Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Walking In Beauty

I don't know how to start this post. It has been percolating for weeks and there is so much to choose from about my gratitude to family and friends...I haven't been able to figure out where to begin.

Perhaps, I'll start with a story about Kaladi Brothers (a local coffee watering hole for you non Alaskans) and Tiny Koop. 

You know those people in the grocery store you run into and say, "hey, let's go get coffee sometime," and you totally mean it in the moment, but you never actually do go out for that coffee...because it would mean having to get to know that person, and making time to leave your den of solitude, and finding time in an already busy life, and it might feel a little awkward. But then upon later reflection you're sort of wistful about the whole thing and wish you had just done it?

This coffee date story begins with dear Tiny Koop. Tiny Koop was a chaplain when I worked at the Police Department. She was a bubbly blonde and had a smile that lit up a room as she joyfully darted in and out of offices, pausing to check in with all of us to see how we were faring. My memory is of smiling at her a few times or waving a quick hello, but we never really chatted too much or exchanged more than pleasantries. A couple years later, we became facebook friends. Say what you like about social media, one of the fantastic things about it is that you can get to know people in new ways...their quotes and quips, stories, photos of their families, their "likes."  (I don't know if that's a thing or not to look at the list of things your friends like? Or if that delves into creeperland? I enjoy seeing what my friends like...and sometimes I'll add one of their liked items to my own list...for example "Princess Bride." OF COURSE I like that too. That band? LIKE!).  After you read a friend's wall posts several times a week for a couple years, you get a sense and appreciation of their character and who they are in this sliver of an online snapshot. It's perfectly realistic that some feel a lot closer to others through this medium. Especially, when people are honest and real in what they say, and don't just give you their life highlight reel. A level of vulnerability can certainly lead to increased feelings of intimacy and knowledge of other people.

Tiny Koop has been through breast cancer twice, several surgeries, grueling treatment regimes, then more surgeries. When I found out about my brain cancer diagnosis, she was one of the first people to ask me if I wanted to meet up for coffee.  I told her I wasn't ready yet, but that I would try to call her down the road in a few weeks. I thought this was going to go the way of..."we'll have a cuppa someday..." but the first day I woke up unable to keep my balance or walk normally anymore, I texted Tiny Koop for that coffee date. 

For a moment, tangent jump with me to the subject of 'being proposed to.' You know how there are certain situations that we react to, in the same manner every time?  Well, every time I see (on television, in a magazine, in a book, in real life) someone being proposed to in a very public way (especially at a sporting event)...I cringe with the kind of discomfort that permeates every cell of my body.  If you know me well, you know that I think public proposals sound like a ghoulish nightmare, and you probably also know I would be mortified beyond belief to have something like that ever happen to me...especially a proposal (it should be intimate, just the two of you, no audience...I digress). For those of you who may be thinking, "Hey! I was proposed to in public and loved it...mea culpa!"  Save that for the raging extroverts and entertainers of the world I say.  My main point is to emphatically emphasize that having any attention drawn to me in a public place (IRL) is not my idea of a good time ever, never, never, ever. Of course, there was no way for Tiny Koop to know any of this about me when we met up...after all, we were going to be starting at the 'get to know you stage' of the relationship...sort of. 

When Tiny Koop started the kind of personal journey that changes a person indefinitely, I followed along online via facebook. I often wanted to know how she was every week, what to pray for her and for her family, how she was feeling each step of the way.  I remember actually tearing up and crying a bit while looking at a facebook photo of her the first time she made it up a hike, on a mountain she loved, after surgery. Or watching her change through the stages of chemotherapy...blonde, bald, grey, frail, weak, tired, loved, fighting, pained, faithful, strong. When she allowed me and others to watch and learn, and metaphorically sit at her feet to observe how she was maneuvering through great suffering...I did. It was at a distance...frequent post "likes" and the occasional private message to let her know I was thinking about her and praying for her...but it was also so much more...because I was allowed to witness from the periphery what she was experiencing. And she was candid and real. It changed me. The vulnerability she offered in her human experience led to a feeling of connection and intimacy with her and dare I say...love. I began to love her. 

Don't we all wonder how we would move through something like that if it happened to us? Or, if we have previously been a support person to someone we love through such an ordeal, doesn't it touch on those memories of our own experience(s) to watch another move through it? This kind of suffering brings up those core existential questions for so many of us...

Who will love me through such an illness? Who will be there for me? Who will accept me when I am needy and must one sidedly take and take...when I cannot be in a position to equally give in the relationship? Who will it be safe to be weak in front of? Who can see me in my frailty? Who will accept me when I am not funny? When I don't feel strong? When I cry? When I am angry? When I am in pain all the time? When I need help with simple things like carrying items or feeding my pets? Drinking and feeding myself? Going to the bathroom? Changing my clothing? Making my bed? Who will help care for my children? Who will be a support to my spouse? Who will accept us when so many of the things we think makes us "us" get stripped away?

Wow, that tangent turned into several of them, but let's circle back around to the coffee shop. When Tiny Koop came into Kaladi's, I was nursing a terrible headache. She was too, and it was oddly funny and bonding as we tried sitting at various tables to get just the right one where the light wouldn't hurt our eyes. Then she said something that was simply so her..."sorry I'm late, Anastasia, I had a wild bunny situation in the back yard." How can I say something is "so her" when this is the first time we have sat across from each other face to face? Because I spent years learning and listening to who she is... in a different medium. I had a good and much needed laugh at her animated recollection, and we launched into an excellent and real conversation about where we each were. 

She surprised me at one point when I was talking about how I was feeling. I said, "It could be worse, I could be in a country with no medical care, or no pain medication."  She gave me sort of an exasperated look and quipped, "I'm really surprised you're going there. Suffering is suffering. Pain is pain. It is okay to hurt without trying to minimize it."  It was like a quick verbal slap across the cheek...not in a mean way, but in a "wake up and pay attention kind of way."  I realized I had been saying that for other people...well mostly.  I do want to have a sense of gratitude and I am fully aware that I am exceedingly blessed in medical care etc.  But also, and I think this is the little nugget of wisdom in this post...I had been saying that for other people... to try to make it not seem so bad or uncomfortable for them. To not be a Debbie Downer or a complainer. To make it easier for them so that they would still want to be around me. So they would still stay with me through it. But Tiny Koop blew me out of the water. Because the basic message she was freeing me with was, "No honey, go ahead and hurt. It's okay to say it hurts. It's okay to say to others that you are in pain. People will still stay. Be authentic. You don't have to compare your pain and say someone else's is greater, so yours doesn't count."  It has been strange to me in analyzing my own psyche, that I needed permission for that. But for whatever reason I did...and now I have stopped trying to minimize the bad days, while being very mindfully appreciative of the good days. 

So, she and I have this authentically open and honest talk and deep sharing, and then she says, "now I can give you your present."  

A feeling of DREAD takes over, and the cells in my body do a 180 degree turn and start to tingle with disdain.  I can sense what is coming next and I want to get up and bolt out of the coffee shop as quickly as possible. As her broad smile gets bigger and her loving eyes look down at me, she stretches out her arms, while I try to force back the daggers from my own eyes that want to shoot out at her. 

Here it comes. 

I brace myself. 

And, there, in the crowded coffee shop, Tiny Koop stands up and begins to serenade me A capella at the top of her lungs with, "The Glory of Love," by Bette Midler. I mean... Beaches! In a coffee shop! In front of total strangers! Was she trying to kill me?! 

"This is a song I've been singing for a long time.
It's like an old friend.
But, you know, I think it,
it's only recently that I discovered what it's really about."
You've got to give a little, take a little,
and let your poor heart break a little.
That's the story of, that's the glory of love.
You've got to laugh a little, cry a little,
until the clouds roll by a little.
That's the story of, that's the glory of love.
As long as there's the two of us,
we've got the world and all it's charms.
And when the world is through with us,
we've got each other's arms.

There's not a good describing word or phrase in English for feeling several strongly conflicting emotions simultaneously. I was mortified, irritated, exceedingly grateful and humbled, bowled over by her boldness and kindness, effected by the lyrics, rising emotions, and the congested uncried tears about our struggles. It was like an emotional kaleidoscope that kept swirling into different patterns. 

I stood up on my shaky legs with my throbbing head and I wrapped myself into her waiting embrace and hugged her. Settling into embarrassment and thankfulness while many eyes watched us. And, I held on tight. Then, I became aware that I no longer saw anyone else. I didn't pay attention to them. In that moment it was just the arms of my friend and my cancer surviving sister. 

Right then and there, she sang truth into my ear, which was nestled tightly against her shoulder, 

we've got each other's arms... 


Love, ~Anastasia

Friday, October 21, 2016

Use The Good China

Recently, a friend asked me if I had any advice based on my new found time-is-precious-beyond-understanding wisdom born of my current health predicament. Without pausing for much if any thought, I found myself saying, “use the good china.”  There’s absolutely no originality on my part in that comment…I’ve heard and read it several times from others who've had near brushes with mortality. But, it’s an important message that bears repeating.

Stop waiting for the day you are going to have a dinner party sometime in the future, or a big family dinner that comes around twice a year.  Use your good china right now! Use it often! It doesn't decrease the specialness, I promise.  Make yourself a nice meal, put it on your china, take a tray in hand and go read your book, or watch a show (unless you are practicing the art of mindfulness-in which case sit at your table and enjoy the act of eating).

Now a little bit of a tangent...I’m a super weirdo about dinnerware.  You know how most people who need new dinnerware actually go into a store… look at a few patterns, pick one they like, and then go home and use it?  LIKE. A. NORMAL. HUMAN. BEING.

For me it takes on a more significant gravitas…like, “which dinnerware defines me as a person?” (Men, hang with me through this part...I promise there's a golden nugget of wisdom at the end) 

It’s beyond ridiculous ya’ll, but it is what it is.  So, for the last two years (smh that I actually wrote two years and meant it) I have been trying to pick a set of dinnerware. An activity that should take maybe a day at most, has taken me a couple of years. I want to have a set for life, and so it has to be the right one.  Several different boards for dinnerware grace my Pinterest page- one for the Portmeirion (English), one for the Vietri (Italian), one for the Gien France (you guessed it...French), and one for the Polish pottery. My modus operandi has been to pause at each brand, look through the different patterns, while simultaneously trying to imagine myself at the table with family and friends, (using whichever pattern was occupying my thoughts), at the various holidays and get togethers of the year.

One of my goals before having brain surgery has been to pick a dinnerware brand and pattern.  That goal didn’t sound as pathetic in my mind, as it does via keyboard. The good news is…I've done it!

This afternoon, my mother, Gilbert (my trusty sidekick walker) and I drove through the blanketed beauty of the first freshly fallen snow in our town.  I have been singing Dean Martin to myself all morning… “Let it Snow,” and “Walking In A Winter Wonderland.”  It was simple contentment and joyful giddiness at the powdered trees, and precious time spent with my mama.

We meandered into one of our favorite stores and I looked over the vast displays of china and pottery with curious unrest. My eyes paused as they landed on the Portmeirion Botanic Garden pattern that has been my dishware for the last sixteen years. It felt like a sad goodbye, as though I was looking at a different version of myself that didn’t match who I was any longer. 

As years have gone by, I’ve been turning more and more into a homebody hobbit (minus the gross hairy toes). Friends have been encouraging me to get plain white dinnerware. “Classy” they say. “Elegant and versatile.” “You’ll get sick of a pattern.” I stare at the white displayed selections with my face scrunched in disdain at the thought of practical utilitarian rationale. 'White dinnerware definitely *does not* define me as a person,' I ponder seriously to myself (as seriously as one can be about such a subject...anyway). I can’t do it-even if it's logical.  Standing there, leaning on Gilbert, I begin to wonder if other people ever have this kind of stream of consciousness standing in front of displays.

“What do I want?” I chant this mantra over and over to myself.  I want beauty, artisanal work, colorful, tasteful, rustic but elegant, good quality, kind of hobbity… chemistry.  I want chemistry! That's it! But...with my dinnerware? Self, what are you talking about? They are plates. You’re being a little nutso here.  But that was the truth. I wanted dinnerware I found really pleasing because I know enough about myself--- to know that looking at a pretty plate with dinner is enough to make me quite happy most days. That’s why this quest for the right dinnerware was so important. It’s that perfect trifecta of something being beautiful, a hand made piece of art, and serving a utilitarian purpose that brings me such tremendous joy.

You see, when humans are just awful to one another other, and I’ve had to deal with horrid pain and terrifically bad stories in therapy sessions with clients... I can come home, and see beautiful dishware in my cupboard and think, “But look at this! Humanity may be full of flaws and we may do horrible and base things to one another, but we simultaneously have this higher part of our nature that makes winsome artistry like these plates. The right dinnerware is a profound sign of hope for me.  It's taken me a long time to try to explain out loud why I couldn't just grab something attractive and be done with it. This is why. This is the much deeper significance I haven't been able to articulate. As silly as it may sound, this type of beauty helps me to constantly remember what we are positively capable of, and is a source of hopeful edification. Eureka, for being able to finally name it.

All of the sudden, my eyes landed on a stand-alone display.  As in a movie sequence I moved toward it like a moth to a flame (well, rolled and hopped and schlepped along if we want to be technical), and there I stood in front of the Polish pottery display, while a ray of light came down out of the ceiling and heavenly music played while billowy clouds gathered at my feet…



Okay, not quite like that. But in that moment, I knew with perfect clarity that Polish Pottery was my dinnerware destiny. I picked up the heavy pieces and ran my fingers over their smooth surfaces. I imagined the artisans creating the patterns and designs. What were they thinking about as they painted each piece?  Did they ever wonder who their work might go to? Were they heavy in thought over happenings in their own lives as they completed the minutia of the brush strokes? Was it a mindless activity for them? Do they know how much their gifts of artful details matter? Do they take for granted that they can create such beauty so effortlessly? 


Staring at the various patterns, I made a bold decision. 'I’m not going to pick one pattern', I thought. Why limit myself?  I loved the look of all the patterns displayed together. I’m going to get as many patterns as I want and mix and match them at will.


I picked up a plate with a butterfly. ‘Definitely this one,’ I decide. Then I thought the better of it and put it down.  ‘No, you can get the butterfly plate after you get home. After you have the surgery, and after you return to work.’  Give yourself a little goal. Earn your butterfly plate.  So, instead I pick out two luncheon plates to finally start my new dishware collection.


When I get home, I know I’ve made the right decision.  I sit down at my laptop to write my blog, with my dishes in a plastic bag next to me on the couch. I take them out, smiling from ear to ear.  The beautiful designs are not something I could recreate on my best artistic day. My finger traces the names of the artists Edyra K., and Joanna K., on the back of the plates. A little prayer goes through my head and I ask God to bless them, and to, in some small way, let them know their work and gifts are appreciated and cherished here on the other side of the world.

Love, ~Anastasia