Drawer

20181127_152912(0)Recently, my family and I decorated our Christmas tree.  As we were hanging the decorations – relics from family vacations, kids’ crafts, fancy bulbs from my childhood made from beads – I held each one and lovingly remembered all of the experiences each decoration represented.

As I was adrift in memories, I realized something.  Gratitude comes in many packages. I was grateful for the little hopeful faces that gave me their creations, the parents/grandparents who went to great pains to make these bulbs and the many fun adventures we were able to take with our family.  

It occurred to me that gratitude is like these decorations.  You have to pull it out of the drawer, dust it off and let it breathe.  Acts for which we are grateful are abound, yet we don’t acknowledge them so often.  Rather, we may choose to focus on the not-so-happy aspects of daily life.

For example, Christmas has become a complicated holiday for my family and me.  My mother died at Christmastime two years ago. Sometimes when I see our outdoor lights shining through the window against our dining room wall, I think about the people who came to our door to deliver meals to our home while she was in the hospital.  When the cold air of December blows in my face, I think of how it did the same thing walking to the car after days and nights in the ICU.

It’s not our fault.  Our minds tend to go to the negative – what we haven’t given, what we haven’t gotten, how much we have missed, how much we have to overcome, etc.  Critical analysis is part of our everyday experience.

But, I realize that I cannot live in that space – the place of regret, loss, guilt, negativity.  It leaves a dark imprint on everything in my life. My kids get very anxious when they hear me complaining too much.  They are like little mirrors, showing you the result of when you allow negativity to permeate your lives.

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Gratitude is everywhere, impelling its way into everyday life.  My husband came home the other day and told me about a story he heard on talk radio about a reluctant and crabby person who was forced into keeping a list of things for which he was grateful.  He begrudgingly wrote down some half-baked ideas, “glad I got up this morning”, “glad I’m breathing”, etc. Then, he started to get into keeping this list and got more creative. The radio announcer said this hesitant observer now has thousands and thousands of items on his gratitude list now and he is not stopping.  He remains excited about recognizing the gifts of living.

Gratitude seems like exercise – you have to remind yourself to do it, and do it often. The benefits will not happen unless you perform those moves of mindful reflection on a consistent basis.  So, like getting on the treadmill to remain healthy over the holidays, or reluctantly going to the gym in the rain or snow, try gratitude training.  In the words of George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, you could be flexing your muscular kindness.

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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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

Hands

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I have my mother’s hands.

I always admired how strong and beautiful her hands were; whether she was rubbing my head as I drifted to sleep or when she playfully pinched me, they always felt like home.  I even wrote a poem about how we have the same hands entitled, “Heartbeat”.

My dad has long, graceful fingers.  His hands are very elegant, though he probably would not like me to describe them as such.  You see, he’s a fan of John Wayne and all things macho and manly. But, his handsome hands always provided strength, comfort and safety.

I like my hands.  I consider them one of my greatest assets.  You know, when teenage girls start assessing their favorite body parts, most girls would mention their legs or other areas.  My hands were my crowning glory. They allowed me to write.

I treat my hands well.  I give them lotion at night, and always wear gloves when gardening or washing dishes.  My husband says I have doll hands because they are “little and beautiful”. However, that compliment has become a little suspect since Kristen Wiig’s famous small hands skit on Saturday Night Live.  My friends comment on my hands.  One of my dearest friends, I’ll call her ‘Soul Sister’, always says I have “freakishly soft hands”.  She owns a CrossFit gym and remarks how those bars would tear my sweet hands up. If that is the case, I do not believe I have a future in CrossFit.  My former roommate, let’s call her ‘Southern Sister’ wanted to make a shirt out of my skin. Yes. A shirt. Who knew she had Hannibal Lecter tendencies?

Now, my hands are rebelling against me.  

Hands communicate so much.  Italians know this kind of non-verbal expression.  Everyone in my family talks with his or her hands. It’s like the old adage, if you tied our hands, we would be mute.  If I am in a tense situation and do not want to give away my emotions, I actually hold my own hands – like I did when I was little, holding my own hand while crossing the street.  I have an independence streak.

I went to my first rheumatologist and the first thing I noticed were her hands.  She examined me with a light touch. I felt so afraid, yet safe because how she was handling me.  But, then something totally changed. When I started asking my questions, she waved her hands- as if she was shooing me away.  She even began taking our her stethoscope and examining me mid-question. I would ask about complementary therapies, and the hand would swat the air to punctuate her dismissal, “you don’t want to waste your money”.  When she told me the medicine she was prescribing had side effects that affected the lungs, I told her about my asthma and how my mom died of complications from pulmonary hypertension. She waved her hand and said, “that doesn’t matter”.

Each swipe of her hand cut into my soul.  I was completely vulnerable and in pain. And, it was clear this person did not care.  There is nothing more soul crushing than needing help and not getting it.

I decided this rheumatologist and I were not a good fit.  I opted to find an integrative rheumatologist because I truly feel that such a condition is best treated with a combination of medicine and holistic remedies such as wellness, diet and stress management. I really wanted a healthcare provider who would understand what I needed.  I found that someone.

This rheumatologist spent over an hour with my husband and me on our first appointment.  He went into great detail about my options and what the plan was to help me in the short-term and long-term considerations.  He anticipated all of my questions, so I wound up not asking him anything. This situation is unheard of as I always have a ton of questions.

The best part?  He gently took both of my hands and said, “we are going to make you feel better – and even stronger.”  I knew then I was in good hands.

Heartbeat (Hands, Feet in Drumbeat)

Same hands,

Kneading meatballs together

Same feet,

Walking in the sand

Same hands,

Waving goodbye, leaving for school

Same feet,

Strolling through London

Same hands,

Admiring wedding bands

Same feet,

Fatigued from dancing

Same hands,

Holding chubby baby hands

Same feet,

Running through the grass

Different hands,

Full of IVs

Different feet,

Running through the ICU

Different hands, Different feet,

Turning blue

Different hands, Different feet,

Saying this final farewell

Different hands, different feet

Different…

Bed

20180425_074342In our lifetime, we spend a lot of time in bed.  Contrary to what you may be thinking, beds are not just for sleeping.  They actually bear witness to major life events.  Throughout history, women gave birth to their children in their own beds. My favorite show is Call the Midwife.  In that show, the goal of the midwives is to have their patients deliver their children at home.  Why?  Because their own beds bring comfort, peace and familiarity.

You will hear people say, “if only I could die in bed”.  Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate, talks vividly about her mother’s death in her own bed in Ordinary Light, “We circled her bed, though we stopped short of holding hands, perhaps because that gesture would have meant we were holding on, and we were finally ready to let her go” (Smith 5).

Life and death are pretty heady subjects.  On the lighter side, there are ordinary joys in bed.  Like when our kids jump into our bed and yell, “let’s snuggle!”  We watch Looney Tunes and hold each other close.  We laugh and talk.  We call it the ‘family bed’ because we got a bed large enough to fit all four of us for Saturday mornings watching cartoons.

I am spending a lot of time in my bed these days.  Not by choice.  Not for the joy of it.  Bed is more of a respite. On most days, it is a destination.  Imagine that every afternoon, around 2:00pm, you had mononucleosis.  You know, mono?  That dreaded sickness where you completely lose all of your energy?  It doesn’t happen everyday, mind you.  But, most days.  This debilitating exhaustion of rheumatoid arthritis is tricky.  It’s unpredictable.  Yet, when it comes on, all I want to do is be in bed.  Resting.  So, that my hands and wrists don’t throb in pain.  So, I can stop the nausea in my stomach from being that tired.

It is a frustrating effect of this new condition.  I want to be up.and present in my life.  Being a bedridden spectator is not what I bargained for.  But, for now- and hopefully, not forever- I need to listen to my body and rest.

And does it not seem hard to you,   
When all the sky is clear and blue,   
And I should like so much to play,   
To have to go to bed by day?

– Robert Louis Stevenson, “Bed in Summer”

Bottled Water and Doorknobs

“You know.  You really need to see a doctor about this.  Enough is enough,” my husband Mark said.  He’s never that bossy.  And, he was right.  I couldn’t turn the doorknob to our hotel room without shooting pain in my hand and wrist.  What was happening to me?

We were at Walt Disney World with our kids on vacation.  My hands and wrists were killing me- burning and felt out of joint.  If I’m being honest, they had been hurting for two months.  But, I self-diagnosed myself with carpal tunnel.  I’m an English teacher and a writer.  It would make sense my hands and wrists would hurt due to overuse.  And, this kind of pain is part of getting older.  Right?

However, having to rely on my 12-year-old son to open water bottles for me at Disney – because I literally could not open them due to weakness and pain – was a wake-up call.  I called my doctor for an appointment from our hotel room.

On the way to my doctor’s office, I still found the appointment futile and it annoyed me.  It’s carpal tunnel!!!  I will wear some braces and be all set.  What a waste of time and energy!

My doctor did all of the tests for carpal tunnel and I passed all of them.  Whoa, wait a minute.  What is this then?  She posed some ideas, but wanted to get blood tests to rule out some of these issues.  One of the issues was rheumatoid arthritis.  Surely, it couldn’t be that.

My blood tests came up positive for rheumatoid arthritis due to the elevated rheumatoid factor in my blood.  Genetic.  Hereditary.  Born with it.  Flare is how I found this….

I felt the same way as I did when my kids were diagnosed on the autism spectrum.  I was dumbfounded because I kept saying to myself then–surely, it can’t be autism.  Now, I was saying the same thing – surely, it can’t be rheumatoid arthritis.  I guess old habits die hard.

It was as though I was underwater when my doctor shared the diagnosis with me.  I caught her speech in snippets:

Need to find a rheumatologist quickly.  Before disease spreads.  Chronic.  Attacking your body even as we speak….

All of my thoughts read danger.  I am in trouble here.  And, I need help.  Quickly, evidently…

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Arrows and Flowers

I chose the title “Turning Arrows into Flowers” after a dear friend suggested I read Thich Nhat Hahn’s retelling of a Buddhist parable (see below).  My rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis was unexpected and shocking.  I am attempting, through this blog, to turn arrows into flowers and find some joy and hope in this journey.

‘The night before his enlightenment, the Buddha was attacked by Mara, the Tempter, the Evil One. Mara and his army of demons shot thousands of arrows at the Buddha, but as the arrows neared him, they turned into flowers and fell harmlessly at his feet.’

This is a powerful image. We can all practice so that we can receive the violent words and actions aimed at us and, like the Buddha, transform them into flowers. The power of understanding and compassion gives us the ability to do this. We can all make flowers out of arrows…

Thich Nhat Hanh, Creating True Peace, Ending Conflict in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community and The World.