Trying on outfits helps us know who we are—and who we are not. My mother bought me this satin, sequined crown and cape at a church bazaar in my hometown of Northfield, Minnesota. The hand-sewn costume was lovely and fit my five-year-old frame, but not my personality. As my father took my photo, I sat up straight, as regally as I could. But our Brittany Spaniel, Princess, had had puppies and I was more interested in playing with a wiggly pup than posing.
A couple years later, my mom signed me up for ballet class at Northfield Arts Guild. After three lessons, I convinced her to let me stay home and watch “The Lone Ranger” on TV instead. Rather than twirling on my toes, I wanted to ride Silver, the horse I saw on television.
Some of my friends dressed up their dolls and I joined them for the fun of their company, but preferred playing frisbee tag in our cul-de-sac or exploring the college arboretum with my friend, Amy. Rather than aspiring to a throne, I liked sitting in trees. Perhaps that’s the influence of my Celtic roots.
Thanks to a glass slipper, Cinderella attained royal status by catching the eye of a prince. The size and appearance of her hair, figure, and even her feet were the means of her success. What message does that send? Writer Sarah Showfety calls “beauty-based praise-baiting” a toxic message for girls, as if their looks are the basis of their self-worth. I’d rather melt down that glass shoe and make of it a new lens to see more facets of ourselves.
I was never glamorous princess material. Though my nickname was Barbie, I lacked the fashion sense of the Mattel doll (and never owned one as a child). Rather than a tiara or tutu, I preferred a T-shirt and jeans. Yet we all have moments of glory when we deserve a sparkly crown in our lives. I think, in such moments, I’ll hold mine inside and let it shine from there.
Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes. In truth, the state has more than 14,000 lakes of ten acres or more. I enjoyed many of them as I was growing up.
At the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference last month, I attended a workshop on poetry of witness, a way of writing that holds up hard truths so they are not forgotten. Dawn Pichon Barron of Evergreen State College led the workshop and asked us to write about a troubling societal issue. She gave us 16 minutes to compose a poem of witness. As we read our resulting poems, we experienced not only witnessing but also a “with-ness” (Mitsein) with each other.
Here is mine, inspired by my love of lakes and the need to protect them.
10,000 Lakes Minus One
You may remember
the Minnesota lake
where you stepped in clear
cool water on a hot day.
You may remember glittering minnows
skittering away in the shallows,
bass and pike as you went deeper.
You may remember the faint hint of algae
as you swam out among the fish.
Now when you visit you wonder—
What has happened to this place?
And WHAT is that smell?
When you wade in for a swim,
you’re blocked by invasive seaweed,
a thick mat of Eurasian milfoilgrabbing your legs.
The smell is of a suffocating, overgrown lake
that is dying.
Yet, if you stand on the high bank
and look east
you’ll see a single pink water lily
and its wide green pad floating,
shining in the light.
Seaweed problems are not only in lakes. ABC News reported “Record amount of seaweed is choking shores in the Caribbean.” More than 24 million tons of sargassum clogged the Atlantic in June.
Growing up in Minnesota, summer meant jumping in Bay Lake to play to my heart’s content. One day, my dad came home from the marina with a huge inner tube in our yellow speedboat. Probably made for a colossal tractor tire, I could stretch out on that inflated, rubbery ring and float for ages. Or I would bounce on it with a friend until one – or both of us – tumbled, laughing, into the water.
My other favorite activity was jumping with my friends on the trampoline on the beach of a nearby resort. Luckily, the resort owners knew my family and tolerated our frequent visits.
When I think back on those times, I wonder if I had an excess of nervous energy or was simply an active kid. I sure liked being in motion, particularly if there was a bounce involved. Maybe all that ricocheting around kept me in shape. I didn’t think of myself as athletic, but in fourth grade I was one of a handful of children at my school to be given the Presidential Fitness Award, a program promoted by President Kennedy. I sewed the patch they gave me on my jacket, not sure what to make of it.
No longer taking my health or energy for granted, I now appreciate that brief, unexpected recognition of what our bodies can do for us. And I still like to float on water, preferably with a cushy inner tube on which I can lean back and watch the sky.
Barbara Wolf Terao is from Northfield, Minnesota and now lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest. She’s written a memoir called Reconfigured and posts random observations on her Of the Earth blog. This piece was posted on Storied-Stuff.com on May 4, 2022.
The Glorious Awkwardness, in Which 26 Letters are Arranged in Praise of Being Ourselves
(A response to a prompt from Jon Batiste, who said as he accepted his Oscar, all musicians work with “the same twelve notes.”)
One evening in Evanston, Illinois, I went to a small gathering at my friend Linda’s place. I remembered what her elegant home looked like, so I didn’t bother to look at house numbers when I parked my car on the street. In fact, I was so sure I had the right house, I knocked lightly and walked right in the front door.
I called out “Hello! Linda?” and started looking around at the colorful art in the foyer. It didn’t look familiar. A petite, white woman appeared. My friend, Linda, is tall and Black. It turned out it wasn’t Linda’s house.
“Hello,” the stranger said warmly. “I’m Anya. Are you looking for Linda? She lives down the block.”
Embarrassed, I said, “Oh, my gosh, I just waltzed right into your house and it’s the wrong house. I’m so sorry!”
But you know what? Anya was so articulate and kind, I was soon introducing myself and having a lovely conversation with her. Such a gracious hostess to me, her unexpected guest, she even got my address in order to invite me to her annual winter party. Eventually, I left and found my way to Linda’s house, where we had a good laugh about my mix-up.
I attended Anya’s party in December and enjoyed getting to know her and her guests. One of the guests was Tony, who then invited me to his annual party, which involved sitting in his basement with our beverage-of-choice, taking turns reading Walt Whitman’s entire poem, “Song of Myself,” aloud. Which takes two hours. My kind of get-together! As Walt wrote in his poem, “In all people, I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,/And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them,” adding, “I exist as I am, that is enough.”
You never know where our awkwardness and curiosity will lead when we are being ourselves. Now that many of us are vaccinated against COVID, daring to show our bare faces, and venturing out to socialize again, it feels awkward at times. It’s an adjustment. But being awkward is not always a bad thing.
(With thanks to Suleika Jaouad and Jon Batiste for the topic suggestion.)
Who gets to marry whom? Should your skin color, genetic makeup, or country of origin matter? We’ve seen tremendous progress in legalizing gay marriage, but how far have we really come? I wonder about these things as we conclude a year in which we’ve struggled more than ever to understand each other. Many of our assumptions about our fellow human beings and our relationships are too flimsy to withstand such changing times. The 2002 World Book Encyclopedia (the edition I have on hand) has an entry on marriage that states, “if a man and woman are of a different age, nationality, religion, or background, their chances of a successful marriage drop significantly.” According to more recent research, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher found three particular capacities associated with happy partnerships: empathy, emotional self-control, and focusing on the positive (what you like about your spouse) rather than the negative. These could apply to anybody! Fisher’s subjects were in the United States and China, indicating that some measures of marital success are not culture bound.
I hardly considered limitations on whom I could marry, largely because of the systemic racism of white privilege whereby I didn’t have to think about such things. Where love and compatibility are not the main criteria in choosing a life partner, political and religious leaders have, historically, tried to intervene in people’s love lives, telling them whom they can and cannot marry. Until I was eleven years old, many states had laws banning interracial marriage. Then the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Virginia anti-miscegenation law, thereby making it illegal for any state to prohibit interracial marriage. The court decided that such laws violate the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Sixteen years after that court decision, I married my husband, who is among the third generation of his Japanese family to live in America. We’ve been married more than thirty-seven years. Are we mismatched? Yes, in many ways that have nothing to do with ethnicity or skin tone. We have some cultural differences, for sure, but doesn’t everybody? We have two so called “mixed race” daughters and celebrate a mix of cultures. I like the old saying that variety is the spice of life. And, biologically speaking, variety makes for stronger communities, such as plant diversity in ecosystems.
In scientific terms, race is a social construct. Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum explains, “Despite myths to the contrary, biologists tell us that the only meaningful racial categorization is that of human.” Still, we persist in categorizing groups and highlighting supposed differences among those groups. Socially constructed boundaries defining my European ancestors broke down over the centuries. Partly due to intermarriage, the significance of identities, such as French or Dutch, diminished. It is easier, and widely acceptable, to say I am European American rather than list the half dozen countries from which I am derived.
Our daughter, Emily, and I both had our genes tested by 23 & Me, with predictable results. My ancestry was said to be 100% European and Emily’s was half European and half Asian. But one of the fascinating things about those tests is that, as they become more refined, they yield new and more specific results. I was notified the other day, for instance, that my genetic testing now shows that my ancestry is only 99.8% European, with a bit of “trace ancestry,” glimmers of unknown forebears outside Europe. (And, if you are wondering, I have a little Neanderthal, too.) Also, I can now say that I’m 22.4% British and Irish. My Irish ancestors likely came from County Donegal, County Dublin, County Cork, and County Kerry. That’s how precise the tests can be. (I’m not sure why my mother’s Manx roots were not similarly specified. I’d like to know more about my ancestors from Isle of Man.)
While genetic information is illuminating, it is not the whole story. I would never want to erase or even blur any of the ingredients that make up a person. In other words, I don’t want to be colorblind. How bleak that would be to overlook something as intrinsic and gorgeous as skin color! Lethal and divisive problems arise not from acknowledging differences, but from our attachments to what those differences mean. I am not saying we should ignore our identities or histories. Rather, I want to respect what identity means to each person, and honor loving, egalitarian relationships, regardless of gender, culture, or other human variations. Maybe the categories of people will continue to get broader and broader, as happened with European Americans, until I can simply say, “Me? I’m of the human race.”
As for marriage, it’s about time for it to be about love, first and foremost. What other force is strong enough to hold us together through thick and thin? Along with humor, I suppose. Fisher calls laughter “the elixir of survival – it evolved to get us through hard times.”
May we be in good health, good spirits, and good humor in the coming year! All the best to each of you. (I felt obligated to find photos of couples for this post. If any of these are not okay to share, I will gladly remove them. Except the last one. That’s me and my husband!)
I love wild rice. It’s delicious. I grew up eating it at Thanksgiving and for other special occasions, with turkey or made into soup or pilaf. I also like the fact that wild rice, called manoomin by the Ojibwe, is grown in the lakes and rivers of Minnesota where I grew up. We’d buy local wild rice at Mille Lacs Trading Post after it had been harvested by canoe and parched with wood smoke.
Manoomin and white rice are both seeds of aquatic grasses, yet wild rice is a different species of grain than white rice and has its own distinct, nutty flavor. It is just as easy to cook as rice, if not easier, and has more protein and other nutrients than “regular” rice.
I bought my last wild rice from Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation in Minnesota, online at Bineshii Wild Rice & Goods. The White Earth Nation also sells their food and gifts online. It is easy to find black, shiny, commercial wild rice in grocery stores, cultivated on farms in California and Minnesota, but I prefer the hand harvested variety. Heid Erdrich quotes an Ojibwe (Anishinaabeg) statement about the sacredness of indigenous food in her book, Original Local: “As Anishinaabeg, we have a duty and responsibility to protect our manoomin. It is part of our interconnectedness to the Four Orders of Life and in accordance with the original instructions given to us by Gichi-Manidoo (the Creator).”
Preserving what is healthy, harmonious, and beautiful is to be celebrated on this day, October 12, which is Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Euro-Americans like me have a history of squandering the natural resources that were enhanced, honored, and protected by First Nations people for thousands of years before we got to North America. We benefited from Indigenous Peoples’ efforts, at great cost to them, displacing them from their homes. As I enjoy my hearty cornbread, spicy beans, and delicate wild rice today, I wonder how far the tables have turned.
Louise Erdrich, who is Anishinaabe, wrote, “Every Native American is a survivor, an anomaly, a surprise on earth. We were all slated for extinction before the march of progress. But, surprise, we are progress.” Sometimes looking back is the best way to move forward. We may have missed some lessons along the way. We thought we invited the First Nations to our tables, but, in truth, we’ve been dining from theirs since first contact. It may be too late to recover the bounty of the land and the water, but it is never too late to learn from others and from the land itself. For instance, I can savor indigenous foods with appreciation and awareness of their origins, and treat the foods and their sources with respect.
Potawatomi scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in Braiding Sweetgrass, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.” It is a relationship to be fostered.
“It’s morning, swan, wake up, climb in the air, follow me!” Kabir
“Will the highs ever be as high as the lows are low?” asked a woman who had been dragged under the waves once too often.
There are many reasons to feel down and out lately. The lows can feel very low indeed. Yet, is it our goal to always be riding a wave? When I reframe the question from ease and pleasure to one of learning, I see value in whatever I experience, because I can learn from just about anything. For instance, I like sweets, but I don’t eat pie and pudding all day long. It may be pleasant for a while, but sometimes I need garlic, broccoli, and wild rice. It’s a matter of nutrition. I choose what nourishes me in the long run and allows me to grow.
In a similar way, suffering can help me grow, as it carves out space in my heart for more compassion. I’m not always in a place of light and peace. My friend sent me a beautiful essay she’d written about her aunt. Then she sent me a note, regretting it. She worried I’d be troubled by the account of her aunt’s brutal cancer treatments. Yes, the story evoked emotions and yes, it did remind me of how weak and ill chemotherapy made me feel when I had treatment. But I assured my friend that she need not hold back in sharing such things. These stories are about my people; they are where I find fellowship with those who know what I’ve been through. It is not a morbid interest; it is a kinship. And it’s not just cancer. We’re all struggling with something.
I’ve read that the densest clumps of matter in the Eagle Nebula become stars. The cloudy bits become bright, shedding light that will reach the Earth in a millennium or so. I’m learning through all the highs and lows, days and nights. They can all be useful to me. The black pumice stone of sorrow polishes my rough spots until I glow once again – softer this time, with ears to listen and tears for your pain.
When I’m feeling cloudy, I know it’s time to call on my Better Self. Her resources are fresh air, loved ones, and prayers. Sunshine, when available. Naps help, too. I recharge both my super and subtle powers. How do I reactivate my hope muscle? Sometimes with quiet breath and sometimes with noisy dancing. And by visiting the trees. You come, too. The morning star is up.
Here’s something I wrote for Storied Stuff about the west coast fires and smoke. As all the Storied Stuff pieces do, mine was inspired by a treasured object that brings back memories.
Huge swaths of the West coast are on fire. It’s that time of year in the Pacific Northwest when we are advised not to breathe the smoky air. The sun hides its face and ferries leaving Whidbey Island blow their foghorns over and over so as not to collide with each other in the haze. Stuck inside, I feel like clutching my Smokey Bear teddy bear and going straight to bed. To live in a beautiful place and not be able to go outside seems like a hardship, until I think of those who are battling the fires or trying to save their homes and loved ones from the flames.
WWSD? What would Smokey do? As a child, I was touched by the story of Smokey, a cub orphaned in a forest fire, so my parents gave me a stuffed Smokey Bear. I’ve kept him to this day. I also kept a U.S. Forest Service coloring book about Smokey, the honorary forest ranger who helps prevent wildfires. “Protect our forest and friends!” Smokey implores. He used to ask children to “never play with matches,” because even small sparks can start wildfires. He still does, but now he adds a modern message, “Watch your campfire, NOT your phone!”
I’ve internalized his message to protect nature and try to prevent problems before they get out of control. He has deputized each one of us: “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” And he’ll give you a hug whenever you need it.
Barbara Terao grew up in Northfield, Minnesota, raised a family in Evanston, Illinois, and is now writing a cancer memoir and other nonfiction on Whidbey Island in Washington.
Recurrence of cancer can be hard to predict and difficult to detect. Some doctors do follow-up tests and scans after cancer treatment to look for new, spreading, or recurring cancers. Mine do not. Since my first breast cancer treatments three years ago, they send me on my way with a quick check-up every six months and a mammogram of my remaining breast once a year.
But then I was diagnosed with a regional recurrence of cancer a year ago, requiring radiation treatments. Now my oncology team wants me to have a CT scan of my chest. Specifically, they want to look at some nodules in my lung that showed up on my last scan about a year ago. If the nodules grew, that’s a bad sign. The scan is also a chance to look around my entire chest and see if there’s any sign of cancer in there. I’m grateful to have this CT scan as a follow-up to my latest cancer scare.
As I wait my turn in a little room at the medical center, I look out the open door at a life-size Elvis in the hallway. The cardboard cut-out wears hospital scrubs that inexplicably have HANGRY written all over them. Is the King hungry and angry? I try to think of one of his song lyrics that would make this relevant and can only think of hound dogs and blue suede shoes. Elvis is also sporting green beads and a fuzzy, red Santa hat, which are at least somewhat seasonal. I appreciate a little hospital humor to ease the tension.
Once you’ve had cancer, any scan can be a cause for anxiety, or “scanxiety,” as it is sometimes called. How do I handle my fear during this cancer journey? Strangely, it’s not the tumors I dread most, it’s the treatments and their damages and side effects. I’ve never felt even a twinge from the cancer itself, not at this stage, though there is always the knowledge that it can kill me at some point.
I remember a horse in Tucson, Arizona named Checar. He was a little wild and could probably kill me in certain circumstances, but I was not afraid of him. Part Palomino and part quarter horse, he took my breath away when I saw him in the stables at a resort. I signed up for a trail ride in hopes I could get to know him or at least stroke his long, white mane. Before heading into the sagebrush and saguaro, we gathered in the barn for instruction. The trail guide, Nina, asked, “On a scale of one to ten, how scared are you of horses?”
“Eleven,” proclaimed a young man. I was surprised that he would rate his fear that high. With nervous laughter, all the other riders said high numbers as well.
When it came to me, I wanted to say zero. I’ve been around horses off and on all my life and I knew you had to be careful not to get kicked or thrown. In fact, our daughter Emily had recently had an accident when she and her horse went over a jump. They both fell. Emily broke her arm, requiring surgery and a metal plate. That was scary. But am I afraid of horses? No, I have a healthy respect for them. That’s different.
I said, “One.“
Maybe Nina assigned horses based on those numbers. For whatever reason, she gave me my favorite, Checar. I settled into the saddle in a dream-like state and savored that ride into the desert. Allowing a little distance between me and the other riders, I crooned songs of awe and gratitude to my horse. Patting his warm, strong neck, the color of butterscotch, and running my fingers through his frothy mane, I was enchanted and content. The cacti along the sandy trail saluted as we walked by and the sky went on forever above us. At the end, I dismounted and Nina took the reins to lead the horse back to his stall. He lingered by my side and resisted her pull. She harrumphed that he’d never done that before.
“It’s because I sang to him,” I said.
What is my cancer song? I do not love this sneaky disease. But I don’t have to let it overtake my life with anxiety. Cancer has its power and I have mine. I have a friend, an extraordinary man in our community, who found ways to communicate with his brain tumor with peace in his heart. Perhaps my song, in honor of Checar, can be about the power of life, love, and courage rather than death, defeat, and despair.
The scan I had almost a year ago showed a “metastatic enlarged lymph node” under my right arm. That was alarming! But this scan doesn’t have to be. I try to keep my nerves in check and focus on my breathing until I am called into the imaging room. I lie on my back and let the machine slide me through the donut hole of the scanner.
I was told the results would show up as a message from my doctor in a week. They came in that very day when we got home. The nodules hadn’t grown and there were no signs of cancer or other concerns. I’m all clear at the end of the year. The work to stay clear lies ahead.
Barbara Terao is a tree hugger and people hugger living with her husband on an island in Puget Sound in Washington. Their two daughters and their families live nearby. Barbara’s writing about nature, psychology, and life appears in magazines, journals, and on her blog, Of the Earth. She began treatment for HER2 and hormone-positive breast cancer in February 2017 and had a recurrence in 2019 which was successfully treated.
More Posts on the I Had Cancer website by BarbTerao
I feel a lifelong connection to the United Nations because of the book, Three Promises to You by Munro Leaf (1957). It summarized, at a child’s level, the purpose of the United Nations. The Three Promises of the book’s title are: No war, Fair treatment for all human beings, and Better living for everybody by sharing what we know. With Leaf’s cartoons, we learn that “whatever you look like, YOU are an important human being – a person.”
Inside the front cover I wrote in childish print, “Do not take this Book. Please because it is Barbara’s Book. Thank you.” The irony of my less than generous request and my tight grip on a book about sharing and caring only occurs to me now. Later in life, I happened to formally begin my Buddhist practice, with its goals of both inner and outer peace, on October 24, which is United Nations Day.
How are the global promises of the United Nations fulfilled? We can make progress toward peace, equality, and shared knowledge day by day. Perhaps the promises are a direction more than a final destination. This simple book is the primer we need right now, getting back to the basics of compassion, science, and democracy. “The United Nations belongs to YOU as much as it belongs to anyone else in the world.”
With my father, who gave me the book, I marched against war and stood up to bulldozers. Now that I am an adult, I can, at the very least, open my tight little fist to share the wisdom of the book’s message. This is the legacy of my parents and my promise to my children. We can work together for peace, happiness, and a more healthy, harmonious world.