I’ve been on retreat.
I won’t get into the details of why, when, or how I ended up in this sacred place called “Callanish”, deep in the mountains of British Columbia. But I will say that, although I don’t look for signs in my life, like a cloud shaped like “The Giving Tree”, there was some unknown force that pulled me there.
I spent a week with a group of women living with breast cancer, in most cases metastatic, some of them young, like me, with elementary school-aged kids at home. We explored a range of difficult subjects – identity, love, isolation, and fear.
The experience was beautiful and painful, a re-birth in many ways. Only through great physical exertion do we bring forth our children into the world, and as such, I had to pant and sweat and whack at the underbrush to clear a path for this baby-soft new me. A “me” who doesn’t want to shut herself off from the world. A “me” who no longer dreads making plans for coffee with a friend. Lets her text messages pile up. Doesn’t respond to email. Can’t mention her kids in her blog posts because it’s just too painful to go there.
I’ve had many happy moments over the past few months. The kids’ nightly tuck-ins and discussions about their day, long walks along the Hudson with Jackson, whose quiet and loving company I’ve come to appreciate more than ever.
As much support as I’ve gotten for the honesty in my recent posts, the fact remains: I am scared. With data at my back that suggests that I won’t be here in five years, I’ve had many hard days.
I’m not playing red or black at Roulette. In fact, those odds would thrill me. Without my consent, the universe has put all of my chips on a single number, and as the wheel spins, I am powerless to control where that tiny ball will jump, skip, and ultimately land. I know that eating well, meditating, and all of my new-aged “integrative” habits will serve me well. But even when you do everything that is required to heal yourself….even then… the odds will terrify.
I didn’t realize that I was holding on to so much mental baggage, so when I arrived at the retreat, I was surprised by the work that needed to be done.
I had an epiphany after our first full day – “self love!” I confessed to the group as I walked through ideas about how I could be a little easier on myself, and treat myself with the same loving kindness that these new acquaintances, both participants and facilitators, had bestowed upon me.
On the second day I had a breakdown. After realizing how deeply traumatized I’ve been by my experience with cancer, and in some ways, by my life in general, I became paralyzed by the sheer volume of work that lay ahead. Though my house was clean enough for guests, I’d “peeked behind the radiators and felt overwhelmed by how much dust lay there”.
Seeing so many corners filled with grime, and with no immediate fix in sight, I found my way back to my bedroom where I lay in the fetal position, skipping lunch, too nauseated to eat.
But each day I joined the group and did the work. With each discussion I felt the kind of emotional collapse that happens when you’re told difficult news about someone you love.
I’d hunch over my legs; cover my face; grab for a tissue, an act that felt as useless as cleaning a bathtub with a cotton ball. Then we’d break for lunch. We’d go through the same process in the afternoon. Then we’d break again for dinner.
“Why put yourself through this?” you might ask. Why spend a week feeling torn apart, disrobing so personally in front of a group of strangers? Or, as one of the participants admitted, giving yourself fears that you didn’t have before?
Even though I felt as though I’d been smacked against a washboard, I found clarity and meaning in our discussions. Strangely, in talking about emotional subjects like loss and death, I felt a sense of peace. I’d been running away from my fears for so long. No matter how many creative getaways I planned for the lake, how many healing soups I cooked, or therapeutic blog posts I wrote, I couldn’t’ escape.
I’ve been searching for an analogy. Something that will make sense of the comfort that came from these discussions because it sounds counterintuitive. How could talking about death be comforting? I thought of an example that might explain:
Picture yourself faced with an upcoming exam. Something critical – the bar exam, or the MCATS. And here’s the key: you don’t know the date.
So you leave it too long. You dawdle and procrastinate. But the more you ignore it, the more stress you feel. You don’t figure out a plan, you don’t open any books, you don’t talk to the professor. You don’t know what the potential questions might be so you can’t figure out any strategies. You skip meetings with classmates and there again you’ve lost out because you don’t get to compare your notes.
Imagine how that would feel. How it would feel to push off your preparation to the last few days or minutes. Cramming into a short period of time the work that you wish you’d taken more seriously. The stress going into that exam would be torturous.
Now, take another approach. Accept that your test is on the horizon. The administrators of the test may ask you to take it in the next few months, but they also may decide to give you more time. Years even. Decades. Rather than procrastinating, you proactively learn the skills and techniques that will make this test a little more approachable. You read, you think, you do the work.
Because – and this is a big “because” – doing the work won’t make the exam happen sooner.
And – and this is a big “and” – if your exam does happen tomorrow, or in a few months, you won’t have any regrets. Regrets about asking yourself the important questions – what is it that you’re searching for in life, what will make you happy? Are you enjoying your time here or are you so focused on your future – success, money, retirement….or even the past – who you were, what you’ve lost, should’ve, could’ve, would’ve – that you didn’t take the time to enjoy the present?
I know that an exam is in my future. All of us should know that, but in my case, the administrators have warned me that I may have to take mine sooner than planned. So I’ve started to build a comfort level in my understanding of the subject. I’m studying, and feeling more prepared. And when you’re prepared, that exam, however challenging and fear-provoking it may be, doesn’t seem quite so intimidating anymore.
We were nearing our time to leave the retreat, and as you can imagine, most of us were nervous about coming home. Our five days together had been life-changing, and we weren’t sure how to explain our experience to friends and family. How could we summarize our time without taking hours? And the inverse – a few abstracted minutes might minimize the experience. In the process of doing so – might we also diminish our memories of our time together? Our memories are moldable, like clay, influenced by our recounting of our own stories. And the result: the very real possibility that we might ask ourselves – “did that really happen?”
“What are you going to say?” I’d asked one of the participants, who I now see as a trusted friend. Even though we were heading into a group “re-entry” discussion (like prisoners? I’d teased our facilitator), I was fixated on this issue. I had changed and there seemed no simple way to convey this change in words. I wanted to protect the experience, and keep the memories alive; unmolded.
My friend talked about what she was planning to say to her family. I responded that I’d been contemplating using one word: “Amazing” and then throwing an A-OK hand signal. Maybe that little gesture would get the point across. That my experience had been profound, and that I’d like to keep it private.
It was a nice little fantasy.
The day after I got back, I called my Mum. We talked for 3 hours, with me holding stage for most of our conversation. We talked about things that I’d been bottling up for years: pressure to succeed, illness, how I want to live my life going forward. We talked about not keeping secrets, of which I had many. Afterwards, felt like I’d taken a shower and emerged clean, lighter even, ready to move on. Our relationship – though always good – has never been better.
The words haven’t stopped. Over the next five days I wrote nearly 10,000 words on the topic of ‘fear’. I came to my writing class with the kind of headache that accompanies hours of LED screen time. “This wasn’t our homework”, I said to our instructor after class, “but I wrote 30 pages on ‘fear’. Would you mind reading it?”
I’m not sure what I’ll do with that personal essay but I’m trying to find a home for it. It likely won’t be here as the length might overwhelm this space. But if I do find a home, I’ll make sure to at least post the link.
Many struggle with fear. Though we may not admit it, fear is part of life, particularly given the world in which we live.
Though we explored our fears in great detail on retreat, it was only after hearing about the Paris attacks on my firsy day back from Callanish, that I felt compelled to write about fear; more specifically, how to live, and thrive, when the drum of fear deafens.
After all, I’d walked out of Wall Street on September 11, 2001, shaken by the collapse of buildings that had plunged us into darkness. This, just weeks, after my first cancer diagnosis.
This is a heavy and emotional post, but I’m feeling good these days. Better than the last few months for sure. Possibly even better than the last few years. You can hide a lot of heartache behind a few laughs. I needed to get out the duster and start cleaning behind the radiators. It’s a process, I’ve just scrubbed the first corner, but I’m making my way to the next. Certain that I’ll feel overwhelmed again. And again, and again. But I’m touch with the part of me that accepts that this is life, and that I don’t need to run so far anymore.
In the spirit of anonymity that we pledge at Callanish, I’m sharing some pictures of our hideaway in the woods but have left out any images of the inspiring women with whom I shared this space. And if you’re reading this Callanish women…your stories are still playing in my mind; they will be with me forever. Love and strength to all of you.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.