What taking care of yourself looks like in real time

gustave flaubert quote about work and creativity I'm sure I'm not alone in this, but when I was a girl, I had a brilliant notion: what if I could have all of the sicknesses of my lifetime at once, rather than having them parceled out here and there, when they were least expected and seldom welcome?

Or, because I quickly figured out my genius solution would probably kill you (after a few mind-blowing days of unspeakable agony), what if we could at least choose when we'd have them, rescheduling broken bones and burst appendixes from rare or inconvenient times (holidays, big presentations, nice weather in Chicago) to dull stretches where nothing is going on, anyway?

Like most things that seem like a great idea until you see them played out on an episode of Twilight Zone, I eventually figured out the flaw in Plan B as well: there is never, ever a time when it's good to be sick; there are only times when it's less awful than other times.

* * * * *

Staying healthy has both hard and "soft" costs attached to it, just like getting sick does. But because we don't notice health nearly as much as we do the lack thereof, it's hard to get people to pay upfront. Nothing new here. And of course, this refusal to deal with something until it's in tatters or on fire, demanding our attention, is not limited to our physical well-being. How many people do you know who have harnessed the Magic of Compound Interest by maintaining a fully-funded 401-K from the time they entered the workforce? Or, closer still to home, who have never run out of toilet paper? I mean, really, toilet paper! If there's one thing that's easier to make sure you have handy, I don't know what it is. And yet,

Well, let's leave this train of thought while the disembarking is good, shall we?

* * * * *

It is very, very easy for me to tell myself I will pay myself Thursday for a hamburger today, and gladly. To stay up late working or, even more stupidly, watching Jackie Brown for the 57th time. It is easy to say I should go to a particular event, that one of my promises to myself was to keep my promises, and that breaking them will cause me as much or more stress as keeping them. It is easy to not exercise, to drive rather than walk, to eat poorly rather than well. It is as easy to say "yes" as it is hard to say "no", and the consequences of a flippant choice are so far down the road that surely, we reason, a conveniently-timed meteor or other bit of TBD pixie dust will save us between now and then.

For me it is easiest of all to work, and to work poorly, honoring neither the time it takes to do work well, nor the extracurricular effort that goes into maintaining the infrastructure upon which the work relies. Forget what's theoretically possible; being ill these past five months has forced me to examine what is honestly possible, and desirable, and tenable.

While I've (mercifully) always been a woman of narrow interests, this go-round of illness has forced me to narrow them to a point I would not have believed possible.1 These days, I work and I take care of myself, and that's about it. Sometimes I marvel at all of the purely social activities I hear other people talking about (on Twitter and Facebook, since I rarely go out). To me a weekend is just a calmer, quieter couple of days where the phone stops ringing, the emails at least slow down, and I feel less of a pang shutting down operations to get some rest. And I'm fine with that, there will be other times with a different mix of activities, just like there were before.2

For writers, at least, good work, like contentment, comes from boring, well-ordered lives.3 The more mental and physical clutter I removed from my life, the more room was left to do my work.

But the clearing also makes more obvious the crufty tangles that are left. Money murkiness. Patchy systems. Sludgy workflows.

So part of taking care of myself has been crazy stuff you'd think had nothing to do with taking care of yourself, all of it having to do with imposing structure. For example, my return to the uniform: establishing one look and investing in multiples to reduce stress around dressing and traveling. Dividing my week into sectors for reading, writing, and talking. I can't speak for the BDSM crowd, but in my little pedestrian, decidedly non-kinky way, I've found constraints very freeing, so much so that I continue to implement new systems as I tweak the old ones, testing for friction all the time.

The biggest recent shift in my self-care has been a rededication to GTD. Although really, what I'm doing has a whole lot less to do with any particular system for organizing one's stuff and a whole lot more with slowing things down to get clear. Which is, I think, what the best systems are: clearly thought out. Eight years after discovering David Allen's book, I'm finally getting that the crux of the system is the questioning: What's the next action? Where does this go? What does "done" look like? And that the questions themselves must be asked every single time, slowly and painstakingly before swiftly and organically. Organization doesn't come from occasional actions any more than health comes from popping an occasional vitamin. Truly taking care of myself means living in truth all of the time, not just when it is convenient.

I don't know yet what "well" looks like. It may end up not looking at all like robust good health I've been dreaming of since my Crohn's onset, health that lets me spend my energy as cavalierly as I did in my 20s and 30s.

But as I finally (knock wood, throw salt over shoulder, stab a leprechaun) pull out of this flare, I have a better idea of what putting "well" first looks like for me. It is as predictable as a uniform and as strictly run as the Catholic elementary school I wore mine to for eight years. It trades the highs of coffee for the gentle buzz of tea. It favors dollars placed toward proper food and time invested in preparing it. It goes to bed early. It enjoys fellow travelers. It dislikes drama. It spends a surprising amount of time in the bathtub and on foot.

It's my boring-ass new life, and it is awesome.

xxx c

1When I was in recovery from my Crohn's onset, back in 2002-03, my illness was so profoundly far-reaching that convalescence was the sole item on the menu. This particular almost-flare is more like having a flu that's constantly teetering between a plain old cold and walking pneumonia that'll put you down for months, or descend quickly into some unknowable, unnamable worse. Gray areas are the hardest to navigate on your own, health-wise. At least, they are for workaholics.

2Okay, I don't solely work and rest. Over the past several months, I've lunched and dined with friends two handfuls of times, seen at least one movie in an actual movie theater, attended a party for at last a half-hour, and been to hear live music, a comedy show and a play. The play, which is running through May 29, I highly recommend (and I recommend very few plays). If you live in Los Angeles and like your theater well-done and funny, it's a must-go.

3 This gets into semantic jockeying, but for our purposes, that other contentment-plus stuff I find comes more from peak experiences. That poor, poor word "happiness" has been so batted about that I wonder what it means anymore. I tend to think my friend Gretchen, who for my money is the smartest, most accessible writer on the topic of happiness today, really writes about contentment. But it's not her fault the filthy hordes came in and mucked up a perfectly good word.

Making allowances for the way you work

photo of Colleen Wainwright Yesterday morning, I finished reading Unbroken, the true-life story of Louis Zampirini's triumphant, plague-filled journey from punk kid to Olympic runner to WWII Air Force bombadier to POW to haunted veteran to redeemed hero. It's an amazing story.

As I tore through it on my Kindle, the only way for the spindly-limbed gal to fly when it comes to oversized books, I kept thinking three things:

  1. Damn, this is an amazing story!
  2. Would I have what it takes to make it through this?
  3. How in the wide, wide world of sports did Laura Hillenbrand write this with CFS?

The joke answer, of course, is "very, very slowly." It would take a wildly robust writer a long time to research and write a compelling and historically-accurate 400-page book about a series of events in a time when everyone's last sneeze was not recorded for posterity*; it took Hillenbrand 10 years.

* * * * *

I didn't pick up Unbroken because Laura Hillenbrand has a chronic illness and I have a chronic illness and hey, why not be inspired by a writer whose chronic illness is a thousand times worse than mine to get off my lazy, relatively well ass and write, dammit; I picked it up, well, downloaded it to my electronic reading device, because I'd heard people rave over and over about what a gripping tale, what an immersive experience it was. Hard-core lefties, Republicans, old folk, youngsters, literati. Enough of a spread to render the thumbs-up agnostic.**

I picked it up because I had a long plane ride ahead of me and, thanks to tailwinds, a longer one back, and I fly in the back of the bus, where postage-stamp-sized trays jutting out into what could only laughably be called "room" preclude any sort of real work, much less 15" laptop-opening. It's a situation that calls for books one would describe as "gripping" and reading experiences one would call "immersive."

I picked it up because, after a rough three weeks patching myself up from a foolhardy near-crash outside of San Francisco, I knew I'd be spending more time alone in my hotel room resting when I wasn't strictly needed in order to spend the energy my job called for when I was.

* * * * *

Toward the end of my talk, I got a question that comes up so frequently, I may end up adding it to the presentation proper: How do you do all of this?

You see, I've just spent 50 jam-packed minutes going over Right Behavior online in our fast-paced-and-rapidly-changing modern media landscape (and indicating that much of it is now expected, if not required, in real life). All the ins and outs of tweeting and Facebooking and policy-creation and email-sig-shortening that you need to know so you don't fall behind, or worse, come off like a thankless jackass online. Understandably, this is overwhelming to people at the beginning of the learning curve. Just the idea of doing it is overwhelming, never mind the actual learning and doing.

I get this; I do. And while I answer for myself, because really, that's all one can do, I am really giving the answer for everyone, everywhere, regardless of the condition of their health or the state of their business or the vigorous and very real demands on their life: you make accommodations for what is important to you. My work is important to me, so I don't do or have a bunch of things normal people have. Lately, I've realized that my health is important to me, so I'm learning to accommodate that, too. Slowly. And, if I'm honest, as much because I'm terrified at the thought of not being able to work as I am not being able, period.***

It may help to remember that while I'm relatively facile at this whole being-online thing, I have my own c*cksucking boulders to push up my own motherf*cking hills. For example, I have always just been lucky enough with money and modest enough in my desires that I didn't have to learn anything about it to get by in relative comfort. Now the economy is squeezing me along with everyone else, AND I'm (almost) 50, AND I want a couple of bigger things that are simply not going to be possible without winning the lottery or changing my rhythm. And I don't play the lottery.

* * * * *

Everyone has their basket. The older I get, the more I think that most choices boil down to love or fear, and most of the pain in the world is caused by choosing the latter. It is much, much easier to do the scaredy-cat thing and peer into the tippy-tops of other people's baskets and become covetous or enraged or pitying or what have you. It is much harder to look at yours, get down with what's in it, and get to work. However you work. Whatever your "work" is.

But that's what's required: complete honesty looking inward, and complete love looking outward. Honesty and love. No more, no less. Not very sexy, but there it is.

I'd be surprised if anyone gets all the way there, ever, before the lights go out. I have a looooong way to go, which is why I'm spending more time in hot baths liberally sprinkled with Epsom salts than I am at the discothéque. (Well, and also because I don't think there are such things as discothéques anymore.)

Give yourself the room you need to live the life you want. That's what all this stuff about decluttering and streamlining and goal-setting is really about. Room to do what's right, and what feeds you, and what saves the world. Once you have enough room, see about what you can do to provide someone else with some before you get yourself more. (Because really, beyond a certain point, how much room do you need?)

We all know what's best for ourselves. And we can all start making sure it happens right now.

xxx c

*Actually, another thing I kept wondering while I read was how these men in the Japanese prison camps managed to keep diaries at all, much less preserve them for 60 years. Their ingenuity and stubborn determination made me ashamed of my dithering over writing software programs and WordPress glitches.

**Speaking of agnosticism, I almost certainly wouldn't have picked it up if I'd known there was an actual religious redemption in the story. In the context of Zampirini's life, though, it not only makes sense, you're happy when it happens. I'm wary enough of organized religion to say my own, little "hosanna" when one of the good guys turns up.

***I know, I know, it's messed UP. I'm not saying this is a good way to be, or that it's a place I want to stay. I'm just being brutally honest about where I am. Because in my experience, skipping that first step really makes the whole thing go farkakte.

Photo © Addison Geary Photography.

The good news is the apple kicks your ass

an apple on the grass

Pulling out of a flare is a tricky business.

You get better on a very slow upward trajectory, with occasional "two-steps-back" days from eating too volatile a mix of ordinary ingredients (oh, BOY, do canned tuna and hard-boiled eggs not mix) or too "advanced" of an item. Yesterday, after weeks of not tasting an uncooked vegetable or piece of fruit, I broke down and got jiggy with half an apple. Look out, world! I'm eating an entire HALF of a raw apple!

A half-hour later, I was soaking in a hot Epsom bath to ease the cramps shooting across my lower back.

What's really odd about this particular flare is that while I wouldn't say I'm overjoyed to be dealing with it, neither is it bothering me as much as the past few have. For whatever reasons, age? wisdom? resignation?, I've adopted an attitude that much more closely matches that of my initial recovery, back in the fall of 2002. Or maybe it's just that this time, I'm back to me being able to rest on my own in my sweet little apartment, all tidy and peaceful and filled with the comforts and treasures that soothe me. While I no longer have the huge financial cushion I did (not to mention the assumed easy earning power of a robust economy once I was well enough to rejoin the living), I have enough, thanks. (And I'm probably even more deeply grateful to have it.)

Work is another thing, and an exceedingly interesting one. I haven't not been working; I've just been working very carefully, chipping away at things here and there in the background. Pulling things off the home page of the site. Tweaking things quietly, in the background. Writing, writing, writing. There is more time for this because I am not getting out much right now, but I'm still capping things at a reasonable (for me) 7 or 8pm and climbing into my salty tub. On top of a, shall we say, leisurely-paced day. The work comes more slowly when I'm impaired, but I am able to pay closer attention to the way it comes as well as the words themselves, if that makes any sense.

For instance, I notice myself getting upset over getting stuck in certain places (a "way" thing) and I notice myself (over)using the same words or construction (a "word" thing). Slowing down to see this has created room for me to relax and let some other solution bubble up, getting up and moving to my analog desk, or grabbing a stack of index cards to do my version of my friend Daphne Gray-Grant's excellent advice to mind-map pre-writing. (If you sign up for her newsletter, you'll get a copy of her mind mapping instructions. It's plenty to get started, and the newsletter is consistently useful if you do any sort of regular writing, or just want to understand how writing works.)

Slowing down is just outstanding for noticing things, period. Those of us who operate in overdrive probably do so at least partially to blow past certain parts of the scenery we find a little unattractive. My personal adopt-a-highway program has made great progress along certain stretches of road, but when I slow down, I'm embarrassed to see the junk I've allowed to accumulate near certain scary underpasses and dark tunnels.

I feel a little guilty bringing up the feeling poorly. I find myself impelled to do so, though, because I'm not good enough at saying "no" sans explanation; I almost always feel like "no" is not enough, that "no" needs some accompanying excuse. (And I know that's not true, I'm just saying that so far, that's how I've operated.) Inevitably, it brings up expressions of sympathy, because people are kind and empathetic and such.

I am coming around to the idea, though, that illness isn't necessarily a bad thing. It is just a thing, like tallness or shortness, bigness or smallness, oldness or youngness, singleness or marriedness. There are times when it is better to be tall than short, and being very short, I can enumerate them with alacrity. On the other hand, "tall" is a distinct disadvantage in the context of "commercial aircraft." I have been single and married and everything in between and guess what: so far, I prefer single. Try traveling back in time and telling 25-year-old me that, though. You couldn't: she was too busy doing actuarial calculations to avoid ending up chairless when the music stopped. (Hint to 25-year-olds: the music always starts up again, there are all kinds of nice chairs nowhere near the ring, and you may not be the sitting type.)

Do I very much look forward to having a great deal of energy again? I do! Even more, I look forward to using it wisely, so that it comes in a steady, sustainable flow, not pedal-to-the-metal bursts followed by a blowout. I look forward to it so much so that I am moving hyper-slowly now. It is not exactly pleasant, all this noticing, but it is one of the most fascinating shows in town...


P.S. One of the crazy little things I did was to put up an FAQ, something long, long on my to-do list. More on that later, but man, do I ever see how a well-done FAQ might significantly reduce drag on the average one-woman operation. Talk about enhancing sustainability!

Image by iMaffo via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Return of the governor cold

sick man in bed holding handwritten sign saying "I'm sick" I'm into Week #3 of the Cold That Would Not Die.

Admittedly, part of this is probably my fault: I pushed myself way too hard on Thursday and Friday, emotionally and physically. Sometimes you can't avoid these things; sometimes, you don't want to.

At any rate, it is an interesting thing, being forced to slow down so significantly, to find a setting (or be forced into one) between "full-bore" and "off." I walk, but more slowly and not as far, and only when I have the energy to do even that. I forgo my usual full routine of Nei Kung, happy if I can do just 10 or 15 minutes of Horse Stance. I take longer to do everything, it seems: brushing my teeth, finding the items I'm looking for at the drugstore, getting dressed, putting away my clothes. It is like being very, very young, or perhaps like being very, very old. It reminds me of being very, very sick, although thankfully, I know what very, very sick really feels like and I'm nowhere near that, knock wood.

I'm just...hampered.

Almost six years ago, I wrote a little item about how it felt: the "governor" cold, I called it. It was a way to reframe the annoyance, both to remind me that, compared to what I'd been through before, it ain't no thang, and to maybe make it a little useful to me. Which it is. I've stopped drinking coffee, and I'm actually going to bed when I'm tired. Remarkable.

I've also revisited my nightly "gratitude dump." No, not that kind of dump (although given my plumbing, I'm always grateful for a good dump). It's a kind of elaboration on the gratitude journal, where I just spill out thing after thing after thing that I am grateful for, until I've exhausted four columns on a page of my 8 1/2 x 11", college-ruled notebook. Some of the things get a little silly, like "roof" or "spiral notebook." Then again, if you think about it, both of those things are pretty awesome, and I have them along with four-columns-minus-two-lines' worth of other awesome things.

Partly as an outgrowth of my feelings of gratitude and partly out of sheer self-interest, I finally signed on with Kiva and made my first loans. (Thank you, Jason and Jodi, for the brilliant idea; it was the best I felt all weekend.

I did a few other, small things, too: got the last four installments of the newsletter posted to the archives, for example. Restrung one of my guitars to pass along to a friend, now that I'm done with it. (Don't worry, I kept the other one.) Cooked some meals. Drank a lot of weak tea and hot water with lemon. Got my hair did. And wrote every day, either longhand or in the Google Wave with Dave, downloading this crazy stream of stuff that starting gushing a few weeks ago. Maybe being sick is actually good for thinking? Dave seems to be going through the same thing, both cold and crazy-stream-downloading, so yeah, maybe.

Hopefully, though, it's just the slowing down that's doing it. Because I can do that anytime. Right?

xxx c

Image by skippyjohn via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

The phlegm that says "I love you"

pen & ink self-portrait of the author's large intestine Back in September of 2002, I started drawing my colon.

I first drew it on the day after my second-ever colonoscopy, the day I was finally told how bad off I really was in unequivocal, Western-medical terms ("aggressive onset," white-cell count, colostomy, etc.). I continued drawing it once per day, every day, for months afterward, well after I was out of the hospital and back to work.

drawing of the author's colon

It's nowhere in the journal entries that precede the drawing itself, but I am fairly sure of the genesis of the sketching-as-therapy endeavor: several years earlier, during her first bout with cancer, my mother shared with me her own hoo-doo sicky-sick ritual. She did not draw, but she regularly visualized the diseased parts of herself1 slowly getting better as cancer cells were politely escorted out by the contents of the chemical drip in her arm. This image was easier and more pleasant for her to fix on, she said, than the war-like one some people favor: This radiation is KILLING my cancer! This chemo is KICKING THE SHIT out of those mutant cells!2

I had no better ideas, so I did the same.

The first drawing is hastily done; my intestines look more like a really poorly rendered black-and-white sketch of the Yellow Brick Road cover than actual human organs, and there is nothing as specific and action-oriented as escorting going on. The next day, however, features a fair approximation of a colon, along with some very dynamic-looking action lines. By Day 6 (see above), the drawings are not only more specifically rendered, but more lovingly. The joint is lousy with hearts, for cryin' out loud! And on Day 11, I have the whole exit/recovery strategy meticulously mapped out: the meds and SCD-legal food, rendered as hearts, are waving at the mischievous buggies on their way out.3 To an actual toilet. (God is in the details, amirite?)

Whether or not you hew to the woo, there are some useful aspects to the practice of embracing an illness in this way.

drawing of the author's colon

First, it gives you something to do besides fret, nap, and watch Murder, She Wrote on an endless loop. I am way too good at fretting, way too bad at napping and even I can't watch TV forever. There was something very calming and focusing about drawing my colon every day. I'd reflect on the shape of it, add nuances to the exit strategy, draw a few more "good" bugs and a few less "teacher" bugs with each rendering. Plus, you know, super-nifty illustrated journal after the fact.

Second, reframing the illness made it much easier to get down with the slow pace of returning to wellness.4 Rather than looking at the whole thing as a "woe be me!" experience, I was able to look at it like a class, albeit a really tedious one with an unusual number of bathroom breaks.

Third, drawing every day helped to keep me in a state of gratitude. Because making the bugs my teachers made it impossible to feel completely angry with my disease. And because I chose to render the medicine as little hearts, I remained grateful to my I/V drip, my medical team, my health insurance, my amazing bed with the remote control that made it go up and down, up and down.

I bring all of this up because I'm sick right now. Not with Crohn's, but with an annoyingly trenchant and inconveniently timed cold. At least, for now it's a cold; one person I know had this whatever-it-is morph into bronchitis. I am not a fan of bronchitis. I quit smoking, some 23 years ago, because of incipient bronchitis.5 Not to mention I don't have the margin for error with antibiotics I did pre-Crohn's, in my blissfully sturdy 20s.

I am no saint. I can piss and moan and resist acting in my best interests with the best of them, even though the consequences of not doing so are intimately known to me.

drawing of the author's colon

And yet it is getting harder and harder to stay there. Hooray, middle age! Hooray for you, too, hundreds of hours of therapy, reading and purposeful self-reflection! I finally get that it's more useful, not to mention delightful, to treat myself with a little consideration, and to turn my attention to the nifty side of things. If I can't do my usual long, power walk, I am treated to a the beauty of my neighborhood in super-slow motion. If I cannot be out and dashing about in my usual can-do fashion, well, for the short stretches I do get out, I'm even more aware and appreciative of the fine weather we enjoy in Los Angeles. And slowed down thusly, when I am home I'm even more grateful for the serene snugness of my little apartment and its, no, really, insanely luxurious appointments.

I've written long ago and at length about illness being a useful, if painful, way to slow things down. I've spoken more recently (and far more briefly) about rotten things being a gateway to big love. But I still need reminding; maybe I always will need reminding. Slow is not a factory-default setting.

And so I move too fast and I curse before I remember to say "Thank you!" and slow down for a bit.

But I do slow down for a bit. Which is what we call a start.

Oh, and for the duration? Posting will be light...

xxx c

1As the primary site was her cervix, there was also some kind of radioactive tampon she got to wear. Get your pap, ladies!

2Mom died just 18 months after diagnosis, but far, far past what the doctors had initially predicted for someone with Stage 4 cervical cancer that had metastasized to her lungs. She even went into full remission for a time, fooling us into thinking she'd be around for a good, long time. Alas, the cancer came back fast and aggressively, and in her weakened state, a state not at all enhanced by her alcohol intake, except from a relaxation point of view, I can't see how she could have fought it off. Watch the drinking, ladies!

3Western medicine is finally coming around to embrace the theory Dr. Sidney Valentine Haas and Elaine Gottschall put forth a heckuva lot earlier: that the source of the irritation that causes Crohn's is bacterial: a crazy, unchecked proliferation of "bad" bacteria that the guts of Crohn's and ulcerative colitis patients can't handle, which irritates the intestinal wall and triggers the immune response (your body attacking itself).

4I was very fortunate, I realize, to be returned to a state of wellness. I get that this is not the case with all illnesses, and I'm the last one to point the manifesting finger. You know, that creepy part of new-agey-ness that wonders, in the most inappropriately passive-aggressive, outrageously fake-compassionate way, what you did to bring this illness into your life. Uuuuuuuup yours, you "Namaste!" motherfucker. (One of these days, I really do need to write up that essay on the "Namaste!" Motherfuckers. I have far more contempt for them than I do other fringe groups one could name on the other end of the socio-political spectrum because seriously, they should know better.

5And I really, really liked smoking, so you know I must have really, really hated the idea of this bronchitis thing happening again.

Poetry Thursday: Trajectory of a cold


First, a tickle

Then an ache
or two
and many more yawns
but not too many to push through

Fair warning
for what comes next:
the sore throat
creeping down the pipes
the foul fog
crawling up my skull
lodging here
and there

Squeezing in
behind my eyes
while I squeeze in
one more call
one more thought
one more line
wrapping my brain in muck
but not too much to think through
however dimly

The cold and I
race one another
to see who will get there first
up and down my body
up and down my to-do list
even though we both know
who will win

The calls and the thoughts and the lines
fall flat
until finally
I fall, too,
on my back
into bed
which is where this cold
and the body that conjured it
have wanted me all along

I would rail and pout
but they've got me:
it's good here
in bed
with cool sheets
and dim lights
and I wonder why I struggled so long

And as I give in
letting sleep and gratitude
wash over me
I swear that this is the last time
and it will be

Until the next...


Image by InSinU8 via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Quiet, please


One of the chief changes between Colleen of the Past and Colleen of the Present is a dramatic reduction in the Noise Tolerance Threshold.*

I'm not sure what this is about, exactly. The younger me spent copious amounts of alone time, but definitely liked commotion: city noise, constant soundtrack of AM commercial pop radio, thrum created by hordes of people, anywhere. I grappled with loneliness far more back then, so maybe the hubbub helped with that. Most definitely, it did: when I'm feeling blue, I still find myself slipping an old movie into the SuperDrive to keep me company on the few lonely nights I have.

If I had children, I'd definitely understand where the need for quiet comes from. The little bit of time I spend around other people's kids I generally find enjoyable, provided the kids aren't intolerable rat bastards, but I'm always, always depleted afterward, craving the quiet of total lockdown. (God help the parents of extroverts who are themselves introverts: that's a pretty fair example of hell, I imagine.) But I have no kids around me 24/7, nor, now that I'm spending more time at My Country House than the Fabulous Divorcée Pad, do I have the kinds of ambient noise issues I had living in an area of dramatically increased population density (which is one of the biggest, as-yet-unnamed psyche killers this recession has brought about, I'm convinced. We went from a relative paradise of mainly solo-apartment dwellers to a post-collegiate-in-NYC-levels of bodies per unit. And from the sound of things, the same bidness is going on to the north and south of us, as well.)

It may be the sharp uptick in reading and writing that's happened over the past six months. When my life was more of a balance between my writing life and my dwindling designer life, there was room for all kinds of sound. I worked better and more efficiently at sketching and composing visually with music, albeit mostly from my "lyric-free" playlists, music without words, or at the very least, without words in my native tongue. The right kind of sound engaged just enough of my monkey brain so that I could be non-self-critical (or less so) during the conception phase; it also did something kind of magical in the composition and execution phases, but that was more like throwing on some great tunes to pump you up when you're running or cleaning house. That kind of sound, I get.

What I've tiptoed around without examining too closely is the possibility that as my brain ages, it needs more space to focus. I'm already noticing the disk spinning longer when I try to access certain data like names, although to be fair, that was never something I was especially good at, and I suspect that this skill in all of us has been somewhat diminished by our increasing reliance on the Great External Brain, a.k.a. the Internet. (If you have hard data on causality, lay it on me; I'm sure it'll be temporarily depressing, but in the long run, I'd rather know my brain can get back in shape at the gym than that I have 5 years to squeeze out what's left of it before I resign myself to a life of gardening and airport novels.)

Finally, there is the hope that this is temporary, some kind of phase. In the throes of a Crohn's flare, when all available resources are being directed toward a damaged organ, there's not a lot of spare blood available for brain bathing. You get fuzzy; you get sleepy. It becomes hard to focus for long periods of time, and your thoughts aren't as sharp as they are when your gut is in the pink. I may yet cave, but I'm doing my best to pull out of this flare without meds, and that means getting down with the short windows and mad prioritizing and quirky conditions, lots of sleep, lots of rest, lots of quiet, my body is demanding. I'm not complaining (much), both because there's little point (no higher court to take this one to) and because I'm hanging on to the hope that as my body bounces back, my brainpower will, too.

That's a slender thread of hope at 48, but it's my thread, and I'm clinging to it...


*Except where watching Hulu-is-my-TVâ„¢ is concerned, anyway; there, the sound is creeping up to the ear-splitting levels I remember at my grandparents', in their declining years with their declining ears.

Image by ★ SUPA SUSHY © ★ via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

The Road, Part 2: Noble truth number 2


I have said it before and I will reiterate for clarity (and possible trolls): I am no buddhist. I am not even, like The Sweet BF, one of the half-assed variety. But the more I read of it (which is still precious little, okay, trolls?) and the more of life I see and experience, the more I think old Gautama might have been onto something.

Take one of the (four, four, count 'em, four!) foundational principles of Buddhism, Noble Truth the Second: "Suffering is Attachment," which, for those of you who are even less familiar than I with the Truths, follows hard on the heels of "Life is Suffering."

Then think back on the loss of a beloved grandparent, or a romantic relationship that ended, or a job you were asked to leave before you were ready.

Or, to travel even further into the land of mundane minutae, that feeling you get after a bad cold call, or an audition that went less than spectacularly, or leaving a date that went south or a party that failed to meet your expectations.

What's that word I snuck in there? Why, "expectations," of course. Because in all of those smaller circumstances, you likely had some kind of expectation that things would go differently: that the call would land you a huge piece of business; the audition, a job; the date, a partner; the party, a rockin' good time, and perhaps a brief vacation from other feeling you were currently, wait for it, attached to.

It's a little harder to see what is attach-y about loving a person or even a position eminently worthy of love. And by "attach-y," I mean "wrong," right?

Not exactly.

Attachment isn't wrong; it just is. I'm guessing if the fat man were around today and you marched up to him and said, "Listen, Bub: my gramma rocked the universe and there is nothing wrong with my missing her and I intend to go on missing her and that's that," he'd shrug and say the Buddhist word for whatever. It's not his job to tell you what you're doing right or wrong, but to get his own shit straight enough that he can show you compassion, which took even his Bub-ness a mighty long time of wandering and wondering and trying-and-failing, if the stories are to be believed. (Oh, and what I love about Buddhism? They don't care if you believe the stories, either! Rawk!)

The BF and I listened to a lot of my favorite Joe Frank episodes on our recent trip, which meant we listened to a lot of Jack Kornfield's charming and wonderful lectures, as well. Really, if you like this blog and are interested in dipping your toes in the Buddhist waters, you could do a lot worse than the recorded lectures of Jack Kornfield (here are some you can hear for free!) and the lively books of "zen punk monk" Brad Warner (and he'd be fine if you bought them through those Amazon links or got 'em from the library, and so would I!). They are wonderfully soothing and stimulating at the same time, these shows, and they helped me find a bit of peace in the middle of my discomfort: an incipient Crohn's flare which I thought had mutated to garden-variety constipation but finally reared its ugly head as an incipient Crohn's flare WITH constipation. Which, for those of you who have never had the pleasure, feels like what I imagine the ninth month of pregnancy feels like, stupendous belly, aliens kicking around inside, waves of occasional blinding pain and nausea (sooo much fun in a car in the middle of the Mojave Desert!) and no matter what, that goddamned baby will not come out.

I've been in flares before and learned from them, and not learned from them. I've learned what I can get away with and what I can't, and then I've gone ahead and done all the stupid things (bread! M&Ms! coffee!) that put me there in the first place.

Today, though, as I was skimming through the Facebook, I stumbled on a heart-rending video from a dear friend who was alternately beating herself up and feeling awful about herself because she did something many of us do all the time and most of us do at least some of the time: overcommit. This beautiful lady with her gigantic, beautiful heart, who gives and gives and gives was suffering, and in the course of her piece, she wisely pegged her sad, sad feelings as those of powerlessness and smallness.

I crack myself with how slow I am to learn things, and with how I learn things, period.

Because I can do this again and again, overcommit, and feel dreadful about the consequences, and not even come CLOSE to identifying the root of my suffering as feelings of powerlessness and sorrow because, let's be honest, I am not 1/10th the nice of this great-hearted person, and learn nothing. And yet I saw her suffering and something clicked for me: I am attached to feeling well.

I am attached to the idea that I will always have limitless youth and energy and power to draw upon for getting done the outrageous list of things I must do. Under that, I am attached to the idea that I am in control, and that I have the ability to call my own shots as I see fit. And of course, under all that, I am highly, highly attached to the idea that I have limitless time. Which is sort of a laugh because the last time I looked, I was turning 10 and in four months, I'll turn 48.

What would happen if I let go of the idea that I must always be happy? Or well? Or successful or rich or right on down the line to the smallest of the small: if I let go of the idea that a favorite wool sweater would always be there for me, so that when it accidentally took a spin through the washer and dryer, I did nothing more than chuckle as I pulled out my new, doll-sized pullover?

What would happen if I never got another parking space or that Magic E-Mail or taste of McDonald's fries? Well, if it were the latter of the three, I might be more firmly on the road to some kind of wellness, since there ain't no kind of fries on my diet. But really, I think I might have some peace, which might free up some room, which might mean a bit more compassion and a bit less angst.

I would never, ever in a million years suggest that it's silly or wrong to feel lousy because you've overcommitted. I hope I always feel lousy when I do, because it's no fun for anyone.

But I hope even more that I can learn to examine the lousy and pull apart the feelings and actions that got me to it, so that (a) I don't have to feel lousy and (b) I can be more useful to people who are feeling that way.

What I hope the most right now, though, is that my friend, who is grace herself, finds some of the peace she has inadvertently given me.

Which may be the beginnings of compassion. Which, though it clearly shows my attachment to the feeling, would be awfully nice, I think...


Image by Jayel Aheram via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

'ello, guvnor!


I've written about the cold as governor before, but it bears repeating (or at least, my body has decided it does).

Getting sick, while nothing most of us would wish on ourselves, no matter how insignificant the illness, is, like most things, what you make of it. (And by "you," I mean "me.")

My colds are like a nagging mother: they force me to take a little better care of myself, to get the sleep I've been cheating myself of and the nutrition I need.

My colds are like a business manager: they force me to take a look at the bottom line, and how each activity is (or isn't) working, ROI-wise.

And finally, my colds are like Twitter: they force me to write short.

Stay well, eat right and get the rest you need. Governors are fine in their way, but there are other people you'd much rather have drop by for a visit.


Image by jerrreon via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

"Thank you, sir! May I have another!?"™, Day 08: Baldy

This is Day 8 of a 21-day effort to see the good in what might, at first, look like an irredeemable drag. Its name comes from a classic bit of dialogue uttered by actor Kevin Bacon in a classic film of my generation, Animal House.

me, as cadaver

In my family, we were not blessed with good teeth and gums, cancer resistance genes, chemical balances predisposing us to happiness, or a low tolerance for alcohol: we got hair.

I'm not talking nice hair: I'm talking great hair. Hair of the gods. Breck-Girl hair. Movie star hair. Curly or straight or frizzy or wavy, male or female, dark brown or red or blond (and eventually, perfect snowy white), whatever our particular flavor of hair, we have shitloads of it. The kind of hair that turns heads, you'll pardon the expression. That causes overheating in summer. Hair whose drying time alone provides a for-real all-night excuse to stay in.

Sometimes I would crab about my hair's unruliness or color. I went from beautiful, stick-straight blond hair as a baby to crazy, Roseanne Rosannadanna pubes as an adolescent. And in the Chicago weather that I spent most of my life in, hardier hair than mine has a mind of its own. But most of the time, I didn't give my hair a thought.

Until, of course, it started falling out.

The first round of thinning I attributed to stress and sympathetic hair loss. Out of the blue, my mom was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer which had metastasized to her lungs. Well, it wasn't really out of the blue: that crazy alcoholic mistress of denial hid the massive swelling in her leg from the rest of us with her hideously frumpy long skirts for a long, long time. But it was a death sentence, and for the 18 months from DX to death, I was a mass of stress.

But after some time had passed, and I got over her death (and the deaths, in rapid succession, of my beloved grandparents), the hair came back. And stayed back, even through what I now know as my own long, slow onset of Crohn's disease. (For the record, I was not in denial about said onset, but the recipient of some borderline unethical care from a particular colorectal surgeon. Live and learn.)

In fact, I looked my absolute freakiest (I thought) when my weight had dropped to its almost-nadir and my crazy-thick hair was dyed almost-black for a play in which I was cast as a Bulgarian art curator. Photographic proof of said period above, from the only headshot session I ever had where absolutely none of the photos were usable. I wept when I saw myself in them.

I even hung onto my beloved hair in the hospital during the 11-day incarceration. The steroid drip I was on didn't kick in, hair-loss-wise, until I got home. And then, on oral meds, my hair started falling out in earnest. By the handful. It would fall out when I washed it, when I dried it, when I brushed it. It would pretty much leap from my head whenever and wherever. I distinctly remember my good friend, Mark the Carpenter, over to help retrofit my apartment during my invalid phase, coming up from a brief rest on the floor with a rat's nest of long black hair woven into his fingers and a look of horror on his face. Steroids and hair do not mix. And as long as I'm on them or any immuno-suppressants, it would now appear, I will lose hair.

My GI doc doesn't believe it. He sees plenty of hair still. And he is a man, grateful for any hair at all on his head. (For the record, he has a lovely head of hair and a handsome face to match). But I know. I am baldy, and that's how it is. My crowning glory is gone, quite possibly for good.

So what, you might ask, is the good in that?

Tolerance. Acceptance. Understanding. In the same way that my newfound muffin top has made me more tender-hearted towards people who might be carrying a few (or a lot of) extra pounds, my hair loss and the corresponding reduction in feminine beauty status has made me far, far more generous and accepting of the less-obviously beautiful. Don't get me wrong: I was never a raving beauty like my mother or grandmothers; but with makeup and effort, I could "pass." And even without effort, I'm rather ashamed now to count off the many blessings I took for granted.

No more. I both care less about things that mattered so much so long ago, and am more appreciative of what's left. I'm guessing that some of this is the gift of wisdom that time brings, but I also know myself. And I am about as stubborn and slow-learning a fella as ever was born to woman.

So thank you, my crazy, kamikaze hairs. Eventually I may have to shave you off entirely like the mens do. Let's hope that my ginormous head isn't as weird and lumpy as I'm afraid it might be.

Or let's hope it is. My, what an adventure in learning that would be...


Photo of me, circa July 2002, by Tom Lascher. Dreadful, large size gives you a better idea of how sick I really looked at the time.

Illness, wellness and a guy from Cymru

RescueremedyIt is hard to undo a lifetime of bad habits. For most of my years on the planet, I favored the power-through method of life management, recklessly using whatever tools I had at my disposal, caffeine, various unregulated pharmaceuticals, my considerable will, to do so. It's a dangerous combination, that mix of stubbornness and not-enough-ness that many of us seem to be gifted with. Very easy to do yourself considerable damage without even realizing you're doing it.

Housesmall_2And now, heading into Week Four of being laid low by some virus/bug/whatever, my own stupidity is clanging madly in that space between my ears. Why did I think it was a good idea to hit the gym twice last week when I needed a cup of coffee each time to do it? Why do I say "yes" to yet another project/outing/favor when most days I'm too tired to wash a sinkful of dishes? And mostly, Why am I not well? Why me? What did I do to deserve this?

BedWell, I know exactly what I did, how long I did it for and even why I chose to do it in the face of all reasonable evidence that I should not. People with weakened immune systems cannot get away with the kinds of shenanigans that people with healthy immune systems can. Period. And yet I insist upon trying to sneak one more infraction by my poor, hobbled body, one more class, one more meeting, one more cocktail with a friend. So, to paraphrase a thousand woo-woo wits, I will continue to receive the same lesson in different forms until I choose to learn it: Crohn's disease, the cold that won't go away and perhaps (oh, please, God, no) ME/CFS.

PicklesThat would be the chronic fatigue disorder that Michael Nobbs was diagnosed with back in 1999. It crept up on him like the Crohn's crept up on me, but apparently, he kept on pushing through it for a few more years before he hipped himself to the reality that he might have to slow down a bit. I don't mean to sound superior, here; if wasting, fever and shitting two pints of blood hadn't kept me tethered to my bed, I'd have been pushing, too. (And in my way, I pushed, too, believe me.)

SundaypapersAnyway, I've a cold now (as the Brits would say), and have had (as they'd also say) for going on four weeks. I get a little better. I run out and do a million things. I get a little worse. I collapse, then rouse myself with a cup of drug-of-choice (coffee or tea, depending). I run out and do a million things. I collapse and retreat. Cancel everything. Rest. Feel a wee bit better. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

And Michael?

Shop2I wonder if I've been out and about just a bit too much and am finally paying for it. I've got a cold which seems to have gone to my chest. I'm hoping it won't last. I've been enjoying my regular visits to the outside world so much of late and don't want to have to give up on them again. No reason to of course. Everyone gets colds. They come and go. It's just I'm always very nervous about a complete health downturn and am hoping this won't be one.

MedrawsmallIs it any wonder I fell in love reading his blog? I mean, if the wonderful drawings (that so remind me of the late, great, Louise Fitzhugh's) weren't enough, his deceptively simple, bell-clear descriptions of his heart's map would.

LemonjuiceI've remarked on my obsessive crushes before; this time was no different. Greedily, I burned through much of Michael's site. Then I ordered a picture. Then I ordered his journal, which arrived yesterday, and which I greedily burned through in about ten minutes. Now I'm re-reading it slowly, the way Michael created it. Call it my zen meditation for today. Since the journal is so delightful, it's not a particularly effortful practice, which makes it a useful meditation for a hard-ass like myself.

Onelast2I love the Internet. I lose hours here, not minding, stumbling upon interesting sites like Michael's that introduce me to even more interesting people, places and things. I also like the mirrors they hold up for me, complete with wonderful life hacks for crazy folk who have a tough time learning our lessons.

BeanycoverYou will be doing Michael a solid if you buy his journal. It is hard enough earning a living sometimes when you are well enough to work; for the ill, it becomes exponentially more difficult. But really, you will be doing yourself a favor as well.

And me. Because I want The Beany to be so successful, the next issue comes out in colo(u)r.

xxx c

All images © 2002-2004 Michael Nobbs

Saying thanks, dammit!

I am unofficially on Day 3 of my first cold of the New Year, and, with the exception of getting the paper yesterday, am going on three days housebound. Honestly, I was so hungover on Saturday from whooping it up on Friday night with a bottle of Burgundy and my boy, Harry, that I've no idea whether I was sick with the actual cold that day, too. But I'm pretty sure my asshole move of Cup of Coffee #2 that afternoon marked the onset, although it might also have been my insistence on catching up with three weeks of email or researching HTML coding websites or working on a design job instead of adding a few much-needed hours to the sleep bank.

Anyway, I'm nothing if not an overachieving Do-Bee, and I'm pretty sure now that sickness is my body's way of making me do the things (e.g. read and catch up on movies and sleep) that normal people (i.e., those who find recreation enjoyable) look forward to. You'd think that the five months I spent ill and/or recuperating from my Crohn's onset would have made me better at this Enforced Relaxationâ„¢ thing, and you'd be right. But I'm guessing the recidivism rate is about as bad for workaholics as it is for other -holics, and good intentions notwithstanding, I tangle with my demons all the time.

Worse, I starting slipping down the woe-is-me slide this time, too. I mean, it is the new year, and we're all supposed to be at the fucking gym and scrubbing our grout with bleach and a toothbrush and all that other crap. And here I am, barely able to distill an Adobe PostScript file because I am so sick and brain-fogged and achy. Loser.

Well, enough. Enough, I say. Get a little perspective, I also say. Every part of me knows this is the road to nowhere. So I let it go for five seconds and damned if the Universe didn't grab my attention immediately by shouting the answer: THANKS.

THANKS ?!? For being sick!? This is an answer?! FUCK YOU, Universe!!!

To which the Universe replied, in the nicest way possible: no, asshole, GIVE thanks. Or maybe it was, "No, asshole, give. Thanks!" because the Universe is nothing if not polite.

So I went to Oxfam and donated $15. It's the minimum donation via credit card, but it's a lot of money for me these days, what with most of my TV spots in payment cycles 3 & 4 and nothing new booked since, oh, June, and a big copywriting job that I was kinda counting on whittled back to 1/3 of the original contract. (Ugh. See how easy it is for me to go down the dark path? Scary.) And I'm going to go back and give (gulp) $15 every time I feel myself dressing up for the pity party.


While I'd be lying if I said I felt like the fabulous, new, 2005 Colleen I long to be, I felt a lot better. I have friends and a home and even a little family left, which is more than a large chunk of the world has right now. And the cold? Well, this, too, shall pass. And probably pretty quickly.

I just hope it leaves the lesson behind.

xxx c

P.S. That tissue box above left is available here. Although I think the real Shakers would be cool if you put the $25 somewhere else. (Lots of old images didn't make the move during my migration from TypePad. Because TypePad, while excellent in many ways, is not great with the moving of images.)

Does luck come in flavors?

It's official, I'm sick. I hung in there for awhile, but I've been exposed to too many germs from too many people in too small a space, and I've succumbed. (Theaters, nursery schools and hospitals are notoriously difficult places to stay healthy. They're dropping like flies at the show these days.)

My dumb luck, right? Getting sick in the middle of the holidays?

Well, maybe. And maybe not.

You see, two years ago, I had what some people would characterize as a really nasty streak of luck. In February of 2002, my father found out he had to go on full-time dialysis. In May, my live-in boyfriend of 3 years and I broke up. And finally, in September, I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease.

For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, Crohn's is a super-chic disease whose symptoms include fever, weight loss and diarrhea. And we're talking high fevers (104ºF +...several!), severe weight loss (I was 90 lbs. when they released me from the hospital), and, well, I won't even detail the horrors of my bowel movements except to say that at my nadir, they were happening 32x/day and necessitated the replacement of 2 pints of blood.

The thing is, when I'm done cataloguing the many delights of my illness, I always follow up by assuring my now-horrified listener that it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Because it was. Not only did I have a bona fide epiphany in the hospital (worth the price of admission, alone, believe me), the sucker actually took. My outlook shifted. I relaxed, for one. I began greeting each day with genuine delight, instead of worry or aggravation. I began to rely less on "The Colleen Show" and got more in touch with my authentic self.

If I hadn't gotten sick, I wouldn't have found the amazing diet that not only sent my Crohn's into remission and improved my overall health, but taught me that I was the best authority on my health, not some doctor. I might have met my new best friend, Jan Pessin, in fact, we already had met prior to my illness. But if I hadn't been sick, she wouldn't have been my advocate in the hospital. We might never have bonded over our illnesses and become good friends. And we certainly wouldn't have written our show.

I don't mean to discount the tragedies great and small that befall us all; I would never use the word "lucky" to describe someone who has suffered a loss of any kind. But since my own so-called misfortune, I much more leery of automatically classifying something as being bad for me, whether it's an election outcome, a relationship that ends painfully or a much needed job that falls through. I enjoy my good times, but it's my difficult ones that have moved me to look at the world differently, to become more compassionate, to educate myself, to change.

I suppose that sometimes a rotten thing that happens to you ends up just being a rotten thing that happens to you. Lord knows I don't have all the answers (I'm still learning to recognize the damned questions.)

But sometimes, just sometimes, what you think is the worst thing that ever happened to you can turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you.

If you're lucky, that is.

xxx c