Friday, December 30, 2011

Resolutions: To cure a broken heart

The Pagan Blog Prompt suggested a discussion of New Year's Resolutions.  I don't, as a rule, make resolutions, but since I am currently engaged in making amendments to my life for other reasons unrelated to the changing calendar year, I thought it would be good to have a look at this.

I had finished the last class of the fall semester.  Coming home after six hours of lecturing in high heels, I ran up my parents' stairs to find my father waiting for me with his iphone which has this neat little pulse-taking device.  Mine was over 150 beats a minute.  Naturally, my father was concerned.  I've been having chest pains and anxiety attacks more frequently these days.  I wake in the middle of the night in a panic and must take care to calm myself.  My heart typically beats between 100 and 111 beats a minute even when I am most calm.  My family has always called this my "squirrel heart", but joking aside, it has always been a bit of a worry to all of us.

Because my father was concerned, I made an appointment with a physician.  I told her about my symptoms and brought her information from my last doctor's visits related to this problem.  Last year I had an EKG and wore a Holter monitor.  They found no problems, but thought I had costochondritis.  Many years before I had sharp chest pains that felt a good deal as though someone was kicking me in the sternum.  When my own doctor refused to see me saying I was just too young to have a heart attack, I ended up in the emergency room.  Twice.  The first time they gave me a sedative and the second time, in a better hospital, they did a bunch of fancy-schmancy tests and found that I have mitral valve prolapse, a mostly benign condition.  MVP can be asymptomatic, but it can also manifest itself in what some call mitral valve prolapse syndrome which includes such symptoms as tachycardia, fatigue, chest pain, anxiety, and depression.

I'd almost forgotten about my mvp.  I'd taken care to avoid stimulants such as caffeine, and was not much troubled by it until last year when I found myself revisiting my doctor for chest pains, tachycardia, and an elevated blood pressure.  She did not find anything overly worrying and I let it go again until recently when my elevated heart rate and chest pains made it increasingly difficult to ignore.  My new family doctor thinks it is my anxiety, but she wants to get more information before making further suggestions.  I now have an appointment scheduled with a cardiologist who can review my history, do his own testing, and tell us what he thinks. 

Meanwhile, I have realized that I must address what ails me.  I'm not sure what the MDs will tell me, but I've often thought of it as my broken heart.  My acupuncturist has been telling me that my heart is troubled.  I can't remember her exact words, but the spiritual message I heard from her was that we needed to find a way to make my spirit feel safe enough to return to my heart.  My heart is having difficulty feeding my life with energy.  I wonder why.

When I engage in tarot, or prayer, or meditation, or this kind of free writing, I am trying to find answers.  More accurately, I am trying to find the right questions?  Is the question What is missing?  or What is wrong?  or What am I supposed to do?  or Whom do I serve?  or What is my purpose?  or How can I heal?  I just don't know and it really bothers me.  I wonder how long my heart has been telling me that there was a problem.  A long time I think given my history of anxiety and depression, but I was so focused on getting my doctorate that I always thought the problem would resolve itself when that goal was achieved.  Now the goal has been achieved for several years now and I cannot escape the fact that my hearts still feels wounded. 

I do not know what is at the root of my heartache, but I cannot wait to find that answer before I address the pain.  I'll have to at least patch it up the best I can.  To that end, I'm drinking more water and (decaf) teas to increase my blood volume.  I'm using yoga and qi gong to relax and employing my old hypnobirthing methods and breathing practices to settle myself when my heartrate runs away.  I'm taking herbs and supplements said to help with heart health, tachycardia, and high blood pressure.

My family doctor, cardiologist, chiropractor, and acupuncturist will continue to diagnose and treat me for my anxiety, stress, chest pain, and speedy heart.  They can find out why my heart hurts, but it is up to me to find out why it is broken.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Pagan Blog Prompt:  Ghosts 

I've never seen a ghost. 

At least, I've never seen anything spooky or spectral outside of my dreams.  I've had plenty of experience with synchronicity and overwhelming feeling related to those who have parted this life.  I've also spent my fair share of time in Lily Dale, NY and have visited the site where the Fox Sisters first heard the Rochester rappings that began the modern Spiritualist movement.*  At Lily Dale my mother, father, husband, and daughter have all received readings.  No one ever seems to select me for that sort of thing.  Too bad.  I think I'd like that.

I guess I don't think too much on this topic.  I do study the history of Spiritualism in the United States and can tell you quite a bit about how Spiritualism is connected to other spiritual and religious movements such as Theosophy, Neo-Paganism, and the New Age, not to mention its long relationship with free thought and secular humanism.  I can also tell you about how it was the Quakers who ensured that it would become a serious religious phenomenon rather than a backwoods flash in the pan.  I might even tell you in what ways I see connections between Spiritualism and Quaker worship, belief, and experience, and that's all well and good....But I've never heard or seen a ghost.

There were all the times when I used to speak to my great grandparents as a child long after they died.  For instance, throughout childhood I chatted to my deceased great-grandmother and worried about whether or not she would be proud of me, and I used to ask my grandfather's father, who died almost 60 years before my birth, to help me with the door.  You see, the door to my grandparents' front porch was sticky and I could not turn the knob on my own.  Great Grandpa's old-timey picture hung in an old oval frame high up on the wall by that door.  There's a kind of sepia sternness in that picture if you don't notice how the eyes smile over his prodigious moustache.  I look into those eyes and say, "Grandpa, would you help me with this door?" and the door would open nice as you please.  I didn't think there was anything so funny about that.  Of course he would help me.  I was a great-grandchild!

There have been the many conversations I've had with my Grandpa. He and I often have conversations about caring for the family and responding to folks with generosity. He died 13 years ago. Our conversations have not stopped.  Since his death, each time I see a hummingbird, I know he is near.  Sometimes I see him in my dreams.  He tells me to be gentle.  He reminds me to be kind.

Dreams are funny.  There are surreal dreams, and flying dreams, and running dreams.  There are house and baby dreams and oh-my-god-where-are-my-pants dreams.  There are profound religious dreams and dreamy dreams...and there are those dreams in which you know you are dreaming, and you know the person you are talking to is no longer part of the waking, living world.  After my father's best friend was killed seven years ago, I began to see him in these dreams.  In the waking world, his death continues to be a kind of nightmare for all of us who loved him.  It was a sudden and violent death, an insulting and unjust death for a man of such peaceful convictions. It is hard for me not to cry in anger when I think of the unfairness of it.  It is hard to see the shadow of sorrow cross my father's face when his best friend's name is mentioned.

My father has looked after his friend's wife and daughters, being present for them in memory of Ken.  And in his way, Ken has been present for my father too.   In my dreams, I watch my father working and see that Ken is with him, looking at Dad a bit sadly because Dad can't see him anymore and they miss each other so much.  What a pair they were!  Bad-assed pacifists and liberals the both of them.  It is does not seem right, or even real, that they can no longer play ball together or joke and laugh and cuss together, or talk politics or march in protest together.  But they are still together.  It seems to me that death does not end relationships, it merely changes the rules of conversation.  Ken died but did not go away.  Not really.  He stands with my father, as he did in life.  Death cannot unmake brothers.

No, I've never seen a ghost, but there have been plenty of times when my hands have written words, expressions, and entire concepts that I did not understand until after they were written.  I have fallen in love, again and again, with persons dead and gone as I, as an historian, have read their words, their stories, their lives.  (Historians are necromancers you know.  We bring the dead back to life.)  As a mother, I have schooled my children in the principles and passions of our ancestors and have taught them to call on their names.  I have leaned close to cemetery stones and cried over strangers' graves.  Most of my girlhood crushes were on men who died centuries ago.  I frequently ask for help from my mother-in-law who died before I met her.  My whole body feels the weight of memory whenever I enter a place that has known a fullness of souls and a wealth of time.  I am apt to shake or burst into tears when I touch objects that belonged to my much-loved dead.   Every day of my life I'm talking to the spirits of the dead, reading their words, listening to their wisdom, crying and laughing with them.  They are with me all the time.

But I've never seen a ghost.

*"Rochester rappings" is a misnomer since the whole thing begins in Hydesville on a rural road just outside of Newark, NY.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How I lost the joy of writing.

Writing has been difficult for me lately.  My inability to create blog posts is symptomatic of a larger condition.  Basically, I can't get out of my own way.  Lots of people say that writing is therapeutic, and I guess it is.  But writing is more than that for me.  It is integral to my understanding of myself as a human being.  When I was little, I could feel the words traveling down my arms and dripping out my fingertips into the pen and then onto the paper.  Words and ideas thrilled me, and I reveled in the ability to take the raw clay of thought and emotion and translate them into something that could be shared between people.  It made me feel so much less alone.

Somewhere along the way, in the course of my perfectionism, I mixed up the need to write with others' assessment of my writing skill.  Finishing a doctorate was difficult for me, not so much intellectually as emotionally.  The work itself was fascinating and enjoyable, but the process of editing and revising was disheartening.  In contrast to many of my fellow students, my dissertation process was a cake walk.  I had a doctoral committee made of up nurturing and patient people.  They were gentle in their criticisms, and because they were generous educators, I began the dissertation process with a strong foundation of support which meant that my work was less in need of correction by the time I reached the final stages.  This facilitated the process significantly.  Even so, the process required that I submit my dissertation chapters first to my interdisciplinary committee of three professors (one with a PhD in history, one with a PhD in Religion Studies, and one with a PhD in English).  They each made their recommendations and I revised the work until the manuscript was complete.  At that point, I could submit the work to them in its complete although still imperfected form.  They made more (mostly minor) recommendations.  I revised again and, after receiving their go-ahead, submitted the manuscript to my second reader.  She accepted it with only minor recommendations.  After receiving her seal of approval, I then had to send the manuscript to the dean's office which then sent it ahead to an outside reader.  They don't tell you who the person is, but I believe in my case they chose a scholar working in Hawaii.  Following that person's comments to which I had to formally respond, my dissertation was then submitted for reading and criticism to the dean's office.  Working with my doctoral committee, I was then responsible for creating a response to the dean's comments.  When that process was over, I had a final meeting with my doctoral committee.  At this point they could bring up any final recommendations that had with the writing and/or with outside readers' recommendations.  Additionally, I was working with a professional editor who, though a sweet and wise woman, was not going to pull any punches in her editorial approach. 

  The entire process had its merits.  I was glad to know that the process promoted a high level of quality in my work.  I appreciated the attention and care I received from my readers who were consistently enthusiastic and caring in their approach.  My university encouraged a "nurturing" rather than a confrontational approach to scholarship.  I've adopted this style in my own classroom with good results.    On the other hand, I found myself exhausted by this process at the end of which I was thoroughly sick of all intellectual activities.  While my process was shorter than those endured by others at my university, it still took longer to receive approval of the dissertation than it did for me to write the darn thing. Added to that were bureaucratic snafus. At one point one when I sent my dissertation for review, a college office worker deleted the document and did not tell anyone until months later when I inquired about its status in the review process.  It was also an expensive process.  I could either have purchased three large furnished Victorian homes or this doctorate that has provided me with a job that barely covers the cost of my so-called "income adjusted" student loan payments.  Because I'm not able to make larger payments, my interest (and my related self-loathing and discouragement) keeps compounding and my debt, which will likely never be paid even if I lived to be 300 years old, is astronomical.

There are times when I feel pride in my accomplishment and take great pleasure in the knowledge and skills I gained in the process.  But most of the time I really wish I hadn't done it.  In fact, I'm ashamed of my motivation to be recognized as a thinker and almost feel that I deserve the low income, high debt, and diminished sense of self-worth that accompanies my doctorate.  I earned that humility as payment for my hubris.  What made me think that I needed or deserved recognition?  If I had learned how to be content as a homemaker and mother, I would not be in the fix I'm in now and my children would not be paying for my desire to "be someone."  I might even still enjoy writing.

I miss that feeling of exhilation and the rush of creativity I used to associate with writing.  One of the most uncomfortable results of my ten years of working on my M.A. and PhD are that my joy of writing was severed from the act of writing.  Ten years of criticism of one's thoughts and of one's expressions of those thoughts can be a bit discouraging.  Because I am a perfectionist, a page of glowing remarks about my work was always completely undone by any mention of even the smallest error.  After fourteen years of undergraduate and graduate discipline, writing stopped being fun.

But I'm trying to remedy that.  I'm trying to relearn how to write for the joy of writing.  This blog is often helpful to me in that capacity.  There is a reason why I don't spend much time editing this.  I submit these posts as raw offerings.  I don't want to concern myself with the fussy details of editing. That sucks for my readers, but is a gift to myself.  Sure, it embarrasses me when I find obvious errors in spelling or grammar.  I'm irritated with awkward phrasing or repetitious word use.  But learning how to write again without hearing the relentless voice of the critic in my mind is an important step for me in my recovery from university.

The next step is to be able to write without feeling that I must be solidly expert in the ideas I explore.  I don't mean that I'm just going to spout off about shit I don't know about.  (Look at that!  I ended a sentence with a preposition, and I am not going to edit it.  In your face, Perfectionism!) What it does mean is that I'm going to give myself permission to explore topics that I've not allowed myself to explore. I am going to challenge myself to use prompts in my writing to try to crack the ice that has formed over my thinking.  I'm becoming so conservative and cautious.  I need to nip that in the bud.  To that end, I've found a Pagan blog prompt site that suggests topics on which a Pagan blogger may write.  Sounds like fun to me.

Garbage Day

A windy day.  I saw my husband off as he headed to work.  Minutes later, the sound of aluminum cat food cans tumbling into the streets aler...