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Archive for October, 2009

I’ve been drafting this post in my head for the last several days, so I might as well try to capture it “on paper.” It’s an official snow day, so that carves me a little extra time.

It’s been a crazy busy quarter, the way fall quarter always is. A whirlwind of fast-moving classes, evening extracurricular activities that I feel (or am) obligated to attend, trying not to lose the momentum on my research and writing, and generally busting butt to keep it all together. Unbelievably, we’re already in Week 7 of 10. In the background is this new reality of Rheumatoid Arthritis, this mystery disorder that medical science doesn’t understand, which crept up on me when I wasn’t looking, wandered around the joint(s), and decided to set up camp, mostly but not exclusively in my left wrist. It’s a nasty character, let me tell you, and the scariest thing is that most of the info out there points to it potentially getting much worse, but who knows when or if.

It’s like a scruffy, unassuming regular in the bar, who no one knows is a master vampire.

I’ve made a conscious effort to learn as much as I can about the “disease,” talk to people who live with it, and do my best to make empowered, informed, and proactive decisions in the larger context of a medical system that is anything but empowering. I’ve sifted through a frankly overwhelming array of websites, support forums, medical journal articles, alternative healing resources, and a book about the less conventional theory that R.A. is caused by an infection that can be treated with antibiotics and diet/lifestyle changes. At present, I’m experimenting with the latter approach, which means I’m on 100 mg/day of an antibiotic called Minocin, and have drastically reduced dairy, sugar, processed foods, non-organic meats, caffeine, and alcohol. (Can’t hurt anyway, right?) I’ve also begun a rigorous Bikram (hot) yoga practice, started taking a variety of dietary supplements, and paid a lot more careful attention to how stress impacts my life. In short, I’m experiencing something of a paradigm shift as a result of R.A. I’m not quite at “grateful,” but I do think it’s worth denoting some of the lessons. For instance:

The words “chronic,” “degenerative,” “disabling,” and “incurable,” are extremely unhelpful. It is a real exercise in discipline to consistently come across them and not freak the f*ck out. I notice that a lot of people, and a fair number of professionals, seem attached to these words, though the words also get paired with “treatable.” That’s a bit more encouraging, except that it in turn is paired with “chemotherapy” and “biologics” and “indefinite,” and other scary words. I have searched well into the 10th page of Google searches and found precious few stories of individuals “overcoming” or “curing” R.A. I must say that I hold onto these stories for dear life. Anyway, the challenge is batting the ugly words out of my consciousness, so as not to be paralyzed by them.

I am grateful to have R.A. over the alternatives–like M.S., Lupus, joint cancer, fibromyalgia, and other very frightening stuff that can have similar signs and symptoms. Compared to those, R.A. seems manageable. Related to this,

R.A. increases my compassion for my own and others’ pain. I’ve never been much for pain–which is to say, I’ve never felt as attached to my physical pain as others I’ve known, nor has it been a way for me to secure attention. (Emotional pain, I have a more complex relationship to, and I’m aware that that may, in fact, be linked with the R.A.) Of course, this relative freedom from pain-identity is partly because I’ve been lucky enough to have lived a mostly pain-free existence for 40 years–thank my incredibly lucky stars. But since R.A., I’ve been living with pain–gnawing, regular, always-there, wakes-me-up-in-the-morning pain. It increasingly hurts when I write at my keyboard, which is frightening because that’s about 99% of how I earn my living and feel my own creative presence in the world.

It takes some getting used to. At first it made me cry, especially in the mornings. But I learn that I can, in fact, live with pain–at least so far. I’m kind of getting to know it, abiding its presence while managing it as best as I can. I feel freest from it when I’m doing Bikram yoga, even though some asanas make me acutely aware of it. I also learn to release it, and to let my blood and body flush it through, let it go, while also trying to honor its signals. I become aware of how hard we all work to avoid pain, and how much additional negative stuff is generated through that avoidance. Now I try to breathe through pain, to move a little closer to rather than away from it, and when I do that, it somehow calms, has less power.

Through R.A. I realize that my pain is the tippy top of a gigantic iceberg relative to what other people live with every day. And each day my respect grows for the ability of so many human beings to endure pain gracefully. There is a woman in my building, whose name I shamefully don’t know, a professor with some kind of muscular disability, who looks to be in considerable daily pain. She moves extremely slowly, with the help of crutches, and her face reveals years of effort. But she always smiles and says something warm to me when we pass. How does she do this? How does she not give up?

I am allowed my experience, but I have comparatively so little to complain about. I don’t just know this rationally; I feel this as a result of R.A. People suffer hunger, homelessness, emotional neglect, disfiguring disease, chronic depression, endless war, intimate violence, massive disability, exile, death of children, loneliness. R.A., in the context of all that I have, is nothing. I have love, support, health care, 99% of my physical body still very much intact. I have all my faculties, education, a satisfying career, children in my life, sweet, understanding friends and partner and family. I have everything in the world, and even if R.A. gets worse, it’s not going to take those things away from me. What I feel, instead of unlucky, is fortunate beyond the bounds. Sometimes I get cranky and forget. But mostly, R.A. reminds me.

R.A. teaches me to listen inward. There is so much information out there about what I should do, what I should change, how I should behave, who I should listen to. But I somehow know that the only real answer is to listen inward. And to be able to do that, to access that quietest inner voice, even that faintest, whispering body-voice, I really do have to take control of the way I am living. I can’t hear the voice over the crescendo of stress about email and appointments. I muffle it if I am running myself ragged. I lose it if I am lying in bed at night, worrying over everything. But I can hear it in each second of concentrated, sweat-dripping attention in yoga, as I look at myself in that big mirrored wall and remind myself, as often as I can, that I am strong, beautiful, and able to move into each challenging posture. After 90 solid minutes of showing up in each moment to the practice, for me and no one else, but with compassion beyond me, I can hear my body in the silence. I can feel where it is out of whack, and I can attend to bringing it back to center. In those moments, it feels obvious that the more I can live this way, the more change is indeed possible from the inside out.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t give the R.A. right back to the bestower if I could. I’m saying it’s a teacher, and I’m learning.

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Here’s a preview of my latest Huffington Post rant, which should go up later today:

As the re-ascendance of Democrats in the executive and legislative branches gains something like momentum, the American right has been circling the wagons, trying to generate an ideologically coherent response. But with two unpopular wars, a trail of tears left by the previous Republican administration, and no easy class target to blame in the wake of corporate sins against humanity, an elegant political frame turns out to be more than elusive. Such a confused atmosphere provides a perfect opening through which far right populists and other extremists can sneak onto microphoned podiums (provided by Fox News), with their Obamanazi posters, Confederate flags, and Limbaugh playbook, and perform the appearance of a social movement. “Bark, bark, bark! Death panels! Socialism!” Et cetera.

With every new grotesque display of toxic populism, the American left looks on in an even more grotesquely amused contempt. These flannel-shirted, truck stop cap-wearing, angry white people are ducks in a barrel: we revel in every opportunity to pick ‘em off. As a self-identified lefty, I suggest we take a deep breath and ratchet the hubris back a notch. The first clue to understanding a monster is to look at what disavowed part of ourselves we let it carry for us.

The American right has lots of bugaboos, sure: racial and sexual minorities; secular humanists; liberals; Europeans and socialists (what’s the difference, right?). But the modern left has the right as its permanent Creature from the Black Lagoon. Even more conveniently, the left has the right’s history of racism, the bloodstain on its nightshirt, onto which we can cathect all our hostilities in one easy swing. “Those sickos,” we like to shout. “They’ve got Klan robes in their closets, they blocked the way to civil rights—they’re all nasty Nazis [fascists, pedophiles, etc.] deep down!” Subtext: “We’re so much better than them.”

This sentiment showed up in its classic form in Michelle Goldberg’s Alternet piece yesterday, and it went the one step further that the left is really fond of taking: conflating the Christian right with the racist far right and thereby dismissing as disingenuous every effort Christians have made in the last fifteen years to address racism in their history. Subtext: “See, those guys are fakers!”

I’m not a Christian myself (though I admit to being a big admirer of the man they worship), but I’ve been tracking evangelical racial change efforts and their relationship with American political culture for what seems like most of my adult life. (Someday my book on this will come out, if it doesn’t slay me first.) So I know that it’s important to point out, as Goldberg does, that some Christians (and not just conservatives) were certainly in bed with white supremacists in America’s long history, and racism has always been powerful enough to infiltrate even the most Agape-endorsing religions. I know that black radical evangelicals like Harlem’s Tom Skinner were calling white Christians to face the racist music for years before the latter took up the cross of racial reconciliation and “healing of the past” in forums like Bill McCartney’s Promise Keepers.

But I have also sat in countless churches, conferences, and living rooms and watched white Christians and their counterparts of color dig deep into their faith and deeper into their consciences to find a way to reach across the gulf that racism and resultant segregation has created in American Christian communities. It’s often awkward, it’s never perfect, and it sometimes involves faith-based rituals like footwashing that make outsiders squeamish. But it’s real, it’s emotionally genuine, and it’s one of the few paths to social change in matters of race in socially conservative communities that is, in fact, ideologically coherent, if you actually believe the Bible. Compared to the “diversity forums” and “difference” encounters I’ve participated in through academic and political settings, which, after all these years, still often manage to degenerate into the Oppression Olympics, evangelical racial change efforts are refreshingly vulnerable. I have recently turned my attention to multiracial church-building efforts, tracking one downtown Denver church as a case study over the last year, and it’s been amazing to watch so many conservative white Christians acknowledge all that they don’t know about race, and try to learn. I’d love to see my secular leftie allies exert that kind of effort in facing their own ghouls.

I’ve also seen the presumably racially correct secular world up close, through my position in academia, and witnessed how deeply and subtly racism still penetrates it. In our arts and social sciences division at DU of over 70 professors, I can count the number of tenure-track faculty of color on one hand. In the university’s service and maintenance position ranks, the demographics are reversed. Racism is not just a product of socioeconomic and systemic inequalities; it’s also a product of individual and institutional choices. Or look at the racial demographics of executive directors of left-wing nonprofits: 95% white. University chancellors? Law firm partners? Newspaper editors? Yup, you got it. But it’s the right that’s racist. I’m all for calling racism when it’s happening, but as Jesus himself put it: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

And here’s the other thing we don’t like to deal with on the left: social conservatism in this country, and the homo-hating that goes with it, is deeply multiracial. If you think African Americans’ role in swinging Prop 8 was overstated, check out the depth of black religiosity and conservatism in this Pew report. Religion runs deep in American communities of color, and homophobia is usually part of that faith- and culture-based package. It is a serious political mistake to lump all the hate and intolerance in this country onto the right; it keeps us from having our own perhaps far more difficult conversations.

Freud and Jung had it right when they observed that in creating monsters we both disavow our own darknesses and project ourselves the hero. In so doing, we repress our ugliness and create a distorted other. We’d do well to remember that this process is exactly how the right produced its Ted Haggards and Mark Sanfords.

Do we really need any more hollow heroes slaying demons? Let’s stop sweeping every conservative subculture into the dustbin of far-right racism in order to feel righteous.

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Yesterday I was fortunate to attend a “Soul and Role” session on my campus. These groups, organized by our wonderful campus Chaplain, offer an opportunity for faculty and staff to come together periodically and have a conversation about our relative journeys to connect our professional lives to our “whole” selves. The framework is inspired by Parker Palmer’s work. We always start with a poem and then go around and share what lines, images, phrases stood out for us individually and why.

Just about every line of Chuang Tzu’s 12th Century poem below resonated for me about the challenge of showing up to any creative activity, especially the big ones. Here’s to hoping it resonates for all my fellow writers, artists, workers, and creators (which we all are) reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

***

THE WOODCARVER

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
and begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

– Chuang Tzu
from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

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