Can Cancer be Funny?

October 8, 2012

Hell, yes! Tig Notaro, interviewed today by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” proves you can laugh and cry instantaneously. In a now famous stand-up routine she delivered at an LA theater Largo, in early August just days after her breast cancer diagnosis, Notaro broke her cancer news in the opening lines of her monologue.

“Hi, welcome. Hello. I’ve got cancer. How’re you doing? I’ve got cancer.”

Audible gasps, uncomfortable titters, and downright belly laughs filled the room.  One woman broke into tears and Tig, not missing a beat, just kept saying. “It will be OK. You’ll be OK.”

It’s hard to explain why this is side splitting. You really have to listen to it. Its not so much what she says, but how she says it. Without a trace of complaint or self-pity. Notaro just puts it out there with vulnerability laced with irony in a way that makes you laugh and cry almost in the same moment.

And not just the fact that she has cancer – in both breasts. But that in the last four months she got a hideous bacterial disease, C Dif, that ravaged her intestines, then a week after she got out of the hospital her mother died. Completely unexpectedly and tragically. Then her girlfriend broke up with her. And three months later – boom – she has cancer.

She riffs on how God never gives us more than we can handle, one of the funniest parts of the bit, musing, “Really? God is insane.”

Louis CK, a friend and supporter of Tig’s, put the monologue on his website and you can do download it for $5. Best five dollars I ever spent.

Happily, Tig told Terry Gross that she only has a seven percent chance of a recurrence following her double mastectomy at Sloan Kettering hospital. She’s moving on with her life and her career, now more famous than ever because she took a huge risk and broke her cancer news onstage in real time to a group of (mostly) strangers.

I love so many things about this: humor in the face of death, resilience, trusting the creative process, being vulnerable and in the moment with a roomful of people you don’t know. Mostly I just love the way Tig talked straight to me on the download, just the way she talked straight to the people at Largo that night. And I love Louis CK for making this monologue available on his site and promoting his friend’s work.

Maybe our culture is really maturing in its attitudes about death. You think? When we can laugh about cancer, I say that’s progress. Swimming with Maya has little snippets of humor woven in, but it’s not what you’d call a funny book. Next time out, I’d like to to make readers laugh and wince at the same time.

Kudos to Tig Notaro. Long may she wave!

Planning for the Unexpected

February 18, 2014

Eleanor Vincent:

This is an excellent post by my friend and colleague, Rashel Sanna, about a very important topic. We all need to plan for death, unpleasant as it may seem. I recently completed an advance directive with Rashel’s help since we work together. It gave me an enormous sense of peace of mind, and I know it is helpful for my daughter and her husband and several close friends to know my wishes.

Please visit my blog at http://www.eleanorvincent.com for more reflections on death, dying, grief recovery, and life in general.

Be well!

Originally posted on Spiritual Baby Steps:

I’m involved in a new project at work. I’ve been having conversations with healthy adults about deciding what they would want if they were in an accident or had a sudden injury, like a stroke, and couldn’t speak for themselves. It makes for interesting conversation. In addition to exploring what they would want, we also talk about choosing a good healthcare agent to speak for them and how to have a conversation with that person about taking on the role.

So far, the people I’ve talked to have been pretty clear about what they want. Some have actually talked to the person they want to have speak for them. Many haven’t actually had that conversation, although they agree that it would be a “good idea”.

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
~Benjamin Franklin

What’s interesting to me is that we call this…

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March 8, 2013

Eleanor Vincent:

Great post from Mirth and Motivation, a favorite blog.

Originally posted on Mirth and Motivation:

“Remember the dignity of your womanhood. Do not appeal, do not beg, do not grovel. Take courage, join hands, stand beside us, fight with us.” Christabel Pankhurst

International Women’s Day: End Violence Against Women

International Women’s Day: End Violence Against Women via IWD.com

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet – discrimination and violence against women and girls have no place in the 21st century.

16 Steps to end violence against Women - UNO
Invest-in gender equality and women’s empowerment
Enhance women’s economic empowerment
Increase public awareness and social mobilization
Engage the mass media
Work for and with young people as champions of change
Mobilize men and boys (1-6) Contd Below

Today is International Women’s Day, 8 March 2013, and the United Nations theme for this year is: “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.” The goal of this year’s theme is to encourage communities globally to stand firm…

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New Website and Blogs – please visit!

January 28, 2013

DSC_0292-Eleanor_ppSwimming with Maya is now available as an eBook and paperback. To learn more, visit my new website, www.eleanorvincent.com where you will find both of my blogs. I’m renaming this blog “That’s The Way Life Lives,” a saying of Maya’s when she was five years old. The focus will be on how grief and other life challenges make us stronger. My other blog, “The Cat Came Back,” humorous true tales of my two orange tabby cats, will be hosted on my new site as well.

Please visit, comment and follow the blogs, give my author page on Facebook a thumbs up, or otherwise get in touch. I look forward to hearing from you. Here is a direct link to the “That’s the Way Life Lives” blog:

http://www.eleanorvincent.com/category/thats_the_way_life_lives/

Inspiring photos from Seth Snap

January 25, 2013

Eleanor Vincent:

Here’s a gorgeous photo from Seth Snap, a blogger I follow. Check out his photography which focuses on the natural beauty of Ohio, my home state. His work is inspiring.

Originally posted on sethsnap:

Mother Nature went into overdrive yesterday.  I ask for a bit of color and boy did she deliver.  As you saw in my previous post, I was blessed to see some beautiful creatures lurking around the cold Ohio landscape.  But to finish the request, Mother Nature delivered a magnificent cold winter sunset.  It was the big finale to a day of outstanding beauty.  Who needs a world of faux entertainment when a masterpiece is waiting just out the front door.

Visit my store. Visit my galleries.

ww12

Cotton Candy sky

There’s no place like home.

The great divide.

Sittin’ on a hill.

The lineup

Rest

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Ten Quotes

January 2, 2013

My publisher asked me to identify ten quotes from Swimming with Maya for promotional blurbs. OK, I thought to myself, how hard can that be?

But I delayed, blaming it on the demands of the holidays. Finally, on New Year’s Day, I sat down with a hardback copy of my book and began reading.Maya Book Cover

Swimming with Maya is a crisis memoir that plumbs deeply the intense shock, grief, and anger that followed in the wake of my daughter’s accidental death. What I wrote in those pages about events now twenty-years-old continues to move and amaze me.

I read page after page, tears streaming down my cheeks, putting colored paperclips on passages so raw they take me right back to the afternoon Maya died and I made the decision to donate her organs and tissues to people in need.

The last third of the book is about how I healed my grief. Those stories – how I wrote my way, slowly and haltingly, to acceptance, worked out long buried family patterns in therapy, sought out people who inspired me, including the man who received my daughter’s heart – are the light that draws me as a reader.  Of course, I know how the story turns out.  Yet there are moments I’ve forgotten and reading about them makes the experiences alive and fresh again.

Here’s one from Chapter 3: “Maya’s chest rises and falls. The ventilator hisses, the computers beep, fiber optic cable snakes into her skull. I never knew love could be so big, that it could expand to allow even this. I have a premonition of lifelong grief rolling toward me, but I know that, once again, I am being asked to give my daughter her freedom.”

maya-19-bday-004

That was the moment I realized I had no right, nor any power, to hold my daughter here. I had to let her go. I gave in to her coma and ultimate death because they were hers not mine, a destiny I could never have imagined. That moment of surrender marked me for life.

This was not an easy book to write, nor is it easy to read.

So why read it? Is there something to be learned in these pages that is valuable enough to offset the pain?

I believe we read to experience life vividly. Good writing puts us inside the mind and heart of the writer, creating a world we can inhabit, a safe space to vicariously experience another’s life.

Swimming with Maya is vital testimony about how losses can be healed. It was worth writing.  I hope you find it worth reading. A paperback and eBook version will be available early in February from Dream of Things press at http://dreamofthings.com or you can visit the  Amazon website today at http://www.amazon.com/Swimming-With-Maya-Mothers-Discovery/dp/1931868344 for the hardback version.

Post Christmas

December 26, 2012
christmas paint

christmas paint (Photo credit: cassie_bedfordgolf)

Just as I vow no more sugar shall pass my lips, I realize I have Harry and David pears that are ripening and will soon turn to mush.  Fruit sugar is okay, right? Well, plus a little red wine, lemon zest, and cinnamon. Voila! Poached pears.

Once the pressure of organizing the celebration passes, there is a lovely “time out of time” in the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  Just the right time to make poached pears and do a little writing.

Jeffrey Eugenides has a great piece in the New Yorker’s Page-Turner column called “Posthumous” in which he recounts the great South African writer Nadine Gordimer advising a young writer to “write posthumously,” in other words without concern for what people think, the latest literary fashion, or money. Pretend you’re dead so you can free yourself to say what you really think.

So this is my week to play possum, hole up by the Christmas tree, and return to the world of words. Being quiet and apart from the real world is essential to the craft of writing. Yet, it’s the very thing I often find most difficult to do. If being a hermit – or a writer – were easy, everyone would do it.

The fine balance I keep aiming for is to be in the world but not of it. In it, but not excessively. In it, but still available to my own thoughts and wish for poached pears. As my publisher, Dream of Things press in the person of writer Mike O’Mary, prepares to relaunch my memoir Swimming with Maya as an eBook and paperback, the balance I’m talking about will be challenged.

It is difficult – some would say impossible – to promote a book and write at the same time.  I’m taking steps to ensure that I can, including meeting with my writing group to set goals specifically for writing early in January, signing up for an Amherst method writing workshop in February and March, and rededicating myself to writing first thing in the morning several times a week. It would be great if I could do it daily, but I’m a realist, and I know there are mornings when exercising or meditating first thing will take priority.

Living takes priority. So, as Eugenides advises, we can play dead in order to advance our art, but in the end, guess what, we’re still here. Those poached pears are still calling. The cats still need food and vet visits. And you will be seeing me at the office.

Enjoy this “time out of time” and celebrate the dawn of 2013. May it be a year filled with balance, quietude, good words, and equally good food. In other words, life.

The Why Question

December 18, 2012
Question Mark

Question Mark (Photo credit: auntiepauline)

Their smiles kill me.  A six year old’s gap-tooth grin flashes on the TV screen and I sob. As a grieving parent with 20 years of experience – and believe me, grief is a job – I mourn knowing there’s always more in the bank of tears. The mass killing in Newtown deposited a payload.

“Tears are the silent language of grief,” one blogger posted, quoting Voltaire.  At this moment, America is writing an epic of sorrow.

“Just wait for the funerals. Our heartbreak has just begun,” I told a friend who was crying outside the grocery store.

What can anyone possibly say to families in Newtown, Connecticut whose children will not be there to open presents on Christmas morning? For the rest of their lives, at every family gathering, there will always be a missing person.

Will tougher gun control laws or increased access to mental health services – or any of the dozens of other things we might do – bring them comfort? I hope so. But nothing we do or say will bring back their sons and daughters.

My 19-year-old daughter Maya died not because anyone willfully harmed her, thank God, but because of the confluence of bad luck and bad judgment. For years, the question why looped through my brain.  Why did Maya get on a horse bareback? Why did she end up with a devastating brain injury instead of a sprained ankle or broken arm? Why didn’t I teach her to be more careful? Why wasn’t the horse fenced or tethered? The litany is endless.

” Why” is the Big Kahuna in our search for meaning. In the wake of the mass killings in Newtown, the why question will take center stage. Even when we’ve plumbed the motives of the shooter in excruciating detail, we will never know for certain why he went on a murderous rampage aimed at six-year-olds.

After Maya died, a friend gave me this button: “Clinical studies show there are no answers.” Finally, I let go of asking why. But it took years.

“What” is a far better question. What will we do now as a society to protect our children? What can I do to comfort others and myself? What will bring more love and compassion into this world? Searching for those answers might actually lead to change and healing.

Our president asks, “Are we really prepared to say we are powerless in the face of such carnage?”

I hope and pray our answer is “Hell, no!” Let’s channel our energies into finding practical, loving steps forward.

Tears are, indeed, the language of grief. But that language, when we listen with care, can ultimately lead to a commitment to do better by ourselves and our kids.

Why I Love Thanksgiving

November 23, 2012
Gratitude Journal

Gratitude Journal (Photo credit: limevelyn)

Let me count the ways. In reverse order of importance, they are:

5. The Food. OMG. My friend Karen Hester makes the most amazing pies, including a crumbly topped apple pie and yummy pumpkin with whipped cream. This year, I made a yam,  pineapple, and apple casserole. Simple, but utterly delicious. Karen hosted us for potluck dinner at her house – omniivores and vegetarians happily comingled to eat stuffed squash with rice and tofu or turkey and all the trimmings, depending on your preference. Delish!

4. The Beauty. The day was gorgeous: sunny, in the high sixties with a crystalline blue sky. We hiked in Redwood Regional Park for two hours and saw gorgeous views of the San Francisco Bay to the west and Mt. Diablo to the east. Along the trail we encountered a happy melange of dogs, kids (including babies in front packs and in strollers), and even bumped into a few friends of friends along the way. We walked beneath towering redwoods and giant eucalyptus trees, redolent with fragrance. Food for the soul.

Redwood trees on the Golden Spike Trail

Redwood trees on the Golden Spike Trail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. The Company. This year, I was with my “chosen family,” Karen’s tribe of women friends, some of whom I only see at the annual Thanksgiving feast. It’s good to hear people’s stories of the past year, their successes, their losses, their plans and dreams. It’s a kind of shapeshifting oral history we share that enlivens the day. We played Charades after dinner, acting out books, movies, and songs and one of the kids in attendance entertained us with a performance on her flute. At dinner we all went around and shared what we’re thankful for – always an inspiring and moving exercise in gratitude.

2. The Family. Some years, I spend the day with extended family. The Jones clan is big and boisterous with three generations coming together, including the ex-spouses, kids, and grandkids. This year, my granddaughter Lucia’s birthday fell on Thanksgiving. At three, Lucia is a bubbly, funny, and often challenging girl with a mind of her own. I hosted a birthday party for her last weekend, and now it was her grandpa Ron’s turn to celebrate the holiday and Lu’s birthday with family and friends. Even when we’re not together, family is in my heart. The Vincent family is spread all other the country and the globe now – Germany, New Jersey, Massachusetts, suburban Washington, DC, and Ohio. Each one was in my thoughts. And, of course, our beloved Maya, her stepbrother Mark, and her cousin Eric, all of whom left the planet way too soon. I give thanks for their lives and send them love each day, but on Thanksgiving I can share with others how grateful I am to have had Maya for almost 20 years.

Family permeates our lives. I thought of my two grandmothers. Eleanor, who taught me how to make gravy which I did yesterday at Karen’s gathering. And Pearl, my father’s mother, who made the best lemon chiffon pie ever and taught me how to sing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Zippety-do-dah,” which I now sing to Lucia. We pass along these family traditions and on Thanksgiving I become so aware of these influences and so grateful for them.

1. The Gratitude. I practice gratitude each day, often writing in a gratitude journal. On Thanksgiving, being thankful becomes a public ritual, shared by family and friends. Gratitude puts everything in perspective. It doesn’t mean ignoring the sad or difficult parts of life. It’s a means of balancing the scales. Death and life. Pain and joy. Loneliness and togetherness. On Thanksgiving, we celebrate the experience of being human. There are no presents, and little pressure, only the sharing of food and conversation. Gratitude makes me happy and so thankful for all of life.

What are you grateful for this holiday season? Do you keep a gratitude journal? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Gratitude: A Guest Post by Madeline Sharples

November 19, 2012

I first met Madeline Sharples at a writing workshop at Esalen. I was immediately drawn to her calm, empathetic manner, her beauty, and her poems. We quickly learned that we shared some important life experiences – we were both grieving mothers and both of us were writing about our children.

Madeline’s memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, first appeared in hardback in 2010. It was recently reissued as an e-book and paperback by Dream of Things, a small press based near Chicago. Madeline is a tireless online journalist and blogger, and focuses her energies on raising awareness of mental illness and speaking out to prevent suicide. She is currently on a blog tour to promote her book and I am so pleased to host her reflections on gratitude.

Gratitude

by Madeline Sharples

The holiday season has begun and once again I view it as bittersweet. The holidays bring up too many reminders of my son Paul who died just three months shy of his 28th birthday in 1999. Since Paul was born on New Year’s Eve in 1971, the holidays are difficult for our family.

I also view the holiday season with gratitude. Besides my continued good health, the love and support of so many family members and friends, and my ability to live a productive life, that I can even think in terms of being grateful is a miracle. However, as bad as life was after Paul died, and as much as I continue to miss him, I have found out that with such a tragedy come unexpected gifts.

Paul’s death has made me a stronger person, physically and emotionally. It was as if I accomplished getting stronger through brute force. I met and interacted with people who had been through similar experiences; I took writing classes and workshops; I went back to work outside my home with my usual verve to compete on the job and to excel in my work; I embarked on a daily exercise program. I was obsessively persistent in dealing with my grief and becoming a productive person again.

I have reinvented myself as a poet and a creative writer. Four months after Paul died I found that poems just came spontaneously out of my pen. Though I write prose more than poetry, poetry is my love. My poetry writing has become my companion and my savior – something I can turn to at any time, or in any place.

I also wrote my book, Leaving the Hall Light On, with the goal of helping others who have experienced a loss like mine, I have a new writing career as a web journalist, and I’m busy writing a novel. I have been able to fulfill my life-long dream to work as a writer.

My husband and I have a stronger marriage probably because of a combination of my drive to deal with the pain, suffering, and loss, and Bob’s willingness to wait until I got better. We realized early on that our grieving processes were different, so we were patient, we gave each other a lot of space, and we respected each other. We supported each other so that we could grieve in our own ways. Plus, we’ve worked hard to stay healthy so that we can still travel and enjoy many diversions such as movies, theater, and opera and long walks at the beach near our home.

I have a terrific bond with my surviving son Ben and his new wife. Yes, I’m proud to say I’m a new mother-in-law. My son and his wife live close by and we spend quite a bit of time with them. That he and Marissa wanted to have their wedding in our family home meant so much to me. That created a very special bond between us and provided a very happy memory to replace the bad memories of the past years.

I’ve also embarked on a new mission in life – to erase the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide, in hopes of saving lives through my writing and volunteer work. My next project is to offer the wonderful jazz music our son composed and performed as a CD to raise money for charities that share my mission. In this way, I’ll be able to perpetuate his memory and hopefully save the lives of people who suffer as Paul did.

With patience and hard work, I discovered I could go beyond surviving and actually thrive – and so these bittersweet holidays also fill my heart with gratitude that I have gone on to be a writer, a mother and wife, and a survivor.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0984631720/ref=sc_pgp__m_A1M6YBJMM98MZH_1?ie=UTF8&m=A1M6YBJMM98MZH&n=&s=&v=glance

The Look Challenge

October 18, 2012
A panoramic of a snow topped Mt Diablo as take...

A panoramic of a snow topped Mt Diablo as taken from Walnut Creek (Panoramic made from a 14 image stitch) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The premise is simple: find a passage in your manuscript or book that contains the word “look,” post it on your blog, and tag five other blogging writers to do the same. Seems to me like a great way to introduce readers to other writers, so I’m all in.”

I received this invitation/challenge from my friend Madeline Sharples. Madeline’s book, Leaving the Hall Light On, is the tender and harrowing tale of her son Paul’s bipolar disorder and ultimate suicide. But more than that, it is the story of a woman’s courageous fight to not only survive but thrive after a life-shattering loss. To learn more, visit http://madeline40.blogspot.com

To meet the challenge, I randomly opened my book Swimming with Maya to page 210 and found this passage:

“Sprawling over a broad ridge, Oakmont Memorial Park has a direct view of Mt. Diablo. As I kneel above my daughter’s grave, I look at the jagged face of the mountain. It towers above the suburban valleys east of San Francisco, its saw-toothed outline a sharp, cobalt blue. Almost four thousand feet tall, and many miles around, this place was considered sacred by the native peoples who once lived at its base. I regard it with awe. To me, it is a temple of the gods, of doom, of wild horses – a mysterious place that swallowed my daughter in one sudden gulp.”

This passage leads from the narrator kneeling above her daughter’s grave at the cemetery to a fateful meeting with the man who received Maya’s donated heart, his wife, and their two children. Meeting Fernando and his family changed the course of my grief and my life. So in a way, the passage where I describe looking at Mt. Diablo leads to looking in a much larger sense. Looking at and examining the outcome of my decision to donate Maya’s organs and tissues at the moment she was declared brain dead.

I’ve written extensively about this in Swimming with Maya, and more recently in the Creative Nonfiction anthology, At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die, edited by Lee Gutkind. Organ donation and transplantation are miraculous and complicated. Instinctively, I was using “look” in the descriptive passage as a metaphor for the meeting to come when I would look into the eyes of the man whose chest held my daughter’s beating heart.

When Fernando drew me into an embrace, with my head resting against his chest, I heard the strong whomp. whomp of Maya’s heart. I was looking for my daughter that day. And I found her, but not in a way I could touch directly. Maya’s 19-year-old heart was keeping Fernando alive but as I held him I realized in a new, deeper way that Maya herself was never coming back. It was searing, heartrending, and inspiring. I found what I was looking for but not quite.

Because we are visual beings, we are always looking. But do we really see? In what ways does looking and seeing inform your writing and your life? Post a comment and let me know.


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