Valentine’s Day: reframing the irritating task in front of me as love in action made my day
Attention to ordered and effective detail comes naturally when I am writing poetry. It’s a matter of scale: a limited number of words and lines on a simple white background. Small enough that my eyes can take in the parts and the whole at the same time.
But what was in front of me this morning was something else. The day began as I chaired an online meeting of an all-volunteer committee. A key agenda item was the need for a leave of absence policy. The issues proved more complex than they originally appeared. We agreed and voted on a general direction. One member – a careful listener with a good memory – agreed to take on the word-smithing after we adjourned. We signed off.
Over the next few hours twenty emails flew back and forth on this thread. Twenty. Including a new voice that was not part of the online discussion but is vital to include. Half a dozen additional considerations raised. Lots of parts. Moving parts.
My irritation rose. I was losing sight of the whole. And losing touch with impeccability: in this instance, our collective intention to craft a policy that would bring clarity, closure where necessary, and serve both the individual volunteers and the work of community-building that is our passion.
This is Valentine’s Day.
What better day for love in action?
Impeccability is not about writing the perfect leave of absence policy that will fit every circumstance like a glove. It’s about patience with the words, the people, the incremental steps, the revisions. It will take more thought, a few more days. A bunch more emails. And we’ll arrive at a policy that is seated in our values and does the job. We’ll nudge the necessary details into place.
The gift – for myself and those on the receiving end of my emails: letting go of the urgency, I relaxed and went on with my day, which also included dark chocolate and red roses.
Come on in. You are welcome to refresh yourself – or sulk, as you wish – in my woodland medicinal garden, nestled under a sky-ward leaping linden tree. My writer’s mind and hand are apparently on spring break,
An inquiry into healing, simplicity, urgency, and shame
Last week I found myself talking with a new group of herbal medicine students about simplicity.
I was sharing with them how I think about certain complex health pictures that clients can present: a mix of chronic infection, auto-immune or other disease with a history of trauma, abuse, or serious injury, a history of addictions or serious mental health challenges like manic-depressive illness. It is not unusual for a client to walk in the door seeking relief from multiple and intricate health challenges.
Each body is a personal history where genetics, behaviors, injuries, abundances and privations of all kinds come to rest. And my first approach to herbal care is often a simple and restorative one.
Not simplistic, but simple. Meaning that there is so much going on in that one body, that calming and nourishing the whole system is where I start. Changes may be noticeable within a week or two on a moderate dose of a small number of herbs that specialize in calming overworked systems, nourishing and toning weak systems, nudging the body towards its innate health. The body settles down, the conditions settle down. Some symptoms tend to be moderately to greatly relieved in frequency, intensity, and the degree to which they impact daily life. Then together we assess the new, slightly more resilient baseline, and continue to rebuild health from there.
It was only later in the week that I made the connection to urgency.
Because all over my life, all over the civic life of our country, urgency was doing what urgency does: putting itself forward, saying: pay attention to me!
And all those various conditions of ill health I spoke about with the herbal students, all the symptoms that accompany each form of dis-ease: all are forms of urgency that point to what Hippocrates viewed as the body’s attempts to repair disturbances of balance.
I am a poet at heart, and I can take a metaphor beyond where I should try. But it seems to me that our nation is that client who is unable to face the truths of our history.
And so we are ever in search of a cure for life-threatening, painful, bothersome, disruptive symptoms (depending on your societal experience). The illness itself remains unassessed and unaddressed.
When an herbal client is unable to be truthful with herself or me about her history, then we may make little progress in restoring health. We may chase down one symptom after another, never able to address the reality of her condition.
Embarrassment and shame are commonly behind this pattern.
In the body of our nation, wounds inflicted and self-inflicted have festered untended since our founding: since we appropriated first the lands of North American indigenous peoples and then appropriated the bodies and labor of African indigenous peoples.
Healing the underlying imbalance in our civic body depends on our capacity to face our national history, where genetics, behaviors, injuries, abundances and privations of all kind have come to rest.
It requires of us an epidemic of simplicity of heart, nuance, skill, courage and kindness to heal the shame that ails us. I can imagine nothing else that will nourish us to health.
From the sick-bed, the herbalist says: I know exactly when the scale tipped for my immune system and lost its preventive edge against this virus. I had already been taking liberal doses of Echinacea, Osha, garlic and honey for three days, ever since my husband had come down with a cold. They usually do the trick. Between my go-to herbs and some slowing down of activity, I was keeping infection at bay.
From the sick-bed, the activist says: But I tipped the scale toward illness. I made a choice: to attend an all-day training on “cultural proficiency awareness,” aka diversity and inclusion. I am passionate on this topic, and there are so few constructive conversations taking place. I want to show up and participate at any opportunity. The day was engaging and revelatory. I cannot recall ever before being asked to consider, for example, how stereotypes can be helpful. Everyone had showed up to really do the work. One woman’s intention deeply touched me: “I want to be the sanctuary.” The meeting room was cold, and I felt ill and sneezy by the time I got home.
Here I am a week later, having bowed out of traveling to DC for my first-ever writers’ conference. And I have no regrets.
I do have two and a half days of completely unscheduled time now to rest and recuperate. And at least another week of choosing with care when and where to engage, cancel, avoid taking on. Time to convalesce, an-almost quaint phenomenon. One more piece of privilege. I’m still going back and forth with myself about whether it is economic or white privilege or both. Convalescence is a luxury for many, among them single parents and breadwinners, anyone worried about job security, even kids worried about keeping up with schoolwork.
From the sick-bed, the healing one says: I feel more grateful than usual for this time, and for
hot teas, miso soup, baked sweet potato, brown rice, veggies with olive oil and garlic
a soft afghan to wrap myself in
a few herbs for my still-boggy sinuses: droppersful of Baptisia and a neti pot with Goldenseal, Echinacea and Propolis
homeopathic Ignatia to soothe my nervous system
From the sick-bed, the awakening one says: And more grateful than usual for every one of you who is out there engaging with as much kindness, consciousness and skill as you can while I bench myself for now. There are other days when some of you will choose to step out for rest, or be felled by a Big Piece of Life, and I’ll be right out there working my fanny off.
We take turns in actively holding up the world. We run and we return. We do what we can when we can. As we fall back or fall down, others get up and get on with it.
Wherever you find yourself in life today,
if you can throw yourself into the thick of things with an open heart, go for it!
If you are low on courage, be extra kind to yourself.
If you need a rest, pull back.
Lean on one another.
Take good care: of yourselves, and with one another.
Sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes? Manage seasonal allergy symptoms with friendly herbs and simple steps.
Reduce your exposure to airborne triggers
Limit your outdoor time or time of day to early morning, late in the day, and after rains, when pollen counts are lower.
Avoid exposures to secondary smoke and chemical irritants.
Use a HEPA filter vacuum.
Change pillowcases nightly.
Get pets off the bed, out of the bedroom.
Wash away irritants
Fill neti pot with warm salt water, use morning and evening.
Add 5 drops each of Goldenseal and Propolis tincture to soothe and restore health to irritated nasal tissue.
Add 5 drops Echinacea tincture to fight infection.
Desensitize your immune response to local allergens
Enjoy a daily teaspoon of local honey!
Reduce “lifestyle load” and manage your stress response
The stress hormone cortisol increases immune production of IgE, a key immune cell in the allergic response: lower your stress response, lower your tendency to allergic hypersensitivity.
Choose foods that improve immune response and avoid foods that make the body reactive
Eat more colorful foods, whole grains, organic when possible for selected foods.
Eat more Omega-3 fatty acids: fish and fish oils, & in nuts & seeds & their oils – flax, walnut, canola oil.
Drink more water and herb tea to keep flushing out your system.
Eat less red meat, white foods.
Drink less alcohol, coffee
Avoid sugar, which depresses immune response.
Herbal help for acute bouts of sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes
Chinese skullcap tincture (Scutellaria baicalensis): 3 droppersful in a little water. You can repeat that every 20 minutes up to one hour, but in my experience, you probably won’t need to!
Herbal supports for extended use through the allergy season
Nettle tea: limits histamine release, reduces production of excess mucus, and helps your lymph system remove wastes and toxins, allergens among them.
Elder flower or berry as a tea or tincture, or the berry as a concentrate mixed with water, limits histamine release and reduces mucous membrane swelling.
Mullein leaf or flower as a tea or tincture helps reduce flow of mucous with sense of heat, soothes irritation to reduce cough. Generally safe for long-term prophylactic use, and short-term symptomatic relief.
Note: Consult a health professional before self-treating with herbs if you are on blood-thinning medication, or multiple prescriptions for medical conditions; pregnant; or anticipating surgery.
I count myself blessed that I was able to wander about in empty fields in my neighborhood as I was growing up – sit among grasses, follow the grasshoppers, collect bouquets of daisies, buttercups, and Queen Anne’s lace for my mom, strip the seeds off the yellow dock into my pail to make “coffee.”
I had forgotten a lot by the time I started my formal herbal studies in my late fifties. On our first field walks, the plants looked indistinguishably green to me. Over time I learned to observe smooth and wavy and notched leaf margins, the arrangement of leaves on stems, the patterns of veins, the colors and sometimes fuzz on the underside of leaves. I smelled and tasted. I started to pay attention to which plants seemed to like to grow near one another – like poison ivy and its antidote jewelweed. This was one adult way of becoming friends with the plants.
Science was another – the complex chemistry of each specie, how to extract and then dose the desired mix of constituents, how different bodies may respond to the same medicine.
Yet always there remains mystery: green plants turn the sun’s energy into food and medicines for us.
Yes, this is called photosynthesis, and there is a chemical equation for it. Still, it is a mystery. The plants’ variety, beauty, colors and countless healing gifts are mysteries. Just like the hearts and gifts of our human friends.
Some of these phytonutrients have affinities for certain kinds of tissues in the body, and can be selected to nourish, soothe, tone and repair those particular tissues. Others interact with hormones, immune cells, and neurotransmitters to foster balanced communication between cells.
It is my deep prayer that we never entirely solve these mysteries nor come to the end of praising them.
A Hymn to the Plants
from the Rig Veda*
Plants, which as receptacles of light were
born three ages before the Gods, I honor
your myriad colors and your seven hundred natures.
A hundred, oh Mothers, are your natures
and a thousand are your growths.
May you of a hundred powers make whole what has been hurt.
Plants, as Mothers, as Goddesses, I address you.
May I gain the energy, the light, the sustenance, your soul,
you who are the human being.
Where the herbs are gathered together like kings in an assembly,
there the doctor is called a sage, who destroys evil, and averts disease.
As they fell from Heaven, the plants said,
“The living soul we pervade, that man will suffer no harm.”
The herbs which are in the kingdom of the Moon,
manifold with a hundred eyes,
I take you as the best of them, for the fulfillment of wishes, as peace to the heart.
The plants which are queens of the Soma,
spread over all the Earth, generated by the Lord of prayer,
may your energy combine within this herb.
*Translated by David Frawley in Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide, 1989
It is a system designed for adaptability, resilience, and self-repair. It is designed for health.
Breathing fast and shallow, brow knitted, nervous system buzzing? Translation:I’m not getting enough oxygen, so how are you going to even think straight? You’ve got me set on overdrive and I can’t switch into recovery mode. Slow down. Take those three items off your to-do list. Take the whole list way less seriously. Take yourself way less seriously. Take a break and walk around the garden. Look, really look at how the flowers are made. How you are made.
Bloating and distended belly? Translation: I’m full. Put the other half of that green drink in the fridge for later. And for Lord’s sake, sit down and relax for a few minutes before you even start – give me a chance to get ready for the food, get some saliva and digestive juices going. When you’re standing at the kitchen sink or riding on the highway, I just can’t even get your digestive system going.
These are two of the messages my body delivered today, and I listened.
Some days I am too busy to listen.
Some days I listen and treat the messages as opinions of absolutely no merit or standing. My will To Do Important Stuff triumphs once again.
Spend too many days in one of those unresponsive modes, and I am headed for trouble: I begin to feel ill, when all my body is trying to do is repair its disturbed balance.
In this respect, I share the view of Hippocrates, the 5th century Greek physician often credited as “the father of western medicine.” He called this faculty the vis medicatrix naturae, usually translated as “the healing power of nature.” Physician and author Victoria Sweet writes in her extraordinary book God’s Hotel that a more accurate translation is “the remedying force of your own nature to be itself, to turn back into itself when it has been wounded.”
When we listen to the body’s speaking, we know when our vitality is strong and when it is depleted.
We can also be frogs in a pot being gradually heated, not noticing until it is too late to jump out of the boiling water: we play down the body’s messages of fatigue, achiness, funky bowel patterns, aches and pains that come and go or move around, fuzzy mind, irritability or lethargy. We hardly notice that patterns are being laid down.
Or, we may be quite aware of changes and seek medical assessment, only to be told that our lab numbers are fine, or handed an Rx for an anti-depressant.
As a vitalist, I would say there are preclinical changes happening that are not optimal – changes for which we do not have lab tests to measure what is going on. What we do have are sensations and observations, clinical evidence the body is trying to restore its balance. We also have stories that help us make sense of all this information: it is very common to have a sense of your health Before and After an accident, an injury, an acute illness, a disruptive life change. All this evidence can be assessed and translated into practical supports, among them herbal supports
As an herbalist in the vitalist tradition, I know there are plant friends from the mildest and food-like to the stronger and therapeutic that can:
aid and enhance our innate body wisdom rather than suppress its messages or burden it with side-effects
nudge our body back towards health
restore our adaptability, enabling us to mobilize a robust response to physical, emotional, and environmental stressors
rebuild our resilience, allowing us to rest, repair, and recover from those stressors
So, listen to your body today.
It is speaking to you, and it speaks the truth.
What is it telling you?
Read more about a restorative approach to health HERE.
Clients often inquire about cleansing at this time of year, and are ready to grit their teeth and power through some program to emerge “renewed” on the other side. But this willingness to push the body for a short period of time in hopes of a big-pay-off is not an ideal approach for many of us, and can have unintended consequences in a cleanse as in life.
Recently a client inquired about a cleanse for liver support, and also observed that a lot of her joint problems showed up following a month-long cleanse she had completed the previous spring. Her program had included a week on strict whole foods only (no meat or dairy), 10 days on water with lemon and cayenne a little maple syrup (The Master Cleanse), 5 days on vegetable juices, another week on strict whole foods. And, during this time, Dr. Shulze’s 5-day colon cleanse.
The timing of onset of her joint pain suggested to me that her liver had trouble keeping up with the tissue detox induced by the lemon/cayenne, veggie juice, and colon cleanses. Debris the body cannot clear tends to collect in joints as dust collects in corners. (Other natural “collection points” that can become stressed are lymph and endocrine glands, the central nervous system, and the heart.)
Any of this sound familiar?
Add to last year’s experience that this spring she is depleted and stressed by long-time multiple and sometimes conflicting demands, with cycle changes signaling the hormonal fluctuations of peri-menopause.
Add to this her constitutional type: small-boned, with a highly responsive nervous system, light and interrupted sleep, highly variable and easily-depleted energy stores, readily affected by cold and wind, a tendency to worry, feel spacey and scattered, and prone to feeling a detox “high.”
A better “cleanse” for a stressed-out mind and body
focuses on nourishment, building up.
A Nourishing Powder (e.g. Shatavari, Ashwagandha, Bacopa, Cinnamon) is a good foundation for such a stressed system, a blend that is calming and restorative to adrenal, mood, sleep, and cognitive functions, and tonic for the reproductive system.
With this nourishing, building support as the base, here are 4-steps for a low-effort light cleanse:
If you know that you feel better when you eliminate certain foods from your diet, and can do so without creating stress or a sense of deprivation, then do that.
Drop a slice of fresh lemon into the water you already drink during the morning.
Whatever bitter green you like, throw a handful into your morning smoothie or prepare as one of your veggies for 4-5 lunches/dinners a week.
Through the early spring, drink a cup a day of a blend of nettle leaf, dandelion root, and celery seed that can be brewed up with your favorite green tea.
A few considerations if you have a different body type, health status, life demands
Are you the last one to put on a coat as the temperature drops, easily get irritated or overheated, can eat anything, have a tendency to heartburn, itchy or inflammatory conditions, recover quickly from illness? Your cleanse best leans towards a routine that you can embrace without irritation, avoiding foods and beverages that provoke more heat, and including those that are cooling and hydrating.
Or do you have a body type that tends toward heaviness and lethargy, as well as stamina, accumulations of fluid? – whether as lots of respiratory mucous or edema in hot weather, and deep sleep with trouble waking in the morning. Your cleanse best leans towards foods and herbs that are warming and somewhat stimulating to get things moving, and incorporates some vigorous exercise.
Regardless of body type, consider the state of health of your body’s primary systems of elimination.
Any of these functions that are symptomatic may need its own particular form of attention both during and after a cleanse: your whole digestive tract, including liver and gallbladder; urinary and respiratory tracts and lymph system. And your secondary systems of elimination: skin, sweat, sebaceous glands and tears; sinuses and reproductive fluids.
If your health is vigorous and stable, you can take on a more challenging or just a longer cleanse.
If you are depleted, managing one or more chronic medical conditions that are easily destabilized, tred lightly, choose nourishing support, and search out professional guidance.
And when you plan your cleanse, also plan for the weeks and months afterthe cleanse
It is all too easy to come off a cleanse feeling just super, energized and light: the clean out worked! – and then stumble over the harder work of cleaning up our act.
So as you plan your cleanse, consider how you want to use the opportunity that such a “reset” gives you – what change or two are you ready to take on that will leave you with less to clean out next spring?
If you are ready to turn your whole life around,
and have the foundational health to do so,
more power to you!
But embrace with kindness whatever modest steps that are within
Winter is the time to turn inward, to slow down, to go fallow.
We know this. And we likely know that our culture of busy-ness makes tuning-in to the winter season’s call challenging, but this isn’t another post to admonish you out of busy-ness.
Just a nudge here-if you haven’t stored up some winter moments, the rising energies of spring may leave you lethargic, fatigued, slow to sprout, and even later to fruit and harvest come summer.
This time around, for me, the problem isn’t too much to do.
The problem is the UN-seasonal weather. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed that it IS winter.
Until well into January, when Baltimore’s winter temperatures finally plummeted, we’d been treated to balmy days, migrating birds and spring-blooming quince.
Without the cold and grey, even shortened days were not enough to draw me often enough to curl up under an afghan with a good book and allow myself to go somewhat dormant.
Sometimes the cues, the markers, the signals change, and we unknowingly fall out of sync.
The cold and grey, have always reminded me what to do. This Friday in the north east, we’ll see twenty-four minutes more of daylight than just three weeks ago.
I know this: Only by allowing myself to arrive fully in winter (however it shows up) do I gift my body, mind and spirit the grace and gift of an interlude.
So, I’ve pared down my day-time commitments, jettisoned more than a few attractive outings – theatre, community sings, dance classes. And I’ve built more protection around my hours after nightfall for staring idly into the dark. All to let myself go more fallow.
Depending on where you live, you may have many more or fewer weeks of winter than here in the Mid-Atlantic.
Either way, to help you set aside and protect the moments you needto take your rest, so you can spring forward with the coming season, I invite you to pause with intention and
These are among the most common health challenges women voice when coming to me for herbal support.
If you’re dealing with some of these things right now, I want you to know- as crummy as you feel- your body holds the very healing power of nature itself. I also want you to know,
…there is no quick fix. Healing doesn’t work this way.
Your challenges, or symptoms, are showing you that your body is actually working to repair some state of imbalance, and it is asking for support to do what it knows how to do, what it is built to do: RESTORE health.
This was the view of Hippocrates, the 5th century Greek physician generally considered to be the father of medicine. He understood illness as a way that the body repairs disturbances of balance.
Naturopath James Sensenig views this innate force as “the tendency in nature towards organization, order and purpose,” which aligns well with contemporary studies of how complex systems such as the body self-organize.
My Approach to Herbal Support
I share the perspective of Hippocrates and Sensenig in my healing work. I look for plant friends and allies who can nudge your body back in the direction of health rather than suppress symptoms or substitute for the body’s own functions.
I work with Restorative herbs that nourish, calm, and tone your body’s stress response, nervous and hormonal systems, and cognitive function.
Early on in my three years of formal studies for a Masters of Science in Herbal Medicine, I was drawn especially to this approach, that now serves as the foundation for my clinical practice.
Over and over again, I have seen how providing this initial, nourishing systemic support can reset a client’s baseline health.
This is true even for clients living with challenging chronic issues such as fibromyalgia, lifelong asthma, and Parkinson’s.
Such conditions can be managed for greater comfort and quality of life (and alongside conventional medical treatment) as herbs calm stress and anxiety, lift a heavy heart and mood, sharpen attention, focus and recall.
A restorative approach is neither a quick nor a cookie-cutter approach, and it works.
A restorative approach takes time – weeks and months – first, to slow or reverse depletion, and then to nourish a vibrancy lost over months and years.
Many clients do begin to respond in a matter of days or weeks, and then continue to further benefit from a cumulative effect over time.
Each client brings a unique family and personal history, biochemistry, beliefs and knowledge – we unpack this fully in an initial 2-hour session, and the protocol goes like this:
1. You tell me the single change that would make the most difference on a daily basis.
2. You name your formula for the overall effect you want: Cool down, Kick-Ass, Sweet Dreams are a few that have come up.
3. We choose a form – tea, tincture, powder – that you can most easily incorporate into your daily life.
4. I draw on knowledge of scientific research and traditional use to select and combine herbs specifically for you, the ones that are the best match for you.
Practice = Optimum Results
When you adopt taking your herbs and observing their effects as a practice, you will see optimum results.
When you return for your follow-up with clear information about how you have responded to the herbs, this information is like gold, guiding the further refinement of selection, preparation or dosing of the herbs as we go forward.
We may work together to discover how you can become more attuned to your body’s responses. To notice and name with more detail and nuance the effects of the herbs, and of your emotional responses and behavioral choices on your body.
A restorative approach is a genuine three-way collaboration between the client, the herbalist, and the herbs themselves, a collaboration guided by the innate intelligence for health that runs through all.
The…life that runs through my veins…is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the Earth into the numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of flowers. ~Rabindranath Tagore