Joy

I want a break from writing about loss and grief and fear. I want to write about joy. I want to practice joy. Because I want to feel joy.

These days, I spend my days rushing to fit “everything” in before my surgery (which is on May 20th, two weeks from today). These days, when people ask how I’m doing, I say, “Eh.” These days, I am less in my day, (less in my body).

And so I want to ponder joy. Not in a I-wish-I-could, I-wish-I-had, maybe-some-day sort of pondering way. I want to think about what will bring me joy this day. I want to wake up each morning and have at the top of my to-do list:

JumpingJoy#1) Think about what will bring me joy today. (Jenny, what will bring you joy today?)

And:

#2) Do something—maybe do two or four somethings—that will bring me joy.

So what brings me joy?

  • Slowing down enough to spend 5, 15, 30 minutes of focused time with my children. Like this afternoon, when I helped Sophie turn a shoebox into a bed for her stuffies. It only fits one, and she has about 97 of them, so she explained that whichever one will go to school with her the next day gets to sleep in the bed. “Makes sense,” I shared. “Gotta have a good night sleep before school.” Then Harrison and I spent about 12 minutes working on a puzzle during which time he, not surprisingly, taught me plenty about how to tackle a puzzle. Joy followed by a little more joy.

What else brings me joy?

  • Reading my book in the middle of the day.
  • Reading to my children in the middle of the day. (I’ve never understood why that joy doesn’t translate to bedtime-reading. Unfortunately, bedtime-reading is typically the opposite of joy for me.)
  • I’m admitting it here: watching bad T.V. in the middle of the day brings me joy. It’s my ultimate guilty-pleasure—what I imagine playing hooky feels like, though I never did play hooky. Guilty, which is why I always close the curtains. If you walk by my house in the middle of an afternoon and the curtains are closed, you’ve busted me watching bad T.V.
  • For the record, if I’m watching bad T.V., I’m also doing something in front of the T.V. Sometimes it’s folding laundry or returning emails or opening mail, but none of that brings me joy. What does bring me joy, tremendous joy and calm and fulfillment, is doing a good craft project in front of bad T.V. A scrap book for a dear friend. Photo albums to pass along to my kids someday. I would gladly spend days bad-tv-crafting.
  • Sitting around a table with food and/or drink and good friends.
  • Sleeping in. Though that might be more relief than joy. Still, I’ll gladly take it.
  • Eating a delicious piece of fruit. If I’m paying attention.
  • Writing something that I feel good about.
  • Sometimes, when I can really dig in without interruption, cleaning out my closets and drawers and corners brings me joy, like it did this Sunday when I helped fill a dumpster full of crap and a minivan full of Goodwill donations.
  • Finishing a great run. Sometimes the run itself brings me joy, but only if it involves good conversation and minimal pain. Even then, I think I’m happiest when it’s over and I can savor the memory and the feeling of success without so much exertion.
  • Connecting—really connecting—with another human being.

fields flowersTomorrow, I have a too-busy day. I don’t like too-busy days. But I think I’ll make it my goal to slow down enough to collect some joy along the way.

Middle-of-The-Night Me

I don’t sleep like I used to. It’s not my typical insomnia of hours to fall asleep (though that happens, too). It’s restless night after restless night, many of them with hours of being awake while the rest of the country sleeps. It’s night after night of facing those middle-of-the-night thoughts. I hate those middle-of-the-night thoughts. I know not to take them too seriously. Know that everything feels darker in middle-of-the-night darkness. And yet, dark they (the thoughts) continue to be. Dark and heavy and bleak and stressful and sad.

They are not the inspiring, “What will I do with my one wild and precious life?” thoughts. They are the daunting and hopeless, “What will I do with my one wild and precious life?” thoughts. (On a brighter side, I laughed out loud this morning as I read what this writer had to say about her insomniac thinking.)

Earlier this week, I spent the night in a hotel room with 3 of my dear friends while 8 of our Imagechildren slept in hotel beds next door. I went to bed joyful about our April break getaway—emotionally filled up by watching our kids thrill over the adventure; filled up by talking for hours on hotel beds with girlfriends. In the morning, I got out of bed joyful about the day ahead—more hours of thrilling adventure; more time with girlfriends. So why, with joy on each end, does the middle-of-the-night still bring such suffering? Why, on this particular night, did I spend hours listening to the rain outside and the heavy breathing inside and the incessant voice in my head bringing up one dark thought after the next? Some detail about work: how did I not realize until now what I should have done but did not do? A changed friendship: would we ever get back to what seems lost? My upcoming surgery… and panic panic panic about everything having to do with that.

I spent this middle of the night thinking about this article and this blog post about the medical and emotional travails of reconstruction. About what feels like the looming loss of my body and of my comfort (again, physical; emotional). About what feels like a looming turning point that will forever divide my life into “before surgery” and “after surgery.”

“Before cancer” and “after cancer” carry a very different kind of significance, by the way. I was telling someone recently that though I would never have chosen breast cancer, neither would I wish it away at this point. There has been so much learning and growing and opening that I wouldn’t want to miss out on.

I do, however, wish this surgery weren’t happening. Will I feel differently somewhere on the other side? Will there be new learning and growing and opening that I am happy to receive in exchange for my breast?

I had expected the sleep to get easier on the other side of chemo. Had hoped that restful nights would seep back in just as the fatigue seeped out. (And the fatigue has seeped out! Two weeks ago, I never would have managed that 31-hour wonderful whirlwind getaway with 3 girlfriends and 8 children!) But last week, my oncologist said that no, my sleep issues are not because of the chemo—not the kind of direct result, anyway, that will improve now that the drugs are leaving my system. Rather, my sleep issues are a result of my chemo-induced menopause, and hence they are symptoms that just may stick around. (For the rest of my life? I am becoming my mother in ways I would rather not become my mother.)

Back from my 31 hours April break getaway, I did not wake up in a hotel room with friends, and perhaps that is why I woke up feeling sad. Because there was no immediate distraction to shake off the middle of the night. Though I did sleep more, I also dreamed of men with guns taking over my village. I dreamed what I used to dream again and again as a child but haven’t dreamed for years—of trying (desperately trying, such panic and fear) to find a safe corner to hide. Of never finding a safe corner to hide.

Am I hiding from the middle of the night? From my upcoming surgery? From some corner of myself? Am I hiding because these days, I struggle to answer that question: “What will I do with my one wild and precious [work] life?” When I find a way to live my passion, will I also find my safety—and maybe even a restful night of sleep?

Tell Me, How Do I Live My Passion?

One of my chemo gifts from Maggie was this long-beloved (likely by many of you, as well) poem by Mary Oliver (sorry about the formatting, no idea how to get rid of the giant spacing between lines):

          The Summer Day

          Who made the world?

          Who made the swan, and the black bear?

          Who made the grasshopper?

          This grasshopper, I mean—

          the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

          the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

          who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

          who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

          Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

          Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

          I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

          I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

          into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

          how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through fields,

          which is what I’ve been doing all day.

          Tell me, what else should I have done?

          Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

          Tell me, what is it you plan to do

          with your one wild and precious life?

What a perfect gift, since for weeks prior to opening this particular package, I had been exploring that exact question (not to mention the practice of being more present). For a good while, the question opened like a spring bud: glorious and inspiring, so full of possibility and hope. But lately, the question weighs on me like this east-coast winter weighed on many of you (not on me, I appreciated the fact that I was not the only one cooped up inside!); lately, the question feels heavy and dark, like a vast and sometimes hopeless unknown (or like one dark, cold winter day after the next).

What WILL I do with my one wild and precious life? More specifically, what will I do with my one wild and precious WORK life?

As I near the other side of breast cancer treatment, that question looms. How do I face the next phase of my life when I have no joyful clarity about my work-future?How do I compromise doing what I love to do—living the life of a writer—after vowing, as I faced death in a new way, to follow my passion? But how do I keep doing what I love to do when it will be time for me to get back into the game and once again bring home a regular paycheck?

How do I honor what I have learned these last months (what I am trying so hard to hold onto as I re-enter the world post chemotherapy: that life truly is short; that we can’t plan for the future because we have no idea what the future will bring; that we therefore have even more reason to savor the moment, live the moment, be the moment; even more reason to do what feeds our soul; that if we follow our passion and trust the universe, they will lead us where we need to go)? How do I honor all that while also being practical?

Which brings me to a new list of questions: Where is the difference between fear (“I need to take this work or I may not be able to pay my mortgage!”) and practicality (“If I take this work, I can pay my mortgage.”)? (Huh. Is there a difference between fear and practicality?? There must be… right?) How do I know when I am falling into an old, unwanted pattern of letting my fear guide me, versus responding to a practical need to make ends meet? And how do I balance the need to make ends meet with my unwavering, overwhelming desire to write—and not just to write, but again, to live the life of a writer. To get up day after day and spend my hours doing what I love to do (including “stroll[ing] through the fields… all day” if that is where the moment wants me; including being so present that I can see a grasshopper’s jaws move back and forth instead up and down); so that love and joy and passion and presence overflow into the rest of my doing and living and being?

flying off cliffTHAT is the one wild and precious life I want to live.

(Tell me, what is YOUR passion? What will YOU do with your one wild and precious life? I’d love a window into what feeds other people’s souls. Especially since I imagine that by sharing, we can help feed each other.)

The End of Chemo: Reflections, Remembrances and Readying for the World

Yesterday was my last chemotherapy appointment. After 4 ½ months and 16 infusions, I am finished with the first phase of my breast cancer treatment. For the past week, I have been battling severe, free-floating anxiety, which I now think had as much to do with the anticipation of this new change in my life as it did with all of the life-details to which I was attributing the stress. As mentioned in my last post, reaching this momentous occasion has been bittersweet. (In a much earlier post, I write about the mixed feelings many people experience as and after they finish cancer treatment.) Bittersweet because it means saying good-bye to all of the caretakers I’ve gotten to know at the Cancer Center; good-bye to Maggie’s packages of delight; good-bye to my routine.

But last night I realized that there is something much bigger burning beneath the surface. The end of chemo brings with it yet another significant and in many ways unknown life change, much the same way my cancer diagnosis did. With any significant change, uncertainties abound: What now? And, What do I want now? And, How do I actually make happen what I want now?  The unknown is, in and of itself, often scary (even when it is also exciting).

But it’s more than facing the unknown.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, all of the unknowns swirled around inside of me as my life transformed in ways that sent me INWARDS. Into my house, into myself. I was too sick to work, to socialize, to go outdoors.

With the end of chemotherapy, all of the uncertainties are once again swirling, but this time, as life is sending me back OUT. OUT into the world. And despite the fact that there are many ways in which I have always loved going OUT—love socializing, love traveling, love collaborating, love making new connections—going out into the world has also always come with a degree of fear.

Almost every morning, when I bring my 6-year-old Sophie to school (or say good-bye before sending her off with someone else), she clings for one more hug, often her eyes well with tears, she braces herself to leave my side and venture out into the world on her own. Amazingly, she goes; never has she grabbed hold and begged and cried (for which I have the deepest awe and respect). (Thankfully, it only takes her a couple of minutes to feel settled and safe in her classroom.) I understand her lingering completely–which only deepens my respect and awe. As a young child, I also struggled with school mornings—and then as an adult, with work mornings. I have always awoken to those mornings with a sense of loneliness and a touch of fear in my gut. I have always had to brace myself to face the wide and scary world on my own.

I think I am bracing myself now.

As I brace myself, I know that I desperately want to hold onto what I’ve learned these last several months about who I am, who I want to be, how I want to live. And I know it is much harder (at least for me) to stay grounded and true to myself when I also need to navigate the wide world and all of life’s realities.

But perhaps this is the meaning of life. Perhaps we—perhaps I—am here to find my truth, and then find ways to live that truth, not in a bubble, but in the day-to-day, real-life, wide and scary world.

Already I am feeling so much more grounded than I did over the past week. Perhaps it’s the newfound clarity rising to the surface. Perhaps it’s simply getting past the anticipation of the end of chemo and to the actual end of chemo. Whatever the reason, I am relieved and grateful to be more comfortable in my body (that the intense anxiety has eased for now). I am also feeling more excitement than fear (in this moment, at least! who knows what the next moment or tomorrow will bring!) about whatever might come next.

Before I close the door on my chemotherapy, I want to look back and remember and share with you the many wonderful people who took me to, and took care of me, during my 16 infusions.

Jen (on the right), my regular chemo nurse, who, after years as a hospice nurse, knew well how IMG_0420to take care of people in the midst of major life challenges and changes. Over the last several months, I learned about her four children and her police officer husband and her love of reading.

And Joanne (to my left), longtime nurse who then turned massage therapist about 20 years ago, after caring for her 6-year daughter old when she was diagnosed with cancer. (Her daughter is now 28 and healthy as can be.) Most weeks, Joanne would massage my shoulders or my face or twice, my feet, while we slowly got to know about one another’s lives and hopes and fears.

IMG_0518Kayla, who always took my vitals with a smile and brought me a warm blanket and chatted with me about our weekends and our children and made me feel welcome and safe and seen.

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Annie (aka “Borgy”), whom I designated as my god-mother when I was nine (despite the fact that she is Jewish, and I have never been religious); and whom I’ve always referred to as “another mother” to me, since she has known and loved and cared for me since the day I was born. She traveled 2 hours from Hunter Mountain—twice—to take me to chemo (and to take care of me during the aftermath). (Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of us during this time, but here’s a picture of her:)

Jenae, soul-friend-extraordinaire, who traveled three hours from Brooklyn to take IMG_3116care of me in the days before my parents arrived. During that time, she took me for my post-chemo fluids and steroids, which was identical to a chemo visit aside from what they were pumping into my veins, so I’m including her here (with a pre-chemo photo of us; she’s on the right).

IMG_0261My parents, Sula (aka “Amma”) and Harvey (aka “Zayde”) who took me to the bulk of my infusions, where we usually talked, sometimes did a bit of reading, very occasionally watched TV when I was too zonked to do anything else, and then toward the end, discovered the joys of travel Scrabble at chemo infusions!

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Maggie, my soul-mate, sister-friend for the last twenty-plus years (and the giver of all those chemo gifts), was usually teaching 2nd grade when I was at chemo, but thankfully had the chance to take me when she was on school break… and then Josh, who was doing a rotation next door, surprised us on his lunch break!

And my other (in addition to Maggie) nearest and dearest Northampton friends (who did so much more these past several months than take me to chemo):

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Hannah Ray! (left) and Keegan (right)

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Angela and Clover (left) and Jen and Nunia (right)

And I have to tuck in Jain here. Even though she never officially tookImage 3me to chemo, she did pop in for visits before and after and in between her midwifery shifts next door. (Again, no chemo picture, but here we are at an American Hustle dress-up party—Jain is the curly red head on the right of me in a wig.)

Letting the Wind Carry Me

In one of my meditations last week, an eagle soared into my view. But as it aimed for the sky, something held its leg. The eagle shook and squirmed, flapped frantic wings. And then suddenly, the “something” let go. First, the eagle soared free, up and up; and then, she simply floated, surrendered, the wind carrying her in all her power and luster.

The message was clear and beautiful and welcome. This is my time to let life carry me. (Where will it take me?) All I need to do is surrender. To let go of the grasping thoughts, the free-floating anxieties, the list of shoulds, the fear of what might happen if—so that I am no longer caught like that eagle’s leg. So that the wind can guide me wherever it is that I am meant to go.

Tomorrow, my mom leaves after living in my home and in my life for three (wonderful) months. Today, and in and out of a restless sleep throughout the night, I felt myself flapping frantic. Grasping to all of the things I don’t want to end (our morning mediations; watching West Wing in the middle of an afternoon). Rolling around in all of the things we could have and should have and oh how I wish we’d done these last months (taken more photos, that Friday evening yoga class). Fearing the long list of things to fear (my first morning alone; the too-quiet daytime hours; solo-parenting with chemo-fatigue strapped to my shoulders).

I could havImage 6e spent all day with my leg, my spirit, caught. And then I remembered my eagle. Let go. Let go. And so this is what I got today: An arm-in-arm walk on the bike path. My first sun in what feels like seasons. Lunch downtown on a Thursday afternoon. A hug in the kitchen. The wind carried me into all these gifts with my mom. In the words of a friend surviving metastatic breast cancer, “It was a good day.”

Listening to the Silence

In my last post, I wrote about hoping, trying to open and deepen and awaken. What does that look like in my day-to-day life? Some of what I’m aiming for is tangible: meditating for 20 minutes a day several mornings a week. Writing (reflecting) often. Much of what I’m doing is less tangible. I’m trying to be in my body and in the world and in the moment in more mindful ways. Trying to hear the silence and listen to what comes out of it.

Pausing my work life has created a huge opening. For the first time since I started my career 15 years ago, there is space in my life for new, as of yet unknown “things” to enter. I have always been very Type A. I have always been very much a planner. I have always struggled to be still. And for the past 9 and one half years since my son was born, I have also juggled a fairly consuming career alongside the consuming life of a parent. When I think about when I’ve had “space,” I think about the week my family and I spend on a secluded island in August, when all of life’s “noise” falls away leaving a beautiful, internal quiet. I think about the 8 weeks of maternity I took when each of my two children were born, weeks that weren’t particularly quiet, but were beautifully simple in that all I had to do was focus on my babies. So much of my life in between my maternity leaves and our week in August has been filled with going, doing, rushing, fixing, thinking, making, doing, doing, doing. Just writing about it makes me breathless.

Looking back two years, five years, ten years from now, I expect I will think of the months when I was in treatment for breast cancer as a time when I had space. Creating that space has been intentional. I know I need it to truly open and deepen and awaken.

Why I Love Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler, perhaps best known to the world for writing The Vagina Monologues, also wrote the following in her cancer memoir, In the Body of the World:

What if… when you got sick you weren’t a stage but in a process. And cancer, just like having your heart broken, or getting a new job, or going to school, were a teacher? What if, rather than being cast out and defined by some terminal category, you were identified as someone in the middle of a transformation that could deepen your soul, open your heart… And what if each of these things were what we were waiting for, moments of opening, of the deepening and awakening of everyone around us? (p88-89)

What if?

When I read this passage in Ensler’s book, I nodded, I smiled, I dog-earred the page, I felt not-crazy. I felt like someone understood why, instead of running screaming crying in the weeks after my breast cancer diagnosis, I flung my arms wide-open, welcoming transformation. Often since my diagnosis, I’ve thought: I want to be changed by this. Not because I long for a better life or a better me. I have a wonderful life and all-in-all, I feel pretty good about me. But because if something as big and surreal as breast cancer is going to land in my 39-now-40-year old lap, there has to be something to show for it. I want there to be something to show for it.

And so here I am, opening, deepening, awakening. (Hoping and trying, at least.)

(In addition to reading Ensler’s book, I encourage you to listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with her.)