Fizzy

There’s something about the fall of the year that energizes me. Even now, with the equinox only a few days past and the temperature here in Northern California more like midsummer than autumn, I’m shot through with a mental and physical fizziness that I can barely contain. It’s nothing new, of course. I’ve been this way when autumn starts all my life.

Why? Well, I used to think it was because of my birthday in October. That was when I was much younger, though. Today, I just accept my upcoming birthday with as much grace as I can, considering I’ve just completed another year toward old age.

So if it’s not the prospect of a party with presents and cake and ice cream, what is it about autumn that jazzes me up? Perhaps it’s that the angle of the sun has shifted a little, making it a bit less bright, a bit less searing, a bit less overwhelming. Maybe it’s the fact of nightfall coming a few minutes earlier each evening, and the fact that dawn doesn’t actually break now until after 6 a.m. There’s a dusty, slightly spicy scent in the air that unmistakably signals “fall,” and a few nights have cooled down to the point that the smell of frost tickled my nose. With the exception of this week, the days have been cooler, too, and some of the trees have started turning colors.

Canada geese in pairs and in small flocks pass by overhead, honking as they fly south. Sandhill cranes ride the thermals as well, their calls strange and haunting as they pass through without stopping. The gangs of robins that inhabit the tall laurel hedge along my driveway throughout the spring and summer have quieted, their numbers dwindling as they move down into the great valley ahead of the sharp mountain cold. And the deer that inhabit the forests all around us are on the move, as well. Unfortunately, I see them most often as mangled corpses along the side of the highway, the sad victims of speeding cars.

This surge of autumn energy is serving me well. It’s waking me early, pushing me outdoors. It makes me pick up the broom and sweep the dusty, spent detritus of summer off the walkways and patios. I’m compelled to neaten things up in anticipation of the glorious fall colors just waiting in the wings. I’ve even started thinking about Halloween, and what to put on our Thanksgiving dinner menu this year.

And amid all this I’m marveling at my body’s dogged resilience. I have rheumatoid arthritis and I’m in my middle 50s now, but I’m stronger and more energetic than I’d have believed a year ago. It seems that the medications I’m taking each day to fight the inexorable advance of the RA are working. Sure, I still have pain, but it’s mainly in my hands and wrists, and most of the time it’s bearable. Sure, I’ve developed bursitis in my hips, but that pain, too, has been relatively mild. I’m grateful.

Nevertheless, when I went out to stack more firewood this morning, I stopped after filling just one rack. My hands were good, but my hips were sore and I could feel myself tiring much more quickly than I did yesterday and the day before. My body was telling me to take it easy, to choose other, less strenuous chores for the day. I listened. The pile of firewood will still be there, ready for stacking, tomorrow. And autumn, my favorite time of year, has only just begun.

Tough little Wren

I was outside, cup of fresh coffee in hand, at 6:45 this morning, ready to get more wood stacking done. My hands were twingey, but not awful. I figured I could lift

A whole cord stacked--and I did it all myself!

and stack the heavy almond-wood chunks for a while, but I’d be mindful and stop before I overdid.

Well, I’m pleased to report that I didn’t need to stop until I’d stacked the entire cord of wood! I’m tuckered out now, and the bursitis in my hips is flared up from all the stooping and lifting, but I feel pretty darned good anyway. It’s supposed to be 93 degrees F today, but this morning it was in the mid-50s. I worked steadily and comfortably in the early morning

This is Stubbs (so named because he has a stub of a tail), comfy in his bed early this morning. Stubbs adopted us a couple of months ago and for now, lives outdoors. We're planning on getting him a vet check-up, then having him neutered, and when the weather turns cold, he'll join our other cats indoors. He's sweet and friendly and has already made his place in my heart.

shade. By the time the sun was high enough to heat things up and take away my cool shade, I was done.

The remainder of this September Sunday is for resting and recuperating. Tomorrow morning I’ll get a start on stacking the second cord of firewood, which is piled at the end of the driveway. The nice thing is that I know I’ve just a few more mornings of lifting and stacking and I’ll be done with the firewood until this time

One more cord to go.

next year. And I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing, too, that we’re ready when the cold weather comes. Am I proud of myself? Yep.

Warm work

Firewood area almost cleaned up. The piles of stoney dirt will get carted out to the back garden. The wood that's already there is left over from last winter.

The old saying goes that “firewood warms three times: First, in the cutting; second, in the stacking; and third, in the burning.” I’m here to say, as I wipe the sweat off my temples and flap my arms in an attempt to cool and dry my damp, aromatic body, that old saw is true.

This morning I got a start on stacking our firewood for the upcoming cold and (with luck) wet season. With the exception of a big bruise on the ball of my thumb, my hands are holding up pretty well. A bit sore, but much less so than I expected after digging seven yard-carts full of dirt and rocks off the broken old cement pad where we store our wood.

I was glad to do it, though. Last year when it rained, the whole area was a morass of thick, sticky mud, and as we used up each 1/4-cord of wood, there was that much more mud to walk across to get to it. That meant tracking it into the house each time we brought wood in for the fire, which meant the floor had to be mopped afterward, etc, etc. This year there will still be mud — I’m not fooling myself — but there will be a lot less of it. And while finances don’t stretch that far right now, next summer I’ll get a load of gravel in to cover the pad before we stack firewood again.

Temps here have risen suddenly, and we’ve got several very warm (OK, hot) days coming up through the end of next week. So I’m stacking wood in the very early hours, while it’s still relatively cool and shady. It works out well this way, really — it limits the amount of time I can spend stacking, which is the smarter way to go for someone with rheuma. I have to give it up for the day (or at least until sundown) and rest. Of course, there are always other things to do, but they aren’t quite so labor-intense.

I enjoy working my body hard. I like the “good” tired feeling that comes with it, and hard physical work is something that I haven’t done a lot of during my lifetime. I’ve always had desk jobs, so being physical was limited to recreation. Sometimes, as I’m hefting those heavy stovelengths to stack them, I think it would have been nice to be an outdoor-worker. Someone who used her muscles every day to accomplish something more than burning calories or toning. Body-work that made something happen, like plenty of wood stacked for the winter, or a house built, or a trail blazed, or … you get my drift.

Well, it’s a bit late in my life to go into construction (and that field is a bit depressed at the moment, anyway). I guess I’ll be content with the good work I have around here, and be glad that I don’t have to do it every day. With rheuma, I’d probably have been out of a job a long, long time ago.

Have a great day, gang.

Autumn hands

Autumn equinox:

I hear a strange bird call, seems like it’s coming from over here, then over there, then over there. After a minute or two of this, I start feeling a little spooked. What is that?  I look up and see… yes. A flock of Sandhill cranes, making their autumn flight south. This is a gift,  one I receive so infrequently that I forget what it sounds like until my eyes remind me. I watch until the check-mark of giant, long-winged birds disappear into the sun, the leader’s odd calls reaching my ears from impossibly high in the sky. I have to smile. I feel honored.

I spend three hours chipping six inches of baked mud with the tip of a shovel off the broken cement where I’m planning to stack this winter’s supply of firewood. My hope is to avoid tracking this sticky red mud into the house when it rains or the snow melts. I scoop the heavy, dry, caked earth into the yard cart with a straight-edged, flat shovel: scoop, lift, toss. Scoop, lift, toss. Over and over again. Then wheel the cart out to the back garden and dump it. This was preparatory labor; tomorrow morning I begin stacking the first of two cords of dry, seasoned almond-wood. For now, the wood forms two impossibly large hills on the driveway, dumped there by the wood-guy last evening. I love the scent. Instead of almonds, this wood smells like cinnamon. Each heavy hunk represents several hours worth of cozy stove-fire warmth once the weather turns cold and damp. This is good work. Satisfying work.

Watched, smiling, as two Anna’s hummingbirds chased each other around the garden, chirping. Sawed off a couple of apple tree suckers that had grown too large and were hanging in the way of my mud-chipping. Sweated like a horse, drank lots of water, and ended up exhausted and shaky and a little frustrated at myself for getting so tired.

Tonight I’m flattened. Totally wiped out. Dinner was a cheese and tomato sandwich, no energy to think, let alone cook. The bottoms of my feet ache monotonously, laying lie to what I wrote yesterday about not having this problem anymore. Go figure. My hands and wrists are desperately sore. Throbbing. Well, naturally. What else should I expect after abusing the joints in such a cavalier manner? So now I’m dosed up on tramadol and Tylenol, hoping to sleep the night through so I’ll feel good and ready to get back to work at sunrise.

Now, good-night.

Where’s my oil can?

RA blogger Kelly Young has a great post and comment thread going on the subject of morning stiffness over at Rheumatoid Arthritis Warrior. Dang, she’s good! Reading through it got me thinking. Kelly mentions that one of the questions rheumatologists have always asked their patients is whether theyhave morning stiffness, and if so, for how long? Then she says that recently, morning stiffness as a reliable indicator of RA has been dropped, so some rheumatologists no longer ask about it.

My own rheumatologist asks this question every time I see him. And every time, I feel a bit embarrassed because I’m rarely stiff in the morning anymore. Instead, I tend to get stiff later in the day if I sit for too long. Even then, it’s confined to the joints in my lower body – my hips, knees, and sometimes my ankles or the joints in my feet, and it takes only half a minute or so to resolve.

It wasn’t always like that, though. When I was first diagnosed, I was painfully stiff to the point of stumbling around each morning, and the stiffness was all over my body. To loosen up, I’d have to take a hot bath or shower, and it would be an hour or more before I could move somewhat normally. In addition, back in those bad old days (now more than 20 years ago) the bottoms of my feet hurt like hell every single day. I’d wake up in the morning feeling like I’d been standing on them all night long, or like someone had been beating them with canes while I slept, and I’d gimp around on them all day. My painful feet were a constant; flares in other joints happened along with them. And back then, my doctor never asked me about morning stiffness at all.

The nature of rheumatoid arthritis is unpredictable, for the most part, and it seems that everyone experiences the disease a little bit differently. For the longest time I could find no information about RA affecting the bottoms of my feet – I thought perhaps it was unique to me, and so I doubted myself. My RA didn’t act like the RA I read about in others, either. My flares moved around from day to day, too. One day my right knee would flare; the next it would be my left shoulder, and the day after that, it might be my great toe on my left foot. The duration and intensity of the flares varied, as well. Sometimes they’d last half a day, and sometimes for up to five days. Sometimes the flare would be mild, and other times it would be so bad I’d have given anything for a chainsaw so I could just cut the offending limb off and have done with it. Finally, if there was something to be grateful for in all this, it was that I very rarely had more than one joint flaring at a time, meaning that both knees didn’t flare at the same time, or both hands. I counted myself lucky for that.

My RA went into remission after about eight years, and stayed in remission for about six years. When it came back, it presented differently. Today, the bottoms of my feet hurt only rarely. My wrists and hands hurt nearly all the time, but for the most part, the pain is low-level pain (say 3-5 on the 1-10 pain scale). While my other joints do flare now and then, the flares tend to be shorter and less painful than they used to be. I don’t recall being fatigued all the time in those early years, or having brain fog. But today I deal with both, frequently.

Am I grateful for the lessened pain? Oh, yes. I’d like to think that the medications I’m taking today (Arava, sulfasalazine and most recently, plaquenil) are keeping my RA quiet and minimal. I’ve gotten pretty good at pacing myself to minimize the fatigue, too. But I know that it could change at any time. The one thing you can be sure of with RA is that it will change.

I’ve been very lucky that so far, the damage RA can do to the joints has been minimal in me. My hands aren’t distorted, nor are my feet. Most of the time, I have little problem with mobility, though my hands and wrists are sometimes weaker than I’d like. This, too, could change. It makes me very aware of how well I’m doing at the moment—and it makes me wary of the future. For that reason I’ll keep taking these meds, even though I wonder, sometimes, if they’re doing anything at all.

Go visit Rheumatoid Arthritis Warrior when you have a little time. The whole website is terrific—Kelly has done, and continues to do, some phenomenal work. Her research is fantastic, her empathy incredible. The visit will be well worth your time, and it will help you feel less alone as you battle this disease. That feeling of aloneness is one of the hardest things about RA, so it’s good to know that we all have comrades in the long fight.

My choice

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

-Emerson

I keep this quote on my refrigerator so I see and read it often. It never fails to make me smile; it’s the perfect sum of my own, long-time philosophy of life. For example:

Chocolate and red grapes.

These are the flavors I’m indulging myself in at the sun approaches mid-day. They make me feel decadent. The chocolate is a capful of sugar-free Torani chocolate syrup mixed into my coffee; the grapes are from the local fruit and veggie stand (think “barn”) Mr. Wren and I stopped at yesterday on the way home from town. There were my grapes, along with zucchini, red bell peppers, Jonagold apples, avocadoes, celery, carrots, huge beefsteak tomatoes, green string beans, Romaine lettuce, red potatoes, russet baking potatoes and big yellow onions. They all came home with us, packed in a couple of cardboard boxes.

I have no excuse not to make some really delicious, low-carb, low-fat meals now. Yesterday we also picked up more brown basmati rice (my favorite). It’s versatile. It makes a great side dish plain, but cooked in vegetable broth and fancied up with stir-fried veggies, small chunks of salmon, chicken or pork loin, and spiced in a myriad of different ways, it’s a terrific main dish. A complex carbohydrate, plain brown basmati rice even tastes good for breakfast, heated up and sweetened with a little Splenda, spiced with cinnamon and a dash of ground cloves, and splashed with a little soymilk. I make eight cups at a time, using what I need each day and keeping the rest in the refrigerator. I also love cooking it: it smells just like popcorn.

So home-brewed café mocha and a handful of sweet grapes are my way of comforting myself today. The great toe on my left foot is flared, as is one of the joints in my right ankle. I’m doing the double gimp. It’s aggravating, but even as I mutter “Ow, sh*t!” under my breath as I walk around the house, I’m grateful that these flares aren’t worse. They’re maybe a five on the one-to-10 pain-scale. I’ve suffered and coped through far worse flares in the past, and I have a feeling that if I wasn’t taking all the meds and supplements I’m taking right now, I would be hurting a lot more today.

We’re also having another lovely, autumn-like day. It’s sunny but cool enough that I’m wearing a sweatshirt and socks again, with a thin, down throw over my legs as I sit and type this, my feet up on the ottoman. Finny is curled up between my calves, adding his radiator warmth to the mix. This gives me joy. The cool weather reassures me that fall really is on the way, even if we’ve got a high-pressure area moving in that will hike our temps back up into the low 90s by the weekend. The heat will be temporary. I can deal.

Speaking of high pressure areas — these changes in the weather and the barometer generally do have an affect on my RA, so that’s probably why my feet are such a mess today. Hands and wrists ache, too, but they almost always do, no matter the weather. In the end, it’s my own attitude about the disease and the pain it causes that makes the real difference. I can mope and whine or I can smile and cuss a bit to myself. The former only makes me feel worse, but the latter never fails to make me feel better.

It’s my choice to make. I choose positive, every time.

Sierra Autumn Sunday (words)

It’s an odd sort of Sunday, with a sky sometimes cloud-clotted, sometimes gray with uniform overcast. It’s very cool–just 65 degrees F–and calm.

Although the vernal equinox is still a few days off (Sept. 23), I was able to note some subtle changes in the world outside when I took the photo of the cloudy sky this morning, a half-hour past dawn. First, naturally, is the temperature, which is actually much cooler than normal for this time of year. This morning, though, I smelled a hint of frost in the air. Although there was no frost to be seen in my little world, I suspect that 1,000 feet further up the mountain, there was.

Other signs of the impending autumn include a few bright scarlet leaves on the young sour gum tree outside my den window; and at the very top and tips of the Japanese maple outside the kitchen window, the small, delicate, five-fingered green leaves have closed into tiny brown fists. This tree always does this at the far end of summer; I suspect it needs a little more water than its getting on its own, through its deep roots. In a month, all the leaves will be brilliant in varying shades of green, purple, orange, yellow, red, and yes, brown. I love that tree.

The rest of the garden plants have either stopped blooming for the season or, if they continue, look a bit dusty and tired. The exception is the Cape fuschia Mr Wren planted next to the fireplace several years ago. Today it’s covered with tiny red/purple bells, each one with miniscule yellow stamens and pistils deep inside. Lovely.

Other signs of the beginning of the end of the year: many turkey vultures circling high overhead, gathering as they do for their annual migration south. And the occasional honking of Canada geese, sometimes in pairs, sometimes in small flocks, who share the vulture’s intentions. Sunflowers are drooping, their petals starting to wither, and while they’re still green, the persimmons have appeared on the trees. They’ll be just about perfect by mid-November. I’ll make persimmon bread with walnuts and currants to freeze for Christmas.

My house is chilly, but it’s not quite chilly enough to build a fire in the stove. Instead I’m wearing thick sweatpants and a sweatshirt, socks and shoes. I’ve worn nothing but shorts, cool shirts and sandals since June, but wearing this heavier clothing feels good. Cozy. Right.

It occurs to me that these things are all gifts, from the photogenic sky of early morning to the soft, fleecy insides of my sweats against my skin. I wish all of you lovely gifts from the world today and every day. Have a gentle week.