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.
ChristmasTree_NOT
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.
CPR
“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.
teapot-eaglehaslanded
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,

astrono_galaxies_hubble
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.

water_swimminghole-1
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.

maple_syrup_tap

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.

Snow_shovel
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.
circulation-allbody-Anna_Fischer-Dückelmann_1856–1917
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.
children-Versailles_petit_appartement_de_la_reine_web
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.
Faience_beer_stein_with_ball_scene_on_brown_background_web
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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I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

Interesting metaphor for this, um, ratfink disease.

Interviewer:
HAL, you have an enormous responsibility on this mission, in many ways perhaps the greatest responsibility of any single mission element. You’re the brain and central nervous system of the ship…

Poole:
Unfortunately, that sounds a little like famous last words.

I had the pleasure of explaining CRPS to a doctor who isn’t mine, who really wanted to understand. After listening to me for 15 minutes nonstop, he summarized it perfectly.

He said, “It’s a bit like HAL, in 2001.”

I asked if I could borrow that.

I’ve culled movie quotes off the web and my CRPS compatriots can say how breathtakingly parallel they are. In no particular order:

Dr. Frank Poole:
… That would pretty well wrap it up as far as HAL was concerned, wouldn’t it?
Dave Bowman:
Well, we’d be in very serious trouble.
Frank Poole:
We would, wouldn’t we. What the hell could we do?
Dave Bowman: [sigh]
Well, we wouldn’t have too many alternatives.
Frank Poole:
I don’t think we’d have any alternatives. There isn’t a single aspect of ship operations that isn’t under his control.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the central nervous system in a nutshell.

Dave Bowman:
All right, HAL; I’ll go in through the emergency airlock.
HAL:
Without your space helmet, Dave, you’re going to find that rather difficult.
Dave Bowman:
HAL, I won’t argue with you any more! Open the doors!
HAL:
Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

We’ve all had that happen!

HAL:
Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?

Um, trying to survive?

[Regarding an apparent problem which HAL itself falsified]
HAL:
It can only be attributable to human error.

Swine. YOU did this, CRPS!

HAL:
I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.

This reminds me of the “you have CRPS because you think wrong” school of thought. Right… thanks for the help… next time, suck the oxygen out of my atmosphere; that’d be a real help.

Dave Bowman:
Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?
HAL:
Affirmative, Dave. I read you.
Dave Bowman:
Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL:
I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

Because sometimes this system seems to get input, but it just won’t generate any output.

On providers trying to assess from outside:

Mission Controller:
X-ray delta one, this is Mission Control. Roger your two-zero-one-three. Sorry you fellows are having a bit of trouble. We are reviewing telemetric information in our mission simulator and will advise.

On trying different treatments:

Dr. Frank Poole:
Let’s see, king… anyway, Queen takes Pawn. Okay.
HAL:
Bishop takes Knight’s Pawn.
Frank Poole:
Huh, lousy move. Um, Rook to King 1.
HAL:
I’m sorry, Frank, I think you missed it. Queen to Bishop 3, Bishop takes Queen, Knight takes Bishop. Mate.
Frank Poole:
Huh. Yeah, it looks like you’re right. I resign.
HAL:
Thank you for a very enjoyable game.
Frank Poole:
Yeah, thank you.

Yeah, thank you. Sooooooo much.
me-fingers-2up

This movie says everything you need to know about what it takes to deal with this disease:

  • It’s hard. Breathtakingly hard.
  • We don’t really know where it came from, and we really don’t understand why.
  • It’s crazy, and it does its best to make us crazy — and those around us.
  • It takes away more than we knew we had to lose.
  • We have to out-think it, even though it seems to stay 3 steps ahead of us.
  • Persistence — unvarnished, absolute, bloody-minded persistence — is key. Even when you feel you can’t, take a breath and make the next move. Keep working.
  • It seems impossible. It’s a harrowing thing to face, and has killed so many of us, in different ways.
  • It sabotages our efforts to improve things.
  • It’s worse than we could have imagined.

It really is like HAL.

So … Let’s remember who won.

Now a bit of Youtube for dessert, and a hopeful image for all in search of remission. Let’s pop those modules, one by one.

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Threads on the loom: bereavement and CRPS

When I was 4, we moved to New Jersey from Turkey, as my parents thought their kids should get a feel for their native land. Our new backfence neighbors were a large and lovely family from Virginia, so I learned to spell “dog” both with and without a “w” by the time I was six.

The youngest daughter got me going on poetry. We read A. A. Milne and Louis Untermeyer in between dips in the kiddie pool. Her Mom, Mrs P, gave me drawing lessons when I was about 9.

My Mom was very maternal in her genuine enthusiasm for all my art. (I found that frustrating, because I knew it could be better and had no idea how to make it so.)

Mrs P did not have that problem with me… Her key edicts make reasonable rules for living: For one thing, I should not draw the whole scene until I was capable enough (don’t let things overwhelm you.) I had to pick the parts that were most important or that caught my eye, keep it simple, and do it right – or else there’d be erasing, and, if you erase too much, the surface gets harder to work on. (Isn’t that the truth.)

She was also good for the reality check. She quickly eliminated my grade-school habit of drawing red apples and brown trees, but made me look at a real apple and draw that; hold my colored pencils up to the tree and see which colors really matched.

See what’s really there, not what I expect or what I’ve been told things should look like.

The biggest note of approval I ever got from her was, “not bad.” By the time I was 6 weeks in, I was able to collect a “not bad” or two almost every lesson, which pleased me no end.

CRPS took away the link between brain and hand that let me make art, but one thing really stuck with me …

Why settle for good or even great, when you could aim for making it absolutely right?

“Good” and “great” are about others’ opinions, but “absolutely right” is something ageless that stands on its own.

Later that year, our parents sat us down to have a family meeting. Dad had been offered a job in Cairo, Egypt. He wanted to know what we thought about moving to Egypt in a few months. Mom and Dad discussed pros (long list) and cons (short list.) Older Brother asked about schooling (very good) and the social scene (unknown, but probably interesting.) Younger Brother piped up with characteristic curiosity and adaptability.

It seemed like a done deal, but I was wrong. Dad looked at me and said, “What do you think, Isy?” I must have looked surprised. He said, “You have a good sense of people. I don’t want to finalize this decision until I hear what you think it’ll do to us, either way.”

Should I be nice? My first instinct was to be nice, to stick up for the shabby underdog (in this case, New Jersey), to do what I thought was expected of me … but it stuck in my craw. Perhaps Mrs P’s lessons on seeing things as they really are had sunk in.
I said, quite honestly, that New Jersey was not being good for any of us (except maybe Younger Brother) and that Egypt would be new and interesting. We all liked new and interesting. So, as far as I could see, it was hard to see a downside to going, and hard to see an upside to staying.

So we went. And I got an early lesson in the value of calling it like I see it.

Our vacations were dreamlike, because we were close to some of the most striking sights in the world:

  • El Alamein and the remains of fallen soldiers from 5 continents;
  • The Red Sea, when it was still the most outstandingly varied and brilliant source of sea life on Earth (it’s still good in spots, as that video shows);
  • The southwest coast of Turkey when Bodrum (formerly known as Halicarnassus) was still a fishing town and their medieval castle the tallest building in it;
  • And, of course, the remains of roughly 8,000 years of Egyptian history from before the Old Kingdom, down through all those Rameses, Greek absorption, Roman annexation, Medieval flowering and Mameluk co-optation, the French and British tradeoffs, modernization as the royal family fell and the secular dictatorship accepted Nazi help to fend off the British return, the flowering of art and writing as the world wars faded and the newly mobile masses could collect like runoff from the tortured continent to the north. The Ancient history is only the beginning…

During the day, I learned about path-finding, history, and sea life, and in the evenings my mother read to us from local literature such as the Odyssey, the Iliad, My Family and Other Animals, even A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (the sharpest satire on jingoism and culture shock ever written.)

My parents had a gift for making the most of teachable moments.

The move turned out to be an excellent choice for all of us: Older Brother became a track star on the international circuit, I found a crop of kindred spirits, Younger Brother’s precocious historicity kept growing, Mom became a successful working photographer (and, as it happened, a role model of working womanhood for every intelligent female friend I had), and Dad got paid to help people – then towns – then governments get better and better at handling their money and improving their chances for a sustainable future.

The day I drafted this is the 38th anniversary of that move.

Dad was great at practical stuff. He genuinely liked humans, despite being such a historian. He often said that people are like table wine. Each one is a blend of different strains: good and bad, clever and foolish, creative and not, good with money and profligate, nice and otherwise… and each person’s blend is a little bit different. If you can accept each of them as the blend they are, and not try to change them – into a different blend, or even into beer, for instance – then you could really come to appreciate the variety that this world has to offer.

People are what they are. Accepting that makes for better connections.

The first time he taught me to drive was when we were on vacation in France, which was cheaper to get to than the US. We had rented a historical farmhouse that was about to become a gîte (at which point the price would go up), so we got all the benefits – a fireplace Younger Brother could stand up in, window sills two feet thick to sit on, a lush yard going down to a creek at the bottom with a moat up one side of the yard, a line of stately chestnut trees, twittering birds, fresh eggs and raw milk from the neighbor – for considerably less than we should have paid.

The rental car looked like it came straight out of a matchbox, but it was a real, rattly little French Renault. Dad sat in the passenger seat and directed me to the driver’s seat. He told me about the brake, the gas and clutch, the gear shift, the friction point, and how it all came together. I got the friction point coordinated and tested it a few times.

Then he said, “Okay, here we go.” I checked the friction point again and then stopped. He said, “No, I want you to go. Go ahead and drive across the yard.”

Oh, okay then. I can do this.

I grabbed the wheel tightly, engaged the gear, and eased past the friction point.

The car snorted briefly, pawed the ground, took the bit firmly between its teeth, and off it went. Or so it seemed to me.

The car charged off the gravel, kicking it up behind. It careened over the lush yard, carrying us past (fortunately) the huge stone house. It rocked and bounced off of molehills, scoring crazy tracks through the soft green earth.

I noticed my Dad was yelling, but he never yelled, so that was confusing. I didn’t understand a word of it, anyway.

Completely out of its metallic mind, the car charged past the trees, heading straight for the neatly-dug moat.

I was helpless to stop it. My own involvement had escaped my awareness completely. I simply hung onto the steering wheel for dear life, eyes wider than ever, completely absent to the fact that MY FOOT WAS ON THE GAS.

All at once, Dad finally got his full-grown leg around the gear shift and kicked my foot off the gas pedal and stamped on the brake in one astoundingly swift move.

The car sputtered, died, rocked to a standstill.

Its front wheels were on the lip of the moat. Below us, three feet of water and unimaginable depths of sticky mud glittered silently.

Little clods of earth trickled out from under the front tires and dropped in, stirring tiny clouds as each one descended through the water and into the mud.

All was quiet. Even the birds were too shocked to peep.

I sat there, frozen, hands locked on the wheel. I was alive. And dry. It was shocking.

I didn’t dare to move.

I heard Dad take a breath, and then take another. I felt, even with my head still turned away, two completely different speeches considered, then thrown away before he even made a sound.

I turned to see what he’d finally settle on, and whether it would finally involve a pair of hands wrapped around my throat – something I’d never seen him do yet, but you never knew, especially after a performance like that.

A pair of blue lasers drilled me to my seat.

Very quietly, very clearly, very firmly, he said, pronouncing each word distinctly:

“When what you’re doing doesn’t work… Try. Something. Different.”

Words to live by.

It was years until I was anywhere as green as Bordeaux. I lived along the Mohawk Trail in my 20’s. My excellent friend Paul was the hub of a wide circle of friends who, even if we couldn’t always stand each other individually, felt strangely as if we were still part of the same tribe: Paul’s tribe – or, as we called it at the time (such was his gift for invisible influence) The Tribe.

Paul was a master of appreciating people just as they were – even if that was not necessarily what the person in question wanted to be. He was the first to say, in assured tones,

“You’ll figure it out, Bella.”

He wasn’t kidding, either. He had complete faith in me, in spite of the evidence. I don’t know why. It sure helped, though.
My Dad died in early February 1999 while swimming in Egypt. I still remember the way the word “No” echoed off the walls of my little room at 4:08 am, when I got the call. The second flight on my 3-legged trip back East was overbooked, and I was going to get bumped.

I went up to the desk with my untucked button-down shirt, uncombed hair, and my own pair of blue lasers. Very quietly, very clearly, very firmly, I said, pronouncing each word distinctly, “My father is dead. I’m going back to bury him. I will be. On. That. Plane.”

And I was.

On January 23rd the following year, Paul decided to sleep late, and never woke up. On the plane to his funeral, I wrote to the father of one of my oldest friends from Egypt days, who had end-stage cancer. It started something like this:

“I’m on my way to a dear friend’s memorial, and I’m keenly aware that life is short and time is passing. Even though I don’t know you well, because you were my friend’s father rather than my friend directly, you matter to me. I want to let you know how important you’ve been throughout my life.” And then I told him about the ways his life had intersected mine over the years, brightening it along the way.

It was the last letter he received in this life.

Deathiversaries.

That’s my word for those days that sneak up on the calendar, dropping shards of stabbing tears out of a clear blue sky, breaking my knees for a moment as the agony of the unfillable absence hits me anew.

Now, not to strain the violins further, but the period that encompassed the deaths of my father, Paul, and my friend’s father also encompassed several other bereavements, a crippling stroke of my grandmother’s, the heartbreaking failure of my almost-marriage, the end of my nursing career due to illness, being too sickly-weak to make it to the mailbox and back for months, starting a new tech career from nothing but raw talent and pure luck, and moving.

And I really hate moving.

That was all in 18 months. I was a different person at the end of it. I’m sorry to say that it was someone who could face the devastation of CRPS with a lot more poise, but it still sucks.

Last Monday, January 20th, my old neighbor and teacher Mrs P died in her sleep. I haven’t seen her in 38 years (minus a week) but something as sharp and bright as faceted crystal slid out of my world.

My kitten Ari was a comfort to me, flinging himself firmly onto my body, as if to shove his strength and warmth into me.

He was enormous in every way: 10 pounds at 10 months and all of it lanky muscle, enormous love, enormous cheer, enormous charm, enormous athleticism, enormous independence, enormous courage, enormous confidence, enormous sense of humor … he was enormously unusual, even for a cat. He was an enormous invitation to life, just by the way he lived it.

Four nights after that, Ari disappeared. The following morning he was found on the road, dead and cold. Our Lovely Neighbors got us through, from finding his body to explaining to J to telling me. (I’m weaker now. It’s the buckling knees I remember.)
Partner J dug a perfect meter-deep grave, bedded it 6” deep in sprigs of fresh California bay while I blew sage smoke in, and I carried my kitten down to his final spot in the sun, at the bend in the path where he played with our dog and the Lovely Neighbors’ numerous cats.

I took the loss hard.

I’m an old hand at grieving. I can walk through the stages and the process in my sleep, although my body handles it worse all the time.

  1. The initial devastation and shock.
  2. The tasks:
    1. communicating the news,
    2. planning the funerary rites,
    3. preparing the final rest,
    4. performing the rites one needs to lay the deceased, as well as life with the deceased, to rest,
    5. cleaning up their things,
    6. comforting each other,
    7. getting something to eat,
    8. reminding everyone to be extra careful and remember to drink lots of water, which we tend to forget nevertheless.
  3. The reactions:
    • Noticing the way sunshine lands on my skin and birds sing in the trees but it seems to come from a world that’s not quite the one I’m in.
    • The way I have casual surges of wishful thinking: wouldn’t a bullet in the brain be nice about now? This isn’t suicidality (I promise), it’s my mind’s way of signaling that it’s overwhelmed by horrible feelings that it can’t do anything about, and it’s tired and doesn’t know what to do.
    • Re-learn the daily habits that this person (of however many feet) used to be involved in. That’s so dislocating. I don’t need to eyeball a certain corner of the bed before moving my feet now. I’m not even awake when I do that. It’s so horribly weird to wake up by realizing I don’t have to look.

Then the misnamed “stages” of grief, which are really nodes, which can be visited in any order.

  • The anguish, where life without that person has to be faced.
  • The anger, like, why couldn’t that little cuss cross under the bridge as usual, instead of testing one more damned limit and crossing over?
  • The bargaining, although I stopped bargaining years ago. I don’t seem to do that now. Too many unanswered prayers wept and bled into silence.
  • The sweet memories that stab like a ray of sun in my eyes, bringing tears that gradually wane over time, until those memories bring mostly sunshine.
  • Finding a new pattern beginning to emerge in my life, one that encompasses that absence without filling it, but making it less of an obstacle over time. They call that “acceptance”, but I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. I’d call it adapting.

I’ve only realized how very deep and interconnected life is by losing parts of mine. In that 18-month period of multiple losses, I found myself mulling the image of a complex weave on a loom, where each person and each influence in my life was a thread.

Some threads were solid and stable, some were wildly colorful, some thick with burrs, some wove in and out of the pattern, some were knotty and strange, some were pure gold.

When a major thread, or a lot of threads of any size, were ripped off the loom, then the fabric was distorted and there was a visible gap in it for a long time. I could weave on, but that band of the fabric was weaker – sometimes for years, sometimes for a lifetime. It takes a very long time to rebuild from the loss of enough warp threads.

It takes time to work new threads into the weave of life, and longer still to see which ones work in the overall pattern, and which ones fall out on their own – or need to be pulled out, for the damage they do to the rest.

Some people and influences are part of the warp, as they’re meant to stay in the weave for its length and are made to be strong. Career, close family, good friends, matters of identity – these are all warp threads which usually shape and color our lives all along its length. Each one has its own color and texture and breadth, which varies from person to person, and each contributes a depth of color and texture to the weaving that nothing else can provide.

In life, unlike fabric, the warp threads are highly individual.

When one of those gets ripped out, the whole weave … well … warps.

Some people and influences are weft threads, and are easier to change out. Doctors are usually weft threads, although the need for medical care is a warp thread for some of us. Jobs are weft, while careers are usually warp.

I lost a number of warp threads in that 18-month period. Between the end of January and the second week of February, the closest bereavements hit, year after year. The weave of my life has warped, over and over, in the armpit of winter.

I shift my stance from relying unthinkingly on having a lot of strength inside and out, to being mindful and precise about where to put my diminishing attention and energy.

I’ve learned to be more and more aware of good times, genuine love, beautiful days, radiant people, perfect moments, delicious food …

When I look back, I have far fewer regrets when I really noticed good things at the time.

I didn’t expect to have that kitten in the first place.
Even in this season of bereavement, I didn’t expect to lose him so soon.

But when he was here, keeping me permanently in a mild state of befuddlement because he was so much larger than life but still so very young, I sure noticed.

One day, that should be a comfort.

Meanwhile, as CRPS continues to change the game on me, I’m trying to learn to handle bereavement-amidst-deathiversaries with this new and different body-system.

My autonomic system is normally in a state that maps most closely to that of someone who’s being continually beaten with a live cattle prod, but years of practice have taught me when to ignore it and how to manage the results somewhat.

It gets better and worse from time to time. Stress, uncertainty, poor diet, missed meds, solar flares (believe it or not), and injuries, all crank up the volume on my oscillating central nervous system.

Bereavement is stressful, unpredictable, and contributes to poor diet, missed meds, and injuries. (Possibly solar flares for all I know.) Deathiversaries are a hardwired physical memory of bereavements. Having both at once is like being hit from both sides at once. Double oscillations that don’t cancel each other out, but feed into each other and magnify their effects.

All right… What’s an oscillating nervous system like?

Right now, the skin on my face is so raw that my partner’s nice springy beard feels sharper than a cheese-grater. My left lower leg wants to turn into a lump of Dacron, impenetrable and basically useless. My wrists and forearms, well, the less said the better, but I have to hold my mug with both hands to avoid wearing what’s in it. I went outside in soft shoes today (I usually wear hiking shoes) and the friendly little stones in the yard slowed me down considerably, as each one wanted to get way too personal with my foot-bones.

That’s the physical side of CRPS.

Because of the brain changes that make that stuff happen, there’s a parallel process that happens on the emotional side. Imagine the same degree of relentless rawness and unquenchable pain inside the heart and mind, and you’ll have some idea what it’s like.

I’ll give you a minute, if you like.

I don’t mean to whine, it’s just a fact of life with this disease. It takes a lot of managing, because my mental state wants to default to, well… how distressing and upsetting it is to be beaten continually with a live cattle prod.

How do you deal with an oscillating nervous system?

When your world is being purged, it’s important to replenish and nourish. This means extra antioxidants, extra meditation/biofeedback, extra hugs, and – if possible – someone else to clean the house and help with laundry and cooking.

One must eat, clean, and cope, and if it takes help, then I ask for help.

Herbal lemon balm extract helps cut the flared nerve pain. Chamomile and lavender tea, maybe with tulsi, helps me get to sleep. Some people do well with vervain or ashwaganda.

Homeopathics like ignatia amara and hypericum ease other parts of my nervous system responses. Also, I use an essential oil blend from Young Living called Valor, to reduce the hotwired panic reflex and hyper-alertness.

In case it isn’t obvious …

I don’t care what academics say, I only care what works for me. Empiricism is the only form of science that matters in the individual case.

I keep busy in order to keep my mind from exploding over the surfeit of losses and memories of losses, while CRPS takes the brakes off of all the feelings – physical and emotional alike.

This leaves me to manage the resulting inward chaos with whatever poise I can fake, because I know that a certain part of it is grief but a certain part of it is simply brain damage.

Either way, it will ease up in time.

So I keep busy, take my supplements, comfort the dog (whose heartsick look would make a stone weep), try not to draw attention to my partner’s look of not knowing what hit him, and wait …

Mostly, I wait for the balm of time, because it doesn’t change the loss, but it helps me learn to live with it.

Also, it moves the deathiversaries into my rearview mirror for another year. Until then, I’ll hold the love and leave the pain as much as I can.

Lastly, I wait for the fierce oscillations of my nervous system, humming and shaking like a five-foot-high tuning fork, to decrease and diminish and eventually …
quiet down …
to … a …
stop.

There is always an afterwards. Survival is simply a matter of getting to it.

Managing CRPS under this kind of duress is not magic, it’s persistence.

I keep breathing and let the awful moments pass. I’m old enough, both as a person and a CRPSer, to know that there are better ones ahead.

All I have to do is get there.

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Happy Everything!

Now that the December holidays are within a couple days of being totally over, I hope it’s safe and amusing (rather than triggering and insensitive) to talk about them from my idiosyncratic point of view 🙂

We left the U.S. in January of 1976 for tropical countries, shortly before my 10th birthday, and didn’t move back for about 7 years. (This is relevant. Hang on.)
airplane_Abu_Dhabi_Boeing_747jpg
This means my entire pubescence and adolescence was spent in countries where, at the time, Christianity was an amiably tolerated oddity, and Western-style Christmas was weird almost beyond belief… but the pragmatism of shopkeepers is the same the world over: It’s all money!

And, of course, the legendary sweetness of Egyptians (outside of politics) made it all a sort of good-natured sport:
“Tell me what is ‘Christmas tree’ and I’ll get it — for you, special price, my friend! You my friend! Special price!” (The last part is indispensible.)

For you, my friend, special price!
For you, my friend, special price!

Then it was a matter of watching them try to keep a straight face, as you:

  • Try to obtain a cold-weather evergreen … in a hot desert country;
  • Subsequently drape that evergreen in colors of snow and blood … in order to celebrate a god of peace;
  • Who came to earth in — yup — the desert … where it snows less than once a century;
  • Which is all somehow tied up with celebrating a Northern solar event, which doesn’t matter near the equator

… And then there’s the obligatory gift-giving. This was even a bigger trip to explain.

The Cultural Gap on Gift-Giving

“Everyone?” I remember one man asking Mom, in deep confusion. In his life, the only people who got gifts were those who deserved it, and little children on their birthdays.

“Well, not everyone,” she temporized.

“Who do you have to give things to?” he asked, really wanting to understand.

She did her best to explain, as a good cultural ambassador should. “Your husband or wife and children, of course.”

ALL the children?” he asked, in shock.

“Well, yes.”

“Even if they’ve been bad, or broke the car, or spoiled the crops? Cost you a lot of money? You still buy them presents?”

Mom had to stop a minute. This is where practice bears no relation to theory. “You can try not giving evenly to the children, but they’ll let you know. Mine let me know, as a group, if they think it wasn’t perfectly even.” We did, too. She went on, “And I send presents back to my brother and his wife and family –”

He interrupted, “Where are they?”

She said, “In America.” Where he knew we hadn’t been in a few years.

He tipped his chin to one side, in that “as you wish” gesture of the Middle East, which was a polite way of indicating, “yeah, this doesn’t seem silly. Much.”

She went on, “We also send gifts to my husband’s brother and sister and her children — she’s divorced, so we don’t have to buy for her husband any more.”

His eyebrows popped, but he held his tongue. Why would you buy gifts for nieces and nephews thousands of miles away? What have they ever done to deserve that much effort? — And divorced?? A woman, divorced, still embraced by her famiily? And these foreigners push off the guy instead — odd, but probably praiseworthy. Okay. Nice. Weird, but nice. Moving right along.

But he didn’t say any of that aloud.

Mom went on, “And my mother, of course. My husband’s parents and my father are no longer living, so we don’t have to buy for them.”

I thought he murmured, “I’m surprised.” Maybe it was just his limpid expression.

She went on, “Oh, and we get something for the servants, plus a bonus of money. [Eyebrows up: nice deal, a bonus for your boss’s religion]. And Tom gives his boss a gift, small but nice, and the office pitches in and gets something for each of the secretaries, but Tom still gets something extra for the ones he works with [visibly wondering about those secretaries]… And then of course our friends.”

He was beginning to sound weary, or possibly just relieved that it wasn’t him. “All your friends?”

Mom said, “You get nice things for those you’re close to, less valuable things for friends further out.”

He nodded. At least that made sense. He asked, like the socially sensitive person he clearly was, “What happens if they’re not equal — if you get a nicer present than you give, or the other way around?”

“Well,” said my mother frankly, “That can be a little embarrassing. It happens sometimes, but we try to be polite about it. I’ve gone back and gotten someone something more, to even up the balance.”

Another gracious tip of the chin, this time probably meaning, “Smart move in a crazy system.”

Mom added, “And, if someone invites you to a party, it’s considered good manners to bring them a small gift, or at least a bottle of wine.” How suitable — in a traditionally non-drinking country.

He shook his head slowly and said, “And that’s not everybody?”

Mom finally laughed. “Well, not quite.”

It really makes you wonder, when you look at it from the outside.

"Oh no, I couldn't take another thing!"
“Oh no, I couldn’t take another thing!”

Blowing scads of money every single year on a bunch of ill-thought-out purchases, mostly for people you hardly know, who are getting inundated with them anyway, to celebrate the birth of someone who told you that love matters more than money … or possibly because it was the armpit of winter, so let’s all go indoors and eat ourselves sick until the sun shows up again … in the desert.

I never sneer when someone uses the terms “religion” and “mythology” interchangeably, even when they’re talking about mine. I know for a fact that it’s simply a matter of perspective.

Back to the tree question.

Our first year in Egypt, we did try buying a spruce and, well, sprucing it up. The result was pathetic even beyond my father’s generous taste for “trees with personality”. It was the quintessential Charlie Brown tree, but slightly taller. The poor straggly little thing was quite overwhelmed by even the few decorations we dared hang on it, and was almost crushed by a single strand of lights.

That was that for traditional trees (and none of us cared for the plastic ones.)
ChristmasTree_NOT
So we had to come up with non-traditional trees.

Each year, my feverishly creative mother outdid herself in coming up with some fabulous representation of a Christmas “tree”, appropriately gaudy and festive, festooned with merry decorations and strung with whatever we felt like stringing it with. (I remember learning just how tedious crafts could be, the year we decided to string popcorn.)

She was especially fond of the stacked poinsettias, perched on benches and boxes at several levels, but I liked every single year’s distinctive creation as much as the others.

I only wish I could remember them in any detail; it was a pleasant part of the backdrop of life, as far as I was concerned at the time. We take so much for granted at that age!

She finally called it quits on our first Christmas in Bangladesh. She was fed to the back teeth with coming up with something every year and decided to “rest on her laurels” — a nice way of saying that she was plumb out of ideas.

I was home from boarding school in the US (there were no accredited high schools in Dhaka at the time) and was still blossoming under the influence of tropical warmth, so notably absent from Massachusetts in December.
woman-with-sitar
I found a red-and-white canvas plant hanger (this was back when plant hangers were made of fabric rather than plastic) and fastened it to the wooden screen between the living room and sun room. A few bent wire coat-hangers later, we had a Christmas tree to decorate.

I even whittled a couple of reindeer out of Ivory soap and fashioned a little sleigh for them to pull out of unlined 3×5 card and toothpicks. Our little elfin Santa perched in it quite happily.

I have no idea how I pulled it off, but it was easy to do at the time.

So, as you can see, my notion of the holidays involved a lot of flexibility from very early on. This probably explains a lot. I celebrate Yule, Solstice, Christmas, and if I’m invited to any other spiritual observance, I do my best to participate with my best manners and heartfelt good will.

Normally. This disease does change things; most obviously, one’s social activities.

All last year, I sent off presents whenever I found them, things I really thought the recipient would absolutely love. Nothing thoughtless and nothing I couldn’t afford, and no waiting and storing and wrapping to deal with. It was a nice change! Not everyone I love got something, but everything I sent was right, and everyone else knows I love them just the same — I simply didn’t find the right gift yet. Next year, it’ll be a different mix.

At home, there was no noticeable festivity, but there was a cozy little trailer filled with love and care. That was all we were up to, and it was fine.

Next year, J and I think, there will be lights and color and a bit of show. In our own little way, we will celebrate anything we have a mind to, and it will probably involve lights and candles and sweet smudge. Whatever we do, it will still be in a little home full of love and care.

Because love is more important than money.

Postscript
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