Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Witch of Endo, part 1

This just in: It’s really hard for me to ask for help. I’m sure you’re shocked.

I had a midterm due at the beginning of the week; I have been dealing with pelvic pain from the endometriosis and feeling crabby and useless. I had every reason to ask for an extension on my papers but…I felt like a loser. I didn’t want to ask. It was hard to admit that I *couldn’t* do it. I hate “can’t.” I hate it in myself. I would never judge another person who asked for an extension on a paper because it felt like their pelvis was eating itself (and, actually, with endo, that’s not far from what is actually happening) but oh no, not ME. I can do anything, dammit. Except I can’t. It was humbling to look at my notes strewn around me, books piled up, Word doc open and ready to go, and realize: I can’t fucking do this. I need to go to bed.

I have two choices when I’m in pain and have a paper/project due: I can grit my teeth and work through the pain, or I can take a painkiller and work through the narcotic haze. The pain pills work pretty well but they make it hard to focus, retain information and express myself coherently. In short, everything I need to write a paper.

I have learned the hard way that the pain will not just go away because I ignore it.  Ignoring it will make it worse. So although I am capable of working through it, I will pay for it when the work is done. Often that payment is more than I can afford and --listen to me! I feel like I have to justify my decision to not stay in pain. It’s a little excessive. I have such little sympathy for myself.

There is some crazy part of me that believes that if I wish hard enough, or do the correct breathing exercise, or stop eating dairy (for the record, I’ve tried: it’s bullshit) or something, this disease will go away. So if it doesn’t go away it must mean that I don’t want it gone enough. Some strange part of me thinks I should be able to wave a magic wand and make it all go away: some part of me believes I can do anything, so why can’t I do this? It’s like the dark, distorted side of empowerment. I’m always hearing how tough people are, they beat cancer, just fucking kicked it to the curb. I don’t even have a life-threatening disease and I can’t kick it out of my own way, never mind the curb. It makes me feel inadequate and weak. 

Now I know that makes no sense, but at the same time I don’t know it. I remember being at the pre-op appointment before my last surgery, going though the litany of diet, meds, everything from the previous few months, trying to figure out where I went wrong, when my surgeon, who has been my doctor, therapist, advisor and friend for the last 20 years (yeah, I’ve had surgery often enough that I’m buddies -–good buddies-- with my surgeon)-- looked up from his note-taking, waited for me to stop, then said “Saum, this isn’t something you did.” I burst into tears. Because I needed to hear it.

I don’t have magical powers (Or if I do, they’re not that kind of magical power, but only good for conjuring 80s power ballads and rain). What I do have is a disease with symptoms I can’t predict or control. I have issues with giving up control –- and, baby, it is allllll about giving up control.

I also have a TF who rejected my request for a 48-hour extension on my midterm but instead gave me 5 days... and said if I needed more time it was not a problem. I burst into tears then too. Luckily I was just reading an email so there were no witnesses.

Something else my surgeon said that day has stuck in my head: Men are stronger, but women are tougher. They are also tougher on themselves. I don’t know if that’s true, but it certainly resonates. I doubt that it has anything whatsoever to do with my gender, but I have high standards for myself: I push myself, I love a challenge, and I do stuff that I am afraid of doing. I don’t give up. I think those are all good things. But, I also judge myself very harshly. I would never speak to another suffering creature the way I speak to myself.

Sometimes I think I’ll never be enough for myself. I construct and overcome hurdle after hurdle: going back to school wasn’t enough, I had to get into Harvard. Getting into Harvard wasn’t enough, I had to maintain a 4.0…and ok I’ll admit it, there’s times that I think my 4.0 at Harvard is worthless because all the really smart people are over at MIT.

There is a part of me that, assuming I get an A in this class, which I will move heaven and earth to achieve, will feel like I don’t deserve it because I got an extension on my goddamn midterm.

It’s telling that while pain is part of my everyday life, it’s not something I’m comfortable talking about. It hurts everyday, and I don’t just mean physical hurt. I have not ridden my horse in over a month. I live to ride, and I cannot ride.

I have blogged about pain it in the past but it’s something I struggle to express. I avoid writing about it. I avoid talking about it. I’m not registered with the disability support office at school although I ought to be. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, but it does keep anyone else from knowing about it, from witnessing my vulnerability. I want to be tougher than I am.  I want a life that is miraculously free from “can’t.” I don’t want to need help.

But I’ve realized, while writing this, that needing is good for me (sorry, Buddha). It opens a part of myself that would otherwise remain closed. It humbles me and introduces another kind of empowerment: one that acknowledges that maybe I can do anything…just not on my own.

I titled this post The Witch of Endo, part I The “part I” is a promise to myself. I will keep writing about this. I will keep needing, too.

Thanks for your help. I appreciate it. I couldn’t do this without you.

Monday, October 4, 2010

American Shakti

Versions of this essay be viewed at The Washington Post On Faith blog,  and The HASC site, where you can also learn more about ShaktiSeva.

What is Shakti?

You already know.

Beyond any definition I can give you, beyond explanations drawn from scripture and authorities, is the true meaning of Shakti that each woman knows. It is true because it is your Shakti. It is the part of yourself that you reach into, the deep well that most of us discovered when we had nowhere else to turn. Shakti empowers us into ourselves, empowers us to be ourselves. When you look within for inspiration, solace, guidance, it is Shakti that gives answer and Shakti that acts through you. It is the wisdom of your great-great-great-grandmother, encoded in your bones, the wisdom of the all-Mother that rises through each of us. It is the effervesce of life. Shakti does not only exist in women, but it is through women that it flows. It is our essential foundation, and it is that which goads us to change.

Shakti is a Sanskrit word, but Shakti is beyond religion, race or nation. While the Hindu calendar recognizes Navratri (the nine nights of the Goddess), we are Hindus living in the wheel of Americans seasons. In Euro-American folk traditions, these seasons are significant: autumn is time to enjoy the harvest, to prepare for the quiet wild of winter. As we enter autumn, the air grows crisp, the days grow brief, and we grow introspective. As the days darken, the leaves brighten. We see the colours of the Goddess: gold, orange, red. The season lights its dia to Devi.

There is wisdom in autumn. Feel the city gird itself against the chill, the throngs of people shiver in the wind and wonder at the sky. Become a dragon, breathing steam in the morning. Hear the Goddess as she rustles through the corn, as she revels in the bounty. Feel her readiness for the reaping, the preparation of the long contemplation of winter. As the nights grow longer, let her sing you to sleep. See the trees dress up in their best, then scatter their garments to meet Winter with smooth, bare limbs. Feel the living roots reach deep into the warm beating flesh of our Mother Earth. Feel that power rise to greet the sun, to revel beneath the moon. All this is Devi, the Goddess. This is mother, sister, daughter. This is you and me. This is Shakti.

As that power comes through it becomes: we make it what it is. Whether you are in the boardroom or bedroom, you know the feeling. Shakti is power and Shakti is play. Shakti is the warm womb of the kitchen and the cool bravery of the battlefield. She is the quiet moment when we gather and the brilliant light when we shine. She is what all women know. She is without form yet encompassed by each of our forms. She is beyond and within. Shakti is the current that flows beneath the current.

Shakti is what is shared when women gather: not the essential but superficial knowledge of doing but the deep instinctive knowledge of being. Shakti is not chosen, and we cannot control it. It the flood, the rush of endorphins, the giddy laugh, the flash of insight, the swirl of energy through the cosmos. We ride it like a wave.

This is what Shakti is to me. What is Shakti to you?

This month of October, this season of autumn and Navrathri, take the time to find, explore and express your Shakti. Reach out. Create. Heal.

Celebrate Navratri in a way that is meaningful to you. Nine nights in a row, observe a ritual: it may be traditional, invented or a combination of the two.

  • Honor the Deities, Folk Heroes, Activists, Writers, Artists, Innovators, Politicians…the women…who inspire you.
  • Forgive a friend who wronged you.
  • Light your altar and chant the ancient prayers, then light a candle and take a bath.
  • Adorn yourself.
  • Arrange events to be inspired by or inspire others with your shakti stories
  • Start a journal, a blog, share your stories
  • Give yourself permission to create something.
  • Revive an old love: sing, dance, paint.
  • Write a letter.
  • Call your sister, friend, mother.
  • Have your friends over: share the profound and silly female bonding rituals of your heritage and youth: oil your hair, do henna, paint your nails.
  • Go out for the evening.
  • Sign up for a class: make pottery; learn to play the drums, knit a scarf.
  • Get moving: go for a walk, learn to ride a horse, take up a martial art.



Just as you already know what Shakti is, you know, deep inside, who you are.

This autumn, tend the light that glows within.

Rediscover yourself. Invent yourself. Become yourself. Most of all: revel in yourself.