Showing posts with label Nature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nature. Show all posts

Thursday, October 20, 2016

What I Know About Medium Chain Triglyceride Nutrient Dense Ketogenic Diets....and Lupus

I am not a doctor, nor do I hold any special degrees or training in medicine or nutrition. Therefore, the recommendations that I am following could easily change as more information becomes known through study and research. I encourage you to do your own research as I have done. Many of the past studies as well as current ongoing studies are available to read at no cost.
Much of the information I write abut comes from reading Dr. Terry Wahls' book,  The Wahls Protocol. I will also include information from studies I have read and will include a list at of those studies the end of this post. Once again, I am not a professional. My intent is to point you in a particular direction. My hope is that after reading this post, if you think this protocol is something you want to know more about, you will purchase Terry’s book and do your own research.

Please consult with your own doctor before trying this or any nutritional therapies. Attempting this protocol can be harmful if not followed properly. This protocol is not for everyone and should be considered in the same regard as new medication or supplementation. Consideration must be made for how it interacts with current medications as well as ongoing illness.

Terry Wahls used to run marathons, ski the American Birkebeiner and climb the mountains of Nepal. She even won a bronze medal in women’s full contact free sparring at the trials for the 1978 Pan American Games in Washington DC. She was also a doctor when, in 2000, she was diagnosed with MS. By 2007 she was in a tilt wheelchair, barely able to breathe sitting up. She was 52 years old. At this time she was on the same medication that I am currently on. I am also on an additional two chemotherapies that were not on her list.

Prior to this time, in 2002, her neurologist directed her to the website of a doctor who had reported that his son’s MS had improved by changing his diet. As a physician, she was hesitant to look into anything that seemed like “alternative care." Much to her surprise, the website was full of scientific references. She began to read them one by one. And what she found out was that this was not what she called "fringe medical practices", this was a website full of scientific references. It contained peer-reviewed journals written by scientists from the best medical schools. It was legitimate research. And it was in reading these studies that she became very interested in the role excessive carbohydrates and sugars played in the excess of insulin and inflammation.

Knowing that conventional medicine was not stopping the progression of her disease, she decided to change her diet and see if it had any impact while she continued her research. She read every mouse study she could get her hands on. She researched Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and Huntington’s disease. She discovered that,

“... in all four of those conditions, the mitochondria - small subunits within cells that manage the energy supply for that cell - stop working well and lead to early death of brain cells, causing shrinking of the brain. More searching lead to articles in which mouse brains and their mitochondria had been protected using vitamins and supplements …”

She translated those mouse-size nutrient amounts into human-sized ones. She consulted her doctor and they decided that each one was safe to add to her list. She took those amounts in pill form for two months and at the end of two months was so disappointed in the results she quit taking them. Within a few days she could not get out of bed.

It was working!

So she went to the Institute for Functional Medicine to find more information. The goal of this institute is to “provided clinicians with a better way to care for people with complex chronic disease by looking at how the interaction between genetics, diet, hormone balance, toxin exposures, infections and psychological factors contribute to the development of disease or the improvement of one's health and vitality”.  Through educating herself she learned that she could improve the condition of her mitochondria and brain cells. She knew that she had a genetic vulnerability that increased her chances of getting MS, but now she was developing a much better idea of the significance of leaky gut, food allergies, and toxins. And that mitochondria that were not providing enough energy for the cells, neurotransmitter problems and not having inefficient enzymes for the metabolism of B vitamins and sulfur all had a very significant impact on the BRAIN. She worked with doctors, scientists and nutrition experts and came up with a list of foods that would provide all the nutrients she needed without taking one single pill. This was the beginning of the Wahls Diet.

"The old me, who had relied on drugs and procedures to make my patients well, who had been made progressively more feeble by my illness, had been replaced with someone who understood intellectually and physically that disease begins at a cellular level, when cells are starved of the building blocks they need to conduct the chemistry of life properly, and that the root of optimal health begins with taking away the things that harm and confuse our cells while providing the body with the environment in which to thrive. I finally understood what I had to do to provide my cells with all the building blocks of life that they needed to heal. I was doing it, and it was working."

Today, Terry Wahsl still has MS. But she has not only improved her quality of life she has reversed much of her disease. And instead of being bound to a tilt wheelchair with a progressive disease she had no control over, she is once again an active, thriving doctor who rides her bike to work everyday, travels around the world lecturing to the medical community, appears on webinars, interviews, radio shows and talk shows. She has created a website where people can read her newsletters, watch recorded lectures and gain community support. She is also involved in ongoing research and clinical trial as well as written the The Wahls Protocol .

Terry’s overarching message to those with chronic disease is that you don’t have to be a victim .
You can actually repair your broken biochemistry and restore your body's vitality by how you live your life.

That’s huge news for anyone with an autoimmune disease! Instead of taking pills for symptoms, she was living proof that you could eat food to heal your body at a cellular level. Chronic disease is never a deficiency of the drugs you are taking for it, but a deficiency in your own cells and it is the most obvious manifestation of long term mitochondrial dysfunction. When your mitochondria are not fueling your body correctly, entire bodily systems don't work properly and in a negative spiraling chain reaction, eventually lead to organ dysfunction and chronic disease.

"Diabetes, heart failure, hepatitis C, fibromyalgia, schizophrenia, mood disorders, epilepsy, strokes, neuropathy, memory problems and autoimmune disease are just a few disease linked to mitochondrial dysfunction."

A little biochemistry.

Most cells in your body contain mitochondria. Some have a lot more than others. The more energy a cell needs to function properly, the more mitochondria it needs to produce the energy it needs. For example, your brain, retina, heart and liver cells all contain a lot more mitochondria that most other cells because thinking, seeing, pumping blood and processing toxins are all things that require high energy.

All cells eventually die and it is the job of mitochondria to send the signal when that time is appropriate. (Not before!)

Mitochondria also produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which stores energy, helps your body to create proteins and antibodies, and it is the FUEL used by our cells for ALL that they do. Without it, cells begin to function improperly and eventually die prematurely.

To produce ATP efficiently, the most important things your mitochondria need are glucose or ketone bodies from fat and oxygen. Your mitochondria can get by for awhile on only those things, but to do the most efficient job and to live they also need vitamin B1, B2, B3, B5, sulfur, zinc, magnesium, iron, manganese, antioxidants, L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, creatine and coenzyme Q. They also need to be protected from toxins like arsenic, lead and mercury. If this basic process does not happen your cells will produce less energy and more waste (free radicals).

Dr. Wahls gives a great example of the progressive signs of mitochondrial dysfunction in a person’s life,

I hope you can still remember a day when you felt well. You could work or play all day and you felt happy, or at least normal, in your body. At some point, however, you probably noticed some subtle changes. Perhaps you noticed that you couldn’t move as freely or think as clearly, or you began to experience pain. These very outward symptoms were a signal that your biochemistry was changing. The signaling between your cells was gradually becoming confused.
You could recognize that you didn’t feel well, though you may not have been able to explain precisely what was amiss. You eventually saw your doctor, who performed an examination and conducted blood tests but found nothing wrong. Perhaps you were told to come back in a year. When you did, you felt a little worse than you did the year before, but all your tests still looked okay and the doctor continued to say you were “fine.” Perhaps this dance went on for years, perhaps decades, before your body finally suffered enough damage that a test or two began to come up abnormal. Finally, your doctor began to investigate more seriously. And perhaps, at long last, you were given a diagnosis. Your doctor had not been trained in functional medicine, and so opportunities to recover your vitality were missed, but the inexorable process of biochemical decline was happening all along, through all those years of negative test results and doctors reassuring you. Your body began to produce and accumulate incorrectly made molecules in your cells and your organs. To you, you probably felt like the music of your life slowly began to deteriorate, note by note, losing the melody and harmony, moving from a beautiful symphonic concert to a chaotic noise. That is how it felt to me.

At a cellular level MS, autoimmune disease and chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease and some mood disorders like depression, autism and schizophrenia all look pretty much the same - they all share mitochondrial dysfunction.

Health problems begin in the cells.
If your dysfunctional cells produce symptoms of X, Y and Z...they label you with MS. If your dysfunctional cells produce symptoms of A, B and C...they label you with Lupus. If your dysfunctional cells produce symptoms of L, M and N...they label you with heart disease, and so on. Like Terry says, diagnosis are simply "labels doctors put on conditions, based on parts they can actually quantify, like symptoms, test results and which medications improve or worsen symptoms, as well as through a process of elimination." Remember that when giving weight and importance to getting a diagnosis.

When science looks at the cellular level, all autoimmune diseases have six common characteristics according to Dr. Wahls.

  1. Mitochondria are strained, producing energy inefficiently and producing too much waste. This leads to too many free radicals in the body, which damage cells.
  2. The immune cells are too reactive, leading to excessive inflammation throughout the body.
  3. The immune cells specifically attack “self” or cell structures that belong to us.
  4. Toxins such as lead, mercury, and pesticides stored in the body and chronic low-grade infections such as Lyme disease or even periodontal (gum) infection worsen autoimmune-related symptoms.
  5. Low vitamin D and excessive hormone levels are present, both which worsen inflammation.
  6. Deficiencies or excesses of particular vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and antioxidants phytonutrient molecules are common.

Your DNA could very well predispose you to certain diseases. These mutated DNA could effect inflammation control, how toxins are managed, how we absorb nutrients, how effective hormones work and effectiveness of neurotransmitters. But the truth is that scientists believe that it’s epigenetics (your environment and what you eat) that determine about 70-95 percent of your risk of developing those diseases. Very few conditions are caused solely by a single mutation in your DNA. Those mutated DNA can be sitting there causing you no problem whatsoever and then if you have enough cellular dysfunction (caused by the lack of proper nutrients and the presence of toxins, including those the body creates during times of stress), those DNA switches that are turned off can easily be turned on . The simple flip of a genetic switch. You can not only stop that switch from being turned on, you can actually reverse cell damage. Terry Wahls and countless other patients are living proof. My goal is to be part of that growing (and healing) body of evidence!

What is The Wahls Diet?

The development of the Wahls Diet did not happen all at once. As Dr. Wahls learned information from her own experience, from clinical trials and previous studies, various steps of the diet were developed. What exists today is a diet that can be customized in regards to the needs of the individual. For example, is the diet solely for the purpose of eating healthier, is it for someone already suffering from mild chronic illness or is it for the patient already in a specific disease state? Depending on the need, there are three levels,

  1. The Wahls Diet. The most basic level that kick-starts your system by infusing it with intense nutrition and removing dietary elements that could contribute to your decline.
  2. Wahls Paleo. The next level, and the level where many people choose to stay, provides more structure to further eliminate dietary elements that can compromise gut health.
  3. Wahls Paleo Plus. The most difficult level is also the most therapeutic for those with autoimmune conditions and is particularly beneficial for anyone with neurological or psychological issues, whatever the underlying disease state, as well as those with a history of cancer. (Only at this level is a state of ketosis maintained)

There is a long history of the use of various forms of ketogenic diets. Much of that history littered with outcomes that came with a price. Dating back to the early 1900’s, ketogenic diets were used for people with diabetes (people who needed to survive on a diet with no carbohydrates) and epilepsy. And to this day doctors will place children with severe epilepsy on it.

Historically, the studies were successful in stopping seizures, but most children ended up nutritionally starved and suffered from things such as kidney stones, loss of vitamin C, too much uric acid, malnourishment and fractures. As time went on, variations of the diet included increasing fats so that more nutrient dense carbohydrates could be included. As science has learned more about nutrition, outcomes have improved significantly. Ketogenics can be highly effective with certain neurological conditions but can cause serious health issues if not implemented correctly.

Dr. Wahls version of the ketogenic diet is one that includes and is limited to the use of Medium Chain Triglyceride fats only, such as coconut oil and olive oil. When you are on a ketogenic diet, the body is in a state of ketosis. Ketosis is when there are ketones present in the blood. Ketones can replace glucose as an energy source for the cells. They are very small molecules that are soluble by water and can cross cell membranes and diffuse all through the body. Ketones can also get to places without a blood supply, so in cases of heart attack, stroke or TBI, they can help you stay alive. The are a very interesting and extremely powerful macronutrient and have huge applications for healing. They diffuse into the brain and the brain can use them for energy. The brain does not absorb fats very well from the body and relies primarily on glucose (which needs transporters to get around) for an energy source (cells need energy to function properly). Ketones can replace glucose as an energy source in the brain. For people with conditions of the brain, this can be incredibly beneficial.

The difference between the Standard Ketogenic Diet and Dr. Wahls' Medium Chain Triglyceride(MCT) Diet has to do with how long the triglyceride is. The longer the chain the more ketones are produced, and therefore the more carbohydrates can be tolerated (making this  even more nutrient dense than the standard diet.)

At this point in my findings, I had a lot of questions. Some were answered in Terry’s book. Some were answered, but I felt those answers were tailored more towards MS.  Some sent me reading journals, studies and whatever scholarly articles I could find. For me, I need to understand the science before it makes sense to me. And this protocol makes more sense than anything I have ever researched or done. Prior to getting really sick in 2009, I had all the ingredients leading to a perfect storm. I had the hereditary factor. I had indications of chronic illness. I was under tremendous stress. I was running marathons on an almost completely carbohydrate, low nutrient diet. I was literally starving my cells of the minerals and nutrients they needed to survive. For me, knowing how to fix this at a cellular level means understanding the best I can, what cells need to do their job. What causes mitochondrial dysfunction? Literally, what happens to the DNA? What role does oxidative stress have on DNA? And more specifically in the pathology and treatment of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus.

We also know that with mitochondrial dysfunction there is an inability to rid the body of toxins. In other words, our antioxidant enzyme systems are not working properly and therefore not protecting the body against radical induced cell damage. How do I improve this? These enzymes require cofactors such as selenium, iron, copper, zinc, and manganese for optimum catalytic activity. It has been suggested that a diet lacking in these minerals may compromise the effectiveness of these antioxidant defense mechanisms. So, what if I increase those foods as Dr. Wahls has suggested? And a subject I have not even touched on, but has a lot to do with this protocol is the benefit of fasting. There are studies with proven data on the effectiveness of Diet Mimicking Fasting and how it promotes regeneration and reduces autoimmunity. So many questions I can’t even begin to write them all down. Well, I can, but I’m fairly certain I have lost just about every reader by this time! The moral to this paragraph is this - the more I peel the layers of the onion back, the more I answer my own questions, the more a MCT Nutrient Dense Ketogenic Diet makes sense for me. At least in the short run.

In fact, I will mention before my science/medical friends fall off the deep end, this is not a permanent solution. At this point, there are no studies concluding how long the human body can be in ketosis. Right now, there are huge short term gains with possible long term side effects. Dr. Wahls was in ketosis for two years before she dropped down to a lesser degree of the diet. Now she is in and out of ketosis more consistent with her cultural heritage. (ie, Eskimos are known to be in ketosis more often than Europeans due to climate and the inability to get carbohydrates)

My plan, under the supervision of my doctors is to be in ketosis for seven months and then drop down to the next level for five months, an MCT nutrient dense paleo version. At a minimum I have improved my diet immensely, knocked out all processed foods and sugars and no longer consume gluten or dairy in any form. I am also working hard to rid my life of toxins as well as STRESS. Both which play a big role in epigenetics.

So far...really good! That’s my motto! I am showing consistent improvement every day. Is this a cure? Nope, not yet. There is no research to say anything of the sort. But there is all kinds of good stuff out there from simply reducing pain and fatigue to actually reversing cell damage and increasing cell mitochondria. Yes, healing! Not just taking a pill to cover up a symptom!

Please let me know if you would like more information. I am thrilled to pass on studies, answer questions, send links, let you borrow my book! Whatever I can do, it would be my pleasure. For me, taking control of my health is incredibly empowering. In fact, the placebo effect from that alone is most likely off the charts. But hey, whatever it takes. Thanks for sticking with me and I hope to hear from some of you.


Terry Wahls, M.D.

Terry Wahls, M.D. TEDx Talk, Minding Your Mitochondria


Ketogenic diets, mitochondria, and neurological diseases

A Diet Mimicking Fasting Promotes Regeneration and Reduces Autoimmunity and Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms.

Defective DNA Repair and Chromatin Organization in Patients with Quiescent Systemic Lupus Erythematosus.

The Therapeutic Potential of the Ketogenic Diet in Treating Progressive Multiple Sclerosis

Oxidative Stress and its Biomarkers in Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Oxidative Stress In the Pathology and Treatment of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Repair of Oxidative DNA Damage: Mechanisms and Functions.

Role for Oxidized Mitochondrial DNA in Lupus Revealed

Oxidized Mitochondrial DNA Advances Lupus Pathogenesis

Baylor Study Reveals Role for Oxidized Mitochondrial DNA in Lupus

How Can NRF2 Benefit You?

The Nrf2-Antioxidant Response Element Signaling Pathway and Its Activation by Oxidative Stress

The role of antioxidant supplement in immune system, neoplastic, and neurodegenerative disorders: a point of view for an assessment of the risk/benefit profile

Ketogenic Diets as an Adjuvant Cancer Therapy: History and Potential Mechanism

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hiking the JMT

     ...from bed on a quiet summer night.

BWCA 2008
Last week Dave and I watched an outstanding independent documentary called Mile...Mile & A Half, The Muir Project . In a nutshell, it's about a small group of artists that "take a month off from life" to hike California's John Muir Trail, the 219-mile stretch from Yosemite to Mount Whitney. Usually these types of documentaries star the more typical adventurists. You know the kind, the "Mt. Everest-in-an-afternoon" kind with ripped calf muscles and million dollar gear. Not so in this film. It's a small group of friends, just like you and I (minus illness...or maybe not), who came up with a crazy idea one night after a good dinner and a bottle or two of wine.  But what I liked about it was that they were "normal folk" on a path to find out what the wilderness had to teach them and to ultimately share that lesson with others. This wasn't about climbing the highest mountain or enduring extreme weather conditions, it was about returning to nature for a duration where time and road were long enough that the weight of what separates man from Spirit was simply to heavy to bring along.

The Canoe BWCA 2008
As I watched the film, I found myself struggling between getting completely lost in the journey and grieving the fact that I am no longer able make that sort of a trip. In fact, what felt most painful was the realization that the ability to dream about making that kind of a trip was gone. I wanted so desperately to turn off the TV, grab a notebook and make my "pie in the sky" plans with the man that I love. Just like we did when we made our plans to travel from the Boundary Waters to the Gulf of Mexico in the canoe he built. When we had those discussions it was very much a reality. Did it ever happen? No...but it could have. Well, right now, at least in the foreseeable future, hiking 219 miles is realistically not going to happen. And that made me grumpy. Very, very grumpy.

What I went through after watching the video is no different than what any one of us goes through on any given day in our lives. It feels desperately specific to my situation as a chronically ill person, but in reality it is not. Oh, how often (if not always) our suffering comes out of our frustration with what is. For me, this transpires quite often into fear. Fear that I am somehow not where I should be in this life. Which usually comes directly after I have judged myself against this platonic ideal of "me" that I quite often compare myself to. There's even a "sick me" that I to compare myself to. But we all do it. We form this picture of what should be, usually a combination of traits from all the perfect people in the world that have mastered said quality, and then we hold that picture up to ourselves in the mirror and say, "What's wrong with me?" When in fact, we should be saying, "What's wrong with this picture?"!  

The only way I know to stop this insanity is to surrender. Yield to what is - don't resist it. Our fear would like to convince us that the only way to solve our problem is to create these negative thoughts. It's the same misguided parenting style that tells us the only way to get a child to change is to shame them. Make them feel bad. Oh, you may get a very obedient child out of the deal, but definitely not a healthy happy child. You and I are no different. After a few days of fear, which was directly transferred as anger toward everyone in my life that was not sick, I decided to just yield to what is. Stop resisting and drop the emotional negativity. Once we drop the negative emotion of a particular situation, once we surrender (stop labeling what IS), we are left with the ability to take action. Positive action. Like I stated in my recent post Eight Months...but then again, whose counting, "Good solutions come out of clear, unemotional thinking." I promise you, if you continue to surrender, give up the negative self talk, you will achieve positive results. How can they not be - they're based on reality!

So, there are no plans in the near future (you don't have to give up hope all together) to hike the JMT (I can at least abbreviate like a pro), but something did come out of watching that great little independent documentary (that I HIGHLY suggest watching). And that is this, that I went to my shelf and dusted off my copy of John Muir The Eight Wilderness-Discovery Books and started to read. And I kid you not, as I lay in bed last night reading, I felt like I was there. I could feel the breeze and smell the grass and hear the birds that he so eloquently describes singing high above me. His joy and wonder became my joy and wonder. There was a stillness that filled me.

Over 114 years ago John Muir opened his book Our National Parks with these words,
The tendency nowadays to wonder in wilderness is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, never-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.    
When I return to Nature I return to myself, without all the weight of worldly trappings or that miserable picture of who I should be in my backpack. I would do good to remember this. For just as those six hikers began their journey by saying they left "life" behind and went to the JMT, I would say quite the opposite. They went to the JMT and found life. Just like I did, from the comfort of my bed on a quiet summer night.

He continues,
Awaking from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease. Briskly venturing and roaming, some are washing off sins and cobweb cares of the devil's spinning in all day storms on mountains; sauntering in rosiny pinewoods or in gentian meadows, brushing through chaparral, bending down and parting sweet, flowery sprays; tracing rivers to their sources, getting in touch with the nerves of Mother Earth; jumping from rock to rock, feeling the life of them, learning the songs of them, panting in whole-souled exercise, and rejoicing in deep, long-drawn breaths of pure wildness. This is fine and natural and full of promise.



My father, me, my daughter Amanda and Dave. Such great memories!
Superior Trail, BWCA 2008


Monday, November 26, 2012

When The Pain Is Yours


I don't like going to the vet...I never have. Today was no different.

This is Oliver. Oliver showed up on our deck sometime in September, or maybe it was August, I'm not really sure. It was sometime near the end of the summer because we were already trying to come to some decision as to what to do with her if she was still "hanging around" when the weather turned cold. She never left.

Yes, Oliver is a she. We found this out a little over two weeks ago when we had to take her to the vet. We had somehow gracefully slid into the understanding that she was here to stay. And now she was sick. Or so it seemed. Excessive drinking and salivating led us to suspect she had some sort of kidney issue. Two hundred and fifty dollars later we were assured she was just a thirsty, salivating, perfectly healthy two year old female cat.  I had exceeded my pet budget for the month, so booster shots and spaying would come later.

I have to admit, this was not a real popular idea with myself nor my husband. Two dogs and a cat already seem overly sufficient. Adding another pet, that will most likely be with us for the next 13 years, was not the direction we wanted to be heading pet-wise. But it's a difficult spot to be in. You don't euthanize an animal that just seems sick. So you figure out the most inexpensive way to find out what might be wrong and go from there. Getting the "all okay" meant bringing the cat back home. I think it was at that point that I let Oliver into my heart.

Two weeks passed and mental adjustments had been made by all. Oliver was officially part of the Johnson/Buresh clan. Which truly was not much of an inconvenience to our daily activities because Oliver prefers to be outside. Out of 24 hours, I would guess that Oliver maybe spends 4 of those indoors. The rest are spent stalking and hunting the various mice and birds that frequent our bird feeders and surrounding woods. A real hunter, she's quite the antithesis to our Jeni, who prefers longs naps in the sun and full bowls of Indoor Formula Cat Chow.

The middle of last week, after spending a full day out and about, Oliver came in holding her front leg up. Unable to put any pressure on it, she hobbled to her usual spot in the spare bedroom and stayed in for the night. Three days later both legs on one side were not working properly. Four days later she walked in a completely arched back position and meowed in pain as she moved. This weekend she could barely crawl to her food. The progression, heart breaking to watch.

Our appointment was for 8:30, the first appointment of the day, the one you get when you call at 7:01 am.  If I could have figured out anything else to be doing on this beautiful morning I would have. Just getting her into the crate brought me to tears. I had already told the girls that we could not afford any more medical testing. That this is a stray cat and our budget only goes so far. That she might not come home with me... Tough talk last night, but now it's just me and Oliver and my heart is breaking. She has the absolute most beautiful green eyes you could ever imagine and at that moment they were pleading with me to leave her alone. Trusting me.

The vet was very good. The sign in the exam room where we sat read "Every pet deserves a good vet, and we HAVE good vets". Yes, they do. He lifted the top of the crate off so Oliver would not have to be moved.   Ever so carefully he examined her as I held her head in my hands, stroking her face and eyes. In my heart I hoped it comforted her, calmed her. I could feel her body quiver with fear, but she never moved. This once active, inquisitive cat now lay motionless looking directly into my eyes.

It was at that point that I lost it. Apologizing for my tears, I just kept saying, "I'm sorry, I'm really sick and I think for some reason this is especially difficult for me." He was a sweet man, a little unsure as to what to do with me, he simply nodded and said, "It's okay." It took everything in me not to fall to pieces in that exam room. As I sit here and type these words, I'm still not really sure of all that fills this painful space. If I could pick some words out of thin air they might be helplessness, frustration, sadness, anger, fear...a most intense longing for things to be different. Why can't some things just be different.  

In a few weeks my daughter Anna is going to have major surgery to repair a birth defect that only now, at the age of 19, has made itself evident. She will have her jaw broken in multiple locations, upper and lower, with extensive work on her temporomandibular joint and chin. We have been planning for this surgery, which was suppose to happen in August, for over a year now. I have the most intense longing for things to be different. Why can't some things just be different. 

My bedroom window
I sat down to write this piece instead of doing my usual Cyber Monday shopping because I had to. When I put my fingers to the keyboard I had absolutely no idea what I was going to write about. I just knew that the only way to find out was to begin. As I looked up out of my window two bald eagles flew between my window and the pines in my yard. Beautiful, crisp white heads, wings spread, one right in front of the other. Eagles have always been important in my life, representing balance, intuition and spirituality - their presence bringing assurance that the divine is present. A validation of the path I am on, the direction I am going.

A reminder of the Holy.   A reminder to let go.

Oliver came back home with me today. We are fairly certain that something is wrong with her spine. Neurologically, things look good, yet she is in a significant amount of pain and is unable to move because of it. Everything else checks out okay. As to what is wrong with her spine, we don't really know. I have enough pain and anti-inflammation medication to get us through three days. If she doesn't improve by then, well, I'm not sure what we can do next. I'm not really sure about a lot of things in this life. But this I do know - that it can be really painful at times. And that the biggest of lessons can come from the smallest of creatures. And that life is precious. All life. And we can talk big about things, like "not spending money on an animal" and "I know what I'd do" and "If it were my cat I'd take it out back and..." But when it's your life, or your heart, or your health, or your kids, or your pets...well, that big talk gets pretty small when the pain is yours.

I decided to go check on Oliver one last time in order to give you the most current update. I got down on all fours to crawl quietly to the spot between the table and the patio doors where she lay in order to take a picture. This is what I saw in that very moment. She lifted her head and gave me the most peaceful look, almost a smile if you look closely enough. As if to say, things will be okay...just as they are.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Learning To Float

The view from our bedroom door/window. 

Last week my family and I spent seven days in a cabin on an island in northern Minnesota. We found this Shangri-La two years ago and honestly thought we would never be fortunate enough to experience it again. But as luck would have it, there was a cancellation the week of the Fourth of July and the caretakers offered it to us on a whim. At nearly 11pm on a cold February night I responded to the email without question, “Yes! We will come!”

Six months passed and our allotted time finally arrived. On the heels of a week full of family visiting from out of state, we took off for the island exhausted and ready for the quiet peacefulness offered by a small piece of land completely surrounded by beautiful clear lake water. With our first visit back in 2010 vivid in my mind, I could hardly wait to sit out on the deck in the cool breeze, read the books I had brought, fish the abundant waters, fill myself on camp food and nap whenever the need arose.

The day before we were set to take off, John (of John and Kim, the owners/caretakers) called us to warn us that they had had record rainfall and that the lakes were at least three feet above their normal levels. There were no beaches and most docks were completely under water. He assured us that he had created a makeshift solution and we should have no problem getting onto the island. John, the eternal optimist.

When we arrived at the mainland dock, we were immediately amazed at the height of the water. He was right, there were no beaches and everyone’s docks were under water. What we also noticed was that due to the damming of the lakes being fed by the Mississippi, the waters were full of tannin. Tannin is humic acid that is left in the water from decaying vegetation, primarily leaves. Our clear lake water looked like root beer – dark, dark brown with a reddish tinge. On a positive note, as John put it, “it’s as warm as bathwater”. And it most definitely was!

Our first day on the island.

Our first day there was mostly spent setting up camp and running back into town for groceries. Our week would eventually include my oldest daughter and her family as well as my parents, so this food haul would be a big one – about $500 worth. Running to the store is no easy endeavor when you are on an island, so we wanted to get everything all in one trip. Being that our day started around 5am, we had traveled over half a day to get there and the temperature was creeping near 100 degrees with high humidity (no air conditioning in our vehicle or in the cabin)  – we ended our first day absolutely exhausted. I use the word “we” very loosely as I did very little of this work. Just managing to stay cool and not get sick was my number one priority. This was Saturday.

Sunday was another very hot and humid day. As the afternoon approached the skies turned a thick dark gray. With a storm on the horizon we told the girls that we could go out on the pontoon for only a short while. I think we left around 6pm. After less than an hour of fishing, Dave gave the two-minute warning. Not wanting to end our first trip short I joked with, “Ah, just five more minutes?” Nope, we’re heading back. There was to be no discussion.

You hear stories about people not having time to react when bad weather hits. I’ve learned not to take this fact of nature lightly. When we arrived onto the island we walked up the hill toward the cabin. I noticed that the girl’s suits and towels were still hanging on the line. I told Dave he should grab them so that they don’t get all wet. As he walked over to the line I noticed this wall coming across the water. It was not a wall of rain. It was simply a wall and it was coming fast. I yelled at him to leave the suits and come into the cabin. We barely made it into the cabin and the floor began to shake.

The cabin.

There is no basement. The cabin sits atop a hill on a cinder block foundation. The only place for us to go was to situate ourselves in front of the stone fireplace on the opposite side of the wind. Before we could even get huddled together on the stone ledge the trees around us began to snap. Some being pulled completely out of the ground, others were snapping off half way to the top. The noise was like nothing I have ever heard. For our teenagers, the whole ordeal was somewhat like a roller-coaster ride. Nervous laughter filled the air. For me, wisdom and experience made this the most frightening storm of my life. In a matter of less than ten minutes, our peaceful island looked like a war zone.

This picture was actually taken on our 2010 trip, but gives you a good idea of where we sat during the storm.

We were standing in front of the window to the left just as this tree went down. 

Every building was spared. Not one tree fell on a roof. The largest tree fell right on top of the clothesline that Dave had been standing at when I yelled for him to come in. It literally fell right between the two trees that were holding the line up. For the next couple of hours we sat in the dark as storm cells passed through. Around 11pm we heard a faint voice calling out in the dark, “Is everyone okay?” It was John! Somehow he had made it on his barge/pontoon across the lake. As my husband said that night, he looked like the old man and the sea. Covered from head to toe in rain gear and a small headlight attached to his forehead, he came walking toward the cabin with coolers and ice in hand. By nights end he had supplied us with a place to put our food and lamps to see by.  Night number two, we fell into our beds exhausted and hot, barley sleeping in order to keep our ears open for the next storm cell. That was Sunday.

John, the day after the storm hit. 

This is the tree that went down on the clothesline. 

One of the trees that snapped in the middle.

Monday morning John and Kim arrived with their good friends Ed and Gloria. The kind of friends that you can call at midnight the night before that hop in their car, no questions asked, and drive for hours with chainsaws in hand in order to help you out in a bad situation. The kind of friends that spend the next two days from sunrise to sunset in stifling heat and humidity cutting, lifting and raking all the while with smiles on their faces and laughter to ease the pain. All the while making sure we had what we needed – even a generator to run the fridge and water pump so we could have water to drink and a toilet to use. Remember, everything has to come over by boat. And once here, has to make it’s way onto the island and up a hill – a hill now covered with fallen trees. I’ve never seen people work so hard. That was Monday and Tuesday.

Ed, making his way through the next tree. 

John..."Everything has a process." And so it does. 

From left to right: Kim, John, Gloria and Ed. "The Fearless Four"!

By Wednesday the sky had cleared and the electricity seemed as if it was going to stay on. Finally, we could cook, see clearly at night and run our fans! I called my daughter as well as my folks and told them that they might want to consider staying home. Even though the storm had finally moved out, it was hot and the electricity situation was sketchy at best. Neither took me up on the suggestion. By Wednesday morning Aleela, Keith and baby Adella arrived. By Wednesday afternoon my parents stepped foot on the island. By Wednesday evening the second storm was on its way. This one forecasted to be worse than the first, 80+ mph straight line winds, damaging hail and lightening. This time we all barely made it off the island. Thankfully we had rented my folks a motel room in town due to the heat, so we all headed that direction. Let me tell you, I was in complete panic mode. When Keith notified me (he has satellite internet service on his phone) that the storm was on its way, my heart just sank. How could we have put all these loved ones in this danger? Why didn’t I tell them all to stay home? But there was no time for remorse, we packed up the bare necessities, ran down the hill and boarded the pontoon. Every second we were on that water seemed like an eternity. All I could imagine was that wall coming across the water again. There was no way we would stay afloat. Once again, we barely set foot on shore, ran up to our vehicles and the wind hit. Branches blowing across the road we sped towards town. We waited storm number two out at the Timber Lodge Hotel and by nightfall we were back on the island with no electricity. That was Wednesday.

Emma and Leslie coloring by sunset.

Thursday the heat and humidity moved out and we had a simply lovely day. My parents had purchased a one-day fishing license and Thursday was the day. We spent the morning and the better part of the afternoon under the shade of the pontoon canopy pulling up sunfish barely big enough to swallow a hook. And swallow it they did! Most of our catches were thrown back in only to be gobbled up by the eagles that surrounded us. One keeper in all, but it was a perfect outing. It’s been years since I have fished with my mom and dad. I will cherish those hours for the rest of my life. As our luck would have it, for some random reason the electricity went out again Thursday evening. There were thousands still with out power, so my guess is that whatever the fix was, it was temporary at best. That was Thursday.

Keith, finding a few hours to fish between storms.

Friday we awoke to extremely overcast skies, torrential rain and no electricity. It rained all day. The temperature dropped significantly and the cool breeze made it sweatshirt weather. A welcome change!! Thanks to Aleela and her ability to make just about any situation fun, the teenagers had a wonderful last night at the cabin. They stayed up late playing cards and pictionary and I was lulled to sleep by the sound of their laughter floating up the stairs to our room. That was Friday.

Adella and I, watching the rain at 5am, waiting for the electricity to return.

The girls playing cards Friday night. 

Saturday morning we all awoke at 4:30am with my granddaughter Adella. She was to be the alarm clock and with perfect timing she awoke on schedule. By 6:30 they were packed up and back on the mainland and by 7:30 we were in our van and heading into town. As we rode our fully loaded pontoon back to shore the weather could not have been more perfect. The air was crisp and still, the water like glass, the sky deep blue and the loons, not more than 20 feet away, calling back and forth to each other to greet the morning and bid us our farewell. It was surreal. No one spoke. There was only listening. There was only that moment, in that place, in that time.

I’m pretty sure if I could have listened into the minds of my teenagers I would have heard quite a different “tune” than what I was experiencing in that moment. By day three they were asking if we were going to stay or go home. Roughing it is not exactly a 16-year-old's idea of a vacation. Although, if they admit it or not, they had their moments of fun. Moms know these things.

So here I sit. It’s Wednesday of the following week. We’ve been home four and a half days and I’m still recovering. I think adrenalin (and pain medication) kept me going and it was not until we arrived home that I realized the toll the past two weeks took on me. Thankfully there was literally nothing for me to do when I got home. Our daughter Anna stayed back this trip due to work, and made our homecoming simply delightful. Once she heard how the trip was going, she made it her goal to make sure I was able to rest the minute I walked into the door. The house was absolutely spotless, the plants and gardens watered, the laundry done, the refrigerator stocked, the garage clean, the sheets changed…she didn’t miss a detail – even a welcome home sign on the kitchen whiteboard. It was a gesture of love and compassion in its truest form, and I was moved beyond words. This is my daughter, Anna.

I knew I wanted to write about the week eventually, but for the first few days I really struggled - one, because of pure exhaustion, and two, because I really did not know what or how I wanted to write. I wanted to recount the week and its details, yet something was pulling at me, as something always does. Something bigger.

As life will do after any vacation, it hit me pretty hard. Even though our time on the island was full of it’s share of struggle and daily maintenance, it was still a reprieve from the “norm”. And despite the coming and going of weather and electricity, there were moments pregnant with beauty and all that nature sings to our hearts in the spaces of stillness. These minutes were enough to carry me away from the pain of illness, to empty my mind of the family crisis and struggles left behind back home and to bring me comfort. There were times when even though I felt like I was literally drowning, there was peace to be found under the water. The peace that comes when you give up the struggle only to realize that you can float. The peace that comes when you stop fighting against what “is”.   

Enjoying the last evening on the island after the rain cleared. 

This is the lesson I brought home with me. I didn’t realize it at first. When life “hit” and I lay in bed crying, filling my head with stories of “I can’t” and “this is too much” and the pain of things I have absolutely no control over came rushing in like the flood waters up north – I finally just let myself go under. Like the moment Dave looked at me during the first storm and said, “Honey, this is all we can do” – I just had to let go. And you know what – I float. When we stop struggling, we float. We just need to rest enough of ourselves below the surface of things until we find ourselves upheld. Believe me, this is not an easy thing to do. But the heart of trust is believing you will be held up when you let go. It’s only under the surface that we become weightless and things slow down. This letting go - this is faith. That we cannot stay under for  very long only affirms that we must let go again and again in order to live life to its fullest.

Why didn’t we just head home after the first storm? That seems pretty obvious to me now.


It's a little bit funny...
(for Sara Jane)

It's a little bit funny this feeling inside 
I'm not one of those who can easily hide 
I don't have much money but boy if I did 
I'd buy a big house where we both could live 

If I was a sculptor, but then again, no 
Or a man who makes potions in a travelling show 
I know it's not much but it's the best I can do 
My gift is my song and this one's for you 

And you can tell everybody this is your song 
It may be quite simple but now that it's done 
I hope you don't mind 
I hope you don't mind that I put down in words 
How wonderful life is while you're in the world 

I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss 
Well a few of the verses well they've got me quite cross 
But the sun's been quite kind while I wrote this song 
It's for people like you that keep it turned on 

So excuse me forgetting but these things I do 
You see I've forgotten if they're green or they're blue 
Anyway the thing is what I really mean 
Yours are the sweetest eyes I've ever seen