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Jun. 20th, 2011


Blue haven

"We will be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world, and will meditate on the world into which we are bringing new beings." - from the 14 Mindfulness Trainings

The buzzing of diurnal creatures
begins with the first glimmerings
of sun's light creeping
across a swiveling planet.
The dream world fades and
billions of dazed eyes blink sleepily.
Birds chatter with crisp melodies,
and the morning resounds with freshness.
Soon the stirrings of souls
accelerates into the bustling of
myriad daybreak rituals.
Fasts broken,
waters brewed,
daily ablutions fulfilled.
The day is young.
An infinite number of paths
lay ahead.
Crossings and strategies,
alleyways and diversions,
trackways and gatherings;
automated actions coalesce
with conscious choices.
Heartbeats skip with anticipation.
Trillions of synapses fire,
setting off
conversations, concentrations, conditions…
The day is ripe with vigor.
Projects constructed and dashed,
hopes born and shattered,
anguish harbored and quelled…
A world of vibrant exchanges
whirling with birth and death,
aggression and accord,
delight and disappointment.
Somewhere a storm hurls hail to the land.
Somewhere a sky seems to widen endlessly.
The zenith passes unceremoniously,
as light dims incrementally.
Day is overcome by night.
Tides ebb and flow.
Clouds form and disintegrate.
The flocks reunite.
Full dishes, empty dishes,
stomachs bloating with fullness,
stomachs grumbling with hunger.
Somewhere a blistering humidity stifles.
Somewhere a bone-chilling cool sets in.
Lonely longings for company,
claustrophobic longings for space,
parties and prayers,
sirens and silence,
cuddles and crack pipes.
All these forms manifest
in the space of the
blue haven of a mother called
Aarde, 地球, la terre,
trái đất, pachamama, dunia,
jorden, avani, Earth.

Apr. 25th, 2010

grandma emma action figures

Embracing impermanence with Grandma

It took approximately 18 hours for me to get from my apartment in Uppsala, Sweden to my grandmother's house in Milford, Connecticut. I took two trains, two planes, and the New York City subway and I was weary when I arrived at her home. I waited until she was awake to walk into her bedroom. There she lay on a hospital bed, emaciated and pale. She could not have weighed more than 80 pounds (36 kilograms). I walked to one side of her bed and greeted her. My 94-year old grandmother recognized me immediately and looked at me with incredulous eyes and a broad smile. "You came here," she said with a surprised voice. "Of course I did, Grandma, I love you," I said. "I love you too, dear," she answered.

Over the next week, I helped my family to take care of my grandmother. My cousin, sister, aunt, and I, along with Hospice nursing aids and nurses were her care team. We changed her diapers, cleaned her, brought her water and food to drink, and did loads and loads of laundry. My jet-lag ensured that I was up early in the morning so I was usually the first to change her diaper. Each diaper change was an opportunity to be highly mindful so that we could reduce the risk of infection and keep her as comfortable as possible. She hated the diaper changes. Since she had no body fat, she became very cold when we removed her blankets and she let us know that she was cold. Sometimes, we tried to keep her warm by turning on a space heater while we changed her diapers. The heat was confusing to her at times. She yelled out “cold” and then “hot” a few seconds later. One morning, while I was changing her alone, I put the heater on a chair near her bed and turned it on. I stood in front of it as I was changing her. At one point, she looked at me and opened her big Italian eyes wide and said, “Sittin’ in the hot seat.” Grandma Emma was known for her sense of humor and her quick wit. I laughed and told her how much I appreciated the ways she made me laugh.

Sometimes when I changed my grandmother with my sister, I held her in my arms like a baby so that my sister could put a sheet or a diaper underneath her. “I got you Grandma, don’t worry, just breathe with me,” I would say. I looked her in her eyes and breathed in and out audibly so that she could see me breathe. She often tried to breathe with me and it did seem to relax her, at least for a few seconds.

Sometimes my sister turned on her CD player and played music from her era, particularly Dean Martin, really loud: “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” My sister and I danced around her room to the music. Grandma would smile at us and sometimes we could see her moving her left foot to the rhythm of the song. There were moments like these every day in which she lit up. When my cousin brought her baby daughter into the room, Grandma smiled and waved her fingers to her only great-granddaughter. It was a beautiful moment.

Grandma quipped quick-witted “one-liners” throughout the week. One evening, my sister asked her, “Grandma when you get to the other side, will you come visit me?” My grandmother responded, “The other side of what?” One day, the nursing aid sprayed some medicine on her back and as Grandma felt the mist, she called out, “What is this, Niagara Falls?” She still had her feistiness.

I practiced loving-kindness meditation for my grandmother every day. I told her that I loved her several times a day. I tried to send her lots of love, even if I was changing her diaper or bringing her water. We all sent her lots of love. I tried to send myself love too, for it was not easy to be a caretaker. Every morning, as I walked into Grandma’s room, I was not sure what I would see. My sister and I braced ourselves for the possibility that we would be the ones to find her dead.

One evening, I was alone with Grandma and a nursing aid. I was washing dishes and the nursing aid called me in to Grandma’s room. Her breaths were heavy and labored and she was staring at the ceiling. Her eyes almost looked as if they were rolling backwards. I was scared and I felt my anxiety. I did not know what to do. I called to her, but she didn’t answer. I found her “do not resuscitate” bracelet and put it on her wrist. I told her I loved her and held her hand. There was nothing more I could do and I did not know it was somewhat normal for her to breathe in this way. She snapped out of it after a few moments and I said, “Welcome back Grandma.” She beamed a smile to me and winked. It was incredibly touching and I was glad she was back and yet I knew she would be leaving soon.

A few days later, I woke up from a dream in which Grandma was planning to take a trip with her younger sister, who had died in 1995. I knew it was almost time and yet it was that day that her blood pressure was normal and she was extremely lucid. It was her last hurrah.

On the day that she died, I entertained her visitors. Her older sister (102 years old) came to visit with her niece and grand-niece. Her priest, son-in-law, and grand-nephew also visited. Her house was bustling.

I was talking with my cousin, Grandma’s grand-nephew, when I had a visceral reaction. My heart started racing, my stomach was turning, and I felt dizzy and nauseous. My sister called me into the room. My grandmother’s body was becoming mottled. It looked like there were many little bruises forming all over her body. My sister said that it was a sign that she was close. I went back to the living room to talk to my cousin. A few minutes later, my sister told me to call Hospice. I found the Hospice folder and took the cordless phone into Grandma’s room. She was heaving deeply. I was scared and yet somehow, I managed to focus on my breathing and then began practicing loving-kindness for her. May she be peaceful. May she be happy. May she be light. I felt as if I were dreaming when she stopped breathing completely. It was a strong event, to see her die. I continued to practice loving kindness as my aunt, cousin, sister and I held a tearful silence for a few moments. We held each other as we held Grandma, who was lying on her right side with one hand drawn towards her heart. She was still. Wholly still.

I had never seen someone die before Grandma. It was surreal to see her struggling to breathe in one moment as I felt the vestiges of who she was in the form of her body, and then, a moment later, this form was empty of all the “Grandma-ness” I knew. Her hair looked the same, her skin looked the same (at that moment), but she was no longer there.

I don’t know what happens after death. I’ve read Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ autobiography, in which she wrote that there are stages after death (and for her, death is just a transition) that include a time of seeing familiar family members and friends that have passed on. A little while after my grandmother died, I walked out of her room and down the hall. I was feeling queasy and needed some air. As I walked by the den, I looked at the portrait of my step-grandfather that my mother had painted. He died over 10 years ago. In the portrait, he has a generous smile and I imagined that he was greeting my grandmother with this hearty smile and a martini (just kidding). I smiled to myself as I held this picture in my mind. I smiled as I thought to myself, “Finally, she is free of all the suffering she endured in her last years.”

The next few days were filled with activity and family gatherings and a huge amount of tasty Italian food. We prepared for her memorial. Grandma did not want to be buried or to have a funeral. She wanted a cremation and a celebration of her life. And that’s what we did. At the memorial, I spoke about how she exemplified generosity, appreciation of beauty, love, and a passion for life. These qualities are what I consider to be her true legacy. We told some of her jokes at her memorial and my Dad, aunt, and uncle played and sang the songs Grandma wanted to be sung. We all danced and sung loudly to, “When the Saints go Marchin’ in!” but perhaps the most moving of the memorial songs was the Battle Hymn of the Republic. My aunt and uncle filled the Church with their mellifluous voices as my Dad struck the keys of the piano with style and finesse. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord...” It was so touching to see my grandmother’s children—with all of their talents—playing for her with all of their hearts.

In the almost seven weeks since my Grandmother died, I have tried to live her legacy, the qualities I associate with her. My grandma was a vivacious woman who loved to laugh, host parties, and dance. In the past few weeks, I have also had the opportunity to live the activities she loved. When I laugh, I feel her laughter in me. When I am a host, I know that my love of cooking and sharing meals with others comes (at least in large part) from her. And when I dance, I know that she’s in the blood that is pulsing through my veins with a strong zest for living life to the fullest. She has died but her essence lives on. I am her continuation, as are the many others who called her a friend or a family member.

Jan. 31st, 2010


Joy and happiness

On Tuesday evening, I gave a presentation on joy and happiness. Below are some of the notes that I used for my presentation. I talked about how I find that joy arises naturally when I am 100% present in what I am doing, even if it is just washing the dishes.

When I was at Plum Village earlier this month, there was a working meditation in which a nun and I were cleaning a little house for guests. There was a lot of work to do and it was a sunny day. I was longing to go for a walk in the sunshine and had the thought that if I finished cleaning about 10 minutes earlier, I would have time to walk the "short loop" around the French village nearby. And yet, I was relatively joyful in cleaning. We were opening big French windows and the sun was pouring into the dark rooms. I enjoyed sweeping, especially. Cleaning toilets, not quite as much. ;) And I realized that I was running after happiness by thinking that it would be more enjoyable to walk the short loop before dinner. But happiness had already arisen from my being present. After the nun and I had cleaned most of the little house, she told me to take a break. We didn't know what time it was. I went outside and enjoyed some walking meditation in the yard of the house, with the sun shining on my face. I was soaking it up. I saw some friends walking the short loop and asked them what time it was and it was actually time to end the working meditation, but there was not enough time to walk the short loop before dinner (it takes 40 minutes). And about two minutes later, the skies became cloudy. So even if I had rushed and finished earlier, I would have been walking the short loop under gray skies. There was no reason to rush while I was working. I had enjoyed every ray of sunshine as it burst through the French windows.

Yesterday, I cleaned the whole bathroom. I was coordinating my breaths with my movements and it was a wonderful meditation, watering seeds of joy and happiness in me.

Thich Nhat Hanh quotes:

"Our appointment with life is in the present moment. If we do not have
peace and joy right now, when will we have it -- tomorrow or after

"Be yourself. Life is precious as it is. All the elements for your
happiness are already there. There is no need to run, strive, search,
or struggle. Just be."

"The amount of happiness that you have depends on the amount of
freedom you have in your heart."

Pema Chödrön ("The places that scare you: A guide to fearlessness in
difficult times" book):

"How do we cultivate conditions for joy to expand? We train in staying

"Everything is material for the seed of happiness if you look into it
with inquisitiveness and generosity."

"As we train in unblocking our basic goodness, we'll find that every
moment contains the free-flowing openness and warmth that characterize
unlimited joy."

Daniel Nettle ("Happiness: The science behind your smile" book)

* People adapt quite quickly to positive changes in life
circumstances, and then return to close to their previous level of

* People become very unhappy after seriously negative life events like
injury or divorce, but in most cases there is substantial adaptation
to the new conditions."

Happiness is infectious!
See: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/131972.php for the
Framingham Heart study on social ties and happiness.

A few more quotes:

"You can never get enough of what you didn't need to make you happy." -
Eric Hoffer

"A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery while on a
detour." -Anonymous

"If only we'd stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good
time." -Edith Wharton

"My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy
your ice cream while it's on your plate." -Thornton Wilder

"Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are
in harmony." Mahatma Gandhi

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in
another city." -George Burns

A dharma talk on happiness by Insight Meditation Dharma Teacher, Tara
Brach: http://www.dharmaseed.org/talks/?q=happiness (you can download
the talk from this site)

Smiling meditation: "Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile,
but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy." -Thich Nhat

Nov. 1st, 2009

swirl painting

Mindfulness and authenticity

A Sangha friend sent out a question from a student from her mindfulness class. I will try to paraphrase the question since I am posting this on the internet. The student asserted that children are completely engaged in their emotions and that mindfulness might inadvertently create an obstacle between an individual and the emotion. The student wondered if mindfulness is an adult concept that children don't have the instincts to do (if perhaps it is unnatural in some way). The student also asked if this additional obstacle might be a point of concern or if applying mindfulness to an emotion (e.g., I'm aware that I'm sad) is like using "training wheels."


I contemplated this question for a few days and wrote to the Sangha friend the following:

As for this question, I think the person who asked it is comparing apples to oranges. Children's brains work differently than adults' brains. Children are more likely to be in alpha and theta (which are both rather slow brainwaves) for their waking hours than we are (we are more likely in beta, a high frequency brainwave). Theta, in particular, is known for being associated with emotional states. When adults meditate, they are sometimes able to go into theta, but it is likely a viscerally different experience than what children experience a good chunk of the time. Theta is also a state in which children can absorb massive amounts of new material and, as we know, they are quite impressionable. They also think concretely, as opposed to abstractly. This is developmental psychology. It was when we were first children that we learned the programming that people spend lots of time and money on with psychotherapists to unravel. Even for a two-year old, there are likely repetitive thoughts that are triggering a temper tantrum (e.g., "I want that!" over and over again). That is not to say that children can't be incredibly aware -- they are in the present moment a lot of the time after all -- but I think that much of their behavior is a replication of what they've seen growing up. The emotional experiences of anger or happiness are often extensions of such conditioning. We learn quite young when we "should" be happy or angry.

When I went to Naropa University, there was a big emphasis on being authentic. Okay, but what does that really mean? Emotions are just energy, by the way, and some people may find that physical movement helps them to "burn off" the energy of the emotion. Emotions live in the body, so it makes sense to do something physical that is not harmful, like dance or exercise or yelling into a hole in the ground, which some of the Native Americans do or did at one time. To really be with the emotion 100%, not spinning out on a storyline -- even through physical movement -- we have some serious conditioned programming to reckon with. It is so hard to really stay with that emotion and not spin out on the story line (does this person think that children don't also get caught in repetitive thoughts that trigger/exacerbate emotions?). So, I don't see that applying mindfulness creates a filter, if anything, I think it would assist people in being more authentic because they are more in tune with what is really going on, not just running on habit energy. There is a Tibetan lojong training that goes:

"Of the two witnesses, observe the principal one."

It means that we have a choice, to act out of a conditioned storyline-generating witness or to act out of the witness that is aware of who we really are and what is true for us. Mindfulness helps us to empower this latter witness. So the conditioned witness might start to run-off on some storyline and we might spin out and have intense emotions, but the mindful observer within is able to say, "whoa" that is actually not my "true nature."

So, that's my two cents...my view and I'll meditate on not being attached to it. :)

Oct. 22nd, 2009


wake-up sparkles

Each day,
we wake up,
opening our eyes
to the freshness
of a new morning.
In the instant
of awakening
there is only now.
Perhaps we awake
with a sleepy smile
"Ahh, I am starting my day."
Perhaps we awake
with a grumpy grunt
"Ughh, I woke up too early."
Perhaps we awake
with a feeling
"Oh, I really have to pee."
How many times
have we woken up
and wanted to
go back to sleep?
These themes may repeat
But each waking moment
has its own character,
its own je ne sais quoi.

And perhaps it is that way
when we wake up
from illusion.
Each wake-up moment
contains a universal depth
and a sparkle that is
sui generis.
Ah hah! can be exclaimed
but it does not reflect
the true wonder
of a wake-up sparkle.

How easy it is
to pass them by,
to take them for granted,
these wake-up sparkles.
They bless our lives
And yet we emphasize
our dreams, seeking
fulfillment in the fantasies
that we adore.

We can't buy, sell, or trade
waking up,
these priceless moments
that hold humanity
in an embrace
of rich awareness.
They pass so quickly
and we are back,
mired in the mundane,
without a transition.

Waking up is sacred
A full-being experience
that transcends our
most unforgiving fixations,
freeing us to live
the wholeness of our
if but for a split-second,
as the sparkles
light up
the beauty
of the horizon.

Aug. 26th, 2009

lake at RMNP


It can’t break you apart
You are too whole
Pain sears your insides and
you collapse into aloneness
Wondering why it keeps hitting you
Wondering why it is so hard
Just to get up
Just to get up
The pain steals your will
And yet you keep rising
To the challenge
The pain steals your choices
And yet you keep choosing
To live wholly
The pain consumes you
In moments of despair
And you break free
Again and again
Reaching up
Reaching out
To those who love you
You are the unbreakable ones
The heroines who catch yourselves
Even when the pain pulls you
Tears you
Strikes the core of who you are
You are unbreakable
You find love
You find compassion
You find your voice,
your strong, determined voice.
The pain will never break you
You are too whole

--I wrote this poem for the women in my study who suffer from severe chronic pelvic pain. I have felt so inspired by their grace and perseverance. I have not given it to them, but maybe at the end of the study.

Aug. 17th, 2009

grandma's art

Ängsbacka afterglow

I am home now and yet I still feel the bubbling warmth of the European Nonviolent Communication festival. What an experience! It was a feast with many flavors indeed!

The first few days were a bit choppy for me. I was making an effort to get basic nourishment from food and that felt icky. Volunteering in a kitchen and not being able to eat any of the food I was making was a challenge in the first two days. Speaking Swedish while working was also a challenge that I was not ready to completely rise to. The newness of everything--where things were and what to do--was another stress. I felt off-kilter and it was difficult for me to be mindful. By my second day at Ängsbacka, I felt exhausted and undernourished and wondered how I would make it through the week. I was unsure of whether or not my food needs could be met (even with specific requests) and I thought about leaving. By my third day, everything changed again. The chef for the week knew how to build a team and how to delegate. He gave us the big picture of the meal and let us fill in many of the details. He gave me space to be creative and tasks that I was planning to request, cooking for "special needs" diets, for example. And he trusted me to make nourishing, tasty dishes. I was also able to ensure that there was food I could eat--no easy task with 25 food sensitivities including gluten, soy, dairy, corn, beans, carrots, beets, and coconut. Most of the time, I was able to eat the food that was offered and to enjoy it. I went a little outside of my comfort zone with the beans and a wee bit of tofu, but I did surprisingly well, even with them.

There were moments of conflict, moments of sinking deeper, moments of transcendence, and moments of deep understanding. I played, I laughed, I cried, I loved, and I shook my booty. What more could one want in a festival?

The moments in which I dug deep were satisfying and continue to nourish me with food for thought. When is the concept of "being a victim" useful and when does it outlive its utility as a concept? What do words (that are also concepts) such as "my, mine, and ours" reinforce in my consciousness? What is the musculature of my body reflecting back to me? How do I define empathy? How do I express my needs most skillfully in my true voice? What is it about meeting people eye to eye that is so fulfilling for me (and perhaps ineffable)?

I shed my notion of Europeans being--in general--more private than Americans. Of course, I blasted through this notion when I stayed at Plum Village for months at a time, but it has been over four years since my last visit and the notion has crept back in the last few years. The irony was that I was rather private in public. There were public "mournings and celebrations" that I could have shared with the larger group and yet I did not feel compelled to share them. Maybe it was, in part, not having the desire to "fight" for the microphone. Or maybe it was a reaction to my perceived self-centeredness. Really, I can talk about myself and my life and my feeling and my needs for hours on end...and in the big group sessions I did not feel like solidifying notions of "me" and "my." I did not feel moved to express myself then. I have to feel in my gut that I am really being true to myself when I express myself and not just feeding a hungry beast that will never be satiated. When I am honest with myself about my intentions, I can discern what is true for me in the moment. I was, in my mind, diagnosing a few outspoken people who seemed to me hungry for attention and approval. And I sat with some of my own addictive ways of seeking attention and approval. A sacred pause surfaced, one that gave and continues to give me the space to be in touch with the power of my aspiration to embody the energy of a bodhisattva, an awakened being that seeks to liberate all beings from suffering. I practiced a heck of a lot of Tonglen meditation--breathing in the heaviness of the suffering and breathing out loving kindness--for the people who so desperately wanted to be affirmed and for the tenderness in my heart that knows firsthand the trance of believing "I'm not enough."

On the night of my 6th day at Ängsbacka, I had a strong reaction to something I had eaten. I had made some quinoa for myself and impatiently ate it without cooking it fully. It went through my intestines like a bulldozer. So I was up for many hours in the middle of the night with "the runs." It was uncomfortable and at first I mourned the loss of the vitality I was feeling before that evening. And then I felt gratitude for the impermanence of life. Life would not be and could not be anything other than impermanent. I reflected on how it is this impermanence that underlies the vibrancy of life. My dualistic notion of vitality versus debilitation dissolved in a heartbeat. I felt happy that I felt no fear of Crohn's colitis returning as a result of this intestinal cleanse. I rested in the sunshine, watching the trees blowing in the wind and imagining animals in the clouds in the sky. I felt the warm empathy of friends. And I felt waves of life emanating and reverberating in all directions.

This festival reminded me that I am always in love with life, it is just not always on the surface of my consciousness. It also reminded me how much I value deep belly laughs, shared tears, the dance of human dynamics, the wonders of transcendence, and the intimacy that arises from honest communication. I am immensely grateful and still basking in the afterglow of this experience.

Mar. 27th, 2009

good karma

CAM for me

Today, on the anniversary of my colectomy surgery that happened seven years ago, I am posting information on complementary and alternative medicine that has helped me go from being a mystery of science patient to being completely Crohn's and colitis free. I am not a doctor, except for myself.

This is what I take and do:

* VSL#3 - this probiotic is expensive but it has been accepted even in the medical community as being able to help people with IBD go into remission or stay in remission. I've been taking about two packets a day for a couple of years now. It is available at: http://www.vsl3.com .

* I avoid foods I am sensitive to (cause bloating and cramping) and I have about 25 of them! The biggest ones for me were: milk products, soy products, and gluten products. Taking those out of my diet made a huge difference. I went from having abdominal cramping most of the time to having it maybe once a month. Now I only get some cramping if I "cheat" and eat a restricted food. But I have a lot of other food sensitivities that are weird, like carrots and beets from when I used to juice them in massive doses every day. Many Crohn's patients can not tolerate milk or gluten.

* I take a little bit of tumeric every day, which is an Indian spice and a natural anti-inflammatory agent. More info is at: http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/QAA142972/Anti-Inflammatory-Herbs.com . I take between 500 and 1000 grams per day in the form of curcumin. I don't take a whole lot of turmeric because I don't like taking a whole lot of anything over an extended period of time, even natural things.

* I take some folic acid. I was very deficient in folic acid at one time. And this vitamin is important for the body to be able to generate new cells.

* I practice mindfulness meditation! Mindfulness helped me to listen to my intuition, and know what it needs at any given time. My intuition lives in my gut. My gut has told me that it hates deadlines and that I need a lot of rest and relaxation, as well as time for creativity. It tells me this by either tensing up or feeling relaxed. The gut has so many nerves it is like a second brain, but of course it is directed by the real brain. I've realized over the last 12 years with this condition that my gut is generally much more in tune with life around me than my thinking mind. Mindfulness helped me tune into my gut and then when I actually listened to it, a lot shifted for me. I became my own doctor, more or less, and found what worked and didn't work for me. Writing out my feelings helped me a lot too.

* I have learned to become an "exceptional patient" (aka "pain in the ass patient"). Yes, exceptional patients are sometimes a pain in the ass for the doctor, we ask a lot of questions, make informed decisions, and stay very active as self-healers. Dr. Bernie Siegel wrote about the exceptional patient in his book, "Love, Medicine, and Miracles." See http://www.altcancer.com/docs/love_medicine.doc and http://www.spiritsite.com/writing/bersie/part4.shtml

Mar. 24th, 2009



Seven years ago I was preparing for major abdominal surgery. Friends of mine gathered on two occasions in the few days before the surgery to wish me well with my surgery through song and music and cheers (literally). They helped me to prepare for the challenges that the surgery presented.

It is strange to me that it was seven years ago. Seven years is one-fifth of my life! Indeed, so much has changed since that era of my life. At that time, my health hung on a tenuous brink and every day was difficult…and pain, exhaustion, and debilitation were my constant companions. I was physically spent.

Parts of the day of my surgery I can remember as if they happened yesterday. Parts of that day are a complete blur. And a good chunk of that day is completely absent from my memory and my consciousness; I was under general anesthesia.

It was an elective surgery. I chose to have my colon and appendix removed, and yet, at the time, it seemed like I did not have a choice. In the 15 months prior to the surgery, I had been hospitalized three times, each for about two weeks. Each hospitalization involved massive amounts of intravenous steroids that gave me insomnia, doctor-ordered two-week long fasts (and I mean no water and no food whatsoever), parenteral nutrition (my only food was intravenous), and severe inflammation of my intestines. The inflammation was so severe that my colon almost burst several times, which could have killed me. With each hospitalization, I lost weight, I lost hair (my hair was falling out from malnutrition), and I lost a sense of myself as being able-bodied. And yet despite all of my losses, I gained insights. I gained clarity about what was truly important in my life. And I gained gratitude for the simplest of things – walking, eating, and sharing time with friends and family – everything was a gift.

On the morning of my surgery, my father and I went to see the collection of musical instruments from around the world that was located in the Smithsonian. We were in Washington, D. C. I had been fasting for two days already, I felt depleted. We had a difficult time finding a parking spot near the Smithsonian. Then we spotted a parking place and, at the same time, so did another driver. He stopped his car slightly in front of our car, blocking the front half of the space. We were stopped a few feet behind his car, blocking the back half of the space. And no one budged for about five minutes. Finally, I got out of the car and walked up the driver.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “I’m having major surgery this afternoon and I just want to spend some time with my Dad at the museum this morning.”

The driver looked at me and he said, “Ok,” and he drove off.

I walked back to my car and my father asked me, “What did you say to him?”

“I just told him the truth.” The moments I had with my Dad were precious to me. I was glad that the other driver understood. We parked and went to see the musical instruments, but unfortunately, we saw only a few because the exhibit was largely closed off. We still enjoyed our visit though. And on the way to the hospital, we stopped in a park and practiced qi gong. My Dad had introduced me to qi gong about fourteen months beforehand, during the first hospitalization for Crohn’s colitis. It was wonderful to be able to practice qi gong with my father just then. I felt fortified and ready.

At the hospital, we waited until the appropriate time. That part of the day is something of a blur for me. I remember going into the operation room about one hour before the surgery. The nurses prepared me for surgery. I had thought I would be lying down, but they positioned me on a special chair in which there was a sort of shelf about chest-high, where I was to rest my arms. It was sort of crucifix-ish, if that’s a word (that I just made up). I was a bit nervous and I tried to mindfully breathe and be gentle with my anxiety. But the nurses thought I was anxious and they gave me a shot of Ativan, which is often used as a sedative before surgery. Within a few moments, I was completely out.

I woke up in the recovery room many hours later. I don’t know how many hours went by because I could not see a clock. Everything was surreal. I had to remind myself where I was. There was a cast around my whole torso and a tube down my throat. I couldn’t move, though I had no inclination to do so. I was barely awake. Everything seemed to be a dream – my body, my mental state, the room – they all floated in and out of my consciousness. I fell back asleep.

Hours later, in the middle of the night, I woke up to some of the most horrendous pain I have ever felt. The general anesthesia had been wearing off and I was hooked up to a pain pump. I could press a button and the pump would deliver pain medicines intravenously, but only once every eight minutes. Of course, I pressed it just about every minute to give myself the feeling that I was doing something to relieve the pain. I tried to breathe with the pain, but it was overwhelming. I cried loudly and a young medical student came by my side. I was practically hyperventilating, which was making the pain even more intense because my abdomen was bouncing somewhat with my breaths. This medical student, Amy, simply held my hand and stayed calm. She was so kind. And present. I could feel her kindness and how much she really wanted to help me to feel better. Just by wholly being there, she helped me to feel more peaceful. The medicines began to work and I was able to drift back to sleep. Of course, I woke up several more times throughout the night, whenever the medicines wore off, and felt the throes of my wounded abdomen.

The next day the doctors came in my room to take the tube out of my throat (which was very uncomfortable), clear the draining tube that was attached to my abdomen, and to check up on me. The resident doctor seemed unsympathetic to what I had just been through and he pulled the draining tube so hard that I winced. I saw my father follow him out into the hall where he had a few words with that doctor, who was more gentle afterwards, while my father was there.

Overall, I felt relatively good considering I had just had major surgery. I was happy that there had not been any major complications. My whole body was stunned, that was clear. But I was in good spirits. I practiced qi gong in the hospital bed.

The following day, I began to walk around. Friends began to visit me. And the doctors told me that my healing progress was “off the charts.” Forty-eight hours after the surgery, I went off of all pain medicines. I was still in pain, but it wasn’t nearly so bad as that first night. And the pain medicines made me groggy and zombie-like. I wanted to be as much myself as possible. I had to take steroid medicines, which were harsh enough on my body and mind. It was hard enough to stay present.

My father left and my sister, Liza, came in his stead. She advocated for me and helped me to convince the nurses to let me walk outside with my rolling IV stand, which was such a relief. I felt like I had been released from prison during those short walks. Liza was there for me everyday, as were my friends. La and Wendy visited and gave me a fabulous reiki treatment. The doctors granted me permission to leave the hospital soon after their visit. My sister helped me at home.

About a week after the surgery, I woke up with horrible pain. Liza took me to the hospital and we made the mistake of going to the chronic pain clinic instead of the emergency room. I had to endure an hour of questions and then more questions while I felt like I was being stabbed. My sister finally went up to the doctor and said something like, “Look lady, my sister is in a lot of pain; she needs the medicine, not more questions.” The events that followed led me to be readmitted to the hospital. I was hooked up to another pain pump and given some antibiotics and denied all food. It was the next morning that my sister walked almost two miles to the hospital with a heavy tray of pancakes for me. The doctors had not quite given me the okay to eat again, but that followed shortly thereafter. And with my shrunken stomach I could barely eat two pancakes. But they were so delicious. Liza had a special touch.

Those were trying times. At the same time, there was so much richness in all of those experiences. It was a richness of love and human connections and kindness. I am so grateful for all who were truly present with their compassion and understanding. I can look at the scar on my belly without any sorrow. If anything, it is a reminder of all the love I was able to experience through those hellacious times. I believe in a kind of healing that transcends the narrow confines of conventional perspectives on health and illness. I was sick seven years ago, but my heart was so well. The love and compassion I have received over the years has been the ground of my healing. For me, healing is a vigorous and sometimes clumsy movement towards wholeness. Writing these words now, as I bring these memories back into full view, I see how the experiences of “me” seven years ago shaped the “me” of today. I am more true to my heart now – the essence of me that feels connected and whole – because I saw through the suffering into what it could teach me. And it was my family and community that ushered me towards this truth, for which I am truly grateful.

Feb. 2nd, 2009


25 random things

I posted these "25 random things" in my Facebook profile notes.

1- My middle name is "Shane," which was apparently the name of some gold medal winning swimmer in the '72 Olympics (I just Wiki'd it and it was "Shane Gould"). Also, my mother wanted me to have a middle name that started with "S" to honor her paternal grandmother, who was named "Sadie." Eshaneh is simply shane with my first and last initials on either side (some people have thought it was a reference to a Goddess or something, but it is far less exotic than that).

2- I became a vegetarian at 8 years old -- like Lisa Simpson. It was the turkey at Thanksgiving that turned me off to meat. I made a deal with my parents that I would eat fish because in my 8 year-old mind, if almost three-quarters of the world was covered with water then there must be a lot more fish than chickens and cows.

3- I snuck a piece of bacon when no one was looking when I was 9 years old, but other than that, and a few other accidents and situations, I stayed a pesca-vegetarian for over 25 years before becoming more the "flexitarian" that I am now (mostly vegetarian but eat fish a few times a week and some "organic free-range" meat once in a great while).

4- I have always loved "star parties," which involve a bunch of people gathering together with their telescopes so we can look at the stars and planets and UFOs.

5- I was just kidding about the UFOs. The rest is true. I enjoy being silly sometimes.

6- I have always been something of a philosopher. When I was six I had a list of questions about the universe that I wanted to ask God. When I was a teenager, some of my favorite books were those that were philosophically-oriented, like "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran. As a 30-something adult, I studied Buddhist Madyamaka philosophy and thought it was groovy.

7- My sister and I "burned down the house" -- or at least the kitchen -- in 1986 when we made popcorn while we were watching "The Facts of Life" on television. Of course, we lived to tell the story, including our Mom and the cat (but sadly not the guinea pigs).

8- I have a fondness for dolphins that goes well-beyond all of the new-age cliches that I've heard of. After learning about their brains in my neuroscience class, I think that they might be smarter than us in some regards, and I think they could teach us a thing or two about compassion if we spoke the same language.

9- One of my favorite meals is pancakes with maple syrup. In part this is a favorite because my sister and I used to make pancakes when we were little and our parents were upstairs. Those were the days in which my sister referred to them as "pan-a-cakes" no matter how many times I told her that they were simply pancakes. She once carried a hefty tray of pancakes almost two miles to bring them to me in the hospital, so I could make them my first meal after a doctor-ordered fast. Pancakes were a favorite meal after those doctor-ordered fasts.

10- I'm a sentimentalist. I feel nostalgia when I read old letters, see old movies, and, even, when I smell certain smells. For example, citronella reminds me of the time I lived in Belize.

11- I've become less and less of a smart-ass as I've aged, I think mostly because of my meditation practice over the last 10 years, which has granted me some insight into possible reasons that I've been a smart-ass and given me the awareness that I have a choice not to be one.

12- Sometimes the smart-ass in me gets her say anyway. She's a tenacious little gal.

13- The most transformational and creative years of my life were between 2000 and 2003, when I was quite sick from Crohn's colitis, a disease of the intestines.

14- I learned a few things about life when I was very sick: (a) far too many moments pass in life in which we are not grateful for the simplest wonders of life, eating, walking, talking to each other, laughing, etc.; (b) every moment, we have a choice to experience the fullness of our humanness and all it offers us--love, happiness, wonder, compassion, tenderness, and the chance to transform negative stuff--or let that moment's fullness be lost forever; (c) my connections to people, nature, and to more deeply knowing myself are the most important things in my life; (d) healing doesn't mean curing, it means relating to what "is" in ways that bring together all that you are into a sense of wholeness that is fired by dynamism; and (e) you have to find the humor in your life situations, even when they seemingly "suck," laughter is truly great medicine.

15- My sister named my illness "Kitten Snickers" because she thought that the name "ulcerative colitis" was too awful. Many friends and family members called the disease Kitten Snickers or "KS" during the times it was most severe. That made me laugh.

16- I've found that writing songs, making art, and writing poems is incredibly healing, perhaps because I access some part of my consciousness that wants an expression.

17- I like hosting parties and especially meditation parties. Over the past 9 years or so, I've hosted from time to time a kind of party called a "Cookie Meditation." It is something between a Japanese tea ceremony and an open-mic event in which people are invited to share stories, songs, or whatever moves them.

18- I wrote a cookie meditation song in 2000. It starts with:
Chocolate chip is good
Peanut butter's yummy
I like ginger snaps
In my tummy!

19- For many years -- since I was a child -- I've loved "jump around music." That is music played in the living room that spurs jumping around or dancing or twirling or trying out some hip move that is far too complicated for me to do but still fun to flub up.

20- I've studied each of the following languages: French, Italian, American Sign Language, Spanish, and now Swedish. I grew up hearing random Yiddish words that my mother and grandparents spoke. It took me a long time (till I was 10 or so) to realize that not everyone knew what a "meshugenah" was (it means "crazy").

21- I have spent months of my life at a Buddhist monastery in France called Plum Village, where the Vietnamese Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, lives and teaches. My experiences there changed my life in positive ways. I learned that I could experience incredible joy just by being present to whatever it was I was doing, such as walking in nature, for example. I also learned how to meditate while cutting carrots. I eventually joined the Order of Interbeing in 2005 as a part of my spiritual path to develop my awareness, compassion, and understanding of myself and others.

22- My studies at Naropa University also changed my life in positive ways. I think of my studies there as learning how to be true to myself.

23- People have asked me what has been the greatest factor in healing from Crohn's colitis and I have said that mindfulness has been a huge factor, as it puts me in touch with what I really need in any given moment and it puts me in touch with my intuition, that part of me that really knows what is good for me. My intuition is kind of like a Jewish grandmother within myself. Sometimes I call her "Sadie" ;)

24- One of the most amazing days of my life was the day that I "married" two friends. I was the "rabbi minister" in the words of the bride's mother. It was a great honor to be the marriage officiant and to hold the space for so many beautiful, open-hearted people.

25- I've practiced qi gong every day for almost eight years straight, even the day of and the day after major abdominal surgery. It is a practice that has helped me to feel balance and "be in" my body every day.

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