Quiet Joy, Self-Care, and Cancer

Trumpets proclaim joy in jubilant fanfares. Confetti cannons explode. Applause, laughter, and cheerful shouts all accompany joy.

Joy is important. I want to feel as much of it as I can.

I love carols like Joy to the World and Go Tell It On the Mountain especially when I’m singing them along with a large crowd in church. I won’t be doing that this year. I’ll have home sing-a-longs on my own. I’ll even make up words when I can’t remember all the lyrics.

For all the joyful noise that rightfully has its place in our lives, I make the time to revel in the joyfulness of quiet. I also find joy in the peacefulness of the season. The quieter songs fill me just as full as the louder ones. Probably fuller. I even remember the words most of the time.

One of my favorite hymns of Advent is My Soul in Stillness Waits. It repeats these words several times:

For you Oh Lord, my soul in stillness waits,
truly my hope is in you.

It’s a song of waiting, of hope, and of light. The melody is smooth and repetitive, like the back and forth of a soothing lullaby. Sometimes I envision my church decorated with green boughs and lit trees on the altar. That’s usually where I am when it’s sung. Sometimes I think of a starry night sky with that one distinctive star aligning perfectly in the Bethlehem sky with a manger below. I’m beyond excited to view Jupiter and Saturn align this year on December 21st as a “Christmas Star” and will gaze eagerly towards the southwestern skies.

Jesus was born away in a manger, far from crowds, in the quiet. Sure, the cattle were lowing, but the baby didn’t fuss. The stars looked down on baby Jesus while he slept. You might even call it a very silent, holy night. Away in a Manger and Silent Night are two other favorite carols of mine. My mom loved Silent Night, too.

My dad loved The Little Drummer Boy, a song of a poor boy whose gift was his song. Drums would normally be loud and thunderous. Here they are sweet and soft. Pa-rum pum pum pum. The song is so simple and peaceful.

Joy doesn’t need to be loud. It can be, but joyful stillness can move our souls powerfully without creating a big stir. Jesus wasn’t running around with jingle bells.

The Christmas season is much too terribly rushed by my standards. There is such a buildup that starts as soon as Halloween ends. Christmas comes, and then – poof – it’s gone. Spending part my day doing quiet things like reading, listening to music, taking a walk outside, wearing comfy pajamas, sitting by a warm fire, and eating a few favorite foods whenever I feel like it all sound lovely to me. These things bring me joy. I get joy from the time spent with others but don’t get much out of working all day, listening to music blare carols nonstop, running myself ragged cooking, or trying to spend every single moment with others. I usually find I am too fatigued by the time I get home to enjoy much on my own in the evening. Christmas is over, I’m exhausted, and I didn’t honor some of my needs. I find many components of the holidays to be stressful when my self-care is neglected. When I have time on my own, I’m very content to be also be with others.

Here is my list of easy joyfully quiet activities:

  1. Watching snow fall or admiring an untouched snowfall
  2. Gazing at the Christmas tree until you fall asleep
  3. Playing carols on the piano or listening to music
  4. Snuggling in front of a fireplace
  5. Taking a walk in the woods and just listening to sounds
  6. Spending part of your evening without electricity and instead using only candles
  7. Bird watching
  8. Building a snowman / Making snow angels
  9. Watching a favorite Christmas program or movie
  10. A quiet morning or evening walk

An evening with candles will soften everything else around you that night. Perspectives will shift. A quiet morning walk to perhaps take in the sunrise makes you feel like it’s for you alone. Walking in the evening to look at Christmas lights is a quiet way to take in neighborhood displays. I like combining a few of these at a time. Gazing at my tree while listening to music in front of a fire is a favorite thing to do.

Joy is healing. Doing things I don’t find joyful is not. Cancer has plenty of unjoyful moments. It is imperative that I put some boundaries in place to protect joy and healing during the holiday season. It’s more than okay to turn down invitations or change plans. It’s perfectly fine to have some time on my own. It’s definitely okay to do whatever I need and not justify your reasons.

This year it’s easier compared to others because I’ll be celebrating a pandemic Christmas and it will be all on my own. I’ll get to experience opening gifts under my tree this year on Christmas morning for the first time ever. To make the most of these circumstances, I’ve wrapped several items I’ve gotten for myself as Christmas gifts. I am more excited about this than I expected. I’d love to be with my family, but I know I won’t have this chance again. I’m going to do my best to enjoy a lovely day.

None of this is meant to be negative. Rather, it is motivated by compassion and the need for self-care. Showing yourself love and support is extremely positive. Self-care is vital to our lives whether we live with cancer, something else, or are in perfect health. It’s been hard for me to learn this lesson as a people pleaser. I have learned a lot about how to put myself first. I’ll keep learning.

If others are unable to see my joy, whose joy is that really about?

I know there will be plenty of exuberant joys with Christmas this year. There always are. That hasn’t changed as I keep living with metastatic cancer. There will be exuberant joys even this year when so many plans have changed and many, including myself, will be on our own. Enjoy all the quiet joys, stillness, and peacefulness coming your way that Christmas brings this year. Maybe it’s the hush of a blanket of snow when you look out a window. Maybe it’s staring at the Christmas tree and being lost in memories. Maybe it’s playing a few carols on the piano and singing along. Whatever they may be, enjoy them.

Always.

The Lesson of the Milkweed

Crunchy leaves cover a hard ground. A gray sky creates a contrast against the bare branches. The air is chilly. Autumn is a season that doesn’t scream softness. Softness is there. I have been surprised to discover it in unlikely places this fall. Sometimes it’s harder for me to find, but it’s still there, waiting for me to find it.

October needs softness because Breast Cancer Awareness Month bombards me with hard. Awareness is hard. Pink is hard. People who appear to celebrate the month make it hard. And then there’s me because I can make it hard on myself.

I go for a hike when I can to exercise and relax. It sounds like a contradiction, but exercise in nature achieves both for me. Pheasant Branch Conservancy is one of my favorite places to walk and a source of joy. I ventured there last week and stopped in several places to open up milkweed pods. They are remarkably soft. An older gentleman with a shock of white hair noticed what I was doing and wandered over. He joined me in releasing milkweed seeds into the breeze. There we stood, watching the wind carry them away. He laughed and that was one of the best parts. He told me about milkweed bugs. Then he drifted away, kind of like a milkweed seed himself. I did the same in another direction.

Opening milkweed pods is a beautiful example of finding softness this month. A rough outer exterior protects silky soft seeds that float away in the wind. Opening them as a child and watching them dance and fly was pure joy. It made me feel like I was encouraging their quest to find a new home and witnessing it happen. It still does.

This year, October 13th is Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness DAY. It’s a prime example of some hardness for me. Yes, a whole day is set aside in breast cancer awareness month for the only kind of cancer that kills. It’s also Yorkshire Pudding Day. Here are two facts on this special awareness day:

  • 116 women and men a year die every day from MBC.
  • There are around 155,000 people living with MBC in the U.S.

 

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Milkweed seeds at Pheasant Branch Conservancy

 

I need more milkweed seeds. Lots of them.

Sitting in front of my fireplace on the first few evenings when it’s cold enough is another time when softness settles around me. There is softness in the glow and I feel wrapped in warmth. Those first fires of fall are extra special because it sets a toasty tone for fall.

Here are a few other favorites:

Savoring hot tea, coffee, and hot chocolate again.

Hanging around my house in my plaid flannel pajamas.

Snuggling under warm blankets with a good book.

Immersing myself on a trail in the woods while surrounded by trees that have exploded in color.

These actions are a vital part of self-care and letting myself know I am important. They are all external examples even though I have a part of them.

Self-care is super soft. I need to look for soft places within myself, too. Softness must be internal. I can find soft places within when I slow down and enjoy the moment. Rushing isn’t worth much. Other ways I can practice self-care are by showing myself empathy and understanding, forgiving myself when I make mistakes, and allowing space for my feelings. Negative self-talk is hardness; compassionate self-talk is softness. Self-care is love.

Cancer causes hardness because no one comes out completely unscathed. It’s exhausting. Some hardness is on the outside, some on the inside. You carry outer and inner scars. Cancer visibly ages a person. A person develops a thicker skin and smiles when insensitive comments are made. Many experiences and conversations are difficult to endure and process. You emerge from treatments feeling battered, fatigued, and having experienced traumatic physical and/or emotional changes. If you’re metastatic, tolerating toxicity is ongoing. None of these are soft images.

There is so much talk about being strong and fighting or battling. Strength is a double-edged sword. I am strong. I work on physical and emotional strength. The hero Odysseus was a recurring reference in high school among my friends because he was rough, tough, hard to bluff, and used to hardships. I’ve channeled Odysseus’s strength regularly over the time I’ve been living with cancer to move through hardship after hardship. The strength you call upon each day to make it your best is empowering strength. Your strength is weakened when it’s exerted in battling and fighting cancer, or people and attitudes that go against you. I need to focus on the strength that empowers me and not waste it in battle mode. My strength goes toward empowerment and living.

Fall is a wonderful opportunity to let things go. Trees let go of their leaves with ease. Fall can be a time to let go of hard things. Letting go is hard because changes usually are difficult for me. Still, my life will be easier if I only let go of one hard thing. Letting go of many could bring more happiness to my life. What will it be?

Consider responding:

  • What can you let go of this fall?
  • Where do you find softness in nature?