Greenhouse Days

greenhouse crop seedsThere is no act more hopeful than buying seeds. I am a seed junkie, and cannot help myself. So when the ads for “end-of-season sale seeds” started coming into my inbox, I spent a lot of time reading the descriptions and dreaming of next year.

Our greenhouse is in the final stages. It has been three years of work in gaps in the prairie/landscaping season for Steve and his partner. This fall only the “curtains” needed to be installed to make it fully enclosed. And in the past week Steve has dug a trench and laid the conduit for the electrician to come in and wire it. Once we have electricity, the pump guy will come out and install the water, hopefully in a way that we can use a wand to water plants in the spring. I’d like to get a large (or multiple) raised bed out there before the ground freezes, but that might have to wait until spring. Steve’s plan for the winter is building tables and a small “patio” where we will enjoy sunny winter days in relative comfort in our big glass house. We’ll also be rebranding his business and working on a new website for Prairiescapes. As soon as we are able, we’ll start seeds for prairie grasses and native flower plugs.

I will start my seeds, including good varieties of peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes, that I can grow in the greenhouse. To that end, I bought “Arbison F1 OG,” hybrid indeterminate organic tomatoes recommended for greenhouse growing, and “Unistars F1 TRTD,” a high-bearing greenhouse cucumber  (pricey even on sale). I also hope to grow trays and trays of greens in the greenhouse. (I bought some “pelleted” romaine seeds to see if I could grow large heads instead of my usual mixed “leaves.”) The greenhouse will be unheated, but actually will have a stove if needed. And we’re going to move the lid of the cold frame in there for a greenhouse-within-a-greenhouse system that will give greens an extra layer of protection on borderline freezing nights.

The goal in next years, for me, is to be able to grow plugs/seedlings for a local CSA and grow a number of crops for sale at our local market and maybe at the winter farmer’s market (it is not easy to get into our farmer’s market with conventional crops, but I’m not sure anyone offers early greens.)  But this year is to figure out how the greenhouse works and get practices in place. I would hate, for example, to start all the broccoli plants (even if I could) for the local CSA and have them wiped out either by a freeze or aphids.

leeks before cleaningAt home, I am not eating very well– my appetite and taste are both off. But I am embracing “leek season.” So far that means a pan-roasted chicken with leek sauce (mmm, leek sauce) that was somewhat rich (I never cook with bacon! And I did pour off half the grease from the bacon and chicken before putting in the oven). Leeks show up in a lot of clean leeksgratins with cream and cheese. I like them in a potato-leek soup with a little bit of curry powder for flavor. But for now I have worked through the “prep,” cutting the ends off two buckets of leeks and washing them for storage in the fridge. Leeks have the longest season– I plant the tiny seeds back in February and don’t harvest until after the first frost. Between they require thinning, weeding, and hilling (thanks, Kate!) to develop the thick, white stalks. They provide a rather small harvest once they’re cleaned and trimmed (a lot of leeks go into one pot of soup), but they feel like the most luxurious crop. Thus welcoming the “rich” treatment!

pre-roasted cauliflower

pre-roasted cauliflower

I’ve also been working on the two large cauliflower left in my kitchen (that soup never happened). I recommend roast cauliflower with parmesan, particularly this recipe. I wasn’t too sure about the onions and garlic, but I have to say the onions particularly stole the show. They become so beautifully carmelized in this dish, they really add depth. The cauliflower is also delicious, particularly with the hint of garlic/onion/parm flavor that doesn’t overwhelm them. I’ve made it twice!


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Finally, a Crime Podcast Done Right

in-the-dark-logoI’ve been more than ambivalent about the recent trend in crime-exploring podcasts that throw doubt on the results of the criminal justice system. It’s not even so much that I doubt their editing and production process led us to the right conclusion (though there’s some of that) as I’ve just felt they weren’t very good at storytelling. Serial season 1 was the worst, in my opinion. And the fact that it opened the door to millions of people binge-listening to these radio programs was really discouraging to me. It seemed the last refuge of the short-attention-span, no-rabbit-hole-too-small online culture. AND it led many people to make decisions about an actual case that the podcast didn’t itself make and couldn’t really be drawn from the podcast. They weren’t trying to solve the case. They were just trying to show that Adnan didn’t get a fair shake. That they did in the most random, meandering, confoundingly confusing way possible. And they took the longest possible time to do it.

But I was very interested from the beginning to hear what Madeleine Baran and the American Public Media team would do with the Jacob Wetterling case in their series In the DarkI was especially interested to hear the series when, two weeks before it was scheduled to air, Danny Heinrich confessed from prison and led law enforcement to Jacob’s body, which had been buried in a corn field 20 miles from his home for 27 years. Suddenly the case was solved, so “who done it” was not in play. APM moved up the scheduling by a week, and also went back and re-edited, a great piece of work in itself, so the series would match what had been revealed. But the essence of their piece was intact. Their question was: “Why did it take so long to get Danny Heinrich?” Where, how, and why had the investigation– especially the investigation conducted by the Stearns County sheriff’s department– failed?

jacob-wetterlingThe Jacob Wetterling abduction looms large in the area where I live. The case was hugely important in establishing a sex offender registry in this country, and so had national significance as well. When news of the confession broke, it made The New York Times.

I live less than a mile from the abduction site (as the crow flies). In 2010, the sheriff’s office conducted an ill-advised and  harassing search of a farm next to the site and for days we had the whir of news helicopters over our house. I ended up writing a short story about the experience.

The reason this podcast is so good is because it is well written and well organized. Baran breaks down the story into key themes and explores each one fully and meaningfully in an episode. She talks to the right people and she uses the interviews wisely. She not only follows the narrative in a straightforward and manageable way, she sees what is important in the narrative. She sees why and when and how the case gets away from the local investigators: in the beginning when the sheriff’s office didn’t canvas the neighborhood; in the days when the case drew national media attention and the scope broadened into psychic and serial killer territory; in the desperation when a new sheriff focused on the easiest-at-hand scapegoat and hounded him.

Why this podcast is important to me is that it has changed the narrative for me here in St. Joseph. I have written a draft of a novel about another bungled investigation, of a police killing in Cold Spring, Minnesota, just up the road. I approached the novel with the narrative that is firmly in place for many of us out here– that we are small, friendly, safe communities where nothing very bad ever happens. And because of that, when something truly bad happens, it is “outside” of us, and so impossible for us to “solve.” No small-town police department, or sheriff’s department, can be expected to manage cases this complicated and beyond the pale. But that’s not really true. The case could have been solved. The Stearns County Sheriff’s office could have done better (as one person in the podcast says, nothing presented in the podcast is new; all the evidence was there, all these years). Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s hard to get away from the fact that a local blogger put all this together before Baran or law enforcement.

The truth is, the Cold Spring case also suffered greatly because the department arrested and focused on (and ruined the life of) the wrong guy in the days after the crime. And more than that, these two crimes are not the only horrific crimes in this county. Baran talks about other unsolved cases that should have been solved: the murder of two teen girls in the 1980s that was not taken seriously and was lost in the politics of a sheriff’s election; and the murder of a woman and her children out in the country in the 1970s where a simple question to the one surviving member of the family could have broken open the case. Cold Spring also had one of the nation’s post-Columbine high school shootings. Each of these things shook the community, and then subsided. Maybe we didn’t go back completely to thinking of the area as small-town-safe, but I do see kids with greater freedom around here than I see elsewhere (and I’m glad about that, as long as they’re also watchful and not careless about safety and the dangers of this world). But whether this is overall a safe place is not what is at issue. What is at issue is the way we push away what we don’t want to face, what we don’t want to claim. Although we waited with hope and with the porch light on for Jacob to possibly return from the abduction, the truth of what happened did not come to light because we/the sheriff’s department did not bring it to light.

To explain how deep this myth runs for me, I have to remember something I realized teaching a catechism (faith formation) class at the Cold Spring Catholic church. One week we were told that in lieu of the planned lesson, we’d be doing a “safe environment” training about childhood sexual abuse. This yearly pre-emption of catechism was a response to the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, which included cases throughout this very Catholic area. It made me uncomfortable, though, that the parents hadn’t been told about this change in schedule. I am all for this kind of education, but I am also a sexual abuse survivor, and my reaction was that this was not a wise thing to drop without warning on parents and 13-16 year old children. I had other issues with how this initiative was being rolled out, but what struck me was that I know the statistics and it was nearly certain that there were victims of sexual abuse (albeit not necessarily by clergy) sitting at those long tables in Heritage Hall. Were we prepared for fallout– including possible accusations– that might come out of this? But my sense was, talking to others, that it was ok because it was a warning about something that might happen, not something that had happened. Of course this is another giant can of worms, but I think it’s part of the same story that we don’t believe these things can happen in our community. If they do, they have nothing to do with “us.” In many ways that is what went wrong in the Jacob Wetterling investigation, even as a member of our community was scapegoated.

In the Dark is a masterful series, well worth listening to in its entirety. And when you do, don’t think it’s only about a small town in Central Minnesota, which you might think of as backward or incompetent or just plain unequipped to see the truth. Because we all turn away to preserve the myths of our small towns and communities. And kudos to Madeleine Baran and her crew for telling us the story in such a meaningful and clear way.

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Chicken Chili


Taking advantage of this steroid day, when I have energy before the poisons in my system take hold, I made a big pot of chili. I made this once before, a couple weeks ago, when I learned Rancho Gordo had prepared my second shipment of beans for the bean club.

rancho-gordo-beansI am not keeping up with the shipments of beans!

In my defense, I couldn’t eat beans for several weeks after the surgery. But as soon as my taste came back, I had a serious craving for Mexican food. So I went looking for a chicken chili recipe, an EASY one, and found it at Her recipe is for a slow cooker. And to be honest, I’ve been burned once before trying to cook dried beans right in a recipe in a slow cooker (bad case of beansplosion in the digestive system). So I decided both times to soak the beans overnight and even give them a 30-minute start on the stove. In the first case, this worked perfectly. In the recent batch, in which I used Lila beans, they are a bit overcooked. Which in chili is way better than undercooked.

This time around, I also used a rotisserie chicken. So everything but the onions and peppers were fully cooked. Which made this a 30-minute chili (aside from bean prep, of course, but I did that a day ahead).

This chili lends itself to lots of additions, though it is delicious on its own. You can add corn, cilantro chutney (my fave), barley, whatever. I had the last of my tomatillos from the garden so I pureed them (with the garlic, another step saved!) and cooked them down with the onion before adding the other ingredients.

oreganoAnd to really make this perfect, I got my box of beans (which included black beans right at black bean soup season, and black-eyed-peas which I’ve always wanted to use for New Year’s Day). In it was a wonderful extra: freshly dried Mexican oregano! Primo! Just what the recipe called for!

I hope you make this– it also freezes nicely. Here it is with my modifications (click on the link above if you want better banter and the original recipe for slow cooker or stovetop).

Mexican Chicken Chili

1 rotisserie chicken
1 medium yellow onion, chopped small
1 large or a few small ancho poblano peppers, chopped small
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
Ground chili powder of your choice, to taste (or a jalapeno for hotter chili)
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes (I used a quart of garden-canned with liquid)
5 cups of cooked beans
chicken broth
additions such as corn, barley, pureed tomatillos, red or green peppers, cilantro

garnish with sour cream, cheese, cilantro, as you like, and serve with corn or flour tortillas

  1. If using dry beans, soak overnight. If you want to finish them in the chili, just put all the chili ingredients except the chicken in a large pot with 4-5 cups of chicken broth so there is enough for the beans to absorb and cook for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, then add chicken and serve. You need about half that if the beans are pre-cooked from cans or if you simmered them in chicken broth or water for 30 minutes after soaking. If your beans are cooked, go to step 2.
  2. In a large pot, sautee onion and pepper in a small amount of oil for 5 minutes. Add the spices, tomatoes, 2 cups of chicken broth and the beans. Shred the chicken and add it to the pot and let it simmer for the flavors to meld for 20-30 minutes. Serve!


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Good News

Me at my post-surgical pre-second-round best.

Me at my post-surgical pre-second-round best.

Good news. I didn’t think the day I went back to chemotherapy would be a good day, but it really was. I had a PET scan, the first post-surgery, on Wednesday. Also checked my blood again and the CA-125 marker had dropped on its own from 193 to 118. Still too high (normal is under 35) but a very good sign– sometimes, I hear anecdotally, surgery will cause it to rise.

Better, though, was when my oncologist came in to give us the PET results and said the results were “good.” He has never been that unqualified about a scan result before. There was no visible thickening of the lung lining– because it is unreachable by surgery without opening the chest, it will always be the lung we are watching. “No evidence of residual disease” was the pronouncement on the whole scan. And while he spun the image around to show me nothing in the bones, nothing anywhere, I tried to see my organs– what was still there and what was missing. I couldn’t see anything, though, except my normal glowing kidneys and bladder. And that is good news.

This means for my last two rounds of chemotherapy (we need to bring that number down and get any microscopic or otherwise too-small-to-scan traces) I will be on a “lighter” second-line drug, in combination with the nasty Carboplatin. The Carbo has been very effective. We have cut out the Taxol, mostly because my neuropathy in my feet remains severe. I am getting used to it, but my feet are still completely numb/tingly all the time.

I got my first dose Thursday, and today am feeling the positive effects of that pre-treat steroid dose. More good news is that I won’t have to take steroids the day before, as that was to treat my allergy to Taxol. Best of all, though, in the 3-week cycle I get the 3rd week off, no treatment. Time for the blood cell counts to revive and then the one last shot of Carbo + Gemza, one solo Gemza, and we hope I will be done for a long time. The oncologist said, presuming the CA-125 goes back to normal (it was at 18 in August), we enter a time of “watchful waiting.” This is him reminding me that I am Stage IV, even if the surgeon staged me back to IIIC. In any event, I hope for a long, long stretch of watchful waiting with good numbers and no thickening of the lung lining.


This will be a two-post day. I want to separate the recipe from the health news. But I’ve taken advantage of this steroid day to refill the larder and fridge and freezer for what lies ahead, do some laundry, and cook up a great pot of chili!



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cottonwoodsA big source of discussion around here this year has been the rows of poplar trees that line our driveway. They are big and shaggy but have been a really nice feature of the property. They give the driveway a stately feel.

They also do some first class rustling. We have three ash trees at the end of the drive that provide excellent shade for the screen porch. We have two fine locust trees for visual interest and dappled shade by the steps. And a few years ago Steve planted three good maples at strategic points around the house for fall color. But none of them rustle like the poplars.

And when the starlings come, now and then, by the hundreds if not the thousands, there is no place for them to all roost or lift off from en masse except those poplars.

Steve has been talking for at least three years about cutting them all down. I was not on board for several years. And this year word got out and one by one people have expressed their dismay. His brother in the Cities thinks he’s gone nuts.

My parents think it’s downright cruel, especially given my cancer, to decimate the landscape that way, to chop down those magnificent trees! My step-daughter wants to know if it could wait two more years, until after her wedding (she is not yet engaged). No one, not a single person has voted on the side of chopping them down and hauling them away.

single-oakBut given the time (for me this has been under discussion for years), I’ve come around to the idea. Although I love the poplars, whatever comes next will also be very nice. The poplars interfere with Steve’s vision of the place, which is prairie with oak savannah here and there. He says he has some larger oaks he can put in clusters off the drive.

This might be the year they come down. Or maybe only some of them will come down. I asked Steve to start at the end of the drive and move toward the house– in case the starlings decide to come next summer.


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First Frost Kitchen

late peppers

late peppers

The garden season this year has played out consistently. There has been a lot of growth, a fair amount of disease, and meager harvests. Only the poblano peppers (a plant I bought, didn’t start from seed) produced enough small peppers for cooking. In the process I discovered a great, simple, flavorful chicken chili recipe from Smitten Kitchen that has also rewarded my desire to eat more beans.

But the pimentos and other sweet reds are just starting to produce a few fruits, too little too late. I’m hoping to fix this with the use of the greenhouse next summer, supplying the early heat that will kick them into producing fruit. I’ve always had big, beautiful pepper plants loaded with fruit. So I’m mystified. This article says they are pollinated by wind, which is also concerning– maybe I should start them in the greenhouse and then move them to the outdoor beds. That article also makes me tired. Maybe I’ll just tack it up to a bad year and do what has always worked in the past (i.e., just plant them).

tomatillos-octThe tomatillos also did not develop as usual. The two plants were loaded with fruit, but the fruit didn’t ripen and fill out the husks. Instead of buckets of fruit, I had small pails, which I did simmer down and freeze for a few tomatillo chicken dinners this winter.

And I’ve appreciated the frost-time scaling back of the garden. My sister and I brought in the squash, crookneck and butternut. They’re a little scrappy, too. Today I diced a bunch and in addition to a large roasted vegetable dinner we’re planning, blanched and froze three quarts.

squash-cutI didn’t make it to the garlic festival this year, so for the first time I’ll be replanting my own seed garlic– so I sat and chose the best bulbs this morning, too.

tomatoes-octIn the garden itself there are still those powerhouses, cherry tomatoes! And the king of the post-frost harvest, leeks (potato leek soup to come). And the always-fruitful kale, as well as an array of fresh herbs.

After the surgery, I was quite frustrated by my bland diet. Finally my taste is back and I couldn’t eat anything with flavor because of my digestion! But even at its blandest, I was so happy eating my own potatoes. Thanks again to Kate Ritger, my sister Kathy, my step-daughter Julia, and husband Steve, who made those potatoes possible by planting, weeding, and hilling.

I’m finally back in full form this week and eating things I love that aren’t necessarily good for me: ribs, Indian food, Mexican food, etc. I’ve seriously had it with being as healthy as possible, though I am being diligent on the exercise end. This, too, is a way of regrouping before we start chemo this coming Thursday– giving oneself over to life’s pleasures, including culinary ones. The leek potato soup (with a touch of curry powder) can come later, when I return to bland land.


And it feels good to be “putting up” reasonable quantities of foods I’ve grown. As always, though we’re not dependent on the harvest for our food, giving us the sense that we’re ready for winter– we’re ready for whatever lies ahead.

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Elena Ferrante Revealed

my brilliant friend
In one of my early care packages, my friend Paula sent me all four of “the Neapolitan novels” by Elena Ferrante. The thousands of pages and sprawling story of a friendship between two women was both a wonderful goal and literary experience during chemotherapy.

I also became caught up in the big question: Who is Elena Ferrante? The author behind the pseudonym managed to keep her identity secret for decades, but in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, her identity has been revealed. 

It wasn’t that hard to find her– anyone who has sold 3.5 million books worldwide is likely to leave a royalty trail, and her purchase of two large apartments in an expensive area of Rome led the reporter right to her. But that’s not at all interesting.

Since the “outing,” all media everywhere have jumped on the question of whether she was owed her privacy– lots of outrage has been expressed by those who would no doubt have broken the story if they could.

For me, the question of “who is she” has actually been about an assessment of her accomplishment as a writer. Because the question has been: How can someone so fully inhabit a character, a fictional character, who tells her story in the first person (suggesting for most readers a close relationship between author and character, fair or not) so compellingly? Is she a great fiction writer, or is this a 21st century project that like so many others blurs the line between truth and fiction?

The answer seems to be that she is truly an extraordinary fiction writer. Whatever parallels — familiarity with small publishing houses and 1970s-80s feminist writers, connection to a college in Pisa which her daughter, not she herself, attended, knowledge of Naples through her husband– she made up this world and these stories.

Patterns of ChildhoodKnowing the author also helps us track and understand her influences. What I find actually interesting in the article is the connection between Anita Raja (Elena Ferrante) and Christa Wolf, whose work she translated from German into Italian. Christa Wolf was the first person to shape for me the loose links between memory and memoir, between writing and recall of a life and shaping a narrative. I carried around her book Patterns of Childhood for years. (Ironically, this book has been renamed.) In it she tries to reclaim and tell the story of her childhood in Hitler’s Germany, in a town that by her adolescence was part of Poland. Raja herself was born in Worms, Germany, where her family of Polish Jews had emigrated. Surely this information offers possibilities for more in-depth analysis of her Quartet.

The Lost DaughterBut maybe most interesting of all, it allows us to explore this fictional accomplishment– not just the four novels, but also the writing she has done “around” the issue of her own identity and the identity of her characters. My desire to go further into this character, if not the author, led me to order the book The Lost Daughter, which seems to be alluded to in the final book of the Quartet, and which gives a different account of a similar story to the one told there, although the narrator is now an outsider observing a large Neapolitan family on a beach.

Maybe this earlier book is the autobiographical source, a story that she then took to its logical conclusion– through her imagination– in the Quartet. Maybe they are both invented.

There is another volume referred to in the New York Review of Books piece, though, the Frantumaglia, which the reporter translates as “a jumble of fragments.” It is, now that we know the identity of Elena Ferrante, an even more impressive compilation of fictional pieces, this time posing as clues to her identity, the “daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress.” You want to know more about who wrote those books?

I will invent an author for you.

I for one like knowing the secret. I think it adds depth to the overall project. The past decade has been one story after another of authors masquerading behind memoirs and autobiographies that are exposed as fictions. Here we have the crazy reverse– an author who insisted her fiction was fiction and we couldn’t quite believe it. We wanted memoir and autobiography instead. We wanted it to be true. Even though no traces of it– not of Lina and her shoes, not of Elena and her radical novels, not of the Solara brothers and their specific brutality (though it is not hard to find brutality, or radical novels, or beautiful Italian women in shops). Perhaps the only echo, slight and itself a romantic fantasy, is in the nickname Ms. Raja calls her husband, that of the romantic “hero” of the books, Nino.


(For more fun, Google “fan casting Elena Ferrante,” for a look at some delicious possibilities for Nino when the inevitable films are cast!)

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con-cycloneMy sister has been staying with me the past ten days as I recover from surgery (three weeks ago). It’s been a really great time of visiting and she has leant her strength where I don’t have it. She has cleaned my house top to bottom (you should see her wield a Shark vacuum and all its attachments), done all the cooking and grocery shopping, AND cleared out the garden (no small task) of weeds. But mostly she has accompanied me on walks and in talks and watching fall come to the prairie.

She also accompanied me to my oncologist appointment on Tuesday. It was a roller coaster of a day.

I have been expecting to have two more rounds of chemotherapy– to get whatever is left– and from the time just before the surgery until this week I have been dreading it. But back at the cancer center having my port accessed by the wonderful nurse, filling her in on my surgery and experience with the nurse’s strike, and hearing how things work at CentraCare, which is a non-union shop with strong representation for the nurses, a lot of that dread melted away.

In the office visit, Dr. Ufearo was his usual inscrutable self while I was trying as I always am to cast whatever he said as best-news-ever. Mercy Hospital hadn’t sent the pathology report, but I had it with me. He reviewed it, listened to my chest, and examined my nicely healing incision. We had some of the blood work back but not the all-important CA-125. He explained that although it wan’t the best marker in some people, it seemed to go up and down for me in relation to the treatment (it had been at the very good number of 18.7 since June 1– below 35 is the goal). Now that we’d finished 18 weeks of chemotherapy and the surgery, we would watch that number when deciding what else to do.

Although he recognized the restaging of the cancer in surgery to IIIC, he emphasized that was the surgical diagnosis, different from the clinical diagnosis, which was and would remain stage IV because there was no doubt about those initial nodules and cancerous fluid in the lung. He’s a bit of a downer in that way. We left with the plan of returning in early November for a scan and to check the blood work again, and see at that point if more chemotherapy was necessary.

My sister was somewhat euphoric, although I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The word “remission” hadn’t been used, and chemo still hung out there for the next month’s assessment– but maybe a reprieve from that final round would be mine? It was the first time I thought about “official remission,” that time when we would just monitor, first every three months, then every six months, then yearly… starting that clock. I have a narrative in my head (a dangerous one, probably, given this disease) that goes: treatment, end of treatment, ten years, maybe more treatment. So far, especially with that restaging and the optimal debulking result, things seemed to be following that narrative really nicely.

Kathy and I celebrated with a trip to Kohl’s and then came home for my nap.

A call from Dr. Ufearo came in just as I was waking up about 2 p.m. The CA-125 came back and it was up to 193. A scary number for me– how had it risen so quickly? The last time we tested it was just August 7, before surgery. There would be more chemotherapy after all, and in two weeks, not a month.

I had not yet let my hopes get up too much, but still I had to talk myself back down– this was not a quick “return” of the cancer, because we had not finished this entire first regimen yet. I had not been in remission– this was all part of the original plan, and not actually different or more intensive than the usual plan for Stage IV ovarian cancer. It didn’t take away what everyone said was phenomenal results of the first 18 weeks of chemo or of the best-case result and enthusiasm of the surgeon about the surgery– the fact that she had “left nothing visible behind.” Praise God for my intact bowel and no nodules felt on my lungs (whatever might still be lurking there in the lining or fluid– fluid that had not been heard when Dr. Ufearo listened to my chest). Praise God for my intact liver and no complications or infections from surgery. And even Praise God for my CA-125, a marker in the blood that means we’ll be able to tell when more treatment is necessary.

It also set me to thinking about hope. My good, unmet, 7-year survivor friend Annette Collins wrote that I should try to live in the moment and one day at a time and try “to have zero expectations.” And in the tangle of myths the swirl around me, there is always Beth of Little Women— am I handling this like a person who has grit and will survive or the “good girl” who dies? Those are the narratives in my head.

How do we ride the razor’s edge of hope that is not calcified into expectation? Or how do we ride the roller coaster, the waves, the ups and downs, hoping/expecting and then just resetting ourselves for more battle when necessary?

mv5bnjq2nda3mdcxmf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmje5ntu0nze-_v1_Last night we watched one of my sister’s favorite movies: The Shawshank Redemption. Somehow I missed this movie in the 1990s and it kind of got away from me. It is a movie about hope. And resilience. Convict Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) preserves his “freedom” by not becoming a prisoner in his mind– he takes risks. He also applies himself, to build a library and get other reforms to the prison, by writing letters every week for years and years, even when he doesn’t get results. His hope doesn’t make him any less dogged in his efforts. Fellow inmate Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) tells him to give up hope, accept his fate, because it will make things easier in the long haul. Live without expectations, or maybe expect the worst, and live in spite of it. But to Andy, that sounds like dying, not living.

You have to carry your hope with you throughout the battle. Of course, I am so early in this particular war I am not close to giving up hope– but also it is challenges like these that make one think more closely about hope’s purpose and meaning.

Again, I have lessons to learn from Robby, the man I write to on death row in North Carolina. I have often wondered about his relationship to hope. He is particularly good at living in the moment, and in large part this is possible because he is dedicated to a few relationships in his world– his friend Timmy, and a poet named Edward. He shares my letters and my poetry with them, and sends me their greetings and news of their prayers for me. Of the hundreds (over a thousand?) saying prayers for me through prayer chains and groups and lists and choirs and congregations, these three hold a special place. (How can one not get expectations with thousands praying?? We claim total healing, however long it may take to kill all the cancer.)

I am lucky to have my sister here, and thankful every day for our relationship. It will be hard when she goes tomorrow. But next week Steve’s daughter Julia arrives, and always friends are near. My team is ready– Kevin to drive me to and from chemotherapy appointments again and Nancy to help me grocery shop, and others for whatever is needed. I am hoping this round will be lighter, without the Taxol that caused the severe neuropathy and the allergy.

starved-rock-fireplaceIn the round before surgery I looked ahead to things– the reading in Chicago, the trip to Indiana. Now I look forward to Thanksgiving, our trip to Chicago and family and our day-after stay at Starved Rock State Park, even if I can’t hike as far as I usually do. We will gather around the hearth of their gigantic fireplace and play games, and the restaurant will gladly make me mashed potatoes and whatever else I can manage to eat. I received a gift of cinnamon rolls this week which I put in the freezer looking ahead to Christmas, when all “the girls” will be here. There is a lot to look forward to this time of year. And that, too, is hope.

I wrote this as I explored the meaning of hope after my divorce and it continues to be one of my favorite pieces of writing (and most popular!). It is a centerpiece in my book H is for Harry. 

sand-hills-9-30-16And after my update to friends and family about my roller coaster day, I received so many wonderful e-mails. My friend Kate, who runs the monastery CSA, said she’s been seeing the Holy Spirit in the sand hill cranes lately. This morning we had a visit from our wetland family of four, drinking from the large pond and gleaning from the path near the large oak. Hello, Holy Spirit.

And Annette sent me this prayer by Mychal Judge, OFM, the NYFD chaplain who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11, to help me set my sights daily:

Lord, take me where you want me to go;
Let me meet who you want me to meet,
Tell me what you want me to say,
And keep me out of your way.

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By any measure, my healing and recovery and just plain old stamina through these cancer treatments has been great. Above average. Stunning even. These past two weeks since the surgery have been quiet, monitoring my body and kind of keeping still to let it heal, not pull an invisible stitch, concentrating on simple functions like digestion, walking, and sleep.  I’m grateful for no major setbacks, no fevers or bleeding or anything the doctors can’t explain.

When my mother was here, she had me on a good regimen. She is very schedule-oriented and pays a lot of attention to her own delicate system through diet and nutrition. She figured out what I needed, “healing proteins,” not whole grains and no raw veggies or fruits but yes to avocados and egg salad… We took our daily walks, working up to 1.5 miles, one loop around Klinefelter Park and home. We added a cold pack, three times a day. She had me on a pain medication schedule, too, programmed into my phone alarm. It was really comforting to do these things. We managed my food-to-pain-medication ratio with crackers at night.

By the time my sister arrived, ten days from surgery, I was pushing it a little bit– I felt like I needed more food because I was more and more nauseous, especially in the morning. Within a day, I drastically cut down the pain meds. Now I only take a couple Tylenol at night before bed, maybe a couple in the afternoon if the pain is sneaking up on me. But I’m still eating very cautiously. Walks, yes. Sleeping, yes definitely, even more than the first week.

And this Tuesday I meet with the oncologist again. And we talk about the results of the surgery, the pathology report, and plan the next step.

I wish there wasn’t a next step.

For some reason, the treatment has started to feel like waves to me. The first wave, chemo. The second wave, surgery. And now I’m standing in the water with my feet in the sand waiting as the next wave rises behind me. Chemo. The talk is of six more treatments. Not Taxol, to avoid the allergy and any more neuropathy. My expectation is that there will still be the bad week then two “good” weeks, the Carboplatin and something else. Something gentler?

I can taste most foods (annoyingly, chocolate still doesn’t taste good) but can’t eat them because of the nausea. Seems unfair. Hopefully I’ll be recovered enough from the surgery when the next wave breaks to have my Sunday pizza. My hair will have just enough treatments to fall out again.

People just keep saying things like: “It could take months…” “It could be weeks…” after surgery before things feel “normal.” One friend said after her surgery she only felt normal when she could turn on her side at night. Yes, I have my pillow wall to restrain me.

My father dug up the rest of the potatoes. I can eat potatoes and have really been enjoying them mashed and roasted and boiled. My sister is cleaning up the garden and harvested the butternut and crookneck squash. I’m going to put some squash in my next rice/quinoa medley.

I’m gonna keep wading out here and getting ready for that next wave.


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girl-balancing-on-rockThis week we waited for the pathology report to come in from the tissue that was removed and sampled during surgery.  I wasn’t worried. In fact, I was more focused on healing from the surgery. The pathology report wouldn’t affect that process.

I started thinking about pathology on Wednesday, a week after the surgery. It seemed to me this could be the moment when they said there is no evidence of disease, NED, and that I am officially in remission. Or they could say that there was a lot of active cancer in the lymph nodes and other areas that hadn’t shown up on the scan, including possible cancer still in the lung lining. So far the surgeon hadn’t mentioned the bowel or the lung. What she had said was that it was a very clean surgery, and that there had been very little disease to find and remove.

I felt hopeful because she said they had taken everything that they could see. Nothing was so attached to tissue or important organs that they had to leave it behind.

imgresOn Friday afternoon I met with the surgeon’s assistant, Kelli Daly, who had been in the surgery. She gave me the pathology report.

It showed pink tumors in the omentum (4) and in the 14 sampled lymph nodes (2: 1 right and 1 left, in the pelvic region, none above that area).


Based on the pathology report, she staged my cancer at Stage IIIC.

Not Stage IV.

I was pretty stunned in the exam room. I didn’t know the stage could change. But the reading I’ve done since says that actually staging can’t be formally done until surgery, because the scans don’t tell you enough. I told her I’d been staged at IV and she said: “Why? Because of the fluid in the lungs?”

“Yes, and the scan showed nodules on the lung lining.”

“I was there and the surgeon reached her hand in and felt all around the lung and said it was completely smooth and there was no evidence of nodules or tumors.”

The picture given by the surgery and the pathology reports is that the tumors are larger than stage II and have moved outside the original site (ovaries) but have not penetrated other organs (not formed tumors in the lung or liver). So one of two things has happened: 1) the cancer was not as advanced as we thought at first; or 2) it was not established yet outside the pelvic area and the chemotherapy (and prayers) have knocked it back to stage III level. Which would be partial remission.

There are still those pink tumors on the omentum and the sampled lymph nodes to think about. Because of that, there will be 2-3 more cycles of chemotherapy to try to kill whatever else might be lurking there, microscopic or hidden in lymph nodes.

As you can see, I’m working on what this means.

cliff_edge_warningThe only way I can see the move from Stage IV to Stage IIIC is stepping back from a cliff’s edge. The initial diagnosis put me way out there on the cliff’s edge. The way I imagined even remission was maintaining my place on that edge. I’d have to just balance out there and live life on that edge, careful not to go over the cliff. Of course, one day the cliff could crumble beneath my feet.

I didn’t consider the possibility of stepping back. Standing on an ever-so-slightly safe space of cliff. That is how big this feels to me. And having just had a sushi lunch with my friend Kim Butler to celebrate 10 years cancer free with a stage IIIC diagnosis– that is “cured” in the cancer world– certainly helps.

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