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We are writers. We have embarked on a new phase in our lives: one where exploration, discovery, learning, adventure and
restoration are the key elements. We will be chronicling our experiences. (Subscribe to our blog at the bottom of the page.)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Damn the Uncertainty

If only....Sign at a local church

One thing is certain about aging. It will be filled with uncertainty. I remember a friend who was considering early retirement and, therefore a reduced pension, say, "If only I knew how long I'm going to live, then I'd know how much money I'd need." Of course, she couldn't know and, playing it safe, she decided to stay long enough at her job to garner a full pension. Uncertainty hangs over everyone. Like the saying goes:"you could die in a car crash tomorrow." But it is the awareness of uncertainty, the sense of the fragility of our lives and our choices, that grows stronger as we age.

Throw an illness, like cancer or heart disease, into the mix and the
uncertainly can become paralyzing for those afflicted and those around them. I'm in the midst now of trying to not let uncertainty control my feelings, my outlook and my plans. To not let worry ruin the good in my life. And I am really struggling with that.

Peter has finished his cancer treatments: his radiation, his chemotherapy and his surgery.* Now, he is recovering and getting back to his writing projects, starting to think ahead, talking about a road trip soon and a longer trip in the fall. I'm still not able to join in wholeheartedly.

This week we met the oncology team and they seemed quite certain that Peter is doing well now that the tumour is gone from his esophagus and the nearby lymph nodes. But the surgeon is still concerned so we have to wait for a future CT scan for more news.

Some people - and maybe I'm one - are more anxious about uncertainty. Perhaps I'm what Julie K. Noren, the author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, calls a defensive pessimist, someone who uses worry and low expectations to prepare for the worst and think out strategies. Noren says the "half-empty" people aren't worse off than the "half-full people" if they use their pessimism as a tool. That's worked for me time and time again with short-term anxiety about traveling to a dangerous place or taking on new work and life challenges. In those cases, it meant planning for all possible outcomes and not allowing my fear to become panic. In creative processes, I knew I didn't care enough about a project if I wasn't constantly uncertain about its outcome. The accompanying anxiety forced those back-of-the-mind solutions to pop into my brain.

But cancer seems different and this uncertainty is going to be long term. Even patients declared cured of cancer walk through life wondering if the cancer will return. So do their loved ones. "Cancer is a tricky disease," the oncologist admitted. "If we see it again, it's usually in the first two years."

I looked online for some guidance on living with this kind of uncertainty and found the expected "list," advice of The American Cancer Society for patients, advice from a psychologist in Oprah Magazine and lots of guidance on living in the moments from Buddhist sites. There wasn't anything particularly new to me. I did already know I should be trying stress reduction techniques, mindfulness, focusing on what I can control. But that's the rub. We can do what we can to safeguard Peter's health and the life we've built for ourselves but there are no set strategies to stave off cancer's return, no map I can draw to gain control of my own anxiety. I admire people who can truly live in the moment with spectres of disease or financial disasters looming over them. I'm just not sure how to become like them.

What did get me thinking about how to rise above the anxiety was a reference to Eleanor Roosevelt and her views on fear in one article. "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face...You  must do the thing you think you cannot do." It reminded me that for years I kept another quote of hers nearby. "Do one thing every day that scares you." I can't say I've done something frightening every day but the idea of it has helped me to get on a motorcycle for the first time, travel into a city divided by civil war, drop a job that wasn't working for me. But for me, trying something scary always came with a backup plan.

Now it's this anxiety over cancer that scares me more than anything. But I'll be damned if it's going to rob me of the joy I feel in my garden, the pleasure of an outing with Peter, my desire to learn new skills. I don't have a clear road map yet. I'll keep reading about it and keep Eleanor's quote in mind each morning, trying to fill each day with more life than fear.

The other day over lunch at our sunny table, Peter and I pulled out old maps and planned a short road trip. He grew excited about a museum we could see, a bar that specialized in grappa. I grew excited about traveling again, of seeing new scenery and making new memories that didn't involve hospitals, nursing clinics, cancer centres and fear. Happy at the possibility that there will be days without fear over the uncertainty. D

*Peter is blogging about his cancer treatments and his own emotions in his
 The Man Who Learned To Walk Three Times blog.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Taking Care of Myself

I like to think that throughout my adult life I've had the good common sense to take care of myself. I've tried to take care of my body by (generally) eating right, (generally) getting enough sleep and (less generally) getting enough exercise. It's an attitude I've always planned to carry into the third phase to keep up my energy and to avoid doctors as much as I can.

I've also tried to take care of my mind with new activities, new writing projects and learning new skills. And of my soul by trying to forgive and love all I can.

"Taking care of myself," however, can be a difficult attitude to maintain when life goes off the rails as it has for us this winter with Peter's diagnosis of cancer of the esophagus, his month of radiation and chemo and his recent complicated surgery.

In the many encouraging notes I've received, people reminded me to take care of myself. And I have to admit, while appreciative of their concern, it often just seemed like one more thing I had to do. And I wasn't quite sure what they were saying.

I'm sure they don't mean eating every last potato chip in the house, pouring myself an extra glass of wine, eating a second or third helping of food which I definitely didn't need because I was distressed watching Peter struggle with a forkful of dinner. I'm sure they don't mean spending hours of mindless time playing computer games. Or feeling angry and terrified.

But what were they saying? Sometimes, I imagine they meant I should have bubble baths with a glass of champagne at my side or take myself out to dinner. Although their expressions were well-intended I was just never sure what they meant.

I have wonderful friends who have taken care of me with offers of rides, lunches, gifts of soups and puddings, plants and body treatments. One amazing friend arranged an apartment for us to stay in while we had some treatments in the city. I have been grateful for it all.

That said, I wasn't heeding the advice to take care of myself because, as I said, it just took too much thought and energy. Then I remembered back to an earlier time when my life went wonky and I stopped taking care of myself. It was after my ex-husband decided to end our marriage, leaving me with feelings of inadequacy and hurt, leaving me with the need to make a life for myself and my toddler daughter.

I had the good sense then, at least, to get some counselling sessions. And I remembered - as clearly as if I was sitting in her office - when the counselor asked me if I was falling into bad habits. I admitted that, although I'd never been anything but a "social" smoker, I was now smoking regularly even though I was prone to chronic bronchitis. And I wasn't eating. She then asked me what I had done over the course of my life that I found soothing. I sat for a bit before coming up with a short list: listening to music, walking in nature, preparing a tasty meal, reading an uplifting book. "Do those things," she said. And even if my list sounded like a corny Hallmark card I did those things. And I got through it. Prospered even. Felt stronger than I ever had.  

Her words came back to me this winter. I knew how to take care of myself; I was just letting the fear and anxiety win. In the space between treatments and surgery I re-booked a weekend at a spa with my daughter that I'd had to cancel after we got Peter's diagnosis. I knew there were more anxious days ahead but I tried that weekend to live in the moment, to revel in my daughter's company and her joy. I let myself be indulged with the "detox" treatment package. I nodded absently when the reflexologist said my adrenals were working overtime and giggled with my daughter while we ate in robes and dunked in the outdoor hot tub on a relatively mild winter day.

Surgery did bring more anxiety and I both failed and succeeded at taking care of myself. I let myself panic at the extra long wait in the waiting room as the clock hand moved further and further past the point the surgery was supposed to end. But I let myself be soothed by the people waiting with me, Canadians from all backgrounds with loved ones in for all kinds of surgeries. Strangers, we shared our stories. I was the last of us to hear from a surgeon. By then only one woman sat waiting for her husband to be moved from recovery to a hospital room. A friend had come to wait with her and when she saw how distressed I was she asked my husband's name and began a long prayer in Spanish. I'm not a religious person but I let her words and kindness wash over me.
I ate bad hospital cafeteria food of fries and the saltiest, greasiest grilled cheese I've ever eaten. Comfort food that brought no comfort. But in the next days I brought food from home or walked to a cafe where they made good soups. And, on the day of the surgery, when I was reeling from the surgeon's mixed messages, I had the good common sense to let others know I was hurting. My sister soothed me on the phone; friends wrote comforting messages. My American doctor friend insisted on paying for a hotel so I wouldn't drive home every evening and get into an accident on a wintry highway drive. I could afford the hotel but had never thought to indulge myself that way. Her offer gave me permission to take care of myself by not trying to do it all. Her words reaffirmed the common sense I was in danger of losing track of; she said she had seen too many caregivers brought down by trauma and illness because the attention of the medical team is on the patient.

And that I believe is the message I will carry into the third phase, a phase where all of us have to balance our own health, our own needs, our own desires with our concerns for a parent, a child or a spouse. Taking care of ourselves means different things to different people. Some of us are programmed to lean too far one way or the other. Finding that balance just might be the key to survival, if not happiness.

Oh, and now that Peter is home recuperating, I had a great workout today at the gym.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Thinking Hard about the Brain

I tend not to worry excessively. I tend not to dwell on the down side of every or even any situation. The exception might well be dementia, Alzheimer's, or just any sign that my brain might be deteriorating. When I was first starting Chemo, one of the things they warned me about was Chemo Brain and that freaked me out more than anything. You can put my body through a wringer but leave my brain alone. Of course that is a self-defeating attitude but not as uncommon as you might think.

If there is anything that has us baby boomers freaking out it is the possibility of literally losing our minds. It is the stuff of novels, movies, dire health reports and frantic efforts on the part of scientists around the world. And it is the stuff of snake oil salesmen. Anytime there is a big demographic group with money and a problem or worry there are people willing to take advantage.

Luminosity is the company responsible for those never-ending ads about how neuroscience says playing games, and, by implication, giving Luminosity big bucks to play those games will make your brain stronger and put off cognitive decline. Late in January, Luminosity agreed to pay the US Federal Trade Commission a two million dollar fine for misleading advertising. It seems the neuroscience wasn't quite as clear as the company's marketers wanted us to believe.

On the one hand, this confirmed my deep suspicions. If games were what made the brain tough and resilient there's Backgammon, Chess, Go, Mah-jong all freely available in real life and on-line and all in their own way deep challenges, so why would you have to shell out money to a Corporate Game Maestro simply because he claimed to have access to neuroscience? On the other hand I am not alone in hoping, desperately hoping, that there is something I can do, some trick I can employ, some MacGyver spin I can implement that might mean I am lowering the odds that I will succumb to my greatest fear. If Luminosity doesn't make the brain more supple, what will, what does?

Not being able to do something, anything, is the other big fear of Boomers. We are a generation that came to believe we could conquer any problem thrown our way. It is part of what makes us as a group seem so arrogant, makes us as a group seem smug. Of course it has never been true that we can conquer everything but that has never stopped us from believing we can, from insisting that we can. So, is it hopeless, is there nothing that can be done to forestall or evade Alzheimer's and its cohort of mental nightmares?

Actually there is a fair amount of interesting science and reassuring initiatives out there to make me at least more calm, if not 100% reassured. Scientists are learning about genes and their role in developing cognitive damage, drugs are in the works that seem to be able to reverse some if not all the effects of Alzheimer's, and money is pouring into a myriad of different ideas and research avenues. What's not certain is that any of this will pan out or that any of this will be easily available to most of us.

The good news is that I experienced not one bit of Chemo Brain. The bad news is that I can't stop playing Mah-jong.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ready to Run?

I've always been a walker. I love thinking out things and seeing the world around me when I walk, whether I'm take a meandering stroll or moving energetically at a fitness pace. I've never been much of a runner; I've tried to start regimes several times over my life but could never keep at it.

In my twenties, I suffered from several bouts of pneumonia and serious bronchitis and I used my lungs as an excuse to stay away from running. And then there was the whole thing about knees. I wanted to keep my knees as long as possible because of the fact I love to walk, and cycle and garden and climb dunes and rocks.

But lately I've been craving running. Ever since Peter received a diagnosis of cancer and all through the hideous weeks of finding out how bad it was I wanted to move fast, to dispel the anger at an idiot and rude doctor who took far too long to get to a diagnosis, to shake the fear, the uncertainty and to feel healthy myself. I also knew I'd have to be strong for the months ahead and that meant fit and mentally calm.

Our daughter came to visit the weekend we got the diagnosis. She somehow inherited my love of walking and my ambivalence toward running. In the summer, she described herself as a "runner," thanks to some zombie-run app on her phone that didn't stick. She is trying again and has a new app that is training her to run. It has a program that increases the amount of running over the course of thirty-five minutes each time she does a workout. While she listens to a playlist of music, the app tells her when to walk and when to run and when to cool down. We found an earlier version of the app for the old Ipod I have for my music. My daughter instructed me to make my own "running" playlist. Find songs that "get you pumping," she said. "You can't run to Leonard Cohen." So I found the fastest music I had including some obvious choices like Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, and the Dixie Chicks' Ready to Run. I threw in some more Bruce, some Dire Straits and some Johnny Cash (I am of that generation.) I even found a few of Lucinda Williams' songs that worked and yes, some Leonard Cohen. There'd be cool-down periods after all.

I can't say I'm a runner yet - not by a long shot - I've only tried the app a few times. When the day by day app increases the amount of running too quickly for me I just go back to the day before. Day One is still quite popular.

The old worries about running remain. My lungs are in good shape now, my heart; my joints in relatively good shape. But I'm a cautious person and a journalist so I had to check out whether it's stupid or not to take up running in the third phase. I found mainly good news. A study in Medical News Today reported that seniors who run slow down the aging process and are better at walking than seniors who walk for exercise. And there are lots of running websites and tips online for how to do it right.

I'm not wrong to worry about my knees which have held up pretty well so far. But it seems that avoiding injury to the knees has as much to do with the runner, the training style and the surface (I do find  an indoor track easier on the knees than the sidewalks.). But it doesn't look like I can get away with using my knees as an excuse anymore. For those without past injuries or who aren't overweight, running, if done properly, might actual be good for knee joints.

I don't know where my running app will take me, perhaps just back to walking. Peter begins five weeks of intensive radiation and chemotherapy this week for third stage cancer of the esophagus. And then, hopefully, surgery. I'll be running when I can, running for both our lives. D

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Redefining "Second Childhood"

I like the old-fashioned sound of the word, "dotage," although I don't like its definition much with its connotations of decline, poor judgement and ill health. To be in one's dotage is not to be in a good place. There's another phrase I like even though I fear its meaning: "second childhood." It describes a stage of the old when they are as dependent as small children. Both dotage and second childhood suggest that dreaded state of dementia when old people are no longer in control of their thoughts and, therefore, their lives.

But what if we redefined second childhood to describe a phase in life when a person has the time and the strength to look at their first childhood seriously in order to make peace with the bad and sad of it and revel in the activities that gave them joy back then? What if we redefined it as the phase where we say,"I'm too old for that," in a defiant way as in "I'm too old for that shit," and think of it as a time to play as freely as we did - or wanted to - back then? As a time we jump over the need for success and material possession back to a place where our sense of right and wrong was the strongest? A second childhood where this time we have the power and means to do some good.

High horse thinking. I know. But those of us who can manage financially without the rigours of daily jobs should be capable of creative play, meaningful acts and more high horse thinking. We have that pause in our life to fill and what better way to fill it.

It's been a year since I left the institutional work force. It's been a year of settling in to a new rhythm of life, of settling into a new home and developing a garden that reminds me daily of the joys I experienced as a child growing up on a fruit farm. The mud, the taste of a hot tomato from the vine, the lost hours under a tree. They are all wonderful. My first childhood was a decent one. But, like every child, there were hurts and disappointments which I can reflect on as I pull weeds and plant trees. All the power and all the responsibility to make the most of life are mine in a second childhood.

Moving into the second year, I feel the need to be engaged again. I've no desire to be limited by the hours of a college instructor's schedule or the office politics of the journalist's world. I don't see myself going back to full-time work. But I miss the sense I was doing good for others - working on a story that matters like the current refugee crisis, helping non-Native speakers accomplish their goals in English. Like a child churning at a new stage of growth I am trying to figure my way through that now.

There was a recent article in The Atlantic on discovering the narrative of your life, of adjusting it, of finding its arc.What better stage of life to do that and what better source of material for the second childhood than the first. We can edit out what we didn't like, build on what was good and recreate the best. Only this time, the stakes are higher. In our second childhood, we don't have those seemingly endless years ahead as we did with the first. The last chapter is not that far away this time.

Friday, August 14, 2015

When One is the Loneliest Number

Loneliness can suck. When I've felt it at various periods of my life, it left me listless and desperate for ways to end it. It left me uncertain about myself and careless in my actions. I've been lucky though; I've had the right people and some good coping tricks to pull me through each time.

But it seems loneliness is becoming an epidemic. We are becoming a lonelier society, isolated in our easy-communication world from real friends and meaningful contacts. In an article from the Globe and Mail Elizabeth Renzetti documents some sad facts: social isolation is the biggest concern in the city of Vancouver, more Canadians than ever live alone and a quarter of them describe themselves as lonely.

The article is almost two years old but with updates still circulates on the Globe's website which says more than the article itself about our fear of loneliness.

When it comes to seniors, the article quotes a Statistics Canada figure from 2012: Twenty percent of old people report feeling lonely.

Being alone is not equal to loneliness. After all, the 75 per cent of those who live alone in Canada and not mentioned in the Renzetti article didn't describe themselves as lonely.

Loneliness is the cruel cousin of solitude. Solitude allows for creativity, a greater connection to the earth and a strong sense of self. Loneliness brings all the opposites.

Loneliness also pushes people in directions that can harm them. This summer  The New York Times reported on swindlers who take advantage of lonely, aging woman trying to find new partners to share their latter lives and ease their isolation. Even the fear of loneliness, the fear of dying alone, often keeps people who are in relationships in bad ones.

No one wants to die alone. Wild actor, Jack Nicholson fears it. I fear it. We all fear it. No one wants to be the British woman whose body was discovered six years after she'd died. According to Jezebel.com, those who fear dying alone are childless, have children who live far away, live alone, have physical or mental impairments, live in rural areas or are the loner type with small social networks. That covers a lot of ground.

I know childless people with the fear. And I know people who live alone with that fear. For me, my fear centers around the fact that I am a bit of the loner type without a lot of social networks.

But that's what it is: a fear. None of us can predict how or when we will die. There's little we can do about it.

On the other hand, we can tackle loneliness as we age, find ways to build a community we are comfortable with, reach out to those who we know are suffering loneliness now. We can avoid the traps, work on ourselves and work with others to stay connected. It might be one of the greatest challenges we face in The Third Phase but that doesn't mean we can't do anything about it.

That may sound Pollyanish. But as a girl I always admired the spirit of Pollyanna. Pushed in the mud, she found a quarter. I'd like to see how an older Pollyanna would handle loneliness. D

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Third Phase Vacation Conundrum

When I left the CBC, a few years after Debi did, a good friend said 'the biggest change you will experience is that in this phase of your life...you get to decide if Tuesday is a Saturday or whether Saturday should be a Tuesday. See, in the Third Phase, your schedule is your own. Where this gets slightly more complicated is when you aren`t talking about the days of the week but trying to figure out when or if you are on vacation. Being on a vacation is nothing like being hungry or tired...sometimes you need a clue.

So we conducted a bit of an experiment.

And we are back. We have been away, well not really away physically but mentally. We decided to take a vacation, or as folks like to say, a staycation because we checked out of normal routines but stayed put. That meant not writing for money, not attending to some of those weird household jobs that seem okay during the week but not on a day off or a week off. We`d leave the house for little excursions, we`d eat great food late at night, we`d sample local wines and beers and do things that had long been on our list that we'd never gotten around to.

And we thought about vacations and work life balances which gets really tricky if what you are really wrestling with is life-life balances. The big issues was why travel seems to be so much a part of how we think about vacations. We travel; we both love to travel. Sometimes travel is about work, an assignment, a research project. Sometimes travel is an adventure. Travel can be hard and arduous. Travel can be and often is mind and spirit expanding. So is all travel a vacation and does a vacation imply travel?

Vacations are conundrums. The reality is that taking a vacation was unheard of for most people until relatively recently. The word itself is connected to a break when the law courts weren`t operational, or so Wikipedia tells me, and that suggests a break for a very particular type of class of individuals. In the early days of the 20th century, cottages and resorts were the nearly exclusive luxury of the well-to-do. I know when I was a kid, vacations were about the family driving to visit relatives. When I was in my twenties and thirties, vacations were all about seeing things I had never seen.

But now, in our Third Phase, what's a vacation? Ironically, as I sat down to write this I received a free e-book from the University of Chicago press, "Travelling in Place: A History of Armchair Travel" For a moment I was lost. Travel could be done inside a room, confined to a room even. If so then if travel was truly essential to a vacation than a vacation could be me staying put, staying in my room even. And if my vacation is me staying put, then what is the difference between staying at home and travelling? And ultimately does any of this matter?

It matters because giving shape and meaning to life is what life is about and documenting that is what this blog is about. Vacations are part of the rhythms that we are are used to and are comfortable with. Vacations are also a way of forcing oneself out of routines and habits that always bear occasional evaluation. You become aware of loops and strictures often by stepping away for a moment...stepping a long way away or crossing the room. In fact, there is a whole emerging science of vacations that is providing keen insights into how to plan one, how to best enjoy one, how to reflect on one...

Our vacation was great and the proof of that may well be that we were sad when it was done. And to be completely honest, I am already planning the next one and the one after that. P