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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
No. I tried the thing you were supposed to do if you couldn’t manage a handstand. Then I tried the thing for people who can’t manage the substitute.
I couldn’t do any of them. But I tried a few times, attempting to push away the thoughts about how ridiculous I looked. When the disabled war veteran keeps falling in that inspirational yoga video, it’s … inspiring. When I do it, not so much.
“Never Give Up,” the video caption says.
At this moment in my life, that’s a complicated message. I’m trying to break my dependency on measurable goals and achievements. I’m trying to accept myself in my current, unimproved state. If “Never Give Up” means “Never Be Satisfied With Where You Are In Life,” then it is the wrong slogan for me.
But I do have goals. One goal is to try things out, even when I’m afraid of them. (Like this whole blog, and the Mary Oliver Challenge itself.)
A related goal is not to stop trying just because the first attempt fails. So in class today, when I put my hands on the floor and my feet against the wall and they slid right back down, I tried again, and again, and again.
It didn’t get easier. I didn’t see any improvement. I may never achieve a handstand, and I’m not setting that goal. But if I’m in a class where handstands are on the agenda, I’ll give it another shot. I might give up on specific goals. But I won’t give up on myself.
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.
Today is the first full-fledged day of the Mary Oliver Challenge, and it is a challenge. My soft animal is feeling the sharp, pointy teeth and claws of anxiety. The challenge is to grapple with that feeling instead of letting it take over or pushing it into a corner where it will lurk, glaring at me and waiting to pounce again.
My last day of work was Tuesday. Wednesday, we left for vacation. Last night, after we returned, I immediately began to feel the pressure of Getting Stuff Done. I unpacked from our trip and started the laundry. Then I set aside time to write in my journal. There was so much else to Get Done: emails, household chores, putting away the stuff I brought home from work and dumped on my dresser last week. Plus things I wanted to do, including writing a blog post and responding to friends who gave me such kind, supportive feedback on the first post. (If you are one of those friends: thank you! I haven’t forgotten you.)
But I reminded myself: there will always be Stuff To Do. I have to learn to live with that. And I made two resolutions for the next day: I would not stress out over chores, and I would not stress out over whether to go to the $5 yoga class that meets downtown on Mondays.