Saying Grace

Damon and I are chatting and catching up in the kitchen as Damon puts the final touches on dinner—he’s been awesome about picking up more of the cooking duties since my “morning” sickness and fatigue kicked in. Oscar is literally dangling from the hem of my skirt, laughing as he swings and twirls from side to side, hanging on to the fabric. I’m wrinkling my nose up at the eggplant Damon just brought in from the grill—I normally love it, but my pregnant belly isn’t so keen. I’ll try some anyway because it was made with love. I sit on the floor to tickle Oscar before dinner hits the table, and he shines. He just shines.

We have so much for which to be grateful. Of that, there is no doubt.

The fall before my husband and I met, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Shortly thereafter, I had what’s called a cold knife conization to remove the cancerous tissue.

As I woke up in recovery (thankfully lucid enough to push away the proffered saltines, pointing to my allergy bracelet), my fabulous doctor came in to see me. With characteristic frankness, she told me that the lab tests on the excised tissue would give us confirmation in another week or so, but that the surgery itself went great and I would be able to have children in the future, no problem.

I burst into tears of relief.

Which is weird because I didn’t want children. Or I thought I didn’t. Or I had accepted the fact that I never would.

But my body’s reaction, those tears, told a different story. They changed my life. The weeks that followed brought tumultuous change—some good, some less-than-pleasant, all necessary. I knew my life needed to change. I didn’t know if I would ever have children, but I knew that I didn’t want to be living a life in which I knew having a family would not be an option.

Subsequent lab results and follow-up tests showed that I continued to be cancer free, and I found that I didn’t want to “date” anymore or try to shoe-horn myself into someone else’s life. Antoine de St. Exupery once said, “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward in the same direction.” That’s what I wanted. I signed up for an online dating service on a whim, and I met Damon. Less than a year later, we were engaged.

That next winter, a follow-up test showed positive for cervical cancer again. I’m so glad Damon was there with me. We once again did the biopsy and confirmed the diagnosis. And once again, I had surgery to remove the affected tissue.

And once again, it was successful. I’ve been cancer-free ever since, about two years now. Our oncologist told us when the second diagnosis came that if we wanted to have children, we might want to “prioritize it,” not put it off. There’s a chance the cancer could return, and a third bout might require different handling, to put it gently.

Damon and I agreed on two things. First, we both very much wanted a family. Second, we did not want to have fear rule our decisions, and neither did we want to postpone something we both wanted so much. We talked, a lot. We planned for our wedding. We celebrated our good fortune and good health with breathless gratitude.

eating ice cream

Damon and Oscar, sharing some ice cream.

Within a month of returning from our honeymoon, we discovered we were pregnant with Oscar. I often marvel that if I had never been diagnosed with cervical cancer, I might never have met Damon, for whom there are not enough superlatives in the world (superlatives, Damon, not expletives 🙂 ). If I hadn’t been diagnosed a second time, Oscar might not be here today. And suffice to say, we would probably not be expecting baby number two.

I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but I am so glad that I had cancer. I’m not ever one to dally with regret, but to think of so much goodness coming from something so frightening, my head just reels.

Now dinner is ready. Oscar wears his enthusiasm for food all over his face (literally). I try the eggplant, compliment the flavor, then predictably focus on the salad instead (sorry, Damon!). Damon laughs, his face split into a huge shining grin, and tells me about the beer he’s drinking. I realize he shines just like Oscar, and vice versa. All that glow, illuminating our meal.

Grace.

Tragedy & Transformation

I’ve had to rewrite this post several times from scratch this week, so murky and tangled are my thoughts and feelings, in hopes the writing will untangle some of the snarl.

tree_b&w

Photo by Anna L. Tulou Orr

This has been a hard week for many. With the incidents in Boston, in West, Texas, and the ongoing strife in many areas of the world, I think many of us are just exhausted. I’ve always been a person who cried readily over movies or books or news stories. Since becoming a mom, I even cry over commercials and storybooks—my paradigm has shifted. Now I see every single human being through a new lens; I see that every single one of them is someone’s child, whether events have cast them as victim or villain or hero. We are all someone’s baby, regardless of what good we’ve done, nor what harm.

So much good can rise out of terrible grief. Extreme circumstances often show us the best of humanity, and I honestly believe (because I must) that this is by far the stronger force. Grief can be cathartic. The Leong family unexpectedly lost their five-year-old son just last weekend—and through their terrible grief, they sought and continue seeking to find light, to find meaning, wanting to arrange to donate their son’s organs to help some other person, calling for random acts of kindness to be shared on their Facebook page (wonderful and heart-lifting to read so many posts), and asking for charitable giving in their son’s memory. I hold them in awe and am so grateful for the example they set, the things they’ve been teaching me and so many others this past week.

To those in Boston who ran to donate blood or ran toward the explosions to help the wounded despite the obvious danger, you are heroes. In the midst of unthinkable violence, you remind all of us of what we hold to be undeniably good. No one can argue it.

When I was in school, a student was shot and killed after a concert for his shoes, a senseless act. His parents came to the school and spoke to us, and I remember, young as I was, being frankly dumbfounded. Their son had been brutally, needlessly killed, and they stood in front us talking about compassion, about forgiveness. I have carried that message with me throughout my adult life, and I thank them for teaching me something very important about the nature of grace, the nature of peace.

My heart breaks for the victims, my heart breaks for the families that are left behind to grieve because all too easily, I can imagine the horror of losing a child, a husband, a parent. The very thought of it makes it hard to breathe.

My heart breaks for the aggressors and their families. It is hard to imagine what happened in their lives to bring them to this place, this harrowing hunt. It is hard to imagine what their families might be going through right now.

My heart breaks when I hear that a Muslim woman out walking with her child in Boston has been assaulted and accused of being a terrorist simply because she was wearing a hijab (revealing her religious affiliation) on a public street.

And my heart breaks when I hear friends, people I believe to be good, compassionate people, talking about what they want to see done to the suspects. Talking about an “eye for an eye,” saying that torture would be a good idea, saying they should hand them over to the bar crowd in Boston for mob justice.

Really?

Much of the talk I hear, I know, may be simply blowing off steam, yet it all adds up to a weirdly accepted public dialogue, a potentially frightening social consciousness and conscience. Consider this: even if you’re blowing off steam and you “don’t really mean it,” perhaps your child hears you. Perhaps your friends don’t realize you don’t mean it, and maybe, just maybe, it makes them feel a little more okay with their own impulses to lash out, to retaliate, to seek revenge, to denounce an entire group of people based on the actions of a few.

Small and seemingly innocuous statements add up to become big, ugly social issues. This is where racism comes from. This is why innocent people are attacked. And our children—because everyone is someone’s child—soak it up. It’s not the kind of pay-it-forward that I support.

Let’s be clear: there is a difference between revenge and justice. Due process must not be sacrificed to vigilantism and hatred, not even in jest.

Grief can be cathartic. Great tragedies can allow a great light to shine into the world, standing in stark relief against dark events. Or, grief can turn to anger, intolerance, and further violence.

Grief must and should be struggled with in order to forge a better, stronger community. This is what we have learned from our greatest teachers: Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, to name a few. All witnessed horrendous violence and intolerance and met it, unflinching, with peace and compassion. All changed the world, against all odds. Pacifism is not for the faint of heart.

So here is my plea. Wrestle with your grief and temper your anger—do not let your rage poison you. Be mindful of the voice you are sharing with the world. Let your voice be a light in the darkness. Hold your loved ones close. Seek out opportunities for grace.

We are all of us someone’s child, and children learn.

Springing, Springing, Sprung

My favorite season will always be autumn, but spring is a close second. Whereas fall is a season of contentment and gratitude and gathering in, spring is a time of rising heat, inspiration, and boundless growth. Just watch the elderberry shoots thrusting boldly from their runners, dandelions and all the precious bulb flowers, flowers exploding from apple trees in what seems a matter of minutes, and tiny budding leaves so green they’re almost gold—as Robert Frost so aptly put it, “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold…” That poem echoes through my mind this time of year.

Our dwarf apple trees bursting into bloom

Our dwarf apple trees bursting into bloom

As I write this, yesterday was the first day of the yellow haze, filming the windows, the porch, the cars, standing out in stark relief on these man-made materials. Soon it will be literally piling up in drifts along the curb, puddling against the bottom of trees and along the edges of the walk. This is Virginia, after all, and Mother Nature is noted for her… ahem… enthusiasm in the Old Dominion. Especially in the spring.

I’m always a morning person, but right around the spring equinox things start getting a little crazy for me. Despite a full-time work schedule and a wonderfully energetic little man, both vying to wear me out, I find that once Oscar goes to bed, I’m still raring to go. My mind is racing, every thought charged with potential, and my fingers itch to do something already. The word of the season is manifestation.

I recently began taking a distance-learning course, Herbal Medicine for Women with Aviva Romm, which has got me immensely excited. I’m also (obviously) spending a good amount of time writing. Oscar is making leaps and bounds, getting more and more adventurous in his toddling adventures, learning new words and signing every day. His play is getting more specific and focused (and a bit obsessive, truth be told). He’s apparently also caught the spring fever.

Despite my desire to stay up till all hours pursuing my various interests, I do make myself go to bed, reluctantly, at a more reasonable hour, knowing my alarm will go off at the same time each morning, regardless of how much sleep I’ve gotten. It takes a long time for my brain to quiet enough to rest, and I frequently have to jot down notes about ideas I want to pursue, things I want to get done, so that my mind can release them—else I’d never get to sleep. The dreams that follow are frenetic and vivid and full of movement. More often than not, I wake before my alarm, bleary-eyed and ready to jump-start the day. In the early morning chill, my body is up and moving before my mind can shake off the lingering remnants of dreaming, and so I carry shreds of dream with me into the waking day.

I try to be mindful of my tendency to run-run-run each spring, while at the same time embracing the wealth of inspiration, motivation, and defiant, upward-thrusting energy. Each season is a gift to be embraced and acknowledged and incorporated into our daily lives. The seasons are reflected in us—we are part and parcel. So I try to nourish myself, to rest, to meditate… and to allow myself to ride that vernal wave, let it carry me up and forward at increasing speed into the summer, hoping the momentum will carry me a little farther even than what I’ve yet imagined.

Big things, so much growth on the horizon—spinning ever onward.

Vote with your dollar (and your body will thank you)

It’s an exciting time of year here in Virginia. The local farmers markets and CSAs are opening back up, filled with greens, asparagus, and the most delicate, fragile, translucent raspberries. I could write an ode to those raspberries. Strawberries are just around the corner. After a winter of dark greens and root veggies, I’m ready for some fresh spring flavors. I’m ready for spring. I can’t wait to start taking Oscar to the market again. I’m spending a lot of time thinking about food, and that’s got me thinking about how we buy food.

I often hear people say that they can’t afford to eat organic. The knee-jerk (and admittedly obnoxious) platitude that sounds off in my head each and every time is “how can you afford not to?” We are by no means teetotalers at our house, but we do prioritize. Aside from cooking from scratch using whole foods as often as possible, there are some items that we always buy organic—and others that we’re fine  with buying conventionally raised.

Armful of greens

Greens are on the “dirty dozen” list – best to buy organic

There are a couple reasons for these grocery habits. First, it’s good for us. We want Oscar to grow up strong and healthy. I’m still breastfeeding, so for myself and for Oscar, I want to keep our food as “clean” as possible. Of course, even organic food ought to be washed—even if it wasn’t sprayed with chemicals and pesticides, that doesn’t mean it’s clean. Also, many consumers operate under the misconception (myself included until a few years ago—thank you, Michael Pollan) that simply washing their conventionally-raised fruits and veggies will wash off any nasty chemicals and pesticides. The truth is: Not necessarily.

Have you heard of the “clean fifteen” and the “dirty dozen”? These monikers refer to produce that fall at opposite ends of the spectrum for chemical contamination/consumer safety. The clean fifteen are those fruits and vegetables that absorb little or no harmful elements when conventionally raised, whereas the dirty dozen describes those items which, no matter how well you wash them,  will still contain harmful chemicals, pesticides, etc.—they actually absorb into the food itself, rather than just sitting on the outside. If you (like us) can’t afford to eat exclusively organic, you might want to consider prioritizing by at least buying foods on the dirty dozen list organic. For the clean fifteen, it’s fine to eat conventionally-raised if it’s cheaper. For the rest, use your own judgment.

Then there are the meat and dairy items. We also prioritize buying these organic, free range, etc., as much as possible, and at a minimum we make sure that the livestock were not given growth hormone or routine antibiotics. Again, this means less bad stuff getting into our bodies, as well as higher nutritional content in the food.

You are what you eat.

And then, there’s the other side. Every time you spend money, you are supporting something—a company, a decision, a way of doing business, an idea, etc.  You are casting your ballot. This is a mindfulness issue. I was vegetarian for ten years, and although I eat meat now, it is very important to me to know that the animals whose meat I am consuming were raised ethically and were note abused or mistreated—I don’t want to support that sort of behavior.  Don’t think it’s that big a deal? Try watching Food, Inc without crying. I dare you.

Ideally, we would always buy all organic from local farmers in-season, riding our bicycles to the market that would be conveniently situated just down the street, and animated birds would serenade us with sweet songs of foodie utopia along the way. Alas, such is not our reality, but we do our best, despite the disappointing lack of a Disney soundtrack.

In the meantime, these are our hard rules when stocking the larder: to know what we’re buying, prioritize our health, and vote responsibly.

What are your grocery rules? How do you prioritize budget vs. health vs. ethics? What’s your food philosophy?

Writing to Reframe

I love to write. I’ve come to believe that the writing process is essential to my health and well-being, much like good digestion or sunlight. Sure, I don’t have to write, but my life and the world inside my skin is a much happier place when I do.

I’ve come to treat writing as a daily ritual, and even though I often want to call a piece done as soon as I bang out a draft, I always let it sit at least a week before returning to it and revising. As an introvert, writing helps me process things at my own pace. I can set even my most turbulent and muddy thoughts down on the page, then release it for a while. When I return to it, the seas have calmed, the sediment has settled, and I can see my feet, where I stand, in the clearer water. I make adjustments, and then sometimes I share.

My friend Robbie once shared with me an exercise she had learned. Think of an event in your life that still upsets you—perhaps even a regret—and write that story. After you finish writing that piece of your history, rewrite it: change your ending, change your outcome, transform the situation.

I found this a very challenging idea because it seemed sort of dishonest at first, like an exercise in denial or wishful thinking. I had to chew on it for a while, hold it between my cheek and my jaw and let it soften. Perhaps the rewriting exercise helps the individual discover the specific spot on the memory that is still most poignant and hurtful. In locating the splinter, perhaps it can be pulled.

Although I don’t change the details of my stories when I write, I do often change my heart. Wanting to write from a place of being present and honest, I turn a floodlight onto my own mind, thoughts, assumptions, those inadvertent ticks of defensiveness and judgment. Why am I jumping to this conclusion? Why do I get defensive here? Do I feel apologetic?

My inner landscape changes, shifts. The story is the same, but the narrator is new. The picture has been reframed.

Central Park