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Monday, January 28, 2013

On Parole

After many months of treatment (surgery, chemo and radiotherapy) for breast cancer, the kind staff at the Centre René Huguenin  liberated me late December to enjoy the holidays.  This was not a "get out of jail free" card - it was more like a conditional parole.   I am no longer strictly speaking "sick" but I'm not "cured" either.  There is medicine to take every day.  I still feel some of the effects from the chemo - my joints ache some days like I have arthritis.  I'm also aware of a certain physical fragility.  I got sick with a cold this week and went downhill in a matter of hours.  Also when I work in the garden or around the house, I have to pay close attention to my energy level because I can unintentionally drive myself into a state of exhaustion all too quickly.  I've learned that when I start to get very cold, I need to stop writing checks my body can't cash, however deep I am in the flow of whatever project I'm undertaking at the moment.  It's very humbling.  Never have I had to discipline myself to take it easy.

That's the physical side of recovery but what about the psychological?  Oddly enough that's the hardest part.  The treatment is over for the time being and I feel like a marathon runner who after persisting and suffering to reach the finish line, gets there only to discover that there is no trophy, no prize, no cheering crowds.  Just a note that says, "Wait here for the next four months and we'll let you know if you "won" or if you have to start running again.

So the challenge right now is to keep myself busy mentally and physically while taking into account certain limitations.  Here are a few of the things I've been up to that seem to help.  I'm also open to suggestions - I had a pretty bad case of chemo brain so my creativity has been a bit limited.

Writing:  In addition to the blog I wrote an editorial that I submitted one of the major papers in the U.S. They did not run it but it was a great exercise.  A journalist I met on another site offered to help me and it was the first time I've ever worked with an editor.  What an experience.  Made me wish I had an editor for the Flophouse because what a difference it made.  We have not given up trying to get it published.   We'll see what happens.

Recovery:  The great thing about being a recovering alcoholic is that at the end of every day, whatever else happened or didn't happen, one can always say, "I didn't drink today."   And that's the foundation of everything.

Music:  Nothing like a little Bruce Springsteen to clear your head. I also found my classical music CD's during the move and I've been listening to one of my favorite composers, Arcangelo Corelli.  I'm particularly fond of his violin sonatas:

Friends:  I have friends from the clinic who are going through the same thing though we are all at different stages.  We talk and I can unload when I'm feeling low.  More importantly I can offer support in return.  In Gonzales' Deep Survival he talks about how people in a life threatening situation come out better (have a higher chance of survival)  if they can help others.  He's right.  Gives you purpose and something else to focus on.  Perfect example of how altruism is in your best interests and may even save your life.

Quilting:  I've been making quilts for years and I always have a project waiting for me in my sewing basket.  Nothing fancy here - they are made almost exclusively with scraps and old clothes.  My skill varies depending on the day.  Sometimes I can "match my points" just fine and some days not so much (il y a des jours avec et des jours sans).  Doesn't matter because the final result is always pleasing to the eye and has a practical purpose too - nothing like a quilt to keep you warm.  Here's a picture of the latest project.

Reading:  I always have a pile of books to read.  During treatment I  splurged and purchased some very expensive books.  One I recommend highly is Martin and Hailbronner's Rights and Duties of Dual Nationals.  Pricey but worth it.   Another good one is Clunan and Trunkunas' Ungoverned Spaces:  Alternatives to State Authority in and Era of Softened Sovereignty.  To be read along with anything by James C. Scott.  On the lighter side, I am a big fan of paranormal romance novels.  Right now I'm making my way through  Stacia Kane's Unholy Ghosts series.   Really fine series.

Two other activities worth noting that are a kind of "two for one":  I try to get some exercise every day weather permitting and I go to church.  Versailles has a lot of churches and several are within walking distance of my house.  During the week I go to mass at the gorgeous chapel of the Soeurs Servantes on the avenue de Paris.  Friday and Sunday I can be found at my parish church, Saint Elisabeth de Hongrie.

The decision to start going to a local church and to stop going into Paris for the English-language mass at St. Joseph's was a very hard one for me but it turned out to be the right one.  I could not have asked for a more welcoming parish.  When I walked in for the first time I was nervous and felt a bit awkward:  I didn't know anyone, I didn't look too good, I didn't know the responses in the mass in French and I was conscious of my very heavy American accent.  From the very first day I was met with acceptance, firm kindness and discretion - no one asked me what was wrong with me, they just let me know that I was very welcome and that they were there if I needed anything.  Since that first day I've gone to see the parish priest (a really amazing fellow - when I went up for Communion last Sunday he recognized me and used the English words "Body of Christ" which put a huge smile on my face).  I've also volunteered to do service and am coming to know more people in the parish as a result.  What a joy to be walking down the street in Versailles and to meet people I know through the church. We may live in a globalized world but we need the local too - a place where we are recognized, where we can smile at others and have them smile back, where we can experience someone's touch on the elbow or on the shoulder in quiet support.

When I was at that last appointment with my oncologist, I asked her what I should do in the months to come and she replied, "Reprenez votre vie." (Take up your life).  I understand what she wants me to do but I would counter that counsel with the great saying about not being able to step into the same river twice.  I'm not the person I was a year ago.  I don't feel the same way or want the same things.  The most radical change I think has been a kind of softening.  It's as if, for 47 years, I've had a kind of carapace (shell) around me that I erected for my own protection - to not feel too much or too deeply.  These days the shell has a lot of holes in it and that's a Good Thing. If "taking up my life" again means going back to what I was before then I want none of it even if it was more comfortable.  I don't even think it's possible.  Some mornings I wake up and I wish I knew if I was truly in remission and then I ask myself what in heaven's name would I do with this information?  Toughen up?  Crawl back into my shell?  Un-know everything I have learned about how uncertain life really is?   Seems wiser to simply go forward and see where it takes me.
Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of nowhere only makes our hearts more tender.  when we are brave enough to stay in the middle, compassion arises spontaneously.  By not knowing, not hoping to know, and not acting like we know what is happening, we begin to access our inner strength.
Yes it seems reasonable to want some kind of relief.  If we can make the situation right or wrong, if we can pin it down in any way, then we are on familiar ground.  But something has shaken up our familiar patterns and frequently they no longer work.... The open-ended tender place is called bodhichitta.  Staying with it is what heals.  It allows us to let go of our self-importance.  It's how the warrior learns to love. 
Pema Chodron
The Places that Scare You


Ellen Lebelle said...

Sounds like you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. I bet your energy level will build up as your body gets rid of the last of the chemo. Also, spring will come. The days are already getting longer. Hope to see you soon.

Anonymous said...

Superbe article. Prends bien soin de toi Victoria.

bubblebustin said...

It is a bitter-sweet dance with mortality for those of us who realize that life in its fragility, can change in a moment. Recovery has as much to do with the soul as it does the body and you need the time to 'refill your vessel'.
Curious, do you use an e-reader, or do you prefer a real book?

Blaze said...

Thanks so much for sharing your journey with us Victoria.

You are an inspiration.

You Go Girl!

French Girl in Seattle said...

You are one brave, positive woman, Victoria. And a talented writer to boot, so I hope that piece you worked so hard on eventually gets published. Baby steps. Build your strength back up. And keep enjoying life. It seems you are already pretty good at that. Courage. Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

Shirl and Rowan said...

Hi Victoria. Today's post moved me to tears over and over. What a wonderful essay. I love the "discipline" of easy does it - a state I seek. And your adventures in writing this blog and the article are wonderful to witness. Your writing has been wonderful to read for as long as I have been following you - about 9 months now, I believe... I seek to write too, but don't know how... Music always brings me up; I should listen more. And last, needing the local. That is why we are going to relocate to Western Massachusetts, where our "peops" are. You are so right that community is crucial. Taking up life again, I feel like I am doing that since I retired two years ago. It is fun to discover a new life. Thanks for a multitude of inspirations today, Victoria.
Shirl and Rowan

Anonymous said...

Nice! And good approach to finding one's new normal.

Rosy said...

For once in my life... I'm speechless. God bless Victoria and God bless the Flophouse!

P. Moore said...

All I can say is you keep outdoing yourself with your story and your blog...I follow both with interest and admiration.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thank you. Writing about it really helps and so do your comments and the emails and calls I get. Counteracts the occasional depression and the desire from time to time to crawl into bed and never get up again. Some days I feel such fear. This is the adjustment (as Andrew says) to the "new normal."

My friend JJ has a really fine quotation today on the importance of moving forward. The job these days is to keep from going "bad" whatever happens:

“It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

"Cela doit être difficile pour un œuf de se transformer en oiseau: ça doit être encore beaucoup plus difficile pour lui d'apprendre à voler tout en restant un œuf. Nous sommes à présent comme des œufs. Et on ne peut pas continuer indéfiniment à être juste un œuf normal, standard. Nous devons éclore ou pourrir. "

C. S. Lewis (1898-1953)

@bubblebustin: I'm spoiled. I have an e-reader AND books.

Christophe said...

I understand what you mean. I read an article today that also describes the psychological part of after cancer care, that most people don't talk about.

I am not sick, but I worry a lot about a lot of things and I can relate a bit. My wife tells me I need to focus on the present. Easier said than done.

Best wishes.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Christophe, I read the interview and that is EXACTLY what it feels like right now.

If there was ever a case where you head is a really bad neighborhood, this is it. During low moments you imagine all sorts of scenarios (all bad).

I had a really bad moment today when I clinked in a link to a blog that I thought was promising (and optimistic) and there was a little note on saying "See bio". She died. I swallowed hard, closed my browser and went off to read a salacious romance novel

Living in the moment is probably the only way to keep yourself sane. That and keeping busy and being useful.

I talked with a friend the other day and she says that she is sending me a "God box' in the mail. If I understand it correctly, whenever I freak out I need to write down something along the lines of, "I'm turning this one over to You and I'll let you take care of it." And then I'm supposed to put the note in the box and let it go.

I loved it and, yes, I am going to do it.

Liz said...

Hi Victoria - just found you via JBBC. I admire your music, literature and music-drenched approa"h to this new phase of your life. 'Reprenez votre vie"....sounds so poetic - and deceptively simple - in French. Just wish it was actually as "facile" as this (so to speak)!!!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Liz, A late reply to your very kind comment. Isn't JBBC wonderful? Thank you for your comment and I agree that it is not "facile." I got a note from a friend the other day replying to the "reprenez votre vie" recommendation. She said, "What me? The old me? No, thanks. This is the new raw me and I like it." :-)