Give Me Opiates Or…by Miriam Sagan

I take an opiate every day. Am I an addict? Could be. Do I care? Not at all.

Let me backtrack. I’ve been in chronic pain for over forty years, since surgery that saved my life but failed to save both my lungs or the right side of my body. A good physician told me that after years of pain, it gets harder to handle. The mind/brain can’t manage it as well. I also think the accrued years—plus the natural process of aging—makes endurance more difficult.

I take tramadol. Before Reagan’s war on drugs, it was classified as an analgesic. Now, a class four drug. The drug hasn’t changed, though, just its legal status. I also take ibuprofen.

Ok, you New Agers. I get rolphed, do PT, exercise for 90 minutes every day, and take hot baths with salt. I meditate, I do progressive relaxation. You know what else? I complain, sometimes I sob, I gimp around. I limp, I nag my husband to massage me, and I curse.

And I hike. A glorious walk around the beaver ponds on Upper Canyon—a pleasant stroll for my friend, Mt. Everest for me, but so worth it.

And I collapse. I sleep much more than most people. My bed is my friend. Sleep resets my pain clock. I can start again.

The war on drugs brought us the current prison population, and untold suffering for minor crimes. It brought us the illegal market that now trades in opiates. It brought us narco-terrorism. A failure by all my counts. Not unlike Prohibition.

I would never underestimate the suffering of addiction. I’ve known junkies and I’ve been to 12-step meetings. I was a drug and suicide hotline counselor. Although frankly the substance that I’ve seen cause the most destruction is alcohol.

Here is what doesn’t help me. Muscle relaxants. Homeopathy. Acupuncture. I’m open to experimentation, and no doubt always will be. Right now I’m trying osteopathy, which I like.

It’s muscular skeletal pain. Which tramadol is designed for. Tramadol has made the last five years far pleasanter. I’ve had a full time job for part of that. I can sit through an opera. I’ve driven cross country. These things are less possible—even impossible—without it.

Without at least ibuprofen, I don’t think my life would mean much to me. I live in a state where physician assisted suicide is illegal. And yet I know I’m not the only person in pain who thinks of this from time to time. I live in a state where tramadol is a controlled substance requiring frequent prescription renewals and drug testing. The only silver lining is that this regime keeps me in touch with my internist.

Because let’s admit it—I have a doctor I trust. She’ll give me an honest answer if I ask if the tramadol is dangerous, or of the PT is doing any good. Ongoing medical care is the difference between lonely addiction and an actual approach.

I’m no authority on addiction. But I do know that many of us are addicted to various substances—including caffeine (which isn’t that easy to kick—as I know—having detoxed several times). Coffee and tramadol help me get through a day that includes political activism, creativity, friends, family, and just the housekeeping of life.

I don’t like Big Pharma, but I find the attack on it hypocritical. Unless you are living a monk’s life or off the grid, you are consuming in a corrupt capitalist culture. I don’t drink water that comes in plastic and I try to wear Fair Trade clothes, but I have a host of imperfect habits. Let’s just say I’m not giving up my anti-inflammatories for political correctness.

For a long time my personal goal was to be able to cook dinner after a 4-5 hour work day. If that isn’t your reality, I don’t feel you are in a position to judge or regulate me. Or make it less possible for me to live.

As I Live and Breathe by Miriam Sagan

As I Live and Breathe

I spent much of my twenties scorning the mundane. I’d had a near death experience and after that, people seemed so…superficial. I reserved special scorn for those who wasted precious moments blow drying their hair. I was not exactly the poster child for living in the moment, though. I moped, napped, lay around, and had boyfriends. A Buddhist teacher might have diagnosed that I was “stuck in the unconditioned.” Or existential despair.

This morning I brushed my hair (having warmed it by the wall heater) in the mirror and realized: people blow dry their hair because it makes them feel like themselves. It makes them feel like humans. I felt flush with love & acceptance. Maybe it was the Chaka Khan blaring: will you love me, will you comfort me, will you come to my rescue.

I can’t believe it took me until I was 60 to truly discover her. And I’ve loved Soul Music most of my life—more than my own mother and father, probably more than God.

But I have not lived in vain. Yesterday I was in a FB group on fiber arts where the chat had turned to bra underwire. I posted about how to pull that wire out. I wrote that I was 63 1/2 and hadn’t worn underwire since I was in high school. Someone else wrote that she was 63 3/4 years old and had just pulled out the underwire. Underwire is bad. I once read it gave you lumps (untrue) but it sure is uncomfy.

Will you love me, will you comfort me, will you come to my rescue? I sing as I make oatmeal. Sure, says my husband Rich, as he heads out the door on this overcast November day.

Can We Survive on One Car? By Miriam Sagan

What’s this episode of our life going to be called, I asked my husband Rich. Survivor Island? Lord of the Flies?

We weren’t trying to survive in the wilderness. No, we were trying to live with one instead of two cars.

I’ve always felt it was important for me to have at least some barriers between myself and consumer culture. Not even so much to help the earth as to save my sanity. I hate being overstimulated, and in clutter. I don’t have a strict policy about what I won’t participate in. For example, years of no television gave way to the demon spawn of Netflix (which I love). But if something is added, something needs to go. Right now I have only a vaguely functional cellphone. But the household is considering a shared smart phone for traveling.

So, time for an offset. And the beloved aged Toyota Corolla was costing a lot in repairs. And didn’t feel trustworthy for a trip. And a friend of a friend loved it and wanted to buy it.

So we are down to one car. Sharing a vehicle in New Mexico can be seen as just one more chapter in the rope course or trust game called matrimony.

But Rich doesn’t see it that way. He sees it as a return to roots. Born and bred in Chicago, his family depended on public transportation and only got a car as he approached middle school. It’s also a return to another set of roots—Twin Oaks commune where Rich worked a stint as the vehicle scheduler. (Which was not a job without stress and conflict).

Hence, large sign up sheets have appeared by the calendar. I get to sign out the car as needed. Right now, it is easy as Rich is walking to work and doesn’t need the car most week days. But the part of the year when he isn’t working full time may present more of a challenge.

However, the advantages are obvious. Our lifestyle is less wasteful, and less expensive (although we’ve factored in the occasional inevitable need to rent a car). Less maintenance. The increased simplicity makes me happy. And I get to park in the driveway!

When I Took Bodhisattva Vows I Did Not Promise To Look At The Bright Side by Miriam Sagan

When I Took Bodhisattva Vows I Did Not Promise To Look At The Bright Side

Organized religion has always exerted a push/pull on me. My father was a rabid and bossy atheist who forbid his children any religious or spiritual experience or expression. When I ran off to San Francisco I soon found myself at SF Zen Center, and then married to a Soto lineage monk. In my thirties I studied Judaism with a Hassidic woman teacher, learned a bit of Hebrew, and immersed in a mikvah. Then back to Buddhism—koans with the remarkable Joan Sutherland-roshi. And now, voila, an interfaith Beit Midrash torah study group led by a thoughtful rabbi.
I’m a lightweight ping-ponger by most standards…at best a seeker …at worst shallow. I even like my friends’ religions and find myself from time to time at the Christian Science Mother Church, singing along at Christ in the Desert, or deep in a discussion about Ramazan.
But I also can’t deny that certain experiences have been central, and compelling. I took Boddhisatva vows daily at SF Zen Center, at my first wedding ceremony (the second time I got married it was by ketuba!), and I still chant them as needed, even when I’m driving.

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them
The dharma gate is boundless, I vow to enter it
The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it

…or, variations…I vow to let them save me, The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable/I vow to become it…

In any case, those vows cannot be undone, nor would I wish to. I cannot be a person who never took these vows, in the same way I cannot be an “ex” Jew. Of course, I—or you—could spend a lifetime working with these vows. How does each bit function? What does that mean about today’s mundane tasks? Does this mean I shouldn’t be a drug pusher, or arms manufacturer (traditional Buddhist bans). Can a classroom teacher save all beings? And so on.

Here’s the thing, though. These vows are a promise to live consciously in ambiguity. To get a hold of my reactions, to not overstate the positive or the negative. It even has a name—The Middle Way. And the moderate ancient Greek philosophers would approve.

Which leads me to social media (#drinkthe hemlock?). Sometimes when I blog or post something that has some vulnerability for me, I wish I hadn’t. Because I need encouragement to stay in the middle. Whatever our current problem is, I don’t want to eat lotuses and say life is so delightful I can just ignore it, nor do I want to flip out and declare it the worst thing ever.

And, despite my vows, I’m just not that good at this. But since I knew the vows were impossible, I continue to take them.

Las Vegas and Me by Devon Miller-Duggan

Las Vegas & Me

I think of myself as a relative badass. For a 63-year-old white bourgeois church-going grandmother with artificial knees, and a bunch of conditions that need medicating, anyway.

This week damn-near did me in. This kind of thing tends to. For a (relative) badass, I’ll admit freely that I have pretty thin skin. I’m okay with that. We (Americans/humans) like to act sometimes as though we’re supposed to not be battered by what goes on—the “Keep Calm and Carry On” thing. It’s useful to remember that that poster (now endlessly played-with meme) was never actually used in Britain during WWII. I don’t know why, but I’d like to think that someone in the propaganda office noticed that it was bloody callous.

Here’s what I did. It’s not the more general sort of Really Wise and Useful list Miriam published earlier in the week. It’s mine:

I teach two Intro to Poetry Writing classes and one Advanced this semester. I spent half of each class reading them poems about 9/11, gun violence (I found out that the website of the Academy of American poets, which lets you search by theme has a listing for “gun violence), and grief. Then I had them write for the rest of the period, using the line from Donne “Rest of their bones and soul’s delivery” as the starter/prompt. I wrote with them. I don’t know whether those 4 pages will ever get shared—I haven’t been able to look at them yet. I didn’t ask my students to share what they wrote.
One student put her hand up and said she thought I should be reading poems about change instead of poems about grief. I will admit that I said I didn’t think there would be meaningful change until the 2nd Amendment is repealed, and that I thought we might want to give the dead and the grieving at least 24 hours of grief before we moved on. God only knows what she’ll write on my evaluation at the end of the semester (she’s already, 1/3 into the semester made it clear that I irritate her). Several emailed to thank me. Other professors canceled classes (the minority) or carried on without acknowledging what had happened (the overwhelming majority, which is fine—other courses don’t have the flexibility that mine have). One student came to class not knowing what had happened, so I ended up telling her. She offered me a hug after class (yeah, I know I’m not supposed to hug them, or them me, but human…). I took it. I hugged her back.

I made 8 purple crocheted infant hats for a project to cut back on shaken baby syndrome in Oklahoma and packed them up to send, along with the 4 I already had.

I wrote a poem. Not about Las Vegas, but about the violent world.

I worried about the First Responders in Las Vegas, who are, inevitably, also wounded.

I bought The Rough Guide to Austria and a new packable coat because the husband and I are meeting my thesis director there in January.

I spent time with my grandchildren. I bought some Christmas presents for them, and made plans for a couple of things I’ll make for their stockings.

I gave more $ to Episcopal Relief & Development. They have a very high rating on Charity Navigator and are on the ground in disaster areas pretty fast. Also, I’m an Episcopalian and I like the fact that we don’t use disaster relief as a chance to evangelize.

I declined to give any $ to the Red Cross when I picked up a prescription for my mother at Walgreens. The pharmacy assistant and I agreed that the Red Cross is not very efficient or effective.

I made a cross out of computer components. I make crosses out of all sorts of weird stuff—mostly discarded jewelry—and they’re sold at a variety of venues where the profits go to support things I believe in—the Arts or helping other humans.

I made sure that my students knew that this was not the worst mass shooting in American history. It was just the worst mass shooting of white people. This does not lessen the horror, or the ferocity of my beliefs about the 2nd Amendment, but truth and context are the very least we owe the students who pass through our classes.

I finished Ta Nehisi Coates’s brilliant article in the last issue Atlantic.

I cried through Lin Manuel Miranda’s new song about Puerto Rico, “Almost Like Prayer.” Then I watched it again.

I took really good chocolate to my department meeting and handed it out to my colleagues, then I crocheted a purple baby hat during the meeting, as is my wont. I worried for a moment about becoming the dept. granny and not being taken seriously, then decided that I’m too old to give a fat fart and that I will take chocolate to all department meetings from now on, because life in public universities is a little weird these days, even if Delaware isn’t anywhere near as mucked up as Wisconsin. And my chair is a peach whose strategic genius is being pushed to the limits these days.

I guess I prayed a lot, if you count yelling at God as praying.

I spent much of Saturday submitting poems to journals. I also let my 4-year-old grand-daughter help me change the batteries in a musical toy for the baby. Somehow, this was one of the best spots of the week.

For various reasons, I have a mildly irritating week coming up. I am solidly grumpy about this, especially since it will require that I behave well and represent my department and my brain well with a visiting big-gun. Who knows, he may turn out to be a lovely human, but at the moment, I’m just fretting about not making an ass of myself. #introvertproblems

I had several nightmares, but not about Las Vegas.

I got through the week. I’m still crying. I’ll get through next week, too. Because that’s what we do, isn’t it? I won’t keep calm. I will carry on. I will love the world in spite of its brokennesses.

When Disaster Strikes

When Disaster Strikes

1.It is most likely not your fault. Only God can stop a hurricane or an armed gunman in a tower. You are not God. (Sorry, but it’s true).

2. Life is incomprehensible. We have no real idea why random seeming things happen. You can make up any theory you want. But it may very well not be accurate.

(And to parents everywhere, I speak from experience—Your children will survive the information contained in part 1 and part 2.)

3. Fun does not vanish. Suffering is not a monolithic whole. It has gaps—big and small. We weren’t having a nice time suddenly interrupted by bad news. Or viva versa. Feel free to fall in love or enjoy that homemade soup.

4. Suffering is not—somewhere out there. It’s intimate. We’re all suffering. Why? See various world religions for various explanations. Or Marxism, or Existentialism or Stoicism—all quite useful. Or shrug and say—c’est la vie.

5. Moral action is an imperative for you as a person, not based on outcome. Do whatever you feel is correct. We have no real way of knowing what makes a difference, except that we know that apathy is disempowering.

6. Figure out your values BEFORE disaster strikes. And figure out you action plan from a place of quiet. Next time you are listening to a choir sing or looking at autumn leaves, go within and see who you are, right now. How will that person act for the good?

7. Some things are caused by human hands—such as building on a flood plane or hating folks different than yourself. If that is the case, incorporate responsibility into your understanding.

8. Right now, many of us are living in a reality that encourages us to flip out. News cycle thrives on it. Oligarchy and patriarchy benefit. You do not. I’m not talking about being falsely calm. Be alert, but relaxed. Yes indeed, grasshopper.

9. Don’t get trapped in your own story. Not only can you change your story, you can actually live freely in consort with what you perceive. At least a few minutes at a time.

10. Don’t bother appealing to the heart or morals of those who have neither. It’s unlikely that fascists of any stripe will suddenly set free their inner rainbow unicorn. Could happen, but I’m not waiting.

11. Call things as you see ‘em. Have a consistent world view. Be prepared to act—not react. Substitute responsibility for blame. This might work at home and work as well as in the larger sphere.

12. And set free that inner rainbow unicorn any time you feel like it.

In Splendid Retirement by Miriam Sagan

“Retirement”—The First 9 Months

When I retired from my creative writing job at Santa Fe Community College last December, I made some firm statements about my plans. Those who know me well, however, will attest that I always sound definite even as I’m changing my mind. I said I would not:

1. Do home repair
2. Improve my fitness
3. Concentrate more on writing

That is, I wash’t retiring to focus on improving myself or anything else. I said I wanted

1. Adventure
2. To learn something
3. To understand death more

And, privately, I told myself to

1. Keep everything that was working
2. Add to that

I also wanted something contemplative, but I couldn’t explain what. I had started to think of myself as needing to be more of a “forest dweller.” In the Hindu approach, there are four life stages:
1. Student (check)
2. Householder (check)
3. Forest Dweller
4. Renunciate.
But what IS forest dweller? Me in my garden? Me and husband Rich in an RV? It needed exploring.

Some unexpected things happened. I’d decided to retire in August, 2016. By the following January, when the time came—

1. Donald Trump was president
2. My mother had died (so no more care taking or commuting)
3. Rich started to work “seasonally”—about half the year, with lots of overtime during that period.

So—what happened?

Well, I did do some home repair. I now have a pretty red concrete pathway and some hardscaping in my front yard. However, no new kitchen cabinets or much of anything else. I have been to one stretch class and 1/2 a zumba class—so I really haven’t improved my fitness. I’m writing per usual—emphasis on usual.
So I count this as—negative—goals met.

As to adventure…I’ve seen the total eclipse of the sun, the love fest of Twin Oaks commune’s fiftieth anniversary, the solitude of two weeks in a campground in Hot Springs, Arkansas National Park, and eaten the Chinese food of Vancouver.
I marched on Washington. I took a non-violence class. I had a rifle lesson. I lobbied at the Roundhouse.
I’m still learning to use a “real” camera, do suminagashi, monoprint, geocache, and install poetry text. And I’ve learned to knit a hat.
I’ve been working in hospice and teaching writing in that context.
And, I’ll be going to Japan.

However, I don’t really feel satisfied. That’s probably just because I never am. Should I be studying more in a formal context? Should some challenges be more physical (old and crippled as I am)? Or maybe I should learn ancient Greek. Should could would maybe…

I took poster board and mapped out everything I was doing. And perhaps more important—everything that feeds me. It says: solitude, community, love, literature, nature and more. It says “Investigation.”

I joined a Torah study group. The combination of prayer, study, and community has been challenging…yet elevating. It’s the Days of Awe. I could meditate more. I could write in my journal more. I could…

Go with the flow and see what happens. Ask each day what it wants from me. A few years ago I had an enjoyable practice: I gave each day a theme. It might be teaching or beauty or fiscal responsibility or fun or friendship.

I love my To Do lists. I found one from my teenage years that listed “tampax” and “Pablo Neruda.” That pretty much summarizes my approach to life. My current list has some mystery items on it. It says Detroit? and Start “Mosaic.” It says Chrysanthemums and Go to Ohio.

I’m on my way…to something or other…