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?

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.

 

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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:

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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.