Sunday, September 26, 2010

Life Happens...

John Lennon said "life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Lennon was shot dead outside his New York City home on December 8, 1980. He was 40 years old. I wonder what Lennon woke up worrying about that day - maybe it was his music, or his strained relationships with his band members, or the undone bed or dirty dishes... whatever it was, I am sure that on that day in December, Lennon was not worried about being killed by a deranged fan.

Last Thursday, Dr. Nash gave me the green light to stop worrying about cancer. Less than 24-hours later, my car was hit on the way home from school. It was not my fault, and there was no way I could have prevented it - the other driver just smashed right into me. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and as our good friend so wisely commented - it's much easier to fix cars than it is to fix people. The accident was not a life-altering event; it was just another reminder that some things are beyond our control.

My insurance agent called today and made it official - they have deemed my car a "total loss" worth a whopping $2,000. I own my car outright, so the idea of a car payment is unsettling. On the other hand, my car did have 174,000 miles on it - which is a lot considering that I rely on it for a daily 100 mile commute. So perhaps it's time for my first new car - in the end, it really doesn't matter much.

All that matters is that I get to come home every night to the love of my life and our beautiful home; all my friends and family are safe and healthy; and I find real meaning in my work. I'd say despite everything that's happened these last few months that I am one very lucky girl.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dr. Nash and One Tasty Sandwich

Thursday, we went back to Manhattan for a follow-up appointment with Dr. Nash. Unfortunately, his office is just a few blocks from the UN, where President Obama was addressing the world's leaders at the UN General Assembly. Street closures and thousands of police made navigating in and out of the island a little like the 1981 Kurt Russell movie, Escape from New York.

While the logistics to and from my appointment were a nightmare, the appointment itself couldn't have gone more smoothly. Dr. Nash said that my wound was officially closed, and that I didn't need to see him again until my next CT scan in six months. Going forward, I will have to have CT scans - at a minimum - every year for the rest of my life. It's a small inconvenience that I really don't mind; frankly, there is something comforting in knowing that Dr. Nash is going to be following me so closely for years to come.

We usually try to eat at one of our favorite Manhattan haunts when we see Dr. Nash, but because of the UN traffic, we opted instead to grab a gourmet sandwich from Pret A Manger on the way to the parking deck. It was beautiful (the sandwich, not the parking deck) - made with hummus and roasted tomatoes.

If you've never heard of Pret A Manger, you are missing out. It was started in London by a couple of college friends with one goal - to create handmade natural sandwiches and salads, without using any additives or preservatives. In their own words, they describe Pret as "a cross between a good restaurant, an Italian coffee bar and a bullet train." Every night, they get a shipment of local produce, which they use to create delicious products "to go"; anything not used or sold is donated to City Harvest, a local NYC charity, at the end of the day. Incredibly, they have donated over 90,000 lbs of homemade, fresh food to help feed hungry New Yorkers. Bravo Pret.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Shifting Focus

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes." Marcel Proust

"Everything depends on our way of looking." Thich Nhat Hanh

The diagnosis of a potentially fatal disease makes us acutely aware of the impermanence of our existence, and forces us to reevaluate our contribution to the human story. Put plainly - we wonder how we will be remembered if we die. This mortal uncertainty breeds chaos, and from this chaos - all art is born, especially great works of literature.

I am teaching Siddhartha by Hesse in my senior World Literature Honors class. It's a bildungsroman (coming of age story) about a young man in ancient India who sets off on a path of self-discovery amongst Buddhist teachings. It was written in the 1950s by a Swiss author who was the son of Protestant missionaries, which evidences the fact that "truth" isn't confined to one religion or experience - it is a quest that sometimes requires us to visit unexplored lands and ideas in order to make sense of our own world and our place in it.

These distant landscapes that help illuminate our own individual truths can be literal or metaphorical, and certainly the "land of cancer" counts as a foreign place filled with epic battles that no one is particularly prepared to fight.

After my own cancer diagnosis, I dusted off my pocket survival manual for times of spiritual doubt: Living Buddha, Living Christ by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who draws from both religious traditions to make an eloquent and insightful argument for peace. Both Jesus and Buddha stressed mindfulness - being aware that people everywhere suffer, and that our role in this world is not to avoid that suffering but rather to be part of its solution.

Part of the solution to our own suffering lies in our focus. "What is important is our insight into the nature of reality and our way of responding to reality...When you look at the blue sky and are aware of it, the sky becomes real, and you become real" (Thich Nhat Hanh). This sounds pretty mystical, but it's not. Basically he is saying that if we go around worrying and carrying anger with us, then that is the reality of the world; but if we stop and see the beauty in our lives, then our reality changes into something much more meaningful.

It's hard to close the door on negativity and self-doubt, but I'm going to try at least to wake up every morning and make an effort to turn the knob.

Monday, September 13, 2010

School Days

"A healthy social life is found only, when in the mirror of each soul the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community the virtue of each one is living." - Rudolf Steiner

A school is a microcosm of human experience, and it has a soul. It's not just a building with a bunch of desks and state issued textbooks. It's the administrator who creates a teaching schedule that allows you to heal; it's the department chair who hugs you twice because he's so happy you're back; it's your colleagues who great you with tears in their eyes and ask you to lean on them for support - and mean it; it's the students you had last year telling you how much they learned in your class; and it's the students you have this year smiling because they wanted you for a teacher. It's love. It's faith. It's where I work.

Too often we wait until someone is ill or in pain to tell them how much they mean to us. I'm guilty of that. Cancer was a blessing that allowed me to see how much I have touched other people's lives. I need to be better about showing others how much they have touched mine.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Back to School

“Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.” – Jaques Barzun

I am a high school English teacher. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be.

Even during my five years as a lawyer, I dreamed about helping students creak open doors to unexplored worlds of language and stories. People thought I was crazy to quit a six-figure salary, but after a week in the classroom, I knew I’d be crazy to do anything else.

Before school ended last year, I struggled with whether or not to share my cancer diagnosis with my students. In the end, I decided it was important to be honest, and saw it as an incredible “teachable moment” that I couldn’t let slip by. My students were upset, but also strong and supportive. Tomorrow will mark the start of my sixth year teaching, and I’m still what doctors call “extremely fatigued” … and in the classroom buddy-boy, that ain’t good.

If you think teachers just waltz into a visually stimulating room with last year’s tests already runoff, and politely deliver lectures to a bunch of Leave-it-to-Beaver-land students who hang on every word - you’ve never taught before. The reality is that you have 135 uniquely demanding students – none of whom think your class matters more than their friend’s latest text or Facebook post.

During class you are constantly moving, surveying the room while simultaneously trying to engage students and teach content in a meaningful way. Between classes, you battle with copy machines, collaborate with colleagues, and talk with students about their hopes and fears, passions and hurts. After school, you attend faculty and department meetings, coach or moderate clubs, call parents, design lesson plans, write college recommendation letters, and correct thousands of pages of assignments and assessments. Your workday rarely ends before 11:30 pm, and you always work weekends.

In your “free time”, you read up on new pedagogical theories, and occasionally catch an irate radio talk show caller ranting about how easy teachers have it.

Let me clue you in Mr. Joe Lunchbox … you wouldn't last a week in my job. Also, teachers don’t get the summer “off”; we miraculously shove more than a year’s worth of work and anxiety into 10 months, and use the summer to recover (or work a second job). I’ve been out there in your so-called “real world” - the world of education is tougher.

But like any true love, it’s worth the work. I just hope that I’m physically up to the challenge, and that this cancer didn’t rob me of my greatest teaching tool – an unyielding exuberance for great books, my students, and the art of teaching.