Fibromyalgia

Now we arrive at a place of loss. I have always been tightly wound, anxious; and sleep has been a struggle since I can’t remember when. I am also a master procrastinator. In high school I recollect nights at my desk, trying to finish hateful tasks (math homework, research papers) that were due the following day. In college I pulled all-nighters, and in grad school I found myself owing papers that had been due in classes a year or two earlier. I don’t know what combination of fantasy and denial prompted me to pursue an academic career, but that’s what I did, and so I made a lifetime of late nights, conference papers finished in airplanes, and hair-pulling over deadlines. Now in retirement I let dishes pile up and necessary paperwork fill my desk.

Not much is known about the cause of fibromyalgia, but it seems to be connected with inadequate, troubled sleep. As a young adult I took on the identity of an insomniac and wallowed in it, envying people for whom sleep was uncomplicated. I was the Princess and the Pea, the kind of person whose sleep could be disrupted by anything at all. In October, 2004 I received the fibromyalgia diagnosis. My first response was anger at myself for having brought on such a condition; next I cried, briefly; and finally I felt relief. Here was the answer, then, the permission I needed from an outside source to take things easy. No more overwork, no more late nights.

Only it wasn’t that simple. I had my diagnosis, but I was still able to function in my job, in spite of the severe headaches that had driven me to the doctor in the first place. I could cheerfully ditch some of the projects and committee work I had taken on, but what followed over the next few years was a cycle that would repeat over and over: a period of pain and fatigue, which would prompt a shedding of responsibilities, followed by a period of relative ease during which I would gradually take on more work, leading to another crisis that would force me to back off again. From what I gather, this is a common pattern for people like me.

I wasn’t happy, but I was buoyed by false hopes that at some point I would find that precious work-life balance everyone keeps running on about. It never happened. What happened instead was an intensification of my symptoms that eventually drove me into an early retirement. There is no way of knowing the precise cause, but I have a story that works as well as any, that my body reacted to the trauma of a full hip replacement, which occurred at the precise moment my mother descended into dementia. All are stories for another time.

Dreams of my Mother

I dreamed about her last night, my mother. It was a pleasant, warm, sunny day, and I was going to someone’s funeral, at a nice venue. There were a lot of women there, well-dressed, older. We entered a pretty room where tables were set up for lunch. My mother was with me, saying, “I’d like you to arrange my funeral here, Jane.” “But mother,” I replied, “I already had two funerals for you, a funeral and a committal service,” and thought, no, I can’t go through all that again. And it occurred to me that people don’t typically attend their own funeral services in the flesh.

Now we are sitting at a round table, more or less across from each other, with other women we might have known. I look at her closely, studying her face, her hair, her smile. I know every inch of her face, down to the small beauty spot on her nose. How wonderful that we can be together again! Yes, I think, dreaming is a way I can still be with her, even though she’s gone. I leave my seat and walk over to her, burying my face in her hair, breathing in her scent. My lips brush the soft, papery skin of her cheek, all just as I’d remembered.

On the morning of her death day a hospice worker arrived to give her a sponge bath in her bed. I saw the curve of her thigh, so beautiful, and said, “She did a lot of dancing on those legs.” Later, just before she was prepared to be wheeled out of the room by the funeral director, I uncovered her foot for one last look. Her feet were narrow, and the second toe was longer than her big toe, making it hard for her to find shoes that would fit. I touched the toe and smiled.

Conversions

I used to be Christian, and now consider myself Buddhist. Both terms are umbrellas for a dizzying array of people, traditions, practices, texts, and beliefs. I began my Christian life in a Congregational church, where I went to Sunday school, sang in choirs, and sat through services as a child and later as an adult. I rebelled as an adolescent and did these things under protest for awhile, then stopped doing them in college, and then resumed several years after graduating.

My first conversion occurred in my 30s, to Episcopalianism. My exposure to that denomination began with my husband’s job as a church musician, but the roots of my eventual move to a liturgical church lay in my love for all things medieval. In graduate school I took a course on monasticism and began to identify more and more with a life of prayer, both privately and in community. I suppose I could have gone all the way and become a Roman Catholic, but I was unwilling to alienate my poor mother, who had grown up as the only Protestant in a Catholic neighborhood in the 1920s and 30s and regarded Catholicism with suspicion. I myself was happier with the “middle way” promised by the Episcopal church.

Over the next decades I had an on-again off-again relationship with church. Sometimes I was gung-ho, other times I pulled back. I had trouble reconciling myself with doctrine, although as a teacher of medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history I came to know a lot about it. The bulk of my teaching career was at a Lutheran college, where Christian faith was important in the lives of many of the students. I enjoyed the give-and-take of discussions with them, and felt a comfortable congruence between my own affinities and my workplace.

Eventually, however, I turned to Buddhism. It was a gradual change, beginning with exposure to the general idea of Buddhism as represented by its most famous teachers, such as Thic Nhat Hahn. There was a Buddhist meditation center in my town, but it took me awhile to get up the nerve to pay them a visit. I’m not sure why it seemed so daunting at first. Perhaps I saw people who became Buddhists as exotic, or as having a level of awareness and commitment beyond the ordinary. After all, being a Christian in the U.S. is almost a sort of default, whereas becoming a Buddhist requires the effort of swimming against the tide. Such were my barely-formed thoughts at the time.

The form of Buddhism I profess is Theravadan Buddhism, as interpreted through the insight meditation tradition taught in the West. Soon enough, I realized that this phenomenon like everything else is a reflection of its time and place. Much of the population in sanghas and retreat centers across the West falls into the white middle class, although western Buddhist leaders are making efforts to bring in people of color or of modest economic backgrounds. To carry my self-labeling further, I practice Burmese insight as handed down by Mahasi Sayadaw. Don’t worry if none of this makes sense; there will be plenty of opportunity for elaboration.

How the Light Gets In

 

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

–Leonard Cohen

It’s a truism that the very things we would wish away—our flaws, our misfortunes, our tragedies, even—are the very means of our growth, or (dare I say it) our enlightenment. It makes perfect sense that light gets in through the cracks, yet a bald statement of fact means little. How a truism becomes reality is through lived experience. This blog is an assortment of some of mine.

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