Galata Tower Steps

Living in the present can be a challenge. We replay the past, fantasizing about what we’d tell our younger selves to make life easier. We imagine enjoying the future if we do everything “right” and catch some breaks…or we imagine adjusting to a different future, again, if we don’t. Is this all bad? I don’t think so. We do well to learn from history and change behaviors so we don’t repeat mistakes but hang onto the good stuff. We do well to dream and do what we can to live into those dreams. Culturally, we’re rewarded for having and achieving goals and all the busyness that entails. But sometimes, life is passing us by while we do all that.

Add a chronic illness with debilitating symptoms to the picture and the urge to escape the present becomes an even bigger challenge. How could we have avoided this suffering? If only we didn’t eat this, do that, allow so much stress… How much more will there be? Maybe someday we…can plan a vacation like we see others enjoying on social media, will have hair again, can go for months (dare we hope, years?) without treatments… How can we get out of this cycle?

Given the impacts of the illness on our everyday life, our dreamtime is sometimes better than our awake time. We go anywhere, see everyone (including ancestors who have passed), and eat anything. Oh, the feasts I’ve had in my dreams lately. Tuscan food features prominently, especially pasta. Celebrity chefs sometimes preside. My body is whole. My head is covered with long, curly hair that requires washing (such high maintenance)! I move as freely and easily as I did a few years ago before cancer was a reality in our lives. I’ve heard this from other friends too. In our dreams, we are whole. I guess a couple of years of being “sick” cannot overwhelm decades of identifying otherwise.

So, it can be a challenge to accept the present, much less live in it. We have to remember to be grateful for progress. Not being in pain is huge. Knowing the cancer is backing down is also encouraging. Being able to cook, eat, and digest food is better than not, even if pasta isn’t on the menu these days. Getting a little stronger every day and walking farther – even uphill – is possible. Still, somehow, it’s hard to accept these are big wins when I was “so healthy” just a few years ago. Measuring progress vs “I should be dead by now” feels like cheating somehow, even if it’s the truth. It’s remarkable what cancer and its treatments will do to a human body in a short period of time.

Everything physical takes more effort than it used to. There is a tendency to focus on current symptoms, wishing them away. I nap like a champion because I’m tired. I take breaks when I’m cooking because I need to. I still remember moving more easily in my own body. I still identify as that person. So, part of the challenge of the present is not being disappointed with how I move, how I feel, and what my body can and cannot do these days. I’ve had to learn to live in a new lane and let the old one go.

Spiritually, cancer is not breaking me but making me stronger…so far. Life beyond the physical is easier in some ways. Mentally, words flow ever more easily. Work is especially rewarding, as is the idea that I might leave good things behind. Emotionally, I’m more comfortable with quiet. My dreams are vivid and internal life, rich. When I’m out and about, I’m both proud and fascinated – like when I was kid – seeing things anew. Spring has sprung in Istanbul. Here are some views from on top of and around the Galata Tower.

Looking across the Golden Horn to the old city, including Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque

Looking across the Bosporus to Asia

Galata Tower

A fragment of the chain that used to span the Golden Horn, causing Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror to drive Ottoman warships over land (for all you who watched Rise of Empires: the Ottomans on Netflix and wondered why they couldn’t just cut the chain…)

The elevator at the Pera Palace (for all you fans of Midnight at the Pera Palace!)

When I talk to our kids, I thoroughly appreciate every detail of their lives and how they are moving through them. My husband and I communicate easily, with or without words. Maybe this is what happens when busyness gives way to a kind of forced quiet. Everything important is in graphic relief like one of those pop-up books we read as children.

Living in the present is also forced on those of us with chronic illnesses, in many ways. So much is unknown about cancer (and so many other illnesses) that there is only so much utility in rehashing what we did/didn’t do. I’ve done as much of that as is useful, to some good ends (see any blog post over the last 2 years). For the rest, I look forward to answers flowing in after my consciousness transitions off this earthly plane (hopefully many years from now). That’s my version of heaven. All of our questions get answered…the internet is great, but there are so many answers Google will never provide. Similarly, there is only so much planning for the future we can do because…there is so much unknown about cancer. What we know and can do, we are. Beyond that, there are hopes, prayers, dreams, and then just resting in some faith that we do the best we can. Of course, we have plan Bs and Cs just in case, knowing that the only thing we can control is our reaction to what happens.

So, we have some special perspectives on the persistent but difficult advice to “live in the present.” It’s an extra challenge, but also a necessity for those of us with chronic illness. Doing otherwise is unwise, unhealthy, not empathetic to ourselves, and kind of impossible. Our bodies keep pulling us into the present. I was still learning to accept the present of the present before I got sick. Having kids helped a lot, especially when they were younger and demanded more attention. That time too, was a mixture of acceptance and frustration – enjoying the moment with them and imagining a life with more time and freedom. Little did I know the experiences and lessons on accepting the present awaiting me as our kids got older…and I got sick. Living with a chronic illness is like a masterclass in being present.

Maybe if I get it right this time, my soul can take a rest and just enjoy the present, with a dash of learning from the past and dreaming about the future. Just enough, but not too much. Like salt and pepper in one of those dishes in my dreams.

Maybe my lessons about living in the present will finally be done, and I can live with the gift beyond the struggle. Maybe you can learn the same lessons without getting sick.

I hope so.

Shared photo credits: John LeMay (yes, he’s back :-))

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An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder


An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder

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