Category Archives: Health and Wellness

The View from 50

Making the Path

Today’s post owes itself to two exquisite poets.

Caminante by Antonio Machado

Caminante, son tus huellas               Walker, your footprints are
el camino, y nada más;                       the road, and nothing more;
caminante, no hay camino,               walker, there is no road,
se hace camino al andar.                    the road is made by walking.
Al andar se hace camino,                   Walking makes the road,
y al volver la vista atrás                     And to turn for the view behind
se ve la senda que nunca                     is to see the path which will never
se ha de pisar.                                        be tread again. 
Caminante, no hay camino,              Walker, there is no road,
sino estelas en la mar.                        only the wake on the sea. 

 

That’s my translation, and while it’s certainly not as poetic as Machado’s lyrical Spanish, it expresses the message.

I first came across this poem when I read Miles Horton and Paulo Freire’s book We Make the Road by Walking. Horton paraphrased  Machado as a way to express the importance of intentionality and awareness as we live our lives. It’s one of the most inspirational and affirming books I’ve ever read, told by two men who made an enormous difference in the world, both of whom were near the end of long, well-lived lives.

We all mark our lives in a series of milestones. Birthdays, especially the ones that indicate decades, assume a particular significance. Aging itself carries weight;  many cultures bestow status upon young people when they have been on the planet for a certain number of years. Civic privileges and responsibilities such as voting, legal independence, and military service are dependent on a person’s age. What would otherwise be arbitrary birthdays (13, 18, 21) take on a level of importance because of the stature determined by a societal norm.

Birth and death are the only universal life cycle events, and humans have honored  them throughout history and across the world. Other milestones– coming-of-age ceremonies, marriage, and religious rites–are often recognized or honored as well.

And then there are the unique milestones we achieve in the course of living our lives. What are they, and what makes them meaningful? More than that, what do these milestones contribute to our narrative?

I’ve been thinking about these questions quite a bit this summer. If there were a map of my life, this season would be represented by an amazing series of crossroads and bridges. From this vantage point in the path of my journey, I can see back over five decades. Some of those distant experiences are clear and shining; others are blurred. Looking ahead, I can hope that the view extends the same distance. I choose to believe that I am at the midpoint.

On this part of my map, there are some very flamboyant road signs. One says 50FIFTY50FIFTY50FIFTY50. Or maybe, just maybe, it is identical to every other tiny marker along the way. Maybe it simply says, in all lower-case letters,  “today.”

Getting to 50 meant passing 18,250 of those little “today” signs. Like my 50th birthday, each of those days only happened once. And as the path unfolds–as I make the path, all of the upcoming days will only happen once.

The milestones along the way are markers that I placed. Reaching 50, to me, is a chance to pause briefly and be grateful for all of the people and experiences that helped me shape this path.

Another milestone this season is the one that I recognize today. July 18, 2011 was one of my own personal markers. Today is the 2nd anniversary of my third spinal surgery. I’ve written about my back and about the gifts of tolerance, balance, and gratitude that accompanied my injuries, recoveries, and discoveries.

DICOM Frame 2

This morning began early, with open-air yoga in an idyllic space on Martha’s Vineyard. Every time I do yoga, I find moments of sheer joy and power. Every time I can achieve a deeper bend, a greater lift, a stronger extension, I am energized. Every time I can become entirely present in my breath, or hold a challenging pose for a few more seconds, I am more alive.

photo

There is no road sign for that type of moment–or is there?

The Summer Day
Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

 

 

Marathon Monday

Yes, I know the post title says “Monday,” when it’s already Wednesday. Sometimes it takes a couple of days for a blog post to make its way from my brain onto my computer screen.

I did not run the Boston Marathon on Monday. Considering that there were *only* 26,000-ish people who did run the race, my non-participation is not particularly notable. Added to that fact is the reality that today marks exactly nine months since I had three of my vertebrae fused, and there really should be no surprise that I wasn’t one of the people in the insanely unseasonable heat making my way on foot from Hopkinton to Boylston Street. I haven’t actually run the Boston Marathon since 1995, but once it’s in your blood, the sense of connection never goes away. The last marathon that I completed was New York City, in 2007. The following year one of my lumbar discs, which had apparently been disintegrating for months, exploded dramatically while I was running a leisurely half-marathon in New Hampshire. Since then, my spine has continued to demand surgical attention, and the only road race I’ve entered was a Race for the Cure 5K in 2009.

I still miss it.

To the non-runners out there, this entire post probably sounds bizarre, but long distance running is one of the great calming activities of modern life, in my opinion. It is the “couch potato” option for over-achievers. I mean it. Once you’ve built up a basic level of endurance, a long run is incredibly relaxing and meditative.

I started running when I was 13, and I never gave it up. I fell in love with the rhythm, the pace, the breathing, and the opportunity to see familiar places from a different perspective than simply driving past them. Once I started road racing, I was completely hooked on the experience of seeing a location from the middle of the road in the midst of a pack of other runners. There’s an annual 10-mile race in my hometown that I entered for the first time when I was in high school. I ran that race every year for a very long time, as well as dozens of 10-Ks, half-marathons, 5-milers, a bunch of full marathons, and other events of varying distances. I was never fast, but I was steady. When I was in my 20s, I got up almost every day at 5:30 a.m. and ran at least five miles.  My morning jog defined my life for almost 30 years. Building up to longer distances  was only an incremental shift and a scheduling issue. Running 10, 15, 20 miles is really just a matter of planning and showing up. It is simultaneously self-indulgent and virtuous, which is a complicated combination of attributes for an overachiever. There is no question that claiming three hours out of a weekend for a training run could affect the other people in my life. Once I’d made my arrangements and gotten out out on the road, however, I was free to think about anything I wanted.  I used to keep a mental list of topics to consider at my leisure–what a luxury! I solved personal dilemmas, planned elaborate menus for parties, and balanced my budget on long runs. I composed most of my dissertation while training for the New York Marathon. I trained on the Boston Marathon route regularly, whether I was preparing for that race or simply going out for a challenging hill run. Living in the neighborhood of one of the most respected distance challenges in the USA had its impact.

And so, when Marathon Monday rolls around, there is a part of me that feels a pull. This year, we were in Portland, Maine enjoying a gorgeous long weekend with friends. That morning, I went out for a long walk, followed by a Pilates class. We only caught a few glimpses of the TV coverage of the race. A lot of people struggled through the heat. The winning times were relatively slow due to the weather. Hundreds (or thousands?) of folks crossed that finish line for the first time.

I had dinner with a couple of friends in Cambridge Monday night. As I got out of my  car, two runners walked past me, still wearing their race numbers. I felt a tightening in my throat, thinking of the fatigue and satisfaction and the last burst of adrenaline that was keeping them going. It was 6:30 in the evening–they must have finished the race a couple of hours previously and were making their way home after a very long day.

“I can’t believe you’re still on your feet,” I said to them with admiration.

“Neither can I,” said the woman.

I remember that feeling.

Cheers, to all the runners and all of the people who set goals for themselves just to see if they can achieve them.

Macro Vision

I’m going to try to maintain a logical flow to the narrative of this post, but bear with me if I follow a couple of tangents. In my mind, a set of somewhat unrelated observations and experiences share common elements.

I lost my glasses last week. It was totally my own fault; the Husband and I took the Boy and five of his buddies to dinner and a movie, and I left my glasses on the table in the restaurant when I got up to talk to one of the moms who came to retrieve her son. I forgot to go back to my seat and put the glasses in my bag, and didn’t realize my mistake until the next morning. Despite three phone calls and two visits, my oh-so-useful glasses, the pair that took four attempts at adjusting the lens strength, the ones with the gorgeous French designer frames, are gone. I was (and still am) quite annoyed with myself.

I’ve been squinting and straining all week. My vision has been a challenge for my entire life. When I was in first grade, I got my first pair of glasses. I still remember my astonishment when I walked out of the doctor’s office wearing them. I could see every leaf on the trees in the parking lot. I could see the texture of the weave in my skirt, and the numbers on the dial of the radio in my mother’s car.  In seventh grade, I “graduated” to contact lenses, keeping a pair of glasses on hand only to wear in the evenings or on lazy weekend days. Over the years, my eyesight has become slightly, but progressively, worse. Every time I notice that people’s eyelashes or the petals on flowers are getting a bit blurry, I know it’s time for an adjustment. A few years ago, my opthalmologist shook his head and said in his inimitable gentlemanly way, “perfection cannot be achieved.” We moved on to a compromise contact lens choice, which is adequate for most daily activities, but which requires a highly customized pair of glasses to bring menus, textbooks, nighttime road signs, crossword puzzles, and needlework into focus. Those are the glasses I lost. Those were the glasses for which I didn’t really have a prescription, because the optician and I went through a series of attempts before we found the just-right settings to make everything work.

As it turns out, I was due for an eye exam anyway. The terrific office manager found a way to squeeze me in for an appointment on Friday afternoon, and I walked out of the hospital into the oh-so-bright spring sunshine with my pupils dilated and a new prescription in hand. For the time being, I’ll be wearing glasses to work until I am ready to take on the challenge of a new combo of contacts and supplemental eyeglasses.

Friday’s spectacular spring sunshine brings me to the second thread in this tapestry of a blog post. This season has been amazing in the array of colors we’ve been seeing. The dogwoods, cherry trees, forsythia, daffodils, lupines, crocuses and hyacinths are blossoming with flamboyant abandon. Even the ever-practical Husband had to stop his car the other day so that he could photograph a particularly flashy display of flowering trees. The fleeting brilliance of the blooms makes me almost anxious as I grab my camera and get up close. I don’t want them to fade away before I can preserve them. My macro lens allows me to capture the most intimate features and the delicacy of these days. And, in case you needed the connection to be made explicitly, I can’t help the thrill I feel when I can appreciate those fine details with my sometimes imperfect eyes.

I went to the optical shop yesterday to choose a new pair of glasses. I found a frame I liked, selected the features I wanted (anti-reflective coating, compressed carbon material…) and had my face measured so that the technicians  can align the distance and reading portions of the lenses. While I was sitting there, two young women were also shopping. One of them complimented the other on her t-shirt slogan, which I could not see. She then said, “I don’t understand all those people who wear ‘Life is Good’ shirts. I always want to ask them, what’s so good?”

Forgive me, friends, for judging another person here. But, really? What’s so good? The woman who made this comment was wearing beautiful, fashionable, new-looking clothing and shoes and carrying a handbag with a recognizable luxury logo. She appeared to be quite physically fit and healthy. She was out shopping on a Saturday afternoon in an affluent, safe, suburban community. Like most people, she probably has unfulfilled hopes and dreams. It’s entirely possible that she might have suffered painful losses in her life. However, in the three minutes that I observed her, those negative elements were not evident. And her remark didn’t seem to be self-reflective; rather, her tone was incredulous that other people would choose to wear and share a slogan that presented a positive outlook.

I am not a fan of cynicism. It is  fatalistic and implies surrender to negativity. It does not allow the possibility of change for the better, or the recognition that people will, and can, do the right thing, even in difficult circumstances.  I think cynicism is lazy. Optimism, on the other hand, requires work. It requires a deliberate decision to look for the opportunity in disappointment, the silver lining around a dark cloud, the episodic nature of an experience instead of a global categorization of a condition. Optimism is based on the belief that life is, in fact, good, even when there are bumps along the way. The work of optimism can be challenging, but it is also gratifying and rewarding. Sometimes, you have to look closely and carefully to find the goodness. Sometimes, you need to sharpen your vision. Sometimes, you need a macro lens.

Comfort Food

When I started writing this online journal, I didn’t think of it as a food blog.

As it turns out, it’s sort of a food blog. More accurately, it’s a personal blog about happiness and gratitude and family and friends–which, in my mind, often brings us to food. What makes you happy and grateful? What do you do to share happiness and gratitude with your family and friends? My answer to that question: I cook.

For the past few days, we happily and gratefully celebrated the long holiday weekend by borrowing the retreat haven of some of our best friends. We know the place by heart; we’ve been fortunate to be invited there numerous times since they bought it. Familiarity is certainly one of the requirements of a comfort, don’t you think?

We were in the Hudson River Valley–possibly one of the most humbly beautiful parts of our country. There are rolling hills, cows grazing everywhere you look, small villages that were established in the 1600s by hard-working Dutch folks, beautiful views of the river, the cornfields, and the sharpest blue skies to be seen anywhere. The Husband, The Boy, and I arrived on Friday after a long but exciting week for the grownups in the family. One decision I made early in the week was that we would “pack in” everything we needed for our 3+ days of R and R. That plan made it possible for us to rustle up a quick and delicious meal of homemade whole wheat pizzas within an hour of unlocking the door. It also meant that we never needed to leave the premises all day on Saturday. The Husband and I went out for an exhilarating 3-mile walk on the country roads, we relaxed, enjoyed a bottle of wine, and watched old movies. I made shrimp tikka masala for dinner, with jasmine rice and naan bread. Indian isn’t our culture, but the meal incorporated many of the elements that I think are essential for edible comfort: rich sauce, simmered protein, and a starchy base to absorb all the flavors.

I also made French macarons, which probably don’t count as comfort food. However, the movie-set kitchen always motivates me to try something daring.

Sunday, we went to the Rhinebeck Farmers Market, which is open indoors on alternate Sundays in the winter. What a bonus for us that we lucked into a market day! We bought maple syrup (the sap is running early this year due to the season’s mild weather), fresh spinach, yarn (which I did not cook, but which will make a gorgeous scarf), sausage, bread, pastries, and a perfect red onion. I took lots of pictures of the wonderful array of products and produce.

That evening, I made another comfort meal. And again, although Italian isn’t our culture either, how can you go wrong with this menu, and the delicious aromas that emerged from cooking that onion into a sweetened, delectable bread topping? Or the earthy, herb-infused scent of  a  spicy sausage ragu, simmering  in the background? I served the bread and pasta with that beautiful fresh spinach,  and spread the caramelized onion and some fruity rosemary onto fresh bread dough to make a yummy focaccia. . The perfect meal on a winter night. And again, a lot of the same features as the previous night’s meal.

So–what are the necessary elements to a “comfort meal?” Sunday featured pasta and bread (hearty starch), meaty sauce (slow-cooked protein), and a flavorful vegetable. That combination can be re-defined and adapted in countless ways. Macaroni and cheese doesn’t need a protein (unless you’re counting the cheese). Braised short ribs seems to fit the bill in every way. Black beans and rice is an inexpensive and versatile vegetarian option, as are lentils and barley, or polenta with an earthy mushroom sauce. Turkey stew is certainly a comfort meal. These are winter foods, rich with herbs and spices, warm and dense, familiar and filling. Wrap yourselves up, friends. Build a fire, open a bottle of dark red wine, and snuggle with someone you love. It’s all good.

7 Reasons to like winter, even if you don’t really like winter…

I hate being cold.

I know; making a statement like that at the beginning of a post titled “reasons to like winter” seems a bit contradictory. However, I’ve devised a variety of strategies to make winter more than tolerable. Here they are, in no particular order:

1) Wrapping myself in scarves and shawls. Every time I go to New York, I buy at least two faux pashminas from the street vendors. They’re about $5 apiece, which makes them a totally affordable indulgence. I have them in almost every shade. Over the years, I’ve collected a wonderful wardrobe of higher-quality wraps, too: beautiful prints, silky drapey ones, thick cashmere and woolly ones, lightweight splashes of color…they make me feel totally cozy.
2) Soup. Like they used to say in the Campbell’s commercials, “soup is good food!” It’s also a great way to use root vegetables and hearty spices, and to get vitamin-enriched foods into your diet when there’s not much fresh produce around. Today I made a big pot of potato-onion-cheddar. We’ll eat it later this week, with thick bread and maybe even some bacon sprinkled on top. I also made an herbed French lentil soup that we ate tonight with brown rice and a crusty baguette. We are warm all the way through.
3) The hot water bottle. For some reason in our house, we refer to the hot water bottle as “the pig,” partly because it’s an ugly tan color that looks like pigskin. it’s the real old-fashioned kind, made of thick rubber with a screw top. On really cold nights, The Husband fills it with the hottest water from the tap and brings it to bed to warm us up.
4) Flannel sheets. We have them for all of our beds, but we only have one set for each bed, which means that on alternate weeks, we have smooth crisp (chilly) cotton. When we change the sheets and put the fuzzy ones back on, we have a refrain: “Ohhh, the flannel.” Flannel is good.
5) Snowshoeing. I started this activity last year, when my spine condition sidelined me from skiing for the third winter in a row. Since I could use ski poles to balance myself on snowshoes, I was able to get outdoors and engage in some heavy-duty aerobic exercise without risk of further injury. I love it. Astonishingly, this winter we have had no real snowfall, so the snowshoes are still hanging on their hooks in the garage. I sure hope I can take them out soon.
6) Pajamas at dinnertime. In the summer, it feels totally lame to put on pajamas at 6:30 when it’s still light outside. In the winter, it feels completely fine to change out of work clothes and into pajamas as soon as I get home. Eating dinner in PJs, then settling into the couch for an evening is a perfect winter choice.
7) The smell of cold air. Do you know that smell? Crisp, and fresh, and clean? When The Boy comes indoors, his cheeks have that great scent. It’s irresistible. Sometimes, you need to send your favorite people outside just so you can sniff them when they come back into the house.

Alchemy

Colors of Thanksgiving

The bread is rising in the oven right now. The turkey stew is simmering on the stovetop. Even though this is the fifth or sixth day in the past week that the air in my house has hung with the aroma of roasted fowl, it still smells golden in here. Continue reading

Carpe Diem

When I grow up, I want to be like my mother-in-law.

Really. No mother-in-law jokes here in our house (The Husband and I both got lucky in that regard. My mom is pretty great, too). Continue reading