A Winter of Stopping

When my body hit the pavement, I remained still for a few seconds, conscious of the minivan that was just behind me, not moving, and conscious of the parked car to my right. I pushed myself up through a plank position, untangled my legs from my bicycle frame and slowly stood up.

My chin hurt and it was bleeding. So was my left shin. My forehead also hit the ground, but a well-fitted helmet saved my head. I didn’t think anything was broken and x-rays later showed nothing was. Still, a hard body slam to the earth, along with a jolt to the neck, can do a number on your body in ways you don’t immediately notice.

I have been bike-commuting to my office in DC for five years on a city-street route of about 11 miles one way from my Maryland suburb. Perhaps it was just a matter of time before I got ‘doored’ – what cyclists call it when you collide with the door of a parked car as it opens into the bike lane. My biking buddy with whom I had shared my route for most of those years had recently relocated. So I was by myself as I stood on the sidewalk, discussing my condition with an off-duty police officer who happened to be in the area, on that steep hill along Howard University.

After some deliberation, I reassured the officer that I didn’t need an ambulance. As I turned to walk myself to the hospital which was less than a mile away, and as the shock and the adrenaline started to wear off, I fell to emotional pieces. I didn’t want to hassle the woman who had opened her car door at just the wrong moment. I didn’t want to file a report. But the off-duty officer was wiser and when he saw me in tears he offered again to call an ambulance. An on-duty police officer also arrived, who took my information and a description of what happened. Strangers in blue uniforms packaged me up on a gurney, braced my head, and drove me to Howard University Hospital. There, medical students and doctors swarmed around my body, checked for broken ribs and a concussion, and bandaged up all my scrapes. With head injuries you never know, and it was smart to get checked out.

Up to that moment on that hill where I fell, it had been the perfect autumn morning ride. It was November 3rd, and the last of the remaining fall leaves still clung to their branches. I distinctly remember a moment about a half hour earlier, when I came to an intersection that crosses onto Sligo Creek Parkway. Looking up toward the east, I noticed rays of white sun piercing through the lacy orange and yellow leaves high above. It was about 7:30 am. I paused to take a good long look before continuing. I thought to myself – memorize that light.

After my husband picked me up and brought me home, I rested. And for two more days, I stayed in bed and worked from home. I was sore everywhere and short-tempered. I felt like the accident had stunned my metabolism somehow, into a cranky, irritable, immobile state. As soon as I felt strong enough, I got back into my work routine. The following weekend I hauled my bike to the bike shop for its check-up and was happy to find it needed only a minor repair to the handlebars. I bought a new bike helmet and had it properly fitted by the same people who saved my skull the first time. I figured I would push myself back on the bike as soon as possible, before I lost my nerve.

But I was rushing things and I didn’t know it. The next day, as I was putting away groceries, I reached across the kitchen table for a bottle of ketchup. In an instant my lower back was in so much pain I could barely move. Back to bed to lie down. And again, it took me about three days before I was up and going again.

And this time I finally got the message. Stop, Amy. Just stop. Whatever you are doing. Just stop. Do something else for awhile.

I put the bike away for the rest of the winter. And instead of changing sports to interval running, which is what I would normally do when biking season ends, I began taking more varied yoga classes and especially yin yoga. I focused on restoration. I also became more dedicated to my weekly Pilates hour.

Over the next three months, as I focused on my core physically, I also focused on my core metaphorically. I called my folks back home in Wisconsin more often and began exploring my Slovenian roots in earnest. I found my way to baking yeast breads, something I used to do when I was a teen. I also happened across an opportunity to learn how to knit, as well as a chance to learn about Ayurveda, a system of holistic health practices. I surprised myself by pursuing both of these. As I moved through the dark months with a new view, three themes began to emerge – self-healing, handiwork and heritage. Like threads in my knitting yarn, they intertwine.

My winter of stopping turned into a road of all green lights. As we go inward, life expands. I made new friends – the knitter ladies at my office, Slovenian-Americans at the embassy, and my classmates and teachers at the yoga studio.

All this led me back to the keyboard, and wanting to write again.

I topped off the season with an intense 2-day yoga retreat that coincided with my 45th birthday in January. There, our yoga teacher prompted us to meditate on what we would like to leave behind in 2015 and what we would like to carry forward. I invite you to consider that. I also invite you to come back to this blog in the coming weeks. For me, the themes of the past few months are still unfolding, and each one of them is a story that I am eager to share.


Amy Ambrose

Saving the Parrot

Before my daughter was born, my co-workers at the adult literacy center where I worked held a baby shower that was all books. Each of the adults at the party brought a favorite children’s book as a gift. Carolyn came into the world with the start of a small library.

Today she will graduate high school. I woke up at 3 am, thinking of those books and teaching her to read them. Which of the books come to mind? Ferdinand the Bull, The Giving Tree, The Wind in the Willows, The Cat in The Hat, Guess How Much I Love You, Busy Busy Town. I started reading to her early; I read her James and the Giant Peach in utero.

One of the gifts was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. This started us reading all of the Eric Carle books. We loved his illustrations which were collages made from bright colored tissue papers. When Carolyn was about two, we also watched a video about how he became an artist. Carle mentioned the importance of having colorful paints as a child and lots of big white paper and free reign to create.

So, I made sure Carolyn had lots of finger-paints in bright colors. I set her up in her high chair with large white paper and let her go. With her bare little hands, she swirled the paints on the page, delighted with her pretty mess. Over time I wound up with a huge supply of these pages of looping, random colors. I couldn’t save all of them, and didn’t want them to go to waste.

I had an idea based on what Eric Carle did. I purposely gave Carolyn combinations of colors to create vibrant hues. Then, I cut the painted papers apart into shapes and used the pieces to make a picture. I made two designs this way: one of flowers and one of a parrot (with some help from my brother who was visiting). I made a few copies and turned them into greeting cards.

Thinking about that moment made me get out of bed. It suddenly became very important to me to find that parrot picture. I know I saved it. Where could it be?

I remembered a box in the storage room with the kids’ school stuff. To get to it, I’d have to move a heavy pile of over-size canvases — Carolyn’s high school artwork that she recently brought home to end the school year. I carefully put them aside. I hauled out a plastic box of scrapbooks underneath. No luck. Tucked behind that, I found an even heavier box of grade school papers and projects from her and her brother. Inside, I found the parrot in a file folder, like a time capsule, like proof of something.

So, I didn’t dream it. Once upon a time, I really did have a little girl.

I actually did teach her to read, and I actually did give her finger paints. And together we made something neat. She hung onto my neck and didn’t want to let go. That was real.

Now, letting go is all she wants to do. She is getting ready to go to college, funded largely by an art scholarship. She’s still a huge reader and that will serve her well no matter what else she studies. This, too, is real.

I am reminded of another children’s storybook. I don’t recall the name. It’s about a momma chicken. She teaches her chicks the number one rule is to stay away from water because it’s dangerous. But then one day one of her babies goes into the pond. The hen panics. She frantically, helplessly, runs up and down the shore, completely going chicken-mommy bonkers, “Bagok, bagok!” After a moment, she gets what the reader knows — her chick had come from a duck egg that had rolled into her nest. Unlike her, this baby was born to swim.

I got my camera, snapped a photo of the parrot. I put the parrot back into the folder, put the folder back into the box, and pushed the box back to its hiding place. I arranged the giant paintings Carolyn made this year on top of that. Then I dried my eyes and got ready for her big day.



Looking Forward, Eyes Closed

If we were heroes, my son Henry and I would have the same super power.

He and his dad toured the East Coast by car this summer. Before they left, Henry made a note of a comic book store in New Jersey he wanted to see that is the basis for a reality television show.

During most of the drive there, Henry insisted he was going to wind up on television. And his dad kept reminding him, the chances of that were slim. The store might not be open. The odds that the show would be filming that day were not good; the odds that they would need Henry in the show were even slimmer. Yet, Henry, all full of 13-year-old hopefulness, kept insisting it was not only possible he would be on television, but that it was going to happen.

When they arrived at the store, there was activity out front, but it didn’t look open. Henry hopped out to ask what was going on. Guys at the store entrance told him the store was closed. Because they were getting ready to start filming. And, if Henry wanted to, he could be an extra. Did he ever!

Henry was positioned in the background, looking through comic books, while the main characters negotiated the value of movie memorabilia.

This story brought to mind another well-known family legend — about the time I made a tree branch destroy the picnic table, or at least that is the way it’s told. I had been insisting for weeks that we needed to replace that old, weather-worn, wooden table. My husband disagreed. And then one night, we heard a loud crash – a thunderstorm smashed a tree limb down the middle, removing all doubt. After that, I got my new picnic table. My kids joked that if I had a super-power it would be making things happen by saying they will.

I told Henry he must be the same way. Actually, it’s not so much a super-power, but an ability everybody has — not to control the weather or what time a comic book show will be filming, but to set the intention on what you want and go for an opportunity when you see one.

Setting the intention is one of my top three favorite pastimes. I’m never without a wish, whether it’s modest goal such as giving my next Toastmaster speech, or a grand one-step-back-from-the-impossible aspiration, such as moving my family cross-country for grad school. I enjoy setting a target in the future and breaking that down into steps that start now. As a result, I am in a nearly constant state of anticipation, which can be a lot of fun.

There is a balance though, and I am working on this lately, between planning ahead and making the most of what is in front of me now. A big chunk of happiness lies in appreciating the mundane, because that’s what every wish-come-true becomes once you get used to having it around. Every ‘there’ becomes ‘here’ if you stay awhile. This here is what you have.

So, what if, just for now, everything were exactly as it should be and there was nothing left to wish for? What would happen if I quieted the goal-setter in me and practiced thinking more like that?

About two months ago, I was browsing my city’s downtown marketplace and noticed a table where a nice lady was handing out flyers about the benefits of meditation. She was starting a class for beginners and asked if I would like to participate. I was in a suggestible mood. I said sure. A few days later, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a clean, bright room, with my hands folded just-so on my lap, slowly learning to breathe extra-deep.

At first, I found the physical posture uncomfortable and didn’t feel much else, but I sensed that I was onto something positive. So, I decided to trust the process for a while, ‘run the experiment’ as a friend of mine would say. I continued to attend the class weekly and to practice a few minutes daily, gradually increasing the time to about a half-hour. At home in the evenings, I sit half-lotus on a yoga mat, looking forward with my eyes closed, and set an alarm that sounds like crickets. As best I can, I focus on my breathing until they chirp.

Most days, my busy mind hardly sits still. And often there is a lot of background noise in the house. I had my doubts. Within a few weeks, though, I noticed changes in the way I reacted to every-day irritations. More patience, less complaining. And I was more aware of the small things that can make an otherwise unremarkable day seem great. Like the busy chaos of family life on any given Wednesday. Or the calm of an empty house for a few hours. Or the sound of high school marching band practicing in a nearby football field on an August afternoon.

After about a month, I noticed that areas in my life that had been stuck started to shake loose. Old habits lost their grip. I took care of projects around the house that I had put off for years, especially clearing out old junk. I found myself naturally making healthier choices. Fried chicken no longer had the same appeal. I wanted the lentil salad.

The more I focused on accepting the way things are, the more life started to shift in the direction I had wanted it to go, and I noticed a general arc toward greater contentment. I could say more, and maybe I will in a future blog, but for now I will leave it at that. Along the way, I also learned that there is scientific research to explain how this works. Curious readers may want to watch this TEDx Talk by skeptical neuroscience researcher, Sara Lazar. Or check out the book Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson. There are many approaches to meditation. It happens that the class I found is Heart Chan, a practice based in Buddhism as taught by a long line of Chinese master teachers.

My family keeps me from taking this practice too seriously, especially Henry. To let them know when to leave me be, I posted a sign on the bedroom door that says “Meditation In Session.” My son drew a cartoon on it.

I’m still chronically future-oriented — that’s a part of life and will probably always be my nature. For starters, I can’t wait to see Henry’s television debut. I hope the show used the shots he was in. It won’t air for several months. In the meantime, we already have our family travel plans set for Christmas. And, I aim to do a couch-to-5k running program this fall…

But, I am getting better at balancing the goal-setting with living in the moment.

A few nights ago, my son wanted my attention, to help him construct lego scenes in his room. “Mom, you said you would build the hut for Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker,” he demands.

“Just a second,” I call out from another room, “I need to answer this text message. My friend and I are planning a visit to New York City.”

“You’re procrastinating, again, Mom. That’s not the way of the Buddha,” he teases.

At first, I laugh with him. Then, I pause.

“You’re right, Henry. It’s not,” I say. I put the smart-phone down. “I’ll be right there.”




Nurse Roger

One of my intentions for this blog is to share positive stories about remarkable people who discover and do what they can do. For example, I am thinking of a nurse who helped take care of me when I was re-hospitalized after my second child was born, more than a dozen years ago. He made an impression.

After a long pregnancy that went into two-weeks overtime, my baby boy finally arrived. Recovery went smoothly for the first week, except a worsening pain in my right side. After a series of missteps where this pain was mistaken for something birth-related, I developed a fever. Eventually, I returned to the hospital, where a body scan showed a ruptured appendix. I was then taken to another floor where I awaited further instructions.

In the rush, communication was unclear and I felt like I was the last one to know that I was scheduled for urgent surgery and that I would be in the hospital for up to five days. I kissed my 8-day old baby and my husband good night and they went home.

Now alone in my hospital room, I was thinking that none of this is what I had planned. I was in pain, still recovering from childbirth and feeling badly about not being able to care for my newborn. I had no emotional crust left because my hormones were depleted and I was exhausted and fighting infection. So even though I was relieved to have the mystery solved, I was in a bad way.

That’s when a nurse named Roger entered the scene.

First of all, forgive me for saying this, but he didn’t look like what I expected when I heard the word nurse. He was a burly fellow and I remember him as having a beard. He looked to me more like a lumberjack. He sat down next to my bed with a clipboard, asking questions to fill out some paperwork. He explained everything and apologized for any lack of communication. And I thought to myself, I like this guy. He was confident and understanding and taking care care of everything. He had his act together.

At one point during his visit, I looked up at the ceiling and sighed, “I can’t believe this has happened to me.”

Nurse Roger looked up from his clipboard and observed, “Well, maybe somebody was looking out for you.”

He explained that a ruptured appendix during pregnancy would have been a much bigger problem. I later learned that scenario can get very complicated. In severe cases it can result in premature birth, miscarriage or, much more rarely, death of the mother. I was fortunate that my appendix ruptured when it did and not a few weeks before.

Sometimes a set-back is actually your rescue, and it can be difficult to see that while you’re in it. Nurse Roger’s comments changed everything.

Just like that, he shifted my attention away from the fact that I was about to have abdominal surgery and that I would be hunched over in pain for several days attached to IV antibiotics, and away from the ache in my heart because I was already missing my baby boy that I waited so long to know. All of a sudden, this ruptured appendix was one of the top three luckiest things that had ever happened to me, a possibly life-saving, heaven-sent blessing.

I met a lot of medical professionals over the course of those weeks and none could top this one for his remarkably effective bedside manner. I wanted to know more about him.

I asked him how long he had been a nurse. Roger appeared to be in his 40s. I found out he had only recently finished nursing school. He had been a trucker before, driving giant 18-wheelers. He left that to go back to school because he wanted to take care of people. I was struck by how deeply centered he was. His dream job was to work in a psychiatric unit taking care of the mentally ill, a challenge well-suited to his strengths.

I wondered what it must have been like for him to make such a career change at mid-life and what his truck-driving buddies thought when he told them his plans. I wanted to know if there was a pivotal moment when he figured out what he wanted to do. Whatever his story I was grateful he made the leap. Clearly, he was a natural-born caregiver, and when you have a talent for taking care of other people, that is no small thing. I admired his choices.

I never did get a chance to ask him my follow-up questions, though. During the rest of my stay, my favorite nurse had time-off. It was November in Wisconsin. Naturally, this rugged outdoorsman had left town for a hunting trip.

But I still think about what he said after all this time. Whenever I have a wish that isn’t granted or a plan that doesn’t go. Maybe you are better off, I say. Maybe somebody is looking out for you.