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.

 

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…

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.

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve fallen, and I’ll eventually get up

It couldn’t have been the women’s retreat over a month ago. It probably wasn’t the day trip over Spring Break.  Or the hours of tutoring. Or teaching two classes. Or two recent back-to-back road trips. Or the fact that I haven’t found a free hour in the past month to do any blogging.  No, not one of those things slammed me to the floor.  In fact I was standing up straight and moving around freely even through this weekend’s musical that went way past my bedtime and through the day-long festivities yesterday at our church. Not only that, I woke up today, planned two classes, graded some papers, taught on my feet for two hours and then gave a private lesson before coming home at 5 and making a double-batch of caramel corn. I had two loads of laundry folded and the ironing board set out when I finally admitted that I could do no more.  I grabbed an ice pack and found my way to the floor.

I stayed there icing through the news, Wheel of Fortune, and Jeopardy.  Then, I switched to heat for The Voice.  The ache was deep in my hips, sacrum, and sacroiliac joints. Nothing was dulling the edge.  Glass of wine?  Tried it.  No help.  Then, although I have been committed for over a year to no NSAIDS or other pain meds, I finally caved around 8:30 and took 400 mg of Ibuprofen.  An hour later I took 400 mg more.

I put myself in bed and willed myself to sleep.  No chance.  It’s been a while since my pain, which usually fluctuates between and 3 and a 6 out of 10, has climbed the scale up to what I would call an 8.  I’m calling it an 8 because I can still move — slowly and with audible involuntary groans — from standing to sitting to lying, but I can’t stay in any of those positions for very long before I determine to try yet another strategy.

Around 11:45pm, I climbed into the tried and true epsom salt and baking soda bath.  The deep ache persisted.  I stayed there for more than 30 minutes, trying to give the magic a chance to work.  Finally, I admitted one more defeat, crawled out of the tub less than gracefully, dressed, ate a banana, and thought to myself, “Have you found a limit, then?”

Just yesterday, a good friend said to me, “You need to find some time to rest.” My husband, bless his heart, also gently reminds me and then lets me figure it out. He knows that I want to seem ‘normal’, even if temporarily.  The longer stretches I have of doing well, the more I question the validity of my limitations. When I begin to doubt my limitations, I attempt to accomplish even more.  It’s a vicious cycle.

Anyone with a vague diagnosis or an invisible illness will tell you that we are our biggest skeptics.  Although we may have very difficult days, characterized by extreme fatigue, insistent pain, or a rash that erupts (right on my face, thank you very much), we also have days, weeks, and sometimes up to a month or more, when the symptoms seem not so noticeable.  We begin to question ourselves, “Surely, you aren’t really as sick as you think; certainly you can see one more student and sit through a play on a Saturday night. Toughen up a little.” It’s as though our worst symptom is amnesia — the forgetting of the consequences that come from forgetting.

When I forget to pace myself, I may do alright for a few days, or a week or a month. However, if I keep forgetting, I will eventually get a reminder. I’ve had many over the last month. When I sleep for over 10 hours in a row, that’s a reminder that I’m depleted and I probably need to take a few slow days.  When I get a psoriasis or eczema breakout, that’s a reminder. I call it the ‘slow simmer’. The symptoms are beginning to bubble up, and if I don’t turn down the heat, they are going to reach a full boil. When I notice that I have to take stairs one foot at a time, I’m probably too far down the path to avoid the crash. Yesterday, when my friend, who has noticed my pace, gently nudged my memory, I said, “Yes, if I don’t willingly take a break, it will be thrust upon me.” And in a very speedy fulfillment of prophecy, here I am.

It’s been over four years now that I’ve been living in this strange reality — the reality that was named, and then unnamed,… That’s part of the struggle, too.  I don’t know what to call this ‘thing’ that I have.  People ask me. Often. And I give some kind of mumbled reply about autoimmunity blah blah arthritis blah blah eyes blah blah skin blah blah.  By then they are more confused then I am.  They don’t understand, because neither do I, why I choose not to eat gluten or dairy if I don’t really notice a difference when I do.  If I try to explain that no, I don’t drink coffee because it cancels my homeopathic medicines, again, I just hear myself sounding like the teacher in the old “Peanuts” cartoons. Blah, blah, blah.

So, why am I writing about this at 1 o’clock in the morning? Because that’s what I have. Writing continues to be the way that I think through all of this and try to find the meaning.  And yes, I realize, I just have to go back a post or two to the last time I wrote about how blessed I am that God has provided this season of slowness, that He has allowed me time and space to be aware, to be available, to just be.  But just like every other gift I’ve been given, sometimes I don’t appreciate fully it.  I want to take it back to the store and see what I can exchange it for.  I think I’m going to find something better, you know?

If I go just a few posts further back, I will be reminded of the drawbacks of soldiering. Just typing that word calls me out, doesn’t it?  I don’t even want to go back to the first paragraph I wrote here today, because that’s what I’ve been trying to do — go back to my soldiering ways.

If I don’t stop writing here, I’ll start drawing parallels to the ancient Israelites…and it’s already 1:15 am and I’m already at over a thousand words.  So, go ahead and draw your own conclusions. By now, I’m sure you’re way ahead of me.

As for me, I repent. I’ll try to get some rest. And then I’ll probably cancel my tutoring for tomorrow.  Because sometimes even retired soldiers need a little R ‘n’ R.

Matthew 11:28

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

 

 

Best Practices

In my trudge through the mundane and my continuing struggle with crabbiness, I am making an effort  to be intentional about my ‘best practices’.  Why is it so hard to do the right thing?

I get pretty methodical about attending yoga class 2-3 times a week, but this has a pretty significant physical pay-off almost immediately.  The strength and flexibility I am obtaining and maintaining from regular yoga is noticeable. Of course, the mindfulness of attending to my breathing and setting aside my “brain activity” for an hour or so a few times a week has emotional pay-off as well.

I also don’t struggle with eating foods that improve my health.  Although I don’t notice an immediate positive payoff from eating the right things, I do experience almost immediate consequences if I eat the wrong things.  For instance, because I take homeopathic remedies, I don’t drink coffee.  Apparently coffee can ‘cancel’ any benefit you get from homeopathic remedies.  Last weekend, to celebrate my mother’s birthday, I had a small glass of kahlua — the only alcohol my mother drinks.  (And when I say ‘drinks’, I mean “flavors her ice cream with.”) It didn’t dawn on me until about 24-48 hours after that glass of kahlua that  kahlua is made from coffee.  Why did I remember?  Because the psoriasis on the palm of my right hand that had been almost completely under control, raged angrily.  When I had scratched my palm to the point of bleeding it occurred to me that perhaps I had ‘cancelled’ out my homeopathic benefit. Ok, fine. I’ll stay away from coffee and kahlua.

Exercise and diet are very easy for me to maintain.  I probably owe that to my history with an eating disorder.   Although, my motivation has changed over the years from losing weight to feeling well, the ability to stick with a plan is pretty solid.  However, the best practices that attend to my spiritual health are so much harder for me to maintain.

One hundred and twelve days ago, I got the YouVersion Bible app on my phone.  I committed to reading the entire Bible in one year because our campus pastor told me to.  I’m pretty good at following instructions, but I’m also pretty good at procrastinating.  I’m almost always running about three days behind in my reading, but I discovered recently that if I put in my headphones and listen to the daily readings while I walk, I am more inclined to stay on track.  I’m not as religious about Bible reading as I am about getting my steps in. (Insert eye-roll here.)

Last year, you might remember that I was reading Beth Moore’s Whispers of Hope: Ten Weeks of Devotional Prayer.  The book encouraged me to write down my prayers in a journal after reading each devotion, so I did!  It was a great practice.  In fact, I think I have read through the book almost three times.  But when I don’t pick up the book, I don’t write down my prayers.  And, full disclosure, when I don’t have a regular time devoted to writing down prayers, my prayers often devolve to haphazard spur-of-the moment utterances.  Yeah, it’s embarrassing.

And you remember my battalion? My group of ladies that I met with on Wednesdays the first two years that I was in Ann Arbor?  The ones I did countless Bible studies with, prayed with, and got encouragement from?  Well, my schedule doesn’t permit me to join them any more.  And, though I claim to be mostly an introvert (yes, I know I look extroverted sometimes), I need the community of ladies and the regular time in my schedule to ensure that I am working through a Bible study, challenging myself, and connecting with God through Scripture in meaningful ways.

Not only that, I need my Sunday morning body of believers and a regular message from my pastor.  Even that has been disrupted over the last several months.  Because we had the distinct privilege of traveling to South Africa and Israel, the opportunity to visit with family over the holidays, and the honor of joining other congregations where my husband preaches, our attendance at our own congregation has been spotty.  Yes, we have worshipped in other places — almost every Sunday, but it is not the same as gathering with our own church family and experiencing the spiritual journey that happens when you join with others in one place.

Failing to follow these spiritual best practices — daily Bible reading, prayer, group Bible study, and community worship —  has consequences that, although not immediately noticeable, build over time and become quite evident eventually. Eventually has arrived. The evidence of spiritual apathy over here is quite real.

So, how am I returning to these best practices? Sluggishly, I’ll admit.  As I mentioned, I’m plugging into my Bible ‘readings’ while I walk.  I am meeting with a few other women who have committed together to reading Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way.  And, on weeks like this one, where I am not attending my own congregation, I am re-committing to regular attendance at chapel services here on campus.  I guess you could say that the campus community is our second congregation — we grow within this spiritual family, too.

My blog seems to follow a theme.  I’ve been teaching my literature students that authors use themes to convey messages through their writing.  Those themes, I tell my students, can be stated in terms of a subject plus a verb — for example, ‘struggle transforms’, ‘tradition endures’, and ‘lies always surface’.

I force my students to follow a formula when writing analytical thesis statements — Author, in Title,  verb + how or why.  For example, I might write this on the board tomorrow: ‘Mark Haddon, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time uses Christopher’s struggle with autism to convey the theme that difficulties can be overcome.’

Or, I might write this: ‘In the story of my life, God, through continually offering grace despite my habitual turning away, conveys the theme that He loves me.’  That’s His best practice.

Jeremiah 31:3

“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.

 

Swan-dive to Mundane

I was sitting in the waiting room of my physical therapist’s office yesterday morning, thumbing through a People magazine.  I was early for my 8:15 appointment, so she was still moving around me, tidying the office.  She greeted me, of course, and I continued to “read” meaningless celebrity “news”.

“Have you done any blogging lately?” she said out of nowhere.

“No,” sigh, “I’ve been kind of in a funk.  Writing would probably get me out of it, but I just haven’t found my way there in a while.”

“Yeah, it really centers your spirit, doesn’t it?”

Man, we haven’t even started my PT yet and she’s already getting at the core.  How does she do that?

The last time I blogged, I was sitting in Jerusalem.  Today I am sitting, still in pajamas, on the futon in my office in my little house by the river. Then, I was floating high on the experience, the relationships, the food — have I mentioned the food?  Today, I am back in the mundane — classes, laundry, tax preparation, and the like.

It’s a lot easier to write about the fantastic, isn’t it?  It’s lovelier to live in the beautiful. However,  we do most of our dwelling in the ordinary, so coming down from the extraordinary sometimes involves a crash landing. And crash I did.

Some of the crash was circumstantial.  I went from touring brilliantly-farmed land lush with oranges, strawberries, and figs to trudging across frozen tundra.  I transitioned from touring on a bus full of enthusiastic learners who scored one another’s jokes, sang together, laughed together,   and cried together, to spending a lot of time on my own sorting receipts, preparing for class, and putting away suitcases.

Some of the crash was self-inflicted. My doctor had recommended before the trip that I do a 21-day elimination diet to see if any foods were causing my pain and/or inflammation.  I postponed it until after the trip (yes, the trip where we ate like kings three times a day), but started immediately when we got home.  For the past three weeks, in addition to not eating gluten or dairy (both of which I have avoided for three years), I also eliminated soy, corn, citrus, peanuts, pork, and it seems like most everything else.  Oh, and at the same time I finished weaning myself off Zoloft.

Yeah, I’m nuts. I mean if you’re going to come off the mountaintop, you might as well swan-dive, right?  The thing about swan-diving, though, is that you can go pretty far down pretty darn quickly.

The casual observer might not detect the shift in position — from mountaintop to deep, dark valley.  The physical therapist?  The husband?  Oh, they saw the shift.  I did, too.  I could feel the snark, but I couldn’t shake it.

It probably didn’t help that we came back right before the presidential inauguration and all the virtual “noise” that ensued , because I certainly have difficultly not engaging with all of that.  And, rather than turning to my writing, which I know is an outlet for my emotions, I instead turned my gaze to the other things that need my attention — grading, a project I started for my in-laws a year ago, unfinished tax prep — and I thought to myself, it would be pretty selfish of you to sit down and blog for an hour right now.  You have other people depending on you.

And I believed that voice.  I muted the truth that says, “Oxygenate yourself first.”  I forgot that “in repentance and rest is my salvation; in quietness and trust is my strength.”  I trudged onward, avoiding my need for self-care, while attending to tasks that preserved the facade — cleaning the house, preparing for teaching, ironing clothes, cooking…anything but taking the pause that refreshes and centers my spirit.

So, after a sermon on Sunday about suffering and the encounter with my physical therapist who noted that my body is “all over the place,” I give up.  I turn to the keys.  I am honest.  I’ve been struggling, but I’m turning, guys.  I’m turning.  It might take a minute, but I’m turning.

Psalm 30:1ff

I will exalt you, Lord,
    for you lifted me out of the depths
    and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
Lord my God, I called to you for help,
    and you healed me.
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
    you spared me from going down to the pit.

Turn, Turn, Turn

In the midst of The Great Sunglasses Search, I may have lost my sense of humor.  Now, you could probably guess that it wasn’t just the sunglasses, or the way a friend called me out for being inconsiderate, or the way I reacted to someone else being inconsiderate, or the many errands I have run over the past couple of days, or even my obsession with the Minimalist Challenge (I’ve completed 15 days in 2 days — that’s 120 items so far, but who’s counting?).

No, it wasn’t any one of those things that made me lose my sense of humor — it was a cumulative effect. I was chugging along with tons of energy, feeling very positive about this trip to Israel, when I suddenly noticed that the space between my eyebrows was wrinkled, my jaw was set, and little things were starting to bug me.  Eh, whatever, I thought, so I’m a little irked.  I’ve still got to mail two packages, stop by the library, pick up a few things at Target, print out two documents, and doggone it, did I look in those other suitcases?  Maybe my sunglasses are in there!

Yes, yes, I know, I need to pace myself.  How many times have we been over this.  Fortunately, my body hasn’t revolted and flung me on the couch.  That is probably due to the fact that although I accomplished all of the above, I also sat at the puzzle table for a few hours last night and had the satisfaction of completing a 1000-piecer, tossing it back in the box, and adding it to the donation pile. (Yes, I’m a little out of control.) Also, I know myself well enough that I made sure to do yoga twice last week and twice this week already, following each 75-minute session with a soak in the jacuzzi.

Nevertheless, I’ve got to calm down a little.  I mean, we are leaving TOMORROW  with THIRTY STUDENTS for TWELVE DAYS! The one thing I can’t leave at home is my sense of humor!!

So, you know, in the spirit of my commitment to Return to the Lord, I came home after yoga this morning, did three more things on my to-do list, then grouchily opened my Bible Reading plan. If you have read this blog more than three times, you know what happened.  I was convicted right in the middle of my reading, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: …enmity, strife,…fits of anger, …dissensions, divisions,…and things like these.” Darn flesh.

Keep reading, Rathje, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Well, of course not, silly. Who would outlaw kindness or gentleness? patience? peace? Nah, we don’t have to outlaw those things — those are the things we forget to do, the things we turn away from.  The things that need to be outlawed are the ones we are bent on doing — like getting irritated and ticked off!

So, what’s a girl to do?   Ahem, keep reading, “…those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Really? Because my flesh seems to be alive and kicking, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”

There it is.  My flesh is alive and kicking; it’s true.  It’s got to be crucified moment by moment.  It’s a continual act of turning away from the flesh and toward the Spirit.  That’ll probably be easier to do in the Holy Land, right? Ha-ha.  That’s funny.

Alright, guys, I’m headed out one more time this afternoon.  I’m not coming home tonight until I have located one pair of sunglasses, two travel umbrellas, a pile of cash in small denominations, and a well-fortified sense of humor.

Because tomorrow, my friends, we go to Israel.

“…the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ,

will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

Amen, Come, Lord Jesus.

(I Peter 5:10)