Prompt 220. From the Hospital to the White House
& a prompt on taking risks by Tracey Barnes-Priestley
Just over a year ago, I sat in a chemo suite at Sloan Kettering, a picc line in my arm delivering my first dose of chemo. Beside me was my beloved, Jon, who just that day had received eleven Grammy nominations, the most of any artist. We were reeling from the contrast—experiencing both the best and worst things at exactly the same time. Then Jon’s phone rang, and he answered it, and a very familiar voice said, “You’re a hard man to get ahold of!” It turned out to be President Joe Biden, offering his congratulations. When Jon hung up the phone, we looked at each other in wild disbelief. It’s understating it to say that it felt surreal.
Fast forward to Thursday evening: Jon performed at President Biden’s first state dinner, and the hyper-surreality returned. I’m still bleary-eyed from it, both exhausted and buzzing, a little disoriented by the fact that this was my first public appearance since my relapse. At one point in the night, Jon said to me, “Can you believe we’re here? Think of nine months ago.”
Nine months ago, I was undergoing my second bone marrow transplant, at my sickest and frailest. My immune system was nonexistent, and I was too weak to walk unassisted. It was dizzying to reflect back, to recall all of the highs and lows, which live parallel in memory. It brings to mind lines from a poem called “Intelligence” by Jenny George: “Only we know a thing by its periphery: the meadow edged with trees. Or happiness with its horizon of pain.”
There’s something so helpful and true about this image. Rather than the good and bad being at odds, at separate ends of a pole, they’re contiguous plots in the same landscape. Thinking of them sitting side by side reminds me that they can be integrated. And having been through this before, I know that to heal, they have to be.
The integration is both physical and psychological—reckoning with the good and the bad, the past and the present, so it can all cohere into the future I’m baby-stepping toward. As just one small example, my hair is only a quarter inch of chemo fluff right now, so I asked my friend Jenna, hairstylist extraordinaire, to pack a few wigs for me. I tried on three, the last being a short one that was really cute. But I knew it wasn’t right when Jon’s seven-year-old nephew (pictured above, sashaying into the White House) burst into laughter, not because it looked bad, but because he thought I was in costume. And honestly it wasn’t far off: the wig was giving sixties back-up singer vibes. I thought, I haven’t been out in the world in a year. I can’t show up looking like anyone other than exactly myself. So Jenna slicked my baby hairs into a sleek coif, and I was thrilled. My hair reflected my lived reality.
That’s not to say that a wig is not the right choice for someone else; only that it wasn’t right—it didn’t feel integrated—for me. I felt like I needed to take that risk, to show up in a way that honored what I’d been through.
And with that, I’ll move on to today’s prompt—about taking risks as a way of life. It’s by Tracey Barnes-Priestley, a retired therapist and writer who has recently taken on a new gig hosting a television show on her local PBS station called “What’s on Your Bucket List?” It might just spur you to knock something off yours.
Some Items of Note—
We’ve scheduled our next meeting of the Hatch, our virtual creative hour for paid subscribers. It’ll be Sunday, December 18 from 1-2pm ET. That’s just a couple days before the winter solstice, so expect a meditative hour that considers the beauty and power of darkness. To mark your calendar, click here.
Over at the Isolation Journals Chat, you can join us in our weekly ritual: our collective list of small joys. And some exciting news: It’s now available for Android users! Tap the button below to add your small joy to this week’s thread.
Prompt 220. Singing Outside the Shower by Tracey Barnes-Priestley
When I was young, I ruminated about being boring, about having no value. My tender ego was trying hard to define herself as she swirled around in the negative internal chatter that starts early and can hang on forever. Most of my decisions, I knew, were likely driven by fear.
Then an ancient (!) man I deeply respected casually dropped a gem into my lap: “Live your life in such a way that when you get to be my age, you won’t look back on regrets.”
I sat with his wise words. I tried visualizing a lifetime without regrets. Life could be fascinating and a total blast if I re-wrote the internal dialog, decided risks were good to take, and recognized the need for some killer deep breathing exercises (and a solid dose of therapy).
Little by little, his words began to sink in. I’d get an idea and instead of worrying about all that could go wrong, I’d allow myself to imagine how incredible it would be to pursue it. I learned to identify what were reasonable roadblocks and which ones were reflections of my quaking ego. I worked to accept vulnerability. It took practice and I didn’t always succeed, far from it, but taking risks became my way in the world.
Fast forward twenty years. I stood in the dark wings of a small stage, waiting to make an entrance in a musical with a cast of seven other women. Fear crawled over me like a wild serpent. This wasn’t my profession. My brain sizzled with useless chatter. “You don’t have formal training, you don’t have enough experience. You’ve only been singing outside the shower for a year!”
And then, two decades of useful self-talk kicked in.“You’re here because a director you respect cast you in this part. She believes in you. Who are you to question her judgment? You’ve worked hard. Own it.” Finally, “Okay, honey, suck it up. Go out there, and have a blast!” And I did.
Which was kind of incredible because only ten steps into our song, the aforementioned director, now turned performer, accidentally stepped on the back of my shoe and I walked right out of it.
Yep, I did the entire opening number with one shoe off and one shoe on! And because we were all joyfully doing exactly what we loved, no one in the audience even noticed!
It’s been thirty-one years since that one-shoed show. Now I’m the ancient one, and I’m still making every effort to live my life without regrets.
Your prompt for the week:
Write about something you’d absolutely love to try. It can be something simple or something wild—just you and amazing possibilities here. No one else need know. Now grab your fear and doubt, put them up on a high shelf or in a lovely box at your feet, then make a plan for how you could actually accomplish this marvelous thing.
If you’d like, you can post your response in the comments section, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals.
Tracey Barnes-Priestley, a retired therapist, has peppered her career with a number of satisfying gigs—including syndicated columnist, novelist, and playwright. She is surprised (and tickled) to currently be producing and hosting season two of What’s On Your Bucket List?, a PBS production for those over sixty. Tracey lives with her husband of forty-five years in the redwoods of northern California and is the mother of three children and five joyful grands.
For more paid subscriber benefits, see—
Creating Beyond Fear, an interview about facing our doubts with the dazzling and brilliant Elizabeth Gilbert
On Failure, a video replay of our Studio Visit with my beloved, Jon Batiste, where we talk about how getting it wrong is a crucial part of getting it right
Goodbye to All That, the latest installment of Dear Susu where I write about leaping into the unknown
Thank you for this post! First, you both look beautiful and yourselves, as always!
I learned I had a miscarriage this week (I am currently in the process of letting my body finish its natural course), and reading about integrating the good and the bad feels just what I needed to be reminded of.
Last Friday we had an emergency ultrasound, there was an embryo and a heartbeat. For the first time, we saw something. Something beautiful. Then I had another bleeding between exams, and this Thursday we received the news it was no longer there. It was painful.
I hope to soon find a place where both experiences feel integrated. The beauty of being able to see it for the first time that little flickering image, and days later the void of knowing it is no longer there. But it happened, I can't ignore the good and only stay with the pain. I need to learn how to make space for both to exist.
Thank you once again for sharing your experience and words of wisdom.
You are just the best ❤️
As always thank you. I haven't posted before, probably out of fear my thoughts wouldn't be "good enough" for anyone else to hear. I am a cancer survivor and a stem cell transplant survivor like Suleika and everyday I am grateful to be alive. That sounds trite but for me it is my essential truth. I am alive and I am here. I get to enjoy and endure each day so far as it will take me.
Speaking of far, traveling is on my bucket list. I live alone without a partner so traveling would mean going solo. Back in my twenties my ex husband and I traveled the country in a VW bus for a month. I have a son who with his wife lived in an airstream trailer and traveled all the 48 lower states for about 10 years. I have always joked that when I retired, they would have to pull me along in an "in-law" trailer. Now that I am totally retiring when the semester is done, the calendar is open and I should be on my way. Fear of who knows, anything, everything keeps me from planning. At Thanksgiving someone 10 years older than me told me he was happy to have traveled the world when he could because his body wouldn't let him do it anymore. For me that was advice to do it while I still can. Fill me with your loving kindness and support as I try to conquer this fear and plan a trip for myself.