A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Thursday, October 27, 2011


"What great for the heart is great for the brain." -- the poet Kabir

"How old is old?" my mother asked my ten year-old self. I stood in the middle of our 1970s kitchen--white floor with an indented squiggle design, black and white cabinets, red countertops. After some thought, I answered with confidence, "Sixteen."

My oldest niece Isabella turned old this week: she's sweet sixteen, and since she's aging, I'm dedicating this entry on self-care to her. She's gonna love it.

Yesterday, I attended my in-person brain tumor support group (I also belong to an online ependymoma support group. I need a lot of support.) A Virginia Mason hospital neurologist, Dr. Nancy Isenburg, gave a talk called, "Healthy Aging with Cancer" to open the meeting.

Though the title was about cancer and the talk focused specifically on brain cancer, much of the talk was really about healthy living and healthy aging (which I guess is really the same thing.)

Dr. Isenburg not only quoted a couple of poets (which wins her great credibility points in my book), but also shared some helpful information about living well, focusing especially on diet and exercise.

Though her talk was quite good, she didn't recommend ice-cream. She did recommend walnuts, which I figure is a recommendation for an ice-cream sundae as long as it has walnuts on it. It's better that way anyway. I think the cherry does not have a lot of vitamins anymore and is therefore optional. Chocolate syrup is must. So is whipped cream. But I digress...

In addition to walnuts, Dr. Isenburg recommended other elements of a Mediterranean diet: olives (yuck), olive oil, red wine (I think she said lots of it...oh no, that was "a little"), fish, and fruits (so I guess you should eat that cherry on your ice-cream sundae after all) and veggies.

These foods stimulate growth of the hypocampus, which is in charge of memory and shrinks with age. (Yes, your brain is shrinking.) The bigget benefit of exercise, she said, is metacognition. Not becoming depressed, or addressing depression, is also a big bene.

Though your brain does shrink with age, recent studies show that the brain does continue to produce new brain cells throughout our lives. This is good news.

For exercise, Dr. Isenburg recommended walking at least three times each week for at least 45 minutes each time. Dancing to music (no, Mom, watching "Dancing with the Stars" does not count) and juggling are especially good for you.

Brother Matt, get off of your bike from time to time and juggle. You'll be an excellent old man before you know it.

No, Sister Jen. Sorry. Juggling four kids' schedules does not count. Especially since one's a boarding school. Juggling bon-bons only counts if you throw them in their air.

A healthy heart, Dr. Isenburg said, reduces the risk of dementia, reducing the risk of Alzheiner's by half if you exercise 30 minutes a day. (2000 international units of vitamin D each day help this, too.) Fish, she said, is good, too (and it's good for lowering cholesterol and managing ADHD. It should therefore be on every school lunch tray, but I don't think those fried strips will count.)

Fat, Dr. Isenburg emphasized, is good for the brain. I brightened, thinking about my ice-cream sundae, and then she clarified that it needed to be certain kinds of fat: coconut oil and avacado oil are really good. Use peanut oil or coconut oil for stir fry.

All in all, it's pretty good news and follows common sense. Eat well and exercise. And drink a little red wine. And dance.

I heard recently from a blogger who's a veteran with cancer, and he thinks a lot about health issues with cancer. You can access his site at http://www.mesothelioma.com/blog/

Monday, October 24, 2011

Temporarily Abled Toilet Stalls

There are lots of advantages to having disabilities. For example, I get to have a special stall in public restrooms. I love that.

My special stall has shiny bars that I can hold onto so that I don't fall down, and the door swings away from the toilet instead of towards it so that I don't get knocked into the toilet. Sometimes, I even get a special sign on the outside that's blue with a thin person sitting in a wheelchair.

With every bit of sunshine, however, a little rain must fall. The stall for me and my peeps is so luxurious that often a person who is "temporarily abled" (to borrow a term from a Grand Canyon guide in the lovely film, Right to Risk--a documentary about a group of adults with disabilities and their guides rafting down the river)...anyway, a person who is temporarily abled loves the luxury of the stall with the skinny person in a wheelchair sign so much that, despite there being multiple other options, this temporarily abled person chooses the stall for people with disabilities.

If I arrive in the rest room, and several stalls are available, but none of them has the shiny bars and swing out door, I must stand and wait. There's not much to do other than listen and stare. It's awkward.

It's not that I insist on luxury. It's that I insist on not falling in the toilet.

I have asked temporarily abled people about why they think people who do not have disabilities use the special stall when others are available. The most common responses have been that they don't think about it or that they like the extra room.

I have a favor to ask. If you are temporarily abled, and you arrive in the rest room with a choice of stalls, please choose the tighter stalls. I'd appreciate it, and that way I won't be listening to you do your business while I wait.

Thanks. Mary

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Total Experience

Today at our little church, Pastor Patrinell Wright sang Alice Parker and Robert Shaw's "Sometimes I Feel Like a Moanin Dove," with our church choir.

How did she get here? I don't know. Wait, yes I do. It was grace.

In 1964, the year of my birth, she traveled from her Texas home to make a home in Seattle, WA, just so that she could sing to me today. I'm not sure where today's lyrics came from, her own rendition or an older rendition that I can't find.

This morning, she lifted her arms and sang with a soulfulness that took my breath away. She sang of sadness, "Sometimes, I feel like a moanin dove," and "Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child," and she sang of beauty's power, "Sometimes, I feel like an eagle in the air."

The sadness and the beauty lifted me. Her presence lifts me, too. She's given her gift of song and of spirit to the world in a way that has often brought her onto stage with famous folk and into public awards and recognition for all that she has given.

In my little church, however, she faced the congregation and, before she sang, she folded her hands in namaste, a greeting that I learned in yoga that means, "I honor you." She put her fingers to her mouth and blew us a kiss. I learned this signal, "I love you," long ago.

And then she sang. I sat in my pew and believed that she sang to my cross-eyed and somewhat crippled self. I felt honored. I felt loved.

At the end of the service, I wanted to say thank you, but she was already gone. I didn't hear the boards creek when she left. It seems that she left more quietly, as angels do.

Living Backwards

"Now ordinary people are born forwards in time, if you understand what I mean, and nearly everything in the world goes forward too. This makes it quite easy for the ordinary people to live. . . . But I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people who live forwards from behind."
- Merlyn in T.H. White's Once and Future King

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star, 60
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come 65
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, 70
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended; 75
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
--Wordsworth, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality"

Like Merlyn, I seem to be living backwards in time. It seems that many others believe, like the poet William Wordsworth, that their youth was the time when they were most connected to a divine spirit, to the center of their true selves.

That was the message of Pastor Jim's sermon today, a message that echoed Wordsworth's mullings in his "Ode: Intimimations of Immortality."

As Jim talked about having felt more whole, more connected to our dreams in our youth, heads nodded, indicating that for some of those with greying hairs in our community, life has moved them away from their true selves. There seems to be a melancholy about this loss.

Though I like Jim a  lot and like to encourage him in his preaching, today I could not nod my head. Life for me has gotten better, not worse, through the years.

"Children," he said, "seem closer to God." Heads nodded. I think I heard a sigh.

I was happy as a child (at least until middle school.) I had fun. I loved the swings, and I discovered with awe that bricks, when rubbed together, make sand.

I do not believe that as a child I had a clear vision of who I might be, so there was no vision to shatter. I did have a vision of a lovely life, but I did not necessarily envision that that lovely life would be mine. I bit my lower lip and wondered what life I might have.

Now I know. In my life, there has been some loss, especially through these tumors. I can no longer run after a soccer ball or read a passing billboard sign. I can no longer make it through the day without at least a couple of naps.

More abundant for me, however, has been the grace in living a lovely life. I got to be a high school teacher and witness genius and kindness and hope. I have visited places like Lalibella, Ethiopia, and Guarjila, El Salvador, places I could not have imagined from the cul-de-sac of my suburban youth.

I get to live my life with a woman who loves me and with whom I feel whole. I get to wonder at fall colors, spring roses, and frozen berries in the early snow fall. I get to read poetry and nod my head, "Yes."

In living backwards, I grow into my naivete, a wonder in the world, a joy in every day living. I grow into my Yes.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Even Steven

For Christmas one year long ago, Mom gave me a color consultation, but when I called to schedule an appointment, the woman I was supposed to meet with said that she had been hearing voices recently, so we should schedule our time together in the future. Figuring that she had more important things to do than tell me what colors to wear, I didn't call back. Besides, I'm sure I'm a fall as I look really good in the fall.

Which is now. So Ann and I took a driving tour down by Mt. Rainier for a weekend of golds and autumn reds. We went on a loop, climbing over Chinook Pass and White pass as recommended by the Seattle journalist Brian Cantwell.

Friday we took a leisurely drive, stopping a couple of times for short hikes, to Whistling Jack Lodge just over Chinook Pass. Our bay window opened onto golden leaves and a rumbling river. On the lawn, just between us and the river, a carved bear looked really happy about the whole scene. The bear faced the river, so we looked at his bare bear butt. I laughed about the golden mushrooms clustered around his feet, making it look like he had just taken a dump and was awful cheery about it.

Friday night, Ann slapped an intruder in her dreams. In the real world, in my own sleep, the thud of her flat hand across my chest woke me up. She says the slap wasn't in revenge for my act of slumber violence after brain surgery, when I walloped a cowpoke in my dreams and walloped Ann beside me. Still, it's even Steven at last.

The next morning, we thought we'd get away around 10 a.m., but we had breakfast at the lodge's restaurant, and it took an hour for our food to arrive. Ann practically tackled our waitress to ask for some water for me and some hot water for her. I would stay there again, but I'd bring my own breakfast.

When we finally got on our way, we drove to Naches to buy from the last of the summer harvest. Ann reminded me of my favorite Limerick, a limerick that features Naches as Texans say it:

There was an old woman from Natches,
Whose clothes were in tatters and patches.
When asked to compose
On the state of her clothes,
She said, "When ah itchez, Ah scratchez."

In this part of the country, however, they pronounce Naches, "Nah-cheez" so I had to write a new version:

There was an old woman from Natches,
Whose clothes were in tatters and pahcheez,
When asked to compose
On the state of  her clothes,
She said, "When ah itcheez, Ah scrahcheez."

I thought it up on the spot. Really. I should call it "Variations."

Saturday night we stayed in the historic Hotel Packwood, in room 6, where Teddy Roosevelt once stayed. It hasn't changed much since he was there, and fortunately, there were no animal heads jutting from the wall. You had to go down the staircase to see the mountain goat jumping through the wall. I'm not sure what happened to his hind parts.

On the drive back to Seattle today, we stopped for two short and lovely hikes, one to Silver Falls and another to the Grove of the Patriarchs. I can't hike like I used to, but it's nice to remember that there are still places where I can get away from roads and gift shops and ooh and ahh at the beauty of the fall.

Sheila, our GPS, guided us home, and tonight we have a new beer from Kiki to try with our tofu and garbanzo beans. Yum.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My North Carolina Accent

Today Teshon, our school's technology guru, noticed my accent and recognized it as North Carolinian--not Southern, which anyone can hear--but North Carolinian.

Twenty years ago, when I lived in Dallas, my car battery died and I went into a local bar to ask if anyone had jumper cables. I hollered out, and a guy at the bar said, "You must be from North Carolina's triangle area." Why yes, I am. We seem to have a very specific accent.

Teshon visited the Charlotte area to watch his two younger brothers, who played basketball at Climson, play in the ACC Tournament. He may not be schooled in the peculiarities of North Carolinian accents, but he hears the poetry.

"That accent doesn't slam you like accents in the deeper South," he said. " It's not aggressive like a New York accent. It's like a gentlemanly accent."

That's me. Gentlemanly.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Rationing M&Ms

It's hard to explain fatigue, but I read an article last week that did a good job of explaining it through analogy. The writer, Christine Miserandino, created an analogy for a friend who wanted to understand Miserandino's fatigue (www.butyoudontlooksick.com ).

Miserandino compared the amount of energy that one has in a day to a set of twelve spoons. You get twelve spoons in the morning, and each time you do something that requires energy, like eating breakfast or getting dressed, you give up a spoon. When you're out of spoons, there are no more.

I've started thinking of my energy like peanut M&Ms. Every time I need a shot of energy, I eat an M&M. Once they're gone, they're gone.

I get a different number of M&Ms each morning, and I don't know until I've started eating them how many I may have that day. I need one M&M to rise from the bed, one to shower, one to get dressed, one to eat breakfast, and one to go to the sidewalk to wait for my morning ride. I need to plan carefully for using each M&M, so that I don't get caught short in an awkward situation.

If I'm at work that day, I'll need one M&M to get from the parking lot to my office, one to get to a teacher's classroom, and one to be in the classroom. Debriefing with the teacher will require two M&Ms. Because the bathroom and the microwave are both in different buildings than my office, I'll need an M&M to go to the bathroom and another one to heat up my lunch.

When I get home, I can take a nap, which means that I usually get another one or two M&Ms. I'll need them. It will take me one to watch Ann fix dinner, one to eat dinner, and one to lie down on the pillowss in front of the gas fireplace, close my eyes, and listen to Ann read to me. I save one so that I can get upstairs to go to bed round 7:30. Hopefully, I'll still have one to brush my teeth and floss.

If I've been very good, I may get an adequate number of M&Ms tomorrow, but if I've borrowed against my store by pushing myself to do more than I really have M&Ms for, then tomorrow I'll be short on M&Ms. Hopefully, it's not a work day.

On good days, I wake with 16 M&Ms, and I get two more M&Ms for my afternoon nap. On these days, I have to be careful about using my M&Ms too early, but I should have enough for my day.

Some days, I think I start with 16 M&Ms, but by noon it's obvious that I only had ten.

Other days, like today, I may wake to 7 M&Ms, and I have to figure out what to leave out or how to conserve. Writing this blog takes a couple of M&Ms, but it's worth it. Today I was going to go to Group Health for my flu shot, but I'm short on M&Ms, so I hope I'll wake with enough energy to get my flu shot tomorrow. For now, I'll take a nap.

I'm sure you're wondering what color the M&Ms are. On good days, they're a rainbow of reds, oranges, greens, yellows and blues. On days like today, they're all brown.

Off to nap. Mary

Monday, October 3, 2011


Saturday, our friends Rose and Karen came to our house for lunch and an art summit, so that Karen could share ideas with the rest of us about art that we might do with Rose's daugher, Nora. We are going to make paper and books together with Karen's granddaugher, Rose, and the rest of us. I hope Nora will be excited. I am.

Rose is a good cook and a good baker, and she brought challah bread to share. Yum. I love challah. When I saw that there were raisins in the challah, however, I was disappointed. I don't like raisins in my bread, but I ate it anyway to be polite. I thought to myself, "This is the best raisin bread I've ever had. I wonder what Rose does to her raisins to make them so tasty."  

Later, Ann told me that the raisins were chocolate chips. Yesterday I had some more challah for lunch. Yum. if you ever make raisin challah, I'd recommend chocolate instead of raisins.

Rose shares the kindness in her spirit when she shares her food. We  have a winter solstice dinner each year to celebrate light in the darkest time. Everyone brings food to share, and Rose always brings a warm, hearty soup, so we share warmth in the cold, too.

When I was in the hospital, Rose brought me the first homemade food that I had eaten for weeks. I opened the container of chicken and rice, and ate with my hands. I had no patience for a knife and fork.

Just writing about it is making me hungry.