I’m used to it. I grew up in places where electric outages were common. We’d just get on with our homework or reading or tending rescued kittens’ eyes or arranging little army men or what-have-you.
If it was after dark, a parent would call out calmly, “Everyone ok?” and we’d bring our projects to the living room, saving candles by having one well-illuminated space instead of five poorly-lit ones. It was cozy. Quieter than usual. Arguments rarely started when the electricity was out. It was too pleasant to spoil.
My housemates have different experiences entirely.
I live with two adults with wicked ADD. They NEED the TV. The tech-savvy one NEEDS internet. Sleep is out of reach if they can’t numb out their brains first.
I was soaking up the peace, purring inwardly with the candle glow and the outstanding peace.
No hums, no clicks, no TV, no wifi, no human-made radiation bouncing off my spinal cord and twizzling my brain with little egg-whisks.
I loved it.
Meanwhile, my two darling family members were going quietly insane.
They tried going to sleep to take refuge in unconsciousness until their lives became bearable again.
I could hear the ends of their nerves curling and uncurling, even through the closed doors.
They’d bounce up again in ten or fifteen minutes, one upstairs and one downstairs, and I’d hear them dashing quietly around in their unnaturally quiet spaces.
I sat in the squishiest chair in the living room, curled up like a clean kitten, soaking up the peace.
I’m usually more empathetic. If I could have thought of something to help, I’d have been glad to do it. Perhaps we’ll think of something next time.
At the heartless core of my practical brain, though, I found the thought that they get the evenings that make them comfortable almost all the time — only two evenings out of the past five months haven’t been fully electrified.
I only had one evening so far this winter that was great for me. I was going to make the most of it.
I stretched out in my super comfy spot and purred.
On average, it takes 2-5 days to adjust to a change in the weather. This is part of the fun and excitement of CRPS, dysautonomia, fibromyalgia, and all those lovely dysregulating diseases of pain and neurological shenanigans.
New Englanders like to say, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.” Clouds and sunshine chase each other swirlingly across the sky like teenagers at a party. Precipitation, in one form or another, is bound to happen at least twice a week.
However, up until recently, there was a pattern in the seeming chaos. October hosted the last of the 50-degree weather, December saw the first few inches of snow that really stuck, January and part of February were bloody cold, March was named Mud Month for good reason.
Bar the occasional storm front, when the barometer plunges like necklines at a Red Carpet party, I could live with that. Once it’s fall, it’s fall; once it’s winter, it stays winter, until it gets muddy, and eventually the glorious summer blesses us all and reminds us why we put up with the rest.
Over the winter holiday season, the naked (???) earth finally got dusted with snow. That quickly turned to sleet and then it froze (!!!). There were a couple of warm spells which didn’t melt the packed ice, just packed it further… we spent alternate days staggering over frozen rucks and through soggy mud, to try to maintain the dirt driveway.
Sunday, it was pushing 50 (like me), and raining cats and dogs; the ice finally melted — except for a few sneaky patches that merely absorbed the color of the sand so they could lurk, invisible, and slap down the unwary walker. Then it went down to well below freezing, and I got slapped down on a sneaky patch of ice because I forgot to wear friction doohickies on my boots. Last night, guess what? It snowed! We got almost 2 inches and we might get more.
I’m begging the weather gods to let it stay.
In the last few weeks, temperatures have seesawed between 20 degrees Fahrenheit above normal to 10 degrees below normal for this time of year (when it’s supposed to be simply bloody cold and frequently snowy.) Sometimes, we see that difference happen in one day.
So, if it takes 2-5 days to adjust to a weather change, and the weather is changing every day or three, what is a poor body supposed to do? Mine is whining. It’s just curling up in the chair and whimpering gently and steadily. It’s working so hard at handling the weather changes that showers and shampoos are something that happen to other people; there is no way this blood pressure and neurological system can take that much direct stimulus. A few swipes with a washcloth, a scarf or hat over the unwashed hair — it will have to do.
I still have to snap the leash on and drag this body outside at least once a day, but it’s duty, not fun. I’m sure I’m better for it afterwards — but I still climb straight back into the squishy chair, and let my body whimper for a bit.
The meteorologists on TV refer often to “the El Niño” effect, which makes me laugh. I’m pushing 50, remember? I’ve been through a lot of El Niño years, on both coasts. This isn’t El Niño. This is a huge bloody shift in the climate, and I don’t know how long it’ll last or where it will leave us.
I just hope it finds some consistency from day to day. As long as I have a few days to adjust, I’ll be fine. All I want is time to do something besides listen to my cells whimper!
I was holding off on blogging consistently until my brain was more consistently reliable — until I had enough improvement in my mental faculties. Reason intervened, and it got through the concrete that, longstanding CRPS being what it is, that could be a very long wait. Those of you looking for solid whacks of brilliance or coherence or good judgment, consider yourselves warned. This is real life, and, whatever is left of it, it’s time to live it anyway.
And, with that said, 2015 is left in the dust.
Waiting for perfection is obviously absurd. Anything with a pulse is still imperfect. Waiting for “enough improvement” is the mental sucker-punch that hides in perfection’s shadow. It cajoles me by not being perfect, but … define “enough improvement.” — See what I mean? Mental sucker-punch!
My tea, like me, is a work in progress at the moment. I sit here letting it steep, with my patches of exposed skin singing “zippity do dah!” every time something touches them, the silver and white day rising gently through my window, my insides solidly blocking the thought of food or pills for the foreseeable future (we’ll have to negotiate that later), J coming over to hug me against his side and give a pleased giggle that we’re reallly here and really together and we made it this far, and I find a perfect moment in it.
Living anyway. That’s the point. Well done, Isy.
Happy New Year.
May your hardships be balanced by your blessings.
May your love drown your pain.
For the many of us who live unbearable lives, may you have all the courage and wit and calm to bear it and find your moments of freedom.
Whatever you’ve got to live with, live anyway, and find the peace and joy there is even in the event horizon.
My heart is with you.
My desk setup is nonexistent and much of it still buried in unpacking. I wish I’d been writing some of the wonderful blog ideas that have passed through, but I didn’t. Rather than trying to reconstruct them from addled hindsight, I’ll just go on as if I had a whole nest of posts to plop this one into, and go on from here.
As my desk situation indicates, I still feel perched, rather than settled. I’m going to have to find a rental in the spring and then start looking for a miraculously good deal on a house to buy after that, so it’s hard to unpack all the way.
Moreover, California is still extending opportunistic tendrils into our wallets, task lists, and attention.
And then there are the periodic health crises: a bit of allergy exposure here, a bit of partner’s chest pain there, a sprained wrist from me overdoing, a sprained back from him overdoing… you know. Stuff.
Oh, and the holidays, with a trip and gifties to prepare, mostly for people I haven’t seen for over a decade… no pressure.
These aren’t excuses, they’re reasons. I don’t really believe in excuses; it’s largely an irrelevant concept. It’s for an injured party to decide if I’m excused, not me, so “offering an excuse” just doesn’t make sense. I have reasons, but so does everyone.
Here’s the thing I feel a need to mention my reasons for:
I’ve let my self-disciplines go. T’ai chi, qigong, meditation, reiki, relaxation exercises, stretching, even listening to chamber music — I think about them, but I don’t do them. I still have my morning routine, or at least half of it… if that… OK, yeah, my self-disciplines are pretty much out the window.
Like medication, meditation only works if you use it.
After weeks, actually months, of coping and managing with (and concealing, because that’s what chronically ill people do) my rising instability and neural chaos, I’ve finally started skidding off the cliff.
As for the effect… I’m trying to come up with a good image.
Imagine a patch of sea. I’m in a well-rigged little sailboat, noodling along in a fair wind.
The oil of willpower is constantly sprinkled on the water’s surface, keeping it smooth and flat, easy to sail along on.
Underneath, the weedy patches pluck at the propeller and keel, the barnacles grow restive and start plucking back, the creatures swimming underneath get bigger and more voracious, and then they get big enough to break the surface now and then.
More oil! Keep sailing!
Those surface-breaking tiddlers get chased off by the real mondo beasts. The boat is getting sprayed by the monsters breeching.
Everything’s fine, I’m too busy to pay attention, la la la la la I’m not listening!
Also, the wind is acting up. The boom is starting to swing across at head-height.
Just a little farther now! More oil! /BOOM/ It’s OK, I’m fine, just a flesh wound!
Unbeknownst to me (since I’ve got the radio turned off, because I’m not listening), there was a string of earthquakes.
Since Banda Aceh and the meltdown at Fukijima, we’ve all learned about how earhquakes make waves. The shock of the quake trundles happily along the ocean floor until the ocean floor rises towards the shore. Then it sucks the landward water into itself and brings it all back as a tsunami.
If you’re afloat and listening, you move out to deep water, sail over the bump without losing stability, and you’re fine. If not… cue exciting sound track and hire George Clooney for the (possibly race- and gender-inappropriate) lead in another disaster movie.
There was a wave and I wasn’t in deep water. I didn’t handle it well; I was dysregulated and chaotic for days. Days. I was so dysregulated and chaotic I didn’t even see that that’s what I was, until it was pointed out to me — by the person who’d just gotten butt-kicked by an earthquake. That is not a fair burden to put on someone who’s already having trouble.
I have a personal meme about being good to friends. This is important for us spoonies (as chronically ill people sometimes call themselves.) My disease treats me like crap, but that isn’t a license for me to treat others like crap.
People who are protected from the true impact of this illness need to not get it at close range, or they run away (understandably) feeling as if they just got burned.
People who have this illness can understand a lot more, but are able to do much less.
I have to communicate appropriately. That’s my job in each relationship.
Basically, humans are emotionally fragile creatures and — whether I want to be judgmental about it or not — I can either respect that, keep the worst of my crap to myself, and have good relationships; or I can expect them to be as tough as me and to do so on my schedule, neglecting that they have to be as tough as themselves on their own schedule, and wind up isolated. Because I’m human too, I’m emotionally fragile enough that being isolated sucks.
I absolutely dropped my backlog of frustration and pain and rage on someone who was about the last to ever deserve it. That’s quite a breach of trust.
I stopped taking care of myself. As a result, I fkdup and hurt someone else. Now I have to own up (did that), figure it out (working on it), and do what needs to be done (re-integrate my practices) to prevent it ever happening again (and find a way to cue myself before I get bad: the missing piece.)
At that point, I’m allowed to make amends. It’s another tweak of my logic that I can’t make amends until I’m sure I won’t make the same mistake.
Being a spoonie is hard work. Part of that work is these time-intensive disciplines that seem like “oh how nice, you’re so cool, I wish I could do that” — but, as it turns out, are really not optional if I want to function.
BTW, do you notice how people excuse themselves by saying, “I wish I could do that”? I listen for these words coming out of my own mouth. It’s a sure flag that I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Oh, a little extra effort up front to save a whole lot of trouble later on? H’mmm…
We all screw up at times. The consequences for spoonies can be life-threatening, if the wrong relationship gets ruined. Handling these issues is part of “living anyway” in the face of profound disease. It’s harder to figure out and harder to repair the damage, because of the nature of central nervous system diseases. So, dear reader, I’ll try to stay on the right side of the line between washing dirty laundry and discussing a common issue here.
We often tell each other, “You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself.” That’s a tough one for caregiver personalities; we’d much rather take care of others than ourselves. However, it was through failing to take care of myself that I actively hurt another. That is a whole different octave of problem. I guess I’d better learn this lesson.
This is a lot of thinking for a breached boat. I can do it, though. I must. I’m still a long way from harbor.
It’s been an interesting summer. It’s good to be safe and well. And that’s all I want to say about it right now. On to more interesting things.
Those of us who have to bear the unbearable eventually learn that there’s no trick to it, no shortcuts, no secret wisdom. I’m sorry to say it, but there isn’t. It’s very simple — not easy, but simple.
There are just three things we have to do:
1. Keep breathing.
2. Put one foot in front of the other.
3. Keep going through the motions until we adapt to the New Normal.
That seems a bit telegraphic. Let me expand on these a little:
If we don’t do that, we’ve got nothing. Literally. Keep breathing. In fact, the better we breathe, the better we cope. (There’s a ton of science on this, if you care about that.) For those who need reminding how, try this:
Ease your lower back, if you can. Gently drop your shoulders, which are probably up near your ears.
Breathe in through your nose, if you can; if you can’t, stick your tongue out loosely between your open jaws and breathe through your mouth. (This opens the back of your throat — and releases clenched teeth.) Imagine the breath going down in front of your spine and into the bowl of your pelvis. This helps draw it in deeper, which is key to calming and strengthening your system.
Breathe out naturally, or by gently exhaling through pursed lips — like blowing out a little candle. The pursed-lips one is great for tense moments and higher pain.
Breathing well disrupts the “anxious/fight/flight” loop in the nervous system. It’s amazing. So simple, can’t beat the price, and no bad side-effects!
Put one foot in front of the other.
This means doing the work of survival:
Do what it takes to get fresh air, water, food, clothing, and shelter, plus a phone and internet access. (In this isolated and far-flung age, phone and internet are essential elements of survival.) The safer and more effective, the better, but we can’t always be choosy.
Keep our bills paid, if we can. If we can’t, find out how to get assistance with them. (This is one task where we need the phone and internet.)
Put the minimum effective effort into maintaining our relationships. (More phone and internet.) We need to know who won’t fade away at the first real sign of trouble. We can’t expect much, though — a sad fact of life. Just stay in touch and see what happens.
One way or another, we do find out who our real friends are.
Keep going through the motions until we adapt to the New Normal.
What that involves varies for each of us; you’ll know it when you see it starting to happen. Things you’ll probably notice include:
The work of survival shifts from “minimum survival” to meeting slightly higher expectations.
New relationships have begun to form, and old bonds to re-form, around the new realities.
The inevitable grief over what we’ve lost (abilities, opportunities, friends, and so on) begins to separate from the general mash of misery.
That’s actually a good sign.
When grief becomes distinct, it makes room for other things — relief, moments of joy, feelings of love, appreciation for what we now have.
There are no shortcuts with grief. There’s no trick to it. It just is. It’s just one part of life, different from joy or ecstasy or delight, but still one part of life, and as such, its real purpose is to be experienced.
I thought there was something more, and that I must be doing something wrong in the way I dealt with it. I don’t think so, though. I think it just is.
I was in deep meditation when an image came to me. A dear and excellent friend I meet in my dream-times was standing by me while I burned. He is a profoundly spiritual person, wise beyond reckoning, and always calm.
He was not calm this time. He looked at me in agony as I went up like a torch. There was nothing he could do. I burned away until my flesh was gone, then my skeleton tumbled, still burning, and soon there was nothing but ash.
He fell to his knees among my cooling remains, frantically sifting through the ashes for anything left of me, sobbing great wracking sobs that tore through him like bombs.
He found a strand of pearls, and from them made me a backbone. He and a great bird worked together to build me anew.
I asked him why he had cried. He said, “I didn’t know if we were going to get you back. I knew I might lose you.”
This most enlightened being, according to my subconscious, was torn up and bereft by his young friend’s death. The fact that he subsequently brought me back was not the point. At that time, he was bereaved, and it hurt like hell.
On reflection, I find that freeing. I thought there was something I should be doing differently about bereavement, but it turns out, what I have to do is simply feel it, and then get on with the work.
My beloved Uncle Peter died last weekend. He died painlessly, a stroke knocking him down and out between one breath and the next. Naturally, I keep wanting to call him, and running headlong into his absence. He had a terrible illness all his life, and to combat it, he created a personal life-structure of great simplicity, absolute rigidity, and total decency. He was the most forgiving, truly charitable person I ever met.
He lived in a poky little flat on the cheap side of town, lived on emergency rations and diner food, slept in a sleeping bag on an unwrapped mattress, and gave half of his respectable middle-class income, before taxes, to charities. His correspondence was filled with replies from his letters to legislators and the White House, doubtless written on half-sheets in his very shaky old-man’s cursive, since he was consistent in his habits, and that was how he wrote to me. He would probably see no appreciable difference between the importance of writing heartfelt encouragement to his niece or well-informed thoughts to the White House. To him, we are all under Heaven.
Uncle Peter was an exceptionally good and self-disciplined character, notwithstanding his twinkling share of the family sass. His humility and sincerity always were there, but I never really knew how humble and sincere he really was until after he died and the proof turned up. I can’t emulate him, but I can aim to be better in my own way because I know now how extraordinarily good it really is possible to be, and still live and breathe in this world.
He’ll always outshine me, morally, but I think of him as a Klieg light, illuminating the extent of what is possible. It’s much further than I thought.
I could talk to him about anything, the most humiliating and terrible events of this… interesting life, and his reaction was always the same, utterly sincere every time: “You deserve a lot of credit, you really do. You deserve a lot of credit for dealing with all this and still plugging along.”
I can hear his soft, husky baritone humming the words to me again, as I sit here with a break in my foot and a break in my heart.
Bereavement is agony. I am in agony (and not just because of the broken foot.) But it’s okay. It’s right and natural. There’s no trick to it, and I’m not handling it wrong. I love Uncle Peter and I can weep for my selfish loss, and when each storm of tears passes, I can get on with the work.
I know he’d approve. He’d say, with perfect sincerity, “You deserve a lot of credit for dealing with all this and still just plugging along.” And he’d go on plugging along himself … shrugging off the most astonishing insults from life with steady calm, advising the silliest and the wisest with equal sincerity, supporting himself in hermetic simplicity, and going on giving.
I heard from a lovely friend of my youth, who wanted to know what I’ve been doing since Egypt. I tried to tell her. I realized that, embedded in my nutshell autobiography, were a lot of clues about why I blog and why I approach CRPS and its ghastly little friends with this sort of incisive determination seasoned with a laugh, a sort of functional contempt — an attitude of, “not going to let such a nasty little mindless rat-fink take any more of my life than required.” It goes way back. So here’s a little background…
I was born in Ankara, Turkey, though I nearly wasn’t born at all. My mother started bleeding well into her pregnancy. The protocol at the time was to get care from the Army base near Ankara. The Army doctor told her, “The baby’s dead. Come back on Monday and we’ll have it out.” Which, if it were true, would have killed my mother… but she didn’t think the baby was dead.
She asked around and found a Turkish doctor (her Turkish was pretty good) and he said, “The baby’s not dead, but you’re going to bed and will stay there until it’s born.” (She spent her time reading, smoking, and knitting, so I have something to blame for the asthma. I think it was all that knitting. The sweater made its way all the way down three children intact, so it was some very good knitting, but still… )
A few months later, the wonderful Turkish doctor strolled into my mother’s hospital room, threw open the blinds, and said in Turkish, “A new day, a new baby!”
As we left Turkey 3 years later, me toddling along with my little stuffie in one hand and my mother’s hand in the other, my older brother charging ahead of my Dad who was carrying the bags, and my younger brother a babe in arms, my mom was stopped on our way to the gate. It was the nurse from the Army hospital. She said, ever so kindly, “Oh Mrs. Aweigh, I remembered that you’d lost a baby. I’ve thought of you often, and I just wanted to know that you’re all right, now.”
My mother was very touched, but she had a plane to catch. She looked at me, looked at the nurse, looked at me, looked at the nurse, and said, as nicely as she could manage, “I’m fine, thank you,” then caught up with the rest of her family.
We survived 7 years Stateside, and left for Egypt in January of 1976. I consider that to be my humanization, as I never felt at home in New Jersey. That could come off as a cheap shot, but it’s the simple truth. I was all wrong there.
Cairo was a dream come true, only I never could have imagined being somewhere so rich — rich in history, rich in culture, rich in the textures of language, rich in feeling. I had finally come home.
I also discovered healing, taking in whatever sick or injured animals came my way and figuring out how to help them — kittens, pups, birds both wild and tame… I’d have gotten a donkey, if the neighbors would have let me.
I was a dependent, however, and we weren’t allowed to stay in one place for more than two “tours”, totaling four and a half years. My folks went to Bangladesh, and my older brother and I went to high school in Massachusetts.
I was in rural Western Massachusetts, a slice of heaven on earth, especially if you grew up in a desert.
I wound up starting at a Seven Sisters college there. Left the ivory tower when school was interfering with my education (thus neatly acquiring the black sheepskin from my disreputable older brother, who had meanwhile cleaned up his act and gone to law school.)
I became a registered nurse after surviving a sailing trip from Cape Cod to the US Virgin Islands, taking the deep-water route outside Bermuda. The captain was a drug-addicted control freak and sexually inappropriate — none of which became apparent until we were signed on and nearly underweigh. (Now, I’d run anyway, and let her lawyers try and find me. I was younger then.)
She had been an ivory tower classmate of mine, an older student who had been locked up for most of her youth for being gay. She probably was perfectly sane to start with, but after being thrown off by parents and socialized in a nut house, nobody stands a chance. However, she was in her 30’s and living as an adult, so it was not ok.
Side note: queer people are somehow expected to be better than straight people, but that’s just unfair. People are people. Some straight people are really decent. Some queer people are really awful. And vice versa! Just let everyone be human, okay? Rant over.
Due to the intolerable hostility and tension aboard the boat, the nicest member of the crew developed a stomach ulcer, which hemmorhaged… so I started my first IV on the high seas and we had a day-long wait for the helicopter to air lift her. Why? Because the drug-addicted captain had plotted us as being about 80 miles landward of our actual position.
That bleeding ulcer saved us all!
We got safely to anchor in Tortola a few days later.
After a screaming row with the captain at 1 am over something irrelevant and stupid (not danger, not losing the dinghy, not being hit on, not being verbally abused day in and day out, but something totally stupid and irrelevant), I was kicked off the boat in a foreign country, with $5 and a tube of toothpaste in my pocket — which exploded as I lay sleeping on a picnic table at Pusser’s Landing, halving my resources and adding a mess.
My dad was posted to Jamaica at the time. I was allowed back on the boat to get my things and call him and arrange for my extrication. Nothing happened on weekends on the Islands in the late 1980’s, so I wound up being the house-guest of a truly kind and decent Island couple, who took in penniless waifs and strays simply in order to make the world a better place. I’m everlastingly grateful to Marina and Samuel. May all good things come to them.
After that, nursing school was a stroll.
I supported myself by tutoring in the school and splitting and hauling cordwood in the forest. However, between the time I started and the time I graduated, the economy in Massachusetts crashed, so I headed to Washington DC, where my State Department-associated family members and friends roosted.
My first nursing job was on an HIV unit, until it closed when visitors realized that most people there had, my goodness, HIV. (Sigh…) My second job was at DC General Emergency Dept, the only public hospital in one of the roughest cities in the country at the time. I learned a LOT.
I found my way back to rural Massachusetts, once I had the resume to get a good job in a lean market. I had first learned about herbs and energy healing there, and treated my illnesses and injuries with no health insurance from the time I left college through nearly all of my nursing career. (How ironic is it that it was so hard to get health insurance when I was a nurse?) I also took care of a couple of “incurable” things that patients of mine had, and cured them. I became a good empiricist. Home care nurses HAVE to get results, because there’s no backup.
Scientific-method science is very sound when it’s properly applied, but money and access distorts it too easily. Empirical-method science is the only kind that can actually tell you what works in the case of the individual.
While I prefer to understand how things work, I really only care WHETHER they work in a given case. I’m also well aware that, in medicine, at every point in history, we always think we know a lot — but, 10 or 20 or 100 years later, we look like idiots.
My favorite Star Trek clip of all time sums it up well:
A few years later, as the economy softened again and all but the worst jobs dried up, I allowed myself to be drawn to California by a nice face — which ditched me once we arrived. Not so nice.
I worked as a nurse and made my home in Central California until my immune system gave out, for no discernible reason. Shortly after the immune system pooped, my dad died, preventably (CPR would have clearly saved him, but he was in Egypt and swimming alone) and that was the final straw. Well, the penultimate straw…. Afterwards, my lungs shut down and my doctor was out of ideas. I’m pretty sure that acupuncture saved my life, because nothing else worked.
Once I was well enough to do some career research and put together a portfolio, I was hired to document programming software, starting with an internship on the basis of the raw talent my supervisor saw in my work. I was quickly hired out of the internship. They had an onsite gym, and one of the loveliest running trails through the redwoods was right on my way to work, so I got into outstanding shape …
…And then the repetitive stress injuries hit.
A couple of surgeries later, with odd complications, I developed a horrific central AND peripheral nervous system disorder called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, or CRPS. It took from 2001 to 2005 to get diagnosed, then fighting until 2012 to get disability dole (SSDI) and get worker’s compensation insurance off my back. (Call it another 3 near-death experiences. They so badly wanted me to just die, it was stunning to see what they’d do to try to effect that, short of hiring a hit man.) This gave me a lot of insight into the approaching-3rd-world status of US health care and its social administration.
The nursing background and the information-architecture and explanatory experience have formed my current career, the (currently unpaid, but highly useful) job of explicating CRPS, its mechanisms and management, and how I adapt my world to function, in spite one of the most invisibly crippling diseases known to science.
I’ve been trying to think how to turn the plot arc of this life into a nice, suitable-for-polite-company little anecdote, but I broke my foot in my one non-affected limb last Friday (I am laughing with heartfelt irony as I write this) and am hugely motivated to simplify. For me, simplicity is most congruent with honesty and straightforwardness — less to remember. So I just spat it out.
This might explain a few things, among them my fascination with health and medical science, my very wide view of healing (belief is irrelevant; what matters is if it works for you), and why I have zero to negative patience for the arrogantly overeducated — they’ve nearly killed me a few too many times. Right from the start!
Ted Mancuso is famous for his enthusiastic Renaissance mind and the kinds of explanations it leads to. If that kind of thing doesn’t drive you up a tree, it’s enormously rewarding, because it can pay off for years.
It may not be immediately obvious how Chinese calligraphy, the evolution of the yin/yang symbol, James Joyce’s “The Dubliners”, a great general who died 2 thousand years ago, and the spinal root of a nerve, all relate to each other — let alone to the logic of a single move in t’ai chi.
For him, they do.
Moreover, when he explains it, it makes perfect sense.
Compared to his ferally free discursiveness, my mind is almost tame. It helps me relax into training, because I don’t have to struggle with my own lateral-mindedness and force it into literal-mindedness — I can just say what I think and get instant yes/no/kinda, from a teacher who gets it. As I said to his wife once, “I LOVE that man.”
There’s a lot to think about in t’ai chi chuan, the way it’s taught at Ted’s academy. For that reason — and here I apologize to my fellow ADD-ers — this is a long piece, because I have to circle through a few related ideas to get to the point in a meaningful way.
One thing that’s becoming very clear to me is that, ideally, there is no such thing as an inattentive moment or an inactive body part. Even a part that’s held still, is still alive, still alert, still awake to the world and present in the mind.
Introducing Peng (however you spell it)
The concept of “peng” leads us closer to understanding this. If your native language is a Chinese language or French, your pronunciation is fine or nearly fine. If it’s not, you’re in trouble.
The word is pronounced with a very hard P and an English A that clearly came from the upper crust in the south of England. Its pronunciation is closest to “bong” in English, but, as a resident of a medical-marijuana state, I can’t write “bong” without inviting confusion, and as a longtime pain patient, I can’t write “pang” for much the same reason.
So, hard P, haughty A, and in here I’ll spell it pæng.
Pæng is often explained as a defensive or guarding force, but that’s an oversimplification. Ideally, pæng never leaves, except when displaced by a more specifically directed action.
Pæng makes directed action a lot faster, too, because of the way it creates potential space in any direction, which is then easy for you to fill. Much more efficient than the usual wind-up we usually find ourselves doing before initiating a directed action.
(This Marx Brothers compilation is hypnotic, to the point of being kinda creepy. If you’re triggered by casual violence, skip it.)
Pæng is the force you use to define the space you inhabit. Since you’re always in your own space, it makes sense to maintain pæng. Pæng is the ground state of each limb “at rest” (a relative term.)
This is what we work towards, anyway.
A relevant discussion of expertise
I’ve noticed, for much of my life, how the true experts in any movement (martial arts, dancing, rock climbing, surgery) don’t get in their own way. This is a lot easier said than done.
There’s a reason why true excellence is generally pegged at 10 years of experience. I figure it takes a couple of years to learn what’s supposed to happen, and then it takes most of the rest of the time to unlearn the reflexes that get in the way of achieving that. That’s my theory. Unlearning is that hard.
We lack faith in ourselves, at a subtle level, and it creates the interferences of hesitation, fidgets, and engaging the wrong efforts, then having to disengage them and reassess, then go forward again, in a sort of ongoing, half-unconscious dance towards accomplishing the goal.
Ted says that people come to his classes hoping to come in as they are and go straight on to excellence, and have to come to terms with the need to back up to roughly when they learned to walk/run really well and go on from there.
It’s part of his particular genius that he doesn’t try to get each person to unlearn their ways, he simply creates what he calls a shadow posture, and I call a parallel posture (though we mean the same thing), so that class time and practice time are spent in this new and evolving structure that creates the foundation for excellence to be built on. It’s up to you whether you go into that space the rest of the time, but it’s pretty hard to resist, because it’s delightful.
That very delightfulness is unnerving. I’ve had to integrate a lot to be able to accept something so alien to my experience of the last 14… no, actually, 40-odd years. It’s just so foreign, so antipathetic to what I have known for so long. Fortunately, I have ways of dealing with that…
My style of learning something profound goes like this:
I charge in for a bit, throwing myself at it like spaghetti at the wall.
Then, when my body-mind has reached a saturation point of new information and everything inside is sitting up and screaming, “WTH??”, I sit back for awhile to rethink and mull the new ideas involved in these skills.
I feel and learn how they filter down and across and through every applicable aspect of life, and I have to semi-consciously work to let those old assumptions shift, evolve, and change.
Then, when my mind has reached a saturation point of digested information, I can move back into activity, usually with a significant bump up to a new level.
Winter is a good time to digest, and with the waxing days I’m getting impatient and ready to bump up. I’m thorough, and I give full credit to my subconscious processes and the importance of mental digestion. When it comes to my learning style, I’m fairly relaxed…
We’re not relaxed in our tasks until we’re expert. I wonder if we can accelerate towards expertness by learning to relax in our tasks. There’s an empowering thought.
Expert surgeons have far better outcomes, partly because their lack of irrelevant motion means that they leave less trauma behind. Their scalpels don’t make any pointless cuts, their hands don’t jostle any irrelevant flesh, there simply isn’t anything done under the skin that isn’t directed towards the goal. There is not a wasted motion, and not a wasted moment.
They don’t dither; they do, and they do it decisively and cleanly. If something turns out a bit different from what they expect, they go with it — no holding back, no denial, just accept, redirect, and move on. They don’t interfere with themselves, and thus they don’t interfere with the work.
The truly expert surgeon, a few of which I’ve been privileged to see, is a breathing artwork of purposeful action and focused intent.
Martial arts is a bit more accessible to most people, so let me show you a popular and priceless example of an expert martial artist next to a couple of wonderful actors who can’t help getting in their own way. Here is the famous fight scene between Darth Maul and the two heroic Jedi, Qui Gon and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi:
All rights to this film belong to 20th Century Fox, in case someone forgets.
I included the whole fight scene. (You’re welcome, Marie P. and Steven R.) If you’re impatient, skip to the last 2 minutes. You’ll notice that the only reason the bad guy lost was a moment of inattention. He moves with effortless elegance, decisiveness, and power, while the Jedi are fighting their own bodies with every move, hulking their shoulders and flexing like mad. It looks exhausting! It took a lot of Lucasfilm to spin the contest out past the first minute, the imbalance of skill is so great.
Darth Maul is relaxed. It makes him effective. Qui Gon and Obi-Wan are not. They’re braced and clunky, utterly without pæng.
All right, given that this force (as it were) of pæng both protects space and creates space, what the heck is it, exactly?
Very simple. Not easy, but simple.
Pæng is the yielding resistance of a tree branch or a length of spring steel, or, for that matter, of a good dancer’s arms.
You push one part of the branch, and the whole bough may sway, but its balance is undisturbed. You push your good dance partner’s hand, but that doesn’t just move her hand — her whole frame absorbs and responds to your push with a graceful springy motion and she rotates, balanced over her own feet, as far as your push goes (backwards and in high heels, most likely. Be impressed.)
That is the force called pæng.
Let’s return to the tree branch for a moment. It allows us to extend the analogy without special training.
Take a good look at an oak, maple, or a eucalyptus tree. Look at a branch from its tip to the root of the tree. You can always follow a single, sinuous line from tip to root.
That tree holds the branch up from root to tip, without any muscles at all. It lifts it from underneath its feet, up its trunk, and floats it out into space from there. This is how the force flows. Not muscular at all, but very, very strong. It’s pure physics.
The tree also holds the branch outward with curves that act as support structures (like the curvilinear welts in plastic packaging, to keep the package from being flattened), in order to make the most of the space.
Bounce a branch lightly. Observe the change in the movement. It bounces more near the point of impact, and as the springiness absorbs the motion, it moves less the closer it gets to the spine. I mean trunk. Did I say spine? I meant trunk. Of the tree. In this case.
This calm-but-alive springiness, this resistance without strain, lifting up from the root through the trunk, opening without pushing, pressing without squeezing, all at the same time, is pæng: the whole branch, from trunk to leaftip, is awake all the time, ready to play with the wind all the time, ready to soak up the raindrops all the time, connected through the trunk or stem to its root all the time. Every touch on the way is received and understood, and responded to naturally. It is always alive with this springy yet relaxed, rooted yet responsive energy.
In humans, pæng can be modulated. This is part of the martial aspect of t’ai chi: intensify pæng to ward off an attack or prepare for one, shift pæng to draw the opponent, release pæng to snap into an attack, but always, always have pæng as your ground state. It gives you a safe, structured space to work from.
Ideally. That’w what we work towards.
Now that we’ve mulled the nature of pæng, we’re a bit closer to understanding what Ted and the t’ai chi chuan classics mean when they use the word “relaxed.” In our extreme-adoring Northern/Western Hemisphere culture, “relaxed” is the opposite of “tensed”, or even “stressed.” A certain floppiness comes to mind, even a resistance to being vertical.
Relaxed (Western style):
A “relaxed” body, in this sense, is not ready to move — far from it. It probably wants another drink!
The ancient Chinese traditions cultivate the middle way, not extremes.
As it happens, this is an excellent approach for many people with central nervous system dysfunctions, because our disrupted systems are hardwired to charge wildly between extremes. The more we strengthen our access to the middle ground, the more stable our central nervous systems become, and the better we can get.
Simple. Not easy.
With this in mind, we have to repurpose the word “relaxed” so it’s not a synonym for “floppy”, but a distinctly different term that describes the useful middle ground between “floppy” and “tense.”
It’s easy to see, even in these keyboard-figures, which level of energy makes it easiest to move in a useful way, doesn’t it?
How do you want your surgeon to be, heaven forbid you ever need one? How do you want to move when you dance?
Darth Maul seems quite a bit different now, doesn’t he? Actually, he does remind me of a couple of doctors I’ve worked with…
Shortly after I drafted this, Ted saw me struggling through a leg-intensive exercise. He said, with sympathy, “I see why you find these leg exercises so exhausting. Your leg muscles are fighting with each other in every direction.”
I went away and thought it over.
Well, of course they were fighting each other in every direction. This was the setup:
When I was 10, I got the silly idea that I should have an adult arch to my foot, so I began to supinate.
That led to my thigh muscles developing lopsidedly, and since I played varsity soccer in high school and ran in my 20’s, they developed lopsidedly a fair bit.
That led to my kneecaps tracking wrong, and me losing the cartilage under my kneecaps. (I used to think that hurt. Cute!) Ted steered me away from his t’ai chi class in the 1990’s because I was so nervous about my knee pain (really cute!)… so I took his shaolin kung fu class instead.
So, over 15 years later… I’m far too frail for serious kung fu and Ted has become a breathtakingly subtle teacher of t’ai chi; I’ve gone through several rounds of posture training (round 1, round 2, round 3); and, now that the pieces are finally coming together (big clue: if it bears weight, it affects your posture), I’ve been working like mad to rectify my knees.
They still pull to the outside, from the habits laid in by my childhood efforts to lift my arch, and my knees hurt like blazes when they bend. To manage that, I practiced pulling them to the inside, but not directly — kind of rolling my lower thigh muscles inside and upward at the same time… While my habitual muscle pattern pulls outward and up.
Weren’t we just watching Liam Neeson and Ewan Macgregor do something very similar (if a lot more cutely)? Muscles fighting each other in every direction, literally at every turn?
The fighting was simply wrong. …And I don’t mean in the movie.
That’s no way for a body to behave, fighting itself. I don’t want my body to fight itself.
I didn’t see that changing the fighting would work, because there would still be fighting.
Finally, I straightened up. I said to myself, in tones of firm parental authority, “Knee, do it right. I’m not having you fight about it. I’m going to relax — unwind every muscle and make them stand down and wait for orders. You’re going to do it right the first time, because nothing is interfering and nothing is asleep. It is … relaxed.” Pæng.
I lifted my leg and put my foot down. It felt different.
I bent my knee. It was fine, absolutely fine.
I tried the exercise. The thing was completely painless, and floatingly easy.
Buyer beware — it’s a process. For me, the issues are simple, although annoyingly tricky to work with:
My levels of tension and awareness, not to mention relaxation and attention (those are 4 completely different concepts, you’ll notice), change so much from day to day.
I still have nearly 40 years of walking habits that I’m building an alternative to.
I still have to take lip from my knees now and then, which slows me down for recovery, and I have to mentally go down there and tell everyone to stop arguing and let me mend.
It’s a process. However, it’s well begun. It’s all about relaxing, in this special sense of pæng.
I used to be punctual, meaning, 3-10 minutes early. I used to be relentlessly diligent. I used to be cast-iron reliable. (I worked hard to acquire those skills, after drifting through my first couple of decades with my energy and attention set to “simmer.”)
These were so much a part of my identity that, after a memorable lunch with 12 engineers and one writer (me), they passed me the bill to calculate. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I scolded them and passed it back. CRPS had already set in and numbers tended to cartwheel in front of my eyes, but I didn’t tell them that.
My care providers know they have to call me to confirm the day before an appointment, because even with the calendar in my phone and on the wall, and now with a weekly dry-erase scheduler on the fridge, I need the added sensory input to make sure the other 3 are correct and, above all, to give my brain one more hook to the info.
Reliable, remember? I’ve still got a lot of identity tied up in being reliable, and it takes a LOT more work, but it’s important enough to me to do, and ask for a little practical assistance with.
Today, I looked at the clock when I woke up and thought, “Hour and a half to appointment time. OK.”
As I set up my tea, I thought, “I’ll let J sleep. He’d only have half an hour to get ready and I don’t want to spoil his morning.”
As I washed and dressed, I thought, “Excellent, time to read a little while I have my tea, fruit and morning pillage.” Can’t just call them pills. Definitely pillage. I hope to lay waste to CRPS as it tries to lay waste to me, so that could go either way.
En route to my appointment, I found a whopping case of vehicular atherosclerosis — a traffic jam, in a country stretch of highway. Very odd. The clock read 9:50, and I realized I was going to be late gor my appointment.
Diligently, I picked up my phone and made an illegal call to notify Dr. Resneck that I’d be late.
She said, in slightly worried tones, “But… your appointment isn’t until 11.”
Not missing a beat, I said, “Excellent! I’ll pull over and read for an hour. That’ll be nice!”
In response to the still-shocky silence, I added, “Well, an hour early is better than an hour late, isn’t it! See you soon!” And hung up.
I realized that my brain had simply done an ER-worthy triage — is anyone hurt? Anything made worse? No? Fine! — and moved straight on to a good Plan B. I’m reading Jodi Taylor, and St Mary’s is about to be incinerated and I’m dying to know what happens. And yes, I’ve read it before, though not for awhile.
If I were a clinician caring for me, I’d note this incident down and give a worried little sigh. It’s not good, just not very good.
But I have learned, in this brutal school of my life with this ratfink stinker of a disease, that I CAN’T WORRY ABOUT THESE THINGS. From the standpoint of the person doing this, I am really pleased with my handling of it.
Anyone hurt? Anything worse because of my mistake? No? Fine! Now let’s advance some other agenda I’ve got! Because as long as the first two questions come up negative, IT’S OKAY. I am not a failure, oddly enough. I’m just not. I get a free hour, and that’s pure bonus!
Off to read my book. Enjoy the rest of your day, and remember that blessings can come in heavy disguise.
A fellow martial arts teacher/competition judge once barked at Ted Mancuso, “None of your students move like you!”
Ted blinked, barked back “Good!” and walked away, shaking his head.
He refuses to model a move more than the essential minimum, and is no great fan of the mirror, either. However, he will coach the most clueless student with bottomless patience, week after week, as long as they don’t give up.
His model of teaching is based on the (all too rare) assumption that each of us should be the person most aware of, and most in charge of, our own bodies.
… I know, right?
If you follow the logic through, this implies that the correct structure for moving through, say, Fair/Jade Lady Weaves Shuttle (which is an upward block snappily followed by a nose break, which tells you something about those names)… as I was saying, the most effective and correct structure for that move is going to vary from one body to the next. The correct structure for HIS configuration of bones, ligaments, muscles, and chemistry is not going to be the most correct (or even passable) structure for MY configuration, or yours, or anyone else’s.
Ted doesn’t just say that, he bases his whole approach on it, from start to finish. His crogglingly refined sense of how to read that on others is probably another article, or rather book. Gifted pedagogue, yes.
In the long years of wrestling to take back control of my body from CRPS and all its ghastly little friends, I’ve taken PT for months, done intensive massage therapy ditto, and been overdosed on nearly every class of drug used to treat it — except the ones I flatly refused.
This inward/martial training with Ted is the first one that not only requires physical self-awareness, but actually helps me learn that awareness from the inside out, rather than passively requiring me to learn it from the outside in.
Once I gave permission for him to go to town on my structure, it would be tempting to say that he’s become merciless. That would be totally wrong, in both senses. He lives in an ocean consisting of equal proportions of mercy, humor, precision, and a degree of awareness of others that seems uncanny until you reflect that he’s been working on that since I could walk. So, yeah, he’s got that healer’s mercy that means he’ll do what’s right for you even if it sucks right now.
I’m now on the second round of fighting with my low back and hips for control of my spine, and it really sucks right now.
I am tired of trying to unlearn 40-odd years worth of faulty structure from the inside; it hurts, and more pain is tediously wearing.
So I found a massage therapist who suits my needs, and went to line up a series of sessions.
First available time?
3 weeks out.
… I know, right?
I came for a hot tub and chiropractic adjustment (which I believe is within spec for Ted’s style, given the intransigence of bony tissue and the ubiquity of hot water) and sat there letting my knotted thoughts and knotted muscles melt… until I smacked my forehead and started to laugh.
Why is my low spine putting up such a fight? Why has it kept falling back into the same darn reef-knots, despite the PT and massage and Round 1 of this struggle last year and so on?
It’s obvious, now that I think about it. There are no shortcuts! I have to learn how to identify, unravel, and rebuild those structures from the inside out. That’s the whole point. That’s why I undertook this training. This is exactly how it’s supposed to happen, aches and all.
This is me, having another laugh at my own expense, releasing one last sigh, and figuring out how to do this from the inside.
I love that teacher. I don’t exactly like him a lot right now, but that’s okay.