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I have done a different thing.
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This week’s newsletter will not start with tea, because the tea is in the middle of this newsletter, and not the beginning. (The beginning is a discussion of chronic pain and medical incompetence centered around fatness so if that’s not your thing, please skip reading until you reach the next set of pictures.)
This week’s newsletter starts with a story. Once upon a time, walking was not a big deal for me, and I walked everywhere without even really thinking about it. Then I clerked for a federal judge and was in chambers from like 8 AM to 1:30 AM every day of the week, every week of the year, and setting aside all the other ways that year was Just the Worst, there was no time to do anything physical except sit at my desk for a billion hours and then walk to my car and then walk to my apartment and collapse in a fit of insomnia for six hours before repeating the next day.
I figured that I could just start walking after the clerkship ended, and indeed, four days after, I decided to walk from downtown Chicago (where I had an appointment) to my then-fiancé-now-husband’s apartment in Hyde Park along the lake shore. It was a beautiful day. The walk was about nine miles. It took a lot longer than I thought it would. That night, I felt exhausted but tired.
The next day, I went out with a friend to lunch and it hurt to walk. I don’t mean that I was sore or that my feet hurt or anything tame like that. I mean that it felt like someone was driving a knife into the side of my calf, and this is an understatement since I have had a knife accident since, and the knife accident was preferable.
I hobbled along, barely able to move, not saying anything and trying heroically to keep up as my friend walked with me a single block to lunch, feeling horrifically embarrassed because what, a little nine mile walk along the lake shore caused intense pain? What kind of terrible condition was I in, that I could no longer walk one block?
The pain did not go away. For the next seven years, I would get horrific stabbing pains in my calves when I tried to walk. Sometimes it would be okay. Most of the time, it would not. I started learning to predict what would cause it (uphill, almost always, high heels, almost always) and what would fix it (not moving).
I talked to a doctor about it and the doctor, upon hearing that I also gained a good bit of weight in that aforementioned federal clerkship, pronounced that the problem was that I was fat and I needed to lose weight by exercising and eating less and that pain was to be expected as part of weight loss.
At the time, I was new to the total abdication of medical capacity by some doctors that happens in the presence of fatness, and so I didn’t ask vital questions like “exercise, how?” or “why is it that other people who are equally fat do not have stabbing pains that prevent them from moving? How do I become like those fat people instead of this one?”
Instead, I let myself be convinced that the real problem was that as a now fat person, I just needed to put up with more pain, because no pain, no gain, right?
There was no gain, no matter how much pain I put myself through. I signed up to do a walking charity marathon and a half with friends. I trained. Maybe not as assiduously as they suggested, but I still trained. The training never stopped hurting. During the marathon I pushed on through the pain as it got worse and worse and worse until it hurt so badly to put weight on my heels that I could only walk on my tiptoes, and I stopped only because I could not mask what was clearly horrific pain.
The pain I was feeling was actually weakness entering the body, and not the reverse.
So I set off on the quest to solve the problem for myself.
It has been a decade since then. I have tried, in that decade, just about everything you can imagine. About 5% of it has worked, but I only needed about 5% to work to go from “unable to walk to the grocery store” to…
Well. That brings me to this week’s tea.
In August of 2022, back when this newsletter was in its infancy, I told you all that I was going to do a thing that had been on my bucket list for decades, but that I thought I would never be able to do.
And then I broke my toe at the beginning of this year. This forced me to put off doing the thing until 2024 (more details in 2024, after I have done it). But, because I am a person who functions best with semi-near-term goals, I instead decided to do a different thing in November of 2023.
It is November of 2023 and I have now done a different thing.
My original intention when I sent that newsletter was to take a light walking trip through parts of the Kiso Valley of Japan with my husband, but as time went on, and I got a better idea of my fitness level post-breaking my toe, the trip metastasized from doing a two-day mild jaunt into a five-day trip that included three mountain passes (Usui pass between Yokogawa and Karuizawa, Torii pass between Narai and Yabuhara, and the Magome pass). We recorded 5,863 feet of uphill vertical gain, and we walked 47 miles. (We apparently walked the wrong way—the opposite direction is more downhill than up, but… shrug?)
I had a very small amount of not-good pain, but I know how to manage it and keep it from escalating now, and it never got beyond the “ah, that muscle is tensing up too much” stage.
We were there right as the leaves changed, and it was absolutely beautiful.
And that brings me to…
the weekly tea
who knows what kind of tea
from Tateba Tea House
Azuma, Nagiso
Who knows what kind of tea this is?
Not I.
The Nakasendo is an old trade/post path that connected Tokyo to Kyoto. Much of it has been subsumed into modern roads, but there are some sections that still exist either as hiking paths or as a modern curiousity.
On day four of our walking trip just before we reached the Magome pass (and the end of all the uphill we would do), lies an ancient tea house that once gave travelers a chance to rest. It is still in use. The tea is free, but donations are accepted.
We took the time to sit down with tea of who knows what kind. 
The room was smoky with the fire that heated an old iron kettle (the tea was made with water from a modern water heater; you could see the rays of sunlight from a little overhang in the roof illuminating the smoke in the room.
At the point when I had this, I had walked about forty miles in four days, and was almost at the top of the last pass. It was a lovely stop on a beautiful day that was filled with nature.
I had one rule for the trip: have fun.
And I did.

The 5% that worked
Since I know some people will ask, here are the 5% of things I tried that worked for me.
Preventative measures:
  • Never wear high heels
  • Never pull luggage behind me
  • An excellent PT (I had an OK one who was meh, and an amazing one who was life-changing) who helped me isolate and strengthen stabilizing muscles used in walking
  • Relearning how to walk properly (there are some amazing YouTube videos on this).
  • Warming up before strenuous exercise that is typically of the sort that will challenge me
  • Qigong (likely related to strengthening stabilizing muscles in the legs)
Acute response to the feeling of imminent onset of pain
  • Learning to recognize the early signs of onset of stabbing pains, and STOPPING the moment I’m at risk
  • Finding the right acupressure point (it’s in the palm of my hand)
  • Qigong.
Managing issues once things have already flared up:
  • Application of heat, preferably a very hot bath, around 108 F / 42 C)
  • The exact right calf stretch, but not any of the bad ones.
  • Gentle movement (not complete rest).

The Duchess War
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During the time I mentioned above—not being able to walk to the store, deciding that I was going to have to solve the problem my way instead of listening to the doctor—I was writing the Duchess War. I specifically remember, during the event that was a charity marathon and a half, sitting in a pile of everyone else’s luggage because I couldn’t move at all, waiting for someone to remember that I was there and needed help and afraid to draw attention to myself at the same time, and feeling a lot of despair.
That was the point—in the middle of nowhere, feeling hopeless and —where I pulled out pen and paper and wrote the alphabet scene that is in this book.
I never intentionally put my own feelings in a book, but I do think my feelings end up there no matter what I do. This book, to me, has a deep yearning quality that is infused with a hope that does not quite give up, no matter how bleak things may seem in the moment, and I’m pretty sure that’s where that feeling comes from.
Buy The Duchess War on:

Until next week!
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