Monday, January 14, 2019

Zen and the Inner Tube

Each step forward or sideways or whicheverways brings new questions, or new realizations. After days of working through ideas and drafts about Do vs. Be and zentasticness,  I found myself dragged unexpectedly back into an area of old resentments. Dagnabit. I can write about zen progress and do yoga and feel good and then a conversation or a facebook post leaves me chewing my pencil and growling about situations gone by. I become a walking dark cloud of interior ugh—which inevitably spills over into my exterior interactions with my family and friends.

Womp womp.

This week also marks seven years since my daughter started an ultimately disastrous clinical trial to try and stop her brain tumor progression. Due to a disturbing phenomenon called paradoxical activation, the trial drug actually made the tumors catastrophically GROW. I have made some peace with the outcome of the trial, after years of wrestling with really difficult emotions about the darkness of that time. Seeing the early days, the days when we so hoped this trial would be a magic bullet, the days when we had to start treatment after 5 years off with a teen and not a first grader (and all the new challenges created by a greater understanding of what was at stake)…seeing these reminders on social media of those early days hurts my heart.
And just like that I realize my wrestling match is not just in the ring of Do vs. Be, but in Get Over It vs. Be With It. 
Somehow I can be with the feelings about the trial fail and no longer be paralyzed with rememberings. Maybe this is just grace at work? I am not sure what it is, or really how I got here. Somehow I have to work/surrender to get to the point where I can be with those difficult unresolved situations from my daughter’s high school years and NOT be instantly dragged back into a cesspool of OH YEAH LET ME TELL YOU HOW THINGS REALLY WERE.  Or where I can see the images of my daughter bravely taking the trial drugs for the first time and not be tsunamied by the emotions of that time filtered through the emotions of 3 months later, when all hell broke loose.

I suppose there is some grace in being able to even write about it?
I am continually astounded by the constant work of mental, emotional, and spiritual health. How progress in self-care and healthy striving continually comes up against resistance and ugly stuff that seems to lie ever just below the surface, dredged up unexpectedly by an image or a word, then dispersing until the uglies settle once again to the bottom of the lake. 
Or road, if one forgets one used lake as a metaphor
 and then is too lazy to redraw and re-upload picture. 
Or imagine I am walking on water, ala Jesus. Uphill.

As much as I try to build bridges over this lake, (er, road) I realized this week that I have to learn to be ok with the bottom, and to know that even when the uglies are swirling, they don’t need to drag me under.

It’s kind of like Lake George. Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains of New York is a pristine mountain lake, clear from the surface all the way to the bottom, even to a depth of 15 feet or so. 

Clear water at Lake George ...our happy place.

 We have vacationed there every year since Dave and I married; he has been going there since he was 7 years old. We love this place.  In the rare summer when the weather upstate gets really hot, I will actually float around on the lake (which is always cold. Don’t believe my spouse and third born who will swim in it no matter what. IT IS COLD). I will lie on a big black inner tube that soaks in the heat of the sun while my toes dangle in the cold water. Zen exists in its purest form in that moment. 

Rare photographic evidence of me
 in my inner tube, in the  lake.
Lesson number 1 of Lake Swimming (after COLD!!!): don’t touch the bottom. The bottom is soft and squishy and leaf covered and gross to feel—purely organic matter, just so squishy, and if you walk in it to get into the water the muck gets all stirred up and gross. I have perfected balancing on the tube and pushing off from the edge so I can float without stirring up muck. And if other folks stir it up, I just float in another direction…as long as I am not squidging my toes in yuck, it’s all good.  
Inevitably some little kid gets stuck each year…not literally, but they take a few steps past the sandy bottom and realize EW THIS IS GROSS and holler for mom or dad.  Lesson learned.

Anyway, THIS is what I have to figure out how to do in life. Keep on paddling my inner tube. Soak in the sun and let the feelings settle. I can’t deny their reality. Just like those soggy leaves and twigs and lake soil, the feelings and situations from the past are real and unpleasant—but the bigger picture is so much bigger. There are miles and miles of lake beyond that one roiled area. Just keep floating!
As I pondered this in the past few days, I brainstormed what helps (in an effort to get myself out of the visceral SO’S YOUR MOM! Feelings clawing at me).  Being outside helps. Grounding yoga practices help (YouTube has so many great resources, especially the Yoga With Adrienne series).   Praying helps (I pray all the time, sort of a running commentary with God—so sometimes I’ll go walk the dog, and thus have a little walk/outside/God talk when I am feeling ugh about the lake bottom stuff in my life).  Doing something for someone else helps. 

I have so many tools to work with, really, so many inner tubes to choose from.
                                                                              Rainbow Pegacorn, anyone?
At the same time, being frenetically busy to avoid those feelings can anesthetize the moment, but I know now that busy-ness does not address the underlying pain. I have to learn to Be With Feelings, just like I have to learn to Be OK with Myself and not just what I Get Done.
Get Over It invalidates experiences, squelches healthy understanding of self and pain and life. Get Over It closes down communication (even with our self).  Be With It acknowledges pain, but also acknowledges that we have as much power as the pain—it does not need to rule. I can float with it, and then keep floating on.

In a different context, as soon as I started to write the first draft of my wrestly moment  I felt an overwhelming surge of GOYA (Get Over Yourself Already!).  Like, who am I to even talk about any of this? I AM A MESS. A mess with cute shoes, but a mess.
But—maybe my mess can help someone. If I succumb to GOYA syndrome or Impostor Syndrome or any of the other things that make me want to be quiet and shut down, the match is over. I can’t be fake.  My authentic is kind of messy (um, totally messy. Hoarders episode messy).  My constant commentary with God has a lot of "Lord, what the heck am I supposed to be doing? I want to do what you want me to do…"

And while no giant hand has appeared writing on my wall (phew, that would be terrifying), ideas and thoughts holler WRITE US. So…yeah.
I am going to be with my discomfort and not let fear of vulnerability win. I am not going to Get Over It (whatever it is) and write sunshine without acknowledging the rain. I am blessed with a lot of sun, but I only know it because of all the years of intermittent cloudfest.  I am not going to let my GOYA force me into silence. If nothing else, I know that is NOT what I am supposed to do.

In my next moment of figurative lake muck, I am going to try to use the tools I have to acknowledge the moment and keep moving. I will let you know how it goes. Until then—let’s keep movin’ right along, through the questions, with the questions, and hopefully into a sunny place of zen. 
                                   and until then--I will dream of coffee, morning prayer, 
                                  and yoga by the side of Lake George in summer. Happiness. 

Monday, January 7, 2019

Zen and the Restart

Happy 2019, all.

So…while math is not my first language, chronology is the language of my chosen profession—and I realize that this entry is in no way two or three days after my last entry. 

I kept adding BLOG in increasingly urgent fonts to my bullet journal. I dug out my gold star stickers. And yet I could not write the words. 
What the heck happened?

Well—a few things happened. Thing #1: I started working more. Substitute teaching holds a set of challenges that keeps me on my toes until I get home and utterly collapse. As time has gone on and I have worked through most of the different schedule configurations and academic departments, I am starting to get more comfortable with what I have to do. Still, the drain on my mental and emotional energy is pretty profound—especially since as soon as the school day ends I am back on Chauffeur Duty for my daughters, whose schedules are extremely full. Staying awake past 9 has become a challenge!
I understand now why my mom has always been such an early to bed kind of lady.
I am profoundly grateful to be subbing, especially in such a great school where things are clean, organized, coherent (ie there are systems in place for any kind of situation or schedule that might arise) –for my anxiety-plagued brain, the ORDER in this school just makes me so happy. Both my mom and my mother in law have commented on how much happier I seem. I am grateful. This sort of busy just depleted my writing energy tank. 
Thing #2: Hospital Day. More accurately, hospital days, plural. Due to scheduling what-nots, we had to have my daughter’s MRI and neuro-oncology follow ups on different days, around her busy school schedule. The challenges of an evening MRI in Philadelphia, plus days in between, plus oh sh*t we are back in neuro-oncology (an out of body moment that happens every.single.time we find ourselves back in clinic)—all these things put my writing brain into severe overdraft mode. The scan was stable, really stable. There were some other things that had to be pondered/dealt with mentally acknowledged…and once again my brain couldn’t put together words. 
I am continually agog at this phenomenon, how going back into neuro-oncology world puts my brain into insta-survival mode. The mental muscle memory that kicks in as soon as we get on the road to Philly astounds me. If only I had that kind of muscle memory for things like roller skating or backbends…
Thing #3: aka The Big Thing: Enter a Crisis of Ideas. I finished reading New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton—I had been reading a chapter a day as part of my morning prayer/get set for the day time. This book blew my mind—for folks doing any kind of spiritual seeking, check it out. Anyway, the later chapters of this book broached the idea that we really can’t force zen (he didn’t say it like that, but that was the idea). We can’t structure or create inner peace, we have to get to a point of acceptance and surrender for zen to happen.  I am not saying this right—but basically, you can’t control freak your way to zen.
Hey now.


I want zen to be the first thing I can check off on my to-do list.

Not only that—not only can I not control freak my way to zen...there is no actual end point to zen. It’s not like I can do all the things and force my way to some Be all And End All of Zentastic Zenitude. I can’t just map a route to some magical place in the northwestern hills of New Jersey and be like Ha! Found you, zen!
Nope. Although note the skillful avoidance of 287 and Rt 80. No zen to be found on  those roads.
This is likely beyond ludicrously obvious, but my denial is industrial strength and honed by years of practice.
Years ago I used to proclaim that I thought running was silly because why would you run and not go ANYWHERE but back where you started? I could see running to Dunkin Donuts, or to get fries somewhere, but in a random circle? What the heck?
I hadn’t even thought of this in years until I started wrestling with my crisis of ideas. The zen quest is like running—you get a lot of benefit out of it, even if sometimes you don’t feel like you are actually GETTING anywhere. Progress is measured by a different rubric than a simple point A to point B hooray for fries kind of way.
In this wrestling I have found my task…er, focus for the new year. (How quickly I go right into Do It! mode …) How to reconcile the deep truth I see in this need to let go, the understanding that it is the trip that matters, the destination remains in flux…with the deep truth I see in myself, that I need to know/control/handle all the things. 
I am not sure I have figured it out. Rephrase, I KNOW I have not figured it out. Anyone who lives with me will assure you there has been zero figuring out. But I can no longer let my questions stop me from writing—I have to embrace the uncertainty and keep moving. In some ways, I think that is what Merton means. Similar ideas resurfaced in my subsequent re-read of Jacques Philippe’s Interior Freedom (another mind blowing read—on this second time through I took notes in the margins).  Freedom comes through letting go, not from holding tight. You get peace and THEN do the things, not do the things to get the peace.


As much as this idea initially rankled, (Elsa can keep her “Let it Go”)—I see its truth.

I can’t MAKE THE ZEN HAPPEN. But I can take steps to invite it in.  Brene Brown said it perfectly in this week’s “Dose of Daring” email—“The willingness to show up changes us. It makes us a little braver each time.”
I want to keep showing up in 2019.
I will keep movin’ right along.  I will try to move forward in letting go of resentments and embracing forgiveness as a PRACTICE.  I will try to use my life experiences to help other folks who are wading through the quagmire of yikes. I will keep Christmas all the year…ok, wait, wrong resolution. ;) 
I will share some more of the tools that have helped me—and honestly, will probably find myself wading through quaqmirish moments of my own (next hospital day is in about 5 weeks). But hey—2019 provides a fresh start on my search for zen—or at least my search for how I can let go and let zen in, while accepting that the work remains ongoing. 
Peace, all. And apologies if the Frozen soundtrack is now stuck in your head. ;)

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Zen and History

History is happening—always, right here, right now, you are historying at this very second!—and right now, the history happening seems to be pretty solidly anti-zen.  While I am not in a history classroom of my own these days, I find myself still filtering everything through the lens of history—what has happened before, and what have we learned (or not) from those happenings? And one step further—how do we make sense of the history happening around us, and how do we most appropriately and effectively respond to those happenings?

Our founding fathers were hyper conscious about their place in history, about the legacy of their actions in forging a new sort of government.  You can see this time and again in their writings. We’ve lost some of that today in the glut of media and the reduction of speeches to sound-bytes, in the replacement of thoughtful responses with strident reaction.  A sense of spectacle has displaced a focus on legacy.  Appeals to chaos, fear, and emotion create an environment in which division and anger thrive. Yes, our founding fathers argued and politicked and published nasty articles about each other—and pretty much ignored the founding mothers-- but at the end of the day, they truly believed they were working for a larger good, NOT for their own egos.  They took time to think. To read. To learn. To write. Not just to spew.

I think I can safely posit that we are not in founding father land anymore.

 Being conscious of history we are forging NOW only works if we have a strong foundation of history in the distant and recent past. Recognizing evil in speech and action is easier when we understand this is nothing we have not seen before—the targets of prejudice and discrimination have just changed with each passing decade.  In this context, history seems completely anti-zen – so many bad things have happened, so many people have done terrible things to each other, even in this country I love so much. Responding to dark moments may seem impossible if we cannot look back to those who have stood in the face of darkness before.  History teaches us that bad stuff happens. A lot. And good people in EVERY era of history, without fail, stand up to answer the bad, often at great personal cost. We can make THAT kind of history.

History teaches, but rarely comforts (except to show time and time again that in spite of pretty hideous events and actions, time marches on and the world keeps going).  Progression – not to be confused with progress – is inexorable. History helps us make sense of dark times even as it gives us hope that the dark times are not forever.

The facts of history are set, but the interpretation of those facts is fluid, and if we study history honestly (and without need for self-aggrandizement ala our past) we can fulfill our responsibility to interpret history without erasing the less than flattering parts.  Interpretation takes time. Insta-interpretation is dangerous, reactionary.  History is, beyond anything else, proof that the passage of time is inherently powerful—and that over time the full import of our choices will become clear.

I sense a certain vibe of “um, yeah, and? So what? This is not your normal kind of post.”  I know. Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about history and how much I wish people would study it—maybe because I am not teaching it right now (although I have been covering a fair number of history classes in my substituting job).   Nationalism vs. patriotism, the Constitution, patterns of immigration and discrimination in the US (and elsewhere), there are so many things history can teach us about—but we have to go and learn. Learning takes discipline, and work, and a willingness to acknowledge when our own understandings have been limited or flat out wrong.  Knowledge really and truly is power, just sometimes it is a power gained through painful re-evaluation of things we thought we knew.

I love history so much.

I know I can learn from my own history. I can understand my own fears and behaviors and then respond to them in a much more zen like way if I can place them in context, my own historical context.  I was at CHOP last night with one of my kids (routine visit, just weirdly at night), and the smell of the blanket they gave me to keep warm, combined with the darkness outside, put my brain in a pretty bad place—but I understood why. I have too many memories of nights at CHOP, trying to sleep on a sheet that smells like hospital. Knowing this history helped me just breathe through the moment. I could respond, not react. I did not just start rocking back and forth and cursing at the MRI machine. I have done that before, so…yeah. I just took a deep breath, said a little prayer, and opened a Dorothy Sayers mystery to read.  History helped.

Can you imagine if we could do this in our life here in the US? If we could understand civil rights history in our country and thus respond thoughtfully to the concerns of those voters who rationally worry that their voices and votes continue to be suppressed? If we could learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act, or the quotas of the 1920s, or the “No Irish Need Apply” signs in store windows and thus respond with compassion to those people who come from afar in search of a better life like our own ancestors did? If we could look at politicians from not that long ago who worked together and got along despite deep philosophical differences, and we could hold name-calling politicians accountable for rhetoric that reduces our civic discourse to a playground argument?

The tool of history is one of the most versatile and valuable in our civic toolbox. We may not find zen, but if we understand the past, we can more thoughtfully and responsibly approach our future.

Peace to all, and to our country. Now go vote.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Zen and the Darkness

Hello, darkness my old friend.

I’ve come to talk with you again.

I do not love the dark.

I love Simon and Garfunkel, and Sounds of Silence is to my mind one of the greatest songs ever written. But darkness is not my friend.

Decades ago the Muppet Babies sang about how good things happen in the dark (which sounds weirdly inappropriate now). I recently heard a podcast about embracing dark moments, but I do not love the dark, and as October marches towards November, the dark grows increasingly pervasive. I may have to talk with the dark again, but it is not generally a friendly conversation.

The physical dark oppresses me. Years ago when we remodeled our kitchen, I had the electrician install pendant lights, lights in the upper glass cabinets, a light over the sink, and recessed lights all through the rest of the ceiling. You could land a jet in my kitchen, it’s like a runway’s worth of lights.  On cloudy dark mornings I turn on EVERY LIGHT I CAN GET TO. My husband loses his mind, he likes the cavelike darkness, but I NEED THE LIGHT.

Last year I finally bought one of those light box things to try and help me deal with my increasingly challenged zen in the fall and winter months. I am not sure if shining super bright light into my pupils for 20-30 minutes a day is actually going to help my body produce more serotonin, but I figure it’s worth a try, even if I only get a placebo effect out of it.

I have little light up bottles and tea lights and big candles and fake candles that change color and decorative lights and LIGHTS GALORE. And still, I am ready to hide by about 7:38 these days. When I walk the dog in the morning now I need my “please don’t run me over!” blinking flashlight/lantern combo. IN THE MORNING. Ugh.

The physical darkness of these months is compounded by the darkness in society right now, the anger and fear and name calling and loathing that seem omnipresent. I am making a conscious (albeit not super successful) effort to stay OFF social media for more of the day, to not check the news except for BBC so I know what is going on in the world—even that is pretty dark, but it isn’t the slickly marketed darkness that the US News wallows in these days.  This kind of darkness weighs on my soul. A lot.

Our personal history of this time of year is pretty, dark, too. Maybe that contributes to some of my lack of focus, my feeling like I need to be super proactive to fight off the gloom? In November of 2004 my daughter epically failed her first chemo—something I could not even fathom, at the time.  This was supposed to work for 7 out of 10 kids. G was in the 3. We were devastated. In October of 2005 she ended chemo number 2 and found out that she had progression, and had to start the incredibly difficult season of chemo #3. Note to self, never scan on Halloween. December/January of that year were some of the darkest of our story, as G’s port broke and floated into her pulmonary artery, she developed cellulitis around the new port site, spent 10 days inpatient with infection/neutropenia (a first), and then had an MRI that indicated malignant transformation and a potential death sentence for our 7 year old.

No number of tea lights will take the edge off THAT.

December of 2011 is when everything started again, tumor progression, shunt surgery, a clinical trial. These months are DARK.

I just finished reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, and he talks a lot about the dark, and about finding God there (or God finding us there…this book is so deep, I feel like I need to read it 18 more times before I can begin to scratch the surface of what Merton knew).  He also talks a lot about just BEING, not DOING.

Ugh. I am the worst at Being. Especially in these dark days. For me being turns into sleeping.

But really—in the moments of being, moments of light can be found. In being there for my kid who needs to talk…in being outside with my dog who needs to snoofle, just being in that moment, listening to the squirrels in the crunchy leaves and knowing they are squirrels and not giant bears of impending doom…in being in the moment as I make dinner, or work on some art, or sweep a floor, I can see some light in these moments.

And not to go all last century political on things, but if I can look around a little, if I can just try to set aside the reality of the dark for a moment, I can see a thousand points of light in the good people are doing, in the happy dog/owner reunion videos I keep watching, in the generosity of our neighbors when my kid goes door to door asking for donations for her Appalachia trip.  The prayers of friends for each other, the support people offer to those in need, the smile from a person at a store or a cheerful conversation with a gas station attendant—all of these are points of light.

That image of a thousand points of light is so timely. We can’t do a whole lot about the pervasive darkness—but we can all be points of light for each other—even today, even in the fraught climate of yikes that threatens to make our future impenetrably dark.

I am trying. Failing a LOT, but trying to be more a  point of light than another layer of darkness. My own darkness is pretty mighty, my resentment over injustices done to people I love, my frustration with mind blowing hypocrisy, my impatience with one of my children seeming to want to be on the tv show Hoarders.  My own darkness sticks like sap to so much of what I try to do, and I hate that.  I want to be a point of light.

I need to be at peace with the physical darkness around, and with our family’s own personal darkness associated with this time of year. Both of these will pass or HAVE passed, and I need to take hope in that. I do take hope in that. As for the dark in society—well, I just have to try harder every day to be a point of light. To share “the good things people need to hear”.  To create words/art/moments that bring light to people.  To make people laugh. To support friends and reach out and not just hide under my blankets until some theoretical spring.

So—let’s do it. Let me know ways you know to be a point of light.  How can we collectively shine together…to paraphrase, to be a light in the darkness,  that the darkness shall not overcome?
Our first fundraiser for the Children's Tumor Foundation was
in 2006, just after the terrible MRI of January. The years of support
from so many people shines on for us as a point of light, a little candle in the darkness.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Zen and the Little Picture

So I sat down to write this last Friday (I worked outside the home on Thursday and was pretty much comatose by the time I finished that and then driving my girls hither and yon). I sat, made myself start to write (ye olde BIC method – Butt In Chair) and STILL the MEH won.  Ultimately, I think that was helpful, both because of what that reveals about my meager stores of mental energy and because the extra time helped me adjust the direction of this post to where I actually wanted it to go. 

I am not one to argue with Animaniacs; like I said last week, it is indeed a great big universe, and by pretty much any calculation we are pretty puny. I know that in the Big Picture of Life, most of the things that drive me to Cadbury consumption are no big deal. My chronically late teen (when I am chronically anxiety filled about not being early), the fact that I NEVER located my long lost car keys, the hours I spend sitting in traffic each day in my maternal chauffeuring gig….these are all irritating, but really, do they MATTER? Even the bigger things, the losses, the catastrophic illness and the shadow it perpetually casts, the employment questions and life direction choices and the things I hope for my kids…in the giant universal sense, they are just tiny little specks.

There is some zen in that, once I get past my tendency to nihilism, the old “life is useless, useless!” translation of Ecclesiastes from the Good News Bible I had when I was a kid.

Yes that sentence in its totality is kind of funny to me…Ecclesiastes was the PRECURSOR to the Good News part, obviously…. But really, the futility of things is in some ways good news, a justification for the old adage, “don’t sweat the small stuff”.

And yet at the very same time, the small stuff is so important. Small stuff is everything. Small stuff IS the big stuff. We live in the daily realities of small stuff. 

Small stuff, the little picture—there is so much zen in that, when I look for it, when I pursue it, when I participate in it, instead of just numbing my brain with Candy Crush and organizing sock drawers.  

When I walk my dog in the morning, the color of the sky or the sound of the birds and squirrels are just little parts of regular life; when I stop to look at a dew-covered spider web on my mom’s garden wall, or notice that a whole new kind of mushroom sprouted up in our yard—these little things are just that—little. But in these little things there is such awesomeness, such …zen.  Peace. Harmony. Nature’s teeny stuff is the natural foundation for the Big Picture, and noticing the little things brings joy.

So noticing small stuff helps. But really, it is in DOING the small stuff that I can get more zen-ish. That’s kind of ironic for me, because doing things often pushes me so far outside my anxiety-wrapped comfort zone, but I never regret doing the small things. This is something I have been thinking about a lot the last few days—and beyond.

I have to give myself the little push to keep doing the little things.

Yesterday’s Monday started once again all gray and chilly and draggily.  I literally felt like every step I took was uphill through molasses. I wrote a list in my bullet journal and …sort of looked at it. I had at least one moment midmorning where I debated getting back into bed (which I never, ever do. Ever. )—this was Uber Monday if ever there was one.

And then my dad brought over a UPS package from Williams Sonoma. I had a moment—oh crap, what did I accidentally order, I thought I had talked myself OUT of the Nordic Christmas Tree cake pan??—but then I realized it was a gift from a friend, little chocolate pens you can use to             WRITE IN COLORFUL CHOCOLATE ON OTHER SUGARY THINGS.

So maybe referring to this as a little thing is unfair, because “WRITE IN COLORFUL CHOCOLATE ON OTHER SUGARY THINGS!!!!”; but in the big picture of the universe, this little gesture of kindness, of connection, of hey, you are not just invisible! – that meant so much to my brain.  Did I suddenly get wildly productive? Nope. But I remembered that hey, today is draggily. Tomorrow will be better. And potentially chocolate filled. Maybe everything in the world does NOT rot. A little thoughtful mail did that.

And really, how hard are most little things? Sending a card, complimenting a cashier’s manicure (the Costco ladies always have amazing nails), folding my teen’s laundry for her because she is so woefully behind on all the things…these little things build the big things. These little things are the connections that serve as the foundation of the big things. And yet still, I so often have to push myself to actually DO them.

In recent months so many of my friends have endured extremely difficult medical situations.  Observing the collective power of a thousand little kindnesses--$5 to a GoFundMe, or a t-shirt fundraiser, or prayers offered when material support is impossible, or a random act of muffins –observing these gives me peace. When so much of our society is a mess and a half—people still do the little things that keep us all connected and remind us yet again of our shared humanity—Big Picture stuff.  Observing all this inspires me to Do the Thing, even when—or maybe ESPECIALLY if it is a little thing.

A few years ago, the Children’s Hospital we spend a lot of time at put in a ten million dollar garden area. Yes. Ten. Million. That is a lot of dollars, and a lot of garden. The space is beautiful. I don’t have ten million dollars (gosh, sorry, should have warned you all to sit down before I laid THAT fact on you). I only have the little things—flowers in my garden, or a few bucks to get a bouquet at ShopRite for a friend. I can make muffins or a loaf or something—doing the little things can have a real, significant impact, and remembering that helps me navigate the ughs of everyday life.

Never think a little thing can’t make an impact. Today being the voter registration deadline in NJ, I am reminded, NEVER think one vote can’t make an impact.  Never think that card, or kind word, or cup of coffee for the person behind you in the drive through, or $5 to a GoFundMe don’t all make a difference.  We have to practice awesome in the little things, it is the only way to live the best lives we can live.

So—let’s do the little things, and the Big Picture will take care of itself.

Now I have to ponder if I have time to make some sort of sugary canvas for some choco-pen art….

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Zen and the Big Picture

It’s a great big universe and we’re all really puny, 
We’re just tiny little specks about the size of Mickey Rooney!

It’s big and black and inky,

And we’re all really dinky!

It’s a big universe and we’re not.

                        --Yakko’s Universe, Animaniacs

Yesterday was Monday.

I hope you were all sitting down for that blast of obvious.

Yesterday’s Monday started gray and soggy and with a teen who brings running late to a whole new level (which is saying something, the Camiolo level of late is pretty epic—and something that in 24 years of marriage I have only managed to mitigate slightly with my heritage of Appert earliness).  The news has been depressing, people are all hating on each other, it was “Columbus Day” which makes me crabby (go, Indigenous Peoples!), and so many of my friends are in true battles for the lives of their children right now.


I did not start the week with a Cinderella-esque wake up song and a dancing fest of house cleaning with little bluebirds and shirt-wearing mice.

I did start with my little light therapy lamp, I have zero clue if it helps but it doesn’t hurt, so I am trying to get ahead of the literally darkening days.  I also started with a workout that reminded me how far I have to go in working out, and then moved on to Flop In a Heap Yoga. Ok, so the official name was Yoga for After a Workout or something like that, but the practice of it for me was total Flop in a Heap.

I dragged my yoga mat out to my deck, determined to take advantage of the remaining days of warmth.  The sky hung gray above, and the air thick with spritzy almost-rain, enough that my mat eventually got pretty slippery, which created a challenge I did not foresee. Even my yoga got soggy.

At the end of 25 minutes of distracted Heap Flopping, I lay on my back and stared at the sky, gray and spritzy above, thinking about all the heavy things that pushed me down into the yoga mat, pushed me down in my heart, pushed me down in my head.

            And…Yakko’s Universe popped into my head.

I wish I could say I had a glorious enlightenment moment, and I guess in some ways I did, it just came via the Animaniacs.

Everything is so heavy—but in perspective, the universe is SO MUCH BIGGER than all these heavy things. I know from teaching history for so long, things are often dire. Things often seem world-ending…but they aren’t.  The universe is bigger than all these things.  The world keeps going.

That does not necessarily ease the sting of the hard stuff. When your child is ill, that illness and the surrounding fear/pain/impossible choices become your universe.  My friends who have gone through what no parent should ever go through, the loss of a child, have said that even when you think you WILL die, you don’t. You are broken, but keep going. I love these people so much, and learn so much from how they keep going in the face of everything crashing down.

When you see your country being pulled apart, and it seems like there can be no fix…we look at history. We have been a mess before, here in America. Some might argue our history is a mess of people trying to do the best they can—or not, but it’s messy.  I love our country so much, I HAVE to acknowledge the truth of our mess. But in the big picture—Americans have kept trying to figure out what America can be. We keep going.

This helped me yesterday. Granted, Warner Brothers cartoons often help my brain.  When I’m not quoting Muppets I am usually quoting a Warner Brothers character, which is a bit of a disturbing self-revelation.  Still—it is a great big universe. We ARE really dinky. And in the big picture, somehow it helps my zen to know that we are just a piece of the picture, not its totality. Our mess, our yikes, our running late teen are just tiny points in a Seurat-like arrangement of colors that make up everything.

So I am going to keep moving. Keep doing the things. Keep keeping the faith. Keep on swimming. Keep on keeping on. Keep on reminding myself that the universe is bigger than whatever is stressing me out in any given moment. Because in the big picture, in my dinkiness,  that is all I can do.  And that is important… (why?  I will leave THAT for the next blog).
Want to get this song stuck in your head, too?  Click here to see  Yakko's Universe. Thank me Later. ;)

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Zen and Memory

“MEMORY! All alone in the mooooooonlight! I can smile at the old days….”

I will take “Oversung Karaoke of the 80s for 200, Alex…”

With all of the sturm und drang of the last few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about zen and memory. I tend to think about memory a lot, for my entire life I have been intrigued by the history of things, the memory I can feel in different places. I know that sounds a bit wooooooo, but I do.  Kind of in a “the rocks cry out” sort of way. Places hold memories as much as people do, and if you know their stories, you can feel those memories of place.  No wonder I became a history teacher. But THAT is another story for another time.

Memory can feed and nurture zen. I remember visiting my great grandparents in Western Kentucky—the smell of Grandma’s house (often a lovely bacon-y smell, she made us bacon every day for breakfast, a rare treat), the heat of the sun in her backyard against the cold water from the hose that we used to fill up an old metal basin to play in, the comfy chair where Grandpa spent his days. Even the ughulous  parts of those trips are not bad memories, even though I joke about them—the epic van breakdowns in New Stanton, PA, Zainesville, OH, Bruceton Mills, WV, the scary hotel situation where mom unleashed her Jersey on the staff while dad was packing the car. ;)

 I remember childhood church-ish picnics where my mom would bring cold chicken and green grapes and we would sit in the sun and have fun activities with other families.  I remember playing elaborate games of time machine in our backyard apple tree. Memories of my childhood home, of Christmas traditions, of love and family feed my zen when I remember to revisit them.

But what if you can’t smile at the old days? What if those memories are BAD?

My son has told me in the past that he does not remember much of his life before he was 10.  He said it sort of nonchalantly one day, and it took my breath away…since those years were full of t-ball and playgroup and homemade Halloween costumes and the Yankees winning an awful lot in the fall—good, zen-feeding things.  But when my son turned 9, his 6 year old sister was diagnosed with brain tumors. Everything fell apart.  He does not remember before that.  The bad memories clouded the good.

Bad memories have a way of sticking around. Not every single detail—but the worst moments are branded into our consciousness somehow.

14 years later, I can now remember and talk about the early days after my G’s diagnosis without weeping. Even THAT took years. Those memories are excruciating, and certain moments are seared into my mind.  The first two years after diagnosis were brutal.  Now my memories can sometimes help people (G failed so many protocols, we have a lot of experiences of different drugs we can share—without the emotional turmoil and terror each failed protocol produced).  The 5 years AFTER the first rounds of treatment were pockmarked with small progressions, scares, and the ever present threat of an immediate resumption of treatment.

Memories are hard sometimes. The “old days” were not always beautiful.

My Rosie asked me yesterday if she used to be super happy when her siblings came home from school. She saw some of our neighbors’ kids running out to greet their siblings, and thought it was so cute. “Did I do that, Mom?” she asked.

I couldn’t remember.  I Could. Not. Remember. I realized…Rosie was 2 when G got sick. G was on treatment during the whole time R would have been the little sibling at home. I don’t remember.

I hate not remembering almost as much as sometimes I hate remembering.

I have no great answer for what to do with difficult memories. Denying them is not healthy, nor is wallowing in them—although honestly, sometimes that just happens, they rise up like a blob and encompass me. This is what happens the day after scan days—I have to dig out of the morass of memory that rises up when we return to the hospital, we look at the brain tumors (which are all still there). 

Often I do that by writing. If I can put those dark thoughts/rememberings into the light, they lose some of their power…not right away, usually, but eventually.  And every time a new ugh memory pops up (that happened this week when a friend shared struggles her child was having in school—struggles that reminded me of some of the cruelty my own child faced in her middle school years), I try to give it light and then keep moving forward---not without the memory, but in control of the memory.  Sometimes I can use those memories to help others. That is empowering, too.

For all those women and men who are publicly dealing with difficult memories right now—stay strong. You are stronger than your memories. Unlocking dark memories and forcing them into the light gives YOU the power, not the memory.  Stand strong in your truth, and your memories become part of your power. Your memories and courage are helping others.

And I truly believe that in truth and power we find healing, and in healing we find zen. Memories are powerful, but they are OURS. We are not theirs. Working through memories is such a hard work – for me, especially with certain things (er, most things) related to my daughter, I still have so much work to do.  But once the memories are out in the sun, they cease to fester and poison my brain.

For all those brave, brave people forcing your memories into the sun…I salute you. And hey, maybe Andrew Lloyd Webber had it right…

Daylight! I must wait for the sunrise!

I must think of a new life…and I mustn’t give in.

When the dawn comes tonight will be a memory too….

LOOK, a new day has begun!