December 17, 2013
Sick and on the fringe, a mother looks to nature to overcome chronic pain
I started going to pain clinics for spinal injections and physical therapy after I was diagnosed with spinal osteoarthritis six years ago. I was given the advice to keep a pain journal to record my symptoms, and for a while I did. And it was so depressing that I started referring to my journal as Fuck This Shit.
I, who had been a brick house, was, in my 40s, crumbling to bits.
It certainly passes the time for the chronically ill to keep a log of symptoms, but is it healing? I have my doubts. When you have a chronic disease, you know there’s going to be a Greek chorus of tragedies big and small and symptoms that pop up like Whack-A-Moles. The question is: What do you do about it?
I was deep into the stages of grief when my pain clinic recommended How To Be Sick by Toni Bernhard, a book that approaches illness from a Buddhist perspective. But I didn’t want to learn how to be sick, I wanted to be cured. I resisted the urge to tear it into little pieces and light it on fire in the kitchen sink.
I opened the book randomly like my sister and I used to spin our grandparents’ globe, letting fate decide where the person we’d marry would be from or where we’d live (Malaysia! Tierra del Fuego!), to reveal this, from Japanese poet Juken:
One, seven, three, five—
Nothing to rely on in this or any world;
Nighttime falls and the water is filled with moonlight.
Here in the Dragon's jaws:
Many exquisite jewels.
Damn, Juku, you said it.
What had I expected? How naive was I? Where was it written that I'd be well? My mother had chronic pain and anxiety; my grandfather on my mother’s side had chronic pain; and my great-aunt on my mother's side had chronic pain and anxiety, which, back then in the 60s, they called Hysteria. Chronic pain runs in my family like being able to tell a good joke runs in my husband's.
I thought I would be immune from suffering, though I had watched my mother go through sequential mastectomies for breast cancer, and then struggle with her own chronic pain for over 30 years, starting when I was just six years old and my sister three.
I thought I had earned a Get Out Of Jail Free card. I was so angry.
I had "the full catastrophe," as mindfulness meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says, quoting Zorba the Greek. I was middle aged, estrogen plummeting, with two children, a husband, and on-campus housing at an elite private boarding school outside of Baltimore, where my husband moved us from the walkable, European city of Boston so he could teach high school biology.
Shortly after I met my new rheumatologist (bad breath, arrogant; he told me I had "the spine of a 70 year old"), I went out for a walk on one of the school's many cross-country trails. It was something to do. I despaired. I tripped over the tree roots on the trail—how many times would the word "degenerative" be applied to me? I wandered so far off the trail. I got lost.
I found myself by a little stream, its banks crowded with yellow flowers that I thought were buttercups but have since learned are swamp marigold. I thought, I'll just lie here. The September light looked dazed.
The sweet little faces of the flowers gazed up at me, all yellow. My favorite color—the color of the third chakra, Manipura, the "resplendent gem," governor of warrior energy. But what did the flowers know of chakras?
I picked some, and found my way home. Then I returned again the next day with my grandfather's Field Guide To The Trees And Shrubs of Eastern North America. If I was going to be the kind of person who wandered around outside the main, sick and a little wild, I might as well learn something about the wilderness.
So walking and observing became a habit, and the best therapy for suffering I ever stumbled across. I had a thirst for it. I started checking books of haiku out of the library and reading nature writing to find a persimmon, a cherry blossom distilled.
The famous haiku poet Basho offered the advice, “If you describe a green willow in the spring rain it will be excellent, but haiku needs more homely images, such as a crow picking snails in a rice paddy.” Boy, did I have some snails. They were my thoughts, my demons.
I gave names to them. Despair was a repetitive overweight Eeyore. Hopelessness smelled like stale Chewels—the gum with the gushy center that was popular in the 80s, and that my sister and I chewed while waiting outside hospital rooms for news of our mother. False Hope whispered in my ear, suggesting that I ought to try giving up gluten, going Paleo, or taking up Bikram yoga, all of which I did.
I walked in the woods to get away from my world in which I was the centroid. The Main Attraction under the Big Top. I walked to feel, as Thoreau put it in “On Walking,” “part and parcel of Nature,” a thread in the weave of life; just as I did as an 8-year-old kid, summers spent on my grandparent's farm, watching intently the water flow beneath the dock by the boathouse. When my father came to tell me it was time for dinner, I had to think, What’s dinner?
The biologic and geologic cycles that were so much larger than my own comforted me. It comforted me to know that in the vast universe, I was completely insignificant. Or rather, I was as significant as any tadpole.
It opened possibility in my predicament, chronic pain, which is the predicament of so many that there is even humor, classic Zen humor, that takes it as its subject. In Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki uses the frog to illustrate our pretentions. Suzuki says, "If we are like a frog we are always ourselves." Why was it so damn hard to be like a frog? A frog cared less and that was its intelligence and glory. It knew its exact place in the world. It already had “abandoned hope,” as Pema Chodron suggests. It didn’t get caught up in the absurdity of thinking there was any duality between health and sickness, life and death, pain and no pain.
On one of my walks, I felt this—a direct hit beyond intellect right to my solar plexus, and I tripped on a stick and fell down a small hill and lay at the bottom of it in the clover. My first thought was: We’re all going to die.
It struck me as so funny. Like a voiceover in a schmaltzy women’s channel show. I burst out laughing.
I called my Mom, burbling with mirth. "Hi Mom, it's me. You know what I realized? We're all going to die." My mom started laughing too. "I know!" she said, "Haha!"
It's uncharacteristic of me to laugh. But my funny bone had been located. Death. Fucktardness. Knee-slapping. Hilarious!
I was laughing so hard I scared a great blue heron out of the marsh grasses. “Graaawk!” it said, getting the joke, deep calling unto deep, its genome linked to mine. I was reminded of the story of the Chinese monk Shui-lao who is reported to have said: "Ever since the master kicked me in the chest I have been unable to stop laughing."
I came home, scratched Fuck This Shit off the cover of my journal, and wrote in a new name: Nu. Which is a Yiddish expression, a shoulder shrug, meaning, So?
Elizabeth Bastos is a stay-at-home mother of two in the Baltimore suburbs. Her work has appeared at The Smithsonian, McSweeney's, The New Yorker's Page-Turner Blog, and she is a contributor at Book Riot. She is currently working on a book of essays at the intersection of chronic illness, humor, nature, and parenting. Follow her on Twitter (@ElizabethBastos) or her personal blog, Goody Bastos.
Image courtesy of European Southern Observatory.