Heart

Melissa reaching the top of the Crack! She is just to the left of the tree.

About twenty years ago, the movie Seabiscuit was out in theatres, to mostly good reviews. I happened to love the film, as I also loved the book it was based on. It’s primarily a story about a racing horse, yes, but at it’s core, it is a story about heart, and courage, and kindness, and how desperately we need those things, especially during difficult times.

In his review of Seabiscuit way back in 2003, Roger Ebert wrote: ” I saw people crying [at the end of] “Seabiscuit”. It’s yet more evidence for my theory that people more readily cry…not because of sadness, but because of goodness and courage”. I thought that a very astute remark, because when I thought back over the parts of the film that made me cry, it wasn’t during the moments of sadness – and there were plenty of those – but after a moment of unexpected compassion. The scene absolutely gutted me.

I only mention this movie and my reaction to it now, because of a real life experience I just had where the same grit and heart exhibited by Seabiscuit was demonstrated by a good friend of mine. Her name is Melissa.

Melissa was born with a congenital heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot. You may have heard of this condition before, as children born with it are often referred to as “Blue Babies” due to the blue tinge of their skin. A hole between the left and right ventricles prevents proper oxygenation of their blood, which is what causes their skin to turn blue. Without life-saving surgery done within the first year or two of life, these children don’t survive. You could say that Melissa has been a survivor all her life.

In addition to the shunt that was put into Melissa’s heart when she was just 13 months old, she has also undergone two major open heart surgeries, survived cardioversions, endured cardio catheterizations, and had trans-esophageal echoes. You might think Melissa would try to play it safe with a heart condition like this. That she might prefer to stay at home, and protect herself from all unnecessary exertion. But Melissa refuses to live her life that way. She is always pushing ahead and she absolutely never gives up, facing challenge after challenge with a smile on her face. She inspires me regularly.

No more so than on our recent hike up the Crack in Killarney Provincial Park last month, where Melissa bravely faced a climb that is challenging even for people without any heart issues. I was feeling daunted by the climb. I imagined failure. How must it have felt for Melissa, whose delicate, patched-up heart beat furiously if she climbed too quickly, and became out of breath if she pushed herself too hard? By the time we were 3/4 of the way through the hike, I was feeling guilty that we’d even considered it.

At the final climb to the top, there was a bottleneck. Dozens of people who had already completed the hike were coming down, and there wasn’t room for all the newcomers to climb up at the same time. We would have to go up single file. One at a time. Every man for himself. And so, one by one, the rest of our group made it to the top and found a place to sit. Then we waited, with increasing worry, for Melissa to make her appearance. Five minutes went by, then ten, then fifteen. We began to shift uncomfortably, concerned about what Melissa was putting herself through.

And then, suddenly, there she was! Relieved beyond measure, we all whooped and yelled. “Take that, tetralogy of Fallot! ” cheered her daughter. The smile on Melissa’s face was priceless. We were all so proud.

But this story doesn’t end there. We still needed to make it back to the ground again before dark, and no one knew that better than Melissa herself. Climbing up to the top required strength and stamina, but getting back down again would mean patience and careful footing. Slipping over the smooth rocks could easily cause a break or sprain. I could tell by Melissa’s sudden quiet that the descent was weighing on her mind. And so, after a period of rest, we all took a deep breath and began the arduous journey back to the bottom.

Again, our group split apart, with the faster among us moving quickly through the crowded, narrow parts, while Mike and I followed a more moderate speed with Melissa’s grand-daughter, Ava. Melissa wisely took a slower, and more careful pace. I could see that her legs were weakened by the exertion it took to make it to the top. She was struggling to navigate over the smooth rocks without falling. We had all been hiking for hours. We were all tired. But the strain on Melissa and her heart must have been that much greater. Undaunted, she kept going. Again and again, I was inspired by her mettle. We paused at regular intervals as we waited for her to catch up.

The part really that got me, though, was when we were almost at the end, just a kilometre or two away from the parking lot, when Melissa and her grand-daughter began to talk with one another. Naturally, Ava had also been struggling throughout the climb, and she wanted some encouragement and reassurance. She began to chatter, as 8 year olds do. And even though I knew how sore Melissa’s legs must have been, and how hard it must have been for her to keep walking, she answered all of her grand-daughter’s questions with patience and kindness. She praised her for her strength and hard work. She told her how proud of her she was. That’s when my heart started to wrench.

Melissa could have been more concerned with herself. After all, she was the one with the heart condition! If anyone should have been praised for the climb, it was her. And yet, she made no reference to herself and used her remaining strength to reassure her grand-daughter. She didn’t complain about her aches and pains. She didn’t complain about her tiredness. As I walked ahead of them on the path, listening to their gentle conversation, tears begin to fall down my cheeks.

I have spent the last few years among people who have done nothing but judge. All through my mother-in-law’s long decline, as I struggled to keep myself going, they smugly turned away from me, refused help, and did nothing but complain about their own problems. It’s been a long and painful exposure to the darker side of humanity. More than Julia’s illness itself, it’s been this that has weighed me down and nearly broken me.

But as I listened to Melissa’s quiet conversation with Ava and took note of her kindness, her patience, and her complete lack of ego, I felt something soften and lift within me, like the gentle fluttering of a butterfly. I was reminded of the goodness that still exists in the world, and of what a courageous and beautiful person Melissa is. I am lucky to have her in my life. It was also a reminder of what true strength is, and what it means to have heart.

I agree with Roger Ebert. It isn’t sadness that most moves us. It’s goodness and courage. And now, thanks to Melissa, my heart is full.

Astragalus Root

Astragalus root

A woman came to see me this week complaining of pain and discomfort in her intestines. After struggling with an internal hemorrhoid for years, her condition had recently advanced to a rectal prolapse and she was hoping to reverse the problem, if possible. “Can you help me?” she asked.

Weeks before that, another woman came to see me with vaginal prolapse. “It doesn’t really hurt,” she explained. “I just have this dragging sensation and then I notice that it has fallen out and I have to push it back in. It’s annoying and uncomfortable. Do you have anything that will help me?”

The answer in both cases, is a resounding “Yes!” There is an herb that will help! It’s one of my favourite herbs, and it’s called astragalus root, also known as huang qi, or “yellow leader”.

Astragalus root is usually cut in long, flat pieces that look very much like the tongue depressor in your doctor’s office. It’s a yellowish, woody root that you can break apart fairly easily with your hands. It has invigorating properties, and somehow, you can smell that when you hold it up to your nose. It’s difficult to describe, but you can almost feel the potency of its energy when you hold it in your hand.

I’ve used astragalus root for years. Nothing gives me a greater pick-me-up when I’m feeling run-down. It’s a qi tonic, meaning that it will give you energy, but astragalus’s benefits don’t stop there. Astragalus gives you so much more.

It strengthens your immune system, making you less likely to become sick over the winter months [1]. In China, it is very common to add a stick of astragalus root to your soup as it simmers on the stove, as it will energize the soup and also make it easier to assimilate.

Astragalus also helps to heal chronic, weeping wounds and sores by facilitating the discharge of pus and generating new flesh [2]. It reduces edema [3]. It is commonly given to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy because of its ability to restore qi/energy [4]. And then there’s that magical lifting quality that astragalus root has.

According to Chinese medicine, astragalus root “raises yang energy”, which means it’s good for just about any type of prolapse – vaginal, uterine, rectal, hernial [5]. It even helps hemorrhoids. A common symptom that indicates that astragalus root is right for you is that dragging sensation, familiar to anyone with a prolapse. It feels like you there is something pulling you down, or that you are pulling a heavy weight along behind you. If the condition is more severe, you may also feel weary and exhausted, like you could slump into a chair and never get up.

The TCM formula famous for treating prolapse is called Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang, and astragalus root is its chief herb. It’s the formula I gave to each of the women I mentioned above, and each of them had good results with it. It can take a bit of time to have an effect, though, because strengthening takes time. It’s like going to the gym. You won’t have stronger muscles after just one day, but if you exercise regularly, your body will be transformed. I’ve been amazed by the effect that astragalus has on my own body. There’s no herb that alleviates fatigue better, in my book.

You can find astragalus root in our Meta Plus tincture, and this formula relies on astragalus’s ability to increase energy and stimulate your metabolism [6]. You can also find it in our Chrysanthemum tincture, where astragalus’s immune-strengthening abilities are showcased [7]. Astragalus is even present in our Fem-Mate tincture, prepared for women who are peri-menopausal or menopausal. Here, it boosts energy and stops sweating.

Astragalus is a great herb to start taking in the early fall. By the time viruses start to circulate in October and November, your immune system will already be stronger and better able to fight them off. Fall is also Lung time according to the TCM calendar, and astragalus root is a premier lung strengthening herb. We’ve seen it heal cases of chronic asthma [8] when taken in our Chrysanthemum tincture.

Astragalus is one of those herbs that you just can’t stop talking about. Its benefits are that amazing and wide-ranging. It’s certainly an herb that I am never without.

  1. Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Journal of Chinese Medicine), 1980; 1:71
  2. Ibid, 1982; 7:52
  3. Hei Long Jiang Zhong Xi Yi Yao (Heilongjiang chinese Medicine and Herbology), 1982; 1:39
  4. Yun Nan Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Yunan Journal of Chinese Medicine), 1980; 2:28; Zhong Gao Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi (Chinese Journal of Integrative Chinese and Western Medicine), 1995 Aug; 15(8):462-4
  5. Shan Xi Yi Yao Za Zhi (Shanxi Journal of Medicine and Herbology) 1978; 2:31, Shan Dong Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Shandong Journal of Chinese Medicine), 1983; 2:43
  6. Zhong Yao Yao Li Yu Lin Chuang (Pharmacology and Clinical Applications of Chinese Herbs), 1985:193
  7. Jiang Su Zhong Yi (Jiangsu Chinese Medicine), 1988, 9:32
  8. Zhong Hua Er Ke Za Zhi (Chinese Journal of Pediatrics), 1978; 2:87


Perspective

The tree at the top of the Crack, in Killarney Provincial Park.

The wind, already brisk, picked up unexpectedly. I watched as my friend’s baby carrier began to shift against its strength, and then slide away across the rock surface. “Quick! Grab it!” I shouted to someone. Anyone. But no one seemed to be paying any attention. Steadying myself against the wind, I made a swipe for it, but my balance was challenged by the uneven terrain and I stumbled.

Suddenly, my hat began to lift off of my head and I clamped the palm of my hand down forcefully over its top. “Oh, come on!” I thought to myself, cursing this sudden course of events and my lack of control over them. Just when it seemed all was lost, my brother saw the baby carrier as it flew across the top of the cliff, and nabbed it before it was lost forever. I sighed with relief.

We had made it to the top of the LaCloche mountain range in Killarney Provincial Park in beautiful Sudbury, Ontario. It was the perfect day for a hike – cool, yet sunny, with just the barest wisp of clouds above us. Aside from complications caused by the brisk wind at the top, we were all feeling pretty elated. It had been a tough climb, but the view was magnificent. Well worth all the effort it took to get there. Feeling profoundly moved by the view, we settled down together at the top and enjoyed a moment of silence. Our new perspective was broad and serene. From this height, all the problems in my life suddenly seemed far, far away.

The landscape in northern Ontario is spectacular. Jagged, rocky cliffs are topped by grand forests of coniferous trees threaded through with cool streams and and the bubbling spray of waterfalls. All along our way to the top, I had stopped to take pictures, struck again and again by the beauty of our surroundings. “You know, it’s the same lake,” my husband would remind me, somewhat bemused by the number of pictures I was taking. “Same lake, different perspective,” I would quip back, undeterred.

And indeed, the perspective did change as we clambered higher and higher up the cliffs. In one spot, the sun suddenly emerged from behind the clouds, causing the water to glitter and shine. In another, the lake appeared larger, as the trees diminished in size beneath us. Later, as we came back down the perspective changed again, with the bright morning sunshine now replaced with a calmer, yellow glow. The streams that had seemed joyful and energetic on our way up, now seemed slower and wiser. The crickets came out and warned us of summer’s end.

As I sought out more and more great shots, each one more beautiful than the next, the dizzying array of perspectives began to get to me. It was starting to remind me a little too much of myself and the way I’ve always valued the perspective of other people more than my own. In fact, I’ve never really felt like I had a much of a perspective at all, which may sound odd to those who don’t understand co-dependency.

If you’ve never heard the term before, co-dependents grow up in households where they are either abused or ignored, and in order to feel loved or valued, we assume a people-pleasing role. More than anything else, we fear abandonment, and so to secure our role within the family, we begin to cater to the needs of our parents, hoping that if they are kept as happy as possible, we will be seen and loved. It rarely works. Nevertheless, we become so desperately attuned to the feelings and opinions of others, that we become little more than empty shells ourselves.

On that day, as I sat on the top of that cliff, with my belongings buffeted by the wind, I finally began to get a sense of my own perspective and its importance. It came silently as I watched a small, coniferous tree that had somehow planted itself among the rocks, right near the edge of the cliff. Despite the harsh weather surrounding it, it stood tall. In any other place, it might have looked small and insignificant. But here, it was a strong survivor, possessing a surprising, and awe-inspiring tenacity.

As I held on to my hat and watched that tree, I imagined the wind blowing away all the other perspectives in my life. The only one that really mattered was my own. Just like that tree, only I had seen all the events of my life, and everything I had gone through. Only I truly knew how I felt about anything. If I wanted to survive like this tree, I knew I would have to cling to my own perspective. I would have to start listening to my own heart and follow my own longings.

And what did I love? Well, for one thing, I had loved this hike. I had loved the challenge of it. I had loved the difficulty. All the way to the top, I had doubted my ability to complete it. I had told myself I might not make it, and yet, here I was, all the way at the top. I had done it! It was a wonderful, powerful feeling. I began to feel like that tree, small and lop-sided, but with a core of strength that only a few were aware of. As the wind blew around us, I began to feel a change within myself.

“We’d better get going if we want to make it back down before dark,” my brother warned. I nodded and began to gather up our things, already mentally preparing myself for the difficult descent. I looked up at the sky, and noticed a bird flying high above us. It struggled against the high winds, turning and shifting its wings as it determinedly followed its own path. I nodded, recognizing its challenge, and then took my own first step down toward the ground, vowing to hold tight to my own, unique perspective and do the same.

The Waayyy Behind Book Club – August 2022

Welcome back to the third edition of the Waayyy Behind Book Club. Here’s what I’ve been reading this month. Let me know if any of these books appeal to you and I can tell you more. If you’ve already read one of them, let me know your opinion. I’d love to hear it. And if you’re currently reading a book that you just can’t put down, I want to know more! I’m always looking for my next great read.

The first book I read this month is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Many years ago, I read his book Black Swan Green, and really loved it. It was about a boy in a small UK town who was struggling to make sense of, and overcome a bout of bullying. I don’t remember many of the details, but I remember thinking it was sensitively and intelligently written.

Fast forward a few more years, and I saw a trailer for the film Cloud Atlas, based on another book written by David Mitchell. It starred Tom Hanks, one of my favourite actors, so I immediately wanted to know more! I saw the film, but was mightily confused. There seemed to be a lot going on that I didn’t quite understand. I was still moved by the film, as it has a rewarding ending, but thought perhaps it had been adapted poorly.

Well, having now read the book, I would say the book is also confusing! There are questions that are never answered. It’s a bit mysterious – just like life, I guess. The ending still moved me to tears, but I don’t know if the confusion in the middle makes it entirely worth it. In short, although I like the final message of the book and the film, I’d give it a pass.

The second book I read this month is Enlightenment Now by Stephen Pinker. I read his previous book, The Better Angels of our Nature a number of years ago, and was compelled by all the graphs and data he provided. He makes a strong argument that, contrary to popular belief, life is getting better, safer, and less violent for the majority of us humans. Whenever I talk about this book, I am bombarded with blank looks, disbelief, or outright hostility. But the numbers speak for themselves.

Think about the days of, say, the Irish famine in the 1850’s. Poor Irish farmers were dying in the streets and the rest of the world simply shrugged its shoulders and went on with their lives. Could that even happen today? No! It would be reported all over the news. People would be sending in donations to help the Irish poor. The British government that decided not to help would be declared monstrous. That’s the difference! That’s what’s changed. Does this mean we now live in some kind of utopia? No. Does it mean that something like this will never happen again in some other country? No. But it does mean that, over the decades and centuries, we’ve gradually become better people. We’ve learned to care more about others. We may not be perfect, but deaths like this now weigh more heavily on our consciences. They are now cause for outrage, not indifference.

In Enlightenment Now, Stephen Pinker provides more graphs and more data. He refutes some arguments about the research in his previous book. And again, he holds out hope, this time showcasing the Enlightenment ideas of reason, science and humanism. Once again, he shows far we’ve come as a species. He does not deny that there are problems ahead – global warming that threatens to make our planet unlivable, the rise of authoritarian leaders like Putin and Trump, who threaten democratic principles, the rise of misinformation that threatens the very idea of truth itself.

Maybe he is too optimistic, but he believes that we can overcome these problems just as we’ve overcome all our problems before. We just need to stick to the data and follow where it leads. He insists that ensuring everyone has a democratic voice is essential, no matter how messy decision-making becomes. He shows that we need to continue to provide opportunities for the less fortunate, even if that means greater use of fossil fuels in Third World countries. He holds up nuclear power as the solution to all our energy woes. If any of this doesn’t make sense to you, I challenge you to read the book for and then get back to me. We can talk. 🙂

The third book I read this month was The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton. I found it an intriguing title, and the book description also called to me. It is essentially a book about place and time. Using a single home as a backdrop, it explores all the lives that filtered into and out of it over the decades and centuries, their lives connecting and overlapping in mysterious ways. The clockmaker’s daughter is the main character, and her story is also the most intriguing. I liked the book and enjoyed the dreamy dip into the waters of time, but wouldn’t say I loved it.

The fourth book this month is Thieves of State, by Sarah Chayes. Chayes started out as a reporter for NPR. After the initial invasion of Afghanistan in the early 2000’s, she decided to move there and help support the country as best she could by setting up a soap-making business. She learned how the country works, as well as how to speak the local language, and ended up as a policy advisor to several US administrations as the years went on. Her thesis is that government corruption is the main issue whenever you are trying to support a fledgling democracy. If you don’t tackle corruption, then fighting and terrorism will never cease, because that is how people seek justice. If justice cannot be found through a government system, people will take revenge in their own way, typically through violence. I found it an interesting hypothesis and, based on her supporting data, I’m inclined to believe her.

Finally, I read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I had heard good things about this book for years, and have always thought Patchett was a fantastic author. The book did not disappoint. It’s about a terrorist attack in Peru that went awry, and it’s based on true events. The idea is: what happens when a group of terrorists and their hostages are holed up together for too long? Patchett supposes that they become friends. They start to empathize with one another. The threat of death can no longer be carried out because the terrorists no longer want to kill anyone. This is a beautiful book about barriers and how they slowly break down with enough exposure. Barriers of language, barriers of race, barriers of class – once you remove those barriers, people are just people. Anyone who lives together for long enough can become a family. It’s an inspiring look at our potential to be kind, and to love one another.

And with that, I’ll end this month’s book discussion. If you’ve read any of these books and would like to comment, please do. Until next time, happy reading!

On Yin and Yang, and Strength

What do you think of when you think of strength? Maybe it’s a body builder or weight trainer. Maybe it’s a boxer, or a martial artist. Or maybe you think of a heavily muscled soldier wearing fatigues and holding a gun.

I’ve been ruminating a lot about strength recently, ever since I overheard a personal trainer talk about the concepts of Yin and Yang. He was saying that there should always be balance of both Yin and Yang in your life, and that’s true. But then he went further and said and that Yang symbolizes strength and power, while Yin symbolizes softness and I found myself bristling at his comments. Who says Yin lacks strength? Who says Yin can’t also be powerful?

According to traditional Chinese medicine, Yang represents the brightness, warmth, and dryness of the sun, as well as growth and hardness. By contrast, Yin represents the dark, cool, mysterious energy of the moon, as well as moistness and softness. Yang is active. Yin is passive. Yang is extroverted. Yin is introverted. But neither is more powerful than the other. Each of them is strong in their own way.

The kind of strength that Yang exudes is quick, hard, and loud. This is the strength of a soldier. It is fiery, violent and abrupt. The kind of strength that Yin exudes is slower, more deliberate and patient. This is the strength of a hard worker, who quietly does his job every day without complaint and slowly rises up the ladder of success. It’s a different kind of strength, but no less powerful.

I recently saw the film Everything Everywhere All at Once, and it is a psychedelic mind-trip of a film. At it’s climax, it elucidates the difference between a Yin action and a Yang action quite beautifully. The movie stars Michelle Yeoh as an angry and dissatisfied laundromat owner who is unhappy with her life. She is angry at her husband, who she sees as useless. She is frustrated with her daughter, who she sees as directionless. She wishes she had taken another path in life. She wishes she had made different choices.

At a turning point in the film, she accuses her husband of being too soft. Of never fighting back. In reply, he says to her:

“You think when I choose to see the good side of things, I’m being naive. But my kindness is strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything. I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one too. This is how I fight.”

And with each problem they encounter, he responds quietly and softly, with optimism, caring and kindness, while she responds with physicality and violence. While neither approach is perfect, his understanding gets them further than her anger does. Once Michelle Yeoh decides to give kindness and empathy a try, it results in a happier outcome for everyone, including herself. She ends the film smiling, despite being in the same circumstances she started in.

I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that we’ve focused a little to strongly on Yang energy in recent decades, particularly in North America. We’ve worked increasingly longer hours and then partied too hard to make up for it. Our patience has run short, and our voices have become louder and more shrill.

Like Michelle Yeoh, maybe we could learn to use our energy a little differently. Instead of competing against one another, maybe we can show one another more kindness and learn to work together. Maybe we can learn to be more thoughtful and empathetic. We have more in common than we think.

Lest you think Yin energy is too soft and slow to be effective, remember the water that carved the Grand Canyon. Yin energy may be more passive and quiet, but over time, it still packs a punch. You can call me naive, but that’s the way I fight.

Little Moments of Wonder

It’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday. Recent rains have dissipated much of the humidity in the air, making the weather warm and pleasant. With a little bubble of anticipated pleasure forming in my head, I have decided to pack up my little, two-wheeled cart, along with some reusable shopping bags, and head over to the local farmer’s market. Such a normal, ordinary thing to do, and yet for me, it’s a big milestone.

I can’t say I’ve ever been that interested in farmer’s markets. Of course, I understand all the benefits of buying local, both nutrition-wise, and for the economy. But for many years, as a busy mom with kids, going to the farmer’s market was just another place I’d have to go. Another chore in a long list of them. It was far easier to just head over to the local supermarket, which was conveniently open 7 days a week, with hours that better suited my schedule.

So, why the sudden interest in the farmer’s market now? It all started when Mike and I drove past it on our way to work one day. I couldn’t help but notice all the happy customers walking to and fro under the colourful pavilions. It looked so peaceful. So ordinary. I remember thinking to myself, “This is what happy people do in prosperous countries: they go to market on a sunny Saturday morning”. And all of the sudden, I decided that I wanted to go too.

I don’t think I am understating things when I say that, over the last few years, I’ve been struggling with a pretty major case of mid-life burnout. I mostly keep to myself. I’ve given up on all but the closest relationships in my life. I feel numb most of the time, just going through the motions of my work. Chores that I used to feel were important to me, I am now letting slide. There are so many things that I just don’t care about anymore.

I’ve been trying to decide if this is an improvement, or if it’s not. Previously, you could say that maybe I cared too much. I let everything affect me too deeply, and as a result, I could go through major mood swings, feeling elated one day, and absolutely despondent the next. But then again, what’s happening now doesn’t feel quite right either. I don’t think it’s healthy to not care if your house is a complete and total mess. I don’t think it’s normal when you struggle to get out of bed each morning. I start to worry when I show no interest in doing any of the things I used to do.

So, under the circumstances, you can see why deciding that I wanted to go to the farmer’s market seemed like a pretty big step. I actually wanted to do something. I had a feeling that it would give me pleasure. I didn’t do it because I had to, as I’ve done so many other things in my life. I didn’t do it because someone else wanted me to do it for them. I did it because I had a small inkling, somewhere in the back of my mind, that it might make me feel happy.

And so, with slow and tentative movements, I drove our car over to the area where the farmer’s market was running, and I parked it nearby. Grabbing hold of my purse, I got out of the car and began the small walk over to where all the fruit and vegetable stands were operating, and I started to stroll. I noticed all the pretty, ripened fruits and vegetables and my mouth started watering. At first, I felt a little overwhelmed by all the choices, but then I started to ask myself,What would I like to eat?” and it made the decisions easier. I began to purchase all the things that made me happy. I began to purchase what I wanted.

As I walked along, I began to notice all the shop girls. Of course, there were many boys there too, but it was the girls that caught my attention. They wore shorts, T-shirts and running shoes. Their skin was flushed and sweaty from standing outside in the sun for many hours. Their hair was bound up in ponytails or clipped up in messy buns. They watched the crowd expectantly, and helped customers with their purchases. They made change easily and with a friendly smile.

These girls struck me so forcefully, I was stopped in my tracks. I had a strong feeling, sort of like deja vu, but in reverse. A long time ago, I used to be one of those girls. In the small town where I grew up, I worked at a vegetable stand one summer. It was located at the very end of a long, dusty, rural street that I biked on every day, and it intersected with the main street of tiny, Cottam, Ontario. You could blink as you were driving and pass the entire area by. I remember standing out under the trees behind the market table, making small talk with customers, bagging their vegetables and making change. It felt so odd to be on the other side of the table this time.

As I watched them, time warped oddly for a few moments as I dropped into the experience of being a young market girl, and then morphed back into my current experience of being a middle-aged customer standing silently in front of the vegetable stand, trying to decide what I wanted to buy. For those few moments, time broke free of its bounds and started to bend back on itself. It was an odd sensation. Time isn’t linear, I’m discovering as I age. The longer you live, the more your experiences seem to overlap one another in mysterious ways.

Once I’d gotten my head back in order, I resumed my walk among the stalls. The sun felt warm on my face, and the smells of ripening fruit and crisp vegetables were everywhere. I loved the sound of being among people, many different people. There was a low hum of voices and activity as people talked with one another, and exchanged money and produce between them. It felt comfortable and familiar, like a well worn shoe. There was absolutely nothing stressful about the experience at all, and that meant everything.

They say it’s the small things in life that bring you joy, and that’s absolutely true. Wonders like this one – a simple trek to the farmer’s market – can nurture happiness if we really pay attention. Over the next year or so, I’ve decided that I will share with you all the little pleasures I find, as I journey on my way back from burn-out. Every time I have an encounter that sparks my spirit back into being, I will write about it. Come along with me, if you like. Maybe it will help you re-discover the wonder in your life too.

Atractylodes Rhizome

Atractylodes Rhizome

According to Chinese medicine, we are now in peak Spleen time. This is the time of year, often referred to as Indian summer, when the days are warm, dry and still. There is an air of solidity and gravity, as if the world finally decided to slow down, relax, and enjoy the fruit of all its labours. It is a time of pause and reflection before the world subtly tilts on its axis and we are nudged into autumn.

If you have a weak Spleen, this is when it would be most advantageous to strengthen it, as Spleen tonics have their most powerful effect. And atractylodes rhizome, our herb of the month, would be a great herb of choice for that purpose.

You may have noticed that I have been capitalizing the world ‘Spleen’ so far in this article. This is because the Spleen, as described in Chinese medicine is quite different from the spleen in Western medicine. In Western medicine, the spleen is a mostly useless organ, which has some ability to filter blood and buffer the immune system. However, in Chinese medicine, the Spleen includes the functions of the pancreas and is considered a major organ for digestion, as well as for the strength of your immune system and the generation of Qi for your entire body.

So, what are some signs that your Spleen may be weak and in need of strengthening? You would tend to feel fatigued often. This fatigue is often not just a feeling of tiredness, but also of heaviness, like you are dragging the world behind you. Your appetite may be low and you might experience bloating afterwards. When you eat, your food may not be digested well and you can still see bits of it in your stool, which may tend towards diarrhea. If you don’t have diarrhea, your stool may be “sticky”. (You need to wipe a lot, and there may be a smear in your toilet after you flush. Sorry for the graphic images!) Your immune system will tend to be weak, so you will catch colds and flus easily. You may also tend towards anemia, or have low blood volume.

These are the kinds of health conditions that are not severe enough to contact a doctor, but if you have them, you definitely don’t feel well. If you were to contact a doctor, he would also have little ability to help you. There are very few Western herbs that might nudge your Spleen in the right direction. But this particular area of personal health, is where Chinese medicine really shines. The Chinese herbal pharmacopia includes at least a dozen herbs that can be used to strengthen Spleen functioning, and actractylodes root, the herb we’re focusing on this month, is one of them.

Atractylodes root is warming and drying, the perfect combination of properties to stabilize an organ which tends towards cold and dampness. It is used to strengthen digestion, resolve diarrhea, improve appetite, reduce fatigue, and dispel edema. It can even be used to help prevent miscarriage, particularly for women who feel a draggy sensation in their pregnancy, or who tend towards unexplained bleeding. Atractylodes rhizome will give your body strength and support as you carry your baby to term.

Unfortunately, warming and drying herbs like atractylodes can tend to cause “heat” to develop in your body. This is why they are best combined with more cooling herbs to balance their effects. This will allow you to take them long term with fewer side effects. Our Chinese Bitters tincture contains atractylodes rhizome, and its function there is to add support to your spleen while you open up the ducts of your liver to remove any heat or stagnation there. Atractylodes root is also in our Meta Plus tincture, where it is used to more directly strengthen the Spleen. Here, it is paired with more cooling herbs, such as the neutral poria mushroom, and the cooling scutellaria root and cassia seeds to balance its warming and drying nature.

Do you think atractylodes rhizome might be right for you? Consider trying either of the above two tinctures, prepared with care at our Toronto facility. And if not, be sure to bask in the warm, dry energy of Spleen time before the cold and dampness of winter sets in. May you experience peace as summer slowly winds itself down.

The Waayyy Behind Book Club – July 2022

Welcome to the second edition of the Waayyy Behind Book Club, where I talk about the books I’ve been reading this month, and encourage your feedback. I didn’t read quite as many this month, as some of them were really long! It took me awhile to finish them.

First on our list this month is The Good German by Dennis Bock. This was an alternate history, where one of those many attempts to assassinate Hitler actually succeeded! Contrary to what you might expect, Hitler’s death did not end the war, though. In this version of history, Herman Goring takes control of the country after Hitler is killed, and Germany actually wins! What does this mean for the US and Canada, or for the rest of Europe for that matter? It was an interesting exercise in speculative history. A little dark for my taste.

The second book this month is When the Body Says ‘No’, by Gabor Mate. I’ve been interested in ways to overcome emotional trauma ever since I watched the film The Wisdom of Trauma about a year ago. This was a compassionate and thought-provoking movie based on Gabor Mate’s work, and really opened my eyes to how prevalent trauma is, and what we might do to heal it. Here is a link to the movie trailer, if you’re interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70HNmSsJvVU. The book did not disappoint. If you’re at all interested in how our emotions and core beliefs might contribute to illnesses like cancer, ALS, and MS, among others, this book is a gem.

Our final book this month is Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. There’s a reason why I named this book club the Waayyy Behind Book Club ! This book was originally published in 1989. So many people have recommended this book to me over the years that I’ve simply lost count. I finally added it to my reading list so I wouldn’t put off reading it any longer.

You get hooked into this story right from the beginning, when you are drawn into a small town where an unjust execution is taking place. It’s an spell-binding scene. The book is set in medieval UK, and is essentially about the building of a cathedral. The characters are well-drawn and likeable – they’d have to be for you to stick with them for the length of this book (1,008 pages)! The story continues through a couple of generations before the cathedral is finally built.

The book was so popular that there are now two sequels, and a prequel. I think I might take a break from the Pillars world for a little while before embarking on any of those! I can see why so many people love the book, though. I grew to love so many of the characters. They were drawn so realistically, I felt like I actually knew them.

If you’ve already read some of these books, or if you want to read any of these books, let me know. I’d love to hear what you think of them.

Perseverance

Me teaching my first yoga class at The Branches.

I joined a writing class recently, and one of the exercises was to take a decade of your life and compress it all into a single page of three-word sentences. One page. Only three words per sentence. It takes a lot of thought. What do you put in? What do you keep out? The point of the exercise is to summarize your life experience as compactly as possible. To remove anything superfluous and discover what is truly important to you.

Before embarking on this exercise, I read, and was inspired by the writing of many others in my class. They made it look so easy. Through this exercise, you could quickly see the focus in each of their lives. There is something about the three word sentence that leaves no room for prevarication. It’s simple and to the point. It makes things crystal clear.

But when I compressed my own life into a single page of three word sentences, I was struck by how sad it was. The previous decade of my life has been filled with mountains of all sizes. Lots of climbing. Lots of sorrow. There were plenty of times when everything seemed completely lost. Hadn’t I reached bottom yet? How was it even possible for more things to go wrong? Was anyone else finding life this hard, or was it just me?

It’s funny, but I began the last decade thinking that life would now be easier for me. That it would be on an up-swing from that point on. I figured I had served my time as a daughter, wife and mother. My children were growing up and starting to make their own, adult-sized decisions. I decided that the next decade would be just for me. For the first time in my life, I would focus on myself and my own growth.

Well, I did grow, but not in the way I thought I would. I look back now on the woman I once was, and I can see how naive she was. I can see how much she still had to learn. I can see all the painful moments that she will soon be facing, and I can think of no way to warn her. On the other hand, I can also say that, even knowing what I know now, I would still have made the same choices. I may have been naive, and I may have made some mistakes along the way, but I knew what was important to me, and I was willing to fight for it. I stayed true to myself. There is a certain peace that comes from that.

What all of this boils down to, is how proud I am of myself this month. That long decade of pain and sadness, all those years that I struggled to summarize in my writing exercise, did end on a bright note, after all: I was able to realize a long-held dream. Since I was a young mother, I have loved the practice of yoga, and dreamed of one day becoming a yoga teacher. However, I doubted my ability to complete the gruelling 250 hour yoga teacher training that would be required, especially after I became sick with CFS. I wasn’t sure my strength would hold up. I wasn’t sure I would have the energy. Well, this past year, I finally did it! I actually completed the training! It’s hard to believe. Not only did I complete the training, but I have now taught my first two classes!

If I were to give a message to my former self – to that woman of ten years ago – I think I would tell her to persevere. During those long, dark nights of the soul, I know that is what she most needs to hear. I might warn her that the next decade will be more challenging for her than anything she has experienced yet. But I would also tell her that she will be OK. That she has all the support she needs, both within herself and around her, to get through it. I would tell her that, even though there will be plenty of days when things seem dark and hopeless, there are many people who love her. And I would tell her to lean into that love.

I would especially tell her to soften towards herself. To show herself more of the kindness and care that she regularly shows to others. One of the big lessons I learned over the last number of years, is that the people who love me don’t care if I succeed or if I fail. They don’t care what clothes I wear, or if I’m rich or poor. They just want me to be happy, and they will do everything in their power to support me in that effort. I’ve been humbled by their care. My heart may have been broken into a million pieces over the last few years, but these people have also helped me put it back together again. I’m incredibly grateful.

Rehmannia Root

The luscious, black, moon-like discs of rehmannia root

Right now, in the middle of a heat wave, it is pleasant to look up into the dark, night-time sky and reflect on the moon. It looks so cool and white out there among the stars. It glows in a way that refreshes, in comparison to the more glaring, strident rays of the sun.

In Chinese medicine, the moon is said to be cooling and yin, in contrast to the sun’s hot, yang brightness. It symbolizes such qualities as femininity, delicacy, darkness, gentleness, and renewal. And as the moon reflects these qualities, so does our herb of the month: unprocessed rehmannia root.

Rehmannia root, particularly the unprocessed version, is a wonderfully cooling herb. In contrast to the stronger, more forceful heat clearing properties of an herb like Chinese gentian (last month’s monograph), it cools gently, like the moon. It soothes and nourishes depleted and dried out tissues, plumping them up and adding a glow. It’s gentle, moistening qualities makes it good at relieving all symptoms related to dryness, such as deep thirst, dry mouth and throat, or dry constipation.

Rehmannia root also resembles the shape of the moon, being traditionally cut into a round, disc-like shapes. It is dark in colour, calling to mind the new moon and its mysterious qualities. And interestingly, its effects are felt most strikingly in the evening and night, as it helps to clear away hot flashes, night sweats, and low-grade afternoon fever.

Unprocessed rehmannia root has a specific action on the heart, the seat of emotion and compassion. It cools gently, without depleting. And since a cool, well nourished heart is essential for good sleep, rehmannia’s soothing qualities can be very helpful in curbing sleep issues, when the moon shines most brightly.

Finally, unprocessed rehmannia root is excellent at stopping any episodes of unexplained bleeding, such as bloody nose, spitting of blood, blood in the urine, or excessive menstrual bleeding. When blood escapes from tissues like this, it is said to be due to too much “heat” in the blood. By directly cooling the blood, rehmannia root calms its stormy nature, and keeps it contained so that unexplained bleeding is stopped.

Raw rehmannia root is one of the ingredients in our Shou Wu Plus tincture, a product I often recommend to people after they have completed a long period of liver and gallbladder flushing. It moistens tissues and nourishes organs that may have become depleted through the cleansing process. It cools the heart, liver and kidneys and can improve sleep. Because it nourishes the heart so effectively, it can also help to quell feelings of anxiety, agitation, and nervousness.

If you think your body would benefit from the gentle, compassionate, soothing qualities of the moon, why not give our Shou Wu Plus tincture a try?