Wednesday, July 28, 2010


or The Proverbial Glass of Water

I was sitting in the Adirondack chair with eyes closed and feet up on a perfect summer evening.  The heat of the previous weeks had broken, and the air felt almost autumnal.  Three days of monsoon weather had given us more than an inch of rain.  Now the breeze, gentle and blessedly cool, set the fragrances of moisture and catmint spinning. 

My enjoyment of the evening had rather an ironic tinge to it.  More than most other evenings, I was sitting in my patio chair primarily because movement was a burden.  I'm only ever one step ahead of the sick exhaustion of CFS at best, and now it had caught up to me and was exacting its price.  In such a case, the wise course of action is to pay up; otherwise, tomorrow's price will be that much steeper.  The coinage is always (still more) inaction, and I, who have never dealt with boredom well, resented being forced once again to sit still and do nothing.  And yet, it was a lovely evening to be stuck in a patio chair.

At least over the years I've learned the forms of good grace. With my eyes closed, I found myself immersed in the soundtrack of summer, and began to enjoy the familiar, (mostly) soothing sounds of the urban outdoors:
  • The white noise of I-40 in the middle distance
  • The rhythmic rattle of a neighbor's swamp cooler (which has resisted a summer's worth of tinkering)
  • The different sounds the wind makes, first clattering in another neighbor's aspens, and then rustling in my desert olives
  • The cheerful, no-nonsense chirping of house-finches
  • The rusted gate/whistling teakettle counterpoint provided by a grackle
  • The dribbling of a basketball, as a group of boys passes by to shoot hoops in the neighborhood park
  • A rustling from somewhere in the yarrow that I devoutly hope is Mr. Jackson the toad
  • The drone of an airplane, and charmingly, at the same time, of a hummingbird
  • The ice cream truck, which tonight is playing Brahms's Lullaby at a volume to wake the dead
  • My project-y neighbor briefly using a hammer
  • The insistent "chip" of a Western kingbird, and the sudden, almost ultrasonic cries of nestlings
  • The jingle of tags on the collar of still another neighbor's dog
  • The buzz of a late honeybee, mixed with the thrum of cicadas and later the chirping of crickets
I open my eyes and gaze directly at the azure of a New Mexico sky, free this evening of clouds, one side of the house still caressed by evening light.  I would choose to enjoy an evening like this no matter what, but this probably isn't the way I would enjoy it if I were well.  I would be out, maybe walking along the bosque by the Rio Grande, or barbecuing at a park, or going with friends to an outdoor concert in Old Town.  Off limits.  Instead I am sitting on the same patio in the same chair where I sit every single night all summer long.

And it's beautiful.  I can't minimize that—it would be like complaining about manna from heaven because it's vanilla manna when I wanted chocolate manna, forgetting that any manna at all is astonishing.  That it's a gift.

But are these small things enough to compensate for the losses?  For the incapacity to be the active, social, spontaneous person I once was?

A silly question—for the obvious reasons, in a way.  But in another way, because it's hard to say what's really a small thing.  As a high school drama teacher used to say many years ago, there are no small parts, there are only small actors.  And the part of me that is very like those cheerful, no-nonsense finches says that it's silly in yet another way, because you can only hoe the row that's in front of you (at least, without doing serious damage to your back), and to list the pros and cons of past and present rows, and to wonder which row would have been best had some other circumstances not arisen, and to bring some hypothetical future rows into the debate while we're at it and discuss the merits and demerits of each, is a good way not to get any rows hoed at all.

A long, tall glass of water rests on the wide arm of the Adirondack chair.  I reach to take a sip and realize that the glass is half—what?  Full or empty?  Another silly question.

Because it's so obviously both.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

Agastache rupestris
or Okay, okay, mea maxissima culpa!

The guilt-inducing power of many of the world's religions is impressive, indeed; almost as impressive as the power of certain mothers I have known (though fortunately not mine).   But if you want to experience real sackcloth-and-ashes, chest-pounding, gnashing-and-wailing self-recrimination, try pulling up a gardenful of Agastache rupestris, otherwise known as licorice mint.

Also known as hummingbird mint.

Hummingbirds love it.   A lot.   It turns out that in addition to being beautiful, feisty, and territorial, black-chinned hummingbirds are astonishingly good at making a grown woman feel very, very small.

Agastache rupestris
In my defense, let me say that I, too, love licorice mint.   A sturdy, drought-tolerant native of the American Southwest, it has airy, sage-green leaves, salmon-colored bloom spikes that last from mid-June to November, and a clean, anise-y scent.   It is one of my favorite plants of all time.   At one point, I had seven of them in my little garden, and if they had stayed the 24-30 inches tall and 18 inches wide that my garden books and catalogs promised me, I would have kept them all.   Instead, they grew to be five feet tall and 3 feet wide.   The hummingbirds were thrilled, but I could not find the garden beds, the paths, or Luther T. Dog.   And these were just immature plantings.   So this year, out they came, to be replaced by mild-mannered and above all short plants.   I still have two of them, which are suffering in containers but may survive the summer; the rest I gave to a friend.

For the record, I did not neglect the hummingbirds.   Theoretically, they are supposed to adore the blooms of autumn sage (Salvia greggii) and pineleaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius).   They do adore them—I have observed them in the very act of adoring them in other people's gardens—and so I planted a number of both.

"Wild Thing" Autumn Sage
Which the hummingbirds ignore magnificently.   (And ignoring "Wild Thing" autumn sage isn't easy.)   Instead of sampling the new plantings, the hummingbirds go to every place where an agastache used to be.   They hover.   They waste calories you know they can't afford.   (Don't you realize that they will have to migrate hundreds of miles south in just a few short months?   And in the meantime, they have mouths to feed—young, helpless nestlings to strengthen for the long flight!)   They find you in your comfy patio chair and hover in front of you, just to be sure they have your attention, and then return to the former homes of the agastache.  Each plant.   In turn.  (They remind you of Lassie trying to catch the attention of the obtuse parent while little Timmy is in danger.   Only Lassie is starving, and it is you who have stolen her favorite food dish.   Because you didn't like it.) 

They come back to hover in front of you a little more.   (Don't you know that hummingbirds have to consume more than their own weight in nectar every day??   Their 1,000 beats-per-minute heartrate doesn't just maintain itself, you know!)   They test the drumstick allium blossoms and turn away in disgust.   (They can literally starve overnight!   To death!   If they don't get enough nectar!)   Weary, they perch in a tree branch and look at where the agastache should be.   And then at you.   (So what if your neighbors—twenty feet away—have feeders that could keep every hummingbird in town fat and sassy all summer?   Sugar water is just Not the Same.)   They fly over to the finch feeder, a decorative jobby that happens to be their favorite shade of red.   (Ooh—sorrysorrysorry.)   They tap on it.   (And if the starving Lassie had risked her own life to rescue Timmy from the collapsed mine, you would have rewarded her with a rubber bone.)   They hover at you some more.  (Have you no shame?!)   Repeat daily.

Lately when they hover at me, I gesture at the autumn sage, which is blooming its little head off.   "Look here," I tell them,  "Just because you're used to eating prime rib, that doesn't make filet mignon a bad thing."   They feed at last.  One sip from one bloom on each plant.   One.  And then they return to where the agastache used to be and hover.   (Sigh.)

Guilty as charged, little ones.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


or  Looking for Hope

I'm sorry if this is a rehash for some of you, especially for my Facebook friends.   But an incident happened at work today that really rattled and angered me, and I have been trying to come to terms with it.

What happened was this:   I work as the secretary of a church, and the church building lies on a route that brings many who are needy or confused or wandering to our door (which is kind of the point of a church).  This morning, a young woman who was clearly on drugs rang our bell, and when I answered, she came in and said that she had lost her daughter—she had just turned around for a minute, and her two-year-old girl was gone.   The woman wasn't particularly distraught, acting more—not even confused, just stoned, than anything.   I can't exactly say why, but it seemed more important to me that she call 911 than that we go out and search the neighborhood.  Maybe I hadn't really absorbed what she had said, or I was half disbelieving her (she wasn't entirely coherent, and you develop a certain cynicism when you answer the door at a church very often), or I wanted more capable hands than mine to deal with it, or I wanted the authorities to get involved so that this woman wasn't given charge of a child again.   I don't know.  I was already angry with her for coming to our door:   if you lose a child, you don't leave the vicinity!  You search high and low, flag down a passing car, and have them call the police!   But church buildings are places of refuge, and in times of crisis, people often turn to them automatically.   I still don't know whether it was the "right" choice, but I helped the woman place the call, intending then to go out and search for the little girl until the police arrived.

But I couldn't leave.   The woman had no idea where she was, and someone had to stay and feed her information so that the police would come to the right place.  I listened to that entire conversation and got more angry than I have been in years, or possibly ever, because while this woman was maundering on and on about nothing, a child was out there somewhere lost, and no one could do anything about it, because this mother was too high even to ask for help properly.   When the emergency dispatcher asked her to describe her daughter, the woman said that she was "short."   She thought that she might have been wearing something pink—a tutu kind of thing, or maybe a shorts jumpsuit; she was blondish.   The woman described her plans for the day and what she thought about the weather.   She had lost her daughter at—was it the corner? the bench at the bus-stop? in the bushes by the sidewalk?   The girl's name was Jessica.  Or possibly Marie.

At that point, I began disbelieving in the existence of the daughter, or at least in the mother's tale.   But who can run that risk?   Who can afford to say,  "Oh, please.   Just move along now, ma'am," when the possibility exists that the mother is right?   The inconsistencies in her story weren't those of a liar, but of someone not in her right mind.   So some parts of her story could just as well have been true.

As soon as the phone call ended, I ran to find my co-workers, and we started to look outside.   The police came almost immediately, bless them, and were competent, efficient, and kindly.  An Amber Alert, two television crews, and a visit from the paramedics later, it became clear that the daughter had been in Roswell, 200 miles away, all along.  She had never been in danger; the mother had been hallucinating.   The paramedics took her away.

But I cannot forget the feeling of powerlessness and injustice when that woman was on the phone in my office—the anger, not that a woman could look away and have her daughter disappear—that's all too realistic a nightmare and can happen to anyone—but that she could get so drugged up that she couldn't even ask for help in what she thought was an emergency; that those of us who wanted to help the child couldn't because we had to help the mother instead; that someone so criminally irresponsible should have made the choice to have a child, when so many who would love a child can't have one; that the little girl was the one who was going to pay for her mother's negligence.

And then it all turned out to be OK.  Only it isn't.

It just isn't.

And so I am hunting around for a context to put this in, and two things come to mind.   One is a recent comment by a friend, that God is in the Small Things.  The other is a conversation my sister and I recently had about a photo of a new leaf unfurling—that the leaves remind us of babies yawning and stretching out one little fist, maybe half open.  My sister asked me to write a blog post about it, and I agreed.  This isn't what either of us had in mind.  But to see these leaves—their intricate, laser-cut edges, the perfection of every minute hair, the clean musculature of the new leaf as it opens—is to remember the spark of Life that guides all growing things toward the Light.

As another friend and I recently discussed, hope can be a double-edged sword.  If a hope isn't realistic, it can just as easily lead to disappointment and despair.  But I have hope for that little girl, that she will grow up strong and loving, and for her mother, that she, too, may one day choose strength and love.  I have seen it happen. 

By the grace of God, who blesses small things.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Main Thing

or Going to Seed

When I was growing up, my Mom had a huge vegetable garden—the kind that fed our family of five through even the winter months with all the zucchini and green beans and dill pickles and zucchini (and more zucchini) she had preserved.  I loved helping Mom in the spring—counting down the days until the last frost, marking out the rows, laying out the yardstick to plant the seeds the proper distance apart.  I loved the shape and feel of the seeds—the smooth, shiny beans, the faded green of peas, the gritty nothingness of carrots.  I loved misting the newly sown earth with the sprinkler "just until it puddled."  And I especially loved running in from outside shouting, "Mommy, Mommy, the beans [peas/carrots/whatever] are up!"  (N.B.: But I must confess to never being that excited about zucchini.)  (And, as long as we're confessing things, I was never all that excited to help with weeding, watering, or harvesting as the summer wore on.)

I would love to have that sort of garden again, but with CFS, it's just not realistic.  The rototilling, spading, hoeing, weeding, watering, and so on are all labor-intensive, but the real problem is that so much of the work in a vegetable garden needs to be done now.  While I often have energy to do some physical labor, I just can't count on it to show up on any given day.

Burgundy Amaranth Seedlings
The thing is, I'm not always sure whether I like vegetable gardening because I actually want fresh vegetables, or whether I just enjoy watching seeds sprout.  When I reread my garden journals for the last several years, the heftiest entries always come right after planting time, and they almost all say, "The [x] is up!!!" with multiple exclamation points and a lot of excited babbling but no further information.  As the plants actually grow, the entries start to peter out; and I have no (no—I defy you to count them, because there aren't any) entries about harvesting.

The sprouting of a seed has never lost its magic for me— the sense of excitement that "Oh, my gosh, it worked again;"  the awe that something as minuscule as a carrot seed can one day produce an actual carrot, with a root and leaves and everything.  (Yes, I know that it's really just genetic programming in action, but the transformation is no less astonishing for that.)   Those of us with chronic illnesses are often looking for a little magic in our lives, a mental buoyancy to offset the physical lead weights, and for me watching seeds come up is one thing that provides that lift.

Dad's GMMCS's Conquer Again
Enter one of my favorite adaptations: the micro-garden.  Horticultural therapist Hank Bruce and his wife Tomi Jill Folk at Hunger Grow Away introduced me to this idea from CelluGro.  It's a 2' x 4' garden, divided into about 30 individual cells, which is designed for micro-intensive growing methods.  My Dad, using what we in the family refer to as his "Gloriously Magnificent and Marvelously Creative Smarts" or GMMCS's (though I believe he eventually resorted to using tools and lumber as well), built a beautiful, sturdy base for it, so that it stands at waist height.  Using only light hand tools and spending ten minutes a day (if that), I am able to plant and harvest for at least three seasons a year.  The micro-garden doesn't produce a huge amount of food for me (though Hank and Tomi's gardens are incredibly productive)—I get probably two generous or three side-dish servings of vegetables a week.  But it gives me lots and lots of opportunities to watch seeds sprout, and apparently that's the main thing.

The main thing.   I've had to make many adaptations to living with CFS over the years, and I'm just now beginning to learn that the ones that work, that satisfy me as deeply as the original, are the ones where I've figured out the main thing;  where I've pinpointed that little kernel at the heart of something that makes my heart sing, and found a way to nourish it and make it grow. Finding that kernel is another facet of the need to prioritize activities based on your deepest values, which I've come to see as one of the blessings of chronic illness.

The Micro-Garden
I do miss many of the other aspects of vegetable gardening.  I've always enjoyed turning the earth, and the sight of turning forks at garden centers is still a happy-making (if pointless) thing, but the aim of doing so has always really been to see seeds sprout.   (And boy, do I feel like a fool now that I know how little work I can do to enjoy that particular pleasure.)  The other things are comparatively minor losses; they may cost me a pang, but they don't impoverish me.   The essence is still mine to enjoy—the glory of seeing a forest of seedlings, knowing that hope has been borne out and that the magic did, in fact, work again.

Because that's the main thing.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mi jardín es su jardín

Share and Share Alike

I expected gardening to be about plants; I didn’t expect it to be quite so much about morality.  Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice describes morality as the struggle to balance the needs of the self against the needs of others.  A variant on the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself, it brings the occasional (frequent?) tension between the two into the foreground in a way that I find rather a relief.

I had originally planned my garden as something approaching a potager, with native fruiting bushes and Mediterranean herbs in a semi-formal design, and vegetables grown in containers.  I live in a new, urban infill development which, when I moved in, was still surrounded by vacant, weed-infested land.  I was the first of my neighbors to plant anything, and that first summer, every leaf-roller, aphid, potato leaf-hopper, flea beetle, and cabbage moth in the neighborhood descended gleefully on my fledgling garden.  My infant trees were leafless by July, every tomato had withered with curly top virus, and the vegetable greens were all eaten away to the midrib.  Only the native plants and herbs survived.  (You can pretty well bet that any plant native to New Mexico does not need a lot of coddling.)

I read more widely about organic forms of pest control and, at my sister’s recommendation, came across Sally Jean Cunningham’s Great Garden Companions.  Cunningham suggests creating a welcoming environment for garden beneficials by including habitat plants, introducing water at ground and (human) waist height, and interspersing nectar-rich flowering plants among your edibles.  This attracts beneficial insects (and other wildlife like toads and birds), which will then keep the pests down to manageable proportions.

Since then, I've tried to apply Cunningham's principles, which are partly about attracting, but essentially about sharing.  The bird and bugbaths are always filled.  The portion of my garden given to flowers and habitat plants has grown, and the part devoted to edibles has shrunk.  I grow vegetables primarily in a 2’ x 4’ “micro-garden” (the main planting area is about 15' x 15'), and while I still have fruit bushes and herbs, the rest of the garden is “beneficial” planting.  The air hums with honeybees and bumblebees.  Mr. Jackson overwinters in my potted mint.  Finches maintain a running commentary from the tree branches.  And I have seen hoverflies, orb weavers, lace wings, praying mantises, lady beetles, and parasitic wasps enjoying the flowers, the water, and the aphids.  The pests are minor irritations rather than plagues (though the leaf hoppers still get to my tomatoes every year, confound them!).

In “sacrificing” growing space to foster an ecosystem, the ecosystem has given back to me.  In giving more of my garden over to nurturing the urban wildlife, the part I have reserved for myself has flourished.  My harvests have increased (and the headaches have decreased) as I have learned to balance my own needs against the needs of the creatures in my environment—even the pests among them.

Is this morality?  Enlightened self-interest?  Good karma?

Or is it just the way things are supposed to work?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Pride and Prejudice

or On Pigging Out

You will never catch me saying in public that I like to eat pigweed.  Not even in private.  I don’t even think it in private. 

Burgundy Amaranth seedlings
On the other hand, I would love to drop into casual conversation, “Amaranth?  Oh, yes, one of my favorites.  Lightly sautéed with just a soupçon of garlic and a little spritz of lemon—or perhaps with a béchamel sauce—it’s too, too mahvelous, dahling.”
Amaranth.  The word just rolls off the tongue.  It evokes sundrenched climes, pungent spices, complicated and subtle cuisines.  Mmm.

redroot amaranth
Pigweed is (believe it or not) a weed that happens to be good fodder for pigs.  Amaranth, on the other hand, is a highly edible plant much loved in warm climates, its leaves eaten raw or cooked in stews, its seeds prized for their nutty flavor and nourishing goodness.  The seeds have a nearly complete amino acid profile, making amaranth a valuable source of protein—in fact, it boasts more protein than wheat.  The leaves are rich in more vitamins and minerals than you could possibly want to hear me enumerate (just trust me, they’re there).  Amaranth grows well in hot weather and needs minimal water, making it an invaluable summer green in a place like Albuquerque.  And as an added bonus, it’s an incredibly easy plant to grow.  It grows almost like a—well, like a weed.

By an astonishing coincidence, the Latin name for our local, native pigweed is Amaranthus retroflexus, otherwise known as redroot amaranth.  (Bet you saw that coming from a long way off, didn’t you, gentle reader?)  It flourishes in vacant lots and disturbed places and incites people to roll their eyes and make irritated sounds if it grows in their neighbors’ yards.

Tiger-Eye Amaranth seedlings
One of my neighbors, who is not overburdened with the domestic virtues (but who is otherwise a lovely person), has had it growing in her weed-patch of a yard for several years, where it casts its thousands of seeds far and wide.  I roll my eyes and make irritated sounds at it, and this summer, when I found it coming up in one of my containers, I came very close to uprooting it.  Fortunately, a little irony came along and smacked me between the eyes just in the nick of time.  The very day I was about to yank out the pigweed, I was also planning to plant Burgundy and Tiger-Eye Amaranth (note the capital letters—they make all the difference) from seeds I had purchased from a pricey little heirloom seed catalogue…
redroot amaranth
I decided to leave the redroot amaranth (as we shall now call it, though alas, without the capitals), and it’s actually turned out to be a beautiful plant.  Granted, it’s growing in good soil and getting regular water, so it’s probably more attractive than it would otherwise be, but its coloring and symmetry are wonderfully ornamental.  I just harvested six cups of leaves from it.  And dahling, sautéed with a soupçon of garlic and a little spritz of lemon, it was too, too mahvelous.  (But you will never catch me serving it with a béchamel sauce.)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Back! Back, I Say!

Appreciating clouds in the Right Sort of patio chair
The Importance of Not Being Earnest

I grew up with this odd idea that the point of clothes was to keep you warm and decent (not necessarily in that order), and that the point of food was to keep you alive and well.  Clothes might be attractive, but that was a bonus.  Food would probably be tasty, but even if it wasn't, you were to eat it.  In other words, food and clothing were necessities; pleasure was a happy accident--a utilitarian approach to life's basics which I maintained through early adulthood.

Then I spent six months in Paris.

In Paris, the purchase of green beans is an artistic experience.  The choice of an avocado--perfectly ripe for tonight, or perhaps for tomorrow--merits your grocer's undivided attention.  The selection of cheeses to serve after dinner offers adventure enough for even the strongest of heart.

In Paris, one matches one's fur coat to one's dress, shoes, and toenail polish (all in beautifully graduated shades of blue, bien sur).  One rides one's Vespa in perfectly fitted, princess-seamed leathers and heeled boots.  One wears lovely, floating silk scarves simply because they are lovely and floating and silk.

In Paris, necessity becomes delight.  Put another way, food and clothing are still necessities, but one of the necessities is that you enjoy them.  If mundane things are inescapable, the attitude seems to be, then why not revel in them?

Enjoying morning coffee with bonus balloonists
I loved that epiphany in Paris--that everyday things could and should be sources of intense aesthetic pleasure, that they should nourish and warm you spiritually as well as physically--and tried to maintain that attitude on my return to the US.  Unfortunately, when you have CFS, you have to calculate the effort-to-enjoyment ratio very carefully, and for me, in the name of survival, clothes and food have become merely utilitarian once again.  On the other hand, when you have CFS, you spend a great deal of time resting, and I have recently begun a quest to turn that particular necessity into an art form--something worth reveling and delighting in.

This brings us to the all-important topic of patios and, by extension, patio furniture.  I love the patio, because it is not a place for accomplishing.  Work has its place, and hard work satisfies like nothing else, but not, I repeat, on the patio.  The patio is a place for idling--for taking a mental and physical holiday from the indoor world.  Whereas indoors, a part of me is always muttering about vacuums and e-mails and dishes, on the patio, no part of me is called to action.  Perhaps if I am feeling particularly energetic and inspired, I may meander out into the garden (which takes approximately six steps) and deadhead a flower or so.  I may pull a weed.  And then, mission accomplished, I mosey back to the patio, possibly stopping to admire a particularly fine blossom or brush my hand against the oregano or pick a leaf of mint, before resuming my interrupted holiday.

Enjoying iced mint tea at sunset
To promote the holiday atmosphere, then, patio furniture should not encourage work.  In fact, it should make work well nigh impossible.  The one thing you should absolutely not be able to do in a patio chair is to compose a to-do list.  So unless it surrounds a dining table a patio chair should not sit up straight.  Sitting up straight suggests earnest practicality; it is the position of someone prepared to Get Things Done. 

Tsk tsk.

No, a patio chair--whether an Adirondack, zero-gravity, or plain folding lounge chair--should lean back just far enough that work is out of the question.  (N.B. The footstool is a magnificent invention.)  Try the following litmus test:  If someone wanted to drop grapes into your mouth, would you be prepared?  If not, the chair sits up too straight.  (On the other hand, a chair should not lean back so far that you need to use your abs to sip a cool, refreshing drink.)  You should be able to watch clouds drifting by and stars coming out, tree branches swaying in every breeze, cottonwood seeds floating haphazardly on a random current of air. 

Slaving away, gathering material for my blog.
Anything more than that, and you're working too hard.

Monday, July 5, 2010

In Which Mr. Jackson Is Enlightened

or I Love It When You Bug Me

A while ago I wrote about an unexpected thing that happened when I provided the gift of water to the small creatures in my garden. Lately I've discovered a gift I provided to Mr. Jackson (aka Mr. Toad) without meaning to. I'm warning you, however—this is a small happening, small even by the standards of someone with a blog called "Microcosm." The explanation-to-event ratio is waaaay out of proportion, but I'd love it if you could bear with me through this one.

Our story begins with the sad fact of waterbugs. These are large, outdoor cockroaches that like to come indoors at night primarily looking for water, though they also enjoy air conditioning, and they won't turn down a dish of dog food or an interesting trash can. (And a trash can under the kitchen sink near the water—OMG, OMG, OMG.) They don't seem to want to move in, though I'm sure they would if I made the place inviting enough; I've watched them march straight out the door (well, under the door) at the crack of dawn on more than one occasion. I was almost surprised that they didn't punch a tiny time clock on their way out.

I don't like them. Even though to the objective eye they are actually kind of a nice coppery shade of brown and seem quite cheeky and rather gregarious, mine is not an objective eye. The mess they make when you squish them is too...textured. I do my best to deter them each summer by making sure that the trash can never is interesting, putting all food garbage in the freezer until trash day, sprinkling diatomaceous earth around entryways, etc.   None of it really works.  Apparently, hope springs eternal, even for cockroaches. Maybe even especially for cockroaches. That is to say, waterbugs.

My latest strategy is to leave the kitchen light on from dusk until bedtime. It's not the "greenest" of solutions, but it does seem to work. The light shines out through the glass panels on the kitchen door and deters the waterbugs from entering. They may still come in after I've turned the light off and gone to bed, but I don't see them, and that's the main thing.

While light may deter some insects, of course, it also attracts others. Re-enter Mr. Jackson. On more than one evening, I have found him sitting on the path outside the kitchen door, with beams of light falling all around him. (And lo, how like a warty angel did he appear unto me.) He has been feasting on the insects hovering around the door—and possibly devouring some waterbugs into the bargain.

It never ever occurred to me that in turning on a light, I could feed a toad. (Note to the patient reader: that was the event.)

Why do I find this so beautiful? I'm not entirely sure. It tickles my funny bone, yes, but that's not quite it. Perhaps it's the serendipity, or maybe the efficiency of it—nature letting no gifts go to waste.  But I suspect it's more the awe of discovering how small actions have unforeseen consequences. It's kind of like "The Butterfly Effect" (the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas), only smaller, and with a hypothetical butterfly that actually knows that it caused a storm.

In fact, the more I write about it, the more certain I am that that's what I love about this little eventlet. We so seldom see the effects of our more-or-less random acts:  the small steps we take that reverberate across a larger plane. To see those reverberations in action—and to know that they're accidentally feeding a fat, happy toad—is a rare and wondrous thing. That knowledge is also comforting.  Since becoming ill with CFS, my life often feels horribly restricted, and the reminder that even small actions can have far-reaching consequences gives me hope. And of course, the adventurer in me is inspired to act even more. Because who knows what might happen?

Take a step, and set the world in motion.

Anything can happen.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Stacy's Top 10 Tips for Living with Chronic Illness
Joy Doesn't Just Happen On Its Own

I'm sorry to depart from my normal format for today, but I've just read one too many posts that did nothing but whine and complain on various CFS and Fibromyalgia (FM) Facebook pages, and I've had it up to here. Admittedly, I am one of the "lucky" ones and can function at about 75% of my former capacity; but even when I was at 25% I didn't see the point of shooting myself in the foot over and over again, if at all. (Harping on your symptoms doesn't make you less aware of them!) As a counterweight, I would like to offer some positive tips for living with CFS, FM, and many other chronic illnesses. They are not suggestions for medications or supplements or life-style changes or therapies--the web has plenty of other sources for that. Rather, they are some of my strategies for accepting illness as part of my life while not allowing it to rule my life. (And I apologize if they sound a little irritated at the moment.)

1. Prioritize. Illness does offer us gifts, if we just have the good sense to recognize them. One of the most powerful gifts is also one of the nastiest afflictions--the incapacity to do everything (or almost anything) we used to do. The bad side of that is clear and does not need to be belabored here. The good side of it is that we really have to figure out what matters to us at the very deepest levels. What are your core values? What principles do you hold most dear? Not what do you enjoy doing the most, but what do you care about the most? Healthy people can engage in all sorts of activities whether they express their values or not. People with chronic illnesses do not have that luxury. We cannot expend energy on things that don't matter. So figure out what you value--what your mission is, what your vision is. Find the activities that you can do that further your values, and don't waste precious energy on the things that don't. You may be surprised to discover that you can live out your values no matter what your current abilities.

2. Learn the difference between complaining and acknowledging--facing facts honestly and objectively. Don't complain. It doesn't help, and it lands you endlessly in a victim's role. Acknowledge, yes. When your parents ask how you're doing, chances are they actually want to know. So tell them--two or three sentences MAX ought to do it, and your voice really does not need to whine in the telling--and then move on. Mourn your losses, yes. They're real, and they hurt, and they matter. Move on. With the same amount of energy that it takes to complain, you could also tell your sister that you love her, or ask about a dear friend's day. If you give complaining priority, what does that say about what you value? Considered another way, what do you want people to say about you at your funeral, many years hence? That illness embittered you? That you used to be so wonderful before you came down with CFS? Or that you were an inspiration, because despite illness you knew how to give love and joy and life to those around you?

3. Practice gratitude. If you are reading this online, you already have blessings of awe-inspiring magnitude--an education (twelve years of which probably cost you nothing), electricity, running water, a temperature controlled environment, a refrigerator, foods from all over the planet, internet access to a world of ideas. We take all those things for granted, but just imagine trying to live with chronic illness without them, even for a day. And that list of wonders doesn't even include the most wonderful things: supportive, loving family and friends. Focusing on your blessings--and you have them, if you will just look--will help shift your awareness from the victim's endless litany of "poor me, poor me, poor me" back to the things that you really do care about, and make you alert to other good things as they happen. Gratitude is the first step toward joy.

4. Live your enjoyments to the hilt. Many of the things you enjoy now may not be your first choice, and they may be smaller than they used to be--an hour on the patio rather than a day in the mountains--but it's silly not to enjoy them fully because of that. Learn to savor every pleasure, no matter how small.

5. Do something for someone else. Anything. We are meant to be givers, and life can seem pointless when we feel that we have nothing to offer. Believe that you matter, despite how much of your life you spend lying in bed, or in soul-numbing isolation, and give something of what you have inside you away. It can be as simple as a smile for someone who needs it. Giving helps. Immensely.

6. Melt down occasionally with a trusted friend. We all lose our perspective now and then, and we all lose our way forward. Be truthful about your fears and frustrations and griefs. Be honest. But don't get bogged down in complaints, and let your friend help you find your footing again. In those circumstances, he or she is probably happy to be supportive. (Thank you, R.S.!)

7. If at all possible, put your bed and sofa where you can look out at trees or some other greenery. (Studies have shown that people in hospitals recover from surgery faster, use less pain medication, and are better patients when they have trees to look at.) In my current home, I don't really have that option at the moment, and it makes a surprisingly huge difference. We deal with enough pain and unpleasantness. Looking outside at something beautiful and alive can substitute pleasure for pain, even if it's only a little bit. It also reminds us that life does continue, and that we are a part of it.

8. Also if at all possible, spend time outside. As one of my friends likes to say, "Sitting inside is just sitting. Sitting outside is an activity." If you have a porch or patio or balcony, use it on every nice day that you can. You'll be part of life in ways that you never can be inside a house. You can observe the changing seasons in intimate detail, follow the lives of bumblebees or hummingbirds or toads, watch flowers go from bud to bloom to seed. Because sitting outside is an activity, no matter how gentle, someone with CFS may not always be able to manage it. But if you're able to read a book or watch TV, take your cup of tea out onto the patio for a while instead, and soak up some of the good kind of reality for a while. Adirondack chairs are wonderful things.

9. Spend time relaxing. For those of us who lie on sofas a lot, that may seem like a stupid thing to say, but I find that I can be lying down and still not be relaxed. When I was healthy and worked and played hard, it was easy to relax, because the difference between the two states was so clear. But reading (for example) as a nice, calm way to end a busy day is a much different thing than reading as a way to mark time until the day is over and you can officially go to bed. The one is relaxing, the other--not so much. It may only be light activity, but it's not unwinding. Make a point of doing whatever helps you unwind every day. Your body and spirit are stressed by illness. Give them a breather.

10. Be gentle with your friends and acquaintances. (Possibly even with your medical doctors.) They will fail you, believe me, if they haven't already. At some point, someone you trusted will say, "Well, we all feel tired sometimes. I'm tired right now." (And then you'll watch them walk up five flights of stairs without stopping, and still be functional at the top.) They'll desert you when you need them, they'll be ready for you to be over this because they are, they'll say all the wrong things. You know what? I've failed my friends, too. There are times when I have just refused to be who they needed me to be, for no good reason. There are times when I've said thoughtless things to an acquaintance because I didn't have the imagination or experience to understand his or her situation. We are all human. If a "friend" is out and out cruel, of course, abandon that friendship, and the sooner the better. If someone takes energy you can't afford to give, then reset the boundaries. But if they're doing their best under the circumstances and just don't get it... Be gentle. Be willing to forgive and forget. The world of the chronically ill is small enough--don't make it smaller by excluding people you care about just because they have human limitations.

Which leads me to this bonus tip, which sums up most of the others: Always remember--even your illness is not all about you.