leaves

Lately I’ve been on a ‘getting rid of stuff’ kick. I’ve given away several bags of clothes, donated books to the library, shredded mounds of semi-private information and bank statements, cut up clothes I should have already been using for rags, and just thrown some stuff away. One thing I recently gave away was a book called, Zen and the Art of Diabetes Management. Turns out, maybe I should have read it.

I don’t know if my shedding belongings is connected to my deeper desire to shed emotional and mental refuse, i.e. the crunchy, brown leaves of thought and preoccupation that long to fly free from the branches of my mind, but it’s possible. A note on this – I was recently out for a walk, when I came around the corner and stumbled upon a pile of leaves so high and long that I was immediately enraged at: leaf blower machines (they require so much gasoline), the thought that a homeowner would be so careless as to jeopardize the safety of all who walked and drove on the road (half of the street, on a curve, was piled six-feet high with leaves), and the fact that we thwart the natural process of composting and earth replenishment by bagging and throwing away leaves. I find it bizarre. Then I walked past the great wall of leaves, turned, and looked up at the nearly denuded oak tree whose branches twisted and furled in every direction. The pile was mostly oak. This one tree had blanketed the yard, filled the road, and was left standing above what it had discarded from the previous year. I smiled at its abilities. The wind blew and I walked on.

What a diversion, you say, from the original point of this post. But I’m getting back to it.

So, I’ve been going, very irregularly, to a Zen center for meditation with others. I find these accountability buddies help me very much. I don’t have to hold all that silence alone. And this past week there was a lecture, which I didn’t know about, but felt compelled to stay for (because I had meditated for 30 minutes and was actually calm enough to consider staying for an unexpected lecture). The teacher, a woman who exudes peace and goodwill, talked about an experience she had near the Zen-dō, seeing a plastic bag on the ground and experiencing anger, only to ask herself, “is it trash, or is it my mind?”

Her question brought me back to the tree and its pile of leaves. Here I was, painfully debating over whether to keep each t-shirt, each novel that I’d read or never wanted to read, and more than all that, deciding what I wanted to mentally let go of, and here was this tree, who had just let it all go. And I just expected it to, not even marveling at its abilities to grow and grow and grow, and then courageously release the product of its work. All this stuff, these thoughts, the richness of past experiences, they become our soil. We have them, we grow, and then the we move on. Needing and desiring to let them go does not mean that they weren’t good or that they are wasted – it’s just natural. It’s time, I thought, to take the mind out of it, stop deciding, and just to feel what is dry, crunchy, no longer producing fresh growth and let it fall to the ground, where it can be good again.

Back to Zen and the Art of Diabetes Management. I had read some of it – a good book – about managing diabetes with an attitude of peace. But currently, I’m trying to figure out how to manage feeling at peace while maintaining diabetes in mind. Remember the name of the blog, Adventurous Living with Diabetes in Mind? That is totally possible, but it sort of defeats the purpose of meditation if diabetes is in mind…doesn’t it? I thought that the point of meditation was to clear the mind of all thoughts…so nothing should be in there. Especially nothing as seemingly mundane as, ‘what’s my blood sugar?’

Sometimes it feels like my whole life is a pancreas meditation – instead of trying to get down to the truth of who I am in a sitting session, I’m trying to get down to the truth of my pancreas, ‘what are you doing buddy?!?’ And – ‘how am I doing?’ I had felt low about 30 minutes before I had to leave the house to drive to the Zen-dō, so I ate a few extra slices of apple. I checked about 10 minutes before I had to leave and I was 99 mg/dl, meaning I was fine to drive (I don’t drive when low, i.e. <80 mg/dl). Because the meditation was longer than usual, and I unaware of this fact until in the middle of it, my thoughts started to creep to what my blood sugar might have crept up to. Usually I take a walk in the morning after breakfast – I factor this movement into my insulin dose knowing it will bring my blood sugar down immediately. I hadn’t walked, but of course I’d limited my carbs at breakfast, but it had been a long time since I’d last taken insulin and I knew those last couple slices of apple wouldn’t have been reflected in my pre-driving number because it takes about 20 minutes for any change from what I’ve eaten to show up on my meter so…

Is it blood sugar, or is it my mind?!

We’re all up against a lot of obsessive thought. And here’s the thing, mine and everyone else’s matters and, often, makes sense. So I sat there during the Zen lecture listening but also wondering what my blood sugar was and how I would ever stop wondering about it long enough to be fully present. So I decided to feel. I started with my breath, how did it feel in my body, and then my heart, moving outwards towards my toes and fingertips. I felt good. I stopped feeling like a mind-pancreas in a body and began to feel like a whole being. I thought of blood sugar again. I went back to thinking about breath.

I got back to my car with my meter (where my mind had been part of the time) and checked my blood sugar, it was 139 mg/dl – hardly a number to worry about. I thought back to the teacher’s story, about becoming angry when she saw a plastic bag that someone had carelessly tossed on the ground, and then realizing she could simply pick it up, and put it in the trash (*yes trash, not recycling, because plastic bags clog the recycling machines so should only be recycled at grocery stores, where they have those designated plastic bag receptacles). When she realized she could take action, throwing the bag away, she felt a sense of peace and moved on about her work, she told us. I think I had this option too with my blood sugar. Diabetes takes a lot of action (and that action is required for health and in fact, survival). Something I’d like to work on in meditation is relegating the heavy thought to moments when action is needed. I knew I was safe in the Zen-dō, diabetically speaking. I could feel that I wasn’t too low or dangerously high, and I made the choice to stay. I could have left and dealt with my blood sugar, satisfied that piece of me that has to know, but I didn’t. And the koan for me, and everyone in the room, was to be fully there, blood sugar and all.

I don’t know. The end to this blog post is – I really don’t know. I’m in no way trying to minimize the necessity of thinking about blood sugar for a person with diabetes, but I’m thinking about ways to move towards fuller presence – unified body and mind – without layers of judgement, in regards to diabetes management. I’m taking recommendations, asking for them really. Maybe I should have kept the book, or maybe I just need to revisit the tree.

Walking through Innsbruck

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. – Freya Stark

I stayed in a small Air BnB across an azure blue river that ran straight through the middle of Innsbruck. I walked there for the first time from the train station – my gracious host offered to pick me up, but I screwed up military time in a text message and told him I was coming 2 hours after my actual arrival. He gave me directions and I looked them up using the train station’s wifi (which was the only way I could use my phone) and headed on my way.

Google Maps estimated a 25 minute walk. I arrived an hour and a half later. Although I was toting my backpack stuffed to the brim, a rolling suitcase, and finally my purse, flung around my shoulders, I wasn’t slowed down too much by my baggage. I just simply couldn’t stop spinning around in circles to take in the shining spirit of the city. Here’s my walk in pictures:

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I strolled across the street to a pedestrian only plaza where shoppers and diners milled and mingled.

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…before finding this strange alley of murals. That closest one is a kiwi on a chicken bone. Perhaps a show of peace among vegans and carnivores (although I’m doubtful).

img_0402.jpg I didn’t stay at this hotel; I just took this picture to prove I was really in Innsbruck.

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I walked across the bridge towards my new abode in the wake of mountains all around.

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Et voila, practically home. The huge wooden door was tucked behind a swath of climbing red ivy between two classically Austrian buildings.

Everyone was walking or biking up and down the steep hills. In many places there were wide pedestrian sidewalks next to double-lane bike paths, bordered by a line of trees and flowers, before finally meeting the edge of a quietly buzzing road on which the motorists dutifully slowed on yellow and stopped on red.

It took me awhile (I mean like two weeks after I returned) to realize why I felt (at least in part) such a sense of peace in Innsbruck. It could have been the mountains all around or the fact that I was at a conference where everyone was thinking and talking obsessively about diabetes (just like me!), but another huge part of it was the pervasive walkability of the city. Pervasive because it was unavoidable – you couldn’t get where you needed to go without walking. It didn’t just feel safe to walk alongside the cars, but in many places there were no cars at all. The restaurant I ate at twice – Osterreich – which I actually thought had something to do with an Ostrich, before I realized how painfully complacent my brain was acting – was only accessible via foot. And, what’s more, the whole time you sat, enjoying grilled chicken or roasted sausages, fluffy piles of freshly grated horseradish, or mounds of sauerkraut, you could watch, not cars whizzing by, but a live feed of humans doing human things.

IMG_0475.jpgFor example, this brass band bedecked in green, who lined up to play in the heart of the city.

Walking is one of my favorite things. But also, walking is one of my favorite things about traveling. I’m grateful to have a car, but I don’t like cars. I like moving more slowly through life and having the chance, if I so choose, to reach out and touch it. And diabetes loves a walk. People talk about the benefits of exercise for diabetes management, as if exercise was some strange set of unnatural activities that the body must be guided through. I’ll admit, I go for a run every now and then, and it does bring my blood sugar down, but for me, there’s nothing like walking to bring my body into balance. Adam Brown, a writer often featured on diaTribe, explains the blood sugar benefits of walking beautifully here. When my bg is high, instead of dropping rapidly like I do while running, I glide towards a more reasonably blood sugar. Instead of tiring me out, a long walk makes me ready for another walk, or a night of dancing (lucky for me too, because of all the specialists, pediatric endocrinologists are the best dancers).

My last day in Innsbruck, after cramming my head full of presentations and standing up to do a couple myself, I took myself on a mind-clearing walk. My host had told me there was a tram to the top of the mountain, so I headed up the hill towards the peak. Shockingly, I did eventually find the tram, but then decided that my budget preferred continuing to walk. Oh also, that’s another thing, walking is cheap!

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Not to mention beautiful.

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Gazing out over Innsbruck, I felt overwhelmingly grateful for my experience and for all the people who helped me get there. Although I enjoy the feeling of solo exploration, traveling, more than anything else I think, makes our interconnectedness blazingly obvious. I was guided by countless mentors and passed from hand to hand of old and new friends on this journey. Thanks to each and every one.