Treatment Countdown: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3…

3 fields of radiation…

So, I thought it would be fun to visit three sunny fields and snap a photo in each for this post. But frankly I’m too tired, so I’m just going to take a nap right here and let you imagine two other fields of your choice. 🙂

“She’s got three fields,” the lead technician says to the others each day as they are positioning me on the table. “Three fields” refers to the fact that I receive three different doses, 1.8 Gray each, at every treatment. Each is directed at a specific part of my anatomy and comes from a different angle as the arms of the machine rotate around my body, and they are delivered sequentially. The first dose comes in from above and to the right, the second from below and on the left, and the last from directly above, targeting a lymph node basin in the super-clavicle area.

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You can see how precise the boundaries of each field are by looking at how clearly defined my “exit dose” is, above, a result of the super-clavicle radiation passing through and out my back.

Three fields, but only two more treatments. Hooray!

And now I am really am gonna go take that nap…

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Heads Up! #7: Cozy Cobalt Felted Wool

img_0912Like much of the U.S., we recently had snow here in Southwest Virginia. I usually welcome snow, as it tends (at least here in the South) to make us slow down a bit and refocus our attention, for a day or two, on things like nature’s beauty, play, and family. The cold inspires gratitude for the warm shelter I call home, a gift denied to too many.

Our recent snow days–accompanied by single digit temperatures–seemed like the perfect time to feature my cozy cobalt felted wool hat, handmade by artist Sandy Stanton. I purchased the hat new back in September at the Asheville NC Homecrafts store, located in the Historic Grove Arcade in downtown Asheville. There were so many wonderful hats there to choose from, it was tough to select just one (I didn’t; I’ll be featuring my second purchase at a later date…). But I was immediately drawn to the beautiful blues of this hat, its primary cobalt accented by a band and flower knitted from an ombre-dyed yarn that shifts from jade to turquoise to cadet blue, into gray, brown, and finally cobalt at the flower’s center.img_0951

I gravitate toward shades of blue in my winter clothing, perhaps as a way of harnessing and transforming the emotional blues I often suffer in cold weather and its long, dark days. When so many other colors disappear from the landscape in winter, we are left with the blues: the crisp cerulean sky that reigns over the coldest days, steel-blue clouds signaling an oncoming storm, ice’s translucent aquas, the ethereal periwinkle of moonlit snow. Beautiful in their own right, these winter hues also recall the blues of kinder seasons: the robin’s egg blue of a cloudless autumn afternoon, a pewter horizon hanging over a sapphire sea, water lapping at the azure edges of a sunny backyard pool.

Occasionally snow days are an unwelcome interruption: they frustrate routines, delay travel, cancel our much-anticipated plans. But even when the clouds confound us, the thing about snow is this: it eventually melts. The storm will pass, the roads will clear. And as the world emerges from its white cocoon, the sky above will spread its wings, inviting us once again to delight in its fair, wide, beautiful blue.

Heads Up!

Photos by Steve Prisley


 ∼ Beautiful, quirky 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. ∼

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.

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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!

 

 

On Strength

So many people have told me how strong I am. I do not always feel strong.

What does it mean to be strong? My parents recently traveled to Scotland and discovered that our family name is connected to the MacLeod clan, whose motto is “Hold Fast.” That seems, at least at first, a reasonable way of thinking about strength: holding fast, holding tight, holding on. When people ask me how I am doing, I often find myself resorting to a more casual expression of the same idea: “hanging in.” “Strength,” for most I think, tends to call up ideas of persistence, toughness, control, perseverance.

But I have felt strongest, and most at peace, in moments of letting go.

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Not long after my initial diagnosis, when I was really reeling, a former student of mine, Carrie, sent me some wise, encouraging words. She wrote, “You’re one of the strongest people I have ever met. Strength doesn’t mean you can’t be mad, that you won’t cry, and that you won’t break down. All of those are forms of strength.” They don’t sound that way, at first. They sound like losing it. But in reality control was never mine to lose. And each of these responses is a form of letting go.

In the past few months, I’ve seen several videos titled something along the lines of “How Heavy is Your Glass of Water?” circulating around Facebook. My preferred version, by Knowable Studio, is “Remember to put your glass down.” The message in each is the same: a psychologist, speaking to an audience about stress, holds up a glass of water and asks how heavy it is. She goes on to make the point that its absolute weight is irrelevant. The longer one holds it, the heavier it feels, the harder it becomes to function. The same is true with stress and suffering in our lives. The lesson: remember to put the glass down.

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So I have found my own ritual way of setting the glass down, a physical as well as mental process. I prefer to find a place outside and sit or kneel on the ground, hands open to the sky, my heart lifted, my eyes closed. Then I have a short conversation with the universe.

The first time I engaged in this ritual was almost accidental. It was our first evening on Folly Beach, when we were still waiting on some significant test results. I went for a sunset walk on the beach, collecting several Tellin clams and jingle shells along the way. Stopping to watch the light change as the sun dropping behind me reflected off and outlined a bank of clouds gathered over the ocean, I sank to the sand, facing the horizon, and spread my treasures on the beach before me. I told the universe and its various representatives that I needed to give this weight to them: Universe, God, Goddess, Jesus, Buddha, all that is that is greater than my knowledge and understanding, all that is that is Love in this world, I need to give this to you, because I cannot carry it. It is too much for me. I sat in silence for a few minutes, shed a few quiet tears, then rose and walked back up the beach, leaving my shell offering. I felt a distinct lightness, a sense of renewed peace.

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I’ve repeated a similar ritual since. Once is not enough; it’s too easy to begin grasping and gripping and holding on tight. Letting go requires practice. Letting go is scary, largely because it does mean giving up the illusion of control.

Sometimes I fear letting go, because I’m afraid it sounds, or feels, like giving up. Accepting I cannot control all that comes, saying I’ll embrace whatever happens, whether it’s what I want to happen or not, feels a little like giving the universe permission to do its worst. Maybe if I just hold on and worry over all the details and possibilities, a little voice in my head says, it will better prepare me, even prevent a bad outcome. Of course, that’s balderdash. Letting go does not mean surrendering my desire for health or long life. It’s simply an acknowledgment that I can hold on as tightly as I want to a desired outcome, but there are no guarantees. And there is power, peace, and strength in accepting that truth.

I remind myself of this fact as we anticipate the next appointments, the next pieces in the process: first, follow-up imaging, post-chemotherapy, to see how much the treatment shrank the cancer, and then my surgery consultation. I confess I’m bracing myself; thus far, outside the “no metastasis” declaration, the news has always been worse than we’d hoped: you want them to say the lump is benign, but it’s cancer; you want them to say it’s Stage 1, but it’s Stage 3. It’s strange, how you can find ways to keep shifting the barometer of what you can accept: I can deal with X as long as not Y, Y as long as not Z. The internal bargaining is exhausting and doesn’t accomplish much. I know I’ll fare better if I can let go of my ideas about what should be and meet myself and the world where we are.

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Perhaps I’ve been driven to seek my strength, the solace of letting go, outside on the sand, or under the trees, by the same impulse poet Wendell Berry renders so beautifully in “The Peace of Wild Things”:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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That evening on Folly Island, as I made my way back to our beach house, I paused to sit again on one of the large jetty boulders closest to our rental. When I looked down, a single olive shell rested in a cup of the rock at my feet. I reached down to pick it up, recalling that the very first time I’d told my now-husband Steve I loved him, I’d done so on a trip to the beach, by placing an olive shell I’d found on his pillow.

Was this new olive shell a message? A portent? I don’t know. I hold on to it as reminder to keep letting go. It tells me the peace of wild things is with me, and that is enough.

Autumn on the Parkway

img_9940Yesterday my husband Steve and I took a short drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, hoping to see some fall colors. My energy and mobility are still pretty limited—for whatever reason, the Taxol has settled into my knees, leaving me to creak around arthritically—so a mountain drive seemed like a nice way to get out of the house and breathe in at least a little fresh air.

The sky was clear and blue, the weather a perfect balance of sunshine tempered by a crisp, occasionally brisk breeze.

The colors this year are pretty lackluster, however.img_9957

Just driving along, looking out over the long-range vistas provided by many of the Parkway’s overlooks, there wasn’t much color to see. The rolling mountains along either side of the ridge, while always lovely in their swells and dips and graceful silhouettes, didn’t offer any breathtaking vistas of brilliant hues. Most of the mountains and valleys remained green, or had simply faded to a kind of dusty, rusty brown, without any fanfare, without any autumnal spectacle. From that perspective, it would be easy to say there was no color at all.

img_9945But every so often, as we rounded a bend and the sun shone just right, a beam filtering through the trees lit up a few yellow poplar clustered a little ways back in the under-story. A low-growing shrub dappled the roadside bank with orange here and there, if you watched carefully. We had to pull over and walk a few feet up the Appalachian Trail to spot the scarlet of a single sassafras leaf, the mottled red and gold of a maple.

Some seasons of life, perhaps, are like that. The beauty is there, it’s just harder to see. You have to look a lot closer to find it. You have to let go of your ideas about the grandeur that should be, and cherish instead the smallest offerings.

Like a quiet afternoon with the man you love, a few moments on a windy ridge with the sun warm on your face, a sliver of splendor you can hold in your hand.

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