Heads Up! #6: Vintage Sparkle

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I celebrated a birthday at the beginning of this week. I think I can safely refer to myself as being in my “mid-forties” for one more year. The next time candles grace a cake for me, however, I’ll have shifted firmly to the “late-forties” category.

That’s okay. More than okay, actually. Being a breast cancer patient has given me a whole new perspective on aging. Growing older–having the chance to grow older–sounds pretty darn good. Aging has its challenges to be sure; even before I was ill, it had started taking me longer to recover from strenuous hikes, or late nights with friends, than it did ten or even five years ago. But given the various losses of mobility, energy, and dignity I’ve recently endured–and survived–I know I can cope with growing old. (And in the meantime, I better understand why old-timers sometimes feel cranky.)

Though I suppose any vintage hat that has retained attitude and elegance could serve to underscore the merits of aging, I thought this one especially apt: a gray felt cloche topped by a feather detail. It appears sedate at first, but a closer look at the crown reveals a colorful medley of pink, green, and black-and-white feathers underneath fine netting. The gray brim of the hat is ringed by a satin ribbon that might, in its youth, have been bright pink, but has since faded to a lovely mauve. A round rhinestone accent, though darkened a bit by time, adds sass and sparkle.sandee-55

The hat is tagged as an “Evelyn Varon Exclusive.” According to Brenda Grantland in a comment on the Collectors Weekly website, Varon was a “French milliner whose designs were so popular that they were copied in the U.S.  A March 11, 1914 issue of the Evening Post Page of Wanamaker News reports that the store was offering copies of hats designed by Parisian milliners Suzanne Talbot, Evelyn Varon, Jeanne Duc, Caroline Reboux and Paul Poiret.” Grantland also claims that Varon designed costumes for the original Broadway version of Pins and Needles, but I haven’t been able to verify that claim.

In any case, it’s fun to embrace a little touch of 1914 Paris right here in 2016 Virginia. Ooh la la!

Heads Up!

All photographs by Laura Wade Photography.


∼ Beautiful, quirky vintage hats make me happy. The “Heads Up!” series is a reminder to keep my (currently bald) head up, to pay attention to the good in the world, and to encourage myself and others facing a tough road that it’s possible to find the fun in even the most challenging circumstances. ∼

Words to Live By: Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things

Last weekend Steve and I took a trip to New York City to see Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos (writer/star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and directed by Thomas Kail (director, Hamilton). The moment I saw the announcement, which was months before my diagnosis, that Strayed’s book would be adapted into a play and would run at the Public Theater in November and December, I told Steve that seeing it was what I wanted for my birthday. Because, to adopt my nephew Daniel’s language, “Tiny Beautiful Things changed my life.”

Strayed is best known for her memoir Wild, a number one New York Times bestseller, which recounts Strayed’s hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey that helps her come to terms with her mother’s death. Tiny Beautiful Things came out in book form after Wild, but most of its contents had appeared previously on TheRumpus.net, for which Strayed anonymously penned the “Dear Sugar” advice column after taking it over from originator Steve Almond at his request.

TBT1The book is subtitled “Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar,” but to label Tiny Beautiful Things as merely a collection of advice columns does not do justice to its beauty or wisdom. Strayed turns the conventions of advice columns upside down and taps into her own memories and experiences in her responses, doing “something brilliantly counter-intuitive,” as noted by the  Public’s Artistic Director Oskar Eustis,” using self-revealing stories of her own life for generous purposes.” Strayed’s luminous and powerful responses to what are often heart-wrenching letters are some of the most lucid, honest, moving essays I have ever read.

I first encountered Strayed’s book shortly after it came out, in 2012. At the time I was struggling to make sense of my romantic life, which seemed to have stalled out in an on-again, off-again relationship that, deep down, I knew wasn’t going anywhere. As I read, especially her responses to the lovelorn, I underlined passages that spoke to me—sometimes because they comforted, but more often than not, because they pierced me with uncomfortable truths. A few months later I gifted the book to my sometime-fellow, and the same truths resonated with him. Inspired, at least in part, by Strayed’s words, we broke up, and stayed that way. Free to open my heart fully for the first time in several years, I soon met and fell in love with the man who is now my husband.

I wasn’t kidding when I said the book changed my life.

tbtplaybillMy heart buoys and breaks over different matters these days, but Strayed’s words still speak to me. Gauging by the shared laughter and the unmistakable sounds of whole-audience-weeping in the theatre, they speak to many. (When the lights came up, Steve turned to me, both of us still wiping our eyes, and he said, “You didn’t warn me!”) It was a powerful performance.

Seeing Strayed’s words brought to life on stage sent me back to the book. I find myself drawn to passages on managing suffering and finding healing. For example, in a response to a young woman mourning a miscarriage, she writes the following about grief. Though she is talking specifically about the lost daughter, her words resonated with me, as I’ve recently felt “stuck” in my own emotional journey: “This is how you get unstuck, Stuck. You reach. Not so you can walk away…but so you can live the life that is yours—the one that includes the sad loss of your daughter, but is not arrested by it. … That place of true healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work really, really hard to get there, but you can do it.” (22)

Later: “Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.” (30)

DearSugar2And this, in response to a professor and class who asked Sugar’s advice to graduating college students: “Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.” (133)

Or this, recalling Strayed’s own response to an exchange with her estranged father: “I had that feeling you get—there is no word for this feeling—when you are simultaneously happy and sad and angry and grateful and accepting and appalled and every other possible emotion, all smashed together and amplified. Why is there no word for this feeling? Perhaps because the word is ‘healing’ and we don’t want to believe that. We want to believe healing is purer and more perfect, like a baby on its birthday. Like we’re holding it in our hands. Like we’ll be better people than we have before. Like we have to be. It is on that feeling I have survived. And it will be your salvation too, my dear.” (311)

Steve Almond says that Strayed practices “radical empathy.” If there’s anything the world could use more of these days, it’s radical empathy—for others, and for ourselves.

I have gifted Tiny Beautiful Things many times. It changed my life, and my nephew’s, too. Who knows? If you read it, it might also change yours.

Rest Up

I’m tired of resting.

Go ahead, roll your eyes. Think: some burden. Your privilege is killing me. Oh, the whining.

ImohResting
Imoh’s good at resting!

I get it. I’ve lived many years of my life when I would have been thrilled to have time, especially generous quantities of it, to rest. To slow down the semester, not bring work home every night. Not to have a sick cat, a visiting writer, and a traveling husband all fall in the same week. Not to berate myself for neglecting to phone family more often because I’m too exhausted at the end of the day to make one more call, even to someone I love.

I’ve written elsewhere about the need for more rest, more leisure in our lives. With rest comes reflection, and with reflection, innovation. Not to mention that rest is fundamental to good health and self-care. I don’t by any means mean to malign rest, and I am extremely grateful to have the privilege to rest when I need to, especially when I know so many, whether ill or healthy but simply tired, don’t.

It would be better stated to say I am tired of having to rest. Tired of having to parse out my days, knowing if I want to enjoy an evening with friends, I shouldn’t go to the grocery store in the afternoon. That if I have a doctor’s appointment, it might be the only outing I have energy for that day. I think maybe I didn’t really believe the doctors or other survivors when they told me how fatigued I’d be, and for how long. I used to compile errands, thinking, hey, while I’m out, I’ll stop at X and take care of Y, too. These days I’m mostly a one-stop shop, and sometimes even then I come home and nap.

spoons3There’s an article that’s made its way around the internet about the “spoon theory.” The writer, Christine Miserandino, has lupus, and recounts the day, over lunch, a friend of hers asked what it was like to live with the chronic condition. On impulse, Miserandino grabbed all the spoons from her own and several surrounding tables, handed them to her inquisitive friend, and an analogy was born. Though the spoon theory initially described life with chronic conditions, the theory also applies to those with long-term illnesses. The basic premise: a person with chronic or long-term illness has a limited number of “spoons” (energy) to use each day and has to decide how to “spend” them. Different activities use up different amounts of spoons; the person has to plan carefully, because once a day’s spoons are used up, that’s it. For example, one thing Miserandino points out is that simply getting showered and dressed requires a spoon or two. As I gain strength, making myself publicly presentable takes less of a toll, but I still sometimes leave a little time between getting ready and going out so I can rest up for a few minutes.

Hubby Steve and I just spent a lovely weekend in New York City, the first traveling I’ve done since July. We started slow each morning, sleeping in and heading out for brunch between 11 and noon. Both afternoons we visited small museums for about two hours, then returned to our hotel for a couple hours’ rest before going to a show in the evening. We had a fabulous time, but the difference in our itinerary from our first trip to the city two years ago, when highlights included an afternoon walking tour of chocolatiers and going for a run through Central Park, was marked.

coloringbook
Coloring has meditative effects.

Some of my anxiety about resting probably comes from guilt. Though I do find value in rest, there is a part of me that feels like I should be doing something, doing more. Some days I get in a few hours of writing, or organize a file drawer or two in my office. But some days I don’t have the physical energy or mental concentration for much of anything, even reading. When I was really sick from chemo early on, I binge-watched television shows, but I grew weary of that fast. As a child, I only watched TV during the day when I was home sick, so I associate daytime TV-watching with illness, and it makes me fidgety. Instead, I’ve turned to podcasts and coloring books. Both have their perks: I’ve laughed a lot through the podcasts (laughter is the best medicine), and coloring is quite meditative. Still, there’s this little part of my brain that says, “Coloring? Shouldn’t you be doing something more productive?”

The first year I moved to Roanoke I contracted pneumonia in early January. When the doctor diagnosed me, he prescribed an antibiotic, then told me to come back for a check-up in six weeks. “Six weeks?” I asked, incredulous. Yes, he said, it would probably take that long to clear. I drug through each workday, went home and lay on the sofa until bedtime, then retired to my bed for the night, repeating the routine every day for weeks. One mid-March morning I woke up and realized, with surprise, “This is what it feels like to wake up feeling good!” I’d been sick and tired for so long, I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be healthy. It was a revelation.

img_0361I’m looking forward to experiencing that revelation again, whenever it finally arrives. I know it might be a while. Until then, I try to remember what my friend Sarah said when I shared my frustrations with her about my lack of productivity, my inability to do all the things I need and want to do.

“You are doing something,” she said. “Something very important: you’re healing.”

And in the meantime, I have my headphones, and a plethora of colored pencils.

Joy Journal 1: The Beach

It’s taken me a while to get to this project, which I’m calling my Joy Journal. The idea was inspired by an article, “Crafting Memory Cards,” in the July/August 2016 issue of Cloth-Paper-Scissors. Written by Susie Henderson, the article describes a set of “altered cards” she made to “curate [her] collection of losses.” Henderson used a set of playing cards that she altered with paint, fabric, charms, and other items to commemorate those she grieves. She then made a pocket journal to hold the cards.

Sample of Henderson's altered cards
One of Henderson’s altered cards

I decided to adapt Henderson’s project in a different direction. Though I am certainly facing my fair share of losses (and may at some point decide to commemorate those as well), I feel like it’s easy right now to get lost in the losses, and that it might be helpful to me to remind myself, instead, of all the things that bring me joy. I’ve been slow starting on this project, but I was spurred on to make progress this past week by a combination of events: my disappointment in the election, scheduling a definitive surgery date, and a consultation with my reconstructive surgeon, which just made the whole mastectomy thing that much more real. I needed a little joy.

Original title page of Francis' book
Original title page of Francis’ book

I’d already decided to use an altered book as my container, since I had the perfect one practically volunteer for the job. Back in the summer I’d ordered physician Gavin Francis’s Adventures in Human Being, subtitled “A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum.” Francis weaves science, philosophy, and literature with stories from his own experiences with patients to create a kind of “cartography” of the human body. The first copy sent to me was missing pages 19-52. I was sent an intact replacement copy, so I had the extra, incomplete book just sitting around. The title called out to be tweaked and re-purposed.

I looked up a couple YouTube tutorials on prepping a book for alteration, removed pages as directed to make space for adding my own journaling, and it was ready whenever I was. I gathered up paint, glue, washi tape, playing cards, and various other materials to see where they led me.

JJinProcess1
Gathering tools and supplies

It will not surprise anyone who knows or follows me that the first entry in my Joy Journal is The Beach.

Since I used an altered book as the container, my approach is a little different than Henderson’s. I focused as much on the book pages themselves as on the altered card.

I enjoyed letting the entry emerge organically and metamorphose over the course of a few days. I don’t claim to be a professional artist, but I think the entry captures much of what I love about the sea: sun and shells, blue waves and happy memories. I included photos from a couple of my beach trips, along with shells, an origami sun, and some of my favorite beach elements and colors. In case you can’t tell, that’s supposed to be a ghost crab in the lower right corner of the card! I love watching them skitter down the beach, and Steve and I once spent a lovely afternoon sitting in our beach chairs on Ocracoke Island, feeding the ghost crabs around us bits of pears and cheese. I have also known them to enjoy barbecue potato chips.

I worked a bit on the title page of the journal, too, as well as altering the book spine to reflect the new journal title. I still have some blank “front matter” pages to create, but I wanted to focus on getting my Beach entry done first. I’ll return to those elements later.

This project did bring me a smile. Wishing you a little extra joy this week, too!

beauty in the broken: the backstory

Carilion Clinic, through which I am receiving my medical care, partnered this year with the National Arts Program to sponsor a Patient Art Show, an initiative of the Dr. Robert L.A. Keeley Healing Arts Program. Any patient receiving care through a Carilion provider was eligible to submit art work, which is currently on display in the lobby of Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, through December 15th. All the works are available for viewing in a photo gallery on Facebook, where you can vote for the People’s Choice Award (shameless plug: if you’d like to vote for my piece, click here.)

I submitted a mixed media triptych collage (acrylic on canvas, seashells, vellum, pen and ink) entitled “beauty in the broken.” I described my inspiration for this piece in a brief artist’s statement:

Shortly after I was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2016, my husband and I visited Folly Beach. An avid sheller, I have long been drawn to the whorls of the moon snail, a shell made a symbol of women’s need for creative space by writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh. To keep the numbers of shells I brought home in check over the years, I usually collected only whole specimens. On this beach trip, facing chemotherapy and a bilateral mastectomy, suddenly the moon snail fragments reminded me of the curves and arcs of breasts. Even in their brokenness, especially in their variety, each was still beautiful. This mixed media collage attempts to honor the beauty in the broken.

I rather like the company the piece is keeping at the exhibit: a cheerful beach and a calming river.

There is a narrative incorporated into the collage itself. It cannot–intentionally–be read in its entirely on the artwork, reflecting the idea of fragmentation and imperfection. The narrative was excerpted and adapted from an essay I had written last year about collecting seashells:

When I first started shelling, I would often pick up blemished shells, the conch with a hole in the back, the slipper shell with a chipped, jagged edge. Sometimes the brilliant coloring or the graceful whorl exposed in a fractured shell looked too beautiful, even in its brokenness, to leave behind. Turned just the right way, the shell’s flaws were all but invisible. When I grew tired of the fragments, after a while, I vowed to collect only perfect specimens: bright color, shiny finish, completely whole with no marks or any blemishes. I quickly discovered the problem of the perfect: such shells were elusive. There were few such specimens to find.

A shell is a vestige of a living being. It is product of and home to a life; it has tumbled in the surf, cracked against other shells, been baked by a hot sun on some days, warmed by gentle rays on others. The flawless are found only in shell shops, polished and perfected, sometimes even under glass, the evidence of their complex lives buffed out and shellacked over. The imperfect shell, whole but marked by the world it has engaged and survived, is the real find. Maybe you can only see the real find after you understand what it is you’re truly looking for. Maybe the beauty in the broken only emerges once we recognize that same beauty in ourselves.

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Two quotations wrap the edges of the two small blue panels. The first, from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s essay on the moon snail, reads “Only when one is connected to one’s own core is one connected to others.” The second is from E. M. Forster: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” I’ve found both of those ideas fundamental to healing and happiness.

Creating this piece was very meaningful to me. And while the timing of this post is purely coincidental, I know that many people are struggling this week with the sense that much in our world is broken, fragmented, divided. May we find our way to recognizing and owning our flaws, valuing our differences, and treating one another with respect.

One more shameless plug: if you’d like to vote for my piece for the People’s Choice Award, please “Like” it in the Patient Show Art Gallery: beauty in the broken. Please do visit the gallery, and feel free to share the link—there are many beautiful works in the exhibit, and many are available for purchase. Part of the proceeds benefit the Keeley Healing Arts Program. Thank you!

 

 

Heads Up! #5: Deep Purple

It’s a big day in the U.S. of A. today: after months (years) of wildly optimistic campaign promises, sometimes baffling debates, and too many social media meltdowns, the presidential election is finally here.

A big day deserves a bold hat!

This purple velvet beauty, trimmed in a sweep of iridescent blue, green, and white feathers (peacock, perhaps?) and a wide purple grosgrain ribbon, makes me think of the femme fatale in a 1940s film noir. The brim is low and wide, dipping below the eye on one side, giving it a bit of mystery and drama.

I find it pairs well with black and a bit of attitude.

Still, its bright hue and asymmetrical fold keep it from getting too serious.

Maybe we should keep that kind of balance in mind when we’re talking politics?

The hat was made by “Wesco.” There have been at least three different U.S. companies who sported that name, though it was not clear which of them were in the millinery trade. There are a number of other vintage hats on Etsy and eBay advertised as “Wesco” chapeaux, but no one notes any additional details.

It is a hat, then, with more mystery than history. On a day that’s making history for other reasons—the first time we have the opportunity to vote for a woman as a major party candidate for president—perhaps that’s just as it should be.

Heads Up!

All photos in gallery 1 by Margaret McGlaun.

Header photo and all photos in gallery 2 by Laura Wade Photography.


∼ Beautiful, quirky vintage hats make me happy. The “Heads Up!” series is a reminder to keep my (currently bald) head up, to pay attention to the good in the world, and to encourage myself and others facing a tough road that it’s possible to find the fun in even the most challenging circumstances. ∼

What We Talk About When We Talk About Cancer

The phrases are familiar: “Fight like a girl!” “We can beat this disease.” “Warriors in pink!” When we talk about cancer, the language of battle is so commonly invoked that you almost don’t register the underlying metaphor unless someone points it out. I have myself, more than once, referred to “kicking cancer’s butt,” and that’s felt reasonably accurate as a description of my attitude. Those rogue cells really aren’t welcome to keep hanging out in my body. In fact, I’m very happy to report that, according to a recent mammogram and ultrasound, they’ve been all but banished, the cancer shrunken to nothing or near it. Woot!

753_breast-cancer-fight-like-a-girlStill, as surgery looms on the horizon, I’ve grown more aware of how the language of aggression, while ostensibly empowering, also pits one against one’s own body in some curious and distressing ways. My sister-in-law Lisa, a survivor, mentioned her discomfort with this language shortly after I was diagnosed. Susan Sontag, in a 1978 essay entitled “Illness as Metaphor,” describes the dilemma: “The controlling metaphors in descriptions of cancer are, in fact, drawn…from the language of warfare; every physician and every attentive patient is familiar with, if perhaps inured to, this military terminology. Thus, cancer cells do not simply multiply; they are ‘invasive’” (714). The language surrounding treatment has a similar inflection: chemotherapy is “chemical warfare, using poisons” that aim to “kill” (715).

The “military metaphor in medicine” extends back to the 1880s in reference to bacteria, but as Sontag points out, “talk of siege and war to describe disease now has, with cancer, a striking literalness and authority. Not only is the clinical course of the disease and its medical treatment thus described, but the disease itself is conceived as the enemy on which society wages war” (716). The catch is that both attack and counterattack aren’t “out there” somewhere; they take place within us.

Breast Cancer Cells
Breast Cancer Cells

After watching the powerful documentary Embrace earlier this week, a film that asks hard questions about why so many women hate their bodies, I was reminded that most of us don’t require a cancer diagnosis to declare war on all or part of ourselves. It’s made me think about the power of the language we use to describe our relationship to this illness, how it affects my ability to make peace with the changes coming to my body. Cancer cells threaten my health, and I want them gone—but there’s no way to separate them entirely from myself, my body, my breast tissue, not without additional losses. Eliminating them has and will bring collateral damage. Suddenly casting those rogue cells as the “enemy” seems more complicated.

~~~

Personally, I’ve also struggled with the language of certainty that frequently emerges in conversations about cancer. While I know people’s intentions are to be supportive, bold declarations like “I know you will beat this” make me uncomfortable, as much or more because of the absolute underneath the “I know you will” as the aggression underscoring “beat.” Positive thinking is a powerful tool for healing, but I’ve found myself unwilling to make such absolute claims.

magic-8-ballThe main reason I resist is that none of us knows the future. That’s a fundamental truth. It isn’t that I don’t want to be healthy and cured—of course I do! But it feels like tempting fate to declare certainty in relation to a particular outcome; I don’t and can’t make predictions. I can only know the present.

And the present is complex and, frankly, not always a big shining ball of positivity. And that’s okay. Sometimes the insistence on “staying positive” feels less like encouragement than a denial of reality. I am thrilled beyond measure that the chemo shrank the mass. And: the bottoms of my feet are still numb with neuropathy, my joints still ache, and I still wear out way too fast to accomplish much of anything. As Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes in When Things Fall Apart, suffering is part of life. “Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do,” she explains. “We can drop the fundamental hope that there is a better ‘me’ who will one day emerge. We can’t just jump over ourselves as if we were not there” (40).

Absolute declarations that I will be cured stake my happiness on a potential event I can’t actually control. We’re so used to privileging “hope” as a good that it’s a bit of a mind-bender to consider a different perspective. But Chödrön points out that focusing on hope casts us into the future and the stories we tell ourselves about it, robbing us, ultimately, of the present moment (40). And since hope and fear go hand in hand, to live driven by hope is also to live with fear (in this case, of recurrence) hovering just underneath the surface. It seems healthier to stay focused on the here and now.

~~~

I do believe language has profound power to shape our experience, that mantras and affirmations can make a real difference. It’s been a challenge to find positive, empowering language beyond battle metaphors and absolutes, but here are some of the phrases I’ve been able to embrace:

This is survivable.

My body can heal.

I will be okay. I am going to be okay.

From a meditation CD a friend sent:

Thank you for teaching me to stop and listen. Thank you for reminding me what is truly important. You can go now. I know I have things to do, gifts to give, purposes to accomplish, and I require a healthy, working body for this.

And perhaps my favorite, from another (salty) survivor:

All I have to do is outlive the f-ing cancer.

~~~

mtnstar_wordsofencouragementIf this is my life (and it is) and if my life (like all our lives) is finite, and if I don’t know its deadline (and none of us does), then how do I want to spend it? Waiting and wishing for a different kind of life, a different kind of day, a “better” one in some projected future? Or do I find a way to accept where I am in the present, since that’s all any of us really knows or has?

At the end of the film Embrace, filmmaker Taryn Brumfitt offers this advice to her daughter: Focus on what your body can do, feel, accomplish, contribute. Don’t waste a minute being at war with your body. Embrace it.

Now we’re talking. Do it today.