Healing with Possibility

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“The possible’s slow fuse is lit by the imagination.” – Emily Dickinson

Climbing way out on the limb into the realm of speculation and possibly unprovable things, I’m going to assert that that the number one obstacle to healing is a person’s resistance to believing in possibility.

Being an adult (aging?) student in Clinical Herbalism challenges me daily. With a sense of urgency that I observe my younger colleagues may not feel, I live with a feeling of sort of stuffing it all in. With so much to know, and such a deep sense of the scope of the challenge, I can almost literally hear the ticking of the clock. I began my organized studies at 56 years old; I’ll be 59 when I graduate in a year and a half. Thirty-six months  of plant chemistry, botany, human physiology, pathophysiology, energetics and endless information and discussion about herbal therapeutics and nutrition. Every day brings more information than my aging (yes) and borrelia-affected synapses seem to be able to process.

But I do it. I do it because I’m driven to understand the elusive ideas of health and healing. How does health fall apart, causing depletion of the immune system and opening of pathways to chronic disease? Is it possible to heal—truly heal? How do we lose our vitality, and how can we regain it if it’s lost? What is vitality, anyway?

The answers are complex, of course. Just wrapping up a pathophysiology module on inflammation, my text book summary reminded me of upwards of 125 “key terms” I should understand to truly understand inflammation in the human body. Oy. I’ll do my best. Going for key concepts is my personal goal. Terms sometimes float on by without settling in, but I’m trying. To be fair, the program does not require this level of understanding and memorization of me. It’s the unspoken pressure of using an 1,800-page medical school textbook to grapple with a continually emerging and wondrously mysterious body of knowledge. It’s a good resource, but it falsely implies that answers and understanding lie out of the reach of mere mortals.

In a recent practitioner skills class, we were guided through the idea of healing narrative as it relates to hearing a client’s story (history) and, later, describing our assessment in response to their story. We will practice doing that in a way that fully respects and embraces the story we hear the client tell, while also reflecting our ideas as practitioners—in a way, reshaping the story to add possibility. We’ll look beyond the diagnosis they may carry as a heavy burden, and sometimes even as a badge of honor. How and why did the condition start? What has helped it? What makes it worse? In short, what is their belief system around their healing challenge and process? Do they believe they can feel better? Hearing that story fully, in all its rich detail, and putting it together with our knowledge, observations and (yes, even) beliefs is the art we will learn over our remaining time in the program. Circumventing the process of understanding the client’s story cannot begin to honor the truth of that story. Indeed, honoring that truth is step number one in creating a healing partnership.

In my recovery from Lyme disease, I hit the wall of my own beliefs many times. The Lyme “community” told me my healing challenge was nearly impossible, and there are many reasons to buy into this. Bacterial resistance, multiple (and emerging) tickborne coinfections, lack of research to support both long-term antibiotic therapy and so-called alternative therapies, as well as the sheer cost (financial and emotional) of long-term treatment all add up to deep and unrelenting hopelessness. My practitioners, with the exception of a couple of very special people, did not honor my story of my experience. I felt powerless, a victim of one infected tick and a massive and disempowering medical system. Hopelessness pushed me deeper into my illness with each passing day.

For me, cracking a tiny opening in that wall of hopelessness opened a healing path to that I’m still navigating and exploring. Admitting that the “possibility” of healing encompassed many things that I did not (and may never) understand was the initial breakthrough, as was accepting that the “information” would be endless. Not only does science evolve, but it lags behind alternative medicine by at least 15 years. And we’re only beginning to understand spirit; acceptance of its existence may be the best we can do. It follows then that relying on science alone is not enough to affect the life of a person dealing with a chronic and debilitating illness.

Opening my mind to the possibility of healing was pivotal, and I thank a tiny few of the many healthcare practitioners I engaged for helping me to do that. There was a moment when I was able to see myself as well, and that was when I truly began to heal. It was a moment that simultaneously embodied surrender and empowerment: surrender to a process of opening to new ideas, while at the same time knowing that I could sort through it all and direct my very personal healing process. I came to understand that it was my process, not that of the medical system or doctors. It was up to me to find healing. Understanding that moment in time, when possibility becomes hope, fascinates me endlessly.

We’re not taught to believe in possibility. The great and not always wonderful medical system we operate within delivers all-knowing narratives about our healing challenges. We are seldom encouraged to seek our own answers. In fact, my personal experience dealing with massive textbooks bears that out: we think we’re incapable of understanding. Here’s a blog post from Lissa Rankin, MD, a person whose words on healing and empowerment have opened my mind on many occasions. It’s easy to be constrained by a healing construct that in no way even remotely includes the possibility of healing or simply feeling a little better. Perhaps we protect ourselves from disappointment by negative belief systems. That may be okay, but it’s also possible that we close ourselves off from opportunities to embrace new ideas and information that could, just maybe, lead to feeling better.

My school experience is, in fact, opening my mind to possibility. Not “just” the possibility of healing through plant medicine, but the reality that healing is multi-faceted and even magical. It’s opening me to the the idea that I’ll know more tomorrow than I know today, and I’ll discard some ideas that I knew as truths along the way. I am even opening to the possibility that my brain can handle it all, and that I’ll emerge in December 2016 with a pile of new truths and a rich new perspective on all the truths I already know and those that others will offer to me.

And that limb that I’m so far out on? I don’t hear even a whisper of cracking.

“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Healing from Lyme Disease

Roof

I am ready to talk about it, finally. All that I didn’t say, I might dare to say now, about an illness that took over my life and brought my physical, emotional and spiritual health to depths of despair I’d never known before.

Creating Nourishing Words came out of my personal healing process: one that I am only now beginning to fully understand and appreciate. I was infected by a tick carrying Borrelia burgdorferi, aka Lyme disease, in 2007, and I became progressively sicker until I finally received an important piece of the answer in 2010, when I tested positive for Lyme disease. Whether or not I was infected with the many other tickborne pathogens that travel with the Lyme spirochete, I don’t know for sure. I started antibiotics and became sicker. I continued to follow threads of information—anything and everything—that I thought would guide me back to health, and I shared much of that quest on Nourishing Words.

What I didn’t share so much was my personal healing journey.

It’s not uncommon to meet people suffering with this insidious disease who carry a heavy burden of all that they have tried and all that they have tried and seen fail. The journey for many comes with heavy sadness and profound hopelessness, all ironically wrapped in a sometimes frenetic quest for more information. Something that will help. Someone who will help. We create trails of practitioners, piles of supplement and prescription bottles, collections of IV paraphernalia and, most tragically, stories of our defeated spirits, lost jobs and emptied bank accounts.

Many people do not get better, and many of us who do get better do not fully understand what “getting better” really means, and what it will mean in the future.

At the time of my last post on this blog, January 2013, I was on my way to health. Sometime in the previous year, I’d had a moment—a moment crystalized now in my memory—when I understood that the journey was mine, and mine alone. I’d succeeded in surrounding myself with many helpful guides: a gifted naturopath, a Lyme physician, a shamanic practitioner, a nutritionist, a nutritional IV therapist, an intuitive healer, and friends and family members who cared so very much. Yet, I knew I was alone. My task was to piece together thousands of bits of information to understand what was working and what wasn’t. Not an easy process. I understood at the same time that I needed to make deep, deep changes in my life, if true healing was to be mine.

I was getting there, but was not there yet.

In 2013, I sold my house and moved three times. In 2013, I returned to paying work, choosing to work for myself, providing services to small, values-driven businesses and entrepreneurs. In 2013, I found love and the courage to turn away from it when I realized I had chosen a self-destructive path. In 2013, I came to understand what it feels like to be truly grounded in my own power. In 2013, I accepted the challenge of learning carpentry skills and helping a friend build an astoundingly beautiful timber frame home. In 2013, I understood in a different, deeper way, the role that plants were playing in my healing. In 2013, I brought music back into my life, finding my way to a sweet 12-string guitar and to the courage to play it and sing my songs. In 2013, I ratcheted down or eliminated everything in my life that was creating inflammation in my body. In 2013, I began to become stronger—really stronger. I was not dying. I was living.

A friend told me the other day that I could be a poster child for Lyme disease. To have gotten my life back means more to me than I can write here. At the time when I was nearly bedridden, with an IV line in my arm, and not thinking clearly on most days, I might have imagined that in August 2014 I’d be in a nursing home. At 56 years old, and well on the other side of my illness, I am far from that reality, and still coming to an understanding of what made a difference. From where did my healing come, and for how long will it be mine? It’s still scary.

If you’ve read this far in hopes that I’d share a magic protocol, you’ll be disappointed. I won’t. The nature of the illness is that my healing was unique to me, and yours will be to you. I can share a few things that changed the course of my healing journey.

In May, 2013, when my friend Jill invited me to help her build a house in the woods, I assumed I’d be helping by cooking lunch, running errands and taking pictures. Just clearing a trail to a place that seemed miles from the road (it wasn’t) to the place where we’d set up a tent and shelter for our work exhausted me. She put a hammer in my hand and taught me how to build the main beam of the house from two by twelve boards that I could not carry alone. We pounded huge nails through layer upon layer of wood, sandwiching those heavy boards together to create a 36-foot beam that would ultimately be lifted, slung from a backhoe, onto the foundation and be stronger than a single beam would have been. I complained that the nails needed lubrication—perhaps beeswax would work. I got stronger.

Within a few weeks, magic had happened. My focus had completely shifted from my illness to health. Not simply to healing, and all that I could do to achieve healing, but simply a pure desire to be healthy. It was like I was finally ready to put down the Lyme disease burden and see myself as healthy, once and for all. I tossed Lyme disease and its attendant baggage away and chose health.

Health followed. Today, I live in that house, in the shelter of its golden pine beams and boards, and the building continues. Today, I can carry the same two by twelves alone and pound nails with confidence. I look at the beautiful pine posts and beams in the house, knowing that my body—my strong muscles—helped carry some of them, move them into place and pound oak pegs to hold them together. I’ve learned to run power tools, make straight cuts with a skilsaw and install windows. I am still learning, but I see myself as a carpenter now, and more. A woman who can do things.

I understand how difficult it is to be very, very sick and hear that your focus needs to shift, that you need to believe that health can be yours. It’s even harder to consider that that very illness may somehow be serving you. I certainly couldn’t wrap my mind around those ideas a few years ago. I believe that, in spite of the heavy burden of defeat that I carried with me, I did invite healing into my life, and that happened in tiny ways that were neither immediately successful or gratifying. During a particularly profound meditation in Peru, I saw myself taking strength from community in new and healing ways, and giving back. Back at home, I began to imagine a new work life for myself: one that would allow me to listen to my heart and work in a way that would align paying work with personal values. I began to imagine joints that could withstand long walks and hikes and muscles that could do real work. I understand now that those subtle shifts in thinking created real shifts in my energy flow, attention and all that I began to nurture in my life. My life changed.

In January 2014, I began a three-year program in clinical herbalism, traveling to school in Montpelier, Vermont: 153 miles from my home in Alton, New Hampshire. This work resonates profoundly with my spirit and has as much to do with answering a calling to understand and share the healing power of plants as it does to further my own healing. With this work come new challenges to my health, to managing stress in a way that doesn’t shift the delicate homeostasis of that health, meeting the challenge of getting up at 4:15 a.m., as well as the new challenges that such deep learning entails. I love it. I live for it.

Ultimately, my healing came down to that series of small and big choices, and I believe the most profound one of all was in that moment when I tossed my illness aside and chose life. Many steps led me to that point, and I know it had to be in that moment—not a week, a month or years sooner. I was ready to be well. My illness no longer served me in any way.

A teacher at an herbal conference I attended this past weekend talked about all the bacteria we live with, keep peace with and share space with, and suggested that accepting that Borrelia burgdorferi is simply another organism with which we must find balance. Of course, she’s right. It’s not a new bacteria, and Lyme disease is just one of many, many illnesses that tell us we’ve let our immune systems down. It got me because I was ripe to become ill.

Maintaining my health now has to do with the most basic work—work that I’d have been smart to pay attention to many years ago, of course. Eating whole organic foods, exercising, spending time outside, meditating, praying, making music, creating beautiful things, sleeping, learning, loving and being loved are all pieces of my health mosaic now. Maintaining balance is dynamic work, and work that requires vigilance.

The Lyme bacteria is a piece of that picture, too. I live with it. It lives with me. I realize now what a gift it was to be bitten by that tick in 2007. Really. I mean that. A spiritual guide—a healer I worked with for one weekend when I was very sick—called it “tick medicine.” I understand now what he meant.

That’s my story. For now.

The Cutting Edge

Grammie, baking a cake.

I’ve been going through drawers and cabinets of kitchen stuff, realizing all that I have that I seldom use, and thinking about what’s really important. Going through stuff challenges the emotions and, at the same time, feels good like nothing else does. So far, I’ve made two trips to the Goodwill store. By the looks of the steady stream of box-toting people emptying their excess stuff into those bins before and after me, I’m not alone in my urge to lighten up.

Discerning need from want is not easy in this material world of ever more specialized gadgets, tools and stuff. Just like the satisfaction of searching for and finding the finest ingredients for cooking, the seductive allure of the “perfect” knife, grater, garlic crusher or egg slicer is powerful. That the “work” of cooking might be made easier or more efficient is, by some strange chemistry, motivation enough to keep right on building what I now recognize as a heap of dusty stuff. Way more stuff than I need, by any stretch of the word’s definition.

We’ve come a long way. I remember a day, now decades ago, when the work of the kitchen was done at the kitchen table. Kitchens were simple: a stove, sink, refrigerator and a table. No long counters or work islands in sight. I remember my mother peeling and cutting potatoes while seated at the kitchen table. She transformed that pile of potatoes with one and only one tool: a small paring knife.

I’m pretty sure that the urge to cut anything and everything with a paring knife must be in my DNA. Standing over a pot of simmering soup, I’ll slice vegetables right into the pot with that little knife. So deeply engrained is that motion—a sort of easy squeezing of thumb into curled fingers, knife moving as an extension of the thumb—that it’s nearly mindless in its simplicity. If I need more control, I’ll reach for the cutting board and my long chef’s knife. I have a tiny manual knife sharpener that keeps each knife ready for service. It seems that the longer I cook, the simpler my equipment needs become.

I have nine knives: all of them handily poised for service on a magnetic knife hanger within an arm’s reach at all times. And one almost razor sharp cleaver, that made its way to me (as a gift) all the way from China, sits in its protective box, too far out of sight to prompt me to use it. When I do, I am in awe of its power. I’m pretty sure I could do serious damage with that cleaver if serious damage needed to be done; it’s that sharp and that heavy. Every knife has its purpose, and I like to think I’m skilled at using each one of them. But I don’t use them—at least not often enough.

And that’s just the knives.

Going through the cabinet of baking dishes and casseroles, peering deep into corners that hadn’t seen light for fifteen years, I saw before me a sort of timeline of my cooking adventures and ghosts of kitchens past. The hand-me-downs I started out with in my first apartment; more hand-me-downs when parents died or downsized and moved on to new horizons. The odd baking pan or casserole discovered on shopping trips, not previously known but then—suddenly—needed. Bundt pans, springform pans, fluted molds and blackened cookie sheets that have seen generations of gingerbread men come to life.

Maybe it’s my recent immersion into family history, followed by an inevitable and growing fascination with all things eighteenth century, but I’ve come to feel the weight of all this stuff as unnecessary distraction. Good cooking can’t possibly be about having the right pan, the right knife and every perfect gadget for every specific task. Good cooking, I believe, has a lot more to do with knowing what to do with food and how to turn simple, fresh ingredients into a nourishing meal than it has to do with stuff. Butter and love, as the words on the trivet in my mother’s kitchen taught me. That’s what good cooking is.

So, I’m considering each item in my kitchen with new questions. Do I love it? Does it mean something to me or connect me to a person or a memory that I want to hold close? Has it proven itself useful, versatile and trustworthy? Does it do the job every time? Do I reach for it time and time again, knowing it’s exactly what I need? Could I use it in the dark? Does it feel good to hold? Was it a special gift?

Notice that I’m not evaluating each item’s technological pedigree, quality components, celebrity endorsements or retail price.

That’s my grandmother in the photo above, baking a cake. It was April 18, 1943, my grandfather’s 59th birthday. That egg beater whirligig gadget she’s using was not quite the cutting edge gadget of the day: electric mixers had been invented decades before, but wouldn’t come into broad use for a few more years. (Show me a modern cook who would attempt to bake a cake from scratch with a manual egg beater.) I don’t remember my grandmother’s cakes, but I’m guessing they were quite fine, with or without cutting edge technology in her kitchen.

What’s important to you in your kitchen these days, and how do you decide?

A Super Superfood Breakfast

Superfood Breakfast Ingredients

When is good good enough? When it comes to nourishing our bodies, it makes sense to eat high-quality food—the best. Nutritionists agree that skimping on breakfast is a bad thing. When we rush out the door without breakfast, by mid-morning, we’re hungry, cranky, light-headed or worse. Developing a reliable breakfast routine is one of the basic building blocks of a healthy day. Continue reading

Marking November Milestones

Barred Island Preserve, Deer Isle

“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”  ~ May Sarton

November is a weighty month for me, heavy with memories and dates of significance. It’s also a dark month. As the days creep toward solstice, becoming ever colder and grayer, the inevitability of winter is evident. November can be tough.

That didn’t stop me from Continue reading

Pullin’ It Out of the Hole Cookin’

Making Vegetable Stock

Despite the number of cookbooks on my shelf, I believe I was born with a predisposition to winging it in the kitchen. And, as long-time readers are probably aware, I’m content that way. I happily toss together all manner of stews, soups, frittatas, stir fries and salads, even venturing now and then into the world of improv baking. The results may not win me blue ribbons, but they’re always perfectly edible, even fit to be shared.

Simmering away in my kitchen right now is Continue reading

Unearthing Stories of the Past

Boat in Fog at Stonington Harbor

There is properly no history, only biography.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I joke about unearthing my ancestors; really, it’s their stories I’m after. Sifting through the scant evidence of existence left behind by my grandparents, great, great and even greater, has become a passion, if not a full-blown obsession. Dusting off the simplest details of their lives has ignited the flames of my imagination like nothing ever has—ever. With all my heart, I want to know them and to bring them to life. Continue reading

The Illusion of Control

Heuchera

The garden is generous with metaphors for living. Bone tired, stooped beyond straightening, encrusted in dirt and decorated with prickly seeds, I’ve harvested more truths in the garden than I could ever have known were ripe for the picking.

Each truth, in its time, and stunningly clear. When I was depressed, my garden urged me to wonder about what next spring would bring, gently coaxing me on, convincing me the seasons ahead would bring good things. When I was bored, it filled me with wonder. When I thought I had nothing to give, I saw all the plants that needed dividing and, therefore, sharing. The spirits of the garden are generous, indeed. Continue reading

Lessons from Peru: We First

Granary at Ollantatambo, Peru

Just as I hoped, with ankle pain slowly subsiding and memories of wheelchairs fading into the mist, I’m beginning to understand a few of the many lessons learned on my recent trip to Peru.

Peru lives up to its lore. The high peaks of the Andes, rising to the clear blue sky, capped with snow and ice, surround the mountain traveler with whisperings of ancient spirits. Indeed, the mountain people listen to these whisperings, looking to the apus for wisdom and guidance.

Life is not easy above 8 or 10,000 feet. Continue reading

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