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yoga exercise abstract

     Meditation, in all its various colors, has hit the mainstream.   It used to be just the hippies and alternative people who flocked to a room somewhere back in the 60s and 70s to learn transcendental meditation. I was one of them. My friend was one of the “alternatives” and invited me to a session that he was attending. Sounded interesting. I was given a mantra and taught how to relax my mind and silently repeat that mantra over and over again. When my mind wandered, gently bring it back to that nonsensical word and continue to silently and effortless repeat it. We were taught to practice that for 20 minutes twice a day. I did, and have been for years. Now it’s 30 minutes once a day about 5 times a week. During my college years I lapsed and had intermittent on/off periods during my high driving career years. But for a number of years now it’s been a regular practice, not “TM” but rather insight meditation has taken its place. That practice has made a major impact on my patience level, sense of peace and contentedness, clarity of thought and abiding sense of internal joy. Medical research now proves the physical and mental benefits of an ongoing meditation and mindfulness practice. Dozens of articles have been written about it and books extolling its benefits include its step-by-step process. But few have the emotional impact and first person case study that prominent neurosurgeon Dr. James R. Doty’s has in his memoir Into The Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart. Wow is the superlative that comes to mind.

     Dr. Doty is now a professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University. But, as he tells it, it’s a fluke that he actually attended college at all, not to mention become a successful and prominent neurosurgeon. He doesn’t use the word fluke he calls it magic and weaves a compelling tale of being a young boy and meeting a woman in a magic shop who seduced him by promising the ultimate magic trick that would change his life. He was to spend his 12 weeks of summer vacation with her learning the trick. And if he practiced the trick, even at home, he could have anything he wants in life. That would be truly amazing since he came from a very poor family with a drunken father who couldn’t keep a job and bedridden, clinically depressed mother who had to continually pack up the family and move when they got evicted from apartment after apartment for not paying the rent.

     The trick, as Dr. Doty relays, was learning to meditate and then manifest his dreams. With regular practice and a deep, sincere desire for those goals to materialize along with visualization and the trust that they would – his life could change. Would change. This book tells that story of how his dreams came to pass. Along the way he shares the step-by-step process that this woman, Ruth, taught him. His abiding hope is that others will learn the way too.

It’s a profound read that is hard to put down.

 

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Who knew that bringing in the newspaper Monday morning would change my life. It was just an ordinary morning, arriving home from my daily dog walk and reaching into the newspaper receptacle as I do every morning. What looked like an innocent stack of leaves instantly turned into a sled on top of slick water once I stepped on them. They were still damp from periodic rains we’d experienced, much appreciated after our 7-month drought. Today, for some reason I lost my balance and toppled onto the street, twisting my ankle on the way down. Crack. There it was, loud and clear. And in that instant I fractured my fibula.

brokenankle1

As a child I broke my ankle after falling off of somebody’s shoulder on the playground and lived in a white cast for weeks, I think. The only thing I remember about that experience was the extreme immediate pain and then total inconvenience for, what seemed like, an eternity.

brokenankle2This time, a boot stuffed with soft fleece and fastened by super Velcro will live on my lower right leg for 6-weeks. Can’t put any weight on it or drive for the duration. What a difference life can bring when living on one leg.

Our first floor has been rearranged. My bathroom is now downstairs and handicap equipped. The guest room is now my sleeping quarters and pants that can fit over a big boot have become my clothes of choice. Rugs have been rolled up. One slip on shoe with a rubber traction sole is all I can wear. Getting in and out of bed as well as on and off sofas and chairs are new challenges to be mastered. This boot is heavy and lugging it around over a broken ankle is not for the misty eyed. It’s a lead weight so I’m learning to flex my foot, charge my thigh and engage my core before lifting that leg. Who knew?

After day one I was convinced those nasty crutches were not my solution to getting around. So ingenuity had to prevail in a number of ways.

Aha! The rolling chair in my office could serve as a make-shift wheel chair with my left leg as the engine and my arms as the navigators. Multi-tasking is a must. So when I go to the kitchen I envision everything I’ll need for a meal, dump it on my lap and wheel to the counter. When I strategically position myself, I can stand up and reach 80% of what will be necessary for that meal. Sometimes a couple of chair trips will finish the task. Believe it or not, it exerts a lot of energy to stand up, sit down and motor around on one leg – all day. I’m “feeling the burn” as they say, in my left thigh and glutes as though I’m working through leg rotations in the gym. But on just one leg.

As a yoga practitioner for many years I understand correct body alignment and the need for stretching to avoid injury so I’ve figured out how to stretch my hamstrings and do hip openers. On both legs! Extra precaution is taken on my right side to keep my lower leg stabilized. But, surprise, I can also do thigh lifts so I’m not too weak when I get that leg back. I want this sucker off as soon as possible – with my knees, thighs and back aligned and intact!

Bathing is now mastered, while also keeping that durn right boot dry. Laundry was my new challenge today. My husband helper brought all the dirty clothes fit to be washed to the laundry room. The rest I can do! Wheel, stand, wheel, stand – load, unload and fold, slowly. In fact everything now is much slower. It takes twice as long to accomplish tasks I took for granted on two legs. As I write I’m sitting on our back deck enjoying a 50-degree, beautiful sunny day. All by myself I’m proud to say. How? Ha! Loaded everything I needed onto my lap grabbed my crutches and wheeled to the patio doors where I stood, lifted one wheel at a time over the runners and sat down on the other side. Whee! I have my chair outside and my crutches inside the door – just in case I happen to need them. Victory!

I’m learning that slowing down is not a bad thing. Reading for longer periods at a time is good for my brain. More frequent meditation is healthy for my soul. Taking late afternoon naps to restore energy used up in my daily motoring is refreshing. I’ve read that slowing down inspires creativity. It does.

I also have utter empathy and compassion for all the long-term disabled people whose lives were also changed in an instant. I’m lucky, in 6-weeks I’ll have two functioning legs again. Those people won’t. I’ll resume hiking, walking my dog, practicing yoga, enjoying water aerobics and driving my car again. Most of those people won’t. I feel accomplished when mastering new methods for mundane tasks. Their challenges far surpass mine. And yet those people often master extreme challenges exerting much more effort than I have to.  I’m most fortunate.

Now, though, it’s time to maneuver back into the house, through the living-room, down the hall and into the laundry room to unload the washer and load the dryer. Wheel, navigate, stand. Wheel, stand. Wheel, stand. And this is day 4. But who’s counting?

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housebegoniasI sit here on my deck amidst dense trees and window boxes lush with flowering red begonias. The wind is blowing gently and there’s a faint rustle in the air. Life is good here in the woods. I’ve missed you.

Gone is the endless hustle bustle of the city. The traffic racing past, cyclers, skate boarders, runners, horns blowing, sirens shrieking – whew! The sounds of nature once again fill my psche and renew my soul. I’ve become a country girl. 20 years of living like this has changed my constitution, literally. Everything inside me has slowed down. I can once again hear myself think, sense my intuition and feel joy. I’m not racing anymore.housewoods

Some people thrive on the hectic and energetic lifestyle of a city. I used to. Back in the day when I lived in Pittsburgh I longed for a more active environment. When asked if I liked living there I’d say I don’t intend to die there. I was after more action. And later in Chicago I got it. Though we didn’t live in the city I was there every day and many evenings after work. I loved Chicago. It was rich in all categories: sports, theater, food, shopping and entertainment.

woodsneighborhood1Moving to Knoxville, TN was a culture shock – for years. But we bought the right house in a perfect neighborhood and it’s been home for 20 years now. And I’ve come to realize that it’s the woods that my body craves. It’s very much alive in different ways than the city. There are birds that sing and insects that talk and squirrels that bark if you get too close. woodsneighborhood3And the rain sounds delicious, rather than bothersome. I’m home here, and though I truly love Boston, I’m not home there anymore. I used to be. I used to get off a plane, smell the salty air and smile from ear to ear. I still love that city and the whole of New England.woodsneighborhood2

But one thing I now know for sure. Though I don’t have to always live in Knoxville, I do need to live within nature. It’s become who I am. Ahhhh…. I’m home.

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It started most recently at our Thanksgiving gathering of 22 members of my husband’s clan and celebrating the 33rd birthday of one niece, the 2nd pregnancy of our niece-in-law and cajoling my 93-year-old father-in-law out of a recent bad dream. There was that nagging sense that time is flying by. That we are now the age of our parents when they hosted these family get-togethers, back when our nieces and nephews were the infants and toddlers.

Back then my father-in-law played the invisible stair game with those little ones as the rest of us went looking for the “missing” kiddos, searching the house and carefully stepping over giggling youngsters on our mission to find them on the 2nd floor. Today they’re grown and invent games for their babies at this holiday gathering while we “oldsters” prepare dinner. Whew!

Left to my own internal clock I’m in my late 30’s with a healthy body and exuberance for living and no children to mark the passage of time. I’ve discovered yoga, hiking, biking and healthy eating and, so far, my body hasn’t betrayed me. My 60th birthday left me scratching my head and thinking about time. That more of it is behind me than ahead. When did that happen?

We’re now entering 2015. Friends and siblings are grandparents! GRANDPARENTS? My dearest childhood friend died from cancer last year. A woman in my jewelry class just suffered a massive heart attack that ended her life. She was 66. Other close friends are experiencing serious health challenges. Three of our pets are senior citizens. My father is 91 with health issues.

These are things that weren’t part of my world in my 20s, 30s and 40s. Life had so many years ahead. I was ensconced in a vibrant pulse of daily tasks with no thoughts about the beginning of the end.

Is a changing perspective part of the aging process?

Today I’m called ma’am everywhere. Ads no longer target me, neither do TV shows. Everyone at work is younger. My idea of social media is Facebook. Have no idea about the myriad other ways younger folks communicate. Evidently not much happens face to face anymore. And my silver hair is no longer novel. Now it’s expected!

And guess what? I don’t care. I DON’T CARE!  Now life is so much richer with understanding how precious each day is. Everyday I wake up and feel good is a day to celebrate and appreciate. Friends are more important. Work is much less important. I don’t have a yearning to acquire and strive to greater things. My testiness threshold is greater, I’m more easily satisfied and I’ve discovered how hobbies foster creative growth.

I’m joyful, content and at peace – most days. And I know I’m gonna die at some point. And that’s why each day, with its inherent challenges, is to be appreciated and lived without regret. It’s a miraculous gift to live this human life. That fills me with awe.

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karmaAs I sat moaning in the chair I figured it was karma that took me down, that “what comes around goes around” thing that threatens people with payback for behaving unbecomingly.

Id recently boasted to a sick friend that I never get sick.  Then whammo the hammer fell.  Sick?  Me?  It had been years!  But there was no mistaking the progressive worsening of my breathing, a deep guttural cough that ripped apart my ribs and sternum and my foggy head that wouldn’t allow me to concentrate to read or enjoy anything on TV.  I couldn’t even sit still for long before breaking into coughing spasms.  And lying down to sleep? Forget about that; I couldn’t even fall asleep at night let alone catch a few daytime zzzzs.  Maybe the steroid was the culprit that pumped me with too much energy to relax and doze off.  Between that pill, the steroid nose spray and the doxycycline I was supposed to feel better in a couple of days.  So much for the doctor’s promise.  Instead I got worse and the upper respiratory distress went deeper and turned into bronchitis that called for a stronger antibiotic.

justicescales.jpegFor the last two weeks of April I wondered if I’d ever feel like me again.  Was I destined to fight for breath, cough my ribs apart and sound like a croaking frog when I tried to talk?  Would I ever fall asleep again?  While I wandered around the house and yard feeling sorry for myself and caught an hour or so of TV at night before retiring to my bed to sit the night away — I realized the following ….

  1. Breathing is not over-rated.  That silly comment has always been my stand by retort to my husband each time he reminded me that 5 cats and 1 dog are enough animals for 1 household.  That his asthma, though controlled and manageable, is not a pleasant experience in the pollen capitol of the country here in E. TN.  He’s used to not breathing easily.  I’m not.  And this experience is enough to make me consider relocating to a better ventilated part of the country.
  2. I’ve always taken my good health for granted.  Now in my late 50s it’s rare for me to be under the weather.  I’ve had a couple of health scares in my life, but just a couple.  OK, maybe a few and when they occur they’re doozies.  I don’t tend to get something simple, instead it’s things with weird symptoms, one series of which prompted a trip to the Mayo Clinic to discover it was cat scratch fever.  And then there was a surreal episode of transient global amnesia which lasted probably 12 hours when my short-term memory took a vacation, leaving me no idea what day it was or what any of my calendar notations meant.  Doctors still don’t know what caused it or whether it will ever happen again.
  3. My discipline comes from outside.  Who knew that my habit of snacking in the evenings in front of the TV was easily controlled by the dictates of an antibiotic that required an empty stomach for a final night-time dose.  Never mind that I’ve been trying to stop that pesky snacking for years.  Now, suddenly, because I wasn’t allowed to, I didn’t.  What’s wrong with my personal self-discipline?!
  4. I’m a bad patient.  Because I’m so rarely sick (notice I didn’t say never?) I don’t do sick well, especially if I can’t do something productive with time in the house.  Can’t read, watch TV, don’t want to eat or cook and can’t even sleep.  Yech.  Just wandering around and moaning was my activity of choice, that and feeling sorry for myself.  When I’m well I subscribe to the Buddhist notion that suffering can be avoided by accepting that life is filled with peaks and valleys and there will always be bad times as part of the human condition.  But somehow when I was sick, I chose to suffer.   At least I was able to observe that, right?
  5. Bug bites can be bad.  Who knew?  Working in the garden is fraught with potential disaster – fire ants, spiders, ticks, bee stings are all conspiring to make yard beautification dangerous.  A couple of years ago a thorn prick on my arm turned into a staph infection, again requiring antibiotics.  This year something jabbed my thigh and caused an allergic reaction.  I still don’t know what got me, though we’ve pretty much ruled out most things, leaving a spider bite as the highest probability.

AprilShell1So I’ve certainly lived April and the beautiful, calming curves of the conch shell signifying another month lived belies the turmoil in my life this month.  I suppose they can’t all be good.  And I have come out the other end, well again.  For that I’m extremely grateful.  On to May …

How was your April?

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JanShell1This month’s shell is pristine enough to be sold in a beach souvenir shop instead of where I found it, lying among other scattered shell fragments on a beach somewhere in Florida.  Shelling is a favorite past-time for tourists in Florida, for locals too I think.  It’s what I seem to do when walking the beach with my eyes glued to the sand to avoid stepping on sharp things.  I can’t help but pick up pretty shells to later put in one of the decorative bowls in my house.

FullBowlShellsThis one came from a specific bowl that I filled with 12 shells, each one signifying one month of life.  My intention is to stay aware of each month so I can appreciate the relationship of time and my life.  With this one gone, there are eight months left to this particular year.  When looked at that way, it becomes rather glaring that my days of life continue to tick away.  My how a year goes by quickly.  And what do I do with that time?

 January, was occupied by friends, mostly, and if not being with them then thinking about them.  Maybe that’s because of the underlying thread of death and dying that confronted me this month.  Of course there was my ongoing hospice work, but also a very dear man I know dropped dead suddenly, and a different very important friend is facing health challenges that threaten her longevity.  During times of losing someone or potentially losing someone the importance of relationships take center stage.  Or rather, threatening times make you realize how important relationships really are.  When facing death people don’t wish they’d worked harder or longer hours.  They tend to lament the amount of time spent with people they love.  So I’m taking time with good friends while I still live in blissful ignorance of my eventual demise.

Marilyn&MeFor starters there was Marilyn, a friend who dates back to early childhood.  Was I five when we first played together?  She lived two houses down from us and her family was my second family.  I showed up every Christmas morning, as early as my mother would allow, sometimes in my pjs to catch everyone opening their presents.  There was always one for me and later I’d asked if I could stay for dinner.  Never knew about proper etiquette back then.  Actually, I practically lived at Marilyn’s house – spent several school day afternoons each week there, summer vacations at the beach with her family (mine never took vacations), family picnics, many family dinners and countless overnights whispering the nights away together.  Her house was my escape hatch when family wars in mine became overbearing.  Now Marilyn says we’re better than sisters.  I have to agree, and it started … 50 years ago?  Oy vey!

rainbow01Marilyn is facing a serious health challenge now; it might be the fight of her life – for her life.  She lives in Florida and though I’m in Tennessee the distance is not keeping us from our necessary friendship.  She needs me and I need her; I’ve always needed her.  And we’ll get through this together, one way or another.  The first week of this month was spent at her house just when we received her mind numbing diagnosis.  Serendipity?

And then I came home to a text message from a former colleague and friend with the news about Jerry, how his wife discovered him the next morning and surmised he died in his sleep.  59 years old.  Friends, family and colleagues were stupefied by the news.  Say what?  Really?  How the hell … ?  And now Facebook is littered with photos of him and memories galore.  His wife, shell shocked.  And yet – what a way to go, huh?  One day you’re here living your life – and he lived his with gusto – and the next day it’s all over.  No pain, no suffering, no dreadful diagnosis that makes you evaluate your life.  If I got to choose, I’d make sure I enjoyed the living while the living was good – then checked out, Jerry’s way.

Well I do get to choose – at least the first half of the equation.  I do have the power to enjoy my life, love my friends and family and live with no regrets.  And so far – I’m right on target…

best_friends_sketch_by_0ouo0-d45uu73Which brings me to Judie.  She and I worked together many years ago in Pittsburgh during our radio days.  She was a reporter I was a producer and we were tight friends.  35 years later we still are – though we’ve lived separately in a few different cities since then.  Still do – she in California, me in Tennessee.  But when we catch up it’s as though our last conversation was yesterday.  Thanks to Facebook we stay in touch and just had one of our catch up phone calls the other day.  We talked about needing to get together soon and play because … you just never know, now do you?

I have a couple very dear friends here at home that I haven’t seen in a while – they moved recently and have become caught  up in their lives like I have in mine.  But that’s not a good excuse especially since we now live five minutes apart.

OK then – February will bring time together with them.

What have you done with your life in January?

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Marilyn&Me1My dear friend may have just been given a treasured gift or the worst nightmare of her life – depending on her attitude.   She received the kind of news that none of us ever wants to hear.  The majority of us approach each day with a nonchalant assumption that we have infinite tomorrows.  And she’s certainly no different in that she gets to live her life and someday die.  Marilyn2The difference between her life and mine is that her lifespan now has a calendar attached while I still exist in blissful ignorance of my last day.  Though she doesn’t really know either, she is aware of medical statistics that place the odds of living a long, healthy life in my favor and not hers.

Marilyn has metastatic pancreatic cancer that’s now in her liver too.  With a cocktail of chemotherapy drugs doctors might be able to keep the cancer in check for months, possibly years if she joins the small percentage of people who do.  And time will tell, assuming her tolerance to the drugs goes “reasonably well” (doctor parlance for “manageable side effects”).

While the clock is ticking Marilyn can live each day to its fullest, prioritizing her life in a way that few of us ever do.   I’ve put myself in Marilyn’s shoes, hypothetically, and here are the questions I’m asking myself …

Am I living my life the way I want to?  If not, what do I need to change?

            Who are the important people in my life I need to spend time with?

            Who are the people I need to forgive or ask for their forgiveness?

            What do I obsess about that I need to shed?

            Is there a dream I need to pursue before time is gone?

            Are there places on earth I’ve always wanted to visit?

            What is truly important to me?

            What do I need to stop doing?

What should I start doing?

            How often to I appreciate the specialness of each mundane day?

Where do I find joy?

Marilyn:BobAnswering those questions can be gifts to all of us, including Marilyn.  The key, then, is to change our lives accordingly, if necessary, so we can truly live out our days and not sleep walk through them.  Those of us who live in mystery of the end rarely take time to appreciate the daily spoils of life.

Meanwhile, my answers to those questions are still percolating around my system.  But I’m grateful for the wake-up call and send Marilyn ongoing wishes for healing while she processes those questions too.

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