An Open Love Letter to Utah

Dear Utah,

I remember clearly when we met: the year was 1995, I was with my beloved mom, and we were driving cross country for the second time. The year before we had cut our teeth with a 9,400 miler that inexplicably, did not include a trip through your glory. Yes, there were many other glories, but maybe not quite like yours. This particular trip had a catch: I had just purchased a little bright pink car that we would leave in Southern California once I found someplace to live there. That was my biggest dream leading up to 1995: living in California, and I lived it for five years. But that’s another story for another day, and it’s a long story, for my love affair with California continues. At times, it even competes for my attentions that I usually reserve for you. Believe me, this is not a slight to you, my love. It just IS.

Well, how do you like that! In writing this letter to speak my appreciation, I realize that I have things a bit wrong. 1995 was not the first time I saw you, it was the first time, perhaps, that I REALLY saw you. Mom and me actually drove up to Zion from Vegas in 1993 and stayed a couple of days. Just a little sneak peek at your well known red rock magnificence, and yes, we were impressed. But as I said, 1995 was the deal sealer. As only a road tripper knows, the power to choose where you go and for how long, to have the time to marvel at the color of the rocks in Glen Canyon and wonder how a strip of I-70 can be more beautiful than seventy-five percent of the rest of Planet Earth, will do it. Love at first sight, and forever love at second. And third. And fourth. And…Whew!!

Records indicate that I didn’t make it back to you until 2008 (how can this be?!) and even then, I only flew into Salt Lake City to drive north into other states. Still, I remember that I was pleasantly surprised by random findings along the way.

Listen, I know what I was doing: I was beginning to explore the world outside of this country, and I was completing the tall task of visiting all 50 states in my domestic travels. I also buried Mom, my best friend and greatest traveling partner (sigh) in 2004, so I was cutting my teeth as a solo traveler and really, just trying to figure out who I was.

And then, a big event took place in 2009: I started hiking. That’s when things started to get serious. Still, the slam dunk didn’t happen until 2013, when I spent two and a half weeks hiking all five National Parks in your awe inspiring southern extremities. Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Arches. While I loved them all (of course!) one emerged as my favorite, and remains thus: Canyonlands. Even as I chip away at hiking ALL the National Parks in the United States, I just can’t keep away from Canyonlands. Doing the same hikes time after time in Canyonlands. Dreaming of Canyonlands. Not enough time in a lifetime to get enough of Canyonlands. Did I mention I love Canyonlands? 😉

For me, the only other place in Utah that comes close to Canyonlands is Glen Canyon. That narrow strip of excitement between Hanksville and Blanding. Yes, that part of Glen Canyon. The Dirty Devil River. Bridge over the Colorado. Hite Overlook. I take the same darn pictures every time. And I don’t care.

Oh, don’t even get me going!

2017, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022. COVID19 was the only thing that stopped me from being there in 2020. Our reunion in 2021 was unbelievable, because you see, I found out I had cancer in the autumn of 2019, and guess where I was a month earlier? And the thought of never seeing you again was unbearable.

Cancer sucks. Needles, scans, bad news, one step forward, two steps back. But as I became a pro at all of it, I realized that I had a pretty great defense mechanism: memory. Because of memory I didn’t have to think of scans when I was having scans. I could think instead of all the amazing places I’ve had the incredible fortune of exploring. And, you guessed it: I spent a heck of a lot of time in Utah when I was lying in some MRI beast two thousand miles away. How can I ever thank you for that?

I can’t. But I’ll try anyway, by giving you my continued patronage for as long as I have left in this life.

See you soon, my love.

No Fake News: A Week with COVID19

Ahhh, what a date with disaster it has been! The one I’ve avoided for over two years. It has lasted all week, but I’m told I got off rather easy (so far), because for some people it just drags on and on and on…

I’ve walked hand in hand with cancer for several months now, have made peace with it in my own way, have learned to live and thrive even as it tries to hold me down. But I avoided “the other one” like the damn plague. Walking the other way, wearing a variety of unfashionable face coverings long after the style had gone out for most, scheduling four brief sessions of preventative acupuncture to try and keep it at bay. But it got me anyway.

Where was it? At graduation downtown, where several hundred folks went maskless indoors? Or the next evening at the Paul McCartney concert, where several thousand went maskless with the Green Giant behind? Maybe it was even at my place of employment, where many children and adults were able to make their own decisions about masking over a month ago, and the lion’s share chose to bid adieu to the pesky virus-catchers.

I kept wearing protection when and where I had to. So it’s tough for me to pinpoint where I stumbled. But stumble I did, and ended up with the dreaded COVID19. The misunderstood COVID19. The fake COVID19? Oh please, folks. If you can somehow still believe this, let me tell you beyond the shadow of a doubt, the global pandemic is not just some charade created to make some guy with orange hair and a mouth that needs to be permanently silenced actually shut it. Don’t put yourself in danger of being unvaccinated and getting sick just to perpetuate that lie. Believe me, a four times vaxxed sickie, I get it now how dangerous this virus really is.

Perhaps I got it because of all the unvaccinated Americans buying into conspiracy theories and other political nonsense drifting around. I’m trying not to be angry that I now have this to sort through in addition to cancer and the sudden death of my dear sister Marie, whose love and support would be much appreciated right now. But let me tell you, it’s damn hard not to think about “what could have been,” had we all not just gotten our shots and achieved herd immunity.

Now, instead of posting hiking pictures of beautiful landscapes, I can post fabulous telltale images of trying to live through another health scare.

I was probably in a pretty good position to get the menace. Not only have I been exhausted and moving at a pace too quickly for a human being with my health background to move (guilty!) I’ve also been under extra stress as well as mourning for Marie. So when I got the sniffles last Friday I took special note and made sure I got a good night of sleep with my fingers crossed that I’d sleep the symptoms away.

No such luck.

Saturday, and I gave myself a home test. From the very beginning I knew that I would get my first positive result. That little line next to the “T” has never come close to rearing its ugly little head at me. But it was loud and clear that day. Now it won’t go away. I was recently told that after infection, someone can test positive for up to ninety days. Yay, more stuff I never wanted to know. As if cancer didn’t already give me lots of unwanted knowledge.

My symptoms never really got worse, because I arrested them before they could, or that’s at least the way I’m thinking of it. I made calls to my medical team in Boston and got on Paxlovid, the latest wonder drug that seeks to stop the virus from becoming life threatening. No ventilators for this girl! Unfortunately, the drug, or perhaps the virus itself, caused some horrible side effects for me that have left me dizzy, unsteady, and exhausted. I’ve spent five days in bed, cursing the New England sunshine and listening to the traffic of those who are blessed enough to still stand up and walk, something that has become a major challenge for me. After combating some serious pain over the past six months, I’m aching again. I had to stop taking Paxlovid because of the side effects, and spend my Tuesday afternoon and evening in the ER to be sure the virus drug wasn’t having a drug interaction with the pill that is killing my cancer. My active life has ground to a halt.

All because of a virus that is supposed to be fake.

Honestly, I don’t know how many times I can “start over,” only to come up against another setback. Please send positive thoughts.

And I never turn down a good prayer.

About Traveling

Hey, this will be my last post for a few weeks. Vacation time is nearly here, and I’m heading back out on the road again. Which makes this the perfect time to write about one of my favorite subjects, for the first time in a while: Traveling!

I always find it so weird when people make it sound like there is some “right” way to travel. That you, as the subject, have to travel in some certain way to be a “traveler” and not a “tourist.” That there is some time frame that you have to spend in a place to make it worth your while and to satisfy others that you successfully “saw” something or somewhere. That one person’s way of traveling is superior to another person’s way of traveling. Last thing I knew, travel was supposed to be fun, like an ice cream sundae, with a learning experience on top, like a shiny red cherry, if you so choose to have one. Then again, maybe a trip is simply an escape from the rat race.

Social media is full of “influencers” who will have you believe that their way of traveling is not only better than yours, but that it’s easy and they’ll show you how to be like them, for a price. You can trot the globe while taking odd jobs like bartending and teaching English as a Second Language. Thanks, I got over working in bars when I was twenty-five, and I teach people’s kids every day and love sending them home at 2:15pm, no questions asked. I like my good paying job with paid vacations. I’d pay to see pictures of those “influencers” doing one of their real jobs in between the glossy shots from the pristine mountain top in New Zealand and the beach in Mexico. I want to see the “influencer” mixing a White Russian and looking picture perfect. Really.

Thank goodness for the unfollow button! I recently had to use it on one of the better known globe trotters that I had been following for a couple of years, because she was being pretty insulting to someone else’s way of life. What the heck happened to live and let live?

The other thought that I don’t agree with is that in order to travel in a worthwhile way you have to go to a foreign country. Make no mistake, I love exploring places outside the United States. I’ve done more than my fair share. But in a pinch, and let’s face it, we’ve been in quite a pinch since March of 2020, I’d take a road trip to the American West above all other traveling. I’ve ticked off forty plus countries thus far and have every intention of ticking off more in my own fashion once I deem it safe for me, but give me that road trip every time. It should come as no surprise that I’m heading to the American West this next trip too! I can’t WAIT!!

Here’s a secret about me that makes me different than the garden variety social media travel giant: I love coming home and I love being home, too. The pandemic gave me an excuse to stick close to home and explore my own backyard more. I always said that “someday” I’d do that more and, well, I didn’t expect cancer and COVID19 to give me the opportunity, but I’ve had a heck of a good time! I’ve always scoured New England in between bigger trips, but not like I have in the past two years. In my favorite movie of all time, Dorothy Gale went to great lengths to find out that her heart was in her own backyard. My heart is still and always will be in the American West, but New England is pretty cool too.

Before my cancer diagnosis I spent the better part of twenty years earning my keep as a special education teacher and traveling on school vacations. Maybe taking an extra day or two on either side to make my time away longer, or even escaping on a long weekend. Now that I haven’t done it for a couple of years I realize that it was exactly the way I wanted to travel. Make my money, pay for a trip, enjoy where I was without having to worry about work, and come home to earn money for more fun. After my diagnosis and through the COVID19 storm I continued my exploration as best as I could. Slowly, I’m getting my travel life back on track, though I’ve decided I want to do things and see places that I didn’t take the time to do and see before. Cruises and islands are of high interest, while twenty hour flights to the other side of the world are not really a priority. Oh, and more road trips, of course! Always more road trips!

In short, the Bucket List is officially made. It was time.

And so, I continue to explore as I see fit, and I am unapologetic.

Travel and let travel.

The Value of Extending Life

Recently, I was dealing with the very real possibility that my beautiful sister Jeanne, who has been battling health issues for more than a decade now, was going to lose the fight. Jeanne is the strongest lady I know, and is one of three people in my family that has had to overcome great odds to continue to draw breath. (My niece Amanda and I are the other two, in case you wondered!) Her struggles brought up a wide array of issues, as any health struggle does, but even more for her because Jeanne is disabled. As her sister, co-guardian, and staunchest supporter, I have to be her loudest voice. I also have to be very tuned into whether she’s getting a fair shake or not. More often than not, I am relieved to report that Jeanne does get a fair shake. I’m even more relieved to report that Jeanne pulled through her ordeal and is steadily working her way back to being herself. But it was oh, so close.

So close, in fact, that talk of DNR (do not resuscitate) orders and extending life beyond Jeanne’s comfort was at a maximum. The conversations got me thinking about the value of life and extending it, something I know a little bit about, considering I’ve been living on borrowed time for two and a half years after my lung cancer diagnosis. In those two plus years I’ve traveled and hiked and continued my teaching career and experienced life as fully as possible while also dealing with my illness and a worldwide pandemic. Are those valuable accomplishments? Is my life worth extending? Is anyone’s life worth extending? How about Jeanne’s? Who’s to decide this?

I’ve never been in the position to “pull the plug” on the life of a loved one. I don’t know what I would do. I’m neither fully for or against life support or abortion, but form an opinion based on specific circumstances. No one was making a value judgement about Jeanne continuing on, but some of the things being said struck me as leaning toward her not being able to regain her former status. Jeanne was a different person for months, with few observable signs of deterioration other than somber mood and exhaustion. Because she’s nonverbal, knowing what is going on inside of her can be a mystery. At one time she would make gestures and other outward indications that she was not well, but this time she didn’t. So a major issue festered until it was nearly too late to help her. Several days went by with her life hanging in the balance, major decisions being made, and opinions being shared. Much of what was being said made me uncomfortable, not to mention hollow and grief stricken. Life without my dearest earthly angel was unfathomable, empty. I didn’t and don’t want Jeanne to suffer. But I also wanted her life to matter, to be sure that it did and does, and for her to be able to continue the fight, if that was what she chose to do.

I spoke to my personal guardian angels and put a message out into this plain of the universe: the real decision belonged to Jeanne. If she wanted to fight, she would fight. And Jeanne wanted to fight.

I never stopped believing in her and the value of her life.

My Hero!!

Jeanne will never be able to do the things I can do. Nor will she invent electric cars or send rockets to Mars. She isn’t going to end racial discrimination or cure cancer. Most of us aren’t either. Jeanne will help with household tasks, listen to oldies on her stereo, get her nails done, go for haircuts and for rides to look at bodies of water. She’ll take part in simple activities but will revel more in the attention she’s getting. Most importantly, she will be cherished by a few dedicated family and staff members that adore her.

When I saw her in the hospital, where she lay for nearly a month, the “old Jeanne” seemed lost forever. She was unresponsive, far away, so often on the brink of leaving us. I feared for her and for us, feared that we would cross the line of making her stay when she wanted to go, of dragging her through yet another ordeal that she had no chance of making it through. But the thought of seeing the “old Jeanne” kept me praying for her safe passage back to life.

Jeanne may never do any of what I wrote above, but damn, she’s a survivor in the most incredible sense, and has offered more miracles than most people walking the planet.

Jeanne made it. Jeanne taught a lot of people a lesson about survival and the human spirit. Jeanne is quickly becoming the “old Jeanne” again. Just the way we love her.

I’m in awe of this woman!!

My sister Marie, Jeanne, and I

Dear Mr. Truck Driver…

See? I got your attention. Now you think that I’m about to give my opinion on the trucker convoys in Canada and the U.S. However, that isn’t the focus of my blog. Instead, I’m going to write about a recent experience I had with a trucker on the the Massachusetts Turnpike, otherwise known as I-90, locally known as “the Pike.” From my house due East, the Pike is a dull stretch of seventy miles of highway to Boston, and where bad behavior is at a maximum.

Before I zero in specifically on my good trucker buddy, let me first reiterate a frequent complaint of mine: Some people just lose their cotton picking minds when they get behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. Where does common sense go? I just don’t get it. It certainly seems that all anger, frustration, and power tripping is released on fellow drivers. Stupidity is at an all-time high. Messing with the lives of others becomes some sick game, all in the name of getting one car length ahead of someone else, or in a preferred lane before someone else does.

Okay, now let me tell the story of my favorite trucker in the world.

On Monday, March 14, 2022, I was heading to Boston for my monthly check-in at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Yeah, you got it. I have cancer. I’m being treated for cancer. I’m not going to Beantown to party, or see the Red Sox, or to an art museum Truth is, I’d rather be working than going to Dana Farber Cancer Institute. I’m going because I have to. If I don’t go I’ll die. I’m tired on said day, and it’s early in the morning. I’m minding my own damn business, going 70 miles per hour in the center lane the way I always do. Other drivers fly by me, getting nowhere faster than me. I know that. They apparently don’t.

I pass a trucker going at a reasonable pace, and take note of it, because I like to see truckers who don’t think they own the road, who don’t think that just because they’re bigger they’re better. This 18-wheeler, from a company that will be named below, was inconspicuous, as all trucks and cars are until they do something off the wall. This one was a few minutes away from doing just that.

Back in the center lane after passing a few vehicles that were going a little slower than me, I settled in. Ten minutes go by, and suddenly Mr. Inconspicuous Trucker is right behind me flashing his lights at me. As a general rule and as a longtime driver with a clean record and hundreds of thousands of miles on all over the United States of America, I don’t allow other drivers, whether they’re bigger than me or not, to decide how fast I go or what lane I drive in. So I don’t budge, which only serves to piss off Mr. Trucker. My line of reasoning is this: There are two more lanes to move into. Use them if you don’t like my driving.

He doesn’t see things my way.

His next move is to start tooting at me and swerving. Then, the worst thing of all: Tailgating. In a tractor trailer truck that can’t stop quickly should I need to put on my brakes for something. But I held my ground, and so did he. I took out my phone and made a video going over my shoulder, showing the lights of this shithead glaring in my rear window, as well as how close he really was to me. Close enough for someone to reach out my back window and touch him.

I get it, you’re saying, just move for him! It’s your own fault for not moving! Here’s where we’re different. It’s against my principles to cater to a moron like this, particularly when I’m not doing anything wrong. And here’s the funny thing: He finally passed me, and then we got tangled up in stop and go traffic. So I had plenty of opportunities to take pictures of the company name and license plates, and Mr. Trucker got nowhere from his dangerous behavior. Just for good measure, he indulged in the ultimate in blameless behavior, and hung his phone out the window to take pictures of me. Imagine!

I eventually lost him, went to Dana Farber, and got all good news. But this experience sat heavily on my mind and still does.

Did I call Goulet Trucking in South Hadley, Massachusetts? Yes, after I read some pretty nasty reviews that indicate that this is a company that really doesn’t care what their truckers are doing. Daryl, the fellow I spoke to, didn’t seem too interested in me, but I asked him to tell my trucker friend some of the items I’ve already expressed above: I was going to Dana Farber. I have cancer. I was going for treatment. If I don’t go I’ll die. This already sucks enough. Why did he have to make the experience even suckier?

You never know who you’re messing with, what they’re dealing with, and how you’re making them feel.

I did the only thing I could. But I know that it won’t do a lick of good. Mr. Trucker will go out and terrorize someone else. Then someone else after that.

This experience brings up a point that surfaces more and more often now: When we’re blatantly mistreated, who can we really turn to if a clear crime has not been committed?

And the bigger question: Can we all just act like decent human beings instead of total brainless careless asshats?

Who’s to Blame?

I feel like I’ve covered this subject in at least one other blog, but it’s worth discussing again.

The subject? Blame.

Whenever I turn around I hear someone else trying to get out of taking blame for anything, even the smallest mishap. As a teacher, this happens countless times per day, and it isn’t always my students denying wrong doing. I’m sorry hasn’t gone down with a fight, it died a quiet death when my bad and I didn’t do it came along, hand in hand. I’m sorry went so quietly, we didn’t see it going. We couldn’t give it a proper funeral. Rest in peace, dear words.

I’m sorry does make an appearance every so often, like a portrait of a long gone family member or lover, but it is usually not very satisfying. Unless it comes from someone whom is an upstanding and sincere person, it reeks of contamination and denial. In this case, I’ll take silence. Even the middle finger works better than a fake I’m sorry.

What’s the hardest place in the world to get another human to accept blame? I’ve been a lot of places, and in my opinion, there is no geographic location where an individual is more likely to say the two golden words. There are decent people everywhere, and there are crappy people everywhere. But I do believe this: if you are fortunate enough to be one of the aforementioned upstanding individuals out there, you live your life and treat others in a way that make it unnecessary in most cases to apologize. Sure, there will be times when you make a mistake (everyone does) because no one, as the saying goes, is perfect, and you will have to speak the calming words that you still have at your disposal and didn’t forget like most have. But you aren’t in the business to need them on a regular basis. You’re better than that. Precious people like you are everywhere in the world. The rest of us just have to find you.

One day several years ago I started to wonder when people started to dislike each other. Was it after World War II? The Civil War? The Industrial Revolution? When? Or was it in my lifetime? The 70’s, 80’s, 90’s? Perhaps it was my childish mind, or the fact that I had a lovely childhood, at least until my father died in 1977, but the 1970’s were still good years. Maybe it was the 1980’s, which were crazy fun, but also brought in technology that would eventually separate us and make us feel safe sitting behind a computer or later, a cell phone, treating each other badly. Whenever it was, we’re in big trouble now.

I try not to live my life around the news. I don’t watch TV and have not for years, but I do read headlines. I don’t read statistics either, but those headlines tell a lot of stories. Crimes against people based on skin color are well publicized. But has anyone taken note of the fact that crimes against helpless children of any and every color are skyrocketing? And against women of any and every color? Mass shootings are nearly an everyday occurrence, to the point that they’re easy to scroll by to get to something more gory. Can you hear the “I didn’t do it” ringing out through the bold print?

I’ve been around the world and around the country largely by myself. I’ve survived cancer and the deaths of the people I love most in the world. I’ve never lived in fear. But let me tell you: the things that I see going on around me make me not want to meet new people. I love and have big appreciation for the intentionally small circle of family and friends that I trust with my life. I plan to keep things just the way they are.

After several paragraphs of complaints, the question must now loom: Do I know how to apologize? Yes, I do. Do I apologize when I’m wrong? Yes, I do. Do I apologize when I feel someone has wronged me just to make peace? No, I absolutely do not. Shouldering blame for something that someone does to us doesn’t help anyone. It makes us feel like dog poop, and it makes the guilty party feel vindicated, and like they can continue their sucky behavior. Don’t do it. Because you already feel wronged over something you didn’t do, and the actual wrongdoer now has an open door to do it again and again. And will.

Let them. Save your honesty and integrity for someone who knows how to return it. You won’t be sorry. You won’t have to be.

Here I Come Again

I don’t know about you, but 2022 hasn’t exactly been a memorable year for me thus far. I’ve just dealt with six months of intense back pain dating back to September 2021, in addition to stage IV lung cancer dating back to October 2019. Yay, me.

But guess what? I finally got what I needed. Did my six weeks of physical therapy, (well, eight!) then my insurance company ponied up for my steroid injection. As I type, it has been a handful of days, and I definitely feel a difference. I’m hoping that as the next week or two passes, I’ll feel even better. Just as important as the way my body feels, is the way my mind feels: I finally have a stepping stone for turning my life around. Again. How many times will I do this? How many times will I be allowed to do this before my clock stops ticking? Somehow, someway, I don’t think I’m done. I think I can move forward. As some people like to say, “You got this.”

What a sigh of relief.

Funny/not funny what pain does to you. I can almost handle the cancer, because the odd truth is that my life continued much as it did before my diagnosis once I was on the right treatment plan. But this back stuff? It has tormented me beyond anything physical I’ve ever dealt with, has delivered a crushing blow. Add sucky New England weather to the mix and it’s a true recipe for disaster. I have not been to my favorite local hiking haunt in two months! This is horrific news! From September until November I continued my exploration of the trails around Quabbin Reservoir even though my back ached, and it kept me sane. Since the snow and ice shut me out of much of my outdoor activity I’ve been yearning to get back outside with the animals and the trees, to get my feet moving, take some pictures, feel like I’m alive again. Here I wait (impatiently) for a stretch of weather that’s warm enough to melt some of the ice and give me a Saturday afternoon to get back out there and forget about stuff for a while.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve kept myself busy with my “indoor” loves: writing my latest book, posting to this here blog, doing my special brand of artwork, reading, working on photo albums, continuing my studies of the Polish language. I’m not giving any of that up! I just have to get back to walking off those steps and miles that mean so much to me and keep me grounded. You really don’t know how very much something means to you until you can’t do it.

Know what else I need to do? Plan travel. I’m heading to South Carolina again in a couple of weeks to see my beloved niece. I need more on the calendar after that. I’ve always kept myself going by making plans. I’m seeing Southern Utah, Cape Cod, California, Oregon, and Portugal in the not so distant future. Maybe later in the year I’ll reschedule my canceled trip to Costa Rica, but COVID19 has to look a lot better before I even think about leaving the country. As long as I go somewhere, I’ll be okay. The idea of getting back to globe trotting and country hopping is always a possibility, but is not the necessity that it used to be. I’ve done a lot of crazy stuff, and I’ll do plenty more, but safety is first and doing what appeals to me most runs a close second.

Right now, my number one goal is to drive twenty miles to the north and walk a flat trail down to the edge of the largest inland body of water in Massachusetts, like I’ve done hundreds of times before. Having the sun shining would be a big plus. Melting snow, even better. And silence. Lord, give me silence! Five miles of silence. I have not done a five miler in several weeks. Several weeks too long.

Even though my feet aren’t quite moving yet again, just being able to wrap my mind around the possibility of resuming my active life is a miracle. Maybe 2022 will have some happy memories after all?

Hey, guess what? I got my airfare to Albuquerque, my chosen gateway to Southern Utah, last night. Booked my hotel on Cape Cod earlier in the week. The forecast for this Saturday is for sun and 50 degrees. I’m adding hiking to that forecast. It can’t come soon enough.

Yeah, I got this.

Coming Clean, Round 2.5

It’s always something.

Have truer words ever been spoken?

I’ve been kind of quiet on social media as of late. Busy, yes. Holidays are like that. But there’s another reason: My aching back.

My aching back started its aching in September, shortly after I started my teaching year. The first week of the school year was glorious. I felt great for the most part, then the pain started and has not let up for months now. I’ve been in physical therapy for a few weeks, and was supposed to get a cortisone injection before the holidays, but the insurance company said no, I have to do six weeks of PT first. Let that sink in: I have to live my life in pain for weeks before they’ll let me have something that will allow me to get back to my normal activities. It’s an old, old story. Pay for insurance every month, whilst being at the mercy of the faceless suits living pain free existences in some hidden office, who knows where.

This isn’t a rant about insurance companies. It’s a rant about another old, old story.

It’s always something.

Hey, as far as cancer is concerned, I’m doing great. And you know what? I’d love to be enjoying it right now. But I really can’t, because of my aching back. This pain has been worse than anything cancer has inflicted on me in the past two plus years. I want this to be the worst thing that I have to deal with. I’m not without hope. Somehow, I’m not depressed. But unlike cancer, my back is holding me back from keeping up my level of hiking, walking, and fitness. It has taken a big bite out of what keeps me going. Herein lies the real reason that I’ve been so quiet on social media: I have not done a real hike since late November, and most of my posts are about hiking or traveling. Okay, the New England weather is involved too. But this cycle needs to be broken. ASAP.

I’ve come to accept pain as a normal part of my existence. This realization hit me a few days ago. A real WTF??? moment in my former semi-charmed kind of life. So I carried my new acceptance around briefly before I stopped in the middle of everything and said one word.

NOPE.

I absolutely, positively DO NOT accept this pain as part of my life. This pain has to go buh-bye, and it will. If I can survive Stage IV lung cancer, believe me, I will get through this back crap, too.

Is this a play for sympathy? Another big NOPE. I’ve shunned sympathy from the get go. Not interested, any more than I am interested in being a hero or a warrior, or getting sad face emojis on Facebook. In fact, I have done everything I can to appear myself, even as I struggle to get up a flight of steps or carry things without feeling like I’m breaking in half. I’m well aware that there are people out there who have to deal with this kind of disabling condition for the rest of their lives, who have dealt with worse for longer. Same with cancer. I’ve lost several friends and acquaintances to this hell that I’ve managed to survive in spite of statistics screaming out that I wouldn’t. Truth be told, in a chapter from the “life isn’t fair” department, one of my former students is living his last days on this Earth because of this beast. By the time you read this, he will likely be gone. No, not interested in sympathy. Because many people have it a lot worse than me. And not much is going to stop me from believing that my fun isn’t over yet.

Am I done adventuring? NOPE.

I’m going to get through Round 2.5: The Bad Back. If I can get through Cancer Rounds 1 & 2, I can emerge from this too. Scary thing is, all this struggle for survival is getting sickening. But what’s the alternative? Nothing that I’m interested in. Yet. I wonder though, does the human spirit just finally say, I’m done? Admittedly, I’ve whispered it to myself a time or two, but that lasts about ten seconds. If only I could just get to a point now where this back of mine allows me to enjoy my physical pursuits without pain and exhaustion.

Hey, I can still walk and think and read and write. I’m killing my PT exercises. I sleep like a pro. My house is still clean and my teaching job gets done. The bills are paid. I could name many other blessings that make me keep fighting the fight. Yet after all is said and done, I have to accept that it’s always going to be something. Could I maybe just get a rain check for a month or two?

The Real Meaning of MY Christmas

Happy New Year! Yeah, I know I’ve been absent for a few weeks and am a day late and a dollar short as usual, but like mostly everyone else, my holidays were darn busy. For Christmas 2021, I was supposed to resume traveling internationally by enjoying a trip to Costa Rica. Yet as the day got closer, I knew it wasn’t the right choice. I’ve been experiencing some pretty intense back pain for several weeks now, so that was the first issue that made me question if I was doing the best thing for me. Add the possibility of getting hung up in a foreign country due to COVID19, and the cost of being tested to have the privilege of boarding the plane home, and all arrows were pointing toward exercising my cancellation insurance and waiting until circumstances are better all around.

The decision was still a tough one. I wanted to resume my life of seeing the world, and this was a huge step in the right direction. My last trip out of the U.S. was summer of 2019 in Sri Lanka, before my cancer diagnosis, and I’ve been struggling to be me again since then. Cancelling anything, especially trips, is just not like me. Still, the gnawing inside me said that it wasn’t what I should be doing.

So I cancelled.

Then, a golden opportunity arose.

Even before that, something pretty incredible and highly unlikely took place: no cancer showed up on my last scans taken December 20th! Does this mean that I’m cured? That cancer will never be a part of my life again? That cancer is no longer a part of my life now? That treatment changes or ends? No, it doesn’t mean any of that. It “only” means just what I wrote: cancer cannot be seen. Meaning: it’s probably still there, and will likely come back, but the medication I’m on is controlling it very well for now. How long it will last, no one knows. I can only hope it will be for a long time. This doesn’t diminish the miracle that brought me to this, from where I was a year ago. If you know anything about metastatic cancer, I’m damn blessed. If you knew anything about my cancer specifically, well, I’m a long way from where I was in December of 2020. Read about my roller coaster journey here and here.

The table was indeed set for that golden opportunity.

As soon as I told my niece that I was thinking of cancelling my trip to Costa Rica, she invited me to South Carolina to spend Christmas with her. Yes, this was exactly what I needed: a familiar place where I could rest if necessary, a faithful black dog for quiet company, and maybe even some warmer weather. Not perfect Costa Rica weather, but South Carolina would do! And Costa Rica doesn’t have my niece and her dogs!

I just had to come up with reasonable airfare. From years of traveling at Christmastime, I recalled that December 24th to the 31st are usually the cheap dates. This remains true! I got a great fare and would soon be on my way! But not before wrapping and distributing many presents, falling on black ice, receiving as many presents, seeing friends and family before I left, battling crowds in the stores, starting PT for my back, working full time…

My last two posts are a short story I wrote several years ago. Titled “The Real Meaning of Christmas,” it’s a tale about a woman who disdains the holiday, yet finds her own peace in the season. Hmm, sounds like art imitating life! Because of course, that’s just what I did.

Long before cancer, Christmas was a tricky time of the year for me, and remains so. For more than twenty years escaping has been my way to combat ambivalent feelings about Christmas and what it has come to represent in our culture. Most of the time I would run off somewhere and spend the holiday alone, sans blinking lights and jolly men in red suits. South Carolina is my new favorite escape, and I’ve even learned to appreciate my niece’s special brand of hospitality.

We have a routine whenever I go and visit: bowling, a local farm, ice cream, Chinese food. I’ve gotten to know some of the local people and am always made to feel welcome. That naughty blond pup above vies for my attention with her darker brother while her mom spoils her rotten. Usually when I show up the weather gets thirty degrees colder. Not this time! It was in the 70’s all week. My back started to feel a little better, I got lots of sleep and lots of love, collected and gave more presents, and had turkey dinner left over from Thanksgiving, when I couldn’t be there. I found the real meaning of MY Christmas, and made the correct choice for me.

Perhaps I’ll never really love Christmas again, but I’ve made progress.

I had a great holiday, but I’m glad it’s over for another year! Bring on 2022!

Dear Fellow Humans: Breathe

Well, here we are again: the “Christmas season.” The season of joy and giving and spending time with people that we love. Of reaching out to our fellow humans and showering them with goodness. Of making sure the needy have something to look forward to. Of…

Oh, wait, does this sound like us? Or is this more accurate: the Christmas season means that we run up a big electric bill making sure that our lights look better than everyone else’s in the neighborhood. That we are fighting each other for the closest parking space at Walmart. That we’re trampling our fellow shoppers to get the flat screen TV for fifty bucks off while supplies last. That our children don’t know that Christmas is really about the birth of Christ, not the presents that they’re getting.

That last one is a true story. As a teacher, I deal with around fifty students on a daily basis (but not all at one time!) One year, I was really tired of hearing the twelve in front of me talking nonstop about what they were expecting under the tree. Let me tell you, these weren’t the ten dollar variety presents, but big label sneakers, ridiculous video games, and the latest technology that they didn’t have the know how to need. Add up the prices and I could get up and back across the country a couple of times. But I digress. That year, I put my students to the test: what does Christmas really mean? Most of them said, “Opening presents.” Only one could tell me that it is a celebration of the birth of Christ, and if she didn’t go to church she would have been at a loss, too. I’ve never forgotten this day.

This post isn’t about religion. It’s about the direction we’re going in as people. Are we heading toward a good place? No, we’re screwed, and only getting worse. (IMHO.)

We need Christmas right now like we need a hole in the head, to coin an old saying. This holiday brings out the worst in so many people. I can’t wait until it’s over. Escaping has always been my way of dealing with it, and if all goes as planned, this year won’t be any different. If I look happy in the pictures in this post, it’s because I’m celebrating Christmas in my own way: far away from the nonsense that our traditions have turned into. Nothing feels better than warming a plane seat after handing out the gifts I had to endure long lines and bad attitudes to purchase.

Even without Christmas, we lack empathy. Take it from me, I’ve been living with a chronic illness (called advanced lung cancer, and no, I didn’t smoke!) for over two years now, and it has become very clear to me that other than a handful of amazing family members and friends, most don’t care what you’re going through. I’m not looking for sympathy, but courtesy would be nice. And courtesy is a dying art.

You know what would also be nice? If humans would just calm down. Several times a day I see people freaking out in everyday situations. My biggest pet peeve is the way we act when we get behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. No matter how big the vehicle is, from a standard car to an eighteen wheeler, drivers are in a gigantic hurry to most times get absolutely nowhere by weaving in and out of traffic at top speed, tailgating, and driving distracted. Good luck to the hapless squirrel, or worse, the hapless child getting in the way. Daily, these jokers take my life into their hands, not to mention their own. And this is only one example of bad behavior that has encompassed our nation.

I try not to focus on bad news, but avoiding it these days is getting to be more of a challenge. Maybe it’s because social media constantly has some awful tragedy thrown in our faces, or maybe it’s because we can’t handle not getting our way about something without going to the extreme to avenge our hurt feelings.

And now, we have the mania of Christmas to add to the hysteria, the glut of advertising and garish tinsel, ready made trees, and decor that varies from French fries to ballerinas and includes every interest in between. May I remind you that on December 26th it will all be abandoned in the yesterday’s news aisle and we’ll then be inundated with red and pink Valentine’s hearts for the second most annoying “holiday” on the calendar?

Heaven help us.

Think good and hard the next time you get yourself into a twist to beat someone to the next red light, or to shove yourself into the checkout line in front of an elderly person. Think about what you’re really going to gain.

Breath, folks, breathe. This stuff is not that important. Save your energy for when you really have to deal with something big.