“It turns out you play clarinet with my mother!” said the woman I see every morning when I drop my son off at preschool. I thought the new lady who took my place as last chair looked familiar at the practices.
Last Tuesday, I played a Christmas concert in the Puyallup Community Band at the Liberty Theater in Puyallup. The last time I remember being in the Liberty it was a dollar to see a movie. We saw The Natural with Robert Redford that was released in 1984. Yes. It was that long ago.
Much of the woodwork is the same. The theater is still small. The stairs to the women’s bathroom are ridiculously steep and definitely not up to code. Now the place has been remodeled and is known as a wedding venue. And I had a marvelous time in 2014.
At first, I wasn’t sure I would be able to manage. Work wore me out on Tuesday. I went to my mother’s house with the kids for dinner and lay on her couch, mustering the energy to iron my white shirt.
Things got better when I walked in the doors to see the guests finishing their dinners around tables with white linens. It’s hard to be tired in a room full of happy chatting people. I made my way down front where I would sit, starting to wake up a bit.
The woodwinds and small brass sat crammed in a pit with the big brass on the stage behind us. My clarinet playing neighbor had her family handing over the rails into the pit. Her 3 small grandchildren stared down at us while one of them sucked a pacifier.
This made me feel much less annoynymous. Usually I feel hidden behind the flutes with no one looking at me in particular.
Still. The sing alongs gave the audience something to do besides watch my fingers mess up. And I loved the narrated T’was the Night Before Christmas. At times I even could get to that place where I set my thinking aside and let my brain rest into the notes and the intense feeling of togetherness that comes from making music with others.
I left the Liberty full of energy with Sleigh Ride ringing in my ears on a night when I could barely drag myself off the couch to get there. Life can be really fine if you are in a band. Sarah’s mom and I are lucky.
(Special Note: I have made an audio of this post so that Carol and others like her can hear my voice rather than Siri’s voice or some other digital voice. If you currently have your vision, I’d challenge you to listen through the words while you close your eyes to get a feel for how Carol might experience the story. You can always open your eyes again to see the pictures after you listen.)
Carol Decker speaking at Bates Technical College
Last week I had the privilege of meeting a gorgeous woman with an even more gorgeous soul. She came to speak to the students I work with at Bates Technical College, and because of this, I have an amazing story to share.
The Months that Changed Her Life
In October of 2007, Carol Decker learned she was pregnant with her second child. Chloe, her oldest was not yet a year old. Up to then, Carol had lived a beautiful life, getting married at 22 to Scott Decker who became a dentist. She worked full time as a medical assistant, had loved to snowboard since she was twelve, and had always been active while growing up with 4 older brothers who taught her to be fearless.
In June of 2008, thirty three weeks into her pregnancy, Carol began to run a fever. Soon her situation became so severe that she went to the hospital where the doctors and health team rushed her into surgery to deliver her baby. She looked at her husband and said goodbye as they wheeled her away. She would not see him again.
Her daughter Sofia was born healthy, but for twenty days the medical professionals kept Carol in a drug induced coma. Scott had to make unbearable decisions to amputate her leg, arm and ring finger on her right hand because her body had become septic — she had an infection that caused her system to stop circulating correctly.
When Carol woke up, she tried to look at the doctor and saw nothing. Her family and medical team learned that she had also gone blind. For weeks after that, she went through a debriding process to remove her damaged skin. Then the doctors ‘harvested’ skin from her back to graft onto those damaged skin areas. The pain was excruciating.
In addition to the strep pneumonia that caused sepsis, she had developed disseminated intravascular coagulation, a condition that created havoc inside her body because the clotting abilities didn’t function correctly. She came close to death countless times.
Pulling Herself Back Up
When Carol first went home that September, she weighed 90 pounds. Her husband or brothers had to lift her from the bed so that she could go to the bathroom. And she was in agony, mentally and physically. Her two little girls would come to lie next to her while she could do nothing for them.
This — not being able to mother her children — was what broke her heart. And then she dug deep. With the superhuman help of her amazing husband and family, Carol began to use the pain of not being with her children to motivate herself. Her two girls became her reason for life. They were the driving force that pulled her through the months and years of pain and the also excruciating work of rehabilitation.
Six years later, Carol is a speaker, telling others of how she sets and reaches one goal after another. On her birthday in August of 2009 she walked into Wild Ginger on heels. She now helps her children in the kitchen and uses a special tool to cut apples.
She spent a long time, in fact, showing our group the many tools she uses to make her life easier. She showed us her cheetah leg prosthetic, her no-spill bowls, her color reader that electronically tells her the color of her clothing, and told us that she has a talking microwave. In fact, she had a table full of gadgets to share with us.
Carol’s fantastic gadgets
This is NOT the cheetah leg she loves. It’s an older version of her prosthetic leg.
Last winter, she was able to go skiing with the help of an organization called Outdoors for All. Being with her family on the mountain that day was a joy that left her lying in the snow after a fall feeling like her life could not possibly get better.
In fact, she says her life now is good. So good that she would not go back to the time before the sepsis if she were given the choice.
I sat with over fifty nursing and occupational therapy assistant students and listened to her for an hour. Our attention never lagged in spite of what studies say about our shortened ability to focus. I never saw a person check her phone even though Carol would not have been able to see it to feel slighted.
She ended her talk with powerful life lessons she learned and hoped to pass on to us to bring meaning to her experiences:
If you can get over your fear, you can do anything she said. Carol thought it helped her to have that fearlessness that her brothers had taught her long ago. We all can do with more fearlessness even if we are not faced with the challenges of walking again or negotiating in a world without our vision.
Ask For and Accept Help
Carol repeats often that she could not do this alone. During her talk, she asked for help twice. Once a student helped when she knocked over a water bottle. Another time, a student helped her with a gadget. She didn’t hesitate to ask, and they didn’t hesitate to help.
Her husband astounds me in what he has done to make her beautiful life possible. He gets her every gadget he thinks will make her life better and does much of the family work that would have fallen on her shoulders if the sepsis had never happened.
I have seen Carol speak before and notice that she always has someone incredible with her. This time her mother-in-law was there. Last time, I met one of her therapists. My colleagues tell me her husband has been to events and also her sister-in-law. She is surrounded by love in the verb form and easily accepts what others offer her in a way that makes her stronger and, I suspect, lifts up those who do the helping.
Carol emphasizes that we all need to let others help us in order to become our best possible selves.
Carol listens as she is introduced by Lamont Lucas, Diversity/ASG Assistant
Let Go and Forgive
Letting go of her past and the way she used to do things allowed Carol to move into the amazing life she has now. She has become extremely flexible in how she manages her everyday tasks. Instead of telling herself she can’t do something, she sets the intention to do it and then problem solves until she finds a way.
Forgiving herself and others for whatever happened in the past has opened her up to the infinite possibilities of today.
This video about her from KBTC is long. But if you look at minute 18:30, you can see her talk through how she lets go of regrets and then embraces the life she has now.
Live in the Present
In the moment last winter when she fell into the snow with her children and husband on the mountain with her, Carol said she could have easily died a happy woman.
Those experiences, she said, are available to us all at any time if we fully live in the moments.
Carol laughs readily and has what her husband calls ‘infectious optimism.’ She made jokes about her blindness. She can see only occasional flashes of red, white or blue, which, she joked, makes her a patriotic girl.
When we listened to her we could all feel her joy. It was hard not to join in with her even when our hearts broke for what she had been through. Watching her enjoy her life to its fullest, we all wanted to do the same.
Now Carol is working on more speaking engagements and she’s writing a book.
Carol’s optimism shows in her smiles.
The Big Takeaway
I’ll finish this post by saying that she is one of the most beautiful women I have ever met who is living an astoundingly beautiful life.
A student next to me turned to me after Carol finished speaking. She said, “My life is changed forever.” Mine, too.
I know as I lose my own abilities, I will remember Carol as a model of how to really live. Because, after all, we are all only temporarily ‘abled,’ even if we never experience Carol’s challenges. Eventually our eyesight goes. Our bodies fail us. But we can still live beautiful lives with great courage, the help of others, flexibility and laughter.
One of my amazing cousins has been giving me jobs to do lately for his Happiness Project. I get points for completing his tasks and, if I win, he’ll donate a hundred dollars to the charity of my choice. Because I’ve enjoyed his latest assignment so much, I thought I’d share it here.
Here’s the assignment: “Hope: Post an article that gives you hope for the future each day for five (5) days and what it is about the article that gives you hope.”
The secret lives of happy looking teachers following their artistic dreams give me hope that I can have a profession and a vocation just for the joy of it.
This video give me hope because the people in it are making beautiful things out of something I had only thought of as a blight. People are so amazing. A sea chair! And it’s open sourced so I could join.
Plus…the fisherman remind me of my grandpa the Swede. I can almost taste his smoked salmon and smell the salt sea air.
This video gives me hope along with Zamperini’s story by Laura Hillenbrand. I am in awe of how much Zamperini endured and not only survived but thrived afterward. I am filled with hope at the thought of all the others contributing their stories to this project. (Even though I know Universal Pictures is probably thinking at least a little about their bottom line as a motivation.)
And, as a writer, I feel a glimmer of hope that I could write a story that meant as much as Hillenbrand’s did to me.
This article on dailygood.com gives me hope because I’ve been swimming in writing procrastination. Judging myself is not working out all that well for me. I think I’ll give the self-compassion a whirl instead.
(This one got many cracks in comments about putting things off. It seems to me that we all put things off to some degree or other. Laughing at ourselves about it may be a form of self-compassion the article hadn’t considered.)
I met my professor from Western Washington University last weekend. It was wonderful to see the person who taught me to teach. This last article for Wayne’s project fills me with hope for all the teachers out there who get to hear how great they are. I’m also intrigued about the questions about what makes great teaching and how to get there.
As a bonus, I’m adding this voting video by Hank Green. It gives me tremendous hope to think that people of all ages might listen to him and choose to participate. And he’s also hilarious. Something about hilarious people gives me hope, too.
Two weeks ago Morf Morford used those words as he told his story right before I had to get up under the lights. Although I can’t find the person he was quoting, somehow the thought calmed me when I sat shivering in my chair in the middle of a dark audience, contemplating getting up in front of a crowd on the Drunken Telegraph, an amazing community story telling organization in Tacoma. It was my hope that the crowd would love me through that blinding stage light and the story I felt driven to tell.
I discovered a while back that I need an audience. A part of me worries that this makes me a ham. But I’m betting that we all need an audience, large or small — someone to witness us and push us to do things a notch or two higher than we would without anyone watching. Dan Blank, a writing and marketing coach, recently said writers fear apathy much more than we fear criticism. “The reality is that the WORSE thing is that you create and share something, and no one even notices.”
It’s true that I can practice by myself. I can write stories, knit doggie sweaters, bake squash or play Adagio on my clarinet without anyone watching. And sometimes this is best so that I can safely make the multitude of mistakes that I need to make in order to improve.
But I also need the pressure of knowing someone is watching or will be watching in order to push myself to get better.
This is what happened to me on that stage. I had been trying to tell a story about my experiences in an animal shelter for twenty years. It wasn’t until I had the pressure of getting up in front of an audience that I could tell the story and find the meaning in it. The relief of getting the story out was tremendous and only possible because I had to face the fire of getting the story told on a deadline with people watching.
So I keep posting to the blog, playing my clarinet in the community band, and standing in front of students even when my face feels so red hot I could start a fire with their textbooks.
I do it because it makes me better and it makes me feel more alive. I’m so grateful to the love of the listeners, students and readers. I could not do it without them.
Before I read her words, I had been stuck on what to post and, honestly, stuck on whether to write all together. I was even having Negative Nellie give it up thoughts. And those thoughts felt like an even deeper black hole.
Molly’s idea of play rung a bell somewhere just below my suprasternal notch (Can you tell I’m studying with the nurses in my day job? The notch is the dip in the middle of the collar bones.)
As I said, I’ve been feeling off. My teaching job lasted clear into mid August this year. By the time my students and I wrapped up the essays and grammar finals, the back to school sales were about over. My son started tennis tryouts a week later. I got exactly one weekend to go camping with the kids and that was the one weekend in August that it rained. Like Noah needed to come and rescue us.
And my writing routine always takes a whack when I’m out of the teaching groove. For four weeks I could write much more but, as almost always happens, I ended up writing less. The wide open space flattens my pen, I guess.
And then my work schedule changed these past two weeks as school life got going again. I used to work Monday through Thursday with Friday clearly marked as a play day.
Now it’s Tuesday through Friday with Monday for play. Something about Friday is so much more intrinsically free. Friday feels like barbecues and rowdy people wearing Seahawks jerseys. Monday feels more like cubicles and fluorescent lights.
I’d been thinking I needed that play back. Here’s a video of a writer who knows how to play better than some of the kids:
Maybe I need to be more like him and open a non profit with a pirate store at the front. Or convince kids that wasting fruit leads to invasive melons. I bet if I let myself think on it, I could come up with even wilder ideas.
In the meantime, I’ve let myself do some more down-to-earth playing. Sometimes these larks have nothing to do with my stories. Like Molly, I knit. I go for walks with my family, I paint pumpkins, I scour Pinterest for projects and then do a few of them. I paint. I cook. I play my clarinet.
And sometimes, after realizing with a head smacking ‘duh’ that writing needs play, too, I wrap fun into that work. I craft temari balls because they are in my story, I surf for pictures of my characters and paste them into the art book I’ve created for my novel in progress. I go to places my characters would be. And it’s fun. And the work gets better. Not just easier to do but better. Even the play that has nothing to do with my projects somehow zaps new life into the words I scratch on paper or punch out on the screen.
We all know by now that children need to play to learn and grow. I need reminders sometimes that I’m not all that different from the children I write for and about.
And so, I say, hurray. Hurray, hurray, hurray for play. (This is borrowed liberally from Dr. Seuss and The Eye Book — another good source of play.)
If you’ve got a moment, I’d love to know what you do just for the fun of it. I’m asking partly because I’d love to get more ideas and partly because I’ve noticed in writing this that I find joy in the mere thought of frivolous fun. I’m betting you will, too.
Question of the week: How do you reclaim a place with memories of sorrow?
I recently read a piece by Martha Beck on how to mentally rewrite your tragedies so that you can find meaning even in the random badness that sometimes happens to us. In the case Beck describes, a woman is able to find meaning in a car accident so that she doesn’t have to stay stuck in fear or sadness. This seemed a good idea at the time I read the article. Now I’m considering how to apply the idea to a Sad Thing that recently happened.
I am looking for this meaning because a death ruined my favorite running route. In fact, most of my running routes are ruined because the Sad Thing happened on a road I run which all of my routes stem from or lead toward. This road is like a spine with arms that grow from it or like the trunk of a tree that that lead to the branches of the other roads I follow.
I was running down this road on one of the terrific evening runs I sometimes experience. The weather was pleasantly warm, the air was turning fall crisp and my feet were flying. At that best of moments when I had almost crested the top of the hill on my tree trunk road, a crow flapped out at me from nearly under my left foot.
After jumping up and over, my heart beating harder than it had from the hill, I stopped to take a closer look. My tree trunk road was not a main road but cars kept zipping past. The young crow flapped its wings uselessly each time, unable to get up off the grass and gravel where it sat, one foot splayed out to the side.
I stood to the side wracking my brains for what could be done for the little guy. His eyes were bright. He was clearly young though full sized and clearly stuck in this sad place where the cars came far too close and too often.
I googled with the phone I had just been using for Pandora, but wildlife rehab places are few and far between and not open after 7:00pm.
Finally, I sprinted home to call a relative who knows birds. He wisely and kindly told me that there wasn’t much to do and that the fellow crows would likely take care of him. I tried to relax and went to bed only slightly achy from the sprint and the thought of leaving the crow in the dark.
The next day after taking my kids to school I drove back thinking I would check on the crow to see if I could find a way to help him.
I found him still alert but not flapping. He’d run out of energy. And there was nothing I knew to do, so I again tried the rehab center who kindly told me to drive him there. I did. He was paralyzed and had to be put to sleep. Maybe he had been hit by a car. Maybe he fell out of the tree while trying to fly. Anyway, he’s gone.
I suppose I’m hoping that by writing this post, I’ll be able to run past that spot again. I’m not sure if it’s a way of making meaning or just, as I have sometimes done, a way of cleansing a spot with painful memories. I know I’m not alone in the need for this. Associated Ministries in Tacoma will often bless the sites of violent crimes.
Although my crow death might be small in the scheme of things, I am thinking that finding a practice of letting go of pain is something with which everyone can find a connection. Here’s to another fabulous run in my future and to peace for us all.
Warning: The open letter is full of spoilers. If you haven’t read the book, be warned.
Dear John Green,
Darn you. Darn you for writing a book that made me cry out loud.
Darn you for writing a book that kept my behind stuck in the chair on a day off when I should have been cleaning, so when the neighbor came over to give me his garden fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, he had to look away from the sight of my entryway.
Darn you for writing the things about the Battle and the Fight against cancer which is a part of our own bodies. I have been thinking those things since my dad died “when the cancer, which was made of him, finally stopped his heart, which was also made of him.” I could not find the words that you did through Hazel.
Darn you for writing a book so true that now I must miss Hazel and Augustus, too.
Darn you for your brilliance, courage and humanity that you are able to use so well.
Darn you for getting me to care so much about a story that my heart aches.
Darn you. Having this as a library book won’t be enough. I’ll need to buy it.
And darn you for becoming so deservedly popular that you don’t answer your mail. Not even from your mother. If I sent this to you directly, it would only end up in a slush pile like Van Houten’s. Darn you for that, too.
In reality, you can substitute ‘thank’ for all the ‘darns’ in this letter. But, honestly, as I stood stunned in my kitchen after Augustus died, I first thought, “D*#% you.” You left a scar with this book, Mr. Green. It’s not a scar I regret having. I like my choice to read your book. But that scar is deep, and it is still tender.