How do we rest?

 

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Life is ticking over relatively calmly in my little corner of the world. Autumn has arrived slowly and gently, with warm sunny days and cool nights. Nasturtiums and roses are still blooming, leaves are just now turning and falling. I’m back at work and figuring out how to juggle work, exercise, writing, social time.

But I’m all too aware of back-to-back catastrophes—shootings, hurricanes, wildfires fill the news and hover on my peripheral vision. It feels trivial to write about my daily concerns but I have no new words to add to the cacophony of world events.

I’m not sleeping well. I fall asleep easily enough. In fact, bed feels wonderful when I first settle in, pillows piled just so, the duvet tucked around me, the cat snuggled next to me, softly purring. The air is cool, the bedroom is quiet except for the cat’s soft purr which slowly dissipates as she sleeps. I read on my Kindle, its backlight turned low. My eyes start to feel heavy so I close them, put the Kindle aside, pull up the duvet, and slide into sleep for three or four hours before I wake, restless and unsettled.

When did sleep become such a challenge? There was a time when these middle of the night wakenings weren’t a problem, I’d surface and then quickly slip under again and in the morning, barely remember waking at all. Now I get up and wander down the hall to the bathroom, then back into bed, rearrange the pillows and duvet, shift around until my body finds just the right position. The cat stalks away in a huff to find peaceful sleep elsewhere.

I close my eyes, maybe put on a sleep mask in anticipation of morning light. I tell myself a story—I have a cache of them to draw on, imagined scenes that I revisit over and over. Or I focus on my breath, in and out. Sometimes the story, the breathing acts like a hypnotic spell and I sleep again. But I have to be careful not to acknowledge that I’m teetering on the edge of sleep. The minute I notice the imminence of sleep, I’m awake again, eyes open and looking at the window across from me, wondering if the sky is finally lightening up.

I started this post thinking I’d write about the phrase “hare’s corner”—words I learned from Robert Macfarlane’s daily Twitter and Instagram contribution. Hare’s corner—a section of a field that farmers leave unplowed and uncut as refuge for small animals. And it struck me that we all could use a hare’s corner these days, a place, figurative or real to retreat to, a place to regroup.

A quiet walk through woods, my attention in the moment, noticing the leaves on the path, the glint of sun on water, a rustle in the underbrush, the roll of an acorn underfoot. IMG_0724Or a quick pause in a busy day, when I look up from the computer and out the window, letting my eyes go into soft focus. A chat with a friend, laughter, a hand on a shoulder. A meal shared with friends, ingredients carefully chosen and prepared. Words on a page that take me away from daily concerns and into another world, open images in my mind. Hare’s corner. A brief respite, a safe space.

Where does sleep fit? Deep, delicious, restorative sleep? Here’s the thing—sleep requires surrender, vulnerability. In deepest sleep we’re unprotected. The hare, quivering in that unplowed sanctuary, won’t be asleep.

And so I wonder is my insomnia about a fear of surrender? An unwillingness to let go? In this time of personal transition, in this horribly unsettled world how do I–how do we–rest? 

In a Yoga Nidra for Sleep meditation, Jennifer Piercy talks us through slowing the breath, noticing the “waves of respiration ebbing and flowing” like the ebbing and flowing of all life, like the flow of a day. Notice the transition spaces, she says, as morning flows into night, as summer flows into winter, marked by the transition spaces of autumn and spring.

I listen to her soothing voice, the calm words, and I try to make peace with the transitions, the unsettled ebb and flow, to breathe, to sink into the breath, to allow the breath to breathe me, to sleep.

How I spent my summer…

Twice this summer parts of my body were cut open, bone was sawed and soft tissue pulled apart to make room for titanium and plastic parts that were hammered and cemented into place, then soft tissue was reassembled, and wounds stitched and glued shut. The only evidence are thin scars that bisect each knee, which will fade in time to slight silvery lines. In our world of increasingly high tech medicine, this is still a brutal and physical surgery, both precise and crude. 

One knee is 13 weeks old and the other is 7 weeks old. At a recent doctor’s visit, the surgeon said I looked “fantastic.” I do errands, tend to easy household tasks, cook meals, meet friends for lunch, walk with a normal gait most of the time. In spite of lingering stiffness and soreness, my knees bend and straighten with increasing fluidity. I still use a cane for longer walks but will probably let that go soon. I need to rebuild strength in my leg muscles, regain stamina and good balance but that will come. 

I take part in an online forum where I exchange updates and rants, commiserations and celebrations with other joint replacement travellers. Our journeys do not proceed in a straight line; instead, they are tangled like a piece of yarn left too long in the knitting bagroad to recovery—up, down, and sideways—days of feeling strong, energetic alternate with days of immense fatigue; pain free knees give way to soreness and swelling; plateaus yield to progress then setbacks and another plateau. Inevitably, emotions follow a similarly tangled trajectory with gratitude and optimism often giving way to tears and frustration. This has been especially true for me after the second surgery as my spirit whines like a tired toddler, “Are we there yet??? Why is this taking so long???”

I recently listened to a friend describe a hike she’d taken earlier in the day—I could imagine the pull on leg muscles, the expansion of lungs, the scent of moist woodsy air, the accelerated heart beat, the sense of achievement. “Just think,” she said, “soon you’ll be hiking too.” I hope so but it feels like a misty dream right now when I measure my walks in feet rather than miles, minutes rather than hours. But I tell myself that despite the slowness of recovery, the end result, if healing continues to go well, are functional joints to replace ones that were no longer reliable–and that’s a wonderful thing. 

Coming home

I always feel relief—I’m almost home!—when I turn onto my street. I drive slowly because there are often kids and dogs playing, people walking. The young boys who live in the house on the left, just after I turn, have set up a small farm stand with a few squash, some ears of corn, an occasional tomato. A neighbor a few houses down has planted lots of flowers in the front—this is a first for them and I love the bright colors. Lawns are starting to show midsummer brown—nobody in this neighborhood has in-ground sprinklers.

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Soon I reach my driveway. One flower bed is filled with phlox, vibrant pinks and soft purples. Another bed has blackberry lilies. I saw a butterfly there the other day–maybe a Swallowtail, although I don’t really know my butterflies. After the bloom passes, the seed pods will form and open to reveal clusters of black seeds that look like large blackberries.

The driveway needs repaving—tufts of grass sprout in the cracks. When I open the car door I hear Old MacDonald Has a Farm ringing out of the front window of my next door neighbor’s house—a piano being played hesitantly and mom singing to her toddler. I smile to myself as I walk down to the mailbox, retrieve my one piece of mail, and head across the lawn to the front door.

The clethra smells sweet after a day in the heat. I put my key in the door and come into the cool living room, put my purse and mail on the table and call for the cat, who usually greets me at the door but is absent today. I go to the kitchen to put something in the fridge and hear her down in the basement. I call again and she rushes up, meowing loudly to let me know she’s starving. I’m home finally, ready to just be for a while.

Sometimes, less is more

“Just a little more. Push it further. Go on. A little more…” This is the refrain from the physical therapist as I work on bending my knee. One more degree of bend, and another, and another as I work toward a magical goal of 120 degrees.goniometer

“You’ll need to work hard at PT,” were the words spoken by just about everyone I told about my pending knee replacement operation. And the expectation is that this will hurt. In the hospital I was offered extra pain meds before PT. When I told the in-home PT that pushing for more flexion was making my pain spike into the 7 to 8 range on that 10 point scale where 10 = intolerable pain, her response was “Good, that’s what should be happening.” Say what??? Her goal is severe pain???

The day after surgery I was strapped into a passive motion machine for an hour which repeatedly bent my newly operated knee to 60 degrees then to 90 degrees, flex and straighten, flex and straighten, over and over. That same day I was wheeled down to the therapy room and put through my paces—ankle pumps, quad sets, and bending. “We want you at 110 degrees of bend before you leave tomorrow,” the therapist said. “And you’re going to lock me up and make me stay if I don’t achieve that?” I thought.

“No pain, no gain.” The warrior’s approach to recovery. This is a very American approach. Push through pain to achieve your goals.

I take part in an international online forum for people who have had knee and hip replacements and from reading other participants’ posts, I’ve discovered a different perspective on recovery.

Yes, keeping the new knee joint moving is essential for a good recovery. But this can be done gently. In the first weeks of recovery, the focus can be on letting traumatized soft tissue heal and moving just enough to keep things from freezing up—bend to the point of pain and slightly beyond then stop.

This seems like such a sensible approach but when I mentioned it to the PT she looked horrified. “You’ll never get flexibility back unless you push hard!” she said.

I’m in my fifth week of recovery. On the days that the PT is here to measure me I push a bit—it’s hard to resist those cries of “just a little more”—but on other days, I follow the gentle approach. I spend a lot of time with my leg elevated and an ice pack on. I stroll around the house and take short walks outside. Every time I get up I spend a few minutes gently bending my leg but never to the point of extreme pain. And with this approach, right on schedule, I reached that magic goal of 120 degrees of bend.

Seems like there’s a life lesson in all of this. I’m reminded of my forays into floor waxing. My house has oak floors and when I first moved in they needed to be waxed regularly (I’ve since had them refinished). I rented a power floor buffer and had to learn just the right amount of pressure to apply to control the machine—too much pressure and it took off across the room at warp speed, dragging me behind and gouging the floor.

Sometimes less is more. Sometimes the motto should be “No pain, more gain.” The trick is knowing when to push through and when to back off and let healing happen.

Recovery land

I’m sitting on the back porch, with my right leg elevated on cushions and an ice pack draped across my newly replaced knee. I’m beginning week four of recovery and hitting all the milestones. Straighten leg—check. Activate quadriceps muscles—check. Bend beyond 90 degrees—check. Walk with a cane and a normal gait—check. Walk without a cane—check. Wean off pain pills so I can drive again—in process.

I tell friends that I’m an impatient patient. But “patient” is the wrong term. We were told in the pre-op class that we should not view ourselves as ill and were encouraged to bring street clothes to wear on the hospital unit. I was up and walking a few steps on day 1, walking up and down the hall on day 2, climbing stairs on day 3, and then sent home to recover.

I don’t feel ill—it’s more a feeling of being suspended in time. This is partly due to pain meds, which make me sleepy, content to mindlessly surf around the Internet and let time drift by.

Or at least that was the case in the first couple of weeks. Now that I’m reducing the pain meds and regaining energy, restlessness has sidled in.

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I’ve been nesting on my back porch daybed, which gives me a limited view of the world—the rhododendrons that flank the east and north side of the porch, an occasional bird that lights there, preens, sings, and flies off. If I turn my head to the left, I see the pink bloom of filipendula, grass, evergreens. Occasionally a critter of some sort scampers through—squirrels, groundhogs, rabbits, one day a spotted fawn. My gardens are blooming and thriving but seen for now from a distance. Soon I’ll venture out for a closer look but that feels like a next week activity.

My days have a rhythm. Morning means coffee and toast, the welcome coolness of morning air, easy contentment as I slowly wake up, maybe write a little, check Twitter, look at an online newspaper, ease into the day.

Afternoons stretch longer and desire clashes with reality. Mind and spirit want to go and do—body is not quite ready.

I pace around my small house. I might venture out for a walk down the driveway, across the street and down a ways, mindful that however far I go, I need to do the same distance on return.

Now, the sun is out and the air is steamy. Ten minutes ago, a thunderstorm raced through, a few loud claps of thunder, brief torrential rain. Another storm is on its way—I hear thunder in the distance. There are lessons to learn about accepting the present moment, whatever that moment brings.

I hear myself thinking, ah, I’m missing out on summer but of course I’m not—I’m just having a different summer than usual. A porch summer, a recovery summer, a summer to ease back into my busy life, slowly, one degree of bend, one step at a time.

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My cruising around the Internet sometimes takes me to delightful places, such as this clip of Natalie Merchant and the Kronos Quartet. Enjoy! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qbxwa_ie3dQ

Listen. Breathe.

On Tuesday, I check into the hospital for knee replacement surgery and my stress levels are rising as I try to finish up at work, get my house and life prepped, go to myriad medical appointments, shop, see friends. Ah…I’m getting breathless just typing all that. Life these days is all about doing and distracting.

I haven’t been spending enough time simply listening to the world around me.

Sunday afternoon. I’m on the back porch, ceiling fan spinning, grackles noisily doing what grackles do, adult voices and kid voices from next door, breeze in the trees.

Silence. Listening. On Twitter earlier this week, a quote from Wendell Berry arrived like a small gift: “Make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.”

I imagine words dropping into a pool, sending out ripples, sinking, disappearing.

IMG_0413A couple of weeks ago, Robert Macfarlane asked: “What is the place or landscape to which you most love listening?”

I immediately thought of Maine, the cottage on Back Cove where my sister and I went for a couple of years, early morning light, distant boat motors, bird call, occasional plop and ripple of water as acorns fell or birds dived for fish.

Or Pemaquid Point, with waves crashing against rocks and gulls calling.

Or here, now, the porch, the trees, the kids, the birds, the cat crying from inside the house, the dog in the distance, sounds of a summer afternoon.

Listen to the small sounds, I tell myself, the here sounds, now sounds, inner and outer sounds.

Be silent, listen, breathe.

Be. Listen. Breathe.