Yesterday was Wilbur the Stoma’s birthday! I know the past five years since surgery have contained days and days of incredible adventures, but somehow the time has still gone by in a flash. With the sense of normalcy I now have with my stoma, the memories of those early days are starting to fade.
I love looking back on my blog posts and videos as they help me to connect with who I was in those initial years after surgery, but so much of that time is also a blur. Life sprints ahead when I wish it would meander along in a stroll. It feels like summer was just here, and now the trees are already missing their leaves. Before I know it, I will be celebrating my six-year stomaversary. I want to slow down and savor moments more. Fortunately, I have found a secret for reaching that objective: nature journaling.
I first started nature journaling in the 1990s when my love of keeping diaries and passion for sketching merged and forever changed my relationship with nature. In my journals, I could playfully record natural happenings, curiously ponder what I was witnessing and write down my feelings about it all. At the end of a journaling session, a moment in nature and in my life had been noticed and preserved on the page (and in my memory)! Through my journals, I felt more connected to the natural world and to my soul.
The problem was, despite my best intentions, there were huge chunks of time over the years when I didn’t write or draw in my journals. My post-surgery years were one of those stretches. What the birds, trees and flowers were doing during those moments I cannot say. And that made me sad.
I don’t get along well with unhappiness, so I am in the process of purging other things from my schedule in order to have more personal time to journal. As small details in the lives of box elders, woodpeckers, praying mantises and other flora and fauna are noted on paper, the hectic pace of my own life slows down and feels richer. Over the past two years, I have filled half the pages in a large sketchbook. That is a big improvement from when my nature journal sat mostly untouched after surgery, but I can do better. I aim to fill the second half of that journal in the next few months.
To further build my journaling skills, I attended a three-day workshop in the Marin Headlands of California last weekend with two of my favorite nature journalists, John Muir Laws and Clare Walker Leslie. The experience was beyond-words inspiring. We greeted the birds with our sketchbooks at sunrise, explored the coastline with pens in hand in the afternoon and captured the sunset on our pages. After a short break for dinner, we drew taxidermy mounts in the conference center’s teaching lab until bedtime. At one point during the trip, I spent an entire hour sketching scat, tracks and other signs left by otters in their travel corridor between a pond and canal. Observing and recording the natural world that keenly for three days straight was remarkable and allowed me to slow down and ground myself in the present. Refreshed and inspirited, I left the workshop with a goal of writing and drawing in my nature journal more frequently.
One of the ideas that resonated most strongly for me was Clare Walker Leslie’s practice of recording daily “small wonders.” When I didn’t have time to create an entire journal page of nature observations, simply documenting one exceptional image from the day could help connect me with what was happening in the natural world. Whenever I needed to recall those moments, they would be there waiting for me in the pages. I started my first series of these this week, and I am hooked.
Time can’t actually slow down, and the 365 days until my next stomaversary will come and go whether or not I nature journal. However, closely observing and recording happenings in the natural world helps each day to stand out. It’s hard for life to be a blur when you are looking with focused eyes. I might record tracks in the snow after winter’s first blizzard, the first blooms of spring, a spotted fawn in the tall summer grass and all the things that make the world so breathtakingly beautiful. Five years ago surgery gave me a second chance at life. It’s time I start paying greater attention.
“Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”
I turned 43 years old this month and brought in my next year with an overnight camping trip on the wide-open expanses of the Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado. Unlike last year when I was too stressed out to even celebrate, this birthday was full of calmness (other than the wind which nearly blew us off the prairie.)
All year, I worked hard to re-prioritize various aspects of my life so that I could stop feeling so overwhelmed. This meant saying no to a lot of projects and requests and sometimes disappointing people. It meant spending less time on activities I enjoyed a little in order to make room for things I loved a lot. It meant that, yes, I would miss out on some opportunities and activities, but the reward would be a life that felt closer to my heart and less stressful. Activities like yoga, art and adequate sleep were back in my weekly routine. Pulling into our campsite, I felt light and free knowing that I had rid my life of many of the distractions that had been weighing me down. How wonderful it felt to have no agenda other than to relax and take in this new place with Doug.
We pitched our tent, set up camp and drove the desolate dirt roads that make up the Pawnee’s 21-mile birding tour. With no agenda, we let curiosity be our guide–stopping our car and getting out to explore whenever we saw something that caught our eye. We watched horned larks and McCown’s longspurs devour huge meaty grasshoppers and a saw a green, algae-filled pond that bubbled with squirming salamander tadpoles in its soon-to-evaporate water. Doug took photos of windmills and the landscape while I stopped to sketch.
When we returned to the campground, the winds died down and we made madras lentils from scratch on the camp stove, ate birthday cake and watched the abundant bird life singing from the cottonwoods around our site. As the temperatures tanked, we burrowed into our sleeping bags in the tent, but not before gazing into the vast night sky. With little light pollution, the stars were so bright that it was hard to pick out some of the usually prominent constellations.
The blazing morning sun belied how cold it was when we woke up the next morning, but soon hot drinks were on the stove and we were ready to start the day. After packing up camp, we drove to the popular Pawnee Buttes hiking trail. On the way there, we stopped to scan a prairie dog town along the road for burrowing owls. Much to our amazement, we spotted one in less than a minute! I couldn’t believe how lucky we were to see one of these birds. It was a first sighting for us and a big birthday treat for sure!
Though I will always be a mountain girl, it was wonderful to be visiting the plains for a change. When I was a child, I was captivated with Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie books. My family went on many a road to trip to visit the places she lived. It had been a long time since I had been back to exploring a prairie landscape and the wide-open spaces surrounding the Pawnee Buttes Trail were awe-inspiring.
When we reached the trail’s terminus, Doug spotted a horned lizard at the side of the path. I took out my sketchbook and sat down to record the shape of its head, curves of its tail and spiny body. Had the creature not run off after ten minutes, I could have drawn it for hours. Here I was taking this little moment to sketch this little lizard, yet the peace I felt was as boundless as the prairie surrounding me. I could not think of one thing that would have made my birthday more special. I was in heaven.
It was time to head back to the city. We bounced down the washboard dirt roads and then finally made it to the smooth pavement of bigger highways. Soon we saw the familiar cityscape of Denver. It was hard to believe we had only traveled 100 miles to get home–the grassland was a different world.
In the days of bucket-lists full of exotic trips, it is easy to think you aren’t living life to the fullest if you aren’t voyaging to far-off locales. It’s not that one shouldn’t dream large, but family needs, lack of money, medical issues– including surgery recovery– and other things can make that safari to Africa or a climb of a Mexican volcano hard to manage.
Instead of feeling bad about what you are unable to do at a certain time, make it a priority to get out on some local excursions. Who’s to say that living fully has to happen in distant lands? I found a treasured moment hiding in six square inches of grass on a vast prairie only two hours from my home. I wonder what other incredible things are to be found right outside my front door?
Welcome to 2015 everyone! While in past years I might have celebrated with a big hike, this year I felt a strong yearning to stay at home and relax, so that is what I did. Also, this year I am trying a different approach to the New Year by not setting any big goals for the upcoming 365 days. In fact, I want to do less in 2015. The pace of life lately has felt far too overwhelming for me. I want to ease up and take each day as it comes, filling it with things I enjoy without focusing so much on accomplishing x, y or z.
Part of that plan has to do with a rough end to 2014. My Dad’s health took a turn for the worse in the autumn. It is still hard for me to grasp, as Doug and I went on a trip with my parents to Portland and the Oregon Coast in August and my Dad was doing well. We toured museums, took in the gorgeous oceanfront scenery, visited brew pubs and all seemed fine. However, within a month’s time things changed unexpectedly and his health spiraled downward. I flew out for a visit in the end of October and it was heartbreaking to see the illness take such a toll. My mom has been trying her best to care for him and his doctors are working hard to find a treatment that works. My brothers and I all live far away making it hard to help day-to-day. I wish we were closer to provide more support.
I don’t know what to expect going into the next 365 days, but do any of us really? I do know that finding happiness in the present moment, taking things day-by-day and leaning on others for support is a good way to live in general and has gotten me through other hard times. This seems like a good approach as I head into 2015.
A team of innovation fellows at the Center of Device Development at Northwestern University is looking for people with ostomies to help with their project. Please see the details below. Their contact information can be found in the survey.
My name is Joan, and I am an innovation fellow at the Center for Device Development at Northwestern University in Chicago, IL. I am a part of a mission to improve the management of ostomies, especially when ostomates are beginning their transition after surgery. My team here is a group of physicians and engineers all eager to solve problems ostomates face, and our hope is to create a truly innovative product that ultimately tackles the biggest issues. (You can check our program and team here: http://cd2.northwestern.edu/innovation-fellowship/fellows)
We have NO current connections with any major ostomy supply companies in the industry; we are only tied to Northwestern University. However, while one of the goals of our academic program is education of innovation in medicine, we fully intend to create a product that people would actually want and one that can potentially be brought to the market. Your feedback is invaluable and we look forward to your help! As a token of our appreciation for continued participation and feedback, we will be offering monetary compensation to show our gratitude. We would like to begin these engagements starting next week. If you are available for Monday Dec 9, please let us know your availability and if you are local to the Chicago area to meet in person, or if you can communicate with us via video conferencing (i.e. Skype) or by telephone. Additionally, please complete this 5-minute survey so we can get to know a little bit about you: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1TIEoIxIDaa5rNN1sYdR7hlUzmdT53pqTe4YmmiaqVZY/viewform.
Thank you again and we look forward to hearing from you soon! 🙂
I am a graduate student at the University of Florida and also somebody with ulcerative colitis. I maintain the United Colon Vlog (http://UCVlog.com), which you may be familiar with.
For my dissertation, I’m conducting a research study on how the online inflammatory bowel disease community is created and maintained and how viewers and readers like you use these websites. I’m looking for people 18 or older to complete a short survey about your activity in the online community.
As long as you have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis you are eligible to participate; it doesn’t matter how long you’ve had IBD or how bad your disease is. If your IBD is indeterminate, or you are still going through diagnostic tests, you can still participate! And whether or not you’ve had surgery, you are still eligible.
The survey will take approximately 10-15 minutes. Please click the link below to access the survey. Thanks for your invaluable help!
A few weeks ago, Doug and I climbed an eight-pitch rock formation in Rocky Mountain National Park called Spearhead. It was a great adventure and my first big backcountry rock climb since surgery. All went well but as we summited we noticed some huge thunderheads building above us. We descended and got safely back to camp just as the lightning, hail and rain began. We packed out our soggy gear and hiked the six miles back to the trailhead in a light rain. Little did we know at the time, those sprinkles were the start of a weather system that would last five days and flood parts of the Front Range of Colorado. Sections of the roads we traveled on that evening would be completely wiped out, and homes and businesses that we passed by would be damaged or destroyed.
Doug and I walked around our own neighborhood during the time of heaviest precipitation and watched small creek beds fill and and overflow their banks and turn into swift rivers. Our immediate area was spared the worst of the rains and did not sustain any damage except for some flooded trails and parks. As we watched the disaster unfold only 20 miles to the north and learned of the immense destruction there, we wondered what we could do to help. We put our names on a volunteer list for a large organization, but were told that it would be a month before needs would be completely assessed and our applications processed.
A week after the flood Doug and I made a trip up to Boulder, one of the severely impacted towns, to go to a premiere of a climbing film. It was crazy to see how much flood recovery had already happened. Major roads had been cleared, a lot of businesses had reopened and things looked normal on the surface. However, before the presentation, a group of local climbers got up on stage and talked about all the work that still needed to be done. Right after the flood, these individuals saw that their neighbors were in need and simply showed up with shovels and buckets to dig out impacted homes. Soon they had a name: The Mudslingers. The newly formed community-based volunteer group invited everyone to join in and help make a difference. It was easy—all you had to do was show up at their makeshift office in downtown Boulder and they would assign you to a project.
Word of the Mudslingers spread quickly and soon it became a large group made up of people of all different backgrounds—not just climbers. When we were finally available to volunteer this past weekend, we were afraid that there wouldn’t be that many projects left to help with. After all, it had already been three weeks since the flood.
Of course I thought about my ostomy. Would the lifting be too heavy? What would I do with my full pouches out at a flood site with no restrooms for miles? I hadn’t let my ostomy stop me from anything before and I sure wasn’t going to let it hinder me from volunteering. I would wear my hernia prevention belt and ask for help if a task involved heavy lifting. Certainly I could shovel dirt and that was what was most needed. As far as dealing with my waste, I would just do the same thing I did on a mountain: find a somewhat private spot, swap out a closed-end pouch and pack it out.
We showed up at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday and there were about 20 people gathering on the sidewalk outside the office. After signing liability waivers, we jumped in a car with a couple other volunteers and began driving 30 minutes to the site. On the way there, it was hard to even tell there had been a flood. It was a gorgeous day and cows were grazing in farm fields as we passed. Bicyclists were out in droves enjoying the beautiful weather. I kept watching for flood damage, but I couldn’t really see anything save for some puddles in the fields and some grass that looked like it had been matted down by water. I was starting to wonder what kind of work we would be doing. It seemed like the area wasn’t that heavily impacted. I would soon discover that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When we got within 10 minutes from our destination, I started to see some low-lying areas where it looked like a lot of mud had been cleaned up from yards and piled up. However, it wasn’t until we came face to face with a “road closed” sign that I had the first inkling of the sheer destruction I was about to witness. The house we would be working on was just beyond this sign, so we drove around it. As we turned into the driveway, we noticed that the main road extended only another 50 feet before ending in an abrupt cliff. It had been completely washed out by the flood. “Road gone” may have been more appropriate wording for the sign.
When we got to the property, I stepped out of the car and looked around in disbelief. The damage was so much worse than I had imagined and my mind had a hard time making sense of the disorder before me. There was a children’s slide up in the branches of a cottonwood and a huge construction dumpster tipped on its side and pushed up against a tree like an empty cardboard box. Across the river an RV sat marooned in silt while a garage had been completely moved off its foundation and stuffed with branches from the force of the water. Jumbled tree limbs, house parts and other random items formed debris piles everywhere. On the property, there were enormous mounds of destroyed belongings: muddy shoes, mattresses, appliances, luggage, packages of unopened chips, a child’s toy, and a crushed TV were just a few of the objects I saw stacked up. Some of the items belonged to the person who lived in the house but many of the things had traveled there from miles upstream. The house had already been dug out by an earlier group of volunteers, but there was still two to three feet of wet silt covering the floor of a barn and a large portion of the yard.
After looking around for a few minutes, we were briefed on the project. Our main objective in the morning would be to clear large debris out of the mud in the yard so that a tractor could come through and scoop up the remaining dirt. There was such an overwhelming amount of deposited silt that it was hard to know where to take the first scoop. We all just started to dig in. Soon we were finding all sorts of things including a bike, golf clubs, a dog crate, fishing poles, a propeller and even a toilet. The most frustrating thing was that a huge number of window frames had washed down from somewhere up stream and were layered in the silt like sheets of paper. We would dig out one only to find another right underneath. We got so excited when we were able to remove one with the panes still intact, but most were broken and trying to remove all the glass from the mud was impossible. Digging through the mud, it was hard not to get emotional. I knew that every object we found contained a story of someone who had been impacted by the disaster.
By lunch we had made some amazing progress. As we sat down to eat, the homeowner, tenant and a neighbor that was also helping with the cleanup came over and told us stories about the flood and its aftermath. The 70-something homeowner now lived in town but rented out the property. She had bought the place in the 1970s and talked about the home’s rich history and all the memories of the time she had lived there. Due to the fact that the home was on a creek that was usually a small trickle, she did not have flood insurance. The homeowner had talked about wanting to give up once she saw the damage because it had been so overwhelming.
The renter who lived in the house had been keeping a close eye on the rising creek only to have a drainage ditch behind the house unexpectedly overflow and quickly inundate the house. He evacuated before things got really bad and thought he would come back to some wet carpeting the next day. Instead he found his house full of deep mud with all his belongings on the first floor and in the barn destroyed. This had been his home for 10 years and he talked about how it was the only place his grandchildren had ever known. It was clear that all the individuals loved this place and that their loss was huge. I couldn’t have imagined going through what they had, and my heart ached for them.
After lunch the crew divided into two teams. One went to dig out the three feet of mud in the barn. The rest of us donned masks and headed into the house to remove insulation and drywall. An earlier group of volunteers had already taken the walls out up to the high water mark soon after the flood, but it was determined that the rest of the drywall up to the ceiling should be taken out. As I was ripping out the walls with the rest of the team, I got really sad. Just a few weeks ago, these were cozy rooms full of someone’s treasured belongings.
As we finished up in the house, I noticed that the walls along the staircase to the second floor were intact and covered with framed family photos. I held my hand in front of my eyes so that I could block out the area we had gutted and just focus on that one little space untouched by the flood. The comfort and tranquility of the upper stairwell stood out against the piles of broken drywall, dirt and bare studs that had become the barren first floor. I closed my eyes and pictured the lower level becoming a comfy home again. I imagined colorful walls and rugs, artwork on the fridge, comfy furniture and laughter filling the now empty space. Though it would take some time to get there, I knew those things would be a reality thanks to all those who had volunteered.
The day came to a close and I wasn’t the only one full of hope. At the end of the day the man who lived in the house smiled as he talked with me about the how the house would be even better than before once repaired. Walking back to the car, tears welled up when I overheard the homeowner talking on the phone about how overjoyed she was at all the progress that had been made during the day. I looked around and things still seemed so daunting. However, in her eyes the improvement was huge—the property she loved was starting to be recognizable again. As we all got in our cars to leave, she invited us to return to see the place once it was rebuilt.
I know from going through serous illness and ostomy surgery how important it is to have hope. I also know that sometimes it gets lost and you need others to help you find it. In this case hope was well hidden in many feet of thick mud and was particularly hard to locate. Still, it had no chance of remaining concealed with 20 hearty, shovel-wielding volunteers working tirelessly at the site. With each piece of drywall torn out and each bucket of dirt removed, hope was unearthed and the despair of these individuals began to turn into optimism. Words can’t describe how amazing it felt to be there for someone in need and to be part of that transformation.