I am a 42-year-old mother of two, diagnosed with triple-positive breast cancer in August 2012. Before my diagnosis, I knew nothing about cancer. This blog is the story of a journey that I never dreamed I would have to take.
My grandmother and grandfather bought a piece of land in East Hampton, New York in the late 1960s. Back then, I'm pretty sure when people said "the Hamptons" it didn't come with all the elitism and snobby baggage that it does now. From what family lore has told me, they found a small plot of land that overlooked a bay, and they jumped. Their eldest child and her husband (my aunt and uncle) are architects so they designed a house and my grandparents built it in 1976. Along with my mother and their other siblings, my aunt and uncle have maintained the house on its stunning perch, putting blood, sweat, and tears into a place that has meant (and continues to mean) so much to me, Brian, and our family.
My grandparents have been gone for years now, but their spirits live on in this house. I can feel them in the books, chairs, artwork, coffee mugs, photographs, and even the placemats and recipes that remain in this house. Every now and then, I can still smell my grandmother, I swear (she had such a beautiful smell that could never be explained nor replicated).
For us, the visits to Long Island come only in the summers, but those two precious weeks in July are cherished times of the year. When we are here, Brian cooks (per usual, but somehow it tastes even better), we read (a lot), we sit on the deck and admire the sky and the sea (that view will never get old), and we spend a lot of time at the ocean (Atlantic Avenue Beach).
This year, our family vacation left behind a family member because his baseball team kept winning (so awesome, but boy have we missed him). Granted, our 14-year-old probably wouldn't have much interest in this quiet, peaceful place, and we have spent ten days trying to accept that in this phase of his life, playing baseball and being with friends is more his vibe. Oh how that's a tough pill to swallow, and at times, the mom-guilt of leaving him has been debilitating.
So while family and friends in Canton have spoiled Teddy, Brian and I have enjoyed quality time with each other, and with Annabel and my Mom. It's been blissful, with reality interrupting the bliss in all its normal reality sort of ways.
Yesterday, Annabel and I enjoyed the waves at the ocean. While my mom read her book on shore, I loved every minute of teaching our 11-year-old how to navigate the surf. I grew up playing in these waves and it's so precious watching her love them as much as I do. The waves at Atlantic aren’t enormous waves, but they are strong enough to challenge even experienced swimmers. Lifeguards raise a green, yellow, or red flag every day to indicate the danger level of the water (including riptides). Green days are fun because they are more calm but yellow days are fun because they are more full of adventure. Red days are off-limits per the life guard’s restrictions.
A yellow flag has flown over the lifeguard stand in the last few days but there has been enough space in the waves closer to shore for Annabel and I to enjoy the waves without being fearful. She's a water bug and can stay in there for three hours at a time. There's nothing better than watching her play, even if after an hour, I need to put a podcast on in my ear. There's only so much being totally in the present moment I can take.
I never had any formal training in how to navigate the waves of Atlantic Beach but I had parents, uncles, and cousins who taught me the basics: when and how to enter the waves at the right time, how to decide if it’s safe to float over a wave or if diving underneath is necessary, how to exit the waves when you’re tired or freezing, and how to empty the sand out of your bathing suit once one-too-many boogie board or body surfing trips has led to an uncomfortable collection in a part of the body that really doesn’t appreciate sand.
My family also taught me one of the most important lessons about riptides: don’t fight them and don’t panic. If you feel that a riptide is pulling you out into the ocean, the best thing to do in the moment is let it pull you. You’re never going to be stronger than the ocean. Once the riptide has taken you out and it subsides, you collect yourself, stay patient, and wait for the right time to let the waves help carry you back to shore. By that point, you have likely moved hundreds of yards down the beach from where you started, but that’s okay. Once you’ve made it back to shore safely, you can use those cold and shaky legs to walk back to where you began.
Last summer, on a glorious beach day with a yellow flag, the ocean currents were real, so real that it took no more than two minutes in the water before you were about 400 yards down the beach. That day, I taught Teddy about a few powers of the ocean. I'll admit: taking him all the way out in a yellow flag (something I haven't yet done with Annabel), scared me. Mostly, I was scared that he would fight the current. That he would panic. But I wanted him to learn, and he did. Annabel will be ready next year. I hope I'm still strong enough to teach her.
* * *
In many ways, the last school year felt like trying to swim against a riptide. Several times a day, I felt like I wasn't strong enough to keep going, like I didn't have the energy or the will to keep on fighting against the current of so many bad things. Student addiction to cell phones, mental health issues (students and adults included), violent behavior, hateful and hurtful language, low motivation, and persistent negativity. Any teacher in America will tell you: it was a challenging school year.
While some teachers may find solace in their shared frustration with students, others of us just feel sad that our students are struggling so much. “It’s not their fault,” I repeat, and I still believe that. At the same time, fault doesn't really matter when it comes to their futures. Plus, receiving constant negative energy eventually feels toxic. Last year, no amount of mindfulness could shield me from that toxicity.
At the same time, I believe deeply in schools and in educators who fully commit to closing the achievement gap. It’s a canyon of a gap, an abyss really. And COVID seems to have made it all so much worse.
In the years of remote and hybrid learning (and, now that I think about, in the prior years teaching in Boston), I felt like I was swimming against a strong current. I'm guessing other teachers and even students felt the same. But for many of us, last year was different. Last year, I felt like I could drown.
In what often felt like chaos, I fought the current and I went with it, and neither seemed to work. Like other teachers across the globe, I changed my teaching methods in hundreds of different ways. I edited and adapted and adjusted, before class and during and after. I reflected a lot, and even reflected on how I reflected. I took numerous different tones, tried to listen more, and tried to distinguish between noise that needs my attention and toxicity that doesn’t deserve it. I tried. We tried. So hard. And yet, by the end of the year, I was only just holding on. I have taught for a very short thirteen years. I know that's not enough to feel exhausted. But I felt exhausted.
Aside from the feeling of failure and shame that comes when I ask myself what some students learned from my class last year (answer: maybe nothing), I also feel great guilt in the reality that I am taking the next school year off from teaching to write my book. But I know I need to surrender to the current for now, let it pull me to places I hadn’t anticipated I would land. While I’m there (wherever that may be), I hope to become stronger, more knowledgeable, and more patient. I need to rethink my ideas about education by asking questions that I think we all need to ask: How do we address students’ increasingly short attention span for any academic task? How can we get kids to come to school, never mind, how do we best teach them once they are there? Oh the list goes on.)
Still, I feel guilt and sadness. I will miss my classroom next year, despite that so many classes this year have ended in my wanting to cry or scream. But eventually, I will gather strength, emerge from the waves, and march back down the beach, ready to dive back in again.
* * *
A few mornings ago, I got up early to set a time lapse photo to catch this sunrise.
I wrote in my memoir about how different the reality of life can be to our vision for it. I still chuckle (and sometimes cry) at how very true the discrepancy can be.
Teddy is in the heart of a busy summer baseball season and last night's game took us to Worcester State. It's not a terrible ride -- about an hour and 15 minutes -- and Brian was more than willing to go. But I had a vision. Since I'll be missing Teddy's Thursday night game for dinner with some dear friends, I would catch up with him (assuage my mom guilt), and drive him to Worcester State. We would chat in the car about how he's doing, he would tell me all about being a camp counselor this week, and we would discuss his excitement and fears for his upcoming first year of high school. I even had some questions I wanted to ask as I churn an idea in my head for something I want to write about habits for academic success. Not that I was going to interview my own son, but kind of, I was.
I was all packed up with things to read in the hour his team warmed up, and had my dinner in hand. Brian had packed a cooler for Teddy, and the gas tank was full. This was going to be great. A summer night with my son, oh, and his gregarious friend, who took the back seat. I was happy; these two are fun to be around.
As we got in the car, I watched them insert earbuds. Oh. Ok. Then I noticed Teddy had left the cooler of his water and dinner in the middle of the driveway.
When we got in the car (again), Teddy and his friend positioned themselves for a nap.
"Oh, you're not going to talk to me?" I asked.
"We can talk on the way home," Teddy told me with his charming smile. Well, then. I fired up the Waze and my podcast about writing, and off we went. Teddy woke up when we were almost there and his friend chose his music over my podcast (how?!). Solid bonding time was had by all. Vision versus reality.
* * *
I have been writing; I promise. I even found my protagonist's voice, which feels like finding treasure. Her name is Nomzamo, and I have loved her for a long time, even before she had come close enough to be fully in focus. But she's coming closer, and she's fascinating.
I have followed my commitment to write from 6:30 - 8 a.m. every morning and not broken it once. I have also kept my commitment to read 60 minutes a day, although that time has been much more scattered and I should probably tighten it up a bit.
I've also realized that despite all of the reading and research I have done for this book over the last 20+ years, I have so much more to do. This morning I outlined the 20 pages of the book that I need to write to meet my first deadline of July 31. I made a chart -- basically 4 pages at a time for 5 sections -- and added a column for the research I will need to do to complete each section. I have a plan, at least for the road immediately ahead of me; it's like I've set the Waze for my writing.
In one of the writing podcasts I listened to the other day, the writer quoted someone who said that starting to write is so hard because it means that you have to sit down to the bar of self-judgment. He went on to explain that every idea is perfect until you start to write it. When you start to write it, it's no longer perfect, and sitting down to write is so hard because we all hate to see perfection turn to imperfection. Yes. Yes. Yes.
I realized last night that my visions for parenting, and life really, are much like my ideas for writing: they are perfect until they actually become real. Then they are wildly imperfect and the sunny summer evening turns into a lightening storm, the game ends early, and my son is mad at me because the fresh sandwich we packed for him isn't as delicious as a burrito from Chipotle. Then we drive home. I spend the first part of hour listening to music and when it's clear Teddy doesn't have much to say, I call my sister and we talk about books. Just about 10 minutes away from home, Teddy starts to talk to me. Not about much, but it's something. I'm grateful for it because I really do love him so. And he's 14, so I guess talking to his mother isn't all that thrilling. His loss. Ha!
Writing is so beautiful and sodamnhard because, like life, it is a constant reminder that even on the very best of days, imperfection is inevitable and visions are never reality. And that's okay. I'll live it, and write it, anyways.
In a podcast an inspirational friend recently shared with me, an American author, Glennon Doyle, said that when she puts her writing out into the world, she doesn't then "babysit" it. She further explained: she doesn't watch what people say about what she wrote, defend it, or further explain it. She just lets it be.
I won't lie; when this blog first came into existence almost 10 years ago (gulp, goosebumps), I babysat it like it was my nephew in the NICU. (When John was born three years ago tomorrow -- two months prior to his due date and with head trauma to boot -- I visited the NICU often. I usually went after dinner, when my kids were settled and when his heroic parents finally left his side to get a bit of sleep. When I wasn't holding him, I would watch the numbers on the screen above his incubator, examine his little body and his precious movements as if those numbers, that body, and those movements were the most important things in the whole world. Because to our family, they were.) I could write about John for a whole book, but let the metaphor end here, and suffice it to say, years ago, I babysat this blog and people's responses to it like they meant the world to me. Because they did.
Ten years ago, thanks to my brother (John's dad) who showed me how to see the "analytics" of the blog, I experienced joy in watching people in over 90 countries consistently read something I wrote. I still don't understand how it happened, but at the time, I was scared out of my mind and the distraction of writing and then babysitting my writing helped. At a time when I wondered what more I'd get to do with my life, I felt valuable in seeing that what I was writing meant something to someone else. Plus, I felt loved. Heard. Insightful. Who doesn't want to feel that?!
In one month, August 8, 2022, I will (God willing) reach the 10-year anniversary of my diagnosis. I would be lying if I said I haven't been looking at that date. Watching that number on the calendar. Five years felt big. Ten feels monumental. And standing in the shadow of a monument can feel really overwhelming.
Part of this burst of energy to begin to write my book is fueled by that anniversary. It's even fueled, a bit, by fear, but more on that sometime soon. It's largely fueled by my mother, who doesn't just inspire me with her faith in my abilities and the constant insight she gives me without even trying, but with the practical support I need to actually do this. And it's fueled by something deep inside me that just knows: this is what I need to do if I am going to live, really live, as me.
At the same time, I'm trying not to babysit these little blogs. I'm practicing for when I start to put more writing out into the world. I can't control what people will say about what I write so I may as well practice surrendering now.
Still, I peek. I smile. And I'm so grateful for the people who believe in me. Again, who doesn't want to feel that?!
I have two solid guesses as to the person who left this comment on my "It's Time" blog, and there's a little magic in not reaching out to either of them to say, "Was this you?" So I haven't done that (yet?) and rather, I've just been reading these words over and over.
The brave and warrior part are sweet but I don't really pay much heed to that. How can I believe that when I'm reading American Dirt? What I have done is like 0.00000000001% of what others do in this world. But still, I'm grateful for the sentiment.
But just read those words: "Goals, not dreams. Not an if, but a when, marked in your time, your pace, to reach your planned goals." Dang. For me, words are often precious gifts and when shaped in the way this person shaped them, I feel like Anonymous left me a gift worth billions.
This morning, shortly after 6:30 a.m., I made a new note in my novel's Scrivener document. I called it, "Goals, not dreams," and I mapped out the plan.
300 pages by December 31. A full draft of the novel, messy and in need of months of editing, but complete by the end of 2022. That's the planned goal, with a pretty little table and mini-deadlines all mapped out as of today. That map will take me the distance. Planned goal. Born in a dream.
Thank you to Anonymous for sharing the precious gift of your words. I promise, I won't babysit, but every now and then, I'll quietly open the door and peek in to check on these sleeping babies. Because who doesn't want to feel that?!
I took a huge baby step this morning (maybe even a toddler step) with respect to my narrator's voice and the point of entry to her story. I needed this boost of confidence that I can find the narrator's perspective and that her perspective can be strong, vulnerable, purposeful, and authentic.
American Dirt continues to inspire me as mother, a wife, an American, and a writer. I highly recommend this book even though it will twist your gut and ache your heart. Even after years of working closely with refugees who sought political asylum in this country, I still needed this book to teach me about how much pain people endure to reach America. This nation has broken many hearts lately, but American Dirt reminds me that the freedom, opportunity, and hope within our borders still hold the power to heal those breaks.
My goal for tomorrow's morning writing session is to finish outlining the novel. I also plan to finish reading American Dirt. When I'm done with that, I plan on finishing The Alice Network, which I am halfway through. Kate Quinn does historical fiction like no other.
Yesterday I introduced myself to my fellow classmates in an online writing course that begins on July 11th. I sound like a boring person in my introduction, which either means that I am, actually, boring, or that I reallllly need the writing course. Probably both.
This morning, my gentle Amazon alarm rang at 6 a.m. and ... You better get up. You promised you would ... but you have COVID. Isn't that enough of an excuse? But I know I feel fine to get up. Dammit. 5-4-3-2-1 ... and I was up.
I brushed my teeth, didn't put in my contacts (still celebrating the victory of PRK), and poured some ice coffee. I listened to a short meditation recording from Headspace, realized that clearing my mind feels next to impossible, took some deep breaths, and put my a$$ in the chair.
The thing was, I didn't stay there for long. But don't worry...it's not because I quit because I did not quit for a single second (and even kept working until Annabel needed me for a ride to gymnastics). I didn't stay in my seat because I mostly stood facing the wall in our den on which I hung (crookedly) this pocket chart that I have had in my classroom for years. Here is an image of a "pocket chart" for non-teachers.
Using this excellent-used-condition pocket chart, I outlined the three main parts of the book and decided on the two points of view that I want to take (actually, it may be three but the last one is tricky...stay tuned).
In the many "how to write a novel" podcasts, MasterClasses, and YouTube videos I have watched about becoming a writer, authors have shared a common theme about outlining: some authors do it and some don't. For the ones who outline, some do it extensively and some do it with lots of wiggle room for adjustments. For the ones who don't outline, many cite the need to stay creative through the process. Since I've never written a book, I don't know which type of writer I am so I'm going to try the outlining method and see where it takes me.
So this morning I decided that each "part" should have about 12 chapters and each chapter should be able 10 pages. In reality, I just took the novel I'm reading now (American Dirt), found how long it is (379 pages) divided 379 by the number of chapters (36) and decided that I'd round down. Voila! I just have to write 36 awesome 10-page mini-stories, have them all fit together perfectly, and I have a novel. Piece. Of. Cake. (Yum. Cake. Ugh!)
Sometime about 57 minutes into outlining, thinking, and plotting, I had a little breakthrough with one of my key themes. I can't give it away now but it was important and I have my first piece of personal evidence to prove what all those authors have said -- when you actually focus on writing, you come closer to writing. It's magical.
Yep, Day 1 was awesome and I'm already eager to go to sleep so I'm closer to Day 2. And I am never eager to go to sleep, so I'm deeming Day 1 a positive little baby step.
As for my second commitment, to read for 60 minutes, I failed. Ugh. But I learned a lot, including this:
1. I did a favor for some friends today that took about an hour. I learned that I should have said "Yes"to this favor only after I finished my reading and writing commitments. Next time someone asks me for time that I know could infringe on my writing or reading commitments, I'm going to say, "Yes, I can, but only after I get my work done." I'm terrible at saying anything but, "Yes, I can," and I need to work on that. Period. Let's practice. Yes, I can, but only after I get my work done. Easier said then done.
2. In my house, we watch TV together beginning around 8 or 9 p.m. I love having my husband, two kids, and my dog all in the same room, even if five screens are still lighting up around us. I think we are somehow bonding, too. But also, if I'm being totally honest, I've always struggled with that TV time. I guess I can love something and simultaneously struggle with it because I swear, the love and the struggle coexist. First, when we watch TV, I just want to eat, and I battle with the food that calls to me from the kitchen. If I give in to the food, it's no good for my brain. But second, when we watch TV, I'm bored. I try to pay attention to the story in whatever show my family chose, but something inside me has always felt like I should be using that time for something else. Tonight, when they sat down to watch TV, I realized I hadn't done my 60 minutes of reading. I was disappointed with myself until I thought, I could not watch TV and do the reading now. But then I'd have to go upstairs and I like being near them. I tried it out anyways and went upstairs. But instead of reading, I started to write this. Then I had to go pick up Teddy. Then I had to take the dog out. But now I'm back. I still haven't done by 60 minutes of reading, but I'm going to get to it. I can hear Brian and Annabel enjoying their 35th episode of Chuck downstairs and it's clear I'm not as central to TV time as I thought. Plus, it's not as lonely up here as I thought it would be. Actually, it's kind of nice.
I commit to reading for 60 minutes every day. I already do this (probably way more) but in these particular 60 minutes, I will read with a keen eye towards dissecting the author's craft. Today, for example, I continued reading a book that my sister recommended to me, American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins. American Dirt is the gut-wrenching story of a mother and son trying to flee Mexico after a drug lord murdered 16 members of their family (I'm not giving anything away as the story opens with this scene).
In reading today, I paid very close attention to how Cummins worked with back story, flashbacks, and the narrative tense. She weaves time together seamlessly and in my writing, I have found that such weaving is a great struggle.
I also started to keep a notebook of new words I'm learning because Wordle reminds me every day that my vocabulary is deficient. I mean, how did I only just learn what droll means?
Here was the most amazing line of today's reading...actually, two!
"Lydia funnels gratitude into the slow blink of her lashes." (p. 152)
"She could do anything back then, before she had the maternal fear to spark any real caution in her soul." (p. 154)
For the last few years, I have listened to, read, and watched every single thing I can about becoming a writer. I must be the world's biggest expert on becoming a writer who is not actually writing anything. I know that needs to change.
A friend introduced me to a fellow former-lawyer-who-wanted-more-from-life, Mel Robbins. Mel is interesting and several of her "life hacks" (as Annabel would call them) have come in handy, including this one, which I now deem central to my commitments to writing.
Mel says, If you struggle to get out of bed in the morning, set the alarm and when it goes off, say "5-4-3-2-1" and then get up. I know; it's so damn simple, but a few months in, it still feels somewhat miraculous. As someone who has perpetually set early alarms that I then ignored, and as someone who spent the subsequent day tarnished in guilt from "sleeping late," this method has really helped. I find myself getting up early with much more ease and feeling great about it after.
However, the truth is that I am still using my early morning time hiding from writing. A few times I have written but mostly, I have hidden from writing by using exercise. I've used exercise to hide from a lot of things in life and I know I want to change that. It's time.
So my first commitment in my writing journey is this:
1. Get out of bed at 6:00 AM every week day of the summer (excluding 1 vacation week in August).
2. Be in my chair writing from 6:30 - 8:00 AM every week day of the summer (excluding 1 vacation week in August).
That's it. Commitment #1. Day 1 starts tomorrow. No hiding, because you're there. Right, Mom?
I recently conducted a Google search that made my stomach tense up. I typed in the first and last name of a woman I know and after her name, I typed "Obituary." Then I held my breath.
The woman probably doesn't know who I am. She's also very sick, like, already-lived-past-most-predictions sick. She writes a blog and I hadn't seen a post in a while so I feared the worst. While I'm guessing she is deep in a terrible struggle with cancer, my search indicated that she still graces this Earth with her physical presence.
This got me wondering if anyone who followed my blog years ago and who doesn't know me personally has ever Googled, "Tara Shuman Obituary." (I'm tempted to Google it now, to see if any other Tara Shumans have gone before me but that just feels creepy.)
So, here I am, still alive, and still writing. And I have a lot to say.
My school year ended when I submitted the last of my work on June 25th. Soon after, Annabel and I snuck away to Universal Studios in Orlando with my best friend and her family. We had a blast, and I returned with lifelong memories, and, sadly, COVID. Annabel continues to prove that she's immune to this virus but I'm clearly not, and so I wait out my 2022 bout with COVID in much of the same way I waited out the 2021 version -- too tired to accomplish much, but too energetic to rest. Thank you Moderna and Pfizer for the fact that isolation, a headache, and a runny nose are my biggest personal struggles with this virus.
This year, I really didn't feel like celebrating the U.S. of A., so COVID was perfectly timed for me. The fall of Roe, unrelenting gun violence, and the fact that white supremacists feel empowered to cover their faces and march along the Freedom Trail made me want to skip July 4th altogether. I'll get back to it next year, perhaps when I have more hope in my heart.
Now, it's July 5th, and those who don't work in schools are back to work. So back to work I go.
Only, for the first time in my adult life, I don't have an official job. Well, I guess I do have a job, but my school isn't expecting me back until August 2023. Because for the next year, I will be taking one year away from teaching to write. Write what? you may ask. A novel, first and foremost. And essays. And short stories. And maybe a few poems. My mind is so full of ideas that I can barely categorize them all. That's where this post comes in.
For the next year, I am going to share the journey of following my dream to be a writer. My mom may be the only one who follows that journey, and for that, I am eternally grateful (Hi Mom!). So, if for no one else but Mom and me, I commit to document the failed, mundane, and maybe even successful efforts of an ordinary person pursuing a dream. I am terrified and yet, I have never felt more alive. I'd guess most people who go after a dream feel that way.
Before I sign off, I want to be transparent about a decision I have made regarding the URL tarabeatscancer.com: I have decided to let it go and to move my blog to hopeisagoodbreakfast.com. Likely nobody but me would notice or care, but I happen to really care. This blog is my baby, my starting point, my lifeline. I always wondered if my death would be the end of tarabeatscancer.com but low and behold, it isn't.
So why the change? Since I was able to face the reality that cancer is, for many of us, a deadly beast, the language of "beating cancer" has never sat well with me. The language implies that, had cancer killed me, I would have "lost" to something stronger than me. It also implies that I did something to beat it. But I didn't. I just had lots of privilege (which meant, in part, great medical care) and I got lucky. Really lucky.
I explain "Hope is a good breakfast" in my memoir titled such. Yet now, I see those words as even more relevant. Because my chance at more life (almost 10 years of it since I was diagnosed) is proof that hope is extremely important, perhaps even central to survival. But there is a lot more to do than just hope. For example, now, it's time...