Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Clean Change (Part 1)

We celebrated Annabel's 5th birthday nearly one year ago, on the Sunday of Martin Luther King weekend. To be honest, I don't remember much about the party. Of course I remember where it was (at the place she does gymnastics) and I know that family and friends were there. But the only thing I remember in detail about that party was the food. We had pizza from Papa Gino's and cake from Wegman's. Both were extraordinarily delicious. And just like they had always been since I was a pre-teen, both were almost simultaneously my very best friend and my worst mortal enemy.

While others ate lunch with seeming nonchalance, I tried with all my might to cap myself at two pieces of pizza and one piece of cake. That was always my goal, although I never achieved it. I tried so hard to, but I failed every time. I always had different reasons, excuses, justifications, or whatever you want to call them, but no matter what, one piece of pizza would become two, three, four and the only thing that would stop me was an empty box (and sometimes shame). Cake (and pasta and crackers and, well, pretty much anything) was the same deal -- once I started, I couldn't stop. I did stop, because people were around, but once they were gone, I was a disgusting animal. I knew something was wrong and had known it for a long time. But when my daughter turned 5 years old, I hit rock bottom. 

While I don't remember anything Annabel said or did at her party, I remember that my mother threw out the cake box while it still had an outline of frosting on the cardboard bottom. I had planned to take that box home and in the privacy of my own kitchen, lick it clean. When my mom put it in the pile of trash for the gym's outdoor dumpster, I felt like she had thrown away a treasure. I was mad but I love my mom so I made the best of it. "Now I'll be 'good,'" I thought to myself. But once I was home, I considered going back to the gym, fishing the box out of the dumpster, and sitting in my car to finish that frosting. I never did it, but had the wind blown the other way, I would have. 

The next day, I went to my first meeting of Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous ("FA"). There, I found a miracle. 

*   *   *

Since January 18, 2016, I have not eaten flour or sugar (save natural sugar in plain yogurt and fruit). I type that without even believing myself that it is true. But it is. And that's the first part of the miracle. 

The truth is, however, that I didn't sit down tonight to write about FA. According to the traditions of the organization, I'm not even certain I should be writing about it (I will ask my sponsor tomorrow). What drew me to my computer tonight, however, is my students. 

Tomorrow, as part of a larger team effort, I will deliver to several dozen Boston high schoolers a 90-second to 120-second pep talk about how they can change if they want to. It's likely that only a handful of students will actually be listening, but I still take those 90 seconds seriously.  I love that handful, even if I don't ever know exactly who they are. So I have thought about what I will say for 100 times longer than it will take me to say it. 

In order to deliver this message tomorrow, I had to sort out in my head the answer to a question I have danced around for quite a while now -- Can people ever really change? Before January 18, 2016, I would have said, No. But FA has shown me otherwise. FA has taken a dumpster-diving young woman who couldn't stop eating, exercising, and obsessing about both and changed her. Because of FA, I believe that people can change. I'm not sure they can change their initial instinct -- I still grieve, if only for a second, food I can't have. I still dream of swimming in a sea of brownie batter or living in a magical world where calories don't count. Food is still my best friend and my worst enemy. But because of what I have learned in FA and because of actions I have taken as part of the program, I believe that if certain factors exist, people can change the action they take next. In FA terms, people can do the "next right thing," even if they have done 200 wrong things just prior. One day and one meal at a time, I have done just that for 324 days.  

Sometime soon, I plan to write about those factors that I believe led me to change something about myself that I thought would remain a problem forever.  In no particular order, they look something like this: 

1. Desperation  
2. Hope
3. Action steps
4. Support 
5. Faith
6. Gratitude
7. Gratitude
8. Gratitude

To be continued...

Friday, November 11, 2016


When I taught World History to 9th graders several years ago, I had a student whose parents were racist. They were captains in the Salvation Army and after I taught a unit on South Africa, the father summoned me and my department head to a meeting. His message was clear and firm -- he was extremely upset that I was teaching about tolerance yet I was not tolerant of his daughter's opinions. True, his daughter had expressed racist opinions in class and I swiftly had shut them down. He told me that if I was truly tolerant, I would tolerate the intolerant. I laughed it off as one of the most ridiculous things I had ever heard. I haven't given to the Salvation Army ever since.

*   *   *

On Tuesday night, or better yet, early Wednesday morning, I lie awake in my bed after having realized that Donald Trump would become our nation's next president. I was crushed, and still am. Just the day prior I had introduced a feminist novel to my English classes and we had analyzed some of Donald Trump's words from a feminist perspective. One of my amazing students raised his hand and said that he didn't need to take on a feminist perspective to condemn Trump's words. My heart was full of hope for humanity when he said that.

But later that night, the map turned red. I thought I was going to throw up. I cried. I prayed. I wondered, How? 

The next day was not an easy one, particularly because many of my students were extremely upset. All but a few are black or Hispanic, many of them are children of immigrants, and many of their families rely on government programs to survive. They were scared, and from my privileged white perspective, I did the best I could to help.

That day, I gave my students time to write about and discuss their feelings. (I love that I work in a school that trusts and encourages its teachers to do so.) I listened to my students. I asked them to remember all the good people in the world. We talked about how it feels to realize that so many other communities in our nation are not as accepting as ours. We talked about how some of them were surprised by this seeming injustice, and how others are surrounded by so much injustice that they expected this, too. Several of them cried. I tried to give them some historical perspective. I gave them the Louis L'Amour quote that I opened my book with -- that what seems like the end may actually be the beginning. I held it together in front of them, but on the way home, I wept, too.

Since then, I've mostly gone into a cocoon, much like I did after I was diagnosed with cancer. I can't watch the news and I don't want to talk to anyone about it, save a few select conversations. I want to recede and gain back some strength and then face the world again.

It's crazy to me how similar Tuesday night felt to the first night I experienced after I knew I had cancer. The fear, the uncertainty, the anger and confusion at something that seemed so wrong. So unfair. Amazingly, just like President Obama said it would, the sun rose again the next day.

Yesterday, I thought a lot about what I should try to learn from all of this. For one, I have realized how entitled I have felt for most of my life. Entitled to living in a place where war is not at my doorstep. Entitled to a job. Entitled to peaceful transfers of power. Entitled to a community where my children would be safe. But on Tuesday night, all of that seemed to have been invaded by principles and ideologies that I consider deeply dangerous. Racism. Xenophobia. Sexism. Homophobia. Dishonesty. Stupidity. I know I'm prone to overreactions, but truthfully, my entire universe feels -- once again -- shaken to its core.

For some perspective, I admit that I was in a dark place after George W. Bush won the 2000 and 2004 elections. At first, these reminders brought me peace because we did come out of those years alive. But then I remember that some people didn't. Life-saving research halted. The environment was neglected. And thousands of American and foreign soldiers and civilians lost their lives as an indirect or direct result of lies about weapons of mass destruction. George W. taught me that lies kill.

So today, I wonder about what I can do. When I'm ready, I will write to our President-elect to tell him some of my thoughts. I will write to Hillary Clinton to thank her for her astonishing efforts. Those letters will make me feel the tiniest bit better. But then what?

Then, I suppose, I will go to work and go to my kids' hockey games and gymnastics practices. I will have Sunday dinners surrounded by family. I will celebrate Christmas and my kids' birthdays. I will be grateful for every single day, just as I have been for years now.

Somehow in the midst of all of that, I will remember that I am not entitled to anything. None of us are. So we better be willing to work to protect the things we hold dear. Our health, perhaps...and now, our freedom. All this time, I've assumed it was the job of our military to protect our nation and I've put my feet up in my "free country" while our brave servicemen and women sacrificed themselves. I don't mean that I'm joining the army, and I still thank God that the military will take up the dangerous posts. But I think it's time I consider myself a small part of the effort.

As a first step, what I think I need to do is remember back to that conversation over 12 years ago when I laughed in the face of a man who told me I should be tolerant of the intolerant. I did not listen to him, and after I heard his daughter's racist comments, I dismissed her as someone less than me. I felt entitled to the freedom to react that way. To ignore it because the rest of the class was with me. But Tuesday night showed me that a sizable population in the United States is not with me. Clearly they don't want to be ignored.

Maybe that's what I'm most sad about right now -- that I somehow have to find a way to tolerate the intolerant. I have no idea how to do that. And I really really don't want to.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Sincerely, Hope

Sincerely, Hope
A Poem

Hello, sweet friend.
Can you hear me?
I am hope --
with a lowercase “h.”
Can you find a quiet place?
You’ll find me there.

Hello, dear friend,
I’m glad to meet you.
Although I have been with you
since the day you were born;
you just didn’t notice me until decades later.
It wasn’t negligence, so don’t you worry.
You were lucky --
you didn’t need me until you were 32.

Good morning, dear friend.
I am here.
Can you feel me?
I’m a hidden lump, discovered.
I’m a doctor’s appointment that you didn’t cancel,
a phone call to your husband from the nurse’s office,
and the strength it took to tell him --
despite your shattered universe --
They think it’s cancer.

I am hope.
Can you hear me?
I’m an explanation to your mother
from your porch
so your kids wouldn’t hear you cry into the receiver.
I am the first first flight she could catch home,
a long embrace on your front step,
tears on your shoulder.

Hello, my precious friend.
I am here.
Can you see me?
I am an appointment on the calendar.
I am Monday,
a plan,
a starting point.

I am hope.
Have you heard about my superpowers?
They are immense,
wait ………….

Did you feel my presence while you waited?
When the phone rang with results?
When the doctor opened the door
and looked down at his clipboard?
I sat beside you then --
strong, like Batman,
fragile, like a one-year-old missing her mother.

I was there while you slept --
did I wake you?
I sat right there, like a loyal watchman
in the depth of the night.
I tip-toed upon the prayers you whispered
over the humming of the house --
foreign thoughts of desperation,
a language never spoken.

Good morning, sweet friend.
Can you hear my footsteps?
I am your family pacing in the hallways,
the surgeons’ steady hands.
Did you feel my hug?
We embraced when you first woke up.
I am your chest --
and wrapped in gauze.
I am a sample in a laboratory,
a scientist,
a lymph node removed,
a tumor extracted.
An Intruder

Hello, sweet girl.
I am here.
Can you feel me in the ridge of your scar?
I healed you there, and elsewhere.
I’m your sister and your husband,
a pen and notepad of times and doses.
I’m your mother’s nervous scribbles
on those same straight lines,
and her clarity --
that what they called poison
would be your ally.

Dear friend, I am hope.
Did you feel me in the needle to your vein?
In that rush of cool liquid through your bloodstream?
Did you hear me in the buzzer that removed your brown hair?
I am your cousin and your aunt and your best friend
poised beside you
while your reflection morphed.
Did you see me at your mother’s elbow,
softly cradling her wailing question --
Why not me?
without an answer.
I am the stranger at the back of your chair
who understood.

I am here and I am hope.
Did you see me in the dust
that gathered beside the wig you never wore?
Did you see me in the fearful stares
of children and their mothers?
I am your father’s watery eyes
and his anger.
I am your son’s hesitance
and his acceptance.
I am your baby girl’s confused cries
and her recognition.
A hug.
I am their resilience.

I am here and I am hope.
Did you see me in the code blue,
and the angels who descended?
I am the air you breathed,
the extinguisher to the flames in your heart.
I am the plan that followed the shock,
the protocol you never knew existed
to make a mortal enemy a lifelong friend.

Dear friend, you were tired, I know.
But did you feel me in the white covers
of the open hospital bed?
Did you know I flowed
through the slow, thoughtful drip of a drug
programmed to kill
only what it should kill.
I was there
through it all.

Did you feel me in your cells?
I was there, too --
in the good cells, the ones that regenerated after annihilation!
I am a birthday from a hospital bed,
a mask and around-the-clock antibiotics,
a pack of saltines,
crushed ice when your cheeks were flushed.

Sweet friend,
did you see me in the ink that signed the discharge papers?
Did you feel me in the fresh, cold sheets of your own bed?
I am your Christmas tree, lopsided and bright.
I’m reindeer food sprinkled on the front lawn.
I am a fireplace and a family feast.

I am here and I am hope.
Did you feel me hold your hand
over the last insurmountable ridge?
I squeezed tight, I really did.
Did you feel me in the antibody that entered your veins?
Because I am Herceptin,
and every ounce of sacrifice made for its delivery.
I am

I am what I am and I am hope.
Did you see me glisten in the eyes of the friends you met
in the walls you so dreaded?
In their tears and in their smiles?
I am tissues in an exam room
and at a support group.
I am ubiquitous --
there for all of you who need me.

I am here and I am hope.
Did you see me on the computer screen
as you typed your story?
I am a blog and a book and a dream realized!
I am a team and a walk,
yard sales and lemonade stands.
I am a flock of lavender,
sneakers on the pavement of a September morning.
I am strangers who appear as angels.
Can you see me in the movements of young dancers?
I am dancing beside them!

I know I may seem invisible sometimes,
but I’m here,
I promise.
I’m the possibility that tomorrow will be better.
I’m the maybe in a storm of probably not.
I’m the small fraction they don’t anticipate --
the David to your Goliath.

Dear friend,
fear not
in those times
when you can’t touch me
or see me
or hear me.
Because that only makes me
Trust me.
I will help you breathe,
one breath at a time.

Dear friend,
Can you hear me?
Can you trust me?
Because I swear it,
one day,
I will even
help you
Because I am here now
and I am

Sunday, March 27, 2016

For Marisa

Tonight I beg
through guilt and tears,
through pain that grips
my deepest fears,
for a sign that
He does exist
and thought this through
a devil's hiss.

Tonight I scream
why. Why! WHY?
Who decided
she had to die?
Why her, why now?
I need to know
what made the cancer
grow and grow.
why. Why! WHY?
Why left, not right?
Why her, not me?
Why dark, not light?

Tonight I pray
just one prayer
(or pretend there
is a God out there).
Rest in peace
beautiful friend
who never should have
met this end.
Rest in peace
precious soul
who weathered such
a ghastly toll.

Tonight I sleep
here on Earth
defying the devil's
ghastly curse,
wondering why
she sleeps eternal
with angel wings,
a dream unfurled.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Skeleton Earrings

About a month ago, I visited my PCP for an annual check-up. I pulled into the parking lot of the building where I was diagnosed just over three years ago. I looked right, to the section of the lot where I had parked that fateful August day back in 2012. I have avoided that part of the parking lot ever since. In fact, I even considered finding a new primary care doctor because of the awful memories I had made in that building.

That morning of my check-up, however, something came over me. I very rare swear, but as I pulled into the parking lot, I decided to turn into a spot just next to the spot I had parked on August 8, 2012 when the radiologist told me I had cancer. "F#&k that," I said out loud to myself. By "that," I think I meant cancer.

It was a small victory, parking in the dreaded section of the lot that I had so avoided for three years. But it was a victory nonetheless.

Today, I had a similar victory. Ever since Halloween day 2012, I have refused to wear anything that I had been wearing that day. I gave away the clothes I had worn, and I was spooked by the homemade skeleton earrings that had accompanied by newly bald head. Without any real thought, I assumed those earrings were bad luck or had bad vibes or were ... something bad. Actually, I don't really know what I thought. I just associated those skeleton earrings with the day that I learned I was deathly allergic to my chemotherapy, and that was not a fun day.

This morning, however, as I reached into my jewelry box, I decided I wanted to wear those skeleton earrings. Sure, the last day I wore them I knocked on death's doorstep, but...well, "F&*k that," I whispered to myself as I put them in my ears.

Tonight as I changed out of my clothes and into my pajamas (at 5:30pm), I got to thinking about those earrings, and Halloween, and even that silly parking spot. And with a whole different attitude, and a little smile, I may even have looked in the mirror and said, "F*@k that," to myself. And really, I very rarely swear.

*   *   *

I barely remember the last time I wrote in my blog. This must be the longest stretch I've ever gone without it. The reasons for my blogging absence boil down to two very simple ones -- (1) every ounce of my energy I have poured into my new teaching job, and (2) I have never been so fulfilled. Granted, there have been some tough times -- a few dark spots when I was convinced that certain pain I felt was my cancer back with a vengeance, and a few sleepless nights wondering if I should begin on medication to shut down my ovaries as another way to lower my risk of recurrence. But all in all, life has never been so good.

With that very last statement (which I deleted thrice and added back each time), comes a bombardment of guilt. Because while I have been blessed to remain cancer-free (I think) and pursue my dream to write and teach, I know that so many other cancer survivors are not as fortunate. In fact, it feels like in the last few months I have heard countless stories about cancer's most relentless nature. Dear friends of mine continue to battle its wrath. And so I admit that I feel guilty. Guilty for my own luck, my own health, and my own healing. It's a whole different kind of "survivor's guilt," I guess.

At the same time, the truth is that "healing" after a cancer diagnosis is not the linear process that everyone wishes it would be. The path is more akin to the footprints of a child lost in the woods. And for someone who has to face cancer more than once, I can't even imagine what it's like.

*   *   *

There are a few things I try never to say to any cancer patient. "You'll be okay,"* is one of them. Because how do I know? I don't, despite that I live in a culture that likes to make false promises. But none of us know what the next minute will bring. I no longer find that reality depressing or pessimistic. I just know it's reality. Honest. True. Life. (*Please note that stories about people who have beat cancer are different and still very helpful.)

What I do want to tell cancer patients takes more than four little words (or three if you count the contraction). Well, maybe what I want to say is short, too, but it comes from a place of significant thought, I promise. I want to tell them, "You are here now. Please know that. You are. Here. Now." I want to tell them that there is so much light and so much life after a cancer diagnosis, despite the number of sunrises that follow. I want to tell them that there will be bumps -- big ones -- and there may even be some moments when you feel like you ran face first into a brick wall. I know that's how I felt three years ago on Halloween. But I also know that today, without any plan to do so and anyone else even knowing (until this blog, of course), I had a small victory that involved a ridiculous pair of homemade earrings. Skeletons earrings that have survived in my jewelry box for three years.

I see now that healing, like hope and like pain, comes in all shapes and sizes. And I see now that small victories -- like parking spots, earrings, and the quiet whisper to oneself, "F&*k that" -- are victories nonetheless.