Seoul-journ

20150916_105930 20150925_215922Two months ago, my family moved across the world . . . from Essex, Vermont, USA to Seoul, Korea. Why?

Some days I can’t quite answer that question myself, and I look forward to exploring the answer in a future post.

But, today, I want to write about “home,” and what it means to me, and to my children.

As we pursued this international journey, applying for jobs and researching places for much of the past year, and even before then, I kept thinking that home is a place we find inside ourselves, a place lit up when we’re with people we love. This means home isn’t a physical space we reside in, but rather a space deep inside. What does this mean? Home can be found anywhere, everywhere, if we’re willing to look.

20151004_185450But, can it?

When we broke the news of our big move to our kids (two boys, ages 10 and 7) in March, our older son responded with squeals of glee. He asked if we could leave right then and there. Our younger son was a bit more cautious. He wanted to know how thick the floors on planes are (he had never flown) and if we could travel by boat to Korea. After navigating their responses, we put our home on the market in Vermont and began to disassemble the only life they’d known, saying goodbyes, selling bedroom furniture, gifting/donating many items, and listing a huge part of our sons’ Lego collection on Craigslist. Through it all, I kept saying, “Home is where we’re together. We’ll be at home wherever we are, as long as we’re together.”

We’re now doing a real-life test of the hypothesis.

The results?

So far, it seems “home” is about more than just being with those you love, or finding that settled space inside oneself. For me, Seoul feels like home—at times. I delight in no longer owning
a vehicle, and having less stuff; we now have a smaller residence and fewer possessions. Having less to tend to, clean, and take care of opens the window to so much more . . . more family time, more friendship time, more down time, more exploring time, and more writing time. I do miss my books, though, and some of my writing journals. We somehow managed to bring a ridiculous number of hand towels with us in the eight suitcases we were allotted for our family-of-four move, but my spiral with my novel-in-progress notes in it did not make it, nor did a favorite sweatshirt, or two, and the rest of our boys’ Legos. I love that anything/everything is a walk, bus, or subway ride away. I like walking my sons to school and walking home with them, aside from slightly perilous road crossings. It’s hard not being able to communicate, but we’ve landed in a great community, with people who have gone before us willing to help light the way.

Other days, I wake up and think, what are we doing here? I reflect on friends and family now far, far away. And I long for the green mountains and woods that surrounded our physical home in Vermont.

A few weeks ago, my younger son cried himself to sleep at night, missing his family of stegosaurus stuffed animals (“stegies”), that are either in a storage unit in Virginia or at my dad’s house in North Carolina. Either way, they’re not where he would like for them to be—here with us. I couldn’t help but to cry with him and lay next to him to help comfort him as he fell back asleep.

We each shed tears, but for different reasons.

To my husband and me, the move across the world seemed a way to cultivate all of those big, bold values we want to live and model for our kids, but weren’t sure we were. Resilience, leaps of faith, trust, perseverance, a deep understanding that the world is so much larger than the one we see before us—we wanted to nurture respect for, and connections with, the broader world.

My boys are long past the baby days, but since we arrived in Seoul, the closing lines from the book Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers have been running through my head, “Everywhere babies are loved for trying so hard, for traveling so far, for being so wonderful … just as they are!” This quote makes me smile . . . and keep going.

On the days when it is so hard to literally understand the world around us, I think we have traveled so far and we’re pretty wonderful . . . just as we are. We don’t need to know or have more than we do, right in this moment, right now. Just celebrate that we made it this far. And be grateful for the strangers who step in to help us when we’re stuck, like the bus driver who realized we were still on his bus at the end of his route and far from our intended destination—home, so he took our emergency card (the one with our address written in Korean, since we still can’t communicate it), and flagged down a taxi and sent us on our way. Experiences like this happen on a regular basis!

An exchange student myself to Austria in 1995, I mark that year as a positive pivotal point in my life. Leaving the only home I’d known at the age of sixteen to cross the ocean and live with strangers for a year, helped me find my roots and the truest sense of “home” I’d ever known. Embarking on this family journey, I wondered if we, too, could grow us a family, and as individuals, if we found a new home abroad.

I like to think that everything we need is already right here, that happiness is a choice, that home is right there, if we’re willing to see it.

Still, there are days when I struggle because the language and cultural barriers feel so vast, like navigating my first appointment for thyroid cancer follow-up at a big hospital here in Seoul, and there are other days when we feel settled and at ease.

But, isn’t that how it was, too, back “home” in Vermont? Weren’t there days when the pieces fit together and it just felt right and other days when we didn’t feel at home in the world?

This is part of what motivated this journey, too—a sense in my life of being other, not part of the majority I may belong to in the parameters of place, or life circumstances, this hint of never quite belonging. As an outsider, I don’t technically belong here in Korea, which might allow me to feel like I fit right in.

I cannot have this conversation without also thinking of those without homes, or those forced from homes, of refugees I served in Vermont and the stories they carried, of defectors I’m tutoring here and the stories they carry. It seems downright indulgent, and certainly unjust, that I should have the privilege of choice in where to make my home, choosing not just a new home state, but a new home country, while so many live without that choice, where so many . . . how do I even end that sentence? You’ve seen the recent photos, footage, and articles in the news. You know our collective history.

And, yet, perhaps this step, this choice, is anything but indulgent, if seen from the perspective of deepening our ties to the collective whole. The more we can instill in our kids a sense of we’re all in this together, perhaps the deeper our potential to nurture change, within and outside of ourselves. And, perhaps the greater the likelihood that we’ll find our own personal home, that space inside ourselves that allows us to feel a sense of belonging and connectivity to the wider world.

My younger son has gone from asking nearly daily when we can go back to the U.S. to visit, and specifically go to American Flatbread in Vermont, to just the other day, saying, “Can we go back to the U.S. for a month and then come back to Korea?” Or, saying on a walk home recently, “Our apartment is starting to feel like home now.”

So, is home somewhere physical or always right here, with us wherever we go?

In my heart, it’s both, which is why this move is both joyous and heavy. I celebrate the home we’re discovering here, while longing for Austria. A little bit of my heart is always there, with my host mother in Kapfenberg, and a bit more of it is with my godparents in Evans, Georgia. Still other pieces of my heart are scattered with friends and family throughout the U.S., and around the world.

Yet it is also here, reading a book in bed with one of our sons in our new apartment in Seoul. It’s in the writing zone I enter occasionally, or in the connecting with a long-lost friend when five hours pass like five minutes. It’s one of my first new friends here being a woman from Germany—someone I can speak German with! It’s going to the new coffee shop right by our home here in Nowon-gu, Seoul, and the barista knowing I like cinnamon in my coffee and my husband doesn’t, so she has taken to asking, “For you?” or, “For your husband?”

So, maybe that’s a start . . . home: a place where we feel understood, where we feel welcome.20151002_131808

 

Staying Connected from Diagnosis through Survivorship: 7 Ideas to Guide Your Way

Thank you to the Laura Mann Center for Integrative Health for inviting me to share this post on their blog.

“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” ~unknown

What is life without connections? Staying connected to our family, our friends, even ourselves—it’s what grounds us and brings us joy. Not only do connections feel good, they keep us healthy. Michael Lerner writes in his comprehensive guide, Choices in Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer, “ . . . human studies show that feelings of isolation and loneliness have a detrimental effect on physical well-being, as measured by immune function.”

Humans by design seek out connections, and most of the time we’re able to maintain and contribute to the relationships we’re part of. Enter chronic illness. Enter cancer. We don’t necessarily control life events, but we do choose how to respond to what life brings us. When detours strike, it’s easy to feel stranded. Alone. But as science and experience indicate, times of deviation are the times when we most need others by our side.

In April 2012, my new primary care provider detected a thyroid nodule. Two months prior, my previous provider had dismissed my symptoms as “stress” and did not physically examine me.

Discovery of the nodule began a three-month odyssey that included ultrasounds, two biopsies, back and forth battles with my insurance company over my decision to go out of state to access genetic testing on the second biopsy, and more tears and late night Google searches than I can document here. The journey culminated with surgery on July 11, 2012. I went under still not knowing if the mass was cancer. Four hours later, I woke to my surgeon’s words, “It’s cancer.”

I’m now a “survivor.” But survival is not a destination. It’s a journey, one I carry out every morning and afternoon when I take my thyroid medication that supplies the life essential hormones my thyroidless body no longer produces. I carry it out when I go for regular blood work to see how my body is doing with these synthetic hormones. I carry it out every moment of every day when I try to define for myself what being “well” means and how I will care for myself moving forward.

Since thyroid cancer affects approximately 11 out of 100,000 individuals, thyroid cancer awareness is substantively lacking. This translates into numerous providers telling me that I had the “good cancer,” and it also means that the research, the funding, and even the understanding of all the nuances of thyroid cancer and life without a thyroid just aren’t where they should be. It would be easy to feel alone, but I’ve found that remaining in touch is literally life saving.

I’d like to share seven ideas that have helped me transform this initially challenging journey into a life-affirming one. Perhaps they may resonate with you as well.

1) Honor your story.

For the first few months after surgery, the “it could have been worse” mantra held me back. In my head, I focused on the more intensive treatment I may have needed, but didn’t, and on other, more challenging scenarios I didn’t have to face. But this thinking kept me from accepting help and asking for it.

Healing, while often an internal journey, can also mean a willingness to allow others to help you on your healing journey. Part of my healing came from accepting my own journey and realizing that there was no value in comparison. I stopped minimizing and I began accepting the help offered and asking when I needed more.

2) Find care providers who care.

One of the positives that came out of this experience and the multiple tests, appointments, etc. is that I’m not afraid to go to the doctor anymore. And I’m not afraid to change providers when it’s not a good fit.

I know my surgeon’s tender touch on my shoulder before I was wheeled into the operating room mattered. It affected my attitude during recovery and, honestly, I believe, my outcome. Likewise, my endocrinologist saying to me the first time he met me, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this,” honored my experience and helped me trust in the process of recovery and healing. I stay with providers who treat me like a partner in my care, and who show their sincere concern about my wellbeing. I feel grateful to now have an amazing team of providers.

3) Make real connections.

Sure, you may have 162 friends on Facebook, but when you are going through a life-altering diagnosis, seek out and savor the folks who ask how you’re doing and then wait to hear the answer. Be grateful for these people. You know who they are.

They’re the ones who call when you get home from the hospital. They’re the ones who take your kids for a playdate without you having to ask, or drop a meal by, just because. In our fast-paced world it’s easy to stay “connected” through cell phones and Facebook. But as you heal, consider the deep connections that are sustaining you. Focus on these, and give yourself permission to gently let go of any relationships that leave you feeling disconnected.

4) Put your oxygen mask on first.

We all know this. But it’s true. With two small children, one of the hardest parts of my journey was feeling humbled by my own need for help. In the hospital for surgery, it was strange to think of my sons at home, without me, while I lay in an operating room. I felt useless. I felt scared. I felt utterly dependent on others.

My counselor through the cancer patient support program advised me early on to ask each day, “What am I doing for my healing today?” This question has proved pivotal to my healing. It motivates me to be kind to myself and look out for my needs, whether through a yoga class, sleeping in, or simply saying “no” sometimes.

And I think this is a valid question for any individual, healthy or not. What are you doing for your healing today? If you don’t feel that “healing” applies to your situation, apply the word “wellness” instead. What are you doing for your wellness today?

5) Find the pearl.

There are days when my diagnosis makes me feel flawed and downright sad. But, I can choose to savor my cancer, even meet it with gratitude. A devastating diagnosis may push us to break open or fall apart . . . and if we allow ourselves to look at what’s inside, we can choose to meet what we find with love and be with ourselves in that moment, in the middle of that sadness. There is healing to be found simply in taking an experience for what it is and letting ourselves move through every step that comes next with awareness, whether the next steps include fear, anger, disappointment, loss, or anything really.

I don’t think I’ll ever welcome the follow-up ultrasounds to my neck, the regular blood work, or even this new life of navigating a chronic illness. But I am thankful for a journey that is trying to teach me to be kinder to myself and mirror that kindness back to the world.

6) Take what works, leave the rest.

Reiki, yoga, acupuncture, marathon training, mindfulness meditation, writing, knitting, a hike, or simply going for a walk . . .

Healing is as individual as one’s body. There is no right way to heal. At first, I read any book I could about cancer, thyroids, thyroid cancer, healing, alternative treatments, really anything that might apply to my situation. But in the same way that 100 choices at the grocery store for the same item can actually cause stress, sometimes there is stress in the process of choosing how to best facilitate one’s healing. Surgery was the first step of my healing, but the real work began when I woke up. What do I do now? What do I change/not change moving forward? How do I avoid coming down this same path again? Is it even avoidable? For me, healing has been a bit about doing less, searching less, and looking deeply at the options before me and choosing what resonates with me. Then engaging in these options and letting the search for answers recede. For me, two practices particularly sustain me: writing, which I’ve been doing since I was a little girl, and, new in recent years, yoga. I should note that it’s worth trying something more than once before you decide if it works for you. I tried yoga once in college and did not enjoy it. I waited more than 10 years to try again.  I love it now, and it serves my healing for a multitude of reasons . . . including strength, mindfulness, and overall well-being. And, perhaps the best reason of all, as one of my teachers likes to remind us, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.”

7) Quiet body, active mind. Active body, quiet mind.

When my first biopsy last spring was inconclusive, it was recommended that I wait six weeks and have a second biopsy. While sitting for mindful meditation can be a healing practice, sitting all day for work, or to drive, can lead to a busy mind that likes to craft all sorts of worst-case scenarios for every possible life path.

Therefore, when I start thinking too much, I go for a walk. And sometimes I ask a friend to go with me.

My personal healing links:

Cancer Patient Support Program:
http://www.cpspvt.org

Patricia Fontaine’s Healing through Art and Writing:
http://www.patriciafontaine.com/haw_schedule.html

Roz Grossman, Mindful Stress Relief:
http://theneshamahcenter.weebly.com

Stowe Weekend of Hope

http://www.stowehope.org

Survivorship Now:
http://www.survivorshipnowvt.org

Interested in learning more about thyroid cancer?

http://www.checkyourneck.com

www.thyca.org

http://www.bitemecancer.org