A new-found sense of self

The other day I opened the door to the ladies’ room at work to find a young gal facing me. She was about to open it from the other side. We spent a few seconds with the prerequisite looks of surprise, before she smiled sheepishly and said, “Sorry.”  I ushered her out as I walked in, my mind buzzing in thought. Had I been quicker on the draw, which I am not these days, I would have said, “For what?” She did nothing wrong; I did nothing wrong; what did either of us have to be sorry about?

If I let my mind wander I can find a place where I might wonder if I should have apologized for whatever unknown, potentially perceived wrong I might have committed for taking up that bit of space at exactly that time, or for opening the door when maybe she wanted to open it on her own. Then again, it is also possible that I just might have reached a point in my life where I am emotionally stable enough that it doesn’t make sense to me. Even if she frowned, scolded or glared, apologizing still would not make sense to me. I did nothing wrong; she did nothing wrong. Neither of us has anything to be sorry about.

I am fascinated by this new-found sense of self that has taken up residence within me. For the first time in my life, I feel sure of who I am. It has also made me much more accepting of who everyone else is.  I am no longer driven to fix anyone or anything, preferring to let them walk their own path (okay, maybe I offer guidance here and there). I am no longer defined by my work, but rather accept it as one of multiple layers of who I am. I no longer strive for perfection, but rather excellence. I put more effort in being kind than being right, and believe that no matter what your belief system, be it in an after life, reincarnation or that this is all there is, there is no reason not to make it count. Long after we have turned to dust, we can live on in the hearts and minds of those we touch, to live on through the legacy of our deeds and actions.

Crazy, right?! It took breast cancer to screw my head on straight. I really do think that chemo gave me a complete emotional reset of sorts. I don’t know how or why, but somehow as I lost the sharpness and lightening-fast thinking ability that I had let define me, something else broke free. It’s as if as the analytical side of my brain became more and more muddled, the creative side, well, got creative, and muscled in and staked a stronger claim for itself. As the chemo worked its way out (helped along by lots and lots of good quality fish oil), the two sides seemed to settle in and work together quite nicely. One steps forward where the other is lacking, the other tempers its mate when it gets to clinical. They are operating as they were always meant to, in harmony as two halves of a whole.

And so it makes sense why, when I was lazing in the pool last weekend and I cast an inquiring eye toward the sky, I found a flotilla of clouds making its way ever-so-slowly across my backyard. A glance to the west revealed the profile of a serious young hipster, his lips puckered in a thoughtful frown, his eyebrows knitted in thought with a fop of cloud-hair shagging over his eyes.  To the east, a lioness stared me down, her large velvet nose testing the air to confirm what her eyes had seen. So different these two, the hipster and the lioness, yet so alike. One no nonsense, steeped in tradition and responsibility, the other, bucking authority at every opportunity to live a life driven by creative passion and emotion, yet each limited by the small box they have created for themselves. Separated by a sea of sky, it is my work to ensure that the serious analytical me and the creative, nurturing me never face such a wide divide again.

 

I take the stairs

I take the stairs at work. Each day, up and back; twelve steps, around the corner landing, then twelve more to the second floor. I could use the elevator, but I don’t really like elevators. They have a nasty habit of getting stuck, and I’ve seen way too many movies where it doesn’t end well for people who try to rescue themselves from stuck elevators (which I would definitely try to do), so I take the stairs. I’ve also seen too many movies where people plunged to their death in elevators. Granted, it’s only one floor so it isn’t likely that I would die, but still, it is a possibility, the plunging elevator thing, so I just pass and take the stairs.

I cannot remember the last time I took the elevator in our building. When I had knee surgery for a torn meniscus, maybe then, once or twice. For the most part I plodded up the stairs. Bend one knee and place your foot on the next step, lift the other foot to the same step. Repeat. Fun times. It wasn’t long before I was tentatively trying a more traditional climb, placing each foot on the next step ahead of the other. It was uncomfortable at first, but each day I got a little stronger, a little faster, until I was back to a normal climb in no time.

When I went through chemotherapy, I took the stairs in the parking garage. My husband drove me and we  would walk down the stairs from the fourth or fifth floor to make our way to the chemotherapy center.  After my first chemotherapy session, I can remember my husband guiding me to the elevator, but I wanted to take the stairs. I wanted to try. I reasoned that I could exit the stairs on any floor and bail out and take the elevator, so why not try? I remember taking breaks on the landings as my husband waited patiently for some signal that it was time to exit, but I pushed on. I am not a quitter, and so I clutched the railing and dragged myself up the stairs, taking breaks to catch my breath, but I did it. I climbed the stairs, like I would have when I was healthy and not pumped full of life-saving poison. For fourteen weeks I climbed those stairs, my breaks coming more often, my breathing more labored as my body weakened, but still, I climbed the stairs.

I’m sure there is an inspirational metaphor in there somewhere, or maybe we just cling to the things that make us feel whole, that affirm our normalcy in the most abnormal of times. For me, I climb the stairs. Come hell or high water, I climb the stairs. And you?

The magic of down dog

I love yoga. I’d love to come up with a pithy intro as to why, but when I tried to boil it all down, I wrote sentence after sentence only to delete them again. The reality is, I love yoga because yoga shows me how to love myself.

When people ask me what yoga is, I am usually at a loss for an answer to that too. I know yoga has a history, a lengthy genealogy of yogis that dedicated their lives to perfecting each of the eight limbs of yoga, and I know that extensive scientific research has shed light on why yoga works. All that technical stuff is best left to the yogis and scientists, though. The way I see it, when someone decides to do yoga, they are taking the first steps toward having an intimate relationship with themselves, to building a bridge between their mind and their body through their spirit.

Yoga is a personal journey and so has an infinite number of paths. Breathing, meditation, physical practice … the combinations are endless, and timeless. What works at one point in your life may not work in another, and then circles back to work again later on. Take me, for instance. I wasn’t really a big breath gal, preferring to challenge my body through physical poses and let my breath keep up as it could. Then came breast cancer. A funny thing happens when you find yourself short of breath; you pay attention!  All of a sudden, it was all about the breath.  It was my time. Breast cancer was also the start of my meditation practice. Every day, first for five minutes, then seven minutes, now until I’m ready, until I’ve heard what I need to hear. And so you see, there is no simple answer to what is yoga. It is whatever you need it to be.

Sit in a chair, close your eyes and take a deep breath in, slowly, through your nose, pause, then exhale slowly through your nose. Congratulations! You just did yoga.

I heard someone say once that the difference between prayer and meditation is that prayer is talking to God (the universe, whomever you wish to talk to) and meditation is listening. I like that, although when I meditate I do both. I talk to the universe, and then I listen for what the universe has to tell me. It is subtle, but it is there, if you pay attention. It has also helped me to pay attention to and appreciate other things in my life. For instance, several weeks ago we had a 90th birthday party for my mother. Wow!  90 years old! Right?! She is still with me, as vibrant and amazing as ever. What a blessing! The room was packed with 100 family members and friends. Our family binds together five family trees and four generations. With friends and family members from 4 months old to 97 years old, my mother’s life is rich, and so is mine. I saw people I had not seen for 40 years. It is mind boggling, the great gift of family she has, that I have. Think about it the next time you are with family or friends. Forget about the minutia of negativity that usually peppers these gatherings and take a step back and absorb the gift of friendship and family that enrich your life. Pretty cool, right? Your family or circle of friends doesn’t have to be as large as my mother’s, maybe it is just a handful strong. It is yours though, and you are blessed by it.

I wake up every morning with more aches and pains than a person my age should have. My bones creak under the strain of staying healthy, staying dense, as my anti-hormone pills leach at them. I am slower, much slower, to get going in the morning, to work out the kinks, to claim my spot on my yoga mat. Some days I opt for restorative yoga (fancy way of saying stretching), a gentle warm-up to my day. I take it day-by-day, feeling my way through this new chapter of my yoga journey. The universe says it’s okay, this new subroutine of wait-and-see. The old me wants to forge ahead and work through the pain, but the new me says wait and see. I am taking a page from my husband’s playbook, his tortoise-like approach to life, where slow-and-steady wins the race. Who knows, maybe you can teach an old hare new tricks. I will wait and see.

Yes, there is magic in down dog. It is awkward, uncomfortable and physically, mentally and spiritually challenging. I can remember when I was new to yoga, when downward facing dog felt like torture. Eventually the body yields, the mind softens, the spirit steps in and down dog falls into place. It is an amazing feeling, to finally melt into a space that feels utterly familiar, yet you don’t know why or when. It is the magic of down dog. It is the magic of yoga.

Give yoga a try. There are dozens of kinds, each have a different flavor, a different feeling in the body and mind. If you go to one studio and don’t care for it, go somewhere else. If it irritates you, that’s a different story, then you are probably right where you belong (yoga has a way of working out your emotional kinks along with your physical ones). Here is a link that briefly explains the different types of physical yoga practices. The most common are Hatha, Vinyasa and Bikram (hot yoga). If you have trouble getting up and down off the floor, there is chair yoga. Lately the trend is to do all kinds of yoga in heated rooms, so be sure to ask about that if sweating profusely is not your thing. If you prefer to practice in the privacy of your own home, the Down Dog app is excellent. You can choose your pace, the length of time you want to practice, the kind of practice and even select special areas to work on. I started out doing twelve minutes a day. Anyone can muddle through twelve minutes, right? Now I’m up to thirty-five minutes and I’m having a blast, aches and pains and all.

For the record, down dog still sucks, but less than before. It’s not magical again, yet …

Love the hair

“Love the hair!”

I hear it just about every day. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing, someone will tell me, “Love the hair.”

Last December, I took the plunge and had teal and purple streaks put in my hair. It wasn’t a whim, it was a post-cancer treatment fling, or so I thought. I survived chemo and radiation, what’s a little hair color going to do? When Jeffrey, my hairdresser, asked me if I wanted teal or purple streaks, I said both. What the heck, right? If you are going to go bold, then be bold! That said, Jeffrey is a master at his craft. They are subtle streaks; layers of purple and teal zig-zag  through the top and longer side of my stylishly short, dark hair. I make no effort (never have) to hide the sprinkles of grey. They are free to do as they please, to cavort alongside the dashes of color. A trick of the light, that’s what most people think, until they get close and realize that the color is really there, and then they smile.

This is a new experience for me, for people to approach me and initiate conversation about my hair, or anything else for that matter.  I’ve always been rather reserved, quiet even, slipping through life under the radar. Now, the day doesn’t seem quite right if someone doesn’t comment on my hair. The grocery store is a hot-bed of people who love my hair. Check-out gals and guys and shoppers of all ages (I knew I got it right when a doting elderly man tore himself away from his wife for the briefest of moments, turned to me with a twinkle in his eyes as I passed by and, pointing to his own hair, nodded his head with approving glee.) Then there was the sign installer on Orange Avenue as I walked back to my car from Orlando Health, and the waitress at my mother’s 90th birthday party who broke club protocol long enough to smile wickedly and proclaim her adoration for my coif before returning to her Stepford-esque serving duties. Corporate titans that populate the Board of the nonprofit I work for and even someone in the rows behind me at the church I recently started attending, all fans. They pop up out of nowhere, all sporting smiles, their day having been brightened by the peacock colors in my hair.

It’s interesting, really, that something that I did purely for myself can have such an impact on others. Isn’t that the way, though? Like pebbles in a pond, our actions ripple out and touch people far and wide. We all know that, even if we don’t always pay attention to it. It is nice to know, though, that I am leaving swells of smiles in my wake.

 

 

Fluffy clouds and tea leaves

With the balmy spring weather upon us, I am drawn once again to our hammock. The shifting breeze toys with the wind chimes, coaxing out errant melodies much akin to a pianist noodling on the keys of an irresistible piano; unidentifiable, but pleasing nonetheless. And so, relaxed and mesmerized by the free-form concert, I turn my face to the clouds to see what the universe wants to tell me.

I will admit that over the last year and a half I’ve spent a lot of time studying the clouds that float over my backyard. I have no idea what type of clouds they are, because their meteorological makeup is of no real concern. My interest is in their movements, their layout, the images they present. Yesterday an elephant calf scurried along the sky on his knees, nose extended out in front of him along the ground, in a curious game of who-knows-what. He scampered around up there for quite a while (a still day will do that), before drifting away. There is a veritable ark of animals and people up there on any given day, waiting to be discovered, to merge their stories with mine.

Let me back up a little. Recently, my mother told me that when she was young she read tea leaves. When I asked her if she really could read tea leaves or if she just read tea leaves, she honestly admitted, “a little of both.” I don’t doubt it for a moment. Anyone who knows my mother knows that Maria is a treasure trove of interesting experiences and this is just the most recent tidbit to pop out of her bag of tricks. It got me thinking though, are tea leaves so different from clouds? I can’t honestly say I read clouds, but I will say that I see an awful lot of stuff going on up in the sky, and it more often than not is a guidepost for what is going on in my life.

For instance, last week I saw a Chinese dragon parading across an otherwise blue sky, and earlier this week a wizened old man, his face turned to the sunlight, made a brave final stand before dark rain clouds overtook him, obscuring him from my curious eyes. Long after he was gone from sight, I envisioned him still up there, face basking in the warmth of the sun, while the world beneath retreated indoors to avoid the rain. And to this day, I have not forgotten the pointy-eared goblin peering at me from his perch in the clouds, his gaze as firmly on me as mine was on him. Each of these fluffy flashes of imagery stir something in me, spur a thought I can explore or an emotion I can tease apart. They encourage me to look at things, look at myself, more closely, to act with more purpose.

I know what you are thinking, clouds are just clouds. But are they really? What had to transpire for me to be at my house in exactly the right position and to turn my face to the sky in the exact 30-second span that would result in me seeing that dragon, or the wizened old man, before they melted away? It makes me think, not just about clouds, but about all the things that happen each and every day that result in experiences that would not otherwise have happened. I think of my cancer treatment and the events that transpired that got me to Orlando Health, even though a perfectly okay hospital was just 15 minutes away (note – when being treated for cancer, you don’t want a “perfectly okay” hospital.) All the decisions I made regarding my treatment were a culmination of a vast number of people and events, of information that came at just the right time to provide just the right sense of comfort for me to make an informed decision that took me step-by-step through a process that could have gone south at any given time.

But it didn’t.

And so I turn to the clouds, and I follow the signs, wherever they may lead me. And that, I think, is the most important part of it all. If we are open to knowing, to listening, to understanding, then in some way what we seek will find its way to us, sometimes in ways we could never imagine.

 

The magic of Stouffer’s lasagna

I am still fascinated by my post cancer treatment see-saw life. This past week I had another of my yuck spells. They come on suddenly, lately for no apparent reason, and are rife with erratic sleep and achy mornings (actually entire days).  Nausea becomes my constant companion, as does ginger-ale and Starlight Mints. Vigilance, resignation and routine get me through the day. I have always held to the motto that I can feel like crap at work as easily as I can at home (non-contagious feeling like crap only) and so off I go, to stare down another day. I’d like to say with a smile on my face, but that would be asking too much. As of late, though, I have found a magical cure for the nadir of my yuck stints, one that catapults me back to the zenith of vibrant activity and nausea-free jubilence. Enter Stouffer’s  Lasagna.

Strange, right? That a food I have turned my nose up at for the majority of my life would be a cure-all for post cancer treatment body burps. That’s what I call it, when my body occasionally burps free some radiation or chemo leftovers that are then left to wend their way through and eventually out of my body and make me feel like crud in the process. It starts with what is an actual body burp. Not the vocal kind, but a silent burp when your body does this weird heave and you pause thinking, what was that? Then go on your merry way, sort of, with the exception that it rapidly become less and less merry. There is this sudden unpleasant foreignness about yourself, which there is, in that there is now something free inside you that wasn’t before. A chemical jailbreak, as it were, because whatever poison my body had sealed away in a fat cell, or wherever my body stows such unpleasantness, is now free, and it is all hands on deck to get it out. Intermittent hot and cold spells, nausea, coughing, aching bones, tiredness with wrestless sleep (not sure about the point in that), it all comes home to roost. It’s like my body is in rebellion, having already gone through all this once with flying colors it is now having a mini-tantrum at being subjected to it again, even though it is in a much milder form. There’s a fly on  the wall and I am steamrolling the house, or so it seems.

And yet Stouffer’s Lasagna – Meat Lovers Lasagna at that – can right the ship. Maybe it’s the comfort of it, soft noodles in tomato sauce with a conglomeration of meaty flavors, which by all rights should give me worse nausea and indigestion, but it doesn’t. It makes everything all right and is followed by a good night’s sleep and pain-free morning with energy to spare heralding in a productive day. Who would have thought it? I could wrack my brains over the science as to why it works, but honestly, I don’t care. Cancer does that for you. I’m not looking this gift horse in the mouth, I’m just eating it.

If I were to turn the tables on my cancer treatment, I would have to admit that while I had a life-changing adventure, it could not have been much fun for the cancer, not that any of us really spends a lot of time thinking about what the cancer thinks or feels while we are trying to kill it. Yet in reality, while I am not my cancer, my cancer is definitely me. It is comprised of my cells, my DNA, albeit aberrant and most definitely black sheepish, yet still, in its purest form, most definitely me. For some that may be hard to wrap their heads around, but to me, it is just science. Cancer is like the bad apple in the bushel, rotten but still an apple. Or maybe I have watched too many sci-fi shows to think completely ill of cancer. There are plenty of stories where the parasite and the host live symbiotically in a happily-ever-after scenario, but that’s a parasite, not cancer, so we are back to the rotten apple. It will spoil the rest of the bushel if left where it is, so out it comes, worms and all, as does the cancer, hopefully.

And so Stouffer’s Lasagna is another happy discovery on this adventure called breast cancer. I can’t say it will work for everyone, but the point is more that if you crave something strange that you normally don’t eat, then maybe give it a try. Make sure it’s not on a do-not-eat list if you are on a special medication or protocol, but otherwise, why not? I don’t eat lasagna when I’m feeling fine, or pasta of any kind for that matter. It makes me tired. When the world turns upside down, though, and everything is standing on its head, I turn to things that normally don’t fit and find they have an amazing way of bringing balance back to a life that is learning the rules to a new form of normal.

It’s like it never happened

The other day, the gal in the grocery store asked me how I was. It was an innocuous question really, something we ask one another every day without a thought. Then she followed it up with, “How are you feeling?” I knew from the look in her eyes exactly what she was asking me, and without a thought I said, “It’s like it never happened.”

Even I was surprised by that answer. Is that really true? All my inner voices, the ones at the ready  to criticize, applaud, caution or encourage, were on the verge of crying, “foul!” So, I had no choice but to look at it. Why had I chosen those words so cavalierly?

A lot goes into cancer treatment. Mine was breast cancer, yours (or someone you know) may be something else. Regardless, as I’ve mentioned throughout the years I’ve been writing this blog, the physical treatment is only one component of recovery. It is the mental and emotional healing that is critical to popping out the other side with some semblance of wholeness. So here goes, my attempt at why I say, it’s like it never happened.

I’m happy. Nothing beats being happy. I laugh a lot. Nothing beats laughing. Real laughter, the kind that rolls out effortlessly and won’t stop. Where your belly aches from it, but you don’t care. Good, hearty laughter, the kind that if we all did it at the same time we could shake the earth off its axis. (I have my best friend, Heather, to thank for this.)

I feel whole. I may not have breasts, but I don’t notice, and since I don’t notice it, no one else does. I’ve long felt that it is the energy we put into something that draws attention to it. If I was concerned about my now less-than-buxom physique, others would pick up on it and start to look, maybe not even at my chest, but at me, wondering what the energy was all about. I would assume they were looking at my breasts, or lack thereof. Do you see where I’m going with this? By being self-conscious, we create the attention and attract what we are most concerned about. I say, “Devil may care!” Revel in the beauty that is your body. It houses you and lets you experience the world in a myriad of ways – sight, smell, taste, sound, touch. It’s going to get a little banged up and worn carting you through all your adventures. Revel in the things your body has let you experience!

I don’t sweat the small stuff. Or even the medium stuff. It’s not healthy. All that negative energy over what? Let’s face it, most of the things we get all torqued up about are silly. There’s a dish in the sink, there’s a crumb on the floor, the person ahead of me on the road is driving too slowly, someone passed me going too fast, a child is crying in the store, the group at the  table next to mine is talking too loudly, and on and on and on. They are not life threatening, but we escalate them to blood-boiling irritations so that the next inconsequential thing that comes along, like your spouse leaves a sock on the floor, and whammo! The volcano blows. I no longer sweat the small stuff. I’ve learned that all that anger and stress over the little stuff is only hurting me.

I’m healthy. Sure, I have the usual aches and pains that a 56-year-old body has, which may or may not be due to the anastrazole, but I’m healthy. I’m physically active, mentally alert and still a handful. No complaints here.

What has changed is my quality of life. I have finally learned to feel comfortable in my own skin. My life is richer and fuller than ever before. I spend more time enriching myself and less time toiling. I have a powerful creative streak that has spent a lot of time on a back burner and is now front and center. Writing, painting, photography, beading, … you name it, I’m dabbling. There is something enormously fulfilling about expressing oneself through art.

So there you have it. It happened. Whether it’s like it never happened or not, well, that’s a whole lot of minutia. I’d rather paint.

Why you need a sacred space

I never really understood the big deal behind sacred space. When I did my yoga training, the teacher recommended we each build personal alters. I dutifully searched the internet to find examples of what mine should look like, completely missing the point. Flummoxed, I never did it. Even if I had built one, then what? The truth of the matter was, I had no idea what to do with an alter or how to create a sacred space. Then I got cancer.

It’s interesting who you turn to and what you do when your head is spinning and you need something solid to hold onto. Me, I turned to the most capable person I know, someone I trusted and knew I could rely on. I turned to me. And what I needed at that point to be able to function was to clear my head. I needed a sacred space. So, I built an alter.

An alter need not be fancy, or perfect. Mine is a low table, like for eating breakfast in bed. It sits on the floor in front of the picture window in our yoga room so I can sit cross-legged in front of it and enjoy the outdoors. The birds flit around the plants outside that window, and there is a hawk that uses the light pole as a lookout for his next move. It is an actively serene spot, one where life happens right outside and I can be an unobtrusive observer. It mimics what happens during meditation.

My altar-top is garnished with special objects that encourage feelings of comfort and safety. The unity candle from my wedding (what better day will there ever be than the day I said “I do” to my angel, Ken), a photo of my father and I, photos of Ken and I taken in a photo booth while we were dating, and a shallow bowl of stones I have collected from beaches and riverbanks with a beeswax tealight set in the center. When I sit with these items, the flame of the candle flickering over them, I am taken back to a simpler time, purer time, before-cancer time.

I meditate in front of my alter. It holds an energy that warms my body and connects me to the universe in ways that other places do not, can not. I don’t know the science behind it, nor do I care. There was a time when I would have analyzed the heck out of it, the psychology and physiology of it, but in reality the power of the mind, body and spirit combined transcend what we understand about ourselves at this stage of our existence, and so some things I just accept as knowing. I don’t need to go on faith on this one. I need only meditate in the glow of the candlelight.

In reality, we are our own sacred space. Even if we don’t feel like we are, deep down inside is still that kernel of untouchable truth, the divinity within each of us. I realized early on that my job was to nurture and grow that small, neglected part of myself; to fan the small ember to a roaring flame that can withstand the howling winds of life.

As I grow stronger, with cancer treatment behind me and the day-to-day business of living at hand, it is becoming all too easy to neglect my tiny altar. Truth be told, I need more, a larger space to call my own, a place where my inner flame can explore at will. And so I am creating a new sacred space, a place where I can write, paint, think, be. In it I am surrounding myself with objects that have influenced my life and nurtured my soul. It is a combination of the ordered structure of office and the chaotic melee of creativity. It is me.

I still have my tiny altar as well. It is where I dig deep, connect to the elusive inner me that often scuttles ahead of my understanding in an esoteric game of cat-and-mouse. I think it is time to change out some of the objects, or add others to the clutter. Maybe the new photo booth strip taken during chemotherapy? My bald head glowing like the alien girl in the movie, Cocoon. Those were special times. Sometimes, all it takes is a quiet moment of reflection with a favorite photo to realize that. One day, today will be one of those special times, a memory I look back upon with fondness. Why wait? I think I will start relishing this moment today.

Skeletons in the closet

Lately I have been plagued by bouts of anxiety. Normally it wouldn’t bother me, I think a twinge of anxiety is healthy when triggered by something appropriate. Public speaking – makes me anxious; meeting new people – yes, mildly anxiety inducing; crossing paths with someone who is combative and prone to attack –  yup, makes me anxious. When things are going well – nope, not supposed to make me anxious; and yet as of late it does. It’s like the emotion has gone rogue.

And why does it have to be so darn sneaky? Sure, there are the warning signs – the vibrations in my nerves, like the shuddering surface of a puddle from the footfalls of a large beast in the distance, that tell me something scary is coming my way; or the tension across my shoulders, subtle and barely perceptible against the tightness starting in my chest. You know the kind, when you want to take a deep breath for no apparent reason other than you suddenly need to. I usually try to ignore these signs, giving them a courteous nod of acknowledgment and dismissing them as non-existent, like I wish they were, instead of being my own personal Paul Revere, warning me that “anxiety is coming, anxiety is coming!”

Thinking back, I don’t recall ever having had an actual full-blown, stop-me-in-my tracks, anxiety attack. If I did, or started to, I’m sure I dealt with it much the same way as I dealt with all emotions I had no use for over the years, by relegating it to a closet in the deep recesses of my psyche and entrusting the key to a gatekeeper, to lose. Then came breast cancer.

A funny thing happened when I got breast cancer. It seems all my trusty gatekeepers who had so adeptly kept me and those pesky unpleasant emotions from crossing paths took me at my word and flung open all my closet doors, then abandoned ship, or body, as the case may be, and headed for cover.

I suppose I brought it upon myself (lest you think that on top of dealing with breast cancer you will have to deal with all sorts of buried emotions bursting free as well). After I was diagnosed, I went on an emotional spring cleaning to root out any issues that may have been poisoning my body from the inside out. It was exciting to rummage around in my deep, dusty internal closets and see what unpleasantness lurked there. If healing meant inviting back from the depths the parts of myself I had previously exiled there, then so be it. Every unpleasant, embarrassing, hurtful memory and event, inflicted on me and I inflicted on others, that tumbled out; I welcomed with open arms. I won’t say it was all fun, but it was necessary.

It’s funny what you forget, or remember, as the case may be; which events still hold a punch and which ones have faded to a dull gray, mere shadows of their former selves. Some are easily reinvigorated by current reactions, others resist reanimation no matter how much poking or prodding is proffered their way. I am proud of myself on this front; I did the work, turning over stones and staring old wounds in the face. I won’t say we all hugged and parted friends, but we did come to an understanding and let bygones be bygones.

Then came the actual emotions, the ones I didn’t care to feel. Out they tumbled and I had to learn how to incorporate them into my life in a healthy way. That’s not to say I have lived my life with no emotions, I was more like a painter working with a limited range of colors, limiting my expression to the bright, happy colors and never using the sadder tones. I’m not sure where anxiety falls on the spectrum, as an emotion or color, but currently we are off to a rocky start, because anxiety is sneaky.

I still have never had an actual anxiety attack; this feels more like a cat toying with a mouse. It always happens when I’m happy, usually embarking on a new adventure of expression or creativity. When I’m just about done with whatever it is I’m bringing to life, excited about this new untapped mode of expression, I start to feel this panicky sensation. Then Paul Revere makes his ride.

If I think about it, these anxiety flareups began when I started going to the Orlando Health Community Clubhouse to make earrings for cancer patients. Once a week, patients and caregivers get together to make earrings that are then offered free to Orlando Health cancer patients. It’s a keep-one-donate-one activity.  It’s quite fun, and very relaxing, to let the earrings come to life, born of my imagination and creativity.  They have easily over one hundred types of beads of all sizes, shapes, patterns and materials to choose from. It’s a closet creative’s dream come true! The first week I made two pairs, then the second week, six pairs. I loved them all, so it was hard to pick one pair to keep. Technically, it is keep one-donate-one, and technically I’m a cancer patient there so I can take free earrings anyway, but the point for me is also to give back, so I just choose one pair no matter how many I make.

Back to that sneak, anxiety. Sure, I know a bunch of tools to stave off anxiety – exercise, yoga, meditation, breath awareness – but the thing with me is, I need to know why. Why now, when the hard part is over? Chemotherapy, surgery and radiation is behind me. Why now, when I’m healthy and happy? I’m engaging in new activities, exploring different creative outlets, connecting with myself in new ways …

Oh, darn.

I suppose that says something about me, that a year plus of cancer tests and treatments didn’t elicit an anxiety attack, but a little creative expression reduces me to a squeak toy for an imaginary monster. And so more work begins, the exploration into why a little carefree, creative fun has me leery of shadows. Truth be told, the real boogy man, cancer, has already been vanquished by my knights in shining armor at Orlando Health.

 

 

Happy Valentine’s Day, my love

I often gush about my husband, Ken. Why not? He is one-in-a-billion and worth gushing over. He is my best friend, my soul mate, my twin flame, my lover. He is kind, strong, chivalrous and funny. He is everything a husband could be, everything a man should be, everything I could ever ask for.

Our love story is not unique. We met in a grocery store (the Publix at the corner of Congress and Gateway in Boynton Beach, FL, to be exact). It isn’t there any more, it moved across the street, but our love endures. Every now and then we make the trek back and have dinner at the restaurant where we had our first date (Park Avenue BBQ Grill, on the same corner, but across the street from where the Publix was). The food is still good and the memories still flood back. It was a magical night. It was the first day of the rest of my life.

So, here I am, thirteen Valentine’s Days later, still madly in love. I won’t say the road has been easy, but it has always been worth it. I have navigated life’s sorrows crying on Ken’s shoulder and life’s joys with him cheering me on. When I lost my cat, Heidi, my best friend of 17-years, he was there, sharing my sorrow and listening to my pain. Six months later, when the pain would burble back up and the tears would come again, he would hold me and make it alright, as if crying for six months because a cat died was perfectly normal.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, he was there. If he cried, it was not in front of me. For me, he was protector, cheerleader, caregiver and support system. He went to every doctors appointment, test and treatment. He asked questions that I overlooked and was involved in the decision making process every step of the way, while making sure I felt like the decisions were mine alone. And, no matter how tired he was, he stayed up late into the night, holding my hand and letting me talk, knowing how important it was that I get it all out.

Amidst all of that were endless evenings of theater and concerts. I never heard him turn down an opportunity to experience something new. He learned yoga and meditation with me, and even agreed to go to a yoga retreat for our honeymoon. Yes, he is one-in-a-billion, my husband, possibly even one-in-a-trillion.

I’d like to think I have been there for him too, when his father died, for his hand surgery, when he left his job to start his own business, but this isn’t about me. It’s about Ken, my husband. He is perfect to me, mostly because he is perfect for me. That’s what it is all about, isn’t it? Finding that person who is perfect to you and for you in every way? And so it is for me, on Valentine’s Day and every day. I get to spend each and every day with the most amazing man on the planet, to me. I love you, Ken, today and every day. Thank you for encouraging me to be me, in all my crazy glory.