Insult to Injury, Illustrated.

Let’s call this blog a word to the wise, from the not-so-wise.

My incision sites are over three months old. I thought, just before my trip, that I was ready to try to loosen up some scar tissue. The adhesion was pretty intense on my left side, and although massage and stretching are very helpful, I know eventually those scars need to loosen up. I used a very light touch, and a very soft brush that I normally use for washing my face, and started at the incision site and brushed, very gently, downward.

The result was gradual, very intense bruising, admonishment from my lymphedema specialist and a visit to the Cancer Centre, who made room for me only because I told them I was headed to the emergency room if they couldn’t. Also, round ten of antibiotics this year. Do I want to put this out there? Nope. I’ve spent the past week or so kind of hiding out, and shopping for very soft bras with no wires whatsoever, because it would appear that even the gentlest pressure is going to wreak havoc on my torso. I do, however, want to make sure this little lesson gets out there somehow. So here you go.

Lesson learned. I am not as healed as I would like to be. If any of you are thinking of rushing things, don’t. This shit takes time. That is all.

About two weeks after brushing, the bruising seems to be settling down a little bit.

About two weeks after brushing, the bruising seems to be settling down a little bit.

 

 

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Signs, symbols and serenades (Or, why I loved La Sagrada Família so.)

“We have given this academic title either to a fool or a genius.” is what was reportedly said about Anton Gaudi when he was given his degree. 

We left Barcelona on June 10th, the anniversary of Gaudi’s death. The stories report that he was hit by a tram car in 1926, and no one knew who he was because he looked slovenly and carried no papers. He was assumed to be a beggar and received only basic care when he arrived at the hospital, having been brought there by a police officer. By the time someone recognized him, his condition had deteriorated beyond any hope. He was buried in the crypt in La Sagrada Família, and he remains the only person buried there today. 

I’ve been letting my thoughts about this place roll around in my head for days and days, waiting for them to settle into some sort of a cohesive pattern, something I could speak out loud or write down that would do it justice. I don’t know that it’s possible. To say it’s beautiful is a gross understatement. To declare it inspired is, although true, quite banal an adjective to attach to La Sagrada. 

I think what I like best about it is, quite simply, the concept. Gaudi was passionate about religion and architecture, both of which interest me, but neither of which I pursue. He also found his inspiration in Nature. Ah. This, I get. There’s an amazing quote that I found that kind of makes it all make sense; ‘Originality consists in returning to the origin.’ For him, this meant referring to a place where perfection occurs:  Nature. How that resonates with me may not be the way it was intended to. When you need something figured out, or when things aren’t right, go and be amongst the trees. Works for me every time. And, in La Sagrada Família, that is how I felt. I said it out loud while I was in there – I remember exclaiming ‘I feel like I’m in the forest!’ – well, whispering – because there is an instant reverence that calls for quiet that happens when you enter that church. 

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Everywhere you look in La Sagrada there is a serenade to nature. The columns rise like trees and branch off, giving way to light, and sky. The sculptures of animals are of those whose habitat was affected by the construction of his masterpiece – his recognition of what he had done. He believed that because there were no straight lines in Nature, there must be no straight lines in architecture, and it is very, very difficult to find a consistently straight line anywhere in his work. Light peeks in just the way it would in a forest; it’s a warm, dapple of light here and there, sometimes high, sometimes low. Image

It wasn’t until I looked at these pictures upon arrival at home that I noticed the grapes surrounding the cross. And the Jesus represented here is very much lacking the foreboding crown of thorns and blood that often adorn the Jesus we look up at in cathedrals. Here, he appears to be outside with the rest of us, protected by the canopy of trees. He looks like he’s being carried up to the heavens by a flock of birds.  I can see why this church wasn’t recognized by the Catholic church until 2010. There’s no fear here. No suffering. That can’t be Catholic! 

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There were moments when I felt like I was in a cave, not a forest, and it was just as beautiful, and I felt just as protected. Inspired by crystals, trees, honeycombs, Gaudi’s belief that Nature holds perfection is demonstrated in every nook and cranny in this place, whose construction began in 1882 and which is scheduled to be completed in 2026, 100 years after his death. It is not surprising to me that its construction is being entirely funded privately and through tourism. It is impossible to leave there without feeling like you want to be part of it. 

Legacies and lilacs (Or, Thanks for that phone call. I needed that.)

I got the best phone call a couple of days ago.

Every year at around this time, I fill the passenger seat of my car with cloth bags – the big ones – and cram my Russell belt knife and large kitchen shears into the cup holders. I open up the sunroof and make sure I’m wearing sensible shoes. It’s lilac-hunting time. One bag for pink, one for purple, and one for my favourites, the white lilacs. The sunroof is perfect for climbing out of, or, as I found out this year, sending my 8-year old out of (these are important skills to pass on), to prune the back-alley bushes of which I’m so fond. It always feels a little bit stealthy. We whisper. Sometimes I’ve actually gone out because it’s dark and I’m less likely to be seen. (Sorry, neighbours.) It’s such an ephemeral time, lilac season. There is such a short window of opportunity to fill one’s house with this heavenly scent. For about two weeks, if it’s been a good hunting season, I fill every vase I own with lilacs and put some in every room. I have lilacs in both bedrooms, in the den, three vases in the living room, some on the dining room table. The first breath I inhale when I open my door is the best breath of the day. Lilacs are something that bring me pure, unadulterated joy.

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There is one girl in town who offered up her lilac tree for me to relieve of its lovely white lilacs a few years ago, and I’ve been going every year since. This year she didn’t wait for me to ask her; she called. ‘Your lilacs are ready!’ she said. We did the usual back-forth-are-you-sure-no-really-come-we’re-allergic thing that we do every year, and I thanked her profusely for thinking of me. Her response made me think.

“Every time they bloom!”

How lovely! What a beautiful thing for me to know. There are so many other legacies one could leave. So many other things I will be remembered for when my days are done – some good, some not so much. But ohh. Every year, when the lilacs bloom, some people will think about me.

Another friend of mine commented on a question I had put out there for the universe – I wanted to know if I had missed the fiddleheads (I had.) and her response was “I was afraid you were going to miss the lilacs!” (She remembered too!)

And I realized, so was I. Last year at this time, when my friend from down south flew in to spend the weekend with me in between my chemo treatments, I remember clambering up a hill I often visit for the pinks and purples with her and filling my bags with fragrant flowers and being stopped in my tracks by that very thought. What if that were the last time I got to hunt for lilacs?

It was not. But the same thought occurs to me this year, and it brings with it a sense of urgency. Smell all the flowers. Gather them in and bury your face in them. Don’t miss any of it. See all the beauty. Feel it all, completely, and with great joy.

I know this is not a new concept. But it is the first time that the whole ‘Stop to smell the roses’ has really, really made sense to me. Smell the roses. Hunt the lilacs. They are here for such a short time.

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Vibes, vino and viande (Or, why I’m going to need to revisit Barcelona)

Where to begin? I knew it would take me a few days to process this trip and what it meant to me when we left Spain and headed for home. I knew I hadn’t fully internalized everything that we had seen. We talked a lot during our trip about how it was impossible to name a ‘favourite’ or say which place we loved the most, because France and Spain were two totally different experiences. And they were.

There’s something about Barcelona. Maybe it’s Spain in its entirety. I haven’t seen enough. No, really. I mean that. I haven’t seen enough. I need more.

I said time and again during our time in Barcelona that it reminded me of Montreal. It doesn’t look like Montreal. It doesn’t smell like Montreal, although they do seem to share a deep appreciation for all things that belong in a carnesseria. Smoked meat and bagels in Montreal, jamòn serrano and Catalàn bread in Barcelona. Food in general is messy. It’s shared food – tapas passed around from hand to hand, portions generous and unpretentious. From the oily peppers so good in omelettes or on their own, to the manchego that gets sweaty and soft in the afternoon sun, to the calamari that my mom and sister claimed was the best they had ever tasted and which became the fastest-disappearing plate on the table, to the bread drenched in olive oil and tomato sauce that drips shamelessly down your chin as you eat it, food in Spain is an experience I am fairly certain I’m a better person having had. And again, I want more.

Cornets of cured meat. Unapologetic about the love of and indulgence in meat.

Cornets of cured meat. Unapologetic about the love of and indulgence in meat.

The calamari hadn't arrived yet. This was an example of a totally unpretentious hole-in-the-wall kind of place where beside us sat a family - eating, drinking, smoking, taking the time, mid-afternoon, to connect. This is another of the reasons I loved this city.

The calamari hadn’t arrived yet. This was an example of a totally unpretentious hole-in-the-wall kind of place where beside us sat a family – eating, drinking, smoking, taking the time, mid-afternoon, to connect. This is another of the reasons I loved this city.

There’s a vibe. A spirit of activism. One of the moments that will stay with me was walking through a courtyard where there were musicians busking and playing lovely music for the restaurant-goers enjoying a late afternoon lunch (nobody rushes there. Ever.) Their presentation was interrupted by two police officers on motorbikes, intent on breaking up their lawless performance. The musicians scattered, and the instant reaction of the lunchers was to stand and applaud the music, in solidarity and protest. The next thing that happened was beautiful; as soon as the police left a lineup silently formed and lunchers became CD-purchasers, quietly supporting the buskers and demonstrating their loathing of the police.

Random, quiet celebration of art, of music, of love. I have no idea what is in this building. But I want to meet whoever lives there.

Random, quiet celebration of art, of music, of love. I have no idea what is in this building. But I want to meet whoever lives there.

There is juxtaposition everywhere - beautiful old buildings transformed into storefronts, almost without exception sport some sort of graffiti. Quiet, constantly present, protest.

There is juxtaposition everywhere – beautiful old buildings transformed into storefronts, almost without exception sport some sort of graffiti. Quiet, constantly present, protest.

No.

No.

While we were there, we were lucky enough to witness another protest, one which has been taking place every year since 2004. These cyclists quietly cycle through Barcelona in various states of undress, most of them completely naked, to protest the overuse of fossil fuels. Yes to bikes, no to cars. Love.

Surprised, and immediately  full of joy and laughter when this passed us. I love this city.

Surprised, and immediately full of joy and laughter when this passed us. I love this city.

While we expected to bear witness to some crazy fashion in Barcelona, what we saw was different. Understated. Sexy. The men and women both give off such an earthy, self-assured vibe that it kind of makes one think that half of them have just crawled out of bed with a lover and are venturing out for sustenance. And it will be good food. Meat and cheese for breakfast kind of good. Wine late-morning kind of good. My sister commented at one point that she wondered if anyone in Barcelona worked. I’m sure they do. But nobody gives the impression that work is life. Life is for living. Food is for eating. Wine is for drinking. People are meant to be kissed. On the street. Nice and slow, because it’s worth the time.

Barcelona, I will be back.

Cannes, Cans and Curls (Or, how I finally got into the ocean.)

Shortly after my diagnosis, my mother looked me in the face and said something to the effect of ‘When all of this shit is done, we are going on a trip.’ Over the course of this past year, the trip has been planned, unplanned, re-planned and changed. My original intent was to walk a week of the Camino in Portugal, see some Gaudi in Barcelona, and meet up with my mom and my sister in Morocco, camera in hand. The Camino got canned when I ended up having those infamous two awake-surgeries in March, and we kind of put everything on hold, because nobody knew what was coming. Once I decided to put off surgery for the indefinite future, I brought up the idea of a trip again. If I was putting reconstruction on hold so that I could live my life for a bit, why wouldn’t we take that trip after all? The Camino was off, because I didn’t feel like I could step off a plane and walk 20-30km a day, having spent so much time recovering from surgery. Morocco was then likely off as well, because Portugal was out. Here’s where a neat little story that I’ve told just about everyone who will listen comes into play.

The walls of Grasse celebrate its art, the art of perfume creation.

The walls of Grasse celebrate its art, the art of perfume creation.

Having spent a great many hours sitting on my couch over the past year, I found myself gravitating towards travel magazines. I needed something to look forward to. A light at the end of the seemingly never-ending tunnel, so to speak. In one of said magazines, there was an article whose first line was ‘I was hoping Grasse would smell like my first love.’ . I was, obviously, hooked. The author spoke my language. He talked about the ‘alchemy of memory’. He described a perfume created for his woman as ‘Utter perfection: deep, woody, and like a flash of lightning on a pitch-black night, a touch of lingering jasmine.’ I read this article again and again, and pored over the photos of the tiny little town in the south of France, and decided I needed to go there some day. I also decided I needed to contact the author of the article and tell him just how perfect an audience his article had found. We exchanged a couple of emails, and I was very happy to send him a quick note a few weeks back to let him know we were, in fact, planning a trip around a visit to Grasse. He recommended a specific perfumist, whom we then researched and ended up spending an hour with in Grasse, in his tiny little store on Rue de l’oratoire, a narrow cobblestoned road in the heart of Grasse.

 

Finding the street where the recommended perfumery was. Heavenly smells all the way up the street - a mixture of flowers, perfume and food.

Finding the street where the recommended perfumery was. Heavenly smells all the way up the street – a mixture of flowers, perfume and food.

There was some interesting preparation necessary for this trip. Bathing suit shopping was agonizing, until it wasn’t. Anyone who has ever gone shopping for mastectomy bathing suits will likely agree that it is a market that desperately needs some work. As it turns out, a bandeau-style regular bikini works just fine, and I actually ended up having to narrow my choices down to two, because I had so many options. One hurdle conquered. Another was finding a magic brush and the perfect concoction of products so that I could tame the crazy chia-pet-like mass of curls I have growing on my head post-chemo. People are very kind; they tell me they think the curls are cute, and that I should just ‘go with it’. I assure them that the curls they are seeing are the result of three different straightening products and a blowdryer ‘concentrator’ and that my reality is very different from what they are witnessing. I knew that along the French Riviera the heat and humidity would combine to ensure that the photographic record I had of this trip would be heinous. As it turns out, scarves became my best friends. Because this kind of curl is pretty tough to manage when your hair is maybe 2 inches long. Scarf revelation: hurdle #2 conquered.

Curly. So curly.

Curly. So curly.

Side note:

Yes. I am aware that I am very much diving into the ‘whining about first-world-problems’ pool right now. It’s very difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t had their entire appearance violently taken from them over the course of a year, through surgeries and chemicals and more surgeries and left-over-chemicals, how very much I long to feel like myself again, to recognize myself in the mirror again, to feel comfortable in my own skin. Months later, I am still feeling the effects of chemo and treatment, and it’s exhausting and frustrating and sometimes I want to scream, or cry, or both, like when I bit into some crusty bread at the airport on the way home and my already ragged front tooth chipped. Thank you, Taxol, for your lingering memories. 

But I digress.

The trip. Nice, Grasse, Cannes, Antibes, Èze, Monaco, Menton – The French Riviera is breathtakingly beautiful. Each of these little towns was different from the one before, which is contrary to what I had previously been told about all of these little towns being so much alike. Nice – bustling, busy, noisy and beautiful. I spent every night there listening to the city noises late into the night and what I noticed was that I never failed to see someone ending their night just as someone else was starting their day.

Night falling on Nice.

Night falling on Nice.

Grasse – after an hour of ‘please-don’t-let-this-bus-go-flying-off-the-highway’ we arrived in Grasse, and wandered up and down its cobblestoned streets, explored the perfumery and learned all about each one of Didier Gagnewsky’s special concoctions and chose one for ourselves. We ate an extraordinary lunch and drank rosé in the sunshine and photographed sun-soaked buildings before leaving for Cannes. Cannes is where very large extravagant yachts are lined up in the Marina and where I learned there was another hurdle I was surprised by. Stepping onto the beach in Cannes, I was hit by one of those waves of anger, grief and need-for-flight when my eyes scanned the people around me and all I could see were breasts. I can’t think of anyone who would have loved to lounge topless on a beach in the south of France more than myself. That being ‘off the menu’ for the present, I choked back tears, stood dutifully in the water for the photo op, and escaped, taking the next ten minutes of walking to formulate my thoughts and calm down enough to let my mom and sister know that for me, the beach was off-limits on our trip to the French Riviera. More rosé, tears all around and a promise that I would do something different – like go to Italy for lunch – so that they could enjoy a beach day followed.

 

NOT a hurdle-conquering day.

NOT a hurdle-conquering day.

We wandered through Monaco and Menton, two very different towns – Monaco – pristine, organized, well-policed, and beautiful. Menton – earthy, laid-back, relaxed. We bused on the Corniches and trained to see the spectacular view from Èze, a small town perched on top of a mountain from whose castle one is granted a panoramic view of shoreline that would be difficult to rival.

Cowboy boots in France - excellent choice except when you try to put them on again with wet feet.

Cowboy boots in Menton – excellent choice except when you try to put them on again with wet feet.

Just one of the beautiful views of the shoreline one can see from the castle in Èze. So beautiful.

Just one of the beautiful views of the shoreline one can see from the castle in Èze. So beautiful.

Our last day in Nice, however, was special for an entirely different reason. I gathered courage, and yes – more rosé, and we had a beach afternoon. Something about lunch being served to us on the beach, and laying in the sunshine sneaking wine out of the ’emergency bottle’ in my sister’s bag convinced me to wander into the water. A generous push from my sister decided it for me, and I swam. I swam, I somersaulted, I soaked my curls in the salt water of the Mediterranean, and yes. Hurdle #3, conquered.

Rosé on the beach. It's an excellent way to get one into the water.

Rosé on the beach. It’s an excellent way to get one into the water.

Spain? Well. That’s just an entirely different blog.