On cancer, marriage, death, and Easter

“Because we realised that the person who left us did not take the sun with them or leave darkness in their place. They simply left, and with every farewell comes a hidden hope. –  Paul Coelho

Three years ago, on Easter weekend, we found out my mom had cancer. It was a sombre Easter meal we shared at my brother’s house that Sunday. Mom did her best to be upbeat, playing with the grandchildren, making sure everyone was well fed and giving us all as much love as she could. We all tried to do the same, to pretend that everything was going to be okay and that we didn’t risk losing the only parent we had left.

We didn’t do a very good job of lying to ourselves, though. Beneath all of the smiles and the laughter was a river of worry that none of us could deny.

Once you’ve met death and watched it take away a member of your family, you no longer have the luxury of hanging onto the lie that “everything is going to be alright”.

Something else happened that weekend. On the two hour drive home from my brother’s house, my marriage unraveled. We had a big fight (as quietly as possible so as not to alarm the children in the back seat) and I had to speak out loud the unhappiness that was growing in me like my mom’s cancer was growing in her. It was time for drastic measures. We had to either slice out the cancer in our marriage and subject it to months of chemo (in the form of therapy) or it would die.

me and momBy now you probably know what happened to my Mom. She had surgery and months of chemo and the doctors thought they had been successful in arresting the cancer. But only three months after she’d gotten the “all-clear” (which happened a year after her diagnosis), they discovered that the cancer was still growing and was now beyond treatment. Three months later, with all of her children gathered around her, she left us to join Dad in eternity.

As for my marriage, a rather similar pattern took place. We went for months of counseling, worked on the baggage we were both carrying, learned to talk to each other  with more honesty and less anger, and thought we had the cancer licked. We were happy again.

But then the cancer came back. I realized that the anger that had infected me was growing in deeper places than I’d at first admitted to myself. A deeper excavation was necessary. And so we went under the knife again, followed by more chemo.

Our marriage is still alive. Like doctors, we are using every procedure and medicine we can think of to keep it alive. We are trying – like the Japanese artists who mend broken pots with gold so that the break becomes part of the art and history of the piece and adds to its beauty – to mend our marriage with even stronger and more beautiful material than was there when the break happened.

hand in hand b&wIt seems fitting (and perhaps somewhat ironic) that this year, at Easter, I am feeling hopeful again. There is resurrection, there is transformation, there is hope. The gold is beginning to set deep into the cracks and there is beauty emerging out of our brokenness.

In Pathfinder, I wrote about the value of getting lost, of tearing up the map, and trusting that the path will unfold in front of us as it should. That’s a lesson that I have to learn again and again. I want so badly to control the outcome, to fix the cancer in my mom (and now my brother), to find a simple solution for our marriage, or to, at the very least, feel like I’m holding a map in my hand that will show me the topography that’s up ahead. But I don’t get that. I never get that.

I have to let it go and lean further into trust.

In order for real transformation to happen (as we learn in Theory U, which is also shared in Pathfinder), we have to let go of the outcome and our desire to control it, let go of our preconceived notions, let go of the lens through which we view the world, and learn to sense into that which wants to emerge. Along the journey of letting go, we open our minds, open our hearts, and open our wills. Only once we’ve reached the bottom of the U, when what needed to die has been released, can the new thing emerge and begin to blossom.

My friend Laurie Foley was recently told that her cancer is in remission. As she explores what this means and what she is meant to learn from her long months of struggle, she is re-framing remission as re-mission. She’s wondering how this period of her life – the journey through the valley of the shadow of cancer – has changed her life’s mission and what God is asking of her now.

I wonder the same thing. If the cancer in my marriage is in remission (as I hope it is), then what is our re-mission as a couple? What is emerging for us that we couldn’t see before when we were blinded by the struggle? It is our hope that the three year dive into the bottom of the U has allowed something new and beautiful to grow out of the brokenness.

I share this story with you not for any sympathy or advice. I share it simply that you will know that you are not alone. If your marriage feels broken, if your community is falling apart, if your business is failing, take heart.

There is beauty that grows out of the brokenness. There is hope even in loss.

Yes it’s true that sometimes there is no stopping the cancer and someone or something dies. Your marriage may end, your best friend may die, you may lose your job or your home. We can’t change that, no matter how hard we try.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the end. It doesn’t mean you’re finished. It means that you’re finding yourself at the bottom of the U and someday, when you have let go and opened yourself up to some new possibility, the light will appear again and a new seed, planted into the compost of what has died, will begin to sprout.

In the Easter story, Christ had to give up his life on the cross before he was ready for his own re-mission. Only when his surrender was complete and death had taken him could he rise again and live out his calling to be fully God.

That story always makes me think of butterfly metamorphosis. A caterpillar must give up its caterpillar-self in the gooey mess of the chrysalis before it can emerge as a butterfly. In the same way, we have to release that which no longer serves us – let it fall broken in a heap at our feet – before we can emerge into the beauty that calls us forward.

It is my hope this Easter (whether or not the Easter story is part of your faith tradition) that you will find beauty in the brokenness, that you will recognize the value of getting lost, and that you will learn to see the light that peeks into your shadows.

And if you find yourself lost, somewhere on the journey through the U, consider joining us in the Pathfinder Circle. Your brokenness, your questions, your growth, your curiosity, and your grief will be held in a circle of grace.

Lost and found

lostThere’s a meme floating around on Facebook. A six word memoir. Write your life in six words. Here’s what I wrote…

Lost and found. Again and again.

This is my life.
Walking the path I think is mine,
Until it doesn’t feel like mine anymore.
Finding myself profoundly lost.
Floundering in the dark until light peeks through the shadows.

Finding my way back to myself.
Finding ease for awhile, and then…
Entering another dark place.
Lost. Again.
Sometimes by my own choosing,
And sometimes guided by circumstances.

At first it felt like I was doing something wrong,
Like I just wasn’t as good as everyone else at finding direction.
Like I was doomed to wander in the world,
Never finding the kind of clarity others seem to have.

Then I learned that this is the right way.
Lost and found. Again and again.

Each time, going deeper.
Each time, learning to understand the darkness more.
Each time, finding new truths about myself.
Finding those secrets I wouldn’t know if I were always found.

The lost place is the place where truth whispers.
The place where wisdom shines through the dark.
The place where I learn to let go.
The place where I learn to trust.

The lost place is where I finally get found.
Where I finally remove the mask.
Where I finally release what no longer serves.
Where I finally give in to what wants to be born.

The lost place is my salvation.
My surrender.
My birth.
My letting go so that I can be found.

Lost and found. Again and again.


Note: Are you finding yourself lost again? A journey through Pathfinder might help.

How do you find your Path?

Pathfinder - mock coverGood news! “Pathfinder: A creative journal for finding your way” is now available as a beautiful spiral bound journal!

I am very excited about this and hope that many, many people will dive into its pages, dig into the juicy journal prompts and creative exercises, and find their way to the places where their hearts want to take them. Buy your copy here. 

Preparing for this launch, I asked a number of people I love and respect for their brief stories about finding their paths. Here’s what I asked them:

Who or what helped you find your path to the work of your heart?

I LOVE the stories I gathered! They are unique, beautiful and wise. Just as you’ll discover when you work your way through Pathfinder, no two people have the same story or the same path.

If their stories inspire you, feel free to add your own stories in the comments. Or write your story on your blog and I’ll add the link to the bottom of this post.

Tess Marshall, courage coach, author, blogger and teacher, Michigan
tess marshallI was 25 and a young mother of four daughters ages 7, 5, 3 and 3. A young priest at the church we attended took personal interest in me. He convinced me to attend a nearby college when the twins went to kindergarten. I was AFRAID. He took me, signed me up for 2 classes: speed reading and how to study. I graduated nine years later. In two more years I had a master’s degree in counseling psychology. Life-changing.

Alana Sheeren, writer & intuitive coach, California
alana sheerenMy daughter who made me want to deal with my demons so she didn’t have to inherit them. My son, whose stillbirth wiped the slate clean and began the journey of tying the loose ends of my life back together. The incredible women, like Heather, who crossed my path both virtually and in real life, whose love and support kept pointing me back to my true self. And through it all, listening to and trusting that deep inner wisdom kept me believing I’d find my way, even I was stumbling in the dark.

Christine Claire Reed, spontaneous dance maker and guide, Pennsylvania
christine claire reedDeath. Finding my way back to dance and back to my essential self, finding my way back to LIFE after decades of debilitating depression and anxiety came through the lessons of death. My partner and I had a few years when death was a constant companion, and rather than shrink from that, we learned to embrace it and to live more fully because of it. I do not know where I would be now if I had not learned that death is just another necessary and beautiful part of life.

mary anne radmacher portrait

Mary Anne Radmacher, author, artist, actionista, Washington
Reading Hugh Prather’s HOW TO LIVE IN THE WORLD AND STILL BE HAPPY was a “line in the sand” turning point in my young life. We are now familiar that a single Chinese character represents both “crisis” and “opportunity.” That which felt tragic in the moment I was experiencing it – turned out to be key to turning me to my true life’s path.

Christina Baldwin, author & teacher, Washington
christina baldwnOne thing that helped me find the path to the work of my heart is my own journal. There is a circular nature to the act of writing something down and through reading what I’m writing informing myself of my own desires… Countless times over the years, the pen has slipped out truth before my waiting gaze and I have been startled, surprised, delighted, or shocked at what I have just revealed to myself. The inner teacher is a sly one! In a life so richly full of people, I have enjoyed again and again the surprises springing forth from this most subtle inner source.

Amy Tingle, writer, artist, typewriter poet, New Jersey
amy tingleThe first dip into finding my heart’s work was quite literal, dipping my toes into Squam Lake during the inaugural Squam Art Workshops in 2008. I met so many women that weekend who were in the process of searching for, or who had already found, the heart of their passion. Taking art classes with great teachers like Judy Wise and Misty Mawn, and writing with Jen Lee and eventually, with Maya Rachel Stein, led me to begin teaching again myself. I started BraveGirlsArt, offering art and self-empowerment classes for girls and women in New Jersey, and more recently Maya and I embarked on a new adventure together with our mobile creativity business, Food for the Soul Train. Art and writing are no longer pursuits I daydream about, but integral pieces of my daily life. That first dip in Squam Lake was freezing, but I knew immediately that I could swim.  -Amy Tingle, Food for the Soul Train

Rachelle Mee-Chapman, spiritual director specializing in “care for creative souls, Washington
rachelle mee chapmanWhat helped me find my path to my heart’s work? Art. I often say that when church failed me, art saved me. To me the creative process is an act faith, and to view the artwork of others is a connection to the divine. I was especially guided by the letters of Vincent VanGogh — another former preacher converted to the church of art. Now I help people connect the dots between spiritual development and creative expression. As an ordained minister, I never thought a museum would become my cathedral, but I’m grateful that it has.

beth sanders

Beth Sanders, conversation host and city planner, Alberta
Being a bit of an explorer has opened my life to my heart. When I went to university, and took my first job, I didn’t know what I was getting into; I just knew there was something there for me and I set out to explore what called to me, even if I didn’t understand why. As I look back, the path seems clear and I now understand that when I explore, the path finds me.

Kara LC Jones, creative grief coach and teacher, Washington
kara jonesAs odd as it may sound, my three dead sons helped me find my path to comfort with groundlessness.  Prior to their lives/deaths, I wanted a fixed path; to know what I was meant to do; to feel I could accomplish or clearly show what I was doing in my life and work.  But their deaths pulled all path from under my feet.  I had to face the chaos of groundlessness and make peace with the path being no path.  I do what I do.  I treasure the moment — or lament, celebrate, curse, or dance it.  I aim for things sometimes, but I know the path branches in dimensions I can’t even fathom.  The aim is aimless.  The purpose wanders.  The path is no path, *and* being okay with that groundlessness every moment.

Tuesday Ryan-Hart, host/facilitator, community builder, Ohio
tuesday ryan hartWhile I have been supported and loved into the work of my heart by many kind friends and family, I would say that I have always been led by my own internal compass. If I can get quiet enough to listen, I will always find my own “true north” and then those same friends and family give me the courage to follow where that leads.  My path – finding it, walking it, blazing it if I have to – is always located at the intersection of myself and my beloveds, the personal and the collective, the known and unknown.

Mary Alice Arthur, story activist and conversation host, New Zealand and other places
mary alice arthurI learn by travelling and being in new places, different cultures and groups has challenged my perspective and taught me to take a broader view. I’ve been blessed to meet many friends of the heart who have helped me to see my own guts more clearly. But the outward journey has to be mirrored by the inner one.  I’ve learned as much or more through the prompting of my spirit and the longing of my soul. Always it calls to me to be still a moment and listen. That isn’t easy!  In a world where”doing” has become paramount I look again and again to those who are profoundly “being”, and who, in following their hearts are a beacon to others. I hope I can be one of those. May you be one, too!

Terri Belford, writer, teacher, muse, California
terri belfordThe greatest wisdom about finding my true path came to me at a point when I began to feel like a dilettante because I was on my third business and once again feeling called to do something new. I literally was walking up a trail in the woods and heard a whisper asking “What if I have more than one life purpose? What if I’m not meant to stay on a single path?” At that moment I gave myself permission to remain open to unplanned twists and “stopovers” on the journey. Now, rather than judging myself as fickle, I honor my different callings and I’m guided by the question, “How will this make a difference?”

lisa wilson

Lisa Wilson, artist, writer, mindfulness teacher, Indiana
Stillness.  Because beyond all of the paths that were offered by others, all of the shoulds and the rights and wrongs…beyond it all was my heart, keeping rhythm for my breath.  I simply need to listen, again and again, to remember who I already am.

Connie Zhuwarara, human rights lawyer, Zimbabwe
Being able to finally listen to that inner voice that tells you there is a better way of doing things more authentically. The yearning that never goes away and later the joy and peace that follows when you make the decision to finally listen to that inner strong desire for change. The grace that thrives when you know that although the work you are doing is important, there is a whole new world out there not known by many. It requires you to walk on the edge to discover new ways of living, working and being. It dawn on me, that mere existence was not an option anymore.


Walking the path to the work of my heart was like stepping in front of the train track. It was faith, then magic happened and everything started happening in slow motion. Then the chips started falling in place, slowly one by one. I was pointed to the right people to guide me to let me know that many have walked this path before me. I came across various tools that have lead me to this path; mandala’s, women in circle. Slowly like a baby learning to walk, I stumble, but get up knowing that I am on the right path. I allowed myself to talk to the women that have walked the path before me. Two particular women have had such a big influence in my life. One introduced me to the new way of doing things. I did not hesitate. I walked to the door and the other I called on. She told me, I was an edge walker. She told me, that the truth was within – she was going to hold my hand and guide me to reach my truth. Am slowly, but surely, picking up the pebbles of my truth. Am walking the edgy path. This path comes with it Grace, gratitude and courage. Sometimes it’s lonely but that path is worth walking.

Maya Stein, ninja poet, writing guide, and creative adventuress, New Jersey
maya steinI had great role models in my parents. They’ve lived a very creative life, pursuing activities and ideas and places they felt passionate about. They always carved out time and space for themselves – together and separately – and I was always aware that their interests and pursuits were a necessary part of our family life, even if I wouldn’t have known to articulate exactly why. But I understand, now, that their personal pursuits defined them just as much as parenting did. And this has taught me a lot about identity, about the importance of carving space and time for that amid the other roles and responsibilities of daily life. It’s so easy to lose sight of our personal identities, or even the investigation of what makes us tick inside – it’s probably the first thing that gets sacrificed because we can get so overloaded by what’s being demanded of us – but I think it’s ultimately a huge loss, not just for ourselves, but for others who might look to us for inspiration and guidance. I feel that when we let our passionate selves slip away, the best part of us is gone. And so I make decisions – not always simple or easy ones – on behalf of that “best part.” I want her around for a long time.

Jodi Crane, play therapist and professor, Texas
jodi craneMy parents, teachers, and mentors have influenced me through lessons learned via their teaching and modeling. And some steps on my path I didn’t have control over. For instance, only one school accepted both my husband and I for further graduate work. Thus, we moved from Texas to Iowa.  My path has been most fulfilling when it includes elements of what I loved to play as a child: house, school, writing stories, and making crafts. In the end, my path has been one of self-exploration and increasing self-awareness, knowing above all else, I must trust myself.

Cigdem Kobu, writer, teacher and business coach, New Jersey
CigdemKobu-peacefulI’ve had many truly great guides and teachers, but I think my intuitive and daring inner self, whenever I remember to notice and listen to her voice, has been the one who helped me the most because she urged me to keep going and encouraged me to take risk, experiment and learn continuously.

I believe each of us has her own inner wise self who knows all the answers, who has all the guidance, and who can show the way if we let her.

Joseph Campbell said, “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”

I trust that the meaning I search for – as well as the work of my heart – comes from within myself in my commitment to do the work in spite of my fears, doubts and trepidations. It is the practice that sheds light on the path.

Oftentimes people want to know the meaning first – before they feel they can rise to act. But I think it happens the other way around. Meaning comes from practice. You feel drawn to do something. You feel called to do some type of work. You accept the challenge with an open mind, you take the first step, you experiment, you create, you serve. And all the time, you remain observant. Then you change, transform, shift, redefine, course-correct as the need arises. And then you do it again.

Laurie Foley, brand strategist and coach, Georgia
laurie foleyAs much as I dislike the experience, uncertainty has always been the most profound teacher for me as I seek my path. Call me stubborn but I seem to require being dissolved into total surrender in order to discover the path that really matters. One of the best parts of getting older is that I can now shake my fist at the challenges of uncertainty while knowing deep down that growth and alignment will come in due time. Journaling is my best tool for allowing fist-shaking and anticipation to co-exist.

jen louden

Jennifer Louden, author & teacher, Washington
A persistent tug, push, psychic shove that has always arose in me to create (something! anything!) and to help others (it can be better, really!) is what ushers me along the path of my work. I won’t say that following this path is easy nor is the path very clear but so what? I will continue to listen and follow. Knowing others are doing the same helps immensely.

Barbara Winter, self-employed gypsy teacher & writer, California
barbara winterI spent a decade zigzagging around and wondering why I couldn’t find my calling like my archaeologist sister had when she was a kid. After three unhappy attempts at “good jobs”, I met a wise man who kept reminding me that the biggest influences in our lives are the people you meet and the books that you read. Although I wasn’t sure where to find those positive influences, one evening I read a little article in the local paper about two women who had started a business from their apartment in New York. Best of all, they’d written a book about their adventures called Supergirls: Autobiography of an Outrageous Business. I dashed to the bookstore the next day, bought their only copy and had a new world open up before my eyes. I must have read it 5 or 6 times in a row. Within a few months, I headed out on my first adventure in self-employment.

andrea shroeder

Andrea Shroeder, dream incubator & muse for creative magic, Manitoba
Joseph Campbell said that where you stumble, that’s where your treasure lies. When I look back on the path that has led me to where I am now, doing the work of my heart as my full time gig, I see my stumbles as my greatest teachers.  Learning how to be ok with the struggle and to find the gifts in the darkness and what ultimately helped me to develop the courage to believe in myself enough to go after what I really wanted.

miki'ala devivo

Miki’ala DeVivo, lifestyle photographer and family history chronicler, Arizona
I used to think that the answer to “what am I supposed to do with my life” was out there somewhere. I took all the courses and read all the books. Turns out the answer was with me all along, but in a place I’d never thought to look before. (Click here for a longer post by Miki’ala on the subject on her blog.)

martha atkins

Martha Atkins, PhD, master certified coach, licensed professional counsellor, Texas
Dr. Hooker, my psychology professor and advisor at Southwestern University was the key player. He started me down a path that led toward pediatric hospital work, then death and dying work. A WWII survivor, he practiced and lived unconditional positive regard. As an 19 year old college student, Dr. Hooker changed the course of my life.

connie hozvicka

Connie Hozvicka, artist, writer, yogini, Arizona
My paintbrush has always been my trusty ol’ compass in navigating my path.  Simply the act of painting has helped me become comfortable with taking risks, lessen my fear of failure, and most of all tap into my innate wisdom. If it wasn’t for my paintbrush, I wouldn’t have the courage to paint a life that is true to my spirit and to find work that stems directly from my heart . (Click here for a longer version of Connie’s story on her blog.)

mahala mazarovMahala Mazerov, meditation teacher, New Mexico
I was born connected. A mystic. As I think we all are. The vital challenge is not to lose our heart connection as we move from the inner richness of childhood into adulthood. And, in particular, not to divide our heart from our work in the world.

David Harkins, business advisor, facilitator, speaker, teacher, 
david harkinsThe work of my heart, my passion, is to build and create new things. It takes different forms, from painting and writing, to creating products and building businesses. I am grateful for my parents for giving me the tools and encouragement to begin, and thankful for a string of employers who have enabled me to continue to explore and support my passion.


Are you looking for your path? Pathfinder can help!

Want to share your own story of who our what helped you find your path? Add it in the comments, or write a blog post and leave the link in the comments.

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