Big Steps

This is a tale of taking steps.

Step One: Failure and Recovery

It starts last September in a training session where my fitness coach was gathering baseline data to use for setting goals.

She wanted me to step up on a medium sized step up box without any help from my hands, other equipment, walls, etc. It was hard for me.

I can step up on a small step up box 12 inches high successfully without support.

The medium box is 18 inches high. I can do it if I am holding something for support. This means I am using leg muscles and relying on arm muscles for help. What counts in this setting is to not use arm muscles. My hamstrings, quads, glutes, and core need to do all the work.

I knew it wasn’t going to go well and I didn’t want to do it. My coach was there to hold on to me if I needed it. She’s great but I didn’t find her stabilizing. I fell backward, stumbled, but was able to right myself so I didn’t fall.

It was scary. There were tears. I moved to another part of my workout. We focused on all the things I was really good at. I don’t do well with fear or failure and couldn’t shake the voices in my head. Casting away those negative voices is also hard for me. It bugged me that I had trouble with the box because I knew I could do it. At home stepping up and down from a kitchen chair I had moved into a corner was part of my workout because it mimicked climbing hills and making big steps I climbed on hikes. I hold on to the top of the chair while I practice which is cheating, but it works for me.

Since I couldn’t get rid of the voices, I moved the medium box to a corner and did it confidently without issues, without hesitation, without fear. I felt a little better. It shut up the voices and I salvaged what I could.

Step Two: Approximated Movements and Muscle Building

Some time ago I bought a TRX suspension trainer to use at home. Entire workouts can be built around it. I love using it because it works so many different muscles and fits whatever level of difficulty I need. I can do pull-ups, push-ups, squats, lunges, stretches, and modified yoga moves. Working with it makes my body feel quite good.

I hang on to the TRX when I’m practicing with the medium box at my weekly training session.

I have worked to isolate movements in my hips, glutes, and legs.

I climb my staircase at home with exaggerated movements pretending my regular steps are jumbo-sized.

I have turned on my abs repeatedly.

I have exhausted myself and felt like I wasn’t making any progress at all.

Step Three: Success

Muscle memory is mysterious yet strong.

Something happened at the end of November.

I felt like I wasn’t making any discernible progress. There was a minuscule lift of maybe an inch when I would try to push off from the ground with my foot. I didn’t have the needed strength.

My trainer set the small box next to the medium box. I stepped onto the small box, then the medium box easily. I took one big step backward from the medium box to lower myself to the floor. Even doing that terrified me the first time because it felt like such a big step down. I modified (cheated) and held onto something to make sure one foot was securely on the ground before letting go and step down with the other foot. It was doable. I repeated this exercise several times not using my hands.

I tried stepping up from the ground straight to the medium sized box. No dice. I was unable to piece it together moving forward. My trainer gave me the TRX to use while I stepped up. As an educator, I’m all for modification and chunking smaller steps together. I get it. I know that’s what I’ve been practicing. I don’t get why I haven’t progressed faster.

It was time for something different. What was next? Did I want to do arm pulls or push-ups? Neither. I wanted to use the punching bag. I like hitting. Beating up something other than myself feels good. Hitting works. It helps me focus. Other feelings fall away.

More practice on the box was next. No one expected a surprise. I was to practice a skill in isolation and work on pushing off with one foot.

I knew I felt different as I walked to the box. Let’s blame it on adrenaline. An insane idea entered my mind when I was just a couple of steps from the box that I was going to go for it and I’d make it this time. In hindsight, I should have announced my plans in case my plans didn’t work out and I needed help. I still had on the boxing gloves and wouldn’t be able to grab anything easily if I fell.

The momentum was there. I stepped up, pushed off, used my core, glutes, and leg strength, and just like that, I stood on the box.

Yes, I did it. Triumph was mine.

I did it several more times, giddy and confused with my success.

Step Four: Real Life

A step up is defined as when there is an increase in size or amount. There have been noticeable improvements in my strength and stamina where my fitness is concerned. Right now, I feel I struggle a bit more because I’ve moved up a level.

Quite often I find I am not making many strides living with metastatic breast cancer. Every time I go to the hospital for treatment, I am faced with at least one aggravation, usually several ranging from long wait times, people who don’t know who I am, insurance or billing absurdities, and of course health hurdles. I will step up to each of these with as much tenacity as I can muster. Persistence and doggedness paid off in the classroom when digging in my heels with teaching children. I do it well and I’m getting lots of opportunities to showcase how stubborn I can be. My life away from treatment days when I can do things the way I want without restraints (aka the right way) goes much more smoothly.

There have been changes I’ve noticed in myself. I’ve stepped up in my confidence. I carry myself with more assurance and I see it in how I talk to others and what I’m willing to take on myself. I am bolder when I stand up for myself and say what I need when I’m at an office visit or treatment. I plan events that go well. Each successful event moves me closer to a greater goal.

The Rockettes practice hours a day to ensure everyone is in the right step at the right time for a performance. Marching bands do the same. The moon landing and the first steps on the moon didn’t just happen. It took many people working together and many small steps over time that added up to a giant leap for mankind. Medical advancements, breakthroughs, and treatments used today are the result of research, trials, and carefully planned steps that led to medical successes.

In what areas of life do you need to step up? Success takes time. Moving forward takes time. Whatever it is that challenges you, keep at it one step (up) at a time. Use a TRX suspension trainer or boxing gloves if you need a hand. Keep working.

Giving

Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

Giving is a common theme this time of year. Thanksgiving and Christmas both remind us to show thanks for the gifts in our lives. Giving is just as meaningful as receiving, perhaps even more so.

Material gifts are one of the first things that many think of when they think of giving. Advertisements of cars tied with giant red bows, glittery diamonds in tiny boxes, and shelves filled with toys or home appliances bombard us nonstop this time of year. These types of gifts cost money regardless of how good of a deal is offered. There is nothing wrong with gifts that cost money.

Giving doesn’t have to cost a lot. I want to focus on these simple and meaningful ways to give. Small gestures can be highly fulfilling. Buying someone a cup of coffee or a cookie works. Bake muffins for an elderly neighbor. Buy mints and leave them anonymously on co-workers’ desks.

Giving doesn’t have to cost anything. Passing along books to the corner little free library gives someone else a book you enjoyed. Bagging up clothes for clothing drives recycles clothes you’ve outgrown and is a great way to declutter. Rake leaves or shovel for someone. Send your child’s teacher a thank you email. If your child is grown, send a thank you to a former teacher. No kids? Find a teacher and thank them anyway.

Some of the gifts I’ve kept as a teacher have been notes and pictures given to me by my students. I’ve kept a few letters from parents, too. They haven’t cost a cent but have high value for me. Cards are special in today’s world of emails and texts. I love getting cards. I equally love sending them. Letting someone know you’re thinking about them is a great gift.

Here are a few other ways to give that are free:

Be emotionally available. Make the time to listen. Don’t try to fix anything. Being supportive is listening – not fixing, micromanaging, or criticizing. Don’t switch the conversation back to you and your life. Just listen. Listening and being emotionally available are gifts to someone.

Time is a gift. Carving out those moments for a standing phone call or favorite activities is time well spent. I love to walk and talk. Nature, exercise, and good company are seldom beat. And yes, I want more time. I have lots I still need to do. The time I’ve been given is priceless. I still want more and always will. Not having time is unfair. I don’t want to waste mine.

After that, it’s time for a joke. Laughter is another type of gift. Here goes: Why did the police arrest the turkey? They suspected fowl play. Continue reading when you’ve stopped laughing (or groaning).

Other ways to give are through volunteering, random acts of kindness, and caring for the environment. I often wonder what would happen if we placed little notes on people’s desks, in mailboxes, in children’s rooms that simply read, “I noticed what you did earlier. Thank you.” Maybe you saw them do nothing, but a little mystery never hurt anyone. Chances are the person would have done one kind thing they could identify. I bet it would make people feel pretty good and have a ripple effect.

A sincere and specific compliment goes a long way. People can sense when someone isn’t being honest. It drives me nuts when someone rattles off what is supposed to be a compliment but doesn’t even look me in the eyes. Nonverbal cues matter. It’s okay if a compliment isn’t reciprocated. You aren’t giving one just to get one. People who don’t receive compliments hopefully still are deserving of them and need to hear them the most. Overworked nurses, grocery checkers, coffee baristas, the person at the drive-through all are people with feelings who may be having a bad day. One kind word, smile, or compliment can turn someone’s day around.

Giving of yourself, your time and your talents, is one of the greatest gifts a person has to give. Teaching has been one of the largest gifts I have had to give in my life. I’d like to think my words are another gift. Cancer has NOT been a gift, let me be absolutely clear on that point. I won’t deny I have been driven to change things that I likely wouldn’t be doing if I wasn’t living with metastatic breast cancer. I am working to make a difference so others like me receive more empathy from providers, patients remain the focus of health care, and that research for metastatic breast cancer receives more funding so that more treatment options are available and more effective for patients. It is a lasting gift I can make possible for others that provides hope.

Many choose to give this time of year through charitable donations. Charitable giving has merit. GIVING TUESDAY IS TUESDAY. There are many worthy charities. Here is my reminder to always ask HOW donated money is being used. Does it go to research? Supporting patients? Programs? Promotional products? Administrative costs? Does the charity support or oppose other causes and beliefs you deem important? If you give money, you have a right to know where it goes. Follow it. If interested, you can give here to UW Carbone where 100% of donations go toward research directed to metastatic breast cancer. Scroll to the bottom of my page to see a video message from me.

Finally, remember to give yourself what you need. I treat myself often because it makes me feel good. It also ensures I get what I want. Care for yourself well. I am no stranger to giving myself what I feel are well-deserved gifts. I take good care of myself in that respect. I will take trips, get massages, buy jewelry, and treat myself to good food. I give myself opportunities to exercise because being as healthy as possible is another gift that no one can give me other than me.

Gifts need to be directed toward something good.

I try to do that.

Winston Churchill’s words ring true today. Giving is how we make a life. I will keep finding a way to make my life by what I give.

Find a way to give. Always.

Balance and Tightropes

A hush falls over the crowd. Lights are dimmed and all eyes in the big top are fixed upward. Suspenseful music keeps everyone in a trance where they don’t dare look away. A man dressed in a white leotard and a billowing white blouse inches across a wire. He holds a long pole stretching out at each side to help establish some sense of equilibrium. Finally, he makes it to the other side. The man bows dramatically to the applauding audience below, but he isn’t finished. He attaches a small round disc to a pole that rises up over his head. An equally bedazzled woman climbs onto his shoulders and positions herself on the circle where she exhibits grace (as well as a lot of trust to her partner) while performing carefully orchestrated yoga poses while the man makes his way back to where he started. The two execute a carefully choreographed dance in a beautiful example of synchronicity, faith, and above all else . . . balance.

Tight rope walkers balance beautifully and skillfully. Their world is high above on a thin steel wire. They make their work look effortless. From below, their balancing act is often stressful to watch.

Our tightrope walkers take their time because it matters to be careful and pay attention to detail. It takes training to do it right. It also takes training for us to walk our metaphorical tightropes successfully. Finding balance in day to day life can be as challenging as on the hire wire.

Finding balance is all about figuring out what you value and then aligning your activities and time spent on those values.

I am clear on what I value and have successfully matched those values to chosen activities. It’s tougher to manage my time so I stay balanced and am not overwhelmed.

Finding balance while living with cancer challenges me almost daily. It seems these days treatment and health appointments are scheduled almost weekly. I spend time on some aspect of fundraising for more metastatic breast cancer research almost every day. Focusing on it can consume a lot of my time. It is exciting, worthwhile, and entirely my choice. It also stresses me out.

How do I fix it? I won’t stop my fundraising efforts. I am getting good results even though it is taking a lot of time. Hard work and effort yield positive results. The solution could involve less blogging, but I don’t want this to be the case. Oncology medical stuff gets a lot of my time. Both blogging and fundraising are taking the majority of the time I have left. I’m not balanced. FYI – if there is a week where I do not post, I am more than fine. It means I just needed a break. Something has to give. It isn’t going to be me.

Spending more time in nature is going to be a conscious effort on my part.

Reading is going to be scheduled, which makes me feel a little too structured, but I need to do it in order to create more balance.

Working out will continue to be a priority.

I am going to schedule downtime and just BE.

Doing some sort of meditative practice again will help. Even if it’s only five minutes a day, the benefits will affect everything else.

Accepting help will also be good. I can think of two examples where I recently did this and I was okay not controlling everything.

One powerful word that I’ve found to give me more personal balance is the word NO. Leave work at work. Respectfully decline an invitation if you have no other plans than not having any other plans. It’s perfectly acceptable to say no without having to explain or justify your reasons. Not explaining is freeing. It goes something like this: “No, I can’t make it. Thank you.” It’s polite and firm. It’s worth asking why anyone really needs more information if you have already said no.

“Balance is not better time management, but rather better boundary management. Balance means making choices and enjoying those choices.” ~ Betsy Jacobson

Holding boundaries I have set with others will absolutely help me achieve more personal balance. Boundaries define what I will accept from others. They reflect how I show love to myself. When I apply the idea of boundary management to myself,  I still believe there is time management involved. How I choose to spend my time and energy is important.

Balance is a mixture of boundaries, priorities, choices, and time. How much of my day is reasonable to dedicate to writing and fundraising? My plans are to exercise in the morning, do whatever my work is that day in the afternoon, read at night. Yes, I’ll need to be flexible, but one day isn’t going to be consumed by anything – unless it’s a medical day. Those are still pretty consuming.

Squirrels know how to balance really well. Those darn creatures scamper across telephone poles with speed and ease. What makes this so? Does the squirrel lead a balanced life? I’ve always thought it must be rather monotonous. All they do is dig and bury things, chase one another, and run on wires. They dash out into roads and dart out of traffic just in time. They try to get into my squirrel proof bird feeder to no avail. Is this the squirrel version of work, play, and risk-taking? Maybe they have it all figured out.

I don’t think squirrels know more than I do. My brain is considerably bigger. I think the telephone wire is much like the sidewalk. It’s all proportional. I don’t fall off the sidewalk just as the squirrel doesn’t fall from the wire. But I still feel like I lose my balance from time to time.

We all lose our balance. It’s inevitable, and when it happens, it’s important to reset to your own vibration and needs and not to someone else’s. A person living well with cancer will be balanced differently from someone else. I know I keep searching for an answer on how this best works for me. It changes a lot.

The goal of finding balance is not to be a tight rope walker walking without a net and balancing someone on your shoulders while juggling bowling balls. The goal of finding balance should be to be mindful of what you are choosing to do with your time and feeling a lightness with those choices. I want to stay in that space where balance and lightness meet. Some call it peace. Some call it happiness. Some call it breathing. It all circles back to loving self-care so you don’t have to feel like you’re walking on a tightrope. Leave that balancing act to the professionals.