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When Will This Pandemic End? A Cancer Survivor’s Tips on Facing the Unknown

WHEN WILL THIS END? This is the question everyone is asking in light of the new CDC guidelines on the coronavirus pandemic lasting at least eight weeks. 

“Remember a flattened curve is longer. So the longer this takes, oddly, is a sign of success,” writes Juliette Kayyem, Harvard professor of international security, safety and resiliency.

We have to imagine that this is going to take a long, long time. 

The sooner we can accept our reality as the new normal rather than try to get back to the way things were, the more likely we are to thrive. 

“When you are in the life raft, it doesn’t help to wonder when you’re going to get back on the ship,” says my husband Kurt. “What helps is to look around the raft, see what you have, and get to work paddling.” (He adds: “You don’t want to be the one not paddling. You want to say to the people who are pointing out the sharks in the water, “I know there are sharks. Nevertheless, we must keep paddling.”)

To put it another way, if we focus on our new reality and take stock of what we have instead of what we don’t, we adapt quicker, and thrive faster, too.

As a cancer survivor, I have had to learn how to adjust to a new reality the hard way. When I was diagnosed in 2016 with a rare, skull-base tumor, my world came to a grinding halt. I had to quit my job, stop competing in ultramarathons, talk to my children about terminal illness, and cancel all plans for the future.

At first, we talked about “beating” this aggressive cancer. I would need skull surgery and a neck fusion, plus chemotherapy and radiation. Kurt and I wanted to fight it until it was behind us. The goal was to overcome this major obstacle and get back to our normal lives again.

The goal was motivating at first, but not for long. Soon it was frustrating. Every day that I wasn’t at work because I had to do treatments was a setback. Every morning that I wasn’t out training for a race felt like I was falling behind. The problem was my focus was on the past. 

What cancer survivors know is that you can’t ever go back to the way things were before. The key to happiness in a new reality is to look forward, not back. 

So we shifted our objective to face forward. The new goal was to accept my diagnosis and create an even better life than before. It didn’t do me any good to wonder when I would return to my life as a competitive ultrarunner, for example.

What felt good was stepping out of the victim chair and onto the creator stage. What helped was to ask, What can I make in this new universe? How can I help others? 

I created tools and habits that make it easier for me to focus on my new reality instead of dwelling on the loss of my old reality. You can read about 5 of my favorite tools for facing the unknown here.

I’ve even changed how I wake up. In the past I used to mentally run through my “to-do” list. Now I run through my “grateful-for” list while still in bed. Sometimes I can only think of one thing. Next I ask, What good can I do today? I think of one small gesture like checking in on a neighbor after breakfast. Before getting out of bed, I give my husband a kiss. 

I’m learning how to make home in my new life. I can count on two hands what I cannot do, or I can write ten pages of what I still can do. I choose to focus on what I can do. I do my 11-minute Face Fear First meditation, then I move into action mode. Or as my husband Kurt says, “I get to work paddling.” 

In this new life, I am not the person I used to be. I am much happier. This is not what I expected when the doctors gave me that scary diagnosis. A big part of the joy I feel comes from accepting my current situation and focusing on the new reality. 

I hear stories every day of how people around the world are doing this. Friends are gathering online for Tea Time or Happy Hour. Companies are shifting how they show up for their customers. Others are making Art and music. The Berkeley Music Circus is inviting us to step outside our door Wednesdays at noon to collectively sing and play any old instrument. 

It is possible to pivot and find peace during this pandemic. If I wake up afraid in the middle of the night, I use my SAFE tool, and go back to sleep. The world needs us to be fierce enough to see challenges as opportunities and to choose joy over fear.

Maybe the question to help us through the coronavirus pandemic isn’t “When will this end, so I can get back to real life? But “We don’t know when this will end, so how can I make a real life in this?”

Love,

Susie

***

photo credit: W+K Portland

 

SAFE: A Tool to Beat Fear and Get Back to Sleep

A few nights ago, I woke up at 3 a.m., convinced that the sciatic pain in my left leg meant I wouldn’t be able to walk the next day. It was not a real threat. But I couldn’t get back to sleep.

Why not get up and test my hypothesis? Well, it was freezing outside of my covers. And what if I tested it and found out I was right? That would be terrible. MUCH better to stay here, lose sleep, and spin in fear.

Wait! I have tools to deal with fear. I’ve been developing and improving them ever since my diagnosis in 2016. I gave one tool the acronym SAFE so I could remember it even when I’m half asleep. 

I want to share this tool SAFE with you in case you might be a wee bit afraid these days about your health or the safety of the planet or the safety of democracy or all three (like me).

This tool is different than other relaxation or distraction methods. It actually gets me beyond my fear by going through it. 

Our culture teaches us to avoid discomfort or distract ourselves from sadness, pain, and fear. But what if those aren’t “bad” feelings? What if we need them to connect to one another? What if understanding our own sorrow is a way to empathize with others and act with compassion? 

What if we walked toward fear with gentle skill, instead of pushing it away?

We cannot control pain and what happens to us. But we can control our suffering by using SAFE as a tool so that we can calmly go back to sleep and wake up with more energy to tackle our challenges. 

It begins with understanding the difference between pain and suffering. 

Pain is caused by circumstance. It’s the broken bone, broken home, or the broken heart. It’s the climate crisis or the political divisiveness. It’s an angry sciatic nerve. It’s also the human experience of feeling sick or lonely.

Suffering is caused by our fear-filled thoughts. It’s what we pile on top of pain with our stories about the end of the world, the end of life, or our unworthiness. It’s the voice of Fear that says, “This is bad. This will get worse. I am not doing enough to make it better. I am not enough.”

When we believe that our scared thoughts are real, we can get caught in fight, flight, or freeze mode. The danger response comes from the Amygdala, the oldest part of our brain. It cannot tell the difference between a perceived threat and a real one. It sounds the alarm anyway. And the thought that set off the alarm in the first place doesn’t respond to us wishing it away or shouting at it to leave. 

What helps is to name the voice of fear. I simply call my doomsday voice, “Fear” with a capital F. I picture her as a fancy woman in stiletto heels. She carries a red pen to cross out everything I write. Lately, I call the voice “Bo” as in “Bo-ring” because fear is universal. It is the most unoriginal thing about me. 

By naming our fear, we separate it from ourselves. “Got it, Bo. You think I won’t be able to walk tomorrow.” This simple step activates the more highly-evolved parts of our brain and we can shift into a calmer, more effective state of being.

What I’ve learned through my diagnosis and from listening to your stories of pain and resilience, is that we are not fragile. We can handle far more than we think. 

What makes us suffer is the thought that we are not safe. 

How can we let go of that thought? 

We don’t. We remember SAFE, and we practice the tool until the thought dissipates. It’s as if Fear gives up and lets go of us

There are four simple steps to this process I call SAFE. The first time, it takes 5-10 minutes. With practice, it takes less than 1 minute. The wisdom in SAFE comes from Kristen Neff’s work on Self-Compassion, Byron Katie’s “The Work”, the latest brain research, and one of the oldest Tibetan prayers. I am grateful for their guidance.

SAFE is:

Stop: Pause. Notice that you are suffering. And notice that right now, you are safe. Take a deep breath, hold it, count down from 5-4-3-2-1 then release it. Do this as many times as you need. Call your fear by name. Be gentle. Say, “Bo, I am safe. This sounds like fear, not truth.”

Ask: Question the thought. Challenge it. Is it really true? Is it guaranteed that I won’t walk tomorrow? Is it possible that I’m inflating this? What would a wise, rational friend say right now? Can I listen to that voice instead of Fear’s voice? Notice that the goal here is to engage with Fear by asking questions and coming up with alternative thoughts instead of just believing the one you’re stuck on.

Feel: Drop into your body and wiggle your toes. Find a part of your body that feels calm. Thank it. Then find another one. Thank it. Gratitude is a balm that soothes an overactive Amygdala. If your body is still in panic mode, go back to S for Stop and breathe. During the “Feel” step, the important thing is to drop out of your head and to focus on your body and the other 98% of you that is functioning beautifully and wants to sleep right now.

Empathize: Imagine someone you care about being awake at this hour, worried about leg pain, or ruining an important assignment, or their own lovability and worthiness. How would you treat them? Would you yell at them to get over it? Try treating yourself as gently as you would treat a person you care deeply about who is suffering. Then repeat this Tibetan Loving Kindness prayer for you and for as many others as you can imagine. Say: “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at peace. May you be free from suffering.”

When you wake up, write down the scary thought or send it in a text to a friend. Something about writing it down loosens its grip on you even more. You’re not as likely to carry it around with you all day. I have a lot more to say about how writing can ease suffering. If you’re interested, let me know, and I’ll tell you more.

Look. There are plenty of reasons to feel scared right now. But the world doesn’t need us to spin in our thoughts and suffer. The world needs us to sleep and find some ease so we can tap into our powerful self and face challenges from that place. We are so much stronger than we know. 

Love,

Susie

P.S.) I am walking just fine. The sciatic nerve pain is even improving thanks to another mind-body tool I discovered. I’ll tell you more about it soon.

Photo credit: Piqsels/Storrelse

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Mini Retreat Highlights!

Here’s to the 10 brilliant, brave women who came to reset and refresh in my home this January. We found calm in the midst of chaos, uncovered what we desire, learned to say No, and wrote a letter to Fear so it can’t derail our clear vision in 2020.

My chair broke as I was explaining how to let go of things we cannot control!  #braveoverperfect

If you want to write your own letter to Fear, here’s one way to begin: Dear Fear, Thank you for trying to keep me safe. But in 2020, here is what I need to say to you…

When you’re done, put one line from that letter on a sticky note and keep it where you can see it.

Talk kindly back to Fear as often as possible and you will break through any obstacle in 2020!

Love, Susie

She might be the most powerful woman in the world

Our daughter Hazel is 14 today. It is also Día de Guadalupe. I am republishing this blog about Guadalupe, and the strength of women around the world in her honor!

Hazel’s birthday falls on the same day Mexicans celebrate the Virgin Mary, whom they lovingly call La Virgen de Guadalupe. It’s an important day in Mexico; Pilgrimages, parades, and dazzling fireworks are common and abundant. Hazel has adopted it as her own holiday. Every year, we join the large, hispanic congregation in the Catholic church to dance and sing at sunrise to celebrate this powerful woman.

I wake Hazel up at four thirty. She crawls out of bed and puts on her jacket and snow boots. We walk hand in hand, in the middle of the street, through the darkness, to the church a few blocks away. When she was younger, I wrapped her in a sleeping bag and carried her. One year, I pulled her in a sled through the heavy snow.

The legend goes that Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego in rural Mexico in 1531, at sunrise. When the bishop didn’t believe the story that this powerful woman would appear to a poor native, Diego unfolded his cloak. Rose petals scattered on the floor, revealing a clear image of la Virgen, a young woman in a mantle made of stars, surrounded by light. Ever since then, Mexicans trust that they are under the Virgin Mary’s special protection.

Hazel and I walk in silence, watching the snow sparkle under the streetlights. Everything else is dark. I lead the way past the middle school and to the top of the hill. Then as soon as we crest the hill, we hear the drumbeat, a steady boom boom boom cutting through the icy darkness. Hazel takes the lead and runs toward the dancers and music.
At the church, it feels like Hazel and I have gone through the back of a wardrobe and into a different world; one full of bright colors, lights, and the music of drums and accordions. Parking attendants do their best to find places for the steady river of Chevy pick-up trucks. Grown men parade in through the doors and kneel to pray, wearing white jackets with sequined images of Guadalupe on the back. As soon as we sit down, children and teenagers in beaded costumes dance down the center aisle, shaking the leg rattles attached to their ankles. Hazel and I try to count the number of people awake before dawn, filling the church. Five hundred people? Four hundred, at least.

Long ago, when I am pregnant with Hazel, I go into a used furniture store looking for a bed and come home with a painting. It is a very large portrait of Guadalupe wearing a blue cape covered in stars and surrounded by golden light. I buy it. I don’t know why. I am drawn to her calm beauty and the fact that she is a young woman.

At home, I hang the painting over the hallway in our apartment. As I do laundry or try to reason with Cole, our toddler, I talk to Guadalupe, “Can you give me a hand through bedtime? Or I may start drinking heavily and that would be bad for the baby.” At the time, Kurt is living two hours away, on a job that involves tracking wildlife, while I am the assistant director at a residential school in Vermont. I am alone at home, responsible for our two year old boy and the twelve teenage boys who live directly above me, in one of the five dormitories on campus.

As my due date comes and goes without any sign of having this baby, I talk to Guadalupe nightly. It is as if she is on the other end of a phone line. I beg, “What is the baby waiting for? Can you make her come out, NOW?” When a week goes by and still no sign of labor, I say, “I’m scared. What if this baby isn’t healthy? I don’t know if I can handle that.” She just listens quietly. In my world of toddlers and teenagers, it feels good to talk to an adult, even if she is a painting. At a time when I am feeling alone and unsure, Guadalupe’s mature, female energy is welcome. To me, she represents deep love and faith in the unknown.

My water breaks during a dorm meeting. I stand up to say goodnight to the boys and water pours out of me onto the floor. The boys panic. Teenage boys panicking doesn’t look like much. There is a rare moment of silence, then everyone runs away. One boy, Jake, is sweet enough to walk me down the stairs to my apartment. But he keeps muttering, “I don’t know how to deliver a baby. I don’t know how to deliver a baby.” I call Kurt. He drives two hours home through a snowstorm and we make it to the hospital just in time.
Hazel is born early in the morning on December twelfth. She comes out screaming. Minutes after she is born, I discover that it is Guadalupe Day. I watch the sunrise pink through the window and sing to this tiny baby to soothe her. I picture the rays of light reaching out from Guadalupe and surrounding Hazel with protection.

Then my dear friend Teza calls from Collingwood, Ontario. We were pregnant at the same time, but my due date was two weeks before today and hers was a week after.
Teza says, “It’s a girl!”
“I know!” I say back, confused, thinking that she is calling to congratulate me.
But she is announcing the birth of her own daughter. What are the odds of best friends having their daughters on the same day, and not just any day, but the one devoted to Guadalupe?

I want to know more about the Virgin Mary, so I read up on her while I nurse. It surprises me to learn that Muslim men and women are as devoted to her as Catholics. She is the only woman mentioned by name in the Koran. In fact, her name appears more in the Koran than in the New Testament. It’s not unusual to see young Muslim women in hijab visiting the Virgin Mary at Christian shrines, for example. Muslim and Christian, men and women alike, speak of the Virgin’s resilience and her example of love. Hazel, and Teza’s daughter, Rozlyn, are in good hands. The Virgin Mary might be the most powerful woman in the world, a true force for unity and peace.

When I received the tumor diagnosis, I prayed awkwardly to Guadalupe for help. But this is not the story of how I prayed to Guadalupe before labor, and again before my surgeries and promised that I would go to church every week if I came out alive. No, this is the story of how I am living each day as though I may die tomorrow and therefore I am no longer afraid to say I believe in Guadalupe. Before, when I talked to the painting, I was too chicken to tell anyone that I prayed to Guadalupe. I assumed my friends would smile politely, but never speak to me again.

I am not afraid anymore. Why hide it? What I’ve learned throughout these challenging months is that it is silly to hold back love. I still don’t know where I belong spiritually; I have shopped for the right church/temple/sangha/mosque for years. But I do know that I can easily, without effort or artifice, kneel before the divine presence of the Virgin Mary. She is a woman who stands for love. She is for all people, no matter their background or religion. Her compassionate gaze doesn’t suggest that one way is the only way, but instead finds room for all of our beautiful brokenness.

This morning, Hazel and I stay in the church to watch the dancing, and the offering of candlelight and flowers. We also stay for the singing. We watch the mothers next to us bring their bundles of roses to the front. They lay them at the statue of Guadalupe’s feet and show their babies the candlelight. They return to the pew. We stand together, women and girls. One woman gives me a big smile because now even I am singing! Hazel laughs, but I keep singing. It feels easier, lighter than before. I let go of fear, and make room for joy.

Love,

Susie

***

I’m baaack coaching and speaking again! I’d love to help you thrive and let go of the fear standing in your way of being powerful. I’ve also crafted a 45-min keynote on how people and organizations can let go of perfectionism and thrive in turbulent times. Do you know an organization or conference that needs this message? Get in touch with me.

The Beauty of Sometimes

Have you ever thought about the beauty of the word sometimes

Sometimes is a great word. It’s so much more honest than always or never

I know this because black-or-white thinking is one of my not-so-super superpowers. “So & So is an asshole.” “I’m a total success.” “I’m a complete failure.”

It seems like extreme thinking is a teenager’s superpower too. Just last night, I overheard the following examples from our teenagers at home, “I totally failed that test.” “I’m always awkward around other people.” “I never know what to say.” “I’m an idiot.”

It made me wonder, Is our tendency to exaggerate making us feel sad and stuck? If we were more honest with our words, could we be happier?  

In Lori Gottlieb’s book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, there is a single paragraph about the word sometimes that I’ve been savoring like the last ripe berries of the season. 

Gottlieb writes, “[The word] sometimes evens us out, keeps us in the middle rather than dangling on one end of the spectrum or the other, hanging on for dear life…It helps us escape the tyranny of black-or-white thinking.”

Our brains are wired to remember the negatives more aggressively than the positives. We may feel like we are always blowing it, but the truth is we are crushing it more often than we think. So now I’m teaching the teens in our home to try it (complete with eye rolls).

“I’m awkward, sometimes.” 

“I don’t know what to say, sometimes.”

“I act like an idiot, sometimes.

I’ve been practicing as well. It works like an alarm to wake me up from catastrophic thinking. 

“I succeed sometimes.”

“I fail sometimes.”

“So & so is an asshole, sometimes.”

The little word “sometimes” that I may have judged before to be too average and dull now keeps me from falling off the cliff of extremes. There’s relief knowing it’s not always or never

It’s a simple way to build compassion in the world for ourselves and for others. “Sometimes” is also a tool to stop beating ourselves up so we can show up real. Because we want to show up whole and human, always.

Love,

Susie

***

I’m baaack coaching and speaking again! I’d love to help you thrive amidst all the unexpected changes in your life. I’ve also crafted a 45-min keynote on how people and organizations can thrive in turbulent times. Do you know an organization or conference that needs this message? Get in touch with me.

Expectations Turned Upside Down

What is the experience of having our expectations turned upside down? 

I was supposed to have major surgery on my spine. The doctor was supposed to remove a tumor balanced between two vertebrae in my neck. And I was supposed to wake up tumor free. 

But just thirty minutes into a pre-operative procedure, they discovered something no one had predicted. A tiny blood vessel (like a tributary of a river) near the tumor is one of the only blood supplies to my spine. The telltale sign of this is a hairpin turn in the bloodflow. This led to a hairpin turn in my plans. The risk of severing this blood vessel during surgery was too great to go forward with the operation. In the future, other blood vessels may take over and feed my spine, making the surgery viable again. And since the tumor is not dangerous right now, we can just watch and wait. 

So how does this change feel?

It feels bad. The tumor is still there. Plus, so much psychological, spiritual, and physical energy went into preparing for this surgery. I was fully committed to one experience, and I got another. 

It feels good. I narrowly escaped a fusion from my skull to my shoulders, and the inability to look up or down. I also get to keep the strength in my right arm. And I can trust that I have an excellent, attentive surgeon who is bold enough to back off.

But the reality is not exactly bad or good. Doing the surgery was where I was a week ago.

Watching and waiting is where I am now. We are always just where we are. 

A friend sent me a quote, “Meandering creates the path.” I want to paint it in gold on my children’s bedroom wall. 

And when my kids experience heart-breaking twists in their lives, I hope I’ll say, “Woah. That hurts. I’m with you through this change, and every change.” 

But what were my first thoughts when they told me that the surgery was postponed indefinitely? 

  • What?! This is terrible. Let me talk to someone who will tell me what I want to hear. 
  • Oh, wait. I get to live. 
  • I get to keep all this mobility and all this strength. 
  • Oh, but this sucks. It’s not what I planned.
  • I am hungry and I want baked shell pasta. 

Then I practically ripped out the IV tube and dashed out of the hospital. I didn’t feel like the woman I was even a day ago, nervous and cautious about what I ate and what I did in case it made the tumor grow. 

I felt like a rebellious teenager who wants the music louder, and her boots taller and angrier. I moved like someone who will not be contained. In preparation for the surgery, I had to face death. Now I want to face life in all its pain and all its beauty. I don’t care whether it hurts or soothes, I just wanted to feel all of it. 

We have no idea how life is going to play out. And yet we worry as if worrying helps. And we make our lives smaller, more cautious, in an effort to avoid uncertainty. But that only gets us stuck in the land of disappointment and regret when an unexpected change arises. If we want to say yes to life, we have to take this journey with all the hairpin turns and forks in the road. We have to feel it all.

It’s like that well-known essay “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingsley, the parent of a child with Down syndrome. She describes the shift in her life this way: It’s as if you planned a fabulous vacation to Italy. You bought the guide books and learned some phrases in Italian. You dreamt of hand-made pasta and riding a gondola in Venice. But when you land, the flight attendant says, “Welcome to Holland.”

“Holland?!” you say, shocked and disappointed by the change. But, as Kingsley writes, “It’s not a horrible place. It’s just a different place…”

So Kurt and I practiced saying, “It’s just a different place” as we put away the clothes we’d no longer need, cancelled our lodging, and all of our plans. Then we did what felt right. With my brother Derek, we took our 79-year-old mother out to a rock concert. 

The future is hidden from us. We only get to see little bits of it revealed, like a flashlight that only shines so far. We make the best decisions that we can, one fork in the road at a time. And we respond to each hairpin as well as we can. We grieve what was supposed to happen. Then we stretch our imaginations and our dancing muscles. And we eat whatever we want.

Love,

Susie

***

I’m baaack coaching and speaking again! I’d love to help you thrive amidst all the unexpected changes in your life. I’ve also crafted a 45-min keynote on how people and organizations can thrive in turbulent times. Do you know an organization or conference that needs this message? Get in touch with me.

***

image credit: Olle August

Postponed Indefinitely

This is Kurt, Susie’s husband. The surgery is postponed indefinitely. This comes as a huge surprise to all of us.

Today Susie underwent a surgical procedure to do high-resolution mapping of the blood vessels in her neck. We had a similar procedure done in CO but the facilities here are much more powerful, so the surgeon wanted to repeat it here to help plan the operation. Today’s results indicated that surgery is not advisable at this time.

The two main facts supporting this are:
1) the tumor is not imminently dangerous now. Obviously we want it out, but it’s not urgent.
2) the blood vessels are actually still supplying critical blood flow around the tumor site. This was surprising to everyone and is exactly what today’s study was looking for. Over time, the body can reroute blood flow through other vessels and this is what everyone assumed had already happened. Today’s study showed that this isn’t fully the case. Therefore, there is more risk to the surgery.

Dr. Gokaslan decided to postpone the surgery because these two factors make taking the tumor now more risky than it’s worth. When we planned the surgery, we didn’t have the full picture of the risks. Now that we do, it’s a different situation, hence the different path forward.

Instead of an operation now, we will go back to close monitoring of the tumor (every 3 months). Susie may need to do this surgery in the future, but now we want to wait longer and see how things develop. We expect that over time the blood flow can reroute and reduce the risks in any future surgery Susie may need. We meet with Dr. Gokaslan tomorrow and will learn more details.

Susie was so hungry after today’s procedure (and foggy from the anesthesia) that she insisted we go straight to an Italian restaurant from the hospital. Never mind that she was in her pajamas. She joyfully ate enough for three people, and is now cozy in bed. She pivots easily, so is not too disappointed, just a little stunned.

We both feel grateful that our surgeon is bold enough to cancel a surgery when the risks are too high. And we are super thankful for your powerful, positive visualizations.

Susie’s mom, Lyn, and her brother Derek, are coming to town tomorrow anyway. We’ve decided to turn this into a celebration. We’ll likely spend a couple of days here before heading home. After we meet with Dr. Gokaslan tomorrow, we’ll share with you what we learn about what happens next.

Maybe we light the candles anyway, and visualize the tumor staying the size it is or shrinking, and therefore giving Susie a long and happy reprieve.

We cannot thank you enough. Your support has been incredible.

Love,
Dr. Kurt

Suffering is the Middle School of Life: Painful but Necessary

Doesn’t it seem like everyone has more challenges lately? Our thirteen-year-old daughter thinks so. She says she has no one to sit with at lunch. She wishes she knew exactly what to say to get the other kids to like her. And I feel her pain. I remember those days. Can’t we fast-forward middle school for her? Can’t we shortcut her suffering and get right to the learning?

There is no shortcut. Suffering is the middle school of life. We cannot go straight from elementary school innocence to high school swagger without the pain of those years in between. We have to go through middle school. We can better it, sure. But we cannot skip it all together. 

My friend, Deb Rubin, who leads fabulous mother-daughter workshops, insists that middle school is supposed to be difficult. “It’s about learning to deal with discomfort. When your child comes home complaining about not having anyone to sit with at lunch, the only thing you can do is be curious. You cannot fix it. You can show up confident that things will change. You can relax because you understand that discomfort is a necessary part of the growth process. Then you can ask questions that help her to identify and feel her feelings. How is that for you? Tell me what you are feeling. Oh ouch, how did you respond? 

We have to stop wishing discomfort away. We have to give up the false idea that others have it easier than us. Not to mention, we need to let go of the false hope that if we just knew the right way to behave, we’d have it easy too. Far better to put our challenges on the table, under a bright light, to look and feel them.

This week, our family went on a short retreat and did a small fire ceremony. We wrote down what Fear was saying to us on small slips of paper. Then we burned them. It felt great. Since then, I keep talking back to Fear, the voice in my head. I say, Thank you for your concern, but I am built for this. Life is about facing tough challenges, not running from them. We are all hard wired for resilience. We just don’t trust that truth. 

I feel all of you in my corner. I’m in your corner, too. And I can relax knowing that our daughter’s challenges are building her up, making her stronger, and helping her to discover who she is. She is built for this. We all are.

Surgery challenge accepted. I’ll return home in a month different, but better.

Love,

Susie

Upcoming Surgery: 3 Ways to Help

Remember what Dr. Liebsch said to me? “What you have is a chronic illness, like diabetes. It will never go away, but it can be controlled and managed.”

Well, it’s time to control the spot of tumor that has been on my neck since the beginning. So, here we go again…

I need another, smaller surgery. Tentative date: November 6th, in RI.

This is not an emergency. It’s just time. We’ve chosen Dr. Gokaslan, one of the leading experts in spinal tumors, to resect as much of it as possible. He works out of Rhode Island Hospital.

Kurt and I hope to go to Providence on Nov. 3rd. Surgery on Nov. 6. Recovery is one week in the hospital, then two-three weeks in the Providence/Boston area. We found places to stay! Thank you. Not sure yet if I’ll do radiation right after or wait until spring.

Kurt will be with me from about Nov. 3-14th. After that I’ll likely go stay with friends in Boston. The kids will stay home. My oldest brother Jake is coming to stay with them while we’re gone. They’re lucky to have him!

To remember:

  1. This is spinal surgery, not skull or brain. The operation is only ½ day.
  2. My spine will be fused from my skull to my shoulders afterwards. This is certain. I am sad about the loss of rotation, and grateful that Cole is able to chauffeur me around now 😉
  3. Because of where the spot is, there’s some risk to a nerve that goes down my right arm. My surgeon says it is possible, but not likely, that it will be damaged. I’ve been taking this part hard and grieving the potential loss of strength in my writing hand. But after weeks of feeling blue, I’m trying a new approach. I’m learning to dictate, and I’ve come up with a series of challenges to strengthen my non-dominant hand. Want to join me?

How to help: 

  1. On Nov. 6, picture the tumor sliding off
    the bone and nerve easily, smoothly
  2. Imagine me healthy, strong, and home by Dec. 7, in time for Kurt to play lead guitar in his rock band’s first gig (details to come), for Cole to get ready to go to the Mountain School, and for Hazel to perform in the Nutcracker, dancing in the snow scene ‘en pointe’
  3. Do the non-dominant-hand challenges with me! This week: Brush your teeth with your other hand.

As Dr. Al-Mefty (my skull surgeon) said, “Susie, you are a fighter. This is not the end, nor is it the beginning of the end. It is just another challenge, and you are good at those.” 

What makes me “good at challenges” is that I don’t feel like I’m alone. Thank you for being there with me every step of the way. We all have our own mountains to face, but I firmly believe that together, we can do anything!

Love,

Susie

#braveoverperfect #joyoverfear

 

Jennifer’s Dragonflies

When I first heard the news of Jennifer Ridgeway’s passing, I went to the garden, to be surrounded by sunflowers, marigolds, and cosmos. As a river of memories rolled by, I heard a whirring sound and looked up. I noticed that I was not alone. More than a dozen dragonflies floated above me and the flowers.

In almost every culture, dragonflies are a sign of change and transformation. 

The dragonflies’ liquid-blue bodies flew in a tight group with powerful, rhythmic ease. Their wings looked like they were made of tiny stained-glass windows. Their enormous eyes reflected the sun. 

I remembered Jennifer’s warm eyes, her easy smile, and her sharp sense of humor. I pictured her surrounded by her tight-knit family: her husband Rick, and their children, Carissa, Cameron, and Connor, and their grandchildren, Coda and Rosco, Summer and Sadie. 

Jennifer understood that healthy families make healthy workplaces. Instead of sacrificing her time with family for her passion for work, she integrated the two. As the first director of marketing at Patagonia clothing company, she co-created an on-site childcare center and then published a book about it to inspire other businesses to do the same. Jennifer made it so women and men didn’t have to choose between parenting and working. 

Rare in the advertising world, Jennifer was constantly on a quest for authenticity. She is the reason the Patagonia catalog famously includes real photos from real people. As the company’s first photo editor, Jennifer insisted on including genuine shots of life outdoors. She wanted to inspire us to be real and to get out more into wild landscapes. In the process, she supported amateur photographers, launching many of their careers. 

Dragonflies begin their lives in water as colorless, wingless nymphs. They grow and shed their hard shell many times, never above the surface of the pond. Then one day they crawl onto land, breathe air instead of water for the first time, and grow powerful wings. They transform into acrobatic gliders, able to fly in six directions, and faster than most birds. 

In my twenties, I was fascinated by dragonflies. I spent countless hours in rubber boots, wading in ponds and rivers, holding a net over my head. I wanted these insects to teach me about change. How can they go from water to land to sky so easily?

I knew this species of dragonfly hovering over me now. Green Darner. Anax Junius. A cousin to Saffron Meadowhawk, Wandering Glider, Emerald Spreadwing, Blue-Ringed Dancer, and the 5,000 other species found in the world, on every continent. 

Jennifer often seemed veiled in a mantel of stars and light, like her cherished La Virgen de Guadalupe. Jennifer inhaled your troubles and exhaled forgiveness. She took you seriously, but refused to let life’s seriousness take over. She listened generously, guiding so many of us through questions of love, loss, and relationship. In her presence, you felt the meaning of non-judgmental love. And when Rick traveled to climb the world’s most dangerous mountains on every continent, she kissed him goodbye and waved away our concerns. She steered us all toward trust.

Back then, I studied dragonflies because I wanted to understand metamorphosis. I was about to be married. I craved knowing how to grow into something new. Transitions are natural for a dragonfly. It molts at least a dozen times before becoming a creature with wings. Dragonflies taught me not to fear the unknown.

When I became a mother, I found comfort in their life cycles. Dragonflies have everything they need inside them to grow into confident flying beings. Once, I lifted a dragonfly nymph out of the water and into my hand. I wanted to find evidence of its future ability to fly. I stared at it, but couldn’t see anything. Finally, I found the faintest outline of wings, no thicker than flower petals, folded on its back. It helped me to imagine my children’s version of wings, always there, waiting between their narrow shoulders.

Without Jennifer, there would be no Kurt and me, no Cole, no Hazel. It was Jennifer who pointed me to Rick, who pointed me to Kurt.

When I last saw her, Jennifer was in hospice in her own bed, surrounded by books, photographs, flowers, Art, and all the colors that she loved. Her sheets, covers and pillows radiated warmth in cranberry, saffron, and butterscotch shades. I told her that her family will be held, that she will not be forgotten, that we will be better, are better because of her. I told her that we’ll see her in flowers, in photographs, in the flame of Guadalupe candles, in the laughter of her grandchildren, in all things light and joyful. 

Jennifer’s daughter Cameron sat at the foot of her bed holding her infant daughter Sadie, born only two weeks earlier. Jennifer and baby Sadie slept peacefully. Never before had I seen the bookends of birth and death so close together. I stayed and watched them sleep. I listened to them breathing. When Jennifer exhaled, Sadie inhaled. And I thought about transitions. Entrances and exits. Beauty leaving and beauty arriving. 

The day Jennifer passed, there were news stories in Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, among others about meteorologists misreading their doppler-radar images. What they thought were massive late-summer showers turned out to be an uncommon sighting: a giant migration of Green Darners spreading across the country. What I saw in my garden that day was a small piece of a larger whole: thousands and thousands of dragonflies migrating.

Beauty on the move.

***

photo credit: Chirag Sankaliya/Getty Images