Open Hand

My family recently returned from our annual August trip to Vail, CO. Although known for its ski slopes, it’s an absolutely gorgeous (albeit, expensive) little town at 8,200 feet, where we spend a week hiking, swimming, and playing, along with reading and resting. It’s a true Sabbath for us.

Betty Ford Alpine Garden - Vail

Betty Ford Alpine Garden – Vail, CO

Then we return, and the school year begins. As a homeschool mom, my year becomes very scheduled starting in September, and my challenge this year is to incorporate the daily purging and simplifying into that schedule.

I must keep reminding myself what it is I seek … a home that is peaceful, open, and soothing. I seek a refuge.

Even though the actual work is repetitive drudgery, I still have these ah-ha moments, tiny epiphanies that leave me wondering why, for the love of Pete, it took me so long to figure it out. One came to me as I was working through the master bedroom (still in progress) and I came across this book: The Change Your Life Challenge. The fact that this book is happily packed up and on its way to bless someone else represents Massive Progress for me. I was able to release it from my home, thankful that it showed me it wasn’t the way for me.

DP08:30:15

Did you catch what I said there? It wasn’t the way … for me. I tried this system three different times. I kept reading the testimonials, I kept telling myself, “This works! This works!” I kept reimplementing it, and … this is the kicker …. I kept finding fault with myself because it wasn’t working. And then, a while back, I was talking to a homeschooling friend about forms  — those systems we create in our homes to help things run smoothly — and she said, “The greatest form in the world, the one everyone says is The Answer, it may not be the right form for you. You really have to find your own way.” This little nugget of wisdom buried itself in my brain, to sit and germinate for a bit.

Fast forward to the moment I came across this book in my daily work. I held it in my hand, and the Spirit reached back into my memories and grabbed this nugget, bringing it to the forefront. The Spirit, which knew the truth all along, spoke to my soul and I realized … the fault is not with myself. There is no fault, really. This is just a system, a form, which does not work for me. The epiphany was sudden, and strong, like the light of the sun shining into a dark, dusty corner. This awesome system, this amazing system… is not my system. And so, with thanksgiving that it came into my life to show me it wasn’t the way, thereby leading onto the path I now walk…

I released it.

Moving Sand – One Grain at a Time

A few days ago, I clicked on a blog post about ants being wise.

Okay. Not exactly that, but this post quoted a proverb which said to look to the ant, and be wise. It went like this:

Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones.
Learn from their ways and become wise! ~ Proverbs 6:6

I wish I could find the post, but alas! It’s not to be. It has disappeared into the ether. So I’m very sorry to whoever wrote it — you won’t be getting credit from me here. I tried.

The gist of the post was that this man needed to write a Ph.D. dissertation, and he was too busy procrastinating to do it, due to feeling overwhelmed. Have you ever been there? You feel so overwhelmed that it’s paralyzing. A friend bought him an ant farm, and what he noticed was this: although, up close, the ants were only moving one grain of sand at a time, over time they ultimately changed their entire environment. He started viewing everything as a grain of sand. I will write one sentence (and move one grain of sand). I will research one idea (and move one grain of sand). In the end … he had a dissertation.

Moving sand.

It’s become my mantra. As we work through the simplifying and organizing of our home, I try not to look at the big picture. The big picture is overwhelming. I simply take one step at a time. This last weekend, my husband and I sorted and cleaned the walk-in closet in our bedroom. This closet is huge — the size of a small bedroom — and we started by emptying it into the room itself.

At this point I felt like I might cry. It seemed insurmountable.DP208:04:15DP408:04:15

Stuff was piled everywhere, and I told my husband — I’m taking a break, before I’m the one breaking.

He came and found me, and said, “You’re just moving grains of sand. That’s all you’re doing.” God bless my husband, because even though I was saying it … moving sand, moving sand … hearing it helped me tremendously. I hold each grain in my hand, and I decide if it belongs with me, or with someone else. That I can do. Ultimately, we filled 13 bags with things that can move on and bless others… 13 bags of sand. With all of that newly created space, the closet floor and the vacuum were able to get reacquainted. DP308:04:15

Self-Improvement Makes Me Cry

My life, at the moment, is one huge self-improvement project. I seek to sweep out the clutter, not just in my physical environment, but in my internal one as well. I’m currently in an adult project with my homeschool commonwealth, and I’ve decided to share a paper I recently wrote for that project. We read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and our assignment was to write about what we would need in our life to bring about change, in the same manner that the three spirits brought about change for Ebenezer Scrooge. Well … here it is.

Flower_Buds

If one were to ask me what is the most important change I need to make in my life, I would respond that I need to be more fit. I need to improve my level of fitness because I have chronic aches and pains, I lose energy midday, and I still carry around the baby weight from my last pregnancy – TEN years ago.

There is a disconnect, however, between knowing what needs to happen and having it happen. I have tried many programs of exercise, but none have had staying power. Something inevitably happens to derail me – either my back starts to hurt me, or my sinuses clog up, or my schedule gets crazy and I miss too many days. So, what would need to happen for me to make a change that is lasting?

In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three spirits of Christmas, and in showing him his life from a new perspective, they are the catalyst of life change in Scrooge. They changed him because they helped him see the truth of his life in a way that was shadowed to him previously. They turned on the light, so to speak.

In my situation, I also need the light turned on. In thinking about it, I’ve drawn a couple of conclusions about what will make that happen. First, I need to really know myself, and understand what will work for me and what will be possible to maintain. Second, and flowing out of the first, I need to recognize, face and clear the underlying emotional and spiritual issues that prevent me from changing.

In order to know myself and predict what will effect lasting change, I look to another area of my life where I have recently experienced success in bringing about change. This area is in my home, in bringing about order and clearing out clutter. This is another situation in my life where I tried many programs, many systems, and never achieved success… until now. What has changed? I’ve finally changed my perspective and started looking at my physical space through spiritual eyes. I recognized that emotional issues have been preventing me from experiencing the change I longed for, and I started to prayerfully deal with those issues head on. Additionally, I started to view organizing as an act of worship, as I bring order from chaos as God did in the beginning. In short, I’ve begun to perceive the value in my home keeping goals as it relates to my walk with Christ, and doing so has given me hope of lasting results.

So how do I relate my level of fitness to my walk with Christ? I think the answer is twofold. The first part isn’t hard, and involves simply acknowledging that when I feel better and have more energy, I’ll be able to accomplish more. Also, when I feel better physically, I naturally feel better emotionally, and I’ll want to accomplish more. This “more” isn’t just consistency in my devotional time, but also a greater capacity to serve, to love, and to do the practical things in living out my faith.

The second is harder because it involves belief. If I truly believe that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, not as a metaphor but as a reality, then I will be driven by love and gratitude to care for my body. And therein lies the crux…

Love and gratitude.

Love and gratitude, not just for God Himself and for the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling within me, but for this body He has given me.

Yes, love and gratitude for this body He has given me. This. This. This is my great struggle, and this is the critical thing I must face if the light is going to come on and stay on and shine into this part of my life. You see, I don’t feel love or gratitude. In fact, if I’m completely honest what I feel is ugly to admit and unbelievably challenging to face. What I feel is anger.

I’m angry that my body is covered in scars. I’m angry that I still experience nerve pain, and scar tissue pain so many years post surgery. I’m angry that my breasts aren’t my own. I’m angry that they had to dissect my back muscles to help reconstruct what had been destroyed. I’m angry that my chest wall is numb and I can’t feel my husband’s touch. This anger must be directed somewhere and so it is directed at this body that betrayed me, this body that bears battle scars from a war I never wanted to fight.

I’ve had people tell me that I should be amazed by my body, by its ability to heal and survive and adjust. And although I know this to be a true thing in my head, I cannot force my heart to agree. So how do I release it, how do I clear it, how do I get rid of the exquisite tenderness I still feel when I think of what cancer has left me with? What will be the equivalent of three Christmas spirits in my life that will help me turn a head truth into a heart truth?

The answer to this isn’t an easy one. It is a work, not some magical one-night experience. Every day, I read the quote I have taped up to my kitchen window. It says, “On every level of life, from housework to heights of prayer, in all judgment and efforts to get things done, hurry and impatience are sure marks of the amateur.” This isn’t a race. This life change I seek will not occur overnight. It will occur as I engage in the work.

This work will consist of different things, all necessary and none sufficient on its own. I know myself, and I know that setting a long-term goal could be very discouraging for me if I don’t see results fast enough. So I won’t set one. I’ll only set a goal for today. I’ve had measurable results using EFT (emotional freedom tapping) in other areas of my life, so I will turn that work toward my relationship with my body, and I will gradually clear the ugliness away. I will pray. I will work my muscles and breathe deeply and drink more water and be more intentional about nutrition. Yes, today I will do those things. I have the strength to commit to today.

Then tomorrow, I will rise and I will ask myself if I have the strength to commit for one day. Past failures are irrelevant. Future successes are like fog on the horizon. All that matters, and all I can control, is what I choose to do today. So today, I will engage in the work. Each day, I will choose, and when my choice is, “do the work,” I will mark it as a small step toward the light.

Balancing Act

Failure.

It’s an ugly word really, with ugly emotions attached to it.

I’m not through organizing the laundry room, but it’s definitely in progress. It’s not stalled. The project isn’t a failure. It’s creating an enormous mess in my den, which is frustrating, and it’s taking longer than I imagined it would (typical, by the way), which is frustrating, and I hate going in there to actually do laundry because of the half-doneness, which is frustrating… Need I go on?

But it’s still going. We worked on it some just this morning. We’ve given wooden puzzles away so they can be played with again, we have a stack of coats and things to bless someone with, we’ve thrown away 100-year-old silver polish and carpet cleaner and broken umbrellas. It’s going to be wonderful and functional once it’s finished.

Part of the reason it’s taking so long is because, you know, life keeps happening. I have to keep homeschooling, and cooking, and food shopping, and washing sheets, and, well … grooming. If I could put it all aside, the project would take no time. Added to that, I’m trying something else new, and here’s where the anxiety comes storming in.

I’ve decided to implement a new form for keeping my house tidy, so I’m not afraid to open the door and let in an unexpected guest. It’s the Three-Point System from Organizing From the Heart, whereby I choose the three most important zones in my house, and I keep them tidy, always. I’ve chosen my kitchen, the downstairs bathroom, and my front room.

I know. For you organization gurus this sounds like child’s play. Try to empathize with me, because this plays to my absolute greatest weakness…

It’s not hard, not objectively. It’s just that I’ve tried many other systems before, and … here’s the hideous word … failed.

I won’t go through everything that I’ve tried that’s flopped. It isn’t necessary. But I am determined that this time will be different, because for the first time, I’m dealing with it on a spiritual level. First, I’ve spent some time truly thanking God for those rooms, and the blessings they bring. Then, with thanksgiving, I’ve asked God to fill my mind with little creative miracles that I can implement to bring order and peace. Finally, I’ve chosen to treat this as an act of worship. I will bring order from chaos, as God did in the beginning, as an act of worship to Him.

Doing this has forced me to change my perspective. All my attempts and failures were not really failures. They were opportunities for me to discover what systems don’t work for me. This time, I will not stop until I find a system that works smoothly. Did you hear that? I will not stop. I figure, even if I only average ten minutes a day toward a smoothly and peacefully running home, by this time next year, I will have 52 hours under my belt toward that goal. By that time, even if my house is not exactly like I want it, I will surely have areas in my home where I have made room for new blessing by clearing out the disorder. As my younger daughter says, frequently… Slow and steady wins the race. The following is a quote I’ve come across in my reading this week, and it resonated to such an extent with me, I’m hanging it on my kitchen window where I can read it every day:

On every level of life, from housework to heights of prayer, in all judgment and efforts to get things done, hurry and impatience are sure marks of the amateur. ~ Evelyn Underhill

SquirrelinHopacrab

I reject feelings of hurry and impatience. I will not stop until I am finished, no matter how long it takes. I refuse to continue living life like an amateur, and am determined, as much as it is in my power, to live it expertly. Eventually, I will be like this little squirrel I see every morning in my hopa crab tree, feasting on drying crabapples. He sits on a branch that is far too small to hold his weight (one would think, anyway), and as the breeze sways him, he nonchalantly balances there picking fruit. Instead of standing back over thinking it, convincing myself I’ll fall because I’ve fallen before, wondering if it is even possible…

Instead…

I will faithfully walk out, knowing it can be done, believing I have been gifted to do it, and I will achieve that previously elusive thing.

Balance.

 

 

One Foot in Front of the Other

Before cancer, I never went to the doctor. In the past four months, I’ve been there 10 times plus 3 tests at the hospital because of a coronary issue that has developed, presumably from my cancer treatment. I deserve a frequent-user punch card. But my body, which is betraying me, decided that wasn’t enough. An auto-immune disease I struggle with flared 3 weeks ago. I’ve been in denial, refusing to call my doctor because I’m thoroughly sick of being poked, prodded and medicated. However, this weekend the pain level hit an extreme point and my husband and father “encouraged” me to be wise and let my doctor know.

So today, I called. It felt like such an admission of defeat. I’m trying to keep my chin up, but all I can manage to do is cry. The voice inside my head says, “Quit being such a baby!” but I’m just amazingly beaten down. I’m not in a good place. So, here with you, Dear Reader, I’m going to make a massive effort to find my joy, buck up, and walk the path set before me with grace and dignity.

These things I can be thankful for:

1. I have an amazing husband, family and friends who support me, encourage me, pray for me, love me, help me and gently pat my back in sympathy when all I can do is blubber.

2. Physical suffering has bred within me a fierce compassion for those whose struggle is a daily one and who need my love and prayers. Because of God’s love for me and involvement in my life, my heart has become more tender instead of becoming hardened with bitterness.

3. My children see the effort I’m making to keep up with all my “Mommy Duties” and express genuine caring and concern for me. I’ve been blessed with two tender-hearted, creative, loving daughters.

4. God speaks to me in quiet, simple ways, and because of that I can fully believe that He has a good and loving purpose in this. I am assured that I will get to the other side of this struggle and when I do, it will be amazing. I will have a testimony that will reach down to those who are broken and lift them up.

5. Amidst it all, I can still smile.

Courageous

I haven’t been writing because I’ve been having such a struggle to even stay on my feet lately. I have felt my energy draining away. I’ve been experiencing sudden faintness – like when I climb several stairs, I get so light-headed I have to sit down. There’s nothing quite as frustrating (and exhausting) as knowing something is wrong in your body, and not having any idea what it is. I’ve had seemingly countless needle sticks as the doctor has done test after test. I even joked with my husband that I was developing needle tracks and people were going to suspect that I was using drugs. I had a CT scan and a chest X-ray, but everything was normal. And then finally – my doctor ordered an EKG, and it was abnormal. Now, having an abnormal EKG isn’t really something to celebrate, but at least we had found a clue in this great mystery.

Next came a treadmill stress test, the one and only purpose of which is to detect clogged arteries. Well – my arteries aren’t clogged. In fact, the cardiologist told me I was “fit” which nearly caused me to laugh out loud (see the above comment about having to sit down while climbing stairs). During the test, as he was explaining what to expect, he told me my blood pressure would rise. The diastolic would level out at 90 (which it did) and the systolic would continue to rise throughout the test (which it did, until….). About seven minutes into the test, when I was working really hard – going 3.5 mph at a 14% incline – I nearly fainted. The systolic suddenly dropped 50 points, and the diastolic 30. This was, apparently, unusual. The advice of the cardiologist as I was leaving the hospital was to “get my head down if I felt faint.” Really. That’s what he left me with.

Over the next few days, in talking to my doctor I learned that she had ordered a med study and consulted my oncologist. The suspicion is that my cancer treatment has caused damage to my heart. And so today, I had an echocardiogram (a sonogram of the heart) to look at valves, blood flow, and my heart’s general structure. I have no results, but at least the test is done.

Now, with my cancer, I felt very little fear or worry. As I would approach each new step, I mostly felt … nothing. I don’t know if this was peace, faith or simply ignorant bliss, but that’s how it was. This is different. Yesterday, I was just trying not to think about it, but I felt uneasy. I spent some time trolling facebook and saw a post on my niece’s wall that said, “Josh 1:9 Have not I commanded you? Be strong & of a good courage don’t be afraid don’t be dismayed for the LORD ur God is w/ u wherever u go.” I hate to admit this, but I burst into tears. I mean seriously, I was sobbing. I realized, quite suddenly, how alone I felt in all this. I didn’t feel God with me at all. This was just too much – hadn’t I been through enough already? Where was He? I finally confessed how angry I felt that I couldn’t just be healthy. Why this? Why my heart?

After I’d finished spewing, I ultimately said, “God help me. I need to know you’re with me.”

And then I went about my day. God is God and He speaks in very strange ways at times, and this is what happened. Just after dinner I was putting a load of dress shirts in the laundry. Hanging on a nearby rack was a little craft my youngest daughter had made, a circle of card stock hanging on a string that she could wear like a necklace, and it caught my eye. I have no idea when she made it. I have no idea how long it had been hanging there. I had never looked at it before. But it grabbed my attention in the most bizarre way, so I reached out for it. On one side was her name spelled out in glitter. And on the other it said …

Trust me dear reader, this was God speaking. I felt an immediate, palpable calm settle over me. I knew I was not alone. So, today is not much different than yesterday. I still don’t know what’s going on. I still feel kind of awful. In real terms, nothing has changed, with the exception of one thing.

Today, I am courageous.

Echos ~ Scars ~ Tracks in New-fallen Snow

My right shoulder muscles have been abused by the circumstances of life. I had breast cancer on the right side, resulting in the removal of thirteen axillary lymph nodes. This caused scar tissue and tightness under my right arm. Then radiation therapy (don’t gross out here) melted the underside of my skin, causing it to fuse to the bone where it is permanently stuck. This causes some tightness across my chest. Then, I had reconstructive surgery where a large portion of muscle in my back was dissected and tunneled forward under my arm to my chest. In fact, the procedure is called an LD Flap – LD for latissimus dorsi and it’s a flap because the section of muscle is left attached to its blood supply. This means that if you press in the exact right spot on my back, I feel it in front. It also means that when everything comes together wrong and I have pain, it’s a shooting pain across my chest and an agonizing ache around my shoulder blade. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does I can barely function.

This is where I was last night. As my husband massaged the shoulder to try and relieve some of the tension so I could sleep, I reminded him that four years ago I was in the hospital. Four years ago, on July 2nd, I spent six hours on the operating table having a bilateral LD-Flap. We talked briefly about everything that led up to that point, and then everything that has resulted from it, and I found tears pricking my eyes as I said, “Stupid, stupid cancer.” But then I told my husband that it is what it is and there’s no point in feeling sorry for myself, that it serves no purpose. I need to buck up and get over it. But my husband, very gently, said, “LaRae – I don’t think you’re feeling sorry for yourself. I think you’re feeling human.”

We turned out the light and I lay there thinking about those tears. Was it “human” to cry four years after the fact or was there something wrong with me? I thought about my story, the one I didn’t write but was faced with living.

I thought about the fact that I had immediate reconstruction after my mastectomies. I had tissue expanders put in that were meant to gradually stretch the skin, eventually being replaced with silicone implants. As far as I got with that procedure, I remember being very happy with how I looked and how I felt. But then I developed a life-threatening staph infection. By the time I was admitted to the hospital I was feverish, my skin was so sensitive I felt like I was being pricked all over by a million needles, my joints ached, I was nauseated and I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow. I was becoming septic. One expander had become infected and the other was surrounded by fluid that was likely to become infected, so they had to come out. It was only after the fact that my nurse told me I had scared the living daylights out of everyone. But the real blow came when I thought the hard part was behind me. My surgeon informed me that the antibiotic hadn’t really “killed” the staph. The staph had colonized right above my heart and for the rest of my life my immune system would engage in a freakish dance with the bacteria, maintaining a delicate balance of health in my body. But we could do absolutely nothing to disrupt that balance. It meant he wouldn’t reopen the wound. It meant that I couldn’t try expanders again. That ship had sailed. I had done my research beforehand, so I knew my only other options for reconstruction involved cutting muscles in my belly or my back, both of which seemed utterly barbaric. I was devastated.

I thought about the day 14 months later when I finally went in for the LD-Flap, and the ambivalence I felt. I didn’t want the surgery. I was dreading it. But I didn’t want to continue living as I had for the past year, either. The two times I attempted clothes shopping had ended with me crying in the fitting room because nothing fit right. I had an abrasion, a permanent bruise really, from the seatbelt in my car constantly rubbing across my sternum. I had to wear a T-shirt over my swimsuit to go to the pool with my girls because my suit gaped in a shocking fashion. And one time my little one, two years old at the time, walked in on me as I dressed after a shower. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of my scarred chest and she said, “Oh, Mommy. How did that happen?” I had no answer. All I could think is, “How, indeed?”

I thought about waking up in the operating room, with everyone frantically running around, hearing words like “pooling blood” and “venous congestion.” I heard the anesthesiologist ask, “Should I re-intubate her?” as I was jerked around and bandages were ripped off. I grabbed the hand of the O.R. nurse and asked what was wrong. I remember his classic deer-in-the-headlights look as he realized I was awake and talking when they weren’t finished yet.

I thought about that first night in the hospital. The pain was tremendous, and something I learned much later is that I metabolize drugs extremely quickly. This is why with five surgeries requiring general anesthesia, I woke up clear-headed and completely aware while still in the O.R. three times. This hyper-metabolism impacts the way my body responds to narcotic pain meds. So, although I had dilaudid in a pain pump, it was having virtually no effect. My nurse that night was a heavily-muscled, dark-skinned, bald-headed man named Kendall, who looked more like a bouncer than a nurse. He didn’t smile at me one time. But he was God’s angel to me that night. He knew pain and he knew I wasn’t faking it. He gave me six “rescue doses” during the night while he tracked down a physician who would change my orders, ultimately doubling the amount of dilaudid in each dose. When I got that first doubled dose, I felt the blessed, merciful effects as the medicine hit my bloodstream. I smiled at Kendall and said, “It’s finally working.” He told me he’d given me enough medicine to knock a man twice my size flat. He said that people receiving a normal dose of dilaudid hallucinate and try to climb out the window – yet, I wasn’t even slurring my words. All I could do was thank him for advocating for me, then thank God for giving me the bouncer-nurse instead of some shrinking violet who wouldn’t have fought for what I needed.

I thought about coming home, and how I cried multiple times every day for two weeks. I think my husband actually began to worry that I was having some kind of breakdown. The sanitized literature they gave me describing the surgery said, “Most mastectomy patients find deep emotional satisfaction from their reconstruction.” But I felt one emotion and one emotion only ~ regret. The pain was out of this world; I couldn’t lift my arms over my head; I had to sleep propped up; I couldn’t dress myself; I couldn’t wash my hair. I absolutely hated how everything looked. I thought I might never feel like my joyful, even-keeled self again.

But last night I wasn’t crying over any of these things. It took three more surgeries but I did achieve results I can live with. And all these events, difficult though they were, were simply moments in time and they have passed. It’s over. They’re just distant memories. No, my tears were caused by something real that still lives in my heart. It’s like an echo. It’s like a scarred-over wound that still occasionally feels tender and gives pain. It’s like tracks through new-fallen snow – the landscape is marred; it will never be the same. As a Christ-follower, I have had some very well meaning Christians tell me, “Give it all to Jesus. Just lay it at His feet.” But I don’t know how to do this. Seriously, how do I unburden myself when my very being is inextricably tangled up in the whole mess? I don’t know how to give it away. So instead, I seek to trust Him. I look to Him and His Word for strength. I strive to live in my joy. And I keep my perspective.

You see, I could fill an entire page (maybe the back, too) with problems and challenges I still face because of my cancer. Yet, put on a great balance, all these things will never outweigh what is on the other side of the scale. I am alive. Sometimes my days flow easily. And sometimes I struggle to live the life I want to live, to be the mom, wife and friend I think I should be. Some days it’s hard to joyfully face life with these echoes reverberating, sometimes manifesting as physical pain. But each and every day, I am thankful for the opportunity to try.