Body and Soul: of mundane miracles and secular sacraments

This was my first post to be Fresh Pressed. I hope you have enjoyed my summer re-runs. Stay tuned for a new post in a day or two!

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Like all good little cradle-Anglicans of my day, when I reached the age of 12 I signed up for Confirmation class. We met crammed into a too-small but oddly symbolic “upper room” off the church balcony. I remember exactly two things from my weeks of Confirmation prep. The first is the lesson where we read and discussed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. The minister who taught the class took it upon himself to challenge us with some liberal theology, and pressed the point that perhaps there was more than one way to make a miracle. Perhaps Jesus didn’t conjure extra loaves and fishes out of thin air after all. Perhaps when the members of the crowd observed one person sharing the provisions he had brought, they were inspired – or shamed— into digging into their packs and bringing out their own secret stash of snacks to share. It had never before occurred to me that people might be invited to participate in the making of miracles. Indeed that we might be expected to participate. That perhaps that was how miracles really happened.

I also recall learning about the sacraments. I learned that Roman Catholics recognize seven sacraments, but that Anglicans observe a sort of “sacraments light”—zeroing in on Baptism and Eucharist. Mostly I can still hear the priest repeatedly intone—“a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace.” Kind of like sharing your picnic lunch with your neighbors to show that you are a community.

After Confirmation I promptly stopped attending church for most of my teen years. There was no noisy rebellion on my part—mostly I just had lots of other ways to spend my time that seemed far more relevant and interesting than my parents’ church. As a young adult I found my own way into a faith that was mine, not just a parroting of my Sunday School and Confirmation lessons. And I grew to appreciate more and more what it meant to do things that were visible and external as a reflection of what was going on invisibly and spiritually within.

When I turned 40 I had a huge celebration. Forty is a milestone birthday at the best of times, but it is often celebrated with a wry sense of doom and despair. (“Oh no I’m getting old…”) For me, 40 was a really big deal because I wasn’t dead. I had, by contrast, spent my 38th birthday in galloping kidney failure, being readied for what was very nearly a one-way transfer into intensive care. Through a series of miracles supported by the participation of various members of the medical profession, I did make it back out of intensive care and into the world, but not before I had battled temporary vision loss, taught myself to walk again, and recovered from brain trauma.

Catastrophic as that particular illness was, it was not the first time my body betrayed me. The truth is my body has a long and tiresome history of betraying me. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of two, and spent most of elementary school sidelined in gym class with painfully inflamed knees. After a teaser of a remission period during my teens, the arthritis came back in full force just as I was poised to graduate from university and start a teaching career. As if my bodily betrayal was not enough, one of my professors heaped coals on the fire of my frustration by musing to my face that “perhaps I should consider a less physically demanding profession” than the one in which I had just invested five years of preparation.

Then, in a whole new set of bodily betrayals, my attempts to have a child were thwarted by repeated failure. My first two pregnancies ended in early miscarriage. Surgery for an ectopic pregnancy went wrong, and I nearly bled to death from an internal rupture. My fourth pregnancy ended in fetal death at 12 weeks, but I didn’t miscarry. Apparently my body couldn’t even get miscarriage right. While I did eventually succeed in carrying two children to term, my eldest was born after an extraordinarily long and difficult labour that resulted in a caesarean. The technical term for this particular bodily betrayal was labour that “failed to progress.”

So by the time I hit 40, my relationship with my body was strained at best. But in spite of all the trouble it had caused me, I was still alive. That seemed worth celebrating. I wanted to make peace with this body that had failed me so many times, but that had also rallied from so many close calls. Like an old Timex watch it took a licking and kept on ticking.

So I got a tattoo. I had been contemplating the notion of a tattoo for about three years, but took a while to decide when, what, and where. Having decided on my milestone birthday as a perfect “when,” I found the “what” while gazing around my living room one evening are realizing that ALL the artwork on my walls bore the images of loons—a creature that has always held significance for me. I chose the image of the adult loon with its baby riding on its back—an image that reflected for me the extent to which my body—and my life—had been marked by my journey to, and through, motherhood.

legAs to “where,” I opted for a spot halfway up the side of my right calf. I reasoned that in this position I could show off the tattoo without getting half naked, but could keep it hidden if that was appropriate in a professional context. I assumed, in fact, that I would want to keep it hidden at work. It oddly didn’t dawn on me at the time that hemlines might rise.

To my surprise, I gradually became less and less concerned with when it might be “appropriate” to let my tattoo be visible. I started wearing shorter skirts to work and not caring who saw the tattoo. Somehow, making my body a canvas for this work of art made me more comfortable in my own skin.

I didn’t think about the tattoo as a sacrament at first. Over time I began to realize that what had felt at first like an act of belated adolescent rebellion held a much deeper significance to me. Curious about what motivated other tattoo bearers, I read and heard deeply touching stories—tattoos marking the death of a loved one, tattoos marking a significant life event or choice, tattoos remembering a lost friend, tattoos marking a battle with disease or addiction, tattoos enshrining a powerful memory. I came to understand that I had marked my body in this way as an outward and visible sign of a truth that I couldn’t really put into words, but that I carried deep within me.

Between my 40th and 45th birthdays, my inner truths underwent a profound transformation that culminated with the outward sign of divorce. Searching for the right ritual to mark this transition, I knew it was time for another tattoo.

This time I approached the tattoo more consciously as sacrament. This time I also knew immediately and intuitively what the image would be. Another loon, but in the aggressive stance—wings upraised—of a loon that is charging an enemy. I’ve been charged just so by a loon, while inadvertently canoeing too close to her nest. They are powerful creatures—and bigger than you think—especially at close quarters in their threatening “don’t mess with me and my babies” posture. This tattoo is quite large, and is centred between my shoulder blades. I have to twist and crane in the mirror to see it myself, but I am always conscious of it—always sensing that it pushes me forwards and gives me strength.

Someone once remarked that the image reminded them of a phoenix rising—an apt coincidence, since the inner transformation that the image was crafted to represent was very much a rising from the ashes of my failed marriage—an emergence of new life in the wake of grief and loss.

Now into my 50’s, I continue to negotiate a tenuous truce with my unreliable body. Most recently, my left hip joint has betrayed me utterly, and for its troubles been banished from my body once and for all in favour of a slick new titanium and ceramic replacement.

It’s hard not to call the outcome of this surgery a miracle. After taking painkillers day and night for I don’t know how long, within two weeks of being rolled out of the operating theatre I no longer needed any pain medication. None. Is it a miracle that the research has produced a prosthetic hip that works and an effective process for inserting it? Is it a miracle that my surgeon was skilled, or that his team provided me with such a comprehensive preparation?

I went into the surgery knowing exactly what I would need to do to contribute to my healing: I would need to haul out my own resources and apply them to my healing process. Provide my own loaves and fishes. Perhaps it’s enough of a miracle that after all the times my body has said “I quit,” those resources are still there.

Maybe I should get another tattoo.

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Honestly Daily Prompt, I sometimes feel like you are stalking me. This is not the first time you have posted a prompt just AFTER I have posted something relevant to that prompt. So although this was originally posted on November 23, I am linking it to the December 1 Daily Prompt: “Tattoo…You?”

Your personal invitation to my 100th Blog Post Party!

When I first clicked “Publish” back in September I had no idea where this blog was going. It evolved, along with my newly restored ability to go for long walks, out of my time off work to recover from hip replacement surgery. My initial goals were to give myself an excuse to write more regularly, and to find an audience for my writing. The blog has been a success on both counts. While I haven’t been able to maintain the same pace since going back to work, I have managed to post at least once or twice a week even in my busiest times. I have been “Freshly Pressed” and managed to amass over 1000 followers– some of whom appear to be actual human beings, and a few of whom are actually interested in reading what I’ve written (as opposed to trying to entice me to buy their products or join their pyramid schemes… but hey, nobody said this was a perfect world.)

Yes, my daughter made this. From scratch. Did I mention her cakes were epic? The figures are made out of coloured chocolate. She even made the fondant. When I was 16 I hadn’t even heard of fondant.

Turns out, the best things about blogging are those actual human beings — both the ones who read and comment on my blog, and the ones whose writing engages and inspires me daily. So when I pondered how I could mark the milestone of my 100th blog post, it occurred to me that what I really wanted to do was to celebrate with those people whose blogs have been such an inspiration to me.

There are, however, some obvious logistical barriers. Most of my blogging friends live very far from me and from one another, and many of them blog anonymously. So as much as I would like to have my daughter whip up one of her epic cakes and have my blogging buddies over for a party, it’s not going be feasible.

Unless I make it a virtual party!

So, welcome to my 100th Blog Post Party. Break out the balloons, pour yourself a glass of your beverage of choice, and I’ll take you around the room and introduce you to the other guests.

There’s Matt from Must Be This Tall To Ride. Matt has just come through the toughest year of his life, but he has distilled an incredible amount of wisdom out of the pain of his divorce. I look forward daily to his insightful writing as he navigates his single life and the challenges of part-time parenting. And speaking of distilling tough life experiences into some amazing writing, I’d like you to meet Fish of Gold, Ziya Tamesis at A Day with Depression and Jess at The Fevered Pen.

I have become very fond of little Phillip through the stories and pictures his mom shares on That Cynking Feeling. Elizabeth at Living with Autism also blogs eloquently about her experiences parenting her autistic son, Dylan.

I’m impressed by those bloggers who can manage to produce interesting reading day in and day out, like Alienora Taylor at ALIEN AURA’S BLOG: IT’LL BLOW YOUR MIND! , Doobster at Mindful Digressions and Pat at Chronicles of an Anglo Swiss.

As a “woman of a certain age,” it has been a delight to share my midlife journey with the likes of Bulging Buttons, Elyse at FiftyFour and a Half, and Renee at Life in the Boomer Lane.

Some of you, like Tyler Pedersen at The Ancient Eavesdropper, make beautiful pictures.

Some of you make me think, like Ryan at Rumblings.

Some of you make me laugh, like Arden at Writing While Wining (Caturday!)

Lots of you make me laugh while you’re making me think.

I could go on.

Come to think of it, it’s just as well this is a virtual party. I don’t think I have enough dessert plates to invite everyone.

Welcome one and all. I’m glad to have you in my life. Let the partying begin!

party
I promise I won’t make you wear the hats. That’s a Christmas party thing in my world. But if you DO have a tissue paper hat kicking around and you WANT to wear it to my blog party, I won’t judge.

 

Postscript: Since I just posted this a few days ago, I’m going to cheat and link it up to today’s Daily Prompt.  Because it’s my party and I’ll cheat if I want to!

 

 

 

Strive to thrive

Today’s Daily Prompt asks, “Do you thrive under pressure or crumble at the thought of it? Does your best stuff surface as the deadline approaches or do you need to iterate, day after day to achieve something you’re proud of? Tell us how you work best…. show us PRESSURE.”

Do I thrive under pressure? Frankly, I’m never sure how to respond to this question. Do I handle myself well under pressure? Absolutely. I have a reputation for being able to do good work quickly. I’m good at improvising solutions. In a crisis, I’m the one who copes.

The truth is, I put a lot of pressure on myself. I have high expectations. I’m apt to hand things in ahead of the deadline– sometimes just because I worked quickly and got the task done early, and sometimes because I set my own deadline, earlier than the real one, so that I could be absolutely sure I would be done on time.

I was in grade four when I first appreciated the tyranny of my own high standards. I had a big social studies project due: something along the lines of “Everything There Is to Know About Australia That Can Be Derived from Back Issues of National Geographic.” (This was, after all, pre-internet.) I had done a fair bit of work, but I had also done a fair bit of procrastinating. The project was due on Monday morning. Sunday night rolled around and I wasn’t done. I went to bed with my stomach in knots. I had never failed to hand in an assignment on time unless I was sick. I didn’t know what the teacher would say, but I could imagine no  consequence more horrifying than Miss Miller’s disapproval.

Morning came, and I got up and got dressed for school with the demeanor of one preparing for execution. By breakfast, I had worked myself into such a state of anxiety that I was feeling physically ill.

My mom was astute enough to see through the root cause of my ailment. She gently suggested that if I wasn’t feeling well I should probably stay home for the morning, and we would see if I felt better after lunch. I asked her if it would be OK if I worked on my project. She just smiled, nodded sagely, and said that would probably be OK — if I felt up to it.

By lunchtime the project was finished and, miraculously, so was my mysterious stomach ailment. I went off to school for the afternoon, vowing to myself that I would never again put myself in the situation where I was late with an assignment.

There, have, of course, been times since then when I have had to ask for extra time to complete a task. I learned that I could ask for extra time without making myself ill over it. But I still don’t like it if I can’t meet a deadline, no matter how legitimate the reason. The truth is, I think I’ve learned to cope well under pressure by taking control of the pressure — by exerting the lion’s share of the pressure on myself.

Do I thrive under pressure? I’m not sure thrive is the right word. I get a lot done under pressure. I do good work under pressure.  But thrive?

A better path
A better path

When I was on leave recovering from my hip replacement, I had a glimpse of what life would be like without the kind of pressure that has become my norm. I was in better physical shape than usual — in spite of just having had surgery– because I was exercising more  than usual every day. I was more creative — and more creatively productive– than I have been in a long time because I had time to focus, and because the daily walks fuelled my imagination. In short, I experienced something far closer to what I would call thriving than I have ever encountered under even the most exhilarating pressure.

At least now I know what I’m really striving for.

Christmas Angels

There’s a comfortable predictability to Christmas Eve church.  There will always be a little girl in a red velvet dress running up and down the aisles to remind me of a time when it was my own little girls doing the running. There will be a mountain of poinsettias in front of the altar, ready to be delivered to the parish shut-ins after the Christmas services are over. There will be the crèche, and the candles. There will be lots of people we see exactly once a year, including a lot of tall teenagerish-looking people who look faintly like a bunch of little kids I remember from Christmases not so long ago.

And of course the story is completely familiar. The long journey, the stable, the baby, and a bunch of shepherds who suddenly look up to discover they are surrounded by angels trumpeting the good news. This year it was the part about the angels that struck me the most. Perhaps I had angels on my mind after yesterday’s post. Perhaps it was the preacher’s assertion that if a host of angels showed up and told him to “be not afraid,” he was quite certain that he would be afraid nonetheless. But the shepherds, according to the story, drop everything they are doing and go off to see the baby on the word of the angels.

I think that’s why I am fascinated by the part of the angels in the story this Christmas– because, whatever theological significance they might have, for me right now they represent something about embracing the unexpected. As it turns out, some of the best things about this Christmas have been the unexpected. Daughter #1 was able to spend more of the day with us than anticipated. We had some last minute additions to our Christmas dinner table this evening.  Daughter #2 officially took up the baton as chief turkey cook while I ran an unexpected errand at the critical moment. We had to improvise around a couple of dinner traditions because of items that were inadvertently left behind, but it all fell wonderfully into place.

We even managed to embrace the less “angelic” unexpected events– like a bad skid on an icy road that resulted in me rear-ending another car on the way to my sister’s for brunch. No one was hurt. The other woman’s car didn’t have a scratch. And my front bumper… well, the insurance will cover that, and in the meantime the car is still driveable. It could have been much worse, and I came away feeling more grateful than shaken.

The wind went down while we were at church on Christmas eve. When we came out it felt almost warm in contrast to the -30 Celsius wind chill we have been enduring for a couple of weeks. We stopped on the way home to walk a friend’s little dog that we are looking after while her people are away. It was so lovely out that after we got back from the first walk, the dog insisted on going out a second time.

When we arrived home, daughter #2 and I climbed through the snowbank up onto the dike to look at the river. Along the top of the dike there is still a well-worn path, but the snow on the slope going down towards the river bank was undisturbed. We just stood there and enjoyed being outside without suffering immediate frostbite, and then my daughter turned to me with an impish smile.

“Want to make a snow angel?”

“YES!” (I was, I confess, actually thinking to myself, “I really want to make a snow angel…”)

snow angel 5
The photo is dark because a) it was dark, and b) if you are a 52 year old woman making snow angels in a public park, it is probably better that way!

So we did. And it was great. Doubly great, because it was one more activity that I couldn’t have engaged in with my pre-surgery hip.

And then my daughter stomped MERRY X-MAS in the snow along the riverbank in ten-foot high letters. Probably big enough to be seen from across the river.

For sure big enough to be seen by the angels from their vantage point in the heavens.

snow angel 2

Momentum

The remains of the mental muck I was lamely trudging through on Friday night were still clinging to me when I left for work this morning. Even though I wrestled my weekend into some order with my trusty list. Even though I slept late (a rare event) and woke to the smell of fresh cinnamon buns my daughter had made for breakfast. Even though I made a real point of taking it easy on Sunday and actually went to bed at a decent hour.

Sometimes I just lose momentum.

If you haven’t experienced it, it’s hard to explain the kind of fatigue that comes with certain forms of chronic illness. In my case, it comes in a package with rheumatoid arthritis. But fatigue is a feature of all sorts of chronic conditions–other forms of arthritis, fibromyalgia, MS, depression.

Everyone gets tired, right? But fatigue is different from tired. Tired is an event. Tired is “I didn’t sleep well last night so I’d better have a nap.”  Tired is “Wow that was quite a workout; I’ll sleep well tonight. “Tired is “I’ve been on my feet too long and I’ve got to sit down for a few minutes.”

Fatigue doesn’t go away if you sit down for a few minutes. Fatigue is waking up from the nap without much more energy than you had before. Fatigue is looking at the dishes on the kitchen counter, knowing that it would take 5 minutes tops to wash them, and not having the energy to do it. Fatigue is staring blankly into a fridge full of fresh ingredients and opting to microwave a frozen dinner to eat on the sofa. Fatigue is staring blankly at the screen and realizing that even stringing together a few coherent sentences is Just Too Much Effort.

Sometimes fatigue is a corollary of chronic pain. Because let me tell you there is nothing quite so exhausting as chronic pain. But even when my joints are not flaring and I am not experiencing significant pain, the fatigue can still wash over me and rob me of my momentum.

It has taken me most of my life to realize that, ironically, the more exercise I get, the less likely I am to be overcome with fatigue. In the weeks following my hip replacement surgery, when I was exercising religiously and walking every day, I had all kinds of energy. I’m still walking when I can, but the reality is that my work involves a lot of sitting. After being back for just two months, I can already feel the reduction in physical activity taking its toll. In spite of my best intentions to the contrary, it’s hard to maintain the momentum of healthy living when there are so many other priorities crowding in and demanding attention.

After my sluggish weekend, I was relieved to find that at some point mid-morning I got my stride back. By mid afternoon I was on a productive roll, and things that looked like huge and daunting tasks on Friday and throughout the weekend were finally getting knocked off my to-do list with ease.

When the fatigue subsides, it’s easy to forget about it. Easy to assume that the momentum will last. Easy to fall into the bad habits that leave me dragging like a old clock that hasn’t been wound. My calendar at work this week is a marathon. I know better, but I let it happen all the same.

I go walking: to work and back

Since my hip healed and my leave ended, I’ve been back at work for five weeks. No more leisurely strolls along the riverbank every morning after breakfast. No more quiet weekday afternoons to sit and write. It didn’t take long to slide back into the vortex of Being Too Busy.

As I expected. November and December are always busy months at my work. They are busy months at home too, with holiday preparations and school and extracurricular commitments. And now that the snow has arrived, it seems to take twice as long to go anywhere. (Put on boots, put on coat, put on mitts, brush snow off windshield, get stuck in traffic behind the over-cautious winter drivers, get stuck in the snow…)

But I’m still managing to walk nearly every day. It helps that the bus ride to work is sandwiched in between two ten-minute hikes. To get from home to the bus I traverse an expansive strip mall parking lot. It’s not a bad walk, so long as the wind is not blowing from the west. Even that is bearable thanks to my toasty new dollar-store earmuffs. There aren’t many cars in the lot in the morning– well, with the exception of last Friday, when the Black Friday shoppers were pushing their overflowing carts out of Toys ‘R Us and past the lineup at Future Shop before 8:00 am.

This is a "yak track." It's like strapping chains to the soles of your feet. Big traction!
This is a “yak track.” It’s like strapping chains to the soles of your feet. Big traction!

The sea of concrete has now been replaced with an ocean of ice and packed snow, so I have invested in a pair of “yak-tracks” in recognition of my difficulty staying upright on slippery surfaces. I really do not want to risk a fall on my new hip joint!

The trip downtown is one quick express bus, and then I set out on the second leg of my morning walk. This one zigzags around several blocks of hotels and office buildings. I have been in the habit of taking a shortcut through a downtown shopping mall, but lately I have taken the outdoor route, mainly because walking indoors on a tiled floor wearing chains on your feet is actually more treacherous than walking on ice, and it’s too much of a hassle to be pulling the yak-tracks on and off. Instead, I take outdoor shortcuts down lanes and between buildings. Here there is evidence that, while these routes are fine for rush hour, I would probably want to avoid some of them late at night. I can’t even begin to speculate on the story behind the abandoned pair of Y-fronts in one back lane. Much easier to imagine the story behind the sheltered corner littered with empties from some form of cheap liquor.

For the days when the temperature dips to the “unexposed skin will freeze in minutes” zone– guaranteed to happen at some point in a Winnipeg winter — I have the option of making the trek from bus stop to office though a comprehensive system of skywalks that link up downtown.

The skywalks have been my saving grace when it comes to keeping up some semblance of a walking routine. On the days when I can muster a proper lunch break, I can leave my desk and walk, indoors, far enough to feel as though I have had some actual exercise. I’m not alone on these walks — no contemplative riverbank scenes here. Here it is a river of people– other walkers-for-the-sake-of-walking like me, mixed with walkers who are purposefully en route to something. A meeting. An appointment. A lunch date. It’s not what you’d call peaceful, but the people-watching opportunities offer another form of contemplation.

At this time of year it is dusk by the time I leave the office. The dimming light softens the hard edges of stone and concrete, and the people clustered at the bus stop look weary and impatient to get home. By the time I get off the bus it is dark. If I have an evening commitment to get to, I stride back across the parking lot, which now involves weaving strategically through row upon row of parked cars. But if I’m not in a hurry, I take the long way around, down the street to the far end of the dike. There is just enough light from the streetlights on the bridge to illuminate the frozen surface of the river, framed by the skeleton-trees along the banks.

Sometimes I just stand on the dike and breath in the cold air, the view, and the peace I find in walking by the river–even when my life takes me walking in other directions.

I go walking: in the snow

riverscape 2It’s warm today by Winnipeg winter standards– the overcast sky holds in the earth’s warmth, helping the temperature to hover just below the freezing point. It makes for sloppy roads, but it is perfect for a walk, and warm enough to take off my mitts and take some pictures.

The river is frozen now. Almost. If you look closely you can see dark patches that signify an area where the water is still peeking through a thin layer of ice. The river is most dangerous in times of transition– in the early spring when the ice is breaking up, and in the early winter when it is still not fully frozen. But even in the dead of winter there can be treacherous open spots, especially near bridges and outflow pipes.

Note the dark patch. Not a good place for a walk.
Note the dark patch. Not a good place for a walk.

My cousin fell through just such a patch of thin ice one winter when he was a teenager, taking a short cut across a river to go visit our grandparents. Thankfully the friend he was with was able to pull him out and help him up the bank. By the time Grannie met him at her kitchen door he could barely walk because his pants had frozen solid.

I make my way along my familiar southward trail , observing the way the snow hides some things and highlights others.  I’m pleased to see there is a well-trampled path. I don’t encounter any cyclists now, but the regular walkers are undeterred by the arrival of wintery weather.  Rabbit tracks zigzag around the trees. I watch for deer, but it’s too early in the day. I would be more apt to encounter them at dusk.

Even more beautiful highlighted by a dusting of snow.
Even more beautiful highlighted by a dusting of snow.

The fallen tree that I wrote about in early October now lies adorned with a layer of white lacework that brings out the complexity of its structure. Everything that was lush and green a few months back is now either grey and angular, or hidden beneath a blanket of white.

As my boots crunch against the packed snow, I think about how grateful I am that the hours of hip-therapy walking I did to recover from surgery happened in the summer. I love walking in the snow, but it’s more difficult than walking on grass or pavement. Where it is packed down it is slippery, and where it is still fresh my feet sink and twist. At the same time I celebrate the fact that I can go walking in the snow. This time last year I was not walking anywhere but to and from the bus stop, and that was slow and painful and aided by a cane.

No one home to shovel the front step.
No one home to shovel the front step.

High in a tree, something catches my eye. A tiny birdhouse sits, abandoned for the season no doubt, while its inhabitants spend the winter months in more temperate conditions further south. The roof of the house is covered with snow, and there is a tiny mound of snow in front of the entryway.

It strikes me that I have no desire to fly south for the winter. No interest in tropical vacations or white sandy beaches. In spite of the cold, the ice, the inconvenience of snow covered cars and winter boots, I prefer to stay put in this wintery city. Even if it is more effort, I prefer to walk in the snow.

grass

Body and Soul: of mundane miracles and secular sacraments

Like all good little cradle-Anglicans of my day, when I reached the age of 12 I signed up for Confirmation class. We met crammed into a too-small but oddly symbolic “upper room” off the church balcony. I remember exactly two things from my weeks of Confirmation prep. The first is the lesson where we read and discussed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. The minister who taught the class took it upon himself to challenge us with some liberal theology, and pressed the point that perhaps there was more than one way to make a miracle. Perhaps Jesus didn’t conjure extra loaves and fishes out of thin air after all. Perhaps when the members of the crowd observed one person sharing the provisions he had brought, they were inspired – or shamed— into digging into their packs and bringing out their own secret stash of snacks to share. It had never before occurred to me that people might be invited to participate in the making of miracles. Indeed that we might be expected to participate. That perhaps that was how miracles really happened.

I also recall learning about the sacraments. I learned that Roman Catholics recognize seven sacraments, but that Anglicans observe a sort of “sacraments light”—zeroing in on Baptism and Eucharist. Mostly I can still hear the priest repeatedly intone—“a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace.” Kind of like sharing your picnic lunch with your neighbors to show that you are a community.

After Confirmation I promptly stopped attending church for most of my teen years. There was no noisy rebellion on my part—mostly I just had lots of other ways to spend my time that seemed far more relevant and interesting than my parents’ church. As a young adult I found my own way into a faith that was mine, not just a parroting of my Sunday School and Confirmation lessons. And I grew to appreciate more and more what it meant to do things that were visible and external as a reflection of what was going on invisibly and spiritually within.

When I turned 40 I had a huge celebration. Forty is a milestone birthday at the best of times, but it is often celebrated with a wry sense of doom and despair. (“Oh no I’m getting old…”) For me, 40 was a really big deal because I wasn’t dead. I had, by contrast, spent my 38th birthday in galloping kidney failure, being readied for what was very nearly a one-way transfer into intensive care. Through a series of miracles supported by the participation of various members of the medical profession, I did make it back out of intensive care and into the world, but not before I had battled temporary vision loss, taught myself to walk again, and recovered from brain trauma.

Catastrophic as that particular illness was, it was not the first time my body betrayed me. The truth is my body has a long and tiresome history of betraying me. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of two, and spent most of elementary school sidelined in gym class with painfully inflamed knees. After a teaser of a remission period during my teens, the arthritis came back in full force just as I was poised to graduate from university and start a teaching career. As if my bodily betrayal was not enough, one of my professors heaped coals on the fire of my frustration by musing to my face that “perhaps I should consider a less physically demanding profession” than the one in which I had just invested five years of preparation.

Then, in a whole new set of bodily betrayals, my attempts to have a child were thwarted by repeated failure. My first two pregnancies ended in early miscarriage. Surgery for an ectopic pregnancy went wrong, and I nearly bled to death from an internal rupture. My fourth pregnancy ended in fetal death at 12 weeks, but I didn’t miscarry. Apparently my body couldn’t even get miscarriage right. While I did eventually succeed in carrying two children to term, my eldest was born after an extraordinarily long and difficult labour that resulted in a caesarean. The technical term for this particular bodily betrayal was labour that “failed to progress.”

So by the time I hit 40, my relationship with my body was strained at best. But in spite of all the trouble it had caused me, I was still alive. That seemed worth celebrating. I wanted to make peace with this body that had failed me so many times, but that had also rallied from so many close calls. Like an old Timex watch it took a licking and kept on ticking.

So I got a tattoo. I had been contemplating the notion of a tattoo for about three years, but took a while to decide when, what, and where. Having decided on my milestone birthday as a perfect “when,” I found the “what” while gazing around my living room one evening are realizing that ALL the artwork on my walls bore the images of loons—a creature that has always held significance for me. I chose the image of the adult loon with its baby riding on its back—an image that reflected for me the extent to which my body—and my life—had been marked by my journey to, and through, motherhood.

legAs to “where,” I opted for a spot halfway up the side of my right calf. I reasoned that in this position I could show off the tattoo without getting half naked, but could keep it hidden if that was appropriate in a professional context. I assumed, in fact, that I would want to keep it hidden at work. It oddly didn’t dawn on me at the time that hemlines might rise.

To my surprise, I gradually became less and less concerned with when it might be “appropriate” to let my tattoo be visible. I started wearing shorter skirts to work and not caring who saw the tattoo. Somehow, making my body a canvas for this work of art made me more comfortable in my own skin.

I didn’t think about the tattoo as a sacrament at first. Over time I began to realize that what had felt at first like an act of belated adolescent rebellion held a much deeper significance to me. Curious about what motivated other tattoo bearers, I read and heard deeply touching stories—tattoos marking the death of a loved one, tattoos marking a significant life event or choice, tattoos remembering a lost friend, tattoos marking a battle with disease or addiction, tattoos enshrining a powerful memory. I came to understand that I had marked my body in this way as an outward and visible sign of a truth that I couldn’t really put into words, but that I carried deep within me.

Between my 40th and 45th birthdays, my inner truths underwent a profound transformation that culminated with the outward sign of divorce. Searching for the right ritual to mark this transition, I knew it was time for another tattoo.

This time I approached the tattoo more consciously as sacrament. This time I also knew immediately and intuitively what the image would be. Another loon, but in the aggressive stance—wings upraised—of a loon that is charging an enemy. I’ve been charged just so by a loon, while inadvertently canoeing too close to her nest. They are powerful creatures—and bigger than you think—especially at close quarters in their threatening “don’t mess with me and my babies” posture. This tattoo is quite large, and is centred between my shoulder blades. I have to twist and crane in the mirror to see it myself, but I am always conscious of it—always sensing that it pushes me forwards and gives me strength.

Someone once remarked that the image reminded them of a phoenix rising—an apt coincidence, since the inner transformation that the image was crafted to represent was very much a rising from the ashes of my failed marriage—an emergence of new life in the wake of grief and loss.

Now into my 50’s, I continue to negotiate a tenuous truce with my unreliable body. Most recently, my left hip joint has betrayed me utterly, and for its troubles been banished from my body once and for all in favour of a slick new titanium and ceramic replacement.

It’s hard not to call the outcome of this surgery a miracle. After taking painkillers day and night for I don’t know how long, within two weeks of being rolled out of the operating theatre I no longer needed any pain medication. None. Is it a miracle that the research has produced a prosthetic hip that works and an effective process for inserting it? Is it a miracle that my surgeon was skilled, or that his team provided me with such a comprehensive preparation?

I went into the surgery knowing exactly what I would need to do to contribute to my healing: I would need to haul out my own resources and apply them to my healing process. Provide my own loaves and fishes. Perhaps it’s enough of a miracle that after all the times my body has said “I quit,” those resources are still there.

Maybe I should get another tattoo.

back

Honestly Daily Prompt, I sometimes feel like you are stalking me. This is not the first time you have posted a prompt just AFTER I have posted something relevant to that prompt. So although this was originally posted on November 23, I am linking it to the December 1 Daily Prompt: “Tattoo…You?”

Falling

Snow is falling.

So far it’s melting right away when it hits the ground. And the car. And my hair. I’m not crazy about this in-between precipitation. The temperature has been hovering just above freezing all day, so everything is wet and oh so slippery.

Slippery is the one thing that can deter me from going out walking. I’m afraid of falling.

And it’s not just because of my newly minted artificial hip, although I can’t imagine taking a serious fall on my recently installed joint would be a great idea. Actually, I’ve always been afraid of falling.

Not heights. I have no issue with heights. I can drive in the mountains. I can look down from tall observation towers. I can walk across a bridge without getting the shakes. But an icy sidewalk… now that’s scary.

In fact any activity that involves even the sensation that I might fall is tough. I didn’t get very far with learning to ice skate. Even sports like broomball and curling where you get to wear boots, but still have to be on an ice surface, have no appeal for me. And you could not possibly pay me enough to convince me to get on a skateboard or a pair of downhill skis.

Once, in my youth, I gave into the pleadings of a good friend and agreed to go on a blind date. It was to be a double-date– my friend and her boyfriend, and me and another friend of theirs. Somehow– and to this day I cannot fathom how I ever agreed to the plan– it was determined that this social outing would take place at the roller rink.

Right.

My experience on roller skates to that point in my life was exactly zero. “No worries,” my friend insisted, “it’s no different from ice skating. You’ll pick it up right away.”

Great. And who exactly was going to pick ME up? I could see where this was going.

And yet I went. Perhaps because I didn’t want to disappoint my friend. Perhaps because I was afraid to admit just how afraid I was of the prospect of strapping wheels to my feet. Perhaps because hey, it was a date.

Dear Reader, I did not “pick it up right away.” The evening went something like this: my friend and her boyfriend skated graceful laps hand in hand, periodically pausing to check in on me and Blind Date boy, who was essentially having to hold me up and drag me slowly around the periphery of the rink. He seemed, to me, to be very pleased to have stumbled into a situation where the young woman he was with had no choice but to cling to him with all her might. I, on the other hand, was mentally counting the minutes until the farce could end and we could all go for coffee and laugh at me for the rest of the evening.

I did not go on another date with that young man. And I did not ever agree to strapping on another pair of roller skates.

And I’m still uber-cautious about stepping out onto an icy sidewalk.

Not so fine

Today’s Daily Prompt states: “Describe the last time you were surprised by the intensity of a feeling you had about something, or were surprised at how strongly you reacted to something you thought wouldn’t be a big deal.”  This one was easy, because I’d already written it.

Excerpted and condensed from a chapter of an unpublished book manuscript.

Source: Besthealth.bmi.com

In October 2012 I arrived at my rheumatology appointment planning to ask for a surgical referral. We had been discussing hip replacement surgery for some years, and I felt the time had come. It had, in fact, been coming for 13 years, since 1999 when a critical illness left me with damage to the cartilage in my left hip joint. The joint had been steadily deteriorating ever since.

At my previous appointment I had expressed frustration at repeatedly being cautioned that 50ish was “young” for hip replacement. But my doctor’s response had been encouraging: “Ultimately, Anna, what matters is what you are experiencing—how much pain you’re in, your loss of mobility, and how it is impacting your ability to live your life.”

So I spent six months soul-searching. I researched the surgery. I talked with a colleague who has undergone a hip replacement about her decision and her recovery journey. I tried to rest and exercise a little more and eat a little better. I (grudgingly) traded in my heels for sensible shoes.  And I made a concerted effort to monitor what aggravated my hip—what it could and couldn’t do. I gave a lot of thought to how it was affecting my ability to live my life.

The routine at my appointment is that an assistant — a doctor in training– sees me first to update my file and do a preliminary examination. I don’t know the assistant all, and he doesn’t know anything about me beyond the technical details in my chart. He doesn’t know my story. He begins to ask the usual questions:

“What medications are you currently taking?”

I recite my laundry list of pharmaceuticals.

“Are you experiencing any problems?”

Here, I think, is my invitation. “Yes, actually. The pain in my hip has been getting significantly worse. The acetaminophen is not managing the pain. My mobility is also getting worse…”

I don’t get very far at all into my carefully rehearsed speech before I realize that he has stopped looking at me. Instead, he is paging carefully through my file. He lands, triumphantly, on an X-ray report from roughly a year ago. “It says here,” he declares in a tone that is clearly intended to be encouraging, “that the hip wasn’t that bad.”

A dark cloud blows over my psyche and I feel myself begin to fold inward. Suddenly, I desperately need him to stop talking. I don’t want to be told my hip looked OK in last year’s X-ray when I have just told him that today it is not OK. The X-ray does not tell him that my hip hurts now. That it wakes me up in the night and makes me walk with an uncomfortable limp. That it has become a barrier to basic daily activities like tying my shoe and trimming my toenails. That it stops me from enjoying things I want to enjoy. But I am suddenly unable to articulate any of these things to him. Instead, I feel a wave of panic rising and can no longer fight back tears. My capacity for rational thought falls away as I sink into the overwhelming despair that no one cares about my lived experience. I fear that I am just going to be told that I will have to put up with the growing deterioration of my hip until I am much, much older or completely unable to function—whichever comes first.

I am too distressed to be able to explain to the assistant why his attempt at reassurance has affected me this way.  In the moment, I don’t even fully understand it myself. All I can do is blurt out, “I just want to talk to my doctor!” I have to repeat this request three or four times, before the assistant finally scurries out of the exam room in search of her. When he arrives back with my doctor in tow, I am still in a state of high agitation and barely able to articulate why.

It takes me 48 hours to process for myself why I fell apart so completely in that moment, and to recognize my reaction as a post-traumatic stress response.

This was not the first time a doctor had glibly told me that I was“fine” when I knew that I was not. And the last time that happened…well actually the last several times that happened…

Are the subject of the rest of my book.