Let’s Talk About Simone Biles: Everyday Magic, Day 1043

Let’s talk Simone Biles But first, let’s talk about two gymnasts we don’t know the names of: Elena Mukhina and Julissa Gomez

Elena Mukhina, a 20-year-old Soviet gymnast, broke her neck right before the 1980 Olympics when her coach pushed her to practice her balance beam routine although her broken leg hadn’t yet healed. Doing the now-banned Thomas salto move, she landed on her chin, and she was permanently paralyzed. She died from quadriplegia complications at the age of 46.

Julissa Gomez, a 15-year-old American rising star, a few months before the 1988 Olympics, was having a shaky time on the vault lately. Her coaches insisted she work through her difficulty with a particularly hard vault routine although some of her teammates later said it was clear it wasn’t safe for her to practice that day. Her foot slipped on the springboard and she ended up paralyzed from the neck down, only to later suffer severe brain damage, which put her into a coma. Her family surrounded her with care and love until she died in 1991.

Let’s talk about what it means to be unable to speak up, or to speak up but to be bullied into doing what you know isn’t right for you at the time. Dominique Moceanu, another American gymnast, who suffered a potentially devastating injury in 1996, tweeted in response to applaud Biles’ decision that she and her teammates never felt they had any say in their health.

Let’s think about how athletes are often heroized for working through the pain, competing with broken limbs or sprained joints, pushing themselves despite the likeliness of permanent injuries (and I can’t help thinking here about all the football and soccer players with brain injuries for life).

Let’s also talk about the unimaginable pressure not just of representing a country and the Olympics in a pandemic while carrying the weight of being deemed the greatest gymnast of all time, but also what it means to be a survivor. Matthew Norlander wrote for CBS sports that Biles “….has gone on record and said, sadly, that one of her motivating factors to continue competing was her celebrity and influence on USA Gymnastics. Had she opted to retire prior to these Olympics, Biles felt like USA Gymnastics would not be, as an organization, held as accountable as it should be for its disgraces against dozens of former gymnasts who were abused by former USA Gymnastics trainer Larry Nassar. Biles is the only active gymnast in USA Gymnastics who doubles as a survivor from the Nassar era, and she carries this with her every day she practices, competes, exists as a member of Team USA.” Biles was sexually assaulted by Nassar, a doctor who was supposed to be caring for her health and not damaging it, along with 367 other young women. She wrote in social media how it continually broke her heart to have to return to the same Olympics training facility where she was abused.

Let’s talk about growing up hungry and in the foster care system after being removed from a mother who fed the cat over her four children and how those children clung to each other to survive. Then, when Biles was six, she and her sister were adopted by her grandparents, who she came to call Mom and Dad, but her other sibs went to other family in Ohio. Biles started gymnastics that year and made her world debut in 2013 at age 16.

Let’s talk about love in action for your teammates. Biles is renowned for helping other gymnasts find what they need to succeed, including Jordan Chiles, who moved to Texas to train with Biles (and didn’t give up on her Olympics dream because of Biles). As Biles made clear when she stepped down from competing this week, she believed in her team and knew it was time for them to take the spotlight. Sunisa Lee, in winning the gold medal for the all-around competition, did just that.

Let’s talk about Biles’ brave imagination in continually redefining herself, even saying, “After hearing the brave stories of my friends and other survivors, I know that this horrific experience does not define. I am much more than this.”

Most of all, let’s talk about the powerful grace of Simone Biles’ courage to say no, and to not follow the millions of harsh lights and loud yells to risk her own life and mental health. Biles not only brought to the world four extremely difficult moves named for her but a legacy for athletes, women, women of color, and survivors of sexual abuse to write their own life stories in tune with their wisdom, to listen to what’s right for them and to tell us their truths.

Rematerializing After Being Beamed Up: Everyday Magic, Day 1036

Hello Minnie Mouse eye!

In the Star Trek shows and films, someone can yell out, with grave urgency or casual cheer, “Scotty, beam me up” then off they go. But when they land back in the ship after escaping the clutches of attacking lizard-headed creatures or the like, they often have a moment of looking just a little shaken up (except for Spock of course, who is almost always composed).

Every surgery I’ve been through for is akin to being rematerialized in a new place, perhaps in a way that humans might be if they could be transported through particle accelerators without dissolving or exploding in the process. Then again, surgery is like this: you go into a space transporter device made of anesthesia, then you wake up somewhere else changed in big or little ways. I’ve rematerialized over the years in various expeditions without breasts or with a radioactive disk inserted in my eye. Even after the small surgeries, like having scar tissue and a cataract removed last fall, I came to consciousness changed. I think this is true of eye surgeries especially because while eyes are small, what they see if humongous.

A week ago, I did a short stint in the transporter to have my eyelid sewn in a way that would allow me to finally open and keep open my right eye (the muscles were damaged in treatment for an ocular melanoma). It was a short ride in the transporter because, even through I was thankfully very numb during the procedure, the doctor needed me awake enough to open and close my eye repeatedly and keep looking down at my feet, a trick when lying down, but I’ve had a lot of practice with this over the last two years.

Then I was rolled back to the recovery room, sat up, and, with Ken’s help, put on my jacket and scarf. Then we were home, and as all the marvelous magic of the numbing meds wore away, I hurt but mitigated it with some over-the-counter meds. Then it was the next day, and as the week unfolded, I realized having a much more open eye meant I could see a lot more. But it also meant that I was shaken up in new ways, as if some of me was still in one place and the rest was here. During this full landing in one place, I was dizzy, nauseas, disoriented, eye-strained, and wiped out, which turned out not to be a good match for many Zoom coaching sessions while also working in Google Docs (thanks to my coachees who helpfully rescheduled with me for next week).

As I start to come out of this, rematerializing as a two-eyed seeing creature, there’s a lot to grapple with, namely that my right eye — surprise! because I couldn’t see this for so long — seems to be Minnie-Mouse-dilated, likely permanently (but I will find out more about that soon). This explains why this magic and challenged eye sees a much brighter and at times light-blasted world than my left eye. Of course, I’m also legally blind in this eye, which is a strange way of saying I can see with it but in the language of impressionist paintings.

But there’s mainly joy here in Mudville, especially as the nausea relents (thank you, candied ginger and time), of seeing a vaster scope, and when I look in the mirror, seeing both eyes open and learning their new recalibration dance of tracking together. One thing that continually dazzles me is how the eyes can innovate and reset themselves to find new ways to team up, very much like the heart as we go through another $%&#@# learning adventure.

As we find our way to the other side of the transport, all has the potential to wake us up to nuances and vistas of this world. I’m reminded of what Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince: “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” True that, but also, what becomes more visible to the eye can show the heart how to see.

A Visit to Scan Land: Everyday Magic, Day 1033

Why, yes, I’m drinking some iodine solution pre-scan. It just tastes like heavy water.

“I’m here for my monogram,” a silver-haired woman told the receptionist. “Yes, your mammogram,” the receptionist answered without missing a beat. Obviously, she had heard such variations before, and this is the way of Scan Land, where many — if not all of us — go every so often to make sure there’s nothing anxious or life-threatening growing, or growing too much, on our insides.

Yesterday, I returned to Scan Land for my quarterly CT scan or MRI to ensure that no micrometastases from my ocular melanoma were taking up residence in my liver or lungs. “How many of these have we done so far?” Ken asked me yesterday as we sat in the waiting room, me sipping the iodine water necessary for my CAT scan. I counted on my fingers: at least nine quarterly scans, and that doesn’t count the dozens of eye ultrasounds (amazing how you can get used to a tiny device moving back and forth on your eyeball) and another kind of scan that entails staring deep into a machine to watch the fires of Mordor.

I’ve made many excursions to Scan Land since 2002 when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Because I’m a carrier of the BRCA 1 genetic mutation (which increases risk for breast, ovarian, and other cancers) and because my dad and uncle died of pancreatic cancer, I was going annually for a CAT scan or MRI for years. With the scans related to the more recent cancer, if I could earn frequent flyer miles for all the hours I’ve spent in Scan Land, I could circle the globe.

To be honest, the scans aren’t painful, and because I’ve struggled with tight-spaces anxiety, they sure aren’t boring. But thanks to work with my therapist, meditation, medication, and if it’s a closed MRI, serious drugs, I’ve been able to get through them. That said, I’ve also experienced some of my worst panic attacks lying on a platform going in and out of a machine. I’ll never forget the 45-minute-long PET scan in a traveling scan-mobile parked outside the hospital which I hyperventilated and cried through before slowing my breath enough to see myself wandering a desert for a long night, searching for some sense of peace while reminding myself that this big, bad machine wasn’t going to hurt me.

I’ve worked through a lot of my scan issues, and yesterday, I did my first scan without any medication, and although I started to feel that rushing fight-or-flight sensation in my stomach, I remembered to breathe and listen to the song (Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” — even if it’s from a vampire movie) I always play on my ear buds. So now I’m mostly left with the end point for all who visit Scan Land: the results.

No matter what the results are, they are always extraordinary: good (thank heavens!), bad (Oh my God!) or ambiguous (Oh no!). We inhabits of the waiting rooms — before the scan and before the doctor’s visit to tell us the results — aren’t a cheery bunch for the most part, most of us somewhere between scared, hopeful, numb, resigned, sad, distracted, and freaked out. Waiting for the results is often the worst part of wrangling with cancer and other life-smashing illnesses.

Some doctors use the I’ll-call-you-if-it’s-fine-but-you-have-to-come-in-if-it’s-not approach, which makes for a terrifying drive to the doctor’s office, knowing bad news, possibly life-shortening, is about to assault us. Luckily, my oncologist has a better way: I have my scan in the morning, then go to her office at 1 p.m. no matter the results, which gives the worst of my imaginative capacities little time to get too riled up. Still, I usually have a twinge.

Then again, scans have saved my life more than once. A mammogram caught my breast cancer early enough that I could survive it. A constellation of eye and other scans led me to treatment in June of 2019 that so far (and continuing for many years to come, I hope, I hope, I hope) saved me. Yesterday was another clear scan, and once again I’m overwhelmingly grateful for my short trek in and out of this big donut-hole-shaped machine.

I remember years ago at my oncologist’s office seeing two women — one middle-aged and one older, a mother and daughter — walk in the door clutching each other and sobbing. They were sure they were there for bad news, and it was hard for them to answer the receptionist’s questions as she checked them in. Eventually, they were called back to meet with the doctor as was I. When I was checking out, they were too, and this time they were crying for a different reason. They had gotten good news, and they were so overcome with relief and joy that they couldn’t stop weeping. I had gotten good results too that day, a good day in Scan Land for us all.

Birds Are the Best Thing About Winter: Everyday Magic, Day 1029

Female cardinal — photo by Len Scotto

When the temperature gets near or below zero, survival comes into sharper focus for us all, but so do birds and their survival without the benefit of fleece and indoor nesting.

So we feed the birds, but just as much for us as for them, sometimes hourly re-lining the deck ledge with a thick line of bird seed, emphasis on the black sunflower seeds they love so much. This smorsgasbord draws a constant wave of birds, dining side by side with little fuss, even when a squirrel joins the mix. The only thing that disrupts the long counter in Bird Diner is Mr. Bluejay, who freaks everyone the hell away until he gets his meal and departs.

I came to loving birds later in life, not really noticing them much until I had breast cancer in 2002. I quickly found out — and this has been verified so many times in facilitating writing classes for people living with serious illness — that there’s something about struggling through hard-nosed chemo, radiation, surgery recovery, or drug side effects that point our faces toward the window. For one thing, many of us in the throes of such grappling don’t have the bandwidth to do more that stare at walls, ceilings, and even better, windows. We slow way down, and voila! Were there always so many birds?

White-throated sparrow — photo by Len Scotto

When I was tunneling through some dark stretches of eye cancer, it was birds again, but in a different way. Light hurt my right eye for so long (just months, but felt longer) that I would lie on the porch futon with a towel over my eyes and listen. Birdsong and calls, whether for food or love or territory, engulfed me. It was sometimes like being rocked in a cradle of bird sound, each sway showing me how vibrant and beautiful the world was even if I couldn’t look directly at it.

This winter I realized how much bird gazing is the best part of my day. When they meander off to roost in late afternoon, I feel sad, but when I wake up the next morning, the birds are the first view I most want (well, first checking my email on my phone, but still….). Muriel Rukeyser wrote in one of her poem, “The universe is made of turtles/ not of atoms,” and while that’s clearly true, I think a lot of those stories are made of birds, especially the winter, illness or other-time-sequestered-away (hello, pandemic!) stories.

Flicker (yes, part of the woodpecker family) — photo by Len Scotto

Like right now: there’s two male cardinals, a female cardinal alighting to grab a sunflower seed, then flitting back to the branch. There’s always juncos, sometimes chickadees, an occasional goldfinch, many an adorable titmouse, little brindled sparrows, and the splendor of the flicker and the red-bellied woodpecker dazzling me, especially on overcast days. There’s the crow, solitary on the deck railing, tilting her head to the left to tune into the secrets of what gleams. Soon they should be bluebirds, my favorite of bird nirvana. And all the birds are puffed out to maximum birdness, warming themselves in their balls of feather.

Miyako the cat and I watch from the blind of the windows, me puffed out myself in layers of clothes, and her doing that crazy-cat chittering that’s almost as entertaining as the birds. Our eyes follow them away, then back down, a united states of birdland here for us all.

Thank you so much to a spectacular photographer and dear friend, Len Scotto, for these amazements in photography.

What is a Bad Year? What is a Good Year? Everyday Magic, Day 1024

A friend told me that during her Christmas Zoom with family scattered far and wide, she realized how lucky they were: no one had Covid, lost their life or their job, and all had warm homes with ample food and holidays delights within easy reach. The next day I saw a line rush by on Twitter: “You didn’t have a bad year if the worst you experienced was not being able to go on vacation.”

So who is having a truly bad year? One of my coaching clients found in her research that about one third or more of us are comfy and cozy with adequate employment and health (although these numbers are in flux). The rest of Americans are struggling with what the headlines sum up as unemployment or underemployment, food insecurity, and inadequate or non-existent healthcare — all of which push them into situations where they face greater risks of exposure to Covid.

No surprise, that people who face greater economic disparity, are communities (Black, Latino, Native American, and others — more here) with the highest percentages of coronavirus. Overlapping with this, anyone who tends to have a low-paying or minimum wage job — such as people working in restaurants, hotels, gas stations, etc. — can’t work from home….that is, if they’re working at all. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on young people and people in the service industry (who are sometimes one and the same). My daughter, who left a serving job a year ago, says that 80% of her server friends are out of work, which mirrors statistics I’ve seen.

Then there’s the pain we can’t measure with statistical data: those grieving beloveds lost to Covid as well as those living with long-term health impacts from the disease. When the pandemic came home to roost in March, I remember so many conversations with people about how strange it was to have something largely invisible wreaking such havoc. Now, for just about everyone I know, it’s all too real. A dear friend lost her husband last Saturday after weeks of him being intubated. One of my old high school pals’ mom died, isolated in a nursing home with no family to comfort her, a few weeks ago. Friends in Minnesota, family in Wichita, pals around town tell of how it was the sickest they ever felt or not so horrendous but very strange (and still no sense of smell and taste has returned) or they’re relatively over it, but now they have asthma for life. I know people who are long-haulers, meaning the virus comes back to send them to bed every few weeks or months. There are other stories any of us, some of those stories our own, could add to this list.

But it’s not just the pandemic making 2020 an agony of year for many people: there’s the record-number of fires in California and Colorado and many western states in between. Although my friends out yonder aren’t struggling to stay inside with all the windows sealed because of dangerous air quality right now, many of them know and see the impacts. Amazing ecological writer Barry Lopez, who died this week, lost his home to the fires after years of writing about climate change and its personal and collective impacts. There are thousands of people rebuilding or trying to rebuild after losing everything. It was also one of the most active and destructive hurricane seasons ever (more here) with so many people losing homes, businesses, and even their communities to flooding.

All of this is to say that there’s a big gap between those of us who are healthy, homed, and moneyed enough, even if we’re also holding the weight of collective despair, fear, and anger, and those of us living on or over the edge of poverty, home or food insecurity, grief and heartbreak. How we define good or bad is often a personal and idiosyncratic thing, but one thing we can likely all agree on: it’s been a year like no other, and the totality of 2020’s pain and suffering hurts any feeling person’s heart.

Many say that humans are at their best in the worst of times, and that seems true too. I’ve seen — and likely you have too — so many altruistic acts of love, such as Meg Heriford’s commitment to transform her diner into a place offering free, hot meals (good ones too) to anyone in need along with pantry boxes and blankets (see the Washington Post article on her here). People I don’t know have reached out on Facebook to support me and others. Those I see on walks in the wetlands wave and say hello, clearly smiling under their masks. Most of us have given more contributions to more good work this year than in the last decade altogether. Just the other day on a 3-hour call (don’t ask) with AT&T customer assistance, I had a heart-to-heart with a service rep in Indonesia who wanted to make sure, in addition to fixing an account issue, that I was staying safe and had eaten a good lunch. Tenderness is afoot.

Yet here we are, on the cusp of 2021, and where I am, the sky is clouding over and preparing to likely paint the world in snow. I welcome the peace, I’m grateful to be warm and well-cared-for, and I’m enthralled with and in love with all the goodness innate in us also.