Dancing Bear’s Back

“Honey, I’m ho-ome!” The door slammed. “DB, where are you? I’m home!”

Dancing Bear could hear bags dropping to the floor, doors opening, bottles in the fridge rattling. New Jen was home! “In here,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. She cleared her throat and tried again: “In here.”

“Where ARE you? I’ve so much to tell you!” Before Dancing Bear could try to speak again, New Jen appeared at the bedroom door. Dancing Bear was delighted to see New Jen was wearing the red shoes. She must not be mad at her for scuffing them up.

“What on earth are you doing in bed at this hour?” Without waiting for an answer, she rushed on. “Oh, I’ve had a great time! I had lunch with a Saudi Sultan and a Turkish Princess…I sang with a Syrian…I’m taking a belly dancing class…and I met Sting! What a weekend…”

“Why didn’t you call and let me know you’d be gone so long, New Jen? I didn’t think you’d be away four whole days.” Dancing Bear shifted in the bed and involuntarily, an “Owwww” slipped out.

Instantly, New Jen dropped to DB’s side. “What’s wrong? Has your back gone out again?” She tsk-tsked. “What were you doing? Come on, ’fess up.” When Dancing Bear wouldn’t look at her, she said, “Don’t tell me you finished that paper.”

Dancing Bear wouldn’t look at her. “Well, you had already done so much of it, it seemed a shame to leave it unfinished…and then when you didn’t call to let me know you wouldn’t be there to take your final…”

“Oh, NO! Please don’t tell me you took that final exam for me. I told you not to worry about it! I begged you not to do my work for me!” She saw the crushed look on DB’s face, and the tears sneaking from under DB’s lashes, and her voice softened. “I didn’t want you to do them because I knew you’d end up like this.” She tried to give her a hug, but Dancing Bear yelped with pain when she did. “You silly old Bear…if I’m willing to let something go, you need to let it go, too. Otherwise, we’re back where we started.” She smiled. “I’m living without fixed plans these days, DB. I know it’s hard for you, but we won’t be healthy if we can’t let go of old habits.”

Dancing Bear smiled back. “I’ll try, New Jen, I really will.” She pointed at the red handbag sitting on the floor by the bed. “Would you get me that bag? There’s something I want you to help me do.”

New Jen picked it up. “Wow! It’s a lot heavier than it looks! What have you got in here?” She brought out handful after handful of smallish papers. She looked at one that had fluttered to the floor. “Why, it’s a Martyr Point Coupon!” She started turning over the slips of paper. “And another one…and a Rationalization Voucher…and two return Guilt Trip tickets! This one’s dated June 1st, 1963…and this one’s from 1972…” She stopped, shaking her head. “I had forgotten all about these, Dancing Bear. What on earth are you going to do with them?”

“That’s what I need you to help me with, New Jen.” She started ripping the papers in halves, then quarters. “You see, I thought I might need them some day, but I was wrong. Let’s get rid of them!”

New Jen’s face was thoughtful. “What made you change your mind, DB? You’ve always hung on to everything.”

“Let’s just say a little Cabana Boy told me I didn’t need to.” She giggled. “And while you’re here, make us a couple of margaritas, okay?”

Dancing Bear’s Dream

Dancing Bear studied. She wrote, and then wrote some more. Her back hurt terribly from sitting so long. But it was Finals Week! Something made her keep going, even though she was pretty sure she’d never graduate. “Old habits die hard,” she said to herself, and then she kept typing.

It was 3 a.m. when she finished The Paper. “It’s not a very good Paper,” she mumbled, yawning. “I’ll just finish this Works Cited page, then it’s to bed for me!”

Before long, though — maybe only five minutes — Dancing Bear fell asleep. Luckily she had taken her glasses off, or they would have been smooshed. And then Dancing Bear dreamed a dream…

“I’m in heaven!” cried Dancing Bear. “Either that, or Ireland!” But she realized it couldn’t be Ireland, because it was too sunny. The sun shining on the golden gates nearly blinded her. “My glasses! Where are my glasses?”

“You won’t need them here.”

Dancing Bear jumped when she heard the voice. “Who said that?”

“Who do you think? I’m the Gate Keeper.”

“Oh, my!” said Dancing Bear, for the Keeper looked like a Cabana Boy. 

And he was holding what looked like a margarita. “Yum!” said she.

“Glad you like it,” said Cabana Boy. “Ready to enter Heaven?”

Dancing Bear started following the margarita as it moved toward the Gates.

“Oh, wait!” Her hand went to her mouth. “I’ve forgotten my coupons!”

“Coupons?” Cabana Boy looked confused.

“Well, I call them coupons, but I guess they’re really not.” Dancing Bear looked at the clouds on which she stood, and sort of shuffled. She hemmed. She hawed. And then she said, “They’re really Martyr Points, I guess. I was told they were worth a lot once you got up here.”

Cabana Boy looked confuseder. “I’m sorry, Dancing Bear, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Seeing her crestfallen look, he added (this time, more cheerfully; after all, this was Heaven!), “Explain them to me. Maybe we call them something different up here, and that’s why I don’t recognize the name!” He gave her a big smile, full of pearly-white teeth.

Dancing Bear smiled back. “Yes, well.” She felt for her handbag again, to give her something to hold onto, but of course it wasn’t there. 

“Martyr Points are what you get when you do things like, oh, spend lots of time with people you don’t like, in places you don’t want to be. Or go hungry for no reason. Or work longer hours than everyone else even though you don’t get paid for them. Or…or…stay up and study all night for something that no longer matters!” She got more excited as she explained further. “You get double or triple Points if you give up Something or Someone You Love and it falls on a big Holiday, or Day of General Importance to Everyone!” She smiled shyly. “I have lots of those points.”

“Ah.” said Cabana Boy. “I understand.” He set the tray down and came over to Dancing Bear. He put his arms around her and hugged her. She didn’t know why, but he had tears in his eyes.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Is there something wrong with me? Can I not get into Heaven, because I forgot my Martyr Point coupons?”

“Nothing’s wrong with you, Dancing Bear,” he said, gently. “There never was.” He patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry, you don’t need any coupons to get in here.”

He continued explaining. “The Martyr Point scheme has been used by various religions throughout the ages, the goal being to deny people joy. The last thing rulers want is happy subjects, because happy people don’t want rulers. It’s worse than that, actually, because they convince folks that uncalled-for self-denial will bring them joy — eventually. Its success lies in its subtlety: once the program has been started, it’s self-perpetuating.” Cabana Boy sighed. “The truth is, you don’t need Martyr Points or coupons to get into Heaven. In fact, you can have Heaven on earth, if you give up the Martyr idea altogether.” He looked at Dancing Bear. “Do you want to stay here? Or do you want to go back?”

“OWWW!! Oh, my back!” Dancing Bear had woken up from the pain. There were her books, her computer, the Final Paper. She was back, all right. No Cabana Boy, no margarita. Nothing had changed.

Or had it?

“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?