Eyes Open

seetheunseen

On the morning of 9/11, I was driving to the college when the first plane hit. In class that morning, we watched together as the second plane struck its target. The administration cancelled classes sometime around noon as the country was in shock. On my way to the parking lot, I was surprised to find two students sitting on a bench. When I learned that they had no rides until later in the afternoon, I offered to take them home.

As we neared a fast food restaurant, they asked if I would mind stopping. As I pulled into the long lunch-time line, I noticed a parked UPS truck with the lights on. Without a second thought, I put my car in park, jumped out, took one step up, pushed in the knob to turn off the lights, and returned to my car.

My whole life I was taught to help when possible.

When I got back in the car, both young ladies were looking at me as if they had just witnessed something they could not believe. I was equally shocked by their responses. One of the young women hesitated, then said, “Miss, we…we could NEVER do that. We would get arrested.”

It was in that instant, that simple moment, that my eyes opened to something I could not un-see.

I realized that I walk through the world differently. Without earning it, I am given the benefit of the doubt.

Prior to this experience, I would have sworn that I “got it.” I had and still have friends of every background. I believe in equality. I have spent my life helping everyone, especially those who need someone to offer a hand, to guide them on their upward journey. I thought I understood.

But then, I looked into her eyes and heard her heart. So simple. So deep.

And, little by little, I started to see things I had never seen before, things that were easier for me just because I had won the genetic lottery, at least one very important factor.

A week or so later, my husband and I were at the beach. His stunt kites went down, tangled in the sea grape trees at the beachside edge of one of the multi-million dollar homes. Again, he did not hesitate to free the kites, trusting that if someone questioned his presence, he would be given the benefit of the doubt, the opportunity to explain.

I received a legacy of being “normal” that is so deep I can’t see it unless I consciously look. And, I was taught not to look. I know I have to see the dirt to clean up the mess.

There is no doubt that individual effort matters. A LOT.

Two kids growing up side by side with similar families can have very different stories. One can make all the right choices,(or at least most of them!), and be successful while the other can make poor choices and have a very different outcome. That is absolutely true.

But, what if we talk about neighborhood kids from two different neighborhoods.  The neighbor families will likely share similarities—in income, education-level, ethnicity, race, and depending on the area, even religion. The neighborhood kids have an equal chance with each other, but the kids from different neighborhoods–let’s say one suburban and one inner city–experience the world very differently. The societal expectations and the way the two sets of kids are perceived are very different. They do not have the same access. One set is likely to have parents who have successfully navigated the systems. The other set of kids are on their own, navigating uncharted territory with little guidance. One set is expected to succeed. The other is looked on with doubt and suspicion.

I worked hard. That is true. And, I received a birthright, equally true. My white skin is part of that. It is not the only part, but it is a significant part, and for most of my life, I didn’t have any idea what that meant. Not really.

I am still learning. And the only way I know to do that is with an open heart. And an understanding that I still have much to learn.

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Through the Looking Glass of Cancer

Here’s an example of what I mean by looking at life through the looking glass of cancer, or I would imagine, through the lens of any illness that makes hearts skip a few beats because mortality is instantly and permanently a heavy shadow in the room for everyone.

Anyone who knows me knows I like to be in control (or at least have the illusion of it) and to direct the course of my life. More realistically, I am captaining a ship on a sea that is moving under much larger influences. As the captain, I must tune into the sea. Connect. Surrender. I can work with it or against it. Only one way has any hope of success.

I ask myself, why is it that “knowing” and “doing” are so far apart. Truthfully I rarely slow down enough to ask myself what I need, much less to give myself what I need. I think of many of us are so busy “managing” day to day that we don’t take the time for ourselves. (Anyone else notice how I just switched from “I” to “We” because I am uncomfortable standing alone with this one! Let me try that again…) I am so busy managing my day to day that I don’t take time to ask myself if I am working toward what I really want or need. Auto-pilot and getting through the necessities of life dominate.

Whether the seas are rough or calm, as the captain, I certainly have influence. I am acutely aware that I don’t get to choose the climate. My control lies in my response. Cancer, midlife, and a up-close view of mortality motivate me to figure out some core stuff, to “manage” and “fight” less and to “flow” and “surrender” more.

Sshheeesh, why does it take a lifetime to figure this stuff out? (Oh yeah, Patience is another big part of this for me that apparently I can’t wait to talk about. Ha! Sarcasm. Doozies.)

Anyway, today’s revelation was that I must give myself permission to ask for what I need directly. I must absolutely ask for that which gives me energy and must graciously refuse that which drains. I must decide consciously what goes into and out of my tank, conserve my reserves for that which serves my highest good and pass on that which depletes. Cancer clarity.

Today, was my first day of chemo, and I spent nine hours in an easy chair as the chemo was administered. Far too much of that time was spent on my phone. Cancer is consuming, in more ways than one!

I am blessed beyond belief to have so many people willing to offer their love and support. Since my diagnosis, I have gotten love messages—by text, email, and phone—every day. They have lifted my spirits and made me know the depths of the support I have. And, of my value to so many.  I think one of the smartest things I have done so far is to create a private Facebook group for those who are willing to trek this terrain with me. That way, I can share info and ask for help quickly and efficiently.

Today was a long day, and I was mentally, physically and emotionally wiped out. I really needed to rest. And, I also realized that I needed to make an honest request of my support team to help me consolidate communications because today, my first day of chemo, I was overwhelmed.   I need one place where I can check in when I can manage it and check out when I can’t.

When I get a text message, I feel obligated to give a much quicker response, so I need my support team to ask general questions—like how I am doing or about how I am doing on the group where I can I answer it once for everyone. Or, personal messages that are not time-sensitive can go through Facebook messenger. That way, I will know my texts are what require a more urgent response.

I know for sure that I need to put down my phone and step away far more often. I need to close my eyes, to breathe, and to relax into my body. I need to slow down to a pace I can manage and be fully present in the moment.

A dear friend came to sit and be with me for a while today. She always makes me laugh, and I treasure her friendship and company. She generously brought lunch for me and Karl, who was also faithfully by my side.

When she arrived, with a delicious warm meal, the nurse had also just hung the first chemo medication.   Everything up until then had been medications to best prepare my body to handle the hard stuff. I had a deep knowing that I needed to be present in my body. Then. That was the time.

So, although it was hard to ask because I feared offending, I asked that she and my husband go find a place to eat together while I took time to meditate. I was proud of myself for asking. I took time to do a lovingkindness meditation. I relaxed and was grateful for the chemo, welcoming it into my body. I blessed it and directed it toward the cancer cells, asking it to go after that which is not serving me. I filled my body with golden light and envisioned the malignancies melting, evaporating away and my healthy cells and organs coated in protection.

The timing sucked for social graces. When they came back, they watched me eat rather than breaking bread together. I knew my friend would not judge me for this request, but the voice in my head is less kind. That self-doubting, self-loathing beast brought up all sorts of guilt, but I am glad I sent her packing. The stronger voice said, “They are your SUPPORT TEAM. They love you and want you to survive. If you believe you need this time, you have to take it. This is your life. You need to honor yourself. Sacrificing isn’t the only way to be polite. You can also politely honor your supportive, loving friends and family by getting clear on what you need and explaining it with kindness and compassion. They want you to survive and thrive. Speak your truth. Tell them what you need.”

Man, those conversations upstairs can be exhausting!

I get that my diagnosis is overwhelming, for me and for all of my loved ones. I completely get it. And, I am so very grateful for all of the compassion, caring and encouragement that has been directed my way. When I think about the outpouring of love my family and I have received over the last two weeks, that is what has brought me to tears. I have been humbled and awe-struck to receive the visible, repeated evidence of how many people think of me so many times every single day. How those messages have lifted and supported me!  How that love has bolstered my spirit!

But I also need to draw a boundary. Cancer cannot be all consuming. It is not my whole story, although I am pretty sure it is going to be a life-changing part.

I began Dr. Bernie Siegel’s Love, Medicine & Miracles: Lessons Learned about Self-Healing From a Surgeon’s Experience with Exceptional Patients. Siegel was mocked by the medical community in the 80s for advocating for the mind-body connections. Research eventually vindicated him. I found a reference to his book on a blog and it “zinged” with me. That’s what I have come to call that intuitive hit that I feel in my knowing when I am supposed to pay attention to something, kind of like that morning that every cell in my being was telling me to get to the ER. Sometimes it is how I pick books. Sometimes it is how I pick people. Anyway, here is a quote from the introduction that struck me…”When we awaken to our mortality we refuse to live the life that is killing us and start living and being our true selves. On a practical level it may mean changing occupations, moving, healing, or ending relationships and bringing meaning and a new attitude into life and working for the right Lord.” Like I said, Clarity.

My journey began on the day I walked into the ER. That is probably inaccurate; the shifts began when my mom began to decline and exploded when she passed.  But this piece is acutely significant now, and the shifts that I have already had to make—mentally, emotionally, and physically–in order to give myself the best chance of survival, are immense. I must cultivate inner peace, joy and well being. I must turn these nebulous ideals into daily practice. While I have always worked on self-development, there are huge pieces (no pun intended) that I have neglected. I can no longer “get to it someday.” And, I have got to stop beating myself up for not getting it sooner. This is my time to learn to trust, to surrender, to float. The day has come. This is the ordained time.

Accept. Trust. Know.