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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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.