Use your influence. Please?

According to an article in the Seattle Times, over 600,000 Americans will die of cancer this year. That’s an enormous  number. The article was primarily about the fact that celebrities and other people often times do not disclose what type of cancer they had. 

I have colon cancer. It is not the easiest cancer to talk about, because it really does involve some private parts.  When I first discovered that I have this disease, I really had to think about how I would handle it. Would I tell people that I was sick? Would I tell people that I had cancer? Would I tell people what type of cancer I had? Anything less than full disclosure feels very inauthentic to me. I’m probably a bad example because I’m not the most private person. And I know that some people deeply value their privacy.

I don’t think it’s wrong to value privacy. But I think it is important to consider what kind of impact and influence you might have if you talk about your cancer openly. I am so proud of the people who have led the public relations phenomenon that is breast cancer awareness. It is totally OK to talk about breast cancer now. I don’t know if that makes it any easier to have breast cancer, but it certainly is easier to say out loud in a crowded restaurant that you have it. Colon cancer has not been afforded the same hospitality.  YET.  And don’t even get me started about poor rectal cancer.  
I felt it was important for me to be open about my cancer for many reasons.  
One – I’m not ashamed.  It’s not my fault and I have no reason to feel embarrassed.  
Two – I have needed a lot of help.  I’m independent to a fault but both motherhood and cancer have taught me that it takes a village. 
Three – by being open, I’ve made it more ok for others to talk about it.  To talk about their own cancer scares or actual cancer.  That’s a gift I can give to others. Let’s make it ok to talk about our cancer!  Let’s not be afraid of what people will think!  I often hear “I’m afraid people will see me as weak.”  That’s bullshit.  No one thinks that.  They think you’re brave. Brave.  
Four – I’m spreading awareness.  Young people die from colon cancer because they never dream they could have cancer so young.  So they don’t get symptoms checked out.  Check your butt, people.  
I’m not embarrassed.  You can be if you want.  But I’d like to see colon cancer have the same dignity and grace and acceptance that Breast cancer does.  And I’d like to see people of influence do their part to move awareness forward.  Imagine how much awareness and courage Alan Rickman and David Bowie could have inspired.  I don’t know what kind of cancer they had, but I wish they had blessed the cancer community with their influence instead of fading away quietly.  

To be fair, celebrities live their lives in front of us.  And we can all fight illness and even die how we’d like.  I just think if you’re already a star, use the last bits of your power to leave things a little brighter in honor of those who are beating the drum loudly but don’t have that platform sitting right there waiting for them to step up to.  

grace for them

 


So I was feeling a little down today.  I am recovering from my last chemo session, but it wasn’t about that.  Do you ever go on Facebook and see something that someone has posted that either isn’t very nice or comes across as passive aggressive?  And there is this little dirty, mean, self-hating part of you that thinks it might be about you?  Maybe once, years ago, someone suggested that you might be a little selfish or a little controlling or a little arrogant or a little bit of a failure.  And then, long after, you see this post about how horrible selfish or controlling people are, and you wonder if they are talking about you?  Most of the time, I scroll right past that stuff without a second thought.  But now and again, that ugly little part of myself takes pause and wonders.  And worries.

I feel misunderstood sometimes.  I think sometimes my directness, confidence and drive to get things done steer me into this category that some people just don’t know what to do with.  Lots of people enjoy these aspects of my personality and respect them a lot of the time.  But sometimes, my drive, my passion, my unrelenting certainty presses against someone else’s insecurities and it just pushes their buttons in the worst way.  I inadvertently become a villain.  And it always mystifies me.  I think I’m encouraging someone and it comes across as pushy and self righteous.  I think I’m showing someone an important truth and they characterize me as having an agenda.  I think I’m listening carefully and they think I don’t care.

So I saw this annoying thing on Facebook, and the story I made up in my head was that it was about me.  And I saw who “liked” it, and it felt like a chapter out of Mean Girls.  And my first response was that I was hurt.  And my immediate follow up response was all of the reasons why these people mean nothing to me and do not get to hurt me, because they are nasty jerks who are so insecure they have to post these little thinly cloaked insults that they aren’t brave enough to say outright.  And my next response was frustration.  Being misinterpreted is just the worst.  And I sat in that misunderstood feeling for a while.

And then I went to my bookshelf to find a book to start, to take my mind off of this crap.  And a great book that I deeply love, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller literally fell out of the bookshelf, fell open and a greeting card skidded across the floor.  It was a card from a good friend and coworker.  And if ever there was a physical piece of evidence that some human in this world understands me and knows where I’m coming from, it was this card.  I read it.  It made me cry because it was so, so, so needed right then.  The printed, sentimental words that the card makers published, and the messy handwriting, scrawling across every blank square inch of the card – words that comforted and healed.  Words that reflected that sometimes my very best self does come across and is accepted and acknowledged and appreciated.

I’m misunderstood sometimes.  By some people.  And other times I am perfectly understood.  By some people.  That’s the reality  And that’s ok.  I don’t need to be understood by everyone all of the time.  I’m not here to make everyone happy or make everyone feel perfectly at ease and comfortable.  I’m here to be me.  I’m here to be Jessi in all the wholeness and fullness with which God has created me.  Some of me is messed up and still a work in progress.  Some of me is perfectly effective and functioning exactly as I should.  Some of me is half formed and half baked and half torn apart.  Some of me is healing.  Some of me is growing.  And it’s ok if it comes out wrong sometimes.  That’s what grace is for.  And if you don’t have any grace for me today, that’s ok.  Because God’s got plenty.  And sometimes He doles it out in the form of a 6 month old greeting card.  

Pretty much, we’re all doing just about the best we can.  At least, most of us are.  At least, the people that deserve to matter to us are.  Keep doing the best you can.  I will, too. Because even if that post is “about us,” it’s not actually about us.  It’s about whatever broken, half baked piece of that person is dripping out today.  And we can be better than that.  We can have grace for them.         

2015 – a year in review

2015 began without much fanfare, although my cousin got engaged to a lovely woman I can’t wait to be cousins with.  A few weeks into the new year, my oncologist suggested we remove Mort the Port.  I was thrilled, not because I hated Mort, but because I felt this meant that my doctor felt that the cancer would not make a comeback.

Mort came out, and the cancer came back.  And while I can’t get away from the reality that cancer has defined most of this year, there have been many amazing, difficult, interesting things about this year, cancer related and otherwise.
I visited with the Cape family who live far away
I trained for and completed a triathlon
I had three surgeries and a biopsy
I went to California for work and saw good friends
My daughter started first grade and is having a great year
I get sores in my mouth from the chemo that make eating a chore
I grew closer with new friends, old friends and family who have helped take care of me
I lost some hair but not all
I wrote a book (publishing, pending)
I throw up from time to time
People I’ve never met prayed for me
People I know well pray for me daily
I’ve had 9 rounds of nasty chemo
I had a group of amazing friends come and visit me just because they love me
My fingernails and toenails get infected from the toxins in chemo
The mayor said he’s proud of how I’m fighting cancer
I swam in the ocean with my little fish of a daughter
I held my husband’s hand on the beach
I have a really yucky skin rash
People have sent me the most incredible, generous gifts and care packages.
I love my life and I’m grateful for this year no matter how hard it’s been.
I will continue this fight into 2016 and, God willing, triumph for good.  My mightiest prayer is to never have cancer again.  Pray with me?

 

 

 

 

Safer product review: Modere

The company, Modere, reached out to me recently and asked me to review some products.

This company offers products that are a safer alternative to conventional cleaning and personal care products that contain harsh chemicals.  As a cancer patient, I’m interested in products that are safer and healthier.
Today, I’ll review three of my favorite products.
Combination Skin Day Lotion
Big fan of this one.  With chemo treatment, my skin is a disaster.  Almost everything I put on it hurts.  But not this.  It’s smooth, light weight and mixes well with liquid foundation if you use a pigment like CoverFX custom color drops.
Refresh Mouth Rinse
I’m picky about mouth wash for two reasons: one, it hurts my very sensitive mouth if it’s too harsh, and two, sometimes it doesn’t work well.  This scores high on sensitivity – I have mouth sores from chemo and this doesn’t bother me at all.  It has a milder taste than conventional mouth washes.  It didn’t seem as potent, but the effects lingered, and I was happy with the results.
Make-up Remover
This is a pretty standard product.  The best feature being the lack of toxic ingredients.  It does a perfectly fine job removing even gunky, morning after eye make-up.
Overall, I’m happy with these products.  The laundry pods work well and have a pleasant lavender-vanilla scent.  We have also used the dishwasher pods which are also a good bet.  Comparable to a conventional product in effectiveness, but safer.  Especially with cats and kids around, that’s a nice feature.
Speaking of nice features, here is a code for $10 off your first purchase!  Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Waiting, worry and Lost!

“Your scan looks beautiful,” said Dr. Tsung, my youngish, kind, tall surgeon.

It’s like letting the air out of a balloon – the pressure relieved by good news.  No new tumors.  Thank you, God.  Thank you.

I’ve been in this position so many times.  The one where you wait for a doctor to give you news that will drastically alter the trajectory of your life.  Those moments are so full and frightening and taxing and stressful.  I’ve had to wait hours, days, and even over a week for results.  By no means do I have this down, because this sort of thing is always going to be hard.  But here are some things I have learned along the way.  Perhaps it will help you the next time you face the uphill battle of waiting for important news.

First of all, you really do have to begin with what you believe.  If you believe in nothing, that’s entirely up to you, and you can move forward doing basically whatever makes you feel better.  Some things to consider: some people like being alone, and others prefer to be surrounded by a support network.  Wherever you fall on the introvert/extrovert spectrum, pay attention to your wants and needs and try to adjust your social schedule accordingly.  An introvert does not benefit from constant companionship and an extrovert will quickly become depressed if left alone for too long.  When we’re out of our element for any length of time, it stresses us and more stress is not what is needed in times of worry.  I would also recommend engaging in activities you find to be energizing or calming such as exercise or an activity you enjoy.  It’s also good to keep a normal routine – you can’t and probably shouldn’t take a few days off work and sit home and worry.  Some of my best work has been done when I’ve pushed my upcoming doc appointment out of my mind and focused on something totally unrelated.  Keep your mind occupied by work or mindless tv.  Not a bad time to binge on Lost episodes if you were living under a rock circa 2006. I’m not even joking.  Good, well written tv shows have basically gotten me through cancer.  Ok, more so God, my friends and family have gotten me through cancer, but Scandal and Revenge have helped me forget about cancer for a while.  Just turning your mind off can be helpful.  This strategy immediately gets derailed when there is a cancer story line added (assuming a cancer diagnosis is what you’re waiting to hear about.)  In which case, you can skip that episode or…just watch Lost, ok?  No cancer scares on the island from what I recall.

If you’re not sure what you believe, it’s not a bad time to think about it.  Have you wondered about heaven and hell and God and what happens when you die?  Of course you have.  But, like many people, you’re jaded by organized religion (Understandably!  Some real idiots out there in the name of various religions, eh?)  and/or you haven’t landed on anything that fully makes sense to you.  I encourage you to pick something and learn about it.  Just start seeking for spiritual meaning and ruling things out.  I can pretty much guarantee you will find yourself down a rabbit hole of interesting ideas and philosophies.  My own journey led me from kind of half heartedly hoping that reincarnation is real and that I could come back as something that flies if I behaved myself, to believing that Jesus is the real deal.  It just made sense to me, eventually, that God is perfect, we sin against Him (we do…all of us) and there needs to be a sacrifice to pay for those sins, and Jesus is that sacrifice – God’s son.  He sacrificed the most valuable thing ever, to demonstrate His love for us.  Now, because I believe that is true for all of us, not just “my truth” or “true for me”, I hope you will discover that, too.  But I sincerely think that simply taking the step of exploring whatever intrigues you will lead you closer to the truth – whatever the truth of this astonishing miracle of a universe we live in is.  Taking an honest step toward discovering what all of this is and how we got here and what we’re meant to do – it’s always a step in the right direction.  Seek and you shall find.

Now, for those who consider themselves to be Christians.  Coming from the perspective of a Christian worldview, there are certain Biblical ideas and instructions that are very helpful to one experiencing great worry.  The first is that God commands us not to worry.  Isn’t that interesting?!  I have thought about this a lot, because I find it to be such a loving instruction to us as His children.  If you are a parent and you think about your child, and you imagine your child worrying, it’s heartbreaking, right?  I remember my mom asking me what I worried about once when I was about 9 or 10 years old.  I told her, and I recall this very clearly, that I worry that the United States will go to war and my dad would have to go to fight.  I regularly worried about this.  Having been born in 1978 and having several family members who fought in wars, I heard enough references to war to know that it was very, very bad.  I often worried when I saw the news and heard about various tensions throughout the world, it being the cold war and all,  When I expressed this worry, my mom laughed and told me that my dad was too old to be sent to war.  I was immediately relieved.  I am sure if my mom could have read my mind and saw that I was harboring that worry for years, that she would have alleviated it immediately, as she did that day.

I imagine God is troubled when we worry, partly because we spend time worrying that we could be spending doing about 10,000 more productive things, but also because He loves us and doesn’t want us to live in those confusing emotions.  He also wants us to trust Him.  We might talk about God and go to church and express a belief in Him of some sort.  But do we really trust Him?  The rubber definitely meets the road with faith when you’re sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting for the doctor to come in and point you down one of two roads – one, that you really don’t want to go down.

Being through what I’ve been through – Two cancer diagnoses, multiple surgeries, two chemo protocols, dozens of side effects – I have a lot of experience in that waiting room.  And my time with God, in those moments has changed.  I used to think just “no please, no, let it not be cancer, no, please, no, let it be ok.”  While a part of me still thinks that way, there is another, emerging part of me, that is calm, willing to hear whatever the news is, willing to go down whatever path is the one God leads me down.  I am increasingly challenged to believe in God’s goodness.  I am still tempted to believe that bad news means that God is not real, or if He is real, He’s not good and He does not love me.  The deeply flawed, human side of my heart and brain turn so quickly from God when He does not act as I would have Him act.  That hurts to write that sentence because it reflects such arrogance and short sightedness.  We can believe that this being created this entire earth – He invented water, and fire and jellyfish and geysers and the Northern Lights and our incredibly intricate nervous systems.  We can believe that, but not that He’s in control, that He will facilitate our lives in a way that is ultimately for our good?  Sometimes, believing in God seems a little crazy.  And I get why people think it is.  But from a logical perspective, it’s actually crazier to kind of vaguely believe in Him but not trust Him with these difficult things.

We do this, because we’ve probably felt betrayed by God at some point.  We lost someone that we loved, usually.  That is usually the thing that pushes people to the point of refusal to believe that God could possibly be good, when such a wretched loss has occurred.  Our hearts are so beautifully designed to love and engage with others, that a loss of love – by death or abandonment – changes us, searches in a rage for someone to blame, shuts off our willingness to trust this being in the sky we call God.  But I know people who have experienced unspeakable loss – second trimester pregnancies ending suddenly, car accidents taking away fathers, cancer stealing yet another young life, blindsided by an affair and demand for divorce – and some of these people have the toughest, most serious faith I’ve ever seen.  Because they’ve been through the wringer, and they didn’t let go of God’s strong hand.

So, at some point along the way here, I decided, years ago, that I was all in, as far as God goes.  So, when I sit there, waiting, I remind myself of all the good in my life, the history of God’s faithfulness, the truth that He has brought me safe thus far, as that old hymn reminds us, and He will lead me home, as He sees fit.  This is the only way I know.  It’s not an easy way, but I believe it is the best, truest, most sensible way.  I was willing to hear bad news on Friday, when I went to see Dr. Tsung.  I was willing to hear that things were not going well.  I had high hopes, of course.  But I was willing to hear what I didn’t want to hear.  I was willing to let go of my timeline of chemo and my deep desire to “get back to my life.”  I was willing to accept that I might not be able to go ahead with plans I have for once all of this chemo is over.  I plan to run in a relay in the Pittsburgh Marathon, I am toying with the idea of doing another triathlon.  I want to go on a short missions trip.  I am planning my 10th anniversary trip.  I want to visit friends I haven’t seen in a while.  I plan to orchestrate a huge capital campaign to build new and better facilities for the organization I serve.  I want to redo the retaining wall and landscape that part of my front yard.  I wrote a book and now need to get it published.  I have plans, yo!!

But I sat in the doctor’s office and offered up my plans and hopes, while I waited.  Not my will, but yours, be done.

The nurse took my blood pressure while we waited.  I typically run at a 120/80 and in times of anxiety, more like 140/90.   My blood pressure was 100/62.  I actually laughed out loud.  I silently gave God a high five, thinking “Wow, I’ve come a long way!”  I was in awe that I was actually that calm – that it wasn’t just an act, that I honestly wasn’t being ruled by my anxiety.  It was physiological evidence to me that I was really doing it – really trusting God.

The clear scan, to me, was just the icing on the cake.  The cake (I don’t like this whole metaphor because clearly the icing is the best part of cake) was that I could actually trust that, no matter what the doctor said, God’s got me, and He’s in complete control.  Had the news been different, yes, I would have been deeply disappointed and probably a little scared.  But I know that I am able to recover from those difficult emotions, release my plans and lean into trusting God.  I pray with everything in me that I never have to fight cancer again, once we are done with these chemo treatments – they are pretty terrible.  The idea of going through all of this again just sends a chill through me.

But, whatever God sees fit for me…I’m in.

My Thanksgiving post

Because of my exploration of gratitude, I’ve been paying special attention this Thanksgiving.  I am watching closely to see what people are thankful for.  Oh, Facebook, you make it so easy to do non-scientific research.  I notice that when people post what they are thankful for, it is always first and foremost, family and friends.  Second, people thank God (or the Universe or whatever they believe allows them to have these entities they are grateful for) for their home, their jobs, the relative safety of living in this country.  They thank for overcoming an illness or being sustained through one.  They thank those in the armed forces, police, first responders.  They thank for their pets.  For good food.  For nice weather.

Some that were unique and interesting:  

Thankful that an older relative saved old photos to look at now

Thankful for dinners without electronics

Thankful for coworkers to brave difficult work alongside

Thankful I’m not making Thanksgiving dinner

Thankful for a black Friday shopping partner

Thankful for a mom who can be counted on

Thankful for the ability to pay it forward

We are wired to be thankful.   It comes spilling out of us when prompted. Gratitude is the right response to this wonderful life.  Even if we don’t feel like our life is wonderful right now, or if this has been a really hard year, as it has for some of us, it’s possible to see beyond the cloudy, dark moment caused by pain, loss or fear.  The world is abundant!  Hope is just beyond that dark cloud.  And sometimes dark clouds bring rain and rain makes things grow, and that rain from that dark cloud prompts what will eventually be a needed harvest.  Harvest requires rain.  The thunder and lightning that come with it must be withstood by the hope of that harvest.

God has blessed us with such freedom, such hope, such opportunity.  Especially in suburban, rural or fancy urban American areas where most of my peeps live.

Yesterday, I spent the first half of my day at Light of Life Rescue Mission where I work.  We have a number of different programs and services, and one is to serve meals to those in need.  We serve breakfast and dinner 365 days a year.  On Thanksgiving Day we serve over 1,000 meals to hungry people.  This is the seventh year I have done this, and it is a miracle every year.  It is many miracles every year.  It is miraculous to me that people care so much to help that our volunteer spots (Over 100) are full by early October.  It’s a great problem to have to have to turn away so many willing hearts.  It’s a miracle that so many people who are in need can experience a warm, lovingly prepared meal, served by gentle hands, surrounded by kind spirits, offering up God’s love to any takers.

I watch the faces of those who come for a meal.  I carefully make eye contact and say “Happy Thanksgiving.”  The responses vary.  “Thank you.”  Quiet, nervous, maybe a bit ashamed.  “Same to you!”  Hearty, booming, possibly intoxicated.  “Happy Thanksgiving to you as well.”  Humble, Appreciative.  No response.  A nod.  A high five.  A hug.  A shy smile.  It’s no chore to me to do my part to provide this food (mostly I manage the people who do the real work, and just make sure everything is as it should be, like a surveillance plane, way up in the sky, noticing all that is well and the small things that need adjusting.)  It’s no chore to help a young mother find a winter coat for her little daughter.  It’s my great joy, in fact.  I actually have to step away, at times, to not be greedy, and allow others the joy of helping.  I step back and I watch a nervous volunteer carefully check tags, looking for a 5T size coat.  I watch two men calmly decide who the really cool leather jacket fits better.  Strangers until that coat.  One holds the other’s belongings as they try it on for size.  Jovial.  Laughing.  Knowing there are plenty of coats for all.  I bow my head grateful that we don’t have scarcity today.  Food for all.  Coats for all.  One only need a bit of patience to wait in line for a short while.  A man and  woman sit down on the ground and find comfort in each other.  They can’t stay there, because they are in everyone’s way, but the sweetness and the miracle of their claiming that grassy spot for a few moments to rest and feel safe and calm, surrounded by the love and care of so many people who want to reach out, to bless, to give, to love.

The news cameras and the reporters with their pens and microphones come to see.  They come to share the story.  The story of blessing and gratitude.  They don’t know, but they bring glory to my God as they share this work on their tv stations and their newspapers.  We don’t have to say it.  We know who does all of this and what great things He is up to.  Craig Wolfley, former Steeler and current broadcaster, and my friend, stood up to share in the chapel that the real miracle is that for all of us, the one in 100,000 NFL player, the lady next to him with stage 4 colon cancer, the drunk fellow in the back row, the ex-con by the door, the suburban stay at home mom spooning gravy, the lumber jack looking guy answering the phone at the front desk, the Hispanic family who doesn’t speak English but followed the trail of blessings to our doorstep – Jesus came for us all.  To scoop us all up from our messed up ways.  He knows it all.  He forgives it all.  All that we are ashamed of.  In Him, we have eternal life, and we begin an epic adventure of faith.  Faith that allows people like me to have astounding hope that crushes all fear.

As I wrap up my challenge of writing down 1,000 blessings I’ve been bestowed with, I wonder how I lived before.  Not noticing.  Not making note.  Not thanking as a practice.

I’m thankful to write this.  I’m thankful anyone would read this.  That it would bless anyone in any way.  It’s what I have to give.  My observations organized into ideas and then words.  I hope you like it.  I hope it matters to you.  I hope it is a blessing to you and that it might somehow make it’s tiny way into your long list of things you’re grateful for.

Doing the best we can

Are people doing the best they can?

In her research, Brene Brown posed this question to many people and learned a lot from the results.  You can read about it in Rising Strong, her amazing new book.

So, do YOU believe that people are doing the best they can?

This is such a huge question.  Your answer to it makes the biggest difference in the world.  It is the position from which you respond to others and their shortcomings and failures.  And people fail and fall short all of the time.  Many of the inconveniences and road blocks we experience crop up because of choices others have made.  The guy in front of you is going 10 miles below the speed limit which causes you to hit every red light.  The coworker who didn’t get their part of the report to you on time.  The spouse who forgot it was their turn to get the kids from daycare.

If you are a naturally empathetic person, and/or have been raised in an unusually nurturing environment filled with patient adults, you might quickly respond that, yes, you believe people are generally trying their best.  You might even recognize that this comes across as a little naive to others, but you just can’t shake the belief that people are pretty much doing the best they can.  Your response to failure in others is empathetic and you assume that this person tried their hardest and is probably more disappointed in themselves than you could ever be.  

If you are like me, your natural tendency is to believe that when failure happens, well, people just aren’t trying hard enough.  You can see the places where they could have made a better choice and changed the trajectory of their failure.  You can see how if they would have just hurried a little, or stopped and waited or turned at this point or said something different, everything would have been fine.  You assume they have the ability to complete whatever the task was, but they chose not to focus, allowed distraction to get in their way, or just decided at some point, they didn’t care.  For me, failure is an invitation to blame.  And I’m an expert blamer.  I can tolerate failure as long as I know whose fault it was, and that they are really, really sorry and understand that it cannot happen again.  Even if I’m the culprit.  I’m way more comfortable with it being my fault than it being no one’s fault.  And I’m just as harsh with myself when it comes to my own failings.  

Now, this characteristic of insisting that someone take responsibility, self included, makes me a good leader.  Until it doesn’t.  Sometimes it makes me a terrible leader.  Because it ventures into me acting like an unfeeling, cold, control freak.  While I’ve spent years making attempts at simply controlling my behavior by using different words and tones of voice or taking five minutes before I respond to another’s failure, changing behavior only gets you so far.  The changing of the thinking is what causes transformation.

And here’s what changed my thinking.  When I flip the script, and put myself in the seat of the failing person, and someone besides myself in the judgment seat, and I experience their judgment of my failure, I feel utterly awful.  I’m already crushed by the weight of my own judgment.  I’m already embarrassed and angry at myself.  I probably was trying pretty hard in the first place.  In fact, most of the time, I’m so deathly afraid of failing, I’d risk life and limb (mine or yours) to get me across whatever finish line I’ve set my sights on.  Imagine me, doing my very best, but crossing that line just a second too late.  Imagine the crushing disappointment,  I’ve let myself down.  I’ve failed.  And then I look up, and who do I see, but someone pointing a judgmental finger at me, shaking their head in disappointment and disapproval.  But, but, but…I tried my best.  Can’t you see that?  Now, not only do I feel disappointed in myself.  I also feel shame.

So, let’s back up.  When I’m the judge, judging the failure and believing the person just isn’t trying hard enough, where is that coming from?  I notice, when I get curious about my thoughts and emotions in these circumstances, that my strongest feelings come when another’s failure impacts me.  I am slowed down.  I am inconvenienced.  I am held back.  I have to do additional work.  I have to clean up the mess.  For me, it’s not so much about feeling superior or wanting to believe I’m better.  It’s about blame.  If I watch someone make a careless mistake while driving, and bump into another car, I might feel empathy.  Ooh, that sucks, dude.  Bummer.  But if it’s MY car they hit…well, let’s rev up that blame engine because I can find 37 things that person did wrong in .25 seconds.

For me, it’s about how the mistake impacts me.  The cost I have to pay because of your carelessness, thoughtlessness, laziness, etc.  This brings us into the land of choices, and specifically, the land of choices that include things like grace and mercy.  Oh, how I crave grace and mercy for myself.  But I’m so stingy when it comes to others.  Only if I can see it on your face, see the contrition, see the regret.  Then, I’m pretty generous with my grace and mercy.  But when you think you deserve it without even feeling especially bad, or, worse yet, you don’t recognize you need it, man does my blood boil.

I realize, as I think on this, that it’s about cost.  You failed.  It impacts me negatively – so there is already a cost in my having to clean up the mess or incur a financial or time burden, but on top of that, there is a cost to the emotional toll it has on me – I feel angry or hurt.  Now I need a place to put that emotion, and the easiest, most convenient place is to point it right at you.  Blame leads me to discharge the pain I’m experiencing.  But grace leads me to keep it, and take the responsibility of transforming it inside myself instead of discharging it at you.

The idea that people are trying to do the best they can makes choosing the grace path a little easier.  That ball of anger that formed when you hit my car is so fiery and sharp.  But when I think about the possibilities of what you had on your mind, what might have distracted you, how you must feel about yourself right now, the flame loses it’s oomph.  When I consider how you also have a cost now, how you might be late for something important, and how a relationship might hinge upon your arrival.  How you made a few other mistakes today and this one is just crushing you.  Now, my heart is softer.  I can see past the indignant expression on your face and recognize that it’s not true self righteousness, that, if left undisturbed, would fuel that anger flame in me.  Rather, it’s a mask to hide the shame.  And the flame quiets and shrinks.

I’m choosing to believe, not necessarily that everyone is always doing the best they can, but that in fact, they MIGHT be.  For now, that’s the best I can do.  But it’s a start.      

            

Brene Brown for the Win

I love Brene Brown.  She’s my author girlfriend.

 

For context, Ryan Gosling is my movie boyfriend, James Spader is my tv sugar daddy boyfriend, Tim Keller is my pastor boyfriend.  It should be noted that these relationships are all entirely one-sided and even so, platonic.  I guess you could just say I admire these people a lot, and the whole significant other thing is kind of stupid.  But that’s how I think of them, so (sticks tongue out.)

Brene Brown is a research professor and author and a really brave woman.  She’s into exploring our emotions, thoughts and behaviors and getting real about how we make up stories about ourselves and others that point us down dangerously dishonest paths.  She talks about shame and blame and how those experiences impact the way we see ourselves and our roles and identities.

I’m reading her book, Rising Strong, and it got me thinking about shame.  And wondering if shame has impacted me.  I don’t feel ashamed, typically.  I mean, if I do something wrong, like overreact to an employee’s mistake or freak out on my daughter over some small misstep, I do feel ashamed, and seek forgiveness and to make amends.  But I move on quickly and generally think of myself as worthy of love and care.  But as I was reading about how shame exists in schools, and how there is an impact on creativity and learning, I began to get flooded with memories of experiences where teachers said things that I experienced as shame.  Some examples:

Kindergarten.  I was playing a game of musical chairs with my class, and I got pushed out of the circle of kids walking around the chairs.  I tried to get back in but the other kids reacted as though I was “cutting.”  My teacher saw me out of the circle and crossly demanded I get back in.  The kids still wouldn’t let me in and I started to cry out of frustration.  She marched over and told me to quit acting like a crybaby.  I distinctly recall filing that information away: Don’t cry.  It makes people think you’re a baby.

Second grade.  We were talking about movies and how what we see in a movie is the end product, but there is so much that goes into making it.  We were discussing how they might have to shoot a scene where a family is eating at a table and they may have to shoot the scene 20 times.  I raised my hand to ask a question about it, and inexplicably my teacher said “Yes, Jessica, we know, the actors have to pretend to eat while they’re shooting.”  I gleaned in that moment that my teacher thought I was a know-it-all.  I also learned in that moment that people make assumptions about what you say before you say it and they can be wrong.  I have kept those two pieces of information close at hand ever since.  I often worry that people think that I think I know everything and I frame my communication accordingly, occasionally saying things like “this probably isn’t right but…”  I know this is dumb, and I only do it when I’m operating out of insecurity.  But it happens from time to time, and it’s fascinating to trace it back to that day, almost 30 years ago.

Fourth grade.  I sat at a table with three other students and one was a boy I was friends with.  He accidentally kicked me under the table, I looked up, and he said “sorry” and we smiled at each other.  From the front of the room I heard “If Jessica and Josh would stop playing footsie, we could get on with the lesson.”  I was so embarrassed and frustrated.  First of all, we weren’t doing anything wrong.  Secondly, it was a sweet moment.  But instead, it became shameful.  I “learned” that teachers disapproved of girls and boys interacting and I took on that position, finding myself judging girls that did anything that resembled flirting with boys for the next couple of years.

Sixth grade.  I wore lipstick to school and my teacher called me up and told me it was inappropriate.  I am happy to report I completely ignored this and continued to wear it.  In 8th grade, I stepped it up to red lipstick and haven’t looked back.

It was right around sixth grade where I realized it was possible to know things teachers don’t know.  Like the time I used the word “stature” in a book report and my teacher marked it wrong because he assumed I meant statue (which wouldn’t have made sense.)  I am so grateful that I broke out of the false reality that adults always know more and know better.  I began making more keen judgments, regarding who was worthy of my respect and admiration.  Just being older than me didn’t get you that entitlement anymore.  I wasn’t being disrespectful; outwardly, I extended the requisite obedience and compliance regardless of how little I actually respected a teacher.  However, I had a very active thought life in my brain regarding whether these educators knew what they were talking about or not.  This probably ventured a little too close to “superiority complex” land, but, overall, I believe I was deeply empowered by this new awareness that things are not always what they seem, that adults have major shortcomings, and that I didn’t have to accept what was fed to me, mindlessly.

Like everything else, you can put teachers along a standard bell curve.  Like everyone else, I’m grateful to have come across a few genuine, intelligent, insightful, caring teachers.  Those people impacted me in a positive way much like the few truly bad apples impacted me in a negative way.

The important part, however, is that we go back, examine these stories, consider what we gleaned from them and decide if it’s useful or not.  We can CHOOSE how much these experiences impact us.  If we heard from a teacher 30 years ago that we were stupid, and we have operated out of that belief, isn’t it time to go back and consider how valid that one person’s perspective at that specific point in time was?  And this doesn’t apply to just teachers.

Your first boyfriend thought your feet were ugly.  Are you still hiding them under a towel at the beach?  Your mom thought the ten pounds you gained freshman year would ruin your life – was she right?  Do you still see her disapproving face when presented with an Oreo?  Did your camp counselor tease you for how you walk?  Do you find yourself adjusting your gait if you think others are watching?

We have to challenge these stories we subconsciously tell ourselves.  These stories that tally up our value and loveableness.  The fact is, from my perspective, you were created by God.  And He created you with loving intention.  Just because your feet, hips or walk don’t meet the weird, current, temporary standard of perfection that 21st century America has decided for you, doesn’t mean you’re somehow less worthy than those who do.  You have to decide what the standard is.  If you want to stick with society’s standards, go for it. But remember, it’s contrived by flawed people like my impatient Kindergarten teacher.  What matters is what you think, and what God thinks.  And you can invite as many caring, safe, loving people into your life, to speak into these things as you want.  But you can decide how much weight their opinion holds.  And you don’t have to be a slave to anyone’s standards.  Challenge those ideas you’ve been operating out of.  Because they could be dead wrong.  And you can be free of them.

Rising Strong is an excellent book.  It’s incredibly challenging if you’ve never thought about this stuff before.  I’ve been thinking about this stuff for 18 or so years, and it is still bringing up new challenges for me, regarding how willing I am to reckon with and rumble with and allow the revolution of my thoughts and feelings to take place.  Emotional honesty and vulnerability are so, so hard.  We all want to hide, to pretend we’re fine, to act like the choices of others don’t hurt us.  We want to run from the tough emotions.  We want to dismiss them and move on.  But there is beauty in the uncertain, sticky, icky places of hard emotions.

Today, Cass went to see if the boy across the street would like to play.  For a few months, they played almost daily and couldn’t get enough of each other.  Recently he has stopped coming over and when she’s gone to see him, he’s been about to leave for an activity, or not feeling well.  Today, he just flat out said he didn’t want to play.  She was devastated!  She came back, quite dejected.  My instinct was to change the subject and get her engaged in something before this turned into a howling, negative mess. But since Rising Strong was literally in my lap, I paused.  I invited her over to sit by me.  I asked her some questions about how she was feeling.  And when she started to cry, sharing that she feels like he just doesn’t like her, I wanted to run – literally wanted to run away from this hard feeling of a 7 year old boy rejecting my daughter.  I wanted to run or yell at someone – his mother maybe?  Yeah, I could yell at her for raising such an insensitive little brat who would hurt my little girl in this atrocious way by refusing to play with her.  She’s better than him, anyway.  He’s out of his league, by far.  Why was she even wasting her time with him?  I’m going to have a party and invite the entire neighborhood and purposely exclude them.

Oh my gosh.  We go to such weird, dark places in pain, don’t we?  But I hung in there.  I stayed with her.  I held her through some tears.  Asked some more questions.  Assured her that she is loved and a fun playmate.  We sat quietly for a long time.  I prayed silently, asking God to bless the moment, to bring some light.  After a while, she slithered off my lap and ran off to play on her own.  I caught a glimpse of her resilience and thanked God for it, because I know almost no characteristic is more valuable than the one that helps you bounce back.  And it is often developed by experiencing loss or disappointment, being surrounded by a support system, and learning that “it’s ok.”  We created a foothold today, with this tiny loss.  We crammed strong metal into the rock face and tested it.  It held.  The rock face is high.  But those footholds make all the difference.

Brene Brown for the win.

The best Weekend EVER.

What a weekend!

I had chemo yesterday and I am not feeling great.  But I have this past weekend to look back on to warm my heart.

Seven years ago, I was pregnant with Cassidy and stumbled across a web site called Babycenter.com  It is basically a site where you can go to get information about being pregnant and being a new mom.  You can create a profile and put a photo and some information about yourself like if it’s your first pregnancy, etc.  Then you can go into the “Community” part of the web site to interact with others who are pregnant.  You can join a “birth board” which is a group of women who are all pregnant and due the same month as you.  There are thousands of women on each birth board, and you can get kind of addicted, interacting, talking, arguing about breast feeding in public and elective c-sections.  Things can get dramatic and heated and it is in these threads that you find “your people.”  The women you connect with.  In my case, I seemed to gravitate toward funny, outspoken but sensible people.  Both the kind who were in the midst of the drama at times, and the ones who broke into those conversations with well timed senses of humor.

From those connecting moments, you got to know “your people” and would have private conversations through chat functions, and if you were lucky, like me, you got invited to private groups.  This is where the magic really happens.  I was on several private groups.  And people joined and would get into an argument and leave.  Groups would break up and regroup into smaller groups.  About the time the babies were born and crawling, things general got moved over to Facebook.  Once you’d been friends online with someone for a year, it seemed safe to let the non crazy ones into a more real part of your life.  So we moved our groups to Facebook.  Again, there have been changes, people leaving groups – I even got kind of kicked out of one once.  But what has lasted has been some of the friendships. I have met several of these girls individually, in “real life” as I’ve traveled or they have.  And it’s always been great.  No horrible “catfishing” stories of people actually being a 50 year, creepy man (this has happened, though not to us!) or someone scamming for money.  Well, I have witnessed that one but I, fortunately, didn’t get involved.

This weekend, 6 women came to visit me.  They could have gone anywhere, as the people I am friends with typically meet up once a year.  I haven’t been able to join them for various reasons including timing and the expense of travel.  But even though I haven’t been able to join them in other cities for these meet ups, this year, they came to me.  The weekend was truly epic.  We had an enormous amount of fun.  I got to show off our beautiful city.  We sang karaoke, toured the homeless shelter at Light of Life where I work.  We ate our way through the city at such places as Steel Cactus, The Yard, Enrico’s Biscotti, Hofbrauhouse, and visited other establishments such as Over the Bar and Lava Lounge.  We gave a homeless man a cannoli, We rode the incline.  We Uber’d all over the city.  We even ran into the mayor and he was nice enough to greet my friends and say nice things about me.  It was a really fun moment.

They loved our bridges and rivers, were perplexed by why we put french fries on our salads and sandwiches, were moved by the homeless shelter and were puzzled by why people wear black and gold even when it’s not game day.  They made me laugh a thousand times.  We had heartfelt conversations, took naps and walked many miles.  I felt so energized and refreshed by this visit.  These women are so funny, generous, adventurous and have bigger hearts than the Duquesne incline car.

Kristy, Jess, Barb, Nichole, Annette, Mandy – you ladies gave me the weekend of the year.  I’m so incredibly blessed by your friendships.  My life would be less full if I had never landed on the July 2009 birth board.

Here are some photos of a weekend to remember.

 

Check it: part 3

I met Tammy through one of my prayer warriors, Leigh.  And I met Leigh through my amazing friend, Laura, who passed away in 2013 from this dreaded disease.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Laura is gone.  I still see her signature symbol (rainbows!) all over the place and I notice her love of people, her legacy, really, lives on as great people continue to connect because of her.

Tammy’s story is much like the rest of ours – an unexpected cancer diagnosis for a young woman.  But I especially relate to her as a mother.  The news of a cancer diagnosis rips right through you, no matter what, but for a mother, there is this additional second terror that hits you What is going to happen?  What if I’m not ok?  Who will cut the itchy tags from their little shirt collars if I die???
I’m pleased to share Tammy’s story with you.  I wish she never had to go through any of this stuff, but because she did and shared her story, it strengthens and galvanizes me in my own fight.  (5 chemo rounds down.  7 to go!)
What I want you to know is that Tammy’s is a story of hope and current good health.  She is here today, in part, because she FOUND SOMETHING and she CHECKED IT!  Please let this be your weekly reminder that getting anything that concerns you checked out is your first punch in fighting cancer.  Earlier is always better and easier!  
 
Here is Tammy’s story in her own words:
 
Im sorry. You have cancer.”
 
You are never prepared to hear those words. My cancer story began in the summer of 2010.  We planned a quick getaway with friends to Deep Creek for a weekend of boating, bonfires and board games.  It led me to discover a small lump on my chest wall. After taking a nasty spill off the tube, my life jacket pulled and I felt a pop.  I made my way back to the boat and could feel a small lump or something. It never changed in size like it would if it was swollen from the fall and no bruising, so my friend insisted that I call my doctor just to be safe. 
 
Normally I avoid the doctor at all cost but something just stayed with me to get checked; after all it couldn’t be cancer because I was only 38.  
 
I did what we all do and I googled the symptoms of breast cancer other than this small bump which was obviously totally related to the life jacket.  I didn’t  have any symptoms. 
 
I met with my doctor after the initial exam things moved at a quick pace. Initially they led me to believe it might be a cyst so that day we did an ultrasound but the location was tricky.  They felt it best we should do a mammogram and a stereotactic biopsy just to cover all the bases. Great! My lump was not in my breast – it was about 1/2 inch below my collar bone (the life jacket pulled so part of the tumor could be felt beneath the muscle.)  About a week later I had the testing and a week after that which was July 19, 2010.  I received that call and no matter how sympathetically it is delivered, the words “you have cancer,”STOPS YOUR WORLD. 
 
The future is never given but now it is dark, scary and fast.  As hard as it is to hear it is even harder to say. In the moments after the call I had to call my husband and I just cried on the phone.  The words just stuck in my throat. Finally, I said it and it was even worse saying it than hearing it. 
 
I had to leave work. Fortunately I work with amazing people and they were quickly learning of my meltdown and as I exited my office I saw the fear on their faces as i shared my news.  As the hours of that day past and my house filled with family and friends I needed a few minutes to myself.  
 
I was out of tears – you can only cry so much – so I prayed for God to take my worry.  I prayed that I would do whatever the doctors wanted, see, do, take whatever, just carry my worry, God. In that instance I was at peace and was overwhelmed with love and strength which slowly built to hope. It’s with that hope I carried to my many doctor appointments and it’s that hope I kept in my heart. 
 
It made hearing Stage 3, multiple types of cancer discovered, 8 rounds dense dose chemo, port,  hospital stays, radiation, BRCA 2 gene, mastectomy, prophylactic oophorectory (sounds like a Dr. Seuss word but it’s  removal of ovaries and the Fallopian  tubes), bone treatments not just manageable to survivable. Hope and holding hope high in your heart allows you to not only survive but thrive.
When I began treatment my daughters were 6 and 3 my hair was falling out so I armed them with safety scissors and they gave me the most beautiful haircut ever.  The fear disappeared from their faces and I gave them the power of hope.  And hope is like magic – it changes your attitude when the power of God intersects with your soul. The power of prayer and hope were my “secret” weapons in my cancer fight. And if it wasn’t for that life jacket pulling the muscle I may have never detected the tumor which secretly was growing under the my chest muscle.  Miracles happen every day. I am forever grateful for my prayer warriors, family, friends, Dr. Keenan, Dr. Rubino and Dr. Analo of West Penn great cancer care.
 

 

 

Remember…if it concerns you, CHECK IT.  And if your friend tells you about some bump or lump or weird thing, tell them to CHECK IT.