Happy 2018!

Things that may have been heard during my Winter Holidays:

I got trekking poles for Hanukkah! I can go anywhere.

Let’s hope we have a White Christmas.

We can’t wait to see the cousins! I can’t believe that Neige and The Prophet are now the older cousins.

This is the year that I embrace being the friend who is bad at wrapping presents.

Jigsaw puzzles are really addictive, and communal.

 

Luke’s already saved the universe once, so it must be someone else’s turn. (And if we’re honest, we all wanted to go to Tashi Station.)

“Learn/teach from your failures,” is great advice, but books are Yoda’s enemy.

Oh, and on that note: you occasionally try to tell me that unpeeled avocado slices on a bed of fucking limes is food.

-15 Celsius with wind is really cold.

The thing that I want most for the holidays is a new fish tank, with real fish.

We have 8 new fish! Their names are Frey, Freya, Odin, Noir, Mr. Glowy-right, Mr. Glowy-left, Mr. Glowy-middle, and Mr. Glowy-straight.

2018 has got to be better than 2017. So says Catherynne Valente.

My New Year’s resolution is to meditate every day.

We have 5 fish!

We have 3 fish!

We gave Noir a Viking funeral.

This ad is everything for the depiction of moms

This ad was playing before the movie when we went to see the new Star Wars movie today.  Actually, rewatching this I realize that I may have been distracted for the first 27 seconds.

I won’t try to deconstruct the semiotics for you, but the link says that it is meant to depict single moms. Actually, I thought it was a depiction of my people, Moms Living with Chronic Illness.  It’s a great depiction of motherhood as being about things other than the smiling attractive mother who attends to her loved ones’ every need. You know, as we do.

I liked the Star Wars movie, but apparently the Ikea ad left a stronger impression because I’m still thinking about it.

Menopause begins in 3…2…1…

As culture, we don’t talk about menopause very much. It must be as important as puberty, motherhood, or any other major biological turning point, but I have yet to learn much about it. Some of my older female friends have been kind enough to offer a little wisdom, like: “Menopause changes everything,” “I don’t think I slept well for over a decade,” “Your body’s going to do what it’s going to do,” and, “Thank goodness that’s over.”  When I learned that menopause would start immediately upon having my ovaries removed tomorrow around noon, that was possibly the scariest part. That and the part about it being irreversible.  Keep ’em coming, ladies!

I’ve been reading Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World: A Memoir of Cancer and Connection. I have a confession to make: I’ve never read or seen The Vagina Monologues.  But I know enough to know that it is highly ironic that Eve Ensler would develop cancer in her uterus and vagina. Her writing about it is wonderfully expressive and unabashedly political. It won’t replace The Bright Hour as my favorite memoir of the cancer experience, but it is way up there on my list.  If you read her work as earnest, it is insufferable, but if you read it as ironic, then it makes more sense. Here’s one thing she wrote:

HOW’D I GET IT?

Was it tofu?

Was it failing at marriage twice?

Was it never having babies?

Was it having an abortion and a miscarriage?

Was it talking too much about vaginas?

Was it worry every day for fifty-seven years that I wasn’t good enough?

Was uit the pressure to fill Madison Square Garden with eighteen thousand or the Superdome with forty thousand?

Was it the exhaustion of trying to change?

Was it the city?

Was it the line of two hundred women repeated in hundreds of small towns for many years after each performance, after each speech, women lined up to show me their scars, wounds, warrior tattoos?

Was it suburban lawn pesticides?

Was it Chernobyl?

Three Mile Island?

Was it my father smoking Lucky Strikes and my mother smoking Marlboros?

Was it my father dying slowly and never calling to say good-bye?

Was it my mother’s thinness and frailty?

Was it bad reviews?

Or good reviews?

Was it being reviewed?

Was it sleeping with men who were married?

Was it always being third?

Was it my first husband sleeping with my close friend?

Was it shopping and needing to shop?

Was it being a vegetarian for thirty years?

Was it Froot Loops?

Massive chorine in swimming pools?

Was it Tab? I drank a lot of Tab after I got sober.

Was it Lilt (the tosic-smelling substance my mother used to perm my hair)?

Was it Tame (the solution she used to get the tangles out)?

Was it crinoline (the abusive and starchy material I used to have to wear under all my dresses)?

Was it Shirley Temples? Ginger ale with red dye number two juice and a red dye number two cherry on top–a favorite of the sophisticated country club alcoholic father.

Was it drinking water out of plastic bottles?

Not being breast fed?

Canned chop suey?

TV dinners?

Was it turquoise popsickles?

Was it Epstein Barr?

Was it in my blood?

Was it already decided?

Was it deet?

Was it that I didn’t cry enough?

Or cried too much?

Was it promiscuous sex?

All those arrests at nuclear power plants?

Sleeping in radioactive dust?

Was it my IUD?

Was it birth control pills?

Was it not enough boundaries?

Was it too many walls?

Damn, I forgot to get arrested at nuclear power plants. But I did use Tame and drink the occasional Shirley Temple, so we have that much in common. I am grateful for those who can articulate what the illness experience involves, and Ensler has been an important voice for women’s experiences.

So it’s the holidays. I’m pretty sure that last night’s latkes are still slowly being digested in my stomach, which is at it should be on Hanukkah. As many recent articles and posts have noted, there’s not a lot, materially that we NEED over the holidays, other than the time and the experience of being together, so gifts are really not the point. However, your time, which has really come to be a stand-in for your life, is certainly valuable. It occurred to me that one of the nicest gifts that I have gotten is the people who have taken the time to read The Bright Hour or another cancer memoir that shares the experience of living with cancer on a day-to-day basis, so thank you to those who have done this, and if you are thinking of doing it, realize that this is something that you have done for yourself and for people who benefit from having their experiences voiced, shared, and heard.

The Ring

A few months ago, we started watching Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies with Neige and The Prophet.  The director’s cut is on Netflix, which means that once you start watching, the series lasts forEVER.  That last movie is a never-ending battle. But the visuals and emotions and story hold up very well, and you have not seen an Ork until you’ve seen a Peter Jackson Ork. And let’s not even get started on the Elves, except to say that we all want to marry Legolas and Arwen now.

The movies are about so many things, and one thing they are about is how much we love home. In a funny way, London, Ontario, has come to remind me of The Shire. It’s a sweet, safe community full of little houses and little gardens. Everywhere you go you tend to run into someone you know. And when you leave, you know you are in a different – and perhaps more exciting and special – place. Like Paris or Toronto or Bethesda, Maryland.

We weren’t watching LOTR in preparation for anything, mind you. We were just looking for something to watch, especially as the kids had recently been introduced to Dungeons and Dragons, and the LOTR world seemed right for them. In the movies, a comforting and peaceable world is ripped apart by senseless violence, and humble Frodo somehow becomes the one chosen to bear the burden of The Ring so that it can be destroyed and order restored to the world.

Then in October, I learned quite suddenly that I was going to need surgery because my cancer had progressed unchecked, so I dove in and had the surgery, well-supported by a cast of wonderful family and friends. And I came out of the surgery in good shape. But I realized: Shit, I still have The Ring.

I sat through those movies on the couch. I’m not going to lie, I slept through plenty of scenes. But scene after scene, poor Frodo carried that stupid ring. It got heavier and heavier for him, and his friends propped him up and helped him put one foot in front of the other. He learned to trust the equally abject Gollum so that he could continue on the journey, and he never rejected the stupid mission of carrying that ring to Mt. Doom to destroy it. In the end, he succeeded in destroying the ring, a monumental task that made the happy and wished-for ending seem like a dream or a pretend afterlife.

Sometimes it helps to have a metaphor to communicate what you are experiecing, it can fill out the details when you don’t want to. So one morning I mentioned the ring to The Prophet, and he got really excited. “Yes!” he said, “The Ring! Because you agree to carry the Ring, but you don’t know about all the other stuff that’s going to come with it. You don’t know that there will be monsters and a giant spider.”  The giant spider that menaces you in the semi-darkess is the reality.

This week the giant spider is that we found out yesterday that I am to have my ovaries out on Monday. We’re hoping it will be laparoscopic, that the recovery will be easy, that our holidays will still be enjoyable. It’s the reasonable thing to do – what do you need ovaries for when you have two awesome kids? – and the gynecological surgeon is excellent, so I’m in good hands, once again.  It’s just the giant spider behind the Ring.

 

 

 

Boston, you’re my home

We had a lovely week in Boston. We did, as intended, go to the Universal Centre of Knowledge (aka The Dana-Farber Cancer Center), but I will write about that another time – it was fine.  After the long drive to Boston and a few vehicular encounters with Boston drivers, we decided to walk to the hospital, The picture above is the sight that greeted us as we crossed the BU Bridge. Land of my birth! Chilly temple to the wonder of knowledge and frozen nature!

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Afterwards, we had to process having jumped through yet another hoop in the steeplechase of life with cancer.  It was a beautiful fall day, so we walked to the Museum of Fine Arts, where our friend Ned was kind enough to lend us his membership card, and the museum was kind enough to have an exhibit comparing Japan’s leading contemporary artist with its grand legacy of artistic genius as represented in the MFA’s collection. Basically, this was my exhibit. An exploration of the Japanese love of expressiveness, playfulness, and nature.

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We got to catch up a little with a select grouping of wonderful old friends. Lately I’ve come to the realization that friends make us who we are. Sometimes this includes friends that we haven’t even spoken to in over a decade. Still, we spent important times with them, they said things to us that registered, and now they are part of who we are, even if we have not managed to keep them in our lives in the same way.  We got to reconnect with our friends Kathryn and Ned, who hosted us, and to see how their children have miraculously become teenagers, even if they will always be adorable children in our heads.

After breakfast at Flour and a walk around Harvard Square, we headed west toward home. We revisited the steps of the Unitarian Church, where we met up for our first fateful date.

 

 

Then we drove towards home, stopping for lunch at my spiritual home: Books You Don’t Need in a Place You Can’t Find. I never leave without buying a book. Unlike my husband the amazing reader, I do not always read the book that I buy. I think there are still novels languishing on a shelf from my last trip. But the fiction room is not to be resisted. It is a holy place. I still remember the unexpected partial solar eclipse that I witnessed there with Abbie in May 1994.

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After lunch we continued on Route 2 to our stopping place, Porches Inn in North Adams, across the street from Mass MOCA, which recently has expanded to become one of the world’s largest contemporary art museums. We arrived in time for a very short tour of the museum. I wish I could tell you that it was as enchanting as the exhibit on eugenics that The Historian and I saw on our first visit to Mass MOCA in  that we saw when we first went to Mass MOCA decades ago, or that I have a glimmer of a clue as to what contemporary art is, but I do love the large spaces and the possibilities for displaying art.

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And if you are on steroids and can’t sleep at 5 am at Porches you can go over to the lobby and read in a red leather chair next to a fireplace until your husband wakes up to enjoy a lovely breakfast with you. The room decor may be a little spare, but the buildings are forged from old row houses that used to be occupied by mill workers, making it possibly the most preciously and unabashedly me place that exists in the world. Must come back and bring the children.

If you happen to need a cup of coffee in North Adams, go to Brew Haha and enjoy the signs at the register advertising “Pretty Good Brownies” and, “Please be advised that our house salad is our most popular dish, and ‘Dressing on the side’ is NOT an option because it totally misrepresents our salad.'” I’m too old to fight it. Oh, New England, be not a stranger to me.

How odd to think that we are now old enough to step back into our grown-up past. We reminisced about when we lived in Boston, in our 20s and early 30s, we were learning to be adults/professionals/married people. We had real challenges, and we got through them by becoming ourselves and leaning on all of the great people and things that supported us. Now we’re in the wilderness of the beginning of Middle Age.

It’s harder than you think to talk to your husband

Even though you spend your whole life talking, it is usually about the plan for the day and who is eating what and what laundry needs to be done, that doesn’t mean that you can talk about the Things that Matter with The Person who Matters Most. Even if you have spent a lifetime sharing your plans and dreams and hopes and aspirations, you may not be able to pivot to talking about life and death and the future that you never imagined would be yours.

This is not your therapist or your best friend. This is the person who knows that you got up in the middle of the night and never came back to bed because you were hurting or anxious or overmedicated or whatever.

This is the same person who knows that you have to get dressed in the morning and confront the body that isn’t the body that you thought you would have in your mid-forties, despite eating and living “better”  and exercising more than anyone else you know.

So we go on a trip. And it takes time. And it’s a blessing to have someone that you can talk to. But even so, it takes time. And even when you live side-by-side and experience all the same things, it still takes time to find the words to share the experiences that you are sharing.

This is the person you thought you would grow old with who thought he would grow old with you.

This is the person who comes home to you at the end of the day when you have been reading blog posts by women who died from the same diagnosis that you have right now and who have shared and articulated your worries before you even knew that they were yours. The words of these women may haunt you, and you may have to hide their effects from your children, but you will not be able to hide them from the person who knows you best and observes you most closely.

You did not get married for the “in sickness and in health” clause, but it’s there in the vows anyway.

You can’t just open a conversation with your life partner about disease, illness, life, and death. It’s a slow process of coming together and unpeeling the layers of the onion that allows you to have the actual, true, deep conversation that you need to have.

This realization is the beginning of a tradition of making the time and space to be together, and living within the same truth as your partner.

For us, it began last year when my colleagues were kind enough to give us a weekend away together at a fancy inn (shout out to Langdon Hall, omg, also the source of picture above), and my mom was kind enough to come stay with our two children for the weekend. I made the reservation without feeling the need, or even the ability, to be in the same place as my husband for the weekend. We packed ourselves into a car with a little luggage, and my chemo-ravaged body was barely aware enough to make commit to the 90-minute drive. But once we got there, the inn was decorated in its Christmas finery and there was a fresh blanket of December snow on the ground, which we walked through on a beautiful Saturday morning. We had the most amazing meals, which we neither needed nor asked for, but enjoyed nonetheless.  Our room had a fireplace. There was silence for reading, thinking, and talking.

And slowly we are able to talk to each other. Fears are not so difficult to talk about. It’s actually harder to talk about hopes and dreams, the little things that we hope that we can do differently, the changes that we want to improve our lives.

This year we are about to do it again. We are headed to Massachusetts, and we will make a few stops, partly to consult the Medical Experts, and partly to just spend time together. I now know that it is important just to be in the same space, with quiet and no to-do list.  Mostly I think that this is the only way to sync up, to put our spirits in the same place, to simultaneously contemplate the questions: What is this life that we have together?  Is it good?  Is it what we want?

***

When this column came out last winter, it kicked off an informal vigil among many of the women I know to try to follow the author’s illness, It also resonated for me. It’s

Two indisputably great winter recipes

I have made a lot of beef short ribs in my time, and they are a great no-fail winter stew. They are full of fat and connective tissue, and they had a moment 10-15 years ago where they were everywhere because they were so good.

It’s possible that someone would have told you that all the recipes worked, but this recipe, Beef Short Ribs with Carrots and Cumin, is the best. For a while, it was unfindable on the Internets, so I’m not sure what brought it back to Williams-Sonoma’s website, but I have an old print-out of it that I’ve never let go of because it is the only winter beef recipe that you need. There are fancier recipes with wine and other more expensive ingredients, and for some reason they come out not as good. Also, I would like to mention, that beef short ribs are probably the cheapest ethically raised  beef that I can find around here in the dead of winter.  If I’m smart, I’ll remember to put the beef bones in the freezer and use them for bone stock later.  I use Bob’s Red Mill All Purpose Gluten-Free flour so that they are gluten-free, though I’m not sure whether this matters.

Braised Short Ribs with Carrots and Cumin

Ingredients:

  • 6 bone-in beef short ribs, kosher cut, 5 to 5 1/2 lb. total
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1=2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, as needed
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 6 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 2 cups beef stock
  • 1 to 2 cups water
  • 1 head garlic, cloves separated, unpeeled
  • 3 large carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
  • Directions:
  • Preheat an oven to 350°F.Generously season the short ribs with salt and pepper. Spread the flour on a plate. Dredge the ribs in flour, coating all sides. Shake off the excess.In a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil until nearly smoking. Add half the ribs and brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining ribs.Remove the pot from the heat, pour off the excess oil, and stir in the chopped garlic and cumin. Return the ribs to the pot and set over medium-high heat. Add the stock and enough water to almost cover the ribs and bring to a boil.

    Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes. Add the whole garlic cloves and carrots and bake until the meat is just tender, about 1 hour more.

    Uncover the pot and bake until the meat and carrots are very tender and the liquid is reduced to a flavorful sauce, about 30 minutes more.

    Spoon off any fat from the sauce. Transfer the ribs, carrots and sauce to individual shallow bowls and serve immediately.

    Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Foods of the World Series, Paris, by Marlena Spieler (Oxmoor House, 2004).

 

Also, I keep making Lauren’s Spice Cookies from Epicurious. I do mess with the spices because 2 tablespoons of cloves is just too much for anyone these days. Perhaps this recipe is from a different era.  Also, who keeps mace on hand? We use allspice instead. I love this recipe because, like the one above, it’s dead easy. It pleases me, my family, and usually our friends, so I’m making sure to get it down here for anyone who wants it.

Spice Cookies

INGREDIENTS

  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup dark molasses
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour or gf flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons ground cloves (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice (optional)

PREPARATION

In a large bowl with an electric mixer beat together the oil, the molasses, 1 cup of the sugar, and the eggs until the mixture is smooth.

In a bowl stir together the flour, the baking soda, the cinnamon, the ginger, the cloves, and the mace and add the mixture to the molasses mixture.

Beat the dry mixture into the wet mixture until it is combined well and chill the dough, covered, overnight.

Form the dough into 1 1/2-inch balls and roll the balls in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar to coat them well.

Bake the balls 3 inches apart on buttered baking sheets in the middle of a preheated 350°F. oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the tops crack.

Transfer the cookies to racks and let them cool.