Simply the best

I’ve always been very hard on myself. Ambition and drive are—were?—my constant companions.

The phrase “do your best” made no sense to my younger self. There was always something more that could be done. Always a way to do it better, do it harder.

Of course I haven’t done my best. I’m not dead. There is more that I could do if there is air in my lungs.

I did come to a gentler understanding of completion in the last several years by comparing myself to the efforts of others.

Doing my best still allows me to have enough to spare to make to another day.

And now I’m at another level of understanding my limits. My best today is not what is was a year ago. Nor what it was a month ago.

Sometimes I look for inspirational quotes of speeches to lift my spirits as I’m walking through this valley of affliction. Things that used to energize me now seem to have nothing to do with my life.

My life itself seems unrecognizable. I’m in an alternate universe to be sure.

What is constant?

My capacity is less than it has been. But I can still do one small thing. I can do the hard thing that used to be easy. But it’s hard now, and it can fulfil my drive and ambition still.

That’s constant. And it will be cumulative. That’s the treasure I can amass, the accomplishment that seems like losing ground.

But I will have faith and see where I end up a year from today.

I’ll take it.


I’m hearing some people say that thoughts unspoken and not really thought. Writing it out is certainly better than getting my thought circulatory system clogged up with unthought ideas…Or maybe I could say undigested thoughts.

I imagine getting backed up with thoughts or half-grown concepts and ideas begging for a chance to grow. Or dying like grass and cluttering my brain with underbrush that I’ve not cleared away.

I do have a set of wonderful smart people with whom I can conversate. I love having long talks to think through what is going on in my mind, my life and the world. But the way things are in my life mostly I write things.

My world is small. I go very few places and see very few people. I would rather go more places and have adventures

However, my body is weak. My mind is weak too. My edge is dull and so is my life. I’m still thinking things. Often in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep.

There is a weird tangle of briar thoughts that I can’t quite deal with. They can’t quite finish growing and I can’t quite find the time to finish the incomplete half thoughts I am thinking.

I had been accustomed to my body working a certain way, and even more so my brain. This medical treatment—targeted poison—has left me in a surreal twilight.

Just wait. This will pass. Like the water crashing on the beach, leaving the sand rippling and smooth.

I do well not to focus on the crash, and to keep looking for the smooth ripple that will come.

War Story

It’s no secret I live through books. I just finished The Things they Carried by Tim O’Brien.  I didn’t know it was a classic, part of the canon.

I can see why. O’Brien published it in 1990 and it fits perfectly into a high school English teacher’s set of assigned books. A book about the Vietnam war—a true history!—and a book about stories. Just what an Englisher needs.

Me too.

Every morning I wake up and find a story. Well, I wake up and shake off all the stories I was fighting in the middle of every night.  My war is my wakeful mind past midnight.

The dark of night is not to be trusted.

The war and it’s stories are Tim’s subject. He’s ground it up to understand the bits:

“Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

His stories are for his fellow soldiers. I am not sure my dark war has an audience.  It’s not so important. For me I have to choose my story when the sun rises.

It rises every day and I can rise to choose the one that serves me best. Tim says it here too:

“But this too is true: stories can save us.”

I greet the morning sun. It always comes. With it comes the reminder that I can choose the the story that serves me best.

It’s a choice. In a world of so many possibilities, I look for the one that can raise my spirits. I can choose it, and in the choosing it is closer to the truth.

“The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness.”

I can choose for tomorrow to be a better day. I can call it forth by telling anyone who asks.  Sometimes the hope that tomorrow is a better day is worth as much as an actual better day. Is that enough of an illusion for it to come alive?

That hope, the dream that others might dream along with is inviting a good spirit to live in my head. Not one that I have to fight. It’s one that can lift me up.

“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”

I am a writer. I believe in stories. They have sustained me, and I hear what he’s saying. The truth of a story, whether it’s in writing or in the spirit of my head, is the victory prize of the war I fight. It’s the root of the faith and hope that sustains my in the battle, and the love that conquers all when I pull the light of the morning into my soul.

I am never alone. The story I choose chooses me back.

Surprise Hurricane

I’ve seen the videos of hurricanes, with the wind and the rain. This weekend one came to me: hurricane Hilary. Around here on the west coast, I’m used to earthquakes and traffic jams. But a HURRICANE? That’s for other people, other places.

Not anymore.

I had to prepare for it. We took stock of the ground around us. I picked up the loose things that the wind might pick up. The things that would be hurt by the rain I took inside.

In my award-winning essay Alaskan Road Rules, I talk about my upbringing and how the streets I come from are gravel and often covered it snow. That’s my context.

Snow and cold sometimes meant it was hard to leave the house. But it was hard to drive in snow at any time, so I just had to be ready.

One of the things about California civilization that took a LOOOOOONG time to get used to was the abundance of food and supplies at every turn. There are people ready to sell me food and all kinds of things

Around here people fell they can drive out in perfect confidence regarding where they are going to get their food. It’s more a matter of what kind of food they are in the mood for.

Planning and thinking ahead get skipped over.

This Saturday, I watched videos of cars in fast food drive throughs with rain water flowing half as high as the tires. This is what people left home for. Cheap fast food.

Other videos showed water rushing like a river through the streets. In the desert they call it a flash flood.  Disaster appears in a deadly flash. One moment, things are as they’ve always been, and suddenly everything is in danger.

I have to be ready to respond quickly when the danger first appears. Civilization is a very thin veneer on the wildness of nature. Complacency has a cost.

gravity walk

When I was pregnant, it was hard to move fast or raise my feet up as I walked down the hallways at work. My body was hard at work making a new person. It felt like gravity was a lot stronger around me.

Now I am feeling gravity more as I fight through this medically administered poison called chemotherapy. My body is very busy coping with all its processes.

Very few of these are what I want to think about. I’m struggling through this dense gravity to find my focus and keep my attention where I want it to go.

The world is still going, and I have stuff I want to keep up with. I’ve got a job, a family and every stuff I want to complete. I have to put some effort into keeping my attention where I want it to go.

IT’s easy when I am tired and not feeling well to do the stupid things. The easy distraction: food, silly internet games or videos.

And If I am willing to spend this life on small insignificant things, I will get insignificant rewards

I am not satisfied with insignificance.

So, I have to use the times when I can focus to come up with a plan and set of steps I can take when I gravity is dragging me.

Yes, I’m less capable than I’ve been. But I’m still capable.

I’ve got two more months of chemo. I don’t want to lose that time. My old friend the to do list can help.

It’s not so demanding this time. Not a HAVE to do list, but more of an aspirational TRY to do list.

With tiny steps. 15 minutes on each thing is a decent goal. I’ll have to let that be enough.

I’m still under here, beneath the gravity. Inching forward like a worm on the surface of my big ideals.

It’s the movement that counts. It can be enough.


Nurses keep saying to me “One day at a time.”

It makes me crazy.

I have goals, and I have plans. These take time. In this third dimensional time space continuum the time is where the goals become reality.

And the realities don’t—can’t! –happen one day at a time.

In the book Why Time flies the author says time is in the experience of it. It’s not as rigid as numbers and science would promise.

when chaos rises and the storm lands in my life

Horizons shrink

living space is far smaller than one day.

I can only occupy the

next step

next sip

next breath

only when peace returns can I can see further

once again I can reach for something else

something more

Dreams, wishes and aspirations…my days can contain more

Small horizons are for small people. I am not fighting this hard to be small.

“I am large—I contain multitudes.” Walt Whitman said it in Leaves of Grass. I want to be large. Can I contain the multitudes of dreams I carry?

How to fill my time, attention and energy with worthwhile things is a goal in itself.

I think of J. Alfred Prufrock’s lament,

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons…

I find the strength to push away the tiny dreams.  I will lift up mine eyes to the hills

Tiny steps on big ambitions. Like Mary Oliver said, this is my one  wild and precious life.

Back to Leaves of Grass:

The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

I will redeem my time.

more things missing

Something was in my eye. IT was the middle of the night. Flicking on the light int he bathroom in the middle of the night, I stared at my sleep-swollen eyes to see what it was.

My eyelashes were missing.

The humiliation of losing the hair on my head wasn’t enough. No, my girly curly lashes had to go too. It’s a new kind of naked.

I’m trying to keep it together. I have to make a presentation –a shape and a shading–in the world in order to be safe.

Cats do this. If she is startled or threatened, kitty with arch her back, puff her fur and look big. I didn’t make this up, and I’m already deep in it.

In the dark of 3 AM, I ask the internet what I need to know aboutfalse eyelashes, hoping I can string together a passable substitute to keep face.

In my weakened state the internet serves up a lot of stuff. The Barbie movie slips in.


As a toy, Barbie is provided with a car and a dream house, with clothes and shoes. The movie has brought out the women who see Barbie and her world as something to aspire to.

I know some women who have a sense that their path to the car, house and
party time is the same as Barbie’s:

they are gifts because they are beautiful. And men are the givers.

In my life, I learned early to mistrust men and I only relied on myself to
get what I needed with no strings attached.

But I ran into women who had a different expectation. They see men were the
source of stuff. And for these women beauty is the currency to exchange to get stuff.

This was so foreign to me that it took decades for me to understand it. For
many women, that system of exchange is more real than compound interest.

The gift economy is an old way of surviving. Some people—some women—get a
lot of benefit from it. It’s a way to be safe.

I’m not as skilled at it, and since my eyelashes fell out I’ve lost some of that value.

It’s a small thing. Only the idea of a thing, really. It’s part of my reaction to what my eyelashes mean now that I’ve lost them.

Less silly is that things fall into my eyes more. The eyelashes protected my eyeballs in a real way.

I got some false eyelashes. They aren’t so easy to get the hang of, but they do add a lot of Barbie power to my eyes.

And they protect my eyeballs from particles. I guess I have to add on all the unnatural pieces until the real things come back together. And trust that I’ll be safe.








In the sleepless hours of the night—morning really—I am reaching for things to listen to. I’ve run through a lot of audiobooks, but the other night I picked up the end of a lecture series on Russian History.

Other than my own country I have spent the most time in Russia. I lived there for a year and a half, shared meals, laughter, and lots of worried and doubts. It changed my life. I was eager to finish the Russian history lecture.

The second to last lecture started by talking about the Sixties in the Soviet Union. The iron grip and terror of Stalin was past. The obsessive push to be a communist and comrade was getting weaker.

The ‘60s in America had a music revival and the Vietnam war to protest. The 60s and 70s were full of consciousness raising and re-examintations. The soviets had a War in Afghanistan first.

They even got pundits together to talk about what just happened with that whole Stalin thing The Soviets had a folk music thing too. They started to pass around a word “Lichnost”—the Russian word for “person.”

Personhood. Individuality. After decades of uniformity and lockstep indoctrination in the Soviet mission, the soviet people wanted to chill out and have a good time with family and friends. To enjoy themselves with what made them happy.

I even learned of a wildly popular ballad called “My Arbat.” The Arbat is a street in Moscow which holds an open market. Around here we would call it a swap meet or a flea market. In opposition to the tight control of goods that the Soviet government.

The lyrics say “ My arbat—my religion—” A strong pushback against conformity and toward personal taste and individual preference. A return to acoustic guitar music, to individual preferences and allow for a single perspective.

That was 50 years ago. It was a spirit that swept throughout the world.

In the dark hours of the morning, it struck me again. Right now in my own country I am feeling a resistance to the conformity of opinions and actions. There has been a tightening of acceptable opinions, and I have had things erased off my social media by the tech lords.

I am longing for more personal connections—for individuality and family. It is meaningful to see where this has happened before, and how things might move in a different direction. People have been here before and come out of it. I am looking for the way to connect to the arbat of ideas and personal tastes again.

tesseract of fate

Human beings have a very common fate. Though we all have unique experiences and adventures, much of our lives are the same. We are born and walk thought our time at the same pace.

Time waits for no man.

I am thinking of a Greek myth of Tiresias, a blind oracle for Apollo. He was a prophet, a seer and had unique wisdom that others wanted.

Tiresias popped out of the uniform path of humanity though, when the gods changed him out of his fate of being a man and he was changed to live as a woman for about seven years.

He was granted this experience and insight into humanity that no one else ever had.

If I try to imagine what it was like for him, I suspect it was jarring and inconvenient. It’s a good thing he was a seer and valued wisdom and insight.

Tiresias is on my mind. This Chemotherapy is working on my body and I believe it is giving me the early out-of-sequence experience of being elderly and frail before my time.

All my systems are weakened, just like an 80-year-old body. Muscles, stamina and even memory are affected.

Oh! Just like Tiresias I am pursuing wisdom and insight. What can I learn from this trip into a different experience than the ordinary?

It’s like a tesseract (nod to the Happy Mediums from a Wrinkle in Time) making a shortcut to this part of my life that wasn’t accessible to me before. In my momentum of daily life and short-term goals I was barreling forward at speed and complacency, making plans and tracking was possible and what I could expect.

I’ve popped out of that rut. Speed, distance and progress changed scale and my expectations had to do the same.

Me and Tiresias could both be annoyed with the change in circumstance in our fates.

But it’s a curious new land. What does it have to offer? What can I learn from this unfamiliar situation? In this new scale, what is important? Connection is growing in importance and progress is less important.

Tiresias discovered his change was a gift. I’m seeing where my insights can appear. I’m still exploring

Love in the time of Chemotherapy

I always bring work when I have to wait. I have stuff to write, or at the very least something to read when I am early to a meeting room or in a waiting room.

My life now has a lot of waiting rooms. The average week has 2-5 doctor visits. I’ve got a book on finishing writing, so I’m trying to move the needle on that one.

I had the third chemo last week. The three hour chemo. That’s three hours not including the wait time.

Naturally, I had a doctor visit the day before, and I noticed a couple sitting together. Both looking at their phones, but cheerfully were chatting about what they were reading.

Chris comes with me on chemo days. I am grateful for his companionship. I hadn’t even mentioned the companionable couple from the day before, but he pulled out his phone.

“Are you ready to learn things?”

I gave him a huge smile. “are you going to tell me things?”

He is very good at finding interesting things for me.

There is, right now, a surf-jacking otter in Santa cruz. Otters are so very cute and cuddly. I know I’ve seen ton of cute otters swimming on their backs and holding hands.

Otters are wild animals though. They can grow to 6 feet long. This otter in particular is going up to surfers in Santa Cruz and knocking them off their boards. This otter Bites!

Things have gotten weird over in the Bay. This otter is not kidding around. She is coming after surfers and not giving up.

But where did she come from? It turns out her mother was getting involved in surfers too, and that otter was captured. Over at the Monterey Bay aquarian, this original surfer-interfering otter was put for rehabilitation. See…it turned out she was pregnant.

The child of this family of crime turned to surfer violence on her own. This Otter Daughter is the one terrorizing the surfers, permanently harshing their vibe.

There is more to the story, I know. And I don’t know if this otter is a girl, but I like to think so because otter daughter is fun to say.

We delved into this story while I went through my treatment, and this is what I get to have as my partner and companion in hard times.

We can laugh, be kind and do silly things together. Cancer is not the only thing that’s happening. I have a wide world I’m still a part of and many adventures—even if they are only ones to read about—to enjoy while I’m going through this.