Wednesday, May 26, 2010

White Crane

Sprout is getting ready to take his very first karate belt test. (There is much to love about his karate class, but I will save that for another post.) So the other day, while we were waiting for Sweetpea to get out of school, he was practicing his White Crane pose on one of those long, flat wood pilings that seem to be a staple of public school landscapes everywhere.

White Crane is the pose I'll bet we all remember from The Karate Kid: both arms up and bent like wings, one leg bent at the knee, balancing the body on the remaining foot. As I watched Sprout struggle to stay even a few seconds in this challenging pose, waggling his arms and airborne foot for balance, I made a simple suggestion: "Just focus on your tummy, kiddo."

The effect was dramatic and immediate. For about 5 seconds, my son was a perfectly still, stable White Crane.

I've been thinking about the question of balance a lot lately. I took this sabbatical, I thought, to correct a significant imbalance between my work and creative lives. It seemed pretty simple at the time.

Except my solution, going from one extreme to another, didn't work either. The days I spend deeply (obsessively) immersed in writing projects can bring on that same choking, drowning feeling that my job often did. I type frantically until the moment I absolutely have to leave to pick up the kids, then race out the door, distracted and mentally unprepared to be present for my family. Then, out of guilt, I will sometimes avoid writing for days, focusing entirely on home and family. Also no good. No--I'm learning that achieving balance is (sigh) far more complicated than I had thought.

Most recently, I'm learning how my lifestyle of the last 8 to 10 years has thrown every possible system of my physical body out of balance. The other day, a friend suggested I look at the Blood Type Diet as another way of understanding how best to restore my body to health. And because the Universe has, as I have mentioned, completely given up on subtle, here's what I found regarding my blood type: "B is for Balance."

As a Type B, you carry the genetic potential for great malleability and the ability to thrive in changeable conditions ... At the same time, it can be extremely challenging to balance two poles, and Type B's tend to be highly sensitive to the effects of slipping out of balance.

Sounds familiar. I don't exercise at all, or I push myself to (beyond) the limit. I swear off sugar completely for two weeks, then eat an entire candy bar in one sitting. I ignore my health entirely for years, then spend weeks exploring every natural remedy on the market. You get the picture.

So this morning, I was thinking of that image of my son in White Crane, still and stable. Wondering, what is my core? What is the muscle that, when I am reminded to use it, stops all of the flailing and restores me to balance?

The answer I hit on? Self-care. Sounds deceptively simple, perhaps. Maybe the rest of you figured this out years ago. But when I look at my own life, it's frightening to realize how easy it is to get distracted by old habits and motives. How rarely still the motive for my behavior is to take care of myself in a gentle, loving way. Even though I know from experience that the question, What's the most loving thing I can do for myself in this moment?, has never steered me wrong.

Self-care will graciously offer me a square or two of that delicious dark chocolate I'm craving, but it certainly won't allow me to eat the entire bar. It will nearly always get me off the couch and into my sneakers; it will never push me to run farther or faster than my body is willing to take me that day. It'll solve the endless riddles of social engagement ("Should I take on that responsibility? Keep that commitment? Go out with friends or stay home and rest?") with one simple question: "What do I need most, right now, today?"

Or, in simpler terms, this reminder: "Just focus on your tummy, kiddo."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dude. My sinuses are up HERE.

As many of you know, I went to the Bastyr Clinic about a month ago to see about getting off the nasty sinus infection rollercoaster I'd been on since early December. On the first visit, I got some helpful tips of the variety I'd expected: a few foods to avoid because of their known effect on the sinuses, an herbal supplement, a referral for acupuncture. Great. Good. I'm on it.

Except these things didn't solve the problem. So on the second visit, they started asking other questions. About stomach aches, and digestion, and ... Um, excuse me? I know I wanted someone who would treat the whole person and all, but I kind of make it a point not to notice certain aspects of my digestive system, let alone discuss them with strangers. Yet discuss them we did.

Two uncomfortable visits and one blood panel later, I got hit with a diagnosis I never saw coming: celiac disease.

Suddenly the doctor's advice went from "try to avoid" things like dairy and wheat, to "You can never have gluten again. For the rest of your life. Because IT CAN KILL YOU." (The doctor may or may not actually have spoken in all capital letters.)

That's right, gluten can kill you. (OK, maybe not you. But me.) I'll spare you the details, but apparently for the 1 in 133 (give or take) Americans who have celiac disease, the smallest amount of gluten triggers an autoimmune response that slowly but surely trashes your small intestine. Left untreated, this can lead to all kinds of ugly consequences, including other autoimmune diseases, cancer, and the inability to absorb nutrients. Any of them. Period.

Since it can take as long as 11 years to get an accurate diagnosis for this--and for many, these are years that can only be described as holy hell--I should feel lucky, right? My symptoms aren't that bad. And any damage done up to this point is likely reversible.

As long as I don't eat any more gluten. Ever. Which is fine, except that gluten is in a lot of things I usually eat. Like, ohIdon'tknow, EVERYTHING. I can't even make out with someone who's recently had a doughnut (or--ahem--a beer) unless he's brushed his teeth. And that better be gluten-free toothpaste you're using, mister. (I swear I am not exaggerating.)

So right about now, my rational self is celebrating. I'm going to feel better! she says. Possibly better than I've felt in a decade! I'm already eating healthier, feeling more energetic, having fewer mysterious headaches and stomach aches. Things I thought I'd lost forever--like a sense of humor, a longer fuse, and patience--are slowly returning. The panic attacks have stopped. Plus? It's a totally manageable disease, and now that I know what to do, I'm far less likely to end up with complications like osteoporosis and seizures! All good news!

My other self--the one who likes instant gratification, comfort foods, and grabbing takeout when she's too tired to cook--would like to punch the ridiculously chipper glass-half-full self in the eye. That one is grieving her former, less complicated life. At least some aspects of it. She keeps saying things like: But what about biscuits?! Burger King Whoppers! And--oh, god--Naaaaaaaaaaaaan!

I'm sure the rational self will win out eventually, but for now it's about 50-50. So if you see me around town (I can usually be found in the specialty foods section of grocery stores, squinting at labels), feel free to offer me some sympathy and a listening ear. Just don't offer me a doughnut.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The "M" Word

I was updating the Bastyr naturopathy team on my latest symptoms when the intern nearly let it slip.

In response to one of my many Is this normal? questions, she replied, "I'm sure it's nothing. "That's not uncommon in women who are pre-mmm ... In women your age."

Wow. Really? "It's OK, you can say it."

She smiled nervously, as if afraid her gaffe might prompt a bout of hormonal rage or uncontrollable weeping. "We're not really supposed to use that word. It could refer to anyone under the age of 50, after all. If you think about it, we're all pre-menopausal."

"Sure we are," I replied. Just some of us more than others.

There's no getting around it, the "M" words are starting to apply to me. Middle aged. Midlife crisis. And yes, I am probably closer than I'd like to admit to the big one: Menopause.

If I were someone else, I might be researching plastic surgeons or looking into that cute little sports car I've always wanted. Instead, I am just getting sick.

Or maybe not "just." The naturopath who is supervising my case, Patrick Donovan, has an interesting perspective on illness.

"Chronic illness," he says, "is often the evidence of your Essential Self, your own true essence of being, struggling to emerge from the transformative fires of chaos and affirm itself against the inertia and complacency of inauthentic and uncreative living. It is the consequence of the suppressive and restrictive effects of fear and persistent denial on your life."

Ordinarily this kind of language would go right by me. But, "inauthentic and uncreative living"? "Fear and persistent denial"? These are some of the core issues I'm working on right now.

He goes on: "Fear, complacency and denial are powerful obstructions on the path of transformation and self-discovery that must be shattered. Illness is often the very process needed to do so."

In other words, maybe there's a reason I'm confronting this illness, in this way, at this moment. I can choose not to look at it that way, of course. I can continue to deny the effects of my everyday choices on my health. I can continue to subject my mind, body, and spirit to high levels of stress. I can keep taking care of everyone else while neglecting myself. I can keep masking the symptoms.

Or, I can be awake to the full experience of this illness and what it has to teach me. My body is trying to tell me something about how I've lived my life up to this point. And I believe, if I pay attention, it will also point me to the path of recovery.

So if this is my midlife crisis, I say bring it on. I am ready to be done with fear and denial. I have big plans for the second half of my (in the oft-quoted words of Mary Oliver) "one wild and precious life."

Body, I am your student. Lead the way.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Walking a mile in old shoes

Sweetpea eyed me suspiciously across the breakfast table.

"Why are you wearing that?"

The that she referred to was a fairly unremarkable outfit of dress-casual black capris, a blouse, and a light sweater. A year or two out of vogue, perhaps, but she wasn't questioning my sense of style. What she meant was Where are the sweatpants and baseball cap that you usually wear when you take me to school?

"A friend from Mommy's old work is in town--my boss, Miss Patricia--and I'm meeting her for lunch," I replied.

Her eyes widened. "NO!"

I must admit, six months after ditching my high-stress but concretely rewarding consulting job to focus more energy on home and family, I found her reaction a wee bit validating. Observations about the benefits of putting my career on hold are not my kids' strong suit. I am more frequently compensated with comments like, "But I want Daddy to come on the field trip with me--not you again!"

So, a look of horror at the thought of me going back to work? That's about as good as it gets around here.

Nonetheless, I have been missing my work life lately. Sure, it has something to do with the dwindling savings account and the closet full of clothes that "will just have to do" for now. But there's more to it than that.

Last Friday, I happened to be in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle around lunchtime. I was checking out the gluten-free bakery there, on my way home from yet another exhaustingly thorough appointment at the Bastyr Clinic. Homeopathy this time. Countless questions about every aspect of my life from a team of earnest student clinicians.

It was a beautiful day, and everywhere you looked, 9-to-5-ers were taking advantage of their lunch breaks to soak in some rare Seattle sunshine. I found myself eyeing them with more wistfulness than usual: the 20-something co-workers with their bag of sandwiches on a park bench, clearly in the throes of a serious office flirtation. The corporate types who had loosened their ties and kicked off pinchy shoes while picnicking on nearby steps. Even the group clustered around a table just outside their company's cafeteria, working through lunch, seemed to brim with an enviable energy.

I'll bet they haven't just spent the last two hours talking exclusively about themselves, I thought. No, I'll bet they're working on Real Issues. Solving Problems and making a Difference out in the World. That world I used to be so much a part of, before I made this strategic retreat.

So yesterday morning, when I put on my presentable, grown-up clothes (jewelry, even!) and sat down to breakfast, I enjoyed the sense of purpose I felt--not greater than usual, perhaps, but different. I had a Schedule for the day, an Appointment that didn't involve discussing the failings of my digestive system. I relished it all--from nosing my car into morning traffic, to pulling my ticket crisply from the machine at the downtown parking garage, to keeping pace with brisk city-dwellers crossing at a light.

I enjoyed making my way through a crowd of badge-wearing, booklet-consulting conference attendees to find my friend. Being seated in the expensive hotel restaurant and catered to with care. Catching up on the projects I'd left behind, as well as the latest office gossip. These pleasures I had grown to take for granted all seemed shiny and new again.

But when lunch was over, I was equally content to leave it all behind. The conference topics held no strong pull on my attention. My cell phone didn't ring once during the meal; I was alerted to no urgent problems requiring my attention. I raced home at full freeway speed, hours before the traffic would begin to jam up again with commuters heading home. I met my daughter at school, heard about the deliciously mundane ups and downs of her day, and started garlic broth for the vitamin-packed risotto I planned for dinner.

As I kicked off my work sandals, I winced a little. Though I hadn't noticed the pinch as I was rushing through my day, the shoes had rubbed the outside of each of my baby toes raw. I only felt the pain when I stopped moving.

I made a quick mental note to wear stockings with those next time, to better protect my tender feet. Or better yet, find a pair with a more comfortable fit. Next time. Whenever that may be.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

And again ... and again ...

This morning, I asked for a do-over.

This morning, I was not patient with my children. I snapped when I should have sympathized. I hollered when I could have helped. I leapt when I should have looked.

Then I came home and spent an hour or so beating myself up about it, worrying that the state of my health is permanently damaging my children's.

I told the Universe that I would like those few hours back, please. If it wasn't too much to ask.

Instead she smiled wisely (I imagine) and sent me to a wonderful blog called Mama Om, where I caught a glimpse of the mother I would like to be. The one I know I can be. The one I am, sometimes, on my very best days.

Like all of my favorite teachers, Stacy readily admits she's not perfect. And thank god for that. If she were perfect, it would just discourage me further, rather than inspire me to try harder. But in her imperfection--which is just like my own imperfection, like all of our imperfections--she has moments of brilliance. And she is kind enough to write about them.

By some miracle, I was able to open my heart this morning and allow myself to be inspired by those moments. I walked away from my computer, meditated, wrote in my journal, and resolved to try again.

I don't get a do-over. But I can start over. And I will, as many times as it takes.