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November 2013

Celebrating One Year

Today is a big day in my little corner of the universe: it was one year ago today I had my final dose of radiation and completed my breast cancer treatment. Which means I can now celebrate one year in remission!

And what a busy year it's been: I've traveled to twelve states and one foreign country, attended eight concerts, several art exhibits, a few fundraisers, marketing hackathons, and one antique show. I went on hikes, boat rides, and snowmobiling excursions, and visited an untold number of farmers markets and restaurants. I even enrolled in a writing workshop because I have lots of stories and ideas to share.

I've been encouraged by other women who've slayed the breast cancer dragon, moved by those that are still fighting, and saddened by the death of one particular friend who put up an amazing fight not once, but twice.  

It is surreal to go back and look at the photos from last year, which seem simultaeneously like just yesterday and a lifetime ago. For the most part I feel well (assorted aches/pains and Tamoxifen side effects aside), and things are back to "normal." It's not really a "new normal" - unlike some, I haven't radically changed my lifestyle, habits, or the company I keep. Sure, I try my hardest to eat well, exercise, and remain stress-free, but I did all of that before cancer. And I like most people, I still struggle with balancing all of the demands of modern life. 

But I've learned that's what life is about: a string of messy challenges, frightening dares, exhilerating experiences, joyous celebrations and yes, mundane details. The key is to take it all in as it's happening, enjoy every moment, and make time for reflection.

And eat lots of amazing meals out with good friends, as I did last night at Kirkland Tap & Trotter (GO. And be sure to have the Housemade Spaghetti with chicken liver cream, pumpkin, and brown butter.)

Kirland Tap & Trotter
Celebrating with Maria and Kate at The Kirkland Tap & Trotter

Tonight, I'll celebrate my milestone at the Kenneth B. Schwartz Compassionate Healthcare Dinner, which is timely since it recognizes the efforts of health care practitioners at Mass General Hospital and beyond.

I'll leave you with a quote, as I am wont to do:

It's just amazing how inside our own souls we can lift out so much strength I think it would be enough strength to move mountains at that, to lift our boots up again and go clomping along happy out of nothing but the good source of power in our own bones.

Jack Kerouac, Big Sur


Happiness

Much has been written about happiness - what it is, how to find it, how to maintain it. It's something I often think about (even more so as I get older) and occasionally write about here. So a few posts on the topic caught my eye this week:

French philosopher Albert Camus was born 100 years ago Nov 7, and Maria Popova over at Brainpickings took the opportunity to reflect back on his writings. She notes that we have become so singularly focused on the pursuit of happiness that we often overlook the fact that "unhappiness can have its own dignity and can tell us as much, if not more, about who we are than happiness." Or, as Camus himself tried to convey, the notion that we can live with a dualism:

"I can accept periods of unhappiness, because I know I will also experience happiness to come."

In a related post, Maria shares some great tips for finding your center as you try to integrate work and life, mind and spirit. Here's a snippet (and one I think is particularly important not only to creativity but to happiness in general):

#4 Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.

This month also marks what would have been Kurt Vonnegut's 91st birthday, and Huffington Post published a post on what Vonnegut can teach us about life, gleaned from his novels (like the importance of laughter, kindness, and standing up for what you believe in).  I like this one in particular:

Art can be therapeutic: Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

Lastly, there's an interesting discussion thread about What Has Life Taught You going on over on Quora. Check it out.

I think it's the end of the year that gets us thinking about this, as we take stock of their lives, consider what we're thankful for, and make plans for the new year.

What is it that makes you happy?

Southie sunset
Sunset over South Boston | Nov 14, 2013

Related: Getting Off the Hedonic Treadmill (a timeless - and timely - post from 2005)


Writing from Real Life

For some time now I've wanted to write a memoir. Or something memoirish, based on real life experiences - say, short little vignettes about my travels. Or what it was like to battle Breast Cancer. I love reading memoirs (Wild being the most recent), and every time I do, I think, "I could do this!"

So I enrolled in a 4-week workshop at Grub Street, a nonprofit writing center that welcomes people of all levels. It is, in fact, the second largest independent center for creative writing in the U.S. (The Loft in Minneapolis is the largest), and I first learned of it from my author friends, Crystal and Jane).

The workshop I'm taking, Writing from Real Life, is taught by Judah Leblang, a local teacher, author and storyteller. There are twelve of us in the class, and over the course of four weeks we'll learn how to structure memoirs and personal narratives based on our own experiences (as Judah says, "If you've made it to adulthood, you have lots of material!").

We had our first class this past Sunday night; it was at Grub Street headquarters in the beautiful old Steinert Hall building on Boylston Street (we're up on the 5th floor, but be sure to read about the abandoned music hall in the basement). Judah kicked things off with this quote from author Jean Rhys:

All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.

To me, Rhys is underscoring the idea that storytelling is central to humanity. That is why so many people choose to write, and so many choose to read. We talked about how it is the small details of life that make us human, and how the power of detail is central to writing memoirs and personal essays.  We also discussed the difference between a memoir and a personal essay - the former is often a chronological telling of difficult personal experience that leads to wisdom/meaning, and the latter is a lighter riff on a singular topic. 

Lastly, we ran through a few writing exercises where Judah (or fellow classmates) gave us a prompt (a topic or sentence) about which we had to write for 5-20 minutes. And then we had to read our work out loud! Nerve-wracking. But the whole idea is to create a "safe" environment for sharing ideas, getting feedback, and drawing on the energy of the group (it reminds me of yoga practice, in that sense).

Most important is getting into the habit of writing on a regular basis. Our homework assignment for this week is to compose an 850-word piece on leaving (a person or a place). We'll see where that goes...

PS: Today is my parents' 58th wedding anniversary - a remarkable feat and surely a great fodder for a personal essay!

Mom and dad


Seeing Red

Red Leaves

There is some stunning Fall foliage around the city right now, like this beauty in front of Burroughs Wharf in the North End:

Burroughs wharf

Red Sox

About one million fans lined the route for today's Boston Red Sox Parade of Champions. We checked out the scene from Cambridge's North Point Park, where the duck boats carrying the World Series Champs plunged into the Charles River. Here's a shot of the scene (if you look closely, you can see crowds of people all along the water's edge).

North point park

Red Skies

Check out the sunset over the city on Friday night:

Sunset

Red Sauce

Also on Friday, I reunited with some fellow Bowdoin Polar Bears to remember our friend Linda Geffner '94 who passed away from breast cancer recently. We shared a (surprisingly good!) meal at Cantina Italiana, a North End institution since 1931 and site of Linda's celebratory dinner after she completed the Boston Marathon in 2012. Sadly, her dream to run tomorrow's NYC marathon went unrealized, but I'm sure she's up there running with the angels.

Remembering linda

Remembering linda2