Paradise

I’m in a little corner of paradise in the wildest part of Costa Rica, and I just keep having to pinch myself to believe that I am where I am. I just got here, and I’m already sad because I don’t know when I’ll get to come back. I’m on the Osa Peninsula on the South Pacific coast of Costa Rica at a little ecolodge called Iguana Lodge. October is the rainiest month in Costa Rica, so most places have ridiculously low prices this time of year. I think it might be my favorite time of year here because things are much quieter, and it only rains a few hours each day in the afternoons, which can make for a really peaceful afternoon! Another lady from Colorado and I are the only two guests at the moment, so we kind of have the place to ourselves! I’m torn between just wanting to play on the beach all day and wanting to see all that this beautiful place has to offer. It’s whale season here, so there are plenty of tours you can take to go whale watching or kayaking or waterfall rappelling or ziplining or surfing!

So far the whole trip to Costa Rica has been so lovely and peaceful. I wasn’t sure what to expect because it’s been nearly four years since I was here last and this country and I have so much history!

I first came here when I was 19 to study Spanish. I studied at an institute in the mountains of Santa Ana called Conversa and lived with a host family in the town of Santa Ana. I was only here for three weeks but fell so much in love with the country. I hadn’t been back in the states for a day when I called my host mom crying because I missed everything so much. I love the outdoors and outdoor adventures so incredibly much that it really was the perfect place for me to keep working on my Spanish. I’ve always struggled when I have to sit still or be indoors for long periods of time, so to be in outdoor classes that consisted of hiking or ping pong or swimming was my perfect learning environment. After returning to the states, I talked with my advisor in college and worked it out so I could come back to spend the summer here that same year and get school credit for it. That summer I started dating a “tico” that I had stayed in touch with from my first trip to Costa Rica. Between my love for him and the beaches and mountains and waterfalls, I never wanted to leave. I tried unsuccessfully to find a job down here and return the next semester, but when that didn’t work out, our relationship fizzled.

In the meantime, I had found a small community of ticos in Birmingham that could ease the pain of being so far away from my little paradise. I still came back whenever I could to visit and explore new parts of the country. Then a couple of years and a few Costa Rican boyfriends later, after I returned from a five month trek around Europe, I started dating my future husband. We met at a party that my Costa Rican friends hosted and would then see each other and dance together every Friday night at Assagio for Latin dancing. I tried my best not to date him, having sworn off all latin men, but after about six months of him insisting, I gave in!
We came to Costa Rica a few times while we were dating, and I had so much fun with his gigantic family of 11 brothers and sisters and countless cousins and nieces and nephews.
It was such a welcome contrast to my white middle class America that seemed to want to lead me down such a conventional path.

After about two years of a tumultuous courtship, partly because we thought we could love each other forever and partly because of logistical reasons such as immigration, etc, we decided to get married. Our marriage was one of extremes, things seemed to swing back and forth from extremely happy and good to horrific and unbearable. One month he would seem to love me more than he’d ever loved anyone and the next month he’d seem extremely distant, ready to pack his bags and leave. We both struggled to adapt to each others’ expectations and cultures, and after 4 years of marriage, because of so many different reasons, we separated. It was extremely difficult, but after crying nearly everyday for several months, I was able to see things with more clarity and trust that it was the best thing for both of us.

After we split up, I wasn’t sure if I would ever come back to Costa Rica, but I’ve discovered since then that my love for this country was not at all dependent on my ex-husband. He now lives part of the year next door to my goddaughter with his wife and 5 month old baby. He let me borrow his car and his cell phone for the time that I’m here, and something about being here and holding his baby and laughing with his new wife has brought me a strange sort of peace and happiness. Even though I’ve felt peaceful about our divorce for a long time, it’a strange thing to feel so happy and sad at the same time. I’m still sad for all that was lost, but I know that it’s better now that we aren’t together. And I’m so incredibly grateful that we can all spend time together without feeling any anger or resentment towards each other. It means the world to me to be able to stay next door to each other and have that be ok.

It’s also strange because in some ways it feels like the country hasn’t changed at all and in other ways things are different. The machismo is still very present here. Women are expected to stay home, clean, take care of the kids and cook three meals a day- and to ask the man in their lives permission for everything. I’ve been asked repeatedly, “your boyfriend let you come here alone?!” I still haven’t found a very good answer to that question, and every time I’m asked that, I feel so grateful to come from a place where I have the freedom to carve out my own path. But at the same time, at least in the rural areas, there is still so much poverty here that the machismo almost makes sense. There’s not enough demand for both spouses to work so the only way they can afford to get by is if the wife stays home, raising the children, cleaning and cooking rice and beans over and over again. Most people seem to have enough money to buy food and to pay their monthly water and electric bill, but not much else. Marita, my goddaughter’s mom, is an awesome seamstress who makes most of their clothes because she can’t afford to buy any. All the toys the kids have are decades old and look like antiques- in many ways it’s kind of refreshing. And it’s definitely been a good reminder of how little we actually need. Most of the trash at their house is compost so they just throw food scraps into the jungle behind their house. Of actual trash, they may have a small plastic Wal-Mart bag full each month. For many years they had a big hole that they had dug themselves to bury the trash. Marita was excited because I made some cookies and brought them in a tupperware container- she was thrilled to have a container to put her husband’s lunch in everyday! Many people here still use banana leaves to wrap their lunches in!

Marita’s family used to raise pigs, and they would use the methane from the pigs’ waste to cook and heat their water. But Marita says that since the free trade agreement with the US was passed, the meat from the factory farms in the US can be imported so cheaply, that it no longer makes economic sense for them to raise their own pigs. A similar thing seems to be happening with coffee. My ex’s brother has a coffee plantation, and he says that the price off coffee dropped over 60% this year because it can be imported so cheaply from other places. With the current price of coffee, they can barely afford to pay the workers to harvest it and then have it transported to the co-op.

I don’t know if the free trade agreement has benefited the country in some ways or not. Marita says that people have more access to technology than ever before, which could be a good and bad thing! Nearly everyone has a cell phone with prepaid plans- most people text here because it costs less than a penny to send a text message.

I’ve also noticed a shift in the mentality of Costa Ricans with regard to conservation efforts in this beautiful country. When I first came to Costa Rica, I was struck with how reckless people could be with such a gorgeous place. Piles of trash would line the streets and river banks. People didn’t think twice about leveling primary rainforests to create pasture land. Then they would douse the land with chemicals that went straight to the rivers to keep weeds from growing. But those practices seem to be changing, due largely to the influence of foreigners.

In some ways, all the foreign influence and immigration from the US and Europe has made the country a lot more expensive for the locals. But at the same time, the tourism industry has created so many jobs and has helped people understand that they need to protect their country if they want it to continue being a prime eco-tourism destination. I think when people come from such poverty, it’s easy for them to only focus on what money can buy. They take this beautiful paradise for granted because it’s all they’ve ever known. So it’s really nice to see that now many schools are teaching kids about recycling and conservation.

As I navigated around potholes on the five hour trek to reach this lodge, I was struck by how alive I felt. And after I reached the lodge, I sat down to listen to the crashing of the ocean waves and three macaws flew over my head. I felt a familiar pit in my stomach that usually happens when I’m afraid. And I thought to myself that maybe I was afraid of being in a place so unfamiliar and so wild, but then I realized that I was afraid of just the opposite. I’m afraid of leaving. This is the place where my soul can rest, and I can feel alive at the same time. And I’m scared of going back to a routine and a life that flattens me, that I’ve tried so hard to mold into a life that I love but that still doesn’t let me feel totally alive. And I feel so sad and trapped when I think about leaving this little paradise. At home I get consumed by responsibilities, to-do lists and trying to “be somebody” or achieve something.

But for now, I’m going to try and be here while I’m here, knowing that I’ll leave here a slightly different person than when I came. And trusting in the fact that life unfolds at its own pace and that the answers will come to me as I’m ready for them.

Here are a few photos from this lovely place, the school where I studied, my goddaughter and the peninsula (I haven’t figured out how to caption photos from my phone yet!)

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From One Steel City to Another

It’s a rainy night in Costa Rica. I’m in a town called Santa Ana visiting the family that I lived with when I studied here nearly 14 years ago. After a couple of weeks away from the busyness of work and the responsibilities of home, I’m feeling pretty peaceful.

I just finished reading Orange is the New Black, and after reading about the author’s experience of a year in federal prison, I feel humbled to be a part of this mess we call life and all of its uniqueness. In her book, Piper Kerman describes humanity and the importance of connection so well. Her experience shows how resilient we are as humans and that we can survive most anything as long as we’re able to love and connect with other human beings.

The centering thought from one of the guided meditations I did last week was about “cherishing every connection.” And that’s mostly what the last couple of weeks have been about for me- connecting with other people, myself and the world around me.

On a road trip to Pittsburgh for the annual Passive House conference last week, after camping near Cumberland Falls, I got to spend some time in Kentucky and share ideas with Ginger Watkins, a new friend, architect and a great advocate for Passive House. I’m excited about the possibility of us working together- it’s so helpful to have the support of someone who’s experienced in working with Passive House. After our meeting, I headed to Westerville, OH to visit some cousins and my great uncle, all of whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years or so. It was really fun getting to know my cousins and their spouses a little more, catching up, sharing stories and looking at old pictures. My great uncle lost his wife (my grandmother’s sister) on the day of their 59th wedding anniversary last year, so I wanted to know that he was doing ok. It was really special to spend some time with him and to see all the projects he and my grandad had worked on together in his home. He was an architect who designed some beautiful buildings around Westerville, and he and my grandad were experts in working with what they had. He turned a bottom drawer into a step stool in the kitchen to reach things on the top shelf, made a countertop from a bowling alley floor, used motor oil to flatten out his cupped cedar shake siding and made a ventilation system with a box fan and a hole in a door with an insulated panel to cover it in the winter. It was really fun and meaningful to connect with him and my cousins and to see what they have all been up to for the last decade! They all sent me on my way with a delicious brunch!

With many hours on the road, as I drove to and from Pittsburgh, I had time to catch up with some old friends by phone who have moved out of town. I also had plenty of time to listen to some inspiring talks. One of the talks was from a guy named Neale Donald Walsh who wrote Conversations with God. In this talk he summarized what I’ve come to believe about life. I told my friend Nuo the other day that if someone held a gun to my head and asked me for the meaning of life, I’d have to say “to experience it.” Neale went on to talk about how each of us is a unique expression of the divine. We are a piece of divinity in physical form so that divinity can have the unique experience of what it means to be each one of us. And at the risk of sounding like a faux-spiritualist (as my friend Aaron calls it!) or of over-romanticizing ordinary life, I really believe that’s true. He says that our only job in life is to be who we are and to experience the depth of all that entails. It seems that so much of our pain and suffering comes from denying our experience and trying to be something other than who we are.

Then I thought about the movie the City of Angels, where Nicholas Cage decides to fall from angel hood and experience the pain of becoming human again just so he can touch Meg Ryan. And I remembered what it was like in high school when I had developed an eating disorder as a coping mechanism, as a way to avoid feeling pain that I feared intolerable. I became so numb that I couldn’t feel joy or pain. I remember looking at sunsets with glazed over eyes and half-heartedly saying, “oh that’s pretty.” But they were only words because no part of my being was able to experience the beauty of a sunset. So I began the arduos journey of recovery because I decided that feeling lifeless forever was worse than feeling pain. And although often I don’t feel or act very divine- I can easily fall into the awkwardness of trying to be someone I’m not or trying to fabricate things to validate myself or existence- but after just a few minutes of meditating, I’m reminded of the priceless stillness, peace and beauty that I’m made of- that we’re all made of. And now I can look at the sunsets and the sky on a daily basis and be truly moved by their beauty. Every time I do, I’m so thankful that I’m able to experience them.

Once I got to Pittsburgh, I stayed with my friend Claire, who moved there with her husband a few months ago. We explored Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, did some rainy day yoga and had some fun dinners with her husband Miles!

At the conference itself, I felt inspired and overwhelmed at the same time. I heard some amazing talks that reminded me why this matters to me and to the world. Every time I go to a Passive House training or a conference, I understand things a little more completely and leave with a broader perspective of how everything works together. It’s so great to be among a community of people who are passionate about what they’re doing, learning from their mistakes and sharing their experiences.

Building a Passive house still feels like a scary mysterious thing, but I think that’s only because I haven’t actually built one yet. Yesterday I visited the institute in the mountains of Costa Rica where I came to study Spanish 14 years ago, and as I looked at the beautiful mountains, I was reminded of how similar the learning curve is with Passive House. I would spend hours and hours in the classroom learning and studying, reading books and living with families who only spoke Spanish, and even after a year or so of near immersion, it sometimes felt impossible. I felt like it would always be hard. But at some point, a few years down the road, it started to feel pretty natural. I still am continually learning new things about the language, but the language is almost second nature to me now. So remembering that experience was very comforting because Passive House is just learning another construction language, and hopefully a few years from now, it won’t seem so hard.

After the conference, I started back home, and as I crossed the border into Ohio, I called my dad to tell him about the conference, thinking he would probably be out hiking somewhere near his Seattle home. He answered and when I asked what he was up to, he said, “Oh, just hanging out in Ohio at a physical therapy meeting.” I couldn’t believe we were in the same state! So as an added bonus to a great week, I got to walk along the Ohio river and have lunch with my dad- such a welcome surprise!

I made it home and flew to Costa Rica 2 days later (which was due mostly to poor planning- it’s been a welcome rest, but I didn’t quite realize I’d have to take 3 1/2 weeks off work when I planned these trips!) Tomorrow I’ll head down to the south of the country to visit my goddaughter and my ex-husband’s family. Then even further south a few days later to the Osa Peninsula, the wildest part of Costa Rica. I’ve never been, but it sounds absolutely beautiful. Hopefully, I’ll have some time to write while I’m there!

Below are some images of my sweet family, Cumberland Falls (the Niagara of the south), my dad near the Ohio River, my friend Claire, Fallingwater, the view from the Conversa institute where I studied in Costa Rica!

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Lessons Re-Learned

I’m grateful to be feeling good again. Life has been pretty great over the last few weeks, and I’m ready to dive into some new projects. I’m playing with the idea of balance as things start to get a little busier.

Here’s a list of a few things I’ve learned (or re-learned) over the last few months:

1. The need for the tension of the opposites is an important thing to accept.

I had plenty of free time when I was sick. I got lots of much-needed rest, but the more time I spent at home, the more miserable I felt.

I learned that although I need love and support, I don’t really want other people to take care of me. I don’t want all the free time in the world- and this was a huge thing for me to experience. It’s allowing me to accept the tension of the opposites that Jung talks about. Because even though I don’t like it when I have to wake up to be somewhere at 7- I also don’t like not having a reason to wake up.

I would often think about how fun it would be to be suddenly wealthy, so I could be totally free to pursue my creative interests. And even though I’m sure I wouldn’t turn down a million dollars, turning it down could be the better choice! Because I want to create my own success – there’s something so satisfying about that. And I want to have plenty without having too much. It reminds me of a quote I heard somewhere that said, “Give your kids enough money to do something, but not so much that they can do nothing.” Creating new businesses involves hard work and uncomfortable risk. I was hoping for a natural, effortless evolution as I transitioned into a relaxed, prosperous new business. But I’m realizing that I’m just going to have to dive into some things that are hard and that terrify me! I’ve just gotta close my eyes and jump! There are going to be some things that I don’t like or even hate, but I can accept that and work hard while I still take time to rest and care for myself.

2. Our beliefs about life and ourselves are inseparable from our physical health and well being.

As I was sorting through my health woes, I ran across a book by Louise Hay called, You Can Heal Your Life. The book talks about how our lives are a manifestation of everything we believe- be it our health, our relationships, our work. Louise was diagnosed with vaginal cancer, and she decided she was going to heal her life with nutrition and healing beliefs and exercises. And it worked for her!

I’ve always believed that our belief system can keep us limited, but I didn’t quite know to what extent. I listened to a talk by Deepak Chopra last night that said our bodies renew themselves by 98% every year, which means there’s only two percent of my physical body that’s left from this time last year! In my mind, that creates an amazing possibility for healing.

So I started to experiment. I could feel myself starting down this lengthy road of spending thousands more dollars, chasing a medical diagnosis, feeling awful and sorry for myself. If I looked hard enough, I’m sure I could have found something that was wrong.

But I also believed that I could choose to get better, and I refused to accept that I was going to feel weak and sick for the rest of my life.

So I decided to go kayaking one Saturday, regardless of how I felt. I felt sick during the first half of the trip, but then I felt pretty great. And it’s been mostly better since that day. When I’m tired, I think, “Oh, I’m tired today.” Rather than, “oh, god, I’m exhausted, what horrible illness is this a symptom of?” When I start to hurt, I stop and take a few breaths. Letting go and believing that my body can heal has been a really powerful experience for me.

I don’t say that to discount the pain that so many people are experiencing. I think that pain is very real, and I don’t pretend to know to what extent our beliefs contribute to all pain, tragedy, and illness, but I thought it was worth trying in my own life.

3. Self-loathing often gets disguised as self care.

Another thing I’ve learned is that I was still trying way too hard. I still had an agenda of wanting to “fix me”.

When I first started feeling bad, I didn’t want to see a doctor. I thought, “fuck, I’m already exercising, eating healthy- I don’t have time for anything else related to my health. “

Pete Egoscue, the founder of the postural therapy method I practice says, “Pain is your body’s voice. Listen to your body.” My body was trying to communicate with me, and honestly, all I wanted it to do was shut up.

At times there’s an underlying aggression that permeates the things I do in the name of “self-care”. Self-loathing can easily get disguised as “self-care”. We say we’re going on a diet to be healthier, or we’re going to exercise for our health. When what we really feel is that we are disgusting, over indulgent slobs who need to punish ourselves into shape. But we rebel against that because something at the core of our beings refuses to believe that we’re defective or horrible.

Something within us says I won’t give up until you see the value in me- the value in me just as I am. And I will continue to rebel until you love me, listen to me and pay attention to what I’m saying.

We talk ourselves out of our feelings and desires, we wish we could cut off half of the fat on our bellies or erase the wrinkles from our forehead because some ancient voice is yelling at us saying that life would be easier if we didn’t have feelings, desires or imperfections. If we could just fit perfectly into the mold that our parents or society have set out for us, then our existence would be validated. Then we wouldn’t blame ourselves anymore for the problems that were never ours to begin with.

4. Complete self-reliance doesn’t work (nor does it exist)- I believe that healing is impossible without the support of other people.

I was trying to be way too self-reliant. One of the main reasons that I got certified in Postural Therapy was so that I could treat myself. I thought getting treated was too expensive, so if I was certified, then I would never need a therapist again! But I’ve learned that there is no substitute for having another human being to help us heal and to support us in our suffering. We weren’t meant to live in isolation, and as much as I would like (at times) to avoid the messiness of needing other humans and relationships, it doesn’t work for long.

5. If I try to use my head to make sense of everything, I go crazy.

This health drama has reminded me of a religious quest that I went on in college. After some events in my family caused me to question nearly all my beliefs, I set out determined to find the ultimate truth and to live my life according to that truth. So I obsessively read books, took religion courses, had discussions with friends, and the more I sought out concrete answers, the dizzier I became. When I finally gave up and quit trying to figure it all out, I found the freedom that comes with accepting the paradox and mystery of it all.

And I think I’m learning that lesson again now- if we can humbly exist and rest in the complexity of life that can never be fully understood with our intellect, then we find peace and freedom. As soon as I quit trying so hard and relax into my experience, then I usually feel pretty good. If I can do things that are fun, that’s the best medicine I’ve found. I don’t remember the last time I was hurting while having an awesome time!

So I think it’s been a combination of all the things I just wrote about that have helped me feel better: the shift in my belief system and attitude, the nutritional changes and supplements I’m taking, the love and support of the wonderful people in my life, treatment from some really great doctors and therapists, meditation and relaxation techniques that help me slow my mind down and sleep, remembering to have fun, and listening to my body with kindness instead of yelling at it to shut up. I hope to have internalized these lessons a little more over the last few months, and hopefully they will continue to shape my life and my actions.

I’ve started working with people in postural therapy again, and so far the results have been pretty great. I have a cute little therapy space in my mom’s building in Cahaba Heights. I’m still happy to work with anyone who is interested. Right now, I’m seeing people on a pay what you can basis. I need to cover some basic expenses, but I also want it to be accessible for anyone who is interested. So feel free to shoot me a message if you’re interested- I’d love to work with you! Here’s a link to the post explaining more about the Egoscue Method and postural therapy, if you’d like to read more about it! And I’m planning to start teaching a posture class one evening a week sometime in the next few months.

I’m also dreaming about some Passive House projects. I don’t think it’s the right time to start building my Avondale house. But I have been thinking of building an affordable Passive House on a different property to sell. I’m hoping to find some existing Passive House plans that I like and modify them a little, which would make the process much shorter. I’ve also started looking at some historic properties in Norwood and Roebuck Springs, to see if I find something there that I could renovate.

So we’ll see where all this takes me, but thank you again to everyone who let me know they were thinking of me. And to everyone who shared their own stories of similar struggles. It really meant a lot to me.

Health Woes

It’s been a hellish couple of weeks. I’ve spent half of the last two weeks crying, feeling falling apart horrible, and the other half feeling strong and optimistic, like I can deal with anything I’m handed.

A couple Fridays ago I wasn’t feeling so great. I’d been feeling tired off and on for a while, but this day was different. I was exhausted and nauseated with numbness in my hands, feet and face. I had that run over by a truck feeling like you get when you have the flu. My head was pounding, and I hadn’t slept really well in months.

It kind of felt like a cruel joke the universe was playing on me. For the first time in my life, I was making time for myself, making my own well being a priority. I made sure I had enough time to sleep and exercise everyday- the only problem was I couldn’t sleep, and then I was too tired to exercise. Ha, ha, that’s really funny, Life.

I wonder if it’s some sort of challenge, like my body’s saying, well, let’s see how far you’re willing to take this whole “take care of yourself thing”. Are you willing to go broke? Are you willing to spend all your money on healthcare and healthy food?

So that Friday night, I went to see a doctor at MedHelp. I thought maybe my woes were related to my thyroid since I take medicine for hypothyroidism. He said he would do some blood work to check my vitamin and thyroid levels, since both vitamin deficiencies and low thyroid could cause my symptoms. And then he said, “but if this all comes back normal, I’m concerned you could have MS.”

M, what?!! Of all the things I’ve worried about in my lifetime, MS had never made it onto my list of potential catastrophes I should be prepared for. It had never even crossed my mind.

He said I was in the right age range, and I was female. And that it often starts with fatigue, headaches, body aches, an interruption in sleep patterns, and numbness in your extremities.

Usually my initial response when something bad happens is to keep calm, focus, and be extremely practical. It’s almost like an out of body experience, where I become really objective, observing the situation from a far. The panic doesn’t set in until later, so I immediately started preparing myself for what all this could mean.

My thoughts the week after that appointment went something like this: “Ok, so I have MS- I’m going to be the poster child for how healthy you can be with MS.” “I definitely don’t have MS- I’m sure this is just a virus that will pass.” “I think this is all in my head.” “My symptoms are the exact MS symptoms, I’m sure I have the progressive kind, and I’ll be in a wheelchair by next week.” “MS, I probably don’t have it, but if I do, hey, it’s no big deal.” “MS, it’s a death sentence- I’m losing everything!!!!!” (while sobbing uncontrollably)

A week went by and the doctor called the following Friday to give me the results of my blood work. My thyroid was a little low, and I was deficient in Vitamin D- but neither one of those seemed likely to be causing my symptoms. The doctor again said he was worried and wanted me to see a neurologist. My sweet friend, Ana, works in a neurologist’s office so she gave me some tips on how to best navigate the system, and I made an appointment for the following week.

But a few hours later, I started feeling really dizzy and my limbs felt so heavy that it was hard to walk. I panicked and, hysterical, I called my mom to tell her I was going to the emergency room. I work in the ER all the time, but it was my first time there as a patient. I stumbled in and couldn’t bring myself to tell the ER nurse what was wrong- he saw the tears in my eyes and asked if I needed to be seen. I nodded while I clumsily filled out the paperwork. My sister works at the hospital where I was so she came to see me, and something about seeing a familiar face made me cry even harder. Within an hour, my mom and Chris were there, too. I’ve always known that I have a wonderful family and support system, but this experience has magnified that exponentially. I’m SO incredibly fortunate.

They did a CT scan and more blood work in the ER, which all came back negative. The doc said that I didn’t have a brain tumor, and she was able to rule out several other things, such as an infection, lupus, etc. But she said there was no test that she could do in the Emergency Room to rule out MS.

She looked at me with a sad face and said that my symptoms sounded like MS to her, and she just hoped that the neurologist could come up with another explanation that she wasn’t thinking of. She said, “All I can do is give you a prescription to help you sleep and calm your nerves, so you don’t panic this week while you’re waiting to see the neurologist.” “I know I would be panicking,” she said. That last part wasn’t very helpful.

So I went home more convinced than ever that I have MS.

It was a long week of ups and downs while I waited for my appointment yesterday. When the neurologist saw me, it was comforting that he didn’t automatically think it was MS. He said we needed to cast a wide net to see what we could find. I’m getting an MRI next week, and he said sometimes even migraines can cause these symptoms. But I don’t feel like I have migraines. I feel like I have the flu mixed with insomnia, weakness, numbness and dizziness. I feel weak whenever I stand up, and sometimes it feels hard to catch my breath. Sometimes I can’t hold it together and cry when someone casually asks how I’m doing and other times I feel pretty normal- it comes and goes.

I still have no idea if I actually have MS or something else, but I’m now an expert on everything related to it. I can tell you which supplements you should be on and what things you should avoid. There are two different MS diets, one of which I’m already following! One physician with Progressive MS was able to reverse her symptoms with a certain diet. Here’s a link to the Ted talk she gave regarding the changes she made in her diet to go from being wheel chair bound to riding her bike to work. She’s recently written a book called Minding Your Mitochondria. I’ve cut out gluten and alcohol(mostly) and am eating 9 cups of different organic fruits and vegetables a day and 4 ounces of grass fed beef or salmon. I’ve started taking Vitamin D, Omega 3 fatty acids and Vitamin B supplements. In less than a week, I’ve already spent $350 on food!

I don’t feel sorry for myself because life is still pretty great. I’m often surprised that even more horrible things haven’t already happened to me, and I’m really glad that I don’t have a brain tumor.

I’m mostly just worried about how it will affect my energy for the things that I have loved in the past. I’m worried about not being able to go on backpacking trips or about having to take medicines that could hurt my body in other ways. And I’m sad for all the ways that I’ve abused my body in the past that could’ve contributed to whatever this is.

Just like always, there are so many unknowns. And even after the MRI, regardless of what they find or don’t, there will be many more unknowns. Everyone with MS has different symptoms with different degrees of severity. And if they don’t find anything, then I still have to try and figure out why I’m having all these problems. Or wonder if it is all in my head ☺

Straightening Things Out -the Egoscue Method

I’m on a flight back from Colorado as I write this. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks hanging out with some friends and finishing the last part of a certification to become a postural therapist.

I’ve haven’t written about this yet, but over the last 9 months, I’ve been working on a certification to become a Postural Alignment Specialist in the Egoscue Method.
That’s a lot of words to basically say that I’ll be certified to work with people to help them get their body back into a functional alignment to stay out of pain and move without limitations.

I ran across a book in my chiropractor’s office a couple of years ago called Pain Free by Pete Egoscue. I had been in pain off and on for several years after a shoulder injury in high school, and I knew that I couldn’t rely on somebody else to fix me anymore. Seeing the chiropractor every couple of weeks wasn’t helping my pain anymore because I wasn’t helping myself!

As I started reading the book, I was impressed with how simple and logical the method sounded. Pete Egoscue was shot in Vietnam, and after being told that he would never heal completely and would always be in pain, he began to rehabilitate himself. After about a year of experimenting with his own body, he had made a miraculous recovery and through the process of his own healing, the Egoscue Method was born.

When other veterans saw his transformation, they begged him to teach them what he had learned and slowly the word began to spread.

The basic premise of the method, as Pete writes, is, “we can’t live without adequate motion, and our motionless lifestyle is nothing less than a slow death.” Up until some decades ago, our survival depended totally on movement. And now we can survive with just a few steps from the bed to the bathroom to the car to the computer. But we still have bodies that are designed to need the stimulus of motion, so we’re paying for our sedentary lifestyles with pain and dysfunction. Our movement deprived lifestyles have created dysfunctional bodies, so when we do try to move, we often end up hurting ourselves.

The Egoscue Method says we have to believe in our body’s amazing ability to heal itself. We have to first believe that we aren’t broken beyond repair. Then we have to take responsibility for our health and understand that no drugs, surgery or other people can fix what we can only fix ourselves. Egoscue recognizes that our body operates as a unit, so whatever happens in one part of the body affects the body as a whole. And when we are in pain, it’s our body screaming at us to pay attention.

The method is a system of simple stretches and exercises that uses gravity and flat surfaces like the wall or floor to help our bodies get back into a functional position. It uses a systematic approach of deliberate movements to remind the body of how it can and is supposed to function!

When I first began doing the exercises, I was amazed at the results! Within about 2 days, I felt 90% better and was able to start doing things I had quit doing because of the pain.

I’ve always wanted to make a living doing things that I most believe in. I want to share with other people the things that work for me in my own life, and I have a strong belief that we can’t compartmentalize our lives.

As I write this, I imagine people thinking: “Lauren, you’re all over the place! How can you build Passive Houses, be an interpreter, and a postural therapist? I thought you wanted to simplify your life. Can’t you just pick one thing??!” Or maybe it’s my own inner-critic that says that.

But the common thread is sustainability. I can’t work overtime on projects related to green living and sustainability, if my own health is deteriorating. That feels very hypocritical. I think that what we eat, how we move, how we treat the people in our lives, and the kind of choices we make in the products we buy and the buildings we build is all so important and inner-connected. I will never do it perfectly (just in case you see me next week on the street corner with a growler of beer eating Doritos!) but I’m interested in creating a mind-body practice where I work with people to better their quality of life while I work on doing the same thing in my life.

What I imagine my life looking like over the next few years is to continue working part-time as an interpreter, then to have a part-time mind-body practice where I work as a sort of life coach and postural therapist with people. And hopefully, I’ll have some time and energy left over to work on Passive House projects as the opportunity arises.

I’m really excited about the possibilities. I also will be working with a few people for free as I become more comfortable as a Postural therapist, so if you are interested let me know! And if you’d like more info. about the Egoscue Method, check out the book Pain Free or The Egoscue Method of Health Through Motion by Pete Egoscue.

Obsessively Un-obsessing

I have a newfound commitment to not obsess about anything!

Which is interesting, because in the last few weeks I’ve cut my income by about 30%, and I’ve enrolled in a “plant-based” whole foods month long challenge. It seems like the perfect opportunity to get obsessed!

I have all this new time on my hands now; why not get crazy about couponing and all the money I should be saving. Growing my own food, so I can be a good plant-based student, while saving money!

It’s oh-so tempting. There are so many options and so much information out there-it’s hard not to get overwhelmed. It’s ridiculously hard to not constantly pound ourselves with a bunch of rules that somebody else came up with.

I think I’m ready to quit obsessing because I’m finally starting to believe that it doesn’t work. I don’t like rules that aren’t in my best interest. And if someone is telling me to eat kale (whether it’s an actual person or the voice in my head) when I’ve already had 12 servings of oil-free, salt-free, animal protein-free vegetables in 3 hours, I’m going to listen when my body screams “no!”.

I think the reason that diets or food plans don’t usually work is because someone else is making the rules for a body that’s not theirs. It’s because we’ve forgotten that we can trust ourselves.

Sure, there are general guidelines that are generally healthier for the general population. But if you’re forcing yourself to eat salad, when your body needs fat, that’s not healthy. No one can be inside you and say tomorrow at noon, you’re going to need x number of calories, or some vitamin D or calcium or sodium.

We have an innate ability to know what our bodies, minds and souls need. We know when we need green vegetables and when we need chocolate- we’ve just forgotten how to listen.

Our bodies’ signals have been so clouded by our dysfunctional pasts, our crazy culture, and the constant to desire to escape through food, alcohol, work or whatever. And so much of our food has become so distorted that it’s nearly unrecognizable as food. No wonder we’re confused.

But why do we keep doing crazy? Why do we keep relinquishing control over our own bodies and well-being to a set of external rules or to the voices from our childhood?

I think it’s because it’s easier in the short term. Because it can be a long, heartbreaking path to begin looking at why we do what we do. It’s hard to reconnect with a wisdom that we abandoned decades ago. We associate the familiar with survival, so we keep doing what we’ve always done. And maybe we’re scared of what we’ll find or of what we could lose if we really listen. Or maybe we’re scared of what we’ve already lost.

It’s been a process of several years for me, but I now know how to recognize what my body needs. The hardest part is really listening and then letting it shape my actions. Most of the time I don’t want to listen. I’m still scared of what could happen if I really pay attention.

But I no longer believe that someone else knows what’s better for me than I do.

So you may wonder why I’m even participating in this challenge if I don’t believe in rules.

It’s because in general I believe that a diet that consists of whole foods and that’s mostly plant based is what’s best for my health and the health of the planet. And because lately I haven’t been listening as well to what is best for me as I’d like to. It’s great to have a community of support and a place to share ideas and recipes. It helps me pay a little more attention to the choices I’m making about what I eat. I think challenges like this one can be helpful, as long as I use it as a way to support and encourage my own wisdom, rather than as a way to ignore it. Which is why I still eat meat or eggs or cheese a few times each week. Even though it’s not part of the plan, there are times when I feel like that’s what my body needs.

And sometimes I don’t care if something’s good for me or not- sometimes I get tired of being “good,” which is also ok, I just want that to be more the exception than the rule! And the more I make decisions for myself, rather than basing my choices on other people’s expectations, the less I need to rebel.

So when I feel those obsessions creeping in, I try and catch myself. I try and stop that voice before it totally grips me because I know now that obsessively worrying about anything, whether it be calories or money or whether or not the radio waves from my cell phone give me cancer, doesn’t help or change anything. It actually hurts. And it robs me of a whole lot of happiness in the process.

Finding Freedom in Impermanence

In her new book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chodron writes about an author who talks about “humans as transitional beings—beings who are neither fully caught nor fully free…” Pema says, “I find it helpful to think of myself this way. I’m in the process of evolving. I’m neither doomed nor completely free, but I’m creating my future with every word, every action, every thought. I find myself in a very dynamic situation with unimaginable potential. I have all the support I need to simply relax and be with the transitional, in-process quality of my life. ”

Yesterday was my first day off without big projects to finish or open houses to plan. I felt like a combination of a giddy six-year old that was skipping first grade and an old retired lady who was scared of a boring, meaningless existence.

I have an intensely restless spirit, and whenever things calm down, I get terrified. Calm and peace are ideas that I love in theory, but in reality and in practice, they scare me. There’s something very exciting about running frantically from one activity to the next, which is probably why I’ve done it for so long.

Stress and busyness can be a huge distraction from dealing with our fears and the mystery and uncertainty of life. It’s scary to think about the impermanence of things. But I also believe there’s an unimaginable freedom that comes from facing it head on.

Even with my restlessness and the small internal war that was happening inside me, yesterday was an awesome day, and I hope to continue to ask myself the question, “Are you doing this because you love it and because it makes you feel more alive, or are you doing this to run from something that scares you?”

And I hope that once my life is centered around the things I love the most, rather than avoiding what I’m afraid of, maybe that’s where I’ll find the freedom I’m searching for.

I think there’s freedom to be found in accepting the human conundrum of being caught somewhere between complete freedom and complete stuck-ness! And it’s amazing to think about how we create our own futures with every moment we live, every belief we manifest, and every connection we make.

One Year Later

At many times a long the way I’ve wondered if change was possible. Sometimes my old beliefs and habits can feel so ingrained, that it’ll make me question whether or not humans are truly capable of change.

When I started this blog about a year ago, I was hoping to have my new home built by now, but more importantly I was searching for a shift within myself and a different outlook on life.

And a year later, I can honestly say that a lot has changed. My life has become less frantic, and I take time to do things that truly nurture me. I’m saying “no” a lot more, and I have a new overall commitment to my own well being. I cook healthy meals for myself. I take my lunch to work. I’ve reduced the amount of clutter and waste in my life. I take time to write. I spend time most days doing stretches and exercises that help me realign my posture and stay out of pain.

It’s amazing how good I can feel just by taking care of myself.

It’s very different than trying to force myself to live a “healthy” lifestyle or “be good” or “save the environment.” It really comes from a deeper place of wanting to truly live my life in alignment with what’s best for myself and the world around me. And I really don’t believe that those are two separate things. Of course I don’t do it perfectly (not even close!), and I don’t think I would want to. But I’m grateful for what this project is bringing me, and I hope to be able to continue sharing the things that are changing and the ways I hope to shape my professional life to line up with that vision as well.

I watched a you tube video this past week about a family of four who manages to only have one tiny bag of trash every few months. Here’s a link if you’d like to see how they do it.  They say that some people have criticized them and called their lifestyle extreme but that they are truly happier and healthier and their expenses have been reduced significantly by living this way!

Like with so many things, I don’t think it has to be all or nothing. I try to continually, gently incorporate smaller things into my life and see what habits I can gradually change. Things that feel really awkward at first, can become second nature over time. The last time I went to the grocery store, I looked at the conveyor belt and saw how nearly everything I was buying came in a package. So I’ve been saving my packages and buying more in bulk, using cloth bags to put the bulk items into. I keep a couple of tupperware containers in my car or purse to use as to go boxes at restaurants and take my water bottle at work, so I don’t have to use disposable cups. It’s fun; remembering is the hardest part! I’ve also been more conscious about only bringing things into my home that I really want or need. So just a few small changes at a time, that hopefully over a lifetime can make a difference!

Later this week I’ll write more about our progress with the house! I’ve been working on a few construction projects lately, so here are some photos from a Homewood bathroom remodel I just finished, and a screened in porch we tiled in Mountain Brook. In the bathroom, we used a low flow toilet and plumbing fixtures, an LED light fixture over the vanity, low VOC paint on the walls and ceiling, and we re-used the medicine cabinet over the vanity and painted it to match the vanity wood! All of these options were comparable in price to their conventional equivalent.

Here’s a link to my first post around this time last year if you’d like to read more about what this project means to me!

Kisses from Katie

I just finished reading a book called Kisses from Katie, about an 18 year-old girl from Tennessee who left her home and family to work with orphans in Uganda. She had planned on staying only for a year before returning to the states for college. But she fell in love with the country and the people, and now Uganda feels like home. At age 22, she lives in Uganda and is a mother to 13 adopted children.

The book resonated with me in so many ways. Although my own mission isn’t a religious one, I believe the essence is the same. It’s what Buddhists call groundlessness, and Christians surrender. It’s about love and connection and being a part of something much larger than myself. It’s about surrendering to uncertainty and getting away from all the static and excess that interferes with that larger purpose in our modern Western lives.

As I read the book, I began to think harder about how I could create that same sense of purpose and connection in my own everyday life.

The paperwork and the monotony of the work I do as an interpreter kills me. I can feel the liveliness leave me, every time I have to say, “Please sign these 15 pieces of paper,” as I proceed to ask the same 10 questions over and over again, while pondering how many trees die to supply hospitals with excessive amounts of paper, most of which goes straight in the trash. I despise that part of my job, and unfortunately, that’s most of what I do. On the days where I have to stand under fluorescent lights, registering 20 kids for routine doctors appointments, sometimes I feel like I can barely contain my frustration as I try to merge our bureaucratic, litigious society with people who come from a totally different world where healthcare and education are never a given. Often I’m the bridge between someone who hates their desk job and a person who doesn’t know their child’s birthdate, and I feel like pulling my hair out.

But the moments when I’m sitting in the Emergency Room with a mother whose daughter is dying from a rare genetic disorder, and the doctors insist that she won’t live much longer; I watch the mother refuse to give up on her daughter, and I can feel myself come to life.

In April of last year, I fell in love with two boys who had lost everything, their home, their mother and their brother to the tornadoes, and in the few months I spent working with them, I’d never loved my job more.

When I sit with children who have been sexually abused, and I see them slowly learning to trust someone again, or I watch as parents come to therapy themselves, recognizing their mistakes and learning to be better parents. When I see a sickly, precious little girl recovering from a stem cell transplant, or I have to tell a family that their child has just been diagnosed with cancer, their pain breaks my heart, but those experiences yank me back to the present moment. I feel so connected to those people, and those moments are some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. Much like the feeling of being in the woods with only my backpack, I feel at home.

It makes me sad to think about how many years I’ve spent doing less than the most meaningful things in my life. I’m constantly searching for meaning, but I wonder if I’ve been searching in the wrong places.

I’ve spent most of my adult life being responsible, trying to enjoy the moment, while I plan for my future. At my first real job, I would have them deposit half of my paycheck into my savings account to begin investing in my retirement plan. But I don’t want to obsess about the future anymore. I don’t want to be reckless or put anybody else out either, but I’ve been living as if I could somehow avoid pain and tragedy if I just planned or invested well enough. As if enough planning could protect me from the messiness of life. I don’t think it works that way.

I have rental properties, and although they probably cause me more stress than anything, my goal was to pay off my houses in another 15 years and retire. And by retire I mean, only pouring my heart, work, and energy into the things I love the most.

But I can’t wait that long! My life is slipping away while I wait to have enough money to live the life of my dreams. So I’m thinking of trying to live the life that I want and trust that the money thing will work itself out. It may or may not, but the worst-case scenario would probably just be me living with my mom and trimming her bushes in exchange for some of her delicious organic meals.

As I write this, I’m thinking to myself: “You know you have a life that many people would dream of. You get to travel, you have loving friends and family, you have your health, a decent job, a beautiful place to live, an adorable dog, a boyfriend that loves you.” But that’s not enough. It’s not enough because I’m still spending A LOT of my time, dealing with paperwork, sitting under fluorescent lights in an environment that stifles me.

And I don’t feel very alive.

After my divorce, I was in so much pain that the whole world lit up. The intensity of pain I was experiencing opened me up to a whole new world. I couldn’t possibly hurt anymore than I was already hurting, so there was nothing to run from. I could be totally open to anyone and everything because there was no need to protect myself. And that openness brought me such joy and showed me parts of myself that I never remembered having experienced.

Although I don’t miss the pain, I miss that feeling, that openness. As I move further away from that painful time in my life, I become more and more comfortable and less willing to be uncomfortable. And the more I run from discomfort, the smaller my world becomes.

I know this is not a linear process, and I’m not a linear person. I struggle to focus on one thing, and the details around what I think I want can change as quickly as Alabama’s bipolar weather. I’m interested in and passionate about so many things. One day all I can think about is building this Passive House and how much that means to me. Then the next day I want to either take off into the woods or go care for dying children in Africa, and my Passive House dream starts to feel incredibly privileged and pretentious.

I go in circles, zig-zagging back and forth, just hoping that ultimately I’m moving in the direction of my deepest desires. I know that I will continually swing back and forth between my desire for safety and comfort and the longing for aliveness that only comes from first feeling incredibly uncomfortable. Simplicity is my luxury, and I can only hope I’m slowly headed that way, whatever concrete form it may take.

I was looking at an old journal and found this poem I had written a few years ago:

I feel a terrifying peace
Something that says,
“You don’t have a choice.”

It’s something infinitely bigger than me
Yet at the same time as small as me

I realize that somehow
I’m the most and the least
Important thing in the universe

And I think maybe I don’t have to be scared
Or maybe I do

Maybe being terrified is part of it
I’m terrified of my peace being stolen from me…

It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted out of life
I believe it’s all any of us ever want

I want to spend the rest of my life
Being with that peace
And looking for it in places it can truly be found.

From Alaska to Illinois

I’m headed to Illinois tomorrow for my first Passive House builder’s training. It’s their inaugural builders training and takes place in a college town called Urbana, “the heartland home of superinsulation, air-tight envelopes, ERV, and solar gain principles that underpin the modern passive house movement.” The US Passive House Institute is located there and 8 Passive House projects have been built there in the last 10 years.

The training focuses on general passive house principles, hands-on field focus on the building envelope, HVAC considerations and cost optimization and bidding. I’m really excited about the training and learning more about how to actually build a Passive House (and a little nervous that I’ll be totally under-qualified). Hopefully, I can post some pictures of the Passive House projects there that have already been built!

It’s also fun to be in a hotel for a week where there’s nothing but me to clean or take care of! It’ll be quite the contrast to the tent I was sleeping in last week in Alaska.

Last week, eleven of us spent nine days in Alaska through UAB’s Outdoor Pursuits. We spent a few days in Denali National Park, backpacking in the Denali wilderness, hiking on tundra, which is actually a plant and not a place like I thought.

The views were amazing, and I didn’t suffer nearly as much as I expected. The weather had gotten cold enough to take the mosquito level from intolerable to just annoying. And we were among the lucky ones that were able to see Mount McKinley, all 20,328 feet of it!

The mountain spends most of its time hidden behind the clouds and only about 30% of visitors get to see it in all of its glory. If you get to Wonder Lake on a cloudy day, unless someone told you, you’d never know a giant mountain existed behind the fog. Josh, our trip leader woke us all up at 5:30 one morning when he saw that the mountain was totally exposed.

Early morning Mt. McKinley

In the backcountry part of our trip, we got caught in a freezing 12-hour windy rain storm, which made for a cold, uncomfortable day and reminded us that tents are only water resistant and NOT waterproof! But it also made for some quality time with Xuan my tent partner and made clear sunny days seem like heaven!

After climbing out of the wilderness, we headed south to Valdez, where we spent a day sea kayaking up to the Shoup glacier. It was absolutely beautiful. I even swam in glacier water, and if you know how much I hate the cold, I’m sure you’re really impressed!

We saw every kind of wildlife we hoped to see, from grizzlies to moose to wolves to loons, luckily most of it was from the safety of the park’s camper bus and not on the trail! The landscapes are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and I hope to venture back some day to do some more glacier hiking and ice climbing.

No matter where you are in Alaska, it takes 8 hours to get somewhere else. It’s one of the few places in the US that has been kept truly wild. And especially in the national parks, they’ve worked really hard to keep it that way. Other than social trails that people have created, there are no trails in the Denali wilderness. No private vehicles are allowed on the park road, and the park rangers work incessantly to educate people on how to respect wildlife and “leave no trace” as they explore the park.

Kayaking at Shoup glacier

So from Alaska to Illinois, it’s been a happening month. I’ll have to miss half of Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival this weekend, which breaks my heart. But I got an early morning flight back on Sunday, so that I could at least catch some of the Sunday films. Sidewalk is one of my favorite local events!

My home hasn’t leased yet, so if it doesn’t happen in the next few weeks, maybe I’ll start working on finishing the basement. David has the house drawings and the climate data for our region and is working on entering the data to run all the Passive House numbers for the Avondale house. Once we’ve entered all the data, we’ll know if we need to change any window or door sizes or anything else with the design before we finalize the drawings to meet Passive House standards.