The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

Sometimes I wish we could recall what it feels like to be born, to be immersed in a world that is strange and new and constantly unfamiliar. What is it like for a child to go to sleep, open her eyes, and be part of a reality that makes no sense? The sounds that people utter to her are just that – sounds. A cacophony of clucks, grunts, hard Ts and soft Ss that fill the ears and register little with the brain until it has something to associate with them. Sounds have no real meaning yet for the child hasn’t learned what they represent in her current existence. All objects are alien, all tastes and tactile experiences new. We learn, slowly, how to connect with the larger world, how to repeat the sounds we hear bantered about us, how to link those sounds to meaning and finally how to make ourselves understood by others who speak the same language. But what a strange first year or two that must be. Dropped into a world that preexists and solely reliant on others to survive, to learn to navigate this place where one’s life will unfold. 

Of course, we all have traversed this terrain but most of us have no recollection of what is was like to be preverbal, to struggle to understand others or make our needs and wants understood. Yet what happens if a person is forced into this state later in life? What is it like to become dependent, inarticulate and immobile in a world that once was familiar? I am taken to this place of strange and painful frustration in the book The Diving Bell and The Butterfly written by Jean-Dominique Bauby in 1997. It is a small memoir, only 130 pages, that transports the reader into the mind of Bauby, once a titan in the fashion world as editor at a French magazine, as he struggles to communicate with people after a freakish accident leaves him with locked-in syndrome, a kind of brain injury that renders its victim “imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move” (Bauby p. 4). His paralyzed body becomes a diving bell, pulling him heavily downward into murky waters, but his mind, unaffected by the stroke, his free to think and float and wander his vast imagination like a butterfly.Through his writing I am reminded of the power and beauty of language, something we all too often take for granted, and of the human need to communicate, to share what is in our heads and hearts with one another, no matter how difficult the task. For Bauby, who could only move his left eyelid, the desire to escape the “frightening truth” (p. 9) of his new existence lead him to relearn a system of speech so that he could move beyond the limiting realm of his existence and share his experience with others. This little book, full of terror, humor, sadness and euphoria, is testament to one man’s will to move beyond himself, to painstakingly blink one eyelid to write a book that will allow everyone to join him in his diving bell, “even if the diving bell takes [him] into unexplored territory” (p. 83). As his reader, it is a journey I gladly make with him.

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Radiation Treatment

I guess I should be thankful for so many advancements in science and technology. After all, without the more sensitive and accurate mammogram machines and noisy, clunky MRIs and CTs the doctors might not have discovered the cluster of calcification lurking in my left breast, hiding in wait immediately behind my nipple. I need to be grateful because left unchecked these granules, which in the numerous films of my breast are minute and remind me of the Pleiades (which I have always loved, especially because they are classified as “middle-aged hot B-type stars”) or a faint milky way scattered across a variegated backdrop of blacks, whites and grays could have gone rogue and turned cancerous.

Ductile Carcenoma In Situ – that’s the formal diagnoses, and as far as cancers go, it’s the one to have, or so I’ve been told. Easily treated and almost totally curable if caught early and excised. So the murky scattering of calcification detected via a yearly mammogram and subsequent MRI was surgically removed a few weeks ago; my doctor is so skilled with this kind of procedure that she feels certain I will not even have a scar from the incision but I am not there yet. I look down and still see surgical stitches, odd puckerings and aureolas out of sync, but the aesthetics and symmetry of my breasts is the least of my concerns right now.DCIS-mammo

The standard treatment for DCIS is a lumpectomy followed by radiation treatment. Some people opt for a focused treatment whereby the doctors insert a metal apparatus to “seed” the area so that the radiation beams can pinpoint the spot with more aggressive X-rays. For me, the doctors recommended whole breast radiation, and I am now in treatment for 7 weeks. I go to the Cancer Center every day, M-F, and try to relax as a giant machine shoots radioactive beams into my effected tissue in an effort to kill the DNA of the potentially hazardous cells, ensuring – hopefully – that there will be no recurrence.

Even though I know the treatment is relatively safe and necessary, and the machines are state-of-the-art and designed to minimize risks, and that the doctors/technicians who have done the calculations and work in teams to set me up on the machine are caring and competent…even though I know all of these things, I still experience fear and cannot help but feel small and powerless and somewhat in awe of the machines and technology that fill the space and are being used to eradicate the cells in my breast. In the treatment room, there are dozens of computers and apparatuses that whir and beep and emit strange red lights. The techs have tried to make it a welcoming place with music playing and a cheery lighted picture of blossoming trees placed in the ceiling, just over the machine where I lie back and wait for directions as I am lined up, the tiny tattooes inked into my skin showing exactly where the beams of radiation need to enter my body.

I try to be calm, to be a “good” patient who is thankful for the technicians and doctors and machines that are helping me. I arrive at the Center on time, change into my blue gown, have my ID card scanned, sign my name in the book and approach the table. I slip my left arm out of the gown, place it outstretched above my head in the supports provided and let the techs move and shift my body to the perfect spot. I stare hopefully at the cheerful, lighted “sky light” in an effort to take my mind to another place. I try not to think of the sounds emanating from the machine that rotates around my chest, a large, circular disc that reminds me of the Starship Enterprise. It floats heavily above me, moving across me to align with the tattoos and target the tissue. I hear the techs speak to me from another room, “Lie heavy; hold your breath. Good….” The machine makes a wheezing sound for about 20 seconds. “Now breath,” the voice replies and I do. b137Z0198

The red lights, coming at me from three angles, look sinister and unforgiving. They are steady and unblinking as they encircle the linear accelerator. When these lights come on, I am reminded of the laser-range finders used in rifles to pinpoint prey, and I feel an eerie, surreal flush creep through my system. Of course, I know none of this is true and my fears and comparisons to sci-fi and shootings are simply a product of my anxiety and over-active imagination.

I’m told this will all get easier. The more I go, the more it will become routine. Perhaps I’ll not even see the red lights or hear the machines’ strange and mechanical sounds in a few weeks. Maybe baring my breast to strangers and lying supine in a cold room full of high-tech, mysterious equipment that are as alien to me as, well, aliens would be, will not faze me in the near future. I can only hope.

As for now, it is still strange, aberrant and frightening. I sit in the waiting room with other women going through similar experiences, although many of them are bald or boast colorful scarves around their heads. Most are quite friendly as we wait for our turn with one of the machines that will hopefully obliterate the cancer cells affecting our bodies. So many woman have gone before me, facing far more serious diagnoses and enduring far more extensive treatment plans. I know that my diagnosis, DCIS, is a minor one in the cancer game, and that seven weeks of minimally invasive treatment is nothing in the big picture. This too shall pass, right? Now, I am marking off my calendar – the end date looking pretty far down an unknown road. I may experience fatigue, sunburned skin, changes in the size and tissue of my breast, but I trust the doctors who have mapped out this plan for me and trust that soon all of this will be something I can say is in my past. I will be happy to leave the treatment room and its advanced, life-saving devices behind, but will forever be more mindful and compassionate to others facing illnesses beyond their own control.

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Daily Prompt: Earworm

Daily Prompt: Earworm.

While walking my dog the other day, a poem by William Safford kept floating through my mind. I found this work years ago and his words have haunted me ever since. I feel this is one of the most eloquent, beautiful poems I’ve ever read and I like to contemplate the meanings that resonate in it. Maybe it’s the idea of rituals, the imagery of elephants, the call to action and to thinking for oneself, the sense of mystery that the final lines invoke…Maybe it’s the notion that we all must make concerted efforts to be present, to listen to and communicate with one another – something that sounds so simple but is in fact so damn hard…Maybe it’s just the mercurial aspect of the poem and the fact that it challenges me each time I read it. Don’t know… just love it.

A Ritual To Read To Each Other

A Ritual To Read To Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

William Stafford

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Daily Prompt: Ripped Into the Headline

Daily Prompt: Ripped Into the Headline.

York’s SPCA Bully Bash

This past Saturday York County residents had a rollicking good time at Rudy Park, which held the 4th annual fundraiser for the SPCA called “Bully Bash.” While it had rained ‘cats and dogs’ (pardon my pun but I couldn’t resist) for two days prior to the festival, Saturday morning shone bright and clear. Vendors headed to the parks in vans and cars, filled to the rims and brims with goods. Many goods were to sell, like dog-related clothing, collars and leashes, holistic foods and treats and dozens of other ways to show love to your pet even more. Other pop-up tents were raised and staffed by caring volunteers who devote their time to breed-specific rescue; their goal is to spread the word to the public about their rescue organization or other positive ways a person could impact an abandoned dog or  shelter dog’s life.  photo (2)

There were hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream treats…even the dogs joined in an ice-cream eating contest. Local area merchants had also donated baskets filled with special treats – both canine and human – and the raffle got underway at 1:30. For 5$ a participant got 6 tickets. You should have heard the crowds roar when a winner’s number was called.

The local SPCA sponsored this large event and turnout was even better that last year according to one staff employee. While the donations have not been counted, many speculate that thousands will have been rasied to go directly to the needy dogs, cats, rabbits and even horses taken care of by our rural facility.

It was a day filled with people and animals of all shapes and sizes. Squat, waddling little English Bull dogs, long and lanky Dobermanns, a few dogs that chose to be carried as they accessorized their master’s outfit, and I even spotted three Newfoundlands – magnificent creatures brushed out and meandering slowly about the park as if they owned the place. Well, they kind of did as dozens of people asked to pet the gentle giants and learn more about the breed from the owners.

And since this event is called The Bully Bash, the most predominate breed trotting around the part were various types of terriers (often mis-categorized as Pit Bull when there really is no such breed). I saw small, stocky dogs with ears that could help them take flight, large, muscular ones who looked intimidating until they smiled that wide, toothy grin. Owners and dogs alike enjoyed the festival and everyone behaved perfectly….

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So part of the goal of this event is to better education the public on the sad myths that still surround the Bull Terrier breed. I’ve been around these dogs alot and have found them to be loving, gentle and very loyal. They have gotten a bad rap from some uncaring people who forced the dogs to fight by desensitizing them and treating them without love or compassion. The breed exemplifies an amazing dog and all good dogs deserve a chance to find a loving home.

Since helping dogs find loving homes is one of the most important tenets of the SPCA, I hope that the Bully Bash reached its intended audience and that those who came out to celebrate could see how many dogs – a huge array of sizes and breeds – were happily coexisting. I also hope that most of those dogs who were lucky enough to be at the festival – soaking up a day of sunshine and attention – have a found a permanent home because of this event.

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The Love of Old Dogs

Everyone loves a puppy, of course. Why not? They are small and gangly and infinitely curious. Nothing is like the smell of puppy breath or the feel of tiny, razor-sharp teeth chewing on an offered hand. Puppies are adorable, and if we get them at the SPCA where I volunteer, they inevitably find a home within a day or two. I love puppies too but it’s the older dogs, the dogs whose faces show wisdom and fortitude and a quiet acceptance of what is that truly amaze me and touch my heart. I love old dogs because I am reminded to be present, to be patient and awake in this life I live.  Boo, Molly in field

Last week I spent my days with a dear friend who lives on 20 acres out west. Outside her door is a pasture filled with knee-high grasses. Deer meander the property, taking delicate yet greedy nibbles of her carefully planted flowers and shrubs. Red tails soar above in a clear blue sky and the silence way up on the hill is almost palpable. We had a grand time last week, and one of the daily rituals was to walk the dogs down to the chicken coop to collect the eggs. While not far, this walk has become a measurement for her dogs’ health. She has two lovely girls, a 14-year-old German Shepherd mix and a 16-year-old Aussie mix.

Once these girls could bound down the hill, chase the deer from the pasture and eagerly wait at the end of the property for their master’s return. Now the walk is slower, more thoughtful. We all move a bit more patiently, taking the time to experience the views, enjoy the sunshine, sniff the secret scents that fill the air and nestle in the grass by the road. These girls still amble down the hill; they still get excited to visit the chickens and take their turn about the yard. They simply do it more slowly now.

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Ones hips are ailing and her gait is off. The other’s eyesight and hearing are failing. Despite these physical shifts, these girls relish each morning, each excursion into the field they have walked a thousand times. I enjoyed watching them in their routine, seeing the subtle expressions cross their faces when the wind shifted or a bird screeched. I loved scratching each behind the ears, nuzzling a soft muzzle and hugging a body that was just a tad thinner than the last time I visited.

I love old dogs, everything about them except the fact that their time with us is waning. The thought of their passing fills me with sadness, so heartbroken for my friend who will undoubtedly miss her companions of so many years. But along with this sadness is something else, something harder to name and harder still to express. It’s a kind of bittersweet feeling in that through these aging souls I am brought closer to the importance of the moment. Old dogs give me this gift of perspective and gratitude. On some days it is enough to simply be. To be aware of myself in time in place, to say thank you for each feeling and emotion, to see the world through the senses of a dog by my side. These old girls reminded me that each walk is an opportunity for discovery and happiness, even if it’s simply finding 3 lovely hen’s eggs, the same as the day before.

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Friendships That Last

It’s been said a thousand times in a thousand different ways, but truly there are few things in life as rewarding and comfortable as friendships that have withstood the test of time. I am so blessed to have two such friends, amazing women who I have had the privilege to know for close to 30 years. And even though we all live in different parts of the country, we make a conscious choice to stay close, to maintain our friendship through yearly visits, lots of emails and cell phone texts with pictures. Some days, I know exactly what my friend in Alabama had for lunch as she’ll shoot me a yummy text picture just to say hello.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
While it’s true siblings might know us for the entire arc of a lifetime – and I am fortunate to have 3 wonderful sisters – there is something to be said for the friends we choose to bring into our worlds, or the ones who choose us. I once read an adage that said, “People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime” and this stuck with me. We all have had friends who come and go but those we choose to keep, to invest our energy in because we love them and cherish the relationship, are really a special thing – especially in our world of constant shift and change. It does take effort to keep friendships close but that effort is a joy, not a burden.

We have seen alot together, my two favorite girlfriends and I. We met waiting tables at a rowdy restaurant bar, helped each other graduate college, commiserated over boyfriend break ups or other small tragedies of youth. We have witness one another’s marriage, and helped each other through illness, divorce and the losses of loved ones. It is one of life’s best gifts, I think, to meet other souls who are in line with yours, to know people who you feel are like family. For us, even if we’ve not seen each other in a year, it feels as if no time has passed. We can sit down, pour a glass of wine and talk about anything…and everything.

Sometimes it’s pure nostalgia as we recount events from our shared past. Many conversations are about the silly or foolish things we experienced – like driving to Florida for a long weekend only to be met by a hurricane that kept us indoors, or getting off work with a pocket full of tips only to head to a neighboring bar, hit the dance floor til it closed, tip other wait staff outrageously, and finally head home with mere change in our pockets. Life in my early 20s was chaotic and unpredictable, but it was also a whole lot of fun. That fun and those memories are due in part to my dear friends who helped me celebrate life. But we also talk philosophically, sharing our ideas on politics, religion and other “big life” issues.

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We three made a pact several years ago to do our best to plan a girls’ weekend at least once per year. So far we have been doing it 6 years and each adventure brings us closer. We’ve met on the west coast, in Colorado, in Memphis and in the deep south. There’s never a dull moment and I find my conversations with my old friends to be rich and illuminating. There’s something to be said for knowing a person a long time; there’s no need for pretense or false manners. There is always lots of laughter and thoughtful conversations on life and love and the things that fulfill us.

Ours is a friendship of a lifetime, I think. In retrospect, these women came in to my life for a reason and a lifetime as we have allowed ourselves to grow as individuals and to honor the friendship we have and the years we’ve shared. I am lucky to add to more “sisters” to my family and know I can look forward to growing old(er) with my dear friends by my side.

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Thoughts on the Boston Tragedy

Here we go again. Another tragedy in America; more senseless killing and brutal behavior that is incomprehensible. Why? I think that’s the question all of us are asking. The exhilaration and excitement of the Boston marathon was interrupted by the sounds of explosions and the reactions of fear.

My husband and I heard about the bombings about an hour after they occurred and immediately our thoughts turned to his brother who was running the event…Thank god he was fine but he was close enough to hear the blasts. However, even if we did not have family in the marathon, who cannot be with those innocent spectators as their worlds were shattered by violence? The images of the 78-year-old marathoner lit up the screens and viewers watched in horror as yet another horrific incident unfolded in America. If you have ever enjoyed a sporting event, a concert, a parade or march, then you are a victim too. This horror could have happened to any one of us.

And it continues to unfold. The news stations host 24 hour coverage of the search for the perpetrators….who, it appears, are two young men who immigrated here years ago. How tragic. How horrible I feel for the families affected by those who set off the bombs but also for these two men who – it seems  – committed this crime. Why? Their school pictures flash constantly across the television screen….everyone who knew them is shocked. No one can understand this turn of event. If these men plotted and planned these bombs, what motivated them? How does a person go from a “normal and caring” person to someone who commits acts of terrorism against civilians? Like so many people in America tonight, I am perplexed and saddened and heart-broken for families destroyed and lives cut short.

As rational people, we want to understand why. We want to try to wrap our mind around the concept, to try to find some real reason for the behavior of others….If we do not have this, a somewhat basic understanding of how others see the world, then we cannot attempt to predict things. We are stumbling blind in the dark and the world becomes reactionary, a chaotic mess that confounds and confuses. The past two days have been a blur of confusion and media frenzy.

After the initial images aired, most of us wanted to know why the explosions happened…Then, once we knew they were acts of terror, we wanted to know who. All efforts focused on who could enact such a heinous crime. Now, after the investigation and the brilliant efforts of so many groups to sift through millions of pieces of information, we are asking why. I feel sad and despondent because it seems this world in which we currently live is in a perpetual state of agitation, of anger. What kind of hatred or sickness could lead a person to bomb a sporting event, a day dedicated to persons who believe in the capabilities of their body and training, who celebrate the commitment to race and join in peaceful camaraderie with people from all over the world? We may never know. One young man is dead and the other is the focus of a massive manhunt. Too many lives cut short or drastically altered by one singular event.

Even if there is some kind of explanation, we may still never understand why. The news stations continue to track the second son, the boy who is believed to have perpetrated this violence. Facts unravel in real time. I continue to watch and listen and feel my heart grow heavier for everyone involved in this nightmare.

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Daily Prompt: Prized Possession

Daily Prompt: Prized Possession.

I think most kids have something – some kind of toy or article of clothing – that they value more than others. At least for a period of time, there is usually a favorite, an item that gets carried about day in and day out until, one day, the child tires of it or forgets it and leaves it behind. Or, perhaps, some other object comes along to steal the child’s affection.

I had a special blanket when I was a girl. I don’t recall that much about it now and am not certain which memories are mine and which are ones that have been planted in me by my mother’s stories. My blanket was nothing elaborate or fancy, just an ordinary piece of soft white cloth that somehow made me feel safe. It was a large square and trimmed in a satin-like fabric that I liked to feel. I loved that blanket and dragged it around with me everywhere. I named it Plainy (I know; I was not an inventive kid) and it can be seen in some of the more candid pictures of me taken from ages 2-4 or so.

I guess my mother thought I was getting too dependent on the blanket or that it was looking to ratty for me to carry about. She likes to tell the story of how Plainy disappeared, unraveled slowly into space until it was no more. When she could pry the blanket from my hands, she’d throw it in the washing machine to clean it (a white blanket in the hands of a curious 3-year-old probably was a small mess). Before she’d give the blanket back to me, she’d cut off a strip of its fabric. Over months the blanket shrank, becoming smaller and smaller until I was carrying around a strip of tattered white cloth. Then one day Plainy simply disappeared.

My mom loves to tell of her cleverness in weaning me from my security blanket…and to be honest I don’t recall how I felt when that blanket finally dissolved. I can see pictures of me with it and am reminded of the times when I believed in the magic of my toys, of the conversations held with stuffed animals and the protection felt in the warmth of an old blanket.

I think around the age of 5 or so, after my blanket had been cut into scraps, I forged a deep bond with a pink stuffed pig. Like my plain old blanket, this pig was nothing special but I loved it and it became my new treasure. It was moved from house to house, attacked and chewed on by our dogs, used as football at many sleep overs, and still it survived. That old battered pig is still with me, somewhere, packed away in one of my boxes from childhood. Over the years, when I get into a cleaning phase and gather things to donate or throw away, I have come across pink piggy many times but something always stops me from placing it in the discard pile. I guess there is something kind of magical and certainly sentimental about holding an object now that was once held by your childhood self, and knowing that a version of you is still imprinted on that thing that once held such power and importance.

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Daily Prompt: Judgment Day

Daily Prompt: Judgment Day.

This is a difficult request as I have too many favorite books and many of them are quite plain underneath their dust jacket. I distinctly recall my father reading Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland to me as a child, and it was a simple, plain blue book, no embellishments. Also, many books cycle through popularity, like To Kill A Mockingbird, The Bell Jar or East of Eden as they get picked up by school reading committees or Oprah’s book club. Each time a book is reprinted, it is usually re-branded and a new cover is designed to appeal to whatever audience it is trying to reach.

I think a better question is to think about what draws us, as readers, to pick up a book in the library or store. I love to spend time in each just looking at the spines of books and reading titles. If I like a certain author, like T.C Boyle or Anchee Min, I will probably look to see what else that person has written and give it a try. But if I am totally in the market for something new, I am usually first drawn to a text by its title. I like witty, provocative titles that allude to something or compel me to think. Layers or entendres are also good. Sometimes, I admit, I look at the cover art or the design of the book but that alone is not enough to make me read it. However, the art can effect how I perceive the book.

I think it’s interesting that the same book can be released under a different title and a different design depending on the country in which it is released as well. I supposed the corporate folks in publishing do focus groups and study trends so they know how to market to mass appeal. One of my favorite reads a few years ago was Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. I recall picking it up because someone had referred me to it, and when I read the teaser on the book jacket it sounded interesting. A book set in WWII Germany narrated by death? OK, let me read this. However, I am intrigued by the ways in which this book was presented to the world and at the thought that goes into a cover’s design.

Look at the designs below – all for the same book – and see which one appeals to you, would make you pick it up, pay your money and take it home. Then think about why…I think this is much more interesting question and asks you as the reader to analyze your tastes and preferences and to contemplate why the publisher made these stylistic choices. To me, these covers and the fonts used are all really different and suggest a different reading experience. If the title and the cover art are the first introduction to a text, then I am sure they effect us in some way or set up an expectation for the read, whether it be consciously understood or completely fulfilled after completion.

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Daily Prompt: Competition

Daily Prompt: Competition.

What brings out my competitive streak…um, everything. I am very competitive, and I think some of it is just my personality and the rest was fueled by being the youngest of 4 kids and always vying for my parents’ attention. The way I most readily gained my father’s was to excel at games and sports or to learn something faster than one of my siblings.

I can turn most any opportunity into a competition. I like card games – learned to play bridge with my parents and their friends when I was only 9. I also learned chess and checkers from an uncle and can recall many a mean game of Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit. My husband and I play “punch-buggy” every time we get into a car. Also, I am now doing some short triathlons and while I doubt I’ll ever win one, I like to set a goal for myself or to try and beat a former time. And put me on a tennis court, a sport I’ve played since I was a kid, and I want to win the match  – always.

I love to win but I hope my competitive nature doesn’t make me an arse or a poor sport. Everyone has to lose if playing a game or competing against others. I’ve learned to accept loss as long as I have done my very best – which can change from day to day.

I think being competitive has been one of my greatest strengths and weaknesses in life so far. My nature has pushed me to excel in many areas, like education or sports, but I know at times my desire to achieve or win can be seen by some as too intense. I think I’ve dailed it back a bit and now can be gracious if someone out-smarts or out-plays me. It doesn’t always feel good to come up short in a competition, but it’s inevitable.

It sounds trite, I know, but the process of how I compete is far more valuable and important than the outcome of whether I win or lose.

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