Taking the full measure of life

The Things We Carry

May 25th, 2008 · 19 Comments

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I’ve been reflecting a bit lately on how life works.  Some people believe that everything happens for a reason.  I believe far too much in free will to swallow that angle, and I cannot bear the idea that experiences like rape, leukemia, and murder are part of some pre-ordained plan.  No. But I do believe that we can choose to travel through life with bitter gall choking us over the inevitable times we have been let down or injured (by life, by God, by other people, by ourselves), or we can choose to be open to, and to seek, the good that can come out of what happens to us.  Grief, anger, loss, sadness—they have their place and are important emotions to allow ourselves to experience.  But if we lose our ability to believe that what has happened may lead us to something good, then what do we have left?

In a simple word, it’s hope that we must leave a place for at the table of our lives.  Shortly after I had my first surgery for cancer, my best friend asked me what I wanted for Christmas that year.  I wanted (and got) a necklace with a tiny silver charm that simply said ‘hope.’ (I wear it, now, as a reminder to myself on days when I feel overwhelmed or weary.) I painted ‘hope’ in purple, my favorite color, on some wooden alphabet blocks I bought at a craft store, and put the word up in my room. (Those blocks have been transferred to my new bedroom each time I move.)  When I got sick, I didn’t know what was coming.  There were many times I was lost and afraid.  But I had to retain hope that something good could, and would, come out of it. Not necessarily something better than the location I had thought my life was headed, but some place good nonetheless.

When I had cancer, I was dating a chef.  We dated for three years and were engaged for a time before we broke up.  He was there for me through my cancer.  He was very brave for me, or seemed that way, but he was also paralyzed by it, in a way, because he had lived a very unstable life, and here inside this stability I had helped provide him, he was looking at losing everything he had gained.  And I’m sure he felt trapped, as well, wanting to care for me but wanting to be free to have an easier life than I had then.  Our life together became skewed by the illness, by our family histories, by enormous differences in how we saw things, by the financial disaster we created together.  Eventually, he cheated on me.  When we broke up, despite his initial efforts to the contrary, I had no desire to have contact with him anymore, and I haven’t.  I met the man who would become my husband soon thereafter and didn’t look back.

And I’m not sure he and I could be friends after everything, or if I would even want that.  But I think about him sometimes lately, and have dreamed about him several times, because he brought something to my life that has proved invaluable.  When I met him, I enjoyed baking, but I wasn’t terribly experimental with or good at cooking.  In the time we were together, I grew to enjoy exploring various wide-flung cuisines and to appreciate culinary techniques small and large.  With his encouragement, after I grew sick, I adopted a diet that grew more and more focused on organic foods and whole foods.  Being around him, absorbing what he had to offer me, expanded my mind.  It paved the way for me to be able to adopt a diet focused on local foods, and then to be able to embrace the various restrictions that celiac disease and food allergies have brought me.  After I finish graduate school, what I learned from him might end up providing the seed for a business idea that I have percolating in my head.  And even if that doesn’t pan out, it has provided so much fodder for what I offer to myself and others by writing on this blog.

I couldn’t have seen that coming, but I’m grateful.

I got in a friend’s car today to go over to swim at the pool.  She was listening to NPR when I climbed in her car, and my eyes grew wide as I realized that on NPR they were talking, rather in-depth, not just about Habitat for Humanity, but about the specific Habitat for Humanity affiliate where I work.  They interviewed my newest homeowner (a lovely lady), and they mentioned my financial classes that help enable homeowners to be able to survive on meager incomes.  My heart trilled.

I used to be terrible with money.  I didn’t grow up learning how to manage it, and it terrified me.   I made horrible decisions about money that had serious consequences for me.  Over time, I realized the various errors of my ways and started following the financial baby steps that Dave Ramsey outlines in The Total Money Makeover.  The process changed my life and changed my priorities.  I realized how many of us live with an enormous burden of anxiety over our lack of ability with finances.  I had taken a position with Habitat for Humanity at that point, and in my work for Habitat families, I spent a lot of time working with a financial planner to revamp our (rather flabby, then) financial classes to teach what I wanted the homeowners to know.  At the start of every class, I always tell people, “Look, I know how scary this can be, because I was there.  But we can get you to a good place if you adopt some certain practices and work at it every day. And the peace of mind you can attain will change your life if you do.”  The homeowners who have since told me that they now sleep easy, that they have an emergency fund for the first time, that they are now contributing to retirement, that they are no longer taking on credit card debt—all of that comes, at least partly, out of what I have worked so hard to teach them.  To hear on national radio a mention of my financial program and the good it does is extremely heartening.  And the truth is, if I had never had the fear and misgivings over money that I had, I would never have known how important it is to help other people manage their finances.

I couldn’t have seen it coming, but I’m grateful.

I found out at the end of this week that I will need to have another surgery, my first in four years, an exploratory one.  There’s no expectation that it will be related to any cancer return (though of course, I must admit, I have a bit of fear about it nonetheless); the issues I have been having may be related to scar tissue from previous surgeries, or there may be another (or multiple) causes.  The surgery will, fortunately, be laparoscopic; it’s not as minor as I had originally thought, because my doctor expects me to be out of work for two weeks from it.  Because of the nature of the surgery, she’s not sure yet how many incisions she will need to make nor how much pain I’ll have from what she cuts or removes.  When she first mentioned the possibility of surgery, I asked if I could retrieve my husband from the waiting room so that he could be part of the conversation about it.  My doctor agreed, of course, and when I returned with him, we resumed the conversation.  As the doctor talked, I realized with a start that my husband might not be understanding as much of what the doctor was saying as I was. I followed her medical jargon with ease.

You see, growing up, I thought I wanted to become a doctor (a medical missionary, actually).  So when I was in high school, I got involved in activities that would put me on a medical path.  On top of a normal college-prep courseload, I got my CNA degree my senior year, thinking I would utilize it in college to get my foot in the door at hospitals.  From 10th-12th grade, I was also part of a medical terminology quiz bowl team; I did regular drills of anatomical, surgical, and other medical phrases.  I learned how to string together various medical prefixes and suffixes so that I could understand a medical term without even having to know the whole term on its own. . . .

When I got to college, I realized quickly that I actually had no interest in spending four years concentrating on biology and chemistry, and I sought out other ways to take care of people.  But when I ended up in the hospital for the first time, and when I started to read cancer journals and do research online, it hit me that I understood far more of the jargon than most people would.  The knowledge came from those high school experiences that focused on my pre-med dreams.

I couldn’t have seen what was coming, but I’m grateful.

I’m so grateful that I looked up the address of my medical studies teacher from high school, several years ago, and send her thank-you letter telling her how much that knowledge now meant to me.

We all have these moments and events in our lives.  Things happen in ways that drag us back and give us difficult burdens to carry; we all have burdens that will be ours throughout life.  But we also carry wisdom and knowledge and ability with us as we grow through life.  It is essential that we stay open (or start to open ourselves) to possibility: to walk with hope that the good will arise, with faith that life will offer us meaning and wisdom, and with love that allows us to utilize these gifts for the good of ourselves and others.

Tags: gratitude · on the soapbox

19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Deborah // May 26, 2008 at 5:51 am

    What a great blog. You have opened my eyes some to looking at things differently. Thanks!!

  • 2 Kara // May 26, 2008 at 6:20 am

    Sally, what a thought-provoking post. It’s interesting how the sum of our experiences so affect our professional and personal interests. I’d like to think that what I do is much more intentional, but I know my hobbies, my professional life, etc., is much more dependent on the circumstances I’ve been thrown into and the people who’ve surrounded me. As I ponder my latest career move (I’ve just started telecommuting work for a resume-writing company so that I can stay at home with the Little Pottamus), I wonder where it will take me. Will I ever get back to where I was? Of course not. But maybe I’ve only taken a little detour??

    As the Quakers in my Meeting say, I’ll be holding you in the light through your surgery. Best wishes.

  • 3 sally // May 26, 2008 at 8:21 am


    Kara–we definitely do go through life making some decisions intentionally, and that’s certainly important. But I think we often undervalue how things fall together for us as well. Thanks for holding me in the light (what a beautiful phrase)–much appreciated.

  • 4 Melanie // May 26, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    These three remain, faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. 1 Corn. 13

    My favorite verse. This is what gets me through this life! I hope all goes well with your surgery. What a great post.

  • 5 ThickChick // May 27, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    A beautiful, thought provoking post as always Sally! You put so much heart into your posts, and it absolutely shows. I’m sorry to hear about your latest round of health concerns, but I’m sure you realize you have a small army of people sending positive vibes in your direction, and of all people, you certainly know you’ll come out of this with some new pearls of wisdom.

  • 6 Meg Wolff // May 27, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    Wow, another great post! H-O-P-E It is what gives us a toe hold until we garner the strength to continue, push through, and (hopefully) overcome … and not slide into the abyss of despair (not for too long!).

    The sum of your life experiences and openness sure has helped you through difficult times. Remarkable.

    Let us know when you go for your surgery, there is always the fear and uncertainty, but think of how you’d counsel your friends … and give yourself lots of hope, cheer and good wishes for a positive outcome. Soon you will be recovering, and sooner it will be history.

    Prepare For Surgery Heal Faster, by Peggy Huddleston,R.N., gave me an anchor, something positive to focus on and some control while preparing for my last surgery … if you want (and there is time) I could send you my copy. Let me know if it appeals to you.

  • 7 Annie // May 27, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    Hey Sally,

    A simply wonderful post. It always amazes me how the people we have met, the hardships we have gone through, and things we have learned along the way, serve to prepare us for the future, even if we aren’t aware of it at the time.

    And when we can help others with the knowledge we have gained, it just makes it even better.

    Your site has been truly a blessing for me. I know that you must have had a difficult time in figuring out your food allergies and how to handle them, but by reading your site, it has made it much easier for me as I seem to be on a eerily similar path. I, in turn, also hope to make it easier for others who have been diagnosed with celiac disease and food allergies.

    I will definitely keep you in my thoughts as you go through this next surgery and please keep us “posted” on how you are doing.

  • 8 Nikki // May 28, 2008 at 5:59 am

    Sally! I want to take your financial classes!

    Would you recommend Dave Ramsey’s book for a good place to start? I need a new plan!

  • 9 Nikki // May 28, 2008 at 6:01 am

    Sorry – Also, please let us know how your surgery goes. I’ll be thinking about you. Good luck!

  • 10 sally // May 28, 2008 at 6:15 am

    Nikki–Dave Ramsey and I don’t agree on everything, and our politics are apparently very different, but I definitely recommend his baby steps, because they give a very concrete plan for how to reposition yourself financially. It does require a lot of work day in and day out to do it (‘it’ being any financial plan that’s a big change), and if you’re like me, you’d have to accept you’re going to have months when you screw it up. Also, for me, it’s been good to work towards letting go of commercialism in general (as a financial choice and as a life-health choice). But getting intense about making those changes was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

  • 11 Sue // May 28, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    Hi Sally, I’ve been loving your blog for a while now and just wanted to thank you for your great insight and inspiration. This is a wonderful post. I read a great quote today and thought I’d share it with you: ‘Deep assignments run through our lives. There are no co-incidences’. Made me stop in my tracks. So true. Bless you for your contribution to life.

  • 12 Kim // May 28, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    Hey Sally –
    This is a great post and beautifully written.

    Thank you so much for your sweet support. 🙂 Your comment today made me stop and think about how I am, and am not, taking care of myself. Thanks for the push to look deeper. 🙂

  • 13 Laura N // May 29, 2008 at 10:42 am

    Sally, best of luck with the surgery. I’ll be thinking of you.

    How cool that you heard about yourself on NPR!

  • 14 Deborah // May 29, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    You’ve been tagged.


  • 15 MizFit // May 31, 2008 at 4:58 am

    sending you thoughts as well…..such a powerful post.

  • 16 Beth // Jun 1, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    Hi Sally,

    Another great post. I printed this one out and have been giving it to people and telling them to read it.

    I pray that everything goes well at the coming doctor’s visit.


  • 17 Manda // Jun 2, 2008 at 8:25 am

    On some level, I know what your going through. It’s not a first person experience but its a very personal one. When I was younger my grandmother had breast cancer and had to go through chemotherapy and get a mastectomy. I hated seeing her in such a condition, so weak and ill. I thought those days would never end and everyday I thought it would be her last. Luckily, she recovered after her surgery.

    11 years later, the beginning of this year in fact, something went amiss. Her left arm – the side previously infected with cancer – became severely inflated, became painful, and her strength began to bequeath her. We went back to the doctors a month ago and discovered that her cancer came back. There is no surgery to be done because the cancer infected an area where its impossible to operate so we’re left with her getting radiation treatments.

    Because her children live in another state, I’m left to take care of her. Everyday is a challenge, everyday its another obstacle to over come, every day is either another hopeful sign or unfortunate disappointment. The only way to deal with it is take it as it comes and think positive even if it sounds harder than it seems. I know there’s a chance, her by being 80-something, that she won’t survive this strain on her already feeble body so I just try to keep her as happy as possible in anyway I can no matter how big or small the circumstance may be.

    If you ever need consolation or just someone to talk to, I’m here. I know we don’t know each other that well but I’m here if you ever need to vent or need a cyber shoulder to cry on. Good luck. <3

  • 18 goodbyetoallfat // Jun 5, 2008 at 5:44 am

    Hi Sally,

    I’ve just caught up with two of your long posts — “Patterns Matter” and “The Things We Carry”.

    Apologies it has taken me so long to catch up, but like me you tend to write quite long (but very interesting!) posts sometimes!

    The “Patterns Matter” entry struck a chord with me because I think I started to binge eat as a teenager and had issues at school and with my parents (who didn’t really change my negative self image or promote a positive one).

    The “Things We Carry” entry had several resonances for me. Firstly, during the past two years I made a real effort to clear all my debts. I’ve been trying to tell myself “lose the weight, lose the debt” but so far I found it much easier to be really strict with my financial budget, than I have with my dietary budget.

    Secondly, I too waiver between believing that “everything happens for a reason” or that we can all make our own choices and our own luck in this world. One of my new posts deals with being “done out of” my dream job when I was 18 years old (because some spiteful girl decided to apply for it, just to prevent me from having a chance) …..

    However, 22 years later, I’m not actually too cut up about it, as I do now enjoy the highly salaried city secretary job that I do …. and I wonder whether these things happened to make me stronger, or to be able to pass on my experiences to others, possibly to become a life coach or an anti-bullying campaigner?

    It’s a thought (a very vague one at the moment) but it occurs to me that there *must* have been a reason for the avenues that I wanted to pursue having been cut off, and that possibly they were not the correct avenues, therefore God or destiny has some other life path for me, and it has just taken me a long time to find it.

    Best wishes,

  • 19 Jenn // Jun 7, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    What a beautiful post!

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