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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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Carole Kenna-Nelms October 9, 2017 at 1:48 pm

Hello Maria, Another lovely and moving blog read… I do not have MS but I have had some very difficult times that have knocked the wind out of me and left my sails torn and hanging. You just amaze me with your beautiful insight. I thank you for sharing with me and enjoy your talent! Hugz, Carole in PA

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2 Maria Theresa Maggi October 9, 2017 at 2:06 pm

Thank you so much, Carole! I love to here how my words reach my readers. I am glad you made it through difficult times. Here’s to smooth sailing, when we can get it, and good navigational skills when we can’t! xo

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3 Veronica October 10, 2017 at 9:39 am

This post stirred so many emotions in me – sadness, fear, anger… but also hope. I try to block out the fact I have MS; pretend it doesn’t exist… Somehow like talking about it will make it “real” and that it’s only a matter of time before things get worse. But then I read your stories, like this- how it seemed hopeless – and yet! that resilience, that bounce back. The giggles, the living of life. The getting through. The non-permanence of any one state. Working on calmness and relaxation instead of panicking – things I’m working on. Your last line is so powerful.
I’ve only recently heard of “angel cards” – I’m glad you gave a full explanation. They seem like a nice reminder of focusing our thoughts. And I hadn’t heard about the clowns with the white supremacists- that was a wonderful idea! Fizzle out the aggression with silliness.
Thank you for sharing your stories and perspective; it is so very comforting. xoxo

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4 Maria Theresa Maggi October 10, 2017 at 12:49 pm

Dear Veronica, thank you so much for this amazing heartfelt comment. It means the world to me. “The non-permanence of any one state”–I love the way you articulated that. You are stronger than you know, so keep on. So glad we are connected!! I am a better writer to have such wonderful readers as you. xoxo

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5 Lee October 14, 2017 at 5:38 pm

Hi Maria, I loved this post! I needed to be reminded of the beauty of resilience, and the fact that it can have different faces. Sometimes an act of resilience is putting on a goofy joker hat, sometimes it’s trusting that function will returning after pushing “too hard” (I’m having trouble with one of my feet right now that’s been persisting for months, so I’m seeking that sort of resilience!), and sometimes it’s thinking of the angel on the trampoline, even when the card is long gone.

Thanks for the inspiration and sharing your story!

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6 Maria Theresa Maggi October 14, 2017 at 10:59 pm

Thank you Lee! I always love to get feedback from you about what I write! I’m glad this post helped remind you that resilience can have many faces. I like the way you put that. Sending you gentle thoughts of “bounce-back” for your foot trouble–a true “spring” in your step. 🙂 xo

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