Unlocking the Door

At first I felt uncomfortable. Then guilty. 

After checking in for the week-long silent retreat at the Buddhist meditation center tucked away in the rolling hills of Northern California, I returned to the registration desk to ask the kind man for a key to my room. According to the welcome letter, I was "invited to request a key" if I wanted one because they don't automatically hand them out. [NOTE: A Buddhist retreat is not a hotel, in case you were wondering]. He pulled out a sheet of paper with the room numbers listed where I could sign for the key.

Mine was the only signature on the page.

I took the brass key on the red, stretchy wrist bracelet and thanked him, then made a quick exit. Just the taking of it made me uncomfortable, like I had already failed some kind of test. But I reasoned that I needed to lock my room because I had my iPhone, iPad, wallet, and thousands of dollars worth of cancer medication that might be mistaken for something with juicy street value by a would-be ransacker. I was just being prudent, I told myself (even though I had brought with me the exact things I was asked to leave at home, but that's another story). You know what they say, "trust in God, but tie your camel." Or maybe it's just my wife who says that . . . anyway, it always makes me laugh.

The door locking/unlocking thing went on for several days. I had my own room, as did many others in our small residence dorm, but I noticed that no one else was using a key. They all came and went as if without a care, leaving their doors closed, but unlocked. I found myself wadding up the stretchy bracelet and hiding it in the palm of my hand as I came and went, shoving the entire thing in the pocket of my sweater as soon as the door was safely locked and I was on my way out of the building. But as the hours and days passed, the key felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. Just the having of it felt like a burden -- like a boat anchor, or an old, leathery skin I could not shed.

I had trust issues. And it showed.

Whenever it started I can't be sure, but I had reached full adulthood with more trust issues than any one person should have to bear. Maybe it was the constant mischief at work over two decades of law practice -- promises made without concern as to whether they were kept. One good deed deserved not another, but a stab in the back. Maybe this is where "CYA" (cover-your-ass) memos became a way of life. No one could be trusted. Not the lawyers, not the clients, not my ex. None of them. People steal things, constantly. The world is a desperate place. Leave your car unlocked and somebody takes your smelly gym shoes. Leave your house unlocked and there goes your flat screen television. And your watch. Oh hell, lock them both and somebody will break in anyway. And if it hasn't happened already, it will.

But the burden of constantly looking over my shoulder, accounting for every minute, of protecting every asset, of keeping watch lest someone take, take, take, had grown heavier than I had realized. Creeping into my retreat consciousness came the awareness that I had really wrapped myself around the axle. I mean, if you can't trust your fellow yogis at a meditation retreat, then who can you trust?

Ultimately I succumbed, and mid-week I finally hung the key on the back of the door handle and headed off to the last meditation sitting for the day, door unlocked.

I can't begin to tell you what a relief it was not to have to worry about the embarrassment of being seen with a room key or unlocking my door with it (as if any other retreatant was watching me, which they weren't!), or worrying if someone was going to take my things. Just letting go of that concern cleared the way for so many other moments of realizing how different my life could be if I just relaxed a little. Trusted a little. Took a risk on a kinder, gentler way of life. Now that's not to say I'll be strolling down a dark alley alone any time soon, but life is so much quieter when the underlying buzz of paranoia that comes from being constantly watchful and on guard all the time is gone.

And all it took was one small thing. 

Unlocking the door.

 

Posted on June 8, 2017 .

Remembering

Jim.JPG

The afternoon was brilliant blue, like that robin's egg kind of blue that peeps out from the straw of a perfectly formed nest. Roses were scattered in abundant, sorbet-colored clusters around the yard in mismatched metal pails on cloth-covered tables, their scent gently caressing those who wandered by. Row upon row of white wooden chairs were filled with friends and family fanning themselves under the summer sun in their black jackets and dresses.

Jim would have loved this. 

Our friend and brother and cousin and husband and son drew hundreds to this spot on a sunny, California afternoon to remember him and pay tribute. His spirit walked among us as those who loved him shared stories of his life, of his infamous smile and warm embrace, and of his unending kindness for both man and beast.

We shared tears and hugs and lamented together that he was gone too soon. Far, far too soon.

Isn't it always too soon? 

It is both shocking and deeply sad to see the shooting star of one whose love and energy knew no bounds suddenly disappear from the sky. An abrupt death, while we all portend to welcome it for ourselves, leaves in its wake a harsh emptiness for those left behind. But would we have it any other way? Surely not -- surely we don't wish a slow, lingering death that drains the color and soul and light? We don't wish that for ourselves, or for anyone we love and hold dear. 

But what we do wish for, always, is more time. We desperately wish for the one and only thing that we cannot have. We wish to run farther and laugh louder and cry harder and hug more, and to continue sharing the trials and tribulations of walking this earth with those that mean the most to us.

And so we gather . . . to remember.

As I sat listening to stories of Jim's passions and joys, of the love he shared with so many, of his optimism and bright smile and kind ways -- I wondered, as we all do at one time or another, how I would be remembered. Who would remember me? What would they remember?

This thing we do -- this gathering to memorialize the life of the ones we hold dear -- presents an opportunity not only to reflect on the life of those we have lost, but for self-reflection as well. A time to consider where we are in this world, what we are doing, and for whom. What good has come of the life with which we have been blessed? Are we truly living our best and most authentic existence?

Experiencing the loss of a loving human spirit allows us to turn and face a new direction. Take a different step. To find and pursue our passion. To renew our commitment to touch others in a way that brings hope and joy. It allows us to reignite our own inner light to burn brighter for ourselves and for those around us. And if we are lucky, it gives us a chance to celebrate and honor those we love and live by their example.

Remembering those who are gone allows us to grow. 

And grow we will, for they have been our soil.

 

 

Posted on May 22, 2017 .

Perfect Imperfection

The egg. Perfect in form, shape, and texture. Whether holding its fragile embryo for warming under a chicken's wing, or suspending the yolk for a sunny-side-up breakfast, perfection like this demands your attention. 

There are a few other perfect things as well, like the smell of a puppy, a baby's tiny fingers, and a clownfish. There's also the sun and the wind and the Pacific Ocean. And mountains. And snow. And flakes of snow. There's that pile of leaves in your front yard, including that one perfect leaf from which you can sketch a masterpiece.

It's all in the seeing.

And yea, there are less than perfect things too. Mostly, life. But do we have the same appreciation for life's imperfections as we do for the egg? Doubtful. Instead, we grouse and complain and twist and turn and try to make things perfect anyway. When life comes at us in waves, knocking us down, we often resist perfection in the making. A broken leg here, a herniated disk there, or a kid with chicken pox. A company takeover, a divorce, and the unplanned move you were forced into when the landlord raised the rent. Life's waves come, great and small. Always relentless. And beautifully imperfect. Each moment providing opportunities to grow and learn and become more perfect versions of ourselves.

It's all in the seeing.

Posted on April 22, 2017 .

The Cobra

It was innocuous enough, that tiny note in the far corner of my monthly calendar sitting open on my desktop computer. I looked again to be sure. Yep, there is was. The small yellow-orangish glow outlined the even smaller black characters that I see once a year: “Diagnosis 3-18-11.” It’s an annual reminder I could probably do without. 

But here we are. Six years later. 

It cannot be emphasized enough how the magical combination of excellent healthcare providers, pharmaceuticals, and a huge dose of good luck has kept me alive all this time. Seriously. Few women are diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer and live to tell. But tell I did.

A long-time friend from the East Coast texted me bright and early this morning to say she stayed up all night reading Not All Bad Comes to Harm You. It had been sitting on her nightstand waiting for the perfect moment, as most books do. Mine was no exception. After telling me she loved it and was going to get a copy for a friend, she wrote, “I didn’t think I wanted or needed to read another book about cancer, but your book is SO much more! Please stay alive to write more books . . .”

Barely awake in California, I stood barefoot on the cold kitchen floor, contemplating her message while sipping at a tiny cup of hot espresso. “Please stay alive to write more books . . .”

Yes. I’d like that. It is my fervent wish.

But each new day is another wrestling match with the cobra as she tries again and again to slither her way out of the basket. I hold the lid firmly shut, feeling her knock about inside. When she flicks the lid sideways for a moment I see her beady eyes watching me. Shifting. Then still. No quick movements, I remind myself, backing away slowly to slip back downstairs where the glow of my computer screen waits for the next jumble of words to fall from my fingertips.

She won’t stop me. Not today. 

Today I will write.

And I will keep on writing. And writing. And writing some more — until that second book finds its way into the hearts and hands of those who share our greatest common purpose — to find the truth of who we are, and to live the joyful life we are meant to live.

It’s coming. 

Slowly, but surely, it’s coming.

We each have things in our lives that threaten to derail us, annihilate us, or put us in our place. But it is up to us to choose whether to keep the lid on them, or unleash them to rule our lives.

Today, my lid stays on.

Posted on March 16, 2017 .

Time

Ten minutes.

Ever think about how long that is? Or how short?

If you’re excited about getting on a ferris wheel ride, ten minutes drags like Will Smith's alien in Independence Day. If, on the other hand, you're taking an exam and still have one more essay to write before the bell, the last ten minutes flies like the Concorde. 

When we were young, we thought that time just went on and on; that we had "the rest of our lives" to do whatever the thing was that we wanted to do that our parents forbade. We heard the phrase "time flies” again and again, yet we didn’t heed the message. But as we grew older we started noticing the hands on the clock, now moving at the same dizzying pace as they did during a college exam. Round and round, faster and faster. And once we finally began to understand that time truly is fleeting and that there is no way to wind the clock back, we began regretting certain choices we’d made about how we spent our time, all the while clamoring toward making the most of the time we had left. 

Unfortunately, time travel still isn’t real and the earth still spins in the same direction every day, so we are (mostly) stuck with the decisions we make about the how to spend our time. But each new day presents another chance to listen to our deepest, truest, innermost voice, which will tell us the right thing to do, and the right path forward. Every time.

We’ve all suffered the consequences of spending our precious time on the wrong thing, whether it’s living with the pretty couch we knew would be uncomfortable, or working overtime when we knew we should be at our kid’s soccer game. And we've all wasted time dating someone far too long, or staying in a job we should have quit, right?

But regrettable or not, our past decisions have created the kaleidoscope of us --  of who we are now. Looking back is useful, but only to examine our decision tree and and see how we got from there to here. Looking forward, on the other hand, presents the opportunity to make choices thatserve our truest purpose. But how do we know what that is?

We listen. Our inner voice is always there, telling us whether we are moving in the right direction, and whether we are living the life we are meant to live. All we have to do is listen, and then act on what we already know to be true.

My mother used to watch a soap opera with the advertising slogan, “Like sands though the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”

Turned over an hourglass lately? Imagine you did. And imagine every grain of sand is a day of your life.

Listen to yourself. Find out what's next. Then go there.

It's about time.

Posted on February 27, 2017 .

Pink for Freedom

IMG_4667.jpg

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

IMG_4473.PNG

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

IMG_4446.JPG

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

IMG_4426.JPG

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

IMG_4393.JPG

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

image.jpg

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

image.jpg

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

image.jpg

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 .