I Don’t Have Time For This! Or Do I? Life Lessons From A Survivors’ Poetry Reading

Intense commitment. Laser focus. These are all good things, right?

Well yeah, but what about when that single minded purpose throws up blinders? What about when it causes you to lose touch with what really matters?

I just got one of those ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ moments.


The text came in around 5 p.m.

Sheila’s reading poetry at RG Wine Bar tonight. She wants us to come.

I stared at my phone in disbelief. Tonight?!?

At that moment I was tied up in knots. You could practically see the clouds of stress and angst emanating from my ears as I wrestled with the technological and writing challenges of my new web site.

I’d gotten much less done today than I’d hoped.

We’ve got a deadline here! I’d told myself just a few minutes earlier. I have to keep my nose to grindstone. I’d resigned myself to an evening at the computer.

See, that’s my M.O – I’m used to just powering through. Forget about silly things like bodily needs and fresh air, just pump it out.

This worked pretty well in my younger years. Lately I’m noticing some serious flaws with the power out production mode.

But, crap. I get a lot of distractions in my life. Friends, family, parties, activities – so many people and things constantly beckon for my attention. If I allowed

pink ribbon

myself to take a break and be in the moment every time something new popped up I’d never get anything done.

At least that’s how it seems.

But, this was different. My sister-in-law Sheila struggled with breast cancer for the past year, and I knew our attendance and support would mean so much to

her. It would honor her resilience and tenacity.

This was more than an obligation (although it was feeling that way right now.) Deep down I knew this trumped my workaholic needs.

What time? I texted back.


Ugh, oh well.

At 6:15 I was finally getting on a roll with the writing. But – time to set the work aside and get ready to go.

“I know this is important to Sheila,” I complained to my husband as I changed my clothes, “but couldn’t she have given us a little more notice? I’ve got so much going on – I just don’t have time for this!”

“I’m sure she thought the same thing when she found out she had breast cancer,” he responded.


Out Of My Own Head

I thought this decision to  step away from the work was all about giving my energy and support to others.

What I hadn’t realized though is how much I needed to experience this particular event.

As soon as we walked into the wine bar my heart twisted.

I saw M., who has been fighting breast cancer for about seven years.

I don’t know M. all that well; I am close with some of her close friends, including Irene, the current owner of Moonrise Herbs. Seeing M. always reminds me of the fragility of life, the power of resilience and, of course, of my own blessings.

She was in her 30s when she got the diagnosis, her youngest child still breastfeeding.

A long time proponent of wholesome eating and alternative health, I know that M. tried just about every holistic treatment available to beat back her aggressive cancer, along with all the conventional ones. She is determined to be here as long as possible for her two young children.

I also know that she’s almost won the battle a few times, only to have the disease pop back up.

A friend had recently told me that once again, for the third time, more tumors had arrived, and that M.’s prognosis isn’t looking good.

I don’t know about you – but this kind of information is so hard for me to hold and carry. After sending out a brief prayer for her and her family, I released M. from my thoughts and went about my self-absorbed business.

On this night, there she was surrounded by friends and loved ones, and I could see an almost other-worldly glow around her.

It turned out this reading was to celebrate the release of her book of poetry. She’d been encouraged to publish before it was too late.

Already all my turmoil and angst over my own project was starting to look a bit petty.

I took a sip of my Pinot Noir, along with a few deep breaths and allowed myself to feel the spirit in the room. The worries and silly tech details began to slowly slip away.

Sheila stood and read a long piece prompted by a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem – about the hard nut of winter, using it as a metaphor for her cancer journey.

Oof. Punch to the solar plexus. I scrambled in my purse for a tissue.

Soon M. stepped to the ‘podium’. In a shaking voice she began to read.

All the ambient sound ceased, the room grew quieter than a church.

Powerful, raw, like an open wound her words spilled into the room. Telling us of her anguish at the thought of leaving her children behind, the irony of finding herself, a lifelong pacifist, having to do battle with this invader, the loneliness and fear of lying passive, feeling toxic chemicals drip into her body.

Listening, I could feel her profound sense of loss when her breast is removed. The rage about a childhood spent in a place she never new was infused with a killing poison, spreading disease that ravages an entire family and community. The sad release of watching the last strands of her hair float away in the wind.

Some poems were only a few lines, others stretched down the page, but each word evoked the untenable anguish of a young woman not ready to leave this life. Of a mother wishing she could stay longer. Of a healer wondering why she must turn to more poisons to remove the disease that wants to eat her alive.

And there I sat, nose streaming, grateful for the full pack of tissues I’d tucked into my purse. Perched on a bar stool next to a glass of wine – some big picture perspective abruptly thrown into my awareness.

Talk about a wake up call.

It’s not the first time I’ve needed to back away from the work in order to gather the clarity to do the work. And to open my mind to a new awareness about what the greater purpose may be.

And unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last that I’ve had to be dragged away kicking and screaming before I realized that it’s exactly what I need.

The Take Away

I didn’t write this to force you to dive for your own box of Kleenex – or to plunge you into a depression for the rest of the day.

This is some gentle encouragement to embrace your blessings and love where you’re at.

Not a one of us knows when or if we’ll be next in line for a dreaded diagnosis – or when we will have to support a loved one who is staring down the grim reaper.

The evening was a potent reminder to me, and I wanted to share some of these essential but crucial life lessons with you.

None of them are news flashes. You’ve heard it before. But all of them are easy to forget as we get caught up in the day-to-day busyness of our 21st century lives.

Since others have said these things so much better than I ever could, I thought I’d borrow some words for this part.

  • Life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans – John Lennon
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff – and it’s all small stuff  (Richard Carlson)
  • If you’ve think you’ve got it bad, there’s always someone worse off.
  • If the work isn’t flowing, step away, take a break, do some breathing, touch the earth , have a good cry– whatever it takes.
  • Each and every moment is a precious gift to be honored and appreciated.
  • Life is short, make the most of it.
  • Enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think (don’t know who wrote this, but it’s a great song. I need the recording!)

Let’s face it. We need constant reminders of these basic truths. It’s crucial for our inner and outer wellness.

Listening to M. and the other women read their poetry of survival  brought it all home to me in a visceral way.

I hope this story can do that for you too.


Photo Credit: Per Ola Wiberg

What do you think? Are you able to incorporate awareness of these essential truths into your daily life? How do you make the most of the precious moments you’ve been given? Do you have another insight or quote to share with us? Give it to us in the comments below!



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Showing 28 comments
  • Randi

    Great reminder to pause and make time for the people in our lives – we so often get caught up in the details of our day to day that we often forget to look at the bigger picture and acknowledge how important connection really is! Thanks for the reminder Sarah!

    • Sarah

      That’s just it Randi! Connection & gratitude – so important and often so elusive. Thanks YOU for visiting and commenting.

  • Carol Hess

    This post hit me where I live — twice. First, because I too need to be dragged kicking and screaming from work projects to take care of those “bodily needs and fresh air.” In fact, today is one of those days where I haven’t left the keyboard or the phone since 8 this morning. Not even to pee for heaven’s sake! (This will be a major problem any moment now.)

    And I know better. Oh boy, do I know better? Why? Because I’m a breast cancer survivor. A couple of years ago it didn’t look like I was going to make it. And then I did. And I told myself I would never forget the lessons I learned when I stared down the barrel of my own mortality. And you know what? I did. I’m due for my 2-year check-up with my oncologist tomorrow, and I almost canceled it because, “I have too much work to do.”

    So, yes, maybe it’s been said before — although you said it so excruciatingly beautifully, Sarah — but we can’t hear it enough. We can’t be reminded enough. Nobody, but nobody gets out of this alive. Life is a precious gift that is on loan, and you don’t know when you’ll be asked to give it back. Appreciate and use the heck out of it while you’ve got it. (Carol, are you listening?)

    • Sarah

      Oh Carol, I’m glad this came so timely for you – reminding you to take care of yourself. You remind me of my friend Marie, also a breast cancer survivor, and an also incredibly productive and busy person. She says the same thing: “I should know better and take care of myself more.”

      We all ‘know’ about the importance of self care and connection – but some of us do get pretty caught up in the rewards and trials of our work. Keep that appointment!

      And thanks for YOUR beautiful words! You are summing up the message better than I was able to.

      • Sandi Amorim

        Funny thing isn’t it how we forget. And then all the knowledge and knowing in the world doesn’t make a difference.

        Which is why we need these ongoing reminders to wake up and BE fully alive!

        • Lynn Hess

          I was just about to leave a comment saying almost exactly the same thing about ongoing reminders. It’s SO easy to get caught up in the “thoughstream” and in everyday chores/work/distractions and forget. The more I pay attention, the more I realize that the reminders are always there, always, 24/7, and it’s just a matter of noticing them.

          This was a big and important reminder, Sarah, and beautifully written. I’m so grateful that you shared it.

  • Bobbi Emel

    Sarah, thanks so much for sharing your story. We can never be reminded often enough of the truly important things in life, one of which is . . . life.

    • Sarah

      Well said Bobbi! That’s pretty much what it comes down to. Glad you liked the story.

  • Kaylee

    This was really touching, Sarah..And a great reminder to focus on the important stuff. I know I tend to get wrapped up in myself, my work, MY stuff… But the power of human connection is one that shouldn’t be forgotten. There are other people out there that need my attention and support too. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    • Sarah

      I’m so glad it touched you Kaylee. It was a cathartic realization for me – and part of it was the fact that a good cry can pop us right out of a stuck place…:-)

  • Lori Lynn Smith

    a beautiful story of awareness. I think we all at some point have had those same feelings of “you can’t make me” and more often then not it is the universe knocking on our door.

    Listening to that voice, taking excellent care of our selves by letting go and allowing the universe to show us the deeper meaning…. it is worth it in the end as we become better more compassionate people for it.

    thanks Sarah!

    • Sarah

      Self care and compassion – yes! Two important keys for living a joyful and balanced life. Thanks for your comment Lori.

  • Sheila

    Thanks Sarah. Nice post. Missy’s poetry is raw, touching and tough. I was happy that you and Tim came to hear my read. Sheila

    • Sarah

      And as you can see, I’m SO happy you asked us to come Sheila. I needed to be there probably more than you needed us there. I absolutely loved your poems too. You should publish some of your work too! It was fun hanging out afterward too. Hugs!

  • Ellen Berg

    I just love your voice. Soft and true and strong as hell.

    We need those moments of perspective. I always wonder how to keep that perspective before me without the urgency or feeling of suffering. My brother has brain cancer and my father has bladder cancer (both doing remarkably well BTW), but I can get wrapped up in some of the most ridiculous baloney and let it interfere with the blessings of my life.

    I don’t know how to achieve the mindfulness without also activating the sadness of those experiences that triggered some of our most alive moments. Practice, I suppose.

    Thank you for sharing this experience with us.

    • Sarah

      Awww, Ellen thanks for the kind words about the writing. It means a lot coming from you – since I absolutely adore your stuff!

      Wow, you are challenged indeed to keep balance and perspective while your close loved ones deal with that. So glad they’re doing well. It’s a juggle to stay compassionate, practice gratitude and just get on with what needs to be done when this stuff is happening.

      I agree, practice is the key for reaching mindfulness. And meditation. And sometimes the sadness just needs to be – and there’s a healing in that too I think.

  • Annie Andre

    Oh Sarah,
    YUP, i know how you felt. I’ve been beckoned from my self imposed work routine to get out and do stuff.

    You would think since we live in the south of France that i would want to get out and do stuff more often but (it’s the real world) and old habits die hard.

    In the end i am always glad i take care of my mind and body needs.

    Thanks for the reminder. And thanks for letting me know i’m normal. I’m not sure why but i’m always glad to hear about other peoples sufferings (not in a demonic way) when they are the same as mine. I work in a vaccuum and it doesn’t feel good to think i’m all alone in my misery… LOL. if you can call it that…
    ps can’t wait for the launch… tick tock.

    • Sarah

      Ha, I totally get how you feel Annie. It’s always a bit reassuring to know that other people are going nuts right along with us..LOL. It’s a challenge sometimes to pull away and experience the rest of thew world, but so true we come back with fresh invigoration for the work at hand.

      Yes….hearing the launch clock ticking all right!

  • Amit Amin

    As Bobbi said, there can never be enough reminders of these important ideas. The fact that we need so many reminders indicates that unless we create a reminder system, the noble thoughts and emotions that come to mind will quickly wither away, until another reminder comes along.

    It’s so difficult, because to think that way is to be opposed to the very foundations of our minds and biology.

    • Sarah

      Reminder systems are good – but they can only do so much. It seems to me that those unexpected reminders always seem to penetrate a little more.

      Thanks for the comment Amit!

  • Joanna Saunders

    Sarah, What a beautiful piece. And as all the others from our group sad – we all need the reminder to live in the present, live outloud and know that we are all on borrowed time.

    • Sarah

      So true Joanna, it’s just borrowed time – a gift to be savored.
      Today I am realizing and accepting that a lot of it is about changing my attitude. Yes, I’m here on the computer instead of outside. But I am making progress on a project and dream that is so important to me – and will hopefully make a big difference for others. It’s all in the perspective, right?

  • Reply

    My kids are usually great at reminding me to slow down and get away from the computer. Last night, after I got off the computer so my husband could use it, the kids wanted his attention. He kept saying, “just a minute.” After a few minutes my 6 yr. old daughter said, “I guess sometimes grownup’s just get stuck to the computer.” We laughed.

    Right now, my 2 yr. old daughter is sitting in my lap, wanting me to play with her. When she gets insistant, she’ll get up and sit on the table in front of the computer facing me, knowing that I can’t work with her sitting there. She just stares at me until I go play with her.

    Kids are perfect for keeping me in the present.

    More reminders of your messages came when we watched the movie Up again last night. My 8 yr. old son asks ‘why’ questions throughout movies which makes me pause to think about the responses. The overall message of the movie is to get out and live your adventures. Don’t let your life slip by. Also, notice the little adventures that happen every day. In one scene, the little boy describes his visits with his dad in detail (his parents are divorced). He talks all about them going to the park and getting ice cream. Then he says to the old man, “I know all this sounds really boring but it’s the boring stuff that I remember.” Wow.

    With your post and all these other messages I’m getting, the Universe is trying to tell me something.

    Thanks, Sarah, for another great message written so beautifully!!

    • Sarah

      Ah, yes. I remember so well those non-go-gentle reminders from the kids. They sometimes can see the essence of things so much more clearly than we can! I miss that.

      I love this story from the movie. So true that it’s those little ‘boring’ day-to-day details that live on in our hearts as the stuff that makes up an awesome and whole life.

      Thanks so much for your insightful comment and this story Paige!

  • Jeanie

    Beautiful piece, Sarah. Not off topic at all.

    It’s so easy to get sucked into meaningless things. This is why…in a piece that I wrote awhile back (and since have hidden), I mentioned that before we jump into an online business, we should be fully grounded in our immediate and long range purpose, otherwise we’ll get sucked away by the stream. I know that I don’t want to say on my deathbed…”Hey, I had a lot of Facebook friends!” 🙂

    SInce we’ve been in Taiwan, I told Gene that it may be my first time in here, but I’m fine with not doing a lot of touristy things. This is a trip for gathering cultural information and handing over the family traditions to the younger generation. Ensuring a regeneration of self through family, so to speak. It makes dying much easier when you can be sure that you are not forgotten.

    • sarah

      LOL, love that twist on deathbed regrets Jeanie. I’m going to bring that to mind when I find myself getting sucked down into that swirling stream of social media.

      I’m glad you’ve been able to make a meaningful time of your visit to Taiwan. I agree that connecting with the people and the culture is so much more fulfilling than “seeing everything.” I’m so glad you got something out of this piece. And welcome home!

  • Reply

    I also get stuck to the computer. This story was a good one to reinforce what I have been getting better at practicing.

    I live in Hawaii and over the course of the last year+ we’ve had many people come to visit. Both friends and family. I’ve had times its been really irritating that I cannot seem to get my work done. I’m interrupted. Yet when I look back at the last year I realize how many memories and connections I have made. And all the while my work is moving forward, evolving, becoming more of what I want it to be.

    For me the trick is learning to pick it up and move with it amongst the rest of things that come along in life. I tend to spend some time spinning around trying to figure out what to do next and waste most of a 20 minute block on social media. Now… I’m getting clear about what I want to accomplish. I’m detoxing the time I waste, or spend lamenting not getting things done in my mind.

    It’s good. And yes, this post brings a perspective that should indeed whack one on the side of the head! Wake up. Live. While you can.


    • sarah

      Sounds like you can identify with my world Jt. The incessant visits are probably even more prolific since you live in paradise. Like you, I’ve noticed that if I can change my perspective the distractions often are gifts, bringing me new insights and ideas for the work I was pulled away from. I can return with a fresh outlook.
      But ah yes – and then the challenge is to get back into focus and watch the online distractions!
      Aloha – and thanks for thoughtful comment!

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