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?

Support and Friendship

I love cards. I love making cards, sending cards, and getting cards. In the age of texts, emails, and communication through social media, receiving a bona fide card in the mail is rare. A few friends and I send cards to each other regularly. Mind you this officially makes us old school (but not old). Maybe a special occasion is being marked. Quite often sending the card is what makes the occasion special. We just do it. It’s one way we celebrate our friendship and show we are there for one another.

Emily sends me cards often. We met through fate as roommates our freshman year in college. We bonded over many things, but I can’t imagine having the relationship I have with her with any of the other young women who were randomly thrown together to share a room the size of an oversized closet. I am so grateful she is still one of my closest friends today. The last card she sent me was on my survivorversary to mark seven years since my diagnosis of metastatic cancer. Somehow she always finds the perfect card. She writes words heavy in meaning and hope.

The most recent card she sent me had a photo of a robin featured on the front that splashed about in a birdbath even though it was caught in the rain. The caption on the front even referenced the bird always managed to “find a way.” The words jumped out at me since that is a personal mantra of mine as well as words of inspiration for the title of my blog. The message on the inside of the card concluded with the thought that the robin kept singing through the rain.

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Card created by Cardthartic.

Emily’s personal words were supportive and encouraging. She connected the theme in the card by writing she was proud of my “strength and song through the past seven years of rain.” I’ve tried. I’ve been the robin. I’ve walked through a lot of rain. I’ve been the rain, too. I’ve also warmed myself in long periods of sunshine.

I received the card on my actual survivorversary. It coincided with the day I saw my first robins returning from winter. Symbolism is rarely lost on me. I look for signs. There is a lengthy list of positive qualities that robins possess in the world of symbolism, too many to elaborate on here. For the sake of brevity, robins symbolize renewal and rebirth since they are a spring bird. I’ve read that their beautiful song will bring joy and happiness to a person’s life. I am ready for it. I love that more robins than I could count settled all over my yard on a day that already held significance for me. More strength and song.

Strength and song as a combined force brings beauty and softness to strength. It mixes power and muscle to song. I close my eyes and feel hope when I repeat the words over and over in my mind. Strength and song, strength and song, strength and song. Strength as hope. Song as hope. Both lift me up. They make a good team.

Kristin is another dear friend and sender of some of my favorite cards. She is not just a source of hope for me but also a source of strength and song. I can always be myself and share what’s on my mind whether I am a robin singing or drenched and cold from the rain. We value the same things like gratitude, kindness, helping others, good health, equality, and the environment. We’ve shown up for one another over years of friendship.

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A Green-Inspired card

The support she offers me through a few sentences in cards is immeasurable. She writes of joy and comfort, support and positivity, tears and fears, gratitude, friendship, and humor. Surrounding myself with like-minded individuals is important not just from a perspective of maintaining a healthy and hopeful mindset, but in achieving and sustaining happiness. I am so fortunate to have made a lifelong friend from adolescence and still have such a strong friendship almost forty years later.

I recently received a letter from the University of Wisconsin Foundation that both Emily and Kristin made tribute gifts in my name to the Stage IV Needs More Fund. Both of these friends know of one another through me, but they are not close geographically and do not communicate to my knowledge. Yet, they made a charitable donation at the same time to honor my personal milestone as a survivor. Kristin told me I made good points through my blog that more research is needed for later stage cancers. Their gifts are more than tribute gifts for a cause I often promote. It is a gift that shows two incredibly strong friendships of strength and song. Powerful forces work in mysterious ways.

Emily informed me that Rob and Mary Gooze, who established and oversee the Stage IV Needs More Fund through their work and advocacy, included a hand written thank you as part of their acknowledgement for her gift. A hand written note fits well into the theme for this post. Rob and Mary are incredibly warm people. They took the time to show they were truly grateful for a donation. Cards and hand written notes make a difference.

No one goes out to make a friend with the reasoning that it’s a healthy choice, however, there is a connection between friendships and health. Time spent with the right friends raises levels of happiness and lowers stress. We have a stronger sense of purpose and belonging with friends. Friends are there to provide support through tough times. Friends stand by one another. Studies show that having many friends as you age may even help you live longer. Friendships are pretty powerful forces themselves.

My life is wonderful in part because I have amazing friends.

I almost titled this post Strength and Song instead of Support and Friendship. In the end, I decided to keep it simple and to the point. A synonymous relationship definitely exists in equating the words strength and support. Song and friendship may be a bit more of a stretch, but they have similarities, too. The best friendships keep the beat, develop variations of the same melody, and harmonize with perfect tones. I will always think the words strength and song carry new meanings from this point forward.

Friendship is a priceless gift. My friends are family. Unfortunately, there have been friends who drifted away when I received my cancer diagnosis. They don’t have the strength or song that I need. They don’t know how to show up for me or they don’t want to show up for me. Other people (note the avoidance of the word friends) have shown up in toxic ways and I have chosen to distance myself from them. I have changed, too. I’ve made mistakes, but hope I’m a better friend today than I’ve been in the past. Positivity, support, and hope are qualities I’ve always valued in my friends. I choose to surround myself with friends who have these. My closest friends sing through the rain just like I do. We share one another’s victories and tough times.

Strong friendships that last though the years are built through support, trust, and empathy. Laughing is a must. Tears are not shunned. Having fun and common interests helps. Interests that change and evolve over time may contribute to some friendships that lose their intensity. My good friends and I have always found a way to support one another and stay connected even as our lives changed over the years. We all need friends to celebrate with, cry with, and confide in, no matter what is happening in our lives. I want to stay close to friends who feel like warm sunshine on those rainy days. My friendships that continue to grow are nurtured through connection. Connection makes room for trust, empathy, and hope through strength and song.

Thank you, all my friends, for being my strength and song.

Consider responding:

  • How are friendships important in your life?
  • Do you still send cards in the mail? What is behind your decision?
  • What does strength and song mean to you?