Intense commitment. Laser focus. These are all good things, right?
Well yeah, but what about when that single minded purpose throws up blinders? What about when it causes you to lose touch with what really matters?
I just got one of those ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ moments.
The text came in around 5 p.m.
Sheila’s reading poetry at RG Wine Bar tonight. She wants us to come.
I stared at my phone in disbelief. Tonight?!?
At that moment I was tied up in knots. You could practically see the clouds of stress and angst emanating from my ears as I wrestled with the technological and writing challenges of my new web site.
I’d gotten much less done today than I’d hoped.
We’ve got a deadline here! I’d told myself just a few minutes earlier. I have to keep my nose to grindstone. I’d resigned myself to an evening at the computer.
See, that’s my M.O – I’m used to just powering through. Forget about silly things like bodily needs and fresh air, just pump it out.
This worked pretty well in my younger years. Lately I’m noticing some serious flaws with the power out production mode.
But, crap. I get a lot of distractions in my life. Friends, family, parties, activities – so many people and things constantly beckon for my attention. If I allowed
myself to take a break and be in the moment every time something new popped up I’d never get anything done.
At least that’s how it seems.
But, this was different. My sister-in-law Sheila struggled with breast cancer for the past year, and I knew our attendance and support would mean so much to
her. It would honor her resilience and tenacity.
This was more than an obligation (although it was feeling that way right now.) Deep down I knew this trumped my workaholic needs.
What time? I texted back.
Ugh, oh well.
At 6:15 I was finally getting on a roll with the writing. But – time to set the work aside and get ready to go.
“I know this is important to Sheila,” I complained to my husband as I changed my clothes, “but couldn’t she have given us a little more notice? I’ve got so much going on – I just don’t have time for this!”
“I’m sure she thought the same thing when she found out she had breast cancer,” he responded.
Out Of My Own Head
I thought this decision to step away from the work was all about giving my energy and support to others.
What I hadn’t realized though is how much I needed to experience this particular event.
As soon as we walked into the wine bar my heart twisted.
I saw M., who has been fighting breast cancer for about seven years.
I don’t know M. all that well; I am close with some of her close friends, including Irene, the current owner of Moonrise Herbs. Seeing M. always reminds me of the fragility of life, the power of resilience and, of course, of my own blessings.
She was in her 30s when she got the diagnosis, her youngest child still breastfeeding.
A long time proponent of wholesome eating and alternative health, I know that M. tried just about every holistic treatment available to beat back her aggressive cancer, along with all the conventional ones. She is determined to be here as long as possible for her two young children.
I also know that she’s almost won the battle a few times, only to have the disease pop back up.
A friend had recently told me that once again, for the third time, more tumors had arrived, and that M.’s prognosis isn’t looking good.
I don’t know about you – but this kind of information is so hard for me to hold and carry. After sending out a brief prayer for her and her family, I released M. from my thoughts and went about my self-absorbed business.
On this night, there she was surrounded by friends and loved ones, and I could see an almost other-worldly glow around her.
It turned out this reading was to celebrate the release of her book of poetry. She’d been encouraged to publish before it was too late.
Already all my turmoil and angst over my own project was starting to look a bit petty.
I took a sip of my Pinot Noir, along with a few deep breaths and allowed myself to feel the spirit in the room. The worries and silly tech details began to slowly slip away.
Sheila stood and read a long piece prompted by a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem – about the hard nut of winter, using it as a metaphor for her cancer journey.
Oof. Punch to the solar plexus. I scrambled in my purse for a tissue.
Soon M. stepped to the ‘podium’. In a shaking voice she began to read.
All the ambient sound ceased, the room grew quieter than a church.
Powerful, raw, like an open wound her words spilled into the room. Telling us of her anguish at the thought of leaving her children behind, the irony of finding herself, a lifelong pacifist, having to do battle with this invader, the loneliness and fear of lying passive, feeling toxic chemicals drip into her body.
Listening, I could feel her profound sense of loss when her breast is removed. The rage about a childhood spent in a place she never new was infused with a killing poison, spreading disease that ravages an entire family and community. The sad release of watching the last strands of her hair float away in the wind.
Some poems were only a few lines, others stretched down the page, but each word evoked the untenable anguish of a young woman not ready to leave this life. Of a mother wishing she could stay longer. Of a healer wondering why she must turn to more poisons to remove the disease that wants to eat her alive.
And there I sat, nose streaming, grateful for the full pack of tissues I’d tucked into my purse. Perched on a bar stool next to a glass of wine – some big picture perspective abruptly thrown into my awareness.
Talk about a wake up call.
It’s not the first time I’ve needed to back away from the work in order to gather the clarity to do the work. And to open my mind to a new awareness about what the greater purpose may be.
And unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last that I’ve had to be dragged away kicking and screaming before I realized that it’s exactly what I need.
The Take Away
I didn’t write this to force you to dive for your own box of Kleenex – or to plunge you into a depression for the rest of the day.
This is some gentle encouragement to embrace your blessings and love where you’re at.
Not a one of us knows when or if we’ll be next in line for a dreaded diagnosis – or when we will have to support a loved one who is staring down the grim reaper.
The evening was a potent reminder to me, and I wanted to share some of these essential but crucial life lessons with you.
None of them are news flashes. You’ve heard it before. But all of them are easy to forget as we get caught up in the day-to-day busyness of our 21st century lives.
Since others have said these things so much better than I ever could, I thought I’d borrow some words for this part.
- Life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans – John Lennon
- Don’t sweat the small stuff – and it’s all small stuff (Richard Carlson)
- If you’ve think you’ve got it bad, there’s always someone worse off.
- If the work isn’t flowing, step away, take a break, do some breathing, touch the earth , have a good cry– whatever it takes.
- Each and every moment is a precious gift to be honored and appreciated.
- Life is short, make the most of it.
- Enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think (don’t know who wrote this, but it’s a great song. I need the recording!)
Let’s face it. We need constant reminders of these basic truths. It’s crucial for our inner and outer wellness.
Listening to M. and the other women read their poetry of survival brought it all home to me in a visceral way.
I hope this story can do that for you too.
Photo Credit: Per Ola Wiberg
What do you think? Are you able to incorporate awareness of these essential truths into your daily life? How do you make the most of the precious moments you’ve been given? Do you have another insight or quote to share with us? Give it to us in the comments below!