Writing Trouble

Since I wrote Sunday’s blog post about my recent experiences taking Cosentyx, I’ve heard remorse humming through my being.  I mean, why do I always have to go ahead and say it all?  Why can’t I stop saying EVERYTHING.

A few weeks ago we were at a family reunion and one of my nephews sat down next to me with his son and a paper plate covered in various colored cubes of finger jello. Because I love his son, and him, I said, “Mmmmm, jello!”

My nephew, who with his son was consuming bite after bite of the jiggly treat, said to me, “Yes, but you don’t like jello, do you, Aunt Kristin?”

“No, I am not a fan.” I answered truthfully, as I seem always compelled to do.

My nephew grinned as he recalled a time, some years ago, when he said I had gone off on a ‘rant’ about how jello has “no nutritional value whatsoever.”  As he said it, I could hear myself on just one of my many diatribes.  He, and another of my nephews, also now a father, watched me for a reaction. When I said, “Man, sometimes I wish I could just shut my mouth,” they both laughed out loud.

I am that aunt.  Ok, let’s get real. I am that human.

I am compelled — yes, driven — to fill in the empty spaces with (so many) words.  And, guys, it can be embarrassing.

How many times riding home from an event with my husband have I said, “did I talk too much? did I say anything offensive or that I need to apologize for?”   In recent years, my husband has answered with a kindness, “Kristin, just be you.”

I, in case you don’t know me, am a person for whom no number of words, it seems, is ever too many words. I love to read them, listen to them, write them, and speak them. This week, the first in my self-imposed month-long preparation for fall classes, I have read literally thousands of words every day.  I have jotted notes to myself on stickies. I have listened to podcasts. I have had multiple conversations,  both virtual and in person, about language and pedagogy.  I’ve asked questions, made lists, and edited syllabi. At the end of these long text-filled days,  you would think I would be ready for a break.  Nope.  This word-nerd then watches Wheel-of-Fortune and Jeopardy, plays Words with Friends, and then reads for pleasure for an hour or two before sleeping.

I guess the fact that I love words and language so much is a blessing since I have made the teaching of English, especially writing, my career. However, sometimes my compulsion to put so many words — particularly those that expose my struggles — on public display, causes me to feel anxious, regretful, and downright insecure.  Why can’t I be one of those people that moves through social situations with a calm reserve?  Why can’t I listen to the conversations of others replying simply, “Oh, that’s interesting.”

More to the point of this blog, why can’t I stick to topics that are uplifting, that celebrate God’s faithfulness, that don’t expose my struggle, my weakness, my — gasp — troubles? This mantra, this hum, has been trying to distract me all week.

“Write a follow-up. Write a retraction. Go back and edit.”

Be quiet, I say. Can’t you see I’m trying to plan my courses?  Can’t you see I’m trying to focus on best practices for teaching others how to write? 

“Yeah, why don’t you go ahead and teach them since you’re so good at it?” the snide voice replies.

Hush. 

And then, this morning in the middle of a text on writing theory, I saw this:

“Trouble is the engine of the narrative.”*

I stopped in my tracks.  Wait, who said that?  Jerome Bruner, noted educational psychologist, and apparently also, for me, a voice calling out in the wilderness of text.

“The trouble is a violation of the legitimate, the expectable, the appropriate.  and the outcome of the story depends upon seeing legitimacy maintained, restored, or redefined.” *

Suddenly, in the middle of my study and preparation, I felt like I was in church.  Indeed, all of life is a grappling with the “violation of the legitimate” and the longing to see “legitimacy restored or redefined.”

The legitimate, expectable, and appropriate of my life — and surely yours — has been violated time and again — sometimes by circumstance, sometimes by others, often by my own doing.   My story includes troubles such as divorce, eating disorder, chronic illness, and myriad poor choices and betrayals.  Yours might include any of a variety of other troubles.  Together, we are all walking through troubles of many kinds, and as Ann Vosskamp says,

“More than anything, [we] don’t want to feel all alone in [our] unspoken broken.”**

And that, I have to confess, is what compels my incessant need to share.  I hate to admit that this self-proclaimed soldier longs to feel connection with others who are also struggling — who also have troubles.  But I do.  I long for it.  And I do experience it.

Sometimes I am able to find that connection over a cup of tea with a girlfriend.  We share our troubles and our victories.  We are honest, and in that honesty, we find community, support, connection. Other times, I need the luxury of words in print — the time that it takes me to type each letter, think through each sentence, and delete two or three false starts.  I need to process the trouble through text; that’s just who I am.

Its an unexpected bonus that sometimes my need to type out my troubles results in a forged bond with someone with whom my words resonated — a person who also, more than anything, doesn’t want to feel alone.

We are not alone. We are all broken.  We are all longing for restoration, and when we see it, we celebrate it. As we wait for it, if we are willing to expose our wounds, our brokenness, we are often surprised by the blessing of connection with other wounded broken souls.

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Galatians 6:2

*as cited in Graham,  Steve, Charles A. Mac Arthur, and Jill Fitzgerald. Best Practices in Writing Instruction. The Guilford Press, 2013.

**Vosskamp, Ann. The Broken Way. Zondervan, 2016.

 

Trials

One month without writing. I had every intention of jumping back into routines.  Fresh from my time away at the beginning of the summer, I wrote three days in a row, and then the whirlwind — the 5-week summer course I taught, visits from all of our kids and our grandbaby, and a full-family excursion to see both sides of the family.  I might’ve still managed to write a little, but in the midst of all that activity, I did a new medication trial.

My new rheumatologist, who thankfully reasserted my psoriatic arthritis diagnosis, said I should try Cosentyx.  “It’s a relatively new drug,” she said, “and it has helped a lot of people with psoriatic arthritis.”

“What’s the down side?” I asked.

“Nothing!” she assured me.

Skeptical, I did my own research. I googled and queried online groups.  It seemed that everyone agreed with my doctor — the risks and side effects were minimal.

Mm-hmm.

I wish I would’ve gotten a rash. Or stomach pain.  I did get what other patients call, “a temporary spike in symptoms,” but I also had another, more bizarre reaction.

Cosentyx is injectable.  Once a week for five weeks, you use a syringe or a ‘pen’ to give yourself a 150mg dose of this drug. I’m nothing if not dutiful, so I started the day I got home from grading the AP exam.  One quick click in the right thigh.  I didn’t notice anything until the next day when around 4pm I felt like I needed to lie down and be done for the day.  I wasn’t too worried;  I am often tired.  It is not unusual for me to be in my pajamas by 7pm, so I did what my body told me and rested for the next couple of days. Then I was back to normal.

The next Sunday, I did one quick click in the left thigh.  Again, nothing immediate, but the next morning, I got out of bed barking orders, complaining, and overreacting to every little nothing.  Ok, still, I wasn’t too concerned.  I’m known to be a bit crabby, and this ‘mood’, like others I’ve had in the past, lasted about 48 hours and then seemed to wane.

Next Sunday, next click — this time in the belly.  It was the Fourth of July weekend. And I was starting to see a pattern.  I had to teach on Monday, July 3rd for the summer program I was part of.  I got up and grumbled around the house, complaining that I was the only one who had to work, the only one who cleaned up around the house, blah, blah, blah.  My family observed me from afar.  They were starting to catch on, too.  I barely made it through my class.  I was not interested in being there, neither were my students.  I went home and barked at my family and put myself to bed early.  The next day, some friends invited us over to their pool.  I agreed to go for the sake of my family.  I figured I would be less aggressive if I was in front of witnesses. And, these were close friends who were aware of my health issues and also aware of the new drug.  They were champs. They distracted me and fed me and my family.  True heroes.

Next Sunday, next click — the other side of the belly. Again, Sunday night was fine, but Monday morning I was already in a funk when my husband called me from his annual physical to tell me that he had to go to the ER for an EKG.  I rallied the troops — I sent my kids to him while I readied myself to teach and pushed pause on my emotions.  I transitioned to full soldier mode when he called again and said he had to have a heart catheterization right away.  The next twenty-four hours, which had been the hardest on this med in the previous weeks, were a whirlwind of distraction.  My husband’s tests eliminated heart disease and any blockages and suggested the need for my husband to go on — wait for it — a medication trial.  (He has had not further symptoms, thankfully.) By the time he was home from the hospital, it was Tuesday night and I was almost back to normal.

Next Sunday, next click — back to the thigh, but this time, we had a house full of visiting family.  I had no issues on Sunday night.  Maybe I would be ok.  After all, during the previous week with the medical distraction, I had kept my rage in check.  Certainly I would be able to control my tongue in front of house guests.  Nevertheless I warned them in advance while hoping for the best.

It came out of nowhere.  Unbridled venom.  I spewed.  Then the backlash of remorse and embarrassment.  Apologies, and then, wham! The second wave.  I felt desperate.  I mumbled explanations and left the house.  I was going to isolate myself until the storm passed.  I spent the next six hours alone.  I had a book, but I couldn’t read.  I had my laptop, but I couldn’t write.  My mind was swirling frantically.  I worried over every decision past, present, future.  I cried.  I raged.  I fumed.  It was terrible.  After dark, I slithered back home, showered, and put myself to bed.

The next morning, we attended a funeral for a friend where tears released any remaining emotions, then I taught my class.  Afterward, I made a meal, and by dinner time I was able to join the family around the table.  I was still careful to speak very few words for fear of saying something barbed or pointed.

By the next day, Wednesday, I was pretty much back to normal.

I am now two weeks away from the last dose.  And two weeks away from the next dose. After the five loading doses, I switch to once-a-month injections.  I’ve called my doctor. She’s “never heard of” this type of reaction.  I contacted the manufacturer.  They are “following” my case.  My doctor wants me to continue the course, if I can, to see if Cosentyx will eventually help me.

That’s the other kicker.  This med does not give immediate relief from pain, fatigue, or psoriasis.  People have varied results.  Some have noticed improvement after the loading doses.  Some after the third month.  Some after the — gulp — eighth month.

Is it worth it?  I don’t know, because right now I don’t have any relief.  None.  I had, as I mentioned, a spike in my psoriasis, pain, and fatigue. That, coupled with the bizarre emotional reaction, is what I have noticed as a result of this medication.

Nevertheless, I am going to press on.  I am going to take the next dose and not plan anything for the two days after the injection.  We are going to watch and wait.

Why? Because I am still hopeful that something is going to work.  I still believe that at fifty-one years of age I should be able to live a full life.  I still want to teach during the day and go out to dinner with friends in the evening.  I want to be able to have Bible study with the girls in the morning, teach my classes, and then be conscious for dinner with my husband.  I am hopeful that I will be able to lie down at night and sleep without groaning every time I have to reposition myself.

It feels a bit selfish when I put it like that, I guess.  I mean, psoriatic arthritis is not life-threatening.  It is only life-altering.  And, as I have mentioned in this blog, my life did need altering.  I am not angry that I have this disease, but I do want to pursue a path to healing. And, I think, for me, the healing may need to come slowly so that I don’t abandon all the lessons I have learned in this chapter.

 

 

Romans 12:12

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

Applied Learning

In the spirit of learning from my lessons, let’s apply the last two blogs to my current reality.

Fact #1 – I can’t plan for everything.

Fact #2 – I’m not in control.

How do we live in the tension of recognizing these facts while living out our daily realities?

My current reality is this: I just returned from three weeks away from my home.  I intentionally didn’t plan any work for this week — not even tutoring — because I knew I would need a week of recovery.  Autoimmune disease is such that any stressor — good or bad — can cause a physiological response.  Flying can cause a response. Eating a delicious Cuban sandwich on fresh – delicious –  glutinous bread can cause a response. Working seven days in a row in an unfamiliar environment can cause a response.  Seeing an old friend can cause a response. Taking a detour can cause a response. Eating sorbet — before or after lunch — if it is out of the routine, can cause a response.  (Yes, in the past three weeks I have done all of those things.)

A ‘response’ can mean different things to different people.  For me, a ‘response’ is typically any of the following — fatigue, eye inflammation, increase in pain or fatigue, or, if the stressors are cumulative or particularly intense, what I call a ‘knock down’.  I got ‘knocked down’ a couple of times during the vacation. It’s really not pleasant.  I usually get a pretty solid headache, gastrointestinal distress, systemic pain and fatigue, and usually, the symptoms are so intense that I can’t sleep.

In the past five years, I have been knocked down enough times that I recognize the feeling and have come to take these episodes as reminders that I am trying too hard, that I am doing too much, and that I have to be mindful. I used to feel frantic during a knock down; now I lean in.  I fill a tub full of epsom salt water and slither in.  I lie there for as long as I can with a cool cloth across my forehead.  I drink a lot of water.  I take a homeopathic remedy called nux vomica (as recommended by my doctor), and I rest. I eat healing foods — rice, popsicles, scrambled eggs — and I prop myself in front of something mindless on the television. A standard knock down takes about twenty-four hours of intentional recovery.  Some have taken longer, some have resolved more quickly.

I fully anticipated a knock down during this week.  So, I planned nothing.  Well, not nothing. I planned things that would set me up for success in the coming weeks.

While stressors can lead to a ‘response’, intentionally proactive behaviors can build resilience, like money in the bank.  They don’t prevent a knock down, but they do build my core strength so that the likelihood of a knock down is reduced and the recovery from one is perhaps shorter.  What builds resilience for me?  Well, a regular schedule, for one.

If I follow routines — get up at the same time every day, eat the same breakfast (gluten-free oatmeal with coconut oil and honey has been a recent trend), drink the same drinks (one green tea followed by one black tea), exercise, complete a task or two around the house, have one or two social interactions, and complete one or two professional tasks, all while taking periodic breaks throughout the day — I build resilience.  If I am being proactive,  I have to create my to-do list with this in mind.  I have to ‘plan’ blank spaces into my day.  Margin is essential.

Intentional reading and blogging are perhaps more important steps to building my resiliency than I give them credit for. Long ago, I learned to override feeling with doing. Because I didn’t want to feel pain or get lost in any type of emotion at all, I busied myself. That is a temporary fix, but feelings don’t go away.  They get buried.  Deeply buried.  I have found that if I read a particular genre of books (I’ve referred to many of these types of writers in this blog — Ann Voskamp, Shauna Niequist, David Sedaris, Joan Didion, and the like), then I gain access to emotions that I long ago buried.  While I am ‘hearing’ and feeling the stories of others, I recall my own stories and am able to attach meaning to them.  The follow-up, of course, is this blog.  If, in the wake of reading and reflecting, I sit down at my computer here in the quiet of my little house by the river, I give myself time to process the emotions that have been stirred up.  For you teachers out there, the reading is the receptive portion of the lesson; the blogging is the expressive.  I, like most students, need both in order for the lessons to have any hope of sticking. (And, like most students, I need repetition of most lessons in order to achieve mastery.)

How did I get the privilege of the time that enables a lifestyle with margin? that allows for reading and processing?  The only explanation I have is that the One who has eyes to see me and who knows my needs better than I know my own, determined that because I would never plan this type of life for myself, He would plan it for me. I was living a life that powered through and led to an epic ‘knock down’.  He saw it, and in compassion, He set me down into a new reality–one that allows for margin, one that allows for reflection, one that allows for healing.  Which exposes the next lesson:

Fact #3 – I am held in the palm of His hand.

I am really trying to rest in this reality.  Muscle memory makes me want to jump up and start doing so that I won’t have to feel the pain that has been exposed in the stillness of this chapter.  However, the knowledge that comes through the power of the knock down coupled with the words of some key people that are speaking into my life right now remind me of the words of Elizabeth Elliot that Ann Voskamp quoted in The Broken Way :

…”out of the deepest pain has come the strongest conviction of the presence of God and the love of God.” [Voskamp follows with] The most crushing lie a life can hold on to is that life is supposed to avoid suffering, avoid loss, avoid anything that breaks.  Loss is our very air; we, like the certain spring rains, are always falling toward the waiting earth…

I embrace the knock down because His hand is holding me and leading me to a better life in this next chapter.

Psalm 103: 13

The Lord is as kind to his followers as a father is to his children.

Controlling and Carrying

Since we are on the topic….let’s talk a little bit more about control.  I mean, if I’m gonna scratch the surface, I might as well pry off the scab and take a look at the festering sore underneath, right?

I began trying to control my life at a very early age. At the risk of making this a confessional, let me just say that I routinely lied, falsely (and sometimes accurately) implicated my brothers, and physically overpowered my friends to get what I wanted. And that was all by the time I was in elementary school!  As I grew older and learned what was socially acceptable, I found other methods such as emotional outbursts, dramatic power plays, and sly slips of the hand to orchestrate my life.  My college years brought more maturity.  I learned that I could not control my environment, my peers, or my family, so I controlled myself down to a mere shadow of a human through anorexia.

You would think that therapy and recovery would’ve exposed the truth that I am not in charge of my own life either, but I am either a slow learner or a control savant. I have devised many ways to create an illusion of control.  In fact, once I had children of my own, I was sure to create a rigid daily schedule to ensure that their lives were under control. I was going to make sure that they were safe and secure. No harm would come to them under my watch. We prayed together.  We memorized scripture verses. I only let them watch PBS.  We ate dinner together every evening. They went to church every Sunday and often several times during the week. I was going to do this parenting thing right. My kids would be perfect, you know?

I couldn’t control everything, though, as I’m sure you can imagine. They didn’t stay safe and secure.  Harm did come to them.  Heart-breaking harm.

Many sleepless nights I have cried over my failed attempts at controlling my life, many more I have cried over my realization that I could not prevent my children from being hurt. And where has it led me?  Literally to my knees.

For many years now, when I have found myself facing the stark realization of my own powerlessness in the lives of my children, I call to mind an image that gives me great peace.  I picture a cupped hand with my child nestled safely inside.  I imagine that cupped hand held close to an all-powerful chest much like I might hold a newborn chick or kitten.  The hand is strong and able to lift my child out of harm’s way, and sometimes, when harm determinedly finds its way inside of that hand, two compassionate eyes are bearing witness — they are seeing and knowing and caring in ways that I am unable to see, to know, to care.  This image of the One who does have control gives me peace in those moments when I am able to acknowledge that I have none.

But there are many moments when I am not able to acknowledge that.  Most of the moments, actually.  Most of my moments I am filling with doing — I know, I know, if you have followed this blog from the beginning, you may be face-palming about right now. Doing, as I implied yesterday, gives me an illusion of control.  It calms my anxiety.  It makes me feel like everything is going to be ok if I just get my house clean, if I just meet one more student, if I complete one more task.

But that is a lie. Everything is not going to be ok.

Last night, when I finally admitted that I had done enough for the day and I finally lay down in my bed, I picked up Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way. As usual, God spoke directly to me through it; I think reading is the only time I slow down long enough to truly listen.  This is what I heard:

Suffering asks us to bear under that which is ultimately not under our control, which proves to us we have no control.  And maybe that’s too much for us in our autonomous, do-it-yourself culture to bear.  Maybe more than we can’t stand physical suffering, we can’t stand not feeling in control (171). 

It’s silly when she puts it like that, isn’t it? And if I admit that trying to be in control is silly, then I have to admit that much of my life has been one big silly futile exercise. That’s embarrassing. And humiliating. And heartbreaking.

But it’s true.

However, it is also true that regardless of my foolish attempts, I, too, have been sitting in that all-powerful hand.  I have been kept out of harm’s way many, many times.  And, when harm has found me, One has born witness with compassion, forgiveness, and love. I am His child, after all.  He has ordered my world.  He has hemmed me in on all sides. And He will continue to carry me.

Psalm 139:5

You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.

Sorbet before Lunch

So much is jangling around inside my head this morning.  Over three weeks ago my husband and I left on a two-week vacation — we slipped away to an undisclosed location where no one recognizes us and we could begin to recognize one another again.  We spent hours together, just the two of us.  It was quiet; it was restful; it was lovely.  At the end of the two weeks, I jetted off, instead of coming straight home, to a week of AP English Literature Exam scoring with hundreds of strangers.  Inside of those three weeks, I read a couple of books and several articles, I listened to podcasts, I watched meaningless television, I had long, and short, conversations in person and over the phone, and I read thousands of words written by high school students.

Now I’m home.

I’m back at my desk in my little house by the river.  My dog is under my desk at my feet. I’m halfway through the first cup of tea, and I am trying to get the jangling to coalesce into some kind of meaning.

What do you learn from three weeks outside of your routine?  If you sort all the pieces into piles, what do you have?

First, I have the realization that the things that I planned — the ones that we just had to do– weren’t the ones that I valued the most. In fact, the sandwich that I just had to eat from that particular restaurant did taste delicious, but its gluten- and dairy-rich delicious-ness left me feeling miserable for the next twenty-four hours.  The things that I thought would make the experience ‘perfect’ weren’t really the highlights.  No, the unexpecteds, the ad libs, were the nuggets I will cherish — a last minute detour, a lunch time phone call, impromptu sorbet right before lunch.

This plan-happy girl needs to be reminded from time to time that her plans aren’t always the best and that she can’t plan for everything.  In fact, often the best parts of life are the ones I didn’t, or couldn’t anticipate.

In the weeks leading up to the AP Reading, I was feeling a bit apprehensive because I had been assigned a random hotel roommate.  Although, you might not expect it, I tend a little to introversion.  While my career has involved standing up in front of students, cracking jokes and calling out bad behavior, I truly love my end-of-day quiet alone time. What if my roommate loved to chat until all hours of the night? What if she was a slob? What if her personality got on my nerves.  It’s not like we would just have to get through a weekend.  We would be co-existing for eight days!!  I had a plan, though — if she was super creepy, I told myself, I would request a single room and just pay the difference. Phew!  Glad I solved that dilemma.

Since I arrived at the hotel before she did, I situated my stuff, got myself registered, went for a swim, showered, and then waited…..She arrived on a different schedule, so we didn’t actually meet until almost 8pm on the first day.  I quelled my anxiety by staying busy, of course, but my worries evaporated when she finally arrived. The Southern twang in her greeting —  a virtual “Hi honey, I ho-ome!” — put me at ease even though I was already in pajamas, reading in bed.

Not for one minute did I feel that awkward let-me-ask-questions-to-get-to-know-you feeling. From the start we chatted like old friends, laughing over ridiculousness and tearfully sharing our hearts.  We were ok being quiet together, too.  I didn’t feel like I was imposing when I felt poorly and had to cash-in early.  I didn’t feel like I had to explain myself or justify my actions.  I felt like I was living with a sister.  Probably my favorite moment of the week was the last night when our conversation went something like this:

“Hey, thanks for not being a creepy roommate.”

“Hey, thanks for not snoring.”

“And thanks for not being a slob or watching tv until 4 in the morning.”

“And thanks for not judging me for going to bed before 9.”

I couldn’t have hand-picked a better roommate.

So what’s the take-away here?  Do I suddenly turn from my planner-ly ways and go forth in a life of abandon? (She says as she glances over at the to-do list she made for today and the one she made for this week.) Every teacher-fiber of my being loves to plan.  In fact, two items on my to-do list involve planning — for the summer class that starts next week and for the new course I’m teaching in the fall.  Writing lists and anticipating alternatives is in my DNA. I won’t ever not be a planner, but is there a way for me to plan for spontaneity? for margin that allows for ad lib?  Of course! Many books have been written on the topic — I’ve read several!

Something about filling my days with plans reduces my anxiety.  If I fill in all the spaces, I leave no room for the big scary unknown, but, also, if I fill in all the spaces, I leave no room for surprise, for serendipity, for spontaneity.

Leaving space is taking a risk.

Do I dare? Do I dare let myself sit quietly in the chair on my patio, watching nothing, anticipating nothing, expecting nothing? Do I dare have a day that’s not planned wall-to-wall with activity? What could happen?

I might eat sorbet before lunch. I might take a last-minute detour.  I might make a new friend.

Psalm 130:5

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.

Putting it in Practice

I’m beginning to think that lessons are never really learned, or as we say in the field, mastered, but rather that our lessons are practiced.

I’m picturing a small child sitting at a piano slowly fingering the do, re, mi, fa, so of a C major scale.  Over and over she plays, usually faltering at one particularly tough spot where the thumb has to cross under two fingers in order to hit all eight notes in the octave. Sure, sure, after hours upon hours of practice, the scale becomes easier, the rhythm more consistent and measured, but let that pianist take a month away from the keys, and almost assuredly, the falter will return.

The learning is only safe within the practice.

I’ve been blogging at this space for almost three years and I continually come back to the same lessons — the ones that my fingers need to rehearse over and over and over.  Perhaps the one that needs the most practice, the one for which my Instructor has utilized multi-modal approaches, is this idea that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

One problem I encounter in learning this lesson is the fact that I had been practicing a different way for decades.  The old way was a rushing, plate-spinning frenzy of activity that involved checking items off lists, accomplishing tasks, and powering through no matter what was thrown at me.  I’ve often described this practice of mine as soldiering — task-driven, focused doing with minimal regard for relationship or self-care.  As a soldier I didn’t reflect or take time to decompress; I went on to the next mission as though my life depended on it. And, if you know me or have read my blog, you know that I was ultimately given a medical discharge — diagnosis? chronic battle-fatigue.

So, per orders, I’ve been undergoing job retraining for almost three solid years.  It’s been cyclical.  I rest and recover, then, feeling restless, I get busy.  I try for moderation, but since my historical practice has been frenetic, I usually devolve to that pre-set.  I end up sick, of course, so I back off and review the lesson — I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

The layers of instruction involved in my practice of this lesson are many.   I am sure I am not even aware of all of them.  First, and most obvious, is the actual physical slowing of my body. I feel as though my major joints of propulsion — my hips, shoulders, feet — have somehow been coated in a rigid rubber-like compound that limits movement. The compound has, it seems, been grafted into my bones in such a fashion that if I do find a way to make the rubber pliable enough to allow movement that is too fast, too insistent, or too prolonged, the grafting sights become irritated and inflamed like a newly healing surgical site.  The pain then slows me and reminds me that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

The second layer of instruction is delivered through my practice of yoga.  So much about yoga reinforces the lesson I am trying to learn. For seventy-five minutes I stay within the confines of a very small space — 24″ x 68″ — thinking about my breathing, being very intentional about every move I make.  Rushing is not allowed.  Multi-tasking is impossible.  It takes all of my attention to hold warrior two with my right knee at a forty-five degree angle, my right heel in line with the arch of my left foot, my arms extended as though drawing an arrow across a bow, my gaze looking across the middle finger of my extended hand.  Once there, I breathe; I rest; I am still.  This practice, which was absolutely foreign to me in my former life, makes me feel stronger than any butt-kicking and name-taking ever could. Yet, in this strength, I am not calling the shots; I am trusting the voice of the instructor and moving only where she tells me to move. She assures me that I can do this — I can live this way even when I step off the mat.

A third —  and certainly it cannot be the last — layer is my reading list. The reading in my pile comes from a variety of sources: from a member of the breakfast club Bible study I attend, from my child as a Mother’s Day gift, from a summer reading list for some of my students, and from my YouVersion daily Bible reading plan. Despite the varied sources, the message is resoundingly the same — I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

Last week I saw my new rheumatologist who is offering a trial of the medication Cosentyx.  As I wait for the prior authorization to come through, I find myself wondering if this drug will break up the rubberized coating, free my joints, increase my energy, and allow me to do a little more.

Seriously.  I am actually hoping for that. Sigh.

So, I was sitting with the breakfast club the other day, sharing this news about the potential drug trial, when one of my friends asked, “Kristin, how would you like us to pray?” Surprising frustration rose in me; I think because I realized that what I was hoping for is in direct opposition to what I have been trying to learn. I snarled, “I don’t even know, because if this drug works, I know that I will go right back to doing too much.  I’m practically doing too much already, and I’m in the middle of a flare!” My poor friend, she hasn’t known me too long and probably isn’t accustomed to my surliness.  She said, “Do you guys need the money that badly?”  I reflexively burst out, “Not at all!  I mean, sure, we could use more money, but that is not how we live our lives.  We don’t make decisions based solely on money.” I was stunned at my clarity and embarrassed by my tone.

I am the most reluctant of learners — the little girl who needs to be nudged back to the piano bench, a finger poking her between the shoulder blades. Why do I have to practice, I whine. I understand all the notes in the scale;  I know where my fingers belong! However, if I ever want to get past these darn scales and on to playing some real music — enjoying the freedom and bliss of playing outside of the practice — then I have got to stick to the practice.  I have got to keep rehearsing the truth that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

Why? Because I can trust the voice of my Instructor.  I can stay in a limited space, listen to His voice, and believe what He believes about me — that I can do this; I can live this much richer connected way.  I want to learn this lesson so well, that even if this medication works, even if I am free of pain, and even if I regain my energy, I won’t go back to my soldiering life, but I will live in the freedom that I have been given to breathe, to slow down, to rest, and to be still.

Psalm 46:10

 Be still, and know that I am God…

Glimmers of Brilliance

For the past month or so I have been consuming print as though my life depended on it.  This happens at the end of a semester for all instructors, but particularly for those who teach English, and even more so for those who teach writing.

A couple weeks ago, I stood in the doorway of the office of a seasoned English professor with another colleague.  All of us were bleary-eyed from days and days of reading stacks and stacks of papers.  We were grumbling, of course, because our charges hadn’t heeded every single word that we had breathed over the course of the semester. The nerve!  Hadn’t we told them how to frame a thesis? Hadn’t we told taught them about depth that goes beyond surface observations?  Hadn’t we expected them to sustain an argument? And what had we received for all our labors — a few glimmers of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity.

And isn’t that our life, a few glimmers of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity.

After long days with students, I come home at night and read more.  Recently, I’ve been reading Ann Voskamp and Shauna Niequist. They write in ways that I imagine I might one day write if I keep at it.  They pour their truth onto the page as I do, but they make it so,…so beautiful.  I often have to pause and take a photo of a line or a paragraph because I am so captured by the words themselves — how they are arranged on the page — and also by the image that they conjure in my mind — what they arrange in my head. For Mother’s Day, one of my children sent me a book of essays by David Sedaris — a pioneer in this way of writing that I find myself compelled to follow.  His Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is, in the first few chapters I’ve read, like a home movie that has been painstakingly crafted into vignettes that illustrate the truths that his childhood taught him. And that’s really all I am trying to do here.

My writing is all about finding the glimmers.

I sit down in the morning and I take a look at the film I have captured since the last time I wrote — that image of me standing in the doorway with the two professors, a still of me bent over a stack of papers at my desk, a clip of me in the front of a small lecture hall demonstrating how to integrate a source into a line of text, and a close-up of me lying in bed at night using my phone to snap a photo of a paragraph.  I move these images around on the desktop of my mind in an effort to find some little glimmer of meaning. Why, I ask myself, do I spend so much time with words?

Guys, I spend so. much. time. with words!  I mean, it’s 9:30am and I have already read posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  I’ve played several rounds of Words With Friends.  I’ve given feedback on two essays.  I’ve texted two daughters. And, now, I’m writing.  In a couple of hours I will be in my car listening to a podcast or two, then later today, I will tutor a student in English grammar and writing to help her prepare for the ACT.  After all that, I will curl up in bed and read some more.

Why? Why do I spend so much time with words? Well, of course I have more than one reason.  I love the way words fit together like miniature puzzles; when each piece is put just where it belongs,  an image appears out of nowhere!

eaigm becomes image!

I love that!

I love the way words can be arranged and rearranged in sentences to alter their meaning.

Kids love moms. Moms love kids. Kids moms love.

Isn’t that fun!?

But mostly, I love the way that words manipulate the brain.  Even as I write this, the clips of film are rearranging on my desktop.  I am seeing how the reading I do at night informs what I say to my students in the front of my class. What I say in the front of my class impacts (even if I don’t always see evidence of it) the writing of my students.  The writing of my students inspires my conversations with my colleagues.  The conversations with my colleagues motivate my desire to read and write more.

And the realization that each aspect of my life is somehow connected to every other aspect of my life reminds me to be present in each moment, to keep my camera rolling, to record what I see so that I can later review the tape and see the connections, to not wish any moment away, but to look for the glimmers of brilliance in every great sea of mediocrity.

And that, my friends, is why I spend so much time with words.

Isaiah 45:3

I will give you hidden treasures,
    riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who summons you by name.

 

 

 

 

Rube Goldberg

rube

You’ve seen a Rube Goldberg machine haven’t you?  It, according to source-of-all-sources, Wikipedia, “is a deliberately complex contraption in which a series of devices that perform simple tasks are linked together to produce a domino effect in which activating one device triggers the next device in the sequence.”

Artist and engineer, Rube Goldberg, drew many of these machines, like the one posted above, I think, to poke fun at humanity and our tendency to take too many steps to accomplish a simple task.  It’s just like us, isn’t it, to create a contraption that involves two people, a kitchen timer, a series of pulleys, and fire, for heaven’s sake, to get an olive out of a jar.

I was thinking about Rube Goldberg earlier today when I started piecing together the series of events that was involved in securing an appointment to get a third opinion on my medical diagnosis. You’d think it might be as simple as taking the darn lid off the jar, reaching in, and grabbing an olive, wouldn’t you?  Pick up the phone, touch a few numbers on a screen, ask a question, put a note on the calendar.  Easy.

But not really.

I’ve put the process off for a while.  Over twenty months ago, my then rheumatologist told me, not for the first time, that since she didn’t agree with my former rheumatologist’s diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis but rather thought I had fibromyalgia, there was no longer any need for me to be seen by rheumatology.  In fact, any primary care physician could manage my pain with prescription NSAIDS.  I should, she said, attend a workshop on fibromyalgia at the university and come to terms with my diagnosis.

I didn’t agree.

I had, and still have, three other members on my team. (I have written about this before.  If you want to meet my team, click here.) They supported my decision to disagree with the fibromyalgia diagnosis.  So, for twenty months, I have worked with this team and have been functioning quite well, as long as I keep my Kristin dial set at about 50-70%.  If I keep my self at a reduced level of functioning, inserting yoga, rest, physical therapy, chiropractic care, healthful eating, and regular walking, I have a manageable level of pain, psoriasis, fatigue, etc.

The problem is, that after a while of 50-70%, I get a little restless.  I think to myself, “Hey, self, you feel pretty good.  It probably wouldn’t hurt if you had three social engagements the week that you are planning to go out of town on a retreat.  I’m sure you’ll be fine.” Yeah, I say things like that to myself and I believe them. Still.  After almost four years in this adjusted reality.  Sigh.

Well, if you read my last post, you know that for about the last six weeks I have pushed myself to function consistently between 70 and 80%.  About 10 days ago, I “fell” pretty hard, and I’ve been hobbling along, still trying to keep the dial set at about 70% ever since. No surprise, I’ve still got significant pain, sustained eye symptoms, and the kind of fatigue that causes me to fumble with words, collapse on the couch, and sleep sometimes 10-12 hours at night.

So I got to thinking, as one does when she’s packed in ice, maybe I should give rheumatology another try.  Maybe 50-70% is my sweet spot; maybe, as I’ve been saying, I do my best caring and listening when I slow myself down enough to notice what’s happening around me rather than constantly pressing full steam ahead.  But maybe, just maybe, at fifty-one years old, I should explore the possibility of improving my health so that I can function at say, 80-90%.  Wouldn’t it be worth a try?

I’d had this thought before the crash, too.  In fact,  I tried to have my last rheumatologist re-examine my file.  In the large university where she dwells, I have to reach out to her through an electronic portal.  I did. A month ago. No reply.

So, last week, when I was face down, I crawled over to my laptop (figuratively, of course) and requested an appointment with her.  They gave me her next available — three months from now. Sigh.

So, I Googled rheumatologists in my area and called one that is in my vicinity.  They are scheduling four to five months out. The receptionist suggested I call another nearby practice since they have more docs on staff and might not have such a long waiting list.

Let me just say here that I really don’t like talking on the phone. I make exceptions for my parents, my siblings, and my children, but when it comes to businesses or, worse, doctor’s offices, I try to avoid phone calling like the plague.  The fact that I was willing to pick up the phone twice in one day last week is evidence of the fact that I was indeed miserable. I felt so badly I was willing to call not one but two doctors’ offices.

And you would think, like I did, that I was pretty close to getting the olive out of the jar. No, I had miles to go, my child, miles to go. The second practice said they were indeed taking new patients, and they were scheduling in the next month.  All I needed to do was get a referral from my doctor and fax my medical records.

Those were the words that Rube was waiting for. You see, my primary doc, a DO who has coached me through homeopathic remedies, advised some nutritional changes, and has prescribed the fabulous physical therapy described here, recently relocated her practice and reduced her office hours.  I sent three emails before I got a reply.  I’ll admit that that last one may have had a tone.  Ok, it definitely had a tone, which is why she called me back and left a message. She asked me to send her a detailed message fully explaining why I wanted this referral. So, I sent email number four. It was a page long.

Then, I tried to request medical records.  Here’s the thing — the new doctor’s office said they needed my medical records faxed to them. My two prior rheumatologists’ offices said they could only email a record. I plead with the new office.  After all, I had two zip drives on the desktop of my Mac.  I could send them my full record from January of 2013 until now — every test, every x-ray, every prescription — in a couple of clicks. Nope.  They “don’t receive email.”

I shared my plight on Facebook and two friends came forward with a plan for how I could use a free website to convert my documents to a fax right from my laptop.  Who knew?

So, while all those gears and pulleys were doing what gears and pulleys do, the weekend arrived and I knew I wouldn’t hear whether or not my primary care doc would give me the referral until Monday.

Saturday morning, after yoga, I was running a few errands when a friend texted me.  She and her husband had tickets to a concert that night.  They couldn’t attend due to illness, would we like the tickets.  My husband and I exchanged a few texts and decided that yes, since going to the concert meant sitting with several other couples from our church we would go.  It would be late, but we were planning on attending the late service the next morning, so it should be fine. (This is how people with chronic illness make decisions, by the way — always measuring.)  A little while later, one of the other couples who was attending the concert texted to say that several were meeting for dinner first, would we like to join.  Well, I mean, we’ve got to eat, right?  These are people we don’t know well; it would be good to get to know them better. I’d be fine to go out for dinner and a concert. (Yes, this is me, continuing to press limits even when I’m already down.)

Why am I telling you about dinner and a concert?  Because the weirdest twist was added to the Rube Goldberg machine.  Eight people at a table and my husband and I end up sitting next to a physician with the same genetic marker that I have. I don’t usually bring up genetic markers over dinner, but he did.  It was weird.  We shared stories and frustrations.  At a dinner we weren’t meant to attend before a concert that we hadn’t planned on.  The next morning, after Easter worship, this same physician waited for me at the back of the church and handed me the names of two rheumatologists at the practice I was trying to get a referral to.  He had researched them when he got home the night before and thought that of all the doctors at that practice, these were two he would recommend.

Monday morning, I had an email from my primary care doc.  She had sent the referral. Today, Wednesday, I got a phone call from the new doctor’s office.  I pulled the recommended names out of my purse while I was on the phone with the receptionist and took a deep breath before I asked if there was any chance that my appointment could be with one of them, who just happens to not only be a rheumatologist but also an optometrist.

And just when I was starting to think that the whole thing would come crashing down, that I wouldn’t get my olive after all, the receptionist booked me with that specific doctor for an appointment just under two weeks from now.

Rube Goldberg? I think not.  I know only One who can take a very frustrating and seemingly hopeless situation and make it work out better than I had asked or imagined. And do you know what? The elaborate machinery of it all, the Divine intervention of it all, has dispelled my anxiety about going to one more doctor, telling my story one more time, and risking the possibility that she won’t have any answers for me at all.

Because I know who does have the answers, and, because of that,I am not afraid.

Romans 8:28

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.