(The following post is a reprint from December 13, 2013, from my old blog. Circumstances with the world as it is inspired me to re-post it here. It’s a long one, but heartfelt. If it touches a cord with anyone who reads it, I will be humbled.)
These days, it seems, we are inundated with reminders to “update,” “upgrade,” “renew,” “revise,” “replace” everything. You can’t sell a house that isn’t “updated” anymore. When I was a kid, updating meant we got our tattered old sofa reupholstered. Today it means we’ve simply changed our taste as easily as we breathe, and we want a “new look.” So, not only does the sofa go altogether, so does the whole living room! Every single corner of the room is made sparkly new again from flooring to window coverings to paint to furniture. And then, after an unknown period of time, we change our minds once again, and spend money we don’t need to spend, and probably really can’t afford, to make the room all “new” again.
(This was posted online, not my home)
This is done with every room in the house, top to bottom, inside and out, mostly on whim, not born of any real need, but stemming from boredom with the choices we may not have made that long ago.
But what about our souls? Where, in all of this need to redo, revise and make new again, do we work our spirit into the equation?
Looking externally for a shot of adrenaline is like eating a chocolate bar for energy when you are tired, and your body simply needs sleep.
I have been on a never-ending spiritual growth quest for a long time, but never so much as the past few years. Last year was hard on me. I lost people I loved through death; I had bizarre falling outs with close friends. My daughter and I became estranged for nearly 9 months. None of it made sense to me. I mean, of course, people will pass from their earthly bodies; it’s inevitable for us all. And it was hard, as it always is, to lose ones you love from being in your life as they have been. There were times I was so completely depleted, that the old me of 20 years ago would have looked for band aids in the form of purchases I couldn’t afford and didn’t need to give me that instant, albeit quickly fleeting, lift. Let’s face it, to buy a new outfit, jewelry, – whatever ones particular weakness is, makes you feel happy again.
But like that chocolate bar for energy, it gives you an instant high, but a quick lower than low. And you’ve slapped a band aid on the real cancer of your life.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, I raged and cried. “Why me?” I asked over and over again. “I’m the least complacent and most grateful person I know!” I remember the morning I was awakened at 7:30 am from a pleasant dream by a phone call with a voice that had the power to change my life saying simply, “I’m so sorry. It’s cancer,” from the doctor who had biopsied my breast 2 days earlier.
It was a Saturday. She had called me the night before and said, “Have a glass of wine and relax. I’m sure it’s not cancer,” promising to phone me the next day as soon as the radiologist got back to her. I had questioned, “On a Saturday?” She had assured me, that yes, it was actually a good sign that he wanted to do a “second smear.” It portended good things.
I cried so hard that day, all day, that by the time I went to bed, my face was puffed and my eyes red and swollen to allow mere slits to see through. I looked into the mirror that night and said aloud, “Why can’t it be yesterday? Everything was perfect yesterday. Everything was fine. Why me, God?”
After a very fitful night of dozing off and awakening with a racing heartbeat and a stuffed up nose, I shot up in bed early the next morning with a start, apologizing to God. I realized that nothing was perfect the day before. Nothing was fine. The doctor has said it was Stage 1, and it that it was 8-10 years old. That I found out at stage 1 after eight to ten years of it growing in my body was a blessing, not a curse. I didn’t find out I had cancer, which was always there anyhow, to die. I found out because it was time for me to do something about it so I wouldn’t die. It was, again, a blessing. And I got on my knees and gave thanks to God for allowing me to live.
Along the way, I had continued blessings throughout the process. When I was informed that they would have to remove the “sentinel” lymph nodes- or the nodes closest to the cancer which are draining the cancer, identified by a radioactive marker, and biopsy them, I was scared to death. There can be dozens of sentinels, and if any showed suspicious cells, it would mean the removal of all lymph nodes under my arm, and a myriad of resulting problems and ongoing potential discomfort and swelling the rest of my life.
I had but one sentinel. It was clear.
Then, my surgeon told me that when she “got in there, there was a nasty 3-inch ball” that she didn’t know if it was all cancer, or what, so she had taken the whole wad with margins, and in the center, was a small grape-sized cancer, with “fingers” that reached within mere centimeters to escaping the mass of tissue, which, she said, was scar tissue.
My body had been encasing my cancer with scar tissue all that time, to prevent it from spreading.
After what seemed an interminably long wait for the report (due to having my surgery 3 days before Christmas), I got the call that they had gotten it all. I would need radiation, but no chemo.
Before I had my surgery, I had conferred with different doctors I would be seeing along the path, including a radiation oncologist, who had, to my taste, a very dismissive and unsympathetic manner, so when I called the group to make an appointment to consult about my radiation in several weeks, I requested another doctor.
In the meantime, I did research online about radiation choices and decided I would like, if possible, to get the mammosite implant, or brachytherapy, an application that was relatively new and involved implanting a balloon into the vacated tumor site, pumping it up with saline solution, and then going in twice a day for five days for high-dosage radiation to be administered to the specific site of the tumor and its surrounding area, as opposed to the tried and true external beam radiation. It did have a lot of criteria to meet to qualify for that procedure, however, so I wasn’t sure I could get it. I kept reading the name of the doctor who rejuvenated an idea of a Dr. Geoffrey Keynes of 1920’s London, fifty years later in New Orleans, a Dr. Kuske, who currently resided in Chicago. (History of Brachytherapy Link) I printed up a list of questions and references, and headed for my consultation, six weeks following surgery.
A man with a kindly face in doctor’s jacket, walked into the examining room, hand outstretched. “I want to thank you for choosing me for your radiation oncologist,” he said. “Dr. Walker told me you are one of the funniest people she ever met, that you had the whole O.R. laughing until you went under. I can’t tell you how vital that is to the healing process!”
I shook his hand, and said, “Thank you…..but you have me at a disadvantage here! I don’t know your name yet!” He laughed and apologized, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m Dr. Kuske.” I looked down at my papers and said; “Are you related to the guy who invented the mammosite implant?” He smiled, “That’s me. I just moved here 2 months ago.” Were he still in Chicago practicing, I would have had to wait six months for a consultation, negating any chance of getting the treatment, as I needed to start immediately. He warned me in advance that he didn’t think I would be able to qualify, since the tumor was close to the skin and the radiation would burn my skin from the inside-out. So he did the ultrasound to see. As he was looking at the screen, he exclaimed to the attending nurse, “My goodness, have you ever seen anything like this?” (I love how they forget the patient is there!) She responded that it was amazing. I said then, “Patient here! Worried patient present and listening!” Dr. Kuske apologized, saying, “I’m sorry, do you notice anything about this area?” I was looking at a huge black egg-shaped cavern, and responded, “Other than it’s the size of Cleveland?” He laughed and said, “No. That it is smooth and with perfect edges. Dr. Walker must be the best surgeon ever. It looks as though there is already an implant inside!”
It was, he said, “Textbook picture-perfect for a mammosite implant.”
There were countless miracles following, but you get the idea..
I tell you all of this because every single person has some sort of struggle they are going through at any given time. Physical, emotional, financial, mental, spiritual. And if I can help just one person to feel better or see their lives in a new perspective, lighten their burden in any small way, I will be happy.
“A great king summoned his wise men. He ordered them, ‘Create for me a saying that will stabilize my inner state. When I am unhappy it will bring me joy, and when I am happy, it will remind me of sadness. It cannot be too long as I want to keep it with me always.’
The wise men consulted and contemplated deeply the king’s command. Finally, they returned to the king, bearing a small box. In it, there was a ring. And inside the ring was inscribed the following words:
“This, too, shall pass.”
(A Sufi tale, in “Essential Sufiism”)
What does all of this have to do with our collective need to forever update, upgrade, renew, our home environs? I could have followed the path I historically followed when faced with unpleasantness, discomfort, fear: Buy something, do something, eat something that will take the hurt and fear away, even for awhile. Fortunately, I have not been cursed, if you will, with a propensity for drug, alcohol, gambling, etc., addiction. But I did formerly stuff my emotional well with food during my unhappy marriage, and it took me a long time following my divorce to recover from those implications. Buying things used to be my personal addiction. To excess. Things I didn’t need or necessarily even want. Things that made me happy for various fleeting amounts of time, until I needed another band aid.Rather like upgrading, updating, replacing, modernizing, our living spaces. What about our true homes: our souls?Instead of looking for an instant “high” to cope with my cancer, just as coping with the end of a 25+ year marriage earlier, I turned inward. I sat with myself, looked inward, and as a surgeon would with a scalpel, carefully dissected all of my emotions, fears, failings, faults,- and forgave myself all of them, one by one. After my divorce a few years before the cancer, I had started that painful process. It wasn’t easy; worthwhile things seldom are. But I had already started the work in earnest then, learning to forgive, accept, and (yikes!) actually love myself
, and now it was time to continue my education.
And work I have, beginning with my A, B, C’s:
Acknowledging that flawed though I may be, it is perfectly all right, as long as I am willing to not only accept my failings, but forgive them, and learn and grow from them.
Bowing, or surrendering my ego and letting my spirit lead the way. We can manipulate almost anything to make it happen in our lives, but it’s so true, “Be careful what you wish for,” for in most cases, you won’t be happy with what you get.
Continuous expression of gratitude for the abundant blessings in every minute of my life. If you are reading this, you are blessed in this moment. You’re alive. You have your eyesight. You are not in terrible pain or need (or you’d not be reading this!) and you have material things many don’t have- such as the computer or phone or tablet to read this on. The list goes on and on, but I’m sure you follow me.
Fast-forward to a last year at this time. I had lost 3 friends to death. A few others from bizarre falling outs, and my only daughter and I were completely estranged. I was not happy. I realized that the holidays were just around the corner, and as I always spend my Thanksgiving and Christmas at my daughter and son-in-law’s home, I was going to be alone. And miserable. Again, I realized that this was a time for more “higher education,” and I looked inward, then outward to know what to do. The first thing I realized was that I needed to get out of my ego, my own “poor me” syndrome, (which I call the real PMS!) and help someone else who needed help more than I did, and I volunteered to serve Thanksgiving dinner at St. Vincent de Paul’s charity dining room, for working poor families. It’s almost as far as Tucson (yes, I’m exaggerating) and in a bad area, but I felt good to have that to look forward to.
Right after I had signed on for that, literally, perhaps even the next day, I was leaving my house at 3:15 in the afternoon with four errands to do. It was late, and I got into my car with my mind full of a million things, and thinking and planning what and where I would go first, and in what order.
A bolt- that’s the only way I can describe this- came into my brain, penetrating through all of my jumbled thinking, telling me to “check Fandango for a movie” at a nearby theater. It was so forceful, so bizarre, that I said aloud, “Whaaattt???” and proceeded to go back to ordering my errands. The thought blazed through once again. “Fandango. Movie. Check.”
I literally turned off my engine, and talking to myself all the way, went back upstairs to get on my computer and look at the offerings at this particular theater. As I scanned the list, I was frustrated and annoyed at myself for doing this, but I kept on. “Saw that.” “Not interested in that.” and thinking also that I had seen two movies in the past week already! Then I saw it: “The Way”- at the bottom of the list. I’d never heard of it, so I quickly went to see the synopsis, noting that it started at 3:50 pm. “Man learns of his son’s death in France…blah blah blah” I quickly dismissed it as probably a war film, which I don’t like. And, as I said, it was starting at 3:50 and now it was 3:30. I could make it, but I’d have to hurry.
I got back into my car, and reordered my list of errands I needed to do, chiding myself for wasting yet more time. I had determined that I would head to Trader Joe’s first, and started down the straight shot street to go there, when I suddenly realized that I was on the 101 North, which is the way I take to go to that theater! It was like an out-of-body experience. I had no recollection of turning onto the highway, yet there I was, headed to the theater, and out of the way of my first planned destination!
Scolding myself all the way into the lobby and to the ticket machine, I still did not want to see that damned movie! So, after purchasing the ticket and being told “last screen to the left,” I immediately headed to the right. It was now 3:45 pm, and I was mad at myself. First of all, I had no time or interest in seeing a movie that day, never mind that one, but now I had probably missed half the previews. And I never do that. I finally decided to see “Ides of March” (again), which was starting at 4 pm. I went into the auditorium and there was not one living soul there. It was a big screen and dark, and well, just plain creepy. Resigned and disgusted, I headed to the last one on the left, to see my ticketed film.
When I got there, I was shocked to see quite a number of people there – and for a 3:50 pm movie that I’d never heard of on a Wednesday! I settled into my seat in the back row and watched what was, for me, the best film I saw last year. It moved me so, I sat for a few minutes after the end titles and credits to just absorb it all. (See a clip for this fabulous movie, below).
I realized then and there that I needed to go on a spiritual retreat.
(As an aside, I did an interview on my podcast with the wonderful Yorick van Wageningen, who played Joost in the movie, and we became fast-friends. Hear that interview here:
I went directly home following the movie, knowing that I simply must go on a spiritual retreat, and it had to meet several criteria. First, it had to be in an older-than-the-United States country, and it had to be spiritually driven, not disguised as spiritual, when it was more about money. Then, it had to be reasonably (read: cheap) priced, happening over Christmas, AND I had to be able to use my Delta Skymiles for the airfare. All seemed pretty insurmountable, but on the long list of spiritual retreats, one popped out, no big ad, not even bold type, simply stating: :”Silent Stay in Assisi.”
Geographically challenged, I wasn’t even sure exactly where Assisi was, but I thought maybe Spain or Portugal, and it sure as hell was old, so I clicked on it and read further. (Of course it is, in fact, Italy.) Before this truly ends up being a novel rivaling “War and Peace” in length, I will tell you now that it was reasonably priced, there were 2 spots left for the next one, which was over Christmas, and I could get a ticket to Rome and back using my Skymiles, albeit of the highest tier of miles there was – 175,000 air miles. Still, I felt it was meant to be, and made a plan to go, all by myself.
I was second-guessing myself right up until the 21st of December, when I left, because not only was it a spiritual retreat thousands of miles away from Arizona, but it was a silent stay. No TV, computer, phone, or even much talking! And the travel- it ended up being a nightmare trip- over 30 hours to get there when my plane was changed to going through Salt Lake City to Paris, then on Alitalia to Rome, then another 5 hours of train rides to Assisi. But I got there, and it was absolutely magical, serene, spiritual……life-changing.
(Door to my room in the 300 year old restored farmhouse)
(Assisi street at Christmas)
During my 8 days there, I learned so much about myself and peace and gratitude in, and for my life. I learned how to center myself in each moment, to exist there, nowhere else, through assimilating our daily silent meditations and spiritual yoga. (I will tell you about this at the end). I was relentless in baring myself to the core level and letting my spirit come through, overriding my ego. I met wonderful people. Ate wonderful food. And, no, I did not – to my surprise and shock- miss my phone, computer, TV or constant communication. I found a quiet confidence, serenity, and wholeness that I didn’t realize I had been missing.
When we are constantly seeking extraneous measures to fulfill our emotional needs, we are stifling our very souls, which are being muted by our living in our egos (brains).
Each and every precious moment is our life, past, present, and future. Everything is in the now, the moment. And if you realize that and allow yourself to experience each moment fully present, you truly live, not simply exist. In most moments of ones’ life, there is nothing truly needed.
To follow your spirit, not be a slave to your ego, you live your life exuberantly, out loud. But it all starts with learning how to be alone. To ruthlessly look at what you would like to change about yourself, and change it. Not by looking outward toward things to ease and cover the pain and fear, to be emotional band aids on the cancer of our lives.
Here are some suggestions for making that happen:
1. When you feel anxious, frightened, lost, angry, – any negativeemotions,- find a quiet place and open yourself to spirit. What I do is that I lift my hands as high as I can over my head, forming a pyramid or triangle with my thumbs, forefingers, and other fingers touching, feet slightly apart and center myself in the moment by breathing in through my nose, 3-5 long, deep breaths, and slowly exhaling through pursed lips, only through my mouth. I then say the following:
I am present.
I am listening.
I am grateful.
Then I simply listen.
You will hear nothing and everything. But you will be intent on doing nothing but listening. Nothing. And no other random thoughts can come in. If you find that they are, you aren’t intent. Imagine that you were told that you were going to die if you didn’t hear a pin drop at an unscheduled interval. Believe me, you wouldn’t be thinking or worrying about anything else but listening for that pin to drop. Make it that serious. In a few days or a week of doing this exercise at least twice a day for five to 10 or more minutes, you won’t have to scare yourself into listening anymore. But what you will find is that you will have more “gut feelings,” “premonitions,” and hunches coming through that all work to your advantage. That is your higher self, your spirit. When we get so busy in our busy-ness, our spirit or higher self often can’t make it through all of the jumbled cross-currents. Doing this one thing alone will help you find immensely more peace and reduce stress in your life. If you are out in your car or somewhere and you find yourself getting stressed, say it and do it there, (without the hand/pyramid thing!) right where you are.
Next, start your day off before you ever get out of bed with what I call “gratitudinals”. First thank you should be for allowing you to wake up another day. It can go from there, thank you for my good health, thank you for my eyesight, that I can breathe clearly, that I am awakening in this nice bed, in a home or apartment with a roof over my head. Thank you for the birds singing, the sunshine, the beautiful blue sky, the rain that the earth needs to grow, etc., etc., continue in the shower. Thank you for this water that cleanses me, the source that delivers it. Thank you for this nice hot coffee to wake me up, thank you ………you get the idea. Don’t stop till you have said at least 50 nonstop “gratitudinals.” Or for at least 10 consecutive minutes. Continue giving thanks throughout your day and evening. Thank you for an easy commute. Thank you for this beautiful sunset. Thank you for the nice person I met at the store- whatever. And do it often. End your day with more “gratitudinals” in the form of prayer, but don’t ask for things, just give thanks for what you have and what you want to have as though you already do. God/the Universe is limitless. Nothing is too much or impossible.
Be humble and look to serve others every day, even in some small way. Let that person ahead of you in traffic. Surrender your place in a checkout line to the person behind you who has 3 items to your 25. Look for ways to help brighten someone’s day, even with just a smile and a greeting. Strive to be more selfless and less selfish. And that extends to all living things, and to the earth itself.
Forgive your offenders. Easy to say, sure. But even easier to do. We are all human, let’s face it, and sometimes someone will hurt or offend us in some way. Some forgiveness is more challenging than others. Those are the ones that count the most. Show the character and spirit you have by being the bigger person and letting it go. We are not here to judge nor punish. We are simply here to learn and practice unconditional love. Forgiveness is the first step to that end. I say to myself, “He’s (she’s, they’re) just doing the best they can.” And I let it go. Bygones!
When you forgive others, make sure you have also forgiven yourself. Love yourself as much as you love others, even more. You will no longer have the desire to compete with newer, bigger, better, “things.” You will have serene self-confidence and approval from your spirit essence for being true to yourself.
Each night when I go to bed, before I say my “gratitudinals” and prayers, I go over the day and try to pick out 3 things I learned about myself, others, or life that day. They can be profound or just kind of logical. If I can’t come up with three, I’ve wasted precious time on this earth.
We all have a shelf life on this earth, and we all have the choice of how we want to live, what we choose to make a priority and what can take a back seat.
For me, I love my funky decorating style. No one comes into my house that doesn’t feel like they could fall asleep in any chair; they are that comfortable. I am years behind in many “updates” and “upgrades” in my decorating, but it’s home, and I’m serene and confident enough to let that be enough.
At the end of my life, please let me look into a loving pair of eyes, not be surrounded by things with no soul that will “outlive” us all, but who can’t love me back.