Exploring New Things: Art and Poetry?

I’ve realized that for the past 25 years or so, I’ve not felt entirely in control of my time. Between parenting and working, there were many external forces determining my schedule and activities. Bedtime routines, sports practices, client deadlines, project team meetings, school schedules, etc. Most of the hours of my day were already spoken for before I opened my eyes each morning.

Without a job to clock in for and boys who are now basically adults doing their own thing, I find myself with many hours to fill day after day … with what? One can sleep in only so long and nap so often! And I quickly learned that watching daytime TV is a path to insanity.

I shared with my counselor that I was struggling to figure out what comes next. She suggested I do something creative with my hands—to get out of my head. (Apparently, she has ascertained I can over-think things. What? Me?). In doing so, I might open up new interests or outlets that I’d never considered. At the very least, I’d spend my time in an enjoyable way.

So, on a walk the other day, I let my mind wander. What could I do that’s creative with my hands? I happened to notice some random mechanical parts, probably from cars, along the sidewalk. One thought led to another, and next thing I knew, I went back and picked up those items and created an art piece from them.

Then, inspired by the process, I wrote a little poem of sorts. It also reflects my current feeling of being broken and not very useful, yet hopeful for the promise of being remade, discovering new things about myself, and contributing differently along this journey.

I hadn’t planned to share either with more than a few folks, but in an act of vulnerability, I’m posting in this blog, trusting my readers to be kind. The next Van Gogh or Emily Dickinson, I am not. But it was a fun process and did seem to unlock some latent creativity synapses. I already have in mind the next little bit of art I’d like to create. Luckily, “art” and “poetry” are subjective, so there’s no wrong way to do it, right? So, here goes nothing…. (don’t laugh!)

Brokenness Remade

Pieces and parts

Broken, abandoned, lost.

Once shiny and sturdy,

Useful or essential,

No longer so,

Hidden among the weeds 

And in sidewalk cracks.

Perhaps their disappearance

Noticed initially, 

Perhaps not.

Likely replaced, without hesitation.

Of fleeting interest, maybe, 

In their out-of-place existence

To curious passers-by

But given no real thought.

No longer of necessity 

Or consequence

In their damaged state.

Now revalued and remade

By eyes with different perspective.

Gathered and collected,

Elements of something new,

A re-creation.

Reimagining Work in a New Season

In consultation with my doctor, we decided it was best if I file for my company’s long-term disability benefits and stop working so I can focus more on my health—rest more, reduce stress, and better cope with side effects of treatments. I’ve been on short-term disability for about 6 weeks, and that time has shown me that it’s the right move to step away from the workforce.

I have felt a bit better removing the work stresses from my life (though the paperwork mountain that comes with filing disability provides stress of its own), but I’ve also felt a little bit lost. I’ve worked in the same field for 25 years, and it feels strange to think I won’t be doing that anymore.

Many people have told me, “You’re not what you do.” And I believe that. But I also have felt “at home” in the work that I do. I have truly felt I was working within my strengths and gifts, and feedback from managers and colleagues confirmed that. In fact, one colleague recently had a sign made for me with the nickname I picked up on one our projects (at right).

I have derived joy in improving the words someone has written so they can better deliver a message to the intended audience. And there’s been great satisfaction in taking a pile of source material and writing a report, fact sheet, or website that conveys useful information in a way that readers can easily understand and act on. That this work has been done in the context of public health means that what I wrote or edited helped people learn, make healthier choices for themselves and their families, better comprehend complex medical jargon, or access services they need. My work contributed to helping people and communities flourish. It felt like Kingdom work.

So, then, why stop doing it? As with many jobs, mine had deadlines, challenges, quick pivots in scope or direction, crises and rushes, meetings and more meetings, extra hours worked to meet client demands, unrealistic requests from project directors, and expectations that I perform to a certain level. All that led to stress. Pre-disease, that stress was sometimes hard to manage, but every job has stress, so I just dealt with it. And for the first 19 months after my stage 4 diagnosis, I continued to deal with it. Over time, the added stress of disease and medication side effects and frequent doctor visits became too much. Being absent often, not feeling well, and being distracted by any number of things related to my condition made it increasingly difficult to do a high-quality job, and the combined level of stress was surely bad for any healing processes we are trying to bring about. I was having trouble sleeping from worry—about what was on my plate for the next day and about my capacity to do it all, on top of the worry of whether treatments were working or what an upcoming scan or blood test would show.

I feel relief to have made the decision to put my job aside in favor of my health and using my energy for self-care and the care of my family. I know it’s best. I also know that my job title is not my whole identity. But writing and editing certainly IS my vocation. It’s something I feel I need to do, maybe what I was made to do. It satisfies my soul. And I feel that putting words together or finessing others’ words contributes in some way to the world—at least my corner of it.

So now, I suppose the challenge is to find ways to put the gifts I have to use in other ways. To write on my own time, when I feel like it, under no pressure. I know… this blog is writing. But I like the sense of helping when I write something for others or edit another’s work. It feeds a different part of my mind and soul than writing for my own pleasure or to get my own thoughts out of my head. Maybe I can volunteer my editing skills to a nonprofit organization or a small business that needs to communicate more clearly and concisely to funders, stakeholders, or customers.

I’ve also been trying to reframe my treatments, scans/tests, follow-up calls, and self-care (including naps) as my new “job”—doing whatever I can to give myself the best shot at long, quality life. Every month and year I can continue on current treatments gives the chance for medical discoveries to turn the tide on this disease. Hey, if they come up with a new treatment that cures my cancer or keeps it at bay with a few, minor side effects, I’ll be more than happy to go back to a paid, full-time job. All the more reason to find outlets for writing and editing in this new season—to keep my skills up, just in case.

I’m angry at God and I’m not gonna sugar coat it

For months, I’ve said I would love to go away by myself to have time to think and write and read and pray without anything distracting me. Some time for me, and time for God to wrestle with some “stuff” I don’t usually want to wrestle with. This weekend, due to a change in a friend’s travel plans, I got that time. Found myself with an Airbnb rental I couldn’t get a last-minute refund on and thought, why not use it for a personal get-away? So, here I’ve been the past two days in a cozy little rowhouse in a lively neighborhood of Pittsburgh, just a couple blocks from the Allegheny Cemetery.

Earlier this week, during a church gathering, I realized that I am struggling with doubt and questioning so much of what I believe about God. And in this season of living with cancer—and all that’s wrapped up in that reality—I am angry. Angry at God. REALLY angry.

I went for a long walk through the cemetery to enjoy this clear, breezy, spring day. I set out planning to chat with God as I walked. I tried to pray the “right” things. To invite God into my heart, to reveal thoughts and feelings that are destructive or counter to growth in this season of my life. To help me feel stronger in my faith. I even took out my earbuds so I could listen for God.

After walking awhile among the tombstones and monuments, I passed a stone bench near a large tree, right in the middle of things. I felt a strong voice in my head say, “Stop,” but I didn’t want to stop walking. I turned the corner and kept going. “STOP!” Fine… I turned around and sat on the bench. I started to pray but all that filled my brain were angry words. Not fair! What kind of God…? Why not heal my cancer? Why not cure cancer for everyone? How is it OK that I might die young and leave my family? I want to believe, but none of this makes any sense. Prayer doesn’t seem to fix it. Do miracles even happen anymore? Where are they? Where’s mine?!? If you’re able to create whole planets and new animal species and calm storms, how hard can it be to just remove the cancer cells from my body? People say there’s a purpose in suffering—but why does that have to be part of the story????

In my mind’s eye, I shook my fists and kicked my feet at God. I wanted to literally scream at the top of my lungs in anger and frustration and sadness—but being in the middle of a public cemetery with others around, I thought that would be a bad idea—so I screamed in my mind while I imagined beating my fists at anything and everything nearby. As I did, I heard the words, “There it is.” And I envisioned a child thrashing about while her father held her close, taking the hits of her small fist on his chest. I’m not going to say there was comfort in that image. Truth, perhaps. But not comfort. I still feel very far away from God. Or maybe, more honestly, I still want to keep my distance from God—to keep him at arm’s length or on the other side of my emotional fence line.

And I realized on that walk that I’m tired. My heart is profoundly tired from carrying feelings of grief, uncertainty, fear, and more grief related to my disease. My spirit is tired from grappling with these doubts about God and anger at him—and the guilt that comes from the doubt and the anger. I don’t know quite what to do with those feelings or how to get past them or how long it might take if I do. Or if I even want to put in the work right now to do so. So what does that make me? Lazy in my faith? Weak? Willfully disobedient? More guilt….

This morning in the quiet of this little house, I looked back through my past blog posts. Most have ended with a promise remembered, hope restored, questions I’ve found some answers to, or thoughtful questions to ponder further that may lead to greater understanding and growth.

I wasn’t going to write this post. And if I write it, do I publish it????? (if you’re reading it, I guess I decided yes). Because I have no answers. I don’t even have what I think are the right questions. I’m still as angry as I was a couple hours ago. Nothing is resolved. There’s no neat, little bow on this package. And how do I post something like this and then go to church Sunday and sing about God’s grace and hear a sermon about praying God’s will be done when at this moment I don’t really like what that will appears to be for me?

One could say that I have greater awareness of my state of heart, that I’ve opened up and been honest about how I feel, and that’s a good start. Maybe it is. I don’t know. I’m not willing to say I don’t believe at all—the fact that I felt God speaking to me in my mental temper tantrum is evidence that some part of my heart is still connecting with my Creator. There’s just so much that doesn’t seem to make sense—or that doesn’t seem to align with who I thought God was… or, more accurately, who I want him to be… or what I thought my life was supposed to be in Him. (Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!)

Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer: A Glimpse Behind the Curtain

behind curtain

For 16 months, I’ve been living with metastatic breast cancer (MBC)—breast cancer that has spread to other places in my body. In that time, so many people have said, “I can’t imagine what it’s like,” or they’ve made other comments that indicate they don’t really understand the ramifications of this disease. So, I thought I’d write a behind-the-scenes peek at what this journey has been like.

I realize that I’m a sample of one. A hundred women could write an account, and each would be unique. I also realize that I am very early in the disease process (thankfully)—my story a year or three or ten years from now will be very different. Still, many of these themes seem universal. If you tune in to the end (apologies, cuz this is long), maybe you’ll learn something that helps you relate better to me now and in the future—or at least understand my behavior and moods sometimes. And maybe I’ll give some meaningful words to this disease that help you support the next person you run into with MBC or similar disease.

General Context of MBC

First, some general context about this disease. As many as 30% of women who have early-stage breast cancer end up with MBC. Scientists don’t yet know why. Breast cancer typically metastasizes to the liver, lungs, bones, and brain. There are many treatment options to keep the disease stable or even reduce it for some period of time, and other treatments that can help relieve symptoms of disease. In fact, women with MBC may go through a dozen or more types of treatments as the disease progresses and symptoms increase. And there have been many advances in treatments to give women with MBC a better shot at surviving and thriving. But MBC is not curable with current medical treatments and technologies. The goal is to slow disease progression and give women more time. Statistics say the 5-year survival rate is only about 22-35%.

Facts of My Situation

What’s my experience thus far? The “mets” (short for metastases) are in my liver and T2 vertebrae, between the shoulder blades. I am on the first line of treatments for the type of MBC I have (estrogen receptor+, progesterone receptor+, HER2-). Those treatments consist of one pill daily, another pill twice daily, monthly injections, and quarterly IV infusions. None are considered chemo at this point. I’ve had to change one medication because it started causing a rash. So far, treatments have been effective at knocking back the liver mets, and the cancer in the vertebrae was initially reduced but has had some increased activity that we’re watching—the doctor hadn’t yet called it progression. I’m scheduled for a scan in early January, so we’ll see then if things are holding steady, as most signs appear, or if there’s trouble brewing.

Effects of My Situation

The Physical. Symptoms of disease have been largely nonexistent to this point. My blood work has consistently indicated no reduction in liver function, nor any other organ function, nor any serious erosion of the vertebrae from the mets. Side effects of the treatments have been mostly mild, with the most frequent issue being fatigue. I just don’t have the energy I used to. Beyond my immediate family, folks probably don’t notice much difference, if any. I do everything I want to; but being tired makes it all too easy to skip the things I’m not really motivated to do.

The Emotional. The most serious effects yet of MBC have been emotional and mental in nature. It’s emotionally exhausting to walk this road. Every day, I’m reminded of this disease as I take medication. Every 28 days, I return to the doctor to find out how I’m doing. The most telling sign he checks is the cancer tumor marker (CA 27.29). Mine dropped several times early on in treatment and then leveled out, slightly above normal. The past 6 months, it’s crept up little by little. The doctor still considers the levels to indicate “stable” disease—but my brain panics with each increase and wonders what the next month will bring. Regardless of how good things might look at a doctor visit, I only have 28 days of status quo. Each appointment brings the potential for signs of progression or other issues. Every time I walk through the oncologist’s door, I’m filled with worry—and sometimes outright dread—over what he will say.

Often, I feel incredibly alone because most people don’t quite understand what MBC is. When you say, “I have cancer,” most people think of the treatment trajectory as tests and scans, diagnosis, maybe surgery, chemo and/or radiation, recovery, scans for another little while, then cancer-free. Thus, I’m frequently asked, “When are your treatments done?” or “How many treatments do you have left?” The reality is, with MBC, you’re never done. Well, you are, but not in a cancer-free, move-on-with-life sort of way. The treatment trajectory is typically years long and consists of many changes in medications as the cancer learns how to defeat the current regimen. MBC is a long haul. If you’re lucky, a long, long haul. But there’s no party at the end of treatment.

Looks Can Be Deceiving: Behind the Positive Disposition

Since diagnosis, I’ve had countless people comment on how good I look or how positive I am. I’m often told you’d never know I was living with cancer. On the face of it, there’s not much to point to my being a person with cancer. I haven’t lost my hair. My face isn’t ashen with dark bags under my eyes. I haven’t lost a ton of weight or puffed up from treatments or disease. I’m not unable to eat or walk or take care of myself. And most days, I don’t feel “sick.” In fact, most days I’m able to carry on with life just fine and not dwell too much on this disease.

But, there’s a lot going on in my brain related to this disease, and I can’t escape from it for very long. Just about every day, something I hear, see, or experience brings the disease to mind. Sometimes the thought is fleeting. More often than not, the “something”—even if it’s entirely benign or meant to be helpful— sends my brain spiraling. It filters the phrase, image, or experience through the cancer lens and takes me to a dark place. Here are some examples.

[Disclaimer: If you see yourself in any of the examples, particularly related to what people say, know that I am not pointing fingers; this isn’t directed at anyone. The fact that I’m sharing the example means it’s a common occurrence. And I know that every word and deed comes from a place of love, concern, and genuine interest, regardless of how my brain processes it.]

Fleeting good looks. Take the comment “You look good.” In my brain, I’m thinking, yeah, for now. But what are you going to say when I start treatments that make my hair fall out or my face is drawn or pale? Someday I may look terrible. I dread feeling sick and equally dread looking sick—so everyone KNOWS I have cancer. Then I won’t be able to hide it or pretend. I wonder how long that’ll be. And how bad I’ll look. Then I wonder, do I even look OK now, or are most people too kind to tell me I look tired or worn out?

Anger about “any one of us.” If I mention feeling uncertain about the future or wanting to do the things that really matter, I frequently hear, “Well, any one of us could be hit by a bus tomorrow” or “We should all live like our days are numbered.” While that’s true, most people don’t have to consciously face their mortality on a regular basis. And most people haven’t been told they’ll become seriously ill before they grow old. They don’t have to wonder when making plans six months from now whether they’ll be able to do what’s planned. They don’t secretly cringe when someone talks about retirement because there’s a real possibility they won’t make it to retirement. So, yes—none of us knows our expiration date, but at the same time, few people have to consider it imminently. And death aside, there’s the realization that how I feel right now is likely the best I will ever feel. That’s sobering. So, I’d love for folks to keep the hypothetical bus to themselves. (Yes, sometimes I get flat-out angry at what people say even though I know it’s meant with the best intention—and I really wish people would stick with “Gee, that really stinks” or “I can only imagine that’s hard.”)

Day dreams of my death. Watching a movie that shows a funeral, attending another person’s funeral, and even passing a cemetery or hearse can lead me to start visualizing my own demise in a very practical way. Which funeral home should we choose—the one up the street or farther away so folks don’t have to drive by it all the time? Do I want to be cremated or buried? If I’m buried, who would we pick as pall bearers? What songs do I want at my funeral? I wonder if this person or that will make the trip here for it. I hope there will be laughter amid tears at my funeral—sort of an end-of-treatment party.

Sniffles of doom. If I develop a cough, a new pain somewhere, or a headache, my mind races to what it could be. Have mets developed in my lungs? Is the tumor in my spine getting worse? What if the headache means brain mets? And my imagination starts to run way ahead. If the cancer’s getting worse, what treatment comes next? Will I feel well enough to work? What if I can’t participate in [fill in the one of many life events coming up]? Will I eventually have to stop driving? I can mentally go from simple sniffle to bedridden in the span of 20 seconds.

Back off, helpers (but not really). When folks offer to do something for me, my usual response is “No, I’ve got it.” Sometimes that “no” is quite forceful. I’m not trying to reject you or just being stubborn. Well, OK, I am being stubborn. But for good reason. Eventually, I won’t be able to do some things, and I’ll need help. So right now, while I’m able to do just about everything, I want to do it, even if I’m tired. There’s also a fear that if I accept help now, I’ll wear folks out, and eventually the help will dry up from all but my family and dearest friends—basically, those who have no choice. I don’t want to be a burden until I absolutely have to be. And I’m not ready for relationships with my spouse, children, and friends to change to caregiver and care recipient. Still, I don’t want people to stop offering, because it’s good to know folks care. Just please don’t be offended if I shoot you down.

A full emotional bucket. I know this disease is really hard for my family and close friends, and when I share my feelings and fears, it surely makes it harder. So, I appreciate more than I can say the people who are willing to walk this road close beside me. Every now and then, someone articulates to me that it’s difficult. That’s very hard to hear out loud. And it puts me in a position of caring for the emotions of the other person, even if for a short time. My bucket is chock full of my own cancer-related emotions; adding someone else’s causes a messy overflow. In relationships that are based on give-and-take when it comes to sharing openly, it feels terribly unfair for me to say I can’t handle hearing someone’s feelings or fears about my disease. But that’s the reality of it. Share everything else. Spout off about nearly any other topic. Rant, cry, fuss to me about any other life situation. But when it comes to feelings about my disease, I need folks to pour those into another person’s bucket.

These are just some of the things that run through my head in an average week. The ones I’m willing to articulate anyway. There are other thoughts and emotions that cut far too deep to say out loud, or even acknowledge to myself. I leave those at the bottom of the bucket as often as I can.

A Desire to Do Some Small Thing

I know that’s a lot. If you’ve gotten to this point, you are either a really kind friend or really interested in this topic objectively. I know I’ve said many of these things to some folks, and blogged a bit on these themes before. But I recently joined an MBC support group on Facebook, and I’ve realized that my thoughts are not unique, so maybe they need a voice again.

I am powerless to rid the world of MBC, but I can string words together. If my words can bring increased awareness or understanding about the MBC journey in my small sphere of this world, then I feel I’m contributing something in the bigger picture.

Maybe you know someone else for whom these words might be relevant. Feel free to share—as widely as you like. Maybe you have questions about something I’ve said—I welcome them and am happy to talk with you. Shoot me a message any time.

A Personal Pep Talk

The past few weeks, I’ve felt my resilience falter a bit. After a new medication brought some icky side effects, a non-cancer-related health issue caused some discomfort and inconvenience, and a project at work caused a prolonged time of stress, I was feeling rather whiny and weak in spirit. I sometimes wanted to just curl up under a blanket and hide. I started thinking of what lies ahead in battling cancer and wondered, if I feel this puny and discouraged in the face of fairly minor stuff, will I have what it takes to face the real tough stuff down the road—not only physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?

Then I remembered: This is not the first situation to challenge my heart, mind, soul, and strength. And I’m still standing.

My heart…

  • Has been broken by someone I thought loved me but didn’t.
  • Has grieved the death of those dear to me… grandparents, parents-in-law, friends.
  • Has stung with guilt at something I’ve said or done that hurt others.
  • Has watched, choking back tears, as my firstborn walked off to start his life at college.

And yet, my heart still beats, still loves, still hopes, still sings, still feels joy, still revels in the love of family and friends.

My mind…

  • Has made decisions that ultimately led to great disappointment.
  • Has judged wrongly the character of someone.
  • Has made mistakes that led to embarrassment.
  • Has failed miserably at a new skill or endeavor.

Yet, my mind still imagines, still dreams, still comes up with good ideas, still wrestles with choices, still dares to try new things.

My soul…

  • Has gone its own way, wandering far from God.
  • Has wondered where God is in times of trouble.
  • Has questioned his will—for me, for those I love, for the world.
  • Has been hurt by the actions of a fellow believer.

Yet, my soul still longs for relationship with Christ, still trusts that God is sovereign, still believes in the power of prayer, still desires deep connection with brothers and sisters in Christ.

My body…

  • Has recovered from broken bones and stitches.
  • Has twice experienced the pain of childbirth.
  • Has endured biopsies, surgery, and radiation.
  • Has felt like a pin cushion as a result of countless shots, IVs, blood draws,  and more blood draws.

Yet, my body still breathes, still stands and walks and bends, still has strength to climb and carry, still has the gumption to exercise and travel.

So, cancer treatment…? Yeah, I’ve got this! And in those moments when I’m not so sure (again), I’ve got people around me who will spur me on and even carry me along. Plus, now I’ve got this little blog post to serve as a pep talk when I need it.

The One-Year Mark

August 18 marked one year since I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer (MBC). With this anniversary of sorts, I’m very much resonating with Ecclesiastes 3:1 and 4: “For everything there is a season… a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” At the present moment, it seems those times are coming simultaneously.

In a lot of ways, marking one year with MBC is a time to celebrate. For the past year, medications have reduced the disease, and they continue to keep it at bay. Side effects from the medications have been generally minor. I’ve felt pretty good; no symptoms. And my doctor has been pleased with my status the whole way along. So pleased, in fact, that he sent me off for two weeks traveling through Europe without hesitation. When we booked that trip, we weren’t sure we’d actually be able to take it—so it’s a big “hooray” that we went, and I was able to do everything I wanted, including walking miles (and miles) each day and climbing to the tops of church steeples in three different countries.


At the same time, this anniversary highlights the passing of time. When I was diagnosed, I said I refused to live as though I had an expiration date stamped on my foot. Most of the time, I succeed in maintaining that mindset. But there are moments—sometimes fleeting, sometimes lingering for days—that I feel acutely aware of the conventional prognosis. This one-year mark has brought more of those moments than usual. It’s as though hourglasses were lined up on the day of diagnosis—one for each year of the projected prognosis—and now, one of those hourglasses is empty. And some part of me is mourning that empty glass.

This milestone has come in the midst of two other realities that have unsettled me. My oncologist just retired. I had my last check-up with him last week. For the past year (and before that, during my first bout with cancer), I have put my trust in this man to make treatment decisions that will keep me alive and thriving. He has patiently answered 100 questions, encouraged me, and shot straight with me. He has carefully watched trends in blood results to detect signs of trouble. And he’s been kind and compassionate, treating me like a person and not just a patient. I’m lined up with another doctor who’s highly recommended, and I’m confident he will provide excellent care. Still, there’s some apprehension at this significant change in my health care team (I don’t like change.)

I’ve also had to switch one of my medications due to a rash side effect. The new medication I’ve started instead is supposed to work similarly and have equally good effectiveness at staving off disease progression. But with any new medication, it’s a “try and see” proposition. It feels a bit like starting over with this new drug. It’ll take a couple/few months to know for sure how it affects the disease and how my body responds to it and tolerates it. (I don’t like the unknown.)

At moments like I’ve had recently—when I allow myself to feel sad, weary, afraid, or uncertain—it’s tempting to chide myself for focusing on the negative, especially when things are going so well, considering. And if I share those feelings with others, it’s tempting for them to quickly remind me of all the positives that have happened over the past year. But on this journey, I’m learning it’s OK to both laugh and cry, dance and mourn. The key is allowing myself to be authentic in my emotions—and sometimes that means there will be tears on the dance floor.

Peace through tears

Last week, I took a friend for chemo treatment. I felt some apprehension leading up to it. Caregiving is not one of my top gifts, and I expected to feel some sadness in witnessing my friend’s suffering at the effects of the drugs and in remembering when I took my late mother-in-law for her treatment.

So I asked some others to pray for me, and I too asked God to give me peace in this small act of service. As I picked up my friend, I really did feel at peace, and that sense of calm remained through her appointment and the return drive home.


The moment I walked off her porch, however, tears welled in my eyes. I fought them as I made my way to the car and shut the door. My inclination was to wipe the tears away (along with the feelings behind them), drive home, and go on with my day. But they were pretty insistent, so I gave in to the waterworks and had a good cry for a few minutes.

When I stopped, I chided myself for the lapse in my calm demeanor. My tears, runny nose, and red face served as accusers—God had answered our prayers and had given me peace, but had I allowed it to slip away. Once again, I thought, I’d taken my eyes off God and focused on the bad and the sad. Shame on me.

As I’ve thought more about my reaction that day, though, I’ve wondered more broadly about my understanding of what it means to be “at peace.” Is it really just feeling calm in a storm? Contentment in the midst of sad things? Feeling A-OK when something is most definitely not OK? Saying “it’s all good” when facing tough situations? I think that’s how I’ve always viewed peace: as an absence of—or perhaps, on some level, an ability to deny—any emotion that’s not a warm, fuzzy feeling.

But God gave us the full spectrum of emotions, so it seems strange that in granting us a “peace that surpasses all understanding,” God would disconnect us from some of those emotions as though they were invalid or unnatural. Perhaps, instead, his peace comes amid those feelings—not replacing or cancelling them out. And perhaps I’m focusing on the wrong word all together. Maybe instead of asking God for peace in a stressful circumstance, I should ask God to help me be aware of his presence in it, to help me authentically feel all the resulting emotions, and yet be assured that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

A burden I need not carry

We’ve just celebrated Easter… but I’m left thinking about Maundy Thursday and the word God spoke to me during our church’s service that evening.

I really didn’t want to go to the service, with its focus on Christ’s final days, his death, and burial. Anything related to death makes me uneasy lately, and I often land in a place of sad contemplation about my own mortality, which I’d prefer to avoid, thank you.

I was ready to skip the service, but thanks to a rain-out of my son’s sporting event, I had no excuse. Out of duty I went, fully expecting to become emotional at some point and leave feeling burdened and depressed. When I arrived to find the only light was from candles that we’d extinguish one by one throughout a tenebrae service, my sense of dread intensified.

Instead, what I experienced was a release. During a time of reflection, I felt God illuminating within me an understanding that I’ve been focused for too long on death—my own, that is—and it was time to lay that down. I felt suddenly quite at peace, and somehow lighter.


When I got the diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, I mentally and emotionally packed up what I thought I knew of my eventual demise into a tidy pack, and I’ve carried it along with me every day since, sometimes adding to its contents along the way. Some days that pack has been just a subtle weight pressing on my mind and emotions, some days it has been heavier than I can bear, and some days I’ve almost forgotten it was there. But it has been an ever-present accessory.

In our gathering, it was as though God was asking, “Will you let me carry that for you?” In that moment, I let him take it.

And by the end of the service, I was convicted that Jesus did not go to the cross and rise to new life so that I may waste time pondering my own end. He died and rose again and filled me with his spirit so that I may have abundant life—now and until the moment I draw my last earthly breath and even into eternity. And as for the last breath part, I don’t get to know when that will be or what it will look like, and any energy I spend contemplating that is energy I’m not spending living fully.

I’m sure I’ll wrestle the metaphorical pack away from God and insist on carrying it myself again. I’m stubborn that way. But maybe the realization of what I’m doing will come more swiftly each time I snatch it back and feel its weight. And maybe one day, through prayer and practice, I’ll fully surrender it.

Choosing to Journey with God, Even in the Rocky Places

cross on the path

Our church recently held a retreat to begin a season of exploring the concept of pilgrimage. Our speaker defined pilgrimage as an intentional journey with God to find God, together. After hours of prayer and discussion, we were given the task of making a mini-pilgrimage around the building and grounds. We were instructed first to pray—to get in touch with God’s loving presence with us—and then to walk around, looking for something that spoke to us of God in our surroundings, keeping our eyes and heart open to see or feel what God had to say to us. Once we found it, we were encouraged to talk to God about it and what he had for us in that object or space.

I wandered around the fellowship hall, noticing signs and scripture verses on the walls. I stood looking out the window, regarding nature—the bright sunshine, the snow on the ground, the bare trees.

And then I saw it—a painting of a rocky path with the verse from Proverbs 3:6 underneath: “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path.” I’ve always liked that verse, so my eye stayed there a minute. And then I looked at the path. It was covered in stones and looked really hard to walk on. It also went uphill, leading to a destination around a bend that was not visible in the painting. Everything about that path spoke to my heart in this season of learning to live with cancer. It made sense that God would draw me to that image, as though saying he understood how I felt. That was comforting. I rested in that idea for a moment.

God being the good and loving Father he is, though, he had so much more for me in that painting. As I stared at it, I shifted my focus ever so slightly, and then I saw what God really had for me. Reflected in the frame’s glass was the stained glass cross in the sanctuary behind me, which by this time in the afternoon had the sun beaming through it. And where I was standing in relation to the painting and that cross put the cross directly on the path. THAT was God’s message to me. He is with me on this cancer journey—in fact, he is going before me on it, he knows each stone I’ll encounter, and he’s preparing the way.

The second day of the retreat, we were each given a little stone (seriously? a stone?) as a token to remember that we are all pilgrims, and God is with us.

Living with this disease is not anything I’d choose. But I can choose to make it a pilgrimage—to journey through it with God, seek to find God in it, and do it together with those I love around me. I don’t even have to look very hard to see God in this experience–he makes himself pretty obvious, if I’m at all attentive. A few days after the retreat, I received a card from a friend who frequently sends me notes of encouragement. On the front was a path that looked similar to that painting. Further affirmation of what God had spoken to me at the retreat.

Beauty, Purpose, and Peace in Life’s Transitions


Fall has always been a time of contemplation for me, and it tends to stir a mix of emotions each year related to change and loss and beauty and grace.

This fall, I’ve been feeling something decidedly different, as the cancer diagnosis of this summer has me pondering my own mortality. Being told that you have a disease for which there is no cure, and to which you will likely succumb in a foreseeable time frame, can skew your thinking quite substantially. These days, my brain flip-flops often between the extremes of “I have to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do and become the best person I can be and leave a positive impact on all humanity” and “What does it really matter? If I’m going to die, I might as well just live comfortably and coast to the finish line. How much can I really change in a potentially short time anyway?”

A couple days ago, I received a tremendous gift in this regard that has helped me land (at least for the moment) in a place of hopefulness for this season. On a mini-retreat with a church group at a local farm, we had the opportunity to spend an hour in solitude and silence, to spend some “quality time” with God. I found a large stone on the property next to a bright yellow tree and decided to just sit and stare at nature around me for awhile. I emptied my mind as best I could of myriad distractions and asked God to talk to me. Within a few minutes I heard a gentle voice telling me it was OK to let go of the tight hold I’ve kept on my emotions, that I needed to face them to move forward. I was suddenly overwhelmed by deep sadness and gripping fear.

Now, I have allowed myself to feel fear and sadness and anger over my cancer diagnosis before, but only in short little snippets. I’m a busy women with work to do, family to care for, life to live; I don’t have time to sit for a long spell with my emotions laid bare. But there on that stone, knowing I had nothing else to do, no one to interrupt me, nothing demanding my attention, no one to explain myself to, I curled up into a ball and wept. And I began to let God into that space that I’ve tried so hard to avoid, to keep hidden even from myself.

God and I had a long conversation through my tears. And then he used my surroundings in nature to teach me a few lessons about this time in my life.

I looked again at the golden tree next to me. Its yellow leaves danced in the breeze, intermittently catching the sunlight and becoming even more vibrant. And I realized those leaves were nearing their end. They’d lived through their life cycle–as buds, as bright new leaves in the spring, as hearty green leaves enduring the summer heat, and now as autumn’s golden leaves, some them already drying around the edges, waiting for their turn to return to the earth. And those leaves were beautiful. More beautiful, in fact (at least to my eye), than when they were green and lush. It is in the journey toward their death that their beauty is most notable. Lesson number 1: Transition, even death, can be a time of beauty and wonder.

I picked up a few leaves that lay near my feet and looked at them closely. One had a little tear on the edge. Another had some tiny parasites on it, causing the surface to pucker and feel bumpy. But each of those leaves had done its job for the tree, providing respiration and creating energy from the sun, despite its imperfections. Lesson number 2: We are all broken, but all still have a role to play. In my case, part of my brokenness is my disease. But I still have a purpose here. I can still serve my family, my community, and my world, and do whatever work God calls me to.

Then I watched several leaves flutter to the ground. How poignant to think that I was witnessing the moment of death for those leaves as they separated from the tree. What struck me was how quietly and gently they fell. Lesson number 3: Perhaps in the transition from life to death, there can be peace.

While sitting a little longer with these thoughts, I stared at the ground, and my eyes fell on a single blade of grass moving as the wind hit it. I remembered that it is God who made the wind that moved that tiny blade of grass. In fact, God made that blade of grass. Indeed, he formed the seed it grew from, made the soil it lived in, and provided the water and sun it needed to grow and survive. Lesson number 4: If God cares for even the grass, and is in control of its tiny, temporary life, how much more does He care for me. (OK, that revelation is not my own–that’s pretty straight from Scripture.)

I left that morning feeling drained… but in a good way. I had emptied some of the bucket of grief I’ve been carrying around–not only about my own situation, but about some significant losses we’ve experienced recently–and it was cleansing for my soul. I also left with a greater sense of peace than I’ve had in quite a while. My circumstances have not changed one bit. But I received assurance of God’s presence in them. And perhaps more importantly, I was reminded of how powerful and positive (even if a little scary) the practice of making space to bring myself fully open and vulnerable before God can be.