How to Hang On–Day 18: Dream a Little Dream

In the midst of the first lockdown of the 2020 pandemic, many folks began to take a hard look at the quality and trajectory of their lives, personally and professionally. The time spent alone, the required cancellation of social engagements, and a quarantined life for the foreseeable future led many hearts and minds into an extensive re-evaluation of Life, in general.

I was no different. I thought about how I had been leading my life in recent years, and about “promises of protection” that I had made to my heart more than a decade ago. Ironically, despite my affinity for solitude, the pandemic shifted my heart into a desire for intimacy. Yes, I had a man in mind: mind only, as I initially thought he was married. Then, when I discovered that he was not, I allowed myself to think about possibilities.

Alongside this romantic thought trajectory, I began to reimagine my work life. I had grown accustomed to and delighted by my niche in the dog- and housesitting business: I had no plans to alter that. Of course, pandemic times meant canceled travel plans, which meant no pets or homes for me to look after.

And, too, I was dealing with the increasingly swift deterioration of my physical abilities. Pandemic plus arthritic pain slowed my pace socially and professionally, yet somehow accelerated my inner world of dreams, goals, fantasies, and possibility. To delve into that dimension during these times has been an integral part of How I Hang On.

Although I intend to continue with my doggie clients (for I have grown to love them true), I also feel called to share what I have learned from my experience with pain and immobility. I foresee addition to my life, rather than subtraction; I envision a man where once I had built a wall; and I anticipate health and vitality where perhaps I had been waning. 

These are months and years that have put me to a strenuous test: However, this is not a situation that demands “pass” or “fail;” rather, it is a challenge that serves as reminder of the nature of challenge. When hardship descends, hearts can open; when Life seems to have come to a halt, minds can persevere. When all seems lost, continue to dream: Therein lies the way through.

’Til tomorrow… 

How to Hang On–Day 17: Lend an Ear

What a mix of scenarios today did bring!

The day dawned bright, sunny, and solidly into the 30’s (downright balmy in a Northeast February): Such a gift boded well for this Friday. (And this Friday is two weeks out—to the day—from surgery…)

Then, a conversation with my mother—who had a rough week, herself—descended into old patterns, typical pushed-buttons, and high tension. As much as I wanted to; shut my eyes and willed myself to; and vowed to stay detached, rational, yet kind, I submitted to my old ways. Tempers flared, and talking superseded listening.

As we rounded the corner on an hour of such nonsense, I was able to pull myself back. Mom still came on with her confused statements and misreadings of what I put forth; however, I could begin to see her side of things, as well. The less I talked, and the more I listened, the easier the road became.

The idea of “talk less, listen more” is not novel, nor profound. Each time the aphorism is applied, however, feels like a revelation.

We managed to wind down our absurd phone call on a gentler note. And off into my day I went.

Everywhere I went, it seemed that others had stories they wanted or needed to tell. My ears were wide open, and the lives of others (with apologies to the film of the same title) seemed to take precedent over my own.

Such bounty results when we get out of our own way, get outside of our own concerns. My physical pain does not quit, and won’t—not for another two weeks. But my mind and will can carry the days until that time. 

Note to self: Quiet down, and lend an ear.

’Til tomorrow…

How to Hang On–Day 16: Be Tired

Gird your loins; grit your teeth; keep your chin up; one foot in front of the other…

So often, to hang on means to tense, to exert, to force, to power on: Yet sometimes, to hang on requires a softening, an easing into what is really happening. Today, after yesterday’s physical pain and emotional concern over my mother’s bout of abdominal distress (heightened by her confused brain), I have entered a mental duality: uplifting relief that my mom is okay, albeit worn out; and sheer fatigue. 

I am tired. 

I am, however, equally, if not more acutely aware of my blessings. In the midst of fatigue, I recognize that I can choose between couch and bed, both of which are clean and warm; despite lack of appetite, I have plenty to eat, should the mood strike; even in pandemic, I have friends to ask for help, and family who supports; and throughout this painful ride of bone-on-bone arthritis in both hips, I remain healthy overall, and with the ability to plod, stagger, and remain upright with the help of two canes.

Each of these scenarios are taken for granted, each and every day, by almost each and every one of us. But when any one of them seems on the precipice of disappearance, their significance takes on an extraordinary quality.

With these thoughts in mind, I feel that I can yield to fatigue. That in itself is a gift: to be tired and to have the choice to give in to it. I need not tense my muscles for aching support; I need not overwork my mind to carry on; and I need not strain my being to overcome. I will honor tiredness and treat it with the soft, gentle touch it so badly needs.

’Til tomorrow…

How to Hang On–Day 14: Find Humor, Somewhere, Anywhere…

Today began as most of my days do: tea, yoga, meditation. And, to be perfectly honest, I almost always spend time surfing through pop-culture websites and playing word games: As much as I cherish my exploration of and communication with other realms, this earthbound dimension has some fun distractions.

On that note, one of the things that has proved invaluable during this time of extreme physical pain and mental perseverance is the appearance of humor. When a good laugh lands, I feel astonishingly revitalized. Time without worry or pain is a treasured gift these days; if you can find humor around you, take it in—fully, gratefully, and with a good belly laugh attached.

My cheeks began to ache (i.e., could not stop laughing and grinning) when one of my favorite neighbors stopped to chat; her mischievous mood was clear from the start. As we discussed household goings-on, she asked if I had seen the new framed picture that our landlady had put out on the landing. This drawing was accompanied by a bowl of candy and a potted plant; it was a simple, lovely gesture.

But “MJ” had other ideas: She wondered aloud about putting a silly picture of herself inside the frame. Would the landlady be affronted? Would anyone notice? Was it too much?

Feeling my own mischief stirred, I encouraged the escapade. This is what has become of our days: The smallest bit of nonsense takes on a massive significance; that one, at that moment, seemed like just the right amount of naughtiness.

So, upstairs we went, and into the frame went a ridiculous photo of MJ. The sweet still-life set up by our landlady took on a tone of giggle-inducing irreverence. And my cheeks ached. And my day was made. 

’Til tomorrow…

How to Hang On–Day 13: Status Quo

Today is a day when I am glad for the absence of change. Or rather, I am grateful that today is no worse—and possibly a bit better—than yesterday. The physical challenge of yesterday was stultifying and acute. Today, after the previous day of doing nothing (save for necessary movement around my apartment) and a night of proper medication, my body has stilled: Pain persists, but less insistently and harshly than yesterday; for the most part, today has let me be.

Tonight, I will finish watching a movie I began re-watching last night: Touching the Void. I remembered that the mountain climbers depicted underwent harsh conditions and severe strife to their bodies. Sometimes, to watch how others battle such despair and challenge lessens one’s own, while serving as a reminder that the battles are transient.

And such is the nature of “How to Hang On”: Forge on, look for inspiration, and keep it all in perspective. In the encouraging words of my ever-supportive sister: “You’ll get there…”

’Til tomorrow…

How to Hang On–Day 11: Start to Say Goodbye…

When I first learned that I had arthritis in my hips, I invoked healing mantras and pointed visualizations to flood my joints with curative power. Then, when I fully accepted that the deterioration of my hips was a one-way street—i.e., nothing I could do would repair them to a healthy state—I began to focus on calming and stabilizing their energy of pain.

Aa of a few weeks ago, my conversations with my hip joints have become even more specific: With surgery in the near future, I am starting to say goodbye to the ball and socket with which I was born. I feel weepy upon writing this, as if the wear-and-tear of my highly physical life is something I need to apologize for, or acknowledge as a misguided path through life. And upon writing that, I recognize that I have done nothing wrong; rather, I made full, exuberant use of my original hips. They have served me well and continue to support me, despite their weakened, rickety state.

So now it is my turn to support them. Throughout each day, I applaud and thank them. Come morn, pre-dawn, upon first wake, I lay my hands on them and pray sweet gratitude into them as I bid a loving adieu. I am mourning their loss, marveling at their past bounty, and preparing the ground for their replacement. Out of their loss will come a fresh start, one that I will heed with newfound wisdom and awe. 

Cheers to what was, and what will be.

’Til tomorrow…

How to Hang On–Day 10: Retreat

First double-digit day: Next will be 20, then 30, then surgery.

Today may well have been regarded as a semi-Silent Sunday (albeit on a Friday).

Frigid teen temps outside, plus gray skies and blowing snow do not an enticing outside day make: So, I decided to stay in and do as little as possible. I have come to view this kind of day as a “conservation day.” To conserve strength amidst pain, and to conserve movement amidst the need to get things done has become an order of compassion to myself. As strange as it feels, it also comes as a welcome respite.

So, after requisite morning phone calls and a bit of creative physical therapy, I entered a day of silence and do-as-little-as-possible. Showered and cozied into winter PJs: retreat.

’Til tomorrow…

How to Hang On–Day 9: Manage the Anger

Anger can erupt in many situations, for many different reasons, and in many different guises. Throughout my experience of arthritis, anger has not been a primary reaction or emotion: Mostly, I have been baffled, sad, worried, and ultimately brave and resilient. But I have noticed during the last few days that anger is beginning a slow boil beneath the surface of my determination and enforced positivity.

Frankly, I would have expected this “toil and trouble” to have reared its head when pain came on hard and fast; or when administrative hoops of insurance and surgical schedules demanded my less-than-agile jump-throughs. Perhaps it was because I was vigilant with regard to losing my self to anger that I was able to keep it in check: With any tinge of negativity, I pointedly redirected my thoughts and attitude.

Today, however, pain and misguided resentment got the best of me. Three trips up and down three flights of stairs to do laundry left my legs and hips quaking and aching. With one more errand to do, I forced a second wind into my body and set off. Upon return, two of my house friends were outside: One greeted me with an open hand, ready to help; and the other began what felt like a barrage of what I am sure was a well-meaning offer.

Unfortunately, my personal, alternative preference to what she suggested must have seemed like a decline of her help. I did my best to assure her that if I needed her technique, I would be open to it: However, her face and tone indicated that my “refusal” of her suggestion exasperated her. And I, in return, felt the bubble of anger begin its slow simmer.

Cut to several minutes later: I had returned into my apartment, body raging with pain, mind stewing over my increasing emotional sensitivity to needing help. Every step, every dropped tissue or cane or bottle top led me into anger’s trap: I cursed, growled, and silently sobbed. More pain led to more anger led to more weakness led to more anger, and on it went.

But anger is a state that has caused me much chagrin throughout my life; it is something that I have learned to address immediately upon its appearance. And today was no different. I reminded myself that anger is akin to fear, in that the origin of both is a felt or real loss of control. This despairing state is the Water element gone awry; anger’s Fire burns hot when it sees an opportunity.

To remedy that, first ascertain if the anger is founded or misguided. If righteous, work to replace it with a positive approach to the situation. If you have stumbled into inappropriate or misdirected anger, confront the feeling directly: cool it, calm it, and regain center.

I suggest exactly what I did for myself today. First, I gave in to the growls that emanated from my throat each time I tried to keep a sob at bay. Throat sounds often signal anger’s presence, and they are the way to respond to the threat of the fiery emotion: First, make exaggerated snoring sounds, in through the nose, then pushed out from the back of the throat. Continue this for up to 1 minute.

Then, standing or sitting, extend the arms to the sides, palms down. Extend the index fingers straight up, using the thumb to hold the other fingers down. This kundalini mudra opens the Heart meridians while connecting the nervous system to the wisdom of the Universe.

Now add Sitali Pranayama to the held mudra: Inhale through the curled tongue (like a straw), and exhale for twice the amount of time through the nose. (if you are unable to curl the tongue, breathe in through slightly parted lips.) Breathe this way with the mudra for 3-5 minutes. Concsiously reflect upon the origin and nature of the anger you had been feeling: Remind yourself that anger is human, but it need not offset your humanity.

’Til tomorrow…

How to Hang On–Day 8: Mantra-making

For the past 10 or 15 years, I have been selecting an annual or bi-annual Sanskrit or Gurmukhi mantra to learn and recite daily. Once selected, I chant it 108 times; or for 11 minutes; or as a silent, rhythmic backdrop to daily activities. Some have been with me for many years; others occupy mind space for a limited period of time, often as a 40-day discipline. I find this practice to be calming, centering, and a fun way to placate my language-loving brain’s need for sustenance.

I have one particular Sanskrit mantra that I distinctly remember trying to learn and memorize: It was more than a decade ago, and I chose the full version as a challenge. Because I mostly worked with it during long walks around the neighborhood where I was petsitting at the time, the words began to attach themselves to the beat of my walk.

And that technique—linking a mantra to a physical rhythm—has stuck with me. Over the course of the last year, especially, I have sought mantras that invoke and instill wellness; that curb pain; and that keep fear and anxiety at bay. As the color or recent months took on an acute hue of struggle, I found that I would create mantras in English that directly addressed my specific needs and goals.

The two that now attend my every step—especially when out in public, where I am most determined to stay physically upright and mentally positive—are:

“Stong and steady, healthy and well; well and healthy, steady and strong.” I repeat this with each set of left/right steps, until I have reached my destination.

And, the most recent addition: “Soothe my muscles, bathe my bones in thine Divine Healing Power.” This particular helper stems from a mantra that is integral to the healing techniques of Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship teachings.

So there you have it: If ancient mantras and unfamiliar sounds and languages do not resonate with you, feel free to intuit the words and rhythms of personal mantras that surge forth from within. When you find a way to incorporate them into daily life, their energy pervades your area of need. An extra benefit: To discern and create a mantra distracts the mind from perceived pain. This mental elixir thus joins the arsenal that one needs to build when trying to hang on.

’Til tomorrow…

How to Hang On–Day 7: Exhaustion

When you need to stop, stop.

This lesson is hard won… or rather, still hard to win.

Pain, fatigue, weepiness, more pain, and a brain that has mutinied all point to the need to cease and desist.

Yet, the kernel of desire to persevere and place mind over matter continues to taunt.

Today, however, I am determined to retrain that stubborn thought pattern. Today, I stop and rest.

‘Til tomorrow…