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Healthy and free in 2023

Happy New Year!

We’ve had a truly lovely holiday, in spite of (or possibly because of?) a few forces that conspired against our original plans: Jack was sick for over a week, and the only car that fits all six of us decided it didn’t want to go more than 50 mph in the bitter cold.

We had a quiet Lille Jul Aften at home (in Norway they celebrate “Little Christmas Eve” on the 23rd of December), managed to make it to Milwaukee for Christmas Eve with one of four children in tow—after turning back 40 minutes into our drive—thanks to the generous car loan from Per’s ex-wife, and then petered out after that. Jack was too miserable to go anywhere, and it didn’t feel safe enough to risk a long drive anyway.

So, we lit a fire at home, ate Thai food and leftovers, napped regularly, and settled into Romjul—which is what Norwegians call the period between Christmas and New Year’s where you forget what day it is, stay cozy, and mainly just rest.

Again and again, I was struck by how happy I was.

I’ve often remarked that I’m happier than I ever was before cancer—so much happier, in fact, that if I had a choice to go back and NOT get cancer, I wouldn’t take it. (During editing, Per wanted to know if he should soften this sentence: “Do you mean you might not take it?” and then, when I told him I really meant what I said: “Seriously? It was really awful!”)

I spent a good chunk of the holiday thinking about why that is, and the lessons cancer has forced upon us that have ultimately changed our lives. Here’s my list:

1) First and most obviously, I’m healthy. It’s been five months since my ablation, and over a year since my last chemo. What’s more, I have the perspective of what it’s like to NOT be healthy, so I am truly appreciating what’s back to normal, especially during the holiday: having the energy to procure and wrap gifts, an appetite to eat the food, and functioning taste buds to be able to fully enjoy it.

2) I’m resting more. Having cancer during Covid allowed me to nap when I needed to; and I still feel better when I can lie down for a bit after the workday and before dinner—to sleep or to meditate. I used to see naps as lazy; cancer helped me to reframe rest as necessary and nourishing.

3) We work less. Per and I are no longer a “power couple” with two full-time-plus, executive-level advertising jobs. When Per’s full-time employment ended, it quickly became clear that 50-something white men were not the focus of recruiters, who were correctly looking to create diversity at senior levels. “We had a good run,” joked Per—and he started freelancing. He also took charge of most of our household responsibilities, including making dinner most nights and carrying the infamous mental load. We make a lot less these days, but we’re both a lot happier.

4) We spend more time together. The first summer of my cancer, between my work travel and Per’s, we spent only 16 days together. He even had to fly to L.A. the day after my second surgery, while I was still at the hospital. That’s… not OK. Not during treatment, and really, not ever.

5) I spend more time consciously reflecting on life. I unwittingly created a structure that requires introspection at least three times a week: during therapy and through the drafting of twice-weekly Substack posts. The latter is particularly challenging, and I’ve debated reducing frequency, only to realize the time saved would most likely be spent scrolling through social media. Understanding myself better has enabled stronger relationships with almost everyone in my life.

6) We’re better co-parents. People assume that cancer is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, but it isn’t—divorce is. Cancer, unlike divorce, has everyone pulling in the same direction—and over the past few years, we’ve better learned how to help each other (as well as ask for and accept help) when we need it.

7) We’ve started to think about purchases from the perspective of freedom gained. On analysis, freedom turns out to be the common benefit across all our best purchases: the electric car that never needs gas; the thick black tunic top I can pull on without thinking; the purse I’ve carried almost every day for years; the cottage where we make the same three dinners. (Our worst purchases, without exception, have been a function of ego.) This Christmas, my side of the family decided not to exchange gifts, opting to book a weekend away together instead. Eliminating the task of buying and wrapping may have been the greatest gift of all for the adults, and the kids didn’t seem to notice.

8) We’ve experienced more with the people we love. Last year, we all spent spring break in Hawaii, and two weeks introducing the twins and me to Norway—and all our lovely relatives who live there. Spending that much time away with the kids was simply not compatible with our “old” life.

Noticeably absent on this list are some of the things I once expected would make me happier—cooking new recipes more often, dinners out at spendy restaurants, buying that pair of studded Valentino’s I had my eye on during chemo, a promotion to a C-level title.

Each of these, on further inspection, is driven at least in part by achievement. As the author of a Substack called “Strive for Five,” there’s some irony in realizing that what I want for 2023 is to strive less. But maybe the trick is to focus energies on what’s truly important: life itself, and how you spend it.

My goal for 2023 is a life spent more often in alignment—when what I do honors my core values and is guided by intention and purpose, as opposed to what others might want or expect. For a lifelong “pleasing achiever,” this is a big ask—and feels like a big risk – but over the past year, I’ve realized that the more aligned I feel, the more easily life seems to flow into place.

I’ve got enough data to be placing my bet—and have high hopes that the following year will be more filled with time spent with the people I love and in the places I want to be.

Here’s to being healthy and free in 2023.

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