Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Today my mind has been tangled up thinking about distance. Distance between people, large expanses of spaces, what proximity means for relationships, how that expectation is mitigated (or complicated) by technology, time and intention.

Distance is a funny thing.

What keeps coming to my mind is my children's martial arts training and the practice of defense blocks. Fists outstretched to arms length, knuckles practice this work, you first frame yourself in space with the other person so that you are able to give appropriate berth to the action, but also not drift too far away. If you drift too far away, you get none of the benefit of the contact. If you are too close, your movements and work get too entangled to be effective. The master reminds you, "distance!" so you know to reframe your space, correct your proximity, realize where you are and what the relating to another is about.

Sometimes the refreshing of space is good.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


I don't think this image will ever be erased from my mind. A young mother leaning over the body of her small child, caressing his face as he lay there dead. The child was perfect and angelic in the stillness, the acceptance on the mother's face, her hand at her throat. I sat reading the article of 250 people dead at the end of a siege of a school in Beslan, Russia, tears streaming down my face, my own small boy in my arms. It was completely incomprehensible, this idea of losing a child in such a brutal, horrible way.

My own son was a year old at Beslan attack. My sweet boy, who I remember holding during wee hour feedings, whose sweet sleeping face reminded me so much of the dead child in the picture. In those moments I swear I could feel the presence of thousands of women across the world doing the same. In those early morning hours, you take comfort in knowing that you are part of something great, something deep in your motherhood, that there is a presence of other mothers that holds you in the newness of this child and of this experience. Of solidarity, of love, of difficulty, of care and compassion.

And in those moments, as now, it is incomprehensible that your child could be taken from you in such an act of violence, in such a horrific way.

It is also incomprehensible what it must feel like to sit and wait, knowing your child is dead, knowing his body lay not far away, wanting to see for yourself and to start to put order to the distortion. My mother described to me once what it was like to sit outside of the emergency room, knowing that my brother was dead and wanting more than anything to touch his skin just to make sure. The waiting, the longing and the disbelief were almost more than she could bear.

I don't really know how to wrap this up, honestly.  I just keep seeing that child from Beslan and the images of parents running to their children in Connecticut in my mind. And I think I need to just sit with the sadness of it all for awhile and then find some way to help untangle this vicious cycle of pain, violence and insanity that we are in.

Rob Brezsny offered some wisdom through my Facebook page this morning. It gave me a feeling of hope and ability to make change, even when feeling so helpless:
According to Jewish legend, there are in each generation 36 righteous humans who prevent the rest of us from being destroyed. Through their extraordinary good deeds and their love of the divine spark, they save the world over and over again. They're not famous saints, though. They go about their business anonymously, and no one knows how crucial they are to our well-being.

Might you be one of the 36? As a temporary experiment, act as if you are.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Beginning Again

This is dedicated to my girl, Chapman, because she kicks ass even in the middle of the storm. 

It takes about 20 sessions of practice before your body falls naturally into the pattern of the asanas, or so my yoga teacher tells me gently as I stumble through poses, remembering four moves down the road that I'd forgotten a critical counter-pose or grounding stance.

What this reminds me is that it takes time for the muscles and neurons to remember work that you did long ago, that starting again simultaneously means reaching back and stepping forward. This metaphor is not lost on me every practice that I wobble through some poses and feel strong on others. But each day I notice new strength, each day I have to push myself to dig a little deeper, each day I wonder when it's going to be easy to do this work with the grace and agility I see all around me.

There have been a number of images stewing in my mind for awhile now. One is of a plastic ball made of interwoven black loops. The ball is a mass of contradicting tensions, you try to pull one loop and the others all resist. Work, children, relationships, love, finances, health, creativity, place, home...all so tightly interwoven that one cannot meaningfully shift without affecting all the rest. A few weeks ago I withdrew from a position I had applied for a few months earlier and the ball relaxed a bit. This week I moved truckloads of stuff out of our house and the ball relaxed a bit more. The kids are getting up 15 minutes earlier to have breakfast with me before work and I feel the ball shifting more. The chain reaction caused by letting one thing go has been tremendous.

Another image is of closing loops, finishing things that started long ago and need to come to a close. Next month I make my last and final journey to New Orleans for my final phase of reconstruction surgery. I've come to realize that this is it, that after this surgery I need to be done, that the space my body will occupy at that time is what it is, that it is time to just let it freaking be. I am thankful that this is coming to a close, thankful to turn the page on that particularly shitty chapter of my life and healing. Another loop to close will be making peace with what my body has been through in the past two years. That one will take longer, no doubt. This idea of closing loops comes from my dear friend Jenn who talks about eating the elephant one bite at a time. Yes, indeed, one bite at a time.

Finally, I have the image of D as a baby flash in front of my eyes from time to time. When we would travel with D as a baby, we would marvel at the most amazing leaps in growth he would make when we were away. It was as though leaving his regular environment and engaging with new surroundings would allow his mind and body to open up in remarkable ways.

My (fantastic, oncology-focused) therapist talks a lot about post-traumatic growth and how living through major life crises like losing your mother and having cancer can trigger positive shifts, perceptions, opportunities, connections and growth. It's a time where I feel like I need to recut the puzzle of my life, to bring in new ways of looking at things, to create the life that is compelling to live, to grow and shift perspectives, to answer the question "what are you going to do with your one precious life?" And like those periods of growth for my tiny boy, this time is counterbalanced with deep emotions and the need to sort and sift and figure while others have to be patient with you as you fuss and stretch and try to consolidate in this new space. It's learning to wobble on those shaky baby legs that, in time, become strong.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Blessing the Day

In the barrage of today's thankfulness, I read the following piece on my friend Meghan's Facebook feed. It captures, in so many ways, exactly how I feel today, one day away from celebrating a year from the last day that I sat in the chair, last day with chemicals coursing through my body in the hopes that I would be well for years to come.

One year down, five more to go before I can really breathe and think it's done. It feels like a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

So much beauty in this piece. And so much thankfulness for each person who has brought me so far.

Marge Piercy
The Art of Blessing the Day

This is the blessing for rain after drought:
Come down, wash the air so it shimmers,
a perfumed shawl of lavender chiffon.
Let the parched leaves suckle and swell.
Enter my skin, wash me for the little
chrysalis of sleep rocked in your plashing.
In the morning the world is peeled to shining.

This is the blessing for sun after long rain:
Now everything shakes itself free and rises.
The trees are bright as pushcart ices.
Every last lily opens its satin thighs.
The bees dance and roll in pollen
and the cardinal at the top of the pine
sings at full throttle, fountaining.

This is the blessing for a ripe peach:
This is luck made round. Frost can nip
the blossom, kill the bee. It can drop,
a hard green useless nut. Brown fungus,
the burrowing worm that coils in rot can
blemish it and wind crush it on the ground.
Yet this peach fills my mouth with juicy sun.

This is the blessing for the first garden tomato:
Those green boxes of tasteless acid the store
sells in January, those red things with the savor
of wet chalk, they mock your fragrant name.
How fat and sweet you are weighing down my palm,
warm as the flank of a cow in the sun.
You are the savor of summer in a thin red skin.

This is the blessing for a political victory:
Although I shall not forget that things
work in increments and epicycles and sometime
leaps that half the time fall back down,
let's not relinquish dancing while the music
fits into our hips and bounces our heels.
We must never forget, pleasure is real as pain.

The blessing for the return of a favorite cat,
the blessing for love returned, for friends'
return, for money received unexpected,
the blessing for the rising of the bread,
the sun, the oppressed. I am not sentimental
about old men mumbling the Hebrew by rote
with no more feeling than one says gesundheit.

But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree

of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.

Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can't bless it, get ready to make it new.

Excerpted from The Art of Blessing the Day by Marge Piercy. Copyright� 1999 by Marge Piercy.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

If it is available to you

At this shala, the heat meets you halfway up the stairs as you lug your heavy but really good mat up to practice. Slight fluttering of the "new girl at school" feeling creeps in. Walk in deposit belongings, move into the room and find your spot amongst the breathing, the movement, the work of each person stretching and delving deep into their own individual relationship to the work.

Today I grappled with the stop. I grappled with the embarrassment of not being able to do something well the first time. The bulletproof side of me that likes to show my best face was spitting mad. The mind of self doubt that ridicules me for not having practiced in the past eight years tried to sit on the mat with me far too many times. I would get a pose (elation!) then fall out of it (disappointment.). What came easy to me was delicious, what came hard was bitter. 

There is a phrase that you hear in yoga, "If it is available to you", that describes going deeper into a pose based on your body's readiness for the movement. It's a phrase that rings true for me in the journey of my personal life as well. It reminds me that I may not be ready for everything at once, that it's the testing of what is available that is important. That trying is the key, that accepting that it's not time is the reality.

I think about this "if" and I couple it with the "when". "If it's available to you" tells me to be kind to myself in the present moment, not to be frustrated and to turn away from things that are hard to move through. There is the now and there is the future, the "when it's available to you" that will come with sticking to it, be it the practice or the work of becoming that will pay off. It will be available to you at the right time.

Pushing through the awkwardness and disappointment and self-talk and sticking to it is how you get there. Not running away from it because it's not easy. Believing that it will be available to you is the key. And when you get there it will not be perfect, you may have moments of getting it and moments of falling out of it. Even in this new space, there will be more to accept in the "if" and a new set of challenges that will place you back in the future of the "when".

We are not static beings. Life is not linear. Our humanness is our becoming.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Am I Better Off? Hell Yes.

The room was darkened and I was nervous, waiting for the biopsy that everyone had assured me was "routine, they do these all the time now, don't worry!" To pass the time and grind down the worry, I was chatting up the young nurse who was prepping me for the procedure.

"This must be a tough job working in the breast care clinic," I said. "How is it?"
 "Mostly good," she said. "Of course, you get your cases. Like last week we had a mother of three come in with breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. She didn't have insurance and was scared to come in. And the sad thing is that she was only 24."

A chill shot through my body. 24. Three kids. Lymph nodes. Cancer.  This is a story I would hear time and time again during my treatment. Along with "scared to come in" followed by "no insurance".

I'm reminded of another conversation that I had with my mom, sitting on our respective beds in the hotel in Houston while visiting M.D. Anderson for more cancer treatment. My mom and I had a rough road of it politically, pretty much being on opposite sides of the fence on every political issue. I figured this was the time that I could find something we might agree on, universal health coverage.

So I asked her, "Mom, what would this be like if you didn't have Medicare or supplemental health coverage? How would you be dealing with this treatment and all of these costs?"

She replied, in true Suz fashion, "Well, I'd just die quicker."

[Before you think the wrong thing, you have to understand that my mother was completely comfortable with the idea of dying. She'd lived life to the fullest, had the love of her family, had a strong belief in her faith.]

Pulling out the big guns, I said "Well, what if it was me? What if it was me and I was leaving David and Ava?"

"That would be different," she said.

Today I get to go to the polls and to a (routine, don't worry) mammogram*. Because I have an employer that chooses to provide me with health insurance, I have not lost my home due to this health crisis that has rocked my world.  Because I have resources and wealth accumulated from my family, I was able to handle the costs associated with my care.

The startling fact is that 40% of bankruptcies are caused by medical expenses and being under-insured.

The startling fact is that we are the only industrialized nation to tie health care to employment.

The startling fact is that if I lose my job my COBRA premiums will go skyward to unreachable heights.

The startling fact is that only in recent years and because of this presidential administration I will not be denied coverage for a pre-existing condition.

I am always amazed that people vote against universal health coverage and then whip out their Medicare card like it's no big deal, that making it over that golden line of seniority somehow makes them different than that 24 year old mom whose two children deserved more too.

I guess I am rattling around in this space today. And I feel like I am not going to convince anyone who hasn't already made up their mind that the current Obama administration has been good for us.

Am I better off than I was four years ago?


I am healthy and alive. I have my home through all of the medical expenses. My kids have a mother. I got to see the physicians I needed to see to restore my health. I have a job, and an employer who sees fit to give me healthcare. It seems a ridiculous thing that my health, my ability to seek treatment, my ability to save my own life would be tied to my employer's willingness to afford me such a benefit.

So today I go to the polls to vote for Obamacare and what it will provide for women's health. And I go get a mammogram to hope to hell that the cancer hasn't come back.

And I am thankful for both.

*I guess when you get a tissue-based reconstruction, you have to get an annual mammogram in order to make sure there hasn't been a recurrence. Crazy, right?

Friday, November 2, 2012


The heat rolled in liquid waves off of I-35 as we blew down the highway, bandannas on our heads and beers in our hands. Wide as the road, Sharleen's gold '76 Cadillac convertible "Darcy" danced through the shimmer as we took Texas by storm that summer. We were in that middle space between highschool and what comes next in life, driving out the past few months of our lives with deep conversations and hundreds of miles back and forth between Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and beyond.

Sharleen was the sister I never knew I needed. Twins of different mothers, we had the kind of deep and intense relationship that highschool girls have when they are wrestled off to boarding school and left to their own devices. Even at 13, you could tell her soul was a thousand years old. Late nights in our dorm room, we would sit up talking through the stuff that carried heavily with us; sometimes painful and challenging relationships with our mothers, dads who were intense, loving and often difficult men, what it meant to escape to the big city from small towns and all their complexities. Sharleen was, in many ways, my first true love: the person who knew me best in life, the person I bared my heart and soul to, the person that I learned to fight with and work it out all the while knowing that she wouldn't haul ass no matter how bad it got. She was, and is to this day, the person I can trust most with my heart.

Because I write this blog as much to document a bit of my life for my children as I do to hammer stuff out, I am tempted to tell all of the Auntie Sharleen stories here so that they will some day read what this friendship has taught me. Like the time I picked up the mail to find the card I had sent back to her, returned out of anger and hurt over a rift that nearly broke our friendship, written with a note of explanation on the outside that made it impossible to not hear her message. How that act of persistence and love taught me that people who love you will ride through the rough shit and take the lead position, even if it's painful and sad, even if it means they have to be the one willing to prove what you are worth to them. That trust is borne of those acts.

Or the time I turned around in a crowded church at my brother's funeral and saw Sharleen and her entire family there, completely unannounced, having journeyed at great expense from different states just to stand with our family. That being strong for someone is sometimes quiet and deep and subtle. That solidarity means everything.

Or the many times we sat through death together, celebrated life together, flew to each other for advice and a steady hand even though months had passed between communications in our insane lives. That once built, a strong friendship transcends all other things and becomes a fortress, a port, a refuge, an oasis. That people who you have let into your heart can be your best guides, for the fundamentals of who you are as a person, what is best in you, does not change.

I've struggled to write this post for some time, actually. I began it after a trip to see Sharleen earlier this year and have sat at my computer trying to compose it over and over. There is no way I could begin to capture what this woman means to me, no way. I remember sitting in a darkened movie theater in New York City, a plastic cup of surreptitiously procured wine in my hand, watching the movie Beaches with my best friend, this woman that means so much to me, this person with whom I share a connection that will never be broken. I remember tears rolling down my face at the thought of losing her, just as they are now. I remember thinking that I could never thank her enough for what she has given me, what she has taught me, and what I hope to give to her in return.

These blessings are deep. I am so lucky. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

With Practice, Will Be Lifted

My arms were shuddering like a trailer bed on a washed out road.

Chaturanga Dandasana [exhale]
Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana [inhale]
Adho Mukha Shvanasana [exhale]

Sits bones pointed to the sky, backs of my legs aching, arms outstretched and pressing to the earth, I had repeated the Sun Salutation A sequence over and over, finding its well-worn rhythm deep in my muscle memory. "Do you know Surya Namaskara A?" the instructor of the Mysore room inquired. I nodded yes, knowing full well that I had just refreshed that memory from a YouTube video perched on the edge of my thin travel mat in the hotel room just days before.

It had been eight years since I had rolled out the mat in an Ashtanga class, eight years since my friend Jenny Antony and I used to work deeply and intentionally before capping our practice with a free slice of bread from the Great Harvest store upstairs. Eight years since I lay on the mat in Shavasana, my body regrouping and resetting itself, tears streaming from my eyes while Eva Cassidy's soulful voice sang Fields of Gold. Forging the road of new parenthood, married life, and deep identity confusion, yoga had been a refuge for me. It was a time to myself to try to leave things on the mat, concentrate my mind on the breath instead of the tapes in my head and bend my body in ways that would force me to realize that, like life, some days were easy, some incredibly hard.

After the work, Shavasana brought me two incredible images today. The first one was of a fish caught on a line, leaping out of the water, flipping, struggling, working against what is inevitable but fighting nonetheless, fighting the need to succumb to what will be. There are things that I have abandoned that I don't want to pick up, even though I must. There are situations that I need to let go, even though it breaks my heart to do so, even though my breath catches at the thought of it. There are days when I feel caught by realities I know I must deal with on so many levels, but that I thrash against, unwilling, unwilling, unwilling.

The second image that rested before my eyes was that of a large, grey spirit presence, somewhere between Totoro and Stillwater the Panda from Jon J. Muth's Zen Shorts. This presence sits next to me, silent, there, looming, reminding me that I have unfinished business, that that business waits for me, it will not go away no matter how far away I scoot on the park bench. It leans in, just a bit, with soft pressure that reminds me that I don't need to be scared of sorting through this unfinished business, that I will be held well by what I need to sort through it. That it may be difficult or painful but that it will be ok.

Today the sweat drenched my body, my long-lost limberness resurfacing in the heat and incense and intensity of the moves. I lay there thinking of the work I need to do to free the fish and befriend the spirit, of the people I love and lean on, of the blocked feeling I have that, with practice, will be lifted. Some easy, some incredibly hard. Om.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Grief is a Sneaky Thief

Sluggish from the cold and cranky from not eating, I bolstered myself for the inevitable acres of ugly shoes I would find on the other side of the department store door. I was looking for shoes for a trip the next day, my least favorite past time when "shoes" meant boring, flat, uneven-pavement-appropriate foot coverings that also had to work with suits. Bah.

The ugliness of the shoes did not disappoint. Laps and laps around tables of tricked out clogs and pilgrim-buckle flats was proving to be fruitless and frustrating until I heard the sound of laughter coming from a section of chairs. I looked over to see a grey-haired woman in her mid-60s walking away in a pair of shoes, her daughter near me with a half-laughing, half-exasperated look on her face.

"She can be so difficult with these things," the daughter smiled. I looked up again to see this woman, so like my mom with her jeans, her silver-top short hair, her sweater and vest, sparking eyes and great smile taking another lap to test out her selection. My breath caught and a lump swelled in my throat. "Your mom reminds me of my mom, actually," I said. "My mom's been gone for two years. She was a handful too." It was all I could do not to add "Treasure these moments because you never know what is going to happen next."

The jealousy I felt for that daughter in that moment was completely overwhelming. I walked away, trying to fight back the tears and compose myself, all of the angry thoughts about my mom dying too early rushing into my mind and heart. I wanted to run out the door, leave so I could get rid of the visual as quickly as possible. Instead I circled back around and struck up a conversation.

True to my initial perception, this woman was every bit as spunky and fun as my own mom. We complained about the ugly shoes, talked about how people don't dress for work any more, giggled about how shoe shopping in such conditions nearly drove one to drink and agreed that a drink this early in the day would surely be fodder for the gossipy nature of our smallish town. And then, they picked up and walked out with gracious goodbyes, a twosome together on to their next stop.

It was, for a moment, a strange sort of contact high. In a parallel space, my brain kept saying "It's like I can be with my mom, but not really. This is like being with my mom just for a minute. Is this good, or is this bad?", both taking me out of the moment and drawing me deeper into it. I bought my ugly shoes and stumbled back out into the rain, a bit fogged as to what had just happened.

I sat with these mixed emotions all night, trying to talk myself through the roller coaster of feelings I was having. It was an unusual night, my family away and friends that I usually turn to not available. For the first time in a long time, I had to sit with it on my own and deal, just deal, with my feelings and sadness. I just had to be with it.

Grief is a tricky thing. Sometimes it's a rubber ball let off in a room, zinging and flying all around without any sense of continuum or trajectory. Sometimes it's a sneaky thief that catches you unawares and tries to take something from you. Most times, you have to fight the urge to run away from it, instead standing with pain borne of loss, but borne of good memories and deep longing. Standing with grief, leveling with it, exposing yourself to it is the journey of anyone who has suffered loss. It's the path to recovering from that suffering. It's the way to begin to heal and move forward. It's a bitch of a job.

I like to imagine that at some point in a department store in Oklahoma City many years ago, someone else had the experience I did yesterday with a woman and her three daughters and the laughter and love that showed through. I like to imagine that the woman and her daughter I met yesterday somehow knew that they made a difference in my afternoon. I like to imagine that we provide spaces for each other in this reconnecting to things we have lost along the way. I like to imagine my mom would have found a certain beauty in this story.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

So My Heart Could Be Free

I can't remember how old I was, I can only tell by the span of the small waist and length of crushed velvet to the floor that I must have been five or six. The fabric was supple and soft to the touch, a rich brown that meant cold weather and fancy occasions. I was so proud to have this dress, excited at the prospect of my Grandma making something so beautiful for me with her own hands. I remember standing stock-still in her basement while she worked at pinning me up with her gnarled hands, smoke rising from her lit cigarette that burned my eyes. I remember the turned down collar trimmed in lace, the formality of the skirt, the way I felt that I had never owned anything so lovely in my entire life.

My grandmother was an amazing woman, soft and kind, generous, always stylish, a fabulous entertainer, a woman gentle with her words and always with a glimmer in her eye. My brain still smells the rich aroma of mushrooms cooking in butter, the treat of a special goose for Christmas or the simple pleasure of her legendary dinner rolls. She was a woman that did things from scratch, who worked to create good things, who taught me about quality. She's say "hold out for the real McCoy, Frances", meaning it was better to spend money on a few high-quality things rather than waste money on things that would quickly break or ruin. I wear her beautiful gold bracelet today, the smoothness worn by her own wrist now touching mine. I can feel her in these moments, this woman who was a refuge for me in every way. Thinking of her and her absence in my life makes my heart ache.

I rode to work with a friend today, telling her of some of the sadness and loneliness I'd felt during my elementary school years, trying to explain the complexities of my life in a small town and being from a family with a certain name. The rest of my day was speckled with reflections of what brought me through that time and about what a child needs to feel loved and secure in the world. My grandmother provided a calm stability in my life. She bought me stacks of books to escape into and spirited me away to New Mexico so my heart could be free in the purple mountains and fire-orange sky. She taught me how to hold my head high when I felt defeated and to knuckle through rough times knowing that things would get better. She was optimistic and thankful for the good life she had, the family she loved and the friends that gathered around her table. She saw the best in people, would always lend a gracious hand, appreciated what she was given and was generous in return. As a child, observing her way of being in the world gave me hope that one day I would be the same kind of lady that she was, through and through.

I look at my sweet Ava, the lean and lanky size nearly a perfect fit for my faded brown dress. I think of how precious and tender the heart of a six year old can be. I think of flashing blue eyes, white hair, the color of perfectly red lipstick. I think of warm comfort. I think of love. I am thankful.

(Ava G original alongside my treasured gold bracelet from Grandma Loosen)


Friday, September 28, 2012

just to let it go

Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook.
Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don’t regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the livingroom couch,
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed
coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs
window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation. Relax. Don’t bother remembering any of it.
Let’s stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.
- Dorianne Laux “Antilamentation,”

The dusty boxes are still sitting in the bottom of my closet back home in Oklahoma, my meager pilfering through them surfacing so many emotions that I felt like I needed to stop, to breathe, to reframe my thinking before I carried on.

A text sent to my friend said it all:
"Sorting through all of my childhood to pre-Portland life. Kind of intense to realize what a depressed and fcked up young adult I was, even if people didn't see it on the outside. Crazy."


"It's really weird to struggle with the idea that there was a lot of lost time in my life. Time I will never get back and time I may not have in the future."

So today when the poem above from Dorianne Laux came through my feed, something hardened from long ago became soft inside of me.

You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs
window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation.

Every year I spend the days before Yom Kippur reflecting on the past year (no, I'm not Jewish but I borrow this tradition). Thinking through the things that made me happy, thinking through the things I regretted or that made me sad or wistful, thinking of things I want to do in the next year, who I love, who I want to spend time with, how I want to challenge my mind and life to do good things. It's a important time to write things down, to take stock, to see where I am going.

Sitting with these feelings this in-and-post cancer year has brought in the added layer of "time". Time I have wasted, things I have done, situations I have been in during my life that were neither healthy nor happy. And the great sadness of looking forward and thinking about time and not having it and how horrible that would be.

{And then reading that Susan Sontag was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in 1975 and lived until 2004. So go figure.}

What softened inside of me was the realization that life is too short to dwell in what happened in the past, to rehash the things you wished had happened in relationships, to question decisions that led to different paths than the future I had seen for myself. Even for a person like me who has struggled with the depressive tendency toward rumination over such things [the twisting of invisible hands and the sighing of invisible sighs that leaves you sitting in a rut you can barely peer out of], there is the possibility to not revisit this, not to drag it with me, just to let it go.

Relax. Don’t bother remembering any of it.
Let’s stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by. 


Saturday, September 22, 2012

What is Essential is Invisible to the Eye

Today I smell like dirt and sweaty-ness and deliberation. My feet hurt from standing too long looking at shades of my childhood spread out on tables in my aunt's new home while my lungs cough up dust from brown-filmed boxes kept in basements too long.

My sisters and I are wrapping up the final stages of the Great Dividing of Things, a summer's worth of sorting and selecting from my mother, grandmother and aunt's possessions that will come to reside in our own homes. The Great Dividing has been intense, not because we have fought or wrung our hands over these things. In contrast, we three have managed to be loving and thoughtful of each other in our system, only wincing once or twice at losing a much-loved item to another.

No, the Great Dividing has been intense because we are women who carry so much of who we knew in the things we can touch and feel. Grandma's glassware reminds me of strawberries and cream breakfasts on early morning wakings in her beautiful home. My mother's shotgun, a favorite bronze statue, the bold charcoal strokes of a favorite auntie's talented hand: all comfortable reminders of a home that will no longer be here for us in its present form. Often simple things become exceptionally beautiful for the story behind it...a sweet Victorian biscuit holder becomes even more cool knowing that Dad and Aunt Pat bought it while in Europe together and a salt and pepper shaker set becomes more valuable when it was brought from the Old World by people we never knew but who in some way relate to our present being. It's a struggle not to make everything meaningful, to not drag too much forward for the sake of holding on to people who have left too soon and to places that are no longer your own.

And through this process, I have begun to realize just how important this essential nature of things is for me. A week ago I began to re-read a copy of The Bone People, underlined and dog-eared by my 20-something self that reminded me of the sometimes-lost but fundamentally strong woman I had been then. I wear Mala beads made by my gorgeous friend Molly and am soothed by their smoothness and her power during a stressful meeting. I have my own ritual of rereading a new copy of my favorite book before I give it to a friend just to imprint my own feelings, energy and intention in its pages.  There are things that are in every way precious to me because of the thought or intention with which they were created or loved or given to me. In rough times, these are the glue, the touchstones, the cairns on the journey.

It's the feel, the smell, the thought, the history of person's imprint on an object that makes it special. It's holding something that's been held by the person you love. It's the essence of the person connected to you peering through, the heartstrings that it tugs, the feeling of knowing yourself there that it provides.

Rifling through my closet, I reached back to find an old sweater of my mother's that I'd brought home after she died. She'd been gone for over a year but her warm, achingly familiar scent still remained mixed in the soft fibers as I buried my nose deep and drew in her memory. "Mijo!" I called to David, "come here". Without a word, I held out the sweater for him to smell. Drawing back, eyes shining and face flooded with memories, he smiled and said "Grandma Suz." Oh, sweet boy, that we can hold on to that, that we can, that we can, that we can.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Set Me Free

Lisa's iPhone was on shuffle as we started the road trip back home, first Emmylou's voice ringing out sorrowful and true, then Jim Croce, then Tracy Chapman. Each song a well-worn groove in both of our minds, tracing back to Mom, to Dad, to Hunter, to Grandma, opening a space to reconnect to our stories, to process our losses, to make sense of the lives we have been given and to look forward to the futures we are writing individually and collectively. We had been together for a week of family camp where she wrangled her two small people through activities, the dining hall and the sandy walk from the cabin to everywhere. She was, in her usual way, calm, composed, organized and stellar.

When I think of spending time with my sister, an image pops to my mind of her swimming towards me, pushing a small blue raft while I tread in an ocean of water. She's talking to me as she approaches, acknowledging how tired I am but encouraging me to hold on, to keep my head up, to alternate using my legs then my arms so that I have strength to last longer. We lean our shoulders and arms onto the raft that she's brought, letting our bodies float and release in the shared time...stable, cool, relaxed. And then it's time for her to go again, and as she swims away the raft becomes smaller, but big enough so that I can tread, then lean back and float, tread, then lean back and float, tread, then lean back and float on my own with what she has given me.

This is the essence of my sister: pushing the raft out, tired herself but speaking words of encouragement, a song in her heart for the journey back, swimming, swimming, varying her strong strokes to make progress against the sometimes tremendous waves. Watching her move makes me want to be a better swimmer, to take pleasure in the cool water even though its rough. To meet the challenge but not be consumed by it. To have grace moving through the water.

I love you, Lou.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Blue Ocean

Anne and I pass the pad of paper back and forth, pausing between our writing to sometimes collect our thoughts, sometimes take a breather, sometimes forget to respond until there is a spark that sends us scribbling and sending it the other way. The pad of paper floats over the ocean between us, through wires and time zones and need, a raft for one of us to sit upon while the other kicks the water to propel us forward. The raft is well-balanced, the sun not too hot and a long-ago friendship alights again within this new, unfamiliar space.

We keep each other afloat in these uncharted waters of post-cancer living, this space without a map where both of us churn in our different buckets trying to get out of our heads and grapple with our lives. Our needs are different and our fears are different but the touchstones are similar: How do we live our best lives or, how to get back to living having lived through this time? Being smart, sensible, educated women doesn't make the emotions or the fear of a twinge in the kidney any easier. And so we stretch our legs long in the cool, sometimes rocky water of our exploration, sending the paper raft back and forth ferrying empathy, love and comfort.

Twelve months from diagnosis, six months after treatment, five years from now to being clear. Kick, kick, kick.

Love you, Anne.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Janus, forward and back

Arm looped through mine, small head resting on my shoulder, David and I sat together in the van as it threaded our way back through fields, past round bales of hay and into the evening sun. We had spent the day exploring Nick's grandfather's home village, Ogliastro Cliente, perched on the side of a valley with olive, orange and fig trees that ran like a river to the sea. David had chosen to study Grandpa Tony for his "migration" project at school, winding through Grandpa's journey to the US, his loss of family and a home he loved for the promise of a new life. And now we were part of that repatriation, the need that Americans sometimes have to understand themselves in the context of their ancestry, their history, their DNA.

Through a series of strange and synergistic events that can only be described as "Italian" and typical Giardino luck, we found Grandpa's boyhood home, left to waste away in what only can be described as ruins. It was all there: the chapel, the courtyard, the fig trees out back that skinny Antonio Giardino used to shimmy up for the delicious fruit. Broken down, paint peeling off the walls, birds aloft in the open spaces where Grandpa's family once lived, we were simultaneously enlivened and saddened by what we had discovered.

Something in me wanted to touch the walls, to absorb something inherent that lived there so long ago. Although I loved Grandpa like my own grandfather, these were not my people nor was this my place, but the urge to connect, to let that history leech into my own palms felt very real.

The heartbreak of finding something so broken, so ruined mirrors my own ruminations about time and place, what stays, what you leave behind. In a few days I return home to Oklahoma to help clean out my childhood home and prepare it for sale. My feelings of dread about this are indescribable, not only for the deep feeling that it gives me of being unmoored, parentless and ungrounded, but also for the worry of being weighed down and encumbered with an emotional and physical heft that I resist leaving behind, but am at my core yearning to cast off. Being parentless means having no home to return to, it means making your own way in whatever way your life brings you. It means preparing yourself to be outward bound, stocked and ready for the journey and for whatever lies ahead, on your own without the safety net of a parent to pick you up and dust you off. But it also brings you the sweetness of being captain of your own ship, unconstrained by familial expectation and guilt. Defining who you are in this space is a tricky process, one that for the most part you must walk alone until you know who you are, what you take with you, what you leave and what life you make for yourself.

I'm reminded of reading Thomas Wolfe so many years ago, before I was old enough to parse what Wolfe was trying to say:

“The human mind is a fearful instrument of adaptation, and in nothing is this more clearly shown than in its mysterious powers of resilience, self-protection, and self-healing. Unless an event completely shatters the order of one's life, the mind, if it has youth and health and time enough, accepts the inevitable and gets itself ready for the next happening like a grimly dutiful American tourist who, on arriving at a new town, looks around him, takes his bearings, and says, "Well, where do I go from here?”
― Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again

Beginnings, endings, looking back and forward like Janus standing in the middle ground.

Friday, May 25, 2012

When the stars fall from the sky

Miles and miles sped beneath the wheels of the Intourist bus that endlessly ferried us through cities, countryside and towns of the Soviet Union's former republics. U2's The Joshua Tree was on repeat on my Discman, me being all of 16 years old and out of the country for the first time in my life. Cities and towns, cities and towns, aging mosques, strident Soviet monuments, Stalin's grave, Lenin's tomb...they all clicked like snapshots as the miles mounted. In one country, so many faces, diverse and unique and representing the beautiful ethnic communities that co-existed, barely, in this complex space. People were eager to speak with us, to learn about our country, to know what life was like outside of what they knew. I remember the students from Moscow University that accompanied us for part of the trip and a boy named Denis that my friend Annie drew out in the most amazing way, in the shortest period of time.

This was the trip where I understood my smallness in the bigness of the world. Looking out of the bus window into cities crowded with people, I was overwhelmed by the idea that behind each set of eyes sat a story, a history, family, loves, desires and dreams. That within each person lay a map of experiences and feelings to be plumbed, explored and investigated. These moments gave me a tightness in my chest that I to this day cannot explain, that somewhere in the smooth flow of the music running through my body I felt alive and connected to the multitudes of people carrying on their own individual lives in that moment.

This feeling has stayed with me for as many years, the feeling of being small in a big world, the feeling of being connected to people through the recognition of their own uniqueness. I think the tightness in my chest was as much about knowing the vastness of the world as the opportunity to connect with people on so many levels, all the while knowing you'll never connect with all the people your being desires to meet.

I sat in a bar with a friend of a friend last night, immediately taken with her bright eyes and engaging personality. Earlier this week I had lunch with a (soon-to-be former) co-worker/friend who I've known just a year but feel incredibly connected to. I've been drawn in by people I work with, people I live with, people I don't know and will never see again just talking between tables at a coffee shop or sitting on a plane. I've had my life change course in moments in bars in Guatemala and mountain tops in Colorado and leadership training weekends in Australia. There are things that pass between people when the heart space is open, beautiful and intense things that may last but for moment but stay in your memory for years the vibe is so present. It's the openness to this experience that brings beauty to this world, even if it is sharing something as simple a smile through the window of a bus passing through Red Square.

Monday, May 21, 2012


Photo credit: picture of The Rooster by my girl Jess of Oh, The Joys

In my mind, there is a thin grey hand-drawn line, bumped with squiggled dots for milestones that represent my life. There's being on the all-boys baseball team, there's summertime with Grandma and Aunt Pat driving through New Mexico, there are wide swaths of sadness and loneliness, there's Hockaday and all of the myriad of things that lie below the line that tell the story of how that time went. There's Dad, there's Hunter and then there is where my current life begins to take shape. So much, it feels, in so few years. So many years to mark, graph, picture, describe, giggle at, crow about, mourn, ponder.

I'm at a complicated time in my life, post-cancer and pretty much at midlife. I feel as though I am emerging again, a mermaid being borne of the sand to move into the cool fresh of the sea, another chance to swim quickly through life with the energy and vitality of a woman half my age. Oh, to be half my age but know what I have learned so far, propelled forward by the strength of my own body, will and mind. I can feel it there, that strength of my body and urge to swim, just below the surface after a year of being trapped in the sand, weighed down, finally twisting free.

And in this emergence, I'm thinking about time a little bit again. Having it, not having it....what that means and where I put it. David and I have been reading Books VI and VII of Harry Potter and this idea of Horcruxes has caught my eye, not for the soul-ripping aspects of evil, but more for the concept of keeping parts of your soul in entrusted places so that, no matter what, you live on.

I've been thinking about the containers that house this white magic of my own: Ava and David who came from my own body and who are the best things I have given to this world; my deep friendships with a handful of people who see what is written on my heart more clearly than I ever could; this blog where I have poured out more information that any sane person would; the kids' school, which has been my passion for four years.

And if I think of things that fill up those parts of my soul that I have dispersed, the film reel flickering behind my eyes shows a dazzling blue sky over Puget Sound, the breathtaking beauty of a New Mexico sunset, a deep conversation with a close friend, a walk with my mom, and an afternoon speeding down a hot Texas highway in a gold Cadillac convertible.

There is a method to this madness. The more I push my soul out into these entrusted spaces, the more I am filled with what I have known, what I am knowing now, what I will learn. I have space to reflect. I have space to welcome love and friendship without fear. I feel myself breaking away and rising to the best self I have been in years. To some degree this being buried in the sand has healed me, to some degree it has given me time to think, to some degree it has made me love the bracing cold water and strong current that I must fight even more.

In these bodies we will live
In these bodies we will die
Where you invest your love, 
you invest your life.  -Mumford & Sons

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Our Table

Sunlight danced like diamonds on the swimming pool. Mia was doing this crazy nose-and-mouth above water thing as she traversed the pool, Jakey was all love and jumping in and splashing around. Deb's kids and my kids and Marie's kids were in the malay too, shouting and cheering each other on as they made up games on the fly. We women (and one man) sat around the edges of the pool sipping the most divine gin and tonics with extra lime made by the fabulous Lisa while Lynn's spicy concoction of meat sizzled on the grill. It could have been a scene from my own childhood...the savoring of occupied and happy children, the mellow buzz of a perfectly made cocktail, great friends and a beautiful summer day. I think back on this day, and so many days like it, with total relish.

I think of another day, a day that I remember so well because the beauty of it hit me in the moment. Lynn and Lisa and Jake and Mia were over for dinner. Crowded around the table theirs and ours were quite a whirl of animation, amazing food, great wine and fun. Our children were deeply entwined with Lisa and Lynn's children telling stories, arguing, laughing. Nick and Lynn were talking gardens, Lisa and I talking shop. I remember catching the moment, it freezing for a second and thinking "My kids know this as totally normal. My kids see Lisa and Lynn and their partnership as no different than their dad and myself." Huge tears sprung to my eyes as I looked at Lisa, my friend from so many journeys who grew up in a conservative oilfield environment like I did in Oklahoma, and thought "In a generation we've changed things, just a bit, just in our corner of what we can change. But it's something. It is."

I'm pausing here because I just don't know what to write next. I want to talk about how wrong it is that we systematically discriminate against gay and lesbian families in this country. I want to rail against the hetero community for believing they own "marriage" when we do such a tremendous job fucking it up. I want to ask why people feel compelled to mandate how other people live their lives. I want to ask all of those folks that point to passages in the bible for their bigotry to bring me proof that they follow all of the bibles other statements or "laws" and then we can talk.

My children are surrounded by loving families in this community. Their best friends are bi-racial, many of our closest friends and family members are lesbians. As much as my children know that there are many places to feel at home in this world, they know that a loving community is built by enabling people to love who they were meant to love, to partner with the individual that they choose without fear or condemnation. I hold in my heart that this "normal" for them will give them the power of their convictions. That they will have high expectations of the world. That their current shock and disbelief at laws they see as "stupid, mama, just stupid...that makes no sense at all" will propel them to tidy up what will, ojala, be a relic of a past we are eager to leave behind.

North Carolina's new constitutional ban is every indication that this is not going away any time soon. But old ways of thinking die, literally, with the passing of generations. I'm investing my time, love, energy and money in what is to come.

Lisa and Lynn and Jake and Mia, our table is set for you always. It's one of joy and love.

Friday, May 4, 2012


Giselle always got this crazy cat third eye that would appear every time we gave her Lorazepam. She'd yowl and protest you shoving the shaven-down half of a itty bitty pill down her throat, but within 30 minutes would be zonked and ready to travel.

That memory made me smile a bit as I dug through the bathroom closet looking for the prescription that I had so many months ago. I used to take Atavan (Lorazepam) after I got the port inserted and would lie awake feeling the creepy sensation of the port going into my vein and grappling with my constant worry that it was somehow going to cause a clot. One Atavan and thirty minutes and I would forget about the port and wander off into sleep.

Tonight I found that trusty pill bottle with half of the scrip left, so thankful that my own distaste for being on prescription drugs keeps me from enjoying them enough to run out of them. I'm trying to corral my mind back in tonight, keeping it from repeating the anxious worry that's been swirling in my brain since I came home from New Orleans. "Is it going to stick this time?" my brain wonders and as I prod my breast for any sign of hardening. In the pit of my stomach, I think I know that the answer is "no", because I think that I know these things about myself and the way my body works.

So with that whisper to my nervous self, my brain goes into a visual overdrive of what life will be like. "If I lose my breasts," I think, "I'll leave my job and just work out all the time. I'll be in the best shape ever. I just won't have any breasts. It will be fine." And then, my hopeful self says, "Well, maybe in a few years they will come up with a surgery that works for me." and my nervous self laughs softly, pats my hand and reminds my hopeful self that we've been here before, that it's not the procedure, per se, but what my body does to it. And then my brain lurches into another scenario where I feel every bit of what this 14 months of procedures has done to my body, feeling I've been completely trapped in intervention after intervention until I just want to scream.

A picture of Truman-Show-esque carousel ride just popped into my mind. Round and round, garish lights and horrible music and the sickening up and down of hard uncomfortable horses set against a white sound stage. And then it's as though someone rips the needle from the record and everything stops, the only sound is the clicking of my heels as I walk for the door and open it to the bright sunlight. That is what I want to have happen right now. Really, honestly, truly. I want to somehow walk out of this sideshow of a life I have been given.  I want everything to just go back to the way it was a year ago January, before any of this insanity started. I want my body back, I want my time back, I want my life in all of its complexities that I still need to figure out back. I don't want to need help. I don't want to be frustrated. I don't want to be sad. I don't want to be angry. I don't want to be what I see in the mirror these days.

So it won't be that. I will get through the next couple of weeks. The post-surgical depression/anxiety that I am feeling will subside as things straighten out, as I can move around better as the incisions heal, as I know if these breasts are going to stay or go. Life will even out. I know this. I hold on to this as fiercely as a child clutches a new treasured stone at the beach.

Thirty minutes has come and gone and I'm not sure if it's the drugs or the writing, but I think I should be able to sleep now. I'm not writing this to worry anybody. We've been here before, you know, and I appreciate that you are still here with me. It's just been a really, really long road.

P.S. I just looked back in this blog to find an old link and was completely surprised that this recent reconstructive redo was one day shy of the ONE YEAR anniversary of my mastectomy/reconstruction that started me on this path. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. A year and we are still walking.

Monday, April 30, 2012

You Can't Make This Shit Up

I am pretty sure all of those kindly smiles for us in the dining room were because people thought that nice young man was helping his mother up to her room. Me, hunched over and looking 85 with my crazy grey (hasn't seen product in a week) hair and Nick looking his usual 35 year old self.

As my bonus mother in law, Ginny Giardino, says..."You just can't make this shit up."

Shazam! As if life on this path had not reached into the realm of the bizarre, last week had to come along. Let's start this story out with a trip to New Orleans for a work conference, every bit of the thing that I love to do and was looking forward to after having given up much of my travel for the loveliness of chemo. I'd planned to swing by my surgeon's office on Friday to have them look at a wound on my right breast that was not healing well at all. But I got in early on Tuesday and didn't have to be at the conference for a few hours so I headed over to the office early.

A peek from my doctor and I knew I'd seen that expression before. Damn.

The breast flap had fat necrosis, which basically means that the tissue was dead and there was a high likelihood of infection, especially with the slow-to-heal wound site. Removal and reconstruction of that segment of the breast is the only option.

That makes it the De-Re-De-Re-De-REconstruction.

I planned to go back to Ann Arbor on Friday after conference and come back to NOLA on Sunday with Nick to get it all sorted. About an hour later, my surgeon called again saying he didn't want to wait, that Thursday was the day we were going to go under again and were going to do the whole second stage surgery originally scheduled for July at that time: butt lift to fill in the hip flap sites, lipo to smooth things out and full tummy tuck (now needed for the reconstruction).

Holy shit.

Nick rebooked the tickets he'd purchased, asked our wonderful overnight sitter Shan (the kids' P.E. coach) to stay, packed a bag and set off for New Orleans with a wife who was down south freaking out at the prospect of going under the knife again in less than 24 hours.

Once again, the gifts and help of friends pulled us through. My colleague Alice came and did energy work that allowed me to sleep that night and to release the total panic that I was feeling. Our friends at home rallied to take the kids and ensure that they were safe, happy and cared for. I sit here now, 4 days post-op, feeling good and hopeful about the surgery. Not out of the woods yet, but in a pretty good place.

Not sure what the future holds here. I think this is the end of the boob line as there is nowhere else to get tissue at this point. I'm hoping this takes.

This feels like a really weird update, choppy and strange. I have a story to tell somewhere in here that's better. I think I just wanted folks to know what was going on and why I am not at home.

Love to you all.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Thinking of him today.

The memory now is more like a flickering home movie cast in a yellowish light, faded with time. He stands at the top of our neighbor's driveway, basketball tucked under one arm, the other arm extended in a slow wave goodbye. On his face a big grin, like only Hunter had, a promise that we'd see each other again soon. I drove away, back to Dallas, leaving him in my rear view mirror.

My brother and I were dancing through adolescence together. He, four and a half years my junior, had started showing up at beer parties at friend's houses. I remember standing with him and my cousins, drinking Coors Light and watching Kids in the Hall one night at a party. "This is the little brother I want to hang with", I thought. "Finally."

He loved Steve Miller Band and we played it unceasingly in the miles that we drove up and back to our neighboring town in the weeks after Dad died. Dad's Corvette was a sweet ride and just sitting in the small, leather-encased compartment of the car made us both feel calm, closed in, held safe. Mostly we just drove, listened to music and kept moving, trying to make sense in our own way of what had happened. Ten miles up, ten miles back. Repeat. Looking back at the relationship Hunter had with my dad, I can't imagine how he struggled in those days. I look at my own son's relationship with his dad and can't imagine them being separated.

We had our stories, Hunter and I. I was the sister who would come home from boarding school, grab my brother and the car and go for drives in the country so I could smoke cigarettes and we could catch up. We had a huge wood-paneled station wagon that was a favorite for going fast down dirt roads until the day the pedal stuck and we both thought we were going to die or the car was going to blow up. Then there was the time the VW bug got stuck in knee-high Oklahoma clay and we had to dig it out and hay the tire ruts for traction. That time Hunter turned the hose on the inside of the car to wash out the mud, thinking it was like the VW Thing with holes in the bottom. That image of him with the running hose pointed in the car is like an Instagram photo seared on my brain. But time passes and the memories feel like black and white photos kept in a book you only take down every once in awhile, tapping the picture and muttering "now that was the time...". When the person has been gone longer than they were with you, you have to dig deep and muster the memory, even as their names live on with your children.

I was standing in my apartment in Dallas when the phone rang. "Hey Fran, it's Kim. I'm in the neighborhood. Can I stop by?" My beloved cousin Kim was on the phone. Kim who wouldn't be just stopping by unless something was wrong. Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit. My hands started reaching for things to put away, to pick up, to neaten, to tidy. Grandma? Did something happen to Grandma? Oh my god, it couldn't be Mom. Oh please don't let it be Mom. Who else could it be? Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit. Hunter, Gunner, the beer drinkin' lover (as my dad used to call him, given his Italian and German roots). Gone. I can see him driving down the road so many years ago today, seconds before the car flipped end over end into a field of green. Arm out the window, wind in his hair, smile on his face, world at his feet.

I used to try to make myself feel better about losing him. "Who knows what his life would have been like," I'd tell myself. "Anything could have happened. He could have been awful." It was a way to convince myself that it was ok that he was gone, that dying at 15 somehow kept him from heartache of his own or from hurting others. Now I wonder who his 37 year old self would be.

There was a Snoopy sleeping bag that the new baby brought. "He's a baby, how did he know I wanted a Snoopy sleeping bag!" I asked my mom. "He's your baby brother, Frances, you get to help take care of him," the adults said. My five year old brain wrapped around that and held tight. This was the baby I'd hoped for forever, it seemed. This was the day of big banners on the front of our house made by friends who were welcoming my adopted brother home. This was the gift of a lifetime.

I miss you buddy.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

I'm pretty sure that it wasn't a day like today, where the sun is shining through the windows and my beautiful girl is playing "Ode to Joy" on the piano just feet away. And I am pretty sure it didn't even occur to me when I made the biopsy appointment that my official "diagnosis day" was going to be St. Patrick's Day. And I know exactly where I was on March 21st, 2011, the day I will always think of as my own personal "D day".

It's been 365 days since I sat at my desk and heard the words "cancer", "Invasive Ductal Carcinoma", "grade 3 tumor", and "breast surgeon". The capable side of my brain had clicked into gear and I was dutifully writing down everything the radiologist said, asking the right questions, knowing that my husband would want to know the details so he could launch his own fact-finding mission.

And then there was the call to Nick, which brought it all to the surface and the second call to my dear friend Ashley who was wired for Ann Arbor breast care doctors and the third to my sisters. And then the numbness of that hour and fifteen minute drive home when I just didn't know what to do, think or feel.

I sit here a year later, feeling like it's been more than a year and in some ways wondering where the time has gone.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.
365 days.
12 months.
1 year.

When people told me it would be a year of my life, I screamed. I was furious. "I don't have time for this! I have a new job! I'm turning 40! It will NOT BE A YEAR!"

But it turns out that it's taking more than a year of my life. There is the year of fighting cancer, of re-arranging your body to keep it safe and re-arranging your life to up your chances of survival. Then there is the next year of your doctor telling you that you have to lose weight, that you have to get back in fighting shape. Yes, fighting shape because you are still fighting. And one year stretches to five and your "illness" becomes something to manage long term.

And the only thing that gets you through, the only thing, the ONLY thing is the love of people around you.

So today I am thinking about those five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes that have moved through my life this year. As I am typing this, the beautiful song "Seasons of Love" from the musical RENT keeps running through my head.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, a year in the life?

How about love?
How about love?
How about love?
Measure in love

Seasons of love
Seasons of love

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand journeys to plan
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?

In truths that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burned
Or the way that she died

It's time now, to sing out
Though the story never ends
Let's celebrate
Remember a year in the life of friends

If I could to add my own minutes, they would be measured in:

special dinners delivered with love
minty rosemary spray
threats of pink jumpsuits
wigs from friends
Hermes scarves
sisters' love
rides to chemo
hugs from co-workers
cinnamon rolls
special bracelets
I love yous from my children
strength from my husband
curiosity from Kindergarteners
stolen hours at chemo
breakfasts at Zola
understanding bosses
cheers from my wise elders
missing my mom
love of the fuzzle from my niece
thoughts of fairy-dust shooting nipples
beautiful parties
hugs from friends
clipping shears
coffee between labs and infusion
the smile of lab techs
occluded veins-because they should be
learning to accept appreciation
carpool talks
deep conversations with total strangers
hearing everyone-knows-someone's chemo story
cake appearing out of nowhere
looking forward
looking back
looking forward
looking back
looking forward and forward and forward again.
more things than I could ever describe here

So I end today wondering what this means for this blog. What started out as a quick way to update people on what was up with my health quickly morphed into a space for me to get out what I was feeling about working through treatment and all that went with it. It's been amazingly cathartic for me. But is it over now? It feels incredibly ego-centric to keep writing. Surely this has been enough about me to last a lifetime. Or do I say "screw it" and just keep writing about this next phase of rebuilding my health and not worry about burdening people with more stories? It's hard to decide. Part of me wants to keep writing so that there is a time capsule for my kids to reflect on when they are old enough to wonder what happened in those days. Another part of me recognizes that this year has come to a close. I just don't know. Maybe you could let me know.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand journeys to plan

Here's to the planning. Thank you for every minute...
that I can measure in love.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Checking in

Day three in the hospital down in the Big Easy and things are going really well. This experience is so different than the last. I feel safe and secure, comfortable with what is happening. And, the weirdest thing is that I have boobs again. Seriously, it's weird. You get used to what you have, what has happened, what you know. I'm not sure how they did what they did, but they are less Frankenboobies than I thought they'd be. We'll see. I came here hoping I'd have a Mardi Gras-worthy rack :)

So, things are going well here. Thanks for all of the love, support, positive vibes. Lisa comes in on Sunday, Nick goes home for a few days.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Surveillance Monkey

My mind is so crowded these days. Round and round, reviewing and ruminating on bits and snippets as my brain rattles like a broken hard drive. My mind tells me that nothing in my life is right right now and constantly provides me with data to prove it.

I suspect that my mind is using me against me, my unconscious mind projecting scene upon scene to distract me while the man behind the curtain worries and frets about going under the knife again in less than week, the second "re" of the de-re-de-reconstruction of this journey. I think my mind rightfully has a little PTSD about the last going under that its not dealing with.

So I sit here in these last days before trying to tie up loose ends when I should be just sitting, letting this worry come and dealing with it. I need about an hour on the mat or a good cry or a punching bag or all three. But instead I am fumbling around, ensconced in worry and frustration and anger and sadness for all of the things that are fcked up in my life that I am thinking about. It feels secure to be worried and worked up because I don't have to be afraid of something that I can't control. It's poking the sore spot, finding the socket of a missing tooth, it's a well-worn path in my mind.

Years ago when I worked in a battered womens' shelter, my mentor Jan described a woman deciding to leave her abuser through a really amazing analogy that fits for far too many situations. She said that often being trapped in an intense situation is like being in a house on fire. You walk through the house trying to decide whether or not you should grab the cat or pick up Aunt Tilly's doily that she crocheted in 1965. Standing in the panic and the haze and the smoke, you don't make good decisions, risking everything because you are unable to remove yourself from or even come to terms with what is happening. You are just there, trying to do what you think you need to do so you don't lose everything. It is only when you get across the street and are sitting on the curb with the oxygen mask on your face and the fireman's blanket around your shoulders that it hits you..."Oh my god, I could have died in there."

Our wonderful friend Betty B. talks about the physical "collateral damage" of chemo and I think this idea extends to your mental and emotional state post treatment. For me, life after cancer treatment is a little bit of sitting on that curb and a lot of wondering what my life should be about now. Not quite survivor's guilt, but more the feeling of being spared only to live a life that is the best it can be. It's the wrangling of feelings and getting back into my skin. It's not a time to make any big decisions. But it is a time to know my monkey mind, to understand what the screeching and cymbals do to distract and overwhelm.

Just sitting here, writing this out, helps me keep that monkey at bay. It helps me think about mapping out all he is raving about and seeing how things fit together. It helps me to think of "eating the elephant one bite at a time", as my friend Jenn says. It also helps me to realize that the monkey is a protector. He is the surveillance monkey from a Toy Story, warning my body that something is happening that my body may not be aware is on the horizon.

Tricky monkey.

[On the surgery note, we leave Monday for NOLA and I hit the table on Wednesday. We will be in NOLA until Thursday, the 8th. All forms of intention and intervention greatly appreciated. Love to you all.]

Thursday, February 23, 2012

When the voice talks, you listen

Dear Fran,

Today is a day you want to lie on the floor at the gym and cry. The hyper-flexiblity you bestowed on your children is long gone, tendons and muscles frozen from months of chemical barrage and lack of mobility. You feel like an alien in your own body. This is where you are now. This is the baseline.

The forest fire that raged through your life last year has its lasting effects, the greatest of which is the journey you now have to take to become whole again.

Be the woman you can be and find a path and a plan back to feeling fit and fantastic in your skin. Don't dwell in the blackened landscape. Find, gather and take in the elements that you need to bring those green shoots of life to the surface. You know what they are: love, dialogue, forward motion, physical contact, movement, positivity, strength. If you don't have them at the ready, seek them out. They are the things that make you thrive. Without them, you will fail.

It's too easy to watch the rock roll down the hill, not thinking you have to push it up again. This is not a choice. Don't even consider it one.

That voice in your head.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Letting the Days Go By...Once In a Lifetime

The sky was blackened by the cloud cover, rain sheeting down as I drove to work for an early meeting. I was up early and would be coming home late, as was my practice for 80 hour work weeks at the helm of a small nonprofit organization in Portland, Oregon. I had had to drag myself out of bed that day, the black dog of depression at my heels as it had been for months upon months combined with lying awake in the middle of the night worrying about guiding this fantastic, but fragile, organization to the next level.

In short, I was miserable. But a week before, my friend Annie had come to town for a reconnaissance trip visit, pregnant with her second child. I had taken a call (for work, of course) while she cruised into the kitchen for a snack. Thump, thump! Thump, thump! The strangest sound came from the kitchen. Thump, thump! [pause] Thump! When I walked into the kitchen, there stood Annie with an incredulous look on her face. "I have been through every cupboard. There is nothing to eat in here. Nothing." "Bah!", I said, "Look in the fridge." "Fran. Condiments don't count."

Wind and rain pounding on my windshield,  I remember driving down 39th street when the eerie first notes of the Talking Head's song Once In a Lifetime came on the radio.

[You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, "Well, how did I get here?"]

And the weight of it all just hit me. How in the hell had I gotten to this state? I was in terrible shape, depressed, lonely, too busy for friends and living a life that was the polar opposite of what I thought a good life to be. I had become a slave to what I thought was important...but important was a single dimension of my life.

I drove to my office and emailed my good friend to ask for the name of her therapist and started a journey of reframing my life.

So, here I am again. Not in the stressed out, hating life mode, but given the utmost gift of a really incredibly intentional space of reframing.

What occurred to me the other morning was that I have six years to make life as good as I can. Maybe this is not the right way to think about it (I am sure my friends in medicine will find flaws with this reasoning), but when you are a triple-negative breast cancer, uh, person (I can't say survivor), your stats for recurrence look kind of crappy for six years and then they look really good. Getting through those six years is the deal. But, in some ways, it's the deadline.

So, how am I going to feel in two years if I have a recurrence and I have wasted those two years just operating out of the same mindset that I have had for the past ten? How am I going to feel about only seeing my kids for 2 hours a day because I commute to a job that has me leaving at 6:45a and getting home at 6:30p? Six years broken down into the very real possibility that at any time, the shit can hit the fan again.

How many times in your life do you get to ask yourself the question:
"Will I be satisfied reflecting on the life that I am living now, if it happens again?"

Because that reframes *everything*. If I get sick again in two years, will I be happy that I wasted time on the drama? If I get sick again in two years, will I be proud of making a difference in this world? If I get sick again in two years, will I wonder where the time went with my kids? If I get sick again in two years, will I have spent my time *filling my time/my heart/my life with things that make my spirit sing*?

Because, my friends, that is the shit. To have a life that is fulfilling and good. To feel like you are living your best life in your best self. To be loved, to love deeply, to appreciate, to think of the future  as it relates to this reflection of 2 years instead of 10.

What a gift. What a freaking gift.

Because you can plan all you want, but the reality is that shit happens.

You die of appendicitis at the age of 50.
You die in a car wreck at the age of 15.
You get diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer a week before you retire.

You get diagnosed with stage I breast cancer at 39 with very good outcomes...and you have a chance to make life what you want it to be.

How many more big, huge freaking billboards does one woman need?

When I hear that song by the Talking Heads, I am reminded that we get to reset, that there is time/it is time to think about the choices we make

[You may ask yourself, "What is that beautiful house?"
You may ask yourself, "Where does that highway go to?"
You may ask yourself, "Am I right, am I wrong?"
You may say to yourself, "My God! What have I done?"]

Just listen...chills.