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.

A beautiful mess.

Some days when I’m leveling off flour in a measuring cup or pouring sugar crystals, I’m visited by memories of bakings past. For a while in my youth I spent Saturday mornings at a 4-H program where Miss May taught us how to bake all sorts of yummies.

I’d never met anyone like Miss May in my town. I grew up in an area largely populated by people who’d moved south from New York and North Jersey. Their families had spent summer weekends on the Jersey shore. Scrappy and confident, from those who had made their way through Ellis Island for better opportunities, they now made the move toward bigger homes in a place that held happy memories. We were loud, quick, and bold. Everyone talked over each other, especially over spaghetti on Sundays.

Miss May’s ancestors also hailed from another continent, possibly against their will. They had moved north from the south, where I heard they knew everything there was to know about baking. Miss May moved and spoke calmly, and gave direction with infinite patience, as if time were no matter. She had a joyful spirit, a quiet tenderness in her soft drawl, and she was inspirational. I wanted to use the butter wrapper to grease the corners of the loaf pan as well as Miss May could. I had to pass the knife over the flour cup three times – forward, back, and forward again – to make sure it was as level as Miss May’s demonstration. I still do it today.

Each week she’d hand out a new paper with a recipe. We’d put them in our 3-ring binders to make our own recipe books. My pages still bear fingerprinted crusts of floury pastes and butter splotches, attesting to the name of the group – Messy Makers. I understand the program still exists, but know nothing of when Miss May stepped away. Thanks to her and the 4-H program, in the short time we spent together I learned to enjoy baking breads, muffins, rolls, and more.

I loved the feel of the dough on my fingers, the warmth when it had risen, the way the air felt when it escaped as I kneaded. I loved the way an egg rested in a mound of flour, and how it all came together when mixed. I loved when the ball of dough pulled away from the sides of the bowl, when it was changing from plain ingredients into something that would be beautiful. I loved the special set of mixing bowls and measuring cups and spoons my mom had bought so I could have what I needed to bake. I even loved the waiting periods when I needed to let something rise, and could go off and do something else while it did its thing. And I loved the smell as it cooked, and the goodness that emerged when it was out of the oven.

At some point I started entering the county fair, and winning ribbons for the goods my little fingers created. I won ribbons in the adult categories, even though I was a child. My favorite blue-ribbon winner was blueberry muffins, made with blueberries we’d picked at a farm. But there were other ribbons. So many, in fact, that one day I was trying to figure out what to do with them, moving them from one place to another. I poo-poo’d the reds and yellows – second and third place winners – as meaningless. I told my mom I could probably toss them. Oh, that did not go over well…at all. My mom was having none of that.

I got a stern but appropriate talking-to about how grateful I should be to have gotten those red and yellow ribbons; how many others would have loved to get any ribbon at all; how the fact that I had gotten them meant that someone else – someone who wanted them – did not get them that day; and generally, how I’d better become a better sportsman, or kiss my competition days goodbye. And rightly so.

Eventually I stopped entering the fair. I don’t recall why or when. But the lesson about good sportsmanship stuck with me. I still have a competitive streak. In time, though, I learned the value of effort, and that most often the effort is worth much more than the recognition or the results.

I value how the “game” – any game – is played, and what goes into it, and the personal stories that bring us to those moments. I’m willing to fail and try new things, and that helps me take chances that pay off. It’s helped me professionally to innovate, and it’s helped me personally in ways too private to share. I enjoy competing with myself, with my own best. I ask myself, “Is this my best?”, not, “Is this the best?” And I enjoy and appreciate the work of others freely, without feeling their success minimizes my own.

Although I’ve won a few awards as an adult, those I prize most are the team awards. I love people coming together and doing great work, creating something better than any of us could have done alone. I’ve learned that sharing success makes it that much sweeter. I’ve lost to competitors on some awards, and I’m just as proud of the attempts and the growth that came of them. My breads are no longer worthy of ribbons, but I love them just the same. It’s a long way from where I started, and a much better place to be.