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?

What’s at Your Core?

Everyone has core themes – themes that make you who you are. Identifying what these are as an individual is a huge part in understanding your identity. Core themes become part of a healing plan because when you know who you are, you know your strengths. Leaning into your strengths can lead to faster healing.

We should always align what we do with our core beliefs. It’s part of being well and being happy. We all need to live our truths and core values.

I hadn’t thought much about my themes other than I was a teacher, a friend, a daughter, and that kindness was really important to me until I was diagnosed in 2012. With a lot more time on my hands to ponder my purpose, I could really expand on themes for my life. Then I could see how well these matched with my core beliefs. If there was a natural flow, then I knew that I was headed in the right direction. If something felt forced or there was resistance, something was out of line and either didn’t belong or needed a bigger adjustment.

Here are my core themes that I am reaffirming and reminding myself of as I live with cancer:

I am important.

My needs are important and need to be put first. I don’t come last. Yes, helping others is part of my purpose, but I need to make myself a priority. It feels really good when I snuggle in a blanket and sit by the fire with a book. I enjoy putting something else aside so I can go for a nature walk. Taking a break to drink a cool glass of refreshing green juice tastes heavenly. I have rediscovered the joys of reading and writing. I have gifts to share through teaching, writing, and journaling. My work is valuable.

I also need to choose activities and people who are calming, supportive, and fun. I am too important to put myself in harmful, negative, and stressful environments. There is no need to apologize or explain. No drama for me. I lived as a compromiser for too long to avoid arguments. Honestly, I thought it was easier that way. The problem was that the compromises, or all out giving in, was not calming, supportive to me, or enjoyable. It isn’t selfish to put yourself first. It’s self-care.

My life still has great purpose. When I taught, I made a difference day-by-day, child-by-child. Now, I approach new endeavors with that same driven ambition I had with teaching, but also with more balance since my schedule is highly flexible. What I have to say is important to share.

I am strong.

Another core theme is that I am strong and immensely powerful. No, I am not overly physically strong, but I’m getting stronger. I could never climb the rope in gym class or do a decent pull-up. Those are claims to fame that still elude me. But I have enough inner strength to match a hundred rope climbs and thousands of pull-ups. That’s right, thousands. I had the power to get a classroom singing to original lyrics and choreographed movements about respect for an assembly, AND I was able to get them to think it was cool because it was cool. I have the power to advocate for my best health and make it the best it can be.

I will exercise and eat well to feel better and give my body what I need to be healthy. Health doesn’t happen with just one or the other. Eventually, poor eating choices catch up with a person even if he or she is fit. Great eating choices don’t do a lot if someone never moves or exercises. There also is an emotional payout to exercising and eating well. I get my thirty-minute minimum every day.

I’ve had to dig my heels in a lot more over the past seven years, particularly in terms of what I will accept in terms of how I’m treated. As examples, I was not happy with past phone conversations and what I considered bullying from a long-term disability company that did everything in its power but help me. I spoke up, but it’s a long story and a subject for another post. I’ve also called the patient relations department a few times where I receive treatment over the repeated delays and long waits patients have in receiving treatments because of financial decisions rather than decisions focused on patient care. Here again, it’s a subject for another post. The take away is I’ve become strong enough to speak up for myself when my needs aren’t being met or someone has been rude.

I connect with nature.

I need nature. I love healing green spaces with lots of trees. I absorb the energy. Two summers ago on a short vacation, I observed this first hand. I had traveled with my sister to Door County on Wisconsin’s peninsula. I usually am ready sooner than she is in the morning. I would get a little droopy and sluggish waiting for her before we started our day. My energy level completely changed by simply driving through one of the state parks as a detour connecting one town to the next. The woods provided a combination of nature, peace, energy, healing, and spirit for me all in one. My mood shifted for the better.

I experience the same feeling wash over me whenever I drive into the UW- Arboretum. My mind unwinds as I meander along the paths. It’s the green, all the trees, and being in a place where any humans I meet are there for the same thing as me.

Peace and kindness are recurring themes.

I am all about peace and kindness. In 2013, I finally started a peace journal, made up of Bible passages, ideas from other religions on peace, poetry lines, famous quotes, songs, and anything about peace that resonated with me. When I quiet the house and everything around me, everything narrows down to particular words and thoughts. Then everything opens up big time. It’s pure meditation and oxytocin in action. My spirit soars and I feel like I leave or that I’m lost in the moment. Maybe I’m actually more present than ever. I believe a lot of people pray for peace, which is more important now than ever in today’s world. I read a distinction someone made not too long ago that if people prayed, meditated, or just thought (whatever you want to call it) to feel peace rather than for peace, it would be possible to achieve lasting peace between people in the world. We need to feel it within first and push it outward.

I am a teacher and a learner.

A core theme as a teacher and learner has been central to my life. I loved elementary school. I did well. Reading and immersing myself in a world of story couldn’t be beat. From as long as I can remember, I always loved learning and sharing what I learned. Whether a student or teacher, school was a place where I felt safe, successful, and supported. It’s what I wanted to give my students. Teaching always just fit who I was. I can’t explain it any other way. Sometimes I entertain thoughts of returning to school for courses in writing, history, archaeology, and literature just for fun. For now, I enjoy exploring what interests me on my own.

It is no coincidence that in work with my fitness coach I am focused on a lot of work to strengthen my physical core. I know what is at the center of my personal core. I have rock-solid personal core themes and know who I am. In this sense, I am very well aligned.

Happiness involves living in accordance with your core themes. What you identify at your core should be those things that bring you happiness, enjoyment, and peace. Associated words for these feelings may be energetic, hopeful, valued, proud, loving, joyful, and thankful. You may reconsider your actions if you associate feelings of guilt, boredom, frustration, anxiety, helplessness, discouragement, and anger with them. It seems obvious, yet many people stick with actions or beliefs that go against their core out of habit and because making a change is hard work. Make little changes. In a few months time, a small shift has happened where you feel more like you.

We all deserve to be our best.

Consider responding:

  • What’s at your core?
  • Where/when do you feel most like YOU?

What Objects Tell the Story of Your Life?

This type of question fascinates me. It’s a wonderful opportunity for self-reflection and discovery. The answer can change over time as different significant events are experienced, and even as major interests come and go. When I first started thinking about storytelling objects, the number three popped into my mind. Three objects was a good number. Three objects soon became extremely limiting. Then I tried to compartmentalize my life into three sections: past, present, and future. I could have several objects within each section. The future section posed the biggest problem. A crystal ball is not one of my objects. Time as some sort of construct to organize my story helps, but something is still missing here, too. Finally, I fell back on simple self-reflection to identify objects to represent stories that collectively tell a little bit of the story of my life.

Object: Lisa and the Grompet (book)

Story: Independence

There have been countless times where I’ve unearthed a memory and thought, “Ah-ha, so this is where it started.” I have found letters I wrote to my mom while I lived in Scotland declaring how I might as well go places on my own so I could see as much as I could and do what I wanted. I went all over on my own and thought perhaps this was where my independent streak was born. Being in Scotland for a year, however, was already a story of independence.

But it goes back further. Both my parents always valued education as a way to be independent and for me to stand on my own. Good call, parents. I place a high value on education for many reasons. It continues to give me a lot of happiness. It gave me wonderful years in a career I loved. Being independent enough to support yourself and get to do what you love can’t be matched.

But this story still goes back even further, quite a bit further. I remember my dad dropping me off for Sunday school for the first time. We were early and no one else was there. A little boy showed up. My dad wanted to stick around to make sure I was okay, but I shooed him off, telling him I was just fine and had a new friend. He reluctantly left.

For a long time, I thought this was the first memory of me asserting an independent spirit, but no, I can trace it back further still. As a young child, there was this book I loved to check out repeatedly at the public library – Lisa and the Grompet. It was about a little girl Lisa who was bossed around by everyone in her family.

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Lisa and the Grompet (written and illustrated by Patricia Coombs)

 

She knew what she needed to do.  No one had to keep reminding her. One afternoon she discovered a little grompet creature outside who needed someone to take care of it and tell it what was what. Hmmm . . . I felt a lot like Lisa and never liked being told what I should do. Yes, this I think is where my story of independence subconsciously took root. Maybe I was born knowing I was okay on my own. That would backtrack the story even further. Who knows? I need people like we all do. What I am saying is this book had an effect on me and there has been an identifiable pattern that turns up at other times in my life.

Object: Photos

Story: Family

Photos are an easy choice. I love going through albums and remembering favorite moments with my family. They are a collective timeline of my life, so it’s really not possible to choose just one. Together they tell my story. There are photos of birthdays, holidays, vacations, achievements, picnics, days up at my grandma’s farm, pets, and many special occasions. Every year there was a classic photo of the first day of school. Family experiences and values shape so much of who we become. Looking back at those photos helps me remember those times. Photos of family (and friends who are family) are good storytellers. Perhaps my enjoyment of past photos even points to some of my present interests in photography. Important ideas keep showing up.

Object: Pencils

Story: Teaching and Writing

IMG_1727 I’ve written over twenty years of lesson plans with pencils. Hundreds of kids have used thousands of pencils to demonstrate many levels of learning and understanding. They have borrowed and kept many. Too many. I should have taken out stock in a pencil company. I still prefer a yellow Ticonderoga and get a bit of a rush when I begin to use a newly sharpened pencil with a fresh eraser. I’ve filled diaries and journals as a child and adult. These are great time capsules of years, trips, and things I thought terribly important at the time that are now preserved. Feelings that I never wanted to share anywhere else I could capture with words just for me so I’d remember. Many writing endeavors have been written on my laptop, yet that image of a pencil is a perfect representation for the plans, creativity, and story involved in each of them. Pencils create powerful stories. Pencils don’t have the story, but they are the way the story oozes out, word by word, until something complete and amazing is created.

I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but I’ve heard a single pencil can produce 45,000 words. I don’t doubt that one pencil can create thousands of words. Knowing an intangible quantity awaits inside makes pencils one of the truly powerful and magical objects in the world.

Object: Cells

Story: Cancer

This story sucks.

I remember calling my mom after I had gotten my phone call with the news. She was upset. Then I headed over to her house to show her I really was okay.

I remember the day I told my students I wouldn’t be finishing the rest of the year. I explained I had been seeing a lot of doctors and they had found something wrong with some of my cells that weren’t working the right way. The name for it was cancer. My doctors had a really good plan for me but it meant I had to be away from them. That isn’t exactly where this story started, but it’s where it became common knowledge to a big part of my world beyond my immediate family and a few close friends.

Now, it continues. I marked my 100th treatment at the end of February. I don’t really have the words to express how that number makes me feel. A lot of conflicting emotions overlap in a messy jumble. It’s a juxtaposition of toxicity and life. I’ll keep on keeping on.

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Image credit: pixabay.com

I really hate including this as part of my life’s story.

I’ve argued with myself trying to decide whether to include this part or not.

Me: Maybe I shouldn’t.

Also Me: How could I not?

Me: Don’t give in to it as a factor in your life.

Also Me: Too bad, I really don’t have a lot of moments where I feel truly away from it.

Both of Us: Cancer sucks.

I have worked so hard not to let it define me or become part of my identity. Appointments, treatments, side effects, and other related choices have changed the way I live. I needed to retire. Teaching defined me perhaps more than it should have, but I feel that is something almost innate in my being.

When I decided to blog, I knew sharing about how I’m trying to live well while living with cancer would connect cancer to my life more than I wanted. It’s not a story I wanted to have, but it’s part of my story nonetheless. The image of the pencil also blurs into this story. The teaching story also overlaps. Once again, important ideas keep showing up. I can choose how I tell it by the way I live which is why I’ve chosen to focus on wellness. I have a lot of wellness in me. I want people to see that and see me as me.

Object: Path

Story: Rejuvenation and Future

Paths surrounded by trees are some of my favorite places. Trees re-energize me.

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Path at The Grand Hotel Resort in Point Clear, Alabama.

I am relaxed spending time in nature. From out of nowhere, solutions show up for problems. Something creative happens. Inspiring ideas come to me, whispered by the breeze. The fresh air makes me feel fantastic. Depending where I am, I see turkeys, deer, or cranes. I can’t always see where my path leads and that’s okay. Sometimes I know where I’m going; sometimes I don’t. I’m going somewhere and I choose to believe it’s good.

Many objects make up the story of our lives. Books, photographs, pencils, cells, and paths make up part of my story. These may not be the best objects to choose, but they are what I’ve chosen here. For now, there are many other books to read and photos to take. I have much to write whether with pencils, pens, markers, or keyboards. My story is still being written. Creating an environment where healthy cells thrive and abnormal ones don’t is an important focus. I love being in nature walking familiar paths or exploring new ones.

Ultimately, my story is one where I find a way. Always.

Consider responding:

  • What objects come to mind that could tell part of the story of your life?
  • What special objects hold important memories for you?