A young girlfriend emailed me last summer asking for advice about what she should do with her life, whether she should stop doing “random, crazy things and settle down and start a career and take a desk job.” I had just landed in Portland, having spent the previous weeks in Hawaii writing and surfing, when I received her text message. I dashed off a quick “NEVER” and told her I’d write more later. I pondered the question for a week, during which I experienced the complete breadth of human emotion having met a man who would change the course of my life and spending time with my father from whom I’d been estranged for nine years, and during which I imagined the possibility of my imminent death and planned my funeral with playlists and poetry, before I responded with a lengthy, rambling email urging her to stop wasting time worrying about what anyone thinks she should be doing with her life and go do the things that make her happy. I concluded with this:
You don’t need me to tell you what to do. There is no one answer anyway. Trust your heart, love fiercely, hug harder, and don’t be an asshole (to yourself included), and be kind and generous (to yourself included), and be in love with the world. And let the world love you back. (I have a hard time with that last one.)
I wrote that bit of advice during a time when my own life was in drastic flux and in the midst of yet another self-reinvention fueled by a desire to pursue my own creative aspirations. One month later, a breast cancer diagnosis left no room for confusion about the path forward.
Now that treatment and the reconstruction process are almost done, I have been wondering how well I fared in following the advice I had imparted to my young friend. Though cancer has allowed me to excuse myself from many social and business obligations over the past year, soon I won’t have that crutch to fall back on. I have drastically downsized my business, which has given me more time to write, and I have been securing more and more freelance writing and speaking gigs, and slogging my way through writing a book. In those regards, I have fared well.
Have I, however, loved fiercely and hugged harder and been kind and generous and in love with the world? I have tried my best and I learned most of whatever I know from all the love and kindness and generosity that has been heaped on me.
Have I been an asshole? Yes. I have cancelled dates with girlfriends in favor of a guy who asked me out at the last minute, I have talked about people behind their backs, and I have fought dirty with loved ones by using the weapon of silence. I am reluctant, however, to confess the truly epic asshole things I have perpetrated. Too embarrassed! Let’s just say that I finally figured out that I don’t have time or mental space to be an asshole, which requires filling up limited emotional capacity with anger, resentment, and a certain amount of conniving and which leaves little room for love, kindness, generosity and ultimately joy, and makes everyone feel bad in the process. I’d rather spend the time paddle boarding or reading a good book or walking with a friend or having lunch with my niece and nephew or a thousand other things that make me happy.
On the same day that I gave a “Creative Mornings” talk in which I reminded the audience that we are all right now dying so we need to be doing what our hearts tell us we should be doing every single minute of every single day, my ex-husband emailed me to say that his brother’s wife died the same day after having been in poor health for 18 months. He’d dashed off the email to me on his way to the airport to be with his family and did not provide more details. I found out from reading her obituary that she’d died of Stiff Person Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder with features of an autoimmune disease. I recalled that she had suffered various maladies almost the entire time I had known her and I wondered if she’d been misdiagnosed all those years.
I burst into tears on learning of her passing. I had not seen or spoken to her since well before the divorce years ago, and we had not been close when I had been part of my ex’s family. We never communicated with each other outside of family gatherings and our conversations during those infrequent holiday visits lacked intimacy and warmth. She tried hard to befriend me and I rebuffed her amiable overtures until she finally gave up and we settled into a tolerant co-existence. And yet, the news of her passing overwhelmed me with sadness.
I thought of her three children on whom she’d lavished love and of her kind-hearted, loyal husband. They would feel the great void of her sizable personality. Though she and I never bonded, we had nonetheless been part of each other’s lives for nearly two decades and her demise left a small gap in my heart, as well. She was generous and forgiving to a fault, and she was confident and resourceful and optimistic and she expressed love easily.
I possessed little of these qualities at the time, which made me subconsciously jealous of her. I had felt intellectually superior to her and I had been smug about her life choices, which had been much different from my own. I did little to mask my disdain, a disdain that made me feel better about myself and that infused in me a false sense of power over her. I was detached from and dismissive of the demons she’d fought in her young life and self-righteously believed that my demons stank worse. I hid my contempt behind a thin veil and her friendly overtures ceased after a few years as she resigned herself to mirroring my bare civility.
I cringe now at the depth of my immaturity and lack of self-confidence and the agonizing awareness of my inability to compete with her at the time in the ways that mattered most. I could have been happier with my life sooner if I’d let go of all that pride and all those emotional barricades and reflected her virtues. Instead, I wasted years expending emotional energy being annoyed, uncharitable, judgmental, and critical.
She was only a few months older than I, a startling reminder that though I had had my own recent brush with death over the same period and had survived, I was not invincible and we have limited time to learn how to be our best selves. I regret that I had not been better to her when I knew her and I wish it had not taken me so many years to become better, for my own sake. Her death reminded me that living your life like you know you are dying every day is about much more than following your dreams to become a writer or travel the world or live with abandon. Living your life like you know you’re dying means living with compassion, kindness, love, and unfettered generosity. Those are the things that will make you happy and in turn make others happy and make the world a better place for all of us.
Cancer has been one of the shittier things that ever happened to me. At the same time, my year with cancer has also been a magical time in my life in which I learned some mighty lessons about friendship, love, freedom, and how to live like you’re dying (because, you know, we are all dying right now). Nestled among these abstract gifts from the cancer gods was one more palpable and tangible bonus: liposuction!
A few weeks after the second surgery in January when the implants took their place beneath my chest muscles, small divots and depressions began to form as the silicone pouches settled into place. This lovely side effect doesn’t happen to women who get breast augmentation because they still have breast tissue on top of the implants. My plastic surgeon (three words I never imagined I would say together) prescribed a standard procedure: fill in those dents with fat harvested from my tummy.
Even though the imperfections were small and even though perfectly symmetrical and well-shaped breasts are not the norm anyway and even though I had never before considered elective plastic surgery, I figured I could at least get perfect boobs out of this whole ordeal. And though a flat stomach barely redressed the loss of my breasts, I thought it could at least help vanquish nagging feelings that I might never be attractive enough to date again.
The liposuction would take place during the surgery to reconstruct the nipple, which my surgeon had removed from the cancer-ridden breast. He explained that reconstructing the nipple from the remaining areola was like origami. I’d like to think he made that analogy with all his patients and not especially for his Asian patients who might better understand the process by relating it to something they could easily understand.
“Ahso,” I nodded cheerfully!
I looked forward to the liposuction and had been feeling physically strong, maybe even stronger than before the surgery. Since being diagnosed with cancer, I had changed my diet to exclude processed sugar. I drank less alcohol, ate less meat and more veggies, and guzzled gallons of green juices. Once given the all clear from the last surgeries, I began exercising again with gusto. Plus, I felt smug telling all my jealous girlfriends about getting medically required lipo … that insurance would pay for!
Optimism filled me until a few days before the final surgery date when the familiar fear and anxiety of cancer and of invasive surgery set in again. The recovery from another surgery would disrupt my #endlesssummer with swelling and bruising well into early fall and there would no exercise more vigorous than walking for several weeks. I plunged into a funk. The impending surgery reminded me of everything I’d suffered over the past year.
I wanted the whole ordeal to end as soon as possible so I considered calling off the lipo, which was the part of the whole procedure that would require the most recovery time. Turned out, insurance would not pay for any liposuction beyond the small amount necessary to fill in the holes. The additional, stomach-flattening lipo would cost nearly $5,000 out-of-pocket (even with the breast cancer discount!). Perhaps it had been wishful thinking, but I had misunderstood the scope of the procedure when my plastic surgeon first explained it to me.
Would it be worth the additional physical pain and emotional torment? I polled several girlfriends who had been jealous of my impending liposuction for their opinions thinking they would talk me into taking out a home equity loan to pay for the much-coveted flat stomach and here’s what they said:
“You don’t even wear make up, why would you pay for liposuction?”
“Why gild the lily?”
“Spend the money on a fabulous vacation instead!”
You don’t need to remove miniscule amounts of fat to be a better writer, rock star, artist, or hottie.”
And so it happened again. Yet another magical gift bestowed on me. The gift of thoughtful, loving, gorgeous girlfriends who weren’t afraid to set me straight when I needed it. Tomorrow, I will undergo the least invasive option and then I will move on with my wild and beautiful new life and continue with my #endlesssummer.
Over at The Home Beete, Paulette is writing about her body every day for 30 days. She struggles with her weight and speaks beautifully and poignantly about the ways her large size have affected her disposition and even the course of her life. Until my 20s, I wore baggy, boyish clothes that hid my shape because I believed that my body was too big thanks in part to my Asian relatives who have never stopped commenting on my relatively larger size. Eventually I figured out I was medium sized and that my relatives were tiny and I began wearing clothes that fit me and vanquished those perceived flaws about my size, though I am still trying to lose the same five pounds that I was trying to lose in college, which have lately settled into a muffin top that both my grandmother and mother carry around their midsections, so I suspect genetics will thwart my efforts.
Though I recalibrated my perceptions of my body size, I have never been able to completely overcome the negative feelings I sometimes still harbor about my Asian physical features. As a young child, I would pinch the bridge of my nose and lift up my eyelids with my fingertips every day and I permed my hair into long curls as a teenager and later added streaks of blond in a futile attempt at altering my appearance so that no one would mistake me for Asian. I never had any ideas for how to lengthen my legs. I have never, however, complained about my Asian skin. Besides tanning easily, my skin has been slow to wrinkle and sag.
I have spent most of my young life avoiding other Asians, including my family, so that I would not be mistaken for one of them and therefore treated as an outsider. Despite my best efforts, I never felt like I fit in the ultra white, Southern, suburban town I called home. My rag tag band of friends, though all white, each embodied their own brand of misfit. One friend practiced a weird religion, Mormonism. Another friend was clearly a closeted gay and came out years later after marrying and having children. A third friend was South Asian, which was just far enough away from my own Southeast Asian to be acceptable company. A fourth friend was a quiet loner whose alcoholic father beat and verbally abused him and who went on to become a pediatrician.
Whenever I go to NYC, I stay with a former fairly serious boyfriend, sleeping chastely on the couch. He does the same whenever he comes back to DC to visit. We dated for nearly two years not too long after I split up with my husband of 16 years. He helped me heal from the awful pain of divorcing someone I still loved, though not, in the end, in that desirous, passionate way that keeps a marriage pulsing with life and vigor.
He brought me flowers regularly and performed little guy tasks like fixing my stereo system and putting air in my car tires. He gave me thoughtful gifts, like the super cool huge beach towel for two emblazoned with a surfing motif that he’d ordered from The Standard Hotel, and the heavy duty food processor after I complained about chopping vegetables one night when I was making dinner for him. We road tripped to Pittsburgh to explore the art scene one late spring weekend and as usual he found the yummiest places to eat and the neatest old hotel for lodging, and later we went to London and Paris for my birthday and somehow he got a reservation for two at a fancy, pop-up restaurant on the roof of the Palais de Tokio, where Paris and everything that was beautiful and gorgeous in the world laid spread our below us.
A couple years passed after we broke up before we became friends and our friendship deepened as we learned how to relate to each other in this new way. He became one of my most ardent supporters during my bout with cancer, and at the end of that awful year, he posted on Facebook an inventory of things he’d been thankful for in the past 12 months, and the last thing he listed was gratitude for one of his best friends kicking cancer’s ass. I saw that I was important to him and I cried a little and hoped I had shown him well enough that he had been important to me.
So when I texted him a couple weeks ago to ask if his couch was free for a visit, he told me that he’d just started seeing someone who didn’t like that he had so many friends who were women and that he’d have to check with her to see if it was ok for me to stay with him. I advised him to break up with her without delay, not because I was jealous or secretly wishing we would get back together, but because I knew how hard it was to find great friends who take care of you when you need them and who know your weird quirks and still like you anyway. Anyone who would stand in the way of a potential mate’s hard earned friendships was questionable material for anything beyond a passing fancy.
I’m lucky I got to find out who my friends were when I got sick last year and this guy was one of them. I hope he, or anyone else I care about, never has to find out the hard way who his friends are.
I sailed around the British Virgin Islands for a week last month with five friends. We cohabitated in less than 400 square feet of living space on a 40 foot sailboat with three tiny sleeping cabins each equipped with a triangular bunk that was barely larger than a twin bed. Our Captain assigned me to the port side bunk along with the one other single girl on the voyage. However, the stuffy, claustrophobic conditions below deck nauseated me and I avoided spending time below as much as possible.
Using a cushion borrowed from the galley, I made my bed each night on a narrow bench on deck that was just long and wide enough to accommodate my length and width. I could turn on my side but I could not splay my arms and legs in my usual starfish repose. Nevertheless, I drifted off into deep slumber each night while gazing into a black sky filled with a billion twinkling dots of light, as warm Caribbean breezes wafted over my bare legs, and water gently lapped against the sides of the boat. I awoke each morning just before dawn with a seagull perched on the rail and watched the sun rise into the pale sky in the quiet moments before my crewmates emerged from below.
Each day, we sailed to a different island and anchored in a protected cove or harbor where we paddle boarded and snorkeled around the coral reefs, explored empty beaches, and grilled fish and lobster tails over red hot charcoals off the back of the boat. We whispered secrets into a pink and white conch shell that I found on the beach and tossed it back into the sea. We dunked ourselves in sea pools and spelunked dim grottoes formed by granite boulders that seeped out of ancient volcanoes long before humans set foot on this island cluster. We swung in hammocks under palm trees sipping cold rum drinks that sweated in our hands, lulled into a state of transcendent bliss by syncopated reggae rhythms. We showered in the open air, and then stopped showering after we ran out of water midway through the week.
A couple weeks before leaving on the trip, I learned that we would not have wifi on the boat. NO WIFI for an entire week! And no cellular service either. Shortness of breath and low level panic and dread overcame me as I anticipated the first pangs of withdrawal from obsessively checking all my social media outlets and the number of likes received. I considered numerous options for staying connected. Maybe I would purchase an expensive international data plan or a mobile hot spot. After a couple restless days, however, the anxiety subsided and I resolved to seize the opportunity to unplug myself. I succeeded in doing so most of the time mostly because most of the time, I was without any kind of a connection.
I started each day with a mind uncluttered by the drivel that poured out of my cell phone’s social media apps, which I’d fallen into the habit of checking first thing every morning even before getting out of bed. I ended each night with the moon, and not the cell phone’s sinister glow, bathing my face with soft, soothing light before falling asleep. We visited a couple bars that emitted a WiFi signal where I posted pictures that I hoped would elicit jealous commentary and many likes. For the most part, though, I resisted the siren call of social media without the anticipated palpitations and irritability that usually accompany withdrawal, but then succumbed to its allure like a drug-addled heroin addict within days of my return.
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 prompts 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 now.
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 for almost everyone, even the great ones, 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 after a while, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Asian 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. However, even 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 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 Asians. 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.
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 undergone a battery of inconclusive tests over several weeks, including two mammograms, two sonograms, and an MRI. Two radiologists had not seen any threatening abnormalities 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, which would 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
When Karen and I decided to do a special Valentine’s Day episode about kissing for our podcast now entitled “Women of Uncertain Age” (formerly known as Van Gogh Sessions), I felt smug enough, having received numerous compliments on my kissing, and experienced enough, having kissed a few lovely fellas in my time, to dispense advice on this subject. I love kissing! I could kiss for hours! That is, with someone who is an equally good kisser, because if the kissing doesn’t work, then the other stuff doesn’t work, if you know what I mean.
I wondered, though … if I thought someone was a bad kisser, could that allegedly bad kisser find another gal who was more compatible with his style, and therefore be thought of as a good kisser by someone else? I haven’t had the opportunity to test this theory, but I posit that there are universally accepted principals to good kissing and that bad kissing is just plain bad kissing. Though the mechanics of good kissing could probably be taught to some degree, I haven’t met a single person who has ever been bold enough to give verbal advice on better kissing technique whilst in the throes of kissing, although you could probably provide subtle guidance through nonverbal cues. Too much tongue? Open and close your mouth to adjust the rate and volume of tongue. Too much pressure? Gently nudge away your suitor and then draw him back in when you’re ready for more. You get the picture.
So what makes good kissing? Can you even tell if someone will be a good kisser before you kiss them? Can you teach someone how to be a good kisser? For today’s special Valentine’s Day podcast, we went out onto the street to find out what people had to say and though we gathered some intriguing intel, we came to no final conclusions other than that proper use of the tongue was a critical element of good kissing, which we already knew anyway.
Speaking of Valentine’s Day, I love Valentine’s Day! But I don’t attach a great deal of romantic expectation or significance to the day, even when I have had a special someone in my life with whom to celebrate this Hallmarkiest of Hallmark holidays, mostly because I think that we ought to shower each other with love every single day. In fact, I become very suspicious when someone makes a huge deal about this one day in particular because it probably means he feels guilty about not having shown enough love during the rest of the days of the year. Infrequent grand gestures of love make me wonder what is missing. Tiny daily acts of thoughtfulness make me swoon.
But don’t get me wrong. I am a hopeless romantic! I’m in love with being in love in all its forms and all the mushy stuff that goes along with it, and Valentine’s Day is a great way to celebrate all of them - friendship, crushes, passion, lust, and admiration. Happy Valentine’s Day!!
Cancer mutilates your body and mangles your emotions with despair, shame, sorrow, self-pity. At the same time, it teaches extraordinary lessons about living with your hair on fire, resilience, redemption, but most of all, love and friendship. From the moment signs appeared indicating something was amiss inside my body last summer, my closest friends sprang to my aid without hesitation and closed ranks around me with acts of love and grace that had me wondering every day how or why I deserved so much. At first it was simple things like sitting with me and saying nothing while I cried, paddling me up the Potomac in a kayak when I couldn’t move my right arm after a biopsy, texting me every morning with cheerful reminders of my Wonder Woman powers, and looking at online pictures of reconstructed breasts long into a Saturday night until we figured out the best looking ones for me.
My anxiety level rose through the stratosphere in the weeks between diagnosis and surgery and I required heavier doses of love with each passing day. One of my best pals put himself in charge of distracting me from my debilitating fear of the surgery and the anesthesia and promised to do anything I wished during the weekend before the procedure would take place. I wanted to go to Pittsburgh so I could see a giant rubber duck art installation floating in the Allegheny River. I could tell he was not keen on the idea of driving to Pittsburgh and back in the same day, but he humored me and we ended up having a blast. Another dear friend spent several hours making a plaster cast of my former breasts by which to remember them for eternity, or maybe until I smash them with a hammer at some point when I will have let go of my former self. Karen embedded herself in my apartment, which she dubbed Camp Boob, for ten days to administer numerous post-op medications, to empty plastic bulbs attached to tubes sticking out of both sides of my body through which oozed a kaleidoscope of fluid, and to cheer me up and onward with her sharp wit and congenital peppiness. Another dear friend stayed with my mom in the hospital all day while I was in surgery and calmed down both of us from near hysterics in the pre-op preparation room. Seeing all the other distressed patients awaiting their surgeries and seeing my mom break down with fear and sorrow at the sight of her daughter undergoing an operation to save her life proved more than my rational mind could handle that morning and my friend was right there by my side to remind me that we’d be going to Sri Lanka together soon. When would we book our flight to that faraway land was the first thing I asked her, still standing by my side, when I woke up from the anesthesia seven hours later. One of my closest guy friends had appointed himself my designated driver to and from numerous doctor’s appointments, the most important of which took place about a week after the surgery, the one in which I would learn my pathology results, the one that would tell me if the surgeon had scraped away all the cancer cells and whether any cancer cells had spread beyond my breast. He accompanied me into that meeting along with my mom and Karen, all of them looking stricken. I was high on drugs and giggling, which probably made everyone really uncomfortable. We breathed a collective sigh of relief when the doctor declared me cancer free. The worst had passed.
After the surgery, other friends stopped by with meals for lunch and dinner every day for two weeks. Joyous dinner parties erupted nearly every night. Though I was tired and healing from the surgery, loving energy from good friends boosted my spirits and quickened the healing process. A flood of floral arrangements brightened up my apartment, and hundreds of compassionate well-wishes arrived via text, Facebook messaging, and even snail mail. I also received heartfelt messages from a couple estranged friends that made me smile. I wish it hadn’t taken me getting cancer to hear from them after so much time had passed, but I happily accepted the gesture knowing that letting go of a grudge meant more space for love for all of us. A handful of people who had kicked cancer’s ass wrote compassionate notes in solidarity. I’d joined a club of survivors who’d gained particular insight into the emotional toll of this dreadful disease and empathized with me in way that even my closest friends could not.
Some of the most beautiful messages came from a handful of people I barely knew. One in particular moved me to tears.
“As someone I deeply respect and admire, the time you took and the interest you showed was incredibly important during a pivotal part of my life. It takes a special, fierce sort of bravery to show the amount of kindness and supportiveness that you do to strangers in need of it. I think that exact kind of bravery is one of the greatest superpowers a writer can have; sometimes, some of us may think that more than anything, readers need writers to be the best at this or that part of the craft. Really, before any of that, they need an author who cares about them enough to open up and take chances, even though they have never met (but please take care of yourself first!).”
Reading this note, I finally understood that the question of whether I or anyone else deserved love was irrelevant. We simply needed to give and receive copious amounts of it every single day with reckless abandon. I understood that even the smallest acts of kindness could have a formidable, and often unknown, impact on a fellow human being. My having cancer had given many people the opportunity to show love and had given me the capacity to accept love. I hope none of us ever again waits for another calamity to occur before we show and tell each other how much we love each other.
My new fake boobs are stunning! Like perfectly matched teardrop shaped gummy bears that will never sag. I’ve been trumpeting my excitement to anyone who has shown even the slightest bit of interest in my breasts, which were installed on Tuesday, three months to the day after a double mastectomy. I could not find a boob emoji to text to my friends to announce the good news so my pal Victoria came up with this old school emoticon: ( . ) ( . )
I have been sending it to everyone! One guy acquaintance replied, “Ummm I barely know you!” A closer friend suggested I start wearing plunging necklines à la J. Lo and Gwyneth.
My new bosom arrived just in time for the new year, the Lunar New Year that is, which begins today. The end of the Roman calendar year had passed me by with little fanfare while I moped around the house feeling a little sorry for myself and mentally stuck in 2013 waiting for my new boobs so I could be done with this malady and move on with my life. Though the worst of my ordeal with this disease had been behind me since early December and though my surgeon had declared me cancer free 10 days after removing the deadly cells from my body in October, I was still in a weird limbo purgatory in which agonizing expanders rested inside my chest making space for the highly anticipated fabulous new boobs and reminding me daily of what I had just been through. I had made big plans for the coming year but couldn’t motivate myself to implement them in the midst of ongoing emotional and physical trench warfare with cancer. I was raw.
The expanders did not even pretend to mimic the natural shape of a breast. They were ovoid vinyl pouches ringed with a hard edge and topped with a thick, round magnet larger than a quarter on the top side that the doctor used to find the port through which he’d inject saline each week until they grew to the size I wanted. These contraptions stayed inside of me for three months while the tissue around my former breasts repaired itself and blood reestablished flow to my skin’s surface. The bulge beneath my clothes looked pretty good once the expansion was complete, but underneath the fabric, my breasts looked misshapen and grotesque and fake and I hated looking at them. I also hated the constant dull pain, and sometimes the shooting pains as nerves reactivated themselves, and the fact that I couldn’t hold my arms in certain positions or else my hands would fall asleep when the fully inflated pouches would pinch off the blood flow to those extremities. However, the expanders were a necessary step in the reconstruction process and I counted down the minutes until I would be free of them.
So now I’ve got a fresh start with no excuses anymore for why I am not making progress on writing my books, or why I am not sending out more freelance writing pitches, or why I am not writing on my blog every day. A small part of me wants to close this chapter of my life and never look back. A much larger part of me, however, never wants to forget what it was like to look death in the face and see how little time I had left, even after I got my second chance. I never want to forget that we are all dying right now so we can’t waste one single minute of what we have left. I can see the end of my life right in front of me everyday and I want that vision to remind me never again to wait for some arbitrary day or event or lightening bolt that is out of my control to tell me it’s time to start anew, and to start doing exactly what I want to be doing every single moment of every single day.
“Letters have the power to grant us a larger life. They reveal motivation and deepen understanding. They are evidential. They change lives, and they rewire history. The world once used to run upon their transmission — the lubricant of human interaction and the freefall of ideas, the silent conduit of the worthy and the incidental, the time we were coming for dinner, the account of our marvelous day, the weightiest joys and sorrows of love. It must have seemed impossible that their worth would ever be taken for granted or swept aside.”
In the movie Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays a character named Theodore whose job is to write personal letters on behalf of people who apparently believe that writing words on an actual piece of paper and mailing it to someone inside a sealed envelope is a meaningful way to connect with a fellow human. In a not too distant future world where people have believable romantic and platonic relationships with their electronic devices, Theodore dictates love letters and break up letters, birthday wishes, condolences, and congratulations for those who can’t be bothered to do it themselves but who understand the power of receiving a personal letter, and as he speaks, the words form on his computer screen into loopy letters on an image of pink paper for a young girl client, or neat and even penmanship on classic ivory for a grandma client, or blocky letters on pale blue for a husband client. At the end of each workday, Theodore deposits his work into a mailbox at the front desk before he goes home.
There are so many things I love about this movie, but the letter as a tangible trope for all of us bumbling around grasping for ways to connect with each other hit close to home. Over the last two months, I received a handful of letters in the mail from an old flame who’d moved to the other side of the world not long after a summer fling that ended on a sour note after I’d mishandled the situation. Those heartfelt letters reaching out for a connection contained the possibility for redemption!
He was a chef from Britain who cooked lovely meals for me while I watched on in awe at the ease with which he concocted culinary delights (and you know how much I love a man who can cook!). We spent that summer doing American things like attending baseball games where I introduced him to the Ben’s chili cheese half-smoke, watching the fireworks on the National Mall for Independence Day, and hanging out at the pool on the weekends. I faded away from Chef after a few months with little fanfare and into another guy I’d met around the same time.
I felt badly for a long time about my feeble exit but I justified the fade with the belief that he hadn’t seemed all that into me anyway, despite having gifted me an expensive set of kitchen knives after I offhandedly mentioned one night that I’d lost my good knives in my divorce. Chef dropped off the sleek, shiny blades on a Friday afternoon while I was waiting for the other guy to pick me up to go to the beach for the weekend. Stunned, I stuttered thanks without making eye contact, and then promptly stowed them away in a drawer, too embarrassed to use them but also too embarrassed to return them along with a truthful explanation. Thinking back now, I detect other, less perceptible, clues signaling that he may have fallen hard for me, which he revealed much later in an ardent email from Hong Kong, where he’d moved not long after our fling. But I had fallen hard for the other guy, who hadn’t waited so long to show and tell me how he felt about me.
The other guy would look at me from across the room at a party like he wanted to rip off my clothes. He sent me poetry he’d written that he said was inspired by me. If we ate at a restaurant with booths, he’d always slide in next to me even when it was just the two of us. We talked constantly, examining the meaning of friendship, debating the merits of this book or movie over that one, sharing our fears and hopes about the future, crying over the death of my cat, and laughing at Youtube videos on a train to New York until we were severely shushed. About six months into the relationship, he took a new job in business consulting and not long after that he stopped writing poetry and began driving a Volvo, and he became more anxious about time spent away from work, which was time spent with me. We broke up in spectacular fashion the following summer and I wondered for a long time after that whether Chef’s stoic, impassive nature might have been the better choice, especially after he’d finally confessed his love for me.
Just before my surgery this past fall, I received a letter stamped par avion and postmarked from Hong Kong with no return address. Could it be!? I’d received some unbelievably compassionate messages in those weeks surrounding the surgery from sympathetic well-wishers via text, email, Facebook messages, and get-well cards that overwhelmed me with the sheer weight of their love. However, I hadn’t expected the affectionate, staggeringly unexpected missive from someone I’d mistreated years earlier and who now lived in Hong Kong, wishing he could cook comforting noodles for me. An even warmer letter from him dated the day of the surgery cheered me on in my recovery and said, “wishing there was something, anything, else I could do for you.” The third letter, written on hotel stationery from Kiev, hoped I was eating lots of nourishing soup and described one that he’d eaten that day consisting of “cabbage, beetroot, potatoes and what I’m guessing is pieces of matter that used to belong to an animal of some description or another. Fucking delicious all the same.” He signed each letter with “Tons of love” and numerous kissy X’s after the signature.
I’d read the first two letters as a version of the get-well-quickly genre of correspondence that one would expect from a polite, former lover. However, something about the intimate description of the weird Ukrainian soup and something about him taking the time to post a letter during a business trip to Kiev prompted me to invite him to meet me in London on the Rois des Belges, a boat-shaped temporary art installation named after the steamer that Joseph Conrad piloted up the Congo before writing Heart of Darkness. After entering a lottery every three months for over two years, I’d finally won the privilege of spending one night in this boat set atop the Queen Elizabeth Music Hall on the South Bank overlooking the Thames River. My assigned night would take place just seven weeks after the surgery and though it seemed a little soon to embark on an overseas voyage, I was determined to end an extraordinary year with an equally extraordinary experience. I confirmed the reservation and the excitement of looking forward to something so wonderful subdued my pre-surgery panic and dread down to low-grade anxiety and nervous jitters.
I’d intended to stay in the boat alone, pondering the year that had befallen me and plotting my rebirth in the year ahead, and writing in solitude. At the same time, I was very much still in the throes of a raw and emotional battle with cancer and part of me needed some comforting company, but minus any expectations. Chef wrangled his work and holiday travel schedule and announced that he’d make it to London in time to embark on the journey on the boat with me. Remembering that he had loved trying American wines when he lived here briefly, I carefully packed an exquisite bottle of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon (2006) and I heeded London’s call.
When we saw each other in London for the first time in three years, we greeted each other with a stiff hug, polite kisses on both cheeks, and trivial conversation about our flights and the weather. I overlooked the awkwardness of the encounter given the time and distance that had preceded it, and the fact that he’d just flown in from Hong Kong earlier that same morning, while I had arrived several days earlier.
We walked across the Hungerford Bridge, boarded the boat, and spent the next 20 hours staring out the window watching the sun quickly set in the gray winter sky, the lights of London turning on, the people bustling through the Christmas market below, the flowing Thames, the cars and buses crossing the bridges, the London Eye slowly turning in the distance to the West, the bright dome of St. Paul’s rising to the East, the raindrops splattered on the windows, the dull gray morning sky, and the whole of London laid before us. We listened to music, drank wine, nibbled on the bits of food we’d brought, and sat mostly in silence. I reluctantly napped during the night but arose several times to write in my journal in the small hours, the pages lit by dim candlelight.
There were several moments when my eyes literally welled up with tears at existing in such perfect beauty and solitude. Yet I felt completely alone despite Chef’s presence, his quietness and detachedness accentuated the sense of loneliness in that room. It felt appropriate for the moment. However, the rift between us widened in the days following our silent voyage on the boat and I decamped rather abruptly to a friend’s apartment in London after a couple days. I easily accepted the absence of a romantic spark between us, but I could not accept the void of human warmth and connection.
Two weeks after I returned home, I opened my mailbox to find his final dispatch from Hong Kong sent before he’d flown to London to meet me. This letter contained affectionate words and many exclamation points about our upcoming reunion. Had I somehow misread him again? How could the person who had written those enthusiastic letters to me from thousands of miles away have been the same person who had been all but indifferent to me once we were within arms reach? And then I realized there had been no misunderstanding. Chef was unable to act on his impulses, or perhaps once we were in the same space again, he simply hadn’t felt the same enthusiasm that he’d felt when writing the letters. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter because either way, I didn’t want to waste one single minute of my short life in the company of someone with whom I was unable to make a true human connection.
“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
“We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
While I was in London a couple weeks ago, the Washington City Paper all but declared my untimely demise. Coincidentally, Mark Twain was also in London when an American newspaper published an obituary announcing his death, to which he responded, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” He was very much alive at the time. And so was I!
I read the WCP article whilst languorously splayed upon an overstuffed chaise lounge in the middle of a posh hotel suite just off Trafalgar Square where I was bunking with a friend whose company had paid for us to enjoy heated bathroom floors, many hundreds thread count sheets, and daily laundry service. I’d arrived at Heathrow a few days before that refreshed and alert on a free(!), first-class flight during which I’d slept several Trans-Atlantic hours fully horizontal after guzzling nearly a bottle of free-flowing red wine throughout a four-course, white linens meal. The whole trip came about when I’d won a lottery, after having applied without fail every three months for two years, for the privilege of staying one night in Living Architecture’s A Room For London, a magical design wonder atop the Queen Elizabeth Music Hall overlooking the Thames. I was alive with inspiration, gratitude, delight, and love! I chuckled, “Oh City Paper, you silly rag.”
I had not died from cancer, and in fact, I had caught it so early that surgery without additional chemotherapy and radiation treatments had more or less cured me (bi-annual checkups for the next five years will confirm this conclusion). That chuckle, however, was of the nervous type, because though I thought the article’s timing was ironic and funny, I was still reeling from the shock and terror of having so recently faced mortality head on. Finding the cancer at Stage 0 did not diminish the fact that cancer kills people and cancer cells had been multiplying quietly and rapidly inside me for months. Nor did early detection diminish the fact that, despite lingering symptoms, two radiologists had told me they hadn’t seen any sign of cancer in mammogram and sonogram images just weeks before I was diagnosed. Both advised me to come back in six months for further screening, by which time the cancer would have progressed to a stage that would have required more invasive treatment, or an even worse outcome. I shuddered at the thought of how easily my situation could have deteriorated into something much more dreadful had any one of the factors that ultimately led to the diagnosis been a little off. I was spooked and still scared and still feeling pretty vulnerable when I read the WCP article.
I had not died a physical death, but long before the cancer diagnosis, I’d already begun to leave pieces of myself behind little by little, small transitions and transformations, each a tiny death in themselves that added up to a new life and identity, emerging and evolving out of my familiar self and into uncharted territory. Art had ignited this metamorphosis.
Artist Agnes Bolt lived inside a bubble inside my apartment for a week in a performance that tested the limits of my discomfort with intimacy, control, and disorder. Jeffry Cudlin exploited my persona during one long summer when he danced provocatively in art galleries across the city while wearing just enough to capture the physical essence of me: a blond wig, pink flowery dress, and gold strappy heals. His performance initially exacerbated my insecurities about my growing role in the DC art world, then bolstered my confidence that I could change the way people experienced art in this city. Kate McGraw made tiny, beautiful, colorful pencil marks across the length of the longest wall in my apartment for nearly two weeks as we delved into a symbiotic vortex of creative energy during which my own creative writing aspirations emerged and flourished. Eames Armstrong allowed me to eavesdrop on the artist’s mind and taught me about maintaining the purity and integrity of an art practice when she declared a weekend-long “Drawing Residency” and a Valentines Day drawing event in my apartment to which she invited artists from across the city to participate in the fundamentals of making art. Bud Wilkinson presented me with an unprecedented (given my utter lack of musical ability!) opportunity to smash a pink guitar rock & roll style on stage in front of hundreds of people at Cherry Blast. A shy person, I’d never performed like that in front of an audience, but emboldened by Johnny Walker and adrenaline fueled by cheers from the rowdy growing crowd, I plucked a few notes learned the previous night and then proceeded to smash the hard body guitar into a tangled mass of wire, metal, and wood. I turned the video of that violently triumphant act into a convincing April Fools Day joke about shutting down Pink Line Project that proved unwittingly prescient.
Holly Bass gave me the greatest art gift of all: an Art Baptism performed at the (e)merge art fair that took place in the Capitol Skyline hotel’s swimming pool on a sunny, breezy, warm early October day. This performance art piece was the best kind in its emotional intensity and rawness, and in the way it created a very real human connection between the artist and its participants, and in the realness of having facilitated a genuine transformation within those of us who sought renewal that day. I emerged from that swimming pool reborn as a writer. I felt the spirit and it moved me!
One week after the baptism and two weeks before surgery, I celebrated my birthday with a few close and inspiring friends in a bitter-sweet ceremonial burning of bras in a bonfire on “Set Your Tatas Free Day,” which happened to coincide with my birthday. Several breast cancer survivors who had undergone the reconstruction process had told me they never wore bras anymore, which was at once liberating and a grim reminder of my condition. As I tossed in the first padded, underwire bra and encouraged the others to do the same, I reminded my friends not to wait for something life threatening or traumatic to happen to them before they followed their hearts and passions, because we are all right now dying and we don’t have much time left, any of us. I hoped that the fire and bra burning would cleanse us of our self-imposed limitations and expectations about ourselves and the world and set us free from more than just our tatas. I began 2013 vowing that I would live each day as if my hair were on fire. The birthday bonfire reaffirmed that promise.
I ended the year on the Roi des Belges, the name of London’s Living Architecture room in which I spent one hard-earned night. The boat-shaped space was named after the Belgian riverboat that Joseph Conrad piloted down the Upper Congo before writing Heart of Darkness. The boat’s brilliant design set the stage for another critical leg of my lifelong and continuing journey of exploration and introspection. In was in that room that I experienced infinite solitude and loneliness as I stared through the windows from on high at the teeming and vast city of London lit up and laid out before me, and at the throngs of shoppers bustling through the Christmas market on the embankment just below, and at the distant companion seated two cushions away who’d flown halfway around the world to meet me in that dark space. The gaps that had been left behind by all the tiny deaths in my life opened up a little more that night until I awoke at 4AM and gazed out into the rainy darkness and I felt those spaces slowly filling in and I felt and understood profound gratitude for a life filled with beauty and love, and for a new, unconstrained, fiery life free of expectations that was just beginning again.
Karen and I used to flounder our way through an Internet radio show we’d dubbed Van Gogh Sessions. Despite the name, which arose out of a non-art related inside joke between us, the show had nothing to do with art. We would ramble on for almost an hour every Sunday afternoon about whatever popped into our heads, which usually meant talking about dates gone awry and relationship stuff. You know, because we are highly successful experts on these topics who should be paid actual real money to dispense advice on such important matters.
After a couple episodes, we realized we needed to give the show some structure and even a light agenda so that we didn’t lose our six listeners through confusion and incompetence on our part. Every once in a while, we’d throw in some hard-hitting issues like what criteria we use to unfriend someone on Facebook and shitty things we have done to others and the ensuing retribution. When we wanted a male perspective, we’d ask Eric the sound engineer what he thought. He’d pop out from behind the soundboard to offer an opinion that we usually dismissed and then we’d go back to our usual banter. We frequently offered Public Service Announcements to any guys who might be listening. For example, it is always a good idea to tell your date she looks very pretty when she has made an effort to look pretty. (You would think this was a duh but I can tell you from experience that this is not so.)
We always met for an hour near the studio before the show at Sankofa Café for a glass of wine to “warm up” our radio voices. Soon the owner of Sankofa began pulling out two wine glasses as soon as we walked through the door. Once properly lubricated, we’d wander over to the studio where Karen would further prepare for the show by pulling out another bottle of wine and three plastic cups from her bag of wonders, one cup for each of us and one for Eric the sound engineer.
Karen clearly handles her booze better than I because she always remained articulate and careful with her words whereas I would usually start ranting at some point about some idiot date I’d been on, often devolving into cursing loudly, gesticulating wildly, and giggling uncontrollably. I usually forgot about the giant earphones on my head and the highly sensitive microphone that picked up all my naughty asides. Fortunately, it was Internet radio so nobody cared. Being a shy person who gets nauseous when asked to speak in front of people, but who loves a great conversation, radio was the perfect media for me.
We put the show on the backburner after I was diagnosed with cancer in late August so I could focus on my treatment. We have both missed doing the show though. Creating it each week was really fun and a nerdy challenge, plus there are few people in the world I like talking to more than Karen and we don’t do it nearly enough. A weekly radio show forced us to to talk to each other at least once every week!
Karen and I decided to revive the show last month after I’d weened myself off all the post-op drugs, perhaps prematurely. We still don’t have a new name that suggests something other than art talk (your suggestions welcome!) and we haven’t decided on a platform for distributing the show. But we went ahead and recorded one shortish segment a few weeks ago to share with you and here it is: (Took me a while to post because I had an editing issue!)
She Said, She Said (a temporary name for the radio show formerly known as Van Gogh Sessions)
Later that evening, after recording the show, I made Karen and three other of my close friends watch Before Sunrise. I was stunned when I learned that none of them had ever seen this film. I love this movie because it so perfectly and accurately captures what it feels like to fall madly in love with someone and to be fallen in love with. From that flutter of attraction when you first notice someone and he glances back at you in the same way to when you initiate an awkward conversation that quickly delves below the surface, and then you just keep talking and talking until you realize you really really like this person and you really really want to spend a lot more time with him but you don’t know where it’s headed but it just feels good in that moment and you want to stay there forever.
What I especially love about this movie is that all of this magic happens throughout a long conversation that lasts all night long. No one ever pulls out a smart phone to tweet where they’ve been or to document the moment with an Instagrammed selfie. They don’t reduce the magic and depth of the conversation by exchanging email addresses or friending each other on Facebook, where all good conversations go to die. They simply exist in that long moment together.
Midway through the movie, Celine utters one of my favorite lines of all time after the two have wandered the streets of Vienna together in near constant dialogue for most of the night:
“If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it‘s almost impossible to succeed, but…who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt.”
Magic is in the attempt.
And the attempt can be found in messy conversations. The ones that take place in real life and not between two glowing screens. The ones where you meander and interrupt and look each other in the eye. The ones that expose your vulnerabilities, reveal your joys, uncover parts previously unknown about yourself even to you. You pause the conversation for a moment to rest, exhilarated and desperate for more, wondering if there will be more, and than BAM, it hits you, an epiphany, a flash of inspiration, a revelation that you wouldn’t have discovered without the magic of conversation. Some form of love, of human connection, can be found in this moment, whether with a friend or lover or stranger.
Louie Hughes died suddenly yesterday from cancer caused by the feline leukemia virus. The cancer had been growing in him the whole time I was fighting it myself, but until the day before he died, I had no idea anything was wrong with him.
He had been staying with Karen for almost a week while I cavorted in Miami during Art Basel feeling pretty healthy five weeks after surgery and acting like I was on spring break. After landing in a wintry mix on Sunday, I headed over to Karen’s place and found a lethargic Louie. Karen assured me that he had spent the previous week jumping on the dining table and kitchen counters, greeting her eagerly at the front door whenever she came home, weaving himself around the legs and under the feet of everyone who visited, trimming his claws on her furniture, and taking long naps on his favorite green blanket that I’d left for him when I dropped him off last week before my trip. Typical Louie stuff. Though generally feisty, Louie could be pretty lazy sometimes so I didn’t think much of his lack of energy. The next morning, he was breathing in short shallow labored breaths, which seemed more worrisome. I took him to the vet, and less than three hours later, he was dead.
The vet told me that cats are ingenious at hiding their illnesses. It is part of their survival instinct. They don’t display weakness because doing so makes them prey to predators. Having lived on the street for the first two years of his life, Louie knew something about survival. He never let on that anything was wrong and even if he had, the vet assured me that there wouldn’t have been any treatment that would have ultimately saved him.
I am not so sure I could have handled knowing he was suffering at the same time with me anyway. I was so scared and needed so much love and positive energy to get me through the shittiness of the last few months that I wouldn’t have survived emotionally without it. I believe Louie knew this and he gave me every bit of it he had in him despite his own suffering. He slept in the crook of my arm every night after the double mastectomy, but especially during the worst part, in the excruciating waiting period before the surgery when I was really scared. He never pounced on my sore and delicate chest as he would have done before the surgery. He greeted all our post-op visitors with nose nuzzles and a chirp, having never mastered a proper meow. He curled up in my lap every single day as I struggled to write my daily blog in November for National Blog Posting Month. I think he knew writing was a critically therapeutic part of my recovery. He sat quietly at my feet whenever I would cry and shake uncontrollably in the weeks following my cancer diagnosis.
And all that time, he was slowly dying. A cancerous growth was slowly overtaking his lungs and it would ultimately asphyxiate him. He never complained. In the end, adversity bound us together. Though I have lost pets before, and I have lost pets I have known longer than I knew Louie, this one hurt the most. He waited until he knew I was well before he left me and he made sure not to let on that he’d be leaving me soon until he knew I could handle it. I bawled my way through an entire box of tissues yesterday at the sadness of losing him and at the extraordinary gift he had given me.
When a friend found him in an alley behind her house and asked me to adopt him, I knew that no one wanted a cat with AIDS, especially a black cats, which are commonly the least likely to be adopted. But I’ve always been drawn to those who’ve struggled, to those who’ve had some hardscrabble early life experiences, because they’re usually the most interesting and stimulating and profound and tenacious creatures. I wasn’t wrong about Louie.
Louie knew who was boss.
Here’s Louie on the cover of The Washington Post’s Arts section!
My words made three people cry this week. On the post about loving my best guy friends, a reader I have never met sent me this message:
“Your blog post from yesterday made me laugh and cry. Such sweet sincerity is meaningful even (and especially) with a stranger. … You have a lovely dialectal writing style. Kind of breaks my heart then makes me laugh in a single sentence.”
This stranger’s lovely, unsolicited message arrived the day after a friend called a meeting with me to tell me she was angry that I had written the following in my post about the pain of boob expansion, which I had taken out of the context of a longer conversation between us a few days before:
I was explaining all of this to a friend recently who exclaimed, “It’s just like wearing braces!” I smiled back with clenched teeth and a polite nod.
I was stunned when this friend told me that she saw the inclusion of these two sentences in my blog post as a passive-aggressive attack aimed directly at her in retaliation for her comparing braces to boob expansion. I explained that (a) I had no intention of attacking her when I wrote those words and simply wanted to write about how painful it was to get my chest muscles expanded in preparation for breast reconstruction after a double mastectomy, and (b) when I was writing that post I wasn’t even thinking about her at all, nor was I angry at her. I was simply trying to find a funny jumping off point to write about the pain of the expansion process on the same day that one of those painful expansions had taken place. She did not accept this explanation and we wrangled for over an hour without understanding each other until she finally had to leave for a meeting and I began to cry, and then she began to cry.
I cried because I was stunned that something I wrote could unintentionally hurt and anger someone I considered a friend. I cried because I was frustrated that I could not make her understand how I was simply writing a blog post about my own physical pain and that it really had nothing to do with her and she should have understood that within the context of the longer, positive conversation we’d had during which the innocuously offensive statement had been made in the first place. More than anything, I cried because the conversation terrified me as I wondered how I would be able to continue writing for fear of offending someone again given that everything I write is taken from what happens around me and pulled piece meal from snippets of conversations and actions that take place in my every day life.
I wrote extensively and bitterly and savagely about the disagreement with this friend in my journal and stewed about it angrily all week long. (I won’t bore you with all the gory details here!) This mini-controversy in my tiny corner of the blogosphere seemed a fitting end to the last day of my participation in National Blog Posting Month during which my writing companion Karen and I had decided to select a topic each day and write about it from our perspectives on our separate blogs.
Here’s what I learned from this month of daily writing and from the experience with the angry friend:
Writing every single day is hard.
Committing to blogging publicly every single day is even harder. Some days you just don’t even know what you’re going to write about. Some days you’re just really tired and you don’t have time to include everything that needs to be said. Some days you haven’t processed everything you want to say thoroughly and the words and thoughts don’t flow easily. Some days are more successful than others. If I had to write that braces blog post again, I would have included what happened in the hospital that night after the surgery when I woke up screaming in pain because my chest muscles had tightened up into the worst charley horse you can imagine times 10,000 and the nurse had to run morphine into my IV to abate that pain. I would have written about the second night back home in my own bed when Karen came in to wake me up for the first time as she nursed me back to health to give me my Valium/Vicodin cocktail and I started crying because I was so scared. I would have included the fact that the expanders in my chest are wider than what the final implants will be so I can’t comfortably hold my arms straight down my sides because if I do, I pinch the blood flow to my extremities and lose feeling in my hands. How even though I take a muscle relaxer and painkiller before I go to bed each night, I still wake up in enough pain each morning that my eyes well up with tears until I can get to the next dose of muscle relaxer and painkiller. How when I went to the Transformer Auction less than three weeks after the surgery because I wanted to see all my friends, I spent the whole night holding back well-meaning people from hugging me because I was so scared that they would squeeze a little too hard and hurt my sore chest muscles. That blog post comparing braces to boob expansion was not actually about comparing braces to boob expansion. It was one of many blog posts I have written about how physically and emotionally painful and weird it has been to have breast cancer. It was about how I am still in the middle of this emotionally and physically painful and weird experience and the toll this experience has had on me. That blog post was about how writing about this emotionally and physically painful and weird experience each day, and sometimes making fun of it, keeps me from sinking into utter despair and despondency.
Writing about one’s fight with breast cancer is really fucking hard. Especially when you’re still in the middle of it and you’ve got to wait a few more months before you get your Fabulous New Boobs when the nightmare finally ends. And then you realize the nightmare never actually ends even after you get your Fabulous New Boobs because you’re always going to have those fake boobs you never wanted in the first place to remind you how vulnerable you are and you have to visit your cancer surgeon every six months for five years and then every year after that for the rest of your life to remind you that you once had a life-threatening disease and you’re never really and truly in the clear.
I am not a journalist. I write a blog that contains stories from my life and my perspective. I include and exclude details to make the points I want to make. I am not writing a blog to report on what anyone else thinks or what the facts are according to anyone else’s perspective. I use artistic license to make leaps in logic when I don’t have time or inclination to fill in all the gaps on my blog. (See item #2 above.) I will continue to write in exactly this same manner, although I hope to fill in all those gaps when I write my books.
I will never intentionally hurt a friend.
I don’t fit the myth of the lonely writer sitting in a cold attic with a bottle of gin, writing in solitude. I talk about all my ideas out loud with my friends. I write about everything at length in my private journals. I stare into space at length pondering these ideas. I then find some meaning for myself in all of these conversations and internal musings and I write about them for public consumption. For now, the blog posts are incomplete snippets into my inner life. I hope to turn these seeds of thought into a larger, more in-depth, more meaningful work someday. If you are in my orbit, you are helping me figure this shit out. Thank you.
I used to have a serious shopping problem. Acquiring stuff thrilled me, especially when I got a good deal. When I was in law school and broke, I satisfied my urge to buy things by getting up early on Saturday mornings and going “yardsailing” as we called it. My friend David and I would peruse the yard sale listings in the newspaper’s classified section (the actual paper version!) and circle the sales that looked most interesting and map out a strategy of conquest. After a few months of yardsailing, we knew which neighborhoods usually offered the best stuff and which neighborhoods, usually the more upscale ones, were occupied by cheapskates trying to sell old, mangled Tupperware and boxes of shoes worn all the way through the soles beyond repair.
I owned the perfect yardsailing mobile, a silver 1984 Volvo Station Wagon, that I’d bought for a mere $900. Though it was not a fuel-efficient car, the cargo bay could easily hold an entire dresser and some end tables with knick-knacks squeezed along the sides. In fact, one of my best finds was an old dresser that probably hadn’t been very expensive even when it was new. I think the sellers would have paid me to take it away. Instead, I bought it for $5, painted it a lovely mossy green, replaced the knobs with novelty pulls (which cost $60!) and used it as a sideboard and storage space in my dining room for years and it garnered lots of compliments. When we moved from that house, I took off the expensive newer knobs and replaced the original ones back on the drawers and sold the dresser at our own yard sale for $10.
I hadn’t been to a yard sale in years until this summer at the beach when my friends and I were riding our bikes to grab lunch on a hot August day. We stopped at a yard sale along the way when we spotted leaning against the side of the house one of those huge vintage wooden surfboards that was so slow and floatie that you could practically knit an entire scarf on it while riding a long, slow wave. He wanted several hundred dollars for the beautiful board and wouldn’t budge on the price, and I don’t blame him, though I think his wife lurking in the background was willing to negotiate. While I was stalling for time to haggle down the price of the board, I found a gorgeous sheep’s wool coat snuggled within a rack of old t-shirts that probably belonged to his wife. The tag said $20. A really good price and it fit me perfectly but it was about 98 degrees outside and I just wasn’t in the mood to buy wool. As I was walking away from the board as a negotiating tactic, the man shouted after me, “How about $5 for the coat?” I handed him a fiver before the wife could object, stuffed it in my bike basket, pedaled swiftly, and it’s been a staple of my winter wear ever since.
After a while, all this buying and selling old stuff became tiresome and eventually I just wanted to simplify my life and get rid of everything. Don’t get me wrong, I still get a small thrill out of acquiring something new. I’m a collector at heart. Especially art. And I have a weakness for beautiful, colorful dresses that stand out from the crowd. Also books. I buy a lot of books, and I have to have the actual books themselves in hand because I like flipping back and forth through the pages and the physical act of turning a page. But mostly, I just want to get rid of my stuff. I have been decluttering my physical life of everything nonessential and unattractive and useless and I think relinquishing the unnecessary objects has been a good metaphor for ridding my inner life of excessive baggage.
I feel an especially deep sense of gratitude for Thanksgiving this year for so much. For the outpouring of love that deluged me as I coped with the shock of a cancer diagnosis, and as I prepared for a major surgery that terrified me having never had a surgery of any type in my entire life and having been trained from a young age to avoid medical assistance, and as I came to terms with what it would mean to lose and then reconstruct physical symbols of my womanhood, and as I slowly regained physical and mental strength through the painful recovery period after the surgery.
I am still in shock that this has all happened to me but I am beyond grateful for those who made this time bearable and there are too many to name for all they did: bringing me nutritious food, driving me to doctor’s appointments, looking at pictures of boobs with me online, having drinks with me when I was scared and stressed, talking me through the lowest moments of fear, making videos that helped transition my business, making a plaster cast of my former boobs, sending thoughtful gifts, flowers, cards, and messages of love. I am overwhelmed with the sheer weight of it all.
I am also still processing what a few did for me beyond what I believed a person could or would do for another human being. For me. And that I deserved it. And I wondered (and continue to wonder) how I would ever repay them.
I have learned incredible lessons in generosity from this handful of friends in the last few months. You already know of all that Karen did for me. But I haven’t spoken much of the friend who insisted on coming with me to the pathology report meeting that would determine whether I still had cancer after the surgery and I will never forget the look of fear in his eyes for me while we were waiting for the doctor to tell us the results. Or the friend who took a vacation day from work to spend the entire day in the hospital with my mom on the day of the surgery and kept my mom calm when she was hurting so greatly from seeing her daughter suffer and how she was the last person I saw before I went under and we talked about taking a trip to Sri Lanka together someday (making travel plans makes me happy) and Sri Lanka was the first thing I happily mentioned when I woke up not realizing that seven hours had passed under the spell of anesthesia. The stranger who came into my life under the worst circumstances, she’d been diagnosed with the same form of cancer and had already undergone the surgery and survived, who gave me the kind of straight talk and emotional support and advice that no doctor and no friend who’d never been through this could have given me.
I’ve learned more than ever that if you live by this principle of generosity you will never regret anything and you will know true happiness:
Generosity. Give unconditionally and without any expectation of return.
I spent several days at Karen’s house this past summer due to a snafu in my carefully laid out summer long travel plans that involved a long-term airbnb tenet and an unexpected short-term return to DC in the middle of my summer sabbatical. While hanging out at her country retreat in Arlington, I would often sit on the couch with a glass of wine and watch her writhe around on the floor atop a white foam roller whenever she’d come home from a run. (She’d always join me later, of course, for a glass once done wriggling around on the floor.) She claimed that once she started using the foam roller regularly, her IT band/knee pain went away.
I have suffered from perpetual knee pain caused by years of running and other sports that involved jumping up and down on hard surfaces earlier in my life and had never really done anything about fixing the problem, despite being told many times to use a foam roller by actual medical and fitness professionals. I winced and whined anytime I had to ascend or descend stairs though I had stopped running back in 2004 and started doing low impact activities such as yoga and swimming. So I decided to try the foam roller, despite the excruciating initial pain as it worked out the kinks in my long suffering IT band, and after using it for several days in a row, the knee pain subsided and I became a reluctant believer in modern medicine.
This newly found faith in modern medicine was of course in complete contrast to my former belief system based almost entirely on having been reared as a Christian Scientist. Though I am currently closer to the idealism of Atheistic Humanism, some of the CS ideals have stuck with me because that stuff you’re taught when you’re a kid sticks with you your whole life no matter what choices you make when you escape the spell of childhood indoctrination. And one of those sticky beliefs for me was a dread of all things even marginally medical, including the foam roller.
My disdain for the medical industrial complex has extended so far as to fear the dentist office, despite having been married to an orthodontist for the majority of my adult life. My dentist’s office once went on red alert lockdown when he unwittingly provoked an anxiety attack with a numbing needle of Novocain and the sound of a drill. They finally put me in that room normally reserved for upset, crying children to restore order to the normally peaceful, well-run office and not frighten the other patients. Frankly, even the regular 6-month cleanings have caused my blood pressure to rise beyond acceptable levels and I must practice meditation breathing techniques to get through them.
Because it’s the night before Thanksgiving and I am thankful for so much this year, I won’t go into the dismal details of how a recent five hour surgery under general anesthesia for the first time n my life sent me to the brink of despair. I will simply end with the fact that constant pain is no fun at all and purchasing my own cylinder of white foam has improved my quality of life and made me more thankful for the very simplest of things in life.
My foray into online dating was short-lived and splatospheric, as Karen would say. I first posted a profile on one of the more popular sites after the weird break up with Ping Pong Dim Sum guy when I figured I could easily find a replacement for my fixie riding, jort wearing hipster tea partier who wrote angsty poetry by night and worked in corporate consulting by day. I wrote what I thought was a pretty kick-ass profile, but I did not post any pictures to accompany the written portion, well aware of the fact that if you do not post pictures, you will not get poked, prodded, winked at, or asked out. I just wanted to lurk for a little while to see what kind of inventory was available beyond the real world.
I came across a guy who was into the arts and lived in Richmond. Figuring geographic distance was a perfect way to ease into online dating in a small town like DC, I sent him a message that basically said something along the lines of, “I know it’s weird not to post a picture but I like your profile so if you send me your email address, I will send you a picture of me so that you will know I am neither fat nor an ogre (two things I know guys care about!) and then we can commence inane get-to-know-you email exchanges until one of us finally suggests we meet and then it will be really awkward when we do meet because I am totally awkward like that.” My message piqued his interest, which made me suspicious because who the hell would reply to a message like that, and he complied with my suggestion to send me his email address. After receiving my photo from a new email address that I had created expressly for online dating purposes as one does, he immediately wrote back, “You’re Philippa Hughes. I read about you in the Washington City Paper.” Thus ended my foray into official online dating.
Other forms of social media have, however, played a role in my love life, which is sort of like online dating. For example, one summer I won a scholarship to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival. I made the most of this thrilling honor by attending every session every day, and because there were different topic tracks running simultaneously, I usually picked sessions outside the usual arts and culture ones I would have normally chosen. I was pretty exhausted by the last day after all this intellectual stimulation and from having stayed up too late the previous night for a late dinner with new friends so I considered skipping the 7:30AM session I’d signed up for about some technology stuff that sounded vaguely interesting. I powered through the fatigue/hangover, though, and downed two Advil with a box of coconut water and trudged over to the lecture space, foggy headed and dehydrated.
When I arrived, it turned out that the original speaker had been replaced with someone else and that that someone else was a person who’d given two Ted talks, both of which I had seen and remembered thinking at the time, “Wow, that is one hot, nerdy, smart guy.” He was just as hot, nerdy, and smart in person and I said so in a tweet but left the session without trying to meet him because I am shy, and the audience mobbed him afterward, and I wanted to make it to the next session across town on time anyway because I am also nerdy. Later that day at the lunch lecture, I happened to sit next to a woman who worked at the same very large you-know-the-name-of-it corporation that hot, nerdy, smarty guy worked at and I got all fan girl giddy and gushed about him.
“Would you like to meet him?” she asked.
“Boy would I!” I exclaimed.
While she was texting him about me and setting things up on her end, I checked my email and saw a message from HIM! Hot, nerdy, smart Ted talk guy. I hadn’t yet told her any of my contact information so how the hell did that just happen?! A mutual friend of his and mine had seen my tweet and forwarded it to him. He then asked our mutual friend for my email address and sent me a message asking me if I wanted to meet up. In the meantime, his work colleague had been working the texts on my behalf and had simultaneously convinced him to meet me. He later sent me screen shots of those text messages in which she told him that a girl who looked like Renee Zellweger was interested in meeting him and he was excited about this fact, while I was appalled by the comparison.
After lunch, I headed straight over to the coffee shop where he said he’d be working all afternoon and I ended up skipping the rest of the afternoon sessions. We spent the next 24 hours together until we both left Aspen, which included sitting on a couch outside at a bar and sharing music with each other from our iPods, dining with an older couple I knew from DC who thought we’d been dating for a long time from the way we easily interacted with one another, attending a Moby concert that night, and hiking for hours in the mountains around the Maroon Bells. And some other stuff. There were extenuating circumstances, beyond the fact that he lived on the west coast, that kept us from seeing each other again. But I thoroughly enjoyed the magic of how it all went down.
Another time I met a guy online was after I’d gone to brunch with a couple women who wrote a blog about food and wanted to interview me for it. After we got the official part of the meeting out of the way, our conversation turned to boys, as the conversation often does when three single women end up in the same space together. One of them mentioned that I should meet a chef she knew because (1) he was hot, and (2) she knew how much I appreciated good eats. “Hook it up,” I said.
The next day she sent me an article that had been written about him so that I could verify his hotness and he was undeniably so. However, after several days, she didn’t follow up with an introduction so I had to take matters into my own hands. I posted the article on my Facebook page and announced that he would be the next contestant in the #mencookinginmykitchen series. Within seven seconds, another mutual friend spotted the message and made the long-awaited introduction, and four days later, chef was cooking dinner for me and we ended up dating for a few months until we realized we didn’t have much in common other than he was a great cook and I loved to eat. Those were some yummy months though!
I don’t know if I will ever return to the official online dating fray. What I do know is that I meet people in diverse and numerous ways because I am open to all of it all the time. Social media and online dating sites are simply additional tools in the dating arsenal.
I love my men friends and I have had some pretty spectacular ones in my life. My longest running friend is a guy I have known since 4th grade. He once lent me $6,000 during law school when my student loan didn’t come through one semester. No questions asked. I haven’t spoken to him much in recent years because he’s married with two small children and he lives in Atlanta, but when we talk on the phone sometimes, we skip over all the mundane details of our daily lives and go straight to the things that have always mattered to us: philosophy, human relationships, our dreams and passions. Talking to him now is like talking to him when we were still young and idealistic about the world and because we have been friends for so long, we easily lapse back into how we felt during that time of our lives.
Even when I was married, I always had really close men friends. During law school one of my best friends was a guy with whom I drank beer every Wednesday night and we crammed for exams together at the end of each semester because we’d wasted too much time diverting ourselves with card games like Hearts and Spades every afternoon in the law school library or playing doubles sand volleyball every weekend in the park. He helped my husband and me renovate our house, ate many meals at our table, and I advised him through a series of girlfriends until he finally married a very cool woman who didn’t mind at all when he asked me to be a groomsperson in their wedding party. I wore a long black dress for the wedding ceremony instead of a tuxedo and gave a toast at the rehearsal dinner that made his mother cry.
I currently enjoy a brigade of men friends that lately make it nearly impossible for me to date anyone seriously. Each of these men friends fills a particular space in my life that when added together make it impossible for any one man to replace entirely.
For example, before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had told only a handful of people that I was undergoing a battery of tests, including one of my best friends of all time. After the final test, a tissue biopsy that would ultimately result in a cancer diagnosis two days later, the doctor told me I couldn’t do anything strenuous with my right arm for a few days because she didn’t want me to irritate the biopsy incision in my right breast. The same night of that biopsy, a group of friends had planned to paddle at sunset. Some people would paddle in kayaks and some on stand up paddleboards, my mode of choice. I was really sad because I didn’t want to miss out on that experience, but I also didn’t want to risk hurting myself. To remedy the situation, my best guy friend rented a kayak for two and he paddled me around with our gang of friends while I sat in the front of the boat cracking jokes at his expense about gondolier services and we just told everyone I’d hurt my shoulder. That was among the first of about a million things he did to take care of me through the last couple months of preparing for and then recovering from surgery.
And there are others. The guy friend who showed up unexpectedly a few days after my surgery with Voodoo donuts from Portland after he’d been there for work. He fought off hungry, tired passengers on the red-eye to protect the precious cargo of sweet dough topped with maple icing and bacon. Though we had been good pals before that donut delivery, our friendship was solidified when he presented me with the distinctive pink box of divine pastries that had been slightly crushed when placed in the overhead compartment. Another guy friend came over every morning after my surgery with flowers and made me a fruity smoothie, which was just about the only thing I could keep down for a few days. There’s also the guy friend I have known the least amount of time in this group who sends me messages all the time encouraging me to pursue my creative passions and never lets me stop believing for one second that writing and creating are the things I am meant to do. And my easy going guy friend who has traveled with me on numerous surfing trips and who was one of the last to have seen my former boobs when a wave ripped off my top one day in a particularly nasty wipeout. I didn’t notice right away that that had happened and he took his time letting me know.
I have never been involved with any of them romantically. They are all like brothers to me. They have characteristics that set them apart from each other that make me love them each in their own way. I sometimes forget that no one person can be all of these things at once and I have been known to reject potential suitors when they didn’t meet this unattainable standard set by adding all of these awesome men friends together. But I also know that even if I meet someone who was to have many of the qualities that these friends possess individually, he would never replace any of them. He would simply add to the mix of awesomeness in my life, with a helluva lot less of the brotherly aspect.
Part deux of the ten interview questions posed to Karen and me by the ever-curious Paulette. (Part one here.)
Paulette: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and how does it apply to your writing life?
The best advice I ever received was contained in this piece of graffiti:
I want to hug the world and everyone in it a little tighter with my writing.
Paulette: You’re a devoted surfer and you’re also an avid collector of visual art. How do your surfing and your writing inform each other? How about your collecting and your writing?
Surfing is a meditative experience that relaxes my mind so that whatever it is that I am trying to work out in my writing lingers in my subconscious as I stare at the sets coming in trying to determine whether I am in the right position to catch a wave, which usually means most of the time, I am sitting on my board, feet dangling, staring out to sea lost in thought. Suddenly, I perk up when a set arrives and I am in the right spot. The adrenaline rushes, I turn the board around with a quick kick and start paddling hard, pop up, and suddenly I am on the wave’s shoulder riding down the line. Ecstasy. But yeah, because I am usually just sitting in the water for a long time because I am not really great yet at picking waves, I have a lot of time to just stare into the horizon thinking about mostly nothing, though I am really thinking about a lot of stuff in my subconscious and the writing usually comes easier after a great surf session.
I’ve been collecting art for a while so I now have a collection that is larger than the amount of wall space I have to display it. I hired a guy to remove the bathtub from my second bathroom (slight regret, see #16) and then build art storage racks in the space left behind. Now my collection exceeds the space within those racks, and a few of my larger pieces hang on the walls of other art loving friends, on long-term loan (cheaper than paying for art storage, plus I can easily visit my art when I want to see it). The art that generally captivates me enough to buy it is the art that addresses the human condition, love, pain, desire, loneliness, longing, insecurity. These are the things I want to explore in my writing and experiencing them in visual art helps me to literally and figuratively examine them from different angles.
Paulette: What’s your ideal writing space? And where do you actually write?
During this month’s daily blog duel with Karen for National Blog Posting Month, I’ve also been recuperating from a major surgery so my writing space and time has been a little wonky. I usually start the morning with a text or email exchange with Karen while still lying in bed in which we discuss the topic of the day. (She’s usually already run 12 miles or swum 600 laps by the time I wake up.) I then proceed to putter all morning answering emails, paying bills, returning phone calls, folding laundry, unloading the dishwasher, checking my Facebook newsfeed. I take my time eating breakfast and at some point, go on my daily exercise walk (about 90 minutes). All the time, I’ve got the day’s writing topic roiling around in the back of my head. By the time I finally sit down to write the day’s blog post, I’ve got an idea of what direction I want to take. Although sometimes, I have no idea whatsoever and I figure if I start tapping out a few words mimicking the act of writing, something will come to me.
I sit down at my laptop placed at the end of my dining table in near silence. Sometimes my cat purrs quietly in my lap or he jumps on the table and bats his paw at me demanding a little attention. Sometimes I am so engrossed in writing that I forget to pet him, which upsets him enough to nibble at my arms. I’m usually multi-tasking throughout the day. Now that I am past the drugged out phase of recovery, I can start taking care of my business again a little. I sputter like this throughout the day trying out different approaches to the topic in between the distractions. Then around 8:30 or 9PM, when the interruptions fade away, my mind becomes laser-focused on the writing and I write for real.
Today we are writing in a coffee shop in Baltimore. Karen and I decided we needed a change of scenery and a short road trip to reinvigorate our writing fatigue from writing every single day for NaBloPoMo. I didn’t want to write in a DC coffee shop because I was afraid we’d see too many people I knew and I’d spend more time socializing than writing. I also wanted to be somewhere different to stimulate my brain. There has been a slow din in the background most of the day here and an explosion just took place when the guest of honor arrived for her surprise party that had been forming in the basement for the past hour. I miss my cat and being in my own space, but it’s been a very productive day.
Ideally, I write alone in silence in the comfort of my home most of the time, with a weekly writing day away from my usual environment accompanied by my friend.
Paulette: Who’s your pie-in-the-sky dream collaborator and what project would you work on together?
Marina Abramovic. I want to spend the night with her in the Room For London. If you are reading this Marina, I will be there on December 16 and there is just enough room for two people.
Paulette: What’s your bio—if you had to deliver it as a performance art piece?
Girl dreams of becoming a wonder woman and starts pretending to be that person and slowly and magically and wondrously becomes the person she imagined, interrupted by little glitches and snags along the way that seem like blockades but turn out to be the very things that make her the wonder woman she wishes to be.
Answering hard-hitting questions from a professional interviewer
Earlier this year, my brilliant writing buddy Paulette asked Karen and me to submit five questions to her that she would answer on her blog. That was fun! My questions to Paulette here, and Karen’s questions here. We thought it was such a great idea that we asked Paulette to ask us five questions that we would each then answer on our own blogs. Because she’s stubborn and hard headed and won’t just follow instructions, Paulette decided she would change the format by asking us ten questions instead of five (ten hard questions) and that each of us would receive one customized question. Karen and I labored all day long in a coffee shop in Baltimore to complete the assignment and then we rewarded ourselves with a well-deserved cocktail. Here are the first five. We’ll post the second half tomorrow.
Paulette: What’s the first time you remember engaging with a piece of writing in a meaningful way?
I dated a guy for a while who was a writer, masquerading as a corporate drone by day. His writing style was inspired by the romanticism of Baudelaire, the stream of consciousness of Joyce, Kafkaesque existentialism, and drug-fueled beat poetry. He often shared his writings with me seeking feedback. I felt like I was looking inside his mind and it scared me a little bit. One day he showed me a coffee table style book he’d had printed in which all the text contained within the book was comprised almost entirely of actual text messages that an ex girlfriend had sent him after he broke up with her right before he and I started dating. She threatened to kill herself if he wouldn’t call her. She threatened to hurt him if he wouldn’t talk to her. She sent texts from outside his house while waiting for him to return for hours late into a cold night. She sent text messages letting him know she was leaving town to seek treatment and begged him to see her off at the airport. She sent a few final desperate texts from the airport hoping he’d show up there before her flight took off. On the final page of the book, he included a poem he’d written about her. In that poem, I saw more clearly how twisted their relationship had been and that though she seemed like the “crazy” one, I wondered what role he had played in helping her get there. It wasn’t the first time I’d engaged with a piece of writing in a meaningful way, but it was the first one that came to mind and probably had the greatest impact on me as a writer and as a person still learning how to have relationships with men.
Paulette: Several months ago, we all participated in a book swap where we gave someone our favorite book. If you had to do the same thing, and couldn’t use the same book, which book would you swap and why?
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera. The book explores the struggle between the heaviness of accepting and even loving the cyclical nature of life to which we are fated to return infinitely and to which we attach great meaning and therefore weight, versus the lightness of living simply for momentary beauty because there really is no ultimate meaning in life, because we live linearly and thus have no context by which to compare our decisions and therefore cannot judge or be judged by our decisions. But ultimately we want our lives to have weight, to have meaning. And we struggle with the weight of es muss sein, it must be, yet we believe that “’love is our freedom,” ….. “Love lies beyond ‘Es muss sein!’”
Paulette: Why do you write?
I am still in shock that this just happened to me. That one sunny late summer day, I was hurled against my will into a club that no one would choose to join and for a brief moment, I no longer felt the master of my own destiny, no longer invincible, as I once believed. Then I realized that I could conquer this thing that happened to me (with lots of help) and that I still got to decide what would come next and that I was still invincible because I would still be alive. I learned this, in part, from writing. Writing publicly has been especially important to me in that it has helped me share the lessons I learned, to show people that the shittiest things can happen to you, and you still get to be Wonder Woman if you wake up and write.
Paulette: Why do you read? And what do you read? And what should you read but you just haven’t gotten to it yet?
I read because I want to understand humanity, and in turn myself and my place in the universe, and I believe that the great writers have special powers of observation, special knowledge of the human condition, from which I can learn these things. I also just love a good story told well.
I was once a voracious reader. As a young girl, I read the usual girl classics, Anne of Greene Gables, Little Women, To Kill a Mockingbird, everything Judy Blume. You get the picture. I later loved the dead white guy classics. Styron, Faulkner, Greene, Hemingway, Hardy. I grew well into adulthood before I discovered contemporary literature.
I don’t read as much as much as I would like anymore. I no longer sit for hours at a time engrossed in a book. I remember once long ago walking through an airport between flights with my nose buried in Memoirs of a Geisha unable to put it down even if it meant possibly missing my connecting flight. Now my nose is buried in my iPhone everywhere I go. I have even cut back my magazine subscriptions to only three (Lapham’s, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair) and I can barely get through those as they pile up on my side table. I look forward to long flights and long layovers so I can catch up on back issues (and I am a little anxious about the advent of wifi on airplanes, because I know I won’t be able to resist the siren song of my iPhone.) I read lots of articles on the Internet on a variety of topics although they generally center on art, creativity, literature, happiness, and surfing. I am usually pretty good at avoiding the drivel that predominates the web, though I am not immune to cat videos and fashion blogs.
Paulette: You’re both working on long-form projects in addition to blogging. Can you please share a little about your book projects, and also talk about if and how your short-form and long-form projects inform each other?
I went to a memoir writing workshop last summer thinking I wanted to write about my family history of how they went from being landowning, educated aristocracy to losing everything in 1954 after Dien Bien Phu and living in a refugee camp after escaping North Vietnam to live in South Vietnam. How they rebuilt their lives into something that resembled a middle class existence in Saigon and then lost everything again in 1975 when Vietnam fell to the communist regime and anyone who was associated with the previous government was sent to re-education camps or tortured and killed. How they came to America with nothing and rebuilt their lives yet again in the American south, wearing hand-me down clothes donated from churches and driving cars jerry-rigged through sheer ingenuity and necessity. How that history shaped me even though I got to reap the benefits of what they suffered and sacrificed. But then I got side-tracked after the writing workshop by breast cancer and learned a bunch more amazing stuff about myself and the universe and I want to write about that, too. And I think it’s somehow all connected and I think writing these little blog posts every day is helping me sort through it all and figure out how it is all linked together.
When was the last time you received a love letter?
In an effort to change the subject from talking about my boobs every single day, I asked my friend Sarah last night while we were walking home from dinner to suggest today’s blog topic. Sarah proposed: When was the last time you received a love letter? I love love letters so I especially loved the idea of writing about love letters and suggested it to Karen who immediately agreed.
I started thinking about the mysterious letter I’d received from Kiev earlier this week from an old flame. He’d written it on hotel stationery (he doesn’t live in Kiev) and he described the soup he’d eaten that day containing unidentifiable meat parts (we have an inside joke about soup) and said that he’d been thinking about me a lot lately and signed it “lots of love.” It was the closest thing to a love letter I’d received in a while, but not exactly a letter professing love, so I didn’t think it should count toward addressing the proposition at hand. I thought back farther.
I dated a guy for a while (Dim Sum Ping Pong guy) who also aspired to be a writer despite his corporate gig and I totally fell for his inner intensity. He wrote adoring text messages to me that I saved with screen shots in case they somehow disappeared into the ether. I just looked at those again and they contain dramatic declarations of infatuation and admiration. However, they weren’t technically letters. I realize that people don’t write each other letters anymore so I shouldn’t blame him for not bucking current social standards, but still, the texts did not rise to the level of love letter.
Love letters need to be tangible, physical objects. You need to be able to feel them in your hands and see the handwriting, which may be difficult to decipher in places, and you need to be able to pull them out of the envelope again and again to reread them when you need a little affirmation of love. More importantly, the entire process of writing a love letter takes so much more time than the instantaneous modes of communication we use today. You have to purchase the right stationery, carefully compose the letter and write it out by hand, go to the post office and buy a stamp and stick it in the mailbox, then wait until your intended love receives it and hope that she maybe responds in kind. Because the act of writing a love letter takes a great deal of time and effort, you know the writer has been thinking about you much longer than the time it takes to compose a text message, and therefore it seems more meaningful, and maybe even a little bit magical nowadays.
I thought way back to the little folded notes my ex-husband would pass me in the library when we were still dating and studying for final exams together in the library sitting side by side in tiny cubicles. Those notes usually contained a doodle, a pun, and a few lines about how much he loved me. I have kept every single one of those notes and it makes me smile big when I am sometimes looking for something in my storage room and come across one of them. They didn’t take much time to write and were usually scribbled on a sheet of paper torn from a spiral notebook, but they were tangible and written in his hand and the messages contained his quintessential essence and the reasons why I loved him in the first place.
When I got home later that night from dinner with Sarah and checked my mailbox, I found this postcard hidden within the holiday shopping catalogs, bills, and advertising flyers:
This postcard actually says “LOVE”!
When I first met this postcard-sending friend, I offhandedly mentioned that I had been collecting postcards since I was a kid and that I loved sending and receiving postcards. Soon after, I started receiving postcards in the mail from him even though he lived only a few blocks away from me.
The postcards were never the touristy kind you buy from a souvenir stand, nor were they the artsy kind you buy from a bookstore or hipster-y clothing shop. He always sent postcards through a phone app called “Simply Postcards,” which allows you to upload your own image on one side, write a message and the mailing address on the other side, and then generates an actual paper postcard that automatically gets sent to your intended recipient. It’s an easy and customizable way to tell someone you are thinking about them, or that you love them.
The messages he writes to me are pretty short and usually say something along the lines of, “You’re a badass.” He seems to be clairvoyant because we rarely speak or meet up for coffee anymore now that he has moved to the west coast, yet the cards still seem always to arrive when I am feeling low about something. They are not love letters that profess romantic love. They’re simply his way of injecting little doses of love into the lives of those within his circle for whom he feels great affection and friendship.
Is it a love letter? Yes. And it is the last time I received a love letter.
Last week I explained how the breast reconstruction process works. I mentioned that one of the highlights is that I’m going to get fabulous new, slightly larger boobs that will never, ever sag. It’s the least The Universe could do to make up for giving me breast cancer!
However, The Universe is going to make me earn the Fabulous Boobs. Each week for five or six weeks, I must visit the plastic surgeon’s office so he can fill the expanders he placed in my chest during the first surgery with additional saline solution until we get to a full C cup size, which is what I have requested. Being able to request a breast size ranks among the weirdest things I have ever experienced, and I am including in this category having a girl live inside a giant bubble inside my apartment for a week, eating crunchy cricket tacos at the secret taqueria in Columbia Heights, and witnessing a performance of “Meat Poems” in which Bradley Chriss recited poetry whilst gnawing on a cow tongue.
The expansion process must take place slowly because the expanders have been placed behind the chest muscles. In the past the implants were placed on top of the muscle, which presented an unnatural appearance, but didn’t require muscle expansion. Below the muscle allows for a much more pleasing aesthetic effect. Unsurprisingly, the chest muscles do not take kindly to this involuntary and perverse procedure, so they rebel by spazzing out. Valium’s muscle relaxing qualities help with the spasms, and Vicodin takes care of the rest. I don’t complain because I am already starting to see nice cleavage and I’ve got a couple super cute dresses in my wardrobe that I have never worn because I never could figure out the undergarment mechanics.
I was explaining all of this to a friend recently who exclaimed, “It’s just like wearing braces!” I smiled back with clenched teeth and a polite nod.
I have never worn braces, so I cannot categorically refute her. However, I was once married to an orthodontist so I shall use that as my authoritative basis for stating, “There is no motherfucking way boob expansion is just like wearing braces.”
I am quite certain that getting your teeth pushed incrementally closer together every two months over two years barely approximates the pain of having your pectoral muscles stretched into a thin sheath across your chest every week for six weeks.
True, braces wearers experience discomfort when they have their braces tightened up. However, my ex told me that he advised his patients to take a couple tylenol for the pain. Not Vicodin and Valium, which boob expansion mandates. I also know for a fact that you get to keep your own teeth when you wear braces. You don’t get them replaced with some weird gel-filled pouch that is supposed to resemble the real thing but everyone knows it’s not.
Braces and boob expansion have, however, one thing in common. My ex said that after he removed a patient’s braces, the patient would smile more afterward. I am sure I will be smiling more after I get my Fabulous Boobs.
Karen and I both woke up this morning in cranky moods. She probably didn’t get enough sleep and I wake up sore and stiff every morning in the chest region (notice how I didn’t use the B word!) these days. My doctor warned me that many people who have undergone any kind of major surgery experience a depression two to three weeks after the surgery. Some think it’s your body’s reaction to needing more rest, which helps along the healing process, and a depressed person usually sleeps a lot. I might have been a little bit too zealous over the weekend so my body is probably telling me to take it easy. Plus, writing a blog post every single day for National Blog Posting Month is wearing me down!
So today, we decided to do something easy and fun and write about what gets us out of a bad mood. I’m going to take the REALLY easy route and make a list! (Paulette would approve.) These are given in no particular order and I could keep adding to this list for days so here goes:
An early morning paddle board session on a glassy Potomac River on a mild, sunny day with one of my best friends. Especially stoked when I get to see turtles on a rock along the way and if we go have coffee afterward and catch up on our lives before we go back to our lives.
An early morning surfing session with same said best friend in warm Costa Rican waters, and huge bonus if we catch the same wave!
Receiving a postcard from somewhere exotic. Or even a postcard from the cool hotel my friend stayed at in Brooklyn because he thought I’d like the place and he was thinking about me.
Unexpected hand-written notes from an old flame who lives on the other side of the world. Even better when one of the notes is written on stationery from a hotel in Kiev, where he doesn’t live, and he doesn’t explain why he’s there.
Finding a new piece of graffiti.
Early morning texts from a friend almost every single day that say things like “you’re fucking amazing.”
I’ve kept a journal ever since I was a little kid and first thought I wanted to be a writer. I had read that many of the great writers kept journals throughout their lives, recording snippets of conversations and capturing images they’d later recreate in their published works, whether fiction or non-fiction, so I followed in their footsteps. I have kept every single journal I have ever written and moved them with me everywhere I have lived and have guarded them viciously. They are currently stored in a locked bin deep inside my storage room.
The early journals were a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes, mostly because blank ones were often gifted to me by people who encouraged my writing. Some were plain spiral bound notebooks. Some were more like hardcover books decorated with girlish patterns. Later I discovered the classic black Moleskine and those have been my journal of choice for years, though I have recently been using a green Moleskine to document my cancer journey. I have never written in a journal with unlined pages.
When I look back at some of those old journals looking for material to write about today, some of the mundane parts make me laugh. Sometimes I was angry at my mom for not letting me buy the latest clothing styles, or sad that a boy didn’t pay attention to me even though I stared wistfully at him throughout class, or mad at a teacher who’d unfairly given me a low grade on a brilliant essay, or upset with a friend who went to the movies with another friend and didn’t ask me to join them. Later I would sometimes get angry at my husband for leaving his dirty socks on the floor next to the laundry basket rather than in the laundry basket, or at my boss for asking me to stay late at the last minute on a Friday night because a client had just called to tell us he’d forgotten he needed a crucial document reviewed by Monday morning, or at the neighbor whose dog barked all night long.
Much of my journal content consists of the usual angsty stuff that is typical of teens and early 20 somethings. But those same journals are also filled with venom and self-loathing and some just straight up fucked up shit. They overflow with agony and despair caused by things that should never have befallen a child. I’ve referenced some of those things in passing in my current writings but I haven’t built up the courage to tell you more of the details, which I have kept safe just in case I would one day become a “real” writer.
I touched on growing up as the only Asian kid (other than my brother) in a racist Southern city, but notice how I glossed over that and went straight to a Vietnamese cultural lesson and how everything ended up happy and wonderful for me after all. I’ve told you about the time I rescued my little brother from drowning when I was seven-years-old. But I neglected to tell you the circumstances of how we found ourselves in a situation where we’d be swimming at that tender age in a mining pit in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. I have also recounted in near loving tones of how my dad taught me to throw a frisbee and drive a stick shift, but I also offhandedly mentioned his non-existence for most of my childhood, and I never explain why.
My journals contain all those missing details. I don’t know if my stories were less powerful because I chose to exclude many of those background details (at least for now) that would have made them juicier. Those details have caused me great misery and shame and that misery and shame in turn led me to make some poor choices in my life that I have not yet had the courage to reveal in full. But those details also taught me how to fend for myself, to love others and to be loved, to be generous and authentic, to be curious, to live big, and weirdly, to be optimistic. I want to pass on these greater lessons I have learned and I think that the only way to do that will be to reveal more, to make myself more vulnerable to show that a bunch of shitty things can happen to you that are out of your control, but you still get to be the master of your destiny and you are still invincible.
This was all a long-winded way to say something about Josef Palermo’s show “Pieces of Amber,” which took a beating during its run over the past couple weeks. I never saw the show. The first weekend, I was still in too much of a drug haze from surgery to go out of the house. During the second weekend, I was still dealing with the emotional impact of breast cancer and just not ready to take on difficult issues that resonated deeply with me. As Josef says,
"It has forced me to confront my own issues of abandonment, my multicultural identity (Amber is half-black, like my mother), and my will to survive by any means necessary as Amber has continued to do."
This was not the kind of light stuff I wanted to be thinking about while healing from a major surgery and mourning the loss of my womanhood. But it was all stuff I have mulled over a million times in my own journals and that have affected me in profound ways my entire life. I supported the show because I felt it was an attempt to create an experience that displayed these universal yearnings for belonging and to love and be loved. I do not believe it was a revenge piece.
Unsurprisingly, there were some flaws in its execution, as there might be with any young creative who’s experimenting and trying to push artistic boundaries a little. And I certainly recoiled when I realized that Josef had not at least changed the name of the author of the journals on which the show was based. But when it came right down to it, I was stunned that the real Amber would abandon her journals in the first place. When I first learned I had breast cancer and thought I might die, one of my first thoughts was to burn my journals. I would never have allowed those books to be in a position in which they could be used without my consent or beyond my control. That she left them behind doesn’t dismiss the flaws in the execution of this art experience nor does it dismiss the way in which her journals were used. But the leaving behind of something so priceless and intimate says as much about her as the words themselves.
Last night, a few friends and I gathered in a field behind an elementary school near my home and we launched lit paper lanterns into the sky. Each lantern came with a small waxy square attached to a thin wire at its open base. We lit the wax on fire and the heat from the fire filled the lantern until it lifted off into a sky darkened by clouds that obscured all the usual celestial lights, including the stars and the full moon, and obscured some unusual celestial lights blasting through the universe that very same night, like hundreds of falling stars from the Leonid Meteor Shower, and one superbright comet (Comet C/2012 S1 - ISON), and one telescope-visible comet appropriately called Comet Lovejoy. Though we couldn’t see any of these astral objects, the evening felt momentous and auspicious.
Once lit, the smaller lanterns took off easily and it was magical to see the little dots of light floating away from us, filling in the spaces where the stars and comets and moon should have been. However the much larger pink, heart-shaped lanterns proved more difficult to manage. Each one required two handlers. One person crouched down on the ground and lit the wax from below while the other person held the top of the fragile paper upright so that it would not catch fire while the hot air filled it up. Once inflated, both people had to gently lift the heart off the ground and nudge it upward. The heart would sometimes wobble at first and occasionally someone would have to run after it to prod it a little as it dipped and rose precariously, but then the wind would catch it and the heart flew off higher and higher and faster and faster until it turned into a beautiful and mesmerizing speck of light in the sky. We created our own galaxy of love last night!
We launched the lanterns in celebration of Yi Peng, the Floating Lantern Festival of Thailand, which I learned about when my friend Victoria told me she was going there to experience it.
The lanterns are “symbolic of personal release and forgiveness. As the lantern is lifted into the air, the owner closes their eyes, makes a wish, and lets all of their troubles float peacefully away. The lanterns are symbolic of freeing the soul…” (From Special Holidays Guide)
I never used to appreciate rituals like this beyond an intellectual interest in cultural differences. But much like the Persian spring fire jumping ceremony I organized earlier this year, last night made me realize that rituals like this were symbolic gestures of a commitment to the desire for internal change, that the little fires wipe the slate clean so that we can reinvent ourselves and start anew, but the ritual itself is not a magical elixir. There is nothing “out there” that is going to change anything within me. There’s nothing out there that’s going to take away my troubles and make my wishes come true. There is only me and the universe I create for myself that is filled with extraordinary people and me trying to live my passion to write not really knowing how it will all work out financially or emotionally or socially or any of it. But knowing that sending off that lantern filled with my wishes and troubles symbolized my commitment to doing whatever I needed to do to make my wishes come true and vanquish my troubles. That’s electrifying and terrifying all at once.
One of my friends who came to our miniature Floating Lantern Festival brought his 5-year-old daughter who experienced it with typical childlike glee and delight. However, I don’t think any of us needed her there to remind us of the pure joy we can still feel when we experience something for the first time, something so simple and uncluttered. At least I hope we will never lose those feelings of awe and wonder watching fiery lanterns float into a black sky.
Three years ago on a sunny, brisk October day my best pal and I drove to the Shenandoah and spent the day hiking Old Rag Mountain. We didn’t encounter many other hikers that weekday on the trail, which can get clogged on the weekends with Boy Scout troops and packs of JMU sorority girls building sisterhood.
If you’ve hiked Old Rag, you know it’s not an easy trek. There are sections where you must hoist yourself up from one large boulder to the next sometimes with the aid of a rope that’s already been helpfully placed there by the Park Service when there are no easy handholds for your raw fingers to grab, or leap over what seem like bottomless chasms, or needle your body sideways through a slim space that makes you wonder how that portly Boy Scout troop leader ahead of you found his way through. The difficulty of the hike pays off at the top with a spectacularly stunning view of the Shenandoah Valley that instantly restores a sense of your right place in the world.
Exhilarated, elated, and hungry when we got off the mountain, we started driving back to DC and as we neared civilization (a.k.a. cell phone reception), my cell phone started blowing up with text and voice messages, mostly along the lines of, “Are you ok?” “I’m really sorry this happened, but I’m here for you.” “Don’t worry, we still love you anyway.” I was perplexed at first until I found the source for all the concern: an article that had been published in the Washington City Paper about me that morning. I read the article out loud to my friend as he drove and added some dramatic flair during the snarky, mean parts and we laughed our asses off. Soon the mean internet comments started appearing and those weren’t quite as easy to take. But I’d just had an extreme dose of true beauty in the world and I didn’t care much at all what irrelevant internet trolls and snooty ladies-who-lunch had to say about me.
However, what really helped me get over the hater commentary was the fact that a phone call from a writer at the Fashion Washington quarterly of The Washington Post interrupted my dramatic reading of the City Paper article to tell me that I had “won” a free trip to Paris and that I could invite four friends to accompany me. We’d fly on OpenAir, a first and business class only airline, and we’d stay three nights in the 5-star Prince de Galles Hotel.
Why had I “won” this trip? FW had decided that I was that year’s “Most Fashionable Washingtonian” and that they would document me and four fashionable friends enjoying the City of Light for a long, luxurious, beautifully snowy winter weekend for a marketing spread in the next issue of the magazine. I wasn’t actually the most fashionable Washingtonian that year. I simply was available on short notice for the dates they needed to do the photo shoot. My first boondoggle!
The most difficult task was deciding which four friends would join me. People started lobbying me hard once they learned about the trip. One slot was already taken by my boyfriend at the time. To fill the other three spots, I came up with a brilliant solution: I would invite starving artists. Who would argue against that? I persuaded three artists whose work I admired and with whom I shared a friendship to join me: Holly Bass, Victoria Gaitan, and Ryan Holladay. I won’t go into all the gory details of how much fun we had. You can get the idea here.
I was remembering that trip when Karen suggested we write about winning stuff/prizes for today’s blog duel and it made me think about how lucky I felt to have been given that amazing Paris trip right in the middle of an emotional firestorm caused by a few cancerous comments about me. I’ve been thinking much more lately about what it means to be lucky. I am lucky that my actual cancer was detected so early under incredibly lucky circumstances (it’s juicy stuff but you may have to buy my future book to find out how) and that I won’t need any additional treatment after the double mastectomy, like chemotherapy, radiation, and icky drugs that force you into early menopause. Eeewww. And that in the middle of the cancer catastrophe, I found out that I was lucky enough to have the kind of friends who would basically drop everything to take care of me when I needed them most. I feel lucky that cancer forced me to downsize my life so that I could live my true passion: to write every single day.
I’m lucky that I recently won a lottery to stay one night in the amazing Room for London next month and the boyfriend of a new friend I met because of cancer (very lucky!) will give me one of his free first-class airline vouchers to get there (even luckier!). I’m lucky that my original plastic surgeon took an emergency leave two days before my double mastectomy and I ended up getting a new surgeon who would restore my classic bosom to resemble the original equipment as much as possible. And the list goes on and on about how lucky I have been. Even the seemingly unlucky stuff (cancer and such) has yielded such lucky outcomes that I am not even sure anymore how to define luck.
None of these so-called lucky things that have happened to me, even the earlier trip to Paris, came to me for no reason at all though. I believe that these things were given to me because I have tried to live my life according to these principles:
Inspiration. Surround yourself with extraordinary and creative people.
Passion. Suck the marrow out of life and wake up every morning screaming at the top of your lungs.
Generosity. Give unconditionally and without any expectation of return.
Curiosity. Combat intellectual stagnation with curiosity about everything and exploring everywhere.
Courage. Act according to what is true and authentic for yourself rather than what anyone expects of you.
Today, we shall discuss boobs, a subject that has been greatly on my mind more than usual lately. And we shall discuss boobs as they relate to vanity, because Karen seems to be working through a lot of vanity issues this week on her blog (what with her obsession over exercise and covering gray hairs) and I am simply trying to be a supportive, good friend who commiserates through dueling blog posts in celebration of National Blog Posting Month. Advance warning: the following blog post may border on TMI. But hey, it’s breast cancer and there’s really no other way to talk about it without filling you in on all the gory details. So if you’re squeamish at all, please stop reading now.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I worried immediately about what my breasts would look like after the surgery. I’ve always sorta liked my breasts because they weren’t too small or too large, they didn’t sag as much as others my age, and I’d received some nice compliments about them in the past. Even while I was still processing the fact that I had cancer and that people frequently die from this disease, I became obsessed with and depressed about the fact that my breasts would be hacked away and I’d be left with grotesque, reconstructed scarred lumps topped with fake nipple-lke protrusions that supposedly some amazing tattoo artist in Baltimore could ink to look real-ish. My vanity was so strong about my breasts that during an early conversation with my plastic surgeon in which I asked copious questions about size, shape, and texture options, he felt compelled to remind me that we first needed to focus on getting the fucking cancer out of my body. Got it. Sobering.
I continued looking at numerous pictures online of women who had had reconstruction surgery after a double mastectomy. It felt slightly weird trolling the internet for pictures of boobs! I was jealous of the women who got to keep their nipples. My plastic surgeon didn’t feel like he could perform a nipple sparing mastectomy on me without the risk of leaving behind some cancer cells.
Though plastic surgery technology has advanced tremendously, you could still tell a fake nipple when you saw one. The rest of the breast usually looked pretty good, though. It’s not like in the old days when they sawed off your entire breast, sewed you up, and sent you on your way with a flat and scarred chest. Nowadays, surgeons can preserve your skin by removing all the breast tissue underneath including the cancer, and then inserting implants below the muscle to look nearly like a regular old breast augmentation. Except for that nipple thing. Which really bothered me. A lot.
I distracted myself from the nipple problem by polling several girlfriends on whether I should get the classic round porn star boobs, or the more naturally shaped teardrop boobs. There were pros and cons to both. Although the teardrop shape seemed the obvious choice, a downside is the problem of rotation. All implants have a possibility of rotating. If they’re round, it’s no big deal. If they’re shaped like a teardrop, you have to have another surgery to put them back in place. You get really great cleavage with the round boobs. But with the round ones, I felt like I’d always have to be explaining myself to those not in the know who’d be staring in judgment at my chest. “I didn’t want to get implants. I had breast cancer for crying out loud!” I have never even worn makeup, and though I color my gray hairs, I rarely remember to comb my hair before I leave the house. So the idea of artificially and superficially changing my appearance in such a radical way vexed me, to say the least.
At one point, I got excited that there was an option to get a tummy tuck out of this whole catastrophe. In this procedure, they take fat and skin from your tummy to build a breast for you so that an implant is not necessary. This option seemed perfect for someone like me who desired the most “natural” solution. Unfortunately, the plastic surgeon took one look at me and said, “You don’t have enough fat for this.” I earnestly pointed at my muffin top and he firmly shook his head no. I was weirdly happy and sad at the same time. When I later learned more about what the tummy tuck/breast reconstruction surgery combo entailed, I decided I wouldn’t have picked that option even if it had been available to me. The risks were higher in every respect - much longer surgery and more general anesthesia, higher risk of infection, much longer recovery time, more scars on the body. I resigned myself to the implants and went back to thinking about round or teardrop.
I also started to realize that I should be asking dudes for their opinions rather than my girlfriends. Dudes were my target audience! One guy friend helpfully explained, “Guys love breasts. It doesn’t matter what you pick.” Another guy friend said he had been intimate with a woman who had had the round implants and then intimate again with her after she had them replaced with the natural teardrop shape and he much preferred the latter. That was excellent intel and I decided I’d better start polling other men in my life before making this pivotal decision.
I don’t have to choose the shape of my implants yet. First, I must heal completely from the mastectomy and then I get the implants in a couple months in a second surgery, which I hear is a piece of cake compared to the first one. However in the first surgery, the plastic surgery inserted what he calls “expanders” in my chest where the implants will ultimately be placed. Each week, he injects about 50cc of saline solution into the expanders until they get to the size I want. I’m gunning for a full “C” cup, which is one size larger than I previously enjoyed.
The expansion process takes place slowly because the muscles around the expander/implant zone aren’t excited about this foreign body placed next to them and they spaz out after each injection. I had to take valium and a bunch of pain pills after the last session. No pain, no gain! I’m already seeing some cleavage, too!
Oh, and in other amazing news, I still have my nipples! Two days before my scheduled surgery, my original plastic surgeon had to take an emergency medical leave. After a stressful day of rejiggering the whole treatment plan, my cancer surgeon was able to quickly connect me with a new plastic surgeon who felt more confident about performing a nipple sparing mastectomy that would also free me from cancer. We rescheduled the surgery for five days later and frankly, I think the final product is going to look pretty darn good. The new guy even assured me that he could laser off the scars after we were all done with everything.
I feel incredibly lucky that breast cancer surgery has advanced so much in recent years. Though I still haven’t fully processed the idea of having fake boobs, something I would never have chosen under any other circumstances, I am pretty excited that I will have perky ones for the rest of my life. That fact alone keeps my vanity intact.
“Letters have the power to grant us a larger life. They reveal motivation and deepen understanding. They are evidential. They change lives, and they rewire history. The world once used to run upon their transmission — the lubricant of human interaction and the freefall of ideas, the silent conduit of the worthy and the incidental, the time we were coming for dinner, the account of our marvelous day, the weightiest joys and sorrows of love. It must have seemed impossible that their worth would ever be taken for granted or swept aside.”—The Letter Is Dead, Long Live the Letter (via explore-blog)
Yesterday I whined about how Karen wouldn’t let me go to my hair appointment one week after my double mastectomy. I mean if she really and truly cared about me, she wouldn’t have made me wait a whole extra week to get my gray hairs covered up. Wasn’t it enough that one of my important lady parts had been hacked away? She couldn’t give me the tiny solace of a little vanity while I was recuperating from the surgery and feeling a little sorry for myself?
When I later learned that her hair appointment to get her gray hairs covered up was this week (the day before my rescheduled appointment), I realized that her Nurse Ratched-like deprivation wasn’t really about looking out for my well-being and best interest anymore. Keeping me away from my hair guy for an extra week was part of the insidious competitive streak that runs deep through this woman. Two can play that game, missy.
I took these pictures of your ass one morning while you were still staying with me and I shall now present them to the world! Mwahahahaha!
Unfortunately, I think my evil revenge plan has backfired because her ass looks great! And so does the rest of her.
I am not nearly as fit as Karen but one thing she and I can agree on in addition to covering up our gray hairs is that we do not compromise on exercise as a daily part of our lives. Exercise is a critical weapon in combatting and slowing down the inevitable effects of aging and we are both vain enough to do whatever it takes to keep the sagging at bay. However, I am pretty excited that she’ll never be able to win at least one competition against me: with my new super boobs, hers will always hang lower than mine.
Though I padded around my apartment clad in baggy pajama pants and fuzzy slippers unable to lift my arms above shoulder level for ten straight days after the surgery, I was happy to see Karen continue her daily workout routine despite the strange circumstance in which we found ourselves. But I wistfully stared out the window at her bootcamp regime feeling my butt slowly sag as she hopped up and down and did a bunch of push ups, and not even the girly kind with the knees on the ground.
When I was a kid, my early years revolved around team sports like soccer, field hockey, and volleyball. I was a competitive, sometimes even combative, sportswoman and I wasn’t interested in winning friends on the playing field. Only winning. As I got older and the stress of competition started to wear on me (and my friends), i focused more on individual sports like swimming laps, running, and gym workouts. I have mellowed out even more since then and have taken up more serene activities like yoga, surfing, and paddle boarding. But the point is that I have never stopped moving and there has never been a time in my life when I wasn’t physically active to stay fit.
Physical fitness also meant mental fitness. If I skipped a day of exercise, I’d get grumpy and stressed. Though I was scared shitless about dying and about the surgery and a bunch of other things, I was also anxious about how hard the recovery period would be for me mentally. I had never undergone any kind of surgery before and I knew it would be emotionally difficult for me to be sedentary for the two weeks that the doctors had ordered me to rest fully and I worried that I might get depressed during this time as a result.
The doctors also told me that I wouldn’t be able to go back to the gym for six weeks, although they said I could start taking exercise walks within two weeks of the surgery. My chief concern, however, was how long it would be before I could surf again. I specifically asked my surgeon that question and he sat momentarily silent and perplexed, having never been presented with that particular issue before.
Fortunately, strong medication (and Karen) prevented me from moving about much at all those first two weeks after the surgery and those same drugs kept me pretty happy during that time, as well. I rested as ordered and I started feeling stronger much quicker than I think anyone expected, which I attribute to the fact that though I was already in decent shape, I also did extra workouts in the weeks leading up to surgery and started drinking gallons of green juice as soon as I was diagnosed with cancer.
I have walked 4-5 miles every day this week since Monday, which was exactly two weeks to the day following surgery. And I’ll start light yoga and swimming in a couple more weeks and then back to the gym for weight training soon after that. I should be ready to paddle board and surf by spring!