Blog Tour!

If you dropped in on this blog last November, you would know that Karen Yankosky (www.splatospheric.com) became a critical part of my life last year after nurturing me back to good health after a major surgery. But more importantly, long before that, she helped me become a writer. We have blogged daily together, written daily word prompt writings together, attended writing conferences together, helped each other think of the right word that was stuck in our heads, and have been cheerleaders for each other. So now we blog tour together. I answer the blog tour questions that she answered last week and then pass them on to Sonia Chintha (http://dream2write.wordpress.com), a writing pal of Karen’s who teaches middle school yet still finds time to write poetry and young adult fiction, and Paulette Beete (www.thehomebeete.com), one of the most beautiful writers I have ever read. She’s a poet and her prose is poetic. I heart her as a writer and as a person.

1. What are you working on?

I am working on two projects simultaneously. I have a feeling they’re going to meld together at some point down the road though they seem vastly different from each other.

The first project is a memoir that recounts my mother’s family’s escape from North Vietnam to the south in 1954 when the communists took over and began torturing anyone with money and education. Our family lost everything and rebuilt their lives only to have lost everything again in 1975 when the communists then overtook the south. This time, they went to America and rebuilt their lives in a foreign land. They were ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances and survived and thrived.

The second project recounts the magical and shitty time that was the last seven months of battling breast cancer. Somehow, I think the resilience and resourcefulness that defined my family also helped me get through this disease with my sense of optimism and passion for life still intact. Amazing, beautiful things happened to me during this time that taught me great lessons about living and loving and human relationships and I want to share those lessons with the world.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

The format of the second project I described will be vastly different from others in its genre. Think “choose your own adventure.” Though I have written in classic prose form, I also wrote about my cancer experience using numerous other methods of communication and I want to bring all those forms together into one place. I’m in the midst of figuring out how to pull all of those bits of writing together into a cohesive and logical format. It’s an incredibly complex web, much like the connectedness between humans.

3. Why do you write what you do?

I feel compelled to create through words and to tell the world a great story.

4. How does your writing process work?

I wish I had a process! I like to read about the writing process of the great writers that I admire because I wish I could find some magical ideas for how to make the words flow effortlessly out of my head. Turns out many of them had their quirks but writing is hard and there is no magic elixir. The one thing they all had in common was that they sat their asses down every day and they wrote. No matter how painful it was.

My biggest distraction is Facebook. So I have downloaded an app called “Self Control” on my computer that lets me block myself from Facebook for periods of time set by me. I usually block myself for two hours at a time and then reward myself by gorging on the newsfeed for 30 minutes. Sadly, this is the only way for me to control my addiction. Once I get settled into what I am trying to write, though, my brain becomes laser focused. Stringing the words together is rarely easy. But always exhilarating once they start forming sentences and paragraphs that make me smile when I reread them.


Family vacation

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Last June, 31 members of my extended family assembled on Carnival Cruise Line’s poop ship “Triumph” for a family reunion. This branch of the Pham family, which had lived in American since 1975, had not convened en masse since a cousin’s wedding back in the 90s. We booked the voyage in February, two days before a blaze destroyed the ship’s electrical system leaving passengers adrift in the Gulf of Mexico with non-working, overflowing toilets for days before being rescued. The cruise line assured us that the Triumph would be sparkling clean and fully functioning by the time we boarded. We sailed without incident on the ship’s first departure since the floating PR disaster.

As is probably true for most immigrant families who have escaped war-torn countries twice with close to nothing, exile in a foreign land had made ours a tight knit bunch. When the emails starting floating around about the reunion, I was pretty excited to reconnect with everyone. Though language had been a barrier between my family and me, they spoke Vietnamese whenever they gathered while I spoke only English, and though I towered over most of them having had a 6’ 4” Caucasian father, I had felt loved and cozy in my family cocoon where I was playful and jubilant and spent many after-school afternoons playing with my cousins and water skiing with them every weekend of every summer and eating large family dinners together nearly every Sunday.

Away from the family, in the southern suburbia we called home, I was shy and sensitive and desperate to assimilate. I kept my family life separate from my school life and avoided all public contact with Asians who weren’t my family. Fortunately, for most of my childhood, the only other Asian kid in my school was my little brother, who I was going to avoid no matter what race he was. When our family ventured into public, I felt a twinge of embarrassment. I worried that we would be in the way or that we would make too much noise and that these things would irritate someone and make them dislike us and then by proxy dislike Asians. A tiny bit of that unease and shame revisited me as we gathered for the cruise, but rediscovering a family of just plain nice, considerate, kind, smart people who liked to have fun and who cared deeply for one another crushed those qualms.

After disembarking the boat, we gathered at my uncle’s house for one final family dinner before scattering. Three generations sprawled across the living room after dinner to watch a slide show of pictures documenting our family’s history in America and to listen to the elders reminisce about their life in Vietnam and their escape from the North. The details of their stories varied slightly and they deferred to my Uncle who was the eldest surviving male in our family and therefore its patriarch. One family portrait taken in 1958 remained, in which my poker-faced grandmother perches on a seat in the middle holding a baby, my oldest cousin, and her five then-living children and their spouses flank her. They’d rebuilt their lives in the south and everyone still lived together, clinging to one another through the upheaval of continued unrest and then war again, which forced them to flee their homeland altogether in 1975.

I had felt the strength of our family ties as much on the Triumph as I had felt when I went to Vietnam in 2000 to meet relatives for the first time. I found an elderly Aunt who had been left behind in North Vietnam in 1954 when my grandmother and her four youngest children slipped away from their home in the middle of the night to escape retribution by the communists who had defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu that year. In the aftermath of that victory, the communists were killing and torturing anyone who owned land or education and our family possessed both. My Aunt, the eldest daughter, was married at the time and therefore belonged to her husband’s family and was not allowed to leave and did not see her siblings again until 1996 after President Clinton normalized diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the US. She never again saw her mother, who died in America in 1994. I did not speak Vietnamese and my Aunt did not speak English, but we communicated with each other through touch and facial expressions and I felt the profound and chilling power of our shared legacy and bloodline as we visited our family burial grounds and lit incense to honor several generations of ancestors buried there and the old family home that had been divided into many apartments when the communists redistributed wealth in the early days following Dien Bien Phu.

This Aunt had visited us in America for the first time not long before the cruise and had wanted to join us. However, her granddaughter had gotten engaged while Aunt was visiting us and the wedding was set for an auspicious date during the week we’d booked the cruise. We would probably never see her again unless we journeyed to Vietnam. After the cruise, we all agreed that a future family reunion would have to take place in Vietnam.


Facing down fear

When I was in fourth grade, I won first place in the elementary school category of an essay contest sponsored by our local newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch. My essay, hand-written in pencil on lined notebook paper, was published in the kid’s section of the Sunday edition and displayed in a small exhibit alongside the middle and high school winners. I attribute this early success to having learned to love words from my father, a voracious reader who dropped me off at the library every Saturday where I would hang out in a bean bag chair reading for several hours before checking out a stack of books to take home for the week. My favorite novels were the semi-autobiographical ones starring independent, misfit tomboys, like Jo March, Laura Ingalls, Pippy Longstocking, and Anne of Green Gables, who became a circle of friends to me, a lonely, half Asian girl banished to a sleepy suburb of a slow southern town, and they inspired me to explore and define myself through writing.

I turned to my fictional girlfriends for solace when, in fifth grade, a pudgy boy with bangs shouted “Chink!” at me from a school bus window as it roared away from my bus stop. I walked home stony-faced, pretending I hadn’t heard him before bursting into tears behind my bedroom’s closed door. They comforted me when my parents lobbed vicious words and dinner plates and bottles of ketchup at each other before they divorced. I hid my little brother in a laundry basket and covered him with clothes to protect him from flying shrapnel. I found solace in their friendship when I sat alone for lunch in the cafeteria on the first day of a new school year. My family moved numerous times during my childhood and I eventually learned to adapt and make friends wherever I landed.

I kept an angst-filled journal well into my 20s filled with detailed notes I intended to use for material in future books and I wrote short stories that I stored on floppy disks that can’t even be read any longer. However, my writing waned and, instead, I settled into a more financially reliable legal career in which I wrote about the regulation of soft dollar transactions, wrap fees, and the proper filing of Form ADV.

I ignored my nagging creative writing aspirations until years later when the spirit of those fictional girlhood friends consoled me during my own heartbreaking divorce and I feared growing old alone, and when snobby art world socialites trashed me and I feared that my life’s work was pointless, and when breast cancer struck and I feared dying young. Those terrifying experiences taught me about survival, friendship, love, and living with integrity, passion, generosity, curiosity, and courage and they compelled me to begin writing again to excavate and poke around inside those fears.

I don’t seek approval for my writing from anyone and I ignore criticism unless it is of the constructive sort. I write for myself and for those who may be moved or inspired by it. Plenty of people will loudly dislike what I write, and I almost relish those moments because it probably means that what I have written meant something. Those who malign others usually act out of fear and perhaps one of the greatest things I can hope for in the creative process is to awaken fear, because facing fear is the only way forward.


Where to next?

My dad gave me my first passport a while ago to keep as a souvenir of a well-traveled childhood. A smiley, chubby-cheeked baby appears on the first page followed by colorful stamps from all over Southeast Asia that fill every space in the small book and then fill every space in the accordion-paged addendum glued to the back. Our family’s travels and relocations during my earliest years instilled in me a lifelong wanderlust. These disruptions also made me an accommodating and easy traveler who incongruously demanded stringent structure and control when at home.

Not long before my ex-husband and I split up, we decided to visit Berlin and Krakow. Our marriage counselor instructed us to stay in separate hotels and spend only four hours each day together during the trip. Her logic? She didn’t want us mistaking the ability to travel well with the ability to be married well. I think what she meant was that though I could be demanding, rigid, and unaccommodating in our everyday life together, the moment I locked the front door and walked away from home with a packed bag to explore somewhere new in the world, all the inflexibility melted away, replaced with optimism, pliancy, and resourcefulness. I needed to employ those same qualities at home if I wanted my marriage to work.

When traveling, I rarely make plans beyond booking a flight and figuring out where I will sleep the first night I arrive anywhere and this approach has worked out pretty well for me. I’ve slept in hammocks in the Venezuelan jungle at the foot of Angel Falls, jumped off a tall waterfall in Maui, and paddled a canoe inside the crater of a dormant Costa Rican volcano.  One summer long ago, I was driving cross country when the muffler on my car fell loose and rattled down a lonely stretch of highway in Montana. I unwound a coat hanger and reattached the muffler’s pipe and roared into Billings where I spent the night awaiting a more refined repair before continuing eastward. The most unnerving thing I can remember happening to me on a trip was when a robber smashed my taxi cab window with a crowbar late one night while stopped at a red light in Lima. He reached in and tried to grab my backpack out of my lap, but I clung to my bag and continued on the next day to Cuzco to embark on a stunning four-day hike to Machu Picchu that erased the jitters I’d felt all through the night from the attempted robbery.

After over a decade of marriage, my husband and I had finished grad school and our lives settled into an “adult” routine with the responsibilities of a large mortgage, a successful small business, and dinner parties with similarly situated couples. I saw the whole rest of my life laid out before me and the certainty of it all horrified me. I yearned for improvisation and the unknown beyond the occasional adventure vacation and I longed for freedom from the confines of a conventional life. The divorce returned me to the tumult of my young life, where I had felt most comfortable.


All lookee same

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An Asian girlfriend emailed me a few weeks ago to tell me she’d been at a party where a woman with whom we were both marginally acquainted gave her a big hug and air kisses and exclaimed “Oh, you’re Philippa Hughes, I love the Pink Line Project … blah blah … I know the photographer so and so … blah blah” My friend said she responded with, “Thanks, have a greeeaaat night!” and turned away. My friend’s thick, wavy hair cascades down her back while my thin, straight hair hangs to just below my shoulders. Her angular facial features and round eyes contrast my chubby cheeks and squinty eyes. She is thin and leggy; I have a fuller figure atop short, stout legs. We laughed at this case of mistaken identity and beseeched the Universe, “Do us Asians really all look alike?!”

Parties are prime places for mishaps and miscommunications to occur, especially when alcohol is involved. I myself have mistakenly called someone by the wrong name on occasion when someone I barely knew vaguely resembled someone else I knew probably even less. This incident was not, however, the first time I had been mistaken for another Asian woman.

A few years ago, I attended a fancy luncheon where a myopic fellow guest greeted me by the name of another Asian woman in DC who also happened to be a blogger with a non-Asian name. I had blond hair at the time, for crying out loud! This case of mistaken identity was especially weird considering when I was blond, many people told me they thought I resembled Renee Zellweger, who is of Nordic descent. When I visited Finland a couple years ago, even Finns spoke to me in Finnish assuming that I descended from the Sami people, many of whom have high cheekbones and slitted eyes. The Sami live in the northernmost part of Europe across Sweden, Norway, and Finland and they herd reindeer. I grew up in a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, where I heard people shooting deer.

Another instance of mistaken identity occurred when I was in law school. A classmate confused me for the one other Asian woman in our class, which consisted of only 163 people divided into two sections, each with its own Asian woman, one with a prominent Asian underbite and one without. All three of these women had two Asian birth parents and were therefore more classically thin while I was cursed with my Dad’s western thighs and hips

Other Asians always see me as half, while nearsighted non-Asians feel compelled to tell me about how they had an Asian friend once or how much they love Chinese food. My own people don’t accept me as one of their own. When I went to Vietnam, I visited many places that listed three prices. Vietnamese nationals people paid the lowest price. Vietnamese people who lived outside of Vietnam paid a slightly higher price. Asian, and even half-Asians like me, easily discerned the difference between the two. Foreigners, meaning everyone else, paid the highest price. I was lumped into the foreigner category. Besides my blond hair, I towered over the real Vietnamese and outweighed them by a lot, even the men. Not only did Vietnamese people living in Vietnam not believe that I was even a little bit Vietnamese, several asked me if I was Swedish.

Even my own family does not entirely believe that I am really Vietnamese. When I was a kid, an Uncle would stand one of my same-aged cousins next to me and place a hand atop the inevitably smaller child’s head with his fingers poking the part of me that my cousin’s head reached and then remark with wide-eyed awe on the largeness of my height and weight. I developed a complex about my hefty size until one day in early adulthood, I realized that I was a medium-sized person and they were all tiny. To this day, whenever I eat with my extended family, they exclaim surprise at my ability to wield chopsticks and to consume stinky shrimp paste and red hot chili hot peppers, which they believe white people are unable to withstand.

[Insert unfinished personal analysis here.]


Lucky to have gotten the “good kind” of cancer!

I was diagnosed with Stage 0 non-invasive DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) in my right breast on August 29, 2013. My cancer surgeon explained what those words meant and the treatment options, but shock erased my ability to process her words that day. The only thing that reverberated through my brain was the word “cancer.” I soon started to feel like I was sinking underwater and I couldn’t breathe as waves of fear and panic crashed over me, muffling out all the sound and squeezing all the oxygen out of the room.

I’d been dreading the possibility of that day for several weeks having been through a battery of inconclusive tests over several weeks, including two mammograms, two sonograms, and an MRI. Two radiologists had not seen anything threatening in the images and had advised me to come back in six months for another round of tests when the malignancy would have finally appeared on the screen. However, the symptoms continued to plague me so my doctor ordered an MRI core needle biopsy, which revealed tiny cancerous growths stretching along five centimeters within a milk duct, barely visible but doubling their numbers every 100-120 days. I was lucky to have gotten the “good kind of cancer” – completely treatable because the cancer cells hadn’t yet invaded the surrounding tissue, and I wouldn’t die and I wouldn’t need chemotherapy or even the weird hormone therapy drug called Tamoxifen, the side effects of which resembled menopause. No, all I had to do was choose between three grim options: lumpectomy, unilateral mastectomy, or bilateral mastectomy. Lucky me!

A lumpectomy preserved breast tissue, but the procedure would mangle the breast into a misshapen blob and the accompanying radiation treatment would scar what remained and damage the skin around it. This procedure  required a lifetime of careful monitoring because breast tissue remained in which cancer could reoccur and then require more surgery, more mutilation. A unilateral mastectomy meant removing all the breast tissue in the cancerous breast, effectively removing any possibility of a re-occurrence, but the procedure could not guarantee that breast cancer would not attack the healthy side. It also meant sporting one perky fake boob and one natural boob that would eventually sag and require occasional surgical “lifts” to maintain a semblance of symmetry. I studied pictures of women who’d undergone a unilateral mastectomy and it looked okay, but the blatant disparity between the two breasts seemed like it would be a depressing reminder of what I once had. A bilateral mastectomy meant removing healthy tissue in the unaffected breast, which seemed like a ghastly choice, but it also meant never worrying about getting breast cancer ever again, and enjoying symmetrical breasts, which was not a small consideration.

Another major downside to both mastectomy options: the plastic surgeon would remove the nipple. He assured me that he could reconstruct the protuberance in an additional procedure down the road and a tattoo artist in Baltimore renowned for his 3-D nipple tattoo skills would ink in a shade of brown that would replicate my former nipple. I would have frankenboobs! The possibility of losing the nipples, symbols of sexuality and womanhood that were also points of pleasure, motivated me to seek several opinions on the viability of the lumpectomy, though in my gut I knew that I needed peace of mind. I didn’t want to roll the dice and always wonder when the cancer would return so I chose the bilateral mastectomy. The nipple situation resolved itself two days before surgery when my original plastic surgeon suffered his own health crisis and took an immediate leave of absence, and the replacement surgeon performed a nipple-sparing mastectomy. Huzzah! And therein lay one of many moments during the last seven months when I felt “lucky” despite having been afflicted with cancer.

I know that I am lucky in so many ways. However, anyone other than my doctor or another breast cancer survivor telling me so grates on my nerves and causes my eyes to roll to the back of my head and my teeth to grit behind a polite frozen smile. Survival is more complicated than simply being alive. Survival forced me to face death and the reality of my impending mortality, though I was grateful for the opportunity to see how little time any of us has in this life and to make the most of what little any of us has left. Survival meant always wondering what I could have done differently to avoid getting cancer, blaming myself for drinking too much alcohol or taking birth control pills for too many years or eating too much tofu. Survival meant that my life would be irreversibly changed by an involuntary predicament that required making preposterous decisions for which I had neither prepared nor felt equipped to make in such a short period before plunging forth. Making big changes in your life (job, husband, home, etc.) when you have free will to make those choices is scary enough as it is. However, my Wonder Woman powers activated and I felt like I could do anything if I could do that.  Survival meant that my body would be mutilated and scarred, and fake objects would be placed inside me as constant reminders of my former self, and the perpetual perkiness and symmetry of my new rack was tiny consolation. Survival meant leaving behind my former self and everything I thought I knew about myself, but it also meant leaving behind the parts of me that ever gave a fuck about being “cool” or what anyone thought of me and gaining the capacity to accept love and to love more.


Reading, writing, and goofing off

When I was in 4th grade, I won an essay-writing contest for elementary school kids sponsored by my hometown paper the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I hand wrote the essay in pencil on lined notebook paper and poured my 9-year-old soul into it. Winning the contest kicked off my literary aspirations. I decided I wanted to be a writer like Jo March in Little Women, which was my favorite book. I read voraciously as a child and into young adulthood until law school beat the joy of reading out of me. Reading was a magnificent education in writing and I think all the early years spent cuddling with books for hours and hours inspired me to write and taught me about good writing.

After a while, however, the only writing I was doing consisted of thoroughly useless drivel relating to investment adviser regulation [yawn] and non-legal reading slowly went by the wayside, as well. Dozens of short stories, many unfinished, languished on long lost floppy disks, and unread books piled up on my shelves, because I couldn’t stop buying books, even though I wasn’t reading them.

A few years of numbing my brain with soft dollar transactions, wrap fees, and the proper filing of Form ADV spurred me to take a creative writing course. Around the same time, I started a blog to motivate myself to write every single day. That attempt at reigniting my writing aspirations lapsed when that blog became Pink Line Project and I ended up spending all of my time running the business instead of writing. (But at least I had escaped law practice!)

I tried again at the beginning of last year to write by posting every day on a new blog I called Art Is Fear. After 79 grueling days, I relapsed into writing inertia when work pressures overwhelmed me. Then a cancer diagnosis late last summer lit my hair on fire. Facing a life threatening disease made me realize that there was nothing else I wanted to do be doing with my life but write. I scaled back the business and focused my energies entirely on my health and on writing (and on my relationships of course).

I am currently working on two books in addition to posting on my blog almost every day. The writing process has been therapeutic. The amount of self-analysis that must happen in order to write each blog post usually far exceeds the number of words I write. I require long periods of time to mull over ideas and to figure out why any of it matters, which is why I can often be found staring into space or rearranging my closets. I need to be alone with myself to produce anything, which is in direct conflict with my classic extrovert personality. I suffer from a severe case of FOMO – the Fear Of Missing Out. I habitually fill my calendar with social activities that ought to be replaced with blocks of writing time. What’s worse is the debilitating compulsion to check the evil triumvirate of social media time-sucks (Facebook, Email, Instagram) 14,000 times daily.

My prescription for FOMO? I’ll be taking myself out of DC for an extended, self-imposed exile through most of March and April. My prescription for social media checking? A program installed on my laptop called Self Control that blocks access to designated websites for set amounts of time. I haven’t figured out how to block myself on my mobile device yet, though at least I have stopped sleeping with my phone resting on the bed next to my head each night.

I have also started to read again to see how it’s done, or not done. Many books I have read recently have emboldened me to write. “I can do that,” I’ve muttered to myself smugly a few times. Then I read something beautifully and powerfully written like Wild by Cheryl Strayed or All That Is by James Salter and it makes me want to put away my laptop and never even try to write again. But that feeling doesn’t last long because I feel compelled to write and I plod forward.


Grade A prime quality

My plastic surgeon told me yesterday morning that as far as breast reconstruction results go, my new rack ranks in the 95th percentile. I got an A! However, despite the good grade and my imminent graduation from the school of cancer’s hard knocks, the fact that I can begin a sentence with the words “my plastic surgeon” confounds me. I’ve never even worn makeup, for crying out loud, much less ever imagined a scenario in which a plastic surgeon would become an essential part of my life! The fact that this happened to me at all is bewildering given that no cancer of any type whatsoever exists on any branch of my family tree and I have always exercised almost every day and eaten well at almost every meal. I still can’t fully wrap my head around the fact that my body has been irreversibly altered, and my emotional state is still very much in flux. None of it has made any sense and I have stopped trying to make sense of it.

Though restored to some semblance of their former glory, my imposter breasts render constant and grim reminders of the calamity that befell me. Two surgeries created two scars that form an upside-down T on the underside of each breast, and satellites of dark-scar-tissue-dots mark the four drain sites that followed the mastectomy and the two biopsies that were necessary to diagnose the malady. The slight fold underneath each breast obscures the more ghastly horizontal scars, but I can feel their raised surfaces when I run my fingers over them with morbid curiosity. My perma-cleavage no longer requires a torturous contraption, sometimes known as a bra, to reveal itself (don’t be jealous ladies!), however the unnatural immobility and eternal perkiness seem to defy the laws of physics. It’s really weird and a little disconcerting. A long, shallow dimple skims downward from the top of my left breast where the silicone gel has sunk a little, and the breast that had hosted the cancerous mass is slightly less full at the top than the other. My plastic surgeon assured me that he will correct both these glitches in a couple months with a little fat sucked out from my muffin top and injected into the offending spaces, which is a major perk I hadn’t anticipated when this whole fiasco went down. In the meantime, I have been cleared to surf in three weeks. I am a little concerned, however, about my ability to paddle hard enough to propel myself in front of the waves before pushing up on the board at the right moment. My thinly stretched, weakened pectoral muscles twitch and seem to have developed a mind of their own these days as my brain’s synapses relearn how to work them in their new state of affairs. 

I was feeling pretty good about my grade-A boobs yesterday when another bolt of reality struck. My cancer surgeon called and asked me to speak with one of her patients who’d just been diagnosed with the same variety of cancer I’d had and who was agonizing, just as I had, over whether to do a lumpectomy, unilateral mastectomy, or bilateral mastectomy. My mind raced straight back to late last summer when a cancer diagnosis had paralyzed me with the preposterousness of a situation that required making such a choice. During those tear-filled weeks, I first ignored making the decision, then I sought second and third opinions, then I scoured the Internet for alternatives, and then I even denied the necessity of surgery at all. However, I soon discovered that deciding which surgery to undergo would not be the most difficult decision I would make. Though the bilateral mastectomy meant removing healthy breast tissue, it would also effectively remove any possibility of getting breast cancer ever again and it would result in a symmetrical and therefore more aesthetically pleasing outcome, and these logical considerations registered with the ruthlessly rational parts of my brain.

The real dilemma was that a misfortune had obliterated everything I had ever known about myself and had diverted me into uncharted territory filled with inevitable but unknown changes for which I hadn’t felt prepared. Turns out, I had the best possible preparation: an army of friends who fought alongside me in trench warfare against this disease. Cancer had demanded something from each of them and they had stepped up for the fight, and they were all sticking around for the aftermath, as well. I emerged with a pretty nice bosom and a special kind of clarity that looking death in the face instills. A clarity with which I can see that one day soon I will have acclimated to my new appendages and eventually I will stop crying and feeling sorry for myself when I look at the scars, and I can see clearly that there is really only one thing that matters: relationships.


Finding your soul mate

In today’s episode of “Women of Uncertain Age,” Karen and I talk about what it means to find your soul mate. Obviously, we scoff at the idea of a soul mate, although neither of us really even knows what soul mate means. Karen vaguely explains that it’s someone who “gets” you, but that hazy definition is not entirely helpful because, as Karen points out, she “gets” me, which does me no good when I want to snuggle with someone.

My mom believes that the only way to attain enlightenment is to find one of these so-called soul mates and marry him or her, and she believes you get only one soul mate ever, as in, there’s only ONE soul mate for you somewhere in the world, and you just know it when you see it, and if you don’t happen to run into that person at some point in your life, say that person happens to live on a different continent, then my mother has effectively condemned you to a life of ignominy.

Mom’s fatalist notion of romance blows. There cannot possibly be only one person for each of us for our entire lives. The person who is right for you when you are in your 20s is not necessarily the right one for you when you are in your 30s who might not be right for you in your 40s, and you are not a failure because you did not work hard enough to stay with that first person you first thought was your soul mate. You changed and maybe your mate changed, too, or maybe not, but either way, by splitting up, you gave each other the chance to find the person who would be your soul mates for the next phase of both your lives.

Whether or not you aspire to enlightenment, one single person at any one time cannot possibly be adequate to helping you attain it anyway. You need a constellation of soul mate friends to fill the many spaces in your life that your alleged soul mate cannot possibly be expected to fill. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for great disappointment if you believe only one person exists who holds the key to your enlightenment.

You may not even realize who your soul mates are when you first encounter them. I met my soul mate friend Karen when I was in my early 20s through our boyfriends, who were part of a tight-knit group of a capella singers called the Virginia Gentlemen. (Don’t laugh.) I married mine. She ditched hers. I never thought I’d see her again. We reconnected years later, but floated in and out of each others lives for several years after that until we discovered a shared love of writing and bonded over the struggles of pursuing this sometimes demoralizing but often exhilarating activity. Me getting cancer and needing her nurturing care sealed our soul mate friendship two decades after we first met.

My closest friends today are all people with whom I felt a strong connection when I first met them, but I didn’t recognize them as soul mates until I was taken down to my most vulnerable last year and they lifted me up. These stars in my constellation have filled my life and made me feel loved and made me want to love more.


It seemed like a good idea at the time

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It seemed like a good idea at the time when I was maybe twelve years old to roller skate down an asphalt-paved path that wound around a steep, azalea-lined hill in a popular park in Richmond, VA, where I grew up. Though I was an experienced roller skater, having spent hundreds of hours skating in circles at the rink and many hours choreographing routines set to music on my back patio, I was terrified and quietly resisted the impulse. However, my friend Shannon taunted me until I mustered up all my courage, breathed in deeply, and pushed myself off the top of the hill. I heard her gasp and realized right away that she didn’t think I would actually take the plunge, and my bold action forced her to follow me.

Fear became adrenaline-fueled exhilaration as we picked up speed and we screamed with girlish excitement at our audacious feat. About halfway down, perhaps I tripped over a pebble or skidded out on a rough patch, I don’t remember, but I ended up sliding down the lower part of the hill on my rear. Shannon’s mom rushed me to the hospital where a tweezers-wielding nurse picked out tiny chunks of gravel out of the skin on the back of my right leg and butt cheek and cleansed the rather large, raw wound that had begun to ooze yellow puss. I could not sit on that side for weeks and the large scab cracked and ached when I walked.

Shannon was a mean girl bully who always got her way as the leader of my girlfriend pack of four. She used classic manipulation and control techniques on us, such as alternating between ridicule and praise to create confusion, and forming alliances with two of us at a time so that there was always one girl who was made to feel left out. We yearned to please her and we feared her barbed tongue and her disappointment. The four of us did everything together: slept at each other’s homes every weekend, went to the roller skating rink every week, walked around the shopping mall together whenever we could convince one of our moms to drop us off there, and talked on the phone for hours after school every day. Our tight knit group went on like that until high school when the other two girls moved away and Shannon drifted into another group of friends that smoked pot and shunned academics, while I joined the debate team and played soccer and hung out with other nerdy bookworms.

We’d wave at each other in the hallways at school, but we never hung out together again as friends. I saw her only one more time after we graduated from high school when we ran into each other at a friend’s wedding. She gave me a brief update on her life and one thing she said stuck out. “I’m with a really good guy now who never hits me.” Thinking back to that sunny spring day in the Azalea garden when she’d tormented me and piqued all my insecurities about wanting to belong and to be liked, I wished I hadn’t gone down the hill because I’d succumbed to peer pressure. I wished I’d gone down the hill because I’d been fearless.


“We never know when the bus is coming.”

While waiting for a friend at a bar this afternoon, I was killing time scanning through my Facebook news feed when I read a long status update written by my dear and eloquent friend Gareth that made my eyes well up with tears. As soon as my friend arrived, the tears gushed forth as I tried to explain why his words had moved me so.

Gareth wrote:

Today is the day, nine years ago, that my late wife, Pam Bricker, left this-here junkyard world. This post is in tribute to her, but it is NOT about her (please, NO condolence messages). It’s actually about YOU. And me. About how we are with each other.

This is something that’s been eating at me since Pam’s memorial service. On that day, people got up and said moving and beautiful things about her, like people always do at funerals. Some of those people I know she had always wondered about – what they really thought about her. Without ever hearing much from them one way or the other, she just assumed they didn’t like her. But here they were speaking lovingly about her and the positive impact she’d had on their lives. As I sat there and listened, I couldn’t help but flush with anger. WHY didn’t you tell her that while she was alive!? Ever since, that thought has formed a regular refrain in my head. Why DO we not tell people what we think about them, especially the good stuff, while they’re alive? Why do we wait until they’re dead to truly celebrate them and account for their place in our lives? I was talking to my son, Blake, about all this recently and he said: “We should think of the sorts of things we might say about someone at their funeral and say those things TO THEM on their birthday.” YES. Exactly! Let’s do this.

So, in that spirit, I suggest we make it a priority to not let the people we love, appreciate, and admire die without them not knowing what we think about them and why. We all leave birthday messages on people’s FB walls, usually a simple “Happy Birthday.” Why not sometimes use that opportunity to tell the person WHY you’re happy it’s their birthday. Why you’re glad they’re in the world. If we did this on people’s birthdays, then at least one day a year they’d have some heart-felt appreciation to look forward to.

Another aspect of all this is being on the receiving end. For most of us, it’s uncomfortable, even embarrassing, to get this sort of fawning attention. Even an attention whore like myself frequently gets uncomfortable when the attention I crave is actually heaped upon me. To the expresser of the love, gratitude, and admiration, it’s important to be sincere, and to the recipient, it’s important to be gracious about the praise. (And to appreciate that it may have been difficult for the person offering the praise to have done so.)

Some of you may be reading this and thinking: “But in this Facebook/social media era, people fritter away their whole damn day “liking” and “favoriting” and engaging in other frequently hollow push-button virtual praising. Why does he think we suddenly need more of this?” A fair point. There’s probably been no time in history where it’s easier to share a basic gesture/statement of praise with fellow members of the human herd. And we’ve all become suckers for such gestures. We are the “Like” Generation. But what I’m talking about goes deeper than this. Again, there’s the birthday example. It’s really great to get dozens and dozens of “Happy Birthday!” messages, but wouldn’t it be even better to hear from at least some of those people WHY they’re actually happy that you exist in this world? Let’s not be afraid to go deeper. It matters.

Oh, and of course, by all means: Let’s tell each other (gasp) IN PERSON! Please, let’s not lose the ability to meaningfully interact in person.

While I was working on this post, I ran into a piece on Thought Catalog. It expresses a similar impulse, in a slightly different (and perhaps more potent) way:

“I love being horribly straightforward. I love sending reckless text messages (because how reckless can a form of digitized communication be?) and telling people I love them and telling people they are absolutely magical humans and I cannot believe they really exist. I love saying, “Kiss me harder,” and “You’re a good person,” and, “You brighten my day.” I live my life as straight-forward as possible. Because one day, I might get hit by a bus.

“I know how it is—we all want to be mysterious. None of us want to get hurt. None of us want to look desperate. So we WAIT to respond to texts, phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, Tweets. So we communicate our emotions in how we end our messages (no period this time? Really gonna get them.). So we say vague, half-statements and expect people to read our minds.

“Maybe it’s weird. Maybe it’s scary. Maybe it seems downright impossible to just be—to just let people know you want them, need them, feel like, in this very moment, you will die if you do not see them, hold them, touch them in some way whether its your feet on their thighs on the couch or your tongue in their mouth or your heart in their hands.

“We never know who needs us back. We never know the magic that can arise between ourselves and other humans.

“We never know when the bus is coming.”

I cried when I read Gareth’s post because I have been feeling an overwhelming amount of gratitude for the hundreds of well wishes I have received while I have been recovering from two cancer surgeries, and I have been feeling thankful and lucky that I did not die so that, unlike Gareth’s wife, I got to hear all the nice things that people had to say about me, and I have been feeling profoundly sad that we always seem to wait until something awful happens before we say such nice things to each other and oftentimes it’s too late. I have also felt that I didn’t deserve so much love and that the massive amounts of love that have been thrust on me have felt like a crushing responsibility to redistribute it all back into the world. As I near the end of treatment, I have been questioning my ability to carry out this monumental task. The friend consoling me at the bar assured me that the love that I had received had been a reflection of the love I had shown. And then it hit me that it was THAT easy, that it really wasn’t magic after all, but merely being reckless with our affections and friendships and kindnesses, which didn’t seem so hard at all. And if there was any magic in it, the magic was in the attempt to understand each other and to love one another.


I Don’t Want to Belong to Any Club That Will Accept Me as a Member

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A good friend’s leg broke in five places two weeks ago when another guy’s head rammed into it during a game of flag football. The other guy walked away with possibly a mild concussion, but required no treatment. My friend, on the other hand, will be wearing a heavy cast on his leg for three months and is currently couch bound for at least four weeks. Though he’ll be more mobile soon, he’ll still be hobbling around well into spring. He’s a vibrant, active guy so the next three months look like lost time to him and the idleness is already having a melancholy affect on his naturally sunny disposition.

I felt that same sense of lost time and gloominess last fall when I realized that though I wouldn’t die from cancer it would be six months after the double mastectomy surgery before I could be 100% active again. As someone who exercised hard every single day and reveled in outdoor activity, the prospect of long-term inertia depressed me nearly as much as the fright of having a potentially deadly disease. Within days of the surgery, I was eager to move about and insisted on taking a walk in the sunshine, which meant plodding around the block with friends on either side holding me steady. I wobbled forward but my head felt hazy and unbalanced from the post-op drugs so we went back inside after one lap and I collapsed from the exertion.

After a couple weeks, I started taking long daily walks again and then went back to the gym as soon as my doctor gave his approval. It felt good to begin rebuilding some physical strength, but I had to be careful about doing anything that would strain my upper body and the constant reminder of my ebbing vigor depressed me by year’s end. The second surgery in the treatment process took place exactly three months (happily, a month earlier than expected!) after the first bodily invasion and though it was much easier the second time around, the doctor forbade me from doing anything strenuous for six more weeks to ensure complete healing of the surgical wounds. I’m in the middle of that six weeks right now and though I can see the end, it’s driving me crazy to still not be able to do all the physical things I am accustomed to doing.

I visited my broken-legged friend today and he asked me how I’d coped with these feelings of despair. It was a tough question to answer because I was feeling it a little bit today, too. My standup paddle-boarding buddy had just texted me a picture from the dock where we kept our boards and bragged that he’d worn shorts and a t-shirt while paddling on this unseasonably warm day. I’d have been out there with him if my doctor hadn’t specifically banned me from this activity when I’d asked him about it at one of our appointments. When I went to the gym yesterday for the first time in weeks to do some leg and ab work, I had been tentative about some of the exercises even though my trainer assured me that they didn’t involve the chest muscles. Tiny discomforts continued to plague me even following the surgery that replaced the expanders with the more comfy implants. Tears welled up in my eyes at these reminders of what I had lost. Though I knew I would be fully active again soon, my body and therefore my mind had been forever changed by the physical trauma that had befallen me and I was still trying to figure out who I would be after I’d healed completely, and why and how and when.

I told my infirmed friend that the most brilliant flashes of insight and inspiration had hit me during these moments of misery. Though I had the sense that I would emerge as a better person when it was all over, I could feel the changes happening within as they were happening and those changes would usually be happening when I felt my worst. In a weird fucked up way, I even relished those moments of despair because I knew they were making me better. I reminded him that our misfortune would not last forever, but the ripple effects would continue long past our convalescence.

I felt like I was gaining a special insight that those who hadn’t suffered some calamity could never know. My friend and I had joined a club to which we had not applied and we were being hazed before we could earn the full benefits of membership. We wondered if those lessons could somehow be learned without the hardship. I’m not sure. I don’t think so, but I don’t wish any of it on anyone.

We also talked about when we would be happy again. I didn’t know what to say. There have plenty of happy moments during the last seven months in the midst of despair, mostly fueled by love and support from friends and strangers. But happiness was ephemeral, a temporary state. Whether I had been happy or not during this or any other time had become irrelevant. What had become relevant was finding meaning and purpose in life, enough to carry me through regardless of my state of happiness, or woe.


Comfort food

In a photo series I call #mencookinginmykitchen, I have been documenting an assortment of men preparing meals for me over the past few years. I captured them chopping vegetables or stirring a sauce in the kitchen, or maybe poking at marinated meats and thickly sliced vegetables on the grill outside. Most of the time, the man cooking was not a romantic interest. Some of the time, the man lacked cooking prowess, but I never complained. Several unreported women cooked in my kitchen. Twice, the man was an actual chef and prepared gorgeous and impressive meals with great skill and ease, which made me swoon. Some non-chef men just knew their way around a kitchen, which induced outright giddiness. I am a total sucker for a man with knife skills.

I have always loved to eat and to eat well, and all of that love for food came from home and not from eating out. My dad is a great cook who never received formal training. He figured out how to make “good groceries” (this is what he calls food that he prepares) through experimentation, instinct, and practice, and he has been in charge of the culinary duties in his household through his last three wives. 

My mom is also an amazing cook whose first lessons came from helping her traditional mother prepare the labor intensive meals that are emblematic of Vietnamese cuisine. Mom also attended a French cooking school as a young woman in Vietnam, a former French colony that held on to the best parts of its colonial past.  She is as comfortable making luscious steaming bowls of Vietnamese soups containing complex layers of flavors and textures, as she is making lobster crêpes with a subtle sauce that drenches your tongue with buttery warmth.

Neither of my parents enjoys eating out much because they both think they can cook food that is better than most food that is served in restaurants, which is probably true. They are both completely averse to eating at fast food restaurants of any sort anywhere anytime. On a road trip with my mom years ago, she awoke extra early to make sushi rolls and other delicacies that we would eat somewhere along our journey rather than grabbing food from a drive-through window. We pulled over to a rest area after several hours of driving and she laid out a feast on a picnic table and we gorged ourselves with homemade dishes while the rather large family sitting at the next table opened bags of potato chips, unwrapped cold sandwiches, and drank sugary soda. I felt smug and embarrassed at the same time.

On any road trip with my dad, when it is time to stop for a meal, he insists on searching for a restaurant where we can sit at a table with a knife and fork. He opposes eating with our hands. Neither parent cared how many more hours we needed to drive to reach our destination. Meals had to be civilized and tasty experiences no matter the circumstances. Food was the only thing my parents could agree on, and the only nice thing they’d say about each other after their acrimonious divorce was that the other was a good cook.

Mom says that her food tastes better than anyone else’s because she infuses love into the preparation. Neither parent is particularly demonstrative so they show love through food. It is no surprise then that I associate food with expressions of love.


Send a carrier pigeon!

In a recent article on NPR, Colleen Vivori reported on Bushlines, which are personal messages read aloud over the airwaves every day from a public radio station in Homer, Alaska, to people who live in the remotest parts of our 49th state without television, telephones, or [gasp] cell phones! For the most part, Bushlines is the only communication these adventurers have with the outside world and they can’t even respond! No witty banter. No sense of urgency in the response. And no emoji! Nonetheless, the Bushlines contain a depth of human connectedness that had me wondering what it meant to communicate with each other.

At the end of the article, Colleen asks, “[H]ow many text messages did you send today?” I reflected on the numerous text messages I’d sent and received during that one day alone. In the morning, a woman who’d been through breast cancer with me last year had texted me a question, “Hey – do you wear a bra?” One of the things that had lifted our spirits during the dark times was the prospect of never wearing bras again because our perky fake breasts would never sag like ordinary, boring, natural breast tissue would. However, now that we’d gotten our new perky fake ones, she worried that hers had begun to sag a little and I admitted that I was concerned about that possibility and had been wearing a sports bra (no underwire!) ever since my implant surgery three weeks ago. Talk of boob sag led to complaints about sagging other body parts and how we needed to hit the gym soon and often to work on sculpting the rest of our parts to look as good as the newest additions to our bodies. This woman had helped get me through cancer with my sanity relatively intact, and she did it mostly through wise, compassionate, and sympathetic text message conversations like this one.

Later that morning, I exchanged several worried text messages with another friend who had been at a party the night before where she had given her phone number to a guy who was not the guy she’d been seeing over the past few months. Given the circumstances of that relationship, which we’d discussed over hundreds of previous text messages, I reassured her that she’d done nothing wrong… yet. We bantered back and forth about the situation and then concluded that neither of us was fit for romance anyway. Lots more boy talk ensued in the afternoon with another friend when she texted a compliment about a fella who’d accompanied me a few nights earlier to an impromptu dinner with her and her boyfriend during the snowstorm. I could almost hear the girlish gleeful giggles that typically accompanied this kind of boy-talk when it happens in real life.

When I was in high school, I used to spend hours talking on the phone with my girlfriends about boys while sitting in the hallway just outside the kitchen door with my back against one wall and my legs splayed across the floor, my family members stepping over me to get to other parts of our home. When I didn’t want my mom to hear what I was saying, I’d stretch the cord into the bathroom and close the door and speak in hushed tones until someone banged on the door in need of the facilities. These phone conversations took place long before wireless phones of any sort existed and they solidified friendships that have lasted to this day, and were the precursors of text communication for me.

My mom learned how to text not long ago and sent me messages earlier that same day reminding me to put ginger in my juice and to drink the juice right away because it would lose all its vitamins if saved over night. She also texted me her concerns (again!) about the poor quality of DC tap water and implored me to stop drinking it. Typical mom stuff about which she would have lectured me on the phone if she ever called me anymore.

Throughout that day, I had also sent dozens of messages coordinating where and when to meet a friend for lunch, letting another friend know I’d moved my car out of his parking space so he could have it back, and rearranging a meal drop off for another friend who would be bed bound for a few weeks. These utilitarian messages didn’t require longer conversations beyond a couple quick texts, but they were all necessary communications in a busy urban life.

I don’t know how many text messages I write each day. Some days, I carry on extensive conversations filled with soulful revelations and wisdom from incredibly insightful people. Sometimes the stream of messages turns into a battle of wit, occasionally punctuated with a string of emoji. Other times, just when I need it most, I receive inspirational dispatches of support and love, or a quick hello that says someone is thinking about me in that moment.

Though fascinated by Bushlines, I’ve become accustomed to the comfort of the immediate response that text usually implies. Though I’m trying to cut down on the amount of time I spend perusing my Facebook news feed and answering emails on my mobile device, I won’t curtail texting, which has been one of several communication tools that I use in direct and meaningful conversation with a few of those who are most important to me.


Put away the cell phone and wake up and fight!

Every night before I fall asleep, I scan the evil triumvirate of mechanisms designed to squander time and kill brain cells - email, Facebook, Instagram - on my mobile device while lying in bed. I don’t have space for a nightstand in my bedroom so my device rests on the bed next to my head while I sleep. Sometimes it slips under my pillow like a lousy version of the tooth fairy. Years ago, before I kept my device so near in the night, I would fall into deep slumber within seconds of lying down and I would leap out of bed seven to eight hours later, refreshed and ready to start the day. Now, I often feel sluggish unable to escape the clutches of the sheets in the mornings and I am certain that staring into a tiny glowing screen just before I close my eyes impedes a sound, restful sleep.

I typically hold the device above my head in the dark for thirty to sixty minutes answering emails and scrolling through the Facebook newsfeed, sometimes clicking on links that lead me down a rabbit hole that ends with me feeling dumber than when I started and feeling irked at myself for the vast chunks of unrecoverable lost time that have just passed. In the morning, the process works in reverse. As soon as I open my eyes, I reach for the phone and linger over what’s transpired while I slept, traveling deeper down the hole that I’d begun digging the previous night.

I’ve long wished I could break myself of this habit. I knew that the constant email checking was wrecking my sleep cycle, and I had the sense that it was also somehow affecting my daily productivity, but I felt helpless in the grip of this addiction. Then I read an article recently that said checking email as soon as you wake up pretty much ruins your day because that act uses the “shallow, transactional part of your brain,” from which it is difficult to transition into the deeper parts of your brain where strategic thinking happens, which is the part of the brain where writing takes place! According to this article, once you start checking email, your brain languishes in the reactive mode that email engenders and it only slowly, or sometimes never in the absence of forceful prodding, converts over to productive mode. I finally understood why I was having so much difficulty writing on a daily basis, and why it would sometimes take all day before I could write anything at all.

Armed with this knowledge, I have decided to improve the current state of my brain by leaving my mobile device in the living room, away from my bed, each night starting tonight. Tomorrow morning, rather than begin the day by responding to emails and scanning my Facebook news feed, I intend to write a short warm-up post on my blog and I will continue to do so every day until I reestablish my brain’s ability to focus for long periods of time on large projects, such as the two books I’ve begun but on which I have made little progress. Wish me luck!