Breast Cancer

More than Curious

365 days ago, I decided that it was hypocritical to teach about how to achieve clarity of mind.  Especially when I had been working hard fogging my mind every night with a glass or two of wine, and on weekends with my best friend the (incredibly dry) Cosmo.

Living without alcohol this year has been surprisingly easy. Yet, when I see this picture, taken of me at an Airbnb in Genoa, Italy, I am suckerpunched with nostalgia. We were there in April — Rose’ season.  We would have a bottle at lunch or dinner after a day of touring. The food was a revelation, made holy with the taste of wine. There was an Aperol Spritz for people-watching at sunset …an espresso and grappa after dinner. I look at this photo now and know that on April 21, 2019 I made a choice that has taken me away from this  place, hopefully forever. I didn’t know it then, and now the knowing brings about the suffering of the return, which is the etymology of “nostalgia.”

Nostaligia is a lie we tell ourselves about the past. It is rose (or in this case Rose’) colored glasses.

I didn’t make any big pronouncements when I left.  I said I’d be gone just a little while.  I wrote about my curiosity about sobriety and that I wanted clarity — that was the truth I shared here. But if I could have been honest with myself, I also wanted to step out of the putrid light of shame. Not only the shame of not exactly remembering what I said after the second or third Cosmo, but also the shame of wasting the time I’d been given to paddle furiously towards truth, freedom, compassion.

About four weeks after I stopped drinking, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I am thankful for this turn of events. It would have been hard to navigate that experience in a fog, blinded by the cold comfort of Tito’s. Just another way that I know that the universe has my back.

Lots of stuff has come up in social media — some funny, some sad — about how alcohol is essential to what we are experiencing now. Here’s my experience that might resonate with you: Pain experienced in clarity has the ability to bring peace, even joy, as you find that you already have all the resources you need to move through challenging times. Celebration is all the more celebratory when you can really live into the moment, really be with people you love, rather than wondering if there is just one more glass of champagne left in the bottle.

This picture was taken by my love on our trip to Costa Rica in February, to celebrate our 32nd anniversary. Compared to the photo above, this pic is decidedly less glamorous.  It might be that my drink, a mango smoothie, matches my dress perfectly. I had one every night we were there in February, each one tasting like the sunset. Glamor-schmamor — it was experienced in the now, where everything is an elixir.

So this is a day for a mango smoothie! There will be other milestones on this journey, I know it. Many thanks to intrepid people who have inspired me on this path and who support me every step of the way — you know who you are.

Transfom. Further. Off the Mat.

I had chosen “surprise” as my word for 2020. When I say this to folks, I can tell that they are trying to figure out a polite way to ask me “haven’t you had enough surprises already?” And my answer would be, “No.  No I have not yet had enough surprise.”  I am thankful for the kind of surprise I received this summer.  I got an instant reset in beginner’s mind — there was nothing to do but breathe in the moment and be grateful.  I didn’t know what was next and I relinquished control.  I found my center, despite the chaos. And I am transformed by the experience.

 

In 2020, I expect further surprise (can you expect to be surprised? I say yes!) I want to be continuously awed by the world around me — from the two little foxes that live near our back yard to Great Falls; from the jungle of Costa Rica to the northern lights of Newfoundland.  I want to be delighted by the gifts that come from a relationship that has lasted 32 years and excitement that children who are grown and doing awesome things in the world bring to my life. For the way in which my teaching practice will continue to open my heart up to new studios, new clients, new teacher trainees and students, new capabilities, new things to learn.

I will get back on my mat this month. I guess I could spend some time feeling sorry for the muscular atrophy that awaits me after this second surgery. Instead, I’m prepping myself for the amazement that will come as I step off the mat into the world. As I did these small collages at the end of 2019, the universe was telling me that it will be a very juicy experience.

Surprising, Juicy New Year to you and all you love.

 

What to Expect

Rose

My breast cancer story has come to a conclusion, with my reconstruction surgery last Wednesday.  Now it is time to be there for others who are just starting their breast cancer journeys.  I feel a bit like an imposter since I had stage 1 and didn’t require chemo or radiation, but I have already been pressed into duty by the sisterhood. Like those wonderful strangers I spoke to on the phone after my diagnosis, I will be there to support anyone who needs it.

What can you expect?

Expect grace and actively seek it out. Open up to its descent. Practice staying awake, just like you did as a child before a big, beautiful day. It is there. You feel it healing. Then you will see it everywhere.

 Hmmm…I don’t think I’m going to be very good at this.

You are a warrior, though this is not a fight or a war. You love your body. It didn’t betray you, it is just doing what bodies do.  You are armed with the righteous power of the present moment. You aren’t to kill, but to heal. You aren’t to fight, but to strip your armor and open wide to this experience so that you can heal. 

I think back to the women I spoke with — friends of friends, who were strangers when I called them and sisters when I hung up. I am thankful for their advice, for their willingness to speak about their experience.

The practical advice I received from these women was comforting and helpful. Their lives, their health, their resilience were inspiring. It reminded me of hearing friends’ birth stories when I was pregnant.  The stories were unique, cathartic, mesmerizing and real. They made me brave, but now I know those stories were nothing like mine would be.

The word “grace” in Sanskrit means “that which follows the grasping.”  When I first read this, I thought that grace came after the understanding that I couldn’t control the outcome of my journey.  But the ancients meant the “grasping” of the truth:  that the body is expendable.  It has a time limit.  But the spirit doesn’t.  It is light. Timeless, eternal light that is everything, everywhere.  It is the light that heals.  Pay attention to the light.

See?  I’m really not too sure about this advice thing. Little heavy handed that.  But on the lighter side, I called my tissue expanders my “coke bottle boobs.”  The magnet ports reminded me of the screw off tops, the wrinkles in my breast mounds like the as hard and shiny as the creases on old glass bottles of Coke. Tom and I joked about it because laughter is the best medicine in our family, but there are others who can’t laugh because of what will come after the expanders are placed — months of chemo, worry, exhaustion, surrender.

I am blessed to be me exactly as I am even if my body is cancering. I am also blessed to be exactly as you are, since we are both the same light, reflecting back on itself in a playful, joyful act of love.  No, cancer isn’t a gift, it is just part of this beautiful, terrible life.  It is as mundane and regular as cold, gloomy afternoons and boring business meetings.  All is well if you can be here right now in this present moment, if you can see the light and open to healing no matter what is happening in your body.

I have absolutely no advice on bras.  Still looking for the right one, though my bud Grace told me I would be back in my old worn and comfy ones soon.  I shopped in consignment stores for button downs that covered up my Ursula Andress surgical vest.  I never paid much mind to my breasts, but I had to grieve them when the time came to say goodbye. My dear friend Corinne was there when this realization hit me hard and let me cry a good long time. We will all grieve the physical someday.  Those of us with cancer just get a preview.

I am here to listen, support, encourage and share with you the fruits of grace. Namaste, sister.

1 by three

 

 

 

All Saints Arrived Early This Year

Mom and me

As I’ve recovered from surgery, I’ve found my way back to teaching art to my beloved friends at Thomas Circle Retirement Community. I decided to teach the technique of assemblage. So I set out to make a piece as an example and document the thinking and the process I took along the way.

I didn’t intend it to be personal. I must have forgotten that art is healing and healing is always personal.

I’d asked participants to bring a photo of themselves in their youth and a box to the first class. In the example that I started to create for them, I chose a picture of myself and my mother taken in 1967 that I’ve always loved.  The flash above my head, the light that creates bars across our bodies, the iridescence of the shiny pattern in the old couch — such a beautifully bad photo my father took one morning in Baltimore.  The flash above my head, the light bands across our bodies and the reflective fabric details initially brought to my mind the miracle of genetic code that is inherited from our parents.

A chemistry textbook written in 1941 and downloaded genetic sequences took way too much of my time as I tried hard to make a statement about my inheritance.  I rejected the result as too heavy-handed. I also spent a long time with micro twinkle lights that made the piece a gimmick. I was relaying the surface, the concept, but not the real meaty stuff of legacy.

When I paused in frustration and concentrated on the few things I can remember about this time in my life, the year before my brother was born, I had a breakthrough.  There was an old chest with tall Queen Anne legs,  the bottoms of which were claw and ball.  Mom had painted it a cheery yellow. The two doors of the cabinet had brass lion pulls — the rings were in their mouths.  Perhaps these were memorable because they were right at shoulder level for me.  When opened, the cabinet revealed a red velvet flocked wallpaper — shocking even to a 4 year old in its ironic juxtaposition of school-bus paint and musty Victorian interior.  On many occasions I bent into the cabinet, my belly on the nubby paper and the smell of chemical glue in my nose.

Top of boxThis memory led to my choice to use the box top painted bright yellow to involve the viewer in the reveal of cool darkness inside. I have an old circle pin with Mom’s married initials on it that I’ve attached to the brass pull — making this more of a memorial to her in my mind.

 

Inside of boxThe inside of the box top is part of an old housecoat (I guess I got this from her  –I can’t imagine who else would have given me a housecoat!) memorializing a time and place that embraced the aesthetic of monogrammed circle pins, this piece of furniture, avocado colored kitchens, sculptured wall to wall carpets, bouffant hair dos and brightly colored housecoats.

As I worked with this piece, I laid down, once again, in that cool dark interior and allowed my vision to adjust, something I couldn’t allow myself to do this summer as I went through surgery for stage 1 breast cancer. I couldn’t add another heartbreak to my losses. There in the darkness I remembered a conversation I had with Mom in the Weinberg Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins after her surgery for pancreatic cancer. She took my hand, squeezed it and thanked me for coming every day to see her. I love you mom, I said. “If it were you in this bed, I’d sleep on the floor,” was her reply. The love she had for her family was so bright it still shines on me; it was so bright it was captured in the flash above my head in 1967.

Inside of box 2Her parents loved her as fiercely as she loved my brother and me. As people who were born, raised and are buried in the Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky, they are most likely responsible for the lyrics of the old Carter Family song that came to me as I painted and glued the final parts of the box:

Well, there’s a dark and a troubled side of life,/There’s a bright and a sunny side too…/Keep on the sunny-side, always on the sunny-side/Keep on the sunny-side of life…

The song brought me back to summer mornings in the kitchen in Harlan, KY listening to my Mom and her mother talk and laugh as they put up vegetables from the garden for the winter in their brightly colored housecoats.

My intention was to demonstrate a process of collecting, assembling and evoking a memory, dream or concept for my class. The universe reminded me of my legacy, the darkness and salty taste of grief, and the comfort and warmth of the light of love.  I am so grateful for the healing that comes from the yoga of art-making.

 

 

 

Weeds and Seeds

Cancer has been a summer weed for me, but I’m happy to report that the doctors plucked it out by the roots. My breast cancer was stage 1, no node involvement and I do not need additional treatment. Only a 5% chance that it returns somewhere else in my body. So I’m cancer free, and I feel so very fortunate and blessed. I will always keep a huge space in my heart for women and the people that love them who have not had this kind of prognosis.

As I return to the ordinary ways of my life (I start teaching at YogaWorks again tomorrow), I have some resolutions I’d like to plant in cancer’s place. One is to practice keeping my heart open at all times, not just special times. To remember the wounds every being I encounter has and perhaps hides. To be part of the healing rather than the hurting. (This is a big order for someone who can leave a yoga class completely blissed out and then be in a snit about a driver who refuses to use a blinker when turning.)

The second resolution I am making is to set aside time for intentional creativity. I was so happy teaching 12 classes a week — 3 of them were art classes for older adults through Iona. Each lesson was a flowering of my own creativity but it had an extrinsic purpose. I had to have the right materials, make sure that I could teach this lesson in an hour and a half and think through modifications for those with physical challenges so they had the resources they needed to create. The paintings I did these past four weeks were intrinsic — done just for the love of doing it — and in this way they were healing. Though I’ve shared some with you here, there are others I’ll never share.  They are just for me.

So: two resolutions grown during the summer of breast cancer.  As I’ve gotten better and I’m getting used to new limitations and new body parts (!), I’ve been aware of the healing energy that has shone down on me every step of the way. I’ve soaked up all this love and warmth and I’m ready to give back now. Thank you for helping me get to this place of harvest.

I’ll continue to post about how the practice of yoga can heal, sharing the way my practice as a yogi, teacher and creative shows up for me.  But for now, thank God, no more about cancer.

 

 

Heart Dagger

 

Sternum

Consistently walking is the best thing for my healing. (10,000 steps a day most days this past week!) Another important practice for me right now is living on our screened-in porch from breakfast to past dinner — eating, reading, art-making, and doing sudoku puzzles. The weather this past week has been another amazing gift.

Planting myself in the green has allowed my energy to flow up and around my heart center. I feel joy and gratitude which flows out in my “hellos” and “good mornings” to people I encounter on my walk. Surprisingly, a few have frowned and turned their gaze down after my interaction. And I think, how crusty does a heart have to be impenetrable to this day, this velvet green? Then I remember something my teacher Todd said as I was just beginning my yoga practice. As he cued a heart opener he made an observation that these particular asanas place us in a vulnerable place — where  we aren’t protecting our heart. I try to remember to open, to give, to practice gratitude and compassion, regardless of what I encounter along the way.

Happy girl and her sternumThis is a picture of me when I was in the recovery room. I don’t remember a thing about this part of my surgery, but Tom has told me about it. First, that I insisted that he take this picture (!) Also that I told him that I could feel my sternum so many times it made him and some of the nurses chuckle. Each time the nurses would explain something to me about this feeling I was having. But after hearing this story, I think it was a habit of my mind.

Anyone who has been in my class, knows that I like to cue heart-openers with  an awareness to the sternum. Lots of us with a bit more give in our backs will focus on the curling (and usually dumping) in the spine. But if in preparation, we instead bring our awareness to the strength of the abdominals and the lift of the sternum, we lengthen the back body and our heart lifts up and out rather than down or in.

The sternum protects the heart and the lungs. It is shaped like a dagger. Its three parts– the manubrium, gladiolus and xiphoid process — are Latin words for handle, sword and “sword shaped.”  When we are young, the low tip, the xiphoid process, is soft cartilage.  By the time we are 40, this part of the sternum has ossified into bone.  Perhaps this process is a reason why someone would frown when a stranger smiles and says “morning!”  It is hard to unsheathe the dagger to expose and offer the soft heart underneath.

As I heal from bilateral mastectomy and get ready for the final phase of my reconstruction, I can’t place my body in shapes that open the heart for a while. But no matter. I can place my attention and awareness on my heart and how it shows up in the world. I can choose to remove the dagger. And so on my walks I look at someone, smile, say good morning and mean it.

Grace Comes in a Surgical Vest

Flak Jacket

My new uniform for a few weeks

At the beginning of this week, I explained to my classes that I was going on medical leave. I kept it as La Di Da as I could.

In each class, there was a person who waited until all the other students left so that he or she could ask about my diagnosis. I was honest about breast cancer and my need for a bilateral mastectomy. The reason I didn’t announce this diagnosis and treatment as I sent around the healing stone at those final classes is that I didn’t want to trigger someone with my news. So many women have had breast cancer. Someone in my class has either had a scare, had it, or had a close relative or friend who had it or died from it. In my classes over the years, I have had students who have shown up in their compression sleeves having conquered it or in their head scarves as they lived with its treatment. Soon, I’ll join their ranks as I return to community practice.  (Can’t wait!)

La Di Da doesn’t mean repressing hard feelings. Getting to this surgery wasn’t a breeze. I grieved by painting watercolor portraits of my breasts (yup, never sharing). As I painted the line, the form, the shape I allowed myself to reminisce about how I felt about them as a early teen, how they served me well as I fed my infant children, or of beautiful garments that showed them off. I thought about the meaning of breasts in our culture and in others, about sexuality and objectification. As I finished the last painting I thought about how much space I had created for healing by honoring and packing these old breasts away.

Today, as the grace of healing is just pouring down on me, I’m glad I made some room for it through grief. I have been treated by excellent doctors and compassionate nurses. I have a family and a community of people who call, write, text, and show their love and support in so many ways. Tom has emptied my drains, kept up with my meds and has been a constant companion through all of the prep for the surgery and will be there as we await a call about the pathology, next treatment steps and final surgery to complete reconstruction.

UrsulaI’m even grateful for this white surgical vest with its exaggerated cups and industrial zipper — it looks like something Madonna wore on the “Virgin” tour — and my handy-dandy drain belt in matching white Velcro. The first time I undressed in front of a mirror, I said, “Hey!  Don’t I look like Ursula Andress in that Bond movie?”  And Tom, because he is a beautiful soul, agreed enthusiastically as he prepared my shower.