Carpe Poopem

Face Close-up

My old dog is getting older. He turned 15 in early December, and just before then I thought we had reached the end. He was struggling to get up off his bed and walk to the door. His hind end didn’t hold him up reliably. He sometimes fell backwards and couldn’t get up without help. Getting old is not for sissies. I gave him some more rugs near his bed for traction. We tweaked his meds, added new pain killers, upped his dosage.

He did really well for almost two months, but then he had another bad spell. He either fell or had a seizure, and for about 24 hours every time he moved more than ten feet he wheezed and coughed as if he were choking. But after a day, with no changes in meds, he was fine. The turn-around came on a spring-like early February day when instead of holding himself still so as not to fall over or cause any more pain, he dropped to the grass for a good roll. It’s been another month since then, and he’s been going through another bad spell. It’s apparent that they are coming more frequently, and lasting longer. So far, he keeps getting better, but each “better” is not quite as good as the last one.

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This is not my first rodeo. I am a rodeo pro, at this point, with dying loved ones of both the animal and human variety. I have nearly lost count of the rodeos. I know that at a certain point with any aging animal I begin to feel like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride: “Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

With the old dog, I keep watching him, wondering if tomorrow will be the day. I am fairly confident it will not.  For most of the last two months he’s been remarkably perky for a 111 year old guy. Barking at the roofers. Bossing the puppy. He still sometimes gets excited when he sees I am going to throw the tennis ball, and he bounces in front of me – “Throw it! Throw it!” – and then I throw it and he watches it go and looks back at me – “Hey, there goes your ball.”

When my father was in his last few years we had similar ups and downs. He fell down the stairs. He fell up the stairs. He wound up in the hospital (oddly, not from falling), completely disoriented and not fully aware of who or where he was, and then he came home to celebrate his 85th birthday with good cheer. He went into hospice, and then he came home yet again, and went to the Adams Morgan Day festival and got up out of his wheelchair and danced. My aunt – my mother’s sister – said “He’s like Whack-A-Mole, isn’t he?” and we laughed and laughed. Because he was.

For every pet I have had to let go, I have wondered if the time was right, was there something else I could have done, did I notice too late, what if, what if, what if? There’s an article kicking around social media recently written by a young vet about giving animals a good death. The crux of it is that waiting too long is much worse that taking action too early. I know that when I state my feelings about this I risk being accused of anthropomorphism, and to that I say two things: one, there are worse things to be accused of (and I’m not sure who ever decided that only humans are capable of certain feelings), and two, I think it’s less me viewing my dog (or horse, or cat) as human as it is me scrutinizing my own humanity.

If we let an animal keep living into old age, where by definition infirmities start to creep in, who is that worse for, them or us? If we euthanize them early enough to avoid or limit their pain, whose pain are we really eliminating? Who are we making it easier for? I wake up every morning (and often multiple times a night) wondering if this is the day I will have to make the decision. Will I sleep better when this dog has died? Yes, I will, because I will not have that decision hanging over my head any longer, and I won’t have to worry about him any more. Is that a reason to make the decision now? Not for me, not today. But maybe one day it will be.

Sweet

I have said before that this old dog reminds me so much of my old father. As they both aged, their tendency to put their heads down and plow forward, keeping up the momentum so they don’t fall down, increased. The old dog has had as many ups and downs and “This is it, the time has come” moments followed by inexplicable improvements as the old man had. Was it easier for me when I got to stop wondering every day if today would be the day my father died? You bet it was. Would I have wanted that to happen sooner because it was easier on me? No. Actually not. A friend of his told me about the last time she saw him, maybe a week or two before he died, as she was leaving he raised a glass to her and said “L’Chaim!” and that was my father in a nutshell. Both the wine and the words – To Life!

Is the old dog enjoying everything about today? I’d venture to say no. But he enjoyed his breakfast, and he enjoyed greeting the crew that came to cut down the dead trees, and he enjoyed his peanut butter and kibble-filled Kong. He clearly likes the fact that we finally separated him from the other dogs today. He gets special treatment AND he doesn’t have to listen to their barking or worry about being jumped on or bumped. The old dog has his own version of toasting this life. Rolling in the grass. Wandering off because I think he is beyond getting into any serious mischief and turning up in the horse pasture eating all the poop he can before I notice. Tomorrow may still be the day. But as for today, Carpe Poopem.

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Out Loud

My mother cleaned the house every Saturday.
She took all the pillows off the sofa
To vacuum it, and piled them on the armchairs
Where I would sit and fish for my stuffed animals
From my pillow island, and when she was done
I would make a fort of the sofa pillows on the clean sofa
And play until I got tired or distracted
And my mother would put everything back where it belonged.
When we had my father’s friends over for dinner,
My mother polished the silver, and the copper casserole,
And she washed every single wine glass and liquor glass
And returned them, sparkling, to their shelves in the dining room.

When my mother cleaned the house every Saturday
I would sometimes hear her yell “Son of a BITCH” when she
Stubbed her toe on the bed while vacuuming
And I often heard her say “Jesus Christ!”
When my father was driving, but beyond that,
I rarely heard her swear.

When my mother turned fifty, she said
She was going to be old, or she was going to be fat
But she was not going to be both. She planned to be
Not the sweet soft grannie who baked cookies
But the mean skinny grannie who whacked the hoods of cars
With her umbrella when they inched too far into the crosswalk.
She stopped cleaning the house every Saturday. She started
Walking, and she lost enough weight to scare my sister.
We started having HER friends over for dinner
And before they came, she did not polish the silver and copper
And she did not wash the wine glasses.

My mother worked at the Smithsonian for over twenty years.
She managed a museum shop, and supplied it with the most
Eclectic book collection ever to grace the shelves of an art gallery.
When they began to push out their older and probably higher paid staff
She retired, and went to volunteer as an invertebrate interpreter
At the zoo, where she explained the exhibits to curious visitors
And sometimes sang The Octopus’s Garden to the octopus,
Even after one of her fellow interpreters informed her that sometimes
The exhibited animals, their visitors, and their singing interpreters
Were live streamed on the internet.

When my mother was clearly dying of cancer
Her neurologist wanted to insert a shunt in her brain
To deliver chemo directly to her brain and spinal column.
I asked my mother what she wanted from treatment,
And she said “Not to be in pain any more.”
So I asked the neurologist what this would do for her
And I relayed the information to my mother:

This will not help with your pain. It will not help you walk.
It will give you, at the most, six more months to live
Pretty much the same life you are living right now.
She looked past me as I sat on the foot of her hospital bed,
Staring at the wall for a minute, before her eyes returned to me
And she said “Fuck it.”

It was the first time I heard her say it
Out loud.

One Bird at a Time

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In the spring a friend told me about a 100 Days of Creativity challenge she saw on Instagram. She mentioned it not in the context of posting anything, necessarily, but just in setting yourself a challenge like that, to do a creative thing every day for 100 days. I decided to take on the challenge by taking photographs of birds. Well, originally I decided my project would be that I would take one bird photograph per day, and then I would draw the bird, and then I would write something about it. Because if I’m going to plan a project, then I’m going to plan to do it times a thousand in a way that is almost guaranteed to fail. I realized before I started that that wasn’t a good idea (progress!) so I backed it down to one bird photograph per day. I don’t actually know how to photograph birds, and it turns out to be not at all like photographing dogs or horses.

Almost immediately I realized that I needed to set some other parameters.  First: it didn’t have to be a great photograph. It didn’t even have to be a good photograph. The point was that I was learning this, so any photograph at all was a step in the learning process. And just by the way, when you have a camera that you don’t know how to operate and it has a continuous shutter feature (I’m not even sure that’s what it’s called), you can take A LOT of bad photos in a very short amount of time.

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It took me about two days to realize that bird photography was going to be my gateway to meditation. I have written here before about my ambivalent relationship with yoga. My relationship with meditation is even more tenuous. I occasionally dabble in various forms of yoga, even if I grumble about it the whole time. I THINK about meditating. I don’t think I have actually ever even tried meditating, though I have almost downloaded a number of guided meditations and I have almost signed up for some meditation … classes? Is that a thing? Gatherings? Clearly, I haven’t done it.

And so the birds. The lessons started immediately. Once I got past “it’s ok to take bad photos,” I got to “look at all the things I don’t notice!” My first three weeks in the 100 days were dedicated to birds that showed up in the background (or sometimes foreground) while I was trying to focus on something else. And because I had no idea what I was doing with my camera, sometime the only in-focus bird was the one I didn’t realize was in the shot.

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One thing that is true, it turns out, is that there is a lot of standing around and waiting in bird photography. A lot of becoming really still. A lot of observation. While being still. And waiting. Really, these are not my strengths. I know – or at least I think I know – that part of meditation involves clearing your mind, and letting go of any distracting thoughts that come up. I’m sure my bird photography would improve faster if I were better at this.

Another thing that is true is that I started this project about six months after my oldest sister was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. When I talked to her after she had the biopsy but before she got the results, she said “The best case scenario is that it’s the Jimmy Carter kind and I take a pill and I’m fine. The worst case scenario is that it’s the John McCain kind and I die.” The biopsy came back the John McCain kind, or more technically but no more correctly, glioblastoma. It’s not one of your more treatable cancers. The five year survival rate is extremely low, and life expectancy even with aggressive treatment is 11 to 14 months after the onset of symptoms.

My sister set out to learn everything she could about glioblastoma and treatment. She read articles and studies. She found and connected with long term survivors. She applied for clinical trials and got into one, planning an aggressive sequence of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. Her goal was to live long enough for someone to find a cure. She died on May 27, 6 days after her 59th birthday and 13 days after her 37th wedding anniversary. Less than 9 months after her diagnosis.

I didn’t have much of a relationship with my sister in our adult lives. We weren’t particularly close as children, either – not in that “my sister is my best friend” way that I hear about sometimes. She was seven years older than me, which doesn’t sound like a lot now, but when I was 11 and she left home for college it was pretty significant. She was kind of like a big sister in a book. She was almost magically creative in areas ranging from decorating cakes to naming dolls and stuffed animals, to choreographing, directing, building sets and making costumes for, and starring in annual neighborhood productions of The Nutcracker, to inventing complex and time-consuming games that keep us all occupied for hours on end. She was also just a sister, with all the sqabbles and jealousies and meanness that go along with being siblings.

For the last four or so months of her life, my sister wasn’t recognizably my sister. That is one of the many, many horrors of glioblastoma – it eats away your conscious mind before it kills you. I did not spend days at her bedside. I am eternally grateful that her husband was able and willing to care for her because I could not and did not. I went to see her sometimes, or to stay with her for a few hours so her husband could get a break. I thought about her every day. I continue to think about her every day. I have probably spent more time thinking about my sister in the last 9 months than I did in the previous 40 years.

I was, I am still, stumped about why I am so, so sad. I am sad for my sister, because it is complete bullshit for a person to die of something like this at barely 59 years old, and because she studied so much about it that she knew exactly what would and did happen to her, and it must have been terrifying. I am sad – and mad – that she didn’t get another 20 or 30 or 40 years to do exactly whatever she wanted to do. I am also sad for me, because my sister died. I think the part of me that is most sad is the part of me that lived with her and experienced her as that magical, maddening, creative, crazy-making big sister. I’m little kid sad. It’s a big kind of sad.

And so I spent 56 days waiting for birds to appear, and thinking about my sister who was dying. And I spent 44 days waiting for birds to appear, and thinking about my sister who was dead.

One of my favorite books is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, the title of which comes from something her father once said to her brother when her brother was overwhelmed by everything he had to write about in a school paper on birds. Anne uses it as a metaphor for writing – you don’t have to know everything you are going to write in order to start writing. You just have to take it bird by bird, one thing at a time.

Lady Cardinal

Bird by bird is something I often thought of when I started my photography project. Every day there are many birds, and the more I move to try to capture them on film, the faster they fly away. It’s also been something I think of while I wait for the birds and thoughts and images and memories of my sister cross my mind. Some of my memories are things I have been told, or family legend, some words or a sentence or a moment recalled without context. Some of my memories are mine.

I remember my sister’s perfect penmanship that never stopped looking like the writing of a precocious 4th grader who had just learned cursive. I remember the three of us sisters in my middle sister’s bedroom (it was the biggest) singing songs from a falling apart book of old folk songs. I remember being on the outside of that bedroom door, furious and heartbroken that my sisters wouldn’t let me in on whatever they were doing. I remember running down to the corner to wait to see her walking home from the bus stop in the evening after her ballet classes, and walk the last block with her. I remember her fingernails digging into my arm when I said something as a joke that she didn’t find funny at all. I remember the two of us laughing and laughing over a drawer of our old childhood drawings and letters in our grandmother’s house. I remember watching my mother while she was dying, and I am shocked at how much my dying sister looks like her, when I had always thought she and I looked like our father.

One bird at a time, the thoughts and memories flit by. Some of them I am able to capture, and some I just have to let pass. Sometimes when I go outside I can hear the birds but I can’t see them. If I wait, they will begin to appear. It’s often not that they are hidden but that my eyes are just not able to see them until I settle into looking. Similarly, when I try to reach for memories of my sister I think they are few, but while I want for the birds to appear, they begin to flutter around me. Like the birds, what I see at first isn’t always all that is there. Like the birds, what I think is one thing sometimes turns out to be something else. Like the birds, my memories come and go as they want to. I hope they will keep showing up, and I hope I will keep remembering to look for them.

Tanager

 

 

 

Blue Ridge Lullaby

Blue Ridge

I love it when people I love make art that I love. Music in particular grabs me. Listening to live music does for me what I gather church does for other people. There’s something about the connection I feel to the performers, and also the connection among the whole audience, and a general feeling of joy that really does lift me up. I have a similar unspecified feeling of connectedness to everything when I’m out in nature, and especially when I am in a place like the Blue Ridge mountains. I didn’t grow up there but I do have family roots there. I also have ties there to some of my favorite chosen family, the Allen family chief among them.

The first time I heard Holly Renee Allen’s Appalachian Piecemeal, I was driving, and I felt that same heart pull listening to it that I feel when I am driving in the Blue Ridge. I listened my way dreamily through the whole album three times. In the album intro, George Allen describes his fiddle playing as having flavors of bluegrass, country and mountain music. He passed all that along to his daughter, and she adds her own dose of blues and southern rock. Holly can sound red hot momma, and she can also sound like the whispered voice of all the women who wove the fabric of your life. Sometimes, both at once.

I have listened to the album online but I have no liner notes (are liner notes still a thing?) or any other information besides the song names. I don’t know which are covers and which are Holly’s own, and I don’t much care except that whoever wrote Matt’s Candy can write me songs forever, please. My money is on that it is Holly.

I don’t pretend to know anything about music beyond what I like, but that I know without question. Many of the songs here have a familiar ring to them, but I don’t know that I actually know any of them besides the beautifully rendered Ring of Fire. I don’t know who the artists are but I believe and hope that all Allens available had a part in this.

Listening to this music as I drove down the road gave me the feeling of curling up in the corner of a porch swing while listening to people I love play the evening in. The first time through I nearly had to pull over at the start of the last song, which is appropriately titled Last Song. It’s short, it’s a capella, and while I know it is Holly, it sounds just like what I believe it would sound like if, as I lay in bed with my window open on an early spring night with the redbud trees blooming outside, the Blue Ridge herself sang me to sleep. If the Last Song was the last lullaby I ever heard, I would drift away joyfully on its tune.

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http://hollyreneeallen.com

Winterpause

icegrass

Mother Nature and I, we are going through the change.
Where we once had regular cycles,
We now find that anything goes.
To everything there is a season, my ass.

Mid-life can only be known in retrospect.
Maybe it’s 51 years, maybe it’s 4.5 billion,
Or maybe it’s whatever point you say
Fuck it, I don’t care what you are used to.
I don’t care how regular and predictable I have been.
I don’t care how little regard you have for a woman my age.
When I’m hot, I’m hot.
When I’m cold, I’m cold.
When I’m both at once, well,
You can just suck it up and buckle up.

My sunshine is my business, not yours.
So are my ice storms, and what the hell do you know
About what makes a season?
Stop looking at a calendar to try to figure me out.

Find beauty in whatever I have to offer
Or don’t – because I have, and that, it turns out,
Is all that matters.

icefeathers

 

 

Practice Makes Practice

I have said before that I want to want to do yoga more than I want to do yoga. I think what I want is the benefit of having done yoga, but I’m not even sure what I mean by that. Mainly that when I do do yoga, I want it to suck less.

What sucks about it? I’m bad at it. Everything hurts – whether or not I’m doing yoga, but more so when I try to twist and stretch and balance. I’m not flexible and I used to be flexible. That’s probably a lot of what’s wrong between me and yoga: the distance between my perception of what it should be and what it actually is for me. The distance between how I see myself doing it and how I actually do it.

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When I was a gymnast, I was flexible. I also practiced pretty much all the time that I wasn’t doing anything else. Not formal practice, but just repetition of things I wanted to be able to do that I couldn’t do at first. I wanted to be able to do the splits, so I split as far as I could (and often farther than my pants could) over and over and over, until I could get all the way to the ground.

I took the same approach to walkovers, round-offs, front and back flips, and endless attempts at aerials, though those only clicked for me one magical practice in the gym, never before and never after. I can’t say I would now recommend learning and practicing front flips or back layouts on the sidewalk in front of my childhood home – or any other sidewalk, for that matter – but I was nothing if not determined.

I had a similar approach to riding horses back then. If I decided I wanted to be able to jump up on a horse bareback, I would practice and fail, and practice and fall, and practice and scramble and gracelessly heave myself onto the horse’s back, until I could do it. Or later, when I wanted to get a certain feel in the canter transition – the feel that it didn’t feel like anything, really – I would do it over and over and over and over.

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Age and horsemanship wisdom tell me now that drilling a horse is a sure way to sour them, but there’s a world of difference between repetition for the joy of the feel of the thing, and the numbing drilling of a rider with visions of perfect dressage scores dancing in their head.

My riding life bears a striking similarity to my yoga life these days. I feel like it’s something I should want to do more than it’s something I want to do. The things I study and believe about the importance of developing a relationship with the horse rather than doing things to the horse, or making the horse do things, can create a wall that feels insurmountable on some days. I have no interest in competing in any discipline and if asked what my horsemanship goal is, or what I want that relationship between myself and my horse to look like, my answer would be the same as my yoga answer: I want it to suck less.

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Intellectually I know this is not a good goal. “Intellectually” is my problem, however. Nothing gets in my way quite like my mind. When I do yoga I have a little too much time and space for my mind, as Anne Lamott says, to think its thinky thoughts. The more I try to clear my mind, the thinkier my thinky thoughts get. The only time they get thinkier is when I’m around my horses trying to do the “right” thing.

There’s a good likelihood that the repetitive practice I used to do is a lot closer to the visions I have of what yoga – or horsemanship – should look like than anything I’m doing  now. It would look like doing something. Doing it badly, doing it awkwardly, doing it wrong, doing it laughing, and every once in a while, for a brief shining moment, doing it just the way I picture it.

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Pain

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About this time last year I spent a couple of weeks alternating lying flat on my back and perching uncomfortably on the edge of a chair due to a back injury. Though can we call it an injury really, when it hurt because I stepped out of the shower and it felt like lightning struck my back?

Once upon a time I hurt my back for real, doing active things like diving, or going over a jump all alone while my horse remained firmly on the take-off side, or trying to lift something I thought was no longer attached to my tractor only to find myself trying to lift my tractor. So maybe thrice upon a time is more accurate. Now sometimes it just goes rogue when I put on my socks, or open the cat food bin, or reach for a water glass. My favorite may have been when I was putting on my leggings to go to yoga class. It’s hard to walk into a yoga class and say “I’m here to twist myself into new and bendier shapes, but I can’t move much because I hurt myself putting on my pants.”

I am prone to psychosomatic illnesses. I used to think that term meant that you think you are sick when you are not. Imagined symptoms. I have since learned that it means an actual physical illness that is aggravated by a mental factor. Because my body (rightly, it seems) doesn’t trust me to take care of it, and (also rightly, it seems) thinks I need to be hit with a 2×4 to get the point, my psychosomatic illnesses present in the most obvious of ways.

For about a year and a half in my mid 30s I became incapable of talking about what I needed to talk about in my most important relationship. I have always been a talker – to a fault, perhaps – but I lost all ability to speak up when I needed to during this period. I had laryngitis maybe once in my life before this, but for that year and a half, at least every other month I lost my voice. Not a slight raspiness, I mean LOST. My voice was reduced to somewhere between a croak and an inaudible whisper. Over and over and over again, I became physically incapable of speaking. Circumstances finally forced me to start talking, and the laryngitis went away.

In a more concise example, I work from home but every few weeks have to go to the office. With alarming consistency the weekend before I have to go, I have a flare up of hemorrhoids. This is how my body (or my brain) handles me: “This is a PAIN IN YOUR ASS. Get it?” Got it.

This back thing, though. It’s not as clear to me. I have a couple theories. While my bout of back pain was at its worst last winter, Rose pointed out that while I couldn’t pick anything up, I could put things down that someone else has handed me. I find this significant, but I think there is more to it. It never got completely better, and in May I was once again felled doing something simple that I do every day.

I’ve seen doctors about my back pain a lot of times over the years. They either haven’t had much to suggest (take these drugs, don’t do those things), or they have wanted to do things I am not willing to do (steroid injections into my spinal column, surgery). Back pain seems to lend itself to so-called pain management without much to say about the cause of the pain or a solution to the pain.

I’ve read a lot about back pain, too, and I believe a lot of the things I’ve read. John Sarno claims that back pain that moves around (as mine does, from one side to the other, or from my lower back to my hips), or is accompanied by other pain (shoulder, neck, upper back – check, check, check) has its roots in emotional trauma, and I think that’s pretty likely. As previously noted, I’m not the best at recognizing that before my body takes over to demonstrate it for me.

I’ve tried a variety of body work, including standard physical therapy, acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, massage. They all help me feel better in some ways, and they have all helped pains I have had in other parts of my body go away, but none of them really touch the lower back situation. This time I started looking at other techniques – the Alexander technique, which seems to be based on postural awareness (I haven’t gotten very far with that one yet). The McKenzie method – the exercises for that are the complete opposite of most back therapies I have tried. Both were quite a bit more helpful in terms of relieving extreme pain than most things I have tried, but did not get to the point of making the pain go away, and then it started to get worse again.

Eventually I found myself at the landfill, barely able to get in and out of the truck. Rose was out of town and as I drove away, feeling pretty sure I was going to either pass out or vomit from the pain, or maybe both, I tried to ward off a panic attack while weighing the benefits of going home or driving myself to the emergency room. I was pretty sure the ER would not in fact help much, though all the drugs were sounding pretty good right around then. I drove home, crawled into the house, and collapsed on the living room floor with my phone to google all the ways in which terrible lower back pain might mean I was dying of something rare (so much for warding off the panic attack).

When I got tired of that, I started to google sacroiliac dysfunction, because it seemed like most of my pain, always, was around my SI, even if it manifested in different spots on my back. I had a tennis ball in reach, and as there was little chance of me using anything that wasn’t in reach, I looked up SI trigger points. This is an extremely undramatic story of healing, in which I moved a tennis ball around to different SI trigger points until I no longer felt like I was going to die, or like I wanted to. For the rest of that day, and the next day, I had to visit with the tennis ball about once an hour. I had a nice collection of ass bruises, and while lying on the tennis ball on the bruised parts over and over and over didn’t feel great on the bruises, I started to feel like maybe I could move like a person again. I was able to increase the time between “treatments” over the next few days. It’s been a couple of months now, and I carry a tennis ball with me everywhere I go, but the chronic hip pain I have had for several years is completely gone, and I haven’t had lightning bolts to the back since May.

As with every other time I’ve had out-of-the-blue back pain, I’m not sure I’m any further enlightened about the cause. I’m happy to have found something that makes it feel better. I not so secretly believe that trigger point therapy is magic. I have a feeling that the real magic for me was finding out that there was something I could do to help myself, rather than looking to someone else to fix me. And maybe, just maybe, I have learned a little bit about how not to pick things up that are not mine to carry around.

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