Where’s Our Train?

It was a whirlwind of a day.   We finished up our workshop at San Patrignano yesterday and trained it into Bologna.  Laura, our AirBnB host, has a lovely little flat in the heart of Bologna that made for easy access to the sites here in Bologna as well as proximity to the train station.  That proximity prompted us to spend the day in Florence.

We headed out to the train station and purchased our tickets.  “Track 6”, they said.  So we waited by track 6 but no train arrived at the scheduled time.  We then noticed that our train number was no longer on the Departures board. Uh oh!  Sure enough, there was another track 6 and we had missed our train.  Once we exchanged our tickets and got a seat on the next train (a super fast train) we settled in for the trip.  It is such a small world that two Americans, on their honeymoon sat across from us.  Turns out they were from Warren County, NJ!  We told them all about our adventure at San Pa and they were genuinely impressed with San Pa’s success.

Upon our arrival at Florence, Kate and I hit the pavement and walked all over Florence – the Duomo, the Accademia Gallery, the Ponte Vecchio and everything in between.  We even ran into Noni – one of the participants at the San Pa workshop – near the Duomo.  We enjoyed some delicious gelati and some lovely pannini along the way.  The sights and sounds transported us to another dimension as we soaked it all in.

This is the final post from Italy.  The take away posts and reflections will come later.  Tomorrow … home.

 

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Exhaustion Sets In

We finished up at San Patrignano today and took the train from Rimini to Bologna.  Honestly, I am exhausted from the week.

It was a very moving “ciao” with our companions – Alessandro, Laura, Kyra and Rachele.  We gave them little tokens of our appreciation and thank you notes for all they did for us during the week.  It is nothing short of a miracle how one can get to know another during the course of a week.  All it took was a little openness, a little humility, presence and a whole lot of love and WHAM! … friendships are born.  We promised we’d write and stay in touch and they were genuinely looking forward to building the friendship.  More will come later (it is after 11 pm here in Bologna).

I leave you with a photo essay of our farewell dinner and an evening in Bologna.  Buona notte!

Botticella

Day Three – The San Patrignano Experience

Sunday morning the group of us went on a field trip to the San Patrignano outpost of Botticella. Botticella is approximately 40 km from the main campus and is situated up in the mountains. The trip up there began with a stop at a coffee bar where we could get a good cup of coffee or tea. We grabbed a cup to go (the Italians call it “take away”) and back in the mini van we went.

Let me tell you, it is not easy with a take away to keep the coffee in the cup on the roads in Italy! Between the winding roads, the narrowness of the roads, the motorcyclists who believe the lines are merely recommendations, no shoulders and the bicyclists, Kate and I were fortunate that the drink ended up in our stomach and not in our lap! IMG_1260

The scenery along the way was majestic. Matteo and Arianna provided lots of backstory on the region and Botticella/San Pa along the way. Arianna works with the Executive Director of the facility, Monica, in the administrative offices. It was she who reviewed our applications and motivational letters so she knew a little about us already. We chatted throughout the day and by the afternoon we were able to find commonality in our stories and our lives. The same with Matteo.

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Arianna, Marco and Matteo

I have to say that one of the most gratifying parts of this experience has been the humanity piece. Not only are we making new friends in the participants of workshop but we are discovering new layers of ourselves during this process. Through the process of simple conversation we become vulnerable with people like Arianna, Rachele, Alessandro, and Tom. We can identify with their struggles, their fears, their emotions not only because we have been there but also because this is part of what it means to be human; we are all brothers and sisters trying find our way and helping each other along the way.

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Upon our arrival we were greeted by the director, Marco. He explained the admission process in general and the role of Botticella in that process in particular. Basically, Botticella is a testing ground. When a person applies for admission they are interviewed at least once. If the administration is unsure of depth of the commitment of the applicant they will accept them on a preliminary basis and send them to Botticella. Marco explained that the applicant is “put to the test” – the lines on the bedspread must be perfectly straight or they must remake the bed, there must be nothing on the floor of the bedroom or they must re-clean it, the table settings must be perfectly spaced and aligned or they must re-do it, etc. They do this to make sure the applicant understands what is expected of them in San Pa over the next 3-4 years.

Botticella is also the starting point for a new program dealing with gambling addiction. The gambling problem in Italy is growing exponentially – particularly with online gambling and lottery scratch-offs. The gambling program is the same structure as the drug program at San Pa with a few exceptions; there is more psychotherapy involved in the program and the program is condensed over an 18 month period rather than 3+ years.

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Marco was most gracious host and quite entertaining while being very informative. He asked about the English word for “Bullwinkle” as he made antlers using his hands. He brought out a large set of deer antlers, held them up to his head and proclaimed “Big Bambi”. He thought his English was “terrifying”. “When I try to speak the English I sound like I have a mouth full of potatoes.”

WeFree Days

Monday we continued our tour of the grounds and learned more about the philosophy behind the San Pa program.  Yesterday was spent hanging out with the kids and the teens during WeFree celebration at San Pa.

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We toured the kennels on Monday.  One of San Pa’s social enterprises is training therapy dogs.  They also take in retired police dogs and strays. They have about 140 dogs on the premises and the crew spends their days socializing with the dogs, training them and making them feel loved and welcome.

Before San Pa was San Pa, it was a vineyard.  After its transition to a community, San Pa retained the vineyards as one of its social enterprises.  The wine produced by San Pa is renowned and has won several awards.  The process is quite extensive.  In August it is typically slow for several sectors in the community because most of Italy goes on Holiday or “vacanza” for the month.  IMG_1299Thus, most of San Pa’s outside customers are closed and that translates to down-time for many departments at San Pa.  For those residents who find themselves with slow work during that time they often help harvest the grapes in the vineyards.  Thus begins the elaborate process of crushing the grapes, removing impurities and fermenting in oak barrels in a climate-controlled cellar.  When ready, the wines are bottled, corked, labeled and shipped throughout the world.  IMG_1291

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We passed by the stables where the cows (used for producing milk for the cheese made at San Pa) and the pigs (used for meat and sausage sold to the public or used to feed the residents) but did not have the time for a tour.  Neither did we have the opportunity to view the equine sector where the horses are used for therapy, breeding and show. Perhaps on another day.

Tuesday was a big day at San Pa – WeFree Days 2017.  WeFree Days is a two-day event designed to be both educational and fun for teens across Italy.  Over 3,000 students attended the festivities!  There were dance performances, theater, music, art and crafting events for the students.  For the adults there was a public forum with speakers from a variety of disciplines to discuss ideas and issues surrounding drugs, educational systems and prevention.  The students had a wonderful time and really appreciated the interaction of the San Pa residents discussing their stories with drugs and the dangers of addiction.  It was quite moving! IMG_20171010_084147099_HDR

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As I have mentioned earlier, one of the most rewarding parts of this workshop is the opportunity to be present with the residents.  I have spent countless hours having conversations with many residents – Dylan, Tom, Scott, Mark, Edo, Gustavo – to name a few.  We’ve shared some laughs, sure, but we’ve also shared our stories.  I’ve answered many questions about my journey in recovery, told my history and shared what I’ve learned during the process.  The value of human connection, empathy and fellowship cannot be underestimated.  We all struggle with the same challenges, we all share in the same joys.

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Making art with Steph and Rachele

We are family, regardless of the language barriers, because love overcomes all obstacles.

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Enjoying WeFree Days

 

Jesus Didn’t Have Teenagers

It is just before 5:00 on a Thursday morning. It is raining and rather cool for late September.  I have gotten about 4 hours of sleep, if you can call tossing, turning, can’t-turn-off-the-thoughts, twisting around, it’s 5 AM might as well get up – sleep.

The past 24 hours have been something, I can tell you. I work as a counselor assistant at an inpatient drug and alcohol facility. I deal with a lot of people with serious issues and lots of serious consequences. I like my job. I really do. Not all of my clients “get it” – the recovery thing, but some of them do. Those that”get it” make it all worthwhile – all the frustration, all the countless hours, all the emotionally exhausting work that goes into leading addicts and alcoholics from the brink to a better, more whole life.

Yesterday was an exceptionally long day – 11 hours. Monday and Tuesday were long days also. So coming home last night was supposed to be a welcome respite from the frenetic atmosphere of treatment. It certainly started out that way but quickly devolved into chaos and drama.

Did I mention that I have a teenager?

My son has issues, issues that I don’t feel is appropriate to discuss in such a public forum as this. I will say that he has been diagnosed with PTSD and is supposed to take some medicine to help him regulate himself. He is not consistent with doing that simple task and the evidence of what happens is clear. The result … a crazed, manic, obsessive desire to upend the downstairs because he wants to clean. Threatening to throw out other people’s stuff, rearranging things because that is where he thinks it should be placed and generally causing havoc and mayhem in the household (all at 9:00 at night). I suspect, as the decibel level in the house is ever-rising and the cursing would make a longshoreman wince, that he has not been taking his meds and that suspicion was confirmed. As anyone who has dealt with someone with PTSD, when the manic state begins it is very difficult to de-escalate the situation until the stage of exhaustion is reached. After an hour or so of arguing, threats, me walking out to cool off, trying to disengage from the circus unfolding in my living room, we finally reach the stage when the balloon pops and things begin to settle down.

Honestly, I really struggle with dealing with this. It is exhausting. We’ve been dealing with episodic displays like this – and worse – for the past two years. There are times when I just want to give up. There are times when I just want to walk away.

There. I said it. Sometimes I question my sanity and my decision-making process. I question my ability to stay the course. Yes, I know. As a Christian I’m supposed to ask “What would Jesus Do?” in situations like this. I’m sure that Jesus would continue to love and turn the other cheek and stuff.  Spoiler alert: I’m not Jesus. I’m a guy that yells, curses and loses his temper … a lot!  My patience is not inexhaustible.

It’s dawned on me recently that we don’t know what Jesus was like as a teenager. The gospels go from Him being 12 or so to Him being 30. Nary a syllable about his teen years or His life as a carpenter working with his father. Did Jesus give Mary and Joseph a hard time? Did He carry around tons of attitude when His hormones kicked in? Was He a know-it-all? Did He have an entitlement mentality? Did He lord his status over others saying, “Don’t you know who I am?”  Did Mary and Joseph throw up their hands in desperation, yelling at the heavens in frustration?  Did Mary ever question saying “yes” to that angel all those years ago?

One thing we’re told about Jesus is that He could understand what it was like to be us, humans. He experienced the same things we do, He struggled with the same things we do, He felt the same emotions we do. I mean, that’s one of the greatest aspects of the Christian faith, isn’t it? God wasn’t just sitting on some lofty plane without any understanding of the plight of humanity; no, He became one of us and could empathize with our struggles.

So, if that’s true maybe Jesus was a pain the ass to Mary and Joseph during his teen years. Maybe He flouted their authority and sassed them and felt entitled. I don’t know for sure. The record is silent on that matter.

One thing I do know is this: the gospels are silent on Jesus having a family of his own. There is no mention of Him having to deal with a surly, snarky teen. There is no discussion about how He responded to a teenager who had attitude as big as the day is long.

Perhaps there’s a reason for that. Perhaps not even Jesus could keep his cool in dealing with a teenager. Perhaps He would have reached a breaking point with His patience and cast the teen into the sea like he did with the herd of swine. That certainly wouldn’t have been “on message”.

Imagine, an entire faith never takes wing on account of a surly teenager who tries the patience of God.

Jesus never had a teenager to deal with. Just saying.

Follow Me

Undoubtedly many, if not all, of us have found ourselves in a situation, in a conversation or in a relationship that touched on the very core of a fundamental part of our belief system; those moments caused us to check on what we believe in – define it, discard it or alter it. If you haven’t had one of those moments yet … you will.

I’ve come across those “forks in the road”, those moments in our lives that make us ask, “What do I believe? What are my values? What is the true self? Is this the direction in which I want to go with my life?” Case in point, my political views.

When I was younger I was a staunch conservative. I identified myself by the tenets of “right wing” politics with a stubbornness that bordered on arrogance. Maybe that’s a function of my youth and inexperience in life. To me, everything was black or white without much gray. If you didn’t believe as I did, there was something wrong with you.  Now I’m older and perhaps a little wiser. My experiences with people, events and alternative thoughts have broadened, my political edges have softened quite a bit and there’s a lot more gray in the world. Recently, my spiritual beliefs and faith underwent a similar re-examination. I had to take a look at my faith and assess its core values.

I am Christian and as many of you know, I am a part of a wonderful, inspiring, challenging, sometimes goofy but always loving family of faith called Hopesprings Community of Faith in Bangor, PA. I first attended the gathering several years ago when I was young in my recovery from addiction. My history with “religion” was spotty and bland; I wanted and needed something more. In my recovery process I was searching for a deeper, more personal relationship with God as I understood Him. I didn’t understand God all that well at that point except that God loved me, never gave up on me (even when I was at my most despicable) and saved me from teetering into the abyss.

I began to question the old rules and dogmas, crafted and honed over millenia, and in which I was raised. They felt wrong, constraining. They felt like chains and weights that made it difficult to move closer to God. Now I understand that society creates some rules – guardrails, if you will – to keep us within a range of acceptable behavior. The rules are necessary to prevent chaos and to protect us from ourselves and others. But sometimes the rules hog-tie us and keep us from seeing the underlying value the rule was designed to promote; especially so when we elevate form over substance. So it was with me and “religion.”

So, I “stumbled” across Hopesprings one Sunday morning still hungry for something more. It felt like I had walked into an alien world.  Here was a group of people – inked, young, old, beaten, successful, broken, mending – joyous and loving on others and the community! Michael began the lesson that Sunday and by the end of the gathering I was in tears – Niagra Falls! This happened again and again, even today with Jonathan as the pastor, week after week. This was no aberration. This is what I was looking for – a community who believed in only two “rules”: love God, love others; here was a family who practiced those fundamental beliefs in real life, on the streets of the community, in small ways with lots of love.

Two rules – love God, love others. So, is this what Jesus meant when he told Matthew, Peter and others “Follow me” (Matt. 9:9; John 21:19, 22)? I mean, the very definition of “Christian” is one who follows Jesus the Christ, right? What does “following” entail? What does it look like in real life?

Todd Van Hoosear

Todd Van Hoosear

Now I can complicate the hell out of making a PB & J sandwich and I know that something as deep as my faith can be made very obtuse, twisted and overly complicated. But Jesus was anything but complicated although we do a really good job of making His message complicated. Case in point – the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The scholar knows the rule of “love your neighbor” and Jesus confirms this. But the scholar is uncomfortable with what this is asking him to do and he attempts to incorporate exceptions to the simple rule. “What do you mean when you say ‘neighbor’? Who is my ‘neighbor’?”

I am no Bible scholar and I don’t have to be in order to determine what “following” looks like in reality. I can look no further than the way Jesus lived His life. In all matters, the bedrock of His actions and His words was this: loving God and loving people, without exception! He was unconcerned about their socio-economic status; unconcerned about society’s opinions of the poor, the sick, the nameless and the voiceless; unconcerned about the rules that got in the way or obscured the people from connecting with God.

He not only broke the rules but chastised those who created the rules to bog down the people’s hearts and bodies. He repeatedly called out the elite and the pious who elevated following the letter of the law but refused to acknowledge or show mercy to the unfortunate. He shined a light on the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be religious on the outside but whose hearts were black and cold on the inside.

Act justly, love mercy and walk with humility (Micah 6:8); love God, love others (Mark 12:30-31). Simple, easy to understand “rules” to live by. For me, this is what it means when Jesus says “follow me”. Don’t overcomplicate this – when He says “follow me” He’s saying “Watch what I do, listen to what I say, see how I treat others and do the same thing. I lead by example” This is the way to live a life of connection with God and others. Don’t get caught up in the rules that will weigh you down and prevent you from acting justly, being merciful, being humble or serving your neighbor.

So many “Christians” seem to get tied up and entangled in the rules. They equate “Christianity” with a straightjacket of rules – rules about what music to listen to, rules about what clothes to wear, rules about what prayers to say, rules about what sect to belong to, rules about what TV shows to watch … and the list goes on. Too often they treat others who don’t fit in their box as “less-thans”, flawed in some way. They can be judgmental and arrogant thinking that their way is the “true” way. The same could be said of political parties, other religions and cultures. They can be harsh and unforgiving. They seem to fail to consider where they would be if God was as unforgiving, impatient and unmerciful as they were.  In short, a lot like me in my youth.

So what brought all this on? I was presented with a situation that forced me to examine what my faith was all about. I had to look at my values, my beliefs and ask “Who am I? What’s important to me? What am I made of?”

This wasn’t a life or death struggle that prompted these questions. It was a simple meeting in a principal’s office to discuss ramifications of an occurrence at school. This was a meeting where I learned very clearly the difference between law and order, rule-bound, harsh Christianity and the merciful, compassionate and sometimes uncomfortable version of Christianity. I learned that some people’s interpretation of Christianity can be focused on being judgmental, unforgiving, harsh and lacking in patience; what was even more frightening was how they seemed completely comfortable with calling themselves Christian while justifying their rigidity.

I’m all for there being consequences for one’s actions and, in this case, there were. What I was not at all comfortable with was these “Christians” who gave up on my son, who failed to see the potential in him, who saw him as one who should not expect much in his life as he will not be successful, who gave up because things got a little hard. They quit on him and in the process quit on Him; they effectively said that God was not able to do good works in him. Their lack of faith in God was both blatant and astounding!

Where would we be if God have up on us? What would it look like if God threw up his hands and said “This is too hard. These people keep screwing up. I don’t have the patience for this anymore?” What if God got tired of pursuing us? How hopeless, desperate and bleak would our lives be? I shudder to think of where I would be if God had given up on me!

Well, I don’t subscribe to that nonsensical version of Christianity. I am a member of the merciful, just, loving, forgiving and graceful family of the Christ; he has infinite patience and never gives up the chase. The God of my understanding is one of love, mercy and forgiveness.

Follow Him, I will, to the best of my ability.

Ever Northward

It is late November.  I can feel the muslin shroud begin to descend over the holiday season – dulling my senses.  The Christmas season is my favorite time of year and my least favorite. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.

I can feel the tug of “the journey” begin to pull at my heart strings.  December 22nd has come and gone fifteen times already; fourteen Mother’s Days and fourteen July 11ths.  During the past fifteen years, I’ve made this passage dozens of times.  Sometimes it was multiple excursions in a year, especially in the early years but not so much in recent times.  For two years during my battle with my inner demons, my addiction, I didn’t make the trip at all; too ashamed to make an appearance on those “holy grounds”.

I travel northward, ever northward, like the snow geese above me.  Passing the Canadian geese heading south with their incessant honking.  Over the same pathways as before, through the barren and bleak winter countryside.  Past the familiar hamlets and lakes that dot the route of PA 402 through the mountains.  I pick up US 6 through Wallenpaupack and Hawley and Damascus.  There is very little in the way of traffic except in the villages.  Not many people are making this trek.

As I approach Narrowsburg I cross over the Delaware into New York.  Sometimes it feels like I’m crossing the River Styx for nothing awaits me except for reminders of death.  Nevertheless I push onward through Lava.  All around is evidence of a region that is long past it’s prime: unkempt lawns, cars on blocks in the driveways, paint peeling off the ramshackle homes.  Depression epitomized.

I am close.  The summer camp sites that surround Lake Huntington are the harbinger that my pilgrimage is nearing its end.  The three hour journey ends when I pull into the cemetery in Fosterdale.  Fosterdale is so tiny a town that one would miss it if one blinked; it doesn’t amount to much more than a gas station/convenience store, a church and a flashing traffic signal. An unlikely backdrop, I admit, for this blog post but there it is.  This is where she “resides” now.  The car comes to a stop and I turn off the engine.  Silence.

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Not much has changed since last year.  I remove the dried out decorations and memorials from last visit and replace them with fresh ones.  No doubt they will be there next year and I will repeat this little ritual.  I brush away the dead leaves.  My aunt, Margaret, rests nearby.  I silently pay my respects to her memory as my cousin, who has accompanied me on this trip for the past five or so years, places her Christmas memorial greens on my aunt’s resting place.

She used to live not far from here, my Mom.  I can’t be sure for how long but it was long enough for me to have visited several times.  The truth is, I think I’ve visited her more since her untimely passing than when she was living in the area.  There was always going to be plenty of time to visit … maybe next Mother’s Day … maybe next summer … maybe next Christmas.  There wasn’t going to be any more “next times” after December 22, 2000.

Honestly, there were several trips when I felt “obligated” to make the trek – six hours of traveling for a 15 minute visit – but this trip felt a little different.  This time it felt as if she were saying, “It’s ok. You don’t have to do this anymore although I do appreciate the effort and the thought.”

But as I write this I feel something else.  I feel that gentle tug on the heart, that flash of the memories, and I reach a place of serenity and coalescence.  For as long as I am able I will make this pilgrimage to that holy place.  Her memory deserves it and I need it.

 

 

Friends With Benefits?

“Friends with benefits”

When I hear that phrase what I actually hear is: “Friends with benefits … (wink wink, nudge nudge, snicker snicker)”.  The phrase connotes a certain self-centeredness. It is a one-sided, one-way description of relationship.  When the phrase is used by the one speaking it, that one is never the one “with” the benefits. Rather they are the one “receiving” the benefits, right? It’s definitely one of “what I can take from the relationship” not “what am I contributing to the relationship”.

It’s not a very positive message, in my opinion, but it got me thinking.  What does that phrase sound like, what does it look like, from the third-person point of view?  Is there any difference if it is used to describe a person without the self-centeredness undertone?  What if we insert a comma in just the right spot? “Friends, with benefits.”  Looking at it in that light, the tone and meaning changes dramatically from selfishness to one of recovery, redemption and grace.  It turns into an apt description of those progressing toward wholeness in life.

The Wedding

I attended a wedding not too long ago. Two friends I’ve known for several years. Two friends I’ve been privileged to get to know on a deeper level. Two friends I met in recovery.  They met in recovery, fell in love in recovery and are building a life together … based on the principles of recovery.Wedding 1

Years ago, that kind of life would have been unfathomable. Years ago, addiction  tore, tattered, bruised and shattered their lives like it did mine.  It was unrecognizable from the whole life they experience today. Today, although it sometimes seems drab, mundane and unexciting, the possibilities are limitless in their new, redeemed lives.  Marriage, new careers, family, travel, adventures, friendships and hope are all blessings for them.

The Job

In recovery, especially in early recovery, we’re fortunate to be employed and employable.  Lord knows we weren’t the most trustworthy or reliable people when addiction ravaged our lives.  Because we weren’t dependable we were unable to hold down a job which led to feelings of worthlessness and despair. That, in turn, caused us to dive deeper into our addiction in order to numb those feelings.

Courtesy of flazingo.com

I ran into a young adult in town a while back.  She used to work at a local eatery but I hadn’t seen her there in a while.  I came to find out that she has a new job.  It’s a better job.  The job carries more responsibility.  She smiled as she told me she now works in a bank.  While she was describing her new job she was visibly animated and excited about the direction in which her life was heading.  I could see the positive effects on her self-confidence and self-image.  The blessings of improved self-worth was a catalyst to her further growth and she could sense it.

The Love

I was at a meeting recently.  A friend was celebrating 20 years in recovery and the room was filled with well-wishers and loved ones.  One of the speakers that evening related a recent incident that occurred in a market parking lot.  Someone called out his name and when he turned he saw someone he used with in the past.  She was drawn, disheveled and desperate as she begged for money.  It served as a reminder of where we were in our addiction – slaves – and that we have an obligation to help the still sick and suffering. How grateful we must be that we are free souls in recovery, one day at a time.

We don’t ever have to be suffering in addiction again.  We are people in recovery who get another chance to live again.  We don’t get a pass on the trials in life just because we are in recovery.  We just learn how to get through those tough times.  We are blessed to experience everything life has to offer – the good and the challenging.

Courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski

Courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski

The celebrant’s family were at the meeting too.  Mom had the opportunity to say a few words.  The gist of what she said was: lots of mistakes were made along the way but we’re in a better place now; just know that you are loved, then and now.  I could feel my own Mom speaking those same words to me that night, at that moment.

“I love you Philip.”

“I love you too, Mom.”

Hugs and kisses across eternity.

Friends with benefits? No.

Friends with blessings.  I like that much better.

The Big “C”

There aren’t many words or events in your life that can cause you to stop dead in your tracks, cause you to stop breathing for a second or make your heart stop beating: getting that phone call that “there’s been an accident” or that a loved one has passed on and sitting across from a doctor and being told you have cancer.  Everything just seems to freeze – your breath, your heart, time, the world’s rotation_MG_6751. You question yourself. “Did I hear him right?” “She must be mistaken.” “I must have misheard him.”

When you finally catch up with the spinning earth, you hear the ticking of the clock on the wall again and your breathing begins anew, you hear yourself asking “Excuse me? Can you repeat that?” You heard the doctor correctly the first time.  You look over at your spouse and she’s reeling from the news also.  You kind of go numb. Life becomes surreal.

You automatically go to your default setting: cancer = surgery; cancer = radiation; cancer = hospital stays; cancer = losing your hair; cancer = debilitating cures; cancer = death.  You race through your memory and start to recall all of those friends, family members, loved ones and acquaintances who’ve had cancer.  You make a mental tally of those who have succumbed to the disease and those who have beaten it … at least for now.

Everyone has had to deal with this monster, either directly or indirectly.  We all know a family member (wife, husband, child, parent, brother or sister) who’s had it, know a friend who’s had it, know a co-worker who’s had it or know someone who knows someone who’s had it.  It shatters lives. It disrupts plans and dreams. It tests your strength and your faith.

Grandma during better days

Grandma during better days

So, what exactly is this “cancer” thing that reeks such havoc on our lives?  I’ve done some research and here’s what I’ve learned.  According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is defined as cells that divide without stopping and spread to surrounding tissue.  Kind of already knew that.  While all cells in our body divide, cancer cells are different.  Cancer cells are able to ignore the body’s signals to stop growing or are able to ignore signals to shut themselves down and die when those cells are no longer needed by the body. That’s something I didn’t know. In simple terms, they can behave like teens who ignore their parents or act like the unwanted relatives who refuse to go home after the holiday visit.

Don’t misinterpret my “light-hearted” approach to the technical details of cancer.  This is serious stuff; very serious.  According to the American Cancer Society (“ACS”), it is estimated that over 1,600,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in 2015 and almost 600,000 deaths are estimated from cancer in 2015.  They estimate that over 40,000 women will die of breast cancer and more than 27,000 men will die from prostate cancer in 2015. Lung cancer and colon cancer will claim the lives of an estimated 158,000 and 52,000 men and women, respectively.  All in all, the statistics show that 43% of men will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime and 23% will die from it; for women the figures are 38% and 19%, respectively.13992185687_84109c2c67_z

And this thing is an equal opportunity killer.  It brings all to their knees regardless of socio-economic status, education, gender, religion and creed.  All the money in the world cannot buy you another day.  Just ask Steve Jobs.

And what about the economic impact of cancer? Well, it’s staggering.  In 2011, the ACS estimates that the direct medical costs associated with cancer was over $89 billion in the US alone.  This doesn’t even touch on the indirect costs of lost productivity, added stress, missed work days, etc.  Of course, you can’t put a dollar figure on the loss of loved ones and friends. Those lives are priceless.

Grandma B a few months before she passed

Grandma, a few months before she passed

The personal costs from the wreckage of cancer is indescribable.  I know from which I speak.  While I have been fortunate in not receiving a diagnosis myself, cancer has touched my life through the ones I love.  Two wives were diagnosed with cancer,  my maternal grandmother died of stomach cancer, two aunts died from cancer, an uncle passed from cancer, a co-worker had cancer, a co-worker died from liver cancer, a friend has leukemia and the list goes on and on.

The battle is waged against cancer on many fronts – doctors, care givers, researchers and ordinary people who support the patients and their families.  Progress has been made.  Only 40 years ago, 50% of the patients diagnosed with cancer survived at least 5 years.  As of 2014, that number jumped to 67%.  More remains to be done and if you feel led to find out how you can help please visit the ACS at American Cancer Society to learn more.

How does this make me feel? Frankly, what I feel pales in comparison to what those with the diagnosis feel.  What I can attest to is how powerless it all makes me feel.  It really is a lesson to realize that there are limits on what I can offer and that I must rely on God to carry us through this crisis.  I can use the tools I’ve learned in recovery to weather this storm – this is beyond my depth, God is bigger than this and I have to allow Him the room to work his “magic” and do what I am capable of doing.

So what can I do? I can continue to love my wife. I can pick up the weight of the daily routines that she might find difficult. I can continue to encourage her through the treatment.  I can continue to be there for her.

Busy Signals

I haven’t posted anything in a while. Stating the obvious, I know, so I thought I would write about being busy.

Do you remember when you were a kid? Do you remember the exhilaration and joy when school let out for the summer? Summer seemed to go on and on. A seemingly endless series of warm summer days filled with swimming, arts and crafts, bike riding, exploring and just plain hanging out with your friends.

Fast forward to adulthood. Set the scene: George Jetson is out walking Astro on the treadmill sidewalk. Astro sees the cat and jumps off the treadmill. Poor George is left scrambling as he gets whipped around and around screaming “Jane! Stop this crazy thing!” That is how fast my life seems to be moving as an adult. Hurtling along at breakneck speed until one week runs into the next and before you know it another year has vanished.

2288775081_e835759c7e_zIt seems that my life is filled with the busy-ness of “noise” – appointments, work, school activities, yada yada. Before I know it, it is Sunday evening and another week begins. I’ve tried to slow things down without much success. Kind of like that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – they are hurtling along in that little mine car, going faster and faster, and the brakes are useless. The frenetic pace was taking its toll on my well-being, physically and spiritually. I felt like I was so distracted by the “terrain” of life that I got bogged down in the swamp, way off course. Was my life nothing more than a collection of To-Do lists? 10519508175_f3ced9dfc2_m

How do I get back on track with fulfilling my purpose? How do I break out of this briarpatch, this sticker bush?

Not too long ago I went to a meeting and heard this guy I know talking about some stuff going on in his life. He turns and looks at me at one point and starts talking about how he doesn’t want to “lose himself”. Hmmmm.

Shortly thereafter I was having a conversation with Dad. We were talking about how I was coming along with my continuing legal education requirements (I need to earn some credits before I can apply to reactivate my law license). I explained that life was really hectic now. “You have to make the time. Make it a priority.” Words of wisdom from Dad.

Finally, the other day I opened a daily devotional book that I had not read for some time. When I opened it to the day of August 10 the topic was the necessity for regular prayer and meditation as part of my new way of life in recovery. BLAM!!!

So I have been doing my best to set firm boundaries for my time and attention. I am making a better effort at carving out quiet time for my spirit and working on my connection with God. The past few days I’ve noticed a softening of the edges of my spirit. My life is better balanced and it is sorely needed!