Why I Love the Hard-Won: Everyday Magic, Day 1066

Walking to the edge of the deck this early morning to take this photo of the fog burning off the brome field and the prairie, I felt great tenderness for the hard-won: all that comes to us after or during great struggle.

Here is the land where Ken and I are so blessed to live, even and especially because we spent over 35 years doing all we could to save it from encroaching development and for native plants and migrating wildlife. Finally buying the land (aka buying the literal farm without buying the deadly metaphoric farm) in 2020 took far more faith, gumption, money, patience, prayer, hard thinking and deep feeling that we knew ourselves capable of, but that’s the song of the hard-won.

I think of writers from my Turning Point workshops (for people living with serious illness as patients, caregivers, or survivors), many of whom wake up in chronic pain, that is if they got much sleep at all, then go about the business of the day from making oatmeal to feeding the cat. I think of friends living with disabilities that sometimes send them for long hospital stays or experimental treatments. I think of dear ones sitting with overwhelming grief that makes any meaning illusive. I think of my grown children, trying to make sense of the world they’ve inherited, climate change and water shortages and all, and still carrying suitcases of plans and hopes into imagined futures.

Sure, there are easy wins in life. The blue morpho butterfly that lands three feet away on a falling down native sunflower, tilts toward me, and pauses. There’s occasional surprise letters in the mail or sweet calls from old friends, things that don’t require grit and effort over long stretches of time. Sometimes we meet just the right person with no extra effort on our part and find them to be a life-long friend or sweetheart. Occasionally, the shining, crazed face of fortune laughs upon us, and all good things click into their slots.

But so much of what paves or pads our dreams and sometimes even our survival is hard-won, from cancer treatments over months of mystery and fear to the work that brings our lives greater meaning, even if getting there entails plenty of time in doubt, confusion, and uncertainty. Yesterday, for instance, I went for my regular visit with my ocular oncologist, and after the technician apologized for any discomfort from rubbing an ultrasound instrument over my eyeball, I told him it was nothing (truly, it doesn’t hurt at all) compared to the painful surgeries and long recovery. Then I went home to present an Art of Facilitation session with an exuberant group of women, talking about hard-won work we do with our communities.

In most of our days, the seeds and fruit of the hard-won abound. So let us pause this glorious morning, time and clear air at a tolerable temperature an easy gift for the willing, to say how magnificent we are for all that’s hard-won in our lives, both in what we did to make it happen and in how it grows our spirit and capacity. After all, there is nothing like the hard-won to show us that we are so much more than we or anyone else thought.

Boobs and Bravery on the Move: Everyday Magic, Day 1061

It’s been a week of boobs and bravery on the move (and I don’t mean the supreme court, which I have other names for rather than slang for an often beloved part of our bodies), all as a consequence of me having had breast cancer and harboring the BRCA 1 genetic mutation. Part and parcel of unfortunately passing this genetic anomaly led us to Minneapolis this last week to support our daughter through her second breast cancer prevention surgery.

Natalie made the courageous decision to have a double mastectomy rather than face what’s likely more than a 90% chance of developing breast cancer. It’s been harrowing to watch her pain and fear while going through several cancer scares already (including one just before Thanksgiving when she had to wait a week after a biopsy to find out she was okay). What a brave 30-year-old she is for taking such a leap, entailed big surgery, subsequent pain and limited movement, six weeks of deep recovery, and now, four months later, a second surgery with much of the same although easier. Thanks to good genetic counseling and her own wise heart, not to mention what she witnessed me going through with multiple surgeries and aggressive chemo, she was able to make her own best informed decision.

She comes from a line of women spanning three generations who have also had to make such decisions. Five of us have had mastectomies, three of us because we had breast cancer (some more than once), and two to prevent getting such a diagnosis. It’s a strange legacy to be living, but here we are and here we’ve been, sometimes passing around our silicon boobs around at family visits to assess the weight and droop so that we can find what works best for us. We’ve also shared stories of the pump-you-up process of inflators followed by swapping those out for implants.

We fear for the next generation, not knowing who will end up with the cancer card in their genetic testing. For those of us who do possess that card, there’s screenings and blood work, careful monitoring of related cancer risks, and passing around whatever article we come across about new breakthroughs in surveillance and prevention.

Our bodies and psyches are geniuses are adaptation, something I know down to the bone. Not having breasts is truly no big deal to me anymore, 19 years after my double mastectomy. As wrote about in my memoir, The Sky Begins At My Feet, each morning I put on my glasses, when my prostheses, which spent the night cozily sleeping in my mastectomy bra. It’s not heroic or extraordinary, just the old normal.

Yet there are some unintended opportunities born of all this. Right before we left for the long drive up north, I got a new pair of prostheses in the mail and consequently mailed off my old pair to a young trans friend, who otherwise wouldn’t have any medical insurance to buy a good pair of expensive prostheses.

There’s also the strength and beauty I see in my daughter’s face, sitting up in her bed the day after surgery and the morning after being awake all night and sick as a dog from the meds (yes, this is a photo of her just then). There’s the deeper understanding of life and health, even for the fortunate with good medical insurance and loving support systems, as she walks outside with us, ten minutes up the block and around the corner as instructed by her surgeon. Each steps takes perseverance and a willingness to feel pain on her way to healing fully.

Each step and each choice sing of hard-won autonomy, a word that became even more precious and vivid to us the day after her surgery when the Supreme Court decision crashed so many of us into anguish. But when I look into Natalie’s face and the faces of so many of her generation, I see a fierce hope rising.

Two Years Later and What Will be Two Years From Now?: Everyday Magic, Day 1053

A photo I took two years ago

It all changed March 13, 2020 for many of us in this country. That Friday the 13th was auspicious in ways people like me didn’t see coming. The pandemic had reached a threshold, and on a dime, we started shutting things down or readying ourselves for the consequences of staying put in our homes and fear.

Kelley Hunt and I were in the middle of putting the final touches on an all-day workshop bringing people in our community together to write songs and stories of the East Lawrence neighborhood. When I called her and said we had to cancel, she said she was thinking the same thing. Never mind the piles of cold cuts, and fresh bread and notepads we had assembled. We would have to work with people a different way to complete this project.

We all had to find a different way, moving at triple speed to bring our work into our homes and over our screens while the days extended in triple slow motion. Wasn’t March of 2020 over 72 weeks long? Wasn’t each day a week of trembling throats and scared stomachs? Wasn’t each night punctured with insomnia as so many sat up in bed, asking ourselves or whoever shared the bed with us — human or cat or dog or ghost — the impossible questions. When would this end? What was this? Who would it hurt or kill? Would we be okay? How would we find a way through?

As I type this questions, I recognize how far-too-relevant they are for Ukrainians right now as their cities and towns, hospitals and military bases get bombed and shelled, as the Russian troops encircle and threaten what was once a normal country living its normal life. The wolf is at the door, and he’s armed to the hilt with no vaccine possible against such evil.

These are times — pandemics and wars — that break open our hearts to show us what we’re made of and expose all the cracks. These times also stop our thoughts and thinking in their well-worn tracks. We just don’t know. We just didn’t know two years ago, and we have no idea about what will or won’t be resolved, and how, and where it will land in two more years.

But we do know how important it is for us to tell our stories, write our poems, sing our songs, so often each one a lantern in the dark. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that life found Kelley and me in the middle of facilitating people to do just that on March 13, 2020. Just today, Odessa-born poet Ilya Kaminsky wrote in “Poems in a Time of War,” that when he asked an older friend in Ukraine how he could help, his friend replied, “Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine.” Kaminsky reminded us, “In the middle of war, he is asking for poems.”

I would add do whatever you can that helps and helps you find your courage and voice.

What’s Wrong With Humans (and Some Birds): Everyday Magic, Day 1052

An hour ago, a mourning dove crashed so hard against our living room window that Ken and I both jumped. The dove attacked his reflection so vehemently, it was hard to believe he survived. For a long time afterwards, he sat on the snow-covered deck and stared at the birds on the deck railing for their morning buffet of birdseed. Occasionally, he swiveled his head to look back at me on the other side of the window. I couldn’t tell if he was mortally injured or doing that total-repair-in-stillness thing that birds do.

For close to two weeks, I’ve been alternating between despair and heartbreak when I take in the news from Ukraine. Three women in the back of a truck heading into battle, one of them with tears running down her shining face as all three clutched their weapons. Two nieces and their children rushing into the arms of their Polish aunt as soon as they crossed the border. A family of four dead on the ground when they were supposed to be safely leaving the city. The deep state evil of how vastly news has been censored, twisted, and spit back out in pure decit in Russia. The great-grandmother lying belly-down on the ground, aiming her gun and still wearing her long gold coat. A little girl singing “Let it Go” in Ukrainian to a crowd of children and their parents hunkered down in a Kyiv subway.

“The birds are incredibly impulsive. It’s a survival mechanism. They fly first, ask questions later,” Ken just told me when I lamented the obviously hurt dove still on the snow. Obviously, this isn’t just birds. As we, who are outside Ukraine, watch and wait, donate money, even to Airbnbs for refugees to have a warm place to sleep, we also have no idea, as my friend Judy reminded me the other day, how this will end. Nor can we say what the right thing to do is that would lessen the shelling and missile attacks, the hunger and freezing, the war between cousins, without triggering Putin to go nuclear. Even if any one of us did know exactly what to do, we have little to no power to enact what we know.

I think of all the people being traumatized exponentially by the hour right now. I think of nations, cities, regions where trauma has reigned for generations, particularly in both Russia and Ukraine. Because of greed, fear, anguish, insecurity, and god-knows-what-else, there is Putin with all this power to destroy in minutes what it takes lifetimes to create.

Despite all the family ties crossing the border between these countries and the long entwined history, despite all the brutality and the wounds it threads through families and communities for decades, and especially despite what history has taught all of us humans in such a visceral and devastating way about war, here we are in an unfathomable place. A time when it seems only miracles could do any good, but I still believe that as humans prone to charge our reflections, we can do something other than charge our reflections. We also have an instinct to alleviate suffering and the capacity to sit with not knowing and enormous pain.

It’s not lost on me that this is an injured dove, and a mourning dove at that. He eventually lifted to the deck railing, stayed there for ten minutes watching all the other birds, and then, against the odds, lifted off and up to join the cardinals in the cedar tree and watch the rest of us. I want him to live. I want us all to live.

Love and Death in February: Everyday Magic, Day 1050

“Maybe since January lasted for seven and a half years, February will be easy,” I said to my friend Kris. She was doubtful since February, for us and many others we know, tends to be the longest and hardest month. Never mind the 28 days of it, February is notorious for slipping the bonds of time dragging us into a morass of sadness and fatigue, dying and death.

So far so good, I told myself a week ago, but I rationalized too soon. In recent days, we got the news that one of our dearest friends is going on hospice, and the anticipatory grief and very current despair about the rapid meanness of his cancer trips me from laughing to crying on a dime, especially for wife who loves him so utterly. An old friend I haven’t seen in over a decade died suddenly two days ago. Ken’s wonderful dad died on Feb. 10th in 2009, and a year early, our good friend expert pie maker Weedle died on Feb. 12th.

That’s just us, and I know many close ones who have their own string of February impossible losses and big swaths of grief. It makes me wonder, if we have some say over when we give up the ghost, whether the bitter dregs of winter have anything to do with it. February also tends to be when the worst ice storms or blizzards hit, seemingly out of the blue, but maybe it just feels like that by this time of the year. It’s been cold too long, even with global warming and some surprise 60-degree days, yet spring seems far off.

February is the squeaky door that doesn’t close properly between love and grief in real time. It’s a time of year when I see up close how much deep and unconditional love we’re capable of, despite what we believe of ourselves. A friend just posted on Facebook how caring for her dying husband is stretching her to her seeming limit only to realize she can stretch further. Another friend texted me, “How do we bear the unbearable?” and then a photo of her beloved’s face full of joy as his childhood friend kissed him on the forehead.

We get through the unbearable together. We stretch ourselves in inconceivable ways. We stand on the threshold of February looking back and looking forward but mostly just looking at what we can see here. Like yesterday, while taking out the compost in the hard chill of the air, when I noticed the first crocus, papery and white, blowing hard in the wind but staying intact low to the ground. Like February, especially this year.