October 9, 2013


Twelve years ago doctors discovered a malignant melanoma in the scar tissue of my dad's arm. When melanoma spreads, people die. We spent two weeks waiting for surgery; waiting to see if the cancer had spread. It was excruciating--the most painful period of my life. I walked on campus in a daze; normal conversation felt bizarre. All my thoughts were with my dad. At the hospital during surgery--a surgery that blessedly showed no spread--I was wide awake. My life in sharp focus: I value relationships over all else. 

At that time I worked 60+ hours a week (and probably obsessed for 70 hours). During my awake period, I committed to better work-life balance; to putting people first. Six months later I mindlessly returned to the busyness. My dad was okay--quite healthy, actually. I re-rationalized the long work weeks. I lost sight of my awake choices.

Gradually I found my way back to wakefulness. What do I mean by awake? Present. Real. Self-aware. Open to life--the joys and the struggles. Mindful. Vulnerable. Brave. Connected to self and others. Living life true to oneself.

I've had more episodes like my dad's cancer scare. Experiences that shook me awake, but only for short spells. These taught me lessons and built my arsenal of tools: meditation, therapy, writing, and reflection. Now I feel more awake every day. I notice small details, everyday kindnesses, and undercurrents of my inner-dialogue. When I engage with people, I feel like myself--not a cardboard cut-out of what I think I should be. I am me, whatever that is in the moment. 

My former therapist said something that sticks with me: "Joy, trust yourself. Everything you need is already inside of you." It's human nature to look externally for validation and love. But until we come back to ourselves--until we learn to trust and love ourselves--we aren't fully awake; and we can't fully love others. This is not a self-centered or surface kind of love. This is not retail therapy or rationalizations. Self-love starts by taking an honest look at ourselves. There's beauty in all of us and there's also darkness--judgment, anger, sadness,  shame, fear. Self-love comes from working honestly and gently with the darkness (and celebrating the light). It's hard work; the work of a lifetime. Once I experienced self-love, I was able to awaken; to make choices that are true to myself--to the self I know so well. 

I spend more moments awake. I also lose myself in doubt, fear, and shame. But I find my way back, because I viscerally know that place of center--where I access my basic goodness, as is. And when I'm centered, I have more to give the world. My heart opens, my creativity opens, and I'm fully present to all of life.

A close friend was recently diagnosed with cancer. The news vibrated through my body; my heart ached. But I didn't need this emergency to reset my priorities. It's clear (and has been for years): I'll do anything the family needs; I'll be there for the difficult and the everyday. There's no other place I'd rather be than right beside them, wide awake.

This writing is in creative collaboration with my friend Cyndi Briggs. Cyndi is wise, funny, kind, and awake. You can read her thoughtful post here


  1. Joy!

    Thank you. You teach us well... being fully present in the moment, the now increments of life is such a beautiful and loving place. I appreciate you drawing the line between our own self acceptance and our ability to be awake, present. It's been said that living in the past is about regret, the future about worry and the present about joy! There you are.


    1. Kim, what a delightful (and thoughtful) comment to receive. Indeed, rumination and planning rob us of such joy--right here, in the moment. Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing.

  2. I needed to hear these words right now. "But until we come back to ourselves--until we learn to trust and love ourselves--we aren't fully awake; and we can't fully love others." This is what I am striving for. Thanks so much for helping me along this path.

    1. and thanks for being right beside me on this path, cathy! we need each other, as this is really the work of a lifetime.