Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Two Missing Breasts...and She's Never Loved Her Body More.

When I saw Darryle Pollack's Ted Talk about what she learned from life as a result of having cancer and a double mastectomy, I knew I had to talk to her for my "Books That Inspire" series. 
The title of her talk and book--I Never Signed Up for This: Finding Power in Life's Broken Pieces--reflect her belief that that we can learn a lot from life's unexpected struggles.
Darryle, you say, "Chasing perfection is a prison. It's a mindset that narrows your vision and takes away your freedom to be the artist of your own life." How did you come to learn this? How can people break out of that prison?
I came to learn this lesson from having cancer, which forced me to see the futility of trying to have perfection in any area of life. Not that I’m recommending cancer as a teaching tool.
Experience is a tough teacher, sometimes the only teacher that gets through to us. I sure wish I had figured out an easier way to learn and break out of the prison of perfection. I think a better way to break out of this mindset is switching over from seeking perfection to seeking perspective. One suggestion for how to start is simply to have gratitude.
The title of your book is I Never Signed Up for the This. Why did you choose this title?
This was also the title for my blog, which I started in 2008. I often say I chose the title because of all the times in my life I’ve said those words. I wasn’t entirely joking, and I also felt most people would relate to what I meant--that life turns out to be nothing like we imagine.
The subtitle is "Finding Power in Life's Broken Pieces." This metaphor comes from your art work. Can you explain the connection?
I was never artistic.  I had no talent or interest in art most of my life. That turned out to be another lesson from cancer. 
I couldn’t find anything to help me cope with all the stress and fear. One day, I happened to take my son to paint a plate at one of those little do-it-yourself pottery studios, and I painted with him. It was amazing for me. This activity I’d stumbled into was the first thing I'd done that actually allowed me to forget about cancer for any amount of time. I wasn’t good at it, trust me.  But focusing on the art and the colors, and just being there helped me relax.  So I started going there. Constantly.
Painting on ceramics, inevitably I broke something. I used the broken pieces of tile to make a design around a mirror, and pretty soon I had a new addiction. Mosaics.
I became completely obsessed with making mosaics, and one day I finally figured out why mosaics had such a special connection for me. I was picking up broken pieces and putting them together to make something beautiful, different from what I started with. That was the exact same thing I was doing with my life. 

When I found out I had a brain tumor, I realized I can't heal what I don't love--and that I'd spent way too much time berating my body. I had taken it for granted, and suddenly I was flooded with appreciation for it. You went through something similar. Can you talk a little about your journey with your body? 
Like so many women, I struggled over my weight, and I never felt thin enough. Even when I was thin, I felt fat. When I looked in the mirror, I never saw what was really there—a pretty great body.
And then I got cancer. During chemotherapy, I had no appetite and couldn’t make myself eat.  Every day I got on the scale and the number kept going down. Pretty Ironic. This was what I had wanted all my life. To be too thin. Now even I could see it. Only now I realized, this wasn’t what I wanted. It was scary.
One day I looked in the mirror at that skinny body and I promised myself if I survived, I would never complain again about being too fat and I would love my body no matter what.
All these years later, I have two missing breasts and I’m nowhere near thin and I’ve kept that promise. I’ve never loved or appreciated my body more than I do now. Yet another lesson from cancer. 
What would you tell your younger self?
Be kinder.  Don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t make decisions based on what other people say or think. Trust yourself and your instincts. To discover and become your authentic self, no one knows what you need or who you are better than you.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to write a memoir?
Do it.  I’m a big believer in the value of our stories.

Author, artist, and activist Darryle Pollack is a twenty-year survivor of stage III breast cancer who uses her experience to inform and inspire others. Darryle's writing has appeared in the Huffington Post. A former TV newscaster and journalist, Darryle is the co-founder of WHOA Network, an online platform for women over fifty.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Something She Feared Became Home

I sat in Suzanne Roberts' Tahoe home reading her memoir, her sweet dog Ely at my feet. Dave and I were housesitting, while she and her husband vacationed in Thailand. While there, she sat on the beach and read my memoir.

Suzanne and Ely in Nevada's Black Rock Desert
We didn't know each other well; we'd set up the housesit gig through a mutual friend. But there we were, simultaneously learning about each others' lives through our books. Both writers, teachers, and lovers of nature and travel, it seems our connection was meant to be.

Suzanne's memoir, Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, chronicles the book title's adventure. She was only in her twenties when she decided to hop on the trail with two friends. In our discussion--part of my Books That Inspire series--she talks about how that decision changed her life.

Why did you title your book Almost Somewhere?

Living in the moment has always been a constant struggle for me, and one of the ways I am most able to be present is in the natural world. The book is about a 28-day hike, and really, when you’re backpacking, you have no choice but to live in the moment, to realize that the going and getting there isn’t the point, that the almost somewhere is a place, too, and really, the most important place of all because that is where you are and that’s all you really have.

When you took off on the John Muir Trail, you had read Muir and thought a lot about his portrayals of nature. In what ways do his visions of the natural world resonate with you? And in what ways is your vision different?

Muir celebrates the natural world, and that resonated with me, then and now. A difference, though, is that Muir doesn’t write about fear very often, at least not his own. Though I am more comfortable now in the natural world than I was in my twenties, there is still that fear—not of nature itself or animals, but of strange men in the wilderness. That’s a fear that most men don’t often think about but is very real for many women.

Regarding fear, you write about how women are taught to hate and fear the outdoors. Can you say more about this? Why do you think this is so—and what can be done about it?

I have thought about this a lot. I wrote a dissertation about how when women try to experience the pastoral landscapes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it often becomes scary, turns gothic. In early works of literature, it’s clear that “twilight is not good for maidens.” And it is always in the out-of-doors, where bad things happen to the maiden—she is kidnapped or raped or bitten by the vampire. These cultural constructs have entered our consciousness. Things are changing, certainly, but we are still living in the shadow of this long history, where women were taught that the outdoors was no place for a lady.

The best thing we can do, as women, is to go out and explore the wilderness and write our own stories about it. I am much more comfortable in the wilderness [than when I was younger]. I have lived in the Sierra for the past 16 years, so the mountains are now home for me, and home is not scary.

You write that on the hike "you began to learn that I could not have guessed at the ways in which our tomorrows would take care of themselves." Is this a disposition that has stayed with you?

It’s something I strive for, but I still worry. The true work is always a process, right?

How did your experience on the trail affect the trajectory of the years that followed it?

It changed everything. I moved to Colorado and then Lake Tahoe. I knew that in order to be happy, I would need to spend as much time as possible outside in the natural world.

What advice would you give to people who want to hike John Muir or another long trail?

Choose your hiking companions carefully. Make sure your shoes fit correctly. Don’t bring “just-in-case” items—pack light. Bring lemon drops (my favorite trail treat). Pack out your toilet paper.

What advice do you give to people who want to write memoir?

Read as many books as you can. And read like a writer, trying to figure out what is working and why. Take a class. Join a writing group. Go to readings and conferences and meet other writers. But mostly, stop talking about it and thinking about it, and do it. Thinking about writing a book and writing a book have very little in common.

What would you tell your younger self?

Stop worrying so much—there is no boogieman in the forest; the friends who matter will always love you; the plane will not crash; you won’t even remember his name. If someone you love is in the hospital, get on the next plane. And, you have no idea how beautiful your skin is. Appreciate it—literally and figuratively.

Suzanne Roberts, who is currently working on another memoir, is also the author of four collections of poetry. She holds a doctorate in Literature and the Environment from the University of Nevada-Reno, and currently teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low residency MFA programs in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College and Chatham. For more information, please visit her website at www.suzanneroberts.net.