Tag Archives: health

the blessing of being alive

DSC_0043Sometimes, I feel as if nothing I do matters.  I have struggled and fought and I have failed.  Oh, have I failed, in a million small ways, and in a few pretty large ways too.  Some days I feel weak and worthless.  But yesterday helped me see a bit clearer.

Yesterday, I attended a memorial service for a patient.  Her name was Angie, and she died at 45 from breast cancer.  The ceremony was held in a garden space, where a stand of trees stood proudly in the middle of barren desert.  In this oasis we were sheltered us from the Arizona sun, still so unrelenting even in late September. Native voices and drumming sliced through the air, carrying our prayers of healing and sobs of grief high in to the heavens.  We honored the four directions, the circle of life and all its infinite passages.  We held hands, a rainbow of humans from all walks of life, touched by this one woman. Years of addiction had scarred the hearts of some, yet there, under the shade trees, there was healing and love and hope for all of us. We were united in grief, united in being alive.

In this sacred space, I received kind words of gratitude for the care I gave to this woman while she was alive. I felt her community honor me as a healer to the sick and a friend to their loved one. Her case worker and strongest supporter during the last year of her life presented me with a print of a dragonfly, a symbol not only of the community where she lived but as symbol of transformation, of rebirth. It was how Angie wanted to be remembered.  She is now in the spirit of the dragonflies. She is liberated and omnipresent and I believe she is still here.  In a way, her illness gave her the medicine to be everywhere and everything, to transform from a homeless crack addict to an inspiration, a visionary, a healer.

I felt some apprehension about attending the service, as it promised to crack open my own barely contained well of grief (which it did). And sometimes it is hard to accept gratitude. I want to cast aside the humble thanks of others and say “its only my job.”  But it’s not “only my job.” It is a blessing and an honor and a calling. I couldn’t save Angie from cancer, nobody could. At times I couldn’t even lessen the pain.  But I walked beside her, I was at the door of her final passage.  I was a part of humanity’s best side, the wide embrace, the soothing words that call forth light in the darkness.  I was part of an easing of her burden, part of her finding wholeness even while she was dying. I was part of a miracle.

We all know about the shadow side of our civilization.  We slaughter, we rape, we decimate, we wreak havoc on the earth. Sometimes, I can’t bear being a human, can’t face being a tiny limb of the global curse. But yesterday, I felt honored to be alive, to be a person, to be a part of a community wider than my own mangled thoughts, my own voice pleading in the darkness.

A single wave is meaningless, yet the collective tide can carve canyons and move mountains.

I am honored to be part of this mysterious force.

endurance

I ran a half marathon yesterday.

I wasn’t always able to run. A large, physically awkward kid, I who would rather read a book than do much of anything else, and that included being active. I was consistently the slowest kid when we ran races at school and perpetually picked last when we formed teams in gym class. My mother kept encouraging me, and I learned the joy of moving my body in the ice skating classes she made me take.  Soon, I wasn’t quite so slow and awkward in gym class, but I still was no runner.

I started running in college to prove to myself that I could do it. It seemed difficult and unnatural during my first slogs through the streets, but over time I learned the joy of a breeze on my shoulders, the rhythmic pounding of my feet with matching breath.  I started running more and more and with my dad, and he spread the marathon bug to me.  In two years I ran 5 marathons, two half-marathons.  I was never fast, I was never even not-slow, but I could endure, and that’s really all that mattered, all that matters.

Dad went on to complete over 20 marathons, including qualifying for and running Boston, but I had to step away from marathons in 2007, after a disastrous race in Honolulu (painful on every level, it started with shivering in the rain while waiting for the race to start and ended with my then-husband telling me to go fuck myself after I hobbled, with blistered feet, across the line). My personal life was unraveling, and I became depleted on every level.  I couldn’t run 45 miles a week anymore. Some days it was all I could do to get out of bed.

But I kept running, albeit for shorter distances, through the divorce, through grad-school stresses,  through my mom’s illness and untimely death, and now, through the frustration of infertility.  What was once difficult and unnatural has now become part of me. Before I started my marathon of loss, I’m glad I had running to teach me that I’m stronger than I think.

the course was very challenging!
image retrieved from http://runkeith.blogspot.com/2012/03/half-marathon-and-mountain.html

Even now, as the load of grief over losing my mother is lightening a bit, I’m finding it difficult to fit in time for my long runs.  I was under trained for the half-marathon and my muscles are protesting terribly today.  I almost skipped the race entirely due to the undertraining, being out late at the opera the night before, etc.  But  I figured I could likely finish the race without an injury, so I went for it. Because I have the gift of health, and I’ll lose that too someday.  But before that happens, I’m going to use it.

all we have

Some days, being a nurse in oncology exhausts me to the core.

No, I don’t know if you will puke, if you will have diarrhea, if you’ll get an infection. I don’t know if your cancer will come back, if your tumor is bigger, if the chemo is working, if the cancer is in your liver, your bones, your brain. I don’t know if you’ll live to get married, or to see the ocean again, if you’ll be able to have a baby, if you’ll see your grandchild graduate high school.  If you’ll bury your spouse, or if your spouse will bury you. I don’t know if you’ll die in 6 months, 12 months, 12 years.  

Clearly, I don’t know much.

But in this tiring day in clinic, I had the blessing of caring for a patient who has been through every permutation of chemotherapy known to (wo)man for breast cancer, who looked me straight in the eye and said:

I know I’m going to die.  But I’m going to enjoy the life that I have, however long that is.  

She meant it.  She’s ready for the inevitable, but she’s grounded in the present.

We are so busy making plans for a future that may or may not come.  We grind away at jobs in order to get rewards down the road, we delay the telephone calls, the new dress, the vacation. I’m not saying that planning ahead is a bad thing, but it must be tempered with a grounding energy and a dedication to this very moment:

Take a breath. Feel your chair beneath your body, the ridges on your keyboard.  This is all there is, right now.

So own it.

good intentions

I’ve started meditating again. I sit in the early morning, when the sky is grey with the barely-risen sun.  Its quiet. Only a few birds bravely voice a song; the pigeons which incessantly lurk around our backyard roost comfortably on the telephone wire, the chickens are nestled in the coop half-dazed with leftover sleep.  I sit for 5-10 minutes, as that’s as long as I can gently rein in my untamed mind before I begin to fatigue.  Its a little bit like starting a fitness program, and in this exercise I’m way out of shape.

And that’s all. I made an intention to meditate for at least 60 seconds every day this week and I did it. But something as simple as sitting on a pillow for a few minutes in the early morning silence took a lot of contemplation. I had been thinking about resuming meditation for the last several years.  Maybe longer. I never had much of a meditation practice to begin with, although it was starting to get more regular 3 years ago.  Until it wasn’t.

I have a curious and enthusiastic soul, but one that often doesn’t follow through. Options and opportunities dangle before me like forbidden fruit, and sometimes I bite, but I often just think and think and think about it (whatever it is), but don’t do a damn thing.

So, I’d like to grow a bit.  To enjoy the beautiful choices which spread before me, but also to commit.  To say yes, to say no.  To be decisive in action or inaction. Jump into new waters with splayed toes and a smile on my face.

It seems silly that my pillow sitting involved so much “what if..?” “or “I should…” or “wouldn’t it be nice…?”  Time I could have spent actually meditating.  Or if not meditating, doing something else that was good and right for me or my life. Well, that’s okay.  Sometimes in life we need to take the scenic route to where we are going.  But I’d like to be clear with my intentions, honest to my needs, brave in facing what lies ahead, and adventurous in choosing my own destiny. retrieved from http://www.therisinghollywood.com/2011/11/21/how-to-meditate-into-higher-states-of-consciousness/

a flare

20120607-180528.jpg Sometimes, we manifest our emotional state physically.  I am covered with a red, bumpy ,somewhat-itchy rash. Dermatitis disgustingus. Mom’s Funeral Part Two is this weekend, and I have been struggling with agitation that I don’t know how to express.  I have to go to work, do the laundry, and act normal when what I really want to do is pull out my hair and scream and break a plate or two.  So.  I try to behave normally, and smile, and be a good wife or nurse or grocery shopper, whatever the situation calls for.

But oh, the body does rebel.  There is fire on the inside and, now, on the outside too.  No hiding it anymore.  You can look at my wrists or my thighs or behind my left ear and see the truth,  even though my lips will tell you I’m fine, I’m great, I’m doing well.

Maybe this is doing well.  Maybe this flare of emotion and skin is part of the release, part of what will set me free.  I can only hope so.  In the meantime, I’ll be perfecting the art of scratching myself in public without being noticed.

 

my work

Here I go, breaking my rules again… (the one about not writing about work)

Its been a hard few weeks at the office.  Even though I feel I’m divinely suited for this job (nurse practitioner in oncology), sometimes its overwhelming, and I think maybe life working in urgent care or a weight loss clinic wouldn’t be so bad.  This last month has been full of disease progression, hospice discharges, and death.  People I have grown to love, struggling with pain, dying too young.

My years of working in bone marrow transplant taught me a certain brand of detachment–  how to stay rooted in the present and not be attached to a future for the human beings in front of me.  It was a powerful lesson in letting go; I couldn’t look into the eyes of children with high risk leukemia day after day and worry about what was awaiting them next month or next year– it was unlikely to be a healthy, normal childhood. I had to care for and advocate for my patients, do the very best job possible every day, but turn over the outcomes and what would happen tomorrow to the universe, God, Buddha, Mother Mary, physicians, someone or something else other than myself. Because there are patients that will die despite a favorable prognosis and everyone doing the right thing, and there are patients that will somehow fight their way out of the grip of death and against all odds, survive. You never quite know in this business.

My patients these days are healthier and many of them are cured.  Even the women with aggressive, metastatic disease usually live years rather than months. I see them week after week, month after month, and I grow very fond of them.  We laugh together, we hug, we share photos and stories, I meet their best friends and relatives.  Its hard to say goodbye after such a long relationship.  I thought I was getting better at this but now I’m not so sure.  My loss of my mother has made me more sensitive to what the families are going through. As I work through my own grief I can feel what the surviving loved ones are experiencing.  It hurts.  I also see my mother in some of these patients and feel as helpless as I did to fix things during her illness.  I sit in the exam rooms with my dying patients and look down at my empty, searching hands.

And yet perspective is everything.  I am greeted with success stories every day.  These women plunged down the rabbit hole of cancer treatment and emerged on the other side, bathed in sunlight. As elusive as those rogue cells can be, resorting to every dirty trick in the book, sometimes cancer is completely slaughtered with the arsenal of treatment.  It happens.  An everyday miracle.  A billion cells, a million microscopic explosions in the battlefield of the body.  Victory down to the smallest unit of life.

Even when the war cannot be won, the enemy is usually held at bay for a while.  Mom’s cancer was very drug resistant, but I still think chemo bought her time.  Important time.  If she were here, I think she’d say that the nausea and the hair loss and the fatigue was worth it for her.

So, what I do weighs on me sometimes.  But it matters.  I can’t forget that.

a new yoga mat

In honor of my recent re-re-renewed yoga practice I ordered myself a replacement yoga mat.  My current one has lasted 9 years. Yes, my practice was intermittent, but I still put a lot of miles on that mat when you add them all up.  From “Om”ing in Yin to sweating in Bikram, this mat has experienced a rich and varied life– minus some months-long stretches rolled up in the closet.

My very first yoga mat had been a gift from an ex-boyfriend.  I couldn’t quite separate the link between the two and correctly concluded it was time to move on, so I ordered this mat from huggermugger.com in 2003.  It has a light blue, rippling pattern that I splurged an extra $5-10 for even though I was on a college-student budget.

Even with my erratic yoga practice, this mat has soaked up my blood, sweat and tears.  Literally.  There is a stain from when I just couldn’t stay away from yoga after I fell off my bike, and opened up a few of my scabs in class.  I recall weeping during a heart-opening meditation class shortly after my mom was diagnosed, big, fat salty tears silently rolling down my cheeks.  And as I mentioned above, I’ve dabbled in Bikram, so enough said about the sweat.

I have a hard time letting go of things, and apparently that extends to yoga mats, but the time has come.  My old mat is starting to break down and it has lost its cushion.  So, out with the old and in with the new! There may have been eco-friendly mats back in 2003, but I’m not entirely sure.  If so, I suppose they were prohibitively expensive at the time.  For this 2012 mat purchase, I decided to go with Jade.   My new mat is sustainably made in the United States with natural, recycled rubber.  Also, Jade plants a tree for every mat purchased.  This seemed to be among the most ethical, earth-friendly options available for yoga mats on the market, and I’m excited to try out my new mat.

 

 

 

yoga’s bad girlfriend

The pendulum has swung: I’m finally back to doing yoga. Again.

I always wanted to be someone with a practice. I’m not clear what that looks like, exactly, although I imagine it involves sitting a perky, well-shaped ass on a yoga mat more often than once every few months. What I actually am is a girl who’s dabbled on and off for the last 13 years and still can’t wrap her leg in Eagle pose or place her heels on the floor in Down Dog. From the years of running marathons, my hamstrings are so tight you could use them to pluck out a tune.  I’m not flexible. I’m not graceful. But I do keep coming back.

My most admirably dedicated practice of yoga occurred during Freshman year in college.  It was 1998, before the yoga craze really hit the Midwest.  I borrowed a tattered copy of Richard Hittleman’s Yoga, and followed along with the daily exercises every night.  Yes, even when I came back to my dorm room drunk. I’m not sure one receives the full benefits of yoga when intoxicated, but I was curious enough to try it out.

(FYI, doing Shoulderstand in the study lounge is not a great way to make friends.  People tend to think you are weird)

Some months later, I left the above-mentioned university and moved to an apartment in Minneapolis.  I believed yoga could be part of addressing some of the issues that had caused me to leave college in the first place, and wanted to move beyond Richard (even though I never did master that headstand away from a wall). There weren’t many yoga studios to choose from back then, but I signed up for classes at the one within biking distance of my apartment. I also brought my best friend and her mother along for the ride.

It was in this small, white-walled studio where we were berated weekly by a sharp-tongued Yogi who probably loved the discipline and hated teaching.  Or at least teaching flabby, distracted beginners such as ourselves.  I mostly remember feeling terrified throughout our classes (please don’t make fun of me! please don’t should at me to straighten my knee!).  At some point I figured yoga should be more about fun, less about abuse, and I blew off the staid yoga studio and its resident drill-sargent.

And I stopped going.  And I stopped practicing on my own.

Then, later, I started again.

The pattern has repeated itself for more than a decade.  I practice for awhile, daily even.  And then after some weeks, months, maybe a year,  I need a break like a bad girlfriend.

I always thought someday things would be different, and I would move beyond the status of yoga’s favorite fair-weather friend.  My life would change.  I would be different, somehow transformed into a yogini with 6-pack abs, a jaw-dropping hanumanasana and a perpetual yoga buzz.  Well, I’m now in my 30’s, still inconsistently showing up to yoga with my tight hamstrings.  No magical transformations, although I’m learning to accept who I am, as underwhelming as that may be. I may never get that one pose down.  I may never practice daily for months on end.  I may never do a teacher training program.  I may never be anything other than what I am– someone who loves yoga, but loves a lot of other things in life too.

Instead of focusing on the reasons why I stray, maybe its better to examine the reasons why I keep returning. I love yoga, have from the very first time I tried it. It feels great.  It helps me approach life in a more balanced, thoughtful way.  I breath deeper, smile wider when I do yoga.

In my grief, yoga has much to offer me, and maybe I will keep my practice going tomorrow, or next week, or next month. Or maybe not.  Either way, I’m glad I have yoga in my life to whatever degree I am ready for, and its always there for me to come back to.

 

Yeah, right. Photo retrieved from http://www.rocketboom.com

dental woes

I hate to brag, but I have great teeth.  Never had a filling.  No bridges. No crowns.  No root canals.  My teeth are pretty, white and straight– the teeth of  middle class girls who parents shelled out big time for the molar sealants, regular cleanings, and braces.

life before cavities

 

I was proud to be a thirty-something who never had a cavity.  Of course, I knew it wasn’t entirely fair– others who flossed more regularly and also had parents that shelled out for top-of-the-line dental care from the time their first tooth erupted started getting fillings in elementary school.  Not to say if I sucked on candies 24-7 and never touched a toothbrush that my teeth would like as nice as they do.  But our destiny in dental health is not entirely within our control. 

Now, I grew up at a time where there was hypervigilance about dental hygeine (I suppose its probably still a similar environment, but I don’t have kids so I’m not sure).  My dad faithfully took me for my 6 month cleanings during childhood, and I would sit in the waiting room and stare at a poster on the wall of a cartoon tooth encouraging children to “Brush Daily to Prevent CAVITIES!”  “Floss Regularly to Prevent CAVITIES”  Accompanied by a graphic of a tooth riddled with brown yuck.  For the older audience, there were pictures of what looked to be  Meth Mouth, although I’m not sure that existed in 1985, with captions reading “Visit Your Dentist Today!” 

School wasn’t much better.  Every year until high school, it seems we recieved dental hygeine talk.  In short, it amounted to: “YOUBETTERBRUSHYOURTEETHANDFLOSSBECAUSEIFYOUDONTYOUWILLGETCAVITIESANDYOURTEETHWILLFALLOUT!!!! anyquestions?”

With this sort of propoganda, I was always scared to go to the dentist, but time and time again I kept walking out with a smile and a sticker on my chest with a yellow star that said “No Cavities!”  And eventually, I was too old for the star stickers, but still kept getting a clean bill of dental health.

Until this week.

My dental office is pretty swanky.  They give you parrafin wax treatments for your hands and you can watch cable TV while you get your teeth cleaned. All seemed to be going as planned during my bi-annual routine visit.  I was watching election coverage on CNN and was in awe of having so many channels to choose from.  My dentist finished the cleaning.

“Everything looks good.  Except you have a cavity. Liz will talk to you about it.”  She started to walk out the door.

“What? I’ve never had a cavity!” I squeaked.

“I know. I’m sorry.  Liz will talk to you about scheduling.”

Now I’ve had a number of losses in the last two months.  I lost my mother to cancer, my favorite chicken to a hawk, and my car to old age. I have now lost my identity as the girl who has no cavities and I haven’t been taking it very well.  And if you’ve been getting drilled since age 6, its hard to shower a girl with pity who was practically elderly at the age of first cavity.  I feel like Mom would be appropriately sympathetic, but she hasn’t been able to adequately comfort me from beyond. So, wish me luck as I transition into the world-of-everyone-else, and get a filling on February 20th.

sickness

It finally happened.  Except for a period of time when I was a brand new nurse and falling ill to every super-bug flying around the hospital, since adulthood I have rarely gotten sick.  Patients cough on me, all my coworkers catch the viral illness d’jour, and I take a look around with the bewilderment of the Last Woman Standing. But even the Finest T-Cells in Tucson© eventually reach their limits. I’m sneezing and coughing and feeling miserable and wish Momma were here because she was always sympathetic to these sorts of plights. 

My first illness without Mom’s comfort- yet another “first” that brings up the sadness.    First month without her, first holiday without her, first illness without her– they all, quite frankly, have sucked.

The plus side to being a snot-nosed mess is I’ve had a light load at work, and the rare opportunity to rent movies that are firmly located on my husband’s “I’d rather have a colonoscopy than watch it” list. 

 

 

Ryan Gosling was hot.  Even as an aged, alcoholic character wearing an ugly eagle shirt.

 

 

We watched a movie last night with less eye candy, but one that both of us were interested in– Blue Gold: World Water Wars.  I recommend it to everyone, not only to desert-dwellers such as ourselves.  Its a terrifying glimpse into the future of water privatization and global water shortages.