Friday, December 28, 2012

Creative Ways to Celebrate the Holiday Season

Stephanie Van Belle, a new friend of mine on Facebook with a young family of four children, wrote her own Advent Calendar. I didn’t see the first posting of it at the beginning of December, but was thrilled last week to go through all the pictures she’d taken through the season as each of the activities were completed.

It’s not one of those open-a-window-everyday calendars while you gaze at a pretty Christmas scene or think about something written for that day. It’s an Advent Activity Calendar that calls on you to experience the spirit of generosity surrounding the Christmas season.

I copied it all down, but sharing Stephanie’s list exactly is not the same as creating activities that fit you, an individual, a family member – mom, dad or sibling, or a community member.

Stephanie’s idea grew out of her need to dig deeper into the meaning of Christmas – or Chanukah or whatever you celebrate, religious or otherwise. She felt the core value of the season was generosity and most of her activities ask her children to look outside themselves to teachers and office staff at school, to neighbors, to someone who may need a kind word or a thoughtful gesture, to community workers (they chose a station house of Flagstaff firefighters), and even to the environment to extend their generosity there (picking up trash in a favorite park and spending time in the park one afternoon).

I like that her first activity was attending a concert celebrating the season. In Flagstaff, Arizona where Stephanie and her young family live, there is a Nutcracker Lollipop Performance they attended. You can find a version of "The Nutcracker Suite," whether in ballet or concert version, or a band or orchestra or choir performing seasonal music. It really starts the celebrating off with something that reaches into all our hearts and spirits in every language: music.

From there, they look for the neighbor with the nicest house decorations and leave an anonymous thank you card and candy canes, to teachers and helpers and making them gifts, to fellow classmates for whom they make simple gifts to give to all, to a child in need for whom they dig into their piggy banks and go to Goodwill or a dollar store and buy a gift and wrap for them, to choosing a child or more than just one who needs more love (like one or several in a hospital) and making them gifts and cards.

Another special element to Stephanie’s list is the inclusion of family traditions. Her husband Gerard is Dutch and they call the jolly bearded man Sinterklaas. One of the deeds they perform for Sinterklaas is to gather plain wooden clogs for each family member and decorate them colorfully and fill them with goodies, like a little wooden stocking. The children decorated these early in the month so they could gather his spirit into the house and be ready for his arrival.

Is your family from a country where they call Santa Claus something else? Did you have some activities you always included – maybe all sitting down together to address Christmas cards, or singing carols in the neighborhood, or donating time at a community center to serve meals or help others in need? Include that on your list, too. And create some new ones.

You don’t have to go to the store to buy this Advent Activity Calendar! It’s in your heart and your memories and in your own very special concept of what Christmas (or whatever you call it) really means to you. You can now make your own list and enjoy the activities yourself and you can share that with others, even friends and neighbors. Let them in on your creative fun.

Stephanie types up a list and numbers the days and activities, then she cuts the big piece of paper into separate strips so the exploits for the day are revealed when that day arrives.

I ended up having a very special Christmas season this year. I just changed my mind about it. It was much more about giving than receiving. While it is good to learn how to receive things with an open heart and mind, it is the best fun when you are the one giving, however small that gift may seem to you.

I thanked my liver doctor and her nurse this year because they have given so much and so willingly to me over the years. I still have thank-yous for my pharmacy team because they see me every week and go out of their way to help me. And then there is my oncologist who has listened to my tales of woe and my triumphs over the past year with great patience, along with his very special nurse practitioner. My internist and his staff deserve special thanks because he’s such an incredible and caring doctor, and he receives and answers emails from me on any topic in just a few hours. There are others, too, who deserve my special gratitude.

A very special thank you right now goes to my friend Adrienne Baker who introduced me to Stephanie. Those two have been friends for decades and truly love each other. So, thank you, Adrienne, for introducing and sharing your friend Stephanie Van Belle with me.

Who is special in your life all year long? Who does things for you that you take for granted or who you are grateful for when they aren’t around to thank? This is your special time to shine some light on that person and let them know you do notice, all year.

As an early reminder to you next year, I promise to re-post this blog after Thanksgiving next year so you can create and experience a new and custom-made holiday season for yourself, your loved ones, neighbors and community workers.

Have a wonderful year in 2013!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Life is Short – Enjoy It, Love It Now

We never know how long our lives will be. I’ve been pondering this since the brutal murders of 20 six- and seven-year-olds in Connecticut. And now last night with the news that one of my professors from grad school, Jake Adam York, just 40 years old, had died this past Sunday of a stroke. In perfect health. Just beginning to climb the pinnacle of his poetic expression, awarded a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship of $25,000 last month, getting published left and right. And he’s gone. Along with those 20 children. 
I don’t follow the news very closely because I don’t have cable TV, but I used to watch CNN, ABC News, and MSNBC news and rarely a TV show outside of that. Now I get my news late. It’s not so bad because I have more time to read, to write, to communicate on Facebook and through email. I received the news late about Jake.

I hadn’t read all Jake’s poetry collections, published since 2005, when I was taking his poetry class. And now I owe him that.

One of the little girls buried this week in Newtown was Jessica, 6 years old, and she was studying and reading about orca whales. I owe Jessica some research about orca whales.

What I owe myself is to live my life in the best way possible each day. To be grateful for every minute I spend on the planet. To live and realize my own passion for writing.

What is it you follow, what unsaid things are on your mind today? Today. Do it today. Say it today. And if you have lived a life according to your passion, pat yourself on the back and keep going.

I saw this quote recently at the beginning of Mary Karr’s second of three memoirs, the one called Cherry:
“Time’s march is a web of causes and effects, and asking for any gift of mercy, however tiny it might be, is to ask that a link be broken in that web of iron, ask that it be already broken. No one deserves such a miracle.” —Jorge Luis Borges, A Prayer
 Odd as it may sound, that gives me peace. We are not privy to the why of life. Only the what.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Visiting Vincent Van Gogh

     Going to the Van Gogh Exhibit at the Denver Art Museum is a stunning experience – not just to view the beauty of the works but to watch the development of Van Gogh’s artistry over his short lifetime. 

     I went to the exhibit with two friends, Leigh Dehne (he and I have ridden trains together but never visited an art museum) and Adrienne Baker, friend, co-conspirator and both of us former college writing teachers. Adrienne and I made comparisons to learning how to first write a five-paragraph essay (thesis, three supporting ideas, supporting details in each of the middle three paragraphs, and conclusion) to Van Gogh’s learning basic tools and techniques of painting, sketching, drawing and then developing those so he could reveal his ultimate artistic genius.

     Along those same lines, a writer would learn that five-paragraph essay first and then using that same format be able to write a much longer, more complex paper...and even a book. Or a poet might be learning the elements of poetry and developing along those lines. An artist is an artist, but all of them, in all genres, must learn their craft and many skills to evolve fully.

     Van Gogh took these basic lessons in art and then would turn them into his own style. Copying admired artists is a technique for becoming competent across all artistic disciplines. Van Gogh joined the Impressionists in Paris and later in southern France, at first copying some of their expertise, but then always making the techniques fit his own unique and growing style. It was always Vincent emerging. No cutout copy of another artist.

     We saw early works that used mostly dark, basic colors – blacks and browns and all versions of those. Sketches, drawings, then paintings. He liked to paint people, real people and not models. Peasants. Working in the fields. Their bodies and faces were real, and you could feel the emotion coming from their faces, their implied body movements.

     Then he began to add color. Just highlights at first. A touch of blue here, a bit of the French flag and the red stripes in it. Then the people changed. No longer peasants, they were people with their faces blurred and their clothes that of urbanites, walking in parks in Paris. Much more color was added, but beginning with the less brilliant – mostly variations of blue with vibrant touches of red and orange.

     The more he learned, the more he painted, the more colors appeared and began to dominate his paintings.

     Texture and brush styles were definitely his own. Many times he applied paint thickly so there was a depth just from the amount of paint on his canvasses.

     As we moved through the rooms signifying his stages, we learned more about his artistry and his unique brush marks, choices of color, and choices of setting.

     When I walked into the final room with his last paintings, my breath was stolen from me. By the vibrancy and fullness of the colors that I felt enveloped by – emotionally, physically, mentally. All his distinct signifying style marks were depicted in these paintings, but they had all come together to make a whole. He had literally disappeared into his canvasses. He was the poetry, he was the color, he was the brush mark.

     He painted forests of violet trees, skies with clouds so grand they were only possible from his heart and mind and hand, mountains with thick outlines impossible in nature, but certainly Vincent’s mountains. Colors so brilliant they stung my eyes yet I wanted more and more evidence of his artistic passion, more paintings, all of them.

     I wish I had turned around and gone back to the beginning of the exhibit and then walked quickly through the rooms, taking in his development, his distinct style, and then lingered even longer, in wonder, in the last room, in the crowning moment and cohesive whole of Vincent Van Gogh, the artist.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Many Ways Reading Has Changed My Life

You know how you read a book and feel consumed by the world of it? It is changing your life and you believe the change is radical and permanent. And then a few years later, you can barely remember the title or the author’s name. Some books, though, remain with you and they aren’t the ones you expected to still be alive in your memory and affect how you think today.

I have that kind of piercing, all-consuming sensation sometimes with nonfiction books. Most of the time, though, it comes only with books of fiction. 

One of the first books I recall clearly in this way was Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I was so excited when I discovered Vonnegut’s books, and this one in particular. He includes the "Books of Bokonon" in Cat’s Cradle and I took the time to write down all the lines from those Books. Years later I turned the lyrics into part of a musical composition for a music theory class at the University of Hawaii. 

When I first read Vonnegut's book, I was deeply mired in the depth and darkness of my own depression while experiencing my first temperate zone winter – in Washington, D.C., age 23. Reading the book was a huge respite for me.

That year I also read Watership Down by Richard Adams and was delighted and surprised by the warlike rabbits. I bought a tiny notebook and wrote down all the names of the plants in the book. I still have the notebook somewhere.

It seems that all books assigned to me in school – until I got to graduate school – were meaningless and trite. I’m sure the list was impressive but I just didn’t care about them. Beginning with Jack and Jill.

The one novel of all the ones I read in my master’s program (probably 50-60 total) that stays with me is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.

I eventually discovered that it begins with a sentence that is exactly 100 words long and that sentence contains, in its perfectly grammatical and punctuated form, the entire architecture of the novel, from beginning to middle to end. One hundred words. How many times did I read it without really seeing it, understanding it?

Eventually I wrote a paper about the book and this coded sentence. When did Woolf write that sentence? After she finished writing the book? Who would know? Perhaps Leonard Woolf, but he’s gone now, too. Did anyone ask him, ask her about it?

The book still holds my attention.

Since then other authors have moved me, enthralled me, puzzled me. Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day. Many puzzling, intricately drawn characters and scenes, plus multiple themes and sub-plots. Atonement by Ian McEwan, though not so much his other books.  

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, a memoir about a person and writer extraordinaire. The book was published in 1995 and changed the world of memoir writing forever. The genre took a hard right turn and everyone writing memoirs has been playing catch-up to Mary Karr ever since. I read it before I wrote my memoir in 2007 and received implicit permission to express myself courageously.

Thank you, Virginia Woolf, for writing because of your talent and in spite of your depression. (And damn, I wish there had been antidepressants for you.) Thank you, Mary Karr, for your big-as-Texas heart and your wide open writing – skills, storytelling, sharp memories, all of it.

These two women (plus Dorothy Sayers for her perfectly designed and charmingly written murder-detective novels starring Lord Peter Wimsey) inspired me to write and to keep on reading and searching for books and inspiration and telling my own stories.

Who inspires you and what did they write that changed your life?

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Sleep Whine

I wish to hell I could sleep at night. I sincerely hate not being able to sleep. Even my naps during the day are pathetic gestures at making up for what I lost at night. I walk around with burning eyes most of the day.

Oh, last night driving home on I-25 for about 40 minutes, I could have fallen asleep at the wheel. And not really cared, except I don’t want to hurt anyone else. Yeah, driving ­– that makes me real drowsy.

But when I got home, not so sleepy anymore. My stomach hurt, still full from eating so much Thanksgiving food. And it hurt into the night, too. Finally had to take something for heartburn.

I must have gotten up five or six times last night. Who has time to sleep when you’re getting up so many fricking times? To pee, to drink water, to take something for heartburn, to pee again. All damn night.

I did some biofeedback (guaranteed to put me to sleep, right?) around 2 a.m. Still didn’t fall asleep. Read. Fell asleep around 3 or so. Woke up at what I thought was 5:30. No. It was 4:30 but I already had the light on, so I got up.

Tricked again. I probably slept two or three hours but only one hour at a time. How fair is that?

It’s 6:15 now and in 15 minutes the sun will rise and I’ll take Violet outside while she’s safe from dogs. Then I’m going back to bed, read a little, and probably sleep another hour.

I have a triple whammy working against me for this endless insomnia. A liver disease that includes insomnia as one of its advanced symptoms. A pill to keep breast cancer from recurring, removes all the estrogen from my body – Go To Jail, repeat menopause, do not collect $200. And age, as if I needed reminding.

I’m looking forward to a liver transplant, that’s one. I have to take the pill fighting back breast cancer for four more years. Age? Haven’t found the fountain of youth yet and don't plan on it. For now, biofeedback and reading help the most. Hooray for the Denver Public Library!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Surrendering to the Right Stuff

About a year after I started my daily writing practice in 1992, it became apparent to me that I could and that I wanted to become a writer full-time. I didn’t know how to do it, though. I saw others around me doing it. Writing books. Getting their poems published. Facilitating writing groups. Flourishing.

I didn’t see how I could do the whole thing. I needed to make money, so I had to have a job. That thought always boxed me in. I took that route, for more years than I want to admit. I avoided what was calling me.

I had a wake-up call. I didn’t listen. So I had another one. And another one. Finally, I started listening.

It wasn’t until this fall, 2012 – seven years after getting diagnosed with liver disease, 20 years after committing to writing daily – that I listened. That I finally surrendered to my passion, writing.

Since the spring of 2007 (a year after being diagnosed with a liver disease with only one treatment: transplant), I haven’t been able to work full-time. But then I didn’t see what was staring me in the face: I had a door wide open that I was ignoring. I couldn’t work at all after the spring of 2010, I had income from Social Security because I couldn’t work. I had time. I still had the daily practice of writing. I could call myself Writer.

I am, after seven years of living with it, grateful for liver disease. And since last year also grateful for breast cancer. That one seemed to be the toppling point. These two lousy diseases shoved me off my pedestal of indecision and hesitation and doubt about following my passion wherever it might lead me.

Liver disease has been teaching me how to listen with my heart and to act from my gut. Instead of always going to my head and listening to and acting from the craziness there. Reason got me well-paying jobs (that I hated) and good grades (they were nice) and a college degree that led eventually to nowhere.

Listening to my heart is harder – it has a quieter voice than reason – but acting on it is easier. Much easier. I just have to relax into it and the next right move shows up. I’m not used to it yet.

I still get caught up in long to-do lists and frenetic activity. But my liver beats me up when I push too hard on it. I get immediate pushback. I know when I’m tired and need to give in. When I don’t listen to those messages, when I allow myself to get absolutely fried from over-activity, I pay the price for days.

Listening. To my body, to my heart. I guess I always believed that wasn’t enough. I’m here to tell you it is enough. And it’s real.

Thank you, Universe, for these two crappy diseases. They have changed my life. They have changed me. I can never go back to the way I was. Thank you, Higher Power, Universe, the spirit within me, God, Goddess.

“I don’t know about you, but I am here to love myself. I don’t want to leave this planet in judgment of myself. I want to be my own friend. I want to have listened to my heart. I want to have spoken my truth. I want to discover all the colors of my possibilities. I don’t want to leave this earth, never having been myself.” – Tama J. Kieves, on Facebook, November 15, 2012. Author of This Time I Dance and Inspired & Unstoppable

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Story of a Reader-Addict

I’ve been reading for a long time. I remember reading when I was four years old and would read the Sunday comics aloud to my family, who believed they were safely ensconced in my parents’ bed before breakfast. I must have driven them crazy. I remember those times, though, with great delight. 

When I went to kindergarten the next year, we didn’t learn to read. But I kept on reading at home. In first grade we began in earnest applying our little minds to reading. Reading circles, books that were given to us for the school year, writing on very wide-ruled paper with pencils. I loved it all.

My brother David, four years older, would take me to the main library in downtown St. Petersburg regularly. Mirror Lake Library, sitting next to beautifully round and landscaped Mirror Lake. The building was Florida green – a fairly ugly color. But the building held magic for me.

David showed me the science fiction section and he would check out books for me. I adored the fictional world of fantasy, space exploration, life on other planets besides Earth, visits by aliens from those planets. I don’t remember reading any “girl” books. 

My best friend Martha introduced me to Nancy Drew, girl detective, and we spent many hours replicating her adventures with our own neighborhood “detecting.” The books we read in school paled next to these adventurous stories of extraterrestrials and girl detectives.

I used to tell people I was addicted to reading and that if nothing else was available to read while I was eating, I’d read every single word on a cereal box. An early consumer detective. That was when I was a kid; I still do that.

I grew up reading both English and music. I played the piano before I started reading words. My father, a professional musician, wanted me to learn how to sightread music, so I began music theory lessons when I was five years old.

By age ten I was sightreading and learning how to accompany other musicians. My father would gather his students (violin, viola, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet) around our piano at home and we all played chamber music together. I learned how to keep time, interpret and play difficult rhythmic figures, keep track of exactly where we were at all times in the score. With music you learn how to live completely in the moment.

I finally earned a bachelor’s degree in music, and was still reading books (and cereal boxes and everything in between) voraciously. Ultimately, I ended up on the English side of the equation and earned a master’s degree in humanities so I could continue teaching writing and literature.

Then I got sick and couldn’t teach in school or keep a regular schedule of any substance.

So I write, and my reading informs my writing and my reading continues to deepen my experience of life.

Though I am most interested in 20th century literature, I am now re-reading Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. But I always read more than one book at a time. I need the balance. My balance for Anna is The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, a fun story also full of mystery, metaphorical meaning, adventure and murder. I'm also reading cowgirl writer extraordinaire Pam Houston's latest book, Contents May Have Shifted, about her worldwide travels.

What are your first memories of reading? Did you like it, love it, hate it, or just see it as a necessity? What are you reading now? I’d love to hear because I love to talk about books. And I always, always, always want to hear about new ones, too.

I’ll be exploring reading on the internet and the authors who have changed my life in the next few postings. Stay tuned for more stories of the Reader-Addict!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Exercise Your Right To Vote

I have already voted – by mail. I have a great dislike of standing in any line for any reason, so voting by mail is perfect for me. I’m sure many others feel the same way I do about lines, and I hope you have taken advantage of a mail-in ballot.

I read on Sunday morning that voters in storm-devastated New Jersey will be able to vote by email. In the future, we may all be able to vote online.

The only thing I missed by voting by mail was my little sticker to wear proudly: I Voted. As soon as I dropped my sealed ballot in the drop-off box, I wanted that sticker! I heard that some counties in Colorado mailed the stickers with your ballot.

I voted several times in presidential elections before my candidate won. But I survived Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush I and Bush II, and in return for my persistence was rewarded with Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama.

Why keep voting? Because it really does matter. If you think your vote doesn’t count, think back to 2000 when George Bush won all of Florida’s electoral votes and eventually the election by a 537-vote margin in Florida.

What if you had been one of the 537 voters who stayed home because you just didn’t think your vote mattered? Wouldn’t you make a different decision now?

I am not campaigning for my guy in this post. I simply want everyone who can to cast your ballot, have your say, make a difference. I’m not going to tell you it’s patriotic, or that others died so you could exercise your voting rights. Honestly, it is your civic duty to vote.

I suggest you do some reading, engage in some political discussion (and learn how to do it without attacking or getting personal) and maybe even do some campaigning for your party before you vote. You can even do that now! Really. An informed voter also learns how to participate in his or her local government and have a say in how their daily lives are lived.

Politics and politicians and government agencies are necessary parts of a democracy. The more involved you are, the more you get to understand what is going on around you and why.

People from all over the world want to move here just so they can vote freely – no coercion, no reprisals, all secret ballots. So, at the very least, please exercise your precious gift, privilege and right as an American citizen and VOTE.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Don’t Have Time?

Throughout my creative meanderings over the years, I’ve run across a couple of good methods for uncovering and creating more time. This includes time for really grungy jobs I avoid at all cost and even peril; and it covers making time for pursuing creative or fun projects, too, a little bit at a time.

Let’s say it’s the end of January and you have received all of your tax information – W2s, mortgage interest paid, dividends, 1099s if you are a freelancer, and so on. You’ve been good. You have thrown all these valuable pieces of paper into a folder marked TAXES 2012. 

And now it’s time to pull out your receipts (those are in a folder, too, right?) and get the stuff organized and delivered to your favorite tax preparer (maybe it’s you). But you know you can save money by entering the receipts into a spreadsheet, and then you have to copy every piece of paper, and the list of to-dos builds. Now you don’t even want to touch that folder.

Here’s what you do. Make a date with yourself, date and exact time, and promise to devote 5 whole minutes to the project. Right, just 5 minutes. Of course, what usually happens is that you’re drawn in and end up working longer. But when you’re done with that task – maybe it was just to get out the tax folder and look at all the information in it – schedule your next micro-movement on the project right then. The next day, later that day, next week. (More about micro-movements below!)

I used to get all my tax folders out, put them in the middle of the living room floor and swear I was going to work on it and complete it in one day. Of course, I ended with a bigger mess because I’d step over and around the folders for days. 

Then I’d put them back and continue this dance until the first week in April. No tax preparer can complete your taxes by April 15 after you fooled around for so long, so then an extension is filed. Need I say anything about the guilt, the shame, the anxiety? No, I didn’t think so.

I love micro-movements for getting jobs like that completed in small, edible chunks. And it can be applied to things you actually want to do but have some issues like fear, failure, shame going on.

I learned about micro-movements from the incredible SARK – Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy. I learned from her juicy books about how NOT to be a starving artist, but to be an artist with mojo and completed projects. I advise signing up for her little letters of inspiration (she calls them Tiny Tidbits), so short but so succulent and fabulous. The micro-movement lesson from SARK has stayed with me for years and I do pull it out in desperate times to complete ugly, overwhelming tasks. Ah!

Here’s another method for buying yourself time. I want to sign up for the novel-writing project in November, NaNoWriMo. The goal is 50,000 words written by November 30. I divided 50,000 by 30 and came up with 1,667 words each day. 

Well, how long does that actually take to do? I discovered that I write 438 words in 20 minutes. That means I have to write four 20-minute chunks each day to meet that goal. Oh, that’s one hour and 20 minutes of writing every day to write a novel in a month. Wow, I can do that! 

I just bought myself some time, identified it, and made the project seem completely doable. I don’t think about “50,000 words” or even “1,667 words.” Just the next 20-minute chunk. And that can be scheduled as a micro-movement to do something I cherish.

I could stretch out the novel-writing to just four months by writing only 20 minutes a day on it. At the end of whatever timeframe I commit to, I will have a first draft of a novel. That’s astounding, I hear you saying. 

Can you apply that same method of measuring and dividing out your time into doable chunks for your schedule now? Don’t you have a dream you’d like to pursue? (If you haven’t already, read my last post, Who Needs a Dream? These two methods will remove some of your fear and trepidation, and will get your mojo cranked up and running – daily.)

I urge you to try out the micro-movements for fun or dreadful tasks, and to create in small 15 to 20-minute chunks. Set your goals and make a commitment. Then go for it.

Life is supposed to have its pleasures, satisfactions, fulfillments. Please don’t allow dragging your feet and feeling overwhelmed stop you from following your dreams. Please let me know how you’re doing with your pursuits ­ or even the nasty jobs. How do you think these methods will work for you?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Who Needs a Dream?

I can never copy someone else’s dreams and make them my own. I have my own dream for myself. So do you, dear reader.

You may think you don’t have a dream and daily life is enough for you. But you might also have a message you stumble across every few months, and it’s the same one you stepped around six months before. Why does that keep bugging me, you ask impatiently. I don’t have time for that. I’m busy. And I like my life the way it is. Works for me, you say.

But the nagging continues. For years. Yes, years. Dreams are made of indestructible material. They come from your soul which is eternal. Why should they go away just because you want to shovel dirt over your dream for a few years? The dream keeps whispering.

Well, why doesn’t it shout, you ask, now impatient with this dream and soul business. It doesn’t go away because it needs your willingness, your heart, your whole being to believe in it and act on it. Shouting would be mean, and dreams are about love and joy and passion.

Oh, occasionally you will get a shout-out moment of clarity and detail. And some people can go with that and start right in on their path. The shout-out moments can be useful later as reminders that the Whole Enchilada is not only possible, but it’s the only thing you want to do.

If you have no shout-outs, there are methods you can use to encourage the whisper of your dreams to speak up a little louder, more frequently, and help you form a plan of sorts.

  • Love yourself. Endlessly, no holding back, when it seems the darkest and least probable moment, and you appear your least lovable. Love anyway. It’s the only way you can receive and then give the love that your dream brings to you.
  • Take time to listen. Even if you just get up five or ten minutes early to silently contemplate your day and give yourself some extra hugs, or promise during your time in the shower to be open with your whole heart and mind. Wherever, whenever, however you choose, listen regularly. Maybe only Monday and Thursday mornings, or at lunch, or a special break by yourself on those two days of the week. Be present for you.
  • If you hear a repeating theme, write it down somewhere. And then add to it as more feeling and more information is imparted to you. You might be reading something and a phrase or just a word leaps off the page or screen at you. Add it to your special writing nook. Visiting your written words has power and energy and juice for you. Do it for you. Do it for your dream, struggling to be seen and befriended.
Always remember that you have a special, a unique song to sing, story to tell, life to live here in this life, on this planet, in this time you are alive. It is uniquely you. No one else can tell that story or sing that song. It is yours. And that is what the whispering is all about.

Find others to talk with about this stuff. You know, the ones who won’t look at you like you’re crazy when you say you hear your dreams whispering to you. The ones who talk about their dreams, who tell the secrets of finding the way to dreams. 

They might be a close friend, or maybe the author of a book you picked up. 

Find inspiration. You need it for the journey. It replenishes you when you start doubting but still want to find your way back to the joy, the fun, life, you.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Sleeplessness and Its Discontents

I read a novel years ago called Fatelessness, written by a Nobel Prize winner – a fictional account of his experience as a 15-year-old Polish Jewish boy in Auschwitz and other death camps. One surefire way to torture prisoners is with sleep deprivation.

I am not fateless, but I am sleepless. My lack of slumber arises from many contributing factors.

The first one is the liver disease I have (primary sclerosing cholangitis or PSC). Doctors and scientists don’t know why this symptom raises its ugly head, but it is observed in, and experienced by, many patients with PSC.

Another factor is my age. Lots of older people develop sleep problems as they age. They don't get their 40 winks the way they used to.

One more factor I’ve got weighing against me is the form of chemotherapy I’m going through as a result of the type of breast cancer I had (estrogen-induced). To hold back recurrence, I take a tiny pill daily that sucks out all the estrogen from my body. Therefore, I am going through a second menopause; the lack of estrogen causes little drowsiness and lots of hyperactivity.

So, combined, these factors add up to a pretty strong physical inclination towards lack of adequate dozing at night.

I make up for some of the loss with afternoon naps, usually two hours long. Last night I stole about 10 winks of snoozing – about two hours. Most nights it’s closer to four or five hours (or about 30 winks).

I feel crazy in the middle of the night, like jump-out-of-my-skin crazy. I don’t know what to do with myself. My cat is lolling about on the bed with me – stomach, back, side – kicking out long, loud purrs. And I watch her with such envy. 

Long novels help. They don’t put me to sleep, but they distract me from thinking of taking more drastic measures. I don’t like the craziness; it even frightens me. But no matter how the night goes, at around 5 a.m. I return to a more normal state of mind. I’m not sure why this happens, but I’m terribly grateful it does.

I feel ready to add more structure to my day to help solve or ease the sleeplessness. I’m also going next week to see a biofeedback therapist and pry some help from him.

What tortures me most? The utter and complete ease I used to have with slumbering. Anywhere, any time, on any surface. The perfect amount, and if interrupted, quickly made up very soon. That was then. This is now. I hope my fate is to add more sleepfulness to my nights.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Three Reasons Not to Have a Bucket List

Wait, everyone has a bucket list, right? You have one, don’t you?

I don’t have one and here are the three reasons why I don’t and why you should give yours up.

First, you should live a good daily life. That’s right. Every day you should be living your bucket list. Who says you will even get through No. 1 on your list, if you have a list of ten things or places? Why aren’t you living it today?

Shortly after I was diagnosed with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (yeah, PSC is a lot easier), a serious disease of the liver with no treatment but transplant, a friend kept bugging me to go back to Buenos Aires – with her this time. She said if she was diagnosed with something like that, she’d want to travel as much as possible. I went with her. For a month. I didn’t have a bad time, but I did get sick down there and I was pretty tired much of my time there.

We were staying in an apartment in a well-to-do neighborhood and for the most part I hung out within a 10 to 12 block area. That’s where my days and my evenings were spent. That part of the trip was quite lovely, the way I spent my days.

I went to the same café every morning for coffee and breakfast. The wait staff got to know me and we would converse in Spanish. My accent improved over the weeks and they trusted to have little conversations with me.

I was writing a lot and also working, tutoring students' writing online in Colorado. I would go to two different internet shops and use their computers. At one, the guy who ran it obviously didn’t like Americans but I was always very polite and soft-spoken (in Spanish) to him. He finally softened to me and slowed down his Spanish.

The national polo grounds were only four blocks from our apartment and though there were no games then, I saw many polo players striding through the neighborhood in their tall black leather riding boots and riding outfits.

If I wanted to go downtown, I got a taxi. My friend Sandra came over and picked me up for tango one night at her favorite club. Another night she drove us out to a special place by the River Plate for dinner at a restaurant called Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Seriously. We looked across the river to see if Uruguay was visible.

I took private Spanish lessons a couple of times a week at a school around the corner from the apartment. And every day and every evening I walked in the neighborhood.

Was it a bucket list vacation? Yes! My daily life was very pleasant and it was filled with people, some very friendly, some not so much, and some standouts. On a daily basis, it was decidedly enjoyable.

But I didn’t get on the train and head south to Patagonia to explore that magical land. I didn’t visit landmarks and as many neighborhoods as possible in Buenos Aires, city of 13 million. My life, just as it is here in Denver, was contained within the radius that I got to know well.

Second, don’t wait to travel – go now. I’ve traveled to and lived in a lot of very cool places all my life. I lived in Hawaii (yes, it is paradise) for most of a decade and graduated from the University of Hawaii, worked, played, really lived there. I lived in Washington, D.C. while Nixon was president and the Watergate scandal was breaking. I went to the Smithsonian frequently, rode the very scary bus, and spent a lot of time in Georgetown. I moved back to Florida, from whence I came, and lived right on the beach for five years, because that’s what I wanted to do. Then I moved out West, became a ski bum for one winter, moved to Denver, and skied for ten years. I never had tons of money, but I made it happen. Somehow.

Three, don’t spend your life yearning – just leave your six-mile radius (this is a scientific fact gathered from cell phone stats) and meet new people, experience new places today, this week, every week. Change your Starbucks now!

I still want to go to some places. But mostly I want to visit people I love. In California, my friend Michelle. In Washington, D.C., my niece Dayna. In Chester, New Hampshire, my nephew Jay and his wife Michelle and their two kids, Jackson and Caroline. In Flagstaff, my niece Kerry and my two nephews Kai and Kenny, and their spouses and many children. And when the weather is cool enough in Florida, my sister and her husband, Diane and Jay, and some very special friends there. That’s about it.

I would love to hear your ideas and your bucket lists and what you think of my advice. And please leave your comment here – you don’t have to put your real name down! – so we can get some fun dialogue going. I look forward to hearing from you.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Paperwork and Illness, USA

My hardest won piece of advice in working alongside Social Security Administration? Laughter and endorphin-raising exercise, when possible!

As soon as I applied for Social Security Disability Income, because of my new-found inability to work associated with my long-term illness, I discovered a new form of work – paperwork performed for the SS Administration. It stupefied me how many forms had to be filled in and how many more records needed to be supplied. What surprised me most, though, was the continuity of the work. Something new every week, a new situation to be solved every month or so. And then waiting to hear the Result. Making phone calls – finding out how much of your day could be eaten up on hold, waiting for (hopefully) the right person. Making trips to SSA offices – as infrequently as possible. That was the Whole Day.

I took up this new form of work in my life at first with wonder, then frustration, impatience, tears, more symptoms of my illness, insomnia, unrelieved stress, and belief there was no one to help. But the paperwork never stopped and the win-lose levels were raised, and I sought relief. That’s when I discovered I could laugh at the worst moments. I could completely let go and find peace inside. I found a new perspective and I began to sleep at night. Stress was relieved. And I got help, too!

If you have Disability Income and have some difficult issues with the SSA to deal with, you can contact a federal legislator – a congressional member’s office. Preferably a well-known, well-connected Senator in your party of preference. And plead for mercy. They have people on staff called Constituent Advocates whose job it is to negotiate with SSA (and other federal agencies) for you. That pleased me no end. I love to pass along that bit of information because it’s so invaluable, and because it helps you laugh when you’re not laughing and should be.

Set this short list to memory and you, too, will be fine –
·      Hope for the best
·      Take names, always always always
·      Relax
·      Exercise as much as possible to build a store of endorphins
·      Eat dessert whenever you can

There are many secrets I have to keep with Social Security. But not these. They are mine, and now yours, too.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Post-Mastectomy Blues – Breast Surgery, Part 2

It’s a secret – no one knows what a mastectomy surgery will leave strewn in its path.

I had no idea what to expect – not really. I knew I’d have a drain and another tube connected to a Pain-Buster, both coming out of the incision after surgery. I knew I could shower within the first 24 hours after surgery. I knew when I’d return to see a nurse practitioner for dressing removal. I was given some exercises from the nurse at the hospital, and she said they were really important to do. I knew it all hurt.

I was in shock after the surgery, though. A shower? Too complicated for me with the two drains. I couldn’t look at the surgical site, even with the dressing on. I couldn’t think or feel anything. Just do exercises, go see nurse about dressing and drains.

When the drain and the Pain-Buster tube were both removed, the extractions created strange sensations in my now foreign land. The nurse touched the incision and there was numbness and then feeling, then pain. I told her. Yes, you’ll get that. Get what? I get nothing so far.

Eventually I was without dressing and drains, and left on my own. I took a look in the mirror at the incision. I couldn’t bear looking at it – I felt so ugly and deformed. Thankfully it was late fall in Colorado and I could wear bundling clothes – sweaters and layers that faked the breast that was no longer there. But when I’d go to the bathroom and take my clothes off to take a shower, one brief glance in the mirror would horrify me. I learned not to look.

Was I supposed to know this? Was I supposed to have asked the oncologists (there were so many of them) and the nurses what to expect physically and emotionally? I didn’t know the questions, and I was too worried about Having Cancer to even consider the other side of Getting Rid Of It.

I couldn’t touch the incision except very infrequently. I would try to imagine a lover ever wanting to touch my body again. My breasts had been so sensitive. They are a secondary sexual characteristic. What do you do without one of your breasts? What about women who lose both breasts to cancer? What do they think, feel, experience with no breasts and two incisions that don’t feel at all like breast tissue used to feel?

I felt de-sexed. I felt cut upon and violated in the worst way. I had submitted to a body part amputation with no knowledge imparted to me of what that result would be.

It took months to go to Nordstrom and be fitted for a prosthesis for my left breast. I wish I had gone to see them prior to the surgery. They treated me like a woman – a woman! – and anticipated my emotional responses. They protected me. They coddled me. They beautified me. They brought me a little bit closer back to being a woman and feeling sexy and feminine.

If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer and mastectomy is offered as the preferred surgical option, are you willing to ask all the questions about the result? Will you go beyond cancer recurrence and ask about the exact physical result? And then, will you go beyond the physical result and ask for information and support for the emotional results of mastectomy – and honestly, any breast surgery? And are you willing to show your naked heart and ask for help?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

What’s it really like? Breast Surgery, Part 1

When you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, there is a lot of scientific-medical-surgical consulting that takes place. There is a sense of urgency – for both the doctors and the patient. Get it completely diagnosed, measured through biopsy, PET scan done to see if there is cancer anywhere else in the body. Usually the patient talks first with an oncologist and then a surgeon. The surgeon makes recommendations based on the location and size of the tumor.

“I have a tumor. It’s malignant and growing. How fast? Has it gone into my lymph nodes yet?” These are some of the thoughts I had. “Will I need chemotherapy, radiation?”  

“We won’t know about chemo or rad,” the scientific team says, “until your Oncotype testing comes back two or three weeks after the surgery. It will also measure the likelihood of recurrence and the need (or not) for chemotherapy and possibly radiation.”

No one – No One – asks you how you’re feeling, either physically or emotionally. The decisive and urgent actions to eradicate the cancer growing in your body are the focus of the whole medical team – oncologist, breast surgeon, oncological radiologist.

I was given the choice of lumpectomy or mastectomy. But two surgeons highly recommended mastectomy because of the placement (behind the nipple) and the size of the tumor. I wanted it done, cleaned, gone. I have such small breasts, barely a handful. I chose mastectomy; the doctors noted duly, good choice. Had ... such small breasts. One breast now. And many women lose both at the same time and in the first surgery.

But no one came to tell me how it feels, not physically but emotionally and mentally, to have a breast removed. A lumpectomy, too, can be deeply invasive and heavy scarring results. No one asks something like, “Do you know or suspect that you have PTSD from any other event or process in your life? Who are your caregivers after surgery? We’d like to meet with as many of them as we can so we can prepare them for your physical needs, but also your emotional responses following surgery.”

No. No one comes and asks these questions. Perhaps a woman, with breast cancer awaiting the surgery, has been raped in the past. Maybe even 20 years before, and still has PTSD, and she’s beginning to see and feel the tiny signs of being triggered – rising anxiety, full-blown panic attacks (Oh, I just had one – and then another comes along two days before surgery).

No one prepares you for the full impact of the first minute of awakening from anesthesia, as you slowly remember why you’re in the hospital bed hooked up to IVs and you don’t know what to touch, and you don’t want to touch anything.

Part 2 tomorrow…

Monday, July 30, 2012

Daddy: A Life Remembered

It was my father’s birthday yesterday, July 29th. He would have been 99 years old. He is Daddy. And he will remain Daddy to me for the rest of my life. He died when he was 81 years old. His life remains an inspiration to me, as it was to many others, especially his St. Pete High choral and orchestra students.

Daddy physically suffered so much in his life, beginning with the onset of migraines at eight years old. But he kept his ironic sense of humor and also, more importantly, practiced his art and his philosophy of life. Life was an adventure to him, and he had many adventures. He inspired me with his honesty, his integrity to his art, music, and his sense of excellence and of fun at whatever he did. He was always sweet and kind; I remember a couple of times when he tried to be “enraged” as a parent, but he could never pull it off. Once, he caught me climbing onto the top of the refrigerator to steal cookies, and warned me he would spank me if I didn’t get down. My response was simply, “No you won’t.” And we had a good laugh about it.

He came from a very unemotional family, yet I believe that Papa groused and raged a lot, and was very opinionated. Mama just purely loved David, her third of five sons, and he clearly was her favorite. He loved her in return immensely, completely. She took good care of him, and she brought him to the doctor at age eight when he began having frequent migraines. It was at that visit that the doctor had the intuitive sense to measure David’s legs and discovered one shorter than the other – Legg-Perthés disease where the top of the femur wears away. The treatment was horrible – a cast for two years from his chest to his knees. I don’t know how he managed, but he did and somehow managed to stay active. He walked with a very slight limp as an adult, and I never noticed it until a friend at St. Pete High pointed it out to me. Yet, he excelled as an athlete and was always very active, especially on very long bike rides into his fifties (like a trip across the Gandy Bridge from St. Petersburg to Tampa). In college he achieved the Third Best of the Southeastern Conference in field and track in the javelin throw.

He studied the flute as a teenager and found his true love, music; he wanted to go to college. He was discouraged by his father to do so (even though Papa held a Ph.D. in history from Wake Forest College). It was 1931-32, the Great Depression, and somehow Daddy saved up $300 and hitchhiked to Chapel Hill where he was accepted at the University of North Carolina. On his hitchhiking trip, one of his drivers stole his very valuable Haynes flute, but he was able to track it down and reclaim it. He was persistent and determined always, no matter the task or adventure before him, and he impressed those qualities on all his four children.

He brought his two younger brothers, Truett and Ed (who both went on to earn MDs), to Chapel Hill as soon as he was able to. Truett was only 15 years old at the time. The three brothers all played musical instruments, Truett the oboe and Ed the baritone tuba, and they formed a trio and played in the school cafeteria in the evenings (and cleaned the hall, too) to earn enough money to live on. Daddy became the drum major of the marching band (the guy with the gigantic hat and huge directing staff) and held that leadership position for at least two years.

There’s a lot more to tell, and I know all of you have stories of your father – good, bad, indifferent. My father was my hero. My father was possessed by his love of music and as far as I’m concerned, that’s what he pursued wholeheartedly his whole life. He taught me, by demonstrating it, to live my passion. Oh, he couldn’t fix the slightest thing in our home. He did, however, completely disassemble and rebuild a car’s engine one summer. He only had a few parts left over … but the car ran perfectly for years after that. After graduating from UNC with his master’s degree, he got a book and taught himself how to tune pianos, and he was the best, most musical (and in demand) piano tuner I’ve ever known.

Next year, 2013, he would have been 100 years old. But honestly he suffered so much physically and I wouldn’t have wanted him to live longer than he did. In October of 1993, he got very sick and came very close to dying. But he didn’t, and in his recovery he unearthed his two Haynes flutes and began playing again. He also had an electronic keyboard and began playing that, too. Daily. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone so inspired to live passionately and to create beauty as he.

On January 11, 1994, though, he passed quietly in the middle of the night. He had told my mother and the rest of us sometime between October and January that there was no one he was going to miss more than her, Doris. Their love for each other was improbable and unlikely, but I could never imagine a more lively match.

I hope, in your comments, dear readers, that you will share a story or two about your own father, the presence, the absence, the good, the bad, and the essence of your fathers.  I look forward to reading them.