Blossoms

It’s funny how things come together.

The last few days I couldn’t decide what to write about on my blog. It wasn’t a lack of ideas, more a lack of focus. I blame it on the weather with rain, dull gray skies and still needing to wear a flannelette nightgown for sleeping. It doesn’t help that this is the end of May, not the beginning of November. It’s true that we did have a sunny warm week-end. In fact too hot for the runners at Sunday’s Marathon. It all goes to show that the weather is out of our control and we may as well “dress accordingly,” as my sensible friend declares and get on with living.

As I was walking home, after dropping my grandson off at school, I noticed the apple blossoms bursting forth on the lone tree pictured here. And suddenly I was pulled into the beauty right in front of my nose. As well as into childhood and the joy I experienced gazing at apple orchards in the Annapolis Valley in the spring. Childhood memories conjure up all kinds of stories and Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen popped into my mind like a joyful surprise.

Rachel Remen is a brilliant storyteller and her unique perspective on healing comes from her role as physician, professor of medicine, and longterm survivor of chronic illness herself. Her first book of true stories, called  Kitchen Table Wisdom, is well worth putting on your nightstand, and reading a story everyday. It is medicine for the soul.

So, in these rainy spring days as trees and flowers still bloom and blossom even without weeks of sunshine, and the world has suffering galore, my heart turns to Dr. Remen. She is our faithful reminder and cheerleader, from the trenches,  of how lives do have beautiful,  heartfelt and meaningful moments even on dark days.

 

Over the years I have seen the power of taking an unconditional relationship to life. I am surprised to have found a sort of willingness to show up for whatever life may offer and meet with it rather than wishing to edit and change the inevitable…When people begin to take such an attitude, they seem to become intensely alive, intensely present. Their losses and suffering have not caused them to reject life, have not cast them into a place of resentment, victimization, or bitterness.

From such people, I have learned a new definition of the word ‘joy.’ I had thought joy to be rather synonymous with happiness, but it seems now to be far less vulnerable than happiness. Joy seems to be part of an unconditional wish to live, not holding back because life may not meet our preferences and expectations. Joy seems to be a function of the willingness to accept the whole, and to show up to meet with whatever is there. It has a kind of invincibility that attachment to any particular outcome would deny us. Rather than the warrior who fights toward a specific outcome and therefore is haunted by the specter of failure and disappointment, it is the lover drunk with the opportunity to love despite the possibility of loss, the player for whom playing has become more important than winning or losing.

The willingness to win or lose moves us out of an adversarial relationship to life and into a powerful kind of openness. From such a position, we can make a greater commitment to life. Not only pleasant life, or comfortable life, or our idea of life, but all life. Joy seems more closely related to aliveness than happiness.

The strength that I notice developing in many of my patients and in myself after all these years could almost be called a form of curiosity. What one of my colleagues calls fearlessness. At one level, of course, I fear outcome as much as anyone. But more and more I am able to move in and out of that and to experience a place beyond preference for outcome, a life beyond life and death. It is a place of freedom, even anticipation. Decisions made from this perspective are life-affirming and not fear-driven. It is a grace.

Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal

 

Notes:

Note 1:) Kitchen Table wisdom was first published in 1994. It is probably available in a second hand bookstore for a good price. It is only available in my library as an ebook but I think this is a  book to read in print. In 2006 they republished a tenth anniversary edition with new content, which I haven’t read.

Note 2:) I have always found solace from words. Especially a well told true story. I think as humans we relate to stories. I believe Rachel’s stories are so profound because she  identifies with the suffering and challenges of her patients. A shared humanity, filled with learning, comfort, laughter and the richness of what cannot be measured. As Jon-Kabat Zinn, Ph.D, proclaims: “an extraordinary outpouring of human wisdom.”

Note 3:) Thank you so much for continuing to stop by. There are so many wonderful things in the world to claim your attention, so I appreciate you spending a little time here. See you next week, Trudy

 

A story I remember with delight

In the spring of 2004 I had the privilege of meeting Rabbi Zalman Schacter in Vancouver at an extraordinary multi-faith/no faith retreat. It even included the Dalai Lama along with a number of other wise people from around the world.

At lunch time on day two I was preparing to sit down,  when a stranger asked me this question. “What faith are you?”

I said, “Oh, I am multi-faith. I learn from the wisdom of all the great teachers.”

My interrogator was quite insistent that I pick, so,  at that moment I flung my arms wide and announced, ” if I had to choose today, I would be Jewish, because the Rabbi’s are so hilarious.”

With the flinging of my arms I hit someone standing behind me who turned out to be one of those hilarious Rabbi’s. I quickly apologized, with some embarrassment, but he exclaimed, with a generous smile,  “this is the best compliment I have received as a Rabbi.”

Of course, with that statement, my choice was vindicated and we all laughed.

I truly delighted in the wisdom stories of the Rabbi’s that day, which were delivered with so much humour and humanity.

They often seemed to confirm my own point of view that not everything necessarily happens for a reason.  Rather, a realistic view is that whatever happens becomes part of what forms us. Yet, there is a recognition that  depending on how we view things, we can increase or decrease our suffering.

Rabbi Schacter wrote a blessing that resonates with my experience, so I pass it on to you.

I dedicate this post to all of you who are working with “what is,” doing the very best that you can with challenging situations. You have my highest admiration.

  “Whether the golden sun warms you to the core or the bitter cold wind stings your face, it is all a blessing. Whether you are surrounded by pleasure or immersed in toil and strife, every moment is a thing that carries boundless beauty and possibility.

Take each moment as it comes to you and give your best to it. Resenting the pain will only make it more painful, and hoarding the pleasure will only prevent you from experiencing its joy.

Give your attention and your energy to where you are. For when you truly appreciate the value of where you are and what you have, it opens you up to a world of possibilities.

Move beyond your own arbitrary judgments, and things that were once difficult and intolerable can become far easier to bear. Consider that much of what makes something difficult is the way you think and feel about it.

Rather than seeing yourself as enduring something unpleasant, see yourself as contributing your very best to a challenging and energizing situation. Rather than waiting for something better to come along, take the initiative and find a way to make something better actually happen.

Every moment is a truly unique and valuable blessing when you see it as such.”

Rabbi Zalman Schacter

Notes:

Note 1:) Rabbi Schacter, was the author of many books, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, an innovator in ecumenical dialogue and a revered as well as a controversial figure in the overlapping circles of his life.

Note 2:) Now that tulip festival is over, the tulips are at their best.  Lucky runners and walkers, as this is race weekend coming up and they will all get to pass by the breathtaking display along the canal.

Note 3:) My direct experience, for my entire life, is that helping hands have always shown up when needed.  As always, I deeply appreciate your kind words and thoughtful emails and comments. Warm greetings, Trudy

Words as Gifts and Words as Weapons

Gossip

 An old Jewish folktale, on the power of words.

It goes like this:

The words we use can hurt as well as heal…yet there is more to kind speech than saying nice things.

There was once a man who loved to gossip. He loved the attention it brought him, and could not stop himself from speaking about others, sometimes sharing the good they did, but most often sharing the mistakes they had made.

In time, however, he realized the harm his speech was causing and he sought to make amends. He went to his rabbi and explained the situation, and asked how he could make amends.

The rabbi thought for a moment and instructed the man to go to the marketplace and purchase two of the finest feather pillows he could find. He should then take his pillows to the top of the mountain overlooking the village, tear them open, and spill the feathers into the wind.

The man was surprised and pleased at the rabbi’s advice. He thought repentance would be much harder than this. So he ran to the marketplace, purchased his pillows, and within an hour had scattered their feathers to the wind.

He returned to the rabbi all aglow. He was ready to be forgiven for his gossiping. Not just yet, the rabbi told him. There was one more thing to do. He had to return to the mountain and repack the pillows with the feathers he had scattered.

“But that’s impossible,” the man said. “Those feathers have gone everywhere, there is no way I can take them back now.”

The rabbi nodded solemnly and said, “What is true of feathers is true of words. Once spoken they can never be retrieved. The harm caused by gossip cannot be undone.”

Taken from Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s book, “the sacred art of Lovingkindness preparing to practice.”

Blaming words

The old nursery rhyme about how words can never hurt you is debunked everyday, word by word.  As we hurl words at each other, in the public and private sectors, we duck, not because they break our bones but because they can break our hearts, and our spirits. We have never been more capable of hurting each other with words, than we are now.

People diagnosed with serious illness are too often struck by words. Just like the young woman, who, when asked what surprised her most about cancer said this: “I never thought I would be blamed for my cancer.”  This doesn’t happen to everyone but it happens too frequently, in my opinion. Especially with young adults and those with lung cancer.  The hurtful assumptions about “what you did wrong,” or some variation on that theme can even be posed by well meaning and misinformed friends.

I understand why this happens. We are deluged with information on how to “prevent” cancer, heart disease, diabetes and any number of serious illnesses. We read about all the lifestyle factors that can prevent these conditions. And if we are following those guidelines and don’t get ill ourselves, we come to believe it is really that simple.

On the other hand, the reality is far more complex. Cancer is a multi-factoral illness. We don’t know precisely what turns a cancer cell on, or why a healthy and fit 45 year old has a heart attack. We all know people who did everything right and still have a heart attack, get cancer, and other challenging conditions. The last thing they need is to think they are to blame.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for a healthy lifestyle.

Of course, lifestyle matters! We up our chances to stay healthy, if we take care of the basics. I am a cheerleader for a healthy lifestyle, but not because it will prevent anything. Rather, because we improve the quality of our everyday lives. We feel better in body, mind and spirit. It is also true that we can  reduce our risks to several serious and chronic illnesses, if we attend to the basics. This is important, even though we cannot control the outcome.

Should we get an unexpected diagnosis, our good health can  help us better undergo our treatment and recovery.  And if we are fortunate enough to avoid serious illness, let’s not make assumptions about why others get sick. None of us have as much control as we think. We learn this lesson quickly, when we or someone we love is unexpectedly diagnosed with a serious illness.

So along with a healthy lifestyle, I am an advocate of promoting words that heal. My own good intentions are not always translated into action but I keep on trying to be conscious of the words I use.   I fret about what we all read in the press. When we see the word “prevent,” let’s suggest a substitute like “up our chances” or “reduce our risks.” When we read about lung cancer let’s remember that one of the first hospitals to ban smoking was the Montreal General and not until 1998.  At the time my children were born, many doctors and health professionals were all smoking. Smoking went on in hospital rooms, movie theaters, airplanes and so on.  Even during Dr’s visits. In other words, it wasn’t that long ago, when we were all exposed to smoke.

What I Mean by the basics:

          1. Sleep
          2. Good food and lots of water
          3. Smoke free environment
          4. Move your body
          5. The company of others: friends, family and strangers
          6. Have fun today
          7. Your Ikigai – a reason to get up in the morning

 We have come such a long way. Yet…

Many people of my generation and older were steeped in first hand and second hand smoke. The average age of a lung cancer patient is 7o. So let us offer words of comfort to the strangers we read about and the friends we know, who are suffering from any smoke related illness. Forget the whole notion of blame. And no reason to stop there. Let’s offer our encouraging words to anyone who needs them.

Words are powerful. Consider the balm of sincere words lovingly poured on a fractured relationship. Think of last words. What would you want yours to be?  Think of the everyday way we fling words around, unconscious about where they will land. Think of times when the words of another were a lifeline for you, and how we can now offer our word’s to those in need of solace. In fact, during this time of weaponized words in almost every sector,  let’s join the resistance by offering our words as gifts to those who cross our paths. Let’s use our words to comfort and encourage.

 

“Tell us please, what treatment in an emergency is administered by ear?”….I met his gaze and I did not blink. “Words of comfort.”

Abraham Verghese,  American physician, author, Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University Medical School and Senior Associate Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, from his book,  Cutting For Stone.

Notes:

Note 1:) I deeply appreciate the encouraging and kind words I receive from many of you. Kind words can cajole, comfort, inspire, nudge, remind and suggest. Don’t you think so much is in the tone of voice – the way they are given. Kind words can also say yes and no.   Thank you for taking the time to stop by here. I am grateful. Warm greetings to all, Trudy

early tulips

Let’s Celebrate More

 “Wanderer, there is no path
We lay down a path in walking”

Antonio Machado

Today is my one year anniversary of writing this weekly blog, and, guess what, I plan to celebrate. I also plan to toast all the wonderful people in my life who cheer me on. Those people also include the ones who catch mistakes and help me to get better at what I do.

It’s too easy to overlook our own efforts, and only notice the flaws. Furthurmore, I suggest that we all acknowledge our efforts for showing up and doing what is important to us. It isn’t about what the world considers worthy. Rather, just us taking action, contributing in our own small and big ways, falling down and getting up – brushing ourselves off and trying again.

My purpose is to offer encouraging words. To pay attention to the wonders of the ordinary. To be a reminder to myself and others going through life that  joy, beauty, meaning and relief can still be found in difficult times. This doesn’t mean there is an easy way, but it may come to mean that it is worth the effort, to notice and to create those moments.

Even though, life can be tough, we surely want to be part of it. When we grasp the fleetingness of it all, it can put things in perspective. We see that the hard bits and the easy bits are ever changing and lives can change in a split second. Best to live our lives fully now.

There is a story I remember that Barry Magid, (Author, Psychoanalyst, and Zen teacher) tells about a retreat he attended with a Rinzai Zen teacher. It goes something like this.

The teacher told a parable about a Mother tiger and her cubs. And how the mother threw all of her cubs off a cliff, when they were only a few weeks old. She would  raise only those who were tough enough to get back up under their own steam. The rest were left to die at the bottom of the cliff.

“Which kind of cub are you,” he asked the group?

Barrie indicated that he knew right away his answer to the question. He was not Samurai material and what he wanted to do was to set up shop at the bottom of the cliff and help those abandoned cubs, each according to their needs. (Excerpted from memory from the book Psychoanalysis  and Buddhism: Unfolding Dialogue. Edited by Jeremy Safran)

I am no Samurai. Similarly, we all find ourselves at the bottom of the cliff at one time or another. And in fact we are sometimes the helper and sometimes the helpee. We are called upon throughout our lives to be both. It is the ongoing circle of life for which, we need each other.

I also really believe that we need more joy, celebrations, tolerance  and kindness in our lives. At the same time we can step up and take more risks. Of course, when we do that (take more risks) we will have failures. The good news is that we become the people who know how to get back up. We cultivate resilience.

So, I recommend today we live with outstretched arms. Raise a glass to something you want to celebrate. There are so many options: milestones along the way; one pain free hour; beginnings and endings; making music; another day; a new baby…I have a list a mile long. Make your own.  Celebrate your life. It doesn’t have to be perfect. (no such thing) Relish your life, right now today. Take a moment or a few to acknowledge you are alive.  Keep on finding lots of ways to enjoy your life and those who are in it. Do not wait another single day.

Notes:

Note 1:) This is a beautiful Ted Talk called Nature, Beauty and Gratitude. If you have 10 minutes I recommend it.

Note 2:) A hundred thank-you’s for reading my blog and passing it on to others. I celebrate each and everyone of you, dear readers. Using the Kaizen Way -small and steady steps- my plan is also to make continual improvements. With appreciation, Trudy

Note 3:) Thank-you to Teva Harrison.  She was diagnosed with an incurable illness at age 37 and she died last week, at the age of 42. She left us a legacy, with her poignant and powerful book, In Between Days. As her husband wrote, “…she wanted ‘to live like a tornado’ and she did. Full-hearted, eyes wide to beauty and wonder, and pouring love into everyone around her.” She will be missed.

Note 4:) Tomorrow my youngest grandchild turns 9 and my Mother is, as you have read, 99, Both are full of life and love and light up all of our lives. 

Horseshoe Bay and Bowen Island from St Marks

Musings at 30,000 Feet

My semi-annual trips to Calgary are home-comings, reminding me of the life-changing circumstances that Calgary represents in my life. As I settle into an exceptionally comfortable aisle seat in row 13, I cannot help but reflect on the twists and turns of life.

As I view my life it is a bit like observing tangled skeins of wool of a variety of textures, lengths and colours. And my attention, now, is turned to the untangling –  locating dropped stitches; noticing glaring mistakes and false starts. Yet I see the richness and colour of loving and meaningful relationships; adventures and achievements all ultimately woven together into beautiful patterns. Consequently, I get to see a unique and beautiful tapestry that is my own life, mistakes and all.

The grand puzzle as seen from my 8th decade is about noticing all the pieces and seeing where they fit.  The gift, unseen in younger years, is that the slipped stitches, rocky shoals and faded parts are just as treasured as the perfect moments and the straight-through paths. Why? Without them, it would be a different life. In fact, as when putting together a jigsaw puzzle, the oddly shaped pieces and the ones that reveal no clues as they lie scattered around, are often the exact pieces we need to transform the scene into a gorgeous, discernible and ever changing tableau of a life.

And at these times I marvel in wonder at how it all came together. It may be that way for some of you too.

canmoreIllness, untimely death, terrible disappointments of all kinds shake us up and often make us re-evaluate our lives. My life’s work, working with those who have been affected by cancer,  came to fruition in Calgary at Wellspring. My own cancer was diagnosed and treated in Calgary. I owe a debt of gratitude to so many people, and especially to those in Calgary, who provided medical and non-medical support along with a multitude of helping and caring hearts and hands that continues to this day.

Thus it is no surprise that I leave today in a reflective frame of mind. The city and the inhabitants  of Calgary are among the most generous of anyplace I have lived. Not just with money but with time and generosity of spirit. Wholeheartedness characterizes Calgary in general and Wellspring in particular. I leave counting my blessings. In truth, I come and go from everyplace counting my blessings, yet, Calgary was a turning point.

Once again, on this trip I had the honour and the privilege to spend time with members of Wellspring. No one can spend time with people going through a difficult illness and not leave inspired by their courage, resilience, wisdom, humour and kindness. As Jon Kabat-Zinn states in his book: Letting Everything Become Your Teacher –

“Healing does not mean curing, although the two words are often used interchangeably. While it may not be possible for us to cure ourselves or to find someone else who can, it is always possible for us to heal ourselves. Healing implies the possibility for us to relate differently to illness, disability, even death, as we learn to see with eyes of wholeness. Healing is coming to terms with things as they are.”

It seems to me that whoever you are and wherever you are we all have nothing to lose by being anything other than our ordinary selves. Live your precious life. Sing while there’s voice left. Find joyful moments daily. No reason to hold back.

Notes:

Note 1:) Rob Gaudet shot the banner, from St Marks, outside Vancouver. It overlooks Horseshoe Bay And Bowen Island. I took the 2nd photo in Canmore, near Banff, during an evening walk, last Wednesday evening.

Note 2:) As I was walking in Canmore I thought of my Japanese friends, who will be in Canmore in three months time. It will be the last night of their four day hike in the Rockies. I celebrate their dedication to purposeful living – demonstrating the principles of living an active and full life with illness and while ageing. I will join them in Canmore and for their presentation at Wellspring Calgary the next day.

Note 3:) I am not grateful for cancer but I am grateful that I am in Ottawa, immersed in the daily lives of my beloved Grandchildren. Yet, if not for the cancer I would not be here. The twists and turns of life are a complete mystery. Ultimately, my experience has taught me to go ahead and live fully with it all.  It is a wondrous gift, this life of ours. See you next week. With thanks, Trudy