That Annual Ritual

It’s my 47th birthday. For the past six years, I have spent a least a portion of milestone days wondering if each one was the last. I’ve measured time differently, divided my life into “before cancer” and “after cancer.”

Before became after two months past my 41st birthday.

Yesterday I was writing in my journal about this, racking my brain for some new insight, some lush expression of gratitude, some sagacious epistle, at least an illuminated utterance.

Me and my big head, 1967
Me and my big head, 1967

I’ve got nothing.

The truth is, what is forefront on my mind is the daily mundanity – enjoying the ride of my daughter’s last year in her Catholic grade school, puzzling over my son’s careening toward puberty. I really want a paver patio. This weekend we have a basketball tournament, volleyball practice, that long Palm Sunday Mass, and a track meet.  I’m anxious to hang some Boston ferns and plant some annuals. And what will we have for dinner tonight?  Oh yes, the monkey mind has been busy.

It’s not that cancer has disappeared from my awareness.  Obviously I can’t look in the mirror without remembering.  Sometimes I get waylaid by a PTSD flashback – the taste in my mouth from a saline push or the uneasy simmering nausea during chemotherapy.  But to bring that into the present moment at will requires some serious conjuring.

It’s just not my yardstick this year.

Falling in to my lap yesterday afternoon was a piece by, of all people, the conservative columnist David Brooks in an New York Times’ Op-Ed, What Suffering Does.  I think the Buddhists have the definitive answer on suffering when they say that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.  I believe that we create our own suffering by clinging to things that can’t be grasped.  When I started to read this piece, I got a little hung up in the language, so if you do too, stick with it.  His larger points are thought-provoking and sometimes profound.

Brooks makes it clear upfront that suffering isn’t inevitably redemptive, but what you do in the face of difficulty might be. “The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.”

And further:

“Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different.”

Trying to create something sacred has been a driving force behind my work in the “after.” I suspect Brooks is talking about the showy creations – foundations and the like. At this point, we need another breast cancer foundation like we all need new holes in our heads. I certainly don’t regret the years I spent agitating, but the main lesson I learned was how limiting, and limited, it is.

I have been thinking for weeks now about the intersection of the sacred and the ordinary. I am grateful beyond words for my children, who constantly nudge me out of the past, out of the dark ruts of rage and victimhood; whose very existence proves that nature of the universe is change. I try to create a safe and fertile space for their blossoming and along the way feed and fortify my own spirit. I am trying to create a life that honors the light in them, in me, in everyone around me.

What could be more sacred than that?

6 thoughts on “That Annual Ritual”

  1. Katie, That is beautiful! Happy Birthday. I love your baby picture. It is hard to believe we were ever that dependent, vulnerable and perfect. I think trying to create something sacred out of the ordinary is a great goal for daily living. I recently lost my mother-in-law, who I loved dearly, I have been having all sorts of insomnia and urges to fill the void recently. I found little shadow boxes made in Peru at World Market called Retablos. I thought they’d make perfect shrines. (She was Colombian, hence the Latin American folk art). They are a discontinued item, so I had to call all around the United States to find thirty of them.) I am spending money I don’t have, but my plan is to put her picture in the Retablo box and give them to all her brothers and sisters ( she had 10 of them) and to all her nieces and nephews (about 20 of them). My hope is at least some of them will find a space in their homes to honor her…away from the clutter and mess, away from the noise, away from the darkness, and a be reminded every time they see it, of a woman who was fearless, generous with love and spirit, and fiercely proud of her family. And hopefully they will be reminded to live that way themselves. I am very aware that I have an expiration date. I’ve lost a lot of folks I’ve loved, and some I love are waiting to die. My search for meaning, beauty and sacredness is what gets me up in the morning. It is not my alarm clock. I sleep right through that. Again, Happy Birthday!

    1. Thank you Amy. So glad to have connected with you here. You sent me a google-ing. What beautiful objects these retablos are. I’m so sorry about your mother-in-law, but what a truly lovely and generous tribute. I guess once we accept our expiration date, we have to learn how to live.


  2. “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” Indeed. We can choose. Hope you’re having a great BD!

  3. Thank you for sharing. I am a 6-year breast cancer survivor. Life didn’t change too much after treatment, I returned to the busy life of work, social activities, and backup caregiver for my three children. But, in 2010, I faced a health challenge that forced me to focus on was I living a life that truly made me happy. No, was the answer. So, hubby and I retired and moved to Florida. For the first time in life, I am able to pursue those things that I am passionate about without the guilt of disappointing others. My children had encouraged us for years to retire and move to a warmer climate — my answer “I love my job” “I don’t want to retire” and “I will never move away from my grandchildren.” The family-owned business is running smoothly under the management of our three children. Our grandchildren are thriving. Though, we miss the family. We love the freedom of retirement. Especially, in warm Florida. Sometimes you have to find your purpose in life and pursue your dreams.

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