Dwelling in Possibility

I’ve been pondering what to do with this blog much the same way I’ve been pondering what to do with my week, my year, my life. Everything is a swirl of dust these days. I don’t experience that as a negative. Living in swirls of dust is certainly challenging, but it is other things, too. There are particles of hope and love and inspiration spinning alongside the scary-side-of-the-unknown. There is doubt, uncertainty, sometimes even panic. (Where will I land? How will I land?) But there is also wide-open potential. There are whole new paths to carve, relationships to nurture, passions to explore. (Where will I land? How will I land?)

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My life is fraught with possibility.

Still, for the time being, I am swirling in dust, and how hard it is to take a step when everything around me is blurred.

But it is dawning on me, suddenly and miraculously, that perhaps my work is not to figure out where and how to land. Perhaps my work is to figure out how to float.

My life is not a life I’ve known before. I have one and one half feet out the door of a 15-year old-career, and rather than jam-packed days, I am hovering in hours of unstructured time. All three of these things are true at once:

  • I love my new life.
  • I feel terribly guilty about all this privilege.
  • I am (at best) slightly anxious at all times about how I use my time.

I like answers. I like clarity and direction and purpose. I like order. I like to have something to show for my day. I like lists and crossing things off of lists. I like movement: internal and external, physical and spiritual, tangible, emotional, interpersonal—you name it, I like movement.

But I also like the kind of quiet that only comes by slowing down. And I like the kind of possibility that only comes by dwelling in the unknown.

So many swirls of dust. So many crossroads.

I’ve written here before about trying to let the wind carry me (a beautiful way to float). But I realize I’ve been standing here, at point A, directing my gaze way out at the horizon, toward point B, saying, “Wind, please carry me there, to where all the answers are.” The “dawning” is that as long as I focus on the horizon, I’m missing the ground (or air) beneath my feet. “Be here now” has become a mainstream mantra as well as my own personal reminder, and tiny layer by tiny shift, I get a little closer to understanding how to be here now. This month, it’s with the realization that whether or not I’m in transition is beside the point. Even in transition, the point is not to get to the other side. The point is still—the point is always—to Be. Here. Now.

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Today is my birthday, and I keep thinking about what was happening one year ago. (I’ve actually been thinking about “one year ago today” for several weeks now. October started with, “One year ago today I found the lump,” and ended with, “One year ago today I was diagnosed with breast cancer.”) Now that it’s November 23rd, it is: “One year ago today, I was 5 days into my first chemo infusion.” One year ago today, I was so sick and so exhausted, that I spent most of my 40th birthday in bed, either sleeping or writhing or staring blankly at my wall. It was the very beginning days of, “I have never been so still.” It was also the very beginning days of a very long year of breast cancer treatment.

I am now in the beginning weeks of my first year post treatment. My last surgery was five weeks ago, and I am more or less physically recovered. (“More or less” because I have a long way to go before rebuilding the strength and stamina I lost to a year of aggressive chemo, radiation and surgery.)

I’ve written here before about how, for the majority of women, the first year post treatment is harder than the year of treatment itself. I know (and am comforted by the fact) that my current struggles are not unique, just as I know that in the months ahead, I will likely walk steep and treacherous road. In other words, I know I am not done with breast cancer. I know the hardest parts are likely yet to come. (Many of you know this because you know the same road. I hope the rest of you will realize it now, too: Your mother, sister, wife, daughter, friend who has just finished breast cancer treatment is not done with breast cancer. The hardest parts are likely yet to come.) All three of these things are true at once:

  • I am ready for the next leg of the journey.
  • I am terrified about the next leg of the journey.
  • I am brimming with eye-popping wonder about the next leg of the journey.

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For the last many days, as I start a new chapter of my life, I have wondered whether it is also time to start a new chapter with this blog. I know I will keep writing. I know that some (if not more than some) of that writing will continue to explore the impact of breast cancer in my life. I know that writers, like myself, want an audience and that I have been buoyed by this audience. I know that some of the blogs I most frequent are by women reflecting on life post breast cancer treatment, and that I could continue on here by doing the same. All of this is true, and yet, it feels like time to do something different.

I have no idea what that means, not yet, not amidst the swirls of dust. I think it is very likely that the “something different” will be a subtle shift: that I will continue to post here but with a new focus or a re-imagined site. I am not prepared to close the door. Instead, I am drawing a soft line in the sand; I am turning to a blank page and keeping the book open.

Until I return, I leave you with this picture of me cocooned by my wall of cards, which sprouted and bloomed over the last year. This picture, these cards, my wall — they are a tribute to my year, to so many of you, to what I have learned and survived and lost and loved. Thank you for walking here with me. I hope you will stick around and float with me for awhile, too.

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Good-Bye and Good Riddance October!

October’s saving grace is that it is the month I became a mother and the month I get to celebrate my oldest child’s birthday (as well as my dear Mom’s birthday).

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I could otherwise do without October.

October is my cancerversary month. It’s when (one year ago) I found the lump in my left breast. It’s when (at 39) I had my first mammogram. It’s when the radiologist told me she had concerns about the imaging. It’s when I had my triple biopsy. It’s when the nurse called and said they found cancer in two of those sites and “pre-cancer” in the third. It’s when I was told I needed a left mastectomy. October is now (as of two weeks ago) also when my reconstruction failed and when I experienced what has felt like my second mastectomy in 5 months.

In addition to being my cancerversary, October is also (as so many of you know) breast cancer awareness month. Ironically, this is the first year that I’ve been aware of that. Though I was obviously plenty aware of breast cancer last month, my awareness has nonetheless been raised in the last few weeks:

I’ve become aware of outrageously insensitive campaigns like “Show your [bra] strap” and “No bra day.” I’ve learned about fabulous counter-campaigns like “Show your [mastectomy] scar.” (In case you were wondering, none of us who have been mutilated by breast cancer want healthy breasts shoved in our faces in the name of “support.” I can barely stand to watch movie scenes with women in bras because it is a painful reminder of so much that has been lost… and I have lost so much more than a body part.)

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I’ve become more aware than ever of the sexualization of breast cancer. (Isn’t it cute and sexy, all wrapped up in pink? Shall we flash some ta-tas and call it awareness?) How is it that events/ads like the one below are allowed to flourish? How is it that the entire world isn’t too utterly disgusted and ashamed to let this  happen?:

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I’ve become more aware than ever of the commercialization of breast cancer. (Buy these cancer-causing products and 1 cent will be donated to breast cancer awareness! For just $___.99, you, too, can have this pink [insert pretty much anything]!) And by the way, some or NONE of the money will go to breast cancer research/support/awareness.

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I’ve also become more aware of how much money goes to “awareness” and how little money goes to actual research for an actual cure so that actual women will stop dying from a disease that actually does kill.

This month, I’m aware of how afraid I’ve become. I’m aware that living with this new fear—the fear that I won’t get to watch my children grow up—may be my new normal.

I’m aware of how apart I feel from most people in my life. I’m aware that most people in my life not only cannot relate to what I’ve gone through. They also don’t get the extent to which I am still going through something.

I’m aware that most people think my family and I are through the worst of it; that we’re on the other side of cancer. Just as I’m aware that in many ways, the hardest part has just begun.

Last day of breast cancer treatment!

A short but VERY SWEET!! post:

Today I had my last day of radiation and my last day of 9 months of active breast cancer treatment! (I have ten years of Tamoxifen to go, but thank the gods and goddesses everywhere, my emotional state seems to be stabilizing after two months of…. well, hell.) The end of chemo was bittersweet for me, but today is simple: I feel like celebrating.

Thank you to the wonderful radiation therapists, Sara, Mariecruz, Kate and Dana, who tenderly administered my treatment every Monday-Friday for the past 6 weeks. (And yes, I do have purple hair. I felt the urge to do something a couple of weeks ago; now I’m anxiously waiting for the purple to grow out.)

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Moving forward, I will continue to explore questions that have been prominent in my mind and heart these last many months. (As always, I would love to hear other people’s responses!)

  • What brings me joy, and how can I bring more of that joy into my everyday?
  • Who am I really? Who am I now?
  • What about my life do I want to change and what do I want to nurture?
  • For what—and for whom—am I grateful?

Grasping and Being

How easy it is for the grasping to sneak back in—like weeds pushing up through cracks in pavement, but less lovely. Still, I am trying to slow down enough to notice both (the grasping and the patches of green in grey cement).

With the grasping, I am trying: “Look. There’s that anxiety again; the wanting-things-to-be-a-certain-way thinking,” and to keep walking, letting each go as a passing thought that is not-me.

plant concreteWith the weeds, I am trying: “Look! Look at the patches of green in grey cement!” and to bend down and notice the tendrils of stem and leaf reaching toward sky. An image of hope that, had I not slowed down enough to see, would be crushed under foot.

Today is our last day in this wide-open Arizona sky. Our last day surrounded by red rock and hours upon hours with nothing to do but be.

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I am proud of myself for not grasping too hard. It is not uncommon for me to leave before it is time to leave: to inventory all that will soon be “lost”; to mentally transport myself back to the to-do lists waiting for me at home before I actually am home. So I am proud that this morning, when I woke up counting the number of hours until we leave this place (22) and the number of days until my surgery (5), I didn’t crawl down the dark and endless hole lined with accompanying thoughts. Instead, I did what needed to be done (return the pre-registration call from the hospital; leave a message for my oncologist); and what I knew would help (watch my thoughts like an outside observer watching the passing clouds; listen again to IMG_1043_2Belleruth Naparstek’s pre-surgery relaxation CD); and then what I wanted to do (write; play pool—and in the pool— with my family; soak up every last minute of this glorious place and time).

Still, I am aware of how utterly precarious this “just being” is. Sitting here now, I feel the precariousness in my bones; feel how easy for the “just being” to turn into yet another form of grasping—of me trying desperately, desperately to sink into presence. It is like walking uphill at the Grand Canyon. Stunningly beautiful, and so damn hard.

But also an absolute must. (After all, I don’t want to miss out on a “once in a lifetime” experience!) And so, I keep coming back: to this moment, to the passing clouds, to a splash of green pushing through concrete.

To-Do Lists, the Grand Canyon and Gaining Perspective

My wonderful new writing friend asked, in response to my last post, whether I might share what’s on my “fitting everything in before surgery” to-do list. Great question, as I’d love to know what’s on other people’s “fitting in” or “living life to the fullest” or “I’ll feel complete once I….” to-do lists. What do you want to accomplish before you go to sleep at night? Before you reach the end of this life?

I’m big into lists. Ask me any day of the week to see one, and I can show you a running list of varying sizes, urgencies and purposes. My pre-surgery to-do list included everything from the mundane to the social to the creative to the meditative: cleaning out my email inbox; making my way through the growing pile of papers on my clutter table; purging closets and garden sheds and basement shelves; making time to walk, eat, tea with new friends; making time to reconnect with old friends; finally finishing Sophie’s and Harrison’s stalled baby books; organizing my most recent photos; reading Prepare for Surgery, Heal Faster; listening (often) to the accompanying CD; carving out time to slow down and relax.

Just writing that to-do list makes me breathless, which is how I was the last couple of weeks, until a couple of days ago when my family (Josh, Sophie and Harrison, my parents), climbed into our minivan at 6 in the morning for the first leg of our journey toward the Grand Canyon. Image 26

Not long after I was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2014 and told I would need surgery, I knew I wanted to take a trip beforehand. I wasn’t sure when or with whom it would happen, but getting away felt important. And important it has been, even more so than I first imagined. Because after weeks of anxiously trying to “fit everything in before surgery,” I am relaxed. I am happy. I am having (one of the things on my to-do list) quality, focused, fun time with my children and with my myself (not to mention my husband and my parents).

And not only am I relaxed and happy and enjoying my children. Yesterday I got to see the Grand Canyon for the first time.

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Yesterday I also listened to Belleruth Naparstek’s pre-surgery, relaxation CD (thank you Linda and Elanit), and as soon as I closed my eyes, I was surrounded by millions-year-old, red rock. Surrounded by open space and long-ago history. Surrounded by—immersed in—perspective and gratitude and calm.

I am but a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck. Somehow, sinking into that fact has always calmed me. The same way that sitting on this porch and looking out over the wide-open Arizona landscape, with its wide-open sky, calms me. If my life, my breast cancer, my anxiety, my to-do list is but a tiny speck, then why get weighed down by any of it? If I am so unimportant (what a liberating thought!), then what else is there to do than feel this warm breeze on my forearms and toes? What else is there to do but soak in my son’s voice from the other end of the porch and the crow’s call from across the trees? What else is there to do than sink into this moment, fully and completely? (Amazing how as soon as I do sink in, I also hear the wind in the tree in front of me, which sounds different from the wind in the grass to my left and different still from the wind in the tree on the other side of the fence. And then there are the birds: the constant chirp, chirp, chirp interspersed with the occasional, more high-pitched call in the distance and the even more occasional cacophony of birds meeting in the same tree with the wind.)

Harrison, knowing that neither his parents nor grandparents had been to the Grand Canyon before, kept saying yesterday, “This is a once in a lifetime experience! I might never see this again!”

And so is this moment, a once in a lifetime experience.

Easier for me to say and feel from this porch than when I’m sitting at home in front of a table over-flowing with bills and unopened mail. But the more I soak up each moment, the more I will carry this feeling with me—the same way I hope to carry those millions-year-old, red rocks with me. The more I soak up each moment, the easier it will be for me to feel the vast, liberating openness, no matter my next challenge; no matter what is next on my to-do list.