Back on track

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I’m trying to get to bed earlier. It’s a continual challenge. But it was going well this week — until last night, when I stayed up doing family history research until 3 (!!!!) a.m.

Then I went to bed and dreamed that I was driving along a ridge, across the grass and dirt and rocks, at high speed. I wanted to be on the highway that ran parallel on my right. But I was having a very hard time getting there.

Gee, I wonder what that was about?

I have written frequently about my ongoing efforts to get on track, stay on track, get back on track. I think about it even more frequently — like, pretty much every day.

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The raveled sleeve of care

Two months ago, my mother drew her last, labored breath. I woke up this morning from a brutal, punishing dream with a brutal, punishing headache that hasn’t let up.

And yet, I am writing: scribbling in my journal, typing on my laptop. Writing poems, or bits of them — a dangerous pastime, given that I really don’t know how to write poetry. Everything I’ve written today is about loss, and grief, and fear — mostly fear of loss and grief.

I also fear failure. But in a fit of recklessness — or, let’s call it, freeing myself from perfectionism — I’ve decided to post this one.

Carnegie Tech detail

What We Wanted
An alma mater sweatshirt,
ash and rust, scarcely worn:
Dad made his own warmth.

After he died
I took a year to claim it, gingerly,
from the closet of leftovers
nobody wanted.

I wanted.

Once redeemed
it hugged me through four long, bitter
New England winters. Then:
an elbow hole. This spring the hole
blossomed and grew,
leaving more hole
than sleeve.

Sorely worn. But still I wear it.

Now Mom’s closets are empty.
We took what we wanted,
gave away the rest.

A painting, some muu muus.
A raveled sleeve.

Who will redeem this hole?

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

A time to sit

This morning I paced around my house, as I often do, trying to settle into my daily prayers.

Most days I’m distracted by my to-do list and the feeling that I should be getting on with the day. This morning, tired and achy and a little sad and lonely, I could tell that it was a day to take it easy. A day to quiet my mind—the voice pestering me to get things done—and listen to the slow, sad, tired voices of my body and my spirit.

It’s been almost a year since I quit my job and launched this blog to chronicle my journey. Inwardly, it has been a year of exploration and discovery, even revelation. A year of deep valleys but also some peaks, or at least foothills.

Outwardly, though, it looks like a desert year. A year of unemployment (semi-voluntary though it is). A year of illness and long-term treatment that is only beginning to show results. A year of slow progress on this Mary Oliver Challenge, the challenge of learning to be myself and to love what I love.

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Patient

A couple of weeks ago, we had glorious spring weather. The cherry trees blossomed. Then, last Monday, it snowed. Not the here-this-morning, gone-by-afternoon flurries we expect in early April, but snow, hail, and sleet that kept falling all day. After that came temperatures in the 20s. I took my long underwear back out of the drawer. I’m wearing it now.

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The hail and the cherry blossoms.

Hang in there, we tell each other. Spring will return. We just have to be patient.

And it’s true. February-in-April won’t last. It’s in the 40s now—not balmy, but at least the pipes won’t freeze.

Here’s my problem: this unpredictably nasty weather is a discouraging echo of my health. I’m feeling better—oh wait, now I feel crummy again. My fatigue has lifted. Nope, this morning I lay in bed for 20 minutes before summoning the energy to sit up. My back pain has lessened. But now my legs hurt. The memory problems are worse than before—as far as I can remember.

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Not so tough

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Photo by Malene Thyssen/Wikimedia Commons

The last couple of weeks have been kind of rough. I started antibiotic treatment for one or more chronic tick-borne infections. (In my last post, when I called the diagnosis chronic Lyme disease, I spoke too soon. It’s probably another infection, Bartonella, and maybe persistent Lyme as well.)

As advertised, the antibiotics are producing something called a Herxheimer reaction. My body’s reacting not to the drug itself, but to the dying bacteria and the toxins they spill into my bloodstream. Typically, Herxheimer reactions intensify the underlying symptoms. In my case, that mainly means fatigue, muscle pain, sleeplessness—when the back pain keeps me awake—and headaches.

It’s all pretty yucky, but none of it is absolutely horrible. And it means the antibiotics and my immune system are doing their job, killing bugs. There’s no way around it; I just have to ride it out.

But that doesn’t mean I have to tough it out.

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My false god

Chaplin_-_Modern_TimesI was on the phone with an old friend, catching up. He had read some of my blog posts and wanted to hear more about what’s happening in my life. And he asked some perceptive questions. Like this one:

“You’ve use the word ‘productivity’ a few times. Tell more about what you mean by that.”

Without stopping to think, I blurted out: “It’s my false god.”

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‘Soften where you feel the stretch’

 

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Photo by Sarah Bass

One of my current favorite yoga videos is 47 minutes and 32 seconds of slow, gentle stretching—no strength-building balance poses, no sweat-inducing vinyasas. Just deep, relaxing stretches.

That’s not to say it’s entirely easy. The loud groans you hear coming from my living room are the sound of muscles reluctantly giving up some of their tightness and soreness.

Or rather, they’re the sound of my mind reluctantly giving up some of its impulse to clench those muscles—a subconscious impulse, born of the subconscious feeling that I need to defend myself at all times. Somebody might criticize me. I will certainly criticize myself. So I tighten my jaw, my neck, my legs, as if that can ward off the psychological blows. In trying to protect my “soft animal” from mortal injury, I trap it in an iron cage, where it is impossible for it to love what it loves.

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My six-week perfectionism detox (and its imperfect outcome)

I’m six weeks into the Mary Oliver Challenge. How’s it going?

I’ve been away a lot. The challenge of being myself, of believing that I am good enough—with all of my shortcomings, needs, and desires—goes with me wherever I go. But it’s strongest when I’m at home. That’s when everyone else is carrying out their normal lives of work and family responsibilities, while I live in this artificially self-centric world I have created.

In Mary Oliver’s poetic words, the challenge is to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves. So the very first step is to persuade myself that the challenge itself is a good idea: that taking time off to work toward self-acceptance is is neither selfish and hedonistic, on the one hand, nor self-destructive on the other.

I’m still working on that first step.

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6 nightmares of highly effective people

Nightmare 1: You waste time. A lot of time.

Nightmare 2: You tell yourself it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. You make mistakes. You don’t necessarily learn from them.

Nightmare 3: You stay up ridiculously late on Ancestry.com, even though you have not fully recovered from a two-day period of unexpected and unsettling fatigue.

Nightmare 4: Despite #3, you start the day with energy and motivation for some needed house cleaning. But then you spend your time on Ancestry.com and solitaire instead.

Nightmare 5: You have all the time in the world to do things you love—reading novels, walking in the woods, personal writing, family history research—and to catch up on projects you’ve been wanting to get done. You do a bit of those things, but spend a mind-numbing amount of time playing solitaire and perusing Facebook.

Nightmare 6: You have all this time because you quit your job with the goal of learning how to “just be.” Your sense of self depends too much on what you are able to get done, so you set the goal of doing only what you feel like. When a friend says he would flounder without structure in his days, you can only nod and try to explain the seeming paradox: you have deliberately created a situation in which you often feel that you are undermining yourself. Unsurprisingly, your friend is confused by this decision.

In the past five days, I have lived all of these nightmares. I call them that because they’re the opposite of what you expect from responsible, highly effective people, those with oodles of self-discipline and excellent habits that help them get where they want to be in life. Sometime in my 30s or 40s, I finally stopped having the forgot-my-gym-clothes-can’t-find-my-locker-don’t-know-the-combination-lost-my-class-schedule-can’t-find-the-classroom dreams that had followed me since junior high school. These are the new version.

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Unearned blessings

A few mornings ago, as I wandered around my backyard draped in my tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (don’t ask), I felt the urge to finish up my prayers so that I could get on with what I’m supposed to do.

That outlook was bad enough when I had a schedule to keep. Prayer is what I’m supposed to do, I would remind myself. It’s the way I’ve chosen to start my day. It’s not something to get out of the way so I can commence with the real stuff.

Now that I have quit my job and am not “supposed to” do anything, my impatience is just plain ridiculous. But the other day, the thought struck me from a different direction: I feel the need to finish counting my blessings so that I can start earning them.

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