Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Experiences with Homestead

The word "homestead" stirs up shameful memories for me now that I've become aware of what the creation of "homesteads" meant to the people who already lived here.

Growing up the word meant "deprivation", "hard living" - my grandparents lived for two years in a 12 by 12 foot hole in the ground with his brother. They worked long hours to "break" the ground. All four grandparents were already second or third generation residents on Turtle Island moving West to the prairies following promises of the federal government in 1880. They were not particularly adventurers; the Dewar side was moving away from a family that disapproved of Christine and Donald's marriage. The Ward side simply overflowed with too many children.

My father became aware of racism in the 1950's. Dad discovered that his Cree hired men could only cash their cheques through the Indian Agent; he didn't want "his" cash going to that "drunken sot" - he thought it was bad enough to have to go through the agent to hire the guys in the first place! 

Awareness moved onto the next generation, amplified.

The term, "homestead" antedates North America. It comes from an old English (some argue Scottish) word, "hâmstede", used before the year 1000 CE. "Hâmstedes" were owned by people who were not well off and often struggled for their sustenance - but could call a place that included a parcel of land and outbuildings their own. This distinguished them from peasants who lived on the someone else's land.  As British common law transitioned into a formal legal system, the "homestead" was often exempt from forced sale.

Bill Curry, my partner, was of the first generation born in North America on both sides of his family. His father's ancestors moved to a homestead in Ireland acquired in the 1680's. They  were Scots who were unhappy with their lot in Scotland. From that time through the 1700's, the Scottish diaspora spread around the world - Ireland, Australia, and North America especially. It is rumoured that poverty-stricken men and women even committed minor crimes so that they would be jailed and then shipped to "the colonies" at the government's expense! In the 1700's, big land owners in Scotland, usually various nobles, "cleared the lands of peasants" for herds of sheep to provide the wool to feed the newly industrialized fabric industry; the largest Scottish invasion of North America occurred at this time..

Experiencing the "clearances" might explain why so many Scots became allied with First Nations. However, it does not explain John A MacDonald, a lawyer that rose beyond his level of competence  He drank heavily and many of his decisions were controversial even in their day - including the execution of Louis Riel and the starving of the Cree in what is now the North Battleford area. (That he rose to prominence is a warning to those who think that our "democratic" process is failsafe. We cannot weed out sociopaths or psychopaths who lack empathy and promote violent solutions at every opportunity - they are often great manipulators and brilliant charmers. 

The word "homestead" moved across the Atlantic and came to mean "a quantity of land adequate for the maintenance of a family". Not specified but understood was that only white men and families need apply. No one with black, yellow or red skin could apply. Women could not apply. Furthermore, the 160 acres could only be "developed" using rather strict European farmer/peasant cultural expectations. 

The notorious "Homestead Act" in the United States was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862.  Almost ten years later, Canada in 1871, "negotiated" Treaties 1 and 2 with First Nations. This made way for the "Dominion Land Act" in 1872. The provisions of the treaties were never fulfilled; the federal finances did not have enough money to fulfill the financial agreement. John A then proceeded to solve the "Indian problem" by eliminating the people themselves. He became renowned for bringing about his vision of a country sea-to-sea but he was also a drunken sot will delusions of grandeur.


Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Story of Pain #1; Chronic Back Pain

I broke my sacrum in a freak accident at the age of 18. It took almost three months to heal during which I could not sit comfortably and often rode kneeling facing backwards in the seat to travel. I whined, griped about back pain and took pills and even non-prescription drugs.

Through the years, I also travelled, climbed mountains, Scuba dived, taught school, roller-bladed, skied and had adventures generally allowing the energy of youth to keep me moving. In 1975 using "Be Here Now" by Ram Das, I started doing yoga. Osteoarthritis developed in my knees starting in 1977.

In 1989, now 45 years old and still griping, I decided that I wanted to live longer with less pain. In May 1989, a physiotherapist started me onto an exercise program targeting my back. 

I found exercising to be boring so, in order to do it faithfully, I combined it with watching t-v. I became so accustomed to exercising in the living room that even our guests would be exposed to my routine. When I returned to the physiotherapist in September, 1990, I said “I feel better, I feel stronger, but my back still hurts a lot”. He poked me in my jelly-like soft abdomen. “What are you doing about these muscles?” he said. I replied, “I don’t like sit-ups”. There were a pile of non sit-up exercises for my core. As I faithfully continued adding the new exercises to the other, I experienced a pain-free week in April 1991, six months later.

It didn’t always remain pain free. I learned to change many of the ways that I did things – I changed position a lot, I stopped the car every hour on long trips, I put a foot bar in front of counters and desks, I lost ten pounds of weight, I used heat and saunas. I did not stop exercising – in fact, I added a yoga routine in order to increase both strength and flexibility. Sometimes I took naproxen, a non-steroidal pain and inflammation reliever. 

Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease and exercise didn’t “cure” it. Exercise does, however, make our bodies release endorphins which are natural pain-killers. This seems to be a good thing.

In November 2011, I fell on ice and severely jarred my pelvis and lower back. I struggled back to mobility with the help of my physician, the physiotherapist and a chiropractor. I had to severely modify the exercise program at first but by March 2012 I was well enough to go to Mali with a medical team. Unfortunately, I fell again on uneven pavement while running to avoid tanks during the military coup. When I eventually was able to walk and return to Canada, I made appointments with the physiotherapist, my physician, the back institute specialist, the chiropractor and a mental health counsellor (for PTSD prevention).

In May the back specialist insisted upon a back x-ray, reviewed it with me, emphasizing the deformities. The radiologist had read it as having “osteoporosis, severe osteoarthritis and a 60 degree roto-scoliosis”. In short, a very bad back. At that time, I was using two canes, doing modified exercises and, seeing myself as an invalid. He merely reinforced the importance of acknowledging that I had a severely misshapen back. The view from there was dismal. I was depressed.

A month later, my eldest daughter chided me when i was whining, “so which of these things is acute? Aren’t they all things that you have had for years?”
She was correct – in fact, the scoliosis had probably been present since my teens. 

At yoga in June, the instructor asked that each person “create an intention” for the class. I wanted to “see my back from the outside” and erase the vision of the x-ray. During that session, I was able to have a glimpse of a better back but only a glimpse. I had to consistently and mindfully re-envision my back.

Meanwhile I was learning more about backs. While I was recovering enough to fly home from Mali, my partner was collecting material about backs. A foot high stack of literature was sitting on the living room table. I found new and sometimes non-back exercises that helped backs. Stride – who knew that a long stride was hard on the back? – I modified my walking.  I became stronger and soon there was only one cane and then often none!

The real epiphany – and the reason that I’m writing this – came in the summer of 2015. I returned from seeing my family physician in Saskatoon. He had asked me how much pain I had – I had replied that it was almost always a 2/10, sometimes a 6/10, never 0/10.

Two out of ten all the time? This didn’t make sense. A re-set was in order. If I was always 2/10, then 2/10 was my zero. Using Melzack’s gate theory of pain, I reasoned that a person should be able to simply re-set the “gates”. While I could not change the abnormalities in my back, perhaps I could change my perception of the pain. In a sense that is what distraction, music, movement, and eating does to decrease awareness of pain. In this case, every time I became aware of the pain in my lower back I mentally “closed the gate” just above the painful area. At first this was quite tedious and took quite a bit of effort.  

But in fact, the process took less than six weeks! In mid September I realized that the gate seemed to be permanently closed. Most of the time, I had no pain. It was so hard to believe that I told no one. Today I remain free of that nagging low back pain that I have associated with my broken sacrum.

Not that I have quit exercising, weight control and all of the other good things including moving around – even at meetings, I get up and walk to the back of the room.

On my way through an airport months later, looking for something to read, I picked up Norman Doidge’s “The Brain’s Way of Healing”. Dr. Doidge explains how what I did works, not just for me but others as well! I heartily recommend it.