted: No reason to get up; dreams are preferable; besides, you are getting older every second and what do you have to do? In fact, what is there to show for all your efforts up to this moment?  I enumerated chores and errands as well as writing goals ahead of me. They seemed insignificant. Why even write? Who actually cares? What are you DOING with your life? The taunts brought forth an overpowering urge to do…as little as possible. I peered between the blinds and found the fog in communion with the black hole of my ruminations.

Well, almost. I looked again. Billions of chilled molecules of water gathered pallid light and illuminated air from inside out. The fog being hovered, mysterious. I opened the window a half inch and smelled the delicious cold. Then vacated the warmth entirely.

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Another day to greet if not welcome with open arms. Enter here but be forewarned. Remnants of negative energy trailed my footsteps. I thought briefly of ODAP, the acronym for “Our Devilish Alcoholic Personalities”, widely known to those familiar with AA. How ODAP can sit on one’s shoulder, dispensing sabotaging directives.

Not going to a job every day can be sweet but harbors pitfalls. I have to be mindful of booby traps, like those in old jungle movies: if I am not paying attention I can end up dangling upside down, on my way to a snake hole. Other than accepting that there is no paycheck for my toil and isolation is more familiar than it has been for years, I am supposed to be having fun. And awakening with a lovely sense of few-and-far-between pressures. A lack of critical usefulness to which, finally, I am entitled. But time has shown me that, to paraphrase Pogo the possum, “I have met the enemy, and the enemy is me.” I forgot I knew that before. But I had been too busy working, with family and managing a household for forty-five years to dissect who I was every single day.

There are times in our lives when we need a full inspection, to root out the weak spots and shore up the mightier ones. In early recovery I was instructed to take a personal inventory daily to become truly honest with myself and others. It wasn’t easy but not so taxing; I still practice it in some form. I’ve long been enamored of introspection and self-analysis. Raised to be responsible for my actions, I knew how to track the good, not-so-good and unacceptable aspects of my life and personhood. In fact, I thought too much for my own good, so my mother noted. It was a luxury people could ill afford if they were engaged in achieving something. She was right in that, though a dreamer at heart, action made me happier. But I didn’t quite get it as a youth. Many years of being introspective to the point of burn-out clarified her statement. What she really meant was self-analysis can border on self-obsession, which comes to no good. Such as selfishness, or narcissism in therapeutic language. I didn’t want that.

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I thought of these things as I struggled through the internal charcoal palette of the morning. “Blue” it was not; blue implies a tinge of bitter-sweetness. This was not that. By noon I had concluded I had little good to offer and nothing decent I might yet accomplish. How can one get to my age and not have blazed trails I envisioned at sixteen? All this, partly resultant of a year of mini failures added to unforeseen challenges. Dissatisfaction with little successes. But it also came with the transition into another stage of life. And having way too much time alone. My head was a neighborhood I needed to vacate more often.

So I went to the park. There is almost nothing a good walk cannot alleviate and I walk daily. I took my camera and started to shoot, as usual. I felt peace elbow out the dis-ease. Creatures both human and otherwise cavorted and chattered. Rested and worked. I watched sunlight melt away fog and reveal colors of the Northwest in winter. There were kids practicing for track and couples arm in arm. Trees presided over all with stolid strength. Green shoots broke through dirt. Everywhere were stories of earth’s old ways and lives being lived.

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It may seem rudimentary but suddenly it came to me that I have these eyes to see. Not just to record, but really see life. They are one of numerous gifts of the body that can create and bridge whole worlds. Sensory data enters the brain’s alchemical laboratory and informs me. But my eyes also are a bridge from my own internal world–my particular ways of observing and responding–to the greater world with its moving complexity. What if, I thought, we are also given vision–and our other senses–in order to profoundly align us with all that is is just outside our skin and, thus, to save us from scrappy egos that meddle? To keep us closely attached to the earth we share, this planet we call home. So we can more often stay out of our own way. We can then forget our aloneness, recall our universality. Remember the compelling qualities of life that we  often want to divide and compartmentalize. Try to control. Personalize and dramatize when it isn’t remotely necessary.

I speculated what it would be like to have eyes that looked only inward and shuddered. The walk lasted over an hour and gratitude for sight increased. I wondered what it would be like if my vision one day fails me. I suppose other senses will come forward more, to the rescue. Our bodies are made to fit our needs. At least I have been blessed with basic operational requirements, if they’ve sometimes sputtered and paused.

Taking action is what I can do to change my life daily. Once more my vision scanned the horizon, allowing healthy escape and refreshment. It was opening a window when spiritual suffocation was threatening. My walks take me out of a cramped habitation–this mind that can stir up trouble–so I discover conduits to finer wonders again. With these eyes, I can see but what and how I perceive is a choice. And without fail, there is God within and without, my sure compass wherever I go. The path again clears.

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The Great Unknowns

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Ever get the feeling that something is about to happen but it isn’t going to be an event you desire? Something you cannot even imagine? Or you can, and that’s the problem, or will be sooner or later.

Your throat tightens as though a vise has gripped it, your breath is  squashed by the fancy architecture of your ribs. What was once your important and strong core, i.e., your diaphragm, is now a puddle of bad jelly. Your heart? It has its own agenda and it is not listening to reason. Your autonomic system is responding to a three alarm fire and you can’t even see the smoke. Then you realize what is happening but it leaves you quaking anyway: anxiety attack! If only there was somewhere to run for cover.

Or perhaps it is a malingering you feel, a daily burden, a sensation that nothing is ever quite right or something will go wrong no matter what is done. A deep sense of unease keeps you company, heightened by some circumstances, lessening a bit in others. But it is like your shadow, never vanishing once and for all.

Anxiety is the most common mental health issue noted in the U.S. At least eighteen percent of the population suffers enough to seek help according to one report. I can testify to how widespread it is after counseling clients for over twenty-five years. I estimate that seventy percent of my clients have anxiety. They have said it is the primary reason (grief and loss is second, tied with depression) for abusing drugs and alcohol. And they also complain that they’ve developed a host of symptoms related to anxiety (and the stress and tension it brings) from insomnia to nausea to migraines; avoidance of the company of others; and becoming blocked in achieving lifelong goals. It can kick-start depression. Anxiety can stop you from going out the door for milk or to a holiday party.

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Anxiety is the buzzing static in your head that is louder than a city at full-tilt. It makes things feel harder. Relief is the goal for those who know its redundant tune. Anxiety can hold you hostage. And all you want is freedom, if only the very thought of it wasn’t so anxiety producing.

But my disclaimer: this post does not offer a perfect panacea. There are already good ways and means to address anxiety disorders if that is what you experience and need professional help. At the local bookstore are a wide variety of books on how to manage anxiety. There are physical and spiritual practices (meditation and prayer, yoga, acupuncture, tai chi, and so on) that ease symptoms. Therapists have skills that enable them to treat anxiety in all its manifestations; they make a decent living due to so much need. Pharmaceutical companies profit from designing and selling medications that may or may not help.

What I want to talk about is that it is possible to de-fang and de-claw much of our anxiety. I don’t even think much of that word; it lacks even a utilitarian flair. I am certain that decades ago “nervousness” was just another emotion to experience and cope with; now it has become a major diagnosis. But it is here to stay, it seems. So this is an essay about how I have increasingly avoided an emotional stutter that forces a time out from life. Because that’s what anxiety feels like to me: going into a corner, facing a wall for more than a tolerable few minutes. As long as anxiety can breathe my breath for long, I’m not living the life I need to live: full-on, intrigued by what comes my way and how I get to respond. What I get to next create.

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I’m not easily thrown by challenges though I’ve had some doozies. But I learned a few useful things along the way. Painful events are equal opportunity: we all get to experience them, first off, because we’re born with human bodies. Bundles of nerves and powerful chemicals that create chain reactions set the stage. Each emotional nuance helps us to better know ourselves and others. Our potential and limits. Sometimes we get into something we didn’t foresee at all. Or too late. And it has sudden impact.

Like the one I stumbled into when almost fifteen.

I was walking by a city park, above it, actually, on railroad tracks. The sun beamed down on all. I loved trains, being in them or not. I’d once jumped one for a slow ride as it came into town, hanging on with one hand, the wheels’ rhythms travelling up bone and sinew. So I kept my eye on the far point and my ear attuned to a mellow whistle. It was Indian summer in Michigan. There were children down below playing, adults sharing a last barbecue, and their shouts and laugher drifted up the hill. No train made itself apparent. I wasn’t worried if one did start barreling toward me as I could easily scramble up the incline to the street. There, just out of reach, were gracious homes with broad lawns that overlooked the Tittabawasee River and the park.

I was thinking of little when I heard them. Footsteps. They  closely matched mine but fell heavier, then a bit faster. I threw a glance over my shoulder, thinking it was another like-minded person enjoying the day, waiting for a train. But no. He was not much older than was I, maybe younger, wiry with dark hair and no smile. No words. He felt…wrong. Discomfort did not creep up on me; it hammered me with a surge of adrenalin that was critical. I started to run; my legs chose how fast.

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Not fast enough. Hands grabbed and I was down, blows catching my chest, face. I kicked and hit back and when my jeans were tugged I bit the hand that tried to silence me. I screamed at him. He wasn’t giving up easily but I was raging. My only defense was words because below me in the park no one could or would pay attention.   I said exactly what I felt with a force that shook me.

“Who do you think you are? God is more powerful than you and He will get you for this! Stop!”

He pulled back, stunned, eyes wide. He went a little slack so I  shoved him off. He fell over and I dashed up the hill and into the street. I heard the train whistle, that low, full-bellied moan that builds into a forlorn and beckoning call. I could not stop running running running. I did not tell anyone what happened but said I had fallen hard and split my lip. Telling that sort of truth was not encouraged in my mid-sixties town.  I pondered if I made the error, wrong place and time. I decided it might not be the best place to walk alone but nothing was my fault. Yet,  self-doubt lingered. Anxiety found a way in, cutting me off from the known world, weakening my confidence.

I survived that attack; in the future even worse would waylay my life. But countless people can and do survive terrible things every day. Living is a complicated ride where treachery and wondrousness can share a seat. Large and small tragedies make us ask: what is safety, really, in the end? We come into this world with hearts and spirits ready to be dazzled and they are. But they’re also turned inside out.

How does one live beyond the bruisings and wounds? Was I to be dogged by paralyzing fear whenever I left a familiar sidewalk, town, country? Would I battle nightmares the rest of my life, only to enter each day expecting the same or worse? Did I fashion an armor so fail proof that I was distanced from others? How to find a way back to ease? It was imperative to learn how to thrive in altered territory, both interior and exterior. It took time. I patched things back together with help, same as anyone who desires to live better. Anxiety, which is a gnawing worry over loss of control in our lives, was not my real problem. I already knew I could have control taken away, with pain left in its stead. So my thinking had to change so I could “live life on life’s terms” (as AA informs recovering folks). Peace was the prize I coveted.

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So facing up to the fact that our lives are unpredictable but resilient  helps. Safety is, in actuality, often relative, fluid and shaped by our viewpoint. How do I determine not the future but the way I will greet it?

So we can adjust our perspective. As a youth I tried to ignore spurts of anxiety (why feed something I didn’t like?) with some success (denial can give us a break). I tried blotting it out with substances. I distracted myself with work, achievements, loved ones. I was busy first and last, being constructive in my life. But nothing yielded good results until I found another way. It was imple acceptance. Of the real sense of uncertainty. Of randomness and sudden changes in the scheme of things. Anxiety accompanies our living; nerves are conduits of information to apprise and use all our systems. Without some adrenalin I’d not move from a chair, after all. I had to make a friendly alliance with anxiety. And, sad human creatures that we sometimes are,  we also need great, unswerving compassion. I give you and myself full permission to heap this on ourselves whenever we feel small. Vulnerable. Then go out there; walk in  kindness.

Not everything needs to ring the alarm. It can ring a small bell. There can be silence. Times can feel harrowing but others are  tender, exquisite. Battling old or unseen adversaries–phantoms on the railroad tracks–keeps the bloody fight going. It took the spunk out of me, which I refuse to allow again. We cannot reasonably fight the unknown. I can learn how to be a dragon slayer, just in case, but why? Surprise is a valued element in my life story as well as acceptance. I do have trust that I’ll keep on walking to the end of this road. That it will stay lit up by ordinary and Divine Love and the next turn will proffer extraordinary things. I am, simply put, allied with my humanness and with my faith. I have surrendered so that I can dwell in my personal power; fear will not own me. And if it gets to me anyway, I remind myself: I am like a sieve as emotions flow through, morph and retreat, rise then fall. Things change once again.

I open the door wide. I look around as my animal senses pay attention. This is automatic and also prudent. I step out and breathe lungfuls of fresh air. Today it is chilled and rainy; I welcome it. Tomorrow? Who knows how the winds will blow? I’m as ready as I can expect to be. There is not time or inclination to give the vast unknowns so much attention. Life calls to me, even the world, and I am enthralled. I just get on with it. You can, too.

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