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.)

The pursuit of okayness

You know all those self-help memes and articles and books that tell you that you can’t fix your life by changing the external circumstances of it? The ones that insist you won’t be happier if you have a different job or house or partner or friends, if you live in a different city or state or country? Because whatever ails you is something inside of you, and wherever you go, you’ll take it with you? Well…

Pretty font that says That's a load of horseshit"

Not entirely, I know, but I spent so many painful years believing that those messages were entirely true, trying desperately to find just the right way to exist within my marriage and job and community. I strove to find and embrace the good things about where and with whom I lived and worked, and to feel gratitude for all of my blessings (because I had lots of them). I went to 12-step programs and learned about the impacts addictions have had on my family. I did therapy. I joined gyms, cut out gluten, learned how to set boundaries, stopped being co-dependent, etc. ad nauseam. When my children were in kindergarten and I was teaching full-time, I got up at 4:00 in the morning to write because I believed the people who told me that saying I didn’t have time to write was just an excuse.

I pulled so hard on my bootstraps I’m surprised I didn’t break them. (Maybe I did?)

A lot of those things helped, and I’m glad I did them, but none of them solved my essential problem. I just wanted to be OK, and no matter what I did, I wasn’t. Not really. I had lots of wonderful moments (and all those blessings I was truly grateful for), but it was a constant struggle to be OK in any consistent or general way. Anxiety, depression, and a growing list of chronic medical conditions were ever-present obstacles that I couldn’t seem to think or work or do my way around.

Image of posters with words about attitude, hard work, and "get it done"

And then, over the past half-dozen years, I learned about the structural and systemic barriers that many of us live within and the real limits they put on well-being. I learned about gaslighting. I learned about neurodiversity and ableism and chronic illness and myriad ways in which the source of the difficulties I seemed to have was, perhaps, not all within me.

But I didn’t believe that those things explained my inability to be OK. Not really. Sure, I am a female living in a misogynistic patriarchy, and that’s not nothing. But I am also white, cis-het, raised Christian, and a middle-class, older Gen-Xer, which means I was the beneficiary of mid-20th century social supports that allowed me to dream of and then have a kind of life it will be much more difficult (perhaps impossible) for many Gen Z folks to have. My working-class parents were able to pay for my college tuition at a good public university without taking out loans, I was able to buy a home in my early 20’s through a federal loan program, and I got into a public pension program before cuts in the 90s seriously eroded its benefits, grandfathering me in to the promise of retirement. I was aware that I had the kind of good fortune that increasing numbers of Americans do not–so why couldn’t I just be OK, dammit?

Seriously: Why was OK an elusive dream I couldn’t realize? It had to be me. Because if I couldn’t be OK, how could anyone?

Well, as has often been the case in my life, I was wrong.

Because I am finally OK. I am more than OK: I am happy. And it feels weird to be happy, but damn if that’s not what I’ve been realizing this week that I am. (Happy feels weird, if you’re not used to it.) And, for the first time, I understand and believe and fucking know that I WASN’T WHAT NEEDED FIXING. (Yes, I’m shouting. I feel a little shouty these days.)

Happiness is not the absence of struggle. I still have my challenges and frustrations and griefs. I still grapple with health issues. I worry about our kids and what the dumpster-fires raging in our world are doing and are going to do to them. I live in a part of my city where many people are struggling to survive, and I feel angry every single day at the disparity between the parts of town that are like my neighborhood and those in which there are no tent collectives, no mothers and kids standing in traffic with cardboard signs asking for money, and no people who are walking illustrations of the havoc poverty and untreated mental illness wreaks on humans. I am all-the-time looking around and wondering why/how so many people don’t seem to really see what’s happening and are carrying on as if we’re still living in the world of 2010. But still, I’m OK now, and often more than OK.

I’m now in a healthy marriage with few stressors on it, and my survival needs (food, safe shelter, reasonable health care, drinkable water) are met, and all those problems I could never seem to solve–insomnia, anxiety, depression, etc.–are low-level on my worst days. I do meaningful work (mostly non-paid) every day, and I have time to rest, tend to important relationships, and be creative. I have the resources I need to care for myself and those in my communities (big and small). When I had to work for a paycheck to survive, I didn’t have enough of anything above the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Now I do, and I haven’t begun to figure out the words to tell you how OK I’ve become.

In the beginning stages of finally admitting that I wasn’t OK, I was in a sick marriage and a deeply under-resourced job (made more difficult by my invisible disabilities) that made it impossible for me to meet many of my needs. I was struggling to work full-time (in a job that demanded more than full-time work), raise children well, and take care of myself. Oh, and write, too, because it wasn’t enough just to be a good teacher. I had to fulfill some higher destiny, as well, the thing I was created to do.

Oprah Winfrey quotation: "There is no greater gift you can give or receive than to honor your calling. It's why you were born. And how you become most truly alive."

What I know now, having escaped the toxic relationship and untenable career is that I didn’t need to work harder, change my attitude, have more self-discipline, or stay where I was and count my blessings. What I needed was to get out.

I finally fully have, and I wish more than anything I could share some way for everyone else to get away from whatever is making them not-OK, but the truth I’m seeing now is that there isn’t always a way. I made the moves I was able to make (leaving that marriage, changing to a different job within my industry), and I searched constantly for better alternatives. But I couldn’t leave everything that was damaging AND take care of my people the way I wanted and needed to care for them. I am not looking back and thinking that I should have made different choices. (I don’t regret them, given my givens.) I am looking back and wishing only that our culture had been more honest about the scarcity of good choices for many of us to make.

Think of what I might have done to actually improve my life if I hadn’t wasted energy on blaming myself, on attempting to fix what I didn’t have the ability to fix, or on “solutions” that were never going to address the source of the problem.

I wish I could change the world so that everyone could have what I now do. I wish there was some formula I could share for how to get it in the world as it is. For myself, it has required some compromise, some luck, some risk, and a lot of years of living in poor health and doing what I had to do to get here. (The promise of that pension kept me in the world of K-12 education, and without it the life I have now would not be possible.) I can’t tell you how to do it, and I want to acknowledge that not everyone can do it, no matter how hard they work, but I’m writing this because if nothing else, I can give an assurance that I wish others had given me. If you’ve worked to heal from and deal with your childhood traumas and have a clear sense of your strengths and challenges and are working hard within the systems you have to live within and are still struggling to be OK, I want you to hear (especially if you’re of my generation and grew up drinking a lot of Kool-Aid) that it’s not just you, no matter the privileges you have. Keep doing what you can for yourself, for sure, but be as clear-eyed as you can about what’s yours to own/do and what is not.

Think of what a different world we might live in if our goal was that everyone in it could be OK.

Lyrics from Ingrid Michaelson song: "I just want to be ok, be ok, be ok/I just want to be ok today..."

(Giving credit where it’s due: These ideas are not new, even to me. Gen Z is not the first to have them (see, for one small example, this), but the younguns are all over these lines of thinking, and I’m grateful for the ways in which they have helped me see my life experience through different lenses. Even though I’ve encountered these ideas in the past, I’m knowing their truth in new ways, now that I am able to live in a different way. I’m sharing in case and with hope that my understanding might help others still struggling to be OK.)

What a long, strange week it’s been

It was back to school week here, but not for me. When my last year’s boss sent me a picture of Cane in his classroom on the first day of school, I felt some hard FOMO. Or something that was sad. Or mad.

I remember standing in front of a room of new students, being lit up the way his face is in the photo, and I missed it. It made me sadmad about my body and its limitations, and the public education system and its limitations, and time and its limitations, and change–inevitable, relentless, unceasing change.

Then the queen of England died, which also made me feel sadmad–about history and colonialism and the disappearing of things that I know are problematic (at best) but still are the things I’ve known for my whole life and even though I know (I know) what’s wrong with them I want to cling to them because at least I know them, and because they are mine, and because so many of the emerging unknown things right now are so unsettling/terrifying/overflowing with potential doom.

I miss having feelings about collective events that are simpler than mine seem able to be any more.

I went to visit my parents in the middle of the week because I can do that now and because honest-to-frickin’-God I am so deeply weary of temperatures in the 90s/100s (speaking of unsettling/terrifying/overflowing-with-potential-doom change) and my aching body/heart was craving marine air and coolness. And my mom. Aren’t I so lucky that I could get in a car and drive to a place where I can comfortably wear pants? And to parents who are still here (when so many of my contemporaries have lost theirs) and still them, in the ways that matter most?

The earth literally moved while I was there. Something woke me in the early morning hours, and just as I was drifting back to sleep I heard a loud “whuump” sort of noise and the whole building shook. I’ve experienced one significant earthquake in my life, and I wondered if that’s what was happening. Nothing else did, though, and I went back to easy sleep.

On Friday I returned to Oregon, where, in my county, the combination of high heat and high winds and wildfires was so threatening that power was shut off in multiple high-risk areas. We did not lose power, for which I am grateful. I have so much to be grateful for, but damn it was hard not to feel the opposite when I stepped out of my car to hot, arid, blowing air. On Saturday we woke to eerily orange-grey skies and a bloody sun that looked like something out of a sci-fi movie with cheap special effects.

We closed on our new-to-us house in Louisiana. I tried to set up our utilities by phone early in the week, but was told that it could not happen unless I physically came into the city hall building and gave them a check–which, of course, I could not do. I felt like a modern-day carpetbagger. I felt weird. I thought a lot of thoughts about what it means to be a good steward and a good neighbor and a good person. I thought about privilege and gentrification and colonialism and history. I felt grateful for family who have been helping us through this process (and were able to go to city hall and give them a check) and who are the reason we’re doing what we are, but I also felt guilty. And excited. And happy. And anxious. And even a little sadmad. All at the same time.

We went to a movie, where we watched Brian de Palma’s 1980 thriller Dressed to Kill, which was horrifying in all the wrong ways. Not knowing any specifics about the plot, we thought it would be campy, nostalgic thriller fun, but the story centers on a “transexual” who murders women because of the character’s inner battle between their male and female selves. The male self emerges when sexually aroused and kills the female objects of their desire because they don’t want to be male. Or something like that. So, you know: transgender = psychopath. Also, sexual women die and/or are prostitutes who should expect to be degraded, and the mentally ill are demonic. It was horrible, and we found ourselves laughing in the wildly inappropriate way that people sometimes laugh at funerals.

Saturday, I made and froze tomato sauce using a recipe I got from Kate, after getting encouragement from Marian. It is a thing of amazement to me that I was able to make this using only ingredients I grew in our garden. My great-grandparents were farmers, but I grew up in the suburbs eating vegetables that came primarily from cans. I’m slowly developing skills my people once had but did not pass down.

Today I hope to make a pie with blackberries my mom and I picked from my parents’ yard. Their lower yard (see photo, above) is bordered by wild blackberries, and it’s been years since I have been able to time a visit with their ripening. I was sure I was too late again–they tend to peak in August–but we found many that were just right for harvesting. It was like picking blackberries always is; the most promising clumps are just out of reach, and you think “if only…” more than once. A few times you stretch your limits, grasping for what you can’t easily get to, and you curse yourself and the thicket when the brambles catch your sleeves and scratch your legs and prick the tender pads of your fingers. As always, for me, picking these berries reminded of the early August evening in 1981 when I went blackberry picking with my grandma, her sister, and a cousin. As we walked down to the railroad tracks near my grandparents’ house where the berries grew wild, my grandmother and great-aunt marched the way they had when they were on the VFW drill team, laughing at themselves and the embarrassment they were causing us younger ones, who wished fiercely that they would not be so weird in public. It’s an outing I remember so clearly because later that night they would take my grandfather to the hospital with what would turn out to be a fatal heart attack, and although I would later see my grandmother laugh again, eventually, I would never see her laugh quite like that again, ever.

I’m grateful for the memory. I’m grateful for the berries that always bring it back to me, even though their brambles scratch and snag and poke, and their fruit inevitably stains.

I’m grateful to be alive now, today, in a world that still has beautiful blue water that I can travel to. I’m grateful to have shelters near those I love most, with abundant food and means to preserve it. I’m grateful that some of the things that need to change do, eventually, and grateful that even though the ground trembles and the walls around me shake, sometimes (most times) nothing falls and I am able to to sleep, secure in my belief that in the morning I’ll be able to figure out what happened.

Overabundance

Our tomatoes are going bananas. We can’t keep up with them. I don’t know the things I need to know to preserve them, and we can’t eat all of them before they rot. (If you know me in real life, let me know if you’d like some.)

They are SO good. So much more flavor than grocery-store tomatoes, even the ones at the produce stand that sells local goods. Last night we had a dinner of tomatoes with basil and balsamic vinegar, accompanied by ciabatta and fresh mozzarella.

This week was the first in our almost new-normal. Cane had his back-to-school inservice days, and for the first time in 32 years, it was not back-to-school inservice week for me. I am doing a small curriculum development job for his school (the one I taught in last year), so I did go to some meetings, but it was nothing compared to how this week has felt for me in the last 3 decades.

It felt amazing. Freeing. Calm. Busy in a good way.

This week we will close on the house we’re buying near Cane’s family in Louisiana (how is this my life?), and I will make a quick trip north to see my parents. Cane’s year with students will begin. I’m behind on my usual online reading, but this morning I checked in with The Spectacled Bean, whose latest post contained a link to a productivity method quiz. It was wonderful to take it thinking of my workplace as home. I have the same old primary dilemma (prioritizing, because there are so many things I want to do), but it feels so different to have this struggle in a workplace that is healthy and affirming.

I know how lucky I am, to have “problems” of overabundance.

I don’t have much more to share today. Now that school is starting, I hope to figure out a routine that includes time for writing again. Sending wishes for the right kinds of abundance to all of you who check in here. Would love to know how you are beginning the transition to a new season.

(Looking forward to a return to Burger Friday. We like to split the happy hour burger at our favorite dive bar.)

Life is funny. And short. Seize the day.

Most people, when they go on a trip, they come back with some kind of small token to commemorate their journey–a piece of art, say, or a book or a t-shirt. When Cane and I left for a two-week visit with his family in south Louisiana, I left a little room in my suitcase to bring home something like that.

Well, I couldn’t fit what we got there in my suitcase.

Older bungalow home
For more than a year, since Cane sold the house he had before we got married, we’ve been talking about various options for how we might live the next few decades of our lives. We’d felt stuck and unable to make any decisions because we have more than a few unknown variables and some seemingly incompatible wants/needs. One of those was a desire to spend more time in Louisiana because all of Cane’s extended family lives there, but for several reasons that felt like something we were not going to be able to do.

And then, while we were there, we saw this house for sale. If you’ve been following since the days in which Cane and I had a blog together to chronicle our adventures in home renovation, you know that we love an old house that needs some love. This one is one of those, from an era we’ve long had affection for. (We’re not sure of its exact age, but somewhere between the 1920’s- early 40’s.)

It was the right price and the right size and the right location. It’s within walking distance of his twin brother, his mother, and a cute downtown commercial area that contains a beautiful library (with a current, diverse collection) and a shop that sells the best donuts I’ve ever had.

plate with 3 donuts

It checked every box we didn’t know we had and opened doors we didn’t know existed until it helped us see them; although I am not a big believer in fate and meant-to-be’s, this felt like something meant to be. We did some research to see what else is out there and has been out there, and that feeling only grew. We knew this was an opportunity not likely to come again. And so, even though it felt like something people like us just don’t do, we did it: We bought the house.

We’ll be in our Portland home for the near future, while Cane finishes his career teaching in the school both of us helped create nearly 20 years ago. Portland is still home base for our kids and we want to be here now, though all of them are making plans to live their lives elsewhere. When Cane retires we will likely move north to Washington so that we can be closer to my extended family, and we’ll divide our time between Washington and Louisiana. In the meantime, we can spend longer stretches of summer time in the south, fixing up our fixer-upper.

Of course, we’ve lived enough to know how life goes–namely, that we can’t know how it will go. We think that this purchase will work for us now and for a number of different scenarios that might be likely in our future. Paradoxically, making a move that sets us on a particular course is giving us more options than we felt we had when we were in limbo. The only solutions we previously saw had us eliminating possibilities that can now exist together, giving us more flexibility to respond to life as it comes at us.

Because life is going to keep coming at us, even as its scope continually shrinks.

I have had a million thoughts and questions and worries about all kinds of things I won’t even begin to dissect here–about culture, geography, politics, climate, money, privilege, and more. South Louisiana and northwest Washington are very different places, and I’ve never lived outside the Pacific northwest. Doing so on even a part-time basis is something that has given me some pause. If anyone knows that love and good intentions are not enough to make things work and that things can go sideways with little warning, it is the two of us. But. We know there are risks, and I think we’re pretty clear-eyed about what they are. We know that love isn’t all you need, but it is absolutely the foundation we need. It is the reason we are still together after living through challenges that would have torn many others apart. We see this move as an investment in love for four generations of our widespread family, something we see the importance of now more than we have at any other time in our lives, which are (like everyone’s) only getting shorter.

As we were getting ready to come home, I reminded Cane that I almost didn’t make the trip because of the issues with my back. We had such a rich and wonderful two weeks with his siblings and extended family, a longer stretch of time than he’s had with them in decades. I expressed how glad I am that I didn’t miss it.

“You know,” he said, “if your back had gone out a week later, I’m sure we wouldn’t have bought the house.”

I’m sure we wouldn’t. Life swings on the smallest of chances sometimes, on serendipity and luck and things you didn’t know you were looking for until you found them.

(She’s grubby and in need of a little TLC, but she sits well and it’s a nice place to catch some breeze on a hot day. Also, I hesitated to put “seize the day” in the title of this post because of the way the phrase has been used, but I did because I found a deep dive into its meaning from the BBC that captured what this development is really about for us: “What it really means to ‘seize the day.'”)

Dog days

I’ve lost track of how many days the temperature has been over 90. It’s been at or closer to 100 (or over that) for a week now? I think. (When I was a kid growing up in Seattle’s marine climate, an 85 degree day was a sweltering anomaly.) The other night, it was 89 at 10:00 pm. We are getting a break today; according to my weather app, it will only reach 89.

Animals that usually keep themselves hidden during the day have been out, searching for a cool spot or some water. Yesterday we watched a squirrel dig into ground I’d watered in the morning, and then lie in it, limbs stretched. This morning, tiny birds are landing on the branches of the forsythia outside my window to drink drops from the sprinkler. The sun feels predatory.

We are so fortunate to have AC and secure housing. As we were driving downtown yesterday, I saw a man fall over on the sidewalk. He landed and didn’t move. It was a quiet street, and no one else was around. We pulled over to check on him, and he was unable to get up. He was very large, and he looked so hot. He wanted us to help him up, but we knew we couldn’t lift him and were afraid of hurting him more. I felt so small and inept. We called for assistance, and–remarkably, as getting a response from 911 is not what it once was–an aid car was there within 10 minutes. I can’t stop thinking about what might have happened if we hadn’t seen him fall. How many people stretched out on the sidewalk have I passed by, assuming they are sleeping? Because there are so damn many of them now.

In our yard, flowers are still blooming. The lilies left to us by earlier owners are taller than we are. Near the blueberry bushes (another gift), we found a gathering of pinecones one morning last week. There are no pine trees anywhere near the blueberries. Why were they there? We don’t know, just as we don’t know why we seem to have a rabbit living with us now. We see it every day. Rabbits are only supposed to be out at dusk and dawn, but this one eats clover from the front yard at all times of day. We don’t know where the squirrels have gone. The one resting in the cool shallow of earth is the first one we’ve seen in the yard in a long time.

Everything is the same, and it isn’t. We’ve been passing the days more than living them, sheltering inside from the elements as we do in the depths of winter. I keep saying that the heat is getting to me, but I know it’s more than hot air and relentless sun.

(Don’t worry if I don’t post for the next week or two. We have time with extended family coming up. We’re all OK.)

Wake up call

Thirteen days ago I pulled something on the right side of my back while deadheading some flowers. If you’ve ever put your back out, you know how that is: You’re doing some mundane, every day task and your back seizes up.

Twelve days ago I had a private skating lesson, in spite of my back pain. I felt better after skating, though I couldn’t even begin to swing my leg up to try a baby jump.

Nine days ago the pain on the right side was waning, but pain on the left side increased. I’ve been dealing with that pain for more than a year. I’d been told it was my sacroiliac joint. It hasn’t been a big deal. I went to one session of physical therapy for it, but the experience was not positive (The therapist complained to a colleague, in front of me, that I was his 4th diagnostic for the day, and basically said “good luck” when I asked about how to schedule regular sessions.) I went to my group skating lessons that morning, but I left halfway though the second class. I just didn’t feel well, and I couldn’t seem to make my body do what it usually can. That afternoon I made an appointment to see a doctor about the SI joint pain and talk again about physical therapy.

Seven days ago I was functioning, but it was difficult. While I was cleaning up the kitchen my daughter told me to sit down and I snapped at her that I was fine. “You’re moaning,” she said. “You’re not fine.” Cane let her know that I was not aware of the moaning. (I wasn’t.)

Six days ago Cane and I moved my son to Seattle for school. The ride from Portland was challenging; I couldn’t find a position where my back didn’t hurt. The actual moving wasn’t so bad, and I didn’t do any heavy lifting because of my back pain. Five days ago we met my parents for lunch on our way home. I was uncomfortable, but was able to get through the lunch without showing it. I was sure I could manage for two days until I could get to the appointment I’d made.

Four days ago I woke up after a night of pain-interrupted sleep and called to see if I could get a same-day appointment because I couldn’t walk or sit without unbearable pain. There were no same-day appointments available with anyone, so I was advised to go to urgent care, an excruciating experience which now feels like the beginning of a tumble into a rabbit hole. I don’t think I’ve landed at the bottom of it yet.

I had appointments with 4 different doctors in 3 days. In addition to urgent care, I’ve been to an office for routine appointments and the ER. I’ve been prescribed 7 different medications, one of them an opioid. I’ve not yet been able to talk with my primary care doctor; I have a phone appointment scheduled for August 3. I have a referral to a spine clinic and an appointment for an MRI. I’ve been mostly on my back, but yesterday I finally started to get better rather than worse. I can now be upright for 5-10 minutes at a time. I try to do that every hour, as I’ve been told that movement will help me. I’ve been told that it could take weeks to months to recover my previous level of functionality/pain.

All I know right now is that I have “degenerative disc disease,” severe in some places and mild in others. I have “exaggerated lumbar lordosis” and “mild degenerative retrolisthesis.” I have “diffuse facet arthropathy.” My sacroiliac joints–originally deemed the problem by the overworked and unprofessional physical therapist–are “unremarkable.” No medical person has talked with me about what any of this means; I know what I do only because the x-ray report is in my online healthcare portal. What I can surmise from Dr. Google is that I have some form of arthritis.

I suspect that this will end up being one of those “before and after” moments in my life, a line of demarcation between one way of being and another. I’ve known for some time that I need to live differently in order to be healthy. I’ve taken steps toward that; I retired (earlier than planned), I began skating (regular exercise), I’ve made some dietary changes. With arthritis (as with migraine and fibromyalgia, two other diagnoses I’ve been given), there is only management, no cure. Stress, sleep, and diet are all factors in managing the condition. I’m pretty sure I’m going to need to bump my efforts up exponentially.

As I lay in bed unable to find a pain-free position, unable to roll over without using my hands to support my hips, not knowing what was happening or how long I might be in such a state, I could not stop thinking about how fortunate I am. I have access to healthcare, imperfect as it is. I’m not missing work and don’t have to worry about getting back to work. I don’t have young children I need to care for. I have family who have been able to care for me. (I’ve been told I’m not terribly good at receiving care, but I’m working on it.) Don’t get me wrong: This situation is bad and scary, but in different circumstances, it would be catastrophic. I’m grateful it’s not worse.

I don’t know if I’ve even begun to really process this, but it’s shaken me. It’s challenging my sense of self. It’s humbling. It’s filling me with gratitude and questions. Pain is a beast. I suspect that taming it is going to be my new full-time job.

Daisy May Ramstad, 2007-6/6/2022

I want to tell you that she was a good dog, as obituaries generally require us to speak well of the dead, but she was not, by most objective measures, a good dog. She paid attention to our words and wishes only when she wanted to, she was never reliably housebroken (not because she didn’t understand or couldn’t comply with the expectations, but because she really preferred, like the humans in her pack, to go inside), and she was notorious for getting her longtime companion, Rocky, all worked up over nothing. She was a fan of the grudge poop (middle of the hallway, where it couldn’t be missed), and she had no fucks to give about things we might have felt important that she did not.

Which just goes to show that you don’t have to be good to be loved–because love her we did, unconditionally and deeply. Sometimes we loved her more because she wasn’t “good,” and she had us laughing even as we scolded her (such as the time we caught her on the kitchen table, licking butter from the butter dish). She was funny, and strong-willed, and sassy. She did what she wanted. Lucky for us, one of the things she wanted all the time was to be as close to one of her humans as physically possible.

Aside from being with us, her favorite things were eating and taking a nap in a patch of sun. We could all learn a thing or two about living a happy life from her. (Take the nap. Eat with gusto. Love what you love without reservation.)

(I knew the end was approaching when she stopped leaping with excitement over her bowl being filled.)

As a young dog, she loved playing at the river and doing whatever her three kids wanted her to do, even if it involved wearing dress-up clothes. In recent years, she was happiest having a good nap with or on one of her humans.

These last few years, when I looked at her and remembered how she once was–back when she had teeth, and fur on her ears, and a plump belly–I thought often of a passage from The Velveteen Rabbit:

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

If Daisy was nothing else, she was Real: a small bundle of a being full of desire and need, which gave her a full range of qualities: loving, needy, generous, petty, delightful, naughty, interesting, infuriating, fun. One of the great gifts of Daisy was the way she showed us that being real is more important than being good. That we can be loved not in spite of our foibles and flaws, but because of them. I like to think that in loving Daisy, we we all became a little better at loving each other and ourselves.

She is, and will long be, missed.

Probability vs. Possibility

Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and probability that it will affect you (our school community).

Talking to Children about Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers

The morning after the school shooting in Texas, my principal shared a resource with information about how to talk with children about violence, and some of it I can’t quite believe anymore. (“Schools are safe places.”) But I glommed onto a sentence about possibility and probability and the idea that while it is possible something horrific could happen at the school where my husband and I spend our days, it is not probable. I shared this idea this with my adult daughter the day after the shooting, and she rejected it.

We were skating together at the mall where both of us now spend a good portion of our time, and I argued for optimistic probability even as I was remembering a moment only a few weeks ago when a noise that didn’t sound right caught my attention while I was skating, and my first thought was: Where do I go if someone starts shooting?

It’s not probable that someone would start shooting in the mall, but I know it’s possible because of the 2012 shooting that happened in a mall not far from the one where each us now goes several days a week. It was a mall that I regularly took my children to when they were young. I know it’s not probable that I will ever be directly involved in a mass shooting event, but when you have trained and drilled for years for that possibility, when the structures in which you have spent your working days for more than three decades have gradually been transformed into semi-fortresses, when so much of how you operate within those structures is shaped by potential threat, it is no wonder that my first thoughts on hearing a noise that didn’t sound right were: I’ll need to get off the ice, this space is an obvious target. I can’t run in skates. Where is a place with no windows? Where is a place with a locked door? Where can I get quickly with skates on? Are there children here who will need help?

I didn’t get off the ice that morning because I quickly determined that there was no threat and because I know–I truly do know–that it’s not probable that any unusual loud noises in public spaces are the beginnings of a mass shooting event. Still, I do know it’s possible to be directly involved because a principal I once worked for had previously been principal at a school when it was the site of an infamous shooting. I know it’s possible because a school I once taught at was the site of a shooting (and my former classroom there had windows that faced the field from which the shooter fired). I know it’s possible because of the school shooting at a high school two miles from my house in 2014, a school that some of my current students attend and that was the target of a threat (one deemed not credible, but still) on Friday. A colleague/friend had a child that was in attendance at that school that day in 2014, and I will never forget the sight of his face as one of our administrators walked him down the hall after pulling him out of class to tell him what was happening. I know it’s possible because of an event in 2019 that happened at the high school serving the neighborhood I now live in. I know it’s possible because in the US this year, we are averaging 10 mass shootings a week.

Still, I argued with my child that it was not probable. She rejected that. What she was rejecting, I think, was a line of thought that can be used to dilute the horror of where we’re at with this, or to be in denial about it. Our debate grew a little heated, and I finally had to say: “I can’t talk about this any more right now.”

I needed some denial to be OK on Wednesday.

Later that day I de-activated my Facebook account because I don’t know that I can listen any more, either. We seem to have moved past thoughts and prayers as a primary response (unless you’re a politician who takes NRA money), but it was the earnest pleas from so many that I care for and respect (but who don’t work in schools) to call senators and give money to activist groups, and the assertions that now, finally, something will be done that did me in. I just couldn’t listen to it this week. How can anyone who is paying any real attention to what’s happening in our government believe that our calls are the thing that will make something change? It is so clear–on so many fronts–that the desires of the majority are not what’s driving too many of our lawmakers, on so many issues.

I couldn’t listen because the next day I had to go to school and do my job, and I couldn’t do the latter if I had done the former. I cannot teach well when I’m dis-regulated from fear, anger, and hopelessness, and when seeing our responses to this latest massacre of children, those are the emotions I felt. I chose doing my job (because what other choice is there?), where the threat of violence is such a constant hum in the background of what we do–it’s in the badges that we wear, the locks on all the outer doors, the reminders not to prop the doors open, the drills, the security camera footage playing on a big screen in the front lobby, the small shot of adrenaline we get if we see an unaccompanied stranger in the building who isn’t wearing a badge–that we don’t really notice it until something like this (temporarily) turns up the volume of it.

So what do we do? I don’t know what we need to do, but more of what we’ve been doing since Sandy Hook to no meaningful effect feels futile. Of course I will continue to vote, and I will do what I need to do to remain informed, and I might give some money, too, but I’m well aware that while it is possible that our government will reform itself, it is not probable that it is going to happen now. While I know it is possible that large numbers of people will remain activated on this issue past this weekend, I don’t think it’s probable that they will. I think we should all get grounded in these realities and what they probably mean for us, and make our choices–about what to fight for, and how–accordingly.

*****

(The only thing that gave me any real solace this week was this, grim and cynical as it is. Because at least it felt honest and true.)

“…with my breath held”

On Wednesday, one blogger I follow left a comment on another blogger’s post saying that she is “living life, but with my breath held” and I felt the way I feel when I pass by a store window and am startled to realize that the person I’m seeing in the window’s reflection is me.

As soon as I read the words I realized that I, too, have been holding my breath, the way we do when we know that a needle is about to poke (just got my second booster this week) or some other kind of discomfort is going to land. Aside from living among the constantly flaring dumpster fires of the larger world, I’m also waiting for or living through a fair number of transitions in my personal life. Uncertainty abounds.

image of old, sleeping dog

It’s all well and good to say, “just breathe”–and I have moments when I intentionally do just that. But life has been moving swiftly and requiring my brain to attend to many other things. Mostly, I now realize, I’ve been getting through the days with my breath held, preparing for shoes to drop or ducking to avoid them. It’s become habit, and most of most days is really pretty good, so I hadn’t noticed the breath-holding until someone else pointed it out. I suppose it’s why I haven’t had much to share here lately; perhaps it’s because, like the blogger whose post prompted the comment, I have so many words that I have no words about quite a lot of things.

So, here are some pictures from the past little while, with just a few words.

Note from student: Hey Mrs. Ramstad
This note from a student kinda wrecked me, with the distinction they make between being treated like “a human with feelings” and like “just a student.” There are so many words I might say here–about schools, about lost opportunities, about what’s happening to our young people and those who care for them–that my throat feels tight with them.
Dishwasher on kitchen floor and man peering into hole under counter where dishwasher used to be

This is the hole where the dishwasher used to be. Some words: Full house, sustainability, needs, wants, money, renovation, priorities, eyesore, time, gratitude, love.

urban yard with the beginning of an island in the lawn with a tree and two shrubs

Mother’s Day plant sale. Kill your lawn. No man is an island. Wind in the willows. Work in progress.

Because Wordle wasn’t enough for me. Because the NYT crossword and Spelling Bee weren’t enough. Because when there are too many words knocking around in your head, wordplay can be a balm for the brain.

Cluttered kitchen with reading chairs

Funky kitchen, part II. Archie & Edith chairs. Best fika spot this side of the pond. It’s weird, but it works. #howwereallylive

hazy purple square

Why is this on my camera roll? What is it? How did it get taken? I don’t know, but it is strangely soothing. I like it.