"In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy." Brother David Steindl-Rast

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Styrofoam of Life

Today I am grateful for blessings that surround me and a better awareness of their presence. I am also grateful for my husband Darcy and our talks.

With some purchases we have made in recent weeks, we have had more styrofoam packaging to deal with. It got me thinking about styrofoam in ways I never really had. Styrofoam is not healthy for the environment and arguably not for us either. Styrofoam is actually a brand name for polystyrene, which is made from petroleum.

It's a nuisance to get rid of styrofoam. It's not easy to find a place to recycle it. Though it is light, it takes up plenty of space. You can't crush it or break it down, and if you try, it makes a mess. Yet, styrofoam performs an important job. It is quite effective at protecting fragile items in transit or keeping a beverage warm or cold.

Styrofoam is lightweight and convenient, but is it worth it? It comes with a heavy environmental price tag.

Then there is the styrofoam of life. Are there times I needed emotional styrofoam but then hung on to it for too long, using space that could have been put to more productive use? Have I cushioned myself from something I needed to face and work through? There are times when protecting ourselves is wise, and times when insulating ourselves too much denies us from feeling what we need to feel, doing what we need to do.

Random thoughts. Focused gratitude as I begin my day.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Control/CONTROL

Today I am grateful for trusted service providers our community has and for the lessons of letting go.

Speaking of letting go, I was talking with some fellow recovering people the other day on the topic of control. That's a doozy. Pretty much the opposite of letting go. The consensus: we sure couldn't control our drinking, but we tried pretty hard to control everything else.

These two acrostics came to mind; the first about unhealthy control, the second about healthy control:

C=compulsive
O=obsessive
N=neurotic
T=tyrannical
R=restless
O=oblivious
L=lacking

C=compassionate
O=observant
N=noticing
T=teachable
R=rational
O=open-minded
L=loving

Unhealthy control is about trying to manipulate others, outcomes, situations. It is all those things above in the first acrostic, but especially makes me oblivious to other people and their feelings and leaves me lacking any sense of peace and serenity.

Healthy control is all of those things in the second acrostic, allowing me to focus on what I can control: my own attitude and actions. And allowing me to stay mindful and present. Just like gratitude does.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Temporary Disengagement

Today I am grateful for my recovery friends and the wisdom they share. I am also grateful for a relaxing Sunday afternoon yesterday.

I wanted to spend one more blog post discussing the work and words of Dr. Tara Brach from her book Radical Acceptance. You can read more about her work on her website here.

Along with acceptance, Brach talks a lot about pausing. She calls it the "sacred pause." I like that. Sacred. To be honored. She calls it the first step in learning radical acceptance. It makes sense that we can't accept what we aren't aware of, what we aren't noticing.

She also uses the term "temporary disengagement." Always being engaged may, on the surface, sound like a good thing. But is it? How can we gain perspective, get refreshed and rejuvenated, learn from our current circumstances, if we don't temporarily pause, stop, slow down?  Always being engaged is like always driving with the gas pedal to the floor. It's unsafe, blows the engine, and is not very good for fuel efficiency.

Temporary disengagement need only take a few seconds. A few breaths. But it can help bring me clarity and help me see my part in a situation or circumstance. It can be enough to guide me to the next right action. That pause is also a way of letting the messages from sources beyond my own thoughts and ideas get through.

I also appreciate that Brach emphasizes how pausing helps us be more aware of our bodies, and the sensory experience life really is. In this age of information overload, it is too easy to get caught up in thoughts, words, ideas. We miss the physical components of our experience-our breathing, facial expressions, level of tension. In doing so, we miss out on much of what we can learn about acceptance and ouselves.

I am grateful for teachers like Tara Brach. I am grateful I am learning to temporarily disengage on a more regular basis.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Breasts and Alcohol

Today I am grateful for the many steps I took yesterday as I ran, walked, cleaned, shopped. Being able to put one foot in front of the other is a gift. I am also grateful for emotions shown by others, real and raw. They are gifts of another kind.

Admittedly, my post title today probably attracts more attention than some of my post titles. But it wasn't an attention-seeking ploy. When it comes to acceptance, breasts and alcohol are two areas I need plenty of it. Ongoing. That's the thing about acceptance. I needed it yesterday. I need it today. I will need it tomorrow. If I want to live with some peace and serenity anyway. There's a reason why Tara Brach calls it radical acceptance.

The other day I was heading down the road from our house on the way to the store. I drove past a woman running on the trail. I noticed her breasts and had a pang of grief for the loss of my own breasts. I can now go weeks without such pangs, but they haven't gone away. I suspect they never will. And that is okay. That is healthy grief in my book. I didn't resent her for having breasts. I didn't latch on to the unfairness of it all. I just acknowledged that I miss my breasts.

When I awoke from my bilateral mastectomy surgery in December of 2008, one of the first things I did was look at my new flat chest terrain. It was covered in bandages and such, but it was my first step toward radical acceptance. Grieving, healing, and gratitude have co-existed since then. Today, the grief is less, the physical healing long completed. It is the gratitude that propels me forward.

I have had to accept alcohol and my relationship to it for far longer than I have grieved the loss of my breasts. Most days I don't notice the many signs, stores, cans, bottles that advertise alcohol and the escape found within. (I always saw it as escape anyway.) But some days one of those reminders may bother me for just a little while. I may feel a twinge of "why can't I enjoy some of that?" Or a pull of "I wish I had an escape like that." 

Last evening we went out to eat at a local establishment. We like the food, the view, and the fact that we can walk there. There were some people in the restaurant/bar who had clearly been partaking of alcohol. They didn't ruin my meal, but they served as a good reminder of what I need to keep doing in my own life.

The truth is, I have plenty of healthy escapes and many things I enjoy in my day. Did I enjoy self-hatred, hangovers, blackouts? Nope. That helps bring me back around to acceptance.

I stopped drinking because it was killing me, in more ways than one. My breasts were removed because the cancer in one of them could have gone on to become deadly, and the fear and worry in both of them would have also taken their toll.

Breasts and alcohol. Grief and gratitude. Support and recovery. Thank you to the many people near and dear to me, and also complete strangers at times, who have helped me stay on the path of recovery. Thank you to a Higher Power who puts these people in my life.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Words of Carl Rogers

Today I am grateful for both the formal education I have received in my lifetime and the informal education that is day to day living itself.

Dr. Tara Brach's book Radical Acceptance has this quote from Carl Rogers:

"The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change."

I appreciate the quote and the man it came from. Carl Rogers was one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century and was part of the humanistic psychology movement. I studied his work in both undergraduate and graduate courses I took. I particularly like his idea of "unconditional positive regard." He was referring to working with clients and showing complete support and acceptance of the client, regardless of what they say or do. It was at the heart of his person-centered therapy approach and it is part of my philosophy and approach in my work as a school counselor.

The idea can be expanded to how we view all others in our lives as well as how we view ourselves. I think it resonated with me in college because I didn't feel very accepted, particularly by me.

Radical acceptance and unconditional positive regard. Together they have allowed me to accept myself, then make healthy changes. I had to first come to accept my alcoholism and the damage I was doing to myself physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. When I lived in denial of my problem, I was unwilling to change and unable to see what I could do to change. Acceptance allowed a start on recovery. Daily acceptance continues to be crucial in my life and recovery.

I am deeply grateful to those who taught me about acceptance and showed me unconditional positive regard when I needed it most. I am deeply grateful to those who continue to teach me and show me.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Radical Acceptance

Today I am grateful for prayers and mantras that bring me peace and presence. I am also grateful for the smell of coffee brewing.

A few weeks ago I read a thought-provoking book titled Radical Acceptance by Dr. Tara Brach. My sister recommended it, and with a title like that I was happy to dive in. I meant to blog about it sooner, but other posts kept coming up and wanting to be written about. Luckily, it's never too late to write about a book that leaves us thinking. Dr. Brach is a clinical psychologist and a Buddhist lay priest. She teaches mindfulness meditation.

There was a time in my life where acceptance seemed like a radical idea and one I struggled with. If I simply accepted life, how would I grow and improve and save the world and myself in the process? How would I show my worthiness and value if I just took things as they came? I didn't have a clue as to what healthy acceptance even meant.

I at least have more of a clue today. I at least understand the difference between mindfulness and mind-fullness. I understand that meditation starts with a quiet heart and mind. And I understand that acceptance is vital to living a life that is more energizing than it is draining.

To me, acceptance means coming to terms with the parts of life that I have no control over--mainly other people, places, and things. That frees up much more energy for me to focus on what I do have control over--my own attitude and actions. It also means accepting things as the moments and hours of a day unfold. Little doses of acceptance ongoing, not one huge dose that would choke even the most accepting of people.

Dr. Brach defines radical acceptance, on p. 25 in her book, as " . . . accepting absolutely everything about ourselves and our lives, by embracing with wakefulness and care our moment to moment experience."  She goes on to say "By accepting absolutely everything about ourselves and our lives, what I mean is that we are aware of what is happening within our body and mind in any given moment without trying to control or judge or pull away. I do not mean that we are putting up with harmful behavior-our own or another's." 

Absolutely everything? No controlling or judging? I find it is possible to accept in that moment to moment way, by paying attention to my body, mind, and heart.  Radical acceptance then doesn't seem so radical. Thanks Dr. Brach!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

As Easy As 1, 2, 3

Today I am grateful for air to breathe and a roof over my head on a rainy day.

I know. I know. Yesterday it was simple, but not easy. Today it is as easy as 1, 2, 3. On most days, finding things to be grateful for is truly easy for me. I have developed, through habitual practice and application, a way of looking at life that points out the gifts around me. You can call it "an attitude of gratitude" but to me it is more readily known as paying attention.

As easy as 1, 2, 3 today means being grateful for the three males I live with: my husband Darcy, our son Sam, and our dog Oliver.

I love Darcy for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he puts up with me. That is not always an easy task for those closest to me. I love that we share common goals and have similar wishes for our future.

I love Sam because he teaches me so much about being a nurturing and patient mom. I am proud of him for becoming his own person with a unique personality. I am humbled to be a mother. There were many years I didn't know if I would have the opportunity for my own family.

I love Oliver because he grounds me, he reminds me that life is meant to be lived in the present and that naps are a good thing. I love Oliver because he loves us and because he is cuter than any other dog I have ever seen and because he can always make me smile.

As easy as 1, 2, 3 . . .  What's on your list today?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Simple, But Not Easy

Today I am grateful for the reserves of gratitude I can draw on when my daily supply runs a little low. I am also grateful for the father my husband Darcy is to all three of his children.

Gratitude practice really is simple, but that doesn't mean it is always easy. Today is one of those days where it feels harder to find the gratitude. I am thinking of loved ones facing difficult circumstances. I am thinking of the deadly and destructive disease of addiction. I am thinking of cancer patients in active treatment. I am thinking of senseless tragedies like the ferry disaster in South Korea. I am thinking of people searching for answers to difficult questions.

I am thinking that life isn't always fair and it doesn't always make sense. I am also feeling a little tired, a little drained. I am feeling a little anxious about some concerns I have. Some are related to my job, others are regarding people I care about.

All that being said, gratitude is still possible. Faith is still available. Gratitude is always possible. Faith is always in stock. It is just good to acknowledge that some days it is easier to find than others.

I appreciate that my daily gratitude practice allows me to build up a supply of gratitude and create an outlook on life that is generally positive. So on days like this, when I feel tapped out, I can draw on those reserves.

Gratitude and faith take work. But it is the best work that I do. What is your best work?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

She Did Dance Again

Today I am grateful for clean windows and fresh air. I am grateful to those who share their recovery wisdom, courage, and strength with me.

I wanted to follow up on one more Boston Marathon bombing victim that I blogged about last year. Her name is Adrianne Haslet-Davis. Read my April 26, 2013 post here. She is a ballroom dancer and a dance instructor. She didn't let the anger and the grief get the best of her. Her goal was to dance again and she has. Our attitude and outlook can't change a circumstance like a serious injury or illness, but it can sure change how we handle that circumstance. Adrianne Haslet-Davis clearly has benefitted from the attitude and outlook she applied after a horrible split second changed her life.

Here is another recent interview with Haslet-Davis. I commend her strength, courage, hard work and hope. I commend her advocacy for amputees.

And here on YouTube is a TED talk by Hugh Herr. Herr never viewed his body as broken after losing both feet in a rock climbing accident in 1982. Rather he saw technology as broken. He works at MIT's Media Lab Biomechatronics group. The talk includes some amazing science. At the end of the talk, Haslet-Davis dances with Christian Lightner in her first performance since the bombings. Amazing. Inspiring. I am grateful for this science and the advances being made to help people like Haslet-Davis, Iraqi war veterans and many others.

Our lives can change in an instant. Or they can stay the same day after day, week after week. There is so much we can't control, but crucial things that we can.  Like our attitude and actions.  Mine are better when I stay focused on gratitude, when I stay focused on the present.

Monday, April 21, 2014

"Blown Together"

Today I am grateful for safe travels over the weekend, nice weather, enjoyable family time, and a couple of good runs with Darcy.

The 118th running of the Boston Marathon gets underway in the next few hours. The Boston Marathon is a prestigious and storied event. This year, one year since the April 15, 2013 bombings that killed three, made 16 others amputees, and injured over 260, there are more emotions and more eyes on Boylston Street and all around Boston. I appreciate the 36,000 runners and the anticipated one million spectators. I will be tracking what I can via computer and TV.

I am a faithful reader of the magazine Runner's World. I pretty much read it cover to cover every month. The most recent issue was full of stories about Boston. Incredible stories like Roseann Sdoia and her rescuers. Roseann lost her lower right leg in the second blast. She may have lost her life if not for the actions of Shores Salter, Shana Cottone, and Mike Materia; a college student, a cop, and a firefighter. Four complete strangers, brought together in an instant of violent tragedy, now with a bond they could have found no other way. It is a story of losing and finding. Read the full article, appropriately titled "Blown Together" here.

It is a story that really struck a chord with me. For many reasons. We never know the plans in store for us on a given day, and how quickly what we know so well can be lost. But when we lose, we also somehow often gain. We find the strength we need and give strength to one another. I have found that to be the case in my life too, though I have never faced the horror of what these four saw and experienced last April 15. With faith and hope, and trust in a power beyond ourselves, we can get through the toughest of times. We can learn the most valuable of lessons.

There will be many stories, many emotions, many steps taken one at a time by many runners today in Boston, but also around the world. That is the stuff of life.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Awakenings

Today I am grateful for the women in my local cancer support group, especially the three women I met for the first time last night. They are all in active treatment and they are in my thoughts and prayers. I am also grateful for the awakenings that have come my way over my lifetime, big and small.

With Easter just around the corner and spring emerging, awakenings are evident and being discussed.

Here are some of my random thoughts on the idea of awakenings:

*They are really about second chances we give ourselves and others. If we awaken to a part of ourselves we had been denying or fearful of, or not confident enough in, we have new goals and sometimes a new road, or at least a wider path to travel. If we awaken to a part of someone we know and care about, by accepting them as they are, or realizing this is their way of shining, then we get to share in their journey too.

*I often think first about my own personal awakenings. There have been so many. I think back to my painful teens and early twenties, and my excessive drinking. First awakening to the fact that I had a problem, then awakening to the need for help and seeking that help. The awakenings have been endless since then. Accepting myself. Living life on life's terms. A growing faith and spirituality. Awakening to the many blessings I have, starting with this day.

*A cancer diagnosis, treatment, and surgeries awakened fear, but also hope. It also helped awaken the essayist in me that was beneath the poet I had always been. And it awakened a new level of self-acceptance, starting with a flat chest and a new normal post-treatment.

*Gratitude practice provides a daily opportunity to awaken to life's riches, starting with the most basic of needs like air to breathe, food to eat, shelter to protect. But it only grows from there and includes things like fingers and eyes that work as I type this entry.

Awakening is both literal and symbolic. It is about paying attention. It is also about action. An awakening is a getting up, a noticing, a validation. It requires effort, but can be as simple as opening one's eyes.

That's it for random thoughts from Lisa today. I hope that you will consider the awakenings that come your way today. I will do the same. I will be taking a blog break until early next week. Have a nice Easter!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Energy

Today I am grateful for pizza. I am also grateful for the communication my husband Darcy and I have with one another.

My energy level has been on my mind lately, in a good way. I have been pleased with the amount of sustainable energy I have had in recent weeks. I attribute it first to the 12 or so pounds that I have lost and to the way I am choosing to nourish myself--less sugar and other refined foods, more whole foods, less calorie intake, more mindful eating.

I am a morning person, so I usually wake up ready to roll. I don't need to wait for my energy to wake up, it wakes up with me. I tend to be on the go much of the day too; physically moving, mentally working. I haven't hit that early afternoon wall as much lately, and I have noticed a faster pace when I run and more motivation to keep exercising. For all of these things, I am grateful.

I also try to be aware of the energy of those around me. Some people give me energy, others zap it. I try to make more connections with the former and keep my interactions with the latter brief.  

It also occurs to me that I can't really store up energy from today to use tomorrow. I might as well use up today's supply, rest up and give the supply time to recover, then welcome another day.

Gratitude and faith are energizers for me. Daily practice of gratitude brings me far more energy than it takes for me to journal, blog, and such.

It all starts with my health--physical and all aspects. Today I appreciate my health and the energy I have to begin my day. Have a good day!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Crucify is a Strong Word

Today I am grateful for two ears and one heart to help me listen to others and myself. I am also grateful for a mind that stays open more than it used to, so I can learn more.

With Easter coming up, the words crucify and crucifixion are more prevalent than at other times of the year. There is much religious significance surrounding Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. But our priest's sermon Sunday at my church got me thinking about modern day crucifying.

Do I crucify others with my judgment and harsh words? Do I crucify others by treating them as different or invisible? Do I crucify myself for being less than perfect? Do I crucify myself because "I should know better?" Mortify. Torment. Persecute. Crucify. They are all strong words and strong actions, but we choose them. If I am doing any of these things to others or myself, even if on a small scale, why? (And is there such a thing as small scale in this arena?)

Though we can point to ways the human race has made progress in accepting one another, we can also point to just as many examples of how our intolerance still leads to injustice and hate. Or maybe it's greed that leads to the injustice. Either way, it is wrong.

Strong words call for strong deterrents. It is not my place to judge others, but I do it. We all do it. Let's help each other out. More acceptance. More patience. More gratitude for each other in our glorious uniqueness. Take a stand. Don't join in with the gossip, bad-mouthing, complaining. Walk away if needed. It can happen among friends, in the workplace, with relatives. But gratitude can happen in all of those places too. When I am grateful, I am much kinder and gentler with myself and others. Less crucifying likely.

When I look for the the good in the world, in others, and in myself, I find it. It is there. It is here. It is all around. And when I focus on the good and positive, I am more likely to love, less likely to hate. More likely to glorify. Less likely to crucify.

Are you with me? Let's look for and share the good. Let's share gratitude.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Glorious or Terminal?

Today I am grateful for the nice day we enjoyed yesterday; not weather-wise, pace-wise. I am also grateful for my ability to read.

There is one more nugget from Gilda Radner's book It's Always Something that I would like to share. This quote is a powerful one:

"While we have the gift of life, it seems to me the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die--whether it is our spirit, our creativity or our glorious uniqueness." 

Glorious uniqueness. We all have it. It should be celebrated, but too often it is ignored or buried. The way I laugh. The quirky way I put my clothes in the drawer or closet. The predictability of a response I am likely to give to a certain question. The scars on my body and the stories that go with them. All of this and much more comprise my glorious uniqueness. I embrace it more than I used to. Gratitude practice has helped me see this uniqueness as a positive in myself and others.

I agree with Gilda, as long as there is life in me, my spirit, creativity, and my unique traits are all gifts to be shared. Part of my job as a human is to allow others to share their gifts too, to make it safe and comfortable for them to do so.

This idea of glorious uniqueness is a far cry from a different kind of uniqueness--terminal.Terminal uniqueness is indeed deadly, as the name implies. I first learned about it from my friend Terrie. For a person in recovery from alcoholism or addiction, terminal uniqueness might sound like this: "Nobody understands me. Nobody has gone through what I have. Nobody knows my pain. Nobody cares."

It is deadly because it keeps someone from seeking help, from surrendering, from reaching out. It keeps an alcoholic drinking and an addict using. Some will die from terminal uniqueness. I was taught to look for the similarities I had with other alcoholics, not to focus on the differences. That opened doors that led to the help I needed.

When it comes to uniqueness, I'll take the glorious kind. Celebrate your own uniqueness today, and appreciate the uniqueness of others.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

To My Husband

Today I am grateful for my husband Darcy, in more ways than a blogpost can capture. I am also grateful for the theater performance of "We Are Young" that Darcy, Sam and I enjoyed at my school last evening. It was outstanding, entertaining, and brought the gamut of emotions.

"We Are Young" is a variety show that highlighted the music and culture of each decade of our American history beginning with  the 1920's and ending in the 2000's. Thank you to all involved in the production! Your work and your talent are impressive and appreciated.

Today is Darcy's 49th birthday. Happy birthday dear! The show got me thinking about Darcy and I and our history together through the decades. We met in November of 1997 and married in July of 1998. I met my stepson Arthur when he was 6 and my stepdaughter Emily on her 3rd birthday. Our son Sam was born in 2002. Oliver, our cockapoo, joined our family in 2008. Darcy and I ran our first marathon, the Chicago Marathon, in 2004. We have made moves, some just living space, some bigger, in 1999, 2000, and 2005. There have been medical concerns for each of us, job pressures, job changes for Darcy, hours reduced for me. There have been graduations and a wedding with the older two children, and we have a pre-teen in the house now.

That rundown captures some important aspects of our lives. But it is our daily living together that matters the most. Darcy and I talk about pretty much everything. We share a huge commitment to running, staying fit, and eating right. He is a wonderful and committed father to all three of his children. We continue to grow in our understanding of one another, and in our love and commitment to one another.

But don't get me wrong, we have our moments. We aren't in wedded bliss 24/7. We have our frustrations with one another. We don't see eye to eye on everything. Our relationship is intense, and that can play out in a variety of emotions depending on what is going on. We forgive and forget, Darcy quicker than I do. We hear each other out, eventually. We understand that a marriage takes work and isn't always smooth sailing.

On this day I want to say I love you Darcy and I look forward to the next 365 days of our lives together, one day at a time. I look forward to this last year of our decade of the 40's and I look forward to our future by doing the daily work of being myself as well as being a partner in this endeavor. Thank you Darcy for the difference you make in my life.

Happy Birthday! Enjoy your day!


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mobilize or Minimize?

Today I am grateful for our backyard fire pit and a game of catch with Sam.

After writing yesterday's post, some thoughts stayed with me and are worthy of their own post."Did I cause my cancer?" is a provocative question in many ways. The answer given says more about a person's overall approach to life than it really does about their cancer diagnosis.

There is a continuum here. I can believe I caused my own cancer, beat myself up for previous choices, and obsess about everything I do, breathe in, ingest, and surround myself with. That is one extreme. The other extreme is feeling like a 100% victim, taking absolutely no responsibility for my own health, because cancer just happens regardless. Most of us answering this question are somewhere closer to the middle of this continuum.

It's really the difference between mobilizing and minimizing. If I take some level of responsibility for my health, I am mobilized to take actions to restore and preserve my health. If I am an unfortunate, helpless victim, I may minimize the importance of my own choices and actions. I may do or change very little. I would rather mobilize than minimize.

I already talk enough in this blog about the healthy actions and habits I try my best to adhere to for my own well-being. Individual mobilization. But mobilization beyond the personal realms, yours and mine, is needed if we hope to solve the mysteries of cancer.

We can speak up and speak out when we have opportunities. We can email or call our legislators when important bills are being discussed, like current national proposed legislation that regulates chemicals more effectively. Women can also join the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation's Army of Women and Health of Women study. Read more about both here.

We can take part in other surveys that help people studying cancer and those living with it. When appropriate, we can consider participating in clinical trials. We can be informed consumers of pink products and more knowledgeable about charitable organizations before we donate to them.

I appreciate the many bloggers out there who write so passionately and eloquently about many of these topics. I appreciate the organizations that have the right mission when it comes to cancer.

And we are all part of this "we" even though I initially was referring to people who have had a cancer diagnosis. If you haven't had cancer yourself, chances are high you know and care about at least one person who has.

Mobilize or minimize? Which will you choose?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Did I Cause My Cancer?

Today I am grateful for a smile, a simple smile that can help relax me. I am also grateful for the variety of tasks and opportunities my job offers.

Did I cause my cancer? This is a question I imagine many of us who have been diagnosed with cancer ponder at some point, even if only in our own minds. It is a tough question. Gilda Radner asked it too. She wondered if her smoking, love of saccharin and cyclamates (another sweetener), candies with red dye in them, and the damage done to her body while suffering from eating disorders, each or all may have contributed to her cancer.

I wondered if my high levels of alcohol consumption in my teens, the smoking I did for a few years, or my life-long love of ice cream and other sweets, or eating pesticide-laden fruits or using plastics with dangerous chemicals in them may have contributed to my breast cancer diagnosis. Some of these were more rational thoughts than others, and none of them took a stranglehold on my thought processes. With two sisters previously diagnosed with BC, that clearly indicated something genetic going on, and sort of let me off the hook.

The fact of the matter is we don't know what caused my cancer or that of my sisters. There are still so many mysteries surrounding cancer. It could have been environmental-something we were exposed to growing up on a farm, coupled with our genetics, that sparked a bad cell. It could have been a combination of factors.

But there is no use putting too much energy there. It doesn't change the diagnosis. And we have done what we can to provide useful information to our other sisters and the next generation of daughters and nieces. The important thing is making changes in our lives and habits that may help reduce chances of a recurrence, and improve quality of life at the same time.

That is what I strive to do. Exercise. Healthy eating. Avoiding known harmful substances. Getting enough sleep. Meditation and prayer. Gratitude practice. Do they help prevent cancer? They sure don't hurt. They make each day a better day for me, and that matters a great deal.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Power of Visualization, Mantras, and Prayers

Today I am grateful for sweat and sore muscles loosening up. I am also grateful for the prayers and mantras that have been valuable in my life and for the people who helped me find them.

Gilda Radner used many techniques and strategies as she underwent treatment for ovarian cancer. She had help and support that she trusted, so she trusted their ideas. Like visualization. A couple of visualizations that she used were thinking about "stupid cancer cells" as she underwent chemotherapy. She visualized the cancer cells saying "I'm here, I'm here" and the chemo would get them. Her normal cells were smarter. They would get jolted by the chemicals, but be able to pull themselves back together.

She also visualized the area where her cancer was as clean laundry. She had always loved doing the laundry and the transformation from dirty to fresh and clean again. These were effective and powerful visualizations that helped her through difficult times, difficult days, difficult hours.

A skeptic might say they didn't work because she died anyway. Visualization is about getting through each day more relaxed, more focused. I would imagine that helped Gilda Radner and the people close to her on many days. Maybe it even gave her more days than she would have had without the visualization work. The way I see it, that means it worked.

I tend to use more mantras with words than I do visualizations with images. I used them in my cancer treatment days, but I also used them regularly before my cancer diagnosis and continue to use them. They are a significant help in my daily recovery from alcoholism and the trap of self-pity.

An effective mantra I repeated many times over many months in the midst of all things cancer was this one, directed at any cancer cells in my body:

"I have run hundreds and thousands of miles, millions of steps. I can outrun you little SOB's."

As a runner, this one was powerful for me, and it gave me strength, even on days when I couldn't run far or fast.

I also continue to say this prayer, written by my friend Dorothy, every day:

"God, Thy will be done. And if you could see it clear to keep my body free of all cancer cells, I would greatly desire and appreciate that. In loving gratitude I pray for peace each day in dealing with this challenge."

Thank you for that prayer Dorothy. It is still a source of comfort for me.

Gratitude practice is really all three of these: visualizing gifts in front of me, repeating thanks for daily gifts, and giving appreciation to a power source beyond tiny little me.

What visualizations, mantras, and prayers work for you? Be grateful for the healing and strengthening power they bring. Have a good day!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"It's Always Something"

Today I am grateful for my five senses and for each of them being in working order. I am also grateful for my job, both when it exhausts and when it invigorates.

I just got done reading Gilda Radner's book It's Always Something. We had ordered SNL's the Best of Gilda Radner from Amazon, and I decided to throw in her book, which I had always wanted to read anyway. Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986 and died in 1989, at the age of 42. I loved her Roseanne Rosanneadanna and Emily Litella sketches from Saturday Night Live. Roseanne usually worked "It just goes to show you, it's always something, if it's not one thing, it's another . . . " into her sketches. From the book, I learned that this phrase-it's always something-was a favorite of her father's. He died of a brain tumor when she was in her teens.

Her book was good, heartfelt. It wasn't a light read, but it wasn't always serious either. Radner was a masterful comedienne. That didn't go away with her cancer diagnosis. It's a tough read too because she shares in detail about her diagnosis (which was misdiag-nosed for several months), her treatments, surgeries, remission, recurrence. She suffered a great deal from the time her treatments began until her death, and a number of complications compounded things for her.

I appreciate a book about someone's cancer experience that is genuine and real. That makes it difficult and emotional, but I think it also helps the author and all those who read it. It seems more helpful to discuss the range of emotions that come with cancer, not just always trying to put on a happy face. If the strained and scary emotions don't come out in healthy ways, they will keep doing damage, or come out in unhealthy ways. Humor is always healthy and humor is possible even in the toughest of times. Radner's book shows both points.

Gilda Radner's ordeal, her fame, her book, and her tragic early death helped bring more awareness to ovarian cancer, and also led to the creation of Gilda's Club, now known as the Cancer Support Community. One of the things I appreciated most about this book is Radner's efforts to treat the whole person, not just the physical person. To do that, she had plenty of supportive people around her, including some on their own cancer journey.

I found such support to be vital to my overall well-being while going through my breast cancer diagnosis, surgeries, and treatment. From my supportive husband, family and friends, to my co-worker Jenny and other co-workers, to the local breast cancer support group I got involved with a few months after diagnosis. The scary times are less scary when we don't feel alone. And when looking for humor, there is more to be found when there are more people around.

I don't relive my cancer ordeal every day, but I do live with my cancer experience every day. From the scars on my chest to the fear in my heart, but also to the joy and gratitude that come with this chance to keep on keeping on. Gilda Radner's book helped me remember this.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Sitting in the Sunlight

Today I am grateful that my son Sam's initial experience with contact lenses is off to a good start. I am also grateful to be of service to others in need, and I am grateful for sunshine.

On Sunday I had to wait for Sam at church for a time. I found a nice place to sit and soak up the sun through one of the church windows. It was warm, bright, and inviting. Oliver, our dog, will often find a spot on the floor that is in the sun and settle in for a little snooze. We are all drawn to the sun.This nice weather I have been talking about is so welcome for many reasons, but one of them is getting outside in direct sunlight. Being able to expose some of our pasty winter skin to the sun is a bonus.

The sun is amazing and powerful. It is 93 million miles away and yet it provides us life, light, and warmth. And it happens to be one of those things I too often take for granted. I do try to pause and catch a sunrise or sunset when I can, but on many days thoughts of the sun are covered by the clutter of other, more important thoughts. We sort of have it backwards. We should thank the sun each day, because without it we wouldn't be here.

But like so many things I am grateful for, the literal sun makes me think of the figurative sun as well. Who and what in my life bring me light and sustaining energy? Who warms my heart and soul?  I think of family, friends, co-workers, others in recovery, fellow cancer patients, our dog. I think of the They are much closer than 93 million miles away, but I don't always act like they are. Is there someone I should reach out to today? Is there someone who needs my thoughts and prayers? And I think of the relationship I have with my Higher Power, who never leaves me, even when I lack faith.

Who provides you sustaining light and energy? Have you thanked them lately?

Sitting in the sunlight is sitting in gratitude.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Like Lazarus, We Rise Again

Today I am grateful for the people, starting with my parents, who have taught me about perseverance over the course of my lifetime. I am also grateful for the faith I have in my life today.

I am not a regular church-goer. I go once every few weeks. I don't mind going. I just use my time for different endeavors on Sunday mornings. Those other endeavors are often of a spiritual nature as well. I went to church yesterday though, and the gospel reading was about Lazarus and his resurrection. A miracle of God. It's a story I have always found intriguing. It always gets me thinking about deep spiritual matters and what is possible if we have faith.

But I actually witnessed another kind of miracle yesterday. I like the minor miracles. The daily miracles. The kind of things we notice when we are paying attention. It was easy to spot yesterday's miracle. You could hear it and see it and smell it. It was a lovely day in April. It felt like a bit of a miracle after the last few months we have had.

Sure, we had snow on Friday. Sure, we have complained frequently about this harsh winter we just survived. But, oh the joy of a nice day! The neighborhood was full of walkers and runners, kids playing, my son and his buddies out biking, grills going, raking being done, patios being used. The ice cream truck was even in the area. People were out. That is the key part here. People were outside.

I had to go to the store for a few things in the middle of the afternoon and our community was teeming like I hadn't seen it teeming in a long time. Lazarus rose from the dead after 4 days. We have risen again after over 4 months of winter. Not just any winter. The coldest winter since 1936.

Each morning I rise again and there is a new day before me. Gratitude practice both helps me appreciate the gift of this day and provides me energy to move forward into it. For that and more, I am truly grateful.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

How about Buddha's words?

Today I am grateful for my health and for the roof over my head. So many people are struggling with health issues, or have lost their homes to natural disasters. I don't want to take my health or my home for granted. I want to appreciate them today.

That reminds me of my second favorite quote about gratitude. It is attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Buddha. It follows here:

"Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die; so let us all be thankful."

That is what I call keeping things in perspective. Successful gratitude practice for me means focusing on what I do have, not lamenting over what I don't have or what I had and lost. This quote captures that and more.

It reminds me of the gift of today. And of the importance of the little things in life that really aren't little things: feeling healthy, learning more, life itself. It reminds me how much better reasonable expectations are for me, versus those unreasonable, "never good enough" expectations that are stealers of sanity and serenity.

I will strive to keep it simple today and remember the blessings that are right in front of me.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Words of Brother David as Touchstone

Today I am grateful for texting friends and singing birds. I am also grateful for sunshine and laughter.

My blog header includes this quote from Brother David Steindl-Rast:

"In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, 
but gratefulness that makes us happy."

A touchstone is defined as a fundamental or quintessential part or feature. It sure fits the intent of this blog and the intentional action I put toward habitual gratitude practice on this blog and across all areas of my life.

Am I happier since I started regular gratitude practice? Absolutely! A definitive and resounding yes! Am I always happy? No. Do I always have a smile on my face and a spring in my step? Are you kidding me?

But that is not how I define happiness. I define happiness in many ways, but a fundamental way is this: acceptance of present circumstances. It is easier to accept present circumstances, even difficult ones, if I am actually present, mindful. If something tough is happening, and I find myself scared, I will still be less scared if I stay present. If I project my fear to tomorrow's worry, to worst-case-scenario thinking, I start to spin downward and my energy gets zapped.

Likewise, if present circumstances are pleasant and enjoyable, I still lose out if I get ahead of myself. I miss the beauty of the moment and next thing I know, it is gone. Focusing on gratitude naturally grounds me in the present.

The words of Brother David frequently come to my mind. They are an effective touchstone and motivator for me to continue doing the work of gratitude practice. Some days the work is easier. Some days it is harder. It is always good work and time well spent though.

Do you have a touchstone? Are you embracing it or ignoring it today?


Friday, April 4, 2014

The Writing Path

Today I am grateful for my five senses and that they all work. I am grateful for the clean air that I have to breathe.

Yesterday, I blogged about poetry as a lifesaver for me. About the time I started writing poetry, I also started journaling about my thoughts, feelings, and life events. At times, I would rattle on for pages. I am so grateful today for that writing because it has become a good supplement to my memory. I always dated, and continue to date, every poem, every journal entry. That has allowed me to go back and check details, or refresh my memory that may have faltered over the years. It is truly a gift.

I have shared some of my poetry over the years. I wrote one about marriage that I gave to friends getting married. I wrote many to friends that I then shared. I have written some fun holiday and other event ones that were meant to be read by others. But many, especially my earlier ones, were too personal, too raw. They were meant just for me.

I am a free verse poet. For many years, however the poem came out, that was the final version. There was no revising. It seemed wrong to revise the raw and real. Today, I will do some revising, but usually not much. My poetry isn't typical I guess, but it works for me.

I tried to enter poetry contests, with very limited success. Then I tried to write greeting card verses and submitted those. Again, nothing! I guess my poems weren't meant for a wider audience. The poems and the journaling kept me writing and when a cancer diagnosis came along, as did my friend Jenny, my writing was about to blossom even more. Read more about Jenny and our shared writing path here.

Facing one of my biggest fears must have released some of my other fears. And writing a book with Jenny about our individual and shared breast cancer experiences brought out the essayist in me. Today, I blog and write a monthly column for our local paper. I have also written several guest blog posts, and made it into the "Opinion Exchange" portion of The Minneapolis Star Tribune four times. I am so very grateful for the healing power and energy that have been flowing from my pen, and now my keyboard, for nearly 40 years.

And I am so grateful for my friend Jenny and the way our life paths and writing paths crossed and helped pull me out as a writer. Thanks Jenny! I love, and believe in, the writing path I am on today.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Poetry Saved My Life

Today I am grateful for my husband Darcy and our history together. I am also grateful for the role that poetry has played in my life.

I enjoyed this week's local writing group. Meeting new people and seeing some familiar faces. As I said yesterday, I appreciated the honest sharing, through writing, that went on. Pain and joy are great sources of writing inspiration aren't they?

One of our topics was poetry. My input was short and to the point: "Poetry saved my life."  That is a true statement in my life. I have no doubt of that. I started writing poetry when I was 11 or 12. I started drinking alcohol when I was 14. A poem I wrote at 16 had this line: "I found alcohol before I found me." Another poem I wrote in my late teens was titled "Twelve Pack" and ended with these lines:
And the twelfth was for
Blessed oblivion
 
I was never comfortable in my own skin in those days. I was at dis-ease. Alcohol gave me a temporary fix, but every drunk was a club to beat myself up with as well. I hated myself and when you add a depressant to that mindset, I was pretty low on many nights. I couldn't talk about it. I wouldn't talk about, unless I was drunk and then I was often in a blackout and wouldn't remember what I said anyway. My pen on paper became my salvation. The terrible mix of negative emotions building up in me would find some release. That release, through my pen, is what saved my life. I am pretty sure I would have died by suicide or by some alcohol-related accident had I not kept putting pen to paper.
 
I wrote hundreds of poems during my drinking days, but only when I was sober, hungover, remorseful. I may have tried a little writing while I was drinking, but I think part of me knew then that writing, like the sports I was in, was one of the wholesome amd genuine activities keeping me from going over the edge of the abyss.
 
I don't remember what inspired my first poem. I think it was a poetry contest we heard about at school that we could enter. I think it had a focus on nature, always a source of inspiration for me. Today, I have well over 1500 poems in notebooks, journals, three-ring binders, on napkins and little pieces of paper. I can't read too many poems from my drinking days all at once. It is too hard for me. But they serve as a powerful reminder of what I was like, what happened, and what I am like now. For all of that life experience, I am deeply grateful today.
 
Poetry saved my life. It also kept me on the writing path. More on that tomorrow.



Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Slippery Places

Today I am grateful for the local writing group I attended last evening and all of the honest sharing, via writing, that was done by those in attendance. I am also grateful for the lessons learned from slippery places.

Slippery places. Avoid when possible. Be careful at all times when near one. Like yesterday morning when I was walking Oliver. It had turned markedly colder and there were icy spots. (Yes, we love Minnesota. Sixties on Sunday, ice on Tuesday morning.) I was being careful and concentrating on safe places to step. As I neared our house on the return trip, I slacked off on my concentration and paid for it with a fall. Luckily, I don't seem to be any worse for wear other than a couple of bruises.

I was reminded of my fall on this past December 1, after completing the Seattle Marathon. It left me with bruised or cracked ribs, muscle pain and a slowed and limited range of movement for several weeks. It took six weeks to feel back to 100%. How important mobility is. How careful we need to be to protect it. How quickly a fall can change everything in a person's life.

But when I think of slippery places, I also think of a saying sometimes heard among recovering alcoholics: "If you don't want to slip, don't go where it's slippery."  Around alcohol. Bars. Liquor stores. Certain people. Certain places. All can be slippery places for alcoholics. But my most slippery place is right here between my ears. When I am overthinking and working too hard to control the world instead of just focusing on my own attitude and actions, things can get real slippery. Having a drink isn't the first thing that crosses my mind then, but left unfettered, such thinking could surely lead to a drink. It was the only way I used to know how to shut my mind up.

Thankfully, today I have many techniques and strategies to help me avoid the slippery corners of my mind. Gratitude practice and this blog are highly effective strategies in my repertoire, as are staying mindful and present in this day. They actually feed off of each other, just like self-pity and fear used to in my slippery thinking days. But this type of feeding is nurturing me, rather than consuming the best parts of me like the drinking did.

What are your slippery places? How do you stay on stable and reliable ground, literally and figuratively?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Brief Encounters with Gratitude

Today I am grateful for my job and the people I come in contact with there. I am also grateful for my recovery friends and the wisdom they share with me.

This weekend brought numerous brief encounters with the real face of gratitude. Literally, some human faces, but also some non-human ones as well.

The encounters included seeing three members of "The Lake City Nine" at three different events over the weekend (Don't know "The Lake City Nine?" Read more here.) I saw Beth at my sister's surprise birthday party, Rita at my niece's bridal shower, and Tracy at a church breakfast. It was a treat to see them two weekends in a row and a dose of gratitude all over again to revisit our time together. One of the three said one of my blogposts made them cry. Another said how she had been thinking more about gratitude since we created an A-Z list together, and the other one and I agreed that it is sure nice to be comfortable and at ease with one another for a whole weekend. Not all groups of friends can say that. Doses of gratitude.

At that church breakfast, I also saw one of my favorite teachers; my third grade teacher Mrs. Becker. She has now been a long-time principal of that same school. She was the kind of teacher my fragile 8-year-old self needed and at a pivotal time in my education-in life and in school. I know I thank you pretty much every time I see you Mrs. Becker, but such gratitude is worth repeating.

The weekend itself, the surprise birthday party, and my niece's shower gave me opportunties to talk with many of my siblings, my mom, in-laws, nieces and nephews, and I got to hold a great niece and see others of her generation. I also got to talk to other family friends I don't see often. I try not to take any such conversations and time together for granted. Good to see all of you and get caught up a bit. Doses of gratitude.

There were also brief encounters with bare trees and brown grass that hold the hope of spring, a pair of swans, a sunrise, a nice view of ponds near the farm, some young lambs sitting together in a sunny spot.

Brief encounters with gratitude abound. Today I will pay attention and look for them.