Friday, January 29, 2016

The Writing Class

When I retired, I thought I would spend a lot of time writing.  I planned that finally get that memoir written. I had grandiose plans for myself whenever I thought about retirement.  Perhaps, the most grandiose idea of all was that I would spend a lot of time writing.

Since I retired, most of the writing I have done has consisted of writing in this blog.  I took up blogging in 2008 in order to have an outlet for all the writing I envisioned myself doing. It is hard to believe that I have published 372 posts over the past seven years. Blogging  has provided a great platform for writing.  Along the way, blogging gave me a bonus I never expected:  I made many friends through blogging. My life has also been so enriched by learning of so many new and different topics through reading blogs.  News around the world and nation has a new relevance to me because I  have blogging friends living in places where the news event is taking place.  My life has been broadened more than I imagined through my writing.

Even though I have written all those blog posts, I just never seem to get down to the real practice of writing that I envisioned I would do during my retirement years.  I write most days, but if I don't blog,  my writing mostly consists of journaling.  Journaling has become an important part of my writing journey as my journals have been the place where I worked through the grief I have experienced over the past five years after the death of my daughter Julie.

 Several of my dear friends are gifted writers and share a desire to get some serious writing done.  We have met on occasion over the years.  We always make promises to keep meeting to write, but then, life gets in the way and we cancel our next get together and don't meet to write.

In October, five of my blogging friends and I, the Vashionistas, as we call ourselves met for five days
 on Vashon Island in Washington to write.  It was dream come true for me.  I had often thought how wonderful it would be to spend a week writing with these great ladies, and it was great in many ways.  I guess you can say that the experience stimulated that desire to get serious about getting some serious writing done.

When I got home from my time with my blogging friends at the wonderful Lavender Hill on Vashon Island, I immediately began to search for a writing class.  I found that one was being offered through a local writing community that would be taught by Kathryn Eastburn.  I knew of Kathryn because of the writing that she had done as editor and co-founder of the Colorado Springs Independent, a local newspaper.  I also had taken a class several years ago with a woman who spoke highly of all she had learned from Kathryn when she had taken a class in creative nonfiction from her at Colorado College.
I knew that opportunities to take a class from such a great instructor are rare. so I paid my money and signed up for the class.

The timing for the class was not the best in that it would go from October 22 until December 17.  That is right during the holidays, I thought as I pondered whether or not I should sign up for the class that was limited to ten participants.  The timing of the class was difficult.  It certainly added to the stress of the season, but it is also good to have deadlines so that writing gets done.  We met once a week on Thursday nights from 6:30 to 8:30.  The class ended just before Christmas.  I felt a big hole in my life when I no longer had the mental stimulation and inspiration the class provided.

I so enjoyed the class.  Kathryn is the best.  She gave me so much insight into reading and writing creative non-fiction.  We had the best reading assignments that have given me great insight into how others have gone about writing memoir.  It was great being introduced to new authors I had never read before.  I wondered at times what rock I have been under that I have missed the work by these authors.  I most enjoyed reading selection from Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, and a selection by JoAnn Beard from her book, Cousins.  An essay that appeared in the New York Times by JoAnn Beard entitled, The Fourth State of Matter, blew me away.  Blogging friends, take the time to read this essay.  It is an amazing piece of work, and a story that won't be forgotten.

Not only did I enjoy some great reading time because of the selections that Kathryn assigned for the class, but I also greatly enjoyed, and learned much, from the discussions we had in class about what we had read.

Every week, we would receive two or three pieces of writing from our fellow classmates to read.  As we read, we were to annotate the piece of writing so that we could workshop the piece in class the following week.  Some of you readers may not be familiar with the term "workshop" as it is used in the context of writing.  Think of writing an essay and then submitting it to several readers for feedback.  The reader is not acting as the grammar police looking for mistakes.  The reader is instead reading to give the writer or author feedback that speaks to the strengths and weaknesses of the writing.  What works?  What doesn't work?  Where should the writer give more detail?

It may seem scary to submit writing to be workshopped, and to be honest, it is.  A very safe and supportive environment must be established in order for this type of writing experience to work for all of the participants.  It is really up to the instructor or facilitator to create this type of learning environment.  Kathryn is an excellent facilitator/instructor.  She creates a stimulating, welcoming, safe, and instructive place where I personally felt very free to create and learn.

Stephen Krashen, a linguist and professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, my hero when it comes to teaching and learning in the area of linguistics and second language learning,  teaches teachers about of the affective filter.  Many students in the literacy classroom come equipped with a well constructed affective filters through which they pass the instruction being delivered by the teacher.  This filter must be lowered by the teacher by creating a safe learning environment before the student is able to comprehend the input coming from the teacher.  This theory hold true for me as an adult learner.  If I don't feel safe in a writing community, or in the environment in which I write, I am not able to write if I don't feel safe and supported.  I am grateful that Kathryn created such a community and environment and restored my confidence in writing for others.
Over the course of the weeks I took the writing class, I was able to produce quite a bit of writing.  The feedback I received from the pieces I submitted was very positive.  As a writer, I am my own worst critic.  I think the things that just won't work in a piece of writing are surprisingly the things that my readers liked best.

After the class ended, and after the holidays were over, my fellow writing group ladies and I began to email each other about how much we missed our Thursday nights together.  After a bit of discussion on where and when to meet, we settled on a plan to continue to hold writing workshops on Thursday nights from 6:30 to 8:30.

Last night five of us met at the appointed time in the upstairs room of a wonderful coffee shop in Old Colorado City.  Each of us armed with a pot of tea, our notebooks, pens, and books, ascended the staircase to sit in an inviting private room around a large round oak table.  We are reserving the room for a month on Thursday nights at a rate of $25 a night which can be covered by our tea or food purchases and a bit more.

We will follow the same format as before.  Work will be submitted on Sunday nights for the others to read and annotate.  We will produce writings twice during our month together.  We shared the books we have been reading.  We share personal stories of the storytellers in our life.   We determined our plan and process.

The writing group continues.  Perhaps, this month I will actually get  a chapter written on my WIP (Work in Progress).  The group has really helped me find a focus and the work is seeming less scattered.  I am so looking forward to seeing what we all will produce.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Hair ~ A Journey of Loss

Today, after consulting with one of the specialists at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus,  I made a decision that I regret not making nearly two years ago.  Now that the decision has been made, I wonder why it took me so long to make it.  I think the main reason for not making the decision was denial and fear.  I am not one to take medicines.  I resist taking medicine until I know I have no other option.

I hardly know where to begin in telling you this story about a journey I have been on that started more than ten years ago.  I've never written about this journey.  Oh, I written many a blog post in my mind, but I've committed none of these posts to writing.  I've only written about this journey in my journal and in my writing group.  Now the time has come when I am finally ready to tell you about my journey into the world of hair loss.

I don't really know when the journey began because it was a completely innocuous journey in the beginning.  I noticed many years ago that I no longer had hair on my arms, but then, I never had a lot of hair, so I thought little of it.  Then, I noticed I didn't need to shave my legs because I didn't have hair on my legs.  Score!  That is a benefit that I get from going through menopause, was my first thought.

Next, as I innocently proceeded on this journey I didn't know I was on, I started noticing that I had a red inflamed spot on the left side of my hair line.  It didn't itch.  It just looked terrible.  I also noticed that hair would fall out when the spot seemed to heal and move to a new spot.  Finally, on April 6, 2006, nearly ten years ago, I consulted a dermatologist.  I told him it looked like I had an infection or inflammation of some type on my scalp.  I somewhat sheepishly told him I didn't know what to do about it so I was treating the area with Listerine.  Seriously, I did that!  My logic was that putting this antiseptic on the weird looking sore would be better than doing nothing.  I had also stopped using the hair product I was using because I thought my scalp was reacting to it.

I was already into a hair loss journey in this photo, but I didn't know it.


Frankly, I was dismissed by the derm.  I think he thought I was a nut job.  I guess I can forgive him for that.  I'm sure he hadn't seen anyone else that was using Listerine on skin problems that day.  He asked me if I had tried Windex.  Funny.  He then said he didn't know what it was.  He'd never seen it before.  He thought it might be psoriasis, but it didn't really look like it.  I have a history of psoriasis, so I accepted his diagnosis.  He did not offer to biopsy the area.  He gave me a prescription for Protopic and sent me on my way.  The Protopic cleared up the worst of the inflammation, and I thought little about it again.

My hair continued to thin.  I fretted, but I also figured it was a part of aging.

I remember that during the summer of 2010, just months after my daughter Julie died, my hair started falling out enough to notice.  My clothes would be covered with fine silver hair.  When my friends or family would start picking it off of my clothes, I called it my tinsel.  The tinsel is falling of the tree, I'd say.  I was told by doctors that stress was causing my hair loss.  "It will come back."

In July of 2011, I was visiting my daughter in Utah during a time of great stress for her.  The morning after I arrived, as I was putting on my makeup, I noticed my eyebrows were completely gone.  They'd been there the day before.  I called to my daughter, "Keicha, come here.  Do you see any hair where my eyebrows should be?  Where have my eyebrows gone?"  She confirmed that the eyebrows were indeed gone.  She didn't know their whereabouts.  This seemed really odd.  Under my breath, I said "I rather liked my eyebrows."

Another doctor visit about the the loss of the eyebrows received this response, "Have you been plucking them?"  Seriously.  In the doctor's defense, I must say that it was actually a legitimate question.  Perhaps, she thought my stress had started manifesting itself with trichotillomania, otherwise known as hair-pulling disorder.

I saw a new dermatologist.  She was a personal friend and knew of my recent loss.  She was compassionate and supportive.  She thought I had a form of alopecia.  She said stress could have triggered it, but she thought we should take a wait and see approach. She said it wasn't really presenting like alopecia areata.

  1. the partial or complete absence of hair from areas of the body where it normally grows; baldness.

Alopecia, a word I couldn't even pronounce if I did remember the term when describing a person who suffered from the condition.

I remember coming home from the appointment and looking up the condition on Dr. Google.  I wrote the term down and practiced saying it.  I didn't want to forget what it was.  (Believe me there has been no forgetting!)  This doctor was the third doctor that I had seen for my hair loss.

I looked up the specialist for alopecia areata on Dr. Google.  I found it was Dr. Norris at UC Health.  I felt I was a bit premature to try to get an appoint with him.

The next time I saw my endocrinologist, I asked her what she thought was going on.  She said that my thyroid was not the problem.  She said that it could be stress that was causing the problem, but she wanted me to get the scalp biopsied.

Heaven only knows why it took me a year to get a scalp biopsy.  There are legitimate reasons:  I had a fall that resulted in a head injury.  I suffered from visual vestibular disorder and couldn't drive for a year.  I had heart problems I was chasing down.  I had digestive problems I was trying to solve.  We sold our house.  We moved.  I had a lot going on.  My hair continued to fall out.

Finally in March of 2013, I saw another new to me dermatologist in Colorado Springs. He immediately diagnosed me as having frontal fibrosing alopecia, but he said that he would have to biopsy my scalp for a solid diagnosis.  I had never heard of FFA before.  The biopsy came back confirming FFA and lichen planopliaris.  He sat me down and painted a grim future for me and my hair.  He showed me pictures from the internet.  I was in shock and disbelief.  "Surely this won't happen to me."   He said that there was really no treatment, and he said that the treatments that might help were dangerous.  Plaquenil was mentioned as something I could try, but he thought the risks out weighted the benefits.  He said nothing would bring my hair back.  The plaquenil just might stop the process of loss.  I chose not to take plaquenil.  He prescribed clobetasol as a topical to help with the itching, pain, and soreness.  Yes, FFA and LLP are quite painful.  The pain is physical and not just emotional.

I saw Dr. Norris at UC Health in early to mid 2014.  He wanted to give me plaquenil.  He also prescribed finasteride, using its non-generic name of Avodart.  He said, "Avodart is being seen as having success in fighting FFA in the literature coming from the research being done at Duke University.  It is given to men with enlarged prostate, but it seems to stop the progression of FFA."  I was in shock, and quite frankly, I thought to myself that the man was grasping at straws.  Well, I was too, but I wasn't quite ready to be a lab rat.  Later that evening, I received a call from the pharmacist.  "I just received a prescription for finasteride for you from a doctor at the University hospital.  I've never seen this prescribed to a woman before.  I think there has been a mistake."  I assured him it was not a mistake.  I asked for his input.  In the end, I decided against taking any oral medications.  I did not want to be a science project.

I found another dermatologist.  This one prescribed topical steroid treatments.  I also began getting Kenalog shots in the scalp.  I broke out in rashes from the shots.  I broke out in rashes from all the traditional steroid treatments.  I took pictures of the rashes to show my doc.  He said "No more steroids for you."  My hair continued to fall out.

I learned how to cover up a lot of the loss with headbands, scarves, hats.  Then, I bought a hair piece.  I then bought three different wigs.  I cut up the wigs and made my own hair pieces.  I had a hair piece handmade for me to match my hair loss pattern.  I had not counted on having the loss spread even more to the crown of my head over the last couple of months.  I was truly in denial that it would ever get that bad.  I no longer can disguise my condition.

Below is a selfie of my new hair piece that I had designed and made for me.  Only the bangs and the top part of the sides are not my real hair.  The back of my head is covered with my own hair.  I love the solution that my amazing cranial prosthesis hair dresser at made for me.  My eyebrows are drawn on everyday.  I must do a pretty good job because I've fooled more than one doctor when I've told them my eyebrows are gone.

After Christmas, I called Dr. Norris and made an appointment.  I was now willing to take finasteride and plaquenil.  My doctors at National Jewish encouraged me to try these medications and assured me of their safety.  I was told I had to do something about the inflammation levels in my body.  Inflammation has  destroyed much my hair by causing it to to fall out and leave behind scar tissue that will never again produce hair.  I don't need inflammation to destroy my heart or my joints or any other part of my body.  I have several auto-immune diseases now.  Two of them are quite rare.  I don't need any more.  I have made my decision.  I'm taking the medicine.  I giving this terrible, disfiguring, destructive disease a good fight.  I hope to stop the loss.  Who knows, maybe I will even grow back a bit of my hair.


Thursday, January 7, 2016

A True Throw Back Thursday

Today was a cold and snowy day.  It was a perfect day to stay home and get some things done.  I finally put the final touches on returning the house to its normal state. It always seems a bit dull around here when all of Christmas is put away, so I tried to brighten up the living room by moving a few of my favorite things to the coffee table in front of the couch.  We can call this a study in red.  This should keep things a bit more cheery and colorful during January.

I then pulled out one of my favorite tea cups, one given to me by a teaching friend as a remembrance of the time I went to Caernarfon, Wales, and filled it with the special tea my son had sent me for Christmas last year and headed downstairs.

At the end of December, in the midst of putting away Christmas decorations, I began the task of attempting an organization of storage shelves.  That led to me cleaning out closets.  That led to pulling boxes full of stuff out of closets and peeking inside of them to see what on earth was filling them.  That led to me deciding I needed a new system of storing stuff so I could find the stuff I wanted to find.

This is what I came up with.  Jim and I found a great solution for our storage problems at the Container Store.  It was on sale, so we bought it and had it installed in an empty corner of the family room. I think it will be a great place to store all of the stuff currently living in boxes stored in places we can't remember.

When we moved into this house a little over three years ago, the goal was to get the house as livable as possible as soon as possible.  That meant that many boxes of stuff were pushed into closets, put on shelves, or hauled into the crawl space.  I'll get to them someday, was the promise I made.

Today, I hauled out one box from the closet in the downstairs bedroom.  This box was filled with notebooks, journals, and bits of writing from the past.  I've had quite a day of doing research and discovery by going back and peeking into a few of those notebooks.  It has truly been a throw back Thursday.

 Hopefully, we won't have any guests in the next day or two since I have made a mess of the guest room/downstairs study.

One notebook was mostly empty, but it contained a few gems from 1991.  I was a single mom then.  Amy, and Julie were in high school.  Jonathan was in junior high.  The notebook that I found from that time period lived near the phone in kitchen.  It was supposed to be where we left messages for each other.  Here are a few gems:

  • From Amy:  Mom, Julie needs her shoes out of my car for track.  Can you pick me up at 1:30 on Weber?
  • Mom, I went with Rick to wash his car.  Be home by 3:30.  Amy  
  • Andrea & Julie called.  Barb R called.
  • Mom, Amy and I went to the Citadel to get her earrings.  She will clean the house when she gets home.  Love, Julie
  • My response on that same day at 4:30  "It's a good thing at least this kitchen is cleaned.  I did not make this mess and I won't come home to it.  I went jogging.  Amy - when you finish reading the paper, put it away!  And your backpack does not belong on the table.  
  • Mom, Don't forget to leave me some money so that I can go to the bonfire & football game this weekend.  Have fun this weekend.  Love Julie XOXO
  • My response:  Amy has $ for you all.  She also has the video card for Safeway.  Give Aunt Carol my # 1-395-2477 - Trail West.  Phone # where I will be.  XOXOXO Mom
  • Julie: wire to starter is loose.  
Those were the days before texting!  I wish I had more of those messages.  They are treasures now.  I guess I was a pretty mean mom.  I expected a clean home when I got home from work.  Actually, the kids were very good most of the time about that.  They knew I hated to see a mess when I walked in the door, so at least I was usually greeted with a clear vista.  Their rooms were another story.

I loved this gem.  Julie had written "My hole name Julie Ann Christiansen" in one of my notebooks.  I laughed when I saw it.  Then, I cried.  It broke my heart to see her childhood handwriting, but I was also so grateful to have it.

This little love note was no doubt written in church because it was written on an old notebook filled with my notes from sermons in the 80s.  Julie had surrounded her sweet note with drawings of a rainbow and fish symbols, representing believers in Christ.  I noticed Jon had also written his name and drawn a silly picture.  The memories of those two sitting next to me in church came flooding back.

Another journal contained entries from a journal started whenI made a career change in 2004.  I realized that twelve years ago this week, I left the classroom where I was teaching high school English/Language Arts and went to Colorado State University-Pueblo to become a program coordinator.  My job was to help write the curriculum for and develop the program to train teachers to become endorsed to teach linguistically diverse students.  I cannot believe it has already been twelve years since that milestone in my life.

I wrote in my journal:
 1/9/04 Well, I'm here!  I finally made it!  I've landed a job at the University level and I have an office!  I can hardly believe my good fortune.  I am just getting set up and trying to figure out what the heck I'm doing on my new job.  My title:  Program Coordinator English Language Learners Preparation Program for Teachers of Linguistically Diverse Students.

I have to laugh when I read my job title.  It was quite a long one.  I loved my days in this position so much.  I never would have retired if I would have had my way, but the job was based on grant funding.  Once the funding went away, so did the job.

The photo below was taken in my office not long after I started the new job when a friend and former helper in my classroom at the high school came to visit me when she was in the States visiting from her home in Taiwan.  She was a CSU-P grad.

Colorado State University-Pueblo
Sally with professional friend

I have so many professional notebooks that I still can't seem to throw out.  This one is really special because it contains the portfolio I put together after participating in the Southern Colorado Writing Project.  This was the best professional development experience I ever had.  It was also the best experience I ever had in participating in a writing group.  I leafed through it and found it filled with writings and notes that I want to investigate further.


As I go through old notebooks and journals, I wonder if I should just throw them all out.  I know many of you would do that, or have done that.  Sometimes such books hold a record of great pain, but they also can lead to new understandings of self and why decisions were made a certain way.  I wonder at times why I didn't write more during times of great joy and fulfillment.  I tend to write more when I am sorting out my life decisions.  

Do you keep journals?  If so, do you think you will destroy them before you leave this earth?  If so, why or why not.  For now, my journals are going in a locked file cabinet.  Only I know where the key is.  I hope I don't forget where it is!  Actually, I know I have two hidden keys, but I only know where one key is at the moment.

I've have so enjoyed this throwback Thursday.  As a bonus, I got one box emptied.  Now, on to all those others.  

Saturday, January 2, 2016

New Year Reflections

One of my favorite things to do on New Year's Day is to carve out a large block of time for reflection.
Perhaps it is the teacher in me, or the student, that requires this time of reflection.
What are the take aways from 2015?
Take aways - 
What did I learn that I didn't know before?
What lessons did I relearn?
Did my perceptions on life, faith, and relationships change?
If so, why, how, when?
What were the outcomes I hoped for last year at this time?
What new lessons do I want to incorporate into my life?
What old lessons do I wish to hold dear to my heart?
What are my new goals, objectives, or desires for the coming year?
How will I reach those objectives and goals?
What must I do to fulfill the desires that I have for the future?

I guess it all sounds like teacher talk;
however, before I was a teacher,
while I was a teacher,
and after I was a teacher,
I was, and still am, 
a student.

I've learned that every year has many lessons to teach the willing student.

I keep a journal.
This year, as a way to close out 2015, I turned to my journal to see what I had 
learned during the year.

With a cup of tea at my side,
I sat down in my favorite chair to read what I had written in 2015.

2015 was a very eventful year.
I turned seventy.

There were many lessons of the heart this year.

My husband, the love of my life, gave me a birthday celebration to remember when we went to Disneyland in Florida where we acted like kids again.
I learned that we are still kids at heart and that nothing thrills my heart more than
listening to my husband laugh.

I celebrated my birthday well in September when my high school girl friends and I spent three days together in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
I learned anew what a rich blessing it is to have girlfriends who knew you when your were young,
and still laugh like they were not a day over sixteen.

My children and grandchildren are always on my heart.
I've learned powerful lessons about how little control I have over the outcomes of their lives.
I can't write their stories.
They alone are the authors of their stories.
In the meantime, they are prayed for by the mother and grandmother on a daily basis.
I place them in more reliable hands than mine when I pray.

The highlight of 2015 was when I received a pacemaker for my heart.
This was a long overdue gift to me.
The pacemaker has changed my life in so many ways.
I now have energy I hadn't had in years.
I can exercise again without nearly fainting.
Anxiety is no longer my constant companion.
I am so grateful for the miracle of modern science.
Now, my heart mostly behaves itself.

As I move forward into 2016, 
I think I have learned one 
of the most valuable lessons about life 
from my mother.

On New Year's Eve,
I called Mother to wish her a happy new year.
I said to her,
"When you wake up in the morning, you will awake to 2016.
You will have spanned the years from 1916 to 2016."

I think the thought of it was a bit overwhelming to her.
She seemed tired.
I told her that it was ok to be tired at her age.

She told me how she had recently read something she had written when she was in her seventies.
She said she had written,
"I probably have about ten more years to live."
She was wrong.
She didn't plan on reaching nearly 100 years of age,
but she has.

I went to bed worrying about my mother.

The next morning, 
January 1, 2016,
I called her again.
She answered the phone with a strong, happy, celebratory voice,
"Happy New Year!" 
she said before I could give her the same greeting.
She sounded like she always have throughout my span of days.
She is amazing.

I've learned a lot from watching my mother as she has lived so well in her

I've learned she never seems to look back.
Sometimes, she will tell me stories if I ask, but she isn't one to dwell on the "old days."
She is a very forward thinking person.
She stays in tune with the present.
I think that is one of the secrets to aging well.
Don't dwell on the past.
Live the present the best you can.
Look to the future.

Perhaps, she best looks to the future by living each day as it comes to her.

We really only have the present.
We can't do anything about the past.
We don't know what the future brings.
We have today.
These are trite sayings that sound like cliches,
but these words speak truth.

My goal for 2016 is;
 to love better,
 to laugh more,
and to live
each day as fully as I am able to live it.

These are the take away lessons that I have learned as I have reflected on 2015.

I hope you all have a Happy New Year.