Fearless Girl

The Fearless Girl is a bronze statue created by Kristen Visbal. The statue has come to symbolize progress and equity for women. The reason for her existence is much less inspiring. A large asset management company known as State Street Global Advisors commissioned it to advertise an index fund. Sure, it also promoted female empowerment and aligned well with International Women’s Day, but the initial motivation of the asset company makes its origins more of an advertising stunt. It was conveniently installed directly opposite of the famous Charging Bull statue of Wall Street which added drama in more ways than expected. Arturo Di Modica, the sculptor of the bull statue, complained about the deliberate placement of the girl statue, and she was eventually moved to a different spot in front of the New York Stock Exchange in lower Manhattan.

My opinion is her new location is better because all the focus is on her. There is nothing to detract away from her. Those who see her can connect with personal stories and interpretations about what she stands against fearlessly. It makes her more fearless in my eyes.

Image credit: pixabay.com

I believe Fearless Girl represents many favorable qualities. She embodies a confidence and indomitable will. There is something unmovable about her other than her 250 pound weight. It’s her stance with her hands on her hips and the determined look in her eyes. Although small, she is an image of strength and might. Can we all be her? I think the answer is we can.

Images of confidence, determination, and strength are important for me as I go about living with cancer. I muster up courage for office visits. I know what I have on my agenda. I attempt to hold my head high as I go about trying to pull off a persona of confidence, determination, and strength even though I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know if my inner and outer vibes match. I try and keep trying.

Granite is my chosen word for 2021. It came from an unexpected ending to a poem I wrote. It’s known as a hard, igneous rock. Granite is made up mainly of quartz, mica, and feldspar. Symbolically, it’s associated with strength, abundance, and protection. Because of its durability, granite has a long lifespan. Therefore, granite also represents longevity. It’s a good word for me this year to picture myself as a strong rock that will withstand wear and tear. I am durable. Like granite, I have longevity. I want longevity on my side. My image of granite strikes me as fearless.

What does it mean to be fearless with cancer?

I’m not sure. Fear is a normal and expected part of it. I don’t believe those who say they aren’t or weren’t afraid. Knowledge makes me less fearful, but I still feel fear. Being scared is okay. For me, being scared makes me more fearless. People call me strong or brave. All I’m doing is walking through the fear. It pops up even with non cancery things. I face it. Whereas I doubt I can eliminate it entirely, I know how to lessen it.

Tests and scans provide information and direction. Knowledge, information, and my feelings support me as a patient. I need the tests to plan for treatment. My mom didn’t want lots of tests when she had cancer. It presented even more unknowns and made it a lot harder to treat a cancer that returned metastasized. I believe my mom was fearless in her own way. It’s too emotional for me to put words to how I believe she faced her diagnosis. She didn’t talk much about what was happening. It was so emotionally and then physically painful for her. I’m sure my status factored into it. All I have are my observations and own feelings. My point is everyone works with fear.

Support makes me more fearless. I feel less alone when I share how I feel with people I trust. I feel less alone when others let me know they’ve been through something similar and feel similar feelings. My true friends are the best. Phone calls, emails, texts, and messages are treasured means of connections in this COVID world. Checking in and listening are huge comforts to me. We all need such support. As a writer, my voice has more power through my words. Blogging is a platform where I can reach out and share what’s on my mind. I appreciate the support I receive through those who read my work.

Being fearless as a patient means I ask questions. I research and learn. I speak up and say what I need, what works and what doesn’t. I am a part of my team and participate in decisions. I know I’ve weighed decisions thoroughly and made them in my best interests. My body goes through a lot. A wide range of emotions are felt. My voice gets heard. I can get upset and often have tears, but this is one of the ways I walk through fear. Tears do not make me a weaker person or less abled patient. They get me somewhere I need to be.

Living the way I want to live makes me fearless. Many of my plans have changed. Somewhere I learned not depend on others in order for me to do what I wanted. Independence has served me well seeing as I’m on my own living with cancer. I am thankful for my successful teaching career and the ability to support myself. So much is taken away with metastatic breast cancer. I certainly have given things up. I am grateful I am able to be independent, have a home I love where I feel safe, and the ability to set and achieve a few goals. I want to be seen, make a difference, and feel connected. I refuse to hide and wait for the next problem to present itself. I don’t want pity or to be told how I should be living based on what others have done. I am well aware that events in my life aren’t always pretty. It seems I struggle more than I’d like with what I think should be a lot easier. I believe we all have these moments. It’s how we handle them that can define ourselves as fearless or fearful.

Cancer is an invisible fear that shows up in visible ways. It creeps slowly at first when life hasn’t changed much. Then you qualify for disability and your health takes precedence over your career. There are medicines and side effects. There are many private tears and fake smiles. There are uncertainties and fear itself. There isn’t a day it isn’t there in some form. I stand as fearlessly as I can against the fear, scans, progression, and dwindling options, while always hoping for a cure. I stand with others against losing 119 a day in the U.S. These are our friends, relatives, coworkers, and others we’ve come to know dearly along the way through our shared misery.

I have a DOVE chocolate wrapper on my refrigerator with an inside message that reads to be fearlessly authentic. A wonderful thing happens with aging – you learn to be truer to yourself. I was more confident in my 30s than my 20s, my 40s than my 30s, and I would expect the same to be true in my 50s. We figure more out with each year. I’ve become more expressive of my opinions. I’m not willing to tolerate certain opinions or behaviors of others that violate my values. I am in a place in my life where I do what I want if nothing is standing in my way. I remove obstacles when possible. In terms of blogging, I write about what I want. It isn’t always about cancer, but usually there is a connection tying the piece together. I read a number of blogs and do too much comparing of others to mine in terms of definitions of success. If I were to change mine, I’d have to compromise my authenticity here, and I’m not willing to change me or my craft to fit in falsely somewhere else. There may be some cosmetic changes but the real me is at the core of the writing.

I never have been one to change to fit in. Most of the time I don’t think I fit in very well. It has become less important the older I get. Cancer has opened my eyes to myself even more. I’m authentic to myself and know who I am. Introverted and private with most, but I know my inner workings well and how I move best through the world. I know what traits I value. I try to demonstrate those and surround myself with like company. My personality and abilities as a teacher shined in the classroom. I believe I still teach by example. My efforts in fundraising, advocacy, and any cause I find important showcase my beliefs. Writing and photography presently reflect my authentic self. I am far from perfect. My imperfections may be some of the most authentic parts about me. In these ways, I embody my fearless girl authentically.

How are you fearless?

How are you fearlessly authentic?

What goes into being a fearless patient?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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.

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.

 

IMG_2650
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?

Living in the Storm

The role of a teacher is important and valuable. A teacher’s influence is still seen years later. Students return to say hello, to thank you, to hug you, and to say they made it. It’s the best kind of recognition a teacher can receive. I enjoy seeing former students. The oldest students I taught must be around thirty-five or thirty-six years old by now. For the record, I’ve taught around 543 students. Admittedly, those numbers make me feel old, but it’s a good old because I loved teaching. Working with children brought me immense joy and sometimes it drove me crazy. There were good days and hard days as are inevitable when over twenty children were put together on a daily basis.

I remember one student of mine who had very troubling years getting through elementary school. He was violent and destructive. He scared children. He scared adults if I’m being honest. Staff eventually learned some of his trigger words and actions that foreshadowed he was close to losing whatever control he had of himself. One such signal was if he suddenly started clucking like a chicken. He was a teacher to us in that way. We all wondered if he would make it through middle and high school. He did. He returned with other graduating seniors several years ago to visit. We talked and he struck me as happy and excited about his future. He had plans to attend a community college and learn a trade. He told another teacher that he was better now. Elementary school held a positive place in his heart even though it was excruciating for him. He wouldn’t have returned if we hadn’t mattered.

Curriculum is significant, but HOW teachers teach it and the connections we make while doing so are even more important. I always thought my two largest roles as a teacher were to help my students become critical thinkers and to teach them to be kind to one another. Knowing how to think and be kind will positively impact the world more than knowing a lot about numbers, science, or words (all of which are amazingly awesome on their own).

I am finally getting to how all of this connects to storms. Life has storms. We need to know how to think and be kind when one of life’s storms comes our way. Storms are teachers.

Poems also are powerful teachers. Writers create images that stick with people for different reasons. Mark Nepo is a poet and spiritual advisor who has taught poetry and spirituality for over thirty years. He has written fourteen books and has a wide following. He also is a cancer survivor. His poem titled Behind the Thunder weaves together ideas of learning to be strong without losing yourself. I believe its point is that an event can change you but that you don’t give yourself over to it. At its core, the poem is about resilience.

 

Behind the Thunder

~ Written by Mark Nepo

 

I keep looking for one more teacher,

only to find that fish learn from water

and birds learn from the sky.

If you want to learn about the sea,

it helps to be at sea.

If you want to learn about compassion,

it helps to be in love.

If you want to learn about healing,

it helps to know of suffering.

 

The strong live in the storm

without worshipping the storm.

 

pexels-photo-1530423
Image credit: pexels.com

 

Cancer is one bleeping kind of a storm.

And no, I can’t use the word I’d like to use after a poem written by Mark Nepo.

It wouldn’t be right.

What a storm it is. It has drenched me. I have lived with this storm. Like a fish that has learned from water, and like birds that have learned from the sky, I have learned from the storm. I have suffered, but I feel I have also learned a little about healing. This is what the storm as a teacher has taught me:

pexels. rain-boots-umbrella-wet
Image credit: pexels.com 

  • It’s better to exist in the storm from a place of healing rather than a place of suffering.
  • The storm has made me stronger than I knew I could be.
  • The storm hasn’t broken me. It won’t. It can’t destroy my soul.
  • Cancer has been a rather cruel and unrelenting teacher, but effective. Maybe it intended to turn me bitter and negative, but it failed. Through it, I have learned about joy, kindness, peace, and gratitude.
  • Just because I live in a storm doesn’t mean I’m a human lightning rod. I will protect myself seeking shelter and sanctuary in whatever way I can.
  • The storm has not made me ugly. I am more beautiful than ever. Living in this stupid storm has taught me how to finally embrace and recognize my beauty.
  • There are some who will never understand how I think or feel about this storm. It’s okay. I don’t understand myself a lot of the time anyway.
  • Others live in similar storms. We can support one another and learn together.
  • There will be more storms.
  • I am resilient.

Thunder can’t hurt me.

It’s the lightning that’s the problem.

I’m still learning.

 

Consider responding:

What lessons have you learned from living in a storm?

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.