Thursday, February 28, 2013


It was all very well to say `Drink me,' but the wise little Alice was not going to do THAT in a hurry. "No, I'll look first," she said, `and see whether it's marked 'poison' or not..." ...she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked `poison,' it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.

Today is Thursday, February 28, 2013.

The person in the picture is me - just about five years ago. 

In January and early February of 2008 I underwent four rounds of chemotherapy (or "infusion" as they call it in the hospital).  Like Alice, I have realized what it means to drink something marked "poison." The drugs I was taking during infusion were so poison that my chemo nurse had to wear a plastic gown all over her body, just in case any of the drug should spill on her skin and cause acid burn. Keep in mind that they were injecting this poison directly into my veins! I have no doubt that there was a bio-hazard sign on the cupboard where they kept the chemotherapy medications, and with good reason. But this realization took years to sink in.

By this time five years ago, the hair on my head was gone, as was the hair on my arms and legs, underarms and private parts. My eyelashes were decimated; only my eyebrows seemed to escape damage. As another cancer survivor once explained it, "I could have qualified for the U.S. Olympic Swim Team." It was hard to look at myself in the mirror, and I hated my shadow, which resembled a monster. Unfortunately, I am not one of those women who have a beautifully-shaped skull.

I'd been warned about the hair loss, and bought a synthetic wig in a style that was close to my own. A stylist trimmed it while it was on my head, so it looked "OK," but I was uncomfortable wearing it, and opted instead for soft cotton knit chemo caps, color-coordinated with whatever I was wearing that day. Some second-graders that I taught were particularly fond of my red cap with white polka-dots. They begged me to show them my bald head, and one day I decided to grant their request, telling them sternly that they mustn't laugh. Some of them wanted to, but you could have heard a pin drop when I took off my cap. Two little Hmong girls (refugees from Laos) were sitting on the floor right in front of me. Their English comprehension skills were not the best, so both little girls were shocked to their core when they saw that my hair was gone. They had not really understood what was being discussed. You just never know what kids are thinking, what they really understand.

One of the students asked whether cancer was catching, and I was pleased to tell them that it was not. Before I had my mastectomy, I had explained to this group of kids that the doctor had found cancer in three places, and that I was going to have an operation (without going into any detail). At the time, one of the boys - probably thinking that I was talking about pimples - had remarked, "Why don't you just pop them, Miss L.?" (Two years later, this same boy lost his mother to cancer. What a cruel answer to a child's innocent question!)

The hair finally came back, but what came in first felt like duck-fuzz. Later, I got some coarse, kinky hair that was almost pure white. It took at least a year for the hair to grow back normally, albeit much more silver gray than blond. These days the color seems to be coming back slightly, but one stubborn cowlick that never bothered me before chemo refuses to be completely tamed.

Most of us are now aware of the more common short-term side effects of chemotherapy, such as losing all one's hair or being violently ill. Everyone reacts to chemo a little differently. My side effects also included having just about every fluid in my body dry up: tears, sweat, saliva, and that slick mucous that the body produces to make a bowel movement more comfortable. (Most people don't even pay attention to that last one - until, of course, it goes away. Then you have to pay attention.) This "drying up" side-effect produced other side-effects. I could not cry and my eyes were glued shut every morning. It took special, industrial-strength eye drops to tackle this one. I had trouble swallowing and food in general just tasted terrible. I was given some special mouthwash to help with dry mouth, but there was nothing that could improve the taste of my food. Daily bowel movements became torture, and I remember screaming every time I passed a stool. Yes, they had something for that, too, but it wasn't much help.

At one point, after my second round of chemo, I was invited to have a leisurely breakfast with a friend one Saturday morning. I ordered a Denver-style omelet, a specialty of the house, and ate the whole thing. I totally forgot my chemo nurse's warning about eating onions. A day later, and for three days after that, I was sick as a dog, and so grateful for the lady who had agreed to be my teaching sub at a moment's notice anytime during my chemotherapy.

Fortunately, my chemo took place in the winter, so I didn't miss the sweat.

The loss of energy was a big side effect. Before the chemo, I'd experienced fatigue, but comparing normal fatigue with what I felt while on the chemo drugs, I have to say that it's just not the same. I had to plan my days carefully, especially the days when I went to work. I left school right after the kids, and if I didn't get all my errands done by about five o'clock, that was too bad. I was generally in bed by six p.m. and down for the entire night. This kind of fatigue is not something that will go away after you rest for a few minutes. It's a total body shut-down. It's a that's-all-for-today kind of fatigue. It's a sit-down-right-now-or-you-will-keel-over fatigue. It took a couple of years to begin to get my strength back. Even today, I can no longer go to a shopping mall with no particular goal in mind. I know exactly which store I need to check and where, exactly it is located within the mall. I park by the door closest to the store I have in mind, and never shop for more than one or two things at a time. I know where all the chairs and benches are, and I conserve my strength carefully, knowing that if I fail to do this, I will not make it back to my car.

I remember getting out my vacuum cleaner and being able to vacuum only one quarter of my living room per day. I would move furniture and vacuum one part, then stop and leave the vacuum cleaner where I stopped, to mark what I'd done. The next day I would vacuum another section. I know other women who have had this happen to them, and I recall how embarrassed one woman was to tell me how long it took her to vacuum her living room rug. It's depressing to have to spend several days doing a chore that normally takes no more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Dishes were another thing that fell by the wayside. I couldn't seem to stand in one place without pain for more than about ten minutes, so I would wash and rinse as many dishes as I could, then leave the rest to soak, hoping that I could finish the next day. Naturally, I kept on using dishes, so it turned into one of those chores that never seemed to end. Doing laundry was excruciating. Lugging a bag of laundry to the laundry room, was bad enough, but then there were the walks back and forth to put in another load, or to transfer loads from the washer to the dryer. That was another chore that took days and days. 

There were other side-effects, many of which came and went with some regularity each time I had a round of chemo, such as sores on the inside of my mouth and tender places on my tongue. Some side-effects stayed with me as long as the drugs were affecting my body and went away slowly after the chemo was all finished. The soles of my feet felt strange - the skin was thick and rubbery, not like human skin at all. I always wondered whether my cat could smell the drugs in my body. She stopped coming up onto my bed in the morning the entire time I was undergoing chemo and didn't start again until well after all the drugs had completely exited my body.

There were some long-term side effects that I wasn't warned about. One was a significant hearing loss. I thought maybe it was just that my hearing aids, long past their prime, were finally wearing out. When my audiologist tested me, she looked at records going back over two decades and asked me what was going on in my life. When I told her about the chemo, she nodded her head, and explained that she had seen a lot of people come in with a sudden change in ability to hear, and that the vast majority of those had experienced chemotherapy. When I told my oncologist about the hearing loss, he didn't bat an eyelash. "I'm sorry," was his only comment. It appeared that he was aware of this side-effect, and I wondered why they hadn't bothered to warn me. It got so bad that I could no longer hear messages on my phone at work, and I found myself begging the staff to email me or put a note in my physical mailbox, rather than call and leave a voicemail message. When a parent called, I had to ask someone else to listen to the message and tell me what they said. It was true that my hearing aids were wearing out, but what I had was no longer appropriate for my hearing loss. Since I was in a debt-management program, I couldn't afford to buy new hearing aids, and ended up waiting until I paid off my credit card balances completely. The hearing aids I got at a discount outlet were about half the cost of ones sold by private audiologists, but they still cost me $3,000. I got them only a month or two before I retired. The first day I wore them to work, one of my students came up to me and asked why I was talking so softly. I realized then that I had been practically shouting just so I could hear myself talk, and this had been going on for years.

Another long-term side effect is something that many cancer survivors, but very few doctors, seem aware of. The cancer patients call it "chemo brain." I read an article a few months ago about this. The article said that it had only recently become clear that "chemo brain" is a side-effect of chemotherapy that can persist for many years after the treatment ends. When I was first told about this side-effect, I thought the lady was joking. I soon found out that she was not.

It's hard to put into words what "chemo brain" is all about. When I realized that I would have to spend a lot of time at home recuperating from the chemo treatments, I was actually kind of excited about having so much free time to do things I enjoyed. I planned to read a lot of good books, listen to music, work on the book I was writing - all things I love to do. Fortunately, I was warned to get all my long-range lesson planning done before chemo, and I'm glad now that I took that advice. I could never have done any lesson plans while I was undergoing chemo. In fact, I never cracked one book or listened to any music. I got nothing done on the book I was writing. I simply could not think. I couldn't concentrate. There's no other way to state that. I just couldn't think. I ended up spending a lot of time just sitting there and staring into space. I didn't even daydream. Just sat there. And no, I couldn't watch TV, either.

I couldn't sleep, either, or dream, so I spend a lot of time just sitting there, letting precious time slip through my fingers. It's no wonder people on chemo get depressed so easily.

When the chemo ended and the drugs finally exited my body, the fog eventually lifted, but I still experience short-term memory loss and I often have trouble coming up with the right word, which makes for some uncomfortable silences not only for me, but for my poor listener, who can't always figure out what I'm trying to say. My students, bless them, often tried to finish my sentences for me.

So far I have only talked about the side effects from the infusion treatments. I was also given a medication called Tamoxifen to be taken orally. The plan was to take this drug for five years. A year and a half into that treatment, I ended up in the E.R. with a huge blood clot that went from just below my knee about halfway down my calf. I was the one who informed my oncologist of this fact, and I'm glad I didn't wait for someone else to think of doing that. He took me off Tamoxifen immediately and put me on Arimidex. We'd talked about this earlier, and before going on the oral drug I'd had an extensive bone scan, which determined that I had a condition known as osteopenia, a precursor to full osteoporosis. A side-effect of Arimidex is loss of bone density, so we had decided on Tamoxifen. Unfortunately, the main side-effect of Tamoxifen is blood clots.

I had been on Arimidex for about six months when I had my next regular check up with the oncologist. His first question to me as soon as the we sat down to talk was, "When did the pain start?" I was floored. He knew there would be pain, and he'd said nothing before hand.

I'd started the Arimidex in the middle of summer. When school started in the fall I'd had to move some furniture round in my classroom - a normal thing because the custodians take all the classroom furniture and pile it up in the hallway while they are shampooing the carpet. When they move the furniture back, it is generally just dumped into the middle of the room. I'd always been strong enough to drag the bookshelves and my desk into position by myself, then unpack boxes of heavy books and put them on the shelves. That had proved to be very hard on my body. I knew I'd have some pain - I always did at the beginning of the school year when putting my room in order. But generally by the first day of school, my body was back to normal and the pain was gone. This time, the pain went on and on, and I found myself unable to get to sleep at night. I started to use the overhead projector rather than writing on the board, because I could no longer lift my arm high enough to write at eye level. I began to use a wheeled cart to carry just about everything. I stopped taking the stairs because it just hurt too much. It hurt as much to go down the stairs as it did to go up. By the end of each day, I was limping badly. The bones were becoming too weak to hold up the muscles, which began to ache from too much exertion. It was a vicious cycle.

The oncologist said he could fix this. He offered to write a prescription for something called Fosamax, which was supposed to make my bones stronger. It sounded good, but if you've been following everything I've written so far, you should be able to understand why I was concerned about possible side-effects of yet another drug. I told him I'd think about it.

I went home and did some research on the web. The most serious side-effect of Fosamax was listed as osteonecrosis, or dead jaw syndrome, which was only a problem if a user had invasive dental work done. I asked my dentist what would happen if I was on Fosamax and had to have a root canal. Her answer was that she would ask me to go off Fosamax for at least three months, maybe six, and then she would do the root canal. I don't know about you, but when I have to have a root canal done, it is generally because I have an inflamed nerve that hurts a lot. And yet the dentist was telling me that I would have to wait three to six months to have a root canal, if that became necessary!

A few months later, I read an article on ABC News Online that reported incidences of bones breaking spontaneously. And they were talking about the femur (thigh bone), the largest bone in the body! All the patients mentioned in the article were women, and all of them had suffered breast cancer! They didn't seem to put two and two together in this article, but I did. All of them were probably taking Arimidex to prevent any more cancer cells from forming, and all of their oncologists had "fixed" the problem by prescribing Fosamax, probably because of the pain. If I took Fosamax to "fix" the side effects from the Arimidex, I would be under threat of having a bone break spontaneously. Not only did I decide not to take the Fosamax, I quit taking the Arimidex, as well..

I began to see a chiropractor and physical therapist who were working in the same office. My oncologist refused to recommend chiropractic because he didn't "believe in it," so insurance did not pay very much toward the treatment. That office, knowing my financial situation, ended up taking me on as a charity case - probably for a tax incentive, but who cares? My oncologist might not believe in the power of chiropractic, but I do. The chiropractor took a full-body x-ray before they started treatment and I was shocked to see that a frontal view of my spine showed an S-curve, with my neck held at a slight angle. No wonder it was painful to move my head enough to make lane changes safely while driving. I'd been depending on my side-view mirrors and prayer for a long time. Eight or nine months later, they took another x-ray and my spine was straight as a string. The visual difference was breathtaking, and I could feel the difference the treatments were making. The pain faded, and I began to gain back my energy.

But the drugs weren't finished with me yet.

Just before I moved to South Dakota, I suffered two large pulmonary embolisms (blood clots that had traveled to my lungs and stuck there, obstructing the flow of oxygen to my blood). The drop in energy was immediate and frightening, and once again I was obliged to spend months recovering my energy. That was when I was belatedly put on blood thinning medication, and I am still in the process of having my blood monitored every month.

So the cancer is long gone, and - knock on wood - it will not be back. The side-effects and their ramifications are here to stay. But I refuse to let them win. :-/

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Alice thought she might as well wait, as she had nothing else to do, and perhaps after all it might tell her something worth hearing. For some minutes it puffed away without speaking, but at last it unfolded its arms, took the hookah out of its mouth again, and said, `So you think you're changed, do you?'

Are you content now?' said the Caterpillar.

Today is February 27, 2013, and there's not much left of today.  This has been an unusually busy day, but I find that I enjoyed it immensely.  

The characters imposed on the beach picture read "manzoku" in Japanese.  The term means not only "content" or "contentment," but also "pleasure" and "satisfaction."   Yesterday I was listening to an old song by a Japanese singer named Ogura Kei in which he used the word "manzoku."  For a while, now, I've been thinking that it meant "perfect," but I realized this evening that the term for perfect is "manten."   Close, but no cigar.  

However, even my mis-translation has provided me with a valuable message.  Contentment is not the same as perfection.  When we learn to be content even though we are facing problems and obstacles in life, we can say that we have gained a basic level of mastery.

In my spiritual path, contentment is one of the Five Virtues, and its opposite is greed.  Contentment represents a state of balance.  It doesn't necessarily mean that we  have everything we want or as much as we want.  It simply means that we are OK with what we do have.   Its opposite, greed, represents an imbalance in our lives, a sense of dissatisfaction with our current situation.  In fact, it represents a state of more or less permanent dissatisfaction, no matter how much we have.  

Today I had a good day, and it's easy to feel content.  My day wasn't perfect, mind you, but it went well enough.  On days when everything seems to go wrong, it's much more of a challenge  for me to maintain my sense of contentment. 

Right now I'm living in a place that is cramped and the management is not particularly friendly, but the rent is right for my budget, and I'm able to stay out of debt.  My health is still not the greatest, but I can say that I have improved a great deal, and I've even lost some weight in the last few months.  Things are looking brighter on the health front.  I had to leave all my in-person friends when I left the Twin Cities, but I have managed to keep all my online friends and add a few more.  And I'm slowly getting acquainted with people around here who have similar  interests.  I started out my retirement with no goals, but I'm starting to develop some interests and make long-term plans.   

Balance, that's the key.  As long as I an balance the negatives with some positives, I will be OK.  Lately I have been feeling bad because I felt that I was wasting my time.  Today I filled the day with activities, and spent very little time online.  I'm feeling very content right now. 

The other day I was talking about setting goals and I quoted someone who said that we must know how we want to feel when we have reached our goals.  I want to feel content.   :-)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Living in the Present

"I could tell you my adventures--beginning from this morning," said Alice a little timidly, "but it's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then."

 Today is Tuesday, February 26, 2013.  

As a new retiree, I find myself at a crossroads. The majority of my memories, at least the ones involving the last couple of decades, have to do with being a teacher. While some of these memories can be comforting or satisfying, others merely generate feelings of regret and remorse for things I neglected to do, things I could or should have done differently, things I should have done better, students I might have tried to understand and communicate with on a deeper level, kids I might have given more attention to. The idea that this is all behind me, and that I have no more chances to do better is a little unnerving. Lately, even the pleasant memories leave me feeling depressed. I miss the kids, the camaraderie among the staff, and the feeling of doing something important with my life. 

For a number of years before I actually retired, I was looking forward to retirement. The vision was a little hazy, but somewhere in there was a world of endless summer vacation, with warm sunshine and lots of good books, time to take naps or fool around doing nothing in particular, time to spend with friends, or maybe even have a relationship. I didn't really have any firm plans about where I would live or how much money I would actually have to live on. I didn't calculate how much it might actually take to do some of the things I wanted to do, such as travel or taking classes. It didn't occur to me that the end of my teaching career would also involve a few regrets or a sense of loss. I didn't clearly realize what a burden it might be that 100% of the responsibility for my own daily schedule would be upon my own shoulders.

No matter how uncomfortable it is to think of the past, thinking about the future is even worse, for me. I've never been very good at visualizing the future. When I married my Japanese husband and went off to Japan to live with him (forever, I thought), I had no particular plans in mind. We drifted from thing to thing, and I found myself living a life that could be compared to a hamster running on a wheel. I filled my days teaching English conversation, with the vague idea that at some point I would stop teaching and have children, then somehow start teaching again. When it became clear that my husband and I couldn't have children (long story), I found myself having recurring nightmares in which I was walking forever in an absolutely featureless, tan, geometrically flat desert. There were some mountains with sharp peaks in the distance, obscured by haze, and I knew somehow that I needed to get to those mountains, but they always appeared to be the same distance away, no matter how far or how long I walked.

I decided to cut my losses and move on. I moved from Osaka to Tokyo all by myself and finally won a divorce from my husband. But again, I had no real plan for my life, and I realized that teaching English conversation at Berlitz was not going to be satisfying for me, in the long run. I knew that if I married a Japanese man, I would only be putting myself back into the constraints of the role of "wife," but without the saving grace of becoming a mother, which is the only way women in Japan can get any respect. The future seemed as barren as the desert in the dream that continued to haunt me.
When I moved back to the United States, I had a vague hope of meeting someone and starting a new life, whatever that meant. The problem was that I didn't really know what that meant. Once again I found myself without any specific goals. A friend of mine at the time even commented that I bumbled from one thing to the next. She said she thought I lived a charmed life. Maybe so, but it wasn't satisfying. I was adrift. 

I moved back to what I think of as my "home state," Minnesota, with the thought that I was going to get a Master of Education degree and teach in the public schools. That was the most specific goal I ever created, now that I think of it, and the only goal I ever really prepared myself to meet. No wonder I see my primary identity in life as a teacher.

After that, nothing. No more goals. What was I thinking? Once again, I dreamed of maybe finding someone and settling down - to what, I don't quite know. I guess I thought that a relationship might somehow save me from drifting. Of course, I conveniently forgot that without being able to have children (and my hysterectomy at the age of 41 sealed that particular fate), I would still have to come up with some personal goals for my life. So many young women still subscribe to the fantasy that marriage and motherhood are goals in and of themselves. They're not, really. If I had a dollar for every woman friend who is going through or has been through "empty nest syndrome," I'd have enough to take a nice vacation. If I had a dollar for every marriage in the United States that has ended because the partners realized that they had no shared goals, I'd be as rich as Warren Buffet.

Oh, sure, I did entertain a hazy vision of being a writer, because I know I'm good at it, and all my life people have been telling me, "You should write a book." If I'd really been thinking straight, I would have taken some writing classes when I had the money. I would have resolved to spend more time on weekends and holidays writing. I would have written some short pieces and sent them around to magazines or anthologies. I would have spent time getting to know other writers.

Late in the game I did join a writing group, and enjoyed it immensely. That was after I had already struggled for several years to get a book written with a friend of mine. Currently, I'm having a dickens of a time getting it cut down to size that an agent might want to represent, that a publisher might actually accept for publication. Besides writing this blog, that's my other specific goal - getting the novel Remote Assassin published, under that title or some other.

But what are my other goals? And by focusing on making goals, aren't I guilty of spending too much time dreaming of the future? They say that's just as bad as living in the past.

A man named Steve Smith is quoted as saying, "The difference between a goal and a dream is a deadline." (Who the heck is Steve Smith?) In fact, several others have been quoted as saying the same thing, just worded a little differently.

Someone named Alissa Janey wrote a fuller definition.

"A dream is a vision of what, who, and how you want to be and what you want to achieve. Your vision provides you with the motivation to create action. Dreams tend to be nonspecific. However, recognizing you have a dream is the first step. What you see is what you can achieve.

"A goal is a plan with distinct steps that take us towards achieving our dreams. The only way you can bring your dreams to reality is to make sure it is clear, specific, written, measurable, and has deadlines."

In other words, S.M.A.R.T. goals.

Someone who calls himself or herself "Secret Geek" says, "Dreams are not reality. Goals are reality. When a goal becomes unrealistic, it's no longer an effective goal. CHANGE IT. Bring the goal back into line with reality. You have to be willing to drop features from a goal. Or failing that, to change the time frame, or the depth of the feature. When a feature is dropped, it can be a blow to the motivation.... Goals are focused; dreams are generalized."

Well, that's helpful. So maybe I can consider myself a writer, after all. I just have to drop some features from my dream, and add specific actions that will bring me to the goal, as well as a deadline. If my goal is to get published, even if the deadline I set for that to happen doesn't work out, I can still set deadlines for the steps leading up to publication. That makes sense.

A lady named Diana Robinson (Who are these people, anyway?) wrote the following:

"To transform a dream into a reachable goal you must clarify it, provide the details, make it so clear that you can see it, feel it, know what you will feel like when you get there. This works for you in many ways.

*It clarifies what you want to the point that you will always be attuned to anything that is relevant.  Opportunities will not pass you by unnoticed..

*It shows you what you need to do to get there, step by action step.

*It makes false detours and dead ends less likely to distract you.

*And perhaps the images you carry in your mind and heart will echo out to the universe for manifestation.

The clearer and more vivid the image, the more likely are all of these things to happen."

I think the most important idea in the above quote is that you must know what it will feel like when you get there.  A writer friend named Mary Carroll Moore (I do know who she is.) said something similar, that you have to know what qualities you want to attract into your life as you meet your goal.

All of this reminds me that what we do now, in the present momen, is what will create our future.  It's too lat to regret our present circumstances because we failed to take action in the past.  The point is to get a grip on the present, right now.  My vision of what I can be is something that can be with me right now, in the present, and it can inform my actions in every moment of NOW.  I can't depend on the goals I made yesterday because they were made when I was a different person living in different circumstances.  I need new goals.  I will always need goals.

The present moment is all we ever have to work with.  They say it's never too late to formulate some new goals.  That's what's on my plate.  Right.  Now.  :-)

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Wake-up Call

"The Dormouse is asleep again," said the Hatter, and he poured a little hot tea upon its nose.

The Dormouse shook its head impatiently, and said, without opening its eyes, "Of course, of course; just what I was going to remark myself."

Today is Monday, February 25, 2013.  The quote above reminded me of some of the wake-up calls I've had in my life.   The most recent one occurred last summer, when I realized that I needed to find a way to reduce my living expenses, pronto. 

I was preparing to open an online discussion group on Yahoo late last May, and had just created the group site.  I decided to add to my existing Yahoo profile the email address that I got with my new cable Internet account when I moved to Brandon.  Normally, this takes about 30 seconds to accomplish, but try as I might, nothing happened.   

In the normal course of events, you add the new address, then have Yahoo send an email to the new account.  From your new account, you open the email from Yahoo and click on a link, and your new email address is then registered.  I never got the email.

I went back to Yahoo several times, and it always said that the new address was unverified.  I requested that they send an email a number of times, and I even took a screen shot of the message from Yahoo that said they had sent the email.  I asked Yahoo for help with this, and of course they told me that it must be my ISP's fault.  I called Alliance, my cable company, and asked them if they were blocking Yahoo.  They said no.  

Normally, this sort of snafu seems meaningless, even though it is frustrating, but I was aware on some level that there was more to it.  Around the same time, I became aware that my bank had "lent" me the maximum allowed in my "checking reserve" account, and they wanted to be paid back.  I realized that I had zilch in my account, and that I needed to figure out where the money was going. 

I know I should have been more aware of what was happening, but I wasn't, mainly because I was still recuperating from double pulmonary embolisms, and I had also had surgery on one of my legs to fix the varicose veins, hopefully to avoid another problem with embolisms or worse.  When I am not feeling well, the last thing on my mind is my finances.  I am a master at letting things slide when I don't want to deal with them.  With the bank on my tail, I knew it was time to tackle the problem head-on.  I knew I could take some money out of the account set up for my "early retirement incentive," in order to get out of trouble with the bank, but that it would not be a long-term solution.

They key was understanding the wake-up call that I'd been given.  It was easy to miss, because it was one of those little frustrations in life that Internet users have learned to tolerate.  My spiritual training has taught me that when we experience problems in life that seem unsolvable by normal means, it is often the case that we are being given a message that something has to change.  I kept getting the message, that Yahoo could not verify my email address.  What did that mean?  "We cannot verify your address."  After going into contemplation and asking for help from my spiritual guide, I realized that the whole situation with the email address was a metaphor for what was going on in my life at that time.  It was my physical address that could not be "verified."  Sure enough, when I did the math, it became clear that my rent was eating up too much of my income each month.  The only way I was going to be able to get out of trouble, long-term, was to move to a place where the rent was much less.

By the time I had this realization, it was already early June.  The question was: How fast could I move? 

My first action was to email my landlord to ask if he would let me out of my lease a bit early.  Fortunately, he is a very nice man, and his answer was that he had some people who were waiting to get into an apartment, and if I would keep my place ready to show, he could show my place to two or three different prospective renters within a few days.  Perfect.  I would keep my place spotless and save the packing for later. 

After an exhaustive search on the Internet, it was clear that only one place in Brandon fit my budget.  It was a place that I'd refused to look at earlier, knowing that it only offered one-bedroom apartments, and I had held out for more space.

At the time, I was living in a place that was billed as "one bedroom plus den," and the dimensions were huge.  I used the den (so called because it did not have a door and because there was no closet in the room) as my office.  I had a little private laundry room in my apartment, and enjoyed underground parking with enough space in my assigned stall for a storage shelf.  There was a garbage chute on my floor, which made it unnecessary to drag my garbage very far.  The apartment was a corner place, giving me eastern and southern exposure, and the view was spectacular from third floor. 

The place that I applied to is half the size (but also half the rent).  It does not have a den area, and the living room area is too small for all my furniture and bookshelves. There is no covered parking available, and I am back to lugging my laundry down the hall to a shared laundry room.  I also have to lug my garbage all the way outside to a bin across the parking lot.  The storage area is a joke - it's already completely full of other people's stuff.  The only saving grace is a little pantry, which I heartily wish I could actually use as a pantry, but which I now use as a storage area for things that I need but don't use every day, such as cleaning supplies, my vacuum cleaner, holiday decorations, and so forth.  The other saving grace is that electricity is included in the rent.  That alone is a huge savings.

Fortunately, they did have an opening, but there was a catch.  I had to do a whole bunch of government-issued paperwork in order to "qualify" for this place, since it is rent-controlled.  Really, I wish people who complain about people taking advantage of low-income housing knew how much paperwork was involved, how carefully the applications are screened, and how hard it is to get into one of these places.  The apartment was one that had been empty for over a year, and although you could tell it had been cleaned, it still smelled like smoke.  I found out later that the last tenant was a heavy smoker.  Duh...  I got the apartment manager to agree that if my application went through, I could move in as soon as the 25th of June.

The apartment people wanted to know about all my bank accounts, even the ones that were closed, for the previous five years.  My account back in MN was one of the closed ones, and they had gone through a name-change just before I moved to SD. I made the mistake of giving them the older name for the bank, and then had to have them verify that, yes indeed, Teacher Federal Credit Union had undergone a name change and was now called Trustone Financial.   The application was about twenty-five pages, so as you can imagine, there were a lot of other rather intrusive questions.

With the application process underway, my next action was to secure the services of a moving company.  Naturally, every moving company in the area was booked for the very end of June and the beginning of July.  I would have to move in a few days early or a few days late.  I called a place that had been highly recommended, and got them to agree to move me in on June 25th, a Monday. 

Next, I needed to figure out what to do with my piano.  The piano had been given to me by my mom, and represented a lot of things in my life that I wanted to do but had been too busy to accomplish earlier.  It was an emotional issue for me, but I knew that I would never again have enough room for a piano.  I called the place where Mom had bought it, many years ago.  They were willing to re-sell it, and sent two guys to pick it up.  It took all of five minutes for them to wheel it out of my apartment, bing-bang-boom.   It left a gaping hole in the den and in my life.  Months later, the piano was finally sold to a church. 

The landlord told me that he had found someone to rent my place, so the next thing on the agenda was packing.  I had already thrown a great deal of "stuff" away when I moved to Brandon, so the main thing was to get things packed.  I knew that I would have to get rid of one of my tall bookshelves, the table I was using for my "desk" in the office, and a couple of other chairs that I had acquired in the living room.  I either gave away or sold as many items as possible.

One of the time-consuming jobs that I insisted on doing before moving, rather than later, was to go through my old bank records and shred everything before throwing it away.  Since I couldn't afford to have it all shredded - I couldn't believe the amount  they wanted to charge - I bought instead pair of five-blade scissors.  It took me five days to get everything cut up and bagged.  I developed blisters on my hands and ended up wrecking the scissors.  Fortunately, the scissors were only about seven dollars.  The old checkbooks and bank statements were heavy, and took up a lot of space.  They represented the last of my attachments to my old life in the Twin Cities, and it felt good to get rid of them.

The application process seemed stalled at every turn, and it became clear that the process would go right up to the deadline.  I was told that the "committee" who met to approve applications only met a couple of times a week, and that they were going to meet on the Thursday before my planned moving date.  The manager was not planning to be on duty past about 3 p.m. that day, so if their meeting lasted longer than that, I would have to wait until Monday - my moving date - to hear of their decision.   If their decision was "no," then I would either have to cancel the move - pretty hard to do without advance notice - or find a place to store my things.  The storage idea was at least a possibility, since there is a storage facility in town.  I would have to ask my mom or my sister if I could live with them for a month or two, and I could offer to give either of them money for groceries.  That was Plan B. 

My last action - other than packing - was to secure the services of someone to clean my apartment to the landlord's specifications.  The landlord was able to recommend a cleaner who was familiar with his building and his requirements, and she was available to do the job.  She ended up bringing a crew of three others, and I think they cleaned my apartment in about two hours.  Certainly worth the cost, and I could never have done all that in two hours, even with a lot of help.

That last week before I moved, I was frantic.  I remember talking to my parents, who couldn't understand why I wasn't looking elsewhere for a place to live.  I had done that, but nothing else was available on such short notice.   The deal was that if they rejected my application, I would get the application fee back, but if they determined that the application would have been accepted, then the advance fee would be forfeit.   The application fee was supposed to be applied to my first month's rent.   I reasoned that even if they were planning to reject my application, they could always tell me that it had been accepted, after the fact, if I moved elsewhere.  How would I prove otherwise?  So I waited.  

I remember telling my parents that this was a test, as they shook their heads in disbelief.  It WAS a test. Recall that my initial wake-up call was the information that my email address could not be verified by Yahoo, and my realization that this was a coded message that I would have to move.  This was a test to see if I was capable of trusting my inner information and acting on it responsibly.  In this sense, it was a spiritual test, a test of mastery of my inner resources. 

It was Thursday afternoon, the day the committee was supposed to meet, and I was just about to pick up the phone and call the apartment manager.  She had called me twice that day to ask nit-picking questions related to my application, and I was starting to think that they would, after all, not give approval.  I was sitting in my cluttered apartment, the contents of which had been mostly packed up, feeling depressed.  Boxes were stacked everywhere.  The clutter seemed to mirror the state of my life.  I looked at the clock.  It was 2:30, and the manager had said she would be on duty until three o'clock.  If I called and told them to forget it, I would forfeit the deposit money, but I would at least have time to secure a storage unit before the 25th.  The movers wouldn't care whether they were moving my stuff to another apartment or a storage unit.  What to do? 

This moment was the last part of the test.  I reflected that this was the shortest move I had ever planned and executed.  Most of the time I had planned my moves several months in advance.  This one - if it happened - would be accomplished from conception to execution in less than a month.  My spiritual training has taught me that when I follow an inner nudge responsibly, things tend to flow fairly smoothly.  It's when we fail to accept inner direction from Holy Spirit that we encounter obstructions.  My landlord had let me out of the lease without penalty and had found another renter in record time.  My early retirement incentive money had arrived and bailed me out of trouble with the bank, with some funds left over for moving.  My piano was taken care of, and the moving company and cleaning service had been easy to engage.  I had been able to sell or give away all the furniture that I knew wouldn't fit into the new apartment.  The only thing that was holding up the works was this application process.  Everything else had gone relatively smoothly.  And I did have a Plan B.  (Trust in God, but tie up your camel.)  I would trust the process for at least fifteen more minutes. 

That's when the call came.  My application was approved, and I could move in the following Monday.  I had trusted my inner information.  I had passed the test. 

Internet junkie that I am, I had made arrangements for the cable company to hook up my internet connection the very day I moved, and the techs were able to get that done before I moved anything into the apartment.  Just to prove to myself that I had made the right decision, the first thing I did was try to verify my private email address with Yahoo.  This was accomplished in 30 seconds, without a hitch. 

Will there be other wake-up calls?  Yes.  Will I pass the test?  That remains to be seen.  

Stay tuned.  :-) 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Getting Out and Making New Friends

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.

"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."

Today is Sunday, February  24, 2013.  Today's focus is getting out and making new friends.  

It's always been hard for me to move to a new place, mostly because it takes me so long to make new friends.  Whenever we moved from one town to another, it was almost always in the summer, between the ending of one school year and the beginning of another.  My sister and brothers always immediately went out and found friends in the neighborhood.  I always stayed home and read books until the school year started.  

One of the biggest drawbacks to moving right after retirement has been the lack of a social life, but in the spirit of re-inventing my life in retirement, I have realized that it's important to cultivate friends.  One thing that has really helped to tide me over has been my involvement on Facebook, where I find myself with 691 friends, many of whom I interact with on a daily basis.  I have even had the chance to meet many of them in person, which is a comforting thought.  No, they're not figments of my imagination.  

But in-person friends - that's something that I've never had too many of.  I do have lots of acquaintances, and many colleagues who have become friends over the years, but I don't really have any friends that I could call in the middle of the night to come and rescue me, for example.  

My friends are all busy people.  Part of that is due to the fact that my friends are mature adults with jobs and family responsibilities.  Unlike young people who are just starting out in life, mature adults don't always just "hang out" with their friends.  Rather, they tend to make specific plans to meet for a specific activity, such as having dinner, going to a concert, etc.  

One of the more successful ways of meeting compatible people has been  While I lived in the Twin Cities, I was able to find a writers' group, a group of people taking Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) lessons, and a group of people interested in travel.  The latter group group was formed at the time the country was going into a big recession, and nobody actually had any money to travel, so we decided to meet at various ethnic restaurants.  That turned out to be a great idea, and we had some pleasant times together.   The writers' group bonded much more closely, and I still count the original members as fast friends.  I'm so glad that they are online, so that we can maintain a connection, now that I'm living in another state.  The Ikebana group also did not exactly bond, but I made a firm friend in the teacher, and am continuing the lessons whenever I get back to the Twin Cities for a visit.

Here in eastern South Dakota, the pickings on Meetup are pretty slim, mainly because people don't use the site here.  In fact, most of the Meetup groups in this area were formed by people who came from other areas of the country where Meetup is more widely used.   In the Sioux Falls area I have found a group of people who are interested in sustainability, off-grid living, and in general simplifying their lives.  We have met several times, and I've learned a lot already about gardening and composting.  I hope to put that knowledge to good use this summer in my mom's raised box garden.  

Recently I found another writers' group, and I will begin the process of presenting my book to these people to get more feedback.  The book is essentially done, except for the fact that it need to be trimmed considerably.  I'll be looking specifically for feedback on where to cut.  

Fortunately, I have also been able to find a few people here in eastern South Dakota who share my spiritual path.  We have a monthly spiritual study class in my home the third Sunday of the month.  Many of my Facebook friends share this path, so I always have someone to talk to on spiritual topics. 

I guess what I'd like most is to find one or two women friends with whom I can share interests.  At some point, I'd like to get out and try the dating scene again, mainly to find some companionship.   Although I have put myself out there on a couple of online dating sites, I really think that the best place to meet a man is going to be in a group that shares some particular interest.  We'll see how that develops. 

I guess what has made this move most comfortable is that I'm actually comfortable being single and living alone.   I'm comfortable in the silence of my home, where I do not own a TV.  I'm happy as a clam just interacting with friends on Facebook or curling up with a good book.  I would be miserable, indeed, if I had not learned to live alone and entertain myself. 

Still, I realize that it's best for me to cultivate as many outside interests as I can.  It will just take me some time, that's all.  :-)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Who am I? Redefining who I am.

"Who are YOU?" said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, "I--I hardly know, sir, just at present-- at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then."

Today is Saturday, February 23, 2013, and my topic for today is re-defining myself to answer the question, "Who am I?"

It occurred to me the other day that, for those of us who have no children, retirement is a version of the "empty nest syndrome" that many parents face.  So many of us, myself included, have defined ourselves - and ordered our lives - in terms of our occupation, as if that was our primary identity in life.  Well, maybe it WAS my primary identity, but that is no longer the case.  Yes, I was a teacher for many years, but that is no longer who I am.  I've always known that I was more than just a teacher, but for many years I was content to let my occupational identity define me.  Not only did it define my self-image; it also gave my life structure.  It set priorities and values on how I spent my time. 

The other day I had an interesting dream.  In the dream, I was helping a lady organize a classroom.  The room in the dream did not look like any of the classrooms I have taught in over the years; nevertheless, I was aware that this room had been mine, that I was moving out and she was moving in.  I had taken out all my personal stuff, and we were putting books that belonged to the school on shelves, after having wiped the dust off the shelves.  I began to put the books back in the same place as I had them when it was my classroom, but the lady told me to put the on a different shelf.  I did this, realizing inwardly how calm and detached I was feeling about the whole process.   When I awoke from the dream, it occurred to me that perhaps the dream was an indication that I had finally begun to let go of my teacher identity.  

By rights, we should all get into the habit of re-inventing ourselves every so often, since we are all constantly changing.  Perhaps if we did this exercise more often, it would not be so abrupt, so painful, so frightening.  

I'd like to be able to say with conviction that I'm a writer, but that is still hard to do.  It's as if I haven't really earned that identity yet.  On the other hand, even if I ever do earn it, I am now more aware than ever that it's still not the real me. 

My spiritual training says that I am Soul, a spark of God.  I have lived many lifetimes on this physical planet we call Earth, and I have been everything under the sun.  I've been both male and female, all different races.  I've been incredibly rich and agonizingly poor, as well as everything in between.  I've lived ascetic lives and profligate lives.  I've lived opulently as well as simply.   I've had a lot of boring lives and a few really adventurous ones.  The goal has always been the same: to learn how to love self, others, and God.  To learn how to give and receive Divine Love, the kind of love that the Greeks termed "agape," as opposed to "eros."  

In this lifetime, I have had a number of identities.  As a child, I always felt different, because I was blind in one eye.  I also knew I was smarter than a lot of other kids, and I was aware that this was not always a good thing, in the social sense.  For a while there, in second and third grade, I was a compulsive liar, telling bigger and bigger "whoppers," and marveling at how many of my stories my friends actually believed were true.  As a teen, I remember railing against God for giving me a dumpy body and stupid hair.  I knew my parents were watching to see whether I got a date, and that they were secretly disappointed when I didn't.  I played the flute pretty well, in high school, and I considered myself a musician.  That identity stayed with me later in life as I took vocal lessons in my 30s and sang in several amateur and semi-professional choirs.  

In my early 20s I married a Japanese man and moved to Japan to live, remaining there even after our divorce.  I considered myself a wife, and an "international" person.  By this time, I had slimmed down and I enjoyed dressing up and being a fashion plate.  My self-image took a tumble when I divorced, and I felt unlovable again.  I kept thinking that I would surely soon find someone else to be with, but it's been 30 years, now, since the divorce, and there's been no one.  Am I still unlovable?  Probably not, but it's hard, sometimes, not to get to thinking that there must be something wrong with me.  Perhaps that's only an excuse to build walls around myself, so that I can never be hurt again.

At the end of my career as a teacher, I felt almost invincible.  I felt that I could teach anybody just about anything, using any materials - the good, the bad, and the ugly.   I had the respect of my colleagues and I knew that a lot of my students had enjoyed my classes over the years. 

I remember watching a TV show many years ago.  I believe it was a a segment form the Loretta Young Show.  The story was about a young woman who keeps getting asked, "Who are you?"  At first, she answers the question using her relationships: daughter of so-and-so, wife of so-and-so.  Later, she uses her own name, then her  professional identity.  At the end of the movie, she answers the question starting with the words, "I am a child of God."   I guess there's a reason why this memory has stayed with me.   

Perhaps that's the final answer.  I am Soul, a child of God.  It doesn't really matter what roles I played thirty years ago or what I was last week.   It doesn't really matter what I will be a year from today.  It only matters what I am right now. 

I am a child of God.  Yeah, I like that.  :-)