I am reminded of the movie, The World According to Garp; the scene where Garp is with the realtor looking at a house he is about to buy, and as they watch an airplane sputters out and crashes into the house setting it on fire. “I’ll take it!” Garp yells, “It’s been pre-disastered!”
About a year ago, my buddy Jason was helping me get my basement cleaned out after yet another episode of flooding. This time, I had just finished a huge renovation to what I call the back 40 of the basement where I put in a kitchen and bathroom. At 5 PM after the final walk through, I handed the contractor the last payment of what was a huge chunka change. At 7 AM the next morning I had 3 inches of water covering the renovated area and the new carpet in the next room. As Jason was helping me toss stuff and shop-vac, we chatted about the last few years of my life and the events that had unfolded with cancer and the divorce and all. I was kinda laughing as I told him my story when he turned to me and said, “Man you sure have bad luck.”
Not had bad luck but have bad luck, like a scourge on me, a hex or a root as they say in the south; it’s mine, it belongs to me. I was kind of taken aback by his statement and protested immediately. This conversation came no lie, just days after I had been trolling the NC DMV for the availability of the vanity plate Luckygrl, which it turned out in another episode of bad luck, a luckier girl got to first.
Readers Digest version: I was to be married in August of 1992. In July my mother was diagnosed with cancer and the wedding was postponed until September, until after her surgery and chemo began. Three days before the second wedding date she threw an embolism and died unexpectedly that afternoon. I stood in a cemetery and buried my mother on what was to be my wedding day. Three months after that my grandmother died suddenly. Then, a brief intermission and a couple of oh so cute and healthy babies came about and life was good for stretch there well, except for a Cat 3 hurricane splitting my house in two via a large tree, but that was everyone’s misfortune.
But in 2001 just after 9/11, it started to rain, and like one of those storms that starts with a fat drop here and a fat drop there, it gathered speed quickly and began to pelt down with a roar. And thus began an epic string of bad luck, seven years of it at least, and to my recollection no mirror had been broken. In that stretch of time my husband blindsided me by walking out with a note left on the counter two weeks before Christmas, I faced financial ruin, was diagnosed with breast cancer, I got rear ended with my kids in the car. Right around that time a car chase with guns drawn ended with the guy running into our yard and attempting to break into our house while we baked Christmas cookies, rodents moved into my house and died one after another in my walls after a tear down next door tore down their home too, the dishwasher malfunctioned and flooded my basement (the front forty, for the first time) resulting a total gut and repair. When I finally finished cancer treatment, I was told that I did not have a job anymore because my employers thought,“chemo did something to my brain,”(another blog later on this) I completed neurological testing to assure that chemo did not in fact, do something to my brain and still got told no job. Legal stuff went down, I was in major medical debt, I was told my health insurance policy after COBRA ran out would be 36K a year. I had intellectual property “borrowed” when I was sick, a dishonest builder cut down my favorite (I’m a tree hugger) 200 plus year old oak at the back of my lot while I was away, and then lied and said he thought it was on his property, I had this “spot” on my face that I was repeatedly told was non-worrisome but turned out to be very worrisome, my dog had his leg amputated, my dog got diagnosed with cancer after losing his leg (missing cancer again,) a guy I was dating dumped me days after I got diagnosed with cancer, I created a new business and my first billing to my biggest client got in a snafu, causing another 3 month cycle with no paycheck, I hurt my back so badly I couldn’t drive long distances or run for months, and the waterproofing guy who I successfully sued in small claims court for the cost of the basement repair due to flooding fled town never to be seen again. Those are just some of the highlights.
And the rain rain rain came down down down and Piglet started bailing.
It seems impossible that “bad luck” or misfortune can find us again and again. Wouldn’t all of us like to think that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same spot? But it does, and this lil’ old lightning rod has the burns on her butt to prove it. I my friends, have been pre-disastered. And pre-pre-disastered. And pre-pre-pre-disastered.
To the outsider I suspect my life does look like a series of impossibly unfortunate events. I have had people give me that wary kinda hairy eyeball look that comes as someone is mentally summing up that this is just too freaky that so much stuff has happened to one person. I see folks taking a step away, as if the bad luck and bad mojo could rub off onto them and they have calculated that the safest bet is to move away from the target zone.
The frustrating part of all this is that in the Karma Theory of Life to which I subscribe, I consider that I have lived a good life; I give to charity, really to anyone who needs something, I volunteer and do tons of pro bono work, and I simply always try to do good in the world and bring my best to everything and everyone. I cheer for the underdog and have an endless well of Mulligans. But yet, I find that I have been gifted with more copies of When Bad Things Happen to Good People than you can imagine and admittedly on pity party days, wonder why my shelf is full. It seemed every time I stood up something new came at me; every time I got my footing the earth crumbled away under it. Even I realized that I had tuckered people out, and have had friends who after going through the first 5 disasters with me, exited stage right at the onset of cancer saying they just didn’t have the energy to see me through another “crisis.” People no longer even knew what to say to me other than, “Boy you sure have had more than your share.” Uh, yeah.
But you know, as I talk to other cancerchicks I hear similar stories over and over again, similar versions of a series of horrific life events occurring in rapid succession around cancer. Where a cancer diagnosis coincided with other majorly difficult life events, like a husband’s affair being uncovered, or a child getting sick, or a parent dying or job loss; enough stories that you do start to wonder why it is some of us appear to be a magnet for misfortune. Stories that just leave us shaking our head wondering how so many bad things could possibly befall one person and wondering too about the effects of stress on the human condition, especially when the hard things unfolded just before the cancer showed up for the party.
When it continues to rain after cancer, even an eternal optimist like me starts to go, “WTF?” If only cancer gave us a free pass on future icky stuff; damn right it should; cancer was hell, I did my time. But what I have found is while cancer may inoculate you from experiencing a full on TKO at new misfortune (as many future blows pale in comparison to cancer) it does nothing to assure that heartache and tough times will not find you again. I have cried me a river and will likely cry me an ocean more. That’s just life cupcake.
What happens to us when we are in this life cycle of pelting rain? Psychologically, theories of learned helplessness tell us that when things come at us relentlessly and we have no control over it, we wind up depressed. When we feel we have no ability to effect change, when we perceive that nothing we do seems to improve our lot or prevent misfortune, that’s when the major D sets up shop. Just like the dogs in the famous experiment (which PETA would have a field day with now,) we begin to accept that we will suffer a misfortune no matter what we do, so we just lay down…not keep our head down mind you, but lay down. Martin Seligman conducted this renowned study of learned helplessness, but in his later years he began to explore theories of learned optimism. “If we could learn helplessness,” he asked, “Can we learn optimism?” How did I get to be Suzy Sunshine? Are optimists born that way? Or do they become that way? Nature or nurture?
In my life of almost half a century, I have lived long enough and through enough to gather up and recognize the common threads that have kept my head afloat in hard times; the things that make this little Bobo doll keeping poppin’ her little head back up. The basic tenants and truths which have allowed me to reinvent myself again and again, and to know that indeed, lucky exists on the other side of misfortune; how I have learned to make optimism thrive, even when there are just droplets of water left in the glass. Resiliency yes, is inborn but it is honed actively with the sharp knife that is optimism, the very blade which shaves the “bad” off of the experience. Like Michelangelo said in how he saw the angel in the marble and carved until he set him free, we must see the good in the event and whittle away until we find and release the gift. How we interpret the event, and what we do with it is what both defines it and hones optimism. While you may or may not be able to learn optimism, you can make it a habit to find the good in everything. And that, my dear cancerchick, is a good habit to have.
You gotta have faith. Now, I’m not gonna go all Jesus on you here, but this girl has solid faith.
I have heard it said that God has only three answers to prayers, “Yes, not yet, and I have something better in mind for you.” I lived long enough and through enough to find this true. While in my younger days I tried at times to pray away a situation, I have repeatedly found that the other side of the problem holds a gift for me again and again. And if I had successfully and egotistically been able to pray it away thinking I knew best, well I wouldn’t have been brought to the next level of play in life. These days, my prayers are simple; for guidance in making wise choices in the path that was given, for strength to get me and the kiddos through it, and to be watched over. I can trust God in both the path and the outcome, and can let go of trying to control it. I can let God be God. I have lived to see the wisdom in unanswered prayers. As Garth Brooks says, “Just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he doesn’t care, some of God’s greatest gifts, are unanswered prayers.” Indeed. It is in trusting the path even though we don’t get it at the time that makes the walk easier; that makes us less bitchy about it, feel less singled out. Trust makes us anticipate where it is taking us. Optimism (faith) is knowing in your heart that there is a prize at the end of the path instead of a big pile of doo doo, bigger than the piles you are stepping in to get there. You have to have had this experience again and again, been pre-disastered and pre-disastered to know for sure that the other side of the problem really does hold growth and joy and understanding. You learn to have gratitude for hard times. That is how the old catholic girl in methinks the Holy Spirit works. As a friend said to me this week, “God doesn’t make mistakes.” There is some peace and relief about our lot in life; optimism comes when we let God be God. I’ll take more bad if it makes me see more good.
“And the peace which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds.” -Philippians 4:4-7
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”-Hebrews 11:1
The ONLY event I still wrestle with is my mom dying so young. I don’t think any of us say Yippee, I found some secret hidden gift or message in losing someone, other than maybe to love the heck out of people while they are here. And really, if we do believe in heaven we know this is a good thing for them at least. I imagine the peace that will pass all understanding when I get there, will continue to guard my heart.
This concludes the religious portion of today’s blog.
Understanding that everyone got a deck with only 47 cards in it allows one to harvest optimism. Yep, it’s true. We all can look at others and think, “Hey wait a minute! They got 52! I got gypped!” or “They got extra!” But it ain’t so. Really. And even if they did, here is the lesson I have learned; never compare your insides with someone else’s outsides. As they say, if we all threw our troubles in a pile and could take back out what wanted we would race in to get our own back. You weren’t singled out darlin. Realizing this works wonders for warding off that hexed feeling.
Lance Armstrong encapsulated finding the gift within his sense of, “getting more than your fair share” in this oh so adored by me passage in his book, “It’s Not about the Bike.” He’s talking about coming back after cancer, and struggling with training again and all that had happened to him in his lifetime. He is riding/training in the mountains of NC as this occurs:
“That ascent triggered something in me. As I rode upward, I reflected back on my life, back to all points, my childhood, my early races, my illness, and how it changed me. Maybe it was the primitive act of climbing that made me confront the issues I’d been evading for weeks. It was time to quit stalling I realized. Move, I told myself. If you can still move you aren’t sick.
I looked again at the ground as it passed under my wheels, at the water spinning off the tires and the spokes turning around. I saw more faded painted letters, and I saw my washed out name: Go Armstrong.
As I continued upward, I saw my life as whole. I saw the pattern and privilege of it, and the purpose of it too. It was simply this: I was meant for a long, hard climb.
Whether we choose to bemoan the pattern or feel lucky for the privilege of being built for long hard climbs is key. Gratitude and embracing the notion that stuff happens to us all changes everything. Understanding purpose is essential.
Michael J. Fox once was asked if he could have a do-over of the last ten years, with disease never finding him, would he take it. He said no dice, that Parkinson’s was the best thing that ever happened to him, and hands down he’d take it again. A friend later asked me the same about breast cancer, and I said the same thing and I really meant it. Easy for me to say after five years, but cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me; he shook his head incredulously and laughed in doubt. But it’s true.
It is not what bad happens to us that matters, but what we learn from those events. Hard times don’t define you, but give you definition. Gratitude steers whether we live our life as a victim or as a participant, as shit happens or we got shit on, and if we stay bitter or get better. You just keep climbing, it is life as a whole that matters. And it is a privilege every single dog gone second, to live that whole life.
Now you naysayers may say, “Lauren this is just spin.” Indeed it is spin, but isn’t that the essence of choosing optimism?
Tough times never last, tough people do. It can’t last forever darlin. Once when my kids were little, it seemed I went from cold to cold. I kept fighting this process, whining, “When will I be well again? I am constantly sick!” Finally one day I just had to say, “This is my life right now, and I have to learn how to live life and have fun with a stuffy nose and cough.” Life goes on with cancer or not, with divorce or not, with my mom or not, so you might as well decide to enjoy it sniffle or no sniffle, and toughen up in the process (this is called building resiliency.) To everything there is a season. This too shall pass. The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow.
Let go or be dragged. You can’t believe in the future when you still can’t believe your past. Grumblin’ and gripin’ about something that happened 5 or 35 years ago takes up an astronomical amount of noggin space and space in your heart. Space where new things could grow and joy could be collected. The reality is darlin’ trouble may come a knocking at your door, but you don’t have to let it in, and even if it does push its way in, you sure don’t have to offer it a seat. If you allow it to take up permanent residency, it’ll stink up the place and no one will want to visit you. And besides that, who can be happy with scraped up knees?
Last, let’s not forget the gift of human support in hard times. As my boy Johnny sings, “You know it’s nothing new, bad news never had good timing, then the circle of your friends, will defend the silver lining. ‘Nuff said. I am such a luckygrl there, silver lining and all. With or without the license plate to prove it. Y’all know who you are, you big ole wonderful defenders of my silver lining…
Recently I had a conversation with a very soulful woman about the difference between being blessed and being lucky. “Do you feel lucky?” I asked her and she got very offended. Her perspective was that luck was like voodoo or black magic, and very different from a blessing from God. That is, just so you know not how I see luck. Black magic or luck in her sense assumes external control; that someone, another being, has the power to put good or bad mojo on you or that God would grant someone the power to do bad things to you. I just don’t see luck or God that way. I see luck as a euphemism for a blessing which God and you control; a hunk of marble is given and it’s up to you to open your eyes to see what is in it. You have the power to do good things to you. God gives you a life, and it is up to you to find the good, to find the angel in the stone, to find the lucky in everything.
Truth is, a lot of goodness came my way in those years of alleged epic bad luck; my kids stayed healthy, I got cured from cancer and learned what I was made of in the process, I got a beautiful basement/man cave, my kids got into the best charter schools in the world by lottery, I found me and my belief in myself again which had been trounced in marriage, we as a family laughed bunches, I planted new trees, started a successful business, my ten year old car still starts up every morning even if the bumper is still crinkled, my pop is still here, Obama got elected, I found the loaded gun that the car chase guy dumped in my shed before my kids did, I got a new sister and Scout the Wonderdog is still here. My tribe learned what was important in life; that it’s not what happens to us, but what we make happen with it. What we choose to see in the life that is given to us.
After five years, from time to time I still troll the DMV for that vanity plate; seeing if luckygrl turned her’s in, and I try playing with different versions of lucky girl and such. I have come to realize that being a luckygrl does indeed come in all kinds of combos that we and others may not recognize or even look for at first. Being a luckygrl means sometimes having to adjust our perspective to see it spelled out in different ways, not always showing up like we imagined. Sometimes being a luckygrl just means waiting for when the time is right, for me.
If Luckygrl’s luck ever runs out, I’ll take it. But my guess is, it ain’t gonna happen, that’s just how we lucky girls think.
I have a dream, a song to sing
To help me cope with anything
If you see the wonder of a fairy tale
You can take the future even if you fail
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream – I have a dream
I have a dream, a fantasy
To help me through reality
And my destination makes it worth the while
Pushing through the darkness still another mile
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream – I have a dream