Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Curiosity Saved My Life

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it has saved my life…more than once. A few weeks ago, during the week of my 61st birthday I received a message from my bones. My sternum and 3rd rib began throbbing, broadcasting a message of the return of cancer. Although the exact content of the message was somewhat cryptic, it’s general theme was perfectly clear. In 2013, I wrote, “I promised to listen, and now I hear an unexpected language spoken in a strange tempo that sounds like the static blur of a shortwave radio transmitting a distress signal from a faraway place in the night.” Cancer has called out to me again, has gotten my attention, and has sparked my curiosity.

Although I admit to initially being a bit freaked out, I was/am mostly disappointed. It was like that chopped steak moment I described in my blog entry on November 5, 2009. https://bonniegintishealth.blogspot.com/search?q=chopped+steak This isn’t what I expected! We all go through our lives thinking we know what’s going to happen next, and when the unfolding reality doesn’t match our interpretation, judgment, and conclusion about life, we react in ways that are often not helpful. Each moment is uncertain. What makes us so arrogant, to think we know what’s going to happen next?

When I catch myself doing this, I have a mantra, “there I go again.” I can’t force myself to stop feeling what I feel, but I can become aware that I’m feeling something that may or may not be real or true (whatever those things mean.) I can put a little space between me (whoever that is) and what’s happening. In that space, I can choose where and how to pay attention and how to expend my precious energy.

Once I let myself have a good cry, like bad weather, my emotions passed. Then I dropped down and felt the sadness of loss where it landed in my body, and I leaned in and listened with curiosity. I let go of being afraid, and discovered that I am very interested in what’s actually going on. Being curious is about recognizing novelty and seizing the opportunity it has to offer, without judgment or making a story. Curiosity often leads to buried treasures.

Whenever you get bored, you’re not paying attention. There’s always something to spark curiosity. I got curious about the pain in my chest and responded by asking my doctor to move up the date of my annual PET scan from December to October. I got the message from my body, and the really curious thing is that the messenger, the pain, went away in a few days, and nothing ever showed up on the scan in the area that hurt. But responding to the message of the sensation led me to find this tiny new cancer growing in my breast in time to do something about it before it spread.

It's not about whether to pay attention but how to pay attention. It’s possible to be attentive without curiosity. I can glance over the surface of things and miss what’s important, or I can ride the fine line between positive thinking and denial and completely miss the message.

I am committed to a life of curiosity in which I fully participate in the present moment. This allows me to become sensitive to what's actually happening regardless of how it differs from the past, or from what I expect the future to be. The best we can do to resolve the past and prepare for the future is to savor the possibilities of what can be done in the present moment. When we encounter a problem, we often go to quickly into “problem-solving” before we’ve been informed enough to have insight into the necessity of the moment.

On a mundane note, I have a Plan A, B, & C. Plan A is my switch back to another estrogen blocker. It's no big deal; just a different pill once a day. We will re-evaluate in 4-6 months to see if it's working. I'm addressing some new approaches to diet and supplements to boost my immune response. As I type this, the pathology people at UVM are comparing my recent biopsy to my original 2009 biopsy to see if they can learn something about the character of what I'm growing. It won't make any difference in the short-run, but in the long run, I might need to understand the difference (or lack thereof) between version 2009 and version 2017, and implement another plan. 

We have a new window facing the woods and the rocky ledge behind our house, and although I could never recommend that anyone have construction at home while going through a biopsy, now that it's over, I can say, "it was worth it." Watching the birds, the squirrels, and the plants change each day is endlessly enjoyable and feeds my sense of connectedness to the natural world. I'm curious about the medicinal value of window-gazing.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

What Transformation Isn't

As always, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is what I have known deep down since my rib started throbbing a few weeks ago – the biopsy showed that it is breast cancer. I already knew that, so I’m not in shock or upset – mostly disappointed.

The good news is that it is still highly estrogen-positive and HER-2 negative (for you non-medical types, that means it’s less aggressive and treatable with several relatively non-invasive options.) I will most likely switch to a different estrogen-blocking oral medication and monitor again in 4-6 months. More tests will be done to see if it’s a new cancer or a regrowth of what I had before. And as always, we will monitor to see if it spreads or stays put, or better yet, disappears.

I got the phone call and literally ran out the door for a massage that just happened to be scheduled long before I know it would be perfectly timed. It was just what I needed to ground me in my body and help keep me feeling expansive. Thank you Natalia!

Cancer is a transformative ordeal. So much of my life has changed because of it, and not all for the worse. Even though I cringe when I hear some people refer to cancer as “a gift” I can see how it has made me pay attention, cultivate discernment, and refine the way I make choices. As far as the “gift” goes, if I had a choice, I’d return it to Macy’s and exchange it for a sweater. But since it isn’t a gift, and I can’t return it, I ponder what this transformation is about…

What Transformation Isn’t?

Transformation isn’t about self-improvement. If you approach making changes in your life in the spirit of what’s wrong with you, then you might miss the opportunities that arise from what’s right with you. There’s nothing wrong with you that can’t be helped in some way by what’s right with you.

Transformation isn’t about curing a disease. It’s certainly great when this happens, but many diseases are chronic or terminal and their presence in your life doesn’t prohibit you from experiencing transformation in some other way. Being attached to getting rid of a malady can prevent you from experiencing transformation elsewhere in your life.

Transformation isn’t about fixing something. Some things in life that are broken are simple and can be mended. A paper cut on your finger seems dramatic when it happens, but a week or so later you notice that it has healed on its own without a trace.

A broken bone can knit back together, but a trauma that is forceful enough to break a bone causes other tissue damage, as well as a generalized reaction to the shock can leave a residue of vulnerability in the system. A broken heart can mend, but often leaves a trace of sensitivity. Leonard Cohen, in his song, “Anthem” reminds us that it is this brokenness that allows light to shine,
“There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”
Consider that broken-heartedness might not need fixing. Even the word “fix” is problematic. It comes from the Latin “fixus,” which means to fasten, which is contrary to the very nature of the living human body, which is in constant motion. Everything in the body, as well as in our emotional and mental activity needs to move freely to express optimum health. Fixing something, holding it in place is contrary to the laws of the nature of living systems.

I can’t “fix” my cancer. I want it to move, to metabolize itself and leave me intact. I can’t help wanting this…and I know my best chance comes from meeting each moment and listening to the call from this deep dark process that has grown inside me, and allow the light to shine in all directions.

Here’s a sculpture by Paige Bradley that inspires me:

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Lean In And Listen Closely

While living with the uncertainty of my pending biopsy result, Steve and I decided to immerse ourselves in the mountain air of the Laurentians (technically, the northern extension of the Adirondacks into Canada, an hour and a half north of Montreal). We have a fabulous little place we like to visit on la ”Rivière du Nord,” the North River. We hike on Parc Linéaire Le P'tit Train du Nord, which we step out onto from our front door. We have a waterfall right outside our windows and balcony that keeps putting us to sleep. We've already slept late and napped twice today. 

I love being immersed in the french-speaking ambiance of our friendly North American neighbors. It quiets my own mental chatter. I have been channeling that chatter into writing. Here's a sample:

My friend Terri recently proclaimed, "How grand of your sternum to warn you that something needs attention." It’s true; thanks Terri, for framing it that way. It is totally grand! We so often complain about pain or other signals our body gives us to let us know we need to do something. It’s valuable information and all too often, we act annoyed. I don't have to like it, but pain is a valuable messenger. The pain in my sternum announced that I needed to move up my annual PET scan from December to now, in order to evaluate what's happening and intervene if necessary. If I didn't have the pain, cancer could spread and kill me without any warning. Listening to my pain, at least I have a better chance.

For a previous entry on listening to my bones, check out:
http://bonniegintishealth.blogspot.ca/search?q=i+promised+to+listen

I feel like a grumpy old person when I hear myself start complaining about the way things are “these days,” but I’ll say it anyway. I don’t care if you call me grumpy and old-fashioned! In this fast-paced society people have gotten impatient. People expect their bodies to move at the pace of their smart phones. People expect relief in the time it takes to send a text message. People expect healing to be like a reboot, and require as much time as it takes to push a button and restart. But biological time is slow, and no matter how much society innovates, it takes time and attention for our bodies to heal or adapt.

People think they are entitled to a pain-free life. Sorry, but when you come into the world in a body, pain is part of the deal. Some of it seems like senseless suffering, but most of it is crucial information, broadcasting that something needs attention. Most pain is there for a reason, and if we learn to listen and not just obliterate the message, we might have valuable clues about how to care for ourselves more effectively.

The pursuit of happiness is confused with feeling entitled to happiness itself. We (the privileged people who live in somewhat "free" societies) are not entitled to a perfect life or a pain-free body. What we do have is the privilege of being free to pursue health and wellbeing in many ways, that’s all. Our society grants us access to the process, but doesn’t guarantee the product.


Is there a pain in your life that you haven't committed to listen to deeply? Can you lean in and listen closely? Try it and see what you learn.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

An Unexpected Blip On The Screen

I consider it a healthy sign of life that I have somewhat abandoned blogging. It's been 10 months since my last entry and I realize that I associate this blog with cancer updates, and until this week, I haven't wanted to post anything.
A few weeks ago, out of nowhere (that's where all cancer seems to come from), I began feeling a disturbingly familiar throb in my chest at that place where my right 3rd rib meets my sternum. Over a day or so, it got increasingly worse. I know this sensation; it's how it all started in August of 2009. I called my oncologist and we decided to bump up my annual PET scan and do it now instead of waiting for December. I had it done last week.

The result is mostly, but not completely good; the spot that made me have the scan early is unchanged. Yay! There are no changes in any of the places I had previously had bone mets (clavicle, scapulae, pelvis). Yay! Nothing lights up in any organs. Yay!

But, as Pee Wee said in Pee Wee's Big Adventure, "Everybody has a big but...", a 1.3 cm spot lights up in my right breast. No one knows what that means. I originally had about 4 or 5 tumors in my right breast and they went away within 4 months of starting estrogen blockade (and all the other things I did back then to address my "terrain".) Is this a new breast cancer? Or is this an old one waking up? Has it mutated and changed? If we hadn't done this scan, would it be gone a month from now? These are all unknowns. I will pursue the answers which are knowable, and continue to practice living with the uncertainty of the answers that are unknowable.

I am going to have it biopsied this Friday October 20th, which is a good thing to do after 8 years of estrogen-based treatment, just to see if it's character and sensitivity to estrogen has changed. The worst case scenario here is that I have to change my treatment plan, but a new one would still be based on some oral medication. Although it's not the result that I would prefer, it's not catastrophic or devastating. I'm disappointed, but not that distraught.

If you're curious about what I've been up to, check out my 2 workshops for 2018:
http://www.bonniegintis.com/teaching/

Steve and I are still dancing tango. It's somewhere on the spectrum of fun, meditative, creative, rehabilitative, frustrating, sensual, and exhilarating. Many of you have asked how I dance tango in sneakers (I won't inflict spike heels on myself), and have requested a visual. I'm sorry, but it's a contemplative practice for me and I wouldn't think of posting a video of me meditating. However, here's a video of someone else dancing in sneakers (not too shabby, huh?!) with a great contemporary punk tango band:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwRlL689PCk

Vermont continues to be an amazing place to live. As the days grow darker and cooler, I look forward to sweaters, my fireplace, and pots of soup. As long as I'm not shoveling, it's good weather. And since I live in a condo, and someone else shovels, it's always a beautiful day!

It's still a full time job caring for myself. I have actually been writing, but not wanting to share what I'm writing yet. I know that it will turn into another book someday, and I'm needing to let it cook internally before sharing.
So, instead of sharing something I've been working on, here are a few excerpts from blog entries in which I explored living with uncertainty:

from 6/16/14:
“We all live along a continuum of uncertainty, but usually only realize this in retrospect. We have plans and ideas about what our life is about and where we think we are headed. And it can all change in a moment; a drunk driver can head right at us with nowhere to escape his impact, soldiers can go on a rampage in our village without warning, a hurricane or flash flood can wash away our home, a fire can ravage our home, but for me, it was metastatic breast cancer that suddenly announced the change of trajectory of my life and brought the awareness of uncertainty that had always been there. Unexpected questions arise when faced with the reality of uncertainty.”

from 2/6/12:
My challenge in all of this is to remember I’m the same person I was before the scan. This result doesn’t change my actual life; it just changes what I think about my life. I had an old teacher who used to say, “Your mind is a bad neighborhood. Don’t go there. You’ll get mugged.”

This is the reality of this disease. It is chronic. It will most likely come, and hopefully go, for the rest of my life, regardless of how long that ends up being. I can’t help but want to be special, be a miracle, be an overachiever, be an outlier, and I don’t want to feel like a failure or that I am to blame if things don’t go as I prefer.

This is as close as I get to positive thinking. I acknowledge my desire to live a long life and to have a chance to re-invent my life. I want to have more adventures. I want to be with my loved ones and be a part of their lives unfolding. I want to be of service to people again someday in some greater way. The intensity of these desires and my longing for life feels like my life force expressing itself. How do I maintain this passion for life and yet let go of what I can’t control?

I don’t believe in positive thinking because I don’t believe that thinking is the way to guide our lives. Positive or negative thinking is still thinking, and thinking is not the most powerful force in us. The harm that’s done is obvious when people get caught in repetitive negative thinking, but positive thinking can also make a person blind to that which they really need to be responding. There’s a fine line between positive thinking and denial. And regardless of what we think, our unconscious still exerts more influence than our conscious thoughts. I believe that people who say one thing and unconsciously harbor the opposite are ultimately at much more risk of serious consequences, because they are in internal conflict and discord and not in touch with the necessity of the moment.

So I let myself feel the disappointment, the sadness, the grief, but I don’t dwell on it. It’s like bad weather; it will pass. I try not to let fearful scenarios take up space in my thinking because they are clearly only one possible future. I also try not to dwell on my desire to have my life be mended, because my desires are not reliable either. If I get too attached it makes it harder to cope with not getting what I want when that eventually happens. Inhale. . . exhale. . .

It’s good to be alive and breathing as I sit here typing on this morning knowing that you all will be reading this and joining me in being alive together right now.

with much love and gratitude for having you all with me on this great adventure, Bonnie

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Cancer Scans, Mystery, Worry, Practice, Love, & Uncertainty

I had my annual PET scan last week, and the good news is that cancer has not taken up any new residences within me. How miraculous to be entering my 8th year of life post-diagnosis!

I had a challenging week after an overly casual radiologist over-interpreted my scan, which gave me the impression that cancer had reared its ugly head again. My wonderful oncologist, Kim went over my films with the radiologist, who admitted that what he sees "lighting up" now is no more intense than it ever has been before (gee thanks for that useless insight). He's not sure why he mentioned it. They looked at all my scans since 2009 and can see how “activity” in my bones frequently goes up and down with each scan, and what I have going on now is nothing new.

No one knows why these spots in my bones intermittently light up on a scan. It could be cancer still simmering, but it also could be arthritis, inflammation, post-exercise repair, or remodeling. As long as it isn't spreading to new areas, there's nothing to do but get on with living and just monitor the situation.

I hope that the findings on the scan might have something to do with the amount of time I spend doing wave motion on my forearms and knees, which puts a lot of pressure on my ribs and sternum. I also spend a fair amount of time in plank position. I can't bear weight on my wrists, so I do any activity (exercise or Continuum) that requires being on hands and knees on my forearms, which always makes my chest throb. Since the 3 places that light up on the scan are all places that hurt when I exercise, breathe deeply, tango, or do Continuum, it's probably some form of irritation or remodeling of the bone/cartilage. I think I'm going to ease up on my upper body activities.

(This paragraph is for you Continuum folks:)
Another thing that might stress the area that's lighting up is this: I've been finding the river whose headwaters originate in my sacrum and allowing it to meander up my spine as I move with the waves up into a bridge-like position. Then I suspend at the top of the bridge and wait for the tide to turn (yum, as only Continuum people can fully appreciate), and on the way downstream, I allow my sternum and heart to sink to the bottom of the riverbed as the river meanders back down. For those of you who know what I'm talking about, I do this with "O's on the way up and "Theta's on the way down. I got tired of always having my attention on my spine rolling down (the roll-down 1 vertebra at a time gets old), so I shifted my attention to sinking down through my anterior midline. Maybe I overdid it and my ribs and sternum are talking to me in some other language I don't understand.

If any of you think this sounds intriguing and interesting, please come to Kripalu in January and spend a week with me! https://kripalu.org/presenters-programs/transformative-self-care-continuum-movement-mindfulness-and-osteopathy

No change of treatment is in order. No new decisions are called for. Worry is optional, as always. We are just going to check my tumor markers, a simple blood test, every 3-4 months for the next while.

Every time I get a bad cold or flu I feel like it is practice for dying. It's great to get to practice on something that is relatively benign, but makes me feel like I'm going to die. Every time I have a scan, I feel like it's another dress rehearsal for the eventual downturn. I don't think I flailed too much this time.

This is what "practice" is about for me. It's not about quieting the mind, or being in a permanent state of bliss. For me, it's about not being overly identified with my thoughts, opinions, and preferences. There's a little space between my melodrama and what I identify as being, "me" that makes it all a little bit easier to bear. Even when I'm feeling fear of decrepitude acutely, I like to remind myself, "there I go again". My mind is an organ that secretes thoughts like my sweat glands secrete sweat; it’s just what the mind does. (By the way, some of you have heard me say this before, and I just want to let you know that I did not originate this great line, but I cannot remember who said it – most likely Jack Kornfield, Dan Siegel, or Tara Brach. So, thank you to whom ever made this great analogy.) Thinking is just what we all do, and I'm practicing to not be too tortured by my own mind before my body is ready to crap out.

Here is how I sit with uncertainty today:
I am the same person today as I was before last week’s scan. Nothing has changed. There is a lot of mystery about how to track cancer. It’s mostly unknown and unknowable. There are still many possible futures. I won't ruin the present by postulating about having a bad time with cancer in the future. It will be hard enough to cope with it if or when it happens. Why suffer prematurely?

I am loving my life, looking forward to winter, with its soups and sweaters, a few tangos, a good film, drinking hot brown liquids by our beloved fireplace (yes, after 14 months it's working!), becoming an expert on the spas of southern Quebec (here's our favorite, so far - https://www.balnea.ca/en/experience-thermale-2/, and sharing love and friendship with all of you... and so much more.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Provocateur Is Undergoing Transformation...& My Next Kripalu Workshop

Once again, I have gone so long between blog entries that people are starting to contact me to see if I'm ok. I am. I'm fine, although I'm still having a great and challenging adventure living in my body. I have been sorting out my priorities, and I'm posting this notice to let those of you who also follow my Tango Provocateur blog that I am shutting it down. I will still write occasionally about tango, but I found that it requires too much time, energy, and expense to maintain a separate blog.

I will be writing more soon, but I wanted to let you all know that registration is open for my next workshop at Kripalu, Jan 29 - Feb 3, 2017.

Transformative Self-Care: Continuum Movement, Mindfulness, and Osteopathy

The winter season allows for time to slow down, turn inward, and cultivate deep listening, guiding you to care for yourself from a place of inner wisdom.

Osteopathic physician Bonnie Gintis has survived and thrived for more than seven years with advanced stage breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis by being curious, listening to her body, and opening to life’s mysteries.  In this program, Bonnie shares:
  • Inner resources for resilience, adaptability, and change
  • Awareness of internal experience through breath, sound, guided and silent meditation, and movement
  • Our interconnectedness with each other and with nature
  • Cultivating curiosity, becoming comfortable with uncertainty, and radically reimagining how you care for yourself.
Discover the radical possibilities for health and well-being available when you combine fluid movement practices and mindfulness meditation with the principles of osteopathy.

Here's a link for more information:
https://kripalu.org/presenters-programs/transformative-self-care-continuum-movement-mindfulness-and-osteopathy

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Courageous Hospitality Towards The Difficult, Painful, And Unknown

"May you find in yourself a courageous hospitality towards what is difficult, painful and unknown."  John O'Donohue


I awoke today, as I do many mornings feeling pain and stiffness that makes staying in bed a little longer take priority over the need to get up. I go to bed each night hoping that the next day might be easier, and that easier might become a trend. I stay committed to being informed by the moment, and yet I hold a place in my future for the hope of feeling better. Feeling better may or may not materialize. I don't dwell on wanting things to be other than the way they are, but it's part of a healthy coping mechanism to be open to other possibilities. I can't not want to feel better. 

I'm always looking for ways to reframe this paradox of being in the moment versus hoping for the next moment to feel other than the way it is. The potency behind the desire to feel better fuels my curiosity and my underlying will to live. Learning how to hold that desire while still attending to the state of how things are is a complicated dance. I'm inspired by a story about 5-yr-old Guthrie, the grandson of the poet William Stafford, who presumably said after his favorite caterpillar was squashed, “You get what you don’t want and the spirit of what you want comes and helps you.”

I frequently revisit John O'Donohue's poem, A Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness for inspiration. Each day a different line grabs my attention. Today I'm pondering the "courageous hospitality" I have learned to extend towards the cancer and auto-immunity that have taken up residence in my body. If I courageously and graciously open the door to my life, all sorts of things wash in (and out) with the natural ebb and flow of the tide. Perhaps Guthrie's idea that the spirit of something I want (to live!) will help me as I face the reality of what illness has taken away from my life.

Being courageous doesn't mean that I'm never afraid. Sometimes I am, but when that fear taints my ideas about the future, I try to let go of the scenario that hasn't yet happened. Why worry now about some possible future where I'm unable to walk, hold a cup, or dance? Why worry about unimaginable cancer treatments or dying? I channel fear into fuel for the present where I need motivation to care for myself more deeply. This is courage; feeling fear, and still living my life doing the best that I can.

"Hospitality" is the harder part of the task. I think of being generous and welcoming as something that's easy with friends and loved ones. It's challenging to find a way to genuinely extend hospitality towards the way I feel this morning. Perhaps, like in Rumi's poem, The Guest House, an unexpected visitor has cleared me out, hopefully for some new delight. I don't have to stare directly at my diseases and invite them for an open-ended stay in my body. I can however, be hospitable towards "what is difficult, painful and unknown." The future is what is likely to be "difficult, painful and unknown." I know that the future contains the inevitability of death, but until that time comes, I can easily welcome the part of the future in which I'm alive, as the spirit of wanting to live and thrive comes to escort that future into each unfolding moment.

(I also posted an entry on my other blog, www.tangoprovocateur.com today on the topic of Generosity, Kindness, Gratitude, And Compassion In Tango.) 


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Introducing "The Tango Provocateur"

This is the first in a series of essays about my relationship to embodiment and movement through the unlikely (those of you who know me know how unlikely this is) pursuit of Argentine Tango. Some backstory is necessary for you to appreciate what I've learned from exploring the odd range of activities and circumstances in my life that includes Osteopathy, ice-skating, Continuum Movement, cancer, and tango. The way I encounter all of these things shares a philosophical common ground that applies to everything in my life. In the coming weeks I will be establishing a new blog, www.tangoprovocateur.com to explore this new frontier in my conscious embodiment, specifically in the context of tango. "Bonnie Gintis Health Update" will continue to be a way for me to communicate with you about my health and well-being, and as an exploration of the philosophy of life that has supported my surviving and thriving, even in the face of life-threatening and disabling disease.



On a chilly day in the fall of 1989 shortly after my 33rd birthday I realized that the burden I had been dragging around beneath my head was my body, and I began to suspect that it held wonders. I knew a lot about bodies; after all, I was not just a physician, but an Osteopath. It was convenient and interesting to have a body so nearby, but I tried to not let it get in the way of my life. It invariably did anyway, and did more so as I continued to get older. It even distracted me occasionally with something pleasant or even pleasurable, so when it got my attention that fall day, I chose to listen and follow where it led me.

My body led me to an ice-skating rink in downtown Poughkeepsie, New York. “Learn To Skate” is what the marquee on the front of the building commanded me to pursue, and in a moment of slipping out of character I thought, “that’s a good idea.” I went inside and inquired about how to learn to skate. I was coincidentally just in time for a beginner’s class. They collected seven dollars, asked my shoe size, handed me a pair of navy blue plastic skates and pointed to the far end of the ice, where traffic cones walled off a corridor. I was perplexed about how to get there. I asked if there was there a special walkway for beginners. Could I walk around to a backdoor that would let me in the far side of the rink by the lesson area? When they told me I had to skate to get there, I burst into tears, overwhelmed by the decades of ignored and unresolved fright, fragility, hopelessness, helplessness, and clumsiness of my physically awkward childhood.

I fumbled with my wobbly and extremely uncomfortable blue plastic rental skates. I managed to get them on, and then desperately gripping the railing, shuffled to the lesson area. I arrived red-in-the-face, tears dripping down my cheeks, to meet the instructor and the six other members of my class, all eight to twelve-year-old girls.

Within an hour I could push off with the side of my blade and glide on one foot. I could turn a corner by tilting my outstretched “airplane wing” arms. I realized that if I began gliding in the trajectory of a circle that I ended up spiraling in towards the center. I became fascinated with spiraling and spinning. It felt so good to glide on the ice and move in such unexpected ways that I forgot about being self-conscious. I stopped caring about what my teacher and classmates thought of me and the people watching us from the other side of the traffic cones disappeared.

The friction of a moving blade on the surface of the ice melts a drop of water beneath it. The skate blade sluices across the thin trace created by this freshly melted ice water between the blade and the rink’s frozen surface. The interface of the movement of my body, the blade, the liquid water, and the ice created sacred shapes. My mind quieted and all I could do was feel the emergence of circles and spirals between my body and the frozen water. What had been frozen into my body began to melt and move from me into the ice. I felt my past become the foundation on top of which I skated.

My intellect had objectified my body and walled “it” off from my experience for most of my life. There is no actual “it” in this story. I had fractured myself into pieces, dissociated, and objectified my own body. I’m not sure why I did this, but I trust that there was some good reason for my young survival mechanism to create this strategy and agenda. What once might have helped me get through something difficult was being perpetuated for too long, far beyond its necessity and was now hindering me from experiencing life fully. In moments of bliss on ice, I felt my sensation of embodiment shift back into phase with my sense of wholeness.

I regularly ice skated year-round for about 7 years, until I found myself living too far from ice to rationalize the drive. I became bored with the repetitive nature of the few things I had learned to do while balanced on a blade. Skating was technically so difficult to execute that I rarely felt free to express myself fully without risk of falling. I had reached a plateau of learning and creativity due to some combination of the limits of my free time, my body’s natural limits of strength, balance, and flexibility, and the threshold of my capacity to assimilate any more kinesthetic learning of this particular form. My interest faded, but I still yearned to listen deeply and feel my own movement unfold.  My relationship to my body was only beginning and I needed a new venue to explore embodiment.

This is around the time I met Emilie Conrad, and for those of you who don’t know that story, please read my book! (click here to buy a copy)

Twenty years later, lying in bed with breast cancer eating away at my bones, I did what many dying people do; I pondered my regrets. Astor Piazzola’s “Oblivion” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0GaBi6jXNfc) could have been the soundtrack of this ordeal. In the early days after my diagnosis, the pain was so excruciating that I could barely breathe. I had to minimize the movements of my inhalation and exhalation. The tumors in my crumbling sternum and ribs wreaked havoc with this primal movement and I learned to adapt by breathing deeply into my belly without moving my chest. 

I silently pondered and surveyed my life. I had no serious regrets, but I wished I had learned to speak another language when I was young enough to have been fluent. Now it was too late and seemed somewhat irrelevant and not worth the energy.

I also wished I had learned to dance with a partner, but no dance ever called out to me. I could never get past the conventional gender roles with which you had to agree to participate. Most ballroom dances seemed exceedingly stiff and structured. Swing dance was too athletic and seemed frivolous. Salsa struck me as too fast and peppy for a zaftig Jewish girl like me. I tried Contact Improvisation, but it frequently led to what felt like a "puppy pile" and a lot of projection of people's needs on other dancers. Argentine Tango is what always got my attention. I found the music deeply moving. It’s probably best that I couldn’t understand Spanish so that I wasn’t turned off by many of the songs that have melodramatic and dated lyrics. Learning this very difficult dance seemed out of my limited reach as I contemplated my cancerous decline.

I told myself that these regrets were not so bad; I had lived a full life and done my best. I had loved well. I hadn’t done too badly in the thinking realm either. I achieved great things in my professional life. I was generous with my friends and family, and cared for other people for a living. It was in the domain of feeling that I had always been challenged. My tendency was to feel too much, too little, or the wrong thing for the situation at hand. Because physical and emotional pain so dominated the feeling realm of my early life I tended to avoid emotions and sensations that might bring my suffering into the forefront of my attention.

Perhaps it was this avoidance that allowed me to miss the growing presence of cancer as it spread. I quickly dismissed this possibility because it only led to more regrets during a time when I was soul-searching to decrease my burden. Why blame myself for the way things are? There's no way of knowing how or why some things happen. I realized that if I was going to make it through this ordeal I had to learn to be in a state of nonjudgmental acceptance without the emotional charge of self-blame. I have spent the past 6 years cultivating this state of acceptance. It has allowed me to live with the presence of cancer in my body without emotionally (and physically) decompensating. This acceptance of the way things are has guided the choices I make and the way I care for myself. Surrender to the course of my life has profoundly deepened my appreciation for each precious moment.

This acceptance has also allowed me to get curious about dancing Argentine Tango. My teacher, Tomás Howlin, likens tango to moving meditation, but points out that in meditation you can sit there sometimes looking as if you are meditating, while actually daydreaming and fooling yourself and others. In tango, if your attentiveness to the moment wavers for a second, the connection with your partner and the music is interrupted and the dance is lost. Tango is meditation with instant feedback. 

Tango requires a willingness to be uncomfortable and has increased my capacity to endure discomfort. This discomfort arises as you see all your habits and ways of being that don’t serve you in this dance where relationship, listening, and connection are foundational. The saying, “wherever you go, there you are” sums it up. All of your habits in relationship, compensations, and avoidances that you’ve made work in the rest of your life, show up as impediments to the dance. And in turn, the dance offers a chance to finally examine and let go of these strategies that don’t really work. The gift of tango is freedom, but you have to climb an extremely steep slope to obtain it.

Tango without courage and vulnerability is nothing but a technical performance, like a movie set that has striking visual effect, but no actual depth. This dance is spontaneous, improvisational, precise, and intimate, an unlikely combination of attributes. It has its awkward and occasionally painful moments, but the rewards make it all worthwhile. There is amazing pleasure in being able to communicate intention and movement and to share creativity within a constantly changing shape of space. Tango offers a way to live with uncertainty and meet the unknown with grace and fluidity. 

Occasionally and usually unexpectedly, a blissful and transcendent dance unfolds. Two dancers seamlessly communicate and respond to each other and the music joins them as a third and equal partner. This joy is the reward for patience, presence, and persistence. I don't mean the kind of transcendence in which you leave your body. What I mean is an embodied transcendence that transforms everything in its path to Grace. 

Osteopathy taught me to listen to and engage with other people's bodies. Ice skating awoke in me the desire to move. Continuum Movement taught me to listen to my own body and my environment, and to explore the mysteries of movement, stillness, breath and health. Cancer teaches me to stay and surrender to the necessity of the moment. Tango combines all this life experience as I learn to listen, to lead, and to follow in new and unexpected ways.

(In the coming weeks, you can find more about embodied tango as a personal and radical political act at www.TangoProvocateur.com)