Archive for the ‘health’ Category
Mama’s in the Mountains
For this Mother’s Day, we celebrated my mama the way we celebrate all holidays as a family: with a hike in the Chugach Mountains. We trudged for five miles up and down the steep, muddy trails, looking out over Anchorage and the Cook Inlet through bare birch trunks and last year’s cow parsnip stalks.
This is what we do on holidays. This is how we prepare, in the morning, for a Thanksgiving Feast, and how we give thanks. This is how we recover from Christmas breakfast. This is how we celebrate anything: with nature and sweat. So of course this is the most natural way to celebrate my mama on the occasion of Mother’s Day. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
She is, after all, the mother who broke her ankle at age 48 while bouldering on the South Side of Flattop, but didn’t want to cancel the glacier camping trip we had planned soon after. So while we skied up the glacier’s slope, not wanting to be left out of the fun, she got out of the sled in which she was being towed and crawled up the slope. This is the same mother who subconsciously knew when I was hungover as a teenager and would drag me out on 16-mile runs to the Williwaw Lakes or up Wolverine Peak. She is the mother with whom, at the age of 54, I had a harrowing camping trip in the Chugach in which we got lost and hypothermic, but made it out okay after climbing about 7,000 feet of peaks with wet backpacks on. She is the mother who broke her humeral head 6 weeks ago skiing from Arctic Valley to Indian, and had to hike uphill for an hour holding her broken shoulder—this at the age of 59. Of course, arm in sling, she was back to hiking a few weeks later.
I’ve been thinking of my mother’s tenacity, strength and wisdom leading up to this day that is meant to honor mothers. Quite different from its current, highly commercialized face, Mother’s Day’s has its origins in an 1870 declaration by Julia Warde Howe in response to the loss of so many husbands, sons and fathers in the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. In Howe’s declaration, she called for mothers to have a role in shaping sane public policy and promoting peace, and asked that people listen to women’s wisdom. I find this a very appropriate way to honor mothers, and so I found myself reflecting, as we hiked past the spring shoots and ice-splintered mud of the Bicentennial Park, on the wisdom that my mama’s relentless desire to be in the mountains teaches me.
She teaches me, and everyone who knows her, that aging is not that land of maladies and lost opportunities our culture so often portrays it as — that no-mans-land of kitsch and irrelevance that is the stuff of comedic stereotypes. In a youth-centric, media-driven society such as ours, aging is seen as undesirable, as something to avoid at all costs. This is especially true for women, who don’t get lauded as being “distinguished” looking as they age, the way that men like Sean Connery or George Clooney do, and they certainly don’t play action heroes into their middle age. Just as I hear people my age afraid to get old, I also so often hear people much younger than my mom limit their outdoor activities or use of the stairs, saying—“Oh, my knees; I’m too old for that.”
Now, I know that there are many reasons—genetics, environment, structural inequalities, etc.—that contribute to people having disabilities that truly can limit physical activity. But I’ve always been puzzled when I hear people name age as the culprit for those limitations. It doesn’t make sense to me after I’ve spent so many years watching my mama, whose wisdom has been to eschew the notion that aging is weakness and serious limitations are inevitable, and who has just kept playing. This is, perhaps, a later-in-life version of the way she ignored her father’s admonitions that college education was a waste of time for women, and went anyway. As a result of her resolution, my mama’s broken ankle healed far beyond any of the grim predictions offered by the doctors. She and my dad can still enjoy long excursions into the mountains together, and she has remained tough, fast, and lean as she approaches 60.
As an athlete, a nature-lover, a midwife, a vocal advocate for women’s healthcare, and someone actively engaged in politics, my mama demonstrates that people don’t have to lose their passions, their relevance, their power, or their ability to have fun as they age. So in honor of Mother’s Day and Julia Warde Howe’s 1870 cry to elevate women’s wisdom, I offer you the wisdom of my mother: keep playing, keep yourself connected to nature, and keep on keepin’ on, no matter what people might say.
I dreamt about Stephen last night, my dearest friend from high school. He came to visit–back from the dead, but just for a little while, he said. In my dream, it seemed normal, but also very significant and powerful that he was allowed this quick visit with me. I cried as I hugged him and touched his face. He was back in the flesh, looking like his grinning, strawberry-blonde, 17-year-old self. He was wearing the red Bad Religion hoody that he always wore, the one I wear right now as I type this, the one I inherited, as an 18-year-old, after his suicide and have kept since to wear in my home.
Waking up from that dream was really hard. Today is really hard. While I am grateful for this dream visit (I haven’t had such a dream in years), I am also shocked by his presence, his absence. It’s been 11 years since his suicide, and most of my days go by just fine. We learn to cope with loss and have healthy lives. But today I am shaken, sad, vulnerable. I’ve been re-experiencing my grief all day. The wound is freshly re-opened and it feels like I’ve lost him yet again.
During the day, I couldn’t quite put words to this vulnerability that I was experiencing that made it hard to concentrate at work until that Adele song “Someone Like You” came on the radio and she sang:
“I had hoped you’d see my face and you’d be reminded
That for me it isn’t over.”
As tears poured down my cheeks I thought, “That’s it. Suicide is NEVER over.”
It’s never over for the survivors. Yes, it gets farther into the past, and if we are allowed to grieve, then we can continue to live our lives well (and if we aren’t, then it has even more serious long-term consequences). But a dream like this makes us grieve all over again. Or another suicide in our community sets us back into hurt and guilt. Or a song transports us to a deep sadness, like the way “I See a Darkness” by Johnny Cash did for me two months ago when I first heard it.
Most importantly, suicide is never over because we can never ever have that person back.
I write this not just for my own processing. I write this to tell you, if you are considering suicide, to understand this fact of suicide. It may be quick to kill yourself, but the pain is never over for the rest of us. You leave great scars behind you that never quite close. Forever, there is someone missing who is supposed to be here. We always feel that absence. We always hurt from that absence. You are supposed to be here.
Please, if you are in pain, if you see no light in life, if you have been abused and mistreated and see no other way out, please call the suicide hotline (# below). Or please tell a counselor or teacher or friend and if they can’t get you help, tell someone else until you find someone who can. You do not deserve abuse and you do not deserve to die.
And to the friends, family, teachers, and counselors: Please ask. Notice that they are sad. Invite them, with compassion and a non-judgmental tone, to talk. Show them love. And please ask them if they are considering suicide. I wish so much that they had taught us this when we were in high school. I wish I had had some tools to keep Stephen alive. I wish our high school teachers had brought in suicide prevention experts after the first suicide in our school. Or, better, before it. Silence won’t keep your loved ones alive. TALK. ASK. Be there.
I keep hearing in my head Adele’s song:
“Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead.”
Love is supposed to hurt sometimes, but not like this. Never like this.
Alaska Careline (Suicide Hotline): 1-877-266-HELP
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK
For those of you in the Anchorage area or wherever KSKA comes in, on December 1st at 2 pm and 7 pm they will air a panel discussion on preventing youth suicide.
Bring “The Winter Bear,” a thoughtful, funny, and powerful play about preventing youth suicide (set in Interior Alaska) to your community: www.winterbearproject.com or look for “The Winter Bear Project” on facebook.
My husband, Oscar, and I recently combined our last names after getting married. Beyond the ordinary awkwardness of having to introduce myself by a new last name and sign with different letters, plus the burden of having to explain to confused people that, yes, my husband changed his name too, I also have to deal with my name changing colors.
My name used to be:
And now it’s:
This is a significant change. Those aren’t just the colored pencils I happened to choose. Those are the colored pencils that represent as closely as possible the colors that those names are. The names are those colors and there is nothing I can do to change that. This is because I have a condition called synestesia.
The word comes from the Greek “syn” (together) and aisthēsis (sensation or perception), referring to the crossing of multiple types of sensory information. Some people see music or smell touches, but the most common type is where people automatically assign colors to graphemes (written symbols such as letters or numbers). This is called grapheme -> color synesthesia. Some people project the colors; that is, they see them out in the world, while others just see them in their mind. I am off the latter type.
Growing up, the fact that every letter, number, and word had a color—an absolute, unchangeable color—seemed to me a useful and enjoyable fact of existence. It never occurred to me that this was unordinary or that in the medical literature I was known as a synesthete.
I loved my systems and colors so much, having learned to use them for remembering words, visualizing numbers, and even teaching concepts to my third grade students, that I never felt the need to question where this came from. It wasn’t until I was 23 and visiting my then 8-year-old cousin, Keilee, that I learned that it was not universal. I was in the backseat of my auntie’s minivan as we drove through the desert, past the deep red sandstone of Red Rocks Park outside of Las Vegas. I picked up and read the back of Keilee’s book, Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass. It described, in dramatic terms, a girl who saw colors for all numbers and words. I thought, “What’s so dramatic about that? I do that…” and then it occurred to me to ask, “Wait, does this mean not everyone does that?”
For whatever reason, I didn’t revisit the thought again until I was 27, on a Spring Break climbing trip during graduate school with some classmates. Oddly enough, we were driving through Red Rocks Park after a day on the sandstone and our friend Becca was describing her synesthesia as a crossing of multiple senses, such that she sees music and sees colors for everything. I described to her my colors and she told me, “Yeah, that’s a mild form of synesthesia.” I was so excited to have a name for this experience, or condition, or, as I like to call it half-jokingly, superpower.
My good friend Virginia Speciale, a Special Ed & bilingual ed teacher, just finished reading Mango-Shaped Space and asked me to describe my synesthesia to her. This is more or less what I told her:
“I love it. The colors are absolute, meaning I can’t just willfully go and change them. Two is blue and there’s nothing I can do about that. Virginia is green because of the V and Speciale is yellow because of the S, although the reddish dark pink of the L sort of seeps through near the end. Ginna [her nickname], however, is light orangeish brown and Gina [her other nickname] is a slightly darker brown. I think this is because the N is a lighter and more orange brown than the G, so the double N in Ginna changes the color some. Shunashee [the nickname that only I call her] is very decisively yellow.
Usually the first letter decides the color of the word but some middle letters have an influence, especially green letters like K & V. W is also green, but it’s weaker & lighter and therefore does not exert the same influence. Oki [my husband’s nickname] is green, despite the white O starting the word, while Oscar is white and yellow.
Vowels are white, except Y. But y’know, Y plays for both teams, so that probably explains it.
As for numbers, usually I see the distinct color of each digit even in multi-digit numbers, and especially in dates (today is a very gray & blue set of numbers, but, to give a more interesting example, the Fourth of July next year will be yellow/orange/blue.) However, if I am thinking of periods of years, there is a dominant digit’s color that determines the color of the entire number. The 1900s are maroon. The 1800s are brick red. The 2000s are blue.
If I am thinking of precise years, the last digits’ colors show up. The 60’s, as a decade, are all green and the 70’s are all yellow and so on. If I think of a specific year, such as 1574, it’s 3 different colors (green, yellow and orange.) 2011 is blue and silver.”
I read recently that in addition to grapheme -> color synesthesia, that there is another type that describes the way I see: number form synesthesia. This is described on the Wikipedia page as “a mental map of numbers, which automatically and involuntarily appears whenever someone who experiences number-forms thinks of numbers.” I have always had a very useful and, indeed, involuntary way of organizing numbers visually in my head.
This drawing can’t really capture it, but it at least shows that numbers under 100 are as though under a roof; they are inside. The numbers climb up towards 100, segmented by the tens, each of which has its own color. I found this enormously helpful in arithmetic, and parts of it are certainly in line with the recommendation for kids to draw number lines and segment them by the tens. This is probably because synisthesia doesn’t exist in a vacuum; our brains make via visuals and colors out of the graphemes we learn in school. I learned to think about ones, tens, and hundreds, so I imagine my mental map was derived from my early mathematical education.
Similarly, I learned to first associate colors to English words. As I learned Spanish words, I began to associate colors to them. Unlike English, though, Spanish words usually reveal more of their colors to me. For example, tener is mainly blue, but for some reason that orange/brown N stands out. Pusiste is pink, yellow, blue, and white. English words are rarely so multi-colored. I wonder if this has to do with how late in life such associations were made, or the amount of consciousness I learned to have about the endings of Spanish words in order to conjugate verbs correctly or have adjectives agree with the noun or use the right gender.
I have no idea how this association-making would change if I began to learn Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, or Cantonese. I don’t remember what it was like to begin to associate a color to a brand new letter, and so I don’t know if it would happen as I learn a new alphabet or not. Nor do I know if synestetic children growing up with character-based written language have the same process of color association.
I actually know very little about the science of synesthesia. It’s just exciting to learn that other synesthetes (it’s fun to have a new label for myself)experience what I do, but in their own way. And, of course, a minority of synesthetes experience it in much more vivid and intense ways, with colors projected in front of them for music and words. Virginia, ever a Special Ed teacher, asked me to reflect on any ways in which it has hindered me academically. Honestly, I can’t think of any, and my mom told me yesterday that the reason she never looked into it or told me that it was unusual when I was a child was because it didn’t seem to cause me any problems. However, I would be interested to hear if some forms of synesthesia can be debilitating. My experience of it is just useful and beautiful, and I hope I can pass it on to our future children.
When I met Rita Pitka Blumenstein for the first time last winter and she hugged me, I thought, “Oh. This is what I’ve been waiting for. This is the hug I’ve been thinking about and needing for years.” And I knew that she knew that.
For those of you who do not yet know her, Rita Pitka Blumenstein is a traditional healer, the first tribal doctor in the Alaska Native Health System, a midwife, an esteemed elder, a spiritual leader, and founding member of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. She is Yup’ik primarily, from Nelson Island, Alaska, but also part Athabscan, Aleut, Russian, and a smattering of other European backgrounds. She speaks, sings, and prays in Yup’ik, in the complex and deep understanding of the Yup’ik language that I am told only the elders still have. She is called around the world to pray for people, to lead ceremonies and songs, to heal people from diseases and injuries in the body, the mind and the soul. To heal, she uses her hands, plant medicines, talking and prayer.
Recently, she was invited to attend our Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault training for rural Behavioral Health Aides held in Fairbanks in order to provide prayers, songs, stories and guidance. Since I work with Rita and have had the honor of learning from her in the past, I had the even greater honor of spending nearly every waking hour of that week with her walking to restaurants, attending the training, preparing salad in her hotel room, making sure that the baggage handlers treat her drum well, etc. I feel bless to have learned so much from her in our time together and want to share with you, dear readers, some of the wisdom Rita offered me. I think I also share this story of Rita because in writing it I reinforce what it meant to me on a deeply personal level in my own growth and becoming.
Two important notes
1.) I asked Rita if I was allowed to share her teachings with others on my blog and she said yes. She said she’s publishing them all into a book anyway, so they will become public soon. Furthermore, she sees it as her duty—as a spiritual person, as an elder, as a member of the 13 Grandmothers, and in her job at ANTHC, to teach—directly and through others, including non-Alaska Native others. She also consented to me using this photo that I took of her. If I have misunderstood or missquoted her, however, I apologize and will make changes if they come to my attention.
2.) I am sharing her teachings because I think she has great insight into the world. It’s not because I claim she is speaking directly for God or Truth. I won’t join any religion because I can’t just believe whatever it is that its leaders or books tell me. But I am inspired and moved by what Rita has observed about the world, which is different than believing that it is the one and only truth. In fact, I don’t think Rita claims to have the one and only truth either. She works to heal the world; that is her priority.
The traditional word for creator in Yup’ik is ellam yua, which sounds something like “Chhhhamyua” though with a more g sound and throaty sound to the first consonant. As Rita explains it, the word means means “awareness of the universe.” The “yua” part refers to the person being aware, the Chhham part the universe—the dust that makes up life. It can be awareness of pain, awareness of all that is around us, awareness of that which can’t be seen, presence.
Rita begins prayers with a call to ellam yua and to agayuun. This is the idea of creator that is more the Christian idea–a creator or king that rules. Yuun means ownership, so all is owned by the creator.
She also calls out to the ancestors. As Rita explains, our ancestors are our bone marrow, our parents our bones. We are made up of them. As she wrote in a poem:
We are free to be who we are—
to create our own life
out of the past and out of the present.
We are our ancestors.
When we can heal ourselves,
we also heal our ancestors,
our grandmothers, our
grandfathers and our children.
When we heal ourselves, we heal mother earth.
Rita also includes “Mother Earth” in her prayers at times, both praying to the Earth and for the Earth. What it seems she is teaching us is that that we ask agayun—kin, ancestors—to be a part of our healing and blessing, and the healing we do affects them. Likewise, we pray to the creator/awareness of the universe and to Mother Earth for wisdom and healing, and in healing ourselves we share that healing with the Earth and universe—perhaps because, as healed people, we take better care of the Earth.
Rita tells me a lot about her life story, of going from a rural village on Nelson Island to Montessori School in Seattle and staying there long enough so she could make sure to be able to write her dreams and visions (yes, she was having spiritual visions as a young child). She was then raised in Catholic schools and in a community with Russian Orthodoxy and Catholicism all around her. But her grandparents never converted and always practiced the old ways, and I imagine this is part of what made Rita’s connection to the faith traditions of her land and people so strong. She quotes her grandmother—and this is one of the best articulations I’ve ever heard of what I believe—who said, “I don’t understand why we would need to go worship God inside a building, facing only one direction, when there is the land and ocean and the four directions all around us.”
In conversation, Rita teaches me bits and pieces about the medicine wheel and the four directions. She tells me how the colors (gold, red, black and white) relate to the elements and how some believe that they relate to the continents of people. She told me that all journeys start in the East. The gift of the East is the ability to concentrate fully on what one is doing, the way that children can concentrate so fully on the object in their hands, the way that our mouse sister concentrates on her work. It is the gift of presence, of not being distracted by the past and the future. I tell her that I struggle with being present. She smiles with understanding.
To heal, Rita says, is to become ourselves, to become the light within. It is to accept ourselves and what we feel, and in doing so accept others. It is to be a real person.
Rita tells me that she loves me and trusts me to learn about healing, and that I have a good Native spirit. This is because I am a real person, she says, because I am not pretending, not fake, not closed, but selfless and real and open. I tell her thank you, and that I don’t know how to be anything but open and anyone other than myself, but that I do struggle with accepting myself fully. She says that struggle is okay, and quotes the elders who mentored her, who said that it is okay that things are not okay, that I should just feel what I feel. What I suppose this means is that to be a real person, to be someone good for the world, you have to be open and giving, but you do not have to be perfect, you do not have to have arrived. Rita says she is always learning more about herself, always becoming herself more and more. And if Rita, at 78, is still in that process, that must mean that I’m okay.
I ask Rita what is the importance of faith, because it is not something I always have in abundance. She tells me:
“If you believe in yourself, you have faith. Faith provides the courage to face the present with confidence and the future with expectancy.”
Rita also reminds me that faith and acceptance are not about accepting all behaviors or accepting injustices. Rita, like me, has always had a big mouth and has spoken up to people when they are being racist or cruel or unfair to women. She has always been unafraid to express her opinion and disagree. This is not antithetical to loving acceptance. In fact, it is crucial to creating a better, more healed world. This is why I can learn from this woman.
Rita tells me that childhood is the time for children to learn from the legends and stories of elders, and from the plants and animals and rocks and air, from all of life. Rita tells me about the wild vegetables they harvest:the lovage and Eskimo potatoes, the grass and horsetail roots. She tells me about the knikinik (labrador tea) they use for smudging and that the shamans (herself included) smoke in order to ground themselves after spiritual travelling. She tells me how to brine, dry and smoke salmon strips and how to boil down fireweed syrup. She tells me about plant medicines made from Devil’s Club and raspberry bushes and yarrow and birch. As I learn all this like a child, I think, “Yes, this should be in every child’s education. If it were, we would see so much less environmental devastation.”
We talk about childrearing and potty training (Rita potty trained her children after a few months by keeping them on her body and putting them on a little pot whenever they squirmed around like they needed to go). Rita tells me she is very excited for me to be a mother, that I will be a great one. I tell her I’ll be calling her up for advice on this potty-training-in-the-first-few-months practice.
Rita talks about race, cultural difference and colonization comfortably, neither shying away from its ugly history nor writing off all white people (after all, she was happily married to a Jewish man from New York for over half her life, until he passed). This is a good example for me of how to bring these conversations into groups where they don’t currently happen without triggering people’s defensiveness.
If any of this resonates with you, you can follow the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers online (http://www.grandmotherscouncil.org/), read Rita’s book when she publishes it, or look for other opportunities around Alaska to learn from her or from other teachers of indigenous worldviews. If you have the chance, I highly recommend attending a presentation by my Cup’ik colleague, Uyuriukaraq Ulran, who speaks beautifully about Cup’ik worldview and ethics. And certainly pay a visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
Regardless of your faith tradition, I think it’s okay to be open to Rita’s teachings and to Alaska Native worldviews. Rita’s idea of becoming yourself, of knowing yourself, is something heard in Buddhism and parts of most other world faiths. Her idea of thanking the universe for what we have and asking for blessings from the universe, kin, the Earth and the directions, is not unlike thanking God or Allah, in that it is an act of appreciation of all that is larger than us. It is an act of prayer and thanks that is grounded in the land, water, air and fire, an act grounded in the preservation of this planet. In that way, it is particularly salient for our rapidly-changing world.
On a personal level, one powerful thing I take away from my week with Rita and from knowing her is a more firm sense of who I am. If I fail, if I feel desparate or sad or find myself making mistakes, I am now more likely to say, “I am a real person. And this is a struggle” rather than doubting my integrity and worth. This is a gift from Rita, as well as a gift from my best friend Jessica Laura who always helps reinforce to me who I am. It is a gift from my husband, Oscar, who always reminds me of why I am worth love, and a gift from my parents and friends who know me and believe in me. And we have to believe in ourselves (in a deep way, not in the way of the popular self-esteem movement) in order to move forward and do the work we must for the world.
I will end with Rita’s words (paraphrased because I could not write fast enough for the exact quote):
“Some people dwell on their past lives to look for answers. But all we need to learn will be placed before us. Our job is to move forward.”
Post-script, December 6: Rita just gave me the proper spellings of ellam yua and agayuun, and a bit more clarification of those concepts, so now I have added this to the original post. The old version had my phonetic versions only, and a mishearing/misunderstanding about agayuun.