What a Mess!

If I were inventing life, it would be like a brand-new box of Crayola No. 64. Forget the box of chocolates from “Forrest Gump” fame. I can still feel the thrill of holding that box of crayons in my hands each fall as school began – unused, unopened – the wonders of which were yet to be realized. Opening the box was a revelation. The expanded color wheel from the old 16 to 18 offered by No. 64 took the creator to new levels. Be gone No. 48!

And then, there they were – four rows of 16 each – standing in perfect uniformity sharpened to a perfect point. Of course, there was the coveted Crayola “Red.” Those bold three letters needed no further explanation or witty adjective. Red always was my first choice out of the box and matched perfectly the hair ribbons holding my pig tails.

No. 64 is the essence of perfection and control. Four rows of 16 crayons contained in four cardboard boxes are set stadium style so each color has equal visibility almost from any angle. Simply put, it is a piece of engineering perfection. Just try to squeeze 17 where 16 belong. Unlikely, if not impossible! And the frustration brought on by broken crayons? Forget that! The built-in crayon sharpener practically ensures many more hours of creating. Anger be banished!

Ah, if life were only as controlled and transparent as a No. 64. Yeah, right, in my dreams.

I like labels.

I like neat rows.

I like the known variable.

I need order.

Newsflash! Life rarely gives us those things.

When I look back on my life prior to marriage at the age of 40, I almost laugh at the measures I undertook to keep order and control in my single life. My small apartment in the city was kept pristinely clean. The triple-digit square footage didn’t even require moving electrical outlets when vacuuming to clean all the floors. The mirrored surfaces shone to perfection. I worked hard to follow all the rules for perfect living: eat organically, workout regularly, visit the dentist quarterly, and sleep eight hours each night.

I won’t bore you with continuing down the very long list. B-o-r-i-n-g.

This was life prior to answering the three questions and doing something every day that scares me from my previous posts. It was carefully controlled living, and I undertook it to avoid as much risk as possible. After all, hadn’t I been through enough already? I had "survivor" status, right? What I have come to realize over the past decade, however, is that I wasn’t truly living. Living life by the No. 64 terms can be comfortable, but it is missing the point entirely.

Truly living is messy.

Real people are messy.

Each day is unpredictable.

I am messy.

My life began to change and 2012 happened. In the 24-hour period in which I turned 40 and married for the first time, I went from single, career girl in the city to married, stepmother in the country.

I traded in my tiny, mirrored surface apartment for a house many times the size that held children on five acres in the country. I added many titles to my name that never had existed for me: wife, stepmother, aunt, great-aunt, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, and parent/guardian. It all changed in 24 hours. It was as if life threw the box of No. 64 to the ground and stomped it into tiny wax bits. Real living with No. 64 is impossible. But, the story does not end there...

I still tried.

I still try sometimes.

Into that change I carried my No. 64 expectations with me. If I were good enough, couldn’t I keep things brilliantly clean? If I were a perfect wife and stepmother, wouldn’t everyone be happy, healthy, and comfortable. Conflict, oh that certainly wouldn’t exist. Right? Past success practically ensures future success. Doesn’t it? What once was a good decision always will be the right decision moving forward. Correct? To all of these I say – Wrong!

Life doesn’t stack up in neat rows.

When mistakes happen, there aren’t always quick fixes at our fingertips.

Life can still be painful and hard even when you make sound choices.

I struggle with all of this – even in the past 24 hours.

No. 64 still appeals to me. The idea that everything can be sharpened to perfection and have its designated place in a clearly defined row is what I think I want. It makes me less afraid. I work each day to pack No. 64 away because I know it isn’t the answer. Some days it’s easier than others. But here’s the deal, we need fear. Fear is like a tell-tale. It points us toward the right direction: true love, shaping lives, undertaking work that means something, and taking risks with the whole heart forward. You know, the messy stuff of life. The stuff that doesn’t fit into neat rows.

My sister showed me this quote yesterday, and I think about it with No. 64 on my mind.

Fear, like joy, usually means that you’re exactly where you should be,

learning what you’re ready to learn,

about to become more than who you were.

(Posted on Facebook Project Bloom. No author cited.)

Becoming more than who we were... Even the Ultimate No.152 available today can’t contain that!

6,205 Things...

Autumn brings reminders of a pact that I made with myself 17 years ago this month. It starts to wash over me even before the feelings evolve into concrete thought. Perhaps it is the way the sunlight hits the leaves on the trees creating shadows mid-afternoon. Of course, there are the more obvious signs the season has changed: football playing across screens, yard toys of summer replaced by rakes and leaves, and fabric on our arms now where the summer sun once kissed us unhindered.

Funny how I can’t seem to remember the origins of something that has come to define how I walk through my days. But, there it is.

Do one thing every day that scares you.**

I may not remember the scenario in which the statement entered my awareness, but the context of that September day is cemented in my mind. Only weeks had passed since receiving my clean bill of health from a first episode of cancer. I was unemployed and living in a small two-bedroom apartment with my sister. By all measures I was adrift with very little on which to get a foothold.

Never could I have imagined how my life would be transformed in mere months (meeting two U.S. Presidents was just the start). Hang on for the end folks.

And there it was – that singular bold statement.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Months into survivorship, everything in me wanted to hide. I was embarrassed about my physical appearance and so beaten down by my treatment experience I had little self-confidence left. Thrown in for good measure was my naturally fearful personality. Lucky me. Just picking up the phone for one cold call had my knees knocking and my heart racing. Scared? Oh, you bet!

What has astounded me is the profound impact of following through on this command. The bold ability to say “Yes” just once a day, when every cell in one’s body is pushing toward “No,” changes an entire trajectory.

But, let’s leave me for a moment with the circa 2002 corded phone still cradled in my hand and the cold call mid-sentence. Eleanor Roosevelt has something to say about the matter.

The former first lady often is mis-attributed with the quote, but for good reason. It seems that she was something of a pro at confronting fear, and her advice is about as good as any coming out of a modern psychology textbook.

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, "I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along." You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

-Former U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

If you are like me, I read this statement and my mind suddenly jumps to images of achievements that populate the screens on our devices: marathons run, rooftop rescues, and academic awards won. Those things are great, but we miss the point entirely. The question is for each one of us to answer. What must I do that I think I can’t? What scares me ? The answers are different for everyone.

We aren't talking about doing dangerous things here - like the kind that would have me pointing my finger and saying, "Don't do this at home kids!" I'm talking about stuff that propels your life forward and enriches it.

For some it may mean knocking on your child’s door, asking her to put down the device, and instigating an honest conversation about a concern that has been bothering you. For others, it may be looking someone you love in the eye and saying “I’m sorry” with no “buts” or justifications to follow.

Here’s the deal, or at least what my experience has taught me over these years. Life has a way of honoring our intention. Even the smallest moves toward “yes” seem to be rewarded. In the primary classroom of life, those doing the scary stuff seem to end up with the gold stars.

The downside is (if I’m going to be honest) it doesn’t seem to get easier. If we really are doing “scary,” the bar gets higher as we grow. The good news is that over time one can observe the huge piles of amazing things that have enriched life because we dared to say “yes.” The 6,205 things that scared me over these 17 years have made my life meaningful beyond measure.

It hasn’t been pretty. Yes, my voice can shake during a speech, my legs become like Jell-O in an introduction, and my brain can freeze with no words on my tongue when they are so desperately needed. Doing scary can be humbling.

A single act from my own journey enters my mind as I smell the crisp Autumn air. I was just weeks into this practice all those years ago. One of my closest friends approached me with an opportunity. The Carter Center was hosting a national symposium on mental health policy in a few weeks. I should join her and volunteer at this event where Mrs. Carter would be present. The naturally cautious me raised lots of questions to try to stall giving an answer. This opportunity fell way out of my comfort zone. My friend persisted and won. I said, "Yes."

A lot of handwringing brought me nearly past the deadline to submit the background check form via mail. Racing against the clock, I looked for a business envelope in which to mail the completed document. After a thorough search and with no success, I spotted the pile of medical bills on my desk with their accompanying courtesy envelopes. The final result was my Carter Center background check document delivered in a medical bill envelope complete with the clear address window intended for a medical practice.

That one small but “scary” step was just the beginning of many that launched me into a 15-year career at The Carter Center. As if on cue, on my first day of work I watched President Carter receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo via a live feed into The Carter Center. There, standing before me on the screen, was possibly one of the most powerful models of what can happen when one says “yes” in the face of the seemingly impossible.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

I dare you to do it.

** A Note for Readers

The statement "Do one thing every day that scares you" is attributed to Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune in a 1997 column “Advice, like youth, probably wasted on the young" and used by Baz Luhrmann in a 1999 song.

Does Beauty Matter?

The palette of oil paints used by my portrait artist mother when I was a child were preserved in the kitchen freezer between painting sessions. The mustard yellow appliance provided space where the paints co-mingled with my popsicles and the leftover tuna casserole from Sunday dinner. Raised in the countryside of rural Michigan, I thought every mother stood at the easel painting all day while I lit up my world with the childhood game Lite-Brite.

I come from a long line of artists on both my paternal and maternal sides, the numbers of which only are exceeded by the contrasting sum total of the family members who have experienced cancer. Color has never ceased to captivate my imagination, whether it was through my year-long apprenticeship with an award-winning interior designer or this summer walking a dusty granite warehouse in search of the next slab for an investment property.

Beauty matters.

You may be wondering why a log focused on living in survivorship should enter the charged, pop-culture discussion about beauty. Haven’t we had enough already with the advertisements for fat busting creams or fad diet powders to ensure explosive musculature? The message is clear, beauty is perfection: wrinkle free, six-pack abs, pouty plump lips, and extra pockets of fat only in strategically and sometimes surgically placed targets.

Even Grammy-award Winning Ed Sheeran in his hit of this summer “Beautiful People” punctuates the point that so many of us feel “We don't fit in well, 'Cause we are just ourselves…We are not beautiful, Yeah, that's not who we are.”

I think we have forgotten what beauty looks like. And my guess is, it is not what you think.

Artists have a thing or two to teach us about beauty. As a society, we have strayed so far from the time-honored artistic principles I learned while watching at my mother's easel or standing with her before a masterpiece in our numerous visits to art museums. Instead, we have been brainwashed by loads of misinformation from a money-driven system hell bent on reshaping what is considered beautiful.

It is so easy to give in to the assumption that as survivors we can’t “compete” with what pop culture says is sexy or the belief that achieving a perfect home smacks of materialism that feels so ridiculous after a life-altering experience. “We are not enough, nor will we ever be enough!” is a statement that plays repetitively in my mind as I read design magazines and scroll news feeds. At some point, I finally resort to a “why try?” attitude as I slam the laptop lid shut.

Guess what - beauty still matters.

We are hard wired as humans to be drawn like magnets to what our eyes find alluring and captivating – both objects and people. In fact, I think beauty in many forms can be healing! We need a course correction in a big way, and I think the secrets that we need have been known by artists for thousands of years.

Learning to Live Lessons about Beauty from Artists

The same artistic principles used by Michelangelo are applied by my portrait artist mother today. They stand the test of time.

Odd numbers are pleasing.

Positioning off-center is like a magnet to the eye moving it around a painting many times over.

Darkness is as important as light.

Varied shapes and sizes create a captivating piece.

Winding lines instead of straight bring whimsy and lift.

Do you see a theme?

Odd, off-center, darkness, varied, and winding.

If perfection is your goal you can forget beauty, or so thousands of years of artists tell us.

True beauty, within its wandering, oddly placed lines, tells stories of love, loss, success, failure, and hope of a life fully lived. As people embracing our beauty in all its imperfection, we are freed up to leave unforgettable marks on those who come across our path and the world that we inhabit. Beauty is more a state of mind and experience than a formulaic expression of perfection. The well-worn phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” actually got it right.

If we spend all of our time chasing the unattainable perfection of what we are told is “beautiful,” we miss out on embracing the beauty of who we are now – in this moment – and fully experiencing the most beautiful moments and environments that life has to offer. How might we live differently, dress differently, and decorate our homes differently if we applied the time-honored artistic principles I highlighted above?

I ponder this thought as I sit next to a wooden stand on turned-legs that once sat in the art studio of my great-great grandfather. I can imagine it now, holding drafting paper and absorbing the smell of oil paint, turpentine, and smoke from the pot-belly stove. Today, it sits in my office 130 years later. Its crude form with exposed nail heads and weathered leather straps would never make the catalog of a Christie’s auction. The stains embedded in the wood and the un-sanded edges that are rough to the touch create a feeling of enchantment and beckon us to pull up a chair and try to hear within its form the stories that beg to be told.

I think the artists got it right. It is a thing of beauty.

Curious?

You can learn more about paintings by my mother and sister by clicking here or visiting www.palpantart.com.

How a Radio, Jackhammer Pen & Space Changed My Life

One sentence ending in a question mark came through a radio program in my car a decade ago and forever changed my life. I don’t make that statement lightly. I have a steady diet of motivational messages I receive as a mental health expert and cancer survivor served up through plaques, social media posts, and speeches. I know that I am not alone with this onslaught. They are great but forgotten too soon as the march of life beats on. This one sentence was different. It asked a question and begged an answer that I found disturbingly difficult to answer.

“If you were to die tomorrow, what dreams would be unfulfilled?”

I was over a year out of treatment from my second episode of cancer, single, and devoting the majority of time to my career. Chances are that you have pegged me as a dreamer with rainbows and unicorns or even Popeye as my previous posts explore. Guess what? Dreaming is hard for me. I find the wide-open swath of the future overwhelming with so many possibilities available. I feel like a failure before I get started. This question was different. It didn’t offer far horizons from which I could hide. It pointed at me and said, “What would be missing from your life if you left now?” No hiding allowed. And, I could almost hear the statement that followed,

“Go now and change your life to do those things.”

The concept of change and how we change as survivors and humans has been on my mind in recent weeks. In this age of information inundation and overload, we are fed a daily supply of what we are “suppose to-do” to live healthy, productive and fulfilling lives. The knowledge of what to do is not the issue. I think a more interesting question is, “Why aren’t we implementing all that great advice from doctors, religious leaders, psychologists, and scientists?” What is stopping us?

We will explore in much more detail the concept of creating change and principles I have learned in future log posts. There is a lot of terrain to cover. But for now, the story leads us to one secret.

In a matter of weeks after hearing the question, I was in my old Saab hatchback heading to North Georgia to care for a friend’s home and pets while she attended a family wedding. Three full days of total silence lay before me in a perfectly wooded setting. I committed to pulling that question out, dusting it off, and discovering the answers. Something was brewing inside that needed to come out.

I look back on those three days as the most transformational of my life. The days were spent by the river writing and setting free my dreams and passions that were so locked up inside they seemed to be the consistency of cement that required my pen to transform into a jackhammer. As I unearthed three core dreams, there was that statement again that continued gnawing at me by the morning of day three.

“Go now and change your life to do those things.”

But how?

Let’s just deal with one secret now. It is one that I discovered as I started creating change in my own life all those years ago.

Change - Learning to Live Secret #1

The path to change is a paradox. We have to slow down instead of speed up, and we have to create space instead of shoveling more into our life. The garbage has to go out before the good stuff can come in. It is like sending a message to life that the neon vacant sign is on, and we are ready for our dreams to come and take residence. If we are so busy chasing life and living with no margin, we won’t have the space available for the good stuff of our dreams when it comes along.

Shaping this concept into words is easier than living it. Our lives are all incredibly different, so in working out examples for this piece I may not hit the target for you, but here is a shot. It may mean cancelling membership in a community group that does more to bring you down than lift you up, but its absence would leave your Tuesday and Thursday nights open to be home alone.

Alone. Yep, that’s a scary word for a lot of us. Or perhaps, it may mean scaling back on the volunteer hours at your child’s school or attendance at every last one of his/her sporting events after work. Instead, with the extra time now available, perhaps you can spend time in the empty space that you intentionally created before your family returns home.

It is in the quiet, in the emptiness of those moments, that we truly can discover what is missing and start creating the first steps toward change upon which we can build. Jackhammer anyone?

So, let's finish the story...

Starting in the fall of 2009, the spaces I created were periods of great discovery that over time led to new opportunities including sessions at the Pilates studio (and, yes, that was way outside my comfort zone!), cooking healthy meals at home, and setting up an online dating profile. These were little steps toward big goals that offered small successes early on. And, there were plenty of mistakes too.

The road to change my life and work toward those dreams feels about as bumpy as the way the country roads felt under the handling of my old Saab. The path includes having to address some of the negative underlying reasons why I kept myself so busy all those years in an effort not to deal with them. I still am dealing with some of those challenges. My husband has heard this perhaps one too many times, but, "it is a process."

Looking back from where I sit at my desk in 2019, I can see so clearly how the wheels of change already were turning as my car made a path from North Georgia back to Atlanta all those years ago. The rear-view mirror has a way of doing that. There has been a marriage and two stepsons, some significant losses along the way, and a giant leap from a major career into a dream and the unknown. This is learning to live in life. Is it worth it? Absolutely! There are no regrets here. After all, I guess that is the point of that fateful question.

Resources and Tools for You

If you missed the previous two logs, check them out by clicking on the links below or go to the log on my website.

Popeye and Anxiety have Something in Common

August 8, 2019

Give Me Rainbows and Sunsets but Hold the Unicorns

July 25, 2019

If you like what you are reading, share it by using the social media buttons at the top of the page.

I am an avid reader and listener, so I draw inspiration from books, podcasts, posts, and videos. Here are a few things that are stimulating my thinking. You may notice that a food-related log post is in the future.

Change or Die? Alan Deutschman Fast Company, May 1, 2005 followed by his book of the same name published in 2009.

The Blue Zone Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People Dan Buettner 2017.

Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Pulitzer Prize Winner Michael Moss 2013.

I have not uncovered the source of the transformational question despite significant efforts. Stay tuned.

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Popeye and Anxiety have Something in Common

Anxiety has been a close companion my whole life. I was the one looking for monsters under my bed as a kid, but not quite like the ones in the Eminem song or what I wrote about in this piece . My hyper-vigilance went on steroids when cancer reared its ugly head. Cancer was like feeding spinach to my anxiety named Popeye for those of us old enough to remember the hilarious children’s cartoon. It threatened to burst at the seams and overpower me, much like the cartoon sailor-man when he would eat the greens. The big difference was that my anxiety wasn’t about what could happen; it finally was about something that was happening - for real! All of the tools that I had learned to deal with anxiety and fear no longer applied, and I had to find a new space in which to function. These lessons have significance for life today.

Our world has become even more complex since my first episode of cancer was discovered the week before 9/11. The monsters under the bed from fears during childhood now take human form in the shape of mass shootings like the ones of this past weekend in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio in the U.S. The recent Times Square and mall incident of the past day underscore the level of panic that lies just at the surface - ready to explode when a motorcycle backfires or a sign falls.

The carnage and trauma are re-lived moment-by-moment through platforms on our devices and screens at any hour of the day or night. How is it possible now to sit in a movie theater or purchase school supplies at a large discount store without stopping to consider that our life could end today as victim of a shooting? It would be very easy to turn this log post into the 100 forms of spinach fueling my anxiety named Popeye after viewing “Fed Up” and “The Great Hack” over the past week. Those subjects are for another day.

I know that the issue of anxiety is an important one to tackle for cancer survivors. There are scans, blood tests, side effects to be managed, and the scares that new lumps or aches and pains bring. But, this topic isn’t just for survivors. We all have anxiety that must be tamed every day, such as the potential to lose someone through death or divorce or the simple act of kissing the cheeks of our children in the morning and putting them on a bus bound for a school building.


As I work on the book Surviving , I revisit hundreds of pages of writing that I have produced over the past 25 years. An episode from the winter of 2002 jumps out at me and I am propelled right back to that moment – that crippling anxiety.

January 31, 2002 -- Back in Nuclear Testing I shed tears…Don’t breathe, don’t move, don’t talk...as the tube encloses tightly around me, and I feel my breath on the suffocating wall that comes on my face, chest, shoulders legs beyond my hair and toes. It’s not human. Thirty minutes of encapsulation seem like centuries. I call for the test to stop. They bring my mother in. We start all over…

There are many things I have learned about managing anxiety through my own journey and working in mental health.

Acknowledge that the anxiety exists.

Anxiety is weird – the more you try to ignore it or act like it isn’t happening, the worse it becomes. By owning it, you have the power to move beyond it.

Plant yourself into moments that are grounding and bring connection to your life.

Anxiety has a powerful way of disconnecting us from good things that are happening and the closeness that we can feel with another human. It robs us of life before our life can be robbed. The answer might be taking a step away from your desk and asking a colleague for a brief walk in the sun without devices in hand. Pay attention to how the rays of the sun feel on your skin. For some it might mean chopping figs that are heavy on the trees this time of year and creating a bubbling brew that becomes a preserve. Take in the intoxicating aroma of sugar and earth combined, as I did last week. I highly recommend the experience (see photo) . When anxious thoughts enter your mind, acknowledge them, and then move back into the present moment that you have created.

Start understanding the day-to-day things within your control that fuel your anxiety and reduce or eliminate them.

In other words, learn to control the spinach intake of your anxiety named Popeye. How much time are you spending looking at a screen? How much news are you consuming? For example, is your device the first thing you reach for in the morning – perhaps even before you greet your partner, child, or pet? How do you feel after scrolling through your device? Alternatively, start your day with something that feels good and offers the opportunity to express gratitude such as a warm hug, the taste of freshly brewed coffee, or hot water pounding your back in the shower. Gratitude shrinks the fear monster. Offer up thanks for the people along the path that made all of those things possible.

It is not unusual for some survivors to need more professional help managing their anxiety post-treatment. If it is hindering your daily functioning, please consider reaching out to a therapist or your doctor to consider additional treatment.

Since my first episode of cancer, escalators have been an enormous source of anxiety for me. To this day we don’t know if it was due to radiation impacting my brain and ultimately my depth-perception or if it is related to a panic episode. There are times when it seems impossible to step on, and an elevator comes to the rescue.

It was in the warm embrace of my youngest stepson this summer that I was reminded about the healing power of connection and grounding to my anxiety. We were returning from a trip abroad, and I was presented with one of the endless Atlanta airport escalators. Envisioning himself as a giant in his almost five-feet frame, my 12 year-old boy stepped in front of the escalator and exclaimed, “I’ve got you!” As we stepped on, he wrapped me in a full embrace and laid my head on his shoulder. I closed my eyes and took in the moment - the sweet smell of his shampoo, his slow and steady breaths, and the way his arms would embrace me tighter when signs of panic were creeping in. The monster didn’t go away – the escalator still was there. What also rode along with us was that precious moment , my willingness to be vulnerable, and the opportunity for my stepson to feel the burst of joy that comes with offering tangible support to someone in need.

And, how did he learn to do this? He was just copying a behavior that had been first discovered and then modeled for years by my husband. This time, however, he stepped in to be the hero. And lucky for me, he doesn’t like spinach.