Inspiration

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Taken at a very hip coffee shop near Carolyn and Tommy's house in Portland.

One of the things I adore about my new iPhone is that I can post to Fourseeds from just about anywhere. So today I’m doing something I’ve never done before: blogging from the chemo chair.

I should point out that my friends, family, and I have begun to refer to chemo as “getting juiced” since every Monday is now chemo day, or Juiceday.

This Juiceday, I’m thinking about a phrase Byron Katie uses a lot: Love what is. (By the way, I love “Byron” as a first name, and did you notice the Oscar winner last night who gave a shout-out to his daughter “Bronte”? Awesome.)

Byron Katie’s an inspiring writer and speaker whom my friend Jill told me about over lattes recently. Katie uses the Socratic method (asking questions) to awaken people to the concrete things they love about who they are and what life has handed them, no matter how dire their situation seems.

She doesn’t talk people into being happy in spite of the difficulty in their lives. Rather, she leads them to discover what they love about the life that pain and difficulty has brought them.

I think embracing Katie’s notion of “loving what is” requires a belief in a bigger picture, a broad plan that we all somehow fit into, a context where natural disasters, disease, and mean people make sense.

I personally agree that we’re all part of a bigger plan that we can’t quite grasp. Believing this gives me some relief, and it supports my conviction that my role is to love: to love my son and husband, to love my family, to treat my friendships with reverence, to take the best care of myself that I can, and to live with the biggest heart possible. I can say that my role in this life felt much more complicated before November of 2008 (when I was diagnosed), and that I lived with a lot more stress, many more feelings of lack, and wanting always just a little more of everything, and from everyone.

I do love what is. And if it takes weekly Juicedays to experience that love, so be it.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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Only Love

I took this photo in Sevilla, Spain on Valentine's Day 1996.

Last Valentine’s Day, I posted that this day is Dennis’s and my first-date-iversary.

This morning, the three of us woke up to sweet surprises thanks to Hallmark, Little J’s unending enthusiasm for candy-related holidays, and the one thing that keeps this family moving forward no matter what: Love.

Last week, Dennis and I talked about how this would be a special Valentine’s Day. Instead of awkwardly wooing each other over gimlets in North Beach, we’d hold hands and make each other laugh while we embarked on our next cancer-venture: the Morab-003 trial. Chemo on Valentine’s Day might seem cruel to some, but for us it’s perfect. Love is our secret power. So today is an auspicious day to get this leg of the journey going.

But perhaps it is not meant to be.

We got a call this morning from the trial coordinator saying my white cells are too low to qualify for the trial. They’re supposed to be 1.5. They are 1.25. So I headed out into the rain to get a STAT blood test at Sugartown Community. And as I type, we are waiting to find out if my neutraphils have risen another .25 since Friday.

Can a girl get a break? I mean, PLEASE. Enough already. This trial looks so promising, and I am going to admit to you right now that I will be heart broken (broken) if this doesn’t work out for me.

While we’re waiting for the phone to ring, let me share some photos with you. I took these in Morocco in the Spring of 1995. I had been living in Spain for several months and needed my passport stamped because it was illegal to live in Europe without a visa that long. And back then, they were more strict about it. I also went because I’d been in love with the idea of visiting Fez ever since I’d read Anais Nin’s writings about the ancient walled city:

Fez. I have just left the balcony where I stood listening to the evening prayer rising over the city. Overwhelmed by all I have seen.

Mystery and labyrinth. Complex streets. Anonymous walls. Secrecy of the houses without windows on the streets.

Fez is the image of my inner self. This explains its fascination for me. Wearing a veil. Full and inexhaustible. Labyrinthine. So rich and variable I myself get lost.

Fez is a drug. It enmeshes you.

The layers of the city of Fez are like the layers and secrecies inside of me. One needs a guide. Traveling, I add everything I see to myself. I am not merely a spectator. It is not merely observation. It is experience. It is expansion. It is forgetting the Self and discovering the self of affinities, the infinite, limitless worlds within the self.

Here is a photo I took of the entrance to the old Medina of Fez or, فاس البالي:

And once inside, I took a photo with a different camera, one with black and white film:

And this photo is my most cherished of all non-family photos, of all travels. Ever.

This morning, I took the picture out of my jewelry box, where I keep my wedding hair clip and treasured string of perfectly matched pearls, a college graduation gift from my parents. I need to look at and share this photo with you this morning.

Who knows how it came to be that this little girl was standing alone, in the darkness, in this tiny alley, in a walled and roofed city that one could get lost in. Forever. Maybe, even at her age, she knew her way around the twisting, turning, walled-in cobbled pathways of the old Medina better than most.

You can’t see it, but she is smiling at me. I remember sneaking this picture because I’d been told Moroccans find it offensive to have their photo taken. But I had taken out my camera and aimed it down this corridor before I knew anyone was even there. The flash revealed her. And in the quickly fading burst of light, I saw her smile.

I’ve treasured this photo for fifteen years. Not because of its quality. Because of its mystery. Because of the confidence, bravery, and beauty of this little girl, standing in a dark alley, alone with one tiny light bulb. She’s almost like a little ghost, or an angel.

I feel that Anais Nin would have loved to have seen her there. Or maybe she saw her, too. Maybe she’s the inner self that Nin finds in the city, in her travels. Anyway, she’s my symbol of bravery and hope right now. And now I’ve got to go.  A tiny doorway just opened on my own twisty path. The coordinator just called, and my white cells are 1.7. Morab-003 is on.

Hugs and Happy Valentine’s Day.

Jennifer

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Hello! Today marks the first anniversary of Four Seeds. Readers have popped up like wildflowers around the world over the last twelve months, and here we are together, celebrating the arrival of 2011.

Instead of making resolutions this year, I’ve decided to plant seeds of intention. Four seeds, to be exact.

The first seed is the intention to focus on those who inspire me.

Who inspires me?

First there’s Dennis and Lil’ J:

How can a girl not be inspired by these guys?

Then there are the women in my life: my mother, my friends and family, and the other survivors I know. They are my mentors every day and in ways they don’t even realize.

Now I want you to meet three more remarkable women who inspire me to live like I mean it in 2011.

Kris Carr

Kris, a cancer survivor and wellness warrior, is a film-maker, juicing advocate, and a dang good writer to boot. Anyone who has cancer, or knows someone with the c, should check out her books and film. And her website is chock full of resources for tapping into your own inner magic through healthful practices.

And speaking of magic:

Meet Kate Shela.

The Spanish have a special word to describe people like Kate: duende. It refers to that certain mysterious something that some people exude and transmit to others just by being. Take a look for yourself.

A healer, shaman, and dance teacher, Kate clearly follows her life’s calling without fear or reservations. She emanates loving energy, and to be near her is to be transformed by the openness of her heart. Kate teaches seminars and dance throughout the US and the UK. Check out her schedule as she may be coming to a town near you!

And finally, meet Laura Shawver.

Laura is a cancer researcher, surfer, and ovarian cancer survivor. She founded The Clearity Foundation with the intention to provide individualized treatment for women with ovarian cancer. She’s helped hundreds of women with the oc and has raised awareness about the kind of tailored treatment that will lead to our eventual cure.

What unites these three amazing women is that they live from the heart and improve the lives of those around them simply by pursuing their passions. That inspires me.

Who inspires you?

Hugs,

Jennifer

ps: Forthcoming seeds of intention are (you guessed it!) renewal, beauty, and love. Stay tuned.


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Mari

It’s early October. The ER doctor asks,

“After your husband, who do you want to make the big decisions for you, if something goes wrong?”

“Her,” I answer, nodding toward Mari.

She doesn’t flinch. But after fifteen years of knowing Mari, I can read her stillness the way a sailor reads the moon. She’s thinking, “Um, for reals? Are you sure?”

In the last couple of years, Mari and I have spent more time together in hospitals than outside of them, which is why I was so happy to be out in The City last night, under a gorgeously full moon, celebrating her “twice-the-legal-drinking-age” birthday.

Just outside the window of the restaurant where we sat nestled in a corner table, chilly dark SF streets slanted up away from us. Phantoms of the two of us from years ago still traipse up and down those North Beach hills, I’m sure. They laugh about a waiter known only as, “The Pahck-ahhjj.” They sit for hours in the North End Caffe. They eat at Cafe Trieste and drink at Specs. They re-tell stories, glorifying and embellishing. Okay, that’s mostly me.

“Yes, it was at Tosca’s. We were there and we saw John Stewart, drunk, leaning on his girlfriend…” I brag.

“No it wasn’t,” Mari remembers more honestly, ” it was Rob Schneider at the Steps of Rome Cafe.”

“Oh yeah,” I admit. But I still like to blow the stories out of proportion. There’s no other way to capture the feeling of those now-illusory events.

Last night, we huddled around Mari, bonfire of joie de vivre that she is, and feted her as she deserved to be. As always, I felt it wasn’t enough, could never be enough.

It’s early 2009.

“How do they look?” Mari asks me. She’s modeling hospital-issue pajamas, sneaked to her by the charge nurse who, within moments of meeting Mari, fell in love with her.

“They look big,” I say. I’m laughing, even though this hospital visit is a tough one. Dennis had finally agreed to go home and be with Little J, only because Mari could be there with me.

“They’re huge!” Mari laughs, pulling the hospital pj’s up to her chest. I’m laughing so hard I can’t breathe because  she’s now Ed Grimly with the over-sized pants.

Last night, after the birthday dinner, we all stood shivering on the edge of Washington Square Park. I kissed Mari goodbye on the cheek. I could see she’d had a good birthday, and I wished I could have given her more: a year of birthdays strung together like pearls, an apartment in Paris above a creperie, mauve roses and  stacks of the best books she has not yet read, days and days to write and laugh and travel with friends. James Franco.

All of this would still not be enough. And not just because she’s been there for me through the happiest and unhappiest days and nights of my life. And not just because she helped me manage my dress in the powder room on my wedding day. But because she shows me how to laugh and to live with joy, to see the world for how ridiculously funny it is, especially when it is trying so hard not to be. For reals.

Forkab, Wamster P. Vinigh

Love you, Mari

Jennifer

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Have you ever seen the film, The Double Life of Veronique? It’s by Polish director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, who’s probably best known for his amazing trilogy, Three Colors: Red, White, and Blue.

Veronique tells a fantastical story of two women: Veronique, who lives in Paris, and Weronika, who lives in Poland. Physically identical, the two women live parallel lives but haven’t met. It’s a great film that uses magical realism in a way that pushes an uncanny story through a sieve of supernatural believability. Supernatural believability? Wha?

Get this.

I have a friend whose name sounds like Maria. We are close in age and live in parallel cities. We aren’t identical, but if you fused our features, we’d look a little like Irene Jacob above (mostly because of Maria’s Eastern European beauty).

Dennis and I walked into my gynecologist’s (let’s call him “The Prince”) office on November 17, 2008. We left in tears over the news that I had a late-stage version of ovarian cancer and needed surgery and chemo asap. Four days later, Maria and her husband walked into the same office. The Prince gave them the same news.

On November 24th, a cracker-jack surgeon from UCSF and The Prince spent five hours removing the cancer and many parts from my body. Two days later, the same two doctors did the same for Maria. She was put in the hospital room two doors down from mine. I remember walking past her room with Dennis and his brother Mike when I was just barely ambulatory. I heard Maria’s husband talking in a hushed tone on the phone while Maria slept.  “It is at least stage III,” he said in a Russian accent. “They said they usually never catch it earlier than that.” I knew what he was talking about.

Two weeks later, I went to see The Prince. I told him that malignant fluid had moved into my lungs and that my cancer was now Stage IV. But I wasn’t worried. The chemo was going to work. I knew even then. He gasped  in amazement. The Prince said the exact same thing had just happened to Maria. Fluid had gone into her lungs, too.

Six months later, I finished my treatment, and as many of you know, enjoyed a year-long remission, cancer free. In May of 2010, I was back at the Cancer Center, getting chemo for my recurrence, through my fancy port. The woman next to me was looking at me like she knew me.

“Are you Jennifer?” she asked.

“Are you Maria?” I answered.

Her cancer had returned around the same time mine had.

We stayed in touch and became friends during our synchronized treatment cycles. Halfway through treatment, I called her and said, “Listen, my hair got too thin from the Gemzar, so I shaved it off on Friday. I wanted you to know before I see you at chemo on Thursday.”

“I did, too,” she said.”On Friday.”

Of course.

We both responded very well to the chemo, a combination of Gemzar and platinum, our disease retreating as quickly as it came. We are both feeling stronger day by day in our second remission. And we are both starting another parallel journey together, a vaccine maintenance  trial at UCSF.

Here’s how the trial will work. Fifty percent of all patients will get a general immune-stimulating agent made from some kind of Chilean tree bark. Fifty percent of patients will get the bark agent plus a vaccine designed to keep ovarian cancer from returning.

“I had to take my cat to the vet,” Maria said to me recently.

“I did, too! Last week!”

“Of course.”

“I hope we both get the vaccine.”

“Me, too!”

Hugs, and Go Giants!!

Jennifer

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Little J and I were bright awake at 6 a.m. (still on Sugartown time, which means we actually slept-in two hours!). Letting Dennis have a few more well-deserved hours of rest, the Little one and I slipped out in our bare feet, and headed down to Brennecke’s Beach. We arrived just in time for sunrise.

Little J, in his too-tight goggles, his skinny, long limbs, and volcanic energy, charged into the waves like some kind of crazed fish who’d just seen the ocean after a long while of trying to live on land. His little fists pump the air with excitement, and his cries are born of something between delight and pent up frustration.

I fly in after him, flinging my hat, sunglasses and towel away from me.

Together we dive and splash and gasp and laugh. Every wave, though totally expected, knocks us down like some wild news that we were the last to hear. We’ve gotten good at this, as a family, I realized. We don’t try to take a wave until it’s right upon us, crashing down. Then we dig in our feet and brace. If it is too strong and drags us under, so be it.

In the space between the waves, we laugh hysterically, pointing at each other like new-found friends. Exhilarated.

This goes on for at least an hour, and I’m totally spent. It’s more energy than I’ve exerted in a long time. The only way I can get Little J to rest is to bury him in the sand up to his neck. This works for a short while since he’s laughing so hard, the sand is falling away faster than I can pile it. He can’t resist the urge to unearth himself and races back into the water.

I follow suit, but now we’re floating. Not bashing against the waves. The golden light of the early sun plays on the water, our skin. It flickers and mingles with what I can sense as healing energy that rises up from deeper water to just below the surface, where we’re suspended gravity-free, at last. It is somehow a perfect baptism by the alchemy of saltwater and surrender.

I think of Chris and Bob, Monica’s parents. Kind enough to share their Hawaiian home with us, they’ve made this retreat of renewal possible. Little J and I shout a loud, “Thank you!!” that we hope will fly across the two oceans that separate us and fill their hearts with the spirit of Mahalo Nui Loa during this difficult time they’re facing. We send them (and you) love and energy to crash through unexpected waves and to float when you can.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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Tomatoes

I’m really excited about tomatoes right now.

For the last ten years, since the first year we lived together, Dennis has been planting tomatoes. The first few years, when we had a spectacular garden behind our little rented cottage in Rockridge, the tomatoes were amazing and plentiful. The next several years, we moved a lot, and the tomatoes really never ripened as well as those East Bay stunners. This season brings our first crop of tomatoes in our Sugartown house. And they are scrumptious.

I’m so inspired by the taste of this fruit, by the fact that, when I pick one in the heat of the day, I can taste the spirit of the California sun in each bite. So I’m going to make sauce. Lots of sauce.

I called a local organic farm that is expecting a bumper of San Marzanos later this month.

Zoe from the farm is going to call me when they have the tomatoes that won’t sell at market because they are too ripe or less than perfect. I’m going to drive up and get those tomatoes, and with a little advice and equipment borrowed from Leigh’s chef friend, Ingrid, I’m going to jar sauce. This way, I can feed the family on the California sunshine all winter long. How pioneerish, right? Like I said, I’m excited. I’ll let you know when the call comes from Zoe and take pictures of the process.

In the meantime, I want to share a sauce recipe I made up the other day.

I went out to the tomato vines with my bright red colander and picked a handful of Super Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes (vine selected and planted by Dennis) and a few Early Boys (selected and planted by Little J). I pulled off the greens and put the tomatoes right into the slow cooker. I drizzled olive oil and about a quarter cup of red wine over them. I added some sauteed onion, garlic and red pepper. I sprinkled on salt, pepper and oregano. Then I cooked them on low for four hours.

When Little J and I came back from the pool, the house smelled heavenly. The tomatoes had released a lot of liquid, but were still whole (!?). I smashed them up with a wooden spoon and added a small can of Muir Glenn organic tomato paste. Then I let them simmer for another hour. The smell was intoxicating.

I blended the sauce with my Braun immersion blender, which is the best cooking tool ever because you don’t have to transfer hot contents to a blender. Then, I pressed the liquid through a fine mesh colander to separate out all the skins and seeds. The result was a creamy, delicious sauce that looked like a too thick tomato soup and tasted like  a balmy evening in southern Spain.

We dined alfresco that evening as it was the hottest night of the year. Little J ate shirtless and shoeless. He devoured a plate of ravioli smothered in the sauce made from the tomatoes he grew. Then he played in the back yard while Dennis and I ate the sauce over shredded spaghetti squash (which looks like pasta. Have you cooked this? It’s amazing).

I’d added some fresh basil during the last ten minutes of cooking and a little chevre to gild the lilly. Wow. What a satisfying meal.

A little bit of heaven from a little red fruit and a gorgeous end-of-summer night. Dennis and I sat outside later with a glass of wine and drank in the stars for dessert. Perfection.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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This morning, I was so inspired by Dennis’s playing music, then I read this poem from one of my favorite books, The Illuminated Rumi:

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

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Melody Gardot

Instead of chemo yesterday, I had a blood transfusion. My platelet count was too low for me to be treated. At first, I was so disappointed, mostly because this means we’ll be pushing the end date of my treatment out by one week. Then Mari pointed out that I actually just earned another week of summer, a week of feeling good at that. Getting two giants bags of blood added to your system is a very positive thing. A-positive, to be exact.

So I got my blood and wow! (Dear vampires, I see what all the fuss is about.) I haven’t felt this good since maybe 2007. I’ll be enjoying an extra week of summer with extra energy and feeling strong. Fabulous. Blessing in disguise. Which reminds me. Do you know the story of Melody Gardot? Mari told me this one.

At nineteen, Ms. Gardot was hit by a car while cycling. Injuries to her head, spine, and pelvis kept her in a hospital bed for an entire year. Lying on her back. It also left her with hyper-sensitivity to light and sound, so she has to wear sunglasses all the time, even indoors.

Melody used music therapy to lift her spirits and to help with the neurological damage that made it difficult for her to speak, think of the right words to say, and remember things. During this time, she started to play the guitar and to sing and write her own songs.

I think you’re going to want to add her to your play list when you hear this. Enjoy Ms. Gardot singing Worrisome Heart: (ps: The second photo looks exactly like the street I lived on when I lived in Spain, right Jon?)

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I have a friend whose name sounds like Mandy. She is a warrior. She’s a couple decades my senior, but you would never know it looking at her, or walking with her. Several months ago, when I was in remission and she was nearing the one year mark of chemo to treat a particularly stubborn recurrence of ovarian cancer, we went for a walk. She lives south of Sugartown, in a beautiful neighborhood by the water.

Halfway through the walk, I was getting pooped.

“We can sit down and rest if you like,” she offered, pointing to a bench.

“I’d better not,” I answered, “if I sit down, I won’t want to get back up.”

Mandy is still getting chemo for her recurrence, and it’s been over a year. She’s doing better. The treatment is working, and she has the upper-hand.

We talk often. She’s one of my greatest inspirations. She’s so strong, positive, and is lucky enough to have a pain threshold the likes of which I can’t even imagine. During my treatments in 2009, some of you might remember I had intrapertioneal chemo, which goes straight into your abdominal cavity and sits there, bathing the organs and tissues. I barely made it through two treatments. Mandy did six treatments with no pain, and very few side effects.

“Everyone is different,” she offered me kindly when I was making the difficult decision to stop the IP chemo and to go back to IV infusions.

“Yes, you are superhuman, Mandy, a warrior.”

Recently Mandy called me to check in on how I was doing with my treatments.

“They’re going well,” I told her. “My numbers are dropping and the chemo itself is not as hard to bear as I thought it would be. “But there’s the pain, always the pain. It seems like I can feel each cancer cell dying.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Pain has been your thing with these treatments.”

“Yes, that’s for sure. And how about you? How are you doing?” I ask her.

“Me? I’m slowing down. Instead of walking three miles a day, I’m only walking two.”

That’s right. Over one year of chemo treatments, and walking two miles a day, or nearly every day. I don’t know about you, but I find that inspiring.

At the BBQ the other night at Heather’s, I was telling Bob and Debbie this story. Debbie was as impressed as I was. Bob was impressed, too. But when I said, “I couldn’t do that,” he answered, “It’s all in your head.” Then he told the story of running the New York Marathon at age 60, nine months after running the LA marathon at 59.

I was inspired by this to walk Little J to Preschool the next day. It’s about a mile total, there and back, and I was exhausted. Baby steps. Baby steps. And don’t you worry, mom and Ms. Miller, I will be taking it slowly, a little bit each day, remembering the strength of the Bobs and Mandies out there who are ignoring obstacles every day.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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