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Do What Matters

I am home after two weeks traveling in Guatemala. A year ago, when I was recovering from multiple skull surgeries, I swore that one day I would return to the land of chocolate, coffee, and cardamom, and bring people I love there with me. My doctor told me that it wasn’t a priority. But I knew that it was. I want to do what matters with people who matter to me.

I spent one week traveling with my Mom, plus Natasha, my dear friend, and her Mom, connecting as mothers and daughters. The second week, I spent with my best girlfriends from childhood. We were celebrating our 45th birthdays (a year late), a whole year of health, and over thirty-three years of friendship. While we were there, a group of young, indigenous women graduated from high school, the first person in their families to do so.

Why Guatemala? Because the land and its people teach grace and grit. Three years ago, I met some remarkable girls from Starfish; an indigenous-led organization that gives girls the education and mentorship they need to keep studying despite being born with triple discrimination (female, indigenous, poor) and the practical tools to transform their communities out of poverty. I wanted my Mom and my friends to meet these young women. I wanted them to experience the depth of inspiration that I felt the first time I met them.

While traveling, time slows and we slow down with it. Gradually, we shed our armor built from the busyness of life to notice the color of the hummingbirds. My mom wakes early and discovers orchids, roses, and jasmine plants just steps from her door. A fisherman asks me how long I have been in the country and I confess that I have no idea: a week? Ten days? I forget. I forget my age, too. I assume I am in my early twenties, because that is how I feel. My go-to feeling of responsibility is replaced with curiosity. I speak Spanish and listen to my tongue roll r’s in a way it hasn’t done in years. The funny thing is my voice feels more true in a foreign language, because I listen more intently and speak to connect, not to impress. This curiosity also inspires me to wake before sunrise, load my flashlight with new batteries, and head to the dock to watch a papaya sunrise over a green lake.

That same day, we are invited to a small town across the lake, into the home of Sara, a Starfish pioneer, just days before she graduates from high school. A few of her peers tag along. The house is simple with cinder block walls, a wood-fired stove, an outhouse, and a skinny strip of corrugated metal for a roof. The floor is immaculately swept. We sit knee-to-knee with the girls, Sara, Petronila, and Rosa, as they teach us to make tortillas. They giggle at our clumsiness, and urge us to keep trying. We share a meal of poorly-shaped tortillas, eggs, and beans. Then we share our stories.

The girls want to be doctors, entrepreneurs, teachers, and writers. I listen and worry that their dreams are too big, too unrealistic. I think, Maybe I should help them make more practical goals. Petronila, Sara, and Rosa describe their greatest achievements as moments of perseverance: “I am most proud of continuing to study even after my mom died” or “after my dad got sick and couldn’t work,” or “after our crops were wiped out by a landslide.” I feel the emotion in my throat. I fight back tears. They have been through so much, and have every reason to give up, but choose instead to rise each morning and dig in to do what matters, In the narrow moments between working and caring for their families, the girls study. Lately, in my day-to-day life, I have been feeling tired and overwhelmed. I can’t access positive thoughts easily. I am full of doubt. But Sara, Petronila, and Mari remind me of the batteries I loaded in my flashlight that morning–they line up behind each other, facing positive. The girls inspire me to be tenacious and to keep doing what matters. Sitting there, I recognize that the problem isn’t that their dreams are too big; Could my dreams be too small?

Sara’s father speaks humbly, “I am so proud. My daughter is very smart. She sees solutions to problems quickly.” I look over at my Mom who introduces herself the same way wherever we go on this trip, “I am Lyn, mother of Susie.” I let my tears finally fall, out of wonder and gratitude.

Later, my friend Alli says wisely, “If the land shapes who we are, no wonder Guatemalans are resilient.” She is referring to the way that the landscape is dominated by tall, volcanic mountains, deep lakes, and steep cliffs. There is no easy way to get around; there are no shortcuts.

We experience this fact of geography when the Moms, the girlfriends, and a few Starfish graduates and staff members climb a near-vertical slope together to celebrate the Day of the Dead. To honor their ancestors, Guatemalans gather in families at cemeteries and hillsides. They roast corn and chicken on steel drums, and build giant paper kites, the size of two-story homes. They write messages on the kites or on pieces of paper that they tie to the kite tails. One note I saw said, “My only wish is that this message finds you, and that you are happy.”

The words remind the dead that they are not forgotten. Actually, most of the messages on the kites remind the living not to forget the gift of life. The kites are shaped like bears or the Earth, and often feature a woman at the center, surrounded by water, birds, and trees. We walk among the kites as three generations of women (moms, friends, and graduates), humbled by the people’s commitment to make something so beautiful that will be gone tomorrow.

I buy a small kite for 20Q (about 3 dollars). My girlfriends and I are determined to fly it, but we are lacking skills and such basic equipment as kite string and a tail. We try anyway to get it into the air. It reminds me of when we first met at age 12, just like the Starfish girls, entering seventh grade at a large public school. Together, we made impossible things happen. In the 8th grade, we ran for student council and when we won all seats except the top one, we convinced the newly-elected president to step aside and let us steer the direction of the school without him. I think he handed the reins over because he saw how much work it was to make change happen. But we kept our eyes forward, on the possibilities and impact. When we asked the principal for our own office at the back of the cafeteria, we didn’t doubt that he would say yes. We were already picking out paint colors for the office walls.

As teenagers, we were stubborn and overly confident, brace-faced and brave. I remember painting our new office walls blue while planning the first-ever fundraiser to support families devastated by a tornado. I remember licking hundreds of envelopes with letters inside to every parent, trying to get the 100% approval we needed to host dances at night at the school. Somehow, we did it. We accomplished more stuff too; I just don’t remember all of it. What I do remember is the feeling I still have when I am with these friends traveling together over thirty years later: that anything is possible. I tell Rosa and Sara this story because I want them to know that if they work at it, their friendships won’t end when they graduate.

When our kite won’t fly, we try again. I ask a man for a little string and he generously shows us how much to use and how to attach it securely. Next the Moms toss us advice as well as plastic bag scraps to help build a kite tail. My friends Natasha and Teza get the kite in the air, but it crashes down with force onto the ground. We get the kite in the air again, and this time it lands like a hat on the head of a little boy. He is surprised, but unhurt. The locals smile at these foolish gringas who won’t give up.

When nothing works, my girlfriends and I pool our resources and find another kite. I scribble a note and attach it to the string. It says, “We will not forget how much family matters, how much friends matter, and how serving others allows us to do what matters. Thank you for the gifts of life, perseverance, and shared time together.” This time, the kite launches easily into the air and stays up, sending our message high on the wind.

***

Love,

Susie

This month in the group coaching program, we’re focusing on how to dig deep and accept ourselves as we are.

It’s only $20 to join our live coaching calls, thriving online community, and online resources. We’ll talk about how we often need to muster considerable courage to lead our most authentic lives—and work together on just how to do that. Learn more or enroll now.

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How to be a kid again

How To Be a Kid Again

Recently, some of my friends with older children were lamenting that the days of trick-or-treating are over for them. But why? Does it have to end when you turn a certain age? My friend Deb doesn’t think so. Last year, she put on a wolf mask and a fake fur coat and went out on Halloween. “When you’re 5’2,” she told me, “you can trick-or-treat forever.”

I love Halloween. But my appreciation for it really has nothing to do with candy. I like the childlike invitation to dress up. I love the idea that you can throw on a wig or a beret and a mustache and Voila! You are instantly anyone or any thing you want to be. There’s the imagination phase, where you spend time wondering what you want to become, and then there’s the creation phase, the scramble to pull the pieces together and get up the courage to go out in public as, say, a BLT sandwich. I once dressed up as a BLT. Another time, I painted cardboard until I was a bagel, and then I cut foam into a misshapen circle to be a “Queen” Bolete mushroom. Those were in the category of things I liked to eat. Other years I went as Katy Perry or Grover, the blue muppet from Sesame Street. They were in the category of someones I wanted to be. Dressing up is about as creative as it gets; you make something out of nothing. Even if your costume comes in a plastic bag from Amazon.com, it’s still magical if you own the character you’ve decided to become. Take my friend’s three-year-old son Jaxson, who wasn’t just Tigger, but T-I-Double G-Errrrr.

This year, Halloween had a certain poignancy. I was not at home and I missed my kids, but I also missed all the children in the neighborhood, dressed up and believing they were animals or superheroes or superstars. Then there was the heartbreak of seeing the children at Mass General hospital. Every morning when I show up for my radiation treatments, there are always kids in the waiting room. They are doing chemotherapy and radiation at the same time, so most have lost all of their hair and are doing several energy-sucking, nausea-inducing sessions a day. I have come to know a few of them: two-year old Clayton, five-year old Aïsha, and three-year old Felicia, or Feliz (not their real names). These children go joyfully into the treatment room and come skipping back out. They don’t weigh down their experience with worry and premature grief. The other day, Aïsha found a toy xylophone, banged on its bright tin keys and belted out for all of us in the waiting room, “Everybody, yeah, eve-rrry-body is IMPORTANT!”

But it was Feliz who told me that the light around our radiation machine can change colors. I just assumed, in my grown-up way, that it was always blue. But noooo…this thing has a remote control and there are multiple shades of neon. It even has a “Disco Mode” where the blue light switches to pink to yellow to green. When I found that out, I had an idea.

On Halloween morning, Feliz came running over to me in her bright superhero costume, pulled out her pacifier, and said with a big smile, “I’m Supergirl!”

“Yes you are!” I responded and we flexed muscles for a while.

Then she asked, “What are you?”

“I’m a Disco Queen,” I said matter-of-factly, in my blonde afro wig and disco-ball earrings.

“Oh,” she said, and popped her pacifier back in her mouth before flying away. I turned to her mother and said, “Feliz is teaching me how to bring joy to my radiation treatments.” “All of us, ” she responded, “She teaches all of us so much.” 

Inspired, I felt lighter going into my treatment. Maybe I could even have some fun. I seized the remote control and put the lights on “Disco Mode” then I asked the nurses to change the Pandora Radio station to ABBA and I danced. Not for very long, and not very well, but still, I was dancing in the radiation room! The nurses laughed and said, “You’re being such a kid!”

“Thank you!” I said.

And thank you Feliz, Aïsha, and Clayton for teaching me how to embrace the joy that is in every situation, no matter where I am and what I am doing.

Happy Halloween everyone!

** Release your inner kid again and find JOY! Join our new Brave Over Perfect coaching group; our next one begins Nov. 1st. It’s only $20 for 3 calls, plus an online classroom full of resources, and access to an online community of smart people with solutions. Learn more here: Brave Over Perfect Coaching.
*****

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What Does it Mean to be Brave Over Perfect?

Susie:

In the summer of 2016, when I received some horrible news about my health, I sent my family camping and sat on my bed for two days, spinning in thoughts of despair and sorrow. “I’m going to die and never see my children grow up. I’ll never write a book. We’ll go broke.”

After 48 hours of fighting like Muhammad Ali against my diagnosis, I did something radical. I asked, “What if I accept my situation? What would that feel like?” It felt TERRIBLE at first. My thoughts rushed in to yell at me, “You’re going to give up? You’re so weak!”

So I tried something new. I meditated on each of my thoughts and realized that what was causing me suffering was not the tumor that I could not feel in my body. Instead, my thoughts about the tumor were killing me, even before I spoke to a specialist. I needed to stop blindly believing everything I was thinking. I was going to have enough real physical pain to deal with; I didn’t need to make it worse with my thinking!

Then, something strange happened: I noticed that there was no difference between the thought “I’m going to die young,” and “I’m going to come out of this better than before” except for the way those thoughts made me feel. The relief I felt when I recognized this truth was enormous. I felt big, light, and free. I even laughed.

The minute I laughed at my most desperate thoughts, they lost their hold on me and seemed to disappear. It was as if they knew the gig was up, and moved on to someone else: “C’mon guys, let’s go bug another middle-aged woman who believes us.” Accepting my situation, while questioning my thoughts before letting them go, was making enough space in my head for wisdom.

Wisdom said, “No matter how bad your diagnosis, you still have a choice. You can spin and believe the stories that fill you with panic and despair. Or you can choose to see them not as reality, but just as stories.” I wrote down eight words in my journal: I choose joy over fear, brave over perfect.

What does it mean to be “brave over perfect? To me it means radically accepting myself and things as they are, and moving forward anyway. I am discovering that the world is far friendlier without my scary thoughts driving the bus. I procrastinate less and take more risks. I don’t need to please others as much anymore. I write and post my work publicly. I’ve gone from believing that my writing is not worthy of an audience to feeling, Oh well. It is good enough.

I, too, feel good enough for the world. I say no without guilt. For example, I just said no to a party that we go to every year. I called my friend to tell her honestly, “I love your family. I’m sorry I won’t be there. Sunday is my best writing day.” My friend laughed and surprised me by saying, “Good for you. Let’s go for a walk later instead.”

The best news? I feel freer and happier now than I did before my diagnosis.
* * * * *

Christine:

I wake up at 3am as the wind roars outside, rattling windows, pelting the house with pine needles and seed pods from the trees. I feel panic; hot, dry winds like these started the recent Northern California wildfires. Have we prepared enough for an emergency evacuation?

Less than a week into the horrific wildfires near our home, I had to leave town for work. The fires raged only a few miles away. Evacuees and their pets filled our house. People we knew were losing their homes left and right.

To make myself feel better, I typed up three pages of detailed instructions for what my family should do in case of fire or earthquake. Everyone in my family knew that the unspoken title of this little manual was “Memorize This in Case Mom’s Not Here to Tell You Precisely What to Do in an Emergency.”

I further tried to soothe my anxiety about leaving home in the middle of a natural disaster by making my family practice an emergency evacuation. Tanner volunteered to take care of the family heirlooms. I drilled him, dead serious: “Which are the high priority photo albums?” Macie, who shares my ever-present desire to control everything, asked clarifying questions about our family meeting place.

Molly was drawing on her ankle with a ballpoint pen. “Molly! Pay attention! When you get Buster into the car, what else do you need to make sure you have with you?”

My husband rolled his eyes.

Now, two weeks later, I am lying in bed in the middle of the night, again away from home. This time I am with my family in hot and dusty Ojai, California. The dry winds howl against the house. I know fire is an always-present danger. I try not to imagine the hills around us bursting into flames.

And then I slowly realize: Oh. My. God. No one is home to execute my detailed evacuation plan in case of fire. We would be safe, but like so many families we know, we would lose absolutely everything, the carefully crafted (and now laminated) emergency plan included.

Until recently, I’d thought that I’d more or less conquered perfectionism. Perfectionism, I’d become fond of saying, is a particular form of unhappiness. Thank GOD I’m not a perfectionist anymore.

Hah.

While it is true that I am no longer as afraid of making a mistake or disappointing others as I was in my youth, I have obviously not yet rid my life of perfectionism. I’ve just turned it outward, to the world, and especially to others.

Every time I try to control anything other than my own thoughts–the weather, my husband, my children–I’m sending a message to the world and the people around me that they are not good enough. This absolutely is perfectionism, and indeed, it is a particular form of unhappiness.

No matter how hard I try, I cannot control what is happening outside of my own head. Click To Tweet

No matter how hard I try, I cannot control what is happening outside of my own head. This makes the world we live in tremendously uncertain. And because I am human, uncertainty makes me anxious.

Although I often forget it, I know that soothing my anxiety by trying to control everything and everyone doesn’t ever work in the end. The only thing that does work is acceptance: to accept that life (or a particular circumstance) is tremendously uncertain. Or maybe not what I wanted. And also to accept my feelings about any given situation.

For example, I accept that there are wildfires raging, and also that I feel sad and anxious about the destruction that is all around me. Acceptance is not the same as resignation, and it’s definitely not despair. It’s okay to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

Most importantly, acceptance is about simply trusting that it’s going to work out better to meet life where it is, and move forward from there, without trying to manipulate or control everything and everyone.

This not-controlling business? It is not for the faint of heart. Acceptance takes a huge amount of courage.

Neither Susie nor I have fully recovered from perfectionism. Perfectionism is a little like an addiction, and recovery from it is a little like sobriety. We take it one day at a time.

What Brave over Perfect means to us today is this: We choose to accept uncertainty and take action from a place of trust. Saying yes to life and all of its unknowns now feels relaxing and expansive. It’s like finally having a great night’s sleep and waking up with wings.
* * * * *

If this post resonates with you, we hope you will join our Brave Over Perfect coaching group,

It’s only $20 to sign up. In our next call, we are going to dig a little deeper into the perils of perfectionism and people pleasing. Upcoming call topics include:

  • Tapping Into Your Inner Wisdom
  • What To Do When Things Feel Uncertain
  • How To Deal With Difficult People

We’ll talk about how we often need to muster considerable courage to lead our most authentic lives—and work together on just how to do that. Learn more or enroll now.

 

 

 

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Dear Little Susie

(A letter to self to burn off fear and worry)

Dear Little Susie,

Baby girl, you can’t live like this, full of fear and feelings of inadequacy. I get it. There are times when you don’t feel like the world is a safe place. And all you want is for everything to be alright. You just want everyone to be happy. When your father moved out and went away, you thought, if I am less messy, less loud, less emotional, Dad will come back. But it’s life. It’s not in your control. It never was. You are loved exactly as you are: loud, emotional, willful.

I know it’s confusing. You want to be seen and heard and loved. But when you talk a lot, you wonder, Why can’t I shut up? Why can’t I be more like the neighbor girl who is so quiet and pretty, who plays the violin, who knows when to speak and what to say to make everything go smoothly? You think, maybe if I grow up to be calm, pretty, and if I say what others want to hear, then I’ll be seen and heard and loved. 

I see you at 8 years old, around Christmas time. You were supposed to set the table for dinner. You wanted it to be special, so you found red candles and lit them on top of your grandmother’s white, hand-stitched tablecloth. You didn’t know the candles would drip and drip and ruin the tablecloth. You wondered, Why can’t I do anything right? It’s not your fault. You are a perfect human being, growing exactly as you should grow.

And then you notice that you get a lot of attention when you achieve. When you go to see your Dad, he hugs you tight when you show him your perfect score on your spelling test. Your mom tells her friends about the 800m race you won at the track meet and they look at you with sparkling eyes full of approval. Achieving seems like an answer. If you just keep bringing home perfect scores and winning races, then you’ll be OK. Then you’ll be loved. Then you’ll be safe.

I’m here to tell you, as your older, wiser self–you are safe right now. I have seen your future and it’s all going to work out. It doesn’t matter if you fail a spelling test or fifty spelling tests, you’re safe. You will not be left alone.

I’m sorry. I should have been here for you sooner. I’ve been busy running that strategy of achieving in order to earn love. I forgot you needed me in your corner. I’m here now. And I’m never going to leave you.

I want you to know that there is nothing you can do to make me love you less; you can lie to your parents, steal from a store, rip the arm off your brother’s GI Joe action figure, and I will still love you. There is also nothing you can do to make me love you more; no matter how cute you make yourself look, or if you start a non-profit to save the world, I won’t love you more. You’re enough. It is safe to be 100% who you are, exactly as you are. Can you feel the tight hug that I am giving you right now? Feel how good it is to be held. Relax and breathe in all this love. I’ve got you.

Baby girl, there’s one more thing. You never quite grasped how exceptional you are. It’s time for you to believe it. Spread your arms wide and take up space. Shake off that worry. Make as much noise as you want and dance your little pigtails off. Release your wild, abundant, beautiful self. The world is waiting.

I love you,

Susie 

With special thanks to Michael Vladeck who encouraged me to do this!

** If you are interested in releasing your abundant, beautiful self, join our new Brave Over Perfect coaching group; our next one begins Nov. 1st. It’s only $20 for 3 calls, plus an online classroom full of resources, and access to an online community of smart people with solutions. Learn more here: Brave Over Perfect Coaching.

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30 days of facing the unknown

30 Days of Facing the Unknown

I post these entries as a form of thank you; your words have nourished me. May mine give you back some of that love. In my life, I choose expression over rumination and worry. These 30 days mark a significant time for which I am grateful: before and after the multiple surgeries to remove a skull-base tumor. These musings are intended to honor the end of that time and the beginning of a second phase: radiation therapy and many new unknowns. SV:* means Small Victory. I recorded one each day.

7.29.16 Holiday Inn, Boston, MA.

Just completed a 12-hour day of pre-operative tests. In the MRI machine, the metal coils vibrated so loudly I felt like my body was ringing inside the bells at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I let it ring this question out of me:

If you come out of these surgeries unscathed, with a full life ahead of you – How are you going to live? Would you do anything differently?

 

7.30.16

In the past seven nights, I have slept 3-4 hours a night. I wake up because of the pounding headache at the base of my skull and then I spin in thoughts, wondering if I am going to die, or worse, be horribly debilitated. Anyway, I should be exhausted. I should be dragging my body around like a bag of potatoes, but instead I feel energized. It must be from all this support flooding in from everywhere. I feel lifted and light.

I have had a magnificent life – but I put off for too long my desire to write and make my writing public because I was afraid of these two unanswerable questions: How will I make money at writing? And: Would anyone care about what I have to say? The answers don’t matter to me anymore. I feel motivated to write now because I know I will regret it if I don’t and because I am less afraid with each wave of support.

I can’t help but think everyone needs to feel this outpouring of love. Why do we hold back? I have said I love you more in the past few weeks than I have said it all year and I have heard it said back to me so often that it feels like “I love you” is my first and “Susie” is my last name.

 

7.31.16

You know what you think about when the possibility of dying is this close?

LOVE: You cycle through everyone you have ever loved and still love.

You don’t think about work – but you do think about people from work.

GIVE: All the ways you still want to spread goodness in the world. I’m not kidding. The second biggest thought I have after love is give. I don’t think that’s unique. My guess is it’s human. We derive pleasure from giving.

 

8.1.16

Surgery day. I am up at 4am, banging on the locked doors of a church on the corner. I want to go in and light a candle. Kurt points out that it’s not a church, but an apartment building. We run to hide in the bushes in case we’ve woken someone up. We buckle over, laughing.

 

8.2.16

Wake up in the Intensive Care Unit after 34+ hours of surgery. I notice faces of everyone I have ever known appearing and disappearing before my eyes. I can’t talk – my throat feels like I have swallowed a truck. I can’t swallow. Is this normal?

Dr. Al-Mefty comes in and tells me Kurt has been sitting in the waiting room for 36 hours.

I want to ask if it’s over.

“It’s done,” says my doctor, reading my mind.

“Rest now.”

Wake up again and there is my former neighbor in Vermont standing over me. He is a doctor in this hospital.

“I come bearing gifts,” he says.

He hands me a gallon of maple syrup, a bag of potatoes, and a bag of garlic.

I laugh, or try to laugh, but it is way too painful to laugh. Still, I am smiling.

 

8.3.16 (SV*: first time standing up)

Cole is 13 today. I miss him.

I wrote him a letter before the surgeries. Here’s an excerpt: “…It feels important for me to tell you how perfect you are, as you are. From the moment you were born, you had already won our hearts. There is nothing you can do to make me love you more or love you less. You and I have been walking together since the beginning and we will keep walking together, no matter what distance separates us. Right now, you are waking up on the edge of a northern lake and I am in Boston, and I feel you as if you were sitting next to me. It’s not a connection that lives only in the physical world; it’s much wider and deeper than that, like the lake itself.”

 

8.4.16 (SV: moved out of ICU)

The nurses in the ICU call me the ‘Thumbs-Up Girl.’

“You ok?” Thumbs up.

“How are the pain meds?” Thumbs up.

“So they’re good then?”

I shake my head, “No.” I give the thumbs up and then push it up into the air. And up. And up. More! I am trying to say.

 

8.5.16 (SV: ate 2 bites of jello–first real food)

My hip hurts. I feel a scar. I point to it and play charades with my doctor to ask “Why?”

“Sorry,” says my doctor. “We had to take your Iliac Crest to put in your neck. The tumor had eroded a lot of bone back there.”

My back hurts.

“Sorry,” says my doctor. “We had to take a rib, too.”

My stomach hurts.

“Oh yeah,” says my doctor. “We needed some fat to stick the bones together. Your mother offered to be a donor. But we went with yours instead.”

 

8.6.16 (SV: walked a lap around the nurse’s station)

I have a roommate named Louise. She is 79 years old, recovering from back surgery. Every two hours, they wake us both up and ask the same questions:

  • What is your name and birthdate?
  • Where are you?
  • What season is this?

I am a good student; I repeat the answers to myself so I am ready when the nurse comes. Louise, on the other hand, is heavily medicated and doesn’t seem to give a shit. I hear the nurse ask her through the curtain:

Where are you?

“Uh,” Louise answers. “In a lounge on a cruise ship?”

Every two hours, she gets the answers wrong. I can’t take it.

I yell out, “Louise! The answer is Boston!” The words, with my recovering voice, come out as a stage whisper.

Louise just says, “Is that you, Fred?”

 

8.7.16 (SV: brushed my teeth)

I am discharged from the hospital. Our friends Faith and John bring the kids from Vermont to help take me home. This is the first time they will see me after the surgery. Will they love me like this?

Hazel says, “You don’t look like my Mama.”

My heart breaks a little.

 

8.8.16 (SV: picked up a pen and wrote)

I’m watching Kurt sleep – his chest rise and fall – his thumbs hooked into his boxers like a little boy – He is lying on top of the covers, ready to wake up and help me at any moment. Today is his birthday; I am (one of) the lucky benefactors of his beautiful life.

For Kurt on his Birthday: a poem:

At midnight, my husband is awake,

his hands moving gently,

measuring out my medications.

At 2 am, he makes three trips up the stairs

to hand me water, then a straw that bends,

then potatoes and chicken

He mashes into Skittle-sized pieces with a spoon.

Now it’s 4 am and he is awake again,

holds my hand as we walk in the dark

because I can’t sleep.

We step under a giant cottonwood tree

and touch its braided bark.

 

I have been restless my whole life,

running up summits to see

what shiny beauty was on the other side,

but the beauty I see now is everywhere,

especially in the simple hand gestures of this man.

He finds a loose strand of my hair

tucks it neatly behind my head bandage,

holds my head in his hands,

and kisses me.

 

8.9.16 (SV: had stitches removed)

The pajamas I’m wearing were sent by a friend. This food I am eating was made by a former student. The book I’m reading? Given to me by another friend–a gift. Flowers: another gift. This house I’m standing in? Found because of a friend reaching out. I start to cry, overwhelmed with gratitude.

Watching the Olympics in Rio. I am so emotional lately that I cry when I watch the athletes sing their national anthems on the podium. Then I cry for the 4th place finishers. Then I cry during the car commercials. I think it’s the drugs.

 

8.10.16 (SV: first bath)

Super frustrated. Go to write and my head hurts and my right arm throbs with pain. It feels like I have an electric eel surging through me. I try to go on Facebook and yet all I see are people having summertime fun while I lie here. I read that my brother and friends are off to dance at a music concert and I can’t even stand up on my own. Read? Can’t concentrate. Walk? Too tired. I feel dumb and useless. It’s almost night again. I hate night time. While others sleep, I sit up in pain, unable to lie down without choking.

 

8.11.16 (SV: slept for 3 hours in a row!)

Kurt and I walked around the block at 1am, 3am, and 5am. This is our routine. It gets me out of my head and tires me out enough so I can face another 2 hours of trying to sleep sitting up, in a neck brace. Kurt calls me “The Ghost of Wellesley Hills” as I shuffle along the sidewalk in a long, flowing, white bathrobe and neck brace. We imagine the legend growing around the neighborhood.

 

8.12.16 (SV: first time wearing clothes)

Tonight I wanted to walk the dark bike path along the little creek instead of walking under the street lights. I heard the cicadas and breathed in the smell of ripe lily blossoms. I had to breathe through my fear of accidentally tripping on a homeless person – or stumbling and falling and breaking my new neck.

Breathing through the darkest patches of the path felt good. I felt the fear and the unknown as a physical place with insect sounds and flower smells. It helped me to experience and move through what I was feeling. It’s ok to feel scared. It’s ok to lean into the unknown.

 

8.13.16 (SV: first time walking without holding someone’s hand)

Grateful for Teza’s visit. She said to me when I was spinning in my head, “Remember: Gratitude is the ultimate protector.” Walking tonight around 2 blocks. I am grateful for these animal sightings:

  • A sphinx moth – the hummingbird of the insect world
  • A toad
  • Cottontail rabbits
  • I heard a leopard frog or was it a green frog?

 

8.14.16 (SV: first time I gave myself shots (heparin to thin blood & prevent clots)

My mom is here and so is my friend Cate while Kurt drives to Vermont to pick up the kids. My mom is protective as we walk slowly along the bike path. She doesn’t want me to turn too quickly and hurt my neck.

“A bunny!” she shouts, “But don’t look!”

 

8.15.16 (SV: off all pain meds)

The beginning of a new week. I’ve never been so happy to write “MONDAY” in my life. Because M = new week, fresh start, made it – and this limitless potential of healing that may take place in the days ahead. It also means my surgeon is no longer at a conference in Korea but back home – and Kurt is no longer in VT, but back beside me in bed – 2 giant absences that I was holding my breath during in case anything happened. But nothing happened. And now the kids are with us for good.

 

8.16.16 (SV: pulled off last bandaid)

Kurt and I just had a fight. When the car broke down this morning – I asked questions – Should we roll it and jump start it? Should we call a tow truck? Kurt said that every time I ask a question, I am handing over responsibility to him and I’m simultaneously telling him that I don’t have confidence in him. I need to speak up with my ideas in statements rather than questions.

He wants to hear me say, “You’ve got this. I know you’ve dealt with cars before – you’ll figure this out.” But it’s a communication thing; I ask questions to feel like I am brainstorming in the moment and working together. What he made clear is that in these moments what he needs is not brainstorming, but rather to feel like I know him and what he needs and have confidence in him.

So I cried. I cried and pulled away from him – thinking how can you scold me right now for something I did in a stressful moment on the way to the hospital? How can you tell me to just keep saying, “I know you’ve got this” when that means handing over one more aspect of a life that I have less and less control of every day. I need to feel empowered instead of powerless and disengaged. I engage by asking questions.

We looked at it from a few perspectives and recognized that it comes down to TRUST. If I can just trust that he has this stuff worked out and show him my trust, there will be plenty of opportunities for engagement and brainstorming and questions.

What I want to hear now is “All will be well.” And then I realize that’s exactly what Kurt needs too. He needs someone to tell him “All will be well” instead of all of us leaning on him to fix all that feels broken.

 

8.17.16 (SV: ate all my dinner)

When we talk about the unknown, we usually picture something dark: the edge of a cliff or a long tunnel. But unknown is also what the stars are to me, and whale song, and love and butterfly migration. It’s a hummingbird’s heartbeat or a comet’s tail, or the way a mother knows her child is in danger. It’s the building of a spider web or a bird’s nest, the way life grows from an egg. It’s northern lights and salmon journeying home.

 

8.18.16 (SV: first book read)

Tasha is here taking great care of me. We talk about how there is a real temptation to worry and to “face facts” – that it is somehow naive and ‘not realistic’ to focus on the positive. Doctors speak in average life spans with this disease, but averages are misleading. Does the average apply to me if I am 20 years younger and healthier than those in the study? Averages don’t tell us when they discovered the disease or how it was treated. Kurt and I made a deliberate decision not to talk about the kind of tumor it was with others and not to attach ourselves to a name or diagnosis. We wanted to focus on my particular experience and I needed my family and friends and relatives to focus on a positive outcome. This wasn’t blind faith – it was a powerful belief in positive thinking to impact our relationship to the unknown and in so doing, affect the outcome.

 

8.19.16 (SV: first haircut)

I remember walking in the woods in a forest in Nova Scotia with an arborist at a time when I was getting my Masters in Environmental Science. I thought that I understood how to age a tree – not just by the rings of a tree when cut, but by its size and girth. When we walked under one maple, he asked – how old do you think this tree is?

“60 years,” I said confidently.

“No – it’s only 30. I planted it,” he said. “It’s grown this tall and strong and behaves like a much more mature tree because it’s so healthy.”

That stuck with me – the idea that trees are individuals, not merely species with averages. One maple may grow at a very different rate than another, even in the same soil.

I’m determined to stand out as an individual, strong, and full of life – robust – gorgeous – not riddled and broken by disease or limited by averages.

 

8.20.16 (SV: first steps on a beach)

I passed a woman in a Middlebury sweatshirt – the college I went to – she was running along the path where I was walking. And I thought about Middlebury – about the days when I ran x-country and track and skied and ended up on the wall of fame in the Athletic Field House. And I thought about how now I am a walker. And I felt tremendously small and slow and sad.

I also realized that as I walked, I was seeing shades of green I’d never noticed before in the leaves of the butternut and ash. And I liked seeing those colors. I suddenly didn’t mind walking instead of running. I liked moving at this pace in the world. I’ll take this new existence over no existence at all. There is joy here too.

 

8.21.16 (SV: first restaurant outing)

Ok. So, I can handle the unknown if there are a limited number of variables. The first time around, there was no choice about the surgeries. They were necessary. Now that we are out of the emergency phase, there is ambiguity and it’s making me uneasy. I need a boost in courage and positivity. The possibility that I might need more surgery plus two months of radiation makes me feel like I just rounded the last turn of an ultramarathon when the officials decide to move the finish 26 miles further, uphill. I have to remember that I am strong and that surgery and radiation are key to our goal: to stop the tumor in its tracks and zap its energy and ability to grow. I want this tumor to lie down and never get back up. But does it have to be so darn uncomfortable?

8.22.16 (SV: first shower)

I am awake, ruminating. What comes to me tonight is TRUST. There will be unforeseen obstacles – plenty of them – to come – with or without this menacing diagnosis. There is no other way to face them than one at a time with calm responsiveness the way Kurt has shown me how to do forever, particularly in the past few weeks. No use worrying in advance. We will get through with calm responsiveness. My friend Alden taught me to recite the Wendell Berry poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” until I fall back asleep:

When despair grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting for their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 

8.23.16 (SV: first time taking off neck brace for 1 hour)

Hazel’s Song (sung from the back of the car while I am in the front–we are all headed out to see a movie.)

 

Mama’s scars are Gro-o-o-o-dy

But I don’t want

To say anything mean

So I’ll just turn

My head, close my

Eyes, and hope I don’t

See them…

 

We all burst into laughter. Oh, Hazel, thank you for expressing how you feel. It’s honest, and it helps!

 

8.23.16 (SV: first movie)

Kurt and I took the kids to see the movie, “Pete’s Dragon.” It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible either. For two hours, I allowed myself to feel like I was running through the woods like the little boy hero of the movie. When the lights came up and I realized that I couldn’t run, that I could barely walk, I crumbled in tears. It wasn’t a dream, I really was “compromised” and was going to be limited for a long, long time. Kurt saw me crying and he understood; he started to cry too. When a couple walked by and gave us a look of concern, I heard Kurt say, “Emotional movie, wasn’t it?”

 

8.24.16 (SV: first time sleeping lying down)

What’s toughest for me is trying to figure out how to be me – only different – how to play with our children when they want to wrestle and be tickled and go places and do things that I can’t do.

They say anger is the 2nd stage of grief. But I have been thinking “Anger is not my issue.” Until tonight. Tonight I started to cry. I felt so angry that I had to go through this pain and that my family had to help me put on my socks and feed me – so I exhaled all that pain – found myself groaning or gritting my teeth and then opening my mouth and sticking out my tongue and growling, growing out all my anger and frustration – that felt like blocked sadness – sadness that Hazel didn’t want to come near me – I heard the words she said echoing inside, “You don’t look like my Mama” I felt anger that she was repulsed by me and that even if she wanted, I couldn’t hold her tight in any way that didn’t hurt.

It all came out – instead of feeling “it’s fine, it’s fine” – I just sat and cried and growled and groaned.

Then I stood up and walked outside into the storm and felt as light as the flashes on the horizon and almost as fierce.

 

8.25.16 (SV: first flight)

We flew home today! Flight was not that painful. In fact, Kurt and I laughed a lot, cracking jokes about my new stiff neck. Humor helps. When the flight attendant kept complimenting Kurt on his choice of reading material, “Modern Calculus,” I rolled my eyes. Kurt said, “Oh yeah, well I could make out with her right now and stiff-neck you wouldn’t even notice.” Ha!

 

8.26.16 (SV: first day alone-Kurt back at work)

Hazel lost a tooth today. How great is that? Just when she seems so grown-up, she hands me a tiny chiclet of a tooth and smiles a goofy grin. Meanwhile, Kurt went out with friends for Happy Hour. When he came home, I asked him to help the tooth fairy out by putting a gold $1 coin under Hazel’s pillow. He goes to their room, comes back, and says, “I can’t find the tooth and there’s already a gold coin under her pillow.” I stare at him. “How much did you drink?!” I tease. “Go back and look again.” Kurt walks back to the kids’ room. He is gone a long time. “No tooth,” he reports. Then he says, “Are you messing with me? Because now I am really starting to believe in the tooth fairy.” In the morning, Hazel comes skipping out of the room, “The tooth fairy brought me TWO golden coins!” and Cole slyly hands me her tooth.
“Wait. Did you…?” I ask, suddenly understanding that he is the one who is grown up. He comes over to my side of the bed and whispers, “I knew you couldn’t bend over, and the vending machine at school gives out gold coins, so I just helped a little.” I gave him a big hug. “You know what the best part is? Your father now believes in the tooth fairy!”

 

8.27.16 (SV: could move neck enough to look down at keyboard & type!)

My schedule! Goal: to heal and get back to pre-op weight

6-7: smoothie #1 + walk 1-2 miles

7-8: make daily supply of smoothies, get kids off to school

8-9: smoothie #2 + nap #1

9-10: meds (blood thinner for clots) + writing

10-11: smoothie #3 + writing

11-12: emails, calls, appointments

12-1: lunch & walk #2: host visitors

1-2: more calls/doctor appointments

2-2:45: smoothie #4 + meds + nap #2

2:45: pick-up Hazel

3-4: snack + read with Hazel

4-5: smoothie #5/ kids to activities/ research healing

5-6: dinner prep/visitors

6-7: dinner

7-8: nap #3 or walk # 3

8-9: smoothie #6 + rally towards bed/ read to kids

9: meds + meditation + bedtime

 

8.28.16 (Welcome Home party)

I have been inspired to keep a list: Can I write down 1,000 things that make me feel grateful like Ann Voskamp, the author, suggests? There is power in paying attention and there is power in writing down what we notice. I begin:

  1. The sound of a ripe apple falling
  2. Hibiscus flowers; their yellow & purple centers kissed by bees
  3. Scrambled eggs, ham, and avocado delivered on a sunny plate
  4. A party with dear friends and a Henna artist!

8.29.16 (One month of keeping this journal)

Before the surgery I had to fight the thought pattern that even though everyone kept saying “You’ve got this” – I didn’t feel like I had anything – I felt, pretty strongly and clearly, that this might be it. I also felt like no one was really listening to how much neurological damage there would likely be. So it was tough to accept others’ positivity and believe in it. What helped then and what is helping now is to remember that our fear and the thoughts that go along with fear are just responses to the unknown but they are not predictions of what could happen. So, there are plenty of people who have survived something like this and lived a long, long time after- and there is no reason why I can’t be one of them.

One month ago, I asked…If you come out of these surgeries unscathed, with a full life ahead of you – How are you going to live? Would you do anything differently?

I already am. I slow down and pay attention. I worry less and choose to thrive instead. I will spread bravery, joy, compassion, and profound confidence with energy and light.

xoxox

Susie

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Balance Schmalance

I was off-balance all week. I celebrated the elegant evenness of the equinox by throwing up all over a neighbor’s garden. The nausea was caused by the radiation, but the feeling of being off-balance was caused by my expectations that it was going to be different. I imagined that I would spend eight weeks in Boston receiving treatments, yes, but also going for long walks and scribbling deep thoughts in my journal. I thought maybe I could even write a book in two months. I wish I were kidding. My thinking was that since I wasn’t working and the children were back in Boulder, I could be mega-productive.

The first morning after radiation, I felt ok. The second day, I couldn’t even get out of bed to get myself a glass of water. My days became very one-dimensional: horizontal. Then Fear showed up, saying all kinds of mean-spirited things like:  This is just the beginning; How are you going to make it through 37 more treatments? Or You said you were going to write! Get up! I wasn’t practicing good self-compassion because I had these unreasonable expectations. I thought I could balance my time better, but I forgot that what makes balancing a trick is precisely that it is extraordinary, like the street performer who steadies himself on one hand, upside down, on a twenty-foot ladder.

And like the equinox. Twice a year, the earth doesn’t tilt toward the sun nor away from it, but seems to orbit evenly so that night and day come into balance. It’s a beautiful thing worth celebrating, but can you imagine expecting it to stay like that for the remaining 363 days of the year? The way we emphasize the need for balance in our lives makes me feel like I should figure out how to be more physically, mentally, and spiritually poised every. single. day. I get stressed because I work too much and play too little or play too much and work too little or eat too much and exercise too little or exercise too much and write too little.

What if we spent less time jamming a yoga class in after work and more time contemplating that we are living on a spinning rock that is flying through the air in an expanding universe? Maybe then we’d cut ourselves some slack.

I’ve never been very good at balancing my desires with my reality. Last week, I expected to be able to do more, to balance my radiation treatments with time in nature and time writing, and I couldn’t. Not even close. And that’s OK. What I want to change is not my reality, but my expectations. The expectation I had that I would do more only strangled the life out of a good week and made it feel like a bad week. This equinox, I vowed to lower my expectations and trust that a feeling of balance will occur as a rare and wonderful thing. And then when it happens, I’ll be pleasantly surprised, maybe I’ll even give the day a special name, and invite you over for a celebratory dance party.

*****

** If you are interested in learning skills to balance your life, or in how to let go of the idea of balance, I hope you’ll join our Brave Over Perfect Coaching group. It’s only $20 for 3 coaching calls, plus an online classroom full of resources and access to an online community of smart people with solutions. Learn more here: Brave Over Perfect Coaching.

 

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Women Working for Goodness

How would you score on the U.S. Citizenship test? Here are a few sample questions:

  1. What is the “rule of law”?
  2. If the President and the Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President?
  3. We elect a senator for how many years?
  4. What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?
  5. Name your U.S. Representative

How did you do? *(Answers at the bottom.) To become a U.S. citizen, you can miss one, but you can’t miss four questions out of ten. Recently, I took the exam that includes ten questions drawn randomly from one hundred civics questions, a writing and reading test, an oral English interview, and an oath.

I want to vote, sit on a jury, and not be at risk of losing my Green Card if I leave the country for more than a few months (to immerse our children in another culture, for example). Born in Toronto, I am proudly Canadian. But I fell in love with an American and feel privileged to call Colorado home. Our children were born in the United States, and they also have Canadian citizenship. I have lived and worked and paid taxes in the U.S. for over twenty years. It’s time to make the obvious official.

It’s a strange time to want to become a U.S. citizen. There is the beauty of the United States with its diversity of people, mountains, oceans, rivers and red rock canyons, and there is also the pain. The air feels thick with fear. Violent crimes against immigrants, muslim, black, and gay people are at an all-time high. American popularity abroad is at an all-time low. Eighteen of twenty-one cabinet members are white men. Climate Change sits at the bottom of the administration’s priority list. Wall-building sits on top.

Studying for the citizenship test helps me to find perspective and take the long view. I cozy up at night with the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. I am struck by how beautiful and relevant these documents are right now. We the people. Our administration has a responsibility to lead, but if I am reading the Constitution right, the President works for us. Citizens have a responsibility to lead, too. The power of the people is stronger than the people in power.

One of my favorite moments in these historical texts comes from President Lincoln in a speech he gave to congress in 1862. He asks Americans over and over, “Can we do better?” “Yes!” I want to shout back.

Then Lincoln slaps me awake by ending with these words, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Lincoln knew that in order for this experiment of democracy to work, we all have to dedicate ourselves tirelessly to it and dig deep to find our best selves. When he uses the words, “We must disenthrall ourselves,” it’s as if he is saying, “Get over yourself! Reach higher (and across partisan lines)! Use your imagination and act!”

I want to dedicate myself to making things better in this country that gives me so much. I don’t want to curl up like an armadillo and hide. I don’t want to drive across the border, screaming. Instead, I want to do what I know how to do: roll up my sleeves and get to work in the places where I can make a difference. I have a responsibility to stay engaged (not addicted to headlines…that’s different) to keep moving this experiment of a government of the people, by the people, for the people forwards.

The day of my U.S. Citizenship exam, I drive to Denver and sit in the waiting room, near a family from Pakistan. The Pakistani woman tells me she has been studying, “Lots, lots!” I smile and burst out the name “Malala!” as if to say, “Your countrywoman is my hero,” referring to Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2014. But it comes out like I am calling her Malala, as if all women from Pakistan are named Malala. I am immediately embarrassed. She is generous and smiles back. “Malala is good. Studying is good. We are women working for goodness,” She says. “Yes,” I say quietly. Exactly.

The final step is the oath. I consider gaining U.S. Citizenship like a wedding ceremony in which I am walked down the aisle by my Canadian culture and heritage, in order to wed American privileges and responsibilities. But I still feel Canadian. Other times, I feel like I live in a doorway between two rooms.** I wonder, Aren’t we all a patchwork of different cultures past and present? Like it or not, we are bound to one another as global citizens.

What if there were an oath to become a global citizen? We could all raise our right hands and say, “I swear that I will bear true allegiance to the world, the planet on which we live. I promise to work towards peace, to sustain a balanced environment, and to defend human rights. As a Global Citizen, I remain faithful to our shared responsibilities to one another and to the land.”

To the U.S. Citizenship oath ceremony, I am warned to wear “formal attire.” I wear a nice, loose dress, and heels. Under my dress, I am in a Statue of Liberty costume. Under Lady Liberty, I wear a Wonder Woman outfit. I decide that if I am going to do this, I am going to do this wearing the version of America that I love. The room is crowded with people of all different skin tones, in dresses and suits, speaking nervously in a chorus of languages. There are fifty people in the room from twenty-five different countries. I pause to take it in. It’s a beautiful sight, really. I ask the supervisor if it is alright to say the oath as Lady Liberty. He laughs as I show him my outfit, and says, “Absolutely.”

Then I stand, raise my right hand, and commit. I say the words of the oath, but I am thinking, Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” I am dedicated to being a true citizen of the world; I am a woman working for goodness.

Love,

Susie

*Answers: U.S. Civics Questions. 1. No one is above the law, not even the government or the President 2.The Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan 3. Six years 4. Freedom of speech, religion, assembly, press, & to petition the government 5. Depends on your state & district, ours is Jared Polis.

**the first line of “Sonrisas,” a poem by Pat Mora, introduced to me by my friend, Marilee Lin

 

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Awe

The Days of Awe

The Days of Awe are the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The idea is to stop, look around, and reflect. What do you want to let go of from last year? Who do you want to be in the New Year? I am not Jewish. Some of my former students call me Jew- “ish” because I like the traditions and ceremonies. As a teacher, it makes sense to me to celebrate the New Year in the fall. This year, I spend the Days of Awe outside, in nature as much as possible. I lie back in summer’s last green grasses. I watch the trees gain color and lose suppleness in their leaves. I notice that the wind smells of apples and wet soil, and that the ducks rise like mist from the pond to fly south. 

I adopt the Jewish ritual called Tashlikh of dropping bread crumbs into a stream to cast away sins from last year. A young friend of mine calls this ceremony, “Kiss the Bad Thing Goodbye.” I take my lunch and sit under the giant willows by the creek. I throw the crusts of my toast in the current, kiss the bad things goodbye, and watch the swift water rush them away. I remember that what makes us human is that we are capable of making great mistakes, and yet we are also capable of great transformation. Maybe this tumor isn’t meant to set me back, but to help me transform.

I am fascinated by metamorphosis. Years ago, I wrote a children’s book, Eliza and the Dragonfly, about the process of a dragonfly nymph becoming a dragonfly. I wanted to show children the magic that exists all around them. But I also wrote it for myself, because I wanted to understand how metamorphosis happens. A dragonfly begins its life in water. When it is young, it breathes water instead of air. And it swims instead of flies. For years, it mucks about in a pond, being itself. Then it wakes up one morning with wings. It crawls out of the water, breathes air for the first time, stretches its wings in the sun, and flies away.

I wrote the children’s book because I kept wondering what I needed to do to transform into something great and become the grown-up that I wanted to be. It helped me to learn that dragonfly nymphs, like monarch caterpillars, don’t do anything to make their transformation happen. They just are. Every time I see a dragonfly, I remember to be myself. I am good enough. One day I will wake up with wings. 

Here’s a poem I wrote in gratitude for this time of year and to celebrate how far I’ve come, how far we’ve all come.

The Days of Awe

These are the days of awe.

Lie back in summer’s last green grasses.

Listen.

Each cricket’s song is slower now,

the wind smells of ripe apples,

the soil devours rain

and coughs up stones.

Mallards rise like mist off the pond

and fly south.

Trees gain color and restraint overnight,

act like old ladies who

snap their purses shut.

Remember

The sun isn’t traveling

East to West.

We are

spinning — West to East,

setting to rising,

beginnings growing out of endings,

not the other way around.

Lie back in the wet grass.

Wait for the sky to grow dark.

Breathe in the moon

like a question

you’re not quite ready to ask.

Be like the river

Who moves toward the unknown,

who doesn’t turn around

and ask the mountain for directions.

Listen to the grace of insects,

then drop, swell, and release

like bread in cool, swirling waters.  

–SCR


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Plan? What Plan?

I have been having a tough time trusting in the unknown. A vacation broke me of that fear. This is the story of how our recent trip to Mexico had no plan. Normally, Kurt and I work full time and the only difference between summer and not summer is the kids are not awake before we go to work.

This year was different. It felt important to do something together as a family to mark nine months since our lives were turned upside down by this brain-stem tumor. And since I felt that the secret of healing was letting go of control, we intentionally created a vacation that left plenty of room for the unknown.

We flew to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico on points with Southwest. When we stepped off the plane, we had no idea where we would sleep that night. We knew we wanted to camp in the two 2-person tents we brought with us, but where? Was it safe? What would we eat? Would I be able to sleep flat on the ground?

We had a map. We had a few scribbled tips from friends on a notepad. We rented a mini-van from a super-enthusiastic young woman at the airport. We had sleeping bags and I had an inflatable pillow that I clung to like a security blanket. We had a phone with a Mexico data plan. The kids had no screens. They entertained themselves on the long drives by blowing into empty glass Coke bottles.

Twenty years ago, before cell phones and Google, Kurt and his friend Scott kayaked the entire length of Baja, on the Sea of Cortez side. It was a two-month journey steeped in trust and the slow pace of a hand-powered boat. They moved through a curious new landscape with Cardón cactus as tall as NBA stars, jagged mountains sliding into the water, Frigate birds with a wingspan of seven feet, and flying fish slapping them in the face. When they were too tired to paddle any further, they pulled their kayaks ashore and ate whatever the locals had to offer. That was the last time Kurt had been here.

Things had changed a little since 1997; the roads around the southern tip of Baja were crowded with cars and construction. There were condominiums and conference centers where there were only cactus and quail before. This time, Kurt also had a wife (that’s me ?) and two kids, aged 11 and 13, none of whom knew anything about where we were.

We opened the map, and aimed for areas off the beaten path: sheltered bays on the east coast, out of the wind and away from other spring break tourists. The first night, we didn’t have enough daylight to make it to the coast, so we looked for a place to sleep inland. We had heard there was a waterfall nearby. But we didn’t know where.

When we had been driving on a dirt road with no road signs for an hour, I imagined us stranded in the desert, so I pestered Kurt with questions.

“Do the cactus hold water in their trunks?”

“Not really,” said my biologist husband. “You have to pummel their pulp for a long time and chew on it, spines and all, to get any water.”

I looked out the window at endless dry desert and thought about how crazy it was to deliberately bring my family into the unknowns of this risky landscape.

Just as I was about to ask Kurt to turn around, we made it to the end of the road. A tall, local man in a cowboy hat and handlebar mustache stood there like a mirage, and greeted us warmly in Spanish.

I am Prisciliano Elehazar de la Pena Ruiz. Would your family like to rest? I have cabins you can rent near the waterfall.” I almost kissed him.

Pretty much the whole trip went like that. We pointed to a place on the map and always seemed to find remarkable, empty beaches, and generous locals at the end of the road. One day our son said, “I know we’re getting close to something good when the minivan door squeaks like crazy.” What he meant was, when we left the paved road for the dirt, the bumps in the road shook the whole van. I thanked my little inflatable pillow and always found a way to sit in the car comfortably, without rattling my neck or head.  We didn’t know what we would find at the end of the dirt road, but after several teeth-chattering kilometers, we’d arrive somewhere spectacular: white sand, green water, gorgeous seashells, mangrove trees and ibis birds, plus islands to snorkel around, all to ourselves.

One night we slept on a beach in a town with a sign that said “Población: 41.” But we only counted seven people. Later we found about thirty donkeys wandering around our tents.

Another time, we heard of some hot springs up the next canyon, but the beach “road” to arrive there vanished at high tide. Kurt taught the kids how to spearfish and they hunted for our dinner, while I chatted up the locals to find out where I could buy fish. Let’s just say I liked to have a solid back-up plan. Every night, we ate Barred Snapper and Triggerfish tacos, either caught or bought, and cooked on our Whisperlight stove, powered by gasoline fuel.

Then we’d wash our fish bones back into the ocean and look at the stars. Before this trip, the kids knew two constellations: the Big Dipper and Orion. We brought with us a classic book from 1952, The Stars, by H.A. & Margret Rey, the authors of the Curious George series. The Reys use simple, stick-figure illustrations to connect the stars into the classic Greek characters. Their brilliant mix of art and science gave our kids the tools and curiosity they needed to find over thirty constellations and the permission to make up their own. They were so engaged in their surroundings. Cole had me set an alarm for midnight so he could try to see Scorpio and the Southern Cross, Hazel had fun inventing a giant three-tentacled octopus constellation.

Meanwhile, I slept like a baby. At night, I’d lie there grateful that I could lie flat, headache-free, and take in this beautiful world of stars and sea and family. I didn’t know where we would be the next night, but it mattered less and less. Trusting in the unknown was becoming easier for me. Nine months have passed since I first found out about my brain-stem tumor. I guess I had to slowly birth the discovery that there is a plan, there always has been, it’s just not mine.

Join the discussion: Share (in the comments, below) your stories of times when you let go of control and found something better in the unknown.

Do you need help letting go? Join Group Coaching next month. Each theme is aimed at helping you live your most joyful, intelligent, productive, and stress-free life. We’re kicking off in August and September with Joyful Productivity. Learn more here.

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What do Eclipses & Back-to-School Have in Common?

I do not like transitions. I would much rather be in something tough than on my way into it. The wind up to back-to-school and the wind up to the solar eclipse made me realize that I am way more comfortable with difficult than uncertainty.

Our daughter is headed to middle school. Recently, I took her school-supply shopping with her friend. When it came time to choose backpacks and binders, her friend was excited, “Ooooh! I want this purple backpack! What color do you want?”

“Black,” our daughter mumbled, unamused by this activity.

“How about binders? Do you want this pretty turquoise one?” asked her friend.

“No. Black,” our daughter said, scowling.

Our daughter is not Goth (yet). She just doesn’t like transitions. She loves the freedom of summer. She fears the worst about school and gets tied up in knots with worry. I went to the worry place, too, in anticipation of her challenges. I lost sleep, tossing and turning, wondering, “Did we make the right choice of schools?” “Will she make friends?” “Will her teachers be great?” Actually, I was less curious and more panicky. But, by admitting that I had dark emotions around this uncertain time, it made talking with her about it much easier.

“Honey, what is one thing that would make this transition go better?” I asked.

“Cancel school,” she grumbled.

“One thing that you have control over?”

“If I knew how to open a locker,” she said.

Phew! We found a simple way to make this transition easier. We talked about moments of transition that she has survived in the past, while we practiced spinning a lock’s dial to the right, then to the left, then back to the right. She was in it now, instead of worrying about it. When the lock opened, she shouted, “I got it!” and paraded around the room with the lock over her head, like she had slam-dunked the solving of a 16-sided Rubix Cube.

Meanwhile, I was making life harder for myself by trying to predict the future instead of just being in the present. I couldn’t decide if I should travel to the path of totality for the eclipse or stay at home. Where I live, in the hippie and geek highlands of Boulder, Colorado, the newscasters announced that over 100,000 people planned to drive north to Wyoming to see the total eclipse. I felt like everyone knew something that I didn’t. But apparently not everyone in the country was as excited about the celestial phenomenon. I called my friend Deb in Vermont. I asked her, “If I don’t go to see the total eclipse on August 21st, do you think I’ll regret it forever?” She paused. I thought that meant, “Yes.” Instead, Deb said, “Wait. I only have one day at the beach this year, and you’re telling me that there’s going to be an eclipse that day?”

I laughed, but pretty soon, I was back to tossing and turning at night wondering, “Should we go? Should we stay?” and imagining that one answer was right and the other wrong. Finally, my husband and I decided to stay. I am a good person, but I am a bad, bad person in traffic. We gathered as a family and made the moment as significant as we could, right where we were. We rented a canoe and floated out into the middle of the town reservoir, wearing the flimsy cardboard and plastic eclipse glasses for protection to watch 93% of a total solar eclipse. It may not have been an “A+” –the remarkable 100% experience– but it was a pretty great “A.”

While my husband, the scientist, explained the physics of an eclipse, I couldn’t help myself. I made everyone hold hands and say a few gratitudes. I said, “Thank you for the wisdom revealed in darkness. We have learned so much this past year when things were really dark.” When the temperature on the water dropped and the world looked gray, we took turns saying, “We imagine a world that is peaceful, a world that is inclusive, a world that is healthy.” The moon shadow passed by, the temperature warmed again, and the black and white world regained its technicolor hues. It felt good to turn the moment into a powerful mantra for peace.

Meanwhile, our daughter had her first day at school and came home, buoyant.

“How’s middle school?” I asked.

“It’s not as bad as I thought! I like moving from class to class. It makes the day go by so much quicker!”

Our children are fully capable of handling hard transitions. So am I. I just have to trust that there is no perfect school for our daughter, and that the perfect way to face an uncertain future is, well, imperfectly.

I always thought of an eclipse as a “blocking out” of the sun. But the moon shadow just hides the sun for a moment, in a celestial game of “peek-a-boo.” Similarly, dark times are often shorter than we think. It helps me to remember that the sun doesn’t leave us in an eclipse. It stays right where it belongs. It’s the darkness that comes and goes, a transition that lasts for roughly three minutes.

Love,

Susie

** If you are interested in learning to skillfully manage uncertainty and transitions, I hope you’ll join our new Brave Over Perfect coaching group — it’s only $20 for 3 calls, plus an online classroom full of resources, and access to an online community of smart people with solutions. Learn more here: Brave Over Perfect Coaching.

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