Waayyy Behind Book Club – February 2023

Welcome to the February 2023 edition of The Waayyy Behind Book Club, where I talk about the books I’ve read this month. Hello, fellow readers! Come along and see if any of these books pique your interest.

The first book I read this month was Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. Those in the know may already be familiar with Elena Ferrante from her celebrated Neopolitan series of books, now dramatized on HBO. The TV show is named My Brilliant Friend, after the first book in the series, and has been described as “a modern masterpiece” and also “what Jane Austen would write if she got angry”. Both the books and the TV show are fantastic.

The Days of Abandonment was written years before that, and is searing reading. It’s about a woman whose husband leaves her for another woman after 15 years of marriage. We watch as she goes through all the stages of grief, from denial, to anger, to hysteria, to numbness, until finally she finds acceptance and is able to move on with her life. It’s so raw and honest, you’ll swear she must be writing from her own personal experience. That’s what Ferrante’s writing is like. She knows your heart and is unafraid of speaking exactly what it feels.

The next book I read this month was just as gripping. Memorial Drive is poet Natasha Trethewey’s gut wrenching attempt to come to terms with the murder of her mother thirty years before. Trethewey was only 19 years old when her stepfather shot her mother in the head and killed her. This is devastating reading. You can feel Trethewey’s pain as she memorializes her beautiful mother, but you can also sense the relief as she unburdens herself. You can tell that this is a story that needed to be told.

I also read The Dude and the Zen Master this month. In it, Jeff Bridges and reknowned Zen teacher Bernie Glassman sit down and talk about life. If you love the movie The Big Lebowski, as I do, you can get drawn in by chapter titles like, “Sometimes You Eat the Bear, and Sometimes, Well, He Eats You”, and “Yeah, Well, You Know, That’s Just Like, Uh, Your Opinion, Man”, but I actually didn’t find much of substance here. You learn about some of Jeff Bridges’ experiences on movie sets, but other than that, nothing really revelatory. Unless you’re a big Jeff Bridges fan, I’d give this book a pass.

When Montezuma Met Cortes: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History by Matthew Restall was an intriguing read. Essentially, it’s a book about history and how it’s recorded. We all know that the victor gets to tell the tale, while the loser’s story gets left on the editor’s floor. Well, Montezuma was definitely the loser in this sad piece of history. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Cortes’ story is mostly self-aggrandising and is littered with plot holes. For 500 years, no one thought much to question it. But after Restall sifts through all the old documents and letters, we find a tale that’s far more interesting and compelling than the one you were told in school. Personally, I love this kind of stuff and couldn’t put the book down.

The final book for this month is The Road Less Traveled by M Scott Peck. It’s a famous book. I had to wait months before I could get a copy through the library. Yet, when I first began to read it, I could not understand why it has remained so popular. The book was written 45 years ago, and while the advice Peck gives may have been instructive back then, it’s mostly old news. I kept wanting to put the book down and walk away, but I was determined to give it a chance. I’m glad I did. The last third of the book was a masterful blending of psychology, religion and spirituality that could only come from someone really knowledgeable and wise. If you’re a searcher trying to find your path in life, this book still has a lot to offer. I know I learned a few things.

So, that’s it for this month. Until next time, keep on reading. 🙂

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Truce

This week marks the 18th anniversary of my relationship with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It’s been a contentious relationship to say the least, and one I would rather not have had. During those years, I alternately wrestled with CFS, pleaded with it, cursed it, cried until my tears ran dry, and then, exhausted and depleted by all my efforts, finally began to soften towards it.

I had to. Because with a condition like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, what you eventually realize is that you are essentially fighting with yourself. It took me a long time to realize that. To really internalize it.

I heard someone say recently that if you want to heal one thing, you have to heal all the things. Man, hearing something like that would have really depressed me back when I first became sick. Back then, I was exhausted, confused, and overwhelmed. I wanted a quick, clear answer to my health problems and I wanted it fast. I wanted a pill. A tincture. Something – anything – that would get me back on my feet and back in the game as soon as possible.

What I had to come to terms with, was how much that attitude was hurting me. Unless I was achieving something, I felt like I was useless and unlovable. I was always pushing myself to accomplish more, and faster, fearing that, unless I did something impressive, I wouldn’t earn my keep. That attitude was slowly killing me.

Back then, I was always caring for others and really didn’t think of myself at all. Certainly, I didn’t think about my body and its problems. As far as I was concerned, my body was supposed to come along and do whatever my brain wanted it to do. I was furious that it was no longer co-operating.

And therein lies the rub. In order to heal my body, I needed do that one thing I didn’t want to do. The one thing I didn’t even know how to do: listen to my body. For someone who had been steadfastly ignoring her body’s needs for more than three decades, it was a steep learning curve.

It’s been a long journey, filled with many ups and downs. But over the course of the last 18 years, I have finally learned to listen. I now listen closely to my physical symptoms, taking the time every morning to jot down every little, subtle fluctuation so I can better treat myself with herbs. I listen to my heart, making sure I take the time to feel my emotions and show myself compassion – an essential step for healing your nervous system. I’ve stopped putting other people’s needs above my own – a lot easier now that my kids have grown up. And I now surround myself with people who are kind to me, who actually like me, rather than putting up with people whose only interest is in tearing me down.

In short, I did all the things. I did all the things I had previously told myself were not important. The things that I thought were secondary at best, as I searched for that elusive miracle cure. And finally, after years of isolation and despondency, I slowly began to re-discover myself and regain my lost energy.

For those who are struggling with CFS right now, who are right in the thick of it, in the middle of the worst symptoms, my heart goes out to you. I know how you feel. I’ve been there. Dear one, please put down your sword. Listen to me.

Fighting with this illness will not get you anywhere. Whatever poison you throw at CFS you also throw at yourself. What you need to do is soften. You must learn to be gentle with yourself. If you are a hard-charging people pleaser like I was, I know how incredibly hard this is to do.

In a few months, I hope to have some free yoga classes you can attend that will help you to get back in touch with yourself and develop some self-compassion.

In the meantime, I’m here to tell you that you are beautiful just as you are, even in the midst of all your brokenness. That you are worthy and lovable, even though you can’t get out of bed. Even with all your imperfections, know that you are important. Please know that you still belong.

Zizyphus Seeds

Seeds of Ziziphus spina-christi, the Christ’s Thorn Jujube. Medicinal plant, chinese medicine. (Photo by: Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Julia never liked tonic herbs. She had a bad experience with them when she was younger, and refused to take them forever afterwards. Julia was like that. Reflexive and stubborn. Hurt her just once, and a wall would come down that she would never raise again.

I say this not to diminish her experience. Julia suffered from endometriosis, which is widely agreed to be both confounding and shockingly painful. Even now, decades after Julia’s struggle with it, doctors provide few helpful options. If Julia found tonic herbs like peony root and licorice root to aggravate it, I certainly wasn’t going to argue with her about it.

Nevertheless, despite her Chinese heritage, I believe Julia didn’t quite understand how tonic herbs should be used. She described taking peony root and licorice root (in the traditional Chinese formula Si Ni San) daily for many months. You don’t usually take tonic herbs steadily for months at a time, especially for a stagnant condition like endometriosis. Her experience confirmed that: although the herbs initially helped her, they eventually caused her pain to worsen.

Worsening pain is a sign. It’s not necessarily a sign that the formula she was taking was wrong, or that it was harmful. It may have been just what she needed at the time it was prescribed. However the worsening of her pain was a sign that her body had adapted to the formula and it was now creating another imbalance. It needed to be changed.

Tonic herbs can create congestion in the body when taken for long periods of time. Julia was right about that. So, when you start to see signs of congestion, such as pain, you stop the tonic herbs and start taking herbs that will move the congestion. Once the congestion is gone, you can proceed to take the tonic herbs again for another little while. For women with signs of deficiency, the occasional use of tonic herbs is important.

Banning their use is an over-reaction. That’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, to use a common phrase. But then, Julia was a reactive person. This doesn’t detract from the fact that she could also be wise and generous and kind. It was just another facet of her personality, and an unfortunate one.

What does this have to do with zizyphus seeds? Well, zizyphus seeds are a tonic herb. They are known in Chinese medicine to “nourish the heart and liver”. And Julia liked herbs that helped the heart and the liver. The heart and the liver were her two favourite organs, since she suffered from both liver congestion and heart palpitations in the past. Back when she first started her business, Julia put zizyphus seeds in some of her tinctures. I can still remember her talking about how wonderful they were.

So, what happened? I’m not sure. There is no indication that zizyphus seeds have estrogenic activity, which is the typical reason Julia would give to discard an herb. However, they do have a stimulating effect on the uterus, meaning that they cause uterine muscles to contract. (Pregnant women should avoid taking zizyphus seeds for this reason).

Julia may have misunderstood that information to mean that zizyphus seeds have estrogenic activity, and that by “stimulating the uterus” they stimulated cell proliferation in the uterine lining. That interpretation would be incorrect, but Julia may have jumped to that conclusion. There was a time when the mere mention of an herb affecting the female reproductive area would cause Julia to discard it. She wouldn’t have been interested in investigating any further.

That is a shame, though, because as Julia well knew, zizyphus seeds have a lot to offer us. They’re great for insomnia [1][2]. They have a real calming effect on the nervous system [3]. They quell anxiety, agitation and fidgeting [4]. They can be used to treat arrythmia and palpitations [5][6]. And they are often used to lower body temperature and stop hot flashes in menopausal women [7]. This is not due to any hormonal effect, but just to the anti-pyretic nature of the herb.

We have since brought zizyphus seeds back into the fold, and now sell a tincture containing them, as well as some other heart nourishing herbs. We call that tincture “Tranquil Heart” for its ability to calm anxiety, help sleep, and relieve heart palpitations. If you’re interested in trying some, just let us know. It’s only available in our store at the moment, but we can add it to your on-line order if you’d like to give it a try. I’ve already heard some good feedback about it.

  1. Xin Zhong Yi (New Chinese Medicine), 1982; (11):35
  2. Shang Hai Zhong Yi Yao Za Zhi (Shanghai Journal of Chinese Medicine and Herbology), 1984; (10)30
  3. Chang Yong Zhong Yao Xian Dai Yan Jiu Yu Lin Chuan (Recent Study and Clinical Application of Common Traditional Chinese Medicine), 1995; 489:491
  4. Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi (Journal of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine), 1982; 2:97
  5. Zhong Guo Shou Yi Za Zhi (Chinese Journal of Husbandry), 198814(6):44.
  6. Di Yi Jun Yi Da Xue Xue Bao (Journal of First Military University of Medicine), 1985; 5(1):31
  7. Chang Yong Zhong Yao Xian Dai Yan Jiu Yu Lin Chuan (Recent Study and Clinical Application of Common Traditional Chinese Medicine), 1995; 489:491


My mother died this past November. She’s still here, though. I can feel her all around me. She sits beside me as I work. She watches over me while I sleep. Now that she’s gone, she flits through the air around me and watches over me 24 hours a day. She says to me “Ah! So that’s how it is! I can see now. I didn’t understand before.” And finally, after all these years, after all of our many strained and painful conversations, I feel like I am seen.

It was never like that when she was alive. Back then, no matter how clearly I tried to speak, no matter how closely she tried to listen, it always seemed that we just couldn’t understand one another. There was always a wall between us that prevented full comprehension.

And yet, we were close. I think you could say that. We certainly tried. For many years, I called her every week and we would talk for hours. Even when she moved into a nursing home, we still talked every week, or emailed one another, or both.

I always knew what my mother really wanted of me, though. She wanted me to pay her a nice long visit. Not one of those short, little weekend visits that we often did. She wanted me to sleep over and spend an entire week with her. Just the two of us; her and me. She wanted me to play piano duets with her. She wanted me to sit in the dining room and keep her company while she ate. She wanted to show me off to the nurses. Would that really have been so bad?

Somehow, the very idea of spending a full week with my mother completely exhausted me. I knew what she wanted. Just like when I was a child, she would want me to be her little helper, listen to her, and fetch things for her. She would want me to sit there quietly while she talked about her life. Then, once she had finished venting all of her feelings, she would want to pry into my life, asking me all sorts of uncomfortable questions about the particular things I did each day. There always seemed to be something about me that she didn’t quite understand, something that she wasn’t quite happy with. It was dispiriting. I always left my mother feeling more exhausted than when I came.

And so, I put off that much-wanted visit for years. And when I finally acquiesced, it was really too late. By that time, she was already dying. In earnest.

For the first couple of days that I was there, I was still able to speak with her. In between nurse check-ins, and the administering of medications, she would ask me to play piano for her. Once, she asked me to sit closer, and then even closer, until my face was so close to hers we could bump noses with one another. With her piercing blue-green eyes, she looked at me fixedly for a long moment, as if she was memorizing my face. And then, just a suddenly, she broke contact and laid back in her bed without saying a word.

I think that was the last time she was able to truly look at me. After that, she quietly slipped under the veil. Suddenly, she was too weak to remain conscious. She would still move her head to look up at me, smile, and say “hello” each morning, but there would often be no other response from her for the rest of the day.

I stayed by her side and tried to communicate with her as best I could, just as I have always done throughout my life. I sang to her, and read to her. On some days, either my brother or my father would be there too, and we would all talk together. And even though she couldn’t speak, it always felt like my mother was right there, listening, just waiting to jump into the conversation. Just waiting to put in her two cents worth.

My mother loved me. I know she loved me. She loved me beyond measure. I was her daughter. Her only daughter. And she wanted me so badly. There was a primal hunger there, a hunger I never seemed able to fill. No matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried to please her, she always seemed to want more. It was as if I could never really satisfy her. I could never be the daughter, the person, she truly wanted me to be. I could only be myself, and somehow, that never seemed to be enough.

There was a period there when my mother’s Parkinson’s was worsening, but she was still able to walk around. This was years before she entered the nursing home. She had started to have problems with her vision, and would see double most of the time. “I know you’re not here, but I can see you out of the corner of my eye,” she would say to me over the phone, “It’s like you’re sitting right next to me, yet when I turn my head, you’re gone”. It both pained and pleased me that I was the one she was trying to see. That it was me she so desperately wanted to catch hold of. It meant I was important to her. It meant that, even though I may have failed her in many and varied ways, I still meant a lot to her.

It’s funny how things change. Because that’s the way I feel about her now. If I look around quickly, it’s like she’s right there and I just missed her. Like I couldn’t quite catch her out of the corner of my eye. Mostly though, I just feel her presence all around me. Like she’s sitting next to me, watching me with interest, keeping me company, offering guidance and love. Tragically, it’s only through her death, that I finally feel heard and understood. It’s only through her death that I fully feel the power of her love.