Shinrin Yoku

IMG_3357Opal Creek

Earthy humus scent
Beckons down the moss-lined trail
Old growth forest bath



Brown eyes watch my stillness
As an ember glows brightly,
Fanned by the winds of change,
Fed by laughter and footfalls echoing through time
Off photo-plastered walls,
Into a blaze that threatens to engulf.

I am fueled by the fire within.

Photographs of frozen moments
Stand in for warm bear hugs and childish grins.
The jangle of a telephone subdues the flame, and time ticks off
Seconds, minutes, hours in a life of waiting.
Then again, silence – nothing but expectant thumping
Of a dog tail on hardwood floor.

I am fueled by the fire within.

Resigned to fate, I pull on my running shoes.
This race isn’t over yet.
“Ready, girl?” I ask both of us.
The thumping intensifies, a beating drum of anticipation.
I cup a burning ember in hardened hands and place it in my soul.
“Let’s go.”

I am fueled by the fire within.

The Call that Changed My World

I took the call in my bedroom. I had been waiting to hear back from the doctor, and my nerves had been taut since my appointment. I had had an inconclusive mammogram, followed by another, then a biopsy, and then an interminable wait for results.

My kids and their friends were playing in the living room just outside the bedroom door, kids whose lives were full of pretend play and drawing and crafts, kids who didn’t ever hear the C word.

I tried to calm myself. The doctor had assured me that this was routine, that second mammograms were sometimes required, and biopsies often came out fine. This is what I told myself while I waited.

I thought back to the biopsy I had had ten years ago. The doctor had found a lump and wanted to check it out. I delayed. Women my age didn’t get cancer. I finally came around and had the biopsy. It was benign and I was relieved. At that time I had been 30. Now I was 40. Surely it was another false alarm. I tried to calm myself.

The precursor to this call had been my most recent checkup, which just happened to be on my birthday. I had mentioned to the doctor that I was feeling some discomfort under my left arm and that I felt a lump there. He thought it would be a good idea to get it checked out and ordered a mammogram. Happy birthday to me.

It wasn’t my first mammogram. I’d had one with the previous scare. It turns out it was lucky I’d had one, because the fact that they had this to compare it to made a small, four millimeter dot stand out. It was probably a little like finding Pluto, just a little less celebratory. And it wasn’t even where I’d found the lump. It was in the other breast, hidden away where it could have just grown and grown, unbeknownst to me. But it didn’t grow. I was one of the lucky ones.

The doctor gave me the news that it was cancer over the phone as I stood alone in my bedroom, the kids playing happily in the next room. The tears came. How would I tell my husband? My parents? I allowed myself tears for mere minutes before I pulled myself together, at least temporarily, for the sake of the kids. It turns out my tears and I would become old friends.

The days and weeks that followed became a blur of doctors visits and pamphlets, assurances that I had time to make decisions and guidance not to wait too long. Get it out. Get it all out, I thought, but the doctor assured me that a lumpectomy would be enough. They advise against bilateral mastectomies these days.

I asked the big question everyone asks in this situation. Why me? I had led a good life. I didn’t drink, really. I tried to eat healthy and exercise. So why me? Breast cancer is something that happened to older women. Here I was, a forty year old mother of four young kids. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

I brought this up to the oncologist one day and asked about the possibility of genetic testing. He said he would check. I waited, and waited, and waited. The year was coming to a close. It had been a doozy, with doctor’s appointments and surgery and radiation. We were well over our deductible, and the genetics test itself was two thousand dollars. On December 29th the nurse called and asked if I could get to the lab. Insurance had approved the test, and she wanted to slide it in before the new year.

The test came back positive for hereditary breast cancer. My ordeal would not be over yet. This increased my risk of recurrence to eighty percent.I worried about my daughter, my sister, my mom, and all of the other women in my family who might share the gene. The results also meant I was at high risk for ovarian cancer. We had more discussions with more doctors, a genetics counselor, and a plastic surgeon. That bilateral mastectomy that I had been advised against was back on the table. We talked about risks. The plastic surgeon said he would go to Vegas with my odds. My breasts and ovaries were ticking time bombs.

I watched Italy win the World Cup as I recovered from a hysterectomy/oopherectomy, and my kids got to experience their mom going through rapid onset menopause. I was 42.

I got my mastectomy between stints of student teaching. I was 43.

My kids were mostly too young to understand. My eldest was an eighth grader who was scheduled to go to D.C. in a month. I worried that I’d mess up his plans. My daughter was in fifth grade. She was old enough to know why I was going into surgery and in her worried state would cling to me for years after. My younger boys were both too little to know, so we kept it from them until fairly recently.

At some point soon after that first fateful phone call, I remember distinctly being at the park with my kids. That day I watched my family as if from a distance and saw myself out of the picture. I was overwhelmed with sadness and the need to be there for them, to watch them grow up, to graduate, to get married, to have children of their own. For the first time in my life the possibility of not being around for that clung to me like an octopus.

I knew in that moment that I would do whatever it took to survive.

It will be twelve years this March.

House of Cards

Cool tears assuage the pain as though my feet
Have stumbled over shards of glass so fine
That you contrived to throw where we might meet,
And in your tantrum bold have drawn a line.

Your viewpoint is confirmed, my dear, not mine,
For I believe concession is an art.
In meeting of the minds we may align
To face the future tethered at the heart.

The fragile bonds of trust may tear apart
When scornful words are cast about at will.
In your defense you say we’ve pulled apart
While in my heart I know I love you still,

And wish with all my soul you’d sweep those shards
Of stubbornness and fix this house of cards.


Just one last look before I go
As the morning light tenderly caresses
Ridges and valleys of time,
Revealing the years in your face.

My skin tingles with the echo of your full lips,
The memory brushing over me like a warm breeze
Of passion aged like fine wine.

Brows unfurrowed in sleep
Release in me an urge to trace
That ridge over bottomless eyes now hidden.
The cares of the day briefly
Relinquishing their hold over you.

Breath that tickled my neck
And whispered in my ear
Now sighs deeply in sleep’s embrace
As you roam where I cannot follow.

Do you dream of simpler days?

If you were to wake
Would you draw me back to you,
Dismissing the obligations of the day?

But for the furrowed brow, I would return.

Yet I must go.
Sleep on, my love,
Though I must leave,
My heart remains with you.


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Vaccinate Against the Hate

Photo credit: NIAID via / CC BY

An illness is spreading in our society, a virus that’s propagating and mutating, diving deep within our cells and lying dormant until conditions are right, at which time it flares, infects, and proliferates, leaving disaster in its wake. The Black Death has nothing on this virus. This virus feeds on fear. This virus is Hate.

There are certain carriers, the Typhoid Marys of our age, who may not exhibit outward signs of the virus, but spread it nonetheless to unsuspecting victims. It taps through the tympanic membrane of our ears through radio waves, where it seeps into our brains, degrading synapses, hardening the soft tissue, and silencing the thought processes. It spreads in hazy waves through the ever-present screen to delicate eyes, scaling over the tender visual system and causing a type of blindness that is self propagating. It is transmitted from the podium, where it enters the bloodstream directly in a rush of adrenaline.

Once in the body, the virus starts to spread, seeking out an environment conducive to growth and replication. In the absence of these conditions, it enters a dormant state, walled off, waiting for the right condition to emerge. When it finds the right environment, it grows fiercely, transforming the host into a leprous mass of pathogens. In its final stages, this virus infiltrates the heart, causing it to seize up and shrink in size. This is when it is at its most virulent.

Sadly, once infected, there is little hope for the victim. He or she becomes a vector, passing the virus on to other unsuspecting victims. Family members are the first to be infected, children being the most vulnerable. Unsuspecting friends, if unvaccinated, are also susceptible to the contagion. It may even spread through places of worship. Bombarding the virus with high levels of antibodies may have limited results. Quarantine is often necessary.

Though news of the spread of the disease is distressing, there is hope. A vaccine exists that can filter the virus from the system before it ever gets a foothold. This vaccine is offered to everyone in the country, though sadly, some still deny its benefits. It is available at the local elementary school, where children learn how to work together despite their differences. It is available at the middle schools, where young minds are introduced to the great thinkers of the ages through the written word. Inoculation continues at the high school, where students are taught to filter subjective information through the scientific process. To receive maximum benefit, post-secondary inoculations are required, fine tuning the immune response. Further boosters may be self-administered.

The availability of this vaccine does not guarantee resistance to the disease. The virus may still creep in through lapses in vaccination or dilution of the antivirus. Resistance is only as good as the strength of the immune system. The ear needs to be attuned to diverse voices to maintain flexibility. The soft brain tissues need frequent stimulation through the written word and intelligent discussion to keep the synapses functioning. The tender eye needs reprieve from the harsh and confusing signals of the screen to be able to clearly see the path ahead. Most importantly, the heart needs nourishment and exercise in the form of love, friendship, and generosity to beat and grow. Of course it is always helpful to avoid travel to areas where the virus persists.

If the above conditions are met, there is hope that the virus that is infecting our country may be controlled. Vaccinate. Before it is too late.

This world of ours… must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Tree


The tree sits proudly in the living room, boldly taking up a quarter of the available space. I was so grateful for the boys’ company that I let them choose it, and they chose the biggest one on the lot. With plenty of struggle and laughter, they helped their dad get it on the car, then squeezed it through the door of the house, and here it sits, a visitor enthroned in its stand, accepting its esteemed position in the middle of everything.

For days it sits like this, a needle-feathered forest visitor to the austere geometric world of our house. It’s so tall that I can’t reach the top to start stringing lights, and the previously willing helpers have all disappeared into their caves. I sit on the couch and ponder the sheer size, wondering how to tackle the job ahead of me. The rain is coming down in sheets outside, drenching the ladder that still sits by the house from the day my husband put up the lights. I’d probably hurt myself trying that anyway. I could use a chair, but the angle of the tree makes me wary of falling and taking the tree with me. Finally, my youngest son, blessed with height and long arms, deigns to help. We get the top string of lights up just as the timer beckons us for dinner. I will return later to finish the job by myself.

Again, I sit on the couch and ponder the tree, now adorned with white lights. Boxes of ornaments sit on the sidelines, waiting the arrival of my daughter from college. The tree stands in simple elegance, a stately sentry to the other half of the house.

We have been through many trees over the years. One year long ago we had a live tree. It now graces the bottom of our property, a tall testament to the passing of the years. When it snows, I position my youngest son beside it, documenting the growth of both of them with a photo. 

In our family, Christmas tree selection occurs right after Thanksgiving, and decorating it has always been a family affair. This was easier when everyone was home. My eldest is now out of the state, though we did wait for him to arrive last year. He won’t be coming home this year. My daughter just arrived from college, and although we waited for her, we ended up waiting even longer. We couldn’t seem to find the time to decorate.

I seem to sit and ponder the tree a lot.

Finally, through frustrated tears, I announce that I will be decorating this tree, and anyone who wants to is welcome to help, but it is happening now. My middle son, a fresh young adult who recently announced that he wasn’t celebrating the holiday, hugs me and asks me to wait one more day. He is meeting up with friends and will be back the next day to decorate with me. I acquiesce.

The tree twinkles its white lights at me. What does it know of the passing of time? I stare at the three glass ornaments placed on it in frustration. They will sit there for two more days before the box is opened.

In my mind’s eye I see smiling children perched on chairs, leaning precariously toward the tree, ornaments in hand, posing for pictures.  I see the carefully packed ornaments coming out one by one and us laughing at the first grade pictures and the glued together popsicle sticks. I see my middle son with an armload of nutcrackers. I picture us sitting cuddled under blankets, sipping hot chocolate from Christmas mugs, admiring our handiwork, music playing in the background. How many Christmases were spent like this?

Even the ornaments are packed with meaning. There is a sushi ornament for the year we discovered sushi and a small wooden ferry from our trip to the San Juan Islands. There are skiing ornaments and music ornaments and photo ornaments. Every year the tree becomes a 3-D album of our life together.

Last year’s plea was to not decorate the tree until they came home. This year I waited. And waited. And waited.

Next year I will pick the tree. It will be short. It will be thin. I will wait, but only for so long, and then I will lovingly pull out the lifetime of ornaments, decorate the tree and remember.