Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Snake Oil

A few years ago, after a day of cross continental air travel, I had a spasm in my lower back. Being relatively healthy, active, and in my early thirties, I was shocked that this happened to me. The pain was excruciating and humbling.

I still have tension in my lower back on a fairly regular basis. I have come to believe that it is partly my own coddling of my body, fearful of reliving the experience. I've been reading too, lately, about the belly, which happens to be just opposite the lower back. The belly, the gut, is where we metaphorically hold our emotions. The abdomen is the core of the body, a source of strength and stability, but also a place where we need to foster flexibility for the betterment of our bodies and our minds. (Click here for an interesting read on this topic.)

Yoga and exercise help immensely, but I am not always diligent about one or both of these. In fact, some of the sports I participate in are not overly good for the health of my lower back
(like biking). During these times and any other time I can manage it, I find that a treasured remedy for the tension is a therapeutic massage.

A few months ago, I scheduled a massage to try and work out some tension caused by stress in my life. Very shortly into the massage, my back was worse, not better. Lying face down, my muscles began to seize up and Emily told me that every time she pushed on my muscles, the muscles pushed right back. "This isn't working," she said, "can we try something different?"

I laid face-up and Emily slid one hand under my back. The other hand she placed on top of my stomach. Afterwards, I tried to describe the sensation. I knew she wasn't moving her hands but I felt ripples of movement in the space between my stomach and back. It was as if there was a physical connection between her two hands--through my body. She made her way up my spine in this way until lastly she held my head in her hands. Halfway through this process, I could feel myself on the verge of tears. Have you ever thought about the fact that you are constantly holding your head up? The act of having someone else hold my head in their hands
so that I could simply rest was an overwhelming sense of relief, and, I guess, of release. Minutes later, I was sobbing uncontrollably. I got out of the office, into the car to drive home, but had to pull over because I could not see through my tears. I didn't know why I was crying. I pulled into the driveway, Jon came out the door to meet me and I started crying again. I couldn't speak to tell him that I was really okay, although in a way I wasn't. I know it totally freaked him out until I was able to tell him what happened.

So it was with casual aplomb that when yesterday, during a massage, Emily asked if she could do some cranio-sacral therapy on me and I replied, "Sure, do you want me to take my hair down?" Up to that point, I didn't have a name for it, but as soon as she slid her right hand under my back, I knew instantly where this was going and I became kind of scared. Would I totally freak out again? As it turns out, I didn't leave the office crying or even sad, just relaxed and free of discomfort. We talked about it later and she said, "I don't know how it works exactly, but I will tell you what I do know."

I did some research on my own and one of the top five Google returns was from a respected website run by former psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Barrett called Quackwatch. The website basically debunks cranio-sacral therapy as 'fanciful claims'. Dr. Barrett also seems to debunk the entire field of alternative medicine.

Perhaps the issue is that alternative medicine practitioners need to stop trying to measure their methodology in quantifiable terms. Do we really have to know how it works in order to believe that it does? For me, it was simply another undeniable example of the connection between the body and the mind. I still marvel at the way our emotions can elicit such physical responses in our bodies and vice versa. We smile when we are happy, our bodies bristle at an unkind word, and we feel loved by a hug. That a simple touch to the body is an elixir for a store of pent-up emotion should be no surprise, then, but it was both unexpected and marvelous. And now I know that when my back hurts, I need to listen to my heart.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Eat your heart out, Colorado

Camellias bloom in January
We got our first snow of the year this morning. It was supposed to be a "wintry mix" of sleet and freezing rain, but instead we got about an inch of snow. It won't last long because our ground is so warm from our recent 70+ degree days, so I took some photos while it is still hanging around.

Dusty red wagon

View of the yard

Snow-covered blue grotto bottle

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

This Moment

Not much writing here lately.

Mid-winter is a lullish period in North Carolina. [Sidenote: my friend Tricia from South Florida wrote me yesterday to say she is currently having the best tomato crop ever. She and her daughter (husband doesn't like tomatoes! can you imagine?) have to eat a minimum of four tomatoes a day to keep them from rotting.] We aren't quite as temperate as zone 10, but here in zone 7b, early winter could be considered late fall and during late winter here, spring is close enough that you can really start planning your garden.

Normally at this time of year, I would be obsessing over hordes of plant and seed catalogs, pen and paper in one hand and catalog in the other. Last year's winter activities included measuring the potato bed and graphing out the space in order to determine how many seed potatoes to order from Wood Prairie Farm. Having only grown potatoes once in Florida and with an unmemorable degree of success, I called Wood Prairie Farm to ask what I should grow in my area. The owner of the farm got on the phone and gave me a 15 minute explanation of early and late varieties, why I would want one over the other, what varieties would be best for our growing season and climate, how to plant, how to harvest, and how to store my harvest. I doubt I will ever have reason to buy my seed potatoes from anywhere else.

But I digress. We are not doing any homesteading and we are certainly not harvesting, aside from the occasional yield of a haiku from the mind. I feel like a bit of a fraud, but mostly I am frustrated that our plans to move to Boise have been stalled by forces that are totally out of our (okay, my) control. We have decided that we will put our house on the market, but in order to do so, the leaking underground oil storage tank so graciously left by the previous owner must be mitigated.

The state of North Carolina is in our corner and they are pursuing his action on our behalf, but it is a slow process. Several environmental consulting firms have been out to the house to assess the site, including the recent college graduate who showed up at my back door at 7:30 pm in the dark and the rain and scared the beejezus out of me. Presumably, the previous owner is seeking bids for the work, but my concern is that he will continue this process in an effort to draw out the conclusion or worse, that he will try to fight us in court (he will lose as the statutes clearly state his responsibility, but this will be another unwanted delay). Yesterday, Jon told me that we got a letter from an attorney and my heart leapt into my throat. Turns out it was from my dad. Scared the beejezus out of me!

See, The Great Plan is that once we get to Boise and Jon finishes nursing school, we will be in a position to either move to or spend a significant amount of time at the ranch in Montana. And that is where the real homesteading will happen.

What I am being continually reminded of in this process is that you cannot map your life's path just because you sit down with a pad of paper and a pen. No matter your intentions, the universe will curve the road that stretches towards your destination, and the lessons for me are 1) learning to adapt and 2) learning to live in the moment. Two things that require alot of practice on my part.

I have been noticing that all of this anxiety over the future is manifesting itself in my muscles and my brain. I mentioned recently that I have started yoga again and this is helping immensely. I look forward to my Monday night yoga class like a kid or my friend Shena looks forward to a birthday.

I also checked out a book on mindfulness and meditation from the library. I haven't started to practice much, but just reading the book helps me to pay more attention and to recognize the interconnectedness between myself and sources of my stress. I'm not losing sight of the goal, but I must stop agonizing over how to get there.

As Baba Ram Dass said, "be here, be now." I'm trying Ram, I'm trying.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Hail Harpo

Throughout the course of my adult life, I have found that my eyes leak. When I see something beautiful or read a touching story, my eyes try to fill with water. I would not go so far as to say that I cry easily, because crying is a much bigger response. It's just that my body reacts to things that move my heart, such as the recent passing of a friend's dog or an article I read today in Newsweek magazine about Oprah's Opus: a school for underprivileged black girls in South Africa (is "underprivileged black girls in South Africa" an oxymoron?).

Over the past five years, Oprah has spent $40 million dollars building the school in a country where education is a paid-privilege, not a right. Critics, including the South African government, have cited it's extravagance as being "too elitist and lavish for such a poor country." The 152 students will have beautiful bedlinens, a beauty salon, theaters, fancy place settings at meals, designer furniture, and hand-picked uniforms. It seems that alot of folks in South Africa felt that Oprah's money was better spent on educating more students than on outfitting a fewer number with fancy furnishings.

I can see that argument, because it is the same exact one I have when I watch Extreme Home Makeover. I understand wanting to do something really lavish for someone because they are underprivileged, but couldn't Habitat for Humanity build 20 houses with the money Extreme Makeover sponsors spent or donated to build a single one? Did that family of eight really need a Hummer or could they have gotten by with a minivan? Did the little girl who liked sports really need a mock sportscaster studio in her bedroom? From where I sit, this all seems so excessive, but then where I sit is pretty comfortable.

I feel differently about Oprah's school. Somehow, indulging these little girls seems more like an investment to me. Indeed, the money could have been used to build many more schools of lesser stature, or maybe she could have foregone a couple of fireplaces to squeeze in one more student. However, the idea is that these girls are going to leave the school with the skills necessary to lead their countrymen and women out of poverty. Rather than giving them a tangible gift, she is simply letting them use the space. This space will provide nourishment, warmth, safety, and a supportive environment to foster their creativity and education.

Gayle King--Oprah's best friend--muses about the way that Oprah fancies herself a sort of mother to her prospective students. She calls them "my girls," and Oprah has plans to build a retirement home on the property so that she can be a comfortable presence. This is the part that made my eyes water:

"Recently, when Oprah had finished interviewing for the day, she escorted the girls back to their bus and gave each of them a big hug. One girl, Thelasa Msumbi, held on extra tight, then whispered in Oprah's ear: 'We are your daughters now.' "

Haiku # 1 for 2007

Crisp mornings are dark
when I stumble out of bed.
Sky glows, sun rises.