Progress is rarely linear

August 29, 2022 § Leave a comment

I’ll be honest, I’ve had a difficult time deciding what to write in this post.

At the beginning of August, I began my second Lyme treatment, and I’ve spent most of this month in a drowsy haze.

I sleep. A lot.

I watch reality TV (Love Is Blind, anyone?).

I pet the kitten.

I think about bears in hibernation as I snuggle deeper into a plush blue blanket and reread a paragraph in my novel, trying to make sense of the words.

My doctor calls this “brain fog.” An inability to focus, to keep my eyes open, to feel refreshed even after ten hours of sleep and a nap. Brain fog is a common symptom among Lyme patients, though (thankfully!) I’ve rarely struggled with it until now.

She says it’s a sign of the treatment working.

She promises me it won’t last forever.

Still, after the joy of a relatively healthy June and July, this fog plugging my head can feel like a step in the wrong direction. Of course, I wanted my journey back to health to be a straight line upwards and to the right.

But the truth is: progress is rarely linear. Improvement is nearly always more like a jagged line.

And what might look like failure on the outside could be, in truth, the most profound achievement. Success is circumstantial.

These thoughts flutter through the fog in my head, small, bright birds singing hopefully. They offer me encouragement. I hope they do the same for you.

***

This post originally appeared in my August newsletter.

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A kitten takes a bath

August 1, 2022 § Leave a comment

Recently, I told a dear friend, “These days, I feel about God the way my kitten seems to feel about me after I give him a bath.”

I had been giving my new kitten a bath every few days because he came to us with ringworm, a potentially deadly but easily treatable diagnosis for a kitten, and regular baths with special antifungal shampoo were supposed to help.

Most of the time, the kitten can’t get enough of me. He’s either attacking my foot or sleeping on my stomach, and any time I leave the room, he trots along in my wake. My husband calls him a Momma’s Boy.

But during those first few minutes after the bath, when he looks more like a wet rat than a tiny black kitten, that little guy wants nothing to do with me. He slinks off to some dark corner of the house to lick his fur, and anytime I pass, he eyes me warily.

“I haven’t lost my faith in God,” I tell my friend. “I’ve just had enough of Him and the world He’s made to last for a while, and I kind of wish He’d leave me alone.”

***

Sometimes, when I say things like this, I wonder if it might be better if I kept my thoughts to myself. After all, a thought like that doesn’t exactly encourage a sense of tenderness, let alone love, towards God. If anything, it enhances a kind of confused distance between our challenging lives as creatures and our (sometimes) obtuse creator.

But then I remember the time roughly a year and a half ago when another friend invited me to use her late husband’s prayer shed. That day I was having a flare-up of my Lyme symptoms, and I was angry. I was not at all Zen or pious, like I figured one should be when preparing to use a prayer shed. Instead, I was mad at God, and fed up with a world that included a microscopic creature with the power to make my life a living Hell.

But when I stepped inside that quiet, simple prayer shed with the woven rug on the floor and the wooden icon of Jesus on the wall, I heard this faint whisper: You can be angry. In fact, I have given you an entire room to be angry in.

I am convinced God gives us plenty of space for unpleasant emotions. He wants all of us, after all, including the parts of us that don’t exactly look or feel good.

***

The kitten is chasing his tail around and around in violent circles, so I leave the house to sit on the front porch and pray on the phone with another friend. She is going through a hard time which has lasted far longer than we ever imagined, and it seems impossible that God could be anywhere near her life right now. Certainly, she cannot feel Him. Is He even there?

An image comes to us as we pray: my friend standing in a pitch-black room with no doors or windows. Her eyes are open, but she can’t see a thing, which means she can’t see Jesus standing just a few feet in front of her, holding out His hand.

It could be a cheesy image—Jesus is still there! In the dark!—but it isn’t. It’s exactly what my friend needs, and frankly, it’s what I need also.

It’s often tempting to want to tie up our hardships in a bow, to turn them into some kind of purposeful, triumphant event, and sometimes we do understand what it all means in the end, but more often we don’t.

More often what we have is Jesus standing with us in the dark, reaching out an invisible, scarred-over hand.

***

This post originally appeared in my July newsletter.

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How to survive a flare-up

July 12, 2022 § 2 Comments

Last month, I had a draft of my newsletter ready to go when something happened. I had a flare-up.

This flare-up wasn’t exactly unexpected. I had recently started another treatment for my ongoing Lyme disease, and my doctor had warned me that as we killed these “bad bugs,” as she calls them, I might feel worse before I felt better.

Feel worse I did, and Sunday evening found me lying on the couch trying not to move because movement exacerbates the nerve pain in my arms and legs (pain I once described to my husband as akin to the Cruciatus Curse in Harry Potter).

It sounds bad, and it is, but I’m also used to it. I have these flare-ups about every few weeks to every few months, and I’ve learned some tricks to manage them.

I cancel everything for the next few days. I schedule an appointment with my favorite osteopath. I take medicine that usually alleviates the pain within 36 hours. And in the meantime, I wait. I do my best to limit the TV (truthfully, there are only so many times I can watch even my favorite shows before I start to feel my life slip away). I perhaps write a few words using the dictation software on my tablet. I pray a little. I read.

This time around, I found myself returning to an irony that struck me early on in my experience with Lyme: as hard (read: at times, horrific) as it’s been, this battle with illness has pushed me further toward Truth with a capital T than just about any other event in my life.

Why is this ironic? Because (with some chagrin) I’ll admit that not too long ago I was convinced I should devote my entire life toward knowing the “Truth with a capital T.” This was why I got a philosophy degree. To some extent, this was why I became a writer (I would write my way toward Truth). All this even though at the time I was also convinced there was no way to be certain about anything (think, Matrix-style: could this all be a dream?).

A lot has changed since then (conversion from agnosticism to Christianity, for one; maybe I’ll write about that another time). But what is this so-called Truth that having Lyme disease revealed to me?

The truth is nothing new, not really. It’s that the world is broken. Or wrong. Or somehow off. You choose the phrasing. Whatever phrase we use will likely sound like a platitude anyway, something tossed around so many times its lost all meaning. Nonetheless, there’s something to it. There’s a reason it’s been said so many times.

When we are not going through a crisis, it’s easy to walk around like everything is basically fine, like you and I and the rest of the world are not deeply messed up (I could use another word here, but I won’t). It’s like when my flare-ups cease, and I have a hard time imagining I was ever in that much pain. Could the world really be so bad that I could hurt that much?

But having a disability or an illness, when the brokenness is your very body, you can’t escape that. You can’t free yourself from your own physical form. You’re forced to reckon with the reality that something is very wrong within the created order, you know it in an embodied way, in your very bones.

And this, in turn, reveals other truths. You see with new clarity that all along your life was tied up in the lives of others, the ones on whom you are now so clearly dependent. You see that at the end of the day you need something other than yourself to save you. You need medical intervention, to be sure. You may very well need God.

What’s neat, of course, are the moments when this brokenness is made right. When a bit of the Kingdom of God, if I may, breaks into a sick body. As in, when the meds start to work, and I can go back to yoga. Or when I have a “good day” and can cook an entire meal standing up in the kitchen. Or when I can type this letter to you without my hands hurting. All of a sudden, we have the resurrection inside our very veins. We feel the difference between the wrong way and the right way, and know how easily it could all go south, but for just this moment it doesn’t, and grace takes on a whole new meaning.

There is a lot that’s terrible about long-term illness, and I am fighting tooth and nail to get better. Though I have a lot of hope for my future health, it could still just as easily be me who’s sick for a lifetime. For now, I find these kernels of reality, of truth, a kind of consolation.

Next month, maybe I’ll share that neatly edited essay. For now, what I have is this musing hastily written on my iPhone late at night. I’ll end with yet another platitude that’s nonetheless true: I do hope you’re well, wherever this note finds you.

***

This post originally appeared in my June newsletter.

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Newsletter invitation

May 31, 2022 § Leave a comment

Friends, it’s been a little while since I last posted on here, and a lot has happened since then! Last year I took a sabbatical from professional writing for my health, and while that sabbatical continues, I have slowly, tentatively begun to follow my urge back into writing. To that end, I’d love to invite you to join me in my latest writing endeavor!

I suppose a better title for this newsletter might be something along the lines of, “a note from the candle-lined, Epsom salt-filled bathtub” or, “a note from the mint green couch under the third story apartment window.” Or even, “a note from the bed, where I sit propped up by a handful of linen throw pillows.” Because in truth, it’s been nearly a year since I last sat at a desk.

I can’t sit at a desk, not really, at least not for now. I have yet to find the right chair to correctly support my back, the right way to position my hands at the keyboard, the best spot to place the screen that will allow me to sit long enough at any desk to write without my nerves flailing out of control.

I don’t share this to illicit pity. I share this simply to be honest, and because I have a great deal of hope that one day—hopefully sooner rather than later—this note can rightfully be called “a note from the desk” because I will be well enough to sit at one. Preferably the handsome wooden corner desk my husband bought for me when we were dating—the one that’s a bit scratched and scuffed, the one with the coffee mug ring in the corner. I love that desk. And I have every intention of using it in the future.

And that is why I’ve titled this newsletter “a note from the desk.” Because even though I come to you from the tub, the couch, the bed—nearly every spot in my apartment but the desk—I have hope that one day I will pen this note to you from a desk where I sit without any pain (or, really, less pain—I’m not asking for perfection).

***

Something I’ve learned during these years with Lyme disease: some kinds of hope are easier to have than others.

And having chronic illness, and remaining hopeful, perhaps not for the correct treatment, but at least for a life that does not circle entirely around the sad and tough components of illness—that is a very hard hope to have. That is hope that takes some real muscle. Some courage. Some inner strength. And frankly, it’s a hope that’s a whole heck of a lot easier when you don’t have to do it alone. I have found it a lot easier to hope when I’ve acknowledged just how hard it is to hope when you are sick and have been sick for a very long time.

Perhaps this is you? And maybe it’s not illness, but something else. And I won’t pretend to have the answers for how to keep going, though somehow I have kept going, and if I can do it, I think you can, too.

***

This newsletter is an experiment in hope. I don’t know what the next months will bring—greater health or another flare up. I have come to expect surprise rather than certainty. But I’m stepping out, nonetheless.

It probably won’t be easy. And I don’t care what they say. I would very, very much prefer easy. But that’s not the road I’m on. And God promises that even on the narrow path—the difficult one, if you will—there are still opportunities for lightness, for ease, for joy. If I’m anything, I am determined to find that light yolk Jesus speaks of. I’ll be like Jacob; I’ll wrestle it from his grasp.

One thing’s for certain: I do hope you’ll decided to join me (see above about how it’s so much better not to go it alone).

ICYMI: A story and more

January 27, 2020 § Leave a comment

I’m a bit behind on sharing this story — it came out at the beginning of the year, and here we are almost at the end of January! But isn’t this how Januaries typically go? We resolve, plan, push, and by the end of the month ask ourselves, what did we really do, where did all our hopes and goals and resolutions vanish? I, for one, spent a good deal of the month working on stories that I’m afraid ultimately look a bit too forced, a bit flat on the page. Though, perhaps not; perhaps they only look that way in the dim light of wintry January.

Here is what I want to share: An SMU Poet Brings a New Form of Storytelling to Your Phone. This story felt especially triumphant to me because it was one of the first journalism pieces I worked on since recovering from that pesky Lyme Disease, which still causes some nerve pain in my poor ol’ hands. Baby steps. One by one. Making it through this cold beginning month of the year.

***

I’ve noticed other bloggers will often share things they love on their newsletters and such, and while I can’t promise any form of consistency here with that sort of thing, I will share these two delightful bits I’m enjoying right now just for the fun of it:

A Sunday Note by Aningri. I look forward to this every week, and have to say Anna’s words almost always hit me right where they’re most needed.

And, Out of the Ordinary Podcast. I listen to this every Wednesday as soon as it comes out. I am younger than these women, and my life looks quite a bit different than theirs, but the universality of their friendship and the stories they tell always offer me just the right shot of encouragement and tenderness I need at midweek.

Here’s to a fabulous new year!

 

When life gives you Lyme

June 24, 2019 § Leave a comment

Over the last year and a half, I’ve struggled to overcome what I now know is Lyme Disease. For those who missed it, I wrote about that struggle — and the difficulty of so many others — to get a correct diagnosis and treatment for the disease for D Magazine’s medical directory.

Lyme Disease is surmountable, but if left untreated it can be debilitating and even life-threatening, and the number of afflicted patients is on the rise. Which is why I’m joining my voice with so many other Lyme patients to argue: “With the rise in Lyme cases, healthcare professionals should be on the lookout for the disease, becoming more educated on how to diagnose and treat it properly.”

You can find the full story here. It was not a story I ever wanted to write, but one I hope will shed some light on this terrible disease.

Out of hope

May 25, 2019 § 2 Comments

Is it foolishness, or acting out of a sense of hope? I say the latter, but is that merely because I am greedy for beauty, greedy for a return to that version of me who went, went, went, on planes from here to there, longing to see with my own eyes these views of glory?

I am being too poetic here.

What I mean is this: we bought two tickets to Croatia when it seemed so very likely that my health was on the upswing, and then, one week out, my back erupts in excruciating pain.

Why now, I wonder? Just last month, I spent a long weekend camping in Big Bend with no Lyme symptoms at all, and now, a slight turn of the back at my desk and suddenly, I am back on the phone with my doctor, back shelling out money for therapy I pray will alleviate the pain that is all-consuming before I must confine myself to a tiny airplane chair for eight hours.

It’s the pain that does it: I can think of nothing else. My doctor reassures me: this will pass, your system is simply vulnerable, you. Will. Be. Fine. But that part of my brain based in fear only remembers this time last year, when it was uncertain why I was in so much pain, whether the pain would ever stop, and I am doubtful, though still, there is the acting out of hope, the slow preparations, Jared’s reassurance that he will be with me, to help.

On a Tuesday, we board the airplane, I take a muscle relaxer and fall asleep with a knife in my back, a whisper of a prayer like smoke rising with me into the darkening, eastward sky.

And then, suddenly, Paris, the city that never ceases to enchant. We thread the dingy underground Metro, and emerge into the sunlight — oh, city of lights! Ten years since I walked up and down beneath the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, another five since I tromped the long lane of the Champs Élysée, eyes widened with the wonder of Paris, of Nutella crepes and cigarette smoke and flowered balconies and the ritzy, rich shops — tight black jeans, sugar-spun scarves, occasionally, a burka. We walk along the Seine, tired, red-rimmed bleary-eyed, stopping before the Louvre for a quick photo, sipping chilled Rosé, eating at a tiny round table a croqué madam, croqué monsieur, blackest espresso, deux café au lait, s’il vous plait. Once, I sat in classrooms and learned the language, but how much I can’t remember.

Oh well, the main thing is this: in the morning I wake in Paris, pain-free.

How quickly I forget pain once it passes. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” says Emily Dickinson. For me: a forgetfulness. Was the pain ever so bad? Did I ever curse God Himself in the fury of a child who’s fallen and can’t understand why she smarts so? Did I ever see Jesus, standing at my church near the altar, seated beside me in my room, floating above me in the bathtub where I soaked my poor muscles in the hope that heat would ultimately alleviate the pain? He did come with me, pressing the knife of His hand into my back where the split occurred, that invisible wound I carried and became all of me, all-encompassing strange companion of white-lit nerves.

But now: all is forgotten. I sit beside Jared on a sunny terrace overlooking orange-tiled roofs and the green-treed islands of the blue Adriatic. Birds chirp and the breeze is cool. Dubrovnik, Croatia, our city of rest. My body, slowly restored, sign of mini-resurrection.

On being intentional

January 24, 2019 § 2 Comments

There’s a word that crops up frequently these days when one person praises another. That word: intentional. How many times have I heard one friend praise another with, “She’s so intentional,” or, “He seems so intentional about us.” Many, many times. Indeed, I’m fairly certain I’ve used it countless times myself.

But it wasn’t until recently, when I noticed the word tossed around over and over again in the course of a single evening, that I paused and wondered, what’s really so good about being intentional?

Why was intentionality, rather than any other virtue – say, courage, charity, humility, or faith – pointed at repeatedly?

According to a cursory look at Google trend data, which measures the prevalence of a word or phrase searched over time, the phrase “be intentional” has increased in use by threefold since 2004. While some of the related search items suggest a legal context to the phrase, others, including “be intentional quotes” and “what does it mean to be intentional”, suggest a cultural understanding. And this makes me wonder even more: is intentionality perhaps a kind of modern virtue?

*

Recently, I’ve enjoyed Judith Shulevitz’s lovely book, The Sabbath World. In it, she delves into the history of time, in part, how the rise in productivity thanks to the industrial revolution has shaped our modern understanding of time. Until the industrial revolution, people structured their days according to what is called task orientation: measurement by an activity rather than a clock. For example, “You nurse a baby until she’s full, whether that takes ten minutes or forty,” writes Shulevitz. In modern society, however, we structure our days around the atomic clock. You work for a certain number of hours, and are paid accordingly. You’re paid overtime if you work late. A pre-industrial, task orientated society required longer, more grueling hours to finish a day’s work, and many hoped that the rise in standardized production measured by the atomic clock would lead to increased productivity and therefore more leisure.

Unfortunately, as Shulevitz points out, while we are more productive, we are also more rushed than ever.

Why? Working off the theory of Swedish economist Staffan Linder, Shulevitz points out that the increased productivity thanks to industrialization caused each hour of work to increase in value as well. This, in turn, increased the value of hours spent not working. “Non-work time has a higher ‘opportunity cost’,” writes Shulevitz, “each minute not spent completing one’s work assignments equals more money squandered.”

How does this pertain to being intentional? While reading Shulevitz, it struck me: could we admire individuals who are intentional precisely because of the unconscious, high value we place on each hour of time? Is our exact measurement of each passing hour and the opportunity cost of that hour if spent not working, making us feel even more pressured to “spend our time well?” I doubt pre-industrial workers in a task oriented society thought about intentionality – they merely thought about doing what they needed to survive, however long that took.

Of course, all this begs a more important question: is intentionality a good thing? Should we adopt it as a modern virtue? Certainly, it could be good at keeping us from straying into bad things, as well as prompting us to be good stewards of our time. But, I wonder if there is a dark side to this pervasive word.

*

Recently, I suffered through a long and severe illness that kept me nearly bedridden for several months. During this truthfully horrific experience, I felt my days expand from the hourly divided regimen I kept while working full time into a protracted and diffuse duration that slid languidly by. I was far from intentional. I was messy. I left emails unanswered for months. I only talked to close friends and family. I didn’t worry about the growing pile of medical bills on my desk. In those days, when I wasn’t sure if I would ever be a healthy young woman again, there was nothing more important for me to do than sit on the living room couch with a steaming mug of hot tea, curled up beside my mother. It was horrible, but there was a sliver of bliss in the center of it that I hope to retain now that I am (thankfully!) climbing toward health again.

I’m not saying that I want to return to the task orientation of a pre-industrial society – certainly I enjoy the luxuries that the industrial world has brought, not in the least medication for my disease! But the indulgence of wasting time, of disregarding the opportunity cost of an hour, of assuming that there will be an abundance of time to do all of the things that are truly worthwhile (say, reading a good book outside in the sun or cooking a homemade meal with friends), this is something I crave, and I fear that it is antithetical to the supposed virtue of intentionality, which needlessly pressures us to “make every hour count.”

Instead, I want to be a bit thoughtless with my time. I want to be a bit like Martha’s sister, Mary, who sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to him speak rather than help her busy and distracted sister finish the housework. I want to be a little bit recklessly unintentional.

On the drive

October 19, 2018 § Leave a comment

On a Thursday afternoon I drive north from Dallas, snaking my way through the tangle of concrete dividers, oversize billboards, and fast food restaurants that beleaguer both sides of the highway until I reach the flat plains of Oklahoma and, at last, the dry grasslands of southern Kansas. The grey sky intermittently spits on the windshield. To the west, pale blues and blush pinks smear the horizon. I listen to the wipers rub the glass and drink scalding coffee purchased at a McDonald’s in the middle of nowhere.

What is it about long, quiet road trips, sailing over the flat land, that allows space for thoughts, little scraps of consciousness, to drift into attention? I sip my coffee as the spare country flies past, and think about — what? God, a little. And a memory from the week before, when I awoke in a frigid Colorado campsite to see the mountains encircling the valley crowned with snow. And this time last year, of course, when I first felt the unusual intimations of what would, a few months later, blossom into a full-out illness: Lyme Disease.

I think about how happy I am to be alive, how thankful I am for my health, even as I continue to recover (compared to earlier this year, I am a new woman with only lingering discomfort in my hands, an occasional pinch of pain along my spine). I wonder about the wildness of a world where microscopic bacteria can invade my tissues and make my life a living hell, which in turn causes me to consider God’s place in this beautiful yet dangerous creation. I think about how much I love the book of Job because it acknowledges our human frailty and the ultimate absurdity of our attempts to understand God’s ways — how much more I trust Scripture because of Job’s place in it! Then, I am thinking about suffering, and how reading about Christ’s compassion toward the sick and debilitated while I myself was laid low evoked in me an unadulterated desire for Him to move in me with such healing power.

Lofty thoughts, I suppose, if they were a little more fully-formed. Really, though, they are nothing more than fleeting speculations mixed with a sense of awe at my littleness in the vast expanse of amber and chestnut land extending on all sides, the drizzling rain, the stormy grey clouds, and the God who made it, calling it not just good, but very good.

Good, but certainly not safe. Or perhaps safe in some ways — in the ways that matter (I am thinking here of the lilies of the field). I make my way forward along the dusky road (metaphysical and actual, as the sun sets and I near Wichita). I ease forward with dim understanding, my flakes of consciousness amassing to so much more.

Meditation on a zz plant

September 20, 2018 § 1 Comment

For the past few years, I’ve accumulated a variety of potted plants. Sea green aloe vera. Flat-leafed jade. Spindly fire sticks. Some were gifts from friends; others, clippings from the cacti in our backyard; and still others, splurges bought at Home Depot and the local nursery when my soul was hungry for something green.

I am fairly good at tending them — so far, I’ve only killed one, and that from overwatering. Lately, though, I’ve realized that almost every single one of them needs repotting. They’ve outgrown their old pots, heavy leaves drooping over the lips onto my windowsill, long stems jutting up, up toward the window and the sky. Some of them are three times the sizes of the pots they call home.

It’s high time for repotting.

*

It is still hot in Texas in September. Sweating, I haul a large pot from the tangled mass of unused pots in our backyard, along with a bag of fresh dirt and rocks to line the bottom. First up: my zz plant, also known as a Zamioculcas Zamiifolia. It lives in a tiny, round, grey clay pot, five thick stalks covered in glossy flat leaves. Sturdy. Healthy. An easy first go.

Easy, I think, until I attempt to remove it. The plant won’t budge, and soon I know why. When I finally manage to pry the zz plant from its pot, I realize the whole bottom half of the pot is thick with fat roots wound tightly around each other in a massive ball. Finally freed, the roots hang down a bit too much like ropy worms than I would like, the roots nearly as long as the plant is tall. There was hardly any dirt in that pot at all, I realize. Mostly, it was just roots growing steadily in closed darkness.

*

A longing stirs in me as I stare at the zz plant held in my hand, white roots dangling above its new pot half-filled with fresh dirt. I feel my own limitations, the constraint of my own tight space pressing against my metaphorical thick ball of roots. How many of you, like me, need a new pot? Space to spread our roots, to sink deeply in rich soil, to stretch ourselves toward the sun? How many of us are cramped deep in dark spaces?

Like the zz plant, we grow substantially, faithfully within our limitations. Like the zz plant, when we’re set in our big, new pots, we will be ready, ready to prosper, flourish, ready to thrive. In the meantime, we grow quietly.

*

I set the roots of the zz plant deep within its new pot, giving them room to lengthen, to widen. I imagine the plant is happy because it can suddenly breathe deeply again after its many years of constraint. I wonder what it is like to have space to be fully what it was meant to be. I set the zz plant in a prominent spot in my room, a green reminder of what’s to come.

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