I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Things are looking up

Spring flowers on my front porch
Whew! That was really a doozy of a bug I had last week. When I woke during the day (and night) last Saturday, I couldn't believe how awful I felt, and Sunday was not much better. You know I'm sick when I don't want to eat or drink and am too sick to read posts or even open up my laptop. I did, however, write those paragraphs because of a sense of duty to my readers. I couldn't just do nothing at all. But what really surprised me was how muddled my brain felt, as if it were wrapped in cotton and unwilling to function properly.

And here I am a week later, sitting in my usual spot in bed with my laptop and tea, and everything feels normal again. Almost, anyway: I still have residual nausea now and then, which is so unusual that I notice it with interest. Every day I am a little better. As I wrote on my other blog, Friday I visited my doctor about my knee after having had to wait a couple of weeks after the initial injury on April 7. It was a good thing I did, though, because in a little more than two weeks, the knee continued to improve until I no longer had to limp. I've learned a great deal about knees during this time, including finding out just what it is that hurts when you tear the meniscus (which is what I did).

Menisci have no nerve endings, but one's knee is encased in synovial fluid, and that's where you get all the pain and suffering from. And as explained by my doctor, an injection of cortisone into the knee would be an option if in another two weeks I'm still in pain. But to tell you the truth, I am amazed at how good it feels already. He also suggested an MRI, and I told him that I didn't think I would be a candidate because of a previous injury to my pelvis. When we moved here I pitched all my x-rays (but now I wish I still had them for comparison purposes). He ordered a pelvic x-ray so it can go into my records, and I learned some interesting information, including that I can indeed have an MRI with my hardware. At least, that's what the radiologist thought; I'm not going to rush into having one, and it seems it won't be necessary quite yet.

Yesterday after I went to the coffee shop to visit with my friends and quaffed my latte, I decided to go for a walk down to Boulevard Park along Bellingham Bay. Although the chance for rain was minimal, I took my raincoat just in case, but it only spit on me once or twice. I walked a couple of miles to the bay and back without pain, with no limp, and I was simply ecstatic thinking that perhaps next week I can join the ladies for my usual Saturday walk. (I have to admit that by the end of my excursion the knee said it was time to rest.) They were going on hills and covering more than five miles yesterday, so I knew it was too soon to attempt it then. I will also not join the Thursday Trailblazers quite yet, since the scheduled hike is rated moderate to hard, and nine miles. If I'm good and take it slow, I should be ready to join them by the time they head up to the High Country in June.

I have removed the phrase "push through the pain" from my vocabulary, now that I have accepted that my knees can continue to carry me around as long as I treat them well. Oh, and another wonderful thing happened when I went to my doctor's office: they always weigh and measure me whenever I come in for anything at all, and I was a FULL INCH taller than I was in February! Part of the difference, I believe, is the time of day: it was early in the morning before gravity had a chance to pull me down, but perhaps the yoga is also helping. In any event, it sure made me happy. I forgot to mention it to my yoga teacher; she had said at the beginning of the semester that she thinks yoga does help to make us carry ourselves more upright. When I am being measured I try everything I can think of to stand up straight!

I am now officially a part of the WAHA (Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement) team of volunteer facilitators who help people write their Advance Directives and have already notarized half a dozen documents. It's rewarding work (but it really is work) and I'm glad I waited until I found the right place for me to volunteer. I go in once a week, on Mondays, to either work with clients in their initial visit, or at the end when they are ready to finalize the documents, and then I copy and distribute them. One copy goes to the local hospital, where it is scanned and flagged on the medical records as being available in case somebody ends up unable to speak for him- or herself.  The other copies go back to the client to give to their agents and other family members.

The people are so different from one another in the ways they approach their end-of-life choices, and I've already learned a great deal from some of them. One person was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and she decided to get everything done herself since a family member might opt to put her body in space until a cure is found! Another has decided to prepare packets of memorabilia for each family member, complete with mementos and pictures of times past. I would never have thought of that myself, but it's a wonderful idea when you have time and energy to do such a considerate thing. 

There are difficult clients, too, but each one has been a lesson for me in how to approach that period of time between my last exercise class and hospice care. It's a strange thing for me to realize that I've got no family members to emulate for this period of time, since everybody went and died fairly young. No nursing homes, no lingering deaths for the Stewart family. At least not in the last generation, which was before statin drugs made such a huge difference in life expectancy for those of us with the tendency towards heart disease. That took Mama, Daddy, and my son Chris. And it's part of the reason that I exercise faithfully and watch my diet. That, and I really enjoy a good sweat.

So, as you can see, life is percolating along just as it should for me today. No sudden illness this week, injury to my knee continuing to improve quickly, and my garden mostly planted. I got several vegetable starts into the ground yesterday, since I was pretty sure it would rain last night, and it did. Today I'll go out and see if the plants look happy, and if they don't, I'll get down there next to them and have a conversation about what they expect. I'll be listening to see if they have anything to tell me about what they might need. What, you don't talk to your plants?

I've been enjoying reading the short stories of Alice Munro. Some blogging friend suggested her, and many years ago I read a couple of her collections but had moved away from short stories for some reason. I'm finding them just right for me these days: I can read a story and put the book down and do something else for awhile. Absorbing novels or memoirs tend to keep me rooted to the spot for way too long. I didn't realize that Alice won the Nobel Prize in 2013, but I can certainly see why. She's brilliant and I cannot recommend her books highly enough. One story that I read yesterday just wouldn't leave me alone, so I went back and read it again. Then I perused the final two pages of the story several times, marveling at how much she managed to say between the lines. I've got her daughter's memoir waiting for me to pick up at the library so I can read more about Alice's life.

Ah. It's that time again: I'm seeing daylight through the drawn curtains, and a couple of sighs and snorts from my partner make me realize he's coming up out of sleep soon. I've got posts to read and news to peruse, comics to enjoy, and breakfast waiting to be consumed. Life feels really good this morning, another beautiful April day, and my coffee shop friends must be gathering themselves up to make the trek for our upcoming Sunday morning meeting. It's usually pretty lively in there on Sunday mornings so I should get myself up and start my own meanderings towards joining them. I'm hoping that this is a good week and good day for you and yours. Be well until we meet again next week! 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

No post today

Yesterday I was flattened by the flu. Or something. In the morning I thought I had an upset stomach, but by the time I got home from the gym, I knew I was sick. I canceled my movie date with Judy and then went into the bathroom to toss my cookies. Over and over and over. Last night I was still unable to keep even light miso soup or water down. Fever of 101F, chills, body aches and just miserable. On the good side, no sore throat, no diarrhea, and by now I am beginning to recover. Temperature stayed elevated all night long, but now it's down to 99.5.

I will leave you with a post from fellow blogger Ronni Bennett that I wished I had written. It says everything I've been wrestling with in my recent posts, and once I've done that, I'm going to pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep. I'm on the mend but weak as a kitten.

The Imperative to Live and to Die

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The year I started to fall apart

Pink blooms in the driveway
Sitting here in my bedroom, laptop and tea, everything seems pretty normal, but it's not. I really did a number on my right knee this past Thursday. The previous week we had done quite a bit of up and down, and my knee began to hurt on the downhill sections. Although I was in pain, it was bearable, and the next day I was back to normal. At least I thought so, but this past Thursday we did another hike that had a good deal of up and down, and I noticed that my knee had begun to hurt just like it did the previous week. But there I was, out in the middle of the hike, and I had to descend some very steep rocks. Using my trekking poles, I thought I was almost down when suddenly the pain in my knee became unbearable.

I sat down and considered my situation. I couldn't continue, and my friends were very solicitous. Right away one of the guys took my pack, and we discussed options. If I could make my way down to the road (Mt. Erie has  road up to the top, but we go on the trails, for obvious reasons), then Steve was willing to jog back to the parking lot and get his car, and we would then drive to the top to join the others. Although it wasn't quite as easy as all that, we did it, and with the help of so many of my dear friends, I was able to return home in time to make an after-hours appointment to see a doctor.

He took x-rays (normal) and considered that with the pain I have it is probably a meniscus or ligament tear. After I got home and began my own research, I came to the conclusion that it is most probably a meniscus tear, although it wouldn't make much difference because treatment is the same. I'm able to walk as long as I don't bend my knee with weight on it, so I'm walking stiff-legged and slow, and I'm able to do that without any pain. If I bend it even the slightest bit when walking, I feel the pain. When I'm sitting I can bend the knee fully without pain.

So now you have the background of my latest dilemma. I cannot walk fast (so that means no walks with the ladies on Saturday mornings) and I cannot hike (no Thursday hikes with the Trailblazers) until sometime later. Maybe. I have done all that I know how to do, such as ice and compression, although it's almost impossible to stop using one's knee completely. In my research I discovered that by the time you get to be my age, the degenerative changes in the meniscus could easily lead to a tear with overuse.  I'll just have to wait and see if it gets better with time. If it doesn't, I will then be referred to another doctor, but the medical profession is unwilling to do that until it has a chance to heal on its own.

But this latest wrinkle is on top of the distress I've recently felt in my back, which got me started taking yoga classes a few months ago. My back feels better and I've changed some of the ways that I move, but the changes are going in one direction only: toward becoming less mobile and learning how to live in an older body. I'm afraid I keep forgetting that I'm old; as long as things don't slow me down I just keep going at my old pace. That must change.

When I was young, I would think about all that I wanted to do before I lay on my death bed so that I wouldn't wish that I had made different choices while I still could. It never occurred to me that there would be a transition period between being robust and active and that bed. Now I'm realizing that as time goes by, wisdom requires taking stock of the condition of one's body and making adjustments. Small or large adjustments, they are part of what I must accomplish in order to age gracefully.

Looking back, I can see how much I've changed since I celebrated my seventieth birthday. Three years is a long time in the eighth decade of life. I've got so many blogging friends who are my age or older, and they have become beacons to guide my way through the shoals of illness and infirmity. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once wrote, "A healthy human environment is one in which we try to make sense of our limits, of the accidents that can always befall us, and the passage of time which inexorably changes us." I will try to make sense of those limits as gracefully as I can, and try not to whine too much about them. At the end of the day, we're all in the same boat.

My latest endeavor, volunteering with the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement (WAHA) as an end-of-life choices facilitator, has already opened my eyes to many different ways to approach one's inevitable demise. Filling out one's Advance Directive is something that should be done by everyone, whether young or old. Writing the last chapter of my life has become a conscious act, rather than one that once seemed far in the future, so distant I could not see it. I remember when I would say, as a young person, the phrase "for the rest of my life," and that seemed impossibly long. Now I can see it clearly. I am being helped by friends near and far, ones I see every day and those whom I only know through their blogs. I am still making new friends during these times, and I am hopeful that I will continue to be able to give and receive assistance as I move through the coming days, months, and years.

I am grateful that I have this particular venue to examine my life and to receive your thoughts about this big old boat called life that we share. I'm confident that I'm on the right track, even if I have to walk that track slowly and carefully, conscious of every step. Maybe that's not such a bad thing; it might make the days slow down a little and give me even more time for contemplation.

Today I will get up and perform the Five Tibetan exercises (21 times, as always), with care as I feel what parts of my body I need to be aware of protecting. Then I'll have breakfast and head out to the coffee shop to join my friends there and quaff that latte I'm anticipating with pleasure. My partner is still sleeping next to me, and he might even still be asleep when I head out. When I return we will spend some time together, talking and laughing and enjoying our Sunday rituals. One of them is discussing this post, which he will read while I'm getting caffeinated.

As always, I will look forward to the wisdom you leave for me in your comments. Until we meet again next week, I wish you as always every good thing life has to offer. And don't forget to be grateful for your friends; I'm one of them and I will feel your virtual gratitude through the ether. Be well.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The new normal

Display garden tulips
I love to see the spring flowers blooming all around me these days. At the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival last week, I was saturated by the enormous numbers of eye-catching tulips of every color and stripe. These were a favorite, but then my eye would be caught by yet another variety, until I was unable to take in any more. My ability to continue absorbing it all has diminished as I've aged.

That's part of my new normal. Just last week I was thinking how different the world looks to my old eyes. I've been through plenty of periods of turmoil in the world, but these days my tolerance for it all has changed. That said, I cannot remember a time when the political climate was so toxic. Or the world in general, for that matter. A vague memory of watching the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago on TV, a horrifying spectacle for me, followed a year when we lost Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy by assassination. I wasn't even thirty yet, but I still have vivid memories of that awful time. So yeah, when I think back, this political climate isn't the worst I've seen.

But it's the meanest and scariest in a long, long time. In the almost fifty years since then, so much of my world has changed. Back then we had television everywhere but not much else. Our phones connected to the wall and only made phone calls. We had three major networks on TV that gave us the news and not much else to choose from. Nobody had personal computers, and the Apple I was just being invented. Nobody ever heard of the World Wide Web, which was invented in 1989, and now it dominates my life. Back then I read newspapers to get the majority of my news, along with books from the library (that hasn't changed). Newspapers are on their way out, and books can now be purchased and read electronically. Smartphones. Blogs. Google — all concepts that were still in the future in 1968.

I think one reason I enjoyed the series Mad Men so much is that I lived it myself. All those fashions I actually wore; in fact there was a Betty Draper shirtwaist dress in the first season that I know I had in my closet. Not to mention the feeling of those times, which the series captured so perfectly for me. Times long gone, and now they are part of history.

That's what happens when one gets old: you can look back on decades and see a trajectory of change, sometimes gradual and sometimes dramatic. But change for sure, and now as I sit here in my bedroom with a laptop (unconnected from the wall), a smartphone next to me, and infinite information available to me with just a quick search, I am really glad I've lived long enough to see and experience it all. When I was young, I remember watching a TV show that predicted a Dick Tracy-like watch that allowed video calling. A wrist-sized two-way radio in those days was a fantasy, much less communicating face to face. I didn't think I would ever see these things become reality, but they have, and much more I couldn't have predicted. This is our new normal.

Not only has technology changed our lives, but the sheer numbers of people on the planet has mushroomed from 3.5 billion in 1968 to 7.3 billion in 2015. A trajectory of population growth makes me glad I won't live to see it reach 9 billion (in 2040). Even though population growth is gradual, all those people have to live somewhere, eat and drink just like me, and dwindling resources are a fact of life. I could look up a statistic to find out how many people are starving every day, but I can't bring myself to look at what I know is a huge number.

I wonder if that massive population growth is one of the reasons for the wars roiling our precious blue planet. It is one way to reduce the population, after all. I won't even go into that, but my mind took me into that dark place. The clash of civilizations in a world too small for us, that's also our new normal. Thinking that we are going to bomb and kill our way out of this dilemma is simplistic. Or is it? Many dystopian novels I've read portray a world after the apocalypse that many of us see coming that I sure don't want to live in. If I'm lucky, I'll be dead before then, but today I can mourn for the future we've given our children. And who knows? Maybe it will be totally different than my imaginings. After all, I could never had predicted the world of today.

Another part of my new normal is getting accustomed to the aging process. It's a one-way street, and as I feel my back begin to pop and crack with age-related changes, and as I gaze at my spotted hands, I know that the changes in my body are completely normal. Just this week I saw the dermatologist and asked about a cyst that has appeared on my thumb. I thought maybe he'd just remove it, but he told me it's a benign cyst that is caused by osteoarthritis. It's not usually a problem, he said, but keep on eye on it and let him know if it changes. I also went to the dentist and got my teeth cleaned and checked out. I am lucky that I still have all my teeth, but that's partly because of the dentist's care, and brushing and flossing regularly. In the old days, teeth that got cavities would be pulled, not fixed up and given new life. Plus I guess I ended up with good genes for teeth.

But my new normal body bears little resemblance to the one I had in 1968. I was in my mid-twenties, after all. I see people who are that age today and they look so different from me that I have to remind myself that I was once that young. Yesterday I saw a young woman who had on jeans that barely covered her derriere, with enormously high heels that made her legs look like they went on for days. A long way from the prim shirtwaist I wore when I was her age.

But on the other hand, I went on a hike this past week and managed to cover a great distance with a pack on my back, almost twelve miles, and none of it was flat but pretty severely up and down. And even if I am still today feeling the effects of it, I was able to do it and get up the next day and make it to my exercise class. Today I am more fit than I was fifty years ago, so there's that new normal, one that I have earned through hard work. And I spent a good part of yesterday working my garden plot, raking and shoveling and pulling weeds. I must remember to give thanks for still being able to enjoy the outdoors and a good brain that allows me to do things like write this post.

The blogosphere, that fairly new part of my life, is now an essential component in my ability to enjoy life. Not only do I read several (that will be after I finish this one), but I have friends all over the world whose lives are intertwined with my own. We care about each other, and I always look forward to the comments left by you, my dear readers, people whose blogs give me a glimpse into your lives. I cherish that part of the new normal, and I thank you for sharing your worlds with me.

And with that, I will start the rest of my Sunday morning. My surroundings are all familiar, with my partner still sleeping as I write this, and my tea gone. I'll look forward to spending another half-hour or so with my fellow bloggers, make a quick scan of the day's news, and head out to my coffee shop to have a latte and visit with my dear "skin" friends. Until next week, then, I wish you all good things.