Wednesday, January 13, 2010


February 24, 2009
Subject: Realization
This is a totally self-indulgent email. Consider yourself forewarned..

It's taken me several days to write and was initially inspired by something other than what it has come to now, in this moment, to mean to me. You see, I had this overwhelming urge to get this out but didn't fully understand why and so I hesitated filling myself with doubt and insecurity. I think I know now.

A few days ago I had a conversation with a mother who has been only 3 months in the process of her daughter's treatment for leukemia. She said things like, "People just don't understand. They try to, but they just can't get the emotional complexities that something like this creates." She's not in a place to hear me contradict her, so I listened. But once again it reminds me that I do not believe that people, that you, can't understand what I'm going through. Many of you have expressed to me how my words resonate, not because we share something specific in common, ie, pediatric cancer, but because we all have things in our lives that are really, really hard. We can understand one another precisely because we are able to transcend the specifics of what makes us struggle, what makes life hard, what makes us doubt and what makes us cry and focus instead on understanding that common human experience.

Still, I was thinking about this mother saying, "They just don't understand." I was picturing her holding her arm and hand out away from her body as she said that. It is a halting physical and emotional expression. I can't help but wonder if it isn't a mere coping mechanism in a process that has just begun for her. I can't help but wonder if she'll reach a place where she can turn her hand around and bring it close to her heart and truthfully acknowledge, "I don't understand." I think this is very difficult to do and I know I struggle with it but I also know it is the only way to healing.

I was interrupted as I finished what you just read. I had to go pick up Aria from school and on my way I was grappling with whether or not I should send what follows below. I was waiting for Aria when I began reading through a book a friend, Eve Watson Adamson wrote, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living." I've read through it already and it is light, heavy, witty, serious, informative and fun. I highly recommend it. I re-read the section on Fear "The Source of Fear" and "Pull Off the Mask." Reading her words helped me identify the process I went through that you are about to read. I realize I needed to share with you to show how I discovered a fear and how I'm beginning to pull off that mask and know my true Self. Thank you Eve, your words helped me label this process in a way that reserves judgment and allows it to be what it is. I feel safer sharing it.

When I was driving home with the girls in the car, I turned on the radio, something I rarely do. I was thrilled to hear the song that was playing. It gave me permission to send this. In the words of John Mayer from his song "Say" he sings, "Say what you need to say."

This is what I have to say:

I've recently reconnected with some friends I knew in high school. I was told by one of them that a mutual friend remembered me by "always having perfect hair." I groaned when I read this. It tells me that my attachment to hair and my hair in particular is an old one. What is even more telling however is the realization that I spent an awful lot of time in front of the mirror grooming, staring at myself. This isn't anything I am proud of but at the same time it is such a wonderful window into my world as a teenager. Appearances were everything obscuring the reality of their nothingness but I didn't have the life experience to understand that yet. Thus, appearances are everything when one is only 16 years old consumed by the dictates of culture and fashion. It is a difficult journey out of that kind of nonsense and escape, back into a world that is, I believe, more genuine but not without its own challenges.

As I was quiet with those memories, it occurred to me that I couldn't remember the last time I spent a significant amount of time in front of the mirror grooming my now short, graying hair, perusing the details of my face now lined and freckled, comparing myself to impossible standards and inflicting tiny little stabs at my sense of self. I decided I would take a good long look and this is what I saw.

We have a large antique mirror hanging on our bedroom wall. It is heavy with an oak frame and slightly speckled with black dots. Underneath it are 2 large baskets. One is overflowing with children's books that offer the kids their night-time reading choices. There are always a few that have spilled over and remain on the floor because it is often too much of a bother to pick them and put them away. The other basket is an apple picking basket that will one day see that purpose but for now it is the perfect basket for all of Rianna's diaper changing needs. This is what is surrounding me as I begin to take a close look.

I remember nearly 30 years ago, I would sit on the floor of my bedroom in front of a similar mirror. Surrounding me, then, were small baskets of make-up, perfume and hair bobbles. There was always a curling iron and blow dryer in arm's reach and invariably some kind of boom box for cassettes or a record player. I don't remember having many teen magazines or fashion magazines littering my bed and desk, but I'm sure I must have. I can't think of being so easily influenced by the dictates of others without that kind of imagery constantly assaulting my senses.

I took notice of the things that surround me now and I smiled at the realness of it, the genuineness of it, and the beauty of it. I was filled with a sense of accomplishment. I have abandoned for all practical purposes what offers so little meaning on the grand scale of life for what offers meaning that cannot be measured. I stood back from the mirror and looked at myself. I was wearing my sort of traditional look; skirt, shirt, tights and clogs. All black. My hair was pulled back with a black rubber band, which is virtually the only kind of bobble I use and my head was covered with a black scarf I made from a piece of flannel scrap. I wore no make-up with the exception of some tinted lip gloss and the only jewelry I wore was my silver wedding band I made 18 years ago and 2 two sets of stud earrings I never take off.

I breathed deeply and thought, "Could you be more plain? Could you look more old country and old fashioned?" It was strange to have such thoughts so immediate in my mind. For some reason, I thought it necessary to slump a little and create a frumpy matronly look. I took a step forward and look into my eyes. I noticed that my skin was dry and wondered what someone would say and think if I ever went and had a facial. I thought, "I can just hear them scold me for having neglected my skin so much, which is clearly not preserving a youthful look." I noticed the aging spots on my face--the result of years of careless bathing under the sun's violent rays. I thought, "I wonder if my dermatologist can do something about those?" I looked at my face and thought it too full, which led to me to my overall physique, which I thought out of shape and over-weight. Tiny little jabs again and again stabbing my esteem. I shook my head and heard the inner voice of my mind shout, "What are you doing?" It was like being slapped and I was rather stunned trying to pull myself together when I heard my heart say, "Julia, why must you waste your time on the superficialities of fashion that have little to nothing to do with reason?" My mind chimed in saying, "Those thoughts you were just having? All of those innocent, truthful but nasty spirited thoughts were not coming from me! What you were hearing were the attitudes of some who dictate a lot and have nothing do to with you and what you are going through." My heart leaped and shouted, "Amen sister!" I burst out laughing and thought, "These old attachments take a long, long time to release."

My mind spoke again, "Julia, look again. How do you feel?"
I said, "I feel stiff and out of shape."
Mind replied, "You are."
I sighed, "I know."
Mind continued, "So, why are you out of shape? Spare me the excuses of children and busyness and what not. You are looking deeply so tell me, what is it?"
I stood there in front of that mirror and thought, "What is it? Why am I not in better shape? My spirit and my mind have never felt more secure but my body feels weak. What is it?"
Heart asked, "What is it Julia? Tell us."
After a moment or two I said, "Pain."
"Ahhhh" heart and mind hummed simultaneously. "Yes. Go on."
I got closer to the mirror looking, searching, wondering. For the past year, I've been avoiding doing anything that would cause me physical pain. Suddenly it was crystal clear. My avoidance of pain is absolutely related to my fear of getting sick, of getting cancer, of having to go through anything like what Aria has to endure, of dying and leaving my children and my husband and missing out on their lives. I've been in this strange state of anxiety where every time I feel a twinge, an ache, a soreness, I automatically think, "Oh my God, what if I have cancer?" It isn't something that I think about every day but it is there often enough. I know it is the voice of my irrational mind but that doesn't lessen my ability to hear it and to worry a little. Although I came to this realization a few weeks ago and have been thinking about this email since then, I hadn't actually written anything down. Now that I am and I'm listening to my voice as I type these words, tears stream down my face because it has been such a painful 13 months. Sometimes the hurt has no words, no expression, and no real source. Sometimes it isn't anything specific about Aria, it is simply everything about Aria, the hospital, the clinic, all the other kids, cancer, illness, death, life. Sometimes this hurt is a presence that grips my every awareness and I feel scared and sad but get through it somehow. My tears cleanse what aches and I really do feel better, stronger, braver and clearer.

So I stood there in front of my mirror and said aloud, "You have every reason to have this fear. It's ok."
Mind cut me off, "Well of course it is!"
I felt myself getting a bit annoyed with this thought. It feels a little dismissive even though I know it isn't meant to be. Still, I don't find those words comforting and because I don't, it tells me that that part of my emotional well-being isn't yet healed. The trauma and the shock of Aria's cancer is still raw and painful despite all the positives. I recognize that this is a wonderful insight enabling me to examine this less than rational thought that invades my mind periodically from a perspective of respect and gentility. I let it be what it is and I'm grateful.

I tell myself, "Julia, I understand that you are still scared and I don't think this reflects a lack of trust. I think it reflects what it means to be human and to embrace the complexity that is defined therein. You are not your fear. You are not your sorrow. You are not your joy. You are not your optimism. You are not your courage. You are all of these things and more. Most importantly, you-are-not-sick."

I breathed that in a minute or two. "I am not sick. I do not have cancer." Of course I still heard a nasty little whisper, "yet." but I burst out laughing when I did. "Stupid little shit!" I heard myself say through my giggles. I wondered for a moment if this is the voice of the Devil that I was taught about as a child. It seems to me that it is and so I stared at myself again and thought, "Is it possible to possess in one's spirit what is both devilish and divine?" I think it is and I'm finally learning to embrace both.

My mind wandered as my eyes turned from myself in the mirror to the view of our back yard that I could see through the door leading to a small balcony off our bedroom. My swing next to the playground looked lonely and I thought of the leaves coming in welcoming Spring in just a few months. New Life and the constant cycle of it all made me smile. My heart spoke up, "Julia. Hey Julia! How do you feel?"

I said, "I feel stiff and out of shape but I feel good. I feel ready. I can take a little more pain."
Mind and heart in unison said, "Good. Get to it!"

I've dusted off my yoga tapes and have welcomed that practice back into my life. I am sore and I ache but I am not sick and I am not dying. I am well and I am healing.

These words have been monumentally difficult to reveal to you. It is so hard to be vulnerable sometimes. It requires fortitude to face those things about myself that are absurd, sick, irrational, and mad let alone show them to you. However, I have to. The compulsion to expose myself in this way is overwhelming and I'm discovering that it is not only liberating, it is strengthening. It is a matter of building confidence to admit these things and know that I am not only these things. However, the habit of guarding these truths is a tough one to break but I must if I expect to 'live true.'

I was telling my Dad yesterday that when I hear things from other people like "I have good days and bad days" I understand what that means but I don't know what it looks like and I want to. This is what it looks like for me. I rarely have an entirely bad day. I have bad moments during a day but I also have wonderful moments. This email illustrates about 15 minutes of my struggle with good and bad on one day. I wonder if I'm alone in these thoughts. I don't think I am. I've convinced myself that you want to know what a good day or a bad day looks like from the perspective of a mother who has a child with cancer. I don't know if it's true and I really don't care. It helps me be so revealing and enables me to feel safe in doing so.

I took one last look in the mirror. I stood back a little. "Yeah, you're out of shape and a little over-weight but you're well as is your family and little else matters." I'm no longer a teen-ager needing to be prodded and jabbed by my little devilish voice. The voices of those encouraging me to conform in ways that aren't in the realm of my reality no longer serve a purpose but I acknowledge how old they are and how long they've lingered in my consciousness. I'd like to say that I've banished them completely from my thoughts but I don't think that's true. However, I have recognized them for what they are and I know in time they'll fade away. I take one final step toward my mirror and I hear myself say, "You don't need to be so afraid now. It's ok to feel pain." As I walked away, I thought about the phrase I hand sew on the labels I stitch onto the clothes I make for women and felt it finally applicable to me.
"I'm uniquely beautiful. I'm uniquely me." ~j

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