I have always cherished Autumn. This has always been the time of year I love most.
The arrival of autumn air used to carry fond memories of Octobers with my Japanese painting teacher in Tokyo. The taste of roasted sweet potato, soothing, hot hojicha (roasted green tea), our short walks to her neighborhood shrine under a brilliant lapis-colored sky, and the scent of peppermint wafting through her studio, all used to permeate my senses each year with the amiable arrival of fall. I had spent at least twelve consecutive Octobers, up until 2010, assisting my teacher with her annual painting for the highly esteemed ‘Nitten’, the Japanese Fine Arts Exhibition. The rock mineral pigments, (combined with peppermint drops from a spray bottle), were mixed by hand in small white ceramic dishes, and warmed to a precise temperature on a hot plate in her studio. My fingertips, nearly raw, turned a crimson red from endless hours of mixing the sandy textured pigments and ‘nikawa’, a glue-like type of binder, until they were ready to be used on the ten-foot tall canvas. A mere sprinkling of memories from another chapter in my life that will always hold a very important place in my heart.
The September air this year did not arrive with those fond memories of roasted sweet potato or green tea. This year, the cool, fresh autumnal air arrived with an unyielding current pulling me back to exactly what life felt like two years ago when I was in chemotherapy. Without warning, the mere breath of autumn had wrapped the past around me having me believe I was there again. Every cell in my body and mind believed I was there. It felt – so real.
It was overpowering the first time it happened, but lately, I have been able to accept its presence when it returns, and rather than look for a place to run, I just let it be. One of the most important things I am learning (partly from meditation) is to sit with unpleasant feelings and experiences, rather than try to avoid them and push them away. I know this feeling and these memories will pass at some point, but I will not do what I have always done… which is push them in a deep-freeze, hoping they never defrost to reveal themselves again. That is something I learned to do from a very young age as a way of self-preservation, but thankfully, going through cancer has taken me on a path that has been teaching me there is a different and better way to see my way through unpleasant feelings.
A dear friend has often shared a wonderful Robert Frost quote with me…“The best way out is always through”. I think I am finally starting to understand the true meaning and power in these words.
So even though I have been accosted by memories of chemo, (since I had started chemo in early October two years ago, October 6th to be exact…), and despite the fact I occasionally have rather daunting dreams involving bad scan results, I keep pushing forward and I accept that this new normal, post cancer treatment, takes constant adjustment and practice. My heart is filled with gratitude that two years has nearly past since active treatment, and I am still here, rebuilding my life (and my broken body :P).
I used to reflect on how living and surviving in Japan always showed me how strong I am (and Japan did do that for me)… but going through cancer has done that in other, more intrepid ways. Going through cancer reminded me of the strength I have always had. I was a survivor, long before I had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Regardless of my being somewhat haunted recently of strong memories of my experiences during chemotherapy, I still adore autumn. I still, dearly love the fall. And I know new memories may gradually overlap the ones that have come forward from two years ago… or they won’t. Either way…
“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” – L.M. Montgomery