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Part 100: Today is our 100th Cancer Chronicle. Lots of words and photos behind us. But more than that, it’s been a process and a celebration and a place to notice and grieve and tell the truth. For all of us.
And as I look back on these Chronicles and what cancer brought to my life, I see that the main thing is noticing how I turned against myself and aligned with what I call suffering. The negative voices, the pusher, the one who believes I’ve never done nor will I ever be enough. Having had cancer brought what was always there, what always needed my attention to a point. It said, “Hey. Maybe the cancer isn’t because you have been so mean to yourself, but you might as well use having cancer as a chance to look at how, when and why you do that…and to stop.
Stopping any pattern is not just a matter of saying STOP. Because the pattern doesn’t manifest itself full blown. In this particular case, it manifested itself in a sinking feeling in my belly, then my chest, then a physical sensation that there was no ground beneath me, and that I was like Pigpen but instead of walking around in a cloud of dirt, I walked around in a cloud of shame and I don’t-deserve-to-be-here’s.
Catching what is more familiar to me than even my own name—this pattern—takes longing and commitment and the willingness to start again and again.
It takes lack of judgment—really? this again?
It takes lack of projecting into the future—am I going to be dealing with this forever? Gimme a break.
It takes understanding that it’s not anyone else’s fault. This is mine. Up to me to deal with.
And it takes forgiving myself for deciding that I wasn’t worth being alive for.
And then, it takes turning to myself. And giving my heart back to myself after having given it away for years to anyone who looked like they would love or absolve or fill me.
Since the cancer diagnosis, this unwillingness to “greet the stranger who is myself” has changed. There has been a softening, an understanding that this is a practice. And there has been such freedom and ease.
This is the photograph we started the Chronicles with. The altar that created itself from friends who sent cards and well wishes. It’s been a challenging, ground-breaking two years.
I will continue to write these but now, with Number 101, we will call them The Cancer Chronicles (and Beyond). Let’s see what the beyond part reveals.
Part 101: I went to a few post-breast cancer exams the other day and heard from my gynecologist that she thought the surgeon who performed the lumpectomy botched the surgery. She didn’t use the words messed up but she did say that my breast shouldn’t look the way it does now —folded and gathered around scars — nor should I be in the kind of ongoing pain as I am, every day. The oncologist also said this, as well as the radiation doctor awhile back. He took his first look at my breast and said, "Oh wow. It should not look like this, even six weeks out. Something is amiss.” Apparently, the surgeon — if in fact it was she and not her resident who made the incision/excision — went in at an unusual angle. I want to call it the wrong angle, but wrong doesn’t apply here because it’s what she did, and I’m guessing she thought it was the right angle. I made an appointment with her to discuss this, to ask if her resident did the surgery, to find out what, beside more surgery which three doctors have now recommended, I can do.
I wasn’t going to talk to her about this, since it’s already done but then I remembered that after our good friend and financial advisor embezzled half our money a few years before we invested with Bernie Madoff (who as you know embezzled the rest) was arrested and put on trial, I didn’t show up at the trial. I didn’t give myself the chance to look at his face, to tell him about the effect that his actions had on our lives. The reason I gave myself was that he had already stolen two years of thoughts and feelings, of anger and betrayal, and I didn’t want to give him one more second. But as the years passed, I realized that it would have been giving to myself not to him. That I would have been showing up for myself, to speak the truth, and that his reaction was immaterial. So I decided this time, to speak to the surgeon, tell her what it’s been like and, if nothing else, prevent her from doing it again with another woman.
But in the meantime, here I sit. In ongoing discomfort, sometimes intense pain, sometimes minimal pain, but always a degree of nagging discomfort. And even after I decide what I will do about it, what actions, if any (besides PT, breathing, exercises, stretches, lymphatic drainage, etc.) to take, there is my mind to work with. My heart. What there is always to deal with: what is. The way it already is.
One of the first things that came up — I wasn’t proud of this — was “I’m a victim of a surgeon who messed up. Poor me.” Or, as my good friend Rebecca said, “What’s her address? I’m going to go over there and hurt her for hurting you…” after which we both laughed. Yep, the first line of defense: how could this happen? Why me? And how can I take revenge? But as the days have passed, I’ve settled into acceptance and not resisting what happened. Not fighting with it or myself. Not making myself wrong for choosing that surgeon and not the other one. Not making the surgeon wrong. Yes, I will do what I can but at some point, what matters most is how I live with what I’ve been given because it is not the pain but the meaning I give to it, what I say to myself, how I fight it or accept it — which determines the peace I am in.
Over and over, I keep being reminded that I’m not upset for the reason I think I am upset. That the cause of the inner uproar is not out there. It is a lesson, if you want to call it that, that keeps waving at me. Honey, it says, even when you weren’t in pain, you were in pain. Your mind is where the war begins and ends. What if this pain was a way to remind you of your humanness? To come back to your body and be tender with it? Let it be so.
Part 102: I’ve been thinking about women’s friendships…(this photo is of my step-sister who became my friend years back).
I wrote awhile back about my best friend who ended our relationship the day I returned from radiation and how, in many ways, it forced me to turn toward myself and look at the kind of power I’d been giving to her.
I know that most of us, me included, wax rhapsodic about our friends, how they listen, how they understand, how different they are from relationships with men. But as with any relationship, there is also a shadow side, an unspoken part that we often push away — and that’s what I’d like to hear from you about today.
Do you feel competitive with your friends?
Do you sense them being competitive with you?
What about the friends who have left?
Did you understand what happened?
Do you idealize your friends and put yourself down in the process?
What do you know about your friendships with women that you’d prefer not to know?
Part 103: A few years ago, I read a New Age-y article that said that cancer and other diseases were a result of turning against oneself. I was thinking of that this morning as I get ready to go for the second mammogram since the lumpectomy. And I was thinking that regardless of whether there is a connection between cancer and turning against oneself (and by the way, I think statements like that evoke blame and misery as if there is a perfect state of being on your own side and without any kind of body issue at all. There isn’t).
But this post isn’t about that statement or making people who say things like that wrong. This post is about the subtle and not so subtle act of turning against ourselves. Myself.
I spent a lifetime turning against myself—and I acted that out with food. I starved, I stuffed, I purged. I felt as if I deserved to be punished again and again and I did that by what I ate and didn’t eat. This morning I was remembering my anorexic days and how I fasted on water for ten days at every change of the season. I was remembering that I couldn’t get out of bed after five days but I continued until the end of the 10th day and then, a week or two later, I binged on donuts and granola and pumpkin cookies until I was so sick I couldn’t move. But somehow, somehow, all of that felt deserving. And if you asked me why, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. I would have said that food was my problem and I needed to find a way to stop starving and stuffing. I would have said that if only I could get the food problem fixed, I would be fixed.
Forty years later—now—I know that through food, I was acting out “being against myself.” I grew up with parents who weren’t interested in their children. Aside from the ongoing physical and sexual abuse, if there is even a way to say “aside from the abuse,” the main message I received was that my existence didn’t matter. That I was damaged, wrong, not enough. It was a logical conclusion. It was unavoidable.
But now—now—my father is dead, my mother is 93 years old and we have come a long way to healing our relationship. Now when I turn against myself by criticizing myself, it has nothing to do with my father or mother. It has to do with my willingness to go along with beliefs that were never true. My existence mattered. I was not damaged. I was not wrong. But it takes vigilance to watch the machinery of old beliefs getting wound up. It takes being willing to say I’m sorry, I love you, to the girl I abandoned sixty-five years ago. It takes a commitment to stop self-abandoning—and to come back to what is true now.
There is light here. There is love here. There is tenderness here and the most painful part of what happened in childhood was not that my parents left, but that I left myself. And if I do nothing else for the rest of my life but return and return and return, that is cause for celebration.
Part 104: When people used to ask me how I was doing, I’d either tell them what was wrong or, if I happened to be on the happy side, I’d search for the ways I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want to let them know that I was feeling good or content or just right. What if they were suffering? What if their beloved dog had just died? What if they’d gotten three hours of sleep for the last few nights?
This also extended to food and weight (because every way you live, everything you believe is also reflected in your relationship with food).
Where did this need to stay in The Suffering Club begin?
Pretty much where everything begins: in beliefs I took on as a child, in associations I made with happiness, in what I interpreted I needed to do to be loved. That’s how it goes. That’s how we form what the brain scientists call neural pathways in our brains. Happiness equals being unloved. Unhappiness equals being part of the tribe and therefore, safety.
It’s good to question these beliefs (in fact, it’s always good to question beliefs because most of the time you’re acting them out without knowing they stem from a long-held belief). Which is what we did at our recent retreat: We spent an afternoon on joy and what keeps us from it and the results were staggering (and not surprising at all, given our herstories).
Here is what some people said:
"If I allow myself to experience joy, people will think I’m not deep and that I don’t feel the incredible challenges we are all living through now."
"If I allow myself to feel joy, I’ll be all alone."
"Feeling joy will get me in trouble. Better to be unhappy and not stand out."
"If I allow myself to experience joy, the other members of my family won’t like it. Especially my depressed mother."
"I need to cut the amount of joy I feel in two so that I don’t threaten anyone. (Most people are pretty miserable)."
Beliefs are like walls. Every time I come up against a belief, even when I’m not aware of it, I get an uh-oh feeling. My stomach feels a little queasy. I think I need to turn around and go the other way immediately, despite not being fully cognizant of what that means. So, as we enter this insane lit-up family-filled crazy food-everywhere season (I’ll write more about the food part soon), take a minute or ten to ask yourself what your beliefs are about joy and what you think will happen if you let yourself feel a simple ordinary extraordinary joy in what’s here already. Not joy because you did something, achieved something, but joy because the sun came up. The sky is powder blue. You’re alive (and the 350,000 people who passed on yesterday are not). Sing it out loud. And if that sounds like too much because you’re cranky, okay then. Take joy in the fact that you can feel enough to be cranky.
What do you know about your friendships with women that you’d prefer not to know?
Part 105: My mother has been my inspiration when it comes to fashion and even at 93, we talk clothes and shoes and hair (always hair). So when a friend sent me a pair of Doc Martens, I tried them on and sent the picture to my mother. (The shoes made me look like Granny-Mae-on-The-Beverly-Hillbillies-Wears-A-Boat.) When she saw the photo, my mother called me and said “You’re fat!” to which I responded, “Actually, I’m not.”
The next day I called her and said, “Mom, do you realize you told me I was fat yesterday?” and she said, “I didn’t mean you were fat, I meant that in that outfit you looked fat.” “Ahh,” I said, “well it is true that I have more of a belly since taking the post-cancer medication but it’s still not okay to tell anyone she is fat.” “I’m sorry,” she said. "Between the awfulness of those boots and those flowery leggings and seeing your belly, I must have temporarily lost all decorum.”
I’ve thought about our interaction a few times since then. I’ve thought: It seems as if it’s never too late for this mother to tell her daughter, despite the daughter’s books on said subject, that she’s fat. And I’ve thought how important it is to know, really know, that the size of my body, of your body, is no one else’s business. And I’ve thought about that belly of mine. How cancer really changed my body—the pain in my breast, the size of my belly—and how, when I don’t turn against myself, or in my mother’s words, lose all decorum—I am still so fortunate to have a body at all.
Part 106: My mother used to tell me about Jack Stories. She said that a man named Jack got a flat tire in the country on a cold winter night. He had to walk to the nearest neighbor, as this was a time before cell phones. On his walk, he began telling himself this story about the neighbor: He probably won’t be home. Or else he will be home but will not answer the door. Or else he will answer the door but will shut it immediately when he sees it’s me standing there. Or else he will not shut it but will ask me how stupid a person has to be to be driving on country roads in the middle of winter without checking their tires first. As Jack walked, he was getting angrier and angrier. By the time he got to the neighbor’s house, he was enraged at what he imagined would happen. When finally, he knocked on the door and a man with horn-rimmed glasses opened it, Jack was so furious he punched him in the nose.
That’s sort of kind of how I felt when I went to the surgeon’s the other day to confront her about having botched the lumpectomy. I didn’t walk in all puffed up and furious, but I was pretty convinced of my opinions, having heard from the gynecologist, the oncologist and the radiologist that they thought she made the cut at the wrong angle, which is the reason I’ve been in ongoing pain.
The minute she walked in the door—I hadn’t seen her for 18 months—I noticed a warm feeling in my chest. I liked her as much as I liked her when I first met her. And while liking a surgeon doesn’t mean they can’t make mistakes, I had convinced myself that I didn’t like her, that I never liked her, that I got snookered by the medical industrial complex into accepting what she said. I showed her my breast. I talked to her about the pain. I asked her about the angle. I also asked if a resident did the surgery. She said that given the size of the breast (small) and where the cancer was located (almost but not quite under my arm), this is what she had to do to remove the cancer, and no, she didn’t have her resident do the surgery.
I was relieved when I walked out of her office. I’d been telling myself a Jack Story about her (which doesn’t mean that doctors don’t make mistakes, they do, and it’s important to speak up, take action) and a Jack Story about myself. I’d been making myself wrong for choosing her. I know I’ve written this before, but it’s worth repeating: it’s not the situation, it’s what I tell myself about the situation that is so painful. Turning against myself—ourselves—is the worst suffering of all. It’s insidious. It’s often unconscious. And it’s worth stopping every single time. It’s worth asking “what am I making myself wrong for now?” Or, if you’ve turned the gaze outside, “who have I blamed today?” Because on the other side of that stopping is pure lightness, pure freedom.
Part 107: My first grade teacher’s name was Mrs. Racow. At Christmas, a lot of the students in my class brought her beautifully wrapped presents. They kept piling up: green glittery paper, curly bows, pink puffy packages. I wanted the glitter, the curls, the pink puff so badly that when no one was looking, I stole one of the presents. I hid it under my jacket and brought it home, went up to my pink shagged carpet room and opened it. It was a bottle of perfume that smelled like rotting dead leaves. I remember this incident every Christmas. Mrs. Racow’s tortoise shell glasses, my pounding heart, and the poor student who was never thanked by our teacher. It was not one of my finest moments.
Part 108: Oh, the holidays. Oh, the sugar. Persimmon pudding, chocolate everything, butter cookies, egg nog…
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, the doctor told me to stop eating sugar. Cancer feeds on it, he told me. And so I have. But it’s the holidays nd fudge, cookies, pumpkin pies—and years of memories—abound.
Since childhood, I’ve associated sugar with love. Once I was put on my first diet at age eleven and warned not to eat sugary things, I began associating two things I couldn’t have: sweet foods and the sweetness of love. Ring Dings, Yodels, cupcakes, coffee cakes, ice cream. And the feeling of being cherished.
Somehow I got it into my mind that my mother was the way she was because I was fat, and the reason I was fat was because I ate too many Yodels but once I was thin, I’d be the girl a mother could love and then I’d I’d be able to eat Yodels again. But once something is forbidden—Yodels or a particular person’s love—it gets charged and enthralling, so I’d binge on sugary foods. At least then I could have one thing that was forbidden.
These are such old associations. It’s like the wires in my brain got crossed. Sugar equals love but sugar also turns it away. And holidays can bring it all up. Again. The family dynamics, the charged foods. The binge foods.
If I go back in time, I’d say to that eleven year old eating the frozen Milky Way as she sat over her garbage pail (just in case someone walked in so that she could spit out what was in her mouth) and say, "Oh sweetheart. It’s true that you landed in a rocky family situation. And I’m sorry for leaving you over and over. Really I am. But I won’t do that again. Forgive me." I’d also say, "It’s holiday time, darling. Look up. Be dazzled by the lights and the dark quiet nights. I’m not leaving again."
Part 109: It took me a long time to realize that I wasn't on my own side and that most of us, most of the days, are also not on our own sides. And so, as the new year begins, my question to you is: How can you be on your own side right now?
And: What does that mean to you? Do you see it in relationship to the food on your plate, to saying no when you mean no, to putting your hand on your heart when you first wake up and before you go to sleep (to remind yourself that you haven’t abandoned yourself?).
Here are three practices I do everyday in case you find them helpful. They take a few minutes, that's it.
When I wake up and before I go to sleep, I put my hand on my heart. I feel the warmth of my hand on my chest. I ask myself if there is any way, without noticing, that I am being unkind to myself.
In the mornings (my friend Pilar Gerasimo calls these moments Morning Minutes), before I get out of bed, like a compass pointing my way to the day, I sense my body. I remind myself that my feet can still wiggle, my hands move, my eyes see. I say thank you, thank you, thank you for being alive. Again.
Throughout the day, I look for the good. The mist in the trees. The sound of hummingbird wings. The crunch of a cracker. And I stop and take it in. Over and over because goodness abounds. Really.
Wishing you a jubilantly kind and sane year.
Part 110: I’m deep into a writing retreat. Papers, notebooks, pens. My favorites. Nothing like a V5 Precise black rolling pen. Here’s a line for the day from Dorianne Laux, a poet: “I praise us in advance.” Yes to the healing salve of poetry. Yes to praise. Yes to doing it in advance.
Part 111: I’ve been using the same desk calendars for the last twenty years. They send out the new colors, I pick one, they send it and that’s that. Boom, finished, done. (I also use a digital calendar but it doesn’t give the satisfaction of pen on paper and of the physical act of writing.) This year something changed. I picked a color in October. When I got it, it looked like baby poop and I sent it back. Then I thought, okay, what kind of year would I (ideally) like to have? Emerald green, peaceful, calm. I picked that one. When it came, it was so shiny that my fingerprints smudged it daily and I ended up wiping it down with Windex a few times a day. I decided I didn’t want to do that for a year. Then I ordered the burgundy. The color of wine. But when it came, it was more pink than burgundy and it kind of scared me to look at it. Sent that one back (good they had a very liberal no-cost return policy!) for the neutral color, which is the one I am using. I kept thinking, “What on earth is going on?” And I have no idea except that it may be a very colorful year and finally, a neutral screen of a year upon which dreams and visions and manifold possibilities can be placed—and come to fruition. May it be so for us all.
Part 112: Over the years, many people have asked me what I eat for breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. And especially, since having had cancer, what I eat now.
It always changes except that I do drink a matcha latte everyday for breakfast, followed by two toasted pumpkin seed tortillas.
But some days, today, my "food" is my striped socks. Also, the hunk of turkey and the hunk of chocolate I ate for lunch.
On some days, bending the routine and forgetting everything green is divine.
Part 113: Months ago, I realized my long-cherished pillow had outdated itself. Feathers were flying about when I put my head down and it was sort of kind of hard as a rock because there was so little puff left to it. Also, I had long since stopped sleeping on feathered pillows but saying goodbye to it has been difficult. It saw me through many years. I can’t remember now how many, and I am probably in denial about the amount (decades?) itself but still. I’ve never been very good at saying goodbye and so my pillow took up residence on the seat of a dining room chair we hardly ever use. But recently it’s come to my attention that this is not a fitting send-off. Or a recognition that everything, everything comes to an end.
So yesterday I made this pile of once-cherished things I am no longer using.
The bra that the nurse gave me after the lumpectomy.
The other bra that the hospital gift shop provided a month after the lumpectomy.
The orange glasses without a lens and with a broken stem I’ve kept for years.
The case those glasses came in.
The bra that the hospital gave me two weeks after the lumpectomy.
My beloved iPod which has finally died.
The pillow that the surgeon gave me to sleep with for the first month after I was cancer free.
My “pneumonia-sweater.” The one I wore for ten years under or over everything. I wore it on the plane to the Oprah shows. I wore it when I was sick with pneumonia. I wore it when I was cold. I wore it just to wear it because it was soft and comforted me.
How do we say goodbye to things that have died in terms of their place in our lives? To people who no longer belong in our lives?
With this pile, it’s taking them one by one and looking at them, thanking them and then letting them go. (To someone else, to Goodwill, to recycling, to the trash, to the Valley of Once-Cherished Things.) For someone like me who invested so much in the totemic value of things (mostly clothes and earrings) when I was growing up, who believed that having an object MEANT something about me, it has felt sometimes that letting go of what no longer serves is letting go of something essential. So that without it, I am without value. I know of course that is not true, but the one who knows that is me as I am, not she who believed she needed things to prove she was worthy. Letting go then means seeing this pattern, this belief, without judgment. It means letting go of the identity of the one who needed those things. And it still means appreciating each and every one of what’s in that pile for doing exactly what it was supposed to do. Because it just may be, as my first spiritual teacher told me, that things have feelings too! But even if they don’t, I do. And I notice (and you probably do too) that saying thank you fills up the heart, turns it into a fountain where goodness flows.
Part 114: I know, I know, Valentine's Day has passed but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to post a photo from 36 years ago when Matt and I met.
We were on top of the world. I felt like the luckiest person in the world, and most of the time (except when I am picking on his ankle socks or the way he chews his cereal), I still do.
It’s the love, it’s always the love.
I asked my retreat students in our intensive weekend that just ended to make a list of what they loved. Of everything they loved. Every little and big thing. It was like suddenly seeing the world rightside up.
Here’s my partial list.
Hearing Matt laugh from another room
My new black thermos that keeps tea warm for 16 hours and is very pretty to look at as well
Walking outside at 2 am, the stars, the feeling of the world being totally different, the shadows of the trees in the moonlight
Crunching into a red pepper
The taste of my matcha latte—also the bright green of it
The smell of Daphne
Turning towards instead of away from myself when I suddenly realize it’s possible and that it’s the only thing that will truly heal the leftover feeling of abandonment from years ago. This includes the ongoing pain in my left breast. Not constructing horror stories.
II wrote for two pages, one thing after the other. And by the time I got done, I was elated.
Now you do it.
Part 115: The cancer consultant kept urging me to fast. He said that after eighteen hours stem cells get released. Bodies get strengthened. One day, he said, that’s all. I told him I didn’t like fasting, not even on Yom Kippur. Then the internist agreed. Told me he fasts every week for one day. My neighbor told me he did the same after which a writer friend told me she did too. And so, once again, seduced by stem cells and everyone’s doing it, I decided to fast for one day. Not one day a week, just one day. Also, I’d been eating a lot of parmesan cheese since my friend brought me back a chunk from Italy. And added a little, then more, dark chocolate since my husband told me about the talk he heard in which a doctor said it is loaded in antioxidants and possibly can prevent heart disease. And this might have been my imagination, but I felt as if both the cheese and chocolate were adding a bit of heft to my belly and thighs.
Here’s what I found out. Again.
I spent too many years obsessed with food and weight, most especially the almost-two years I spent starving myself down to 82 pounds followed by the two months in which I doubled my weight by bingeing until I was nauseated then stopping until the nausea passed then bingeing again, to fast. Because like a soft wind, the fear starts whispering that I’ll be out of control if I don’t clamp down. That I’ll never stop eating. That I’ll gain fifty, a hundred pounds. And although it’s been forty years since I’ve acted out with food, fasting brings up the fear again.
Last night, after a day of bodily discomfort from fasting — heart beating too fast and nausea and headaches — I turned towards the fear because I know that it’s not about the weight. It is never about the weight. Underneath the fear of gaining weight is the fear of what will happen if that weight is gained. Whose love will be lost. The fear of being alone and unloved.
I remembered myself as a child with crooked bangs and chubby legs and a gorgeous mother who told me that ice milk had too many calories and that my face was like a moon. I wanted her love more than I wanted anything but she, of her own admission, wanted her own kind of love, the kind she never got from her mother, and couldn’t give what she didn’t have. And so, being fat became associated with being unloved, rejected, thrown out of the tribe.
Being unkind to myself about my body and weight became a way for me to stay close to my mother and her (unkind) voice — in that way, we were both on the same side — while simultaneously trying to lose weight and be the dream girl a mother could love.
And here we are. What a day of fasting brings up. That girl with the crooked bangs. What’s left to say is “Oh sweetheart, I’m so sorry” to whatever vestiges of the crooked-bangs-girl is left and to the mother, now 93, who never felt loved.
Last night I said to Matt: if days of being miserable and nauseated from fasting prolong my life, then I chose a shorter life. Because if I fasted once a week for the rest of my life, I would have “lost” more than a thousand days when I could have been loving the taste of my matcha latte. Reveling in a chunk of parmesan cheese, dark chocolate and not missing this life.
Part 116: There are so many ways I could begin this post. I could tell you about my recent spate of dark chocolate eating. I could tell you about my continuing spate of parmesan cheese eating. I could tell you again what so many doctors have told me about cancer and inflammatory foods and sugar. But here’s what I most want to say: Don’t stint on delight. Don’t keep yourself from what brings you joy. On any level.
Two friends died this past week. One suddenly. One from a cancer diagnosis that was only a month old. I know I’ve said this before but I haven’t said it enough: you never know when the last time you will: see your partner’s face, hear Yo-Yo Ma, listen to your child, talk to your mother. See the night sky. Hear a bird. Watch a leaf fall. Smell a daffodil. Eat a piece of chocolate. Or cheese.
And yes, and always, if it makes you sick, don’t eat it.
If it takes your energy down, stay away from it. Not because it’s bad or wrong but because why take a single moment away from what could be a life lived with sheer delight?
Take care of your jewel of a body. It’s what allows you to taste, smell, see, touch.
The only thing that is keeping you, keeping me from spending our lives fizzing in wonder is the belief that we’re wrong, we’re bad, we shouldn’t, we can’t, we’re not enough. The belief that suffering is noble. That if it feels good, we shouldn’t do it. The belief that we need to pay for our time here.
See those as lies you tell and retell yourself. See those as conclusions you came to when you didn’t know better. And then break the trance and eat a mango.
Part 117: This is my yellow purse of wanting. When a friend sent me its photograph, I thought (still think) it was beautiful. I imagined carrying it even though I don’t carry a purse because most purses are too heavy and I’d rather wear my old two-dollar wrist wallet to run in and out of stores than schlep a purse, but in my imagined yellow purse life, I carry purses, particularly this purse. In my yellow purse life, carrying in this purse makes my life better. People stop me on the street, they ooh, they ahh, they say, what good taste you have. You must be a good person. A fashion icon.
The yellow purse (well, actually it’s golden. That makes it sound better) started taking up brain real estate. Wanting it. Figuring out how to order it. Feeling the catch in my heart when I want something I don’t have. The leaning out. I wrote about it a few years ago in a piece called “The Blue Vest” in This Messy Magnificent Life. I wrote about it forty years ago in a piece called “If Only I Had, Then I Would be Happy” in my first book, Feeding the Hungry Heart. And here I am, writing about it again.
If the thing keeps changing, it can’t be about the thing because if it really was the answer, all it would take is one perfect thing. So this time I held off buying it and asked myself what I actually want when I want the yellow purse. And I realized that wanting a yellow purse isn’t any different than wanting my unavailable mother to be available. Or wanting the perfect partner. Or wanting success. Or a best friendship.
Because it’s only ever about wanting what we believe will fill us. Complete us. Allow us finally to relax and be at peace. And that in turn is about contacting the part that doesn’t feel wanted and saying, I see you sweetheart and I want you. Forgive me for leaving so many times when I thought that green sweater or that man or finishing that book or those motorcycle boots were going to satisfy you.
We all experience yellow purses of wanting in different areas: The yellow purse of money. The yellow purse of success. The yellow purse of best friendship. The yellow purse of intimacy with a partner. But while many of those may add sweetness to our lives, it’s never really about any of those. Or as a friend says, the thing is never the thing. It’s what’s below the thing. What’s below the wanting. Go there. Touch that. Feed your hungry heart.
Part 118: It’s true that cancer was catalyst for me. A way to reckon with how I was treating myself. And that kind of reckoning, whatever the catalyst, is good. And what’s also true, and I think I’ve said this before, is that once you have cancer you can never believe that you will be someone who will never have cancer.
It’s shocking to have cancer. To have had cancer. Partly because of all the cultural associations with it: the fear, the drama, the interpretations that are made about the kind of life you lead, the kind of food you eat, the kind of thoughts you have to be someone who has or had cancer: she doesn’t eat enough blueberries, she doesn’t eat enough broccoli or fermented foods, she doesn’t think positive thoughts, she is not living with enough joy. Poor her. If she was doing it our way, she wouldn’t have gotten sick. All those stories we tell to make a barrier between us and them. They get sick, we don’t. All those stories we tell to convince ourselves that we are in control of sickness and heartbreak.
But receiving a cancer diagnosis is also shocking because along with it, comes the realization that even the longest life lasts ten minutes and with cancer, it might be less. When I received the diagnosis of breast cancer, a friend said, “Oh, so this is how you might die.” Not helpful. But what it did do, and what it did say, is the unconcealed-in-pretty-language truth that everything ends and that this life in this particular body-mind unit will end someday, maybe sooner than later, maybe by cancer but maybe not.
I live with the reminder of cancer daily because the scar tissue in my left breast hurts and pulls and stings like a swarm of bees. And when I get annoyed with it and want it to go away or when I feel angry with my surgeon or angry with myself for not choosing a different surgeon (old stories, been around that block quite a few times. It’s boring, even to me. Most of the time), I remind myself to breathe, come back to my feet, arms, sense my inner body, look around and break the trance of cancer-pain-enough. It also helps to have moments like the one in the photo. Me and my friend Kim with a field of cows on a green green day.
Part 119: A few weeks ago, Matt and I went out to lunch at a beach restaurant. We ordered oysters. He got his exactly the way they were listed on the menu. I got mine with quite a few exceptions, and then apologized to the waitress for being difficult.She looked at me and said, “You’re not difficult, darling. You are clear.”And that got me thinking about what we call difficult women.Remember that line in When Harry Met Sally when Sally/Meg Ryan is crying on the bed and says to Harry/Billy Crystal, “I’m difficult.” Or when we hear about actresses who ask for what they want and are labeled difficult?I have it impressed in my psyche that asking for what I want or being different than other people means I am difficult. And that being difficult is not good. I should be nice. I should be easy. I should go along with what everyone else is eating, having, doing. (I don’t do that but there is still an underlying background queasiness. An apology on the tip of my tongue.)From the time I was a child and saw the elephant in the living room—that my parents were unhappy, mean to each other, getting ready to divorce—and spoke up about it, I was told to be quiet. I was told that children should be seen and not heard.And when I confronted my mother about her affairs, I was told that I was difficult, that I was making things up.And when I refused to keep dieting after gaining and losing so much weight, I was told that I was wrong. Not exactly difficult. More like crazy.And when I speak up and say that is not funny after a joke that is mean, I get labeled difficult.And when I don’t want to go where other people are going or eat what other people are eating or do what other people are doing, I am called difficult.And when I confronted my breast surgeon because I am still in pain and asked her whether her resident closed the surgery, she was uncomfortable and I felt as if I was being difficult. Then I remembered that someone told me that being on my own side sometimes, often, makes people uncomfortable. That being labeled difficult is a catch-all phrase. Is a way that people throw off the discomfort of a woman speaking up.The truth is that what I am is clear and being clear is difficult for many people…
Part 120: Matt and I went on a five-day “reset” last week. It wasn’t a cleanse, wasn’t a diet. It came in a big box with gazillions of packets—Matt called them dried lentils but that is a misnomer—comprising meals and snacks for many times a day (porridge, lattes, green drinks, broths). Had I eaten all the food they suggested per day, I would have eaten two or three times the amount I usually do. Also, after reading the ingredients, I realized that I already eat better and cleaner than anything they sent. But that’s me. I’m a restricter (see Women Food and God for what this is and the difference between restricters and permitters). Matt, as I’ve written here before, abhors structure, goes for creamy bland rich foods (think tapioca pudding) and doesn’t really think about how they translate to nutrients, insulin, things like that.By the first day, I was already rebelling. Structure might give me freedom—in writing, certainly, but also, in food and exercise—but I don’t like people dictatingwhat I eat or when. That boat sailed thirty years ago. Matt, while not loving the different packets, felt fine about it all. Adhered 100% to the instructions while I, on the second day, was in a terrible mood and decided that my morning matcha latte and pumpkin seed tortilla had exactly the same ingredients but without the maple sugar that the requisite packets contained.
So I drank/ate my usual breakfast every day. Lunch was berries and a little coconut milk or nuts and seeds, dinner was broth with piles of vegetables and some protein. (I used my own broth, not theirs. I didn’t like the list of ingredients in theirs). They recommended intermittent fasting for 12-14 hours daily, which I already do. The biggest difference for me was that I didn’t eat my beloved parmesan cheese—which my doctor suggested might be causing the dreaded “inflammation” and might not be good for post-cancer eating—or darkchocolate or my snickerdoodle after dinner.Why did I do it?I was curious, I wanted to support Matt and I could no longer close my jeans so I thought, okay, let’s see what this is like and maybe by the end, my jeans will fit me.
My body has changed since having had cancer. I will write about this in a further Cancer Chronicle, but I realize I was thinking—not realistically because after all, I did have breast cancer—that perhaps I could reset my body to its pre-cancer feeling. Not pre-cancer size but pre-cancer springy ageless feeling.The reset ended yesterday and this is my report: A life without cheese and chocolate, particularly without chocolate, is not a life I want to keep living. So I won’t.
My jeans fit again, I probably lost a few pounds, but I never get dressed in anything but my stretchy pants and green hoodie so it is satisfying but doesn’t seem to make much difference in anything.
Matt lost six pounds. He’s very happy about it. But he was happy before he lost the six pounds so not sure that counts for a lot.
Bodies change because of so many circumstances. Aging, illness, stress, it’s part of the package of having a body to go through this life with. No one notices or cares that my body has changed. Certainly Matt doesn’t care. It is only about the meaning I give to anything: my tight jeans, the size of my belly, cancer, getting older, the pain in my breast, not hearing from a friend.
It always gets down to the thing and the meaning we give to the thing and sometimes, often, it takes awhile to separate the two. And, this is as important:questioning the meaning we give to the thing. Just because the meaning I give to not being able to button my jeans is that I will keep expanding until I bounce like a rubber ball through the house doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because my friend has not called me back doesn’t mean she has forgotten me or that I am not important. It only means that those are conditioned thoughts I have. It means that’s how my mind works.It means that when I go along with the frequency of fear—because that’s all that thought is—fear dressed up in tight jeans—I react with fear. Fear meets fear. And whatever actions result from that are never, ever true. They close the heart, not open it. They make the world smaller, not bigger. And they make who I take myself to be small. Not a path I want to take. I do, we all do, have a choice: Do I follow the path of fear or do I switch to what opens my mind, heart, life?
The pleasure of chocolate is in a different category altogether. Also, it gets digested in a second stomach.
Part 121: I know two couples who are having a hard time these days. Really hard time. They don’t like each other. They don’t talk to each other. They feel as if their relationship is broken. They’ve been together for more than thirty-five years.
I sent each of them a New York Times article titled "I Married the Wrong Person, and I'm So Glad I Did" that I read last week about why we always marry the wrong person. One of them didn’t appreciate very much.
But here’s why I do:
As much as I love seeing Matt’s face every single day, many times a day, there are things about him that drive me crazy.
Mostly because he’s not me. He sticks the package of blueberries on the top shelf of the refrigerator so that when I open it, the package falls out, opens, and a hundred blueberries are now on the floor. I texted him this morning that I was leaving it for him to clean up or else we could be like Lucy and Ethel on I Love Lucy but instead of stomping grapes, we could stomp blueberries in our kitchen. He’s so not me in a thousand ways. Also, he’s not as tall as Pierce Brosnan (or for that matter, Andrew Wiggins on the Warriors) and he’s not as interested in the intricacies of meditation, of practice. I could go on and on about our differences and why we are so wrong for each other, but what I want to say the most is that everyone is wrong for each other at one time or another and sometimes, for years. And whether you stay or leave depends on what you want, and I’m not saying that it’s not the right thing to leave. I’m only saying there are multiple times I could have walked out the door, but I wanted to know what staying would bring. I wanted to know what being with someone for decades would offer. And of course, he never abused me in any way. He was and still is kind and forgiving and hysterically funny. And during and after the breast cancer diagnosis, he was with me every step of the way. He still is.
But here’s why I loved that article: because I keep understanding, on deeper and deeper levels, that my happiness does not depend on what Matt says or does. That when I think he’s the problem, I need to turn around and realize that this is about me, not him. It’s a radical notion, I know, and I also know that many of you will disagree with me. That’s fine. What I want, though, is peace, ease and freedom from believing that I need to have it or him be a certain way for me to be happy. I want freedom from the belief that I need to have that purse, those sneakers, this house, this piece of chocolate, this person talk to me this way. I want freedom from the belief that an external situation determines how I feel or who I am. And because I live with Matt every day, our relationship is my practice. It’s the sword upon which I keep falling into peace.
Part 122: Some people are passionate about gardening. Some about painting. I used to be passionate about making line drawings. They were funny and pretty fabulous (says she ever so modestly). See above. It is a drawing of my 8x10 Big Sur cabin. Water, the bathroom (er, outhouse) and the refrigerator were all outside.
But I digress. What I wanted to say was that I am passionate about one thing (if you don’t count being with Matt and playing with Izzy and my morning matcha latte — and cherry hazelnut dark chocolate).
And that one thing is catching myself each time, and on some days it’s a hundred times, I go wandering off into a story. Which is usually a horror story. Something happens. Someone doesn’t call me back. Matt is late. And off I go into “I knew it, I knew it. It always turns out this way. Matt is lying dead on the side of the road.” And because each of these stories is so familiar and I’ve told them to myself thousands of times, I think they are true. The adrenaline starts. The doom. The fear. Those stories were how I knew I was alive.
When I talked to my mother yesterday, she couldn’t quite remember where she was. Told me about her pocketbooks. Her necklaces. Her underwear — and that she wanted to go home. I told her she was already home. Oh yes, she said, I see that. And then it would start again. Her pocketbooks, her necklaces, her underwear. The need to pack them. How did I get so many, she asked? We stayed on the phone until my brother and his wife arrived.
Today when I talked to her she told me how frightening it was. I asked her which part was scary. Couldn’t have been your pocketbooks, I teased. You love those. Then she said “it was scary today that I was wacky yesterday”— and that, I realize, is how we scare the living daylights out of ourselves.
Something, an event, a situation, is simply and only and ever what it is. Being in three head-on collisions was not frightening at the moment. Losing our money to Madoff was not frightening at the moment. Being diagnosed with cancer was not frightening at the moment. Then the gap started between the actual situation and my story of what it meant for the future. The concussion will never heal. We’ll have to live on the streets and eat cat food. The cancer will spread. This is how I turned against myself. How we turn against ourselves. We frighten ourselves with lies, and because we’ve told them so many times, we believe they are true.
We scare ourselves in retrospect.
When I stop telling myself stories, I am free, light, open, happy. Sounds like it’s time to replace fear and doom with free and happy. What do you say?