I am important, I count …

These are powerful words. It took me a long time to understand them, to accept that they applied to me too. I like them because they have no caveats or criteria; they belong to every living thing.

I grew up believing that worth had to be earned. It came with hard work, or hair color, or weight, or any other number of inane benchmarks that have absolutely no meaning whatsoever outside of the construct of social or societal norms. Move somewhere else and they change; live long enough and they’ll change right where you are. It took a tango with breast cancer for me to really look at myself and accept my own value. My one regret … that it took me so long.

I’m not alone in this, the benchmarking of my self worth against what I have accomplished, how my physical appearance conforms to what is considered attractive in our society, or who does or doesn’t like or love me. I remember when I was single, feeling completely unloved and alone, giving no thought at all to the family and friends who adored me. (If it sounds familiar, own it, shame-free.) It took cancer for me to really see the people around me and appreciate them.

Throughout my life I have always felt too tall, first too big and now too thin (societal norms have changed, I have not; I’ve been the same size since college.) I have had few close friends and always felt like the odd man out. My mother has been quick to point out that it is my own doing. But is it? Research shows that some people are just like that. Some have, more so need, gaggles of friends to be happy, others are content with a handful of close friends. Some like/need to be social to be fulfilled, others prefer/need to be alone or with one companion. It’s trying to be something you’re not that messes with you. If you are uncomfortable in the setting you think you should be in, self doubt creeps in and right behind it personal ostracism. If you aren’t content with and accept yourself as who you are, how can anyone else? Forget about trying to fit into a mold the world wants to cram you into and just be yourself.

I’m an odd duck, and I’m the first one to admit it. I like being this way, though. It suits me. Yesterday, high overhead, a momma bear tickled the belly of her cub, his four cloudy paws pointed to the heavens as he giggled in glee. My world is pretty dang fun. I see fantastical images every where I turn and a story beckons from every nook and cranny. What’s not to like? It took me a long time to get to this place. It wasn’t an easy road, and sometimes not a particularly happy road, but every stop along the way had a purpose and was worth it. It made me who I am today, and that’s pretty darn great.

My context of things

In last week’s post, I alluded to the conundrum of breast cancer being the prevailing context of my life. No one wants a malady to be the lens through which they filter daily events, but what if it so happens that this thing I have been trying desperately to muscle out of the limelight is indeed the very thing that makes the most sense to be there?

Breast cancer is everywhere, even television and movies dabble in it (granted, I only watch comedies.) Parenthood inflicted a cast member with it, as did Jane the Virgin. Heck, even Glitch, which is about a bunch of people who come back from the dead, has one come back who had succumbed to breast cancer. (A shout out to Big Bang Theory for not doing a cancer bit and opting to give Howard a vasectomy instead.) Is any of it relevant? I don’t know. My experience didn’t look like any of the ones I see on TV or in movies. Maybe I just got lucky. It concerns me that someone diagnosed with any form of cancer will think that what they see on TV or in a movie will be the blueprint for their experience. Every experience is unique, so going into it with an open mind and a large reserve of positivity I think would be the best jumping-off point.

I do find myself combing back through my year in treatment to try and recall my tricks for staying upbeat. Life is pretty darn grand when surfed on a wave of happy-go-lucky positivity. Let’s face it, being happy just feels good. Really good. Add to it the rush of hormonal happy juice that flows when you are happy and I really wonder why I let it slip away, even for one day. Yet I did, and I hazard a guess that we all do, because try as we might things get in the way, irritating, frustrating, stressful things that punch holes in our happy thoughts faster than a family of moles does a golf course.

I used to be really good at turning sour situations into glasses of lemonade. I can still do it, but now it is often preceded by days of stewing and frowns. I think where I went awry is that I don’t take the time to relax and recharge like I used to. Sometimes it’s just a question of shifting gears, doing something different, switching my thoughts to something new so the angst-inducing thoughts that are bogging me down are pushed aside for a moment. What really helps is to give someone else your full attention. I imagine that is something most of us don’t do often enough. Forget about what’s on your mind and focus entirely on what’s going on with them. Pets are great for that.

Today I spent several hours on the hammock with my cat, taking time to focus on her and stroke her back and belly. She purred; I nodded in agreement. I also spent a good bit of time soaking in the pool talking with my husband, about positivity, oddly enough. It seems we have both found ourselves on the same path at the same time. Kismet strikes again.

Reminiscing about a more relaxing time

And so life rolls on. It has been three months since my last blog post (sorry about that). I’d like to say that all the reasons I told myself I wasn’t writing panned out, like finishing the novel I’ve been working on (I can’t seem to get the ending right) or that I want to stop seeing my life through the context of breast cancer, but the reality is that I’ve met with epic fails on both accounts. Just like B.B.C. (before breast cancer), work has taken over my life much akin to kudzu in the Southeast. I find myself reminiscing back to the lazy, hazy months of chemo, where life had clarity and perspective. Now, I’m on a small boat in roaring rapids wondering how to reach the shore.

Funny that the highlight of the last five years that I fall back on again and again is my year of breast cancer treatment. Can that really be my happy place? I was well rested, surrounded by love and had virtually no demands on my life. I had room to breath and space to find balance. Now, I’m lucky if I’m home early enough to have dinner before falling into bed, only to wake up a handful of hours later with my mind a-whir over the pace of the coming days. I know it is my fault, I have let my flotilla of bliss gradually slip away until I am now left with one dingy battling the rapids of life. So back I turn, rummaging through the memories of breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and survival, trying to recapture the recipe of how I managed it.

I’m not alone, I suspect, in the insanely busy category, yet to find quiet I have taken on yet another activity. I purchased a treadmill and took up running (or a loose definition thereof) several months ago. I find when my feet hit the treadmill, the outside world goes away. Maybe it is my yoga background and the concept that when you step on a yoga mat you leave your stuff behind. When I get on the treadmill, whether I’m walking or running, the rest of the world temporarily slips away and I’m left with nothing but the task at hand. Using the BitGym app definitely helps too. With guided runs, I am not left with my own thoughts for too long. Hill climbs and sprints pepper the workout, along with fun facts about whatever exotic destination I am traversing that morning. The redwoods in California, Mount Revelstoke National Park in British Columbia, downtown Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as Australia, Costa Rica, Germany and Italy, I’ve jogged through some interesting terrain in the comfort of my home. They are a blessed distraction, if only for a short while.

And of course the hammock. I have reacquainted myself with my trusty friend. A cool breeze and the twinkle of wind chimes complete the scene. The clouds have nothing to say today, no secrets to divulge, or maybe I’m out of practice on that front too. No matter, it will come back to me. I can feel it, the familiar calm rallying, begging for me to come home. The way seems clear, obvious really, but then again it always is.

Waiting for it to happen

Lately I find myself drifting back to the evening of my first chemo treatment. I get into bed and lie down and I am instantly transported back to that first night. The small catch in my breath reminds me I am still waiting, waiting for “it” to happen. I don’t know what “it” is, only that it likely isn’t good, and so I wait for it to unleash its unholy hell upon me.

In reality, nothing bad happened that first night. Maybe I was colder than usual, sweat a great deal and felt like I could have drunk Lake Erie, but none of it was scar-worthy. No vomiting or runaway fever or any number of horrible scenarios that can be imagined thanks to the silver screen, yet still, I wait.

Odd that such a milk-toast memory would linger. Maybe if something nightmarish had ensued that first night my wait would be over. I would have a bad memory to look back on and be done with it. Maybe a Linda Blair impersonation that first night would have set my fears at ease, the worst being over, and I could go on my merry way, but alas, I didn’t, so I can’t, and so here I am, waiting.

I’m not one to shy away from a memory, but this one is picking up steam and rears its head with surprising regularity. There is nothing to unpack other than this nagging sensation of unrequited fear. I suppose there is such a thing; the let down of an expectation unmet is a powerful thing. Why limit it only to love? Let’s add fear to the mix and I can at least put the ‘why’ to bed.

And so we come full circle; back to bed, where I wait, for something to happen. It’s been two years since my treatment ended; I hear five years is some sort of benchmark, as is ten years. My oncologist says the longer you go without a recurrence, the lower your odds of it happening. Makes sense to me, although a part of me thinks it’s a crap shoot. The body is a complicated place …

And so I wait …

The wonderfully amazing chaos called life

I spend a lot of time contemplating the twists and turns in my life. Not to plot the what-ifs, but to wonder at the intricacy of events that had to happen to bring me to exactly this point in time. It can be mind boggling, if you let it, or it can create order from an existence that might otherwise be branded as chaos. For me it is the latter. I fashion order from the chaos of life, and it brings me comfort.

Imagine your life as an enormous spider web with never-ending connections to every person and thing in time. Imagine the specific random plucking of each strand sending vibrations throughout the web, setting in motion events we may never even know happen, yet the repercussions affect us, nudging us toward a specific place in time we need to be or an event we need to experience that may change the course of our life.

Sound crazy? Maybe, but we have all experienced it, being in the right place at the right time, or avoiding the wrong place because of a fluke, a random event that altered our schedule, our route, to put us somewhere we don’t normally frequent. I met my husband that way, in a grocery store I didn’t normally go to, because I missed my turn and ended up at a different store. How do we do that? Miss turns we have taken for years, lose time so that one moment the turn is ahead of us and the next it is behind us, sending us off course to somewhere we normally don’t go, to cross paths with someone who will change our lives forever. Is it random or designed?

I think about that event a lot. What if I had railed against the order of things and made my way to my favorite store anyway, forgoing the nudge to an alternate destination? Would Ken and I ever have met? I’d like to think that the universe would have kept trying and found new ways for our paths to cross. It is also possible that day and time were the critical moment when we were both open to meeting (attitude has a lot to do with meeting potential life partners) and after that the window would close. We would pass one another, unmoved and unnoticed, with only a faint smile of polite social acknowledgment each subsequent time our paths crossed.

I’d like to think I’d never pass my husband unmoved and not notice him, but I can’t promise that. I do know that when we met everything changed. Everything suddenly made sense.

I do believe we have a life path we follow, a sort of lesson plan for what we need to accomplish this go-round. That doesn’t mean life events are mapped out, just that we arrive here with a plan, and how we execute that plan is up to us. Imagine life as a long, winding trail through the woods. Staying on the path does not guarantee an easy go of it; even on the path sometimes the way can be difficult. We also have the ability to explore off the trail, to wander, even get lost. We are free, after all, to make our own choices. We also have instincts, some call them gut feelings, about people, events, places, that when listened to help us navigate the pitfalls along the trail. We have tools to use, or not, a path to follow, or not. It’s entirely up to us.

It’s difficult to hear what our instincts have to say over the din of life, but they are there, frantically trying to get our attention. I try to listen to mine, at least give them a voice, so they have a say in what will come next. I especially listen to them when I have important life decisions to make. That little voice inside, when you push aside the chatter of fear and the seven deadly sins, will always point true north. It will always guide you to what is best for you, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.  

I believe the key to life is to live it, not worry over it. In each and every moment, there are things we perceive as good things happening and things we perceive as not-so-good things happening, but those are just labels. Things just happen. In this wonderfully amazing chaos called “life” that we exist in, we collide with people and events all the time. Many of them have no impact, but some of them change our lives forever. It is up to us to live each and every one of those moments to the fullest, squeeze every bit of joy out of them that we can, and then move on to the next one, hopefully having made a new friend, brightened someone else’s day or met your life partner in the process. The key to a happy life amid the chaos is attitude, my friend. Attitude is, quite simply, everything!

Laughing all the Way

June 28 will be the three-year anniversary of my diagnosis with breast cancer; July 3 is the two-year anniversary of my last treatment. It was radiation, and my underarm was burnt to a crisp and smelled like death. I remember it well, fondly actually, and with wonder. Within 10 days it was healed and a distant memory. The amazing healing ability of the body …

Throughout my adventure, I heard again and again that I should turn this into a book. To that end, Laughing All the Way: Not Your Usual Breast Cancer Journal is now available on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle formats. It can also be read through Amazon Prime and Kindle Unlimited.

Link to Book

Thank you for your encouragement, for following along, for reading and sharing my thoughts with others you thought might benefit, and for seeing the fun in it all while understanding the gravity that rumbled beneath the surface. If you would please share this for me, that would be awesome. Apparently since the subject matter of the book is personal illness, my advertising options with Amazon.com are limited.

Thank you!

Cruising through the lens of an experiential blogger

There are a bunch of reasons I haven’t written about my recent vacation cruise. For starters, I’m not a travel blogger. Second, I don’t travel for pleasure that often and when I do, I revel in the experience more than I concern myself with the details of the sights, so it wouldn’t really read like a travel blog. I prefer to soak up the feelings about a place more than ooh and aaah over the visuals. Still, it’s nagging at me. Those five days have something they want to say, thoughts they want to share, lessons they want to pass on, and I want to honor that (and stop the nagging). So, in deference to the voice within, here are some highlights of my trip, aka cruising through the lens of an experiential blogger.

1. Virgin Mango Daiquiris – I don’t drink alcohol, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a tropical frozen drink. When in the Caribbean, go mango! Sweet, frozen goodness that slides over the tongue like a river of heaven. Add the ocean breeze in your hair and the lap of the waves on the hull and it’s better than a day at a spa. Sometimes relaxing is as simple as a change of pace for your senses.

2. Steel bands on the pier – Music always sounds better when my body gets involved. Hands in the air, a swivel of the hips and a backbeat in my step brings the first impression of any island home. It’s hard not to smile, or join in, when their is so much fun to be had. Heck, even the band cracked a grin in Haiti. Listen to music with your ears, but feel it with your feet.

3. Laughter – Nothing feels quite so good as real laughter, the kind that erupts without warning and insists on running its course unfettered. My best friend, Heather, she knows how to laugh, and when I’m with her, the laughter flows like champagne on New Years Eve. The entire trip was seasoned with laughter to a mirthful perfection that would put a pair of rose colored glasses to shame. Laughter is tonic for the soul.

So you are likely wondering about that last statement. Laughter, for me, makes everything better, makes everything okay. I laughed my way through chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation treatment so I know what I’m talking about – attitude is everything in life. Laugh, often and genuinely. Laugh until your belly hurts, laugh until you cry, and then look at the world with fresh eyes. That rosy glow is laughter at work.

4. Please and thank you – some of my best vacation experiences were the gratitude from crew members when they were addressed with “please” and appreciated with “thank you”. They are small things, but orders become requests when wrapped in politeness. Please don’t leave your manners at home when you travel. Thank you.

5. Say good morning, afternoon or evening to everyone you pass in the halls and smiles will ensue. It’s a small thing, but the walls we put up tumble down under the power of an enthusiastic greeting. I found when I reached out, most people responded regardless of their age, nationality or sex. Being noticed is a universal feel good.

6. Smile, smile, smile – frowning is hard work. It takes more muscular effort to wrinkle up your forehead, drag down the corners of your mouth and purse your lips then to let it all fly free in a smile. Plus we all look better with a smile. A relaxed countenance is more inviting than a frown. Yet even I find my brows crunched together at times, telling me it’s time to fly my smile flag. Your face is your calling card, so choose wisely what you wish to wear on it.

There are delicious moments going on all the time. Sometimes it takes a cruise to remind us, to press the reset button and get us out of our rut. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and smell the sea air, mountain air, whatever air takes you to your happy place. Let it jump start your smile, then open your eyes to all the wonders around you right now.

Perfectly imperfect

Lately I have been taking grim trips down memory lane. You know the kind, the ones where you revisit old events with chagrin and, dare I say it, embarrassment. I’m not really prone to embarrassment, but lately I seem to be entertaining it in relation to certain occasions. In reality, if I step away from whatever “stuff” seems to be sucking at me, I see most of it isn’t really that bad, yet still I’m vexed about it. And so it goes when you wear “less-than” tinted glasses.

Sometimes I wonder if these questionable choices are due to an inability to control an outcome I would have preferred. It’s not such a strange concept, we do it all the time. Ruin that diet with ice cream? Then might as well have two bowls, heck, the whole carton! Slip up on your effort to curb (fill in the blank – alcohol, cigarettes, meat, dairy, sex … ), then you might as well let today be your last hurrah (again) and enjoy the heck out of it before tomorrow comes and you lay a blanket of misery and self-loathing over yourself for comfort. Looking back, and around me, I see these reactions as an effort to create control where control has failed. If I can’t control the outcome I want, then why not embrace the outcome I have been given? Why not just be.

Maybe that’s the core issue, the feeling that we cannot just be ourselves. There always seems to be some part of ourselves we need to change to attain perfection, reach Nirvana, to be lovable and be loved, when in reality, all that feeling less-than is the only thing we need to change.

Even as I type this, I can feel it looking over my shoulder, breathing it’s gnarly breath on my neck, a snicker on its thin lips. Less-than never feels threatened, it only becomes mildly amused. It is unstoppable. It is a part of me (you, all of us!) as much as my confident side, sad side, happy side, passionate side, angry side and gentle side, which means it is really up to me to develop a better relationship with less-than, just as I have one with my other emotions.

Here is the thing, though. Less-than has really lousy interpersonal skills. It is supposed to be a motivator, yet somewhere along the line the blueprints for that neuro-pathway went awry and instead of a nice bridge, like the kind you find on a country lane, it is more like a rickety Burma Bridge. Integrated correctly, less-than should be the one that motivates me when the encouragement of a reward fails, urging the other parts of me to want to explore the world when I’d rather stay snuggled under the covers, or to write about it instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.

Less-than is a member of the family of emotions and skills I have accumulated over the years, and as such it is present in every choice I make and everything I do. What is up to me is how I treat this esteemed member of my family, with shame and disdain, or like a quirky aunt. Personally, I like quirky aunts, and so I have high hopes for my new venture into friendship with the less-than voice of my psyche.

In reality, no one can make me feel less-than, only me. The feelings that well up to encourage me to be more, do more, I am free to process any way I want and it is I that have chosen to turn myself into a knot over a simple suggestion of change, new activity or differing physical attribute. I spent a good deal of my life trying to be perfect, yet here I am, no breasts, five pounds heavier and happier and more well balanced than I have ever been. In reality, the only unhealthy thing about me was obsessing so much about meaningless things.

Today, I don’t worry about myself physically except to be healthy and happy and I certainly don’t worry about what size bra I need. The universe has a sense of humor and I have embraced the joke. This one time, less-than gave a hint and I realized it wasn’t to chase rabbits down stale rabbit holes, it was to possibly learn the only lesson that ever mattered. I am me and always will be. The rest is just a suggestion.

It seems, less-than has a sense of humor too.

Shoes on the road

I was driving down I4 Sunday (really it could have been any day) and saw a sneaker on the side of the road. I imagined it tumbling along, heel over toe, laces akimbo, until it slowed and finally came to a ragged stop on its side, its tongue lolling from the ride. But how did it get there? How did one sneaker break free from its mate and find itself here, all alone, on this road?

Maybe the two of them were tossed in the bed of a pickup truck for the ride home, too rank from whatever activity they had engaged in to share the cab. With enough speed, any bump could have sent it sailing, forever parting the duo.

Or maybe some feisty teens (or adults for that matter) in a fit of passion, anger or over-exuberant high jinx merely ripped it off the foot of a car mate and sent it sailing out the window. The possibilities are endless given a well fueled imagination. But still, why one sneaker?

And so it is with the myriad of things that litter the side of the road, which makes me wonder, do I have a similar scenario on the side of my road? Is my life path strewn with objects and events that have skidded off unnoticed, left forgotten on the side of the road?

It is disconcerting that there may be unaccounted for experiences lying about, never having reached their mark or lived up to their full potential. Would they have mattered? Would they have been the butterfly wing that dramatically changed my life, or would they have merely folded in with all the life experiences that stayed on the trail to get me exactly where I am today?

I would like to think that they would have mattered, but maybe the unromantic truth is that they were simply jostled aside by something more important, something that was destined to hold more weight, to be more critical to the outcome.

Still, whenever I see a solitary sneaker I will wonder what life would have been like if it hadn’t lost its mate.

Why I’m lonely too

I recently read an article in the AARP Bulletin (March 2019, Volume 60, No. 2) (and yes, I read the AARP Bulletin, or at least skim the articles) that adults have three life stages when they are most vulnerable to loneliness – our late 20s, mid-50s and late 80s. They don’t mention why these age milestones trigger loneliness in people, Americans in particular, but I’ll take a guess that they have something to do with thought-I-would-have-accomplished-more-by-now, not-where-I-thought-I-would-be-at-this-point-in-my-life, and not-what-I-expected-my-life-to-be-like. There is a common thread that runs through these assessments, a common puppet master that yanks our strings again and again. Its name is Expectation.

Ah, yes, expectations unmet, I know thee well. Yes, even I have lived my life under the specter of misguided goals and unreasonable milestones. What are they really, these self-imposed benchmarks through life, except for socially approved attempts at self-validation and grasps for kudos. I think about this, wrestle with it really, this need I have, that we have as humans, to seek approval from one another, even deem ourselves better than one another. I would like to say it is trained into us as children, the desire to get the best grade, get picked first (or at least not last) for a team, to be noticed, by him, or her, or anyone really, as someone worth knowing, but it starts earlier than that though, with squabbles in playpens and on playgrounds for what is “ours” and its inevitable conversion to “mine.”

I get it, really I do, this need to excel, but why don’t we make the leap that it is better to excel as a group? That it is better to share than to have? Why don’t we realize that these singular goals of grandeur come at a price far greater than ourselves? They are the breeding ground of loneliness, fertilizer for greater-than and less-than and the birth place of the great divide. They pit us against everyone around us and in our search for singularity we end up, well, alone.

I have for most of my life railed against parental expectations only to be trapped by expectations of my own making. Expectation is a grand puppet master and he has a string to pluck for every path I can imagine, so maybe loneliness does not come from our expectations, but our relationship with our self.

I would like to say I was happy in my late 20s (I cried inconsolably on my 25th birthday), but here I am in my late 50s and loneliness is once again looking for a toehold. I don’t see what I have to be lonely about. I have a wonderful husband, a delightful cat, wonderful extended family on both sides of the marital equation, and friends of all kinds (some I haven’t even met yet!). I really don’t have anything to be lonely about, except for maybe an expectation or two. And that’s the rub, right? Our expectations versus our reality. Well, take it from someone who spends a lot of time with her head in the clouds imagining fantasy worlds of all kinds, when it comes to the day to day, reality works better. Expectation free, grateful-for-today reality.