What’s at Your Core?

Everyone has core themes – themes that make you who you are. Identifying what these are as an individual is a huge part in understanding your identity. Core themes become part of a healing plan because when you know who you are, you know your strengths. Leaning into your strengths can lead to faster healing.

We should always align what we do with our core beliefs. It’s part of being well and being happy. We all need to live our truths and core values.

I hadn’t thought much about my themes other than I was a teacher, a friend, a daughter, and that kindness was really important to me until I was diagnosed in 2012. With a lot more time on my hands to ponder my purpose, I could really expand on themes for my life. Then I could see how well these matched with my core beliefs. If there was a natural flow, then I knew that I was headed in the right direction. If something felt forced or there was resistance, something was out of line and either didn’t belong or needed a bigger adjustment.

Here are my core themes that I am reaffirming and reminding myself of as I live with cancer:

I am important.

My needs are important and need to be put first. I don’t come last. Yes, helping others is part of my purpose, but I need to make myself a priority. It feels really good when I snuggle in a blanket and sit by the fire with a book. I enjoy putting something else aside so I can go for a nature walk. Taking a break to drink a cool glass of refreshing green juice tastes heavenly. I have rediscovered the joys of reading and writing. I have gifts to share through teaching, writing, and journaling. My work is valuable.

I also need to choose activities and people who are calming, supportive, and fun. I am too important to put myself in harmful, negative, and stressful environments. There is no need to apologize or explain. No drama for me. I lived as a compromiser for too long to avoid arguments. Honestly, I thought it was easier that way. The problem was that the compromises, or all out giving in, was not calming, supportive to me, or enjoyable. It isn’t selfish to put yourself first. It’s self-care.

My life still has great purpose. When I taught, I made a difference day-by-day, child-by-child. Now, I approach new endeavors with that same driven ambition I had with teaching, but also with more balance since my schedule is highly flexible. What I have to say is important to share.

I am strong.

Another core theme is that I am strong and immensely powerful. No, I am not overly physically strong, but I’m getting stronger. I could never climb the rope in gym class or do a decent pull-up. Those are claims to fame that still elude me. But I have enough inner strength to match a hundred rope climbs and thousands of pull-ups. That’s right, thousands. I had the power to get a classroom singing to original lyrics and choreographed movements about respect for an assembly, AND I was able to get them to think it was cool because it was cool. I have the power to advocate for my best health and make it the best it can be.

I will exercise and eat well to feel better and give my body what I need to be healthy. Health doesn’t happen with just one or the other. Eventually, poor eating choices catch up with a person even if he or she is fit. Great eating choices don’t do a lot if someone never moves or exercises. There also is an emotional payout to exercising and eating well. I get my thirty-minute minimum every day.

I’ve had to dig my heels in a lot more over the past seven years, particularly in terms of what I will accept in terms of how I’m treated. As examples, I was not happy with past phone conversations and what I considered bullying from a long-term disability company that did everything in its power but help me. I spoke up, but it’s a long story and a subject for another post. I’ve also called the patient relations department a few times where I receive treatment over the repeated delays and long waits patients have in receiving treatments because of financial decisions rather than decisions focused on patient care. Here again, it’s a subject for another post. The take away is I’ve become strong enough to speak up for myself when my needs aren’t being met or someone has been rude.

I connect with nature.

I need nature. I love healing green spaces with lots of trees. I absorb the energy. Two summers ago on a short vacation, I observed this first hand. I had traveled with my sister to Door County on Wisconsin’s peninsula. I usually am ready sooner than she is in the morning. I would get a little droopy and sluggish waiting for her before we started our day. My energy level completely changed by simply driving through one of the state parks as a detour connecting one town to the next. The woods provided a combination of nature, peace, energy, healing, and spirit for me all in one. My mood shifted for the better.

I experience the same feeling wash over me whenever I drive into the UW- Arboretum. My mind unwinds as I meander along the paths. It’s the green, all the trees, and being in a place where any humans I meet are there for the same thing as me.

Peace and kindness are recurring themes.

I am all about peace and kindness. In 2013, I finally started a peace journal, made up of Bible passages, ideas from other religions on peace, poetry lines, famous quotes, songs, and anything about peace that resonated with me. When I quiet the house and everything around me, everything narrows down to particular words and thoughts. Then everything opens up big time. It’s pure meditation and oxytocin in action. My spirit soars and I feel like I leave or that I’m lost in the moment. Maybe I’m actually more present than ever. I believe a lot of people pray for peace, which is more important now than ever in today’s world. I read a distinction someone made not too long ago that if people prayed, meditated, or just thought (whatever you want to call it) to feel peace rather than for peace, it would be possible to achieve lasting peace between people in the world. We need to feel it within first and push it outward.

I am a teacher and a learner.

A core theme as a teacher and learner has been central to my life. I loved elementary school. I did well. Reading and immersing myself in a world of story couldn’t be beat. From as long as I can remember, I always loved learning and sharing what I learned. Whether a student or teacher, school was a place where I felt safe, successful, and supported. It’s what I wanted to give my students. Teaching always just fit who I was. I can’t explain it any other way. Sometimes I entertain thoughts of returning to school for courses in writing, history, archaeology, and literature just for fun. For now, I enjoy exploring what interests me on my own.

It is no coincidence that in work with my fitness coach I am focused on a lot of work to strengthen my physical core. I know what is at the center of my personal core. I have rock-solid personal core themes and know who I am. In this sense, I am very well aligned.

Happiness involves living in accordance with your core themes. What you identify at your core should be those things that bring you happiness, enjoyment, and peace. Associated words for these feelings may be energetic, hopeful, valued, proud, loving, joyful, and thankful. You may reconsider your actions if you associate feelings of guilt, boredom, frustration, anxiety, helplessness, discouragement, and anger with them. It seems obvious, yet many people stick with actions or beliefs that go against their core out of habit and because making a change is hard work. Make little changes. In a few months time, a small shift has happened where you feel more like you.

We all deserve to be our best.

Consider responding:

  • What’s at your core?
  • Where/when do you feel most like YOU?

A Moment in Amsterdam: Fear Alley and Stress

Alleys are narrow. I envision them as dark, lonely places, filled with scary things and unpleasant smells. Forgotten garbage litters the ground. Feral cats and large rats compete for scraps. Alleys potentially are filled with scary people who I’d like to avoid meeting. I wouldn’t be excited about the cats or rats either. They are not safe spaces. No one hangs out in an alley because it’s relaxing.

Back in my youth, I was much more adventurous. I found myself exploring Amsterdam for a few days on my own. I loved it there. The colors of flowers from the numerous flower markets were intense. I took canal rides to tour the city. I lost myself in a VanGogh museum. I relaxed in a beer garden and wrote postcards. The Anne Frank House where Anne hid from the Nazis for two years was transformative. The tourist in me took in everything possible. I may have mentioned in an earlier post that I make an excellent tourist. I even let a stranger buy me a drink and joined his family for dinner one night.

Amsterdam is also known for its nefarious red-light district. I figured it was fine to see during the day. My plan was to turn around if I felt it wasn’t safe. It was an easy walk to that area. I felt plenty safe but was very much out of my element. Gradually, I became aware I was one of the only women in the area not “working.” Women didn’t seem to be outdoors at all. I could not imagine what the area was like in the dark of night. It was time to turn around, however, I did not relish backtracking through what I had seen.

I spied an alley to my left. At the end of the alley rose a tall church steeple. Surely, I would be in a better environment if I took this shortcut. I couldn’t see anyone lurking about there. It was a short distance. It couldn’t be too bad. Weighing my options, I decided to do it. Was it a good idea? Yes and no. I had to use my hands to shield my eyes from windows on both sides that featured more things I didn’t want to see. I walked with a determined pace that was almost a run. I emerged from the dark alley back into the open sunshine and was thrilled to discover the church steeple I had seen was now a building that sold Christmas decorations. Perfect. I found a different route back to my room.

Where am I going with this?

Sometimes walking down a narrow, dark alley may be the only way to find the light again.

From time to time, something scary has to be experienced in order to get to a better place. The scary thing can be unplanned, unavoidable, and unravel life. Fear can stop us from pursuing or reaching our goals. Fear can stop any meaningful movement forward. Fear can keep us unwell.

I have had a lot of practice with fear as someone living with cancer. There has been information to process and digest. Decisions have been made. Many appointments, tests, and results have been faced that I would rather not have had to deal with at all. The process has repeated over and over with revised information, more decisions, and so many more appointments. Life has been filled with uncertainty in the same way as not knowing what may be lurking and waiting in an alley. It seems I’m always adjusting and adapting. I face all these hurdles because not facing them is more fearful than facing them. The distance has been much longer than what I walked in the alley in Amsterdam.

Functioning well in what I call Fear Alley for the long run is too hard. Bodies in a constant state of stress do not recover. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. Living in a state of chronic stress where cortisol levels are always elevated affects health negatively. Living in fear is like being in survival mode all the time. It’s high stress. Your body, your mind, your soul can’t recover when in a constant state of fear. Those things are sacrificed so the fear can survive.

Chronic stress is the metaphorical mugger lurking in Fear Alley. Stress can contribute to health conditions such as obesity, ulcers, depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, and hair loss. A negative relationship exists between stress and the immune system, affecting the way certain cells find and attack cancer cells. Our natural killer cells don’t work as well in a stressed environment. The immune system works better when unstressed. Stress is very handy to have around in fight or flight situations, but surviving in a heightened state of prolonged fight or flight for months and years is going to cause more problems in the long run that will cause a vicious cycle of ongoing stress. Those living with cancer have better outcomes when stress levels are lower. To remain in some type of warrior state where I feel like I am in a constant battle keeps me in a state of stress. I won’t do it. I can’t. It makes my heart hurt. My body physically shakes. Muscles in my gut tighten as if anticipating a punch. The fear and worry spike my anxiety levels.

What if we believed in hope instead?

What if fear and stress were left behind in the alley and images of the alley just faded away forever? You would be left standing in the sun, absorbing warmth, light, and hope into every cell of your being. Your body would have an opportunity to relax and thrive. You’d sleep more soundly and feel assured that things were going to work out. Thoughts and ideas would connect easily in your mind. You’d feel something in your soul that just felt right. This sounds really good to me! For me, less stress means I’m much calmer and more relaxed. My heart doesn’t race. I don’t shake. My stomach is happier. So am I.

Absorbing warmth and hope into every cell means leaving stress behind. How does this happen? Meditate. A few breaths make a difference. Start with inhaling fully for three or four counts and then slowly exhale for the same number. Repeat this four or five times. It’s a mini-break and gives your body an opportunity to reset. Go for a ten-minute walk if there’s time. You’ll combine deep breathing and get a few minutes of exercise. Other ways you can lower stress are to spend a few minutes writing in your gratitude journal, think of something to make you laugh, or make a quick phone call to a friend. Use affirmations to set the positive, hopeful, no stress mindset that you seek.

Hope isn’t found at the end of a dark alley. It’s found in all the little moments where a thought makes you smile, you spend time doing something that brings you joy, or you take that ten-minute walk. All those moments add up. Hope is found in the heart. Ultimately, this means hope could even be found as you walk through what is fearful. Somehow. Maybe it’s just a small molecule of hope, but it grows as you inch toward the end of the alley. Hope is always within.

Don’t let fear crush hope.

Hope makes living with cancer so much easier than trying to live with it from a place of fear. It’s like permanently living in the Amsterdam flower market or having the Van Gogh museum completely to yourself. Every part of your life feels better with hope. There may be alleys to walk through that are unavoidable. I wouldn’t recommend strolling down any just for the experience. Hope is obtainable without an alley walk. I’d like to think hope is also unavoidable.

We all need to hold on to hope and not let go.

We all deserve the sunny parts of Amsterdam.

All the time.

 

Consider responding:

  • When can fear be the only path to lead you to something better?
  • How can you approach fearful places differently and come from a place of hope?

 

What Objects Tell the Story of Your Life?

This type of question fascinates me. It’s a wonderful opportunity for self-reflection and discovery. The answer can change over time as different significant events are experienced, and even as major interests come and go. When I first started thinking about storytelling objects, the number three popped into my mind. Three objects was a good number. Three objects soon became extremely limiting. Then I tried to compartmentalize my life into three sections: past, present, and future. I could have several objects within each section. The future section posed the biggest problem. A crystal ball is not one of my objects. Time as some sort of construct to organize my story helps, but something is still missing here, too. Finally, I fell back on simple self-reflection to identify objects to represent stories that collectively tell a little bit of the story of my life.

Object: Lisa and the Grompet (book)

Story: Independence

There have been countless times where I’ve unearthed a memory and thought, “Ah-ha, so this is where it started.” I have found letters I wrote to my mom while I lived in Scotland declaring how I might as well go places on my own so I could see as much as I could and do what I wanted. I went all over on my own and thought perhaps this was where my independent streak was born. Being in Scotland for a year, however, was already a story of independence.

But it goes back further. Both my parents always valued education as a way to be independent and for me to stand on my own. Good call, parents. I place a high value on education for many reasons. It continues to give me a lot of happiness. It gave me wonderful years in a career I loved. Being independent enough to support yourself and get to do what you love can’t be matched.

But this story still goes back even further, quite a bit further. I remember my dad dropping me off for Sunday school for the first time. We were early and no one else was there. A little boy showed up. My dad wanted to stick around to make sure I was okay, but I shooed him off, telling him I was just fine and had a new friend. He reluctantly left.

For a long time, I thought this was the first memory of me asserting an independent spirit, but no, I can trace it back further still. As a young child, there was this book I loved to check out repeatedly at the public library – Lisa and the Grompet. It was about a little girl Lisa who was bossed around by everyone in her family.

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Lisa and the Grompet (written and illustrated by Patricia Coombs)

 

She knew what she needed to do.  No one had to keep reminding her. One afternoon she discovered a little grompet creature outside who needed someone to take care of it and tell it what was what. Hmmm . . . I felt a lot like Lisa and never liked being told what I should do. Yes, this I think is where my story of independence subconsciously took root. Maybe I was born knowing I was okay on my own. That would backtrack the story even further. Who knows? I need people like we all do. What I am saying is this book had an effect on me and there has been an identifiable pattern that turns up at other times in my life.

Object: Photos

Story: Family

Photos are an easy choice. I love going through albums and remembering favorite moments with my family. They are a collective timeline of my life, so it’s really not possible to choose just one. Together they tell my story. There are photos of birthdays, holidays, vacations, achievements, picnics, days up at my grandma’s farm, pets, and many special occasions. Every year there was a classic photo of the first day of school. Family experiences and values shape so much of who we become. Looking back at those photos helps me remember those times. Photos of family (and friends who are family) are good storytellers. Perhaps my enjoyment of past photos even points to some of my present interests in photography. Important ideas keep showing up.

Object: Pencils

Story: Teaching and Writing

IMG_1727 I’ve written over twenty years of lesson plans with pencils. Hundreds of kids have used thousands of pencils to demonstrate many levels of learning and understanding. They have borrowed and kept many. Too many. I should have taken out stock in a pencil company. I still prefer a yellow Ticonderoga and get a bit of a rush when I begin to use a newly sharpened pencil with a fresh eraser. I’ve filled diaries and journals as a child and adult. These are great time capsules of years, trips, and things I thought terribly important at the time that are now preserved. Feelings that I never wanted to share anywhere else I could capture with words just for me so I’d remember. Many writing endeavors have been written on my laptop, yet that image of a pencil is a perfect representation for the plans, creativity, and story involved in each of them. Pencils create powerful stories. Pencils don’t have the story, but they are the way the story oozes out, word by word, until something complete and amazing is created.

I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but I’ve heard a single pencil can produce 45,000 words. I don’t doubt that one pencil can create thousands of words. Knowing an intangible quantity awaits inside makes pencils one of the truly powerful and magical objects in the world.

Object: Cells

Story: Cancer

This story sucks.

I remember calling my mom after I had gotten my phone call with the news. She was upset. Then I headed over to her house to show her I really was okay.

I remember the day I told my students I wouldn’t be finishing the rest of the year. I explained I had been seeing a lot of doctors and they had found something wrong with some of my cells that weren’t working the right way. The name for it was cancer. My doctors had a really good plan for me but it meant I had to be away from them. That isn’t exactly where this story started, but it’s where it became common knowledge to a big part of my world beyond my immediate family and a few close friends.

Now, it continues. I marked my 100th treatment at the end of February. I don’t really have the words to express how that number makes me feel. A lot of conflicting emotions overlap in a messy jumble. It’s a juxtaposition of toxicity and life. I’ll keep on keeping on.

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Image credit: pixabay.com

I really hate including this as part of my life’s story.

I’ve argued with myself trying to decide whether to include this part or not.

Me: Maybe I shouldn’t.

Also Me: How could I not?

Me: Don’t give in to it as a factor in your life.

Also Me: Too bad, I really don’t have a lot of moments where I feel truly away from it.

Both of Us: Cancer sucks.

I have worked so hard not to let it define me or become part of my identity. Appointments, treatments, side effects, and other related choices have changed the way I live. I needed to retire. Teaching defined me perhaps more than it should have, but I feel that is something almost innate in my being.

When I decided to blog, I knew sharing about how I’m trying to live well while living with cancer would connect cancer to my life more than I wanted. It’s not a story I wanted to have, but it’s part of my story nonetheless. The image of the pencil also blurs into this story. The teaching story also overlaps. Once again, important ideas keep showing up. I can choose how I tell it by the way I live which is why I’ve chosen to focus on wellness. I have a lot of wellness in me. I want people to see that and see me as me.

Object: Path

Story: Rejuvenation and Future

Paths surrounded by trees are some of my favorite places. Trees re-energize me.

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Path at The Grand Hotel Resort in Point Clear, Alabama.

I am relaxed spending time in nature. From out of nowhere, solutions show up for problems. Something creative happens. Inspiring ideas come to me, whispered by the breeze. The fresh air makes me feel fantastic. Depending where I am, I see turkeys, deer, or cranes. I can’t always see where my path leads and that’s okay. Sometimes I know where I’m going; sometimes I don’t. I’m going somewhere and I choose to believe it’s good.

Many objects make up the story of our lives. Books, photographs, pencils, cells, and paths make up part of my story. These may not be the best objects to choose, but they are what I’ve chosen here. For now, there are many other books to read and photos to take. I have much to write whether with pencils, pens, markers, or keyboards. My story is still being written. Creating an environment where healthy cells thrive and abnormal ones don’t is an important focus. I love being in nature walking familiar paths or exploring new ones.

Ultimately, my story is one where I find a way. Always.

Consider responding:

  • What objects come to mind that could tell part of the story of your life?
  • What special objects hold important memories for you?

Make A New Door

There is a saying that goes along the lines that a window opens when a door closes. It fits if you’re Maria in The Sound of Music and venturing out of the convent on a new adventure. Otherwise, not so much. I don’t care for it and find it’s misguided. I get the point being made, but the visual doesn’t work for me.

Have you ever tried to walk out a window? I did when I was about ten years old. I held a practice evacuation drill out our dining room window in case other routes were blocked in the event of a fire. It must have been Fire Prevention Week, and well, it was me, talking about my day and being all teacher-like. It was straight forward enough, but climbing out the window is how it happens, not walking. Climbing is more involved than walking. A door closing and a window opening are not equivalent at all.

What about when a window closes? Is opening a gate appropriate? Would you come and go from a skylight? Should you dig a tunnel? No! None of these are equivalent either. They are insane comparisons.

But a door! It closed! What is one to do?

Make a new door . . . a better door.

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Image credit: pixabay.com

I love everything about this door. The ivy growth, fresh green planks, and carved heart are all perfect. This will be the door I take when I need to imagine a new door for myself. Maybe one day I will find it.

I don’t have an issue with new endeavors, but it is just wrong to say that walking through windows is the same as walking through doors. Try an experiment and come and go from your home for a week through a window and see if it’s really the best route. Chances are you’ll get better at climbing in and out of a window, but you might also attract the attention of local officers asking to see your identification.

The better path is to use your strengths and personal power tools to create a new door. Maybe you’ll make several doors and mark them A, B, and C, behind which are potential new opportunities.

My trouble is I sometimes don’t know what the new doors are really about until after I’ve walked through them and figure a few things out. For example, when I took a second year medical leave, the purpose was two-fold. My school district really was trying to make life less stressful for me. Leaving a slim chance of returning to business as usual also didn’t close the teaching door entirely. Strangely enough, when the teaching door closed, it instantly transformed into a retirement door and there I was already, moving step-by-step, and making progress. It was the door I needed in disguise.

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Image credit: pixabay.com

I have worked hard to make new doors for myself. I’m still working on the courage to walk through a couple of them. It’s a work in progress and sometimes a little scary. Courage is a good companion to have at my side.

Reiki is one of the new doors. Newish. I’ve dragged my feet. The door is there all shiny and ready. I’ve used the door but haven’t invited many to join me. It could be just for me. I don’t know yet. The opportunity is there to give and to positively affect others. Don’t get me wrong – I’m still team medicine all the way – there are just many pieces to wellness that can attribute to overall health. My basement transformed itself fairly effortlessly to a Reiki studio through envisioning a new possibility and help from Amazon. I used to think that I needed a strong calling to become a Reiki Master, but now my thoughts are different. If I can have even more energy available for self-healing, I will take it. Refusing a healing opportunity makes no sense. If I can share that with others so that they feel happier and healthier, I am working on that, too.

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Image credit: pixabay.com

Blogging is another new door. It isn’t what I set out to do. It was more of an avenue that I thought would take me someplace else, which is still possible. I’m not blogging because it brings me great recognition or monetary gain. It doesn’t.

It does give me a platform for sharing thoughts and ideas that come from my heart. I’m in it for my heart – that’s why I write.

Realizing this is causing me to reassess my motivation to be represented by an agent. Is that a door I need or am I potentially even happier with my blogging door? Sure, I’d love a little more recognition and visibility. I am excited to see what doors may open and what doors I continue to create for myself through writing.

Staying active is also a new door. It’s never too late to make healthy changes. Having more physical skills would help, but I have more than I used to have. A lot of motivation is needed to keep me focused on fitness. I liken this process to one new door after the other. Every time I experience some modicum of success and feel pretty impressed with myself, I see another door waiting for me. For example, I have very tiny biceps that I can now flex. I am fascinated with them. I can’t do much else with them so I need to keep working. I’m not sure what I see as my next step, but I will figure it out along the way.

There have been hard doors.

Doors of grief and loss.

Doors of changing definitions of normal.

Doors of hard truths.

Doors through which only I can walk.

The door marked cancer has been a doozy. I didn’t make this door or ask for this door. It’s stained with pain, sickness, always something unknown. No narratives, fact sheets, observations, or best guesses even come close to what walking through this door is like. I kind of thought I knew from what I saw my mom go through, but I so did not know. The experience is individualized. No one truly understands, just like I can’t understand another’s experience. Some come close. Empathy and compassion are wonderful supports.

Yet, the hardest times can often lead to the greatest moments in your life. Hard times make and show a person’s character. Who are you when everything really sucks? Sure, I get grumpy and down. Sometimes I cry. But I also try really hard to hold to my core beliefs. My challenges have made me mentally and physically stronger. Supposedly, I have more courage. I’m not sure that’s true. Having cancer doesn’t mark me as an automatic recipient for a badge of courage. Hardly. It doesn’t make me inspirational either. It does make me go through things that many others do not. That’s what I have to offer. Maybe something else emerges from within, but I‘m not so different from anyone else.

Not all doors need to be hard.

Doors of rebirth and renewal.

Doors of love and light.

Doors of hope. I love those doors.

Doors again through which only I can walk.

Trust is huge to walk someplace new.

If one door closes, make all the new doors you need and trust they will be better doors.

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Image credit: pixabay.com

 

Alabama Alligators and Being Normal

February 4th is known as World Cancer Day and just happened to coincide with the first day of a trip I took to Point Clear, Alabama. I was headed to the Grand Hotel Golf Resort and Spa to celebrate my retirement. It was a perfect time to get away from winter, from people, and from cancer as much as it’s possible to get away from it when it travels with me. The resort had everything I needed on site in an idyllic setting.

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Grand Hotel Resort and Spa  (All photos taken by me unless otherwise noted.)

Point Clear is far down south in Alabama and across the bay from Mobile. The resort was built back in 1847 for wealthy families. It was also used as a base hospital during the Civil War for Confederate soldiers. Point Clear’s location on Mobile Bay made it a valuable port. There have been a couple fires and subsequent renovations to expand and retain its old southern charm.

The shuttle ride in from the airport consisted of a lot of discussion concerning if there were alligators on the resort property and how safe I’d be walking about on my own. Yes, there were alligators in the area. No, no one had ever had a problem with one on the resort. They really weren’t commonly seen. Did I know that alligators were fairly passive and weren’t going to go out of their way to get me?

No, I did not.

You literally had to already be on top of them or they would need to feel cornered to provoke an attack. If an alligator was twenty or thirty yards away and saw you, it was not going to make the effort. It may not even be hungry. Crocodiles were more aggressive. Even so, no thanks. If I were to encounter one, and say be up close and personal where I’d be wrestling it, I would need to poke it in its eyes and it would instantly release me.

Instantly. Never mind my severed arm or leg.

As an alternative (choice is always good), I could just grab hold of its tail and flip it over onto its back and it would fall straight to sleep and be in a hibernation state.

Straight away.

None of this reassured me. I wondered how the gator unflipped itself because eventually it would wake up. I was told it couldn’t do that and it was the end for the alligator in as many words.

Another driver on a different day told me alligators were more curious about people than anything else. Curious? I think squirrels and chipmunks are curious. I do not care to see an alligator in its natural habitat.

Again, no thanks.

It became clear to me on my first night that people just spoke differently to one another here that went beyond the accent. Chalk it up to southern manners and the hospitality industry. My name was either Miss Kristie or Ma’am. It felt a little funny, but I could handle it for a few days. I entertained telling people my name was Missy just to see if I’d be called Miss Missy, but I knew I couldn’t do it with a straight face.

Past vacations with my family were very touristy. We made excellent tourists. What could we see? What tours were available? There wasn’t much down time. We were on the go from morning well into the night. We saw many things and went to a lot of places. At the end of a trip, we rated everything we did from our favorite to least enjoyed activity. Even now days, there is usually far too much discussion and planning based around restaurants and eating.

It was really good for me to go to Alabama on my own. It marks my 50th state. I am a person who has been on the go for most of my life.

In Alabama, I had every day for down time. I struggle with that because the idea of doing nothing as something is a different kind of vacation for me.

I thought about arranging transportation so I could tour the USS Alabama WWII battleship because I enjoy history. There was a boat tour I was interested in to see birds and other wildlife safely. Kayak tours were available. Those piqued my interest. Then I remembered the gators and didn’t want to be at eye level with them, even if I’d have better positioning to jab them in their eyes.

Still no.

I started to feel down that I had come such a long way and wasn’t going to do much. Then I remembered why I came in the first place – it was to take it easy and relax. I did not come to run myself ragged and see how much I could get done in a day.

Point Clear was the perfect place for my destination, named because of its super visibility. I had great clarity on why I came, what I wanted to accomplish, and how I wanted to feel.

My agenda for each day read as follows: Do Whatever I Wanted.

I didn’t want to be scheduled. I wanted to get up when I woke up, eat when I was hungry, take a long walk every day, work out in the fitness center, maybe swim, and spend time reading. I looked forward to enjoying the warmer weather and change of scenery. I hoped to write a bit every day and gather up new ideas from being in a different location. Doing nothing as something was really a pretty full day.

Porch swings dotted the brick path that bordered the shore and looked outward to the water. Hammocks waited for company. Rocking chairs made themselves at home on the patio to my room. Wicker furniture circled bonfire pits inviting guests to kick back, watch sunsets, and relax at night under the stars. Those were all signs, some pretty darn good ones if you ask me, that the pace in Point Clear was supposed to be slower and more relaxed.

There was a shuttle to Fairhope each day. One day I ventured in because I liked the name of the town (big surprise) and noticed the tulips and daffodils were out when I passed through coming from the airport. Since tulips are often one of the first spring flowers to bloom, they are associated with rebirths. Daffodils also symbolize rebirths and new beginnings. How perfect to see so many in a quaint town with hope as part of its name. This vacation signaled a new beginning for me – a lifestyle of staying active and embracing opportunities to relax.

I walked around a bit, popped into a few shops, and visited the history museum. Much to my surprise, it was in one of the boutique shops that I encountered my one and only alligator. She looked sassy and not the least aggressive, but I left her where I found her.

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Taking time for self-care is essential for me as I live with cancer and live well. No doctors this week. No appointments. No need to share with anyone. There would be no one judging how I looked or analyzing my every word or action. It’s as if I could be completely normal for a few days. As far as anyone knew, I was normal. That was my story and I was sticking with it.

Normal. What a wonderful feeling. Getting away from it all was awesome. It was definitely a perk of being on my own that I didn’t have to factor in someone else’s life.

Forgetting. Being normal.

I know there are all sorts of normal. Normal for me is abnormal for others. I want the normal of being healthy. I want the normal of waking up with energy and not having to conserve it so I can do something I really want to do later. I want the normal of being able to plan my life with certainty and not wonder about dark things like alligators and such.

Others may have their own inner struggles with what normal looks like and feels like for them. Everybody has some insecurity whether it’s related to health, personal relationships, work relationships or performance. Some aspect of a person’s life is hard and just doesn’t feel normal. Some people are awfully good at looking like they have it all together. A normal life (problem free) is not possible for anyone.

At this point, I also realize I’ve come face to face with the dreaded alligator just about every day, and that every day I flip it by its flippin’ tail after poking its eyes for good measure. It’s my attempt to keep living well with strength and purpose. I make my own rules for forgetting what I want to forget and being normal.

Forgetting is a luxury. Being normal is relative. I’ll take what I can get.

What I got in Point Clear was a place where no one knew I have cancer. Discovering that clarity was a tremendous gift. I felt happy. Capturing this feeling requires that I stick with my story of being normal when at home. I can stick with it because I can live that story. It involves forgetting the parts of my life that are challenging in terms of my health.

It demands that I keep flipping that alligator whenever it dares to snap its ugly snout at me.

alligator-amphibian-animal-347721. pexels.com
Image credit: pexels.com

See you later, alligator.

Unringing A Bell

You can’t unring a bell.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is very much the same. You can’t go back to the way things were even after surgeries, radiation, and treatment are finished, even if you are assured the cancer is gone. The fact remains that you had it. Everything you went through has inherently changed you in some way.

Others may not see it. Physical appearance doesn’t change drastically for many. Family and friends may tell you that you look the same to them. You are still the same you. It’s intended to be reassuring. There is some truth there. (I find it annoying.) To say you look the same on the outside and imply that you are the same on the inside is what some people mean. That is not fair, nor their call. I know of one marriage that ended because a friend’s husband didn’t understand his wife was still dealing with a lot of difficult emotions. She told him, but she looked “just fine” and everything was “done” and needed to get back to “normal” so he couldn’t understand why everything else wasn’t therefore fine by default. Certainly, there could have been other factors to this marriage ending. I know of another marriage that ended because the husband understood there were changes on the inside as well as on the outside, and he wasn’t attracted to the outside any more. What a guy! There could have been other reasons behind this marriage ending, too, but it seems like cancer became the impetus.

Then again others may see it all too well. Somehow a person who has suffered and is somehow different in a good way may be too much for others to accept. They would be very happy to go back to how things used to be in order to feed what they need. This is where disapproval, insults, and being told that YOU have done something wrong come into play as attempts to keep you in a place that works for them. These relationships should end. There is no room for toxic people in a life that has seen its share of toxicity. I personally deal with toxic drugs almost every week in my efforts to stay well. I can’t deal with toxic people or negativity. Whether finished with treatment, currently in treatment, or in ongoing treatment, do not choose to tolerate toxic negativity from any person. Enough. January is a good time to start fresh.

Maybe you feel not much has changed on the outside or the inside. My position is inside changes took place because you grew from what you experienced. Change accompanies growth. Those who don’t like change don’t have as much opportunity for growth. I used to be one of these people and it’s still hard for me. Change is uncertain and often I don’t understand why some things need to change. I’m trying to understand that changes are there to teach me something and I am working to be open to changes. Changes can be new beginnings. January is a good time for these, too. New beginnings after diagnosis and treatment may be a new job, home, or relationship. Maybe you look at life differently, and have reexamined your belief systems or time commitments.

One constant remains: You can never not have had cancer once you’ve had it. That bell was rung.

I’m tired of its clanging and repetition.

I believe you can ring other bells louder so the sounds drown out other bells.

Ring the bell of resiliency.

We are all capable of more than we know. Resilience is another one of those intangible factors that makes people rise up time and time again after tough times. Yes, problems are inevitable. How a person deals with them is what matters. Being resilient means you find a way to continue to thrive even when there are problems. Taking care of yourself is part of being resilient. Physical and emotional self-care are non-negotiable. Exercise, eat well, meditate, find joy. When your outer and inner self are strong, it means another layer of resolve has been added to resiliency that problems cannot break through, whether the problems present themselves as people, situations, or things.

Ring the bell of joy.

Do more of what you love. Have that cookie. Take a day off and do something fun, frivolous, and completely fantastic. No need to justify, or explain, or defend it. For me, I choose to walk trails and be among trees. I sit on my sun porch and listen to birds. I laugh at movies I’ve seen too many times. I call friends or get together with them. I enjoy exercising (usually) and enjoy it even more when I’m done and reaping the benefits.

Have another cookie.

Yes, I know I mentioned that one twice.

Ring the bell of gratitude.

I believe there is a richness and depth in appreciation that gives life both more purpose and meaning. That thing where you think of five things to be grateful for at the end of each day works. Feeling gratitude is easier when you feel healthy. What about when you aren’t feeling well at all? Knowing myself as I do, I know my emotional and physical health does impact what I’m capable of feeling in the gratitude realm. The other night I had one of these moments. It was about twenty-four hours post treatment and I was flushed and hot from the neck up while the rest of me had the chills. I was low energy and felt a little sick. But I knew if I could get to bed and fall asleep that it would pass and tomorrow would be better. That was about all the gratitude I could muster. My point is it was enough. We are human and do the best we can on any given day. That is the space we all share where health status doesn’t matter.

Ring the bell of knowing yourself.

Take whatever time you need. It isn’t selfish to take time for yourself and know what you think. It isn’t selfish to do what is best for you. Live your beliefs. Others don’t have to like them or agree with them. You do. I thought I knew myself pretty darn well before the cancer diagnosis, but it sure caused me to be more deliberate with how I live. I am more sure of myself now than ever, even though I continue to be a magnificent work in progress.

Ring the bell of standing strong.

You may have to keep ringing a lot of bells longer than you had planned until the unwanted bells stop ringing. Keep at it. You’re stronger than naysayers. Statistics do not know you. You’re more than a number. I get tired of bell ringing, but remember that the sounds create important tones and vibrations. These bells make beautiful music.

Nope, you can’t unring a bell. You can’t let anyone else ring it for you either. Ring all the bells you need to ring until you hear a song fit for a carillon tower. Your song.

 

For reflection:

What bells would you like to stop ringing in the new year?

What bells would you like to hear ring more?

Why I Like Men in Kilts

You know why.

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It’s the varied plaids.

Over twenty years ago, I spent a year teaching in Scotland thanks to a Fulbright Teaching Award. I loved the lilt of the Scottish accents. There were many moments I knew Scotland’s history better than my own. I was a bit of a talking guidebook when I went places with my friends. Living in a land of castles was a dream come true. I drank whiskey. Its burn was warm and its taste long-lasting. I loved the music, the sheep, the people I met, and the experiences I had. I taught third graders. It was why I was there, but it did interfere somewhat with all my other plans. A few students still flit through my mind from time to time. All my memories remind me of this special year in my life.

Oddly enough, last week I reconnected with a kindred spirit who lived in Edinburgh the same time I did and who just happened to stumble across my blog. I already had drafted most of this post. The way life continues to weave people, events, and experiences together amazes me. Forces beyond our ken weave these things together like personalized patterns in plaids for each of us. Some threads naturally go together and overlap more than once. All the threads are important.

I really do like the plaids. The colors do more than just complement one another in a pretty design. Historically, the British government forbade the wearing of the family tartan in the Highlands after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. It was an attempt to suppress the culture and to take away an important part of Scottish identity.

You probably see where this going. Cancer works hard to take away important parts of someone’s identity. There’s hair loss. Surgery. Lots of other subtle and not so subtle changes happen with activities, a person’s social life, and perhaps employment. You look in the mirror and see someone you don’t know anymore. Photographs from a time when you felt you looked like you haunt you because you don’t know if that person is coming back or even exists anymore. Perceptions change (perceived by others or yourself) of what you are capable of accomplishing. Some people even have the nerve to tell you how you feel or what you think. Uncertainty looms.

Not so fast, cancer. Kilts have powers. Envisioning a man in a kilt transports me back to a place where I can hear the bagpipe music running through my veins and feel the heartbeat of a strong Celtic drum. I don’t have any Scottish ancestry, but I believe what I’m trying to describe transcends a person’s roots. It is still identity based, but an identity that is more at your core that can’t be stripped away by cancer no matter how hard it tries. The tartans worn by the Highlanders couldn’t be wiped out. Identities were strengthened rather than weakened. My identity will prevail strengthened rather than weakened, too. It already has. I know who I am.

There are a couple other reasons, perhaps more obvious ones, to love a man in a kilt. Take a dramatic pause here and let your imagination wander for a moment.

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A man in a kilt embodies confidence and freedom. It can’t be denied that a man who dons a kilt in the traditional way it is to be worn is a confident man. He is proud and knows himself well enough to be completely free. He is bold in his freedom. Cancer works to wipe out confidence and freedom, just as it does identity. It fails here, too, because we are people with hearts, grit, and souls. Cancer has none of these. Therefore, those of us who live with cancer have the freedom to defy it every chance we have. Our souls won’t have it any other way. We can be just as confident, free, and bold. Kilt or no kilt. Hair or no hair. Breasts or flat chested. Defy.

I have learned so much from traveling and time spent in other places. Opportunities to be immersed someplace else for an extended period of time aren’t available to everyone. My year in Scotland taught me many things about myself. I realized I was extremely independent and quite a capable being. What I didn’t realize was that so many years later, men in kilts would still be teaching me new lessons.

I have much to embrace. I returned home from Scotland with two kilts of my own, a plaid throw, and at least three plaid scarves. A couple plaid flannels hang in my closet. Don’t get me started on plaid pajamas. I even have a chair with plaid upholstery. Whenever I have the chance to rise up and stage a rebellion against cancer, I take it, and I think very plaid thoughts. Plaid has become a secret weapon. It represents a lasting identity, confidence, freedom, and more.

Aye, whenever I might get a bit beaten down, I will think very plaid thoughts, and those thoughts will be good. My soul can’t have it any other way.

You know why.