Know Thy Selves

Our Bodies, Our SelvesRemember when it was all the rage to sit on the floor of the campus gym sans pants, whip out your compact, and examine your vagina? No weewees, no woohoos, no girliebits; we were hot to call a vagina a vagina, and we were determined to get up close and personal enough to be on a first name basis. Our Bodies, Our Selves was the handbook, although I seem to remember the 70’s bearing a rather unbalanced focus on the Bodies half of the equation. Frankly, it was a whole lot easier to find a group of women ready to shed their clothes for Enlightenment than to find one who actually carried (or owned) an actual compact. Makeup was for sissy girls.

Women 1970's via ourbodiesourselves.orgWe were a Gung Ho sort, and even if we read our Sartre naked in the bathtub with a guy we’d met at the falafel house only an hour earlier, we were hungry to know it all, do it all, feel it all, read it all, live it all, conquer it all, save the world, free women from centuries of silence, get it out there, and live it real. We were ready and primed to Make Life Our Bitch. We all looked like Ali McGraw, and we were determined to be taken as seriously as Gloria Steinem. We brought womanhood, for a time, from darkness into light, and it all started with a fierce determination to know ourselves, vaginas and all.

When did we lose touch?

A year ago today I sat in my kitchen with a close friend that I see only twice a year. She was waiting for test results from a biopsy, which would be positive. I had cancer too but didn’t know it — didn’t suspect — and wouldn’t until much later that spring. When did we move from living our lives armed with mirrors and books and knowledge and experimentation to living our lives with long and mostly irrelevant To Do lists, blindfolded against our innermost secrets? When did answers become written in water, and taking care of Our Selves become a second fiddle melody? When did we move from Knowing to Not Knowing, because Knowing has become so damn hard?

Contrary to popular belief, Our Bodies Our Selves was not about sexual liberation, even though most of us seemed to read it that way. In fact, it was about women learning to care for their own health. Forty-ish years later, we pretty much take care of others instead.

We march; we speak out; we advocate for free mammograms; we rally; we sit with each other and shave our heads in sisterhood; we refuse to be talked down to; we have each other’s backs. But we still never quite know what’s inside us at any given moment — a sobering reminder to seize the day.

Cousin Cousine 1975In many ways, 18 was bliss, wasn’t it? Knowing our bodies was largely a pursuit of pleasure: learning to kiss, trying exotic new tastes from multicultural gems near college campuses, teaching our muscles to scale mountains on weekends with adventurous new friends, getting silly with markers or grimacing under tattoo needles. At 56, knowing my body means something else entirely, and mostly what it means is discovering how much of what I’ve learned to love is now on the list of things that I’m forced to un-love (exotic tastes and climbing mountains high on the list). Making peace with the woohoo was a hell of a lot easier than making peace with organs that mutate in silence, and oh, how much more fun!

And so these later days reprise that urge to know, deep down; to feel, deep down; to live, deep down. If there is no magic mirror to show me what monsters lurk inside or to predict which cures will simply kill me another way on another day, I need to be in tune enough with my spirit to hear the longings of the body I yearn to heal: feed me; love me; take me out dancing; sing me a song; let me spend the afternoon painting my body with daisies and then giggle loud and long enough to wake the neighbors; or linger in a field of wildflowers way past time for dinner. Feed me a daily moment of bliss. Or three.

P.S. Dedicated to Carol, Susan, the MoHos, Jeanne Beanie, Carol H, the Duke Forestry School, my Love, my family

A Word for the Journey

Star Provisions AtlantaBlasphemy, to be sure, but Thanksgiving has never been my favorite holiday. Of course the food rocks — nothing twitters my tastebuds like turkey and cranberries, and I can’t wait to get a nibble of my sister’s 2012 dessert: Sugar Cream Pie (thank you Indiana Quakers!). Pretty leaves crunch and crackle, the crisp air is set to a tolerable chill, apples abound and the smell of mulled cider is blissful. Group cooking (if you’re lucky), family (if you’re lucky/unlucky), hugs, smiles both genuine and forced, too much TV and the lure of deep sofas and downy throws round out the day. And then there’s the thanks-giving, which is lovely and meaningful, though for me more of a personal exercise than a group-share. I never show my heart in group-share. Sometimes I don’t even show my heart to myself.

A friend asked me yesterday if I’m living the life I want to live. Now that’s some hefty food for thought.

2012 has been a year of surprises for me — some good, some not. Today I’m thankful to be alive, to be loved, to have options, to have the ability to change.

I don’t consider myself a risk-taker. Others do, but they’re wrong. I’ve been able to do some Big Things with my life because I’ve thought and researched and dreamed and imagined and researched and thought and tested until I’ve found ways to make Big Leaps comfortable for a Small Step girl. In other words, I’ve discovered, or created, the exact formula that allows me to grow in a certain instance. Did traveling overseas alone for the first time at 41 free me from fear? No. Did opening a gallery alone at 53 free me? No. There are still oodles of things I can’t or won’t do, but the difference is that now I understand that there’s a way to be comfortable with the new and to thrive — I just have to find it. It’s like having children; you learn as you go.

And so as I think of this year of dancing with cancer, my family, my art, the gallery, the future and my own unknowing, I’m wondering: am I living the life I want to live? Am I growing into me?

For the most part, yes, absolutely. But there are always passions on hold, dreams that slip up to me in the darkness and tug on my nightshirt: “Is it my turn yet?” I think I’m getting a little old to keep saying, “Shhhhhh, not quite yet.”

And so my word for the rest of this journey was gifted by the photograph above, snapped eighteen months ago in Atlanta at Star Provisions. It’s time to stop maintaining and get back to growing. It’s time to get uncomfortable with comfort and snuggle up to surprise. It’s time to get dreaming again and researching that special alchemy that handholds reluctance into reality. It’s time to crawl into my heart and ramble around, and then to crawl back out and trample the shell, burst at the seams, strain towards the light. Time to Grow. And Grow some more.

Back to Center

Mossy Rock

I’ve always been pretty much of a rock — at least on the outside. This is perhaps more calculated than natural, since holding steady comes more easily when you don’t give in to drama. I’ve rarely been a shrieker, if you don’t count the child who likes to jump out of closets, or a flinger, if you overlook that carton of Chinese food that sailed across the kitchen. And after all, that was only once. I used to be a door slammer, but someone-I-can’t-quite-remember guilted that out of me. So yeah, pretty much of a rock.

Lately I feel less rockish and more like, oh . . . seaweed maybe. Stringy, riding whatever wave heads this way, unable to keep all of my tendrils pointed in the same direction, but still afloat, still green, still vital. It’s a nice image I think, and serves me well in uncharted waters, but lately I feel the need for a little more control. For feet, if you will. Feet to plant, to walk, to run. Feet that allow me to choose a path.

This isn’t altogether surprising, of course.

It’s a funny thing about finding your feet, your heart, your center. I sometimes feel like I am least myself when I’m in my “element” (read home/job/loves/routines/chosenactivities). I tend to fall into patterns of behavior that work in Situation A or Dilemma B. Don’t we all? I find that I most closely resemble myself, my center, when I am far from home in novel situations with strangers and unfamiliar sights and sounds. I am most myself when I have to look, to see, to hear, to discern, to think in new ways about new concepts, to grow.

Essentially, I have a yearning to get lost. Scrape some moss off. Let some sun in. Let that wild hair reign a bit.

Elephants and Ladders

Elephant and Elephant-Made Ladder, by PrajaktaPradhanAnd just like that, seven weeks have passed. Seven weeks that began as One, stumpingly segued to Four-and-a-Half, and curiously culminated as Seven-that-Felt-Like-Four. Tomorrow, Friday, October 12, marks my last day of radiation, and Saturday, 10/13 will be my first day without it. Again with the Lucky Number.

On my first radiation center visit, I argued with my husband in the car on the drive over and cried the rest of the way, then spent 45 minutes lying alone in a room on a CT table thinking about this: every day for the next seven weeks, I will be forced to wake up in the morning, acknowledge that I have cancer, and drive myself nine minutes down the road for treatment from strangers. The radiation part? No biggie. The acknowledgement part? Biggie.

And so it went that I drove myself alone for the first treatment on the first day and put myself in the hands of four strangers in gray scrubs who would become my morning companions for the next seven weeks of my life. I can’t tell you how much I’m going to miss them.

Years ago, after a particularly shaking experience with someone I cared about, I headed out the door for a walk. I was in a strange city and knew no one, with a map folded into my back pocket. After about 45 minutes of emotions-in-a-twist-staring-at-the-pavement under my mindlessly-moving feet, I looked up and across the narrow road straight into a tea room with its doors flung open to the day. Inside, a woman paused, looked out, and smiled at me. I smiled back. And in that instant, that moment-with-a-stranger, I was fine.

And this has been much like that.

I’ve always been fascinated by the connections we form in life. Some of the people I remember most vividly are those with whom I’ve spent the least time, but with the most intensity. Some taught me life lessons, some gave me a nudge back onto the path, others showed me new ways of being, some simply showed compassion — but almost consistently without a surplus of words — and often with no words at all. And then they were gone — but only — only — in a physical way. Those that impact us in times of need are with us forever.

And I think about this: it’s so easy to be kind. It’s so easy to give a nod, a smile, a touch. I count myself at the top of the list for too often being too afraid, too shy, too sure my words are cheesy or my interest suspect, and I need to change that.

And so to Rick, whose curls bounce every morning when he nods and his eyes twinkle hello: Thank You. To James, who fetched me gently from the waiting room alone on that first day and always tries to make me laugh: Thank You. To Betty, whose mega-watt smile and cheeriness always calm me: Thank You. To Will, who didn’t flinch when I sulked up to him on Day 1 and put my hand on his chest to turn over his name tag because I didn’t want to be treated by a man whose name I didn’t know, and who looked in my eyes to keep me steady: Thank You.

Thank you all for bringing me from this to this to this.

Breast Cancer Biopsy, Radiation Registration Lines, Almost Done

Breast Cancer Biopsy Bruise, Radiation Registration Lines, Almost Done

Oh! The title for this post was provided by my daughter, of Ashinine, quite randomly, with no knowledge of the post content. Ever a lover of Metaphors for Life, I’ll give you this: We are all at times large and clumsy, unaccustomed and often ill-equipped and, certainly in my case, articulate only in an alien-ish sort of way when we encounter the unexpected. Thank You All for being the Ladder to my Elephant, giving me something and often someone to hold on to, a leg up, access to a broader view, and a steady hand. I’ll never forget. Hugs and Kisses.

Presbyterian Radiation Oncology

Red

Finally, I am mad. I guess going through stages isn’t really my nature, and maybe it isn’t such a surprise that I have accepted cancer so graciously. I’ve never been one to make a fuss. It isn’t expected of me, and the times I’ve expressed strong thoughts in the past, the diversion from my usual temperament has not been well-tolerated. And so it goes, these days.

I’m not immune to “life” — or as I sometimes call it, “crap.” Part of this gift of experiencing the universe is learning to navigate with grace and wisdom, and if it were all easy, we’d die just as we’re born — still fighting to keep our toys. I’m game for the paths, wherever they lead, but I do wish for a few small courtesies along the way.

Large courtesies I’ve got in spades – love, fabulous friends near and far, sweet notes, red lipstick, sock monkeys, cocktail jelly beans, new teas, funny photos, tomato pie, taxi service, Tuesday dinners out and Wednesday date lunches. I have blessings upon blessings. Every time I pass a radiation patient waiting wordlessly and alone for a taxi ride home, I know I have it better than the laws of fairness would dictate.

But here’s the thing. At 57, I’ve spent a lifetime taking care of other people, from a childhood spent trying to keep peace between my parents, to various boyfriends, three husbands, two kidlets, four stepkidlets, and miscellaneous pets — some of them not even mine. I spoke up for my mom at every appointment while she fought leukemia for six months, and sat with her while she died. Now I try my best to help my dad maintain some quality of life and sense of autonomy while he struggles with a growing dementia and paranoia. And, oh yeah, I work to grow a business. All this is life, of course, and I love living it full tilt. Cancer? Just my luck of the draw, and I can handle it.

But I can’t handle this: an almost complete lack of time/space/breath/peace/environment/solitude/conduciveness/peace/breath/space/time for healing. I can’t put myself anywhere physical or metaphysical where life and needs stand still long enough to shut down my caretaking heart and brain and simply be for enough moments to whitelight this insipid invasion. I can’t fill the reaching hands full enough to be able to let them go and hold my own hands for a day, or half a day. I guess I don’t know how, or maybe it just isn’t my turn yet. But I need this self-handholding, this affirmation, this love that comes from within and focuses on me. Just for a time.

When the kids were growing, a good friend told me that I didn’t seem to do anything for them. I still have no idea what she meant — I thought I was teaching them independence, along with every skill I knew. Another told me that I sure didn’t have any trouble taking time for myself — when I told her I had enrolled in a yoga class for one hour a week. I’ve been told that my (my!) priorities are skewed, and that I was “a failure as a wife, a daughter, and a mother.” In other words: “Don’t be who you are; be who I need.” I’ve dealt with it. I’ve been Zen; I’ve persevered; I’ve adapted and chameleoned and given time and again, and still maintained some sense of self.

I’ve almost learned to let the words of idiots roll off my back, but then there are those with valid needs. I can’t be mad at my father for needing me, for calling six times a day and going through the same conversations and concerns and solutions every single time. I can’t be mad at a husband who wants me to put the computer aside for an hour a day, even though I have three more hours to go on top of the eight already used. I can’t be mad at siblings who are working their tails off to make their own livings and their own lives. And I’m fighting the urge to be mad at myself — for not being fast enough to accomplish mountains in minutes of time, for my tenuous grip on patience, for my occasional need to bitch and moan and my wimpiness for not just standing up and screaming when I need to.

So I don’t know where to point this anger, but it’s here. Finally, I am mad.

Life: Not for the Squeamish

Tiny Flower, Pam Goode

Tiny Flower, Parking Lot, Presbyterian Cancer Center

I walk into my second radiation treatment behind a woman in a fun skirt made of vintage tablecloths, her round head sporting the new growth that looks like peach fuzz. An attendant in an orange shirt helps a blanket-wrapped man from the wheelchair into a waiting car. I see two other patients, both with walkers. The youth of my radiation techs looks good to me now, and the way Amanda’s face lights up when I finally notice she is pregnant and ask about the baby makes my morning. Outside of Amanda and maybe the cute young tech, I look to be the healthiest one here. I feel the need to help carry those who are dealing with so much more than I am, but it isn’t time — I don’t want to infringe.

They say radiation is a breeze, and so far it is, as long as you don’t stop to consider the deadly rays funneled into your body daily — those very rays we’re taught to fear and work to avoid. And as long as you don’t look around too much at the others sharing your journey.

Over the past few weeks, waiting for this day, I’ve dreaded the start of radiation because to me it meant this: thinking about cancer for an hour out of every 24 for seven weeks. Now, I know that it will mean this: hurting for every person I see here daily, and understanding that pretty much every one of them is facing a mountain far higher than mine. I am so lucky. Why?

I hope this is the only time in my life that I’m given free and preferred parking. The woman who chose the space next to me sat in a battered once-red car with her hand to her head and the windows down. She didn’t look up when I eased into my car. It was 10:13. Of course it was — it’s my lucky number.

Cancer is not the hardest time I’ve faced. Watching my mother die and trying to steady my father each day as his mind fades top the list. Dealing with pain I’ve caused others is a close second. These passages are agonies. Cancer is a wrench in your life-clock, a rewriting of plans, an upending and introspective re-centering. In a way, it is death and rebirth without the dying.

I don’t know why I have cancer, and I don’t know what cancer wants from me. I know we don’t need more suffering; we are overrun with suffering. Maybe we simply need another voice. Do we? With cancer claiming an ever-increasing percentage of the population, surely the numbers begin to blur. But I can be a voice. I can see beauty and celebrate with awe and I can create, after a fashion. This daily dose of hard-awareness will fuel me, once I release my grip on the melancholia of it all.

We are born into this life fairly fearless, but our willingness to grasp the new is fleeting. More and more I realize that fearlessness only returns to us after we open our eyes and drink in the realities, both good and bad, that surround us. Awareness and action: my two new friends.

Dear Cancer, I Am Not Alone, Part 2

Surgery-Day Post Redux, updated with images that have come in during the past week. The June 29 post was seen by 5 times the number of people who usually check out my blog, and more than twice as many who visited this blog on my best day ever. How many of these visitors actually know me? A fraction. How many hate cancer? Every single one of them.

After a week of rest followed by a great pathology report, tissues are healing and the mood in our house is MUCH lighter. Still treatments to follow, as well as many slow days of trying to find my way again. But make no mistake: science is a wonder and I wouldn’t walk this path without it, but love — even the love of strangers who support us with a smile or a hand or a photograph or a word or prayer or thought or mention of our name or even an acknowledgement that we are all on this path of life together — love in every form from the fieriest passion to the innocence of children in the surf to the gift of human affirmation — love is a damn strong tonic.

This journal is a seed, and these photographs a fledgling reinforcement that we are one in wonderful ways. I’ll keep adding pics from any who send them in the process of building a network for any who need it at any time for any reason anywhere in the world. Cause this love ain’t just me babe — it’s for all of us. Just click on the first image for a really nice slide show.

Today is the day they slice you out of me, you and all of your little scouts and parasites, you with your wily ways, greedy fingers, silent chewing, your poison, your hate. You are not me. I am not you. I will not be you. You’re outta here, and you’re not coming back. And I am not alone.

Many thanks to the fabulous friends, friends of friends, role models, ass kickers, lovers, survivors and supporters for these funny, touching, inspirational photographs. I love you all!!!

Dear Cancer, I Am Not Alone

Today is the day they slice you out of me, you and all of your little scouts and parasites, you with your wily ways, greedy fingers, silent chewing, your poison, your hate. You are not me. I am not you. I will not be you. You’re outta here, and you’re not coming back. And I am not alone.

Many thanks to the fabulous friends, friends of friends, role models, ass kickers, lovers, survivors and supporters for these funny, touching, inspirational photographs. I love you all!!!

Good Neighbors

Chalk Drawings

Good Neighbors:

Put your newspaper on the porch if it looks like rain.

Don’t let their dogs sit on your flowers.

Offer to run to the store when you have the flu AND small children.

Use the back door.

Sit on the porch with you and watch the world go by after a long day.

Smile and wave when you’ve invited three friends and six toddlers and a couple of dogs to set up kiddie pools and hoses on the “beach” you’ve made in your shared driveway.

Leave fresh fruit or veggies or flowers by your door sometimes without even a note, because a gift is a gift and they’re not in it for the recognition.

Leave sweet hellos and chalk drawings “just because.”

Walk your dog when it’s raining because they’re walking theirs anyway and they’re already wet.

Don’t look at you with the sad pity face when they hear you have cancer or have lost a job, but walk right over with a bottle of prosecco and a funny movie and say “Get on the couch, we’re gonna laugh for a while.”

Thank you for planting and pruning and weeding and making the neighborhood all homey and happy, and order a pine straw delivery as a thank you.

Notice when they haven’t seen you in a few days and knock on the door to make sure you’re okay.

Don’t call the police when you really need to blast out Earth, Wind and Fire and DANCE for just one song.

Love it when your kids knock on their door and ask for a popsicle.

Will laugh and claim they were awake anyway when your alarm accidentally goes off at 3 AM two nights in a row.

Share cuttings of Aunt Myrtle’s heirloom perennials.

Always wave. Because nothing beats acknowledging the existence and validity and humanity of those we live among, and we all very simply need that.

Howl

Coyotes are moving in. I haven’t seen one yet, even though our garden along the wooded creek provides some prime hors d’oeuvres, but I’m getting the emails every couple of days now. “Coyote spotted on Cassamia Glen. Coyote StareHe was so thin he walked through the bars of my iron gate.” “Coyote spotted on Forest Drive, trotting down the middle of the street in broad daylight. A neighbor’s dog barked like mad, and the coyote never even glanced over.” Phantoms are walking among us, their wildness brushing too close to our cultivated lives, and I can’t help feeling a little like Harry Potter spying the wispy cloaktrails of a dementor.

Back in the 80’s when I owned every Molly-Ringwold-worthy funky pin to be found at Wal-Mart, I had a cute little pewter rendition of a howling coyote. He seemed so whimsically free-spirited and a little like me with a heart full of song and a soul full of wanderlust. A cocker spaniel with a great set of lungs. Youthful myopia, I loved you so! Wiser now with better glasses and living in an increasingly cat-free neighborhood, coyotes simply suck, and their eerie howl is about as close to the tolling of the bell as it gets.

Coyotes, unlike me, have no fear. Airplanes are hitting them on runways. What living being can you name that will stand its ground while a 900,000 pound 747 bears down screaming at 130 decibels? No wonder the frenzied barking of a domesticated golden retriever doesn’t warrant so much as a glance.

I have fear. I feel it when I think of the friend who died on Tuesday after my husband held his hand and laughed goodbyes with him, less than 30 days after the doctors saw cancer. I feel it when I think of a friend who died of unseen injuries on Sunday, 20 days after walking away from totaling her car and so grateful to be alive. I feel it when I think of my father-in-law, dead only 11 days after discovering lung cancer, or my mother, dead in 6 months from a condition considered “easily controlled by drugs,” or my too-many friends seeking life through chemotherapy and other poisons. Coyotes are everywhere — hungry, unafraid, and thin enough to pass through our gates.

And I want to learn how to beat the coyote at his own game. I want to learn that laser beam focus, that unflinchable exterior, that iron-clad intent. And most of all, I want to learn to stop being so “nice”, so allowing, so patient, so quiet, so willing to take a back seat, so ready to fight for others but not for myself. I’m not there yet, but I’m in training, and the coyotes are taunting me to give it a go. There will be howling.

Howl, Mosaic Art by Pamela Goode