Words, wires, and worms

Wellness (Paths and Potions)

I’m lifting you up.

lifting-you-up

Your friend has cancer. Every genuine, heartfelt phrase you want to share sounds cliché and the more you delete and rewrite, the more your words become faded Hallmark sentiments. “How can I express to her how I’m feeling?”

Then you ask yourself, “What can I do? Should I call? No, she’s probably flooded with calls, but what if she thinks . . . ? Maybe I’ll pop in to check on her. No, what if her whole family . . . ? I’ll just text. But I need to do something. I’ll bring meals for the family. But what if someone already did?”

Struggling with these questions after you receive the news is a sign that you might be a truly supportive friend. Thoughtful words and gestures are a good beginning. Thoughtful awareness is an excellent delivery vehicle for your words and acts.

Over the past fifteen years, nineteen friends and close acquaintances have faced cancer. Eight died. Geography, level of intimacy, and personal circumstances were factors in the extent of my connection during their treatment and recovery. While my involvement varied greatly, the struggle with words and acts was a constant. No matter how close I am to the person, physically or personally, I want the things that I say and do to make a difference, even if as simple as a fleeting smile.

I ambitiously set out to write a list of dos and don’ts for interacting with a friend who has cancer. After reaching out to friends with cancer stories, I realized the futility of a concrete list. The perfect thing for one friend is the worst for another. What did come from my conversations and ruminations is this list of guidelines, two of which I touched on above, all of which are relevant to caring for friends in any difficult circumstance.

1. Check in.

Let your friend know that you’re thinking about her. If you decide not to call because her lines are flooded or you’re not sure what to say, send a card, an email, or a text. If you’re struggling with the words, let that struggle go and use the words you find. Even a short text that borders on cliché can make a difference to a friend who is going through a tough time.

Keep checking in. Your friend will be flailing through waves of emotions, physical hardships, and practical concerns throughout her treatment and beyond. Even if you’re not one of the primary people taking care of her, check in regularly to let her know you’re thinking of her or to offer help. When treatment is complete, check in some more. The emotional and physical impact of cancer treatments can linger well beyond the last treatment date.

2. Tune in.

Be thoughtful and aware. Each cancer journey is unique. One friend explained: “the most important thing is to remember that every person is different, and we all have different problems / obstacles / challenges, which means there is no single appropriate response.”

Tuning in is listening. If you ask: “How are you feeling?” or “How are you doing?”, listen to the response.

Tuning in is also practicing thoughtful awareness of your friend’s support network, personality, and receptiveness.

If your friend has a family or community support network, communicate with that network so that you’re not duplicating or hindering the efforts of others. If there is no “built-in” support network, team up with other friends to create one.

Your friend’s personality is your guideline for interactions. Is she stoic or does she need a little extra boost? Is she all business or does she enjoy a laugh? A little levity can be helpful, but only if she’s ready for it. During a chemo treatment, the art therapist told my friend, “You’re back! Remember me?” My friend responded no. The therapist asserted, “Yes, you were here last week,” which wasn’t true. After the fourth insistence, I responded, “Well, she’s got that bald thing going on. They all look alike, don’t they?” The art therapist stood stunned. My friend belly-laughed, and she was ready for that.

How communicative is your friend? Is she open to sharing details about her treatment and feelings? Give your friend a chance to open up if she wants, but don’t pry her for details she’s not ready to share.

3. Be specific about what you can do.

Spell out it out. Don’t carelessly toss your friend an extra burden: “Let me know if you need anything.” Specify: “Can I mow your lawn this weekend?” or “I’m available to run errands for you for two hours on Friday.”

Your friend may not know what she needs; even if she does, she may not reach out. Tuning in and being specific can help. I asked two questions in one afternoon:

“Can I get you anything from Costco?”

“No, I’m good.”

Fifteen minutes later:

“I’m at Costco. Do you need any salmon?”

“Yes, that would be great. And can you check to see if they have any LaCroix?”

In the end, my friend requested five things. After tuning in to her habit of responding, “No, I’m good,” I called back with a specific question. This helped her think through and verbalize what she needed.

4. Be a thoughtful visitor.

Don’t pop in. During treatment, your friend may feel weary and not particularly social or presentable. Call ahead, make sure it’s a good time, and specify how long you will stay. “I can visit for fifteen minutes tomorrow if you like. I’ll bring ice cream.”

Don’t linger. Be cognizant of how your friend is feeling when you arrive. She may not be up for the visit after all, or she may be feeling anxious and need the company. One friend explained that the fifteen- to twenty-minute visits from a friend with a listening ear and comfort food were the best.

Don’t react. Avoid: “This is just dreadful!”, “I can’t believe this is happening to you!”, or “This is a piece of cake! You can do it.” On the other hand, be open to and don’t sugarcoat the emotions your friend is feeling. Her fear and anxiety are part of her story. If she wants to share those, listen but don’t try to qualify them.

Don’t give medical advice. Well-intended advice is often annoying, even disturbing. If you have information that might be helpful, don’t discuss it. Simply share the website or the book. It’s not your place to prescribe or recommend treatments. Your friend will discuss those with her doctors.

Don’t vent or ramble about inconsequential events. This can be insulting to the friend you’ve come to visit. Sure, she may want to talk about something other than her cancer, but let the communication flow from your friend to you. If conversation stalls, ask about other things in her life. “How is Timmy doing in school?” “Is Olivia still playing soccer?” Or, just sit and allow the quiet presence of companionship.

5. Remember the primary caregivers.

Reach out to the primary caregiver. Although that spouse, sibling, or friend may have meals, errands, chores, and visitation perfectly coordinated, he or she may need some additional support. Check in to find out and offer specific things you can do.

6. Don’t try to own her cancer.

Respect the boundaries. Friends often rush in to help a sick friend. Don’t let that become a competition or complication. Coordinate your efforts, avoid squabbles and pettiness. What you do for your friend and your struggle to find the right things to say and do are valid, but that story is the sub-plot. This is her cancer story. It’s her cancer. Not yours. Quiet support is often the biggest expression of love.

Thanks to my friends who shared their cancer stories and whose thoughts helped me cobble together some guidelines. Specifically, thanks to these ladies.

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Jane with her dad and brother shortly after surgery

lifting-up-mim-1

Mim and her husband, both of whom faced cancer

lifting-up-patti

Patti with her two children

lifting-up-lisa-1

Lisa with her sister, who was with her every step of the way

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Figs and Promises

I can count on this promise.

I can count on this promise.

My fig tree always keeps its promises.

Sometimes I break promises. Not intentionally. My intentions are to keep any promise I make.

Nevertheless, on occasion my intentions slip away from me.

I wait too long to pick the figs.

Maybe I pick the figs but don’t make the jam or freeze the fruit before the figs develop a second coat of fuzz and collapse into brown fermenting mush.

Then, for completely unreliable, there are years when the weeks of fig laden drooping branches fall off my calendar before I pick a single fig.

I can count on the fig tree. It can’t always count on me.

To be fair, I have a lot more going on than my fig tree and its fruit. Yet this spread-thin life that leads to broken promises bugs me. Promises, like deadlines, suffer a lexical erosion when we pile our days high but spread ourselves thin. This is a trend in many work environments and, to me, the trend feels infectious.

I don’t want the trend to spill into the pool of promises I make to friends, family, and myself. So this is my checklist for personal and friendly promises.

Making a promise
  • Be thoughtful. In other words, avoid hasty promises, whether to a friend, to a colleague, or to yourself.
  • Be realistic. Part of the thoughtfulness includes a reality check. If your promise involves time, check your calendar. If it involves money, check your wallet. If it involves your physical and emotional energy, check in with yourself. Avoid making promises you know you can’t keep. Being that can-do hero is not always prudent.
  • Do your best. If you make a promise, do your best to keep it.  Suddenly in over your head? Having a change of heart? I don’t advocate the hell or high water route. Sometimes the best we can do is circle back to reevaluate, redefine, or, if necessary, retract a promise.
Oops! The birds ate all of the figs before you picked a single one. What now?
  • Be honest. If you can’t keep the promise, admit it. Everyone at some point in life has to bail on something for some reason. The key to right relationship in those situations is not the goodness or badness of the reason, but the communication. Let anyone else involved know. Sometimes the only person involved is you. Yes, be honest with yourself.
  • Be forgiving. If you’ve been thoughtful, realistic, and honest and you’ve done your best and it still doesn’t work out, the broken promise isn’t a lie. You stumbled and scraped a knee. Don’t rub salt into the wound.

Dear fig tree:

I am grateful for your deliciously extravagant promises and I know you will deliver. 

I hope to harvest gallons and gallons of your fruit, infuse my jams and sauces with their sweet complexity, freeze what I can’t jam into jars for the slower days. I can’t promise how much I’ll pick, how many jars I’ll can, or how many bags I’ll freeze. But I promise to do my best.

I’m looking forward to the next round of figs. If you’re looking for something creative and delicious to do with your figs, check out this guy. This recipe is very tasty.

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Take Five and Feel Better

A little over a year ago, I had fallen into a pit of negative emotion.

The pit had formed for a variety of reasons: I was working hideous hours and pushing aside personal or domestic interests; the freezes were killing my plants; it was dark by 5:15 p.m. Even though I understood why I was a grumpy curmudgeon, I was having trouble digging myself out of this pit.

So I decided to take five. Five positive measures for myself, each day before noon.

I chose a combination of physical, emotional, and creative measures.

  1. Five simple exercises

    Not a gym workout, just a few minutes of five exercises to get my blood pumping. Arm swings, toe touches, sit-ups, yoga, curls. I wasn’t scientific about it. I just did five exercises.

  2. Five gratefuls and affirmations backyard-pine-tree

    Practicing gratitude and affirmations has become popular, and while the practice currently borders on cliché, the power of authentic gratitude is real. I made it a point to do this every morning. Some days I shared them, not on status updates, but with my partner, a friend, or one of my children. Sharing made them more meaningful and powerful. More authentic.

  3. Five minutes outside

    Working at home, I often pop out of bed and beeline from coffee to computer, where I’ll stay for rest of the day. Even though I keep a garden, I can easily go days without stepping outside, especially during winter. I made it a point to BE outside. Not to take out the trash or water a plant. Just be out there. Soak in the sun, feel the moistness of the fog, listen to the rain, gaze up the pine. Five minutes of just me and the outside.

  4. Five minutes of quiet/meditation

    For years, I made an effort to meditate 20 minutes a day. I struggled with monkeys chattering in my head. I found myself opening an eye to check the time (how much longer do I have to sit here?). More stressful than quiet, so I stopped. But five minutes? I could do that! Since my Take Five journey began, I’ve worked myself back up to 15 minutes of quiet. When the monkeys chatter too loudly or I peek at the clock, I focus on my breathing. Breathe in for me breathe out for me.

  5. Five written sentences for myself

    This is huge. This is why I’m here now. I already write. I write a lot. “Rental writing”: work, projects, textbooks. Although I would put aside time for my own words, I often felt spent, too weary to write from the heart. Yet I yearned to “write for real.” I knew writing had to be one of the five. I decided on five sentences before noon. No pressure to be a story, a chapter in a novel, a scene for a movie. Just five sentences for me from me.sunflower4

Deliberately doing five things early in the day focused on concepts that matter to me was powerful.

While I wasn’t Ms. Sunshine every day, whenever I would start sliding into that pit, I found it easier to get my footing and pull myself up, into the sunshine.

Sure. I’ve fallen all the way into the pit a few times since. The difference is that now, if I’m not already taking them, I make sure I take five. Exercise, be grateful, go outside, be quiet, write my words: these are my five. This practice centers on self and nurturing, and I find it helpful even when I’m not wallowing in a gloomy pit.

How are you feeling today?

If you could feel better, why not Take Five?

What will your five be?

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Dry Itchy Skin? Try This First.

Can’t focus on what you’re working on because that.itchy.spot! Can’t sleep because you can’t.stop.scratching! Don’t have the patience to deal with people because dry.itchy.skin!

When it hits, it’s exasperating. When it lingers, it becomes excruciating. Even when you take the dry itchy skin to the doctor, the cause is sometimes hard to identify or do anything about. Unfortunately, the go-to medical remedy is typically a steroid cream.

Try this easy DIY alternative before resorting to harsh medications.

Creamy Itch Relief Lotion

INGREDIENTS 

The ingredients

You need three basic ingredients: 1) a carrier oil, 2) vitamin E oil, and 3) essential oil.

  1. 1 cup coconut oil: I prefer this for my carrier oil in this recipe because I can whip it into a fluffy cream-like lotion. Other carrier oils you can use include almond, aloe vera, jojoba, olive, and sesame, but they will be a skin oil, not a lotion.
  2. 1-2 tablespoons vitamin E oil: This is optional, but I like to include a little because vitamin E oil heals skin tissue and promotes new skin growth.
  3. ~ 10 drops of essential oil: The essential oils step is where you play. Combining essential oils can be fun but if you only have lavender essential oil, go with that. See below for a list of essential oils for dryness and itchiness.

DIRECTIONS

  • Place the coconut oil in a small mixing bowl, and whip with an electric hand blender or beater, using the whisk attachment. It’s best if the ambient temperature is cool as coconut oil becomes liquid around 76° or 78° F
Quick and creamy dry skin relief

Whipped coconut, vitamin E, and essential oils

  • Add the vitamin E and essential oils as you continue to whip the carrier oil.
  • Store in a clean glass jar with lid. You can keep it at room temperature, but if the room temperature is above 75° F, consider refrigerating so that the coconut oil doesn’t melt.
creamy dry skin relief

One heaping cup of dry itchy skin relief. But just a little dab will do the job.

NOTES

My recipes are not scientific formulas, but rather processes. I cull the Internet for information and recipes, then create my own concoctions based on my needs and ingredients I have on hand. I play around with amounts and ingredients until I get something that works for me. You should do the same.

These essential oils can help with dry skin:

  • Cedarwood
  • Chamomile
  • Clary Sage
  • Geranium
  • Jasmine
  • Lavender
  • Lemon
  • Myrrh
  • Patchouli
  • Rose
  • Rosewood
  • Sandalwood
  • Ylang ylang

These essential oils can help with itchy skin:

  • Agrimony
  • Basil
  • Bay leaf
  • Calendula
  • Chamomile
  • Chickweed
  • Clove
  • Geranium
  • Jewelweed
  • Lavender
  • Neem
  • Nettle
  • Peppermint
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme

The following are two of the online resources I used to verify the best essential oils to use for dry itchy skin. These sites have a wealth of additional DIY skin remedies.

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.