After a long weekend at home, I’ve returned to the cabin up north for the second half of my stay/exile/retreat/quarantine. It was good to be back in St. Paul. I voted (have you?), saw family and friends, did laundry, and readied the gardens for winter.
I arrived at the cabin yesterday, just ahead of an on-again, off-again rain. Everything inside the cabin was as I’d left it. But outside, things had changed. The loons have been replaced, it seems, by a flock of geese, honking as they fly low across the water. The ash outside my window, whose leaves were yellow when I left, is stripped bare. The Paul Bunyan Trail is paved with pine needles, acorns, and splashes of aspen, maple, and oak leaves.
Even the lake seems different. The reed bed where I caught bass last week has dulled and begun to die. The surface of the water is restless. And the sky is bruised and heavy.
We live in dark, apocalyptic times. We know how much things have changed.
Before Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s family could absorb her death, there were those who were eager to announce her replacement—as if that were even possible.
For those of us who felt gut-punched by the outcome of the 2016 election, we recognize that same feeling inside, bracing ourselves for the awful possibility that we might be hit again.
More than six months have passed since America was caught up in a pandemic and still there is no mandate or collective will that would tame the virus.
Some days it’s all too much. We can’t stop talking about the chaos around us but then are spent by our own words.
I read about the Desert Mothers and Desert Fathers this morning in Richard Rohr’s daily meditation [https://cac.org/freedom-in-the-desert-2020-09-29/]. This group of ascetics arose when Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire. Thomas Merton describes their movement:
“Society—which meant pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of life in this world—was regarded by [these desert people] as a shipwreck from which each single individual had to swim for their life . . . These were people who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.”
Only outside the mainstream did desert people search for wholeness. They called this process of moving toward inner freedom detachment.
I’m not an ascetic (though I’m getting by on only three pair of shoes), but I’m grateful to be here again, detaching. I recognize my need to abandon, even for a little while, the shipwreck our country feels like, before I myself am ruined.
My vote is cast, the interlude is over; let the second act begin.
This week I headed north for a month, and I have Covid to thank. My daughter and her family are living in my house while they finish renovating theirs. With the grandkids back to school and day care, my daughter and I agreed it was best if we weren’t under the same roof.
I imagined my time away variously—exile, vacation, retreat, adventure. In any of those scenarios, I had plans. Plans to start another writing project. Plans to catch fish. Plans to read a lot and bike on the Paul Bunyan Trail. Plans to try my hand at water color, thanks to a friend who supplied me with all the materials and a link to an online class. Plans to cook all my meals. No wonder my car was full.
Finally, I turned off the highway, 3 miles to go. As we used to do for our retriever Indie, I opened the windows and breathed in the pine-scented air. He knew when we were close. The old excitement was there, along with the anticipation for all that this place holds.
This is the lake Chris and I vacation on for some 20 years. We discovered it one summer while at Gull Lake. Lake Hubert was more our size, and fishing was good. It became our lake, and cabin 3 our cabin.
When I called to see if I could come for a month, the resort owner told me he’d just sold the place as individual cabins. He referred me to the resort owner next door, who had a cabin I could rent for as long as I needed.
And so here I am, with a slightly off-centered view of the lake from the table where I write this. Still, a view I never tire of. In a different cabin, but no less cozy. A cold front has sent the fish deep, made them lethargic, so no fishing for awhile. The stack of books and magazines remains a stack. I don’t quite know where to start.
Old routines become, eventually, old. At first I tried to transition as if I were here for one precious week. I wanted every minute to count. But my mind resisted. I slept long and hard, then napped. I stared out the window. I let the memories of past trips surface, feeling both tender and melancholy. Finally, I gave in to the pull of this place. I would need to learn how to fall in love with Lake Hubert all over again.
It’s been 7 years since I’ve been here, and that was to scatter Chris’s ashes. It’s been 10 years since Chris and I made our last trip here together. One evening we sat at the end of the dock with our gin and tonics and he predicted he would live to age 70. I believed him.
This year he would have turned 70. So when I go to the lake, he will be there. He’ll be in the gleam of a boat caught in last light against the far shore. He’ll be in the panoramic eye of the eagle as it drafts overhead. He’ll be in the call of the loons. He’ll be in the water, where his ashes have added layer to the earth.
This lake is our wild and sacred place, reminding me of the importance of loving where we are and who we’re with.
Waiting. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing since March? Waiting for Covid to go away. Waiting to rebook flights and take vacations we’ve had to postpone. Waiting for a vaccine. Waiting for a functioning adult to lead us.
Some days it feels like waiting for Godot.
A friend in California whose husband died recently recommended a book: The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us about Living Fully, by Frank Ostaseski, cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project.
Perfect, I thought, as I kept walking by the book on the table. It will speak to the loss of a beloved, something she and I now share. Finally, with the library due date looming, I picked up the book and opened it. It’s organized into 5 sections, which correspond to the 5 invitations. They urge us to a meaningful life, especially in light of the fact that we will all die someday. Together, they are a kind of carpe diem reminder.
The first invitation is simple: don’t wait.
“Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road,” Ostaseski writes. “Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most.”
Covid has brought us closer to death on a grand scale than we thought possible. Most of us know the number of daily deaths by state and country. Yet death by other causes has been undeterred by the pandemic. Friends have lost parents and children and spouses. Deaths at the hands of police continue. The number of homicides is rising.
I admit, the waiting I’ve been practicing has almost dulled me. I tell myself I just need to be patient. I need to keep busy with projects necessary and invented. I’ve tried to put a positive spin on this waiting thing, when really, Covid is an invitation not to wait.
It’s reminded me what matters most. Family, of course, and friends. Zoom calls with them and small gatherings on my patio. But also the pressing issues of the day—racial justice, immigration reform, equal opportunity. Covid has reminded me to live.
A few days before John Lewis died, he wrote in a beautiful essay, “I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.”
Don’t wait, he was saying—fully aware that Covid has us in a chokehold—to redeem the soul of America. Don’t let death come before you make a difference.
“Walk with the wind, brothers and sisters,” Lewis went on. “Let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
We think we need to be patient and wait. But once again, death proves the wiser teacher. George Floyd’s brutal, unnecessary death is a call not to put off the change that needs to happen. His death invites us to do what matters most.
Last summer, during an equally hot stretch, I visited my son and daughter-in-law in Philadelphia. Because of triple-digit temperatures, we had to modify our plans. A hike became a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Another hike became a day at the Jersey shore. On the third day, we were determined to hike, as I was in training for my upcoming trip to the Canadian Rockies.
During our drive to Hawk Mountain a few hours north of the city, Andrew talked about the professional development session on race he was getting ready to lead with the teachers he coaches. Most of the teachers are white; virtually all of their students are kids of color.
He planned to start by asking them to write their racial autobiography, a reflection on personal experiences, memories, and learnings about race. “If I’m going to ask teachers to write theirs, I realized I needed to write my own,” he said.
Intrigued by the idea, I asked him to send me the template he was using. That fall and into winter and the pandemic, I began working on my racial autobiography.
Then George Floyd was murdered.
Suddenly race and racism competed with Covid-19 as the hot topic. In editorials and essays, letters and stories, there was a collective call for white people to look at our attitudes and name the privilege we’ve not just enjoyed but taken for granted, beginning with the color of our skin.
I urge you to write your own racial autobiography. A few things I’ve learned along the way may help:
• Keep it personal. You’re writing this not for an audience or publication. You’re writing it to document your life experiences that have shaped your attitudes about race.
• Take your time. There is no deadline or end point to writing your racial autobiography. In fact, it’s a fluid document that will evolve as your understanding does. The idea is not to get it done as much as it is to get it right, as in accurate. I recently reread a section in my racial autobiography about my childhood and realized I’d left out a significant memory. In the summer after church, my family would drive down to Maxwell Street on the south side of Chicago. On weekends the street became a kind of flea market, and we were often the only white people, the vendors predominantly Black people. We could have just as easily gone to the lakefront or a park. If only my parents were around to ask them why they chose Maxwell Street.
• Be honest. Writing your racial autobiography isn’t an exercise to fill up time—something Covid has given us plenty of. It’s an opportunity to reflect deeply, perhaps for the first time, on how racism plays out in our daily lives. My mother gave me a Black baby doll when I was five years old. I loved that doll more than my favorite stuffed animals. The doll slept in the crook of my arm every night. Looking back, I realized that my love for her was shadowed by sympathy because she was different. Even then, I sensed that difference meant disadvantage, laying the groundwork for whiteness being the norm, the standard for how I saw the world.
• Share what you discover. I know I said a racial autobiography is a personal exploration. But if you feel safe with a person or group, tell them what you learned along the way, the questions that you’re wrestling with. The conversations that follow can only help build our capacity for greater understanding—and less racism.
Four months into the pandemic, house projects are mostly done. Netflix will always be there. We’ve made enough cookies and breads to tip the scale. Gardens have no weeds, or are only weeds. No matter. What better time than now for white people—all of us—to reflect on how we came to this moment in our nation’s history, to see ourselves in racial terms (our whiteness, in other words), and to reckon with our past.
As Robin Diangelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, writes, we need to “practice building our stamina for the critical examination of white identity.”
Stamina, like training for a hiking trip, is not just helpful but necessary, because the path ahead is long and steep.
Sometimes there are no words, and there shouldn’t be.
George Floyd is trying to tell us something. His first message was clear, urgent: he couldn’t breathe because of the pressure Derek Chauvin applied to his neck for more than eight minutes before Mr. Floyd died of asphyxiation.
But as I sit with the events of the past week, feeling a deep gnawing because we still seem so far from equality and justice, I’m hearing another message, equally urgent. Know what it’s like to be breathless. Stop talking and listen.
Sarah Bellamy, artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre, said following Mr. Floyd’s murder:
“As a black institution that has carried the water of racial equity work in Minnesota for decades, . . . we must be permitted the space to grieve right now. . . . Give us a moment while we practice deep self-love. Give us a moment while we gather our strength. ”
Listen while we mourn.
“For white folks who want to help the black community right now, if you have the energy to act: step into the space and put your comfort at risk. Stand with us. Stand next to us. Be kinder. Be even more compassionate. Listen better. Dig deeper. Move past fear. Don’t wait for us to tell you what to do but be ready to listen when we offer constructive criticism or advice. We can’t do this alone and we need everyone, everyone, in this fight.”
George Floyd’s is one voice among many that has been trying to tell us for a very long time, We can’t breathe.
Today I visited the site where Mr. Floyd died. At the scene of the crime that has rocked the world and broken too many hearts, a boy no more than 7 offered me water. Free.
Some years ago I hung a nest box from a branch of the towering pine tree in my backyard. I thought that if I hung it, the wrens would come. They have the largest range of any songbird in our hemisphere. Their numbers remain steady. Still, no wrens. Maybe they missed the listing on Zillow or the price was too high (a tabby cat roams the yard)? Was the neighborhood not suitable?
The small cedar box hung there, drilled only by woodpeckers late in the season who were imagining a winter home.
Then, a few years back, the wrens showed up. First was the male, who I’m calling Fifty Cent because he weighs two quarters but has a priceless song. It’s been called effervescent, rush-and-jumble, loud and insistent—a voice that fills the air with rapid-fire variations, a voice so much bigger than the half-ounce body it comes from.
House wrens aren’t particular. They build nests in any available space—cans, boots, boxes, even the leg of a pair of jeans hanging on a clothes line. Wrens don’t win awards for Best of Nest. Even my cedar box can’t contain the sticks jammed in kittywampus.
Wrens may have inspired Tinder. Males build up to five nests in the hopes of attracting a female to mate. Mid-century modern, colonial, arts & crafts? Talk about options! Yet afterwards, the pair moves on to find their next one-brood stand.
This is how I occupy my stay-at-home days. I observe and read about wrens from my patio. It’s that or be tsunamied by news related to the pandemic. (I had intended to write this post without a single reference to the virus but it’s as aggressive and unpredictable as they say.) Even when a few friends or neighbors come over for an appropriately distanced, bring-your-own-bottle-and-glass happy hour, our conversation veers to the virus.
I read with interest all the ways the pandemic is already bringing about positive changes. Grassroots efforts help neighbors who can’t get out for food or prescriptions. People who have been homeless are sleeping in hotel rooms, enjoying their own bed and a roof for the first time in months. The general sentiment “we’re all in this together” has become the pandemic’s tagline.
But behaviors, especially our own, are hard to change. An article in The Washington Post put it bluntly: “If history is any guide, not much will change in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic.” One of the examples cited was the 1918 influenza, which caused 675,000 deaths. After all that devastation, Americans frowned on public spitting and outlawed the common drinking cup, but couldn’t agree on how to remake our health care system so everyone was insured.
Beyond an inexplicable need to stockpile toilet paper (ask yourself, at the proper moment, does two-ply really make me feel more secure?), will we really drive less or take fewer trips? It’s a sad statement that one of the first acts post-pandemic for some will be to go out and get drunk in public.
When the sky is falling, we panic. We repent. We promise to be better human beings, better neighbors, better believers. We imagine a world where capitalism isn’t king, where, as my former boss said, “we all do better when we all do better.”
Maybe if the sky fell more often, that just might happen. We will likely see a “new normal,” but I’m not betting my stimulus check on a new world order. We remain creatures of habit, more like house wrens than we ever thought.
I sat down recently with friend and mentor Ruth Halvorson to celebrate the publication of her new book, When the Heart Is Stirred: The Transforming Power of Silence. It tells the history of the ARC Retreat Community that she envisioned. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
L: Why a retreat center?
R: I had an experience in 1972 that stirred my heart to do something like this. My husband and I and family moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where he was starting a department of peace and justice at the ecumenical center on behalf of Lutheran World Federation. Days after our arrival we were invited to a welcome lunch. There I met two women who invited me to a retreat. I thanked them but said no, I had too many things on the home front to do to get settled and get our 5 children enrolled in school. But they had powerful persuasive abilities and, surprising myself, I went.
It was a 3-day silent retreat at the Sisters of Grandchamp, the sister community to the Brothers of Taize. I had never been on a retreat. The whole setting, steeped in the understanding of silence, was transforming. It felt real and good but I didn’t know what it meant. The inspiration for ARC began in the womb of that silence.
L: Your title intrigues me. I just finished a memoir that’s also about silence, but a very different kind. For me, it was feeling silenced as a person. Explain how you understand silence in the context of your book and ARC.
R: My childhood prepared me to receive this notion of silence as transformative. I was the youngest of 7 children. The sibling next to me died when I was not quite 4. There was a break of almost 7 years between me and my next sibling, a sister. So my siblings were gone, in high school or college, by the time I went to school. I spent a lot of time alone. I attended a 1-room country school and we lived on a farm. In clement weather I walked home, all alone, 3 miles. It was those long walks on the prairie that prepared me to receive the solitude 45 years later.
L: Does silence have to do with listening?
R: It has a lot to do with listening. Silence opens you to that possibility. You’re freed from extraneous noise and preoccupation.
L: My memoir is about a woman who has struggled to claim her voice and to believe that what she has to say matters and has value. Her doubts and insecurities undermine her again and again. Your gentle, soft-spoken way suggests you are a woman who is timid, unsure of herself. We both know that’s not true. One of the things I so admire about you, Ruth, is your inner strength and courage. Have you always felt the power and the freedom to speak what is in your heart?
R: I don’t think I’ve always had that courage. When I was a girl I did have some dimension of myself that reacted to things that I didn’t think were right or just. I felt that I was born with a feminist gene, and I would see certain relationships that didn’t seem to be fair or just or kind or good. I would comment to my mother about them and the need to change. Her response was, “Let’s not cause any trouble now.” That always stayed with me.
I was a timid little girl. I didn’t speak up in groups. But I’ve gotten more confident in what I believe and in my own truth. Silence helped me discover the God within. I used to think that God was up there, out there, over there. Then I realized that I am the temple of God, and that I was created good and for good. It’s taken a long time to believe in my own truth.
L: Our husbands both died 10 years ago. Since then, we’ve talked a lot about being alone. Has widowhood changed your understanding of silence, or added another dimension to it?
R: I don’t know that it’s changed my understanding, because silence is still a resource and a place I go to. But preparation for widowhood was aided tremendously by the hospice people who cared for Loren over 5-1/2 months in our home. Speaking of death and dying so directly opened it up to me in a new way. It ceased to be such an enemy as it once had been. That was a real preparation for me, as opposed to people who lose their spouse suddenly, as you did. Loren and I had a chance to talk about what we wanted and needed to talk about. After he died, I decided that I wanted to live more with gratitude than with lament. That helps to change the day.
L: On the surface, silence and our need as humans to belong and feel loved seem to have little to do with each other. But my experience has taught me that there is a strong correlation between silence and our need to be loved. The silence I’ve known has come in many forms. There’s the silence of sin that reinforced my unworthiness. There’s the silence of being a good girl, rule bound, who found it necessary to seek the approval of others in order to validate herself. There’s the silence that sometimes comes with relationships, when we avoid the truth or dismiss our feelings so as to avoid conflict. And then there’s the silence brought on by the conventional roles that our culture still promotes for women, as if marriage and motherhood are the only ways we can be fulfilled. Silence prevented me from an essential self-love, which we need in order to be fully present to others. How do you make the connection between silence and our need to be loved?
R: All the things you spoke about, what we think we have to do in order to receive love, I have gone through myself. But in sacred silence, you feel so embraced. That embrace tells you that you are loved. We still struggle with “Am I worthy,” and “Am I this or am I that.” A lot of that spirals back to the early theological words we heard. Original sin. I don’t think of original sin but original blessing. I don’t need to be told I’m bad or I’ve failed. I know that. What does encourage me is to know that I’m loved and supported and held. That gives me the incentive to do things and move forward.
L: It sounds like sacred silence is what brings you closer to the divine. The silence I experienced did the opposite. It created a bigger distance between me and who I was created to be. What a difference. It seems so important to have places like the ARC for spiritual renewal.
R: Some people who go on retreat are afraid of being confronted by their inner self and the shadow side within. But when we do, we realize the benefits to opening up our spirit and to understanding who we are. It’s something we don’t conquer once. We continue to doubt and always will.
L: What words of encouragement would you offer women who have felt silenced in their lives?
R: I think we need first to understand that calling forth our own truth is slow. We have to be intentional about it. For women who have been silenced, it’s been built into their system so deeply that they somehow feel they’re doing something that isn’t right by speaking their own truth. But by speaking our truth, we realize that something happens within us. We realize the strength that comes.
* * *
Only after I was home and read Ruth’s book did I see a connection I’d missed earlier. Ruth and I write about a different kind of silence, but both of our experiences with silence led to transformation. Hers called her to create a community where people can enter into sacred silence. Mine led to a search for the person I had never believed was worthy of being loved. In our own ways, we listened to the truth in our hearts.
The headline caught my eye. It was a direct plea, thematically linked to this blog and my memoir.
I was two hours into reading the Sunday New York Times a few weeks ago. I was on the last page of my favorite section, The Review, which gathers opinion pieces from guest writers and a stable of regulars—Frank Bruni, Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristof, and Russ Douthat.
Next to an editorial on the costly nonsense of building a wall along the U.S. and Mexican border were the Letters to the Editor. Except there were no letters, only this headline: “Women, Please Speak Out.”
Letters Editor Thomas Feyer was reporting on the Women’s Project, begun a year ago to correct an underrepresentation of women on the letters page. The stated goal was to work toward gender parity. The results showed little change in the percentage of women whose letters are published (43%) or in the number of submissions by women (25 to 30%).
Kimberly Probolus, the woman whose letter to the editor a year earlier had inspired the Women’s Project, also weighed in, urging men to be better listeners.
Before I finished reading both pieces, my response to both was quickly taking shape. I knew what I wanted to say, and I had 150 words in which to say it. I typed it up, made a few changes, checked my word count, and sent it. This from a writer who likes to spend a day or a week crafting one page, only to delete it the next day and start over.
I waited. A day, two days. Nothing. By Wednesday, I figured I was out of the running. Less disappointed that my letter wasn’t chosen and more pleased that I’d at least pressed “send,” I packed for my trip and forgot about it.
My last day in Washington, D.C., I was in my third museum, the National Archives. I was fast approaching physical and mental overload. I checked my phone for the time. There was an e-mail from the Times. They were interested in publishing my letter and just needed to ask me a few questions. After a quick exchange, the editor informed me that my letter would appear in the online Sunday edition and in Monday’s print version. Unless, of course, late-breaking news preempted it. Always a possibility with this administration.
Yes, I’m thrilled that my words made it into print. But the greater thrill was that I heeded the headline’s plea. I might not have even a year ago. I might have dismissed what I had to say before pressing send, talking myself out of the very act necessary to be heard.
In case I ever doubted the need to speak out, I was reminded of my tour earlier that day at the National Portrait Gallery. At the top of a wide marble staircase is a painting that occupies an entire wall. “The Supremes,” my female guide said, smiling.
One woman lives in Norway in the last years of the 19th century. She is assured, articulate, and well dressed. She exudes self-confidence. But she has unfinished business with the man she walked out on 15 years earlier. The person and career she’s built for herself are in jeopardy if he doesn’t make good on his promise to divorce her.
The other woman lives in present-day New York City. She is an architect and an Iraqi refugee who, with her husband and son, have just gained citizenship after eight years. When she sneaks outside for a cigarette and is haunted by voices from her homeland, she reveals her own struggle between embracing this new life and longing for the culture and traditions that have given her meaning.
Meet Nora and Noura. Both women are unmistakable spinoffs of the Nora that Ibsen made famous in A Doll’s House more than 200 years ago.
This winter, two local theaters staged productions based on Ibsen’s classic. I was fortunate to see both, and was fascinated by the playwrights’ different interpretations. The Jungle Theater is in its final week of A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath. He flashes forward to explore how the freedom Nora sought and seemingly found is still at risk because of a society that was slow to change in granting women equal rights.
The Guthrie Theater staged Noura, by Heather Raffo, who described the sources of her interpretation. “Noura was provoked by many things. From the fracturing of Iraq to a shifting American identity. From the rise of polarizing ideologies to modern marriage and motherhood. It is at the explosive intersection of these issues that the characters . . . attempt to balance their individual pursuits with a search for community.”
Raffo added, “I believe it is a balance with which many of us struggle.”
The question Nora/Noura face is familiar. Women especially struggle to achieve some kind of balance. As they strive to grow in their many roles—professional, mother, daughter, partner, caregiver—can they be fully realized? Or will one or more of these roles become unsustainable?
Some, like Nora, literally walk away from one life in order to create another. I relate more to Noura, and recognize her ambivalence. Because I often don’t trust myself to make the “right” decision, for a long time I chose to live in the in-between place—to have a conventional life (marriage and children) and, however tenuously, hold on to my personal dreams.
Both plays end in ambiguity. We don’t know whether Nora and Torvald will try to repair their relationship within the context of marriage. We don’t know if Noura will construct a world where she can stop living in exile from herself. Maybe not offering a clear resolution is as it should be.
In my memoir, I describe my attempts to find space to pursue my own writing while raising a family. I started several book-length projects, took classes at The Loft Literary Center, and joined a writer’s workshop. In one of the middle-grade novels I worked on, the mother-journalist tells her son she’s taking an extended assignment overseas. Even as I explored the emotions that rocked the boy, I was speaking through the mother.
How do mothers give up what they love for what they love?
In our great pursuit of freedom—of expression, to pursue our dreams, to enjoy parity at work and at home, to be ourselves—we do so in the context of a much more complex social structure, whose laws, expectations, and roles of conformity threaten to pull us apart, as individuals and as a community.
Regardless the generation, this question will always be there. For women, there is no simple answer.
Pain is something we often suffer alone, in silence.
My sister and I have different memories of our mother’s pain. Camille recalls Mother going into her bedroom—directly off the dining room—and crying.
I recall Mother going into her bedroom and lying down after lunch. I knew not to disturb her. She’d been on her feet since before dawn and I figured she deserved the rest. I didn’t connect this daily quiet time as a way to manage pain.
Much later, I realized how much our mother suffered in silence. She didn’t complain. She didn’t blame. She didn’t make her pain ours. But pain isolates us. It can make us bitter. It can shrink the world to our small sphere and put us at its center to the exclusion of everything else.
Mother was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her 30s. It came as no surprise. Her mother had had arthritis, which eventually turned her hands into bent fists. Mother’s arthritis wasn’t just in her hands. Her shoulders, arms, and back ached. As the bones in her feet crumbled, walking became painful. The largely manual labor that constitutes managing a house and 3 children took its toll.
Despite this evidence—heredity and Mother’s hard-to-ignore swollen joints and crippled fingers—I had decided I wasn’t going to suffer. I gardened relentlessly. I carried things much heavier than I should have. I denied a chronic disease that had been in the female DNA of my family for generations. Arthritis was something other people had. Something old people had. Even when my brother, beginning in his 40s, mentioned the stiffness in his neck as arthritis, I refused to see what his pain had to do with me.
One thing my siblings and I agree on, now that we recognize arthritis in our own bodies, is that Mother suffered. When I was in grade school she underwent an experimental treatment. Desperate for relief, she had liquid gold injected into her bloodstream. The gold had been shown to reduce the inflammation that brought on pain.
Instead of the improvement she’d hoped for, she discovered she was allergic to gold. Open sores covered her entire body. Doctors doing their daily rounds gave her more attention than she liked. When she came home from the hospital, she lay wrapped in a white sheet on a lawn chair in our den. She didn’t want to stain the furniture.
After that, Mother returned to the typical oral meds, graduating to methotrexate, a chemo drug that also counters the symptoms of arthritis. The stronger the meds, the harder it was for her sensitive stomach to tolerate. In her last years, she wore a fentanyl patch. It didn’t take away the pain but eased it considerably.
Unused to having much discomfort, I was blindsided this past weekend by lower back pain, neck pain, and swelling in my thumb joints, where my arthritis mostly lives. My hands were on fire.
Pain does something to a person. Pain is something we often suffer alone, in silence. It pulls us into ourselves. Suddenly that seemed too much. I couldn’t hold all the pain myself. I called my daughter and blurted, “I’m scared.” What if this pain persisted? What if I suddenly couldn’t bathe or get dressed or lift a pan off the stove? What if I couldn’t drive? What if the life I had taken for granted was no longer possible?
That’s the degree to which I’d been in denial. I believed that I would fare better than most. I couldn’t accept the full weight of what being human, what aging, entails. My blind faith that I could prove myself again and again ignored one simple fact: my fate is the same as yours.
I trace my back and neck pain back to overdoing it at the gym, but the flare-up in my hands remains a mystery. After a day of much rest and ice packs, I am better.
The person coming out of pain is humbled. I felt myself again, joyfully, not just a dark knot of cells raging inside. How quickly pain caused me to forget, just as quickly as its absence restored me.
As I scrolled through e-mails early this morning, I learned that a friend’s husband, still in his 40s, had died. He’d had brain cancer for 4 years. In the loving arms of his family, he took his last breath. He had had numerous surgeries, many rounds of chemo and radiation, cautious times when he seemed to be winning.
Through it all—the pain, the setbacks, and his brave openness—he loved life and all the people in it. He admitted his fear. In doing so, he didn’t let it defeat him.
My one bad day pales to others’ chronic pain and ultimate loss. But it was the reminder I needed.