Ted’s Talks #2: “Relaxed” in Chinese

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.
puzzles_Chinese_Burr_305_imgbyMeronim
For him, they do.

Moreover, when he explains it, it makes perfect sense.
puzzles_Chinese_SixPartWoodKnot_Andreas.Roever
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.

Ideally.

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.)

Ideally.

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.
tai-chi-path

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:

  1. I charge in for a bit, throwing myself at it like spaghetti at the wall.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

eucalyptus tree with lines showing the shape of each branch's support.
It’s the same tree, mirrored across. The lines are drawn in on the right-hand image.

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.

Mmm... I wonder if they're gluten free?
Mmm… I wonder if they’re gluten free?

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.
Tense:

   []
   |
   |
   |
   L

Relaxed (Western style):


   8)________|

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.”

   Tense: []    Relaxed: 0     Floppy:
          |            ( | )
          |             }|{
          |             / \
          L            /   \            8)_________|

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.
Sketch of brain, with bits falling off and popping out, and a bandaid over the worst
Well, of course they were fighting each other in every direction. This was the setup:

  1. When I was 10, I got the silly idea that I should have an adult arch to my foot, so I began to supinate.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
jedifighting
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.

Cats are masters of pæng  :)
Cats are masters of pæng 🙂

It’s like this stuff works …
Who knew?
Who knew?

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Oh look! I’ve adapted!

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.

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Ted’s Talks #1: know yourself best

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?

Right.

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.

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The Bean Dip Response, companion to the Spoon Theory

Those of us with crazy-bad illnesses appreciate the stroke of genius from Christine Miserandino, who originated the Spoon Theory to explain what it takes to get through the day.

For the most part, though, we shouldn’t have to explain much. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could get that memo?

To that end, here is a great article by family therapist and parent counselor Joanne Ketch on parenting boundaries, using the Bean Dip Response: http://www.joanneketch.com/ParentingChoiceBoundaries.en.html

With her permission and kind support, I’ve revised her article to reflect the realities of the chronically or severely ill. Please feel free to print out/pass on, with credit to her embedded as it is in this text.

Here’s my version…

Health Management Choices – Boundaries

A long time ago, as a developing patient educator, I found many chronic patients uncomfortable and frustrated with unsolicited advice – or inadvertently soliciting advice and then feeling uncomfortable with the discussion that followed.

Eventually, I read this great article on boundaries that eventually become known as “The Bean Dip Response”, “Pass the Bean Dip”, or even used as a verb: “bean dip” someone.

I rewrote the article from the perspective of a chronically ill, alternative-using or drug-disabled patient (one who can’t use common meds for the condition because of uselessness or devastating side-effects) – but the principles are transferrable to any constellation of health management choices.

The Bean Dip Response is best used when you don’t need to defend or don’t wish to engage with a person over a health management choice. If you are discussing issues with a person and you welcome their feedback, the Bean Dip Response is not needed.

I’ve found that chronic patients may confuse boundaries while trying to convince someone of the rightness of their choices. The best thing is to assert your boundary, rather than defend your choice. Your choice needs no defense.

Health management choices should be on a “need to know” basis. Most people don’t “need to know”. Since medical information is highly confidential, it’s NOT incumbent on you to explain yourself to those who don’t need to know. Those who need to know are essentially you, your doctors/providers, and your designated decision-maker for when you can’t make your own decisions.

If anyone else asks, "How are you sleeping?"
Answer: Great! Thanks for asking! Want some bean dip?

"Are you sure you should get picked up every time your legs flare?"
Answer: “Yes! Thank you! Want some bean dip?"

"When do you plan to wean off those meds?"
Answer: "When it's time. Thanks! Want some bean dip?"

"You should use my aunt's hairdresser's physiotherapist's product. It cleared up her [symptom du jour] in two weeks."
Answer: "That's great! I'm happy for her. Want some bean dip?"

Now, with some people you will need to set firm boundaries. The offer of bean dip won’t be sufficient to redirect them [I can’t imagine why not. -ed.] They either don’t respond to gentle redirection or they have emotion tied to the issue and a desire to “go there” more deeply. You may be able to anticipate this – if it’s a pattern of intrusion, for example, which you’ve seen in other circumstances.

In such a case, a stronger “Bean Dip” response may be needed. In these cases, the redirect will need to be backed up with action (like hanging up, leaving the room, or even unfriending them).

Remember, boundaries are not about forcing another person to comply. You cannot “do” that. Boundaries are about what YOU will do or not do. You are the person you own. You don’t own them and they don’t own you.

Practice kind but firm responses: "I know you love me and want to help. I am so glad. My health choices have been researched and made. I won't discuss it again.”

Don’t confuse setting boundaries with trying to convince someone of the rightness of your choices. It’s a common (and understandable) desire to present the same information that led you to your choices. The problem with that in dealing with a person who has boundary issues is that engaging with content invites discussion. (Also, different people’s minds work in different ways, so your train of thought may make no sense at all to them. Wasted effort all around.)

Chronic patients often struggle with this.

The boundary is that no one else has an inherent right to tell you how to take care of yourself.

You set boundaries by doing the above: acknowledging what they said and redirecting.

Where the chronically ill may invite problems is by citing authors, studies and sites to “defend” themselves. Each time you do so, you create more time for discussion and rebuttal and send the message that your decisions are up for debate.

Don’t defend your choices beyond generalities, and then only once or twice. “My doctor is in support of my choices. Want some bean dip?” Or maybe, “Well, this is my decision. Want some bean dip?”

If necessary, look them in the eye and say simply, “I want us to have a good relationship. I want to enjoy my time with you. I’ll take care of me, so that we both can make the most of our time together. Let’s not discuss this anymore. If you bring it up again, I will have to ask you to leave.”

Finally, an important corollary to the “Bean Dip Response” is reciprocity. Once again, the content of your choices should not dictate the interaction.

You may be totally, and correctly, convinced that you should be able to determine your own activity, medication, and supplementation regime; never be left to “cry it out”; and should be allowed to follow your own weaning path, if any.

But, if you post those opinions on Facebook (or communicate them in other ways), you invite (and therefore solicit) feedback and advice. Post accordingly and respond to comments with that in mind. You need to give the “other side” the same respect that you expect to receive.

Credit for original: Joanne Ketch, MA, LPC, LMFTa, LCDC
http://www.joanneketch.com/ParentingChoiceBoundaries.en.html

For those of us who are chronically ill, there are people we DO need to explain ourselves to. However, these are mostly highly educated people with specialist training, and that makes it a short list indeed.

Our loved ones may believe they want to understand, but, as my mother finally admitted, “I don’t think I really do want to understand what you’re going through. I couldn’t stand to know how much pain you’re in and how rotten you feel all the time. It would drive me crazy, knowing that.”

But, hoo boy, does she ever respect my boundaries! That’s worth the world. It makes everything open and clear between us, and our current relationship reflects that.

When someone confesses their limits to me, I take it as a gift. They have told me how to protect our relationship and how to move forward with it. I appreciate that. With that subject opened, we can move on to discuss how, or if, they can connect with me in a way that works for us both. This is priceless information. I’m glad my mother had the courage to open that can of worms, because then it got very manageable very quickly.

For an ever-changing kaleidescope of visual delight, check out my Mom’s photography from all around the world at http://jldtifft.com/

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“Best Christmas in years”

J’s experience of the holiday of loving and giving was one of manipulating and threatening for a long time. He doesn’t say that, of course; it takes detective work to glean the data from the clues he drops. He doesn’t reflect on the past, but it does tend to cast shadows into his present.

After last year, when I’d kept the holiday out of our home and opened my gifts in private, he said — to my surprise — that he’d like maybe a little bit of decoration and festivity next year. Not the commercial garbage, just a little light.

This year, I put redwood swags tied with burlap bows against the fence and draped a green swag of redwood across the trunk outside.

I picked up redwood cones, which are tiny and exquisite. I dipped them in penetrating epoxy to make them sturdy and non-porous. Then I painted the tips in copper or gold paint, and where I had twin cones on a single twig, I made one of each.
redwood-cones_decorated
On Christmas Eve, I made lamb kofta that turned out better than any I’ve had in years. It was the first solid food J had had in almost 2 weeks, and he ate half of it in a few hours. It went down well.

We’d gotten new flannel sheets. I dressed the bed in a brighter, perkier version of Black Watch plaid, fresh and soft and soothing.

That was enough preparation for me, clobbered by the worst humdinger of a cold I’ve had in years.

Then Christmas day dawned, sparklingly bright and crisp. Once he’d had coffee and I’d had tea, I made blueberry pancakes (recipe below) which he told me were the best I’d ever made.

We noodled around the house and yard all day, warm and content. I opened my gifts in the living room (he’d gotten and opened his earlier.)

I made a leopard-print minkee shawl for his dog, who has been swanning around ever since, clearly feeling as breathtakingly stylish as a modern Grace Kelly.
dog_shonie_elegant
The satellite TV was out, but I figured out how to connect my computer to the new TV and stream Netflix on our gorgeous HD screen.

Like many people, he has deep scars from mainstream religion. When he started climbing down that rabbit hole, I told him the history of the Christmas holiday, which dates back thousands of years in Europe. People collected under the largest available roof for the armpit of winter, keeping warm and entertaining each other, and those who had more shared with those who had less. Everyone got through better together than they would have alone, and familial and social bonds were reconfirmed ahead of another year of hard, often lonely labor. When the Church moved into Europe, they moved the celebration of their Savior’s birth from springtime to a few days after Yule, because the good ones loved the season of warmth and sharing and the scheming ones could spot a good opportunity. (I told him that the 3-day margin gave people time to sober up from the Solstice bonfires and clean up in time for Church.)

That isn’t about faith, just about historical data. Belief creates its own reality, and I respectfully support everyone’s right to choose and structure their own beliefs. All honest forms of worship make the world better, in my view. Amen.

The history lesson took the sting out of Christmas, and the last detail made him laugh.

After a week of prostration with that awful cold, he actually got up and washed all the dishes. The kitchen was sparkling by bedtime. It’s the little things that really tell you.

From about dusk on, J kept saying, “This is the best Christmas I’ve had in years.”

Something tells me they’ll get even better.

Recipes

These are Isy Recipes, so they don’t have too many ingredients or too many steps, and every ingredient has something fabulously useful about it.

Pain-cutting Pancakes

2 bananas, mashed
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup flaxseed, ground
1/4 coarse raw sugar
1/4 package Boreal blueberries

Beat everything together and let it sit while the pan heats to medium heat or slightly lower. These cook low and slow, not like flour pancakes.

Pour the oil off the top of your almond butter into the pan. If you don’t have that, use safflower oil. Either one makes a wonderful crispy edge.

Spoon the batter into the pan about 3-3.5 inches (5-6 cm) across and up to 1/4 inch (.75 cm) thick. If you’re using the almond oil, they may fizzle and make white foam with a lovely scent. Cover the pan. It takes at least 5-7 minutes for them to cook well enough to flip in one piece. Cook the other side for slightly less time. Serve with Kerrygold butter and non-osmosed maple syrup, if possible 🙂

Kofta Kebab

1 pound (2.2 kg) ground lamb
2 eggs
~2 tsp natural mustard
2 handfuls of finely chopped spinach (I couldn’t find the parsley)
Spices:
Lots of ground cumin
black pepper
1 tablespoon (scant palmful) basil
2-3 tablespoons parsley (I found it)

Mix everything well with your clean hands. Heat 1/4 inch (.5 cm) of grapeseed or olive oil in a frying pan over medium high heat, hot but not smoking. As the oil heats, take small handfuls of meat and squish them into a lozenge shape, laying them out on a plate or board. Drop them into the pan, one batch at a time. If you made the lozenge shape rolly-polly enough, you can roll the kebabs over in the pan. Only turn them once; more often and the meat gets tough.

When they are crispy gorgeous dark amber, scoop them out and lay them on brown paper to drain. Eat with your fingers if you can’t wait, like me, or with ketchup if you’re a total yahoo, like J.

Lamb has lots of zinc, which is good for fighting off viral infections.

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Happy Holidays — all of them

Whatever you celebrate, may this season be peaceful, fruitful, loving, and kind to you.

May all your pain lift. May all your wounds heal. May all your illnesses get completely better.

May your weaknesses become secret strengths, ready to your hands. May your strengths bring nothing but benefits and joy to you and the world around you.

May those you love the most, appreciate you just the way you are. May those who love you the most, be recognized — and valued — just the way they are.

May you have all that you really need. May it truly gladden you.

Most importantly, when you can’t take care of yourselves, take care of each other. It generally works.

Happy Everything!
glee

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Living without hope – tasks and aftereffects

I lived without hope for years. Years. It was weird to look around one day and realize I had no hope, and that I hadn’t had any for awhile. I didn’t think I was going to see another Christmas… for at least 5 Christmases.
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When the few friends who were willing to be honest asked me what I hoped for or what I had ambitions for, I had to tell them that I had no hope and I had no dreams of the future.

They really had trouble with that.

Some just did that weird, head-shaking, “I didn’t just hear that” thing and changed the subject. A few asked if I was suicidal. I had been, and I drifted in and out of degrees of thinking about how to make it painless and permanent if I did kill myself, but I was… surviving.

Actually, I was working really hard on surviving. Hope had been sucking me dry, making me see things that weren’t there, putting my energy into some future I could only imagine, but couldn’t see a way to reach.

If I hadn’t been willing to drop everything, including hope, in order to just focus on the business of living with this horrific reality, I think I wouldn’t have survived. I had no extra energy, and hope was too demanding.

Line drawing of woman flat on floor, with woozles coming out of her head
Image mine. Creative Commons share-alike attribution license 🙂

When I came out of that time, very very slowly, it dawned on me that I had been fighting for so long for my own life that, for the first time in my entire conscious existence, I felt no need to apologize for the space I took up, the effort and attention I required from the world, or, in fact, for anything.

As I told my Mom at the time, “I’ve fought for others’ lives pretty often, and when you’re coding someone, they’re your whole world for the time that you’re coding them.
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“If you fight for someone’s life over any length of time, you come to care about them as well as for them, even if you have nothing else in common. Well, I’ve spent years fighting for my own life, and it’s impossible to fight that long for someone without really coming to care about them. I really love myself, in a solid way, with no caveats, and nobody and nothing can shake that.”

So, I don’t associate hopelessness with futurelessness or lifelessness, as most people seem to do. I have every faith in our ability to face life without hope, because sometimes it’s just dead weight. Sometimes, it distracts us from what’s real.

I have faith in us, hope or no hope. I have absolute faith in our ability to move through the stages of this unbelievable circus we call life, and make them work for OURSELVES in the end.

Faith isn’t the same as hope, because it relies on something that’s present now, not on something that might be possible in the future. I have faith in our doughtiness, an old-fashioned word combining the meanings of nerve, grit, and determination. Boy, do CRPSers have all of that!

In the end, hope is a luxury we can’t always afford. Hoping and dreaming — putting our energy into things that don’t exist — can be a real sink. That is, maintaining hope and dreams can, themselves, take more energy than we can afford.

It sounds counterintuitive to someone who’s never been there, because most people think of hopes and dreams as what pulls us forward.

If hopes or dreams pull you forward, that’s good; if they don’t, reconsider, and maybe refocus.

Refocusing on the sheer present business of finding a way to survive with things as they are right now is not wasted time, it’s not suicidality, and it’s not even an act of despair. It’s profoundly rational, profoundly functional, and even when it’s profoundly difficult, it’s still profoundly worthwhile.

From my own experience, I have to say it’s a strange state of mind to live in, but it’s surprisingly worry-free. False worries fall away as fast as false comforts do. Once I accepted the state of life with no hope, there was no room for b.s., either in my world or in my relationships.

Life simplified itself; all I had to do was keep up — or rather, pare down. That was weird too, because I used to find stuff comforting.

In that utterly simple state, though, it wasn’t comforting. It was just stuff.

Having emotional energy invested in something so … stufflike … was absurd. Talk about false comfort!

So, before long, all I had was what I needed; nothing more, and not much less.
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In time, everything changes, even the amount of energy we can spare. I can tell you exactly when I rediscovered the luxury of hope, because I blogged about it here. It was nothing more than the first whisper, because that was all I could support, but it was unmistakeable.

Since then, I’ve also rediscovered flippancy, ambition, and even toilet humor. (My sense of irony never left, which makes me think it’s essential. H’mm…)

But a few things still remain, deep currents in the otherwise twinkly surface of my character:

  • stuff is good only if it’s useful and there’s room for it;
  • nobody, but nobody, decides when I die but me; and
  • I love myself. I may be grubby, nerdy, daffy, clever, ill-yet-unconquered — but I love myself absolutely, without vanity, and without caveats.

If it took living without hope, then I’m better for having done it.

Aphorism for the day: Don’t be afraid of what life brings you. You never know what’s on the other side. It’s just a matter of getting there.

me-fingers-peace

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Home

Too big a subject for one blog post, but I’ll try. If this gets poetical, there’s a reason.

The home of my youth, Egypt in the mid-to-late ’70s, (alternate link: http://jldtifft.com/, click Galleries, click Search, enter “Egypt”) no longer exists. The generous and opening society, the cobwebby clutter of the Cairo Museum, the beautiful horses that were cheap to ride, the empty vastness of the Red Sea shores with the impossibly deep nighttime sky,

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Image from NASA/Hubble

even the occasional cockroach in the sodas… Shot down, cleaned up, built over. So it goes. One day, I might adjust to its absence.

I consider New England my home — one very special part, roughly between Mount Greylock and the Quabbin. When I had to move away, the first time, I remember feeling lightheaded as I drove across the border into New York, and spending the next hour counting and re-counting my limbs. I was sure one of them was missing. The feeling of dislocation, in its most essential sense, was that powerful.

When I moved back, coming the southern route, I remember my cat (originally a native of Egypt) waking from her long slumber as we drove through the last few miles of Connecticut and into southern Massachusetts. She had a lot to say about it, which amused the other drivers. When we got onto the Mohawk Trail and headed uphill into the Berkshires, her white fur glowed (I never found out how she did that) and she climbed up to the dash, where she could smell the air coming in through the vents. She inhaled it with complete attention, entranced, ecstatic.

I completely agreed.

To me, the endless green, the snuggling hills, the way the trees mingle with everything around them, the way the water bends and bounces over the sparkling stones, in that particular region, is the most beautiful on earth.

The airy, daffy grace of the black tailed deer, the sweetly sardonic canniness of the foxes, the fluffy explosiveness of the rabbits – not quite like anywhere else.

The white granite begot my bones. The ubiquitous brooks are the flow in my veins.

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Image mine. Share-alike attribution license from Creative Commons.

The turning of the seasons could ignite poetry in the driest of souls: from the full-throated glorious summer, with birds shrieking their fool heads off and the hayfields looking like fat emerald velvet scattered with amethyst heads of clover; to the outrageous glorying riot of autumn; to those rare days in winter when the first light sets every tree, covered in a skin of ice, to blazing like fountains of diamonds; to that astonishing time when the air touches your mouth differently, you notice the first puddles of dirt showing through the snow, the very hint of a crocus nose pokes through, and winter isn’t over yet but the rise of spring pulls you up by the heartstrings.

A friend of mine sent me maple syrup she’d collected and boiled from her own trees.

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Every now and then, I take one taste, and that’s all I need: I can smell it, hear it, feel it — if I close my eyes, I can see it too.

I love the un-fussiness of the people. Outsiders consider New Englanders reserved, but it’s more that they’re judicious. If it were obvious how utterly decent they are, nobody would ever leave them alone.

A visitor made this plain to me. A crusty old fart, whose family name was on half the landmarks in the area, had just plowed my driveway with heavy equipment. Knowing from my winter of splitting and hauling cordwood what it takes to do winter work, I invited him in for fresh-ground coffee. He hesitated until I said it was fresh-ground (I never drank much coffee, and it either had to be good coffee or a bitter day for me to enjoy it, so I made sure mine was good.) He came in, stamped the snow off his boots outside and inside, and shut the door as he unzipped his enormous down jacket, which was itself stiff with cold.

Underneath the crusty outer layer of jacket, the down was puffy and warm, opening out in billows behind the zipper. As the coat opened, so did his face. His voice warmed up and he reached gratefully for the coffee, alight with delight and fellow-feeling.

That’s New Englanders all over. Super crusty and maybe chilly on the outside; underneath, all soft, gentle, slightly fluffy, and ever so warm. Once a New Englander accepts you into the inner circle, you’re there for life.

It’s not bad. Not bad at all.

Years ago, the aggressively shortening days of winter made half the year pure hell for me. No amount of expensive lighting could compensate. With CRPS on top of that, the cold is unbearable and the extra work of winter is beyond me – and I used to love splitting wood, and even shoveling snow. It was the second-best way to get warm.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

I’m more or less trapped on the other side of the continent. I’ve given up on long trips until I’m strong enough to recover quickly; the current recovery time is 10 days, which doesn’t leave much time for visiting.

Nevertheless, and despite the fact that October’s shortening days are impossible there for me, there are times when I miss being home.

I’m thinking ahead to finding a place to settle. Where I am now is temporary, and for a very specific purpose (more on that later.) I’ve had a decade of transience, with much travel and frequent moves. I have other things to do, and I want a home to do them from.

I’ve had two excellent, intriguing, beautiful and fulfilling homes in my life. That makes me very lucky. Nevertheless, before too long, I’ll be looking for one more.

Johann_Georg_Grimm_1886,_Fazenda_em_Paraíba_do_Sul

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Learning to stand: t’ai chi, qi gong, and unscrambling the CNS

About 15 years ago, I studied shaolin kung fu with Ted Mancuso at the Academy of Martial Arts in Santa Cruz. I was outrageously lucky to wind up there. I had too much spiritual feeling to tolerate the gym-type martial arts classes normally found in the US, but not nearly enough discipline to make the most of my time at the Academy.

However, I did learn a few things, including how to block a punch in such a way that my opponent’s spinal reflexes were disabled for my return punch. That was cool.
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Being short, blonde, female, well-traveled, and — above all — a sometime Emergency nurse, all my illusions about bad things only happening to bad people were long since destroyed. It’s a great big world out there, and anything can happen to anybody.

So there I was, in my self-satisfied early 30’s, at a top-flight martial arts training school. The fact that the teacher (or “sifu”) had started in qi gong somehow totally eluded me. I was infatuated with the grandmother of martial arts, shaolin kung fu, and really had eyes for nothing else.

Smiling sparrers from Shaolinsuomi at Wikimedia.
Smiling sparrers from Shaolinsuomi at Wikimedia.

I briefly flirted with t’ai chi, but decided it would be too hard on my knees… Knees are important, but shoddily made. I had cruddy cartilage (what was left of it) under my kneecaps. I thought that was painful (how cute!) and was afraid of making it worse before my time (another joke, in retrospect.) I got physical therapy for that problem, and learned that my legs had been aligning poorly at least since I was 11.

Retraining my legs to activate different muscles, ones I could hardly feel (and no wonder), was daunting at first.

I remarked to Sifu Ted, in tones of reflective melancholy overlaying a certain smugness, “I’m re-learning how to walk.”

That was supposed to be the opening line of a short discourse on rebuilding something so fundamental, literally repatterning one of the most reflexive early lessons in life, going right back to the beginning and restructuring an utterly basic activity … yeah. Cute.
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But, before I could get started, he said, in a tone of unrehearsed frankness overlaying a certain frustration, “I’m always relearning how to walk.”

My verbal hot-air balloon deflated on a laugh, before it ever left the ground.

He said, “It’s true.”

I nodded, and went away to think that over for a decade or so.

I thought of Ted when I realized that combining energy discipline and body work was the best rubric for managing my CRPS. I’m back at his school now, studying — you guessed it — qi gong and t’ai chi.

Um… No, it’s not too hard on my knees.

T’ai chi is second to nothing I’ve tried for correcting posture, the way Ted’s Academy teaches it. While each body is unique, there are certain things that have to happen in order for the movement to work. To do good t’ai chi is to line your body up properly. My low back is slowly opening and lengthening again, and my feet are remembering how to find the ground.

Qi gong is another dimension beyond that. I’m sweating over re-learning how to stand. When I find the words, which may take awhile, I’ll write about it more. To start with, I’ll just say that I had no idea how much I get in my own way — and I’m not that bad, for a Westerner. I started qi gong 20 years ago, but now I’m starting all over again.

I thought it was trippy to go back to when I was 11, and un-learn from there. Now I’m realizing I have to go back to when I was 1.
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But I’m looking forward to knowing how to walk.

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T’ai chi and emotional pain

When I’m out in the world, my reflex is to shove grief into a bundle and push it aside, and try to act as if I don’t feel it.

It’s always surprising how much energy that actually takes. When I’m doing anything else that takes much effort, it’s nearly impossible. It makes me forgetful and clumsy, just like a pain flare.

When I was at t’ai chi class yesterday, shoving and pushing one way with my mind while I was shoving and pushing another way with my body was so exhausting that I was wringing wet with sweat. Then I remembered something I’d tried briefly before, and decided to try it for the rest of the class.

I mentally drew the grief into my whole body. The grief turned to sadness and stretched out into every muscle fiber, every moving part. And I did t’ai chi with a body that was swarming with sadness.

It was, above all, peaceful.

I certainly wasn’t as tired. The sweat vanished as if by magic. I don’t even remember it drying on me.

The important thing is, I wasn’t expressing sadness in any deliberate way. I didn’t move more slowly, or try for any effect. I moved more deliberately and with better focus, because I was integrated. My body was filled with sadness, and I moved that body through the t’ai chi form.

The point of t’ai chi is to clear things up, straighten out what needs straightening, and separate muddled body parts and muddled energies into their proper alignments. Therefore, the sadness got a heck of a massage, and by the end of class, it was like it had been processed into something more wholesome. There wasn’t nearly as much sadness, as such. There was a lot more peace. There was a sense of strength I can’t put a name to.

I must add, as a footnote, that it’s been a long time since my feelings were capable of unshadowed joy. I have learned to cultivate a certain shallowness of mind at times, so I can be insulated from the deeps and be simply happy in the moment.

Therefore, when I say that I was happy as I left class, understand that it was a deep happiness. The shadows were very much a part of it, but that was fine. They were in the right place.

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