Emotional coal

Yesterday, in a post-Thanksgiving turkey-glazed-haze, I was mentally thumbing through the past year, the ups and downs and sideways moments that had come and gone and shaped my experience with breast cancer. That’s what Thanksgiving is all about, right? Giving thanks for the blessings of the past year? Maybe it was the mashed potatoes talking, maybe it was the book on Kabbalah I am reading, but in that moment, the true gifts of the past year stepped forward and took a bow. I was not surprised by them. Honestly, I was more surprised that it took me this long to recognize them. You see, life’s true gifts are not always the comfortable moments in life. The most meaningful gifts are more often the ones that make us squirm, the difficult, sometimes soul-crushing moments that test our mettle, and give us perspective.

For instance, for me chemo was a wonderful adventure. I know, nuts, right? Once I made the choice to have chemo, there was no use griping about it, so I made the best of it and decided to find the nuggets of gold it had to offer. So I set aside the fact that poison was dripping into my vein, and of course the post chemo-day bodily havoc that would follow, and focused on the people and the pampering. I thought, at the time, that all the really nice nurses were the gift, with their lovely stories told while I snuggled under warm blankets, happily munching on warm cookies. I trusted them. I was happy and calm. They were a gift, each and every one of them, but they were not THE gift. The true gift was the one nurse that rubbed me, and my husband, Ken, the wrong way. I can’t recall her name, but she presided over my one unhappy, uncomfortable, anxiety-filled infusion. She rattled me, my cage and my perspective. The reality was, and is, chemo nurses are a crap shoot. For me, each week I had a new smiling face cruise-directing my treatment. My experience was in his or her hands. This one nurse, while I’m sure she meant well, she was the true “gift.” She, unbeknownst to her, taught me that warm, comfortable infusions nestled in the bosom of trust and calm are a gift. She, my friends, was my black coal of perspective.

It is easy to be grateful for the happy moments in life, the smiles that light our way, the laughter that tickles our ear, but I say we should also be grateful for the less amazing events. The losses that leave a void aching to be filled, the tears shed to wash away the pain etched on our cheeks, the anger that bubbles over for injustices, real and perceived. I am of the opinion, as are a long list of philosophers and gurus, that without sorrow we cannot know true joy, without lack we cannot appreciate abundance, and without pain we cannot truly appreciate pleasure. Without their counterparts, emotions ring hollow. They become bells with lackluster tones, heralding good fortune that no one bothers to notice anymore due to its unerring regularity. How much more melodious life would be if we listened with zeal and abandon to all the tones of the emotional scale, the ominous as well as the lilting, with equal openness and attention, embracing each in their turn for the range they bring and the perspective they offer.

I don’t expect anyone to enjoy sad, frustrating or anger-filled moments; I certainly don’t. I do recognize what they bring to my life, and I do recognize that once I have identified them I can work on changing them. Our emotions, like notes on a scale, are our own to play, as we wish. But I am getting off track. That my friends, is for another week … For now, suffice it to say that a little emotional coal may not be the gift you had hoped for, but in time you will find it to be the best gift you ever received.

Attitude is everything

Attitude is everything. I come back to it again and again, in my meditation, in my spiritual reading, in my daily life. I will even go so far as to say that attitude is all that separates me, and you, from a good day and a crappy day. The moment I roll out of bed in the morning, I make the decision that today will rock or today will rot. We all do. Most of the time we don’t even realize we are doing it, charting our own paths to bliss or disaster, yet we are, and we do.

I think if we all knew how much weight our outlook brought to the table each day, we would give ours a little more attention.  For me, in the past, I wore whatever mood jumped to the forefront when I got out of bed. A couple of aches and pains, I put on my cranky pants; too many deadlines piling up, maybe a Scrooge frown; bumper to  bumper traffic on the way to work, I’m definitely giving Gru (Despicable Me) a run for his money. These are all choices, conscious choices. I can just as easily shake off the aches and pains and be grateful for the body I have, knowing full well that, just like every day, a little movement will limber things up and I’ll be fine. Too many deadlines, no big deal. It won’t be the first time and it won’t be the last. I have thirty years of unmissed deadlines under my belt, this time will likely be no different. The same goes for traffic. Some days there is more, some days there is less, but traffic always is, so another option is to kick back with my favorite radio station (right now it’s the two holiday channels on Sirius radio – 3 and 70), and enjoy the impromptu leisurely ride.

Choices, people, we have choices! A funny thing happened when I started making different ones.

It started when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since I was neck deep in a life changing event, I did some emotional housecleaning to declutter and destress. It wasn’t that hard. Day to day things get really, really small when you have breast cancer. Deadlines? Off the radar; I had chemo to survive. Traffic? Whatever, I was just thrilled to still  be part of the flow. Aches and pains? They were a fact of life. I woke up, I was alive, in my book it was the best day ever! Attitude, it was everything, and interestingly enough, that perspective has given me amazing insight into my current waning attitude.

So here I am, nine months post-chemo, eight months post-mastectomy and four months post-radiation, and my attitude, quite honestly, has begun to suck (harsh, maybe, but the occasional self-slap in the face can do wonders to get my head out of my ego). The aches and pains have begun to matter again, deadlines light a fuse and traffic, don’t get me started on the traffic. Some days I look in the mirror and I can swear I see Gru wearing cranky pants and a Scrooge cap. What happened? My attitude changed. I’m no longer in life-or-death mode and regular life has reinstated itself to its prior level of inflated self-importance. Fortunately for me, I still have perspective.

My perspective is that it’s just as easy to live life without the drama and hokum. Life can have deadlines and traffic and aches and pains without cranky pants and Gru and Scrooge. Mundane daily events are not inherently any better or any worse than any other events, we make them that way with … you guessed it, our attitudes! A little tweak, or attitude adjustment, as it were, and these events take on a whole new light.

So how does one adjust one’s attitude? Me, I meditate every day. I find 10 to 12 minutes of meditation when I wake up in the morning is the perfect elixir to start the day. With meditation, I can work out the mental and emotional kinks that tend to percolate overnight, the ones that turn every event into the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and start the day with a clean slate.

Over the past 18 months, I have found that when I meditate consistently, meaning every day, my interactions with people are better, I am more patient, work is less stressful, even my cat spends more time with me. When I don’t meditate, my attitude starts to nose dive and any number of moods can march out the door in the morning. For a mere 10 minutes a day, I can enjoy the day rather than begrudge the day.

For me, it’s a no-brainer. I like being unruffled, unstressed, relaxed (working on zen) me.

Give yourself the gift of ten minutes. Sit, close your eyes, inhale slowly, exhale slowly, and let the magic begin.

For those that prefer to move, take a walk in nature, alone, a casual stroll, not a power walk, and absorb your surroundings. Listen to the sounds, smell the scents, look at the trees and plants and sky, and absorb the calm around you.

Start today.


Just for Today

Just for today. It’s a powerful statement. It makes me feel like I can do this, do anything, just for today. Tomorrow is another day and I will deal with that when it comes, but today, just for today, I can deal with this, whatever this is, that today will bring me.

When I was a child, my mother used to coax me through unpleasant situations with the saying, “this too shall pass.” It worked. I could muddle through anything focused on the future, on a time when the unpleasantness would be behind me and life was rosy again. I carried this mantra into my adult years, propping myself up with it when the hopeful golden patina of the day gave way to a dowdy dull gray. In the end, it served its purpose; time moved on, the day ended, and with it any unsettling chill faded into a whisper of memory. Somehow, I feel like I may have missed something, missed the point. In the end, if I am waiting for something to be over, if I am focused,  however briefly, on tomorrow, the angst of the present moment glossed over, endured rather than engaged, then nothing is learned. Eyes on the horizon, the wonders of the sea at your feet are missed. Eyes on tomorrow, today really never happens at all.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in June of 2016, I made a conscious decision to live in the present. In my mind, my life depended on it, and in reality, it quite literally did. Every test result was a fork in the road; every decision committed me to a path. I firmly rooted myself in every moment of my treatment. I felt every prick, poke and stab, physically and emotionally, examining them with more fervor than an entomologist does a rare bug. When I committed to chemotherapy, it was not a simple choice. It was researched and well thought out, not just the pros and cons of treatment on the cancer, but the aftereffects on my life. The same with surgery. Yes, it was about removing the cancer, but it was also about preserving the function of my body. All through my breast cancer treatment, be it chemotherapy or surgery or radiation, I lived in the present. I may not have liked what was happening, but I was committed to the process, committed to the moment, committed to  my life. For me, breast cancer will always be one of the most rewarding adventures of my life. That said, whatever lessons were to be learned, I definitely wanted to learn them the first time. No do-overs for this adventure.

I learned a lot in the sixteen months from breast cancer diagnosis to, well, now. I learned that:

–  life is scary, but not so scary that a couple of deep breaths and a hand to hold can’t conquer.

My husband is my rock. His hand in mine is all I need to get through just about anything. He is not just my husband, though, he is my twin flame (think soulmate, but better!). I trust him to be there. A lot going on in that seemingly innocuous sentence – I trust him, and be there. Find someone, anyone, you trust and who will be there, and you can do pretty much anything.

– you don’t find friends, they find you.

I met a lot of great people while I was in treatment. They found me, supported me, seemed to effortlessly know when to come forward and shrink back. Cancer treatment is a long, arduous journey. In many regards, we go through it alone, but if we take a leap of faith, the universe will sprinkle in exactly who we need when we need them.

– Cancer is as much about giving as it is about letting people give to you.

I learned how to be present for others from cancer, really present. To look past the facades of gaunt frames and tubes and see the bright shine in people’s eyes that said, “I’m in here, and I’m alive!”

– life happens in the moments you aren’t paying attention to.

That’s a fancy way of saying, life happens each and every second of each and every day. Live in those moments. Don’t waste them planning for life to happen, because it’s happening right now!

Lately, I have been trying too hard to be normal, to recapture who I was before breast cancer. I should read my own blog posts. Today is glorious! The air is crisp and the faint scent of burning leaves is drifting on vague currents of air. If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine fall, real fall, with orange and red and yellow leaves and the hope of snow. And if I open them, it is fall in Florida, and it is a glorious, glorious moment to be in.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

When I think about cancer, my mind goes into overdrive, ricocheting about in an effort to make sense of it. First it goes clinical, sterilizing the phenomenon into its most basic scientific facts. Science is cold, impartial, a potentially safe place to examine something that can kill you. Technically speaking, cancer is, at its core, damaged cells (nothing scary there) that are dividing unchecked (okay, just got scary). These cells no longer take direction from the body and divide on their own, doing as they please with no concern for the form they inhabit (closing in on terrifying). They have, in layman’s terms, gone rogue. They are a part of us, but we no longer have any control. They have evolved from synergistic members of the team to inhospitable parasites with no thought but for their own agenda. Cancer is the Mr. Hyde to our Dr. Jekyll. And like Mr. Hyde, cancer is terrifying.

Maybe it is the whole out-of-control thing coupled with the no-reason-why thing and the no-definitive-treatment thing. Really, how can any treatment be a sure thing when there is no conclusive understanding or grasp of the cause? You can treat symptoms all day long, but unless you get to the root cause of something, you haven’t cured a darn thing. Sure, there are theories as to why cancer grows, but for every person it is different, and what likely caused cancer to grow in one person does nothing in another under the same conditions. To me, these are scientific estimates of likelihood, more-likely-than-not scenarios and measured surmises of possibilities researchers hold to be true, until they find out they are not. Don’t get me wrong, for the record, I am grateful for the work of scientists all over the world who are looking for answers, I just take it with a grain of salt. In the end, they are trying to draw a straight line while riding on a merry-go-round. To me, and this is my opinion so take it with a grain of salt too, looking for the cure for symptoms doesn’t address the cause. It’s like plugging holes in a leaky dam with no concern for the water level that is causing the dam to spring leaks. That said, when the dam springs enough leaks, you really do have to address the leaks, which is where we likely are with cancer today, plugging leaks as fast as they spring up while trying to come up with a reason why they happen in the first place.

Like I said, my mind has a tendency to ricochet about. Once I’ve beaten the heck out of cancer clinically, I go fantastical. It is how I understand things best, to personify seemingly identity-less nemeses and give them personalities and a voice. It only seems fair, that once I’ve listened to what science has to say I also listen to what the subject has to say. If we listen closely, everything has a story, sometimes hopeful, sometimes cautionary, so to me, it would behoove me to listen closely to what my breast cancer has to say. I don’t want to miss the message the first time. Whatever it is, I don’t need it repeated.

Louise L. Hay wrote an interesting reference guide to the inner voices of our ailments called Heal Your Body A-Z. In it, she talks about cancer in general as stemming from a deep hurt, a long-standing resentment, or a deep secret or grief that eats away at the self.  Add breast issues to the mix and she points to a refusal to nourish the self, putting everyone else first, over-mothering, over-protection, an overbearing attitude. When I read that, it was like looking in a mirror. I felt like Dr. Jekyll must have when he got his first glimpse of Mr. Hyde. Kind of dark, I  know, but if you would rather go the Disney princess route, then let’s just say that this shoe fit better than Cinderella’s. As a rule of thumb, I find that if a concept leaves me feeling gut-punched with an ‘oh crap’ chaser, than it’s likely that I’m on to something.

We all have baggage from our past. That’s really just a cliche way of saying that I have experiences that didn’t sit well, so I packed them away so I wouldn’t have to think about them anymore.  Quite often, these experiences happen when we are younger, or at a point in our lives when we didn’t have the tools to process or understand them. Life events are much scarier when we are children, when everything seems bigger than life. The good news is I am an adult now. I can unpack those old events, revisit them from the safety of adulthood and decide whether they really were as horrible as I thought they were. I usually find they are not. I also find that none of my baggage is my mother’s fault, my father’s fault or anyone else’s fault. It is mine and mine alone, and, ironically, it made me who I am today (bet you didn’t see that coming.) Like it or not, it is the trials we face in life that mold us. They make us strong, give us the moxie to face down, say, cancer, and survive. They are also life’s tests. Get them wrong and we get to redo them, over and over and over, until we do something different, until we get it right.

Breast cancer really does have a loud, booming voice. The gist of the message is, keep doing what you are doing, I dare you.




Happy anniversary, to me

Happy Anniversary to Me! One year ago, I posted my first essay, “I’m happy, really, really happy. And oh, I have breast cancer.” What started out as a way to communicate with family and friends about my “adventure” with breast cancer became much, much more than that, and I thank everyone out there around the world who is reading and sharing my thoughts and ideas on how to navigate life when you are handed a bucket of lemons. Now, one year into this adventure and closing in on looking at it from a rear-view mirror perspective, I feel like I’ve left the oasis of treatment and am faced with an endless sea of sand in every direction. I know that somewhere out there is the other side, that if enough time passes chances are I’m in the clear, but I also know that the next few years will be fraught with conflicting information, missed opportunities, wrong turns and backtracking. I also know that I’m not alone, that anyone who has had a serious illness or medical condition has likely walked a similar path and stumbled up against the same question – quality vs quantity.

What does that mean, quality vs quantity? We all make this choice, every day really, about things that we perceive will improve the quality of our life at the expense of the quantity of our life (how long we will live). We do it with the foods we eat, whether or not to drink alcohol, smoke/chew tobacco, use/abuse prescription (and non-prescription) medications, use recreational drugs, engage in physical activity, and on and on and on. Sure, the impact is tiny, usually a drop in the bucket, but over time, slowly but surely, those drops add up, and then one day the doctor says, “you are pre-diabetic” or “your cholesterol is getting high,” or any other number of warning statements, and we wonder how we got there. Then we make a choice, quality vs quantity. We don’t consciously do it, but we do it nonetheless. Quantity often means making a lifestyle change; quality means we keep doing what we are doing.

As a species, we gravitate toward quality, which is a here and now concept, as opposed to quantity, which is a down-the-line concept, until it’s not. I had breast cancer. Who knows, maybe I still do. There is no test for it, I just have to sit and wait and see if something grows large enough to be detected. The good news is it takes a long time to grow, years really. The bad news is it takes a long time to grow, years really, so I get to sit and wait and wonder for years, or more. I have very real choices to make, right here and right now, that will impact my life, quality and quantity, with no guarantees.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had built-in calculators that told us how long we will live and how everything we do impacts our longevity? That if we eat that double cheeseburger with fries, it will shave two days off our life (hypothetical) and if we opt for the salad instead, we will live one day longer? We would have quantifiable data to work with, to make rational choices with. Maybe we are expected to live to be 104 years old and two days less doesn’t matter that much to us. What if we are 69 years old and are expected to live to be 75 years old? Those two extra days suddenly carry more meaning. Only, we don’t know. All we know is what doctors tell us about the hypothetical health impact of random items in general. In general, smoking is bad for you, fruits and vegetables are good. But if you are diabetic, fruit may not be all that good for you. As we get complicated, this general advice gets complicated. As we get complicated, the world gets more specific. So here I sit, post-breast cancer treatment, trying to get specific about the years ahead of me. Trying to add years where, in reality, none may even be subtracted.

And that’s the rub. I don’t know; none of us knows. We are all flying blind, making random choices based on what we hear, which is really living our lives based on the opinions of people far more credentialed than we are. Not a bad way to go, but enter the grain of salt. The human race is biased. Try as we might, we have no choice but to form an opinion and pick favorites. We take a side, root for a team, maybe vote for the underdog. We have been trained that way since our schoolyard days. So really, we are following the advice of potentially biased more credentialed people than us. Also, not a bad thing, just something to be aware of.

So here I am, leaving  the oasis of medical confidence to navigate the post-treatment world of real life all by my lonesome. Armed with my soy-free mantra, I am wondering how many years a person can really go without eating General Tso’s Chicken (it’s been a year!), and what difference it will make to the quantity of my life. I’ve given up the search for soy lecithin-free chocolate, and have settled for the mediocrity of Lay’s Lightly Salted potato chips over the superior taste of Wise. One year out, I am still on board with these life choices, but as the years stretch on, maybe this mission I am on will fade away as the memory of my adventure with breast cancer fades …

Who am I kidding? I have two half-moon scars emblazoned on my chest that say this memory will be with me for a long, long time.

Man-boob removal day

It is done. My man-boob is no more. In its place is a line of steri-strips and thin plastic tubing draining off any excess fluid that could build up and hamper the healing process. I am an old hat at this, emptying the bulb twice a day, recording the fluid levels. Like the first go round, the right side doesn’t drain much and has already trickled to almost nothing. That means on Thursday, the drain will come out and the steri-strips will be removed to reveal a pink line of healing flesh. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here it is, a blow-by-blow of man-boob removal day:

Ken, my husband, got me to the hospital at the respectable time of 9 AM in preparation for my 11 AM surgery. It sounds like a long lead time, but it flies by. Any wrinkle in the fabric, any ripple in the flow of events and BAM! I’m off schedule. When that happens, it reminds me of a barnyard, where everything is calm and idyllic until suddenly it’s not and the chickens start to scurry around, clucking in indignation. Nurses don’t really cluck in indignation, but they do begin to eavesdrop on one another, ready to swoop in at a moment’s notice and help any process that is drifting sideways get back on track. For now, though, I’m still in  the waiting room, holding Ken’s hand and wondering if I have time to go to the bathroom one last time.

It works every time. Whenever I’m waiting for something to happen, or in this case, for a nurse to come and get me to bring me into pre-op, if I go to the bathroom they will immediately appear and call my name. No sooner did I get into the bathroom when I heard my name called. It does beg the question, why would I want to hurry things along. In my mind, I’m playing beat the clock. The vein debacle of March 20, is still fresh in my mind (The Art of a Happy Surgery) and I don’t want a repeat, so I figure the less time my veins have to dehydrate and become problematic, the better.

Leaving your husband in the waiting room is the worst. I want him to come with me, to be the calming force that is smiling beatifically by my side while I prep for the slice and dice, but that’s not how it works. I have to do this march alone. Only when I’m scrubbed and primped and pricked does he get to come in, get to be the after-the-fact bastion of comfort that calms me when I’m likely already uncorked.

Quick run down on the prep march-

First stop, they take me to the bathroom (ironic, right!) There, I swab the edges of my nostrils with iodine solution, twice each nostril, brush my teeth and swab the inside of my mouth with disinfecting mouth rinse, then finish it all off by rinsing my mouth with  the leftover mouth rinse for thirty seconds.

Next stop, they take me to my bed. It’s a cubicle curtained off from the others for privacy, of sorts. They rifle through some release forms, have me sign my fate away to surgeons and anesthesiologists, review my allergies with me again, then curtain me off to strip and wash.

Orlando Health takes there cleanliness very, very seriously. I’ve already washed twice with disinfectant wash at home – once the night before and once the morning of surgery. This is the final scrub down, for good measure. In case you are wondering, yes, all that antiseptic wash does make you itch, but that’s the least of my worries. I’m still thinking about my veins, so I strip down to my underwear, pack my clothes and shoes away in the plastic bags they provide and scrub myself down with the thick, warm antiseptic wipes, one for each arm, each leg, my front and my back (think the size and consistency of Swiffer Sweeper Wet, and yes, they warm them up for you). Then I slip into a gown and prostrate myself on the bed (think Victorian bride on her wedding night).

Next comes the blood pressure cuff, the oxygen monitor on my finger, the leg massagers to help with circulation and a slew of arm bands to identify the critical tidbits of my medical persona should someone need to know them stat. A nice, warm blanket tops off the package. I do find watching the monitors entertaining. Slow, deep breaths and my blood pressure drops; my nurse shows up to put the IV in, my blood pressure does an about face and heads for the top of Mt. Everest.

I’m not a fan of needles, or IVs, or anything that punctures my veins. I don’t like the feeling of blood coming out, unknown liquids going in, or in general thinking about the fact that there is a sharp metal object lodged in my arm. Be that as it may, I signed up for this trip and to get where I need to go, an IV is a necessity. Still, me being me, and me having been there when the IV debacle went down at my mastectomy surgery, I thought some helpful pointers would be, well, helpful, so as not to have a repeat of what I would prefer to be a once in a lifetime experience.

Nurses don’t like pointers. I get it, who wants a patient telling them where to put in an IV. In my defense, I explained the why and wherefore of it all to her, although I didn’t go into the fact that I have a habit of being right. I also didn’t say ‘I told you so’ when I was right. I simply told her what happened the last time I had surgery, offered that the higher up on my arm the better in terms of success, and she just smiled and said my veins look good, she doesn’t feel a valve that could interfere with the IV, and off she went. The IV went in “beautifully” (her words), and then sprung a leak equally as beautifully. She took the IV out, put a pressure bandage on the hole so the blood wouldn’t pool into a bruise, and began to feel around on my hand, at which point I quite sternly said “get my husband.” I must look scary when I’m stern, because the nurse in the next cubicle scurried off to get Ken. He arrived, smiling and cheerful, and to his credit, his smile never wavered, even though I’m sure inside he was having an oh-crap déjà vu flashback similar to mine.

Maybe the presence of my handsome, strapping husband swayed her, or maybe she just figured that maybe I really was right, as the nurse opted to go higher up on my arm and, thankfully, the IV went in and stayed in. Still, it does make me wonder. I’ve never had a problem with the quality of my veins before, maybethe chemo did something that has not righted itself yet. Another rabbit hole to lose myself in, but that’s for another day.

There is something anti-climactic about this surgery. It is not life saving, it is merely making my already flat chest even flatter. In my head, I understand why I am doing this. My husband is afraid cancer could grow there; I doubt it, as it is not breast tissue, it is fatty tissue. For me, the minuscule shred of vanity that runs through my DNA would prefer symmetry to lumpy. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life dressing in dark colors or patterns that steer the eye away from my lumpiness, when I could easily fix it and create a smooth, flat canvas from which to paint masterpieces. I wrestle with the idea that this was silly to do, but I am also glad it’s done. A month from now, it will be ancient history. A month from now, I’ll be wearing pastel.


It’s technically not a spa

Wednesday I am going in for some touch-up surgery. They call it a scar revision, I call it the removal of my man boob. Okay, not politically correct, but that’s what it is, a small amount of fatty tissue that was left behind and has taken up residence as a small, slouchy pseudo-breast. Not a woman’s breast, not the sleek twin to its chest-mate that it is supposed to be,  but a man boob. There are several emotions that have come up and been mollified with logic over the fact that I am going back in for surgery, so hopefully you will find them as amusing as I have, and possibly useful –

Never say never. I always told myself I would never get any sort of cosmetic surgery. I’m not vain, so my philosophy has always been that aging is a part of life; embrace it, accept it, enjoy it.  That was before having breast cancer. The decision to not have reconstructive surgery was an easy one for me. I prefer physical ability to attempting to retain a form that won’t exist anymore. That was my take and my choice. Everyone is different and every decision has to fit the person. That’s why they offer options (although going flat is an option you have to research and come up with on your own). That said, here I am, looking down the barrel at elective cosmetic surgery. Like it or not, I can exist with my man boob. I am having cosmetic surgery. Maybe not the most conventional of cosmetic surgeries, but it is cosmetic nonetheless. Touche. Never say never.

How could the doctor have missed that. That was a tough one to wrap my head around, sort of. I am eternally grateful to Doctor Jeffrey Smith for all he did for me during my double mastectomy surgery. Going into surgery, we both knew my priorities. Breasts – lop them off; lymph nodes – move heaven and earth to keep as many as you can. He saved  my lymph nodes, which is what I asked him to do. He knew how important it was to me for their to be as little damage as possible to the delicate lymphatic infrastructure of my body and he did all he could to accomplish that. (He ended up only taking three lymph nodes.)  I know that wasn’t easy. (Did I mention I was eternally grateful?)  Yet, here I sit, daring to entertain the slightest smidgen of disgruntlement. Deep down, I know he was kind of busy doing all he could to accomplish what mattered to me. My dear friend Sammy brought it on home, though,  when she said, “he was too busy cutting the frigging cancer out of your body.” (She used a stronger word.) The moral here – stick to your priorities and don’t sweat the rest.

Crap, there will be needles. I went to my pre-op appointment this week and they took blood, and I was instantly reminded that I don’t like needles. I don’t like blood being taken out of my veins and I don’t like things flowing into my veins (oddly, not the same reaction with a port). I’ve always been that way. I know they don’t take a lot of blood (they took two vials), but to me it feels like my life force is being drained away. I can’t watch, or I’ll faint. Hell, I can’t think about it or I’ll faint. And it’s not just a small prick, I can feel the needle rattling around in my vein when they change vials. I don’t say anything, I prefer to just let them get it over with. Yet here I am, several days out from having a large needle take up residence in my forearm for several hours. There is no getting around this, there will be needles. Crap.

It’s technically not a spa. I love Orlando Health. When I think of surgery (I had two – one to put in my port and one for the double mastectomy), I think of warm blankets and leg massages and smiling faces. It’s like a spa day, but it’s not. It’s waiting around for your surgery. Since I don’t go to spas, though, this is as close to a spa day that I’ve ever had, so it’s a spa day (but really, it’s not). Hmmm (light bulb)… maybe I should go to a real spa and have a real spa day.

So here I go, to the spa that is not a spa, for cosmetic surgery that I said I would never have. It doesn’t bother me. Long ago I realized that to really live life, I have to embrace what is going on right now. For me, plans are a loose approximation of where I might like to find myself in  the future. Next week, I will find myself among old friends and group of people that care deeply for my comfort and well-being. The path is laid, the destination is clear. On-ward Ho!

Remembering how to play

When I visit my mother, I do yoga outside on the deck beside the pool. There, the scent of salt spray lingers on the breeze as it moves clean air off the ocean and over the berm of grape leaves, the methodical sound of waves pushing and pulling on the shore keeps tempo with my breath, and my yoga practice goes through a reset. Outside, where there is no mirror to check my form, my practice is more organic, more intuitive. My body remembers how to move without criticism; it remembers how to play.

I have select memories of playing as a child. I remember making mud pies with my childhood friend, Leslie, giving no thought about the affect on my clothes. Today, I can’t even cook a meal without fretting about spills and dirty pans, often wiping counters and washing soiled utensils and pots while I’m dirtying new ones in an effort to get dinner ready with as little aftermath as possible. Just once, I should let these mealtime casualties pile up and enjoy the process of cooking; but alas, I am not very adventurous when I cook, preferring tried and true spices to venturing into uncharted culinary territory, so it is easier to scurry about doing mundane tasks to distract myself from my shortcomings. I never had this problem with mud pies. They held my attention fully as I mixed random items I had collected from the kitchen together, willy-nilly, with no investment in the outcome, just in the joy of friendship and play.

I also remember that, as a child, my imagination ran wild, conjuring up make-believe characters that beckoned me to imaginary places for exciting adventures. Who knows how or why this superpower fades, this ability to transport oneself through space and time into the situation of our choosing. I also don’t know why all of a sudden one day I realized I missed it, the ability to leave reality behind and vacation in another realm, and I wanted it back.

It took work, re-initiating my mind into the world of play. My mind was so stuffed with the serious business of adulthood and work that the ability to imagine beyond the nose on my face had faded away. It saddened me that the rich playground of my mind had been re-purposed as a repository for the doldrums of day-to-day life. It took a deliberate effort to recapture this childhood ability, and it has paid off. I get enormous enjoyment out of immersing myself into imaginary worlds of my own creation, where the characters are my avatars and their stories are my quests (no, I’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons). Together, my mind and I have amazing adventures; together, we play.

Play is an important part of my mental and emotional well-being. It is an important component of what makes us all human, the desire, and need, to be entertained, to play. Without it, we fade. we become that stodgy person who goes through the motions of life. Ebeneezer Scrooge as a classic example of what happens when we let life take over and we make play irrelevant. We are reminded of it each year when A Christmas Carol is trotted out and shown in a myriad of versions so it will appeal to everyone (my current favorite is the animated Jim Carrey version). When we play, we infuse color into our lives, adding a vibrancy that rubs off even on the mundane bits.

So, having mastered play in my mind, it never occurred to me that there was more, or that I might need more. Then I met Jennifer Schelter. I got to know Jennifer when my husband, Ken, and I, attended her Radiant Retreat yoga retreat she holds each March at Maya Tulum in Tulum, Mexico. Jennifer is an artist, writer, life coach and yoga teacher. She pours her enthusiasm and zest for life and all its wonders into everything she does and she is adept at melting the shell of adulthood that hardens us into our stodgy ways. Jennifer introduced me to the concept of play in yoga.

So, what is play in yoga? For me, it means smudging the edges, coloring outside the lines, messing around. Play gives me permission to put my own spin on things, to get creative and turn my practice into a reflection of my spirit. My yoga practice is always freestyle, choreographed as I go to express what I feel and need at that moment. For instance, this past weekend, the warm sea breeze nudging me along, rather than focusing on the poses, I shifted my focus to my body and imagined my body parts as members of a team. With child-like wonder I was riveted to the placement of my hand, the spread of my fingers, the hug of my palm against the earth; then my foot, the feel of my toes stretching out along the ground, the solidness of my heel on the earth; the subtle muscular adjustments in my foot and ankle in tree pose that allow me to balance seemingly effortlessly; the release in my waist that allows my torso to rotate just a little farther in revolved triangle; the lift in my core that keeps me buoyant in crow pose. Every movement was more giddy-inducing than the last! When I  think of the thousands, if not millions, of minuscule course corrections by muscles and sinews working in concert that keep me upright, never mind twisted into a yoga pose, I am in awe. I also can’t help but want to take this fantastical body I get to inhabit for a real test drive. Like a teenager given a chance to sit behind the wheel of a Ferrari, I am eager to see what else it can do, and so the play really begins.

Play comes in many forms. For me, it is through writing and yoga, for another it may be something else. Sometimes it is as simple as doing a common activity differently, or looking at something in a different, more child-like way. Forget what you already know, that you done something hundreds of times, look at it, experience it, as if this is your first time. If you love to run, get off the road and run through a nature trail. Visit a zoo and feed the giraffes. Go to a science center and play in the hands-on room. Drink hot chocolate in bed, or stomp in a puddle. There is no right or wrong. It’s play! Anything that gets you out of your well worn rut will do. It is never too late to reconnect with that place in you that knows how to play, that place that knows no bounds and isn’t wrapped up in the trappings of life.

And no, it is not immature. It is play. Give it a try!

Stress … free

Irma has come and gone, but the stress lingers on. A quick look at the National Hurricane Center website shows Jose, Lee and Maria making their way across the Atlantic, reminding us that hurricane season isn’t over quite yet. We must sit tight, wait and watch, while these children of the Atlantic cavort about and decide what path to skip down next. Like bullies in a playground, they taunt and tease; they harass us with the threat of wind and rain, rip tides and storm surges, and all we can do is hope they opt to play elsewhere.

And that is one of the myriad of reasons I do yoga and meditate. I find the threat of home-destroying winds followed by the possibility of weeks with no power (aka no air conditioning) in the height of summer (imagine your house has become a sauna) to be, well, stressful. Having dodged a bullet with Irma (thank you, thank you, thank you, oh guardian angels, angels of all kinds and the forces that be in the universe, for letting us keep our power!), I am now focused on the reloaded gun pointing my way. I find it, well, stressful, that three hurricanes are meandering around out there, and hurricane season doesn’t end until November 30. Yup, I find that really, really stressful.

To combat the stress, I went to gentle yoga this morning. The magic of yoga is that the poses are designed to calm and balance your nervous system. I don’t have to do an extreme practice, to come away wrung out and ready to drop, to feel calmer. All I have to do is go through the poses, let them work their magic, and breathe.

I know what you are thinking, you feel better when you do an intense workout. Muscles burning, sweat pouring down, not an inch of dry when you finally cry ‘uncle’ and head for the shower. I get it, I was there, and if I still physically could, I might be right there with you (it’s a longer term plan), but yoga is more forgiving. It works with your body, whatever your level or physical ability, and encourages you to be more, while still letting you know you are completely fabulous right where you are. It works on your stress, just differently. When you do an insane workout, you feel better because you are burning off the adrenaline, letting the steam out of the pot, as it were. Think of a pot of boiling water. Take the lid off and the pot calms down, but the source of the heat is still there, and before long the pot starts to boil again. That’s why it takes longer and more intense workouts to get the same effect. Not so with yoga, the poses are the poses are the poses. You can get better at them, get stronger in your execution of them, advance and try more difficult ones, but they still work regardless of your level. They work because of the breath.

With yoga, each movement is married to an inhale or an exhale. Imagine if you synchronized your life to your breath. Inhale, you open the refrigerator. Exhale, you contemplate your options. Inhale, you reach for the orange juice. Exhale, you pour yourself a glass. And on and on and on. Life would be more mindful, more thoughtful. Your actions would be contemplated and sure, rather than a haphazard array of movements, half of them executed on auto-pilot while your mind whirls about something else. Breathing, we do it every day, over and over, yet we never really pay it any mind. But what if we did?

What if we took a breath before we spoke, took a breath before we made a decision, took a breath before everything? Yes, we would slow down our day, but isn’t it the frenetic pace of our day, our week, our lives, that is compounding our stress levels anyway? I think a little mindful breathing would do wonders for the world. Give it a try, maybe in the shower? Or after you get into bed? Or before you get out of bed?

Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose to the count of 3 or 4, or 5, whatever is comfortable for you, then pause, and breathe out to the same count. Repeat this, maybe start with 5 times, or 7 times, or 10 times. Again, what you are comfortable with. Don’t think about anything, just breathing. Remember, through your nose. It makes the breath slower. Seriously, how fast can you really breathe through your nose? Think about the air flowing through your nostrils and down into your lungs, then back out again. Over and over, carrying away with it tension, stress, anxiety. If it helps, you can, in your mind, inhale and hold in your mind that your are inhaling calm, then exhale and hold in your mind that you are exhaling stress. Use whatever words work for you:

Inhale … calm, peace, love, hope

Exhale … stress, anxiety, sadness

The right words will come to you.

Start and end  your day this way, and you will feel calmer, more grounded in yourself, more connected to your actions. Whenever you feel stress creeping in, take a breather, literally. A couple of deep inhales and exhales and you will feel the earth coming back under your feet, solid and sure.

That’s all it takes, a couple of slow, deep breaths …




Thank your guardian angels

Fear is a funny thing. Sitting smack dab in the center of Florida, I have obsessed over Irma’s drunken-sailor progress this past week; first her westward trek across the Atlantic, then her indecision as to when to turn and where in Florida to make land. She is as indecisive of her landing point as I am with the TV remote. Hundreds of channels and not a thing to watch. I get it, her wishy-washy swish across the Atlantic, but indecision makes me nervous. I like certainty, outcomes I can wrap my head around. Since predictability is never an option with a hurricane, or any natural disaster for that matter, when trouble looms I send out a bat signal to my guardian angels and thank them in advance for getting me through this, too. I say “too” because they were all there at the forefront for my year of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, and they will see me through this as well.

I am always amazed at the guidance I receive from my guardian angels. It is subtle, but if I pay attention, they come in loud and clear (their voices can often be mistaken for thoughts). For instance, as of Friday (yesterday) morning, we had no plywood to board up our house and no prospects of getting any. After wallowing in despondency for an appropriate amount of time, I took a deep breath and asked for help. “Where can I find plywood,” I asked whoever might be listening. Lowes and/or Home Depot were obviously not the answer. Clear and concise it came to me (angels don’t mumble) – a lumber yard. I did a quick internet search for lumber yards in Apopka and the first one that came up was Hood Distribution in Lockhart, Florida. I called them and, despite being a wholesaler, they had opened their doors to the general public that day and were selling plywood to homeowners who needed to board up their houses. I bought 15 sheets and, while I waited for Ken (my husband) to show up with his pickup truck, struck up a conversation with the branch manager. He shared with me that they were making plywood available to the general public because it was “the right thing to do.” The price was the same had I gone to Lowes or Home Depot. Bottom line – he had wood; people needed wood. It was as simple as that. It was the right thing to do, and he did it. And my guardian angels connected me with him. After Ken got there and loaded the wood, I went over to the Branch Manager to say good-bye. We hugged, told each other to stay safe, and I kissed his cheek. It was the right thing to do.

I try not to read the Irma news, the predictions and discussions and commentaries. Some days I am more successful at it than others. Irma is fast reaching celebrity status, reaching for records set by Andrew and others before her, and everyone is talking about it. How could she know Tampa hasn’t had a major hurricane since 1921? Yet now she is headed that way, her wobbly plod becoming more sure, more exact. It is times like this that my practical side takes over. Irma is a storm, a product of nature. It is the birth-child of warm water, wind and delightful weather 12-months a year (grossly over-simplified, but if you want the whole conception story, go here). The joy of wearing shorts year-round comes at a price, and the price for a Floridian is the possibility of a hurricane. The spit of land our homes inhabit hangs out into the Atlantic like a pinball machine flipper, a perfect hook to catch every storm the Atlantic births and sends careening in our direction. In these instances, we have no choice but to tap our guardian angels on the shoulder and ask them for help.

While I don’t believe even a guardian angel can change the path of a hurricane (it would be hugely unfair to those residing wherever it ended up making landfall, not to mention a gross violation of some sort of guardian angel code of ethics), they can help you weather the storm. So here is a great big thank you to all the guardian angels out there, watching over their charges in Florida, the United States and the world. Whether wind, rain, fire or snow, mudslide, tsunami or earthquake, there is someone there looking over our shoulder, tipping the scale a smidgen this way or that. It may not seem like help at the time, but the alternative could be a whole lot worse. Sitting here in my boarded up house, I know in 24 hours the wind will be howling. I’m grateful for these serendipitous boards of wood between me and whatever the wind may decide to play catch with. I’m grateful for my guardian angels and the little things they orchestrate that end up making a huge difference.