101 Days, 101 Strangers, 101 Stories: Day 30

This morning, I met with Carolyn over coffee. Our conversation left me feeling energized for the rest of the day. Her story is a powerful one — filled with love, wisdom, and resilience. I’m very excited to share it with you.

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(Background behind how we met: As I mentioned in my post on Day 4, I was fortunate to exchange contact information with a bunch of really interesting strangers after giving them my elevator pitch a couple of weeks ago at the Creative Mornings event. I told them that I would love to meet with each of them over what was then the next 97 days, over coffee or tea, on me.)

Carolyn used to work in the corporate world. Marketing was her specialty. It was a good job, in the traditional sense. It paid well, had good benefits and a sense of security. As she moved up the metaphorical ladder, though, she noticed something: her hours started to get longer. Soon, what had been an eight-hour work day became twelve or sometimes even sixteen. Was this what she really wanted? It was stressful and her life lost its sense of balance. But it was still a good job.

Then, her health took an abrupt turn. “I had breast cancer”, she said so matter-of-factly, its past-tenseness dripping with resilience. The chemo took about eight months followed by another year of tests. It really helped her realize the fragility of life.

While she was undergoing treatment, she lost all of her hair. “I wore a wig”, she said. “But I still had no eyebrows”. Somewhat self-conscious about it, she began to realize something: people don’t often look at you in the city. She would walk past people and try to make eye contact, but there would be no gaze to meet. Even at the grocery store check-out, she noticed how it was possible to complete the entire transaction without having the cashier even look at you. Some things have become so impersonal.

When Carolyn returned to her job after treatment, she found herself less willing to deal with the long hours, the stress, the not-completely-content-ness of it all. In hindsight, she even feels as if the stress may have been a factor in the diagnosis to begin with. So she decided to transition into doing what she really loves instead. Art.

Carolyn has always been an artist but never as formally as she is now. I think the world is a better place because of her decision. She has found solace in the practice of meditation, and art itself is a meditative process for her. Combining these passions, she recently created Mandala Blooms Creative — “an initiative committed to the integration of art, personal health and daily mindfulness.”

She designs and paints the canvas mats, the centres of which are purposefully created for intensifying focus, concentration, and balance during mediation and yoga. She wants to help people heal and find peace within themselves.

This meditation art thing… it’s all so new, and so exciting, and so scary, she explained. “It’s like I’m on top of a mountain, about to jump off — without a parachute or anything to catch me.”

Throughout our conversation, we talked a lot about love and loss. She had been married for almost twenty years before getting a divorce. “He was my best friend”, she said. They had been high school sweethearts. But there was no pain in her voice when she spoke. It gave me a deepened sense of hope that we as humans are strong, flexible, and profoundly capable of overcoming loss and difficulty.

After that, she had been living with a new partner for about eight years. “He loved me to his core”, she said. She had never felt so deeply loved and cared for by anyone. He helped her get through the cancer. But then, after he got into a motorcycle accident, he developed a mental illness that was difficult to navigate and impossible for her to understand. “I wanted so badly to help him”, she said. “It was like I was throwing myself at him, like I was a rope, hoping he would use me to climb out of the darkness. I gave him all I had, but I just couldn’t help”, she explained. Mental illness can be difficult to understand. Eventually, their relationship had to come to an end.

When Carolyn told me that her youngest daughter was in the twelfth grade, I couldn’t believe it. Surely Carolyn wasn’t old enough to have daughters that old. She thanked me but then we got into a great conversation about how getting old doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It should be celebrated, really. To age in health is a privilege. She gave me some advice for young people to, if they have the chance, travel and live somewhere else — even if it’s just living in Toronto after living in Vancouver. To live elsewhere is to gain new perspectives.

Finally, I asked her the question I had been so patiently waiting to ask the entire time. “Tell me about your tattoo”, I said. It was the most beautiful tattoo I had ever seen and when she explained its meaning it became even more beautiful.

“When I had breast cancer they had to put a small mark on my chest”, she said. The mark is permanent, and whenever she would look at it she would be reminded of her cancer. “It’s not that I want to forget it”, she said. After all, she had lived and learned so much through it all. But she wanted to transform it into something beautiful. The tattoo begins with flowers on her chest, and then a little bird, eventually swirling down her upper arm. It’s a true piece of art and an extension of her spirit.

I am deeply inspired and moved by Carolyn’s resilience, self-awareness, and compassion.


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