In the fall of 2020, my hands were on fire. Big, angry-red welts covered my fingers. My joints burned. It was as if my hands were mimicking the conflagrations that had just engulfed our home region of Northern California and turned our skies an apocalyptic crimson.
The timing of my hand-fire was both unfortunate and unsurprising. It was the first year of the pandemic, and as a public health doctor, I was in battle. We were facing the first winter season with a new deadly respiratory virus. Working 60+ hours a week to keep crucial health care accessible and get vaccines out while preventing outbreaks and illness felt imperative. My body was telling me it was too much, but I didn’t act on it. Not yet. I pushed through.
After we got through the chaos of that winter, my skin and joints calmed down for a few months but would later flare up each time I went through a particularly stressful period. There have been lots of those in the past few years. My doctors can’t figure out what it is. But I don’t really need a diagnostic name for it. “Hand fire” will do. What I really need is to listen to it, act on it, take care of it. This is my body’s way of telling me (maybe yelling at me) that I’m moving too fast, working too hard, doing too much… and burning myself in the process. I am learning to say, “Oh, hello hand fire! This must be time for me to slow down and take care of you.” And then do it.
The speed of life is not fast or slow. It is fast and slow. Our lives are microblips on our home planet. Superfast. Yet what makes our lives worth living are the experiences and moments that feel timeless: watching fat clouds floating by, listening to glorious birdsong, leaning against a tree hundreds of years old, inhaling the fragrant steam from a hot cup of tea, sharing relaxed meals and conversation with friends and family, savoring a long hug from a loved one, feeling the warm tingly sensation that comes up when we recall the joyous smiles and laughter of a celebration etched into our memories.
Holding the reality of our short time on Earth along with slowing down enough to savor our finite hours is a challenge in our modern societies. I have fallen into the trap of doing too many things I’ve been instructed to do (school, work, more work, accumulating stuff and stuff for my stuff) at the expense of some of the things that truly make my life worth living (relationships, nature, spirit). And no wonder. Working a lot, consuming media and accumulating stuff is an effective and highly rewarded way to distract ourselves from uncomfortable feelings (such as existential angst) and challenging things (such as intimate relationships). A “comfortable” modern life gives us infinite easy ways to consume and distract our lives away.
Workaholism has been the addiction of choice for my family. Working many hours all the time at all ages is normal and expected. My hand fire is communication from my ancestors, maybe in their next-life wisdom, that I now have enough resources to work less, take care of myself and enjoy life more. I have privileges they did not have. I can now harvest the benefits of the many years of hard work getting to this place. I have my basic needs met. I can handle uncomfortable feelings. I can get out of the traps of accumulation and distraction.
Spending less time on work, media and stuff allows me to not only savor everyday moments but also make space for old dreams I have long-neglected. My late father dreamed of being a poet and writer but was forced to do other work to make a living. As a child I wanted to write and make art. I can make space for that now. As a teen I wanted to be a marine ecologist. I can explore this more now. I have a pile of tangled threads that are fragments of stories from elders that I can now weave into a tapestry of family history. I have a riot of fabric designs, garden ideas, blog posts, places to explore, relationships to repair, and body parts to heal. To give them the attention they deserve, I have to prioritize, tune out the distractions, and protect time for them during my finite human life.
The coming lunar year, starting February 10, 2024, will be a Wood Dragon (木龍 or 青龍) year in the Chinese Zodiac. In Dragon years, people harness dragon intelligence, leadership and creativity to make big changes. The Wood element (木) represents springtime, growth and expansion. Together, the Wood Dragon year is a dynamic year for new beginnings. Wood gives birth to Fire. Since I am a Fire Dragon, this year will be a good one for me to start a new, creative way of living.
Recently, over dinner, I told my family how good it felt to eat kale and scallions I had just picked from our little backyard garden. I felt connected to the earth, other living beings and our bodies. I was getting back to our humanity. My kid loved that phrase: Getting back to our humanity. He said it should be a book title. Maybe, as I learn to slow down, take better care of my hand fires and make space for my very human dreams, it will be the title for my next phase of life.