Trees

20180824_154353“Places remember what people forget.”

Richard Powers, The Overstory

I recently saw a documentary about sentinel trees.  Sentinel trees have witnessed major events in history.  For example, they were examining the trees in Gettysburg, PA who saw the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

It got me thinking of all that trees observe.  In the White Mountains of California, there are Great Basin bristle cone pine trees that are thousands of years old.  What have they seen in their lifetimes?  Pioneers in covered wagons searching for prosperity in the new west?  Curious and inventive citizens have certainly sampled their bark for medicinal purposes.

I thought of all of the trees in my own history.  Like that mammoth oak that had the tire swing in my friend’s backyard growing up.  I was afraid of that tire swing because the tree was the size of a building!  The tire swing was high above the ground. The yard had a steep slope, so it would swing right over her mother’s garden.  One day, I twisted up my courage and attempted to master the tire swing.  I did not ride in the middle of the tire like most kids.  I decided to straddle the top of the thing and ride away!  Little did I know I would get frightened mid-flight, let go and landed directly in her mother’s vegetable garden—just a foot or two away from the tomato stakes.  I could have been impaled!  Yet, I looked up and saw the tree.  Its green canopy above signified that I was OK.

There was also another tree in my backyard.  It provided shade for the whole yard. I believe it was another mighty oak, perhaps maple.  I used to collect the large leaves in the fall and pretend they were dollar bills.  My dolls were the richest toys in all of Cortland, New York.  They had many leaves with which to buy their jewels, cars and houses.

My brother was a fan of our crab apple trees on the side of our house.  He and his friends would pick them and hurl them at each other in vicious apple fights.  I remember being scared of even touching the crab apples because our mom warned us not to eat wild fruit.  I don’t know if my brother cared.  He just wanted to engage in battle.

Trees are silent witnesses to so many events.  They not only see the mischief of everyday life, but have been bystanders to pivotal moments in history.  There are trees still alive in Dallas, Texas that observed the assassination of President Kennedy.  There are also trees around Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts that had a front row seat to Louisa May Alcott’s family history she so lovingly recounted in classics such as Little Women and Little Men.

I am on my back porch now looking at the pines in our backyard and think about all they have seen while we have lived here.  These pines have witnessed the growth of our two kids, my reading and writing back here, the kids and I whistling at the birds in their branches and many, many family celebrations filled with food, wine, bubbles, sprinklers and songs.  Our daughter finds solace in the small wooded area in our backyard.  She used to build wooden sculptures out of downed limbs.  It was looking like the Blair Witch Project in our backyard for a while.

As writers, we have a lot to learn from sentinel trees, these silent spectators.  Observe.  Take it all in.  Be in the background for a while.  Just watch. See what unfolds.

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Garden

20180614_171002“What is called genius is the abundance of life or health, so that whatever addresses the senses, as the flavor of these berries, or the lowing of that cow, which sounds as if it echoed along a cool mountain-side just before night, where odiferous dews perfume the air and there is everlasting vigor, serenity, and expectation of perpetual untarnished morning,—each sight and sound and scent and flavor,—intoxicates with a healthy intoxication.”

Henry David Thoreau’s journal entry, 11 July 1852

There is a healthy intoxication in North Carolina during these sweltering days of summer.  Farm stands abound with fresh produce and it is the time to try out new recipes. Each summer, my daughter and I plant a small garden in our backyard full of herbs and tomatoes.

I have been researching foods that help reduce inflammation associated with RA.  My sister gave me an excellent resource, The Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Action Plans by Dorothy Calimeris and Sondi Bruner.  I have found that some of my favorite foods/herbs (basil, strawberries, spinach, pineapple, cherries) might help with inflammation.  My go-to fruit lately has been cherries, much to the delight of my Michigander husband.

I have been trying some of the recipes from my new cookbook and wanted to share some of them with you.  I have been making a lot of smoothies lately. With temperatures rising to 100 degrees, something cold really hits the spot.  This smoothie is my current obsession:

Cherry Smoothie, serves 1

1 cup of frozen, no sugar added, pitted cherries

¼ cup frozen raspberries

¾ cup coconut water

1 tbsp of raw honey (try to get local honey for the pollen, which helps with allergies)

1 tsp chia seeds

1 tsp hemp seeds

Drop of vanilla extract

Ice (optional)

In a blender, combine all ingredients until smooth.

So, I made this smoothie for my husband before one of my son’s soccer games.  As he tasted it, he said, “is this alcoholic?” Umm… no? FYI…Watch how much vanilla extract you put in this smoothie.  I misread the recipe and added a teaspoon of vanilla extract, not the drop that the recipe called for. It does taste alcoholic when you do that.  Not bad, but definitely not the drink to have at a Saturday morning soccer game. Lesson learned.

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The next recipe is an unusual entree, but I promise you it is delectable!  Again, I’m a little obsessed with cherries lately. They are just so sweet and fresh!  I found this recipe for Chicken Breast with Cherry Sauce and my husband made it for me.  It is unbelievably good, healthy and celebrates the abundance of the season:

Chicken Breast with Cherry Sauce, serves 4

1 tbsp coconut oil

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 scallions, sliced

¾ cup chicken broth

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

½ cup dried cherries (I used fresh cherries.  They made for a little more liquid. See step #5 below.)

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees fahrenheit
  2. In a large, ovenproof skillet over medium high heat, melt the coconut oil.
  3. Season the chicken with salt and pepper.  Place the chicken in the pan and brown it on both sides, about 3 minutes per side.
  4. Add the scallions, chicken broth, balsamic vinegar and cherries.  Cover with an ovenproof lid or aluminum foil and place the pan in the preheated oven.  Bake for 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
  5. If you are using fresh or frozen cherries, transfer the sauce into a saucepan to reduce the liquid – making the sauce thicker before transferring back to chicken.

Exploring new recipes makes this transition exciting.  I am able to find better ways to eat clean and preserve my health.  Oh, and I also made Lavender and Honey homemade ice cream from the lavender in our garden.  I won’t add that recipe. It was unbelievable, but definitely not anti-inflammatory or healthy.  Sometimes you just have to indulge. And I was still honoring the abundance of our garden.

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Chess

20180608_070056The other night, my husband and I were watching the Netflix show “Off Camera with Sam Jones.”  Sam Jones is a photographer and film director who does in-depth interviews with actors in an unconventional way.  They aren’t selling a movie or pitching an idea. They are just talking about their craft, riffing about art. We watched the episode featuring Robert Downey, Jr.  

In this interview, Downey said he was reading a book called The Tao of Leadership by John Heider.  The author encourages readers to trust the process and let go of the typical philosophy of leadership – controlling and managing people. Heider makes the point that managing people and controlling situations is virtually impossible.

So, isn’t managing the essence of leadership?  No. And it is even possible to lead effectively without holding the reins too tightly.   

As an example of this type of leadership, Downey told a story about what it is like to be an actor in a Guy Ritchie film.  He said Ritchie keeps a very laid-back set. He even noted it’s almost impossible to see Ritchie as the director because he is usually in the background.  Sometimes, he’s even playing chess while scenes are in progress. Although it looks as though he’s not paying attention, Downey says Ritchie is keenly aware of everything that is going on.  If something goes awry, Ritchie will be the first one in line to remedy the situation. However, his interferences are minimal.

So, what does this story mean to someone who is a teacher and writer – read control freak?  Have you met any of us before? We want to manage everything! Classrooms, content, instruction, choice of books, etc.  Add to that, we have two children on the autism spectrum in our family. Control means more than choice. It means safety, security, predictability.  We’ve had schedules and routines since the kids were infants.

I guess it’s time to unlearn some of my instinctual moves.

I really like the idea of being aware, but not having to be in charge of everything.  I think that this trust issue can apply to our kids and my students. I need to learn to trust that my children will make good choices and not kill each other when they argue.  I want them to become problem solvers, not problem makers, without my constant supervision. As for my students, I need to trust that they are in my class to succeed. If they choose to not hand in their work or fail the course, that has nothing to do with me or the quality of instruction they received.

The poet Barbara Guest talks about the writer’s need for control.  “Invisible architecture engages the productive tension between the desire of the poet to control and that something within the poetry desires the invisible.”  She further explains that invisible architecture is supporting the poem and interrupts the process of writing for the poet. Perhaps this interruption is a shift in perspective or a letting go to allow the art to blossom more organically.  

There are so many things out of my control these days.  Trust is difficult when there is so much uncertainty. Maybe there is an invisible architecture at work that is disrupting my status quo, but will benefit me in the future.  Or, maybe I need to stop thinking so much. I need to, you know, be like Guy. Play a game of chess.

Present

My RA sister and I were talking the other day.  While we were commiserating, she noted that RA takes such a psychological toll on us as well as a physical one based on the choices you have to constantly make.  We talked about how your energy reserves are now very precious and you cannot do everything you used to be able to do. So, you have to make choices. And, these choices are not always easy.

Here’s an analogy to explain my point…

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You have a leaky bucket, but you have many flowers to water.  Which flowers will you choose? You are losing water by the second, and you do not want your flowers to suffer.  You have to choose one over the other. Not because one flower is better. You simply do not have enough water to go around.

I think the hardest part for me is not everyone will understand the need to make these choices.  I look fine. I sound fine.  But, I have been bailing out on plans quite a bit lately.  I recently had an experience that forced me to re-calibrate my life for now.

The other week, I went to my brother’s 50th birthday party.  My side of the family got together and it was a wonderful time.  We laughed while my brother was opening his presents and took a picture of our mocked disgust while he read an inappropriate card. In the past, these celebratory times would rejuvenate me.  Being with my family used to be a boost. This time was different.

We only went to their house for a long weekend – virtually it was an up and back trip.  Yes, it was packed with activities, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Or, so I thought. I started feeling sick on the way home.  Really sick. So tired I couldn’t focus. My body was exhausted and it felt like I was coming down with the flu. I rested for the entire afternoon when we got home, but nothing seemed to relieve the deep malaise.  

The next two days were spent mostly in bed with an intermittent fever.  I missed work. I felt really frustrated; as if my body was not letting me do things, like a simple road trip.  Travel is very important to my husband and me. If I can’t do this minimal travel, how am I ever going to do our annual road trip this summer?  We take a two-week road trip every summer and our kids count down the days until we can go. I started reflecting about how different I was last summer and I lamented about taking my body for granted when it worked “right”.

However, for my own peace of mind, I need to realize that RA is not a punishment.  Find the light, Elizabeth. There has got to be a lesson in this condition. What is RA teaching me?

In making these difficult choices of where to go and what to do, I am learning to be mindful of my body and my constraints.  These constraints are irritating, but I really feel that they are also forcing me to live in the moment. When I am able to spend time with family and friends, I am grateful for the time with them.  I rarely waste my time anymore, as I am cognizant that I do not have unlimited energy.

I am also learning to mother myself.  After my mom died, I felt like I had lost my tenacious champion.  My mom was very protective and would go to great lengths to fight for her kids.  I need to be that champion for myself now. Arguably, there are tough choices. I cannot attend all of the parties, vacations, events that I really want to go to these days.  I disappoint my family and friends more regularly now.

But in the same vein of RA being an education, I am learning to advocate and stand up for myself.  I am channeling my inner mother. I cannot worry about who I will annoy or hurt. I need to gauge how much hurt I am willing to incur if I do this thing or that thing, and what attending that event will cost my family if I am down for the count.  These are not easy decisions.

20180601_072056So, is RA a present?  Should we be celebrating this new gift?  Well, I’m not going to go that far. However, RA is helping me to savor the moments.  I am thinking about what (or who) is right in front of me, rather than what I am going to do in the next hour, day, week or year.  I hope to become a better person, to myself and to others, as a result of this new normal.

Print

20180525_062420Someone gave me Rheumatoid Arthritis. I know the culprit. It is my friend who has an office a few doors down from mine at work, and she was diagnosed last year. In the past year, I have seen her suffer. However, I never really understood her condition. Until she gave it to me.

Of course, I am kidding. But, my little joke provides some levity to the situation.

I will call my friend, RA Sister. Her journey has been anything but easy; she has had fatigue, multiple medicine issues and “bad days”. And I witnessed it, having a front row seat to her pain.  

The fatigue seemed to hit her quickly. Our normally sunny girl turned pale and worn out. She kept up her positive attitude, but you could tell she just didn’t feel well. I checked on her and could tell when she was having a better day and a bad day. The bad days were multiplying. Still, her smile was apparent every time I saw her. She also continued to sport joyful shirts, such as one featuring her favorite succulent plants.

RA Sister is not one to complain. AT ALL. You would never know her hard days. She soldiers on with a smile and despite her pain, she continues with her rather demanding duties at work, shares innovative teaching ideas and her beautiful poetry. Tough as nails doesn’t even begin to describe her. Her fight is an inspiration.  

She started using the hashtag, #soulfight, last summer. I thought it was such a great title for her condition. Soul fight. Fighting for her very soul. My other friend from work and I cheered her on. We sent her encouraging memes and always tagged our missives with her hashtag. We were there for her. But, were we really?

There are times when I apologize to my RA Sister. I tell her I had no idea what she was going through. Now, I completely understand and feel a little guilty for not being there for her more.  She laughs at my guilt, waves her hand and says, “how could you know? How could anyone know?” Even in our conversation the other day, she said she’s mad at her body. I get it, Sister. Truly and deeply.

When I was diagnosed last March, I was in shock and she was my first phone call. I started the conversation with “you gave this to me!!!” She laughed and launched in with a lot of encouragement, support and information. She stayed on the phone with me for over an hour, empathizing and caring for me. Little did I know, she was sitting in hospice at the deathbed of her father. Throughout our conversation, she did not share any of her personal trauma. She focused on me and took time out of her misery to help ME. Yes. She’s that type of friend. And, she gives the most considerate gifts.

For Christmas one year, she gave me a print that she painted for me. It means the world to me and currently hangs in my writing room.  The quote on the painting is from Elizabeth Gilbert and it says, “Be a weirdo who dares to enjoy.” This painting reminds me of her artistic and vastly creative spirit. For her birthday this year, I returned the favor of giving her a photograph I took of lanterns I saw at Christmastime. They were so beautiful, just like my RA Sister.

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This summer, RA Sister is embarking on a cross-country journey, with her three beloved dogs in tow. I am excited for her and the many adventures she will have. Brave? Yes. She will no doubt infect everyone she meets across the nation….with her buoyant and kind spirit, not RA.  

#soulfight

Pattern

532-sleeveless-top-sewing-pattern-drawingAs a child, my family called me Busy Beth as I was always into something. They shortened the nickname to Biz, and the name still fits. I am not content to just sit and am easily bored. The only time I am truly sedentary is when I am reading or writing. Even in that state of stillness, my mind is active and buzzing.    

Now, I have to slow down. My body can’t keep up with my usual pace. So, how does Busy Beth learn to slow down? That is the question with which I am wrestling.

Slowing down via meditation seems to be working. I am meditating to practice staying in the present. There is a wonderful application called Insight Timer. My favorite teacher on that application is Bethany Auriel-Hagan. She has a meditation called “Welcoming Acceptance.” I enjoy her soothing voice and her visualization techniques. In this meditation, she asks her students to imagine holding a bubble on their laps and putting the issue which they need to accept inside the bubble. While examining this issue/situation within the bubble, she explains, “acceptance is being with what is. Not liking it. Not fixing it. Just noticing and recognizing.”

Not fixing it? Just noticing? Sounds too pedestrian to me.

I recognize that acceptance is hard for me. I am a natural fixer. If something is not right, I will research to find solutions or will consult experts in the field. I teach a class called “Writing/Research in the Disciplines”. In that course, students work throughout the semester on a local problem they identify and create ideas for solution.  I explain to them, “problems are nothing without solutions. Talking about problems without providing some ideas for solutions is just whining.” Yes. I do say that. And, I wholeheartedly believed it. Until Rheumatoid Arthritis.

After my RA diagnosis, I am learning the tough lesson that there are problems without immediate solutions.  I cannot just fix myself right now, in my time. Enter acceptance…

My sister hates to see me struggle, so she sent me a book, Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, Ph.D.  Brach writes that one aspect of Radical Acceptance is compassion. “Instead of resisting our feelings of fear or grief, we embrace our pain with the kindness of a mother holding her child. Compassion honors our experience; it allows us to be intimate with the life of this moment as it is” (Brach 28).

Are you sensing a pattern here? It seems as though acceptance is the only item on my menu, day and night. The word is all around me. Perhaps these constant reminders are providing some sort of guidance. In sewing, patterns guide someone to turn a piece of fabric into a work of art. A creation.  

There are times when I feel that I am creating a new self. One that is more aware, patient and understanding. Patience is an inside job these days, for sure. I am having to rely on help, and that reliance is uncomfortable to me. The other night, I fell asleep at 7:30pm, before the kids even went to bed. My husband noticed I did not put on my wrist braces before I went to sleep. Wrist braces help my hands and wrists feel better in the morning by mobilizing my joints while I sleep. He gently took my hands and put my braces on. My usual pattern is to chastise myself for not remembering to put on my braces.  I should have been able to do this myself! Instead, I shut that voice up inside my head and leaned into accepting the assistance without the usual resistance. I resigned myself to the fact of it is what it is.

I am recognizing I need to be with what is. So, what is this?

It’s feeling like an odyssey – a physical and surprisingly emotional trip I did not choose to take.  There are lessons, but I am not always sure what they are teaching me. Pain is an excellent teacher because it demands your attention and fatigue is relentless.  The old patterns of response do not work. Pushing through and just getting over it are no longer the solution. The drive now is to look for a new approach.

As Joan Didion said about having to reinvent her work before finishing a book:

“Sometimes you can get away with things in the middle of a book… I wanted a dense texture, and so I kept throwing stuff into it, making promises. For example, I promised a revolution. Finally, when I got within twenty pages of the end, I realized I still hadn’t delivered this revolution. I had a lot of threads, and I’d overlooked this one. So then I had to go back and lay in the preparation for the revolution. Putting in that revolution was like setting in a sleeve. Do you know what I mean? Do you sew? I mean I had to work that revolution in on the bias, had to ease out the wrinkles with my fingers.”

It could be that pain is the pattern that guides my own revolution.

Blue Skies

Blue Skies

Smiling at me

Nothing but blue skies

Do I see

-“Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin

 

I take an obscene amount of sky pictures.  If you are friends with me on Facebook or Instagram, you will see several of my celestial observations in full color.  Even my daughter is in on the act. She woke me up last Saturday morning at daybreak to tell me that Grammy painted pictures in the sky for me to see.  Her Grammy, my mother, died in 2016, so it was especially touching for her to make that observation.

Why the sky?  I guess I have always been looking up.

In our childhood, we took a lot of road trips.  Dad didn’t (and still doesn’t) like to fly. So, we would hit the road.  On these trips, my brother would have his nose in a book the whole ride. I would be so jealous of him because if I read in the car, I’d wind up throwing up in the appointed garbage bag, affectionately known as the “barf bag”, my mom always brought with us.  You see, car sickness ran rampant in my family. My sister would be listening to David Bowie on her Walkman and I would be laying down with the luggage in the way back of the station wagon naming the things I saw in the clouds. “There’s a dog! There’s a bunny!  That looks like Uncle George!”

As I got older, I realized the sky gave me two gifts- an instant sense of connection and beauty.

I went on a term abroad when I was in college and taught ESL in graduate school in Hungary for a short time.  Even though I was very far away from home, I would look up and picture my family looking at the same sky from our house in upstate New York.  It gave me comfort to feel connected to my loved ones, while seeing something familiar in a place so strange to me at the time.

The sky connects us all.  We all know what the sky looks like at dawn and dusk.  We have an instant recognition of these images in literature and film.  Those pink and purple hues seem to quietly wake us up or calmly put us to sleep.  The sky puts on quite a show of beauty for everyone. It is a consistent source of light and color on which we can depend.

Many people take the sky for granted.  We are frantically conducting the business of  our everyday lives while the palette above our heads beckons for attention.  It is a practice of mindfulness to pause and observe nature’s entertainment.

Perhaps I have been taking too many sky pictures lately.  I find it immensely comforting to be able to access inspiration simply turning my head upward.

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