Past, Present, Pain

When your body seems to be falling apart…could your past have anything to do with your pain today? 

When you live with pain that comes and goes and resolve one issue only to have another appear you might feel like you were given a bum body. As much as possible it is important to investigate why it might be that one’s body isn’t working so well. That is what we go to medical providers to help us with. Yet understanding your symptoms and physical pain and learning to manage it may mean looking at emotional pain you have experienced as well. As much as we may try to separate ourselves into physical, emotional, spiritual, cognitive, parts, every part of us still effects the whole. We are complex integrated systems. By increasing our understanding of that, we can increase our self-compassion and find a little more balance, a little more comfort. You may discover that you have not been given a bum body but rather you were given a bum deal.

First let’s look at pain. Pain isn’t a preformed sensation arising from the body.  Your brain is where pain is made. Sensation from the body is just one of the many factors involved in creating pain. The brain compares the information from nerve receptors in the body to past experiences and current emotional and physiological states, then the brain decides if pain would be a good way to encourage you to take action and protect yourself. Pain is all about protection, when the brain thinks the threat is really big the pain gets really big. That information from the nerve receptors activated by the splinter in your finger has to be evaluated in light of all the other factors your nervous system considers, including conscious and unconscious memory. (Moseley)

Bits of information from our external and internal environments get linked to other bits of information about pleasure and danger, forming associative networks. These networks fire and give us a super quick (unconscious) sense of whether we are in danger or not. When those networks fire again and again and again they become super fast, as do the networks that formed in really threating situations. This makes perfect sense to keep you safe. Your brain would rather be safe than sorry, so all the elements of the past danger don’t need to be present maybe just one important one, that you are highly sensitized to. Yes, you might feel ready to fight or flee but another option is to produce excruciating pain. It does seem odd but pain stops you so you can take care, take cover, get help, and stop being a part of whatever is going on. (Moseley)

What might be in your past that has formed really sturdy associate networks? Although there could be things you’d rather forget, your body remembers. We have learned from the studies of childhood experiences in individuals that the effects of trauma reach into the health and wellbeing of our adult lives.  The ACEs study has given the medical profession a new way to look at the mind body relationship. ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACEs). This study by Drs Felitti and Anda originally measured 10 types of childhood trauma: physical, sexual and verbal abuse, and physical and emotional neglect; and five types of family dysfunction – witnessing a mother being abused, a household member who’s alcoholic or drug dependent, who’s been imprisoned, or diagnosed with mental illness, or loss of a parent through separation, divorce or death.

Each type of trauma was given an ACE score of 1. Think of an ACE score as a short cut to acknowledge trauma without having to disclose it. A person who has been sexually abused and physically neglected, and grew up with an alcoholic mom and an incarcerated dad would have an ACE score of 4. There are many events that can adversely impact a child but this first study just used these ten.

The findings from the 17,000 mostly white, middle class, college educated, Kaiser-insured adults, showed that two-thirds experienced at least one type of severe childhood trauma. Most had suffered two or more. The study found that a person with four or more adverse childhood experiences is 12 times more likely to attempt suicide, 10 times more likely to use injection drugs, seven times more likely to be an alcoholic, two-and-a-half times more likely to have a stroke, and twice as likely to have cancer. A person with an ACE score of 6 or more has a shorter life expectancy – by 20 years. The toxic stress caused by these traumas affects short and long-term health, and can impact every part of the body, leading to autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis, as well as heart disease, breast cancer, lung cancer, etc. (Felitti)

A child’s developing nervous system that is always on the alert for danger is frequently flooded by stress hormones which are designed to help you fight or flee, but interfere with healthy development by taxing your adrenals, suppressing immune response, disrupting digestion etc. You can imagine how over many years these responses interfere with your body’s ability to return to homeostasis. And the developing nervous system will unconsciously be primed to expect danger. Remember the body is where we experience our unconscious learning. (Shore)

Sometimes the brain creates pain when there is no danger but it has evaluated all of the information from your body and from your past and believes you are in danger. Again this is an unconscious process. When pain is chronic we have developed a sensitized danger pathway, our brains respond by creating pain to try and get us to stop and become safe even when our thinking conscious brain says we’re okay. (Moseley)

How can we mitigate the toll from ACEs? Resilience, the ability to respond and return to balance can be rebuilt. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to remodel and renew, its how we can change our responses and patterns. Healing means learning on the level of our nervous system, that we are safe, and our body/mind doesn’t have to stay on high alert. (Porges, Shore)  It might be a slow and at times a challenging process but worth every ounce of effort.

If you are interested in where any of this information came from I am happy to share that with you. If you would like to explore your neuroception of safety contact me, that is an important part of my work with clients.

You can find out your ACE score as well as many excellent articles on ACES and building resilience at ACEsTooHigh.com.

 

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catching thinking, changing speaking,

sycamore tree bark

How often do we define ourselves by our limitations? Far too frequently, often I catch myself.  When you make a commitment to change something in your life, a behavior that is no longer good for you, a chronic pain syndrome, or any kind of change, try to catch yourself in habitual limiting thoughts and speaking. As I write these words I remind myself how hard that can be at times and it is a practice of self-compassion rather than self-critique. “It’s so bad the way I keep telling myself I’m doing things wrong!”  I am, you are more than your illness, or pain, or your behavior. I invite both of us to define ourselves by what we love not by how much we hurt.

How do you address the illness or condition? What words do you use? Change it to a “challenge” which can respond to action rather than a “thing” that has its own life. Don’t be willing to give away your power verbally; let your language reflect your new approach.

Positive thinking isn’t a cure all. When you catch what you say to yourself, completely acknowledge that there is a part of you that feels and believes it, but it isn’t all of you. Muster a little compassion for this part. Then turn your focus inward and find a part of you that can believe something else. Even if it is small, engage that part, believe it even if it is tiny and weak, give it permission to get stronger.

Yes, you want to reduce hopeless thoughts and beliefs but don’t expect to annihilate them; or gloss over them.  That hasn’t worked for me; I wonder if you have had any better results? Denying pain can make it louder because it is trying to protect you. And denying feelings is similar, it doesn’t help with the underlying issue, there is a reason. Not reason as in logic but as in, of course, no wonder. So acknowledge what you notice and bring in a new way, another possibility. Tiny is fine, new learning takes time.

As I re read this looking for ways I might be more clear or helpful. I think how I am writing this for me. I’m not speaking from the place of I’ve got it handled; let me tell you how to do it. But rather, here is the direction I’ve been exploring, see if it has any value for you too. And do let me know what you discover.

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Moving even if you hurt

To understand something in a new way we need to learn how to move in a new way. Jaimen McMillan

rock texture on Salt Spring Island

Movement is essential to life, and so to thriving and healing. From the slightest rise and fall of the chest in each and every breath to the large airborne leaps of a dancer or athlete we are moving animals. Movement keeps us engaged with the world because it gets us places, gives us ways to interact and keeps our brains healthy and firing well.

Movement study is what began my curiosity about the workings of the brain. As a dancer I experienced myself differently after moving, I felt what I now call embodied, a sense of being full present and able to engage with the world.

You may have already read one of my favorite quotes. “Movement is the unifying bond between the mind and body and sensation is the substance of that bond.” Deane Juhan Pain interferes with the bond between the body and the mind and you perceive your mind and body to be at odds. Yet when we have chronic pain moving maybe the last thing we want to do. Begin simply with sensation. Movement is fairly meaning less without sensation. Sensation helps us correct and refine our movement, and it can also bring our conscious attention who we feel we are. Sensation can also add meaning to our movement.

Movement that is slow and mindful will not injure you.  That is worth saying again. Movement that is slow and mindful will not injure you.  When moving hurts, move slower and smaller and while using images of ease and flow.  Slow mindful movement will help your brainbody know that you can move without pain. Slow movement with attention to sensation will build clearer body maps in your brain that will create positive feedback loops. You will be safely learning that movement is good and not dangerous.

Sometimes those of us with chronic pain will feel fine during movement but the next day we hurt. That’s because it is possible to trigger a pain pattern without noticing discomfort at the time of the movement. When this happens I remind people to be really clear with themselves that this is a pain pattern and was not caused by the movement itself but the other factors associated with this pain pattern. I say this believing that you didn’t do something too long, too big, or too hard. Remember there are all the other factors that contribute to pain patterns (what I haven’t done a blog on this? okay I will). You have to work slowly to change your threshold for threat. And when you fear movement it is so important to start very slowly or just begin with visualizing the movement. This also takes practice but can stimulate the neuromotor pathways to fire without getting the pain pattern going. If you are convinced you can’t do any movement without pain, visualizing is a really good place to begin.

If you would like support learning to move without exacerbating chronic pain come talk to me and we can explore how to feel good about moving.

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Treat yourself

When I approach a body issue, like chronic tension in a shoulder, reoccurring pain, intermittent weakness, how do I begin? How do I think about it? What is happening in structure, the cause, etc? and what is the end goal? It may seem like a mote point. I just want my neck or shoulder to stop hurting. Yet when I can be open to the exploration and the possibility of the goal unfolding I can enter into a rich and more satisfying relationship to my body self.

 

When I think I want a muscle to relax it is probably been trying to take over for other muscles. Like the muscles in my neck and shoulder are working to raise my arm. Maybe I’m avoiding using the detoid or the stabilizing muscles of the scapula. But the names of the muscles don’t matter this is an opportunity to investigate and explore. Encouraging myself to say open and curious I begin to play with all the ways my arm, should, neck, scapula and ribs can move on one side. I can choose the side that is troubled or the side that is not, either way the investigation will inform the not so easy place.

 

I move with awareness. How does this place feel and respond when I’m lying on my back; on my side, standing, sitting, hanging over from my waist? Whats different when I’m moving with my core engaged, or while holding different images? Noticing the different effects of gravity on the range, on the fluidity. How does it feel when my arm is fully extended? Or with weight in my hand,  or flexed with my hand on my shoulder.

 

This investigation is less about analyzing where and why movement is restricted and more about giving the brain/body the experience that helps it find its own pathway to ease. Of course, you can do the former, or have a professional help you with clarifying “the problem”. But that approach is only a part of information available. Conscious exploration enhances, enriches the resources that you bring to this part of you.

 

Move slowly, invite full breathing, notice emotion, visual your bones, Sense into. You are gathering input for your brains body maps, increasing the details. Changing your body map from a fuzzy one with only gross landmarks to one of great topographical detail. Elevation, rivers, streams, marshes, vegetation. You are reacquainting your body map with the lush and salient details of your body being.

 

Can you feel everything? Are there blank or numb spots? Are you getting spacy? Or thinking of all the other more important thing you should be doing? That’s all okay. Invite yourself to just come back to noticing/feeling your body. I have to do that all the time. Suddenly I want to pop up and do something I keep forgetting. It’s okay, distraction is just an opportunity to re connect.

 

As you explore does pain emerge? Slow down, take away the heavy load by having more parts be in contact with the floor or maybe increase flexion. Can you go slower, smaller, focusing on the inner landscape instead of the outer journey through space? Imagine, water flowing, a soft breeze or the air thick enough to hold and support you.

 

Pain is a protector, so it illicits fear. Good to notice. Is this pain telling me to stop? Or continue in a different manner? Pain not the best indication of amount of damage. If you are going slow and with exquisite awareness it is unlikely that you are injuring yourself. When we have a place of chronic distress we can become kinesophobic, we fear the movement will cause pain, associate movement with pain and fuse them together in our neurology. There are ways to break that cycle.

 

If using your creative mind by imaging the pathway, relaxing through flowing images, breathing more fully etc. doesn’t ease the pain, you can do the movement in your mind only, with great attention, visualize it while sensing into the body part that would be moving. New learning can begin with imagination. I am always pleased and a little surprised how increasing breath and flow can convince my body/mind to let go of pain. That is the moment to revel in. I can move my whatever pain free at this moment. I want to reinforce the neuropathway that associates this movement with no pain. Let your conscious mind know this is possible and you can experience it, movement without pain.

 

Irmagard Bartenieff who developed movement fundamentals that I study said “intent programs the neuromuscular system.” And what I am currently reading in neuroscience confirms she was right on. Here is where imagery, imagination and desire can enter to add richness, beauty and play to our functional goal. The saying a picture is worth a thousand words applies here. It may help when I tell you to let the movement flow through your limb but if you see in your mind, a rushing stream, noticing the moisture it produces, the sounds, colors and play of sunlight; you have multisensory input and your body/mind can’t resist.

 

Try it. First with your arm hanging at your side extend it into space in front of you. Let it go. Next extend your arm to the same place while saying or thinking flow. Finally imagine your arm embodying the stream, it is running through you and flowing out of you. How was it different? Did you notice if your breath changed or the movement continued? Anything at all that you notice is worth attention. It all holds value, your body/mind, your investigation, your experience your learning.

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Whats the one thing?

What’s the one thing that is keeping you from feeling happy, content or all right with the world?  I remember in my 20s I often thought if I had a little more money I could feel settled, happy, on center. But at some point I began to notice that when I had enough to get my car tuned up or buy an object I needed the feeling was still there. So I would go on to identify something else that was not right;​ I didn’t have a master’s degree so could really believe in myself as fully as I wanted. Or I didn’t have access to a strong dance community or……
Over time that one thing changed, got less tangible, and more unconscious. As I felt less able to change that one thing I also thought about it less consciously but it was there whispering in the background. I found myself believing if I could change this one thing in my primary relationship I could rest in love. If I could come forward as a parent in this certain area I could have confidence that I prepared my children for life’s challenges. If I could keep motivation to work on choreography regularly I could develop some good work. There was always a one thing; in my past it was more external, physical, but more recently it shows up as something in me that seems to be in the way of me fully enjoying the good life that I have. Over the years some of these things have changed, not always because I made a change, but someone or something outside of me changed. And when I stop and notice that the one thing changed, I would notice that the dissatisfaction was still there. Wow, that is a humbling and curious phenomenon. So I have to ask, can I be happy now? Or content or whatever the feeling is that I think I am being deprived of by that one thing? Maybe I will always find be a one thing that I can hang my unhappiness on.
If you thought when you got to the bottom of this read I would have an answer, a suggestion, a truth to share about what I have learned, I am sorry to say there is none. Only a curiosity about how we are able to fool ourselves into believing that if only this one thing was changed I could be happy.  As I write this I am on the deck in a lushly overgrown yard and a mama deer and two small fauns with fading spots walk up the driveway.  What is her one if only? Or is she only moving toward the apple tree, watching for predators, and smelling the air for water? The times that I too just notice my surroundings, try to breath in the full life of the moment the if onlys are no longer relevant and no longer press on my heart space.

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Spinners, the perfect fidget?

Spinners, the perfect fidget? They are alluring, small, get your fingers going, cheap to buy and even easy to make. Seems like the perfect thing for a fidget right? Well I’m not so sure.

I think a fidget should be small, hand held and get your fingers going. Small is important; because you want to be able to use it in one hand or transfer from hand to hand. The small size also keeps it personal; if you are keeping yourself on task it shouldn’t be at the expense of everyone else around you who’s attention gets pulled by what your hand is doing. In this way spinners aren’t so great, they are very visual, they move fast, which attracts the eye. Our vision is the sense that takes over whenever we catch movement. It is the dominant sense, it takes up half of our brains resources. Because it occupies all that brain real estate you can’t not look, movement draws the eye. If you are sitting alone spinning your new spinner and spacing out, yeah it’s relaxing, a different process than stimulating the sensory cortex to help organize information. A fidget to use for concentrating should be unobtrusive, spinners are eye attracting. And when they get spinning it’s so tempting to extend your arm and make them move through space like some kind of mini UFO.

I did watch someone on public transit with spinner in one hand iphone in the other and eyes locked on the screen. He seemed to be spinning to feel the vibrations. That made me more curious, he was intermittently spinning it with his fingers but I sensed the payoff was the vibration; he never looked away from his screen. Vibration can be very relaxing. Have you ever heard of someone putting their baby to sleep by putting their car seat on the dryer? The cheap version of a stuffed recliner with built in massage option.

I want to know how tactile is it? Fidgets I have are often very tactile, they squish and stretch, you can change their shape with your fingers. Your eyes can be occupied elsewhere, on a page of text, the teachers face, a demonstration or lecture. Knitting or crocheting can be great fidgets when you get good enough that you don’t have to watch every stitch. This kind of handwork involves both hands and so is often held at the midline of the body. Playing with a fidget at your midline means you are not holding it still, exactly at your center, but it is moving back and forth across your midline and the input is moving back and forth across the right and left hemispheres of your brain. This kind of sensory stimulation, a loading of the brain with sensory input, stimulates different regions of the brain to become more alert and coordinated.

It seems we don’t even really know how a fidget works. People who have busy brains, and are easily bored, (usually called ADD) and can take in a lot of stimulus. They often need something visual and auditory going while they are doing something else. Keeping multiple brain areas occupied allows them to think better. And being bored can actually increase our stress levels. It sounds weird but the state of being bored is dull and if you are feeling dull and uninterested you could be in danger. That is if you think of people being out in the wild savannah not sitting in a box in a city.

It seems that fidgeting can boost or lower our attention levels depending on what we need. This is makes sense to me, we have an impulse to change when were are out of self regulation and that change involves moving, well no duh.

Have you tried spinners? Do you fidget? With your hands, feet, mouth, legs? How does it change how you pay attention? I curious about what you experience and what you think about it.

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find your place on the planet

“Find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there.” Gary Snyder

Today I woke up unhappy, I’ve been feeling confused about my place in the world, my skills, discouraged about how I’m spending my days.  I have the fortune and privilege of living on a lovely piece of property and this morning I just stopped in the driveway on my way to open the chicken house and looked at the trees. Interrupting my negative mental talk, I imagined my limbs being their limbs, my breath coming and going, exchanging my co2 for their oxygen. I also focused on feeling the pull of gravity on the weight of my body which contrary to what you would think, it makes me feel buoyed up rather than weighted down. Five minutes? Maybe only three.

There are many people I know who are reeling from the current political climate and looking at how they can make an impact based in the values of inclusion, economic equality and environmental sustainability.  In a culture that promotes instant and ever changing attention, information and sensation it is important maybe even essential for us to stop, and connect deeply with ourselves and all of life.

Nature is our sustenance and our guide, but it takes some stopping and noticing and connecting to receive that sustenance. Part making these connections is an active acknowledgement that our relationship with the environment directly affects our relationships with each other and with ourselves.  This is physical, psychological, physiological, and spiritual. Every aspect of interrelationship and every nuance, in different aspects and times and conditions. Acknowledge it or not we are an integral part of nature; so how do we feel that? How do we increase our communication within ourselves and nature? There are many approaches and here are just two simple experiences to try.

Bonding with Gravity adapted from Andrea Olsen

Lie on your back in a comfortable positon, preferably eyes closed and ideally on the ground outside but you can do it anywhere. Let your weight be supported by the Earth. Notice any parts that seems to be “hovering” or holding back. Imagine them softening and melting into gravity. Lift your head only an inch off the ground feel it’s weight and relax it back to the earth. Do the same with a leg, an arm, your pelvis. Take your time, feel the weight notice what it is like to be supported, held up without any agenda or task to do.

When you are feeling your weight fully resting on the earth. Slowly begin to pour the contents of your body toward one side and let yourself roll toward that surface, shifting the weight and contents in relationship to gravity. You are not picking up and placing yourself in a new relationship but letting the pull of gravity shift the contents of your body container. Continue to roll slowly until you find yourself on your belly surface. Notice how different the pull of gravity feels on your front surface. Breathe here for a few moments. Now continue to roll pouring as you go onto the other side and return to your back surface. Notice again the experience of releasing into gravity being held by the earth.

To transition to standing move slowly, notice how gravity pulls on the fluid contents of your body with each shift in position. Take your time, and when you are finally standing notice how your weight travels down through your bones to meet the earth. What is it like to move with this much awareness of the pull of gravity?

Our ability to bond with gravity underlies all our movement. Before any action if we connect to gravity and release into it we gain the power to fully push, engaging all of our weight and power.

Feel your boundaries, push through your limbs

Come on to your hands and knees. Take a few moments to mobilize your spine, moving in any way that feels good and then feel your stability through a long spine and an alive engaged core. Check that your shoulders are wide and your chest is supported through your arms as you continue to relate to gravity and the space around you from your hands and knees.

Shift your weight more onto your hands and then slowly shift back so weight is more in your knees and feet. Explore this shift and what it feels like, notice everything you can about the difference, hands to legs. Curl your toes underneath so they are in contact with the floor. Shift some more feeling the shift all the way into the toes.

Experience pushing your hands off the floor and then reconnecting them onto the floor. Notice how engaging your core, feeling the lift and tightening from pubic bone to navel gives you more solidity and power. If you have the strength expand the push till you come back onto your feet in a squat. Can you push through your feet to return to hands and knees? If you have the leg strength you can push through your legs to a full stand from a squat, what is that like? Can you maintain the connection of your limbs into the earth and the pull of gravity? Use gravity as a force to push against and notice that relationship.

Notice how this experience feels emotionally. Notice that you are pushing to and from your edges and getting sensory feedback of where your body boundaries are. Feel your power and ability to set firm limits and feel the definition of yourself in space.

Think about an issue you are pushing against or fighting for. Engage your imagination with this issue as you physically explore the push of your arms and legs. Notice if this exploration give you more motivation or makes the task seem more doable. Notice if there is a place the process you feel overwhelm. If so that is a place to explore more slowly to experience even a small sensation of mastery. Also notice if this is emotional overwhelm and if there are memories attached to the feeling. Don’t go beyond your strength, going beyond our resources our ability to connect with ourselves with the earth, with each other leads to burn out and injury. Feel your edges, your weight in order to engage your strength to it’s limits, not beyond.  If you have time write a little about your experience, especially if you found it emotionally stimulating.

Look around you where you are right now. Can you see any trees? Living plants? Animals? Other people? Just notice your shared life with them through shared space and the exchange of air. What happens in you when you stop to notice the interrelationships of life?

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reflections on my mothers death

I have had the blessing of being a participant in a person’s death. My mother’s death. One moment there were three of us and then just two and the remains of a dearly loved one. My mom wasn’t feeling well she had been feeling “off” for two days. Some bowel cramps on Saturday afternoon but by Monday she said she felt better, just a bit weak. Later in the evening things shifted, her breathing become short” rattled”. I know enough to know it sounded like she might be dying but I didn’t know enough to believe it really was time. She became a bit scared and said “maybe I should go to the hospital so they can give me oxygen”. I told her they will do tests, put tubes in you and not be able to do much but in hopes of making her feel taken care of we decided to get her in the car and go to urgent care. She didn’t appear to be in crisis, just weak from not eating much for two days. Hospice wasn’t in the picture nothing seemed to warrant their involvement yet. Just two days ago she was doing here daily trips down the stair, out the long driveway to the road. First for her morning paper and in the afternoon to collect the mail. At 96 she was getting along pretty well.

But on that Monday evening, while my sweetie Linda brought the car up, I helped Mom into a warm sweater. It appeared that she could walk to the stairs but might need some help on the stairs. I was glad Chaim our strong and gentle 29 year old son was in the house. Uncharacteristically Mom clutched my arm navigating the four steps to the bedroom door. Then she clutched the door frame. Now behind her I held her under her arms. As her fingers dug into the door frame she began to slump. “Mom I’ve got you, stand on your feet. Mom can you stand up?” This wasn’t working, I called for Linda; “help me”.  “Just sit down” Linda said. And so we did, I sat in the doorway with my Mother in my lap. “It’s okay, I’ve got you, I’m here” The same words that came when I held my children when they were sick or distressed. “It’s okay Mama, I love you, I’m here”. Not fully conscious but not fully gone Mom breathed in short gasps followed by long pauses. I held her head, stroked her cheek, there was an acute clarity in the moment. Yes, my mom just died, died as I held her.

Her death was an event I speculated about for years now. Would she be dead one morning when I checked her room to see why she wasn’t up prowling the kitchen for breakfast? Would she have a long protracted illness that required her to be bed bound and in need of full time care? Could I do that? And for how long? Would she die quickly with a book in her hands the way she wanted to? I never once thought it would be as I cradled her in my lap.

Four years and two months ago Linda and I opened our home to my mother. We moved out of the master bedroom so she could have a large room with sitting area and its own bathroom. My mom was so unhappy at the assisted living home she was in in Buffalo. Although she knew she could no longer live alone after two years there she still felt like she was in prison. She finally decided she would take up our offer and move across the country at age 92.

Linda and I both birthed our babies at home and believe that it is also the best place for our elders to die. But you don’t know if your ideals will be enough to get you through until you do it. The last few months my ideals were being eroded I was wondering how long I could do this. But sitting there on the floor between the hall and bedroom in the space between life and death, the I could, should I, ideals didn’t matter. I held her, touched her hair, listened to her breath. We laid her on her bed and waited for the EMTs, she had a do not resuscitate form filled out so no worries about them trying to bring her back. She had the foresight to do that and we had the form near the front door. This was a time just for farewell. I didn’t want to move away from her body, my arm under her shoulders, my hand on her cheek, in her hair. I felt her hands slowly get colder. Colder and stiffer than usual. I remember in the first few months of her coming to my home I would fill a glass bottle with hot water for her to roll in her lap while waiting for breakfast. I didn’t do it many times, never sure if she appreciated it or not. If it made a difference she would have to tell me and she didn’t. There was too much to do in the kitchen already. The fingerless gloves I knit for her became matchless after only a few weeks. The lost one never reappeared in her closet or in the waste can; which I learned to check before dumping. There were occasional things that she unintentionally or unwisely threw away.

This cold was permanent. I got up and got a wet cloth to wash her face, unconsciously making the water warm but not hot. In her last minutes she brought up some watery brown blood that now covered her chin and her shirt. The EMT said she may have had gastro-intestinal bleeding, “oh that makes sense”, with the abdominal pain that gave way to nausea and difficulty taking in food. She had a history of blockage, the symptoms weren’t alarming, I emailed her doctor who said just to proceed as is and keep her informed of any changes. This was a big change, and too quick to tell anyone. Now I only want to sit and hold her as I adjust to the reality, hold her until they come to take her body away. Mom willed her body to medical research, just like her husband had done before her and I plan to after. For me it seems like a wonderful thing to do. I love anatomy and take pleasure imagining students being fascinated as they take apart my remains, “oh look at this femur, it doesn’t sit so deeply in the acetabulum as I thought it would”. I think for my parents it was more a combination of frugality and expedience, less to arrange and pay for.

I call my daughter Lily and ask “do you want to come see grandma before they take her body? She says “I will come to be with you.” This is perfect; hers was the first birth I experienced and now she sits with me at the first death I have been with. A person’s death, my mother’s death. I have witnessed the death of many animals, some at my own hand. Raising animals for meat has been an ongoing lesson in death. All who live also die. The large animals; cows, hogs, I hire out and stand and watch with respect and gratitude, saying thank you for giving your life to feed my family. Many chickens have died in my hands being small they take less skill and force. There is grief when an animal goes an odd feeling that is hard to describe; not completely sad, but subdued, not quite proud but content, not quite relieved but grateful.

Grief is so much more complex that we are willing to see in this culture; ”I’m so sorry for your loss” the person on the phone says, sometimes stiffly, or tenderly, or awkwardly. Social security office, the phone company, the retirement system, the VA office. I cancel her newspaper, ‘no, we’re not unhappy with the service it was my Mom’s subscription and she died.” “I’m sorry for your loss” is a good line but too often it feels hollow, rote.  What can we say to the people we know and care about? “I love you; I feel tenderness; I care for you; I hold you close to my heart.” I guess each of us might prefer different language. My only real advice is don’t ask “how are you doing?” a question too hard to answer.

Well how am I doing? There is relief, a spaciousness. The first few days I walk around in a bit of an altered state. I have experienced the thinning of the veil between the worlds and my mother has passed through it. Without tests, machines, IV’s, monitors and best without a lot of pain. I am grateful and honored and blessed that I was there. dotty-at-senior-center

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Read this quick before you have to pee

On Monday I went to a Senate bill hearing and then signed up to testify too. Not the sort of thing I have done before, well actually I have gone to city council meetings and have given comments a few times. What got me to change my schedule and show up? It was having an in person conversation with someone who stated the need for cisgender (a person whose gender identity aligns with their gender assignment at birth) women to be present at hearings in support of transgender folks.

This time it wasn’t hard, I had eldercare, it’s only a 15 minute drive to the Capitol and I didn’t have a complicated schedule that day. It’s not that it’s the most passionate issue for me, I feel competition for my attention/time in a world in which the needs are so many. There is much to learn about, raise awareness about, speak to lawmakers, and fight for justice on. On Monday I could do it.
This was a Law and Justice Committee hearing on Senate Bill 6548, the “bathroom bill”. In 2006 the Washington State Law Against Discrimination was expanded to include sexual orientation or gender identity guaranteeing individuals among other things access to the restroom or locker room that matches their identity and feels the safest to them. Transgender persons are highly discriminated against and are frequent victims of violence, hate crimes and murder.  This new bill is written to limit access to gender specific facilities by transgender persons. This access has been in place for 10 years with no reports of assaults by transgender people only some reports of cisgender persons being uncomfortable with a transpersons presence. Mostly nobody has noticed trans folks in the restrooms because they are discreet and respectful and there for the same reason as me, to use the toilet.
When some of the speakers in favor of the bill began to testify I thought they sounded pretty reasonable. They are really concerned about children’s safety (who can argue against that?) They feel that as the law currently stands we are giving perpetrators of sexual assault against women and children free access to victims. No, none of us want to support sexual perpetrators. So from this fear, they believe that we can’t be too careful. Yet the supporters of this bill are unable (and some unwilling) to see how the bill would make it less safe for transgender adults and children.
Wait, what? Transchildren? Yup, many children begin to express the belief that they have the wrong genitals for who they know themselves to be as soon as they can speak. If they are in a family who supports their belief in themselves, and are not forced into a gender identity that feels so very wrong to them, they feel most comfortable and safe in a public facility that matches who they are rather than their given genitals. But this bill would no longer grant that right. Which makes me wonder what authority will be checking peoples pants at the door.
One woman who spoke in support of this bill said  ”I’m not intending to discriminate against transgender people.” I wonder if she listened to the testimony of how this bill will discriminate against transpeople? And is she willing to change her position to be in line with her intention to not discriminate against transpeople?
Everywhere that we see social injustice we hear a similar refrain. “I am not racist” “I don’t have any ill will against_______people” “I’m not trying to hurt anybody”. Okay. I believe that. I can hear the sincere and earnest conviction. Now I would ask “Are you willing to hear how your actions are discriminating? discriminating against someone different than you, someone who you have no idea of what I is like to live as every day.” This information can be a shocking and painful revelation for folks of privilege (and I have been there). It comes down to other folks of privilege (in this case like me cisgender) who need to support them in facing the fact that they are supporting a system that is discriminating. One in which hurting some hurts all. That is what I believe; we are all effecting each other by our actions, so we need to look at the consequences not just our intentions.
I think there are ways to help these parents minimize perpetrators access to their children but this bill isn’t one of them. Education, awareness, safety training, empowerment, teaching self-determination, and standing up for those who have less power and are being victimized, keep all of us safer. Transphobia protects no one, it hurts and even kills people; it attempts to keep people in a “good and safe world” by hiding differences.
My heart goes out to those who are transphobic (or______phobic) and suddenly find themselves or someone they dearly love no longer fitting into the narrow definition of good and normal. Their good and safe world instantly crumbles.  And maybe next time instead of just taking a stand on what I believe is right I can have a conversation with someone who is taking the opposite position than me.

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Respect Our Elders

We have an old maple tree on our land, one of many actually, it’s got some dead wood on it and probably some internal disintegrating rot. If it falls, cracks, breaks, it might damage our fences, or maybe our barn, or maybe not. I’ve lived closer to big trees before, even awoke one night to a doug fir 2 feet thick landing a few feet from the cabin I lived in. I have friends who have cut trees in fear of property damage and know people who have sustained damage to their homes from tree fall, but fortunately I have not. I regularly thank the trees that live near me for gracing my life, and providing wild habitat and beauty. Magical thinking tells me they are willing to stay alive amid the air pollution, night time lights and noise, and they will try not to fall on me. Time will tell. My respect for their right to life is greater than my fear of the risks. Some day that may change.the giving tree

But the phrase respect our elders more frequently brings to mind an old wrinkled man in a tribal culture or a grandmother with a twinkle in her eye recounting stories of long ago to a clutch of grandchildren. Old people we can turn to for advice wisdom and guidance. These elders are easy to respect they ask for little and give much, quietly supporting the upcoming generations.

Not all our elders look like this, many are cranky, confused, demanding and irrational. My Mother who is 95 walks into the kitchen at 5:30pm and disdainfully says ”is there any thing for me to eat?”. There is always food in our house, lots of food. We cook three hot meals a day for her, but because she can’t cook for herself she feels at the mercy of our whims. And we feel confined by her expectations “everyone puts dinner on the table at 5pm”.

My mother does not have raging dementia. She forgets I told her she needed to come to town with me this afternoon, and she forgets that she can ask for what she wants. Giving her a hot chocolate and cookie at 3:30 in the afternoon for a snack is met with “oh does this mean there will be no dinner?” She runs anxiety around meals and getting to the hairdresser on time, or that the ladder left against a tree in the yard might invite a thief to lean it against her balcony and enter her room. She worries when I leave the house and tells me I should stay home more. My Mom doesn’t hear well and says “thank you” or “I know” to anything you say to her and so she also initiates conversation (sort of) when others are deep in conversation. We are lucky my mother is not combative, she dresses and feeds herself, spends most of the day reading and listening to music in her room and she can be quite with it and pleasant at times. But there is a big emotional pull, she tracks me with the neediness of a toddler.

I’ve never had a very close relationship with my Mother, in some ways that makes it easier. I know I will provide her with a safe warm home, good food, some sense of control and when I have the energy, social opportunities. I cope with the strain on my primary relationship, the inconvenience, the annoyances because she and all elders deserve the respect to live with some dignity and with people who are there not just because they are desperate for a job. (I do know many work in elder care with love and respect.) My life circumstances allow me to do this, I work from home; my partner and our children chip in all the time. So I get to sit in the sun at the water’s edge on this frosty day as I write.

What does it take to respect our elders? Not just the wise, active one but the sick ones, the ones who’s nervous systems are disintegrating unseen under their wisps of fine grey hair. We must learn to respect our elders not for what they give back to our culture (although that can be considerable) but because each human deserves to live their life out with a sense of belonging just the way the trees belong. Right now I can do that, someday that may change.

image from Shel Silversteins the Giving Tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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