Writing Prompt: Cancer Center

I pull up to the circle drive, and a nice young man opens my door and hands me a ticket. He whisks my car away, free of charge, and I am left at the entrance. The big rotating glass door has ample room as it slowly opens on a bright and open lobby. The serene sound of a bubbling exotic fish tank and peaceful music from a woman at a black baby grand piano makes this a luxurious experience. The front desk is large and marble, and I feel like I am at some posh hotel downtown. It smells faintly like some designer fragrance, clean and floral but simple and subtle, like something new and fresh and happy. This place is like a spa; I am calm and relaxed.

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Which is odd, because this is the cancer center. I suspect none of the visitors feel calm or relaxed. But I suppose that’s the point of the fish tank, the music, the fragrance–to ease the tension, to help people forget where they really are.

There is a coffee counter in every waiting room. I’m not sure what is comforting about having access to coffee in a waiting room, but it works. It reminds me of meeting my mother after baton practice; her Al-Anon meeting was at the same time in the same building. When I stuck my head in the door and the meeting was over, people were always corralled around the coffee counter, helping themselves to one last comforting cup before heading out and facing cold reality.

People coping with the same affliction, no matter how different their lives, their ages, their beliefs, gathering together anonymously to find some kind of healing for their trauma–this waiting room is another version of that.

Sitting on the lush leather couch, waiting for my name to be called, I often forget we’re all victims of cancer. People who look perfectly healthy get called before I do, and I wonder what their story is. And then I wonder what they think when they see me there, too.

*Have you ever visited a place where it looked completely different than you expected it to? Set your timer and write.*

Me, too

A couple years ago, I was out for a walk in my neighborhood. I was walking on the sidewalk of a busy street, and many cars drove by me. A favorite empowering song of mine came through my headphones and I started to walk to the beat of the song. Then I started to sway my hips as I walked. My chest puffed out, my head lifted. I felt powerful. I felt strong. I felt alive.

Then a large man on a motorcycle drove by and honked at me.

There is a possibility that he recognized this power in me and honked in uplifting “you go, girl!” encouragement.

But the real possibility is that he saw me swaying my hip, and that made him think of sex, and so he honked at me as a sign that he was sexually attracted to me and he wanted me to know it.

That didn’t make me feel powerful. It did the opposite. With his one honk, this stranger interfered in my personal moment to make what I was doing no longer about me but about him and what he wanted.

It may have been a “harmless” honk. After all, one second later, he was gone. I didn’t know who he was. He didn’t pull over and try to rape me. Why should I take his honk so personally?

Because women live in a world where they are viewed by men as sexual objects.

No, not every man views every woman as a sexual object. But overall, men view women as sexual objects.

And when men honk, or catcall, or make inappropriate jokes, or inappopriate contact, or force themselves on us in one way or another, they “remind” us of our “place” in this world. They take away our power and steal it for themselves.

**There is no woman alive in America today who has not at one time in her life been sexually harrassed or sexually assualted.**

This is fact. This is not opinion.

There may be a woman or two who says this has never happened to her. She is lying. Either she is too ashamed that it is happened or she is too brainwashed by society that she does not realize it has happened to her.

Sexual harassment can be as small as an uninvited honk, an unsolicited wolf whistle, an obvious glance at my breasts.

“What’s the big deal?” men (and women) will ask. Perhaps some women may say that makes that feel attractive, that they like the attention.

The big deal is that small interactions like this set the precedent for the bigger assaults, the violence that women face from men every day, the fear that has us looking over our shoulders as we walk to our cars at night.

And it starts when we’re children. We’re told that when princes come to rescue Snow White and Sleeping Beauty with a kiss, it’s romantic. But it’s not. It’s sexual assault. These princes are near strangers to these women, and they didn’t ask permission before they made a sexual advance. If it’s uninvited, it’s harassment or assault.

In elementary school, I faced sexual harassment from a drunk uncle who insisted on my giving him a kiss.

In middle school, a boy I liked exposed himself to me in his kitchen. I told him I didn’t want to see that and to put it away, but he refused.

In college, I was kissing a friend when he forced his hand down my pants; when I told him no, he continued his advances until I stormed out of his apartment.

After college, a friend forced me on the ground, got on top of me, and tried to make me kiss him.

These were men I knew, who knew me, who I was close to, and they still felt entitled to do these things. Imagine what a stranger feels entitled to do.

Men use sex to feel powerful over women, and it works, because they make us feel ashamed by what we’ve experienced and afraid that it (or something worse) will happen again. And it’s not a matter of “if” it happens again; it’s “when.”

One day I was walking to work and it was nice out and I was happy, so as I passed a man waiting for the bus, I impulsively decided to be Midwestern friendly, and I said hello. And he made a sexual comment in return. And I rolled my eyes. But I kept walking. It didn’t feel safe to stop and tell him how his actions were wrong.

A woman cannot even smile at a strange man without the man thinking she is sexually attracted to him.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take a smile. In fact, sometimes, a woman can be wearing the biggest “fuck off” sign on her head and still suffer sexual harassment.

I was in my car at a stoplight, and in my peripheral vision, I saw a car pull up next to me, window to window. I had a feeling it was trouble, so I stayed staring at the glowing red light. Yet I felt a burning gaze in my direction. So I turned my head just a touch so I could see, and there was a man hanging out of the window making kissy faces at me. I had not enticed him whatsoever. When I finally looked, he was already in the act of making kissing faces at me. He didn’t wait for my permission. He didn’t even wait for me to be involved. I was trying to shut him out completely and yet his sexual harassment still found its way into my life.

When I lived in the city, if I was walking by myself and I was approaching a man, I’d switch sides of the road. It wasn’t worth the risk to get that close to a strange man. Who knows what he may do.

I’m older now. My skin is more worn. My hair isn’t as shiny. I am usually carting around a baby. I had a brush with death, so now I am more positive and friendly. When I walk on the trails by my house, I smile and say hello to all the men I pass–old, young, fit, fat, well-off, or homeless-looking. And most of the time, I don’t look over my shoulder and make sure they’ve continued on their way. But I still think about doing that every time. Because experience has taught me it doesn’t matter what I look like or what he looks like or what I do. Sexual harassment is always a possibility.

I pray that by talking about it like this, by actively acknowledging it, by breaking our silence, women can change this.

I pray that my daughter can walk confidently down the street without worry.

Writing Prompt: Sirens

Whenever I hear sirens, I think of Sister Liska, the older-than-dirt nun from my childhood parish (may she rest in peace). She’d tell us, “Whenever you hear sirens, say a prayer for whoever is in trouble.” And for a long time, that’s exactly what I did. But then I moved to the city and the sirens were too frequent. So many emergencies, fires, heart attacks, homicides–too difficult to pray for them all. Besides, praying didn’t seem to accomplish anything. Sirens kept wailing day in and day out; people kept hurting, kept dying. My prayers were ineffective. So I stopped praying. Then I stopped believing.

We won’t baptize our child, a fact that hurts my mother’s heart, something I’m sure she’ll never forgive us for. But we can’t bring up a child teaching them to love God when we not only don’t love God but don’t believe there is a God to love.

Our child will know religion. As a graduate of literature, I recognize the important role religion plays in our culture, in our history, in our texts. Our child will know the stories. “But will they just be stories?” my mother asks. Yes. That is what they are. That is all that they are.

And yet I mourn. I have deep affection for my Catholic upbringing. I was shaped by my church experience. My child will not know the pride of first communion, the stress of the first (and every) confession, the enjoyment of Friday Lenten fish fries, the camaraderie of teen Bible study, the comfort of the guitar choir on Sunday mornings. But that is my past. My child will have a different past. Different isn’t always bad.

I mourn that I will no longer be a part of that community. Already it’s fading. The responses have changed; they say “and with your spirit” instead of “and also with you.” The music is different. They use piano now and sing songs with lyrics I don’t know by heart. What was wrong with the way it was? What is the Catholic Church if it doesn’t have its tradition? It’s that tradition I was always most in love with, the comfort of coming home, a place where the door was always unlocked, where everything was just as you left it, where you could feel like a small child again whenever you visited.

But like a child who grows up, moves out, and find a place of her own, she can never truly go home, as Thomas Wolfe would say, “back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time.” Nothing can stay the same, not even the Catholic Church, not even faith.

But sirens still sound.

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*What do you think of when you hear sirens? Get out your timer and start writing.*

Las Vegas

I sat on the dining room floor with my 13-month-old daughter. The slider door was open and fresh air wafted through the screen. She pressed the button on her musical toy and it played one of its regular melodies, but she looked out onto the backyard and our neighborhood. I handed her a piece of waffle, and she accepted it and put it in her mouth. I rested my head on the door and watched her chew thoughtfully.

This is so wonderful, I thought. Life is so good. I am so lucky.

I scooped her up, grabbed my coffee from the counter, and moved us into the living room. I opened the curtains and turned on the television. Instead of the normal cheeriness and upbeat music that often defines “The Today Show,” blood red graphics splattered the screen. They read “Mass Shooting in Las Vegas.” Matt Lauer reported more than 50 people were dead. Savannah Guthrie’s wide eyes and frowned lips spoke louder than her voice. Another tragedy. Another large group of innocent people were dead.

This on the heels of not one, not two, but three devastating hurricanes in the course of a month, leaving island nations leveled, people homeless, more innocent people dead.

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I admit, I felt instantly guilty about my happiness when I saw the news that morning. Here I was waking up to love, to comfort, to safety, to a day at home with my sweet and precious child, when so many were waking up to heartbreak, to injury, to trauma, to no more days at home with their sweet and precious children.

It’s a hard balance to find–how to be happy when so many sad things are happening around us. Even if we are able to find that happiness, it may lead to guilt. “Why do I get to be happy when so many others don’t get that chance?”

I’ve spent much of the past seven weeks since my cancer diagnosis focusing on myself, figuring out how I can move on to a healthier, happier life. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve even been capable of taking on the burden of the tragedies that have happened around me. Again, here I feel guilt, because I have the choice, where those involved in Las Vegas and those who were in the paths of the hurricanes had no choice, have no choice on whether or not they can take on the burden. They take on the burden every second of every day as they attempt to piece their lives back together.

Yet everyone’s loss and devastation is relative. I was talking with a friend yesterday whose mother lives in Puerto Rico. When I asked how her mother was doing, she said she was doing good, surprisingly. Her house weathered the storm–luckily, she lives where there’s some elevation, so she didn’t really have to worry about flooding. She doesn’t have running water, but my friend sent her a bunch of water filters before the storm hit, so she can use those. She doesn’t have power, but she has a generator, though it runs on propane and costs her $30 a day to run. But compared to many others on the island, she is not doing bad at all. Things could be much worse. Things are much worse for many of her fellow islanders.

I am not a religious person, so I have no God to blame. I don’t believe that a greater being is picking on Puerto Rico or has a vendetta against the 58 that were killed in Las Vegas. Last week I learned that someone I knew in high school also had cancer and died from it. My first initial thought was, “Why her and not me? Why am I special? Why did I get to live?” I’m sure that is a question everyone asks sometime or another. I’m sure that’s a question my friend’s mother asks. I’m sure that’s a question the thousands of people who got to live in Las Vegas ask.

But in my opinion, we are not special. We are just lucky. It could have been me instead of her. Of course it could have. Some random event in time or some random bodily function somehow made my cancer more detectable, more survivable than hers. Some random event in time, some random bodily function saved thousands of people in Las Vegas. Pure dumb luck.

Even if you are religious and you believe God has a plan that you couldn’t possibly know, there’s a certain lack of control involved. You can’t control luck. You can’t control God. This is what happens and you can’t do anything to change it.

And yet we feel sad for those who die for no reason. And we feel guilty for not only getting to live our lives, but to prosper at them.

So how do we make sense of this? How do we assuage our guilt? Are we allowed to be happy with so many horrifying things happening around us?

It’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that we can’t control others. As still a newish parent, not being able to control my daughter is a lesson I feel like I have to learn every day. So I start with myself. I can control what I do. I can convince myself to be patient when she’s acting up, but I can’t stop her from acting up. I can give her all the tools she needs to fall asleep at night, but I can’t make her sleep. I can provide her with a safe home, but I can’t keep harm from ever coming to her.

The same can be said for the world. I can’t stop mentally unstable or racist people from opening fire on a crowd of innocent people, but I can be vocal about my desire to have stronger gun laws and more available mental health care. I can’t stop a hurricane from destroying an island, but I can be wise about my own carbon footprint, encourage others to be more conscious about their environmental practices, and make my state representatives know I want them to pay attention to climate change. I can’t keep cancer from coming back, but I can take better care of myself.

So I suppose my sadness for horrible things happening around the world could serve as a catalyst for change. I hope it does, anyhow. I hope people are watching the news footage and feeling sad, because that means they care about their fellow man. And if they care, maybe they’ll want to try to stop more bad things from happening, even if we can’t stop ALL bad things from happening.

I turned off the television and picked up my daughter, giving her a big kiss and a happy smile. Today we are safe and we are happy. My love for her fills my heart. But the sadness around the world stays on my mind.

Writing Prompt: In the Rain

Running clothes on, baby in arms. I’m ready to go. Just need to close the back door.

Wet deck. Rain falling. Crap.

What do I do now? Forgo my efforts at exercise? Resign to being trapped inside?

Rain traps us in our homes, in our cars, in our offices. It keeps us from living our lives.

Not today. It’s not raining that hard. What am I so scared of? We won’t melt.

Baby is wrapped in a blanket, snug in her stroller with her favorite toy. I click the start button on my watch and venture out into the rain.

The wetness quickly accumulates on my shirt and in my hair. Droplets stream down my face and settle into the creases of my eyelids. I feel as though I’ve just surfaced after diving into a swimming pool. One hand pushes the stroller, one hand wipes my eyes. Perspiration steams from my head while new moisture collects on my forehead.

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My daughter’s music box hums hollow tones of familiar classical melodies as my sneakers squeak on the wet pavement. Tiny raindrops tinkle on the plastic stroller cover as they shiver off of nearby tree limbs. I smell rotting leaves and wet grass and clean air as I push on.

An oncoming car drives by me. I wonder if they’re juding my parenting. What kind of mother brings her baby out in the rain? Their judgements stay trapped with them inside their car. I owe them no explanation. I smile faintly and wave politely. Could have been my middle finger. The message is the same. Meanwhile, my baby, warm and dry, looks at the passing world silently.

The sky starts to brighten, its dark blue turning more of a light gray. The rain is so slight, I can’t feel it hit my skin anymore. I am somewhat disappointed. The rain challenged me; it dared me to keep going as it soaked through my clothes and clouded my view, as it threatened to soak my innocent baby, as it embarrassed me to passing spectators. But I didn’t give in. And in turn, it rewarded me with a refreshing rinse, a reminder of life, a fresh fall kiss on my face.

*When was the last time you were caught in the rain? Was it on purpose or accident? Did it ruin your day or make it? Set your timer and write about it.*

Finding Mindfulness

As a mom of a 13 month old daughter, I’m usually starting to get ready for bed at 9pm. But, last Thursday night, after I left the library at 8pm, instead of heading home for a nightcap and an early bedtime, I drove downtown for a yoga event conducted by [Funky Buddha Yoga Hothouse](http://yogahothouse.com/). I used to be an avid member there, and I remain a big fan of their yoga practice, but for many reasons, it doesn’t fit into my lifestyle at the moment. So imagine my excitement when I found out they were hosting a free event at a time where I wouldn’t need to worry about a babysitter. Plus, they really knew how to market it—nighttime, outside, on a bridge, under a LASER SHOW, and of course, FREE. Sign me up.

I’ve been wanting to get back into a yoga practice for a while now, and even more so since recent life events. I like Funky Buddha’s practice of flowing with the breath, changing your movements and holding poses with each inhale and exhale. It really allows me to focus and I love the fluidity of the practice. I was really looking forward to experiencing it again.

When I arrived, the pedestrian bridge was full. There were three long lines of yoga mats stretching the entire length. It was unseasonably warm—82 degrees—but with the breeze off the river, the humidity was barely noticeable (not that it mattered, since Funky Buddha specializes in hot yoga, so many were familiar with practicing in humidity). The sky was pitch black above us; any stars were drowned out by the city’s light pollution. Across the water on the bank of the river, a suppressed bass thumped from music playing outside at the J.W. Marriott hotel, barely discernable over the voices of 400 chatting yogis.

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The event coincided with the beginning of what’s called Art Prize here in Grand Rapids, an international art contest that the public can vote on, with a winning jackpot of a couple hundred thousand dollars. Art completely takes over the city, filling every restaurant, every hotel, every grassy knoll, every empty wall.

The only thing there is more of than art is people. Art Prize is often loathed by locals for stopping up traffic and flooding our favorite weekend hangouts with tourists. There are tons of people everywhere all day long, including 9pm on a pedestrian bridge in the middle of the city.

Granted, we all signed up for a unique yoga experience (I did say there would be LASERS), but I’m not sure we all realized the sheer number of Average Joes walking through the practice. Any time I picked up my head in Upward-facing Dog, I was met with shoes and ankles of strangers, and as I held my Downward-facing Dog, I prayed an oncoming bike would not run over my fingertips.

The passersby seemed just as surprised to see us as we were to see them. Many of them felt compelled to shout strange things, mock our posturing, or tell jokes as they walked through 400 chair poses, most likely as a way to cope with the sudden interruption in their Art Prize gazing.

I’ll admit, I was rather annoyed by these intruders. We were trying to have a mindful, focused practice, and they were intentionally trying to screw that up. But if it’s anything I’ve come to realize lately, it was just as much their right to be loud and distracting as it was our right to be deep breathing and posing. We were, after all, in a public space. We had no claim to the space, no more of a right to be there then they did. Why they found it so compelling to be so disrupting, I don’t know, but they were free to be that way if they so wished.*

Now the above rationalization is not typical me. Typical me would clutch onto my annoyance with white knuckles. “Who raised these people to be so disrespectful? What is wrong with the world today that people think this is an appropriate way to behave when people are gathering together for a shared and positive goal? Why is there no common courtesy anymore?” These are the kinds of questions I’d normally fume over silently in my brain.

But if I’ve learned anything in my four years of therapy, it’s that I have absolutely no control over what other people do. I can be upset about it, but that won’t change anything. So why bother being upset about it?

The sooner I came to realize these “trespassers” had just as much right to be there as I did and the sooner I came to realize that I couldn’t control their behavior once they were there, I was able to let go of those destructive, infuriating thoughts. I still noticed the interruptions, but instead of letting them steal my focus, they became part of the experience. Much like the wind blowing off the river and over the bridge, voices, footsteps, bike wheels, dog sniffs all came and went, like part of a musical composition I had never heard before. I never knew what to expect but somehow it all flowed together.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about meditation and mindfulness lately, because I know many view those ideas as valuable practices in a well-rounded healthy life. In fact, some doctors say they are so valuable, they may even keep cancer from returning. One book I read talked about the intimidation people feel when starting a meditation practice; newbies never feel like they’re doing it right because they can’t “stop thinking.” But meditation is not about stopping thought. Rather, it’s about existing in a moment instead of zoning out, lost in your own thoughts.

At the end of the practice, as we all laid on our backs in shavasana, I became mindful of the moments around me. I felt the hard concrete under my mat, the blackness of the sky above, the soft breeze twisting through my frizzy hair, the thump of strangers’ footsteps, the bright colors of the lasers, the deep breathing of 400 people doing the same thing I was.

It all felt so real and so connected. We were all existing together. We were all equal.

I wasn’t sure what the purpose of meditation and mindfulness would be. But now I realize that, by being truly present, I am much more open to acceptance—of people, of events, of myself.

*While I didn’t start this blog post with the intention of relating it back to the #TakeaKnee movement, I can’t help but notice some of the similarities. I don’t want to get up on a soapbox (goodness knows I’m not qualified to talk about minority injustice in this country), but I will say that the greatest part of being an American is our individual freedoms. The ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia was just lifted this week. Women did not have the right to drive; if they drove, they would be fined, FLOGGED, and/or jailed. They still don’t have freedom when it comes to driving; they still need permission from a male relative to drive, and they can only drive within city limits. I love living in a country where I know I have just as many rights as anyone else, where I don’t have to ask permission to do something. And that’s all the NFL players were doing—exercising their right to peacefully protest without having to ask permission. And while I think it’s important to talk about the meaning of that protest and how to move forward from it, I hope people will soon acknowledge that there is no question about whether what they did was right or wrong. They didn’t need to ask permission. It’s their right to do what they want to do.*

Writing Prompt: Tattoos

I have always imagined my grandmother as a bird. She died when I was 5 years old from breast cancer. My mother said she was always looking down on us; I didn’t understand much about angels, but angels had wings and birds had wings, and I liked the idea of Grandma sitting in the trees, silently guarding, then spreading her wings and flying away. I often wanted to spread my wings and fly away, too. What I wouldn’t give to transform into a bird and fly away with my grandmother.

When I was 22 years old, I was lost and confused and unsure where my life was headed. I still yearned to sprout feathers and take flight, so that I might find my grandmother and she could tell me what to do. Instead, I tattooed a bird on my back so that I wouldn’t have to look for her in the sky anymore. I would always have her with me.

I have always had deception in my life. My father told me he’d do anything for me, but he wouldn’t stop drinking. My mother told me women could do anything, but she didn’t believe she could. I told everyone that I was fine, but I wasn’t. My first real relationship consisted of lies, secrets, manipulation, and even illegal activity.

When I was 23 years old, I lived in Italy for a summer. I started to learn who I truly was. Then I finally met a man who was honest, and I learned the power and the value of truth. I inscribed the Italian word “veritas”–“truth”–in red ink on my ankle, as a promise to myself that I would always speak the truth and demand the truth from others, a promise that continues to be difficult, but all the more important, to uphold.

I have always believed in living each day as if it were my last, but I never understood how to do that until I met my mortality head-on. Now I know balance is the best way to suck the marrow from life; balance reminds me to take opportunities as they arise, but to take care of myself so I have more days to seize. Balance gets me off the couch and out in the world, living and breathing deeply, giving thanks for each day I get to live, even if it turns out to be my last.

Now I’m 33 years old. The next tattoo that I scratch into my skin will remind me of this message of balance, that life is short but it can be longer and more enjoyable if we just take the initiative to make it so.

These tattoos do not define me but they do make up significant parts of who I am. I wear them proudly so that others may see my life journey, know the hardships I have faced and the challenges I survived, and in turn, perhaps have courage to face their own.

![](/content/images/2017/09/tattoo.jpg)

*What tattoos do you have? Why did you get them? If you get a tattoo, what would it be and why? Set your timer and write.*

Writing Prompt: Bucket List

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**Write a book.** I should think this one was the most obvious. It’s not just the promise of becoming rich and famous, for there are plenty of published authors who are neither of those things. It’s more about the act of writing it, or more so, the act of completing it. I have written a 110-page Master’s Thesis–I KNOW I can write a book; I know I’m capable of writing that much. It’s just that this time, the content is my life, which makes the whole thing quite a bit more intimidating for more reasons than one.

**Learn Italian.** True, Spanish would be a much more appropriate second language for me to learn. It has a lot more use in the U.S. But there is something about Italian that I can’t shake–the cadence, the musicality, the prestige. In my opinion, it’s the most beautiful language of them all. I’ve been to Italy three times, and I still don’t know Italian. The second time I visited, I was there six weeks, and when I left, I could place a deli order all in Italian, but that was about it. The third time I visited, I could have somewhat of a conversation with an Italian, but we were both drunk and no one remembered what either person said the next day anyhow. No, the next time I’m in Italy (and there will be a next time), I will converse with Italians in their native language.

**Learn piano.** I was talking with my cousin recently about what hobbies we used to have in high school and college that we regret letting fall to the wayside. And while I don’t necessary regret not continuing with the flute (there are few occassions when gathered around a bonfire with friends that someone wishes there was a flautist there to provide some tunes), I do miss being able to produce music. For the last decade, I have had the dream of sitting down at my Dad’s piano at Christmastime and suprising everyone by playing carols. I’d like to see that dream become reality someday.

**Perform a dance.** Dancing in a crowd is not the same as dancing *for* a crowd. Whether it be with just one other person in a ballroom or with a group of people on a stage, I want the added element of the audience watching and being moved by my moves. I want a chance to show off my hard work, my dedication, but most of all, my passion for dance.

**Continue to travel.** I want to see: the Grand Canyon, the redwood forests, the fall colors of New England, the dry deserts out west, Mayan ruins, Greece, Japan, Egypt, New Zealand, the rest of Europe. And I want to revisit the places that have left a mark on my heart: Iceland, Italy, Alaska, Hawaii. All these places and much much more.

I know none of these are all that risky or adventure-seeking. But these are the things that lay on my heart every day, the things that I’m most passionate about, the things I desire the most. What makes better material for a bucket list than the things you never stop wanting to do?

*What’s on your bucket list? Why those things? Set your timer and write*

Carpe Diem

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old Time is still a-flying
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying

Robert Herrick’s first stanza of “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” forever immortalized by literature collections and the fictional John Keating, played by Robin Williams, the hero of 1989’s Dead Poet Society,” is generally interpreted as a man trying to convince a woman to sleep with him, insisting that she should get all the enjoyment out of her good looks and youthful body before she ages, becomes undesirable, withers away, and dies. John Keating, however, found a more universal message for the poem—carpe diem. Seize the day. “We are food for worms, lads,” Keating professes, and because of that, he advises his students to make their lives extraordinary. We are all granted a specific amount of time, and some of us get more than others, but no one lives forever. John Keating and Robert Herrick share that undeniable truth as a reminder to their audiences that they “make much” with the time they’re given. The lesson is no less important in Herrick’s 1600s or Keating’s 1950s or in my 2010s.

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*Dead Poet’s Society* changed my life. I heard John Keating’s message loud and clear. Seize the day. Listen to your heart. Live your life with passion. Be extraordinary.

Shortly after discovering that masterpiece, I was introduced to another one. The summer before my senior year of high school, I attended a theatre camp, where one of my peers had me listen to a song from the musical *Rent,* and I heard John Keating’s words again, only this time in Jonathan Larson’s voice, a perspective more in line with my aspirations. Mark, Roger, Maureen—these were all people who “got it,” who lived authentically through their art no matter what stood in their way. And their friends, living with—living with—living with—not dying from disease knew how to live the credo “no day but today.”

The problem with being introduced to this idea as an adolescent, though, is that it’s a confusing concept to grasp, a concept that perhaps an adolescent isn’t capable of grasping in its entirety. Even Mark and Roger didn’t have it totally figured out. As a kid, I listened more to Mimi’s anthem to “Go OOOOOUT Tonight” than I did to Keating’s “Make your life extraordinary.” Heck, even Keating’s students didn’t get it at first. They equated “sucking the marrow out of life” to be pulling pranks on the headmaster, sneaking out to kiss girls, and defying your parents to join a play. Carpe diem to teenagers means doing what feels good in the moment.

And that’s exactly the message I took away. If I wanted to blow off homework and go hang with my friends—carpe diem! If I wanted to pass up a salad and eat ice cream for dinner—carpe diem! If I wanted to sit on the couch and watch tv all day—carpe diem! Whatever I felt like doing, I would do. Because when there’s no day but today, what does it really matter how you spend it? Might as well be happy, even if happiness only lasts for a moment.

It’s over a decade later, and I’m older and wiser and three weeks fresh from a cancer diagnosis. It may sound odd, but in eight years of marriage, I haven’t had a reason to drive to the other side of the state where my family lives by myself. My husband has always come with me. But now it was my brother’s birthday, and after just having a brush with my mortality and feeling rather compelled to spend time with my family, I decided to leave my husband at home with our bad-traveler daughter and hit the highway all alone.

It’s a two-hour trip, and one I used to make at least twice a month when I was in college. I’d pass the time by belting out soundtracks to all my favorite musicals—*Aida, Ragtime, Wicked, Phantom of the Opera,* and yes, *Rent.* Now on my own for the first time in a decade, I search for the *Rent* soundtrack on Spotify and hit “play.” I hear the opening tuning chords, and my memory flashes back in an instant. I have not heard the words in ten years, but I still know every one.

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As I sing along, the message feels different. “No day but today” no longer means “do what feels good right now.” There’s a good chance that interpretation is what caused my sickness in the first place—being lethargic, procrastinating, not practicing healthy habits. Angel, Roger, Collins, Mimi all have HIV; they know they’re living on borrowed time. So yeah, they do what feels good in the moment—they sleep with each other and party and protest and all that. But they also understand what it is that makes life worth living—love, love for each other, for their city, for every day they get to live again. In other words, I feel like they’re grateful, or if they’re not, they figure out how to be by the end of the play (I’m looking at you, Roger).

And I think that’s what changed in me this last month. I’m more grateful–grateful I get to live another day with my wonderful family in my wonderful city on this (mostly) wonderful planet. And being grateful helps me seize the day a little better, helps motivate me to make what’s left of my life, however long that may be, a little more extraordinary.

Writing Prompt: New Baby

I hold her tiny body in my arms. She is wrapped in a soft pink afghan. Her open mouth is hardly the size of a dime, and the bottom lip hangs loose in deep slumber, exposing pastel toothless gums. Her little head is the size of an apple, just as round and smooth, and her delicate olive skin just begs to be kissed, and I can’t keep myself from getting close and touching her cheek with my lips. She shivers and lets out a small sigh, then is still again, still as death, and the only way to tell she is alive is to listen closely for her tiny breath.

An almost impossible feat with my daughter in the room, drumming on the stiff hospital chairs, opening and closing a musical book, throwing her toys on the floor. She is gigantic in comparison–she has 20 pounds on her new cousin. My girl giggles and yips and she crawls all over the cold linoleum floor, begging for tickles, for hugs, for attention at the ankles of her family members.

I cannot believe that merely a year ago she was the size of the newborn in my arms, a size so small that it seems impossible she is even a person. But she breathes and she eats and she coos and she cries and she poops. She is a person, only just a fraction of the size.

I bounce my new niece gently without actually moving, and I say her name and tell her I love her, but all in hushed tones. She is sleeping soundly and solidly and no one wants to wake a sleeping newborn. We just want to watch her with amazement and acknowledge her perfection.

I pass the tiny baby to my husband, a maneuver we haven’t had to share between us for quite a few months, and we’re a little out of practice. Then I grab my daughter and she stands up on my knees. I hold her little hands, and she sways back and forth, giving me kisses when she gets close to my face. She giggles and smiles, and then she decides to sit down on my lap, and I bounce my knees so she bumps up and down. But then she gets tired of looking at and playing with Mommy and climbs back down to the floor to find someone else to entertain her. She is always moving, unlike her cousin, who lays still and silent in my husband’s arms.

*How did you feel when you held a newborn baby for the first time ever, the first time after having your own child, the first time in a long time? Set your timer and write.*