From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, I’ve reclaimed the various U.S. holidays and turned them into a personal season of gratitude. I try to consciously spend time during this season filling up on gratitude and offering it out to the universe. I acknowledge every large and small thing I can think of to be currently grateful for in my personal life. This is my first such season after a year of dealing with big-time cancer.
It might seem obvious that at the top of my list this year would be gratitude for being alive in spite of lots of nasty things conspiring to shorten that life substantially. But when the thought occurred to me sometime around 4:30 on Thanksgiving morning, it surprised me.
For me, surviving cancer treatment has required bullheaded tunnel vision. Get through surgery, get through chemotherapy, get through radiation. It all started a little over a year ago, and I’m still sweating out side effects and waiting for my hair to grow back into something I’m willing to let be seen in public. I agreed to a nuclear blast of treatment to avoid death, having decided in a grab at what seemed like rational decision making, that I needed at least five more years of life to accomplish the most important things on my to-do list.
I’ve been grateful for lots of things along the way, primarily focused on gratitude for the extraordinary outpouring of love, support and care that came from my family of choice, more friends than I knew I had, and people I barely know at all, every one of them carrying me through. And grateful for work that didn’t require I punch a time clock or fire me when I couldn’t lift my head off my pillow. And grateful for the year cradled by cats in my bed, rescued pigeons cooing in the living room, and a barnyard full of llamas and sheep and goats and geese and a horse waiting for me each day when I went outside with a dog at my heels.
But on Thanksgiving morning, before I was fully up and about, something shifted. Hercules the dog jumped onto the bed and curled up beside me. He’s never done this before, the bed being reserved for human and feline occupation only. I let him stay. Which was the first surprise. I liked the comfort of having 70 pounds of heat suddenly pressed into my side. I’d been lying there, struggling with a round of self-pity over not being consumed by joy on Thanksgiving morning.
Overwhelmed by work deadlines, writing challenges and a new persistent pain and swelling in my left hand, I realized I was getting tired of the tunnel. The narrow focus of determination that got me through the last year was not fun. Successful, yes. Fun, no. So before the self pity became all consuming, I rattled my brain and asked myself, “What is it you want out of life?”
The answer was immediate, and it came like this: “I want to see things through. I want to complete the life goals I’ve set for myself, and I want to see my responsibilities through to the end.”
My non-negotiable life goals involve writing four more books and firming up the foundations of a couple of social change projects. My responsibilities involve over 50 animals. The books and the projects can be brought to a sense of completion for me within five years if I get moving. (That’s where my original 5-year survival plan came in.) But with the typical life span of llamas resting in the vicinity of 20 years, I’m looking there at a minimum of 16 years to see my responsibilities through. As if doing the math for the very first time, it suddenly dawned on me that five more years isn’t enough.
Just like that, I was jettisoned out of the tunnel I’ve been boring my way through since my last season of gratitude. I need at least 16 years, not five. With that realization, for the very first time came a thundering desire to battle for a longer span of survival than the meager five years I’d set my sights on a year ago. Just like that, I became grateful for being alive, in a way I’ve never been before. And grateful for a day and a season artificially created for giving thanks.
This is not the beginning of a happily-ever-after saga of cancer or any other kind of survival. Nor is it the happy ending of one. But it is a turn. A big one. Like many others that have come my way in the last few years and, I suspect, are likely to come in the next few years. Some of those turns involve cancer. Many more involve writing, llamas and other animals (including people). Most succinctly: life.
This reflection on giving thanks also represents a turn for this blog, which began almost two years ago when I found myself in Montana helping to rescue over 600 llamas. Overwhelmed by the experience, the clamor for information from llama lovers everywhere, and the writer in me, I was driven to write daily reports from the rescue, which started as emails and became this blog.
It’s time for a turn in this blog. There are a couple of literary agents waiting for a complete manuscript of a book about the llama rescue, who have been poking my ribs about what they call “developing the author platform.” More importantly, there are essays and musings floating on my laptop, waiting for a home I haven’t tried to find for them because I’ve been feeling a little lost as a writer. It’s time for this blog to come back to life, and for me to have the courage to allow it to follow the past and the present; the loops, derailings and summittings of ordinary and extraordinary life experiences that make the personal universal. The role of this blog will now be to explore many topics in order to try and understand the what, where and why of the turns we all take in life.