Sunday, May 25, 2014

Stress, de-stress

Afternoon rainclouds
My wife reminds me from her reading online that cancer patients need to reduce stress to improve their health, and I’m aware of how little regard I give to this. Even efforts to reduce stress seem to add their own kind of stress. Meditation seldom if ever produces a relaxed state in me. Mindfulness also remains a mystery and takes work, which is not conducive to relaxation. Exercise is another—a chore, and I hate chores.

One day this week, I tried a one-hour sample of Tibetan bells (see below) on YouTube, supposed to reduce stress, which put me to sleep though I felt nothing really soothing about them. Maybe I don’t know how to listen to them. I read another 1–2 chapters of a book by an ALS patient (Philip Simmons’ Learning to Fall) but find his thinking abstract and difficult. I am too impatient for a feeling of achievement or progress or reward, which seems to be part of my problem with a discipline of self-care. The real reward to be aimed for, if I understand this right, should be Nothing. This kind of thinking reminds me of those unfinished jigsaw puzzles at the Cancer Center the patients there work on.

This week I began using the dictation app on my new computer to create blog posts (like this one). Saving the clumsy typing thanks to numbness in my left hand, it may do more for stress reduction than other more arcane practices. Still, 12 hours at the keyboard leaves me weary by noon, and I rejoice in the relief of just lying down for a while. And relaxation deepens as I pick up a new novel to read, sinking into the oblivion of it, until I doze off. This, one day, despite 12 hours of mostly restful sleep the night before.

Ragged rainclouds with a patch of blue
The nearly absent taste of food continues to generate its own brand of stress. Coffee in the morning is brackish and even strong tea, flat. Occasionally I can taste the sweetness in dried fruit and the “green” of salads. But an OK snack: chocolate graham crackers and sweet chai tea. Friday nights have been a tradition of my pepperoni pizza made from Trader Joe ingredients. My wife sometimes has to take over, as I may need another lie-down before a pie is ready for the oven. Eating some later, I sometimes have to rely on a memory of how it’s supposed to taste.

More stress. My lowish blood pressure has been something of a gift for a long time, but now it’s likely to produce faintness when standing after sitting for a while. I’ve learned to quickly sit again or sink to the floor to avoid falling when my head starts to swim.

Reynolds Price, in the first chapter of his book A Whole New Life seems to settle on “fighting cancer” as his metaphor of choice for treatment. But as someone diagnosed in his early 50s, he could be expected to find in himself a fighting spirit. At my age of 72 I’ll leave the fighting to my doctors and trust to their best efforts, hopefully extending my years with the help of their “pushback,” while using the time remaining to some good purpose.

I have not been taking morning walks, the effort being more than I can manage these days, most of the blame for that being the meds.  But one morning this week I make it around the block with my wife and the dog. The wind blew my hat off once, but I soldiered on before heading home again, ready for another lie down. I last longer on the stationary bike, where a half hour easily passes while I read a book on my kindle.

Costco checkout
Costco. Waiting for the cooler weather that arrived this week, we made a postponed trip to Costco. Delayed by an hour (I bequeathed a tall stepladder to my next-door neighbor, a self-employed handyman; barring a miracle, I will never need it to get onto my roof again. Then we stopped at the animal shelter to drop off 3–6 months of newspapers they use there for bedding, carrying them in from the car by armfuls because the box of them was too heavy—a gusty wind coming up to complicate the process for me and my undependable left arm), we discovered the Costco parking lot already filling as we got there.

Shopping went OK though we quickly filled the cart to the $275 level (walnuts are now $20 for 3 pounds; how did that happen?). After checking out, I waited as my wife used the coffee grinder, and I tried putting into practice some of the spiritual practice I’ve been learning in my reading: to make brief eye contact with passersby, remembering to think, “We’re all in this together,” and discovering again how difficult this is for me, long lost in my own separateness and easy judgments of others.

West wind, waiting for an ode
Weary after loading up the car, my wife and I canceled a stop at Petco for dog food and Greenies. Another day. At home, after stocking shelves and refrigerator, we both needed rest again.

I reached for Reynolds Price’s book and read his hair-raising description of agonies and loss, which make my own difficulties pale by comparison. At one point, he notes that the uncertainty of his cancer prognosis has been simplified to two wishes: to have life as long as there is work for him to do, and to have work as long as he has life. For someone who needs to feel useful, that focus (as Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chödrön would say) was news I could use. Reading and writing about westerns for a blog called Buddies in the Saddle stopped seeming frivolous for a while.

Emails continue to surprise me with the contact they offer me in unexpected ways. I get a long email from a cousin’s husband telling me of surviving a critical illness with the help of alternative medicine, and a faith in what many would dismiss as magical thinking. Yet I’ve been far enough down this road to believe that faith of almost any kind is better than no faith at all. I am humbled by his story of recovery. It triggers a sense of having been guided for most of my life and attended in ways that invite me to connect dots stretching over decades, including nowadays the appearance of hummingbirds at odd moments. Yeah, true that.

Previously: A delicate balance


  1. Just do what you want and can when you want. Never listen to anyone selling a technique for relaxation. You are doing just fine with this blog. More, if possible, will be welcome.

  2. The loss of taste for food was one of Lana's biggest struggles. We constantly tried new drinks or food to try and get her to consume more. She had some luck for a while with things like sprite and lemon lime.

    As for destressing, the main thing I do is play video games, which totally consumes my thinking for a while so that I don't really think about my stress.

  3. Of course your blog is important to us. And I know I'll adopt some appropriate vocabulary words for the novel I'm writing. Like having my own research assistant to supplement my own research. Lol

  4. Ron, I agree. I often feel more stress when I'm trying to reduce it. Maybe, I'm trying too hard, I don't know. Meditation helps, especially if I do it regularly, as does long deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and slowly exhaling through the mouth. Doctors have admitted that even five minutes of meditation or sitting quietly in one place can lower stress levels. The nice thing about it is that one can practice it almost anywhere.

    1. I hear you, Prashant. Having no expectations seems to make a difference. Comparing what is with what ought to be gets me nowhere.

  5. I have been filled with anxiety my entire life--at sometimes worse than others--but it is always there. I have tried various anti-depressants, which made me crazy instead of worried. The only thing that helped me was work--but you are in a place where that's not your answer. I would go for humor. Rent as many funny movies as you can, read books written by Jean Shepherd--I have a few. Watch old sitcoms. Laugh--be noisy instead of quiet. Norman Cousins taught us this many years ago. And I believe it. Laugh. I always feel better after a episode of FRASIER.

    1. Good advice. Frazier works for me, too. So do Fawlty Towers and As Time Goes By.

    2. Ron, we at home love Frazier and Fawlty Towers as well as To the Manor Born and Are You Being Served? two equally hilarious Britcoms. P.G. Wodehouse is an excellent tonic.

  6. I understand the show called REVIEW, which you can watch on HULA on your computer is very funny.

  7. Although I seldom comment here, your blog-journaling, Ron, fills me with deep wonder and longing, and takes me to a similar, interior place of reflection and the range of emotions experienced there. I've attempted Tibetan and 'mindfulness' meditation, the recitation of 'mantras' from varied faith traditions. Like you, Tibetan 'bowl' bells and chanted Om Mani Padme Hung's don't resonate with me. Nor do Hindu ragas played by Ravi Shankar: both produce, not 'relaxation' but only further mental 'stimulation'.

    Sometimes, an attempt at writing a poem, then re-reading it, comes close. I wrote a (not very good I'm afraid) haiku this past easter:


    plum blossoms open
    on branches reaching sunward.
    a robin perches, waiting.

    And I just re-discovered, on Youtube, a piece of music which, after reading my haiku several times, I listen to. It allows me to 'rest', if only briefly, in an inner place...and simply Wait.