Blooming Where Planted

These asters are pinker than the typical bluer blooms.

After weeks of drought, September’s rains finally arrived long enough to give the sugar maples their first blush. The temperatures dropped in time to provide plenty of dew for bejeweling the spiders’ webs that decorated undisturbed corners of my forgotten gardens. New England asters that made themselves at home in my garden last year bloomed right on time. And gradually, very gradually I have begun to feel better.

What this long haul has taught me is to appreciate the positive and to count on a completely different set of symptoms tomorrow. When a system like mine is driven by a crazily capricious autoimmune pilot, life becomes a lesson in impermanence. Just when I think I’ve sent one unpleasant condition packing, here it comes again like the rejected suitor who refuses to take “no” for an answer. Fortunately, each time they return, they are less enthusiastic than the last time. And each time, I am fortified with better armament.

Even though my time outside is limited, I try to walk every day and take a moment to visit the flowers on my porches and vegetables in the gardens. The fact that they’ve carried on without me with only minimal effort from my husband is both humbling and comforting. We gardeners sometimes think we are indispensable with our planting guides and to-do lists, but Nature always has the final say in that regard. There have been many happy accidents and appearances that would not have occurred if I’d been diligent with weeding and pruning.

The volunteer asters mentioned above have flourished this year in particular, with multitudes of black-eyed Susans and ironweed popping up in unexpected places. An entire army of Autumn Beauty sunflowers came up from one little tortured survivor last year, and lined our driveway to the delight of the goldfinches. A month ago I found an Ageratina altissima, the notorious white snakeroot that led to Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s premature death, perkily blooming amidst my butterfly weed. I welcomed the sight since it is a beneficial native for pollinators despite its bad reputation.

There is still a long road to health, but through a slow summer and beginning autumn I have learned to let go of expectations, worry and control (mostly). There is peace (this year’s Word) to be found in a good night’s sleep, negative lab results, a beautiful chrysanthemum from a neighbor or visit from the occasional fluttering monarch. Finding a new flower friend in the mess and chaos of the world is a sign that confirms my efforts to be happy where I am in the moment.

Being Idle

After a fortunate two years, the dreaded illness finally entered our house in June after my husband’s business trip. And while we both managed to stay out of the hospital and recover from our initial symptoms, other lingering problems require us to rest and recuperate, a state of being neither of us has the patience for. With flower and vegetable gardens in full swing during a drought, the timing couldn’t be worse.

The fatigue they always talk about is real, requiring us to take turns with the yard duties depending on who has the energy or not. Either way, by high noon, we are relegated to sitting on the patio and watching plants and wildlife do their thing, whether we approve or not. This inactivity has become an exercise in Zen meditation, where nothing is good or bad, it just is. We are too tired to intervene.

Among our observations I’m sad to say that there are fewer pollinators at our house this year, although the lightening bugs are back in force rising up like little satellites of hope at dusk. On a positive note, wrens have finally built a nest in the wren house I put up that sat empty last year. And the bluebirds are back, always a symbol of happiness when they flash their beautiful blues. The rabbits have been quite brazen this year, particularly a buck we call Bad Bunny who was with us last summer. We know it’s still him because he’ll come right up to you, arrogantly munching our clover with a look that says “Yeah, so what are you going to do about it?”

Friends and neighbors have been very kind to us during quarantine, offering to bring us food and run errands. For the most part, we enjoy staying home and sitting out in our garden, comforted by the sense of community offered and counting ourselves lucky even though June hasn’t been the happiest of months.

The bluebirds are here to remind us that joy can still be found if you are waiting for it.

Omens and Optics

The Romanesco (a little past its prime)

I was preparing my usual last-minute blog post for May when one of my eyes began it’s long-awaited vitreous detachment during the Memorial Day weekend as a consequence of my eye surgeries last year. Most of June and two retinal tears later, I can finally bend over to plant my garden and lift the watering can again. I’m grateful for technology and medical advances but there are always nerve-wracking tradeoffs and repercussions to any alterations that didn’t come in my prenatal package.

After a relatively quiet spell of weather in May (although unusually cold) we were treated to a huge tropical storm system that precipitated a deluge of over four inches of rain in less than two hours. My family thanked our lucky stars that we lived on a hill as my husband and I bailed out our basement in the middle of the night while hundreds of sirens wailed eerily all over town for water rescues after flash flooding roared through downtown, the nearby university and right down the hill from us. I don’t think I’ve ever lived through so much rain in such a short period of time–over seven inches in three or four hours!

Someone local was wondering what we had done to deserve plague, locusts and now floods. But I surmise that we only have ourselves to blame. Oh, and the locusts are really beneficial cicadas that turned our backyard into the land of plenty for many critters and birds and left my garden alone, although there were some comical cicada rescues from my row covers and barricades to keep wildlife from eating all our vegetables. Despite the setbacks we were able to harvest lots of lettuce, broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage and a new one–Romanesco cauliflower (or broccoli depending on who you talk to).

Speaking of wildlife, we watched the birth of deer triplets over Memorial weekend from our kitchen window. I was all set to work in my backyard that morning until I saw mama deer giving me the stink eye from our neighbor’s yard. Something about her behavior and long-forgotten childhood memories of our dairy cows about to give birth alerted me that we should stay inside and just watch. The process took all morning, and the deer’s efficiency in birth, cleanup and nursing without any human intervention was astounding to me after witnessing so many difficult birthing sessions with cows and sheep. Sadly, two fawns did not survive beyond the first week and the remaining one has a terrible leg injury. I can’t imagine trying to raise fawns in a heavily populated urban environment. There are so many hazards and predators, including a bobcat recently spotted at the edge of town.

Finally, I’m very grateful to my husband and daughter for stoically planting the multitudes of seedlings in June that I grew and refused to compost. Packs of annuals, native perennials and vegetables sat in trays for days while I recuperated from my laser eye repairs and tried to figure out where to put them all. (Note to self next year: Don’t plant or buy anything unless you have a place for them.) Now in year two, I’m still figuring out sun and shade movement around our home, and where to place containers for best effect. The new patio provides full morning and shifting afternoon sun that can be a challenge for demanding plants, and the recently constructed raised beds still need lots of amendments (I’m tracking down some organic dried chicken manure even as I type).

After the big June monsoon you’d think we would settle down into drought, but we seem to be trying to turn into the northern tropics, which our neighbor’s cursed bamboo is wildly celebrating by taking over the block along with all the groundhogs, rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels that reside in there. I’m half-expecting to see a panda emerge from the depths of his jungle any day now and wander down the street. If June is any indication of things to come, I won’t be a bit surprised.

Taming The Fear


The time I’ve been preparing for all my life is here. For years now I could smell it coming in the wind, felt the rumblings under my feet, heard whispers from the trees overhead. I’ve spent a year painfully eliminating all that I knew and believed that was no longer sustainable or trustworthy, pushed along by an inner urging. With the past crumbled into a pile of lies and the future so murky that my sense of direction was lost, I groped along in the dark with only basic instincts to guide me. Where I landed is all that I had when time as we knew it stopped.

I thought I was prepared for this: stock up on necessities, stay home and till the garden, be creatively mindful, and support those who sought my help in any way I could as I recovered from surgery. I limited the daily horrors of the news, played soothing music and started garden seeds while listening to audio books and chatting with friends as I kept a watchful eye on my level of anxiety and proclivity for mental depression.

But doing my part in staying home to stop the spread of disease was not enough, it seems. Complications from my eye surgery began promptly on the day my state’s stay-at-home order was issued. I was forced to travel three hours roundtrip to seek medical attention, where I found out I had a retinal detachment underway with orders to lie flat on my back for five days after laser treatment to keep from having surgery in some already overburdened hospital.

I thought I was prepared but fear had other ideas. The villain finally got to me, and took what was left of any security and stability I had managed to salvage since starting over in a new home and town where we had barely begun to know our neighbors. My days and nights blended together as I memorized every crack in the ceiling above me, hoping for the best and dreading the worst, letting my overactive imagination play out in creatively dreadful ways. My dreams at night which had already taken a sinister turn turned ugly with anxiety.

Seeing no other way out, I began to give myself permission to grieve the beautiful eyesight that I had briefly experienced along with the world’s sorrow as precious loved ones everywhere suffer from this insidious virus or pass away alone in hospitals while others isolated at home are tormented by abusive partners set off because of their dire circumstances. It was overwhelming at times, but I kept hanging on to what was given to me–a loving partner who takes great care of me, health insurance to cover my treatments and a roof over my head with plenty of food and toilet paper.

Five weeks have passed in a blur of uncertainty, fear’s faithful companion. Lying still for so long was an exercise in release, of expectations, of routine, of control. With all the time in the world, I found that I could truly listen to conversations and savor the moments when I sat up to eat. Since I spent several weeks not bending over or lifting anything, I left the gardening to my spouse and watched him gain confidence when the plants responded to him. I let go of planning anything besides the next doctor’s appointment as I watched trees bud, bloom and leaf out from the inside as an exceptionally colorful springtime unfolded.

Despite fear of what was happening out in the world, I realized that this was an opportunity to be still and heal, to become intimately aware of my own physical needs and what I’ve always taken for granted. I was forced to finally learn moderation if I wanted to recover and proceed with any quality of life. Nothing was spared from scrutiny, from alcohol consumption to diet to screen time to worry. And I had to allow myself to be vulnerable but not a victim.

Yesterday, I was given the green light to live life normally again. I was told to do what I want, with the exception of engaging in any boxing tournaments. The country and the state where I live are starting to entertain lifting their restrictions. But I know better. The normal we knew is over. As time goes on, the more experts realize how little they understand about this virus, the more frightened the powers that be become of the unrest already taking place, and the more we as a people acknowledge how undervalued and under-compensated those who provide our basic needs and services have been.

Whatever my purpose will be moving forward remains a mystery without expectations. For the time being, my job is to live mindfully and provide for my own basic needs and those around me in a sustainable way, making sure to leave enough for others and never taking for granted good health, plenty of food, a safe place to live and the connection to loved ones again. Fear can only destroy us if we let it in to stay.

2020 Vision


As the dust from moving house settles after the holidays amid whiffs of freshly painted walls and new furniture, I’ve been contemplating my word for 2020 while looking back at the significance of my choice for 2019. According to my rough calculations in scrolling back on this blog, I’ve been picking a special word since 2013 or so that began with One Little Word. That’s seven years of farsighted intention that has always been prophetic by New Year’s Eve.

Which brings me to my 2019 word, “Light.” It was a heavy year, judging from my few posts, highlighted by plenty of dark times. Ironically (or not), my physical sight began to noticeably dim last year, especially when I travelled to London and struggled to view Turner’s murky paintings in archival lighting. When I finally made an appointment with my eye doctor in August, I was stunned to find out that I had advanced cataracts and my vision had deteriorated dramatically over a year’s time. Because I have been extremely myopic all my life with a very high-powered prescription, the cataracts were causing blurriness that could no longer be corrected with glasses. Eye dryness has also prevented me from wearing contacts for decades so the only solution is to have cataract surgery at the ripe old age of 59 and corrective lenses implanted.

Obviously too young for Medicare, I still qualify for insurance coverage because my vision is so blurry that I haven’t been able to drive for the last six months. When I finally got in to see one of the best ophthalmologists in the state, my eyesight had deteriorated to the point that I was quickly fast-tracked to the “3-month” waiting list. Meanwhile, as a plein-air artist who was finishing a 4-year grant project by creating distant landscapes and holding a final art show, I struggled to see what I was painting and more than once had flashbacks to Monet’s foggy work in his later years due to cataracts. After touching up four years’ worth of art for the final show, I stared at the 25 paintings on display while wondering how shockingly bright these will look after my surgery.

Which brings me to 2020 wondering if I will be able to see 20/20 on the eye chart when I finish the surgeries in February. For my entire life I’ve never been able to see distance without glasses, and my blurred view of the world has both protected and isolated me from the harsh truths and prejudices buffered by my thick glasses and gullibility. And while my long distance vision may be restored, the near-sight that I have relied on for so long will be gone. The tiny veins that glisten on a dragonfly’s wings and the intricate maze of threads while detangling a knot will disappear into the lost lands of foreground without reading glasses or magnifying glass, so close yet so far.

No matter what the outcome, my focus and perspective have begun to turn inward in these grey days of perpetual twilight. The harsh artificial lamps glow with angelic halos and the sun has become gentler in what he reveals. The moon is welcome but ghostly now, and often tripled in a sky out of a science fiction movie. The senses of touch, smell and sound have become more amplified, and when night comes, the womblike absence of light surrounds me in a waiting period of gestation before the post-surgery grand re-entry and big reveal.

So it will come as no surprise (especially if you read the last post) that my word for 2020 is REBIRTH. I am prepared for a whole new world of light and color, sharp insight and fresh point of view. The little crossed-eyed infant from the past will get a second chance to take wondrous halting baby steps into my third life stage. And perhaps in life’s theatre I will prefer the balcony this time rather than a front-row seat to the world’s troubles. A little distance at my age may not be a bad thing while I cheer the young on in their noble causes and fortuitous frays without craving the spotlight myself.

After all, the bright lights would only blind me from the inner path I now need to follow.

More Please

IMG_0297 Day 1: Breakfast

Since I began an autoimmune diet a year ago, breakfasts have become very strange events. Less pancakes, cereal, toast and muffins. More fruit and vegetables. And meat, my cat says. Don’t forget the meat.

Yes, folks, it’s that time of year again. I’m looking forward to my third go at participating in Susannah Conway’s August Break by posting prompts here on the blog and on my Instagram account. There are no rules, really. Simply take a photo every day for the month of August, based on the prompts or not. I take a photo a day all year long, but you can’t lose no matter how many days you keep this up. And the more, the merrier!

Food for Thought

Beef-Butternut Stew with Pear and Thyme prepared from Mickey Trescott's beautiful Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook.
Beef-Butternut Stew with Pear and Thyme prepared from Mickey Trescott’s beautiful Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook.

Over three months into the Paleo Approach and Autoimmune Protocol diets (AIP for short) and it’s time for an update from my (rather grubby and well-used) kitchen. As faithful followers of this blog may recall, I began the elimination journey back to my hunter-gatherer ancestors’ fireside feasts on the first day of August. And, despite the formidable lists of forbidden foods and ingredients, bounty from this year’s autumn harvest has been my saving grace.

Every week, besides our usual visit to the regular grocery chain, I travel to a local orchard’s farm store to consciously purchase pastured meats, as well as fresh cider and the perfect cooking apples for homemade applesauce and crisp. I buy fermented raw kraut from the Saturday farmer’s market, and gorgeous multi-colored chard from a vegan/GF restaurant that grows its own vegetables behind the building.

I’ve taken to hanging around the organic sections, and familiarizing myself with strange, misshapen fruits that hide their beauty on the inside. Sarah Ballantyne, well-known AIP author and cook, challenged herself to buy and prepare any exotic produce that she’d never seen before. I’m not that adventurous yet, but I’m making friends with some pretty homely root vegetables.

As winter sets in, I’ve stocked up on every kind of squash and lined them along my counter, where they wait patiently for me to whip up enough courage to cut into their hard exteriors before softening them up in a slow-roasting oven. I’ve discovered that braising in a tightly covered pot can tame any wild beastie or vegetable into delectable submission. And I utilize everything, from poultry innards and bones, to the tops of beets and fennel — nothing goes to waste if I can help it.

Granted, all of this takes commitment. If I still worked at my old job, I wouldn’t have the time or energy. Slow food can take hours, even days to see results. Crock pots, pressure cookers and heavy cast iron utensils can take a toll on your arms, patience and wallet. Our lack of space in the new galley kitchen often leads to a frustrating dance while family members prepare different meals for separate diets. More than once I’ve caught myself longing for the generous side-by-side fridge that we left behind as cabbages and cauliflower roll out of our currently overstuffed apartment refrigerator.

But is there a payoff, you ask? How about no more joint pain, considerably less inflammation even after injuries, weight loss without your friends becoming alarmed, and lower doses of medicine, all while chronic conditions grow quiet or go into remission. The benefit to eliminating misbehaving dietary culprits, however socially painful, is that when I reintroduce them, I can usually tell within a day or two whether we can play well together yet. If not, the offending foe is placed on a back burner for another day.

While I had hoped for these intended results, what I didn’t expect was the spiritual connection I’ve discovered from taking this often rocky road to recovery. As in life, I’m learning not to wait until I’m starving and desperate to cook and nourish myself. This should be second nature, but in the modern world, we find it so easy to reach for the quick, impersonal calories of convenience that leave us unfulfilled and a little sick. Now, I can take a bite into something that has slowly simmered and stewed in the warm glow of an Indian summer afternoon, and really taste the thought in it.

Elixir

DAY 10: DRINK
DAY 10: DRINK

This is Day 10 of the August Break, and also the strict autoimmune diet I’ve undertaken. How are they going? Here’s the latest:

1. I hate to admit this, but I feel good. Better than I have in a long time. After a few rocky days at the start, I’m not missing the coffee, or the chocolate. Just really craving a good cracker along with my soup or a crunchy potato chip at lunch.

2. I’m meeting a lot of cool participants on Instagram, and quite impressed with the unique ways they find to illustrate the day’s topic.

3. The variety of ingredients I cook with is expanding rather than contracting in this elimination diet. And I’ve become acquainted with new foods such as fennel bulbs, kombucha, raw sauerkraut, and kale chips. Preparing everything from scratch requires me to slow down and relearn patience.

4. I get creative when I’m hungry. I’ve learned to throw whatever’s at hand into the blender in combinations I would never have considered before this protocol began. That’s a blueberry, pear and coconut butter smoothie in the picture above. My favorite so far and the perfect opportunity for today’s Instagram topic.

5.  I’ve only cheated once on a little coffee, black with no sugar, and I only drank half. I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I expected.

6. These challenges take more planning and organization than I anticipated, but it’s not as hard as I thought. On to the second week.

This month I’m taking a photo a day and following the topics of Susannah Conway’s August Break 2014. And why don’t you join me? I double-dog dare you!

All Day in Bed

Cold Company

Well, you can guess what happened. Nothing decadent, sexy or even mildly provocative about catching that family head cold. Sadly, I was the final holdout felled, despite all my sacrifices in the kitchen to chicken soup gods. However, if you’re turned on by flannel, hot water bottles and VapoRub, then by all means read on.

Piles of crumpled tissues aside, this is a useful opportunity to get to know your nose better, and to realize how far sinus pain can travel. Why, that old wisdom tooth war wound just comes alive from the caress of packed nasal passages, not to mention renewed fantasies about lockjaw when one is unable to open the mouth wide enough to spoon in chicken soup originally meant for others.

Even in the privacy of the bedroom, appearance means everything. Bed head takes on a whole new meaning, particularly when you are unable to see anything in the mirror because of excessive eye watering. Lingerie must be chosen carefully, good coverage for the inevitable cold shoulder, but easily removed during blasted hot flashes that this particular virus is fond of triggering for me.

The unique opportunity to lounge would be enjoyable, if I could stop sneezing long enough to work on my perfect Hollywood pose. As for entertainment, since I don’t have the slightest idea how to sterilize my phone, laptop or TV (yes, that far across the room) when all this nasal precipitation is over, my only amusement is to blearily predict what the cat will do with empty kleenex boxes strewn about the room.

The rest of my family keeps their distance, even though they are the ones who gave me this plague. My allure these days is solely dependent on whether they need anything that only I can provide (e.g., passwords, location of checkbook, last will and testament, that sort of thing). And after everyone else falls asleep, I’m guaranteed an intimate evening alone with my stuffy thoughts by the light of all-night syndicated sitcoms, while my thumbs get a real workout playing revolving rounds of Candy Crush and Farm Heroes.

So you see, the 24-hour bed deal is not all that glamorous. And as for romance, believe me, the only thing steaming up around here is my vaporizer.

Life Without Bread

DSCN7168
I can look at it, smell it, touch the crust and make patterns on the counter with the crumbs. I just can’t eat it. Not right now. Maybe not ever.

As longtime readers may recall, after four years of searching for answers to a wide range of afflictions, I was finally diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis in 2003. And, for the most part, I have succeeded in managing this genetic autoimmune disease (predominately seen in the female population) that causes our bodies to attack their thyroids.

But I knew from my own research (even the specialists don’t want to admit to anything until pressed) that all bets are off upon entering menopause. And admittedly, I looked forward to saying goodbye to some of the unpleasant playing rules of perimenopausal thyroid disease.

I just wasn’t sure how well menopause and Hashimoto’s would play together, which one would dominate, which would imitate the other, and whether one or both would become unmanageable enough to require medical attention. Considering my poor track record with western medicine taking my symptoms seriously, this is always the path of last resort.

So, I focused on diet, and bought plenty of fans. I downed my vitamins and took myself outside for exercise and Vitamin D. I got rid of all those turtlenecks. My hands weren’t perpetually cold anymore. And life wasn’t too bad, at first.

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, the balance I had so carefully maintained began to erode. (If there are any guys still reading at this point, hang in there. This could pertain to you, although I’ve cleared a room of dudes by bringing the issue up at a dinner party.) Sure, there were the expected hot flashes and heart palpitations, the embarrassing memory loss, the sudden fits of hormonal rage when someone cuts in at the checkout line.

What I didn’t anticipate were severe digestive issues in the way of constipation, bloating and gas. The joint and muscle pain grew worse, my heart fluttered after meals before keeping me up at night. I began to feel hyper and dizzy right after I ate, or around 3 am despite going to bed feeling just fine.

And since one autoimmune disorder can invite home other autoimmune buddies like Celiac and Irritable Bowel, I decided it was time to eliminate. First to go were the delicious microbrews my husband loves to bring home in his growlers. Suddenly, the pain in my feet and legs started to recede, and I reluctantly realized why I could barely walk during yearly vacations when we like to visit local breweries and nurse a couple of pints every evening.

Next went the daily sandwiches I made religiously with “healthy” whole wheat bread. Instead, I fixed myself a green salad with spinach leaves, walnuts and lean meat or tuna.  Mysteriously, the extra pounds I couldn’t budge for three years began to drop off. Mind you, I was still eating sugar and fat in various forms to keep my sanity.

Sadly, pasta, pizza and other wheat products were soon to follow. Last to be crossed off was the whole grain cereal I had eaten every morning for decades. Never one to climb aboard the fad diet bandwagons, I found myself searching for gluten-free products in the health food aisles, ashamed to admit to my foodie family that I had gone over to the Paleo dark side.

But there is something to this madness. As I watch my parents and older relatives become immobilized by crippling arthritis and unsuccessful joint replacements, vascular inflammation leading to high blood pressure and stroke — all despite an incredibly diverse diet full of organic homegrown vegetables, pasture-raised meat and local dairy, nothing processed — I have to wonder.

Let me be clear. I am not against grains. I love wheat (especially the fermented kind). But just as my genetic forebears have left their calling cards at the door to my health, so too have they given me a hint about my origins, a map to what kinds of foods kept my bloodline alive back before mankind was a sure thing. Perhaps we all possess a built-in guide to what makes us thrive based on where our family trees began. This ancestral diet digest is not, unfortunately, what I’ve been following or even acknowledging.

My own earliest memory centers around Mom leaving slices of white bread in the toaster too long because I loved to watch the curling wisps of smoke and craved the charred black edges of burnt toast.

Ironically, the worst part about giving up the bread that nourished my beginning sense of self is baked into a profound loss of belonging. And I strongly suspect I have the ancestors to thank for it.