I have long loved summer, it’s long long days, the clear blue skies, vacations, and mountain views.  2012 was the summer of surgeries, I had three of them, each spaced two weeks apart. I remember watching the Olympic games from my hospital room on the day after my mastectomy. I spent a lot of that sunny Seattle summer scared and indoors. Since that time, summers have been savored the best that I can. I spend a lot of time outdoors and in nature. I take photos of the beauty around me.

This summer, I’ve been doing a lot of canning. I’ve been preserving the bounty of stone fruits in jams and salsa not to mention our wonderful berries and rhubarb. It reminds me of canning peaches and tomatoes with my mom, when I was a girl. There was so much in the garden, so much in the orchards. It was full and sweet and delicious. Canning is not the same as fresh but in the dark days of winter, it provides a bright taste of summer and the hopes of days of longer sunlight up ahead.

Women, traditionally, are the savers of these normal but parts of life. The save food, remember birthdays, keep photo albums of family vacations, and write milestones, the first steps and first words in baby books. Women preserve history of these day to day memories, the events that are not rare, but to be celebrated and appreciated. These are not events recorded in history books.
The summer of 2016 has brought a new event, one that will be preserved in history books. Yesterday, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was the first woman nominated for the presidency of the United States by a major political party. This is more than a big deal. It is something I did not expect to happen in my lifetime.

Like many major societal changes, the good news has been somewhat offset by negative, qualifying, or discounting remarks. I have seen so many women obviously moved by this historical event include a qualification or apology. “Well, I don’t agree with everything Hillary’s done or said,” or “Hey, I still like Bernie Sanders even if I like Hillary.” I have also seen women admonished for their enthusiasm on social media with cautions of, “Well you know that you shouldn’t just vote for her because she’s a woman. You need to vote for the best candidate.”

As if the women of America would be sent into hysteria and forget how to vote responsibly, something we have been doing as a group, since given the right to vote in the U.S. in 1920. And then there are the other objections, the blemishes, the “good but’s”, and just plain old unadulterated misogyny.

But for now, I am working to preserve, the best and sweetest bits of the summer of 2016, and I am savoring them indeed.

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I am struggling with our world, especially my own country. The Republic National Convention just finished yesterday. Last night, reality television star and real estate mogul, who spews obvious lies and naked hatefulness, accepted the nomination for President of the United States. Every day since his campaign was announced, it has been like waking up in a world with rules and structures that I can’t understand. And then there are the terrorist acts abroad as well as the acts inflicted on our own citizens due to institutionalized racism.

These are not the only problems in the world or in my personal world but they weigh very heavily on me. This morning, I woke up after a series of nightmares. I could feel my heart beat racing. It was tangible. I could not only feel it from within, but it was vibrating my fingers, held over my chest.

I did not want to get out of bed today. I felt unmotivated, scared, and sad. I am not depressed or suffering from an anxiety disorder but I have the sense of light fog and quivery-ness that are cues for me to engage in self-care. So I got up, got dressed, and walked outside.

It had rained all night. The air was heavy but cool. It was cloudy, but I could see lightness behind the clouds, the kind of lightness that suggests a sunny afternoon to come. I remembered to bring my camera. The light was not that great, but I took my photos, anyway. It is hard not to appreciate summer flowers, close up. The dahlias are in bloom. The sunflowers are at their peak.

I often let my mind wander and try to stay in connection with my senses when I walk. I find that instead of feeling, thinking, or sensing less, I feel, think, and sense more. I have a wide variety of experience on my walks and this is very grounding to me even though some of the thoughts and feelings I experience are troubled. Mindfulness is not about blocking out. I continue to learn that it is about being open and to experience life in a way that is real but does not produce suffering.

As I was walking along the sidewalk in my neighborhood, there was a tree branch within reach. It was one of our wonderful evergreen trees, the branch of a hemlock. They have downward pointing boughs that are soft and flexible. I reached my hand up and softly grabbed it. It was still wet from the rain. In touching it, the newness, life, and health were tangible. It filled me with calm.

With just a moment of full engagement, I felt reconnected with what is beautiful.

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When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, it was totally out of the blue. I had no symptoms and felt no lump. I was just having a routine exam. The results of the exam and the subsequent assessments were less than routine. Suddenly, I found my life spinning, pointing in countless other directions.

Unplanned and ambiguous change is hard on the human brain, so hard that sometimes it causes trauma. Sometimes the current situation is clear, “this is bad” but the future is a series of questions, “how bad will it get?”, “will this end?”, and “how will this end?”.

Actually, the future is not clear. Many things can happen. There are times when the perpetual questions of the next moment, the next week, the next, month, and the next year, are a huge burden, the burden of no immediate answers.

While I have been managing the swerves of active cancer treatment and while I still manage my recovery and potential for recurrence, I have been parenting, alongside my husband, our adolescent daughter. Zoey was just 13 when I was diagnosed, a few months before she entered high school. Her life was already a struggle. Zoey was very unhappy and her life was full of suffering.

All of the things that needed to be done, were being done, to support her health. She was working hard, as well. Nonetheless, the subsequent four years have been full of trials and some tribulations. There have been times during which all three of us have felt we had nothing left to give, nothing left to try, and no hope. Fortunately, this typically did not happen to all of us at once. But sadly, there were many times when I was digging up as much energy and hope as I could because I was the only one of the three of us who was capable of doing so. It was better than not having those reserves, but it was isolating and exhausting.

John and I have been working to protect Zoey for many years. In fact, this is the first time I’ve mentioned her name in at least two years, due to a malicious comment about her by someone who somehow found my blog. Zoey is a brilliant person with prodigious talents. She has a very big heart, a very strong will, and often does not think before acting. This combination can be painful for her as well as those around her. There are also things about her that put her at risk for discrimination beyond the fact that she is an outspoken young woman. She yearned for validation and often received the opposite.

This last school year was Zoey’s senior year. My husband and I made a concerted effort to focus on her happiness and almost totally backed off from her academics. We accepted that she may not graduate high school. In other realms, we held her feet to the fire. We held her accountable for following family rules, for example. This was a shift rather than an abdication of parental responsibility.

The last year has been the year of letting go. There have been failures, upsets, and unexpected events. But there has also been a palpable undercurrent of emotional growth and increased stability. This made is much easier to keep letting go.

Zoey was finishing high school through a program at our local college, which allows students who test into the program to simultaneously earn high school and college credit. Since each quarter-long class was equivalent to an entire year of a high school class, she only had to take three classes per quarter. This was much easier for her to manage from an organizational perspective though the courses were intense and fast. Another downside was that there was no information available about her academic progress until after the end of the quarter and grades were posted.

In June, relatively started asking if we were having a graduation party for Zoey. John and I had taken a “wait and see” approach. It still was not clear that she was graduating. About a week after finals, John and I took a look at her grades for the quarter. She had not only graduated but earned the best grades she had ever had in many years! Honestly, these were respectable marks for any college student, let-alone a 17-year-old.

Something had happened in a very short time. Our kid, who had just weeks before blurted out that she only tried to get 70% in her classes (a C-minus and by the way, the minimum needed to graduate high school), had suddenly changed direction. She didn’t even have to take the physics class. In fact, we didn’t understand why she was taking it. Zoey was taking it because she was thinking ahead to the following year, when she plans to finish her associates’ degree to make her more competitive for entry into a four-year college.

Meanwhile, without any prompting from us, she was out pounding the pavement looking for a job. And she found one at a new restaurant in our neighborhood. The owner is also very active in the LGBT/Q community, of which she is a part, and I am hoping this will be a more supportive workplace than she has experienced in the past.

I have mentioned that Zoey is quite a good jazz singer. Before June had even come to a close, we attended a performance of hers at a downtown jazz club, organized by her vocal teacher, who is a very well-known jazz singer in this region of the country. There were nine students who performed with a professional big band, each singing three songs. Zoey was first and her teacher gave her a very sweet introduction, calling her “a treasure”.

Zoey has long been an excellent singer and performer but she knocked it out of the park! She had grown a lot. Zoey had star quality. We were just thrilled for her.

I haven’t written in a while because life has been a bit of a blur with all of this change. But I will say that I have taken opportunities for NOW, to keep my head pointed in the present direction instead of trying to adjust to where I think my life will land.

I still don’t know what the future holds. I can’t read the tea leaves. I have no crystal ball. But what I do have is now, which at this moment is a thing of great beauty, purpose, and meaning.

Zoey opted not to attend her high school commencement ceremonies. She had moved on to taking college courses two years ago. She did agree to let me take photos of her in my Ph.D. robes, which I wore when I was five months pregnant with her.

Zoey opted not to attend her high school commencement ceremonies. She had moved on to taking college courses two years ago. She did agree to let me take photos of her in my Ph.D. robes, which I wore when I was five months pregnant with her.

Last night I attended my daughter’s choir concert. One of the songs they performed was 2014’s, Shut up and dance (with me). It’s a catchy song with multiple messages, both literal and figurative. I’ve been thinking about it since last night. It was part of my meditation during my walk today.

The message I have been meditating upon is, “Get out of your head and engage with me. Engage with my humanity.” Yeah, I know. That’s kind of a stretch. But hey, this is what mindfulness does for me when I examine my thoughts and thread them together with my experiences.  It has meaning and usefulness for me.

There has been a great deal of human engagement weighing heavily on my mind.  It is the engagement that results in stalemate, hatefulness, paralysis, and polarization. It is human engagement without the recognition of humanity. There is violence in my country that is specifically targeted toward underrepresented populations fueled by institutional racism, institutional sexism, xenophobia, and institutional homophobia. There is violence in my country due to suicide. There is violence in my country due to accidental shooting deaths by children who gain access to firearms.

It is also the presidential election season in the U.S.  People choose a candidate. Passions often run high. That is normal for a major election season. But this is not a normal election season. This is a season during which a reality t.v. star is a major presidential candidate and he is running on a platform so filled with hatred that even members of the party he is representing is having trouble coming together to support him. It is an incredibly stressful time for our country as well as the fact that the world is watching, helplessly, contemplating the possibility that an unqualified person who spews hate will be the head of one of the most powerful countries in the world.

I could tune all of this out. I could avoid reading any news. If I did, I would not be living a true life. I would be living in denial. I could also get myself very involved in all of this. Read the news constantly. Ruminate. Argue with people. The latter is what I have been doing and it is also not a true life, because the ball of anxiety, sadness, and anger I feel is making it harder to appreciate and engage in the positive aspects of my world. When I am out of balance either, too much or too little, I am prone to black and white thinking. That is not the world in which I actually live.

I try really hard to engage respectfully with people with whom I disagree about these subjects. It is difficult. I have only two or three friends on social media who engage in discussion and do so in a respectful fashion. I don’t get a lot disrespectful or judgmental comments. When people engage in that type of behavior, I either say something or ignore it, depending on what I judge to be the more effective response at the time. I do, however, find myself in discussions, which although civil, just don’t go anywhere. We just each repeat our position in slightly different words, even after it is clear that each of us has had the opportunity to consider the other viewpoint. When I am most mindful, I recognize this and say something along the lines of, “I’ve had an opportunity to consider your viewpoint. I still don’t agree. Peace.”

Today, I witnessed a rather remarkable exchange between a Facebook friend of mine and someone with whom she had grown up with but not seen for 45 years. One of the things I admire greatly about this friend is that she expresses her viewpoints in a respectful, compassionate, and well informed way. When she disagrees, she is kind but clear. She responded to what many of us would call an Islamiphobic statement with a gentle persistence. The person with whom she was interacting did not sound like he was going to change his position. However, by the end of 2-3 conversational turns, he wrote that she had given him things to think about and that he needed to obtain more information about the subject. They engaged in a way that identified the humanity in each other. It was one of the more heartening experiences I’ve had.

Last night, I was at a Pride Month concert. It was a performance of the LBTGQ/Allies youth choir in which my daughter sings. I used the restroom before the concert. There was a woman at the sinks who looked like she might be transgendered. I know that as a 50 year-old woman, this was likely not the first time I’d shared a bathroom with a transgender woman. However, it is the first time since an outspoken and passionate segment of my country decided that this was a major threat to restroom safety. I was struck by how little it struck me and how normal it felt. I liked her hair and I made a mindful decision to give her a compliment, which was met with appreciation. I wanted her to know that I engaged with her humanity and that I supported her right to be there. Engaging with someone from a standpoint of connection rather than difference can mean so much. Sometimes the mundane can be a peaceful and comforting experience.

Honestly, I need to unplug from political discussion for a bit. But that does not mean that I have to unplug for humanity. I can still engage and I can engage purposefully with people with whom my fearful or judgmental mind categorizes as “other”.  Maybe I can engage in a brief conversation with people who whom I have a knee-jerk reaction to judge even though I think it’s wrong, for example, people in a cranky mood, parents who bring small children to romantic restaurants,  parents who deck their kids out in military style garb, and men who wear t-shirts or hats with “Official Babe Inspector” written on them.  Maybe I can engage with folks with whom I know I have strong political and religious differences about other topics.

It is a platitude, but it is true that people put up walls. It is so true that we have a presidential candidate who is talking about it LITERALLY. The world can get so easily overwhelming. I find myself in fear and great worry myself. I understand why people want to shut it out. I understand why people want to arm themselves against danger. I also understand why people want to yell, hurt, and destroy. I understand why people want to give up. I understand these things because they are part of my own individual human experience.

Fear, anger, shame, selfishness, and sadness are shared parts of our human experience. But so are joy, curiosity, hope, compassion, and charity. Together, we are more than the sum of our parts.

 

 

I have been focusing on intention in my last few months of mindfulness practice. There are certain practices that I would like to do more of, for example, mindful eating. I have made goals to increase my use of my Weight Watchers tracking since this is a good way for me to make mindful decisions about what I eat throughout the day and checking in with my body more regularly about when I am hungry. (I have a habit of undereating during the day and then snacking a lot after dinner as if the floodgates have been opened.)

Setting an intention has a different emphasis than does goal setting. In the latter, the emphasis is on outcome rather than experience. With intention, the emphasis is on the process, the experience. Honestly, I am often not able to keep this two constructs separate. But that’s where I am right now. I have set the intention to be more mindful of the difference in the course of my daily life.

May and June are typically very busy months for my work. I scheduled even more heavily than usual this year, for financial reasons. I am making some changes in my business model in the upcoming months, which I expect to have a short-term negative impact on my income. Added to that stress is my worry about the U.S. Presidential race. And oh yeah, I have a husband and daughter, who is working to graduate from high school in the next couple of weeks.

When I am feeling a lot of stress, I find myself making lots of goals and not following them. Recently, I have been using the word, “intention” in my mind. I have been walking regularly for almost four years now. There are some periods of ebb and flow in the distance and frequency of my walks. In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself less motivated and having a harder time getting myself to do long distances. It seems that there are pressing issues that I “should” be addressing at work or at home.

Today I was out on my walk. I thought to myself, “I intend to walk four miles.” Then I thought, “Well, maybe just 3 miles. I have a report to write.” I walked for awhile and thought to myself, “If I follow my intent today, I will have an easier time keeping promises to myself.” I walked the four miles and there was no more internal struggle.

As a breast cancer survivor and a person who wants health and peace in my life, following my intentions and commitments to self-care is really important.

 

I am finishing up my third quarter of pottery class. Due to scheduling issues, John and I have stayed in the beginner’s class each time. The first quarter was a blur. As much as I tried to watch her demonstrations, I left steps out without even realizing it. I thought very hard about what to do next. I had to concentrate very hard to get the clay centered on the wheel, so I was not trying to fight with a lop-sided form. Sometimes I was lucky and made something that I liked. Honestly, though, it was like the clay decided what shape it wanted to be.

Since we’ve stayed in the beginners’ class, I’ve had an opportunity to watch Miki, our instructor’s, demonstrations of basic technique. Each time, I watch what she is doing with less confusion, and each time, I notice familiar and unfamiliar steps. The basic forms in thrown pottery are the cylinder and the bowl. The forms are not just different on the outside but they are different on the inside, as well. Cylinders are flat on the bottom with straight sides. Bowls are well, bowl-shaped. There is a gentle slope to the center on the inside that is to echo the curve on the outside. I learned how to make the outside contour of a bowl before the inside. I am still working on the inside contour.

I have made a lot of bowls. Many of them collapsed. Others were of uneven thickness throughout. Other pieces crack. It took me awhile to notice this and then once I noticed it, I am still learning how to watch my instructor’s technique and compare it to my own. This process has required a lot of practice and close observation with every piece. I observe pressure, clay viscosity, my hand position, and the changing form of the clay.

All of this mindful observation has helped me progress in my skill. At the best times, I feel at home at the wheel. At other times, I feel like I am revisiting a strange land, a land in which spinning clay forms come unstuck from the wheel while they are spinning in my hand!

Mindful observation has such a grounding effect for me. Mindfulness is not solely thinking about the present. It is sometimes thinking about the past within the lens of the present or about the future, with a firm footing in the here and now. I can only live in the present, but I can recognize the past as part of my life and the future as the potential life ahead.

The month of May was a busy one and I strayed into fears about the future. I am working to increase my regular mindfulness and self-care practices back to the level they have been in the past when I felt more balanced. Today it occurred, as it has no doubt occurred to countless others, that I cannot plan a future without knowing where I am right now. It would be like planning a trip with no starting point.

Before you leave home, you need to figure out where you live.

Four years ago today, I learned of my breast cancer diagnosis.

Breast cancer will always be part of my life.

It has never been my whole life.

I hope to keep it this way.

 

 

Taken at my daughter’s 8th grade graduation, about two weeks after my graduation. Even then, it wasn’t just about cancer.

In the pottery studio, we use “the four bucket system” to clean off glaze from brushes, tongs, and containers. First, we dip our item into bucket #1, then #2, then #3, and then #4 until the item is clean. The purpose of this system is to be more environmentally friendly. I’m not quite sure why it works better but I do know that it is certainly easier on the plumbing. It is a way, in my mind, to be extra clean and conscientious.

One day, I was cleaning a ladle I’d used to fill a small plastic bucket with glaze. I accidentally dropped it into the bucket. Without thinking, I reached down into the bucket, more deeply than necessary. It was like making contact with the dirtiest, muckiest primordial ooze.

Blech! How do I get rid of this? How did I get so dirty when I was trying to be so clean?

This weekend, my people at home are a bit out of sorts. It’s just a bit but I still find myself trying very hard to tread carefully. Nonetheless, I keep finding my hand in the ooze.

When people say, “Life is messy”, they aren’t kidding.

Like all potters, my hands leave marks when I make forms on the pottery wheel. These concentric circles are called, “throwing lines”. Some throwing lines are faint and others much more pronounced, determined by the amount of pressure that I apply, the speed at which I move my hands, and the firmness of the clay. If I apply too much pressure and move my hands too quickly, the throwing lines are so deep and spread out that the form adopts a corkscrew shape. In these cases, it is best to just wire off the clay, dry off the wheel head, and start over with a new lump of clay.

It is possible in the making and finishing of the piece to use tools to remove or minimize the throwing lines. This results in very smooth forms. Personally, I enjoy the look of throwing lines, the ones that show that I used my own hands on the piece but are subtle concentric circles. The circles remind me of the meditative state in which I often find myself looking down at the spinning forms between my hands, working to bring shape to it, bit by bit, with more patience than I typically have, the last being a requirement of a beginning potter. Even at art galleries, I can often see evidence on a hand thrown piece of the artist’s hands. It is part of the art. It leaves the imprint of the process and a reminder that beautiful things do not come into being without work or struggle.

Teva Harrison, an American who lives in Canada, published a memoir of her life so far, as a young woman with stage 4 breast cancer. Teva is an artist and writer. She is a graduate of the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, from which famed cartoonists and writers,  Matt Groening and Linda Barry are also graduates. The book, In-Between Days is a marriage of drawings and short expository writings organized thematically into chapters, Diagnosis, Treatment, Side Effects, Marriage, Family, Society, Hopes, Fears, and Dreams.

I had read a number of Teva’s comics are they were published, one by one, in the online publication, The Walrus. They were quite powerful then but I find that reading the book is a more powerful and complete experience. Teva is at times funny at other times raw with great emotional honesty, and at other times, hopeful. Her comics convey a great deal in a small space. Teva’s panel depicting she and her husband learning the news that they will not be able to have children is a very quiet drawing, one that evokes the isolation and grief of infertility.

Teva’s book is making waves in Canada. She is the subject of news stories and interviews. As an acquaintance of hers in the online breast cancer community, I could not be more thrilled for her. There is ongoing controversy in the breast cancer community about whether it is better to be positive or negative about one’s breast cancer experience. Although Teva’s cancer is a horrible reality with which she must deal, the work of her own hands show clearly on the work that is her own life. In a television interview, last month, Teva shared her dreams for her legacy. “I hope that my legacy will be one of enduring kindness.”

Teva, thank you for sharing your beautiful life with us.

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The “new normal” is a term used to describe getting back into a “normal” life after going through cancer treatment. I know a fair number of breast cancer survivors who hate that term. (“Survivor” is also another term with its own controversy, but I digress…) Cancer changes everything. How can anything be normal again?

I understand the complaint but I don’t share it. “Normal” means something different to me, anyway. It just means the mathematical average. (Remember, I am a nerd.) Yes, I grew up in a culture where “normal” means “good” but I was trained out of that in my education and in my clinical work when a kid says, “I just want to be normal” he/she is often really talking about feeling disconnected from others. Teens also want to be unique, special, which would be not being normal. Teens want a sense of an individual identity but they don’t want to be alone.

We are not unlike teens in this regard. They are just navigating a stressful period of growing up so there is drama surrounding the very basic human needs to have a balance between separation and connection.

It is nearly four years since my breast cancer diagnosis. I do feel that I’ve achieved a “new normal”. The new normal is knowing that life can change in a heartbeat, knock me into the air, and down to the ground. I can have up’s and downs and boring aspects of my life. I know that I can grow through grieving. I know that I can cultivate patience. I know that throughout my days so far, I can usually remain connected to my sense of self. I know that the person who is flying in the air is the same person as the one who usually has her feet firmly beneath her.

One of the most powerful lessons of my “new normal” is to take opportunities for joy and happiness when I can.

That’s today’s “new normal”. Tomorrow may be different.

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