One night during my chemo tenure, I attended a performance of the “Mystical Arts of Tibet” presented by a group of visiting Tibetan monks.  In the audience was a woman I had seen earlier that day at the sand mandala closing ceremony.  On both occasions, her beautiful hat caught my eye.  Sporting a bald head, I instinctively gravitated toward interesting head gear.  I decided to inquire.

“Excuse me, ma’am, where did you get your hat?”

She’d found it in one of our local shops.  That day or the day before.

“It’s really nice.  You see, I’m doing chemo and I’ve lost my hair and – ”

She interrupted.  “I know.”

We paused.  Then she took off her hat and extended it to me.

“Would you like it?”

“Uh –” I stammered, thinking immediately that this is not what I intended.

“Here, take it.  I can always go and get another one.”  And she handed me her hat.  With a mixture of surprise, embarrassment, humility, and gratitude, I accepted.

Her eyes filled with tears.

“I’ve just been through this with my partner.  And I almost lost her.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay; she’s better now.”  And then looking right at (or rather through) me, she directed, “Get better.”

“I am,” I nodded reassuringly (whether for her or me, I am not so certain).

Her tears brought shyness and she looked away.  For how much can you reveal to a stranger?  And what need be said, anyway?

“Thank you,” I said quietly.

Another moment passed, and I gently inquired, “What’s your name?”

Once more she looked at me and this time shook her head, silently waving me on through her tears.  As if it didn’t matter who she was or who I was.  That conventions of name and form unnecessarily hampered this slice of impermanence.  That our moment here together touching raw truth was the only thing of any import.

Honoring her request, I returned to my seat with her (now my) beautiful hat – and a head full of wonder.  For the gift this woman bestowed on me that evening generated much more than just protection for my bald skull against the late autumn chill.   From her I learned that pain shared opens doorways and that one’s disease may help another heal.  That compassion and love need no words to explain them.  That beauty quadruples when we release it.  That true generosity has no source here.  That the warp and weft of our intertwining lives yields a tapestry far more magical than anything we could ever imagine as individual threads.  For all this warmth enfolding the cold hard edges that sometimes life carves, I bowed then and still now – safely enveloped in humility, gratitude, silence and awe.

 

 

It’s easy to feel frustrated when we suddenly find ourselves unable to do the things we love, the things we have always done and up till now taken for granted.  Numerous circumstances can drop us here:  illness, injury and/or medical treatment, modern over-stuffed schedules which strip us of “a life,” natural processes like aging, and a big one especially for today’s boomers, the caretaking of the sick and/or elderly (again, not an unusual situation but one for which we aren’t necessarily well prepared). Regardless of the reason, when our freedom to determine what happens in our bodies and lives is hampered by forces beyond our control, anger, resentment, victimhood and depression can all rise up to greet us.

This doesn’t make the job of living any easier.

Prior to two abdominal surgeries, I was an avid gardener.  Post-op, I couldn’t lift five pounds.  Nor could I bend over.  I was unable to shovel, turn the soil, or prepare garden beds.  Pulling weeds was out of the question.  It’s amazing how quickly you discover what key functions various parts of your body play when you’re suddenly minus their input.  With a stapled-shut, six-inch vertical incision between my navel and pubic bone, there just wasn’t a lot of core action to be had.  Previously one of the strongest areas of my body, my belly now required gentleness and time, and I obliged, maneuvering life in slow motion.  Whether getting out of bed, attempting the stairs, or scrunching my whole face while swallowing hoping to avoid a cough, I learned how to be in the world in a “gingerly” manner.  Not my usual m.o.  Have you ever tried to restrain a laugh because un-girdled mirth was just too dangerous?  As you fight to contain your guts, you’re simultaneously trying to avoid blowing a gasket elsewhere.  It’s pathetic, brutal, and absolutely necessary.

But I digress.

As spring was fast becoming early summer, I wanted to be outside in the garden, most days my medicine of choice.  It wasn’t enough to look out the window.  I longed for sunshine and fresh air.  I’m not sure I was yet at the point of detesting my bed, but I was getting there.  Too much of a good thing is, well, too much.  So as soon as I could manage a few stairs, out I went.

As I said, there was no bending, no pulling, no pushing or lifting allowed.  What could I do?  I could look.  So I did.  Sigh…

Dead flowers at eye level.  Hmmm…

Then, a glimmer.

I couldn’t use a hoe, but I could deadhead.  I could stand at the waist-level bed bordering my driveway and easily clip a handful.  Maybe not a whole garden’s worth, but I could cut ten, fifteen.  Now that’s a slight shift in ambition for one who has previously managed a hundred acres.  (Ah, humility.)  I could still immerse myself in beauty—even the beauty of decay—and like a flower, soak up the sunlight, drink in the air.  (Ah, gratitude.)  I could still be in my garden, tending her and letting her tend me.

This was a crucial moment, the memory of which continues to impact me daily.  Seeing what was before me, I also saw a choice: I could either focus on a very long list of limitations, bemoaning my condition and deficits, or discover what was possible.  Stay with the disappointments of can’t or step into the opportunities of can.  Grieve what was lost, or find the gift here.  Even now, a happy distance from doctors and hospitals and treatments and forced rest, I get overwhelmed by all that there is to do and feel limited and inadequate in the face of it.  Cancer didn’t cure my ambition (it may have made it worse), and I still create mountainous to-do lists.  But I’m getting better at foregoing the fantasy of a flying leap to the summit.  One step at a time is not such a struggle anymore.  I can do that…

… and enjoy the flowers all along the way.

Now that’s a concept.

I thank my friend and colleague David Mackenzie for reminding me of this possibility, which he learned from a friend of his dying from cancer.

Indeed.  What if nothing is wrong?

What if we held cancer, or any “calamity” for that matter, as just another blip on the radar screen of life and not the panic-filled death sentence we so often attribute to this news?

You might be thinking, “Easy for you to say; you made it.”  Actually, it’s not (and it wasn’t) easy for me to remember to hold life circumstances with so much equanimity.  It was, and remains, a very conscious choice.

And it takes practice.  For when things don’t go the way we like, we often label them as wrong.  But on the sine wave of life, is it not true that as long as there is health, there is illness; with fortune comes misfortune; and birth pretty much ensures death?  Why do we label one good and the other anathema?

Perhaps for reasons like psychological “safety.”  Resistance to change.  Fear of the unknown.  Attachment to the status quo.

I’m not suggesting we roll over and passively entertain life events with a plasticized “it’s all good” when in fact there may be grief, rage, disillusion and dismay to experience and perhaps respond to.  I am saying that railing against what it is and labeling life’s shocks as wrong may not be the most helpful way to move through any particular set of circumstances.

Should we want things to stay the way they are, we may have to move to a different planet.  For change seems to be the name of the game here.  If we’re attached to a certain outcome, or a certain lifestyle, or a certain anything, we can reasonably expect to have that wrested from our grip.  No matter what it is, at some point, it appears we have to give it up.  Why does this continue to come as a surprise?  And when it does, why do we label it as “wrong?”

How much do we lose when we resist the things that make us uncomfortable?  For really, there is much to gain by embracing these challenges.  For example:

  • the opportunity to dis-identify with the physical as the primary arbiter of reality;
  • practice releasing our judgments, expectations, demands and arrogance;
  • a reassessment of our beliefs and the opening to new possibilities;
  • experience of deep vulnerability and the parallel discovery of inner resources that carry us through;
  • the wonder of rebuilding bodily capacities we previously took for granted;
  • humility and a newfound ability to ask for help;
  • a feeling of overwhelming gratitude when it comes;
  • countless opportunities to serve;
  • the dissolution of our personas and re-building of relationships based on honesty and grief-tempered, even awe-inspired humanity;
  • the softening and opening of our hearts;
  • compassion that arises knowing that so many experience this and more;
  • the simplicity of days where everything but the bare essentials has dropped away;
  • a chance to reconsider, reprioritize and revamp our lives.

In short, when we remember to back up, take the long-range view, and see our lives in the context of a Universe unfolding and not just according to this week’s (or month’s or year’s) page in our Day-Timer, we stand to gain countless opportunities to become fuller, deeper and richer human beings.

And is anything wrong with that?

One night nearly 20 years ago, I was standing in my garden pondering life when a book title came to me: Living as If My Life Depends on It.  I knew then that I would write this book someday.  For it made total sense.  I had built a life around intention and strove to live as wholly and healthfully as I knew how:  moving from the busy metropolitan East Coast to a rural farm in the Arkansas Ozarks, growing organic food, practicing and teaching yoga, training in massage and other healing arts, laying the foundations for a healing spiritual retreat center.  I grokked (and formally studied via a Master’s Degree in Energy Medicine) the mind/body/spirit connection long before mind-body became the household phrase it is today.  I wrote about and was published in quantifying the unquantifiable.  I coached others on making the link between formless and form, between mind and matter, between psyche, soma and soul.  In short, I aimed to live and help others live with meaning and authenticity, aligning inner and outer worlds, congruently embodying passion and ground.

And then, one sunny day in February of 2010… a pain in my gut led me to my nurse practitioner… who sent me to the nearby hospital for an ultrasound… followed immediately by a CA-125 (a blood tumor marker for ovarian cancer)… and then back to her office to have her hold my hand and say, “Girl, you gotta go find yourself a surgeon.”

So began my adventure through the world of oncology in the 21st century.  And driving away from my appointment that day I said, “I can’t do this alone.”

Everyone deals differently with a diagnosis of cancer.  Upon hearing such news, some people dive within and share their process with very few.   Others make movies out of their experience.  I chose a middle path, combining inner and outer by engaging a deeply personal process coupled with periodically inviting folks into my journey through my writing.  Every few weeks during the diagnostic phase and subsequent treatment, I would write one of what I would call my “epistles” and send it out to family and friends.  People were frequently touched by these stories and asked to share them with others.  Friends going through cancer confided that I expressed what they only wished they could.  I was told that my words could help a lot of people and was frequently encouraged to publish.  I love to write; it feeds me.  It is an honor that others find sustenance in my words as well.  If I—by illuminating my fear, curiosity, confusion, laughter, frustration, wonder, anger and love—can help others open to their own courage and wisdom, then my gift is serving a good purpose.  Thus, a few years after my medical treatment has concluded, I am sitting down to collect these glimpses into my story, windows revealing the inside of a journey through cancer and into a deeper, fuller life.

When out of the clear blue sky, life drops untimely bombs on our doorsteps, we have a choice.  As we watch our desires, plans and expectations disintegrate before our eyes,  we can argue, run and hide, cower in anger, fear and denial, or we can see this blast from the universe as the precious opportunity that it is.  Confronting death, literally or metaphorically—through war, natural disasters, accidents, the ending of relationships, job loss, evaporating portfolios, and/or serious illness—yields untold opportunities for growth, for deepening, and yes, even for love.  Yet spotting the jewels amidst the rubble, celebrating those tiny blades of grass pushing up through the cracked concrete, choosing life when every indicator is pointing to its opposite, is undoubtedly a warrior’s path.  It isn’t easy to embrace change we didn’t ask for, circumstances we didn’t see coming, wake-up calls that jolt us out of our comfy, cozy dreams.  It’s so much easier just to hit the snooze and roll back over, burying ourselves beneath layers of covers.

The explosion in my life was a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.   Yet while I got to deal with that and this is my unique story, this book is not just about cancer and it is not just my story.  This is about all of us and how we cave to or grow through the “cancers” we face down every day, all the ways that life and what we do with it can rob—or remind—us of our happiness and joy.  You’ll find here more about living than dying, a focus on warriorship versus victimhood, and what it takes to discover and stay true to who we are despite everything that distracts us from our goals.  Because anything less than this is the real death—the death of the soul underlying all the drama on the surface.  Some of these stories are about my experience with cancer and what happened since that day at the doctor’s office two and a half years ago; many more are about choosing to live every day like it matters.  I believe the simple truth is that it does.

Memoir—and appeal.  To me, to you, to all of us to recognize that living as if our lives depend on it is not only a catchy phrase, but may be the requisite choice for surviving both individually and as a species in bodies and on a planet that so need our loving attention and care.

So from Living as If My Life Depends on It to Living as If Our Lives Depend on It.  This is how this book got its title.

I invite you in.

 


 

 

 

Did you know that the word discipline and the word disciple derive from the same Latin roots?  Discipulus = pupil and discere = to learn.  Whereas we associate the word discipline with structure, order, and control, we think of discipleship as being a student or follower of a certain faith or doctrine.  And while some level of discipline (physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual) is often inherent in being a disciple, the desire and passion to learn and master a new skill or level of understanding often override any discomfort or inconvenience that the requisite “discipline” imposes on our lives.

When we’re trying to make changes, we often start with some vision, inspiration, a resolution and promise to ourselves.  And while we are operating on the high of this new version of us, the associated alterations in our lifestyles don’t seem so hard.   But over time, frequently our excitement fades and commitment wanes.  We find ourselves “cheating,” making excuses, or altogether giving up on our hoped-for transformation.  This is when discipline becomes tough as we force ourselves through the motions, preferring comfort and our old habits instead.

In these moments, what might happen if we were to recall the true meaning of discipline and become the students rather than the jailers of our lives?  What if we stopped to inquire, to discover what unfolds naturally from within, to remember and realign with our reasons for change and our passions for living?  What if we approached evolution with curiosity and wonder versus demands and expectations?

Perhaps the most important discipline is to remember to be kind and generous, with ourselves and with each other.  To hold space with an open heart and witness the continuous mystery of the miracle of life unfolding, as with a child or a flower.

Perhaps in this way, we become students–or disciples–of our own sacred calling.

Hi Friends – I just received this wonderful link and I want to share it with all of you.  2 1/2  minutes of exquisite beauty unfolding.  It put such a big smile on my face.  Enjoy!

http://player.vimeo.com/video/27920977?title=0&%3bbyline=0&%3bportrait=0href=

Happy Spring!

Susan

In honor of this day of celebrating love, I want to acknowledge just how much love there is in the world.  And I’d like to share it.

So I’ve got a question for you:

What do you LOVE about your life?

Leave a comment below and share the love!  I’ll start…

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

 

 

 

Hello FriendsI hope you are well and enjoying the approach of winter.  It’s getting cold here and we’ve even had snow (seems early for us)!  I do love the holiday season – the lights, the music, the decorations, the goodies, the cheer… and out in the woods – the silence, the crackle of frozen branches under my feet, the gentle contours of hills as revealed by now-bare trees…  I hope you are finding magical and heart-warming ways to celebrate this season.

I have some exciting news I’d like to share with you. In the New Year, I will be offering a coaching program called “Living As If Our Lives Depend On It” (yes, like my blog)!  In a nutshell, this three-month course is designed to help others navigate their life journeys with and through cancer, and more specifically, to help current and former oncology patients create lives that they deeply love and enjoy.

Even if you are not dealing with cancer directly, I encourage you to read and share the program offering; I’ve heard from several like this who have responded, “I want to play!”

Here is the link to the web pagehttp://livingasifourlivesdependonit.com/class/

And, for those of you who would prefer to download and print a pdf, here is this option:  http://livingasifourlivesdependonit.com/class/LivingAsIfOurLivesDependOnIt.pdf

Please feel free to share this announcement with your friends and colleagues.  Thank you so much for your help in spreading the word.

Wishing you holidays filled with wonder and a very Happy New Year.

Susan

In my recent post, “Permission,” I made the statement that cancer is a chronic illness.  It has been called to my attention that this statement is inaccurate due to its incompleteness and could as such cause unnecessary concern, especially for cancer patients.  In regards to cancer and chronicity, what would be more precise (and empowering) to say is that for many oncology patients, cancer is a one-time occurrence, and therefore obviously not “chronic.”  For others, because of advances in modern medicine (both conventional and complementary), recurrence is no longer necessarily considered terminal.  Thus, what was once perceived as a “death sentence” can now be considered and treated as a chronic condition, recurrences effectively managed by appropriate and timely health interventions.

In regards to my blog post entitled “Permission,” I deleted the sentence about chronicity altogether as it was ultimately unnecessary within the text.

Hi Folks – The following piece, “Permission,” is an essay from my forthcoming book about my reflections on my experience with cancer.  I’m including it here because it seems applicable beyond the realm of oncology.  One could substitute many words or situations for “cancer:”  it’s really about our modus operandi and not so much about the particulars.  It’s about our choice to ratchet down into rigidity or live into the mysterious beauty of a life in the midst of transforming.

* * *

* * *

Our culture has a very yang (hard, aggressive, masculine) approach to cancer.  We go to war; we fight.  We blast the enemy with our most advanced surgical and chemical weapons.  We rally.  We hate.  We crush our fear, or try to.

Acute crises often respond well to the heroics of modern medicine.  And frequently, the shock of diagnosis feels acute when suddenly our perception of ourselves and our lives shifts instantaneously; more often than not, we respond via crisis mode, physically, mentally and certainly emotionally.  Once our fear gets triggered (usually when we equate cancer with death), we flip into warrior mode and in our desire to “beat this thing,” forge ahead doing our damnedest to keep our spirits strong, our bodies functional, and our lives recognizable.  We do all this even (perhaps especially) while undergoing the most brutal and exhausting of treatment regimes.  We want to prove to the world and to ourselves that we’re bigger than this “inconvenience.”  We want to get on with our lives.  We want this thing behind us.  And often, in our full-steam-ahead mode, we forget to pause and listen—to our bodies, to our minds, to our hearts.

So it’s easy to miss those days when we just need permission.  Permission to step back from the battle, to take a breather, to quit being so brave and acknowledge that we just feel like crap and that, heaven forbid, we’re scared.  In our desire to retain “normalcy,” we complain when we can’t get anything done, overlooking the fact that we’re simultaneously hosting serious chemical warfare and in fact our cells, both the healthy and diseased ones, are fighting for their lives.  We’re so accustomed to muscling our way through pain and difficulty.  In our lopsidedly extroverted culture, rather than pausing to reflect on the magnificent play of darkness and light occurring within our bodies and minds, we prefer to bulldoze wide sunny swathes through every shadow of uncertainty and fear.  As if by doing so we could eliminate ignorance and mystery forever.

What might happen if we allowed ourselves to rest, allowed the unknown to hold us for awhile?  In our terror, we assume that “giving up the fight” essentially equates to giving up our lives.  It’s not true, at least not unequivocally.  Yes, sometimes when we cease resisting it, death ensues.  (How we can appreciate this course of events as part of healing as opposed to failure is the topic for another essay.)  Yet it’s equally possible that when we quit clutching our conception of how life should be and merely acknowledge what is, our life force returns.  Minus our demands and judgment, previously hidden possibilities emerge.  Creativity blossoms.  Shift happens.  Healing arrives.

These movements can arise in small, subtle steps and sometimes in big dramatic turns.  This is not miraculous but rather the way that life naturally (minus egoic interference) unfolds:  the yin—soft, yielding, feminine—in balance with the yang.  This is Tao in action, the rhythm of the universe, breathing in and breathing out.  Watch a child who bangs his knee run for solace to his mother; upon receiving her undivided and tender attention, he is back out on the playground within thirty seconds building a fort, completely oblivious to his recent bruise.  Wrack your brain for the solution to a problem and then letting go (out of frustration and/or exhaustion), observe the answer appear “magically” as if out of nowhere.  Hang with a cancer patient who feels completely victimized and in loving silence, together hold the magnitude of her journey; it won’t be long before the next impulse toward healing arises and your friend takes a proactive step toward living.  When we surrender, when we truly yield, power rushes in organically to fill the welcoming void.  Even after the toughest of days, once we finally allow ourselves permission to relax and be fully human, tears will dry and smiles, even laughter, reemerge.

It’s counterintuitive, it’s countercultural, and it can feel like anathema.  But relinquishing our need for around-the-clock control and allowing ourselves to be carried by the generous and ubiquitous flow of the universe is powerful medicine.  Rest is good.  Permission to be just how you are—without having to change a thing—is radical.