March 2012 Archives

Having a Field Day: waterfalls and wildflowers

  • Posted on March 28, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Write or run, I wanted to do the right thing this morning. So I chose to do neither.

When I moved to my new residence four months back, freshly laid off from my previous job and still unemployed, I joined the local newcomer’s club to meet other women and engage in interesting social activities.

Little did I know it would be so therapeutic.

A few months back an exploration group within the club took a tour of a local monastery and winery. The experience was so intoxicating that I determined not to miss a single future event if at all possible. This month the leaders of the group chose as their destination the North Table Mountain Ecological Preserve (locally known as “Table Mountain”), a basalt mesa 1,590 feet in elevation that formed from a lava flow many eons ago. About 100 miles north of Sacramento, California, this wildlife sanctuary is renowned for its gorgeous wildflowers and waterfalls this time of year.

Today, March 28, was the day. So last night I gathered together all my rain gear, specialized clothing and accessories in preparation for any kind of weather. At the last minute I stuffed sunscreen and sunglasses into my fanny pack, convinced they would be unnecessary. Although I was never a Boy Scout, I always followed their motto of being prepared. This time was no exception.

Because the weather had been “iffy” for the last few days, I wasn’t sure if this outdoor venture would be canceled. A storm blew in during the night that woke me up. Most storms don’t have that effect on me, but this one sounded like a tsunami had hit my bedroom window. The first thing that came to mind was, “This trip is history.” But when the day dawned bright, I saw a special light in the sky I hadn’t seen for quite some time. And it wasn’t raining. Looking out the window, I saw my neighbor packing her car for the trip, so I knew she was of the same mindset: Let’s go! So we met our five fellow hikers at a local parking lot and headed out for the unknown, equipped for the unexpected.

When our tires hit gravel at the parking lot, the place looked deserted. In fact, the spectacle resembled a scene from the Hound of the Baskervilles, with thick fog slathering the swampland and a brisk breeze forcing us to zip up and brace for arctic air. Despite the drifting mist and the whipping wind, we had it together. From parkas to waterproof hiking boots to walking sticks to moisture wicking clothing, we defined the word “troopers”. My adventurous spirit kicked into high gear: if I’ve beaten breast cancer twice, fought the demon of lymphedema and slayed the dragon of relationship betrayal, I could easily master this outdoor challenge.

As we made our way from the parking lot to the first waterfall, we sloshed through some marshes that tested the integrity of our footwear. All boots passed with flying colors: no one turned back due to soggy socks. Cameras made their way out of backpacks and pockets as we trekked along, attuning our eyes and ears to the sights and sounds of this magical moor-like place. The shifting fog and clouds forced the orange frying pan poppies to close up for business. I don’t blame them. Supposedly the sun had to be shining for an hour before they would dare open their petals. But we did hear the satisfying call of meadowlarks perched in oak trees, witnessed two mysterious cocoons on rocks, and jumped for joy at the sky lupines, goldfields, popcorn flowers–and a variegated weed resembling the ubiquitous coleus plant.

We didn’t have the time or wherewithal to visit all six waterfalls. But the ones we did reach provided stunning Kodak moments due to the recent torrential rains. During the last half of our hike the sun did poke its head out of the clouds from time to time, making me glad my sunglasses and sunscreen weren’t left sitting on my kitchen counter.

As we traversed streams, sidestepped bogs, and climbed up and down rocks on the undulating landscape, we came to realize civilization was not much more than a stone’s throw away.  A lone house loomed when we ascended a hill.  On our way back we took a shortcut through barbed wire that served some human purpose. And we saw several cattle grazing along the green slopes. The cows play an important role in this delicate ecological balance: if they don’t eat the grass, the grass will overtake the flowers–and then tour buses will have no reason to grace the area.

The lushness of the greenery and the scattered rocks and other stone formations bore an uncanny resemblance to the Emerald Isle that my friend and I were privileged to tour last May. In particular, it brought to mind the Burren in Western Ireland. An hour’s drive from Galway, the 50-square-mile limestone plateau making up the Burren is a unique and thriving ecosystem. Contrary to Table Mountain, with its wildflower season spanning from late February to April, the best season for wildflowers in the Burren is early July. While the land formations differ widely, the ecosystems of Table Mountain and the Burren share many similarities. I’m reminded how connected we are despite geographical distances.

I’ll be forever thankful I ventured out early on this cloudy day to join six adventurous gals.  Fast friends, we proved ourselves willing to let our hiking boots get muddy from swamps and streams to enjoy the natural wonders in Northern California. The experience contributed greatly to the healing of my memories and my spirits–and I have some new hiking buddies. What better way to spend a morning?

Have you had a social outing that has stuck out in your memory? An adventure that went beyond the cultural pale? Do you find the sights and sounds of nature to be restorative or healing?

Moms With Breast Cancer: the unspoken truth about sons

  • Posted on March 21, 2012 at 1:18 pm

After I read to my writing critique group another chapter of the manuscript for my book Mourning Has Broken, one woman writer asked me how my three sons dealt with my cancer setbacks.

“I really don’t know,” I replied in all honesty.  How would I know? Boys have been stereotyped throughout the millennia as uncommunicative. It’s an unfair judgment with which to paint the whole male species. But I really could not fathom the depths of their feelings as I underwent cancer treatment both times. After all, they are from Mars, right?

My women writing coaches stressed that most people reading my book would be interested to know how my children reacted to such traumatic news directly affecting them. The reading public would want to be prepared in case they were the patients, caregivers, relatives, friends, etc. What does a mother tell her children to ease their minds? What if the children are even too young to know what it means? After all, my youngest son Josh was only three when I was first diagnosed.

So I resolved to answer the question. If I did not address this elephant in the Hasak room, I would let down not only my fellow writing critique group members, but also potential readers.

As I predicted, “My Three Sons” was the hardest chapter of my book to write. To finish the piece, I made certain assumptions to surmise the boys’ emotions. I would base my account on what teachers would tell me about my kids’ behavior in the classroom.  Were they simply acting out because boys will be boys?  Or was that just another stereotype?  I would also read essays and other writing assignments that they had completed for their English classes. How did they treat their classmates on the school playground? Did they bully? Were they bullied? Sometimes a handwritten note would come home, mostly illegible, and forced by the teacher, to apologize for something they did. Deciphering such circumstantial evidence, reading between the lines, I would put pen to paper to create the chapter. It slowly materialized, morphing from outline to complete paragraphs.

I didn’t dare interview the boys myself so as to embarrass tweens and teenagers. Heaven forbid I would put them on the spot.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered many of their true emotions. After hosting a radio interview about my book, a pastor friend Sam took me aside to share one such tale.  In 2003 Sam had gone on a mission trip to Mexico with Josh, eleven at the time.  Rooming with Josh, Sam donned his counseling hat as he listened to Josh’s anger.  All my son had ever known was his mother having cancer. Even as he poured out his heart to Sam, I was still undergoing chemo treatment. It was foremost in his young mind. Wise as a rabbi, Sam counseled Josh to take out his frustration on the piano. Because Josh had already taken piano lessons, he wouldn’t be starting from scratch.

Josh started playing Christian rock music on the piano in their room. Next thing we knew, he was playing keyboard in our youth worship band at church on Thursday nights. What an outlet for this tormented soul. Eleven years later he still plays in a worship band. And none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer twice.

That’s not the only ray of sunshine. When my middle son Andy was taking Anatomy in college, one of his assignments was to give a presentation on a human disorder or disease.  One evening he came into my bedroom asking if he could borrow my Reid sleeve and bandages so he could present a show-and-tell about lymphedema. What? I didn’t even think he knew I had lymphedema. I tried to hide it so well.  But he paid attention to dinner table discussions. He knew nobody else in his class would tackle that subject, let alone know what it was. Probably even his professor had never heard of it. So I lent him the compression paraphernalia, he gave his talk, and he managed an A in the class.

My oldest son John kept up his jokes and punny humor, but beneath the veneer I know his heart was hurting. He had been with his mom the longest of the three of them, and we shared a love unique between a mother and her oldest child. I could sense his despair, if not see it in action.

All three of them were watching, observing. Nothing escaped their eyes. Especially when I would retreat into my woman cave (aka my walk-in closet), close the door, and perform all the self-care maneuvers my lymphedema therapist cautioned me to do. In the dark confines of that space I would stretch my arms, massage my upper body, do deep breathing and bandage my arm and fingers. After an hour I would emerge, my left arm wrapped up like a mummy, not a mommy.

The boys would ask my husband where mom was. “Oh, she’s in the closet now, doing her thing.” I wish the answer were, “Mom’s taking a bubble bath with aromatherapy. Don’t disturb her reverie.” Wouldn’t that be a nice alternative to the nightmare of treatment I faced every day? By the time I came out of the closet, it would be time to pray with the boys, hug them, and say nighty-night.

Over time I came out of the proverbial closet. I came out in full force, talking and writing about lymphedema every chance I could get. And the boys, I’m sure, were the first to “get it.”

After my book was published, Josh set up my website so I could provide information and resources about cancer and lymphedema. As my webmaster, he functions in multiple capacities, from answering my technical questions to putting sidebars and widgets on my blog. I’ve never had to beg him to do it. He’s been so supportive, so solicitous, so hopeful I will never see cancer’s ugly head again.

I know that my boys are still watching me. I owe it to them to watch my own steps. Take care of my health. Take care of my emotions. Roll with the punches. That’s all we can do when we have had cancer. That’s why I distract myself with art, ukulele lessons, creative writing courses, lymphedema advocacy, cancer volunteer work. These activities and more keep my mind from wandering toward stress and an uncertain future. I’ve survived a marital breakup and job layoff, both within a few months of each other. I will survive the insult of high-risk medical insurance premiums rising at a 10% rate as if there is no tomorrow. My boys will take comfort knowing I’m taking care of myself, day by day, inch by inch.

Online resources with advice for parents punched by cancer and with tips for their children include Support for Children Whose Parents Have Cancer, When Your Parents Have CancerKid’s Konnected, RipRap, and Advice for Parents with Cancer. The tips from MD Anderson for parents to consider when discussing cancer with their children bear repeating here:

  • Start the conversation by remembering the three “C”s: The illness is called cancer. It’s not catchy/contagious. And it’s not caused by anything the child did or did not do.
  • Be specific to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Manage expectations.
  • Inform the school.
  • Give honest information even if a parent’s condition worsens.
  • Seek support.

As a parent whose cancer has been in remission for nine years, I now observe how my sons–as young adults–are coping, knowing I did something right.  Recently they told me I could stay with them if things go south for me financially or healthwise. And I just might move south, now that nothing is holding me here. We’ll see. I’m just thankful for my boys, who shower blessings upon me that I had least expected. They are loud in their reassurances–and even louder in their silences.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, did you have to deal with young children? How did they cope? Do you have any tips for how to broach the subject with them?  If you have daughters and sons, did they react differently?


A Dimwit’s Guide to Downsizing Revisited

  • Posted on March 14, 2012 at 4:44 pm

Jan Baird at 3 in her Easter outfit

Although I’ve addressed this subject in the past, I believe it’s worth revisiting. Downsizing and decluttering have become major industries in the U.S, an affluent country known for its packrats and knick-knackers. Websites and books abound on the subject. Decluttering tips (a countless number) can keep the diligent occupied for weeks. When do we have time for real work? For which we get a real paycheck?

Like it or not, I’ve joined the sorority for scalebacks. The hazing proved brutal. How does one go from a four-bedroom, five-bathroom manse to a two-bedroom apartment? With much trepidation.

On moving day my rented storage unit quickly told my U-Haul dolly, “I’ve reached my limit. That’s enough bric-a-brac. I’m not in that space. You’ll have to pick on a unit twice my size.”

Pending user-friendly weather, each day I would park my Prius beside my unit, ready to tackle a new set of boxes. A pecking order of priorities soon became apparent. Knickknacks inherited from my parents quickly topped the “easiest-to-dispose-of” list. Already having culled through them a few years ago, I found they could sustain another round of cuts, as if I were an employer laying off more unsuspecting workers. The heirlooms ended up in a thrift store or consignment shop, way-stations more than willing to repurpose them.

Next on the list were sewing and crafting supplies and the trusty sewing machine I had kept since the ’70’s. At this point in my life season I had to decide on hobbies worth pursuing (did I really need rubber stamps bought years ago at a Stamp-It house party?). The sewing machine ended up at a local Sew-and-Vac store that donates pre-owned machines to schools. A quilter friend gladly accepted the craft and sewing accessories. Avocations I chose to keep included painting and playing ukulele. So my Prius gladly transported art and music supplies to my apartment, where they sit waiting for their owner to pay them attention.

Number three in priority? Decorations and other home decor. Wall hangings and silk floral arrangements had adorned my former abode in lavish display. I had a spray for every season and holiday. What to do with the excess? Hi-ho! Hi-ho! It’s off to the American Cancer Society thrift store, I go!

A decision on the disposition of board and other games that my sons and I enjoyed in earlier days needed more time. Last weekend I sorted them into piles of keep, discard, and donate. I wept at giving up the Star Wars game that the kids had laughed over. That whole happy era was gone, dissolved in a decade of sadder years.

The decisions became increasingly more difficult. It was down to greeting cards, mementos and photos.

In my apartment I sat down at my only table with shoebox upon shoebox of greeting cards. With a box of Kleenex at the ready, I braced myself. Picking up the first one, I glanced at the artwork and opened it to Hallmark poetry ending with a handwritten note from a friend who was sorry I had another diagnosis of cancer. I went on. I read over love letters from one who no longer loves me. I read thank-you cards from kids I transported on field trips. I read home-made cards that my sons created in school.  I read over cards that friends and family sent me on my 40th and 50th birthdays and when I got cancer, the first and second times. Some of these dear souls have drifted out of my life, while others have stayed with me through all my ordeals and still comfort me in times of grief. I found my mother’s hand-painted cards, watercolor wonders bursting with bonzais and peacocks. For his twenty-fifth birthday, I recently sent my son a fold-out castle card from his grandma’s collection.

In the end I saved only the hand-made cards. Proud as I am of having stored all those greeting cards people sent me over the years, I have to honor the limited space I have. In my new season, space = money.

Now I was down to truly sentimental items. I’ve yet to deal with the mementos (for example, my father’s World War II medals and the flag that draped my father’s coffin, folded and presented to me as I stood, numb with pain, at the burial ground). But at least I’m facing the monumental task of going through about fifty photo albums and as many framed photos. Like the one of me pictured here in the fifties, lovingly colorized by my mother.

Do I keep any of these photos or simply scan them and save digital images? Some yellowed photos of ancestors are not identified on the back, lost to time. My sons and brother don’t want to be saddled with volumes of albums rarely to be seen. They have no storage room of their own. yet they don’t want me to toss them. I could pay a service to scan and organize them, but don’t want to spend the money. So instead I slowly but surely empty album upon album of fading photos and enter them into i-clouds of virtual memory. It’s an enormous task:  scanning, labeling and organizing my parents’ albums covering their whole lifetimes, as well as my own pre-marriage and family albums.

At this stage in my life, before my sons have their own  homes with storage room, I never thought I would have to give up so much. Haven’t I given up enough by way of cancer and relationship breakdowns? By way of financial setbacks? How can I just throw out such memories?

I believe this exercise resembles my experience when I first went to Europe after college. About to leave to go back to the States, I decided to take one last look around Brussels before heading for the airport. I thought that if I never returned to Europe again, at least I would have an impression of the buildings and people imprinted somewhere in my memory banks. And I do, despite the ensuing decades. The same will happen at this juncture of my life, except that I also have digital replicas of the experiences. For anyone who is interested enough to look.

Our treasures aren’t here on this earth, anyway. Rust, mold, or moths will get to them eventually. So I won’t store them up. I’ll just make new friends or renew old friendships. Relationships are much more rewarding than a candy dish I treasured when I was thirty. I like Oprah’s list on decluttering relationships reproduced below:

  • Relationship to self—good riddance to decisions that don’t support self-care, self-value, and self-worth.
  • Relationship to others—do the people in your life give you energy and encourage your personal growth, or block that growth with dysfunctional dynamics and outdated scripts? If they don’t support you as a loving, open, free, and spontaneous being: Goodbye!
  • Relationship to emotional life—out with stagnant patterns that no longer serve you.
  • Relationship to work—not only reducing the “clutter” of paperwork, inefficiency, and overcommunication, but also striving to create a balanced workload and make your work invigorating, inspiring, collaborative, and empowering to others.
  • Relationship to nature and play—seeing these as expressions of love and opportunities to fill your life with truth and joy.

Experts warn not to let your guard down: don’t let closets and drawers fill up again with new trinkets and impulse purchases. Purge from time to time. Do the same with relationships that aren’t working.

So there’s my dimwit’s rundown on downsizing. Do it with trepidation. But do it!

My haiku from the Cancer Center Creative Writing course:

Amidst stored clutter

Treasured heirlooms ponder fate

Good Will loses bid


Have you had to sort through sentimental items? If you had to discard any of these, did you mourn their loss? How do you store your memories?

A Walk in the Park?

  • Posted on March 7, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Ever had a day of exploration? A day of reflection? A week of introspection?

My day (and week) began last Sunday when I ventured out on a bike ride to a nearby park, on a quest to take photos for an artist friend. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she displays her fanciful paintings in libraries, wineries, eating establishments, galleries and banks. When she came to visit me a few short weeks ago, we took a leisurely stroll through this same park.

But we forgot to bring our cameras.

The first jolt I received on my latest trek came from the bumpy dirt path I took when my bike tires left the comforting pavement of the road I normally travel. This detour was necessary if I intended to snap close-up photos of the creek and its sidekicks: manzanitas with auburn trunks and white oaks reaching out with ancient roots for sustenance. Shortly after I took this vee in the path I took a tumble when my bike soared over–and then down–a mogul. Ouch!

Just like my life, I thought. Circumstances often take me off the comfortable road to which I’ve been accustomed and on to uncertain surfaces of aches and self-pity. One bump, and I scratch and bruise my sensitive thin skin.

But like my bike, I’m not beyond repair. I got up again.

After making certain my arms and legs suffered no puncture wounds, I dusted off my capris and walked my two-wheeler to the nearest tree. Even though many bicyclists traveled over this narrow pathway, I decided it was better suited for walking.

Wonder of wonders! When I looked up I realized that I had locked my bike up in an enchanted forest of slanted trees. Just a few weeks before my friend and I had marveled at the look of those slender willows of trunks, permanently bent over from frequent wind. Just like cypress trees near the sea.

I couldn’t leave this fairy tale scene without capturing them in digital memory. Then I hiked up the path, noting various rabbit trails heading straight to the creek. One caveat: the need to avoid poison oak lining these trails like sirens beckoning me to my doom. Why did God make poison oak and poison ivy? Do they serve humanity any purpose? Dodging these three-leaved monsters felt akin to evading the side effects of cancer. I try, but sometimes I rub up against them–or they rub me the wrong way. Their telltale red leaves remind me of chemo’s poison and its tentacles of neuropathy and lost or thinning hair.

The meandering current of the creek restored my spirit. I captured the sparkle of the water in my point-and-shoot lens. The brook babbled as it wended its way through stones smoothed by the constant run of the water. I am one of those stones, a rough rock a few decades ago, now leveled out by the constant stream of trouble and suffering over me.

Returning to the main dirt trail, I ran smack into trees squeezed of life by sycophant vines. No leaves adorned vine or tree. They had choked each other out into oblivion. As I clicked my Canon’s button to memorialize this turn of nature for my friend, I pondered how cancer and collapsed relationships could choke the toys out of my joybox of life. But I will not let happen to me what became of those trees. I’ll knife through the vine and throw its talons far from me. I’ll search for supportive friends on my renewed hike and marvel in the delicious ambiguity of cancer remission. I’ll take steps to unwind vines from others whose paths have become entangled in grief and loss.

On I went.

Soon a rustic sign appeared announcing the direction of the creek crossing. A few hundred yards further the wooden bridge beckoned me. Come thither, it coaxed. I obeyed. I crossed the bridge when I came to it and didn’t burn it upon reaching the far bank. Meaningful cliches to follow in the realities of our world today. I snapped shots of blossoming trees, of vinca peeping out from dead leaves in lavender ecstasy, of moss-covered trunks, of emerald meadows looming in front of me, of a 1940’s vintage pickup plucked unexpectedly in the midst of it all.

So many sights. And then when my mind meandered to my late friend Rachel, I cried. How much she would have loved this park and its snarky contradictions! I brushed aside the thought of survivor guilt as a sudden breeze blew my hair, reminding me of her spirit.

Fast forward a few days. I needed to make an important decision. I needed space to think. I drove to an office to retrieve a package key to my decision. And then the Spirit prompted me to take a stroll through this neighborhood rather than my own for exercise, to gather perspective and inspiration from unfamiliar sights. Near the end of this sojourn, when I was about to turn back, I discovered a bike path winding its way through a blossoming almond orchard.

I started running. And just kept running. Petals covered me in pinks. Most of the blogger friends on my short list eschew pink as a sign of merchandizing greed. But this pink spelled beautiful, natural. The pungent fragrance assured me I’d find a peaceful resolution to my dilemma. And I did. Running all the way back to my car, I came to a conclusion, ready to face another day confidently, in control. Even though I didn’t carry a camera that day, I’ll treasure a virtual memory of this blooming picture of hope. Later that day I witnessed a sky painted with colors I didn’t even know existed. The sky awash in pastels confirmed that my decision was right, that I had chosen the best path. A bumpy path, but one out of which I could find my way. One from which I could pick myself up after a fall, despite stress, despite lymphedema, despite grief, despite life.

Life, life. It happens. And I will face it. Even embrace it.

My limerick of the week:

Upon the bent back of poor soul

Lay cancer a canker with mole

A scalpel I grabbed

Black tumor I stabbed

It’s flushing away to Sheol 

Have you gone off the path, taken an unexpected detour, dusted yourself off and moved forward? Did it feel good? Do you take walks or rides through nature to get your head together?