The Waayyy Behind Book Club – October 2022

Welcome to the October 2022 edition of The Waayyy Behind Book Club, where I talk about the books I’ve read this month. These books will generally not be current reads. I tend to fall way behind what is new and popular (hence the name of the book club!), so these books will typically have been around for awhile. If any of them sound intriguing to you, you can check them out at your local library or book store.

I read only three books this month, which, oddly enough, may be a good thing. I tend to bury myself in a book when I feel scared, upset or overwhelmed, so fewer books means I’ve generally felt more grounded this month.

The first book I read this month is called Barkskins by Annie Proulx. I have been a fan of Annie Proulx ever since I read her Pulitzer prize-winning book The Shipping News, which was heartfelt and wonderful! If you haven’t read it yet, you should give it a try. At some point in the book, you’re going to decide you want to move to Newfoundland. I guarantee it! Proulx also wrote Brokeback Mountain, so that is another place where you may have heard her name before.

Barkskins is a long book, covering several centuries of time. The timeline follows two different families: the Sel family of French woodsmen, and the Duke family who own forest land. Along the way, we skip through many different characters, following the course of their entire lives. Once they die, the story line is picked up once again by one of their descendants.

Because these characters are skimmed through relatively quickly, the main character is actually the North American forest. I enjoyed reading about the thick, dense woodlands in 1700’s French-Canadian Upper Canada. I could feel the darkness of the tree cover, see the dense waves of migrating birds overhead, and feel the coldness of the streams, so rich with fish that you barely needed to use a net. The risk-filled lives of the early pioneers were also well-documented. Few women survived the harshness. Gradually, the dense woodlands from the beginning of the book are cleared away, until virtually nothing is left in the 2000’s. Proulx conveys this loss beautifully. The final character is a woman whose genes come from both the Sel and Duke families, and it is her personal mission to save the forest.

CBC made a TV series based on the book, and that’s how it caught my attention. I haven’t seen the TV series yet, but I am intrigued. Did I like the book? Yes, with qualifications. I thought some of the characters were skimmed over too quickly, so I didn’t get to know them as well as I would’ve liked. There were also parts of the story where I lost interest. I guess that’s one of the dangers of a book this long, with a scope this wide.

The second book I read this month also has an environmental bent. It is called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I kept hearing reference of this book, over and over again, from herbal friends, and environmentalist friends. I can see why; it is beautifully written. Robin Wall Kimmerer is of Native American heritage and also happens to be a professor of environmental biology, so she is able to weave both cultures together in a very poetic way.

Her aim is to get us to love and respect the land again, as Native Americans did, and to help us understand how our lives are interwoven with those of the plants and animals around us. In the book, we learn (one of) the Native American stories of creation, the ecological reasons why the ‘three sisters’ (corn, beans and squash) grow so well together, watch as she attempts to teach the value of the earth to doctoral students while camping in the Smoky Mountains, and laugh with her as she attempts to reclaim the pond behind her house so her daughters can swim in it. She made me wish I knew more about biology and ecology. She made me wish I could have her as a teacher.

The final book I read this month is called Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple. Personally, I loved it! I loved it so much, I even watched the movie adaptation on Netflix, and liked that even better. (It stars Cate Blanchett. How could you not love it!) The book is a bit of a quirky read, with the story being told through the eyes of Bernadette’s daughter, who is desperately searching for her mother. She has assembled a time-line of letters and emails, and through these third-party documents, we see what poor Bernadette has been going through, and why she might have tried to escape. It’s funny and heartwarming, while also gently skewering North American upper middle class culture. Any mom would find it hilarious. Those who aren’t parents probably won’t get half the jokes, but it may help you to realize how hard it can be to stay mentally stable while raising kids.

While I liked Barkskins and swooned over Braiding Sweetgrass, I think it’s safe to say that Where’d You Go, Bernadette? was my personal favourite this month. It captured too well the feelings that I’ve been struggling with these last number of years.

So, there you have it! The list of books I’ve read this month. Feel free to comment on any of them. While you’re at it, let me know what you’re currently reading. I’m always looking for my next favourite book. Until next month, read on!

The Wonder of Progress

“You have to understand that many of the people we treat have underlying struggles with mental illness. It affects their ability to follow our suggestions and also to create change in their lives,” my mentor explained. My heart immediately softened and I felt a well of compassion growing within me.

This particular bit of advice followed a rather bizarre incident last week where a client unexpectedly lashed out at me. She was asking me how I had gotten her contact information and accused the clinic of stalking her. Well, I had her contact information because she was on our patient list, and I was only calling to check up on her. A paranoid confrontation was that last thing I expected.

The clinic I’m talking about is not at Sensible Health. It’s a free clinic in northern California, set up to provide herbal treatment to low-income individuals who might not otherwise be able to afford it. I work there remotely, under the guidance of a mentor. The patient I am talking about was known to have a difficult home-life, with a lot of stress and anxiety at work.

Before calling her, I had looked over her chart. I noted the persistent difficulties with stress. The occasional episodes of great emotional turmoil. Her tongue pictures showed a considerable coating of phlegm, and that caught my attention. I had just attended a webinar on anxiety and depression, and in almost every case, we saw that same, hazy mist of phlegm across the tongue. I was beginning to see the pattern.

More troubling was the knowledge that my own tongue had a similar coating of phlegm. My own tongue had the same “heart crack” that pointed towards emotional issues. All my life, I have been in denial, but I am finally starting to face the music: I have persistent issues with anxiety and depression too.

When I was growing up, my mother dismissed my feelings regularly. I guess that’s where a lot of my anger comes from. If I told her I was feeling sad, or depressed, or unhappy, she would say, “Well, you have a tendency towards that anyway, don’t you?” And it seemed to me that she was using that label to dodge any responsibility for how I was feeling, or what I was going through.

Then again, I tended to dodge responsibility for it too. I have always considered my tendency towards moodiness and depression to be situational. Meaning that, if I wasn’t in this particular situation, then I would be fine. It was the situation that was the problem, not me.

But there was something about the combination of that woman’s tongue pictures, as well as her irritable defensiveness, that finally brought me home to the truth. I am also 52 years old this year, and there’s something about being in your 50’s that calls you to pause and take stock of things. I started to ruminate on the situation. Ruminating is my specialty, after all ;).

I began to wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t gone through what I did. Would I still have this tendency towards anxiety and depression? Then I started to wonder if everyone who goes through difficult early life experiences has the same type of emotional problems. This seems logical too, but also unfair. Survivors should be rewarded for their tenacity, not doomed to a life-time of emotional dysfunction. And yet, in the majority of cases, this appears to be what happens.

Over about the last 5-10 years, I’ve been trying mightily to change things. I’ve been meditating regularly. As I sit in silence, I imagine a mother figure loving me unreservedly – be it Mary, the mother of Jesus, or Kuan Yin, the eastern version of a compassionate, feminine being. I do tonglen practices to open my heart and extend compassion towards myself and others. At first, I found it very challenging, but I’m getting better at it.

Negative self-talk and poor self-image are the other, big cornerstones of my mental and emotional problems, so I’ve been trying to change those things too. There was always an extremely critical voice in my head, that shouted me down whenever I messed up, or failed to be perfect. I started to call this voice Mr. Critical, and as I became more aware of that voice, I would shove it away whenever I heard it. I would yell at it and tell it to “Get out of here!” I would imagine brandishing a bat, and warn him there will be violence if he says another word. All of this may sound absurd, but it has made me feel safer. For the first time in my life, I feel protected.

The other morning, as I climbed out of a deep sleep, I began to hear a voice in my head. But instead of the constant negativity of Mr. Critical, this voice was curious and funny. I can’t quite remember what it was saying as I awoke from my dream, but I remember the feeling it evoked. It was one of friendliness and humour. I remember thinking, “I like this person. This is a good person to have around”. The voice felt like me, like my true self. Someone I have barely known throughout my life because it’s been hidden behind a thick veil of emotional issues.

Using herbs has helped too. As I continue with my training, I’ve begun to notice a pattern between an increase in “dampness” in my system, and a definite slump in my mood. Without fail, they always occur together. This has been fascinating, and has also brought me greater confidence. It has given me another tool to use when depression threatens to overwhelm me.

The patient who angrily confronted me at the beginning of this piece will no longer be coming to the free clinic. Her misdirected anger ruffled too many feathers, and the director decided to remove her from our patient list. My heart goes out to her. We might have been able to help her. Having struggled for years with my own tangle of emotions, I have an idea how she must feel.

As for myself, the road ahead is finally becoming a bit more clear. I’ve gathered enough tools into my tool-belt that I can walk with a little more confidence, and just a little more joy. With time, I hope to be able to offer those tools to others, but for now, I’m just relaxing into this new version of myself. I’m breathing a little easier and enjoying the feeling of progress after years of hard work. For perhaps the first time in my life, I can finally say, it’s nice to be here.

Poria Mushroom

The cigarette-like shape of poria cocos mushroom

When it comes to healing, you will almost always hear mention of one type of mushroom or another. As fungi, they are rather fascinating. Neither animal nor vegetable, they exist in a category all their own. According to their DNA profile, they are more closely related to humans than plants. And like humans, they create their own vitamin D in response to sun exposure. They also “breathe”, exchanging gases with the atmosphere in order to survive. When submerged in water, they experience something similar to drowning. These very human-like qualities may be one reason they are so uniquely helpful to us in periods of stress or illness.

The 6 healing mushrooms you’ve probably heard about before include: reishi, lion’s mane, chaga, shiitake, turkey tail, and cordyceps. These mushrooms are well known for their ability to boost your immune system (reishi), increase your memory and concentration (lion’s mane), fight free radicals (chaga), lower cholesterol (shiitake), prevent cancer (turkey tail), and increase energy (cordyceps). But there is another commonly used mushroom that seems to always get lost in the shuffle. I’m talking about poria mushroom, also referred to as hoelen, tuckahoe, or Indian bread.

Poria mushroom is probably one of the most commonly used herbs in all of Chinese medicine. Reishi mushroom may grab all the headlines, but you’d be hard pressed to find a TCM formula that doesn’t include poria in one form or another. Poria is like the hard worker in the back of the office that never draws attention to itself, but is perpetually on-call.

In Chinese medicine, poria is used to “remove dampness”, which essentially means that it’s good for conditions of edema [1]. If you have fluid accumulation anywhere in your body, poria mushroom can help. What makes it such a great diuretic is that it is rich in potassium salts. This means that when you ingest poria mushroom, it frees up interstitial fluids for excretion without causing potassium depletion. That’s unusual for a diuretic substance, and it’s what makes poria particularly valuable for people who have a weak constitution. It removes fluids without draining your energy.

Like other, better-known mushrooms, poria also strengthens your immune system and can protect against cancer. In one study [2], patients undergoing chemotherapy experienced increased immune function, improved liver and kidney functioning, increased appetite, and decreased adverse reactions to chemotherapy drugs.

And then, like many other mushrooms, it also has a sedative effect on the mind. In Chinese medicine, poria can be used to treat insomnia, calm palpitations, and heal emotional and mental agitation. In one study from China [3], it was even successfully used to treat chronic schizophrenia.

You can find poria mushroom in any Chinese herb shop, typically sliced thinly and then steamed and rolled up tightly into a cigarette-like shape. Gentle enough to act as a food, you can add poria mushroom to soups and porridge to help remove excess fluids from your body. You can also prepare it as a tea before bed to calm your mind and improve sleep. We use it in our Meta Plus tincture to strengthen your Spleen and improve the movement of energy through your body.

The next time you think of healing mushrooms, don’t forget about poria. She may be less flashy than other mushrooms, but she’s a valuable ally in your quest for improved health.

  1. Shang Hai Zhong Yi Yao Za Zhi (Shanghai Journal of Chinese Medicine and Herbology), 1986; 8:25.
  2. Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi (Journal of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine), 1985; 2:115.
  3. Zhong Xi Yi Yao Za Zhi (Journal of Chinese and Western Medicine), 1982; 5:14.

Death Dreams

My grandmother died about two months before I turned 18. She was my last surviving grandparent.

I should have gone to visit her on the day she died. Just a few days before, she had been taken by ambulance to the hospital, complaining of chest pain. I had a piano lesson just down the street and could have stopped by. Instead, I drove right past the hospital and went home. “I have homework to do,” I remember saying to myself. “I’ll go next week”. And though I did have a test the next day, it was likely cowardice that stopped me. At the age of 18, I was still very uncomfortable around illness and death.

To be fair, none of us thought she was dying. My mother had visited her just the day before and said she was looking better. I think we all believed that this little incident was just a slight setback. That she would continue to live for many more years. For almost a decade, we had marvelled at her strength as she dressed, fed, and generally took care of my grandfather, day in, day out, as he struggled to recover from a series of strokes. The only health problem she had was high blood pressure.

But after my grandfather died, she seemed suddenly weak and lost. Her strength evaporated. Without him as her anchor, she began to fade, drifting slowly out to sea. When she was brought into the hospital with chest pain, it was just two months after his death. She died less than a week later, her heart literally breaking into pieces.

For years afterwards, I beat myself up over my failure to visit her. I could have been the last to see her. I could have reassured her when she was frightened. I could have been the recipient of her last words. Instead, she died alone while I went home and prepared for my test. I don’t even remember if I did well on it.

After my grandmother’s death, my mother began to have these weird, vivid dreams about her. In these dreams, my grandmother would come to visit, and they would converse. They would talk about how my brothers and I were doing, and what my mother planned to do that day. “These conversations seem so real,” my mother would say, “like she’s really there.” At the time, none of us believed in ghosts or spirits, but the very vividness of my mother’s dreams made us wonder. Maybe my grandmother really was there, watching over us from beyond the grave. It was a reassuring thought.

After Julia died, I remembered my mother’s experience all those years ago, and fully expected Julia to visit me in my dreams too. I wondered if she might have something to say to me, some message from beyond the grave. I began to wonder what she might say. And then, I grew scared.

Julia and I had been friends for many years, but things began to change as she declined. Her mind became increasingly cloudy, and her judgment withered. Even so, she would never admit to it. As far as she was concerned, she was still the smartest person in the room, and that made her very hard to live with. Little insults that used to be bundled up a bit more carefully, were said more bluntly and then repeated over and over again. I’ve always considered myself a patient person, but I lost my temper with her on more than one occasion. She was really pressing my buttons, and I had a lot of difficulty coping with the situation.

Now that she was dead, I wondered what Julia would make of it all. What would she remember? If she could speak to me again, what would she say? Would she visit me in anger? Would she plague me with nightmares? Would she assault me with insults, over and over again, as she had done in life? There were some nights when I went to bed apprehensive, not sure what I might meet with in my sleep.

When Julia finally did arrive in my dreams, it was almost disappointing. I dreamt we were working together in the kitchen, and Julia was talking as she wiped dishes with a towel. I suppose I was doing the washing, although that wasn’t clear to me. As she worked, Julia would glance at me from time to time, but mostly she was talking to someone else. A blurry third person was in the room, and it was to her that Julia directed the bulk of her attention.

In this dream, Julia seemed happy. She was her usual talkative self. I felt no particular venom being directed my way. She behaved in death very much as she had in life, and I awoke feeling immense relief. I don’t know how these death dreams work, but if Julia is haunting anyone’s dreams, it is not mine. If she is visiting wrath upon anyone, it is not me. I can rest easy, for now at least.

This past year, I’ve been making a determined effort to show myself more kindness and compassion. To forgive myself for not being a perfect person. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve been really working at it. This includes my behaviour towards Julia, my failures with my own grandmother, as well as any number of other things in my life that I could have done better. Daily, I remind myself that I did the best that I could with the resources that were available to me at the time. I can’t ask any more of myself than that.

During one of my last visits with Julia at her nursing home, I kept trying to get her to sit down and talk with me. But she wouldn’t sit. She never would. Thinking she was still at work, she would putter off, wandering the halls, checking doors and turning off lights. She would wander around and around the floor, much to the annoyance of the nursing staff, no doubt. On that particular day, after failing once again to corral her, she said something in Mandarin to the nurse beside her, and the nurse laughed.

I thought perhaps it was an insult. Julia was famous for her insults and she’d been spreading them around pretty generously by the end. But the nurse turned to me and said, “Julia says you are good,” and she laughed again. “You like your daughter-in-law?” she said to Julia. “You think she is good?” “Yes, good,” Julia repeated, and then she continued on with her walk, wandering off around the corner.

I sighed with relief that day, pleased that, after everything we had been though over the years, she still thought of me as a good person. In her very clouded mind, the feeling that stuck was a positive one.

I expect Julia will visit me again some night in my dreams. It may be sooner, or later, but I believe she will come. When she does, I hope it will be a good visit. A friendly visit. A death dream that heals.

The WaaYYY Behind Book Club – September 2022

Welcome to the September 2022 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 about it! I’m always looking for my next great read.

The first book I read this month is called Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann. To be honest, I didn’t finish it. I couldn’t finish it. I thought I would like to read a history of the world, as viewed through the things we owned and purchased. But I didn’t. The book became a chore, and I just didn’t care. So, I dropped it. To be clear, I don’t think it’s a bad book. I just couldn’t interest myself in the subject matter long enough to complete it.

The second book I read this month is called Group by Christie Tate. This book was fascinating and I couldn’t put it down. I pretty much swallowed it whole, finishing it in just two days. It’s about a woman who attends group therapy to heal her emotional issues. She is very open about her struggles with an eating disorder, and discloses all in her quest to find a stable and fulfilling relationship with a man. The crux of group therapy is to learn to open up to others and share all of your inner feelings, and Tate is honest about her difficulty in doing this at first. By the end of the book, she is a pro and conquers many of her inner demons. We get to watch along the way, and it makes for an incredible read.

The third book I read this month is called Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. He is a Swedish author with a string of popular books, among them are Bear Town and A Man Called Ove,. In Anxious People, the focus is on a small group of people who happen to be viewing an apartment when a bank robbery takes place nearby. The robber holds them hostage in his attempt to get away. The set-up may sound tense, but there’s plenty of humour, and as the hours tick by everyone learns the value of compassion and kindness, in true Fredrik Backman style.

The third book I read this month is really short, and is called The Silence by Don DeLillo. It was written before the pandemic, but it is eerily similar to what we all just went through, which is why it piqued my interest. In this story, all electronic devices suddenly no longer work, so there is no TV, no cell phone service, no radio, and even planes can’t fly. Everyone is grounded, with nothing to do but talk, and the book explores each character’s discomfort with this lack of distraction. Having just been through a similar situation during the last two years, where we’ve been forced to stay in our homes for an indefinite period of time, it’s incredible how much the author gets right.

I also read The Bluest Eye this month, by Toni Morrison. It is a book that has been on my reading list for a long time, and it’s brilliantly written. A poor black girl from a dysfunctional family fervently wishes she had blue eyes. It’s a sad story about a girl who loses herself to others’ expectations. All but the most well-balanced teen-aged girls will understand her feelings keenly, so it really resonates.

Finally, I read The Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell. This was a page turner about a young, teen-aged girl who has gone missing in a neighbourhood where there has been a string of sexual assaults. Cate Fours and her family just moved into the area, and she has her suspicions, but is she right? The plot twists and turns as the police follow all the clues, but their investigation hampered by a rush to judgment. And then there are all the secrets.

So, there you have it! All the books I happened to read this month. I welcome any questions or comments. And if you’ve been reading a book that you just love and want to talk about it, leave me a message. I love to talk about books. 🙂