More Love

Estelle doing needlework, on a piece with "13 Hugs Are Healing" on a blue shed.
My friend Estelle making art from the “13 Hugs Are Healing” shed (2015)

This past week, my beloved friend Estelle died. She had been living with her granddaughter Michele, and thankfully, she was at home with her family during her final days and hours. She had been in declining health for a while, but the shock of her death reverberated through a wide community of people who loved her. She was another person in my life from whom I experienced unconditional love. Estelle was a woman who created community around her, and many people felt her unconditional love. She had a way of seeing the specialness in each person.

I met Estelle in 1985 at the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice–the Women’s Peace Camp for short. The camp was 52 acres directly next to the Seneca Army Depot in upstate New York, where it was rumored that nuclear weapons were stored. Estelle visited the encampment the first week it opened in 1983 and lived there on and off for the next 20 years. She was a founding member of the encampment’s second incarnation, Women’s Peace Land, and was co-founder of the Peace Encampment Herstory Project. I can’t remember it clearly, but Estelle and I probably got to know each other more deeply while sitting by the fire on overnight watch duty. By the end of my first summer staying there, I counted her one of my closest friends.

Estelle was an elder to younger women at the camp–most of us were in our 20s and 30s, and she was in her 40s. But she already had wise crone energy–she was fierce, courageous, protective, and creative in a context where we were willingly on the front lines in the battle against nuclear weapons. There were numerous actions of public civil disobedience and less public direct actions taken on behalf of peace. Because Estelle had a job to go back to, she didn’t risk arrest, but she was a stalwart support for those who did. I want to share one story that was recently shared on the peace camp Facebook page that illustrates her so well.

“So, one night a group of women came back to the house after sneaking into the Army Depot and painting peace slogans on the water tower. They had mud still smeared on their faces and spray paint on their clothes and hands and were telling of their triumph when soldiers came racing after them and tried to charge into the house but Estelle, in her white haired Mother Jones persona, blocked the door and calmly told them, “women are sleeping in here, you men can’t just walk in” and that stopped the men, who were after all mainly young and only here because the world didn’t give them other ways out. By the time an Officer arrived to Put Down This Womanly Nonsense some of the women had wiped off the mud while many others had smeared some on so there was just no way to know who the soldiers had followed home. Much ordering around ensued and women were told to line up and account for themselves and well you know that just did not go as the Officer thought it would. Meanwhile Estelle, who had long since befriended the local sheriff and deputies called that sheriff and those deputies to report that men were trespassing on the farm and threatening the women so then the sheriff and a deputy or two came roaring up and then more ordering around and demands to account for themselves happened and meanwhile the women with spraypaint on their hands got snuck out the kitchen door and into the dozens of tents in the dark field and eventually it was impressed upon the soldiers that they had no rights even one inch off the base and as they drove off Estelle smiled and waved then – Mother Jones, remember – got right back to organizing the next day’s actions.”

post by Elliott BatTzedek

I remember being in a similar action, with similar magic worked by Estelle to confound the army personnel who came after us. Estelle demanded that they produce a search warrant describing who they were looking for, and of course, their descriptions weren’t close to matching the actual women involved. There is so much more I could say about Estelle and about the Peace Camp. Being there from summer 1985, and then winter through summer of 1986, was transformative in my life. Coincidentally, I have been going through old papers and letters from that time this week, so perhaps some other thoughts and memories will bubble up during that process. But for now, I wanted to express how grateful I am that I knew and loved Estelle. There was a shed on the camp with a slogan painted on its side: 13 Hugs Are Healing. I am mindful of the many diverse ways that love that has touched my life through the years and the healing I experienced from that love.

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Love Unconditional

Myke and Lori, 1977, two of us standing close together, smiling. Lori is wearing a veil on taking her first vows as a Franciscan Sister.
Me and Lori, 1977, when she took her first vows as a Franciscan sister.

What does unconditional love mean? What does it gift to us in our lives? I first experienced unconditional love in my friendship with Lori Slawinski. I have been looking back on my life by going through old papers these last several weeks–my winter project. The other day, I reread dozens of letters from Lori from when we first knew each other. We met when I went to college in the fall of 1971. She was a sophomore at the time, and became the “big sister” I never had at home, my being the oldest child of so many. I haven’t found any photos from that time; this photo from 1977 is the earliest. Very quickly we became best friends, though there was a moment when she hesitated–she said she was afraid of corrupting my innocence. I can’t remember exactly what I said to her, but all I could see in her was her own bright goodness. I think each of us were surprised to be chosen and loved by the other.

Looking back from the perspective of being a lesbian, I wonder about our friendship. We were never sexual with each other, but our letters can only be described as love letters–mostly written on school vacations when we were apart from each other, missing each other, and expressing our affection with such deep passion. I had occasional crushes on boys during this time, but nothing could compare with the love I shared with Lori. Our love for each other was also expressed in the context of our passionate love for God. Lori and I were part of a small circle of friends who were trying to follow Jesus and figure out how to live the gospel in our times. All of it intermingled. From her I felt God as the unconditional lover, and from me she felt that too.

Unconditional love is a transforming energy, a grounding that helped me to believe in myself. Maybe because we weren’t trying to be “in a relationship,” we could grant each other the freedom to explore fully who we were, without expectations? Our maybe it was the spiritual rootedness that provided that freedom. We had a fantasy of continuing forever in our little community, but college is a temporary place. When she graduated, she left to join the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago. I didn’t follow her there, but tried another way, eventually discovering the Catholic Worker movement. Lori was very psychic, and I remember it took a lot to claim my own inner knowing, since she always seemed to know me so well. Separating was a challenge, after being so close. But we were able to let each other go, to try to work out our own destinies.

Our lives diverged significantly when I encountered feminism, and found myself leaving Catholicism, leaving Christianity, embarking on a new spiritual path. I imagine it must have been difficult for her, yet we stayed connected. I went to Chicago Theological Seminary in 1983, came out as a lesbian while there, and she came to my graduation in 1986. (It was years later, in 1999, that I was ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister, but that is another story.) Somehow, the love we had for each other never wavered. We kept in touch via occasional letters and long distance visits. Sadly, Lori died of cancer in July 2012; this second photo was from our final visit in May of that year.

I am so grateful that I was able to experience her unconditional love in my life. I have had other significant loves, and still do, but her love was the root. It enabled me to come alive, to feel joy, to trust the dreams I dreamed and the ideals that guided me. Despite our different paths, that unconditional love remained tangible. Perhaps that is why my image of the divine is rooted in a Larger Love, who loves all of us unconditionally.

Have you experienced such love in your lives? Please share your stories if you might be willing? Each story reminds me of the possibilities that surprise us when we least expect.

Myke & Lori, 2012

Women’s Herstory

Tall thin woman with big curly hair, in old newsprint photo, singing open-mouthed holding a tambourine.
Me at 29, singing and holding a tambourine

I’ve been going through old boxes from my past, and am currently working on the time I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from 1979 to 1983. It was such a different time–not many photos, for example. But I found this one in a clipping from a women’s periodical, attached to an article I wrote about how women’s history is not just reading about women from the past, but an imperative for us to make history in the present–herstory. I still believe that!

My partner at the time, Gary, and I were trying to make history/herstory through non-violent activism, and through running a Catholic Worker hospitality house. We called it Grimke Community, named after Angelina and Sarah Grimke, white southern women who worked for the abolition of slavery in the early 1800s. We opened our house to a person or family in need of emergency shelter, often in cooperation with the local battered women’s organization. The house was in a kind of land trust, and we lived there rent-free. We could pay the bills if one of us had some sort of half-time job at minimum wage.

I held various jobs during those years, from being a maternity aide for a home-birth midwifery group, to visiting women in the local jail, to cleaning houses, to being a library “page.” I was also doing a lot of music those days, and performing in any local venue I could arrange, from nursing homes to social justice rallies. It is funny to look back at my big naturally-curly hair, my extremely thin torso, and my wide-open mouth. I was learning to use my voice!

In early 1983, when this picture was taken, I was trying to make sense of how to follow my calling. It was something like a call to ministry, but still being Catholic, and being a woman, I felt like I had to invent something totally new. Eventually, I was able to take the next steps by going to Chicago to attend the Chicago Theological Seminary, where I was lucky to receive a full fellowship. Gary and I moved to Chicago to take over also, serendipitously, the leadership of St. Elizabeth Catholic Worker House. Those were years of profound transformations. And after seminary, I did invent something new for myself–a ministry which was a combination of activism, offering feminist therapy for women, and leading feminist ritual and community education. (This was years before I eventually was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister.)

Now, looking back at my own herstory, I can feel the continuity between the me of now and the me of back then. But I feel some sadness that the changes for which I struggled, while meeting some success, have also faced incredible backlash and new challenges. Still, I don’t regret any of it.

Season Changes

Ice forming on the surface of the pond yesterday, like wrinkles over the water. You can see stones around the water in a ring.
Ice was forming on the surface of the pond yesterday.

Yesterday felt like the true turning of the seasons, from warm autumn 70 degree days to a chilly, almost winter, high of 40 degrees. We had a freeze overnight and the pond surface was wrinkled with ice forming. I went around the yard putting away the last garden hose, the five-gallon buckets, the little tables we use in the back next to chairs. I turned over the wheelbarrows behind the garage. I covered our patio table and chairs with a tarp, and I plugged in the bird bath so it will keep water thawed during frozen weather. I got out the snow shovel and sand mixture to put on the back porch. I left 4 chairs around the fire circle–maybe we’ll get outside around a fire–it could happen!

Last Thursday was my last time lying in the hammock for the season. I could see two frogs still hanging out in the pond, the color of mud, not the green of summer. While I was lying there, suddenly I saw a huge bird flying nearby, up to the pine trees at the back near our yard. Looking closer, I recognized the characteristic shape of a turkey! It was dusk and the light was turning all black and white and shades of gray. We’ve had a little trio wandering in the yard during the last few weeks, so I am guessing this was one of them. I had to put the hammock away the next day.

Turkey in a pine tree at dusk, mostly black and white silhouette.
Turkey in a pine tree at dusk

This morning, we had a bit of snow, mixed with rain, so here we are. The gardening work, whether fully complete or not, is done for the season. And I was inspired to get back to my winter project–going through boxes of old papers in the basement. I am proud of myself for diving into it today!

Last winter, I went through 11 boxes from my years in Boston, organized, winnowed, and reduced them to four. I had just started on some boxes from the time before I moved there. This winter, I will go through papers from my time at the Women’s Peace Camp, and in Chicago, and in Grand Rapids. I went to Chicago from Grand Rapids in 1983 to attend Chicago Theological Seminary, from which I graduated in 1986. I visited the Peace Camp in the summer of 1983, and then lived there in the summer of 1985, and winter/summer 1986. These places were the scenes of my coming out as a lesbian, and my trying to figure out what ministry might look like for someone like me. At the time I had left the Catholic church, and was part of the emerging feminist spirituality movement. I experienced so much transformation during those years, and I am fascinated to read what I wrote about it. It was a season of profound personal change.

Gratitude for the Ordinary

Goldenrod gone to seed.
Goldenrod gone to seed

The last few weeks have been full of ordinary tasks around the house and yard. Sometimes we forget to be grateful for these very ordinary things. I think about people whose lives have been disrupted by war, by floods, by fire, by despots. Margy and I are able to do our ordinary tasks and ordinary meals and ordinary rest, undisrupted, and for that I am grateful.

A couple weeks ago, I painted the trunks of the orchard trees, to protect against winter sunburn and insects. This time I used a half and half mix of white milk paint and “Surround”–both powders that are mixed in water. I don’t know if it is really necessary–certainly I see fruit trees around the neighborhood without anything on them. But one morning, I had the energy and decided to try out the mixture. Surround is a kind of porcelain clay organic product that can disrupt certain insects. Last summer, I sprayed the fruit trees with it, and they remained light colored all winter. This summer I didn’t do any sprays like that, but why not try it as a winter paint? So that was one little project.

Peach tree with white paint on trunk.
Peach tree with white paint on trunk.

I’ve been using the skimmer to clear leaves off the pond, and then I also have been cutting off the dead stalks of pond plants. I got into the pond one day, placing my feet very carefully down to the second step in, and lifted the pond lily pot, then dropped it down to the deepest part of the pond. The deepest part is 2 1/2 feet, so I am hoping that the hardy lily might survive the winter this way. And maybe in the spring it will need to be lifted back out, or maybe it will just reach its leaves up to the surface from there. I asked Margy to watch with me, just in case I slipped. But I didn’t! A few frogs are still hanging out, since the weather has been unseasonably warm still.

Since we had an extra weekend of warm weather, I finally painted the upper beam of the roof on our deck. Some of the wood had been left bare when a friend put in the roof, a few years ago, so protecting it has been on the long-term to-do list. Happily, there was some primer in our basement that I could use, leftover from the prior owners. It took three days, and each day after working on it for only a couple hours I was dead exhausted. But it is done today!

Deck beam half painted and half still undone bare wood, with a ladder underneath.
Deck beam half painted and half still undone bare wood.

Meanwhile, we’ve been filling in our absentee ballots, and researching the details of 13 referenda questions for our city of Portland, as well as the candidates running for office. I am grateful for democracy, as flawed as it might be practiced, and pray that we’ll still be able to have a democracy going forward. Rising fascism in our country has been alarming and discouraging, as well as the attack on the bodily autonomy of women, and the threats to such importance common goods as Social Security and Medicare. So much of my life’s work has been about expanding the benefits of democracy to those who have been excluded, fighting for equality and justice and liberation for myself as well as others. My work has included criticism of the way that our democracy has been incomplete, flawed, and unjust. But I think of voting as harm reduction–I may criticize candidates and policies, but I will vote for those who will do the least damage. Right now, with the Republican party being taken over by fascists, that means voting for Democrats across the board. So I am extra appreciative these days of the ordinary benefits we can take for granted, and pray that many many people will be moved to vote to keep those benefits.

The Delicate Adventure

Arrowhead flowers and leaves and seeds, a pond plant

I am happy to be starting a new experimental adventure. After four years away following my retirement, I am venturing back into involvement with my former congregation, Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church. In our faith community, a retiring minister traditionally stays away for a few years, to make room for a new minister to bond with the congregation, and to make real the fact that I am no longer their minister. If or when we return, we create a covenant with the current minister to clarify our relationship and offer our mutual support. I have done that with Rev. Tara Humphries who is now serving the congregation.

But it is still a delicate balance to negotiate. When I go back, I am not their minister, but I am also not just any other member of the church. I am still their Minister Emerita, an honorary designation expressing our mutual affection and connection. But with or without that designation, I still carry those thirteen years of affection and connection, and it gives me an influence different from other members. So for me, the experiment is measuring whether and how I might be a member of this community in that in-between zone. I am drawn back by a desire for the kind of community that church offers, I am drawn to that little village of care and support. Is it possible? Will it work for me, and for them?

Some parts of this feel very clear-cut. Dealing with chronic illness has made it impossible for me to carry out many ministry functions, like weddings, memorials, and leading worship, so I won’t even be tempted to be doing any of those. Another aspect clarified in our covenant recognizes that “since my position still carries some weight, I will decline to participate in the governance of the congregation, or take sides on any issue.” And both Tara and I will “decline to participate in, and will remove ourselves from, any conversations with church constituents which might try to evaluate each other’s ministries or contributions to church life.” All of that feels very down-to-earth and solid.

But more experimental are the personal interactions and connections. The first event I attended was an in-person, outdoor celebration of our 200th anniversary on September 10th. I am still being super cautious about COVID, so I wore a mask even though we were outside, though most others did not. This was the largest event to which I have gone at all since COVID. I would have loved to hug everyone, but I did air-hugs instead. It was wonderful to see people I knew, and meet a few I did not know. Heart-warming. It was also rather exhausting, and I had to rest afterward. Is that my chronic illness, or introversion, or somehow feeling once again all those threads of connection?

Worship services are now hybrid on Sundays–some people attend in person and others on Zoom, so I have attended a couple via Zoom, but I haven’t yet stayed for “zoom coffee-time.”

I went to the monthly “Elder Salon” and that felt really good. The structure made it easy for me to participate as others did, with a few minutes of check-in for each person, and a discussion following that. I like the reciprocity I felt in that group. The topics of concern to elders match many of the topics of concern in my own life right now. So it feels like I can join in as any other member might join in, and benefit from the collective wisdom in the group. I guess I am learning to be an elder. I like it.

All in all, I am taking it slow, and observing what comes up for me.

Looking On

Three small frogs perched on rocks next to the pond in morning sun.

Lately, my life is small, as if I am looking on to life happening nearby, just like these frogs looking out over the edge of the pond. So many big things going on in the world, much frightening, some inspiring, but all of it feels somehow at a distance. I haven’t had a lot of words the past couple weeks.

But there was something I learned about that I wanted to mention here. It relates to my essay, on this site, called “Wanting to Be Indian.” I first wrote and published it back in 1995. I’ve learned a lot since then, and adapted the essay as I did. When I first wrote it, I described the history of my ancestry using the word “Metis.” I had no understanding of what that word meant in a Canadian context. I just had seen it in a French book about my ancestors, meaning of mixed ancestry, white and Innu. I thought maybe it might apply to me. But as I began to learn more, I stopped using that word, because historically it refers to the people in western Canada who have been a distinct Metis community for a long time. So I thought perhaps that was that. (Now I describe myself as white, with a distant Innu ancestor, my third great grandmother Marie Madeleine.)

But more recently, in the last year and especially this past week, I’ve been doing a lot more reading about the current situation in Quebec and the Maritime provinces. I have been horrified to learn about white people there claiming a “Metis” identity, in order to fight against the indigenous rights of Innu and other Native peoples. I found a website called Race Shifting, a “resource for people who are concerned with or want to find out more about the rise of the so-called “Eastern Metis” in the eastern provinces (Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) and in New England (Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine).”

Many of these so-called “Metis” organizations in Quebec have roots in white supremacist organizations, trying to impede the work that the government of Canada and Quebec were doing with Innu communities to negotiate agreements for their government-to-government relationships. (Some resources are in French, like the article about these negotiations toward Innu agreements. But I was able to read it with the help of Google translate.) The Innu never signed a treaty or ceded their land in the days of early colonization up through the end of the 20th century. Just after the turn of the century, when they were beginning to set parameters for these agreement, in public hearings there was resistance from some white people, especially those living near Saguenay and Sept-Iles. And then the tactics of those white people changed: they created “Metis” organizations, based sometimes on a very distant Indigenous ancestor (17th century), and often none at all. They tried to claim their own “Indigenous rights.”

I’ve written briefly about this issue before, but this time I saw that one of the Saguenay historians who is supporting this effort is someone who had done research on one of my ancestors, whose article I had requested and received in an email. That felt creepy. It made me wonder if probably a lot of these people are distant relatives of mine–I mean, that is sort of true for all French Canadians–we really are all related. But Saguenay is the region my great grandmother came from. Sometimes I hate being white. And certainly it was from my own experience that I wrote about the problems of white people wanting to be Indian. But this is something even deeper and more sinister–to claim Indigeneity to fight against Indigenous communities?

It’s hard to understand all these phenomena from outside of Quebec, from outside of Canada. And I don’t have a voice in that setting–I don’t even speak the language. Yet I understand enough to feel so sad. And even here in New England, I am looking on from the sidelines. I certainly have no role in identity policing. But it seems somehow important to try to understand it all, and important to support, in whatever small ways I can, the sovereignty struggles of Wabanaki peoples in Maine. This is where I am.

And now, for just a little beauty to counter the ugliness of racism, here are three more green frogs from our pond. (And the irony is not lost on me–frogs were used prejudicially against the French, and more recently a cartoon frog has been co-opted by white supremacists.) But these frogs are simply themselves.

Three frogs on rocks, and their reflections in the water of the pond.

Guidance

Turkey mother and two babies behind plants in the yard

How does the Spirit move? How does the Spirit guide us? Is it like the wind blowing this morning, shifting the trees every which way? Might it come disguised as a turkey mother, with two babies always following nearby, meandering through the yard? Might it be in the doors that close, as well as the doors that open? Might it be in a conversation with a friend, sparking new ideas?

These last few weeks have been hard in our nation. Human rights have been undermined by the supreme court, and the attempted overthrow of democracy has been detailed in congressional hearings; gun violence continues, and police violence against black men does not abate. Heat waves remind us of the continued crisis of our planet, and despite many people acting as if the pandemic is over, the latest variant is more contagious and more severe.

I have felt at a loss for words about the big issues of the nation. I turned 69 last month, and after working for justice all of my adult life, I feel discouraged about the horrible backlash which seems to have taken power. Not surprised really. With the long history of this nation rooted in genocide, enslavement, and violence, it is amazing that we have made any progress at all. But for much of my life, it felt as if things were moving in a better direction. Now it feels like the same issues have to be fought all over again. I feel discouraged personally because I no longer have the physical energy to go to protests or marches, to be out there in the streets making a big noise. And because of that, I feel cut off from the community of resistance, which gives one hope and resilience.

So I listen for the Spirit, try to find guidance for my own little life. I look for signs in the wind and in the creatures who visit. The little turkey babies stay close to their mother, even as they wander through the tall grasses and wildflowers. Am I like that baby turkey? When it gets tired or scared, it jumps right up on the back of its mother. Or am I like the turkey mother, and someone needs to jump up on my back? How important it is that we help each other, and recognize the help that comes our way.

Baby turkey on its mother’s back.

How does the Spirit guide us? At times I am at a loss about what I can do, what I should do. This next chapter of my life is new territory. I don’t always understand when one door closes, but can I trust that the Spirit is still guiding me? Can I keep hold of a “yes” in my heart to the next open door? Can I recognize the sound of the Spirit in all of its guises? I am listening.

Healing Times

The last couple weeks have been focused on healing in our household. My partner Margy had knee replacement surgery, and came home to recuperate after a couple days in the hospital. Then, one of our cats, Billie, perhaps from the stress, stopped eating, and had something going on with her liver. So the vet came with some medicines to help her start eating again. I have been the tender of these loved ones, and both are doing well for the moment, but the healing will take some time. I haven’t been able to post on the site lately, being fully occupied with my nurse duties, but today is a quiet day, and I have these few moments to write and share photos.

Billie eating some food!

In the meantime, the yard is unfolding on its own, mostly with our neglect, except for occasional bits of tending, and I have been appreciating its springtime beauty and vitality.

There are two frogs in the pond now, and one day, as I sat watching, one of them was chasing the other one, though not all the way out of the pond. The chased one is more timid, and dove into the bottom. They were both females I believe, so I am not sure what it was all about. But fascinating to watch, and listen to her calls.

Two frogs in the pond, just before the one on the left leapt over, and the one on the right dove under.

Sadly, the robin who has been sitting on the nest on our back porch, finally abandoned the eggs two days ago. She had been on the nest quite a bit, though not always, but they never hatched. I wonder if maybe the location was actually too warm for the eggs. Again, we don’t really know, but it is amazing to observe. We will miss her quiet presence, though I have also seen her in the orchard since then.

Yesterday, a lone turkey came into the orchard on her way to somewhere else. She very politely didn’t eat the broccoli and kale seedlings I just planted this week, but seemed to enjoy the clover.

Turkey in the garden with dandelion seed puffs behind.

I wonder if we might be able to create enough food in our garden, for the people and the animals? (Instead of battling with squirrels and other critters) Today, in a webinar, Letecia Layson described doing that, when creating a garden in a nature reserve. “Plant enough food for the animals and for you.” What a wonderful model for interconnection. There is so much wild plant beauty and food already out there too. For example, wild strawberries have spread over vast areas in the orchard and in the further back yard. We don’t usually eat these strawberries, but leave them for the birds.

Wild strawberry flowers

Way in the back, in the hedgerow which has now filled out in its summer foliage, there is a clump of jack-in-the-pulpit that Margy discovered last year. Since she can’t get back there right now, I looked out for it and was delighted to see that it has returned. I brought her a photo. We also have bleeding hearts, golden seal, and many many ferns along the edge of the “forested” area.

Jack-in-the-pulpit

Margy taught me how to use our battery-powered lawn mower, and I have been able to make some paths at least through the growing-taller grass. Mowing is usually her job. We figured we’d go along with No Mow May, but between ticks and invasive bittersweet, we actually do better to do some mowing. But we always steer around the ferns and other interesting wild plants that come up.

All of this has been a lesson in listening to the land, to the plants, to the animals. I have focused on quiet attention rather than doing projects. There will always be projects to do out there, but this year I am learning to be slow.

Mysterious Illness and Melting Ice

Ice slowing melting & refreezing in our pond (March 22, 2022)

I recently read Sarah Ramey’s memoir, The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness. Published just last year, it is described this way:

“In her harrowing, darkly funny, and unforgettable memoir, Sarah Ramey recounts the decade-long saga of how a seemingly minor illness in her senior year of college turned into a prolonged and elusive condition that destroyed her health but that doctors couldn’t diagnose or treat. Worse, as they failed to cure her, they hinted that her devastating symptoms were psychological. …Ramey’s pursuit of a diagnosis and cure for her own mysterious illness becomes a page-turning medical mystery that reveals a new understanding of today’s chronic illnesses as ecological in nature, driven by modern changes to the basic foundations of health, from the quality of our sleep, diet, and social connections to the state of our microbiomes.”

Book Jacket Cover

I haven’t experienced the horrifying stories she recounts with medical personnel, but I know others who have. I think it helped that I was usually drawn to alternative practitioners, though Sarah had her own horror stories with alternative practitioners. She finally found help with practitioners of Functional Medicine, and my own primary care nurse practitioner is aligned with that field. For that I am grateful.

I identified with the mysterious nature of auto-immune chronic conditions–when I reflected on it, I realized that they have been a part of my life for many years–most recently, Hashimoto’s thyroid disease, SIBO, adrenal fatigue, and borderline diabetes, but earlier in my life there was endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, and gradually developing multiple chemical sensitivities, and multiple food sensitivities. For most of my life, I managed to work and keep my balance, but it became more and more difficult. Finally, when I turned 65, and could access Social Security and Medicare, I retired from my work as a full-time minister.

I wondered at the time if being released from the stress of full-time work might bring me relief from the illnesses, but that was not to be the case. Instead, I was better able to manage living with the illnesses. But it is a delicate balance. If I eat well (for me that means no refined sugar, no gluten, low carb, lots of vegetables, and meat, while avoiding the list of specific foods that give me problems), if I rest when I am weary (which is spending some variable part of every day lying on the couch), if I take certain natural supplements (for example, I take Berberine, which has been shown to be as effective as Metformin for helping blood sugar balance), and if I don’t overdo it anywhere, well then, I have some energy to do things I love, to write, to garden a bit, to learn new things, even the miracle of building our little pond last year.

Sometimes, I can forget that I have these illnesses. Some days I wake in the morning rested and glad to greet a new day. I might have several hours to work on projects. I tend to get more weary and achy as the day goes by. And during these two years so far of COVID, I have been glad for the many opportunities that the world on Zoom provided. But then, something happens that upsets the balance, and I am sunk into a lower level of functioning, just barely able to cook my meals and take care of the basics. Most recently, I think that my body might have reacted badly to my second Shingrix vaccine. The last four weeks have been mostly couch weeks: reading books and watching British mysteries on Roku. I hope that I am emerging from that now. It is not easy to know what upsets the balance–all I can do is respond to it.

Because I am always asking questions about meaning, I appreciated the connection that Sarah Ramey made between our chronically ill bodies, and the larger ecology of the earth. I think about that too. I wonder if my own body is mirroring the afflictions of the earth I love, is somehow sensitive to the larger web–global warming, the prevalence of forever poisons, the loss of communal connections, the ecological balance which human beings have undermined. If that is the case, can I love my body as I love the earth? Can I grant her that self-care that has been neglected for too long?

One aspect that Sarah Ramey sees as critical is our need for human connection. I was reflecting on how for much of my life I made connection through activism, through shared work. I still feel the impulse to act for justice, in small ways, but there are less opportunities now for the connection that used to be a part of it. I have also felt more isolated since retiring, and, of course, since COVID. Maybe I need to learn something new–to nurture connection that is not at all about work or social justice, but about something more elementary. Can I be cherished, not for what I do, but for my being? Can I cherish others in this way? Can I also cherish myself in just this way? Perhaps it will require a kind of spring melting of some other kind of hidden ice. May it be so.

Hard to see, but there is a thin clear layer of ice on the surface of the pond this morning, but more of the winter ice is melting each day. March 26, 2022