A Matter of Life and Death

I am a two-year cancer survivor. I am grateful every day for the second chance at life I’ve been given. I’ve been too close to the alternative not to be grateful.

I have a friend who might not be so lucky. He is a family friend of several decades. Our sons were in the same class in school. His daughter is a good friend of my daughter. Our families have been very close at times.

But he is now in big trouble. Diagnosed more than a year ago with a rare form of advanced lung cancer, Sloan Kettering doctors put him in a clinical trial. My husband, who ran into him every week at the grocery store said he was doing well.

Then suddenly that changed. The doctors thought the reason for his blurry vision was cataracts. They were removed but his vision became more blurry. Then he stopped being able to chew his food and began to need a liquid diet to sustain him. A spinal tap was done and cancer was found in his spinal fluid. A course of radiation was prescribed next. Nothing changed.

Now he is barely able to speak comprehensibly. Upset by this twist of fate, my family and I visited his family yesterday. His wife told me he hasn’t wanted any visitors because he feels so embarrassed about his condition. But he agreed to see us.

We spent a low key, pleasant two hours with him and his family. He began to perk up as the time passed, and spoke quite a bit more than I had expected him to. He clearly enjoyed being part of the conversation which was mostly about funny shared memories of events that transpired when our kids were younger.

Toward the end of the visit he brought up the subject of his illness and told us what events were in store for him this coming week: an MRI of his brain, a visit with the oncologist to discuss the chemo he will soon be undergoing and a couple of other doctor visits. He will start chemo on Thursday. He has not given up hope and is anxious to start the course of chemo therapy.

It was a difficult thing to do: to face someone you care about deeply, who you suspect might not live much longer. I think our visit meant a lot to him; he thanked my son for coming out from Brooklyn to see him. We told him we would be rooting for him every day; he said he would let us know how things progress.

Going to visit him to cheer him up and cheer him on was not easy but it was the right thing to do. He is in a fight for his life and he needs all the love and support he can get.

Planning a Trip to Spain

Most of my adult life I’ve been attracted to traveling to France (which I’ve visited several times and where I lived in Paris for a year), Italy (which I visited once) and Germany (which I’ve visited several times in the past ten years. But both my grown children have been to Barcelona, Spain and both have insisted that I would really like it.

I confess to having no prior interest in Spain, but that feeling has changed somewhat since I have learned enough Spanish (through osmosis as an ENL teacher, building on my fluency in French) to negotiate the simpler things like getting a room or taking a bus.

I am the kind of traveler who likes to blend in, so I prefer to use the native language whenever possible. I am guessing that the Spanish locals would be somewhat tolerant of my feeble attempts to speak in their language and more inclined to be welcoming and helpful.

So, I’ve taken the plunge and booked a trip for me and my husband for early May, for 11 days total, including travel. I signed on for an ambitious itinerary of three cities: Madrid,

Seville

and Barcelona, in that order.

My thinking was I’ll probably never return to Spain so I might as well see as much as I can on this trip.

My new life motto is Do It Now! What Are You Waiting For? This is a result of being a recent retiree and cancer survivor. (They occurred simultaneously.) I have various aches and pains, which I am told is normal for a 70-year old, and traveling is becoming more challenging since I don’t sleep overnight on the plane and can’t walk as much as I used to, and can’t stand for long periods of time.

But I am not ready for the rocking chair yet. There are still places I want to go, things I want to see. I feel I must see and do them sooner rather than later, given my recent health challenge. Today I signed up for a language course online to boost my speaking knowledge of Spanish a bit before departure, and to put me in a Spanish-speaking frame of mind. Learning languages has always been fun for me, so I look forward to doing this.

If any of you intrepid travelers out there have any suggestions or comments about my itinerary, please don’t hesitate to chime in. I’m looking for non-touristy places to eat and experiences I should not miss in any of the three cities we are visiting. Tapas, El Prado, flamenco dancing (viewing, not doing), and, of course, all of Gaudi’s creations in Barcelona are on my list. Oops! I almost forgot paella. It would be such a delight to have an authentic dish of paella.

Lots of planning to do in the weeks ahead!

I Am a LiveStrong Volunteer

When you become a cancer survivor, nothing is more precious than your health and your time. I learned this personally about two years ago when I was told I was “cancer free” after a six-month struggle with cancer.

During the first weeks and months of my survival, I was a bit week and unsettled. I wasn’t sure how to proceed with my new life. Joining the LiveStrong program at my local YMCA helped me transition from being a cancer patient to becoming an active cancer survivor. Through the Livestrong program I was taught the importance of restoring my physical health and becoming stronger. Going through the program with other cancer survivors was very helpful to overcome the feelings of isolation and depression that often accompany having cancer.

I soon found a wonderful local chair yoga program that matched my abilities and gave me confidence. I found a Great Books discussion group at my library that challenged my intellect and brought me new acquaintances. I connected with a local poetry organization and participated in some of their activities. I joined the March Challenge and became an avid Slicer for Two Writing Teachers But in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to somehow “give back” to the LiveStrong program in return for all that it had given me.

And now I am doing just that. Last fall I volunteered to help out in the gym with a new group of survivors by just being there to help them negotiate the equipment and to talk with them about their experience. Although it was a good experience, I felt like it wasn’t really what I wanted to do.

About a month ago I talked to the new LiveStrong program director and told her I wanted to help publicize the program which didn’t seem to be doing enough outreach. She was thrilled to have my help and agreed to have me distribute promotion materials for the program and I have been happily doing so for the past two weeks. It’s not a fancy job, and probably no one else knows I’m doing it, but I enjoy the feeling of knowing that someone may pick up one of the brochures or read one of the posted fliers and discover the program. I’ve had some nice chats with local groups and organizations as I’ve explained the program to them and asked permission to leave the promotional materials with them.

The real benefit to volunteering is that it makes me feel good to be doing something to help others in dire straits and to know that I might be making a big difference in their lives. Becoming active in your own recovery is the best thing you can do to help yourself as a cancer survivor. The LiveStrong program taught me well and I am so grateful for it.

My Poetry Workshop: Mission Accomplished!

At my request, the chatty group of teachers attending my presentation at the Long Island Writing Project (LIWP) on Saturday, The Power of Teaching Poetry to ENL (English as a New Language) Students, suddenly became quiet. It was a “make or break” moment. I explained that we would be reciting together a Native American prayer/poem to establish a sense of community and to honor the origins of poetry as a spoken-word practice. This prayer/poem was written on an accordion card sent to me by a dear friend from California. I then asked the participants to stand and to join in the reading.

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I then started playing a CD of Native American flute music: The Canyon Trilogy, by Carlos Nakai. The lovely, soft sounds of the flute echoing against the walls of the Grand Canyone floated over and around us filling the room and our hearts as we began our reading. I began reciting the first verse, then passed the prayer/poem on to the next person, who passed it on to the next and so on until we had completed all twelve verses, ending with “Now our minds are one.” Then everyone sat down and we began our discussion.

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This was a pivotal moment for me. I had thought long and hard about how I would introduce this workshop, but I kept coming back to wanting to perform this prayer/poem with the participants. I had every moment of self-doubt you can think of…they’ll think this is really corny; they’re going to be annoyed, and other troubling thoughts. But risk-taker that I am, I decided to go ahead with my plan. I am so glad I did because so much of the success of a topic depends on how it is introduced. The spell was cast.

The next two hours flew by. I explained the gist of my presentation: that poetry, which is often relegated to one month a year in the elementary classroom and an occasional appearance in the upper grades ought to, instead, be embedded in the curriculum during the entire school year for two reasons. First, when introduced in the right way, poetry is much loved by students of all ages. Second, poetry provides a new lens through which students can see the curriculum and serves as a great entry point into any topic in the curriculum.

We talked about an article I read aloud from the New York Times that discussed the paucity of vocabulary that many ENL students bring with them when they enter the American public school system at age 5 (nearly a 32 million word deficit by some estimates), and how that deficit affects their academic performance from day one until they graduate. We talked about another article from “O” magazine that declared how poetry “is not a test.” How deadly it is to ask the students, “So what does this poem mean?” instead of “Let’s talk about what we enjoyed or noticed about this poem.”

We talked about how students can learn from poetry how to be more playful with language; how they can create similes and metaphors with the proper scaffolding without even realizing they are doing so; how many ENL students have much more success with non-rhyming poetry because they do not have the command of the language nor the verbal agility they need to create rhymes in the earlier stages of their second language development.

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We talked and talked and talked. I had lots of examples of poetry anthologies from my students to show as models for what can be accomplished by ENL students including cinquains, haiku, acrostics, concrete (shape) poems, found poems and lots of free verse. I showed the participants how they could use a very effective 3:2:1 graphic organizer to help their ENL students organize their thoughts into the gist of a poem…

http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson951/strategy.pdf

…and then how to teach them to arrange their words into poetry.

And then the workshop was over. We had run out of time. I probably could have gone on for at least another hour, but I’m not sure my participants could have absorbed much more at that point. It was time to ask them to reflect write a reflection of what they had learned and would take away with them.

Next they shared their written responses. My heart swelled as I heard comments about how they had always thought poetry was so daunting and probably too difficult for their students; how they had only taught “to the test” when they addressed poetry as more of a necessity than a pleasure; how they had never thought of using poetry throughout the curriculum and best of all, how they really enjoyed the way I began the session with the recitation of the Native American poem as a way to immerse the students in the sensory experience of poetry. They were excited about rethinking the role of poetry in their curriculum and how to include it in their daily lesson planning.

My heart was full. After a month of two of perseverating about how to structure this workshop, whether or not to include the prayer poem, how to cover such densely layered information in such a short time, I knew I had been successful. These teachers were full of enthusiasm for poetry as a genre that is accessible to all students when introduced in a supportive, thoughtful and experiential way.

Mission accomplished. Nearly two years after my retirement from teaching and one year as a cancer survivor, I was back in the game and loving it! Thank you to the staff of Two Writing Teachers and all the dedicated Slicers and my mentors at the LIWP for supporting me as a writer this past year and breathing new life into me as a teacher. Long live poetry!

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Tai Chi: Moving for Better Balance

I have devoted this past year to finding ways to restore my health post-cancer. I am lucky to live in Huntington, a very “Hip” town on LI, that has lots to offer. I now attend two yoga classes at the public library, each 1x per week and a third tai chi class at the YMCA, 2x per week. Prior to these I spent 12 weeks attending “The Livestrong Program” at the YMCA, explicitly devoted to cancer survivors. The best part: one class is free, and the other two are very reasonably priced.

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The structure of having exercise classes 3 to 4x per week has helped me get back into a groove. And I’ve met so many wonderful people over the age of 60, from all walks of life, who are all dealing with personal health issues. This is very comforting and we try to support and encourage each other.

Today’s class, Moving for Better Balance at the YMCA, is free for those over 60! This class is about helping people learn to overcome balance issues they have for various reasons. The focus is on “fall prevention” since that is a big problem as people age. Once you’ve had a serious fall, your health can be seriously at risk from then on.

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I hope to avoid that fate. I do have neuropathy in both feet and legs due to the powerful chemotherapy I was given, so I wanted to do something to help myself maintain better balance. This class is perfect. First we go through a series of warm up exercises; then we follow the instructor through a modified Tai Chi program. It has taken us nearly 10 weeks to master the “form,” but we have all come so far from the first day when there were a lot of wobbly legs, bodies tipping to one side, and confusion.

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Apart from the exercise benefits, we have enjoyed each other’s company so much that today we talked about staying in touch about once a month to do the Tai Chi we have learned and then to socialize.

My balance will never be perfect, but I feel so much more confident about handling myself than when I walked into that exercise class 12 weeks ago. And I have a few new friends!

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(The above photo is not my class, but it could be!)

Every Day Is a Snow Day!

Before I retired I longed to sit at the kitchen table every morning, sipping coffee and finishing the New York Times. As the months grew closer to my retirement it became more and more difficult to get up from that chair and go to work. That was really not like me; I had always enjoyed my job. But that year was different. I had had it with the Common Core and its effect on me and my ENL learners. I was frustrated with the general lack of concern in the building for our plight. I was becoming envious of grade-level mainstream teachers who were able to bond over their concerns and circle the wagons around themselves to deal with the changes. My concerns were not theirs. I was all alone. It was time for me to go.

Now, here I sit, sipping my coffee, reading the SOL slices and responses to mine, pondering what to write. It is lightly snowing, I can hear the clock ticking, and in an hour I will be meeting my lovely daughter for lunch…something we try to do once a week together. How privileged I feel!

I am surrounded by the fallout on my kitchen table which often looks exactly like this.

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I have grown used to the disarray and do manage to clear the table, usually by dinner. But this is how we live…a life filled with competing issues and interests means a life that is not always organized. One of our fellow Slicers wrote about this very problem a few days ago when describing her “messy” classroom. I am less anxious about it all now because I know the table will get cleared when I get to it…and that has made all the difference.

Having the time to do the things I really care about is a precious gift which I savor each and every day. I never take for granted that I can sit here for as long as I wish unless I have an imminent appointment or class to attend. Do I waste time? You bet! Sometimes it takes me twice as long to do something because I am in no hurry or because I allow myself to be distracted by whatever.

But make no mistake. I can only do this because I worked my butt off during those working years. As any parent knows, working, raising a family, maintaining a household, going to school, somehow stealing time to be a person is an exhausting agenda for anyone. The person one is can easily be buried under all that stuff!

Some of you also know I lost a year to cancer immediately following my retirement. That was the wake up call to “I better enjoy myself now because who knows what the future may hold.” Becoming a cancer survivor totally changes one’s priorities and makes every day a gift.

Now I go to my Gentle Yoga classes, read the paper, call a friend if I feel like doing so, take a walk and somehow fit in all the daily chores. I usually prepare a full-fledged dinner from scratch to boot! Today I browsed through the Viking River Cruises catalog dreaming about a cruise I might or might not take one day.

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This is my Slice of Life. At least it’s my life for now. In all its messy glory. And I wouldn’t trade places with anyone! Now I must get up, get dressed and go to lunch with that daughter of mine. See you later!