One of a Kind

Welcome. And thank you for joining us to celebrate the life of a truly remarkable woman, Celeste Anne Steinhelper Wood. Some of you might know her by other names, and the one I hear most frequently is Cha. But I’m going to be honest. Cha is not a name I use with her, and I’m not totally sure you should use it either. Here is why.

When I first started hanging around this family, Celeste had a different nickname: Chessie. Not long into our courtship, her sister Heather informed me that I had not earned the right to call her Chessie, so I couldn’t call her that. I’ll be honest. I was pretty bent. However, I also had to admit that I agreed. Certain nicknames are special, and we should gain permission to use them. For example, I have permission to call Heather H, and that’s how I’ll refer to her today.

So it is with Cha. When our nephew Luke was young and learning Celeste’s name, he did the best he could to pronounce Celeste, but it came out, “Cha” or “ChaCha.” One day while shopping at Target, H called her ChaCha, and a lady next to them asked if that was because she was an aunt. Apparently, ChaCha is a Polish nickname for aunt. Celeste loved that idea, especially because Luke had first given her the nickname. So Cha and ChaCha became a part of her identity. But going back to my days of being warned off calling her Chessie, and rightfully so, I tried to stick with Celeste or C-Dub when referring to her. To me, to call her Cha is something that requires permission from her two favorite boys in the world, her nephews Luke and Brayden. She was their ChaCha first. Boys, she loved you so much. I can’t imagine an aunt ever loved nephews more. So as the rightful originator, Luke, and with her truly being your Cha, Brayden, I just want to make sure that it’s ok for the rest of these people to call her Cha. Is it ok with you guys?

The rest of you can call her Cha if you want. I’m sticking with Celeste.

Celeste Anne Steinhelper was born on August 6th, 1972 to Charles and Sharon Steinhelper. You heard from H about Chessie’s formative years, which I am not qualified talk about, so I will focus more on her adult years. But I want to take this opportunity to thank Chuck and Sharon for loving each other and giving life to Celeste. Chuck and Sharon, you did an amazing job raising Celeste to be the woman she became. The name you gave her means heavenly. She truly was, and she is. She shined in life. She will shine in death. And everyone here today is a testament to what you created. Thank you.

Celeste Anne Steinhelper Wood passed on July 20th, 2019, just 17 days short of her 47th birthday. 17,149 days. It goes by in a blink. And I think all of us would agree that it wasn’t enough. And yet, it was enough… was enough to create an extraordinary body of good in the world. It was enough to be a loving and beloved daughter, granddaughter, sister, cousin, and friend. It was enough to get married, become a fantastic aunt, and raise a daughter into a beautiful young woman. It was enough to live an extraordinary life. And perhaps most pointedly to the core of who Celeste was in her 47 earthly years, it was enough to teach thousands of people thousands of lessons.

We are all the beneficiaries of Celeste’s lessons. And I would like to invite some of her closest friends to share the lessons they learned from Celeste.

One of the first lessons I learned from Celeste is that it’s good to have mutual friends. Good people tend to flock together, and so maybe it’s no surprise that we had multiple mutual friends in different circles of our lives before we met. We first met at a wedding of our mutual friends Jeff and Trisha Stanton. We were seated at the singles table, both of us just starting new jobs in education, and when I told her I went to Albion, she said, “This is a long shot, but I know one guy at Albion.” That one guy she knew happened to be my roommate, Drew Boyd. Some of you might know him as Andy.

I asked her out that night, although perhaps I didn’t exactly ask her out, so to speak. She shot me down, and she should have on that occasion. But a year and a half later Boyd and I were at a party together, and Celeste’s sister Heather was there. She persuaded Celeste to come over. She didn’t exactly turn down my attempts to… her that night…..although she didn’t exactly make it easy for me. After the first time I kissed her she responded with the memorable words, “What was that for?” I thought it was obvious. But perhaps it wasn’t. And another very quick lesson I learned from her was that I better have a plan with this one. But I was thankful for our mutual friends and our multiple opportunities to get together and fall in love because let’s be honest, apparently I needed multiple shots to accomplish that feat.

But I finally got the job done. Yes. I got it done. And I’m still a bit amazed about that. Because if I’m being honest, I was not exactly serious boyfriend material. Recently, I thought back to that night. On Saturday July 13th this year, as we were waiting to be discharged from the hospital, we were sitting on her bed, holding hands, and crying about the news we’d been given. The cancer was overwhelming her body. Celeste said, “I guess we’re not going to get our miracle.” I understood what she meant, but typical of so many moments in our marriage, I had to voice my disagreement, for once perhaps hitting the right note. I told her, “I got my miracle 21 years ago when I somehow convinced a beautiful young teacher to fall in love with a graduate school dropout with no job.” That was my miracle. And nobody is taking that one from me.

For our one year anniversary of dating, Celeste taught me a series of lessons with one theme. She wrote a book for me. It was a book exactly like her 2nd grade students at Pine Tree Elementary were writing. It was titled, “Have I Ever Told You Why I Love You So Much?” The book is a 17 page love letter to me complete with pictures of our 365 days together. It is probably the one keepsake I cherish most in life, and it made a world of difference in how I viewed myself at the time. By teaching me how she felt about me, showing me how much she loved me, I gained a new understanding of my worth and importance in this world. Imparting a transformational understanding such as this is no small thing. Indeed, it might be the most important thing we can teach another. To show another how much he is valued is to give the gift of love in a profound, life altering way.

On one of the pages she wrote, “You mean so much to me, that the world alone cannot hold my love for you.” And isn’t that coming full circle? Her ashes belong to earth, but we truly need more than the world to hold our love for Celeste now.

Not long after that I decided to buy a ring and ask Celeste’s parents for her hand in marriage. That’s when I received a second highly memorable turn of phrase from a Steinhelper. I sat with Celeste’s father, Chuck, on their back porch. I asked for his and Sharon’s permission to marry Celeste. Chuck looked away, sighed, and said to me, “We knew you kids would do something stupid like this.”

Well we did that stupid thing. We tied the knot on July 15th, 2000 and entered into marriage. Her sister Heather was her maid of honor, but just as Boyd was my Best Man, I think a better title would have been Best Woman or Best Sister because she was. She was as dedicated and loving a sister as you’ll find.

But our marriage, oh man was that an adventure. A beautiful one to be sure, but an adventure with ups and downs. Being raised an only child and never having been married before, perhaps I wasn’t too surprised to learn that I didn’t know much about being married. What DID surprise me was that despite not having been married before herself, Celeste knew absolutely everything there was to know about marriage. And she soon started teaching me everything I was doing wrong. I was a decent student. Probably give myself a B or a C. I doubt if Celeste would have graded me that high at first, but we worked on it.

One of the most important early lessons she tried to teach me was how to argue. She never explicitly told me how to argue, but she showed me again and again….and again…..and again. I’m embarrassed to say how long it actually took me to catch on, but when I did, it brought a wonderful transformation to our marriage. I taught it to many of my therapy patients over the years, and I’d like to teach it to you today if it’s allright with you. Is that ok?

Here’s how the lesson goes. It starts with a question. How many people does it take to argue? In other words, what is the minimum number of people it takes to enter into an argument? It takes 2. So how many people does it take to end an argument? One. If you have one person attempting to argue, that’s not an argument. That’s a rant. And nobody wins a rant. I was that ranting fool for a long time. But I figured it out, and argued less and less throughout our marriage. It was a wonderful improvement.

And there’s more to this lesson. After one person exits the argument, the rant eventually dies down. And when this happens, an interesting thing occurs. When boiling emotions and hot heads have cooled, what once looked like a problem doesn’t look nearly as bad anymore. It’s amazing how many problems simply disappear when we don’t actively argue about them. And if a real problem exists and needs to be solved, it will come up again, but that problem will never be solved in the heat of an argument. That problem will only be solved when emotions are calm and minds are clear. Trust me folks. Exit the argument. End the rant sooner than later.

Some of the best lessons I learned from Celeste were simply informational. One day in the fall of 2004 we were cleaning and getting ready for Chuck and Sharon to come over and have dinner. As I went to unplug the vacuum Celeste shoved a little white stick in front of my face. At first I didn’t understand how to read the code on the stick, but when I looked at her face and saw those beautiful blue eyes sparkling with life, I knew that she was carrying a new one.

She carried that baby with a fierce pride and protection, and on July 8th, 2005 we welcomed Emerson Marin Wood into the world. The birth was slightly complicated. The doctors had to rush Celeste into an emergency procedure to stop her bleeding. Baby Emerson went to the NICU. Celeste went to the OR, and I was left all alone in the hallway. It wasn’t how I pictured the moment of becoming a father. About three hours later momma and baby were stable and ready to meet. I had the distinct honor of picking up Emerson out of her crib on wheels and introducing her to her momma. I think placing Em in Celeste’s arms is my favorite moment of my life, but the rest of it with those two was also pretty magical. The greatest honor of my life has been my front row seat to watch the two of them shine as mother and daughter. Emerson, I know that you understand mom loved you. She showed you every single day, even when she was on your butt, especially when she was on your butt. But as every parent here knows, you cannot possibly adequately understand just what you meant to mom or how much she loved you. Perhaps someday, if you choose to and are blessed, you will have your own child, and then, and only then, will your capacity for love burst through its previous boundaries. Only then will you truly understand the love a parent has for child, the love your mom had for you.

Celeste lived with a certain fire. She was a commanding presence. She hurled herself at life with an extraordinary force. One of my favorite t-shirts she owned simply read, “Savage,” on the front of it. She was. And yet, through her first 44 years, if she had a kryptonite, H and I agree, it was physical pain. Up until 2016 she was the healthiest person I ever met. I think she almost always felt perfectly well. Through 21 years of teaching the only time I ever remember her being sick was when she got pink eye. So maybe it’s not surprising that any perturbance of her system felt so incredibly wrong. At the time of her diagnosis, I only personally knew one other person who had had pancreatic cancer. His name was Scott Ammons, an Albion alum. Scott’s physical and mental strength were legendary. His nickname wasn’t Cha. His nickname was The Allmighty. And pancreatic cancer took him from this world at age 40. All I could think was, “If pancreatic cancer killed The Allmighty, what is it going to do to my poor wife who hates physical pain?” Well, let me tell you. Celeste had a few more lessons in store for us.

She taught school for 21 years, but I think some of her greatest lessons, the ones that reached the most students and will have the most lasting impact, happened after her retirement. Diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a killer than can take its victims in a matter of months, Celeste was not about to go quietly. In fact, she didn’t plan on going at all. And she sure as hell wasn’t going to be a victim.

She chose to be a survivor and a victor. We found Dr. Sahai and his team at the University of Michigan Hospitals, and over the course of two years she was poked and prodded and poisoned and scoped and scanned. Her body gave way to her disease or the treatment on a daily basis in one way or another. We almost lost her in April of 2018 when the cancer closed off her small intestine and bile duct. She was down to 90 pounds and a fourth attempt at unblocking her bile duct when a young doctor named Ryan Law, a fellow Spartan undergrad, stopped her breathing on command so that he could accurately visualize her insides and make a final attempt at boring a stent through her intestine, liver, and internal spaces until it finally pierced the bile duct and bile flowed easily through this most unnatural tunnel. Man did she love that. Two Spartans saving a life in UofM hospital.

Even with her bile duct unblocked, the docs thought she had only a few months to live. They started her on a palliative dose of another chemo. But the life in Celeste was not to be denied. She got stronger and stronger, and with her increases in strength, the doctors increased the strength of the chemo doses. And she just kept getting stronger. Until she didn’t.

And when she no longer got stronger. She got tougher. She got braver. And she taught us all about courage. Here are three things to know about Celeste’s teachings on toughness, bravery, and courage.

One: We are all tougher than we think, and we need not know we are being tough to manifest toughness.

Two: You can’t be brave without being scared.

And three: If you constantly tell yourself, “I’ve got this,” you will only ever be wrong once.

Celeste constantly reminded herself, “I’ve got this,” and she did. Until she didn’t. I’ll never forget our last accomplishment together. I was trying to nap on our bed when I awoke to H entering the door frame of our room. In her next step Celeste came into view. Celeste had her arm around H’s neck, and H was doing her best to hold Celeste by the torso without hurting her, which was difficult to do at that point.

“She wants to take a shower,” H said to me, but when I met her gaze I saw the fear in her eyes while her head shook no. I shared her fear. Even though showers had been Celeste’s ritual and refuge for pain for two years, a shower was a seriously dangerous activity for someone so unstable on her feet. I got up and helped H get Celeste seated on the bed. The three of us debated for a few moments about whether a shower was going to happen or not. H and I were on the no side. Celeste was on the yes side. H and I lost. Celeste beat us one more time. I don’t know why we ever entertained the idea that we were going to win that battle.

So we hatched a plan. I got the most stable step stool I could find and placed it in the shower. I got on shorts and soaped a wash cloth. Then we hoisted Celeste off the bed, and the three of us made a sort of tripod. I faced backward with Celeste’s arms around my neck. I held her under the arms. H grabbed her torso. Locked together, we began to step toward the shower. We feared Celeste would collapse at any moment. Her legs simply couldn’t bear what little weight her body had on it anymore. At the thresholds Celeste could not lift her leg high enough to get over the hump, so H had to grab her legs and boost them, one after the other, from behind. Finally we got to the shower. I turned on the water, and with great effort we cleared the final hurdle, another threshold, and we entered the shower. She held my neck, and I held her under the arms while H scrubbed and rinsed. When she was done, Celeste was too spent to begin the journey back to the bed, so I eased myself onto the stool, and she sat on my lap. And we just sat and hugged in the running water. Then H shut off the water, dried her off, dressed her, and we made our way back to the bed and tucked her in for one last sleep.

It was a heroic effort. It was a heroic life. And she went out still teaching lessons on toughness, bravery, and courage. Her body has returned to the earth as ashes, but even death cannot extinguish her light.

As I lay on that bed now I am physically alone, and yet in my heart and mind I know that I will never be without that beautiful woman who shined in this world as bright as anyone I’ve ever known. And as I lie on my bed I can look up and see one of the first gifts she ever gave me: A miniature sailboat.

Celeste had a knack for using nautical themes to teach lessons. I think most of you are probably familiar with her affinity for anchors, and her sister has a tattoo of an anchor that reads, “Hope is an anchor for the soul.” And I’ve lost count on how many new anchor tattoos we have out there.

Here is a confession. I am not a huge hope guy. It’s not that I don’t understand hope. It’s not that I don’t have hopes. It’s just that hope is about the future, and as I get older I find it easier to forget the future and deal with the now. Throughout the last two years I’ve really had to focus on being the deal with it guy. When trying to move a mountain, someone has to be the first to look at that mountain and say, “Which rock needs to be moved right now?” That was me. That was my role.

But today my role is different, and I want to point you toward hope, the last lesson I learned from Celeste. If hope truly is an anchor for the soul I want you to remember one fact: An anchor does its essential job when it is unseen. Just as a boat anchor must disappear beneath the surface of the water to do its best work, sometimes hope has to seem lost before you realize it is the only thing keeping you from being washed away in the storm. When all hope seems to be gone, consider that it’s just disappeared beneath the surface momentarily in order to do its most important work.

Hope is an anchor for the soul. But to me, boats, like the one in our bedroom, symbolize both my earliest and latest nautical lessons from Celeste. Here is why I love boats so much. They are a reminder that we have some say about how we travel our journey, but so does the wind and water. There are always elements of life we have no influence over. We simply have to deal with them the best we can. That’s a humbling truth. And yet, in that dance with partners that exert their forces against our wills, there is room for us to be empowered and room for hope. This canoe has a story of hope that I want to share with you now.

On a sunny fall day in 2017 I received the gift of an unexpected day off. Celeste and I took a drive north of Clarkston, and she wanted to stop at an antique shop. At the shop I found this canoe, and she bought it for me to put in my office. I keep it in my office as a reminder of Celeste’s love for boats, her lessons and gifts to me, and her ability to remain empowered when so many others would have given up in the face of adversity.

The canoe is a reminder that control is an illusion. When things are going our way, it doesn’t mean we have control. It means factors out of our control are going in our favor at the moment. That’s a gift, a fortunate occurrence, a blessing, but it isn’t an excuse to pat oneself on the back for receiving fortune or a reason to confuse true control with composure, command, or influence.

Like the paddler of the canoe, we have influence, but so does the water. When we paddlers have perfect influence over the canoe, we have command of it, but that’s not the same as true control. It just seems that way.

When the water rages against our will, it is not the time to say, “Oh no, the water is in control!” and surrender our own influence. That is the time when we must be most assured of our own power to see the situation differently and do what we can to exert our influence upon the world around us. The canoe is a reminder to balance humility and empowerment.

When the clouds gathered, the winds roared, and the storms raged, Celeste just kept shining. I hope we never lose sight of her shining light in our lives. She was one of a kind. And we are blessed to have her as ours.

Thank you for loving Celeste. Thank you for coming and honoring her. May she always be with you.

Love Me Anyway

“Love Me Anyway”

I haven’t written in a long time for various reasons, but I feel like reaching out at the moment. So many people have connected with me about how much Celeste meant to them, and how much some of my commentary on our story meant to them, that I feel like writing.

On Saturday, the day she passed, our daughter, Emerson, and I were driving around in my truck. The song Love Me Anyway by P!nk , featuring Chris Stapleton, came on. The writers (Alecia Moore (P!nk), Allen Shamblin, Thomas Douglas) have created a magical illustration about the doubts of someone in love on the precipice of committing to that love for what might be a lifetime. This song has had great meaning for me in the several months it has been out, but it struck me especially profoundly that day, at that moment. As I have a tendency to do, I took the teachable moment to instruct my daughter on a life truth.

When you meet someone special, you should contemplate these questions as you consider spending the rest of your life with that person. The truth of it is that none of us truly know whether we are capable of delivering on our vows at the time we commit to those vows. We simply haven’t been through sickness and health, richer or poorer, until death do us part. How can we possibly know what our experiences will lead to? To be sure of your promise to those vows is a great gift. It is a rare combination of circumstances that is worthy of awe. It isn’tt a simple factor of will. It is a beautiful confluence of time, place, people, and circumstance that creates a gift called love.
I experienced this gift in one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. I was trying to nap in my bed. I woke up and my sister-in-law, Heather (she’s known as H in our house), came into the door frame of my room. She was escorting Celeste by the torso as Celeste valiantly labored toward the shower, her refuge for pain.

As Celeste moved forward, it was obvious that she wasn’t stable on her feet. She was in danger of collapsing and hurting herself. We’d experienced this the night before as she and I worked to relieve herself in the bathroom. So we helped her lie stably on the bed, but she would not give up on the shower. So we executed a plan. I got a stable stool for the showed. Then I stood in front of her and wrapped her arms around my neck. H held her around the torso from behind. We inched forward, one short step at a time. Our interlocked trio took one effortful step after another as Celeste inched toward the shower. We took special care at the threshold to the bathroom and the shower. I wasn’t sure she could make it, but true to her nature, she was not to be denied. She stepped the best she could, and we boosted her shrunken leg over those thresholds. Eventually, excruciatingly, that strong, valiant woman took one shaky step after another into the shower. As we entered the shower, I took off my shirt,  stepped into the running water, and we embraced while H scrubbed her clean. After rinsing and toweling dry, she sat on my lap, hung tight to my neck while I wrapped my arms around her torso, and we sat on the stool and rested before starting the 20 foot journey back to the bed. On the bed we dressed and tucked in and finally rested for good. It was obvious she was spent, yet she would never admit to it. To admit it was to admit defeat, and that wasn’t something my love was willing to do.

Just a few hours later we held her as the end of the world came.

I claim no rank in Celeste’s life. Her parents loved her first. She and her sister loved each other uniquely. She loved her nephews with everything she had. She loved our daughter as much as anyone has ever loved another, to the moon and back as we say. And she loved her friends with as generous a heart as we’ve ever seen. I don’t know where I rank in there, and I truly don’t care. It is simply adequate, and wholly satisfying, to have loved her and to have been loved in return. Somehow, some way, I carved a unique place in her life. Somehow, despite a lack of solid employment or any type of financial stability, I was able to convince her to marry me, and we made a life together, as wonderful a life as I could have ever imagined. And yet, as she passed, she asked for me, and we held each other at the end of the world. To know that I could do that is enough. Enough for what you might ask? It was enough. And if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand the question.

Even if you see my scars, Even if I break your heart, If we’re a million miles apart, Do you think you’d walk away?

I wouldn’t. I didn’t. We all have scars. They give us character.

Are you lost in all the noise? Even if I lose my voice, Flirt with all the other boys, What would you say?

I’d say I still love you with all my heart. What is noise when love is present? What is a voice when your soul speaks without words. I could love you anyway. And I did.

Could you? Could you? Could you love me anyway?

I could. I would. I did.

Is it for better or for worse, Or am I just your good-time girl? Can you still hold me when it hurts, Or would you walk away?

Yes. I loved you through it all. And I’d have continued to do so as long as it took.

Even if I scandalize you, Cut you down and criticize you, Tell a million lies about you, What would you say?

I would say I would love you anyway. We all hurt at times. We all say things we don’t mean. I love you despite those mistakes. I know you would take it back if you could. I grant you this understanding, as you do me.

Could you? (Could you still love me?) Could you? (Pick up the pieces of me?) Could you? (Could you still love me?) Could you love me anyway?

I would pick up the pieces of you, literally and figuratively. I have. You would have done it for me. To know that we could do that for each other is the ultimate show of love. 

Could you? (Will you catch me when I fall?) Could you? (And we rise above it all) Could you? (Will you hold me when it hurts?) Like it’s the end of the world? Could you? Could you? Could you? Could you?

I could. I could. I could. I could. As you’d have done for me, I caught you when you fell, and I carried you as long as I could. And when I fell from exhaustion, we rested. We regrouped. We got up again, and again, and again, until one of us just couldn’t go on. We rose above it all until the one moment we couldn’t. Then I held you as it hurt and eased your pain as much as I could, until it was the end of the world. I did. I did. I did. I did. And I only had one regret. I only wished that you’d have been able to do that for me instead.

Bigger Than Self

My eyes were open today. This means I am alive of course, but even better than being alive, I was conscious today. I was aware of one of those common acts performed with such excellence that it becomes extraordinary, a true example of greatness.

It was a Tuesday after a Monday holiday, which means a busy day in the treatment room as they jam 5 days worth of patients into only 4 days of treatment slots. The faces were all familiar to Celeste, not as much to me, but I sensed an ease in the room.

The woman across from Celeste was clearly on the same treatment. She’d been in treatment long enough to feel comfortable taking a nap on her two hour break between the trial drug and her chemo treatments. Others showed their comfort by napping deeply enough to snore or chatting with the nurses about what each other did over New Years, and in some cases, Christmas.

Celeste was the second patient in the room. She was a good number of minutes ahead of the other lady in her trial, but things don’t always run smoothly with the pharmacy. We had to wait on meds, and the other lady finished about an hour ahead of us. She left her chair, and she and her mother left cheerfully yet wearily, pledging to see the nurses again next week.

With the first bag of chemo down and the second going on, we only had about 45 more minutes and we’d be out of there. We were more than ready to leave for home, a place we left at 5:30am, about 9 hours earlier in the day.

A family of four walked into the room with a medical assistant. Two of the four were an older man and woman, not yet old but later into middle age than Celeste and I. I guessed that the other two were their adult son and daughter. They stood near the door by the nurses station and took in the tour, which consisted of the assistant pointing around the room and explaining its major features: Chairs, bathroom, snacks. They glanced as she pointed but never really seemed to take in what she was showing them. Their eyes would look, but not closely or intently, as if they didn’t want it to really register. This was their new reality, but it didn’t look inviting.

After the tour, per treatment room visitor guidelines, the two younger adults were asked to leave. As they said hushed goodbyes, it became obvious that the older of the two men was the patient. The younger woman looked concerned and tearful as she hugged him. The younger man exchanged an awkward fist bump with him as he departed. They clearly didn’t want to be there, but they didn’t want to leave either.

The couple took the station across from Celeste, the one just vacated by the other woman in the same trial. The man sat in the treatment chair, his wife next to him in the guest chair. As the nurse began to discuss his treatment protocol, we could hear enough. Celeste looked up from her peaceful rest and said to me, “Same trial as me.” I nodded.

The new couple was quiet and spoke in hushed tones and strong accents. As the nurse explained the trial procedures, their accents didn’t seem to get in the way of understanding, but their lack of familiarity with cancer treatment did.

The nurse asked the wife, “What kind of port does he have?” The specifics of ports matter to the nurses. They need to be sure they can do everything they need through the port, such as drawing blood and delivering medications such as the trial drug and chemos. The wife didn’t know the type of port that was recently installed in her husband’s chest. She searched her purse for the specification card she was given when her husband had his port installed. She found it. Celeste carried her port card to her first treatment too. I kept a picture of it in my phone.

“Do you want to use the port for the trial drug today?” He didn’t know. His wife didn’t know. How could they? It was all so new and unfamiliar.

As the man sat in the chair, he seemed completely lost. And he was. That part wasn’t familiar to him. But it was to us. A pancreatic cancer diagnosis is disorienting to one’s experience of life. His blank stare was gazing upon a world that had been turned upside down, and he was not able to trust the sensory input that had oriented him throughout his entire adult life. How does one find his way in unfamiliar terrain without the benefit of any familiar sight to guide him?

His nurse, Cortney, is fantastic. She’s smart, caring, kind, and reassuring. We know this because she’s been one of Celeste’s nurses for going on 6 months now. But despite her best efforts to help him acclimate himself, she couldn’t quite put him at ease. As he returned from the bathroom, before he climbed in the chair to officially become a “chemo patient,” he politely asked Cortney, “Can I take off my shoes?”

“Of course. We want you to be as comfortable as possible,” she said. But even shoes off and feet up in a big recliner couldn’t do a thing to ease the disorder behind his eyes or the rigid, fearful expression on his face.

Our time was up. We started to pack up. As Celeste returned from the bathroom, I handed her her coat and bent over to pick up the cooler and her purse. When she didn’t immediately take the purse from me, I looked up.

Celeste had turned her back away from me. She was now squatting down at the feet of the wife, holding the scared woman’s hands in her warm grasp, moving her gaze from the man to the wife and back again to be sure those lost eyes found something they could recognize.

I could hear her telling them, “It is scary at first, but you will figure it out. And you are in great hands. This team will take great care of you.”

As Celeste continued her reassurance, I looked at the man. His face was no longer frozen with fear. He was smiling. In this new world of uncertainty, he had found something familiar in my wife’s face and the gentle soothing wash of her words: Hope.

Before the man motioned me over to join the conversation, I just stood mesmerized by what I was seeing. Communication is both art and empirical science, and one never knows just how it’s going to go, especially when one is in feared, unfamiliar territory. I often describe it as a lock and key. The receiver’s mind is the lock, and the sender’s words and gestures are like a key that can fit precisely, opening a door to a new world, or jam in the lock, further closing off effective connection.

For whatever reason – experience being the new patient, a caring heart, a loving soul, open eyes, thoughtful understanding – Celeste had found the key to this man’s world at that moment. The transformation in his demeanor was absolutely magical, and it was an act of greatness. She won’t get a trophy for it (and she certainly doesn’t expect it), but she lifted a mountain today. She was doing the best she could do, and she was doing it by giving into something bigger than herself. She was giving her best to others. And that’s what great communication is. It’s a tool for opening up a world bigger than the one that revolves around the little self. She connected with another. She gave this man her time and warm words to improve his experience of one of the worst days of his life. What could be greater than that?

The four of us exchanged names and few quick stories about how they moved from California to Michigan years ago. It was very hard, they said, but they made it with perseverance and grit. “Now we have another thing to deal with,” the man said as he gestured toward his port.

As we left, the man and his wife were smiling, and there was a shine in their once dull eyes. When we got out the door, my eyes were shining too. I was sobbing.

Celeste turned with a smile and said, “What?”
“You,” was all I could manage.

I kept it together with others in the elevator and until we got out of the garage and paid the attendant. Then I had to let it loose. I could barely speak, but I tried to express how special it was to witness what she did for that man and his wife.

As she handed me tissues, I said, “I’m not sad, you know?”

“I know,” she said.

“I’m just so proud of you. Who you are. How far you’ve come the last 6 months.”

Pride gets a bad rap sometimes, and if I am being honest, proud wasn’t the best word choice to describe what I was feeling. I was experiencing something far more profound. More accurate words would be awe, wonder, inspiration, and transcendence.

My eyes were open today. My mind was clear. I was conscious of greatness. And thanks to Celeste and a family starting chemotherapy today, I was part of something bigger than myself.

When Angry

I get angry/irritated/pissed/etc about things people say and do all the time. Here are a few things I need to remember about that so that I don’t stoke the flames of that anger.

I am angry about it. Nobody has the power to make me angry.

Please note the distinction here. I am angry about it. Nobody has the power to definitively make me angry/sad/happy/etc as if they were using the remote control to change channels on the TV. I have something to say about it, even if I don’t realize it at first. Something about me creates the experience of the emotion. It isn’t programmed or controlled from the outside. It’s influenced from within. I have something to influence about my own emotional experience. If I blame them for my experience, I am lacking clarity and limiting my possibilities for other emotional experiences about the situation/person, such as love and compassion.

2) Just because I am angry doesn’t mean the other person is wrong/bad/irritating/etc. I can’t feel or perceive objective truths about other people. I can have thoughts and emotional experiences about them. These emotional experiences are based on things going on inside me. They do not indicate objective truths about the other person.

When I remember these two things, my downturns seem natural and also naturally limited. The world seems to be a less hostile, frustrating place. My emotional experiences seem to rise easily when I stay away from blame and trust my natural inclination toward love, compassion, and connection.

Where You Should Be


It’s is a problematic word. It implies that the present could be different from what exists now.

It’s a sensible sentiment, the idea that things should’ve worked out differently, but here is the problem: Things didn’t work out differently. The present could be different only if we could change the past. But -to my knowledge- we can’t. Specific causes lead to specific effects even if we can’t measure or understand them. Every moment is perfectly aligned with the causes that created it.

The present moment can’t be different from what it is, and in the mind, fighting what is with illusions of what should be leads to confusion. The tension caused by this battle is like a trap that limits our possibilities. Yet we constantly should all over ourselves (and others).

  • The outcome should be different.
  • You should be different.
  • I should be someone else.
  • I should be a better, tougher, stronger version of me.
  • I should be with someone else.
  • I should be somewhere else.
  • I should be at a better place in life.

The desire to should on life is certainly understandable. When it seems like things aren’t going our way, we have a tendency to believe things should be different. It’s a protective mechanism. It helps saves our self-worth. It helps the world seem a little more controllable and fair.

I’d love to tell you there are guarantees in life. There aren’t any.

I’d love to tell you life is fair. It’s not.

I’d love to tell you you’re in control. You aren’t.

The fact is this: Life is not controllable, guaranteed, or fair. The illusion of control exists when you only account for forces you can observe with your limited awareness. The perception of control is like admiring the top level of a house of cards while completely ignoring the bases that support it. This limited admiration ignores the fragile, connected beauty of the entire structure. Every moment of our lives, forces out of our awareness and control influence what we are capable of thinking, feeling, and doing. Like a house of cards, a change in one aspect can influence a change in the entire structure.

The illusion of control is compelling. It seems to make sense. It’s also quite convenient at times. But the illusion creates problems. When we believe in the illusion of control we tend to throw shoulds at everything we see because we see causality in a very limited, constraining way. This has some consistent effects. When things appear to be going against us, the illusion of control leads to confusion, blame, frustration, and eventual despair. When things appear to be going our way, the illusion of control blocks us from the gratitude that naturally flows from understanding the beautiful and miraculous harmony of uncontrollable forces that have aligned to give us what we want.

We desire control because we imagine it helps us feel powerful. To relinquish control can seem scary and uncertain, but in truth, the illusion of control is limiting, confusing, and frustrating. When we reject this illusion to clearly see degrees of influence in the order of the universe, we gain clarity, freedom, and possibility.

  • We don’t get to change the past, but we can influence how we understand it. A change in perception of the past changes our experience of the present.
  • We don’t have control over other people and the situations of the world, yet when we understand we have creative influence over our own experiences, we gain incredible freedom. Mind over matter isn’t a power struggle. It’s the way we are built.
  • We don’t have control over our thoughts, feelings, and actions, yet we have influence over possibilities that far exceed anything we attempt to control within us. When we learn not to fight ourselves, composure, awe, gratitude, wonder, curiosity, joy, and love flow through us.
  • We don’t get to control other persons’ thoughts, feelings, and actions, yet our influence is far greater than any control we might attempt to impose upon them. Don’t sell short others’ ability to love, admire, and appreciate you and your deeds.
  • We will never truly understand the order that created the present moment or where the swirling forces are taking us from here, yet we can influence finding reason, meaning, purpose, and connection along whatever path we travel. When we learn to dance with the rhythms of life, we find the miraculous in the common.

Much of the order of the universe works outside our awareness and understanding, but our lack of awareness and understanding doesn’t mean things should be different from what they are. Things are as they should be. Every moment is perfectly aligned with the causes that created it. We may not understand or appreciate it. We need not like it. We may wish things were different and even have regrets. But ultimately, the order of the universe is a good thing because if there is solace in the order of the universe, it is this:

You are where you should be. Here and now is the only place you can be. It’s the only place you’ll ever be, and you are enough to be great where you stand.

Respect is Radiated

I hear this a lot: Respect must be earned.

I’m sure we’ve all said it, and at some level we all believe it. We believe it because it sounds like an excellent idea, a lesson everyone needs to learn. And yet, when examined a little deeper, I’m not so sure it’s our best play.

After all, haven’t each of us been in crisis or misunderstanding? Haven’t we all needed respect at times when maybe we haven’t earned it?

If respect must be earned, how does anyone move forward meeting new people or helping others in crisis? How do we deal with a child in a tantrum? How do we expect others will understand us when we are angry and lashing out? I am certainly guilty of this. I doubt if I go any full day with perfectly respectful comportment. I’m sure I act like a fool to somebody in some way on a daily basis.

If respect must be earned, where does that bank account have its beginnings? Doesn’t at least one party have to give respect even though it hasn’t been earned on the other end? Where is the risk in extending others respect? After all, we aren’t exactly talking about trusting someone with our nest egg, deepest secrets, or car keys. It takes zero actual risk to extend respect, deference, or courtesy. It takes zero risk to conduct oneself respectfully even though the surrounding world might be filled with anger, lies, and backstabbing.

Respect, like love, is something that flows from within us to the outside world. Respect isn’t earned. It’s radiated. When we radiate respect, other people can sense it, and they tend to enjoy it. That’s one reason why respect is good. People connect to it. But if we are always waiting for others to earn our respect before we give it, what is there to connect to?

When we conduct ourselves with respect and extend it to the world around us, we become powerful, shining examples for others. When others see us showing respect without it being returned in a transaction, they see strength, resilience, and composure, and this observation is often the point at which they come to understand the true nature of respect. Once the true nature of respect is understood, its real power can be unleashed. Respect as a transaction is extremely limited, but respect as a radiating light has the power to change the world.

Trust me on this, you will get far more respect when you stop demanding that others earn your respect. Give it. You’ll get plenty back. And even if you have to bear some disrespectful actions of others, when you understand that respect can exist a) in infinite amounts, b) without a transaction, and c) even while you are surrounded by people acting like cold fools, you won’t care. Your radiating respect will keep you as warm as you will ever need to be.

Need more warmth in your life? Radiate more respect, even if it hasn’t been earned.

Blame Elimination Diet

“Be relentless in pursuit of those goals, especially in the face of obstacles. Along the way, make no excuses and place no blame.”

Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque

I’ve had some interest in a mental challenge of the day. So here is one you can try for a day, a week, or a lifetime: Eliminate blame.

When you catch yourself blaming someone or something for how you are thinking, feeling, or acting, just stop. Let it be.

Why eliminate blame?

We act as if blame is a righteous return of fire against an enemy trying to harm us. But that’s not what blame is. Blame is the brick and mortar we use to wall off our connection to others and the freedom that is ours if we don’t construct our own prisons. Blame leads us down an inaccurate path that strips us of our rightful influence over ourselves and the world around us. Blame primes us to be victims rather than seeking our positions of power.

Please don’t confuse reasons or causes with blame. There are reasons why we experience what we do. Our universe obeys orderly rules even if we don’t always understand them. But the chance of accurately understanding why you are experiencing a particular thought, feeling, or action is next to 0% until you can greatly reduce blame. When you eliminate the noise of blame and open up to greater possibility, more answers to your, “Why?” questions will occur to you. When you eliminate blame, you will gain freedom, possibility, and influence.

A small caution: Eliminating blame will not eliminate pain from your life. Even without blame, you won’t like everything you experience, but without blame your sense of influence and freedom will increase.  In turn, this will help limit the frequency, duration, and intensity of your painful experiences.

A couple of thoughts/tips: After you begin to eliminate blame of other people and situations, you may be tempted to blame yourself for your pain. Don’t do it. Continue eliminating blame. Don’t blame yourself either. None of us is perfect. It’s one of the beautiful ways we are connected. Don’t kick your own butt for your imperfections. Imperfect happens and pain results. There’s a reason for it. Blame won’t fix it. It will improve fastest when you simply experience it without blame.

You may not be able to eliminate blame with your current vocabulary. Instead of saying something like, “That made me mad,” which blames an external cause for your anger, try saying something like, “I am mad about that,” which implies an internal experience of anger without blaming an external cause.

That’s it. I hope you enjoy the challenge. I can’t wait to hear how you experienced it, so please post or contact me privately.

I hope you have a great day. Make the plays you can. Cast no blame along the way.

What’s In You Today

What do you have in you today? What can you do, think, or feel today? What is possible for your experience of life today?

Please rest assured, you have enough in you to be great today. I say this not knowing what you intend to accomplish. But no matter how limited your initial thoughts on this topic, please understand my point.

Your capacity to imagine greatness in this moment doesn’t change your capability to manifest it. In other words, the old adage, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right,” is wrong. Dead wrong. It’s not an absolute. Optimists fail and doubters prove themselves wrong on a daily basis. The only thing that hides us from these facts is denial. Why live in the illusion of denial when something more powerful exists? These clear facts exist: We can experience great thoughts, feelings, and actions out of the blue, and others experience the greatness of our thoughts, feelings, and actions without our awareness.

You don’t have the capacity to understand how powerful a little gesture might be to someone else. You simply can’t judge it. You aren’t in their shoes, and you may not be in the right frame of mind to see how powerful any kindness can seem to someone else. Have you ever expressed deep gratitude to someone only to have them shrug off their efforts as no big deal? It didn’t seem like no big deal to you, did it?

Not only that, but the person on the receiving end of your kindness may change her mind about its power down the road of time. How often do we come to understand the impact of someone’s influence on us only after they’ve moved on? Shouldn’t we take time to appreciate those people today? Shouldn’t each of us strive to be one of those people?

Furthermore, you do not have the capacity to judge the impact of your own efforts on yourself without the benefit of passing time. How often do we look back and discover that small seeds sprouted into something enormous? Shouldn’t we recognize the enormous potential of the little things that exist in this moment as it occurs?

Nobody is guaranteed anything. Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you may still be capable of greatness. You may not always manifest it. That’s life. You win some, you lose some. But before rejecting your potential for greatness, allow me to ask: Who are you to judge your capacity for greatness before giving it a shot?

Trust what’s in you today. It’s enough.