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Chrysanthemum Flowers

My mother loved to garden. She would spend many summer hours out in the back yard happily trimming and weeding and planting and watering. She grew plenty of annuals, like marigolds and snapdragons in garden beds along the back edge of our lawn, but along the walls of our house, she grew tall perennials, like climbing roses, morning glories, and hollyhocks.

Just outside our back door, she also grew several different colours of chrysanthemum flowers. There were the burgundy ones right outside the door, and then yellow and white chrysanthemums beside them. “Oh, look! My mums are blooming!” I remember her exclaiming one year. She would do the same for the tulips in spring, and the roses in summer, but for some reason I remember her exclaiming about the chrysanthemums in particular that one year. The name just stuck in my head, as it is so similar to the word “Mom”.

I think the connection was also reinforced by the importance chrysanthemum flowers have always had in our business. Chrysanthemum flowers are probably the very first Chinese herb I ever learned, as Julia would always foist bags of freshly dried flowers on us all winter long. One of their main uses is for the prevention and treatment of colds and flu, so Julia was adamant that we have some in our cupboard at all times. If we didn’t have the actual flowers, then she would provide us with packets of chrysanthemum granules to dissolve into cups of hot water.

The anti-bacterial and anti-viral effect of chrysanthemum flowers is so widely known in China that a tea prepared with them is typically served in most Chinese restaurants all winter long in place of black tea. In fact, you can probably use this little fact as an indicator as to how authentic your Chinese restaurant is. The anti-bacterial effect of chrysanthemum flowers has even been backed up by scientific studies, which show they have a particular action against staphylococus aureus, B-hemolytic streptococcus, and shigella sonnei bacteria. They also have an inhibitory effect against leptospira when taken at a high enough dose [1].

Chrysanthemum flowers aren’t just used for cold and flu prevention, though. They are also used for the treatment of headaches, particularly when they occur alongside a viral illness. This is possibly due to their vasodilative effect [2], and may be why they have also been shown to be helpful for coronary artery disease. In one study, 164 patients with coronary artery disease were treated with the equivalent of 50 grams of dried chrysanthemum flowers daily for 2 to 4 months. 86.5% of patients reported an improvement in their symptoms, while 45.3% showed improvement on a subsequent EKG. [3]

Chrysanthemum flowers are also well-known in Chinese medicine for their ability to treat red and inflamed eyes. In fact, they are the most commonly used herb for the treatment of eye disorders in China.

Finally, chrysanthemum flowers are used to lower high blood pressure. In one Chinese study, 24-30 grams each of chrysanthemum flowers and honeysuckle flowers (the combination of herbs used in our Chrysanthemum tincture) was able to reduce high blood pressure after a treatment of just 3 to 7 days. In this case, 35 out of 46 patients showed a reduction in high blood pressure, as well as a decrease in symptoms of dizziness and insomnia that are commonly associated with it. [4]

As the cold and damp weather of late fall starts to descend, there is no better herb to have in your pantry than chrysanthemum flowers. They are so pretty to look at, and their taste is mild and pleasant.

Be aware that their action is quite gentle though, so you will have to use them in great quantity to have an effect. Julia used to recommend drinking at least 2 full pots of chrysanthemum tea daily (about 8 cups). However, when you combine chrysanthemum flowers with honeysuckle flowers, their anti-viral and anti-bacterial effects will be enhanced, so fewer cups of tea should be necessary to achieve the same effect.

  1. Yi Xue Ji Shu Zi Liao (Resource of Medical Techniques), 1974; (1:2):113.
  2. Zhong Yao Xue (Chinese Herbology), 1998; 97:99.
  3. Zhe Jiang Yi Ke Da Xue Xue Bao (Journal of Zhejiang Province School of Medicine), 1978; 4:9.
  4. Xin Yi Yao Xue Za Zhi (New Journal of Medicine and Herbology) 1972; 2:32.

Belonging

“Your brothers are weird!”

“You are the only normal person in your entire family!”

Those were the sort of things that people said to me as I was growing up. There were other insults too, but those were the ones that chilled me to my bones. They hurt because they made me doubt the value of my entire family. They made me feel like I had no safe space to go. After all these years, there is still an empty hole in my heart where a sense of belonging should be.

Ostracism hurts. It particularly hurts when you’re young and trying to find your place in the world. Life would be so much easier if we could all be born into families and communities that welcomed us unreservedly, and with open arms. Sadly, for many of us, that is just not the case.

At the time, I responded to those comments with a bashful smile, just grateful to be acknowledged as “the normal one”. But really, I felt anything but normal. I was terrified. If the rest of my family was considered weird, then how could I possibly know what normal was? I figured I was most likely “weird” too. The only reason why it wasn’t as evident was because I was so quiet. As a result, I became afraid to speak, to act, to live. If I actually showed up, then people would realize that I was weird too, and I would be just as excluded as my brothers were.

Staying quiet may have been the safer route, but it wasn’t any less painful. Because if you don’t speak up, you are never heard. You are also never seen. No one ever knows who you really are. I might as well have been a ghost during all those years and I certainly felt like one a lot of the time. My brother once told me that he admired my courage in leaving home so young. But it wasn’t courage that led me to leave. I was dying in my hometown. I had to find a way to escape. That’s not courage; that’s fear.

It’s taken me a lot of years to break down the walls of isolation and fear that I built up during my childhood and adolescence – and even into my adulthood. Because when I escaped from my hometown, I didn’t really escape the problem. I just brought it along with me. Marrying into Mike’s family seemed like a good solution – a brand new family, just like that! – but eventually brought to light all the destructive coping strategies I’d been too distraught to notice before. The people-pleasing, the fawning, the co-dependency. What a mess! The only good news is that I now feel like I finally understand the problem. That’s a big milestone, in and of itself. Along the way, I’ve also learned a lot of things, and picked up tools to help me on my continued journey.

Traditional Chinese medicine has been one of them. I never knew how closely linked my emotions were to the state of my body until now. Somatic yoga is another. I needed to learn to feel into my body, and listen to what it needs, and somatic yoga has a particular ability to bring you back inside your skin. Meditation is another good tool. I’ve sat and rocked myself through the force of a lot of old emotions, with tears streaming down my face until they finally cleared. Finally, and most importantly, there’s compassion, both from others, and from myself. Healing really only works if we feel cared for, seen and understood. Crucially, I had to learn to love myself, and it wouldn’t have gone nearly as smoothly if my husband hadn’t been there to light the way.

Which is why I am working on opening up a yoga studio here. I want to create a place of support for others who may be struggling like I did, but who may not have the same level of support. A place of caring and community where a stressed and dys-regulated nervous system can finally begin to regulate itself. A place of calm and healing. If you’re interested, stay tuned for updates. We’ll be getting started in the months ahead.


The Waayyy Behind Book Club – October 2022

Welcome to the October 2022 edition of The Waayyy Behind Book Club, where I talk about the books I’ve read this month. These books will generally not be current reads. I tend to fall way behind what is new and popular (hence the name of the book club!), so these books will typically have been around for awhile. If any of them sound intriguing to you, you can check them out at your local library or book store.

I read only three books this month, which, oddly enough, may be a good thing. I tend to bury myself in a book when I feel scared, upset or overwhelmed, so fewer books means I’ve generally felt more grounded this month.

The first book I read this month is called Barkskins by Annie Proulx. I have been a fan of Annie Proulx ever since I read her Pulitzer prize-winning book The Shipping News, which was heartfelt and wonderful! If you haven’t read it yet, you should give it a try. At some point in the book, you’re going to decide you want to move to Newfoundland. I guarantee it! Proulx also wrote Brokeback Mountain, so that is another place where you may have heard her name before.

Barkskins is a long book, covering several centuries of time. The timeline follows two different families: the Sel family of French woodsmen, and the Duke family who own forest land. Along the way, we skip through many different characters, following the course of their entire lives. Once they die, the story line is picked up once again by one of their descendants.

Because these characters are skimmed through relatively quickly, the main character is actually the North American forest. I enjoyed reading about the thick, dense woodlands in 1700’s French-Canadian Upper Canada. I could feel the darkness of the tree cover, see the dense waves of migrating birds overhead, and feel the coldness of the streams, so rich with fish that you barely needed to use a net. The risk-filled lives of the early pioneers were also well-documented. Few women survived the harshness. Gradually, the dense woodlands from the beginning of the book are cleared away, until virtually nothing is left in the 2000’s. Proulx conveys this loss beautifully. The final character is a woman whose genes come from both the Sel and Duke families, and it is her personal mission to save the forest.

CBC made a TV series based on the book, and that’s how it caught my attention. I haven’t seen the TV series yet, but I am intrigued. Did I like the book? Yes, with qualifications. I thought some of the characters were skimmed over too quickly, so I didn’t get to know them as well as I would’ve liked. There were also parts of the story where I lost interest. I guess that’s one of the dangers of a book this long, with a scope this wide.

The second book I read this month also has an environmental bent. It is called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I kept hearing reference of this book, over and over again, from herbal friends, and environmentalist friends. I can see why; it is beautifully written. Robin Wall Kimmerer is of Native American heritage and also happens to be a professor of environmental biology, so she is able to weave both cultures together in a very poetic way.

Her aim is to get us to love and respect the land again, as Native Americans did, and to help us understand how our lives are interwoven with those of the plants and animals around us. In the book, we learn (one of) the Native American stories of creation, the ecological reasons why the ‘three sisters’ (corn, beans and squash) grow so well together, watch as she attempts to teach the value of the earth to doctoral students while camping in the Smoky Mountains, and laugh with her as she attempts to reclaim the pond behind her house so her daughters can swim in it. She made me wish I knew more about biology and ecology. She made me wish I could have her as a teacher.

The final book I read this month is called Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple. Personally, I loved it! I loved it so much, I even watched the movie adaptation on Netflix, and liked that even better. (It stars Cate Blanchett. How could you not love it!) The book is a bit of a quirky read, with the story being told through the eyes of Bernadette’s daughter, who is desperately searching for her mother. She has assembled a time-line of letters and emails, and through these third-party documents, we see what poor Bernadette has been going through, and why she might have tried to escape. It’s funny and heartwarming, while also gently skewering North American upper middle class culture. Any mom would find it hilarious. Those who aren’t parents probably won’t get half the jokes, but it may help you to realize how hard it can be to stay mentally stable while raising kids.

While I liked Barkskins and swooned over Braiding Sweetgrass, I think it’s safe to say that Where’d You Go, Bernadette? was my personal favourite this month. It captured too well the feelings that I’ve been struggling with these last number of years.

So, there you have it! The list of books I’ve read this month. Feel free to comment on any of them. While you’re at it, let me know what you’re currently reading. I’m always looking for my next favourite book. Until next month, read on!

The Wonder of Progress

“You have to understand that many of the people we treat have underlying struggles with mental illness. It affects their ability to follow our suggestions and also to create change in their lives,” my mentor explained. My heart immediately softened and I felt a well of compassion growing within me.

This particular bit of advice followed a rather bizarre incident last week where a client unexpectedly lashed out at me. She was asking me how I had gotten her contact information and accused the clinic of stalking her. Well, I had her contact information because she was on our patient list, and I was only calling to check up on her. A paranoid confrontation was that last thing I expected.

The clinic I’m talking about is not at Sensible Health. It’s a free clinic in northern California, set up to provide herbal treatment to low-income individuals who might not otherwise be able to afford it. I work there remotely, under the guidance of a mentor. The patient I am talking about was known to have a difficult home-life, with a lot of stress and anxiety at work.

Before calling her, I had looked over her chart. I noted the persistent difficulties with stress. The occasional episodes of great emotional turmoil. Her tongue pictures showed a considerable coating of phlegm, and that caught my attention. I had just attended a webinar on anxiety and depression, and in almost every case, we saw that same, hazy mist of phlegm across the tongue. I was beginning to see the pattern.

More troubling was the knowledge that my own tongue had a similar coating of phlegm. My own tongue had the same “heart crack” that pointed towards emotional issues. All my life, I have been in denial, but I am finally starting to face the music: I have persistent issues with anxiety and depression too.

When I was growing up, my mother dismissed my feelings regularly. I guess that’s where a lot of my anger comes from. If I told her I was feeling sad, or depressed, or unhappy, she would say, “Well, you have a tendency towards that anyway, don’t you?” And it seemed to me that she was using that label to dodge any responsibility for how I was feeling, or what I was going through.

Then again, I tended to dodge responsibility for it too. I have always considered my tendency towards moodiness and depression to be situational. Meaning that, if I wasn’t in this particular situation, then I would be fine. It was the situation that was the problem, not me.

But there was something about the combination of that woman’s tongue pictures, as well as her irritable defensiveness, that finally brought me home to the truth. I am also 52 years old this year, and there’s something about being in your 50’s that calls you to pause and take stock of things. I started to ruminate on the situation. Ruminating is my specialty, after all ;).

I began to wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t gone through what I did. Would I still have this tendency towards anxiety and depression? Then I started to wonder if everyone who goes through difficult early life experiences has the same type of emotional problems. This seems logical too, but also unfair. Survivors should be rewarded for their tenacity, not doomed to a life-time of emotional dysfunction. And yet, in the majority of cases, this appears to be what happens.

Over about the last 5-10 years, I’ve been trying mightily to change things. I’ve been meditating regularly. As I sit in silence, I imagine a mother figure loving me unreservedly – be it Mary, the mother of Jesus, or Kuan Yin, the eastern version of a compassionate, feminine being. I do tonglen practices to open my heart and extend compassion towards myself and others. At first, I found it very challenging, but I’m getting better at it.

Negative self-talk and poor self-image are the other, big cornerstones of my mental and emotional problems, so I’ve been trying to change those things too. There was always an extremely critical voice in my head, that shouted me down whenever I messed up, or failed to be perfect. I started to call this voice Mr. Critical, and as I became more aware of that voice, I would shove it away whenever I heard it. I would yell at it and tell it to “Get out of here!” I would imagine brandishing a bat, and warn him there will be violence if he says another word. All of this may sound absurd, but it has made me feel safer. For the first time in my life, I feel protected.

The other morning, as I climbed out of a deep sleep, I began to hear a voice in my head. But instead of the constant negativity of Mr. Critical, this voice was curious and funny. I can’t quite remember what it was saying as I awoke from my dream, but I remember the feeling it evoked. It was one of friendliness and humour. I remember thinking, “I like this person. This is a good person to have around”. The voice felt like me, like my true self. Someone I have barely known throughout my life because it’s been hidden behind a thick veil of emotional issues.

Using herbs has helped too. As I continue with my training, I’ve begun to notice a pattern between an increase in “dampness” in my system, and a definite slump in my mood. Without fail, they always occur together. This has been fascinating, and has also brought me greater confidence. It has given me another tool to use when depression threatens to overwhelm me.

The patient who angrily confronted me at the beginning of this piece will no longer be coming to the free clinic. Her misdirected anger ruffled too many feathers, and the director decided to remove her from our patient list. My heart goes out to her. We might have been able to help her. Having struggled for years with my own tangle of emotions, I have an idea how she must feel.

As for myself, the road ahead is finally becoming a bit more clear. I’ve gathered enough tools into my tool-belt that I can walk with a little more confidence, and just a little more joy. With time, I hope to be able to offer those tools to others, but for now, I’m just relaxing into this new version of myself. I’m breathing a little easier and enjoying the feeling of progress after years of hard work. For perhaps the first time in my life, I can finally say, it’s nice to be here.


Poria Mushroom

The cigarette-like shape of poria cocos mushroom

When it comes to healing, you will almost always hear mention of one type of mushroom or another. As fungi, they are rather fascinating. Neither animal nor vegetable, they exist in a category all their own. According to their DNA profile, they are more closely related to humans than plants. And like humans, they create their own vitamin D in response to sun exposure. They also “breathe”, exchanging gases with the atmosphere in order to survive. When submerged in water, they experience something similar to drowning. These very human-like qualities may be one reason they are so uniquely helpful to us in periods of stress or illness.

The 6 healing mushrooms you’ve probably heard about before include: reishi, lion’s mane, chaga, shiitake, turkey tail, and cordyceps. These mushrooms are well known for their ability to boost your immune system (reishi), increase your memory and concentration (lion’s mane), fight free radicals (chaga), lower cholesterol (shiitake), prevent cancer (turkey tail), and increase energy (cordyceps). But there is another commonly used mushroom that seems to always get lost in the shuffle. I’m talking about poria mushroom, also referred to as hoelen, tuckahoe, or Indian bread.

Poria mushroom is probably one of the most commonly used herbs in all of Chinese medicine. Reishi mushroom may grab all the headlines, but you’d be hard pressed to find a TCM formula that doesn’t include poria in one form or another. Poria is like the hard worker in the back of the office that never draws attention to itself, but is perpetually on-call.

In Chinese medicine, poria is used to “remove dampness”, which essentially means that it’s good for conditions of edema [1]. If you have fluid accumulation anywhere in your body, poria mushroom can help. What makes it such a great diuretic is that it is rich in potassium salts. This means that when you ingest poria mushroom, it frees up interstitial fluids for excretion without causing potassium depletion. That’s unusual for a diuretic substance, and it’s what makes poria particularly valuable for people who have a weak constitution. It removes fluids without draining your energy.

Like other, better-known mushrooms, poria also strengthens your immune system and can protect against cancer. In one study [2], patients undergoing chemotherapy experienced increased immune function, improved liver and kidney functioning, increased appetite, and decreased adverse reactions to chemotherapy drugs.

And then, like many other mushrooms, it also has a sedative effect on the mind. In Chinese medicine, poria can be used to treat insomnia, calm palpitations, and heal emotional and mental agitation. In one study from China [3], it was even successfully used to treat chronic schizophrenia.

You can find poria mushroom in any Chinese herb shop, typically sliced thinly and then steamed and rolled up tightly into a cigarette-like shape. Gentle enough to act as a food, you can add poria mushroom to soups and porridge to help remove excess fluids from your body. You can also prepare it as a tea before bed to calm your mind and improve sleep. We use it in our Meta Plus tincture to strengthen your Spleen and improve the movement of energy through your body.

The next time you think of healing mushrooms, don’t forget about poria. She may be less flashy than other mushrooms, but she’s a valuable ally in your quest for improved health.

  1. Shang Hai Zhong Yi Yao Za Zhi (Shanghai Journal of Chinese Medicine and Herbology), 1986; 8:25.
  2. Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi (Journal of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine), 1985; 2:115.
  3. Zhong Xi Yi Yao Za Zhi (Journal of Chinese and Western Medicine), 1982; 5:14.


Death Dreams

My grandmother died about two months before I turned 18. She was my last surviving grandparent.

I should have gone to visit her on the day she died. Just a few days before, she had been taken by ambulance to the hospital, complaining of chest pain. I had a piano lesson just down the street and could have stopped by. Instead, I drove right past the hospital and went home. “I have homework to do,” I remember saying to myself. “I’ll go next week”. And though I did have a test the next day, it was likely cowardice that stopped me. At the age of 18, I was still very uncomfortable around illness and death.

To be fair, none of us thought she was dying. My mother had visited her just the day before and said she was looking better. I think we all believed that this little incident was just a slight setback. That she would continue to live for many more years. For almost a decade, we had marvelled at her strength as she dressed, fed, and generally took care of my grandfather, day in, day out, as he struggled to recover from a series of strokes. The only health problem she had was high blood pressure.

But after my grandfather died, she seemed suddenly weak and lost. Her strength evaporated. Without him as her anchor, she began to fade, drifting slowly out to sea. When she was brought into the hospital with chest pain, it was just two months after his death. She died less than a week later, her heart literally breaking into pieces.

For years afterwards, I beat myself up over my failure to visit her. I could have been the last to see her. I could have reassured her when she was frightened. I could have been the recipient of her last words. Instead, she died alone while I went home and prepared for my test. I don’t even remember if I did well on it.

After my grandmother’s death, my mother began to have these weird, vivid dreams about her. In these dreams, my grandmother would come to visit, and they would converse. They would talk about how my brothers and I were doing, and what my mother planned to do that day. “These conversations seem so real,” my mother would say, “like she’s really there.” At the time, none of us believed in ghosts or spirits, but the very vividness of my mother’s dreams made us wonder. Maybe my grandmother really was there, watching over us from beyond the grave. It was a reassuring thought.

After Julia died, I remembered my mother’s experience all those years ago, and fully expected Julia to visit me in my dreams too. I wondered if she might have something to say to me, some message from beyond the grave. I began to wonder what she might say. And then, I grew scared.

Julia and I had been friends for many years, but things began to change as she declined. Her mind became increasingly cloudy, and her judgment withered. Even so, she would never admit to it. As far as she was concerned, she was still the smartest person in the room, and that made her very hard to live with. Little insults that used to be bundled up a bit more carefully, were said more bluntly and then repeated over and over again. I’ve always considered myself a patient person, but I lost my temper with her on more than one occasion. She was really pressing my buttons, and I had a lot of difficulty coping with the situation.

Now that she was dead, I wondered what Julia would make of it all. What would she remember? If she could speak to me again, what would she say? Would she visit me in anger? Would she plague me with nightmares? Would she assault me with insults, over and over again, as she had done in life? There were some nights when I went to bed apprehensive, not sure what I might meet with in my sleep.

When Julia finally did arrive in my dreams, it was almost disappointing. I dreamt we were working together in the kitchen, and Julia was talking as she wiped dishes with a towel. I suppose I was doing the washing, although that wasn’t clear to me. As she worked, Julia would glance at me from time to time, but mostly she was talking to someone else. A blurry third person was in the room, and it was to her that Julia directed the bulk of her attention.

In this dream, Julia seemed happy. She was her usual talkative self. I felt no particular venom being directed my way. She behaved in death very much as she had in life, and I awoke feeling immense relief. I don’t know how these death dreams work, but if Julia is haunting anyone’s dreams, it is not mine. If she is visiting wrath upon anyone, it is not me. I can rest easy, for now at least.

This past year, I’ve been making a determined effort to show myself more kindness and compassion. To forgive myself for not being a perfect person. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve been really working at it. This includes my behaviour towards Julia, my failures with my own grandmother, as well as any number of other things in my life that I could have done better. Daily, I remind myself that I did the best that I could with the resources that were available to me at the time. I can’t ask any more of myself than that.

During one of my last visits with Julia at her nursing home, I kept trying to get her to sit down and talk with me. But she wouldn’t sit. She never would. Thinking she was still at work, she would putter off, wandering the halls, checking doors and turning off lights. She would wander around and around the floor, much to the annoyance of the nursing staff, no doubt. On that particular day, after failing once again to corral her, she said something in Mandarin to the nurse beside her, and the nurse laughed.

I thought perhaps it was an insult. Julia was famous for her insults and she’d been spreading them around pretty generously by the end. But the nurse turned to me and said, “Julia says you are good,” and she laughed again. “You like your daughter-in-law?” she said to Julia. “You think she is good?” “Yes, good,” Julia repeated, and then she continued on with her walk, wandering off around the corner.

I sighed with relief that day, pleased that, after everything we had been though over the years, she still thought of me as a good person. In her very clouded mind, the feeling that stuck was a positive one.

I expect Julia will visit me again some night in my dreams. It may be sooner, or later, but I believe she will come. When she does, I hope it will be a good visit. A friendly visit. A death dream that heals.

The WaaYYY Behind Book Club – September 2022

Welcome to the September 2022 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 about it! I’m always looking for my next great read.

The first book I read this month is called Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann. To be honest, I didn’t finish it. I couldn’t finish it. I thought I would like to read a history of the world, as viewed through the things we owned and purchased. But I didn’t. The book became a chore, and I just didn’t care. So, I dropped it. To be clear, I don’t think it’s a bad book. I just couldn’t interest myself in the subject matter long enough to complete it.

The second book I read this month is called Group by Christie Tate. This book was fascinating and I couldn’t put it down. I pretty much swallowed it whole, finishing it in just two days. It’s about a woman who attends group therapy to heal her emotional issues. She is very open about her struggles with an eating disorder, and discloses all in her quest to find a stable and fulfilling relationship with a man. The crux of group therapy is to learn to open up to others and share all of your inner feelings, and Tate is honest about her difficulty in doing this at first. By the end of the book, she is a pro and conquers many of her inner demons. We get to watch along the way, and it makes for an incredible read.

The third book I read this month is called Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. He is a Swedish author with a string of popular books, among them are Bear Town and A Man Called Ove,. In Anxious People, the focus is on a small group of people who happen to be viewing an apartment when a bank robbery takes place nearby. The robber holds them hostage in his attempt to get away. The set-up may sound tense, but there’s plenty of humour, and as the hours tick by everyone learns the value of compassion and kindness, in true Fredrik Backman style.

The third book I read this month is really short, and is called The Silence by Don DeLillo. It was written before the pandemic, but it is eerily similar to what we all just went through, which is why it piqued my interest. In this story, all electronic devices suddenly no longer work, so there is no TV, no cell phone service, no radio, and even planes can’t fly. Everyone is grounded, with nothing to do but talk, and the book explores each character’s discomfort with this lack of distraction. Having just been through a similar situation during the last two years, where we’ve been forced to stay in our homes for an indefinite period of time, it’s incredible how much the author gets right.

I also read The Bluest Eye this month, by Toni Morrison. It is a book that has been on my reading list for a long time, and it’s brilliantly written. A poor black girl from a dysfunctional family fervently wishes she had blue eyes. It’s a sad story about a girl who loses herself to others’ expectations. All but the most well-balanced teen-aged girls will understand her feelings keenly, so it really resonates.

Finally, I read The Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell. This was a page turner about a young, teen-aged girl who has gone missing in a neighbourhood where there has been a string of sexual assaults. Cate Fours and her family just moved into the area, and she has her suspicions, but is she right? The plot twists and turns as the police follow all the clues, but their investigation hampered by a rush to judgment. And then there are all the secrets.

So, there you have it! All the books I happened to read this month. I welcome any questions or comments. And if you’ve been reading a book that you just love and want to talk about it, leave me a message. I love to talk about books. 🙂

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.