Family Ties: Someone’s Favorite

I’ve been decorating my home for Christmas and I keep finding special things that remind me of my Aunt Polly: an engraved ornament, my blue porcelain angels, woodland birds. On Saturday evenings when my husband and I watch movies, I work on my crewel embroidery pillow and remember how she taught me the stitches when I was a senior in high school. Later she gave me the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Needlework and wrote in her artful script, “To Connie Riddle with lots, and lots of Love.”

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Polly in our farmhouse kitchen around 1966

While Polly never told me I was her favorite, as every child hopes they are, I always felt a connection to her because she ‘got me’ and I ‘got her.’ Her attention toward me made me feel special– a great thing when you’re growing up and going through the ups-and-downs of figuring out who you are. How reinforcing to feel that you have someone’s favor.

When I was a girl, Polly told me about visiting the Teton Mountains in Wyoming. I felt like I was there when she described the snow-capped mountains and the open space. I’d seen those vistas in Westerns and imagined myself as one of those cowgirls riding a horse. Years later, as a ‘girl’ of  fifty-six, I took my solo journey to Wyoming chasing that dream that had started with Polly. I rode a huge horse named Tequila on a trail ride in the Grand Teton National Park. How I felt Polly’s spirit with me in that place.

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Remembering Polly’s descripton of the Tetons and feeling her presence

My memories of Polly are strong, especially during the Christmas season. Last year, I was feeling the same way and wrote a post, Polly’s Gift. I’d love for you to read it and get to know more about her.  I’ll end this post early in hopes that you’ll read on about Polly and her painting that hangs on the wall in my kitchen every December.

Polly’s Gift

 

How About You?

Is there a family member or another person who has treated you as if you’re a favorite?

What were things they did that communicated that you had a special bond?

How did their favor on you impact your life?

Do you have that type of relationship with a  niece or nephew or some other person?

 

Taking Time to Play

For the past ten years, I’ve spent Veteran’s Day hiking with my favorite living veteran, my cousin, Danny. He’s eleven years older than me, so when I was young and we had our big family gatherings at our Grandma Smith’s, we didn’t hang out. I thought of him like an older brother. Since I only had two sisters, I’d always wanted a brother, especially one who could pave the way for me and help me understand life from a male perspective.

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photo from Nov 2017

When I was a girl, I loved for Danny to stop by our house on his way to Grandma’s. He had a great sense of humor and teased his younger cousins. I loved hearing him talk about being stationed on the USS Cacapon docked in California and serving areas of the South Pacific.

For our Veteran’s Day treks, we go to Raven Rock State Park that’s just a few miles from where Grandma lived. We choose a trail and hike for a while, then stop along the path, lean against our walking sticks and ponder some new tidbit of discovery. These conversations have given me a greater understanding of my family history since Danny’s been around longer than me.

This year we had to postpone our hike for two weeks. During that time of delay, it seemed the list of things I needed to do for my part-time job, for Indie publishing my memoir, and to manage my new role of taking care of my grandson on Wednesdays and Fridays, increased. Before this year’s hike, I felt ambivalent about taking an entire day off when I had so much to do.

But I wasn’t ambivalent about the importance of those hikes in building my relationship with Danny.

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As I considered what I should do, it was as if that still small voice of God, my inner guide said to me, “Just go and enjoy the day.”

It’ll all work out, I told myself. Honor what you know is important.

It was sunny and cold last Tuesday morning when I drove down that country road to the park. We met at 10:15 and took a new trail, knowing that the hurricane in September probably damaged our more familiar path by the Cape Fear River that bordered the park. Since it wasn’t a holiday, there were few hikers. We passed the Superintendent who told us about the extensive damage to the walkways and stairs in the direction we were headed.

Changing our plan, we ended up hiking to an overlook with a spectacular view of the river, one we’d never been to in all our years of hiking. While we were standing there, two men who appeared to be in their thirties, joined us. They were cousins, too and when I said we had a yearly Veteran’s Day hike, one told us he’d served in the Army. When Danny said he’d served in the Navy in the late sixties and had been to many countries in the South Pacific, the other guy told us he was part Filipino. I listened as they shared experiences of towns they’d visted and foods they’d tried, new discoveries for me of Danny’s time in the service.

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Overlook of the Cape Fear River, Central North Carolina

On my yearly solo journeys, I pray each morning that God will “bless me and the people in my path.” Our conversation with those people in our path in that place of beauty, was a highlight of our walk.

We finished hiking and Danny pulled out his charcoal grill and the food he packed for our lunch. This is always nice for me, being taken care of for a while. All I do is bring a bag of carrots–that’s what he assigns me. I watched him stack the coals, squirt them with lighter fluid, and then fan the coals until they were ashen. Sitting near the grill there was just enough warmth to offset the chill of the breeze and the sun moving further behind the trees. We ate our grilled turkey keilbasa, cornbread, and heated sauerkraut and talked of memories of our favorite Christmas foods at Grandma’s.

Stuffed from our meal, because the grilled cornbread with cheese and poppy seeds was too hard for me to resist, I helped him pack his van then hugged my cousin goodbye. I drove back down that country road feeling satisfied that we’d made it to another Veteran’s Day hike, and thought we should go twice a year since we’re both getting older and once just doesn’t seem often enough.

Later, I listened to an Indie publishing podcast at The Creative Penn from an October show. An Irish author and creative coach, Orna Ross, shared a statement that touched a chord with me:

“The creative process completely relies on rest and play; it is not about endless work.”

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That’s right. I needed to spend the day with Danny to honor our relationship, but also to have a day of play. I’d been working hard and I was in danger of my life becoming unbalanced. I remembered my solo journey to Jekyll Island where I felt I’d been drawn to relearn to play. My life had become out of balance back then when I was fifty, and now I was dealing with the same issue at sixty-three: different factors but the same issue.

It seems I keep needing this reminder to balance my work and play. And now my seven-month-old grandson can give me lessons on Wednesdays and Fridays as he discovers the world through play, and bears witness to the benefits with his smile and cackles of laughter.

 

Resource:

https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2018/10/26/self-publishing-3-0-and-how-to-build-success-as-an-indie-author-with-orna-ross/

How about You?

How could you increase your time playing to balance your life?

What are things that you would like to do? Can you schedule those in the week and month ahead?

 

Being Present: Stay in Touch

Years ago, when I was writing part of the eulogy for my father-in-law’s funeral service, I asked for each of the five grandsons to share a special memory of their ‘PaPa’.  My younger son, Ross told me that his Papa was a really good listener. His example to support this was that when he told his grandfather about a trip to the store to buy a baseball, his PaPa took the ball Ross had purchased and held it, moving it around in his hands and examining the surface. Ross believed his PaPa wanted to understand what his grandson valued by taking it in and experiencing it in the only way he could. Since PaPa was bedridden, he was not able to go outside and throw the ball with his grandson, but he could give his undivided attention by listening and touching the baseball.

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While it was a simple example from an eighth-grade boy, it impressed me that by that act my son made the judgement that his PaPa was a really good listener. He was totally absorbed in what my son was telling him with his ears and his hands. I’ve thought of how many times I’ve looked at something without taking the time and effort to engage it with my hands, my sense of touch to experience something more fully.

Now I watch my six-month old grandson as he discovers the world. He’s not content to just look at things; he fully engages by touching each thing multiple times, trying to figure out what it is. When he touches the metal tile on the wall, he fans his fingers back and forth across the surface, examining the raised areas, learning by experience that it feels different from the wooden handrail by the stairs. And on flat surfaces like the table, he slaps his hands down hard, perhaps liking the sound, feeling the power of his own force.

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I copy him and close my eyes and touch the same surfaces, wondering what it feels like when you’re at the beginning of life. By the time you’re sixty-three, you know the uses for the objects, how they’re constructed, and have childhood memories associated with each: sliding down the wood bannister of our farmhouse, the coolness of the surface of our Formica kitchen table, opening the tin vents on the side of our tobacco barn and being stung by wasps.

Last year when I traveled to Iona, Scotland, I wanted to totally engage my senses. I touched things in my path to increase my memory of that pilgrimage. I rubbed my hand across the ancient carvings in the oldest tall cross at Iona Abbey, MacLean’s Cross. Now, when I close my eyes and think of being there, I remember the rough texture and feel that ever-present breeze on my face.

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When we hiked into the hills near the Abbey, I picked a piece of heather, and felt the scratchiness of the plant while enjoying the visual beauty of the small bloom. I made sure to put my hands in the cold water of Iona Sound, feeling the sugar-soft sand and searching for a special rock to take home.

Now that winter is approaching, I think of how important the texture of fabric is to feeling warm when the temperatures drops. I look forward to wearing my corduroy coat and remembering how much I liked that fabric as a child. I think of the ways the touch of fabric brings comfort, like the fleece throws that volunteers have made for Mama and others at Parkview, and prayer shawls knitted for survivors going through cancer treatment. Those warm coverlets of care have a way of making you feel grounded.

I think of how my grandson is re-teaching his ‘Grammy’ the importance of touch for engaging more fully with the world. It’s not enough to look at something and keep going. Now I need to slow down, be in the moment, and ‘Stay in Touch’ with what is around me to be fully engaged in life.

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How About You?

How can you slow down and be present through the use of touch?

What objects have you rediscovered by taking the time to fully engage with them?

 

 

 

 

Celebrating a Life

Today I’m remembering a solo journey I took back in 2009 to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My desire was to visit the place that had been significant for my mother. She and her  cousin, Yvonne traveled there by train when they were both nineteen to prepare for work in WWII as civil servants.

Throughout my childhood, Mama told stories of their adventures in Harrisburg. It was the first time those two farm girls had been outside of North Carolina. They returned to work at Pope Air Base, living on site and enjoying the lively community that included handsome soldiers. It was quite a change from rural Harnett County.

Before I left on my trip to Harrisburg, I took Mama to see Yvonne. At that time, they were both still living in their homes. We sat at Yvonne’s dining table and shared a meal of chicken and biscuits and I told them about my plan.

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Yvonne Gilchrist Casto (sitting) and Mama, Mary Smith Rosser

While Yvonne had more physical problems than Mama, Yvonne was mentally sharp. Mama was in the early phase of dementia and understood that I was going to Harrisburg, but had a hard time recalling the specifics of living there. I felt an urgency to go then because I wanted her to be able to enjoy some of what I discovered while she could still savor those memories with Yvonne.

“We lived on McClay street. I hope you can find the house where we rented a room from the Flutes,” Yvonne told me.

Later, she shared one of their familiar stories. She was a clever prankster and often seemed to be the ‘set-up’ person while Mama took the bait. They were a real duo.

When I arrived in Harrisburg, I took pictures along the path by the Susquehanna River, remembering what an impression it made on Mama that frigid January day when they arrived. Mama would often say, “That river was frozen solid.” It would have been a real contrast to their partially-frozen farm pond in central North Carolina, which she would have be warned to stay away from when she was a girl.

While I walked along the streets abutting McClay and visited the Capitol where they’d had their photo taken, I imagined Mama and Yvonne, nineteen years old, the young women in the photo coming to life.

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(L to R) Yvonne, their new friend, Mary Willis, and Mama, Mary Rosser at PA Capitol 1943

I tried but couldn’t find the training site. When I returned with my pictures, they listened in rapt attention as I told them what I saw and ways the city had changed since 1943.

Mama and Yvonne remained close over the years. We often said they were more like sisters and best friends than merely cousins.

How they loved each other’s company, able to finish each other’s stories from their time together as young women starting out in the world. After the war ended and they finished working at Pope Field, they went to Kansas City, Missouri to work for the airlines. While there, Yvonne met her husband, Bill and eventually moved with him to California.

Years later, we received the tragic news that Bill had been diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea/Huntington’s Disease, a fatal genetic disorder (https://hdsa.org/what-is-hd/). He lost his job as a NASA contractor due to the  changes in his functioning caused by the break down of nerve cells in his brain. Yvonne and Bill, along with their six-year-old daughter, Kim moved back to North Carolina. Mama was heartbroken for Yvonne and was supportive of her through the eighteen years of Bill’s decline and eventual long-term care and then death. During that time, Yvonne was there for Mama when Daddy died suddenly from a heart attack.

As widows, they’d often visit each other and take trips to see friends and family that lived both nearby and faraway. They enjoyed each other’s company, often telling their stories from Harrisburg and Pope Field like a well-rehearsed tag team. We enjoyed watching them.

Eventually Yvonne’s diabetes and other physical problems, and Mama’s dementia led to both of them going to live in nursing centers. As long as they were able, we still tried to take them to see one another. When they were no longer able to visit, Yvonne would ask Kim about Mama, and Mama would smile when we’d tell her news of Yvonne. They were separated but we felt their spirits remained together.

Today I remember Yvonne because tomorrow I will attend her memorial service. She passed away last week in her nursing home thirty miles from Mama’s. Yvonne had just turned 95 on November 1st, catching up with her cousin who’d turned 95 in July.

For Mama and Yvonne, their strong cousin bond, shared adventures as young women, and support for one another, lasted a lifetime.

What a testament of  kinship, friendship, and loyalty pursurvering through the good and difficult times of life. What a priviledge to have learned from watching them.

Tomorrow we will celebrate Yvonne. Mama doesn’t know that her cousin is no longer living. She is spared from that grief by her dementia, so we daughters will go in Mama’s stead, supporting Kim, our cousin, as we honor the life of her incredible mother.

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How About You?

Have you ever made a journey to discover more about a person you loved?

What did you learn about that person?  What did you learn about yourself?

Not What I Expected

Four years ago, I was considering retiring from school nursing and looking at my options. I wanted to work part-time and do something different. After Googling jobs for nurses, number ten on one list was Life Coach. I’d considered going into that area years before but the timing didn’t feel right. I had fifteen years of experience as a mental health nurse, so while Coaching would be different, it would still use some of my long-developed skills.

I took the Wisdom of the Whole (formerly Linda Bark Coaching Academy) course that following year in 2015, worked through the sixty supervision hours and passed the certification exam by April of 2016. I even completed an extra course that focused on Coaching People Affected by Cancer.

What I thought was going to happen, was that I would eventually develop a part-time role as a Coach in the oncology practice where I’d received treatment for triple-negative breast cancer. I’d served on the committee to develop the Waverly Survivors’ Community and hoped to contribute in a more direct way.

On November 7th of this year, I saw a previous entry in my journal that was written Nov. 7, 2016. I was giving my first Nurse Coach presentation to Waverly Survivors’ Community on using Positive Self-Talk when encountering medical procedures. I spent a lot of time developing my content, preparing a resource list, and working with the staff to coordinate our session. I made a comment in my journal that I was trusting God with my plans for retirement, with my desire to work part-time as a Coach with that oncology practice.

That night, three women came to our session. We were a very informal, conversational group. I presented some of my information, but what the women were more interested in was sharing their stories. They were so ready to connect with others going through breast cancer treatment. At the end of the hour, I posed the same question that I would with a coaching client, “So what is your takeaway from our session?”

They were quiet for a while, then one woman said, “You’ve been a survivor for 16 years.”

It wasn’t the information that I presented, it was me being an example that you could live for many years beyond treatment.

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Family picture May ’01 three mths after I finished treatment. Left to Right, younger son, Ross, husband, David, and older son, Brooks

Ultimately, I didn’t develop a role for myself in that practice. Instead, I was hired for a part-time research nurse position through UNC Outpatient Psychiatry that used skills from working in mental health, school nursing, and clinical trials research.

Now I realize that instead of working in person with cancer survivors, I’ve been using my own cancer experience and coaching skills in my writing. What I didn’t foresee, is that my energy for supporting survivors will be used with my own family. After fourteen years of having an empty nest, both my sons living in other states, now they’ve returned to our area.

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Family picture Oct. 2017–Daughter-in-Law, Emily pregnant with our grandson

And the biggest surprise, is that I’m taking care of my precious 6-month-old grandson two days a week. If I were coaching people going through the intensity of cancer treatment and learning to put their lives together afterwards, I don’t think I’d have the emotional reserves to give my best to my grandson. Now, instead of driving to that oncology practice I’m driving the ten miles to their home to take care of him. It’s a gift I didn’t foresee.

My heart wants to keep reaching out to fellow cancer survivors, to encourage them so they can say, “You’ve been a Survivor . . .” now for 18 years. I’ll keep pursuing Reflective Questions that help my readers, and me, to get at what’s inside waiting to be expressed.

And in the meantime, I’ll love each moment watching my grandson develop, grateful that I have this unexpected blessing.

 

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Loving my little North Carolina Tar Heel

How About You?

What plans have you made that didn’t work out in the way you’d hoped?

How did things unfold for you?   In what ways were you surprised?  Were there unexpected blessings?

 

 

 

 

 

Solo Journey: Dream Destination

In last week’s blog post, I told about how a Literary Agent set me on a Solo Journey of Indie Publishing. I knew my dream destination—publication of my memoir, but I felt hesitant to take the first step forward. Like when I approach my yearly solo journeys– the destination is determined but there is uncertainty with how to start. Before each journey, I feel resistance to crossing the threshold of the safety of the known in order to enter the unknown world.

 With my yearly pilgrimages, I’ve developed a pattern of asking the question, “Where should I go this year, God?” and then wait to see what comes forth. After that, it works best to take some action, even though it might not follow a logical order—just move forward on the path and the clues for what to do next will appear. After meeting with the Literary Agent, I took a couple of weeks to consider things and then decided to hire the professional editor that I met at the conference.

When she sent back my manuscript with her remarks, she started her email with, “Don’t be overwhelmed with all these comments. It’s a lot and more than anyone can handle at once. Just work your way through them one at a time.” She was right; I’d never received editorial notes for 210 pages at one time. At first I said to myself, “I can’t do this.” Her edits came the day we were leaving for the beach. I’d deal with them when we returned.

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Forgetting the edits at Emerald Isle, N.C.

I took the next month to make the needed changes. As an Indie Author, I was the boss and would set my own pace.  Like traveling solo, I had no one else to answer to, no need to negotiate how to approach the journey. Doing the rewrites for my memoir was a big task. There were days I’d say to myself, “Keep your butt in this chair and stick with it.” I’d look out my window and see other people enjoying summer and it felt like I was being forced inside to do my homework. But then I’d remember that I chose this and was intentionally moving forward on the path toward my dream.

Further down that path, it was time to hire a cover design artist. Several people at the conference recommended the company 99designs. You submit your request in the form of starting a contest with their international artist community. After you write your brief telling about your story and give details that will help a designer, you wait for proposals to come in. You have a narrow window of time for giving them feedback, asking for preliminary changes, and deciding on the finalists. I wasn’t sure about the process but it was the best option that I had.

The proposals I received in the first twenty-four hours were disappointing. I wondered if using that company was a mistake. There are times on my trips when I feel uncertain, and at times, foolish, afraid that I’m going to make a mistake, especially when it comes to time and money. But after forty-eight hours, I received two proposals that were much closer to what I had in mind. Over that week, I went back-and-forth with an artist in Madrid. With the time difference between Spain and the East Coast of the U.S., I had to pay close attention to the ticking clock of the contest. There were moments I felt uncomfortable with making such an important decision, since a book jacket helps to show your story and to attract readers. But like working through those edits, I’d think about the options, pray, take a walk and sort through the pros and cons. I called on several people who’ve read my book to weigh in on the proposed jacket.

The main issue came with the image of the woman on the cover—the one depicting me at forty-five sitting by Oak Creek in Sedona. After I’d had the artist change the image several times, I still felt hesitant but couldn’t put my finger on the problem.

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I went to bed knowing I had to give the final okay by the following day. I woke up at 3:30 and the woman’s image– sitting on the rock looking at the water, came to mind. Staring at my alarm clock, it occurred to me what was wrong.

Her hair has to look like post-chemo hair, I thought. The woman’s long hair was what I wished I had back then, but was far from the short, curly locks that grew in after treatment. I couldn’t offend my readers, who like me, didn’t take hair for granted after losing it.

I got out of bed and sent an email to the designer. It would be 8:30 in Madrid and she may have time to make the change while I went back to sleep.

Later that morning, I checked for the artist’s response and felt pleased with her new image, the figure with enough hair to show a woman’s silhouette but not the long hair with a flip that didn’t ring true for my story.

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A portion of the cover of my memoir, He Heard My Voice

My solo journey to my dream destination has taken me on a path through edits, and cover designs and other discoveries. There are more challenges ahead. Like my yearly pilgrimages, I will continue to put one foot in front of the other, uncertain of how to walk each section but depending on God and the people in my path to help me.

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How About You?

What is the Dream Destination for your Solo Journey?

What obstacles or challenges might you encounter?

What supports do you have to help you walk through each section of your journey?

 

Unless You’re Famous

The Literary Agent from Denver sat at the opposite end of the sofa from me, both of us turned toward each other for my fifteen-minute session at the writers’ conference. In his hands was the proposal for my memoir that I’d painstakingly prepared over the past six months. The last fifty pages included the first three chapters of the book, work that started in its earliest form ten years before and had gone through several iterations. He asked me to tell him what I had for him and as I described my memoir, he thumbed through the first few pages, then closed the proposal.

He was quiet for a moment, then said, “Unless you’re famous, I can’t get a traditional publisher to take a memoir.” He went on to say that it didn’t matter how well-written it was, and he didn’t say it, but the implication was the same for the proposal—it meant nothing if the Literary Agent couldn’t go before traditional publishing houses with my memoir.

I sat there, not quite sure what to say, disappointed but also relieved that he was up front with me. That could have been the end of the conversation and we could have wrapped things up early, giving us more time before our next sessions. But then he continued.

“Let’s talk some more about your book,” he said. “Tell me what you were feeling when you went through that experience in Sedona?” At the time of our meeting, the title for my memoir was, Saved by Sedona: Finding a Path of Pilgrimage.

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I told him about the pivotal moment in the book that takes place when I’m alone with God in Sedona. That experience of being present during a serendipitous trip after cancer treatment and struggling with a toxic job, had impacted my life and later led to yearly solo journeys. I told him how the first three verses of Psalm 40 became my go-to scripture during that difficult time, and then I quoted the first verse.

“You have to change your title,” he said.

While I’d had some concerns, I’d become attached to it and could think of nothing else. The agent told me he was good at titles, and since he was a veteran of many years with the industry, had worked with many titles in the inspirational, faith-based genre, I believed him.

“How about, He Heard My Voice,” he said.

I listened to him, trying to take in what he was telling me, trying to absorb how my pitch had turned into a brainstorming session for a title of a book he couldn’t represent. I did like the sound of his title, the alliteration and the clear reference to the Psalm.

“And the subtitle needs to speak to your target audience and what they’ll experience reading your book,” he said. He asked me to tell him more about the journey for the reader through my memoir, what did I experience and how did I change. I remembered some of what I’d rehearsed for the pitch, but mostly answered him like we were just having a conversation.

“How about something like,” he said, and told me his idea, then changed some of it as I filled in the blanks. We came up with the subtitle, “A Midlife Mom’s Journey Through Cancer and Stress and Her Unexpected Arrival at Healing and Wholeness.” Later, when I had time to wrap my head around what we’d created in such a few minutes of working together, I liked that long and accurate subtitle.

Before the conference, I’d prayed for direction knowing I wanted clarity about how to move forward with the book I’d worked on for so long. It had been my dream to publish it and now, at sixty-three-years-old, I wasn’t willing to keep waiting to put it out there.

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Four years prior after successful pitch with an agent. Later saw this as a ‘False Start.’

 

“What do you think I should do with this memoir since I can’t go the traditional route,” I asked him, feeling that he’d been placed in my path and I could trust his advice.

“I think you should go the Indie route,” he said, and then gave me some suggestions for how to self-publish using contracted freelancers like editors and cover designers who’re also used by the publishing houses.

That evening I left the conference feeling relieved, scared, overwhelmed, and exhausted.

I’m not famous; Oprah has not shown up at my door; I’ve not been kidnapped and forced into a cult; I’ve not performed an unusual physical feat for a woman my age. But I do feel fortunate that the Literary Agent from Denver took the time with me to go beyond rejection and give my memoir new life. Now, I have a better title and have been set on the path for a new type of Solo Journey—the adventure of Indie Publishing. Just like other journeys, I’m traveling into the Unknown and each step is an act of faith.

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Morning view of Lake Champlain July ’15. Now wonder what journey through Indie publishing will be like.

How About You?

What dream do you have that is yet to be realized?

How can you step forward on a path toward achieving your dream?

I Choose Joy!

That day, my nursing supervisor called me to intervene with an employee situation. Since I’d worked in mental health for fifteen years before becoming a school nurse, she depended on me to help settle down a staff member who was upset, out of control about a student situation she felt had been mishandled. By the time I arrived at the school, the employee appeared to be manic and was distrustful. I spoke with the guidance counselor who had knowledge of the incident. Before I left her office, I noticed a banner above her desk that said, I Choose Joy!

I met with the troubled employee and eventually she calmed down and left for the day. Later she got the help she needed. Over time, that incident faded from my memory, but the banner never did.

I Choose Joy!

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What a simple, declarative statement. Years later, I remembered that banner.  Three days after I received my breast cancer diagnosis, I was lying across my bed on a Friday after work, feeling totally downcast, overwhelmed with the long road of treatment ahead of me. My sadness was interrupted by a phone call from my cousin, Ron. He told me he’d just found out about my cancer.

“Connie, you’re not going to believe this, but God is going to bring you such joy,” he said, my cousin who knew about hard times. He’d had many health problems, including cancers and a liver transplant. His life appeared to be one challenge after the other, and we often thought he had ‘9 Lives.’

He went on to explain.

“You’re going to be aware of God and all the ways he works during this time,’ he said. “I know, because that’s what has happened for me.”

How can that be? I thought. With the chemo that I faced, inevitable losing of my hair, thirty-plus rounds of radiation, events that I’d miss when I had to avoid exposure to crowds, how could I experience Joy in those circumstances?

Weeks after our phone call, I was reading in the Psalms, my go-to book of the Bible when I went through cancer treatment. I identified with the Psalmist crying out to God in despair. My poor concentration could handle a pithy psalm, like the one in  the first portion of Psalm 86:17 (NIV):

” Give me a sign of your goodness”

 On mornings when I started the day feeling I just couldn’t make it through all the challenges, I prayed that Psalm. Then I’d watch to see how God answered my plea.

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Morning at Iona

I don’t know how much of seeing God’s answer was because my eyes were focused on the goodness in my path, and how much God placed things there after that prayer. Maybe some of both.

Over the past few years, my morning devotional before my walk, comes from Sarah Young’s book, Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence. I am grateful to Sarah for how she writes in a way to help the reader see things from God’s POV. Her words have been used in my life to help me become more present to God in each moment. In the October 5threading in Sarah’s book, she writes:

“Remember that Joy is not dependent on your circumstances.” And further down the page, “True Joy is a by-product of living in My Presence.”

Now her words help me to put these pieces about Joy into a more fully-formed understanding.

Ron experienced that Joy going through his crises because he lived in God’s presence. No matter how much the impact of the anti-rejection drugs wore down his body, he chose to be present with God, and that’s how he experienced joy.

Thinking of the banner, I Choose Joy, that action of choosing is key. Choosing to be present with God, is choosing Joy.

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God’s presence in Notre-Dame Cathedral

That verse from Psalm 86 asking God to “Give me a sign of your goodness” works when we are present to God in each moment, able to see the blessings in our path, no matter our circumstances.

I’m grateful for that banner in the guidance counselor’s office all those years ago. Now, at those times when I feel downcast, I remember that Joy is a choice. I have the power to choose no matter what challenges I face. May we all be able to say

I CHOOSE JOY!

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How About You?

Is there a situation in your life where you need to choose Joy?

How would taking that action step change that experience?

 

 

 

 

Digging Up My Buried Shame

Our group of six women sat around the conference room table of Waverly Hematololgy and Oncology, the place where I’d received my chemo years before and now participated in the first Expressive Writing Group. Mary Barnard, Office Manager and poet, was our group leader and was certified in teaching the Write to Heal program created by James Pennebaker. Based on thirty-three years of research, the program had proven to transform the emotional lives of trauma survivors. We were provided the opportunity to participate in the group through the Waverly Survivors’ Community.

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Writing to Heal

We had an inital go-round of introducing ourselves and sharing some of our hopes for being in the group. Then Mary gave us an overview, discussed confidentiality, assigned a brief warm-up writing exercise, then led us to the first writing session.

“I want you to write about one of your most traumatic experiences,” she instructed us. Mary had set up the group, with the safety of boundaries and optional sharing that are essential for a trusting environment.

We had fifteen minutes and I had no problem writing continuously for the entire time. The traumatic event for me was my experience of working in that toxic research job at the same time as going through cancer treatment. While the breast cancer experience was difficult, the impact of the job that ended with being fired, had been much more damaging to my self-esteem and my professional confidence.

I wrote rapidly, with penmanship only legible to me, as I tapped into a deep reservoir of shame that had remained inside for fifteen years. Blaming the three people who made that work environment so pernicious, I recounted ways they’d misled me about the job, as well as their unprofessional behaviors at that ‘Mom and Pop’ clinical trials company. I’d written about that experience in the past, so it surprised me how much anger I still carred after so many years.

When our writing time was up, Mary asked, “How did it feel to write about the traumatic event?” Some of the participants shared about their emotions, their physical sensations, and pulling up forgotten memories. For most of the women, they had not written about their cancer experience but another trauma in their lives.

We completed a questionaire ranking to what degree we expressed our deepest thoughts and feelings, currently felt sad or upset, felt happy, found the writing exercise meaningful or valuable. Then we wrote reflections for five minutes about the experience of writing YOUR words in YOUR uninhibited language.

I’d signed up for the Expressive Writing Group, partly to support Mary’s efforts, since we were on the planning committee for the Survivors’ Clinic.  I thought because I’m a writer and have journaled most of my life, that I already knew the benefits of putting my feelings on the page.

Mary moved on to the second session.

“Now I want you to write about the same traumatic experience for fifteen minutes,” she told us.

I continued to put down my angry feelings about the company, but gradually I exhausted that well of resentment and transitioned to writing with more control, less intensity. Tired of my harsh judgements, I moved on with how that traumatic experience, simultaneous with my cancer, had forged a new courage inside me. I’d been more honest in that final confrontation with that company than I’d ever been in my life. That dysfunctional work family had fueled my writing and had allowed for that serendipitous trip to Sedona that was the seed that gave birth to my solo journeys.

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We completed the fifteen minute session as we had the first with answering the self-reflective questionniare and writing for five minutes.

While previous writings about that trauma had been solitary journal entries, the third session in this writing community, was about to move me forward from where I’d been stuck.

“Now I want you to write about the same traumatic event, but from a different person’s point of view,” Mary told us. “It can be anyone– for example your friend’s, God’s, or even an imaginary person.”

I wrote from what I imagined as God’s POV. In my scribble I said, “He loves me and knows my heart. I trust his omnipotent point of view in being fair.” Gradually, I brought up ways that I had contributed to the problems– something I couldn’t concede to before. Feeling the love of God who knows my weaknesses, allowed me to let go and acknowledge my part, to gain a more objective, less-victimized perspective.

I ended with, “God’s point of view is merciful. While he didn’t cause the trauma of being fired after I’d just been through cancer treatment, he is omnipotent and allowed what transpired. All of that became a ‘Refiner’s Fire’ that ultimately helped to make me who I am.”

That first group meeting ended with all of us feeling a sense of shared relief, walking out to our cars a bit lighter than when we arrived.

I didn’t realize then that those writing sessions would help prepare me for that year’s solo journey that was four days later. I traveled to Kentucky for a two-week stay at a writer’s residency. My goal was to rewrite my memoir.

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My kitchen table that became my writer’s desk.

During those days of reworking my memoir while sitting at that farmhouse table, I realized that my first time writing it I’d focused on my cancer. Now I had to go back and tell the whole truth– the simultaneous struggle with the research company that ended with me being fired. Now, I could admit to that buried shame, and be honest with my readers about all of my life.

How About You?

What buried shame do you have that needs to be dug up?

How can you examine it from a new perspective, a different point of view, so that you may heal and move forward in your life?

Resources

If you’d like to read about the Write to Heal program by James Pennebaker see this article in Survivors’ Review at http://www.survivorsreview.org/writenow.php?v=2

Mary Barnard may be reached for questions at mbarnard@waverlyhemeonc.com

 

 

 

Share Your Cancer Story

“Come on in and join the party!” my friend Mary, the birthday ‘girl’ and host, welcomed me. She was in the midst of checking the beverage coolers, taking care of her guests.

It was Saturday night and I was ready for a break from my growing lists of tasks: next steps in publishing my memoir, household chores crying out from neglect, charts to review for my part-time research nurse job. Going to my friend’s party was a welcomed relief.

Once I had my plate of food and was looking for a place to sit, Mary said, “Connie, I want you to meet someone who just finished our Expressive Writing Group.”

Mary had developed that group for the Waverly Survivor Clinic. We first met while participating on the planning committee to establish supports for our survivors’ community. I’d received chemo for breast cancer in their treatment area.

“This is Kay. She just completed the program,” Mary told me, then turned toward Kay. “Connie was in my first group two years ago.”

We sat across from each other on the couch. She was younger than me, mid-forties, and was stylishly dressed and wore a fedora atop her curly, dark hair. I’ve always liked fedoras, and admired women with the confidence to wear them, especially since I’ve never been a hat person. She asked me about my experience with the group, but then she was interested in my cancer story.

“It’s been eighteen years, now,” I told her. “I was shocked when they told me I had breast cancer, since I don’t have a family history of the disease.”

She’d heard the same statistic as me, that 70% of those diagnosed do not have a family history. I told her mine was discovered on a routine mammogram, the word routine always giving me pause since that day when I ran out for that mammogram during my lunch break.

“Yeah, mine was triple-negative and I wanted Dr. Graham to do everything possible to get rid of the cancer,” I told her. “I was forty-five and my sons were in 9thand 10thgrade. As a mother, after my first concern of, “Am I going to live?” my next priority was being there for my boys.”

She told me hers was triple-negative, too, and that she’d finished treatment just a little over a year ago. I knew that her memories and her fears were fresh.

She asked me about my course of treatment. We’d had a similar path but the steps were in a different order.

“Those appointments get easier over time,” I told her, remembering how anxious I was post-treatment, out from under the frequent visits and protective watch of my oncologist.

“It’s so good to talk to you, to hear that you’re an eighteen-year survivor,” she said.

Her comment reminded me of an experience at my surgeon’s office the week I found out I had breast cancer. Sitting and waiting for my appointment for him to explain the pathology report and answer my panicky questions, I overheard a woman talking about her breast cancer to the receptionist.

“I can’t believe it’s been eight years,” the receptionist said to the woman. “You really look good.”

She’s lived for eight years, I marveled. While I was a nurse, I’d never worked in oncology and never read about breast cancer. My recent experience of losing a high school classmate from that disease was my point of reference. Overhearing that conversation settled me down, and often played in my head over the months of treatment.

Now, Kay was telling me the same thing—that my story of being an eighteen-year survivor had given her hope. It reminded me that I needed to be available to share my story, when the other person was wanting to hear it. I remembered times when I didn’t want to talk about cancer, I wanted to forget about it—at least for a while. As a survivor, I needed to let the other person lead with what they wanted at that moment.

We finished our dinner and Mary led us out to the garage where The String Beings band was playing. Guests sat in lawn chairs listening to the relaxing Saturday night music, talking with the band members between songs. I spotted Dr. Graham, the first time I’d seen him outside the office, looking all ‘regular’ in a casual shirt, pants, and athletic shoes, without that long white lab coat.

Kay and I found seats near the band and continued our conversation. She showed me some of her family pictures, and pointed out her pre-chemo, straight hair. Her Mama Pride radiated when she shared the picture of her son. What a beautiful family that had been there for her during her treatment.

We talked and talked until the band played their last song.

Leaving Mary’s party, I felt full and happy. I’d encouraged a fellow survivor and in the process, made a new friend. I’d been reminded how important it is to share our cancer story, that though I want to move on and leave that behind me, there are people in my path who need Hope.

How About You?

What is your story that could provide someone with hope?

How does it impact them when you share your story? How does it impact you?

(Sorry, Friends. My photos are not loading today–after many tries! So frustrating. Will try to post them in the future)