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Unique Path through Grief

April 10, 2014

In five days I will celebrate the amputation of my breasts in a double mastectomy.  I will probably send flowers to my surgeon, Dr. Michelle Ley, for saving my life from breast cancer and then spend the day crying.  I can’t image what else could be more appropriate.  Maybe I will also spend some time with Charlie, perhaps smearing some of his ashes (and ancient Indian tradition of remembering one’s own mortality) on my scars that will never heal.

Here’s what I won’t do.  I won’t “meditate.”  Not on a cushion with my eyes closed and ear plugs blocking out sounds.  I will not try to turn off the world in order to go “in” to meditation.

I spent seven years, some of those in India and Tibet, some in a dusty remote desert retreat—all of which were beautiful.  I have studied, practiced, and then taught the art of meditation.

It was always called a “practice.”

Some 30 of my friends this weekend emerged from a three-year, three-month, and three-day meditation retreat.  During which they not only “practiced,” but lived the dharma (Buddhist teaching).  I didn’t go.

Instead, I stayed “out” here.  I stayed to first practice and then LIVE the dharma.  And this is what I learned . . .

Life is suffering.  Life is painful, ugly, grotesque.  Life is cancer eating my beloved husband’s body to the point that he could neither walk nor feed himself.  Life is cleaning bloody feces from his body.  Life is drains plugged into my chest excreting bloody puss from surgical wounds.

I realize I may sound a little cynical—give me a few moments, and I’ll make up for it.

Most of those who read this know the story, so I won’t recap it again here (the earlier posts on this blog reveal my struggles).

And while I will not “practice” meditation today, tomorrow, or on April 15.  I will joyfully fall into the life those years of practice have given me.  It’s not what you might expect.  Because grieving is unique to each individual person who deals with their own unique and difficult pain.  It’s a part of life we know as being human.

Here’s what I have to offer you (and I thank Leanne for helping me realize this).  My meditation today will be this.  At noon, I will want to drink.  I will want to fill this whole in my heart that aches for the loss of Charlie.  I will want to quiet the voice that says, “you’re not good enough, Julia.” I will want to look at the beautiful roses in my garden and feel gratitude instead of anger because the hands that planted them will never again hold mine.  I will want to look at the statue of an angel in my garden and believe in angels, believe in goodness, believe in love.

And so my meditation will go something like this: taking a deep breath, understand that my mind creates my world, and think what will you do?  I will pour a drink.  I will cuddle with my dogs.  I will sit outside and pray that I can give more than I take, that I can love more than I hate, that I can learn more than I suffer.  And I will toast to Charlie, the Angels, my friends, my family, the people I love.

Most importantly I will give myself permission to grieve in my own unique way.  To find light and solace in whatever way my mind/body feels might work.

I honor those who have overcome addiction.  (Lighting a cigarette now).  I have done it too—and it felt great.  I honor those who confront the debilitating addiction to substance abuse (having a drink now).  I honor you, because I will learn from and with you.

But for now, despite whatever media, trends, judgments, etc. have to say.  My heart, my soul, my mind need to heal.  I need to heal so that I can be of more help to others.  Healing sometimes requires medicine, rest, retreat.

And today, I give myself permission—with full awareness (that I can only attribute to amazing practice of meditation) to rest—smoke, drink, read, retreat.  I give myself that gift of non-judgment, just as one of my friends newly out of retreat expressed to me today.

I will not pretend to be something I am not.  I am a meditator.  I am a human.  I eat.  I talk.  I drink.  I smoke. And I dare any of you to cast the first stone.

(Now I sound defensive—not intended).

But when you are stuck in a human body full of pain, sadness, and sorrow—what kind angel would begrudge you the small comforts of escape?

Note: I am not advocating addiction.  I have watched it destroy people I love.  But I am giving myself permission to spend this day, the next, perhaps the next five or more, to be.  Fully and completely who and what I am in this moment.  I will not hide.  I will not be shamed.  I will be.  And I am still alive.  I’ll always be alive.  (Highwaymen).

And I pray reverently that all of you who read this give yourself permission to be WHO YOU ARE in this moment.  Not judging yourself against the past, against another, or against what “should” be.  Just be.  And do so with love.  As I do.  Love.

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Goals

March 29, 2014

This is a short one. Thinking about the kind of person I want to be . . .

If I cannot find words that help instead of hurt, I choose not to speak.
If I cannot find phrases that inspire instead of offend, I choose not to write.
If I cannot act in ways that show love, I choose not to move.
If I cannot find thoughts of peace . . . I’ll play music.

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Flying

March 24, 2014

March 24, 2014

 

I can’t believe I haven’t posted here since last year. I am still recovering from surgeries and Charlie’s death.  Recently a friend sent me a link to this blog, and as I read it, I couldn’t help thinking, “I could have written this exact thing.”

 

http://zenpsychiatry.com/the-truth/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ZenPsychiatry+%28Zen+Psychiatry%29

 

“The truth is,” she writes, “I’m in pain.” And because of that she didn’t want to write.

 

I feel the same.  I want my writing to be inspirational, helpful. But sometimes—like all beings—I suffer.  And that suffering has been so intense that I lost my voice, my words.  It’s happened before.

 

After I survived the crash of American Airlines flight 1420, I literally lost the ability to find words.  I couldn’t speak or write at times, which led to my losing my job at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock.  The words came back; my ability to speak and even write came back.  But when tragedy struck me again with such force (my husband’s cancer and death, and my own cancer), I lost it.  Again.

 

I have lost much.

 

But something happened this past weekend that has freed my voice.  Opened my heart. Changed my life. A small positive note in symphony of sadness.

 

I want to humbly offer it to those who care, who need, who try, who fail, who get up again after being beaten.

 

Here’s the story.

 

Charlie died in August.  I had my second breast surgery two weeks later, and I spent one week convalescing.  Then I booked a flight to Boise, Idaho to visit my girlfriend Bobby White, a dear friend of many years who had been fighting breast cancer for the past six years.

 

One week before the flight, I fell ill with what I thought was the flu.  I had to cancel the flight due to illness upon doctors’ orders.  I was sick sick sick.  I felt terrible not being able to visit Bobby, so we talked on the phone.  She was sick as well. She told me it was okay, and I could come when I recovered.

 

I laid in bed the entire month of September.

 

And November.

 

And December.

 

I went to see doctors; they ran tests—they could find no reason for my illness and still haven’t, though I still suffer from the symptoms.  I had another surgery in December that intensified my physical pain.  And I kept searching for answers.  Finally, a cancer internal specialist suggested my illness may be stress-related, and that I should just take it easy. So I quit doing most everything, and I tried to re-engage in my own meditation practice, play music, enjoy.

 

But the stress of loss, finances, and other life issues would not leave me.

 

Recently I decided to just live again and live with the illness instead of suffering from it.  I had quite a bit of help doing this from people that I love dearly.  One of those people (actually it was a conspiracy of two), managed to get a motorcycle back in to my garage.  A 2013 Harley Street Glide.  Pearl.

 

Riding was such a blessing, a freedom I didn’t think I’d ever feel again.  It gave me confidence, a sense of joy, and movement, such as I have not had since my double mastectomy in April of 2013.

 

Riding again connected me with old friends with whom I’d lost touch during Charlie’s illness.  One of those friends had become a pilot and owns his own plane. Here’s where the story gets interesting.

 

I rode with my buddies to breakfast one morning in a town south of Tucson called Sahuarita.  This friend, the pilot, was there.  It was only my second ride after having bought Pearl, and I was feeling strong, confident.  Like a person again rather than a ghost.  The waitress came to take orders.  I don’t eat very much anymore, it makes me sick, so I watched as plates of eggs, hash browns, and pancakes were passed around.  I had water.

 

Some of the people there I had not met before. And the conversations were going like this:

 

“I met Julia because of her plane crash . . .”

 

“It was that TV show about a plane crash that Julia was in . . .”

 

“I love to fly,” said the pilot.

 

FUCK  was all I could think.  Panic set in. My heart was racing; my mind had fallen into PTSD mode.  I could see the flames.  I smelled the jet fuel.  I felt the blood on my hands.

 

I sent a text message to David, who was sitting next to me.  It said: “Panic. Gotta go!  NOW!”

 

I heard his phone buzz but he politely ignored it as the conversation about flying continued.  So I said, “David, check you’re phone.” Quietly. Privately.  I was about to cry. Maybe I was already crying. My hands were shaking.

 

David stood up and announced that, “Julia has to get going.”  He walked me out of the restaurant and asked if I was okay.

 

“I’m okay, I just have to GO!”

 

David is a considerate friend.  “Do you want me to go with you?”

 

“No,” I said.  “Finish breakfast.  Have fun.  Explain that I have an appointment.  I’m okay. I’m going home.”

 

Then I rode.  Fast.  Tears streaming across my face.  One hundred miles.

 

I finally felt the panic subside and rolled home. It was okay.  All was well.

 

Later that week I got a text message from the pilot: “Was great to see you, Julia.  Any time you want to fly, let me know.  I’ll take you.”

 

I wrote him back asking if he could fly me to Boise to see Bobby.  I needed to see her at least once.  To thank her for our friendship, to thank her for teaching me how to put on makeup, to reminisce about truck-surfing and rodeos.  I needed to thank her for supporting me through Charlie’s illness.

 

Then Bobby died.  My heart shattered again.  My illness and fear of flying had kept me from visiting my beloved friend.  And now my chance to ever see her in this life again was gone.

 

  1.   Fear.  Sleepless nights.  Drinks. Anti-anxiety medications.

 

  1.   Two days ago.  “It’s a beautiful day. Do you want to go fly now?”

 

It was a kindness that I find difficult to describe. The kindness of a person who plans for days but doesn’t tell me because he knows my fear.  He waits until the morning he has free to surprise me with the request so that I don’t have time to lose sleep, worry, fear.

 

“Yes.”  I wrote back.  “Yes!” In the moment I felt so brave. I would ride to the airport; I would fly.  I’m a badass survivor! I will go up in that plane; I will touch the clouds.  And I will wave to Charlie and Bobby.

 

After agreeing on a time, I had to quickly get ready, pulling on boots and stowing my gear in the bike.  I rode to the hanger, saw the plane, and thought to myself.  No problem. I can do this.

 

My pilot, who will remain anonymous for now, is a dear friend who also survived serious trauma, illness, and PTSD. The camaraderie was palatable, welcomed, comforting.  He is also an expert pilot.

 

He walked me through the pre-flight check. He explained to me what would happen.

 

I was confident and hopeful.  I tried to leave my worries and fears behind. I climbed into the plane, a Piper Cherokee, belted myself in and put on a headset.

 

The pilot went through a safety check after taxiing to the runway.  He looked at me and asked, “Are you ready?”

 

“Yes,” I replied weakly and smiled that fake smile I give every time someone asks me if I’m okay.  I have perfected that smile.

 

We accelerated.  Lifted.  The plane bounced, and the panic struck.  I could not stop crying.  I think I screamed.

 

“Look at me,” the pilot said.  “Look at me!  I’m calm.  I got this.”

 

“Please,” I begged, “please take me down!”

 

And he did.  Radio communications were made, changes in plans. Within five minutes we were back on the ground.  I was shaking and crying.

 

“You did great, man!” The pilot said. “You did it.  You got up!  I’m proud of you.”

 

More crying.  More panic.  “No I didn’t.  I couldn’t take it,” I sobbed through the tears.

 

“No, man.  You did it!  Be happy. It’s okay.  You’re safe.  We’ll go get some fuel, take a break, and then you can let me know what you want to do,” He said.  “But seriously, as a survivor, I can tell you, you did great. I totally expected this. It’s no problem.”

 

He was talking over my sobbing as I apologized over and over.

 

We taxied to the gas station, and I got out of the plane.  I walked to the fence to smoke a cigarette away from the fuel and starting thinking, meditating.

 

Here’s my internal dialogue:

 

“It’s okay, Julia.  He said you did it.  You did it.  It’s okay.”

 

“No, it’s not!  I’m fucking scared.  I can’t do it!  I couldn’t get to Bobby, I couldn’t save Charlie, and I can’t fly. I’m a loser.”

 

“Okay, wait.  Let’s think about this.  Remember refuge?  Remember what your teachers taught you?  Let’s think about that.  Let’s think about fear and what it is and where it comes from. Let’s just be quiet and listen to our heart.”

 

And I did.

 

“Sir,” I said.  “I want to go up again.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Yes.  I’m sure.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“I can do this.  Let’s go.”  My legs and arms were shaking, but my mind was still.  “I can do this.”

 

My friends were waiting for my text that I was flying over their house soon.  I had cancelled.  We got back in the plane.  I grounded myself. I watched my breath. We taxied.  We took off.  The plane bounced.
“Look at me,” the pilot said.

 

And I did.  I saw a serene look of both joy and peace.  And I felt it.

 

The plane bounced.  I was shaking.  He circled the airport.  “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m okay,” I said.

 

“Alright.  We’re going to fly 20 minutes to Ryan field.  Are you good?”

 

“I’m good.”  I was shaking, but I watched his face and I felt my breath. I sought refuge in the truth that fear was not real.  And we landed at Ryan field.

 

After a break at that small airport and a long conversation about tragedies, we flew over my friends’ house.  The pilot tipped the plane, and I could see my friends on the ground waving.  I waved. I was filled with love. Then I looked to the sky, the clouds, and waved to Charlie and Bobby.  “I’m here!  I can fly with you!  I love you!” Then we flew over Tucson, my hometown, my beloved desert. The muscles in my neck and legs were beginning to ache from the shaking, so I tried to relax.

 

Next came a “touch and go” landing and Tucson International Airport.  The pilot nailed the landing—such a pro—and he gloated.  His arrogance made me laugh, like Charlie used to, and I was okay. The plane bumped, I tensed, I breathed, I relaxed.  And soon we were back on the ground in Marana.

 

This experience reminds me of “modern” literature works like Ulysses written by the great James Joyce.  Every moment was slow, intense, and the feelings microscopic.

 

As we taxied back to the hanger, the pilot said, “Man, that was unbelievable!  You totally changed.  You did it!”

 

“What chances did you give me of going up again when we were at the fuel station?”

 

“Seriously?” He asked.  “Zero.”

 

I had survived.  I had overcome “Zero.”  But part of my mind (and this is for all of us who still fear and panic) was ashamed of my pride.  People pay money to do this.  People would beg for the chance to fly with this man in this plane.  And I’m “proud” because I didn’t completely lose it? I felt a sense of shame mixed with my pride.

 

As I rode home, I could not stop both smiling and shaking.  I was greeted by welcoming friends, love, and support.  Shame and pride battled for ground in my mind.

 

That night I slept a peaceful sleep such as I have not experienced in nearly two years.

 

And then this happened.

 

I was waking up, having coffee when my phone pinged.

 

“Want to go again?”

 

WHAT?!  My calves were aching from all the shaking the previous day. My neck muscles were sore.

 

“YES!”

 

And again, I rode to the airport.  I helped with the preflight checks. I felt no fear. This man, this pilot—because he has survived trauma and because he is a kind soul—knew.  I had to go again. I had to solidify the truth of my ability to overcome fear.

 

We flew to Phoenix.  A level Bravo airspace.  He was a master.  I was not afraid.  I admit to a few moments of panic as we descended over South Mountain, and again as we diverted after take-off because of traffic in the air.  But I flew.  Regardless of the fear.  Forgetting the past.  I laughed. I smiled.  I was alive.  And I was flying.  I will be eternally grateful to the pilot.  To the plane.  To the sky for holding me.  And I will continue to heal.

 

And that’s the story.

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Audios from Meditation Class at Center 4 Stress Reduction

March 19, 2014

I am currently teaching a meditation class at the Center 4 Stress Reduction in Tucson.  Below are the audios, which will be updated each week.

Class 1: 


Class 2: 


Class 3: 


class 4: 


Class  5: 


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Never Alone

December 28, 2013

Here’s the image: I’m lying on the ground, still a little scared, but I’ve moved far enough away from the edge of the endless black hole of despair that I’m not afraid of slipping and falling back in. The memories of being there, however, still linger. But the solid ground beneath me feels safe, warmed by a sun that cannot penetrate that black pit.

That’s how it feels, in this moment of coming back to life after two years of pain, fear, sorrow, and loss.

For the first time last night, I went out at night and I wasn’t filled with anxiety and fear. Dinner with beautiful friends, one of whom said to me, “you aren’t meant to do this alone.”

As lonely as I’ve felt, I never was alone. Throughout this experience I’ve been surrounded by love, friendship, kindness and support. Many times I could neither feel nor accept it. Yet it was there.

I dedicate this feeling: grounded, supported, alive—the feeling of HOPE—to every one of you. To everyone who suffers. You have strength and power beyond anything you can imagine. And you have love. Even when you can’t feel it.

This, I can promise you.

The road to recovery is a long and arduous one. But one we share. And so, let us travel together.

Friday Meditation begins again January 3rd, 11 AM Arizona time. We’ll broadcast online here: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/meditation-practice-institute

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Six Reasons I Don’t Shine

December 18, 2013

It’s been a long time since I’ve written.  It’s been a hard year.  Last Friday the 13th I underwent my final surgery, a full hysterectomy, which I had feared for months as if a monster with many violent weapons were lingering on the road just ahead of me.  That fear, the pain of past surgeries, the death of my husband, had literally strangled me.  I spent all of September, October, and November in bed watching endless tv shows on the computer, which has been my constant companion, diverting my attention away from the bleakness of my emotions.

Sequestered again in bed while my sutures heal gives me time me to decide what I want to do now, post cancer, post pain.

I don’t mean deciding which charity to give Charlie’s belongings to or whether or not keep tools whose purpose I cannot even imagine. I don’t mean deciding what or if I will eat today.

This decision is a much more profound one. It’s that famous, timeless question of to be or not, to survive, or even to thrive.

My girlfriend from LA, a creative, intelligent, compassionate friend, is staying with me this week.  Last night, as the fire was burning to embers, after a few drinks and some tears, we collectively approached this question: What prevents us, as human beings, from living at our highest potential?  What keeps us small, afraid, inhibited and oftentimes alone?

There must be some risk to being a strong, successful, loving, happy person, or else more of us would be doing it.  So what is it?  What holds us back?

As much as I abhor the new trend of lists—the ten secrets of happiness, the five foods never to eat, three things you can do to shrink your belly (as if the tradition of teen magazines has been splattered across every form of media)—we made a list.

The Six Reasons I Don’t Shine

(Or the Six Reasons to Stay Small. Or the Six Things Holding Us Back. Or . . . make up your own.  As long as it has a number in it, the Elephant Journal will publish it, I’m sure of it.)

  1. I’m afraid I’ll fail.  If I don’t try to succeed, I won’t fail.
  2. I’ll lose connections with people who are small with me.
  3. I’ll lose something of myself that I’m attached to, a part of me, one of my many personalities who neither wants to live large nor die.
  4. I don’t know how to do it.
  5. I don’t want to be like that (that being an arrogant asshole)
  6. I’m so used to suffering I am actually afraid of what joy would feel like.  I don’t know what to do with bliss.

There may be other reasons.  But silence fell at this point in our discussion.  And I realized something: NONE of these things are true.  Not one of them.  No list (thank God!).  None of these things are the true reason we stay small.

So there must be a number seven, right?  There must be a reason.  But beyond all of these excuses, what I came up with is that ANY reason to stay small is utter bullshit.  Complete total crap.

Because the truth is, the things I believe about myself, the things I’m afraid of, the things I’m afraid I’ll lose don’t exist at all.  I live in a universe that is an expression of my own heart.  And when I choose to be small, to live in fear, that universe is a terrifying place filled with demons, corrupt governments, horrid crimes, and mean people.

I have had the rare opportunity to glimpse another world.  A world that is expressed from a large, love-filled heart.  And that world is beautiful beyond imagination.  It is filled with loving friends, romance, beauty, and art.

And that, my friends, is what I’m going to do next.  I’m going to create that world.  Please join me.

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Playing with video

November 10, 2013

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