Saturday, March 10, 2012

When you feel imprisoned

graveyard in Kinsale, Ireland

The Prisoner

My hand has one gesture left:
to push things away.
From the rock dampness drips
on old stones.

This dripping is all I can hear.
My heart keeps pace
with the drops falling
and sinks away with them.

If the drops fall faster
an animal might come to drink.
Somewhere it is brighter than this—
but what do we know.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Part II of "The Prisoner" is here
translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

For some time now the word I focus on in meditation is free. I don't meditate daily; maybe a couple times a week. I close my eyes for a few minutes, focus on my breath, and while I exhale, I hear, see and feel the word free. Sometimes I'm up in the sky, with birds, coasting on air currents. Sometimes free appears as a prayer for someone. But it had not occurred to me until now that it was an unconscious "choice," this meditation word, in a time when I am bumping up against the stone walls of physical limitations for the first time in my life.

I've been slowed by hand-wrist-arm-shoulder-neck pain since December. These are repetitive strain injuries, the result of twenty years at a computer at work. I am getting manipulations by an osteopath, and learning the Alexander technique, in hopes of relieving it. Dictation software has been a mixed blessing; often I get more tension using it than not when I have to repeat a sentence many times. Last month I was also diagnosed with hypothyroidism, which accounts for some of my fatigue, and soon I'll go on the lowest dosage of medication for it, taking a prescription drug long term for the first time. I'm 55. (The natural remedies for hypothyroidism include avoiding cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach—because they block the thyroid hormone. I would rather not give these up, so I'm hoping the low dose of levothyroxine is enough to restore my metabolism and does not result in the dizzy or "drunk" feeling some people encounter. My bad cholesterol has shot up from 193 to 243, which is another reason it seems important to go on this med.)

Learning the Alexander technique from my teacher Elinore is about unlearning bad habits of hunching my shoulders, holding tension, rushing into space, pulling my head back onto my spine, affecting every movement of my body in painful ways. (This 10 minute video explains quite well how the Alexander technique helps pupils regain balance and lightness.) For years I've thrust forward into the next thing, as if life was an emergency.

More than the pain, what bothers me most is having to slow down. "Somewhere it is brighter than this," says the prisoner in Rilke's poem. Truly, somewhere it is much darker than this where I am. But this has taken some adjustment. I am no longer quick, and youthful. Suddenly I act like an old woman, not the plan I had when I became a grandma in January.

We just finished watching "Little Dorrit" the BBC series on Netflix DVDs. It's the Dickens story of a young woman who lives in a debtors' prison in London with her father. She was born there and knows nothing different. She even loves her life caring for her father and prefers it to the new life of wealth that comes to them suddenly. Her father Mr. Dorrit suffers daily from his imprisonment and degradation, however, believing he is worthy of something far better. But once he arrives at the something far better, he finds no peace there either.

I take inspiration from Little Amy Dorrit. Inside the stone walls of Marshallsea Prison for Debt she angelically loves and cares for her father in spite of his irksome resistance and condescension. Like Dickens' characters often are, she is probably a caricature of what a human can really be, in this case softer and more philanthropically positive than seems possible in her situation. But even she could not adjust to the seismic changes that came with enormous wealth. We humans are creatures of habit, even when our habits keep us confined.

"We need to stop trying so hard and allow our lives to unfold naturally," says Richard Brennan in my Alexander book. For some years now I've been doing spiritual work to learn to love what is and what comes, which is helping me with this physical learning.  To not "push it away" as the prisoner in Rilke's poem, now that's the real work.

For another take on changing habits, see a new post at sparks & mirrors, "To deliver oneself up to silence."


Elizabeth said...

This is such a thoughtful post--well, yours always are --but this one resonated.
So sorry about your medical problems. Yes, yes, to the Alexander Technique. Now I must rush off to get hold of Little Dorrit ---I think I have an old copy of my grandfather's on the shelf, untouched for several centuries.
Do hope you get some relief.
Sending a kiss to little James.

George said...

Richard Brennan's advice incorporates a great deal of ancient wisdom. While I continue to work on these issues myself, I have found that "trying so hard" is usually an exercise in painful resistance to the reality of my life. When I allow things to unfold naturally, accepting everything with gratitude, I find both peace and the courage to continue walking forward.

So much depends on trust. In the deepest recesses of my heart, I believe that life is unfolding as it should, even in those moments that defy comprehension.

At sixty-nine, I am acutely aware of how things once taken for granted are slipping away. Change has always been a constant, but it now seems more palpable, more noticeable. By the same token, every change brings something new, a slightly different world, a slightly different me. Things unfold constantly and hopefully for the best.

Shari Sunday said...

I'm so sorry to hear what you are going through. For me it was one knee and then the other that suddenly started hurting and locking up 10 whole years ago. Keep up the good fight. Getting older is a mixed blessing and curse.

erin said...

i think george puts it well, " I have found that trying so hard is usually an exercise in painful resistance to the reality of my life. When I allow things to unfold naturally, accepting everything with gratitude, I find both peace and the courage to continue walking forward." there is something at the pivot between work and allowance. the work, which is friction, must give way somehow to acceptance, the point at which friction dissolves. i laugh at myself to see me shifting my weight over this point often, trying to find the sweet spot. ironically, it is our work only to be.

what frustrates you, this imposition of slowing down, is the very thing that might free you. isn't this funny? so it is for all of us, those things which cause us to change and be thoughtful, mindful. and so i am not sorry for your pain (but of course, in a way i am, because i care for you) but i am sorry that you have not found directly that sweet spot yet. but no, ruth, i am not even sorry for that. look at you))) just look at you)))) you are on your very important mindful journey. look at how mindful you become writing a sentence, touching James' sweet head!

i have been sick for two weeks. yesterday i went to the forest for the first time since. everything seemed so blessed new. i was overcome. i said to my body, thank you for being sick,for look at what i can perceive now! look at my gratitude! this i must remember and carry.



Anonymous said...

In some ways, I think Rilke made a vatic career of making more with less. Getting to the heart of the art meant shedding extraneous gestures -- to the world, the beloved, even clutching at life. From the Elegies, the Sonnets; from "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?" to "learn to forget that passionate singing. It will end." The big night music becomes the carefully-inscribed breviary. Limitation comes with the turf, and the physical ebbings of age are somehow essential to the ongoing flowering of the work. On those crosses we learn to flourish, but no one would wish them on anyone else. My eyes grow dim, fingers lose their touch, neck and shoulder pain crimps; yet like Orpheus being slowly ripped apart by the maenads, something keeps singing, perhaps even better. I'm so sorry that the road becomes such a pain for you, but for some reason I believe it's meant. That there are rooms we can't get to without ones doors these we're forced to go through. Spiritual -- and poetic -- growth somehow depends on pain, be it emotional or physical or political. Not much of a pep talk but writings like for me somehow this deepens the fine tenor of the poems you've posted recently. - Brendan

Kathleen said...

Connecting in so many ways to this post! Thank you for your meditations and connections and reminders, and I wish you freedom in heart and mind and free range of motion and all kinds of "free." There's an Alexander teacher in my little town....

Ruth said...

Elizabeth, thank you. . . . for your wishes, for the kiss to James. I have not read "Little Dorrit" and I hope you'll enjoy it. I read Dickens' Christmas tales in December and so loved them.

George, I appreciate your reflections very much, always. Thank you for using that word trust, which really is key! Believing that the universe wants to shower us with blessings, not curses, is at the bottom of it. I believe the former, and so even when there is pain, sadness, sorrow, depression, even violence and war, I find that beauty and joy are possible. This brings peace.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Shari. I'm sorry to hear about your knee, but I know that you keep active and finding beauty in your world. Who said that they would love to have their 18-year-old body back, but not the life of that age?

erin, thank you for your encouragement. You know, just being there you encourage me! I think this is important, that when we are just being—our true selves—it affects one another. And yes, work and being, a constant and fluid life of these. Always the seemingly opposing force must come, and from this the spark of life. xoxo

Ruth said...

Brendan, I so appreciate your insights into Rilke, always. And your pep talk is great. O these crucibles burn away the chaff, and our essence begins to shine, or tarnish! Thank you for your encouragement, which means so much. I have always believed that obstacles can make our expressions more meaningful; life puts it to the test.

Kathleen, thank you, I'm quite glad these things connect with you this morning. I hesitated to post it, but then I thought, surely others must encounter these things and would relate.

hedgewitch said...

Thanks for sharing both the Rilke your story, Ruth--I think that's an important part of letting go of the things that hold us back; also, I've been amazed at how much others need to hear when we struggle and when we succeed, or even when we question whether there is such a thing as success. Growing old is very hard in our culture that places youth and the pure physical self on such a pedestal, worshiping transience as if it were eternity, but the hardest part really isn't the social aspect, or even the mortality of pain, but the deterioration of the feeling of who we are that we've put in our young personas, as you say, always like children rushing to the next new thing. We suddenly are less and less *able* to rush--but it is, as Brendan says above, a pain and a shock that is often more a blessing, more an adjustment to what really is the prison and what isn't. Anyway, thanks for sharing here, and I hope the physical issues soon do become more manageable for you.

hedgewitch said...

that should *and* your story...sorry.

Gwen Buchanan said...

I wish we could move through all the times of our lives without aches and pains of any kind.. but we do become stronger with each one.. I wish your therapy to make you feel better.

rosaria said...

I've been there, the frozen body with pain, the taking of pills that might deliver some help. It's time to simplify and rearrange your priorities. Only this much trauma will get your attention!

Your body is yelling at you.
Take good care of it.
Spare no expenses.

Everything else can wait, or be relegated to the dust bin.

Maureen said...

Beautifully written post, Ruth. I'm interested in learning more about the Alexander technique. Thank you for what you've shared here.

The unintended consequence of our use of machines is the toll they take on our bodies. Those of us who are writers and editors who moved from pen and paper to computer know the ills all too well.

Wishing you relief from the pain.

Rubye Jack said...

With your first use of the word meditation here, I found myself sitting up straight and tall and breathing. Ah, the power of suggestion.

Yeah, I relate to what you say here but within the last year I've become more accustomed to the growing older thing and find myself pretty much accepting it. I think it just takes time for the idea to sink in.

Ruth said...

Hedge, thanks for your great comment and encouragement. I couldn't agree more with everything you said. I thought that I was different, embracing aging as my mother did. But that was in my head, and when it hit my body, I was less enthused. There really is something in suffering that provides learning ground for detachment, and I'm working at letting this teach me.

Gwen, it's great to see you, and thank you for your wishes and consolation. When I think of the physical realities (large and small) of what you and John do up there on your Bay it blows my mind.

Ruth said...

rosaria, you're a doll, thank you for your admonitions! Truth is I had pretty much let go and changed priorities and all of it in these last years. It was one day in December when I worked all day in a bad position with the computer mouse that really messed me up. But I am going after this body and soul (and $$), and your support and advice spurs me on.

Maureen, thank you. I hope you will find an Alexander teacher near you if you. I wish all of us learned it as we grow up so that we don't have to unlearn bad habits later. As children our bodies naturally move correctly.

Ruth said...

Rubye Jack, just thinking can change how we hold ourselves, you demonstrated it! That is one of the Alexander points, actually. :-)

I'm encouraged to hear you say that you have adjusted to aging! I guess it begins with mindfulness, eh what?

Margaret Almon said...

Ruth, I feel such resonance and am sorry you too are experiencing pain. My back seized up in November and being in my art studio made it worse, and my mind rushed ahead with "what if I can't create?" and quickly devolved into "I'm a bad person." I had bought a book by Brennan many years ago, and never read it, and fortuitously I remembered I had it, and went on to find an Alexander teacher just half an hour from my house, who is also an artist. Practicing letting things happen in my body rather than "doing" them is a challenge, but also hopeful to know that my body ultimately feels at ease when I listen to my teacher's hands and my sensations.

Ruth said...

Margaret! Thank God you had somewhere to turn. My Alexander teacher is a violist in the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, and she came to Alexander as a pupil when she had crippling tendonitis from the tension of holding her instrument badly. This teaching is remarkable, and just as you say, convincing myself that I don't need to "do" but just move at ease, following my head. I can feel my body getting it! Best wishes on your journey. And thank you.

ellen abbott said...

oh yes, the 50s is when our bodies start to break down. I too take levothyroxine. I resisted for many years being just outside the high end of normal. Then it shot way outside the high end of normal so I relented. Never had any symptoms though and taking the med never made me feel any different except if I don't take it, my thyroid swells and I feel like I have a lump in my throat all the time. Also the 50s is when my cholesterol also shot up and I was diagnosed with osteoporosis. Dang. I do take a cholesterol med but rely on supplements and exercise for the osteoporosis. We do slow down. I used to charge everywhere, barely below a run. Now I just walk though I still am a brisk walker. Now I'm beginning my 60s and I sincerely hope that my body holds firm. I really don't want to have to take any more meds.

I did not know that about the cruciferous vegetables though which I need to eat for the calcium.

Barb said...

Hello Ruth, I've found in my own life that sometimes what I least want is what I most need. I have always been healthy and active and then suddenly wasn't. Now, I've regained some ground, but I know intimately that place of weakness. Fear sometimes holds us (me) hostage - fear of loss, fear of pain, and ultimately fear of death. Life seems to be about constant adjustments - and acceptances. I've found when one door closes, I sometimes see a crack of light someplace else, and I follow it to a different place that is just as satisfying for me.

Marcie said...

It's so hard to embrace our physical limitations as we age...even if they're relatively benign compared to so many others. For me - the practice of yoga is what helps. The combination of meditation and mindful movement. I like that you're meditating on free. It does seem like the perfect word to carry your spirits!

freefalling said...

There's our invisible thread again!
Going to the big smoke this week to see the thyroid doctor.
"We need to stop trying so hard and allow our lives to unfold naturally".
Yeah, we do.
Feel better, Rootie.

Ginnie said...

You know I wish I could carry all of this for you, Sister, though it's not the way it happens. (sigh) Thank you for sharing the Journey this is for you. It helps me to know how to hold you.

Peter Olson said...

As you may have understood, I’m – unfortunately – not (yet) someone who has learnt to appreciate poetry to what probably should be its real value! I’m now, very late, in a learning process, to a large extent thanks to you! This Rilke poem is really a pearl and so well chosen!

Yes, to get older is definitely also a learning process… and of course you hate and somehow refuse to realize that some functionalities may not be what they were! I have now a very little pain which I thought to be a “tennis elbow” (although I haven’t played tennis the last 20 years), but probably may be something else. I made a few x-rays and ultrasounds… and will see a specialist this afternoon. Well, maybe I will get some similar recommendation similar to what you now experience? … and we could share how things progress? :-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your sharing in this post. My best wishes to you as you seek to renew your body, mind and soul. It's ironic that we have to unlearn years of bad habits and relearn how to live with our body, our self.

I love those BBC adaptations of lit. Have seen Bleak House and turned to the 1,000-page book right after watching it. But Little Dorrit I missed and thanks for your succinct write-up here. BTW, have you followed PBS Masterpiece's Downton Abbey? It's one of, if not the best, TV miniseries I've ever seen. Bought the blu-rays for both Seasons recently and have rewatched them many times already. ;)


Ruth said...

Ellen, well I'm glad for you that the meds keep things under control. We are fortunate to have them, and I must remind myself of this. I have seen doctors overprescribe (my mother), and perhaps I am overly cautious. But still. I am glad to hear that you don't have side effects from the levothryoxine. Fingers crossed for me.

Barb, I know that you know the dark side of ill health all too well. You in your active life and your bright mountain spirit, are complete inspiration to me.

Ruth said...

Marcie, yoga has not caught on for me, but I often think it should. I do Pilates, very meditatively, and it is doing me good.

Letty, and where is the Big Smoke . . . Sydney? Melbourne? Hope your thyroid kicks in, with or without drugs, my synchronous friend.

Ruth said...

Boots, you do carry it for me, by holding me as you do. xoxo

Peter, it is nice to meet you with Rilke once again in this petite café. But I am sorry to hear of your pain. Let us see what comes. I hear that many have been helped with ultrasound, and yes, we should share our progress.

Ruth said...

Arti, thank you for your good and kind wishes, very much.

Oh yes, we have been watching 'Downton Abbey' and love it. How can we wait for the next season? I agree that I haven't watched any better miniseries (though we were quite attached to 'Brideshead Revisited' back in the day).