Wednesday, April 25, 2012

on finding my Thing

I had a breakthrough moment a few weeks ago. I've written quite a few posts over the last few years about the loss of identity I experienced as a result of having to leave the full-time work force. Letting go of my identity as a long-hour-working-communications-research-professional-activist-labour-staffer was really hard.

Since going into remission (and no longer feeling that fighting for my life was my main job) I've done an awful lot of navel gazing and spent a lot of hours in therapy trying to figure out who I am, since I no longer define myself by The Job.

Sacha, my perceptive and thoughtful son sent me a link to a wonderful article and inspiring article by Jesse Thorn. His instincts were right- I've been looking for my Thing.

I think I've been putting too much weight on each new idea, though. Every potential project would need to give me a new identity - provide the answer for when someone asks "What do you do?" 

But the truth is that no project can fulfill all of anyone's needs. And I was scaring myself off of trying new stuff because I was afraid that it wouldn't work out and that I'd be searching all over again. 

My "aha!" moment came with what should have been a pretty straightforward realization. I'm not looking to redefine myself. Overall, I'm pretty happy with who I am. What I want is to feel fulfilled, purposeful and happy.

I will never be able to define myself with just one word. I am a mother, wife, friend, writer, lover of dogs and books, social observer, activist in and out of the armchair and, occasionally, an opinionated bitch.

My Thing doesn't have to be my everything. I just need to figure out the things I love to do and allow myself the time to do them. I need to be brave and take risks but if today's Thing doesn't work out in the long run, that's OK too.

I may never have a few short words with which I can define myself at cocktail parties but I hardly every go to those anyway. Life isn't about creating an identity that others can understand and judge. Life is about living in the best way that I possibly can.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

filling that prescription

A few years ago, I worked my way through the Artist's Way. I found the process to be extremely helpful in getting me past my writer's block and I followed the program dilligently - except for one component. In all twelve weeks, I did the Artist's Date exactly once.

I know in my head that play time fills the soul. And I know that the repetitive motions of knitting can spark creativity and be enormously soothing. Yet I seldom set aside time just to knit unless I'm watching a movie with my kids,out on a knit date or on a road trip. And I know, too that I chose knitting as my play because I usually have a product at the end that someone can use. This makes the time easier to justify.

But human beings need to play in order to be happy. And the benefits of creative time spill over in to so many other aspects of our lives. Blondie, one of my favourite bloggers wrote in a recent post she wrote after a night of insomnia:
...I got up and went to the couch. Sitting on the footrest was the latest cross stitch project I've been working on. It hadn't been touched since sometime last week. I can't even remember when I started it? I picked it up and worked on a little flower. In no time at all, I felt my body and spirit relaxing. I realized I was holding my entire body slightly UP and in a very unusual and stiff way. I was wound up TIGHT. If you touched me, I probably would have zapped you with a long, blue, electric arc. But after a half hour of stitching, I was much more calm. Even the kittehs seemed more relaxed. Collectively, we were detoxing. And after I made some good stitching progress, I made myself go lie back down and try to sleep. Eventually, I did.
Blondie called her post "Prescription for Art." I think this is perfect. Indulging our creative needs should not be an afterthought but a prescription for mental health and happiness. As Blondie points out in her post, art is good for our bodies and our spirits. We should all make time for it. The product need not be perfect. It's the process that matters.

We can't all make great, or even good art. But perhaps this prescription applies most of all to those of us who would never call ourselves "artists." We can all seek inspiration in the world (and from art of all kinds) to make stuff and make ourselves a little happier.

Friday, April 20, 2012

up to something

I have a project.

It's taking some planning and a fair bit of work. It won't change the world but it will make my world  a more fun, brighter place. At least I think so. It may even inspire a few people.

I'm not working alone but I'm not sure how many of us there will be. It's something I've been wanting to do for years but an awesome friend proposed a date and an action plan. We're being a little bit subversive, a little bit creative, a little bit brave and deliberately frivolous.

I think I need more fun in my life. I need to do some things just because they make me happy, not aiming for perfection, not trying to be "productive" and not with any particular purpose in mind. We're just going to put our heads together, set our hands to work, make a leap into action and then sit back and see what happens.

I'm having fun.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

updating my words and myself

I've been thinking a fair bit about my last two posts.

First thing:

After writing my post about the lack of privacy in the chemo unit at the cancer centre, I was encouraged by several readers to follow my words with some action. I went to the Ottawa Hospital website and filled in the feedback form with a brief comment and a link to my post.

On Tuesday (the first business day after the long week end), I got a phone call from a "patient advocate" at the hospital. She was calling to let me know that they'd received my message and to ask permission to look into my medical files in order to determine with whom they should follow up (I was so stunned by this phone call that that it didn't occur to me until just now that they didn't need my medical info; they already knew that I was writing about the chemo unit and I could have just told them the date and time of my treatment. The irony in my  readily agreeing to this invasion of privacy, so they could follow up on a post about privacy is not lost on me). 

I was impressed to get the call and I have since been wondering about all the times that far more egregious things have happened at the hospital (as well as some equally wonderful things) and how I could have acted on them quite easily. On the other hand, no promise has been made to actually do anything or even to report back to me. The advocate said that I "may notice an improvement" the next time I go for treatment. And if I don't, she said I should fill out the feedback form again.

Second thing:

My last post was the first one I have ever considered taking down after publishing. I don't actually think that I'm a bad friend, generally speaking. I just have days when I tend to dwell on my regrets. In writing the post, I thought that by naming this shame, I might be able to let go of it a little.

I have a tendency to see the world in terms of right and wrong, good and bad (at the risk of sounding totally flaky, I am a textbook 1 on the enneagram scale). This can make me a little (ahem) judgemental  One of the things I like about myself is that, as I have aged and lived, I have also mellowed and come to understand that, a lot of the time, there are very many shades of grey. However, I still tend to be hardest on myself.

One of the things I'm working on is learning to let things go, forgive and move on, without repeating the same mistakes. Progress is not always linear but without a doubt, I am progressing.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

i've been a bad friend

I've been brooding a little bit lately over all the ways I have been a bad friend since my breast cancer diagnosis.

I know I have and can still be a good friend much of the time but I've been thinking of how good people have been to me and I feel like I've fallen short in the reciprocation department.

I'm not being too hard on myself for cocooning during the worst of treatment. But there have been lots of good weeks during remission. I have missed so many important events in friends' lives - the births of children, loss of loved ones and serious illness. And now I don't know how to make up for that.

Friends, acquaintances and co-workers have sent me on trips, bought me presents and food, taken me out and sent me beautiful messages of support. I've been better lately at being the kind of person who does these things for others but I think, for longer than I cared to admit, I was too busy staring into my own navel - at least some of the time.

I'm in a pretty good space these days. Today, however, I am especially aware of regret.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

it matters

Last Tuesday was treatment day. After a longer wait than usual (40 minutes -  I don't think I've ever waited that long in more than 6 years of treatment), my name was called and I was asked to go to Pod 3 (this sci-fi evoking nomenclature amuses me greatly, given that the world of cancer care is already pretty bizarre).

Despite my long wait, I noticed that Pods 1 and 2 were completely empty. Pod 3, however, was a different story. All 6 spots were occupied and there appeared to be only two nurses helping us all. 

Have you seen 50-50? I loved that film, and by and large, I found it to be a pretty accurate reflection of my own experience. One thing did raise an eyebrow though - the fact that they seated the patients in the treatment room so close together that their knees could touch. I understand that this likely fiction helped to advance the story but in real life I would never enjoy being so 'up close and personal' with my fellow patients.

For a while, things were almost that bad at the old cancer centre until the construction of the new building began. After that, the din was excruciating but it did block out my neighbours' reports to the nurses on the frequency of their bowel movements.

The move to the new cancer centre has been a huge improvement. I love the light and the air in the new building but most of all, I love the space. During my last couple of visits, though, it has felt like there is a little less space to go around. 

On Tuesday, I cringed as I heard the woman in the bed beside me being grilled about her emotional, physical and financial situation by a community care nurse. I tried to concentrate on my book while the woman across from me was informed that she would need a transfusion. I was very relieved when my own interactions with the nurse were over and I could plug in my ipod and let The Flying Bulger Klezmer Band drown out the voises around me.

I'm a fairly stoic cancer patient and it didn't really occur to me to complain. The nurses were lovely and patient as usual, and they were definitely doing their best to keep on top of everyone's needs. I didn't want to give them a hard time because I was annoyed and embarassed.

But it occurred to me later that these kinds of conditions are also unsafe and unhealthy. I, for one, am extremely reluctant to talk about the intimate changes to my body that are a side effect of treatment, so I can't ask how to mitigate them. My conditioned response in these circumstances is almost always to say "fine!" when asked how I'm doing. These days, that's pretty much the truth but that hasn't always be the case. There was a time, on a quiet treatment day about a year ago that I confided in a nurse that I'd been feeling low. She told me about the counsellors at the psycho-social oncology centre and asked permission to get someone to call me. A few sessions later, I was feeling much better.

I appreciate that I am getting cutting edge treatment and I know that's why I'm still alive. That's why I was initially reluctant to make a fuss about what seem to be little indignities.

But dignity matters. And how we feel as patients has a direct effect on our health. It's not petty or selfish to believe that there should be enough nurses working the floor so that patients don't have to be clustered together.

Maybe I should write someone a letter. Or maybe just a short note and a link to this blog post.