Thursday, August 29, 2013

Healing Top Ten

Today marks the third week since my brain surgery. Today I swam for 45 minutes. There's nothing like water cradling a healing body. Also, I read three chapters in a book. And now I'm writing on my laptop. These were things I couldn't do not too long ago. 

I want to share a list of things I think are aiding in my healing. I know this list would look different for every person, but there may be something others can get out of it:

1. Movement and rest. I'm used to being able to move however and whenever I want, so I'm learning how to better listen to my body, and how to be patient with myself. And if I'm moving, I'm in my body, feeling it from the inside out. If I'm resting, I'm inhabiting the resting body. I do my best to be in the moment and to ask my body what it needs.

2. Sun. I can feel the sun's healing power whether I'm sitting in it or visualizing it pouring through me.

3. My favorite fun.  Okay, they may be having a shitty season, but Giants baseball--win or lose--puts me in my happy place. Even when I couldn't look at the TV because it made me dizzy, I'd listen to a game and fall into that blissful I-love-SF zone. Another pleasure: Word Trick (computerized Scrabble). As soon as I could focus, I starting playing it again. It gave me confidence in my mind's abilities, and it triggered two great healing mechanisms:  joy and relaxation.

4. Writing. It's a huge part of who I am. I was even taking a few notes with my temporarily crippled hand while in the hospital. Writing makes me feel like I'm fulfilling my purpose in the world.

5. Talking with the dead. I feel like I have easier access now to those who have crossed over: My parents, my mentor Gabriele, and several friends. It's great to just open myself up to a conversation with them. It's not as strange as it may sound; I ask a question, and they offer me their wisdom--often with a sense of humor. My friend Joe, who died in the early 1990s, played Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All" for me in my head. Joe introduced me to Houston's music back in the day. I laughed through tears as I listened because it was so corny and so perfect--just like Joe.

6. Guided meditation. Before I went into the hospital, I began listening to guided meditations that focus on healing and the body--and I've continued to do so once or twice a day since. I love the way they make me feel tingly all over. These meditations can also help me relax and fall asleep when I wake in the middle of the night.

7. Appreciation. As often as possible, I gently direct my thoughts toward what I'm grateful for: The blue of a stellar's jay, Dave's arm around me, a card I received from a friend, the soft swimming pool water on my skin, a sweet and savory peanut butter cookie dipped in tea, the hair on my scalp growing in and sticking up like a baby's.

8. Looking forward. Before my surgery, we bought tickets to a music festival at the end of October. I didn't doubt for a moment I'd be able to go. When I met with the surgeon for the first time, my focus was on the future: How long before I could put my head under water? (4-6 weeks; I'm almost ready!) Would we be able to go on a road trip to So Cal in October? (Yes!) What about Hong Kong, India and Sri Lanka in November-December? (Yes!)

9. Kitchen therapy. I've baked a couple of batches of zucchini-blueberry bread. It felt like such a nurturing thing to do. And it thrilled me when Dave and our friends went crazy over it.

10. My mantras:
* I'm a good healer.
* That sensation is the process of healing.
* Everything's okay.
* Nothing has gone wrong.
* I'm getting so much out of this experience.
* I have a choice: freak out or get curious.
* Choose love.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Upon Not Returning to School

With Candice (a former student who became
a friend and colleague) at her housewarming party.

My whole life I've been either a teacher or a student. As my friends fill their Facebook pages with pictures and stories of the return to school, I've become acutely aware that this is the first fall in more than forty years I'm not returning too.

Yes, at 50 it's an early retirement. I'm not retiring in the classic sense, though, which is reflected in the word's etymology: French for withdrawing into safety and seclusion.

In fact, my leap into retirement has been the opposite: relinquishing our home to live a traveling life. Not seclusion but reaching out into the world by immersing in experiences and writing about them.

And then the unexpected: seizure, brain tumor, surgery, healing. What timing. If I'd been going through all of this while having to think about what to do with my classes ... and to make sure my medical benefits stayed in tact ... and to plan to enter the semester partway through ... Well, that just would have been no fun for me or the students.

This timing has been amazing for other reasons. Instead of being in Hawaii this fall, we are in the Bay Area for my treatment and recovery. So I'm getting to spend time with some of my colleagues, who are also good friends. This is softening the transition of leaving the professorial tribe.

The other thing that has happened is this: As news has spread about my health, former students have been inspired to contact me, flooding me with appreciation. Many didn't even know I'd planned to retire. This conversion of forces is a thing of beauty. I'm feeling the love. Big time. I've received many special messages.  Here's one that especially touched my heart:

Dear Kate,
I don't get on Facebook much, so please forgive me for being behind, but I now understand you've been through quite an experience. I'm glad you are healing well and hope you continue to do so.
You might not remember me, as you've probably had hundreds of students since we were last in touch, but to this day I cherish having had you in my life. To borrow from The Artist's Way, you were a champion of my creative self-worth, and to borrow from a credit card commercial, that's priceless! All the while, you were always a model on how to soak up life, even in hard times, of which you've had more than your fair share. I don't understand life, but because of you I better understand how to love it.

If I inspired one person to love life, I'd say my days of teaching have been well spent.

Friday, August 23, 2013

"Your very flesh shall be a great poem." - Walt Whitman


Two weeks ago.

In the months before my seizure, I'd been thinking a lot about my body. Dave and I had given up our house and were living a traveling life, so I was becoming more and more aware of how my body is my true home.

Yet I've spent a lot of my life judging my body. I've been like an abusive spouse at times, berating my body for being too much this, or not enough that.  If I talked to other people the way my inner voice talked to my body, I'd be a cruel person.

So I began to wonder why I haven't been nicer to this amazing space suit that propels me through the world. All the judgments of the body create an agitation, an ongoing dissatisfaction, an inability to be fully at peace.

Any time I judged my body, it was as though I was trying to jail-break. Other times, the dissatisfactions with my body led to physically abusing it (extreme exercise) or numbing it (too much booze) or ignoring it (mind distractions).

I wanted to allow myself to comfortably inhabit my home.

To create a more gentle, peaceful relationship with my body, I began to focus on feeling myself from the inside. I meditated on my organs, thanking them for doing their work. I began to understand more deeply how my heart doesn't need me to beat it, how my digestion happens without my conscious effort, how my lungs would continue to breathe even if I was unconscious.

Maybe part of me knew what was coming:  Body Dwelling Smack Down! I was soon to face the biggest inhabiting-the-body challenge: Illness.

Due to the nature of brain surgery, I couldn't use avoid-my-body strategies. I had to give up alcohol and caffeine. I couldn't focus on screens:  no TV, no phone, no computer, no Kindle. I couldn't read. Even my beloved music hurt my head. The doctor went so far as to say, "Don't think too much. Let your mind rest."

I couldn't take a walk, do yoga, talk on the phone. I couldn't even escape into sleep because sleep was elusive.

It was a challenge from the universe:  Just be.

But be here? In this body that's been sliced open at the top? The one where the scalp has been peeled back and the skull drilled through? The one with a gap in the brain slowly filling with spinal fluid?

I could hear creaks and groans and pops in my head--like a house settling. But these noises weren't only "in my head." They were so loud, Dave could hear them too!

All that surgical poking around in the pre-motor region of my left brain affected my right hand. Two days after surgery, I couldn't hold a coffee cup or remove the toothpaste lid.

I had to decide:  Was this going to creep me out? Was I going to feel like a haunted house? Was I going to try to escape my body through dreadful thoughts? Was I going to freak out each time something made a weird noise or sensation? Was I going to go to the dark place and imagine there were so many things wrong?

Not that those thoughts never tried to creep in. But I consciously worked on cultivating the notion that nothing had gone wrong. That all was well. Even in the dark of night, waiting for dawn to light up the room, I deliberately dwelled inside.

Each noise in my head I recognized as healing. I thought, with awe, about how my brain and skull were adjusting to the new normal. How miraculous that it was all being held together with medical versions of glue and staples.

I thanked my right hand for all it had done for me over the years. I felt it from the inside-out. Lovingly, slowly, I touched each finger to my thumb, back and forth like playing scales on the piano. Like a child, I pressed Silly Putty in my fist. I thought about the miracle of my shaved hair beginning to sprout forth in just days like little leaves of grass.

Our bodies are constantly renewing. They say every seven years all of our cells are replaced. I am viscerally experiencing that renewal. A deep admiration for my body, my home, is blooming in me.

"Do anything, but let it produce joy."  - Walt Whitman

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Wandering Spirit

Staples out.

The funniest thing someone said to me during my whole seizure-brain-tumor ordeal came from my reliably hilarious friend Scott. He said: "Sweetie, your life is just like Knots Landing these days."

As I was wheeled down the bright hospital hall, I saw looming over me Dave's loving face, a medical guy in scrubs, and the white institutional ceiling--like one of those point-of-view shots designed so you empathize with a doomed character. I laughed and said, "Wow, this really IS like Knots Landing!"

In the pre-op room, the anesthesiologist--looking like a hungover surfer--introduced himself and asked me a few questions. He then said, "I'm going to put a little in here to begin" and injected something into my IV. My eyes closed then opened. I thought, When are they going to get started? 

And then I saw Dr. Harraher, my surgeon, who told me the surgery was done. She said it went well except that she had to leave behind a microscopic "skin" of tumor attached to an artery (can't cut into that!). That's not really a problem since the tumor is benign, but if the little piece grows, she might recommend radiation.

I detected a tightness in my scalp, the former location of my little walnut. In its place, beneath the plate-reinforced skull, was now a hole slowly filling with spinal fluid, remarkably adapting to the new normal. I knew this because I heard creaks and groans and pops in my head, like a house settling.

Incredibly, a memory came to me--of something that happened during surgery. The best way I can describe it is this: My body was stoically enduring the breaking open of my head. And my spirit said something like, I'm outta here. I could be anywhere right now. I want to be free!

And my body--like a dog trainer, like a parent who knows best--sternly said to my spirit: "Stay!"

There I was, in post-op, giggling at the notion of my body ordering my spirit around. I suddenly understood myself more deeply. I've always had a wandering spirit and a pragmatic streak. They are very real parts of who I am. But I never realized my body had a mind of its own. 

And now I can see that there isn't a hierarchy of mind/body/spirit. They are more like interlinked circles. Even though the body eventually perishes, it's a super-duper space suit that allows for all kinds of groovy sensory experience that isn't possible without fingers and skulls and colons and noses and skin. And it's through sensory experience our spirit expands until it's onto the next thing. So at a key time, my body reminded my spirit of that: Hang around. You might get something out of this!

And oh yeah, my spirit is getting it. Its awe at what humans are capable of has expanded tenfold in the 10 days since my surgery. That post-op room was filled with medical technology and experience that had initiated from someone's thoughts. And then there was the energy directed to me that was palpable over the last weeks--thoughts, prayers, texts, emails, Facebook, you name it. The physical presence of doctors, nurses, aids, my husband, my sister...

I think what I'm getting at is this: What's been most striking about my experience has been the intricate interconnection of everything. The dazzling, pulsing design.

I spent one night in the hospital. After 14 hours, Dave went home for some well-deserved rest, and my friend Ellen came to spend the night with me. A woman with a gift for healing and soothing, she gave me an incredible foot rub. My sister Crystal had also given me one earlier in the day. People kept coming in and out of the room, checking me and the zillions of attached bodily tubes. 

All these ministrations made me feel like a queen--not of the soap opera type, but genuine royalty. Especially the sponge bath an angel of a night nurse gave to me at 6 a.m. She handled me so tenderly. 

I liked the idea that my body--so militaristic in standing up to my wandering spirit--could be vulnerable, could accept the gift of compassion, could relax and be home.

My spirit was happy. It curled in my body like a dog at the hearth.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Bye Walnut, Hello Bionics!

Jaime exhibiting her bionic prowess.
Tomorrow, with the help of a fabulous neurosurgeon, it's out with the old and in with the new. The "new" is some filler and a reinforcement plate in my skull (which, I've been reassured, will not set off airport alarms).

Makes me feel akin to Jaime Sommers. And who knows what super powers I'll develop as a result of this recent plot twist? I can feel the power building, to be sure, generated in great part from all of the astounding energy I'm receiving from people's thoughts, prayers, phone calls, visits, and cyber-messages. As the Doobie Brothers sing, "Without love, where would you be now?"

Where we are now.
Ever since we left Cape Cod, I've been wearing the angel earrings given to me by the friend who took me to the E.R. Another BFF called me yesterday morning on her way to the hospital; she's a doctor. She told me she knew that, as Bob Marley sings, "Every little thing's gonna be alright."

That's the message many have sent, including Suzanne, whose daughter Teal recently died. We talked on the phone yesterday about Teal's epilepsy and the laughter she offers from the other side. I was in a house on Teal Lane when I had my seizure. Suzanne and I felt a deep connection as we spoke. She told me she believes that my seizure indicates I'm moving to a new depth of understanding about life--which will be revealed through my writing.

Other people have contacted me to tell me about their own medical adventures and how they've thrived. One offered this advice:  "Love that man of yours. Dance on the beach and eat heartily today!"

We did take a beach walk yesterday. This morning breakfast was fresh fruit and eggs. I meditated until my skin felt illuminated. It's sunny out there; soon, we'll be sitting on the deck beneath redwood trees, followed by a soak in the hot tub--all this beauty courtesy of Stacey and Matt. We're here in their Santa Cruz mountain home with their twin boys, Cole and Wyatt.

Matt and Wyatt

Clearly, this is the perfect place to heal. It was so quiet when I woke in the middle of the night for a few moments before snuggling back in next to Dave. And I felt that serene silence again this morning as sun eked into our room.

Wyatt and Cole in the kitchen.
As John Denver sings, "My bags are packed, I'm ready to go." My backpack is filled with my most comfy clothes, my Kindle brimming with great books and audio meditations, and my angel earrings. They will go back into my earlobes as soon as possible after surgery.

Today is about relaxation, nourishment, and joy. Tomorrow I'll wake early, and Dave will drive me down the mountain for the excision of this little walnut. It has served me by expanding my life in wonderful ways, but now it's time to say goodbye. I'm ready to relax into the experience of becoming bionic. As Steve Winwood sings, "you've got to roll with it baby."

With Matt and Stacey, rocking out in May to the Stones.
If you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need...

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Guardian Angel

My guardian angel.
Since so many of you wonderful people are asking:  My surgery is Thursday August 8 at 7:30 a.m. at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz. All loving thoughts of healing, ease, and flow accepted!

I'm clearer than ever that it's not only the living who are looking out for me. As I mentioned before, when I awoke to a seizure last week, I'd been dreaming that my recently departed friend and mentor, Gabriele Rico, had been talking to me. She was telling me that the veil between life and death is thinner than we think. This was a comforting conversation. She was saying there's nothing to be afraid of. She was saying that moving from one state to the next is like lifting a gauze curtain. She was saying if we relax and allow it, we can experience more of the mystery than we might imagine.

These reassuring, beautiful sentiments resonated with me even as my body was seizing, even as part of me was thinking I was certainly dying.

A hummingbird, one of Gabriele's favorite creatures, at her bird feeder.
Fast-forward a week. Dave and I are not in Hawaii as planned, but in California for my medical treatment. Because of this change in schedule, we are able to attend the gathering to scatter Gabriele's ashes.

Gabriele's family and friends are assembled in her magnificent house in the Cupertino hills, a place imbued with her loving energy and creative spirit. I'm talking to one of her daughters about my brain tumor, when a women standing right next to us says, "Did you say you have a meningioma? I had one of those!"

With Eddi Lynn, wearing scarves made by Gabriele.

Turns out her name is Eddi Lynn.  She's also a longtime friend of Gabriele's and a writer. Her tumor was diagnosed when she was 50, just like me. She had the tumor removed five years ago and quickly was able to get back to her normal life.

Watching Gabriele's ashes being buried
from the deck overlooking her beloved canyon.

So there I am, reeling at this synchronicity, when Gabriele's husband, Rich, pulls me aside.  He asks me if, as part of the evening's ceremony, I'd read a poem. I say I'd be honored, and here's what he hands me:

Let Evening Come (by Jane Kenyon)

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

This poem is like another version of Gabriele's message in the dream. When the night comes, the stars appear. Allow the rhythms of life to unfold. Do not be afraid.

She told me this in my dream, right before the seizure. She told it to me in her home, on the day of the scattering of her ashes, through her longtime friend. She told me through a poem. If those aren't the actions of a guardian angel, I don't know what are.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Operation: Seize the Day

“Illness can be a catalyst for developing self-compassion, softening our egos, 
trusting our intuition, defining what’s truly important to us. 
It sets the stage for the opening of our hearts.” - Judith Orloff

Another lovely dinner at Janelle and Bobby's.

This tumor is old news.  It’s time to get rid of it.  It’s been growing in my noggin for a long time, apparently.  It started in response to something that happened a long time ago--who knows what? I’m not worried about a cause. Because worry never solved a problem.  I don’t want to try to “get to the bottom of this.”  Because there is no bottom. Besides, trying to get to the bottom means facing backward.  I want to face forward.  That means being firmly planted in the here and now, in this beautiful eternal moment.

Getting rid of no-longer-necessary stuff seems to be a theme of Dave’s and my life recently. First, I decided to retire. Then we decided to let go of our house and live a traveling life.  Getting rid of many of our things was an adventure within the adventure.

A couple of months before we hit the road, Dave experienced two bodily castings-off of his own. First, a cherry angioma (one of those little red dots) on his inner lower lip began to bleed profusely and spontaneously at inopportune times, like at a party or while eating a big sandwich. After the surgical removal, he was reminiscent of an Amazonian with a lip plate. His lip was barely healed when he need to have a patch of basal cell skin cancer removed from his scalp. The zealous doctor cut out quite a chunk (gotta get those margins). Then he plunked the offending flesh in a basin right next to my face where I sat in wifely support.  

Fortunately blood doesn't bother me that much. It actually kind of fascinates me. I thought about that yesterday when the friendly phlebotomist drew three vials for my pre-surgical tests. Fascinating that what had just been inside was now outside. Fascinating that inside our bodies blood is black, while outside it’s red. Fascinating that a certain amount of blood can be removed from a body without much effect.

Although yesterday it seemed to affect me more than usual. I was tired and had a raging headache, so I honored my body by spending most of the afternoon and a long night in bed. Here’s the funny part: I think the headache had nothing to do with my brain tumor. I think it had to do with a triple whammy of:  

a) killer period cramps (what, at age 50?!)
b) the sadistic medical directive disallowing me from taking pain-killers until after surgery, and
c) caffeine withdrawal, also a pre-surgery requirement.

I’m not a lay-around-in-bed-all-day kind of person. But it sure felt like the right thing to do. And I’m so fortunate: I don’t have kids or a job to tend to so I can actually respond to my body’s requests. I mean, really, my blessings are beyond counting. Right now I’m writing on my laptop poolside while Dave does yoga and Janelle works on her novel in her office. In a few minutes I’ll be floating dreamily in that azure water.

The number of people who have emailed, texted, called, Facebooked, and visited me to offer their love, healing energy, and practical support is staggering. Life is taking on a precious glow. It’s like my seizure opened up an even greater carpe diem capacity in me. A greater desire to be in this moment, facing forward. This is why my friends and I are calling this experience  “Operation:  Seize the Day."

My literal and symbolic operation is about living fully. It's also about not living in fear. We will all have our time to transition to the next thing--and who knows when? So why not be right here, right now, cherishing this. The past is old news. Now is where it's at: the beauty, the love, the unfolding possibility. The choice to love it is ours.