Saturday, April 29, 2017

Speaking up and Reaching out


Fall 2015, I signed up for a class, "Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction," at our local Zen center.  The cost was $ 280.00.  Based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and pioneered in Boston at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, this 8-week series of classes was designed to help those with chronic pain and other difficult health conditions. A well-researched and-widely practiced curriculum, it includes mindfulness meditation, body scanning and simple yoga postures.

I made it through four weeks of classes before I had a spike in my chronic migraines as well as some stomach trouble.  I just couldn't get there by 9:00 am, or get out of the house at all on some days, so I dropped out and requested a partial refund or if they could apply my remaining tuition to a future class.  The answer was "No" accompanied by an apology and an explanation that they needed the income to keep the program and the Center afloat.  It seemed unfair.  After all, MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) is supposed to serve those of us with health problems.  Could there not be some acknowledgment of and provision for the challenges we live with?  Apparently not.  I stewed about it for a time before I moved on.
Anger Goddess

Meanwhile, I continued to take my once weekly adapted yoga class through our local Parks and Recreation Department.  When I had to miss class for two weeks for an anticipated, out-of-town trip, they credited me against my tuition for the next quarter.  It felt good and right, a simple acceptance of my needs.

Meanwhile, I continued to receive regular emails from the Zen Center on their classes and retreats, including MBSR.  A couple of months ago, finally goaded into action, I responded with a polite email of my own.

"Thanks for the information about the upcoming retreat.  I took a class, MBSR a year or so ago, and I’m not inclined to follow up with any more classes or retreats at the Center.  I have a chronic health problem, and basically there seems to be no place for those of us who can’t always show up according to the set schedule.  While I understand that you have to work to keep the program afloat financially, it seems ironic and counter to the philosophy of MBSR that you can’t really accommodate those with chronic health problems.  I had to drop out of the class after about a month because of a spike in chronic pain.  There was no allowance for this, and I forfeited my tuition.  While I’m doing better now, there’s no guarantee this will continue to be true.  So I’m not willing to pay for something I may not be able to follow through with.

I previously took a summer drop-in class.  Heather was the teacher, and the class was great, very helpful. I enjoyed practicing with a group. Apparently there are no more drop-in classes.  Too bad.  It worked really well for me, and I made it most of the time but didn’t have to pay when I couldn’t show up."

I received an immediate response from their new office manager, saying they did have a refund policy and would be happy to reimburse part of my tuition.  They thanked me for bringing the issue up and promised to look into a drop-in class.  They have, and that class will start in the fall.  Last week I received a check for $ 180.00.  Not only was it nice to have the money, but it was also a crystal-clear  affirmation.  "I see you. I hear you."  And hopefully it will help someone else along the way, too.

Practice - sticking up for yourself 

Sometimes I have to get a little angry.
I have learned, slowly, over the years, to stick up for myself, but it is a lesson I continue to need.  Opportunities abound.  Sometimes I can rise to the occasion, sometimes not.  This last Wednesday I had another opportunity.   I had an abscess in a wisdom tooth.  It had to come out.  At the pre-op appointment, the oral surgeon gave me a rundown and instructions including nothing by mouth after midnight for a 10:00 am appointment.  I explained,

"I have chronic migraine headaches, 20 to 30 days a month.  No morning tea will surely trigger a migraine before the procedure.  Can I drink clear, black tea and a glass of clear juice?"

He was reluctant, but once he understood the extent of the problem, he agreed.  He would add an anti-nausea drug to my IV sedation to prevent vomiting with the danger of aspiration.  I was relieved. The extraction went well, and I awoke with no head pain.

Anger Goddess

I am a weaver.  Sometimes when I feel the need of someone to express what I'm feeling, I create her.  The Anger Goddess reminds me to stand up for myself, to speak out when I need to.  She's a good friend, and of all the dolls I've made, she is everyone's favorite.  They like seeing that bold side of me.

Sunday, March 19, 2017



It is Thursday.  Kim left two days ago, and I am now by myself in Zihuatanejo, Mexico.  My feet and now my right knee are giving me fits, old injuries angered by walking, dancing and lots and lots of stair climbing from the beach up and down to our hotel room, from our room to the lobby and street above.  This is old Zihuatanejo, old, well-kept hotels, no elevators or even handrails.  I like it like this. Even though Zihuatanejo has long since been "discovered" by Gringos and Mexicans alike, the town retains a flavorful, scrappy mix of old and new.  But right now, it's a painful, logistical problem.  I put on my clunky Keens sandals and slap a bandaid on the blister forming on my right big toe. I've sussed out a way to minimize my stair climbing by heading down two short flights of stairs, turning left to walk along the beach for 200 yards, then left again up a short, cobbled side street.  Today I wait as they finish filling a dump truck with rubble and drive off.  On the main cross street I hail a cab to take me downtown to the dock where I can catch a boat ride to Playa Las Gatas, across the bay.  Against my natural inclination to walk, I have schooled myself to take advantage of the cheap cabs and give my walking legs a rest. 

Playa Las Gatas - (the cats beach)

I grab the stanchion and carefully step over the gunwale, into the small open boat that will take us across the bay to Las Gatas.  It's a sweet ride, just 10 minutes, rolling across an easy, rhythmic swell on a beautiful warm day with trade winds blowing a comfortable 10 to 12 knots, just enough to take the sweat out of humid 85 degree weather. 
Named after cat-like whiskers of the sharks that used to inhabit the area, Las Gatas lies at the mouth of the bay behind a reef, so there is no surf, thus less aggravation for my knee.  There is a short stretch of beach textured with rough bits of coral reef.  Lined with palapa restaurants, it is surrounded by dense, jungly vegetation. A couple of years ago, during rainy season, I clambered off this same foot ferry and encountered three guys with flamethrowers.  "What do you use those for?" I ask, always curious about the endless differences I encounter in my Mexican travels.  "We kill the snakes at the edge of the bosque so they don't come around the restaurants."  It gave me pause.....  I decided not to trek from the beach through the woods and out to the point where there's a surf break.  Flat water of the small lagoon and shaded beach chairs were suddenly all the adventure I needed for the day.  Another day at Las Gatas I encountered a lazy-eyed, slightly predatory guy with a large iguana, tethered with collar and chain and perched on his shoulder.  You never know.

One of the many things I like about Las Gatas is that it's frequented mostly by Mexican families on a weekend getaway or vacation to the beach.  There are Americans, Canadians and others, but they are heavily outnumbered by Mexican children, parents, aunts and uncles all having a good time playing in the sand and water.  Today I wander down the beach and decide to stake out my spot close to the biggest concentration of little kids where the sand is smoother and I'm less likely to stumble over a hunk of coral.  A young waiter snags my attention with a promise of the best tacos, cerveza, margarita, whatever my heart desires.  I allow myself to be roped in by his charm as well as the location of this particular spot on the beach.  

Alone in Mexico, I am always more likely to strike up a conversation, given the main chance.  My waiter pulls up a lounge chair for me and offers a menu.  He is slender with a lean face and delicate features, his wavy dark hair pulled into a short pony tail low on his neck. We begin to chat.  The ice breaker question is always, "Where are you from?"  I love it when someone asks me this simple question in Mexico.  It means they're friendly and up for a chat.  I respond in Spanish, and we introduce ourselves.  Ruben's command of English is limited to restaurant vocabulary, understanding food orders and queries about the location of the bathroom. Perfect. This means we communicate in Spanish.

For me, one of the joys of traveling here is the opportunity it affords to practice my Spanish, which is serviceable but far from elegant.  Ruben and I talk about bicycles, sports, baseball and soccer, how many children I have, his job and how they pay him a 10% commission on food and drink orders.  On busy days he does well, but on slow days, he makes little money.  He interrupts our conversation to solicit business as families and couples stroll by.  I go for a swim and come back to my chair for lunch, fresh albacore tacos, which are delicious.  After the midday boats have come and gone and what passes for a lunch rush is over, he sits down next to me.  We talk a little politics.  Most Mexican people are curious and sad about the recent presidential election in the U.S.  I tell him about my brother-in-law who carves skateboards and builds bicycles.  He tells me about his family.  As we talk, I struggle a little with Spanish words or phrases. Ruben helps me out, and we begin to form a nice warm bond.  What we lack in linguistic specifics is made up for in body language, facial expression, gesture and all the other bits and pieces of communication that carry you beyond words.

I taught English as a second language to immigrants for years, and I had to work hard to hear with a critical ear. Left to my own instincts, my communication with students leapfrogged beyond the vocabulary and grammar I was tasked with teaching.  I would forget to listen to the sentence structure or individual words and instead cut straight to the person, their intention to communicate, their spirit, their smile, their presence.  If I wasn't careful, the end of class would arrive along with the realization I had failed to calibrate their ability to use new vocabulary, past tense or personal pronouns.  I like languages, and I continue to tutor students.  While I take great satisfaction in watching them learn new skills, the ultimate reward for me is the relationships formed.

What does this have to do with migraine?

After a December vacation, in Zihuatanejo, with no headaches, I returned in February because I love this place and because I needed to know if I could replicate this ten-day miracle.  Instead I had nearly back to back migraines, every or every other day.  I have lots of theories about why, but it's all guess work.  What I have carried home from this trip are memories that supersede the pain in my head and my wounded feet and knee.  Writer Jeanette Winterson talks about "the wound" and wound stories.  "What we notice in the stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift: the one who is wounded is marked out - literally and symbolically - by the wound." She says, "All my life I have worked from the wound." My gimpy knee led me, out of the way, to this little beach and my encounter with Ruben.    My achilles injury pointed my way to the taxi stand and the opportunity to chat up the cab drivers.  Perhaps my head pain imposes a pace more conducive to true connections with people as I make my deliberate way, step by step, down the beach - or through my life

Thursday, January 19, 2017

10 Days in December

A Rough start

It is 4:00 pm on Dec. 4th, and we are in lift off mode.  Tonight we're home, tomorrow Zihuatanejo, Mexico, our annual winter beach, vacation destination.  I print our boarding passes, and a couple of hours later my husband calls a cab to run us to the airport for a 5:00 am flight. We learn from the dispatcher that our Seattle to LA leg has been cancelled due to an incoming snow storm. After a brief panic I get on the phone, and Alaska Airlines rebooks us for an earlier flight out of Seattle, which means a 2 hour drive tonight to a park-and-fly-by-night motel south of the airport. We scramble to pull ourselves together and head out the door within an hour.  The hotel has a sketchy feel, but the room is clean, and it was the best I could do on very short notice.  This is not a seamless start to our vacation. It compounds the travel anxiety that has dogged me with aging and increased migraine frequency.  Maybe this trip wasn't such a great idea.  So much easier to just cave in and stay home.

Minor league miracle

The rest of our trip south is thankfully uneventful. We step off the plane in Zihuatanejo in bright sunshine and balmy 85 degree weather.  Customs and immigration is efficient.  We're in and out the other side in half an hour. We catch a colectivo or shared cab to the hotel and flop into chairs on the terrace of our modest beach-side room, heaving a sigh of relief and wonder. It is 5:00 pm local time, and we're home-away-from-home free. 

We watch families play on the beach, birds dive and catch fish as we marvel at the sunset. The days pass slowly to a low-key rhythm of watching the sunrise with our morning coffee, strolling into town morning and evening, frequent swims in the bay or the pool, reading and going to sleep to the sound of waves breaking on the sand below.

On the third day I turn to my husband and say, "Do you know, I haven't had a headache since we got here!"  Every day I wake early, make my tea and curl up on the day bed outside to watch the sunrise, birds, fishermen, early joggers and swimmers - with no headache.  I have not one headache during our entire 11 day vacation.  What if I don't have headaches anymore?  I begin to fantasize about what life will be like when I return home headache free.


We arrive home on Dec. 16th to the pre-Christmas rush. I'm tired from lost sleep and the trying 14 hour trip home. Per usual, I am not ready for the Holiday. Even though our celebrations are quiet and informal, there are still presents to buy, a few decorations to pull together and a small family Christmas dinner to plan. The headaches resume, frequent and more severe at first, then reverting to a more usual pattern once the holidays are over.  


This mind-bending 10-day respite has left me wondering what combination of factors enabled a marked change in pattern.  What can I learn from this?  I know that I feel better when I'm in and around salt water.  I love to swim in our chilly bay in the summer and hang out at the beach in Santa Cruz when we visit my son.  But I suspect it's more than that.  I think of my life as unstressful.  I am retired. Our finances are in decent shape.  I've got great kids who are doing well and two beautiful grandsons.  I have friends and things I like to do.  Nonetheless I struggle, especially in winter, to stay on an even keel.  

It's a puzzle, trying to translate the lessons of an 11-day Mexican beach vacation to daily existence at home.  But I'm working on it.  The Spanish word for puzzle is rompe cabeza, which means literally 'break the head.'  I think that perhaps that's exactly what I do to myself when I agonize over bits and pieces of my life.  I'm trying to let go and have a little faith that the things I dither over will work themselves out without eternal fretting.  For a start, I'm rescheduling my days so I have creative time to myself in the mornings, to write and draw.  I need to return to a meditation practice that took a back seat to my daily routine 6 months ago. I'm teaming up with a pal for a 2 week return to Mexico in February to learn more, to see if this pattern repeats itself.

What does it look like?

What does it look like .........

not to have headaches?  I realize that I perceive my head as dense and heavy, full up with pain, thoughts, emotions, plans, expectations and more.  What would it feel like to have more space up there, more room for the breeze and the birds and fishes?  More ventilation.  What if it were roomier and quieter?  How can I achieve that at home as well as away?

This little miracle has been a real eye opener that will inform my search for answers in the weeks and months to come.