Into the Void? Maybe not.

Sometimes when I write, I wonder what the point is and what impact the words have.  I’ve blogged for fifteen years (and wrote horrible diary entries for about 10 years before that…seriously, they are so dramatic and self-obsessed and boy crazy and just terrible) and if I calculated all of the time spent typing away, it would be thousands of hours easily.  And for what?  A few laughs, a few “likes.”  So what?

I wrote a book and no one told me that the easy part about writing a book is writing the book.  Someone has to care enough to publish you and then they have to care enough to promote your book and then you just hope and hope that your little book might somehow find its way magically to the people who will like it.  It’s a process through which I only got through the very first step – writing the thing.  It sits, like an unwanted hamster whose owner went away to college, in this laptop I’m typing at now, gathering cyber dust.  I don’t have the time and I don’t want to spend the money it would take to get it out into the world.  What I have to say can be said here.  People trickle in, 50 here, 100 there.  Hi, Friends.  Mom.  Connie.  Aunt Barbara.  Random person seeking cancer treatment tips.  Hello.  Welcome.  I’ve made peace with my little audience.  I write for people who love me, to share how I’m doing.  And I write for strangers who are scared and overwhelmed and using their fingertips on a keyboard or touchscreen, seeking answers, information and hope.  This is the hope stop.  You’ve found the right place.  It’s going to be ok.  Ok?

But even so, sometimes I feel like I write and the words fling out of me and into space, into the void, never to be reflected back to me.  That’s what we really want, as writers, right?  We need to tell the story, real or imagined, and we want it to fly out and bounce back to us.  We want to see something in the reactions of our readers.  Some writers want to get their readers to buy something.  Some want you to be scared.  Some want to make you feel sad about injustice.  Some want you to recycle.  Some want you to believe the same things that they do.  Some want you to laugh (guilty.)  Some want you to hear their story and feel compassion for people like them.  Some want to impress you.  Some want to inspire.  What do I want?  I want you to read what I write and when you’re done, believe in yourself a little bit more.  I want you to know that we can get through hard things.  That you can get stronger.  That it’s possible to survive pain and bad news and chemo.  That you can even have fun, like 98% of the time. I want to make the hard things in life a little bit less scary and a little more manageable.  I absolutely believe that if I can do it, you can do it.  I’m honestly not especially talented at anything.  I just believe in my brain and my body and my heart and I don’t give up.

The other thing I want you to come away from my writing with is the understanding that I have faith.  I approach all of this with an unshakable belief that I’m God’s kid and He watches me and walks with me with Great joy.  He has my best interests in His plans, and my only job is to trust Him.  He isn’t keeping track of my mistakes with a clip board full of wrong doings and scheming to find ways to punish me for them.  He’s cheering me on, urging me to do my best, and He’s always up for getting ice cream after the game, win or lose.  There are other aspects of God.  He is holy and so perfectly powerful we cannot bear to look upon His face.  But I am so enamored of the side of God that I am certain would laugh at a slightly inappropriate but witty and well timed about flatulence.

So, I want you to laugh, I want you to believe in yourself, and I want you to understand that pretty much everything you like about me comes from my trust that the Creator of the Universe chuckles occasionally at my antics and loves me like crazy, even when I am not especially well behaved.

Today, I got some evidence that this is happening.  I got the coolest care package from the coolest group of young ladies.  A woman who has known me since I was born shared my story from the last few years with her church prayer group, and they have been praying for me for a long time now.  One of those people runs one of the church’s youth groups for girls and one way or another she ended up sharing one of my blog posts that talked about getting through these tough things with faith, with the group.  Since then they tune in from time to time and read my stuff and talk about it.  This gives me so much joy.  I have mentored younger women since I was in college and continue to do so, most often, currently, in the form of trying to be the best boss I can to a small army of rockstar young women who comprise most of my team at work.  Helping women who I am a little further along in life than (ahem, old) is a real passion of mine.  I’ve been SO WELL mentored by the greatest women, ever.  It’s been instilled in me.  Basically, if you learn something (a skill, a process, a method, a way of thinking, a way of looking at something) what good is it really if you don’t turn around and teach it to someone else.  Sometimes there is a shortage of “the teachable” but when you find them, they are attracted to potential “life teachers” like magnets.  It’s a beautiful thing when the mentor and mentee find one another.  It usually flourishes eventually into a friendship and mutual learning – and these relationships have been some of my greatest joys.  Just about everything I know is because some smart person was generous enough to share with me.

So, to discover that I’m having an impact, 30 miles away, with a bunch of God following girls I’ve never met is just the greatest thing.  They sent me notes and the notes gave me tears over and over.  One (or several?) of them made a jar and put little note cards in it.  The top of the jar said “Who you are…” and the note cards said “amazing” and “beautiful” and “inspiring” and “role model.”

Holy cannoli did this encourage me.  I honestly had been feeling a bit down on myself, for not trying more persistently at “making it” as an author.  This picked me right up today!  I’m so full of love and joy from these notes (and the treats and sweet gifts they sent!) As a recipient of these blessings, I feel honored and humbled and invigorated to keep at it, sharing what I have to share.  And it reminds me, with great intensity how important it is for us to encourage one another.  Share with people the impact they have on you.  You’re probably sitting on a lot of unexpressed gratitude and appreciation right now.  Think of three people you couldn’t be where you are without – thank them!  Tell them how they impact you and how you couldn’t be you without them.

Cancer has given me terrible things.  But the beautiful things it has given me so outrageously outweigh the bad.  When life gives you lemons, like cancer…well, I’m Lemonscarlet, and I’ll be over here with my amazing friends, making lemonade.


Along the way

I usually write a blog entry when I discover something that just connects for me.  Bingo.  A truth that I suddenly know – a problem that untangles itself and emerges solutionary (new word?) whole, ripe and well formed.  Something that helps.  Something that clarifies.  Something that heals.  I love those truths.  They are important.  They are answers to the questions.  The a-ha moments.  Oh, I do love me some answers.  Some wisdom.  Some decisive course of action.  Some powerful rightness.

But there is a tiny, fragile hint of beauty in the not knowing, too.  I just left a meeting where two people I admire were really brave.  Beautifully, inspiringly brave in the not yet knowing.  They were honest and authentic and willing to share in the midst of not having it figured out yet.  

That kind of courage isn’t celebrated enough.  
We value certainty and being on the other side of a problem too much.  The destination is palm trees and beaches.  Cocktails and selfies.  The journey is pot holes, flat tires and traffic.  It is tedious, tiresome, ugly.  It’s grumpy and impatient and loud.  Are we there yet?  

But so much of life is the getting there.  There are many to whom this is not news, I know.  But I’m me, and while I can enjoy a literal road trip, emotional, intellectual, relational, transitional, spiritual, life “journeys” seem best done quick and dirty.  Fast and simple and limited.  Fix it.  Decide.  Done deal.  
Where we’re going matters, of course.  But to a great extent, we allow the destinations to define us. And yet, who we are during the trip is, well, who we really are.  Who we are when we’re bored, overheated or lost.  When we’re behind schedule.  Out of snacks.  Achy from confined spaces.  Wishing for different traveling companions.  Unclear on the best route. Uncomfortable in the silence that magnifies the rattle.  Distracted by hopes and dreams and regrets. 
Who are we, then?  Can we be kind and humble and patient and maybe even occasionally magnificent in moments along the way?  In the uncertainty and not-yet-there-ness?  Or only when we’ve arrived? I saw it today.  And I want more of that. 

Fighting Blind

Fighting cancer with surgery, radiation, chemo, etc is this whole lifestyle.  You put your head down with determination, you think positive, you deal with physical pain, exhaustion, you combat the side effects with medicine, home remedies, rest, prayer, massage, warm baths, lotions, creams, healing foods, tea.  You wish the bad days away and hold onto the good days, dreading the next chemo.  But basically, you’re getting through it.  You have a timeline.  You have a specific goal…get through the next chemo, and ultimately, get done with chemo.  You can’t wait to be done.  You’re jealous of those ahead of you – if someone has just one fewer treatment than you do, you are insanely envious of them.  Oh, to have just 3 instead of 4 left!!!

But then you get done.  And a few things happen.  The first is relief and celebration.  It is AMAZING to not have to schedule your life around chemo treatments and how your body will be handling them.  As the nausea, heartburn, neuropathy, cold sensitivity, joint pain, fatigue begin to subside, and as the nails, hair and taste buds start to grow back, you have a different feeling that can take hold.  Fear.

You’re done fighting.  Now we have to see if you’ve won or not.  And the enemy could show up again anytime, without much warning.  The future is filled with scans and blood tests and hyper vigilance.  Healthy, cancer fighting foods, exercise, stress reducing behaviors, avoiding exposure to nasty chemicals.  It’s easy to get swept away by the fear and the stress that every thing you do is either inching you toward or away from cancer.

This is the part I struggled with the hardest, mentally and emotionally the last time we crossed the chemo finish line.  Chemo – it takes quite a toll.  But the time after, it’s a different kind of challenge.

Primarily, it’s a challenge of faith.  This is where we have to just take God’s big, strong hand, and choose to let go of our fear.  All this time, we prayed and trusted Him we’d get through the chemo.  Now we have to trust that, no matter what, He’s got us.  He’s in control.  He’s all over this.  It doesn’t mean your cancer won’t come back.  Maybe it will and maybe it won’t.  But we’re called to a life of adventure, a life of uncertainty.  A wild ride of a life where we’ve handed the keys over the the Big Guy and believed this was the best way.  It is the best way.   We can’t control it anyhow, so why not just rest in the knowledge that the best possible tour guide, navigator, driver, event planner and travel companion is in charge.  Gratitude and trust can stamp out fear.  I’ve experienced it many times.  You simply can’t be thankful and afraid at the same moment.  One has to win out.  Light casts out darkness, not the other way around.


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.      


Some days are tough. We have to be tougher.

Some days, you just have a “day.” I got chemo on Monday. Had to wear home the wonder woman fanny pack, got through Tuesday and Wednesday. Got unhooked on Wednesday. Went to work on Thursday. Friday, I had some appointments and some conference calls. I was doing ok, but took a downturn.  Nauseous, wobbly, shaky. I hate when my hands don’t work right.

Today is a rough day.  Cassidy’s last soccer game was this morning. There was no way I was missing it.  I thought it would be ok but I just felt so tired and cold and out of it.  My attitude was tanking and I could feel the negative affect I was having on my family.  I felt guilty and frustrated.  But I prayed.  I asked God to help me be thankful.
I came home and was treated to a lunch feast of Pho.  If you have had it, you know how awesome it is. If you have not had it, it is basically the world’s greatest chicken noodle soup. It’s a Vietnamese, and the kind I like to get is broth with shredded chicken.  It comes with rice noodles, fresh bean sprouts, basil, lime, and hot sauce. It is the most satisfying meal in the world, and my lovely friend, Kait, brought us some.
Then, she took my daughter outside and played with her for a solid hour so I could get some rest and Kevin could get some yardwork done.  Do you know how great that is?
So much to be thankful for.  I struggle with these side effects.  I hate them.  But I’m always much more overwhelmed by the kindness people show us. Nausea is overcome by a healing meal.  The shakes subside with a long hug.  The body relaxes when a stressful problem is solved by a helping hand.
I’m so grateful to be the recipient of such care.  I’m full of thanksgiving, now.  Eucharisteo.  The miracle is always preceded by thanksgiving.  Gratitude changes everything.  It melts a hard heart.  It makes “I was wrong” possible.  It shines warm and bright through cold and dark.  Thanksgiving compels us to consider our circumstances in their proper context.  And even when those circumstances are admittedly bad, like mine – against the odds – that willingness toward gratitude…it makes a way.  A way for hope.  And it becomes a useful weapon against fear.  
Sometimes, you just have to put on that red lipstick, say a prayer of deep thanksgiving, and wait for the miracle to propel you forward.  In my experience, it always does.  God is close.  He’s always waiting for us to grab his big, strong hand.  



God shows up.

Sometimes, I look up to the sky and wonder if all that I believe about who God is is true. Some days He feels far away. Some days, I think how much I operate from the foundation of my faith and how crazy it would be if none of it was true.  Almost like a mental illness. Like if I lived my life believing I could fly if I wanted to. Or that I could see things that other people didn’t see. I am sure that atheists think this about we crazy Christians. If I wasn’t a Christian, I would definitely think the Christians were crazy.  Well, actually there are plenty of people who call themselves Christians who are certifiably crazy. 

But sometimes, God shows up in such undeniable ways, it makes me sure. Like totally 100% sure. Let me share two things with you.

Early this morning I got an email from a lifelong friend. A woman who I’ve known my entire life. She shared a recent email I wrote with people from her church.  The email was an update about my situation and some general thoughts about how I am grateful and confident in God.  She had gotten a response to the email from someone active in youth ministry. Apparently the topic of cancer had come up recently and she was struggling to talk to young teenagers about cancer through the lens of faith.  My email really touched her heart and gave her a new place to start the conversation from. It was just what she needed to read and she wondered if she could share it.  

That energizes me so much and makes me really excited for how God is using this terrible situation to encourage and comfort others.

That was a great way to start the day. But it gets even better.

Later this morning I saw a lovely woman at Cassidy’s soccer game who has a shaved head. 

It seemed fairly clear to me that she probably was in cancer treatment. However, you don’t want to assume. And you also don’t want to invade someone’s privacy. But although I’ve seen her twice before, I could not shake the feeling that I should talk to her today.  What a weird thing to do, but I knew I had to.  

I walked up to her and I said “hi. Sorry if this is weird, but I have cancer. I’m starting to lose my hair and may have to shave it.  I noticed that you are rocking that look really well so I thought I’d ask you about it.” 

She beamed a gorgeous, friendly smile at me (whew!) and told me she had breast cancer.  We started chatting.  

After a few minutes she asked my name and said “I just read this blog post that reminds me of this…”

I told her that I have a blog. She asked me if I knew someone named Katy Ursta. (I just blogged about my friend, Katy.)  I started laughing and said “I’m lemonscarlet.”

She got tears in her eyes and said “I have chills.” She told me that she had just had three different people send her a link to my blog and she finally read it last night. She said she was too tired to do it then, but that she had planned to message both me and Katy on Facebook because she was so inspired by it.  She couldn’t believe that I just walked right up to her that morning.

I mean, what are the chances?!  We both felt like it was from God.  I know I was incredibly encouraged by this.  I hope to continue to get to know her.  As you pray for me, pray for Jennifer, too.  She’s almost done with chemo and has four active kiddos to chase around the soccer fields.  

God is good, my friends.  


So I’m reading this book on being thankful.  I was led down this path two ways.  One is that the magnificent Tim Keller mentions being thankful as part of the way you respond to adversity in an effective, Christ-like way. Ever since I read that in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, it has stuck with me. Thanking God even when things are not going well. Being thankful in the midst of scary and painful circumstances. How can this be what He expects of us?

Then, Lisa Slayton, my trusty mentor, gave me a very interesting book – it is called One Thousand Gifts.
The author is an interesting person. She writes with peculiar cadence and word choices. She is a farmer, or maybe more accurately a farmer’s wife and mother of six kiddos, and writes like she has at least a PhD. Maybe she does. But her simple life and complex thoughts are unexpectedly divine.  I’ve seen a clip of her speaking, and she dresses and talks like an NYC poet. Such an interesting woman!  Ann Voskamp.
Early in life, she and her family experience the most horrific of tragedies. Her young sister was very accidentally killed by an oncoming delivery truck driver. They all saw it happen. Devastating. Tragic. Gruesome.
When you go through something like that, you pretty much either shut down, cross your arms and turn away from God. Or you run toward him desperately, knowing that He is the only possible thing that could ever make you in anyway OK again.
She initially chose the former, quietly, humbly.  Confused, desperately disappointed.  She continued church going but closed off part of herself.  She settled into a longtime depression of sorts.  She didn’t become an atheist or anything – she just stopped trusting God and stopped being engaged with Him.
The book talks about how she came across this idea of Eucharisteo, the table of Thanksgiving.  As long as there is grace, thanks is possible, and so joy is possible.  She met someone who was thankful IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES (and he’d been through some doozies.)
She knows how Jesus thanks God before he asks him to do stuff. She notes that thanksgiving always precedes the miracle.
She thinks hard on this Eucharisteo.    She considers how even our saving by Christ must include gratitude.  How else could we accept the gift of salvation but with gratitude? Gratitude is the evidence and manifestation of our acceptance of his extended grace.
So she begins the list. A list of things she is thankful for. Little things, big things. God’s grace and the beauty of morning sunlight.  Her husband’s embrace.  Her children’s bare feet.  Apparently there is a workbook that goes along with this book. I don’t have it. But I got the idea that I should probably start making a list, too. The title of the book is One Thousand Gifts. So I guess that is what we’re shooting for, here. So far, I’m up to about 200. I forget things that should be obvious. I think I’ve written down some already, and realize I haven’t. I’ve written some things twice, I think. But here is the list I have so far. Many of you reading this will find your names on it. And if you don’t, it’s probably because my brain is addled from chemo and pain medication.  it’s far from complete, so your name may well be popping up soon.
I’m only about a third of the way through the book. And I have not magically transformed into a naturally thankful person. But I do find myself taking note of blessings that I took for granted before. Little things that people do or that spring up before me, source unknown.  I’m more aware, and more willing to give thanks even if I am not feeling especially thankful. Sometimes, the very act of thanking prompts those feelings of gratitude. There is some special magic in that. I don’t have it all figured it out. But I think I’m on the right track.

Here We Go! Surgery Monday.

Tomorrow night or Monday morning, however you think of 3am, I will get up, shower with this weird stinky pink antibacterial soap, leave the house around 4am and arrive at the hospital to have one and a half significant organs removed. 

My life is so weird. 

I remember, recently upon getting this diagnosis, saying to Kevin “Well, it’s never going to be normal again.”  These are true words.  But they are not bad words. 

When I said “normal” what I meant was the idea of waking up in the morning and going through my day without worrying about something major and specific.  Sure, we all worry our child will run into traffic or that argument with a friend won’t get resolved.  But there is this “normal” kind of living that you do when you feel you have control.  You have a general idea of how the day, the week, the month will go.  You confidently plan activities for next summer without wondering if you will be healthy, functional, alive?  You have a sense that all is well, nothing terrible is about to happen.  Life feels pretty predictable. 

When you have cancer, or had cancer that might come back, you live with this sense of dread.  Is it coming back?  Will it be worse?  Can I beat it again?  Cancer is so disruptive and unpredictable.  Do you know how many tests they do?  SO many!  And one wrong number – one field in a huge spreadsheet, can throw everything off.  And every single thing you do (port placement, chemo, surgery, doc appointments) requires so many things to go just so.  And organizing your schedule around it while trying to minimize the impact on everyone around you is just so incredibly difficult and stressful.  Cancer makes life so darned unpredictable. 

But the truth is that none of our lives are predictable and the control we think we have, well, a lot of it is an illusion.  Cancer (and other hardships) just pull back the curtain a little bit. 

I just heard from a friend that her good friend’s husband passed away very suddenly from a heart attack.  No warning.  He leaves behind a stricken wife and a handful of stunned children.  It sounds like no one saw this coming.  Getting the rug pulled out from under you.  It feels so unfair and so wrong.  We turn away from God entirely, or, toward God in rage, in total despair.  

How. Could. You?  
Why us?  Why this?  Why now?  We rattle off our good deeds and offer them up feebly.  Wasn’t this enough?  What did we do to deserve this?  Is it because of that terrible thought I had?  That argument I didn’t resolve?  Was I not grateful enough?  Selfless enough?  I didn’t pray enough, did I?

But God is not much of a transactional God.  There was one significant transaction to wipe out the rest.  We sin.  Jesus went to the cross to wipe out all of those sins for those who believe.  They are gone.  Erased.  You don’t have to pay for them again.  Scripture makes this clear.  God does not punish us for a debt that has already been paid in full.  He is not up there in the clouds doling out punishments to smugly teach us lessons.  God is not mean. 

So, what is He up to?  Well, I wish I could explain it in a way that made everyone feel better but I can’t. I have a few things to share that might help a few people a little bit. 

Grief is real and big and purposeful.  One must walk through grief.  There is something about grief that changes us, makes us deeper and realer and more whole, eventually.  Even though it feels as though your very heart and humanity have been forcibly taken from you.  But grief is functional, and it must be experienced.  No shortcuts.  I believe this may be part of why there are not easy answers.  We simply must  move forward through the very human experience of grief.  It equips us.  Strengthens us.  Makes us softer, wholer and better somehow. 

No way over, under or around.  Just…through.  However, there are some things to consider as one walks through grief, that I believe are useful.

We don’t know what God is up to in the short term.  We just don’t.  Romans says “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  THEN (emphasis mine) you will be able to test and approve God’s will.  His good, pleasing and perfect will.”  Ok, so what this means, I think, is that once we ditch our worldly ways of thinking and doing, we are much better at seeing what God is up to.  But most of us are a long way off – still early on that journey of getting our minds renewed.  But.  If you really want to understand what God is up to, focus on Him and His ways.  Seek to understand His character and how He moves.  If you’re watching trashy reality shows and reading crappy romance novels and you’ve let yourself get brainwashed into expecting certain kinds of neatly wrapped up happy endings, you’re on the wrong track.  I love movies and books and all kinds of entertainment – I just have to make sure I don’t let those fairy tales strongly guide my expectations and how I think life works.  In the Hallmark movie, they always get together in the end, the kid gets rescued and they find a cure before it’s too late.  Not so, at least not always, with life.  In the meantime, while still fledglings at the whole figuring out God’s will thing, we simply have to trust Him.  I pray each night that I could somehow “Trust Him more each day.”

One path to trusting God more is thankfulness.  Grief and gratitude (for the grieving) or fear and gratitude (for the worried) seem like unlikely neighbors.  But they can be.  I can tell you with deep confidence that finding something to be grateful for, even the smallest thing to start with, changes your mindset.  Gratitude begets more gratitude.  It is easier to trust God when we intentionally reflect on all of the blessings we have received.  It seems weird, but I have worked myself into a near gleeful frenzy when I’ve started thanking God for everything I could think of.  Sometimes it happens differently.  For example, I love receiving thoughtful gifts, especially unexpected ones.  When I come home to a box or two on my doorstep addressed to me, and I tear through them to find fun Wonder Woman accessories or soothing spa products or a gift card somewhere fancy I’d never buy for myself, even if I’m worried about test results or feeling discouraged, those gifts can just lift me out of my funk and remind me of how much I’m loved and how God cares for me through other people and how thoughtful and generous people can be, how fun can burst out of nowhere, and how incredible and wonderful my life is, and all of a sudden this Stage 4 cancer patient feels on top of the world.  Because I feel thankful.  Gratitude lifts us up, toward God.   

God is in it for the long game.  What happens short term is PART of the bigger picture, but you may not see or understand how it all fits in.  Scripture clearly tells us that He works ALL THINGS for OUR GOOD if we love Him.  I’ve seen some of that.  There are incredible examples of God using evil for good.  Tim Keller says that God gives Satan (and us, our bad choices, etc) just enough rope to hang himself with.  I love that.  Think of Job.  All was taken from him.  He wrestled with it, debated with his friends, argued, even with God Himself.  God never gives Job the WHY but he does restore him and bless him.  This story has impacted millions of people for thousands of years.  Many a sufferer has gone to that Old Testament book in a desperate state of grief, anger or despair and said “OK, help me.” 

Imagine if my story, of struggling with cancer, made it into the volumes of history because I had a willingness to trust God and not a need to know why.  What if people, years from now, after the zombie apocalypse, went to this blog to read about how Jessi Marsh of ye old Monroeville, handled her suffering?  They probably won’t, and that’s ok – I don’t aspire to be Job.  I’d rather be known for doing something cool like inventing a teacup pig that would actually stay tiny so you could carry a wee little pig around with you wherever you go and let him out to run around the coffee table and teach him little tricks!  Heeeheeeee!  Or, you know, like, ending homelessness, than being known for suffering well (wouldn’t we all??)  But our stories, how we suffer, are important.  I hope to be authentic, to share my moments of doubt and fear (had a BIG one last week when an EKG came back abnormal.)  And share my sincere, honest hope in Christ.  My belief that God is WAY bigger than all of this but personal enough to look at me with love and care when I hurt and when I’m scared.  He reminds me that there are major challenges ahead, scary moments, physical pain, uncertainty, sadness, loss and strife.  But it’s my path, for my adventure.  And he is the activities director, the captain of the boat, the pilot of the plane, my doctor, my lawyer, my Sherpa, my advisor, my battle strategist and my friend. 

I love in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which Cass and I are currently reading, when the children ask the beaver if Aslan, the lion is safe.  The beaver says,  “‘Course he’s not safe.  But he is good.”

That’s God.  Not necessarily safe.  But definitely good. 

So, that’s how I’m approaching this surgery.  It’s an adventure.  I hope it all goes very smoothly but it might not – but I will make every effort to approach any bumps in the road with the mindset that God is always good.  He loves me more than I could dream, and He’s got an incredible story in mind for me that is slowly being revealed.