A Buddhist Nun Told Me To Chill

Pain in my feet might help.

I had foot surgery a little over a week ago.  General anesthesia, both feet, outpatient surgery.  The hope was to repair or modify some of the damage from 26 years of rheumatoid arthritis so I can walk better.

The challenge is not walking on them now.  Since the first couple of days I’ve had no pain so I was up and moving around.  I saw drainage on one of the bandages four days after surgery, went to see the doctor and was told to stop walking on my feet so they could heal.  To the bathroom or to get something to eat is okay.  Sitting with feet up on the ottoman is good.  Lying on the couch is better.  For the next week and a half.

I started a 3-year-term on a non-profit’s board of directors this month.  Triad Health Project provides HIV/AIDS services, education and support to those infected and affected by the virus.  I got involved as a volunteer in the mid-90’s.  You know that Bucket List thing?  I always wanted to say, “I’m on a Board of Directors.”

Last month, I missed the social get-to-know-each-other gathering at a wine bar because I had horrible back spasms.  Now this month, the first for-real meeting, I have healing feet so I can’t go again.

With all my free time, I am reading Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun.  This morning I read about how we get caught up in 8 worldly concerns:  pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and disgrace, praise and blame.  While I was reading, the other track in my brain was struggling with whether/how to get to the 5:30 THP board meeting.  (It gets busy inside my head.)

I am used to being the good kid.  I generally follow through on commitments and am pleasant and helpful to have around.  My reputation matters to me.  A lot.

I do not like that my disease may shape others’ first impression of me.  I want to be seen as competent.  Not needy, not vulnerable, not disabled.

Pema Chodron says, “If we don’t act on our craving for pleasure or our fear of pain, we’re left in the wide-open, unpredictable middle.  The instruction is to rest in that vulnerable place, to rest in that in-between state, to not hunker down and stay fixed in our belief systems but to take a fresh look with a wider perspective.  The truth is we’re always in some kind of in-between state, always in process…When we’re present with the dynamic quality of our lives, we’re also present with impermanence, uncertainty and change.”

I think that means I’m not in control.

She describes three commitments or vows Buddhists take.  First, the commitment to cause no harm.  Second, the commitment to take care of one another.  Third, the commitment to embrace the world just as it is.

I emailed the THP director and told her I would not be at the meeting.  (Do no harm to myself.)  I want to be able to help with the big fundraiser in early Dec. If I let my feet heal, I’ll help more. (Take care of one another.)  As my brother used to say, “It is what it is.”  (Embrace the world just as it is.)

I will be present to the discomfort that washes over me every time I imagine my empty chair at the THP conference table.

Sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t feel good.

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Oh Say Can You See–From Below?

Crowds are hard for me.  I have a mild claustrophobia–I need to know I can get out, get to an exit.  I’m short and can’t stand on my tiptoes anymore, so I can’t ever see much beyond my body space.

When we went to Washington, DC, in January, 1993, for Bill Clinton’s Pre-Inauguration, I upset my family when I refused to push up into the crowd to get closer to the concert and speeches.  I told them to go ahead and I would wait by the big tree and they could find me afterward.  My daughters, 12 and 14, started walking off.  (Surprise.) My husband called them back, asking me if I was sure I couldn’t go closer.  He told them we all needed to stay together.  The girls glared at me.  We could kind of see everything on one of the big screens.

My friend Sarah asked me to go see Michelle Obama at UNC-Greensboro.  She lives within walking distance (for her not me) of Fleming Gym.  After some discussion of my limitations, (we needed to walk about 5 blocks and then stand for several hours) she offered to push me in a wheelchair.  She offered because she wanted me to go.  I was humbled by her generosity.  I really wanted to go so I swallowed my pride and said yes.

Sarah and I started on our Michelle Obama adventure.  The doors opened at 11:00, we got there at 11:10 (she was to speak at 1:15) and got into the line for disabled people.  They let all of us in first and guided us to a section to the right of the stage.  The other line stretched for blocks in the hot sun. Sarah and I ended up in the front row. She sat in a chair beside my wheelchair.  A railing, 10 feet of floor and a (female!) Secret Service agent separated us from the stage.  All the people outside our “fence” had to stand crowded together and many couldn’t see well.

I felt guilty.  I knew I couldn’t walk 5 blocks and then stand on my own for several hours. But I don’t usually think of myself as disabled so I felt like a cheater.  Until the end.

After her speech, Michelle Obama came down from the stage and started working her way around, shaking hands with the volunteers who had special tickets to be up close.  When people figured out she was headed for our section, they slipped under the little barrier and filled in the small open space in front of the wheelchairs.  Four rows of people slid in front of me.

I felt my mild claustrophobia stirring– I sat in my wheelchair, completely surrounded by standing people.  They stepped over my foot rests (almost falling on me) and rarely even looked down at me or spoke.  A few said “I’m sorry” but they still stood in front of me.  Rude.  I saw the top of Michelle Obama’s hair and her bald Secret Service agent’s head.

Ride in a wheelchair sometime in a public place.  You’ll see our world in a very different way–from below.  You will be invisible to many other people.

I learned curb cuts and level sidewalks and automatic door openers matter.  A lot.

So do compassion and courtesy and genuine concern for others.