Remember that you are (star)dust…

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Ash Wednesday held new meaning for me this year with the stage IV cancer diagnosis. I’m six days in to my unplanned medical sabbatical (what I prefer to call my time on medical disability), and it’s been sobering to observe my body finally coming off of the adrenaline high that kept me going for far too long. This day has given me the permission to speak truth: I am tired. I am weary. My body needs this time of rest if there’s any chance to recover, heal, and hear those magic words “No Evidence of Disease.” I won’t get there by depending on myself or any imagined “super hero” abilities to defy death and appear magically in control.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These are the powerful and painful words my friend and colleague said as she marked my forehead with ashes this morning. I deliberately chose the quiet chapel service at the church she serves because I needed safe space to experience this moment in a new way, in the shadow of dis-ease and with the words “terminal” and “palliative” still ringing in my ears.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not throwing in the towel. I’m not crying “uncle” to the cancer cells. Not a chance! What I am doing is entering the season of Lent by acknowledging that the shadow of death is just over my shoulder, and my hope lies in God and God alone. But this is true for all of us. None of us is promised more than the present moment; we just choose to live like we have an unlimited span of life ahead. We can wipe that cross off our foreheads, but we can’t erase the truth of it.

Yep, nothing like Ash Wednesday and a cancer diagnosis to set the record straight. This is also a powerful gift to carry into the 40 days of Lent. Without this journey to the cross, without death, there can be no resurrection and no promise of real and lasting life. Only by walking the road to Jerusalem with Jesus and looking unflinchingly at death is there lasting hope or reason to live for something beyond oneself. This is the only path to the risen Christ.

Death will come for all of us–sooner or later. Deny it all you want; it won’t change the truth of it. Every day is a gift of God. Every breath is Spirit-infused. All of creation is held together in Christ. Or, as Eugene Peterson so beautifully renders this idea in The Message (Colossians 1:18b-20):

“From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.”

None of us makes it to Easter without the painful reality of Lent. We need that ash cross to tattoo truth smack between our eyes. But here’s the thing: we are not just the dust you dump out of the vacuum bag into the rubbish bin. We are stardust. We are inextricably linked to one another, to all of creation, and to the Christ.

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As my friend marked that ashen cross on my forehead and said those somber words, I took courage and comfort in knowing there is so much more. Cancer may strip me of all my illusions of security, invincibility, and layers of self-defined identity and worth, but it will never have the last word. That belongs to God, and here is truth for me–and for you, for all of us: “Remember that you are the stuff of stardust, and to stardust you shall return.”

(Photos: sblezard and Gianni, Creative Commons License. Thanks!)

 

 

In Praise of “Pond Scum”

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My morning “pond scum” ingredients. YUM!

Most of us living in North America fail the adequate nutrition test. In the land where Congress classed pizza as a vegetable (yes, really), it’s no wonder that getting enough servings of nutritious fruits and vegetables can be a challenge for the average American diner. I’ve always been a relatively healthy eater: I try to buy organic and local when I can, I’ve been mostly vegetarian for five+ years, and functionally vegan for almost three years. Cheese was my major fail in managing a completely vegan diet, but then we all have our challenges.

Enter a diagnosis of estrogen positive, stage IV breast cancer in September, 2018. Bye, bye cheese; hello full-on vegan diet! It was time to get 110% serious about nutrition. After all, diet appears to be partially responsible for some 30-40% of all cancers. More research is needed, but I’m with Hippocrates who knew the value of nutrition centuries before vegan was hip.

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.  — Hippocrates

My family and friends have become well acquainted with what I affectionately call my “pond scum” drinks. These green concoctions earned their name because, well, they LOOK like pond scum. The taste is actually a quite delicious combination of banana, apple, carrot, dark leafy greens (kale, Swiss chard, spinach are my favorites), blueberries, and filtered water, all whirled into a smoothie in my handy Ninja. The morning version includes a scoop of Greens First powder that delivers an extra 15+ servings of fruits, veggies, and antioxidents. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

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Some of my favorite cookbooks. I also drink a LOT of herb tea in lovely mugs, like this Yogi brand DeTox tea.

I’m not suggesting that everyone choose a 100% vegan diet and forego caffeine, sugar, oils, and alcohol. This is my choice to give my body every chance possible to heal itself in combination with western allopathic medicine (i.e. chemotherapy). I’ve been influenced by the work of T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D.,John McDougall, M.D.Joel Fuhrman, M.D., and Forks over Knives. What I am suggesting is that you consider some diet changes before you are diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or other serious illness.

When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need. — ancient Ayurvedic proverb

Sure, diet isn’t everything when it comes to health, but it is a major component. I’ll be citing the book Radical Remission frequently over the next few months because it’s had a huge impact on my approach to addressing my cancer. In this book, author and researcher Kelly Turner, Ph.D., explores nine key factors that cancer survivors share. Guess what? Radically altering your diet is one of those nine factors. In fact, it’s the very first factor Turner addresses. Your diet really does matter.

If you’re in great health, give thanks. If you feel that your health is slipping and you know that stress, lack of exercise, and a bad diet are markers of your lifestyle, take a deep breath and consider some changes–FAST. If you are dealing with cancer or another serious illness, consider how a healthier diet might be able to support your treatments. Do, however, include your care providers in discussions about nutrition and any supplements or complementary therapies you are considering. Above all, nurture your spiritual life and check out what your sacred texts have to say about food and nutrition. You might be surprised. In the meantime, I raise my glass of “pond scum” to your health–and to mine. Be blessed!

Disclaimer: I’m definitely not a health professional, but I’m in the business of learning all that I can to try to cajole my cancer into radical remission. If I can be of any help to you, great! Just know that what I write are my own opinions and reflect my own experience. When you find yourself living with a life-threatening illness or chronic condition, YOU are your best advocate. Learn all that you can, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or get additional professional opinions.

Snowy Sunday Armchair Worship

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(NOTE: This home worship service is brought to you because the congregation I serve decided, in an abundance of caution due to an unpredictable and capricious winter storm, to cancel worship tomorrow, January 19. You will also note that I am using the lessons for the Third Sunday after Epiphany because of a sermon series on our Guiding Principles and so that Deacon David Hope-Tringali can deliver the sermon he had already prepared next Sunday.)

WELCOME

Welcome to Snowy Sunday Armchair Worship brought to you by St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in New Cumberland, PA, and Pastor Sharron Blezard. We’re glad you’re here! We’ll be using YouTube videos of some worship music with which you may (or may not) be familiar. My prayer is that you will find the music and words meaningful.

Grab yourself a cup of coffee, tea, or hot cocoa, settle into a comfortable position and take some time to breath. You might begin by silently saying “Receive” when you inhale and “Release” when you exhale.

Please pray with me: Lord of the snow, sleet, rain, and wind. We give you thanks for your gifts, particularly the gift of scripture to guide our hearts and minds and to nourish and equip your beloved people. Help us to hear, read, learn, and cherish them. Comfort us with the promises they contain, especially that of eternal life with You, your Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hear Audrey Assad singing “How Can I Keep from Singing” (ELW 763), and sing along if you wish.

WORD

A reading from Nehemiah, the 8th Chapter:

Click here to read.

Word of God; word of life. Thanks be to God.

Psalm 19

Hear Jess Ray’s version of Psalm 19 (from her album Pull the Stars from the Sky)

You can read Psalm 19 by clicking here.

A reading from 1 Corinthians, the 12th Chapter:

Click here to read.

Word of God; word of life. Thanks be to God.

The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the fourth chapter. (Please consider reading the gospel aloud.)

Click here to read.

This is the Gospel of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

REFLECTION

Our fourth guiding principle is We will nurture and support others, both within and beyond our community, with special concern for children and youth.

The lesson from 1 Corinthians and the passage from Luke’s gospel help us understand what it means to be the church, Christ’s Body, the Beloved Community, in the world, and how as that Body we strive to live out this fourth principle in all that we say and do.

We exist to love God and to love our neighbors, and we do that best together.

We do that best when we use the many gifts God has given to each one of us.

Paul writes to the struggling church at Corinth, a group of ordinary people like you and me who are having trouble understanding how much more their talents and gifts can be and do when brought together for the common good.

You may not feel particularly gifted to nurture and support others, but you possess unique gifts that are essential to making that happen as part of the Beloved Community here at St. Paul (or wherever you are). You are needed. You are wanted. Above all, you are dearly loved. But your gifts are not meant to be hoarded, ignored, or used in isolation. They find their highest expression and fulfillment in combination with the gifts of others shared for the common good.

As Paul says, “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Cor. 12:14). We need toes, eyes, hands, feet, hearts, elbows, and even a brain. Yet all of these parts work together, in unity, to be more than any one part could be alone. We find our unity in Christ, who is the head of the body, the church.

Paul also reminds this community of believers that “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free…” (1 Cor. 12:13). Diversity gathered in unity. Unity expressed through a diversity of gifts. All for the purpose of loving God and one another.

It’s a tall order, but that’s the beauty of the church when we’re truly focused on Jesus, on what we’re here to do and on who we are called to be. And what is this? Just what is our calling as the hands and feet and heart of Christ in this world?

We get a glimpse of our co-work and calling in the lesson from Luke’s gospel. Jesus returns from his temptation in the wilderness. He’s “filled with the power of the Spirit” and people begin to take notice. Jesus is teaching in the synagogues and generating a whole lot of buzz and praise. He goes to Nazareth, his hometown, and begins to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah a passage that describes his mission, his purpose:

Anointed by the Spirit of the Lord, he comes to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to restore sight to the blind to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Together, throughout the year, as we move through Luke’s gospel, we’ll explore what Jesus means, how this reality plays out in his ministry and in the equipping of his disciples, and what it means for us today.

Yes, it’s one tall order, but we do not do this hard thing alone. We do it together in the Body of Christ, interweaving our gifts to form a strong web of nurture and support to cast into the world for the common good. We do it one casserole at a time, one quilt at a time, one bag of groceries at a time, one visit to the nursing home a time. We do it by coming together in worship to learn, to prepare, to gather around Christ’s table, and to celebrate the in-breaking of a new way of living and being as those baptized into one body.

And, yes, as our guiding principle reminds us, we do have a special concern for children and youth because Jesus has that concern. He calls the children to him and gathers them in. It’s our sacred trust to make sure that the church is a safe and nurturing place where the natural faith and trust of children can be cherished and where all of God’s children can gather to worship, serve, and love God. Every child is loved by God and deserves to know that and rest securely in God’s love.

Yes, we are gifted for ministry and mission, but we are not meant to live and use our gifts in isolation. We need the church, Christ’s beloved, imperfect Body here on earth. We need each other to build one another up and strengthen each other. Gifts are meant to be used. Gifts are meant to be given. And, of course, gifts are meant to be joyously received. Amen.

Questions to consider this week…

What gifts has God given to me?

How am I using those gifts?

What fears might be holding me back?

How am I integrated into Christ’s Beloved Community so that my gifts may be built up, shared with others, and shared for the common good?

What do I hear/sense God saying to me about using my gifts?

Ponder the words to this Rend Collective song, “Build Your Kingdom Here”:

PRAYERS

United as one body in Christ, let us pray for the church, the world and all those in need. This song by The Brilliance, “Prayers of the People,” is a beautiful form of prayer. (This recording is a few years old, so please update with current names and situations you hold in your heart.

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Receive our prayers and fill us with the radiance of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.

SENDING

Beloved, know that you are enough. Know that God loves you. You no longer need to be a slave to fear. Go out into the world this week to love God and your neighbor. See Jesus’ face in everyone you meet. Use your God-given gifts: Be lavish with smiles, prodigal with kind words, and generous with time, talent, and resources.

Be blessed to be a blessing for YOU are a child of God! In the name of the Father, the Son+, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN!

Our final song is “No Longer Slaves” by Zach Williams:

Go in peace to refill your coffee cup, prepare for the week, and to love and serve the Lord.

Thanks be to God! We will!

 

 

 

Hair Today. Gone Tomorrow.

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Today’s topic is about chemo and hair loss, although there’s a whole lot more going on than just the demise of my dearly beloved fierce pink tresses. The real subjects are attachments, fear, and letting go–three much more powerful issues that affect not only those in cancer treatment but pretty much all human beings at some point in life.

I went through the whole hair loss thing with the first cancer experience. Taking what measure of control I could, I had my head shaved and sent the ponytail to Locks of Love. It really didn’t bother me that much that I can remember. Perhaps it was because I was sure it would grow back, AND I’d have the added benefit of an outrageously expensive but effective perm. (Note: You have to look for the small bright spots and opportunities to laugh when dealing with cancer or any other life-threatening medical condition.)

Ready for chemo in 2004 with a pony tail for Locks of Love

This time felt different. Perhaps it was the difficulty of letting go of that brave, bright color my daughter so lovingly applied to my hair–a hot pink badge of courage. Maybe it was the comments from folks that this time my hair might not grow back like it did a decade plus ago; after all we’re dealing with long term treatment now as opposed to a once and done experience. It could be the reality of just one more indignity and loss of the illusion of control. After pondering the situation for a couple of months and getting used to my rad baldness and wardrobe of really cool hats, I think it’s something more–something that affects virtually all of us. That something is the power of attachments and the fear of letting go.

You see, the initial tears and sadness of having my beloved shave my head have given way to acceptance and even a kind of love for my bald look. It’s sassy. It’s real. It doesn’t try to pretend that my shorn skull is a fashion statement rather than a side effect of chemo. It’s not, in short, a cover-up of all that’s happening in my life. And therein lies the dilemma.

I am now quite okay with my bald pate and the many lovely, quirky, and precious caps and hats that so many friends and family have made and/or given (I treasure your love and care. Thank you!). Yet sometimes I wonder if I’m becoming too attached to the present state of being. You’d probably never know I am living with stage four cancer if it weren’t for a shiny noggin (and the persistent fatigue). After all, bald IS beautiful, and I’ve embraced rocking the look.

My Buddhist friends will say that nothing lasts. The Buddha teaches that almost all of our struggles–anxiety, anger, sadness, frustration, grief, worry, despair, etc.–all stem from one source: being too tightly attached to something or someone. Jesus had a few things to say about attachments and possessions, too (Check out Mark 10:17-31, Luke 6:32-36, Luke 12:15, Luke 14:33, Luke 15:11-32, Luke 18:18-22, Matthew 5:1-7:29, Matthew 6:2-4, Matthew 6:19-25, Matthew 16:24-26, Matthew 23:25-26 to get started. Pastor, teach thyself!).

I can understand how past attachments may have contributed to my present state of dis-ease, and I confess that for me letting go is definitely not as easy as I would like for it to be. I also know I’m not alone. If it was easy to let go there would be far fewer struggles and pain. We humans are not experts at holding loosely to our lives, possessions, and relationships. Sure, some things are easier to let go of than others, but we all have our “sticky stuff” that prevents us from being truly free.

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To learn to let go of attachments takes intention and practice. Whether you choose prayer, meditation, or some other discipline, the important thing I’m learning is to be gentle with oneself in the process. My most difficult attachment is to the value (both real and perceived) of my vocational life. I’ve been taught to work hard, to work until the job is done, and to do the very best work possible. Unfortunately, a good teaching has become over time both a coping mechanism to avoid dealing with past pain in my life and an attachment that is detrimental to my overall health and well-being (not to mention that of my loved ones). I could definitely take a regular seat in an Overworkers Anonymous meeting!

And here’s the thing: There is no badge of honor for working oneself to the bone, to ill health, or to death. My friends, don’t wait for the death part to figure this out, no matter what attachment(s) to which you may be clinging with ferocity. Learn to let go while you have the choice and opportunity. Do it better than I have done until now. Don’t wait for cancer, heartbreak, or other life altering event to stop you in your tracks and force you to learn. Oh, and rock your wonderful self just as you are. You are enough. You are beloved! It’s okay to let go and be you.

Note: Need somewhere to start? Check out Leo Baubuta’s blog post “The Zen Habits Guide to Letting Go of Attachments.” He offers five practices you may find helpful.

 

 

Marathon (cancer treatment) Training

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I know there’s been a long (truly unintended) digital silence here. I’ve started a few posts, but I’ve simply lacked the energy and dedicated writing time to finish them. What I have learned is that cancer treatment for stage four metastatic breast cancer is definitely more like a marathon than a sprint, and training/treatment/healing is a time-consuming and “all-in” effort.

Last Friday we met with my oncologist to review a recent CT Scan after three months of IV chemotherapy with paclitaxel (Taxol) and denosumab (Xgeva). The news is best described as cautiously optimistic, and my oncologist seemed pleased with this report. While my hope is to hear those words “radical remission,” we are not there yet. The good news is that all the ascites (fluid build-up containing cancer cells) in my peritoneum is gone, as is the pleural effusion in my right lung. My liver, which had been somewhat questionable on the first scan now appears normal. It’s good news that the lesion on my tenth posterior rib shows post-treatment effects. Go little yew tree, go! (Note: Taxol is derived from the Pacific Yew Tree.) It is a hopeful sign that there is no growth in the other lesions or in the two lung nodules, and that there are no new lesions or nodules.

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Photo Credit: By Cancer Research UK – Original email from CRUK, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34333556

 

(Note: Skip the next paragraph if medical/pharmaceutical details put you to sleep. I’m learning to speak a new language in order to understand my treatment and condition.)

The new plan  is to switch my chemo cocktail to palbociclib (Ibrance) and letrozole (Femara) to address the cancer cells from another angle. I’ll still keep taking the monthly denosumab shot, which is a RANKL inhibitor that helps keep the cancer from breaking down my bones. Palbociclib is a reversible small molecule cyclin-dependent kinase (CDK) inhibitor that blocks certain proteins in the cells (specifically cyclin-dependent kinase (CDK) 4 and CDK 6). For hormone positive breast cancers like mine this can help stop the cancer cells from dividing and making new cells. Letrozole blocks the enzyme aromatase–used to convert androgens into estrogen. The end result should be a reduction in the number of cancer cells produced and the size of my lesions and nodules. If I’m lucky, it will help push me toward radical remission; however, there’s a lot more that goes into that process. Like my previous chemo cocktail, there are some pretty unpleasant probable and possible side effects (boo!). Given the choice or side effects or not living as long, I’ll take my chances on the side effects and keep addressing the situation with complementary therapies, wrapped in some serious prayer.

(Non-medical/pharmaceutical readers should begin reading again now.)

Complementary therapies that I am using include aforementioned prayer, meditation (aiming for at least 30 minutes per day), monthly spiritual direction, exercise (yoga and walking),  hyperthermia treatments (daily far infrared sauna sessions), some aspects of the Gerson protocol (not juicing yet–doing green smoothies instead), supplements (Transfer Factor) and dietary adjustments (raw as much as possible, as green as can be, mostly organic, avoiding processed foods, sugar, oil, and alcohol). Depriving cancer cells of the sugar they love and need to replicate, and using heat because cancer loves a cold environment are two key elements of my complementary therapies. The hardest thing for me so far is getting adequate rest because I am still working full-time in a demanding vocation that I absolutely love. Finally, I’m trying to look at cancer as a teacher rather than an enemy. That’s why you won’t hear me use the words “fight cancer.” Instead I’m trying to embrace the reality and learn from this difficult teacher.

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The first Sunday in the parish sporting my “new look.” Folks have been amazingly supportive and adaptive–right down to the youngest (who is about to put a band-aid on my head in this photo.)

 

Yes, this is not a sprint. I remind myself that it took time for my body to get in this situation. I was first diagnosed with stage II/III breast cancer in 2004 and declared “cancer free” in 2005 (a false truth–more on that later), so I had a good long run without the influence of cancer as teacher and companion. Now it’s back, and it’s going to take a total surrender to my own will and a willingness to learn and be in new ways to experience healing.* I’ve laced up my trainers and am ready to keep up the work of living with this condition, learning from this teacher, and  seeking healing and radical remission.  I am so grateful for your many expressions of kindness, care, encouragement, and love. Above all I am thankful for your prayers that keep me lifted up when the going gets tough (and it does some days).

*I use the word “healing” rather than “cure” deliberately. Healing is a much richer and holistic notion that includes mind, body, and spirit.

 

Chemo Friday Reflection

 

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Ports make life so much easier!

Receiving a diagnosis of a terminal illness (cloaked in the more palatable guise of something that’s going to be treated as a long-term chronic condition but that is 98% guaranteed to kill you at some point) can be a real buzz kill. I can’t say how it goes for other folks, but here’s how it went down for me.

First there’s numbness. It was difficult to wrap my head around the facts. I knew deep down inside the cancer was back; I could feel it quite literally in my metastases-hollowing bones, ascites-distended belly, and painfully swollen ankles. Part of me wanted to burst into tears and echo Scarlett O’Hara’s quotable line from Gone with the Wind: “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” Still another part of me wanted to stick my fingers in my ears and holler “La La La La La La La!” while floating in a dreamy hot pink kayak down that river called denial.

By contrast, the fierce, optimistic part of me kept saying “Suck it up, buttercup! Live your one-precious-poetry-of-Mary-Oliver-infused life like there’s no tomorrow! You’ve got this thing.” And when I ceased talking and thinking long enough, the still, small voice of God whispers from deep in my gut: “Just be. Stop. Stop doing. Cease fretting. Listen. I am with you.”

All the voices. All the feels and emotions. Just b-r-e-a-t-h-e. Just l-i-v-e.

It’s been four weeks since my official diagnosis, just shy of one calendar month. As of today I’ll have had three Taxol treatments, downed 23 quarts of super greens and antioxidant smoothies (love my collards, kale, and spinach!), ingested two bottles of enhanced Transfer Factor, four cups of special herb tea each day, multiple rounds of barley grass tablets, and a nightly bubbly akalyzer beverage. Add to that a delicious mostly raw, whole foods vegan diet (not very practical for church potlucks), and for the most part I feel and look better physically than I have in ages. My morning weight has dropped into the mid-120s, and were it not for the fatigue, I think I could go out and run a 10K with no trouble at all. Even the effects of the chemo have been minimal and manageable.

My biggest challenge in response to the diagnosis? Slowing down. I can no longer keep up the 12- to 14-hour work days I had been used to “managing.” And you know what? That’s a good thing. A healthy thing. A stewardship of life and Sabbath thing. Thank you, cancer, for teaching this hard-headed, over-achieving, duty-bound woman about priorities. We miss so much of life in our furious multi-tasking, our need to accomplish, to please, to do good, to achieve, to matter, etc. etc. etc. One might assume I would have learned a thing or two in my first go-round with breast cancer 14 years ago. Clearly, there’s still some learnin’ to be done: “Fall down seven, get up eight.”

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#Thrive pose for Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day (10/13) 

My strongest medicine? It’s not the Taxol or the vegan diet and supergreens. It’s G-R-A-T-I-T-U-D-E. I am so grateful for the number of people who are walking life’s journey with me. My beloved husband, our children and extended family, friends and colleagues all have rallied to form a hammock of support and care. It’s a beautiful and amazing thing to behold.

Your friendship and solidarity–evidenced through cards, letters, flowers, books, chemo kits, encouraging words, time and presence, and above all your prayers–mean so much. Thank you. You lift my spirits. You help keep me grounded and focused. You point to all that truly matters. Thank you. Gratitude is indeed strong medicine, and your accompaniment and prayers have served me up a big dose of it in beloved community near and far. Thank you.

Now back to working on slowing down. To be continued…

When the other shoe drops…

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You’ve probably heard the expression “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Its origin is in the tight tenement quarters of nineteenth century New York City, when tenants could hear the shoes of their upstairs neighbors hitting the floor above them, and it’s come to express that feeling of waiting for the inevitable to happen. For some cancer survivors “waiting for the other shoe to drop” is that ball of emotional junk you stuff deep down inside of yourself because you know those rogue cells could cut loose again at any moment.

For me, that other big pink brassy platform heel of cancer dropped officially on Friday, September 28, when my beloved and I sat in the office of my new oncologist to receive the official results of a bone biopsy. Yes, I am now living with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer. In one afternoon, the trajectory of our lives took a BIG detour.

Don’t get me wrong–it’s not all doom and gloom. I kind of suspected this was happening from my symptoms and all of the subsequent tests–ultrasounds, CT scan, paracentesis, thoracentesis, biopsy, bloodwork. It felt as if my old teacher cancer was back for another round of real-life education. My oncologist is optimistic that my cancer can be treated as a chronic medical condition like diabetes or heart disease. She talks in terms of years rather than going home and getting my affairs in order. Evidently I have options, a rather strange thing to ponder when your body has just gone into full scale rebellion against you.

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The treatment wheels are already in motion. I had my first round of chemo last Friday (Taxol), and I’ll have a port placed this week to make all the required infusions, blood draws, etc. easier. I’ve started a whole foods diet complete with a quart a day of super greens smoothies, some special herb tea, supplements designed to boost my immune system, and I’m continuing my yoga and meditation. We’re also exploring alternative therapies such as using a far infrared spa, reiki, and Ayurvedic treatments.

I’m going in with my eyes wide open: my life (our family’s life) is forever changed. Nothing can be taken for granted now. Every single day is precious. There is no cure for my cancer–at least not now. Strangely, I am at peace with this about 95% of the time. The other five percent I alternate among feelings of anger, profound sadness, terror, and fear. Yet, I trust that God’s got this and is right here with me. I truly believe that whatever happens tomorrow or next year or whenever, it will be okay.

I have the most amazing husband on the face of the planet. We have a strong family network that has already sprung into action to love, support, and pray for us. We have awesome adult children, and wonderful colleagues and friends. And, I am blessed to serve a congregation that is truly a light in our community, a loving and vulnerable expression of Christ’s Body, and a group of folks who love one another (and yours truly) for exactly who God made us all to be. Friends, it just doesn’t get much better than that.

Sure, the return of cancer sucks. There’s really no better way to say it. But it will not define me, confine me, or rob me of my joy. There’s entirely too much life to live, too much of God’s good creation to stand in awe of, and too many wonderful people with whom to be in relationship.

What do you do when cancer drops the other shoe on you? You pick it up, put it on, dye your hair bright pink, and start dancing! I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

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(Note: The shoes are for illustrative purposes only. There is NO way I could even walk in these beasts! They were borrowed from my daughter, Maggie, who also gave me my new pink hairdo.)

 

 

 

 

We.

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“No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee….”

— John Donne, from “Meditation 17: Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”

We are all beloved and beautiful. We are all broken. We do things and make decisions that cause hurt, pain, and suffering–for ourselves and for others. We also do things and make decisions that get it right and bring joy and hope to this crazy world in which we live. It’s a mixed bag, but one thing is for certain, we do not do this thing called life alone. Even when we try, we are never truly alone; biology, physics, psychology, and theology provide ample evidence of that.

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You. Me. I. We. All of us are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We even share air. Our matter does not go out of existence, simply changing form. The same sunset (I rarely get up early enough to see a sunrise) I watch is enjoyed by countless others–past, present, and I suspect, future. Whether you have deep faith in a creative and sustaining God, have serious doubts that such a God exists, or choose to believe that everything is random and pointless, you still are not alone. You are not an island.

Dearly beloved, own what is yours. Claim your stuff. Pick up your own baggage (and preferably work your way through it and come out the other side much lighter). Understand that you are responsible for your own decisions and actions, those that are good and those that are harmful. But, in the process, for heaven’s sake, don’t carry others’ baggage for them.

Do not accept blame for that which is not your doing. Do not accept the projection of someone else’s stuff and nonsense to become an image of your own. Do not be beaten down or manipulated by the abusive behaviors and rhetoric of those who would ask you to carry their burdens, accept their blame, and wallow in their muck and misery. This is not your work in life. This is not why you were created and gifted.

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Name that which is not yours to carry. Set it down. Leave it behind–gently, yet firmly. Be angry and hurt. That is part of being human; however, do not carry that bitter baggage for long. It will only poison you and give those who would abuse your good will power that is not earned or deserved. Lay it down. Put it to rest. Commend it to the dust of discarded memory and look to the path that lies ahead.

We are not islands. We are meant to thrive in connection and abundance and joy. We are designed for relationship–right relationship that does not pawn guilt or spawn dis-ease. We are called to co-create, not co-depend. Do not be trapped by those who would abuse you into believing otherwise. Do not believe the lies that are myriad and maddening.

Yes, all of us are broken. This is truth. But, my dearly beloved, I believe with all my heart that the arc of the universe does indeed bend toward justice (thank you, Dr. King) and that hope is the thing with feathers (thank you, Miss Dickinson) and that you and I, we, all of us, are meant to soar.

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So collect your broken pieces, beloved, sweep them up and treasure them. Examine their uniqueness and know they have purpose and place in this puzzle we call life. Put them back together like divine Kintsugi–with the gilt of goodness, the cement of courage, and the fire of beauty. You will be stronger in your broken pieces that reform to make a new whole.

There is such beauty in your brokenness restored. There is such hope for the world in your reclaimed flaws. There is such joy in the cosmos when you decide to be fully you. We are not islands, you and I; we are the stuff of stars and the entire cosmos hums within us. We are. Loved. Original. Beautiful. Broken. Yet Enough. Not because of anything we could say or do or even deserve. We are because the Creator of the spangled night sky and the tiniest ant spoke us into creative, connected existence. This is truth that hums and sings and weaves us together.

That’s us, my beloved. We.

 

Photo Credits: S. Blezard, Bill Cuffrey, June’s Child. Creative Commons License. Thank you.

Band-aids, Duct Tape, and the Fragile Fine Art of Holding-it-all-Together

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Breathe. Just breathe.

Sometimes this is easier said than done. Sometimes it feels like each breath is an act of sheer will that may crumble into a spasm of tears despite your very best efforts.

BE strong. Chin up buttercup. YOU can DO this. You can hold your fraying self together in a presentable public package that says “I have it all together. My life is picture-perfect Facebook and Instagram ready at any moment.”

This is a lie. Plain and simple.

Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Your life is more than a filtered iPhone photo moment in time illusion. Your precious existence is more important than a stiff upper lip. Much more.

We are, all of us, multi-dimensional flesh-and-blood-and-bone messes. I am a cracked pot, a broken bowl of quivering, quaking, quantized humanity. So are you. We are fallen, fragile, frayed, and fallible.

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We are also the stuff of stars. We are dust and dirt, light and laughter, pain and sorrow, joy and hope.

And all of that is truly impossible to hold together 24/7. Yet for some reason, a lot of us keep on trying (and buying and consuming and falling short of the incredibly high bar we set for ourselves). Here’s the thing:

No one gets out of this life unscathed.

Your public face, you know, the one you want the world to see and believe is incredibly fragile. Its smoke and mirrors image is possible only through the careful application of mental duct tape and emotional Band-aids artfully applied to keep the real you from seeing the light of day.

The truth of the matter is that life is hard–especially when one tries to go it alone and keep all the plates spinning, the balls in the air, and the “perfecto-meter” in high gear. Holding our human mess together is a fragile fine art.

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Want to master it? Sure you do. So do I. So do all of us if we are honest.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all handy-dandy recipe for instant life success. The technique is learned only in the living. Here are a few things I’ve learned from my multiple attempts at getting life right. The list is by no means exhaustive, and what works for me may not work for you at all. Heck, it doesn’t even work for me 100% of the time. We are works in progress, people in process, and dearly beloved by the Creator of the Cosmos. So here goes. Feel free to use what you can.

  1. Quit trying so hard. You do not have to impress anybody. Your job is to live this one precious life and be who you are created to be.
  2. Life works better in community. This means you need to find a diverse group of folks to walk alongside you on this crazy journey. The old saying “there’s safety in numbers and more fun, too” has a real ring of truth to it.
  3. Be vulnerable. Yep. You heard me right. Let down your guard. You will get hurt. Perhaps often. You will hurt others because you are human. But the alternative sucks. Crafting a protective shell around yourself adds unnecessary weight and prevents you from fully enjoying all that life has to offer–both the highs and the lows.
  4. Be generous. Life is more about giving and sharing than getting. You don’t get to take ANYTHING with you when you leave. Most likely people won’t really want the stuff you leave behind, so save them the trouble and travel light NOW.
  5. Take risks. This is the only way you will grow (refer to #3 again). Don’t be stupid, but know that safety and certainty are highly overrated.
  6. Don’t work solely for the money. Passion and joy should be an important part of your compensation package. If you are working only for the money, it will never be enough. You will always need (translate want) more.
  7. Travel. See the world. Meet people. Expand your horizons and value experiences over possessions. Oh, and be sure to travel light (refer to #4 again). You don’t need as much as you may think you do.

Remember: Life is short. Make the most of it. Quit worrying about perfection and appearances. Be real. Ditch the duct tape and Band-aids. If you fall apart, then pick yourself up and try again. Then you’ll be able to breathe. Well, most of the time.

Photos: vagawi and Ansel Edwards, Creative Commons. Thanks!

 

Where Did Lent Go?

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Why yes, Lent has come and gone for another year. My Lenten discipline of plastic-less living has timed out (theoretically), and I didn’t write about the journey once. Not one time. Let’s just say life got in the way in some really big ways. More about that later.

So what about all those plastic avoidance tactics? Were they just so many words?

Actually…no. You may remember my goal was to eliminate these seven simple plastic “sins” from my Lenten life:

  • plastic cutlery
  • straws
  • bottled water
  • take-away beverage cups
  • plastic toothbrushes
  • plastic shopping bags
  • take-away containers
  • plastic wrapped toilet paper

I made some significant progress. I managed to avoid plastic cutlery all during Lent. When we take our lunches (which is frequently) we either pack metal cutlery or use some from the office. That one was pretty easy.

Straws were a bit trickier. I don’t use them at home, and I normally don’t use them when I’m dining out either. Only one time did I almost fail. I say almost because I thoughtlessly began to peel the paper from the offending article because everyone else at the table had already done so. I stopped, and sadly I’m sure that unused straw with the damaged wrapping ended up in the trash anyway. But I did stop, and I have reflected frequently on the power of peer pressure, societal conformity, and normative behavior that works against plastic avoidance. Some restaurants even bring you straws in your water WITHOUT ASKING.

Bottled water was easy. I have a lovely stainless steel water bottle (thanks, Maggie!) that helps me say NO to plastic disposable bottles. I carry it everywhere.

Takeaway beverage cups were also pretty easy. I have a stainless steel coffee mug that I fill at home. It’s cheaper than purchasing coffee out–and much more environmentally friendly. Plus, the coffee we make at home is usually better. I will admit to drinking from a Starbucks takeaway cup once this month. It was a lovely and thoughtful gift/gesture from my husband who was taking pity on my early-morning-caffeine-needy brain before an important presentation. It’s not something I would have done for myself, but one should never refuse radical generosity given in love.

No more plastic toothbrushes for me! I have switched to bamboo and won’t go back. It’s been a happy switch after the first couple of days of getting used to the “mouth feel” of unfinished bamboo vs. smooth plastic. Yes, it’s a little bit more expensive (but not significantly more than a good plastic toothbrush), but I feel better about the choice. n added plus with the brand I bought is that there was no plastic packaging! The four pack was completely packed in recyclable paper Woohoo!

Plastic shopping bags are something already we try at all costs to avoid. We carry reusable cloth bags in all of our cars; however, occasionally we do get caught out without our bags. There were at least two occasions that I had to resort to plastic during the month (for shame!). In retrospect, I could have asked to have the items loaded back into my cart and hauled them home in the trunk sans bags. One lives and learns.

Because we rarely dine out, take-away containers are not usually a concern. This month, however, we did order in Indian food for my birthday, so we ended up with some plastic and Styrofoam containers. We did recycle them, but still. We could have opted to dine out and bring our own glass take=away containers.

The purchase I’m most proud of during this Lenten discipline was toilet paper. I looked in the stores at the price of toilet paper wrapped in paper. All I could find were single rolls, and they were almost double the cost of comparable rolls wrapped in plastic. I am a frugalista, so that was simply unacceptable. I looked on line at office supply stores and found a cardboard case of 80 rolls of Angel Soft commercial grade at 40% discount. Wow! Who would have thought one could get so pumped about purchasing toilet paper?

In the end, I’m convinced that we could all live with a lot less plastic if we simply try and are aware of our purchases and choices. I’ve made some good changes that I’ll keep on doing–buying TP in bulk and using bamboo toothbrushes, for example. I will also keep on trying to avoid plastic in other areas of my life, including avoiding purchasing items that are grossly over-packaged in, yep–you guessed it–PLASTIC.

What tips do you have to avoid plastic whenever possible?

Photo: Your Best Digs, Creative Commons. Thanks!