Pink for Freedom

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On January 21, 2017, I marched with millions of women around the world to protect America from the tyrannical rule of a man with no moral compass. In solidarity, we wore pink hats with pussy ears to make the point that our freedoms and rights as women (and our pussies, for that matter) aren't up for grabs, contrary to what this man seems to think. 

But as we marched I realized there was more to it than that -- though that would have been enough. We marched to show our fellow Americans, indeed, to show the world, that we have not forgotten how far we have come, or the cost of getting here.

The now undeniable Russian interference in our election weighed heavy on my mind as I visited the war memorials, as did the knowledge that my father, a World War II veteran, was probably spinning in his grave after having lived most of his life during the Cold War, anti-communist era that followed. My brother survived Vietnam, though almost sixty thousand other American soldiers did not. And toward what end? To try and prevent a small country on the other side of the world from being taken over by communists -- the ones who control the press, eliminate free society, and silence their detractors. And though we failed in our endeavor, those men and women gave their lives to try and keep that from happening. It was that important.

Has America already forgotten? 

Yet here we are, decades later, and face-to-face with a United States leader whom the reviled communist regime helped elect. A leader who thinks Russia's murderous dictator is an exemplary role model.

What have we done?

I stood silent at the memorial wall. I touched the names engraved patiently, precisely, and with the utmost care. I remembered them, and why they died.

And I cried.

I cried for them. And for America. And for what we've become that a man with so little regard for honesty and truth and human decency toward others could stand at the helm of our great ship as she lumbers and lurches forward in the waves of change, threatening to capsize her completely.

I cried for the men and women who gave their very lives to preserve those freedoms promised to us all when this nation was born. 

And I considered again why so many millions of women came together in the largest civil rights protest of all time; a protest that literally circled the globe in all its pussy-capped, pink glory. A cacophony of drums and footsteps and voices in every language demanding to be heard. Crying out against a world in which, if the new resident of the White House has his way, we will be marginalized as human beings and compromised as a nation. 

And we vowed, each of us, that against this we will rise -- we are rising -- so that those who came before us will not have died in vain while defending the torch-bearing guardian of our shores.

I was inspired by Dr. King's words, forever memorialized both in granite and in the hearts of the marchers:  "Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world in which to live."  (Dr. Martin Luther King, D.C. 1959). He knew the struggle. He knew what was at stake. He wanted the "finer world" for us all, and lived with hope for the great nation that America could someday become.

And so, we marched. For miles we marched. For hours we marched. In the cold we marched. For ourselves, and for our mothers and grandmothers, and for our children and grandchildren, we marched. 

We marched together. All races and genders and ages and backgrounds. All of us who have melted and blended into this great American democracy, from all manner of time and place. We marched because we will not take for granted, and will never give up, the freedom and rights for which so many have died. 

Because freedom -- our freedom --  is not free.

It is never, ever free. 

Posted on January 24, 2017 .

Paint Your Life

I am knocking on the door of another birthday, my sixth one since I was first diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. The fact that I'm writing this confirms the obvious: I'm still alive.

Six years ago, a couple of weeks after my birthday, I received what might have been a lethal diagnosis. My odds of survival weren't great, but neither were they nonexistent. At that time I didn't know what the future would hold (kind of like now, I guess), but the news brought the canvas of my life into sharp relief. Bright colors abounded, but there were gaps here and there and, of course, a few dark corners. Like an unfinished tapestry, my canvas was an incomplete picture of the person I would become. I had no idea at the time that the devastating news of my illness would bring so many changes.

So here we are six years later. I have retired from the practice of law and fully embraced my life's true calling. I write this blog, have published my first book, and have a second one in the works. Seems that a lot has happened in a very short time -- a lot that I never imagined or dreamed of six years ago.

Understanding there are a set number of pages to turn on the calendar has a way of bringing to the fore those things that are really, truly important. The shit falls away. You can see clearly. My face-to-face with mortality opened my mind to the humanity -- and lack of humanity -- around me every day. It made me grateful for the compassionate, spiritually generous, kind people, and allowed me to freely release my emotional investment in the spiteful and soul-dead. I weeded the garden of my life, leaving only those from whom I could learn and grow and with whom I could share a loving and mutually-respectful relationship. It felt like cleaning out the garage and getting rid of the crap you don't need. Only better. And it has been like that for the last six years. I have allowed myself to recognize where things in my life needed to change, and how to cultivate and grow those things I had long neglected or ignored.

Opportunity for introspection is a gift that comes in many forms. Sometimes it comes in the form of catastrophe or disaster, but slogging through the worst of it can bring bright and beautiful change. And, it gives us another chance to work on our painting.

Posted on January 14, 2017 .

One More Day

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Each night my wife falls asleep on the pillow next to mine in about ten minutes. I'm envious. It  usually takes me an hour or more to get to dreamland, which means that most nights I get to watch her sleep for awhile. But watching someone enjoy a peaceful night's sleep has its own way of smoothing out the day's potholes. When I turn out the light, I can hear my heart's little sigh as I become succinctly aware of the good fortune that brought her into my life. I am blessed beyond measure. And just before I close my own eyes and fall asleep, I ask for that which only time can give, and all that I could ever want --

Just one more day.

Ever aware of life's brevity, I always hope for at least one more day to spend with the love of my life -- to hear her talk and laugh and watch her play with our tiny poodles. To feel the touch of her warm hand when the world feels particularly cold. Just one more day is all I ask. And I ask for it every night.

Each of us knows all too well that our life, or the life of someone we love, can be over in an instant. Often there is no warning. And when the unthinkable happens, it destroys us as completely as any force of nature ever could. The gaping, open wound takes an eternity to heal, if it ever does. The scars remain. Nothing is the same. We are undone.

This awareness should make us immensely grateful for each new day, but does it? Do we consciously even think about it? If we did, would that change how we interact with those we love?

And knowing this, do we reexamine our own true purpose; our own truth? What if we knew that this was our last day -- what would we do differently? Do we consider how we might change our world and our relationships with the people in it if we knew that tomorrow would, in fact, never come?

None of us wants to face the reality of our own mortality. We go about each day doing whatever it is that we're so busy doing, giving nary a thought to when "the end" might come, or what we could or should be doing before it arrives. And why not? When you think about it, what could be more important?

Given life's uncertainties, isn't it worth asking ourselves if our current path is the right one? And if it isn't, then isn't it worth asking how we can get ourselves on the right one?

A new year is right around the corner. If we're lucky, we have one more year.

Or, maybe, it's just one more day.

Posted on December 29, 2016 .

Finding Peace

It’s hard to find peace in a world of chaos. Whether that chaos takes the form of national politics, violence abroad, or unrest in our own homes -- peace can be elusive. Illness, family strife, and career uncertainty affect us all at a very deep and personal level. As we know, peace and calamity just don't mix.

The health challenges I have faced this year had me searching pretty hard for peace and tranquility. Unfortunately, I found anything but. I'll admit it was my own fault because, rather than focus on calming influences, I turned to the Internet to distract myself with the daily news. To say the least, it didn’t help. It only led to more anxiety, anger, and frustration.

Like most of you, I am exhausted from the hateful rhetoric to which we’ve been exposed as civil debate in our country has been effectively anesthetized. I won’t even bother saying it’s like “nothing we’ve ever seen” (though, apparently, I just did). This climate has served to amplify our personal challenges, and it has only gotten worse since the election. It seems we can do no more than stand by and watch as humanity rots from the inside out. I don't know about you, but I find this reality not the least bit comforting.

So here's the deal: I’m no psychotherapist, but I can say with certainty that taking even a momentary break from the chaos can help restore a peaceful sense of well-being. Getting some fresh air is like hitting the perspective reset button. There is so much beauty all around us, if only we will go outside and open our eyes to it. Setting our focus on the immediate moment, and ignoring the rest, can help us find center once again.

As children we were treated to stories from oversized books with pictures that leapt from the pages in hues of otherworldly imaginations. This may be why, as adults, the notion of curling up with a good book remains so appealing. Delving into another time and place that a writer somewhere lovingly created for our enjoyment can bring back that sense of calm we so desperately seek.

Music is much the same. Can you remember the last time you put on a set of headphones and listened to something as seraphic as kd lang singing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah? Try it. [Take a moment to enjoy...] See what I mean? And for you kd fans, here's a bonus performance from the 2005 Juno Awards.

Serenity won't be found in news updates or conference calls or meetings or in our or endless stream of email. All those things can wait. They really can. The trick is, we have to allow ourselves to take the time we need to rejuvenate. But to do that, we must first recognize how important it really is to take those moments for ourselves.

Bringing peace back into our lives and our homes will not only make us happier, it will also seep out to those we love and connect with each day and make them happier too.

Peace.

Take a moment and find some, then share it.

Posted on December 2, 2016 .

Paralysis

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A good friend asked me yesterday why she hadn't seen any blog posts in awhile. I told her it was because I couldn't post what I had written. It was unsuitable. Every word falling on paper in the last seven days comes not from a place of hopefulness for the future, but a dread of getting out of bed in the morning.

Once upon a time I moved quietly through my day-to-day world, focused on my health and grateful to be alive. I was utterly secure in the knowledge that my family and I were safe in a nation with a gracious, smart, respectable leader at the helm who bore no vengeance and would do no harm. He could be trusted.

The last seven days have been different.

I wake up every night now, unable to clear my mind of thoughts of the violence and hate and bigotry that have literally surrounded us. Though tucked away in my cozy home in a white suburban neighborhood, I am grossly aware of others' terror. My own terror is enough -- fear for the continued legitimacy of and respect for my marriage, fear of losing my healthcare coverage. But my heart aches for those living in fear of being ripped apart from their loved ones, or rounded up like animals and deported from the only country they have ever known. It aches for those waking to epithets painted on their homes and cars and at how they must survive the taunts and slurs hurled at them as they walk down a street somewhere in the U.S.A. today.

There is no comfort now. There is no safety.

In the dead of night my mind whirls and churns of ways in which we can all try to keep ourselves safe from the impertinent seven-year-old, pouting in his gold-bideted tower because he might have to actually live in the White House. The unthinkable has happened.

I have always wanted to keep my writing focused on living. On finding joy. On celebrating life. On recognizing and appreciating each of the moments that come to us as brightly wrapped gifts, and recognizing even those gifts not so finely wrapped. But this week has been different, and my gut-knowledge of life in its purest form has been rattled and beaten. Writing joy from that place is hard.

Harder still is the inability to share the thoughts I wrote for election day -- the post intended to celebrate one woman's journey from child to adult; from law student to leader of the greatest country in the world; of my own journey from what might have been. But that never happened. The hope and inspiration I envisioned for our nation's youngest hearts was dashed in an instant as we flew backwards at light speed, now fighting for our very autonomy once again. These young women are pictured above, but now the only words I can offer them are these: This nation has failed you. We are sorry. We are so very, very sorry.

But we are also resilient. Those of us with cancer know this. We do not back down. We do not give up. We cry and howl at the injustice -- of our illness, of the next presidency -- but we do not give in.

We go on. And on. And on.

And we fight.

We keep fighting. 

Posted on November 15, 2016 .

Chasing Jubilance

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When was the last time you felt truly happy?

I asked myself that question the other day. And try though I might, I couldn't come up with a specific answer. My mind was playing tricks on me.

 "Happy" has a lot of meanings, and they are individual to each person. When I was asking myself that question, I was thinking about the last time I felt really excited about something -- ecstatic, jubilant even. I'm talking about no-holds-barred, side-cramping laughter and good times. My wedding day certainly met that standard, as did a day or two from my last vacation. But otherwise, this Unfortunate Summer (as I've come to call it), has been anything but fun. The days have taken turns being depressing, lonely, frightening, and painful. It sometimes seems like everything I enjoy -- all the "fun" stuff -- has floated away on a wave of medical mishaps, leaving precious little that makes me "happy."

What is it about our desire as human beings to constantly seek joy? We all want it, and sometimes we're successful at finding it. But all too often we eschew pure peace and contentment for something bigger and better and more grand. Why isn't plain ole' good, good enough? Why must we despair when every little thing isn't going our way, and lament the bygone days of sheer, unvarnished happiness that we think we'll never see again?

We often focus too much on the ends of the spectrum, especially during a rough patch. We've all had our share of despair at one time or another -- broken relationships, illness, or losing someone we love. These things bring us to our knees as we pull out our own hair and plead with the universe to make it all go away; to make it be something other than what it is. Of course we want the pain to end. That's human nature.

But what do we do with joy when it comes our way? Do we remain fully present for each joyful moment? Maybe, but it never once occurs to us to plead with passionate fervor that the universe will keep things just as they are and never let that happiness fade. Well, why not?

Because we know better.

We know that jubilation is fleeting. We understand that we can't wake up every day and get married, or graduate from college, or buy a new car. We understand that the sunniest, most beautiful days will be followed by rainy ones. We know the soft, white, new-fallen snow will melt and leave a mess. We know all about life's impermanence. And yet, when times get tough, we convince ourselves that it will never change; that we're going to be stuck in some monstrously unhappy place, even though we're not.

Perhaps by acknowledging life's different chapters during both the joys and challenges, we can find our way back to true happiness. The kind that runs through the stream of our everyday lives. The kind that truly counts.

Posted on October 31, 2016 .

Hope Changes

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Hope.

We all have it. But what we hope for is ever-changing. 

I recently received an email from someone who had shared my book with a friend. That friend shared it with another. The message said: 

"My friend that I gave Jan's book to is going through her last chemo regime and we can only pray that it is working. Jan's book is the only book she has been able to read and she dropped me a note to say she found it very hopeful at a time when she so needs that hope to get through another day." 

I was deeply moved to read such a message, because inspiring others was all I ever hoped for when I wrote it.

Life is always about hope, isn't it?

Hope is part of our experience from the time we are born. Initially, we hope to get fed. And then, when we were two, most of us probably hoped we wouldn't hit our head on the coffee table and that our mother would give us a cookie. Some of us hoped to win the spelling bee when we were ten, or to be the captain of the varsity basketball team in our teens. Later, many of us hoped to graduate from college and get married someday and have a family. As for me, though I can't say that I grew up hoping to go to law school, when I did I hoped I would do well and get a good job when I got out. 

So we grew -- all of us. And once all of those hoped-for things came to pass, we began hoping for something else. Once we had the house and the job and the kids were grown, the texture of our hope changed. Mine changed into hoping that I would discover my life's purpose, and that I would live in a place that inspired me and brought my spirit joy. I hoped that I would find true love.

Older now, our hopes have evolved. We hope our kids have productive and happy lives, and that we are lucky enough to stay healthy and grow old watching their hopes change just as ours did. Today, I hope for a cure for cancer. And I hope to spend a few more years with the love of my life. More than a few, really.

Taking a few minutes to reflect, to think about our hopes and dreams, provides an insight to the path of our life's journey. It allows us to see ourselves for who we once were, who we believe ourselves to be, and who we actually are. It lets us review and reset and start again if need be. It prevents us from losing sight of where we are going, and where we hope to end up.

I don't hope to live forever, 'cause that would be just too weird. But while I'm here, I hope that I can continue stringing words together that bring laughter and insight and hope to someone else. Because hope spreads when it's shared.  

And it's always about hope. 

 

Posted on October 2, 2016 .

Write Your Life

For those of you who may be working on your own book, or thinking about it, you might be interested in reading Marin Magazine's October 2016 edition. I was honored to be selected as one of the three indie authors interviewed about writing "the surprisingly joyous cancer memoir, Not All Bad Comes to Harm You..."

Enjoy!

 

[click image below to open magazine article]

Write Your Life by Laura Hilgers
5051

You can also read it in .pdf form here.

 

 

Posted on September 23, 2016 .

Being Here

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Many of you are "too busy" to even read this.

I get it. I've been there.

I was a very busy lawyer once. There were phone calls to return immediately, briefs to revise immediately, court filings that were due immediately, and depositions for which to prepare. Immediately, of course.

For super-busy people, every phone call and email mandates an immediate response. Nothing is too unimportant. This is especially true for those who bill for their time; every moment spent talking to a colleague about their vacation or having lunch outside the office is another billable minute that has to be made up elsewhere. I can assure you that I don't miss having lunch with other lawyers who spend the last thirty minutes of our time together looking at their watch.

Cancer changed all that for me, as it does for most people. Everything that once demanded my immediate attention hardly gets the time of day from me now. Now I understand at the deepest level what is worth my immediate attention, what is meaningful, what really and truly matters.

Now I can pause for more than a moment to look at an old photograph on the bookshelf and relish the memory of a past Italian odyssey with my wife, or embrace the love I still hold for my now-gone companion of more than fifteen years -- his liquid black eyes looking out at me from the picture frame.

Now I am intensely aware of every soft breeze that touches my face and arms and neck when I sit outside on the deck. I can experience it in the moment. Nothing is more important, more worthy of my immediate attention. 

Now I understand that I can be here and not feel like I should be anywhere else, or that I'm missing something somewhere, or that there's something else I should be doing.

The world is such a tough place to be sometimes, and we often make it tougher by placing more and more demands on our overly-busy, stressed-out selves.

Making it easier is up to us.

Posted on September 6, 2016 .

Starting Over

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They seemingly appear from nowhere, these gangly tall, leafless, pink wonders. One minute you're enjoying summer, and the next minute fall is just around the corner. It's our annual reminder of time flying.

I am probably not the only one that feels a twinge of sadness when these beauties dot the Northern California hillsides. Maybe it's because summer is my favorite time, and I always hate to see it go. The closing of a chapter. Another summer put to bed. Yet these same graceful stalks herald a new beginning for some. While I mourn the passing of the longest days of the year, others wait with eager anticipation the coming of turkey and pie and the unboxing of holiday ornaments.

Anticipation can be a wonderful thing -- especially if it involves a vacation. And though it can devalue the present moment, it is nearly impossible to avoid. It is particularly easy to do when the present moment is less than optimal, like when you're feeling sick, listening to your colleague drone on and on about how great he/she is, or finding yourself on the wrong bus going in the wrong direction. One could safely describe these as sub-optimal moments, moments that make it easy to drift back to a happier time, or forward with anticipation of the next great thing.

No one wants to sit with sadness, or pain, or misery. No one. And yet, as human beings, this is something we must do because it is part of our life. And though we may not do it perfectly, it is worth doing it as best we can because it inevitably leads to some truth about ourselves. And when we stumble and fall, we must allow ourselves to simply start again. 

So many things in life require a reboot -- from athletic training (as we've seen in the Olympics recently), to new careers, to new relationships. 

There is no shame in starting over. Happily, we get a chance to do it every moment of every day.


 

Posted on August 15, 2016 .

Transcend

What a simple, yet potent word.

I was at dance class recently after having dragged myself off the couch following a two-hour nap. Naps had become a regular part of my day in the preceding weeks. Fighting off chemically-induced fatigue and physical discomfort, I lugged my fifty-pound bags of imaginary sand with me into the dance studio. Exercise, I knew, was the only thing that would make me feel physically better. At least a little bit. Only sheer force of will got me through the door. 

Slow going at first, I was buoyed by the support of wonderful friends and classmates. And though they couldn't actually do the dance steps for me, they were supremely encouraging. We were well into the warm-up routine when I felt myself fading, but I hung on. It was then that the choreographer we all love and adore gave me a hug and whispered one word in my ear...

Transcend.

Transcend: to rise above; to be or go beyond the limits of something.

I embraced the word completely, willing myself to both physically and figuratively rise above my own limitations. For the remainder of the class I challenged myself to dance full-out as I always had, embracing the beauty and lyricism of the music. I quite literally transcended my illness in that moment to a level of peaceful illumination I had thought was out of reach.

In the subsequent days I considered this word more and more, and not only have I repeatedly applied it to my physical self, I've applied it to my emotional self as well. 

There has been so much pain and violence and hateful rhetoric lately. Mass murder. Nasty political discourse by hate-mongering psychopaths and equally hateful supporters. It is sickening. But not unlike a terrible car accident on the side of the road, we cannot turn away, though we should.

I realized that my physical and psychological health requires me to transcend these realities. As my wise instructor said to me after class, "transcending is different than fighting." He was right.

To fight brings out our most basic of instincts: survive or perish, win or lose, harm or be harmed. It causes us to suffer physically, emotionally, or both. But we cannot fight while simultaneously embracing humanity, compassion, and empathy -- for ourselves, and for others.

So I've tried to transcend the suffering of the world and see it for what it truly is -- a constantly changing landscape over which I have very little control -- without drowning in its misery. And like transcending a personal battle with illness, family discord, or heartfelt loss that would otherwise consume us, transcending society's wider challenges will, in the end, make the world a better place.   

For each of us, and for all of us.

Posted on July 24, 2016 .

To Your Health

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No, this isn't a Stanford Healthcare promo, it's just a picture of my latest hospital gown. I think it's pretty fancy, what with the embroidery and all. At any rate, it beats the hell out of the paper ones.

That said, critiquing medical fashion is not the topic for today's post. Health is.

There are many things we take for granted in life. One of them is our health. We don't mean to do it, it just happens. Something as simple as breathing usually goes undetected and without comment -- until we can't breathe, that is. It is then and only then that we notice our breath as the absolute necessity it is. Just ask anyone with asthma. 

There's another layer as well, and that is underestimating the general sense of just feeling good. Until you've spent days or weeks in bed because of the flu or some other malady, you don't know how good you have it. You don't notice that you feel good, you simply take it for granted when you get up and put your slippers on in the morning. 

But these moments shouldn't go unnoticed. For the last two weeks, for example, I have been living with the side effects of a new cancer treatment that has left me nauseous more often than not, and battling a level of fatigue I haven't seen since the good ole' chemo days. Now, instead of noticing that I feel bad, I notice when I feel good. I literally stop, relax into a smile, and acknowledge out loud that "right this moment I feel good."

I relish it. I cherish it. I long for it.  

I have come to deeply understand why people become so despondent when living with chronic pain. A dear friend of mine took her own life long ago after suffering with unrelenting, untreatable back pain for years. I get it. It breaks you down small bits at a time, just like water over stone etches a path if left to run the same course unimpeded day after day. 

So I am reminded once again never to take feeling good for granted, and so I share this reminder with you. Rejoice in it. Celebrate it. Love it and honor it, because without it life just isn't the same. 

Go ahead -- take a deep breath, then pause to appreciate that your body's amazingly simple yet complicated ability to do just that is a gift, not a given.

 

 

Posted on July 5, 2016 .

Grieving Helplessness

These last several days of coping with more needless bloodshed of innocent people cause us all to grieve in varying degrees. Surely the victims' loved ones are grieving the most at the gaping emptiness with which they are left. The rest of us are left to grieve for their immense sorrow and for the lack of a safe haven anywhere in our own country.

Having grieved my own cancer diagnosis on more than one occasion, my grief at this most recent loss of life has led me to this observation: When we grieve, what we are really grieving is our own helplessness. When faced with situations over which we have no control and which negatively and profoundly impact our very existence, we are helpless. Completely and utterly helpless. When we can find no safety from murderers in our elementary schools, or churches, or our community gathering places, we feel a sense of helplessness that both literally and figuratively pains us to our core. 

There are no words or actions that will bring back a lost loved one. It is done. It is over. It is forever. This level of helplessness is surely the highest level of grief there is. Yet it doesn't end there.

Helplessness also comes with losing the ability to walk or speak, or with a lethal cancer diagnosis. We are helpless to prevent our family from disapproving of or disowning us because we are gay or lesbian or transgendered. We are helpless when our children turn against us, or grow away from us. Helplessness also comes with an unwanted divorce or being fired from a job; events over which we have no control because we cannot bend others to our will.

In all of these scenarios we are helpless to avoid the crippling event, in whatever form it takes. It comes unbidden; a scythe-like cut to the bone, a roaring flame that engulfs our spirit. Our only choice, which is no choice at all, is to move forward through the burning embers to the other side.

Helplessness is part of the human experience. From the moment we are born, as helpless infants, we learn to rely on others. As infants, we don't realize our own helplessness because others nurture and feed and clothe us. As adults, when faced with a helpless situation, other human beings come to our aid with love and support and kindness. Sometimes, that is all we need. And it is that love and compassion that eventually dissolves our feeling of helplessness and drags us across the abyss to a new day. 

Confronting our own helpless feelings -- understanding them for what they are, feeling the emotion of them, and experiencing the sorrow those feelings bring -- are a necessary part of getting us to the next step, however slow and arduous the process may be. That next step is choice; the moment when we crest the wave of sorrow and are able to choose how we will respond to that which leveled us completely. And if we choose love over hate, joy over despair, action over inaction, and courage over fear, we will prevail in our own humanity.

#weareorlando

 

Posted on June 14, 2016 .

Who Are You?

I didn't plan it this way, but one of the first things I ended up doing as a newly-minted retiree was cleaning out the garage. Don't judge me; I blame it on my astrological sign.

Taking up a tremendous amount of space was a collection of old yearbooks and picture albums spanning decades. I now realize the benefit of digital photography — it frees up more physical space so that we can fill it with other stuff, like old kites, sleeping bags, and holiday decorations. Honestly, why do we keep so much crap? You do it too, you know you do.

Anyway, rummaging through the photos and deciding which to scan for posterity versus which to shred or recycle has been interesting. The greatest enjoyment of this task has been posting some of these old photos on Faceplant (errrr, Facebook) for the enjoyment of others. It's astonishing how little, and how much, people have changed over time. Oh, would that we had the ability to travel forward ten years or so and see what effect today's actions will have on our future appearance. (Read: Use your sunscreen, folks!)

This project revealed something else as well, and that is how deceptive photographs can be. My own smiling face hide some troubled times; my unhappiness disguised for the camera. Photograph after photograph looked the same, despite my having learned of my then-partner’s infidelity and my quiet struggle to manage that ugly truth. Yet the camera, which supposedly never lies, surely did. Was it a lie? Or did my smile in the face of pain show my own inner strength and tenacity. Hindsight suggests the latter, though I didn't feel either strong or tenacious at the time.

Sharing these photos has also brought me back in touch with old friends. Though thousands of miles separate many of us, these small reminders of our collective love for one another has had the effect of nurturing those relationships again, just like sprinkling water on a dried houseplant. It's a beautiful thing, this reconnecting.

While my trip down memory lane has been at once joyful and a bit melancholy, it has served to reveal with some clarity how I got from there to here. Everything about our lives — where we have been, what we have done, and those with whom we have shared the path along the way — has contributed to who we are now. Every decision, every relationship -- those lost and those newly born -- has been a stepping stone to today. The joys, the pain, the choices, and the unexpected challenges. All of it, both good and bad, create the mosaic that is our lives. 

And every choice we make today will contribute to who we are tomorrow. Every choice.

Choose wisely.

Posted on June 6, 2016 .

That Crazy Person

Ever wonder what's up with that crazy woman in the grocery store check-out line having a baby cow over the clerk rejecting her coupon? Or with that guy driving like a maniac on your way home yesterday, the one yelling and gesturing emphatically while honking madly at the other drivers? What is wrong with these people?

I can tell you because, today, I was one of them.

Though I am generally regarded as friendly and outgoing with other people, today I practically had a baby calf myself while at the hospital lab when the doctor's order for my routine blood test wasn't there. Why? I asked myself that very question when I got back to my car. 

Perhaps it is because I am living with ovarian cancer and am constantly bracing myself for the next battle in the war. Each trip to the hospital means a blood test that will determine whether and when I must begin another round of toxic chemotherapy, or a clinical trial of a new-yet-unapproved drug, or some other attempt to save my own life. Combine that with my unfortunate needle phobia, and it's a recipe for ugly. It takes awhile to get up my courage just to go to the lab in the first place, arms slathered with Lidocaine numbing cream all the while trying to arrive when the cream is at its peak effectiveness and before my favorite phlebotomist has gone to lunch or on a break. Today was the same, plus an additional time-sucking half hour search for a parking space. So, when I learned with only fifteen minutes left in the "perfect window" that the order was missing, I got a bit testy. I didn't want to leave and go home, just to return tomorrow or the next day, or whenever I got up the nerve to go again. I wanted - I needed - to have the test done today and then get the hell out of there.

Reflecting on today's events reminds me that sometimes our own internal anxiety gets the best of us, which inevitably features the worst in us. Missing lab orders are not the end of the world, that's for sure, but when there is a hiccup in my personal march to stay alive it can supersede my otherwise rationale mind. Same is true for the crazy guy in the car; there's no telling what problems, concerns, or other of life's travails he may be suffering. Mild annoyances can be a conduit to the unflattering side of what anxiety does to people. 

There is so much we don't know about others. Someone's abruptness or less-than-polite approach may simply reflect other things going on in their lives. Are they ill? Can they not pay their bills because of a missed child support payment? Have they lost someone dear? The next time I encounter a person with that wild-eyed look I hope I remember to cut him or her some slack. I've been there, too. Their overreaction is more likely spawned by some hidden burden rather than having anything to do with me. So instead of taking it as a personal affront, I hope I use that opportunity to practice kindness and pay forward the patience and understanding the hospital and lab personnel showed to me today.

Kindness. It's contagious.

 

 

Posted on May 23, 2016 .

Unload It

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Pictured is a hurricane lantern sitting on top of a garbage bin. Why? Because I'm getting rid of it.

Finally.  

I rescued it years ago from my parents' home. This was among the 100,000 other items they saved over the course of their lives, including my favorite baby doll when I was two years old and innumerable bric-a-brac porcelain figurines with broken or missing hands. Why I latched onto something so insignificant as a hurricane lantern remains a mystery. I guess it is because I remember when it was put to its best use -- lighting our home when the hurricanes came. 

Now I'm unloading it.


I realized today something I've seemingly known all along; that things themselves have no value. Even sentimental objects eventually have no real meaning. It is the memories associated with those objects that last forever, not the objects themselves.

So do yourself (and your heirs) a favor -- unload all that stuff that is taking up too much space in your life and which, truth be told, you can easily live without. 

You will still have the memories. 

Posted on May 18, 2016 .

Goodbye Law

This plaque was a law school graduation gift. (It's a long story...)

This plaque was a law school graduation gift. (It's a long story...)

Change is inevitable I guess. At least that's what I'm learning as the years tick past -- each one more quickly than the last. We grow up, the kids move on, our parents pass away, and we sometimes face health challenges. Travel gets harder and the family grows farther and farther apart. It's just life. It's the way it goes.

The thing that's surprising is how quickly, and sometimes unexpectedly, change happens. One minute you're knee-deep in your career then suddenly and without warning you're unemployed and changing jobs. Or you're sitting at a traffic light waiting to make a left-hand turn and then bam, you're waking up in a hospital. Change also happens surreptitiously. One minute you're up to your elbows in baby diapers and the next minute the kid is in college and you find yourself asking, "where did the time go?"

One thing is certain: changes will come.

It's been more than twenty-five years since I had the bright idea to go to law school. "It's just three years," I told myself. Yea, three on top of the four it had already taken to get a bachelor's degree. But then, who's counting.

All in all, it wasn't a bad idea. The law has been very good to me as a career, allowing me to take my childhood impertinence and turn it into something useful. For well over two decades I've been an advocate for justice -- government agencies, corporations, and individuals alike have all engaged me to represent them at one time or another. I've spent hours upon hours in conference rooms and courtrooms, arguing with opposing counsel and sometimes with my own clients. Most of it has been exciting and challenging and interesting and fun. But it has also been stressful. Very stressful. There are few professions like the legal profession, where a person is required to argue on an almost-daily basis. The hours are crushing and anxiety is a staple of each new day. Few other careers boast such a downside. Yet, despite its incongruities. it remains a venerable profession, beloved by the great majority of its members. Including me.

But now it's time to say goodbye -- earlier than I once anticipated, but sometimes life switches things up on you. Whether it's a company downsizing or a divorce or a cancer diagnosis, life can compel you to look closely at your life and make changes you would not have otherwise made, or indeed, considered. And though I am as resistant to change as the next person, I find that reaching the acceptance phase makes change much easier. 

There's a little saying that goes something like this: "I am a reed, I will bend with the wind."  When resistance is futile, just going with the flow helps. Listening to yourself, paying attention, watching doors open in another direction -- these are all ways of understanding your own "flow." They've certainly brought understanding to mine. That flow will take you to places more bright and beautiful and fulfilling than you ever imagined, if you'll just let it.

Thank you, law, for teaching me how to analyze and prioritize, how to speak out for others, and for giving me a lifetime's worth of self-confidence. Thank you for being consistent and ever-inspiring, and for creating the societal lines inside which we all must draw. But most importantly, thank you for changing and evolving and conforming to the reality that is all of our lives in our homes and our communities. Especially for that. Thank you for changing.

Change is good. For all of us.

Posted on May 1, 2016 .

Where There's Smoke . . .

wine and smoke.jpg

Honestly, I want a glass of wine. Make that, need a glass of wine.

After several weeks out of the office posing as a newly-minted semi-retiree, I had to go back downtown the other day to take care of a few things. But it wasn't the usual commute. The ferry dock was being repaired so I drove to the city. Getting there was no big deal, but I began to notice something disconcerting upon arrival.

Smoke.

The smell of smoke.

Not real smoke, mind you, but the kind only a former smoker who has quit can smell. The kind you notice when you're standing in an elevator and a guy steps in next to you smelling like an ashtray. Your lip curls up at the corner, then you exhale through your nose and try to tolerate the unpleasant odor for the short ride to your destination.

"Disgusting," you think to yourself. "I can't believe I ever smoked."

It was like that, only something else. It was an unpleasant aura emanating from every person rushing down the sidewalk in the financial district. Strained, furrowed brows darted this way and that, as if their owners were being tracked by a hunter. The suits and briefcases and clickity-clack of high heels pulling wheeled litigation bags to and from the office buildings told the story of the world inside this bubble. At once I felt out of sorts; as if I didn't belong. As if I had never belonged.

Just an hour earlier I had stopped for coffee on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. There, people lounged with their newspapers, chatting about politics, a new yoga instructor, and the organic veggies at Whole Foods. The sun shone on the dogs lying lazily near their humans' feet. It was a world I had grown accustomed to in just the short time since beginning this new retirement experience. But now -- downtown -- I was confronted by that hazy, unnatural vibration that permeates every living being. My first instinct was to get away before "it" got on my clothes; before it melted through my skin to unleash that once familiar anxiety and stress that is part of any given day as a trial lawyer.

While I managed to get through an otherwise uneventful day, the experience was punctuated by a drive home that was more akin to a NASCAR event. Though I left early to avoid the traffic (I thought), the rush-hour commuters had long since beat me to it. Cars darted this way and that. Thirty-mile-per-hour signs were boldly disregarded at speeds exceeding sixty. Everyone, in every direction, was in a rush to get away from the rat race and back home to where they had started this morning. Tensions were high, patience was gone, and it was mano-a-mano all the way home. I was exhausted and relieved to finally reach the driveway, and the first thought that hit me the minute the key was in the door was, "I need a glass of wine!"

Just like the old days.

No wonder people are hospitalized left and right from heart attacks, anxiety, and other stress-induced illness. Has our collective human barometer broken down completely? Seems it has. Seems like nothing ever changes, no matter what good intentions we maintain about doing something different or adopting a different lifestyle. We stay stuck in the trap until something -- something -- pries us loose. Illness? A catastrophe? A unplanned and cataclysmic shift in our comfortable routine? That's usually what it takes to get our attention. Absent such an event, precious few of us take the time to consider a reset of priorities, or our relationship to the true meaning of life. We never seem to have the time. 

Maybe it's time to make time, and get out of the smoke-filled room.

It's not too late.

 

 

Posted on April 25, 2016 .

Mission Control

I spent the better part of one morning last week with a man my wife calls "The Body Whisperer," which I think is a nod to Robert Redford's film, The Horse Whisperer. 

Mr. Whisperer has an insane ability to diagnose and treat various ailments and injuries suffered by athletes, both professionals and novices alike. He is single-handedly turning my old ski accident injury into a thing of the past. The guy is unlike anyone I've ever met; it's as though he can see right through your skin and figure out what's not working, and why.

My blog a few weeks ago (Find it. Use it.) was about finding and using our natural gifts. I'm always interested in how people find theirs, and so I asked him how he ended up in the enviable position of earning a living by sharing his amazing gift with others. He responded, albeit a bit shyly.

"I have a mission statement," he said, which he started working on back in his twenties. 

"A personal mission statement?" I said. "That's so interesting. What is it?" I was more than familiar with the corporate version, which typically says something about providing good customer service and increasing revenues for shareholders. I figured his was something quite different.

In the interest of privacy I won't reveal his personal mission statement here, but it was so compelling that I wondered about my own. Or more accurately, my lack of one.

Over the years I've recited a mantra on an almost-daily basis that reminds me of my life's priorities, and which has -- over time -- become reality in every respect. It's been a veritable wish-list for living. But my friend's mission statement was something more. It was something he had spent time working on and thinking about and which had become the foundational underpinning for making important decisions in his life. A beacon, he called it. Whenever he found himself in a quandary, or wandering this way or that along life's path, he turned to his mission statement for guidance as a trusted and reliable reset button.

So I figured it was probably worth a minute or two out of a busy week to actually think about what a guiding light for life might look like. Mine probably goes something like this -- I will live a healthy and joy-filled existence in which the importance of positive connection with others remains paramount. Not perfect, but at least it's a start.

Now go ahead. You try.

 

 

 

Posted on April 11, 2016 .

Talking to Myself.

Do you do it? I do. 

Maybe too much.

Or maybe not enough.

Talking to myself has an odd way of setting things in order in my mind, or making sense of things that don’t make sense. Sometimes it’s as simple as reciting the things I need to do today, and sometimes it’s a rant against the most recent world news. 

“What has happened to the world? Have people completely lost their freakin’ minds?”

Come on. You know you’ve said it, too.

Sometimes its a fellow driver on the road to whom I direct my commentary, and sometimes it’s the dog after he’s peed on the floor — which really isn’t talking to myself, I guess, but neither of them seem to know or care about my diatribe (except maybe the dog, who hears only “blah blah blah, bad dog” and runs the other way).

Okay, we talk to ourselves sometimes. But why?

An Australian professor named Joseph Jordania reportedly suggests that our human ancestors, like other social animals, regularly vocalized to remain in contact with other members of the group. Silence and freezing-in-place signaled danger, so singing and humming to oneself within earshot of others was a notably good thing.

Some say that this evolutionary history suggests that prolonged silence may make us feel uneasy or fearful. According to this Jordania fellow, talking to oneself is merely one of the ways to fill in prolonged gaps of uncomfortable silence. It can also be accomplished by leaving the television or radio on all the time. Know anyone who does that? Hhmmmm...  I guess that’s one way to look at it -- we make noise to keep ourselves calm and fend off fear.

Another view is that talking to ourselves is a way of clearing our mind and focusing on the things that are significant in our world. Kids do this all the time when they talk through the steps of any given task; just watch them playing alone sometime. As adults, self-talk can help us clarify our thinking and work through big decisions. And I’ll confess that I have used loads of self-talk to maintain a positive, healthy attitude toward living with a cancer diagnosis. Not only do I rarely talk with myself about having cancer, I actually talk myself onto another topic when thoughts of "what if" threaten to make their way from the back of my mind to my frontal lobe. I actually use it to manage my thinking in order to stay focused on the present without drifting into the past or worrying about the future.

I found several articles on the topic, including one by Linda Sapadin. She describes four types of self-talk that are designed to make you feel better, and smarter. (Can’t hurt to check it out, right?).

The great news is that it’s easy to talk to oneself these days. Doing it in the car is great because everyone around you just thinks you're on your cell phone. Talking while walking down the street is also okay, so long as you are wearing an earbud or have your palm (with phone) placed firmly against the side of your head. And don’t worry, no one’s really listening to anything you say anyway.

Or are they?

“And that’s another thing, I get so sick and tired of hearing everyone on their cell phones these days…”

I just said that out loud to myself.

Posted on March 30, 2016 .