Sugartown

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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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We were so wishing for snow today. The weathermen had our hopes soaring, and bone-chilling temperatures had me dreaming of waking up to a winter wonderland. Alas, the sun is shining and the briefly frosted-over grass has already thawed. Ah, California.

It’s been a busy time since we arrived home from Portland on Monday night. Little J’s school was closed for “ski week,” so Tuesday he spent the day with his friend JStew while mama got chemo. It was a snap for me. A short 2.5 hours in the chair, and I was done. I barely had time to get through all my magazines.

Wednesday, I was a bundle of energy thanks to Decadron, the steroid they give me with the chemo. The stuff makes for a red-faced and talkative Jenn the day after getting juiced.

Thursday was tough. It seems like two days after chemo is going to be my one pooped out day of the week. But that’s doable.

Yesterday was full of treats because Linda traveled up from the South Bay with her little ‘uns for a play day. The kids worked on out-sillying each other while Linda and I caught up and wished we lived closer.

Last night I went out with two new friends, moms at Little J’s school. Dinner and drinks at Finn’s with these two sweet ladies reminded me of what puts the sugar in Sugartown.

No snow, but lots of sugar. Lots of sweetness.

Hugs,

Jennifer

Penguin photo credit

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Branches from Heather's quince tree, clipped and soaked in warm water to get early blooms.

Many winters ago, my friend Joanne and I took lunch-time walks around a little lake near the office where I worked in the East Bay. We chatted and marveled at the early blooms and sunny days in January, a phenomenon she and I dubbed California’s “Early Fake Spring.”

During those walks, unbeknownst to her, Jo taught me the art of making a new friend.

She’s Australian and was living in the East Bay at the time. Our husbands worked together. She had to make new friends every time she and her husband moved, and clearly she had developed her own sweet process of it. Up to then, I’d made friends by simply meeting people I liked at work, college or whatever, then became friends with them. Happenstance is what brings friends together, but there’s something more conscious that allows a true friendship to grow.

I took notice of Jo’s thoughtful approach to making a new gal-pal: setting up coffee dates, suggesting  walks, then evenings out with the husbands, eventually trips out of town to Tahoe or Yosemite. But she also remembered certain things about me, took an interest in things I was interested in. And I followed suit, taking interest in her nieces and nephews back home, the books she was reading, cooking. We gradually shared personal stories and struggles, trusting they would be kept between us. I don’t know how to describe it really, and maybe it’s a given to most of you, but I realized for the first time that the path toward a new friendship is sacred and beautiful in and of itself.

Since then, I’ve approached the process of making new friends consciously, moving slowly, building trust, holding secrets with care, like a tender beating heart. I’m not perfect at it, if there is such a thing. But I don’t take it lightly, that’s for sure.

Since those January walks, I also learned to look at my existing friendships as precious living things, to be cared for, kept in the sunlight, and nurtured. That way, inevitable absences or unavoidable misunderstandings are nothing a cup of tea and a hug can’t fix.

Luckily, before I moved to Sugartown, I’d learned from Jo that making new friends is something you could enjoy more if you do it consciously. When we first arrived, I was lucky to meet some lovely friends right away, but after that, I got sick and didn’t have a chance to meet new people. But over the years, even during treatment, I’ve been able to meet pretty remarkable women: a couple through the chemo room, one at soccer practice, one at gymnastics, another at a mother’s club meeting, and now that little J is in Kindergarten, a few more through school. Thanks to Jo and what I’ve gleaned from her artful friend-making, I’m enjoying making new friends in this town. And I’m content to take each friendship slowly. Letting it flower.

Eight years on from those January walks with Jo, we are currently experiencing another California “Early Fake Spring.” A few days ago, I clipped some branches from Heather’s quince tree and from the next door neighbor’s apple tree. I smashed the roots and put them in a pot of warm water. I’ve never tried to “force blooms” as it’s called, but was inspired this year to do it. And now I’m off to prune the roses, cut them back to stalks and clear away anything that’s choking those roots. It’s sunny today, but “Fake Spring” will end, and we’ll be back in the clutches of winter and its too-cold fingers soon enough. I’ll have blooms indoors and roses that are ready for the next wave of cold.

Write down the names of your dear friends today, and draw a heart around each one. Think of something sweet about them. They will feel it, I swear.

In fact, I have to tell you, Joanne contacted me from Australia, just as I was writing this post this morning and said, “Can we have a Skype call?” I kid you not. And we have not been in touch for a while.

The love we feel for our friends is alchemical. We can change them and ourselves with our sweet thoughts. We can bring blooms in winter, create a fake spring any time of year.  Here’s thinking of you.

By Leigh

Hugs,

Jennifer

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There’s been no shortage of love fests this holiday season.

Grandma visited, and there was rollerskating on the driveway-just like it was 1976 in SoCal all over again.

Sugartown had its annual Christmas party. Almost all of the neighbors were in attendance, including the Sugartown gang, who tore through the house making spirits bright.

Technically this isn't a pic from the party, but they were all moving too fast for anyone to capture them on film, so I had to use this one from a few days before. Behold the costumes!

And Santa left quite a haul at our house, as we were nice this year. At least we tried to be. As often as we could be.

Little J and me engaged in a smiling contest. J's sweater, a gift from grandma, renders the boy impossible-not-to-cuddle.

Later that day, visits by uncles Mike and Tom were icing on the gingerbread house.

But Christmas with the family across the bridge was the most spectacular. Just ask little J, who was smothered with love from his talented and gorgeous cousins.

And for those of you who know Little J, you will recognize the following as nothing less than evidence of a true Christmas miracle:

You see, he does poop out. Only once a year, though.

We’ve had so many visits from friends and fun outings (bowling!), as well as quiet time by the fire and good ‘ole playing on the cul-de-sac. I want to capture all the fun and love in a snow globe and save it for later. Give it a good shake right before bed and dream it all over again, whenever I want to.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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My check-engine light came on recently. One of the things I love about being in remission, about being clear of disease, is watching myself freak out about something like the check-engine light coming on.

“Sh*&t! This Jetta. It’s time for a new car. When am I going to get the time to take it in to be checked? And the cost? It’s bad timing. Totally inconvenient. Can’t believe it.”

And then the laughing, the laughing that ensues when I find myself literally freaking out over the check-engine light.

So I arrive at Leigh’s yesterday morning. She offers to drive given that MY CHECK ENGINE LIGHT IS ON. And it’s just as well. The Jetta is a might too small to hold Little J’s energy, let alone Lil’ Salty’s and his sister Snabby’s. Off we go to Muir Woods to watch the boys stomp, sing, splash, and chat up passers-by, basically add to the beauty of the park while we girls talk.

Then this morning, I’m dropping off Little J and heading to a first-grade classroom to do a little volunteering. My phone rings and it’s the coordinator of the maintenance trial I’m starting this week. Oh boy, excitement.

“We found something on your October 7th CT scan that the other radiologists wah, wah, wah.” Her voice becomes round and full of sounds that aren’t words.

“Come again? You found what?”

“You need to have  Pet Ct. We’re not sure you can start the trial…concern of new disease…wah, wah, wah.”

The next thing I know, the blood is drained out of my hands, but I’m somehow passing out flashcards to a small group of smiling six-year-olds.

“The long A sound, that’s right,” I hear someone say. It sounds like me. It is me.

“No, it’s wait, not wail,” I say to someone with ponytails and to myself.

“Miss Jennifer, help me find which word is wrong.”

On my way home, I call the nice lady back, the one who had passed on the news, and I ask her if we can have a do-over on our conversation. Yes, it appears I’d heard her correctly. Something one group of radiologists did not find, but another group did. I’ve heard of this happening before, and it turns out to be nothing. Nothing. I check for my gut reaction. Definitely, it’s nothing. I know it. We will have proof soon and the trial will be back on.

After Muir Woods yesterday, Little J and I got back in the Jetta to head back home from Leigh’s house and guess what? The check-engine light was off.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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The lights flickered on and off just before the thunder and lightning came. Then the six-foot ladder blew right off the back deck while Heather and I were hunched over the couscous and cucumber salads, chopping away. Just when I thought the foul weather might be a bad omen for the party, Dennis entered and announced, “It always storms on my birthday. This is great.”

And so it was.

You should have seem him out there in his storm jacket, grilling sausages in the downpour. With a flashlight. He and Tom had spent most of the day rigging a tarp over the pergola in case there was the slightest chance that people would want to go outside. There wasn’t.

But indoors it was gorgeous and candle-lit and cozy. Friends and family had driven across bridges and through the rain to celebrate with us. Everyone was smiles and happy-to-see-you’s and dressed adorably.

One of my favorite moments was when Shelley (gorgeously preggers with twins!) had the brilliant idea of re-staging an old photo of Dennis with some of his best friends.

This was taken in August of 1988:

Ryan, Dennis, Paul, and Seth

November, 2010:

Oh my gosh, we are all so old. But the guys just get better with age, don’t they?

The party is over, but the happy energy still lingers. We cozy up to the fire these last cold nights, with our tea and books and puzzles. In spite of the dark, stormy outside, the sweet energy from the birthday fete lingers, and we hope Little J still believes us when we assure him he didn’t miss a thing!

Hugs,

Jennifer

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Hallowed

Over the week that we returned from Kauai, the spirit of island lingered in that way that it does. We found it hard to get up on time, we smelled the floral scent in the air, and I felt urged to walk around in a sarong and flip-flops forever.

But holy Kamehameha, nothing says, “You are now back in Sugartown” like getting ready for Halloween on our All-Hallows devoted street. There was Heather’s annual pumpkin carving party.

There was scaring up the place with ghoulish decorations.

And there was the Power Ranger who could just barely wait to don his power suit and hit the streets.

And as they tend to do around this paganish holiday, and this time of year in general, the sacred and the profane crossed paths.

Now, you know I like to keep my secrets when it comes to the sacred. I throw my pennies in the wishing well and don’t say a word. But let’s just say that a certain extraordinary healershamanfriend came to visit and filled our house with her light and presence. And though I’ve never met a being quite like her, I feel I’ve known her my entire life. A more generous soul, I’ve yet to meet. And her husband, I cannot begin. That is for another day.

Halloween weekend for us was about Welcome home to Sugartown, and aren’t we blessed by the people in our lives, and aren’t we always *this* close to the sacred with our holiday and everyday rituals?

Hugs,

Jennifer

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Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest - John Lyes

Dennis’s friend from childhood, Ryan, is a special one. He speaks slowly, his heart shining through every word. His eyes twinkle even. He’s a writer and an encyclopedia of literature. And he once handed me a book of poetry that helped me through the worst of my journey.

Dennis and Ryan got to spend the entire day together on Sunday, digging out the front yard and replanting. Ryan is a landscape designer, and we were lucky enough to host his first installation right in front of our house.

The spot has been covered in hard, compact soil and rocks, and beneath that, a tarp. It’s no wonder that everything we’ve planted there has struggled to survive. We’d done our best to beautify the area, but the things we planted had nowhere to send their roots, no way to breathe in soil choked up for so long.

So Ryan and Dennis dug up a good portion of the area, pulling out the tarp, clearing the rocks, letting sun and air in for the first time in God knows how long. Then they filled it in with light, fluffy soil, first by setting piles, then spreading them out. You should have seen Ryan’s face brighten before the spreading began. “This is my favorite part,” he said again and again. As the energy surrounding the plot lightened and swirled, I could see why. He brought life and beauty to the doorstep of our daily lives, spreading the fresh dirt with his bare hands like a shaman pulling life energy from the ground.

The project is not complete yet, but believe me when I tell you that we can feel the difference their work has made. So much stagnant, pushed down weight has been lifted. Now roots can spread and life can go on, renewed and refreshed. Ahh.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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I was going to post today about my trip to the ER early Saturday morning, about how being in the ER is the only time that I actually wonder whether this fight is worth the agony and indignity it sometimes involves. I wondered about how shocked my faithful readers (you are all over the world now!)  would be  to hear that sometimes I want to give up. The ER can really make you feel that way.

Instead, I am happy to post about the fact that our family is DONE WITH CHEMO. You heard me right. WE ARE DONE!!!

I walked into the Dr.’s office this morning with my numbing cream on my IV port, and my yellow sticky note on my Elle Magazine, ready to regale Doc G with the usual battery of questions and results of my most recent research (thank you, Dan). When he sat down and said, “I think we’re at a point where stopping makes sense,” I didn’t even hear it. I responded with, “I really don’t want to do this anymore.”

He and Dennis looked at each other like I hadn’t understood. Because I hadn’t.

“I think we can be done now. Your CA-125 is great, and your bone marrow has taken a beating. Doing more would not make sense.”

My first thought was that, instead of spending six hours in chemo today I was going to read my Elle magazine, have a long bath, spend time with Dennis, and plan his 40th birthday party.

And then it hit me. I have my body back. My bones, my poor bones and their marrow can begin the healing process.

We all teared up, even Doc G.

It is all I can do not to run down the street and get Little J out of school and smother him with kisses. Boy is he gonna get some after school.

For now, I’m so happy to share this news with you all. Biggest hugs and thanks, and keep reading here for  lots of pictures and notes about the sweet life in Sugartown. Because we never really lost sight of that, did we?

Jennifer

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The last three weeks without chemo have been so full.

Dennis and I dined with Uncle Mike at our new favorite spot atop a hill here in Sugartown. We also feasted on Ted’s famous eggplant Parmesan, whose ingredients came entirely from Ted’s garden. I lunched with Linda in the city, a lovely and belated birthday treat. I shared lattes in a bowl with a dear friend and Peet’s treats with a new friend (and her gorgeous baby). I walked with Marina, and brunched with Mari in Tiburon.

Little J conquered the diving board at the club.

I went to my first PTA meeting, did some yard duty (!), and attended our first parent-teacher conference. Other school events included the walk-a-thon, the ice cream social, and a support-the-school night at a local restaurant. Turns out the parents at our neighborhood school know how to socialize for a cause, let me tell you. Count me in!

On Labor Day, we went on an impromptu adventure to Heart’s Desire Beach in Tomales Bay. Little J got to play with his buddy C, who he hadn’t seen in a while. Silliness was the order of the day.

And speaking of silly:

On Tuesday, I took these same two to feed the ducks at a pond near our neighborhood.

Yesterday I took Little J and a pal from his class to their first 3-D movie.

Of course tea with the ladies on the street and a visiting cousin from England was sweetness in a glass poured over ice with some lemon.

Phew, like I said: it’s been a full three weeks of no chemo. And it looks like I may have a fourth. While my platelets have made a heroic comeback from 40 to 190, my white cells are still pooped out. I’ll find out tomorrow whether we can do treatment with the help of some bone crusher marrow stimulating shots or whether we’ll have to wait another week.

If we have to wait, it could be a good thing. We’re going camping this weekend, so it would be nice to have a little more energy. On the other hand, as you all know, I want to get this done! So it’s a little frustrating to be stalled out an inch from the finish line.

But somewhere nearby in Sugartown, church bells are ringing. Down the street, in a classroom, Little J is sitting and maybe singing. In Los Angeles, Dennis is winging his way back home to us.

There is so much sweetness for the reaping in these near-harvest days. It makes it a little easier not to pine for things to be different.

Hugs, Jennifer

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