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Chronic Adventuress with a Chronic Illness

Yeah, I guess it’s time for me to face the facts: I’m going to be a sickie for the rest of my life. Believe me, even if I try to forget about it, there’s always someone there to remind me that I could be just as easily knocking on death’s door as I could be hiking mountains and enjoying life. Whoa, wait, did I just say enjoying life? With a chronic illness? Yes, truth of truths is that no matter what stage IV cancer has taken away from me, there’s still more that it hasn’t taken away from me. The number one thing I still have is my happiness. We’re talking real, deep happiness, not the material kind that a lot of people try to substitute for the genuine product. In fact, I find that more than ever, little things make me smile. A lot of things make me smile. And they make me smile a lot! Understand?

Since I was diagnosed in 2019, I’ve tossed around ways to help others who are struggling with illness. I touched on being “the new face of surviving cancer,” and wrote the story of my first year with the disease. (It’s in a drawer now, unpublished!) I’ve ridden the “Who am I now?” wave the whole time. After a recurrence soured my survival skills for a few months, I’m back in a comfortable place full of hope and future plans and feeling like I have something to offer others living with chronic illnesses.

Before I start sharing my thoughts, let me first clarify a few things. Most importantly, my chronic illness is lung cancer, which, if I had it ten years ago, would have undoubtedly killed me. I am extremely fortunate that my illness can be controlled with medication. This likely sounds far fetched, but it really isn’t. Read here for more information about how we can now treat some individuals with lung cancer. Also, my disease has nothing to do with smoking, so before you think that I somehow “asked for” this, read here about how many people who get lung cancer now have never smoked. With that out there, let me just say one more thing…

I recently Google’d some general keywords to be sure that I wasn’t stepping on anyone’s toes by calling myself the Chronic Adventuress with a Chronic Illness, and was disgruntled to find out that there are a heck of a lot of “experts” out there writing about living with a chronic illness who don’t have a chronic illness. That decided it. I have the first hand experience to back it up. And, I can honestly say that I’ve had to change my lifestyle very little since my diagnosis, thanks to steps that I have taken to preserve my well being. I’ve intentionally peppered this post with photos of me winning at the game of life. All of them were taken post diagnosis.

Without further ado, here are my six suggestions:

1) Get the best medical care possible

2) Seek no sympathy

3) Find new ways to do what you love

4) Find new things to love

5) Surround yourself with positivity

6) Don’t let your illness define you

I planned to talk about all six points in this post, but I know the limits of the human attention span circa 2021. Having the opinion that these are all crucial (and we are, after all, talking about life, and living it as happily as possible,) I think they all deserve to be fleshed out, and I will give them all their due, even if I have to write several different posts! So for now, let me talk a little more about #1, GET THE BEST MEDICAL CARE POSSIBLE.

The best medical care possible? A no brainer, right? If I thought it was a no brainer I wouldn’t even mention it. Getting the best care possible is not a matter of insurance or money or location. It is a matter of choice, plain and simple. While I’m extremely fortunate to live within driving distance of some of the best medical facilities on the planet, don’t think for one minute that patients don’t travel great distances across states, countries, and oceans to get here. And don’t think for the next minute that there aren’t people who have access to the same care that don’t seek it, because there are. I urge everyone I talk to who has a serious illness to research the best, and get it any way they can. The more serious your illness, the more likely you are to need something beyond your local hospital. Don’t waste precious time getting what you need and deserve!

I’ve now exhausted your attention span!

I promise to get back to this discussion soon. Until then, adventure on!

I’m Writing Another Book!

Well, what the heck do you know…I’m finally writing another book! Yay, me!!

My last (and seventh) book was published more than two years ago now. Since then, my life has changed so much and I’ve had so many other things to think about that my writing career pretty much went to the birds. You might say that fighting cancer with all ten fingers was more important than any book that I could write, but not doing something that I love so much has left a big hole in my existence. I’ve been lucky enough to slowly put my favorite pastimes back on track. But finding the right manuscript to delve into was tougher than I thought. I wouldn’t quite call the possibilities “endless,” but I had a few irons in the fire to choose from.

Questions to self:

Do I continue my rock and roll groupie series? Do I continue my “Women Like Us” series? I wrote both under the pen name Brenda K. Stone and really didn’t want to go back to that, so I turned them both down, as much as I loved putting them out to the world.

Do I edit the romance that I finished shortly before my diagnosis? I pulled it out of “the drawer,” read it, loved it, got really excited about it. But I’m here to tell you that being excited about something and following through on a hell of a lot of work are two very different things! I simply lost interest, and back in “the drawer” it went!

Do I edit the true story of my cancer journey, plucked from journals that I wrote freehand in those cloudy days when I was just getting my sea legs to get me through a really frightening experience? To do so would be to relive and relive and relive something I was already beyond. I published a shorter version with an online magazine and kept searching for what I was looking for.

Before “all this” happened I had decided to focus on nonfiction, and started a little thing called “How to Road Trip.” That didn’t do it for me either; who needs to know how to road trip during a pandemic? And after a pandemic, everyone and their cousin will be writing a tome about how to road trip, so back in “the drawer” that went too.

And then, something popped into my head. A real “Oh Yeah!!” moment.

A few months before my life imploded I had written an outline for a a book I dreamed of penning. A small book, short on pages but long on meaning. Something that everyone could relate to; a story of love, loss, adventure and, you know, all that’s good and bad in the world. Well, I found it and I thought it out and I kicked it around, and I decided that it was The One. Rather than just tell you about it, allow me to interview myself (since no one else wants to interview me!)

INTERVIEWER: Does your book have a working title?

BARB LEE: Thanks for asking! Yes, it does. I first called it “A Thousand Winds That Blow,” but have decided to cut it down to simply “A Thousand Winds.”

INTERVIEWER: Wow, great name. Where did it come from?

BARB LEE: Thanks, I thought so too, and I’m glad you asked. The title comes from a beautiful poem called “Do Not Weep” that I discovered when my beloved mom passed. We used it on her prayer cards. I wanted something with very deep meaning for the title of the book and started thinking about lines in that poem, deciding on that one.

INTERVIEWER: Great reason. Now, what is the book about?

BARB LEE: I thought you would never ask! I’ve always thought how amazing it would have been to be alive in the 60s, to go to Woodstock, to participate in the March on Washington, to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement, and many other historic events. So I decided to create a character who did all those things and everything else I’ve ever dreamed of doing. But now she’s dying and she has a granddaughter that she’s at odds with that doesn’t know any of it, and she wants her to know it all. I think the book has an important statement to make about age and life experience, and how society devalues individuals as they get older, even though these people have done such incredible things.

INTERVIEWER: Wow, that sounds pretty incredible. When will it be done?

BARB LEE: When it’s done! I’m not writing on deadlines or worried about word count. Just going to enjoy the experience and the research that comes with it.

INTERVIEWER: Do you at least have a teaser?

BARB LEE: Can do! Below is the prologue in the perspective of Janis, who has just been diagnosed with ALS, a.k.a, Lou Gehrig’s Disease:

The way you look at me hurts. The message in your eyes speaks volumes: You’re old. Therefore, you’re worthless.

            You have no idea.

            Do you think your generation invented sex? Drugs? Rock and roll? You, with your Facebook and Instagram and TikTok? You, that can’t show your face without a “filter?” Because one of your “friends” might see your soul? So you cover it up with whiskers or a pig nose, and think that you have the world in the palm of your hand?

            Do you know what it’s like to truly be loved? By the same man, for forty-eight years? Could you find joy in a sandbox? Or playing house in the woods, where the rocks are your toaster, the trees your shower stall? Have you ever had to disappear into that same forest to escape a man that would hurt his own daughter to satisfy his sick fantasies?

            Coachella is a meaningless spot on the map to me, yet your biggest accomplishment. But were you marching in Selma, Alabama in 1965? Were you in the crowd for the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC, 1963? Did you see the Beatles land at JFK on February 7, 1964, after hitching a ride from California? Not looking so smug now, I see.

            But there’s more. Much more. The life I’ve led even overwhelms me, to the point I have to leave it in the past sometimes and keep moving forward.

            You don’t know any of it. All you know is that seven years ago you found out that I’m really your grandmother, and who your parents really were. You haven’t spoken to me since.

            I guess you’ll never know where your grandmother has been.

Because you hate me. And I’m dying.

INTERVIEWER: Powerful stuff! Is there somewhere where I can read more?

BARB LEE: Yes! Click here, or go to my In Progress tab. And thanks for your interest!

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Utah Reunion

My post theme was 80s rock lyrics!

Anyone who knows me well knows that Southern Utah is my favorite place on Earth. And I’ve been to a lot of places on Earth. But if you look back on the past two years of my posts, you’ll find out there was a time when it sure looked as though I would never see my beloved land again. Well, guess what? Life is a funny thing, plays strange games with you. Just last week I had a reunion with my true love, and my trip exceeded all expectations.

Partition Arch, Arches National Park, the Devil’s Garden

I’m currently more than a year and a half into my journey with metastatic lung cancer. This is not the hiking trail I ever wanted to take, but I have to say that in some ways I wouldn’t change it. Yeah, I know, you think I’m lying. That’s because you’re there and I’m here, and until you’re here, you wouldn’t know. In a lot of ways I like myself better as a survivor of a disease that most don’t make it through. But I’m not here to talk about that. Perhaps that will be my NEXT blog. Today, I’m going to talk about my return to travel.

Ta-Daaa!! Selfie at Glen Canyon

Listen, I’ve done my time with COVID19. I’m fully vaccinated, don’t cause trouble in Walmart by being a mask rebel, stayed out of pubic places when I was supposed to. With things starting to look up, I chose to follow through on a date that loomed on the calendar as one of hope. COVID19 was not my only roadblock. Cancer was, too. A lot has happened since more of the shitty Big C was discovered in December 2020. I’m back in fighting shape. BUT…

En Route to Chesler Park, Canyonlands

I saw my oncology team a few days before I left, and voiced concern about my ability to do what I wanted to do in the southeastern corner of my beloved state. Just didn’t think that my endurance was what it should be. I was assured that medically and physically, I should be able to pull off what I set out to do. But I was full of doubt and asking myself questions that threatened to crush me: Can you still do what you used to? What you love to do? Or are you just pretending? Trying to put a happy face on a devastating situation? Let me tell you something, friends: your mind can really “F” you up. In fact, I thought about canceling the trip the morning of, as I had a full blown panic attack that lasted right up until I got to the airport. Then, this crazy calm swept over me.

Top of the world, Arches National Park

Similar things happened to me after my initial diagnosis in late 2019. The country-hopping woman that I once was dissolved into the meltdown queen of the grocery store. I had to work on me a lot to get myself back in the swing of a life that I thought was over, had to learn to walk through the valley of Those Who Don’t Have Cancer as one of Those Who Do Have Cancer. Had to swallow the bitter pill of never being able to live life without this curse after my hope of being cured was dashed in December 2020, between my 54th birthday and Christmas. None of that mattered as I moved smoothly through the airport and blended in with the crowd. Even less when I emerged from the dreaded 737-Max 8 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the American West miraculously reached. And yeah, I know there are quicker ways to get to Southern Utah than from Albuquerque. But I LIKE the drive from there.

Hite Overlook, Glen Canyon. Lunch view!

The crazy thing about my treatment is that if I didn’t tell someone I have cancer, they wouldn’t know. At one time I told a lot of people. I no longer bother, because it doesn’t really change anyone’s attitude toward me, for better or for worse. I guess at one time I’d hoped that if I told someone they might have some real respect for me, but I’ve learned that for the most part, no one cares what I’ve survived. I didn’t tell a soul in the entire huge American West that I have an illness that is going to kill me whether I like it or not. It didn’t matter anyway. Because I was headed to Utah. Nothing matters when I’m heading to Utah. Even less when I’m actually there.

Yeah.

After my emotional reunion at the state line, I motored on to Moab, first discovered with my beloved Mom in 1995, and the center of my traveling world, just like she was. Mom was taken away from me in 2004, but Moab was not. I settled into a cozy room and had to decide if I was going to move forward as me again, or if I was going to crash and burn and go home with my tail between my legs.

Beneath Morning Glory Bridge, Grandstaff Trail

I usually have more time to work with. When I go during the summer I can do some short hikes in between long hauls, pick and choose carefully, move stuff around, and get maximum mileage. Not this time. This was April school vacation week. Time was tight. Before I even arrived I changed my original plans, thinking the treks I relished weren’t in my reach. However, I stuck with an all-new hike on my first day out, the Grandstaff Trail to Morning Glory Bridge, a moderate offering with a lot of stream crossings and a massive natural bridge at the end. Unsure of myself, I swallowed my fears and started slow. Paced myself, something I never really had to do before. One foot in front of the other, pour water down my throat, have a snack if necessary. It worked. I felt okay. My energy level was normal enough. I wasn’t dragging along or huffing and puffing. I was also at much higher elevations than anywhere in the East, so that was a good challenge too. Grandstaff went great. So I put the original plan back on the table!

Back Home!

Back in 2013 when I first had the crazy idea to hike all the national parks in the United States I knocked off all five Utah parks in one trip. I’d been thinking about repeating the Devil’s Garden at Arches, and had it on my list, remembering the vast array of spectacular scenery along the way. This time I wanted to do the loop, instead of the out and back I did in ’13. The primitive loop. What the heck does that mean? Well, let me tell you, I found out! It meant exactly what the sign said:

No lies here!

I could have turned back. But I didn’t turn back. This was my proving ground, and the hike turned out to be nine of the most challenging miles I’ve ever done! Think scaling twenty foot rocks, neck-breaking drop offs, hiking in soft sand. Oh, and at least ten incredible arches along the way! I’m not sorry that I did it, even though I didn’t feel like getting up early enough to do the eleven miler that I planned to do the next day. No worries, I cut it down to six and got a crazy workout anyway! And still had a bit of energy in reserve for Glen Canyon on the last day of my reunion!

Good-bye, My Love. Until Next Time…

Then there I was, back at the sign. The scene is always so different in reverse, when Utah is in my rear view mirror. But as always, I swore that I’ll be back. Lord willing, I will be back!

Until then, I have more adventures, more reunions up my sleeve, and I’ll continue to live by one of my favorite sayings ever:

Rebirth!

Don’t you love spring? I certainly do, always have. This year, I got an extra special present two days after the beginning of my second favorite season: I’m in remission again. Thanks to the latest offering for metastatic lung cancer from Big Pharma, my scans from March 22nd look very promising. Promising in what way? For cure? Being done with treatment? What? Let’s just leave it as promising and hope for the best.

I didn’t post every step of my journey on Facebook this time. Not because my friends and followers are sick of it, but because, frankly, I am. And I matter for something besides cancer, even though I kinda sometimes feel that I really don’t matter that much because of cancer. Oh, don’t be that way, you say. Be a warrior! You got this! Kick cancer’s ass! And I say, I hope you never have to know what it’s really like to have this monster lurking inside you, and find out how all of that typical language starts to turn your stomach. That’s why I chose not to shout it from the treetops. Instead, I’m standing somewhat firmly on the ground with a pleased smile and hoping it lasts a long time.

Yeah, I know everyone “means well.” And I really do appreciate it. But sometimes I realize that people really don’t THINK about what they’re saying to me. Their fingers just fly over the keyboard of their iPhones because, well, they have to say something to show support in five words or less. My advice: Just press the heart, folks. Just press the heart, instead of breaking the heart.

I am suddenly reborn hand in hand with the entire Northern Hemisphere and can move toward the future with a little more of a stride in my step after a few months of stomach churning uncertainty. Soon I’ll be fully vaccinated and will start to travel again. Plans are made, other plans are in the works. Life feels good again, though as the old saying goes, “It’s always something.” Always something to rain on a parade already drenched with “somethings.” A precious fur baby crosses the Rainbow Bridge, a long time friendship is at odds. Sure seems wrong that I have to deal with all this and cancer too. WTF.

Before all this happened I was living my best life, yet always counting my blessings. Stopping long enough to realize how lucky I am? Yes, indeed. Never so busy that I couldn’t do that. Now I’ve arrived back at that after hours and days of gloom and doom, of wondering how life could go one way for so long then make an abrupt u-turn and continue on to the point of no return. Well, I just never made it to that pinnacle, made another abrupt u-turn, and here I am, so close to having the opportunity to live my best life again after surviving what kills big strong people continuously. A lucky girl? Oh, you can’t even imagine. What did I ever do to be able to tell this particular story and not lie? No idea. This may sound like another lie, but in many ways I wouldn’t have it any other way. When the going is good, like it is now, I am content to be an odds beater. Nothing quite like it. Tom Brady has seven rings. I have life. Beat that.

I’ve had the good fortune of having some incredible people always at the ready to pick me up before I get too far down. They more than make up for the few that should be there but aren’t for one selfish reason or another. It’s okay, you can’t win them all. If someone can’t be there when I’m flying high, when I’m down in the dirt, and when I’m somewhere in between trying to find firm ground, then they need not be there at all. And I know how to return the favor. It ain’t all about me. I get that. Relationships are give and take. How many times have we heard that but still insist on having one-sided affairs? I’m in a secure place with some pretty special people all around. Imagine the irony of thinking that after all the building I’ve done, cancer would knock out one block and the whole wall would collapse. Not the case, I say with a shiver of warmth. The foundation is pretty sturdy.

Shortly before I set out on this journey that would culminate in perhaps my biggest learning experience yet (survival), I was right where I wanted to be. Maybe that was a dangerous thought. But, to heck with it. I hereby announce myself there again.

Born again.

Happy Spring!

Finding A Middle Ground

Hey, did you notice that I changed my site identity from “The New Face of Surviving Cancer” to “Write. Hike. Survive. Thrive?” Yeah, I guess I’ve decided that I don’t want to be the former and would rather concentrate on the latter. Make no mistake, I am not ashamed of who I am now, with cancer survival on top of everything else I’ve managed to accomplish in my life, but the last couple of months have been pretty tough on me and I find myself desperately needing to find a middle ground. I cannot be all cancer all the time.

When you join a clinical trial, (another thing I never wanted to do but have to do if I want to live) you’re kind of at the mercy of the drug company, or “sponsor,” as they so poetically refer to themselves as, and that has been the story of my life for the past five weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful that it appears that I’m making progress. And what the heck else is there to do while we’re all trying to figure out whether COVID19 is coming or going! But I’d still rather be left alone to live my life. Only, that’s the whole point. If I’m left alone to live my life I’ll die. Understand now?

I started out a year and a half ago with this big plan to ditch the fiction writing career I had craved since I was a teenager to focus on nonfiction books and blogging. Hiking and traveling would be my favored subjects. Then cancer came a calling, and I decided that I’d roll with it. I’d start speaking at libraries and other local public places about being a cancer survivor and turn it into a full time gig. COVID19 blew that to smithereens. But I continued to work on a book about my journey, which I finished at the end of 2020. After taking a break from the writing to let it settle for a couple of months, I opened it back up this weekend, read six pages and said, I cannot continue to relive this nightmare.

So guess what I did? I opened one of my “writing drawers” and allowed it to swallow up my “cancer book.” Meanwhile, a fictitious tale of a pretty girl and a football player jumped out. It was one of three other full manuscripts I have hanging around, waiting for the attention I never thought I would give them. But guess what? Fiction is sounding like a hell of a lot of fun again. A hell of a lot more fun than I’ve been having lately. Truthfully, I don’t think it’s a really hot time to be writing books about the hiking and traveling that most of us have not been able to do much of in over a year. And I so want to continue writing books. What can I say? I love writing books. Fiction may be the key again. But I also love blogging. Who ever said I can’t do both? Me. It seems that now and forever, I’ve always been my own worst enemy.

Especially over the past several weeks. My mood has been dreary, at best. My beefs, not necessarily in this order: I have this flippin’ disease. It’s snowing and cold and windy in New England. I’m going up and back to Boston in the worst of it and getting stuck with needles and tested to high heaven to keep me from going to high heaven. Even if I could travel I can’t travel because of a global pandemic. Then my fingers start doing the walking to search out the very worst information I can possibly wrap my mind around about Stage IV lung cancer and yeah, then I’m in the hole big time.

Jeez, enough is enough.

Here’s what I realized the other day. Who is telling me I’m not going to be alive to see the end of the pandemic? Me. Who is telling me that I’m not worth anything now that I have cancer? Me. Who is telling me that I’m never going to travel again? Me. Yeah, I’m the culprit. To repeat: my own worst enemy.

Back to finding the middle ground and the search for some firm footing.

I’ve never been one to live one day at a time. No, more like a whole lifetime in a day with my eye on an even better future. Maybe I get one day at a time now. Still, I need to have plans. I’ve decided it’s safe to look into the near future. And I’m not spending all my retirement money to “live like I’m dying” because I know how that goes. Anyway, I’ve spent the last decade living like I was dying. Yeah, really. Things were pretty good there for some time. Can they be again, in spite of everything? I have to believe they can. But I can’t be too sure of it, because I don’t want to be devastated again. I am moving forward with caution, and with the knowledge that I will still screw up and wind up in the hole again.

But hey…It’s spring. My treatment appears to be going in the right direction. Southern Utah is on the April horizon. I’m thinking about summer road trips. And oh yeah, that book…

I can do this!!!

If This is the End

Maybe you picked up from my last post that my cancer is back, and with a vengeance. Well, it may be more accurate to say that it never really left. Stage IV disease kind of hangs around and wreaks more havoc just when you think that maybe you’ll be the lucky one and it won’t return.

Truth is, I kind of am a lucky one (in an unlucky situation) because I have some magic dust in my tumors that allows me to kill my cancer with a pill, at least until the pill doesn’t work anymore. Which means that if I didn’t tell you I had cancer you’d never know. I plod on and silently battle the killer. Some people go on for years this way. Me, a year and a half, and I just started on med number two after the first one gave out late in the nutty year of 2020. So far, so good, but this is not so different than walking a tight rope. You really don’t know when you’re going to topple off and not have a net to catch you. So you just say your prayers and hope for the best. Look forward, not down.

I’m in better shape than I was when I wrote that last post. The new damage is known and the new treatment has started to tackle it. But I’m having a damn hard time having to go back to where I was a year ago. Starting from scratch is really harrowing, because I was doing so well after round one. Still, the desire to get back to where I was before all this happened drives me on.

Will I get there? Maybe the answer isn’t as important as the fact that I was there once upon a time. When this all went down I had been living my best life for many years. Working hard, traveling hard, laughing hard, hiking hard. I didn’t have any money, because I spent most of it. I didn’t care. Still don’t. It was worth every penny. I visited forty countries, fifty states, forty-plus national parks in the United States, and several in other countries.

I confess to being a country hopper. See a place for a week, be the dreaded “tourist,” and come home to earn money for another week somewhere else in the world, on the next school vacation. Right now, someone out there is waving a finger at me and telling me that I can’t “know” someplace when I only get a little taste of it like I did of a million places. Imagine, spending your life telling someone else what they did wrong.

I confess too, to being a day hiker. Doing a great trail and sleeping in a hotel room after a nice shower while my fellow trekkers insist that hiking isn’t “real” if you don’t sleep in a tent under the stars. Funny, how we have to compete over such nonsense. The way I look at it, if I spend five days someplace really great and it’s the best damn five days of my life, then I add and multiply that several times, pretty soon I have something to reckon with: a life well spent.

I don’t want it to be over, but if this is the end, I’ve had a hell of a run. None of this magic was supposed to happen to the daughter of a janitor. This life that I’ve led was probably meant for someone else and I just happened to show up. Really? No, I lie. I busted my ass for all of it but never got any credit for it from any number of people. Always, I was doing something wrong and inconveniencing them in some way. No, I don’t want to look at your 17,500 pictures of red rocks. No, I don’t want to read your books. No, I don’t want to date you. No, you’re over the top. Stop dressing like that. Stop being so honest and in my face. And now, cancer survivor? You’re TOO MUCH, lady.

I’ve spent my life being rejected by men, by my family, and by people I wanted as my friends. The life I built was the life that accepted me as I was (and am.) Moving quickly enabled me to leave behind what and who I couldn’t have, no matter how hard I tried. I found my happy place. The world, my friends, is my oyster.

Someone out there is saying, she was running away from what she couldn’t have! Or maybe, running to what I could have? I like that better. What I could have was better. In the end, it always is.

Ehhh, maybe I deserve all this. Worked too hard. Laughed too hard. Traveled too hard. Hiked too hard. Guess what? I wouldn’t change a thing. And in my heart of hearts, my soul of souls, and my mind of minds, it ain’t over for me yet. I think I still have some fun left in me. Some miles and some words and some laughs and some thrills.

To anyone who has ever questioned exactly what I’m made of: Now you know. I will not lie down. I will not go quietly.

Surprise! I may have lost value to some the day I got cancer, but I still love life. So there.

My Sweet America

Hiking at Shenandoah National Park, Summer 2020. First national park hike after diagnosis.

I’d like to say Happy New Year and mean it.

I can’t, for a lot of different reasons, the least of which is that I have more cancer.

The least? Yes, really, that’s the way I feel. Like it’s low priority right now, maybe because I’ll be on a new medication soon that is probably going to work.

Yawn.

Huh?

Here’s what’s really bugging me: The state of our nation, the condition my sweet America is in right now. Yes, I’m taking this recent carnage in Washington, DC, personally. And the destruction caused by COVID19, too. Because me and America have a very intimate relationship, and now that I have a serious illness, there’s always that uncomfortable fact that my time is running out. I want to renew that love and I can’t, because of this devastating virus that so many aren’t taking seriously, and because, well, there’s some scary folks out there!

I am truly appalled at the latest news out of our nation’s capital. I was there years back after a nasty break up. One day, I did a ten mile loop that included many of the finest monuments. Another day, I took in the Capitol and the White House. The beautiful city held me in its noble arms as I sobbed and pined for long hoped-for love lost and took my mind off my many shortcomings. I want it there to go back to, for everyone to enjoy.

Our nation’s capitol, the way it should look

My love for America was not born out of flag waving and fist clenching, nor does it manifest itself as such. My relationship with her was nurtured by gripping her asphalt with four tires for thousands of miles, pounding her soil with hiking boots, and reveling in her natural mysteries that are slowly being dismantled. I’m very angry that narrow-minded, brainwashed individuals are carving messages in her sacred trees and believing that violence is the way to get what they want.

I’ve figured something out: these individuals will sacrifice treasured relationships to follow a man that could care less about them and will throw them under a moving bus the first chance he gets.

At Lassen Volcanic National Park, 2015

I’m not someone that seeks conflict. In fact, for the past four years I’ve stifled my opinion around certain friends and family to avoid just that. Four years? That’s a long time to keep quiet! Especially when these same friends and family are free as the proverbial bird to throw their views around whether anyone wants to hear them or not. But me? I have to bristle and keep my mouth shut so as not to incite them.

Well, guess what? I don’t care about that anymore. So here’s what I did.

Recently, I put three such relationships to the test by stating my opinion once. The data that follows from my experiment is not an exaggeration.

Relationship One: Ended in silence so deep that it lasted through my birthday, Christmas, New Years, and the bad news about my health, and is still going strong.

Relationship Two: Ended with “Have a nice life.” (Ironic, ya think?)

Relationship Three: Ended with a conspiracy theory and a claim that the deaths of 350,000 victims of COVID19 would have died of something else anyway.

To be fair, there was a fourth relationship involved that actually stood the test of my wrath. So there are some real human beings out there in nowhere land.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I just don’t know where we go from here. Unite under the new President? I wish we could. But the chance of that has been ruined by a bully that can’t lose or play fair. Some people have to screw things up for everyone if they don’t get their way. I have a lot more hope that I’ll keep winning against cancer than I do that My Sweet America will heal sometime soon.

Watkins Glen State park, New York

I came across a perfect quote today, courtesy of Isaac Asimov: “When stupidity is considered patriotism, it is unsafe to be intelligent.”

Nevertheless, I’m dreaming of those four wheels on the payment. My soles in the soil. No mask on my face. And cancer not getting the best of me. That’s enough to ask for already, without hoping that others wake up, pay attention to what they’re doing, and seek a voice of reason instead of the battle cry of a madman.

There’s no pride in destruction, in acting on a lie bigger than any we’ve ever known. The world is watching us fall apart. Some are laughing, some are grimacing. But everyone saw it coming. It was the only end to this monotonous tale of greed, falsehood, and insanity.

Look at what we have become in the past four years, and please, let’s get back to the way we used to be before this nightmare happened. We weren’t perfect but let’s face it, anything is better than THIS.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

The Glory of Aging

I hereby promise that this is the last opinion piece I’ll be writing. One of my upcoming New Year’s resolutions is to focus my blog on hiking, traveling, and all the other activities that make me the New Face of Surviving Cancer. So, if you would be so kind to listen one more time, I’ll get on to that stuff soon enough.

Still, this kind of fits, in its own crazy way.

As I reach my fifty-fourth birthday this day, I’m reveling in the glory of aging, because, you see, I really wasn’t supposed to be granted a fifty-fourth birthday. No, at the end of 2019, months before COVID19, I was faced with the very real possibility that I would never see the end of 2020, maybe not even the end of 2019.

For reasons I’ve blathered heartily about (lung cancer…shhhh!) I’m supposed to be, well, um, dead. But here I am, still chipping away at my allotted number of lives (ever been on a burning DC-10? I have) which must be in the triple-digits, (how many times have I been around the world alone?) or I’m just living on borrowed time, as it sometimes seems now.

Man, I’ve had a good life. I have a good life. Even after cancer, and so much loss, and so much heartache, I can still say that. How?

I have nothing left to prove. Oh, I still want to travel the world, and experience true and lasting love, and hike the other thirty national parks that I haven’t done yet, and write a bestselling memoir. But I’ve stopped worrying about many of the things I used to cringe over.

Aging is a biggie. I have a whole new perspective. Getting old, my friends, is a privilege. I’ve always respected the elderly. Now, even more. I want the privilege of being one of them. And I’m going to enjoy every step of the journey until then with my fingers crossed and my upper body in a PET scanner.

You think I care about bikinis? The wisdom of Kylie Jenner? How much cash you have in your wallet? How much your car costs? To me, Coachella is the name of a nowhere town in my beloved Mojave, not a festival where the youthful and stupid compete for social media attention. I don’t envy the young, who will never know what it’s like to be able to trust people they’ve never met, or play in the woods with reckless abandon.

The other night a wonderful friend of mine came to deliver presents, and took a picture of us using a filter, to show me how it worked. I was horrified to see my face look so different. But to some, this is the norm, because it’s easier to look fake than look like you. I can’t even relate.

I love talking to people older than me. Walking in the local cemeteries, I always meet someone with interesting stories to tell. I’d much prefer to hear real life tales told by an authentic person than the overblown fiction of a “sophisticated” twentysomething. In fact, I have every intention of buying property in a 55+ community the second I’m old enough. You couldn’t talk me out of it if you tried. And hey, I’ll be the youngest one there! Beat that!

I don’t want to overstay my welcome. Give me eighty or eighty-five years and I’ll be happy. Very happy. That will give me plenty of time to finish up my earthly business. Anything more than that and I’ll start to be a burden. To some, I’m already a burden. Why be more of one than I already am, right? That should be our real goal: strive to live a full and fruitful life, but check out before we become a liability.

The elderly are often looked upon as just that. The jokes about the old couple driving around in the RV are tacky. They earned their retirement through working for forty years. And you? Wrinkles are looked down upon as if we aren’t all going to get them. Remember, some of those folks saw Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, or fought in Vietnam. How’s that for life experience? Some of them beat cancer in the days when the treatment options were even more archaic than they are today. They traveled and made love and got high and experienced sadness and fear and devastation. They lived through epidemics and pandemics. We didn’t invent that stuff. They had it down pat long before we came along.

As for me, I’ve bought me some time, such a priceless purchase, and hope to keep on buying it, an installment loan like no other. If I get my way, cancer will turn out to be something that touched my life “thirty years ago,” that I’ll look back on with a shake of my head, a lilting sigh, and a wry smile. That I made it through to bask in the privilege of old age. I’m a year into it already! Only twenty-nine to go!

Merry Christmas. See you in 2021!

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What A Teacher Knows

I don’t talk too much about my “real life” as a teacher, but this seems like an appropriate time to do so. I have important information to share, so listen up. As a sixteen year veteran of the classroom, I know a thing or two about what it means to be a bully. These behaviors don’t necessarily go away once the child leaves the playpen, the sandbox, or the classroom. In fact, they may never go away if serious action isn’t taken. Perhaps these behaviors will someday effect hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of people. Isn’t that frightening? And perhaps hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of people will think that this is an acceptable way to act. Even more frightening.

Bullies come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. Someone doesn’t have to be physically big or powerful to be a bully, but sometimes they are. They can have good clothes, or bad. Good hair, or horrid. Some are wealthy, some are poor. A line that comes to mind is from a Billy Joel song: “You can’t dress trash until you spend a lot of money.” Maybe someone said it before Billy. This is not the point of this paragraph. The point is that bullies aren’t always bedraggled; sometimes, they’re rich garbage.

Bullies aren’t always male, but for this post, if I may, I will refer to our bully as “he” for convenience and lack of a better term. Here is more of what a teacher knows about the typical bully:

He pretends to care about his underlings and supporters, but only truly cares about number one.

He ruins things for others, regardless of the cost.

He can’t take “no,” “leave me alone,” or “go away,” for an answer.

He is used to winning everything in life, by hook or by crook, and thus is a sore, sore loser.

He fabricates things in an attempt to get his own way. These fabrications can incite others to run to his side in fear of retaliation, because they know that the bully doesn’t really care how faithful people have been to him. He only likes them until they stop agreeing with him. Once that happens, watch out below. He attempts to ruin lives. Beware, and hope you can somehow survive his wrath.

When pressed for proof, a bully (and those that stick close) often chooses to change the subject. Or he just keeps lying and making people believe him, because he knows the power he has over his underlings.

Rather than admit defeat, a bully will charge ahead and make himself and those cheering him on look like buffoons in place of accepting the truth, thus displaying his many weaknesses.

A bully, most of all, picks on those he perceives as weaker than he. He will resort to name calling, and because he is such a supreme narcissist, he doesn’t know to draw the line if someone has lost a loved one to a devastating fate, or even if a person is sick and dying. The bully doesn’t have limits, because he is uncouth and hasn’t earned anything for himself without lying and cheating others.

Lo and behold, if the perceived “weaker” individual rises up to be the stronger one, a long, dark winter lies ahead.

Be careful not to fall under the spell of the bully. He’ll stop at nothing to get his way.

Ignore him if you can. Nothing hurts him more than that. The bully thrives on negative attention or really, any attention.

Sound familiar?

Thought so.

To Travel or Not to Travel? That is the Question

By the time this reaches the general public, I’ll be on an airplane going to see my niece in South Carolina. Yeah, all things considered, it’s a big decision to fly through the COVID19 storm with a “serious underlying illness,” better known to me as “lung cancer.” It’s also a choice that many people have to make as we kick off this holiday season.

To travel or not to travel? To see loved ones or not see them? Everyone’s answer is different for a variety of reasons.

As I write this I have three trips on the horizon of varying lengths, and I’ll make my choice to sink or swim a week before I go. I never seriously considered cancelling this particular trip, because I deem it a fairly low risk for me. The actual flying time each way is less than three hours. I’ll be in close contact with two other people and three dogs when I arrive. I’ll be there for three and a half days. And I’ll schedule a COVID test for the day after I get back, per the rules of reentering my state.

I’m a little nervous, as I’ve fought so hard to stay healthy. One jerk on an airplane that wants to whine about wearing a mask, and the whole “it’ll be alright” plan goes out the window. With cases skyrocketing, it sure would seem that these people would cease to play games. And yet it isn’t too hard to find still another story of someone who is just too good for a face covering. Someone who has to have some silly little moment of rebellion. Maybe the same guy or gal who is running through a red light or a stop sign to save thirty seconds of their life by putting someone else’s in danger? Please folks, don’t let it be you. In the words of the late, great James Dean (who died in a fiery car crash less than a year later) “The life you’re saving could be mine.”

Want to be a rebel? Jump out of an airplane. Don’t infect everyone in it before you dive.

So, here’s my plan: Stare straight ahead. Mouth and nose covered at all times. Wash hands often. Don’t accept any food or drink from the person walking down the aisle in the polyester uniform. And pray some yahoo doesn’t come along and start a fight like the ones all over YouTube. Don’t hate me if I’m not friendly or if you, midflight, decide that the plane isn’t going to return to the station so you let your mouth hang out and I decide to be a Karen. All I want is to safely see my beloved Amanda and eat turkey and Chinese food and put up her Christmas tree. Let’s all play it cool, okay?

Things are going to get better soon than later. We’ve got this!

Happy Thanksgiving.