Can I Start Fresh?

By now it’s common knowledge that I have a deadly disease. Almost daily I hear of another person who succumbs to Stage IV Lung Cancer. Almost daily I wonder when it will be my turn. And yet, thanks to modern medicine and my own sheer will to live and even thrive, I’ve survived for three years and am currently feeling pretty good and living my life much the way I always have. Still, questions loom whenever I think too hard about the future, and the biggest one is, do I even have a future to think about?

Many people reading this have no real idea what this feels like, and good for you, I used to be like you. Others will believe that they know what it’s like when they really don’t. Still others will just tell me to “get over it” and live my life, which I am, perhaps better than they are, but which they have no right to say. There will, however, be a handful of folks who will think, “I know exactly what she’s talking about.” They know that the “not knowing” makes planning for the future a weird thing. Suddenly, everything you do has a “twist,” perhaps even an expiration date.

I’m currently in the throes of making some major changes, particularly to my home and work life. In fact, I’m planning to change so much that I’ve been referring to it as a “fresh start,” which then triggers the inevitable inquiry: can I start fresh with a terminal illness? If the answer is “no” I guess that answer doesn’t really matter, because I’m moving ahead anyway! And if the answer is “yes” there is always that nagging feeling that I’ll end up really happy in my new life, then the rug will be pulled out from beneath me (again) by cancer and it will be all for nothing. Or I’ll die happy? Worse could happen; I could die miserable. But the point is that I don’t want to make all sorts of improvements only to end up on my last leg. Nor do I want to die with regrets. I have few if any as of now. Which only leads to another bit of confusion, because if I don’t move forward on my dreams and goals and I end up living for many more years (which isn’t impossible) it will be time wasted. Sounds like a recipe for regret to me. Who needs that?

Do you see my dilemma?

Admittedly, I’m not as ambitious as I once was. Is that all because of cancer? I can’t really answer that for certain. Perhaps it is, but I think that the changes in the world that COVID19 brought about have to be considered, and well, I’m not as young and idealistic that I used to be. Last post I revealed my personal Bucket List. Much of it is riddled with travel goals, but even those have changed, have become more focused. At one time I planned to get a PhD, travel the globe for two or three years nonstop, own a Victorian home, be a millionaire, write a bestselling novel. And a lot of other stuff that has long since disappeared from thought. Maybe I never really wanted those things, or maybe they were unrealistic. Now, I have six things on my goals list and just about all of them are right in front of me. In fact, one of them was basically offered to me today unexpectedly, once again proving that you just never know what is going to come your way, good, bad, or ugly. So I guess I will have to raise the bar a little. Or maybe, like John Lennon once said, I’m just watching the wheels go ’round and ’round. I’m damn tired, and maybe it’s just time to have a break. Is that giving up? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s just a fresh start as a me that is a little older and wiser than the one before.

A few months ago I lost my dear sister Marie, leaving me with just a couple of people that I love and trust and whom truly love and trust me. My mother, who loved only one man her whole life (my dad!) once told me, “He gave me enough love to last me the rest of my life.” I’ll never forget her words, and I remember thinking, “I hope I feel that way someday.” Now, I believe I do. Not the same kind of love that Mom was talking about, but love from her and my dad, my sister Marie, my sister Jeanne, my niece Amanda. Why do I bring this up? Because my fresh start ties in with this. I’m not searching any longer, I’m no longer interested in being in the line of anyone’s fire, I won’t be subjected to conditional love. I’ve received enough love, and can live with what I still get. I’m okay, and I’ll take care of the people who take care of me.

Can I make a fresh start? I already am. Only time, if it is on my side, will tell how well I do.

It’s Bucket List Time!

Having a Bucket List is pretty much a given thing for most people, but did you ever think about the right time to start chipping away at it? I’ve spent so much time traveling and hiking and doing other things that I love to do that I feel like I’ve been barreling through my Bucket List for quite a while. However, less than a year ago I really started to narrow things down and decide what it is I still must do. Because…

*I’m not getting any younger. Are you?

*I have this crappy disease to contend with now.

*COVID19 changed the world for me and a lot of other people.

For all those reasons and more, I find that there are a lot of things I don’t want to do any longer, so I’m happy that I did them before now. For example: I have no real desire to sit on an airplane for twenty hours to get somewhere. (Though, given a few items on my list, I may find myself doing that at least a time or two more!) There are also things that I want to start doing, like experiencing cruises, which I have hardly done at all. I took these wishes into consideration when creating my list. My choices are truly a mix of old favorites and new interests.

Without further ado, let me share my personal Bucket List, including my progress at getting the items done. I eliminated a few this year!

Experiences

* Cruise to Antarctica. Yeah, this is top of the list, baby! I really wanted to see my seventh continent early in 2023. I’m ready. But wait! The two cruises that I narrowed my adventure down to are booked solid. No joke! Who knew that a legion of people around the world would be plunking down between $10,000 and $50,000 to board a ship for two weeks or more to see penguins and seals? Not me! But you can bet I’ll be first in line in 2024!

* Greenland Cruise. One of my travel friends and I have been talking about this one for a couple of years now, and we came oh so close to booking it for next July. Then…she backed out. I’m crushed. But I will find a way!

*Alaska Cruise. I’ve road tripped the Last Frontier twice, but have never been to southern Alaska, where there are no roads. Must get there. Not sure when this will happen, but this one will definitely be easier to pull off than the two above. Glacier Bay National Park will be part of the package. More on why below!

*Hiking in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. Over and over again I see St. John touted as an amazing place to hike, always as sure sign that I’ll be interested. Not sure why I haven’t jumped on this one yet.

*Australian Outback. Uh-oh, twenty hour flight! But I know it will be worth it. I’ve been Down Under once already and must go back before I leave this world.

*See the Pigs in the Bahamas. I kid you not! I’ll spend the whole trip on the beach with the pigs then come home happy. Probably another cruise. Do you see a pattern here?

*Hiking in Hawaii. Oh, and I just figured out how to get to American Samoa, so add that to this particular adventure.

Countries

*Costa Rica. I was scheduled to go in December of 2021 when COVID19 was still a hot topic. I couldn’t risk getting stuck in a foreign country, so cancelled. No plans to reschedule, but not giving up.

*Brazil. I never wanted to go here until I saw some pictures of Rio on Instagram, then it shot to the top of the list. And I want to see that big waterfall while there too. Likely to be a part of my Antarctic adventure in 2024.

*Return to Portugal. This one tugs at my heart strings, because I had to cancel my third trip to one of my favorite countries due to cancer. But there is hope…

*Switzerland. Woo-hoo! I found this really cool rail trip online and put a down payment on it for June. Let’s roll!

* Return to England. Did you ever go somewhere and not do something while there, then it sticks in your craw for, like, twenty years? Me too! Here’s the thorn in my side: In 2002 I went to London, Liverpool, and Canterbury. And yes, the journey to Liverpool was for the obvious reasons: Fangirling before the word was even part of the English vernacular. I did everything I wanted to do with regard to my beloved Beatles…except one thing: I didn’t go to the cemetery where Eleanor Rigby is buried. Can such a thing bother you for twenty years? Yes, it can. And it has. So that will be taken care of, put to rest once and for all. And just for kicks I added four days in Portugal to the end of the trip to see how much more it would cost. Turned out to be so insignificant that I’ll do it. This will all be my retirement present to myself. I intended it to be Antarctica, but this will more than suffice.

More…

*National Park Hiking. I started working on the goal to hike them all a decade or more ago, after I had already visited many of them. The 2022 count is thirty-eight down, twenty-five to go. Many of the locations I have left are remote and tough to get to, but I’m not giving up. Every summer I hike more. In fact, I knocked off a load this past summer.

*Climb The Edge in New York City. Have you heard about this? Another excuse to go to my precious Big Apple.

*Concerts. Paul McCartney, Foo Fighters, Elton John, Harry Styles, and Ed Sheeran.

*Buy My Own Little Piece of the World in a 55+ Community. I came of age not so long ago. Working on it.

*Buy and Road Trip in a Small RV. Not working on this one yet, but once other things are settled I will.

*Last but not least, I want to spend as much time as possible with my beautiful niece in South Carolina and my amazing sister Jeanne nearby.

Recent Progress

I knocked off five national parks this summer, and also saw Sir Paul McCartney and Elton John in concert. Chipping away.

Please enjoy photos from some of my recent Bucket List events!

What’s on your list?

Fangirling!

Hey, is fangirling a word? Well, if it isn’t, it is now!

I’m not normally a gushy, shivering mess when it comes to celebrities. But on my current road trip (I’m starting this post from Cleveland, Ohio, almost at the end of my drive home,) the past two days have been spent paying homage to some of my all-time favorites, namely James Dean and The Beatles!

When you live with a chronic disease like I do, you always have to wonder if you’ll get another chance to do what you love. Then again, life isn’t guaranteed for anyone, so we all might as well be doing what we want when we can! Which is how I ended up in Fairmount, Indiana, again after a twenty-eight year hiatus, and at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the precise time that the “Get Back to Let It Be” exhibit is running…

For whatever crazy reason, on this year’s trip I seem to be revisiting places that my beautiful mom and I first saw in 1994, on our very first cross country road trip, which spanned 9,400 miles, seven weeks, and twenty-four states. You know, that trip that is supposed to be “once in a lifetime” but turns into a yearly occurrence? (Smile.) That was the first time I was in Fairmount, Indiana. James Dean was actually born in the small city of Marion, Indiana, a few miles north, but spent most of his childhood and teenage years in Fairmount. When we first arrived in town I was, quite frankly, obsessed with Jimmy, even though he died in his Porsche Spyder eleven full years before I was born! I may have calmed down and grown up a little since then, but I’m still a big fan.

Much of the same can be said for my “thing” for The Beatles; I totally missed the Ed Sullivan experience by nearly three years, and when my dearly departed sister Marie saw them at Suffolk Downs racetrack on August 18, 1966, I was a few months from departing the womb. But I crave my Beatles lore almost as much as I do their music; seriously, what could be more interesting than being a Beatle?! From what I can recall, my first real brush with my four cherished boys was when I asked Marie to buy me Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for one of my birthdays in my teen years. And yes, I still have it! Side note: I’ve been to Liverpool (2002) and am hoping to go back later this year, have walked the “zebra crossing” and written on the wall in front of Abbey Road Studios in London twice, have gone to the Imagine memorial in Central Park, New York City, several times. Just recently I saw Sir Paul in concert at Fenway Park in Boston. Another one off the Bucket List, and another piece of the homage completed!

Getting to Fairmount again meant adding an extra hundred miles of driving to my day, so I had my priorities set. The town is so small that it isn’t such a hard thing to drive the whole length of it, which I had to do anyway, as the items on my list were, naturally, on opposite ends. I would have liked to spend time in the James Dean Gallery and the Fairmount Historical Society (filled, of course, with more Dean memorabilia!) like I did in ’94, but what was most important to me is probably what most super fans would want to see: the grave and his boyhood home, which are very close together. I remember Park Cemetery being quite small the first time I was there, and the grave being very easy to find. Now, the place is huge and signs have to point the way or else no one would ever find it. Dean’s boyhood home has also grown considerably in the past twenty-eight years; his cousin Marcus Winslow, who was just a boy when Jimmy was making his way in Hollywood, now runs a full-fledged farm, and it is a beautiful landscape of rolling green fields and white picket fences. Marcus was out on the riding lawn mower the day I was around, and I’m happy to say that he waved to me. My brush with greatness was complete!

Interestingly, “Get Back to Let It Be” was only a small part of director Peter Jackson’s extensive documentary of the Fab Four and was skillfully inserted into the Level O exhibits of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I was concerned that I wouldn’t have enough time to see the best of the hall, but because of the location of the exhibit I was able to take in most of the rest of the floor on the way to The Beatles. “Get Back to Let It Be” consisted of long-shelved excerpts of the tapes made of the recording sessions for the Let It Be album, including the famous “concert on the roof,” as well as instruments used, and other memorabilia. Because it was compact, it wasn’t overwhelming to see the entire thing, and to see it well. I was very satisfied with the entire floor!

Pilgrimages have always been included in my travels. Part of the fun is finding what is sometimes a needled in a haystack. Yeah, I think it’s about time to book that return trip to Liverpool!

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.

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 Christmas, Part Two

Last week I posted the first part of a Christmas tale I wrote back in 2006. It was more popular than expected, leaving me to think that maybe I should continue to make more of my old fiction writing public. You can read the first half of the story here. What follows is part two. Enjoy!

THE REAL MEANING OF CHRISTMAS (CONTINUED)

Christmas morning came. Toni awoke to the sound of Hannah rummaging around in her room; when she opened Hannah’s door, she found the six-year-old filling a white tall kitchen garbage bag full of toys: stuffed animals, Barbie dolls, musical toys.

            “Honey, what are you doing?” Toni asked.

            Hannah looked like a little grown-up as she turned to her mother and said, “I’m findin’ all the toys I don’t play with no more to bring to the kids less lucky than me.”

            Toni was so taken by her little daughter’s gesture, she did not even correct her iffy grammar. Instead, she asked herself, Oh, how have I done so well with this child, how, in spite of being a single mother literally left at the altar when I was five months pregnant?

            Toni backed away from the door, realizing that her six-year-old knew more about compassion than even she did. Her daughter was outdoing her! This thought made her rush into her bedroom and throw open the closet door. She looked with derision at all the clothes that she was saving because she might wear them “someday,” when she knew very well that that day would never come, and that there was someone out there who could be wearing those clothes that just hung there, going to waste.  She went to the kitchen and got her own tall kitchen garbage bag and filled it with clothes.  She was thrilled by the exhilarating feeling of unburdening herself of the clothes and filled another bag. 

            “I’m ready, Mommy,” Hannah’s voice came from her doorway.  She turned to see that Hannah had her full winter gear on and had a bag over each shoulder, like a mini Santa Claus.

            “I thought we were going to have breakfast and open one present?” Toni reminded her.

            “But Mommy, this is so much more important.  Can’t we get there early and be waiting for them?”

            “If that’s what you want, honey.  Let Mommy get dressed.” 

            “I’ll be waiting out front.”

            “But it’s so cold!  Maybe you should wait in the kitchen.”

            “No, it’s okay.  I’ll wait out front.”

            Toni knew that this was Hannah’s way of saying that she was ready and didn’t want to wait for her mother to waste time. So, Toni didn’t. She jumped into some warm casual clothes and met Hannah on the front steps ten minutes later. There was only a little snow on the ground but it was bitterly cold.  Hannah’s nose was red, but she appeared unfazed by the weather. Obviously, the child was on a mission. It was Toni who complained to Hannah about the cold as they defrosted the car, whose backseat was piled with their garbage bags full of “gifts.” 

            They hardly spoke on the drive to the shelter. As they neared, they saw a small line of homeless people had begun to form, their breath almost freezing in the air, their clothes not nearly warm enough to battle the elements.

            “Mommy, they look so cold!  Do you have any winter coats in those bags?” Hannah asked, her little nose wrinkled but warm-looking.

            “No, honey.  No winter coats,” Toni answered, distressed by the memory of the two down-filled jackets she had left hanging in her closet because she had made a split-second decision that she would wear them again “someday” after all.

            It was then that Hannah reached under her coat and took out her piggy bank in the shape of Eeyore, the sad donkey from Winnie the Pooh that they had bought on a trip to Disneyland the previous year.  It was their routine to fill it with spare coins and bills until they couldn’t fit anymore, then they transferred the money to Hannah’s small but growing bank account.  Toni knew that Eeyore was close to being full.  Usually, they had about twenty-five dollars in it by the time they made the transfer.

             “I didn’t want you to be mad at me for bringing this so I hid it ‘til now.  Can we go and buy somethin’ warm for them?  It’s full and I wanna share it.” The child shook the bank for effect.  It was all too much for Toni at that point; tears started rolling down her face and she grabbed Hannah and squeezed her tight. Hannah hugged her back, though Toni knew she did not understand her mother’s tears.

            Toni put the car in drive and told Hannah to find her wallet in her purse and see how much was in it. Hannah did as she was told, though Toni felt her reluctance; Hannah knew better than to go into her mother’s personal belongings unless she had permission.  Hannah took out a handful of small bills and announced that her mother had twenty-two dollars.  Toni made a deal with her daughter: they each would spend ten dollars to buy some nice, hot coffee, tea, and hot chocolate for the people less lucky than them. That way, they would both still have some money leftover. Hannah agreed and they proceeded to the nearest coffee shop and bought as many cups of hot liquid as they could for twenty dollars.  Then, they went back to the shelter; several more people were gathered, waiting for breakfast.

            Hannah was out of the car with the flat box of hot drinks in her little, glove-clad hands almost before Toni could get the keys out of the ignition. Toni only watched from the driver’s seat as the old men smiled like she was a tiny angel sent from heaven and the women patted her head and took a warm drink. Pride was hardly a sufficient word for what she was feeling as she watched her baby; she was learning something about compassion that even transcended what her parents had taught her so many years ago. 

            Not wanting to steal Hannah’s spotlight, she waited until the girl had handed out all the drinks, then she pulled the bags of clothes and toys out of the back seat of the car and brought them over to the gathering crowd. Together, she and her baby girl handed out second-hand gifts to the spellbound poor and homeless that truly looked like they were seeing Santa Claus. Watching their faces, Toni knew that she had not seen sincerely thankful people since those family Christmases so long ago. Suddenly, those days seemed closer, and the real meaning of Christmas was evident for her again. Just as she knew, it had nothing to do with SUVs or Super Soakers or even a million tiny lights on a fabulous tree.  She had found the real meaning of Christmas again and a six-year-old girl whom she had given birth to had helped her to do so.

            Long before they entered the shelter to help serve breakfast, they had won the hearts of the people less lucky than them.  Other volunteers pulled up in shiny SUVs and ran in at the last minute, laughing and talking about the warm fireplace they had left or the piles of presents waiting to be unwrapped. In those final moments, another small miracle took place: Marcy showed up with a huge platter of delightful, homemade pastries. She was dressed to the nines and was in a terrible rush, but Toni hugged her, seeing the satisfaction in her friend’s face for doing a good deed. 

It was a perfect morning now, with the presents and Marcy’s kindness and the hot coffee and the fresh food on the shelter’s stove. Toni and Hannah giggled and joked and felt good about the miracles already performed, while French toast and bacon sizzled and the aroma wafted through the air and the doors were finally opened and the homeless folks entered the shelter already smiling, with toys for their children and warm drinks in their bellies and the smile of a little blond angel on their minds. And mother and daughter waited, Toni with a spatula, her daughter with a stack of paper cups to fill with orange juice, while bells chimed and carols played and real, true Christmas joy filled the rooms of the shelter.

***************************************************************************************

Merry Christmas.

Thank you for reading!

The Real Meaning of Christmas, Part One

While writing my last post I was reminded of a short story I wrote long ago, and decided that I was going to post it here. It took some searching to retrieve it. It’s that old! The title? “The Real Meaning of Christmas.” I wrote it in 2006. What a long way I’ve come as a writer since then! Yet, for the sake of posterity (or something like that!) I’ve decided to publish it largely as is, other than removing some annoying spacing issues. Because it’s nine typed pages long, I’ll share it in two parts. Look for part two next week!

Without further ado, here is an old story that’s short on style and long on meaning.

THE REAL MEANING OF CHRISTMAS

Not everyone loved Christmas, especially Toni. She shuddered every fall when the end of November approached because now, for six unbearable weeks, she would have to deal with all the things about Christmas that she hated. Her friends would be chattering about what new toys and gadgets they would be going broke to buy their children. People in their shiny SUVs would be stressed out and driving at breakneck speeds to the next shopping mall to whip out a plastic card and add to their already enormous debt.  Christmas trees would be on the tops of cars and in the beds of pick-up trucks, only to be unceremoniously dumped in a hidden ditch in the backyard once the finest balls and light strings were removed and the expensive presents unwrapped. Some people would light up their homes until absurd dates, well past New Year’s in a silly, futile attempt to keep alive a holiday season that most people had forgotten the meaning of anyway.  She refused to be a part of it all, falling out on the mania that surrounded the holiday that was supposed to represent the Birth of Christ. Instead, she longed for the Christmases of her youth when her parents were alive, when her sisters still talked to her, when people still cared about each other enough to know that love and happiness could not be bought.  Still, she had to keep up some kind of front, because now Hannah was old enough to be excited about the holiday. Somehow, some way, regardless of how much she dreaded the season, she had to make it worthwhile for both of them, to make it special in some way. 

            “Why don’t you spend it in Aruba?” was the worldly suggestion of her friend Marcy, who thought all problems on earth could be solved through the spending of money and a call to Carnival Cruises. Toni did not know whether she was serious, being that Marcy was in a pile of Super Soakers and video game equipment when the suggestion rolled off of her tongue, likely without previous thought. In fact, Toni almost knew that Marcy wasn’t thinking by her harried, pre-occupied tone that accompanied a certain annoyed look. 

            Toni wished that Marcy had not mentioned Aruba. For a split second she wished, too, that she had not visited Marcy at all, as Marcy was one of those people who “loved” Christmas and equally “loved” to spend money on material comforts.  Marcy had always been a bit pretentious and since marrying a self-made millionaire she had only gotten worse. But Toni knew that deep down inside, Marcy had a good heart and Toni still loved her dearly, even if she had to put up with a ridiculous comment every now and then.      

“Actually, I was considering volunteering to feed the homeless,” Toni said.

            “Oh, that’s nice baby. Hannah can stay and play with Amber and Jim-Jim,” Marcy grinned, speaking of her spoiled children.

            “Oh no, I’m going to bring her with me.”

            Marcy was stopped in the tracks of her Super Soakers.

            “Baby, you’ve got to be kidding. You’re going to bring that perfect child to feed dirty, grimy homeless people?”

            “Maybe you should come with me and bring Amber and Jim-Jim,” Toni’s tone was slightly condescending in that she pronounced the children’s names in the same baby-talk way that Marcy used whenever she spoke of them.

            Marcy didn’t even notice.  “You know I have a huge lunch to plan. I don’t know how I’m going to do it without going to that awful shelter.” Marcy rolled her eyes with silly self-importance. Toni knew that Marcy loved her role as town hostess and savored it when her guests bragged about her parties until the next one.

            “Well, we’re going just the same.”

            “You should give Hannah a choice. If she doesn’t want to go, she can stay here and help me cook. She loves to help her Auntie Marcy cook, you know!”

            Toni was relieved that Marcy had finally said something that made sense. She was right: Hannah should have the choice.  Toni would talk to her daughter.

            She tentatively approached her flaxen blond daughter while she was in her room playing dolls. Lovely Hannah, who Toni was trying to lead through her first years of life with compassion for other members of the human race, looked at her expectantly. “Go ahead, Mommy.  What do you want to talk about?”

            Toni was comforted by the patience of her little girl. Sometimes, Hannah was so serene that she made Toni feel like she was the daughter. She began: “Christmas is coming.  Next week it’ll be here.”

            A shadow fell over the little girl’s face. “Mommy, do you have enough money to buy me presents? Because if you don’t, it’s okay. Some kids in my class aren’t gonna get many presents ‘cuz they don’t have no daddy like me and their mommies can’t ‘ford nothin’ for them.”

            Toni didn’t know whether to be horrified that her daughter was thinking such thoughts or to be proud that she was so unselfish.   Hannah had everything within reason that a child needed and wanted, and Toni would always keep it that way, but Hannah was not spoiled or unappreciative. Toni had simply taught her what her own parents had taught her: to not take anything for granted.

            “No honey, it’s not that at all!  I wanted to ask you if you wanted to do something special on Christmas morning.” 

            “What?” 

            “I want to go and feed homeless people at the shelter downtown.  Do you want to come with me?  If you don’t, you can stay at Auntie Marcy’s.”

            “You mean feed people less lucky than us?” Hannah’s eyes widened.

            “Yes.” Toni had used that line on Hannah many times when they had passed the shelter and had seen people out front or on their way there.

            “I wanna go Mommy. We can open presents after?”

            “How about we open one before and the rest after.”

            Hannah smiled widely.  “Yeah!” She tossed her arms around Toni. “Mommy, I can’t wait to feed the homeless people that are less lucky than us.”

*****************************************************************************************

Look for the conclusion next week.

Thanks for reading!

Rediscovering You

Here’s a secret: when you first start blogging it’s pretty tough to come up with subjects to write about. Then you get a little bit of leverage, a dash of inspiration, and maybe even a crappy disease, and suddenly, you’re golden! You have a whole list of ideas! That’s what happened to me. It’s for this reason that I’ll follow up my last blog post immediately with the final point of my advice for living successfully with a chronic illness. I have many other subjects to get to and don’t want this final thought to get buried in a bunch of other posts.

Listen, I’d really rather be writing about traveling and writing books, which is what I intended this blog to be about when I first put it together. Thankfully I can still talk about that stuff, but I’ve also been granted this opportunity to help others with my success at battling a chronic disease, so I’m going to take it. It’s certainly helpful to think this way: that this new struggle I’m dealing with is an opportunity, not just a burden. You will need to think this way frequently. To say “always” is not realistic. You can’t do anything always. If you can do it eighty percent of the time you’ll be doing darn good.

To review, my ideas for continuing to thrive with a chronic disease are:

Get the best medical care possible

Seek no sympathy

Find new ways to do what you love

Find new things to love

Surround yourself with positivity

And the final point, which I’ll be expanding on today, is:

Don’t let your illness define you

Since announcing that I have cancer I have been labeled as a “warrior,” an ass kicker, and a bitch, (though that’s not a new designation!) and have been glorified, mourned, pitied, bad mouthed, and name-called. Everyone knows what I am, has a character for me to play. Though many of these identities are well meant, what no one really accepts is that the only identity I want to identify with is ME. When you are first diagnosed with a serious illness the processes that you have to go through to continue to function and/or stay alive can strip you of who you are and who you used to be, even though you may look the same on the outside. I consider myself pretty lucky as far as the cancer treatment I’ve received is concerned, but I’ve still had to deal with the biopsies, scans, blood tests, and procedures that leave me bruised temporarily, and sometimes scarred for life. Additionally, through all these the specter of early, sudden, and impending death has bore down on me more often than not. All the while, the biggest struggle has been to find myself again while others label me as something and someone else. No one realizes that while they indicate that I am now somehow “different,” I just want to be the same old me, though with an extra full plate to deal with. It’s because of this that I’ve stopped sharing a lot of my information, though I plan to”come clean” in my next blog posts, however many it may take. (Yeah, maybe more than one. I’ve withheld a lot of gory details.)

My two year “cancerversary” is coming up next month. In the last twenty-three months of my life I’ve been told that I must be “miserable.” (I’m not.) Some have treated me as if nothing is wrong. (Shame on them.) I’ve been counted out. (Sorry to disappoint you. Wait, no I’m not.) Worst of all, some like me better now that I’m “tainted” in their eyes. (They don’t know that I’m still happier than they’ll ever be.) In the pursuit of finding ME again, I’ve had to dodge a hell of a lot of stupidity, hurt, and crisis. Nevertheless, these days I’m hitting ME again pretty closely and sometimes even getting a break from being Cancer Girl. I guess I won’t ever be the same carefree person I was before, but when I think this way I realize: Everyone has their crosses to bear. If I didn’t have cancer I’d be worried about getting old, losing my figure, or not having enough money, things I don’t even think about now. Getting old will be a privilege. Bring it on! My body still looks pretty good, all things considered. And I’ll always figure out how to survive monetarily. Hell, I’ve survived Stage IV lung cancer!

Am I proud of that last point? You bet your bottom dollar I am. Of all the things I’ve been called, “survivor” is the one I accept. On MY terms. Find YOUR terms, and stick with them. Find yourself again, accept the differences, embrace who you are and how much BETTER you are now that you have overcome the disruption of your life.

In the meantime, please enjoy the photos of ME still being ME.

My Picture Store

Traditionally, my least favorite time of the year is the end of summer vacation, and the end of summer in general. This year it’s a lot different for me, maybe because I’m on a road trip later than usual and don’t have time to mourn yet. Then, as if any of us can forget, there’s this pesky virus that just won’t go away and threatens all the things that we want to get back to doing. And of course I now have lung cancer and never know when my two year streak of good luck will run out. Yeah, my head is in kind of a weird place, I’ll admit it. Trying to turn the corner to better thoughts and having a tough time doing it. Maybe writing about something that makes me happy will help?

I’ve been posting about how important it is to continue to love life even when you’ve been diagnosed with a serious and chronic illness. In my last two blogs I’ve discussed finding new ways to do what you love and finding new things to love. I failed to write about my love for taking pictures, which sometimes gets forgotten with all the talking I do about the traveling and hiking that go hand and hand with the camera work! As further proof that I’m continuing to move forward with my life in spite of the fact that I live every day with a death threat hanging over my head now, I’ve finally done something that I’ve been wanting to do for years: I’ve set up an online photography store! I’m excited to have some of my beloved snapshots for sale after many years of collecting them.

People have been telling me for decades to sell my photography. I have thousands upon thousands of pictures from my travels through fifty states, forty countries, six Canadian provinces, more than forty U.S. national parks and several national parks in foreign countries, as well as thousands more from around New England, my backyard. Overwhelming stuff!

So, where to start? I chose Picfair as the place to set up my store. Picfair suggests picking out twenty excellent shots. Many of my files are saved on an external hard drive, and that’s where I began, going in alphabetical order. I just about made it through the A’s and B’s! Check out my store with my first “twenty best” pictures.

Whenever someone asks me how I take such nice pictures I have the same line: “Being able to go to really cool places is 75% of the battle!” I’m always looking for an interesting shot. Pictures are so easy to delete now, why not take a whole bunch and only keep the ones you like? Better yet, keep them all in case you change your mind. I’m totally guilty of loading up my cameras and only deleting the blurry ones.

Do you ever see that person that seems to be taking pictures of stuff that you walk right by? Yeah, guilty again! That someone is me. I chase butterflies and bugs and flowers. I’ve been accused of talking to rocks. I’m the slowest hiker on the planet because I have my camera bag and stop every twenty steps for a new shot. With odds like that you’re bound to hit the photo jackpot every now and again.

When I was a little kid my eyes were always drawn to the color green. Green just totally did it for me, and my parents indulged that by buying me green clothes, green bikes, green everything! I still love the color, though my eye has gotten a little more sophisticated. I dig color combinations when I take photos, but I also love black and white and sepia tone. When I picked my twenty best I included all the above and shots from several different places. Soon enough I’ll add to them.

Hey, I’m not asking you to buy anything, but I’d love to know if I made some good choices. I tried to do a post on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, but of course you can’t expect to reach anyone on FB without contributing to the Let’s Make Zuck a Zillionaire Fund. Have a look and drop me a line if you can!

I’ve peppered this post with more of my favorite shots from around the country and around the globe. They will probably make it onto Picfair sooner or later!

Okay, I feel a little better now. Life goes on!

Finding New Joy

Hey, how is your summer going? Mine: Great! In fact, I’m ready to head back out on the road again before I have to return to teaching at the end of the month. Before I do, I wanted to get back to talking about how to live happily and successfully with a chronic illness. Yes, I have one, lung cancer, and yes, I’m still loving life.

In earlier posts I laid out some ground rules to consider that work for me. Below, I’m going to list them again, with links to the previous posts in which I expand on the point:

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

In this post I’ll expand on number four, find new things to love.

I don’t know about you, but the pandemic taught me that I can do things I didn’t ever think I could. Maybe it was because I had more time on my hands than usual. I’m a person that is constantly busy doing the things I have to do, followed by the things I love to do. The other way around if I’m having a really good day! One of my favorite ways to pass my time, namely traveling, was a little tricky when we were all quarantining. So, I took on a new hobby, since I was around town so much more. My new fun was art! And I found out that I’m better at it than I used to think. No, I’m probably not ever going to sell anything that I’ve created, but I’ve decorated my walls and steps and porch with my creations, and I’ve even added a new twist to some of my plants! It’s not important to me whether anyone likes it or not. I’m being fulfilled and I’ve expanded beyond my writing/hiking/traveling mindset! Check out a few of my “projects”:

If you aren’t interested in art, find something else. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn a language. Maybe you’d like to learn the rules of football so you know what all the hype is about. How about playing an instrument? Learning to cook or bake better? Planting a garden? The trick is not necessarily to “master” something, though you may very well end up doing that. What’s really important is to continue to learn and grow. When we suddenly have an illness that is not likely to get better or go away we tend to think that we might as well just give up, since our lives will probably be over soon. When I was first diagnosed with lung cancer things weren’t looking all that good for me. But to my surprise, I was able to move forward, and due to a few smart moves (see my list above!) I’m still doing just that. If I can get back on track you can too. Truth is, we are lucky to live in a time that is full of medical breakthroughs that help us to live better and longer. Is there something you’ve always wanted to try? Do it! Challenge yourself, and keep challenging yourself!

Last year I shattered my on foot mileage record. 1,850 miles! I averaged five miles a day. That’s a lot of walking! I decided that this year I wouldn’t try to break that record, but would make a new goal for myself: 1,500 miles on foot, 500 miles of biking. I’ve had a bicycle hanging around for a decade, hardly riding it over the past few years, not for lack of wanting, just too busy doing other things. This summer I’ve really been putting myself to it, finally! I’m not likely to reach my goal this year, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up! I’m just happy to really be doing it instead of talking about it. For me, it’s the excitement of seeing things in a new and different way, finally doing something I’ve been talking about doing for a long time, and having yet another hobby that makes me smile!

Perhaps the greatest thing about learning something new is that your mind is busy and you aren’t dwelling on things that make you sad or angry. That doesn’t mean you’re in denial, but it does mean that you’re putting your best foot forward and coping with the unwanted changes in your life. Try it. I think you’ll like it!