Friday, August 29, 2008

The Healing Power of Excitement

I am just astounded by the healing power of excitement.

Last summer, when it was so hard for me to move and I was in so much pain, there were 2 exciting events which involved interacting with many people. First, on June 30, 2007, our gardens were one of the 8 stops on the Amherst Garden Tour. I sat on a chair on the front porch, greeted the 311 visitors to our garden over the course of 6 hours, and was thrilled at the show of enthusiasm and delight, along with the wonderful compliments I received about our "Garden of Eden". And with the thrill and excitement of the day, I felt good in my body that day.

Then at the end of last summer -- Aug. 26, 2007 -- my daughter got married. There were times in the middle of the summer when I wondered what my physical state would be for the wedding. But following my hospital stay at the end of July 2007, I had begun to heal from the many compression fractures in my spine, and was receiving ongoing chemotherapy and physical therapy. By the end of August my dream came true: I WAS ABLE TO DANCE AT MY DAUGHTER'S WEDDING. Not only that, but I helped walk her down the aisle (true, I was also using her for support!), and I danced not one but SIX dances in all at the reception. At the time, dancing consisted of leaning on and holding on to my partner, but I didn't care HOW I danced, just that I was able to stand and move and celebrate!!

After the wedding festivities, when my daughter left town with her husband, she suggested that I have parties and as many celebrations as I could, because she noticed how I lit up when I was excited and when there was something to celebrate. I thought about her words, and took them in deeply when I realized the truth in them. And since my birthday was just 2 weeks away, I decided to have a birthday party! So less that 3 weeks after the wedding and dinner and brunch with over 120 people, I had a pot-luck dinner & birthday party with 25 friends coming over to celebrate my birthday. It was wonderful.

And as the year has gone by, I have continued to notice the healing power of excitement. If a friend comes over to see me, I not only do not notice the pain in my body, it truly isn't there, and I don't need pain medication until after the friend leaves. Or if I spend time with family now, I am so excited about being able to walk that I can walk more than I have typically walked in the last 6 months.

And with the excitement I feel, no matter what the source, when it means that I feel better in my body because of the excitement, that makes me feel emotionally even better, adding to my excitement and joy. So there is a positive feedback loop that gives me enormous amounts of energy. I am grateful, I feel good, I can use my body, and I am heaing.

And amidst all of the excitement, no matter how good I feel I still need to lie down for 2-3 hours in the afternoon to rest my spine, and that is something that I have come to love. I read, I meditate, I make phone calls, and in the good weather I lie down outside in the shade and enjoy the beauty of my "Garden of Eden".

So I have come to not only accept my situation, I EMBRACE IT -- I derive great strength from knowing that I am actively engaged in my healing and curing, and I have deep faith and trust that I am well cared for by the Universe.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Hawk Feather and the Hawk

As my back heals from spinal collapse resulting in 15 compression fractures (15 months ago) and spine surgery (3 months ago), my strength has grown to where I am able to go for a walk in the morning if I go within 2 hours of getting out of bed. I have created several routes of varying length in the neighborhood, some with hills and others which are level, some which take 30 minutes to complete and others which take closer to 45 or 50 minutes. Because my legs have been strong all along, I can walk fast (or what is fast compared to others who I pass on my walk), so my 40 minute walk is over 2 miles.

Today, as I went on my 30 minute walk, I picked up several feathers. One was a beautiful blue jay feather with a white tip and blue and black markings up the spine, and a few were nondescript, grayish in color, from what bird I do not know. Also on this day, because of road construction, I retraced my steps on the return home rather than walk in a loop. So I was quite surprised when I was returning close to home that I noticed a feather on the ground that I had passed by 20 minutes earlier. Maybe I had been looking at something else at the time.

The feather was white and mostly fluff, about 2 inches long, and I almost didn't pick it up. But I bent down, picked the feather up and turned it over, and was amazed to find that I was holding a gorgeous small red-tailed hawk feather, with the distinctive light brown markings up the spine. I was elated.

I am always on the lookout for red-tailed hawk feathers, because there is a nesting pair of these hawks within 1 mile of our house. I often see and/or hear the hawks, not only here at home, but 1 mile away at the Sunwheel -- flying, or soaring, or looking for food. At the Sunwheel, the hawks often sit on the tall standing stones to get a good view of the movement of live food on the ground.

So today, when I found the hawk feather close to home, it was a reminder to take my camera and new zoom lens with me to the Sunwheel in hopes of photographing the hawk up close. And what a gift that hawk feather turned out to be. Sure enough, a hawk was at the Sunwheel, standing on the field of grass that had been recently mowed, about 300 feet from the road. I attached the zoom lens to my camera before I got out of the car so I would be ready to take pictures when I made my presence known, and started taking pictures as soon as I got out of the car. As I walked closer to the hawk, I pointed the camera to focus and take a picture -- the camera (a digital SLR Canon Rebel XTi) makes a tiny beeping noise as it focuses. So the hawk noticed me and/or the beeping noise, and she started to fly.

I took pictures as fast as I could, not really knowing if the hawk was in the image or not. In fact, the hawk had flown to a branch in the tree right over my head. I continued to take pictures, and then the hawk flew to a bare branch in the tree, always looking around for food. I continued to take pictures until it was time for me to rest my back.

At that point I looked down on the grass and saw another hawk feather, larger than the one I had found in the morning. I picked it up, and said a prayer of thanks to the hawk and to the Universe for the amazing gifts of this day. What a wonderful adventure this is!

To view my nature photos, go to my Astronomy and Spirituality web site.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Magical Organic Blueberries

I love blueberries. And at the end of the summer, the local crop of these tasty berries makes them easily available.

So as I drove past a fresh fruit and vegetable stand last week, I stopped to buy some blueberries for a friend I was going to visit. As I selected the box I would buy, I asked, "Are these organic?" And the answer was no. But I bought them anyway so I would have them for my friend.

I didn't buy any for myself, though. I would wait until I could find organic berries, since I am making every effort to eat organic food.

So I visited my friend, and then had one of my Feldenkrais bodywork sessions. On the way home, as I was driving the same route I had traveled earlier in the day, lo and behold there was a folding table in a driveway with a large sign that read "Organic Blueberries".

I had already passed it by the time the words registered, so I backed up to the driveway and parked. As I got out of the car, an elderly man walked to meet me. $4 a pint for the tastiest organic blueberries around, he said. Taste one, he said. Someone had just bought 10 pints, and he only had 4 left. Hand screened by his wife, he said, so there were no stems. Just the best berries.

So I tasted one of the large, dark blue berries, and its deliciousness exploded in my mouth. I bought 2 pints.

And after getting back in my car I laughed. I was sure those berries had not been there earlier in the day. I gave thanks to the Universe for granting me my wish for organic blueberries, and I felt overjoyed and blessed by the magical gift. Life is truly amazing.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Night to Remember -- Anniversary in the ER

This post continues the story of what happened after my bowel shut down due to chemo (see post of 8/20/08).

I was taken by ambulance to the ER just before midnight on July 24, 2007 -- needless to say, it was quite a dramatic way for my partner and I to celebrate our 15th anniversary together. I was in a great deal of back pain from the collapse of my spine, so shortly after beginning the ambulance ride I was given morphine. I remember watching what landmarks I could make out through the small upper windows of the ambulance, and paying attention to our progress by the turns we were making.

After arriving at the ER, I was put in a room where I waited. I remember doing a lot of waiting that night. I was waiting for a doctor to help me, waiting to digest my dinner, waiting to poop, waiting to feel better. I couldn't have felt much worse. Luckily I didn't have to wait for my family -- my partner and daughter drove to the ER and stayed with me that night.

I have never been so uncomfortable in my life. It seemed that my body was becoming overwhelmed with systems that didn't work. My skeletal system was incapable of holding me up, and caused me a great deal of pain. But the real reason for being in the ER was the shutting down of my bowel. My digesting dinner could not go into my intestines, which were already full with 5 days of food, so instead of moving through my system in the usual way, the food was going up and down my esophagus and burning my throat in the process.

My body was toxic to me, and I was in a sort of stupor from the morphine. I was in so much pain and discomfort, lying there on a bed in a darkened room in the ER in the wee hours of the morning, that I didn't care if I died that night. It breaks my heart to know, even now, that I had lost the will to live, that there was a moment that I was willing to relinquish this incarnation -- the love, the family, all that I had worked for, all that brought me joy. I just didn't care any more. It took too much energy to care, and I just didn't have any.

When a doctor did examine me, he decided to do an enema to clean me out. Nothing happened. Then another enema, and still nothing happened. Then the doctor decided it was time to do X-rays, and that freaked me out. Because of all of the compression fractures in my spine, I was unable to lie down on a hard surface, like an X-ray table. It would cause back spasms, and I just couldn't choose that for myself. So I suggested that we do another enema first, since that would be the therapy of choice if the X-ray showed an obstructed bowel.

Several hours later, after the X-ray and 2 more enemas, still nothing had moved in my intestines. It was around 4 a.m. in the ER, and my partner was sitting next to me holding my hand while my daughter was sleeping in the corner sitting up in a chair. I was dozing on and off, sleeping in the stolen moments when I could become comfortable, only to be awakened by my faulty digestive system. I turned to Gene and said, "I decided to stay."

The next morning I asked Gene if I had really said that, or if I just imagined it, the words, "I decided to stay". Yes. I had said those words out loud, I had decided to stay. I had been ready to give it all up, to relinquish this life on Earth, and then I had moved through that moment and made a decision -- something shifted inside of me and I made the decision to live. And in retrospect, it is clear that this decision was an important part of what I needed to begin the healing process.

Lying in the ER, before the sky became light at the beginning of the next day, the doctor came in to talk to us. He said there were 2 choices -- to admit me to the hospital, or to send me home. They weren't going to send me home because my bowel was not functioning, so they would admit me to the hospital. Only there weren't any rooms available yet, so I would stay in the ER until one was vacated.

Before the doctor left the room, my daughter said to him that I was very uncomfortable since my digested dinner was not able to go anywhere, and she asked about having my stomach pumped. That sounded like a good idea to all, so the nursing staff came in to put a tube down my throat (in through the nose -- very uncomfortable but effective). And as soon as the tube hit my stomach, the contents came up with quite a force of ejection! I did feel better after that.

By late morning, I was moved to a hospital room in the new wing -- I lucked out and had a private room with a picture window looking out over the green trees of western Massachusetts.

And thus began my first ever stay in the hospital, and a chance to begin a long healing journey -- and that is the story for another post.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Good Morning Kiss

My daughter came into town last weekend to attend the wedding of some dear friends of hers, so I drove to the airport Thursday night to pick her up. It was another set of firsts for me -- the first time in a year that I had driven to the airport on my own, and the first time in a year I had driven on the highway at night. It was wonderful to drive on a clear summer night down the highway with the wind blowing on my face, the Moon almost full and lighting up the sky.

Even though we got home late and all went to bed around 2 a.m., the next morning I was up early as usual. By 9:30 a.m. I had done my morning routine of tea, physical therapy, prayer, yoga and meditation, and I went upstairs to get my daughter up. She heard my foot steps and opened her sleepy eyes, even though I was trying to be quiet, and I leaned over and kissed her good morning. As I looked down at her smiling face, I realized that last summer when she got married, I was not able to do that for her, to kiss her good morning on her wedding day.

But I could do it now, I could give her that good morning kiss, and I was overcome with such a deep sense of gratitude and joy at being able to kiss my daughter good morning, that tears streamed down my face. Tears of joy for this rich moment of life that is such cherished gift.

My Bowel Shut Down with Chemo

One year ago in July, following the collapse of my spine, it was clear that it was time for me to start chemo (see post from June 7, 2008 on "Spinal Collapse" and from July 18, 2008 on "So Grateful for Where I Am Now -- Chemo Began 1 Year Ago").

So it was on Friday July 20, 2007, that I began taking the 3 different chemo agents prescribed for treating multiple myeloma -- daily Thalidomide, weekly Dexamethasone, and Velcade every 3 days for 2 weeks followed by a week off. The Thalidmoide makes one sleepy, so I was told by my oncologist to take it around 10 p.m. each night. In fact, it was given to pregnant women in the 1950's to help them sleep, after which it was discovered that Thalidomide causes horrible birth defects. So now there is tight control over who takes Thalidomide, and who can even touch the medication. But the good news for those with multiple myeloma is that Thalidomide helps kills the cancerous plasma cells in the bone marrow, and it also helps one sleep in the process. Other side effects from Thalidomide, besides sleepiness, can include constipation and numbness or tingling in the fingers and toes. The numbness never bothered me...

At the hospital on Friday July 20, I was given a 3-second long IV of Velcade, along with other drugs to reduce nausea, and then at home that night I took the weekly dose of Dexamethasone and nightly dose of Thalidomide. In addition to the Thalidomide being constipating, I was informed that both the Velcade and Dexamethasone are also.

So the weekend went by, and each evening I took Thalidomide. I continued my habit of drinking plenty of liquid (over 80 ounces per day) to maintain kidney health, including water, juices, herb teas, no alcohol, and only 1 cup of Earl Grey tea with caffeine in the morning. As Saturday went by, I didn't poop. My daughter's future in-laws came into town to visit us over the weekend. My roommate from college came to stay, too, so I was showered with lots of love. My future son-in-law was also in town for the weekend, and we had fun playing all kinds of board games. And by the end of the weekend, still I hadn't pooped.

Monday came and it was time to go back to the hospital for another IV of Velcade. The ambulance arrived at the house at noon to pick me up, since I had great difficulty getting to the hospital in a car due to severe back spasms every time we went over tiny bumps in the road. Unfortunately, the ambulance was no better. When I arrived at the hospital and was wheeled on a gurney into the infusion center for treatment, the nurses told me I was a kind of greyish color. They also said the only alternative to getting the ambulance rides to the hospital was to be admitted to the hospital as a patient, and I thought that was not necessary. I didn't realize at the time how close I was to being admitted to the hospital, how sick I really was.

After treatment on July 23, an ambulance took me back home from the hospital, and again I took Thalidomide that night. I didn't poop that day, so it was 4 days since I had emptied my bowel.

When Tuesday came along, it was a beautiful summer day, and my partner's and my 15th anniversary. I still remember having visits from 2 very dear friends, one in the morning and another in the afternoon, as well as having a visit from the secretaries of the Astronomy Department, who brought lunch to share. It was a wonderful day with friends, and still no poop.

By late afternoon, I started to realize that there was a problem. I had been eating food for 5 days since chemo began, and nothing had come out. I was feeling very full inside, with not much room for anything new until I emptied some of it. So I asked my partner to go to the drug store to buy the stuff I had drunk before my colonoscopy 1 year before -- and 2 hours after drinking it nothing had happened.

We ate dinner, and I had room for a little food, so I joined in the festivities. But still no poop came out, so afterwards I sent my partner back to the drugstore, this time for an enema. That didn't work either, and by 11 p.m. I realized that I was in trouble, literally in deep shit. If all of the things I knew how to do weren't helping my intestines move food through, I needed to go to the hospital.

So shortly before midnight on July 24, 2007, we called the ambulance to take me to the ER for an obstructed colon. I still remember being taken from the house down the front sidewalk, looking up at the stars in the clear sky and exclaiming, "It's so beautiful. I haven't seen the stars all summer!"

I was close to death that night, although I didn't know it until later. But even though I was in very serious condition, I still found joy in the beauty of the Universe.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Black Holes and the Placebo Effect

Being a scientist -- and an astronomer in particular -- means that I was brought up to view the world in a rational, linear way. In this world view, every condition observed in the Universe is the result of circumstances which can be explained based on physical laws. And these physical laws become clear as a result of observation, experimentation, model building, and theorizing, and then making additional observations to test the theories and models.

Each branch of science, whether astronomy or geology or biology, is a study of a particular class of objects, be it stars or rocks or living organisms. And while scientists build intellectual models to explain what they see -- whether it be a model of the Universe and the Big Bang or the Earth's interior or the nucleus of an atom -- it is important to remember that the model is not reality. It is simply a model.

I decided to become an astronomer the day I learned about Black Holes. I was a senior in high school, and I was taking an astronomy course along with AP chemistry; at the time, I had already applied for college and decided to major in chemistry. But on the day that I learned about black holes, I was presented with a science which accepted the existence of something which could never be proven to exist. That was what intrigued me about astronomy. A black hole has a field of gravity so strong that nothing can escape, not even light. So it is not possible to see one, because no light is emitted or reflected. Not a single photon. And if one could get close enough to **know** that one was visiting a black hole, one would be too close to get away and convey the information. I loved the idea that astronomy accepted the existence of black holes simply on the basis that theoretically such things **could** exist.

Of course, astronomers do see evidence in the Universe of what they think are very likely black hole candidates -- systems with one star orbiting something that cannot be seen, with gas swirling around that something, and as that gas gets closer to the center, strong X-rays are emitted. And although no one will ever **prove** that a black hole is there, most astronomers accept that conclusion. It amuses me that in my astronomical career, I never did study black holes. I just liked that they could exist.

When teaching introductory astronomy at the University, one of the statements I make to get the students' attention is "Black holes don't suck," even though there is a common misconception to the contrary. If the Sun were to be magically and instantly replaced by a black hole of the same mass at the center of the solar system, we would not be sucked into it -- we would continue to orbit the center of the solar system just like we do now. The main difference would be that it would be dark.

Today, I understand my initial attraction to astronomy and black boles as being one of those subjects where science and spirituality meet. And I continue to be interested in the crossroads of the scientific and spiritual ways of looking at the world.

It is curious to me that so much of what scientists accept as true is actually based on faith, although most scientists would deny it. Faith in the assumptions. We assume that the physical laws we discover here on Earth also apply on the Sun, the planets, and throughout the Universe, and that the elements that make up the Earth are the same elements found throughout the Universe. And many of the assumptions that we make are testable and verifiable. But some are not. And yet, the truth of these assumptions is taken on faith.

Because I am interested in the subject of healing, it too provides a topic which is at the crossroads of science and spirituality. And that topic is called the placebo effect. It is well known in medicine that some patients will get better if a doctor says to a patient that a particular drug is very effective, while it is actually made of sugar. In some cases, if a patient believes the pill can be effective, it will be, even if there is nothing in it. The placebo effect is the power of the mind to heal, or healing which manifests based on the belief that healing is taking place. How magical! That the body can heal based on a belief in the mind!!

When I first learned about the placebo effect, I wondered why doctors didn't take advantage of it. After all, if the mind is so powerful, it seems to me that it should be fully engaged in healing. I find it curious that the medical establishment has given this magical effect a label -- the placebo effect. Then doctors and researchers try to find the effectiveness of drugs by doing double blind studies so the mind will not be engaged in healing. And in doing double blind drug trials, they imply that the mind's role should be circumvented, and that it is the drugs that are important.

But in true healing, the mind is continuously engaged. I would like to see drug trials which are triple trials. That is, add to the double blind studies an additional trial to fully engage the power of the mind -- tell people that they are taking a drug and that it is very effective. But science and medicine ignore this potential, this magic, this power of the mind to heal, and they try to find how good their drugs are.

But no drug will ever come close to doing the healing that the body is already very capable of doing on its own.

I say bring on the healing power of mind. Bring on the magic. Bring on the curing. For we are beings with unlimited potential, and anything is possible in this amazing Universe of ours.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Dreaming of Drumming

For 16 years I have wanted a Mother Drum. That is, one of the big drums such as I have seen Native American people playing during the dances at Pow Wow gatherings.

I first played a Mother Drum during the summer of 1992, when I went to Montana and attended a 2-week program led by Native teacher Brooke Medicine Eagle. After dinner on the first night of the program, Brooke suggested we get warm clothes and flashlights, and come to the yurt for drumming. I still remember going up to her and asking, "What's drumming?" She answered my question by saying that I should come and find out. So I did.

In the middle of the yurt there was a large drum, 3 feet in diameter, supported on a stand. Several women were sitting around the drum, and each held a drum beater in her hand. One of the women began playing a regular beat, with gentle effort, and the others joined in with great accuracy and in unison, so that the reverberating sound was magnified. I watched and listened, and as soon as there was an opening I, too, joined with those who were playing the drum.

It turns out to take quite a bit of skill, as well as a good sense of rhythm, to play a drum for a long time and maintain the beat without speeding up or slowing down. Also, it takes a great deal of attention, listening, and coordination to be able to play in unison with others. And so, for the 2 weeks that I was in Montana, I played the Mother Drum often, and purchased a small hand-held drum for myself. I was drawn to drumming from my first exposure to it. And it was a dream of mine to get a Mother Drum someday. But we don't really have space for a large drum at home, so I never acted on that dream...

I have returned to Montana for various programs on 8 occasions over the past 16 years, and I always looked forward to having the opportunity to play the Mother Drum. Of course, I play my small drum during the dry months in Massachusetts -- generally October through April. And I take this drum with me when I travel out West.

So it came as a wonderful surprise this spring, when I was searching the internet for information on bone health and reading about bone building, when I came across references to the beneficial effects of vibration on bone building. Drumming is good for my health!!

It was in this context -- and also realizing that if I wanted a Mother Drum I needed to get one and not just dream about it -- that I decided to get a Mother Drum. Toward the end of the spring I contacted my dear friend Paula, woodworker and drum maker in Seattle, and asked her to make me a 3' diameter Mother Drum. It arrived last week!

The wood is cherry, the drum body is 15" high and 3' across, with an elk hide on one side and a cow hide on the other. A beautiful instrument with a gorgeous sound. With a simple tap, a penetrating sound reverberates deep inside the drum, and I feel it throughout my body and throughout the whole house. I can feel the vibration with my hand an inch away from the drum surface. And not only am I having fun playing it, but I am helping my bones regenerate in the process. Still, we really don't have room for a large drum, so for now it sits in the center of the living room.

No longer am I just dreaming of drumming, but I am also dreaming of strong bones. Built through fun, through vibration, through joy, and through a dream come true. Now I just have to figure out where we are going to keep it!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Such a Beautiful Summer

I am thoroughly enjoying my gardens this summer -- seeing the vibrant colors of the flowers, being able to kneel down on the Earth and care for the plants, and simply relaxing to read or meditate outside, lying down on a small folding cot that was taking up space in the basement.

The cardinal flowers are now in full bloom, with their brilliant red blossoms that are even redder than a cardinal with wings. The richness of their color is totally mesmerizing. And the snakeroot, with their long stalks of white flowers, up to 8' tall, add contrasting color and height to the garden. The day lilies are just about finished blooming; the roses are starting their second crop of blossoms; the phlox are in full bloom -- whites, pinks, reds, purples, pinks with red centers, and purples with white centers. The black-eyed susans (yellow rudbeckia) are so numerous that they add cheerful color all over the yard, and the sweet peas continue to open their flowers, surprising me with occasional white blooms amongst the pink.

Last summer this time, I was just learning to walk again, and I rarely made it outside into the garden. With a collapsed spine, there was little strength in my back bones and muscles, and each day I would walk with the walker around the inside of the house. My daughter measured with a tape measure the circuit of the downstairs -- the distance from my recliner to the hall to the bathroom to the kitchen, the dining room, and then back to my chair in the living room. Over all, a distance of 65 feet, which meant that to go 1 mile I would walk 81 loops around the downstairs.

I remember when the visiting nurse came to the house in early August last summer to check out the set-up for me -- asking me to show here where the bathroom was, where I would sleep, making sure that there were no rugs for me to trip on, and watching me move. As I walked with the walker to the bathroom, she said to me "You're walking this slowly to be careful, right?" And I remember answering, "No, actually this is the fastest I can walk."

So I began walking loops by the 5's and 10's. I tried in those first few weeks of August last summer to walk at least 1/2 mile per day, or 40 loops. As I got stronger, some days I would walk 40 loops in the morning, and another 40 in the evening. And sometimes I would lose count. The actual number of loops was not important -- what was important to me was that I was feeling stronger and getting stronger day by day.

After all, I had an important goal -- my daughter was getting married at the end of August last summer, and I wanted to help walk her down the aisle, and also to dance at her wedding. So I HAD to get stronger. And I learned that having a goal and working toward that goal, no matter how challenging, contributes enormously to healing.

And last summer and all last year I had no doubt that I would regain my strength and the full use of my body, but I had no idea how long it would take. And I still don't know how long it will take, even 1 year later. But I am blessed to be happy and healthy, and I am grateful to be alive. And I am willing to do what it takes. Especially when it includes being able to spend time in my gardens.