Be the light in the darkness

bookends-blog-pics-candle

Photos by Carla Kucinski

It’s 3:30 on a Wednesday. Three days before Christmas. I am sitting in my favorite tea shop, sipping a cup of hot cocoa that tastes like a melted milk chocolate bar. I feel its warmth as it travels down my throat and warms my insides. These next two weeks are all about comfort and self-care. Pause. Rest. Reflect.

My eyes burn from the lack of sleep I had last night. I painted my eyelids with grey eyeliner and combed my lashes with thick black mascara to make myself look and feel more awake than I am. I stayed up most of the night with my dog Molly who had a tumor removed from her chest the previous day. It was a fatty tumor about the size of golf ball near her shoulder, with a smaller bump that had appeared last month. When we picked her up after her surgery, our vet was certain the smaller tumor was cancer and sent it out for further testing.

That night, I slept with Molly on the couch with our tower of pillows and piles of blankets and stroked her head as she whined through the night. Every time she whimpered I Googled: Dog, pain, surgery, whining—trying to find ways to soothe her. There’s nothing worse than hearing an animal suffer and knowing there’s not much you can do but be there—be her comfort, her security for all the times she has been yours. As I sat beside her on the couch, I propped my head up with the palm of my hand to keep myself from nodding off while I stroked her silky ears. I started thinking about earlier this year when she didn’t leave my side the entire time I was recovering from my miscarriage. She camped out on the couch with me, nuzzled her muzzle into the crook of my arm and slept with me for days. When I cried, she licked the tears on my face. Now it was my turn to take care of her.

Molly recuperating after surgery. (All photos by Carla Kucinski.)

Molly recuperating after surgery. 

Fucking cancer. This year it already invaded the lives of three people I love, and now my dog. Eight days later, good news arrived. Lab results were in and it was in fact a mast cell tumor, grade II, but our vet was able to get the entire tumor, which meant no follow-up treatment with chemo drugs. “This is all good, good, good, good, news,” Dr. Fuller sang into the phone. I threw my arms around Molly’s big neck and wept. She celebrated with a Kong bone filled with peanut butter.

A two-inch scar remains where Molly’s tumor was removed. We called her Frankenpup for the first few days. We needed to find some humor in all of this as we waited to find out whether our dog had cancer. Over the last 10 days, the scar has changed from a jagged, angry red line to a faded pink scar. The fur where they shaved her is started to grow back in as if nothing ever happened. It made me think of a passage I read recently in “Tiny Buddha’s Guide to Loving Yourself 40 Ways” about finding beauty in your scars. “I see scars and I see stories. I see a being who has lived, who has depth, who is a survivor. Living is beautiful. … We may hurt, but we will heal … ”

My pup is a survivor. I suppose I am, too.

I can’t help but think of my own scars that I earned this year. 2016 has been challenging and exhausting. I am tired. So tired. I feel like I’ve been on a treadmill all year, and now I can finally get off and rest. I’ve been off from work since Dec. 18, which leaves lots of open days to just drift. It’s one of the rare times of the year where I let myself be lazy and quiet. My muscles ache. Even my bones feel tired. I thought maybe it was because of this sinus infection I’ve been battling on and off for the past few weeks, but honestly, I think it’s the weight of this year, still trying to hang on and drag me down. It’s like I’ve been carrying fistfuls of stones in my pockets this past year. But it’s time to finally let it all go. That phrase, “let it go,” has been a thread in this journey of ups and downs. I’m still not sure I’ve mastered the act, or even know how to begin. I’m learning.

Earlier this year my therapist, told me that I needed to decide how I wanted to carry this grief. What did I want it to look like? How did I want to feel carrying it? I think I started out holding this weight of grief, heavy like wet clay, in my heart and my stomach for months. Eventually the weight shifted and I carried it on my side, like I was holding a basketball that I could put down or pick up at any time. Some days my grief still feels like a boulder, other days it feels like a single stone. I want to pick it up and launch it into a lake, hear it kurplunk in the water, sink to the bottom, never to be found again. But it’s a part of me now, and always will be. I just need to learn how to carry it, live in harmony with it. I’m learning.

bookends-dec_beach2

Every year on the evening of winter solstice, my yoga studio hosts a ceremony that involves reflection and meditation with a few yoga poses thrown in. I went for the first time last year and found the experience cathartic and moving. The practice involves a “letting go” segment (there’s that phrase again) where we each hold in our hand a smooth, charcoal grey stone and breathe, meditate, and do a few gentle yoga poses while focusing on the things that no longer serve you and that you want to let go of. As I laid on my mat, the stone cold in the palm of my right hand, I thought about the past year and what I wanted to rid myself of. My cheeks became wet with tears. There was still so much pain weighing me down. All the “what ifs” and “what would have been” or “could have been” circled in my mind.

I found out on Christmas Eve that I was pregnant. I remember my heart racing as I looked at the two pink lines in disbelief. I flung open the bathroom door and yelled to Andrew, “I’m pregnant!” It was 5:30 in the morning. We had to wake up early for the 10-hour drive to his parents’ house in New Jersey. Andrew was half-sitting up in bed with a pillow propped up behind him, bleary-eyed but awake. I’ll never forget his smile that morning. I jumped on top of him and then Molly tried jumping in the bed with us. It feels like it was all a dream, but my heart says otherwise.

bookends-dec_heart

I poured into that stone my sadness, pain, fears, uncertainties, worries and all of the hurt so many of my close friends have endured this year. I was one of the first people to drop my stone in the middle of a circle of flickering tea lights. I couldn’t wait to get rid of it. As soon as it left my hand, my heart felt lighter hearing the weight of it hit the floor. It was a release from this chaotic year; even if it was temporary, it felt freeing.

A few days after Thanksgiving, a tarot card reader told me I was in my Wheel of Fortune Year, which is characterized by upheaval and change that will be painful, traumatic and shocking. She described it as having no control as life spun out of control. And there’s no time to adjust to each change. That’s certainly how this year has gone so far—a series of traumas, losses and heartache. But she also said it was a year of tremendous growth and advised me not to stay stagnant, to shake things up, take risks and be open to creating new opportunities. I definitely haven’t been sitting idle.

“You’re lucky you’re alive,” a friend said to me the other day, looking me square in the eyes. She is Vietnamese and follows Chinese astrology. I’m a monkey, and this past year was the Year of the Monkey. I thought that meant it was my year. My friend told me it was the opposite: when it’s your year, it’s the worst year. The Chinese new year began on Feb. 8. That same day I found out we lost our baby. My year of bad luck had begun.

But the winter solstice ceremony helped me remember the bright spots in 2016. As my teacher asked us to think about the good memories, I closed my eyes and started to smile as images of this past year flashed in my mind. I thought of all the places I’ve been. Me and Andrew in Maine. Vistas. Walks on a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean. Lobster and warm melted butter. Atlantic Beach and its sparkling ocean. Reading on the deck. Sunsets. Sunrises. Laughing at Molly chasing birds in the water. Roanoke. The bitter cold. The wind chill. February. Valentine’s Day. Dinner and martinis. A rock show. Fire places in the lobby. The sun cutting through the trees. Asheville. Cocktails at a sidewalk café. Mountains. Us. Life returning to normal. Late night heart-to-hearts with my oldest sis on her couch in our pajamas and glasses. Sipping rosé with Gina and Marco. Laughing. Crying. Sharing our life’s stories. The sweet ending of summer. Swimming in the lake at Omega. Napping under the trees and summer sun. Meeting Janie. Meeting Janine. Facing my fears. Reading my work to strangers. Crying in front of strangers. Being vulnerable. The drive home. The Catskills. The Hudson–the magnificent Hudson. Lobster fest under white twinkle lights. Tasting my first oyster, a mix of salt and sea. Being the surprise at your best friend’s birthday party. Pajama parties. Cocoa. Laughing until your face hurts. Old movies. Balloons on my birthday. Snowflakes. Sunshine. The turning of leaves.

bookends-dec_leaves2

Life can be ugly, but also beautiful. The two cannot exist without the other. The good still outweighs the bad, and yet, why is it always the bad stuff that seems to lodge itself in the forefront of my brain and loop on repeat? Why can’t my mind be flooded with the good memories?

Addison texted me the other day and said we were like the phoenix rising from the ashes. This year was an opportunity for me to grow. I came to some realizations about my future, and I’ve been making steps toward fulfilling my plan to create a richer, fuller life. When I look at myself in the mirror, I mean really look at myself, I see someone with scars but also someone who has chosen not to hide them. They are proof of my strength and resilience, a reminder of what I’ve survived and what I’ve lived. I no longer want to honor my pain and sadness and grief. I want to make whole this sutured heart of mine. It’s time I start honoring the joy in my present life and give power to that and not the past. No more looking back.

Kabir says, “Wherever you are is the entry point.” As I walk into 2017, I imagine myself digging my hands into my pockets and pulling out fistfuls of stones and letting them slip out of my hands as I walk forward and leave them in my wake. They are no longer coming with me on this journey. There isn’t any room. There’s only room for joy. I have to believe there is a greater path, destiny for me that I will follow. Grief made me feel trapped. Unmovable. And I think this is what these last few days of 2016 have been about for me. Sitting with my grief. Really sitting with it, embracing it, having a talk with it. I’m done with you. We’re breaking up. I need to come home to myself. This is my entry point into true peace.

The winter solstice ceremony closed with each of us lighting the candle of the person next to us until the entire room was aglow in candle light. I looked around at the faces in the room, glowing in the golden light, and I saw a diversity of expressions: peace, joy, sadness, pain. Me? I felt like my entire body was smiling. “Be the light in the darkness,” my teacher said as she lifted her candle. It made me think of the famous quote by Rumi: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” In those moments of darkness when it seems no light can get in, I vow to find it and not lose sight of it as I head into the new year with an open heart and open mind. I owe that to myself. 2016, I’m letting you go.

Some of the bright spots …

bookends-dec_pjs

bookends-dec_bellylaughs

bookends-dec_gilmore

bookends-dec_leaves

bookends-dec_snow

bookends-dec_beach

fam

bookends-dec_janine

bookends-dec_family

bookends-dec_lobsterfest

bookends-dec_singingtomolly

IMG_8544

AcadiaSelfieWeb

IMG_7591

IMG_7569

Cadillac2Web

img_8419

img_6807

img_7106

img_5795

img_5818

bookends-dec_kurt

bookends-dec_tattoo

bookends-dec_woodie

bookends-dec_dad

bookends-dec_wilco

bookends-dec_molly2

bookends-dec_hockey

bookends-dec_sunflowers

bookends-dec_bicep

bookends-dec_beach_sun

Advertisements

26.2

Chicago-Marathon.jpg

Last month I was in the Windy City for the Chicago Marathon. I probably don’t need to tell you that I was not a participant. I’m on record noting that if you ever see me running, I’m probably being chased by someone with an ax. No, I was there as part of the cheer squad for my dear friend Lori, who was running her eighth marathon at the age of 56. Yes, eighth. I’m not sure she’s actually human but more on that later.

bean-photo

Lori (far right) and her cheer posse as seen in reflection in Chicago’s iconic Bean.

I did recently complete a marathon of sorts – a figurative one – and I’m here to tell you that marathons are hard as hell. Mine began in January when I was fired from a job – scratch, calling – that I loved. Yeah, Happy New Year to me. My departure was manipulated by a toxic subordinate who didn’t like me being the boss of him. He was able to intimidate just enough people into believing his fiction was fact and that was that – 11 years obliterated without any opportunity to share my truth.

Some courses are harder than others.

My friend Lori knows this. She was a long distance runner in high school and in her 20’s she decided to run a marathon to try to qualify for the Olympic Trials. That plan was upended by a knee injury and surgery. But that was nothing compared to a colon cancer diagnosis at the age of 36. She had surgery and chemo and was back running about a week after she completed her treatments. And she’s never stopped.

lori-marathon-running

Lori makes running look easy and fun. I still don’t want to do it.

I’m fascinated by the idea of someone choosing to do something so incredibly difficult so I recently “interviewed” Lori – peppering her with all of my questions about marathons in my search for understanding. Lori is a good sport in all manner of ways and I think she enjoyed the brief respite from her very big job as a controller at a local credit union. Oh yeah, Lori is really smart, too, in addition to being a very good runner.

Mostly, I just wanted to know why. As in why in the hell would you want to run a marathon? As much as I love sports, this is right up there with cricket and curling for one that I just do not get. The course is 26.2 miles – often including hills placed at truly sadistic locations – like really near the finish line. Sometimes you have to run in less than ideal conditions, too. Last year, Lori ran the Boston Marathon in a driving cold rain and 20 mph winds. Good times.

And let’s face it, humans really weren’t built to run that many miles and doing so can do some really nasty things to your body – cramping, bleeding and blisters to name a few – in places I never knew you could experience those things. Seriously, bleeding nipples is a thing for marathoners. I can’t even.

garmin-2

Just the stats, ma’am.

I certainly didn’t choose my marathon – most of us never do. I suppose if you live in this world long enough, you’re going to find yourself in at least a few major tests of endurance – divorce, illness and death to name a few. Having experienced all of the above, I can tell you that losing a job, while no walk in the park, is not in the same league as those beasts.

Lori told me it’s the challenge of pushing yourself, reaching your limit and then finding a way to go further that continues to inspire her to run. She explained that there’s a saying among marathoners that anyone can train to run the first 20 miles but it’s the last 6.2 that are really tough. I’ll have to take her word on that. She said that even on good days there are times when you don’t feel like you can make it and that’s when your mental toughness carries you. “Mentally you have to prepare yourself to run through the pain,” she said.

I get that. Several times in the past nine months, I felt like I had reached my limit. I couldn’t take “it” anymore – the anger, the disappointment, the unfairness of what happened to me. I felt overwhelmed with the idea of starting over. I wanted to just quit – again, not literally – but to wave the metaphorical white flag.

I can’t say that I ran through my pain. Some days I felt like a zombie just stumbling through my day. But eventually, I did start to breathe through my pain. I don’t meditate – I always mean to start – but I did make a conscious decision to not fight my pain anymore. I knew I needed to fully embrace it before I could move on.

I reread a lot of wisdom from the brilliant Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun, teacher and author.  Chodron is all about using what seems like poison as medicine to discover our inner strength and transform ourselves. Yes, it’s a more Zen version of the old adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

pema

Pema Chodron. I feel calmer just looking at her.

Here’s a snippet of the Gospel according to Pema:

We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

Lori told me that she breaks a marathon into four six-mile sections so that it’s more manageable. That leaves 2.2 miles remaining to navigate and then she breaks that down in terms of time instead of distance – i.e. 15 minutes to go, 5 minutes to go and so on. She said that’s when you start having conversations in your head. You tell yourself things like “keep your head up” and “relax” with the key being to keep your thoughts positive and encouraging. I smiled when she said, “If you can’t tell, running a marathon can be as much of a mental challenge as a physical one.” Those runners with the bleeding nipples would probably disagree.

I was beginning to feel like I was listening to Yoda, Marathon Master. And I was wishing I had had this conversation with Lori several months ago but marathons are solitary journeys for the most part. This I know for certain. yoda

Lori is a classic introvert (understatement) so you won’t find her chatting during a race but I asked her if the spectators affect her at all. She explained that while you might not always be conscious of everything going on around you, you do become aware of people cheering and that can really give you a lift during rough patches. This happened to her a few years ago during the New York Marathon when she was coming off the bridge from Queens and entering Manhattan on 1st Avenue. She recalled, “There is no noise on the bridge but the sound of your feet hitting the pavement and then you come off the bridge and there are thousands of people cheering. It’s pretty amazing.”

I know I was lifted on some tough days by the kindness of many folks who reached out to me in surprising ways – a text, an email, a phone call or the best – an old school card and note. And sometimes these “cheers” came from delightfully unexpected sources – like Jeri, an editor at my local newspaper who hired me to write a monthly column several years ago.

He sent me a silly card of a beagle riding a bike with tassels dangling from the handlebars, blowing in the wind. He told me I was like the beagle in the photo – with some wondrous ways to go in this world. He made me laugh and got me over a hill or two.

beagle

I believe I can fly.

My course didn’t have a finite ending so I had to navigate it day by day. Unlike Lori’s marathons, the first part was the hardest for me. I was so angry and disappointed in some people who I had respected and even loved. Those were wounds that did not heal quickly. The middle of my journey was about acceptance and slowly beginning to look forward instead of the rear view mirror. And this last stretch has been about fully embracing a unique opportunity to truly seek the creative life that I have longed for.

Lori says that when she gets near the end of a marathon, she just tries to relax and “stop all the chatter that is going on in your brain.” She tries to go further into herself and push through to the finish line.

I hear less and less of that chatter in my brain every day and on my best days I can hear the lovely Mary Oliver poem that my pal Jeri reminded me of in his note way back in that dark month of March. It’s called Phillip’s Birthday.

I gave,

to a friend that I care for deeply,

something that I loved.

It was only a small

extremely shapely bone

that came from the ear

of a whale.

It hurt a little

to give it away.

The next morning

I went out, as usual,

at sunrise,

and there, in the harbor,

was a swan.

I don’t know

what he or she was doing there,

but the beauty of it

was a gift.

Do you see what I mean?

You give and you are given. 

I may never understand marathons but I get this equation down to my bone marrow.

You give and you are given.

And as my inspiring friend Lori knows so well, you just keep going.

 

lori-medal

26.2 miles later and still smiling.

 

addy-still-smiling

Me, too.

 

marathon-sticker

It’s just a number. A big fat one.