Lessons in herbalism continues…

I’m now knee-deep in The Herbal Academy’s* introductory course, and I’m liking it very much. If you have a passion for studying herbalism, definitely give them a look. Things I like so far:

  • Great information, concepts are explained well. I took an online 101 course years ago that I wasn’t too impressed with, and this one just has a lot more detail and interesting information. It feels very thorough.
  • The website is very beautifully designed, which makes it easy to read the texts, and easy to find things. I worked as a web designer for about a year in my twenties, and I developed a real appreciation of simple and elegant formats that don’t make your brain work hard just to read text or find a link. So many people get this wrong.
  • The videos that accompany the lessons look professionally made, they’re well-lit, the speaker is easy to see and understand, and the information is great. I was surprised how much I learned just from the first video about how to store herbs.

 

Yesterday, I bought this book by Rosemary Gladstar:

Rosemary Gladstar is a rock star in the world of herbalism, and this little book doesn’t disappoint. She has two pages on panic attacks and some recipes for things to help. I’ll be trying those soon, I’m sure. One thing I really like is that she emphasizes the importance of strengthening the nervous system, which is my main takeaway of everything I’m learning about herbalism. The herbalists I read talk about herbal medicine as something we should use to fortify ourselves, and that the power of the plants is in their ability to help us keep strong and vital and balanced.

Everyone I’m reading is very respectful of the power of allopathic (Western) medicine. No one suggests that if you have cancer you ditch the chemo and just brew yourself a nice cup of herbal tea (they’d suggest the chemo and the tea!). But what they all agree is missing from our general Western worldview is this connection to plants as allies, that can strengthen our systems, keep us healthy, and give us a buffer against stress. We tend to think of herbal medicine as “alternative” when what I’m reading and hearing (podcasts!) from these people is that herbs should be the base of our health care, the root (pun intended) of our approach to medicine, where medicine is seen as balancing the body, and as a preventative of illness.

Their emphasis on learning to “respect the plants”, and “connect to the plants”, is reawakening in me a connection to the planet I used to nurture all the time, but lately, have been avoiding. For me, connecting to the earth felt spiritual, and was done with a lot of walks, hikes, and just being out there. When we started sailing a few years ago, the feeling of being out on the water was just an incredible transcendence, a feeling of freedom and even spiritual communion with nature, that left me blissed out for days. Well, since I’ve been so much sicker these last months, we haven’t been sailing at all and walks in the woods feel impossible. I’m indoors too much, and I can feel it. When I go outside and look up at the tall evergreens that line our driveway, trees I consider friends, I mostly feel sad. Depressed about how limited my exposure to nature is, right now.

Learning about the plants, especially about how they might help me in a lot of ways, is giving me back that connection, and inspiring me to get out more on the days when I have energy. I can really see why herbalists get so emotional when they talk about their own connection to the herbs they grow and use.

Rosemary Gladstar has a great website, and even a course you can take. I’d like to take her course eventually, too, but I chose a less expensive introductory course to start because I’m really working on my tendency to over-extend and over-commit myself. I tend to go all out when I start something, and then it bites me in the ass later. I get so passionate at the start that I assume my passion will follow me all the way to the end of the line in any given field, but I’ve had to learn the hard way that it’s okay to learn the basics of something and then be done. Not every passion is an all-the-way passion. It was the right choice for me to choose something relatively short and 101 (pats self on back).

But I still have her course bookmarked to take later, and I love what she says here in her advice for budding herbalists:

Follow your Bliss….not my words (wish they were!) but the wise words of Joseph Campbell. Every day, spend time directly with the plants and above all, listen to them. They will teach you more than any book and even the best herbal teacher. We all learn at the humble roots of the plants…all the way back to the beginning of time. Let’s not forget how to listen, how to hear, their language. It is not a lost language, or languages as they speak in many tongues, but a forgotten language that is heard with the heart.

Also, study from many different teachers. Never just one otherwise we become little clone heads. Better to study with many, and to let each one inspire your own vision, to clear your eyesight to see better the world around you.

Great advice! I’d love to meet her someday!


* I’m enjoying it so much I joined their affiliate program! One of the benefits of this is that you can get a little glimpse of the more advanced training. As I figured, looking at that sample makes me want to take even more courses.

 

Rediscovering herbalism

Credit to Quinn Dombrowski for this photo of holy basil!

As I write this, I’m drinking lemon balm tea with tincture of holy basil. Yesterday, I’m pretty sure this combination is responsible for what I called in my journal, “Friday’s herbal miracle”. The miracle was that for the first time in weeks, I felt steady. Cheerful, too, and stable in terms of symptoms I was feeling throughout the day. I’m superstitious about talking about it (my husband recently bought me a bumper sticker that said, “I’m not superstitious: that would be bad luck”), but I’m going to talk about it nonetheless.

I have a condition, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, that has a name. I also have some other labels: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and ADHD. But labels only tell you so much about a person’s experience. You can make a few assumptions safely; beyond that it’s peril to assume too much. It’s interesting to talk to other people who share one or more of these labels. Sometimes we’ll be able to read each others’ minds, our experiences are so similar and have left us with the same fears, the same scars, the same neurotic little habits or perceptions. Other times I can tell that what one person experiences as anxiety, or “lack of executive function” (a common description of ADHD), isn’t at all the same as my own, which I find pretty fascinating.

Anxiety, especially, is incredibly subjective. In my fifteen years dealing with panic disorder, I’ve long since left the clinical definition of a panic attack, not that this stops any new healthcare practitioner from writing anything I describe off as “anxiety”. I saw a wonderful naturopath at Bastyr a few days ago, who asked me what my panic attacks felt like. I had to admit that she’d need to be more specific, I have a range of what I call “panic attacks”, each with its own constellation of symptoms and sensations. I was grateful when her response was, “Really? Tell me more.” I have to admit that naturopaths seem to have great people skills, which is why it’s especially frustrating that I’ve never found one who could help me with anything. Years ago, I came to this very center to be treated for fatigue (what would later be diagnosed as Fibromyalgia). They put me in a peat moss bath, and when that left me weaker and considerably anxious, threw up their hands. But, knowledge of CFS and Fibro has come a long way (not nearly far enough, but farther than seven years ago). I’m really hoping that this new start at Bastyr is the beginning of getting some real help.

Which brings me to my lemon balm tea. After two hours of discussion, my naturopathic doc and her student team came back with their recommendations, which (among other things) included lemon balm tea. I thought, “Tea? Really?” But then I remembered how into herbs I used to be, when my kids were little. I had taken a beginner’s online course through ACHS, and read a lot of books on theory, but hadn’t practiced very much beyond – haha – a few teas, an herbal vinegar or two, and I may have gone so far as a tincture. My interest in alternative healthcare modalities remained, but my interest in herbs kinda slid away. But when my doc prescribed the tea, I remembered learning about how powerful herbs could be, and it got me curious about the field again.

This is a great book. (And it’s not an affiliate link. I go back and forth on my feelings about Amazon, but for now I’m choosing not to use their affiliate program.)

A day later, I bought a book about adaptogens, herbs that are particularly good at improving a body’s resilience to stress. I’ve thought for a very long time that what’s wrong with me, in part, is a very abnormally functioning stress response, so the idea of hebs that could help this, intrigued me a great deal.

Here I will stop and say, please keep in mind I’m not giving medical advice, to people with CFS or to anyone else. I’m relating my experience and my thought processes about my own symptoms, that’s it. It’s important to me that we (people with chronic illness) are able to talk about what’s happening with our health and the setbacks or progress we’re making, but it’s also important to me that even as we suffer from these frustrating conditions that don’t have any answers, that we don’t lose track of the usefulness of western medicine. It’s a hammer, to be sure, and not everything is a nail. But it’s worth noting that I’m approaching this whole thing from the perspective of someone who has checked for nails. My PCP (primary care physician) is very good at her job, and takes me very seriously, and has checked me out for many, many things that could explain the problems I have living in this body. She’s found very little to go on. It’s because I’ve checked for the big obvious things with a doctor I trust, that I’m moving toward the more subtle things.

So, back to adaptogens. One herb discussed with a lot of affection is holy basil. Traditional Medicinals makes a tea I really like called “Tulsi”, which I didn’t know until reading this book is the Hindi name for holy basil, and it’s considered a very powerful herb in India. Under the heading “Modern Uses”, the book talks about many interesting effects, but what caught my eye was its considerable anti-stress properties. It helps regulate blood sugar and cortisol. It reduced the stress of mice “exposed to acute and chronic noise stress” – which is not nice to think about. I’m not a fan of animal research. (It looks as though animal studies are unfortunately pretty common in herbal research if the descriptions in this book are any indication.) One of the authors writes that he uses holy basil to enhance cerebral circulation and memory. He has some synergistic uses (combinations with other herbs) for brain fog due to various things, including perimenopausal symptoms and ADHD. This is only a small part of what the herb is used for, please read the book if you’re interested, I’m really enjoying it.

We’re really fortunate to live near the Dandelion Botanical Company, an herb store right here in Ballard. There I bought some Holy Basic tincture from Herb Pharm. For half a day, I drank lemon balm iced tea, with a dropper full of the tincture. I think I had two tall glasses, and two dropper-fulls of herb that day. The next day, yesterday, I started my morning with that same glass of tea and tincture, and by the second glass in the afternoon, I had gone from feeling my usual new level of awful to feeling….pretty good. It was startling. I didn’t know what to do about it, at first. I had been writing my progress for the morning in my journal, and it’s kind of hilarious how it stops almost mid-paragraph to record that…waitaminute….things are…improving? Shut the front door!

At first I didn’t want to tell anyone, but then Greg texted his usual daily inquiry into how things are going, and I had to say it: “Uhhh…..good!” I said I wasn’t sure why the change, but I think it might be the herbs? Lemon balm is supposed to be great for stress and anxiety, that’s why my naturopath advised it, and then combined with the holy basil, maybe I’d finally stumbled into a modality that had something to offer my exhausted, ravaged system?

Today, I can feel that things are shifting. I slept better. This morning I woke up in less pain. Today has had a similar trajectory to yesterday: feeling not so great in the morning, but then improving considerably an hour or two after my tea. I can’t yet know anything for sure, it’s too soon. Confounding variables abound, and yet, this is the first supplement or medicine of any kind that I’ve tried that has had an effect other than “neutral” or “made it worse”. As the joke goes, “I’m intrigued, and I’d like to subscribe to your newsletter.”

I more than subscribed, I decided to take an online class. It’s perfect because I’m about to be done with yoga teacher training, and if I’m not actively learning something I feel stagnant and go a little mad. So I spent the whole afternoon searching reviews of herbal programs and finally decided to take the Introductory Herbal Course at The Herbal Academy. I’ve bought a few books, but I like having the structure of a course as well.

I don’t know where I’ll end up, but god, it feels so good to actually be excited to explore something having to do with my health. I’m so weary of this whole journey. It’s just a long slog through appointments, people with no answers, test results that lead nowhere, and lately therapy appointments centered on just coping with the damn stress of it all. Learning skills to deal emotionally with exhaustion, fatigue, and the reality that you have a disorder keeping you from fantastic things, that no one can cure or make sense of, and will likely haunt you your entire life. Maybe herbal medicine can help? I don’t know, but (almost) anything is worth a shot.

 

I rented a scooter at the zoo

An overweight woman on a scooter, with a $7 bag of kettle corn in my basket. The whole thing reminded me of an episode about obesity on some evening news program. But it didn’t bother me. I’m too tired to care what anyone else thinks. In the first half hour at the zoo yesterday, hell, in the first fifteen minutes, I felt demolished. My back hurt, my feet hurt, and the weakness was so much fiercer than my old normal (my new, more profound weakness, is my new normal). I had to keep grabbing Greg’s arm when the unsteadiness would hit. The kids were pointing and yelling about something up ahead, but all I saw was a wooden bench under a tree about twenty yards away. A few people were standing near the bench, and I silently willed them to stay standing. Reaching that bench was taking forever. Why did I do this? I looked out at the trees – our Seattle zoo is beautifully wooded – and remembered how much I’ve missed being out, lately. Going places. Just being somewhere else but my own living room. I wanted to be here, I wanted to hang out with kids in an environment that wasn’t home. But was it a mistake? Was I going to drag everyone down? Were there enough empty spots to sit, at the right intervals, to make this work?

We finally reached that beautiful wooden bench, and I sat down. Greg said, “Here, let me carry that,” and took my purse and began stuffing it into his backpack. I tried to be cheerful for the kids, but I couldn’t concentrate when they showed me things. I was so distracted by the pain, by the fear that I might have to leave early and ruin it for everyone. We went on like that, bench to rock to bench to railing, resting every few minutes, the kids traveling on up ahead and coming back to give reports, until I noticed someone rolling by on a scooter. I looked at it carefully, and realized it was a rental. The zoo had rental scooters?! I looked at Greg. “That’s a rental! We could get one! Would it be nuts for me to ride one of those?”

“Huh! Actually, that might be a great idea. Where do we get one?”

We both whipped out our iPhones (our zoo has an app) and looked at the map to see where the nearest guest services station was located. Thankfully not too far. And there was one scooter left! It was $25 to rent, with a $200 damage deposit. For the deposit they just took a rubbing of our credit card, they didn’t actually charge it. The guy said they’d never had to charge anyone the deposit. I got a little well-rehearsed speech about how to use the controls (very easy), and sat down in the scooter seat.

The relief I felt was immediate, and I was overwhelmed with gratefulness. Sitting down, the pain was over half better! This meant I could concentrate! Oh, sweet relief. I can keep up! I pushed the little plastic bar on the handlebar and the machine cheerfully scooted forward. A smooth, even ride. The guy said the battery would last all day. I started smiling! Greg and the kids started walking, and I just kept up! I wasn’t holding anyone back, I wasn’t looking for a place to sit, I was looking where they were looking. “Let’s do the bears next!” I didn’t have to get out my map and strategize how I’d make it there. I was able to take it for granted that I could get to the bears. I could get anywhere. And I could chat with my family the entire way there, instead of spending 90% of my energy just COPING. It was glorious!

 

As glorious as this gorgeous flower, which I posted to Instagram and described as a hydrangea who had changed her mind. Someone commented back and said it actually is a hydrangea, a variety called “lace cap”. I saw these flowers all over the zoo. I took a picture nearly every time. I credit the scooter with giving me the energy to spend the entire afternoon zipping over to flowers and appreciating their charm. One of the best parts of the scooter was how it conserved my energy, so that when I wanted to get up and walk around an exhibit, I could do so with far less pain and zero anxiety.

In the car on the way home. The number in the middle, the 3,543, is my number of steps. I use an app called Pedometer++. I’m estimating that the scooter saved me around 3k steps. While it’s incredibly hard to “pace yourself” with CFS (don’t ever tell a person with a chronic illness to pace themselves, if you want to avoid bodily harm), but in general, I know that I can usually to 3k-4k steps in a day without crashing, assuming other factors (sleep, digestion, etc.) are going well. So I was elated when I looked at my watch and realized I was in a great spot for the rest of the day. I could go home and rest, and probably still have a little left this evening to play a game or hang out with people. That scooter really saved my ass. I’m so glad I made the decision to use it!

 

Here’s a few more photos for family and friends:

 

We loved the penguins the best, I think. We gave them names and told stories about them.

 

This penguin is a baby. Beth named her Barbara.

 

It was a warm day, and this orangutan was high up in a hammock, with a bucket over their head to get some shade! Aww!

There is a butterfly garden now, a permanent installation!

 

Flamingos are simply fantastic. And remind me a lot of the mid-80’s. My favorite eye shadow in 6th grade was this color.

 

Miles got a blue ICEE, it stained his lips and teeth. When I told him he was adorable, he said, “Yeah, I get that a lot.”

 

 

I made two tiny quilts and a little watercolor, and suddenly life is much better

When I wrote a few days ago, I felt quite grim. I’ve had to face the reality that the last few months have been the worst ever in terms of health. I’m constantly looking down at my rock bottom and wondering if the floor will fall farther. How does one cope with that? There isn’t a manual, I’ve checked. I’ve chosen two things to help: to work on my mind-body connection and to make art. I’ll write about the mind-body stuff later. For now, art!

On Monday, my new Bernina arrived. Oh, baby. It’s been a full year since I started sewing. I know because Amazon Prime Day just went by, and it was that day last year that I bought a Singer Heavy Duty machine to make sailboat cushions. I never made cushions, but I did end up falling in love with sewing, and the romance is still going strong. Greg, the best husband in the universe, to my total shock, said yes to a “better sewing machine”. I tried a bunch out and there was no doubt. The Bernina 530 was my girl. I named her Eowyn. We’re going to slay things together.

She's in my sewing room. I just unboxed her. I'm hyperventilating a little. #sewing #bernina #bernina530

A post shared by Sewbi-Wan Kenobi (@sewbiwan) on

I thought it would take me days just to learn how to use my new machine. Ha! I was so wrong! Berninas are so beautifully elegant, it took me about fifteen minutes to figure everything out. And then I sat there wondering what to do with her! Normally I have a bunch of projects lined up, but like I said, I’ve been really sick lately, and haven’t been spending much time up here in my sewing room. I specifically avoided getting any big projects ready to go because I didn’t want to feel rushed to learn the machine (and end up frustrated).

When I realized I had this gorgeous machine and “nothing to sew”, I just sat down and started putting scraps together. No rhyme, no reason, just see how she sews!

I had bought some batting and quilting thread, so I decided to piece together a tiny little quilt.

I loved it! I have no idea what to do with it, and it isn’t some great piece of quilting art, but it was a little piece of quilting art, and it could be hanging in a gallery for what it means to me. I was so surprised at this reaction within myself! I have a very healthy inner critic. A little too healthy – if any part of me needed to get chronic fatigue syndrome, it was that part. I’ve avoided artistic pursuits for years specifically because I didn’t think I was good enough, and I’d “just end up embarrassing myself”. Not good enough. What does that even mean? Good enough for what? Because anyone with a sketchbook has to be headed toward their MA in Fine Arts and a career in the international art scene?

Well, screw that. Maybe it’s the release of age. I’m almost 43, I don’t care about making anything into a career anymore, or whether I’d be good at something in comparison to a hundred other people. I just want to make things that make me happy. I could really use some happiness right now. And holy crap, okay? This little square of fabric? This little red-patched purple-trimmed little nuttin has been in my bag all day, just so I can pull it out and smile at it. I did it. I made art, and it made me very happy.

So this morning I got up and thought, “I should make another one!”

I cut out some octopuses and arranged them with some batik circles, and stitched them all up.

Then I put some batting in there and ended up with the piece you see at the top of the post. That funky stitch around the border is one of the new stitches on Eowyn. <happy sigh>

Since I can’t quilt away from home (at least not that easily), I decided to start trying to draw again. I have all these websites bookmarked – and a few actual books bookmarked – on urban sketching and watercolor, but I never do anything with them. Well, a couple weeks ago my friend Rachael was showing me her bag, and I loved it. I’d seen Rickshaw bags before but when I’d checked them out a few years ago, they didn’t have the little loop I need for a support strap for walking (<—-blah blah bag geekery). But Rachael’s had that loop! Apparently, the company had improved the design, woot!

I went to the website and ordered a bag, but not before doing some internet research on reviews of Rickshaw bags. That’s when I found a blog by a local woman who is an artist and also loves her Rickshaw bag. Oh, and she also happens to have a husband named Greg, which made me smile. Those Greg husbands are good people! AND, she happens to love urban sketching, so once I was done reading her thoughts about the bag, I began reading about her sketching. So inspiring! She mentioned a book that I thought looked awfully familiar:

It looked familiar because I’d bought it a couple years ago, started to read it, got intimidated, and put it on the shelf. Well, like I said, I’m done feeling intimidated, it’s time to just enjoy the process, whatever comes out. So I started reading it, and like Tina’s blog, it was also incredibly inspiring! It’s really a great book, I definitely recommend it. Go draw, everyone!

I started carrying my little sketchbook and my tiny watercolor set in my new bag. This afternoon, Greg and I took Miles to a dentist appointment right by Green Lake. While they were hanging out, I walked down to the lake, plopped my feet into the water, and sat down on one of the stone steps. I pulled out my book and started drawing.

Within a few minutes, a family sat down nearby, and two sweet kids, a girl and a boy, siblings, began asking me all kinds of questions. She was six, and he was probably three or so, and they were fascinated by the entire process. I chatted with their dad for a few minutes, and then the kids took over and we had a lovely time.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because I love to make art! Isn’t it fun?”

“Yeah! Are you drawing the water now?”

“Yep! It’s not really blue, is it? It’s kind of a grey-green color.”

“Yeah, but the sky is really blue!”

“Yeah, let’s find a bright blue for the sky.”

“How old are you?”

“I’ll be 43 in a few weeks.”

“Wow. I’m six. Do you have kids?”

“I do! My son is almost fifteen.”

“WOW.”

“And my daughter is twelve! That’s twice your age. She draws all the time.”

“I like to draw, too. I draw at home.”

“Home is a great place to draw! Do you paint, too?”

“Sometimes. Hey, are you going to paint that dock? You should paint it black.”

“Do you think it’s black? Or does it look browner?”

“Oh! It’s dark brown.”

On and on, I loved it! Two little helpers, all three of us enjoying the process.

I spent about ten minutes just throwing stuff on the page, I wasn’t sure how much time I’d have. I came up with this:

Nothing special, and yet it’s so so special. I love that. I love how you can make a little piece of art that isn’t anything to anyone else, but means the world to you, you know? As long as I have this little watercolor, I’ll remember those two kids, and the warmth of the sun hitting my shoulders, and the gratefulness I felt at being able to steal away for a few minutes to dip my feet in a cool lake. I’ll remember them arguing with their dad about how they should really be allowed to take off all their clothes and swim, and it didn’t matter if they were wet in the car later or if they forgot to bring towels. And it didn’t matter that two days ago I was so weak I had trouble walking around the house. Today, I walked four thousand steps. And for a little while, I felt normal.

On the walk back to the dentist’s office, I spotted this guy, doing some beautiful work:

He looked so happy and peaceful, it was so calming to watch him. I really enjoyed it. Thanks for coming out, Mr. Painting Guy. Maybe when I’m as old as he is, I’ll be painting that well, if I keep practicing!