Getting spooked

Sorry that it’s been a while.

I freaked out.

Last August, I woke up from a nightmare while on vacation in Tuscany. I tried to walk it off through the early morning hours in the tiny town where I was staying, and in the process got into quite the conversation with myself about what I continue to hold onto years after a relationship ends.

Then I shared it.

Because that’s what I do. When I uncover greater understanding, I hope what I learn helps you, all of us, dislodge the thoughts that keep us separate from one another, and find more ways to reach out, be ourselves, love and be loved.

Good news / bad news: the post was read.

One of the first responses I received was from one of the last people I imagined would read it. We both knew who the story was about though neither of us referenced it directly. The email simply said to have fun on vacation.

That was enough.

From however many thousands of miles away, I felt exposed as if we were in the same room together. I wanted to hide.

So I did, for six months. (And also ate a lot of cake. How could I resist this table in the Tuscan inn?)

It’s not that I wasn’t writing, it was that I couldn’t bring myself to hit Publish. Almost as if I was physically unable to.

When feeling vulnerable, my go-to response is the classic deer-caught-in-headlights.

In their defense, it’s a decent tactic in the woods. Stand perfectly still, and fade into the background until the coast is clear. Those damn headlights change everything, rendering deer even more visible than if they had just kept going. Now we all have more time to stare.

The longer time passed, the harder it was to move again. This blog lay dormant, and it became increasingly difficult to post on my coaching blog too. Lucky for me, you were busy with your own life and probably didn’t notice my absence as much as I worried that you did.

Thanks to those who did notice — that helpful flick of the high beams that woke me up out of my trance — I’m back.

Being asked about my writing reminded me how much I missed it, in particular the act of sharing it. The connection fostered between us.

Then I could see what had happened. I got spooked. The perfect topic to share for my return.

That thick skin of successful writers who continue the output no matter what is said? God bless them. I hope to be there someday. Maybe this post will keep me going.

Hopefully it will keep you going too.

I missed you.

 

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Zufriedenheit

Zufriedenheit – Happiness:
Coming from happy – enjoying
pleasure and contentment.
Related words: joy, gladness,
feeling fortunate or prosperous.

The above was the definition offered in Markus Zusak’s 2005 YA gem, The Book Thief. German phrases are peppered throughout, some defined and others left for you to draw your own conclusions from the context.

[A special thank you to our neighbor, Sandy. The book mysteriously showed up on our dining room table one day. Three chapters in, I realized why. It’s a compelling read about innocence, accordions and love in Germany during the Holocaust as told by a kind, omniscient grim reaper.]

Something about zufriedenheit captivated when I saw it on the page. I was sitting on the back porch of my parents’ house at the time, enjoying the late afternoon shade. I liked the word so much I said it out loud twice more, looking up at the trees and smiling. Try it.

A month later I came back to it when I felt the full extent of my own zufriedenheit. 

Let me tell you about the chickens.

Living back in upstate New York, there are either more farms than ever before or I just never noticed them when I last lived here as a teenager. Of course given how often I was at the mall back then, maybe that’s the answer.

The other day I visited a new friend at her family’s farm. She also moved home recently, and is navigating what it’s like being up close and personal with loved ones as an adult. A kindred spirit. I met her in the garden, and not long after her cat strolled by wrapping her tail around my left calf as she passed.

It felt so peaceful there. Their pond, a field of wildflowers for the new bee hive, and a pretty farmhouse that must have a rich history judging by the worn white siding alone.

When we arrived at the bird coop with an assortment of chickens, geese, and ducks, several hens approached and waited patiently at our feet. They seemed to be greeting us in the way pets often sidle up to new visitors hoping for a belly rub or a scrap of food. I looked at my friend, curious, as she bent down in front of one of the hens.

“They don’t like to be petted, but sometimes I do anyway,” she grinned as she ran her hand along its silky maroon and black feathers.

If chickens can do the same full body shake that dogs do when their fur is matted, then that’s what happened next. The hen looked conflicted, clearly liking the attention since she continued to hover nearby and yet not knowing what to do about it.

I reached my hand down several times, but raised myself up again when I saw the chickens tense. If they didn’t want to be touched then I wasn’t going to force it, but I liked their presence a lot. I guess I was conflicted, too.

More birds strutted over and soon surrounded us in a semicircle. Just in case anything good was about to happen, they wanted to be part of it.

As my friend and I started to walk the dirt driveway toward my Civic parked by the old horse stable, all of them followed behind without a sound.

Her father met us near the barn.

“That never happens,” he said, nodding at the birds. “It’s something about you.”

I looked away, trying to hide my glee.

I’m sure it had everything to do with my friend feeding them out of her hand a few days prior, but I couldn’t help hoping her father was right. You see, I have a not-so-secret wish to be Snow White. The part about little birds landing on the end of her fingers as she sang to them. I would also like to be able to sing.

I left a couple minutes later, the birds dispersing as I said goodbye to them and hugged my friend.

As I drove away, I was reminded of a photo of my dad as a kid on his family’s farm.

This is what zufriedenheit looks like.

 

 

 

 

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On eternity, and the fleeting smell of lilacs

Last weekend was a friend’s birthday dance party. Sweating and jumping and singing loudly to Michael Jackson, and the most decadently delicious chocolate-caramel-pretzel cake that had to be sampled at 1:00 a.m.

Had to.

Midway through the evening, though, I felt the desire to leave.

I wasn’t done dancing as much as the introvert in me needed quiet. Right now. Without a word, mid-song, I walked through the dance floor and out the door. The air outside was the perfect combination of the fragrance of lilacs and other blooming trees, even more pronounced at night, and the comfortable warmth and slight heaviness of the weather contemplating rain.

The houses were mostly dark, still, by this time of night, as I walked the short, square blocks of Beacon, a small town in the Hudson Valley of New York State. One on the corner, with the lilacs, showed off a white picket fence under a nearby streetlight.

The crouched swaying and flails of dancing gave way to broadened shoulders and my head turned upward as I breathed in the night air.

Did I mention that it was perfect?

I wasn’t thinking anything. Nothing at all. It must have been why I kept smiling. Why I waved to the lilacs and stopped to smell them under the streetlight. How could I not? Night walk in Beacon - 5-16-15

As I turned another corner, there he was. Or should I say, He.

I don’t fancy myself a religious person, but I thought (a thought) that if I were, this would be the sign I had been waiting for. His arms outstretched. His immense shadow growing behind him with each step I took closer.

The party was within earshot again, the drum beats joining the scene in front of the church. A police car turned onto the block to check on the noise. Teenagers still further in the distance, rolling in on bicycles, their laughter giving them away. It all felt serene. Like floating. His arms looking effortless, and life feeling the same. The party was there. The music over there. The police car and teens, over there and there.

Though I’m also not the type to quote French poets, if I were I would know that Rene Char said:

If you can dwell in one moment, you will discover eternity.

Maybe I am that person after all.

 

When good news feels like bad news

Buried in here is a silver lining if I could just hold onto it.

In January, my mom had an appointment to find out if her cancer was in remission.

Her doctor, who I both like and respect, was measuredly optimistic. The chemo was working, and most of the enlarged lymph nodes from previous scans were gone. There were two remaining grey areas in her chest and one of her adrenal glands. It wasn’t clear if they had ever been cancerous, or if they were now, but the doctor suggested doing two more rounds of chemo just to be sure.

Mom arrived the next morning for treatment and was told by a different doctor that with a scan as good as her’s she was done! Go home!

She did a happy dance in the oncology office.

Three hours later, she was called by yet another person, and told that her doctor wanted more chemo (duh, we knew that), could she come back next week. Three days after that, it was put off again so Mom could have more tests.

It felt like the scene in The Princess Bride where the Dread Pirate Roberts ends every day with, “Goodnight, Wesley. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

For the fourth time in three weeks, Mom prepared herself for chemo.

And then…her doctor called the night before to say that she shouldn’t have it, for now. She explained that Mom was considered, “Pet Negative,” meaning her pet scan didn’t show any cancer.

I asked, “Does that mean she is in remission?”

“Some would say that,” the doctor said. “We can’t see any cancer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not there.”

This was good news, right?

Hidden within the back and forth, and back and forth, is that Mom doesn’t have to receive more treatment, perhaps forever. She’ll have another scan in two months, but for now her calendar, and life, is wide open.

That wasn’t how I heard it, though. I was pissed.

Six months ago we were told that Mom was a shoe-in for remission, and my A-student sights have been set on that gold star ever since. This was not the cancer-ending crescendo I was counting on.

In fact, it sounded frustratingly familiar.

Eleven years ago, my white blob of a brain tumor was nearly removed. The doctors couldn’t risk taking all of it, so they left a little blobby reminder that I visit on MRIs every year. While I should be fine, there remains a chance that I’m not.

Talking to my Mom’s doctor brought me right back to where I was then. Feeling like our goal post kept getting moved. That it was up to someone else to let us move on.

It took me a couple days to see the bigger picture.

How lucky we are. How special this time is, in both of our lives. And the big one — that no one is standing in the way of us celebrating Right Now.

I could throw myself a pity party (okay, I just did) over neither of us getting the moment I believe that we deserved…or I could give it to us.

We have a celebratory dinner planned this week. I found a box of old photos in a closet, and will bring them so that we can share memories, and laughs.

As for my celebration, I booked a float sandwich. Great name, right? Sixty-minutes of peaceful floatation in a pool of warm water and Epsom salts followed by a Swedish massage.

Someone pop the champagne. We did it!

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New cover, new cover, and sale!

I’m thrilled to show off the brand new cover of my book, I’m scared & doing it anyway: How a little white blob changed my life. [Thanks to Rebecca Nolen and Lisa Helfert for the beautiful design and photography.]

I hope you like it!

This is a chance to revisit a story that I love, and love sharing. I learned first hand that I have the power to change my life in immeasurable ways, even in the darkest moments. You have it, too.

Are you scared & doing it anyway?

Do you know someone who is?

In the readings and conversations I’ve had since my book was published in 2013, I’ve found that it most resonates with two groups: fear-facers like you and me, and concerned loved ones feeling at a loss for how to help someone else in crisis.

Inside these pages is a chance to come along on my journey, and to see the choices I made that turned my greatest fear into unabashed, arms-outstretched l-o-v-e.

It will help you find the courage within yourself to keep moving forward, and it will help you to be there for others in a new way.

You may wonder why I’ve chosen now to change the cover.

I was too afraid to use the one I should have from the beginning. The one with My Face on it.

I’m not the first writer to hide behind her words — nor the first speaker who still hides even though she has stood in front of hundreds of people, and hugged on television.

It’s different when it’s your book, your cover, your face…but then it isn’t. I love my story, and am as excited to share it today as I was when I started writing. I want you to gain meaning and inspiration from it, and then I want you to share it with the people you care about. (And, please hug them!)

If you like the new cover so much that you want a new copy, that’s great!

There is a sale on the paperback until the end of the month.

From now through Sunday, March 1, you can buy it for $6.50, half-off the original price ($12) , which just covers the publisher’s printing costs. Click here to purchase your copy.

If you’re in New York or Washington, DC, I will happily hug my way to you and sign it in person.

Please know that your support of this little-book-that-could has meant the world to me. I’m continuing to write, and share, because you are out there.

Thank you for that.

Much love.

 

Waiting for remission

This afternoon, my mom will find out if her cancer is in remission.

Right now, I have no doubt that she is in bed dreaming of a faraway, happy place. In fact, I assume that when I pick her up at 1:30pm she will have just woken up. She’s incredibly skilled at hiding when she doesn’t want to admit what’s really happening.

Maybe that’s a family gene. Ten minutes ago I rearranged the furniture in my office.

What’s troubling me is a feeling that she isn’t in remission yet. I realize the fact that ‘yet’ is even in that sentence is a blessing. The doctors have been talking about its eventuality since she was diagnosed in September. It’s a great goal post to have.

That doesn’t help today’s appointment though, or what it means in the short term. If cancer is still present, she’ll have her seventh round of chemo, and probably an eighth for good measure three weeks later.

And more chemo means more waiting. Another PET scan in a month to determine if it was successful. Another long sit in a doctor’s office to find out the news.

It feels like this waiting will never end.

There’s a reason for that — I’ve been waiting much longer than the eight months since a swollen lymph node first appeared on the bone behind her ear. A round, dense marble underneath her skin that she shrugged off at first until four more appeared on her neck over the course of a couple weeks. Some growing to nearly an inch in diameter. By the time she begrudgingly agreed to have a biopsy, she had lost count.

My mom doesn’t take care of herself very well. Eating poorly, smoking, avoiding the doctor…bad habits that tend to bite you in the butt at some point.

For what may be my entire adult life, I have been waiting for something to happen to her.

It’s terrible to say that, I realize. She is a good person. She raised me with lots of love; called me cutesy nicknames like Tinkerbell; practiced my spelling homework with me while making breakfast before she left for work; drove me to slumber parties, and sometimes picked me back up in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. To this day, she has never let me leave the house without a twenty dollar bill in my pocket.

Strange how I forget those things while waiting.

I also forget that this is a gift.

It wasn’t until I wrote about my brain tumor diagnosis eight years after it happened, that I realized the gift that I had been given back then. How I had an MRI in December 2004 after an ear infection wouldn’t go away, and when the doctor called me, days before Christmas, he said nothing about the results except that we could discuss them in person in January. I assumed everything was fine.

I have no idea what I did that holiday, but I can tell you what I wasn’t doing: waiting. I was blissfully unaware of what was about to happen, and I’ll be forever thankful to the doctor for granting me that stretch of time.

My experience back then isn’t all that different from where my mom and I find ourselves today.

If it’s true, which it is, that something will eventually happen to all of us and the people we love, the minutes, days, and years of waiting between now and then are a big deal. They’re our whole lives.

I feel sad that my mom is sick. Writing this makes me more sad, actually, because I’m reminded how much I love her. How immensely sad it will be when she’s no longer here for me to worry about.

Today likely isn’t that day, though, no matter what her doctor tells us.

It kind of opens it up then, doesn’t it? No matter what happens, we have this afternoon together. We are buying groceries, driving to the appointment, and then having dinner.

That’s a pretty good day. One I will treasure in the future when I think back about all the time we had to wait, together.

Which means I might as well start treasuring it now.

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What to do when someone’s in crisis

I really thought I knew how to be helpful when someone was facing something scary. Turns out I know less than I thought I did.

Being the one in a hospital bed is very different than being the worried loved one sitting next to it.

In the last two months since my mom’s diagnosis, I’ve been the recipient of so much love and support, some of it coming from places and people I wasn’t expecting. I have them to thank for these tips.

 

1) What to say

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • “I believe in you.”
  • “You are strong.”
  • Nothing.

It’s easier to say, “I’m here if you want to talk,” than it is to actually be that person. Most of us want desperately to say something, the right thing, anything that will help our loved ones feel better about their situation.

If you really want to help, do a lot of listening.

And if the person is silent — this is important — that doesn’t mean you need to fill the silence. It means the opposite. Sit there for as long as possible, and let us speak when we are ready.

The fact that we aren’t talking means that we trust you, and don’t feel like we have to take care of you. That is a really good thing.

~~ My friend, writer David Hicks, provided another suggestion. Ask, “What’s it like?” Most people in crisis want to share what’s happening, but don’t want to be a burden on others. This question may open the door.

 

2) What not to say

  • “You’ll be fine.”
  • “He’s in a better place.”
  • “You must be relieved.”

People often see another’s tragedy from their own point of view.

What do they see? Unbearable discomfort. Their own, because the person in front of them is hurting, grieving, not who they were the last time they saw them. Many freak out by other people’s pain, so much so that they need to say something SO THEY FEEL BETTER (not the person actually in crisis).

This isn’t about you.

In fact, those four words should be what you say…to yourself. Your wish that we’ll be fine or relieved that our loved one isn’t suffering any more is only your wish. Pay attention to how we talk about what’s happening. Repeat our words back to us if you need something to say. Or say nothing.

If you are worried that saying nothing isn’t helpful enough, please know what a difference it makes, how much it has meant to me. You may also want to repeat those four words to yourself again.

 

3) What to do

  • Show up.
  • Do something without asking.
  • Check in regularly to say hi and don’t expect an answer.

Your first reaction may be to ask, “What can I do? or “What do you need?” and chances are high that unless a specific job has surfaced in the last five minutes your loved one will have no idea what to tell you. They are likely so immersed in what’s happening that thinking about what they need is a luxury of time and energy that they don’t have.

When people asked me, I said, “I wish I knew; I’m sure I could use the help.”

If you really want to help, be prepared to come up with your own answer.

Three examples that blew me away recently:

On the day my mom was admitted into the hospital, I was beyond worried and overwhelmed. I sent texts to a couple close friends as I headed to the emergency room, and within 30 minutes three of them showed up. There were tender hugs, advice when asked for it, and friendly faces when she and I needed them the most.

By the next day I could email more people, and the love kept coming. One colleague left me a voicemail saying she was thinking of me, to not worry about calling her back. She then called again a few days after that and said the same thing. I could feel her support without anything required by me to keep it coming.

Saving the best for last. A close friend from Washington, DC couldn’t show up in person because I was with my family in upstate New York, so later that week there was a knock on the front door of my parents’ house. Two brimming baskets were delivered by the talented local chef Leslie Robinson with Culinary Accommodations — Mason jars filled with homemade, nourishing soup enough to feed an army. Some of the soup is still in the freezer two months later. I couldn’t eat it all!

When I thanked my friend for buying these, she said, “You’re busy taking care of everyone else right now. These soups are to take care of you.”

Every time I heat up a bowl, even now when my mom is home doing well so far with chemotherapy, and life is relatively back to normal, I feel comforted.

I had no idea what I needed. These friends had to figure it out, and I’ll be forever grateful that they did.
 
 

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