On becoming sedated (The Recovery Series)

I’m lying in my bed. It’s been a while, but I don’t remember pain like this. Even the brilliant drugs that they give you in the hospital doesn’t work. So what best to do with pain but to write. This is my recovery series. It mightn’t make much sense. I blame the pain. 

Day surgery. I love the concept. It seems as if it’s all sorted in the matter of a day. What comes next in terms of healing is beside the point, but the day is all that’s needed to put things right. Politicians have surgeries. Police have surgeries. It’s a neat little concept.

We all got there at 7:45 and were taken, one by one, into a marvellously pristine ward. We were all positioned in chairs, neatly to the right of our beautifully made beds (which turned out the be the trolleys on which we would all be getting whatever cut open or cut out, asleep or not, but whatever, again, beside the point). Just to the front of us, out of reach, were our own, individual blood pressure machines. It was our very own medicinal ‘Cell Block Tango’ and I kept expecting someone to burst into song. The order of it was mesmerising. There was a single, polite cough into the silence. And then the overture began. The conversations trickled in then swelled to a steady crescendo. Each made their entrance – nurses, anaesthetists, doctors, surgeons, more nurses. The chorus of questions in counterpoint – names, dates of birth, allergies, removal of jewellery and makeup (though who could bother to put on jewellery and makeup at 7:45 in the morning, I would never know), previous surgeries, knowledge of the procedures, consent forms, ifs, ands, why, buts and wherefores. The costumes were put on, the gowns – open at the back, anti-embolism socks – for those pesky veins, robes – to hide the openings at the back, slippers – to complete the sock look, wrist band – to remind you of who you were meant to be playing in this scene. And just like that the hubbub abated, as the swirling orchestra of gowned and masked professionals went off to prepare for their own special scenes. Astounding.

And then the wait.

I took with me my textbooks for my child development course for my psychology degree. I figured if I had to wait for four hours (and I did), I might as well make the most of the time and the quiet. There was a little fear gliding around the room. But fear, for the most part, is silent, especially in a room full of dignified women holding desperately on to whatever dignity remained in an open-backed gown. I also took with me one of the best books I have ever owned, a Christmas present from one who loves me more than I will ever deserved to be loved. It is called ‘Philosophy For Life – and Other Dangerous Situations’ by Jules Evans. And it is an awesome book.

In it I was reading about the Stoics, about our overly optimistic expectations and the art of lowering it. About managing our anger and the flexibility of our will to know that we cannot control the other but we can control how we receive that with which we are presented in this world. That we can know ourselves, or at least come to know ourselves, and that we do not have to mindlessly be governed by emotion or irrational thought. This is not an argument for thinking over feeling, but for the existence of both without prejudice or control. I read about the modern Stoics’ constant efforts, and of each man’s journey to live well in the life that he was given and thought that there was hope for this world yet. And I wondered if I could ever truly understand how to live in the moment with peace, relinquishing control, or need, or pride and understanding that wherever I was, was where I was, and nothing more.

And then it was my turn to be wheeled in. And I chatted with my doctor and my anaesthetist about their children and the great hope I have for the young people of this world who will have to be more creative than we have ever had to be to make a life for themselves (that in another post). We talked about psychology and theatre, religion and wars. And then my doctor said, ‘But at least today, for this moment, in this room, there is no war. Here in this moment, there is only peace.’ My universe tilted ever so slightly and I could see exactly the meaning of it all; people coming together, in one place, with nothing in common but a common objective, for only a fleeting slice of life that was just a drop in the ocean of history that had already been made and was yet to be made. It meant everything and nothing all at the same time. And I didn’t have to control or understand any of it.

The first of my anaesthetic was injected then. And I said aloud, ‘Wow, I didn’t realise that it would work this quickly.’


Published in: on February 22, 2013 at 7:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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On becoming body aware (The Recovery Series)

I’m lying in my bed. It’s been a while, but I don’t remember pain like this. Even the brilliant drugs that they give you in the hospital don’t work. So what best to do with pain but to write. This is my recovery series. It mightn’t make much sense. I blame the pain.

In the middle of last year, my breast started to bleed.

Just like that, no explanation, no trauma, no illness. It just started to bleed. I dutifully went to my GP, but as appointments are hard to come by, by the time I got into the doctor’s office, the bleeding had stopped. I was told to go away and to keep and eye on it. I trust doctors, so I went away and forgot all about it. At Christmas time, the bleeding returned. Back to the doctor. Quickly to the hospital. An examination, ultrasound and mammogram later and soon I was in surgery.

Abnormal cells.

Cells, so tiny, so significant. All merrily working away, specialising, doing their thing. All with their function, single-mindedly fulfilling their only known duty – to build, to grow, to survive. They have no meaning, no purpose, no malice. They are just cells, merrily living their cell-life, doing their cell-thing.

But their cell-thing could kill me.

You become so acutely aware of your ‘self’ when you are told that your ‘self’ is broken in one way or another. I became so aware of my skin, aware of sensations on and in my body. I became aware of my breasts, and this time not just to bemoan their size and the inadequacies of engineering that befell them regularly. My breasts – they were mine. And inside of them something was attacking me.

Except it wasn’t attacking me. It was just doing what it did. It didn’t have me in mind. It wasn’t holding a grudge against me. It wasn’t plotting or planning my demise. It wasn’t jealous, or fed up of me. It wasn’t trying to rise above me, or hold me back. It was just doing what it did, in its own way, with no knowledge of my existence. In fact, with no knowledge at all.

So I became body aware, not in the sense of finally understanding the frailty of it all, the underlying fragility of life. I knew that anyway, you merely had to turn the news on and watch tens of thousands die, or just the one, senselessly shot by one who loved her the most. I didn’t need reminding that ours was a feeble flame, shaking against a mighty wind, resilient but vulnerable. But I became aware of the meaningless-ness of things. Of the fact that things just are, that they happen and then other things happen and that this life is just a series of happenings one after the other, affected by or affecting other things. And that all we can do is get on with it

And hope, because we have knowing, that how we act will have meaning.

And know, because we have hope, the the actions of others might not mean what we think.

Published in: on February 21, 2013 at 8:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Hold it loosely

Things are as they are. Yet sometimes there is a reaching in us, a grasping, to be right. Sometimes we churn ourselves up when another tells us what is right with that we think is wrong. Inside, we object to their opinion. We are angry that they feel they have the right to tell us what is right. And we bear that anger with us as we carry on with my work. We carry our work and our anger in our tightened fists.

But of course they have a right. The have as much right as anyone else who wants to express themselves and appear as if they come from a place of knowledge. Why should their right upset us so? Why should their opinion trouble us?

It is because we are holding on so tightly to what we feel is ours.

But it is not ours.

Then we get angry at our anger. And we beat ourselves up for not being able to be benign.

But everything is as it is, without meaning. Everyone is trying to make their best way in the world. Everyone is trying to make their mark. So let them.

Why should their mark even slightly affect the way that we are going?

People try to quarrel with you. Leave the quarrel with them. Agree with them, or not. But do not take the quarrel with you when it is past. For they do not do the same.

We must learn to hold it loosely, or else we will perish.

Published in: on January 8, 2013 at 11:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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Looking for the tree

The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms. – Thich Nhat Hahn

There is a thing I like to say, often when I am frustrated by something – money, work, uncertainty… I say that ‘all I want to do is to sit beneath a tree. I would live simply on bread and cheese and wine and contemplate life and this world and the people in it. And I would talk to the people and drink from their wisdom. Living simply, beneath my tree.’

I am sure we all do this, when life gets too hustly-bustly and hectic, when things get complicated, when decisions have to be made or can’t be made quick enough, when we’re waiting for life to begin (spot the musical reference anyone?). We all yearn for a quiet life, a beach, a forest, a countryside, a mountain. Somewhere we can gently press the brakes of time, make stillness real and hear nothing but our breath and a whisper of nature. I long for my tree sometimes. And sometimes I make plans to set out to find it.

And strangely, on a crowded train full of people and January sales shopping bags and screaming babies, I sat beneath my tree. I found my tree within the pages of a book, of course, with Charles Mingus streaming into my headphones. Suddenly the shoppers, plastic bags and tears faded into the non-existent breeze and I sat beneath my tree and chatted for a while with Epictetus.

And there, for twenty minutes, I was happy.

I hope you find your tree.

Published in: on January 6, 2013 at 9:38 pm  Comments (2)  
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Losing it…Finding it (Keeping my Promise.)

Confession time.

I’ve taken a small hiatus from the library, in order to go sing myself into a frenzy in a series of concerts. Four cities, four days. That’s how we roll.

I am in the company of great singers. GREAT singers. I am supported by wonderful orchestras and a dream Musical Director. THIS is what I want to do. Lift my voice, rejoice.

And I am in trouble.

I am frightened, and that fright means that I go out there and what I rehearse is not what is coming out. And the people around me say that it’s great, and I say that it’s not and they get a bit fed up of me, and I get a lot down on myself and I tell myself that people are right.

A while ago, in another job, somebody told me that I almost didn’t get the job, because the producer thought that, as far as being a singer goes, I had ‘lost it’. This producer was someone I had known, and trusted, who complimented me to my face, and who, as far as I was being told, was tearing me down behind my back. I started the show and lo and behold, prophesy became truth.

I lost it.

My voice left me at the start of my run there and I did the entire thing, raspy, limited, relying on performance and character and every day my soul light diminished a little. By the end of that show, my soul light was out.

I did learn a few other lessons along the way. I learned that I could fail. And that I could stand with that failure. I learned to laugh at myself. Those lessons came all too easily.

But I began to think that perhaps they were right. Perhaps, I did in fact lose it, and this was somewhat confirmed when I landed a role that required no singing of me, required not much of me but attention. I could pay attention. I knew how to do that much. I was put neatly and quietly into a little corner and there I stayed. For a very long time.

And now, I have to sing. And old fears are making themselves heard and become manifest. I felt I had to write it, as I sit here with pain in my throat and no solid reason for the pain but fear alone. I had to be honest about the fact that I feel that I am failing again and proving the naysayers right.

Here’s the thing.

They may be right. Perhaps my voice, with age and use and abuse and all, has in fact given up the ghost. I know for certain that the young have come and my woulda-coulda-shouldas have been sidelined to whimsy and wistful melancholia. It’s the theatrical Circle of Life. I have been savaged by the hyenas of age. I must learn a new trick.

But I have character and experience with me. And because I have learned to laugh with myself and at myself, I invite the laughter from others too. Perhaps I am not even failing, and have set myself too hard a task, to high a summit to scale, without taking into account my own limitations. A fear becomes diminished when it is named. I do know that I have found my fear and through it a courage to play the fool in front of you, forever.

Do not expect too much from my voice. The notes may no longer reside there. But, I intend to use my voice still. Because there is still so much I have to say.

Published in: on December 29, 2012 at 2:51 pm  Comments (1)  
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Doing what works

Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am currently in training to become a counselling psychologist. In my skills practice the other day, I got this feedback from my peer who was observing my session:

“I’m still unsure of your facial expression. I don’t know if it’s congruent with the gravity of the situation. The way you are really shouldn’t work here. But somehow, it does…”

Firstly I am grateful for their constructive criticism, it is the only way that I can build my skills and really know that I am presenting a spirit of openness and genuine concern to my clients and their concerns. Secondly, that statement really sparked something in my mind, a seed of an idea, that has taken root and started to bud towards becoming a central pillar in my practice and in my daily life.

In sharing with the class at the end, I offered this:

I know that we are given tools and rules for these situations. I know we must be mindful of so many things – body language, tone of voice, eye contact, open questions –  in order to ensure that the signals we send are clear to those we are trying to help. But I also know this for sure. By being told that what I do should not work, but does, I came to know that I had to remember to bring my unique self to the relationship. What I was being was congruent with myself, congruent with how positively I viewed this other person, even in light of their situation. I view humanity positively; I think, like Carl Rogers, that we do dream towards our best selves, and that we strive to the fullest expression of our individuality. Because of that, I do not frown or gaze intently at the other person. I wear my expression gently, even positively, and sometimes I even smile. I smile when the going gets tough, because I think ‘I am here for you. Know that I can bear it. Know that I believe that you can bear it. I will be present for you as you figure this out’. I believe, totally and completely, that I have to bring what is uniquely myself to the encounter, that I may have a personal and particular expression that I bring to the caring. And that is untaught.

It shouldn’t work. But it does.

What unique aspect of your self are you bringing to your difficult situation today?

Published in: on October 30, 2012 at 11:46 am  Leave a Comment  
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Every path is beautiful

On the first day of the Camino.

We set off from Tuí, after spending a night in a hotel. We didn’t sleep much, though we were in extreme comfort. We were too excited. We live completely sedentary lives, both sitting at computers during the day. I was filled with trepidation about how I would handle the 16km before me. I did not know if I would flake out in my boyfriend, if I would beg to go the rest of the way by car. I did not know if it would take me all day to cover the needed distance to get to the albergue. But it was 7 a.m. and it was time to go and all we had was the road before us.

And what a road it was.

Walking through Tui with the sun rising before us was the most beautiful thing. The little houses and the quirky roads and tunnels filled us with delight. We saw the first of our little shells and arrows that would come to be the most important thing that we had on this entire trip. We smiled and took pictures as we entered the Camino and chatted and joked as we walked along our first stretch of main road, after walking through fields of green. We left that main road and were immediately enchanted by the first of three important streams that would define what this Camino meant for us. We met the first of our fellow travellers at the first stream, but we were yet strangers and didn’t know what else to say other than ‘Buen Camino’. We washed our faces in that stream, stood on the most beautiful bridge and my heart was aching with joy as the green, the sunlight and the water sang to me. I could hear my entire life and the lives of all humanity on the ripple of the stream. I could smell the Universe in that green. My mind exploded, a tiny, gentle, slow motion explosion of nothingness. I had nothing else but to be here, to be with my love, to love and to walk. Standing on the stony bridge, what I called the ‘Hobbit Bridge’, I felt my feet on the Path. No angels sang, no heavens opened, but I felt love. And I felt my mind empty of everything.

All I wanted to do was walk.

There are times when we are so caught up in the bustle, when our mental chatter is so loud and constant that we become swept up in raging torrent of noise and to-do lists and ambitions and insecurities and stress and fear. At those times, if we can, we might find it useful, almost life-saving, to snap our minds back to where we are.  We can look at our feet, one falling in front of the other, and listen to the sound of their steps, on the pavement, up the stairs. We can concentrate on going faster, going slower, evening out our speed. We can bring our minds only to walking, and in doing so, we can let our minds rest. In doing so, we may find, that in our present moment, there is nothing else to do but walk. Walk, and be where you are.

Published in: on October 1, 2012 at 9:45 am  Comments (1)  
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Breathe without asking – W. H. Auden

An extraordinary thing happened to me the other day.

I asked for help. And I got it.

There are a lot of times where we have the conversation on our own. We know we have a request, and we stall it in our minds and our hearts, because we already know what the other is going to say. We know all the excuses, reasonings, counterpoints and arguments that will be put to us as to why our request is going to be denied. We attribute laziness, unwillingness or lack of humanity to our ‘askee’, ascribing to them all manner or personality which makes them one which does not grant favours. Perhaps our recent and not so recent past has taught us that if we ask for something we are seen as a nuisance, a bore, a busybody, or just plain troublesome, or our requests are deemed too trite to action. And so we sit with our wanting, stewing in our frustration and dissatisfaction, trying merrily to reason ourselves out of the need and failing miserably.

It is sometimes easier to just ask.

It boils down to the basic matter of trust. We have to trust that the other person is going to listen without attempting to prejudge their actions or intentions. We have to trust that one person is different from the next. We have to trust that we can know when it is right to ask and when it is beneficial to try to figure out the answer for ourselves. We have to trust that whatever the outcome of the asking, there is a a greater good to be derived from the encounter. Your resourcefulness may be tapped, your creativity called upon, your humility tested and proven.

Or you may just get what you ask for.

Published in: on September 28, 2012 at 10:37 am  Leave a Comment  
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What if?

If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to meet it – Jonathan Winter

Do you find that there are certain aspects of your life where it is almost impossible to make a decision? Are you stuck in a mindset that says ‘If I give this up now, I would have wasted 10, 15, 30 years doing this thing, and what if I’m no good at doing this other thing, and what if I take a different train and it’s delayed or in an accident or flies off to another dimension, or what if I give up this thing right at the moment it was going to work for me, or what if I eat a poppy seed bagel instead of a plain one and get an allergy?’

That’s the fretful thing about choices. For every yes, there is a no. For everything that you accept, there is something that you are rejecting. And for every possibility that you reject, there are a million ‘what ifs’ that rear their ugly little heads trying to fill your brain up with unhelpful noise and chatter. This noise only increases anxiety. And this anxiety is not useful.

What if you could shut the chattering ‘what ifs’ to hell up? What if you could say one thing that could make them offer alternative bad news until they run out of bad news, or stop and falter, stutter and fall silent? I have found a tiny sentence that works for me…

‘So what.’

If I take the wrong train, that loses me an audition for what may be the biggest show of my life and the part is given to someone else – so what? If I study for ten years and then realise or am told that I’m a crappy psychologist – so what? If the house that I bought under pressure falls down around my ears – so what?

I have found that life is a series of opportunities. And that an opportunity missed is not the last opportunity offered. This is not to make light of the difficult decisions that people have had to make, such as having to leave war torn countries, or walk out on their families, or making bad financial decisions that make life unbearable. This is only to point out that all decisions are not those, and by looking with great honesty at the scale of importance of our decision, we can gain greater perspective on what life looks like when we knowingly say goodbye to an option. I will also point out and always believe in the tenacity of the human spirit, who have risen above such difficult and tortuous decisions and created rich and full lives because they only saw opportunity where others saw hardships.

So, turn your back bravely on something that no longer serves you AT THIS TIME. Learn to say no. And learn to only bring into your vision the consequence of that to which you have said yes. You have no idea what the outcome of your unchosen path would have been. It might have been glorious. It might have been horrific. Who knows? You never will. Who cares? You never should.

Published in: on September 27, 2012 at 7:49 am  Leave a Comment  
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The promise

My humanity is a constant self-overcoming. – Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

I have been thinking a lot lately about what my purpose is in this life. What legacy do I want to leave? What mark do I want to make on this world?

I am not a mother, nor will I ever be. I doubt very much that I will invent something in this lifetime or that I will ever be a great leader. I do not even think that I will ascend the ranks of my chosen profession to esteemed heights and peer accolades.

I will be in the ranks of the ordinary, the ranks of the everyday people striving daily to earn a crust of bread and live well while doing it. This does not sadden me, in fact, it fills me with a freedom that is thrilling because I do not have the burden of greatness to attend to. But I have a desire, a burning desire to contribute to the lives of my fellow man.

It is a desire to be of service.

I pledge to you that I will always try to help. I will always try to spend the time to understand where you are, where you are coming from and where you are going. I will always try to give you the time and space you need to express yourself. I will always try to hold up the good things about you, to reflect your greatness and your goodness, to challenge your assumptions and your apathy and to stand with you in the uncomfortable times. I will always try to hear you and experience things as you experience them and let you know how I experience things and match those two up together and marvel at the similarities and differences. I will always try to confront the negative for you, to prop you up against adversity and to cheer you to your chosen finish lines. I will always try to be honest about my own hardship and the steps I take to overcome it. I will always try to be honest about the times when it it difficult to remain positive, I will give it my best shot and I will fail in front of you. I will always try to share my fear, so that you know that I do not stand above you, nor below you, but with you.

I hope that you will call me to account if you see that I am not living my best life, or being of service to you. I hope that I will be of some use.

What is your promise?

Published in: on September 26, 2012 at 11:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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