Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Milestones Along the River

In a life where every day feels like a blessing, particular milestones have me reconsidering my life's flow. Holidays and anniversaries seem to be zipping by, each offering me perspective. Some are secular, some medical, some both; some personal, some communal, some both. All are poignant prompts.
The tenth anniversary remembrances of 9/11 allowed all of us to look back at all that's happened since everything changed. A turn of events we couldn't have imagined transformed our reality. There is no going back.
The more mundane Halloween has connotations for me beyond the faux fear of costumed children. It is the anniversary of my diagnosis. Has so much time really passed since everything changed? It's been about a thousand days, on top of everything else that God has willed me.
Followed shortly by my 45th birthday – (again) has so much time really passed?! The number matters none when I am feeling this young.
Then…Thanksgiving – newly one of my favorite holidays. A day devoted to gratitude! It's a day where we all pause to celebrate the blessings in our lives. How beautiful is that?!
Dec. 1st was the 3rd anniversary of my rebirth. The 'textbook-case" completion of my Whipple surgery was my own personal resurrection. Since then there's been grieving, letting go, accepting and choosing. The last with a little more clarity and maturity these days (I hope).
These milestones are like a church bell that tolls midnight with a dozen dongs on a crisp November night, slow and meaningful.
There have also been a rash of "remember that time…" mementos lately too - each uniquely and cumulatively good. On a glorious weekend just after my birthday, I helped the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network register the 1,400 walkers and runners that raised $250,000 for the cause of research and awareness. That Sunday evening, I appeared in the WPIX news story about the event. The night before I stretched well beyond my comfort zone in a staged reading of a series of one-act plays performed in our church sanctuary. That stretch is like pulling oneself up on a frayed and knotty rope strung across that river of life. Like milestones, it gives you a new perspective on who you are, where you've been and where you might go.
And where is God in all of this? God is at the center of each of these events because it is God's grace that allows me to experience these time milestones. It is that grace which allows me to hope into the future, to make plans for more and even better things.
Without any merit on my part, God has given me time – to experience, give thanks and contemplate. It's that last part that I am working on most. In my relationship with time, there's a tension between action and reflection. Action often gets the better of the bargain. It's all about finding that balance. Our actions define us but it's the moments in between that provide the fodder. The soul's purpose and direction are found in the pauses. I am learning.
I long to sit on the bank beside the stream more often. And for a little while longer, God willing.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Crossroads and Anvils

A couple of weeks ago, I had two life-changing verdicts arrive within days of one another. I was expecting one outcome to create a big redirection of my career path and earnings forecast. I was anticipating a life-change. The second result was much more important. I needed that info to come back as more of the same, no change – a cancer-free life continuing.
On one Friday, the first decision came back opposite to my expectation. I still have a job - the same job. With this news, life goes on mostly unchanged during my nine to five. It's up to me to get back to the grind and polish that stone into a diamond (or at least something semi-precious).
The next Thursday, I met with my oncologist to review the results of my 6-month CAT scan and blood work. This is the sit-down that really mattered - facing life or death in a well-lit room.
Once again I have been granted more life. Another clean scan! No changes. Thank you God! This trend towards more of the same is much more welcome than the last. What happened work-wise was a distant second to good health news – a side of gravy to the finest meal ever. I am unbelievably relieved. An incredibly good life full of possibilities continues.
Until…just like that, life changes. Within 24 hours of my renewed lease, my sister-in-law Jennifer was injured in a devastating auto accident. She is going to be okay but faces a long and already painful recovery. She has multiple broken bones and fractures – foot, arm, hand, ribs, back and eye. We are counting on the amazing talents of her medical team and her own spirit of perseverance to get her all the way back. The outpouring of love, thoughts and prayers are much appreciated and will certainly help. Thankfully, she and the friend who was driving her car have been improving daily.
Jennifer's accident represents a third direction that one's life can take that confronted me that a week. A life at a major crossroads can (i) continue on largely unaffected, or (ii) take a turn for the better or worse (sometimes we may not know which until the end of that particular road). Or the crossroad (iii) comes suddenly on an otherwise bucolic country road, a broadside out of no where.
Our default perspective is that our own life's "trajectory" is traced out ahead of us – as if there is a path. That ruse is laid bare when life pulls the rug out from under us and the truth falls like an anvil. Just like Wile E. Coyote, we have a hard time incorporating the lesson (of how transitory life can be) into our lives. That trajectory is really just momentum, and the confluence of factors that maintain our day-to-day consistent. Pull out any particular gravitational force and a life can go careening through space. There may be a path, but you'd be a fool to think that you can see much of it in front of you.
Once past the stunned stupor of Jennifer, I am simultaneously questioning and appreciating God. "How could God let this happen?" and thank God that it wasn't worse.
There's no making sense of life, or getting too comfortable in it.
Never forget to say "I love you".
Don't take anything for granted.
Syrupy, I know, but very true too.

PS – My thoughts are very much with three exceptional fighters that cancer took this past week. Wendy - who threw the first ball out with me at the Somerset Patriots Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day in July. Mary Kay – who mothered all of the Flushing boys. God bless her. And Steve Jobs. Peace to you all and your families.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Titanic

The ship is going down like the Titanic – a huge vessel, gradually sinking with devastating consequences for the passengers. I am not necessarily saying that the company is going under. Only time will tell. I am convinced, though, that it will never again be the same rewarding, fair, reasonable, fun and caring place to work again. I've seen many friends let go. Most of the rest of us are dangling, waiting to hear what our fates will be. Another 12% of the workforce on top of the 15% announced last year.
While reduced to mere gratitude for surviving each reorganization, many are wondering whether it is better to be left on the ship or to board a lifeboat. In staying, it seems like just a matter of time before your particular deck (level) goes under (water). In the meantime, you find yourself drowning in the work left behind by your dear colleagues that have already been "separated".
When they are targeting this many bodies, they go as far as to ask for volunteers. The company will seek out "hand raisers" who offer to be terminated in exchange for a separations package. It's getting into the lifeboat before it even gets lowered or the iceberg impacts.
It certainly takes a degree of courage (or exhaustion?) to voluntarily climb in. It is not a comfortable place to put oneself, for sure. It's a tiny vessel, close to the water and liable to be tossed by any wake or waves. Sure, there might be some provisions but it's tough to say whether they'll last. Floating on a seemingly endless sea – the economy being as bleak as it is - with no land in sight is nerve-racking. In the end, it could be a sweet island in the Caribbean - maybe the land of milk & honey. Or it might turn out to be trading a frying pan for the fire of another place of corporate ugliness with less seniority and vacation time.
For me, a separation package could also provide just enough cover to make the leap to what I want to be when I grow up. It frees up the time (and/or money) to make a running start at independence from "The Man" and his rotten system. Academically and professionally, thus far in life, I've pursued my strengths (math & science) – not necessarily my likes or wants. Or I've taken pains to become a more rounded employee or more "marketable" (an MBA). Always working toward some future payoff. That future seems simultaneously far away and very now.
Sadly, there are more than 15 million lifeboats out there. As is true for too many others, I wouldn't be in that lifeboat alone. The ante is upped by the precious family in my arms. But, as in every misfortune lie the seeds of a new opportunity. To achieve a new life, you often have to step (or get pushed) out onto that limb. Perched unnervingly, you can't help but be available to a whole new set of possibilities. For those of us light on imagination or guts – being tossed into that lifeboat might be just the ticket. Recognizing the all-powerful sitting beside me with the surest life vest ever will go along way to helping the faith part of the equation.
In the meantime, I am working on my rowing technique and trust every day.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Advocacy 2011

I participated in the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network's Advocacy Day in June. Survivors and loved ones of those taken by this disease go down to DC to urge Congress to pass a bill that would lead to a strategy that would make this diagnosis less than the death sentence that it currently is. I have been thinking a lot about advocacy and what it means since then. (A wonderful two weeks in Croatia kept me from capturing these musings sooner.)
Advocacy sounds like such a formal word and is not typically used to describe the activities of our daily lives. And yet, I believe that we do so quite regularly. There's the advocacy akin to lobbying for a position in the halls of power. But what about the advocacy we do for each other – for those in our family, our friends, our neighbors, those we love and those in need.
On the more institutional side, I was down in Washington advocating for more funding for cancer research. I find it interesting that in many languages, the word that we translate colloquially as "lawyer" is "advocate'. In that sense, it actually makes sense (and may not be such a negative) that many of our elected officials are lawyers.
This was my second year down and I, once again, found it to be near equal parts exhilarating and frustrating. On the one hand, what other country would allow an average citizen to speak with two Congressmen, one Senator and several aides about a single (relatively minor, in the grand scheme of things) issue in a single day? What an amazing country we live in! On the other hand, our priorities drive me batty. We routinely find the money to support the profits of large corporations and our nations richest but have to fight for years to take care of our sick and needy. The benefit from medical research is much clearer to me than what we gained by the $4 trillion spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars or tax cuts for the wealthiest 1%. I very firmly believe in a government of, by and for the people and it is maddening to me that we willingly relinquish that power. Forgive the soapbox, but… I see our priorities as a citizenry severely misplaced. I am convinced that the only way we can start putting real, deserving people ahead of faceless institutions is for us to talk about it and exchange ideas amongst ourselves. (So, I invite any and all of you to engage me in civil discussions if you agree with the choice of war funding and tax cuts for the rich instead of better pay for teachers, cops and soldiers and better cures for the diseases my children face. Please help me – because, I don't for the life of me understand that choice and really need to.)
We also have a reasonable expectation of advocacy in our lives. We expect that our elected representatives will advocate for us (or ought to). We expect our loved ones to advocate for us too. We want folks to look out for us, to listen to us, to help us when we are in need.
That same challenge also lays before us when it comes to those we don't know. We are meant to advocate for each other, for the friends we don't yet know, for the least among us. We all know someone who needs an advocate. There is certainly no lack of opportunity. Advocacy is a form of love and loving our neighbor. This is, after all, what Christianity calls us to do.
We are human. We need each other – and that's good. Advocate politically, because we have this wonderful system that allows it. Demand that your government and its' representatives advocate for you, because that's their job. Advocate for your family and friends because love call you to. Advocate for the neediest in our society because it's what Jesus modeled and challenges us to do.
Advocacy is exhilarating and frustrating and the only way to change the world or a life. Let's get to it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Lost & Found

I've gained and lost a lot over the past few years. I am fortunate that I continue to carry with me, all that I have lost. What's lost is precious and not forgotten.
My pain and suffering - such as it was – related to my cancer, was worth every moment of it. My physical pain was limited and bearable. It was the "emotional pain" of having my applecart so rudely and completely upset that was much more significant. That cart held all of my beliefs about life, faith, health, mortality and priorities. Having to reconsider and reorder all of that baggage, so completely and suddenly was breathtaking. I lost much in that exchange - mostly the appearance of a security that wasn't mine to begin with.
There is a reason that we don't live on the edge of death all the time. We keep our sanity by keeping our temporary-ness at a distance. That is the false sense of security, the necessary lie that allows us not to be petrified basket cases.
Nearly a year ago, I wrote this about that raw awareness of mortality:
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.

In the weeks and months after my diagnosis, emotional pain was thrust upon me. I've grown a bit accustomed to it. I don't run from it these days. The good health that God has blessed me with allows me the latitude to sit with emotional pain by choice rather than out of a need to survive. I've been practicing being present for others in need. I've found that it can be a life-affirming, rather than a debilitating act.
For me, it is the way that I've struggled to keep that lightening in bottle
Coming out of the locker room for this 2nd half of my life, I find myself more human with the appreciation of how broken and fragile I am.
A beautiful thing happened to me – my pain has made me more aware of others and their pain.
I've concluded that to insulate yourself from your pain is, in effect, to insulate yourself from other people and their lives. Hiding from your own hurts keeps you from empathizing with others. I can't say I chose to face mine, I had little choice. But it's had a pleasant unintentional consequence - the opportunity for greater communion w/others. So I'd ask you, my friends, to never shield me from what aches you or the truths I have coming to me. I think that I am ready on both counts.
It turns out that my heart has grown, its' capacity to love is greater. It's as if the void created in the space that the head of my pancreas, gall bladder and other parts that my great surgeon removed has been filled by more heart. I've found that it can do far more than I ever knew. And that's just the way that God works.
Here's to feeling more every day!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Worry and Trust

From Matthew 6 - You of little faith ! 31 "Do not worry then, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will wear for clothing?' 32 "For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things ; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 34 "So do not worry about tomorrow ; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. [you can start reading the passage from verse 25 to get the full effect]
I am not a worrier by nature. I don't lose sleep in anticipation of how circumstances might play out in the future. I don't imagine worst-case scenarios, fretting over the myriad of what-ifs.
But I am a planner. I proactively manage my time and relationships nudging my future towards more favorable outcomes. I develop routines that serve me well, albeit sacrificing some creative latitude. I leave the same time every morning, walk to the train along the same route and sit in the last car every day. In that sense, maybe I am just more active in my worrying – trying to head off trouble at the pass.
I have to say that I love that about me. That thinking ahead, planning, mending the holes in my life have been a survival mechanism for me since childhood, and I believe that it has served me mostly well. It is so core to who I am that any other approach is difficult for me.
For me, worry is alleviated by preparation. In fact, when I was diagnosed in the fall of '08, I was inadvertently in a fairly good position to deal with the unimaginable – somewhat ready for the rainiest of days. I was in prime physical shape having just completed training for another NYC marathon. I had achieved everything I needed to be happy in my life – a wonderfully loving and supportive wife, two beautiful children, a comfortable home and more than adequate material security. I was emotionally fit after years of self-examination. And last, but ultimately of most importance, I had enough spiritual strength to know that I had much more than all of the above going for me.
Given that we can't know what life will serve up to us, I wholeheartedly embrace the Boy Scout motto of always being prepared. Nonetheless, I readily recognize that it is not my preparedness but the grace of God (and further the expertise of several exceptional doctors) that allows me to stand here today.
There is, then, an entirely other aspect to this passage from Matthew. Throughout my challenging time (and in life in general) – beyond prep, there is this question of trust. I see it as the underpinning of all that Jesus asks of us and religious faith as a whole. This is my greatest opportunity because preparedness does not trump trust.
I can "trust" God regarding my health. Since my own vigilance can only take me so far, I have little choice but to trust. When it comes to other aspects of my future – i.e., my livelihood and the things that go with providing for those around/beyond me (those I love) – my trust is shakier. That's what I worry about. I prepare by earning a generous salary - to avoid having to trust. Making that need less primary requires more trust.
Yet, having been shown God's love and grace so unequivocally, I still struggle mightily with that degree of trust. I recognize that the bridge between worry and trust is God. Trusting is active. It means taking a risk. It means listening to what others have been telling me throughout my life. Trust is a spiritual discipline. Trust requires us to depend on others. Trust is what I am reaching out to God for most in my life right now.
It sure is a leap of faith.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Crisis in Confidence

Life's circumstances have swept in to challenge my very identity in the past few weeks. I have been forced to question who I am and what I believe in. You come to believe that the world operates a particular way. You think you know people, your family, your employer, your God, your country. Ah…at least my kids are exactly who I thought they were – pure and delightfully consistent.
One event epitomizes this unraveling. My much-loved 41-year-old cousin passed away after fighting against melanoma for over two years. At such a young age and w/two young children it is difficult to see much beyond the heartbreak. Though it was not sudden, it was no less shocking. It went so against "the way things ought to be" that it felt untrue even as it was happening. Even from a slight (if not safe) distance, it seemed like a bad dream. Weeks later, it remains unbelievable. As if to stress the point, we buried Jennie on Ash Wednesday and received our ashes at her graveside with the words "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."
Although I can generally see God at work in many facets of my life, I am struggling to find his presence in this situation. Instead of lamenting the tragedy, I've been trying to appreciate her wonderful life and the exceptional woman that she was and the two beautiful children she gave us. Still…it makes no sense and won't until we all meet again in that special place. For now, we are left with the hurt that is left by her absence. Very sadly, it is what it is.
It leaves my Christian faith severely tested, but intact. My incomplete comprehension (if not doubt), seemingly puts God at a distance. I find myself off of my path, in a bit of a spiritual wilderness. Still, this wandering as a result of profound questioning can actually grow my faith. Getting lost occasionally helps us to sharpen our bearings in the long run, making us stronger. I am mostly humbled by the reminder of all that I don't know.
Jennie's final months and passing offered me perspective (should I need more of that in my life). Nonetheless, I've also had a more secular identity crisis recently in the midst of this other turmoil. Though it pales in comparison, I've faced challenges at work far beyond anything I've yet felt in my 20+ career. My best effort wasn't nearly good enough and I wonder whether I am still the effective employee that I've always considered myself to be. Am I really now, suddenly a failure? Could I really have fallen so far? The Man keeps asking for more and offering less. It might just be that both of us have changed in this relationship. Jamming two people's work into one person's job may make sense from the shareholders perspective, but much less so from the point of view of this job holder. Reconciliation is looking less and less possible. And as my boss reiterated, given the state of our economy and industry – unfortunately, it is what it is.
At the end of it all, I am, most thankfully a cancer survivor. (I will leave aside for now the survivor's guilt that I have become acutely aware of lately.) My 6-month CAT scan and blood work came back all clean. My lease is renewed. Fortunately - thank you God! – it is what it is.
Questioning my identity today, I am focusing on who I want to be tomorrow. Inspired by Jennie, motivated by the need for more fulfillment and granted more time by God's good grace – I am off to recreate me. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Creating the Reality I Need

Sometimes we like to take credit for the state of our lives. The career, the family, the house, the car(s) – the fact that we are satisfied, happy, achieving. Sometimes we conveniently don't accept responsibility and lament the things that happen to us. We may lose our job, find ourselves alone, in foreclosure, depressed or sick. Stuff happens to all of us in life and it is easy to feel slammed by seemingly random circumstances. Which parts of our lives are our own creations? How much of life gets handed to us, fairly or not? Does it matter?

I have been reflecting on my blessings, circumstances and happiness. I've struggled with many of the big decisions in my life. Even my best choices and creations have left many, many mis-starts and mis-steps in their wake. Even when the products are pretty, the process often isn't. Life isn't about the outcomes as we often make it out to be, but that messy process. The destinations may be somewhat unknown, even as we set out – and yet, we soldier on, in tune with some good feelings that drive us on from the inside.

A little more than six years ago, I acted beautifully in my own self-interest by committing to a lifelong relationship with Jacquelyn. We got married, symbolically creating a new entity on that day. The challenge for us, as for every couple, is to choose that relationship all the time every day. Now, I gratefully recognize that all the best things in my life flow from her.

A little more than four years ago began the adventure of a second, equally wonderful, blessing – the creation of Ana and Noah. Nothing brings me more joy in life and no one has taught me more about myself and God. They are constant reminders of what is important and matters most in life. Their whole existence is about learning to relate to the world around them. We sometimes forget that those relationships to others are the way that we understand ourselves.

I was pushed out from a complacent shore in a little boat on another odyssey a little over two years ago, on the day that my doctor confirmed that I have pancreatic cancer. I don't know what role I might have had in "creating" the cancer in me. Finding myself in the cancer boat, I am comfortable with the idea that it didn't "just happen" to me - without implying the judgment that comes with blame. I do readily concede that it is God's power and grace that has allowed me to keep babbling about it on this blog. I will be so bold as to take responsibility for the creation of my current reality as it relates to the cancer. I respect but don't fear it. It has helped me more than hurt me so far (thanks be to God). It has challenged me to make the most of every day. Once adrift, we row.

My friend Frankie taught me a lot about the world of responses to life's circumstances. Frankie passed away last month. He had been going for a while – spending all but a few weeks of the last 13 months either in a hospital or rehab facility. Frankie left this world graciously. He fought for his life joyfully and then decided to accept his death with the same smile – inspiring every one of us that saw him in those last days and weeks. In his death (as well as life), he taught us how to live. He took an inevitability – for him even more urgently than for the rest of us – and created it on his own loving and considerate terms. For better or worse, few of us will have that opportunity – to create our own passing. Or do we, in a sense, every day of our lives?

Life is defined by our responses to the things that happen to us. We never have to be victims. We can create our reality, regardless of the circumstances.

And so, given the biennial cycle that has brought lovely creations (and challenges) to my life – it seems like I am due.

May I have the courage to create more beautiful things in my life in 2011.
I pray the same for you.