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With a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction degree (Goucher College, August 2014), I am looking at a new phase in my life. From 1992 to 2009, I served as Founding Executive Director of Miriam's House, a residence for homeless women living with AIDS. I left this position when Chronic Migraine Disease overtook my ability to do my job. Now I hope that a writing career will both accommodate the migraines and give me a creative, productive outlet. And soon, September 4, I will launch my Inkshares author page in a bid to hit the 1,000 pre-order goal in 90  days. The book I want to publish is "Nowhere Else I Want to Be," a memoir of ten of my years at Miriam's House.

28 September 2010

The Art of Patient Suffering

If you keep in mind the Latin root for the word patient - "pati", to suffer - then the title of this post is redundant, as in The Art of Suffering Suffering.  In English, there are a few different definitions of the verb, "to suffer", the difference being if it is transitive (takes a direct object) or intransitive.

The definitions are maddeningly similar (at least when one is trying to sort them out while suffering a migraine):

* As a verb without the direct object, to suffer means "to undergo or feel pain or distress, to undergo or sustain injury or loss."   As in, today I am still suffering.

* As a verb with the direct object, to suffer means "to undergo, be subjected to or endure pain, distress, injury, loss or anything unpleasant."  As in, today I am suffering a migraine.
With a direct object - migraine - I name the source of the suffering.  Without the direct object, I am simply suffering.

OK, this is not just an academic exercise, and I happen to love parsing words and etymology like this, although I realize not everyone else does.  But here is the richness I can mine from this exploration of the verb, "to suffer."

If I focus on the direct object - migraine - and stay there, then my suffering is focused, one-dimensional, self-perpetuating.    I suffer from migraines.  That is simply a fact, and nowhere else to go with it, so it is easy to get stuck there.  And being stuck there means the pity pot, it means being in victim mode. 

But when I allow the intransitive form of the verb, suffering loosens up and patience can enter in.  It is paying attention to and choosing the quality of the suffering that redeems the whole experience for me, and it is the intransitive verb that opens up and allows this redemption.  Here is where the art of patient suffering, or the art of suffering suffering, is meaningful for me.  Grammatically speaking, the adverb that follows the intransitive verb is important, and it is what I get to choose: I suffer patiently.

I want to choose that adverb: patiently, as opposed to impatiently; peacefully, as opposed to angrily.  Choosing not only changes my perspective on the pain, it gives me the only sense of having some power with something that otherwise is completely out of my control.  I don't choose the migraines, but I do choose the manner in which I will suffer them.

This is a choice made regularly, if not daily.  Each migraine presents its own opportunity to either sink into victim mode or rise to patient endurance.  It's odd, but the other thing about patient endurance vs. victim mode is that, although the former sounds passive, it is actually energized in a quiet way, and a good place from which to contemplate creative ways of dealing with the pain.  It is the latter - victim mode - that paralyzes me, keeping me from seeking relief in the myriad of forms (medical, spiritual, emotional) in which it may be available to me.

Naturally, choosing patience has spiritual benefits as well, which will be the subject of my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.  Thank you.

26 September 2010

Patience and Suffering

During this morning's quiet time, I turned to a book of icons ("Behold the Beauty of the Lord - Praying with Icons", Henri J. M. Nouwen).  I find icons to be a wonderful aide to centering on those days - which are plenty - when I find it difficult to simply enter into a meditative state.  Nouwen was Catholic, so much of what he says about the icon (for example, focusing on the virginity of Mary) does not interest me, but still his words and the way he writes help to bring me to peaceful stillness whether or not I share his doctrinal beliefs. 

The icon that attracted me this morning was The Virgin of Vladimir.  My focus went to Mary's eyes, in which I saw suffering and peace.  It is here - in the understanding of Mary as a poor woman of a disenfranchised minority and who, in her lifetime, suffered much physical and emotional pain - that my attention settled.  The artist painted her eyes directed outward yet obviously and beautifully in deep contemplation.  There is a patient quality to her expression that speaks of the deep love and centeredness in God that can arise from allowing oneself to be lovingly present to suffering.

I think one of the reasons this meant so much to me this morning is that I was unable to be in that place yesterday when a migraine began to build.  I'd been to see my neurologist on Wednesday and had a new treatment - an injection called an occipital nerve block - that had the potential of stopping the pain of the migraines, and about which I was very hopeful.  Thus, when on Saturday morning I felt the familiar symptoms of the migraine's beginning, I became depressed.  I'd been so hopeful.

I spent the hours of the migraine struggling, not very successfully, against frustration and discouragement.  I know that such emotions only make the pain worse.  I have written about living in the moment as it is, knowing that nothing is permanent and so railing against reality is not only futile but counter-productive.  I probably should have gone back and read some of my old posts.  But I was stuck until some dear friends (thank you, Juliana, Meredith, and Sonya) popped in for a surprise visit.  The joy, laughter and sharing of those hours raised my spirits immeasurably.  So it was with a different perspective that I went to my quiet time this morning.

The combination of suffering and peace on the face of Mary sent me to the text to find out what Nouwen said about her.  He says (page 36) that the word "patience" comes from the Latin "pati" - to suffer.  (Which also means that the word "patient" comes from the same root, which is fascinating.  In my work at Miriam's House, I often wondered about the similarity between these two words.)
"She knows what it means to poor, oppressed, a refugee, to be uncertain and confused about the future, to be kept at a distance, to stand under the cross and to be the bearer of thoughts and feelings that cannot be shared with anyone."
Yesterday, uncertain and confused about the future, having thoughts and feelings I could not share with anyone else, I was unable to be patient with the suffering of that migraine.  I do not say this to castigate myself, but just to state the reality of my being on one particular day as a way to learn from it and - prayerfully - change.

 In my last post (21 September), I quoted Paul's words about suffering, endurance, character and hope, and I cited Buddhism's Four Noble Truths.  And today I find Henri Nouwen speaking about suffering in a similar way.

* Paul says that suffering produces endurance, then character, then hope;
* Buddhism suggests we accept suffering without grabbing for alternatives, as it is simply the reality of the moment which will pass;
* Nouwen shows that the Latin root of "patience" means "to suffer".

What I see on Sunday, having fought with the suffering of Saturday, is the possibility - even the opportunity - of patient suffering.  That will be the subject of my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

21 September 2010

The Spirituality of Getting Off the Pity Pot

The final paragraph of my previous post (20 September) states that just taking the energy to get up off the pity pot of feeling victimized by the migraines opens me to the greater possibilities of the moment.  There is something about the intention and action of that decision - to get up and off the pot - that moves both my emotions and my spirit.

Buddhists say (in the Four Noble Truths) that impermanence is a fact of life, and that it is our fight against that fact that causes us suffering.

If I can quietly remember that a migraine does not last forever, it is easier to let go of my need to be the victim of the pain.  But if I grasp onto the self-pity that often arises, feeding it with emotion, then I am layering my self-caused suffering on top of the migraine pain.

Romans 5:3-4 - "... we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character, hope."

I find little hope in the migraine itself, yet the very act of persevering through it will strengthen my character, and that is what leads me to hope.

The two are not exactly the same - Buddhists would say, I think, that suffering in order to get to hope is just another way to deny the impermanence of life.  If you get to hope and grab it, then you are causing yourself the inevitable suffering that will come when hope fades - which it will, because all things are impermanent. But there is similarity in the Christian and Buddhist acknowledgement that life is full of suffering, and that there is spiritual value in the redemption of suffering through letting it be what it is.

Paul would tell me that by allowing the pain of the migraines, I am persevering in a way that builds my character, which in turn will lead me to hope.  In hope is where I find God: "And Hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out Love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit..."  (verse 5).

The Buddhists would say that the migraine is not always going to be there, so let go of any desire for it to change or anger about its presence.  Wanting what I don't have and cannot have (cessation of the migraines) is an endless cycle: want no migraine - don't get what I want - be sad or angry or self-pitying about that - want no migraine ...

Very different results come from the Christian and the Buddhist, yet both are teaching me the spiritual benefits of allowing the pain to be what it is instead of wishing for something else or fighting the reality of the moment.

At the top of this post I said that just making the decision to get up off the pity pot moves my emotions and spirit.  Maybe Buddha would say that I am allowing the suffering to be what it is without desiring something else.  Maybe Paul would say that I am building character by persevering with and through the pain.  In my post of 20 September, I said that moving from victim mode broadens my sight to a 360-degree view that encompasses not only the pain of the migraine, but the many blessings of my life.

There is so much more to be said about all this, but I am beginning to confuse myself, and am not sure where I want to go with these thoughts.  My next post will likely focus on one of the points above in order to mine some richness out of it.

I would love to hear from you.  Click on the Comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com

20 September 2010

Befriending pain, Part 3


Reminds Me of the Time (Stories) - Christmas with Sharon

Befriending Pain, Part 3: Refusing to be a Victim


Christmas with Sharon

Sharon was a cheerful person – you never saw her but what she wasn’t smilingly up for a chat or an adventure. Her short, kinky hair, the styling of which she had no patience for since becoming ill, often looked comical. It tended to stick out randomly at odd angles all over her head. Sharon was a tall woman of medium build who could have been imposing had she not carried that goofy smile and Alfalfa hair all the time. Though it was only her physical stature that had that potential; her personality was engaging, fun, and energetic.

 Sometimes it was hard to get residents to participate in activities around the house because illness and depression and recovery from addictions simply take their toll on a woman’s energy. But Sharon always participated, especially in the holiday decorating and partying. A photo I have shows Sharon and me at the Christmas tree: she is holding an ornament and smiling while we engage in considered discussion as to where to place it. I don’t have that great an eye for such things, so she was my consultant.

 “Where should I put this one? This Santa Claus with the funny face?” I put it in her hand.

 “Well, it needs a big spot – any of those left?” We had been decorating the tree for a while, and even though our only decorating scheme was to load the tree with as much as possible, there was always someone pointing out bare spots.

 “How about here – there’s a red ball on one side and a straw angel on the other.”

 “No. Angels do not go next to Santas.” She was adamant; I reconsidered.

 “OK – here’s a little green stocking next to a big space with a teddy bear on the other side.”

 “Good.” The photo shows me hanging the small ornament onto the agreed-upon branch while Sharon stands serenely, smiling. I had to be the one to actually place that Santa because Sharon couldn’t see to place it herself: Sharon was completely blind as a result of AIDS.
 There are so many cruelties about AIDS – two such cruel circumstances had visited Sharon: the blindness and the inability of this loving mother to raise her sons. So I marveled at her cheer and eagerness to embrace new experiences because I knew that, for a blind person, even the most mundane activities offer difficulties that we sighted people never think about.

  For example, decorating that Christmas tree. In the photo, Sharon is smiling, happy and even content to stand at the tree and go through the potentially frustrating process of listening to me describe one by one each ornament and each bare spot. She did not complain about how hard decorating a tree is for a blind person, did not mention the sons who were surely on her mind. As she did most of the time, Sharon was living into the moment, effortlessly drawing joy from it.

 For me, her example served as a humbling reminder. Knowing Sharon, how could I continue to complain about the petty things that bothered me? And I mean petty – I do indignant really well, and about really inconsequential things. Once Sharon’s face flashed across my mind, my spouting off about the poor parking job of the car ahead of me, or about my computer being slow was exposed for the vanity it was. “If Sharon can handle with such grace and cheer being blind, living with AIDS and separated from her children, then I can shut up about my computer and patiently wait.”

 Homeless. AIDS. Addicted. Mentally ill. Blind. Is there any more horrifying combination in our world today? And yet Sharon, to whom every one of those labels applied, was the person who showed me about living life more deeply by accepting and living into each moment as it is.

 Again and again, I was taught ageless wisdom in the example of one who is labeled and left: a woman whom Jesus would have termed his “little one”, who embodied the meek and who, surely, would inherit the earth.

Refusing to be a Victim

I want today to focus on a particular statement from my previous post of 14 September, which I made when explaining the benefits of befriending pain :

I have a sense of being not so much at the mercy of the migraines. As an intentional, pro-active decision to use a tool of my own devising, it leads me away from feeling victimized by pain.

The fact is that I need to be led away from feeling victimized by the pain (including disruption of and limitations on my life) of the migraines.  I love the phrase I learned from the 12-Steps: sitting on the pity pot.  It is mostly the example of the women at Miriam's House ("Christmas with Sharon", above) that taught me how easily inclined I am to sit on my pity pot. 

First let me say that I am a firm believer in being honest about my emotions.  If I am feeling sorry for myself, I say so, sometimes aloud - naming it helps me to set it aside.  When I am angry about missing an anticipated event because of a migraine I say so - giving vent to the anger helps to dissipate it.  This, too, is a spiritual practice: God "desires truth in the inward being" (RSV, Psalm 51:6), and whether or not one prays or speaks to a listening God, the wisdom still holds.

Falling into vicitm status, my pity pot, is a much different thing.  When I am caught up in naming myself as a victim, I am concentrating on one small aspect of life, of the world around me.  This is not truth, nor does being a victim lead me to greater truth - it really just leads me deeper into my own, false world.  In this sense, I mean truth as a 360-degree totality.  OK, it's true that I am feeling sorry for myself.  What is not true is that this is the only aspect of my life I could acknowledge in the moment.  It is also true that I am blessed with a loving husband, living in a house that is very comfortable, able to walk my dog down tree-lined streets and play with her in the back yard, not to mention being the beneficiary of marvelous technological advances like the clothes washer.

I'll take a moment here to celebrate the washing machine.  It used to be that, on wash day,  women could do nothing else, the hands-on process requiring their physical presence throughout.  It must have been exhausting, not to mention necessitating the leaving behind of all the other tasks and chores.  But I go to the machine, set the dials, add the soap, load the clothes, pull out a knob and walk away, able to accomplish another task - or rest - while the work of getting the clothes clean is done for me.  I never take this for granted.

The previous paragraph is not a digression, it is an example.  In vicitm mode, I plod down the basement stairs while complaining about the load in my arms and groaning about the throbbing in my head.  I grumpily dump the clothes in while wishing I could just rest on the futon upstairs, blindfold on and music playing. 
Thus, I am a victim of not just the migraine pain, but of my own inability to celebrate life's abundant blessings, which are there whether I see them or not.  In this way, choosing to be the victim makes me ever more a victim.  It makes me blind and deaf to the sacred beauty of God's abundant blessings.

Beyond keeping me aware of how truly blessed I am, there is benefit in exerting the energy to make the shift to something more positive and truth-full.  Really, just making the decision to get up off the pity pot opens me to the greater possibilities of the moment.  Which will be the subject of the next post: the spirituality of getting off the pity pot.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

14 September 2010

Befriending Pain, Part 2

In my 12 September post, I shared the practice I have developed over the years to mitigate migraine pain.  I have also found it effective for other physical pain, such as muscle spasms in my back.

There are several benefits to this practice:
* It helps me to manage pain without automatically resorting to medication, over-the-counter or prescribed.  I don't have to deal with side effects - which, for my migraine meds, include muscle fatigue and mild depression - and I worry less about the health of my liver and kidneys.

* I have a sense of being not so much at the mercy of the migraines.  As an intentional, pro-active decision to use a tool of my own devising, it leads me away from feeling victimized by pain.

* The spiritual effects are profound.   Buddhists have known it for thousands of years: becoming aware of, in tune with one own's body - whatever its state - is a doorway to the Divine.  I don't mean that I have ecstatic visions in the midst of alleviating my pain in this way, but that the closer connection to my own body facilitates my spiritual life and my sense of being whole.

This is the theme of this blog: chronic pain and spirituality - the ways in which living with and managing chronic pain can enhance the spiritual life, and vice versa.  One is hard put to find gratitude or to feel holy while suffering pain, yet, over time, a symbiotic relationship is revealed UNLESS one simply runs for the narcotics or Tylenol at the first twinge.  I am not advocating going around looking for chronic pain in order to become more holy.  Is there not plenty of pain in life as it presents itself to us? 

I am reminded of the ubiquitous Socrates quote,

"The unexamined life is not worth living."

In examining my pain instead of fleeing from it, I am also examining my life, my self.  The qualities I am not so proud of - impatience, self-pity, etc. - and the nobler qualities that I want to live into more fully - endurance, compassion, etc - are revealed to me.  This is a spiritual matter, whether aligned with a particular religion, system of beliefs, or not: any work we do to live a better life and be a better person surely brings us closer to God.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

12 September 2010

Befriending Pain



Befriending Pain


My dear friend, David Hilfiker, once said to me - referring to his clinical depression, "I think I need to learn how to make friends with it." 

Stephen and Ondrea Levine, in their book, "Who Dies?" explain and explore the practice of a close examination of physical pain.

I have come to define befriending my pain as having two parts: gentle examination of its physical presence, and changing my relationship to it away from regarding it as the enemy.

I know it seems counter-intuitive - it certainly did when I first encountered the idea five or six years ago.  Yet I have found that being willing to let go of expectations and reactions in order to openly-heartedly explore newness has often led to spiritual and emotional healing.  In this and the next few posts, I'll share some of that exploration, even continue it, and welcome thoughts and ideas from readers of this blog (click on the Comments box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com).

So, first of all, the practice of exploring physical pain.  (Nota bene: Emotional pain also benefits from this sort of exploration, and will be the subject of a future post).  This is a practice that I have developed over the years: I do not pretend to be an expert in pain management, I am simply sharing something that works for me.

  • First:  Take three slow, deep breaths, focusing on some particular aspect of the breath - the moment inhalation begins, or the moment of rest between breaths.
  • And then: Take ten regular breaths, continuing your focus.
  • And then: While still focusing on your breathing, gently stretch in a way that is comfortable for you.  If you want to and can stand up, fine.  If you want to and can stretch from your sitting or prone position, fine.  It helps to progress either from toes to head, or head to toes - that way, you tend to be attentive to most of the major muscle groups.  This is not about getting in shape - this is about relaxing physically as preparation for paying deep attention to one aspect of your physical reality: pain.
  • And then: three more slow, deep breaths.
  • And then: Allow your consciousness to approach the area of pain.  The less intellectual you are about this, the better; simple awareness is best for this practice.
  • And then: With quiet mind, note how the pain feels.  Note the words that come up: stabbing, throbbing, gripping, waves, vice-like, etc.  No judgement, no editorializing: simply note the words that float up into your consciousness. 
  • And then: Note whether or not the feelings vary.  For example, migraine pain never stays in one place or has only one, constant aspect: it recedes and then throbs forward again; it bounces around the head; it might be stabbing one moment and gentler the next.
  • And then: Having examined the pain, imagine creating space around it, a gentle, cushioning space.  It might help to help bathe the pain with light, or imagine a soft cloud pervading it, or imagine yourself breathing gently into it, loosening it.  If you like visualization, you can try seeing the pain as a knot that you loosen, or as a dry, hard bit of soil that you water.
  • And then: Just stay with that image for as long as feels good to you.
  • To finish: Three slow, deep breaths as you come back to more consciousness of the world around you; more gentle stretches; move gently and slowly into your next activity or purpose.
In the next post, I'll write about the benefits of this practice, and begin to explore more the concept of befriending pain.

I'd love to hear from you.  Click on the Comment box below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.