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When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air

I read an excerpt of When Breath Becomes Air in the Wall Street Journal about a month ago and immediately contacted my local library and requested a copy. It was not even published yet. When the fresh copy arrived at my doorstep, I knew I was the first person to have my hands on it. The skies opened and the angels sang their hallelujahs.

This is the story of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer at the age of 36.

My age.

On the one hand, the story is interesting simply because of the reversal. The physician becomes the patient. A life brimming with opportunity. A man whose job it is to save lives, can’t save his own.

Makes for a good movie but when it’s real life, it’s sobering.

Kalanithi wrestles with the question that faces all of us when we (or our loved ones) are given a terminal diagnosis: How long do I have left? Last January, my mom was given a Stage IV cancer diagnosis. It’s a question that washes over every day like a watercolor painting. When you don’t know how long you have, your focus sharpens to what matters most.

Would he continue practicing surgery? Should he travel? Will he accept the dream job he worked so hard to earn? Should he and his wife start a family, knowing his child would grow up fatherless?

These questions cut to the core. What is the meaning of life? What does it mean to have a quality of life?

We have certainly wrestled with our own versions of these questions with my mom. I truly believe she is a shining example of what it means to live without being defined by your circumstances. She is not — nor will ever be — a cancer patient. She is Judi. And she has cancer. She is brave. And she is strong.

The same was true of Dr. Kalanithi.

I just wrote “The same is true” and changed it to “was.” That’s the nature of death. You wrestle with it. You never know exactly which side of the verb tense you are on.  He wrestled with it too. “I was a neurosurgeon” versus “I am a neurosurgeon.”

My mom is an artist and a teacher. My dad was a firefighter and a chief. Each careers of purpose and meaning. Of work that goes beyond themselves. Even saving lives.

I’ve thought about how I would answer those questions if it was me with the terminal diagnosis at 36. It hardly took any time at all for me to know my answer.

I would quit my job. I would write. I would invest in my niece and nephew until they couldn’t take it anymore. I would be present.

This little blog is my way of starting today. I’ve long had a dream of being a published author. Growing up in the library, I wanted to see my name on the spine of a book. It’s selfish, I know. If I wanted to cure cancer, that would be noble. But there’s a part of me that has always wanted to bring someone else the same joy I have when I get my hands on a new book. I love the discovery and learning and imagination and simple pleasure that is derived from reading a good book. Of course, I have no idea what I would write about, let alone who would publish me. But I know that the first step in being a writer, is writing. So this blog will probably be a little haphazard for a while until I gain some clarity and focus. I hope you stick with me! And if you have any thoughts on the matter, please leave a comment.

And if you are feeling reflective, I’m curious to know — what would you do if you had a terminal diagnosis at 36?

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

This short book — The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo — is a New York Times best seller and has taken the world by storm. I sat on the library waiting list for two months. Naturally, when it arrived, I counted down the minutes until the evening when I could curl up to read, ready to experience some life-changing magic.

This magical system — the KonMarie Method — boils down to two rules: (1) Discard or (2) Keep.

At first glance, there is nothing life-changing about it. It’s quite obvious, actually. You either keep things or get rid of them. But what makes her method distinctive is two-fold: (1) organize by category (2) the absolute requirement to physically touch every single item.

1. Organize by Category
Most people say “I’m going to clean-out my bedroom, or the closet, or the kitchen.” The problem is you never fully tidy because each room consists of items that are easy to get rid of (e.g. clothes that no longer fit) and hard to get rid of (your grandmother’s dish). Trying to do all of those at once means you will get overwhelmed and quit. This method goes from easiest to hardest: Clothes — Books — Papers — Miscellaneous — Sentimental. Then, you are supposed to take all the items from that category from your entire house and move to requirement number 2 which is:

2. Physically Touch Every Single Item 
At this point, all of your clothes are in a pile in the center of the floor. (It helps to sort again by tops, bottoms, jackets, etc.). Then, you pick up each item individually. If it doesn’t bring you joy, then you discard it. It’s that simple. You continue this process through each category. The goal is to surround yourself with things that are life-giving and bring you happiness.

But what about utilitarian items? A spatula doesn’t bring me joy — until it’s time to flip a pancake. Then I am quite happy I have it because it serves its purpose well. Same with a trash can. You get the idea.

And this is when it gets a little woo woo for me.

When an item is ready to be discarded, you are to say thank you to the item for doing its job and then happily send it along.

Oh it gets better.

When you come home from work and take your shoes off, you are to say thank you for keeping my feet dry and bringing me home safely.

If we treat our house and its contents better, they will treat us better. Eastern Philosophy meets the Golden Rule.

The new tactic I learned and cannot wait to try is the KonMarie Method for Folding Clothes. She says we are not supposed to stack clothes because the clothes on the bottom of the pile have to bear all the weight and we should be kinder to our clothes (more woo woo). Instead, she recommends tightly folding clothes vertically, like books on a bookshelf. Your drawers will hold more and at a glance you will see all that you have. And clothes should be kept in a gradient (I do that already! Gold star!). She also says you should fold everything except those items that do not want to be folded. (Ask your silk shirt. It will tell you).

While I can’t testify to the life-changing magic of this book, I can wholeheartedly agree that her brand of tidying up is life-changing. I realized that I have been doing this instinctively most of my life. Many of you know that I am a minimalist by nature. A firm believer that outer order leads to inner calm, I have made it a habit to go to bed each evening with the house in order. I don’t keep paper. A few years ago I did a massive purge and sold or gave away five bookshelves of books (my friends!). I’ve even gotten rid of shoeboxes full of photos (which I am told is the cardinal sin) — not because they are from a time in my life I want to forget, but because some moments in life I really only need to keep a snapshot of, no matter how wonderful it was.

When I clear out the clutter and only keep what I love, I have a better sense of who I am, what I like, and who I want to become.

And then there’s my couch.

I hate my couch.

My couch came with the condo I purchased and then followed me to my new home simply because everyone who sits on my couch, LOVES MY COUCH because it is the MOST COMFORTABLE COUCH IN THE WORLD. And to their point, a comfortable couch is a good couch. Meanwhile it mocks me daily with its fat arms. I like slender arms and furniture with shapely legs. The back should have a hint of curve for interest. Am I asking a lot of furniture? Perhaps. I blame my mother.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what organizing methods work for you, things that spark joy, and if you have read the book. Leave a comment!

Blog Hop : Meet Gina

Blogging is a strange, entertaining, addicting enterprise. For me, it’s fun. Some people ride motorcycles, I blog. Some people go to the movies. I read blogs.

One of the bloggy things to do is a Blog Hop. Goes like this: you answer 4 questions and then hop on over to another blog. (Bloggers are simple creatures). Here is where Gina tagged me. This particular blog hop is a way to meet other writers.

You know how in Suits everyone thinks the lead character Mike is a lawyer, but he’s really a fraud who faked a law degree? There’s a connection.

Ready?

1. What am I writing or working on?

<birds chirping>.

2. How does my work differ from others of this genre?

New 2014 goal: Identify personal genre.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Finally, a question I can answer. I write because I love to write. I write about everyday life because generally speaking, I don’t think the average person notices humor in everyday life. I think the quirks of regular people doing regular things is a thousand times funnier than watching a sitcom.

4. How does my writing process work?

My best posts are written in under 10 minutes. (By comparison, I have been working on this for the past hour and a half). Usually my inspiration comes when I run in the morning and I’m just thinking about life and observing the world around me. By the time evening comes, if I still remember what I was thinking about, then I’ll quickly fire up the blog and post away, no editing. Ever.

Suffice it to say, I’m a “writer” who is not A Writer.

But let me introduce you to someone who is.
ginabutzMeet Gina Butz at The View From Here. I like to think Gina and I have a lot in common because we have the same enneagram personality type (Achiever!) and like to run. However, she can sand tables and speak Chinese which puts her solidly winning the marketable skills race.

Gina sees God at work in everyday life and writes about it, always with a call towards more authentic living. Her writing is short, crisp, relatable, and slightly self-deprecating. This one from February is still my favorite: Can We Be Both?

Her speciality is writing about life in transition, so if you find yourself in that phase right now – whether it is a beginning, new loss, new home, or new stage of life, I think you will benefit from her posts. I find Gina to possess this rare combination of wisdom, encouragement, and vulnerability. Here’s a link to get you started.

And now I’m tagging some of my other writing friends! I’d love to hear your answers to these questions!

Surviving Winter

I’m loving all the comments from yesterday’s post! If you haven’t weighed in already on which seat I should choose for the next flight, then head on over and let me know. The answers coming through are all over the map. Literally. I love it!

Tonight is another Florida cold front so you had better believe that my pantry is stocked with soup (yes, the Moroccan style from last week’s Friday Favorites), and by 6PM I had already bid all my neighbors good night as we turned inside for our long winter’s eve.

There’s something quite remarkable about a Florida winter. Because we only get it for snippets — days, sometimes only hours at a time — I think we all cherish it a little more. The pace of life slows down.  I’ve been curling up with my book in front of the fire (or the fake fire, as the case may be). The dog is beyond adorable in his scarf and sweater. Norman Rockwell would be quite proud.

gardenofbeastsjpgI can’t remember if I shared this already, but here’s what I’m currently reading: In the Garden of Beasts – Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.

Oh my. Can.not.put.it.down.

If you are a political junkie at all (or just need something to talk about at the Superbowl party), this is your book. You can literally find me on the edge of my seat muttering what will Ambassador Dodd do next?! It’s a true story about the Ambassador’s family during Hitler’s rise to power. Last night, President Hindenburg died. All I can say is, uh-oh Germany.

So that’s what’s happening around these parts. What’s keeping you company during these winter nights? Reply in the comments. I’d love to hear!

Top 10 Favorite Biographies (today)

I was asked to recommend some of my favorite biographies and I had to all but stop my inner Rory Gilmore from making a color-coded report with binder tabs.

I love biographies.

I’ve always been fascinated by stories that happen behind closed doors. Part of the genius of The West Wing (the very best show no longer on television) is that you get exposed to the five minutes before what the world sees. You see what got cut on the speechwriting floor before the State of the Union. What’s hidden from the press room. What never makes it to the President’s desk. It’s all fascinating to me. (Plus, hello. Rob Lowe).

Biographies take you inside the life of and mind of people who have, in some measure, changed the world enough to warrant their story being told and you taking the time to read it. When I read a biography, I think of it as an extended coffee with a fascinating person.

In no order other than how they come out of my head, here are some biographies I have particularly enjoyed reading:

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
I’ve written about this book before. A professor at Carnegie Mellon and a Disney Imagineer, Pausch learned he had a terminal illness. This was the last lecture he gave his students and ultimately the story for his wife and children. Touching. Moving. Inspiring.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
I can’t put this book down!! I bought it for my dad for Christmas and immediately swiped it. The true story of the American ambassador’s family in Berlin at the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe
You know I had to. Also eternally grateful I never pursued a career in Tinseltown.

Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia by Carmen bin Laden
I’ve written about this book before as well. Sister-in-law of Osama bin Laden, she is Persian and married a Saudi. She chose to move to Saudi Arabia, wear the burqua and eventually fled with her daughters to escape the oppression.

Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez
An American woman starts a beauty school in Afghanistan where women could earn an income after the fall of the Taliban. Funny, insightful, warm. A fantastic read.

Fearless: the Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team Six Operator Adam Brown by Erik Blehm
If you are thinking about becoming a SEAL, read this book. Shows the rigors of what it takes to become a SEAL and the faith and courage you need to face life’s most difficult challenges.

Eat, Pray, Love and Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert
Okay, I loved these books and actually preferred Committed more. The Julia Roberts movie version is pretty to watch, but felt a little long and slow. This is a case where the books are much better. It’s about a 30ish girl who is recently divorced and on a quest to find herself, she chooses to go to Italy to eat, India to pray, and Indonesia to learn about love.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl
A guy survives four concentration camps, including Auschwitz? I’m going to listen to what he has to say about how to hande suffering.

No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden by Mark Owen
This book is fascinating simply because of the subject matter. I think the movie Zero Dark Thirty was based on this book (which, of course, was based on actual events). I was most intrigued by the number of times they practiced the mission. It’s not all G.I.Joe. These raids are well orchestrated events.

Forever Liesl: A Memoir of the Sound of Music by Charmain Carr
Of course I’m going to read a book about the eldest daughter in Sound of Music! I read all the Growing up Brady books, too (as in astro-turf Brady Bunch. Love them).

Question: What biographies have you enjoyed reading? 

Behold the Lamb of God

I didn’t grow up celebrating Advent — at least we never used that word exactly. But I certainly made my fair share of Christmas countdowns and I knew the whole point of the Christmas season was to celebrate the coming of a Savior.

Advent is an ancient word that means the coming of a Messiah. The people of God were waiting — and had been for centuries — for God to send a Messiah who would be their king and free them from oppression and establish a kingdom of peace instead of the war they had been enduring.

Around the 30th year of the first century (30 CE) John the Baptist  is the guy who got to announce that Messiah had come and He was walking the same streets and buying food at the local market and rubbing shoulders with regular people and nobody thought he was anything special, but he was. His name was Jesus. And he would be the Savior of the whole world.

Behold, the Lamb of God.  

Tonight I read Day 1 of the 25 day countdown to Christmas. If you are looking for a way to focus your mind and heart during the holidays, I cannot recommend this book enough! Behold the Lamb of God, an Advent Narrative by Russ Ramsey (link to book). Each chapter takes less than 10 minutes to read. I started this tradition last year and I found it to be the best way to begin or end my day. Light the Christmas tree, curl up in your comfy chair, and read the story out loud. Seriously. Even if you are alone. It’s the Christmas story and stories are meant to be told and heard. I find those ten minutes a day to be calming, restorative, and peaceful. I hope you do, too.