“The world breaks everyone, and then some become strong at the broken places.”
My husband receives a call from the doctor who has his biopsy results. The small lump at his jawline is not uncommon- the doctor has been optimistic up until now – cavalier even- but it turns out that his is not benign at all. It is a rare cancer of the parotid gland.
We are about to find out that getting a cancer diagnosis causes one to enter the stages of grief. First stop: denial. How can this be? He is healthy. His medical reports have always been perfect. He is active, a young fifty-five and never felt better.
I’ve forgotten all about Halloween and now it’s getting dark, the time that little ones will start showing up at our door, looking for treats. We have no candy and are in no mood for visitors. We turn out most of the lights and sit in the near-dark living room, allowing this new reality to sit with us. We’ve kept the trick-or-treaters at bay, but we are not alone. There is a wolf at the door, and it is Cancer.
I call our daughters and deliver the news.
My husband is very concerned about disrupting mine and the girls’ lives. Always confident, capable and available, he feels he is failing us with this new and shocking title: cancer patient. Usually such a logical man, this makes little sense. Of course he did not choose this, no one does, and all we care about is him getting better. But the love and protection he has always given us, above and beyond what is expected, is one of the things I love about him. And now I want to protect him, to cure him, to save him. I am simultaneously aware of my inner strength and my mortal limitations.
It is our 31st wedding anniversary and also the day of my husband’s surgery. The surgeon removes the tumor as well as many lymph nodes in his neck. The doctors call it a neck dissection, but my husband prefers to call it a neck fillet. Even in his current state, he maintains a bit of his sense of humor. I am relieved. The past week has been emotionally rough to say the least, but we find reasons to laugh too.
We follow through on our plans to host Thanksgiving dinner at our home. It is a day of family and food and also of forgetting, for a few minutes at a time, that we are awaiting the next day’s pathology report.
We stop at the second floor of Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. We are fortunate to be just an hour drive away from such a reputable treatment center. We ride the elevator to the second floor. “Welcome to the land of the fucked”, my husband says as he looks around.
The oncologist is young, impeccably groomed and impossibly thin. He’s also friendly and kind but maintains the necessary level of detachment. He delivers the pathology report. It has been a successful surgery. No facial nerves were damaged. But cancer was found in one of the thirty-one lymph nodes that were removed. We discuss treatment options.
I gather books and food; I read and cook and freeze and clean. My husband makes calls and fills out paperwork. He deals with insurance details and prepares for his leave of absence from work. He is a pilot and I wonder if the radiation from the cockpit has contributed to this misfortune. Friendly skies my ass. I make a mental note to research this.
We update the people closest to us. We are grateful for their kindness, and for the resources that we have to get through this great challenge as best we can.
Treatment begins. There will be six weeks of daily radiotherapy plus weekly chemotherapy. We have had every discussion, imagined every scenario, asked every question.
The technician brings me back to the room with my husband so I can see the radiotherapy equipment. They place the custom-made mask on his face and lay him down on the table. A giant machine looms above, like something out of Star Trek. The technician is explaining things to me, being both thoughtful and clinical, just like the oncologist. I glance over at the table again, at my husband strapped down now, and my eyes start to fill. I silently demand of myself not to cry before I look back at the man who has been giving me the low- down on radiation. I cannot make his job harder, I think. I cannot make any of this any harder.
Our daughters, sons-in-law and baby granddaughters are all gathered at our home. We are genuinely happy, our hearts full. My husband has a few days off from treatment, which feels like a gift.
One more month of treatment. It will get progressively more painful from here, affecting his teeth, his mouth, his swallowing. I was made for hard things, but watching a loved one suffer is not one of them. I want to curl up in the fetal position at the thought of his pain, but mostly because of the shadow of uncertainty that Cancer has cast upon his life. I gather my strength though, doing my best to stay in each moment. I recall the words of Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now: “Whatever your present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.”
Cancer arrived at the end of 2018, unannounced and unwelcome, an intruder in our lives. With all the love and strength and hope we can muster, along with all that modern medicine can offer, I believe we will send Cancer away. I picture my husband and myself, our amazing family, thoughtful friends, and the team of medical personnel, leaning on the door, all of us with all our might. We lock the door.
I believe the new year will bring healing, life, and glorious days. I will welcome those moments, those days, eagerly, as if I had chosen them. God knows I have.
I adore fall. I’m your classic pumpkin-loving, sweater-wearing, apple-picking New England gal. Minus, unfortunately, the pumpkin-spice lattes. I can’t stomach the sugar or caffeine in those suckers, much to my dismay. But lattes aside, fall is my season. I was born in the fall. My husband was born in the fall. Our twins were born in the fall (okay they were born TWO days before the first day of fall, which I’m counting as fall) and I expect they’ll grow up to love pumpkins and wear sweaters and pick apples.
Yet, despite all of this, I have no plans to dress my 13-month-old twins in costume for Halloween tonight. Not because I don’t love Halloween (I was one of those annoying kids who dressed up and went trick or treating well into my early teens). But rather because finding/making/buying costumes for my toddlers, who are not old enough to remotely comprehend what Halloween is, just did not make it onto my list of priorities this year. Yes, I have a list. And everything on it is either important to me, important to my family, or otherwise important to someone or something that matters.
Keeping the kids healthy and happy? Important. Grocery shopping? Important. Family time? Important. Paying the bills? Important. Date nights with my husband now and then to keep our marriage from being eaten alive by the fine art of parenting twins? Important. Sleep, exercise, occasionally eating something other than the crust off my girls’ peanut butter toast? Important. Voting? Important. Laundry? Semi-important. My super awesome seasonal pumpkin-carving job that I absolutely LOVE? Important.
Scrambling to dress my girls in costume for the sake of some cute photos? Not important.
“But they’re twiiiiinsssss!!!!” I know. That actually just makes it much more difficult and less appealing to dress them up. Twice the effort, twice the price, and almost zero chance of getting a single decent photo in which both of them are looking at the camera, let alone smiling. And then what? I’ve spent valuable time (and precious, limited energy) doing something they will forget by the time they wake up the next morning and that I will remember simply as a stressful couple of days of neglecting my own needs for the sake of a few lousy pictures.
I had a moment of mildly reconsidering this decision and even searched around for child-friendly Halloween events that might make dressing up a little more worth it, but all events are taking place either after their bedtime or during their nap time and let me tell you – Almost nothing is worth getting in the way of either of those.
So bring on fall in all of its beauty and splendor, but I’ll pass on Halloween this year. My girls will be in bed at their usual 6:30pm bedtime and I won’t be far behind.
A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is someone with the genetic trait of high sensory processing sensitivity. HSPs make up about 15% of the population, and have uncommonly sensitive nervous systems.
To me, the theory that many children who have attention deficit disorder are HSPs whose brains are trying to cope with the onslaught of sensory input, makes a whole lot of sense but is a topic for another blog post.
When the volume is turned up on the already very stimulating world, what is a highly sensitive person to do for relief? As you can imagine, or as you know if you are an HSP, this sensory overload can be overwhelming.
Here are my two broad and general tricks-of-the-trait, none of these ideas invented by yours truly, but rather adopted as habits that I’ve been naturally drawn to for their positive effects:
- Limit substances that negatively alter your nervous system. This includes caffeine which HSPs tend to be very sensitive to. Hello stimulant. If I have too much coffee, my heart beats out of my chest, I become anxious, irritable and generally want to jump out of my own skin. And by too much, I mean more than a cup or cup and a half in a day. Many HSPs need to avoid caffeine altogether. As I understand it, alcohol is both a stimulant and a depressant, so you get to be anxious and depressed if you consume enough of it. Unfortunately, many HSPs overuse alcohol as a way to numb their central nervous systems and obviously this can lead to much bigger problems over time. Personally, I just feel bad if I consume more than one or two drinks; the brain fog that sets in almost immediately, the feeling of poison in my body, the tiredness to follow. And I always feel better and clearer with none. The same goes for junk food.
- Increase activities that calm your nervous system. Exercise, yoga, meditation, time in nature ( or any quiet time). Highly sensitive people can enjoy stimulating environments such as weddings or parties, but we just crave less of it, and need to recharge in silence more often. After a certain number of hours, if I am in a noisy, chaotic or otherwise stimulating environment, I will find myself “checking out”. I’ve hit a wall. I cannot take in any more. And if my physical space is very limited (think a crowded bus or a concert, for instance), my tolerance level drops significantly.
There are many gifts to sensitivity, yet another topic for a new post. But these gifts cannot be realized unless we are tuned in to our bodies, our feelings, our own needs. And when we do tune in and honor our unique temperament, not only are we living with more integrity and peace, but we also have more to offer this noisy, beautiful world.
One of my daughters used to have trouble transitioning through the seasons. She recognized the change coming through all of her senses. I can smell it, she would tell me with concern in her voice. (Another daughter smells lightening coming, so talk about heightened senses!) I remember her resisting the changing over of jackets, not wanting to put on a winter coat and then not wanting to shed it as spring arrived. The jacket was a tangible sign of change and she wanted to cling to the old.
Recently I said goodbye to summer which is what got me thinking about transitions in general – how they require a letting go of what was in order to be fully present and embrace what is. Some transitions are imposed on us but others are a choice.
The most exciting, though not necessarily easy, transitions are the ones we choose make within ourselves; a new habit, a new focus, a peeling off of layers (of distractions, defenses, or old thoughts that don’t serve us). The change can triggered by a new season in life, or by a desire to make a dream come true. In some instances, it just becomes too painful or costly not to make a change.
We have to give up something of the lower self in order to attain something of the higher self, right? Lately, I find myself wanting to make enormous effort in transitioning from the lower me who wants to give in too often to laziness, distractions, and wasting precious time, to the higher me who knows better and wants more. I am looking at it like an experiment. If I do my best each day, how will I feel in a month, a year? Where will I be in three years?
Are you going through a transition? How is it changing you?
Many years ago, I went through a phase when I sort of wished I lived on a farm. But when I dug deep into this desire, I realized I only thought of “farm” as a noun, and not as a verb.
To farm – the verb- would mean getting up at the crack of dawn and feeding or milking various animals, collecting eggs and gathering vegetables and swatting mosquitoes. And that’s just the first hour of the day.
I figured that I really just liked the idea of a farm – the adorable red barn (that would never need repairs) and the acres of lush green with little animals grazing (it would never snow) and most of all the farm fresh food that I would turn into healthy, delicious meals at the end of every day.
I would love the scenery, the spaciousness, the sunsets, the quiet. It would be a great place to raise our children, I thought. The nature! The freedom!
But I wanted a farm without actually having to farm. I’ve had a bad experience with chickens. I like to spend my early mornings writing. I don’t exactly love getting dirty.
“I think you want to be a farmer’s wife”, my husband said.
“Probably not even that”, I responded. ” I have issues with canning.”
Once I tried fermenting some vegetables. When it was time for me to loosen the lids on the jars I’d carefully placed in the basement, I could not get them off. I was home alone with my future sauerkraut and simply could not get the lids off, not matter how I tried.
I worried the glass jars would explode. I imagined shards of glass and shreds of cabbage bursting violently into the air, the smell of vinegar and rotting vegetables taking over our home.
I called my husband to ask if they might indeed explode. He has a chemical engineering degree, so obviously he should know.
He told me they wouldn’t. I didn’t think he sounded sure enough, so I kept a safe distance, treating the jars like angry house guests that might blow their tops, quite literally, at any moment.
I’ve long since given up my farm fantasy. I can buy locally grown produce at farmer’s markets, at least in the summertime. I can find beauty all around me, in the plants and trees and art. It is easy for me to seek out quiet. I continue to spend my early mornings writing.
Occasionally, I still wonder what it might’ve been like to raise our daughters so close to nature, on some vast piece of land that feeds the soul. But I’ve also wondered what it would’ve been like to raise them in the city, surrounded by culture and diversity and subway systems.
Alas, every choice means saying no to something else.
And every farm needs a farmer.
Long before I ever had a laptop, back in the day when I was tapping at keys on a typewriter, I kept various writing notes in a decorative box, the kind you find at a craft store for keeping photos or other treasures in. While I was raising young children and my writing time was limited, it got my creative juices flowing just to take the box out and hold in. I always knew I’d get back to my work-in-progress when I could steal time again and often that was enough to keep me satisfied.
My daughters have grown and moved out, and like Virginia Woolf, I now have A Room of My Own in which to muse and write and pile up essays and book chapters on my laptop. But despite the space and all the technology available to me today, I have not outgrown The Box.
My box has changed in size and type only, having now upgraded to one I found at Staples that fits my 4×6 index cards full of notes, quotes, and ideas. It comes with matching dividers and an adjustable follow block, keeping all cards upright and orderly. If one can fall in love with a box, I surely have.
I store essay and blog ideas, memorable quotes, notes from books I’ve read, and anything else that may inform my writing. For jotting down notes away from home, I simply carry a little green index card holder, one that easily fits into a purse or a book bag. Notes from this can be transferred into the box later.
Why not just store all these notes digitally? Because I often read in bed and want to be able to write on a 4×6 card rather than record info onto my laptop. But mostly because, whether working on an essay, blog or book, I want to be able to move the cards around, rearrange them while I am referring to them, build the piece I am working on. Having so many tangible ‘moving pieces’ to work with gets me to the finished product, the whole thing, in a way that feels so satisfying to me. It’s all part of the creative process.
I see my oldest daughter, now a mother of two babies, struggle to find time to create. I recently reminded her of her art journal, of the importance of getting her ideas down on paper, of not letting them fade away like a poignant dream that can no longer be recalled. Whether in a box, a journal, or digitally, capturing our ideas in a way that we can easily refer to later, is half the fun and half the progress.
Place holders of inspiration. Nuggets of information. Parts of the whole, pieces of projects, even with small pockets of time, bit by bit will bring the dream into focus.
Dana: Being on the other side of fifty makes one acutely aware of the power of habit. One day you realize that everything you have or don’t have, the good and the bad, are the sum of all your choices and habits, leading up to this moment. Everything counts, and everything affects everything else.
Habits make up a life.
It’s been said that habits aren’t eliminated, but rather replaced with better ones. So for the sake of health, and energy, and wanting to be around for a long time for my precious granddaughters, as well as my three daughters and the rest of my beloveds, I want to fill my life with good habits. I want to replace any low-energy habits with high-energy habits.
The good weather brings with it my craving for ice cream. The problem is, the five-year-old me would have ice cream every day, all spring and summer long. Fortunately, the more mature me is in charge here (well, at least most of the time) and I’ve found the habit to replace the urge to Eat All the Ice Cream.
Smoothies! Acai bowls! Delicious cold-pressed juice!
I am obsessed.
I won’t load you up with recipes here because, well, this isn’t a food blog, and the internet is full of great recipes at your disposal. Instead, I’ll just say that any combination of these things go into my smoothies: spinach, kale, Vega powder, acai, bananas, berries of all types, coconut milk, cocoa, ground flaxseed & chia seeds.
And they are delicious! And fun! I can choose my flavor, just like at the ice cream stand. I can make them at home (or order them out). Smoothie making can get creative, be served up to others, enjoyed outside in the sunshine, for breakfast, for a mid afternoon snack, or an evening “special drink” .
Have I mentioned acai bowls? Acai is a super-fruit harvested from palm trees found around the Amazon River basin of South America. I order it freeze-dried from Amazon Prime. Amazon delivers from the Amazon, apparently. It is loaded- I mean, loaded– with nutrients. I can actually feel my cells pulsing in ecstasy when consuming it. Dramatic I know, but high-vibe food feels dramatic. It feels like vibrancy.
It feels like sweet rebellion against all the messages that tell us- especially women- that we will feel heavy, sluggish, and out of ambition, passion, or libido in middle age.
Ha! I actually feel better now than I ever have. Why? Because my habits have gotten better. Not amazing. Far from perfect. But I finally realize that every single one counts, in every area of life.
I’ve got my share of course corrections to do here on this side of five decades. But the rewards it seems, are sweeter than ice cream.
* If you want to make something like an acai bowl, but do not want to bother finding, ordering or paying for acai ? Cranberries are a great runner-upper, the most similar in nutrients to acai fruit.
Dana: I am a believer in allowing children a lot of free play time throughout childhood. But as far as organized activities go, I did make it a point to offer up a variety of options. Here’s how it went for my three daughters:
Girl Scouts: They all tried this, starting at the earliest level (I think it was called Daisies?) I recall all three children feeling pretty neutral about this and sticking with it until dance began to take up a fair amount of time, which perhaps was before my youngest reached the cookie sale stage.
Sports: Between the three of them, the girls tried various sports. None of them lasted more than one season(and sometimes not even that long). Brittni found Tee-ball to be chaotic, Jill was stressed out on the soccer field (she was only five, but it seemed everyone started playing at five!) and Bethany got a stomach ache every Saturday morning before basketball practice until I told her coach she was quitting.
Then there was dance. No one wanted to quit dance. Over the years, we must’ve gone through 100 pairs of ballet shoes collectively, and a zillion hours of instruction and many, many dance shows. There were close friendships and tears, blisters and heartache, drama and glory. There was discipline and structure and artistry and joy and summers spent dancing near and far.
During Brittni’s very first rehearsal at about four years old, she would not get on the stage. She’d practiced a dance all year long with her peers but never before on a stage. Once she sat out the first round though, watching the other girls up there, she was ready to try out the stage for the next number. And from a seat in the audience, I saw the look in her eyes when she successfully performed the dance. She was hooked. Dance would become her drug. Her obsession. From that day on, I would be living with an addict. I was both happy for her and scared at the same time. And that, I would later learn, was a very appropriate response.
Dana: I am posting this from a writing residency in Massachusetts. I’m only a couple hours from home, but it feels like the middle-of-nowhere-ish. Why do writers and artists do this? Why do we leave the comfort of our own home-which for me includes a writing room of my own- in order to hole up in some other house to do that thing we do?
The short answer of course, is freedom from distractions. Let’s face it, home holds a lot of distractions. From the people we love to the laundry and to-do lists, our attention can only be on our craft for so long before our brain starts to signal a “times up” alarm. I am so aware of the life and the needs around me, I can hardly get to work if I think a plant needs watering. The idea of focusing on writing for almost three days straight with nothing else to do- and trust me there is nothing else to do here- appealed to my need for focus and efficiency.
So I sent off the required application, resume and sample of writing- all the things the gatekeepers of the residency wanted to convince them I am serious about writing. They want to know their applicants are not coming here to, say, smoke meth, hide from the law, or hook up with random strangers. And I passed their test. I’m here! I’m basking in the hours and hours of getting words on the page, writing submissions organized, edits done; all the things that I often do in fits and starts at home.
But here’s the thing about a writing residency that I did not entirely take into consideration:
There are PEOPLE here.
And the people here all use the same kitchen and yesterday when I was in my room writing, an overpowering smell of -I don’t know- beef broth? – but the fake, bouillon cube kind, not the good kind- filled the whole upstairs. Call me sensitive, but I was a little nauseous after that.
Also, we share bathrooms. It is a big old house with two huge unisex bathrooms. There are two sinks in each of these bathrooms and the toilet and shower each has its own enclosure. So it feels like we should leave the bathroom door unlocked while using the toilet or shower, so that someone else can come into the very spacious sink area to brush their teeth. But that would be weird because- did I mention we are strangers? When I took a shower, I felt like such a room hog. I mean, someone could have been waiting to brush their teeth, or wanting to pee, but they could not because I was in the back corner of this big bathroom, in the little shower stall and therefore had locked the door. Clearly we could’ve fit a whole group in there at once, doing several different toiletry things. But like I said, that would’ve been weird. So no matter what someone might be doing in there- flossing, combing their hair- they get the whole damn room.
On to the bedrooms. Each one is named after a famous writer; mine is the Emily Dickinson room. There are several of her books in my room so that I might channel some of her inspiration or talent.
It feels a little bit like freshman year of college except that no one is telling us to leave our doors open and make friends, because we are here to work after all.
But keeping my door closed did not prevent the sound of the loudest snoring I have ever heard from travelling through my bedroom wall last night. All night. And by all night, I mean the guy slept from 9pm to 9am. It was like the snoring you’d hear on a cartoon. It was cartoon snoring. If I hadn’t been tired, and then wide awake wondering if he’s been tested for sleep apnea, it might’ve been funny.
Another thing about this house: I think there are more books here than in my town’s public library. This place has books floor to ceiling every which way I turn. The house is cluttered with books. This is kind of funny because I intentionally left my books at home so that I wouldn’t spend any of my writing time reading. I’ve been known to read a whole day away, and I didn’t want the temptation.
I’ve resisted all the books though, and am pleased to have gotten a lot of writing done. All in all, it’s been time well spent. If my resident neighbor is still here tonight, it will likely be another loud night. But that’s okay- when I go to bed, his snoring will distract me from the creepy doll sitting in the chair right outside my room.
There’s no place like home.