Thursday, December 30, 2010

Joy and Possibility

Advent is waiting.
The wait can take on a slew of varied approaches for people.
The days off from work or school are a sweet "finally!" for many.
We anticipate quality time with family and friends.
Maybe we are still waiting for that Norman Rockwell conflict-free family Christmas. (If it's any consolation, the birth stories themselves contain lots of conflict.)
For Christians, it was four weeks of preparing for the birth of Jesus by considering Hope, Peace, Love and Joy.
Finally, commercial Christmas crescendos on the 25th.
And now, the advertising that accompanied Advent and the waiting to see what Santa brought is over. What now?

Well…Christmas is about joy and possibility.
Blessed with loved ones, it's a joyous celebration of the birth of Jesus.
But further, the Prince of Peace comes to remind us of the possibility of what love can do. Christmas is our opportunity to bring the long-ago event into the present.
Maybe it's no wonder that New Years follows on the heels of Christmas.
On the days after Christmas - the first days of the rest of our lives - we can turn the page on the calendar. Start fresh of sorts. Maybe turn a few Bible pages to keep up with the story. Or turn to a more loving response in our most challenging relationships. It's time to turn and focus on different kinds of returns and exchanges.

The perfect New Years resolution finds its seeds in the Christmas message. The simple yet elusive challenge to be loving always.

I wish you many blessings in the New Year.
Peace & love.
franco

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower

Only days after Thanksgiving 2010, I am celebrating the 2-year anniversary of my Whipple procedure – the surgery that removed the tumor from my gut. Hallelujah!
It is only by God's grace that I am allowed to continue to give thanks. He asks a lot in return but that seems more than fair to me. I struggle joyously with that ask each day. We all struggle, but never alone.
I try to flow. I try to ring. I try to speak. I try to be.
Here's a poem that spoke to me.

"Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower" by Rainer Maria Rilke
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Another Halloween Milestone

The milestones of life and death for me are separated by two days. The life milestone, my birthday, is coming up. I am, of course, thankful for another year – just as I am for each and every day, for every smile and every hug.
Halloweens are bittersweet for me now. It is a death-reminder milestone for me, being the day of my diagnosis in 2008. I was in a daze after coming home from the hospital that afternoon and going trick-or-treating with my babies. It was their first time and felt very much like it'd be my last.
Yesterday, I read back in my journal to where I was then, just before my diagnosis. Though I feel so very far from that time, when my world was upended – there's lots that hasn't changed. On 10/31/08 I wrote:
"My Lord has given me the better result at every step in this process. It's what I've prayed for – one step at a time. And He has delivered. May it continue. So, I keep moving through this dark tunnel, trusting that I will come out into a good place on the other side. That all of the ugliest options will gradually fall away and that the root cause is manageable.
I pray this not just for me - out of self-centeredness and fear – but for my babici (babies). They (including Jacquelyn) deserve more/better. A dad…the best one that I can be."

And so it has been. As it turns out, my cancer has been more than manageable - truly a blessing thus far. Still, I worry all the time about what would happen if I received the dreaded (but not unlikely) news that my cancer is back. Surprise, surprise – I don't want to die just yet. I am still working at the best dad thing.
Life and death are much closer to each other now. I fear what happens if all of that energy on the positive side of the ledger isn't enough.
That is the heartbreaking injustice faced by too many others, for whom it is no blessing at all. I see the disease all around me. Tragically, we all do. Yes, I am extra-sensitized to it and yes I maintain relationships with folks similarly stricken – but cancer is an insidious mighty force. It is not just a menacing dark cloud over me but a gray sky that covers everything and touches everybody.
So…two years later, I find myself (similarly and simultaneously) - scared and overwhelmed, faithful and confident, pleading for fairness while hoping for grace. I am infinitely more grateful for the life and death milestone that is each day. I am also learning to boldly ask God for the blessing of more life in each and every case. After all, there's not a one of us that doesn't deserve it.
L'Chaim!

P.S. - Join the New Jersey Affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network for a 5K walk at PurpleStride New Jersey at 10 a.m. on November 7th! This event will take place at the beautiful Mack Cali Campus in Parsippany, New Jersey. It would be great if you could walk with us. It'll be lots of fun. But, if not, you can still contribute to the cause of pancreatic cancer research and awareness by helping me reach my $1,000 fundraising goal at:
http://pancan.kintera.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=425642&lis=1&kntae425642=2A17EAAAE9E9434686620EC46D7509A0&supId=246678354
(sorry you'll have to cut and paste)
Thank you always.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Renewing My Lease

We have much to celebrate in our family these days. Extra much.
We just returned from a two-plus week vacation in Istria, Croatia. It is our annual visit to visit my 90-year old Nona, who keeps rolling past every challenge that comes her way. We hit the exceptional beaches on most days and otherwise relaxed and played together - making memories.
I may have turned a corner with the plantar fasciitis that has plagued me for almost a year now. I just ran my first couple of miles in about 5 months and feel fine, other than being slow and old. And not a moment too soon as that fun and fulfilling vacation has put me a solid 10 lbs above my typical weight.
Also, Jacquelyn and I just marked 7 years since we got engaged. Who knew all of this wonderfulness would follow?
But…ultimately, most important of all is the fantastic news from my medical oncologist, Dr. Fang, on Friday. My 6-month CAT scan is all clear! Thank you God!
While celebrating that last blessing with Jacquelyn, I observed that it felt a little like renewing a lease on an apartment. It's as if I've been told that I am all set for a period, until it is time again to revisit the issue. (Though I recognize that I could always get "evicted" prior to the lease ending.) My mind was put somewhat at ease about where I was going to "be" for the next 6 months. Alive and well is the hope. With each clean scan, I find myself daring to unpack a couple of more emotional boxes on my future plans.
The lease analogy becomes even more appropriate the more I think about it. If I were to be honest, I would need to recognize that my life is not truly my own. It is granted to me everyday by God's grace. I am merely a renter. God, rather harshly, revealed the lease arrangement to me almost two years ago. He reminds me of it sharply at 6 month intervals. Scan time is full of discomfort and fear, and each moment in between a precious treat.
We have so much to celebrate every day. Where do I sign?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Making Memories

I don't have a particularly good memory. I often wish it were better. Who wouldn't?
Probably my first memory is of a group of kids – cousins and neighbors on the sidewalk in front of our house on 58 Rd. in Flushing. I was about 3. My cousin Valdy was there. Looking down on it from his family's second floor apartment window, I can see my blue plastic scooter bike at the center of the kids' action. . As I recall that scene, it's all about perspective. Like life.

Since that first memory of mine is at an age slightly younger than my Ana and Noah are now, I wonder what they'll remember. Will he remember the snazzy blue bike he proudly rides so recklessly right now? Will she remember the impromptu dance routines through multiple wardrobe changes that she puts on for us at her whim? Or something Disney?

I also remember, much more recently, coming home from the hospital on Halloween wondering how many more of these I'd get to enjoy with Ana and Noah. They had just turned two and I wondered if they would get to remember me. I want(ed) them to.

What about when memories are painful? Our emotional defenses look to blot out the unpleasant memories. Sometimes over-protecting us. What about those times (and people!) in our lives that brought us happiness then, but pain us for their absence now? To lose someone is sometimes to lose ones self. Unanchored.

I think that my memory is a little better now – maybe because I am paying better attention. Every day is a bit more memorable purely by being.

I apologize for this blog being a bit neglected lately – but we've been busy making a lot of memories.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pancreatic Cancer Advocacy

I had an incredible, inspiring, frightening and frustrating experience last week. I went down to DC to advocate for additional funding for cancer research, and pancreatic cancer in particular. I met with my excellent Congressman (Pallone) and the aides to my two Senators. Seeing firsthand our political process at work was both exhilarating and exasperating.
It was scary to be so vividly reminded of the statistics of my disease - the five-year survival rate of 6%, the mere 40 or so survivors in a room of nearly 500 advocates, the many many tragic stories of family and friends that were taken by the disease. Sadly, the pancreatic cancer survival rate has increased minimally in the last 40 years. It is the only major cancer with survival rates that are still in the single digits. The fourth deadliest cancer receives only 2% of federal cancer funding. I am 44 with 4 year-old children who I don't want to have facing the same bleak odds in 40 years should the genetic curse prove true. Even for those blessed enough to have had the Whipple surgery (as I did), the five-year survival rate is 30%. [With absolutely no basis for this hope, I am counting on being in the 30%.]
It astounds me that several hundred people need to show up year after year, applying constant pressure, to generate the necessary support to increase funding for life-saving cancer research. And yet the funding for a new weapons system that even the military itself isn't asking for sails through with minimal scrutiny. Specifically, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is advocating for a $5.79 billion budget for the National Cancer Institute to support cancer research. That may sound like a lot of money but to put it into perspective…the US spent at least $150 billion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq last year. So, every two weeks we spend as much for wars (that somehow benefit us?) as we do in a whole year to try to improve the health of all Americans.
My frustration and anger at our national priorities becomes even more intense when I consider what it means for others. My cousin is younger than me with two kids younger than mine battling an aggressive cancer that won't quit. Very sadly, most of us know of such stories. Knowing that we have the resources to do much more and choose not to incenses me.
Some of you may know that I have very strong political convictions. (Just ask my father-in-law.) I have mostly stayed away from that stuff here. But…our tax money is being spent people! It is for us to decide on the how/where. Just like each of us does for our personal budgets at home – we make choices. For the one party to refuse to co-sponsor an increase in cancer research under the guise of being fiscally conservative is maddening. It's BS actually. There is no escaping the fact that we have been choosing elective war and subsidies for corporate America. As a result, people we love dearly are dying unnecessarily abroad and at home.
As it says in Matthew's Gospel – "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also". My heart is with people. I went to DC because I would like to see more of our treasure directed to helping people. My experience of democracy in action was that it's not very efficient but it is the best we got. Like life, it is a beautiful and frustrating thing. It often doesn't turn out as you'd hoped. Welcome to it.

PS - I belong to the NJ Chapter of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. I'd like to invite you to a funds and awareness raiser on Sunday, July 18th. Join Noah, Ana, Jacquelyn & me at a Somerset Patriots (minor league baseball) game at 5:05 that night. Part of the ticket sales will go to the organization to fund advocacy and research into cures. Drop me an e-mail (franco_juricic@merck.com) if you'd like to attend. I am hoping to have a whole crew of family and friends going. So, besides being for a good cause it should be great fun!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Grace and Acts

What is the balance between grace and acts in our lives? In my life and cancer, I have struggled with the place of what God grants us and what I deserve in my getting sick and getting well.
We generally look at life and judge fairness on the basis of our actions. That perspective implies that we do, and ought to, get what we deserve in life. "What goes around comes around", the notion of karma, and even the Golden Rule (if stretched) are based on this principle. If you do good, you get good. On the other hand, if you don't, don't be surprised if you get a dose of your own medicine (as another saying goes). Grace, on the other hand, is an allowance - usually a positive - that we are given by God independent of whether we deserve it or not.
Since being first diagnosed, I've spent some time wondering what I did to deserve pancreatic cancer. I kept a fairly healthy diet and have been mostly veggie-eating in my adult life. I enjoyed exercise and would celebrate a beautiful day with a good run. I went for regular check-ups. Not to say that I avoided all drink and the rest but I wouldn't say that I was in any way an outlier in terms of "sins" against the body. And on the mind/emotional level, I took (what I would consider) active care of myself. I have been meditating on and off since high school. I have a few years of productive therapy under my belt. I have a wide and deep circle of supportive friends and family.
So how then is it me that is diagnosed with a relatively rare cancer (that strikes <40,000 Americans a year) at a relatively young age (further rare)? That's where the disconnect happens. What did I do to deserve this "bad" thing? Am I being punished? The "why me?" question also lingers in wondering why I am among the very few blessed to be pancreatic cancer survivors. What did I do for this second opportunity to do the good that I was intended to do?
As it turns out – life isn't fair. Nobody said it was. Least of all God. And that's exactly why we have grace. Even if you accept the premise that we can earn our way into heaven with good acts, that doesn't ensure that we'll get what we deserve (good or bad) while here on Earth. Justice in the afterlife is no assurance of a fair shake in this one.
In Christianity, the balance between the significance of grace versus acts represents a difference amongst the various denominations. It is not an insignificant distinction. Do we earn our lot in life? Does God only save those that are worthy – both in this world and the next? It is a fundamental question that we'd just as soon not have to consider.
Personally, I believe strongly in God's grace. I've always struggled with the angry and punishing God that smites sinners. God's grace is an exquisitely beautiful example of our human potential. None of us is entitled to God's grace and yet it is granted to us. It epitomizes the New Testament's compassion and hope to counterpoint the Old Testament's eye for an eye. Grace helps me to explain why I am still here.
Ultimately, I've realized that the most beautiful thing about God's grace is that it isn't on the same continuum with acts anymore. Jesus' death broke the progression. Acts are still important. Love your neighbor is still front and center. But Jesus offers us grace apart from acts, grace and love above and beyond anything we could do to deserve it. That is amazing! It challenges each of us to love unconditionally too. And…it frees me from wondering about the merits of my diseased life and cheated death.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Lightness of Being (With Others)

What keeps us honest in life? Rules and laws, and the resultant consequences, do in some cases. The threat of a summons keeps me towing the 25 mph speed limit on that road into Highland Park where I've seen all too many outsiders get snagged. But what about in the less tangible areas of our lives? What keeps us honest in private? It could be religious beliefs. For some, it's the lure of heaven or threat of hell; that ever-present, omniscient God. Or maybe it is shame – embarrassment at what others might think or say. Ultimately, it is that other set of eyes (whose ever they might be) that keeps us honest with ourselves.

When Jacquelyn was away for the weekend recently – even though my primary focus was on taking care of Ana and Noah – I goofed off a bit. I stayed up late, I didn't clean up (as readily), etc. Along those same lines, I realized that it's the absence of a support structure that frees us of accountability. Sometimes folks deliberately keep others at a distance or choose not to let them in because they don't want to answer to another. Surprisingly, though, that is precisely one of the beautiful upsides that a family, friend or church community can offer us. We lose a little something when we choose not to count on another or allow others to count on us. Other people remind us of our greatest potential. To not be part of such community may seem more free – and may well be in one sense. But, ultimately, less genuine and so less full/rewarding.

I am blessed to be surrounded by a wonderful community of family and friends. I can personally attest to the profound impact that having people who care for you in your life can have. In terms of my illness, it is the people in my life – the little and grown-up ones – that buoy my spirits daily. Every time someone asks how I am doing and I can recognize by their facial expression or inflection that they mean it more than just politely – another brick is placed, strengthening my bond to them.

Think about those people you know that have hit "rock bottom". They typically keep anyone that might interfere w/what they want to do – their tendency for "badness", their freedom (basically, all that leads to their downward spiral) – at a safe distance. Unfortunately, I personally know of a couple of such instances unfolding around me right now. Saddest of all is that there is no way to help. It's tough to get in when the world of another is set up expressly to keep you out. It may feel better and safer for a while. But, ultimately, rock bottom is the place that you find yourself when you can no longer deny what those around you have been trying to warn you about all along.

It happens on a big and small scale. We all do it to ourselves at least a little bit. In the end, how deep a hole is proportional to how alone you insisted on being along the way.
Further, for those who deliberately avoid intimacy w/others, they forfeit not only the potential for support if situations get rough, but a mirror for the day-to-day reflections that help them stay honest and avoid that dark place. It is the presence of people who care for us in our lives that lifts us up. Not only that, that same support keeps us from falling too far.

I wholeheartedly believe that the fullness of life can only be experienced in the company of others. Other people and loving them as best as we can is all that life is about. From my humble perspective, the rest of it – the job, the house, the gadgets, the grudges - is just self-deception and distraction. So, let somebody love you every chance that you get.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

It Is What It Is

A couple of weeks ago, just as I was getting ready for bed, I suddenly started feeling sharp pains in my abdomen. As far as causes, none of the usual suspects seemed to make sense. I had pretty much the same food as the rest of the family; I didn't have a fever, nausea or diarrhea; everything seemed normal except for the pain. For me these days, any inexplicable pain in my midsection is a cause for concern. My serious Syrian gastroenterologist ordered a little blood work and kindly squeezed me in first thing the second morning. She figures that it was likely scar tissue causing a kink in my intestines creating a temporary blockage. I now recognized that the same thing had happened to me last August. Ultimately, I thank God in relief that that's all it was. Compared to the alternatives, I will gladly deal w/a little knot in my gut from time to time.

That scare was followed a few days later by another positive milestone on my path to continued surviving. I had my chemo port removed about 15 months after it was put in. I talked my doctor into pulling it a little bit before the one year anniversary of the end of my treatment. July will be a year, but my next scan isn't until the end of summer. Since I wouldn't likely know that anything is wrong till after that, we are taking a more optimistic approach. Having ditched the unsightly protuberance, I'm thinking that I'll be a lock for best body on the beach competition this summer.

And so it is that we take our little victories in life. Some could always argue that it could be better. Some might not recognize that it could always be worse. Life is full of milestones and messages. They are all good or bad or both. More than anything, they are all relative.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Choosing Hope

I will never forget striding down Main St in Highland Park on that gloriously sunny Election Day morning 18 months ago. It was only the fourth morning since my cancer diagnosis and yet I was filled with an overwhelming sense of hope. I felt that what was going on in the country was a reflection of what could happen for me. It wasn't that everything was going to be perfect from now on. There were no guarantees of anything – not for me and not for us. But there was hope where there had not been any. It was a new day and upside potentials seemed attainable again.

My strut that morning is perfectly explained by a quote from a terrific book by Jim Wallis called "God's Politics". "More than just a moral issue, hope is a spiritual and even religious choice. Hope is not a feeling; it is a decision. And the decision for hope is based on what you believe at the deepest levels – what your most basic convictions are about the world and what the future holds – all based on your faith. You can choose hope, not as a na├»ve wish, but as a choice, with your eyes wide open to the reality of the world – just like the cynics who have not made the decision for hope." The idea that hope is a choice and a reflection of faith is very empowering to me both personally and politically.

Even though it has been a couple of weeks since the milestone of some progress on health care in this great country of ours – the luster has not faded. That milestone represents some of the hope becoming a reality. And that is really important! For me personally, it could turn out to be critical. I have a "pre-existing condition". My health-care employer is eliminating 15% of it workforce. (It's called "value capture" after a merger.) It is not far-fetched to see that I could be unemployed with that pre-existing condition. That would be a very difficult situation for me and my family to face. Many have had their hopes challenged, faith tested and lives ruined by similar scenarios in the richest nation on earth.

I've seen that decision for hope play out well, with God's help, when it came to my physical health. That decision was based on my deepest beliefs, my faith. To live with cancer is to live every day with faith. It is that same way that our deepest beliefs are playing out politically. Do you believe we should take care of our poor, our uninsured, sick? To answer those questions we need to need to check in with our faith. Take that Sunday (or Friday or Saturday) faith and apply it everyday. Apply it to your neighbor. Not just the ones you know but the ones you don't.

Consider too, the alternate to deciding to hope. It would mean, for me, creating a more fallow space for my cancer to thrive. It means a world where it is every man, woman and child for themselves; a survival of the fittest or most blessed. It means accepting less than the kingdom of God here on earth, now. Is that really the path we choose? I don't.

The opposite of cynicism isn't blind optimism but action. And action requires a decision based on hope. Let's all strut proudly with our heads up, knowing we have decided on hope, are taking care of our neighbors and living our faith.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Flipping the Hourglass

What was your experience of God when you were younger?
Several of us considered that recently. One woman felt God enveloping her as she sat in the forest behind her house with her little girl legs dangling in a stream. Religion for another was a 5-mile walk down to the Empire State Building with her dog as a kid. Folks talked about churches and religion – both pro and con. Many of the images were moving and beautiful.
I realized that I didn't experience God very directly as a young person. God wasn't much of a physical presence for me. He wasn't "there" anywhere. I lumped it all together – God, religion, the Church. I spoke about them almost interchangeably. Many people do.
In hindsight, I see that my rank order of what I identified with most spiritually in my first 30+ years was (1) Church, (2) religion and (3) God. Church was a place full of ritual and a stoic institution for me. Religion is a set of rules and beliefs. God was this all-powerful bearded man in the sky with a glorious Son.
Not that any of these is bad. Still, I am glad that my association with each of these has changed some. My hierarchy has completely flipped now - like an hourglass, as I embark on the second half of my life. My new order of identification is God, religion and then Church. Religion remains the center point - representing the collective knowledge and historical spiritual understanding. But the other two have reversed their order.
The importance of the particular Sunday rituals and the power of the institution of Church have diminished greatly for me. Different churches and sects are mere vehicles in my mind. Like a car. It's the destination that's important, not the brand you drive. Whichever type of spirituality works for you is fine in my eyes - so long as it gets you to the endpoint, God. (As you can tell, I am not particularly Evangelical.) Don't get me wrong, I love going to Church (the building). There has to be a very good reason for me to miss it. It's where I recharge my spiritual batteries. It's one of the places that I find God these days - but just one.
God means something else entirely to me now. God's not that far away anymore. God is people. God is by that stream. God is on those streets. God is in our every action. God is in our every omission. It's been easier for me to see God because I've been travelling with an exceptional posse lately. It turns out that he is everywhere, though – it's just a matter of seeing him. In the same way that it is very easy to see God in the wonders of our children and our loves. God is in the hearts of every one of us. That realization really makes life an incredibly precious and vibrant journey.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Receiving My Sentence (Great News!)

These past five months have been the longest stretch with no attention to my cancer in the nearly year and a half since this adventure started. I had a CAT scan last Tuesday and the results are…all clear! The appointment with my oncologist was snow-cancelled but he did call to say that the scan showed nothing suspicious. Praise the Lord! I met with him this morning and I will be on a six-month schedule for the next couple of years. He also agreed to have my chemo port removed – in the hopeful belief that I won't be needing it anytime soon.

Moving from getting scanned every three months to (almost) six was progress but certainly anxiety-producing. It's a little bit like waiting for the sentencing phase after a conviction. And thank God, this time again – I have been spared! I could tell myself heading into it that I am fine, based primarily on how I feel. That would be conveniently ignoring the fact that I felt fine for most of the time that the cancer was growing inside me last time.

The continuation of clean can also lend credibility to alleged cancer-avoiding behaviors I've adopted like – a couple of green teas daily, lowering stress, restarting my meditation practice, minimizing the intake of fat/sugar/white flour and other underminers, etc. On the other hand, one could argue that the culpability factor is a little less pronounced in the instance of a recurrence – meaning that if you are susceptible and/or have it in you, such is your fate. Who can know?

I am also reminded of my feelings of helplessness from 14 months ago. A few weeks after my surgery, I felt powerless considering the possibility of not having any chemo or radiation to do. That would mean just hoping and praying and waiting. That's been pretty much what I've been doing since finishing up my chemo last July. I have been tending to more functional aspects of my body and health instead, like fixing broken teeth and achy feet (planters fasciitis). Some of the mundane self-care tasks that are only worth doing for those that are counting on being around long enough to see the payoff.

So, now, with the clean scan result, folks have been congratulating me. I appreciate the sentiment in the sense of a cause for celebration. At the same time it leaves me searching for a response since I did little (nothing) to deserve the congrats. (I actually looked up the word congratulations to find that it is "an expression of pleasure or acknowledgment of somebody's success or good fortune or on a special occasion".) Good fortune it is then! I don't pretend that slightly cleaner living, green tea and a good outlook on life are keeping the evil cancer away. Instead, I recognize that it is the power of prayer that gives me strength and, most importantly, the grace and goodness of God that have kept me here. For the former I have many of you to thank. For the rest, I can only thank God – that his master plan includes having me around for a while longer.

I look forward to having all of my "cat" mentions refer to the feline persuasion for the next six months.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Haiti and (Why) Me

In the instance of a disaster on a massive scale – like the earthquake in Haiti – we ask how such terrible events can happen. We wonder where the justice is in tragedies. I think that regardless of what your particular religious beliefs are, we question where God is in the midst of such overwhelming human anguish. Some curtly conclude that there couldn't be a God that would allow so much pain. Those that believe in God struggle with how he could be so dispassionate, or worse, such an angry and vengeful God.

On a personal level, even when it comes to "less severe" setbacks we may ask "why me?" Why was I the one to get fired? Why is my roof leaking? Why did she leave me? Why did I get cancer? When circumstances seem to be conspiring against you and the punches are raining down on you, it is not unusual to wonder what you did to deserve such punishment. I know that I've had that thought very many times regarding the connections between my life history and my cancer. I wondered whether or how I was responsible for what happened. Mostly it is in the sense of my physical actions that could have led to a tumor growing on my pancreas. Of course, I also considered my many moral failures in life – the many times I had hurt those that I loved, lacked heart, or rejected a Christian response.

So, whether it is a personal or global tragedy, we find ourselves asking the same questions about God, his heart, who deserves such consequences and where's the justice. Often, the scale of the catastrophe is such that it begs an explanation. We try our best to cobble one together even in the absence of any sense. Which may be why we turn to God on such occasions - he's the perfect fall guy. Our personal perspective is allowed validation regardless. If you don't believe in a God, a massive undeserved misfortune might prove just that for you. If you do, you at least have a place to vent your anger or the soothing option of writing off the tragedy to God's will.

[Though it's not something we can even consider in the midst of living through a calamity, the alternatives are worth considering during quieter moments. It may sound ideal at first glance, but what kind of life would it be if we all did live in good health, with some certainty to 80 years of age? Even with my lowered odds of making it there, I don't know that I'd choose that.]

Interestingly, I can't say that I've questioned God's existence more throughout my ordeal. If anything, I have felt his presence and so have come to believe in him more strongly. I see him much more evidently in my life now. I feel his presence when I am struggling (though I'd like to call upon God more readily with my daily challenges). I see his face in my joys – whether that first-light warmth on a new morning or the pure-joy laughter of my babies. And since I have kept God around more lately, I have certainly pleaded and bargained with him. True to form, he's kept up his end of the deal better than I have. I'm still here even though I've regularly fallen short of being the new and improved me that I've promised. Finally, I can't say that I haven't been angry with him from time to time.

Also in the interests of fairness, isn't it curious that we don't ask the "why me?" question when things are going well. It's as if, deep down we have an expectation of our ship coming in or our lottery numbers being drawn regardless of our merits. If the outrageous blessings are going to flow to someone, it might as well be us, right? We count on God being somewhat liberal when handing out the prizes and conservatively judicious with the punishments. We're funny like that.

Ultimately, the "why me?" question gets at the heart of our hopes and beliefs. Without knowing the mind of God, it's a question that we can't answer. God-willing, we'll find out one day when we are in a better place and the whys matter much less.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Relativity & Connectedness

Challenges bring opportunities to learn and grow. I've learned a lot about myself, about life and others in the past year. I hoped to reflect on those three linked aspects of my experience for a couple of paragraphs.

I expected to be able to make a list of what I learned about myself, but couldn't very readily. I can say that from a very small circle/me sense, I am now willing to sacrifice much of what I once valued to live longer. All else about me these days ultimately relates to that.

What I learned is that, "life" for me boils down to the space between me and others. Via the abrupt revaluation of what's important that a serious illness offers, I developed my very own theory of relativity. It's actually beyond a theory, having been proven repeatedly. The fact is that it is all relative for me. I am part of an intricate and beautiful web. The same principle applies to my priorities in life – they exist in relation to those I love most.

In the spirit of connectedness, one huge discovery I made is that if you put things out there, they will come. Most of us have been taught to (and thus so often) keep our struggles to ourselves. I know that that's how I was raised, and it's what I did. We keep our failures under wraps, our misfortunes secret and tragedies hushed. Unfortunately, that leaves us very alone exactly when we most need the support of others. What worked best for me was exactly the opposite of what I'd been led to believe. It turns out that one person's painful experiences can become the shared concern of a much larger caring circle. The concern of others, in turn, taught me about strengths that I never knew I had. All those that responded to me in their compassion helped me to develop further and made me stronger.

Then there is a whole other level of spiritual support available to us. Given that we are all God's children, he is there in our pain. First, he accompanies us through the challenges – never leaving our side, whether we welcome him or not. To recognize that opportunity for grace and strength is an amazing blessing. Also, we find him in the struggles of others – if we are willing to look and others are willing to let us see him. This is why it is so important to put it out there. It is an invitation to each other and so, to God, to travel our most difficult roads with us.

The greatest lesson of all has been what I learned about you, those around me. My friends and family have shared their faith and fears with me. I am more intimately familiar with people's triumphs and trials. I know my friends better and have more one-time acquaintances I can now call friends. As a lovely complement, I also have more friends with whom I can share. Some of you have experienced both ends of that firsthand. [This entry was prompted, in fact, by a recent conversation with someone I am sharing more with now than I have in 25 years.]

I've found that the compartments I had set up when beginning to write this were false. The me/life/others construct represents an old, flawed approach. They are all intertwined and keeping them separate is both laborious and fruitless. My ultimate learned lesson about me, others and the space in between is that I am loved by God and his children in so many ways. We all are – in all of our tragic and hopeful brokenness.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Epiphany 2010

As the "The Epiphany" officially passes on the Church calendar, I reflect on the personal epiphany I had over the holiday break. I had more than one, actually. I was off from a couple of days before Christmas until the Monday after New Years – which amounted to, my own (slightly shifted) 12 days of Christmas. Although I received terrific gifts from my true love through out the period – as I do on every other day that we are together – I also received the grace of God's wisdom.

As many folks do when turning the page on a new calendar year, I wanted to take stock of various aspects of my life during my downtime. For instance, I reviewed our family's finances for the year to figure out just where all that money went and how we might get by with less if we had or chose to. Amongst the many things that I hoped to get done over the break were some spiritual to-dos too. While related to the monetary aspects of life (as much is), these had more to do with how I spend my time. Not that I think that I waste or fritter much of it away, but being so precious, I am very conscious of where I direct it. I prayed over what I could do with my professional time (work life, time for pay, etc.) and where I might want to direct more of my volunteer (free) time. I (re)considered my opportunities on both of those fronts and evaluated my options. We all have alternatives- although we often don't allow ourselves to entertain the full suite of choices that are available to us. I like to periodically revisit the why not of this or that previously made decision. Our situations change in life over time. I know mine has. I am seeing that an illness rapidly ages not only one's body but one' soul. (A recent study that found that older people, if healthy, tend to be much happier than younger folks makes perfect sense to me.) I've grown up (and old) a lot in the past 14 months.

So, like the three wise men of scripture, I went on a journey. I never left the tri-state area but tried to consider the world of options. And, like the magi, my endpoint was very important to me. Still, I was trying to appreciate the seeking as much as the finding. Because ultimately, this is not exactly a new journey for me – though it feels like it sometimes. Every morning is another step on the journey we are all on, the so called life journey. The difference for me is that I am open to different sets of directions these days. Or maybe, more accurately, it's that I am more aware of needing directions; much of what I thought I knew is less certain now.

Given the global business climate and that my employer just merged with another company, I considered what my life after Merck might look like. It would probably mean less money and that translates into less of many other things. The trick is in anticipating whether such a change could offer a net increase in time (the more valuable currency) spent doing the things I most enjoy and/or with those I love. Many of us search for the sweet spot between the tug of work demands, monetary compensation, job satisfaction and the societal benefits of our work. I struggle with whether I currently have those balanced optimally. Getting sick has only made me question the equilibrium of those values more. I find myself talking to friends about variations of this topic constantly in a search for other perspectives. I pray to God to give me the faith, courage and imagination to best use the gifts He gave me.

Then there is that time away from work. Without question, my free time focus is on my babies, family and friends. Beyond that, I have been considering several different volunteer opportunities that center around ministering to the sick. Over the holiday break, I tried to delve into why I was looking at situations that might be (as my friend Linda called them) a little "raw" for me. I realized that getting sick threw me onto a completely unanticipated but distinct path. I believe that I am a cancer survivor (rather than victim) because it is not yet my time. God has some plan for me – as He does for all of us. The trajectory of my journey has forever changed and my tumor was a wake-up call. My challenge is to find out what that calling is and to act upon it. And yet, as time passes, I fear losing that understanding and urgency. Familiarity breeds complacency and soon that lightening in a bottle could dissipate. Working with other folks that are similarly challenged will keep me close to that edge and keep the gift of my cancer alive.

It turns out that my star is an abnormal growth on my pancreas. It was my sign that took me out of my comfortable space and onto a journey – ultimately, to find God in the people around me. Not coincidentally, the more that I opened myself up to others, the more that I found that God was walking the path with me. A way that seemed overgrown suddenly felt well-trod and expansive. This much I know. With God as my GPS, we are working out the directions as I keep stepping.