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Compassion, Guest Posts

Without Touch

July 5, 2020
touch

By Liz Prato

This is a story about my lying on my own massage table in April 2020, where my clients usually come to me for therapeutic touch, but haven’t come to me for touch since March 11th. Because most of my clients are in their seventies and therefore technically “at risk,” I stopped seeing them two weeks before the Oregon Governor said massage therapists could no longer see clients, to cut down on the potential exposure to and spread of Covid-19. The last time I’d received professional bodywork was March 3rd—one month from when I was lying on my own table, with my husband giving me a massage. Although it had been twenty years since he, himself, trained in or practiced massage therapy, he still knew how to effleurage, petrissage, and knead muscles.

The previous day I had slumped over our dining room table, my entire physical and emotional body dysregulated. Pain twisted through my hips, it yanked at my low back, it burned my jaw and my thighs. I was depressed, desolate, unable to picture how I was going to live like this for another month, or two months, or however long it would take before I could again access to one of my primary forms of health care.

I live with chronic fatigue syndrome and chronic pain, insomnia and depression. I am easily overwhelmed by external stimuli, especially noise. My health care team includes an MD, a naturopathic physician, a psychotherapist, a cranio-sacral therapist, an assisted-stretch therapist, a Rolfer, a Reiki master, and a massage therapist. The MD is the only one who doesn’t “get” my chronic fatigue syndrome and pain. Since I was first afflicted in 2013, all MD’s have assumed everything wrong with me was a by-product of depression. Never mind that I was on anti-depressants, and relatively stable mood-wise. It’s just that Western medicine is stumped by chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s idiopathic, meaning they don’t know what causes it. Western medicine is all about applying cures to causes: medicine, or surgery. If they can’t figure out what’s causing a disease then they can’t figure out how to cure it—and then they’re out. All the other professionals on my team understand my health as a complex mosaic, and know there isn’t  just this one thing causing my problems. They recognize multifaceted dysregulation among my various body systems—nervous, digestive, endocrine, immune—and believe not just one tried-and-true cure exists.

Every day I swallow a dazzling cornucopia of prescription pills and supplements that act on my depleted levels of cortisol, vitamins B, D, and folate, estrogen and progesterone, and regulate my melatonin and serotonin. I receive some form of energy work once a month. I stretch a lot—with and without assistance. I haven’t had an ongoing emotional crisis for a few years, but I know that if I do, I can call my therapist. And every 10-14 days I get a massage.

Sometimes I forget to make an appointment, and can’t get in. Or my massage therapist gets sick or twists an ankle or has a family emergency and has to cancel at the last minute. Pain wracks my neck, my jaw, my arms, my spine, my low back—even when I’m still taking all those pills, and stretching and taking warm baths. I become stressed and depressed, and my productivity plummets, making me more stressed and depressed. Massage—effleurage, petrissage, kneading—loosens my tight muscles, it pushes away built-up lactic acid, and it stimulates my parasympathetic nervous system, the one responsible for feelings of calm. And it gives me something I never had as a newborn: the sense that someone cares.

#

The woman who gave birth never held me. I was born a month premature via an emergency C-section, because she had started hemorrhaging earlier in the day. Lots of blood was lost, is the story she told me forty years later, in one of two letters she wrote to me. We both almost died, she said. She told me she wasn’t supposed to see me at all, but she demanded they allow her. She didn’t hold me. She just looked at me, and maybe she said goodbye. I don’t know, because she didn’t share that part with me forty years later.

Ten weeks after my birth mother relinquished me, my adoptive parents took me home. It was the first time they met me, that day on August 11th, 1967, when Catholic Charities called and said they had a little girl ready for adoption. I hadn’t been available for adoption earlier because I’d been in an incubator, and after that “they” (Catholic Charities? The doctors?) were concerned I might be developmentally delayed. My parents—the ones who adopted me, raised me, loved me—told me that after my stint in the incubator and before they brought me home, a foster family took care of me.

“You were meant to be our daughter since the beginning of time,” my parents told me.

“Your birth mother was very young,” they said. “A teenager. She gave you up because she loved you, and wanted you to have a good life.”

Decades later, I learned my birth mother was twenty-three years old when she had me. So was my biological father. They came from middle-class homes. They were not impoverished. They were also not in love, and were Catholic. Having a baby out of wedlock was a great shame. My birthmother’s father stopped talking to her once he learned she was pregnant. He sent her to another state to live with her godparents, to let her belly grow with me, to give birth, and to leave me behind.

I spent over ten years—from my mid-thirties until my late forties—trying to find out who this woman was, the one who gave birth to me and then left me behind. There was someone out there who knew me in my first moments of being. Someone who rubbed and soothed her round belly, and therefore rubbed and soothed me. Bit-by-bit, I collected pieces of my origin puzzle, never knowing what the complete image was supposed to look like. I was eventually allowed access non-identifying information about my biological parents and adoption, later followed by two letters sent to and received from my birth mother through an intermediary who wasn’t allowed to tell me her name, then my adoption records. I immersed myself in a short relationship with a half-sister that yielded more of her mother’s story, received a threatening letter from my biological father’s lawyer, was shut out by two half-siblings without them ever speaking one word to me, and, finally got my birth certificate. They were enough pieces to solve most of my puzzle, even though the center would always be blank.

The puzzle yielded this reality: I never lived with a foster family. I was in the Infant of Prague orphanage in Denver for at least six weeks, if not longer. After I almost died being born, no one touched me, except in the medical ways required to clean and settle a precarious newborn. No one who loved me came to my incubator and put their hands through the holes to touch and soothe me and say “you are ours.” For the first ten weeks, I was devoid of loving touch. It was a crushing discovery, but also explained so much.

Touch is essential to the healthy physical and psychological development of infants. Touch deprivation can affect every aspect of their being, from the regulation of digestion and sleep, to their social and psychological understanding of self. Even touch-deprived infants who are eventually raised in loving homes still show signs of developmental and physiological disturbances years later. They produce higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and lower levels of hormones that facilitate emotional and social bonding. While some who were touch-deprived as infants might have a difficult time forming emotional bonds with anyone, others will try to assume a deep connection with any adult, because they didn’t learn the difference between family and others in their early development. Children and adults who were touch-deprived are more sensitive to external stimuli, like noise and light, and less able to self-regulate their emotions. They are more likely to be anxious and depressed.

As a child, I cried easily. It was (and sometimes still is) my go-to response to fear, frustration, and uncertainty. As an adolescent I was desperate for romantic love. Every single day my mood would rise and fall based on whether or not a guy paid attention to me. As an older teen and young woman, my sexual potency was a measure of self-worth. How many men wanted me and how much did they want me?

Sexuality was the intersection of touch and being wanted. What good was being wanted (intellectually, creatively, as a friend) if I couldn’t get touch out of it? It got to a point where I didn’t even realize that my behaviors signaled sexual interest. Giving a male friend a hug from behind was touch. It was what you did with someone you care about. You try to make as much contact as possible. Since they were just friends, doing it without clothes on was out of the question. That barrier between skin-on-skin was still safe. Or so I thought. I didn’t realize the message others received was “let’s get rid of that layer of clothes.” I didn’t understand why their girlfriends got mad, or why it was so hard for those men to be just friends. I didn’t understand there was another way to get touch, one that didn’t blur boundaries, that could calm down everything inside of me that was so insecure and overstimulated and unloved and scared.

#

When my husband gives me a massage, there is nothing sexual about it. He glides over my skin and kneads my prone muscles from head-to-toe, and then glides up my supine body from toe-to-head. A week earlier, I’d done the same for him, treating him just like I treat all my clients, draping him in warm towels amid flickering candles and calming music. There was no sex, no sensuality, but what I know: muscles, nerves, bone and skin. I didn’t become a massage therapist by accident, and being a massage therapist is not just my job or my career. It is a calling from my fascia, from my nerve endings, from my soul. I need to give massage almost as much as I need to get it. I need to give and receive touch.

We all need touch, a lesson being learned in the most cleaved, jagged way as we are isolated from each other during the pandemic. Some people are isolated with other loved ones who can hopefully provide a hug, a shoulder rub, fingers laced together. Some live alone and only have their own hands and their own skin. It’s not worthless, touching your fingertips to your own neck, your stomach, your foot. Nerve endings still meet nerve endings. Skin still meets skin. It is the self-calming, the self-regulation, that babies who were not deprived of touch know. Babies learn by mimicking. Someone stroked their skin and they felt better, so they know to do it to themselves. But it nonetheless lacks an essential aspect of touching another living being: bonding, connection, the knowledge that someone else cares, that someone else claims you.

It’s not an exaggeration to say I feel like I might die as these quarantined months drag on, deprived of the one form of healthcare that has the most profound impact on my entire physical and emotional system. Intellectually I know I will not actually die from this limited touch. I may suffer, but we are all suffering. There are worse forms of suffering than my body pains, my fatigue, my anxiety and depression. I have a husband who tries to soothe it. I know that when this ends—and it will, someday, end—I can go back to gratefully receiving massage, and I can go back to gratefully giving it, too. We can all return to that blissful state of knowing we are cared for, through the seemingly simple, but incredibly complex, act of touch.

Liz Prato’s most recent book is “Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: Essays on Hawai‘i (Overcup Press, 2019), a New York Times Top Summer Read, and a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She is also the author of “Baby’s on Fire: Stories” (Press 53, 2015), and editor of “The Night, and the Rain, and the River” (Forest Avenue Press, 2014). Her work was named a Notable selection in Best American Essays and Best American Sports Writing, 2018. Her stories and essays have appeared in over three dozen publications, including The Rumpus, Carolina Quarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Salon, and Subtropics. She is Editor at Large for Forest Avenue Press, and teaches at literary festivals across the country.

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Compassion, Family, Grief, Guest Posts

I Didn’t Love Her Until The Day She Died

November 24, 2019

By Marie Prichard

Maura Anton, age 90, died September 6, 2009. Survivors include six children, 18 grandchildren, and 24 great-grandchildren. Maura Anton was my grandma for over thirty years, but I wasn’t her granddaughter until the day she died.

I was eight years old when my father took my sister and me to meet his newest girlfriend, Rita. There had been so many girlfriends since my parents had divorced. But this one was different. She didn’t have any children; she was younger than him––fifteen years younger––and she was still in college.

I remember spending weekends with my dad and Rita in her tiny, college apartment. It felt like a dollhouse to me, and I pretended like everyone was playing house. Looking back, it was just like a teenager’s room, complete with stuffed animals, pink frilly things, and posters of her favorite bands.

I assumed Rita wouldn’t be around for very long, so I didn’t think much about their relationship, or about the fact that we hadn’t yet met her family. Girlfriends coming and going were a common theme with my dad. However, things changed, and I can still picture the specific visit when they sat my sister and me down and told us they were going to get married right after she graduated from college.

Our first introduction to the Anton family was at Rita’s college graduation. My sister and I stood there shyly in our––too small––Christmas dresses, and our tennis shoes because my dad hadn’t thought ahead about what we were going to wear. He never bothered to think about those kinds of things, and I believe that Rita was too young and self-absorbed to take our clothing into consideration. My mom didn’t have the money to buy us new dresses, nor was it her responsibility, so we wore those same outfits when they got married.

I can only imagine what they thought. My father, a Mexican man almost fifteen years older than their daughter, was standing there with his two young children, introduced as her fiancé and her soon-to-be daughters. Let’s just say; it wasn’t the warmest of welcomes to the family.

Rita came from a strict Catholic family. She was the youngest of 6 siblings who were all raised in the church. They had all graduated from Catholic schools, gone on to marry their high school sweethearts, and were doing what good Catholic families do: get married and quickly start a family. No one in Rita’s family had ever married a person outside their race or religion, and divorce? Well, that was a sin and was unacceptable. Rita had broken the unwritten rules, and they weren’t happy, especially her mother.

I remember many tears and angry voices before the actual wedding. Rita was not allowed to have a white wedding dress or a large church wedding. Her wedding was a quick, hushed affair in the retirement park in which her parents lived. I didn’t understand that marrying someone who had been divorced and had children from a previous marriage would be the cause of so much upset. I was just excited that I got to be a flower girl. It wasn’t until later that I realized Rita’s mother did not approve of her marrying my dad, nor did she want to add two little dark-skinned Mexican girls to their family. We were an embarrassment to her.

After my dad married Rita, we didn’t spend much time with his family because we were always at her parents’ house. When we were with them, we were expected to go to church and have Sunday dinner with her parents, siblings, and their children. In my eight-year-old mind, I thought once my dad and Rita were married, that meant I had a new grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I was wrong. During family dinners, my sister and I were always seated away from the rest of the family with our backs to the dinner table. Our newly acquired grandma would always make “tskking” noises when we referred to her as grandma, and she never––not once––said, “I love you.”

She didn’t want to introduce us to her friends, and when pressed, she would say, “Oh, these are my step-grandchildren. You know Rita married that man who was divorced. These are his children.”

Christmas was the worst. All the “real” grandchildren would be there, and there were so many presents for them. As we sat and watched them unwrapping all the gifts, my sister and I would each receive just one neatly wrapped gift. When we were younger, it was usually a knock-off Barbie doll. When we got older, the Barbie doll was replaced with a card signed, “Merry Christmas, the Antons” and enclosed would be a ten dollar bill.

As I got older, it became apparent that Maura Anton was incapable of loving us. I still called her grandma, and she still referred to me as her step-granddaughter, but I had stopped trying to love her. When I was made to go to their house, I would stay in the bedroom and read. I was tired of always feeling unloved by someone I desperately wanted to be loved by, so when I was old enough to have a say, I stopped going altogether.

The marriage between my dad and Rita ended when I was an adult. By this time, divorce wasn’t quite as taboo in Rita’s family. The Antons had already experienced other family members’ divorces, remarriages, and blended families. My sister and I still kept in contact with Rita and her family, but I always felt like I was still that little girl who was sat with her back to the family dinner table and introduced as “the step-granddaughter.”

Rita’s father passed away, and her mom moved in with her. She had suffered several small strokes and became mostly bed-ridden. I would stop by periodically to see how she was doing. She loved to have her fingernails painted, so I would always paint them her favorite color––light pink.

She had softened with age, but she still never referred to me as her granddaughter or said I love you. It was so hard to love this woman I called grandma, and I often wondered why I even bothered to try.

One day I received a call from Rita. She said, “Please come; my mom had another stroke and isn’t expected to make it.” So I went.

Most of the family was there: aunts, uncles, spouses, and grandchildren. She was lying in a hospital bed in the living room surrounded by her “real” family, yet no one was sitting next to her, holding her hand. They were all seated or standing along the walls or in the kitchen. She looked so alone in that bed in a roomful of people, so I sat next to her and picked up her hand.

Her breathing was labored, and she looked like she was in pain. I’m not sure if she was cognizant, but the moment I took her hand into mine, she appeared to relax. So I just sat there, holding her hand, speaking quietly to her. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my voice kept her calm.

I sat there for hours; I kept asking if anyone wanted to sit next to her, but everyone said no. They knew she was dying, and they didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t sit there because I loved her. I sat there because I didn’t want to watch her die alone in a room full of people who should have been there holding her hand.

I thought back on all those years of feeling unloved by this woman. I was just a little girl who wanted to be loved. How hard would it have been for her to have given me the same love she had given her grandchildren? All the pain I felt over the years came rushing through me: the hurt, confusion, sadness, and anger. I sat there with this woman, who was dying and felt nothing but an overwhelming sadness.

Her breathing began to become shallow and slow. The hospice nurse listened to her heart and said it wouldn’t be much longer. The sun had gone down, and almost everyone had gone home, and yet, I stayed. I couldn’t leave without someone else sitting next to her to help guide her from this life to the next.

I looked into the face of this woman who did not love me, and I realized it was the face of a woman who only knew how to live one kind of life; A life that did not include two little, Mexican girls calling her grandma. It was beyond her ability to move past the vision she held for herself and her family.

In…out…in…out. Her breath came slower and slower. With each exhalation, my anger dissipated. With each inhalation, the pain receded. I gained comfort knowing when she died so, too would my pain.

As she took her last breath in the wee hours of the morning, I felt an intense surge of vertigo and a vibrating upward pull; I had to close my eyes to keep from falling over. It was as though a part of me had joined with her spirit as she passed, and just as quickly as it happened, it ended. I opened my eyes, and a quiet calm came over me.

I sat there for a moment looking at her light pink polished fingernails trying to digest what had happened. I sensed that I had traveled a short distance with her spirit as she departed from this world. It was a surreal experience, and a rush of love coursed through my body. I had received a gift.

I gazed down at Maura Anton, this woman I had called grandma for over thirty years and whispered the words, “She’s gone,” but no one heard me. So I repeated it louder as I slowly stood up to walk away. But before I did, I leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Grandma, I love you.”

I like to think that maybe––this time––she would have said, “I love you too.”

 

Marie Prichard is a longtime writer and educator. She lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest with her wife, their two wiener dogs, and a Munchkin cat. She loves reading, writing, walking the beach, and filling her wife’s pockets with heart rocks.

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Compassion, Guest Posts, Surviving

When The Music Stopped

September 5, 2018
flute

By Elana Rabinowitz

I pushed my thick wooden chair inside my desk and looked up.

The substitute was nothing like Ms. Rudnick, her long Farrah Fawcett hair, her thin frame made me wonder if she ever taught children before.  But here she was for almost a full week now and I was getting restless.

“Okay class, we’re going to do some warm ups.”  She said. “On my count.”

Really I thought?  This is what an IGC (Intellectually Gifted Children) class is going to do?  Shouldn’t we be writing essays or studying history.  I didn’t want to exercise inside the confines of my classroom, but I was a compliment third grader and did as she asked.

I looked over at my friend Virna who winked at me.  I used to sit next to Virna and we laughed ourselves silly in class. Always finding amusement in Templeton from Charlotte’s Web.  Double T, Double E, Double R… I guess we laughed too loudly and now I was in the corner by the window about to stretch my body all the way from Brooklyn to Queens. Continue Reading…

Binders, Compassion, Guest Posts

Evangelist of Joy

December 12, 2016
dog

By Devra Lee Fishman

“Whatever you do, try to keep Mabel off of the furniture at the hospice.  We are struggling with that at home so we need to be consistent everywhere she goes,” my brother says on a rainy, matte gray Friday when he stops by my house to hand off the puppy he is raising for the Guide Dog Foundation.  Mabel bounces toward me all paws and wagging tail, an evangelist of joy wrapped up in fur, spreading her own sunshine on this gloomy morning.

Mabel is a 3-month old Golden Retriever/Labrador mix with a coat the color and feel of corn silk. During the next year or so that she will live with my brother’s family, Mabel will go everywhere they go – supermarkets, restaurants, theatre, sporting events, even airplanes.  Their goal is to make sure that she has good house manners and is comfortable in any social situation before she returns to the Guide Dog Foundation for intensive job-specific training.

I need to reinforce the behaviors that my brother’s family instills in Mabel and I take the responsibility seriously.  I do not want to be the reason she struggles with, or falls behind in, her training, so I thank my brother for the tip and lift Mabel into my car. Continue Reading…

Compassion, Guest Posts

And Then There Were None

December 8, 2016
walking

By Sage Cohen

There is a woman in my neighborhood who walks.

13 years ago, when I was new in my house, my two young, strapping dogs jumped her two young, beautiful dogs as they were passing by and we were getting into the car.

In this shocking and unprecedented moment, something deep down in our tribal animal brains was decided. Our packs were enemies. This woman was angry with me. Very angry. I took her anger and made it an armor over my own heart.

We kept walking. Continue Reading…

Compassion, Guest Posts

Talk Her off the Ledge

August 3, 2016
friend

By Michelle Riddell

You run into a friend. You have a minute, she has a minute so you stop and talk. She’s a good friend, a friend who has listened to you, laughed with you, helped you out in a variety of ways. She has told you the truth when you needed to hear it, and she can keep a secret. But today, she’s on a tear. She has a tendency to overthink things and jump to conclusions. She’s passionate and empathetic to a degree that sometimes clouds her judgement. It’s like something breaks loose in her mind, and her thoughts ricochet all over the place. Just moments into your exchange, her voice gets louder, her tone more shrill. She starts complaining about her husband and kids and then about her life in general. She’s underappreciated and misunderstood; she’s too busy to make plans; she feels left out. You can see it in her eyes: the dark, whirling wildness of someone coming undone. Before you can stop her, she’s gone.

She’s out on the ledge. Continue Reading…

Compassion, Guest Posts

Dogless: Lessons From A Soulful Singapore Mutt

July 17, 2016
energy

By Kira Jane Buxton

“I think we should name him Dogless.” YaYa bounds up to my mother, her singsong staccato bouncing like the notes of a xylophone.

Em tucks a strand from her silky bob, the color of swirling pinot noir, and raises an eyebrow. “Dogless?”

“I think he look like a Dogless.”

“Well, I don’t think he could possibly be Dogless. But perhaps he could be Douglas.” Em has a speaking voice like Julie Andrews, water streaming through the Thames on an English summer day. Her singing voice, alas, is less like Julie Andrews, unless Ms. Andrews is getting run over by a combine harvester.

“Yes. That’s what I said. Dogless.” Yaya, which means auntie in Tagalog, is employed by our family. She has limbs like satay sticks, skin like Singapore soil, and a jack-o-lantern smile. “I don’t think he can bark.” Continue Reading…

Compassion, Guest Posts, Surviving

The Dress That Binds, Or How I Learned To Love My Mother

July 15, 2016
mother

By Jill Rothenberg

I held the delicate piece of lace tulle between my fingers, the light pink froth of it peeking out between the hot pink of the skirt layered on top. I pulled it off the rack and held it out at arm’s length, considering what kind of top would be perfect: plain white bodysuit or the cream-colored sweater with gold bling at the neck? Would the perfectly coordinated pastel pink fur coat be too much?

I took them from the rack and considered them all, holding each over the skirt in my right hand.

“Jesus Christ, I’ve been looking all over the store for you. Put that stuff down and come on.”

I jumped and turned around, the clothes falling to the floor.

There was my boyfriend, who had caught me red-handed in the little girl’s section of Target.

You would have thought he caught me with porn. Continue Reading…

Compassion, Guest Posts, Illness

Angels In Sandwich Shops

June 29, 2016

By Katie Taylor

“I have AIDS,” she whispered, the tears that had dried on her face now mingling with fresh ones as her eyes focused somewhere in between my face and my feet. My arms felt heavy at my sides, and I was uncomfortably aware of the teenage boy behind the sandwich counter watching us.

I reached my arm forward, and she looked up at me. “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Robin,” she said. Before I could say anything else, she grasped my hand tightly in both of hers. “I need money. For my medicine. It’s so hard here. I was in New York, and I thought it would be easier here, but it’s hard here. It’s so hard here. I need the money. I need the money for my medicine, and the shelter’s going to close and – ”

She was talking faster and faster, her voice getting louder with every word, and I didn’t want the restaurant’s manager coming out again. I squeezed her hand, and she stopped talking.

I told her I’d give her what was left from buying our sandwiches. It was all the cash I had in my bag, I told her.

* * *

I’d passed her on my way to a 12-step meeting. That November, in the middle of an imploding marriage and deep in the battle with an eating disorder, I spent several nights a week in community centers and the basements of churches. In simple rooms with a circle of chairs and a rack of pamphlets about how to stop – stop drinking or drugging or eating or sexing or not eating or whatever it was that you couldn’t quit doing. Continue Reading…

Compassion, Guest Posts

The Audacity of Hopelessness

December 5, 2015

By Leta A. Seletzky

I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Ebola. When I mentioned this to my mom, she laughed. I laughed, too. It’s a dramatic statement, but that doesn’t make it untrue.

Ensconced in my vacation home near Lake Tahoe in summer 2014, I followed the news reports about a Liberian man who arrived by air at Lagos, Nigeria’s Murtala Muhammed International Airport and collapsed. He was surrounded by people, some of whom tried to render aid. Shortly thereafter, the man died of the Ebola virus, but not before infecting other people in Lagos—he was Nigeria’s index case. The virus, which had previously gained a foothold in other parts of West Africa, went on to claim over 7,000 lives in the region by the year’s end. My children and I were Lagos residents, but we were fortunate to be “stranded” in our vacation home during the crisis.

***

Have you ever watched a calamity unfold with such grim assurance of the worst possible outcome that you drew perilously close to siding against hope? It’s not the same thing as explicitly wishing for the worst to happen. Rather, it’s believing that to have hope is foolish—and maybe even counterproductive.

Last summer, I was beginning to feel that hope in Nigeria was counterproductive. I had moved to Lagos, the country’s economic capitol, in April 2013 with my husband and our two young sons. My husband was working for an oil company. I was raising our boys, playing tennis, and planning vacations as my framed law degree sat in a cardboard box in our townhome’s attic. We had a driver, a gardener, a stewardess (the local term for a nanny or housekeeper; in our case, she was both), and a steward (the male version of a stewardess; in our case, he came to our house twice a week to chop vegetables).

I had arrived in the country with great hopes for a meaningful and joyous experience. Having spent the previous two years in southwestern Kazakhstan, with its somber apartment blocs and merciless winters, lush Nigeria looked like paradise for the first couple of months of living there. Strangers on the street in Nigeria actually smiled and spoke to me instead of shooting me a surly stare. The standard greeting is a hearty “You are welcome!” Fat ripe fruits hung from the branches of trees I couldn’t identify alongside teeming urban streets. The first time I saw a Traveler’s Palm, I imagined Adam and Eve walking amidst its luxuriant, fan-like fronds. Continue Reading…

cancer, Compassion, courage, Guest Posts, Surviving

Sailing the Waves of Cancer: Living with a Disease That Won’t Let Go

December 4, 2015

By Betsy Hnath

It’s been four years since my diagnosis with stage II breast cancer: One and a half of them I spent in treatment, the other two and a half I spent dealing with the aftermath.

As time passes, and my emotional ship sails in relative equilibrium for longer stretches, I try to spend more time on the deck, taking in my surroundings, living in the moment. Then cancer sends up a flare in the distance and my attention is shifted: A random pain, tightness in my chest, or some extra fatigue. These bright, red burning lights remind me it is always there, hovering, perhaps waiting to attack again.

Sometimes cancer is a cannon, launching its missile close enough to graze my bow, as it has recently. When I hear that close friends, young friends, healthy friends have been diagnosed, I begin to sway. I know they will soon begin building their own ship and join the growing fleet that surrounds me of loving, faithful, undeserving patients. I mourn for their loss of the “old normal.” I know what it does to you.

I have to sit back and powerlessly watch during the excruciating 2-3 weeks it takes to learn everything they can about their enemy through scans and tests, and formulate their plan of attack. Nothing can be done to slow down or speed up that time.

I can tell them what I know from experience: that this is the worst of it, this first part. Shifting uncomfortably in scratchy, paper gowns as you wait in sterile, silent exam rooms; the inability to get the smell of hand sanitizer out of your nose; shaking hands with one doctor after another as he or she flips through your life, which has been neatly assembled onto a clipboard. How you can go from feeling normal to completely despondent, sometimes within the same ten-minute span. That ache, burning in your chest, as you inhale yesterday’s Suave when you bend down and kiss your children’s heads as they sleep, wondering how many more nights you’ll get to do it. I can prepare them and reassure them, but in the end they will sail through it on their own just as we all do. Continue Reading…

Compassion, courage, Fear, Gratitude, Guest Posts

Keep Calm and Carry On Being American: But Do We Remember How?

November 30, 2015

By Aine Greaney

One summer night in 1987, an American man I knew took me to one of those big-venue country music concerts.   It was just six months after I had immigrated here from Ireland, and the gig was somewhere south of Albany, New York.

Since my wintertime landing at JFK Airport, I had seen and enjoyed a small slice of snow-bound USA, but that trip to the country music concert was to be my first safari into big, full-blown Americana.

I may be fusing memory with nostalgia here, but that night, I remember feasting on those sights and traits that, back then, I tagged as “American.”  Though we were miles away from cowboy-country, many of my fellow concert-goers were in full regalia–lots of John Wayne Stetsons and red `kerchiefs and fringed jackets and pointy cowboy boots.

***

Then there was that all-American smileyness—a party sense of shared bonhommie.  Also, before and after concert night, it was a very safe bet that, had I been hungry or thirsty or suddenly fainted, at least 80% of those folks would have turned good Samaritan and come to my aide.

That warm New York night, I would never have guessed that, 28 years later, I would find myself at another summertime concert at another outdoor pavilion–this time with my American husband and on Boston’s waterfront.

Of course, 28 years have brought lots of personal changes and life lessons. The first and best expatriate lesson:  The minute you think you’ve pegged America–this huge, polyglot country where many people’s grandparents were born in another country–you are already wrong.  It’s hard to say what makes Americans American.

However, last month in Boston, I would need to have been drunk or distracted not to have noticed that America has, to quote from W.B. Yeats, “changed utterly.”  For starters, we have all grown cautious.  We have learned to keep our mouths shut. We have learned new and sinister meanings for heretofore ordinary sights and phrases. Continue Reading…

Compassion, Gratitude, Guest Posts, Kindness

To Honor Abundance

November 26, 2015

By Stacey Parshall Jensen

Sunday morning at breakfast I told my visiting in-laws that Peter and I did something we’ve never done before because we have so much. And I started to cry.

Blessings have poured upon us in the last few years. When we both graduated from school in 2010, from graduate writing programs, Peter at CalArts and me from USC School of Cinematic Arts, we embarked on new careers in the film and television industry with nothing but dreams and a shaky determination.  Our daughter had just graduated from high school and was on her way to San Francisco Arts Institute in San Francisco and we were in our tiny home in Los Angeles trying to keep moving.  Like so many artists we pieced it all together to meet our tiny budget. We had nothing but gratitude for the support from family to stay here. An investment, they said. They were making an investment in our lives, in our dreams because they believed in us.

And to be honest, some days, many days, it was their belief that made me keep going.They could see our potential when I wasn’t able.

Fast forward some years, to now and there we were Saturday night, surrounded by friends and brilliant filmmakers screening Blessed, a 27 minute short action film I wrote about motherhood, miscarriage and fighting for family.  And executive produced by Through The Wilderness, our production company. Our team of creatives have worked tirelessly for months to make this film a beautiful, suspenseful drama that has left me in tears.  I stood in front of the audience feeling so much love and excitement, I still get rushes and waves remembering the evening. We stood, heads down, humbled by the words of appreciation and love from our cast and crew.  We glowed. We ate. We hugged. We laughed. We danced.  It was a beautiful touchstone in our careers. It was magic.  Something magical was happening.

At the end of the evening, as the DJ shut down and the last few guests gave their final hugs to leave, we loaded them up with extra cupcakes and plates of food because we had so much. What to do with all of it? We didn’t know for sure but we couldn’t leave it. We couldn’t throw it away.  So the idea came to my husband while talking with a brilliant writer/director of one of our projects about Spirit. And how much Spirit was with us while filming at Manzanar two weeks ago. And how much Spirit was there with us that evening.  I still envision The Great Spirit and all my grandmothers in my spiritual Council of Women, dancing with me at the end of the night. Wow.

So we did what was right when you’re blessed with so much. You give thanks and then you give it away. Continue Reading…

Compassion, death, Grief, Guest Posts

Out of Death, Something

November 22, 2015

By Mark Liebenow

In late April we gather our dead and cry. For some it has been a year since our lives were ripped apart, for others barely a month. Emotions are on edge.

We are the families of those who died and donated their organs, and we have gathered at Chabot College in Northern California to honor our loved ones. My mother-in-law Marjorie has come with me. She is doing better after burying Evelyn, her youngest child and my wife, and is back to running the office of her retirement community.

I think of Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away. He went to college here at Chabot, and there is a life-sized cutout of him in the lobby. He plays a man who struggles to survive physically and emotionally after his plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean. In one scene, before learning how to make a fire, he eats a raw, gelatinous fish. The look in his eyes as he chews is of a person wondering what’s the point when it’s unlikely he will ever be rescued. I know that look. When he gets back home years later, his wife has remarried, so he begins a new life with what he has left. I sense he will be happy, and wish that life was like it is in the movies.

Reg Green is the main speaker and talks about the desperate need for organ donations. The wife of my friend John was one of those who died waiting. In 1994, robbers killed Green’s seven-year-old son, Nicholas, when the family was vacationing in Italy. He and his wife donated their son’s organs to seven Italians. Because of their selfless act, the organ transplant movement finally took hold in that country. Donations doubled and thousands of people are alive because of them. A movie was made about it, Nicholas’ Gift, which starred Alan Bates and Jamie Lee Curtis. “Each year in the U.S.,” Green says, illustrating how often even the very young die, “five thousand families donate the organs of a child.”

After his speech, the smiling face of each donor in a time of happiness fills the large theater screen, and a hush settles over us. Music fills the auditorium as image after image bring back the childhood joy of Danielle, age fifteen, red bandana on her head; Dexter, two years old; forty-eight-year-old Bill with a Fu Manchu moustache; Maribel, a young mother dead at twenty-six; three-year-old Eddrick in his new sweater; nine-month-old Alexandre in knitted cap; and the photos and names of one hundred and forty others, including Evelyn’s, her face shining with hope.

Ev died in her forties of an unknown heart problem, and I think of the dreams we had for our future that now lie in ruins. In the memorial booklet I read the words I wrote that begin: “Evelyn’s soul was sweet like dawn in the Sierra Nevada. She was intoxicating like alpine air. The light in her eyes illuminated the dark paths through the forest of my heart….” Continue Reading…

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