Archive for Aging

It Was “Just Stress”

hand-2906434_960_720In my last message, I told you about being hospitalized with what seemed to be a stroke-related episode. At least, that’s what the doctors and nurses told me. Granted, it seemed peculiar that all the imaging of my heart and brain revealed no damage as a result of that scary event.

Over the phone, I got a different diagnosis from my husband Harvey, a psychiatrist who specialized in trauma until his retirement. (He and I are separated, but on good terms.) His conclusion was that I was suffering from hyperventilation syndrome as a result of many months of tension and lack of exercise. That really fit for me. For months my muscles had been hot and tight with tension. But never mind, I was bent on my goal of driving to Arizona for the winter.

How ironic, though, that I, a former yoga teacher and trauma therapist who taught thousands of others how to relax, should now be overwhelmed by stress-related physical symptoms. All I can say is that we humans usually teach what we most need ourselves. It was anxiety (or fear, as I see it) resulting from childhood trauma that led me to a serious practice of yoga when I was in my thirties. I have a deep and personal appreciation of the role of fear and the resulting damage to our well-being.

Somehow, recently, with moving to Arizona for the winter and numerous other stressors, I neglected my routine yoga practice. Focusing and cardio workouts were also set aside. I’m on a journey to discover my biggest Self and to take charge of my own life. That often means taking on stressors I would not otherwise encounter.

My message to myself? If I’m going to go on this journey of independence and taking charge of my own life, I need to take stress reduction very seriously.

Just today I was listening to a podcast of Elizabeth Gilbert about women who never got the message that their lives belong to them. She spoke of the importance of honouring your own life. If you refuse to answer the call to do what you need to do, she says, you atrophy. I like to think of myself on a hero’s journey with the classical unfolding of events: the challenge, the fear of accepting the challenge, the setting out on the journey, meeting countless challenges and – I hope – finally emerging as the individual I am meant to be.

Maybe, I tell myself, I’m taking this whole journey idea too seriously. Then a scene from my childhood comes to mind. I recall how, when I was in public school, I used to race home at lunchtime to listen to the soap opera Helen Trent. The very serious music would come on and the announcer would say: “Helen Trent is a woman who will not let life pass her by because she is over forty,” to which my mother would sigh, “Oh dear. If only Helen would let some life pass her by, she’d be much happier.” Maybe she was right.

What do you think?

Far Away From Home

DSCF5595It started out like any other morning. I got out of bed, pulled on my dressing gown and settled in for morning meditation. Then, as always, I had a breakfast of fruit, yoghurt and a bit of cereal.

The day before when I was sight-seeing, I’d been deeply touched by a trip to a mission church on an Indian reserve here in the Arizona desert. The church rises up, white and ornately carved, a surprising contrast to the beige surroundings of the desert. One of the features that impressed me was that the original parishioners went in search of Jesuit Father Kino who was respectful of their religion and synthesized the two spiritual traditions.

The pamphlets about Mission San Xavier were beside me that morning. I picked them up to read and found that the site had been in continuous use as a parish church since 1692. Of course in those early days it was a simpler structure. Subsequent generations had improved on the building until, today, it stands as the finest example of Mexican Baroque in the United States, so says the pamphlet. Interestingly, it has remained as a working parish throughout the years. Its parishioners are still the local First Nations People.

DSCF5521I was fascinated watching the recent renovations of the original egg tempera paintings high up around the alter. A woman who worked on the Sistine Chapel heads the painstaking restoration, carefully removing the shellac a former restorer thought would preserve the paintings. In fact, the shellac darkened them.

But I’m getting carried away and forgetting to tell you what made this a remarkable morning. An hour or so later, having put down the church’s story to eat and then clean up the kitchen, I returned to read more about San Xavier. This is the scary part. I could see the letters, but I couldn’t make sense of them. They simply didn’t compute.

Terrified, I dialled a friend to take me to the emergency department at the hospital. He came and got me. We went to the local hospital where they did all the modern technical things; brain scans, heart monitoring and chest e-rays. They found nothing wrong, except that my normally healthy blood pressure was out of sight. They wanted me to see a neurologist, but this hospital didn’t have one. They’d take me by ambulance (for $1,000 plus) to nearby Tuscon’s larger teaching hospital. Here I remained for three days with every conceivable test on my brain and my heart. Still, there was nothing evident except high blood pressure. At last they sent me home with a prescription to lower my blood pressure.

Of course I had bought travel health insurance before leaving home. It cost me over $4,000. I felt sure I was covered, regardless of any catastrophe. The trouble is, there was a three day gap between one insurance company and the next. And when did I go to hospital, ride in an ambulance and spend three days in bed in the Tucson hospital? You guessed it: I lacked coverage on the very days I was hospitalized. I am now faced with a huge bill.

Maybe you’ve had the experience of your usually reliable body giving out far away from home. If so, you realize how frightening it is when familiar faces are not surrounding you.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? I’m sure I’m not the only one to have fallen ill in a strange country.

Photos from

Amazing Arizona

IMG_2353I’ve been here in Arizona for a few weeks, and I’m still baffled by highway signs saying,“Do not enter when flooded.” Flooded! This is the desert and everything is crackling with dryness. The signs usually appear before a steep dip in the road.

Then there are countless dried-up river beds. A block long bridge carries me over The Santa Cruz River. Below, a wide and absolutely dry bed lies where there must have been fast flowing water. Today, all I see is a sand bottom etched with wavy lines. It’s been dry long enough to grow grasses and bushes.

In my own neighbourhood, deep river beds run under bridges and sand bottoms ripple in gorges where there’s no water. It’s hard to imagine the drama and excitement of fierce floods coursing through this dry land. I’m told it actually happens in the Spring, during the Monsoon.

IMG_2356Cactus is everywhere and comes in a number of species. I’ve learned to respect these succulent plants. When I got too close to a banana yucca, I’d swear it deliberately reached out and stabbed me in the shin with its sharp, dry pointed blade. Ouch! Weeks later, the resulting infection still itches reminding me that the desert is a wondrous – and potentially dangerous landscape. As proof that I’m not the only human to imagine a deliberate attack on my person, I came across a cactus labelled Shindagger Cactus.

As I learn more about the cactus family, I find that many of these plants propagate by “jumping” at passing animals, human and non-human. The Chainfruit or Jumping Cholla is an example. It’s a tree. Its branches bear short joints that break off easily.

As you pass by a cholla, spines catch onto your pant leg or shirt. You feel a tug and look down just as the joint breaks off from the plant, and the recoil from the stretched cloth snaps the joint into your flesh. The experience is memorable. (Getco Guide’s “Cacti of Arizona.”)

IMG_2352The giant of the cactus family is the Saguaro. Typically, the Saguaro is 20 to 40 feet tall. It’s the one you see in cartoons with branches growing parallel to the main trunk. It’s eight to ten feet high. These giants are common in my neighbourhood, along with tall palm trees.

Organ Pipe cacti is another tall species. It grows six to eight feet tall and has many branches growing right out of the ground. I usually see it in the company of the Barrel Cacti. Both of these are favourites on my neighbourhood’s gravel covered lawns. (no grass here in this dry state.) The barrel cactus grows 2 to 4 feet high. A ring of bright flowers surround its top. Most of the flowers I see are bright orange, red or yellow.

IMG_2369Maybe Arizona’s hills don’t belong in a discussion of cacti, but they do fit into my “strange and unusual”category. The Santa Rita mountains lie to the east of my house. Numerous ranges surround the Tucson area. These ranges are old. Their peaks are jagged and for the most part they are bare of trees.

Then there are the other “mountains.” These are tan coloured, flat on top and ridged, both vertically and horizontally. Some have spotty green growth. You can imagine my surprise when I was told that these beige hills are piles of tailings dumped there from the nearby copper mines.

IMG_2355How long will I wander about, curious and amazed? I know from experience that even the most remarkable scenery finally becomes just part of everyday life. I’m here for five months. By the end of this time, will I take for granted these amazing cacti and the warm sunny weather? Time will tell. I hope not.

A Different Sort of Trip

IMG_1209It was near the end of October. For health reasons, I needed to escape our Canadian winter. Still smarting from September’s solo trip to Sedona and the Grand Canyon, I was careful to take into account that the trip I was planning was for an almost 80-year-old body and brain. Loneliness had stalked me on the first trip and, although I felt proud of myself for booking hotels, renting a car and successfully finding my destinations, that trip left me exhausted. I was still recovering from the realization that my body and brain weren’t what they used to be. This trip needed to be different.

For starters, I would not travel alone. I was going to spend the winter in Green Valley, Arizona, 2,243 miles southwest of Toronto. My friend Barb agreed to share the journey with me. We would take turns driving and I would pay our expenses and fly her back home. Sammy the poodle would come with us in the car. At the end of winter, Barb would fly back to Tucson and we’d reverse the journey through the diverse landscape of the USA.


My friends know I lack a sense of direction. Somehow the points of the compass never got installed when the right hemisphere of my brain was forming. Barb assured me she really liked maps and planning trips. She also likes driving and road trips. We sounded like a good match: which brings me to my first piece of advice. If you’re going travelling, choose a companion whose strong points dovetail with your own deficits.

I drove to her house in Toronto from my home in Kingston and the next morning we set out on our adventure. I’d joined The Snowbirds’ Association, a move I highly recommend. Why reinvent the wheel? This association has tips for every aspect of staying out of the country for extended periods. Thanks to their advice, I was well prepared for the border crossing at Sarnia. I had a whole folder of proof I was renting a house for five months and that my dog was safe to enter their country. (U.S. customs want to make sure you don’t plan to stay in their country without paying taxes.) I rolled down the window at Customs and was met by the brown eyes and warm smile of a friendly young official. I handed him our passports. He glanced at them and maybe swiped them under a scanner. He was more interested in chatting and wishing us a great trip. I don’t think he even noticed Sammy in the back of the car.

We drove on and ended our first day near Chicago. Barb had already made the reservation. This was when we found that Best Western hotels welcome dogs for an extra twenty dollars. Sammy the Poodle was in for an extended experience in hotel living.

IMG_1209From the flat lands of Illinois to the mountains, hills and forests of Missouri and Oklahoma, we drove by endless cotton fields in Texas, then southwest through New Mexico until we finally entered Arizona. We arrived in Green Valley exactly on the eve of our November first rental.

The trip was five days and covered 2,243 miles. That means we drove 7 hours or 449 miles per day. We didn’t push it. Mornings were spent planning our route and making hotel reservations for the coming night. Midday we took time for a leisurely meal and found the local dog park for Sammy. Evenings were spent in the hotel room while we snacked on the supplies we carried with us.


I won’t claim we weren’t tired at the end of the trip, but we enjoyed ourselves and my anxiety level was manageable.

It’s been a while since I’ve written. In my next post, I’ll tell you about life in Arizona.

How Embarassing!

highwayI’ve written on my website about my solo trip to Sedona and The Grand Canyon and I’ve told you about the amazing highs and lows of travelling alone. Now I’m ready to confess a really embarrassing situation that happened near the end of my time in Arizona.

I was making the return trip from Sedona to the Phoenix area where I’d booked a hotel in a town called Surprise. Starting out at ten in the morning, I knew I had a long drive ahead, but having spent the week with Sedona’s sculpted red mountains and mysterious vortexes, I was feeling strong and confident.

Picture the scene: endless switchbacks and hairpin turns up and down mountains, hour after hour of going around and around. Other-worldly scenery that you don’t dare look at for too long where nature has layered the physical world’s history in sedimentary layers, each distinguishable from the others. The geological story of the world towers to the sky in the red rock that is native to this part of our world.

I don’t know why I didn’t pull off or stop somewhere. I knew I was getting bug-eyed as I approached the Phoenix area. Now the land flattened out. Ahead was my hotel and the successful completion of this adventure.

I saw a sign for Surprise. Yeah, I was almost at the end. Then I noticed another lane that seemed to get off the main highway and likely headed for surprise. In my foggy state I decided to take it.

Oh, oh! Too late. It turned out to be one-way the wrong way. Immediately I heard a siren. The flashing lights of a police car faced me.

I got out of the car fast. The officer looked nervous. I wanted him to see that I was just a little old woman: harmless: no gun in this land of guns. Just a nice Canadian who got confused.

I could see him checking the California license plates of my rental car.

“I’m Canadian,” I assured him. “I’m just so shocked at what I did. I can’t believe I drove the wrong way on a one-way road. I guess I’ve been driving too long and got over-tired,” etc. etc.

He was beginning to relax. It seemed like hours but finally he called the fire department. Why the fire department? He wouldn’t allow me to get back behind the wheel and needed help. A fire truck with a crew of three arrived. One fireman was assigned to drive my car to my hotel where the rental company would pick it up. (No keys for me.) Then the policeman drove me to my hotel where we met the fireman. These two nice young men carried my belongings to my second-floor room since the elevator was out of service.

I thanked them profusely. They were so kind.

The policeman turned to me and said, “Well, if that happened to my grandmother, I’d want someone to take good care of her.”

“Your grandmother!” I was about to protest. Then I thought better of it. Leave well enough alone, Mary. You’re really lucky you met this policeman and not some mean guy.