“Sometimes, bad is bad…”

…but not always.

Several weeks ago, I awoke in such pain that even I had to acknowledge I wasn’t going to be able to make it in for the, oh, half-dozen or so appointments and commitments I had that day. I wrote an email to (well, I don’t know for sure “who”; I wasn’t able to see the keyboard or screen, couldn’t bend my neck) whomever, coming out with the C-bomb (no, I don’t mean a swear word, unless “cancer” is in that category; maybe it should be) and saying that although I had good days, and even great days, that day was a bad day, and I could not make it in.

Today is akin to that day. As I struggled to rise, however, I realized that labeling the day as “bad” was (a) not helpful to my healing, and (b) simply not true. In fact, “any day you wake up and you’re not six feet under is a good day,” as the Irish say. “Bad” is in the mind of the day-holder.

For one thing, I know that part of the reason I’m in pain today is because I went to a play last night (but is that really a bad thing?). Lise (aka Little Voice) and I went to see Taming of the Shrew. It was fantastic — especially because the director agreed with my reading of the play as being about domestic violence and bullying.

I know what domestic violence is, as I experienced it myself, in Ireland. Kudos to the Irish police and jurisprudence system: they back the victim. Had I gone through it in the States, I would not have been supported like I was. Someday I will write more about this experience, and the woeful inadequacy of the U.S. system to deal with it — I believe part of it has to do with that “appearance thing I talked about yesterday — but not today.

My point is this: it’s all about perception. Domestic violence is bad, right? There is no other way to look at it? Or is there? Perhaps the acts themselves are wrong, are bad, but the results of them need not be. I changed my life because of what happened. I got much-needed counseling from a fantastic woman (thank you, Trish), who in turn found the courage to start her own full-time practice, leaving the very company whose generous benefits package afforded me the opportunity to see Trish in the first place. I discovered Deepak Chopra’s profound Seven Laws of Spiritual Success at this time; I started writing again; I quit smoking; I bought a house, then a car. My friends proved brave and true, always on the lookout (I was being stalked by this jilted monster), yet always with a laugh for me. So, is a situation wholly bad when such good can come from it?

As for today, then, let me just say that I’m not feeling well, but it’s a great day. Yes, indeed it is. I’m still here, and so are you.

[P.S. Huey Lewis is the author of the quote in the title to this blog. I used to love Huey Lewis and the News!]

Keeping up appearances

It’s springtime in DeKalb — windy, bright, changeable, and green. Oh, so green! Everything’s blooming. The grass grows at such a rapid rate that homeowners and landlords can hardly keep up with it, and the sound of lawnmowers provides a background hum to every activity.

As I walked along yesterday, inhaling the pollen and sneezing with abandon, I realized there must be a city ordinance requiring that the grass be cut before it reaches a certain length, for even dilapidated dwellings, their porches sagging, their paint peeling, had well-trimmed lawns. How like Americans (especially those in the Midwest), to require lawns be kept in order, but ignore the problems — like unemployment, poverty, and lack of health care –being suffered by those inside.

It is this mania for keeping up appearances that kept me silent for so long about my illness (indeed, it may have caused it). Because I had woefully insufficient health care when I was diagnosed, I could not get treatment in Utah; because I knew there was nothing that could be done, I decided I’d better not let anyone know. When I decided to move back to the States, I did not realize what had happened to it while I was away for twelve years; or rather, I’d forgotten my country does not think healthcare is a right, unlike Ireland. My acting skills, learned at a very young age, came back to me quickly, and I fooled even myself (most of the time).

But it takes a lot of energy to keep up facades, especially “my-health-is-great!” ones. My friend Omar (co-owner of my favorite restaurant, Mediterraneo) and I talked about this yesterday. I had just been for my walk, and I stopped by to tell him I’d be moving before he got back from his upcoming tour. We agreed that doing what we love (writing, for me, and ESL teaching; playing drums, for him) takes us beyond pain or sorrow, or even ill health. Truly, when you’re present in the moment — the only moment, actually, you really have — doing what you love, you are happy; you are healthy. The trick is to pack as many of those moments into your allotted space-in-time as possible, and to live and be with those people who support that.

That’s why I feel lucky. I’m going to spend the majority of my time with people I love, doing what I love to do. And who knows? Those moments, those many moments of bliss, will coalesce into what may very well turn out to be months or even years of healthy life. Freed from the burden of keeping up appearances of health and happiness, I have the opportunity to enjoy actual health and happiness. I just had to be brave enough to start telling the truth.

If I manage to keep the lawn mowed, too, that’ll be a bonus — but it’s no biggie.


I remember Mom saying she wanted “I told you I was sick!” as her epitaph. She looked so healthy, at least until she started having chemo, that she had trouble convincing people she was dying of cancer. (I recall her doctor was one of those people.)

Epitaph writing is a vastly underrated art — think of it! (Maybe that’s why so many folks get cremated these days. Hmm.) You get a couple of lines at most, depending on how many words you can afford to have etched into your granite. Like the telegrapher in Three Amigos, I’m afraid I’d have to have the “two-peso version,” the one capable of being completely misunderstood. I’m fortunate to have friends and family more intelligent than the dim-witted Amigos, but think of the passersby on any given day! Scorpios at a loose end, wandering through graveyards, looking for epitaphs to use in their next cheery blog. I want to be sure everyone understands the cryptic phrase I choose for my plastic tombstone.

Now, why all this talk about epitaphs (not that Scorpios need any reason to talk about things death-related)? Well, yesterday at work, as I sat facing all these invitations to be sent out for next week’s do, and the piles of paperwork from the last one, and the general state of disaster prevailing there, I realized I did not want to be there any more. I mean, really — not in that office, not in that job, a-n-y-m-o-r-e. A knock came to my door (I had shut it, in self-defense), and there stood my friend Bahar.

“Do you need help?”

At that, of course, I burst into tears, saying “I just realized I sure don’t want to die doing this!!!!” And she said, “Jen, just leave it! Why are you still here?” I mumbled something about my co-worker being away, and who would do all this, and people were depending on me…blah, blah, blah. She shared her feeling at the time of a recent car accident, on the order of knowing she had to go sometime, but Lord! don’t let her die in a cornfield in Illinois. Though I totally empathized, and though I know I would urge other people to leave a job smack-dab in the middle of it, to choose life instead of stress, I couldn’t do it. I stayed, in fact, until nearly 7 p.m.

Crazy! What’s wrong with me? Please note that I am a mere grad assist, a dogsbody, doing a job any number of people could do. Why am I playing the martyr? And this morning, getting out of bed, the epiphany came. I realized that my co-worker not being there was a great opportunity for me to choose positively for myself, to choose to walk out of that job, and let others do those things. Who knows? By staying, I may be denying someone else the opportunity to work.

I’ve got some personal things in the office, so I will return to get them, and I’ll put the papers in piles that make sense, and I’ll send the handful of lingering invites out, but then I’m going.

And I’m not going to do it today. I have bills to not pay, and papers to not do, and obligations to not fulfill! Yes, I’m letting people down. Will they recover? Yes, they will. Will they insist on “SHE LEFT US IN THE LURCH” as my epitaph? I doubt it.

It won’t fit on that teeny cross anyway.

Dancing Bear Decides (the rest of the story)

First, Dancing Bear put some Super-All-Powerful-Healing-Ointment (made by her cubs) on her burned hand.

Then she took the red shoes out of the black bag.

“I’ll give these back to New Jen,” she said. “It was nice of her to let me wear them.” She realized how scuffed and dirty they were. “Oh, my!” she cried. “I had no idea how hard I was on them!” She hoped New Jen would forgive her for ruining her shoes.

Then Dancing Bear tidied the lair, and did her laundry. “That felt good!” She smiled. Her hand didn’t hurt any more.

At 5:30, she met her friends for tea. Dancing Bear almost went to a play with Sabiha! But she wasn’t quite ready for such a big step.

She watched Sherlock Holmes, because she loves mysteries.

And then, listening to the fat raindrops smack the broad leaves of the nearby trees, Dancing Bear began to write. Not the Final Paper; not the Whoop-de-do Presentation, but her Very Own Story.

So, boys and girls, this is not really the end: it’s a beginning.

Dancing Bear’s P.S. — A Story

Dancing Bear and her friend, Little Voice, tidied up after the Big Scary Day. Little Voice urged Dancing Bear to sleep long and well — and she did! Slept long, at least.

After twelve hours, Dancing Bear awoke from her dream-full sleep, resolved to put her tutu and dancing shoes into the rubbish. Her right side hurt so — she must have been dancing all-right, all-day. No more dancing for dollars; time to retire.

But even as she put the worn shoes into the black bag, she realized another Big Scary Day loomed. A Bigger, Scarier Day, on May 5th. To prepare for this day, she should start dancing now. In fact, she would have a word with The New Jen, because otherwise she will try to stand in the way, arguing her Final Papers and Whoop-de-do Presentations take priority over Bigger, Scarier Day. “We can’t have that!” cried Dancing Bear.

Although Bear thought she’d probably win this showdown (because she is much, much larger than teeny New Jen), one never knew.

“Hmm,” said Dancing Bear, rubbing her painful right hip, “I wonder what Little Voice would say.” She hit her head on the cupboard, then burned her left hand while making coffee.

Bear looked at her blistered hand; she looked at the sad shoes peeking out of the rubbish; she thought of New Jen, anxious to start her Paper…
And that’s all for now, children! Does Dancing Bear let New Jen do her Paper? What will Little Voice say about all this? Find out at our next story time!

The Dancing Bear

There are days I say to myself, “I sure don’t want to die doing this! Please don’t take me now.” The last few days have given me plenty of opportunities to mumble this sentiment. Today will be no different, unless I am able to expel my terror by writing this blog. For today is a big, fat, Dancing Bear kind of day.

The Dancing Bear. What is the Dancing Bear? And what shall explain it to you? (Format of these lines are courtesy of the Qur’an, which I’m studying this semester.) If you have Dancing Bear Syndrome, you’ll know what I’m talking about, but I’ll explain to those of you who don’t. It is something to which I will no doubt refer throughout my blog, as I believe it holds the key to why I got the tumors I did.

Dancing Bears entertain; we try to make people feel better; we are people-pleasers and co-dependents extraordinaire. We can dance around issues. We dance around reality. We smile and dance while the rest of those in our world think, “Wow, is she happy! I wish I could be like that. Not a care in the world.”

Dancing Bears, however, are an endangered species, a dying breed. Here are some little known facts about Dancing Bears, chilling facts that may disturb you (they sure disturb me). First, they tend to talk and think in the third person (ummm…I seem to be doing it herein). Another feature is that they only dance in front of others: alone, they huddle in corners and weep, or stare blankly at the wall, or eat themselves sick. They learn dancing at home, practicing on family first, perfecting their steps, before venturing out to amuse and entertain the general public. Soon they’re dancing at the first sign of discord; with their highly developed senses, they detect whiffs of trouble before others. Deftly, they divert everyone’s attention — so well, in fact, that others in the immediate vicinity will swear there was never anything wrong in the first place. This delights the Dancing Bear, who wants everyone to be happy. Unfortunately, she alters reality for others at the expense of her own. Thus begins the descent into disease, one that cannot be cured until the Bear sees what she’s doing. Depending on at what point the Bear can no longer dance, or muster the strength to do the steps, healing may or may not occur.

I know the Dancing Bear very well, for I am one of the species. Starting with a toy guitar at age two, singing “In a White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation,” I began the steps of the inexorable Dance. Those who only know the DBJ (Dancing Bear Jen) think I’m outgoing, love parties, and thrive on things like sales, acting, and performing. They think I thrive on it, and well they might believe it, based on my actions. I did stand-up comedy in San Diego, for Heaven’s sake! (I had diarrhea for three days before every performance, though, and even this Bear couldn’t bear that.)

What appears “natural” to most people — the garrulous caretaker of others, the one at ease in front of crowds — is not natural at all, it is habitual. I have learned my steps well, my friend. That does not mean I want to continue that dance. I made steps in the right direction after my diagnosis with ovarian cancer in 2006: I started a master’s program in English. I wrote and published a book last year. My happiest times are when I am buried in a book, or writing (like I am now), or sitting with a small group of my most intimate friends. They know The Real Jen, who is basically shy and nerdy and terrified of visitors to the zoo.

The Real Jen started the PhD (a chance to lock myself away and study, study, study), but DBJ took the grad assist job that has me in terror today. In a few minutes, I begin the dance that will last all day. I’m exhausted just thinking about it, for I know now how much it takes out of me. I’m not willing to have it take that much from me anymore, yet I’m compelled.

Shh! I hear something…ah, the music has started. I must go now.

“Charlie bit me (and that really hurt)”

Despite its unparalleled popularity, I had never seen the “Charlie bit me” YouTube vid until my daughter Leah showed me when she visited recently. If you haven’t seen it, I’ve included the links on the sidebar — I recommend you watch the original first; it makes the auto-tuned version so much funnier. The clip shows a toddler talking about how his infant brother bit him. He thought this quite funny. So funny, in fact, that despite the pain, he puts his finger in his brother’s mouth yet again, and gets (surprise, surprise!) heartily bitten. Not so funny to Charlie the second time, but even more hysterical for those of us watching. The “Charlie bit me” clip has received something like 200 million views, even being mentioned in Fortune magazine. Why?

What makes Charlie so funny, I think, is that he sticks his finger in his brother’s mouth again, despite the pain that was caused the first time. Did he expect a different result? Or was it because he saw his laughing parents, close by and aiming that camera at him, and he wanted to make them laugh again? Even at his tender age, he suspected his actions made his parents smile. What we won’t do to make people smile, or not hurt us… kid stuff, right?

Maybe not. There are a lot of things that hurt: bitten fingers may be the least of them. Labor, rheumatoid arthritis, sickle cell anemia, Hep C, fibromyalgia, certain kinds of cancer: they may be the greatest of them. Or are they? What about the death of a parent? Your child? What if it was suicide? What if you gave a child up for adoption, to make those parents love you again? What if you come home to find your lover in bed with another? What if that person is someone you thought was a friend? What about when you walk into the boss’ office, thinking you’re getting a raise, and you get fired? Or if you come home one evening to find all your belongings packed and sitting in the garage, and you’re suddenly homeless? If choosing an illness would rectify those situations, bring a loved one back, wouldn’t you do it?

Perhaps, unconsciously, that is exactly what we do, develop an illness to rectify situations that cannot, in fact, be changed. Think about it: if we fall and break something; if we have an operation; if we’re beaten, bruised, or slashed, evidence of those events show on our body. Broken bones show up on x-rays; blood spurts from where we’re cut; we produce bruises where too much pressure has been applied. I believe that emotional damage has its evidence, too — in fact, there is an abundance of scientific proof showing that every single emotion we feel produces a specific chemical. [I highly recommend the movies, What the Bleep Do We Know and The Secret for more on this, in an accessible, non-scientific format.] Our bodies need to rid themselves of the excess toxins caused by emotional trauma, or we get tumors, RA, asthma, and a whole host of other ailments, depending on the source of the emotional pain. It could very well be that tumors are formed around these killer toxins to protect us. A scar forms over a physical trauma; why would our bodies not have a way of dealing with an emotional one?

The treatment I’m getting is based on this theory, and controlled release (through cognitive and other therapies) of the toxins built up over the years is being achieved. It’s not always painless, and it’s not always successful. Apparently I’ve done the emotional equivalent of allowing my finger to be bitten, over and over and over again. I’ve pretended so well and buried my hurts so successfully that I often cannot recall the original events. (Scorpios are great at this.) And I don’t think I’m the only one who has done so: witness the incredible increase of cancers, RA, asthma, and the like. Diabetes: oh my, I’ll have to write a whole ‘nother blog on that one. The things we do to ourselves! Thinking that maybe, just maybe, the ending will change, even though we’re repeating the same actions.

That might be okay for little Charlie — sure, he’s only a toddler. He doesn’t know any better. Chances are he’ll soon learn that, even to get his parents’ approval, it’s not worth sticking his finger in his brother’s mouth. A 30-year-old Charlie in that video would never have received 200 million viewers; one can only watch “stupid” so many times, right?


tumor-o, and tumor-o, and tumor-o. . .

musings from a part-time mystic

Welcome to my blog, one I subtitle “Musings from a Part-time Mystic.” Since “coming out” about my cancer, I’ve realized how many of you wish me well, in the deepest sense. I have been remiss in letting you  know how I’m doing, and I hope in small measure to let you know now, using this blog space. I cannot guarantee “sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, everywhere,” for there are cloudy days with nary a sweet to eat, and no rainbows on the horizon. While I will not spare you my dark thoughts, I shall not spare the bright ones, either.

Which brings me to why I titled this blog “broccoli for breakfast.” The healing process for this strange and wonderful condition called “cancer” (I use a small “c”) has led to my having ridiculous cravings for meals, not unlike those I got when I was preggers. Having broccoli for breakfast — steamed slightly to reduce (or is it enhance?) something someone told me wasn’t (or is?) good for me if I ate it raw; I get a lot of advice from a lot of people, and if it’s someone I trust, I try to do it (thank you Adrienne, Kat, Leah, and Kevin especially) — is one of the things I eat for breakfast I never would have before. People often think that those diagnosed with a Scary Disease, especially One That Ends In Certain Death! (or that they believe does so), are immediately going to (a) drink alcohol non-stop; (b) smoke pot non-stop; (c) sleep with as many people as they can, non-stop, of course; or (d) Give In To Some Other Terrible Habit, such as cigarette smoking. This has not been the case with me, I assure you.

Last week, for example, one of my dreams came true, something I wanted to see before I died: all my children came to visit me in DeKalb, Illinois, where I’m living now. Katrisa, J.R., and Leah came together for the first time in ten years. J.R. and Leah were able to bring their “spice,” Adrienne and Than, respectively (we missed you Kev!). I wish my granddaughter, Cassidy, could have been there, too, but she was staying in Denver with her biological daddy. (Miss you, Cassers!) I can’t describe what a joy it was to have them all in the Bird Cage, which is what I call my apartment. (It’s at the tippy-top of a three-story house circa 1870 or so.) I had joked with people I work with that “there’s nothing like a terminal illness to get the family together,” but I’m afraid my gallows humor wasn’t appreciated.

That’s another thing, the American way of dealing with death or unpleasant Scary Diseases. The Irish are so much more pragmatic about it. Instead of crossing the street to get away from me, like the Americans did after my mother passed away, the Irish crossed toward me, to offer a “Sorry for your troubles,” or to see if I needed anything. They understand that death is merely the other side of the coin we’ve named Life. We’re all going to face it; I feel lucky to have the heads up on the deal. As it is, I suspect I have more of that Norwegian toughness in me and will probably outlive “healthier” people — out of sheer stubbornness. My  refusal to acknowledge my own dire circumstances (or, when acknowledged, to write about them), I attribute to my bardic, dreamy Irish nature.

And write about this adventure I shall. I realized, as a dribble of butter escaped the floret I munched on this morning, that I may not ever get to the book I’ve worked on sporadically since, oh, 2000, I think, whose working title is “Musings of a Part-Time Mystic.” With this blog, I can throw in the poetry and pithy observations and blurbs and characterizations written in haste on the backs of envelopes and deposit slips, items I know I will find as I prepare to move back to Portland, Oregon. I can read your suggestions and recipes and jokes, and we can share cool pictures. I would like to keep this PG-rated, too, folks — I want my daughter Leah and her hubby Than to be able to participate, so no “F-bombs” or objectionable stuff. You can do that on my Facebook page, should you feel the desire to do so.

Just so everybody’s clear: It’s too late for conventional treatments (which I oppose, at any rate), so I’m going for Miracle Cure, okay? Can the Power of Love keep me alive? I believe it can — along with eating well, thinking well, and moving well. I love being a vegetarian-near-vegan. I want to learn yoga. I think Gillian McKeith rocks, as does Health Resources, where I’m getting my alternative treatments. I believe in the healing power of photographs, like those of my friend Lise, and my daughter, Leah, and even my own. I subscribe to the Healing Power of Squidges (more on that in another blog). My son’s music heals my soul. I love exchanging recipes and talking food and crocheting with Kat. I love nerding out on literature and life with my new friend, Jules. The memory of the conspiratorial chuckles of my Irish friend (miss you, Teresa!) never fail to bring a smile to my face, as do the memories of my other, still-live Irish friends, so witty and wise.

I am blessed with friends, old and new. I cannot even list them all, but I would wager they will show up in this blog. Why? Because it is of friends and family that my life’s tapestry has been woven; its rich colors and texture could never have occurred without them — without you.

Bless you all.