Like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain.
Like a storm in the desert, like a sleepy blue ocean,
You fill up my senses. Come fill me again.
Come, let me love you. Let me give my life to you.
Let me drown in your laughter, let me die in your arms.
Let me lay down beside you, let me always be with you.
Come, let me love you. Come love me again.
–“Annie’s Song,” by John Denver
Steve and I celebrated 0ur first wedding anniversary this past Monday. We returned for a day to the site of our honeymoon, Grove Park Inn in Asheville, where we danced again to our “first dance” song from the wedding, John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.” The song still captures our love for the beautiful world around us, and our love for one other.
This year has held incredible joys, as well as some challenges we didn’t anticipate. But we’re still holding fast, dancing and laughing together. I am so grateful to have found this love, to have this wonderful man and partner beside me.
Like so many newlywed brides (and husbands, too), I got married, and then I gained weight. “Happy fat,” I’ve often heard those extra pounds called. I prefer “change chub.” Not because I’m not happy; I am! But I think the weight gain is less a result of the sudden onset of matrimonial bliss than it is the multitude of changes in daily routines that come with combining two adults’ lives: new foods and meal times, different sleep and waking routines, shifts in exercise habits.
Whatever the cause, I gained somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds those first 8 months of marriage. Not enough to qualify as “obese,” maybe not even “heavy,” but I’ve disliked feeling stiff and sedentary, not like myself, certainly not like the self that a few years ago was working out and running 5Ks.
I’m embarrassed to admit to being even more bothered by the appearance of my expanding silhouette in the mirror and the fact my clothes don’t fit right. I got so self-conscious about my newly rounded belly, which pudged out no matter how much I sucked it in, I was almost relieved when a day with friends at the lake was cancelled. Maybe I’ll have time to get back in shape before I go public in a bathing suit! I thought. I signed up for yoga and a running program and hit the Y a few times, my motivation definitely less health, more vanity. With a beach trip fast approaching, I began to worry over other perceived faults, like my winter white legs: all the better to show off the emerging spider veins, my dear. I contemplated scheduling a spray tan and went online to buy a couple new tankini tops to disguise my belly roll.
Then, a few weeks before our scheduled vacation, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It was a surprise; perhaps such things always are. I went in for an annual mammogram and was given a clean bill of health. I returned ten days later to have a couple fluid-filled cysts drained—routine for me, as I’ve had benign cysts since my thirties. Whenever they grow large enough to be annoying or painful, I have them aspirated. The doctor used, per usual, the ultrasound to locate the cysts. As he rolled the wand over my left breast, I noticed something odd on the monitor. There was a dark mass, but it was missing a key characteristic of the manifold cysts I’d seen on the screen over the years.
“That doesn’t have the defined outline that a cyst usually does,” I said.
The doctor kept rolling the wand back and forth, back and forth. “No, that doesn’t look like a cyst,” he said quietly. “I think we’re going to need to turn this into a biopsy.”
I would say the timing, as a newlywed, is awful, but when would it ever be good?
The cancer is treatable, survivable, thank god, though it’s going to be a long haul and an intense trip: 8 treatments over 16 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by surgery, then radiation.
Suddenly, it seemed pretty silly to worry over white legs and blue veins, or a few extra inches on my belly and hips.
My body is about to undergo a radical transformation. Chemotherapy will bring fatigue, and I will lose my hair. I may lose or gain weight, depending on how I respond to treatment. Surgery is a given, most likely a full mastectomy of one breast, possibly both. Mastectomy most always takes the nipple, and though reconstruction is a marvel these days, there will be scars. I have two small new ones already, from the biopsy and the port. And if my new breast or breasts are rebuilt from my own tissue, as my surgeon has recommended, harvesting it from my belly or back will make additional scars. (But, hey, maybe that “happy fat” will be useful!) Chemo can have permanent side effects as well, including early onset menopause. Pudgy belly and jiggly thighs notwithstanding, my current body may well be the closest it ever will be again to fitting the stringent beauty standards of smooth lines and seamless symmetry we too often impose on women.
As I pulled my slenderizing tankini top out of its package, I thought: WTF with these oppressive standards? Why have I—quite literally—bought into them?
A few extra fat cells, a few scars: they aren’t a threat to anything but vanity, a challenge to the ridiculously narrow and damaging ideas about beauty and the female body that women have had pounded into us for so many years. I would gladly accept living the rest of my life with a dimpled booty if I could trade it for my health, trade those fat cells for the cancerous ones growing in my breast that threaten my well-being, my very life.
But since I can’t do that, here’s what I’m going to do.
I am going to wear a bikini with pride. Now, and whenever I feel like it in the future.
I’m going to walk on the beach and search for shells. I’m going to go stand-up paddle-boarding. I’m going to read. Watch the sunrise. Hold my husband’s hand.
I’m going to embrace my body. It is strong, and it is vulnerable. It is normal, and it is exceptional. I will need to adapt, to gentle my body, in the coming months, because what my body, what every body, can do changes, contracts and expands over time. But whatever it can do is what matters. What it can think. What it can feel. It won’t always (ever?) be easy, practicing acceptance. But I am going to celebrate my body, for whatever it allows me to see or hear or feel or experience.
This is the only body I’ve got, and frankly, it’s on loan. Every body is. So right now, while I can, I’m going to watch the pelicans soar and dive. I’m going to frolic in the waves. I’m going to laugh as often as I can and cry when I need to. I’m going to fight, and I’m going to lean on my family and friends.
I’m a lucky woman: My body can still love. It can still know joy. It can delight, despair, heal. It, I, can still chase dreams.
It’s still life, just, for now, with cancer. And I will live it one glorious, difficult, deliberate day at a time.
In the coming weeks I will be debuting a new blog that is currently under construction: Still Life, With Cancer. Once it’s up and running, I will link it back to FsFTB. I may still post occasionally in this space, but I hope you’ll join me on the new site to follow my story there. Until then, thank you and be well.
I’ve been a fan of the show Madam Secretary from the first episode, so when the second season debuted this year, I brought new hubby Steve into the fold. Quickly hooked, he suggested we go back and watch the first season on Netflix. When we finished it and went trolling for something else to watch, we landed on Scandal. Steve was a little less intrigued than I, but we decided to try a couple of episodes before deciding whether to continue.
Soon, I couldn’t stop.
Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope
Scandal, like Madam Secretary, is a drama set in and around the White House. In Madam Secretary we follow Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni), former CIA agent turned secretary of state, as she navigates foreign affairs and her family life. In Scandal, the main character is Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). Pope is a professional “fixer” who left a position at the White House to put some distance between herself and the President, with whom she began a tumultuous affair during his election campaign. She opens Olivia Pope and Associates, a private consulting firm that specializes in helping high-level clients navigate and mitigate potential scandals. Spoiler alert: she’s a little less than successful at leaving her love affair with the President behind.
Scandal’s take on government is, I hope, pure fantasy, because if it represents what truly goes on behind closed doors in Washington, it’s not a pretty picture. Most of the characters are schemers and rogues: corrupt, manipulative, even murderous. Sex, torture, and intrigue abound. Yet despite (because of?) their flaws, the characters are complex and compelling, and every episode ends with a cliffhanger of one kind or other. It’s addictive storytelling. Still, everyone is so dirty, so seamy, so wretched. I feel guilty watching, like I need a shower afterwards, and not because of the steamy sex scenes.
In fact, the show’s portrayal of romance is one of the things that bothers me most. It gets love completely wrong.
Fitz and Olivia
I know: it’s television, not reality. But a lot of people’s ideas about love are influenced and shaped by media interpretations. All indications are we’re supposed to empathize with Olivia, the series’ protagonist, but it’s hard to when an otherwise intelligent and compassionate female character throws herself under the bus for “love” repeatedly. President Fitz is controlling and emotionally manipulative. More than once Olivia tells him no, she’s done, good-bye; he refuses to respect her wishes and let her go. That’s not swoon-worthy—it’s stalking. When the President directs his agents to bring Olivia to him, she berates him for treating her like a possession, but makes out with him under a tree before the scene is over. Romanticizing a no-means-yes scenario? Disturbing and dangerous. It’s hard to stomach that this is “true love”—what the show wants us to believe Olivia and the President share—composed as it is of frequent arguments, insistent and usually rough sex (often in public or risky places), lots of agonizing, and fretful tears.
Maybe the show’s creators are counting on us to understand that Olivia gets it wrong, to recognize that her skewed sense of love is, in fact, a fatal flaw. We live in a world that gets moony over the machinations on The Bachelor, though, so I’m guessing the average viewer isn’t that discerning.
I almost threw in the towel in season two, when former suitor Edison returns to Olivia’s life. Spoiler alert: Edison is a genuinely good guy, kind and caring. He knows and brings Olivia’s favorite take out, shows up when she’s in crisis, communicates clearly and honestly. When he proposes, she accepts, then (surprise) agonizes, and finally declares she can’t marry him after all. Why? She doesn’t want the simple, supportive love he has to offer. He tries to tell her that love isn’t supposed to hurt, but she insists she wants—and I quote— “painful, difficult, devastating, life-changing, extraordinary love.”
I wanted to scream.
♥ ♥ ♥
Back in April, on a chilly Saturday morning, two students at the college where I teach got married in a simple backyard ceremony. The bride went barefoot and wore a simple lace dress. Her one-year old daughter walked with down the aisle with her, as the groom smiled and waited, nervously pushing up his glasses. I trembled for them; so young, so many changes and choices ahead.
But I was reassured by their vows, in which they eschewed the idea of soulmates, the concept that another person would complete them or make them whole. “I come to you as a whole person,” the bride declared. They vowed to challenge each other to be and to become their best selves, to support one another as each sought to do so.
That, my friends, shows a much better understanding of true love than a feverish sex scene in a closet. That is a love more Edison than Fitz, a love with the potential to be genuinely life-changing and extraordinary. And that is a love I can root for.
If only the Olivias of the world could be as smart with their hearts.
As spring blooms all around, I’m reminded how quickly, and surprisingly, things change. Two years ago in May, Steve and I got engaged on a moonlit walk on Virginia Beach. One year ago in May, we had meet-and-greet party on a houseboat with long-time Georgia friends, followed a few weeks later by a beautiful backyard bridal shower with local girlfriends—all as we were madly planning and packing for the big move. This May, we’re celebrating one son’s (I now have sons?!) college graduation, I’m teaching the intensive nature writing course I deferred from last year’s über-busy spring, and Steve is winding up his last semester of teaching ever, as he prepares to begin a new job with a forestry research organization.
And yes, we’re still unpacking the house. The more things change, the more some remain the same….
So here’s to spring and the start of a new wedding season, the blossoming of love and mountain laurel. May we all find the generosity in our hearts to embrace change, the kindness to become catalysts for good.
When my hubby Steve and I attended the local Wedding Crawl a few weeks back, we snapped a photo on the top deck corner of the Rooftop, Center in the Square. It was our attempt to reprise, in a spontaneous selfie, a shot taken from the same perspective on our wedding day, almost seven and a half months ago now. Behind us, in the background, you can see the peak of one of our Blue Ridge Mountains–which, I’m not sure–and slices of the roofs of the art museum and City Market building in our beloved downtown. The sky above and behind us is a bright, clear robin’s egg blue, the sky I’d hoped for the day we got married. In the foreground, we squint. The sun is so fiercely bright, we duck our heads forward, as we smile and try to open our eyes even a sliver against the glare.
The day we walked down the aisle, the sky was filled with clouds: rolling, steel-hued, oh-please-don’t-rain-clouds. That day, clouds were a disappointment. On the day of this photo, as we grimaced against the light, it became clear those wedding day clouds might have been a blessing. Now, as I gaze at the resulting picture, I’m reminded of a lesson I first learned on another set of cloudy-then-sunny days, long ago: you can attempt a repeat performance, but to reprise anything with any accuracy is nigh impossible.
♥ ♥ ♥
One summer during my twenties, I met up with my friend and former roomie Sara for a visit that included a trip to Six Flags, an amusement park just outside of Atlanta. It was a bit overcast that day, so the park was less crowded than usual. When the cloud cover broke into rain showers, the park all but emptied. Sara and I made a circuit or two of the indoor Monster Mansion ride during the worst of the rain. After it let up, we hit Splashwater Falls and made several trips down Thunder River—we were already damp, and there were practically no lines, so why not ride our faves multiple times, no waiting? When the rain stopped after an hour or two, we circled back to the car and put on the dry clothes we’d brought just in case. We returned to the park and stayed into the evening, playing Skeeball and enjoying the still-short wait times for a couple rounds on our favorite roller coaster, the Great American Scream Machine. We had such a great day and so much fun we decided to reprise our trip the following year.
Fast forward: when we arrived at Six Flags the next year, it was sunny—and steaming hot. The lines were outrageous, and, if I recall correctly, one or both of us developed a nasty headache. Sara and I had hoped to relive the fun of our first visit, but the attempt failed utterly. And our disappointment was doubled because our expectations were so high. We met up for a girls’ weekend almost every summer for several years to follow, but we never went back to Six Flags again.
Aside from the dramatic change in weather, there were other obvious differences between Steve’s and my wedding day and the day of the squinty selfie. The day we married, we were dressed to the nines, color-coordinated, with hair and makeup (mine anyway)—not to mention the photograph itself—styled by professionals. We were surrounded by friends and family, high on love and adrenaline. On so many levels there’s simply no way to recreate that day. And maybe that’s as it should be; a wedding is, by definition, a special occasion, heightened in meaning and significance.
But not even an ordinary day can be exactly recreated. To paraphrase the wise words of Greek philosopher Heraclitus, no one can step in the same river twice: it’s not the same river, and you are not the same you. Time moves forward, and so do we. Perhaps a less eloquent way of putting it: there are no do-overs. Each moment in our lives is its own singular experience, and that’s good. That is, in fact, a gift. If we recognize it as such, we’re more likely to be present in the present. “Clinging to moments,” writes memoirist Helen Brown “is futile. The trick is to appreciate their beauty, do your best by them, and let them go as graciously as possible.”
In our reprised photo, Steve and I are a little older, a little plumper, a lot more casual, and decidedly more crinkly around the eyes than in our rooftop wedding portrait. In the months since we married, we’ve shared many more smiles, had a couple more arguments, shed a few more tears, and laughed loudly and often. We’ve snuggled and questioned and kissed and comforted through cloudy days and sunny. Each day, we discover and understand one other anew.
Yet even as the world changes and we change with it, we still stand side by side, surrounded by the town and mountains we call home, looking forward together. The view is pretty spectacular. Now we just have to be sure to keep our eyes wide open, so as not to miss a moment.
On hubby Steve’s and my first foray to what has since become our favorite local farm-to-table market, I was charmed by a set of three metal flower pots nested on a small oval tray. Enameled in graduated shades of dark-to-light, creating an ombré effect, the three pots’ Caribbean-sea hues recalled our wedding colors and provided a welcome contrast to the grim gray January sky. They were the also the perfect size for a small kitchen herb garden.
A large plastic pot in a similar turquoise caught my eye, too, along with a healthy aloe plant that reminded me of the one my mother had used to sooth our childhood sunburns. One small container each of thyme and oregano and a packet of basil seeds later, I was ready to warm up our winter kitchen with flora and flavor.
We stashed the empty pots on the radiator by the front door as we unloaded groceries, where they stayed, as did the plants on the kitchen counter, for several weeks. One day I asked Steve to bring a bag of potting soil from the garage to the back porch for easy access, and he obliged. It rested there, undisturbed. Another week passed. I brought the pots into the kitchen. By then I’d realized we didn’t have a good spot for plants where they wouldn’t be knocked over or gnawed on by cats. We measured a window for a shelf and brackets, but another few weeks went by before we could get to the hardware store.
Finally, one afternoon during spring break, Steve gathered a level, screws, and drill and cut the shelf, while I re-potted the aloe and the herbs and rescued a rapidly wilting poinsettia and some ailing succulents. I painted the shelf ends, he installed it, and we arranged the plants on the shelf with an enormous sense of satisfaction.
After all, it had only taken us seven weeks from start to finish.
March 11th marked seven months to the day since Steve and I took up full-time residence together in our new old house. We’d held our wedding one month after move-in, taking a week away from academia for our celebration and a brief honeymoon. Then it was back to full-time teaching and administrating. Since then we’ve amassed, between the two of us, a total of eight work trips plus four visits with family, and we’re looking ahead to a similar travel schedule between now and June.
It’s hardly surprising we still have boxes stacked down the hallway and in the living room, or that we’ve only managed to paint one room of the house. I’d be astonished if we had managed to settle in fully. I don’t feel surprise at our lack of progress. I feel…thwarted.
Seven weeks of combined efforts, sandwiched betwixt and amongst the myriad other demands and desires of our rich (and wonderful!) lives—for one simple shelf and a few sprouts. We’re in it, in more ways than one, for the long haul.
I’ve been a little quiet recently because I’ve been overwhelmed. By work. By the news. By losses I’ve witnessed, near and far. Even, forgive me, by the abundance of my blessings.
In other words, by life.
That’s not a complaint, merely an observation. I honestly believe if we don’t feel overwhelmed, at least on occasion, by this world we inhabit, we aren’t fully inhabiting our humanity. I’ve also found that when I feel that way, it’s helpful to step back and take time to notice the good. To squeeze someone’s hand and tell them they matter. To say “I love you,” and “Thank you.” To find beauty in the smallest flower, feel success in the smallest accomplishment.
I paint turquoise polka dots on the poinsettia pot’s nondescript brown rim. Add a little sparkle with a glittery bluebird pick in the pot of the heart-shaped cactus known as the “Sweetheart Cactus,” the “Lucky Heart.”
Each morning, I smile at our shelf of growing greens. Each evening, as Steve and I make dinner together, we watch the sun set through the window that frames the ocean-sky blues of the pots that hold the seeds we’ve planted, the seeds that slowly, resolutely sprout, grow, exceed.