Rebuilding, One Brick at a Time

Monday, October 12, 2009

Avik: Why do you want to bomb Dresden? 

Walter Russell: There’s a monster in a room. Once that room was filled with everything that was valuable to him. His train sets, his puppet theatre, his model planes. They’re all broken now. All that’s left untouched is his beautiful collection of Dresden china. You go into that room, you smash all his crockery, then you have broken his spirit.

I realized today that that’s what cancer did. It came into my life and, like an American B12, bombed my Dresden to hell. I was left shell-shocked, looking at the wreckage of what was left of the future I had planned, unsure of how to rebuild it all. When something is vaporized before your eyes, how can you even imagine a day when it is whole again?

What breast cancer does to women is attack them at the center of their femininity – the symbol of female nourishment, sexuality, and beauty. If they are unlucky enough to catch it late, or face aggressive chemotherapy (as I did), even more is taken away – their hair, the blush of their cheeks, their energy. When the dust settles, your ability to survive the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis depends 100% on your belief that life can be good again, that you can feel good again.

Day after day when you are fighting this disease, you feel like crap. You feel like crap for months. The treatment that is supposed to me saving your life is actually killing you – not enough to produce a system collapse, just enough to get you to the brink, because healthy cells can repair the damage, but cancer cells give up. That is how chemotherapy works – it relies on your body’s ability to rebuild itself. You must attack it sequentially, repeatedly, until every last cancer cell is destroyed, even if your healthy cells are brutalized. It’s like a Dresden bombing every week.

I have asked, nearly every day, Lord, what am I supposed to be learning from this? In moments of pain and struggle, I have wondered how losing my hair or being hospitalized or going broke could possibly be helpful to me, let alone someone else. The answer came to me over a few days of Boot Camp, crystallizing this morning when my coach and trainer pointed to the back of my T-shirt with an enthusiastic grin and said, “See? That’s what I’m talking about! SPINE sweat!”

Lou always calls the last set in a workout circuit the “Transformation Set”. It is the set where you feel like you are going to throw up, where you try to summon your strength and your muscles refuse to contract. You’re doing mountain climbers or burpees and your quads are numb, as if to say, “Yeah, sorry, kid, that is just not gonna happen.” Just five or six seconds later, though, they tighten, and you can squeeze one more rep out. That is the part where your body transforms itself, becoming stronger and more resilient, cell by cell. Ironically, am doing to my body what chemotherapy did to it: breaking it down so it can build itself back up.

Looking back in an attempt to construct a Hero’s Journey from my history, I see that Lou has been my unwitting Obi Wan. By challenging me 30, 40, or 50 seconds at a time, he has trained me in chunking it down. Taking a task one piece at time, bearing a weight one pound at a time, crawling through a tough period of my life one day at a time. It is a lesson I could never have learned without going through it, just as the lesson of “this too shall pass” could not have taken root in my heart, had I not used it every day to envision a brighter future. Lou has been my Mr. Miyagi, and I’m not even sure he realizes it.

If you can truly manage to live in the present moment, you will inevitably always either be cherishing or white-knuckling your way through life. We imagine perfect futures where there is no pain, there are no problems, and everything works out. Dreams like that make me think of a parable Bernie tells in his second book – a Congressman meets a friend for lunch and bemoans the state of the world. His friend says, “I know a place in Virginia where there are 300,000 people with no problems.” The Congressmen says, “Where is that?!” He answers, “Arlington Cemetery.”

Life is hard, but not always. The sweet tempers the bitter, the bitter tempers the sweet. I know it is easy to have a philosophical perspective when you have made it to the Other Side of tragedy. Trust me: this peace was hard-won and not easy to cultivate; it took a thousand strokes to paddle to a place where I can look back and see meaning (and even beauty!) in the destruction of so many of my dreams. What I realize now is that, with every stroke, I told myself, keep swimming and you will get there. Miraculously, I was right.

For more on this topic, see my video, “Nothing Lasts Forever,” on YouTube:


The Burning Bush

Monday, September 28, 2009

For a time during my battle with breast cancer, I felt like God had forgotten me. I saw my future laid out before me – unemployment, foreclosure, bankruptcy – and could not imagine that this was His plan for me. “Really?” I wanted to say; “Really? This is the plan?”

Personally, I think of God the way you think of a parent; I imagine Him making some decisions for me, and letting me make the rest. Watching with a benevolent eye and hating to see me screw up, but understanding that sometimes, I need to in order to learn a hard lesson. It’s hard to watch someone you love fall down, but sometimes you have to stand back so they can learn how to pick themselves up. The hardest part of being the parent, I imagine, is making your kid do something they don’t want to do, because you know it’ll be good for them. I can’t count the number of times my own father forced me to buckle down on my schoolwork, and truth be told, it took me 15 years to see that all the good times I had in college were the direct result of both of us working together to make that future possible for me. If I wasn’t blessed with a diligent dad and faith in his plan for me, I might have walked a different path in life.

Faith is so hard to have, especially in things you can’t see, hear, or touch. I mean, Moses at least had a burning bush! All I have is the feeling when I walk into the building I work in – that I’m in the right place – and two pieces of Scripture: Jeremiah 29:11 and Job 8:21, to reassure me that the future ahead of me is worth living for. So often, I feel like I’m blindfolded, walking by faith, not by sight. It’s terrifying to love a job that can’t pay your bills, to wake up every morning not knowing if something is growing inside your body that could kill you. But what else can you do if you want to maintain your sanity? You tell yourself, “God knows the plans He has for me; plans to prosper me and not to harm me. Plans for a hope and a future.” You say, “He will yet fill my mouth with laughter, and my lips with shouts of joy.” You remind yourself of other times in your life when you thought disaster was imminent, and you survived. You survived. You take comfort in knowing that you can’t take anything with you when you leave this earth – not your riches, not your debt. We come in with nothing and we leave with nothing, and no one knows when their number will be up. Not even people with millions of dollars or perfect health. All we can do is be thankful for each day, and the blessings in it. Wake up each morning and be glad for one more day – one more chance to breathe and live and love.

What gives me faith is not only gratitude for the blessings in my life, but giving God credit for those blessings. I keep a journal, and every evening before bed, I fill a page with things I’m thankful for – a light that stayed green long enough for me to get through it, a penny I found on the street, a kid who made me laugh at work. Little things, big things, it doesn’t matter – the important part is giving God credit by thanking Him for bringing them into my life. The distinction is important because it helps strengthen my belief in a benevolent, caring Creator who watches out for me. It’s hard to hate or fault someone you’ve been thanking night after night for all the good things in your life. I’ve found that, after months of keeping this very specific kind of gratitude journal, I’m more likely to ask God for strength to get through something than ask Him why it’s happening, or be angry with Him for bringing it into my life. Since I started crediting God with all the good things in my life, I trust Him more, and question Him less. You may say it’s just a psychological trick or religious hoo-doo voodoo, but if it gives me peace of mind, does it matter?

Yesterday, I sat in a sunlit meadow after hiking 11.5 miles with two of my best friends, catching up with the first boy I ever slow-danced with, who just happened to run into us on the trail. We were eating a delicious lunch and listening to great music, and I suddenly teared up, counting my blessings. How many survivors, three months after chemo, could hike Mt. Tamalpais, and enjoy the company of two friends (one who came all the way from Catalina Island!) who raised nearly $800 to hike with them? Who else but the Creator of the Universe could negotiate such a logistical miracle? To ensure that we all came to the right place, at the right time, in the right frame of mind, so that all our needs could be met in one sunlit moment? Breathing the sweet air of the Marin Headlands, all I could think was, He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouts of joy. It wasn’t a burning bush, but that moment, I knew that God counted me, that He has a plan for me, and that it IS a plan to prosper, and not to harm me.

It is the hardest thing, especially for us Type As, to entrust our future to something intangible, unprovable. It is the biggest gamble, to believe in a Higher Power that is greater than ourselves, and the scariest part is the possibility that His plan might be different than our plan. What helps me is reminding myself that I don’t know everything, and cataloging those moments when things work out so beautifully that no amount of human planning could have produced the same result. That, to me, is proof of Divinity, and its role in my own journey.

Wows and Woo-Woos

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I look in the mirror these days, and while I sometimes still don’t recognize the person staring back, I know I am in there somewhere. I think about this journey I am beginning, of survivorship, and all kinds of metaphors come to mind.

A woman in my support group here asked me, while we were at our second radiotherapy appointment together, “Do you know what it means when the machine is clicking? Are those the radiowaves shooting out, or is it scanning us?” She was a sweet and somewhat nervous woman, young like me, and had been struggling with a stressful work environment where she felt manipulated and under-appreciated.

We had talked before about her job and how hard it was, but also about how good the money was, and I had asked her, “I’ve read about women with cancer saying, ‘I will make this work if it kills me,’ when it comes to difficulties at their jobs. But what if it does? What if it kills you?” She replied, “I know, I know, but I can’t afford to quit right now.” I know. I know. I thought, at the time, yes, I knew once too. Yet here I am. Stage IIIA: just shy of metastatic breast cancer.

Some people who fight cancer take comfort in knowledge. White blood cell counts. Survival odds, based on statistics, culled from years of Big Pharma data. You can find these statistics online at various websites devoted to the numbers of cancer. If you have x number of treatments of y drug at z intervals over a months, then you have a b percent chance of being alive after c years. Numbers comfort many people, because it gives them something to hold onto that has been verified by the very industry that is treating (and, they hope, curing) their dis-ease. In a land of uncertainty, numbers comfort us.

The thing is, if you ask any scientist what a fact is, they will have to agree that a fact is simply an opinion that most people agree on. At one time, remember, it was a fact that the earth was flat. All science can really tell us is that x number of people have tried y, and it worked for z of them. Drugs work for some people, and don’t work for others. Why they work is just an assumption, based on other assumptions. It’s also important to remember that why they don’t work is an assumption too. For all we know, listening to Van Halen’s  “Dance the Night Away” cures cancer, but because someone isn’t asking people in chemotherapy if they’ve heard it during the course of their treatment, we don’t really know, do we? My friend Greg ignored all his doctor’s advice when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 20 years old. He drank Natty Light nearly every weekend with his fraternity brothers, believing he was going to go out of this life with a bang. Six weeks later, his tumor had shrunk. Six months later, he was in remission. Does Natural Light beer cure cancer? We don’t know. We don’t know.

The truth is, I have never put *that* much faith in facts or numbers. My opinion is, my body will either heal itself or it won’t. I will either live or die, and only a certain amount of my life is really under my control anyway. What fighting cancer has taught me is that wrapping myself up in judgment over whether my numbers are “good” or “bad” this week or this month can only serve to increase my anxiety, and ultimately, make my life less enjoyable. What keeps me going, instead, is to spend what time I have left on this earth – be it 5 months or 50 years – taking comfort in what makes me feel good, strong, and proud, and not wasting time or energy worrying about being weak, unhappy, or guilty. There will be times in the years ahead (I hope, many years ahead) when I feel weak, unhappy, and even guilty, but they will pass. They will pass! As the Good Book says, this too shall pass.

I have been very careful, in my cancer fight, about surrounding myself with people who have positive, constructive energy. I realized very quickly that people with negative, destructive energy – even when it is unintentional – bring me to a place that drains me of my strength and positivity. I can almost feel my immune system weakening in the face of negative energy. Of course, I knew that, if I was going to be in a giant, clicking, radioactive machine every day for six weeks, I would have lots of time to think about the tumors that had grown in my breast, the likelihood of them growing back, and my long-term odds of surviving breast cancer. I knew that I would need to use the time constructively, not destructively, to help me heal (because ultimately, it is not doctors who heal us, but our bodies that heal themselves). Sitting in the waiting room, next to this woman that I realized I would see every morning for the next month and a half, listening to her worry about her job, about the machine’s effectiveness, I struggled with how I could possibly be supportive and encouraging, and still protect myself from her clearly unintentional drain on my energy.

“I guess I’m just wondering how it works,” she asked, almost to herself, as we sat waiting for the nurses to come get us. I visualized the scene I had been picturing the first couple of days of radiotherapy, that had been carrying me through my own worry, and debated on sharing it with her. “Well….” I said, “You know that part in Lord of the Rings, when Frodo is weak from being stabbed by the Nazgul, and Arwen has him on her horse, and they’re running from the Black Riders?” She nodded, presumably wondering where I was going with this, and if “chemo brain” was a legitimate phenomenon. Suddenly, I found myself tearing up. “Well, when I am in that machine, and I hear it clicking, I imagine that there is this part of me, that is weak like Frodo, from being wounded, and that the things that wounded me – my cancer cells – are chasing me, but that there is this also this stronger part of me, that is like Arwen, and she is carrying me away from them. That she is riding for her life and mine, with all the strength that she has. And when I hear the clicking of the tomography machine, I imagine that it is the sound of her horse, galloping with all the strength that it has, to carry us both away to a safe place. And when the clicking stops, I visualize Arwen calling the river to come and drown the Nazgul, and the radiation washing over me like the river, melting my tumor like they’re it’s the Wicked Witch of the West. So when I open my eyes, I’m like Frodo, opening his eyes after being healed.” I collect myself, wiping my eyes. “I’m not sure what’s really going on when they put us in that machine,” I tell her, “but that is what I think of when I hear the clicking.”

She looked at me, a little bewildered, almost as if she had not really been listening, but before she could say anything, the nurse came in and called her to come down the hall. I sat there after she’d gone, wondering if she pitied me, a woman who invested in daydreams rather than science, and if I had helped her at all by sharing my story.

There are some people, I guess, who just don’t find comfort in what they cannot touch or measure. I am thankful, though, that I am not one of them.

The Big Bang

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A few days before I left Kaua’i to move back to California, I went to Borders to pick out a journal. It was going to be my “new chapter” journal – the one that I would start when I closed the book on what was probably the hardest 9 months of my life. The one in which I would write a new story, with a happier ending.

At the time, I was hanging on by a thread. I was in one of those places where you feel like God has forgotten about you. Not in a mean way; more like He’s been really busy with getting Obama into the White House and keeping Palestinians from fighting with Israelis and making sure one less human rights activist is being arrested in Myanmar (in considering time-space arguments that explain how Santa is able to get into billions of chimneys in a single night, I often think that God’s ability to evaluate a trillion prayers a day, and still have time tolisten to mine, must have something to do with an as-yet undefined unified field theory). In any case, when I walked into Borders, I said a tiny prayer that He would help me fine a journal that would, perhaps with its cover or pages or binding, give me a sense of hope about the year ahead of me, which I so desperately needed to be better than the year behind me.

As I walked towards the giant wall of journals, I immediately spotted a pale pink/peachy-colored one, nearly in the center of the wall, covered in iridescent butterflies. For numerous reasons that I will have to explain in a future journal entry, butterflies have been a kind of lietmotif running throughout my life, and as I closed in on the journal, I relaxed just a teeny bit. On its cover was a quote from the Bible, a quote I had read just a few days earlier in a card from a Christian friend and 3-time breast cancer survivor: “For I know the PLANS I have for YOU (Jeremiah 29:11).” And wouldn’t you know, I nearly burst into tears right there in Borders. I took the journal off the shelf, my hands (yes) shaking a little, and opened it, only to find another quote inside from the Book of Job: “He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouts of joy.” How does He do it? I wondered. How does God hear you, and let you know He hears you, when you need it most, despite all the other things on His plate? Perhaps Stephen Hawking, a man who shares my birthday, knows.

In any case, tonight, as I open the journal to write in it, the quote at the top of today’s page makes me smile. It is (of course) from theoretical physicist Edward Teller, and is another one of my favorites: “When you come to the end of all the light you know, and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or your will be taught to fly.” The quote is particularly appropriate, considering I just registered for my first 40-by-40 event: the Avon 2-Day Walk in Los Angeles September 12-13. Which means, I have about 33 days to raise $1800 and be able to walk 40 miles in 48 hours. This is the part that feels like the top of the roller coaster.

All yesterday, I kep thinking, “Oh my God…. Oh my God….” It’s starting. My 40-by-40. My next five years. My journey to survivorship. Considering this, the first chapter in Part II of my story, I can’t help but hear the faint crack of a starting gun, somewhere in an alternate universe where I am becoming everything I want to be.

The Happiness Lock

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

So, my hair is growing in. Actually, it’s *been* growing in. I’m still not comfortable walking around without a hat (and yet, I put videos on YouTube of me without one, interesting….). Still, it reminds me that my body is recovering.

My body is recovering. How powerful a statement is that? Lately, I have gotten in the habit of wording things in the present tense. Not “My body will get better” or “I am going to heal,” but “My body IS recovering.” Right now, right this very second – with every hair cell that pushes its way out of my scalp! For all his talk about ditching minimum-wage activities and hundred-thousand dollar watches, I think what all these MLM seminar leaders are really teaching, beneath the how-to-be-a-millionaire smoke and mirrors, is that the language you use, the words you speak, are of critical importance to your success in any endeavor. Are you someone who says, “As soon as I ____, things will be better…”? What statements like this do is put your brain in a permanent state of anticipation, not a permanenet state of action. You are contstantly anticipating the day when things in your life will get better, but they never get better, because you are never taking action!

Have you ever heard the expression that in our dreams, we are the writers, directors, and actors? I have a better metaphor – our lives are courtrooms, and we are the defendant, the plaintiff, the judge, jury, and attorneys. Every moment of our lives, we are making the case for beliefs that we uphold. We look for evidence, and deem it relevant or irrelevant depending on those beliefs. Do you think marriage is an outdated, sexist institution? Then you will seek out evidence of it and IGNORE evidence to the contrary, just to uphold your belief. Even when the knife has fingerprints from the defendant and the victim’s blood all over it, you will say, “Illegal Search! This Evidence Is Inadmissible!” You will look at someone in a happy, giving, joyful marriage, and say that they are an exception, a fluke, or a lie, just to maintain your belief.

One of my favorite quotes is, “Reality is created by Validation.” We make choices every day about where that validation comes from, and we accept or reject the validation based on our evaluation of the evidence presented (which is, of course, accepted or rejected based on our beliefs). If we believe we are bad people (based on what we deem “credible” evidence, like, say, an abusive spouse’s opinion), we might also then believe that God gave us cancer to punish us. A sane person would tell us, “That’s ridiculous!” If we believed we deserved it, though, and believed it with enough fervor, we would dismiss our well-meaning friend’s opinion as uninformed. “You just don’t know how bad I am,” we would say to ourselves. “I do deserve this, and that’s why I have it.”

When bad things happen to good people, it’s easy to blame God, but it’s even easier to blame ourselves. Why? Because it gives us the illusion of control. If you got this because you’re bad, then you can get rid of it by being good. Right? So, basically, you think you can manipulate God’s will by changing your behavior? That’s kind of arrogant, isn’t it? Or is it ignorant? Maybe, shit just happens. Every day. And there’s nothing you can do but roll with the punches. That’s scary, though. It’s much more comforting to imagine we can control God by living a certain way, like happiness is some kind of combination lock we can figure out, isn’t it? That’s not the way it works, though. The sooner we accept that, the easier it gets to swerve when life throws you a curve.

Some of you might disagree, so here’s the evidence, and it’s undisputable: bad things happen to good people. All the time. You can be living a right and good and honest life and still get sick with a disease you don’t deserve. So what? How are you going to respond? Are you going to fight it? Are you going to yell at God? Get angry? Sit around and have a pity party? Good luck. I can’t think of an example where any of that’s actually worked for anyone or made their life happier.

The only thing that works is this: get busy living your life. Stop crying and feeling sorry for yourself – that’s just selfishness and it does no one any good, especially you. Believe with all your heart that you deserve all the happiness and goodness and abundance in the universe, and get out of that darkness so you can get busy living the life you DO deserve (and who says that you can’t be fighting cancer AND be happy?!) Then, look back and create a road map of your journey, so you can help others find their way out. There are a millions ways to get to a happy life. Find yours, then share it.

How to Get Through Chemo

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I was going to title this post, “How to Beat Cancer,” but, I think that’s premature, considering I’m not 5 years out yet. Still, time will tell if the same strategy applies. What I know now is How to Get Through Chemo.

Chemotherapy is no picnic. It’s hard enough, as a woman, to lose your breasts, and if chemo takes your hair, your eyebrows, and eyelashes, it’s even harder. When you look in the mirror, you don’t even recognize yourself – on a good day, you’re an extra from I Am Legend. On a bad day, you’re Uncle Fester. Or maybe it’s vice-versa. Either way, you feel like a freakshow, and all you want to do is stay home and curl into a fetal position.

There is another factor, of course. Many women facing breast cancer are (like me) real “Type-As.” We are the driven, strong ones everyone else relies on, and the worst part of getting sick is entertaining the idea that we might (gasp!) be mortal. It’s hard enough facing the fact ourselves, but letting our friends in on the secret?! Or worse, our family?! Unthinkable!!

The worst thing you can do after a breast cancer diagnosis is hole up. I mean it: YOU MUST NOT RETREAT. It’s so so SO tempting to batten down the hatches and hide away until your hair grows back, to turn down requests to accompany you to chemo because you don’t want people to see you vulnerable. It’s the WORST thing you can do and you will have a terribly hard time Getting Through Chemo alone.

I’ve been where you are. I’ve made it through the deaths of two parents and four grandparents, two financial crises, seven triathlons, three careers, two marathons, a graduate degree and nursing my only sibling through a horrible divorce ALONE. I have carried burden after burden all by myself; I pride myself on being able to pull my own weight in any situation and when I was diagnosed with Stage IIIA Triple Negative Breast Cancer 3500 miles away from all my family and most of my friends, I told myself, “I can get through ANYTHING all by myself, and cancer is no different.”

I’m here to tell you: I was WRONG, and I am incredibly lucky I wasn’t dead wrong.

Cancer is NOT the time to bravely soldier on alone. Three days after my second Taxol treatment, after four very tough cycles of Adriamycin and Cytoxan, I was hit with the worst depression I’ve ever experienced in my life. I found myself crying hysterically at the foot of my bed, wanting to wash the last of the Vicodin from my lumpectomy surgery with the last of the tequila in my freezer. I felt so helpless and hopeless, I wanted to walk into the woods behind my house, curl up into a ball, and never wake up.

I credit three people with saving my life that weekend: my roommate, a fellow survivor, and one of my chemo nurses. My roommate sensed something was wrong when I woke up the next morning, and asked me to stop by her office before my chemo appointment that afternoon. When I got there, she introduced me to her coworker, who was a ten-year survivor of Stage IV breast cancer. I burst into tears when I met her, and told her I was terrified of the thoughts I had been having. She told me that she’d battled with depression during her chemo also, then looked me straight in the eye and said, dead serious, “You have to call in the troops.” I went to chemo and, instead of putting a brave face on for my nurses, I let myself cry in front of them, and confessed I wasn’t having a good day. For someone like me, who was always cracking jokes and making people laugh in Infusion Services, it was a huge admission. Chemo nurses, of course, are a special breed, and one of my nurses offered to do a healing touch therapy on me while I was receiving my meds (something they probably don’t teach at medical assistant schools). I took her up on it and when I woke up after treatment, I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

I’ll never know if it was my roommate reaching out to me, her coworker giving me permission to ask for help, or my reaching out to my chemo nurses that lightened the load I was carrying. What I do know is this: when you feel like “turtling”; when you want to hide from your friends and family, rather than face them in a weakened, vulnerable state, you must do the OPPOSITE: you must REACH OUT. Let them be the source of strength they want to be for you!

In my moments of darkness, I asked the same question Jesus asked on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I felt so alone, so far away from what was supposed to be the Source of my strength at my lowest point. What I didn’t know was that He had surrounded me with angels to be there for me in His place. God loves us through other people. We just have to be open and receptive of that love. All around me were people waiting for the opportunity to be my rocks of Gibraltar, and if I had kept on insisting I didn’t need anyone’s help, I might have thrown myself into that pit of despair, for fear of appearing weak! Don’t do it. Don’t worry so much about appearing strong that you break from the pressure. People all around you love you no matter what, and are waiting to be there for you, if you let them. Call in the troops. You won’t win the battle without them.

This is How You Get Through Chemo: by Opening Up, not Holing Up.


If you doubt the power of strength, power, and beauty in numbers, check out this video: Playing For Change.

The Case For White-Knuckling It

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I realized today that sometimes, you just have to white-knuckle it.

I have a few interns graduating from high school in Richmond, CA. If you’re not familiar with Richmond, it’s a very tough place to grow up. Seated right next to Chevron’s biggest petroleum refinery west of the Mississippi, it’s full of toxic chemicals. The parks are run down and while there is change coming to the City, it wasn’t changing much when many of my students were growing up. Sometimes, I think it’s a miracle they’ve made it this far in one piece, with their sanity intact.

I went down to a local JC today to sort out a clerical error for one of my kids – someone used his ID number to register, then drop out of a class. They say he owes them $21 for a on-unit course, and he can’t register for classes at a sister JC closer to home until it’s paid. I mean, this kid doesn’t have $8 for the BART to come out here to fix it, let alone $21 to pay it. He’s saving every dime so he can get his first apartment, and being a young African-American man from Richmond, even one with a great resume, he’s having trouble finding a job in this economy. He asked me, frustrated beyond belief, why everything has to be so hard. Ah, kid, I wanted to say, I am so not the one to ask right now.

The reason is this: I’d just realized I had done the math wrong this month, and I have three chemo sessions left, not two. Then, my doctor told me that the thing on my tailbone I thought was a staph infection from my gym’s nasty locker room was actually shingles. Which is also why the headaches I’ve been getting are not going away no matter how much water I drink. The best part is, I can’t take anything but over-the-counter pain medication, because I have to drive myself to the doctor four times a week for shots, bloodwork, and chemo.

If you’ve ever put pressure on a shingles-inflamed nerve, it’s not pleasant. Not at all. Which is why I am wincing when Marlon asks me why everything has to be so hard, I know how he feels. I know the feeling that it’s just not going to get any easier anytime soon. In those times, I now realize, you just have to white-knuckle It. You just have to get through it, because no amount of vision-boarding or Madonna-album-listening, or positive-affirmation-ing is going to make the pain and frustration go away.

The worst pain I’ve ever been in was the week I had my gallbladder taken out. I didn’t even have a gallstone; I had like “gall-sludge” – a slimy, grainy-textured, tar-sand-like substance clogging my bile duct. The pain was excruciating; I was out of my mind from the second I walked into the hospital to the moment the morphine took effect. It felt like an alien made of boulders was trying to claw its way out of my chest and I was literally watching the second hand on the clock, thinking two more minutes and the nurse will be here, thirty more seconds and she’ll find a vein, five more seconds and it will be in my bloodstream, knowing that as soon as my body metabolized it, the pain would abate.

Knowing there will be an end to pain makes it so much easier to get through, of course. It’s thinking that life is going to be hard forever that makes you want it over. In the Book of Job, the Devil says to God, “You know, even your best followers only follow you because their lives are blessed. If you took away everything they had, they wouldn’t be so penitent.” So God says, “Okay, fine – there’s Job – go to town. Take away anything you want from him.” And Job loses everything – his kids, his business, his house, all of it. Still, Job believes in God and doesn’t question Him. Finally, Job’s friends are like, “Dude, you are not perfect, but still, how can you deserve this? You need to take it up with God, you need to ask Him what you’ve done to be so punished.” God, hearing Job’s friends question His judgement, interrupts them and says, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (which would be Hebrew for “Who are YOU to question ME?”)

Theologians typically suggest that the central question of the book of Job is, “Is misfortune always divine punishment?” and in my opinion, the Book of Job says no. We’re not at the mercy of a capricious God, and we’re not always bearing the burden of His wrath. In times of misfortune, I take comfort in the Book of Jeremiah, where God says He has a plan for me. I may not know what it is; it may be confusing sometimes. I may feel like the Karate-fucking-Kid, waxing on and waxing off and painting houses all day while He’s out fishing! But I have to trust that it’s all part of His plan, and that, like Job, faith and trust are rewarded. Even if you want to get all existential and say the only reward for faith in a Higher Power is feeling like misery isn’t pointless…. sometimes, that can be enough to make you want to go on living.

So many times in my life, I have been able to use past disasters to put things in perspective, either for myself or for others. Time and again, I have made it through hard times to enjoy an abundant and happy life. We never know what God has planned for us; we can only take comfort in what is, and pray for strength, patience, and understanding if it isn’t what we want. I told Marlon, when he asked me why life has to be so hard, that sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it’s easy, and the only thing we can control is our reaction to it. When you don’t think you have the strength to bear a burden, and none of your positive thinking is helping, the answer is to hold on, let the tears fall, and white-knuckle it ’till it’s over.