Wednesday, June 24, 2009


When a girl goes shopping at the urban intellectual’s favorite box store, she is faced with many choices. There are clothes for women who work in offices, clothes for women who walk on the beach, clothes for women who play tennis and others for women who run on treadmills at the gym. There are clothes for women who ate too much, and clothes for women who did not use birth control, but where are the clothes for the women who take multiple mega-doses of antibiotics and burn the moment the sun hits their skin?

Such a section would offer flattering wide-legged linen pants in a range of colors and gauzy tunics with cool and practical bell-shaped long sleeves. There would be broad brimmed hats that somehow managed to be dignified, even chic, instead of floppy and smacking of middle age. There would perhaps be delicately woven shawls that could be draped dramatically over the head and shoulders for some impromptu shade.

These thoughts drifted along with me as I wandered through the ladies’ section of Target the other day. I found no such articles, so I settled a pseudo-straw hat that was the best of the floppy bunch.

A month ago a ferocious sun burst out from behind Seattle clouds and ever since has reigned down fiery flames that scorch my skin on contact. This came as a bit of a shock to me, as I had been happily anticipating the golden sunlight that we Seattlites dream of, yearn for, reminisce about for nine months of the year. Now that I am taking Zythromax, and Rocephin, and Plaquenil and Diflucan, I can no longer manage even the meager fifteen minutes of daily basking in the mild northwest sun that last summer, when I was taking only Bicillin, I could enjoy. Thirty seconds is more like it.

And so I found myself pondering the organic sunscreens at the food co-op. The one I picked out met the approval of the checker, who was himself practically an albino. I took him to be an expert in sunscreens and was quite satisfied when he told me the titanium and zinc in it were micro-particles but not nano-particles, so they wouldn’t clog my pores or damage my skin.

The sunscreen worked, in that it kept my skin from turning pink. But it oddly created a mild burning sensation on my arms and face a few minutes after I rubbed it in. (This is probably due to my chemical sensitivity, a collateral of Lyme Disease. Although the sunscreen was 70% organic it still contained Potassium Sorbate and Phenosynethanol, identified as “preservatives.”) The micro particles also gave my skin a ghostly whitish hue. I decided to use the stuff sparingly, and thus my trip to Target for protective clothing.

I left the store in disappointment, and came up with the best anti-sun garments I could find on a budget: said floppy hat and one of The Poet’s old oxford shirts, about ten sizes too large for me. This combination, a friend has pointed out, makes me look like the Fat Albert character whose bell-shaped hat covers his face, save the strange holes for his eyes, and wears an oversized shirt to boot.

Within a few weeks vanity took over, and I had switched out the Target hat for a $3 one I found at H&M: much jauntier, with the trifling disadvantage that it didn’t quite provide shade for my chin. No problem, I had my sunscreen.

Or so I thought until two days ago, when a glance in the mirror showed that after a brief walk in the sun the skin around my mouth was covered with hundreds of tiny wrinkles. The whole area looked a bit red and was, to top it off, dry and bumpy.

I have always assumed that 99% of women’s beauty products are pure bunk. I use shampoo and conditioner, soap and a scrubby cloth. Due to my chemical sensitivity all these products have no chemical additives or preservatives, and I always assumed this simplicity was the key to youth and longevity. Now I began to reconsider. At this rate in about a week I was going to look like I was fifty, or at least my chin would. I needed a really good moisturizer, bad.

What was this Dr. Hauschka I had heard so much about? Hadn’t my sister said something about wild and organic botanicals harvested at the peak of their potency, then distilled by a brilliant chemistry PhD obsessed with creating the best lotions in the universe? I made a beeline for his or her products that afternoon at the co-op. Rose Day Cream, Quince Night Time Rejuvenator, special tiny jars for puffy eyes. I made my best guess for the appropriate potion for a wrinkled chin. Fortunately there was a sample tube of Quince Day Cream. I took a little and rubbed it in. Then I looked at the price tag: $36.99 for a one-ounce tube! Horrified, I rushed out of the Body Well Being aisle and carried bravely on with the rest of my grocery list.

Whether it was for better or for worse, at the end of fifteen minutes of grocery shopping my skin, having absorbed the sample quince cream, was noticeably softer and smoother. I found myself back in the face care section, contemplating paying thirty-seven dollars for a one-ounce tube of youth. I just could bring myself to do it. Instead I decided on $13 for two ounces of Aubrey Organics facial moisturizer, $28 on MyChelle anti-aging sun screen, and $10 on a second sun screen, in case the first didn’t work out.

I also found myself contemplating using a little Dr. Hauschka from the tester tube each time I shopped at the co-op. From the looks of the tube, I wasn’t the only one with this idea.

In life we are constantly weighing now versus later. Spend money now on things that make you happy, or save it for later when you might need it. Be relaxed and carefree now, or spend time and effort being organized to avoid bigger problems later. Go through grueling, painful medical treatment that worsens your symptoms now so that later you are healthy.

For the most part, when faced with such decisions, I prioritize the future.
My choice for the moment is about all about vanity: I can wear the chic hat now and walk down the street in dignity, or spend the next three months looking like Fat Albert’s friend Dumb Donald and prevent wrinkly skin later. I am choosing the latter. Next year, I hope to look good.

Monday, June 22, 2009


David arrived a week ago for his summer visit. We’ve been playing baseball and soccer, having the usual wrestling/tickling wars, and consuming countless grilled cheese sandwiches. We spent half of last week at nearby Whidbey Island, the other half visiting friends, enjoying the Fremont Solstice Parade, and tripping over each other in our tiny apartment. This morning he left for his first day of summer camp.

Precious peace. Until 3:30, the place will be quiet. I can slow down and think about taking care of myself, re-order my prescriptions, take my supplements at the right time, eat lunch without rushing, write a little.

And especially I can sit down in silence to meditate.

I came to meditation strictly for survival, not out of any spiritual inclination. Without meditation I would not have made it through the darkest years of Lyme Disease. Without meditation the grueling recovery on antibiotics would be impossible.

In my life I try to avoid giving too many suggestions—most people can figure out what they need to do far better than I could figure it out for them. But I strongly suggest anyone who is chronically ill learn to meditate. When you meditate, you give your body and your mind a chance to relax deeply—perhaps more deeply, or at least differently, than when you sleep. Meditation pulls your body out of the cycle of tension that we all operate under almost continually; it puts your nervous system into the state known as parasympathetic, when your immune system and digestive system take priority and your body works to heal itself.

When I meditate, I feel better about myself and my life, my mind becomes calm and my thoughts become optimistic. I can feel warmth and tingling spreading to my hands and legs and I get a profound rest. It is usually easier for me to fall asleep at night if I have meditated during the day.

The kind of meditation I do is the easiest kind there is. It’s called mindfulness meditation. (I hate the words mindful and mindfulness, but that’s a different post.) You simply sit down in a quiet place, where you won’t be disturbed, and close your eyes and let your mind rest on your breath, until eventually your attention wanders away (it always does, it always will), and eventually you also notice your attention has wandered away, and then you return your thoughts to your breath. You can also notice your body, and notice how the out breath brings relaxation it, until eventually your thoughts wander away again, and the cycle starts all over.

Learning to meditate was difficult for me. When I sat down without doing anything—no reading, tv, even sewing to distract me—my mind instantly filled with all my fears and anxieties. And there were a lot at that time. I was twenty seven, could no longer work, had moved in with my parents, could barely walk and couldn’t even cook a meal for myself. And worse, I didn’t know what was wrong with me.

It is amazing that I stuck with it, but I had heard so much about the benefits of meditation that I kept at it. In time, and less time than you would imagine, the troubling thoughts didn’t bother me. That wasn’t to say that I stopped having them, but when they showed up I knew they were just the normal thoughts anyone in my situation would have, and I didn’t need to let them get to me. They were just thoughts, they came and went, and soon started to come less often and occupy less of my mind. They never went away completely and never will, but meditation allows you to put these kinds of anxieties in perspective, to neither avoid them nor give them too much weight.

Meditation was so difficult for me at the beginning that I found ways to make it easier. I always set a timer, and kept it short so I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed. “I can manage 5 minutes,” I’d tell myself. Often when the timer went off I would already felt so much more relaxed that I wanted to keep going. I would set another 5 or 10 minutes on the timer.

The best crutch was audio tapes. Andrew Weil and Rodney Yee both have excellent tapes (now maybe CDs or even MP3s) of breathing exercises. They walk you through, step by step, when to breathe in and when to breathe out, and give you imagery to think about. You don’t have to do anything on your own, the tape will guide you the whole time. This isn’t strictly meditation, but it will induce the same kind of relaxation you’re going for, and is much easier to do if meditation seems too difficult.

A few other tips for meditation:

*Sit in the most comfortable chair you can find. I sit with an ottoman under legs too. It’s not about asceticism or a spiritual journey for me, it’s about getting myself to relax so I calm my nervous system and maximize my immune system.

*Make sure you won’t be disturbed. Turn off your phone, the radio, tv, and tell your family you will be meditating so they don’t barge in and ask you what’s for dinner.

*Don’t stress about whether you’re doing it right or wrong. Whatever works for you is great.

*Listen to Pema Chodron’s talk, “Pure Meditation” from Shambala for a more thorough and insightful description of meditation, its process and its benefits.

PS: I am posting this quickly, without a chance to put in hyperlinks to the audio-recordings I've mentioned. Hope they can be found easily on the internet and I will try to get the links in soon.