25 January 2014

Shadow Puppets

I’m up before dawn again, dressing snugly for my morning run while talking down the shadow puppets in my mind.  Once outside, the season’s coldest day so far bites through my layers.  I pull on my gloves, expecting that I’ll warm up as I go.  It’s in the twenties at my house high on the hill, and down below it will surely be colder, as the heavy chilled air sinks to the low pockets of the neighborhood during the night.  I’m running alone today.  My running partner and fellow teacher, Roberta, isn’t feeling well, and although I’m afraid, I’m going anyway.  We’ve been running together for eight months now, but have been friends since before we were mothers, which is to say forever.   
            There is something sacred in the predawn hour.  Back when I was a new mother, watching the sun rise as each of my daughters sleepily nursed, I was aware of the sanctity of this time, when it seemed I was the only one awake in my time zone.  It is perhaps the quietest moment of the day, punctuated only occasionally by a vehicle or a dog’s bark.  And as we run in the darkness on a typical morning, we need only listen to the cadence of our steps against the asphalt, and focus no further than the scope of our headlamps.  We talk and can imagine we solve all the world’s problems while we run, or none at all.  It’s a sharp contrast to the rest of the day with our families and in our classrooms, where we attend to so much, proactively and reactively, with our attention scattered in so many directions. 
            There are dangers in running in the darkness, no doubt.  Our neighborhood borders national forest.  Deer and coyote are common to the area, more rarely bobcat and mountain lion.  Human threats lurk as well, like the newspaper delivery person, whose car sometimes races through our streets.  What frightens me most, though, is an encounter with a skunk.  Every morning I hope that my fear of this creature continues to be irrational and unfounded.  But in spite of these potential dangers, I am out here alone this morning.  There is little more gratifying than facing down a fear and realizing it was just a shadow puppet.  The fears that spend the most time lurking in our minds, though, are rarely the ones which actually show up to cast very real and scary shadows upon our lives.   
            Fear can’t be seen because it exists only in the mind, but it holds such sway over us.  It seems silly to me that I spend so much time worrying about encountering an animal in the darkness, and so little considering something truly dreadful.  It had really never occurred to me that I should fear, say, cancer.  That was before I was diagnosed with breast cancer this past winter.  It was a completely improbable diagnosis, at least in my eyes, because I just couldn’t fathom that it was going to happen to me.  I was young enough and had no family history to place me in any category of risk, other than being a female.  I figured breast cancer mostly struck large breasted, older women.  Or at least women who had been blessed with lovely cleavage.  I was in neither of those groups, sadly or not.  And by the time my doctor shared with me that I had not only one diagnosis of breast cancer, but one in each breast, I’d already made the choice to have a bilateral mastectomy.  It was by far the toughest choice I’ve ever had to make.
            The diagnosis and its ramifications were further compounded by the fact that my two daughters were on the cusps of puberty, respectively, and my awareness that my disease placed them in an entirely new category medically.  During those sleepless weeks before my surgery, I grappled with how cancer would change their lives as much as how it was affecting mine.  Throughout that surreal phase, I did what I needed to do to make it through each protracted day, in spite of the dread that each night brought.  But regardless of how eternal each night seemed, somehow day would finally dawn, and with it, light and potential.  I wasn’t running then, as my days were consumed by trips to doctors’ offices and tests in the Phoenix area, preparing for the extended absence from my classroom, and trying to keep life as normal as possible for my family.  Somehow, though, I made it through.  Each dawn, though, brought with it the relief that I was one day closer to surgery, which meant I was one day closer to recovery, and in turn, a return to whatever normal might mean post-cancer.
            When Roberta asked if I was well enough to begin running again about a month after my surgery, and if I’d want to run with her in the early morning, I was hesitant at first.  We’d run together occasionally before, but not for a couple years.  I’d had a boring yet stable relationship with the treadmill in my basement that I figured I’d go back to, eventually, if I could muster enough inspiration to create a fun, new playlist for my iPod.  I did not want to wake up that early.  I thought it was folly to go out so early that it could still be considered night.  I truly feared what we might encounter out there in the darkness - I still do, in fact.  But I relished the opportunity to renew our friendship by regularly spending time together, and so I said yes.  And our routine has yielded far more mental and emotional wellness than I’d ever have imagined. And thus far, the only creatures we’ve encountered have been bunnies nibbling in the yards and a very ancient yellow Labrador.
            As I step out into the cold darkness alone this morning, I sense the world opening wide before me.  The black sky is studded with stars and the silver moon hangs low on the western horizon.  I run, warming up on the easy downhill.  Most houses are completely dark, and it is silent except for the sound of my feet and the whisper of my jacket rubbing against itself.  I run, thinking of the day ahead and how I might improve upon yesterday.  I run, turning words and phrases like wood on a lathe.  I run, reflecting on the many lessons cancer taught me, the greatest of these is love, as they say.  I run, practicing gratitude for the ability to run, no matter how slow I am, even if it is difficult some mornings, and even if it hurts sometimes.  I run, even if I could be home in a warm bed instead.  I run, not so much for the exercise, but because I know that taking this time for myself makes me a more bearable person for the rest of the day. 
            By the time I make it back up the hill, I am warm and ready for the challenges of the day.  Who knows what dangers lurk beyond the bend?  We cannot know.  But we can choose to keep moving forward regardless, because we also can’t know what we might miss by helplessly watching fear casting its shadows.  On this particular morning, as my breathing slows back to normal, I am more than rewarded for waking so early and going out in spite of my misgivings.  The moon has set in the west, and from its position below the horizon, it illuminates the clouds above, which glow with its cold white light.  In the east, the sun has barely risen, but its warm yellow radiance has cast those clouds golden pink.  In this moment, I feel equidistant from the sun and moon, the center of my own universe spinning effortlessly around all I love, gravity cradling me close to this earth.

19 January 2014

Finding the Wellspring

As children file in to be seated for the spelling bee, energy buzzes throughout the cavernous cafeteria.  The contestants are already on stage, filling rows of folding chairs.  Across a narrow aisle next to them, empty seats await, ready to categorize their occupants as the not-winners of the bee.

Dan and I sit off to the side with the other parents, feeling as nervous as some of the contestants appear.  We exchange a few thumbs-up with Arden, in the second row on stage.  She seems in good spirits and we are relieved.  This day has loomed large at our house since she found out she’d be one of two students representing her class in the bee.

She was honored to have placed at the top of the girls in her class, but she was also very anxious about the prospect of being on stage.  Lately, she’s been trying to navigate those waters of early adolescence when the slightest frustration brings her to tears.  It’s been a rough several weeks for her, worrying about how she’ll manage to hold herself together on stage, afraid that misspelling a word will cause her to lose her tenuous grasp on her emotions.  Reassurances from adults in her life meant little since most of us erroneously assumed she was nervous about losing the bee.  But what she was worried about was losing her cool in front of so many peers and parents, a critical difference.

Dan and I talked and strategized with her at length, conferring with friends, perusing books about anxiety, and doing a lot of worrying ourselves.  We shared with her Dan’s own spelling bee experience:  that the kids prior to him were asked to spell words like table, but when he approached the mike, the word pronounced for him was hypognathous, which he obviously misspelled.  We tried to convey that she needed to let go of her fears because so much in a spelling bee is beyond the speller’s control, and that every speller but one would misspell a word.  And that all of that was okay and that she’d survive.  We tried to pull out by the roots all the what-ifs that sprouted like weeds.

We tried to establish new routines, like afternoon walks and yoga, that would help clear her head.  We played down the importance of winning and congratulated her on being a participant.  We made sure to spend time each day focusing on her needs, to be ready with extra hugs and to just listen.  I finally, truly realized that kids won’t talk unless I shut up.

That part was really hard for me.  It’s in our nature as adults to want and need to ask questions.  What’s wrong?  Is it X?  Is it Y?  What’s the matter?  Why are you crying?  Do you not feel good?  Did you have a bad day?  What can I do to help?  It’s intended, I suppose, to give a kid something to latch onto, but it backfires.  Our adult minds rarely grasp what is potentially going on in our kids’ heads, it seems.  I was often surprised at the reasons she gave me for feeling upset, anxious, and nervous.  Usually it was something new to me.  Anxiety breeds anxiety breeds anxiety, it seems.  I could not hear her until I stopped talking myself.

We’d spent so much time preparing emotionally for the spelling bee that I’d developed my own set of anxieties about it.  And so I was pleasantly surprised with how exciting it was to watch.  Each of the contestants revealed some endearing aspect of his or her personality during the bee.  The audience gasped audibly at appropriate times and cheered wildly at the end of each round.

Throughout it all, I kept thinking back to one of the rules announced at the beginning of the bee.  A contestant cannot correct himself after uttering a letter.  Just as in life, there are no do-overs.

By the end of the fifth round, all but two of the participants, including Arden, were out.  She knew before she’d finished spelling her final word that she’d made an error.  But she carried herself with grace to the other side of the aisle.

She learned that she can do hard things.  Realizing that is one of life’s greatest lessons.  All too often we allow ourselves to give up rather than soldiering through the difficulty.  There were days when we wondered if we should let her drop out, if the stress and burden of her fears were far too much for her ten-year-old self to bear.  But Dan and I came to understand that allowing her to quit would have proved a greater burden:  that she was not capable of facing her fears.  We watched from our seats as she stood tall on the stage and shook her fist at those fears, finding her own wellspring of quiet courage and let it flow forth.