Relighting The Vital Fire

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The day before cochlear implant surgery, I lifted weights and took a long brisk walk. Five weeks later, I feel a flickering flame of vitality, fragile and easily snuffed out by stress or restless sleep.

Arctic weather pushes against me, but I gently push back. Today I’ll go uphill to the National Forest to walk on groomed trails. Yesterday, I walked to my forest and made an offering at my husband’s forest cairn. Even with a slower pace, walking boosts energy and calms my agitated mind. It’s a chance to look for beauty, too.

Waking up from anesthesia, 2/5/19

Intense exercise is forbidden until six weeks after surgery. It’s forbidden by this tired body, too. Walking is encouraged, but it’s been damned cold out there. How do I support my recovery?

I begin with gentle stretches with a focus on breath.  Exercises to soothe rather than push. I know how to do this. I remember the yoga practice I learned at Esalen Institute and in various classes along the way, even though my practice has been on and off. My husband Vic also bought a rowing machine.

When Vic and I returned from California in 1967, we lived in a cheap apartment in rural Interlaken, NY. We commuted 20 miles to Ithaca in his old VW. On frigid mornings, I sat in the driver’s seat and he pushed from behind to get her rolling down the hill. The engine turned, and I hit the brake. He jumped in. I was good at firing up a cold engine.

Vic w/ his VW bug and his wild mom at Dartmouth graduation, 1963

After work and classes we drove to our apartment. It was always cold despite our purple walls. Before dinner, we did hatha yoga. It made us feel well and self-righteous. It’s harder to stick to the practice without my training partner.

We focused on aerobics in the 1980s and 90s. Vic and our sons created a trail that goes downhill from the house for a warm-up before flattening out along the stream and climbing a steep hill to the high point on our land. The cool-down is a walk back to the house with an exquisite view.

With Vic, 2001

We began strength training in 2000. Vic equipped a free weight room that was once a kid’s bedroom. Already a nutritionist, I became a certified trainer.

I taught strength training to all ages, including 80 year olds in a retirement community. I saw amazing changes at all ages, so I trust my body will grow stronger if I fan the flame. I feel it strengthening every time I walk or snowshoe, every time I load the woodstove with a chunk of firewood, every time I stretch.

“Don’t lift anything heavy,” my doctor says after removing the stitches in mid February.

“Does firewood count?” I ask with a grin. He rolls his eyes. “Trust me,” I say. “I taught strength training for many years. I won’t strain my neck or jaw.”

“OK, but be careful,” he says. I’ve been his patient since 1995, so he knows I’m not an idiot. Just a little hard to tame.

I don’t tell him I have a furnace, but prefer a woodstove fire, my Hestia altar in the middle of the house. The Greek Goddess Hestia reigned over the central fire in all temples. I need this Goddess of the Hearth and Inner Fire.

Hestia’s Fire Altar

I lift dry firewood, but won’t lift weights until I get the OK. I’ll start over, weakened but trusting the smoldering inner flame. Spring sun will fuel me every step of the way.

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Have you been physically ill or had surgery and worked your way back to fitness? I need your stories of inspiration. You might enjoy the health section of my website devoted to various kinds of exercise and nutrition, including vegetarian recipes. Many of these articles remain popular even though I no longer promote them.

For an article about Hestia, see Home with Hestia: Goddess of the Hearth. For an article about hearing loss and how it changed my life, see I Want to Understand You: HearingLoss, Grit, and Grief. On March 18, I’ll be connected to cochlear implant sound, learning to hear in a new way. After surgery, many of the Meniere’s Disease symptoms such as tinnitus and vertigo faded or disappeared, a hopeful sign of what’s to come. I’m ready for the main act.

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35 Comments
  1. What a lovely update. Thank you for telling us how you’re doing after your surgery. I giggled at the description of the conversation between you and your doctor about taking it easy.

    What have you been doing with your time as you recover?

    • Thank you, Lydia. Sound went on yesterday, so I’m getting used to that new strange experience–gradually as the doctor ordered with a small increase in volume every day. I slept a lot after surgery–and gazed out the window and meditated. Full anesthesia knocked me out, perhaps more than the surgical wound. It took almost 4 weeks to deal with a new imbalance caused by swelling in the inner ear, a natural result of this surgery. That’s gone now as well as many other symptoms I had before surgery. I read quite a lot and kept writing. I stayed at home and took walks when it wasn’t bitter cold. I loaded the woodstove and kept the house warm and the bird feeders full. I made myself healthy food. I never have trouble filling time. Today, I had a yoga teacher come to my house to support me in renewing that practice. Tomorrow I’ll return to strength training–carefully and slowly. I’ll get there.

      • So glad to hear that. It sounds like you had a peaceful recovery. I hope your weightlifting is going well.

        • Weight lifting is going slowly and cautiously, and it feels so good. No heroics or high intensity (my favorite) for a while. It’s heroic enough at the moment to learn to hear. I made an unusual amount of progress in one week (according to the audiology team).

  2. Hi Elaine. So glad to read you’ve done it. Is your hearing back yet? How excited are you about the glorious moment? You’re such a warrior woman, but I’m sure there’s lots you can be doing other than heavy lifting. February was a brutal month for our cities. I was gone for 2 months, thankfully, but I got the reports of some of the coldest days in our history. Stay warm and heal properly. Spring is not far now. 🙂

    • The audio receiver went on 3/18. It’s not so glorious, but it will be. More like pushing through mud now. This will take some time. Lots of online tutorials and practicing the art of listening and interpreting bionic sound. This week, my task is to increase volume every day. Then I’ll begin online tutorials. I feel physically stronger in many ways with disequilibrium and vertigo gone. I feel the promise of strength and it’s not that far away. I’m glad you escaped the exhausting cold.

  3. Wow–no more vertigo and tinnitis! This is already good news. Waiting to HEAR more about your HEARING. Much love, Myra

    • It is already good news, Myra. There’s a long road ahead as I adjust to an odd kind of sound. I can do this!! More importantly, my body can do this. Thanks for cheering me on.

  4. Dear Elaine, It’s always great to catch up with your musings and read the joyous news that many of your old Meniere’s Disease symptoms are disappearing! I guess the main event is now underway and I’m very much looking forward to hearing how the slow turning up of volume from your cochlear implant goes in the next couple of weeks and following months.

    Careful and slow feel like key words, and what timing here at the Spring Equinox to be re-lighting your vital fire! It feels like you’re waking in the midst of a mythological adventure as you leave the sleep and slothfulness of winter behind you in order to re-launch yourself in springtime. I love (and resonate) with your description of feeling like a flickering flame.

    I guess it’s time to get back to doing what you’re good at, firing up your cold engine! Take your time my dear friend, remember there’s no rush. Open the windows, and let your feet dance awhile in the doorway before you pull on those muddy boots and wander back into the heart of the woods to spend time with your beloved Green Man. Love and light, Deborah.

    • Thank you, Deborah. The goal is to be at full volume by March 25. I’m half way there, increasing volume a few times each day. Once the volume is up, I begin practicing with tutorials, but I feel that ear waking up and trying to figure out this new world of sound. It hears…what is that? It’s words! A clock ticking! A bird!

      As you know, Rilke uses listening as a metaphor in the ‘Sonnets to Orpheus.’ In Sonnet II, 1 (Stephen Mitchell translation): in response to Orpheus singing, “you built a temple deep inside their hearing.” In the translation by Barrows and Macy, “you made them, from their listening, a temple.” In Sonnet II,2, in the first stanza when a girl emerges from the joy of song and lyre, she “made herself a bed inside my ear.” In Barrows and Macy, that same line is translated as “she became inseparable from my own hearing.” Finally, two of my favorite lines in the Sonnets from I,3: “Truly to sing takes another kind of breath./ A breath in the void. A shudder in God. A wind.” That should keep the poet in you busy. It floods me with gratitude and hope. Yes, it feels like a mythological awakening, ascending with Persephone. I’m getting my body back. There’s grace in all this.

      The weather pulls me outside and revs the engines. I’m not being heroic, but I’m grateful the body is coming alive along with hearing. Meniere’s Disease symptoms were oppressive. and I thought I would have them all my life. A weight has lifted. Sending love and light and green to you across the sea.

      • Birds, words and clocks. Yay! I’m doing cartwheels over here in the UK to hear such joyful news! “Truly to sing takes another kind of breath …” Oh, how this poet swoons to read such soul-speak! Hmm, I sense a rereading of Rilke’s Orpheus Sonnets coming on. Abundant blessings on this sacred (Super!) Full Moon, Spring Equinox day.

        • The kitchen clock ticks each second. I didn’t notice this before, but now that I do, I’m in the market for a new silent battery-run kitchen clock. I get to choose what I want to hear in this case, so I choose birds and words. Isn’t Rilke an inspiration? I remember how much trouble I had understanding those first sonnets in 2007. It might be because I was struggling so with Vic’s illness and already falling into grief. Yes to the beautiful full moon promising spring life. Yes to a temple in our hearing.

  5. I have been waiting for an update and here it is!

    You are brave to post a photo of your waking up after surgery. I felt so awful after pelvic reconstruction years ago, I thought I was going to DIE! My husband had to stop and pick up my pain prescription on the way home because the nurses had overlooked my need to have a medication before I checked out. But, no mind, I did get better. But I didn’t think about exercising for weeks!

    These lines are choice: I’ve been his patient since 1995, so he knows I’m not an idiot. Just a little hard to tame. ( ! )

    I spot the glamorous Virginia today and Vic’s toothy grin, so sweet. Watch your mail for a card from me, Elaine.
    Right now, I think you are traveling one of the hardest patches toward recovery. You WILL regain your balance soon, my prayer for you.

    • Marion, my son snapped 2 photos the moment I woke up and sent them to me. I didn’t know he’d taken them until I looked at email. I like that bewildered where am I? who am I? softness. I’m fortunate I didn’t have severe pain and didn’t need anything more than Advil or Tylenol. I was extremely tired for a month with only intermittent jabs of pain. Your surgery sounds so difficult. Thank you, Cliff (let’s call him Rock), for being there for you. And they forgot about pain medication? What do we do without advocates at times like these? I was glad my son was willing to take that role for a few days which is all I needed.

      Vic was happy about the car and so embarrassed by his mother’s get-up at his college graduation. He was trying to be a cool Dartmouth guy (full scholarship kid that he was). As he put it, “my mom looked like Chiquita Banana in that hat, when I was trying to master a Harvard Business School look.” (He didn’t end up going to business school.)

      Balance is back from surgery and the Meniere’s imbalance and disembodiment seems gone–at least for 6 weeks now. Yesterday I had a yoga instructor come to my home for a short series of weekly personal classes to get me going until I can join her group classes in the summer. I began doing yoga in the 1960s but my practice has been on and off. I woke up this morning and did a little stretching. Hello body! I’m here, filled with gratitude and grace.

  6. Thank you, Elaine, for your inspiring resilience and determination! I read your post at a time when I was down and struggling, and it really helped. Thank you for reminding me about my inner resources and that I can invoke the will to access them.

    All best wishes to you as you continue recovering, strengthening and rediscovering sound.
    Laz

    • Thank you for your good wishes, Laz. This life is not easy. Will has been useless in fighting deafness and loss of proprioception, but now that I’m recovered from surgery, I can use a little will to find new vitality and what remains of the old. I’m not expecting too much or pushing too hard. It’s a long road ahead, so I’m trying to approach the new possibilities with curiosity. I hope I’ll hear music–your music, for one–before too long. The key will be practicing, but first to get more volume in that ear without recoiling. The gradual approach the doctor recommended is working.

  7. Lovely to get this update Elaine – and on the day of the Equinox! May the onset of Spring on your side herald all things new. As you say in your post, you’re good at firing up a cold engine. Your body upper and lower will also re-fire with gratitude and grace.
    What a relief that the tinnitus has disappeared 🙂

    All I know is that patience is a lesson I HAD to learn after a car accident some years ago – and, for someone such as I, it was a hard but worthwhile lesson. And also without a shadow of a doubt, how transient things are –

    • It’s all felt auspicious, Susan. Yes, spring is on my side for healing and for natural outdoor sound. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to not hear that roar. Sound is changing every day as I increase volume in the implant and as my body tries to figure out the new sensory input. Yes to patience. It’s not my natural strength, but I’m being trained. I think of Pema Chodron in one of her talks I’ve written about when she speaks to herself like she’s training a dog: “Stay, stay, stay.” I can hardly wait to listen to inspiring CDs in the car and at home again–a listening solution for someone who lives alone. This experience is another lesson in impermanence/transience–an impermanence I’ve longed for. Blessings to you as you enter the cooler months and change your home.

  8. Dear Elaine, I read you for inspiration. After my surgery the hardest recovery was from the anesthesia–it created a different me I didn’t recognize. The day by day has become more workable as I have patience with myself. Patience seems to be my life’s pursuit right now–that’s an oxymoron I guess:) I wish you love, as always, and will share this, as always, dear friend.

    • Thank you, Therese. That’s so nice to know. I think that month of feeling so exhausted after surgery was almost entirely due to anesthesia. Yes, there was a wound, but it wasn’t a deep wound and nothing was removed (although the tiny cochlea met its end by having wires threaded through it into the inner ear and the inner ear was swollen so that caused some imbalance). I was muddy headed and couldn’t get enough sleep or read much of anything that mattered. It’s been a little over six weeks since surgery, and that experience is faded. Balance is also a possibility again, so I’m working with a yoga instructor to bring that back. Patience seems to be an essential hard-earned lesson in this life. I’m grateful for your support and help, dear Therese. I’m hungry to return more of those gifts to you and other writers. I’ve been a little self-absorbed.

    • Therese, I tried to get on your website using my WordPress password as instructed, but it wouldn’t let me on. So I respond here to your powerful article with gratitude that you and Lance were not completely maimed, but sorrow that you had so much to deal with (do) including a new challenge to mobility. I just tried again to get on your site. It wants me to change password or username, but it works fine for me on my own and other accounts, so I hesitate. May you heal well and quickly and with much help. Sending love (and a touch of frustration about not being able to make a comment on your site where it should be.) And such is our computerized world.

  9. I love how your personal experience of descent and return is totally in sync with the seasons! You are living your myth in every way, my sister, both within and without. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s the only way to life a full and artful life. Look how beautifully your mental and physical training over all these years is paying off now! You’re continuing to create your magnum opus. Well done. Love, Jeanie

    • Thank you, Jeanie. You’re a gem. The very best news: last night I went to my weekly writing group and I could hear all conversation/comments and what people read without sitting as close to possible with them (almost on their laps) and reading their lips. It was a noticeable and happy change for everyone, including me. Sound is a little hollow and electronic, but wow! In 2 1/2 days I can hear more reliably and I still don’t have full volume, since I’m increasing a bit each day until my next programming appointment on Monday. Then I’ll begin tutorials. It ain’t beautiful sound, but then those underworld journeys are often muddy and messy, even on the ascent. Love and gratitude to you.

  10. I was wondering how it was with you. Clocks ticking, oh yes I remember how that one dawned on me. At first I thought someone was strumming a guitar string rhythmically and since no one was around, I didn’t have any way to determine its origin, until I happened to look at the clock and noticed the second hand coincided with the strum. Bingo! And within minutes of making this connection, the strum turned magically into the sound of a clock ticking that I remembered from way back. That’s how the brain works in this situation, by assembling and assigning or reassigning neurons to get the job done so long as you challenge it to build those networks. People think you turn your hearing on the first time as if flipping a switch, but instead it’s like greenery coming to life as the snow melts. You keep finding new sprouts and growth each day that you go out into the world with your new ear(s).

    I’m glad you are taking it slow. In my rush to “get there,” I kind of strained my developing hearing, and was required to take my processor off to let things in there rest and refresh, which they did. So making haste slowly is not just idle advice. And I think self-absorption is quite understandable in this case! You’re getting to know you all over again. 🙂

    • Joe, I love your metaphor. I’m grateful for your continuing seasoned and knowledgeable support. I just wrote in response to a comment that I can hear speech better already. Last night, 2 1/2 days after turning on sound, I went to my writing group and I could hear with no one straining, including me. It was so noticeable, even if the sound is odd. We all celebrated. I have a long way to go, but I’m still working on the first step of increasing volume until my next appointment on Monday. The ear is trying to figure this out with some obvious success. I’m following directions to add volume slowly, a little a few times a day. In my case, they’re afraid of reactivating roaring tinnitus I’ve lived with since 2013. When volume is up (it’s getting close), I’ll begin tutorials. Such a good time of year in western NY for new green sprouts.

      The other thing happening, and you may relate to this, is I feel like I know where my body is in space again. I feel my embodied self from the inside rather than through information from my eyes. I think this is because the inner ear has many proprioceptive nerve endings and it was getting confused, garbled signals from my unhealthy ear. Does that make sense to you? That change began happening in the weeks after surgery and it’s more pronounced with sound. I always felt “grounded” until all the vestibular and hearing symptoms began. I’m reading about proprioception now that I know what it’s like to live with it not working well. I’m also doing yoga with a new teacher and focusing on balance–a good therapy that doesn’t strain the ears but supports the body as it figures this out. Yes, I’m getting to know me all over again. I love the way you put that. Thank you again.

  11. “I know where my body is in space again”…. What an interesting outcome.
    And, “I feel my embodied self from the inside”. I have to think on that. Upon reading it I immediately felt how my reference to embodied self is most always is in relation to the outside. I’m not talking about when we sit to do meditation or pull inward but in our unconscious active life.
    I feel embodied in relation to all that is around me. Of course I identify my self with my body and yes, I experience that or feel that to be “inside”( most often) but my cognitive mind goes directly to not-self. The chair is not me. The fire is not me. I differentiate myself by what I am not.
    These things are so subtle and slippery.
    Even as I write I want to correct myself and say that the experience of the chair is me, the experience of the fire is me from a philosophic/spiritual point of view.
    And I am probably reading way more into what you said than what you meant.

    Meanwhile you are there and I am here, of that I am sure. Bummer. I’d like to take a embodied walk with you. This electronic communication lacks sound and smells.

    • The easy part is the end of your message. Wouldn’t a walk together be grand, listening for spring birds and trees in the wind?

      I’m trying to describe something that is so subjective, but also very real. A psychiatrist friend gets what I’m saying and recommended articles about a part of the brain called the precuneus which has many mysterious functions, but is highly activated for people with loud tinnitus or some vision issues. It’s beyond me. I can only say I didn’t know I’d lost my inner sense of embodiment or being present in my own skin until I got it back again. I haven’t felt quite here, in this body, for years. I fought that sensation which included imbalance through exercise, but something has been off besides hearing. When I walked from place to place, even inside, I found myself reaching out to touch something like a wall or furniture. To feel myself here through touch. Tinnitus roared and the visual was involved because of nystagmus (pupils shifting back and forth at a rapid rate) which was repressed with medication. I don’t need any medication now and no longer have the reflex to touch something as I move around.

      Sound keeps shifting (I have four programs to experiment with in the cochlear implant for the next two weeks as I try to decide which gives me the best sound). From a sense of garbled electronic impulses when sound was first turned on to being able to distinguish words in that ear is a miracle in itself. The brain is flexible and learns fast! When they did their testing and tuning on Monday to see where I was in this process, the audiology team was impressed with how much I already heard from the implanted ear. My body is cooperating.

      In the past, pre-Meniere’s Disease in the L cochlea, I didn’t feel a sense of not being here, in my body, standing on the earth. I’d always felt “grounded” and didn’t realize how that had changed since 2013 until the sick cochlea stopped sending signals to the inner ear. You’d think the strange implant sound and wires in my inner ear would make me dizzy or lost in space, but not at all. It’s probably beyond me in terms of the science and seems poorly understood in that world, too. I keep coming back to the miracle of hearing and Orpheus, that god of grief and celestial sound. As Rilke writes in the first Sonnet to Orpheus (combining a few translations), “…you (Orpheus) made them, from their listening, a temple in the hearing.” I’m fully aware of the transcendence of sound and what a gift is unfolding for me.

      • I’d say that one’s motivation is a major factor in the flexibility of the brain. I have met people who barely wear their new processor(s) and I’m just flummoxed. How do they expect to make progress if they don’t use the tools they are given? Of course if you need a sound break, take one, but then start again. I’m happy the team is pleased with your progress. I don’t do yoga but have taken up taijiquan (or t’ai chi ch’uan as it’s better known) and am finding it interesting to move my body in space. And of course anything that moves chi is beneficial!

        • Joe, I wear the auditory receiver every waking hour, as you suggested. My audiologist suggested it, too, but I don’t think he expected I’d do it. I did it and increased volume in small steps every day to reach the volume he recommended–and then he turned the volume down a bit after asking me if it was too loud. It was, but only a little. My sound breaks don’t include removing the audio, but I can’t listen to speech for long without becoming exhausted. Nature sounds are not tiring. I’ll get better at this. I did t’ai chi for many years but learned yoga first and returned to yoga. Both are great combinations of balance, strength, and calm relaxation. If there were more time in the day, I’d do both. Best to you and much gratitude for your continuing support and wise advice.

  12. I’m sitting here smiling, Elaine, as I read about much you have gained since the surgery, despite what a challenge it’s been as the anesthesia has slowly worked its way out of your system. Not only are are hearing voices again after such a short time, but also to have regained your “inner sense of embodiment” back again is amazing! It’s interesting that the chronic illness I live with affects me in that regard more than anything; though the fatigue is difficult, it is that loss of embodiment that is harder to live with (and describe) than anything else. Learning to live with patience does, as you wrote, “seem to be an essential hard-earned lesson in this life.” Thank you for the inspiration you provide.

    • Thank you for celebrating with me, Anne. I didn’t know I’d get so much change in proprioception, but it happened without anyone hinting or knowing it would. Chronic illness is exhausting and it’s hard to keep searching for help when nothing works. I had to wait 6 years and surrender to a surgical approach. Implant sound is odd, a little mechanical and flat, but that’s changing as my brain learns to interpret it. I think it’s like learning a new language through immersion. Brains adapt. I’m also off low doses of 3 medications for vertigo. I don’t need them anymore! Although I tried to eliminate them before, I couldn’t without falling on my face. Yes, the loss of a sense of embodiment is impossible to describe, but occasionally people like you say, “I get it.” It’s not hard to share that I’m listening to bird songs! And also watching bluebirds argue over a nesting box. They’ll settle down in time.

  13. Hello, again, Elaine,
    Regarding your surgery, I’m curious as to whether the cochlear implant surgery itself is what improved your proprioception, or whether the surgeons did something else while they were in there.
    What joy to have birdsong in your life again!

    • Anne, I had no usable hearing in the ear that had an implant. The surgeon hoped that bypassing the damaged cochlea would stop the vestibular symptoms, but it doesn’t always. In my case, it did. Nothing special was done. So, yes, the surgery stopped roaring tinnitus, vertigo, and disorientation (ungrounded and unbalanced). It’s gone along with medications used to control the vestibular symptoms. What a relief! I have some usable hearing with a hearing aid in my R ear and that’s helped with the transition. My brain takes in signals from the implant and the hearing aid and hears words I wouldn’t hear without both–and I’ll get better at this. I look forward to warmer weather and more birds. I heard a few this morning, but it’s 29 degrees so they’re not in a courting mood.

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