Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Find your inspiration wherever you can

I have found inspiration in odd places.  I have stumbled upon it.  I have sought it out.  I firmly believe that you should use whatever gets you through.

When Lauren was diagnosed with cancer as a baby, our lives were turned upside down in a dozen different ways. One example, Dan worked in private practice and was very worried about the stability of his firm, and questioned at one point if he would be laid off.  I worried about his firm ‘borrowing’ our health insurance premiums as they had our 401K contributions.  It was like that.  The writing on the wall was there to see, if you had eyes at all.  We absolutely could not afford to lose insurance.

So, while I had always planned on going back to work when the kids went to school, it seemed like finding a ‘J-O-B’ with health benefits was becoming a more of an immediate priority than previously.  Yup, cancer certainly changes things.

The problem for me was that I had let my teaching certificate lapse when we began our family, thinking that it would be many years before I would be going back.  I needed to take 3 graduate classes in order to re-up my teaching license.  So, I enrolled at Cleveland State (incidentally,my 6th institution of higher education at this point) and signed up for a history course on the Renaissance.  I thought that I would take these three classes, one at a time, and go back to teaching high school history.  It was an easy and obvious choice.  There was nothing easy nor obvious at the time, so I moved forward with my education.

I was nervous, going back to school after taking so much time off.  I wondered if I could do the work and juggle three small children. Dan was an enormous help, needless to say.  But, I also worried if I could make the jump to a higher level of curriculum, if I had the chops for graduate school.

The focus of this course was the Renaissance, the philosophical, sociological and artistic transition from the Middle Ages to the humanism that characterized the renaissance. Once I began, I found a billion things that I loved about this class.   I loved being challenged; I loved the ideas, the perspective, the research. I was a very geeky pig in some pretty deep mud. 

And this learning was a much welcomed distraction from the cancer research that I had been previously doing on the Internet.

So, my professor offered very liberal parameters with regard to topic selection for the research project. Political changes, advances in art, changing perspectives in philosophy, the list of interesting individuals from this era is endless:  Machiavelli, Gutenberg, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Galileo, the Medici …there was really no limit.  I could pick anything.

I picked The Plague.

Yes, the Black Death, which in 1347 wiped out somewhere between a third to half of the population of Europe.  At the time, I couldn’t fathom why I gravitated to this topic.  I do not believe that it was a morbid preoccupation with Death, although the piles and piles of books I read on the subject held mind numbing mortality statistics and vivid descriptions of the progression of the disease.  

I selected an Italian poet, Petrarch, who had the misfortune of witnessing the disaster, but managed to survive the initial onslaught and wrote quite a bit about it.  I read many of his poems and letters.  The interesting thing (well, for me there were many, but I digress) was that the plague would return again and again.  And as a society, the people of Europe found beauty, and celebrated their lives here on earth, making art, poetry, architecture, music …so much that is still celebrated and enjoyed today.  I found this inspiring, and very surprising, given the tendency at that time for things to go so horribly here on earth.  And, I cannot exaggerate how horrible it was.  Not ‘Monty Python’ kind horrible, but the ‘end of days, bring in the horsemen of the apocalypse’ kind of horrible.

So, I read a lot about this pestilence that visited and revisited Europe, and I studied about how individuals coped and the ways that as a society, they not only survived, but thrived.  And the plague kept coming back.  I was in awe of how they lived with that uncertainty and fear.  I could go on and on about how remarkable this seemed to me. I wrote a pretty lengthy paper on it, but could easily write an entire book, with the examples I came across. (Don’t worry.  I will restrain myself for our purposes here.) 

It was so empowering, because these people, with far greater challenges chose to focus on beauty and love and to value the life of the individual, when the sea of death would wash over them like a tsunami every generation or so.  It had such an impact on me that I struggle to express it, and I am something of a word girl. (Also, it is hard to get most people engaged in conversations about the bubonic plague; however, I have some pretty patient girlfriends who have been incredible listeners over the years and have indulged me, but maybe it was just the tall beers at BW3 after volleyball)

The parallels to Lauren’s disease and the fear I harbored about its return for the first few years, well, this might be obvious to most, but it was a revelation to me by the end of this course.  My professor asked me if I was pre-med when I went in to speak with her about my work (which surprised and confused me at the time, but makes me laugh from my current perspective), and the conversations that followed made the tuition worthwhile, even though I did not continue to get my masters degree.  I have since said that it was much cheaper than therapy. 

I continue to read pretty obscure things about this era, but return always to the notion that they chose to see beauty, despite the ugliness all around them. 

We have a choice. 

I have a choice. 

And while so much of this is beyond my control, my response, my choice, my focus, well that is firmly within my control.  And this, I believe says more about us, than the things that happen to us.


When we were in the middle of chemo, facing Brent’s rather bleak surgical options, and later when we were stuck in New York, trying desperately to get back to chemo, I worried an awful lot. The future was so uncertain.  In life, you cannot flip to the back of the book, unfortunately and read the last chapter to find out if the hero makes it to a happily ever after.  But when I could not sleep (which was often),I would read… Churchill.  I do recognize that this is odd.

In looking at history, and reading history, it is difficult sometimes to remember that the outcome was not established.  Hitler might have won, the South might have triumphed and we could still be under the tutelage of England.  I have long been drawn to learning about men who acted, despite great peril, in the face of adversity and uncertainty (Washington was in fact committing treason in his quest for liberty, Lincoln was looking for a way to heal a country warring with itself, and Churchill tried to protect the world from a relentless madman, practically alone at one point)

Draw any parallels that you like (I see all kinds of allegory here with cancer, but then again, I generally do).   But the fact remains that these men did not know how it was all going to work out.  We have to remember that Washington could just as easily have become Guy Fawkes, rather than the father of our country… our divided country, where we eventually are forced to speak German.  Just saying. 

So, through the long sleepless nights at Sloan Kettering, I would read Churchill’s speeches, and learn about his struggles.  Especially his response to the very bleak time when he was alone on the world stage, France defeated, enduring the punishing Battle of Britain, before the US entered the war, while Hitler’s bombs rained down on England every single day. 

I was alone in NYC, outcome uncertain and every day was a setback.  But Churchill’s strength, his passion, and courage were helpful to me. I found a friend in an odd way.

Ok, I know that it sounds like I enjoy talking to and hanging out with old dead guys, but in all fairness, I lead with, ‘whatever gets you through.’  Petrarch and Churchill seem like unlikely companions in the Big Apple, but they helped carry me, and I like to give credit where credit is due. 

Thank you, gentlemen.



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