On an atypically warm Antelope Valley morning,

the llamas blink a declaration of hunger at me


I walk down the dusty, winding trail

surrounded by mountains that remind me of my great inconsequence


It’s Thanksgiving and my dog’s eyes brim with unflinching love

as she accompanies me, untethered, down the path


I’m beholden – we all are – every single one of us,

to those who have embraced us and to those who have pushed us away













Wherever You Go, There You Are


Josie and Ava are members of a Symphony.

This is their second year. The Symphony is made up of four divisions, with Division IV being the most junior, and Division I is made up primarily of 8th and 9th graders, the highest level of the Symphony. They hold chair auditions three times a year.

The girls jumped right up to Division III from the beginning and we were all amazed. Since then, with each audition for a new seat, they’ve moved up. I warned them that this is highly unusual, and that they should be prepared for moving down at some point. After all, they’ve observed this happening to many others in the group. This year, they made it to Division II, Violin I, and I told them that this is quite an accomplishment, that they ought to be proud and keep working hard.

The girls auditioned. When I asked how it went, Josie was quite confident that she did well. Ava was less sure, “I messed up on a few measures. But I think I did OK.” It turns out that Josie jumped many seats up. Ava moved down about 15 chairs. This was traumatic for her. This was her first “fail” (although I didn’t see it that way). For a week, she slumped and was sad. She mentioned a viola player who did the same thing: he was 2nd chair and fell to second to last. “Mom, I noticed this boy, he fell many seats and he used to sit really tall. He was proud and now, he has terrible posture. He is always frowning and he doesn’t look like he wants to be there.” I asked her, “And what do you think of that?” “I think it’s sad.” A few weeks passed. “Mom, remember that viola player I told you about?” “Yes.” “Well, I noticed he’s still slumped and depressed. I even wonder if he’ll quit.”  I expected her to tell me how she was going to cheer him up. I thought she would share with me her plan.

“I’ve decided that I don’t deserve to sit where I’m sitting. I messed up in the audition, but I’m better than 22nd chair. I’ve decided that no matter what happens, no matter where I’m sitting, I will sit as if I am sitting where I DESERVE to sit.”

I was blown away. This is something I learned late in life:  Disregard what others think of me and hold my head up high. She’s only ten years old. How did she know this?

“Wow Ava, I am very proud of you. That is amazing that you came up with that on your own.”
“Well, this boy, he’s very good too and he shouldn’t let it affect him this way.”

Yet another life lesson learned through their serious violin practice.

Letter to the Doctor

Dear Friends and Family,

I just wanted to share a letter I sent to my first oncology surgeon with you. The most empowering, important lesson I have learned on this journey thus far is to take control of your medical records and your health! As most of you know, I was given my diagnosis in a very cold manner: “You have Stage I breast cancer.” That was it. He immediately recommended a mastectomy with reconstruction. I wrote him a letter weeks later, because that day will forever haunt me. Not simply because of the content of the news, but especially due to the delivery. Here is my letter:

Dear Dr. ________:

Although I am sure you have to impart bad news of cancer to many people in your week, each person you inform is hearing it for the first time (unless it’s a recurrence, which I’m sure does not make it easier). You are telling people (as a medical professional) their chances of survival. I want to help you be better at this. When you deliver the news, it is good to be factual, which you were. However, it would not hurt to be sensitive: offer tissues immediately as tears are sprung and look the patient in the eye during the conversation, not her partner.  I left your office feeling as if I was handed a death sentence.

I received a second opinion from another surgeon this week. His approach was different, although the end data was the same. He went over my pathology report line by line (it’s six pages)! He made sure I knew what “in situ” and “invasive” meant. He stressed the very good fortune that I discovered this as early as I did and told me I have time to make an informed decision. He did not press the surgery option at all. He gave me several choices: chemo, radiation, and surgery. He did tell me I need to do something: I cannot and should not let it be.  I felt empowered and hopeful when I left his office. Do not get me wrong, I know I face some serious hurdles in my future.

You strike me as a competent surgeon. However, I do not feel comfortable with you. There is absolutely no lightheartedness, no warmth or levity in our dialogue. I am blessed with an incredibly strong network of support and love within my family and friends. I am seeking the same in my medical team.

My best to you,

Caroline Chung-Wipff