Tracks and Visions

Winter does not have to be a cold dormant time. Winter can be a time where you see your “tracks” more easily in the sense you can see where you have been. You can also have a vision for where you’re heading.

Cross-country skiing lets me see what is both physically behind and ahead of me. It has been more challenging to do the last couple of years more due to climate change than anything health oriented. There hasn’t been enough snow. If there was enough snow, then the Wisconsin temperatures were too frigid to endure outdoor recreational winter fun. My schedule factors into plans as well. A lot has to align for me to make skiing happen. Finally, one of those aligned days happened. Even though the snow wasn’t perfect, there was what I hoped would be just enough to make it possible. Who knew when another opportunity would come along? I gathered my gear and made the short drive to the arboretum and ventured out.

My intentions on this day were to enjoy being outside getting fresh air and see how I did on skis. I went slower than a turtle and never got the gliding motion going that I love feeling on skis. Had a turtle come along, it would have easily beaten me. I managed to stay upright the entire time and that thrilled me, especially since there were wobbly moments where I momentarily lost my balance and quickly caught myself. I noticed these times were when I looked up or turned my head to the side to see something. Well, I decided not to make those movements and just stay super focused on my careful and deliberate movements forward.

It was as I reversed the route and was heading back to my starting point that I realized I had a wonderful opportunity to work on balance in action. Very slowly, I began to work on turning my head from left to right while continuing to ski forward. Then I would intentionally move my head up to look at the treetops and back down so my eyes were straight ahead. I did it over and over again and built up my confidence while I worked on making my balance better.

Being out there also made me think a lot about life balance. My body needs to move and my spirit needs to have moments in nature in order for me to feel well. I am in a very fortunate position where I don’t need to work around a work schedule. I have created new work and purpose for myself. I am now in control of where and how I want to direct that meaningful work. My life is more balanced than it used to be.

Last week I got out skiing again. I am still astonishingly slow and was passed by an older gentleman. Somehow he passed me twice. Slow and steady worked well for me. I stayed out for over an hour which was twice as long as I planned due to a decision I made to go a little farther which turned out to be much farther. I had plenty of time to think about how my tracks showed me where I’ve been and the vision I have for where I want to go.

A few of my thoughts included:

Looking back to see where I’ve been has its merits. I see my accomplishments. I can linger over happy memories. I also see if anyone is trying to pass me for a third time! However, the direction I want to go is forward so I need to focus on the path ahead of me and notice where it branches out.

I realized I looked down at my feet an awful lot to ensure I wasn’t hitting an icy patch. It seemed like I needed my gaze downward to keep my bearings. I can be just as safe looking up and looking forward, if not safer. There’s more to see. There is trust involved. I plan to continue looking forward.

One of the reasons I like cross-country skiing is because I don’t have to go down hills. I enjoyed downhill skiing in younger days. Not sure how that would work for me now. Cross-country skiing can still have hilly segments. I purposely choose flat routes. There inevitably are stretches where the trail slopes downward ever so slightly so that you take a break and coast. I usually fight these sections and actively attempt to slow myself down so that I don’t lose my balance and fall. It’s more work to fight these changes than to coast. This time I gave myself over to coasting. Less work felt good. I was safe and had nothing to fear. I plan to work smarter, not harder. Coasting may enable me to pick up speed and give me more energy.

Changing my route allows me to explore a new path. I thought I knew how I was changing my route but I miscalculated the distance. Life is exactly like this. There are miscalculations. None of us really knows how long we’ll stay on our current path before it changes. I love seeing paths turn ahead of me. It adds a little mystery to my walk, hike, or whatever. The path is revealed slowly as I move along.

I am about to mark my eighth year living with metastatic breast cancer. I can reflect on these years by comparing them to time on a ski trail. There have been paths where I’ve been wobbly. I’ve been sprawled out flat on my back hoping someone would happen by to help me up when I couldn’t get myself situated to do it on my own. I figured it out eventually. I’ve never liked relying on someone else to fix things for me that I should be able to manage on my own. Some paths have been straight, flat, and easy to navigate. It was easier to coast in younger days. There have been twists and turns I didn’t see coming. I didn’t know where I was going but it was clear I’d be on a specific route longer than I had planned and I had to keep moving forward. Sometimes I could backtrack and retrace my route. Sometimes I hoped I was closer to finishing and turning back would make things longer and harder. I can’t go back and retrace my steps with cancer. My hope is that the bit around the next turn I can’t see is a beautiful part of the trail that works well for me.

DSCF0774 copy 2
A favorite trail in a favorite place

Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best – “What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.”

My past and future, those tracks and visions, are influenced by my inner voice. What I see is dictated by how I interpret what I see and experience. My tracks, vision, and inner voice are all tied together into one intricately woven path leading forward. Onward!

The Golden Plunger

The Golden Plunger was a coveted trophy at the school where I taught. Keep in mind as you read today that the world of teaching involves meetings on topics that you never dreamed would be needed. There are conversations only others involved in education can understand. Lots of talk and resulting rules about snow pants, snowballs, and what constitutes as throwing snow. Days spent testing students and then meeting to discuss what those assessments meant and how they would inform our teaching. Most often it struck me pretty quickly what was needed, but it was discussed at length so we could come to an agreement in 4 hours with what could have been decided in an hour. Common planning time each week was often dictated by administrators and true team time was delegated to lunch which always got used for work because teaching overflowed to those places and times that were supposed to be duty free.

There were meetings about bathrooms.

Messy bathrooms were discussed a lot. Kids weren’t showing responsibility and respect in how they acted in the bathrooms and in keeping them tidy. I kid you not. Water was splashed everywhere. Paper towels were on the floor rather than in the trash. They could be left in disgusting shape for numerous reasons. Some kids disappeared there many times during a day because despite the appearance and smell it apparently was preferred from being in the classroom.

What was to be done? How could we affect positive change and gets kids to care? I worked in a district that had adopted PBIS ideology. PBIS is short for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Trainings. Surveys. Data. Rubrics. More meetings. My school focused on behaviors of being respectful, responsible, safe, and being learners in a variety of settings around the school.

Including the bathroom. Yes, we discussed how being a learner applied to school bathrooms.

In case you’re wondering, the answer is to take care of business quickly so you can return to your classroom and your work. It could be work you’re trying to avoid by going to the bathroom multiple times during reading or math, but never mind discussing underlying causes. That could be saved for another riveting meeting.

The Golden Plunger was born from these important meetings and conversations. Someone somewhere conceived this tool for all of us to have at our disposal.

There were three main bathrooms in my school: The Bell Bathroom, The Eagle Bathroom, and The Elm Bathroom. Yes, they had names. This was perfectly normal in school culture. Classrooms were assigned a designated bathroom to use. Each week there was a competition on which bathroom could be kept the cleanest. The custodians kept notes and made the final decisions. The winning bathroom would receive The Golden Plunger Award.

There was an actual golden plunger. It was hung each week in a place of honor in the winning bathroom. Great suspense was built up during the morning announcements before the winning bathroom was shared.

ee1a877c6442617cd1fcf333574e7d09

Classrooms would erupt in cheers.

Spoiler alert: It was rigged.

The custodians made sure all the bathrooms received this prestigious award. Some got it more than others. I’ll go on record asserting some bathrooms got used more than others. For example, my class was assigned to use the bathroom that was also used by the entire school because it was closest to music, art, gym, and the lunchroom. It was going to be messier by default every week. Hence the rigging.

I let this go long ago, but the truth always comes out.

Some kids cared. Some thought it was lame. Yet, even the ones who thought it was lame would pump their fists like they had won the plunger championships when they won. The Golden Plunger was one of many ways that built school community.

What does this have to do with cancer?

Motivation.

I would love an award for my efforts as someone living with metastatic breast cancer.

Silent yahoos for decent lab numbers. Frequent flyer miles for racked up driving miles to be used in the germateria. I am not opposed to a sticker chart. Impromptu dance parties in exam rooms are a must whenever good news is given. It would be appreciated to be acknowledged for the small strides I make. Heck, plan an assembly.

I’ll do these things for myself privately (except the assembly). I am a firm believer in rewarding myself and celebrating good work through walks, books, shopping, and treats.

Believe it or not, I am intrinsically motivated. I also want that sense of community at oncology visits that accompanied the golden plunger in the school. It’s harder to remain motivated without a sense of community. I can do it but I want more. It still frustrates me that this is missing when I go to visits and treatments.

Motivation is a key component to success. Feeling like I make progress in my efforts makes me feel successful. Even small wins are still wins. I work to raise or lower lab numbers. I strive to remain active and exercise. I do not lose hope because hope gives me energy time and time again to push through when the going gets tough.

I am motivated to continue treatments and endure whatever side effects I need to because I believe that breast cancer research will make future treatments more targeted and therefore more successful. I am motivated to keep advocating for myself because I am well aware that I have the most interest in my outcome. I am motivated to keep speaking up and repeating myself because more people need to hear my words. Stage IV needs more. Research equals hope. I am motivated to dig my heels in and not budge when others tell me I’m not realistic or I’m being too ambitious. I am doing what I need to do.

I am motivated to keep pushing for positive change.

Motion comes down to a push or pull. A push or pull is how force was defined in science on an elementary grade level. A plunger clears blocked pipes using the forces of push or pull. I am golden and powerful, just like that golden plunger, motivated to keep pushing that my life flows in the right direction. By no means do I wish to be equated with a plunger, but I am a force, trying to clear my way and make a better path for others.

I have become pushy.

I will find a way to keep pushing. Always.

Hot Yoga and Inner Strength

Whoever came up with the concept of hot yoga needs either to be imprisoned or awarded whatever award is given to the highest level of excellence in yoga. Before I tried it, I was strongly in the camp for imprisonment. I see its merits now that I’ve tried it.

I’ll even go back and do it again.

My friend Nancy suggested a yoga event last fall as a fundraising idea to support my efforts to raise money for more metastatic breast cancer research. I was all in. Coming up with fundraising events that emphasize healthy lifestyles while also raising money for MBC research is a goal. I want to do healthy activities. I want to promote healthy choices. I want people to feel good physically while giving to a worthy cause. Yoga had all of these.

My yoga practice always posed challenges because I couldn’t hold poses well. Truthfully, I couldn’t even achieve the correct form needed to do the poses correctly.

I have never been bendy.

My balance issues cause problems.

Damage from neuropathy makes some poses particularly painful to do.

My core needs work.

I modify almost everything.

And yet, I was all in.

Nancy gave me names of a couple of connections she had in the yoga world and I took it from there. It was remarkably easy. The universe seemed to want me to have a yoga event.

The universe wanted it to be hot yoga.

Hmmmmm. Thanks a lot.

Exercising on purpose in temperatures of 90 to 100 degrees struck me as another fine mess I had entered into willingly.

What is the draw with hot yoga? It incorporates muscular strength, endurance, flexibility, and weight loss in a comprehensive way. It is good for the skin. Yoga, whether it’s hot or not, can also build bone density, reduce stress, supports cardiovascular health, and improves balance.  It emphasizes meditation and relaxation. I am in favor of all these things.

I am good at cat cow, mountain pose, and some simple seated twists.

I love the amazing stretch in puppy pose.

I feel incredibly strong in the warrior poses.

I am really good at Savasana.

Working on your breath is another central part of yoga. I am learning how centering and empowering breath work can be.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

The event happened. I felt like a beginner in a room full of advanced learners. Quite surprisingly, the heat didn’t bother me. It was a profound discovery because heat bothers me. The poses and the pacing didn’t bother me. I can’t successfully do them, but it didn’t bother me that I couldn’t do them. I was there sweating in the moment and embracing my circumstances. The heat made it easier for muscles to move. I see potential for what I may be able to do if I stick with it. I find that possibility oddly exciting and motivating.

What happens to my thoughts through hot yoga is perhaps more pronounced than the physical components. My mind is very bendy and it stretches easily to make new connections. One of the reasons I’d love to do hot yoga again is to see what I learn about myself another time. I have a feeling I’ll walk away with something amazing every time.

What the instructor Tiffany repeated several times during the fundraiser flow is that we are stronger than our bodies. She reminded us of this as we started and ended to bring the idea full circle.

It was a deliberate teaching point.

Intentional to the core.

I did a practice run in hot yoga earlier in the week to make sure I could handle it. I had a revelation toward to end of that session that I do many things harder than hot yoga. Hot yoga wasn’t going to break me. Cancer throws things at me all the time. I deal with them. A smile broke through my perspiration as I ended my practice session with this personal revelation. I don’t think I’ll ever know how I got to be so tough.

Or beautiful.

Or smart.

Knowing that inner strength is greater than physical strength is huge. Inner strength is why I keep getting up when I get knocked down. It’s how I find a way time after time. It bats down the fear and it isn’t always easy. I can attribute my stubborn streak and tenacity to inner strength. Is there a bit of insanity mixed in? Maybe. A little willful madness can’t hurt when doing hot yoga.

Knowing that inner strength is stronger than physical fortitude has made me feel very safe. It isn’t how I imagined feeling in a hot room where I was voluntarily exercising. Nothing could touch me in that room that felt like a humid August day. I was safe. I couldn’t hold needle pose. I didn’t understand what Chaturanga meant. I wasn’t ever going to be one of the best participants in any yoga class. But I knew I could set the room on fire if my inner strength were a match.

We all have stuff. We also all have grit. One friend who came to hot yoga is parenting her young daughter who has childhood cancer. My sister has a lot of pressure and stress at work. Everyone there likely had cause to summon their inner strength. Inner strength is an energy. It is a good fit to pair with hot yoga. Inner strength supports us when challenged. I believe it is part of everyone’s core. My core is rock solid when I think of core defined this way. We all practice strengthening our core whether through yoga poses or the challenges we rumble with in life. Some of us have had more practice than others. We all are stronger than our bodies.

Floating

Adventure is not my middle name. Not even close. I still do my share of new things. Plenty. Floating is one of those new things. I decided to try something new and purchased a series of floats at Float Madison. My adventure began as I left an icy, dreary, and drizzly January day behind for a womblike world of peaceful comfort, safe and soft.

fullsizeoutput_898
Float Madison offers floating experiences in either a small room or a pod.                                             Image credit: Float Madison

Floating has many merits. Professional athletes use it as part of training programs to let their bodies rest and recover. The Epsom salts used during floatation therapy give your body magnesium which supports muscle recovery and relaxation. Pressure is taken off your spine and joints which will help reduce inflammation. Creative thinkers and artists enjoy floating and feel it can help them reach their highest potential and expression. No one learns or performs well when in a stressed state. I can’t help but draw upon lessons learned from past students from my life as a teacher. Children can’t learn well who come to school tired, hungry, worried about friends, or afraid of looking stupid or embarrassed about something. We are all alike that way. Being relaxed opens up possibilities whoever you are and whatever you’ve chosen to do.

Being relaxed opens up more possibilities for me as a metastatic breast cancer patient. Space is created for emotional healing. I believe other toxic medication may work better if I’m not stressed out about treatments, tests, and the other challenges living with this disease throws at me.

The biggest draw for me is the time to just BE. It truly is the gift of nothing. You can’t get up and do that thing you forgot to finish (or start) earlier. You can’t quickly go online and then discover you’ve lost an hour you’ll never get back. No one will interrupt you. There is no one right way to float, so whatever happens is meant to be and is absolutely perfect. Perfect moments in my life are few and far between. I’d be happy with nearly perfect.

Just BE.

Here is a list of verbs used to describe a floating experience:

  • Unwind
  • Connect
  • Heal
  • Explore
  • Grow

Reread them. All are positive. All are affirming. There is no room for fear, doubt, or negativity.

I did far too much thinking during the float. Giving my body over to floating was much easier than I thought. I knew immediately I was not going to be the only person ever to sink. I was comfortable and safe. I focused on the sensation of the water gently meeting skin still exposed above water. It lapped unobtrusively and was barely detectable. A feeling of oneness with the water prevailed. With my arms resting above my head, my fingers pushed off from the top edge of the tank. I thought I was cognizant of when my body stopped moving, however, all motion was slow and delayed. A few seconds after I thought I stopped moving, my toes would bump into the bottom edge of the tank. Back and forth I went for some time at this because I was fascinated and like repetition. I also did a lot of experimentation with twisting and stretching, each time proving it was impossible to sink. Not being encumbered by any floor while doing all this was magical.

A deep bluish hue was the mood lighting in the tank. Pinpricks in the ceiling created a star effect. Calming music lulled my soul. A preset timer would eventually fade the music. Knobs inside the tank were my responsibility to push to turn off the bottom and ceiling lights. Then I would be immersed in the stillness of no sound and no light.

Pitch blackness.

I can be claustrophobic in the right settings (MRI tubes). It’s why I signed up for the ocean room rather than a floating pod. I wanted a little more room.

Woman of adventure that I am, I turned out all the lights.

Total darkness.

I was okay, more than okay. I knew where I was. My spatial awareness is quite strong and I could still feel where the buttons were for the tub and ceiling lights, as well as the dry washcloth if I needed to wipe salt away from my face. I splashed with my fingertips that made sounds of lonely drops echoing like they were dripping from a long distance. It was water music.

Floating is called the gift of nothing. I understood the concept of nothing while I floated. The point is to let go of all the inner chatter, not think, and have a meditative experience. Meditation would be a goal for another float.

I may have mentioned in an earlier post that living with metastatic breast cancer is stressful. The floating environment is not stressful. I entertained thoughts of how floating could be used to remove some of the stress I experience with the ongoing stressors in my life.

Could science, in all its exacting facts and structured design, turn the MRI scanner filled with all its anxiety and pounding sounds into a floating experience? No deafening noises. No breath holds. Freedom to make small movements. It would still provide precise and accurate results. Try as I might to imagine the current medical technology as a comforting cocoon, it is ineffective in many ways. Chances are if the floating tank was ever associated with a scan as part of cancer testing it would inherently turn into something stressful. Still, a girl can dream. Scheduling a float session after a stressful scan is a more realistic way to deal with the stress of scans and not associate it with scanxiety.

Floating can still be effective in reducing some of the emotional issues cancer creates like stress, anxiety, sadness, as well physical issues because it can relax muscles and ease tensions on joints. Less stress opens up the possibility of more healing.

Any moments I can get away and relax are important to me.

Many write posts of life after treatment ends. I’m always in a state of ongoing. The best I have are in between times. It is hard to find times of sustained peace, balance, and happiness.

I have become better at living in the NOW.

Now is all I have. Now is all any of us have.

Meditation has been only so-so effective for me. I do well when I meditate on a walk, through prayer, through writing. Sitting quietly works for me. Focusing on my breath often doesn’t. The next time I float I may try doing more of a guided imagery practice. Imagining and envisioning scenarios and outcomes have been successful. Visualization is a proven way to plan steps to reach a goal.

Floating was the first of several adventures I have planned. Stay tuned as more unfold. Maybe adventure could be my middle name. Just maybe.

Consider responding:

  • What is a gift of nothing you give yourself?