Sitting Silence

In times of loss, I have always gone silent. To me, silence has always been a response but it is only in these later years that I learned to sit silence as a response to loss.  watching 0314

Certainly, silence has been my only response on this blog for well over three months. Almost daily, I posted on Aim for Even. There was the interruption from hurricane Hermine, and there was the first of two hip replacement surgeries.

The surgery went extraordinarily well but the patient lost a way of life, totally unexpected. Loss is often evident to everyone around us before we meet it face-to-face.

And so it was for me with feline EmmaRose. She appeared frequently on this blog, and while she lives still, she lives elsewhere.

My hospital stay revealed that I was no longer able to care for EmmaRose even beyond my recovery from hip replacement surgery. More and more, autoimmune disease dictates what is possible for me. In this case, accompanying anemia keeps my energy level quite low.

This partnership of autoimmune disease and anemia has been affecting my life for some time—quite seriously—yet I chose not to hear what my rheumatologist was telling me. Neither did I sit silence for counsel. Rather, I ignored or reinterpreted every medical pronouncement, an old behavior of mine. Emma meditating 0313

Only in losing EmmaRose did I sit silence. I knew the right thing to do and did it but the right thing is always so hard to do.

Is that because I ignored my intuition, my “gut,” until I could no longer deny it? Or is it because doing the right thing always asks something of me that I don’t want to do.

Good questions, and I will ask them all my life. The answers are time sensitive but the questions are eternal. They allow me to see me as I am; always, it is revealing.  

I sit silence, all eyes and ears.

And if I am fortunate, a bit of magic shows itself. I have never doubted the presence of magic. It stays hidden in plain sight, its last protection. As fast as this world whirrs, magic is missed.

So often, we chase what we will never catch. Where is the magic in that? As a believer, I tell you that once you have walked through a magic portal, you will never forget the experience.

Some years ago, I discovered an animal sanctuary, deep in the Florida forest. It is not a rescue or a Humane Society but a farm for medically needy animals to live out their lives in a family setting.

If it sounds idyllic, it isn’t, and to me, that’s what makes it perfect. Not too long ago, I was an administrative volunteer for this sanctuary because its mission is like no other. There are no paid staff and there are two veterinarians on site. And yes, it exists entirely on donations.

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Magic always wends its way.

So, EmmaRose, now medically needy herself, returned to where she once lived. Daily, a little girl sings to “her best kitty ever,” as a family helps EmmaRose adjust, again, to life on the farm. At the very least, the scent is familiar as is the love.

And I cry but my tears are more for the joy of the years we knew than for the years we will not know. Love always overflows loss.

No matter how dark the moment, there is always a sliver of light. If I sit silence, the world cracks open just a bit.

I no longer focus on the future, what I may or may not experience. The only life I know is the current moment. It has my complete attention. Even without death, some lives leave us. We never know when we must let go, when we must change.

Sitting silence is immersing myself in the experience of being alive, raw and unfiltered, whether it’s the loss of health or doing the right thing for EmmaRose.

I know that each loss reveals its worth in its own time. And then there is the magic. If I sit silence, I will not miss it. I will not go whirring by.  

Looking Through the Lens of Limitation

Looking within 0213For nearly four decades, I viewed disability through a lens of limitation. For me, that shutter had only two settings, open or closed, a.k.a. able or disabled.

Some years, I fully embraced the label of disability, assuming it as my identity. And then better health would return. Always, I believed the return permanent, and it never was.

My ego had this to say: “You are better and can do more so do it.” No matter the state of my health, I believed my ego. Sheer stubbornness prevailed more often than not. Yet, disease processes can only be suppressed for so long.

My ego was not without an opinion on poor health, either. “You can get better. You have before. So do it.” Sometimes, remission lasted for years but always, disability returned.

All the while I was struggling with the disability label, I kept accumulating medical diagnoses. I gave them little notice other than to put them in a neat stack for later consideration, which I never did.

Rather, I rode the roller coaster of disability as if it were the only experience of my life. Until one day, not too long ago, I got off. No more struggling to rise only to rush back down. No matter how long it took to climb up, the trip to the bottom never lasted long enough.

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Undoubtedly, my ego had an opinion but I did not listen. Rather, I followed my instincts: why not float upon impermanence? Stay open to experience. Meet it with curiosity. Impermanence will take you on the ride of your life.

And then the bottom fell out, as I wrote in my last post almost three months ago. I’m still afloat, which is not easier than riding on a roller coaster just different. I sail with the current rather than setting a course for lands lost or for shores beyond my reach.

I discover myriad angles in the ever widening lens of impermanence, even if the dawning day is dark. Always, there is a sliver of light, and if I’m mindful, I will discover it.

Familiar disease labels are never far off but I do not seek them out or try to steer away. They will find me, and I will meet what they have to offer. Just recently I added a new label, rheumatoid arthritis. It offers yet another perspective on the Zen koan, “The obstacle is the path.”

I stay the course, scanning dark skies for the inevitable sliver of light.

Autoimmune disease— lupus, Sjogren’s, and rheumatoid arthritis— are quite active currently as is spinal cord disease (myelopathy). Working with degenerative disc disease, myelopathy has permanently affected my gait (ataxia) as well as the reflexes in my limbs (hyperreflexia).

Each label is its own lens of limitation. To attach to a label or to avoid it will not change the experience it brings. Labels float in and out of life. I aim to let them do just that.

The C2-C4 donor bone fusion is still “not taking” but “my films look good” my neurosurgeon tells me. The fusion hardware holding the donor bone in place can last as long as 10 years. Even autoimmune disease is doing its part as it provides more than enough inflammation to assist the fusion process. My neurosurgeon remains optimistic and so do I.

Sliver of light in a sea of labels.

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All of my medical practitioners support my daily, gentle yoga practice, no matter the disease experience of the moment. Not every day am I able to perform each yoga pose completely but every day I practice yoga.

In yoga and meditation, there is only the lens of impermanence, a mindset of acceptance that no thing ever stays or is ever the same, no matter how many times met. I agree to medications that I once rejected: a weekly dose of methotrexate and a small, daily dose of prednisone. The methotrexate requires monthly blood test monitoring.

Inflammation may be assisting the donor bone fusion but it is damaging my joints and tissues. Accepting the medication is as essential to maintaining my independence as are yoga and meditation. In an open-ended mindset, labels pass freely.

In every moment there is movement, a breathing in only to let go.

As in meditation, the breath in yoga is critical to sensing the body’s signals.  With my breath I soften the pain of movement, all the while experiencing its energy. Every day is a new communication with the body, no matter how many yoga poses I complete or how long I meditate.

Even on those days when there is only a sliver of light, the impermanence of each experience is worth the ride. After all, I am looking through an ever widening lens with myriad angles.

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When the Bottom Falls Through

Recently, I received some unexpected health news, which is why there has been a longer break than usual between posts. Just as I was getting ready to resume regular posting, everything changed.

Impermanence is like that.

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The bone graft in my cervical fusion—C2–C4— is not fusing. There is no healing; the graft is not “taking.” Initial x-rays seemed to reveal healing but x-rays taken six months later do not.

You might think that after nearly 40 years of dealing with chronic illness and disability, I would take this news in stride. I did not. I was devastated. Myriad scenarios, all of which began with “what if,” descended.

I buckled under the weight. The bottom of my world fell through. I found myself in the depths of my vulnerability. I cried. A lot. Rarely have I felt so hopeless. As I wrote to a friend, “I really wanted to beat this.”

Ah, but I am not in a race.

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I am experiencing life as a human being. My life is not a race against chronic illness or disability—it is not a competition on any level — it is a moment of life, one stitch in the tapestry of existence.

To live, to be a stitch in time, is to be vulnerable. Let me not build “castles in the air”; let me “inhabit” my vulnerability.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance….

David Whyte, Consolations: the Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning.

I had to become comfortable with my vulnerability. Although it runs deep, so do the wells of compassion and courage. And from them, all I had to do was drink. Vulnerability connects us with one another but it is courage and compassion that reveal us. They keep us fear-less.

I am not seeking the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It may or may not be there. I am experiencing my life as it unfolds, putting a foundation beneath my castle and inhabiting it.

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The bone graft fusion in my neck—C2–C4–is not fusing is a thought never far from my mind, a frequent visitor during my morning meditation, accompanied by fear in all its forms. Words weave in and out, some wounding and others opening old scars.

It is a circle of wolves. I feed each one.

I sit in my vulnerability as I observe all the reasons the bone graft is not taking. There is the donor bone, possibly not a good match, always an unknown.

I was not the best surgical candidate. This was the fourth surgery on a spine with degenerative disc disease. And after nearly 40+ years of autoimmune issues, my bones may just not be good enough for that donor bone. After all, my cervical vertebrae did pinch my spinal cord.

My breath brings me back to what is.

In this moment, a metal plate and four screws are holding the vertebrae and donor bone in place. This is my reality, not what was or what might be.

A silent wolf patiently awaits the stillness. There is a possibility—a long shot–that the graft may take two years to fuse. No one gives this wolf much attention but I feed it as much as I feed the others.

The wolf demanding the most attention concerns the low dose of prednisone I am taking as well as the limited, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications. Neither of these is a surprise nor a secret– each reduces my pain level and keeps me mobile–together, they are now viewed in a new light.

It is possible the autoimmune disease medications reduced the level of inflammation so the fusion cannot take place. Without the medications, my mobility would be so limited it would slow if not stop the fusion from taking place.

KMHuberImage; St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge; Florida; USA

 

It is my neurosurgeon, the reader of x-rays, who says so succinctly, “you are between a rock and a hard place.” Indeed. Autoimmune disease versus spinal fusion. Which one do you feed?

New blood tests reveal neither prednisone nor the over-the-counter medications have dramatically reduced my body’s inflammation. Still, “between a rock and a hard place” remains the medical phrase.

Mine, however, is not to look for the fringe of the future. Rather, I inhabit my vulnerability, exploring the reality I have. The balance in the circle of wolves remains fluid.

Daily, a new experience awaits me. I sip from my wells of courage and compassion, content to reside in my castle of vulnerability. And like everyone else, with each experience I become more intimate with disappearance, the exit each one of us will take someday.

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The Last Roller Coaster Ride

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There are roller coaster lives–the downward rush, the upward crawl–as energy and inertia swirl present into past. Life-changing events slow the roller coaster, sometimes to a stop. These are the moments of sifting through the life experience.

Of late, I have been in such a pause, taking a long sit in my past. I decided I do not want to repeat the familiar upward crawl or the rush to a bottom I know too well. I want off the roller coaster. To do so, I return to the moment I decided to ride.

It is a warm, August night in Colorado at Red Rocks, 1976. The naturally occurring amphitheatre provides perfect acoustics. At over 6,400 feet, the stars seem close enough to touch.

On stage, Judy Collins is singing the Ian Tyson ballad, “Someday Soon.” It is a song of a doomed relationship: a young girl loves a cowboy who loves the rodeo more. She is “going with him,” anyway.

I am 24, and what I hear in “Someday Soon” has nothing to do with loving cowboys or rodeos. Someday soon means the risk is worth it, no matter the odds.

I was euphoric, confident in the new life I was about to begin. I am not sure just when I reached for the stars. I only know they were in my eyes.

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What felt like endless possibility, however, was only one moment at the top of the roller coaster. It is not always easy to recognize the ride is downward. Not in the early years of chronic illness. It is easier to believe in someday soon.

I ride the roller coaster for nearly 40 years, until 2015. In July, I weary of chasing someday soon. I develop myelopathy—quadriplegia is a possibility–in addition to autoimmune disease.

Successful surgery sweeps me up in the energy and inertia of the ride. So much seems possible as the cervical fusion actually begins to take. As unexpected as that is, there is more good news. The inflammation from autoimmune disease is helping my vertebrae heal.

Inflammation is vital to healing bones. It is the body’s way of dealing with intrusions although my immune system is so exuberant it attacks itself.

Framed within a healing mindset, autoimmune disease does not seem a downward ride. But pain reminds me it is. The stars in my eyes stay until October. It is my last roller coaster ride. Risk has lost its appeal as has the idealism of that night in 1976 and “Someday Soon.”

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I hold the memory close for it is a night when a lifetime began. After nearly four decades of roller coaster days, each high and low is invaluable. They are the experiences that make me who I am now.

And that is where I begin, not starry-eyed but focused on the middle ground, accepting what is: framing the pain of autoimmune disease within a healing mindset that includes medication.

There are no good choices but some are less toxic than others. Immune suppressing drugs will affect—maybe even stop—the healing in my neck. Same is true for steroids. In fact, my healing is possible because I am not—nor ever have been—on immune suppressants. Rarely, have I taken a course of steroids.

So, I decide on the drug, Gabapentin. No odds given or promises made but there were none with my spinal cord surgery, either. There is the comfort of impermanence–nothing and no one stays the same.

Oh, I still look to the stars with wonder but I have no desire to reach for them. I am content to explore impermanence. I aim for even.

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On this blog, I have written more about chronic illness than I ever intended. Perhaps publishing weekly posts increased my awareness of its presence. 🙂

I will post as regularly as I am able. Everything is taking a bit longer these days but then, I am making a lot of changes. Some I will share here. And the medication seems to cloud my thought process. Writing just takes a lot longer.

As always, I read your comments—I enjoy our exchange—I will respond.  And I have missed reading blogs. That, too, will resume. Thank you for reading this blog.

 

Bits and Pieces: The Reality We Have

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If we live in the moment, we work with the reality we have. Sounds good, if a bit obvious or perhaps platitudinous. Yet, it seems the way to experience the best of what is being offered.

And if we are not thrilled with the reality we have, we need only remember that like the weather, life is impermanent. It will change; reality will offer other options.

Working with the reality we have is a bit of a slippery slope as joy never seems to stay long enough while pain never seems to leave soon enough.

Reality—the moment–is all we ever have. For however long it lasts, it is for us to do the best we can. Impermanence will do the rest.

Currently, my reality seems as if it is in a holding pattern. Doing the best I can to experience the moment I have, I admit I am often on the lookout for change.

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Recently, I came through cervical myelopathy surgery with remarkable success–truly, there were some unforgettable and stellar moments–but success has shown its shadow.

Success and shadow—as one—make up memory. Always there are moments of both but perhaps only in memory are the two as one.

Memory does not re-create reality. It allows us reflection, a way to wait upon reality, to work with the moment we have.

In shadow, my reality seems a growing force of chronic illness comprised of autoimmune disease, degenerative disc disease, and myelopathy.  There is no complete defeat possible, not physically. That is not my reality in any moment.

Accepting that reduces my suffering and strengthens my resolve to explore the experience I have. By not attaching to the pain as the only reality I will ever know, pain passes like a shadow. Acceptance incites change.

Of course, I am not always as aware or as accepting. Sometimes, I have such an aversion to my reality that I am determined to change it, as if I could. After all, I am not accepting the actual experience. I am only trying to avoid it.

Sometimes, my aversion is quite elaborate, methodical even. Other times, I rush reality for all I am worth with everything within my grasp. I suffer for my indifference to reality. It is as if I am fighting my own biology.

After all, each of my body’s cells works with the state of its reality. Each cell works for balance–aging as well as disease affect this process– yet each cell works with its own unique makeup. It accepts its options.

In working with the reality we have, we accept that moments do not restore each other. They offer us other options, new perspectives on reality that just a moment ago seemed so difficult, even impossible.

Reality is messy that way. It overlaps who we are with who we were just a moment ago, leaving a trail of consequences.

Neither good nor bad, they are reality lived, bits and pieces of experience. Some are stored as success; others slip in as shadow.

The wise adapt themselves to circumstances,

as water molds itself to the pitcher.

Chinese Proverb

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On Expedition….

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It is time for me to explore the latest results of impermanence–physically and emotionally–so there will be a pause in posts. It really is an expedition, of sorts, this exploration of my mind and body as one.

The two are a single continent now, although once I saw them as separate countries, accessible only at certain times and tides.

What you are is what you have been.

What you’ll be is what you do now.

Buddha

So, my expedition begins.

(Regular posts will resume May 31)

(Delays and obstacles abound so June is now my anticipated return)

(And in July came the greatest challenge of all. I met it with all I had, and it proved to be enough)

(Blog post is on the July horizon)

In Stillness, the World Awakens

It is still dark on this new day but what was night—despair–gives way to the light that is the hope of the new.

In some parts of the world, this particular day has already spent its light but where I live, the light only now gently overtakes the dark. It is my first moment of a day, fresh and unique.

I press the button to adjust the bed to a sitting position to begin meditating.  On more days than not, feline EmmaRose, all 5.5 pounds of her, makes herself comfortable on my soft belly.

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We begin together. She purrs, kneads my stomach, and then lies down to sleep or to stare out the bedroom window. I focus on my breath–in and out, in and out–I stare into the darkness as it becomes light.

I breathe my way into stillness as the world around me awakens. My body recognizes the opening of our daily dialogue.

A mind scan of my body reveals the concrete block stiffness from the previous day but as yet no pain stirs only tingling and numbness in my thumbs and index fingers. I begin there.

Tingling turns into the familiar electrical “bzzt” in the tip of my right thumb, then the left as well. Another “bzzt” charges through my right thumb and then through both index fingers.

I take a deep breath in an attempt to release my thumbs and fingers from the buzzing but the breath seems off, stale. My focus is on thought and not on breathing. Quickly, I attempt to exhale what I have not yet breathed in.

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For a while now I have been aware of this futile attempt to suppress a breath, as if I could. I breathe in fully this time so I may release completely  the fear that it is: my doubt of regaining the full strength of my thumbs and fingers.

As the fear breath goes through my upper body, its weakness seems to increase as does the stiffness in my legs. Only when it has traveled my body am I able to exhale fully what has no substance ever, fear.

Once again, I am one with my breath—in and out–as I sense each finger and then my thumbs until warmth flows through both hands releasing the  electrical “bzzt.” Stillness softens the stiffness of my upper body as it warms to the day.

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The pain in my right leg announces itself. It is a frequent caller so there is no fear as I focus on the pain, searching it out with my breath—in and out—until I reach its core.

We “sit” together for as long as it takes for the stillness to make its way through every cell of my body. I never know the precise moment that it stills, only that it does.

Now, it is the mind’s turn, a movie all its own.

A fragment of a Louise Erdrich quote is first to float through, something about  sitting under an apple tree to “listen to the apples falling all around…in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”

In the stillness, an entire world awakens around me in this day that is now bursting with light, inviting me to partake in all I can as I am able. It is a gift to taste the sweetness of a new breath and in gratitude, let it go as it must.

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Feline EmmaRose decides to stir, sometimes to bathe but other times, just to get on with her day. And as happens more often than not, her movement coincides with the ding of the timer silencing the stillness.

I try to hold it, of course, but like the breath, it, too, must leave. And in response, my body sends signals from everywhere, announcing this issue or that. I am ready to taste the apples of this day, to savor as much sweetness as I am able.

As long as you are breathing, there is more right with

you than wrong with you no matter what is wrong.

Jon Kabat-Zinn