Who would you be without that thought?

Someone recently asked me if I get anxious about anything given that many of my posts are upbeat. You betcha! There were many unspoken questions in that musing. And I could say, “Yes” to all of them in varying degrees. I have become vigilant about helping fears dissolve, but sometimes they do catch me by surprise. Flying under my radar, they overstay their welcome.

It happened just last week. I held a several-week streak of improved exercise and healthy eating. I hoped to see some demonstration of success each morning as I stepped on the scale, but nada. No change. I wasn’t upset, but I couldn’t figure it out. It’s simple math. Increased caloric expenditure plus reduced caloric intake should equal weight loss. Then on this particular morning, I stepped on the scale and saw one less pound register.

Did you just imagine me “whooping”, throwing jazz hands, or air punching out a growly and glorious, “YES!”? None of that happened. I looked at the number and stepped off the scale in silence. I had the sense that I should be happy to have finally gotten what I’d hoped for, but felt not even a blip of satisfaction. I wasn’t sure why.

A couple of hours later, I caught a dark thought crossing my mind. Had I worked hard enough to lose that pound…or could I be sick? In other words, had I lost a pound because I had cancer again? It was a ridiculous thought. I had worked at this, and I hadn’t even experienced weight loss as a symptom when I did have cancer.

Morning turned into afternoon. As I stood at the refrigerator filling a water bottle, I realized my brain was telling me it had found the words. “Unexplained weight loss,” I found myself thinking. “That’s what the term is, the doctors ask if you have ‘unexplained weight loss’.” My mind was still working on “the problem”. It wasn’t really a problem, but it had crept into a recess of my mind that was prepared to tackle it. And tackle it, it would, whether helpful or not.

My weight loss was neither dramatic nor unexplained. It was a perfect case study in slow and explainable weight loss. And friends, don’t you worry about it, because that pound is already back! Still, there I had been. Around dinner time, admitting that the thought hadn’t really left me, I focused on talking myself off the ledge. Unfortunately, I’d lost most of what should have been an uplifting day to that waste of time and energy.

Do I worry about big things like dying? Sure, sometimes. Do I have rational but pointless concerns, like whether the grocery delivery is going to really include what I ordered? Will I still have to drive to the store to pick up another head of broccoli because the one they included isn’t big enough to serve all of us? Yes. Yes, I do. How do I get out of it, you ask?

When I find myself ruminating, I ask myself one of the questions Byron Katie poses in her methodology “The Work”. “Who would you be without that thought?” Who would I be without the thought that I may have fewer years left than I would like? How different would today feel if I enjoyed sitting and reading a book instead of worrying about whether I would have to squeeze in the grocery run when I least want to? When I imagine the person I would be without the disturbing thought – whether big or small – it’s like a weight lifts from my shoulders. I experience what it would be like without worrying about that, and I smile and move on to the beautiful day in front of me.

I can usually tell legitimate concerns from a “glitch” in my thinking, one that draws attention away from enchanting things, and keeps me focused on scary what-if’s. Anxious glitches are rabbit holes leading to an unending stream of worries. Go into one side, and come out the other with an opposite, equally troubling worry. What if cancer recurs? Alternatively, what if it doesn’t recur, and a perfectly good future was wasted by making decisions for a truncated stay on planet earth? The scenarios agitate, but what if none of them are true? How open would the road before us be if we didn’t live these thoughts in our minds, going through the emotions and disruptions, as if they were real?

The only way to win the anxious glitch game is not to play. We can decide in these moments to be the person we would be and will be without those thoughts. We have this day. Let’s not give it away without enjoying it!

To beach or not to beach

Since my early twenties, I’ve dreamed of the looking down at the ocean waves through walls of glass in an ocean front condo; dreamed of turning to the door and heading down for a sandy walk and a salty swim. That I’m even entertaining the idea that beach living may not be my endgame intimates how much I and the world around me has changed in the past couple of years.

I had a clear picture of my future self sunning against the backdrop of shimmering waves and a warm breeze. I’d begun researching before the pandemic, and could envision great scoping vacations in resort areas across the country. I even considered a minor career adjustment that would have made all of it easier.

Fast forward to today, our pandemic limits travel, inflation floats beach properties higher each day, and my brush with cancer makes me wonder at times what lies ahead. I’ve started rethinking where I see myself in my future years, and how long I’m willing to wait to get there. In a few years I’ll have an empty nest. And if this pandemic EVER subsides, I’ll be able to begin vacationing again. But will I research areas near beaches as I’d planned? I’m not sure.

During my early research I bumped into a legitimate issue. As you know if you’ve read my earlier post about a writing contest, I’ve developed an aversion to dark water. And frankly part of it is predatory fish. Although I grew up near the beach and frequently swam in ocean and bay water with low visibility, I’ve developed some trepidation. Still, though, something more insidious crept in. It’s the changing value I place on the conveniences I have.

Post pandemic and post cancer treatment, I’ve come to value how connected my current location is to everything I could need. Paths and natural wooded areas allowed us to continue outside activities when indoor areas closed down. A nearby metropolitan area means access to all manner of deliveries and services. When searching for medical care I found exceptional doctors and facilities in my own back yard. They’re things I thought I didn’t need, and yet somehow they’ve become table stakes.

So were I bent on a beach relocation, I’d be looking for a place with crystal clear water, mild climates year round, recreational places and spaces to enjoy, city-style amenities reasonably close by, world class medical resources, close to a major airport and highways so I can easily stay connected to family and friends. Did I miss anything? And is there any chance this place exists?

This week, as I shopped in one of the four grocery stores a stone’s throw from my house, Coastal Living magazine with an island life feature caught my eye. It occurred to me that if I’m never going to be happy without clear water sans predatory fish, maybe I should just stop this seaside search and consider being happy with a pool.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but it was a practical thought, so I stood for a couple of minutes and let it settle in. Given that I was in an obvious crisis, I did what my fellow Americans do in times of crises: I bought stuff.

Don’t worry, it was nothing big. I purchased two magazines: Coastal Living and Traditional Home. I wanted to explore what resonated and what didn’t. During my first flip through Coastal Living, I found that some of the coasts were beautiful…if I also had a pool, because I wasn’t loving those brownish green waves. Needing a pool defeats some of the purpose of moving to the beach. Shifting to Traditional Home, there was some appeal to the thought that I wouldn’t have to swap out French country furnishings for conch shells, sand dollars and shiplap. Over the years I’ve lost my affinity for classic coastal decor. It’s fun for a vacation, but it wouldn’t be my every day choice.

Moving beyond the superficial is going to take a little more courage. It’s not so often we wrestle with letting go of something we’ve held on to for so many years. So I’ll take some deep breaths and I’ll flip through more pages. Because a lot has changed for all of us. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that any successful rebuilding can only be done by being honest with ourselves about what we need, what we want, what has passed, and what may yet lie ahead.

The first day of the rest of my life

The morning after my last chemotherapy infusion, I woke feeling exhilarated, as if it was the first day of something big. And it was. It was the first day of the rest of my life, a life made more meaningful by the difficult terrain. I finished shy of the 190 days, coming in at around 177 days instead. But what a life-affirming journey it has been!

I have emerged with a different lens through which to judge how I spend my time. I now ask, “If I only had 5 years left, would I want to spend any of it on this? And what about 10 years? Or 15 years? What about 20 or 30?” It’s a healthy line of inquiry I wish I had begun years ago.

Some things I know will bring me joy or satisfaction, and regardless of duration, I would consider it time well spent. Those are my new “Yes” decisions. Other things would be a long slog for what might be lucrative or bring status, but I weigh more carefully what I would have to give up to get there. I’m shuttering a second business that had a great business plan and minimally saturated niche market. While I’m passionate about the issue it solved, and it’s a great opportunity, I’m not interested in spending my years building it.

I’ve learned the value of being kinder to myself. For most of my life to date, I ignored how tired, hungry, or thirsty I was, how difficult or heart-wrenching the effort before me, or anything else that might have gotten in the way of getting through tasks at hand. I’m now more attuned to how I’m feeling, and what fuel and care my body and mind needs to run effectively and produce better results. Craving chips gave way to craving fruit. I’m realistic about what time I turn in at night, and prefer to be fully present for important conversations instead of multi-tasking my way through them.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned is how freeing it is to live a life less guarded. Having built perimeters around my privacy for decades, now sharing expositive aspects of my life, my thoughts, and my history seemed like an exercise in vulnerability. And it has been, but in a good way – in the way Brené Brown describes as the birthplace of love and belonging. My experience blogging and interacting with others who play in this space showed me that sharing ourselves isn’t a zero-sum game. The more we share, the more we have to give, and the richer our lives become. My efforts at hardening the target only kept me from living a more whole-hearted life with boundaries instead of walls.

This journey reminds me a bit of hiking the Samaria gorge in Crete many years ago. Our group began at the top where it was cold enough to warrant a jacket, the path surrounded by alpine flora, lush and green with a steep descent. As the hike continued, the land became flatter but drier and rockier, our bodies more tired, the late summer sun and heat exhausting. In the later kilometers, my ankles buckled a couple of times as my body began to exercise veto power over my will, something I’d never experienced.

Samaria gorge,Greece

By the end of the 18 kilometers, bone dry, hard terrain eventually led to the Libyan sea. A lump in my throat, I walked into the water and stood there for what seemed a long time. I looked out at the sea and felt grateful that my preparations had helped me get through, and that my body had held up without injury for the full hike. I felt relief, joy, and accomplishment. I felt blessed. And most of all, despite the physical toll, I felt stronger for having made the journey.

After my last chemo follow-up oncology appointment.

To forget is to live without lesson.

A priest once told me that God forgives and forgets, but the human condition and its challenge is that we have to try to forgive while we may be unable to forget. I think that’s true. It is human to remember, whether it is our own transgression or that of another. And it is both our burden and our opportunity to try to construct a better future even though these memories remain. Our universe only cares about what we do in the present. It doesn’t care whether we did a good job yesterday.

The more I experience, the more I understand others, and my role in their world. A few weeks ago, I walked slowly across the grocery store parking lot. A car approached my general direction. To the driver, it must have looked like I was taking my sweet ol’ time. In fact, I was going pretty fast considering how I felt. On that day, the grocery visit was all I would have energy to do, and I was at the tail end of the trip. I thought of all the people I’d watched slowly cross the street in front of me over the years. My impatience muttered things like, “Anytime now”, “Yeah, no rush, we’ve got all the time in the world. It’s not like I have to be somewhere.” In the not-too-distant past, I always had to be somewhere, like 5 minutes ago.

I had another such awakening years ago, driving our dog to vet visits during her cancer treatments. In my 6-speed roadster with a loud, vibrating engine, I’d try to go a little slower and shift gracefully so our beautiful girl would have less discomfort during the ride. Those trips changed me forever. I realized that we have no idea what’s going on in the car next to us, what kind of day the driver is having, or what they’re dealing with. I stopped wishing the “idiot next to me would learn to drive”. I figured out that maybe I should be a little more kind and generous with the road.

I’m grateful for these lessons, because they’ve added a little more compassion to the world. Don’t misunderstand – I still have my days. But I’m better than I was for these miles walked and driven. That only happened because I’m willing to acknowledge these lessons, despite the fact that the “knowing” makes me cringe a little more when I do have a moment of impatience, or sigh deeply when I remember acting less than my best. If we truly grow, yesterday’s actions and choices won’t always align with the people we are tomorrow. We’ll need to accept that, and sometimes to forgive ourselves. I suspect given the stresses of the past couple of years, this universal need will be more keenly felt.

“We are going to make mistakes – own them, make amends, and move on.”

Matthew McConaughey, Greenlights, 2020

So what can we do with this painful misalignment? When it happens – and it’s going to happen – say, “Thank you”. Remember that forgiveness is good. Be kind to yourself and let it wash through you. Make amends if you can, but don’t ruminate about it if you can’t. Stop trying to forget. Forgetting, while we’d all love to, would mean abandoning the lessons that help us grow. Coming face to face with the reality we lived before we knew better can be tough, but it just means we’re more aware. It doesn’t mean we are bad or unworthy. It’s a necessary part of the journey towards greater humility.

Closing our eyes hoping the past goes away robs us of our chance to learn from our mistakes. Be brave. It’s through these lessons that the gravity of our prior actions can drive us to be our better selves tomorrow.

**Photo by Penny Shellhorn-Schutt. Thanks to Maria Ulbricht at The Holistic Woman for permission to use her photo of a modified Exalted Warrior. The Warrior poses in yoga chronicle a warrior’s journey that ends in compassionately accepting regretted past actions, which results in renewed life and wholeness.**

Half-way Day is Here!

I began this blog because so many words and thoughts spinning in my head wanted to come out. Life had become more precious after my brush with cancer. I relished realizations, cherished memories, and felt closer to family and friends than I had in years. I didn’t know who would read or care about my stories, but I knew they needed a home outside of me. Unlike journals that I’d kept to myself for many years, I believed these thoughts should be shared. That’s how 190 Days came to be.

My first post went live on July 1, the day I began chemotherapy. Why “190 Days”? Those of you who read my first blog post likely guessed that my 190 day journey is about my road to preventing a recurrence of a cancer my surgeon successfully removed. My treatment is expected to take place over 6 months, and it was preceded by a port placement surgery about a week before. Altogether, about 190 days.

I have learned so much on this journey, which has reached its half-way point. I have completed 6 of the 12 cycles, and 95 days. The best lesson was how kind and supportive people can be, and what a difference that can make. I was unexpectedly surprised by the compassion and generosity of family, friends, and neighbors who learned of my surgery and path forward. They were all especially creative in the ways they supported me, offering things I never would have considered asking. That safety net was a great comfort. Just knowing made me stronger, and gave me more confidence to be there for myself.

Below are some of the (many) highlights, which I’m sharing in the hope that they help others be creative in supporting their own family and friends.

  • Offering Rides to Appointments: Neighbors offered to take me to and from surgery, to and from appointments, or other places I needed to go. I took two neighbors up on a ride to and from the hospital, and was touched by how much it lifted me to see their faces on either side of my surgery.
  • Dog Walks: Neighbors offered to walk my dog. My 80 lb. bundle of love can be a handful so I went a different route. But had he been a small guy I would have said yes. My dog seemed confused about me not walking him and playing the way I used to, so getting to spend time with a neighbor would have been a treat for him.
  • Picking Up Groceries and Prescriptions: Although I had grocery delivery down pat thanks to the pandemic, the offer to pick up groceries or take me grocery shopping could have been a make or break if I’d lived in an area without good delivery, or if I needed something quick. Picking up prescriptions after surgery is huge. If you can’t drive or you don’t feel up to it, having someone drive you there to get them is priceless.
  • Watering Gardens: Some neighbors offered to water my garden. It’s no small offer. I have a modest townhome without much yard. Still, I’d been a stop on a local garden tour earlier this year, and I had lovingly planned and planted annuals and pruned and nurtured more perennials than you could shake a stick at around all three detached sides of my home. The offer to water, even from those who weren’t gardeners, was so touching because I felt like they “saw” me. They knew it was something I cared about, and they cared enough about me to try to help me keep it.
  • Small Kindnesses: Things like offering to meet me anywhere I wanted for lunch made staying in touch easier. Another friend met me for walks, which was good for me physically and just a good way to catch up and have fun. And she let me set the pace. My dental hygienist knew of my condition because she did my pre-chemo checkup and cleaning. She saw me in the lobby twice since when I took my sons for routine visits. Each time she came over and asked me how I was doing – and not just a cursory ask. She met my eyes with hers and I could see she cared, and was there for me if I had issues to ask about or share. These small kindnesses really made me feel cared about.
  • Being There With You and For You: Family and friends local and distant offered to be there for me at the hospital or during recovery, or to take care of my family. It was such a comfort knowing that I could launch a Plan B if needed! One friend offered to stay in a nearby hotel and come and play scrabble with me during my hospital stay. Another offered that I could call at any time and they’d fly in that day. Cousins I love but rarely see offered to fly or drive in from other states to be there for us. If you are able to offer this kind of support, offer it and repeat the offer a few times, so they know you mean it. Those offers made me feel like Popeye eating a can of spinach. It instantly pumped me up.
  • Treating You Like a Person…Instead of a Sick Person: What was most impressive about the offers and goodwill was that they weren’t accompanied by a “poor you”, “you can’t do this without me”, “I feel so sorry for you”, “you better lean on me”. It was more like, “Hey, I’m here, I’m on your team – just let me know when to get off the bench and start playing – I’m ready!” That’s empowering. That’s the best kind of help you can give.
  • Caring Conversations: I spent hours texting and talking to caring friends and family after my diagnosis, and in the early cycles of chemo. Those who had been through cancer and/or chemo, or had helped someone close to them were uniquely helpful. Hearing their journeys, advice, and tips helped me make good decisions, and helped me take more control over my journey. “Gratefulness” is too small a word for how I feel about these people. I know that recounting their stories involved revisiting difficult experiences and emotions. Some were distant scars, others fresh wounds. They dug deep into their hearts past their own pain, took my hand in theirs, and put their great wisdom into my small palm. They were courageous and inspiring, and continue to be so.
  • Respecting Wishes: I am generally a woman who knows what she wants. So I really appreciated family and friends who respected my boundaries in words and in practice. The words were just as important as the practice because of the comfort they brought and connection they maintained. Some of the best articulations:
    • “I understand you don’t need anything…, but if that changes just let me know”. Well, it did change, and that “just let me know” made all the difference.
    • “Whatever you decide, I’ll be there for you.” We don’t always make the choices that others would make. It’s huge to know someone will be there for you 100% without judgement despite that, and that you won’t lose the relationship along the way.
    • “I’ll respect your wishes”. When someone wishes the answer was yes, but it’s no, acknowledging that they hear your “No” and will do as you asked alleviates anxiety.
  • Prayers and Healing Thoughts: Even if you aren’t very religious or don’t subscribe to the idea of healing energy in the universe, the power of spending time with positive thoughts does make a difference. I loved when people said they were praying for me. I really didn’t feel like I could do it effectively for myself, so it was a boon to have someone else pulling for me with the Big Man Upstairs. Sometimes people shared the prayers they said, and they were beautiful. Like this one: “May the angels surround you and go before you, with you, and after you, and protect you and divert any harm away from you and your family.” If you don’t want prayers (or even if you do) there are plenty of other healing options. Laughter is the best medicine, and it’s easy to come by and to share in the form of funny gifs, jokes, hilarious conversations, or comedic movies. Reiki and other methods of healing energy can help physically and mentally, and have worked for me.

The mentions above really helped me with the big “C”. But one of the special surprises for me was about another “C” – connections. It happened in a new way for me when I began to blog regularly. I enjoy not only the creative process but also the connections I’ve made with those whose blogs I read and with those who read what I write. I’ve also found that I’m reconnecting with my past, and connecting my past with my present more gracefully. I was helped along by the fact that when I told friends and family I was going to blog they were supportive instead of telling me to pay attention to other things or worrying about what I would write.

Connections come in many forms. For some it may be art, or music, or a book group, or zooms or lunches or walks with friends. But it’s important to feel that connection to something that stirs your soul, and I’m grateful to those who have encouraged me to and supported me in doing so.

And now, continuing on this road, let’s see what the next 95 days will bring. Thank you for being part of the journey this far!

A Blue-eyed white ragdoll cat peers out of a cat condo.

Kicking irrationality to the curb

The journey of 1000 miles starts with one thought: “What if I stumble, fall, and can’t get up?” Threats to mortality invite that sort of anxiety. That’s what happened the morning I came to believe that I should take precautions not to fall into my cat’s litter box. Before my bathroom mirror, fresh sutures a few inches from my collarbone, I slowly looked down and remembered the litter box tucked under the counter. I stood wide-eyed considering the threat it presented to my new – albeit temporary – vulnerability. What to do?!

I’ve had a cat – one cat or another – for over 30 years. I have NEVER fallen INTO a litter box. I can’t fathom logistically how it could happen. If an intruder came in and cornered me in my bathroom, and my only chance of escape was wedging his chest into the litter box, I would need Ocean’s 11 planning to make it happen. It’s not wide enough for a chest. You could pretty much do planks over the litter box, and you’d still be fine.

Still, at that moment two months ago (at the time of this writing), the fear was real. It’s been awhile since I felt as if “anxious” was the word to describe my constant state. I left that behind long ago, and was taken aback when it revisited. So when I spoke with my oncologist and she asked if I had any questions, my question was, “Does this anxiety get better?” I wasn’t as concerned about whether the progression of treatments would wear me down physically. I just needed to know I’d be myself mentally again. And fortunately, she gave an emphatic, “Yes!”

That has been true. Now, two months later, I see the litter box for what it is. But time doesn’t have to pass for us to challenge our own irrational thoughts. Asking the questions, speaking concerns out loud, and getting support from our team – whether medical providers, family, or friends – is what does it. Challenging our irrational thoughts reduces them to what they are…just thoughts. Let them pass and get back to real living.