What It Is Like

This post is dedicated to friends and students who’ve shared with me some of your experiences being the child who cares for a parent going through this. You all make me strong, as I’m sure you made your parents strong, too.

I thought I had an inkling of what chemo was like. I didn’t. Some of you already know, through the hard experience of watching your loved ones go through it. But this post is for the rest of of us, like me until recently, whose knowledge of chemo starts and ends with Samantha and her ice pops on Sex and the City. While my own storyline does also satc2feature an impossibly wonderful love interest who arrives on the scene in my 40’s (albeit with a lot less hair than Jarred), it’s not quite what SATC set me up for.

So, here is my attempt to explain what chemo is like for me. Emphasis on for me, since every chemo regimen is different (A/Cs barely talk to TCHPs, and there’s probably a West Side Story level tension between the weeklies and the every-three-weeks). Mine is four drugs every three weeks, for six cycles. I’m closing in on halfway through, and I’d like to say that gives me expertise, except every cycle is irritatingly different. There is no Chemo Skill Acquisition going on. And frankly, it would be about as valuable as being able to build Ikea cabinets with rolling drawers…is it worth the agony to master something you hopefully only need once?

So here’s how I used to picture it: Throwing up and hair loss. Perhaps some languid days binge-watching shows while feeling delicately, but always graciously, tired.

Here’s how it actually is:

  1. Hair loss is the easy part. I mean it’s weird, but utterly bearable. You run your fingers through your hair, and you end up holding a bunch that might constitute a respectable ponytail (ok, if measured by the parent of a bald child desperately trying to pretend she has enough hair for a bow, not that I’ve been there, and goodness, Bea has glorious hair now, so it all worked out fine). I eventually got Dave to shave mine before it all fell out, partly to make an occasion of it, and partly so that Phoebe could maintain shedding dominance in the household. I didn’t want the EGdog’s nose to get out of joint at my new shedding abilities. And now I look a bit like Emma González, and that’s pretty great.
  2. Nausea has meds. Also, nausea is just nausea. It can take your appetite away, which isn’t great if you’re trying to keep your weight up. But I’ve had hangovers worse than chemo nausea. Not to mention morning sickness. Nausea feels like a recognizable, if kinda sucky thing. Part of our great™ Shared Human Experience.
  3. Other GI issues suck. But I lived plenty of years in Africa, and trauma to my GI system is pretty much like a reunion with an old friend. Ok, not quite, but also you don’t want me to say more.
  4. Exhaustion is real, and so is insomnia. This is where the experience started being something I could not have imagined. I’ve been brutally physically tired before (after labor and delivery, during those first colicky months), and this is its equal. And sort of like the early baby months, it’s also paired with completely unsatisfactory sleep. I’m tired, tired, tired, and then at 2 a.m., I’m completely wired for hours. So when I yawn during a visit with friends, I promise, it’s not that you’re boring. Or maybe you’re boring AND I am exhausted. (Kidding. I don’t have boring friends.)
  5. Feeling like the Undead. This is close to the absolute worst of it, and the thing that is hardest to explain. For obvious reasons, it sucks to have life-saving poison coursing through every cell of your body. And that’s what it is. The same drugs that kill the cancer cells kill a whole lot of other cells necessary to living, including cells in my brain. So while I may be–at times–sitting upright with my eyes open, I am so disembodied on the bad days that even watching TV feels like way more engagement than is possible. I have had many kind people recommend binge-watching various things, and I know the world is full of incredible television watching possibility. Just. Not. Now. My brain processes words and sounds as phenomena flashing through my brain, not as any coherent whole. I spent an hour yesterday trying to read the same two paragraphs of an article. On the bad days, I can just about handle a few minutes at a time of facebook or reading the news online, but we all know that feels bad even when we’re in the best of health, like eating too much sugar. Which leads to…
  6. Watching the Clock. This is the hardest for me. Usually, when I have my eye on the clock, it’s because I’m trying to do one (or two or ten) more things before teaching class or getting something filed, etc. Lately, I watch the clock to see if I might be a few minutes farther into the bad chemo days, since that means I might be a few minutes closer to feeling like myself again. That kind of clock-watching is the worst, and not even the fact that I’ve got the right Broadway lyric for it* actually helps. The world just gets very small, and for someone who is used to living life very fully, that is the most unnerving thing of all.

The good news is that the bad days do pass. Unfortunately, the bad days seem to get a smidge longer with each cycle, so the back-to-recognizing-myself date that might have been Day 5 the first cycle is Day 7 now. I’m writing this on Day 7, and it’s literally the only thing I’ve done today, and I haven’t gotten off the couch, and am terrified to go take a walk in case I tank while I’m out. So “back to myself” is somewhat relative.

Someone described chemo to me and Dave as “walking into a punch.”

And it’s not the infusion that’s the punch. The punch is the subsequent days of existing inside a body that feels entirely foreign. It is the nagging fear that after all this is over, I’ll have changed in ways that are maybe not so possible to unchange. It is the struggle to trust that a real me is still in there, and will come out like the crocuses after winter.

Forget daffodils, tulips, azaleas and dogwoods…I’m metaphorically hooked on crocuses, those hardy, beautiful first flowers to appear, even if they’re a bit weedy and not so Instagram-worthy. They persist, and I will too, even if I have to walk into a few more punches before blooming.


* “Today, the minutes seem like hours, the hours go so slowly…” (and we all know how that clock-watching turned out for Maria).

Rambling Toward Insight

They say cancer has something to teach everyone. But they don’t tell you what that thing is, which makes me feel anxious and tells me that cancer knows nothing about basic pedagogy (set your teaching goals forth clearly on the syllabus, for starters).*

Despite that, I think I am learning some things.

First: I’m learning I’m not good with uncertainty. The first way this hit me was my utter inability to plan anything throughout December. People would ask what I was doing for Christmas, and up until December 22, I didn’t know. Because I might have more tests, or might be in surgery or, wait, might start chemo instead, or…or…or… (I had Christmas at home, and extended the celebration with a hilarious** EKG on the 27th, if you want to know).

This, frankly, hurt as bad as the cancer diagnosis. I love planning. I love breaking one huge project into a million color-coded sub parts. Extra points if an Excel spreadsheet is somehow involved. I love finding a new planner format, and the perfect pens for the new planner. Some people play sports, or knit, or do improve. I plan.

This is a lame planner compared to what I am capable of. But shutterstock is what it is. And her nails are nicer than mine, so there’s that.

Obvious lesson learned: I need better hobbies.

Also, sometimes, you don’t need to plan so much as put one foot in front of the other, in the direction someone knowledgeable tells you to go. There’s some freedom to this, if I can accept that I’m not in control. (Working on that.)

Second: I’m starting to accept that sometimes not doing something is doing something. It is extremely difficult for someone who has been almost insanely active to accept the need for stillness. In 2017, I taught, I organized countless community workshops to help parents plan for separation from their kids (#Thanks45), and I personally handled about a dozen cases pro bono and won most of them (still waiting on a few). I set up panel after panel about immigration developments for law students, schools, and community organizations, I revamped websites, and I led a nonprofit into financial health. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I probably did some other stuff that I’m forgetting.

And in 2017 I also got cancer. They don’t know what causes Inflammatory Breast Cancer (or, as I like to call it, my “go big or go home Breast Cancer”) but stress can’t help. Maybe all the commotion and anxiety and, frankly, trauma exposure was doing stuff under the surface unbeknownst to me.

And now in 2018, medicine is working under the surface, too. And when I have a day like today where I have some energy but am still lying on the couch, I need to accept that I’m not doing nothing. I’m giving my body space to heal itself and let the medicine do its work.

This is extremely difficult for me to accept. I do things. No one would accuse me of being passive toward life. And for now, I need to be quite passive. And to accept help more than give it.

What’s the good of learning that, anyway? I’m still figuring it out, but I think maybe that giving my body space and time is also going to end up giving my head and heart the space and time they need to rest and heal and, ultimately, reboot and reenergize.

I’m going to come through all this different, I know. And the planner in me wants to know how, and the do-er in me wants to chart it all out and maximize every minute. So many color-coding possibilities! But I’ve already learned that I need to quietly shush the planner and the do-er and let them know they can have their day again in the future. Their day is not now.

And while I continue to lie here on the couch, and maybe read a book, I’m going to trust that I’m not just lying around reading a book. I’m moving one step forward in the direction I’m supposed to go.


* And then weep as students ignore the syllabus and miss the teaching goals (and also the readings, the due dates, the structure of the final exam, and so much more).

** Of course I got the chatty doc who used to train med students in Liberia in the 70s, just a few years after my parents and oldest three siblings lived there. So I know some stuff about Liberia, which apparently made me her favorite EKG subject ever. I think she threw in some extra heart pictures for free. Because she took a lot of pictures.

Gratitude and Health Justice

Lightly edited 1/16/17.

There’s a lot of injustice in the world. For example, one of the side effects of my chemo cocktail is crazy dreams–malaria-level dreams–and yet in these dreams, I imagine I’m at faculty committee meetings. Truly, that is injustice.*

Fine. There are deeper injustices than that. And today, I realized I have different threads of thought running through my mind, and it turns out they are woven together.

I have been thinking a lot about gratitude. And about Dr. King.

Gratitude: I’m always grateful for the love of the good people in my life. But it’s usually a sort of steady, abiding awareness, not a bomb cyclone of gratitude. I have been aware of feeling actually physically lifted by the incredible outpouring of love, and while every fiber of my being wants to say “I’m NOT WORTHY,” the truth is we are all worthy of it. So instead of deflecting, I’m basking in it, and am deeply, deeply grateful. I’m facing a few months of grossness (hopefully wrapping the cancer cruise up by mid-summer), but I’m facing it with a mom who brings me my favorite pillow from her home, a husband who cheerfully brews me a fresh pot of coffee even when we both know I’ll only have one sip of it, a daughter who has perfected the exuberant gentle hug, a mother-in-law who is making an afghan, friends who make me jigsaw puzzles or make me laugh or both (and some friends who let me lose at Trivial Pursuit even when each victory could be my last and they should let me win because cancer). I have clients praying for me–and one client’s mom is praying for me from her own hospital bed in France. I have students reminding me of all the good that is being done in the world. I have colleagues who are letting me focus on my health and allowing me to work only to the extent it’s good for me.

So much gratitude. And so much awareness that it’s not like this for everyone. The love and support transcend class and race, for sure. One of Dave and my favorite moments of the cruise so far involved an older gentleman wearing a cap that Dave thought was  armed services -related, and he struck up a conversation with the man. (Side note: when Dave goes away for unexpectedly long times, he is always, literally always, having a fascinating conversation. Will tell about the poitín-maker another time.) Anyway, it turned out the cap was from a very old African-American congregation, and they chatted, and the man talked about how much he loved his wife who is going through the same cancer as me, and how he had been to every appointment over the past year, and when his wife showed up a few minutes later, the man just glowed.  So love and support transcend all.

But more practical things do not. And my treatment is in a city hospital where, despite the greatness of Chocolate City and the Gold Coast and Howard and Duke Ellington and more, poverty is highly racialized, and even in the legal profession, white salaries are a shocking $35,000 higher than African-American salaries.

The cancer I have is most common among African-American women. And as I look at the warm waiting rooms where I get my treatments, racial disparities smack me upside the head on a regular basis.  Health outcomes for African-American women are so much worse, across the board, than for white women. I’m no expert on this, but Lindsay Wiley is, and she has written compellingly about how health law is a social justice matter. (Lindsay is one of those brilliant people you can trust because she is also incredibly funny.) (It is possible my indicia of trustworthiness are a little weird, to be fair.)

Anyway, my own personal observations are these:

  • Good outcomes depend upon being able to access care. Insurance? Check. Transportation to medical centers? Check. Ability to wait around for a prescription to be filled? Check. I have all these things, easily, but I suspect each of these is a challenge for some of the women I share these waiting rooms with.
  • Good outcomes benefit from being able to rest and work less. Medical leave? Got it. Flexible work schedule? Oh yes. Colleagues who can pick up my slack? Yep. Family and friends pitching in so there are just plain fewer chores to do? Yep again. But medical leave is too much of an exception in our workplaces, and paid sick leave continues to be a legislative battle, even in friendly, progressive jurisdictions. So people like me who can rest and let the medicine do its work are going to do better than people who cannot take time off work.
  • Good outcomes probably benefit from education, and definitely benefit from language access. Doctors give patients a lot of paperwork. I love paperwork. It’s an excuse to buy a binder and fancy tabs, and do some hole-punching. It’s a justification for making spreadsheets which, next to planning and hole-punching, is my major hobby. [I need better hobbies.] But it’s a mountain of information, and a daunting amount to read–and it’s just got to make a difference that processing information is what I do for a living, that reading is a joy and not a burden. And that I speak English. While most of my sisters are African-American at Washington Hospital Center, there are a fair few Latinas whose first language is Spanish and whose English ability varies a ton. Yes, they have a right to interpreters and translated information. But I know those rights are unevenly realized, and sometimes, when they’re tired–and we’re all tired–I bet they just go along to get along and take the incomprehensible sheafs of papers in English.

I don’t assume everyone I see at Washington Hospital Center is poorer than me. I only know the stories of a few of the women I’ve talked to, and mostly we talk about family. Most of the women dress better than me, for starters (admittedly not difficult since I wear Takoma Park “fashion”) and the parking lot is plenty full of cars I could never afford. But poverty is also everywhere, and I would be foolish to wish it away. So all my gratitude is accompanied by profound appreciation for the things that I have that make this easier for me than for many others.

So, Dr. King. We remember him often as the visionary. And he was. But he was also fiercely unpopular in his day for demanding justice. Not something better, but something equal, something that respected the inherent worth we each have as individuals, no matter our station in life. For people who approach the world as zero-sum, where African-Americans being treated as fully human means white people actually lose something, that idea was toxic. And he died for that idea. Sometimes I think we forget that. He’s moved into a realm of inspirational quotes, and away from the ugly reality of that motel balcony in Memphis, where someone hated him enough to kill him. Hated him because of Dr. King’s love of humanity.

I went to Mass yesterday (let’s call it an unexpected port excursion on the Chemo Cruise), and Father Patrick Smith brought me to tears with his words about how Dr. King answered the call with “your servant is listening.” How none of this–the national holiday, the monument, the Nobel Prize–was part of his plan. He just listened to a call, said yes to it, and changed his plan to follow the call. And changed us all in the process, making us want justice to roll like waters. Father Smith asked us to listen and say yes, too. And that whether it results in greatness or some beautiful tiny thing that we never even understand happened because of us, that is how we move forward.

All I can do is be grateful for what I have. And heed the needs so many others have. And say yes to finding small, tiny ways–and maybe big ones if that’s how it goes–to bend the arc toward justice. I’m used to doing that when it comes to immigration law. It’s new for me as I think about health. But I’m listening. I’ll learn. And because Dr. King said yes, I’ll keep finding ways to say yes, too.

Today, and every day, let justice roll like waters.


*Small exception when the dreams involve the dream committee of Margaret, Natalie, Garrett, Audrey, Will, Dave, Chris, and Mike–people I spent 12 hours a day in a room  with more than once this fall, and still adore.


I’ve been challenged to write something maudlin. So here’s my try at it, and I am writing like an American writing in what she thinks is Maeve Binchy’s voice, meaning it’s derivative of derivative Irish. Not quite Irish-American, though. Oh god, no, never that. And deep down, it is, in fact, a short little, plotless love letter to my Irish people. (Who, as it happens, also understand well what it means to be from a s***hole country. Sure and weren’t some of my first words “Mother Ireland, Mother Ireland, get off my back?”)

So here it is. A maudlin little cancer story. All similarities to actual fictional characters are fully intentional. And if you need to get an ear for the accent, here you go and here you go.


Maeve steadied herself on the post box, gathering her strength before heading in to Moppy O’Malley’s sitting room for tea. Moppy (now, how did she ever come by that name?) was sure to have any number of old friends there, waiting to say all the nice helpful things to her. Reminding her she wasn’t alone in this, that she had cancer’s number, that cancer messed with the Wrong One this time.

Truthfully, Maeve wasn’t up for it.  She was up for a pint, but god help her, pints were off limits. No more of the drink, not for a while. Of course, Moppy would handle the drink just fine herself. And once Dervla showed up, the drink would become comedy, and if she were really unlucky, they’d be after dancing a bit eventually. Maeve would plead the cancer excuse, they’d all momentarily hush at the word, then someone would tactfully change the subject to whatever the local gombeen was scheming, and the bad moment would pass. (Having read all the Maeve Binchy books, Maeve had a fair view indeed of what was in store.)

As she peered through the dusky 4pm fog, she saw that yes, the sitting room was full of people. Maeve saw young Emer lifting up the lace curtain to spot her own arrival, and when she waved, Emer darted behind the curtain. The whole point of the curtain was not to be seen behind it. Even Emer’s four year old self knew that. But she’d been seen, so in Maeve went.

The chorus of voices began as soon as the door opened. “Ah, aren’t you looking grand?” “God, you’d never think you were sick!” “Isn’t it criminal, I’m looking like a wet week, and in bounces your woman with rosy cheeks. Maeve, you put us to shame.”

“Let me get this dripping jacket off, you lot,” Maeve complained with a laugh. “Bloody hell, why do I live in this godforsaken town anyway?”

“Ah, no lovelier city, Maeve, you know that.” They all laughed. Maeve knew. And if she didn’t, the coffee table books extolling Cork were a good reminder. Maeve had traveled. She knew there were in fact, lovelier cities. Paris came to mind, for one. But Cork did have its charms. Even if she secretly believed that even the Evening Echo boy sprinkled some generous “FFS’s” in between his calls for the Evening EchOooo.

[At this point in the story, your narrator realizes that plot really is beside the point. Atmospherics, that’s what it all calls for. But perhaps if she puts enough atmospherics in, the plot itself will arrive.]

Braced as she was for the evening, Maeve was genuinely taken aback as the shapes sorted themselves into individual faces, and realized that her beloved leaving cert teacher, Miss Kenehan, was in the crowd. Keenie, they’d all called her, loving how she force fed them Roddy Doyle books and insisted that Galway was far better than Cork, really. Fighting words in Cork, and wouldn’t Clare have been the less obvious pick, but anyway they loved the arguing about it. Keenie still looked like her glamorous 30 year old self, though she must be on for her 60s by now.  She had half a cigarette left in her hands, trends toward Smoke-Free this and that being not at all of interest to her.

If Keenie was here, it meant this was serious.

“Come to say goodbye, have ye?” Maeve asked. “You’re a bit early on that, but god, it’s gorgeous to see you!”

“Ah, Maeve, always joking,” Keenie said, putting the cigarette out in the dregs of someone’s tea cup.  “No, I’m here to remind you you’re not the worst of them.”

The genuineness, the heart-feltedness, the bare emotion of it brought tears to Maeve’s eyes. She’d no quip at the ready for sincerity like that. And she let the compliment sink in nice and deep for a moment.

“Light one up for me then, would ye, Keenie-O?,” Maeve said, and the moment of pathos passed. The fog set in at the window, and she’d endure Moppy’s reminiscing, and Dervla’s drinking, and even the dancing, knowing it was all going to be ok somehow in the end.

[And THAT is a maudlin story.]

Pack your bags for the Chemo Cruise

So, I like to write. And I have a blog. And I have cancer.  And my blog is conveniently titled something generically aspirational. So obviously, I’m repurposing the blog now and will make this my place where I deal with the cancer. In a setting that is far superior to, god bless its humble and free heart, Caring Bridge.

This space will really only be used for humor, so if cancer does not immediately scream comedy to you, either stay tuned, or run away. (I did actually write and erase a Caring Bridge joke, so maybe I do have some sense of propriety.)

Ok, it will be humor with some generous doses of abiding gratitude for all the good and the love in my life. But I will try to avoid being maudlin because one wouldn’t  be after writing maudlin things. (In an Irish person’s head, literally the only thing worse than talking about death, torture, the horrors of the world, etc, is being MAUDLIN.)

Which brings me to cuticle care. Obviously.

So the thing about cancer, so far, is it turns you into a freaking paragon. Drinking? Only in my past. Oral hygiene? A must, and therefore I not only brush all three times a day (like, really, as opposed to just telling my dentist that’s what I do) but I also rinse with salt-water. What?

And I have to give up my lifelong love of biting my nails. I’ve tried everything to give up nail biting. I’ve put the gross tasting stuff on the nails. I’ve gotten manicures. I’ve thought long and hard about what my fingers have been in contact with–escalators on the subway, doorknobs at daycare–and still I bite my nails. Now, I get to try CANCER. Since having mangled uneven nails is not ideal for health, I am now medically not allowed to bite my nails. Dammit.

So I invested in cuticle cream, and now all I can think of is this.

I will have bigger struggles, I’m sure. But for now, being required to be a morally exemplary human being with good nails is the struggle that defines me.

Small Beauties

It’s been months since I wrote anything. And while I have some bigger things in mind, simmering so slowly they put southern BBQ to shame, here’s a glimpse of life’s small beauties.

I was attempting my first run in many months this morning, a rare humidity-free D.C. morning. Nothing hurt, and I felt great. Happy. Proud. Slightly embarrassed to be out running in nothing more than running shorts and a sports bra, but the laundry situation was what it was, and my husband assured me this was fine. (Note to self: husband is not to be trusted.)

As I was doing my last half-mile,* I saw an Ethiopian lady alongside the path, gracefully draped in the lightweight white shawl that is often part of the attire. She was staring straight up at the trees overhead, and as she heard me running, she lowered her head, and I smiled at her. I expected slight discomfort from her, or maybe a gentle rebuff, because I was dressed so immodestly. But no. Maybe it was my smile, who knows, but she beckoned me over, in no uncertain terms.

I went to her side, and she commanded me to stand straight, and look to the sky, and then to breathe in and out in a certain way, and it would bring looseness to the neck and relaxation. When she saw I wasn’t doing it correctly, she said, no, turn your eyes and watch me. I did, and tried again, and felt exactly what she meant. She smiled at me, told me to do that every day, and sent me on my way. I did that last bit of my run with a smile on my face.

We live in a world where that was possible. And what is that if not beautiful?

I confess, I have been having a tough time switching gears from being non-stop productive and useful (see: November through May, and thanks a lot 45 and co.) into summer when, technically, I’m not supposed to be working (and yet somehow was not relaxing). But something has shifted, and I’m starting to see the grace of being a little bit less purposeful, a little bit less driven. Somehow in my mind, that’s all connected with the perfect perfect-stranger reaching out to me on the path. Sometimes stopping your run and stepping off the path is exactly what the universe wants.


* This sounds good until you realize I haven’t told you how long the total run was (one mile).

“Freedom” and Health Insurance

Anyone remember that scene from, what, Deep Impact (one of the asteroid movies that came out at the same time) , and Tea Leoni is standing with archetypally remote father on a beach waiting for the tidal wave caused by the asteroid? That’s how I feel now that the House passed that horrifying bill worsening health care in America.

(Ok, that also reveals too much about the shallowness of both my brain and how I spent my 20s.)

Some Republican lawmakers think that forcing people to be part of health insurance is an assault on people’s freedom. I can see that argument, and it makes sense in a pure libertarian way. I am not a libertarian.

Perhaps it makes sense if there were an alternative, like everyone in my neighborhood chipping in to provide room and board for a highly-skilled doctor who is an expert at both my next-door neighbors geriatric needs, my other neighbor’s teen-age epilepsy management, and my own rheumatoid arthritis. Yeah, that’s funny, let’s move right along.

Here’s one thing freedom does mean to me: Being healthy.

  • Being able to go outside for a walk on a beautiful day.
  • Being able to pick up my child for a hug (when she wants one, of course, and god knows there are times now when giving her a hug is sooooo embarrassing).
  • Being able to sing without the sharp pain of each intake of breath (RA hits the lungs, isn’t that cool?)
  • Making plans to see friends, knowing I will probably have the energy to follow through on those plans.

Without medical care, all of those things are beyond me.

Here’s another thing freedom means to me: Being able to work where I can and want.

  • Regular readers know I love my job. And surely tenure wipes away all fears of losing job-provided health insurance, right? Wrong. When you’ve experienced long-term debilitating illness, the fear of losing health insurance never goes away. Every time I have changed jobs in the last decade, I have had to change health insurance, which means for a couple of months, while insurers battle with my rheumatologist, I do not get my prescriptions filled, and all those things I said I like to do above, well, I can’t do them.
  • And what if I decide at some point that I’ve given what I can to law teaching? BuellerDo I really want to be the burned-out law professor who mumbles from notes he’s been using for 30 years? No, no, I really do not. But my choice will be between staying at my job and trying something new like building my own immigration practice (forget being able to pay for the health insurance that would be available to me with my pre-existing conditions) or finally writing my not-so-Great American Novel (ditto). So the “freedom” not to pay into Obamacare actually becomes a force that locks me into my job.

Another thing freedom means to me? Freedom to choose to buy affordable insurance.

  • Look, I am writing from a place of about the greatest privilege imaginable: tenured law professor (not official until August, please let me not be jinxing it). And I work with and among some of the least privileged, most marginalized people imaginable, and I see their health crises up close and personal, and know the tangle of problems that happen when emergency room care is the only care they can access, because the law forbids them from participating.* Do they feel free because they aren’t allowed to avail of Obamacare? Guess what: NO they do not.

So, for the “Freedom” Caucus, I want to say, first: PrincessBride.gif

And I want to say, second:

[Unprintable] [unprintable] [also unprintable], you [unprintable] [unprintables].

There. That feels a little better. Now, I better go take that handful of pills that keeps me walking and breathing, thanks to the health insurance that, for the moment, I have.


*Post coming soon on how “undocumented” increasingly means nothing to me, since all my “undocumented” clients are actually on the slow, broken, slow, complicated, slow path toward having one of these statuses that would qualify them for Obamacare. (Did I mention the path is slow?)




Beyond the Bubble Bath

Journalist Anna North excoriated typical white girl self-care notions this week, in her essay Work Is My Self Care. There is obviously nobody better than me to respond since I actually had a real bubble bath this week (not just bath salts, but bubbles) and I am undeniably very white.

There’s a lot I agreed with in what she wrote. First, the term “self-care” increasingly makes me cringe, probably because of the co-optation she rightly calls out from, well, people selling bath products. Second, she is right on about the joy that comes from meaningful work, from being in the “flow” of doing your job well. But I think she sets up self-care against meaningful work, and what is really going on is a search for resilience. (As you might guess from the title of this website, I like the idea of resilience.)

Let me explain.

Even when I was in law school, and even more so when I graduated, I threw myself into law with every fiber of my being. The world was full of people suffering, and now I had a skill to use to mitigate the suffering a tiny bit. How could I rest, when my resting meant someone somewhere was suffering? If you think this sounds arrogant and over-wrought, I assure you that you’re totally right. I represented a detained asylum-seeker after my first year of law school, with minimal supervision, did a pretty good job and still lost. I had a brutal judge, and if you don’t believe me, this article might convince you. I carried that loss with me, though, as a sign that I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t working hard enough, and when I got to do another asylum case for my law school clinic, I was going to prove myself.

Which is when I came down with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Coincidence, maybe. Probably not, since stress is thought to be a trigger for RA. All I knew is I went from healthy to unable to bear the weight of a pen in my hand, almost overnight. Even without holding a pen in my hand, it felt like someone had smashed my hands with a hammer. Walking was slow and painful. Breathing? Yeah, even breathing hurt.

So I slowed down and took bubble baths, right? Wrong. I went and got a job at a place where every single person I worked with was as dedicated as me, and we did amazing things collectively. My own specialty was human trafficking and wage theft. Talk about suffering and meaning! But it was a place where, true story, I found out I had lost my first pregnancy on a Friday morning, kept working through the day despite the news, and on Monday morning got called out for my lack of commitment generally. As a colleague said, it was like we showed up for life toting our own crosses, and asking people to crucify us.

So, meaningful work? Check. Purpose and flow? Check. Impossibly high standards that could not be maintained without sacrificing my actual body? Check, check, check. I blame the organization for none of this–the work ethic there merely mirrored my own sense that I had no right to look out for myself when there was still an injustice that needed to be righted.

Oh look, there it is again: arrogant and over-wrought.

So I learned, and the next place I worked, I experimented in the kind of self-care Ms. shutterstock_354727520North decries. I did domestic violence work (of course I did), and after every trip to the dark, tense halls of D.C. Superior Court, which was thankfully several times a week, I rewarded myself with a lovely cupcake. This was in the early days of the cupcake craze, and I actually think I might have made the craze happen.

Then the recession happened, the non-profit began tanking, and I stumbled into a teaching job with one of the best, most resilient friends and colleagues I have ever had. And for the first time in a while, I began to think and notice things.

At the same time, I was blindly groping for ways to help my students not become me–an almost-burned-out, physically debilitated human being (albeit one whose humor somehow never failed). We generated ideas from exercising to writing with sparkly pens to spending more time making music (for the piano players and singers among them) to playing sports (for those people who enjoy that sort of thing).

This was a great start. Better than cupcakes, but still not connecting the dots. Actually, nothing is better than a really good cupcake, and I will get back to that.

What I was groping toward was the idea of resilience. And the answer became beautifully simple. If you visualize a tree in a storm, the tree sways, sometimes alarmingly so. But a healthy tree, and a tree whose roots run deep, will withstand the wind. Sometimes the storms are too powerful, sure, but the best way to stay standing is to tend the roots.

So now what I work with my students on is identifying the roots. There is some overlap here with “self-care” but while self-care asks what will make me smile right now?, resilience goes to a deeper question: what keeps me strong over the long term? And then demands that we pay attention to and nourish whatever it is that keeps us strong.

It might be family, or music, or prayer. It could be building a circle of colleagues who make you laugh and understand how relentless the work can be. It could be laughing with old girlfriends who help you stay real. It could be training for a race or making home a respite, whether that looks like the cover of Real Simple, or looks like books spilling from every corner. It could be remembering how much you love theater, and going to see it more than you did before. Or remembering that volunteering with animals brings you joy, and going to the shelter more.


Our lives so often require incredible resilience. Tending to the roots helps us build that resilience. And from there we can go forth and keep doing the work.

And maybe celebrate a good day at work with a cupcake, too. I’m not going to judge.




True Story

My daughter turned eleven this week. ELEVEN. That’s an important number to her, sure, but it’s also important for the resilience this blog is, theoretically, about.

Picture 18
It’s a matter of perspective. I’m not really as large as the Capitol dome.
You see, she was born in March 2006 (eleven years ago…yes, I’m going to keep emphasizing that number). I went into labor with her while I was at a rally for immigration reform at the U.S. Capitol. True story. (She was born with her fist over her head, too, also a true story. Also a reason the labor took a lackadaisical 48 or so hours, and yes, she still dawdles like a champion.)

In March 2006, we were beginning to see huge rallies and demonstrations across the country by advocates, increasingly led by the undocumented themselves, seeking immigration reform. It was an exciting time, full of possibility. And there I was, stuck in a hospital room pumped full of drugs (no, that wasn’t the plan, yes, god laughs at most of our plans) thinking I was going to MISS OUT ON IMMIGRATION REFORM while I was at the hospital. I really did.

As a friend just pointed out, some people have FOMO for parties; I have FOMO for immigration reform. I don’t think she was judging me.

You probably see where this is going. I did not, in fact, miss out on immigration reform. Eleven years later, we are still fighting, fighting, fighting. Some of the fights are a little different, many are much harder, and there has been some progress in places we didn’t anticipate eleven years ago (local activism, support for DREAMers, success in limiting law enforcement cooperation with immigration in many cities and states across the country).

These issues do not go away. My membership in the fierce band of immigration advocates dates back to 2002. Many of my colleagues in immigration have been fighting since the new, draconian, immigration law of 1996. More still go back to the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s, and the effort to pass the Refugee Act in 1980. 

So, for people, especially young people, feeling they have no ability to act against today’s injustices, I say this: Imagine what you want to be able to do in five years, whether that’s big or small, and start working toward that goal. 

  • Pick the issue that fires you up the most (because you need a strong fire to stay in the work), and be patient with yourself as you learn more, as you connect with others, as you learn who does the work in ways that fill your soul (keep them close), and who does the work in ways that deplete you (politely excuse yourself from their company).
  • Maybe learn a new language–it’s possible, it’s so useful, and for some of our brains, it’s really fun.
  • Maybe also learn the word no (a truly foreign language for me), so you say yes to things that matter more to you, and no to the things that don’t.
  • Think about running for a local office, or helping someone you admire to campaign. (Going door-to-door for them is also excellent exercise and will ever after give you intense admiration for how your local mail carrier does that day after day.)
  • Join a local affiliate of an organization that inspires you, and show up to their events, or help with a fundraiser, or work your way toward being a leader within the organization. A lot of great work happens at the most local levels, and while it can take over your life, it doesn’t have to.  Your role can be very small and very local, and still matter profoundly.

It all takes time, but when it comes to injustice, unfortunately, we have time–and the people who’ve been fighting for a while will be quite happy to tag out, and tag you in. And the faces of new people showing up will inspire and strengthen the people who do this full-time, I promise. And providing inspiration…what could be more satisfying than that?

So, true story, I did not miss out on immigration reform. Eleven years later, I have built my skills to the point where I feel maybe a little too useful, but that’s a nice position to be in.

And in honor of her 11th birthday, I’ll tell my sweet fist-still-raised-over-head daughter that she didn’t keep me from doing anything…she made my heart grow many sizes bigger, and she gave me the strength and love and inspiration to keep going, every single day.

Happy 11th birthday to her! And maybe we’ll get immigration reform done in the next eleven.

Demented bedtime stories 

That night at Mar-a-Lago, Trump had dinner with Sessions, Bannon, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly and White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, among others. They tried to put Trump in a better mood by going over their implementation plans for the travel ban, according to a White House official.

From the Washington Post (3/6/2017)

So, when the pwesident is gwumpy, his advisers just need to remind him how much power he has to ruin people’s lives, and that kisses his boo-boo and helps him sleep at night?

Other favorites:

  • Goodnight, Healthcare! I’ll probably kill you in the morning!
  • Free to Be Me (not You, and no, it’s not all right to cry)
  • Tomorrow Belongs to Me (such a sweet, albeit, well, you know, literally Nazi lullaby from Cabaret)
  • A Snowy Day (in hell)
  • The Lorax Goes to Guantanamo

Could somebody just give the man some ambien instead of these bedtime stories?