Don’t suffer needlessly

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to join 4 or 5 Facebook groups for women dealing with a current or past breast cancer diagnosis. I thought it would be a good opportunity to hear from women who are in my position as well as a chance to give back any advice or perspective I’ve gained in my nearly 3-year experience.

In the few days that I’ve been a member, I have seen some pretty eye opening posts. There are two topics I’ve seen a lot about: post-mastectomy soreness and skin care during radiation. I hope that I can shed a little light. Please share this information if you find it useful.

Soreness after mastectomy

After a mastectomy (particularly a bilateral mastectomy), the entire torso may be sore, to some degree, depending on your pain tolerance. Why? Because breasts are not external objects that are simply removed. Incisions are made and the surgeon’s hands and instruments are placed under the skin all the way up to the collar bones just below the chin because breast tissue is not contained solely in the “cup” of the breast. It’s all along the chest wall from clavicle to bottom of the ribs and side to side. They do a procedure they call “scraping.” It can leave the body feeling sore.

I remember when I breast fed my kids. When my milk first came in, I had fullness and pressure all over my upper body. Not pain, but intense fullness. It started near my shoulders/clavicle and spread to my pec area, and outward under my arms. Finally, both kids got the hang of breast feeding and relieved this pressure. I remember waiting and waiting for them to wake up so that they would nurse, and I’d feel comfy again.

The reason is that breast tissue, milk ducts, really cover far more surface area than just the cup part of the breast that we typically associate with boobs.

That’s why tissue must be removed from the entire chest wall. And that’s why soreness covers a large area. Muscles are affected, nerves are affected. It’s a very involved procedure. I hope that doctors are fully explaining this to patients.

Skin care during radiation

There are radiation oncologists who “allow” patients to use skin care products during treatment. I urge women who find themselves in need of radiation to find one of these doctors. I saw some pictures this week of a woman who was severely burned. Others were commenting that they were “allowed” to use cornstarch only. I almost cried.

When I was about to undergo treatment, I met with 3 radiation oncologists. The first was just a scary person in general. I wouldn’t have gone to her for a manicure let alone life saving treatment. So I honestly can’t remember what she said. Bad vibes.

The second was Dr. Jewell. His nurse talked with me extensively about treatment and all of the products that they approve for my use during the weeks of treatment as long as my skin was left clean and clear during the actual treatment.

I really liked Dr. Jewell and his staff, but I got a third opinion because the first was so bad I almost couldn’t count her.

The third was equally a nightmare. She insisted that I use nothing on my skin for the entire 6 weeks. I would be permitted to wash with Dove soap and use cornstarch. I’ll tell you what I think of Dove soap and cornstarch.

Dove soap is actually marketed as a “beauty bar.” It’s meant to moisturize more than clean. And the quality of its moisturizers is very low grade. It has a list of more than a dozen ingredients, most of which are preservatives and detergents. It’s a bunch of crap. It’s not the kind of stuff I’d put on my skin even if I weren’t going through radiation, so why start now? Second, cornstarch is used to keep the skin dry. Dry? Really?? That is not at all what is needed. Chemicals and dryness. No thanks.

In the end, I went with Dr. Jewell. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

During radiation, I was actually under the beam for about 55 seconds, which is typical. It doesn’t have to be long to be effective. The skin on my upper left quadrant was to be completely clean and clear. My radiation time was 10:45 am so I’d shower and go to my appointment without using any products on that area. But, in my purse, I had a naturopathic apothecary.

In the changing room after treatment, I applied a mixture of calendula cream and emu oil. Calendula cream comes from the calendula flower, a member of the daisy family and often called marigold. It has myriad benefits. Butch recommended it to me. Here’s what I found on the web about it: “Calendula creams and washes are used to disinfect minor wounds and to treat infections of the skin. The antibacterial and immunostimulant properties of the plant make it extremely useful in treating slow-healing cuts and cuts in people who have compromised immune systems.” Boom. Done. It can be found online, in stores or maybe your local naturopath has it in stock.

Emu oil is extracted from the adipose (fat) tissue of emus.  Here’s why it’s good: “According to WebMD, emu oil contains fatty acids that can reduce pain and swelling and may help reduce sudden inflammation and chronic inflammation. If applied directly to the skin, emu oil can help reduce pain and irritation from shingles, bedsores, hemorrhoids, insect bites, rashes and razor burn, and more.” It’s not as hard to find as it sounds. I got mine at GNC. It’s also online.

As soon as treatment was over, I squeezed a generous amount of calendula cream into my palm and mixed in emu oil. I then applied it to the entire area of my chest (more on coverage area in a minute). I took my time and followed the nurse’s advice about being gentle and working with the direction of lymphatic drainage.

Then, I’d reapply later in the day. Around 3 or 4 pm, I repeated the process.

At bedtime, I used a whole different product. It’s called tamanu oil. It’s smelly, it stains everything a sort of greenish color and it’s sticky. But it’s so worth it. I  simply sacrificed two t-shirts and a pillow case that I wasn’t heartbroken to toss for the cause after treatment was over.

Tamanu oil comes from a nut grown in the South Pacific and has been used for centuries to clear up almost any skin condition. Here’s what the web says: “Tamanu is one of the most effective agents in promoting the formation of new tissue, thereby accelerating wound healing and the growth of healthy skin. This process is known as cicatrization in medical terms. Essentially, it means that tamanu oil is a powerful skin regenerator.” This recommendation came to me from my plastic surgeon. I bought mine at Vitamin Cottage (a regional chain in the CO, NM, AZ, CA). It’s also online.

Now, here’s the important part.

It worked. Like, crazy good. You know how I know? Because I accidentally did a scientific study.

I didn’t realize that the beam went as far back to where the back of my armpit meets my shoulder blade. So I wasn’t applying any of the creams back there. Somewhere around the end of treatment, I had a relatively small (a few inches) but painful, deep burn there. It was right where the arm moves and swings against the body, so I felt it far before I saw it. And I was surprised to realize that the beam was being aimed that far back (cancer cells had been in my nodes).

Once I discovered it, I had to use silver sulfadiazine cream to prevent infection. It’s an antibiotic that is used to treat second- and third-degree burns. And once the sore closed over, I used my other formulas there. So I know, for a fact, that had I not used this regimen, I would’ve suffered needlessly.

The doctors who didn’t “allow” skin care during treatment said that the reason is that they didn’t want the radiation to be blocked. Hey! There’s some news! You can block radiation with calendula cream and raspberries, folks! (Yes, one doctor told me that there are too many good antioxidants in berries to eat them during treatment). I bet Marie Curie wishes she’d known that! Or the technicians who administered my treatment. Little did they know that they didn’t have to leave the room and go behind a lead wall to avoid the scattered radiation. They could just stand there coated in calendula and eating a big old bowl of berries. Problem solved.

Here’s the list in short form: immediately after treatment, I used a blend of calendula cream and emu oil. Six hours later, I reapplied. At bed time, I used tamanu oil. In the morning, it was all washed off in the shower in time for the next treatment.

My skin looks amazing. Not only did the products work, but the application gave me at least three opportunities a day to massage the tissue and keep it mobile.

 

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Chemotherapy.

This past weekend, I drove to Gulf Shores, Alabama, with Michael and Zach to fish. It’s a trip that they’ve been doing every fall for a few years now. They meet up with another father/son duo and they fish. And they fish. And they fish. And they fish. There’s a lot of fishing. And this year, there was also a lot of catching! (More on this later.)

This year, I went as did a friend of Michael’s friend. Nice guy. Sadly, his wife just finished a four-week course of radiation and a lumpectomy for breast cancer. One night, over dinner, I brought up the subject and said how sorry I was to hear that she was going through it. He thanked me and talked about how hard it had been to face his wife’s diagnosis. He continued to say how thankful they were that she didn’t have to go through chemo. He talked about the fact that it’s so bad for you that the doctors weigh the risks of it against the risks of the cancer. So it must be bad. Just awful. Right? That’s what we hear, see and pass on, at least.

I’ve talked about my truth regarding chemo before, and I’m about to do it again, because it bears repeating.

The truth is, I’m grateful for it. Every last drop of it.

It’s powerful. It’s serious. But you know what else it is?? It’s necessary and … it’s possible! Before having had chemo, I used to think that it was barely doable. I had even heard, “Let’s hope it kills the cancer before it kills you!”

Wow.

In fairness, chemo was not easy. No walk in the park. But can we please stop all of the hyperbole around it? Particularly those among us who have no actual idea. Please.

When you think about chemo, what are your immediate images? Let me guess … baldness and vomiting? Chances are, I’m right for most of you. Did you ever think about why we think these things? It’s because when the media, a movie director or even a hospital wants to show the face of cancer, they show a bald one. It’s a striking image — nearly unmistakable. And vomiting? How dramatic! That makes a great scene. We’ve all been there, on our knees in front of the toilet, feeling like every last ounce of whatever awfulness entered us is emerging with a force that you couldn’t stop if you tried. Maybe your experience wasn’t due to chemo, maybe it was a bad flu or too many tequila shots, but we know what it feels like, and so we think we can relate.

But guess what?

Not everyone loses their hair. (I did.) And not everyone pukes. (I did not.) For me, most of those months, I spent with grinding, unrelenting nausea and stomach pain that left me with a permanent look of disgust on my face. But that doesn’t make for good movie scenes.

The fact is that chemo has just as many invisible symptoms as it does obvious ones. And for all the side effects it causes, it has one undeniable main effect — it kills cancer cells.

I understand that it’s not effective for everyone. Sometimes, the cancer is too advanced or too aggressive or existing chemotherapy medications don’t work on a particular type of cancer. And for those reasons, I am hopeful for better treatments to be found.

I remember hearing for the first time that I had to undergo chemo. I was dumbstruck, feeling so much more scared of chemo than any other part of the process. More than bilateral mastectomy, more than radiation — more than the cancer itself! I had images of dizzying episodes of vomiting and extreme weight loss and other unknown uncontrolled symptoms that would leave me with IVs and hospital beds. Until that point, I had no personal experience with chemo. My mom had had it years ago, but I did not see her on a daily basis while she was undergoing it. I knew that it made her dreadfully tired. And I know that she threw up once and lost her hair. But it was not her experience that instilled this fear in me. It was all the “other” stuff I’d heard.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I know that no one wants chemotherapy. But for some of us, we have little other choice. We must undergo the process if we wish to be healthy enough to live a full life. Please don’t make it worse for us. Have sympathy. Try to empathize, even. If you can’t, at the very least, shut up. Please.

For those who are facing the possibility, know this: chemo is to be taken just like everything else in the world — one day at a time. The symptoms don’t happen all at once. And they don’t last forever. They can be strong. But so are you.

For those of us who have had successful chemotherapy treatment, holy cow, I’m thankful. I still remember hearing Dr. Schwartzberg’s voice as she told me that the pathology report from my surgery was back. “Good news … no cancer!” I had had a complete pathological response. Gratitude, nothing but complete and utter gratitude. It was all worth it. Every last drop.

Here fishy, fishy, fishy!

I could talk about the two days where the guys caught (next to) nothing. Instead, I’ll talk about the first day when they hooked about two dozen enormous red fish and … AND … landed 5 sharks!!!

Zach was the first of the group to snare a sand shark this year. He was so happy. Then Josh did (Greg’s son). Then Zach did again. Then Josh did … again!

The piece de resistance was when Michael landed a 80+ pound black tip shark. It took a team effort between Michael and Greg to get him on shore. The pictures show what a big fish this really was. It took all of Michael’s strength to hold him up. Gritting his teeth through his smile, he was saying “hurry up this is heavy!”

I don’t fish. In fact, the only fish I touched was the fish I ate. I’m not against fishing; I’m against boredom. So, instead, I took part in my ideas of fun — I read (six books for my research paper), I ran (a 10K for the first time in years and years), I did yoga (on a second story balcony with the ocean as my drishti), and I took pictures (see below).

Little secret: I actually did touch (for a super quick second) the black tip shark. It was lying there on the beach and Zach was perched beside it, in awe. He kept smoothing its skin. He said, “Aren’t you going to touch it, mom?” I said, “Uh, no?” (Did we just meet or something?!) You know how this ends. Zach gets me to do things that I’d never otherwise do. Things like hold a snake, touch a giant shark, watch an episode of “Walking Dead” and wake up at 3 am to watch meteor showers. To date, I regret none of these things, which is why I suppose I keep doing the things he asks me to. And there continues the circle of living.

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Fall into November

November has been a great month. On November 6, I got a letter from the Graduate School at UNC Charlotte notifying me that I have been accepted into the Foreign Language Education (FLED) graduate program. So, in January I’ll be starting my master’s alongside completing my bachelor’s in German. I’m super excited. I’ve met with my advisors, and I’m already scheduled for next semester. In fact, I’ve already chosen the book I will translate for my graduate-level German class and have talked with the professor about getting a head start over Christmas break before things get rolling again.

I also have started the process for studying abroad. I met with an advisor from that department and worked out my details. I am planning to study at Goethe Institut for eight weeks — four in Hamburg in June and four in Freiburg in July of 2018. I am so excited. (Have I mentioned that?)

Here in Charlotte, the holidays sneak up on me. You see, in Colorado, it starts to get cold over night in September. Usually, we had our irrigation system winterized by the end of September to avoid bursting pipes. By October, it had begun snowing on and off and the leaves were long gone. Halloween costumes were usually decided on based on what would fit a coat underneath. Yes, we’d still get warm, sunny days sprinkled in (which I loved), but I was always aware that winter was coming. I got more warning than Jon Snow.

But here in NC, it’s just warm and sunny. And eventually the leaves turn and start (only start) to fall. Suddenly, Thanksgiving is a week away and I’m supposed to think about Christmas trees? I think that NC has chilled me out in a different way. I’m not so eager to “get on” with the holidays. Seeing the mall decorated with trees, poinsettias and wreaths while I’m not wearing a coat just seems bizarre. Maybe over time I’ll get used to it. But I don’t mind the new way of feeling like every thing has its season. That’s something I’ve always known and tried to practice, but have found it increasingly difficult with the ever earlier Christmas channels on Sirius, holiday commercials, shopping passes arriving in the mail, and the dreaded Christmas trees at Home Depot before I’ve bought my pumpkins.

Christmas can wait its turn. I don’t need to start planning the Thanksgiving meal in October. I want enjoy these last months of 2017 just as I did the first months of 2017!  One day at a time. Right now, I’ve got papers to write, applications to fill out, verbs to study and (apparently) a turkey to buy.

Auf wiedersehen!

 

Today I’m going to talk about my boobs

After all, that’s how this all got started, right? But I haven’t really addressed my boobs much after the reconstruction. Today, I shall.

In writing this blog, I have come to know some wonderful women who have also been affected by breast cancer. Some have had it themselves, some are concerned that it could happen to them. We have talked about all sorts of things: the meaning of life, the importance of healthy eating and the job of raising a family. But most never ask me about my boobs.

A few have asked, and I’m very willing to discuss the reconstruction process with them. But I wonder if the rest think that it’s too private. For me, it isn’t. I feel that it’s my privilege to share what I’ve experienced.

I wish I’d known someone — anyone! — who could have told me how the reconstruction process goes. My surgeon did, of course, but he’s a dude. And a surgeon. And never experienced it himself. So I take his medical advice for all it’s worth, but as for the psychological and emotional side, I had to figure that out step by step.

I’ll start by saying this: I love my new boobs. I love them as much today as I did the first time I looked down and saw them. They are a great size. They look real. I didn’t imagine that they’d be so natural looking.

But for some strange reason, I’ve been concealing them. I don’t dress like a nun, but I’ve been hesitant to wear more revealing clothes — except for when I really psych myself up and convince myself that I can “get away with it.” I feel that way even about clothes that I owned before my surgery.

I’ve had this gnawing reminder in the back of my head: they’re not real and when people see me, they’ll know they’re not real. And while it maybe true that people know they’re not real, no one seems to care — particularly men and especially my husband. I guess that’s the mentality of men: if they look like boobs and feel like boobs, they must be boobs!

Well, I’ve come to a conclusion: I’m going to stop concealing them, for a number of reasons. First, I am already aware that they’re not my own breasts. Exceptionally aware. Second, many women out there experience less than satisfactory reconstruction. I’ve seen pictures that my surgeon has “fixed.” It’s sad how bad some results really are. My results are top notch, so I have no reason to worry that people will notice them. Third, I underwent a year-long reconstruction process so that I would look like myself again. Why do all that work and go through all that pain just to hide and worry?! Lastly, they’re a reminder to me — the proof, if you will.

Allow me to take a tangent for a minute here. After Dr. Cernyak-Spatz (Holocaust survivor) visited my class, my professor talked to us about her tattoo. She said that she asked Dr. Spatz why she didn’t have it removed. Her response was, “It’s the proof.”

Now, while I don’t need to prove to anyone that I had breast cancer, I do go for long periods without thinking about it. And that’s fine. I have a life and my health and I’m grateful for it all. But sometimes when I see myself in a mirror, I’m reminded. I don’t get sad or mad. Instead, I’m reminded that I’m capable of difficult things. I’m worthy of beautiful things. And I’m resourceful enough to handle all of life’s challenges.

One of the physical side effects of a mastectomy is slouched posture. Women tend to round their shoulders and hunch forward when their torso undergoes trauma. It takes work to reclaim the posture of a straight spine with a forward heart and shoulder blades placed on the back. It’s a posture I practice daily on and off the mat. I practice it when I run even.

I’ve noticed that when I run I tend to look at my shoes. That body positioning causes a domino effect of poor function. I breathe less fully, I am not mindful of my surroundings, and I round my shoulders forward. I’ve begun to make a deal with myself that I won’t look at my shoes for a whole run. I look forward, with my chin on a shelf, ears over shoulders, shoulder blades on my back behind my heart and the heads of my arm bones relaxed. It felt strange at first. Like I was running with my chest sticking out. But that’s not how it looks at all. I’m just used to shielding.

I like thinking of it as running wholeheartedly. We say things like this all the time: her heart wasn’t in it or she believed it wholeheartedly. So that’s what I’m doing now, living life wholeheartedly and not hiding behind anything.

Toe the line

I decided a few months ago that I wanted to train for a half marathon again. Now, I’m up to an hour of running, and I feel confident that by the time that the race I’m targeting in March arrives, I will be ready. It’s been 10 years since I did this distance. And it was before I underwent all of the cancer treatment, so I’m cutting myself some slack. I’m slower than I used to be. So right now, my goal is to finish. As I continue in the training process, I’ll figure out what a realistic time goal will be.

Verdi

When Zach was little, we had this picture book about a snake named Verdi. Today, he called me out to the yard to see the real life version.

Nie Wieder. Never Again.

This semester I am taking a class called The Holocaust through German Film, Literature and Art. Yesterday was the highlight of the semester. Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz talked to our class. Dr. Cernyak-Spatz is a 96-year-old Birkenau-Auschwitz survivor.

She came to talk to us because she knows that she doesn’t have forever on this earth, and she doesn’t want her story and the truth of the Holocaust to die with her. She said that she wants us students to be her legacy, and so I will pass along her story.

She is very concerned about modern anti-Semitism, both here and abroad. And she warned us about allowing something so atrocious to happen again. She talked about the Wannsee Conference, when, on January 20, 1942, 15 high-ranking Nazi Party and German government officials gathered at a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss and coordinate the implementation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”

15 people.

That was the point she drove home repeatedly. It was the decision of only 15 people that determined the fate of millions. She warned us to be careful what we believe and how we become persuaded.

And most importantly to never forget.

From Teresienstadt to Birkenau-Auschwitz

In 1941, she and her family were sent to Teresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic. They remained there for a short while until they were sent to Birkenau-Auschwitz in 1942. Upon arrival, she saw the chimneys of the gas chambers billowing with smoke, the guard towers, the machine guns and a sole German ambulance. The ambulance, she said, was a part of the cruelty of the Nazis used to play a psychological trick on the prisoners to seem like they could — or even would — help. But she came to learn that the ambulance transported the Zyklon B canisters to the camp and hauled away the empties.

Upon entrance, the sickly, the very young, the older and the weak were separated immediately. At this time, Susan was 21 years old and in good health so she was able to avoid the first selection.

Her mother, however did not. She was gassed in one of the five gassing chambers housed in the camp within hours of arrival. There were five gas chambers that could hold more than 10,000 at a time. There was a selection of at least this many prisoners every day. For three years.

Next, Susan was then shaved, given the clothes of dead people and issued a rust colored metal bowl that was to be used for “both input and output.” She lamented that this was the most dehumanizing part.

She learned quickly from the other prisoners that she should sleep on a top bunk to avoid spilled bowls, how to wash her hands without water (dirty hands got you killed immediately) and which of the block leaders were “halfway human.”

When she pulled up her sweater sleeve to reveal her tattoo, I was struck. It was the first Holocaust tattoo I’d ever seen. I wasn’t unaware, I’d just never seen one in person before, and now I was seeing it from three feet away. Almost the length of her forearm. Her number, followed by a triangle to denote that she was a Jew — so that the SS officers wouldn’t mistakenly take a non Jew to the gas chambers.

She spoke a number of languages at the time, including: German, English, Spanish, French and Slovak. This skill proved valuable throughout her time in camp. Not the least of times was when she met a Slovak block leader with whom she had a friend in common in the Czech Republic. The block leader got Susan a job on the inside of the camp.

Susan said that this was the only way she stayed alive. Her job was to type names, numbers and ages of the prisoners brought in. Books filled with lists of names. Inside the camp, she said life was different for her and 14 other workers. They had access to showers, actual toilets and better food.

At one point, Susan became ill. She was hospitalized and because she came from inside the camp, she was treated well. She had a bed to herself, she got all the medicine she needed and, in about 7-10 days, she was healthy again and returned to the offices. Her job had been given away, but she was moved to Kanada Kommando where the sorting of the possessions of the Jews brought to camp took place. This is where Susan worked until 1945.

She remembers the three SS officers who were in charge of her and the other workers. She said they were sort of protective of the women. They gave the workers advice and helped them out when they could. She believes that in order to avoid being sent to the front, the officers used the women in the offices as an excuse to appear necessary and therefore keep an easier command.

The Kanada Kommando was between the 4th and 5th gas chambers and so she saw the prisoners who were selected to be gassed brought in every day. She said she couldn’t let herself get emotionally torn down. She just did her job and she lived.

To Ravensbrück

When the Germans were sure they were losing the war, they sent the prisoners on a death march. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum explains the death marches like this: “Prisoners were forced to march long distances in bitter cold, with little or no food, water, or rest. Those who could not keep up were shot. The largest death marches took place in the winter of 1944-1945, when the Soviet army began its liberation of Poland. Nine days before the Soviets arrived at Auschwitz, the Germans marched tens of thousands of prisoners out of the camp toward Wodzislaw, a town thirty-five miles away, where they were put on freight trains to other camps. About one in four died on the way.”

Susan said that when the orders of the death march came, the three SS officers in charge of the women in the office told them to find the warmest clothes and the best shoes and the most food. Susan didn’t know why, but she did as she was told. After days of trudging through knee-deep snow without rest, food or water, she made it to the train platform, where she was advised by an SS officer to get into an open coal car. She didn’t understand why, but upon arrival at Ravensbrück, the closed cars doors were slid open and everyone inside had died.

From here, she was left stranded, wandering, wondering where to go and what to do next. When they saw a Jeep come along the road, they were so happy and she spoke to the GIs in English. “Where do I go now?” she asked. The American soldier looked at her and said, “Go back to wherever you learned English, I guess.” She is still baffled by the soldier’s lack of understanding that she had nowhere to “go back” to.

She asked the officer, “How do I know that I’m actually free?” He said, “Go ask those officers for their submachine guns.” The SS officers handed them over to her and she still remembers how heavy they were. She said that as she walked along the road she realized that she’d been under guard for three years and suddenly, she could do whatever she wanted. “That was liberation,” she said.

Eventually Susan was taken to a Displaced Persons camp where she was fed, clothed and interviewed about possible family members. She soon discovered that her father was alive and they were reunited.

Susan later met and married an American man with whom she has spent her life here in the US. She earned her PhD and taught in the Department of Language and Culture Studies at UNC Charlotte. She is a mother of three.

Q&A

I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Cernyak-Spatz a question at the end of her talk. I asked her if she has forgiven and if so, whom. She said that the country of Germany has done the most to repair the relationships with people of Jewish faith. She said that she has many German friends of the younger generations but that she won’t talk to the Germans of her generation. She said she has no way of knowing what their involvement in the Holocaust was but that many were complicit or enabling. She said that she doesn’t forgive them and she doesn’t know how they forgive themselves.

Privately, I asked her a question about being called a survivor and if that was OK with her. She thought I was nuts for suggesting she might not be. I explained that in cancer treatment it’s a term that is thrown around a lot and it’s always made me uncomfortable. She said that cancer is a horse of a different color. With cancer, patients are helped and cared for. They are wanted to live and expected to. She said that the Nazis didn’t want her to live. They tried to kill her. And she survived and she’s very proud to be called a survivor.

I think that drove home the point to me of why it’s not a term I identify with. Yes, I am alive while many who have had cancer are not. But when I hear “survive” I think of things like car crashes, gun shots and concentration camps. When I think of my experience with cancer, I think of healing and being well, but not narrowly escaping certain death. I’m glad I asked her. It cleared up a foggy area for me.

 

 

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

Lately, I’ve been dealing with two issues that are arising in my life: change and perfectionism. I’ll start by talking about change.

It’s fall. The season has changed, the leaves are changing, the weather is changing, and soon the clocks will change. For me, it’s a wonderful time of year. Perhaps, my favorite. I love everything about it.

When in the midst of many changing circumstances, it’s easy for me to get a little “whipped up.” Caught up in the excitement. Scattered. There’s a lot going on for me. And it’s all good stuff. That’s exactly why I want to slow down and savor. Relish. Enjoy. I want to drink in the season, the learning, the new opportunities, the new friends.

Most of all, I want to not only change over time, but to grow. I want to fully experience opportunities and not simply allow my environment to change around me, thereby mistakenly thinking I’ve changed. Since embarking on a new learning, and therefore career, path, I’ve been beyond concerned with growth. I’ve been aspiring to it.

You see, change is inevitable. But growth? Growth is intentional — in both constructs of the word. It is both “on purpose” and “a conscious mental state directed at an object or belief.”

Growth is something that must be allocated effort, time, energy, consciousness, willingness and desire. It is lasting. It is real. It is the act of becoming.

Which brings me to my next topic: Perfectionism.

I don’t think I’m perfect. Heck, I don’t even think that ideal exists. However, I put pressure on myself to try to be. Crazy, right?

I don’t do it in every aspect of my life, in fact, not in most. For instance, I love to run. And I’m a slow runner. I’m OK with that. It’s not the speed that matters, it’s my commitment and my fitness. I don’t run to beat others. I know that I’m not running the same race as others. I am the only person on the race course in my shoes, literally and figuratively. You know what they say about comparison? It’s the thief of joy.

I have been reminded recently, however, of one very important place that I am affected by perfectionism: academically.

It’s a strange phenomenon, perfectionism. It creeps in quietly, and before you know it’s there, it’s taken up residence. I don’t set out to be perfect. Recently, this scenario happened: I thought to myself: “I’ll go do that homework now before I get too tired.” And I did. Then, on the last assignment, the computer did a strange thing and deleted all of my answers. I was frustrated. And so I zipped through all 12 questions at lightning speed, annoyed for having to do them a second time. I finished and hit send. My score? 72%. Now I was really mad at the computer, because the first time I had done this assignment, my score was 90-something%.

That night, I lie there in bed, not able to forget about this assignment. I reassured myself that it’s only one of many, many assignments. And that all of the homework added together is worth only 15% of my total grade. Until I fell asleep, I had that general uneasy feeling that something was wrong.

Friends, this has seriously got to stop!

What am I so worried about? Nobody knows about this assignment. Moreover, nobody cares. But I’m struggling to stop caring. It’s part of the reason that I hesitate to talk to native German speakers in German. Better to be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and prove it, right? No. Clearly, wrong in this case. It’s a must. I must make mistakes to learn. I must make them aloud and often.

This is real growth opportunity for me. I want to not only change my attitude, but grow into a new mindset about letting go of needing to do things perfectly instead of trying my best and knowing that that is always enough … that I am enough.

Autumn blessings

Ohm so ham.

On this Harvest Moon

Tonight is the Harvest Moon. What a great time to moonbathe. If you’re unfamiliar with the practice, look it up. It has myriad benefits. I’ll be out there tonight, just before bed, drinking it in … and listening to Neil.

 

 

September is the new January

I recently heard someone say that September is the new January. She meant that the school year is akin to the calendar year for beginnings and fresh starts. I hadn’t thought of that before in those terms, but I do love fall. I love when the kids go back to school. And it’s not because of the silence around my house. It’s because I love school. I do as much today as I did when I was a kid.

And as a bonus, I got to start school myself this year.

I returned to school at UNC Charlotte to begin a degree in German. I have a previous degree in Public Relations, so getting the second degree is much more expedient. So far, things are going great! I enjoy my classes very much. I am older than my professor (she teaches both classes) and I’m far older than the other students — even the other “non traditional” ones. It feels a little weird but really it’s OK.

It’s mostly weird when I’m asked if I’ve joined German Club or if I’m coming to Kaffee Klatsch. I’m all about the academic side of my degree, but socially …? Well, it would feel weird to go to Stammtisch at Olde Mecklenburg Brewery with kids who are my daughter’s age. So I’m working my way toward feeling comfortable enough to attend some of the extra curricular activities around the German program.

Right now, I’m far more apt to have a conversation with a professor than a student. We have more in common. Their kids are my kids’ ages, they have husbands and jobs and houses and commutes. Plus, they’re welcoming and helpful and understanding.

I’m gonna master the stairs! I am the Stair Master!

As if getting a degree in German weren’t enough, I’ve now decided to apply to Graduate School. My application and recommendations are underway as we speak.

I’m planning to obtain a Master of Arts in Teaching so that I can teach German at any level, including community college or university. I will work on both degrees concurrently.

The nice thing about the structure of this program is that I can complete my German degree and 18 hours of the MAT program, then begin teaching. Once I’m employed, I can continue the next 18 hours of the MAT and finish with the Master’s qualifications.

It’s all so exciting. Because I’m going to Germany next summer to study in an intensive program at Goethe Institut, I will be able to finish my German degree by December 2018, if all things go according to plan. And I’m hoping to be able to start my student teaching by January 2019.

Book, interrupted

I’ve been occupied lately. (You know how I dislike that word “busy.”) My life is full. So I haven’t written a word of my book since returning from Germany at the end of July. I’ll get back to it.

I have had a recent spark of inspiration after talking with a new friend who is currently dealing with breast cancer. She’s an amazing person that I’ve connected with on a deep level and have so much in common with besides cancer. She lives in Ohio and so, we’ve not met face to face yet. But I’d love to someday, and I’m giving her an anonymous shout out for being awesome. Get it off your chest, girl! 🙂

In talking with her, I’m reminded that my information can be helpful. Honestly, I’m happy that my mere existence can be all that’s needed for others to see that people make it through treatment — and beyond — to fulfill their dreams.

Sometimes self doubt creeps in. Do I really have something important to say? Who’s actually going to read my book? Will it be any good?

Silence!

Book writing is just like any other undertaking. I don’t have to worry now about any of those things. I just have to write.

Forrest Gump

For those who know me well, you know that this is probably my most favorite-est movie ever! (or one of them) When I first saw it back in 1994, I was not “wowed.” I thought it was good, but now I think it’s a masterpiece.

I was only 22 when I first saw it. And I think that I wasn’t aware enough to “get it” entirely. But since then, I’ve watched it so many times. Every time it is on TV (which is a lot, actually), I watch it. I even watched it in German this summer while in Germany. “Lauf, Forrest, lauf!” Every time, I get something out of it and I fall in love with Forrest over and over.

We discussed the movie in one of my yoga classes earlier this year. My teacher pointed out that the beauty of Forrest is that he has no expectations. He doesn’t set the goal of meeting the President of the United States (again), or of being a war hero or of being a father. He simply lives his life and always does his best and his life unfolds.

He also doesn’t expect Jenny to love him back. That’s true love. It’s unconditional. He doesn’t love her because she deserves it or because she loved him first. He just loves her. Period. No expectations.

I strive to be more like Forrest; living without expectations. It sounds kind of unrealistic, but I think of how blissful life would be if I were to simply always do my best and expect nothing in return. I think that it’s those people who truly live in abundance. It’s those people who want everything they have instead of striving for everything they want.

So I’m adopting the attitude of Forrest while writing my book. I’ll write it to the best of my ability and then what will be will be.

 

Parents these days

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of criticism of parents by other parents. It’s a hard time to be a parent, I think. I mean that globally, and I mean it personally.

A few days ago, in Nextdoor, my neighborhood online group, a trending post made me furious. A mom was posting that she saw a high school boy zipping through traffic in a BMW, presumably his parents’, and was causing havoc. She wanted the parents to see the post and know what he’s doing when they’re not with him. I get it. I’d want to know too. The problem isn’t with her post per se, it is with some (many) of the comments.

People took the opportunity to bash these unwitting parents. I understand, reckless drivers are maddening. But it’s not the parents’ fault. I fought the urge on several occasions to respond with, “Do you honestly think that the parents have never told him not to drive like that?!”

Parents can’t be there 24/7. At some point, we have to turn over the keys and trust. Is it stressful? You bet! It’s also worrisome, sometimes angering and at its worst, it can be heartbreaking.

I suppose I take special exception to these blaming comments because I have two teen drivers. One is in another state and, she has been driving for a while. The other lives at home and has only a permit right now. He’s a good driver. A very good one. He loves cars and so there’s a component to his driving that I didn’t have to deal with when teaching his sister. In a word, it’s performance.

He cares about horsepower, gear boxes, acceleration time, handling, cornering and suspension. All of which I couldn’t care less about. Our cars work. Enough said.

He spends a fair amount of his free time researching engines, watching Top Gear, and reading about the latest Bugatti.

Now, we don’t own sports cars. So it’s not like I’ve given him a Nissan GTR with a twin turbo-charged, 4.2-liter engine or an Audi R8 with a Lamborghini V-10 to zip down the tree- lined streets of Matthews in. (I learn things on our drives.) But there is a marked difference between our Lexus and our Honda Crosstour. And he notices them. And … he likes them. “I love getting the Lexus up to speed on Hemby. It happens so fast.” Thanks, bud. Hadn’t noticed. (As the adrenaline practically drips from his fingers around the wheel.)

Sometimes on the highway, he’ll say, “Mom, don’t you ever feel like just punching it?” And because I try not to lie (and because he knows me better), I say, “Only always.”

I do. I want to drive it like I stole it! I want to drive like I’m on the German Autobahn while the rest of Germany is occupied watching the national team playing in the World Cup finals. I want to drive like Matt Leblanc on the Top Gear time track.

But, I don’t because I also want to live and let live and not get motion sick in the process. So I keep it in check. But it’s not always easy. Driving fast is fun. I get it.

So I’ll take Zach back to Germany when he’s licensed and let him open it up. Once he feels what 100 mph+ feels like, maybe it’ll quench that thirst. Or maybe it’ll be a taste of the good stuff, and he’ll want more. I don’t know.

But I can’t change my son. I can impress upon him that driving is serious business and that there is a time and a place for everything. I believe that. I try not to say, “Well, I never!” Cuz, I probably have or would given the chance. Because I’m human.

So when I read that post about the teenage boy driving like a bat out of hell, I don’t condemn the parents. I don’t even condemn the kid. I sympathize.

When Zach gets his license very shortly, he’ll be driving our Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. And I’m happy about that. He hasn’t started driving the Jeep yet because it’s a stick, and we decided that he would learn to drive on our other cars and complete his full sixty hours on an automatic before switching over.

While the Jeep can do some fun stuff, speed isn’t one of them. It’s a six speed. And getting it up to 45 mph on Hemby takes some doing. It requires at least four gear shifts on probably the most difficult manual transmission to be found in a passenger vehicle. It’s not impossible. I do it all the time. It’s just not a “punch it” kind of experience. I’m hoping that his curiosity with the gear box and his fascination with the convertible and doorless experience will be enough.

I’m sure that it’ll be pretty soon that he’ll want to go off roading and see how the suspension works over boulders. And he’ll want to see first-hand why reducing tire pressure helps gain traction in sand. And so we’ll teach him how to do these things safely.

And that’s all we can ever do. Teach our kids. We give them the tools, and we teach them how to use them, but whether or not they ever pick them up and use them on their own is entirely up to them.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’ve never judged another parent. Who hasn’t? We’ve all thought, “What a brat. She should…” I’m trying to be less so.

We can’t control our kids. Any belief that we can is an illusion.

I’ve always tried to let mine be independent. I don’t always succeed. Sometimes they aren’t ready, sometimes I’m not ready. But even when we manage to get it right between us, “they” weigh in.

“Has Zach been wearing his retainers? Has Zach been doing his PT? Has Zach been doing his homework?”

I could answer, but why should I? He’s sitting right beside me. He’s 16. They’re his teeth. His bones. His grades. And he’s old enough to take responsibility. But when I’ve said this to people, they say things like, “Well yes, he’s 16 but you know how much they still need their moms!”

Umm no, they don’t need their moms to nag them. The directions aren’t difficult. They understand. They simply learn to rely on mom.

You can read a zillion articles that blame us parents for coddling our kids and making them dependent on us.

I know I’m doing the right thing. I just wish the judgment didn’t come from both sides.

Damned if you do or don’t.

Parents these days.