June 2011

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Two Fridays ago, we had another impromptu dinner gathering. Cathy and I tried not to smother Nicola and Jason with the devotional woo-AHHHH-ery we Anglophiles sometimes slip into.

Nicola, aside from being funny, charming, and FROM ENGLAND, had completed a triathlon earlier that day. We were all so impressed but trying to remain cool.

So it was to be an evening of being inspired and learning important things. For instance, at one point, late in the evening, Ryan rose to demonstrate how to help a neighbor herd some cattle in a pinch. Because, well, you just never know.

“You have to make big,” he described, waving his arms over his head. “And walk like you mean business.” Ryan had been scared of the cattle at first, which is honestly hard to imagine, but “if you make big, man, they actually move,” he assured us.

I instantly fell in love with the phrase, the idea, the gesturing, the whole thing.

Make. Big.

In one moment, you aren’t big or strong in the cows’ eyes. The next minute, you “make big” and then, wow. The cows will move because, with the right attitude, you *are* big.

I folded this idea in my dinner napkin and discreetly stashed it for later.

This past weekend, we went camping with Lil’ Salty’s family. We’d planned this trip months ago, at the beginning of spring, before the second coming of winter, which finally, finally yielded to some good old soak-down sun.


I’d been a little worried about the trip, how I’d hold up physically. It’s a lot of work, camping. Even if you have someone like Dennis doing most of the work, and little J helping, camping can wear you out.

But I decided to make big and see what would happen. I threw myself into everything, carried things back and forth, hauled dishes to the sink in buckets, and rode my beach cruiser around the lake to the perfect fishing spot.

I sported an athletic look and acted athletic, and just waited for the moment where I felt like I needed to be “realistic” and start to pull back. That moment never came.

I don’t know what it was: the fresh air, my new yellow bike, the vibrant, cheerful energy the kids flung around them like rose petals, but I felt stronger than I have in a long while.

I caught Lil’ J looking at me with what seemed like pridejoyhappiness when I lifted my feet off the pedals and zipped past him on the bike path, smiling. It felt good to have the pre-cancer verve that kept me going in the before-time. It felt even better to know Little J was bearing witness.

Lil’ J was in heaven on this trip. He had a playmates around the clock in Lil’ Salty and Zabby. And he followed around the pretty pre-teens, Pia and EQ, like a faithful puppy, sometimes standing with his juice box and just staring at them. Outside their tent while they read. Just staring.

“Is he still there?”


“What’s he doing?”


The only one of us who might not have had a perfect time was Dinospike Connor, the blue-belly lizard that Dennis caught and the boys kept in captivity for the worst half-hour of the pretty reptile’s life.


Caption contest, anyone?

I’m pretty sure Dinospike Connor got back to the good life the minute we let him go. We did. We washed hands then dug into Leigh’s famous campsite spaghetti and meatballs (I added the handwashing part. I think we forgot, or maybe there were wipes?). Anyhow, best spaghetti that side of the Sugartown Creek. Mmmmm. Hmm.

Now, today Little J’s at summer camp and I’m getting chemo. I still feel the campfire warming my legs and can hear myself sending Little off to sleep by singing him songs in the tent.

I’m hoping to make big all summer long, to take it easy when I need to, but to go ahead and ride once more around the lake whenever I feel like it.


Blurry but a keeper. Who wants to guess how old he'll be when his legs are longer than mine?



Ps: My “make big” metaphor is sort of a flawed one (Stephen). Unless you consider the cows are the cancer, or maybe my doubts about my physical abilities are the cows. But it somehow works.

And besides, I’m the kinda lady who accidentally forgets to take her bicycle helmet off for a really long time after a ride. Sitting by the water and enjoying a snack? Still wearing the helmet. Standing at the water’s edge in a cotton dress and hiking shoes, watching the kids swim? Yep, helmet on. And buckled.

I’m not perfect. Neither are my metaphors. But it’s ok, I figure.

Inside Diego's (saber-toothed lion) mouth. Ice Age 3

The three of us lay in bed, arms around each other, just a normal Saturday morning snuggle. Then Virgil pushed his way in, lying on his side between Little J and me, his head on the pillow like a person. I couldn’t believe it. Little J said, “Now the whole family is here.”

Dennis said, “And everyone has an arm over someone.”

And then Virgil put a paw on Little J.

Where was the photographer in that moment, to capture the four of us? A plaited loaf of love bread warming in the filtered Saturday morning sun?

I closed my eyes and tried to soak in the feeling for thirty seconds. Yes, I counted. Why?

Last Thursday night, when I should have been home nursing a budding cold, the nerdier side of me took hold, and I took my hankie and clip board to a lecture on brain science and spirituality by neuroscientist, Rick Hanson. I’m so glad I went.

Among many fascinating things, Hanson talked about the brain’s natural “negativity bias.” Apparently we’re wired to give far more importance to negative occurrences than positive ones. Evolution favored our ancestors who were hyper-vigilant, nervous and constantly rehashing horrible things like say, a near-fatal run-in with a saber-toothed lion. That’s how the folks of yore survived, by remembering every detail of a terrible experience so that they could better protect themselves the next time they were stalked by a sharp-fanged mammal.

What happened to our ancestors who sat by the lake, thinking positive thoughts and not reacting to negativity and drama?


So I guess we can stop beating ourselves up for quickly forgetting the fabulous news (clear PET scan by the way, with ZERO signs of cancer) and focusing on the one negative interaction that hurt our feelings. It’s hardwired in us to do just that. It’s not our fault. Yay.

And! According to Hanson, we can evolve our brains in a new direction. Since we don’t have to be worried about that saber-toothed lion anymore; since it’s now proven that focusing on positive, loving, and compassionate thoughts will extend our lives, not shorten them, we can diminish the negativity bias and create a positivity bias.

To do this, Hanson suggests a practice called “Taking in the good.” All you have to do is spend a few minutes each day savoring the thoughts and emotions of being loved, connected, and compassionate. It’s important to not simply visualize, but to feel the emotions connected to the chosen moment. When a good moment occurs, concentrate on the details. Give yourself twenty to thirty seconds to soak it in.

I feel Little J’s warm cheek pressed up to mine, the smell of Virgil’s kibble breath as he purrs, and Dennis’s hand on my back as he holds us all in his embrace. The morning moment in time, for keeps, for savoring. Taking in the good.



The trip to the pretty town by the sea was perfect and humbling.

It was great to see my parents. My mom had prepared and provided for every little thing we might need. Amenities for the heart and soul were left bedside: home-baked cookies in decorative tins, a stack of new books for Little J, a crossword book for Dennis, and a People magazine for me.

We walked along the boardwalk:

Visited the elephant seals:

Climbed on the rocks:

And searched the horizon:

My dad and I, in visits past, had taken long, vigorous walks (sometimes runs) over the hills and through the woods to the ocean. I’d shown him yoga poses and he’d shown me Thai Chi moves. We’d stayed up late talking about films, books, politics and whatever-the-heck. We’d gotten up early and headed out again.

Boy have things changed.

We stood Sunday afternoon in the living room where an oak tree had recently crashed through the roof. You’d never know of the rift now, the ceiling and wall repaired and polished over.

My dad says to me, “I never thought I’d be walking with a cane.”

“I never thought I’d be wearing a wig.”

“Always one-upping,” he answers.

“Always,” I say, needing the last word.

A long silence stretches between us and out the window, through the oak trees that have stood there forever, unassumingly, like there’s no effort involved in being that old and beautiful.

A deer appears out of nowhere. My dad says, “I was hoping she’d come today. She visits me every day. We have a special connection.”

We are both so much quieter now, father and daughter, both of us nearly ground to a halt by physical goings-on beyond our control. Both of us remain as active and seeking, but in a different way: more from a place of stillness and not needing to do or be so much all the time.

I realize that we are more alike than ever.

The next day, Little J comes running along the shore with little specks of mom and grandpa in him. He flies down the shoreline, stomping magic into the wet sand and breathing new life into everything we always thought was fixed and true.

He shows us how light and exciting and easy it all really is.




There are days when I try to unravel and explain and understand things and I somehow just get exhausted and tangled up.

Ultimately I can not control anything, from other people’s behavior to the results of the scan which will come on Monday.

As I’ve learned with my father, if I can just let him be who he is and stop trying to change him, it is enough. If I stay away from the people and things that make my life difficult, that is enough. If I love with all my heart everyone in my path, that’s enough. I think we all try too hard sometimes. I know I do, and it’s unnecessary.

Little J and I took Heather’s dog Kirby for a walk today. Little J skipped the whole way.

When I find myself needing to understand and explain and control, I’ll just savor that visual of my boy and the dog, so present and joyous.

And for you, too. Here is a poem I love, by Mary Oliver.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

© Mary Oliver