A few weeks ago, I spent 5 days in the woods with scant cell phone reception. Most of the time there was no signal but occasionally my pocket would start vibrating like crazy as texts flooded in where there was a signal. I could read the messages but could not reply with confidence that my message would be received. I aborted any idea of contacting the outside world during my time there. It was a beautiful decision. I did appreciate the occasional flood of emails to know that no one is trying to get ahold of me for anything urgent. My worry over the five days became to not lose my phone from lack of awareness and use.
I was in the woods for the first Fern Fest. A music festival with the description of – A safe and inclusive space for all women (cis, trans, non-binary, BIPOC, Deaf/HOH, women with disabilities) to foster connection, community, and belonging. I purchased the ticket on a whim last winter. I had never been to an event like this and thought it was the perfect time to start.
As the event came closer my anxiety was building. What would it be like? I was taking my camper, so how would my experience differ from those who were camping? I was going with a new friend, how would that go? Would the world be ok with me stepping away for a week? I realized that all those worries were static for what my body was really telling me. Once I arrived on the Land I became aware of what was really unnerving me.
When I entered the woods, it was exactly the one-year mark of my world abruptly turning upside down. I had been hustling for the past year to keep life rolling as smooth as possible for myself and my kids while my holding back the chaos.
Last summer we moved out of our home in a short three weeks. That house was our home for almost ten years. It was an abrupt change of course. I am thankful to those who helped us pivot so quickly. I have only seen the house once since. I miss the property.
I have been waking up this past year from a long time of being in a fog. I didn’t know I was in a sleep state of sorts until I was not. My lack of full awareness and actualization of self became painfully obvious. The return of awareness has come in waves. At first, it was jarring and abrupt. I remember driving down the expressway late last summer when one of the first waves of epiphany hit me. My thoughts were like daggers stabbing holes in the reality I build to maintain my existence for many years. I lost myself or more aptly said, I gave myself up. I did this for hope, for potential, for faith in what I believed would/could be. In reality I abandoned myself and my kids.
When we arrived on the Land for Fern Fest, we were assigned a campsite far from the “Downtown” area where most folks were camped and where the main attractions were happening. At first, I was disappointed as it was a long walk or a collection of golf cart rides to get to the “Downtown” area. Then I realized how quiet and secluded it was at our campsite. The distance also helped with the unsettled feeling that followed me to this place.
On the first full day, I walked about 25,000 steps. I walked to find people I knew, to see where everything was, but really I walked because I didn’t know what else to do with the monkey of anxiety that was on my back.
I thought the anxiety was due to being around so many people, or my social anxiety regarding being around lesbians that I had on a pedestal in my mind as the cool kids, or just not knowing how to navigate this space. Yes to all of those but also no.
The second morning I decided with great urgency that I was going to attend the meditation session at the Great Mother Oak tree. I was running late as I tried to pull myself out of a dream that was messing with my sense of time. My dream was telling me it is 5 AM when it is actually 8 AM. I was thankful for a golf cart ride to a group of people sitting at the base of the Great Mother Oak. The guided meditation had begun and I settled in my spot behind everyone.
A beautiful woman with a lovely accent and calming presence was leading the session. My mind was busy at first, I leaned into my quiet place to follow her lead for the next hour. After some time, I started to feel the armor I had been wielding, start to melt away. Then the tears started.
I have cried infrequently in the past year which is very unlike me. I only realized this at the base of the oak tree as the flood gates opened. The session ended and people dispersed. I, and two other women, stayed. Another woman was having a moment of her own. Her partner was there to console her. Then they both came over to me sitting in my tears and asked if I would like a hug. I accepted this kindness from two strangers, whom I didn’t see again after that moment. After they left I sat at the foot of the tree and continued crying. My body was telling me I was not done.
The facilitator of the session was also still there. She asked if she could assist me. Through my blubbering, I gave an affirmative response that she understood thankfully. She held me. She drummed around me. She smudged my porous being. I felt like a permeable crack in the universe at that moment. At one point she was holding me from behind as I was sitting on the grass. She whispered in my ear to scream. This is exactly what my body wanted but my brain was resistant. “Let it out,” she said in my ear and the sound flooded out of me like an exorcism. I was loud on this quiet morning with 500 people dispersed through the woods that could hear my battle cry to reclaim myself.
To move forward I needed to grieve. The thoughts that came to my mind that morning were of my body being opened up time and again with one more to go. Cancer is always a possibility now. My body is strong but she is tired. My kids came flooding to me. I know they forgive me for getting lost but that is harder for me to forgive. I can’t get that time back. They remind me that we have a future. I will be here for our future together.
After a while, the facilitator left me to be by myself with the Great Mother Oak. I sat there for a time, breathing.
Most of my time on the Land was spent unpacking my perception of myself in relation to the world around me, as well as myself as a queer human. When I came out at 37 it was like a hurricane and a tornado got together for a party. Then I settled into the arms of a partner who ended up not being who I thought they were. In the ten years since my coming out, I have not taken the time to figure out who I am as my whole actualized self. I have been busy working, supporting my family, building a home, raising kids, and mostly flying by the seat of my pants.
Reentry after returning from the woods was jarring as I felt like I was just starting to unfold. Something had been shaken loose in me, but the world still goes on. I had a graduation party to put on. Sam moved home as he is between leases for apartments. I went back to work and interviewed for an internal job two days after my return. All fine things, but a lot of energy and I didn’t have extra energy. My energy-o-meter was dipping into a place of healing before I returned home. I was not ready to get back on the treadmill of life.
In the weeks before I left for the woods, I also continued my path to getting my last surgery to fix my abdominals. I had been calling and leaving messages seeking an update on my insurance coverage. I finally sent an email through the patient portal. The day I sent the email the surgery scheduler finally called me back. I happen to be at work when she called. She casually told me that my surgery probably wouldn’t be covered. I was in the gym at the office sitting in the dark as I received her words and I started to cry. I had a work meeting in a few minutes. I explained my situation as best I could to the person on the other end of the line. It turned out the surgeon’s office did not submit the cancer CT scans I have from the past two and a half years which show my abdominal muscles slowly separating over time, which was still progressing. The woman on the other end of the phone realized the error and tried to course correct, without explicitly admitting the error. She told me to call in a week if I had not heard anything. I called a week and a day later, the day before I went into the woods.
Upon my return from Fern Fest, there was still no word. I called and left a message with no reply. Two weeks ago, I sent another email. That day the scheduler called and immediately started talking about setting a date for my surgery. Was I approved? Can I do it in January as I took doula clients this fall? No and no. My surgeon is leaving the practice and the scheduler wanted to get me on the books before his schedule filled up. If she didn’t get me on the books I would have to start the process all over again with a new surgeon. I am not yet approved by my health insurance and my surgery is on the last day he is performing surgeries, November 16th, 2022. Hopefully, I will know by then if my insurance will cover my surgery.
Last Tuesday, I heard that I did not get the internal job at work that I interviewed for. I thought I prepared myself to not get it. I saw the positive path in both directions, if I got the job or if I stayed in the position I was in. It triggered something in me though that I was not expecting, and although the news of not getting the job opened a door of emotions, it was not really about the job. I got scratchy and disoriented as to my path forward. I went into fix-it mode, but I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t settle in my skin. It was like a flood of feelings without words dancing in my mind like whirling dervishes.
Thursday evening, it finally came to me, the analogy that made sense of what was happening to me. I am in transition. So many things in my life I can relate to the human birth process. Transition is said to be the most difficult part of human laboring. It is the phase that the body is asking the mind to let go and allow the body to do its work. Endorphins flood the brain which brings a sleepy feeling but as intelligent beings, we like to try to think through things. We don’t usually realize, understand or accept that the body has wisdom if we get out of the way. I am in transition. I cannot think or fix my way through this. I need to just be and allow things to unfold. That is so much more difficult than doing and fixing. I know that is my work – to just be right now. I am in the process of being born as my authentic actualized self for the first time.
This process cannot be rushed or fixed. As I have said about the birth process, the only way out is through. I need to walk into the mouth of the lion alone and have faith that I will emerge. When I do emerge, I will not be who I was. Already, I am not who I was but I have not arrived yet. There are layers to unearth, sit with, and let go of. There is forgiveness to be given and to receive.
In this process of unearthing myself, I am experiencing exhaustion that I have never felt before. I vaguely remember exhaustion similar to this after I had my first child but that was grounded in another type of depletion. This exhaustion feels existential. Existential transitioning. I am not running on adrenaline anymore. I don’t fight with anyone anymore. I am not fighting cancer anymore. Iam not trying to be something I am not anymore. A lot is coming to the surface that has been muffled for a very long time. I accept this time of rest. Ok, I will try to accept this time of rest as I need to be realistic about my ingrained nature. I am eye-rolling at myself. I am at least listening to the messages to rest though, that’s progress. I will take the small wins.
For the first time in 22 years, I have space. I am single. My kids are grown and although they need me it is different. This is going to be quite an excavation of self. I see it. I understand it as much as I can at this time. I am aware of its necessity.
The love of writing and storytelling has been a beautiful gift from my cancer journey. I feel at home and at peace when I string words together. I enjoy the outlet for my thoughts and ever-evolving observations of what it is to be human. I find healing in words. A keyboard is a tool for my excavation. My words will help me find new ways of seeing things and observe the many layers of being human. Seeking understanding in the deep dark corners and sometimes just making lemons into lemonade.
I have found a beautiful human that I trust to help me edit and craft my cancer blog into a more coherent story hopefully to publish. My sister-friend and I are talking of embarking on a podcast to talk about ….. well the things we talk about. We have a lot to say and thoughts to share about being human. Even if no one listens, I get to work on a project with one of my favorite humans.
Even in these moments of exhausted processing and discovery, I am excited for the path ahead, although I cannot see what it holds. I am trying to get used to the nebulous uncertainty of the future. I do have faith though that someday my body will be whole and strong. I will find a healthy and fulfilling partnership. I will have a home where my kids come to visit, and I will have a fulfilling job that brings me joy and purpose. I am starting to believe all of this is possible. I am starting to believe in myself. That is a breath of fresh air.
Just keep breathing. Let my mind go. Allow the transition to move forward at its own pace. Don’t try to fix it, create static or force my way through the discomfort. Hold space for what emerges. I cannot know the length or duration of this process but it will unfold as it needs to. Let go of what does not serve me as I move forward. This too shall pass.
I love you Kate Olson Stroud.