On Resilience

by Maria Theresa Maggi on October 8, 2017

 

jumper on trampoline sketch by MTM

 

My love affair with the word “resilience” began with a little angel on a trampoline.

Many years ago during my time in manual therapy, in addition to the main practicioner I saw, I sometimes would go to see her sister-in-law, who was a friend of mine, and was moving up the ranks in the same training. Like me, this friend had once been an English major and though she was shy, she had a gift with words. During the 90’s we both participated in a women’s circle that met 4 times a year on the solstice and equinox points. I always liked it when it was her turn to call in the directions because of the things she thought to say when describing the spirits of the north, south, east and west and their corresponding elements earth, fire, air and water.

So it seemed perfectly appropriate that the way she ended all her body work appointments with clients in those days was with a resonant word. She would to invite us to pick an “angel card” to take home. Angel cards are simply little stiff rectangles the size of a fortune you might find in a cookie at a Chinese restaurant. Each one has a word on it like “beauty, “balance,” “grace,” “trust,” forgiveness,” “release,” courage” and many other such evocative words. There is a simple drawing of an angel on each one illustrating the word in a tender or playful way. For example, the word “release” is illustrated by an angel with a backpack who has just gotten off the school bus. I liked these cards so much I bought myself a set. Much later I bought a very hard boiled environmental activist who lived with me a set of her own when she left to go to law school. In those days she would come down my stairs in the morning and make her coffee and check her e-mail at my desk, so she had a good view of my favorite angel card, which I had placed at eye level on a book shelf: resilience, with the little angel on the trampoline.

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Maybe one of the reasons I held on so hard to that little angel card back in those days is that “resilience” as cellular reality in my body was fading significantly. It was getting more elusive, and therefore less likely I would simply “bounce back” if I napped or waited a couple of days or a week, or even weeks, to be able to do something again. And then when I could, it would be with some little “lift” within the ability gone missing. Perhaps the most scary and sobering experience with this came when the activist family to whom I given the angel cards left for California after 6 months of living with me. I expected to be tired and to take some time to “bounce back,” maybe a couple of weeks. But my body had other plans. One late winter morning I attempted to walk down the block, thinking I might make it to  to the co-op, about a third of a mile away. Three houses down I was shaking with weakness, my legs threatening to buckle out from under me, even with my walking stick. I was grateful to get home without falling.

I didn’t know it then, but it would be months before I’d be strong enough to walk to the co-op, even one way. In these months I would continue to see my friend for the gentle body work she offered and the angel cards she gave out. In other times I could have walked to her office, less than a quarter mile from my house but in these months I needed a ride both ways. Walking short distances to do errands had been something I took great pride and joy in. I’ve blocked out a lot of what I couldn’t do myself during that time, but I do remember sitting in the deli area of the co-op, after being dropped off by someone, and then waiting for yet another someone to meet me there to help me shop, and fighting back tears as I watched the other customers push their own carts, check their groceries and walk away out into the world. That had been me, even if I couldn’t carry a lot, or if I had to sit down and rest when I got there, or halfway there as well. Would I ever get it back?

I did, eventually, months later, work myself back to being able to walk all the way there. I had to stop halfway at the old bus station and sit on a bench for a few minutes, but I could get there. Being able to walk back home came later. And carrying anything back was yet another matter requiring my patience. But I DO remember the first time I got there again, knowing I would also be able to walk back, and how very pleased with myself I was. Carrying any regular groceries home was out of the question, but I remember picking a single sesame candy out of the bulk bin, something I could fit in my pocket, and deciding to buy it, just because I could carry it home myself. That still makes me smile.

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When I revisit a word that resonates with me, I often go on a figurative walkabout through its beginnings. The etymology of the word “resilience” led me to discover that contained within the root of it is a 15th century heraldic term– “salient,” from the Latin meaning “to leap.” In heraldry, such terms describe the positions of the various animals and humans depicted on a shield or a coat of arms. “Salient” means the beast is up on its hind legs, about to spring, or leap. These animals were meant to both signal to the viewer of the shield the powers behind it and protect the knight who bore the coat of arms. I enjoy seeing that “leaping” or “springing” is considered a powerful protective position. Even earlier,  in middle English, salient was a descriptive term used to describe skipping and leaping as acts of play. By the 17th century it was used to describe something striking or pointing outward. Also in the 17th century, the term “salient point” was used to describe the heartbeat of an embryo, which seemed to “leap.” Hence it became known as the starting point of just about anything.

So I guess it could be said that resilience contains within it the ability to start over. Perhaps this is why I’ve seen people use it recently in the context of physical training to build resilience. Somehow, in that training, it is inferred, the magical quality of resilience will be engendered. Like the heartbeat of an embryo, the training promises new strength, new life.

I suppose this applies to any kind of training or discipline. When I chose 9 years ago to eat an exclusively low fat plant-based diet, my inflammatory response was so entrenched in aggravation that I had all but lost the ability to “bounce back.” But in the weeks and months that followed, the inflammatory response lowered to a point that the “bounce” could begin to return. Yet I was terrified each time I unintentionally overdid, that once again I had crossed a line, and the bounce would not have enough bounce to “spring” me back. I didn’t want to have to return to those earlier times when I had stared at that little card each day, hoping to conjure up what was fast becoming more and more elusive.

A few months after I began eating low fat plant-based, I went to the art opening of my someday-to-be -daughter-in-law. She was graduating and her Bachelor of Fine Arts show was up. I enjoyed seeing her ingenious felt sculpture environments and visiting with her and my son’s young professors they had told me so much about. One of them had the cutest baby boy, who went from arms to arms as we stood around and visited. He held out his little arms to come to me and I could not resist.

It felt so good to hold a little baby boy again. He was a delight! I savored his sweet little bulk, and visisted happily. Then he and I walked around and looked at the art and I asked him what he thought.

Suddenly, though, I realized I had been holding him for a rather long time and my arm was starting to go. The professor Dad had left the room for a few minutes with another student. I sat down with Delightful Baby Boy in a chair. I can’t remember if I saw Mike or the professor Dad first, but Delightful Baby Boy got handed back to his parent, with no fussing at all. Once I handed him back over, I realized my arm was going quite limp, unwilling to hold a position of any kind. I signaled to Mike that I needed to go home. I had so enjoyed being able to hold the baby. But now I had very little strength in my arm and was afraid I might not even be able to hold my walking stick.

When I got home, I went in and laid down and simply rested with my arm in a comfortable position, and worked on relaxing, not panicking that it might not “come back.” I may have done some manual therapy homework as well. And within about the same amount of time I had been holding the baby, my arm started to “bounce back.” With care, I was able to prepare my plant-based dinner and in a few days all was as it was before I got to hold the baby! It was a wonderful moment to realize I could have both the experience of holding the baby, and the continued use of my arm. I no longer had to choose one or the other.

As time went on, I gradually became more trusting of my ability to bounce back. When bigger exertions and exhaustions occurred I would worry about how I would recover, but it seemed that even bigger setbacks took only a couple of weeks to “bounce back” from—nothing like the months I had been benched from walking to the co-op.

So I guess you could say that training myself to eat plant-based helped me build resilience. I won’t argue with that. But there’s something more to it. Like in heraldry, there’s an “attitude” or position involved that’s strategic. In heraldry, that means the perspective from which the viewer, the warrior or his adversary views the images on the shield or the coat of arms. What I’m trying to get at is less physically substantial than a shield, yet it’s a perspective view from which, in my life anyway, comes great strength and protection. The wikipedia definition of “salient” says the animal depicted must have both hind feet together on the ground and both forefeet up in the air together to depict the “leap”—the definition depicts a lion in the salient stance, and notes this is a very rare stance for a lion in heraldry.

The thing about an animal’s leap is that we cannot calculate when it will actually be set in motion. We can see the stance, the poise before the leap, but we can’t predict when that leap will happen. So maybe it’s not so odd or paradoxical that I don’t know where or when my own resilence, poised to “bounce” will take the leap. I never know quite where it’s going to come from, but I know the stance it arises from is laughter.

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When I think of laughter I think of another figurative lion—the yoga pose simhasana, or “lion’s breath” I sometimes do in my morning practice, especially if I feel like I’m coming down with a sore throat. But every time I do it, I also think back to the 3 classrooms of 5th graders I was teaching how to write poems for the first time, and inducting them into the “don’t think, see!” mindset that helps free kids up to write a good poem. As part of that loosening up, I walked them all through a standing version of the lion pose, after demonstrating it myself. I must have looked ridiculous, which was part of my design. Before long, we were all giggling and roaring and everybody was loosened up and ready to “spring” creatively.

I got some great (and sometimes heartbreaking) poems as a result, and one boy who came up to tell me his parents did yoga too. But then the principal got a complaint. Apparently it was considered “praying” by some parents who objected to it. The principal himself was sheepish about having to tell me this. “Maybe you could just call it breathing exercises,” he said.

But without the lion involved, it just wasn’t as much fun. “Breathing exercises” seemed so abstract. I demurred for the rest of my gig at the school, and laughed to myself that the “damage” had already been done: the inner lion had been let loose in each of these kids, I think for better, even if it opened up some of the “for worse” scenarios they were trying to make sense of in their daily lives, up to and including by the time you are ten you already know if you are in the “dumb dumb” class. (The dumb-dumbs, by the way, wrote the best poems. The “mentally-gifted” class was already so uptight about doing things right, they had a much harder time “springing.”)

In our current very trying and frightening political climate, a “wise friend” reposted this definition of resilience: “The ability to absorb shock and maintain function: how your recharge, not how you endure.”

For me, the recharge button is the giggle that comes out of nowhere, even in the face of heartbreak, and makes me laugh at myself, or the situation, however dire—that feeling of “lift off,” whatever brings it. If I had to give it a form, resilience is like a ball of light that wants to bounce, that grows spontaneously in the palm of my hand, and invites me  to play. I suddenly become a juggler dressed in motley. This, I would say, is my warrior’s uniform. I had to grow into this idea, but it gets more comfortable with each passing year. When I first saw the ocean again after 22 years on my 60th birthday, I swung on a swing at Seaside and tried on this joker’s hat in a gift shop:

I should have bought it. It fit my deceptively large head perfectly. Just looking at the photo makes me silly with inspiration and possibility. Nearly two years after succumbing to the siren call of the ocean, I go “mad” daily with its beauty and ever changing power and strength to knock me flat, and I’m certain this hat would be the perfect creative thinking cap for me when I start to take myself too darn seriously.

But there is a deeply serious power that comes with the willingness to jest. My absolute heroes in this regard are these clowns who confronted the Ku Klux Klan on a May morning in Tennessee, pretending not to hear the term “white power,” which was being shouted over and over. What were they saying? White flour? Wife power? and each time they were corrected they misheard yet again, and acted each ridiculous hearsay out, up to and including covering themselves in white baking flour. This completely undid the KKK rally. They had no way to counteract the persistent silliness. There is even a children’s book about this event and tactic, which I requested my local library order, and which I’m proud to say they did.

Sometimes that “lift off” into resilience is contained in a question that suddenly occurs to me if I’m willing to  ask myself. One of the most important ones came while reading a memoir of another poet with a severe form of MS who had rejected alternative treatments as dismal failures. Instead of despairing about my choices, her words made this question “bounce” into consciousness: “Have I really done everything I can do before I say ‘yes’ to the wheelchair?” My, how that question had life-changing “lift off,” against great and seemingly reasonable odds that too much time had passed to turn that train around. And yet, daring to ask and then answer that question alone is what started me on my plant-based slow motion miracle.

tiny sand dollars photo by MTM

Resilience is also like these tiny sand dollars that somehow make it through the crashing of waves when they shouldn’t stand a chance against forces that routinely pulverize rocks. Resilience is also engendered by the long laugh I had with myself when I realized they were sand dollars the size of buttons, and not buttons. The previous morning when I saw them on the sand while looking for agates, I had exclaimed to myself “How weird–what are all these buttons doing on the sand?” Enjoying such silliness is the essence of resilience. It can make me almost giddy. Yet it’s that very silliness that brings me fully into the present moment, ensuring I plant my feet firmly on the ground, ready to “lift off” into whatever might come next.

I still have my angel cards, but resilience isn’t among them anymore. It got lost in the shuffle of being out on the desk, used as a bookmark, stuffed in a coat pocket as talisman. Or maybe it went missing because I didn’t need it to remind me like I once did. Now every time I laugh, the feeling of resilience springs up from inside my cells and lifts my tired spirit at the moments when I need it most, like jumping on my very own trampoline. It doesn’t mean I live without despair or anger or grief or heartbreak, it just means I know what my way through and out will be.

Maria (moonwatcher)

 

simhasana lion’s breath pose

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Woosh

by Maria Theresa Maggi on September 23, 2017

Autumn Equinox Beach memory sketch by Maria Theresa Maggi

This memory sketch is the view from above my neighborhood’s north beach access, late afternoon, Autumn Equinox. The actual equinox point was about 2 hours before we arrived, at about the same time the tide was at its highest point that day. The wild ocean of late has reclaimed a lot of the sand and exposed bedrock, making the tidal surges even more dramatic. The day was deciding whether to stay sunny or cloud up, so the sun on the water and in the sky was, by turns, bright or muted white. The water was too close to go down and explore. I thought we should maybe hurry toward the field behind the club house, so Cotton could “twirl” on the grass there. But neither of them were in a hurry. Romeo sat like a sphinx facing the ocean, eyes closed, his nose gently taking in the scents on the breeze. So I sat down next to him. Cotton surprised me by immediately following suit, backing his back up against my leg. I sat Indian style, looking out at the light, so clear it almost had a sound, harmonizing with the sound of the waves. The sun was warm, but with that sweet angle that only comes with Fall.

It was a gift given to me by the patience of my dogs. And it came to me as I felt them on each side of me, that this is often what they like to do when we rest: flank each side of me. And then it came to me in a big woosh of a realization, that this feeling of them on each side of me, their white bodies also glistening with the angled light, is somehow exactly the same feeling I had when I was in the car accident on the San Diego freeway 25 years ago, attempting to leave my body through the crown chakra, What I call angels (there was definitely a feel of big white wings amongst a greater white light) literally, but not literally, held me by the shoulders and stopped my movement out of my body. “No, they communicated telepathically, “it’s not time yet. You have to go back and learn how to receive.”

This not what the books say people report “hearing” during near death experiences. I have never seen anything like it, anyway, in accounts I happened upon afterward over the years, hoping to discover an experience that more closely mirrored my own. I never did. At the time of the accident I was flip, and assumed it merely meant that the guy responsible for the accident had paid for the necessary repairs to my bashed in car. Then later I would assume it was a harbinger for the diagnosis of MS, which set me on a long journey of learning to ask and receive help. That journey also led me to Romeo, and the help he still gives me, and then to Cotton.

In the months after that accident when I moved to Idaho to teach at the university in Moscow, I would round a corner in the road there near the grain towers at the edge of town, a road that no longer exists in the way it did then. It would give me the same feeling I had when I felt the woosh of starting to leave my body through the crown chakra during the accident, just weeks before I moved to Idaho. It would make me so “homesick” for that ability to be “out” far enough beyond time, and feel those angels and “see” what I saw, and how I was given the instructions for how to live through the accident in an intuitive flash outside of linear time. But it was gone.

So I put what I could capture of it into a long poem called “Earthquake Lights.” It took many years, but finally it was published in The Los Angeles Review.

I came to see this learning how to receive instruction as my life purpose; I thought it must be why I continued to live. Like the good student I often was, I have tried to do my homework and wondered how I am progressing, or if I am. I certainly can make an exhaustive list of the experiences I would say have taught me or are teaching me how to receive.

But until this Autumn Equinox afternoon, I had never had an experience that duplicated the feeling of the angels on each “side” of me, protecting me and keeping me safe in an impossible situation. On that bluff, at the edge of the continent, my white dogs on each side of me, I felt it again. It seemed quite matter of fact, not an outrageous leap at all, that these two somewhow embodied aspects of whoever those beings were. They had come into my life literally to sit on each side of me, often as I gazed out onto the water, and saw what I saw, composing in some mysterious way what would become a drawing, a blog post, some deeper understanding of a next step. They were holding me down, so I could feel the earth, and receive from it. Literally.

I’ve never told them to sit on either side of me when we stop and rest on the beach; they just do it—it’s their “idea,” if you will. At home in order for us to fit on the couch with my legs up, it’s one human, two dogs “below,” On the bed it’s human on one side two dogs on the other. But both touch me at all times, if possible. Cotton sleeps on my feet: Romeo likes to spoon into my hip space.

 

Waiting for Thunder, by Maria Theresa Maggi

Is this near constant physical contact when I am at rest somehow a version of those angels who steadied my soul and guided me back into my body, not with instructions to be more loving, but to learn how to receive it? I can’t prove that. I can’t prove the angels were there either. My dogs are still dogs, Silken and lovely though they be. But as Wendy in Peter Pan would say about Peter coming in the window, she didn’t know how she knew, she just knew. Just like a pivotal metaphor in a really good poem—they are both/and: their canine selves and something more. If sitting with them is how I am learning to receive, once again, I am surprised—and delighted. I don’t have to try to learn how—it just happens. Nothing, I realized yesterday on the bluff, has assuaged that feeling of “homesickness” I felt in the curve of the road in my first year in a small Idaho town, which beckoned me up out of my body toward the oneness of all things, only to find I couldn’t leave it at will like I had in the accident. Nothing, anyway, until yesterday, when I felt the woosh of the angels by my side once again in the form of my dogs. I stayed in my body and I received that feeling.

Maybe I am getting the hang of my homework here on earth after all.  Perhaps, though, I am learning it isn’t how I’ve imagined it.  I’m  even beginning to wonder if calling it homework misses the point–maybe letting myself  receive is simply the way home.

 

Maria (moonwatcher)

 

 

 

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