Pain management

Tabletop with laptop, coffee mug, papers, and needlework.
(My pain management class supplies: textbook, computer, water, herbal tea, and needlework. I don’t know if I could get through the classes without the needlework.)

One day this week, an errand took me past a former workplace. It’s a road I spent years driving down, Monday through Friday, but I rarely have cause to drive it now.

Thanks to my pain management class, a book I learned about there, and a recent conversation with my primary care doc, I am coming to understand some things about my body’s responses to perceived threat, and how that is connected to years of chronic pain from various medical conditions. So, when I had to drive by that place slowly–it’s a school zone, and I hit it at peak drop-off time in the morning–I had plenty of time to get triggered and to feel what the triggering was doing to my body.

When I drove that road nearly every day, I didn’t notice how it felt–how I felt. It was just my normal. Maybe I was desensitized by its constancy. Maybe there was no room to really feel it. I mean, quitting was not an option. I wasn’t in denial about the problems of that place, but I was about their impact on me. Not entirely, but enough to keep myself able to function. Mostly. For a long time, anyway.

My PCP sent me to a behavioral health consultant, so that I can get access to therapy to “heal from unresolved trauma” that is playing a role in my chronic pain conditions. That person asked me to rate, on a 10-point scale, how much I feel impacted from my chronic pain.

The question stumped me.

I mean, how I feel most of the time is better than I ever have in my entire life. I have pain of one kind or another (and fairly often more than one kind at a time) most days, but it is manageable. When my back acts up after a half hour of cleaning, I am able to sit down and rest. When a migraine starts, I am able to stay home and rest. I have effective meds. For the first time in my life (other than a short stretch in my early 20s), I am not either living or working in a situation that causes me to walk on eggshells, constantly alert for trouble and doing whatever I can to avoid it. Do you know how good it feels to always feel safe, accepted, loved, and relaxed at home? I feel so incredibly fortunate to have what I have now. It’s a wonder to me.

But I do have pain of one kind or another most days, and that is manageable only because I am no longer working in my career field. I don’t feel able to commit to any other paid work because managing/improving my health is feeling like its own full-time job now. But working is a primary life function, and I’m not even 60 yet. If I can’t do a primary life function at my age and be well, what should my score be?

I think I settled on 7. Or maybe 6.

I don’t know where I’m going with this.

It’s been a funky week. The weather is cold cold cold, but the days are so brightly sunny I keep saying I need to get my sunglasses back out. I’m savoring every last bit of true fall that I can, before we pass Thanksgiving and it is officially winter holiday season. I love this time of year, when we go inside and get cozy but don’t yet have a bunch of other obligations. When we love light all the more for its scarcity.

For so many reasons, I really can’t with Thanksgiving much any more, but I will always love taking time to notice and name what I am grateful for. In this funky week full with appointments and phone calls and triggers and wind and wool sweaters, there was one morning where everything sparkled because the temperatures had dropped below freezing overnight, but the sun was rising. Branches were newly bare, but there were still leaves clinging to them–leaves blazing with their final colors. It felt like a metaphor for many things right now, so I took a picture.

One day I was home alone, and I noticed a pair of boots that Cane had left out. My daughter leaves her shoes and slippers in the hallway outside her bedroom door. When my son used to come home on military leave, he’d leave his shoes out, too, and I always loved seeing them. When I lived by myself, I had neat, tidy, empty hallways. This kind of clutter fills me.

On a walk this week, I passed an old, old tree:

Isn’t she glorious? I mean, look closer:

That’s a kind of beauty that only comes from years of living, from standing through season after season of sun, rain, wind, ice, and sun again. When I was younger, reminders that the world had existed long before me and would long after me were unsettling. Now, they are comforting. (I might have given that tree a hug. She felt like a grandmother, and I miss mine.)

Hoping all of you have a week with some beauty and comfort in it, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.

(Maybe my next stitching project. Or maybe I’ll write a story set here. Something about this place calls to me.)

Good medicine

It was a busy, busy week. OK, a busy, busy three days–Monday through Wednesday–and then I crashed and burned. I’m writing this on Thursday morning, in migraine fog, planning to skip my pain management class today because it (so far) triggers me every damn time. And getting triggered in a 2-hour Zoom meeting while on meds is something I’m just not going to subject my neural pathways to. (I’m writing on Thursday because we are going to be away for the weekend–a small trip I’m much wanting to take, but even good stress is stress, right? You know how anticipatory grief is a thing? So is anticipatory stress.)

In spite of all that, I wrote. Or, I played with words, which counts.

The past few years, I’ve created a calendar with my words and photos. I pull both from this blog and from Instagram posts, tightening the words a bit. I give the calendars to my parents and a few friends. I wasn’t as pleased with last year’s effort as I had been with earlier ones, and just last week, as I changed the calendar to November, I thought that maybe I would let that project go.

Then I received an email from one of those friends:

When Ed turned the page from October to November on your 2022 calendar, he said, ‘I really love Rita’s photographs and her poetry.’ The love word this engineer rarely bandies about.

Well, if that’s not a sign from the universe, I don’t know what is. (Who am I to deny Ed–who I love because he so well loves my friend that I love–something he loves, especially when he uses that word sparingly?) So I sat down and started noodling, reviewing the year’s photos, pulling snippets of language from posts. I never thought of the calendar words as poetry, but the words there are distilled versions of those that I share here. Maybe they are.

For several hours last Sunday afternoon, I played with words and images from the last year, and it felt good. Really good.

I’d been struggling a bit with my second Dive into Poetry prompt (an invitation to write about shame), but Monday morning, my pump primed from Sunday’s play, this came out:

Usually I Reject Shame

Call it out as the abuse I’ve known
it to be, but not today,
having so recently escaped from an October 
where smoky air kept us sweltering inside, 
and the leaves–the ones that didn’t turn ash-gray–
stayed stubbornly green. 

The crows called when we stepped out 
the door, their caws sounding like castigation 
for our collective sins, a thousand jagged “shoulds” 
raining upon our heads. 

“I know, I know!” I bleated back at them, 
eyes down, my words
flying away in the hot, hot wind.

Then, another prompt was about collections, and one suggestion was to collect words for a poem from other texts. I went back to my blog posts from November of last year, thinking I might pull words into a poem about the month. I copied and pasted snippets of language, and then I rearranged them and polished them and glued them together with some new words into something that is about late middle-age/early old-age, our current moment in history, and, I suppose, November:

In the November of Our Lives

One day it’s all sunshine-sharp air and leaves blazing against blue skies; 
the next, it’s wet sticks and relentless wind, 
our pumpkins on the front porch gone suddenly garish.
The bedrock upon which we’ve lived shifts 
and breaks, and there is no mending the fault lines, 
no way around canyons of looming catastrophe.  
With our children grown, our dogs buried, and our bodies 
both softer and more brittle than they’ve ever been, 
my missing is so deep it’s not even an ache.  
It’s something I don’t have a word for. 
There are moments I want to last forever, the wanting 
turning them to memory before they end. 
I thought surely we’d have more,
but darkness descends before we’re ready for it,
and something inside turns toward candlelight,
toward small flames still burning, hunkering down for the long haul of winter.

I’ve long liked writing cento poems (poems I’ve thought of as verbal collages), and I’m finding that using my own prose as source material might be a way into writing poetry again.

In a week where I could feel myself melting on Monday afternoon, where a Wednesday doctor visit resulted in referrals to even more appointments, where the work of healing feels like a mountain too steep to climb, this kind of word play was good medicine.

One foot in front of the other. Even if the step is sometimes a wonky, sideways sort of thing.

Also, I use Shutterfly to make my calendars, and I like the 12×12 version. They are on sale right now, if you’d like to make your own.

This week brought to you by the letter P

Most Friday mornings, I start my day at an early morning patch session at the ice rink. “Patch” is something most rinks don’t offer any more, as it is a time to practice figures, which have not been a part of international singles skating competitions since 1991. The US eliminated them from their national championships in 1999, and so most young skaters do not learn or practice figures. I was a young skater in the 1970s, so figures and patch were part of my skating practice back in the day, as they were for most of my current, fellow Friday-morning patch skaters.

(If you’d like to learn more/get historical, this video segment from 1976 Olympic coverage dives into what figures are/were. They are so, so much harder than Dorothy Hamill made them look. I wish they were still part of competition.)

As we were ending last week, a fellow skater and I were commiserating about our mutual difficulty with figures. “I have a love-hate relationship with patch,” I said. “I love how quiet it is. I love the focus and precision it requires. I appreciate the core workout. I hate how frustrated I get.”

“That’s because you’re a perfectionist,” our patch coach said, who was standing near us.

The words did not feel like a compliment, and the slight sting I felt from them is part of why I’ve been paying attention to perfectionism (and its impacts) and experimenting with practice and play over the past week.

We’ve been having a bit of a discussion here about creative practices, particularly about the issue of a singular creative focus vs. engaging in multiple kinds of creative play/work. I’m pretty firmly in the camp of favoring a multi-faceted approach. That’s probably because it justifies my desire to dabble in so many different things, but it’s also because, like others who’ve commented here, I think creativity in one area contributes to progress in others. That’s something I definitely saw this week.

I finished my little embroidery exercise, even though there are things about it I don’t like and couldn’t/wasn’t willing to fix, and even though doing so required me to stick with it long after the fun, discovery part of it was gone. I love a steep learning curve, but I got to experience a different kind of pleasure by seeing some subtle things about technique that I likely wouldn’t have if I’d quit and moved on. (A good insight to apply to both skating and writing.) Honestly, I don’t know if I would have finished it (I’m itching to start a new one) if it weren’t for Kate telling me she wanted to see how the rain chain would look when it was done. I discovered in new ways this week how peers or partners are another important P when it comes to creative work.

One of the great joys of life with my daughter back home is the time we spend skating together, and I realized this week that I don’t do nearly as well when I skate alone. On Thursday, I went to skate while she finished her work shift at the rink. My plan was to practice what I’d worked on in class and my private lesson, and then give her a ride home. I lasted only about 40 minutes on my own, and then I took myself off to Starbucks with a book and hot chocolate. (I stand by that choice, btw.)

Instead of going home after she was done working, though, we decided to skate together. Nearly two hours later, I’d had a breakthrough on an element that I’d been struggling with, and I’d laughed a lot. It’s just so much more fun (and more productive for me) to have someone else tell me what they’re seeing, and to learn from watching them. I don’t have any photos or videos of us skating, but I did catch this shot of her driving the Zamboni right at the end of her shift. (I am so in awe. When I was a kid the Zamboni seemed like a magic machine, and now I know it’s actually a pretty complicated one. And it’s huge, too! And you have to drive it with so many people watching you.)

Because I’ve been focusing/thinking about practice and play and letting go of perfectionism, I signed up at the last minute for Jena Schwartz’s Dive into Poetry, a month-long guided poetry writing group. I’ll let Jena’s words explain what the experience is about:

“This is not a class; we’re not here to study the difference between a villanelle and a sonnet or to deconstruct the Romantics or to compare Beat poets to contemporary giants of the spoken word. We’re here to practice, to play, to enjoy the gifts certain poems may have for us, to discover our own voices in surprising ways, and to revel in the ways that poetry is everywhere and everything.”

See all the P’s in there? Practice and play and poems. My perfectionism has played a major role in my not writing poems for many years. (So has my chronic pain, which I’m realizing from the pain management class I’ve been taking–but I’ll save that P for another time.) Jena’s groups are incredibly supportive and generative, and so I decided to sign up for this. (I did the Dive a few years back, but I wrote only prose. No poems.) For the month of November, I’ll get three prompts a week, each of which is an invitation into writing poetry. There is a Facebook group, where we can share our work and engage with other Divers about it.

The whole thing is about playing and experimenting and exploring. To be an active participant (which I think is important, especially given my recent thoughts about the value of creatively playing with others), I have to get over myself and share work that I haven’t had time to perfect. (My writing process requires germination. Even these blog posts are rarely a one-off creation.) Because we get assignments, I feel more freedom to play than I would if I were generating poems on my own, with a goal of publication. I have no big expectations around what I will write; they are just exercises, explorations. (Like my little embroidery houses. Like my doodles on ice.) I just want to play, and so that’s what I did for our first assignment. One of our options was to write a poem about why we like writing poetry, which I chose because my first, gut-level response was: I don’t.

Why do I like to write poetry?

I mostly don’t, because it so often fails
to live up to my expectations, does not flay
a story to its core, my language a finger
pulling the skin of an experience’s tunicate bulb
down to its perfect, pearly heart.   

Sometimes, I get a little lost 
because it feels so good to run my mind 
over the fabric of words, 
some coarse as burlap or soft as flannel, 
others a taffeta crinkle, a gauzy whisper,
a velvet caress, or a flour-sack smile. 
I gather them like some Midas with his gold,
touching every line into gaudy shine.

Sometimes, all I do is splash around
in sound, damming my juddering glottals up, 
zhuzhing a line with exuberant sibilants,
wooing my readers with strings of labials and liquids.
Mmmm. 
Those times, it becomes too easy to let 
fricatives ssssh-ssssh-ssssh over whole stanzas
in waves, washing complicated truths away. 

Too often, I tumble down Google holes–
delving into, say, the differences between 
sibilants and fricatives, or various varieties of bulbs–
which is its own kind of pleasure, sure, but
not the kind I’m really looking for. 

I want to get lost in language only if it shows me the way.

I want a poetry that takes me deeper in as the words spool out.

So, that’s what’s been doing around here. Looking forward to another week of progressing through play. Oh, and puzzling. That’s a P to please my inner perfectionist. So satisfying when the pieces fit precisely where they are supposed to go.

Jigsaw puzzle in progress, with image of an autumn scene.