Could the answer to why we are ill be as simple as BPA in a coffee pot? For one woman, it apparently was. Toxic exposures are often overlooked as sources of illness.
I’m so tired of cockamamie health advice that seems to start with the premise that we are nothing but a long, hollow tube beginning at the mouth and ending where the sun don’t shine. Some presume, it seems, that keeping the tube squeaky clean at all times is the cure for every woe. Juice fasts, enemas, and liver cleanses galore are prescribed for everything from acne to asthma. Some of these treatments may have merit in certain situations, but I believe that total health depends upon more than an immaculate gut.
Something many people overlook in their quest for health is the fact that we are complex, finely tuned organisms, exquisitely sensitive to changes in our emotional and physical environment. We have certain needs which are irreducible. Physically, we need clean air, clean water, and adequate nutrition. To be healthy mentally and emotionally, we need love, connection, and a feeling of safety. These things are not negotiable, and any health advice that ignores these facts is likely to be harmful.
For example, the current juice fasting fad seems to be taking the world by storm. Ask any confirmed health nut, including me unfortunately, if they’ve tried a juice fast and you’re likely to get a yes. “If you’re clean inside, you’re green inside”, right? But the juice fast, or indeed any type of fast, ignores one basic truth: we need food. I can already hear all the yes-buts. “Yes but, we are capable of going without food for a time, and fasting can be helpful, it’s even saved lives!” I’m not an expert on fasting. Maybe there really are people who have turned their health around because of a fast. What I have to go on is my own limited knowledge and experience, which tells me that fasting hurts.
Three years ago, I decided to try a juice fast. Many of my friends were doing it. I’d seen Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead. I thought it might be the answer to some of my nagging health problems. My goal was to sustain the fast for at least five days, knowing that, with my blood sugar issues, I probably wouldn’t be able to go much longer than that. By day three I was miserable. I felt scary-bad. My blood sugar was a mess and my adrenals were shot. I gave up and decided to eat, hoping that I would be able to regain some equilibrium within a few days, but that was not how it went down. The fast was the beginning of a long downward slide. It set off severe chemical and food sensitivities which I now believe were a result of the adrenal fatigue.
Because proteins DRIVE the detoxification process, cleanses based on juices, fruits or vegetables do not make a lot of sense. – 17 Signs of Impaired Liver Detox
The “liver flush” or “liver cleanse” is another very popular treatment intended to purge the body of toxins. Again, I’m sure many people have benefitted from these treatments, but it should be recognized that a treatment this powerful can also be potentially harmful. The liver cleanse requires at least a partial fast. No protein or fat is to be taken for more than 24 hours. After 2:00 PM the day of the cleanse, no food is to be eaten. This type of fast is not extreme and seems reasonably safe for most people. But for those with blood sugar issues or adrenal fatigue, it can be quite difficult, even harmful. Some treatment protocols, including Hulda Clark’s, specify that an overdose of magnesium in the form of Epsom salts must be taken. This, apparently has resulted in cases of hypermagnesemia. The end result of the treatment is diarrhea, and for some, vomiting, which stresses the system and creates electrolyte imbalance.
My experience with the liver flush was extremely unpleasant, even traumatic. I think I would have been fine with the diarrhea and vomiting, that passed pretty quickly. But I did experience hypermagnesemia, which was really scary. As there are very good alternatives to the liver flush, I would not ever do this to myself again.
I’ve noticed that, in addition to seeming rather extreme, many popular natural treatments seem to completely overlook the mind/body connection. There is mounting evidence that our thoughts have a direct bearing on our physical and emotional health. That may mean, among other things, that it’s not just the carotenoids in the carrot that affect our health, but also our thoughts and feelings about carrots. Sound far-fetched? Take a look at this .
But the mind/body connection goes far beyond digestion. If your thoughts can affect your gut, you can bet that they affect every other part of you as well. Epigenetics Shatters the “Central Dogma”
So maybe it’s time to rethink this puritanical urge of ours to purge our bodies of impurities. Maybe it’s not what we can squeeze out of our bodies that matters as much as what we put into them. Maybe if we nourish ourselves, body and soul, the trash will take itself out.
The nightmare is over. I have won my battle with the beast. I took my last dose of Temazepam, a benzodiazepine sleeping medication, on Sunday, April 13th, 2014. I will not be going back.
In case you are one of the many people who don’t know what benzodiazepines are, I need only say two words: Valium and Xanax. Most people know what those are. Some are even aware of the fact that they are both notoriously addictive and incredibly difficult to come off of. All benzodiazepines work in generally the same way, and all are highly addictive including my beast, Temazepam. (Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Symptoms)
I spoke a little of my struggle with Temazepam in my story. I want to share some of my journal entries from the past two years to show you where I’ve been and how much has changed since I first began to taper from my medication.
The Early Days
I started writing in my journal while in the hospital for depression. I spent a couple of weeks recovering from the hospital stay and allowing myself to sleep on the full dose of medication. I soon realized, however, that the medication was making me very ill. I would wake up in the mornings and feel like I had the flu. By the afternoon I was a bundle of nerves, although so tired I could barely get out of bed. I knew I had to taper, and I wanted off as quickly as possible. So I made a few mistakes in the beginning. Please forgive the incoherence of some of these entries. I was in deep misery and did not have all my faculties.
March 17, 2012
Tomorrow I get out of the hospital. I am absolutely grief-stricken that I was not helped here. I’m now on a benzo again and terribly frightened. This is what it took to convince them that drugs don’t work for me. A miserable week getting sick on drug after drug. My hell has only just begun.
March 26, 2012, 30 mgs
I’m so sad for what my family has lost, what more they will lose when I get off this drug. Tonight I start my taper. I have no idea what to expect. I’m trying to stay positive, but I’m starting to realize it might take much longer than I thought if I don’t want to be horrendously ill. Patience will be vital, even lifesaving in this case.
March 30, 2012, 28 mgs
Doc wants me to rapid taper which would basically feel like cold turkey…Today was very bad. I’m frightened. Withdrawal hasn’t let up much and it’s already near bedtime. I should not have made that last cut. It was much too fast a taper plan.
April 1, 2012, 28 mgs
Extreme suffering today despite holding my dose. 2 hours sleep last night. Severe depression/anxiety, burning muscles, nausea, sore, swollen mouth and tongue. Pain and enervation everywhere.
April 4, 2012, 28 mgs
Not more than 2 hours sleep last night…Been a horrid day. Tapering too fast was a huge mistake. I keep going back and forth between severe anxiety and crushingly painful depression. Jenny came today at just the right time. Jehovah always knows when we’ve had enough.
April 14, 2012, 28 mgs
MISERY! Throat is gagging, body burning. Only 4 hours sleep. Kids coming soon and I won’t be able to love on them…I’m in so much misery. Throat and stomach feel sandpapered. Chest is so tight. Coughing and gagging. Head pain was outrageous last night. So screwed…Burning all over body. Head pressure, blurry vision. Feels like I drank acid. Can’t stop twitching even though I’m dang tired.
That was the result of trying to come off my medication too quickly. 2 mgs in 2 days. That would have had me off within two months, and probably right back in the hospital. Although I understood that tapering was the reason for my misery, I still wanted off. I didn’t even consider staying on the medication. I slowed my taper rate way down to a doable 10% of my current dose per month. I had also heard that spreading out my dose throughout the day would help me to taper with less suffering. It took me a while to muster the courage to do it, as I was fearful that taking any from my night-time dose would cause even more sleep problems. As it turned out, just the opposite was the case. Spreading my dose out was one of the best things I did during the whole taper.
April 26, 2012, 27.5 mgs
I started taking med during the morning yesterday. I did it again today and will take another 2 mgs this afternoon. I don’t like the feeling, but it’s better than intense withdrawal. I slept okay last night despite being short 2 1/2 mgs of med. I’m doing okay this morning. Just slight nausea and wooziness. I hope this helps me come down at a more reasonable rate…Some numbness and anxiety creeping. Ear pain, some jaw pain. Not too bad. Getting some laundry done and did some dishes. Cooking lunch now.
May 15, 2012, 25.5 mgs
Woke up feeling really good today…It’s been a relatively great day. I got a lot of laundry and housework done, spent some time in the sun, never felt any anxiety or depression and physical symptoms are somewhat milder.
May 17, 2012
Just kept falling asleep in the morning. I felt pretty good today. I have some energy, no depression. Tiny bit of anxiety, but I try not to think too much.
My menstrual cycle seemed to make things much worse. I usually had a few good days during the month like the ones above. But I usually took a dive right before my period. I notice now that I did a lot of pep talking when I felt that bad. I think it really helped me to heal.
May 19, 2012, 25 mgs
The cottonwoods are blooming and I’m crying remembering the day last year when James and I drove out to Granger to the dinosaur park and to show him my mail route. The cottonwoods were shedding so much it seemed like it was snowing. It was beautiful and I was so strong and vibrant. I will be that me again.
June 16, 2012, 22 mgs
I was up at 4:00, too hungry to go back to sleep so I had to get up and eat. I finally got maybe another hour of sleep after that. I had to say my affirmations for a long time before I could get out of bed. So many scary intrusive thoughts. I will have to work hard at staying in the moment today.
The pain in my ear, neck and throat is bad tonight. It’s so tense. It’s been a challenge to keep from worrying. It’s all just a sign my brain is trying to readjust and heal. I will heal. I am getting better. Remember the woman who detoxed from her medication and was seizing and had every other conceivable symptom. She was reinstated and slow tapered. She only had mild symptoms the whole taper and remained relatively well after. She felt completely healed within one year of her last dose. That will be me. And even if not, I accept all that my body must do to heal itself. I will help it as far as I can and I will not fear. There is nothing to fear with Jehovah on my side.
The Long Hard Slog
By August, I was feeling much better, although I was still experiencing steep hills and valleys in my level of suffering. I had continuously used positive thinking, journaling, affirmations, and certain relaxation techniques to help me through the withdrawals, and those things really began to make a difference.
August 1, 2012, 20 mgs
“God gave us, not a spirit of cowardice, but that of power and of love, and of soundness of mind.” – 2 Timothy 1:7
I’ve been feeling sort of invincible lately, like I can handle anything. Maybe if I’m super careful and slow with my taper my suffering will remain minimal. Today was very good. I took a long walk this morning on the canal road. There were some ripe blackberries and the wind was nice and cool. I didn’t even feel overly tired after, and it was a long walk.
You can heal from any kind of mental illness. I will not go crazy. I will keep getting better and better.
I had to continually adjust my taper rate. If I started to get into a continual pattern of crashing and then having to hold the taper, I knew it was time to slow it down. It was not hard to do, as I was diluting my medication in carefully measured water and making tiny daily cuts. All I needed to do in order to slow my rate was to make smaller cuts or increase the intervals between cuts.
September 20, 2012, 17.50 mgs
I’ve officially decided to cut my taper rate in half. So now instead of crashing and holding all the time, I’ll just steadily take 1/2 ml every other day instead of every day.
I’m functional enough now to get meals, keep the house reasonably clean, pick up the boys after school and see to their homework. I still get frightened and depressed. And I’m tired to death of this never-ending taper, but I feel fortunate to be sleeping every night and be mentally and emotionally present for the boys.
Keeping my mind on positive things has been absolutely essential. My emotions have been so fragile throughout this taper that even the slightest bit of negativity or scary news would send my into a tailspin.
November 15, 2012, 14.75 mgs
I felt really stable today – emotionally anyway. Until I read a disturbing article about Candida. I hate that word so much – the other C word. I need to stay away from information about infections and disorders, it does me no good. Positivity is life.
November 19, 2012
I just destroyed my mood by tormenting myself with tragic You Tube videos. I don’t know what possessed me. Then, right in the midst of that, my son handed me a letter from school about a boy from his class who has cancer. Good way to destroy an evening. They are not us. We are fine. We have nothing to fear because not even death can defeat us if we remain faithful. I am so terribly raw right now.
I believe it was because of my extreme sensitivity that I continually came to understand important things about life during the past two years. I also became very angry about certain things. One day, I went looking for a place to walk by the river, which turned out to be very difficult. I finally did find a place, although I found out later that I had been trespassing. I had a wonderful walk, but it also made me think about the things that make me angry about how the earth is being ruined.
December 6, 2012
I hate what this world has become. How despicable that the very thing that Jehovah carefully designed as our perfect home of delight and beauty has been made into a toxic wasteland. This valley should be teeming with birds and coyotes, elk and cougars, beaver and porcupine. It should be covered in sage and bunchgrass with desert lupine, sunflowers, phlox, desert parsley, and astragalus. the river should run free and clear and be full of trout and bass that wouldn’t make you sick to eat it.
I feel like the whole world is a minefield of dangerous chemicals from which there is no escape. I feel as helpless as an Oklahoma farm wife watching with dread as another black dust storm rolls across the prairie, slamming into the house and filthing everything in its path including the small and vulnerable lungs of her children. There is no shutting it out. Life must go on even if pneumonia is the result.
The extreme greed and utter disregard for other humans displayed by the mega-corporations that are responsible for destroying so much of the earth, including our valley, is stupefying. It makes me sick that human beings are capable of it.
At one point in my taper, I took a huge nosedive. I still am not sure why it happened. I guess maybe I tapered too quickly. But I was frightened. I thought I would never be able to get completely off the pills.
June 3, 2013, 6.75 mgs
I discovered on Saturday night that I really haven’t tapered anything at all since 7.5 mgs. I hadn’t accounted for evaporation. I’m so sick. Saturday and Sunday I started using a covered jar and dividing up my dose ahead of time, which effectively caused me to drop from 7.5 to 6.75 mgs in one night. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen – that my body would just forgive me and behave accordingly? Did I think I could ignore the evaporation thing and maybe it would be okay? Well it’s not.
June 5, 2013 6.75 mgs
This too shall pass! I will follow the program (The Effortless Sleep Method) and hold until I’m stable again. I sleep so well, there is no reason to fear. I’ve done amazingly well throughout this entire taper. If I can overcome what I’ve already been through, I think I can weather a difficult week like this…
I need to make allowances for the possibility of feeling bad. I’ve been holding myself to a very high standard: total functionality. And I’ve mostly achieved it. But I’m feeling extreme fear right now about letting my family down again – extreme. The fear would go if I could just let go of the absolute need to feel stable at all times. ACCEPTANCE is the key to the least amount of suffering. My boys are not babies anymore, they can do things for themselves. It’s good for them to feel the need to care for themselves and others.
I simply tapered a little too quickly and now my system is very hypersensitive. It will pass if I hold and accept whatever symptoms come to me.
I’m going back to 7 mgs…
I struggled along like that for another week and a half before I got brave a tried a homeopathic remedy for the insomnia. I had stopped taking all supplements because of my hypersensitivity, and I was afraid to try anything. But I did it, and that’s what saved the taper, I believe.
June 16, 2013
I’m so depressed I don’t even know what to write. I feel like it’s the end of life as I knew it, bad as it was. It was at least tolerable. And most importantly, I was able to be a halfway decent mom. Poor **** keeps begging me to go camping as if nothing could ever be fun without me. It’s breaking my heart.
I’m almost always nauseated and everything I eat goes right through me. I can’t seem to tolerate food in any form.
I’m pretty sure I will be taking a dose of Phosphorous tomorrow morning.
June 17, 2013
I feel like my adrenals and stomach are blasted all to #$%^&. I can’t seem to eat any meat without reacting. It’s Monday morning and I have to get brave and take my remedy or I might never get off the poison. (took Phosphorous 30c)
The brain fog isn’t so bad anymore and I don’t feel like dying, that’s certainly progress. I’ve been able to take an interest in things. I’m very weak and heavy and get head rushes when I get up, but if the mental symptoms improve, I’m happy.
June 18, 2013
Diarrhea: much improved
Mood: volatile, but much improved
Energy: better, but on the edge of exhaustion
A few days later I had to take another dose at a much higher potency, and it helped immensely. I have since relied on Phosphorous to help me through the rest of my taper, and I believe I owe much of my stability to it.
I was not the only one who had a bad couple of years. I lost 4 friends and two Grandmothers in death. Most of them to cancer. I usually call cancer the “C word” because I’ve always had such a terrible fear of it. Well, I had to face that fear. I had to look it right in the face and stare it down. I had to love my Grandma, who had lung cancer, right up until that terrible beast took her life. And I did it. I think I loved her well. I hope she felt that I did.
August 24, 2013, 6 mgs
Grandma died last night.
August 25, 2013
I was very, very tired and depressed this morning. Suppressed grief. I’m frightened at the intensity of it. I was afraid to acknowledge it. It made me sick. I read an article about grief and how trying to appear strong is not healthy. A woman who was a doctor commented that she would let herself cry at the very beginning, but after that she would push it all down in an attempt to remain strong for others. It made her sick. So I deliberately took my Grandma’s picture and forced myself to look at it and remember. And sure enough, the torrent of violent emotions surfaced and nearly overwhelmed me. But once I recovered I did feel better. It is a relief, but it is also extremely exhausting.
This is what I wrote for my Grandma in the days following her death: Pioneer Shoes
Two months later my other Grandma, who had been suffering from the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, and who I had been very close to all my life, died quite suddenly from pneumonia. I don’t have what I wrote during the week that I stayed with my mother after it happened. This is what I wrote after I came home:
October 20, 2013, 4 mgs
“Our problems are no match for Jehovah. Our extremities are his opportunities.” – Member of Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gilead Graduation
This has been one of the worst and best weeks of my life. Worst because Grandma died and I miss her terribly, and because my mother is devastated. Best because Jehovah gave me the strength of Samson so I would be able to do the seemingly impossible. I stayed with mom all week and took care of her in spite of my own illness and sleep deprivation, endured large amounts of chemicals because of our numerous visitors and other reasons, and actually made it through all of Grandma’s memorial and reception dinner without leaving once…and I made it. I’m okay. Just understandably exhausted and very sad.
October 21, 2013 4 mgs
I don’t have any Grandmas. Not even one…I’m so terribly tired. I’m getting by on pure holy spirit I think.
And as if all that were not enough, five days later my dog died.
October 25, 2013 4 mgs
Elsie got hit and died today. If I wasn’t living this I would never believe the amount of heartache and drama that have been my life for the past two years. It’s actually surreal. I have so much to cry about that half the time I don’t know which thing I’m grieving, or if it’s all of it. It’s been feeling like something has been pressing on my chest and my insides are raw. And sometimes I’m completely numb and in dumb despair. Sometimes I even forget and start to enjoy myself, but then another storm hits. Nothing helps. Nothing chases away the dull, heavy ache. Oh Jehovah God help me!
The Home Stretch
I started writing on this blog, Sound as a Crystal, in November 2013, the month after my Grandma died. It has helped me heal in so many ways. During the past six months, I have experienced more healing than I had in all the year and a half before it. I don’t know how much of that has to do with the self expression and how much has to do with the fact that I’ve been taking less and less medication, but I’m happy.
Sometime in early November I started to practice oil pulling. I had already been using my remedy, Phosphorous, on a regular basis. I had also been using bentonite clay packs to relieve some of my inflammation. These practices seemed to have a very beneficial effect.
November 11, 2013, 3.5 mgs
I feel good. It’s a little window. I didn’t expect ever to feel good while detoxing, but behold! It does work. I am making some progress. I continue to OP (oil pull) every day as well as use clay poultices. This morning I took an Epsom salt bath. I expected to crash from that at some point, but I did not.
In spite of all the good things I was doing for myself, I continued to struggle with negative thinking at times. I had and still have terrible chemical sensitivities which prevented me from doing many things. No parties. No malls. Even driving has been a challenge. All this caused a lot of social tension. (Read more: Behind the Mask)
December 12, 2013, 2.75 mgs
I’m so terribly self-conscious now, and am suffering from such low self-esteem that I just have to chalk it up to benzos. It’s so extreme. It’s not me. I know one of the symptoms listed for benzo withdrawal is low self-esteem. I just don’t remember feeling this way at any time before I took any pills. I think the heightened sensitivity unmasks fears and vulnerabilities that we usually keep well-guarded. And the more this happens the lower goes my sense of self-worth because looking at myself through someone else’s eyes I see a neurotic. I hate that word – neurotic. It’s a dismissive and derogatory word. Saying “she’s just neurotic” pretty much devalues anything she might have to say. Aldous Huxley felt that neuroticism is a normal, healthy reaction to a world gone mad. Maybe I agree, but I still hate the word.
This Spring has been wonderful. I started taking daily walks again, which has strengthened me. Many of my most troubling symptoms have fallen away. And now I am off my medication. The thing I have strived after for two long years is accomplished. I am now free to heal without the medication continually pushing back against my efforts. My most recent effort to heal involves the use of the Gupta Program, which is designed to help those with CFS, Fibromyalgia, and MCS to heal. It seems to be helping me already, as the next journal entry will illustrate:
April 14, 2014, .25 mgs
Yesterday was amazing. I went to my parents anniversary party. Once people started arriving I started to get really nervous and shaky. But I took my niece for a walk by the lake for a while and when we got back, I was fine. I was fine for the rest of the evening – no shakes or headache. It was amazing! It was surreal! I got to really enjoy myself in a big group of friends.
I was teary and so very thankful yesterday. I could hardly believe I had made it.
April 15, 2014
I’m officially medication free as of last night. I’ve waited two long, terrible years for this. I can finally move forward and heal more quickly and completely – no poison mucking me up.
So, if you’ve bravely slogged your way to the end of this, congratulations. And if you are in a situation similar to the one I have been in, take courage. We do heal. The body and brain are amazingly resilient. But we have to pay attention when it speaks. We have to help it along a little. Thoughts matter. They matter so much. Love God. Love yourself. Love everyone. Be good to the earth and it’s creatures. You will heal too.
One wet spring, the hills behind my childhood home came alive. The usually dry ground sprung leaks so that the hills seemed to be crying for joy. I discovered one of those leaks, a small hole in the ground from which sweet, icy-cold water burbled forth. I knew that this ground-level fountain was different from the puddles from which the dog lapped. This was clean water from deep within the earth. I got on all fours and took a long pull. It was the best drink I’ve ever had.
That was the first and last time I ever had the privilege of discovering a spring, and it made a lifelong impression. It worries me that so many kids are deprived of the opportunity to have experiences like that. Daily, intimate contact with nature is vital to the well-being of children, a point which Richard Louv brought home in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.
In the introduction to the book, Richard Louv describes a conversation he had with his son. The boy had wondered why “it was more fun” when his dad was a kid. My own boys wonder the same thing. They pine for open spaces where they would be free to play and create. Places with trees. Places like my childhood home. What science is beginning to make clear to us, my children seem to instinctively understand: kids need nature.
Nature and Health
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” – Rachel Carson
I used to run up the steep hills behind my house without getting winded. My daily tramps through the fields and woods had made me strong. My friends loved to come romp with me in the hills, but they often could not keep up. Lives spent parked in front of the television had made them soft.
I know that if I had lived in a suburban subdivision, there would have been little to propel me into the out-of-doors. What got me outside was not the thought that I needed some fresh air and exercise, but the prospect of all those acres to explore – “scope for the imagination”, as Anne Shirley would have said. I didn’t care a snit about the condition of my muscles or lungs, or how much my play was increasing blood-flow to my brain. All I knew is that outside felt good, and that is where I wanted to be.
Nature and Spirituality
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.” – John Burroughs
I could see out over the plains all the way to the distant mountains from my perch on the hill. That was where I went to be alone with God. Above it all, I was able to put my troubles in perspective and gain a sense of peace. All children should have the opportunity to find a special place, a thinking spot. They should, but they do not, which is why frequent family outings to the woods or the mountains, the lake or the river are so important.
On one such outing, I had invited a student and friend to join me and my family. On a trail in Mt. Rainier National Park, she stopped to admire the chain of jagged peaks marching off into the horizon.
“How could anybody deny that God made this?” she exclaimed in wonderment.
My own son said something similar once. When he was 5 years old, I took him on a camping trip to the Olympic Peninsula on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We could see all the way to Canada from our side of the straight, and daily we would watch the cargo ships, sailboats, and even a submarine pass by. But what really impressed my son was not anything man-made. One day we were examining the anemones and starfish in a tide-pool.
“I just love Jehovah!” said my son.
Such is the power of nature to inspire awe and appreciation.
Nature and Intelligence
Howard Gardner is known for his theory of multiple intelligences. He originally theorized that there are 7 intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. He more recently added an eighth intelligence: naturalist.
The core of naturalist intelligence is the human ability to recognize plants, animals, and other parts of the natural environment, like clouds or rocks.
– Howard Gardner
Transcendent experiences in nature intensify our senses and ability to see connections. Many of our most celebrated authors seem to owe much of their genius to their attunement to the natural world. Jane Austen, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Barbara Kingsolver are a few that come immediately to mind.
Leslie Stevens views nature as an educational necessity, which is why she has moved her family to the edge of a canyon where her children might be free to roam and play. Here, she describes how nature taught her about the concept of shelter:
A child who is allowed to run free in a place that is natural will very quickly begin to look around for a special shelter. The interior framework of bushes is inspected and judged for its suitability to act as a fort. Trees, especially mature ones, provide towering castles, and the best climbing branches are claimed as “rooms”. In contrast, the exposure a child feels running across a grassy, sunny, slope or wide, open field allows her to feel the lack of shelter. It is only through experiencing both opposites that children begin to understand each part more deeply.
I learned much about shelter from my own wanderings. A big old ponderosa pine inhabiting some woods on a hill near my home provided the perfect skeleton for my playhouse. The branches of the tree curved to the ground as if it were purposely sheltering the place around its roots. I saw that with the addition of some sticks for more support, that I would be able to insulate the framework with bundles of pine-needles to create a cozy shelter. I engaged the cooperation of my brother and sisters, and we soon had a little house to please any hobbit. Many happy hours were spent there.
Other things I learned from my experiences in nature include the fact that snow berries are very bitter, lichens are edible but taste very bad, maple leaves are edible and taste very good, red clover is an acceptable substitute for bubble gum, certain types of flowers contain so much nectar that it can be sipped from the blossoms, moss is one of the first green things besides crocuses to appear in the Spring, and pineapple weed tastes like chamomile. I also learned that what we do makes a difference to the Earth. Because I loved to see beautiful things, I deeply resented litter and would never have thought of tossing my candy wrappers on the ground. For the same reason, I hated to see trees being cut down or streams polluted or the advancement of urban sprawl.
Important lessons I would say.
Nature and Creativity
Natural, more loosely structured environments encourage more creative play. On the playground at my school, we played tether ball. But in the hills behind my home, we played Crystal Kingdom, Lost, Train-wreck, and Indians. We created entire fictional worlds up there. It seems as if this type of play must be the stepping stone to the type of creativity that, in later years, writes great novels, paints beautiful pictures, and sculpts beautiful objects.
I could write pages about all the famously creative people who were inspired by their experiences in nature. I will, instead, let a few of them speak for themselves.
“It is not the language of painters but the language of nature which one should listen to…The feeling for the things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures.” – Vincent van Gogh
“I am well again, I came to life in the cool winds and crystal waters of the mountains…” – John Muir
“And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” – William Shakespeare
“Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.” William Wordsworth
I wrote poetry when I was a girl. The inspiration came from trees, sun, wind, and animals. I don’t think I would have written things like the following haiku without intimate contact with those things.
Silence in the wood
A silence the wind can blow
With me there is peace
How many of our young Shakespeare’s and Van Gogh’s sit languishing in classrooms and in front of screens?
The Problem of Distraction
My kids would sit at the computer or with a tablet like punch-drunk social butterflies connected to the hive mind nearly all of the time, I believe, if I allowed it. Television and internet have drastically changed the way that we relate to the world. We are at once connected and disconnected. I once heard electronic media described as WMDs, weapons of mass distraction. That seems apt.
Henry David Thoreau had some thoughts on the social media of his time, newspapers and letters, that now seems almost prophetic:
You may depend on it that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.
Change that to read “the greatest number of likes”, and you have a profound indictment of uncontrolled use of online social media. There is nothing inherently wrong with social media, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with newspapers or letters. But the point Thoreau was trying to make, and the one I want to make, is that those things may become a distraction from pursuits that are much more important. We should not, as Thoreau, stated, “live for idle amusement.”
In his book, Data Smog – Surviving the Information Glut, David Shenk said this:
Turn the television off. There is no quicker way to regain control of the pace of your life, the peace of your home, and the content of your thinking than to turn off the appliance that supplies, for all too many of us, the ambiance of our lives. Millions of Americans have been discovering the serenity and empowerment that comes with using the OFF switch, not to mention hours and hours of newly acquired free-time with which they can begin to do some of the things they’ve never found time for in the past.
The point is this: for kids to gain the benefits of contact with nature, we have to help them unplug. It’s amazing what happens when all the screens go dark. The skateboards come out. The dirt pile outside begins to look more attractive. Young eyes begin to rest upon birds and rabbits and clouds rather than those flickering pixels. A child begins to “hear from himself”, and I might add, from God himself as well, as God reveals himself in his creation.
The Problem of Access
I always get stir-crazy in the winter. I miss green so much that I begin looking for ways to get somewhere, anywhere, that will soothe me. One winter, after having researched Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife river access points, I went looking for somewhere to walk where I could see water. Every access point I checked was closed to the public. The only way to approach the river anywhere near my home would have been to break the law.
I finally found a hill that overlooked the river that was not farmed (quite rare in my part of the world). I parked my car and took a walk with my dog. I enjoyed my solitude while Elsie bounded around in the brush, sniffing here and there, long tongue hanging out the side of her mouth. She flushed a covey of quail out of the sage as we approached the crest of the hill where we could see the sparkling coils of the river below, gray, leafless trees flanking its sides. I stood for a long while and let the scene penetrate and calm my beauty-hungry heart.
As I was driving away, I saw it. NO TRESPASSING.
I had done the thing I had been hoping to avoid. I had broken the law in my attempt to get close to the water.
As a property owner, I understand what it is to feel protective of my patch of ground. I certainly don’t want herds of teenagers partying on the back forty (or in my case, the back 1/4), tossing their cigarette butts and empty beer bottles all over the place. I don’t want hunters with their rifles tramping over my pasture in search of pheasants. But why can’t I go to the river?
Nearly all riverside land in the 20 miles surrounding my town is privately owned, most of it by farmers who are in the process of completely destroying it. They plow land right up to the river’s edge, encouraging soil erosion. Chemical fertilizer and pesticide runoff cause algal bloom and poison fish so that we take our lives into our hands if we try to eat anything from the river. These farmers don’t want the general public tramping through their fields, orchards and vineyards to get to the river. But we shouldn’t have to. The state owns pieces of land all along the it.
One of the reasons people are denied access to state land is because ecologists want to protect what’s left of wildlife habitat. Although I agree that protection of wildlife habitat is a necessary and laudable goal, the state shoots itself in the foot by failing to provide year-round access to state land not just to hunters and fisherman, but to all of us who just want to enjoy nature. If we can’t find places near home where our children can go on a daily or weekly basis, there may be no one left in the future who even wants to protect wildlife habitat. How can we encourage a love of nature in our children if they can’t even get near it?
It is difficult, but not impossible to find places close-by that might inspire love of nature in children. We don’t have to go to Rainier National Park or the Oregon coast just to enjoy the natural world. Beauty is everywhere for those who have eyes to see. Sometimes little patches of leftover wildness can be enough. On our walks along an irrigation canal near our home, my kids and I often spot ducks lazily paddling in the water. The blackberry brambles whose juicy, dark purple jewels are a delight to my boys also grow along that canal. The sycamore in the yard, the flowers in the garden, and the butterflies in the grass all wait outside our door to be appreciated.
What price do our children pay for our disconnection from nature? The price is stunted talent, soft, weak bodies, lost opportunities for learning, and a planet in ruin. The price is depression, anxiety, and apathy. The price is disconnection from God and from all he created. The price is too high.
We must teach our children to unplug, go outside, and open their eyes. Show them how important contact with nature is by driving them to the wildest places we can find. Talk to them about what they see, about the significance of it. Revel with them in the beauty. Almost nothing could be more important.
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“We think caged birds sing, when indeed, they cry.” – John Webster
I’m very, very sensitive to chemicals; not just the ones everybody knows are dangerous, but the ones people use every day on their bodies and in their bathrooms and kitchens and on their sofas and in their yards. And what happens to me when I am exposed to those chemicals is not trivial. The sore throat and headache and heavy chest were uncomfortable, but not enough to stop me from living my life.
What stopped me was when I began to lose my mind. I don’t mean that I become overwrought and anxious. I literally lose my mind when I’m exposed to chemicals. I mean, I lose IQ points. I become stupid. I also lose my ability to function normally due to exhaustion and pain. Neurological symptoms such as numbness and tremors are also part of the mix. That’s not okay with me, and that’s why I avoid triggering chemicals.
The social implications are enormous. It’s not just that I have to be careful about what I use in the shower, or what I use to clean the toilet, although that’s part of it. It means I have to avoid other people who use the things that I can’t use. I can’t go into their homes or be close enough to them to hold a comfortable conversation. Public areas like places of worship and schools are very difficult places to be.
It seems like some people think, if they are aware of chemical sensitivity at all, that it takes a special kind of crazy to be this way. Because of the skepticism I’ve encountered and because I do not want to be defined by illness, I don’t like to talk about this. In spite of that, I often find myself doing it anyway, feeling all the while like I’m treading on thin ice. If I talk too long, eventually something will slip out that sounds like slap on the wrist:
“Yeah, fabric softener really does me in. I think it’s worse than some perfumes.”
My unfortunate victim looks away, searching for a graceful escape. “Oh really?” she says, “I didn’t know that!” all the while thinking, What a loon! I use fabric softener every day and I’m fine.
My face reddens as I quickly change the subject, mentally slapping my own wrist for creating an uncomfortable moment.
I have not had to stop meeting at my place of worship, the Kingdom Hall. This is because I am allowed to sit in a back room with my air purifier and my family. Behind a wall of windows, I am able to see and hear the meeting. It is a blessing. But I always wish I could be on the other side of the glass.
Sometimes I wear a mask to keep me well in toxic situations. It gives a measure of freedom. Without that little piece of carbon and fabric, driving our new-smelling car, exhaust fumes pouring in through the vents, would be out of the question. Using a fragranced public restroom would be a nightmare. Even visiting some of my friends is sometimes made possible by the mask, but that is something I rarely do. I’ll tell you why.
I hate the mask. We all wear masks. But the difference between the mask I wear and mask you wear is that yours is probably socially acceptable. In his book The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak wrote that “nothing is more real than the masks we make to show each other who we are.” The way we dress, the way we do our makeup or hair, and the expressions we wear on our face are all masks. Sometimes they reveal who we are, and sometimes they conceal, if that is our intention. But when I wear my mask, the only message I project to the world is one of fear. The mask says, “I’m afraid. The world is a dangerous place.” But that is not what I want to say.
“When we know Love, fear has no value in our presence. There is no pressure to perform and mask our humanity.” – E’yen Gardner
I don’t want to mask my humanity, I want to reveal it. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that ” without wearing any mask we are conscious of, we have a special face for each friend.” I want to reveal the special face I have for each of my friends. I want my friends to understand just how happy I am to see them. And just like I want to be able to look into the face of a friend and read his or her emotions and intentions, I would like for my friends to be able to see my face and read me as well.
“Masks were used to alienate and silence prisoners in Australian jails in the late 19th century. They were made of white cloth and covered the face, leaving only the eyes visible.” – Wikipedia, Mask
Masks tend to frighten us, and for good reason. Faces reveal intentions. We cannot read a masked face, and for that reason we associate masks with bad intentions. Villains wear masks: Phantom of the Opera, Jason, Hannibal Lecter. I frighten children when I wear my mask. There is nothing worse than looking into a child’s eyes, seeing fear, and knowing that I am the cause. That alone is reason enough for me to leave the mask in my purse.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you see someone wearing a mask in public? The first thing that comes to my husband’s mind is that the person is a thief or a terrorist. He becomes very uncomfortable if he has to be seen in public with me in my mask, and I don’t blame him. I’m uncomfortable being seen in public in my mask. Others have told me that their first thought upon seeing a masked person is that the person may have cancer or AIDS and needs protection from germs. I don’t want people to think that about me.
And as if all that were not enough, carbon filter masks just don’t work very well. They’re somewhat helpful for nuisance-level pollution, but they’re worse than useless in a truly toxic situation. I once thought that I could enter a feed store as long as I had my mask on. I was mistaken. The mask was no match for the overpowering pesticide fumes. I was sick for weeks, and it all could have been avoided if the mask had not given me a false sense of security.
When I forgo social opportunities that my mask might afford, it is not because I like to be alone. Something that has become more clear to me than ever before is that I love people. Forced isolation has taught me that. You tend to appreciate things far more when they are rationed. If I were I dog, I’d be Dug from the movie Up:
“My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you.”
But just like Dug did not like his “cone of shame”, I do not like my mask of shame, and I long for the day when I will never have to wear it again.
I don’t want to be this way. I’m not trying to make a political statement about chemicals. My body does that for me. I am an unwilling “canary in the coal mine” .
In my day-dreams I imagine myself surrounded by people: all my closest friends, my family, and new faces too. On my face there is nothing but a smile and between me and my friends there is no glass. I am free.
Meet my dog, Lilly Goat – aka Lilly the Pill, Pilly, Pill Pill…I think you get it. She’s a troublemaker. But I love her.
Here’s a typical conversation between the two of us:
Me (in baby-talk): There’s my little stupid! You a poop faced fuzz bucket!
Lilly: I’ll eat you up I love you so! (Proceeds to try to ingest my toes)
Me: You bad, bad! You baaaaad witto pup pup! (playfully incite dog to further toe violence.)
Lilly gets into a toe eating frenzy, at which point I must take evasive maneuvers.
Lilly is more than just a fun companion. She is also good medicine. The Healing Power of Pets, an article originally written by Peter Browne and adapted from the August 200o Asian edition of Readers Digest by Martin Williams, says that “even desperately ill patients respond to this unorthodox therapy – a cold wet nose and a furry cuddle.” I agree. I’m no expert on the science behind the healing power of pets, but I do know what they’ve done for me, my family, and my friends.
Fourth and fifth grades were stressful for me. I was the quiet girl in the funny-looking glasses and hand-me-down clothes. The kids bullied me and math was a perpetual thorn in my side. I’m not sure how I would have coped had it not been for our horses, Honey, Tobey, and Strawberry. Going to the pasture was my way of decompressing. I sat there in the grass just to be close to them, listening to them munch while I drew. There was something satisfying about the rhythmic crunch, crunching, the sweet, horsey smell, the quiet snuffling. All the stress would drain away. I could have lived in the pasture then.
The cats helped too. I had a big fluffy tom called Mr. Moose. He was a lazy good-for-nothing when it came to hunting, but his cuddles were medicinal. He was my leg warmer in bed, my dolly, and a good-natured nuisance when I was trying to draw or read. His purr, his warmth, and his loving and trusting personality were soothing to me.
I don’t want to underestimate my childhood miseries, but I had no idea at that time just how painful life could become. Just a little over two years ago when I was enduring a horrible bout of insomnia, it was my dog Elsie who was there for me day and night. When the whole world was asleep, and the screaming black of night threatened to drive me crazy, I would lie on the floor and hug my patient dog, a warm, living, loving creature, and I would feel a little less alone; a little less like my whole world was caving in. I always knew by her constant attendance and the look in her warm dog eyes that she knew I needed her. Elsie is gone now, but I will never forget her calm devotion.
Lilly came to us while Elsie was still alive, a white whirling dervish, the Tasmanian Devil of dogs. We didn’t choose her, she chose us. Once we tamed the little beast and she became aware of what was expected of her, she began to wheedle her way into our hearts. John Muir said in one of his essays that terriers have “little tricksy ways”. This is true. Lilly makes us laugh, which is one of the things that make her worth every bit of trouble she causes. Even on my worst days, Lilly can make me feel good. She’s the house jester, my lap warmer, and my walking buddy. Her energy level is very high, which is just what I need right now. I need for her to make me feel bad if I don’t get up off my butt and take her for a walk. She has no idea she’s being useful, she just wants to go.
Animals are pretty generous with their affection. But the love should be mutual. For example, my mother bought her horse, Honey, when she was thirteen. The reason she was able to do this with her $100 of babysitting money is because Honey was considered a “dog”, which is horse person talk for good-for-nothing. She had been horribly abused and given up as a lost cause. My mother, though, could see potential in Honey. And she was desperate for a horse. So she took that horse and loved her with all she had in her thirteen-year-old heart, buying the best feed, again, with babysitting money, brushing and currying faithfully, earning trust by showing affection, and eventually, training Honey to be ridden. When Honey eventually won reserve grand champion at a horse show, people were amazed. A newspaper article was written about how a girl had transformed a “dog” into a prize-winning show horse. My mother’s love and devotion to that horse is the reason I could safely sit near her in the pasture and listen to her graze. It’s why I could approach honey and touch her soft muzzle, feed her apples, and brush her flanks.
Moose and Elsie and Lilly and many of the other wonderful animals I’ve had the privilege to know over the years had love to give because that is what they had received. Animals have needs, and sometimes those needs can seem overwhelming to those who have never experienced the responsibility. But the responsibility itself can be healing. We need to be needed. The knowledge that a living creature would suffer if we did not get up and feed them, that they would miss us if we weren’t there, is often enough to keep us going when we want to give up. I know that’s how it was for my Grandma. Her little dog was her friend. That’s what she always said. The night Grandma passed away, I sat in her favorite recliner and pet that dog like my life depended on the reality of her tiny body. I love that dog because of what she gave Grandma during the last years of her life. And I was grief stricken not for myself and my family only, but for Grandma’s little friend.
All animals have love to give. But how much would an animal have to give if they seldom got enough to eat, never felt a caring human hand, or never heard a kind word? What if an animal felt that humans were too unpredictable to be trusted? How much love would they have to give? To experience the healing power of furry love, we have to give love first. And the rewards are priceless.