Category Archives: Health and Wellness

Pain Free

IMG_3098Sitting by the fire looking out over the snowy March landscape outside my window, I think of Emily Dickinson, a writer who perfected her craft as she dealt with health challenges throughout most all of her short life. My destiny has been the opposite. In uncompromising good health until a few weeks ago, I have avoided having to perform creative activities, or the simple tasks of daily living while being sick or in ill health.

A bout of the flu here, an allergic reaction there, mostly I’ve been blessed with opportunities to put my whole self into whatever projects and goals attracted my fancy. Like most people, I’ve been unrealistic at times, creating stress and strain by demanding more of myself than is possible for a single human being. Perhaps we identify our limits by pushing past them on occasion. Perhaps we stretch our capabilities by using the second wind that appears after the first one dissipates.

In my 30s I got good at pushing myself beyond my limits and then with the help of artistic practices, learning how to heal into a place of ease and balance. Later on, there was the juggling act of family roles and professional goals, self-care practices to stay healthy while supporting family members going through their own health challenges.

My initiation into the world of ill health began with sixteen days of excruciating headache pain. I became engrossed in symptom relief; hot showers and cold compresses, Advil, essential oils and naps while we hunted for medical professionals who could get to the bottom of it all and return me to the world of the well. Occasionally, there were short opportunities for normalcy, to teach a class or attend a dance concert, but life as I had known it seemed long ago and far away.

Finally, dramatically, I got to the right professionals, got the correct diagnosis and most importantly, the potential disaster of losing my eyesight was averted. Gratitude for that as I live into my new role as a patient in recovery.IMG_3099

My father always said, there’s a bit of poison in every medicine, and the miracle drugs western medicine has developed are no exception. The challenge now is managing both the short term and long-term side effects of the medication that is keeping me pain free.

My view of what’s realistic and doable under my present circumstances demands constant discernment. I must be cautious and careful, mindful of what energy is from the medicine and what energy is truly my own. Slowly, carefully, I’m returning to the physical practices that have kept me healthy in the past; a half a yoga class here, 45 minutes of Zumba there. Health challenges are always a reminder of our fragility but also of the gifts of a good night’s sleep, the love and support of friends, and gratitude for the opportunity to move pain free throughout our world, for however long that is possible.

 

Happy Merry Us

happy-holidaysWhen I googled “Holiday Stress” this morning, I got 7 million, 500 thousand items. Top picks were articles and blogs attempting to help people manage their holiday stress. As an expert on dealing with tough stuff, I feel obliged to jump into the fray of suggestions for surviving and thriving this holiday season.

Let’s first look at the stress we create for ourselves.

  • What about the big deal hassles over the proper way to wish a friend a happy winter holiday? In an effort to be inclusive of all citizens, the White House has sent Happy Holiday cards for the past 8 years. Some Christians take that as an insult, as a “war on Christmas.” Some Jewish people have their own issues on greetings at the holidays. Coming out of my health club yesterday I overheard a couple of Jewish women ridiculing a non-Jewish woman’s mispronunciation of Hanukkah, or Chanukan. (For those who don’t know, to pronounce either word correctly, a soft guttural clearing of the throat needs to precede the H or C.) And this matters why?
  • How come we expect our holiday season to always and continuously, be happy? This unrealistic obligation pumps pressure into all our activities; In searching for just the right gifts, planning decorations and menu items we’ve seen in magazines, addressing holiday cards to business contacts that reflect our brands, and writing an annual letter to friends and family recounting all the happy successes of the past year.

Meanwhile in the real word – life continues as usual – people get sick, family members disagree, loved ones die, accidents happen, and bad weather delays travel plans. Instead of blaming ourselves, one another, or the gods, for this unexpected bad timing –

How about…

1) Lowering our expectations, it’s just a fleeting season of the year

2) Calling on helpers, both seen and unseen, while reaching out to help others

3) Saying yes to whatever cannot be avoided and asking ourselves “what good can come from this?

4) Continuing the radical self care practices that have kept us sane and healthy throughout the rest of the year  

5) Honoring those no longer with us by sharing stories of when they were here, or giving a gift in their name to a charity or cause they believed in

6) Connecting with previous experiences of peace, joy and love and bringing them into the present moments of this particular holiday season.

Allow me to wish you a blessed holiday season and a peaceful,  joy-filled New Year.

 

Love Sweet Love

What the world needs now is love,” lyrics Hal David, music Burt Bacharach

1-jyoti-black-hatI’m in the shower, preparing to attend a celebration of the life of one of my dearest long time friends, Jyoti King. The first lines of this song come to me….”love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s still too little of.” I guess it would be natural to think that the world has less love now that Jyoti’s left it, but the event organized by her husband Randall last Sunday, involving 60 or so friends and family members, taught me otherwise.

We gathered in an upper room of a restaurant in downtown Fort Worth Texas, and read Jyoti’s poems and other writings out loud for nearly three hours. Taking turns we added our own stories of Jyoti, whose life has meant so much to each of us these past 30 years. I spoke of my vast personal indebtedness by quoting one of my favorite African sayings, “I am because she is.”

Jyoti and Randall were midwives for Rich and I, for the behavioral health clinic we co-founded and directed, “Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. Jyoti was clinic manager for most of its ten years. She helped edit my first book, Stillpoint: The Dance of Selfcaring, Selfhealing, a playbook for people who do caring work. She left the clinic briefly to pursue her writing, but when my youngest son was diagnosed with AIDS, she returned to support me. When a year to the day later, her son was diagnosed with AIDS, we wept together, fearing we’d taken this sister bond too far.

When my friend Rose asked me to come and be with her as she was dying, Jyoti, a former childbirth midwife, encouraged me. “It’s in the coming in and the going out that there is the most light, when the veil between the worlds is lifted. It’s an honor and a privilege to be present at both occasions.”

Jyoti’s exit was one of the long, long, goodbyes that people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their family members endure. She and her husband and friends lived this journey for 12 years, before her death last month. There were many stories of lessons Jyoti taught before she got sick. Her son, whose ‘s been sober for 25 years now, told how no matter his mistakes, his mother always forgave him. When he had to go to prison Jyoti washed his feet to protect him. “She told me, keep remembering, you are just a visitor there.”

I shared some of the gifts Jyoti gave me during the course of her disease. Shortly after she was diagnosed I moved to Pittsburgh but I traveled back to Texas often. I always visited her, first in her home and then in the memory care center. Each trip on the plane I would caution myself, “She may not know you this time. Get ready for that.” But, though she eventually lost most verbal language, she always knew who I was. Perhaps better than I did.

Once we walked together in the garden of her home when she was still living there. I noted that she felt unsteady on her feet. Her once good coordination would flounder and she’s grab my hand going down stairs or on the uneven path. Having been a nurse, when she entered the memory care center, she saw herself as a nursing assistant, always looking out for the other residents. A film aficionada, she advised a staff member on movies the community would enjoy. On one visit she brought out a musical instrument, and played and chanting for me.

sheila-and-jyoti-2When my second book was in manuscript form, I brought it with me on a visit. I told her I knew she wouldn’t be able to help me with this book as she had the first one. “But I’d like you to bless it,” I said as I placed the binder in her lap. There were no words, but she took the binder and gently hugged it to her heart. She smiled and we both knew we were doing a ceremony.

On what turned out to be our last visit, I found her in the parlor of the memory care center alongside other residents. They were all seated before a television displaying a blank screen. She was rocking in a rocking chair and coming closer, I heard her singing to herself. I couldn’t identify the song but it was clearly a Texas boot-scooting two- step.

Hard Times Demand Playful Dancing

rich-laverne-lynnTwo days after the election I awoke with muscle aches and a hint of a sinus infection I thought I was finished with. But my overwhelming sensation? A savoring, after-glow from the play-based ritual my improv troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and I created last night.

We gather for rehearsal most Thursday nights and our practice is to play with “what’s up?” Two days after the unexpected seismic election it wasn’t hard to find the theme strongly on our hearts and minds.

Using dance, song, story, and stillness, (the birthright practices of our ancestors, wherever they came from), we created a safe container and ways to express ourselves as individuals and as a group.

Here’s how it works –

  • Warm up together physically in order to get in our bodies and to create a sense of a group body. Especially necessary after highly charged experiences that may have shut down our breathing or caused us to exit our bodies.
  • Use an InterPlay improv form or “game” that allows us to hear from each person as they express in words and movements- “what’s up?” for them.
  • Play with a partner to mine our stories about the over-arching topic, elections and U.S politics. In the form, “I could tell about….” we take turns naming memories or images that come to mind.
  • Select forms that allow people’s stories to exist side-by-side, creating for the observer a sense of the larger group story.
  • Using shape and stillness, we dance on behalf of people not in the room who are particularly affected by this election. (Immigrants, Muslims, people of color, disappointed young women and old women who will not live to see a woman president.)  
  • Create a song to lift our spirits to a hopeful future – Last night the line we sang and played with was, “The farther back we pull the bow string, the farther goes the arrow.”

As Mr. Rogers reminded us, “Play is the work of children.” I’m fortunate to have adults in my life willing to join me in connecting with our child within. That’s where our fears, disappointments, dreams, and creative energy reside. Play turns out to be a secret path to accessing what we need to move forward, individually and collectively, into a joy-filled future, no matter the circumstances.

Getting Back On The Horse

magnetIt’s nearly 5 months since my fall and it feels important to notice how far I’ve come. I can raise my left arm into the air almost as high as the right one. When my left hand is behind me, I can raise it slightly above my waist. There was a time when I couldn’t even get it behind me enough to try working towards this position. I’m moving through the world with more confidence, no longer afraid of falling when I venture out. I’ve been doing InterPlay movements more freely when I teach and when I practice alone. The next milestone will be going back to my Zumba dance class, something I have not felt ready to do until now.

Looking back over the past few months, I got some inspiration from one of the poems I wrote 20 years ago for my first book Stillpoint, which was on self-care. At that time I was visiting my son Kevin who was on the gymnastics team of his university. During the particular meet I was able to witness, each member of the team, when it was their turn, fell off their apparatus and was unable to complete their routine. I was struck by the dejection and disappointment in their body language as they exited the space.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 28:  John Orozco of the United States of America competes in the pommel horse in the Artistic Gymnastics Men's Team qualification on Day 1 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at North Greenwich Arena on July 28, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Trained as a dance, I was used to the practice of covering a mistake, or at least not reacting to it with a grimace, or some body language that in theatre would be labeled “braking character.” As a dancer in the chorus I was trained to not react to a mistake or misstep but to proceed as though that was the way the routine was suppose to go. I imagined that if I had been the gymnasts’ coach I would have tacked the following note to their dressing room door –

Hey Team

Falling is not a giant zap from the gods

meant to embarrass, humiliate, or hurt you, but,

falling is one of the things that happens

in the process of “going for it,”

as you move too close to your growing edge.

It is a sign that you have made an error

and you need to;

BREATHE…….as in keep breathing

LAUGH……… as in keep releasing

GET UP…   as in keep moving

LAUGH………as in keep enjoying

and get back on the horse,

ring, barre, or floor!

SMILE…………as you uncover, discover,

recover, the lessons of each particular fall.

Momentum

physical-therapy“How long will it take,” I asked, “to heal my broken shoulder.” Everyone I spoke to, the doctor, the nurse, the physical therapist, all responded in the same vague, hesitant manner. Looking off into the distance they each said some version of “three, four months. Maybe six.” Someone who had actually had a shoulder injury said, “It was a year until I was totally back to where I was.”

Looking back now that I’ve made it to four months, and that I’m not where I want to be yet, I see that this unpredictability has made it hard to plan my future and to have realistic expectations of myself. Last week I traveled to California with my husband and I did very well. Moving swiftly through the airports and eyeing the folks in wheel chairs gave me a clear comparison of how far I’ve come since my first flight only a few days after my injury. On vacation I wasn’t able to continue my daily physical therapy exercises as I’d been doing at home, but I was active in ways I’m not in my daily life. Hiking on uneven terrain offered my biggest challenge but it’s hard to say how I would have done with two good shoulders.

Today I found out that Medicare has decided I’ve healed well enough because they are ending their reimbursements for my physical therapy sessions and my secondary insurance will cut off when Medicare does. I’m remembering this bazaar system from when my daughter was a physical therapist. At least a dozen years ago, Medicare established an arbitrary cap on the reimbursements it will make for a patient for Physical Therapy in a single calendar year. There is no accounting for where the patient is in their recovery, with the possibility of customization for patients who have experienced a heart attack or a stroke. Corinne was convinced that no one who knew anything about physical therapy and how it works was on the committee that wrote those guidelines. I am surprised that they haven’t been modified by now.

Routine is the foundation of momentum so I will need to establish a new pattern of actions to continue moving towards my full recovery. I don’t like the disruption but I am grateful that I have the resources to get the help I need. I realize that others in my situation are not as fortunate. As a feminist I know that the personal is also political, so when given the opportunity I’ll join my voice to that of the Physical Therapists and patients who have been trying for years to change this self-defeating system.

The Shift

healthSomething shifted this week, no doubt about it. Suddenly after all the days, weeks, and months of stretching and strengthening activities with the physical therapist and daily repetition of assigned exercises at home, it feels like I may finally be getting somewhere. My progress has been so slow these past three months; it’s been hard for me to perceive it. But whenever students or friends didn’t see me for a couple of weeks they often mention seeing improvements.

This week I noticed I can stand up straight more easily. This makes lots of other movements easier. The lower part of my shoulder seems to be providing support from underneath. As soon as I experienced this change I gave a sigh of relief. “Welcome back. I’m not sure where you’ve been but I’m glad to have you back on the team.”

This clearly perceptible change came the morning after I’d completed a writing project I’ve been working on all summer. Maybe it’s just a coincidence but my body felt a great deal lighter after I pushed the submit button. The next morning I noticed as I went for my walk, my whole body seemed to have rearranged itself into a new, more functional alignment.

“No pushing, no pulling, no lifting,” were the instructions I got when I broke my shoulder. These were critical restrictions and I heard them loud and clear and followed them religiously. But now I’m reaching out to challenge them, claiming and affirming each and every newfound skill and ability. Yesterday I pulled the car door shut from the inside with my wounded hand. Today I pushed open a heavy commercial glass door using that arm. In everyday activities I’m finding myself more willing to use my left hand, to give it a try

magnetAfter the deep relaxation of a Reiki session, I’m developing a new appreciation for the importance of relaxation to my recovery. It isn’t about doing nothing. It’s a purposeful “non-doing” that is as important to my healing as enriching my nutrition and taking plenty of naps for the restoration that only comes from sleep.

Our Lady of the Broken Wings

“You’re not as you were,” the doctor tells me as he shows me the x-ray of my shoulder. The picture has little meaning since I’m not totally clear on what the shoulder bones are suppose to look like. It’s three months since my fall, and after he directs me to push against his hands and reach up overhead he declares, “you are at 80 percent.”

IMG_1511I agree with his assessment but let him know I will not be satisfied until I have regained what was for me, a full range of motion. He’s careful to make no promises. He tells me to make an appointment in three months and continue physical therapy. If I am not satisfied with my recovery by then he will do an MRI and see whether there is any surgery that would help. If I’m satisfied with where I’m at that time, I can cancel the appointment.

Standing in the examination room with my husband as my witness I am grateful for yesterday’s conversation with Susan, a dancer friend from Chicago, about her own recovery from a shoulder injury. “I’m at 100 per cent. I’ve gotten it all back,” she says as she moves her left arm in a gigantic circle overhead and reaches behind her. She looks straight into my eyes when she says, “I wanted you to know that. It’s possible,” and then she tells me how she did it. Physical therapy twice a week, 20 minutes of exercise three times a day, and Reiki sessions weekly to deeply relax the muscles that are constricting the movement. In other words, it takes work but it’s doable.

At my favorite dress shop yesterday Helen, a woman who claims to be older than me though she won’t say how much, lifts her arm upwards to show me her range of motion. Her shoulder injury was more than five years ago and her arm is about like mine is now, but she’s satisfied. Somebody else can reach the items on the top shelf. In other words, it’s not only what you’re used to, but also what you’re planning to do in your future life. I’m still a member of the “going for the gusto club” though I realize it takes more effort than it used to.

Another dancer friend and mentor Cynthia, had a shoulder injury a couple of months before mine, (her right, my left). She’s nearly back to a complete range of motion and her recovery program included all of the above along with her spiritual practice of making art with whatever comes into her life. We’ve commiserated about our “broken wings” and when I saw her at InterPlay’s national conference she gifted me an art piece she created out of found objects. It’s a shrine to honor our brokenness – individual and collective, to call on the energies of renewal and restoration, and to remember our bones, and other body parts need lots of love, commitment and a caring community in order to heal. 

The Pain of More Than Halfway There

Neck-pain-generalAfter ten weeks and the twice-weekly Physical Therapy sessions and daily exercises, I am no longer managing with only one hand. The injured arm still needs strengthening but that’s starting to happen, so being able to drive seems to be in my near future. Monday I get on a plane to Chicago on my way to Racine WI where I will chair the national board for Body Wisdom, the organization that oversees InterPlay. It will feel good to be in a useful role and in community again after so much alone time this summer but getting there feels more than a little daunting.

Several weeks ago the woman who cleans my house and who had broken her wrist several years ago, told me, “It hurts more later on, when it’s healing.” I did not want to hear that and I was hoping that my experience wouldn’t be the same as hers in that regard. But she was right. For me, it’s not just that the shoulder and arm are healing, it’s that I’m challenging them everyday, trying to unfreeze that shoulder, stretch the muscles and strengthen them to regain my range of motion. Every gain brings new discomforts.    

20050622-9562-painYesterday as I was getting emails about taking a train from the airport to a particular stop in Chicago to meet up with someone who would be driving to Racine, I got in a pretty cranky mood. “Nobody’s getting that I only have a hand and a half to lug my suitcase,” I’m thinking, “although a hand and a half is better than only one.” The low-grade pain running down my arm was a big part of the problem and the ice pack I put on after my exercises had not helped to any great extent. Reflecting on it later I am amazed at the people whose every action in life is accompanied by a certain level of pain. The next cranky person I meet, I’m going to take this possibility into consideration and be in awe of their heroism.

 

 

 

Discovering the Elusive Obvious

The quality of your life is the quality of your movement.” Moshe Feldenkrais moshe

I awoke the other morning to the above quotation, and it felt like one of my most respected teachers had come to give me a message of encouragement. Now deep in the daily discomfort and pain of rehabbing my shoulder, I’m longing for a return to the broad range of easeful movement I’ve experienced most of my life. I met Moshe in Dallas in the spring of 1981 when I drove from Fort Worth where I lived, to take part in a daylong workshop he was presenting. I’d heard of him through the Alexander Technique, http://alexandertechnique.com/ another system of somatic education I was involved with, and I knew this was a rare opportunity. Looking at his bio, my meeting with him came just before he stopped teaching in the fall of 1981. He died at age 80 in 1984. In spite of the short time I spent with him, the experience changed my life. http://www.feldenkrais.com/whatis

Moshé Feldenkrais was an Israeli physicist with a black belt in Judo who hurt his knee in a soccor match as a young man. He became an engineer and eventually founded a method of somatic education that uses gentle movements and directed attention to improve movement and enhance human functioning. One of the books he wrote around that time was titled, ”The Elusive Obvious.” wikipedia.org

Something happened just prior to my driving the thirty miles to Feldenkrais’s workshop that set the experience up as a life changing one for me. The night before I had gotten a call from one of my students who told me that the job I had held for two years as a social work professor at TCU, the one that had been listed nationally simply to fulfill the university’s affirmative action requirements, the same job that had been promised to me when I moved my family from Nebraska to Texas two years earlier, had been offered to a white male without a PhD. That morning I had decided to put this entire trauma drama out of my mind and attend the workshop as planned. But as I was driving I noticed my body going into a familiar response to extreme stress, so I pulled over to the side of the road and stopped my car.

Sitting in the drivers’ seat I began doing body awareness exercises to interrupt a movement pattern I had recognized in other situations of extreme stress. Ten years earlier two teenage boys had jumped me after I came out of my neighborhood bank and was attempting to get into my car in the parking lot. As I was sitting at the steering wheel and before I could get the door closed, one boy grabbed me to pull me out of the car. With the boy still attached to me, I slid across the front seat to the passenger side, unlocked the door and exited the car, all the while screaming at the top of my lungs. Shortly after I got home, the police called to say they had caught the boys. An off duty police officer happened to be at the bank observing the scene. He gave chase and captured them. The aftermath for me was the worst headache I’d every experienced and a toothache that resulted in my losing one of my front teeth.

It was that familiar sensation of tension above my front teeth that caused me to stop the car. “I may lose my job, but I’m not going to lose any more teeth,” I pledged to myself. I went into a meditative state to release the tension in my mouth and continued doing this even after I resumed driving. I arrived at the workshop just as it was beginning.

awarenessthroughmovementI joined the roomful of people lying on the hotel ballroom floor doing the slow relaxing and releasing exercises directed by the master. I noted the pleasure of moving without tension, of having my awareness completely in the moment. Whenever my mind wandered away from the awareness of my movements, the trauma drama of losing my job triggered painful tension in my gut and my upper jaw. I got the image of myself as an animal opening its mouth to bare its teeth to an aggressor.

It was at Moshe’s workshop that I noted not only how my body reacts to painful events in the external world, but also how to pattern interrupt these reactions, preventing them from continuing to harm me long after the event has ended. I discovered that choice point of the “Elusive Obvious” where, though it takes practice – when life gets tough, I can choose the pleasure of staying present to my body, and continuing aware of ways to move with ease and grace.