Life in the middle; learning to live in the in-between.

Do you realize that all great literature is all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? Isn’t it such a relief to have somebody say that?

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

Kurt Vonnegut

What’s in store for me in the direction I don’t take?

Jack Kerouac

Eva’s now finished round six of eight chemotherapy. We’ve settled into a groove: trepidation, slow decline, feeling like life’s moving at a snail’s pace, gradual improvement, returning of some degree of energy, better appetite, and three to four days of living as normally as possible. And then it goes again.

But we’re comfortable with this. We have found routine in the unsettledness, and we realise what routine-seeking beings we are.

Now the circular pattern reveals itself to be more of a spiral; we’ll call it an upwards spiral, like a long stairwell found in the tenements of Edinburgh. At the bottom, the five or six floors loom overhead, and the slightly dank smell drifts up to the frosted skylight fifty or sixty metres above. The broad, worn, cold stone steps which have been there since before Victoria was queen lead up and up and up.

So we’re ascending, but it’s an ascent towards getting Eva’s breasts chopped off and the premature end of her fertility, which is a weird thing to ascend to. We’re seeing the surgeon this evening, and Eva will discuss with him about getting a double versus a single mastectomy, prior to six weeks of a radiotherapy and then getting her ovaries removed – the latter to ensure there’s no rogue oestrogen floating around encouraging any remnants of oestrogen receptor-positive malignant cells to blossom and flourish.

Many people talk about the journey of cancer, or the journey of life, or the journey of a relationship, or even the ultimate journey: X-Factor (or whatever your country’s equivalent is). All of which implicitly imply this teleological, forward-moving, arrival-seeking, and goal-oriented process.

I’ve been reflecting on this living in the journey. Or another way of phrasing it is: to be living in the middle of what is happening now, without focusing on a destination or achievement. I have been considering this for a while (the past couple of years), but perhaps less consciously so. At the grand age of 35, I have an acute awareness of that well-known principle of time: as you get older, time speeds up. I’m actually a bit terrified of these 80 or so years being swept away from under me and forgetting to enjoy the ride as much as I should because I’m thinking about the destination of each stage. These last three months have thrown an anchor into the rushing current of life and have caused us to slow down and observe ourselves, our children, and how we manage this as a family. For this I am truly grateful. When all this started, I said that I did not believe that Eva’s breast cancer was somehow intrinsically meaningful or sent to teach us something by the cancer deities, but I was open to learning things through it.

So what are some examples of this difficulty we all experience trying to ‘live in the middle’ instead of just waiting for an end point?

In no particular order:

Children – waiting to have children, for children to grow up, for children to move out or move back in, or children to have grandchildren. Waiting for them to start school, complete school, to start university or complete university.

Career – waiting to get that promotion, to get a job – any job! -, or to become a millionaire so that THEN the dream can be pursued. Waiting for career aspirations and goals to happen, despite not working in a job that is enabling them. Tolerating a job that is having an adverse effect on our health because of a hoped-for end point of change or improvement or recognition.

Partner – waiting to meet The One, or waiting to leave the one you thought was The One, or waiting for The One to change into a better One.

Health – waiting to find the time/motivation/energy to improve our health. Waiting for that ten-day silent retreat to enable us to quieten the busyness of our minds. Waiting for our family’s eating habits to change so we can eat more healthily. Waiting until after the birthday or holiday or a religious feast until we change our diet or physical activity levels. Waiting until the kids are older or work is less busy or time has expanded until we improve our health.

Capital – waiting until we have The House to enable us to feel settled and comfortable. Waiting until we’ve worked hard enough to get a deposit together to buy any house to get on the property ladder to climb towards The House to make sure we are safely housed in forty years from now. Working this hard now for security then.

I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching the last weeks. It probably got a bit too much at times; my mind was whirring 24/7 and I was finding it difficult to be present in the moment. This time off work is for me to look after Eva, provide stability for our children, and to look after myself, and what I found was that the last months I have been waiting in the middle of a lot of situations; medical training to finish, cancer treatment to end, eldest child to start school, our baby to sleep through/sit/crawl/walk/talk/triple jump, my novel to be finished. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

And this rush to be finished is driven by anxiety. It’s driven by not feeling comfortable with the discomfort of lack of control and the inability to hurry the natural unfolding of life. It’s driven by the desire to achieve more, gain more control over our future, and the fear of missing out on.

So I have been learning about slowing down and sitting with this discomfort. It has had a very practical application: waiting whilst Eva goes through energy-sapping, life-changing treatment that is ploddingly regular. Just after I had charted my career path for the next three years (to the end (see?) of what has been a rather tortuous journey which formally began 16 years ago when I started studying) which would result in arrival at Fellowship, Eva’s diagnosis exploded my plans and halted this conveyor belt. After nine years of studying, and six-and-a-half years of working as a doctor, this enforced break is throwing up questions and possibilities that would have otherwise escaped me.

I’m learning that in the midst of illness and disruption to life’s usual pattern, as my career is put on hold, as we contemplate mortality and changes within our family, that there is a rich life to be lived. All the usual human emotions – love, sadness, anger, joy, – persist. The same things that brought meaning to life before are those which bring meaning now. Regardless of not getting on that elusive housing ladder, not making voluntary contributions to my super fund, or being able to ‘ensure’ I’ll rest easy when I’m 65 – and THEN I can slow down and have time to pursue what I want to in life – meaning and fulfillment are present here and now. Eva and I have never been particularly interested in material wealth or owning a house as soon as we could, for the very reason that to pursue that at this point in our life would mean sacrifices in other areas: Eva having to go back to work due to financial obligations rather than out of career choice when it suits her and our children best; me picking up more out-of-hour shifts, or choosing a more lucrative career in the city. Our choices have been to give us freedom in the present, and to be able to reduce stress as much as possible. We have not been stress avoidant (Eva’s a high school teacher, I am a doctor – not careers associated with minimal stress – and we moved to Australia with a seven month-old baby four and half years ago), but have tried to maintain freedom from financial or career or general social pressures to conform to expected norms.

And these ‘norms’ may be partially projected by us; we cannot solely blame others or society in general. The last months I found myself slipping in to thinking, ‘maybe if we’d just had $50,000 of savings lying around this would be less stressful’; or, ‘maybe if we owned our own home this would be less destabilising’; and initially, even the thought, ‘maybe if we didn’t have a baby this would not be so terrifying; he needs and deserves so much and we might not be able to provide this’. This is a thought that quickly altered as we gained the confidence that we would be able to provide the stability and love for him which we wanted, along with that for our eldest child, despite feeling emotionally and mentally fragile. As an added bonus, he brings joy and light into our lives and his big sister’s, which has been a daily boost to us. Nothing like baby cuddles and laughs to cheer you up. And we learned from our eldest child’s vivaciousness and energy and ongoing good humour that their needs are still fairly simple – if time-consuming, patience-trying, and energy-sapping.

This morning I’m sitting here after we met the surgeon last night. Eva had a good outcome from it; he agreed to do a double mastectomy which is what she has decided she wants. The road is far from traveled, but we are learning that in the travelling is where the joy is found. We have no idea where the destination will be, which is often exciting, occasionally unnerving, but ultimately we cannot control this. We can make decisions for today. We can decide to be creative, or to immerse ourselves in nature, or do something good for our bodies, or be present with one another and our children, or pursue new ideas and dreams. These are the things which we can invest in (I hesitate to say ‘control’ as seeking control is often counter-productive) and our belief in ourselves, the love of others, the benevolence of the universe (and all spiritual components which that may or may not entail), and the general beauty of life make us positive about our ongoing journey until our final destination.

Sometimes life is no more complicated than sitting at the window, writing, looking at the sea and sky, and drinking from your favourite mug. That’s where the living happens. Happy life in the middle, people.

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Tit tattoos and apricot kernels; vulnerability in action

‘The Way of Openness is about embracing and welcoming and being curious about whatever is in front of us, staying in touch with our feelings, and being open to the constantly changing nature of what comes at us. This Way is not easy, but neither is the life of running from discomfort and uncertainty, as we’ve seen. This Way takes practice. It takes courage. It takes love…

In the end, this is about whether we want to go through life running from what we find and seeking comfort, or whether we’re going to find the courage to be open to everything, to finally be free of the running. In the end, we find that there was nothing to be afraid of after all. It’s a wonderful place to be, this changing, uncertain, uncomfortable and miraculous world.’

Leo Babauta, Zen Habits

My wife is on day three of her fifth round of chemo for breast cancer. She started a new type of medication this week. We had gotten ‘used’ to the vague pattern of events with dual chemotherapy drugs she received for her first eight weeks of treatment; nausea and headache, tiredness and sleeplessness, loss of appetite and lethargy. We were starting to get a grip of the pattern of the fourteen days between each round of chemo.

And this week it is all change, again.

Now she is also thinking ahead to surgery. Single versus double mastectomy. Reconstruction or flat or prostheses (she’s considering tattoos over the scar(s); I’m thinking two large owls, with ‘two-tit-tattoo’ written in large letters for when people stare on the beach.) And she’s trying to figure out what the post-operative period will be like with a 14-month-old the size of a bull mastiff running around. And what will six weeks of Monday to Friday radiotherapy sessions be like at the hospital thirty minutes away? And how will menopause be? And will she miss her ovaries? And, and, and.

And so we find ourselves grasping at straws, seeking for definites in a world of shifting shadows.

For me, this period of change and chaos has thrown up a lot of questions about meaning and direction. Our two children, a five year-old who has just started school and a ten month-old just starting to walk, are a grounding, stabilising presence in their vivaciousness and neediness and joyousness and uninhibited expressions of emotion. (This morning, Friday 6am: it is the end of the third week of school and tiredness is evident; I had to console my distraught daughter who was unable to create a haute couture dress from pieces of felt for her doll. And then we embarked on this masterpiece, thank you very much):

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This enforced staying open is necessary and good. One of my favourite writers, Brené Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, says:

‘Leonard Cohen writes, “Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” Love is a form of vulnerability and if you replace the word love with vulnerability in that line, it’s just as true. From calling a friend who’s experienced a terrible tragedy to starting your own business, from feeling terrified to experiencing liberation, vulnerability is life’s great dare. It’s life asking, “Are you all in? Can you value your own vulnerability as much as you value it in others?” Answering yes to these questions is not weakness: It’s courage beyond measure. It’s daring greatly. And often the result of daring greatly isn’t a victory march as it is a quiet sense of freedom mixed with a little battle fatigue.’

This week I’ve been experiencing some of that quiet freedom along with battle fatigue. It started off with a couple of days of confusion and feeling aimless and wandering in a couple of areas in my life. Perhaps not aimless but struggling to choose one way out of about five options, and despairing at this new area of uncertainty and potential change. But then small glimmers of freedom started appearing.

I spoke with a guy whom I respect who is at the forefront of yoga in Australia – Duncan Peak. He is a world-renowned teacher and comes from a military and footie background. I reached out – an act of vulnerability – and he responded. I was reminded that through sharing and connection, when we are just ourselves in all our plainness and lack of specialness, the goodness and selflessness in others often presents itself. I think the opposite is true; when we remain closed and suspicious and fearful, or inauthentic and defensive, we do not elicit the kindness and love of others.

A few days later a neighbour – whom we’d never met before – turned up at our door. She had come across this blog and wanted to share with Eva her story of breast cancer. She spoke openly and honestly, with great humility and sensitivity. Again, vulnerability here lead to vulnerability and connection in person.

About two months ago I sent one of these blog posts to the Huffington Post asking about the possibility of it being published. After Elephant Journal published one post, I didn’t think any more of it. Until I received the email from Arianna Huffington yesterday saying she’d like to publish it. Again, this openness and vulnerability led to outcomes which were simultaneously scary and exciting.

Doors creep open, new friendships are born, deeper connections are made as we are curious and accepting and reaching out to the world around us.

It’s an ongoing struggle to accept the unknown, not be attached to definites, and to simultaneously approach this whole tumultuous experience with an attitude of curiosity and vulnerability. It is so much more tempting to close up shop, become hard, put on our game face, and attack this in a military-style onslaught of energy and aggression and overt shows of rejection. It’s humbling to remain open to others, the kindness and love, and even the unsought after advice (nice article sent to me this week advocating apricot kernels over chemo and radiotherapy because tumours love sugar in apricot kernels and then the cyanide in the kernels is released and kills the tumours. Who knew?)

Openness, vulnerability. Two fuzzy words with edges of steel. Nice concepts which are painful, at times, to embody. My mantra during a yoga session this week was:

I inhale strength and life;

I exhale fear and confusion.

Which could be rephrased:

I inhale true vulnerability;

I exhale disconnection from my self and others.

Wishing you connection, openness, and authenticity in your journey of vulnerability.