Reminders of time gone by

I could have died. It doesn’t get more real, more in your face than that.

I don’t think about that very much. What would be the point? Lately, though, I seem to have constant reminders pointing me toward some unfinished business that I never even knew existed. It seems that when one is trying ones best to live, one must also give death its due.

I believe it is the Buddhists that believe that the best way to appreciate life is to meditate on your death. I have, quite uncharacteristically, not researched or looked into what that means or entails. It’s not that I’m not interested, I would be, could be, under different circumstances. It’s just too soon, too fresh … I could have died.

For you newbies, I am referring to my adventure with breast cancer, and more specifically, a bout I had with the common cold during chemotherapy. It frightened me, terrified me really, but I suspect that’s the beauty of it. Something so simple, so ordinary, can take our breath away, literally and figuratively, while our attention is focused elsewhere on seemingly more menacing matters. Frightening really, yet elegant all the same.

Lately the news seems rife with people succumbing to cancer. I’ve passed the phase where only breast cancer deaths catch my eye, now all cancer deaths chip away at my resolve, my fantasy that there is solid ground, no matter how distant, on the other side of this mire I have waded into. Right now, I detest the unknown, which is ludicrous in itself because all of life is an unknown. There is virtually no assurance of any continuance of existence, which brings me full circle to my point. I could have died.

Its silly really, since there are probably dozens of ‘could have died’ moments that have peppered my life without a second thought. I have a drivers license, so I’m sure there are some moments lurking there. I rode horses as a teenager and probably entrusted myself to a horse or two (or three) that wasn’t as stable or kind as he or she could have been, yet I’m still here. Swims in the ocean (shark!), plane, train and automobile trips, pre-dawn walks along sidewalk-less roads, life in general. There are dozens of airborne and self-inflicted illnesses that can befall a person, robbing you of tomorrow without a second thought, yet I ponder only the one.

In reality, I was far from death. Imagination amok, I was more frightened of the prospect of inching toward death than actually dying. I see death as somewhat of a one-way process, a road which embarked on does not often offer exits or a retracing of steps. At least that’s how I see it. Is it better to rail against the process, or march with dignity, head held high, and embrace the journey as the once-in-a-lifetime experience it is? I suppose that depends on the point on your lifeline that you happen to be jumping off at. Personally, I think I would prefer to fall right off the end of my palm, but that’s me.

Life on the path less taken

What life path did you choose? Mine, it is the path less taken, the harder trek through overgrown trails splattered with copious amounts of extra muck. The one that friends and family warned me about, scolded me about and shook their heads about when I chose it anyway. It is the one that has alternately been watered with tears to a soggy mess and baked with joy to a delightful glow. Sound familiar, maybe like your path? I think, looking back, these so-called “paths less taken” are everyone’s paths, just most of us didn’t step onto them voluntarily.

In the trek through my formidable years, I experienced being painfully shy then workably social, finally settling comfortably into just being me. I have (strong) opinions and try to keep the more contentious ones to myself, sharing them only when asked or venting to an inner circle of immediate family and close friends. More so, I prefer to just smile at the antics of life and hope that there is some bigger meaning and/or life lesson that will come from it all. Ergo, the need for yoga and meditation.

Meditation helps me make sense of things, helps me stop asking questions without listening for answers. Think about it, all the questions you have, that you ask, that you wrestle around in your brain and then toss into the wind, how much time do you invest in listening for an answer? Whatever your religious or spiritual persuasion, the asking is one thing, but the time spent in silent contemplation just listening for an answer, that is is the good stuff! 

Oddly, I get a lot of answers, and insights, when I listen. I find the insights to be more valuable than the answers, mostly because an answer puts one question to bed, whereas an insight opens up a world of possibilities. One of my better insights – don’t ask questions I already know the answer to. For instance, “why me.” The answer is and always will be, “why not me.” If I dig a little deeper, life is never about why something does or does not happen to you, or for you, it is always about what you do with exactly what you have. We all are exactly where we are supposed to be in our respective lives. Where we tend to go awry is not appreciating what we have going for us and celebrating it with giddy abandon.

When I lived in Connecticut, I lived in the most amazing little house overlooking a river. From the day I moved in, I knew I wouldn’t be there forever, so I enjoyed the heck out of that house each and every day. From the deer that crossed the yard to drink from the river to the hawks and foxes that watched me on my daily walk, it was magical, like living in a fairy tale. And on a timer. Eventually, time was up and I moved to Florida.

I don’t regret leaving my woodland oasis. It was time to head for Florida, where I was destined to meet my husband. Sure, I could have stayed there, perched on the edge of heaven, forever, I suppose, but I didn’t. I listened. If you think about it, really think about it, you hear it too, that insistent something encouraging you along. It can feel like anything really, a tug at the gut, a whisper tangled in the breeze, intuition, your conscience, (sorry, no voices), these are guides showing us the way, and it is up to us to pay heed, or not.

So what happens if we miss the signs, ignore our instincts, write off our gut feelings to hunger pangs or indigestion? Then we follow a different path, one of many paths, but it will still get us where we need to go. In the end, all the paths are the same. The experiences are different, sometimes harder, sometimes easier, but our paths all go one way, from birth to death. In the end, it will always be what we do with the path we are on that makes for one heck of a ride.

There is more to your feet than you could ever imagine

Consider your feet. Most of us don’t give them a second thought except when they hurt or don’t fit into that perfectly adorable shoe that you can never find in your size. We paint our toes to make them look prettier and are never quite satisfied with the smoothness of our heels, although we never quite consider how they got that way. Yes, our feet. Priceless, irreplaceable, under appreciated, this is about your feet, because there is more to your feet than you could ever imagine.

I practice yoga so I am all about my feet. They are the foundation of my ability to stand upright, making thousands of tiny adjustments every minute to ensure I stay that way. I don’t notice it, I am so used to them doing their job I just let them be so they can get on with it. I do appreciate them immensely, though. They keep me from toppling over. If you are someone who texts, talks or surfs while you walk, you should appreciate your feet even more. They are flying blind while you are engrossed in your device, keeping you out of danger as best they can until you check in again.

If you want to feel how much work your feet do, try standing on one foot. First take off your shoes and socks. Your feet work better when they are not boxed in. Stand up straight, the crown of your head reaching tall to the sky, eyes fixed on a point in the distance, and fix one foot firmly to the floor. Feel the floor under your heel and the ball of your foot. Feel your foot expand against the floor and each toe stretch out to help you balance. I love that feeling. It’s as if my foot is saying, “I’m ready when you are.” Your foot feels solid, strong, ready to go to work, right? Now turn the other foot slightly out, bend your knee and rest the sole of your foot against your calf. If you are brave, bend your knee more and press the sole of your foot against your inner thigh. (Never against the inside of your knee, always go higher or go lower.) Bend your elbows and press your hands together in front of your chest. You are officially in Tree Pose.

Can you feel it? Without the help of its mate, your standing foot has more work to do. Let it do its thing. Let it adjust and shift, moving to keep you upright. Have you ever watched someone balance something on their nose or forehead? How they shift around to keep it balanced there? That is sort of what your foot is doing, making thousands of tiny adjustments to keep you balanced.

If you have trouble balancing on your own, stand next to a wall and use your hand for balance. As you get used to it, practice taking your hand off the wall.

Most of us rely on our shoes to do what our feet were born to do. I go barefoot a lot. I love the feeling of my feet on the ground. It’s like I have another sense that tells me what is going on below me while my head tells me what is going on up high. If you have ever walked on a beach you know what I am talking about. The hot, dry sand gives way to the firm, wet sand. The cool (or warm) salty ocean licks at your toes, leaving a whipped cream froth behind. It’s a sensory treat for the feet!

This barely scratches the surface of all that goes on with those little noticed darlings that cart us around all day. Our feet are miraculous. Next time you have yours out, sans socks and shoes, give them a little stretch. Point your toe, flex it toward you, roll your ankle, just move them around and revel in them. Love them; they are yours and yours alone.

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?