Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Every Photo Has a Story

December 20, 2017

Annual Thanksgiving time family photo, two years ago. The story behind the picture: Nobody was happy, everyone was cold and grumpy--especially me--, it was way too dark already to take the photos. But Bree was getting ready to head back home, and I was desperate to get it done. Not just because I'm a maniac about pictures, but because this was just a little after my diagnosis, just before my first surgery. At the least, I'd never exactly look like this again. Even more than that, even though it was caught early, even though I was one of the lucky ones, the future was still a question mark. A tiny little irrational voice, persistent but quiet, kept whispering, "But what if this is the last time we get to take a family photo? What if this is the last time the kids take a picture with me? I want the kids to at least have this." Irrational, but I wouldn't let it go until we got a few shots. See how dark it is in the photo? It's so much brighter now on the other side of the shot. In this photo, I see gratefulness.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Cancer Free Anniversary

December 4, 2017

Today’s an anniversary for me—a celebration.  Today I am two years cancer free, having undergone a mastectomy to rid my body of the cancer lurking there on December 4th, 2015.  It was probably the scariest day I’ve ever experienced, because of the unknown. 
The biggest unknown--would they find it had spread to my lymph nodes?  When Mom went in for surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in her kidneys years before, they found one of the kidneys 90% consumed and the other 40% consumed with tumors.  Worse?  The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and she’d need chemotherapy and radiation.  Less than 9 months later, she was gone.  Now, I had been assured that my cancer was caught early and it was highly unlikely that it had spread, but still they said they wouldn’t know positively until they got in there and tested the nodes.  Of course the other looming unknown was what would it feel like to wake up from surgery and be literally missing a piece of myself?  It’s a surreal notion to contemplate.  I mean, there are certainly people in this world who lose limbs to disease or accident, and the impact on their lives is immeasurably more than it is for one who loses, in essence, a large area of fairly non-utilitarian fat (post-child-bearing years) from the body.  Nonetheless, it was a piece of ME, and a part of me I’d been accustomed to living with for a great many years.  When the landscape was thus altered, would I awaken to still look like me? Would I still feel like me? Would I recoil at the scars left behind and feel less whole?  Finally, there was the unknown of how all of this would affect the people I loved.  I know my husband, my kids, my sisters and brother, and my friends were worried.  Would my husband still look at me the same way?  Would my kids be in constant fear of a recurrence?  I found that as I was reassuring them all that this was just a blip on life’s radar and that it would be an inconsequential bump in the road, I was really just reassuring myself.  Everything was going to be alright, because it simply had to be.
It turns out I was one of the lucky ones.  The cancer was caught early enough, and it hadn’t made its way into the lymph system.  There was no radiation or chemotherapy, and my team of doctors has been wonderful as I have navigated the path toward reconstruction.  To be honest, I am sometimes sheepish about even calling myself a “cancer survivor”, because I didn’t have to endure the grueling and often brutal effects of the aftercare that many of my counterparts have braved.  I got the easy way out.  The scars are there, a permanent mark from the past, but I am otherwise unscathed from the attack.  With an incredible husband who never left my side and has cared for me after each of the five surgeries I had, and with an amazing network of family and friends who have cheered me on and supported me in innumerable ways, I look ahead to celebrating this milestone for many, many years to come.  This day will always be a quiet marking of “Before” and “After” for me, but it isn’t the day that defines my Life Story.  It’s just a milestone along the way.

Read more of the story in these links:

Friday, December 1, 2017

Friday Morning Stream of Consciousness

December 1, 2017

I need to finish grading this stack of papers what day should I book a train for D to come home from school gotta finish my posts for my last grad class what am I going to wear to the concert tonight I hope my students remembered to bring in books for the book drive oh I need to send off finals to the print shop I wonder if there’s anything else I need to do to process my degree thank god it’s payday I need to get a new bed for the guest room that has a trundle so that both girls can sleep there when they come home to visit I need to clean out N’s room so that we can get a smaller bed in there and give him more room man, I hope his job actually pays him this week we need to get him registered for classes next semester I hope he’s doing okay I’m excited to shop for all the kids for Christmas I still want to make some gifts for a few people, too Paint Nite with the girlfriends was a lot of fun we should do that again, but I’m not sure they all loved painting D and I should do some painting and photography during the Christmas break I need to order some prints of the family shots I took at Thanksgiving I’m sad that B doesn’t love how she looks because she’s beautiful, but then I think how critical I am of how I look and I get it we don’t look at ourselves in love like the people who love us do I wish I didn’t weigh so much not loving what I look like right now (ever) the most charitable thing I can muster on some days is well, I’m not awful, but some days I don’t even get there sometimes I worry that D will look at me and wonder why he’s with someone whose weight is out of control but I can’t really ever express that out loud because insecurity is unattractive, so that’s a bit of a catch-22 and it only sounds like you’re fishing for compliments anyway okay, enough of that self-destructive nonsense, because who needs that on a Friday morning speaking of nonsense that world news has spiraled out of control of course it’s been spiraling since the last presidential election, but it’s kind of unbelievable to think how strange it is to wake up every single morning wondering are we at war who has been charged with sexual harassment today what new indictments or resignations of top government officials have been announced and why in God’s name are we not going after the one who needs to be dethroned before more damage is done, because it’s already going to take years to right the ship as it is how much more damage can the ship sustain before sinking altogether my goodness I’m in a dark frame of mind today which is not normal for me gotta reset my perspective before my class comes in I need to fine-tune my planning for the rest of the semester, write a couple of letters of recommendation, prepare for an observation next week, finalize business with my student teacher I need to get Christmas decorations out of storage to decorate the house oh gosh I need to clean the house we need to get rid of some stuff the house is in desperate need of new carpets or flooring holy cow, what are we going to do about the leak and the mess in the back bathroom we still need to replace the lighting in the dressing room and I don’t even have the first clue how to go about doing it and I think D got frustrated with the project so it’ll just get left as is I need to take care of some bills and paperwork too and I need to get to the post office to mail some packages I really want to do some holiday baking, but it is ridiculous to even think about it because then I’d want to eat some of it, and refer back to the earlier train of thought where I said I weighed too much already so much to do, so why sit here writing all this down because maybe, just maybe if I can get it all out here, I can get it out of my mind and start working on some of those things that are floating around in my brain like snow flurries that make it hard to focus on any one thing at a time

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Note to Self--And Anyone Else

November 14, 2017

Write, even when you don't feel profound; paint, even when you don't feel artistic; take pictures when you need to practice seeing through another lens; read to hear voices that speak wisdom or joy or humor or humanity into your soul; dance, even if no one else joins in; sing at the top of your lungs, even when no one else knows your song. Forgive yourself if you don't feel perfect at any of these things, because every small offering of art offered in love--whatever form, whatever shape, adds beauty to the world. And friend, we need to continue to add beauty to the world, to let it grow and rise up against the ugliness that threatens to continue to speak darkness and bleakness into the individual and collective soul.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Letter to My Daughter

A Letter to My Daughter
September 20, 2017

My beautiful girl, you are already well into your fourth week away from home—longer than you’ve ever been away from me.  It’s quieter here now, and I’m missing the sound of your laughter and the day-to-day chatter at home, on the soccer field, at the track, on the pool deck, and in the car. So, so many hours in the car! Although I sometimes wished you could cart yourself off to practice or to youth group in these past couple of years, I almost feel that your incredible commitment to NOT getting your license while you were in school was an inadvertent gift to me, because it afforded us so much time together.  Your sister was already grown and living her life in L.A., and although your brother was still at home, he was keen to exercise the freedom that all young college men with the keys to their own cars yearn for. 

So that left you and me, Kid, with lots of things to talk about, great and small.  And I cherish those times, whether we were talking about where you wanted to go to college and whether or not we could make it work financially, or talking about your friends and all your exploits together, or talking about your passions—church, photography, sports, or even talking about which Starbucks drink you were trying to talk me into buying you on the way home from school.  And even though we spent so much time together, I still feel like there were things I should have said—things I want you to know as you are creating a new life for yourself in your home away from home at college.  You’re going to have incredible experiences in college, but you might have some pretty rotten ones, too, and it makes me sad that I won’t be there by your side to help you navigate those experiences.  That’s okay, though.  It’s the way it’s supposed to be, and I’ll probably have a harder time with it than you will, truth be told.  Still, I’ll share a couple of bits of wisdom and advice that you probably know, but that I want you to hear again anyway:

First, I am incredibly proud of you.  Your determination and perseverance have surprised and delighted me since literally before you were born (that’s a story for another day).  Those traits have propelled you to challenge yourself both physically and intellectually, and have paved the way for you to become the independent young woman you are.  You know what you want, and you are ready to climb any mountain that stands in your way.  At the same time, you have a giving and loving spirit that gives you a heart of service, which is something I dearly love about you.

That determination and perseverance goes a long way.  However, sometimes, no matter how hard we work or push ourselves, circumstances beyond our control can thwart us.  Things aren’t always going to go your way; it’s a fact of life.  Sometimes, things will be downright awful.  We can’t control everything, but we can control how we respond.  Use your creativity to look at a problem in a new light, or to reframe the situation so that you can learn and grow from it.  Failure is only failure it you choose to view it as such.

You’re going to make mistakes.  Sometimes you won’t know you’re making a mistake until it’s too late, and sometimes you’ll make a mistake knowing full well it’s the wrong choice but in the moment you let your impulse take over, instead of your brain.  Just know that when—not if—you make a poor choice as you are learning to be an adult, I will never love you less for it, and I will support you as you work to right that mistake. 

College has a wealth of new experiences, and you alone are responsible for making sure you get all you can out of it.  Get yourself to classes, make sure you take care of your business, pay attention to deadlines.  Also, meet lots of friends, get involved, be a part of the culture of the place.  Be the one, as you always have been, to reach out and include those who seem to need someone to reach out and include them.  Find balance.  This is so important.  And if you get a few Bs along the way, don’t beat yourself up about it, and know that I won’t either.  (A “C” here or there won’t kill you either—and it won’t kill me.)  Balance, balance, balance.  Sleep, study, laugh, play, learn.  They’re ALL important.

From your mama, you got a basic belief in the goodness of people, and I am incredibly thankful for that.  However, as much as I believe in the goodness of people, I know that there are a few rotten apples out there.  You know this too.  Trust your instincts on this.  Like many young women, it’s hard to face the reality that there are people who might mean you harm.  At parties, stay with people you know.  Have a buddy system where you and your friend check in on each other.  NEVER take a drink from someone you don’t know, or that you didn’t see poured.  Better yet, take your own drink.  Be vigilant about not being cornered in a place where others can’t see you.  Don’t walk out on your own after dark.  This is a hard subject, because I don’t even begin to want to think about my baby girl in a situation where she could be in danger, but colleges can be notorious for too much alcohol, uninhibited behavior, and ‘friends’ who take advantage of being unsupervised by parents, sometimes for the first time in their lives.  And yes, these things happen even at Christian colleges.  You have often joked that you are strong enough to take on someone who wants to attack you.  You are fierce, you are strong—but you are one person, and any person, given the right circumstances, can be overcome.  And there are fierce, strong, and callous human beings, much as I hate to acknowledge it, who are sick, angry, entitled.  Caution and awareness are strengths, too.  Use those strengths.  Know this, though, loud and clear—if you are ever attacked, accosted, raped, no amount of anything you did or didn’t do, before or after, will make it your fault.  Ever. 

Ugh.  That was hard to write.  I didn’t even want to write the word “rape”, because it’s so hard to wrap my brain around the concept in relation to my own children.  I thought it was important to say, however, because I don’t ever want one of my kids to be ashamed to say the word to me if they are looking to me for support and love and comfort as a result of it.

Okay—last subject.  (For now.  I am your mama, after all, and I reserve the right to disseminate mama-ly advice until you’re, say, 93.  Yes, I have spectacular ambition when it comes to my own longevity.)  As I have said before, this is an age and a time when you’ll be discovering all kinds of experiences.  You might even fall in love.  Many people do, in college.  Some people don’t, and that’s perfectly fine, too.  If the right Prince Charming doesn’t sweep you off your feet, Honey, don’t settle for Prince Churlish.  There’s no timeline but your own when it comes to love.  If you do fall in love, there’s always the possibility of heartbreak.  You might love someone who doesn’t love you back, or who does for a time, and then moves on with his life.  It will feel like the end of the world.  Your heart will be crushed.  You won’t know how to be who you are anymore.  But please listen to this: you are a beautiful, talented, wonderful gift.  If you find a man who recognizes this and treats you accordingly, well, that’s a wise and wonderful human being.  But you are not beautiful, talented, and wonderful BECAUSE a boy might love you; if his love or infatuation falters, it does not lessen who you are.  This is a terribly hard lesson to remember in the depths of despair, but if you tuck this truth deep in your heart now, it will be there when you need to find your way back to you.  This was a hard lesson for me to learn—it took me many years to recover myself when I was young—but you are wiser than I was at your age.  And just like you may one day experience heart-break, you may also cause heart-break, even when you don’t want to.  You may find that the love you thought was there simply isn’t anymore.  Or you may find someone you find dear—someone you love, but aren’t in love with. This doesn’t make you a bad person; don’t hold on to love out of guilt or sadness.  Be gentle with a heart you no longer want to share, and be kind to that person who is, like you, a beautiful, talented, wonderful gift, who may struggle awhile to find his way back to himself as he is piecing back together his heart.

These are some of the things I think about now, as I’m riding alone in my car each day to the school we both shared, and while running errands throughout my week.  I am sure there are a million more conversations I’ll have with you in my head in between the short phone calls and the text messages back and forth, just like I thought about when your sister left for school or when your brother started college.  You all grow up, and you learn to move in a much bigger world than the tiny world of our home, but I want you to know: I will always be your mom, I will always want to share in a part of your world, I will always be here for you to offer advice or support, and I will always love you.  You are always in my heart, even when you are not sitting next to me.


Friday, July 7, 2017

In Too Deep

July 7, 2017

Summer in July. If you’re from Fresno, that means if humanly possible, you’ll spend as much time in the pool as you can. If you’re a kid in the 1970s in Fresno, that means every day, all day, flaunting the scorching sizzle of 105 degrees of unrelenting heat by splashing, playing, and diving into the deliciousness of the backyard pool. We had sitting-on-the-bottom-of-the-pool contests, and races walking on our hands into the deep end. We belly-flopped and did back flips and cannonballs off the diving board. We took breaks to run in the house to pee if we thought Mom was paying attention; we didn’t run into the house if we thought we could get away with it, because it was so much work to drag ourselves out and away from the fun, dry ourselves off completely so as not to drip a trail of water through the house, and peel off (and then put back on) the cold, soggy suit just to run back out and rejoin whatever games were in progress. (I know you’re judging here; I also know you’ve done it too. And if you have kids now, you’re fooling yourself if you think they’ve never peed in your pool.)

We had a built-in group of playmates, since there were five of us kids. Our next-door neighbors had ten kids, some of whom were older and out of the house, but many of whom were right there with us in our pool every day. Around lunchtime, Mom would often appear with a stack of sandwiches and some grapes or oranges. We also feasted off of the two mulberry bushes that were in our backyard. (Until we moved to that house, I thought mulberry was just a made-up word that was used in a nursery rhyme.) We knew Mom was in the house and was only a yell away in case of emergencies, but she didn’t often come out to the pool to swim with us. She was scared of swimming, borne of the sink-or-swim lessons she had as a child, when her step-dad threw her into the lake and told her she’d have to figure out how to get back to land on her own. She never got over the panic she felt around water, but she wanted us to have a pool. (She also paid to take us to swim lessons so we could learn how to swim in a less threatening environment than she did.) Although Mom occasionally passed by the kitchen window with a casual “Be careful!” or “Watch your little brother!”, we were mostly joyously, raucously, exuberantly free from parents, from worries, from cares about anything more important than which kid got to decide the next game that we played. Sun up to sundown, that’s where we were. It’s a wonder we survived without drowning or sunstroke.

Today we wouldn’t dream of leaving our young kids to their own devices all day, especially not in the pool. The dangerous part for us, though, was when Dad was off for the weekends and he decided to join us in the pool. Dad liked to rough house and was impatient with ‘weakness’. He’d jump in the pool and wrestle and fight, pitting his 200 pound frame against his 12 year old son, his 10 and 8 year old daughters. On the one hand, we liked when he would join in our games; he was a busy man and spent a lot of time at the office during the week days. There was always an edge, though—the feeling that things could turn at any moment. They often did. Riding on Dad’s back was fun; watching him swan-dive into the pool, seeming to freeze momentarily mid-air to cockily salute and wave to an adoring audience—well, we loved those moments. But inevitably, Dad wanted to wrestle us, take us on precariously close to the deeper end of the pool where he could stand, but we could not. There was something strange that overcame him during those battles, a competitive spirit that could not be tempered with logic or reason. He played dirty, not one to let his kids get the better of him. His signature move was to suddenly swing around to face whichever kid was trying to ride his back to bring him down. He’d swiftly reach out to hold us underwater, the palm of his hand planted firmly on the top of his opponent’s head—the ultimate show of superior strength and agility. To this day I can remember the feeling of being held, firmly and helplessly, under the surface, just moments shy of far too long—arms flailing, panicked eyes casting about for some means of escape, feeling the burning sensation in my lungs and knowing I couldn’t hold my breath anymore. I remember several times thinking, “He’s going to forget to let me up in time. I’m going to drown before he lets me up!” Inevitably, when Dad did finally let me or my brother or sister up from his vise-like grip, we’d either be angry (my brother, my sister), or we’d be crying. Gary even tried to sucker punch Dad in retaliation once, but a swift, sneak attack underwater is difficult to pull off. It set Dad off even more, and Gary was pushed underwater once again in order for Dad to underscore his dominance. Dad’s victorious gloating grin after these matches would be eclipsed by that impatient, irrational anger. He’d call us babies, he’d rail at us for playing the game and then being sore losers. He’d become enraged and said he wouldn’t play with us anymore, and then he’d either banish us to the shallow end or tell us we weren’t big enough to go in the pool at all and would make us get out for the day. He’d brood and sulk for the rest of the day. There were always arguments with my mother, too, when she told him he needed to be more gentle with us; he needed to remember that he was bigger and stronger than all of us. He, on the other hand, didn’t want to raise sissies; he didn’t want to have weaklings for kids. We needed to get over it and toughen up. At the same time, he seemed to need constant validation that we acknowledged him as the strongest, the wiliest of us all. He needed to know that we knew he was the alpha male. Even as a kid I thought it was irresponsible—unparental, even.

Those 1970s summers were seemingly carefree and without purpose, but they taught me a lot, too, about what I expect, and what I accept, from those who hold positions of power in my personal, professional, and public world. Back then, I was willing to jump back in the pool again and again, knowing that danger and anger lurked there, for the trade-off of my father’s playful bravado and fun that always preceded it. But I what I eventually realized is that risking my well-being in order to feed someone else’s insecurities is simply not worth diving into. Is it selfish to not want to drown under the weight of someone else’s baggage? Those hot summer days taught me that being selfish is sometimes necessary for survival.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

On Twitter

June 15, 2017

I read yesterday that Donald Trump blocked Stephen King on Twitter.  J.K. Rowling immediately stepped up and said she'd be happy to send S.K. Trump's tweets so he could remain in the loop.  This is all mildly amusing, if you don't think too hard about it.  If you do stop to think about it, however, you realize that the Leader of the Free World, of a country that prides itself on freedom of speech, is deliberately and purposefully blocking his own communication to people he fears will disagree with him.  Stephen King is only one of many dissidents who have been blocked from reading Trump's tweets.  You might say that it's only social media, that it's Trump's right to block individuals--I mean, I certainly have that capability on my own Twitter account--but I am not a public figure tasked with representing those I might choose to block.  Since Trump has made Twitter his primary means of communication with the American public--these reactionary, staccato, 140 character temper-tantrums designed to incite ire and deflect blame and responsibility--it should be alarming that he feels he is entitled to narrow his audience to those who won't call him out and challenge the veracity of his missives.  He both works for us and is supposed to represent all of his constituents, not just those who nod and smile at his antics.  If we don't recognize that his entitled view of narrowing the scope of available communication on Twitter as a microcosm of the broader intent to choke out opposing viewpoints in other areas of government, we are burying our heads in the sand.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

50 Down, 50 To Go

June 14, 2017

There are a lot of people, women in particular, who have a funny sort of relationship with their birthdays.  Like a number of other women I know, my mother celebrated her 29th birthday several times from—well, her 29th birthday—until she passed away at 29 (plus 33).  Honestly, I’ve never really understood the trepidation with which Mom approached that annual date on the calendar.  I love my birthday, and I’ve never been shy about proclaiming my age.  It’s a number, after all—a marker indicating another year of family, friends, laughter, experiences—both good and bad, and insights.  And, as the saying goes, having another birthday certainly beats the alternative of not having another birthday.

So here I am at 50.  The way I see it, I’m halfway through this life. (I’m an overachiever—I’m planning to live to the century mark.)  I used to think 50 was old, but it really is true that old age is way more about a state of mind than the year you were born.  Yes, I’m a little (a lot) softer and squishier than I used to be, and there are wrinkles and hairs where there didn’t used to be any.  And you know how some young adults outgrow the awkward phase and develop into stunning beauties? I think I’ll stop holding my breath for that now.  That’s okay though;  I don’t feel old, and I think it’ll be a long time before I hit that mark.  What keeps you young is watching your children grow and seeing them build their own futures and families, laughing and loving with friends, traveling and seeking out new adventures, continuing to read and learn, making new connections and seeking new perspectives.  I’ve got lots of places to go, books to read, and people to love in the next 50 years.  Starting right now.  Here’s to the next leg of the journey!