Weekend Diversions 1.31.16

I failed. I did not post yesterday, which means I have broken my streak and my pledge. My excuse: I was at work all day and did not make time before, during or after to write. I am mostly okay with this lapse, however, because I missed the act of writing and that is proof writing is becoming a habit, my ultimate goal. Tuesday will mark one month since I decided to write for four continuous weeks. Once I reach that benchmark, my posting will probably drop down to once or twice per week, which is much more manageable than my current daily schedule. I hope this will give me the opportunity to write more in depth pieces. 

Now for the weekly readings, all health-related. 

  1. Eating Right Can Save the World: Tim Zimmerman wrote this insightful article for Outside Magazine about the impact our food choices have on the environment. He interviewed environmentalists, chefs, farmers and scientists to uncover research about what we eat. The article discusses the amount of carbon created by beef, pork, chicken, fish and vegetables production; the amount of resources (especially water) needed to create adequate nutrition from each source; and the most sustainable ways to feed the planet. Although a vegan himself, Zimmerman does not shy away from the transportation costs associated with shipping produce long distances. He also delves into the debate about organic versus non-organic. He collects solid data on myriad food production systems and allows readers to decide which environmental costs they are willing to incur. 
  2. Bad thoughts can’t make you sick, that’s just magical thinking: The premise of researcher Angela Kennedy’s argument is that anxiety cannot really create health problems and should not blamed for otherwise inexplicable illnesses. Instead of associating diseases with mental states (worried people are more likely to receive a diagnosis of cancer; overachievers are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease), Kennedy believes we should focus on scientific, quantitative causes. I understand not wanting to dismiss illness as merely an anxiety problem or personality glitch (thereby overlooking a potentially serious health issue) but she does not give credence to the real effect anxiety can have on the body. Stress can create a slew of negative health symptoms and increased cortisol levels are linked to increased risk of disease. Furthermore, high levels of stress can impact lifestyle habits and create unhealthy bodies that are more susceptible to disease. I do not believe it is possible to dismiss the connection between psychic and physical health.
  3. How Meditation, Placebos and Virtual Reality Help Power ‘Mind Over Body’On the topic of mind-body connection, this article from NPR. It is based on a recent interview between Fresh Air host Terri Gross and science writer Jo Marchant whose recent book, Cure, examines how our expectations and associations can influence the way our bodies interpret pain, stress and illness. Marchant found that placebo pills can cause our brains to release the same hormones stimulated by chemically engineered pills. If a Parkinson’s patient is given a placebo pill, for example, instead of their regular medicine designed to increase dopamine production, their brains will still create this hormone. The key might be in the feelings of safety and being taken care of engendered by the placebo pill, in conjunction with the patients’ expectations for a positive outcome. This research could have a profound impact on the way doctors approach care, resulting in more holistic methods of treating illness. 

Now tell me, what interesting stories have caught your eye this week? 

Reflections and intentions

It is nearing the end of the month, which means time for reflection on the last four weeks and intention-setting for the upcoming ones.

This month was hard. I started January feeling strong, increasing my distance in running and entertaining the idea of signing up for a mid-winter half-marathon. I even bought a pair of pricey cleats to keep me from falling over on the ice-filled sidewalks. I was ready for winter, and ready for more running.

And then I happened to mention one day to my boyfriend that my back hurt. And that the pain happened to be a bit severe at times, and located near a previous stress fracture. My boyfriend is practical, more attached to the idea of my health than to increasing the length of my weekly long runs. And so he suggested I stop running until the pain went away.

I am not always practical. I am stubborn. And so I took three days off from running. Days in which I biked for an hour on a bike with a frame too big for my torso. Days in which I went to work as a waitress and carried heavy trays of food. Days in which I did nothing that resembling rest, except perhaps a little bit of foam rolling in the evenings (when my back was coiled in tension). And then I decided I was healed.

Three days is an awful long time without a run, therefore, my reasoning went, it must be okay to run again. Surely my body had ample time to make the necessary repairs (painful feedback from my nerves notwithstanding). So I ran on Saturday. And on Sunday. And again on Tuesday. (Monday, big surprise, my back felt tender, and so I practiced yoga.) By the end of Tuesday night, I could not stand up straight. The muscles in my back were spasming in a futile attempt to protect my bones. I decided to listen to my boyfriend.

Three weeks later and the pain has subsided for the most part, as long as I don’t bend too much, carry anything too heavy, or stand too long on my feet. In lieu of running, I have rested, practiced yoga, and biked on my indoor trainer (using a properly proportioned frame). I have also started to write daily.

I am so grateful that I chose writing over moping. Introspection over pity. I have uncovered a lot of truths about myself during this month. Perhaps the greatest of which is that the world will not end if I do not run every day, or even most days. I am still productive. I am still creative. I can still think and plan and hold a conversation. Without running, I am still me. I feel this truth in my core; this deep understanding of who I am is a revelation.

Below is an excerpt from a reflection exercise created by Nicole Antionette. (I highly recommend signing up for her weekly emails.) My response to the prompt is my attempt to separate running from my identity, without losing my passion for the sport.

***

The lesson I learned and am carrying forward with me from January is:

I want to learn how to be a runner, lowercase “r”. To me, this means patience, mindfulness, listening to my body. It means only running as far or as hard as I want on any particular day. It means running when I find joy in the act, and staying home when I know that it will be nothing but a grind. There are some days when running does not seem like the pleasant choice: when it is too hot, too humid, too cold; when I am too tired, too restless, too afraid of being out in the world alone with my own thoughts. There are times when running just doesn’t seem fun from the vantage point of my bed. But in those times I know from experience, that all the negative emotions can fall away within the first mile or two. That I can find my flow, enjoy the connection to my body. Sometime it doesn’t work, and the good feelings do not come until I am done, and can revel in a sense of sweaty accomplishment -the joy of pushing my boundaries. But I also know that I have completed enough runs, both good and bad, to tell the difference between the days when the run will be a horrid slog ending in a tired and horrid day, and when the run will be an uplifting and affirming experience. If I were to sit with the decision to run before heading out the door each morning, I could predict (with high accuracy) the run’s outcome. I won’t be cleared to run again until the end of February. When I do resume, I would like to carry with me a spirit of intention before every run, so that it becomes a sport of joy and not one of injury. Until then, I would like to enter each morning with intention, exercising as my body needs, and not necessarily as my mind (which is always eager to go longer, harder, faster) would like.

My intention for February is: to be patient with myself, both in terms of my healing process and my writing practice.

***

Although I cannot predict how February will unfold, I can be mindful of my intentions and work, every day, on becoming a kinder person to myself.

 

I don’t know why senseless violence continues to infuriate me, but it does. 

Five homeless people were shot Wednesday night in Seattle. 

The good news is that homelessness in Seattle will not be criminalized. Nor will mental illness.

The good news is that the crime was because of low-level drug dealings. Police suspect. The good news is that they were probably not targeted because they were homeless but because they dealt and/or took drugs, which could be the primary or secondary problem, depending on your perspective. Were they homeless because they were involved with drugs or were they involved with drugs because they were homeless and felt, therefore, hopeless. 

I do not know. 

What I do know is the bed news. The bad news is that two people were murdered with multiple gunshot wounds and three more are in critical condition. The bad news is that a campful of individuals are now traumatized. They cannot hide from the world in their homes; they have no homes. They cannot find safety. They may never find safety. 

Encampments are not ideal places to live. They are usually cramped, ill-maintained, unsanitary. They are not places of choice. But they are better than nothing. They usually allow for a sense of community. They provide a shard of stability in lives otherwise in a constant state of upheaval. 

Now even that bit of stability has been shattered for those who live in this Seattle encampment. The police chief stated there will be no increase in enforcement. The means the residents will not even have thoughts of increased safety to help them fall asleep at night.

Don’t blame the poor for the actions of the powerful

The later I wait in the day, the harder it becomes to write. Still, here I am, determined to put some thoughts (however few) into words. I’m giving myself ten minutes, and then I’m done.

I just finished reading an article that seems to blame the lead poisoning in Flint on the city’s residents. Had they not elected officials who then made bad decisions that put the municipality into receivership and necessitated an emergency city manager, no one would have lead poisoning.

Another fault of the people: being too poor to bolster their economy, upkeep their infrastructure, or afford the high prices charged by Detroit for clean water.

That no political official, no administrator at the EPA, no doctor noticed or cared that the city was filled with increasingly ill people is also the fault of the residents: they should have engineered their community to reverse entrenched social policy and corruption. Really, what is happening in Flint is a case of an inept populace. That the people in power did nothing to help prevent a public health crisis is immaterial.

I agree with the article’s stance that blame should not fall solely on the shoulders of Governor Snyder who inherited the systemic mismanagement resulting in the water crisis. But I do not think Flint residents, 40 percent of whom live in poverty, should be held accountable for the decisions of politicians.

And now that I have finished my political rant, I think I will go to bed.

 

 

Running is a state of mind 

Today during my therapy session I did a visualization exercise. I closed my eyes and went on a joyful run, one in which everything clicked: fast feet, fluid body, restful mind.

I went first to Lake Waban at Wellesley College, around which I have probably run hundreds of miles, many of them strong. I felt the packed dirt path, and my feet moving quickly around roots and stones. My legs pounded in my mind’s eye. My core tightened, my heartbeat quickened. I felt the rhythm of the run.

I went next to a few of the marathons I’ve run, leaving out the painful miles and focusing my attention on the snatches of flow at Hartford, Boston, Chicago. I came into my body and felt the power coursing through my muscles. My pelvis began to contract, and my calves tightened and released as my mind convinced my body I was running.

At last I focused on Chicago lakefront, where I first felt like I truly belonged. Seeing the downtown buildings from Hollywood Beach two miles north brought a smile to my face. Chicago, my discovered home. As I observed the city, I felt myself running down the path, my body tightening with the forward motion, power emanated from my core. Energy pulsed through my limbs. I was running. I was flying. I was me. I was joy.

My therapist brought me back, then, to her office, calling my attention to my feet, my legs, my back against her couch, my neck, my eyes, my face. I was not running. I was not at Wellesley, nor in the midst of a marathon, nor in solitude on the lakefront. I was here, in a small room with a small window, firmly seated. And I was filled with a persistent sense of joy.

The pitfalls of not preparing 

Tonight I wish I had a post already written, something lined up in my queue, edited and ready to go. But I don’t. I am not that organized. 

I once interned in the communications department at a policy nonprofit, Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) and was in awe to find they had planned out the blog’s topics more than a month in advance. My own writing had always been spontaneous, based on the inspiration of the moment. I would sit down at my computer in a mild panic, poring over architectural news (this was when I still wanted to be a critic) until something caught my eye or I became exasperated and picked a random story as the subject of my rage or praise. 

Writing this way is stressful. It leaves little to no time for revision. It can lead to grandiose assertions and tepid metaphors. It makes for very bad writing. 

After years of not preparing for blogs, I have yet to change my habits. There is no calendar in my office outlining weeks or even days of ideas. I do keep working lists of interesting topics, but I often misplace the lists beneath piles of other important papers or buried on an obscure page of my many notebooks. I find these lists sometimes and smile and murmur appreciatively at my past ideas. I promise myself to write a new, more current list, and sometimes I do, but the endeavor is always abandoned. 

I tell myself writing is more topical this way, more lively, more me. I tell myself it is easier, which is true in a sense because I don’t have to waste any time on planning. I am a wonderful procrastinator. But then I sit down, on a night like tonight, and can think of nothing about which to write except my own writerly shortcomings and my mind returns wistfully to that large calendar in the office at CNT. With a tool like that I might have the time and space to write about compelling topics such as the shrinking middle class in America or the psychological factors driving persistent overuse injuries in runners. Instead, my creativite energy has been spent lamenting my lack of foresight and so I will sign off, hoping for greater success tomorrow.

This is what happens when I don’t exercise 

I decided to take the day off from exercising today, the first complete day of rest in months (perhaps over a year). No running, for obvious reasons, but also no biking, no walking, no swimming, no yoga, no foam rolling. Nothing. A day of true rest for my body. 

It was agony. I felt restless. Irritable. Senselessly enraged. I felt like a teenager.  My teenaged mind was a terrifying place. I thought I was losing my mind.

I tried to work (sit down, stand up, sit down, stand up, pace the hallway, squat, stand, sit -an hour of constantly shifting posture) but eventually gave up in despair. I researched exercise withdrawal. It is a real phenomenon. I fell down an awful hole of Wikipedia and obscure medical studies. I told my boyfriend I was losing touch with reality, to which he (ever wise) smiled and said, “no, it just feels like you are,” and continued to eat his lunch. 

Inconsolable, I grabbed my journal, perched next to the cat on the bed, and scribbled my panic into words. 

A small, responsible sounding voice in my head suggested lunch might be a good idea. As a rule, I don’t like to listen to the responsible voices when I am feeling irrational and I was positive I was not hungry, but I am trying to become a more even-tempered person and so prepared myself a salad. 

Ten minutes later, I ravaged my way through a bowl of lentils, edamame, cauliflower, parsnips, carrots, bok choi and avocado. My mind slowed. Control returned. I felt, quite unexpectedly, normal. 

The top of my self-care chart now reads, in all caps and with underlines, WHEN FEELING CRAZY, EAT (even if you haven’t exercised today)