Strangers, space and stories (or, how I finally made some room)

Sometimes life places people in your path at exactly the right moment, in exactly the right place. A stranger who wants to talk on a plane, or a stranger who’s okay with silence. Sometimes the universe is kind that way. We all know that sometimes that’s not the way it goes, and we deal with those days too.

I was at the market a few weeks ago, picking up some gratitude gifts for the people who would be putting us up on our road trip. I picked up a Jamaican meat patty downstairs, made short work of it, and headed upstairs to say hello to a friend whose art has found more than one home in my house. En route, I passed a man I have known, but not known, since we were kids. 13, to be exact, although he lied about his age way back when. I’ve had pictures of that 13 year old in an album for – well, since I was 13. It never really made sense to me that we somehow made an unspoken agreement that we didn’t know each other. When I moved here, and our paths crossed over the years, and they have often crossed, we never spoke about having met each other. I thought he had forgotten. It was a Grade 8 class trip, and there were many people there. Easy to get lost in the shuffle of memory files.

Well, for whatever reason, I stopped in my tracks this particular Saturday morning, and backtracked. Decided I needed another beef patty. Called him by name, tentatively. Put out a bridge. And in that moment, in a flurry of handshakes, hugs, I’m sorries, and laughter, he crossed the bridge, and we both gained a friend.

Why did it take almost 30 years? How many other misconceptions have hindered relationships? How many of us walk around hogtied by stories we tell ourselves, or that others have told us?

We went for a walk in the woods yesterday, one of those transformative, energizing walks in the woods that creates all sorts of space in one’s head. I’ve been really trying to find my hook for writing for the past couple of weeks and it hasn’t come, until one of many moments that stopped me in my tracks during our walk. I was telling him a story from my past during our walk. A story about regret, a story that still makes me feel shame, a story about treating a stranger poorly. My new friend stopped me. Said ‘Hey. I don’t want you to tell that story again. You don’t need to. It can stay here. And that’s okay.’

Whew. Well, let’s take that lesson and splash it all over my life, shall we? There are so many stories that don’t need to be told again. Stories that don’t make anything richer with their telling, stories that don’t do anything but bring pain up fresh again. Some stories just need to be put away.

And then he did this, after a good feed of leftover Indian food:

Everything in its place.

Everything in its place.

And there it was. Space created. Sure. It’s a napkin and a jewelry bag, probably with a bit of curry on it somewhere. But it was a powerful image. Put those stories in here, he said. That small little space is where they can live. You, though. You live out here. Look at all that room.

Yeah. I think that’s where I’ll live.

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Sticks,stones and splits (Or, how I find out if my kids are paying attention too)

So today started out really well. Early wake-up, a quiet morning to look forward to, and finally, the perfect time to start this read, a magic collection of pieces that, like all of Edward’s work, strive to remind us that we are surrounded by beauty, if only we would stop and pay attention, as he often says.  I received this signed copy in the mail, and I’ve been waiting for the perfect morning to start it. If you’re looking for something to sweep you away this summer, consider this.  And maybe strive to believe him. Which, for the record, I do.

Amongst the stories  I've read so far, there's one about a bra wall in New Zealand, something that makes me want to see the Hudson River, the hierarchy of bears in Alaska, and trying to find the quietest place on earth, a concept I find fascinating, This is the author whose writing sent me to France last year.

I’ve worked very hard at trying to share that particular lens with my boys. I want them to pay attention. Sometimes, when I forget, they remind me to slow down and and notice things too. This morning was all about slowing down and paying attention, to this book and to myself, reading in a long, decadent bubble bath with coffee on the side of the tub and then curling up in my favourite chair by the window and doing more of the same. I rarely have this time to myself, and after finishing up a lunch-break-free month of June finishing up Grade 8 Graduation plans and execution and bringing their yearbook to its (albeit flawed) completion, three hours to indulge in quiet reading felt like a gift from some sort of god today. It was a good start. And then the day split.

I feel broken a lot. I’m working at changing the way I see myself. My scars. I’ve even been thinking as of late that I should take a deep breath and put myself out there a little bit. Maybe, you know, even go out for dinner with some fictional man who finds me interesting. The thing is, that takes an enormous amount of courage at this point, and I haven’t been in possession of said courage. Yet. But it’s been coming – I have felt it sneaking up on me as of late. Being off anti-anxiety meds for several weeks now has me feeling like I’m waking up a bit. Ready to see what’s out there.

But then I was reminded that I was broken today, when a friend admitted he would not likely date someone who had lost her breasts. Kick in the stomach. Certainly not because I want to date him. I don’t. But it was put out there. And now I know it’s out there, you know? I know there are people out there who date people based almost entirely on appearance; I just like to think I spend time with people of a slightly more enlightened nature. So I took this totally unprocessed information home with me, and my kids, when they came home from doing this,

My boys, paying attention.  Their Dad took this photo. He was obviously paying attention too.

My boys, paying attention.
Their Dad took this photo. He was obviously paying attention too.

knew right away that I was a little off, and asked what happened. So I told them, in very general terms, about my experience, and they were, bless their little boy-hearts, properly outraged on my behalf. We had a lovely chat, and I’m so proud to know these two boys. They’re messy, and they empty my cupboards faster than I can fill them, and they’re not much on bathing, but man – they’re good people. I think my experience will help to shape them, too. For the better.

I picked up some rocks again today, and put them on my steps. I don’t want to let the ugliness of today take away from the pretty I got to see. They really are quite lovely. And, you know what they say about sticks and stones…

Sticks and stones...

Sticks and stones…

Monasteries, Mountains and Montserrat (Or, why I needed to climb a mountain with my mother and my sister)

I’ve been waiting for weeks to figure out what I needed to say about Montserrat. Until today, all I had come up with is that I need to find 15 ways to say dark green velvet, because that’s what it looked like to me. I’ve always been amazed at the seemingly endless shades of green that exist in nature. I remember hiking the Chief on the west coast just after university and being mesmerized by the texture of all of the moss that lived in those woods, closing my eyes and wanting my hand to remember that feeling of soft, spongy green forever. I still do. I bought a sweater shortly after that trip because when I saw it I gasped and knew it would remind me of that moss whenever I wore it. I finally parted with that sweater in the last few years, but I kept it for decades just so that I could take it out of my cedar chest and bury my face in it from time to time.

The greens in, well – around Montserrat had the same effect. Standing on the highest point of our hike and taking in that view, I had to stop. Breathe deeply. Close my eyes. Look again. Memorize each layer of mountain in the distance, all looking like they were covered in velvet. All looking like they wanted my hand on them.

 

So many shades of green.

So many shades of green.

Layer upon layer of mountain. Beautiful.

Layer upon layer of mountain. Beautiful.

Then there were the faces. Part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal Range, the rock in Montserrat is different from anything I’ve ever seen. Mainly pink conglomerate, the mountain is multi-peaked, or as I saw it, multi-faced. Everywhere we walked, there was rock looking at us. The mountain is alive. I saw rabbits, elephants, puppies and aliens, myself. I’m sure they’re pretty much like clouds, though. Everyone sees something different.

Faces, everywhere.

Faces, everywhere. The chapel in the picture helps with scale. It’s immense.

What I realized about Montserrat, though, was that it was the getting there that was perhaps the most important part. First of all, this part of the trip was so important to me that I was quite ready to do it alone. Spending an entire day of our trip doing a hiking expedition was, I know, not a huge priority for my mother and my sister. But I am so very happy they decided to indulge me and come and do the hike. My mother’s original intention was to find something else to do while my sister and I did the 5.2km walk, but she decided to come along. It was hot that day, and there were some major fears to overcome just to get there.

Yep. That's our ride.

Yep. That’s our ride.

The three of us are terrified of heights. So, given the choice of train or cable car, I decided to do the scarier thing. Why? A talk with an old friend today about post traumatic stress syndrome helped me to understand why I needed to do this. Methodically facing fear can help. Somehow I knew that if I could choose to do something really scary and come out on the other end (or, in this case, on the top) having succeeded, it would be really, really good for me. And it was. I think my mother knew it would be too. We stepped, shaky-legged, onto the cable car, and my mother nudged me over to the edge, which was mostly glass.

‘If you’re going to do this, then really do it.’

There is no photo one can take that would come close to capturing the view from a cable car on its way to a monastery at the top. Or the feeling you get in your stomach when you’ve changed your mind, but  you know there’s no turning back. Or the ear to ear grin when you high-five your almost-70 year old mother when you get to the top. Well, yes – I guess I could have captured that. I was too busy grinning, and so was she, which pretty much made it worth the feeling in my stomach on the trip up.

There’s also no way to capture the complete and utter confusion you experience as you pass a monastery from mid-air and wonder how the hell one puts a monastery at the top of a mountain, and then feel really badly about having thought hell and monastery in the same sentence.

Needless to say, there was wine at the top, and my very smart sister decided she would carry some with us on the hike, just in case of emergency.

The yellow bag carries emergency wine. Just in case.

The yellow bag is the one with the goodies in it. The mountain face looks like he might want to share. It’s hot up there.

We finished the hike, me scampering off-trail a few times because the trail was too wide and I wanted to see what forest feels like on a mountain in Spain. Just before the end, after laughing at a little boy who we knew to be four and whose constant questions for his mother were incomprehensible to us because they were in Spanish but we knew all likely began with Why, or How come (there are some things that are universal, as the look in the mother’s face confirmed), we came across this lovely fellow.

Serenade.

Serenade.

He silently serenaded us as we passed, watched by the faces above. It felt like a congratulatory song, or at least that’s what I made it in my head. I haven’t climbed a mountain with my mother and my sister in much too long. They haven’t seen me in my happy place in much too long. This was a good day on so many counts.

 

 

 

 

Spanish, Cedar and Surfacing (Or, PTSD – not just for the shell-shocked)

I knew something was up when I started to jump at loud sounds. I started to make a mental list of the new symptoms I was feeling a few weeks after the second ‘awake’ emergency surgery. It went something like this:

I’m not sleeping. I can’t nap. When my body tries to fall asleep I am jolted awake by what feels like an electric current, every time.
i have NO patience. I go from 0 to 100 in seconds. Things that I can normally navigate are making me exasperated. Angry. Irritated.
I can’t handle being around a lot of people at a time. I break into a sweat and feel twitchy and want out.
I am jumpy. Loud noises make me feel that electric current feeling. I physically jump and startle at anything unexpected, even a hello from someone that I’m not expecting. I want to turn the volume down on my phone.
I feel like I haven’t taken a deep breath in weeks.
My neck and back are so tight that it is beyond sore – deep tissue pain. I know this is where my body holds all of my stress. Usually.
When people ask me how I am, I am often unable to talk about it, and I cry.
I’m not writing. Can’t write.

My system has taken a hit, in more ways than one. When I went in for my physical with my doctor, I brought some of this up, and fell apart, completely, in her office. The words that kept coming out of my mouth were the same.
‘I’m not okay.’
‘I’m not myself. This isn’t me.’

40 minutes later, I left her office with prescriptions for massage therapy, physiotherapy, and an anti-anxiety medication. And maybe a little bit of hope.

I have some pretty strong feelings about these types of medications – I do feel that they are over-prescribed. I do think they can be bandaid solutions. Also, I like to think I’m strong enough to handle just about anything. And I am. I also think that there are some times when some sort of chemical re-balancing needs to take place in order to get ourselves to the state where we can do the things we need to do in order to work some stuff out and move forward.

Now is that time for me.

I was worried about taking it. I was scared it would zombify me, numb me out, change my personality, take away my fire, flatten me, kill my libido. The pharmacist suggested I start by taking half a dose, which is 5mg. I dutifully cut my first pill in half and told myself I would give it two weeks and see how I felt.

I really hesitated to share this part of my journey. Worried that others would see it as weakness. Concerned about the stigma I feared would attach itself to me. Now, a few weeks in, I think, like much of the other super-private-bordering-on-gory-personal detail I’ve chosen to share in this forum, someone else may find it useful. I have already had two conversations with people who are going to their doctors to check it out because they need a bit of help coping with the relentless anxiety that hovers constantly.
I have stuck with the half dose, because I like what it’s doing and I see no need to go to the full dose. My doctor agrees. What I have noticed thus far is this:
Four days or so after starting it, I was standing in my kitchen at about 4 in the afternoon and I yawned. Stretched. Felt like I could lie down and take a nap. In my pre-cancer life, I was always tired in the late-afternoon. It was the first time in almost a year that I felt normal fatigue, at a normal time for me. To feel my body relax enough to yawn actually brought a smile to my face. And some joy. It felt so normal! I took note of it and moved on with my day. Later that night, at about 9:30 or so, I felt it again. Normal tired. (!!)

Over the next few days, I did have a couple of dizzy spells. I had two days of persistent headaches. They’re gone now.

Here’s what I find really interesting. In the past two weeks:
I have cleaned out closets and drawers.
I cleaned out my basement.
I moved my son’s bedroom.
I filled 5 recycling bags and several boxes of things to give away to the Sally Ann.
I had a door that’s been broken for weeks repaired.
I did my taxes.
I have begun to learn Spanish and have completed 20 lessons and corresponding quizzes and oral labs.
I have done yoga.
I have done pilates.
I have walked approximately 50km in the past two weeks.
My television has not been turned on this week.
I feel productive.
I feel (most of the time) like I’m in control.

Whew.

Having spent the last couple of months in recovery mode (anxious-twitchy-healing-bandaged-not-allowed-to-‘resume normal activity’-being-un-bandaged-and-then-re-bandaged-and-barely-keeping-a-lid-on-things), I cannot say enough about how good it feels to get back to doing the things I love. To sleep in in the mornings. To organize my day around exercise and getting into the woods or close to rapidly melting ice and fast-moving water. To cook. To plan. To look forward.

Image

I was in the woods today, on a messy-muddy-icy-wet hike with two girlfriends, and I stopped in my favourite spot on the trail and told them this was the part I liked the most. One of them, in on a visit from out of town, noted that we were standing in a cedar grove. It’s funny; I’ve never even thought about what kind of trees they were. I like that it feels dark, haunted, that the ground is almost always black littered with yellow. I like that the trees are almost all uniform. I like the bark. I feel small there; the trees are tall. The light is at best filtered in that grove; in the summer it’s always just a bit cooler than on the rest of the trail. The air changes. It feels quieter, lower than the hillier part of the trail. It’s almost always a place where I stop and take a few really deep breaths, in through the nose, and breathe in the smell. There is something about the smell in that one spot. I have always been drawn to dark, woody smells. Sandalwood. Patchouli. Cedar. They make me feel connected. Being in that particular cedar grove, I feel like I’ve been invited in on someone’s secret. I love it there.

When I got home today I thought it would be worthwhile to look up cedar and see if there was anything new I could learn about it, something that would tell me why I am so drawn to it. I found some of the information interesting, and it made me smile.

Cedar trees often live a long time. (I like that.)
They are used for making canoes and other boats, boxes, bowls and baskets. (My nest is full of baskets, and the canoe is an obvious connection for me.)
The wood of cedar trees is very resistant to disease. (Sounds good to me.)
The wood of cedar trees has a very pleasant smell. (Maybe I’ll look into adding this to my perfume concoction in France?)
The part about mature trees cedars often having hollow trunks was not, I found, without its irony. (I can still find the funny. Check.)

I feel, overall, like I’m starting to surface. I feel, almost completely, like me.

Best. Day. Ever.

I’ve gone on and on about all of the things I’ve longed to do during treatment. I live in a place surrounded by water and rock and I have spent my entire life living on a big body of water. For me to go an entire summer without connecting with that water is inconceivable. That said, I realize that I haven’t done enough of some of the things I really love. We put things off; we get busy and assume there will always be another day. The weather’s not perfect; the water’s a bit cold; it looks like rain. One thing I like to think I’ve learned during this treatment is that I need to jump at the opportunity to do the things I love whenever it presents itself.

Chemo done, PICC line out, I packed the day after, which I know will be relatively side-effect-free, with the things I love. Kids off to school on the bus in the morning, the sun is shining and it’s not-too-hot-not-too-cold and I am SO excited. Trail walk/run on a sweet, secluded, sun-dappled trail that’s had just enough rain to promise lush greenery and beautiful black mud to play in. 4.5 km. Check. Happy, smelly, muddy dog. Check. Elation. Check.

ImageNext is a paddle. I am SO happy to have the kind of friends who can, at a moment’s notice, throw a canoe on top of their cars and swing by to pick me up to go for a quick paddle around a lake. How amazing is it to be able to grab my paddle, drive five minutes from my house and be in a lake within minutes?? Heaven. It’s been over a year since I held a paddle in my hand and reconnected with that rhythm that only paddling can offer. Since having my PICC line inserted, I have completely lost the connection with muscle, and I have watched the strength I had in my arms gained from running and weights gradually turn to roundness. Pure joy to feel my muscles working again. On the water, listening to the splashing -on-kevlar-and-wood, I feel at peace, all chakras aligned. When people encouraged me to find my happy place at the beginning of treatment, this was it. So happy to finally be able to go there!

ImageFinally, after the boys are home from school, we pack towels and bathing suits and head out to a friend’s camp. I am determined to fit it all into one day. Trail, paddle, swim. It’s September, and it’s supper time, and the sun is starting its descent over the lake, and it’s chilly. But I am finally, after longing for it all summer, able to swim. Again – a total reconnect. Legs remembering how to egg-beater in place, body encountering warm spots and cool spots in the spring-fed lake so typical of where I live, and a good long swim out toward the middle of the lake, which is the perspective I’ve been yearning for, with my eldest son, whose grin goes ear to ear and whose pure joy at being able to swim with his mama as we love to do makes every minute of every treatment worthwhile.

There is an innate ability in most Northerners that I know to brave waters right up until a thin layer of ice starts to cover them. I am hoping for a long fall.

There is an innate ability in most Northerners that I know to brave waters right up until a thin layer of ice starts to cover them. I am hoping for a long fall.

Best. Day. Ever.