Melissa reaching the top of the Crack! She is just to the left of the tree.

About twenty years ago, the movie Seabiscuit was out in theatres, to mostly good reviews. I happened to love the film, as I also loved the book it was based on. It’s primarily a story about a racing horse, yes, but at it’s core, it is a story about heart, and courage, and kindness, and how desperately we need those things, especially during difficult times.

In his review of Seabiscuit way back in 2003, Roger Ebert wrote: ” I saw people crying [at the end of] “Seabiscuit”. It’s yet more evidence for my theory that people more readily cry…not because of sadness, but because of goodness and courage”. I thought that a very astute remark, because when I thought back over the parts of the film that made me cry, it wasn’t during the moments of sadness – and there were plenty of those – but after a moment of unexpected compassion. The scene absolutely gutted me.

I only mention this movie and my reaction to it now, because of a real life experience I just had where the same grit and heart exhibited by Seabiscuit was demonstrated by a good friend of mine. Her name is Melissa.

Melissa was born with a congenital heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot. You may have heard of this condition before, as children born with it are often referred to as “Blue Babies” due to the blue tinge of their skin. A hole between the left and right ventricles prevents proper oxygenation of their blood, which is what causes their skin to turn blue. Without life-saving surgery done within the first year or two of life, these children don’t survive. You could say that Melissa has been a survivor all her life.

In addition to the shunt that was put into Melissa’s heart when she was just 13 months old, she has also undergone two major open heart surgeries, survived cardioversions, endured cardio catheterizations, and had trans-esophageal echoes. You might think Melissa would try to play it safe with a heart condition like this. That she might prefer to stay at home, and protect herself from all unnecessary exertion. But Melissa refuses to live her life that way. She is always pushing ahead and she absolutely never gives up, facing challenge after challenge with a smile on her face. She inspires me regularly.

No more so than on our recent hike up the Crack in Killarney Provincial Park last month, where Melissa bravely faced a climb that is challenging even for people without any heart issues. I was feeling daunted by the climb. I imagined failure. How must it have felt for Melissa, whose delicate, patched-up heart beat furiously if she climbed too quickly, and became out of breath if she pushed herself too hard? By the time we were 3/4 of the way through the hike, I was feeling guilty that we’d even considered it.

At the final climb to the top, there was a bottleneck. Dozens of people who had already completed the hike were coming down, and there wasn’t room for all the newcomers to climb up at the same time. We would have to go up single file. One at a time. Every man for himself. And so, one by one, the rest of our group made it to the top and found a place to sit. Then we waited, with increasing worry, for Melissa to make her appearance. Five minutes went by, then ten, then fifteen. We began to shift uncomfortably, concerned about what Melissa was putting herself through.

And then, suddenly, there she was! Relieved beyond measure, we all whooped and yelled. “Take that, tetralogy of Fallot! ” cheered her daughter. The smile on Melissa’s face was priceless. We were all so proud.

But this story doesn’t end there. We still needed to make it back to the ground again before dark, and no one knew that better than Melissa herself. Climbing up to the top required strength and stamina, but getting back down again would mean patience and careful footing. Slipping over the smooth rocks could easily cause a break or sprain. I could tell by Melissa’s sudden quiet that the descent was weighing on her mind. And so, after a period of rest, we all took a deep breath and began the arduous journey back to the bottom.

Again, our group split apart, with the faster among us moving quickly through the crowded, narrow parts, while Mike and I followed a more moderate speed with Melissa’s grand-daughter, Ava. Melissa wisely took a slower, and more careful pace. I could see that her legs were weakened by the exertion it took to make it to the top. She was struggling to navigate over the smooth rocks without falling. We had all been hiking for hours. We were all tired. But the strain on Melissa and her heart must have been that much greater. Undaunted, she kept going. Again and again, I was inspired by her mettle. We paused at regular intervals as we waited for her to catch up.

The part really that got me, though, was when we were almost at the end, just a kilometre or two away from the parking lot, when Melissa and her grand-daughter began to talk with one another. Naturally, Ava had also been struggling throughout the climb, and she wanted some encouragement and reassurance. She began to chatter, as 8 year olds do. And even though I knew how sore Melissa’s legs must have been, and how hard it must have been for her to keep walking, she answered all of her grand-daughter’s questions with patience and kindness. She praised her for her strength and hard work. She told her how proud of her she was. That’s when my heart started to wrench.

Melissa could have been more concerned with herself. After all, she was the one with the heart condition! If anyone should have been praised for the climb, it was her. And yet, she made no reference to herself and used her remaining strength to reassure her grand-daughter. She didn’t complain about her aches and pains. She didn’t complain about her tiredness. As I walked ahead of them on the path, listening to their gentle conversation, tears begin to fall down my cheeks.

I have spent the last few years among people who have done nothing but judge. All through my mother-in-law’s long decline, as I struggled to keep myself going, they smugly turned away from me, refused help, and did nothing but complain about their own problems. It’s been a long and painful exposure to the darker side of humanity. More than Julia’s illness itself, it’s been this that has weighed me down and nearly broken me.

But as I listened to Melissa’s quiet conversation with Ava and took note of her kindness, her patience, and her complete lack of ego, I felt something soften and lift within me, like the gentle fluttering of a butterfly. I was reminded of the goodness that still exists in the world, and of what a courageous and beautiful person Melissa is. I am lucky to have her in my life. It was also a reminder of what true strength is, and what it means to have heart.

I agree with Roger Ebert. It isn’t sadness that most moves us. It’s goodness and courage. And now, thanks to Melissa, my heart is full.

Astragalus Root

Astragalus root

A woman came to see me this week complaining of pain and discomfort in her intestines. After struggling with an internal hemorrhoid for years, her condition had recently advanced to a rectal prolapse and she was hoping to reverse the problem, if possible. “Can you help me?” she asked.

Weeks before that, another woman came to see me with vaginal prolapse. “It doesn’t really hurt,” she explained. “I just have this dragging sensation and then I notice that it has fallen out and I have to push it back in. It’s annoying and uncomfortable. Do you have anything that will help me?”

The answer in both cases, is a resounding “Yes!” There is an herb that will help! It’s one of my favourite herbs, and it’s called astragalus root, also known as huang qi, or “yellow leader”.

Astragalus root is usually cut in long, flat pieces that look very much like the tongue depressor in your doctor’s office. It’s a yellowish, woody root that you can break apart fairly easily with your hands. It has invigorating properties, and somehow, you can smell that when you hold it up to your nose. It’s difficult to describe, but you can almost feel the potency of its energy when you hold it in your hand.

I’ve used astragalus root for years. Nothing gives me a greater pick-me-up when I’m feeling run-down. It’s a qi tonic, meaning that it will give you energy, but astragalus’s benefits don’t stop there. Astragalus gives you so much more.

It strengthens your immune system, making you less likely to become sick over the winter months [1]. In China, it is very common to add a stick of astragalus root to your soup as it simmers on the stove, as it will energize the soup and also make it easier to assimilate.

Astragalus also helps to heal chronic, weeping wounds and sores by facilitating the discharge of pus and generating new flesh [2]. It reduces edema [3]. It is commonly given to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy because of its ability to restore qi/energy [4]. And then there’s that magical lifting quality that astragalus root has.

According to Chinese medicine, astragalus root “raises yang energy”, which means it’s good for just about any type of prolapse – vaginal, uterine, rectal, hernial [5]. It even helps hemorrhoids. A common symptom that indicates that astragalus root is right for you is that dragging sensation, familiar to anyone with a prolapse. It feels like you there is something pulling you down, or that you are pulling a heavy weight along behind you. If the condition is more severe, you may also feel weary and exhausted, like you could slump into a chair and never get up.

The TCM formula famous for treating prolapse is called Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang, and astragalus root is its chief herb. It’s the formula I gave to each of the women I mentioned above, and each of them had good results with it. It can take a bit of time to have an effect, though, because strengthening takes time. It’s like going to the gym. You won’t have stronger muscles after just one day, but if you exercise regularly, your body will be transformed. I’ve been amazed by the effect that astragalus has on my own body. There’s no herb that alleviates fatigue better, in my book.

You can find astragalus root in our Meta Plus tincture, and this formula relies on astragalus’s ability to increase energy and stimulate your metabolism [6]. You can also find it in our Chrysanthemum tincture, where astragalus’s immune-strengthening abilities are showcased [7]. Astragalus is even present in our Fem-Mate tincture, prepared for women who are peri-menopausal or menopausal. Here, it boosts energy and stops sweating.

Astragalus is a great herb to start taking in the early fall. By the time viruses start to circulate in October and November, your immune system will already be stronger and better able to fight them off. Fall is also Lung time according to the TCM calendar, and astragalus root is a premier lung strengthening herb. We’ve seen it heal cases of chronic asthma [8] when taken in our Chrysanthemum tincture.

Astragalus is one of those herbs that you just can’t stop talking about. Its benefits are that amazing and wide-ranging. It’s certainly an herb that I am never without.

  1. Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Journal of Chinese Medicine), 1980; 1:71
  2. Ibid, 1982; 7:52
  3. Hei Long Jiang Zhong Xi Yi Yao (Heilongjiang chinese Medicine and Herbology), 1982; 1:39
  4. Yun Nan Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Yunan Journal of Chinese Medicine), 1980; 2:28; Zhong Gao Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi (Chinese Journal of Integrative Chinese and Western Medicine), 1995 Aug; 15(8):462-4
  5. Shan Xi Yi Yao Za Zhi (Shanxi Journal of Medicine and Herbology) 1978; 2:31, Shan Dong Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Shandong Journal of Chinese Medicine), 1983; 2:43
  6. Zhong Yao Yao Li Yu Lin Chuang (Pharmacology and Clinical Applications of Chinese Herbs), 1985:193
  7. Jiang Su Zhong Yi (Jiangsu Chinese Medicine), 1988, 9:32
  8. Zhong Hua Er Ke Za Zhi (Chinese Journal of Pediatrics), 1978; 2:87


The tree at the top of the Crack, in Killarney Provincial Park.

The wind, already brisk, picked up unexpectedly. I watched as my friend’s baby carrier began to shift against its strength, and then slide away across the rock surface. “Quick! Grab it!” I shouted to someone. Anyone. But no one seemed to be paying any attention. Steadying myself against the wind, I made a swipe for it, but my balance was challenged by the uneven terrain and I stumbled.

Suddenly, my hat began to lift off of my head and I clamped the palm of my hand down forcefully over its top. “Oh, come on!” I thought to myself, cursing this sudden course of events and my lack of control over them. Just when it seemed all was lost, my brother saw the baby carrier as it flew across the top of the cliff, and nabbed it before it was lost forever. I sighed with relief.

We had made it to the top of the LaCloche mountain range in Killarney Provincial Park in beautiful Sudbury, Ontario. It was the perfect day for a hike – cool, yet sunny, with just the barest wisp of clouds above us. Aside from complications caused by the brisk wind at the top, we were all feeling pretty elated. It had been a tough climb, but the view was magnificent. Well worth all the effort it took to get there. Feeling profoundly moved by the view, we settled down together at the top and enjoyed a moment of silence. Our new perspective was broad and serene. From this height, all the problems in my life suddenly seemed far, far away.

The landscape in northern Ontario is spectacular. Jagged, rocky cliffs are topped by grand forests of coniferous trees threaded through with cool streams and and the bubbling spray of waterfalls. All along our way to the top, I had stopped to take pictures, struck again and again by the beauty of our surroundings. “You know, it’s the same lake,” my husband would remind me, somewhat bemused by the number of pictures I was taking. “Same lake, different perspective,” I would quip back, undeterred.

And indeed, the perspective did change as we clambered higher and higher up the cliffs. In one spot, the sun suddenly emerged from behind the clouds, causing the water to glitter and shine. In another, the lake appeared larger, as the trees diminished in size beneath us. Later, as we came back down the perspective changed again, with the bright morning sunshine now replaced with a calmer, yellow glow. The streams that had seemed joyful and energetic on our way up, now seemed slower and wiser. The crickets came out and warned us of summer’s end.

As I sought out more and more great shots, each one more beautiful than the next, the dizzying array of perspectives began to get to me. It was starting to remind me a little too much of myself and the way I’ve always valued the perspective of other people more than my own. In fact, I’ve never really felt like I had a much of a perspective at all, which may sound odd to those who don’t understand co-dependency.

If you’ve never heard the term before, co-dependents grow up in households where they are either abused or ignored, and in order to feel loved or valued, we assume a people-pleasing role. More than anything else, we fear abandonment, and so to secure our role within the family, we begin to cater to the needs of our parents, hoping that if they are kept as happy as possible, we will be seen and loved. It rarely works. Nevertheless, we become so desperately attuned to the feelings and opinions of others, that we become little more than empty shells ourselves.

On that day, as I sat on the top of that cliff, with my belongings buffeted by the wind, I finally began to get a sense of my own perspective and its importance. It came silently as I watched a small, coniferous tree that had somehow planted itself among the rocks, right near the edge of the cliff. Despite the harsh weather surrounding it, it stood tall. In any other place, it might have looked small and insignificant. But here, it was a strong survivor, possessing a surprising, and awe-inspiring tenacity.

As I held on to my hat and watched that tree, I imagined the wind blowing away all the other perspectives in my life. The only one that really mattered was my own. Just like that tree, only I had seen all the events of my life, and everything I had gone through. Only I truly knew how I felt about anything. If I wanted to survive like this tree, I knew I would have to cling to my own perspective. I would have to start listening to my own heart and follow my own longings.

And what did I love? Well, for one thing, I had loved this hike. I had loved the challenge of it. I had loved the difficulty. All the way to the top, I had doubted my ability to complete it. I had told myself I might not make it, and yet, here I was, all the way at the top. I had done it! It was a wonderful, powerful feeling. I began to feel like that tree, small and lop-sided, but with a core of strength that only a few were aware of. As the wind blew around us, I began to feel a change within myself.

“We’d better get going if we want to make it back down before dark,” my brother warned. I nodded and began to gather up our things, already mentally preparing myself for the difficult descent. I looked up at the sky, and noticed a bird flying high above us. It struggled against the high winds, turning and shifting its wings as it determinedly followed its own path. I nodded, recognizing its challenge, and then took my own first step down toward the ground, vowing to hold tight to my own, unique perspective and do the same.

The Waayyy Behind Book Club – August 2022

Welcome back to the third edition of the Waayyy Behind Book Club. Here’s what I’ve been reading this month. Let me know if any of these books appeal to you and I can tell you more. If you’ve already read one of them, let me know your opinion. I’d love to hear it. And if you’re currently reading a book that you just can’t put down, I want to know more! I’m always looking for my next great read.

The first book I read this month is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Many years ago, I read his book Black Swan Green, and really loved it. It was about a boy in a small UK town who was struggling to make sense of, and overcome a bout of bullying. I don’t remember many of the details, but I remember thinking it was sensitively and intelligently written.

Fast forward a few more years, and I saw a trailer for the film Cloud Atlas, based on another book written by David Mitchell. It starred Tom Hanks, one of my favourite actors, so I immediately wanted to know more! I saw the film, but was mightily confused. There seemed to be a lot going on that I didn’t quite understand. I was still moved by the film, as it has a rewarding ending, but thought perhaps it had been adapted poorly.

Well, having now read the book, I would say the book is also confusing! There are questions that are never answered. It’s a bit mysterious – just like life, I guess. The ending still moved me to tears, but I don’t know if the confusion in the middle makes it entirely worth it. In short, although I like the final message of the book and the film, I’d give it a pass.

The second book I read this month is Enlightenment Now by Stephen Pinker. I read his previous book, The Better Angels of our Nature a number of years ago, and was compelled by all the graphs and data he provided. He makes a strong argument that, contrary to popular belief, life is getting better, safer, and less violent for the majority of us humans. Whenever I talk about this book, I am bombarded with blank looks, disbelief, or outright hostility. But the numbers speak for themselves.

Think about the days of, say, the Irish famine in the 1850’s. Poor Irish farmers were dying in the streets and the rest of the world simply shrugged its shoulders and went on with their lives. Could that even happen today? No! It would be reported all over the news. People would be sending in donations to help the Irish poor. The British government that decided not to help would be declared monstrous. That’s the difference! That’s what’s changed. Does this mean we now live in some kind of utopia? No. Does it mean that something like this will never happen again in some other country? No. But it does mean that, over the decades and centuries, we’ve gradually become better people. We’ve learned to care more about others. We may not be perfect, but deaths like this now weigh more heavily on our consciences. They are now cause for outrage, not indifference.

In Enlightenment Now, Stephen Pinker provides more graphs and more data. He refutes some arguments about the research in his previous book. And again, he holds out hope, this time showcasing the Enlightenment ideas of reason, science and humanism. Once again, he shows far we’ve come as a species. He does not deny that there are problems ahead – global warming that threatens to make our planet unlivable, the rise of authoritarian leaders like Putin and Trump, who threaten democratic principles, the rise of misinformation that threatens the very idea of truth itself.

Maybe he is too optimistic, but he believes that we can overcome these problems just as we’ve overcome all our problems before. We just need to stick to the data and follow where it leads. He insists that ensuring everyone has a democratic voice is essential, no matter how messy decision-making becomes. He shows that we need to continue to provide opportunities for the less fortunate, even if that means greater use of fossil fuels in Third World countries. He holds up nuclear power as the solution to all our energy woes. If any of this doesn’t make sense to you, I challenge you to read the book for and then get back to me. We can talk. 🙂

The third book I read this month was The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton. I found it an intriguing title, and the book description also called to me. It is essentially a book about place and time. Using a single home as a backdrop, it explores all the lives that filtered into and out of it over the decades and centuries, their lives connecting and overlapping in mysterious ways. The clockmaker’s daughter is the main character, and her story is also the most intriguing. I liked the book and enjoyed the dreamy dip into the waters of time, but wouldn’t say I loved it.

The fourth book this month is Thieves of State, by Sarah Chayes. Chayes started out as a reporter for NPR. After the initial invasion of Afghanistan in the early 2000’s, she decided to move there and help support the country as best she could by setting up a soap-making business. She learned how the country works, as well as how to speak the local language, and ended up as a policy advisor to several US administrations as the years went on. Her thesis is that government corruption is the main issue whenever you are trying to support a fledgling democracy. If you don’t tackle corruption, then fighting and terrorism will never cease, because that is how people seek justice. If justice cannot be found through a government system, people will take revenge in their own way, typically through violence. I found it an interesting hypothesis and, based on her supporting data, I’m inclined to believe her.

Finally, I read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I had heard good things about this book for years, and have always thought Patchett was a fantastic author. The book did not disappoint. It’s about a terrorist attack in Peru that went awry, and it’s based on true events. The idea is: what happens when a group of terrorists and their hostages are holed up together for too long? Patchett supposes that they become friends. They start to empathize with one another. The threat of death can no longer be carried out because the terrorists no longer want to kill anyone. This is a beautiful book about barriers and how they slowly break down with enough exposure. Barriers of language, barriers of race, barriers of class – once you remove those barriers, people are just people. Anyone who lives together for long enough can become a family. It’s an inspiring look at our potential to be kind, and to love one another.

And with that, I’ll end this month’s book discussion. If you’ve read any of these books and would like to comment, please do. Until next time, happy reading!