Wrestling the sunny with the sad

I apologize for what turned into a longer-than-expected hiatus from blogging. I had really just intended to take a week or two off, to find a new direction of sorts. Now here I am, three months later, still wrestling the sunny with the sad, and feeling no farther along than when I started.

I had started this blog to share my cancer journey with friends and family, which turned into the added bonus of being a cathartic adventure of the soul. I found it much easier to explore each stop on my treatment journey in writing, and in the process maybe helping someone else as they went through their own journey, be it cancer or anything else. I find humor when I write, or rather, humor finds me. There is a delightfulness about my fingers; they cannot write about darkness without reveling in the glory of the silvery lining accompanying it. It is quite possibly a failing of mine, but I think Darwin would approve.

So here I am, three months later, still bouncing around trying to navigate post-cancer life. The reality is, people are generally kinder when frailty enters the picture. It is likely because they see themselves, a sort of ghost-of-Christmas-future moment, and so they become the person they would want someone to be for them. You get cancer and everyone around you unpacks their caring and concern and gets in line to offer their top shelf emotional modality. And then it ends. Either you end, which is not ideal, or your treatment ends, you get an “all clear” stamp of approval, and are sent back to your life to carry on, and so does everyone else.

There is a silver lining here, I promise. It’s the season of Christmas, and Hanukkah, and Tiny Tim and Red Rider Bee-bee guns, when we greet strangers with “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah” and wish them well for no reason other than you are both traveling on intersecting paths and what the heck, it’s the holidays! Then it ends. (Noticing a theme here?) And we wonder why that feeling can’t last all year round, the glow of warm wishes and cheery thoughts. And so I wonder too, why the care and concern we express for one another when a crisis rears it’s gnarly head doesn’t last, why we don’t reach out more often, stay in touch, be better friends, siblings, parents and children, all the time.

I am as guilty as the next guy (or gal), and have an unattractive history of shirking family time in lieu of meaningless adventures that seemed irresistible at the time. Cancer was my wake-up call, my priceless lesson, my gem.

Life is now. Be present, feel it, love every moment of it, the happy and the sad, with gusto.

So I’m on a cruise with my best friend

So I’m on a cruise with my best friend. I’ve known Heather since junior year of high school. Forty-one fabulous years. How can it all be fabulous? Because we are still friends, best friends. Every step of those forty-one years, the ups, the downs, even the gaps, have moved us along in our life journeys, and now here we are, on a cruise together.

It is day two. We boarded yesterday with the bleak rain of an aberrant summer squall seeming to chase us from the shore. It was glorious! The rain washed decks glistened in the timid sunshine as we left the shoreline behind us and forged ahead towards the Caribbean. Destination – Haiti and Jamaica, but that is tomorrow. Today is sunshine, a balmy breeze, laughter and the splash of the pool.

There is nothing quite like yoga in the open air at sunrise. The aft (rear) section of the boat shimmies like a hula girl under bare feet, so I went to the front (fore for you nautical types). I found a nice niche on the 12th floor next to the jogging track. Yoga, and meditation, in peace and quiet is for sissies. Centering happens under the watchful eye of distractions. Centering happens when the irritations of the world are folded in to become the natural rhythm of life, the back beat to which you can dance and revel.

With that in mind, I inhaled to the thunder of sneakers on the jogging track, exhaled under the curious gaze of passing fellow passengers. It was amazing! My practice has changed over the years. I no longer treat yoga as an athletic feat, I use my practice to nurture my physical, emotional and mental well being. I’m addicted to the smile that warms my lips as I move through the poses. I find it liberating to turn myself over to the part of me that knows what poses I need that day. The mind is a taskmaster; the soul is gentle, loving. It knows and it nurtures.

It is fun to tackle tree pose (imagine standing like a flamingo) with the rumble of the boat seeping up through your toes, hands pressed together in prayer as the sun slides up over the bow of the boat to kiss your face good morning. Precious moments, ones that smooth away the worry lines of work, family and life. Precious moments that a camera can never capture, that are held in the heart to carry me through the day.

Yes, that is what life is all about, precious moments. So here I am, on a cruise with my best friend, missing my husband, but loving him intensely for giving me this priceless opportunity for some girl time with my bestie.

I see you

I wave at people when I drive by. It doesn’t matter where I am, in or out of my neighborhood, but if our eyes meet, I wave. Mostly they wave back, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they look at me with a puzzled look, as if because we don’t know one another we shouldn’t be acknowledging each other. That’s what a wave is, though, it says, “I see you,” and the wave back says, “I see you, too.”

It’s a funny thing, being seen. I spent most of my childhood not wanting to be seen. If I had Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, I would have lived in it. I preferred to slip in and out of class under the radar, uncalled on and unacknowledged. Don’t get me wrong, I was a good student, I just wasn’t a very public student. I preferred to get my A’s quietly and sneak on with my life as though I were never there. That changed as I got older, grew up, hopefully got a little wiser. You can’t really go through life not being seen. Someone always sees you, even if it is only your fish (dog, cat, bird, fill in the blank with your pet of choice).

When I got my first apartment, I got goldfish. They were low maintenance pets for a gal on the go. They were fancy bubble-eyed goldfish, the kind with bugged out Marty Feldman eyes. One was gold with white trim on her tail and fins and the other was black. They knew I was there, that I shared some indefinable space with them. Sure, I fed them, but they watched me even when I wasn’t feeding them. They were in a 10-gallon tank, so they had lots of room to roam and certainly plenty of better places to spend their time than studying me through the glass, yet they did. They would hang there in the water and watch me move about, comparing notes on the daily activities of the being that brought them food. I had a connection with those fish; they were great listeners. Then the black one got sick and the gold one stayed  by his side until he died (the dreaded ich, which is apparently a goldfish disease). The gold one died about two weeks later, I am convinced of a broken heart. Her companion was gone and she was alone. There was no one to see her anymore. I saw her, but I’m not a fish. She needed something more. She needed someone to really see her, she needed the one who mattered to see her.

It is an interesting notion that who sees us is as important as being seen, that those who are close to us carry more weight than those who hover around the fringes of our lives. Praise from a parent, significant other or supervisor carries more weight than that of a stranger or co-worker. Sure, there are some social consequences as to whose opinion we pay attention to, but in the end, there is only person’s opinion that should really matter, and that’s  your own. I wish I could take credit for coming up with that, but that one belongs to Dr. Wayne Dyer. I saw him speak several times, each time coming away with a life-changing epiphany. One I have never forgotten is his talk about “the good opinion of other people.” You can ask 100 people what they think about something and you will get 100 answers. The only opinion that matters, though, is your own. Only you have to like the way you look, the way you think, what you eat, what you do. Everything else is just “the good opinion of other people.”

Over time, I have stopped trying to mold myself to seek the approval of other people. Instead, I have chosen to revel in what is uniquely me. It was hard at first, trying to find myself under the layers upon layers of adaptation to the whims of the world, but I was under there, and trust me, so are you. Glorious, unique you is waiting to be seen. And the world is waiting to see you, and wave.

Coddling myself like a wounded bird

It has been a while. Sorry about that. I had to take a step back, do some thinking, set some priorities. What I determined during my hiatus is that enough is enough. I am over a year out from any kind of treatment (I’m not counting anti-hormone therapy, as that will go on for some time) and I am still limping along, coddling myself like a wounded bird. Funny thing happens when you do that, you become the wounded bird! So, enough is enough.

It started when I went to see a potential new primary care physician. My prior doctor and I weren’t quite seeing eye-to-eye anymore. I don’t like  doctors that encourage me to do things that I don’t see the point in, especially when they have not done a good job of convincing me otherwise. I am not the sort that follows the herd. I need facts, data, a reasonable explanation that doing something will indeed have a benefit, not just that they hawk supplements in their office and here’s the latest one, so take it. So, I found myself someone new. She is very knowledgeable, very thorough, and she listens. In my mind, that’s a medical trifecta. Plus she is a woman, so she can relate.  A trifecta+. In the course of our conversation (yes, we actually had a conversation!), she mentioned that she likes to read self-help books and the book she is reading now talks about people who are task-oriented having trouble letting go and having fun, which can be tiring. She didn’t say me, per se, but since I had mentioned to her that my energy level isn’t back to what it used to be, and since I recently worked three weekends in a row (both Saturday and Sunday), I’m pretty sure it was aimed at me.

I won’t admit to having  trouble having fun, but I will readily admit to being overly responsible and putting responsibilities (real or imagined) before having fun. It doesn’t help being married to an overly responsible husband and having an overly responsible best friend. Who is there to drag me off task? Now I have that responsibility on top of everything else!

I could give dozens of excuses as to why I do it, put responsibilities before play, but in the end they are just excuses. In the end, I’m an adult and I can do whatever the heck I want (within reason). Granted, too much play has its repercussions too, but I think I could achieve a healthier balance, if I were to be honest, which I am trying to be. Plus, my doctor wants me to, and she gave a pretty sound medical argument as to why I should goof off, I mean play, more.

Okay, I’m off topic. Enough is enough, though, no more babying myself. A year out of treatment and I am still wafting through a 30-minute Beginner 2 yoga class (Down Dog yoga app – awesome!), because I don’t want to overdo it. Screw that! In the spirit of “enough is enough,” I dialed it up to a 45-minute Intermediate 1 class and it felt great! I did the same the next day, and the next, and guess what, I’m still standing. The world didn’t stop. I may have sweat a little, but nothing to get excited about. In the end, what probably made me feel more lackluster than anything else was those darn beginner yoga classes!

I love yoga. It is freedom, poetry for the body, a dance of the spirit. Bridling that expression, forcing it into a box that was too small for it, well, maybe that wasn’t the smartest. Lesson learned.

Are you happy?

Are you happy?

It is a tough question, isn’t it? It sounds like it should be simple, like a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ should roll off the tongue with barely any thought, but doesn’t. We end up paused in what amounts to useless thought, goaded by impromptu panic at the thought that we have paused to think about a question that should require no thought.

Still, are you happy? Better yet, what makes you happy? Food, sex, a glass of wine … Or do they just numb the pain of a hard day?

We wrestle with these questions, or we stop asking them. One or the other, take your pick. I have bouts of backsliding, to asking old questions I know the answers to. Am I happy? Some days yes, some days no. That’s life, for now. What makes me happy? That’s an easy one. Nothing can “make” me happy, I am either happy or I am not. It’s at my discretion, my whim. Sometimes it’s chemical, eating food I’d rather not confess to here. I don’t drink alcohol or smoke, so that’s not it, and the only  drugs I take are prescribed to bind with hormones, so they can hardly be considered recreational. If I know why I am not feeling like I can conquer the world and I know how I might have gotten that way, I guess that doesn’t make me completely happy. It’s a trade off, a moment of bliss on the tongue for a food hangover tomorrow. Seems like an obvious choice, doesn’t it, when I put it like that.

Other days are just one of those days. Maybe it’s the arthritis in my right knee that as of late wants to be remembered, or the aching in my fingers and toes each morning that turns my get-up-and-go into more like walking the plank. Still, I am alive. Very much so, in fact, with no signs of ceasing such state any time soon. And that, my friends, makes me happy. The rest is just fluff and circumstance.

Nope, no typo there, it is the fluff we concern ourselves with that clouds our judgment about what really matters, the everyday circumstances that we blow out of proportion and let take over our lives. So what, I say! You are alive! Revel in it, thrill at it, enjoy it. And for God’s sake, be happy. There is only one you and only you get to experience your singularly exceptional life, so make it your own. Do it your way, on your terms. Live bold and beautifully, or as quiet as a mouse. Take on the world, or leave it to others. Bask in your glory, celebrate your greatness, admiral your own destiny.

No matter what the aches and pains, heartache or heartbreak, create your own happiness, be your own happiness, and you will find that happiness will follow you like a kite, ever more.

 

 

image credit – no rules, no limitations, no boundaries it’s like an art. © All Rights Reserved by ajpscs

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 …