Wednesday, February 22, 2017

There is No Good Card for This

You have been there--on the giving end or the receiving end…

It's either "What should I say..?"

OR

"I can't believe they said that!"


Kelsey Crowe wrote a book to capture those moments and to help the rest of us not put foot in mouth…
no platitudes, alternatives to lasagna, and ways to be supportive with out reaching for bizarre mixed metaphors and saccharine sayings.

Here's the link t the interview on NPR last week. When you hear this you'll want her book, and you'll want to start making your own honest greeting cards.

Take a listen:
http://www.npr.org/2017/02/13/514164179/there-is-no-good-card-for-this-what-to-say-when-condolences-isnt-enough

The book is called: There's No Good Card for This.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Rails to Recovery

One of the big and unexpected expenses that comes with cancer is transportation. Whether is is the extra gas money for driving to chemo three times a week, or needing to take taxis because the bus just won't work when you feel so ill, or having to travel to a different city for treatment or consultation. That money adds up. 

And folks who are offering you lasagna or babysitting typically don't offer  train fare.

But I've just learned that Amtrak does!

Amtrak's Empire Service partners with Voices of Hope (a collaboration of cancer service agencies) offers discounted rates and free companion fares for cancer patients and caregivers traveling within New York State. This means you can use this fare to get downstate to Mount Sinai or Sloan Kettering in NYC, or come Upstate to St. Peter's or Albany Medical Center or NYOH. 

You can get the specific details at Rails to Recovery on the main Amtrak site or click on the link below for Voices of the Capital Region. The staff navigator at your cancer treatment center should also have this info--and if not please share so that otters can learn too.

Here's the link:
http://www.voicesofthecapitalregion.org/rails-to-recovery

Thursday, February 2, 2017

But I Was Only Trying to Be Helpful

Oh, you know this feeling: You were only trying to be helpful, or to be kind, or to brighten her day. But it turns out that you were unkind, insensitive or even hurtful. How does that happen?

When talking to someone who has cancer, or the caregiver of someone with cancer, it’s not always easy to say the right thing. They have cancer but you can all too easily have foot-in-mouth disease.

The short answer to this dilemma is: Listen more. Talk less. Or, ask before you talk. That one translates as, “May I ask about how you are doing?” or “May I ask about your treatment?” or even, “Do you want to talk about your health—or would you rather hear the gossip from work?”

There is no perfect advice nor a perfect thing to say when you hear that someone has
cancer. If you have met one person with cancer, you met one person with cancer. Some folks will want to talk and talk about details and medical info. Some folks want to talk only to their doc, or partner, or support group. And no, you don’t get to nominate yourself to be part of the support group: it’s by invitation only.

But I know, I know, I know how deeply tempting it is, especially if you have cancer or you are a caregiver. And you often do have great advice and perspective. You just don’t get to slosh it all over someone with out asking permission. I stumble into this all the time. I mean, here I am blogging about couples and cancer: I read the research, I interview experts, I know some stuff-- so I’m always tempted. But I try to keep it here on the blog—mostly.

Also be careful with optimism. It’s great that your personality tips that way but saying, “Everything’s going to be great” may not be true, and now your friend knows they can’t confide in you or they know that, as Jack Nicolson said in the movie A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth.”

Let the person with cancer lead the conversation. Offer news and updates on your life and the things that your common field of interest suggests. Take your lead on their language about cancer as well: If they are battling cancer or in a war with cancer you can use military lingo, but if they are not using militaristic metaphors, lay off—even if that is what you got you through your chemo. 

All of this requires powerful listening skills, and caring. So have a little talk with yourself before you talk to your friend. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Your God is Too Small

Years ago I read a wonderful book called, “Your God is Too Small” by J.B. Phillips. In that book he wrote about how most of us struggle with God or faith because we keep making God too small. We have a tendency to imagine God being like us or maybe like a human being with super powers. But even with the powers of the entire Justice League of America, that is still a human construct and hence, according to Phillips, too small.

I thought about that this week when I was meeting with some students and we were discussing new ideas in Christian theology and how there continue to be new ideas about God, and evolution, and how God may intersect physics, and about how God and Love may be a primary construct of evolutionary direction. Yeah, heady talk like that.

At one point I said, “But what about a personal God?” and I got the look, and someone said, “Well, I used to believe in a personal God but then I studied…” The message was basically that believing in a personal God was kind of juvenile or “early” in terms of spiritual formation. 

I have picked up that slight judgment in other places as well. That look or comment that suggests that those who (still) believe in a personal God have not matured in their spiritual development. There’s a kind of spiritual condescension, “Oh, I’m past the personal God
thing.” “My God is now a cosmic force or a New Physics God”…blah, blah.

 So me, doing my daily—very personal—prayer starts to feel small—or worse—I feel unsophisticated in my faith.

But then, after confessing to my very personal God that I feel small cause I’m not making Him/Her big enough, I start to think, “Whoa, isn’t making (perceiving) God as a distant, cosmic, force of the universe just another way to make God too small?” (Yes, irony: in making God so big and fancy we make him small again.)

Can’t God be galaxies-wide, loving, an impersonal cosmic force and a personal shepherd at the same time? Why can’t God (we are talking GOD after all) be BIG and small at once?

I thought that Hillary Clinton could be the president of the United States and Chelsea’s mother at the same time. So why can’t God be both (and more) simultaneously?

Think about this: If we really grasp the Trinity, and if we swear that we believe in this three-in-one business, then why not a God who is all: all forms, all types, all sizes, all styles, all dimensions simultaneously?

And by the way—isn’t disdaining a personal God rather mean spirited? That can’t possibly be very Christian.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

How Can I Free Myself?

I was arguing with John recently. It was one of those arguments with a repeating theme. The old argument was just updated, and with different details. And yes, there was me saying, “Why don’t you…?” and “You always…”

As much as I really wanted to enjoy my righteous rightness (and surely I was 82% right), I also felt the undeniable familiarity of this fight. That is one of the downsides of longer recovery—you can’t hide from yourself so well anymore—and knowing that your own part of it takes the satisfaction out of fighting in a flash.

So what was I going to do? Could I walk through a conflict that was challenging me, and where I really did have hurt feelings?

I used my recovery tools. I sent email to my sponsor; I called another sober woman, and I went to my bookshelf. I always go to books. I came to recovery by the grace of Robin Norwood’s books, and so for me bibliotherapy is a valued tool.

I started with our Big Book. I read Step three and about surrender. Oh. Yuck --but also yep! But just how could I move past my hurt feelings? How could I shift the energy from insisting on my rightness to somehow using this situation for growth?

I landed on the book called How Can I Forgive You? By Janis Abraham Spring, and there I
got relief. Dr. Spring writes about forgiving really hard stuff like infidelity and parental betrayal so I knew I could lean into her wisdom for this fuss I was in with John. Here’s what I read in Spring’s book:

Your freedom lies not in protesting the unfairness of the violation or in getting the offender to care. Your freedom –perhaps your only freedom—is in deciding how to survive and transcend the injury. Don’t underestimate this freedom: it’s enormous. With it comes the power to decide how you’re going to live the rest of your life. As you take the task of healing into your own hands, you empower yourself and have peace.”

Bingo! It was peace that I wanted…not to let John off the hook necessarily, but I wanted to get me off my own hook and out of my spinning head. It felt just like that wonderful paradox of AA and Alanon—being selfish enough to take the focus off of being right so I can give me back my own good life.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Ordinary Time in CancerLand

In the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar there is an acknowledgment of “Ordinary Time”. This is the time that falls between holidays; it is the times that is not Christmas or Easter or Good Friday or Advent.

It feels like that here in the land of love and cancer too. It’s not chemo or blood tests or attorney time. It’s not exhilaration or tragedy time.

This month is filled with grocery shopping, yoga classes, buying running shoes, parent meetings and girl friends. I am picking up library books, allergy medicine, dry cleaning and avocados.

Having been in CancerLand so long I have to stop and remind myself that this ordinary time is actually a kind of holiday. This time is the true luxury, the blessing and the most wanted gift.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

In the Dark Street Shineth

Off we go trailing shopping lists and credit card receipts. Christmas is in one week. We may complain about our errands, and even about some of the folks on our list, but we do enjoy the festivity the holidays bring to our gray December days. It's no coincidence.


The holidays that celebrate light, Hanukah and Christmas, are aligned with the seasonal transit of the sun. It’s a leftover from earlier times when the religions of nature led all of the others. There was good reason, then as now, to run from the darkness. 

We know that ancient man feared that the sun had died.  It was his terror that the heat and light were gone. To coax the sun god back our ancient relatives created rituals.  The Druids lit bonfires. Now we celebrate with candles and lights in our windows. 

Spirituality is a way out of darkness and into hope and joy. The vehicle is mystery and a miracle, whether it’s oil that lasts eight days or the birth of a baby in a barn.

In the Northern Hemisphere this is a time when we face our vulnerability. Weather is the least of it. We all have moments of darkness: our grief, fears and regrets. The darkness we fear most, of course, is the grave. We still think we can outrun it. So some of us go to the Caribbean and some to sunlamps or light boxes; many pursue spirits, religious or distilled. Like our ancestors we too want the sun to come back and give us life again. So we go to the stores and burn up our credit cards; we sacrifice our savings as we gather at the mall where we may find what passes for community. 

But we still fear the dark. Much of what we do this time of year is about distraction. Not unlike whistling when we pass a graveyard, now we sing and shop and light candles and eat too much. And we complain. A lot. But maybe our railing against our holiday chores is itself a part of the solstice. Now when we are oppressed by darkness –when our primitive fears can be felt even through layers of advertising and anti-depressants-- we are drawn to the lights and to other people as our defense against the dark, just as our ancient relatives were drawn to stars and fires.

We talk of holiday depression as if it’s somehow wrong or an aberration. But these holidays we’re celebrating, Hanukah and Christmas, are also about darkness. Sometimes we forget that. But it’s true: the flip side of each story is about the darkness at the edge of the light. 

The words of this Christmas carol could just as well be a Solstice song: Yet in the dark street shineth, the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

We’re fighting something ancient, natural and necessary. Occasionally we need to feel the darkness—even symbolically--like we sometimes need a dark night or a wild storm.

So maybe there is another way to experience this day. On this, the darkest night, what if we allowed the darkness and went toward it, daring ourselves to sit still before we light the candles or the tree. What if we sat a moment seeing the tree in darkness--and breathed. That’s what solstice is about. We can enter the darkness and emerge transformed. We can stand it.

Tomorrow the sun will be at the most southern point of its transit. And what is coming is the longest night of the year. Starting Wednesday our days will grow longer again. The cycle is astronomical and holy. On this night we are as ancient as ever.