Skin of an Elephant

We are creatures who live in a single skin throughout our lives.  Our own consciousness is embodied in a skin that grows wrinkly over time.  Our aging is obvious, no matter how much we try to resist it.

Our nearest cousins in terms of mammalian skin are elephants.

Can we be at home in our own skins, our own bodies, adjusting to the changes the various seasons of life bring to us?                                      Dwight Judy

Elephant skin?  Really??

Remember playing with the loose skin on your grandmother’s hand?  Or her floppy, un-toned triceps?

I have the hand skin thing.  I say it’s due to medication but it’s probably age-related.  And the triceps?  My trainer keeps trying different ways to work on them.

I can’t hold onto hand weights because my arthritis has damaged my wrists and fingers.  She talked me into buying black suede weight-lifting gloves.  Do they go with grey hair and black crop pants?

I sat at the bank drive-through today watching a young woman’s hand go back and forth.  It was all smooth and tan.  I looked at my own hands.

I remembered.

How many cloth diapers did they dunk?  How many sticky faces and hands and dirty feet did they bathe? How many tears did they wipe?

My hands don’t care what they look like.  They just try to do what I ask.  And I’m grateful.

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Girl Power

“GIRL!!” came the text last Friday from the doctor’s office.  We have another grandchild on the way!  Stephanie and her husband, Will, are due in January.  They had an ultrasound and saw her moving her hands and crossing her ankles like a proper lady.  Wow.

A week ago I woke from a dream at 4:30 am unsure of where I was or even what year it was.  In my dream I was again a young mother of two preschoolers on a really bad day.  Everything was out-of-order, me most of all, and I was spiraling down in anger and frustration.  I wasn’t seeing me at my worst.  I WAS me at my worst.

I wrote down what I could recall and later that day wrote about the power and the feelings in the dream.  I can’t let go of this dream. I feel the out-of-control-ness.  It still scares me.

I was anxious during my second pregnancy about my ability to manage 2 kids in diapers in 2 car seats.  They were both very much planned and welcomed, but the second happened quicker than I anticipated.  They are 26 months apart.  Our grandchildren will be 23 months apart.

I know I’m not that young, overwhelmed woman any more.  And neither are my daughters.  I’ve worked hard for years to understand and learn from that time in my life.  I hope I’ve passed some of my wisdom on to them.

I am wondering, though, why that dream now?

My Trainers

I changed gyms and paid for one-on-one hours with a trainer.  I got Jodi.  She’s 25 (sigh) and kind.  She challenges me, but she listens when I describe how my body works.

I’ve written before about having rheumatoid arthritis (click on Rheumatoid Arthritis in the cloud of words down below on the right).  Life can be a challenge some days.

So can an 18-month-old granddaughter.  Someone asked me yesterday if she’s walking.  I said, “No, she runs.”  She’s not chubby anymore, but she is solid.  And sometimes squirmy.

So Jodi helps me strengthen my upper body and core.  And we do cardio stuff.  Ever try an elliptical machine?  I am awed by people who do it for a long time.  An hour?? My goal is to move beyond 5 minutes.

Humility and a sense of humor go to the gym with me.  (There’s a fine line between humor and self-denigration.)  I am grateful for all my body can do.  Jodi pushes me past stopping just because I want to.

I led a writing group at a drop-in center for people who are HIV-positive yesterday.  The prompt was a quote from an article by Nancy Copeland-Payton in Presence (the journal of Spiritual Directors International.)

It’s a roller coaster.  I didn’t buy a ticket, never wanted a ride…the illness will keep recurring and I will die of it.

Who am I…?  I’m no longer the person who used to be in control, who had energy to take care of tasks and other people.  Rather, I’m the one who needs care.  I’m the one who is vulnerable.  This is not an identity I choose.  Buried inside are losses that need to be cried out.  This is a long mourning process.

I finally let go of my control and let myself be vulnerable and cared for by others.  When I learn to receive their care with profound gratitude, I receive the greatest gift.  I realize how much I am loved.  It’s extraordinary.  This love lets me be even more vulnerable.

While we wrote I played a Kenny G CD (they like soft jazz).  As we finished, we listened to the music and rested.

I wrote a whiny page about not liking roller coasters and not wanting to be vulnerable.  They wrote and shared about God’s love and how their disease saved them from drugs and a wasted life and changed them for the better.  I didn’t want to share mine.

The last song we listened to (not planned by me) was Louis Armstrong singing “It’s A Wonderful Life”.  They sang along and smiled when it ended.

Amazing grace, again.

Not My Table, Hon

 The most helpful thing I grasped while waitressing was that some tables were my responsibility and some were not.  A waitress gets overwhelmed if she has too many tables, and no one gets good service.

In my life, I have certain things to take care of: my children, my relationships, my work, one or two causes, and myself.

That’s it.  Other things are not my table.

I would go nuts if I tried to take care of everyone, if I tried to make everybody do the right thing.

If I went through my life without ever learning to say, “Sorry that’s not my table, Hon,” I would burn out and be no good to anybody.

I need to have a surly waitress inside myself that I can call on when it seems everybody in the world is waving an empty coffee cup in my direction.

My Inner Waitress looks over at them, keeping her six plates balanced and her feet moving, and says,

“Sorry, Hon, not my table.”

(That story is by Susan Shaw and quoted in a book I’m reading, The Power of Pause by Terry Hershey.)

My friends and I talk about the necessity of “letting go”.  I know about “detaching with love” and “you can’t take care of anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself”.  I get all that.

But at some point I learned:

focusing on my needs is selfish,

if I could just make sure everyone else was okay, then I’d be okay,

and caretaking is noble.

I like having an Inner Waitress.  I am given a set number of tables to serve.  If they don’t fill up, I stop and rest.  If they’re full of messy teenagers, cranky babies, or slightly rude businessmen preoccupied with their phones, then I keep putting one foot in front of the other and do the next right thing.  Hopefully with some grace and a smile.

It’s simple.  God’s the boss.  I’m the server.

Now, which ones are my tables?

The Paper (or Cloth) Bag Story

Take your problems, all of them, from the tiniest annoyances to the most horrific, difficult challenges and put all those problems into a brown paper bag or a politically-correct cloth eco-bag.

Then imagine if everyone else took all of their problems, put them into their own bags and brought them to the center of town.

Think of how many bags there would be, all piled up in one big mountain of brown paper and brightly-colored cloth bags.

If you were told you could pick any bag of problems and take it home with you, do you think you’d want someone else’s problems?

(Story borrowed from The Faith Club, by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner)

“Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.”  The Familiar can be quite comfortable.  It’s predictable, we think.  It’s known.  We’ve practiced dealing with it. We assume we know how things will turn out and we get ready.

My body and I have lived with rheumatoid arthritis for over 20 years.  Pain and discomfort vary.  My pain–physical, emotional, spiritual–is invisible if I choose to disguise it with humor or stoicism.  So is yours.

Remember PacMan?  That’s how I pictured my arthritis in the beginning.  The disease was an enemy force of scary little critters using my blood vessels as a superhighway to randomly chomp on my joints.  I hated them and the medications I was trying were losing a lot of battles against them.

Eventually, I gave up the anger and war images.  I had to make peace with those mean monsters inside me.  If I could be compassionate and forgiving, they might be gentler.  So I prayed for willingness.

Today we are next-door neighbors inside my body, the critters and my Spirit.  Sometimes they are noisy and intrusive, but I can shut my windows and ignore the doorbell.  They are familiar and they could be worse.  I accept them as they are and I deal with them one day at a time.

I know how to do “hard”.  I’ve had practice.  We all have.  I know I can probably handle most any problem that pops up next.

If I could pick one bag from the pile, would I pick my own again?  I’m not sure.

My Inner Two-Year-Old

Adaline is one now.  Her world is just fine unless she is hungry or tired.  Then someone takes care of her. No one expects her to be self-sufficient.  What does she have to be snotty about?  The one-year-old is usually quite content.

In a year, she will be 2.  Things will be different then, I think.

Disability came as a surprise for me after my knee replacement surgery a year ago.  I expected to hurt and hobble.  I didn’t know I would need help with everything, including going to the bathroom and bathing (which Mike insisted I do daily so my incision didn’t get infected).  I appreciate my husband’s patient and loving care through those weeks.

I wasn’t always gracious.  My inner two-year-old raged and cried and temper-tantrumed more than a few times.

I couldn’t put on a pair of pants by myself because my knee wouldn’t bend.

“Let me help.”  “I do it.”

I had to use a walker to get to the bathroom and then I had trouble standing up.

“Let me help.”  “I do it.”

I couldn’t stand up long enough to fix anything to eat.

“Let me help.”  “I do it.”

I will be sympathetic when Adaline says “I do it“, even if she can’t.

My knee is functioning well.  I am grateful daily for what I am able to do on my own.

I can take my own showers and go to the bathroom alone and even put on my pants easily.  Maybe one day that won’t be the case.  I do wonder if I should have long-term-care insurance.

Today, just for today, I did what I wanted.  My inner two-year-old is very grateful.

Broken Body, Healing Spirit

Have you seen the commercial for a rheumatoid arthritis drug that talks about the life you have and the life you want to live?  It is shrewd marketing.  Inject this powerful drug and you can do anything.

The hidden cost of chronic illness, because pain and fatigue are invisible, is that I pretend to be living the life I want to live rather than being honest about the life I am living.  As Mary C. Earle writes in her book, Broken Body, Healing Spirit, there are sometimes two people living inside me and one is a liar.

What fear or perceived defect do you hide from the world?

Have you had the flu or bad allergies and gone to work anyway?  Do you have back pain?  Grief?  Migraines?  Fatigue?  Paralyzing anxiety?  Fear of what others will think?  Are you in recovery from addiction?  Or unsettled by the signs and symptoms of getting older?

Substitute your secret for “illness” as you read this quote from Broken Body, Healing Spirit (italics mine):

…a body that has been overwhelmed by illness is also a body where life dwells.  Disruptive, distressing, and acutely confusing, illness calls us to a deepening awareness of the wonder of the body, an awareness that we did not bring ourselves into being, and that it is through our embodied life that we encounter the presence of God…

Through illness, the embodied nature of our lives grabs our attention, and forces us to befriend the very flesh we thought betrayed us.  The body that we had taken for granted turns out to be a rich and varied text, full of layers of meaning and symbol.

Always, it comes back to powerlessness vs. control.  And I most want to control what I fear.  Until I have faith and trust, I will be afraid.  And I will miss a lot of fun stuff.

My husband has a big, yellow BMW motorcycle.  He rode it cross-country and back, alone.  He wants me to ride with him.  Once, I said yes; we rode around the neighborhood on quiet residential streets with no real traffic.   I trust my husband.  I know he would never deliberately hurt me.  All I could see from that rear perch was my body shattered into painful pieces.

New experiences are fun and invigorating for me–teaching a class, being in Paris alone for 5 days, going on a week-long silent retreat.  For Mike, riding the motorcycle is a form of meditation.  For me, it is like white-water rafting or parachuting.

I’ve lived with chronic illness for over 20 years.  Rarely have I said “I can’t”.  I can usually find adaptations and compromises that let me do most anything.  I want to be the free spirit that sees a lovely day and says “Let’s ride!”

I think it could be a prayer–“Your will, not mine be done.”

Where’d It Go?

My granddaughter is learning about “Where’d it go?”.  Yesterday she was on my husband’s lap and he showed her the cross he wears on a chain inside his shirt.  She, 10 months old and teething, wanted to put it in her mouth.  So he dropped it back inside his shirt.  She pulled the neck of the shirt and looked down inside.  There it was!

That’s how I feel about my week.  Where’d it go?

I had plans and goals for this week, mapped out on a nice chart given to me by Elaine, a spiritual coach.  It breaks each day into 3-hour blocks. You fill in one to-do for each block.  The hope is to get that one to-do completed in each 3-hour block.

None of my blocks got checked off.  We had snow and ice that I wouldn’t drive on.  My inner child had a “snow-day” mentality. We babysat Wednesday and Friday and I (choose to) get nothing done if Adaline is here.

I learned recently there are three possible responses to stress/anxiety.  I knew about “fight or flight.  The third response is “freeze”.

I need to plan for a class I start teaching on January 19.  I’m out of my comfort zone with this project, which I volunteered for.  I’m afraid of not doing well.

In my family of origin we dealt with distress or fear by shutting down emotionally and getting lost in something to read.  We are all good readers, but not very good with feelings.

I read a great book this week.  I didn’t work on my class.

Now I’m more anxious than before and writing this instead of working on my class!

Help me!

Who Says?

No dessert until you eat your vegetables.

No playing until you finish your chores.

Those messages, that mindset, are planted deep in my psyche and have the power to paralyze me.

I got some stuff delivered from Lands End recently.  Internally, I heard “Don’t open the box of new stuff until you finish putting away the clean laundry”.  And I didn’t.

Writing for this blog is playtime for me.  So of course I hear “You can’t write for fun until you finish your chores”.  And I don’t.

I feel guilty when my husband makes a comment about the dishes in the sink while I’m sitting and reading the paper.

No fun until you meet expectations.  Who says??

I’m not very good at silly and spontaneous.  No wonder.  I remember a therapist asked me years ago what I did for fun.  I didn’t have an answer.  I thought that was awfully sad.

My husband and I rode the bus downtown on New Year’s Eve, went in the View to get my glasses adjusted, ate lunch at Fincastle’s Diner (we had fried pickles–OMG–and Jaybird came over and sang “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to me!), then we rode the bus home.

That may not sound like a big deal to you, especially if you live someplace where everyone takes public transportation.  Here, that was kind of adventurous.  I don’t think Mike ever got over being surprised I went with him.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less concerned with what other people think.  And I take delight (sometimes)  in NOT following all the rules.

“Do not be too moral.  You may cheat yourself out of too much life.  Aim above morality.  Be not simply good; be good for something.”  (a quote from Henry David Thoreau)

You should…  Who says?

You must…  Who says?

No, you can’t…  Who says?

Published in: on January 5, 2011 at 2:48 pm  Comments (9)  
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Nobody Ever Told Me

1.  Nobody ever told me sugar can cause/increase inflammation.  I learned it very reluctantly from a nutritionist named Bernadette.  I gave up sugar for a while.  Then I ate a lot of ice cream.  The next day my rheumatoid arthritis was noticeably more painful.  The sugar had increased the inflammation in my joints which caused more pain. Bummer.  (Click here for more information.)

2.  Nobody ever told me girls should exercise and be fit.  Or I didn’t hear it until I was an adult and had 2 kids.  I will pay the price for that all my life.  At least I didn’t pass that attitude on to the next generation.

3.  Nobody ever told me that being a mother-in-law could be as challenging as having a mother-in-law.

4.  Nobody ever told me the birth of a grandchild could trigger such a mishmash of feelings.  I feel joy and a pure, unconditional love that must be how God feels about us.  But I have also been stunned on a soul level by the realization that we are now the oldest generation and that Adaline’s life will (should) go on long after mine ends.

On the other hand,

1.  Mothers with daughters older than mine did tell me the teenage years of mother-disgust would eventually end.  And they did.  (Nobody told me the daughter might not remember the worst of those times.)

2.  Friends who had been through it told me that leaving my first child at college (in Washington, DC–the murder capital of America in 1996!!) would tear out a piece of my heart and then it would heal.  Then they told me it would happen again with the second daughter.  They were right.

3.  Friends who had grandchildren before me (the ones I snickered at) tried to tell me how remarkable it was.  Now I am just as goofy-in-love as all of them.

4.  My aunt (the mother of my swimmer-cousin) in Iowa, where winters are really cold, told me that kids do not get sick from going outside with wet hair.  That was reassuring when my swimmer-daughters with wet hair halfway down their backs strolled from the locker room to the car all winter.  They stayed amazingly healthy.

The wisest things anyone has told me?

All we can do is love them all and pray for them.  The rest is up to them and God.  And I’m not God.