Monday, July 14, 2014

Naked Yoga: Keeping the Black Panther at Bay

Thanks to naked yoga, I'm not feeling so cranky anymore. (see previous, F-bombed post

I am happy to report that my knee is well on the mend, that I’ve had the blessed(ly noisy) MRI, seen some good docs, and have a plan. Doesn’t everything feel better when you have a plan?

I no longer am feeling like an old lady (aside from my B.A.V. status--and I will say here: I am holding out for real connection and affection). In fact, I am feeling full of youthful vigor again (yee-ha!), thanks to a few small changes I’ve made to my daily wellness routine: I’m eating more (seriously, I am terrible at feeding myself), and incorporating weights and hip-stabilizing exercises into deeper, longer, more frequent yoga sessions. And it feels great.
The anxiety sticks around. It has a way of doing that. Hello, I'm here again. Pressing its sticky fingers against my throat. Filling my head with weighty clutter. Clenching my belly. Making my heart skip a beat. And there’s nothing better for dealing with it than getting back into the body as much as possible. Working out. To good music. In the summer heat. Naked. Yes, naked.

Really. You should try it. In the privacy of your own home, of course. And perhaps with the shades drawn. (I don’t have to worry about that where I live, lucky me).

Anxiety, after all, is often about being stuck in your head, trapped in an endless loop of imagined trauma and tragedy, of catastrophic outcomes that haven’t happened yet, and may never happen, and that suck the lifeblood out of your ability to simply live in and enjoy the moment. There are no bigger demons. In my family, we call it the Black Panther, particularly when it comes to us at night, a palatable, suffocating darkness that can swallow us whole, and make getting any semblance of sleep impossible. 

But here’s the thing: The best way to get out of your head is to get into your body. It is so simple, and yet, somehow, can be incredibly difficult to do. There’s a vast range of how we experience anxiety; sometimes the sense of overwhelm is so great that to suggest that a few simple moon salutations before you go to bed might just help keep the Black Panther at bay might seem a bit ridiculous. 

But I beg to differ.

There have been times in my life when I haven't been able to get any sleep at all, save for a few snatches here and there just after the sun had come up to chase the demons away. And particularly during the time when I was waiting for my breast cancer diagnosis, and then for landscape-altering surgery, and still later, my prognosis, I was so full of fear that I would spiral every night down a dark, murky well, where I'd try to fend off the black panther, who smothered me with panic attacks that sent my heart a skitter and made it hard for me to find my breath. And when I was able to finally close my eyes and sleep, my dreams were often overtaken by desperate, malevolent spirits, who swarmed into my bed space to torment and taunt me. Crazy shit, I know, but there it is. Fear will do that. Taking back control was instrumental to my being able to get through--not only did I need to reclaim my body, but I needed to welcome in the positive forces of love and light that shimmer on the edges of those shadows, inside and out, and at times, just beyond, just out of reach. Yoga--a practice of making peace with a body that had betrayed me, of pushing myself physically to feel strong and healthy again, of letting in that light--quite possibly saved my life. Yoga, and of course, walking--although, of course, I didn’t do my walking at bedtime. (and that's a different blog post)

"All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow." ~ Tolstoy

It's not that I don't love my shadows. I do. What would I be without them? I would not be whole otherwise. Where would the beauty come from? Even the darkest shadows bring gifts, providing the backdrop for those stars to shine.

But when the light filters through in only tiny fleeting slivers that dance, then fade quickly into darkening skies, it's time to take action: to wrangle with those demons, birth some new stars. I was determined to be free of the anxiety and negativity that was making it so hard for me to stay afloat, let alone sleep enough to make it through my days, and be able to deal with the inevitable stress of managing fear while managing a household (and homeschooling my two boys). I wanted to be hopeful. What else is there to be? Friends had sent me lovely cards, candles, shells and trinkets chosen, they said, especially to help me get through, so the first thing I did was to intentionally create an altar of sorts next to my bed with a few of the special objects that had been infused with their love. And I started a nightly yoga practice at bedtime, with candles sending light into the night skies and illuminating the approaching shadows. Those gentle moon salutations stretched out into whatever I needed at the time, at the foot of my bed, where I’d untangle and camber and flesh out the spaces in between the twisting, dark patches until they vanished altogether. I found my breath, and it filled in all the hollows so there was nowhere for the fear to hide. Yoga allowed me to climb back into my physical self, leave the dread-head behind, and instead, open my body and spirit to the Pandora-like collective love of friends and family. Powerful stuff, indeed, akin to an elixir of life, soothing and emboldening me, while vanquishing the Black Panther. I felt strong and loved, and started to feel hopeful again. To shine. I was able, finally, to trust what was to come, rather than to fear the uncertainty of what lay ahead, and to believe that everything would, indeed, be okay. Sleep came swiftly and sweetly that first night, cradling me in comfort and surety. 

I suppose we must revisit these lessons over and over again as we make our way through life. Six years later, under totally different (thankfully) circumstances, I find myself once again sitting upon the realization that I have to pace myself, particularly when the terrain becomes unfamiliar, or unforgiving; that I have to try to stay in the present as much as possible; and that I have to breathe myself back into all that is right with my body. 

And so, I continue to work through the fear and doubt. Make my adjustments. Forgive myself. Let go. I walk. I work out with weights. I do yoga. I dance. And as I step back into the wholeness of my body, I feel the ache and gimp in my knee, the crackle and pop in my hips, the searing tightness on my left side, and I listen to the way they all talk to each other, and to me, a constant, resonant hum that makes my body sing, the body electric. And they have become my stories, bound deep in my scars, echoing, traveling, across arterial trails, a reawakening landscape, mapping out a rich archipelago, and coursing through my veins, in the rhythm of my breath, the beat of my heart. I am glad for the way my body responds. It wants to fight back, always. I think we're like that. No matter how hard or far we fall, we pull ourselves up and stand tall as best we can. We rediscover, over and over again, the blessed strength at our core, fused by our imperfect angularities, our irregularities, our scar tissue, our stories. Climb back into your body, and let those stories feed you, heal you.

And naked yoga? Well, that’s even better. Especially after all my girls have been through. Sometimes it's better to bare all.

Old lady? F*#k that shit. I've got things to do!

Friday, June 20, 2014

When I grow up, I want to be an old woman. Just not yet, thank you.

(with an upfront apology for all the F bombs scattered about this post)

I'm feeling like an old lady today. And I hate it. Hate it.

It's my knee. And a few other things (ok, a lot of other things, but they'll have to go in another post, because there are far too many to cover here), but mostly my left knee, which has recently given notice: no longer will I be supporting all your crazy activity. Sprinting down hills? Really, sister? I mean, WTF? How old do you think you are? Twenty? 


My knee--in fact, most of my joints--have been bugging me all spring in a barometric sort of way. Bad weather coming? Humidity on the rise? Barometric pressure dipping? My body lets me know. Many a-mornings have I awakened, hair all dewpoint-curly, to steamy weather, river fog rising, sun burning through, and my knee, all stiff and achy, making me wince as I get out of bed, and take my first steps of the day. And on those days, swampier air settling in by the hour, the knee moans, and then screams, and I feel old

Plus, there's the little something I did to it several weeks ago. Running hills. Trying to stay kickass. Pushing it a little too much. Pop goes the knee. I know, I know. What's the big deal? I've been through so much worse. This is nothing. Just a little blip on the screen. A speed bump, for chrissakes. So what's the problem? Suck it up cupcake. I mean, really. 

There's nothing quite like your mother having a heart attack to put it all into perspective.

Yeah, so, I'm trying hard not to complain, but the shifting sands just won't stop, and it feels like the universe is talking to me. Again.

And my mom? She's doing okay, but dang, she deserves so much better.

Here's the thing: at my age (gah!), there's a whole lot of stuff that starts to happen, and it comes in waves, hitting you and those you love in equal, crappy measure, sending you to crash against the rocks, scrape up against the barnacles, and consider just giving in. Whatever the ensuing wreckage, and wherever you wash up, things shift immeasurably, irretrievably, and suddenly, a sort of unwelcome bump into the next phase of life. You're suddenly afloat, alone, on an iceberg, slowly but decidedly drifting into whatever's next, screaming, "I'm not ready!!" You find yourself having crushes on 25-year old farm boys and sprinting down hills full speed. Yep. I remember being acutely aware of going through such a passage when my grandmother died. Two days after the memorial service, my mother starting walking with a limp. A year or so after that, she had both hips replaced. I broke down visiting her in post-op, where she lay all wrapped up in white blankets, the bed swallowing her whole. Nothing would be the same. We had both moved up. Next!

And there's this: "Nobody gives a shit about old ladies. We remind everyone they're going to die." ~ Orange Is The New Black


You first notice how different everything feels. There's more anxiety to manage, more imagined peril, more preoccupations with what might happen next. Especially if you're on your own. And people start to see you differently. Or maybe, they stop seeing you at all. You start to become the Invisible Woman, gradually erased into nothing. "You're small," my son has said to me in a fit of anger, "you're nothing." It's how you start to feel. And yet, you realize, too, that you started this process yourself, when you chose not to follow your dreams, not to step completely into yourself.  You're giving up your power, your mother used to say. And you'd brush her off. Oh, the irony. You feel yourself being pushed to the margins again and again just as you are screeching to take center stage in your own life. Is there any use? Is this the beginning of the end? Is this it? Is there ever any going back? 

I can't help but wonder, will I ever be able to ski hard and fast again without worrying about my knee? Sprint down hills? Run down mountains (my favorite part about hiking)? And there's more, too: will I ever feel eyes on me attractive again, abuzz with dopamine, the nectar of longevity, the sweet honey of youth? Will I ever feel invincible again, or just invisible? Not worry about my mother? My children? Will I ever be able to think about her--and myself--in the same spots along the generational trail, within the aging loop, than I did just a few months ago? I once believed that this too shall pass, that I could apply that to most everything. Most things (and some would argue, all things) are temporary, after all. Even a messed up knee. But a heart? Add to the mix Parkinson's and lung disease, and you start to worry, all the fuckin' time. And it hits me, too: if I feel old, how does she feel? Mom says that she's "no longer the Bounce Back Baby." I suppose if there's one definition of aging, there it is.

And, of course, I want nothing more than for her to bounce back. To regain her 3-Day strength and stamina. To walk on. And I want the same for me, too. Right?

The universe is always talking, isn't it? And our bodies serve as conduits for all sorts of messages and meaning, and I'm trying, despite the constant hum and buzz of all-things-at-once, to listen. Trying to consider what simmers just under the surface of this and that, to make connections, and see those physical maladies for the complex emotional, circumstantial, metaphorical, and often mysterious subtext they are. Since I spent my adolescence honing my ability to sniff out the Deep Hidden Meaning, or DHM, for short, I can't not do this.

Perhaps, then, it is simply the collision of so many simultaneous transitions at work here, not just an unsettling injury to my knee, but also having to help my mother start to transition into greater dependence while helping my sons move into greater independence, navigating an impending divorce and all the work of processing, trusting, and letting go it requires, and trying to jump into something new, something that feels better: rhythms, work, relationships, and play, too. And realizing throughout it all just how much I've lost, especially, all those years that I can't get back. There's the nagging, persistent feeling that I lost myself somewhere along the way. I've spent many years now trying to unearth and recapture her, but she's squirrelly, used to hiding out, shy, weary. At times I wonder if she's even there at all. I am no longer that person who submerged herself all those years ago., but there are echoes and shadows that call to me, reminding me to stay feisty, take no prisoners, make those leaps. It'll take some time to come to terms with where--and who--I am now. And yet, I'm not ready to leave it all behind, stop sprinting down hills, skiing hard and fast. Two questions remain: What exactly happened in between and why am I not still twenty

Whatever it is, dealing with an injury, within the larger context of my mom's health issues, is bringing it all to the surface, a sort of subtle but fiery plea to take a long look in the mirror, to please acknowledge yes that's you, and move on. How can I even imagine taking those leaps if I can't even walk? I'm trying to feel awesome again. Not like this. Fark.

And perhaps there is the idea, too, that I was being prepared for what was to come, what is to come, with my mother. A chance at a gradual reckoning, rather than a slap in the face. Yo, Liz, you're almost fifty. Just sayin'.

And yet, maybe it was just time.

It could be that blowing out (I know, so dramatic of me) my knee was inevitable. After years of downhill skiing with much abandon, biking without a helmet (not that that has anything to do with my knee, but it's the idea that maybe, just maybe, I have used up my rope of invincibility, and now am forever tethered close and tight to the be careful crowd), running down hills, walking endless miles, playing every possible sport, my knees are entitled to be a little cranky. And who knows what else is going on in there. There's a trail loaded with DHM-explosives that I could follow, one trauma leading to the next, and the body, ever responsive, making its adjustments accordingly as each new revision takes shape. I have imagined tracing myself on big paper, and deconstructing, with collage and text and color and anything that comes to mind, all the connected tales, trails, and travails, the scars and aches and joys, too, that my body has become. Bodies are funny that way, and fascinating too: our stories take root in the hollows in between, in all those parts working in tandem, each depending on the other, compensating for each other's weaknesses, or overbearing tendencies, making the story whole. Such a study in the grace and grit of physics, in collaboration, despite what the insurance companies would have us believe. And then there is the emotional piece, too, what do you do with that? which manifests in the physical, hiding out in the shadows, and then bringing light to the complexities of all that symbiotic cross-pollination. So much to consider. Especially when you are an over-thinker like me.

It happened like this.

About three weeks ago, I was on one of my usual 6+ mile walk/runs, which often includes hills and sprinting, just so I won't get too bored. Dance walking hasn't hit the valley quite yet, but I'm working on it. On this particular afternoon, I had just run down a long steep hill and settled in on the relative flats for interval training, walking, sprinting, walking, sprinting, when I made the stupid decision to sprint down a hill. I suppose I was feeling sporty or something. Not my best, as my son would say. About halfway to the bottom of the hill, I felt something go pop! in my left knee, somewhere on the inside, and extending around the back to the outer tendon. I slowed to a walk, started to swear, and greeted the cows Hellooo ladies! who had started to gather along the edge of the fence, drawn, clearly, to the sound of the F bombs I was lobbing with every painful step.

When I got home, I swore some more, iced the knee, and took arnica, sprinkling those magical little pellets onto my tongue with the same kind of eagerness as if I had been dropping acid at some music festival. (not that I've ever done that, but nearly every time I've administered a homeopathic remedy to my kids, I've been reminded of the scene in Hair when Bukowski gets in line in the groovy-trippy-music-in-the-park-scene, on knees, and sticks his tongue out, waiting for his tasty dash of LSD.)

For the next few days, the knee felt really unstable, like it could go any minute. Boom pow. I babied it, staying off of it for the most part (haha!) and walking with attentive apprehension. And then, one afternoon, at home, doing nothing more than puttering about, I sidestepped the cat and the knee gave out, totally and completely. Instant, intense pain. Could not put any weight on it. More F bombs. The cat gave me a look, "Really, again?" Just the week before I had cut my finger badly on a hand saw outside by the old, recently felled pear tree, which I was attempting to carve up for winter wood. Blood dripping all over the kitchen, a bit of rage (ok, more than a bit) thumping through my gullet, out it came: FUCK FUCK FUCK (so sorry, but it really did feel good at the time). And so much more, too. The cat, Mischief, and not above throwing a good tantrum herself every now and again, had not appreciated my noisy display, and ran to the door with a look in her eyes I hadn't seen in awhile. Let me out now. I couldn't help it, and after all, why should I? There is scientific proof that swearing out loud several times over when you're hurt can help you manage pain, anger, frustration, and whatever else you might be experiencing. But like so many other things, we probably didn't need an expensive study to tell us what we already knew.  I used to tell my kids to save their swears for when they really matter. Like now. No sense in wasting them on the stupid stuff.

There's nothing like being on crutches when your -ex comes for a visit for your son's graduation, and you want to feel powerful and super hero like, because that's what the last twelve months have required you to be, after all, and you've been all that and more, but instead, you feel--and look--weak and old, powerless and ineffective. Hey! Doing great, just can't walk right now! Uh-huh. 

Of course, maybe the knee giving out was telling me that I can't keep carrying all of this myself, that I need help, that I am only so strong. Nah. Screw that. I got this.

Do I?

I am constantly amazed at how quickly and seamlessly my confidence can be dismantled--by an injury, or an offhand comment, a certain look, or by any small bit of dismissal or unresponsiveness that works its way into my day. Yours, too, I bet. There's simply no way around it. And some days I can fend it off brilliantly, and other days, it wraps its fingers around my throat, and I can't breathe.

Finally, finally, after the useless x-rays (just what I need: more radiation), and the requisite wait while the doc got approval from the insurance company, I had an MRI. "Have you ever had an MRI before?" "Oh, yes. Quite a few." "Would you like to listen to music?" "Just give me more cow bell, please."

No results yet, but I'll see the ortho-guy in a couple of more weeks. And in the meantime, I am wondering how best not to feel like an old lady.

I am certain there's much I could, should be doing to mend, strengthen, heal. And, as always, I am ever grateful for the resources that I have to figure it out for myself. But what about all those people who don't have those resources, whether a network of support, or access to equipment and help to start rehabbing? What do they do? What do the insurance companies expect them, us to do while we wait? Double up on the pain killers? On the whiskey? The F bombs?

It's absolutely nuts how our health care has been hijacked by insurance companies and a system that has absolutely NO stake in our well being.

I am, though, so much better, and that's a very good thing. I do need to be strong and able for my mother, for my children, for me, too, or at the very least, present that way. That's all that matters. I need to be there for them, to show them that I've got this. Glad to be done with the crutches, the ace bandage. Glad to be done, for the most part, with the tin-woman-rusty feeling, except for damp weather days like today. On dry days, it feels oh-so-much-better. I can bend, walk without any noticeable limp, pretend everything is working right. Add to that a little deep tissue work and yoga to keep things in balance, and I've been feeling pretty good, hopeful even, around fifty, maybe, which is still old for me, since I usually feel about sixteen. And I have been known to over-do. Who, me? I might have played a little stand-and-reach badminton, did an hour of yoga before bed, let myself get duped by the feeling that everything was going to work out just fine. And then, the damp settles in, and I feel about eighty. And, oh, look, there's some new grey in my hair. Halle-fuckin'-lujah.

And what's with all the new wrinkles, too, that just seem to keep showing up? They certainly aren't helping me feel any younger.

Here's how it starts: you go to bed and everything is dandy. And then, at some point in the middle of the night, you wake up because something is not quite right. It hurts to lift your knee to turn over, to straighten and bend, and the creak and grind of the rusty hinges have re-appeared. You go to bed feeling youngish, and wake up in the morning feeling, quite suddenly, old. (Actually, I think I woke up to the sound of my son and his friend raiding the freezer for ice cream, the big whoosh of the drawer in and out, the clink of metal scoop on marble, and the heavy thud of 6' 6" big boy footsteps startling the quiet of the house.) There's the godforsaken pillow-between-the-knees, the scheduled meds, the grocery bag boys calling you ma'am. You find yourself cursing your way out of bed. Old, old, old. (with no offense to those who are, actually, by definition, "old," though as they say, you are only as old or young as you feel).

Hobble, hobble. Everything takes so much time! And you feel so gimpy, spastic! It seems like it all snowballs: your knee goes and suddenly, you lose your coordination, your balance, your amazingly fast reflexes. Good grief! Slow, slow is not my usual speed (and maybe that's partly the point). My 102 year-old great grandmother moved faster than I can. And she was partially blind and mostly deaf. Didn't complain or whine about anything. Liked her scotch at 5 o'clock sharp. She had it going on. And all her own teeth, besides. Something to aspire to.

The good news is that I can happily report that I have not hurled any F bombs (save for the ones I keyboarded into this post and that are now reverberating in your head) for several days at least. The cat is pleased.

But I am going a little crazy--such massive lessons in patience, in asking for help, in realizing the ridiculousness of my own vanity, of my righteous claim to invincibility, an invincibility that I worked so hard to get back. Do I have the right to feel invincible again? Isn't that what feeling young is all about? Lose that, and you're old.

And there's this, too: that sweeping new terrain that sits and shimmers before me, full of rich possibility, and all for the taking? It scares me. There's an abyss between this life and the next. It requires a leap. And even before that, a need to pull myself out of the deep loneliness and longing that has filled the space in between heart beats for far, far too long. Suppose it's a challenge: so you've got a bum knee. Climb out of the hole--you're strong enough--and then, leap. Leap with all your might. You are able-bodied and whole, despite all the scars that map your stories and the sadness that runs through your veins. You'll get there. My mother has told me, There is power in your story; use it.  

I suppose one can never fully understand the full scope of what this world, what one life, truly demands, and just how much we can carry. But honestly, some days, the shit is so heavy, I've just got to put it down.

Usually, I walk it out, my go-to way of lightening my load. The fact that that I haven't been able to do this, nor any of my usual--run up and down the stairs, move nimbly through my days, bust out a dance move whenever the feeling strikes, and walk, walk, walk, through the beauty and the sadness, shedding the shadows, the heavy boots, the detritus of life, to feel light, restored, expansive--that is starting to weigh on me. Anxiety works fast--opportunistic, relentless--igniting insecurities, second guessing, and overthinking, opening the door for the dread to creep, creep in. And there's my mom, too. Worry, worry. Stuff that keeps you up at night.

It's amazing how badly I miss my walking, being active, mobile. Walking has been so essential to my recovery, my daily rhythms, my sense of well being. After all, it was walking that saved me, that brought me back, that feeds me, still. It was walking that enabled me to regain a bit of invincibility, sense of strength, and self, and that keeps me moving through the headwinds, the sea changes, all the shit Life doles out. And, most importantly, perhaps, it's been walking that has enabled me to slow down and take notice, of the tiny, glinting bits of beauty and possibility that reside in those moments that stretch out and fill slowly and completely with joy. At once healing, empowering, and liberating, walking helped me get my groove back.

No doubt, I will get it back. Again. But for now...

...I'm feeling like an old lady. Way the F*#k before my time.

Oh well. This too shall pass. Time to Suck it up, cupcake. 

Soon, soon, I'll be running hills again. Feeling like I'm twenty. Why stop now?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Winter Weary, Whither Spring?

It's been a long winter, hasn't it? Even today, on this first day of April, the sun burst onto the scene to shine strong and bright, only to dip and fade behind thickening clouds. And as I walked along roads still littered with winter's mess, geese flew overhead, birds gathered on tree tops to sing into the darkening skies, and I cursed the last of the snow stubbornly clinging to its hideous, gravel-soaked shape. Spring, with all its colors and life and promise, can't come soon enough. And these days, it's all too easy to be duped by the expansive sun. Here in New England, it's simply not to be trusted. Wander into the thickets of trees, past streams roaring with snow melt, and the pockets of cold will find you again. Even so, I am swept along, my heart astir with the changes underfoot. Forward motion.

On this day, the kind stuffed with chores and errands to cross off the endless list (and shout yay me! for remembering to return the Redbox movies before a small fortune was due), I was glad for the chance to slow it down, take a walk, write, eat, drink in the sun. My usual rhythms and routes of travel are well-worn and threadbare; lately, I have felt a deep urge to go off-road, leave behind the familiar, comfortable, if unremarkable banalities of standard-issue daily rhythms, head in a different direction, and seek the sublime in not knowing what comes next.

But there's stuff we just have to do, and after a morning visit to my awesome chiropractor/friend to keep my crooked neck from rusting and my hip from howling, I found myself in the endocrinologist's office for a biopsy on my thyroid, which had sprouted nodules--now overgrown--soon after my breast cancer diagnosis in 2008. There was something all too familiar about this road--the unhappy discovery during my annual exam, the failed, follow up ultrasound to try to "make it go away," the slightly bizarre needle biopsy--and as the procedure progressed, it was all I could do to not go there, to not jump ahead to the surgical biopsy, and those searing three small words, You have cancer. 

This time, it must be different. I've done this before. Even the thyroid biopsy part. I'm fine. 

The young doctor was on time, this time, and I was happy to bypass a long wait in the cigarette-smokey room that quickly filled with the unwell and took on a depressive, weighty energy that made me think the Dementors were close by. Once in the small pea-green room, I hopped onto the table, too short, as usual, for my long legs, and tried to get comfortable--no johnnie gown, even, just my boots up on the table under me, and the collar of my shirt wrapped in little towels to protect it from the ultrasound goop, the blood, the brush of the doctor's gloved hand. The doctor smiled a lot, called me "my friend" a few too many times, and reminded me of one of my older son's friends. Things started off with a literal bang, with the young doctor knocking the ultrasound monitor smack into the back of my head. Shit, really? I almost asked him, Have you done this before? But I figured he was just nervous, like me, and told him, instead, Hey, no worries. But soon after a pinchy dose of local anesthesia, I felt the unexpected sharp sting and deep ache two or three needles in, and found myself having to fight back tears. Really, Liz? Pathetic. This should be cake for you, sister. But for a half a minute or more I was unraveling, all the sting and ache of the past year surfacing, screaming, and it was all I could do to keep it down. I tried to concentrate on the lame-o tropical fish print tacked on the ceiling above me, got lost in how ridiculously askew it was, and then, in feeling as if I might slide off the table altogether, legs out from under me, drop into the sea. Drowning. A second dose of...what was it? Narcan? No, that couldn't have been it, that's the wonder drug that brings Heroin overdosers back to life. Whatever it was, it didn't help. I closed my eyes, just breathed. Four, five, six needles, and finally, up for air, my throat feeling strangely locked up, bruised, sore. You're good to go, my friend.

I suppose I could have surrendered to that sense of overwhelm and panic and sadness as I could have countless times over and over again, could have canceled my day and went home to do what? Wallow? Call my mother? Cry? What would the point be? I was fine. Stitched together right. Stuffing re-stuffed. Shiny and new. A work in progress, always. Instead, I gathered up the loose ends, tucking a few stray threads here and there, and set out to have my day. There was still time, after all, and I had things to do. Drink too much coffee, for one. Meet with my students. Clean the car out. Bank. Redbox.

Once home, the cat invited me to the deck for a late lunch, so I obliged, and was amazed, as I always am, at how good food can make me feel (or maybe it was the coffee, still). Whatever. Refueled, I put the sleds away, the shovels, cross-country skis, buckets of sand. Swept out the debris left by countless armloads of wood dumped on our deck just outside our wood box. Winter, be gone! Trash, recycling, compost: all emptied, sorted, turned, scrubbed cleaned. Crumbled a half eaten loaf of stale bread onto our decaying picnic table, while the cat rolled in the sun, belly up, and the birds found the bread. Such good distractions, and yet, there it was, still, the heavy thump in my chest, the sick, sticky, weight in my belly.

I needed to walk. Walk it all off--the jittery jumps from too much coffee so many hours ago, the cobwebs that had settled in my head, and especially, the sense of dread that had been welling up throughout the day. Pincers around my head. Heavy boots. And then, four miles later, gone.

Now, light fading again, night has settled in and the cold has returned to snap the spell cast by the day's warmth. And I am reminded of this poem, below, that I've been reworking since last year, and honestly, I can't tell if it's lousy or okay, but it's time to let it go. Keep it in for too long, and it'll rot inside and reek when it comes out, because it will come out, one way or the other. Nodules on your thyroids, perhaps, or tumors in your breasts. Quiet, until they scream. Life requires that we constantly let go to make room for something new, something brave. Especially now, during this season of extended, noxious decay of winter and the gradual return to life, we are reminded of how beautiful it can be, if we take the time to notice and invite the small, unheralded moments of our days to fill the space between shadows and light, and become our stories.

The light hits in a certain way, and everything stops. 

We are filled with a hushed, simple joy, the best Life can offer, really. Those shadows run deep, and will wait for you. Tell your stories, and you tend to your shadows. Scar tissue. And the waiting? The uncertainty? Whatever the outcome might be, we climb those hills, head down, so we can greet the sun at the top, just the same. And sometimes it's not there for us, not then, not when we want it to be. But it's all we can do, however fleeting. Into the light, we stay as long as we can.

Winter Weary

The sun climbs high then goes,
Vanishing shadows dance with light
Hungrily awakening
To shed winter’s cold bite.

A gradual thaw, rebirth:
Circles of warmth around trunks grow
As snow melts in a slow ache.
Above, the raucous crow

Spills his sharp discontent
Into pallid skies torn apart,
Singing the deepest stirrings
That echo in my heart.

Spirit cleaved, I walk,
Down woodland trails and dusty roads,
To mend the jagged splits and
Release these weighty loads.

With each step, a prayer,
Tethered to the place I’d call home
If it weren’t so adrift--
To let it go, alone,

I shake my best self free.
The trees speak of death in these woods,
Bend to whisper secrets lost,
Of love and solitude,

That hide in my shadows.
I carry mine close to my chest,
Buried deep, snowbound, and still,
Until the final crest,

When a bright sun explodes
Shattering the frozen landscape.
Mockery, or just reward:
Feet under me, heart agape,

I start to unravel,
Then smash! Beautiful broken glass
Reflecting the blinding light

Fading hard and fast.

Friday, February 21, 2014

"And now, we walk."

"Don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth." ~ Rumi

Life hits hard sometimes, doesn't it? Life will always be a magical, horrible blend of tragedy, beauty, and happenstance--your dog dies, your wife leaves you, your father has a heart-attack, your friend overdoses on heroin--but still you somehow stumble into perfect moments of joy, again and again, and with open heart, take it all in, and you laugh, again and again, even when, especially when, life insists on tears. An ongoing, constant unraveling, and then a tidying up. Expansion and contraction. It can be so difficult to trust the rhythm, and all to easy to feel overwhelmed by it, as if things are totally beyond your control. And maybe they are, right? What do we know, anyway? What's there to trust, after all?

If there's one thing we can expect out of life, it's the unexpected. Cancer? Yeah, that happens. A lot. Do I need to remind you of the statistics? I don't think so. What good will that do? Does it matter? It just happens. 

And when it happens, when you’re hit with an unexpected cancer diagnosis (is there any other kind?), of course you imagine the worst: stage four, metastatic, and only months, if that, to live, precipitating desperate last-ditch efforts to salvage hope, through chemo and radiation that burn and tear into any remaining healthy cells and tissue. Hooked up to an IV drip, drip, drip, you’ll eventually lose your hair, clumps at a time, fight back nausea, beg for mercy. People will give you the death-scan, the once-over, top to bottom, to see if you look like you're dying. Does she look a little grey to you? You shave your head in an act of defiance, and summon your warrior girl spirit. Your friends will give you scarf after scarf, but you are bared, now, down to your raw elements, the wretched caverns that once existed to hide the tremulous shifting shards of doubt and dread, flooded out, then emptied of secrets, all sun-bleached now, so no, but thank you. They bring you food, which you can’t keep down. Tell you that you're beautiful, still. And throughout it all, you’ll tell jokes, smile, find your grace, try to inhabit the light: this is your fight, and you’ll blaze in that darkness, a real star, before fading into nothing.

Slowly, but surely, you begin to imagine a different scenario, and line-by-line, page-by-page, you begin to write your own story.

There’s another cancer, after all; there always is. And it belongs to you.

You’ve imagined everything you will miss, everything you won’t be able to do. You look at your children, and you wonder if you will be there to see them graduate from college, get married, or not, discover, do what they love, in no particular order. The emptiness in your arms, the pull and ache where you once held them close, feels lonelier still as you imagine not being around to hold your grandchildren, and watch your children come back to you. The uncertainty of what the next day will bring weighs heavily, a constant disturbance in your peripheral vision, oh yeah, that, to render you speechless and immobile throughout the day, and blanket you with a thick, depressive darkness at night.  So when you gradually realize that it will be better that you first imagined, that the story isn’t written yet, and not so airtight, that it won’t be as bad, those small cracks start to let in some light, and it seeps into your deepest corners and awakens your warrior girl spirit, and you find a strength in you that you didn’t know existed, and it pushes you out the door, takes you by the hand, and says, “And now, we walk.

It's all we can do, after all.  Somewhere, we come to realize that with every step, we write our own stories, even when another hand has been at work, meddling with how we thought things would go. Is there any other way for it to unfold? Those unexpected potholes, delays, disruptions, and worse, there's always something worse: this we can count on. What matters is how we navigate, respond, and reclaim authorship over our own stories, ownership of our lives, especially when they've been hijacked, when things feel out of control. The wind blows hard at times, pushing us off course. And thank god for that. After all, what would we do if not for the occasional nudge off course? How else would we grow? What would we do without those often unexpected, slightly obscured opportunities to explore unchartered territory, that rise up out of the destruction, or suddenly appear in the glinting, illuminated edges, to pull us out of our pain? To keep the lamp lit, help us climb down into those dark, dusty, deeper corners of ourselves, bring them to the surface, to breathe in fresh air? I say, don't be afraid of the unknown: grab the damn rudder, reset your sails, and let the wind carry you where you want to go.  When there's nothing else to rely on, count on that.

"I hope you will go out and let stories happen to you, and that you will work them, water them with your blood and tears and your laughter 'till they bloom, 'til you yourself burst into bloom." ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Today is World Cancer Day. Glad to be here.

Glad to be wrestling with so much change and transition, the push and pull of Life as it continues to flip things on end and inside out, reminding me to return, always, to my heart. Glad to be in that precarious spot, that in-between, with forward motion temporarily arrested, and a tangle of suspended, possible destinations ahead, just beyond the giant leap across the abyss. Glad to be readying this jump, even if I can't see what's next. I'm pretty good at walking around in the dark. What's difficult is the going alone. It's what I've always done, of course, but I'm tired of it, and wouldn't mind some company. But glad, still, to be strong enough to go it alone for as long as I need to.

I suppose, too, I am missing my dog, whom we had to put down just before Thanksgiving. But I can't even begin to write about her, or I'll come completely unhinged and cry and have to seek solace in my cat, who has no use for crybabies. Gah.

It's strange how everything feels different when your dog dies. The cat looks for her everywhere, her low, drawn-out, plaintive, pathetic yowls echoing from all over the house, which feels by turn achingly empty and painstakingly filled with her spirit. Outside, the squirrels have multiplied. And the birds have started calling to me, but I, with my blindside in full swing, have taken little notice, save for the ridiculous amounts of birdseed they seem to go through every week.

Today is different. Today, I listen.

Circling around the house and back again, bringing armloads of wood to the deck, to fill both the wood box and the pockets of anxious cold that have opened up just below my heart, I hear them, from branches high and bare, letting me know.

As I fill the feeders, a fat gray squirrel hops onto the top of the picnic table to grab and nibble a rice cake, just one stale snack of many I had left in a pile atop this altar of sorts this morning. Rotting, falling apart piece by piece to herald our decay, the table, much like a fallen tree, is slowly being reclaimed by the earth. A feast for decomposers, its green, mossy, scarred veneer peels off in layers to reveal the raw materials at its core, a veritable city of industriousness ensuring the inevitability of constant change.  Everyday, a tiny little change, or a big one: an entire board peels off, the edges soften, the table sinks ever so slowly into the earth below. We're coming for you.

Tracks scurry and scatter across snow to our winter compost pile, a mix of Christmas greens, egg shells, and citrus peels and skins. I dump a bucket of ash from the woodstove atop bounding rabbit tracks, and the delicate, careful steps of our cat, which belie her copious fluff and fat.

The birds have discovered the fresh seed, and slowly return to the feeders. Male cardinals pop red against backdrops of pine and snow, while their mates, made ever more beautiful by the understated humility of their display, beg a little more effort from the watcher: harder to see, but so much more rewarding once they're found. Glad for the chance to watch them hide, then reveal themselves--nothing to prove. The chickadees fear not; unassuming, bold, friendly, they regard me with a tilt to the head as I lug past with the empty bucket.

Even after last night's frosting, the trees reach out, limbs bared, ready to catch tonight's snow. More, more. Skies gray and muted, a quiet hush has descended over the awakening trees, the fields of stubby cornstalks, even the birds, who know, as they always know, to move deliberately, and above all else, when things get squirrelly, to listen.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Five Years

March 24. It's been five years to the day since the good doctors cut out my cancer, put my left girl into an early grave, and started to grow a new girl in her place. As a cancer survivor, you hear a lot about the "5-year mark," the supposed milestone that everyone wants to reach: the rate of recurrence drops significantly, you can rest easy, you're golden. Yeah, well, I don't believe it.

Just like I don't really believe spring is ever going to come. But it will.

The vernal equinox came and went four days ago, ushering in a snow storm, colder temperatures and a wind that cut its teeth back in January. I've been waiting for the red-winged blackbird to return, the crocuses to burst through the soft snow, the snow to melt in circles around the bases of the trees, fill the streams with a throaty roar, and then, just go. But, no. Not yet anyway. Winter is hanging on. Sometimes, it just happens that way.

For now, the sap is flowing, and that will have to be enough. Isn't that how it works, after all?

Statistically, it seems good news abounds about breast cancer, its treatment and rates of recovery and survival. And yet, we all have friends and loved ones whose stories run against the tide and say otherwise: cancer is a tricky, sneaky little devil of a disease, after all, and why we'd like to claim full understanding of how it works its black magic, we can't possibly make sense of why more and more young women are being diagnosed, why metastatically, it remains insidious and powerfully destructive, and why the rate of occurrence is so staggeringly high across the board. Cancer kills, and it does so indiscriminately. There is little rhyme or reason to it. Kind of like our weather these days.

NED, or No Evidence of Disease, is what the folks in the medical-lingo-know call this state of being "cancer-free." Given all the different types of breast cancer there are, NED and all its possible rates of recurrence after the five year mark, are achingly complicated.

Since my surgeries back in 2008, I've seen my breast surgeon and oncologist on an alternating six-month schedule. They've been upbeat, brisk, even, suggesting that they have patients who need their time and attention much more than I do. While my time with my oncologist typically feels unrushed, sequestered, even, my visits with my breast surgeon have often felt more like a speed-screening session, five minutes of catching up over a quick breast exam, any changes?, an exchange of smiles, everything is great, a send-off with some sense of security in this mad world. The mammogram--digital now, thanks to advances made at Mass General with the 3D imaging called breast tomosynthesis--takes another five minutes. A few quick squeezes of my left girl in the pancake-machine, hold your breath, the inevitable kink in my neck, the bruised rib that mistakenly gets claimed as breast tissue, thin, flat-breasted women are indeed a special challenge, and you're so tall!, and it's done. The visits, however quick, seem to swell into long, drawn-out days. The anxiety that maybe this time they'll find something starts to creep in days, sometimes weeks, before, and there's the long drive into Boston, the red line to Charles/MGH, the precipitous wait in my johnny gown, to fill out, again, the electronic questionnaire (the question about smoking still stumps me: what if I never bought my own pack of cigarettes? does that count?), simmer in my worry, fashion magazines on my lap, and then, the pancake-session, and then, again, another wait, for the results, that all-too-familiar dread rising to fill my hollows with its stink. 

I have sought reassurance from my docs, but clearly, they have patients who need it more than I do. After all, I've been healthy, I'm walking, I'm strong, a model of survivorhood on the outside, right? Eh. My reassurance has come mostly in the form of having screenings done--first every six months, now once a year--and receiving good test results (read: your mammogram showed nothing new that looks alarming, abnormal, or cancerish. your right breast is still dense and cystic and a little wonky, but it's not necessarily wonkier than it was the last time, so all's good). When I graduated to annual screenings, it freaked me out a bit. I had come to depend on getting that reassurance every six months that I did not have cancer. The cancer is still gone. It has not come back. Your right girl is healthy, cancer-free. It gave me a new lease on life, every time. To go a full year in between screenings felt like torture, the dread and fear rising and swelling and stinking up my better sense, but because it had been presented as something to be proud of, I felt as if I was obligated to make the most of it: suck it up, cupcake. this is how it is. 

What, exactly, happens at the five-year-mark? What, exactly, was I expecting? I see my oncologist sometime this spring. I don't remember when. I am still taking my Tamoxifen. I don't intend to re-fill the bottle that I have but rather, let it run out. Good riddance, right? Five years of Tamoxifen has been enough. Or has it?

As much as I am looking forward to letting my body recover from some of the side effects that the Tamoxifen has wrought--hot flashes, especially early on; severe leg cramps; erratic, unreliable periods; brain fog; yadda yadda--I wonder (ok, I worry) about how else my body might "recover" after I stop taking Tamoxifen. I know it is protective. I know it is an amazing drug. Will the five years offer enough protection as I head into the six year mark? The ten? The twenty? What happens now?

I took a walk today. It is good tonic for me in every way, to get out in the fresh air and sunshine, take in a changing landscape (though, I would argue that it is not quite changing quickly enough), take notice of the natural world that seems, at times, so distant, given how freakin' busy I've become, fill my lungs, get the heart going, swing my arms, relax my addled tech-neck, let my faraway eyes land on something other than a screen for awhile, clear my musty head, and hope that my dog's unabashed joy for such serendipitous walks is contagious, even if it just a bit.

Whatever happens, I suppose, I'll walk on. After all, it has become my religion, my good tonic, my reassurance. Reassurance comes from living my life the way I see fit, from taking care of myself, for making time for those regular cathartic walks in nature, leaving behind the overload of responsibilities every now and again, taking some chances on something, anything, and write, write it all down, here I am. This has been much, much harder to do than I expected, more difficult to sustain. It takes time and love and acceptance and a field of fucking daisies, and sometimes, it's just not there. It's been a battle, most days, to take care of myself, to believe that I am worthy of such care, of a love that comes from the ground up, that seeps into every fiber of my being, a sinewy strength to carry me every step of the way. The shadows are with me, always. But that's not where I want to live. 

After all, I should never have gotten cancer in the first place. There is no reassurance in statistics for me. I don't feel reassured by having hit my 5-year mark. Happy, yes, but reassured that it's all smooth sailing from here? No.

"My oncologist tells me that the longest he has personally seen a woman go before a breast cancer recurrence is 21 years.  Using five years to measure success in the fight against a slow growing cancer may be giving us a false picture of progress." ~ Phyllis Johnson, Health Central.  

My cancer was Estrogen Receptor +, or ER+. There's a lot we don't know about this particular kind of cancer, but I suspect it is in cahoots with all the endocrine disruptors in our environment, working as a tag team of sorts to bring the house down. Can we truly get away from it --the BPA in our plastic, the pesticides in our food, the hidden chemicals in our day to day? And what of the sedentary-electronic disease that has gradually taken hold of so many of us? What will become of our collective nature-deprived spirit, overloaded by information, overwhelmed by social media, desperate for a real connection? How does it all factor in? I believe all the toxicity in our environment plays a giant role, interacting with our particular brand of genetic and emotional vulnerabilities to work that black magic, a wretched malady, a special kind of malaise. Just exactly what is the disease? And what is the cure? 

There are no formulas, despite our desire to find reassurance in them. Shit happens. It just does. You can get cancer even though you were in a "low-risk" group. You can get hit by a car and find yourself in a wheelchair for the rest of your life. Or you might die. I won't even go into all the freak things that can happen. We could all get hit by a meteor, or the Big One. The cancer could come back. Or a new cancer could appear. Or MS. Early Parkinson's. The Plague. Whatever. Anything is possible. The good and the bad and everything in between. We all know that.

ER+ breast cancers are no exception. I remember when I got my pathology report that having ER+ breast cancer was considered the "good kind" of breast cancer to get. Oh, the irony. The thing about ER+ breast cancer, is that it can recur at any time after five years. And I wonder: what happens when we go off the protective Tamoxifen? Does it have a lasting effect? Is it enough? Is there something else (flax seed?) that does what it does without the side effects, and that can be taken indefinitely? What are those cancer cells doing now? Lying in wait? And what will they be doing once the estrogen blockade wears off? Revert to out-of-control party mode? Hoping they've learned their lesson. Don't mess with me. I'll kick your ass if you come back. And I mean it.

 I counted on not getting cancer, but I got it. The only thing I can count on is the unpredictability of life, and because of that, I have to live each day as if it were a milestone. To open myself to the gratitude that springs eternal in each and every step, that warms these cold, early spring days, and that offers reassurance that whatever happens, I will have lived each of my days... 

"So, not to be philosophical or anything, but I think every year is a milestone. Two years, 4 years, 5 years, 7 years...if we have invasive ER+ breast cancer, we can't ever really be considered "cured," But every year is, well, more year." ~ Otter 

Five years = five years. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. A handful. I'll take each and every one of them. And many more, too, please, if I may. Spring will come, but for now, I'll walk through the last remnants of winter's last gasp and enjoy the expansive light and growing warmth, the treble and touch of every step a prayer for many more years to come. I'll celebrate these five years and continue to try to find the nuggets of joy in each and every day. 

"There are different goalposts of certainty. We could be killed by a meteor, but we don't count on that. Some us (specifically me) need more help with dealing with uncertainty than others. But we can only take care of ourselves the best we can, and try to live our lives the best we can." ~ Leaf

Amen to that.