Saturday, February 28, 2015

Reading as sanctuary; writing as refuge: a wish for Anna

        My granddaughter Anna shows me her “homework” and fluently reads from a text. Her father, who takes almost everything, including the achievements of his children, in stride, remarks that he doesn’t remember spelling words like Antarctica and penguin in first grade. Anna’s in the top level of her reading class at an average school. I say, that although I taught high school English for a few years, I never had a good sense of elementary curriculum. We agree we are mildly impressed with her reading ability.
         I know that reading is key to success and will serve her well, particularly in school. If she has reading skills now, academic success is one challenge we likely don’t need to worry about.
I think again, and tell Anna’s father, that what I really wish for Anna, who tends to  perfectionism, is that reading will become a sanctuary for her, a way to calm herself. Just because she can decode easily doesn’t mean she’s learned to use reading the way I have, and I suspect most book lovers have – as a place to go and not think about our flaws and failures.
         Reading is not just an escape, though it can be that. It has served me as a way to shut out annoyances as well as what counselor types refer to as negative self-talk.  As a child I was able to create that bubble of attention while reading a book– seemingly not hearing the requests – come to the supper table -- or seeing the chaos – my brothers’ squabbling  -- around me. Rejected by playmates, stung by slights and cruelties, I didn’t stew for long; I could always read.
          That place of sustained attention and focus on another, often imaginary, other is just a leap short of a kind of stillness I find in more meditative activities. Reading slows my mind. Books are hypnotic places of  sanctuary. Granted, sometimes what I read quickens my heart beat, irritates me, scares the bejezus out of me – or lingers as malaise over the state of the world, but these are moods and malaises I can mull and get over,  and ones that are outside myself.
        As I read blogs about depression, plagiarism and feeling overwhelmed, I think about the healing power of reading. Reading, writing and sharing reading experiences in blogs and otherwise can be ways of presenting false personae, but they also can be ways of exploring and expressing authentic selves.
         If I had magic wand and could be a fairy godmother/grandmother, I would give the gift of such sustained, focused attention to Anna. I know she will think she's reading primarily to learn for many years to come. She may also discover along the way that reading  entertains, provokes, promotes – and serves all kinds of purposes I have appreciated over time.
        I hope she also discovers the  one most precious to me now:  how it empowers me to absorb and be absorbed, to simultaneously find myself and lose myself in something other -- and greater  -- than myself.

Coincidentally, a yoga blog I follow published a  post on a similar theme that I thought some book bloggers might be interested in. Here are two links:

Friday, February 27, 2015

Body talk: Balancing habit with novelty

Body talk:  
I don’t like exercise that is noisy.  Group instructors who bark orders as if I’m Special Forces or cheerful, chirpy leaders who encourage me to be peppy make me skeptic.
            I resist.
While others may zumba or jazzercise, I prefer yoga and silence, or at most new agey yoga music.
            It’s who I am—quiet, reserved and not given to social interaction when moving.
I’ve tried water aerobics, but the music is too loud, too upbeat – and all those bobbing  heads-- some chattering away as if  it’s a coffee klatch  --  make me feel anti-social  --- and old.
My swimming is meditative – I stroke long laps the way I have since I was 10. My gray hair’s tucked under a cap – and my ears are covered in noise- reducing water.  
No one, it seems, is watching me.
I also like long walks – and on them, I enjoy being with a friend – and talking as I walk – the exception to the no social interaction while moving need.
Convinced I may not be getting the benefits of interval training, I’ve tried treadmills and bikes, stairsteppers and ellipticals.
            They bore me. 
Thinking I might need more weight-bearing exercise to keep my bones strong, I’ve worked with a trainer and planned a weight sequence.
             I quit.
             I've tried barre classes and pilates. 
             Both feel like  ---  exercise.

  • At 65, I’m not likely to change. I know what I like, know what I don’t and should keep doing those things that benefit me, give me pleasure and are so familiar they feel almost effortless once I've begun: swimming, yoga, walking.
  • At 65, I should try new things, get out of lifetime ruts, and comfort zones. Otherwise, I'm going to be  a cranky old woman.

Prognosis: I will likely continue to do both – the same old things and occasional experiments in new or other exercise that reinforce my beliefs in doing the same old things.   But temporarily, I'll keep trying to mix it up. Next up: Nia, maybe?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"Still Alice" resonates; we all know someone like Alice

Went to see Still Alice this afternoon with girlfriends, motivated by Julianne Moore’s Academy Award for best actress.  This beautiful, sad movie tells how a family deals with a declining mom -- a once brilliant Columbia University linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in her early 50s. 
            Shock comes with the diagnosis and powers the sadness and unfairness of loss.  It seems so abrupt. Both Alice and her husband, Dr. John Howland, are at the top of their games, in the early stages of empty nesting, when she starts losing it.
What a difference a decade or two make. The 60 plus crowd I now swing with is all too aware of diminishment and loss.
On the ride home, we talked about those we knew – and we all knew someone or several someones – whom the story reminded us of, whether the debilitation was from Alzheimer’s or other neurological diseases.
            Alice gives a speech about her disease and her losses to an empathetic audience at an Alzheimer’s Association audience.  In it, she partially quotes a poem by Elizabeth Bishop titled One Art. While the villanelle was written by Bishop on the occasion of the suicide of her lover, it is an extraordinary poem about practicing loss yet never being prepared for it, one appropriate for all kinds of losing.  Several years ago, I shared with a friend who was losing her husband to dementia, one of those the movie brought to my mind:

One Art
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

On a separate note, I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of Kristen Stewart as Lydia—one of Alice’s three children. I was prepared for Moore’s brilliant work – given the well-deserved Oscar.   But I admit to having dismissed Stewart as that actress in those romance/vampire movies. Not terribly serious and not likely to be one whose work would engage me given my age.  This movie changed that impression.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Wednesday Reading log: Sampling The Body Keeps The Score

Book: Bessel A van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score

What drew me to this book:  A yoga chat group I am part of keeps mentioning trauma training for yoga teachers, particularly for yoga therapists. While I am not a yoga therapist, I have always been drawn to the practice’s ability to heal and transform people’s lives. Change, real profound change is among those difficult and miraculous human processes I know.  I am well aware that yoga can relieve depression and anxiety. This book takes it beyond to dealing with trauma.
About a decade ago I binged on books about neuroscience, and this book is my first visit back to those concepts in  years. Amazed I still know as much as I do about the brain (for an English major type).
The appeal so far: Reframes for me  some of the way we think about symptoms of both mental illness and post traumatic stress.  Explains why reason and talk alone  cannot relieve trauma. Also explains the limitations of pharmaceutical treatments. Trauma exists at a deeper level in more primitive parts of the brain and body that react automatically when triggered. Offers new treatments, particularly non-pharmaceutical treatments, for releasing the buried effects of trauma and stress in the body’s nervous system and tissues.  These include mindfulness training and body work, breathing, yoga, neurofeedback  and theater games.

 First paragraph:
              “One does not have to be a combat soldier, or visit a refugee camp in Syria or the Congo to encounter trauma. Trauma happens to us, our friends, our families and our neighbors. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit. “

A few  disturbing statistics:
“Medicaid, the government health program for the poor, spends more on antipsychotics than on any other class of drugs. In 2008, the most recent year for which complete data are available, it funded 3.6 billion for antipsychotics, up from 1.65 billion in 1999. The number of people under the age of twenty receiving Medicaid-funded prescriptions for antipsychotic drugs tripled between 1999 and 2008.”  P37.

My reaction: YIKES!