Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Healing at a Snail's Pace


Cappy, my visiting Celo friend, took me to the post office to pick up a Netfix I knew would be waiting in General Delivery. Much to my surprise the clerk handed me a package as well. In it I found a small book, called “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating*.” It was from Brenda who enclosed a letter explaining how the book had come to her. I was immediately captivated by this tale of a woman, bedbound by a devastating chronic illness, who shares her room with a snail in a terrarium close beside her. She has written a lyrical chronicle of her yearlong observation and subsequent research about the woodland snail brought to her isolated world by a thoughtful friend. The single focus of her mind on this tiny gastropod was essentially meditative and contributed to whatever small progress she made that year in her struggle.

Equally important to me were the concluding words of the letter accompanying the book. Referring to my unfortunate fall, Brenda said, "Now you are dealing with another life-altering issue: shoulder limitations affect us down to our toes. It is easy to say, ‘Donna Jean knows how to cope’ and forget the energy you must direct away from whatever you wanted to be doing on your island retreat. We of course admire your skills, but can't believe another challenge has been heaped upon you. This one will pass with lots of physical therapy they will eventually let you do." It opened a window in my soul that I had shut and locked tight, enabling me to feel the emotions I postponed very quickly after the stranger from Connecticut got me on my feet.

I have already written two posts about my fall on January 6, which was Epiphany (the Christian celebration of the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles during the visit of the Magi). As I lay on the gurney in the corridor of the Emergency Room, I wondered if hidden in this accident there was a personal epiphany (an insight into the essential meaning of something). I asked myself, “Is this the day I got old? Will I look at life as before the fall and after the fall?” Those ruminations did not last long because I had many problems to solve and decisions to make, both large and small. I moved quickly into what I call my managerial mode and others call coping.

In the first few days after I came home with my arm in a sling, I heard from friends and relatives who had suffered the same injury. They offered condolences, tips, and stories of recovery. Only one commented that she had gotten depressed as the weeks dragged on. Now that I have been living, as another caller dubbed it, “in a cage,” I imagine that most people going through this experience would have moments or days of depression.

After I decided—with the help of my children—to stay on Tybee, I began to take action. In those early weeks I spent most of my time in gratitude for the relative ease of managing my simple routine by accepting a great deal of personal care from others. As time went on and I figured out how to do more for myself, my life got harder as did my physical and emotional struggle. It takes energy to innovate new ways to do simple tasks and more energy to walk in a boot with a heavy four-prong cane; my energy quotient has not always been sufficient.

As I write I imagine I am holding up one of the double-basket scales used in Guatemalan markets and putting all the blessings in one basket and all the challenges in the other—the blessing basket is heavier. Even so, it has required a conscious investment of time and thought to be able to live in the awareness of blessing, keeping discouragement to a minimum. I manage by concentrating on what I can do, not on what I can’t.

I quickly added to the blessing basket the little book on snails (and by implication on isolation, illness, and the amazing power of mindfulness) together with Brenda’s letter recognizing that grieving is part of the healing process. I have not yet identified an epiphany, but I have wondered if Epiphany 2013 will mark the day my life became more limited. I recognized almost immediately that in addition to bruises and abrasions, I suffered three injuries: my shoulder, my foot, and my confidence. Doubtless all three will heal, but there may be invisible scars. I did indeed divert my energy from all that I had planned for this time of retreat. Soon after the fall, I packed up the knitting yarn and patterns, most of the books, and the personal archival material I brought to use in a piece of writing. Eventually I retrieved a small kitting project that is manageable with my right hand and two fingers of my left.

Yes, one more challenge was heaped upon me and the doctor has said it will take six months to recover. Some who told me their stories say it takes a year. Discouragement casts its shadow now and then, and many days are tedious. But the sunsets are beautiful, the days are mostly balmy, and the air smells of the sea. Friends, family, and even some local women have come not only to visit but also to walk Nigel and help me do the things I cannot manage, which includes real cooking and washing dishes. The conversations have nurtured, entertained, and comforted me and the friendships have deepened. The doctor told me that muscle movements in all parts of our bodies engage the shoulders; no wonder we speak of “shouldering responsibility.” Doing without my shoulder has given me new respect for the work shoulders do and the weight they bear, just like the load the woodland snail carries.

* Elizabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin Books, 2010.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Outrageous Fortune? Go Slowly


For my thirty-fifth birthday, my husband Bill gave me a statue of St. Anthony of Padua, which had been hand-carved by a Spanish-Colonial artisan in the mid 1700s. Bill told me that St. Anthony was the patron saint of lovers; however he seems to be better known as the saint to turn to if you want help finding lost articles. Although I am not Catholic, I wanted a saint for our home, a common practice in Guatemala that appealed to me. I read the story of his life and felt he was the companion for us. Ever since, the statue has been a beloved and comforting part of my life. Several years ago when he resided in the middle of the room, I accidentally knocked him over and some pieces of wood were broken off. His forearm and hand were carved from a separate piece of wood, and after his fall it no longer stayed put in its hole. Standing about four and a half feet tall, he now lives safely in a corner by my bed, watching over me as I sleep.


I tried without success to find someone who could repair St. Anthony. The craftspeople I talked to all felt that I should go to an art restorer, something I knew I could not afford. My inability to find someone to do the work troubled me, and I felt as though I was not being a good steward of this spiritual work of art.

A year ago as I celebrated New Year’s Day, I listened to all the features on the radio and TV about New Year’s resolutions and wondered if there was one small thing that I might want to resolve to do—then I remembered St. Anthony. So I silently promised him and myself that I would have the statue made whole by the next New Year’s Day. As the days grew shorter I mentioned it Robin, who suggested that I call Buzz, a craftsman whose work in wood involved laminates. Robin thought Buzz had the needed skill and understanding of the appropriate adhesives. So as the end of the 2012 grew closer, I called Buzz and told him everything I knew about St. Anthony, both the man and my statue of him. He was doubtful but agreed to come and look at the damage. He spent a long time considering options and warming to the prospect of working with this antique. I assured him that I was not looking for perfection, just wholeness. After all, the statue had some ancient wormholes and one toe was missing from the foot that protruded from his Franciscan habit.

Finally Buzz told me he thought he knew how he could do it and was willing to try. Several days later he brought St. Anthony home looking just as he had before his fall. Buzz told me that he loved the saint, and that as he worked on the statue he felt very close to the artisan who had carved it so beautifully with primitive tools some 250 years earlier. It was moving to listen to his description of doing the work and then going in periodically to check on the saint and just sit with him a bit. It was a small New Year’s resolution I had made, nothing like resolving to stop smoking or lose fifty pounds, but with Buzz’s help I kept my word to St. Anthony. In the process I shared a most satisfying moment with a twenty-first-century woodworker and the memory of his unknown peer in the eighteenth century.

Actually, I have never been drawn to making resolutions at the start of a new year, just as I never wanted to give up something for Lent. What I realize—as I look back on my life—is that I did set goals and make changes, but although the goal might be large, the steps or changes to get there were usually small and manageable. All of that fits in with my pragmatic approach to life. I didn’t make another resolution this year and, as it turned out, I was the one who had the fall and now need to be made whole. It is my hand and arm that are lost to me, as they lie immobilized in the sling. The glue that will restore my body is made of nourishing food, sleep, and the loving care of friends and family. What I must bring to the process is forbearance, patience, discipline, and a good sense of humor.

The doctors, as well as friends who have also broken the humerus, have told me that once the fracture heals, the real work begins. I will have very little mobility in the arm and shoulder and will need to restore it through physical therapy. Although I’m not eager to take responsibility for rehabilitating another part of my body, I have had some experience with non-invasive shoulder repair, and I also have an ally. The experience was a severely frozen shoulder in 1984 while I was living in Philadelphia. When an orthopedist specializing in sports medicine described the surgery he was recommending, I declined and said I’d find another way. He chuckled and said, “Well, if you succeed, come back and tell me about it.”

I began a series of rather painful deep tissue massages from Olana, a beautiful Latvian immigrant who worked in partnership with a Feldenkrais practitioner. She told me the story of Moshe Feldenkrais (the man who developed the method) and urged me to make an appointment with her colleague Bob Chapra. After about nine months of regular sessions with both of them, I returned to the orthopedist who tested my strength and range of motion and, shaking head in amazement, he declared that I had made a full recovery. He also asked for the names and addresses of Olana and Bob. I never understood what was going on in the Feldenkrais sessions, but I could tell that I was getting better. In the end I was free of pain, in addition to regaining the full use of my shoulder.

Celo is blessed to have Astra*, a Feldenkrais practitioner, in our midst, offering Functional Integration classes and individual lessons called Awareness Through Movement. As Astra guides your body through particular movements, your brain and neuromuscular system do the learning. This approach to physical issues is totally congruent with my spiritual journey of mindfulness through meditation. What I accepted on faith from two individuals in 1984 now makes sense to me as both a healing approach on its own merit and a valuable partner to the stretching and strengthening disciplines of mainstream physical therapy. I began working with Astra before and after my knee replacement and have sought her the instruction of her hands for issues of neck tension, balance, and vision. Now she will be my ally as I recover from my fall.

The life lesson I have learned through Feldenkrais is the importance of very small changes in both my body and my attitude. A Feldenkrais teacher guiding a lesson will often say go slowly, do less, or keep it simple. Several nights after my fall, I wakened in the night and lay still in the recliner (which is currently my bed), surveying whatever I could discern about my beat-up body with its bruises, fractures, and muscles tight with caution. I decided to see if I could increase my comfort by placing my awareness on each spot that was calling for attention and trying to find relief through a tiny movement away from the direction of the pain. A few successes increased my confidence, and with one tiny step at a time, I found greater comfort and soon went back to sleep.

The statue of St. Anthony was not the only thing we brought with us from Guatemala. We also brought many Spanish dichos (sayings). The one that comes to mind speaks of slow progress on a pilgrimage or toward any other goal: Poco a poco llegamos a Roma. (Little by little we’ll get to Rome.)

*astrascoyle@gmail.com  828.230.9050

Next post: 02/19/2013