Archives for posts with tag: grief

I was walking in my neighborhood last week and I passed two men. One of them had a newborn strapped to his chest in one of those little baby carriers. His baby looked blissfully asleep and his father looked like he was enjoying his time with his son.

This is not an uncommon sight where I live. It was a rather uncommon sight when I was a girl. When I was young, a man changing his own child’s diaper was considered a rarity. Men played with their babies. They were not as involved with the day-to-day caretaking as they are now. Caretaking was considered “woman’s work” and therefore “beneath” a man. It still is, to a certain extent,  but there really has been a significant overall increase in men’s level of involvement in their children’s lives not to mention an increased appreciation for “women’s work”. I have been providing mental health services to families for since 1991. When I started out this meant working with mothers and their children. Father participation was not common. It is far more common now and it is rare that I never meet with a child’s father.

When I saw the man with his infant, I smiled in recognition of what our culture has gained from the women’s movement. There is still sexism. “Feminist” is still a “bad word”. But it is difficult to deny if I REALLY think about it that men’s lives have been improved by feminism. To know your children better and to be a nurturing force in a vulnerable being’s life are gifts. With the loosening of gender roles, I also think it is easier for gay men to be parents together.

Civil rights and social movements are often met with resistance, the resistance that to give up a privilege is an absolute loss. That there is nothing to be gained through change. There is a lack of acceptance.

Loss, perceived or actual, is often a sticking point. It is a place where we hesitate, trip, or in some cases, fall into a deep pit, for which climbing out is virtually impossible.

Honestly, sometimes we want to stay in the pit even if climbing out is a possibility. We struggle. We suffer. We want to be heard, seen, and felt. At other times, we deny that we are in a pit. “What, this isn’t a pit? Everything is fine.” This is another kind of nonacceptance, and it too causes suffering. Denying and suppressing loss and the grief that comes with it, is a short term solution with painful consequences. In the world of cancer and other griefs, I see this acutely.

In the world of cancer and other griefs, I see this acutely. It can be so difficult to find balance. It is so difficult to find the time and space we need to grieve our own losses and come to some kind of peaceful place with them. On top of that, there is no final destination. Grief is an iterative process, one that we must come back to over and over. This is why we can get on with life and yet not ever “be over” a significant loss in our lives.

This weekend, I have been feeling anxious. I had awful nightmares last night. I feel justifiably underappreciated by my family. However, the way my impatience has played out in my behavior is a way that increases my suffering as well as that of my family.

I came back to my well-spring. I did a sitting meditation and I am sitting her with my own thoughts and feelings, writing this post. I can feel myself letting go of hurt and anxiety. I am not quite solidly balanced, but I am getting there. I am nurturing myself and it is radiating within. When I leave this office and rejoin my family, I am hoping to radiate compassion toward them, as well.

I’ve been trying to do a lovingkindness meditation each day of March. I have done one most days. I did one of them while I was taking one of my neighborhood walks. It is true that the meditation is designed as a sitting meditation but I was curious and decided to play the 30 minute-long meditation during a walk. It was actually quite a nice experience. The birds seemed to be singing more loudly and sweetly. The air had the scent of flowers.

As is typical of all mindfulness meditations, I was instructed to examine my current experience. It was suggested that I might be feeling physical or emotional pain. The instruction was to pay attention to the uncomfortable aspects of my life but also, “to see if there is something else.”

“Something else.” There is always something else. The suggestion in the meditation struck me as one of the most powerful aspects of mindfulness meditation, which is the consideration of the “something else” in addition to what is weighing heavily on the mind, body, or emotions.

There are those of us with a cancer experience who wince at words such as, “Cancer is a gift.” That statement omits the “something else”. The something else is life changing and painful in a way that merely writing the words, “life changing and painful” seem to discount the way that cancer changes everything.

For me, however, there is  another side. There is the side of not everything about my life as a cancer patient is awful. Not everything I made of my cancer experience was awful. Although I think about my breast cancer every day, it does not encompass my life.

My life is full of the “something else” in addition to the pain, discomfort, and loss in my life. My life is full of the “something else” in addition to the joy and emotional health I experience.

Life is full. I have long known this. It does seem that a gift of mindfulness is the opportunity to experience more of the “something else” and to get more aware of and engaged in the expansiveness of life, while not getting lost in it.

Today, the “something else” was experienced with by me with my camera. The small gems of beauty mean so much.

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Yesterday was a gloriously sunny spring day. Actually, it was like a summer day. It was 77 degrees (25 degrees C). I was taking my daily walk in a different neighborhood than usual. A light breeze carried the scent of lilac, bearded iris, and wisteria. At times, I could see the mountains and the sea. At one point, I passed a man working in his yard. I greeted him, “Beautiful day.” He looked at me, smiled broadly, raised his palms toward the Heavens and exclaimed, “This. Is. Seattle.” I replied, “Yes, the city at its very best.”

It is gray today and considerably cooler. I am wearing long sleeves and walked from my car wearing my waterproof and hooded trench coat.

This. Is. Seattle.

The statement is as true today as it was yesterday. And yes, I am using the weather as a metaphor.

And yes, you are no doubt familiar with this metaphor.

My daughter is a very bright and sensitive teen. She is as cynical as Hell with liberal doses of wit. Just yesterday, she responded to friend of mine’s sincere compliment, “Aren’t teenagers GREAT!?!, ” with “No. All we do is complain about you guys ruining the economy and being close-minded.”

To her, the negative aspects of life are more real, at least from an intellectual standpoint. I was the same way at her age; it is part of growing up, realizing that the world is complex and largely uncontrollable. That part of reality sucks.

But it is part, not the whole. I come back to this metaphor time and time again as well as to just the thought that almost no situation is all good or all bad. A lot of my blog posts are about this very topic, staying positive, but realistic. Staying in balance.

I almost didn’t write this post because I thought that the theme was too much of a cliche. Then I realized that there are things that never get old like saying, “I love you” or giving someone appreciation, or even TALKING ABOUT THE WEATHER. Those are actions that tie us to our loved ones and to our communities as a whole.

I repeat these thoughts, the importance of seeing both the positive and negative, the good and the bad, the painful and the joyful, because they tie me to my own mental health. My life is not going to be about pink ribbons. But it’s also not going to be a black out of light. If there’s a flower to to look at, I am going to do my best to see it. If there a need for compassion, I will do my best to give it. If there’s a loss, I will do my best to grieve it.

This.

Is.

Life.

Geum.

Geum.

Nemophila.

Nemophila.

The roses will be at their peak in about a month.

The roses will be at their peak in about a month.

The bees have been back for awhile and the lavender has just begun to blossom.

The bees have been back for awhile and the lavender has just begun to blossom.

My husband and I moved around a lot during the first several years of our marriage. We were married in 1990 and it was not until 2001 that we bought our first home in Seattle, which is the home in which we still live. This is one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. and we don’t live an ostentatious life style. Consequently, our house is not fancy or stylish. But we love our 1950’s house and have worked to inject it with our own personal style, which is colorful and eclectic.

When we moved into the house, there were flower beds in the back. I spent the first year in the house weeding and seeing what kind of plants there were. There was a grassy front yard, bordered by two huge juniper shrubs. Juniper shrubs were commonly part of the landscaping for homes built in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I imagine that they were cute back then. They get rather prickly and enormous over time. Also, they are really ugly, so ugly that the house had what my brother, a realtor, called, “No curb appeal.”  After we’d been in the house for about three years, John removed the shrubs and built a rock wall. The shrubs were weighed at the city dump for the composting program; a half ton of shrub. 1000 pounds of juniper, people!

I planted a rock garden. A year or two later, John removed the front lawn. I covered it in layers of newspaper and cardboard followed by four inches of beautiful black compost that I had delivered to my house, which I carried around the yard by the wheelbarrow full. I didn’t plant anything in the yard for a year to make sure that all of the grass and weed seeds under the paper barrier would not get exposed to light. The following years, I started a long project of putting in flowers, summer vegetables, shrubs, garden art, soaker hoses hooked to an automatic watering timer, and slate walkways.

After the front yard was “done”, I started work on the planting strip, the piece of grass between the sidewalk and the street. This land is owned by the city but the home owner is responsible for upkeep. The city encourages people to make the strip into a garden. We had already planted two trees there, which were given to us by the city as part of their Street Trees program. I got out my garden edger and started the long process of removing sod from the strip. I did it in pieces, removing a small square and filling it with compost and new soil. I planted beans there the first summer. After a year, it was all removed and planted. Right now, it is full of blooming tulips, which I have planted in wet fall weather, my garden gloves filling with cold muddy water.

Until my cancer diagnosis, I spent a great deal of time in my yard, weeding, pruning, and planting. Then I stopped working in my yard, for the most part. I had repeated surgeries that made it hard for my to use my arms and abdomen. I started exercising regularly, which meant less time for gardening and also another way to fulfill my need to spend time outdoors. I had trouble with fatigue. I had friends that came to help. Later, I decided to get rid of the little strip of grass on the left side of the house to open up more planting area. I got about half done with that project and lost steam. It is still unfinished, a year and a half later.

But after years of working out there several times a week during the summer and frequently during the rest of the year, I found out what happens when a yard doesn’t get such regular attention. It’s not pretty. It gets weedy and full of brown stuff. Some plants get out of control and propagate wildly. The rose bushes did not get pruned. One of them got as large as a Volkswagen. It was really overwhelming. I often found myself thinking, “My yard used to be so beautiful. It was so much easier to maintain. Now it is a mess.”

Last spring, I actually hired a landscape service to weed, prune, and mulch the front yard, which is where most of the flowers are. I couldn’t afford for them to work on my back yard, too. I figured that after they did the heavy work, I would be inspired to get back into the yard because it would not be so overwhelming. The landscapers did a great job and I didn’t end up doing anything out there.

This year, I found my yard overgrown once again and myself, once again, thinking, “My yard used to be so pretty. People used to take photos of the flowers in my yard. Sometimes cars would slow down to look at my yard.” I called the landscapers out again. It was not quite as big of a job this year and it made an enormous difference. And this year, unlike last year, I did gather some momentum. I weeded my raised vegetable containers, my husband turned over the soil, and I added compost, fertilizer, and new soil. I transplanted flowers to other containers because they were getting in the way of the vegetables. I replaced broken soaker hoses for the front yard as well as for the vegetable containers. I removed three years of old bean stalks and tomato plants from my two story metal growing cages.

Today, I went back to the yard. I planted lettuce and bok choi seeds in my vegetable containers. They are fast growing and should be finished by the time for planting summer vegetables, beans and tomatoes. I cleared the hair allium that had started out as about eight bulbs and spread into several hundred plants. Waaaaay too much allium. Clearing that out took a couple of hours, working around tree roots and plants I wanted to save. The number of little allium bulbs under the soil was unbelievable. (Hair allium is cool looking and it used to be a moderately expensive plant. My guess is that they are now being giving away at Home Depot check stands. They are worse than bluebells for “naturalizing”, a.k.a. taking over like a hostile alien race from another planet.) After I dug that out, I had to use a couple of bags of soil to replace what I’d removed. When I finished, my yard looked so nice, nicer than it has looked in years.

I came across a random photo of my front yard from my pre-cancer days. It shocked me. My yard looked terrible! Now the fact that I’d taken a photo tells me that it was probably a “before” photo taken for spring clean up. The yard always looks bad for part of the year. My surprise at the photo got me wondering how much I had exaggerated the state of my garden in comparison to the years prior to cancer. “My yard was so beautiful before cancer.”
In truth, it was better maintained in the past and that does make an aesthetic difference. But I think nostalgia and loss has nudged my memory to increase the contrast, closer to, “Before cancer everything was wonderful.”

Truly, there are a lot of losses than come with cancer, and they are losses to grieve and honor. But sometimes I think I may be too quick to interpret “before and after” in a negative way, when I am feeling discouraged, worried, or overwhelmed. I think this is natural for people to do, to think about significant aspects of life from the past with fewer shades of gray. I learned last year with my 30th high school reunion that perhaps my recollection of high school being terrible in certain respects, was not accurate. I suspect that friends who look back at high school with very strong positive feelings and memories, may be forgetting some of the bad aspects. And then of course, there is the whole lamentation of culture and young people, “Kids today…” “Society is going to Hell in a hand basket.” It can be easy to idealize the distant past. It is not clouded with immediacy of the present or the unknown of the future.

I don’t really know how much better or worse my yard is. After all, living things grow and die, regardless of whether we work the soil or not. Things change all around us.

What I do know for sure is that today I dug in the dirt and I had a marvelous time.

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My garden

My roses in 2012. They will start blooming again soon.

My roses in 2012. They will start blooming again soon.

My daughter used to run on a track team every spring. She is naturally fast and coordinated. However, she is also quite independent and back then, difficult to coach. She had her own ideas about technique as well as what distance was best for her. Oh yes, she was also highly distractible. Whenever she ran, you didn’t know what would happen because the range of her performance was wide. One of of the meets had an 8th grade co-ed relay, with each student running 400 meters. Her team was small. They didn’t have two 8th grade boys and two 8th grade girls. So the coach put younger kids on the relay team, three younger girls and one 8th grade boy.

My daughter was one of the younger girls. They had not practiced prior to the meet. As I recall, she was second or third in the relay. The hand off to her was seamless; the hand off to the runner after her was seamless. She was ready to start when it was time to go and she absolutely flew down the track, passing all of the other teams by a rather large margin. The rest of the team ran well and held on to the lead she’d created. They tied the record time for the Archdiocese. The whole thing was really quite marvelous to watch.

In a relay race, speed obviously counts. But the most critical parts of the race are the hand offs. One has to hold on to the baton for exactly the right amount of time, not too long or too short. And the other part of it is taking the baton at just the right moment.

Much is written about painful feelings, especially those associated with grief. How long do we keep them. When do we let them go? When do we take them on. The relay race keeps coming into my mind. We can’t stay out of the race, altogether. We can’t deny or suppress painful feelings. To do so is a recipe for unhappiness and often leaves us alone. It is too hard to connect with others when one is coping by disconnecting with oneself.

Then there is the other problem, hanging on to the painful feelings too long. This is also a recipe for unhappiness and suffering, often alone. It is hard to connect with others if holding on to pain leaves no room in our hands to hold onto positives in our lives.

This all strikes me as rather complex. Sometimes I need to hang on longer than others want me to. Sometimes, I need to move on, at least temporarily to be functional in my life, to be good at my job, to be a good mother, to be a good friend, and to be a good wife. Sometimes I move on just to give myself a break.

It can all seem like one big game of trial and error. I know that practice helps and life provides frequent opportunities for holding on or letting go of painful emotions. I’m not keen on trial and error, though. I am a pattern maker, an observer.

I have taken on more work lately. My concentration and stamina are improved. I am happy to be able to participate more fully in my professional life, especially since my business operating costs have increased due to my new office’s significantly higher monthly rent. But this change has also made it harder for me to go walking everyday. I am still walking regularly, about five times per week.

Over the past few weeks, I have noticed a pattern. Overall, I am much more patient and less irritable with my family. But sometimes I get my feelings hurt, feel anxious, and get a little heated. My reaction is not huge but it is out of scale with the situation. This almost always happens on a day I have not gone for a walk.

Hold on.

Let go.

Put on the walking shoes.

One of the requirements for my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology was completing a one year long internship at one of many sites around the country. The application process is a very stressful rite of passage for students. I often say, “You can have time or money but not both.” Well, in grad school, most of us had neither. But we managed to fill out internship applications and travel for interviews to the sites that were most promising. I remember traveling from North Carolina to Oklahoma City, Seattle, Chicago, and Gainesville, Florida.

Internship offers were made by phone back then on “Match Day”, which started at 10:00 am Eastern Standard Time and I believe was on a day in March in 1996. Prospective interns would wait by the home phone (no cell phones back then), hoping that it would ring right at 10:00 am and that we would hear the sound of the voice of the director of the desired internship. We were allowed to say, “yes” or “no” on the spot. There was no, “I’ll think about it after I’ve considered all of my offers.”

Prior to Match Day, we had the option to send an internship site a “first choice” letter. The communication was, “If you call and offer me an internship, I will accept it.” There were a number of rules around this. Sites weren’t allowed to ask us if we were going to “first choice” them and if we “first-choiced” a site and didn’t take it, it was considered a very uncool thing to do. We were also not allowed to “first choice” more than one site.

After my visits to sites, I made a rankings list, weighing professional and personal variables. My first choice for professional reasons was the University of Florida. However, getting back to Seattle was a high priority so the University of Washington made it to the top of my list. Both sites were prestigious and offered excellent training. I sent a “first choice” letter to the University of Washington. A few days later, I received a call from the internship director there. She told me that I was a “very strong candidate” but that it was not in my best interest to give U.W. my first choice letter. She recommended that I withdraw it, which I did. This was a painful phone conversation, but even at the time I knew that it was very kind of her to let me know I was not one of their top candidates. I sent off a new “first choice” letter to the University of Florida.

Meanwhile, John and I were nervous wrecks. John was researching job markets for all of the potential cities in which we might live. Fortunately, since Gainesville was a drivable distance from where we lived, we had gone together and he’d gotten an opportunity to check out the area, which he liked a lot. The job market there was terrible for him, though.

There was nothing for us to do at that point but wait for 10:00 am on Match Day and hope that the phone would ring. I was well trained, having completed some ridiculous number of supervised clinical hours during my years at UNC. (If memory serves, I’d logged 2700 hours when the requirement was 500.) Oh, the other stressful thing was that sometimes, no one called a student. There was usually one student each year from our program who despite their excellent application and the strength of the reputation of our program, did not get an offer. Those students had the chance to go through the “clearinghouse” process and be placed in one of the leftover spots. (These days, incidentally, there are no “leftover” spots. There are more applicants than there are spots at accredited internship sites.)

Match Day came. All of the worry about where we would live, what I would do, and would I be able to work anywhere would hopefully be reduced. 10:00 am came and went. I willed the phone to ring. At 10:02, the phone range and I answered it. It was the University of Florida and they made me an offer, which I accepted. It was really quick so quick that I said, “You just made me an offer and I accepted it, right?” The director chuckled and said, “yes.” We said our goodbyes. The first one I called was my husband. He was happy. The second call was to my parents. My mom was happy. My dad was happy though said, “Florida? You are moving even FARTHER away from home.”

Exactly two years ago, I found myself waiting by the phone again. The call that I would receive would say a lot about my future. I was waiting on a call from the Swedish Cancer Institute with the results of my core biopsy, which had been performed two days before. I knew that a call would arrive at any time. As fate would have it, I was called at 10:00 am, just like Match Day. The diagnostic radiologist told me that I had an invasive ductal carcinoma tumor of approximate size of 1 cm. She said, “This is the most common breast cancer. A surgeon will call you within the hour. I’m sorry. We will take good care of you.”

The first person I called was my husband. He told me that he was taking the bus from work to be at home with me. Then I called my parents. My mom answered and I told her, “Mom, I have cancer. Mom, I am scared.” She was comforting and I was able to stop crying so that I could get information and make decisions. (Not everyone copes this way. I like to work fast and get things in place.) I called my friend, Nancy, a 12 year breast cancer survivor and psychologist who works with breast cancer patients. I got her voicemail so I left her a  message. I had not even previously told her that I’d had a biopsy. Then I left a voice mail for my friend, Jennie, who had known about the biopsy. As soon as I finished my message to Jennie, Nancy called.

Nancy was reassuring and also gave me a list of surgeons who had excellent technical skills but also good people skills. Dr. Beatty was on the list. His office called while I was talking to Nancy. I got off of the phone with Nancy and picked up the call from Rhea, who was the scheduler at his office back then. I made an appointment for the next day. I was not required to accept the first surgeon who called. I could have met with another surgeon after I met with Dr. Beatty. But I immediately adored him and didn’t feel like I needed to see anyone else. Nancy, who had accompanied us to the appointment, and John agreed.

My family has been through a great deal in the last several years and not all of it was related to my cancer. If you’d asked me even as recently as five years ago, how I would cope with all of the life events that were in store for me, I would have guessed that I would go into an anxiety spin, followed by depression, and some kind of severe mental breakdown. I certainly would not have guessed that along with the anxiety, anger, and pain, I would also find more joy and peace than ever before in my life.

I feel a mixture of feelings and thoughts today. And maybe that’s part of what these “anniversaries” are about. Experiencing a year or several years’ ups and downs in the span of a few days.

I will never say, “Cancer, you have met your match.” I know that cancer can kill. But I can say that right now, I am a match for its aftermath.

Photo from National Geographic magazine.

May 18, 1980. Eruption of Mt St. Helens. Photo from National Geographic magazine.

As you may already know, Mt. St. Helen’s erupted on this day, 34 years ago. This is a mountain in the Cascade range, one of the two mountain ranges in my state of Washington. I was in the 8th grade when it happened and although the mountain is nearly 200 miles from the city in which I grew up, I could see the ash plume from the home of the neighbor at which I was babysitting.

It was the first time I remember there being a natural disaster near where I lived. Unlike earthquakes, this seismic event could be predicted. The area was evacuated. Nonetheless, there were casualties, people who refused to leave the area. Harry Truman, an elderly man who lived on Spirit Lake, was interviewed prior to the eruption. He stated under no uncertain terms, would he leave the area. He stayed and he died.

What was most upsetting to me was the fact that two children, Day Andrew Karr (aged 11) and Michael Murray Karr (aged 9), were also killed. They actually lived in my town and their father TOOK THEM to see the mountain erupt. A photo of Day Karr’s lifeless and naked body, sitting in the back of a pick up truck was on the cover of a national magazine. I found the photo and planned to put it in this post but honestly, it is still too upsetting to me. The child had not been identified at the time the photo was published. As I recall, Day’s grandmother recognized him when she saw the cover of the NATIONAL MAGAZINE! What a horrible way to identify a body. My mother was asked to sing for the father and the boys’ funeral, which she did.

As I have mentioned, I have been dealing with anger about my cancer in the last few months. And as I have mentioned, anxiety typically underlies my experiences of anger. I feel it bubbling and sometimes it smokes and puffs a little. I have been less patient with my family.

I know that I am not going to blow like Mt. St. Helens. But I can feel something coming and I’m not sure how to prevent it. I can’t evacuate from myself. I keep walking in the woods, meditating, and so forth. I am trying to take care of myself. But this feels like a grief episode and likely increasing in part because next Saturday marks 2 years since my breast cancer diagnosis.

The other waves of grief have been ones I had to ride until I got to the other side. I suspect this will be the same. I can comfort myself with the view of a snow capped Mt. St. Helens that I saw from the airplane on my way back to Seattle from New Orleans. It was part of a beautiful range of mountains.

 

As I mentioned last week, I am dealing with anger. I am pretty sure that it is about my stupid cancer. Getting sick for my New Orleans trip was really disappointing. I had seen it as an opportunity for a romantic “second honeymoon”. Adding to the frustration, the trip almost didn’t happen and was also quite expensive.

We still had fun but I’ve got to tell you, sitting on the plane on the way over was pretty uncomfortable. I was coughing a lot, I mean A LOT. I believe that I was the least popular person on the flight. The man sitting next to me had his body turned as far away from me as he could. A kind woman behind me handed me a cough drop. I already had one in my mouth not to mention the fact that I was fully loaded up with cough and cold medicine. And then I started having abdominal muscle spasms, which made me cough even more. That was a new one for me. I wonder if it has something to do with the abdominal muscle that was re-purposed for my TRAM reconstruction. I think that by the end of the flight, the man next to me was wishing that he’d sat next to a screaming toddler instead of next to me while I spewed my plague all over the coach section of the plane.

We arrived to New Orleans at about 3pm on Saturday. I took a short walk to the French Quarter with John. We walked down Bourbon Street until I finally said, “Yuck, I’ve gotten enough of an anthropological experience.”We walked over one block and had a delightful change of scenery to art galleries and such instead of Hustler clubs with horrible names like, “Barely Legal” with young and not so young scantily clad women standing in the doorways.

Sunday was our only full day without any band performances to attend. In the morning, I felt like I’d been run over so after John brought me some breakfast, I went back to sleep and didn’t get up until 4pm. I know I felt a lot better, showered, and got dressed for dinner. I have no recollection of where we went or what we ate though I know we walked there from the hotel, at my insistence and John’s objection. (I was still going to get in my 3 miles of walking in each day.)

On Monday, we went to a band performance, which went well. Then we took the street car to the Garden District to soak up the ambiance and to tour one of the cemeteries. We did a lot of walking that day. There were definitely some positives but I must admit that I was in a foul mood and complained a lot. Then John complained about my complaining and I said lamely, “But I’m sick! On our vacation. Waaaaaaaaaah!” (Okay, I didn’t really say, “waaaaaaaah!”) His suggestion was, “So you’re sick. Can’t you just make the best of it?” “But I am!!!!!!! I am out of bed!!!!! Also, your wife is sick and cranky. YOU make the best of that.”

So at this point of reading this post, you may feel sorry for my husband. And if you do not, you probably should because although I snapped out of my disappointed child routine for the couple of days following, once we’d gotten to the day after the fashion show, I was exhausted and mad again.

I was annoyed about every little thing. I have not been in a nasty mood like this in quite some time. And I don’t remember the last time it lasted an extended period of time like this. And John got the brunt of my perpetual dissatisfaction. I actually felt a lot better after I wrote my post complaining about how John often doesn’t answer me when I talk to him. Writing has a way of doing that for me. But by last night I was exhausted and fuming again. “Why is this house such a mess? Why do I have to live like this? This isn’t the way I want to live!”

Truth be told, although my husband is not the best at housework, he is a really hard worker. He is really bogged down with work and helping our daughter keep on top of her schoolwork. She missed nearly an entire week of school for that band trip and she takes a very difficult schedule. John spent many hours with her over the weekend sorting through what she missed, what she has to turn in, and what assignments needed to be done over the weekend. She is not easy to help, either, and is prone to getting frustrated and losing her reasoning skills. “What do you mean I have to answer in paragraphs? What does that mean? This is so stupid!”

He was so patient with her all weekend and here she and I were providing grumpiness in stereo. By the end of the night, I was feeling pretty remorseful. Today, my first thought was, “Put a cork in it, Elizabeth.” I know that my anger is very understandable and that I need to process it. Managing anger is tricky, though. There are ways of dealing with it that make it worse, for example, constantly complaining to one’s husband.

Maybe writing this post will help. Maybe I need to keep reminding myself that my anger, just like sadness and fear, do not last forever.

Even though all feelings are right. Anger FEELS wrong and I find myself looking ways in which I feel that I have been wronged in order to justify its expression. And then once I realize this is what I am doing, I feel wrong again.

 

I know that a lot of you have experienced great hardship this winter. Some of you have lost loved ones, some of you are sick or have been sick. And then there are the terrifying weather events that are getting increasingly common, most recently the impact of the polar vortex on a substantial portion of North America.

I made all of you a little film of a portion of my walk today along with some of the thoughts I have when I am in the woods. I am hoping this is an encouraging experience and if not, you get to see some very pretty trees and hear some crows having quite a conversation in the woods.

It’s funny to me because although I am surrounded by earth forms and plants so much larger than me when I am in the woods, It’s okay to be small. We don’t need to be big. We can just be.

Yesterday, I was reading through my posts for 2013 as a review. I’d had a good and productive day. I was happy all day. And then I came to my post from August when I was hit with grief over the anniversaries of my mastectomy as well as the death of my friend, Gina. I remember that day in August. I cried for hours, which is something I have done less than a handful of times in my life outside of the two times I had clinical depression.

Yesterday I cried for about 20 minutes and then I actually felt good again. I’m not one of those people who usually feels better after crying. I mean I know that it is necessary to express grief but I still usually feel exhausted and cotton headed after I cry. The grief startled me because I found instantly found myself loudly and sloppily crying. The intensity of my grief felt like the day Gina died. And my worries about my own mortality, especially the prospect of dying before my daughter is grown, only intensified it.

I’m of the opinion that life is complex and there’s usually not one reason why something happens. But I will say that viewing a series of black and white photos of a husband and wife over the course of the wife’s treatment and later death from breast cancer, likely was a catalyst for this latest crying jag. One of the photos is a head shot of the pair in bed, holding each other, each with a look of utter bliss. It’s a beautiful and happy image. And it reminds me of my husband and I. John is a very affectionate man. He hugs me in his sleep and if I awaken in the middle of the night and put my arm around him, he makes a sigh of contentment and holds my hand. And I don’t mean that he sometimes does this. He always reaches for my hand, every time over the past 23 years. So I looked at that photo and immediately inserted myself into the image. And this woman who was born in the 70’s died. And you can see the progression of her illness in the photos with each photo showing loves and losses in the most poignant way. I found myself thinking, “That could have been me. That still could be me.” I didn’t dwell on the thoughts but I had them nonetheless.

I had nightmares that night. (People, when you wonder why I am careful about watching intense, violent, and/or scary films. This is why. They have given me nightmares since I was about 6 years old.) In one, I was at a parade that included some past beauty queens, women who were now middle-aged. They were beautifully dressed but instead of being on a parade float, they were lying in open caskets on wheels! Even in the dream I thought, “What on Earth? What is this supposed to symbolize about women, beauty, and aging?” And then later in the dream, I was at the funeral of a relative. I don’t remember anything except she was a woman in my family. I remember having grief during the dream about missing my grandmother who died in 1993. In the final part of the dream, my daughter was acting completely and utterly out of control. As rebellious and angry as she could be. It was terrifying.

I am a genuinely happy person. One who has been through a lot. And lots of people have been through a lot in their lives with different impacts and different ways of coping. I am a person who feels things deeply but I am also a deep thinker. And I feel both positive and negative emotions as well as having positive and negative thoughts. I feel happy and calm most of the time. I think part of these intense moments I have of sadness and fear come from the enormity of what I have to lose, my family, my friends, my independence, my capacity to help others as a psychologist.

Today’s New Year’s Eve resolution is to remind myself of the strength of my connections, my connections to myself through my own self-awareness and the purposeful way in which I try to lead my life. My connection to my daughter who is doing so well and so happy right now. My connection to my husband who loves me so dearly that he reaches out to me even when he is fast asleep. Who trusts me so deeply that he allows me to be very open about the ups and downs of our relationship as well as our own personal shortcomings. My connection to my parents; I can’t imagine how hard it must be as older people, to worry about your child’s health and mortality. When my friend, Preben got cancer over five years ago, while still in his 30’s, I noticed that his parents started visiting him much more frequently. I told him half jokingly, “That’s what you get for getting cancer and scaring your parents.” My connections with my extended family have also strengthened. I have some wonderful cousins and sister-in-laws and my brothers have actually nudged themselves out of their comfort zone a little to be a bit more affectionate with their sister.

My friendship connections over the past year and a half have seen the most change. I have made a number of new friends who have startled me with their intense and generous kindness. I know that some of them will come and go but I think that a good number of them will be lifelong friends. I have had old friendships that have evolved into something much deeper than they were in the past. But I have also experienced some lost friendships and some that have been made weaker by my cancer. This mixture of bitter and sweet, of gains and losses, is somewhat dizzying to a person like me who craves consistency and solidity. But I have learned to cope with chaos in my life. I want to be happy and I know chaos happens no matter what I do. So what is my choice other than to try to make peace with it, live along side of it, and accept that I sometimes lose my footing.

Finally, today I remind myself of my reconnection with nature. I spend time outside every day. I have been able to travel to the mountains and to the sea. I am outdoors during good weather and in bad. Even in the most exposed and vulnerable parts of nature, there is beauty. I feel a strong spiritual connection to everything when I walk. It is both intensely personal and beautifully communal.

That is today’s resolution. Tomorrow is a new day and a new year. I wish all of you good things in 2014: moments of joy, moments of peace, and fortitude among the suffering and chaos. Thank you for your connection and support. Xoxoxoxo.

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George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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