Sometimes I walk into the chaos of my life and I think, “Who is in charge here?”

I look to my left and to my right. Nothing. Nobody. Silence. Just me.

But in the stillness there is clarity.

I can handle loneliness because truly, I am never alone.

I can handle responsibility because truly, I am very competent.

But confusion gives me no direction at all except to spin in a circle.

So today, I am grateful for clarity. I believe that with it, I can move mountains, or at the very least keep my feet solidly beneath me and traveling forward.

 

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I am more comfortable giving than receiving emotional support. Nonetheless, I have found my self being “a friend in need” more than not recently. I have also been working a lot, trying to keep my head down, and keeping myself busy. It worked to a certain extent then it didn’t.

I had also planned a busy summer with lots of fun activities, spending time with friends, spending time with family, and spending time in nature. I was very much looking forward to spending three days with friends from out of town. I knew that it would be fun, they would have fun, and there would be some light and easy times.

And then it happened. I lost track of myself, my fatigue, and my anxiety. The beginning of the visit was marked by my anxiety and the bags under my eyes. I wasn’t fooling anyone. I was tired. I have slept solidly through the night once in the last two months and sometimes I am awake for a number of hours. Not sleeping well takes a major toll on me. I took on more than I could handle comfortably and then life gave me much much more. And I didn’t ask for enough help and when I didn’t do it in the way that solicits a whole lot of empathy.

Lo and behold, after a brief but intense temper tantrum, I got my shit together and focused on having a break from my daily grind, spending time with dear friends and with my husband. I had a wonderful three days. I went to mountains and islands. We talked and laughed. The tight worry in my chest and the cotton in my brain eased. I remembered what it is like to have relaxed joy.

Then I came back to my regularly scheduled program of life. I immediately picked up on the stress and anxiety in my household. Initially, I felt disappointment that I was getting wound up again so quickly. Then I remembered that I have skills. I have things to try. I started using paced breathing, a technique to strong emotions quickly. It worked. Today, I am feeling the anxiety again. And now I am writing, another strategy that helps. My heart is slowing and I am finding myself more and more in the present moment as I type these words.

I am a friend in need and I got the support I needed from both other people and from my own internal resources.

Today, I am grateful for my family.

Today, I am grateful for my friends.

Today, I am grateful for nature.

Today, I am grateful for my tenacity.

 

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We have experienced an incredibly dry summer here in the Northwest. I have been reading with great concern about the fires in the Olympic National Park. The fires are burning in the rainforest. This is an area where fire is rare. But it hasn’t been rainy or snowy. I was in a section of the park a few days ago. The meadows were alarmingly brown and bare in many spots.

Fighting fires is a difficult job in any circumstances. Fighting forest fires can be quite dangerous. My husband read a book about a forest fire fighting tragedy in 1949, Young Men and Fire. The forest fighters parachuted into the Montana forest, loaded with their fire fighting equipment, which consisted of hand tools like shovels and axes. They had no water. Their job was to contain the fire by changing the landscape. The wind shifted suddenly. They were trapped. Mos of the men died.

One of the men was able to save himself by what must have required resisting every survival instinct he had. He knew the blaze was headed for him. He quickly doused the high grass around him with fuel and lit it on fire, to remove it, creating a circle of non-burnable material around him. He laid down in the center and held on tightly to roots on the ground as the blaze came to him. The convection currents lifted him off of the ground despite wearing full fire fighting gear. All the while he held fast to the roots as well as his breath to avoid fueling the fire. The fire passed because there was nothing to burn. By standing his ground instead of running away, he saved his life.

The most painful times in my mindfulness practice have been allowing myself to observe my most painful, heartbroken, angry, scary, helpless feelings and thoughts while minimizing judgment. It is still painful. But by doing my best to observe and withhold judgment, I am able to reduce the heat enough in order to withstand it. In doing so, I have not only found emotional survival but reduced suffering and at times, I even find myself to be in a place of peace.

In many ways, I am a careful person. I take pains to prevent fires. I don’t like crises. But I have learned to be more courageous and hold tightly to my roots, because there is no other way to stay whole.

A beautiful lion was killed in Zimbabwe by a rich American, who paid $55,000 to do so. There has been a great deal of outrage about this. There has been a great deal of compassion expressed toward a rare and beautiful animal who was killed just so that a human being could use his power to kill and dominate.

There have also been people upset by how much compassion and outrage have been spent on this one lion in contrast to relatively less so about violence and racism in our own country especially toward African Americans.

I was upset by all of these events, quite frankly. I actually saw them as being part of the same problem, the problem of using might to make right, the corrupting power of excessive power, and domination for domination sake as it happens at all levels of culture.

I understand why people are angry that violence against oppressed groups of humans is not creating similar outrage. I do wonder, however, if in giving people negative feedback for expressing righteous indignation and compassion is somehow discouraging compassionate action in general.

If I were in a crowd of people and saw a small child in front of me fall down, I would express sympathy and try to help, if needed. I would not scan the crowd to see if there were a person or situation more deserving of kindness and compassion. And I don’t think that by exercising a small act of compassion on perhaps a lesser problem, that I would somehow run out of compassion. I also wonder if these small gestures, to address small problems right in front of our eyes, right now, and with swift action, may buffer in some way against the passivity and inaction that can result with being overwhelmed by the enormity of the BIG PROBLEMS.

I find that acts compassion, offered in the moment, can add a bit of fuel to my emotional gas tank rather than depleting me. There are a lot of messages out there that treat compassion as a rare, easily depleted commodity. Even in the breast cancer community, there is a sense of having to have the worst case situation in order to exercise compassion toward oneself. Meanwhile, we invalidate ourselves and others over and over, like there is no limit.

Compassion doesn’t have to be a big game.

“Get out of my kitchen!”

That is the characterization of many of us home cooks who make meals for a crowd.

It is also the way my mother is characterized by one of my in-law’s. My response? “My mother doesn’t say it LIKE THAT! It takes a lot of concentration to cook for a crowd.”

The person to whom I am speaking has never cooked for a crowd though she claims membership in the “I cooked for a crowd group.”

She has not earned that membership, I’m afraid. Yes, I know this sounds presumptuous. Just know that I know this not to be the case.

In contrast, my sister-in-law, who hosts Easter each year, has earned that membership. She never tries to get people out of her kitchen. She is laid back. She is able to cook while talking to a house full of people. I think that despite the chaos, she is not really impacted by it the way the rest of us are. Not to say that she never gets uptight or angry about anything. But those things are not things in her kitchen.

I don’t like people in my kitchen when I am trying to make a meal for a crowd. Actually, that is not entirely true. If you know how to help without being instructed or getting in the way, that’s cool with me. I have a small kitchen and a little brain when it is focused on dinner making. My mom, my brother, James and my friend, Nancy know how to slip in and so things, as if I had psychically willed them to do it. Also, if you are wanting to keep me company and don’t ask a lot of questions that require deep thinking, you are also welcome in my kitchen. Sometimes, it gets lonely in there.

Other people, they get in my way. They don’t offer to help. They are just vagrants in my kitchen. This is typically the role of some of my brothers. I tell them, “Out of my kitchen!” They scoot. They are used to our mother. Others ask to help out of politeness rather than skill. Or they have skill but are too polite to just start doing stuff.

I often think to myself, “I should do a better job at asking for and accepting help.”

“I should.”

“I really should.”

“Should” does not lead to a switch that we can turn off and on. “Oh, I should do that? Ah, here I go, I am doing it!”

Some very kind friends asked to help me cook for an upcoming dinner party. I did not say, “Get out of my kitchen!” I actually didn’t even think it. But I did think, “What is wrong with me that I can’t accept their help easily?”

I usually think, “It’s because my kitchen in small.” “It’s because I would rather do my prep ahead of time so I can visit.” These things are true, especially the latter point. I thought about it more. Really hard.

When I am driving in a car, I have a very hard time carrying on a conversation with the person who is in the passenger seat even if I like him/her very much and would like to socialize. I also don’t put the radio on when I’m driving, even when there is no one else in the car. I find both scenarios distracting. I don’t feel guilty about either situation. I accept myself for more own strengths and limitations.

I also take a lot of photos. That is, I take a lot of photos when I am alone. If I am in a social situation, I have an incredibly hard time remembering to take photos because I am distracted by visiting with people. I don’t feel guilty about this situation even when I had planned to take photos of the event. I wish I were better at doing both things but I don’t feel as thought I “should” be better or that I am letting people down.

I am a damned good home cook. But I am not an executive chef. Perhaps in time, I could train my brain to work that way, but right now and for the last few decades, it has not been that way. Most days of the year, I get no help at all. I do everything myself. I love to socialize with people. I love to cook. Both activities require a great deal of concentration on my part. I mean, yes, there are times in cooking when I am just standing around and welcome time to chat with people. But then there are the other times. And what is particularly difficult is giving other people directions when I am in the thick of things.

It is not that I am a control freak or not open to help.

I am just not that skilled. Sometimes I even write a list of things that people can do to help so that people don’t get mad at me when I can’t think of something they can do to help, when asked. This list, by the way, usually ends up being more work for me but helps assuage other people’s feelings.

As I said, I am a damned good home cook. Why should I feel less than because I have a hard time accepting help due to my difficulties with multi-tasking? Why should I feel that by taking on a lot of responsibility, I am somehow lacking in politeness or depriving others of their right to help?

Today, I am reminding myself of something. I am who I am, pluses and minuses. I may change over time but today, I know what I am able to do.

In the meantime, stay out of my kitchen unless I say, “Hey, keep me company” or “It’s time to eat. Can you help carry things out to the table?”

It’s not about you. It’s about me, doing the best I have with what I’ve got. Unless of course, you bring a bag of groceries to my house and expect to make something in my kitchen, from scratch. If you do that, you will get if not an “evil” eye, an “irritated” eye. Seriously? People, don’t do that. And if you need the oven or microwave to heat something up, it is very considerate to ask about this well ahead of time. It is even more considerate to make something that does not require use of my kitchen because people, two weeks before the event, I have already mapped out the real estate on my stove, oven, roasting oven, crock pot, microwave, and grill.

And guess what? Despite my potentially shooing you from my kitchen, we will all get a good meal out of it. It will be a win win win win win win win win win win win…

No, it’s not by posting too many cute cat videos or even by sharing political articles. Find a comfortable chair and take out a notebook. I will tell you how to post something to your breast cancer blog FB account and manage to get not a single, solitary “like”. The post got 8 clicks and no shares, either.

A couple of weeks ago, I shared a medical story about a new treatment for vaginal atrophy, a painful side effect of breast cancer treatment. As one of my girlfriends responded upon hearing about the condition, “That sounds like bad sex.”

Indeed.

Personally, I don’t want to have bad sex. Fortunately, vaginal atrophy has not been an impediment to this.

Not everyone has or wants to have sex. But really, aren’t there more of us who want to have good sex? Isn’t this a healthy part of life for many of us?

Now, perhaps you think that vaginal atrophy is not worth writing about because it is easily treatable. My understanding is that it is not. In fact, the only reason I know about it is because one of my girlfriends had it as a consequence of treating her genetic breast cancer in her 30’s. She was not shy about asking for help. She told me that none of her western physicians were able to help her with it. Then she asked her doctor who was trained in China from whom she was receiving acupuncture. Her doctor thought about it and said, “I’m not sure this work but I try.”

Things changed a lot so much so that when my friend saw her gynecologist there was amazement accompanied by a request for the Chinese doctor’s contact information.

Women, we deserve a chance at health, including sexual health.

Read the article here. Share the article.

I am on vacation with my family in British Columbia, Canada. Until yesterday, we were staying in Ucluelet, an incredibly beautiful place on the sea. We’ve spent a fair bit of time on boats. There was the Washington State Ferry ride from Anacortes, WA to Sidney, BC. There was a boat tour to see humpback whales, of which we saw several including one named, “Pinkie”. I thought, “Holy crap, please don’t tell me that this whale got it’s name to promote breast cancer awareness.” No fear, friends, her name is pinkie because she has a pink underside, which I was able to see with one of her great lunges out of the water. Unbelievable!

One of the boat rides we took was to Meares Island, off the coast of Tofino. It is a tiny island with giant trees. We spent two hours hiking on short but difficult trails before going back to the shore to wait for a small boat to take us back to the Tofino. Dennis, the captain of this 4-seater, was a character and regaled us with tales from the local area, most of which I believe were actually true.

Dennis pointed out a tiny island, “This island is for sale for $850,000.”

I don’t have that much money, but still, less than a million for a whole island? Plus, there is the Canadian/U.S. exchange rate, which today would knock nearly 25% off of the price. And it was a beautiful little place, not far from the large island of Vancouver. I could see two or three houses on it. What a deal. What a find. What an idyllic place to live.

I was gazing upon this little lump of paradise on a beautiful sunny day. Then I thought of living that close to the sea. Then I thought of the winter storms that are here. I also thought of the steep rocks on the side of the island. I wondered how many houses have fallen into the water! I suspect that keeping a house in shape there would cost a fortune, not to mention require a great deal of time and effort to maintain. Then there is the fact that it is located in one of the rainiest parts of the world.

Every moment and every thought were real. This island is idyllic. It is dangerous. It is costly. It is beautiful. It is miserably wet. This has been a wonderful vacation, by and large. I have reconnected with my family, with nature, with much needed rest and adventure. But travel is also exhausting and at times quite difficult.

Yesterday, I experienced the swell of good times, like catching a good wave of meeting delightful people and traveling through incredible natural beauty. But there were also times, when I got the shit kicked out of me, pummeled over and over, in that way that at the time, I fear that I will never get my head above water.

Fortunately, this did not last the whole day and even in the midst of my misery, at one point, I was able to shift out of it enough to get some perspective and hope that the situation could change. The wave that I was being pummeled by was the difficulty of parenting.

The sea is beautiful, powerful, and always changing.

I like on that little island whether I pony up the $850,000 or not, whether I wanted to or not, whether I planned for this or not, whether it suits my lifestyle or not.

Sometimes this feels like the greatest blessing and sometimes it feels dark and scary.

I don’t know what today will bring. My family is sleeping in.

Today, I will remind myself that every feeling has a beginning and an end. Every feeling lasts only about 30 seconds as long as we don’t respond to it in a way that keeps it firing in our brain. When I think of this, I realize how powerful our brains are. Our brains can sustain a swell or break it.

This is not easy power to exercise but it is possible. This possibility creates a sense of safety and hope for me today. I will try to remind myself of this.

Today is my last full day of vacation.

I have only one more full day of sightseeing to endure or enjoy. To a significant extent, a powerful extent, I have a say in how this plays out.

In the meantime, I’m going to reconnect with some of my photos from the trip, which gives me joy and peace. Perhaps they will bring you the same.

 

DSC02421On the ferry from Anacortes, WA to Sidney, BC, looking toward Canada.

 

DSC02449Anemone from the Ucluelet Aquarium, a small gem, in which they catch and release animals from local waters, every season.

 

DSC02514Part of the Wild Pacific Trail, Ucluelet, BC.

DSC02545I was enchanted by these puppets, designed by First Nations artists. This bear, holding a salmon, was designed by a Haida artist. It contains a teaching, “Be strong. Take care of those who are less strong.” I thought it was beautiful and adorable so I bought it for my friend, Greg’s grandkids. Then I immediately sent him a photo of it so that I wouldn’t get tempted to keep it for myself. Then I bought one for myself a few days later!

DSC02596Cox Bay, Tofino, BC.

DSC02671Meares Island.

 

DSC02682 (1)An unexpected twist on a deer fern. Meares Island.

 

DSC02703 (1)Bald eagle, Tofino.

DSC02715Middle Beach, Tofino.

DSC02785Coombs Market, famous for the goats that graze on the sod roof. Alas, I was too busy socializing with my friends, Kathryn and Nel, below, to remember to take a photo!

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Inspired by my fellow breast cancer bloggers, I have accepted the “15 random things about me challenge”. It has been fun to learn a bit more about my dear friends. Here goes!

1) I spent three hours in my yard today setting out soaker hoses and pulling up lilac suckers, which have not been tended to since before cancer. I am tired, sore, and have a blister on my finger. I am thrilled to have been able to work in my yard for three hours!

2) I was very much an “upright citizen” growing up. I didn’t get into trouble and was very responsible. I did have a mouth on me. (See item 6, below.) Nonetheless, Mom claims that I was “easy” as a teen.

3) My 80 year old mom has been blogging longer than I have about her love of family, food, music, and nature. She also uses her blog to display photos, which she then shares on Facebook. Check it out here.

4) I was a serious classical flute player until I graduated from college.

5) I have five brothers and no sisters. No, I was not spoiled.

6) My husband and I started dating in college. Before that time, we were friends. Since he does not recognize flirting, I finally just spelled it out to him that I was interested in dating him. His response, “You are a very nice person but you are loud and obnoxious.” For some reason, I persisted. We’ve been married for 25 years and together for 28 years.

7) I love music but I can’t drive with the radio on because it is too distracting.

8) When I was 12 years old, I decided that I wanted to get a Ph.D. some day. I liked school so I wanted the highest degree that was possible.

9) I hate scary movies. Always have.

10) I bought my wedding dress before I got engaged. In my defense, dress shopping and buying the dress, was my husband’s idea.

11) I am squeamish about many things though not spiders and not taking care of my drains, wounds, etc, after my breast surgeries.

12) I started this blog on the day I learned of my cancer diagnosis.

13) In my extended family, telling super embarrassing stories about one another is an act of love and we take it in that way. We do, however, have certain lines we won’t cross. Also, if the story if funny, we can get away with a lot.

14) Growing up, my family traveled a lot during the summer. My parents love nature and camping is a cheap way for a big family to travel. I did not ride in an airplane or stay in a hotel until I went on a school trip to New York as a senior in high school.

15) My husband and I once hitched a ride from Saqqara to Memphis with a Saudi Arabian pop star. Saqqara is not a big tourist site in Egypt and further, we were there during the off season. We were surprised, however, that there were no taxis for hire at Saqqara. The one taxi driver that was there was already hired for the day. But he very nicely found someone to give us a ride and he turned out to be a pop star.

 

Okay, tag, you’re it! Time for you to write your 15 random things!

She’s 13 years old now. I first started seeing her when she was a bouncy, saucy, and distractible 7 year-old who was able to depict movement in her intricate drawings.

Yesterday, I saw her for the 53rd time since 2009. Most of those visits occurred in 2009. That is a typical treatment pattern, initially intense, followed by sporadic booster sessions. Adolescence changes treatment relationships, often from parenting-focused to an individual focus.

Unfortunately, not all kids are good candidates for individual therapy. There are certain prerequisites. I could go on and on. However, I won’t because the most important of these is that the kid needs to want to be there. This is not just practically important but legally important. In the state of Washington, children aged 13 or older have the right to consent to mental health services. Inherent in the right to consent is the right to say, “No, I don’t want to do this.”

Thirteen-year-old’s often do not want to go to psychotherapy. This particular girl had complained on two previous occasions. However, due to parental scheduling the visits were MONTHS apart. It’s important to give kids a chance to get used to seeing me again. But yesterday, she was still coming in with the attitude, “What’s the point of this?”

Yesterday, I spelled it out. I noted that when she was younger, she was enthusiastic about seeing me. I noted that currently, this was not the case. I reassured her that this was not a criticism, just an observation, and that I cared about her no matter what. I also explained her rights, now that she is a teen.

After two sessions of tight-lipped stone walling, she started talking. I knew I had used the skills called for by the situation, but I was surprised, nonetheless. I had mentioned the importance of having goals. She replied, “I can’t make a goal.” I said, “What would you like to be different in your life?”

“Nothing that I can change.”

“What would you like different about your life, without censoring your wishes?”

At this point, tears welled in her eyes. In all of the years that I have known her, I have never seen her cry.

“I wish that I never had ADHD.”

“I know. It’s incredibly hard to have something in your life that you can’t change. I imagine that people have told you that your life is about having tons of choices. But that isn’t true. You have choices about some things. Other things are completely out of your control. I am really sad that you have ADHD. I wish I could take it away from you, but I can’t. I can, however, help you feel better about having it. It is not an elimination of the problem but I can offer you the chance to have some peace with this. I can help you feel less hopeless about your future.”

Thus began a short but productive discussion. Maybe a step toward peace. Maybe the next step will take place during the next meeting. Maybe not. Growth often occurs in fits and starts.

It is so hard to have shitty unfair things in our lives. People die. People get sick. People suffer. People we love. Some of those people may even be ourselves.

I am sorry.

I imagine that people have told you than you have control over all of the events that have led to suffering.

That is not fair.

But nonetheless, there are opportunities for choice, for helpfulness, and for peace.

 

It is very warm and dry here for Seattle. I’ve captured some lovely summer sights on my walks around the neighborhood. I thought I’d share a few with you. I hope you are enjoying nature and the outdoors!

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eduardo libby: photography blog

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