Kayaking as Peace and Healing

Sharing your story is one way to heal. Shared stories create healing both for the storyteller and reader. I wrote about my first kayaking experience in 2013 after I returned home from spending time at a breast cancer recovery retreat on Madeline Island. Madeline Island is one of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior.

It was a cold and rainy day in July that many would want to forget. It became a story I wanted to share because of the healing properties of being on the water. The experience taught me I could do anything and be stronger because of the experience.

I was delighted when I discovered the piece had been passed on to a regional magazine and published. Well, mostly delighted. I would have appreciated it even more had the intermediary party involved told me it was in print.

At any rate, it was shared, and it may have contributed in some small way to someone else’s healing that read it. I hope by sharing this personal narrative again that it may be helpful to someone.

Kayaking: A Metaphor for Peace and Healing

Breast cancer survivors don’t understand the word no. We’ve heard it too many times. The cold gray sky said to stay inside. A steady mist fell. It definitely was not the warm, sunny, end of July day everyone expected while at our breast cancer recovery retreat. It was, however, our kayaking day on Lake Superior. The weather would not stop us – instead it would make us stronger. Everyone agreed to go. Each of us had faced, or still faced in my case, cancer and screamed NO at it with all our might. A little rain would not interfere with our plans.

Kayaking was a structured activity and part of our learning at the retreat. To be part of nature. To do something physical. To do something spiritual. To listen to the water and to listen to ourselves. Kayaking encompassed all these and more.

Lake Superior is a place of story and spirit, along with the islands that make up the Apostle Islands. Our guide took us to a beautiful inlet on Madeline Island that eventually led out to the much larger lake. The tranquility was beautiful even on a rainy cold day. The inlet protected us from the strong wind and rocking waves. Each of us was about to write more of our own personal cancer story upon the Lake Superior water.

A steady stillness surrounds you when you’re in your kayak and on the water. The oar slices through the water silently and your kayak soundlessly skims across the top. You are submerged but not submerged – on the surface but not on the surface. A kayak puts you in the moment more than any other activity I can imagine.

There is a peaceful oneness with the water. The rhythm of paddling along with the inhaling and exhaling of all that fresh air creates a meditative state.

Kayaking changes perspective. You see everything from the middle, not from the shore. You are almost eye level with the water. You have control over where your kayak ventures to and at what pace. There is empowerment in a kayak.

Kayaking heals. Cancer, surgeries, treatments, and medications take a toll on bodies and spirits. Fear creeps in. It settles in and eats away at your hope. Yet, water has its own purification and renewal powers. Water replaces fear with hope and life.

Water trickled down from the oar I held and onto my legs. The mist coming down, sideways, from every direction cleansed spirits. Kayaking connected the healing aspects of physical, emotional, and spiritual together. Every stroke made me feel more powerful and farther away from cancer.

When there is a storm, kayakers are supposed to raft up . . . to come together and hold on to the ropes of all the kayaks and ride out the storm. You don’t try to paddle anywhere. You just stay together, all in a tight bunch. The point is to make the group look bigger for large boats to see you and to rescue you.

However, there’s another point, too. In life’s struggles, don’t you want to raft up so you can help one another through the storms? You do. The concrete becomes another part of the metaphor.

After about an hour, our group came together to assess our progress and make decisions. One kayak was filling up with water and in constant need of the hand pump. The mist had changed into rain. You could see by the wind moving it slantways. We headed back in silence to reflect on our experience.

Kayaking proved to me once again I could conquer my fears. Not just conquer, but excel, in this new experience. Every inch of me was soaked, yet I felt fantastic! I was stronger both inside and out.

Once out of the water I started to shiver. Yet, I knew this was not the toughest part of my retreat. The toughest part for me was earlier that morning as I took an emotional risk when I shared scary parts of my cancer story with my fellow retreatants. Emotional risks are scary.

I will paddle on in the warmth and sunshine.

I may paddle again in the cold and rain.

I can do anything.

And I will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pelican Lessons

Sanoviv Medical Institute is situated on the Baja Peninsula in Rosarito, Mexico. It’s built on a cliff looking out at the Pacific Ocean. Every day seems sunny. A lulling symphony of rolling and crashing waves repeats itself over and over. It’s a small hospital that specializes in functional medicine and both integrative and alternative treatments. Many guests visit for a health retreat. A smaller group of guests are patients with more serious health conditions. Research there focuses on how immunity can be supported at the cellular level in fighting disease and optimizing one’s best health. The physical, mind, and spirit are all important components of a healthy individual.

I left Wisconsin for Sanoviv almost as soon as my school year ended in 2016. My goals included strengthening my immunity, detoxing my body, and learning more successful ways to deal with stress. I was open to hearing what they recommended in terms of treating cancer. My oncologist at home was curious and doubted anything would interfere with my current protocol. I wouldn’t be missing any treatments at home by going. Neuropathy had taken a toll on my poor feet. I was also suffering from painful hand-foot syndrome. Of particular interest to me were the options for treating disease from a cellular level after disease had already happened. I signed up for a three-week cancer support program. If nothing else, I was off to Mexico in an idyllic setting and getting away from my life at home. It was even better if my health improved.

There are many moments from that trip etched away both in my memories and in a book that exists in a forever state of revision. I met people from as far away as Nigeria, Australia, and China, and as close to home as Chicago. My days were scheduled from 6 AM to about 7 PM. Some of it was not pleasant, but many parts of it were filled with beauty, purpose, and deep lessons. What I want to share briefly are my memories of the pelicans.

Pelicans flew along the coastline daily. I had never held any affection for these birds. I thought them big, ugly, and dirty looking. If a bird could be fishy, pelicans were fishy as well. My opinion transformed at Sanoviv watching these strong and graceful birds. I admired how they would pass by in single file while floating on an air current. It was like each bird was connected to another with an invisible string. They reminded me of bikers drafting behind a lead bike so as to block the wind and use less energy, an idea which bikers got from birds no less. At other times the pelicans arranged themselves in groups of four like in fighter jet formation. Wings tucked in for increased speed, yet they still managed to stay in unison with each other. These birds had an unspoken quiet beauty no matter how I saw them.

I had a very special pelican sighting on my last full day. I was sitting up in a special care area receiving IVs, looking out at the ocean in a bit of a daze, lost in thought. Far out on the hazy horizon, I saw a somewhat shapeless form. I wondered if they were pelicans, but they were too far away. Whatever it was resembled the v-shaped way a child draws birds flying in pictures. As the shapeless form drew closer, it moved off to the left and changed shaped, now reminding me more of a swarm of bees. From where I sat, I temporarily lost sight of the changing shape and figured that was the end of it.

But it was not. The shape was a small group of about four or five pelicans who were just hugging the coastline. Soon enough, they came back into view and flew by my window in a single file in one long, continuous silent flow. It was as if the pelicans were saying goodbye and purposely saluting me with their waving wings. It was a beautiful and peaceful moment that I will never forget.

Here is one of those perfect times where everything fits together magically. In the animal spirit world, pelicans symbolize regeneration and resourcefulness. I was at Sanoviv to heal and re-energize. The pelican population had dwindled in the past but presently has bounced back. Pelicans also represent resilience and determination. My spirit is filled with this same resilience and determination. My mindset is of one determined path just like the single line of the pelicans’ flight. A greater force was absolutely at work in bringing pelicans to me day after day after day. Signs are always there. I don’t believe it’s all a coincidence.

I didn’t get all the answers I wanted at Sanoviv. I arrived home feeling healthier than I had in a long time. My energy was better, my cholesterol was lower, and I felt happy. New scans were scheduled at home. These showed that returning to a more traditional form of chemotherapy was in my best interests. I would have had the same results if my scans had been scheduled before I went to Mexico. It’s interesting that one of the things I’m currently receiving today is what they suggested as my best option almost three years ago. The drug was not being used in the U.S. in exactly the same capacity as in Mexico, so I got a big fat NO from my oncologist at home. It was an FDA thing. Now it’s FDA approved.

I quickly made decisions and turned my life upside-down once more. Nothing was how I wanted it. Very little seemed the same. Life looks very different to me now. I have been resourceful, resilient, and determined, just like the pelican. Where everything isn’t perfect, I am still here. I am finding a way.

Lessons of resourcefulness, resilience, and determination are important for all of us. We all have stories where life hasn’t turned out as we planned. Many events are outside our control. We almost always think we have more control over events than we actually do. How we respond when life becomes hard is important. There is always a choice to respond positively or negatively. We all have opportunities to adapt, regroup, and come back to either try again or go in a new direction. We rest and give it another go, approaching challenges from new angles and perspectives. We all have more grit, strength, and determination than we think we do.

We are an awful lot like pelicans.

Many times we glide with grace.

Other times we need to be in fighter jet formation.

 

Consider responding:

  • When have you needed to depend on resourcefulness, resilience, and determination?

Three Lenses to Braving the Wilderness

Living with cancer has given me the opportunity to spend more time reading for enjoyment. It is a welcomed escape. I recently read one of Brené Brown’s books, Braving the Wilderness. In today’s post, I explore this book’s themes from three different lenses.

Lens One: Braving the Wilderness Brené Style

This lens is a basic introduction to the book’s main message. Brené Brown explains that being brave involves being true to yourself. Being brave means bringing life to your story. You are the only one who can do it.

She says you aren’t going to please everyone. Inevitably, it means you can’t be brave and never disappoint anyone. So true.

If you seek the constant approval of others and people pleasing is more important than your own inner happiness, you are not being brave.

There will be criticism with braveness. There will be LOTS of criticism.

There will be great moments of uncertainty because you are standing alone.

There will be vulnerability as you discover all your truths and how you are discovering exactly how you belong.

These sound terrifying. Going through life not knowing yourself is more terrifying. Braving the wilderness means you stand firm when you face the wind and disapproval of others. When you know yourself, you have the courage to stand firm in your beliefs because you know who you are.

To truly belong, you only need to belong to yourself.

That’s the biggest take away for me in the whole book. In a world where belongingness is sought after in almost every interaction and relationship, we all lose sight that the most valuable relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves. The interactions that matter most are the ones directed at how we treat ourselves.

She writes that “true belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are.”

Belonging is intertwined with I AM.

Lens Two: Braving the Wilderness with Cancer

My opinion and personal interpretation take over with this lens.

Having cancer is a wilderness of its own. Truly belonging to yourself and blending that wilderness with a cancer wilderness is challenging. To own both wildernesses is overwhelming.

I believe if Brené Brown were to speak directly to me, she would say to lean in fully to the loneliness and discomfort of cancer. She would emphasize the need to become vulnerable with it. The personal connection with it would change how I feel about it. At least I think that’s what she’d say.

I also think I’ve had plenty of loneliness, discomfort, and enough of a personal connection with cancer already.

Brené Brown writes a lot about boundaries. The firmer the boundaries, the more respected they will be. It is not okay to be taken advantage of and trampled upon physically or emotionally. You can’t belong to yourself if you are crushed.

Cancer can crush a person as much as someone else can. Being bald makes you look and feel less feminine. Surgeries do the same and you’re left feeling “less than.” Others often confirm it. If you are flat, then you somehow have lost your womanhood. Perceptions around going flat are slowly changing. Treatments take all the oomph out you so there isn’t much energy left for you to object to cancer defining you. Medical labels, side effects, perceptions, and an evolving normal keep shifting. It’s easy for cancer to define someone. It’s much harder to claim belongingness.

Suddenly, you are not you anymore, but the person with cancer. Everyone has a story to share with you because that’s how they attempt to connect with you and now identify with you. It’s important to set boundaries for how you want to be treated.

Firm boundaries support trust. When others respect boundaries, it is safer to trust them. Trust has caused me an ocean of hurt. A lot has become clearer to me in the last few years.

To me, living with cancer and learning to trust more means:

  • I share what I want about my health and expect my privacy to be respected.
  • I do not have to explain or justify my feelings, nor do I need to provide a reason so others understand.
  • I can’t trust a person with the big stuff if someone has betrayed that trust with smaller stuff.
  • I need to feel physically and emotionally safe in order to feel connected to someone.

Strong boundaries enable a person to have more empathy for others. Self-care comes first. Then you know what you can do and not do for others. I still identify as a helper. Taking care of myself first lets me know what time and energy I have available for others.

Living well demands I brave it – it being life – and I’m braving it fiercely these days. The older I get, the more at home I feel in my own skin. I’ve known for some time that my happiness depends on my braving life. I am comfortable with most of the decisions I make. Being brave is both frightening and peaceful at the same time. The uncertainty and vulnerability show up as frightening, but then the acceptance of those parts of my life oddly brings an element of peace.

Lens Three: Braving Well Together

This sounds like an oxymoron if braving the wilderness involves only needing to belong to ourselves and having the courage to stand alone yet firmly in our beliefs and values. The way I see it, there is still room for the support of others who are also being brave. Picture a wilderness scene. I can be standing in my wilderness next to a beautiful mountain lake holding a sign that proclaims my beliefs. Another person can be standing a few feet away near a magnificent tree with a sign that reads entirely different. Part of my wilderness may be accepting and trusting others. This holds challenges for me, but I need to be vulnerable enough to slowly test those waters. The other person may be working on keeping a few more personal thoughts and the confidences of others private. We can give each other the acknowledging head nod to show our support while still recognizing the work is an individual inner process.

The other way I believe we can be brave together is that it’s when we feel alone and are brave that someone else comes along and gives voice that they feel exactly the same way. We may think we are alone, but we are not. It’s very possible that someone was feeling the same way and was beyond grateful to cross paths with someone else giving voice and standing his/her ground in a way they needed. When we are brave on our own, social connections can be found. It’s part of finding your tribe.

Vulnerability has always been tough for me. Honestly, I haven’t always liked Brené Brown’s work. I stopped reading her first book years earlier because I didn’t like what she had to say and I found her too repetitive. Looking back, I wasn’t ready to do some of the work I needed to do.

I still have work to do. LOTS. There is so much I don’t have figured out. I’ve figured out this much: I’ve become more comfortable braving the wilderness.

Consider responding:

  • Have you read any of Brené Brown’s books? What stands out to you?