On Being A Tough Old Bird

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I’m generally what’s known as a “tough old bird.” My doctors have often marveled at my ability to handle even the most intense pain. I suppose that can be a good thing or a definite flaw. Both of my grandmothers were like me, or rather I am like they were. One almost died because she carried on as usual with a ruptured appendix until the infection in her body sent her uncharacteristically to bed. The other grandmother ignored the symptoms of her cancer until the tumors had overwhelmed her body. Like them, I don’t like to complain about any aches or pains or strange symptoms I may have, so when my right arm began to hurt about a month ago I did my best to simply ignore the pain that seemed to increase just a bit more with each passing day. I had convinced myself that it was no big deal.

We were on a glorious vacation when the twinges first began, and there was no way that I was going to interrupt our joy by even mentioning my arm. During the daytime hours I was able to put the pain out of my thoughts, but at night I was tossing and turning while a worrisome throbbing kept me from enjoying my usual slumbers. I convinced myself to just deal with my situation in the hopes that upon my return to my more comfortable bed all would soon be well. I soldiered through without mentioning a word just as I usually do in such circumstances.

Our homecoming was filled with a flurry of activity. We had mountains of laundry, scheduled appointments, so many things that required our full attention. The daylight hours continued to keep my mind from becoming too obsessed with the pain that was gnawing at me twenty four seven. I began to think of people with chronic pain disorders and felt a sense of kinship with them that I had never before realized. 

My nights were horrific. In the dark I wanted nothing more than just to be able to sleep. I was exhausted and yet my body was screaming at me. No matter how I breathed or turned or meditated I was unable to find a comfortable spot that would allow me to doze for more than twenty or thirty minutes at a time. I began to retire for bed as late as possible and arise while it was still dark outside. One night I even quietly left my bed and snuck to another room so as not to disturb my snoring husband. I cried like a baby, something that I had never before done, even after major surgeries and broken bones. I was mostly exhausted and grouchy and feeling hopelessly depressed. 

I knew it was time to contact my doctor even though I worried that I was just being silly and that he would think I was a neurotic hypochondriac. I wanted to be strong, but I felt so weak and surrendering was not my style. Nonetheless, I had to find a way to rid myself of the pain that would not release me. I became a grumpy growling bear in order to push through the delays for getting some kind of medical care. 

It took a week to get the answers I needed and in the meantime some wonderful friends unknowingly kept me sane by spending hours talking with me and no doubt wondering what had brought on my almost manic chattiness. Even I was worried that after dodging the mental illness gene from my mother and grandmother for decades, perhaps my days of being centered and sane had finally passed. I would look in the mirror and wonder how I had become this way. My moodiness and tendency to dissolve in tears was all so new to me. 

Last Friday I finally saw a doctor and his team. They were fabulous. They assured me that my pain was real and had been caused by a torn rotator cuff. They were kind, understanding, willing to take a great deal of time to listen to me even as I told them how I had worried that I was losing my mind. 

I got an injection of cortisone in my shoulder. The next day I began taking Methylprednisolone. I  swallowed the last pill from that pack this morning. Tomorrow I will begin to rely on anti-inflammatory medications for the pain that has already subsided significantly. I have an appointment with a physical therapist and a follow up appointment with the doctor. Even though the pain is not completely gone it has lessened enough to allow me to sleep. I’ve felt like a teenager as I’ve slumbered in nine to ten hour shifts. My calmness and and sense of strength has already returned. It feels good just to be able to accomplish a normal thing like just being the me that I have always been. 

I feel more understanding after my ordeal. I have thought of myself as a woman of steel. I often wondered about people who seemed unable to pull themselves through difficult times without falling apart. I prided myself in being logical and unwilling to surrender to emotional outbursts, and yet a bit more pain than I had ever before experienced pushed me right over the edge, even though I hid my reality from most of the people I encountered. 

Sometimes the most courageous thing that we might do is to admit that we are hurting and in trouble. Allowing our pain and concerns to fester until we are on the brink of a mental crisis is a very dangerous way to be. I knew that to be true because of my years of caring for my mentally ill mother, and yet I fell into a trap of self deception and hid my fears. It was only the grinding physical agony I was feeling that pushed me to humble myself by asking for help. 

It would behoove each of us to embrace both our strengths and our weaknesses with honesty. The beauty of our bodies and minds is that they both send signals to our brains when we must seek help. There is nobody on this earth who does not at one time or another have to surrender and admit to being less than perfect. 

I’m better now and feeling exactly like the person I have always been, but I know that I have somehow changed. I’m going to feel a bit more compassion for anyone who is beaten down by either physical or mental pain. I will be more inclined in the future to be honest about my own feelings as well. There are good people just waiting to help us when we are in need. Being really tough means that we are not too proud to accept their aide. 

It Really Is Okay

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As an English major I had to write many papers when I was in college. I became rather adept at researching a topic and whipping out essays at warp speed. In between all of the reading I had to do and the many tests I had to take, I could ill afford to fall behind in creating written works worthy of presenting to my professors. Sadly the time ultimately came when I experienced a frightening case of writer’s block. I had a number of assignments coming due, and for some reason I was unable to even create an opening sentence much less an entire paper. It was a terrifying experience as the days went by and I still found no inspiration despite Herculean efforts to overcome my mental block. 

I remember sitting at a table just staring at the keys on my computer and becoming more and more terrified of something that had always been natural for me. I worried that I would have to miss a deadline for the first time in my life if I was unable to ease the anxiety that had built to a boiling point in my brain. Thus I began a series of activities designed to relax and unlock the encapsulation of my thoughts. 

I took a nap. I watched some inane television. I laughed at corny jokes from my husband. I went out shopping just for fun. Each time I would return to the task of writing my essay it was as though I had somehow become brainless. Nothing whatsoever flowed from my mind. 

I thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald and how he had created one of the greatest works of all time, only to struggle later to find the words he needed for another masterpiece. The mental anguish that he endured lead him to heavy drinking and a dark depression that overcame his creative instincts. I’m hardly in the same wheelhouse as Fitzgerald, but somehow I understood his dilemma in that moment because words had always come to me so easily, and now it was as though I had become mute. 

As I sat feeling overwhelmed my husband brought me a cold beer. I looked at him incredulously because I have never in my life been a beer drinker. There is nothing about that brew that is tantalizing to me. I’m more of a wine person, but beer is what we had on hand, so beer is what I got. I argued that if I drank the beer I would get drowsy and need to sleep just at the time when I had to get the work done one way or another. My husband insisted that I needed to relax and so he popped the top on a beer for himself as well, and we sat sipping our drinks and talking about anything that came to our minds. Somehow just forgetting my issues for a moment felt so good, and I soon found myself smiling and laughing and putting things into perspective. 

I realized that I did not have to create the best essay ever. All I needed was to fulfill the requirement one way or another. I set to work just putting random thought about the topic into enough words and paragraphs to earn an average grade based on the professor’s rubric. I knew that it wasn’t the best thing I had ever written, but I went to sleep that night knowing that it was okay just to be ordinary now and again. I slumbered like a baby for the first time in days.

The irony is that my teacher actually raved about my paper to the entire class. I received a perfect grade on the piece and the adulation of my peers. I never told anyone that I had thought of it as a mishmash of unrelated ideas that made little sense. I had thrown it together like a pot of soup made from leftovers, but somehow it turned out to be delicious. 

I try to write a weekday blog with great regularity. There are times when I find myself feelings as though I have nothing of worth to say. Sometimes I punt and somehow kick my ideas over the goal post. I never really know what will impress my readers and what will not. In fact, I’m not so sure who my readers are, or even if I have any. I may be like some unknown soul playing the cello fairly well for no one but himself. Writing is something I do because it brings me great joy. it is fun for me and a kind of selfish pleasure. 

I suspect that people enjoy my descriptions of people that I have known. I’m also fairly certain that they do not like my blogs that become a bit political or preachy. Editorials tend to always turn off some of the readers no matter what the content, so writing them is rather risky. I’d do better to stay less controversial and just stick with pleasantries, but writing is something I do to challenge myself, just as an athlete pushes the envelope of endurance. 

If you haven’t guessed, today was one of those times when I seemed to be low on ideas. I suppose we all get that way in whatever we are attempting to do. I cried tears of happiness this morning for Simone Biles because she got back on that balance beam and began her journey of excellence once again. It wasn’t her all time best performance, but the smile on her face as she received a bronze medal told me how relieved she was that some of her fears were fading away. She is a courageous woman who has been unafraid to admit to the anxieties that overcame her. We all owe her a round of applause for showing us how to embrace our human frailties. Such moments come to even us ordinary souls, and it really is okay.

Let’s Do This Now!

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I woke up this morning with so many things preying on my mind. Like everyone I had hoped to be returning to a kind of normalcy after a year of Covid-19. For a few fabulous weeks it really felt as though the worst of the problems of the last months were behind us. It’s been disappointing to see a rise in Covid-19 cases across the country and in multiple parts of the world, but I suppose it was inevitable. We are all weary of the challenges and sacrifices and anxieties associated with the virus. We just want it to go away, but surely know that it doesn’t care what we think. It is determined to stay alive and well in the world. Our job is to outsmart it if possible.

I always knew that viruses have the ability to mutate to stay strong. I guess I just hoped that this one would not realize that it had that power. Wishful thinking has never been my strongest suit, but old habits die hard even though experience has taught me to know better. I suppose that what we humans have to do is be even more adaptable than the virus. Doing that is complicated by our superior ability to think. We don’t just automatically shift to one way of surviving like the more ignorant virus. We have to ponder our moves, and in the process we end up all over the place, challenging one another as to who is doing the right thing. So about half of us are vaccinated and willing to wear masks and half want nothing to do with the jab or coverings over the mouths. Our very human natures are exhibiting behaviors that have existed for centuries and caused all kinds of chaos in the process. It has only been when we came together in a spirit of cooperation that truly great things have occurred.

I am trying to use logic rather than emotion. I figure that all of those doctors who are vaccinating themselves and their family members would not be involved in a hoax or some devious desire to harm us all. If taking the vaccine and wearing masks is good enough for them, then it is good enough for me. I hear many reasons why others prefer to avoid the shots. Some worry about long term negative effects of which we are not yet aware. Others have medical conditions that preclude receiving the vaccines. There are those who eschew vaccines of every kind for religious reasons. Then I hear of those who simply believe that the Covid-19 virus is a hoax that has been politically motivated. Some even say that they do not want the vaccine because it will make Democrats look good. 

I can accept the more personal and legitimate reasons like medical conditions, religious reasons, and even some wariness of the inoculation. What angers me are people who somehow think that some dark force is out to ruin us as a nation by inventing a medical emergency that is not real. I cannot understand how they can justify their beliefs when it would mean that the entire world is in on the conspiracy including virtually every doctor and nurse who has treated Covid patients. It is a bizarre theory that is hurting our effort to stop the virus in its tracks. 

As for those who speak of their freedom of choice, I would submit that at the very least they should be willing to wear masks when in public for the sake of precaution. We stop at a red light even when nobody is coming in any direction. We wear our seatbelts when the roadway appears to be empty. We get medical checkups when we feel perfectly healthy. We participate in many community activities for the betterment of society, even when we may not want to do so. How many children would actually choose to go to school if we did not require them to do so? It makes sense that sometimes the common welfare demands us to forego our own wishes and bend just a bit to make sure that most of us are safe.

I am fully vaccinated. My reaction to the jab was minimal. I felt achy and a bit off for one day after my second dose. Since then I have not had a single negative symptom. I carry masks with me wherever I go, and while I totally hate the discomfort of wearing them, I do so lest I might be spreading the virus without symptoms. I don’t want to make somebody sick, especially anyone who has made the choice not to vaccinate. Do I deserve a medal for doing what I do? The answer is a firm, “No!” Doing what I believe to be proper is simply a matter of attempting to be kind. My mask reassures people that I am thinking of them.

The physics of wearing a mask is interesting. My mask protects others but does not protect me. My mask keeps my germs contained. When someone else wears a mask, they help to make sure that their germs do not get on me. When we both wear masks the environment is safer for both of us. It makes me very happy when I am in the presence of people decked out in their face coverings. It shows me that they care about me and the people around me. What could be more wonderful than that?

I would love to see everyone vaccinated, but know that such a thing may never happen. I actually worry a great deal about those who refuse because I have already seen individuals forego the opportunity to get the immunity who contracted the virus and died. It makes me anxious that so many are taking such great risks. 

I also understand that those who cannot take the vaccine or those who have auto-immune diseases are living in a hellish kind of limbo until we can get the virus under better control. They  are weary of being shut away because so many are unwilling to help them even in the simplest of ways like wearing a mask or being honest when they contract Covid-19. Everyone is entitled to privacy, but sometimes it is dangerous to keep vital information to ourselves. 

I am still a cockeyed optimist. I think that we can increase the number of willing participants in the vaccination movement. I’d be happy to talk with anyone who has concerns. I’d like to think that more and more people will lovingly don their masks even if they don’t even think they work. We have the ability to cooperate and fool the virus, but we have to be a united team to do that. As long as there are places for Covid-19 to hide, it will keep bringing suffering and death to us. Let’s get smart. Let’s love a little. Let’s do this now!

The Marrow of the World

I vividly recall the first time that I rode along Trail Ridge Road. My husband Mike had business in Denver and asked me to come with him. I was enrolled in a course at the University of Houston and had a great deal of studying to do, but realized that I would be able to complete my reading assignments and write my paper while Mike was taking care of his own work. Our moms agreed to watch our two little girls and we were soon flying away on an unexpected vacation. 

I spent most of the first day inside our hotel room enjoying room service and quiet as I dutifully completed assignments for the course I was taking. By mid afternoon I had accomplished more than I would have if I had stayed at home. Mike burst into the room with a big grin and announced that he too had finished his work for the day and told me to get ready to go to Rocky Mountain National Park. We excitedly dressed for the outing and were soon barreling down the road toward the mountains. 

If was late spring, almost summer, and we were dressed more appropriately for the warm days of Houston, Texas in May. We didn’t really think about the difference in temperatures on a mountain, nor even that the roads there might be closed because of snow. Luckily Trail Ridge Road had just reopened a couple of days before, so we would be able to traverse its length without trouble. Nonetheless what had been a sunny day in Denver had change to an overcast and somewhat foggy and bitterly cold environment inside the park. 

I remember a point along our journey to the top of Trail Ridge Road when the scenes became so breathtaking that I actually found myself crying tears of emotional joy at the very thought that anything could be so beautiful. I oohed and awed over and over again as we passed vistas unlike anything I had ever before seen. Because of the dreary weather and the time of day it seemed as though we were the only two people on the mountain, rarely passing another human being. I fell madly in love with the place and felt a spiritual connection with the mountains that would remain with me for the rest of my days. 

I’ve been back to repeat that journey so many times that I have lost count. When I am not there I long to be so. I’ve hiked along the trails and walked leisurely along the periphery. These days my age and my bad knees keep me mostly riding in my car, but no matter how I get there, I love those mountains like no other place on this earth. The connection I feel with them is visceral, almost haunting. There are spots that bring me to tears every single time. I feel the glory of our planet there and somehow I hear the voices of all the people who have walked there. I’ve seen those mountains in the changing seasons, the different times of day, under varying weather conditions. Each iteration is magnificent and a soothing force on my heart. 

The final destination of our recent vacation was Rocky Mountain National Park. We retraced our steps over the hallowed ground that we had traveled so many times. It was not as quiet as our first encounter because July is high tourist season, but because of the pandemic we had to have a reservation to enter the park. There were fewer cars moving along the roads, and so it felt as though nature had somewhat reclaimed its dominion over the place. I actually enjoyed it even more than I had in recent years. 

We had traveled to the park last fall and wanted to see what the fires that came after our visit had done to the area near Grand Lake where we had delighted in the beauty of groves of multicolored aspen trees. Sadly we found that huge swaths of land had burned. Still there was great hope in the tiny patches of green that were sprouting from the desolation. It will be years before the area returns to its former glory, but the restoration process has begun. The mountains will heal just as they have always done. I plan to return to watch as the process unfolds.

We spent all of our time in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was why we had detoured before returning home, and what we had come to see. I felt refreshed and ready to return to the realities and challenges of the world after seeing my favorite sights one more time. I suspect that if I am lucky I will return many more times before my traveling days are done. 

I suppose that everyone has a favorite place. Some people like the ocean. Others enjoy exciting cities or recreations. I would be incredibly content to spend all of my vacations in those mountains. All I would really need is a porch and a chair and a good view of the peaks along with an occasional drive along Trail Ridge Road. The steadfastness of the mountains is enough for me. It’s been said that the Rocky Mountains are “the marrow’ of the world. That is what they are for me, the heart of what soothes my soul. They are a place that calls to me over and over again, and each time I hear that cadence in my mind, I know that I must go.

The Mountains Were Calling

It’s almost impossible for me to pass on any opportunity to visit Colorado. I suppose that if I were wealthier I would have a home in that beautiful state and either stay permanently or travel there many times each year. So when we visited Santa Fe, New Mexico on our vacation it made perfect sense to add a few days on to our adventure and head north into the Rocky Mountains. 

I get a thrill each time we drive through Raton Pass. It signals our official arrival into Colorado and my heart literally bursts with joy. We’ve made that journey so many times, and somehow it never gets old. So when we pulled our trailer along the route I fairly danced with joy at the prospect of seeing my beloved mountains at least one more time. 

Just beyond the pass is Trinidad, Colorado, a small town that is home to a state park that where we often camped in a tent when our children were young. It was always just an overnight adventure where we dreamed of the real wonders that lie ahead. I laugh each time we pass through Trinidad because I recall a time from long ago when my brother Pat and his two sons accompanied us on a vacation to Colorado Springs. As usual we stopped at the park in Trinidad after a long day of driving. We found a great spot for pitching our tents and enjoyed Pat’s innovative camping style as he installed an incredibly long extension cord that he used to run a fan inside his tent. He laughingly suggested that he would be willing to make french fries in a Fry Daddy if we were so inclined. Of course he didn’t actually have a Fry Daddy with him, but once we thought about it, we decided it would not have been a bad idea.

On our recent trip we continued past Trinidad and headed toward Colorado Springs. Once we had set up our trailer in the campground we did a bit of exploring. We had visited the Air Force Academy multiple times and I would be the first to suggest a visit there to anyone who has never gone to the campus. The church in particular is a stunning work of architecture that should not be missed. Nonetheless, since our time was limited on this journey we chose to skip the Academy this time around. The same was true for a journey up Pike’s Peak because we were a bit turned off by the the rather expensive price tag of driving there. At fifteen dollars a person it somehow did not fill us with excitement given that we’ve made the trip many many times.

We might have gone to the Garden of the Gods. It is a rather remarkable site of unusual outcroppings of rock that attract climbers who perform the most amazing feats and seem to be suspended magically in the air. Instead we chose to travel to Cripple Creek, an old mining town in the mountains that in recent years has been transformed by casinos. We had not been there for decades, and our memory of the place was that of an almost ghostly town of tattered buildings that had once thrived during the gold rush days. Decades ago we had taken an old 1920s era road that cut through one way tunnels and was so narrow in places that only one car at a time could get by. It was quite an adventure leading that we found to be both beautiful and thrilling. 

Now there is a major modern highway leading to the town that is nonetheless filled with lovely vistas and a kind of preview of the beauty of mountain life. We hardly noticed the time as we drove through canyons dotted with summer wildflowers and marveled at the sites that greeted us along each curve. We did not yet have our mountain legs or lungs so our ears did a great deal of popping and we felt a slight tinge of mountain sickness creeping into our heads. Nonetheless we were delighted at every single turn.

Cripple Creek has been spiffied up with newly painted and renovated buildings along with grand hotels and casinos that were not there when we visited for the first time so long ago, but the ruins of the old mines remain, telling a silent story of a time when folks dreamed of finding gold in the hills and earning a fortune. Now the adventure lies inside the casinos which we had no desire to visit. In fact we laughed that we’d sooner take a pick and shovel and walk among the mine trailings in search of a shiny rock of gold. I suspect that our odds of making it rich would be about the same as gambling with our money in a slot machine. 

An active mining company remains in Cripple Creek and on the day we visited there was a great deal of activity on its premises. A little train takes visitors on tours and looks like it might be fun and informative but the day was late and we were ready to return to our trailer for a night’s rest in anticipation of our journey to Fort Collins where we planned to stay while we toured Rocky Mountain National Park. The mountains were calling us and we knew that we must go.