Friday, December 23, 2011

On the Beauty of Irreverence

The divine, in this world, is all dressed up in mortal clothes, and longing and mortality are so profoundly intertwined as to be, finally, inseparable.
—Mary Doty

This is not the tropic paradise one imagines when thinking of Hawaii.  A gray sea scuffed white by a gale, ceaseless wind buffeting the walls of a house, gusts sweeping sheets of rain across a pasture, a sopping wet herd of sheep bleating for relief.   Wind howling with a winter voice.  Wind sending a deck chair careening across a porch.

I woke this morning in the dark to that wind.

The other morning, after reading the day’s meditation from Mark Nepo’s Book of Awakening, I tried to see myself from far above, a small fleck sitting before an even smaller flame (one candle burning on a tiny altar) on an island in the vast Pacific.  It’s been windy here at the northern tip of the island since I arrived, 45 mph gusts drilling into the sea surface, sending up spouts and devils.  Buffeted by such wind and monsoon rains, one can easily feel too big for one’s britches, personally thwarted by weather, the clothes on the line, the dirt road to town, never drying.    Or one can feel tiny.  I closed my eyes and tried to picture myself from far above, as Nepo suggested, listened to trade wind, that entity that encircles these latitudes, with or without me, before, during, after.  Sometimes it’s scary to bow down to the knowledge of how tiny I really am.  How big the world, and time.  I could be wiped away with one sweep of that wind’s enormous, erasing hand.   Sometimes it’s hard to face the endurance of things like rocks.

I’ve started reading the memoir Heaven’s Coast by poet Mark Doty.  It’s about his journey through the death of his partner from AIDs in the mid-1990’s.  It’s set on Cape Cod, my other home.  When Doty was writing the book, a friend insisted “long-term survivors, you’ve got to address long-term survivors.”  Doty saw that this man wanted him to take a stance of hope in his book.  He described it as ultimately a “stance toward the world.”  This is the true nature of the world:  time and wind never stop to look down at what we’re up to.  They are indifferent.  This is the world:  our prayers get swept up and carried by wind along a belt of latitude encircling the planet.  If you lie awake at night in the dark and listen, you’ll hear the singing, praying, murmuring, beseeching, of all that desire.  This is us in the world:  desire.  Maybe that’s God, the wind, our collective voices.  That’s how we’re not alone.  In a strange way, Doty’s friend’s request for a message of hope reminds me of the pink ribbon stance toward breast cancer, and why it rings false.  To experience cancer is to be asked to dig deeper than hope.   Besides. “The world has one long-term survivor,” Doty responds, “which is the world.”

Another squall passes across this piece of land.  The lambs in the pasture ask why, the sheep answer in throaty tremuloes.  It’s light out now, 7:30 am.  I woke in the dark, before six, tip-toed into my writing room, lit a candle, listened to the wind chimes and rain swishing along sideways.   A year ago, I came to Hawaii a day past my last radiation treatment:  burned, tired, fragile.  The wind has swept that year away.  I’ve reentered the stream – I want to say after what now seems a back eddy of cancer treatment and physical recovery – but the stream is actually a river, and there are many back-eddies.  And the river is big, a Colorado.  And I’m basically a feather upon it.

And I admit I really don’t know how to meditate or pray right; I just fake it.  When I sit there and listen to the wind, and suddenly get it, how much bigger all the world is than me, when I acknowledge I’m just a speck, a feather, well, first it’s exhilarating, but then my thoughts engage, and I wonder, isn’t this what I was studying during all of those meditation retreats, reading all of those books, letting go of desire, accepting that I’m nothing, dissolving the edges of self?  But Buddhism isn’t actually my religion, I’m finding.  I’d get an F for my methods in front of the altar, my black notebook with its scribbled lists of gratitudes and prayers.   Even with that wind unceasing, I still want my specific life, and the wind gives it to me, the permission to want what I want, without hope of receiving anything.  It doesn’t make promises.  Just accepts all of my prayers into itself as it sweeps by, blind to my need and generous.  Mark Doty writes  “…there is something in the grand scale of dune and marsh and sea room for all of human longing, placed firmly in context by the larger world:  small, our flames are, though to us raging, essential.”  There is something, also, in the grad scale of this wind.

He writes that his lover Wally never stopped desiring things.  A few weeks before death, he wanted a puppy, so they got one.  Doty describes a photograph he took of Wally, in his hospital bed, reaching out to stroke the puppy.  “That is how I will always see my love:  reaching toward a world he cannot hold and loving it no less, not a stroke less.”

Even though I don’t believe the wind will grant me what I want, I ask anyway, and every morning I say thanks for all that is given, unasked for.  The oddest things.  Yesterday, changing in the car after swimming, crowded in the backseat with my two step-daughters, awkwardly transferring my breast prosthesis from my running bra to my regular bra, I reached across and slapped my step-daughter on the thigh with with the silicone mound, and then all three of them, my step-kids, Elli, Lars and Eve, passed the damn thing around, squeezed it, admired its squishiness.  We laughed crazily.  “There is something very wrong about this,” I said.  And there was, something wonderfully wrong.  And something just as wrong about the way I prayed this morning, in gratitude for the gift of our irreverence.  For that very wrongness.  And then the wind swept it all away.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On Being Stalked

Here’s how bad it’s become.  Yesterday afternoon, looking at my face in the mirror, I noticed that a fine line at the corner of the left side of my mouth traveled at a slightly different angle than the fine line at the right corner.  My rabbit mind actually whispered/wondered if I might have had a tiny stroke.  I scrutinized one side, then the other, rubbed my face, and then I burst out laughing.  Silly, silly, rabbit you.  But when I stared into my eyes, I saw there not mirth or relief but sadness and fear. 

A few months ago, I watched a Utube clip of poet and rock musician Joy Harjo performing a version of her “Fear Poem.”  It begins like this:

I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear.  I release you.  You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you
as myself.

I left my last blog post with an image:  an imaginary lynx stalking the edges of my yard, hunting snowshoe hares.  I left that post with a wish, to wear an imaginary coat of lynx, embodying something strong and fearless.  Unwittingly, I was, writing those words and imagining that beast, stalking the edge of something in myself, a truth.   It turns out to have been a kind of premonition.  Writing in this way is like dreaming.  Symbols arise out of the depths, and we don’t know what they mean.  Meaning opens not like a hand, but slowly like a buried bulb.

Hares and lynx cycle up and down here in southern Alaska, and for the last few years, hares have been on the rise.  Dirty-white in winter, grizzled in summer, large-eared, they are handsome but destructive in their gnawing hunger.  The land can’t support their numbers, and eventually they starve.  They crash and burn.  Last winter, they decimated our raspberry plants.  Who can blame them?  In the woods, they’re reduced, in winter, to eating spruce needles.

Joy Harjo sings to her fear:  You are not my blood anymore.

Fear of lynx, of owls and gyrfalcons is in the snowshoe hare’s blood, in its cells.  A shadow passes over and it bolts for cover.  A branch breaks and it freezes, white against white, heart ahammer.  

Scared like that.  It pretty much describes how I’ve been since breast cancer:  preyed upon, stalked, in the grip.  It comes and goes, my fear, and the only thing predictable is that when it subsides, I know it will be back, triggered by some shadow, a phantom ache or pain, my 48 year-old body speaking to me, a body emerged from breast cancer treatment battered and fragile and given to complaint.  Or some person's random comment.  Or a story of someone who's died.  Of course none of this is surprising.  Google “fear of breast cancer recurrence” and you’ll never get to the end of the links and testimonials.  The concept of “survivorship” is, to a large extent, concerned with managing this fear.  The new normal of the post-cancer life.  I know I am not alone.  But my fear has become unmanageable, as they say in 12 step circles.   If my psyche were a raspberry patch, it would be ripped and chewed, and the rotting snow on the ground would be trampled and yellowed and speckled with little brown droppings. 

Still life with shadow passing perpetually over a patch of snow.  Woman motionless, pressed against the ground, heart ahammer, holding her breath until the shadow passes on. 

I release you, fear, because you hold
these scenes in front of me and I was born
with eyes that can never close.

Aside from the basics of caring for my body and soul, praying, listening to my doctors, and taking my medicine religiously, there is NOTHING I can do about cancer recurrence.   Nothing.  It will swoop down and snatch me or it won’t.  Fear won't protect me.  My counselor yesterday said surrender.  Surrender to that fact.  She said I sounded like someone being stalked.  That was it exactly.  I am being stalked by fear. 

When I was in graduate school up in Fairbanks, where nights in winter are 20 hours long, I lived in a log cabin in the woods alone and was afraid of the dark.  I’d ski or bike home at night by headlamp or moonlight, push open the thick cabin door, quickly switch on the kitchen light and look around before entering.  Still in my outdoor gear, I’d yank open the closet door, look under the bed, behind the couch, heart ahammer.  In the dark, later, I’d lie under the covers paralyzed.  Any moment, I thought, I might hear a crunch of a footstep, the squeak of a door, a scratch on a screen, and the key was to not miss that moment.  I wouldn't let myself be taken by surprise.  I lay there vigilant, stock still, terrified to breathe or move.  Ironically, this plank-like position was the opposite of the posture needed to fight off an attacker.  The body I needed was lynx-like, relaxed and supple, flexible, fleet, breathing deep, calm, balanced.  I got over my fear of the dark gradually, and it stalks me no more.  But, as my counselor pointed out, I’ve replaced that stalker with another.  It’s assumed another shape.  Cancer.  Just as that fear-of-the- dark stalker had replaced another, much older childhood fear.

Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.

Death stalks us all, my counselor says.  A snowshoe hare lives in a state of constant vigilance.  A lynx is silent, stealthy, hungry also.  How do prey animals do it?  Live their lives that way?  Wouldn’t you just lay down and give in, or die young of such eternal fright?  But they do live.  Their black eyes are bright as they stand on hind legs to reach for a raspberry branch to chew.  Their black eyes are bright as they pause to groom their fur.  The crash is coming, yet they mate, nestle down, birth their naked litters, tend their offspring, release them into the dangerous, treacherous, predatory world.

I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.

To see my fear as a stalker, to acknowledge it a version of an old fear, it is to begin to deprive it of some of its power, release it, ultimately of its stalker guise.  I am still trying to understand what it means for me.  I'm still watching myself be watchful and afraid.  Right now, I just know to see fear in a new way is a game-changer.  Metaphor is a game changer.  It is that powerful.  Poets know it.  It shatters old ways of seeing the world, thus old ways of being.  Even though our minds grasp and fail to translate that shattering into language, into something we could call knowing, or understanding, it is still shattered.  

The shattering happens and we go on, tentatively feeling our way, barefoot, around the shards.  I’m just sitting here writing by the light of a candle as another day gets born.  I’m watching the forest outside my window lighten, watching darkness bleeding slowly away; it will retreat for only six hours.  The darkness in December is deep.  I’ve chosen to live in this place of extremes, extreme dark and light.  I am not afraid of this outer dark anymore, though it holds as many dangerous possibilities as it ever did.  How is that?  That darkness hasn't changed.  So I must have.  And I can change again.   This is, after all, the life I've chosen, and the life I've been given.  My life in a place of wild darkness, forests stalked by predators.  It is full of pain, and peril, and promise.

I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won't take you in my hands.
You can't live in my eye, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart.
But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
of dying.

I release you, Joy Harjo sings.  But my song is different.  My song arrives from far away, and I can barely make out the words.  It arrives in snippets, in fragments, among bird calls and shadows.  It will take a long time to understand, and to listen, and to change.  I transform you, it think says.   Fear, I give you another name.

Please watch this clip of Joy Harjo reciting her poem.  I promise, you won’t regret it:

(The Joy Harjo poem quoted here is from her poetry collection The Woman Who Fell From the Sky.)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Gardening in December

It's about as gray as it get can in the daytime up here today, a storm anchored down on the Kenai Peninsula, dropping rain on top of the snow.  And it's less than three weeks from the shortest day of the year.  For the last month, I've been trying not to look at the four packages of tulip and crocus bulbs on the bench seat in my entry way, because they've begun to sprout little white nubs, and they remind me of my neglectful ways, buying them way back in September, handing them out to my students for a writing assignment, then abandoning them behind the dog food bag.  The reproach on their faces is just too much.  But today, in the gloom of this early December afternoon, I took a little clam shovel and tapped the frozen earth along the basement as though searching for a bearing wall, and finally found a place, under a window, where the ground was still soft.  I dug in, sprinkled on bone meal, and arranged the bulbs close together, in a cluster, then buried them, top-dressed with decaying plant matter.  And while I was out there, I repaired the netting fence around the raspberries to keep the snowshoe hares out, on my knees in the snow, my fingers aching from the 40-degree cold.  And then I carried a few sad dead plants down to the greenhouse.  In the trees, a sound like bells startled me, calls more like southern swamp songs than like hearty Alaskan winter caws, buzzes or cackles.  A flock of tall lean gabardine birds chimed in the alders.  I think they were grosbeaks.

Now I'm back in the house after stoking up the woodstove, listening to the logs catch, crackle and snap, listening to the metal tick, and in the background, to the dripping of melting snow off the roof.  Thinking about those bulbs I stuck into the ground.  The thing about bulbs is they have this chestnut-colored sheath of skin, a thin, papery protection.  That's all.  Me, I've got this sturdy warm house, thick insulated walls, the heat radiating from the woodstove.  Solitude is my sheath of protective skin.  And when I go out among people, I wear various furs (metaphorical ones, that is).

I'm here alone at home today (Craig already left for the yearly pilgrimage to Hawaii, not for him this dark time) after a sociable evening and morning.  Last night, I wandered over to my favorite gallery for a first Friday opening:  a series of portraits by a beloved local painter.  The portraits were of various Homer artists of all stripes, musicians, painters, potters, sculptors.  It was one of those cozy small-town winter gatherings; this town grows more intimate in winter; people band together.  Homer's built at the end of a peninsula, the end of the road, people call it, and under this cover of long nights, at times (like now, the rain pelting the windows of the house), it does feel like we've come unmoored and are adrift in the North Pacific, cut off from the rest of the world.  So people come together more.  There are potlucks, Scrabble games, movies.

But I've found lately that I feel socially retarded in public these days.  My skin feels excessively thin.  Voices bang and clang around me, my nerves jangle.  As I circled the gallery, moving form portrait to portrait, I bumped into a woman I know, S.  I hadn't seen her in a few weeks, and she asked how I was feeling in that sincere, concerned tone I've grown so familiar with these last several months.  It sets my nerves to prickling and kindles a hot flare of rage.  But S, she is a sincere person.  S is made of warm light, let me tell you, about as compassionate and kind a person as you'd want to know.  So why my sudden donning of porcupine skin?  My inner self scrunched in and flared my tail at her.  This is what I said.  I said I felt great.  But then I said, "I have to ask, because another person in town thought I had metastatic cancer, and asked me about my prognosis, and you seemed so concerned when you asked me how I was, that I wanted to make sure that you knew that wasn't the case."  Poor S.  There we were in this crowded, brightly lit, loud, public space, me babbling on in this weird way out of nowhere, her just asking "how are you feeling?" and I think I scared her, because she said she hadn't heard anything like that, and then she was gone.

When people ask me how I feel, how I'm doing, I just get crazy sometimes.  The question frightens me, triggers this irrational response.  It feels as though a person is speaking to me from across a divide, a turnstile, and I don't have a token to get to the other side of that question, to where they stand, drink in hand, in the land of women who've never had cancer.  To the place where "How are you doing?" is an utterly mundane, benign question.  But there, on my side of the turnstile, my inner porcupine wanted to say:  Don't look at me that way.  I don't have terminal cancer, I'm okay, I'm cancer-free, I'm well, please don't reflect that fear and concern at me because it scares me, it makes me wonder if there's something you know that I don't.  And of course it's unfair on my part.  The intention behind the question, in every case, is nothing but loving.

So it was time to leave, flee the crowd, as I so often do these days.  But first two women friends and I made a plan, to meet at my house after the opening, to have dinner and a sleep-over.  With these friends I can shed my porcupine skin, my public skin.  After dinner, we put pillows down in front of the woodstove, lit candle lanterns, and laid bananagram tiles on the warm floor.  I heated a pot of nettle tea on the stove top, and we ate walnuts and dried blueberries.  Then we went to sleep.  In the morning I heard my friend Asia walking around in the dark, so I called her name and she came in and asked if she could get under the covers with me.  Her partner's away, too, in graduate school.  So we lay there side-by-side for over an hour as the dark got just a wee bit less dark and we talked.  First she told me about the dream she'd had.  Then I told her of my difficulty in public settings like the gallery opening, as though I'm being bombarded with arrows.  Asia said that in deep winter, in a venue like that, celebrating the work of a fellow artist, we come together to mirror the light in one another.  That's what the artist's portrait's had done.  Asia suggested I prepare myself for such encounters with people, put on more clothes, put on an outfit, another skin, and answer such questions purely from the moment:  "I'm feeling great tonight.  It's great to see you.  How are you doing?"  Then I could be a mirror to someone's caring soul, their inner light.  Or, if necessary, to another's probing soul, their fear.  Instead I see only a projection of my own greatest fear in another's eyes.  And fear is what I mirror.

It's been over a year now since cancer treatment ended, and I'm still getting to know the shape of this bulb, this body, this somewhat shell-shocked soul under its papery skin.  I'm still trying on different skins, deciding which is mine.  Last weekend, another friend helped me purge my closet, casting off the clothes that no longer fit me, finally letting go of the last "cancer clothes."  Those were once favorites I wore after surgery, during chemo treatment, but memories clung to them like a scent.  They'd served me well, but it was time to let them go.  Perhaps for awhile, the porcupine skin served me well too.  Perhaps I'll need it again someday.  But wouldn't something soft and supple, holding the spirit of an animal that's balanced, brave and centered -- the skin of a lynx, perhaps -- be nicer?

Perhaps right now, out in the yard, in another kind of December gardening, a lynx creeps along the forest edge, hunting for the snowshoe hares that, in their fearful hunger, would mow down my raspberry patch.  Perhaps tomorrow I'll find a tuft of lynx hair caught on an alder branch.  And with it, I'll start to sew my new winter coat.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Cancer Winter: One Year Later

This morning, an article in the NY Times about medical students writing poetry.  Among student poems printed in the paper was this one by poet Marilyn Hacker:

Cancer Winter
by Marilyn Hacker
No body stops dreaming it’s twenty-five,
or twelve, or ten, when what is possible’s
a long road poplars curtain against loss, able
to swim the river, hike the culvert, drive
through the open portal, find the gold hive
dripping with liquid sweetness. Risible
fantasy, if, all the while, invisible
entropies block the roads, so you arrive
outside a ruin, where trees bald with blight
wane by a river drained to sluggish mud.
The setting sun looks terribly like blood.
The hovering swarm has nothing to forgive.
Your voice petitions the indifferent night:
“I don’t know how to die yet. Let me live.

Hell, I don’t know how to live yet.  Emailing with a friend this morning, we talked about relationships, repairing them, taking down the walls we build between us brick by brick, and how intractable habits are.  How hard it is to change.  It’s one of the aspects of living I’m still practicing.  You live whether you know how to do it or not.  You get thrown into the pond not knowing how to swim.  You get dumped into the desert not knowing anything about the desert’s ways, and you have to figure them out as you go along.  And all the dusty others wandering around you have that same confused look on their faces, but they try to help, teach you a little of what they’ve learned about the desert, which isn’t much, because the desert is vast and unknowable.  Even that redpoll flock yesterday, what do I know about them?  I guess it’s exactly the same way with cancer.  I remember describing the dumped-off-a-train feeling after my diagnosis.  Thrown off without map or compass, water bottle or sun block.  Oh you figure out how to do it, get into a pattern and it feels like you’re set.  But then you stumble down a swale into some place you’ve never been before, and you realize the desert is an ecosystem of enormous complexity.  There’s a new species of scorpion or rattlesnake in the swale.  Are you supposed to run or hold your ground?

There’s a quote on my refrigerator by the poet Rilke, and it goes like this:  “As it happens, the wall between us is very thin.  Why couldn’t a cry from one of us break it down?  It would crumble easily.  It would barely make a sound.”  But thinking about it today, I realize that the real wall is the one we build around our own hearts.  Without the wall, how could we survive in a land of scorpions and thorns?  Come on, you can’t walk naked through the desert and survive.  You can’t go through life like Jesus in the painting where he’s wearing his heart, bleeding and crowned with a braid of thorns, on the outside of his body.  The desert is harsh.  After years, the walls get pretty damn thick.  But behind the wall we’re very fragile creatures.

I realized only this afternoon the significance of this day.  It’s December 1.  A year ago on this day, I walked out of Cape Cod Hospital with a ridiculous certificate of completion in my hand.  I’d been zapped by radiation for the last time.  It was a blustery, rainy, cold early winter day on the Cape, very gray, the sky spitting rain all over the place.  No desert, but a pretty forbidding landscape just the same.  That day, I said goodbye to my Cape Cod family, my sister, her husband, their three kids.  Craig and I boarded a bus in Hyannis for the airport to begin the process of reentry.  Reentry into my own life, post cancer.  Craig and I flew to Hawaii to begin the long process of recovery.  But getting on that bus was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.   It was, come to think of it, being flung off the train yet again into a new place.  My sister and I couldn’t let go of each other.  There was no wall at all between us.  It had collapsed months before.  That’s the price of walking naked through the desert together.  How much it hurts to pull away.  As the bus backed away from that god-forsaken terminal, I watched her standing there in the rain.  Nothing could be more forlorn than that image I carry tucked in my heart like a black-and-white photograph.  I relive that moment right now, in all of its terrible pain and promise.

So it’s another new year’s day, as I told a friend who just finished a treatment program of her own.  The flocks of redpolls, the changing sky, enact an endless renewal.  It hurts so much to be reborn this way.  This is my poem, my petition to indifferent birds.  Show me how to live in this place with only just enough protection to survive.    

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Leaving the Burning House

The other day, driving home from work, my mind troubled, I looked up and saw a flock of redpolls twisting scattershot across a field, shape-shifting over the road.  I thought, there is another world, apart from all that’s human: what a relief.  Car after car passed on the white-topped asphalt, carrying imperatives and purposes, and that redpoll flock disappeared over a rise.  It shifted my perspective by lifting me up out of myself.  My world can feel so small, wrapped tight around my concerns.

My friend reminded me today of the serenity prayer.  “Turn it over,” she said, meaning those things I can’t control, the paths my loved follow with their lives, my fate, my future health.   I thought of pages turning over in a book.  I thought of a bird flock, the way it moves, turning inside out like a wind-blown sheet.

I imagine people go to church to be reminded of something bigger than themselves.  Others carry divinity within, maybe just close their eyes and breathe to remember:  this world is not about my troubles.  It’s always been the wild earth for me.  I guess it’s my religion.  A bird flock catches my eye and it’s a glimpse of some kind of earthly heaven.  What poet Adrienne Rich called “a threadbare beauty.”  Ordinary birds above an ordinary snow-covered field.  Vincent van Gogh fired a gun to incite crows to rise above a wheat field.  Maybe he did it not just for his painting.  Maybe he did it to startle up out of himself.  Perhaps it was a moment of liberation.  Tonight, at dusk, I took the dogs for a walk through the woods behind my house.  The sky was dusty blue. A sliver moon shone bright and high above the birches.  And it was only 4:30 pm.  We’re in the dark time, and I love it.  Our cold spell broke and it was a few degrees above freezing.  I love to walk at dusk when the dogs disappear in shadows, when branches are sharply outlined against an evening sky.  The woods smell good again, the snow heavy and wet, the air damp against my face, not biting sharp as it’s been these last several weeks.  I looked into the net of branches for the shape of an owl.  There’s been a pair calling early in the mornings.  The dogs were on the trail of something at the edge of a swale, and I sat on a fallen birch tree waiting for them, feeling grateful.

When I went to my bookshelf just now, I pulled out The Ink Dark Moon, poems of the ancient court of Japan, and opened to one by Izumi Shikibu.

Should I leave this burning house
of ceaseless thought
and taste the pure rain’s
single truth
falling upon my skin?

Yes I should.  There’s a single truth to a flock of redpolls.  Turn it over, and I find a set of coyote tracks in the snow.  Turn it over, and an owl calls.  So why is it so damned hard to leave the burning house?  When truth waits for me in the woods?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Swimming for a Rescue Ship

Finally the temperature rose above 20 in Homer.  A storm gathers force out in the Gulf, approaching the coast.  It might even rain this week, though we hope not; it will ruin the snow pack.  We enter a pattern the weather forecaster calls “lively.”  Last week, my nature essay students wrote about the weather.  Naturally, they wrote about incessant change.  Change, if you’re a Buddhist, is practically a religion.  Perhaps that’s why weather, to my ear, rhymes with reverence.  These big winter lows roll over us, one by one, and we’re no more than twigs to that indifferent god.  Does weather also rhyme with health?  Our bodies, who art in perpetual states of weather.  Our bodies, weathered habitations, ruined chapels, slumping huts.

I’m thinking today about a friend who feels like nothing.  At least in a low moment felt that way.  Cancer made me feel that way.  Just a feather some storm could blow away, and who would be the wiser, after years and years?  The living live on.  Day by day growing more feathery.   What’s a feather made up of?  A shaft.  A vane.  A rachis.  Afterfeathers and downy barbs.  And a whole lot of air and translucence.   

Getting treated for cancer far from home was a humbling experience.   Returning home was like stepping onto an escalator.  It hadn’t stopped escalating while I was gone, it doesn’t stop escalating if I’m scared or tired or obsessed or paralyzed.   I take my place among the escalating living, my little life one of many, and no two the same.  “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” poet Mary Oliver asks.  Oh she asks me almost every day, her poem “The Summer Day” replaying on the whisper-ma-phone (remember the Lorax?) in my brain.  What does it all mean?  Cancer is a macro lens.  So is any way life falls apart.  Why are we here on earth anyway?  Every day I pray for an answer.  Receive only the first light in the forest, the temperature of the air, the forecast, updated every six hours. 

In that poem, Mary Oliver also admits “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.”  I don’t either.  Still, each morning for a month now I climb a ladder into my meditation loft, light two candles and a scrap of incense, close my eyes and pray.  For what, for whom?  For the little things, for the feathers I know who are hurting in some way, and so many people I love are hurting.  Does my prayer matter, does it change a thing out there, an outcome, save a world, does it change the direction of the wind?  Does it cause a butterfly on Cape Cod to flap its wings?  But I find, at the end of each day, that the humblest prayers are answered.  They are the ones for myself, for guidance, for balance, for focus.  I pray to be a better friend or listener to this or that person in my life, to let go of ego when I respond to a student’s work.  Whatever is before me that day.  No more grandiose prayers:  to get a book published, to get a grant, or death to cancer.  I don’t pray anymore for what’s out of my hands.  I don’t pray for a particular kind of weather.  Should I?  I stick to the prayers I love best, the prayers that set my intention for my little day.  My little life.  My one feather.  “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” Oliver asks.  Is it enough to simply love the life we’re given?  Love it fiercely, every blessed cup of coffee, every square of chocolate, every bowl of soup, every falling flake or leaf?  “We’ll all be gone tomorrow,” my friend David sings.  That’s what binds us together.

I had a terrible bout of fear of cancer last weekend, and in my meditation loft, I prayed for relief, and then I voiced the fear to my friend M, visiting for Thanksgiving.   Just to voice it was relief.  Just to have it heard.  But what amazed both of us was how my prayer was answered all through that day and the next.  First, a random encounter with another breast cancer survivor at a gallery.  She was twelve years out, but still understood fear.  Then, an encounter with a woman treated for colorectal cancer last year.  She sometimes emailed me from the infusion center, an IV pumping chemo into her vein.  In a loud voice, in the health club locker room, she said,  “Here we are, getting our bodies back.”  And I felt a little proud when others turned to look.  Later, in a quiet voice, she confided her anxiety and insomnia. 
I woke the other morning from a dream that I’d thrown myself into the cold Pacific at night, as kind of trial run, and was swimming toward a rescue ship, a giant tender.  It seemed to be Resurrection Bay, not far from Seward.  I know.  There is no trial run.  Maybe we’ve all been thrown into this same cold, deep water, in the middle of the night.  Maybe we’re all swimming blindly toward a rescue ship we heard about and hope exists.  Maybe we’re all swimming toward some kind of idea, of resurrection.  In the dream, when I was pulled aboard my rescue ship, the deck was bright under sodium vapor lights.  My rescuers were just a bunch of ordinary guys in flannel shirts and Carhartts.  They were nobodies, doing nothing out of the ordinary.  Just doing their job.  Just doing what the living do, best as they can.  They saved my life.     

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Seeds Under Snow

November 16

This is not the usual month to think about seeds in Alaska.  But whether I think about them or not, seeds are everywhere.  Seeds are doing what seeds do best:  hunkering and waiting.  Self-contained, encased in protective shells, seeds lie under four inches of snow in the woods around my house.  Seeds nestle down among dead alder leaves.  Seeds hide under of collapsed, brown fern fronds.  Pushki seeds cling, maybe, to the hock-hairs of a footloose moose.  Seeds are imbedded in the nuggets of a ravenous moose that doesn’t chew his food.

In my entryway, sad to say, are bags of bulbs I bought in September.  “Too busy” to plant them, my nose to the computer screen, my eyes seeing nothing but the deadline date for my book draft, I kept putting off planting those bulbs.  One day I even got a shovel.  One day I even cleared collapsed perennials off a patch of earth in the rock garden.  But then, as it does here in late October, the ground froze hard overnight.  I never got around to planting the bulbs, and some are starting to sprout.  I’m going to have to figure this out, I know.  They need their dark, hunkering time in frozen earth to think, to ponder what they want to be when they grow up:  Tulip?  Crocus?  Daffodil?  I know how they feel.

Now that the first draft of my book is in the editor’s hands, I feel this urgency to sprout the seed of the next writing endeavor.  Though working toward a book deadline while recovering from cancer treatment has been a bit stressful, I’ve also loved it, to meet each day with such clarity of focus, brewing my coffee, lighting a candle, settling in for work.  It was so clear to me after my diagnosis what my focus should be, a voice in my head saying “finish the whale book,” and for the last year, it’s been the sun I’ve grown toward every morning. 

The funny thing about life after breast cancer is there is no permanently altered state of mental clarity, at least not for me, no bucket list, no check marks beside numbered goals.  It’s just life again, the next goal lost in a fogbank up ahead.  One seed sprouting, one plant arising, flowering, dying back.  And then another seed.  It’s just gardening.  It’s just life.

Which reminds me of an encounter I had last week.  I’d just walked dreamily out of my morning yoga class.  In shivasana, corpse pose, at the end of class, this thought had popped into my head:  “I really think people who see me around town now don’t think “breast cancer” first off.  I really think it’s changed.  I’m just me again.”  It was a very liberating feeling, as though I’d just poked my green tip from a crack in a seed and was feeling the sun for the first time.  But boy does "the universe" or whatever just love assertions like that!  Putting on my coat, I spotted an acquaintance; I’ll call her D.  She smiled, so I walked over.

“I read your poem at the museum,” she said.  “I really liked it.”  My poem is part of an exhibit of art and poetry at the local museum called “Who Has Lived Here?”  “I can really understand how you feel, what you meant in the poem.  There’s been cancer in my family, too” she said.  “And they want to live each day to the fullest, appreciate each day . . .” I’m not remembering her exact words after that because my brain froze.  Shit.  Branded by Cancer.  At the same time my brain froze, my heart clenched into a tight fist, and I had to swallow back anger.  Anger at the kind words of an acquaintance who’d read into my poem something clearly present, though at the time of its writing, not intended.  I pushed the snarl back and said,

“Actually, I wrote that poem years ago, when I first moved to Homer.  It had nothing to do with cancer.”

“Really?” she said.

And it was true, in a way.  It had nothing to do with cancer, specifically.  Here is the ending of the poem (I call it my "chicken poem").  It's about collecting eggs from my hens.   (I think I actually posted the whole poem on this blog once):

Walking back the dog waited for me,
the egg was warm in my pocket.

My house was there.  And I was there,
and the egg for my family.  Death was

nowhere foraging in the cottonwood trees. 
Now I kneel in front of the stove

raking the ashes for a few live coals
to start the evening fire.  I just walked

to the chicken coop and back.
That was all.  I placed an egg in the tray

that marks a string of days laid out like that.
A life lived out, egg by egg.  It was pretty good.
You can see why she thought the poem had been recently composed.  But what I wanted to say to her was, “Actually, no, I’m not living each day to the fullest!  I’m exactly like you, like everyone else.  I try, but still I waste lots of precious time reading New York Times articles online, watching Breaking Bad episodes (about a guy who gets diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and turns his life around – by becoming a truly BAD person), worrying, shopping, procrastinating, lying on the couch.”  Oh it was a bad seed that sprouted from my heart.   Thank goodness I didn’t vent at this well-meaning, lovely person.  Because it's true a cancer diagnosis impacts everyone around us; it asks all of us to consider how we're spending our "one precious life" (in Mary Oliver's words).  But maybe I just didn't want to be the "Life is Precious" poster child for that day.

Which brings me back to seeds.  My counselor asked me a couple weeks ago, in that casual, offhand but penetrating way she has, “So how’s your daily spiritual practice?”

“Um,” I said.  “I go to yoga three times a week …”  (More evidence that I am less than enlightened post-cancer).

So since my talk with her, I’ve climbed up into my loft each morning to light candles and incense and set my intention for the day and to pray, send good energy out to people in my life who might need it.  Last week, after I sent my first draft off to my editor, I picked an “Osho Zen” Tarot card after meditating on my desire for direction, for a sense of purpose now that the book is in the polishing stages.  What next?  I guess I don’t have a Bucket List.  I just have a bucket.  So I reached in a grabbed a card out of that imaginary bucket.

But before I tell you what the card said, I have to relate that just a few minutes ago, looking for inspiration for this blog post, I grabbed a book of poetry by Hafiz off my shelf, opened it at random, and found a poem called “God’s Bucket.”

If this world
Was not held in God’s bucket

How could an ocean stand upside down
On its head and never lose a drop?

If your life was not contained in God’s cup

How could you be so brave and laugh,
Dance in the face of death?

There is a private chamber in the soul
That knows a great secret

Of which no tongue can speak.

The card I drew was called “Courage.”  The image on the card was of a green sprout emerging from a crack in cold, gray stone, growing toward a warm sun.  The seed is that "great secret," in the "private chamber in the soul." 

But I know that the next sprouting is still to come.  For now, it's winter, time to nurture the seed, whatever’s contained within:  Tulip?  Crocus?  Daffodil?

Post or pre-cancer, or never-to-be-cancer, aren’t we all the same?  Aren't we all dancing with death?  Isn’t it just seed after seed after seed?  I’m just one of you, right?  And by the way, last Friday, when the exhibit at the museum opened, the poets read their poems, including me.  Reciting, I looked up at the audience, and there she was, D.  Our eyes met briefly.  And I saw an amazing, transported, glowing, sprouting look on her face.

Here’s the end of the Hafiz poem:

Your existence my dear, O love my dear,

Has been sealed and marked

“Too sacred,” “too sacred,” by the Beloved –
To ever end!

Indeed God
Has written a thousand promises
All over your heart

That say,
Life, life, life,
Is far too sacred to
Ever end.

(That is from The Gift:  Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master, translated by Daniel Ladinsky).

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hey, You, Get Off 'A My Cloud

Some people have gently or not-so-gently suggested I change the name of this blog.  Afterall, am I not out of Cancerland?  And isn’t it somehow morbid?  The world of IV infusions, radiation beams, nausea, a life scheduled and shaped around treatment – isn’t that almost a year in the past now? 

What they don’t understand is that Cancerland isn’t the 9th floor of Beth Israel Hospital.  Cancerland isn’t populated with infusion nurses, oncologists, social workers, and support groups.  Cancerland is populated by ghosts.  Cancerland is an inner landscape.  It’s windswept and cold.  Its weather is unpredictable, like autumn weather in Alaska, one low pressure center of fear following another, with brief periods of calm between.  Cancerland lies along the seismically active Pacific Rim of Fire, with sudden tremors and frequent eruptions of anger.  It’s a place where, even if aberrant cells no longer proliferate, aberrant thoughts and emotions do.  Cancerland feels sometimes like a Superfund site, contaminated, leaking barrels of toxins rusting on the tundra.  And of course, I want out.  I want a Caribbean island.

I’m a few days away from turning in the first draft of my book to my publisher.  I got the contract to write the book while I was undergoing chemotherapy treatment, in the throes of the Red Devil.  
For some crazy reason, I told my editor that I could finish the book in a year, even though several months of that year, I was still undergoing treatment.  Part of it was the way a cancer diagnosis, regardless of prognosis, clarifies one’s priorities with the force of a huge wave of frigid North Pacific saltwater to the face.  I knew this book was something that I had to finish.  What does such conviction mean?  It doesn't help that I'm superstitious.  Cancerland is a highly superstitious place.  Cancerland is this:  a deep, crazy, irrational fear arising from underground, often at 3:30 am – unstated until now – that as soon as I send the manuscript off, my life’s purpose will be over, and cancer will return, and I'll die.  That agreeing to one year as the rather unrealistic timeline for finishing a book about two decades of my life following orcas was because of some deep knowing.   A fucking premonition.  That kind of "thinking," right there, is Cancerland.

Cancerland is also adding my social worker’s daily blog called “Living with Breast Cancer” to my “Favorites” bar, when often, reading the entries taints my day.  Not because it isn’t valuable stuff, compassionate, smart, up-to-date.  The social worker is a breast cancer survivor – she had it twice – and she facilitates support groups and counsels people in and out of treatment, people surviving and dying and scared.  She’s awesome, and beautiful, a force.  She’s a pragmatist.  She knows breast cancer isn’t pink in any way:  not feminine, not gentle, not benign.  Breast cancer doesn’t wear nipple-pink, baby-cheek pink, but black – black nail polish, black lipstick, black leather.  Breast cancer has safety pins in its eyebrows and lips.  Breast cancer is a sociopath.  It has hollows under its eyes, and it listens to hard-core thrasher music and watches dark, violent movies.  The social worker's posts are often sobering.  No cure, no certainty, no pink fog to calm the nerves.  If only I had a bar for ‘Least Favorites” on my browser screen.  When I’d click on the button, I’d get an “access denied” message.  Because the Least Favorite of all is the part of myself who daily checks to see what’s new in Cancerland.  A cure?  A vaccine?  A new, preventative concoction, perhaps a flax seed-aspirin-coffee-red wine smoothie.

If Cancerland’s primary weather is fear, its geology is rage.  That one’s life is now infected by morbid thoughts, and toxic language like "five year disease-free survival” and “risk of recurrence” and “osteoporosis” and “mastectomy,” and “arimidex” and “see you in six months.”  You want to take a scalpel and extract that icky thread of language that’s insinuated itself into your inner landscape.  It’s like someone else’s hair in your soup.  You want it out, but even after you get it out, do you still want to eat that soup?  Your favorite soup, which was your oblivious, pre-breast cancer life.  Oh how good it looks, that island, as seen from afar, from the shore of this new one, CancerIsland.  Welcome, indeed.

 “Put it behind you,” is the message beneath people’s questioning of my blog post’s title.  If only I could.  I know the point is not to remain on any one island, Pre, Present or PostCancerIsland, but to clean and then weave that unasked-for, reviled thread into the mosaic of a whole, evolving life.   On my better days, in the calms between storms, I live that process.  It’s what most of my blog posts are about.  But some days, like this one, with 17,000 words still to cut from my manuscript, and an Arimidex-induced ringing in my ears, and a fog of fear rolling in from the west, and flashes of foot-stomping anger, I want to put on some music that sounds like razor blades and broken glass.  I want to put on my black books and leather.  I want to dye my hair magenta, stick a safety pin through my earlobe, and become my own weather, with hurricane force winds.  I want to meet that bitch, that cancer diva, and dance her off this planet, this island, this cloud.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thank You Tina Fey


Back in the radiology waiting room at the hospital in Boston for my six-month follow-up mammogram and ultrasound.  I just walked here in the pouring rain from the little inn on Beacon Street.  Out on the streets, I think I was the only person not carrying an umbrella.  Well, a guy on a bike wasn't carrying an umbrella, so I'm exaggerating a little.  But I felt a bit foolish.  Like showing up for an Alaska hippie sauna wearing a bathing suit.  In Alaska, carrying an umbrella, even in an autumn deluge, means you're a wimp.  (You cover yourself head-to-toe in rubberized rain gear and wear rubber boots instead).  My friend Kelly (not a wimp) lives in a town in Alaska where it rains almost 200 inches a year.  It's been his personal mission for decades to convince Cordovans that umbrellas are a great invention.  Years ago, he convinced me, so I do walk around in Homer in the rain carrying my umbrella, eliciting incredulous glances from drivers.  Last time I was in Cordova, in September, during a storm, I didn't see anyone carrying an umbrella.  Kelly, undefeated, showed off his extra-fancy unbreakable model that is stronger than a North Pacific gale.  I wish I had that umbrella today.

But this is what -- displacement behavior?  I'm clearly distracting myself.  This is me trying not to think too much ahead.  Wisely, I didn't buy a latte on my way up here this morning.  Because of course as soon as I stop thinking about Kelly and umbrellas and Cordova and rain, within me arises, just under my solar plexus, an inner fritzing, like a television screen in an electrical storm, aka, anxiety.

Next to me, a woman talks to her friend about how she's going to pay for cancer treatment.  Her friend reminds her to stay positive.  Another woman, fine new hair growing sparsely back on her bald head, texts someone after a consultation.  Getting up to go to the exit or one of the examining rooms, women grab fistulls of hard candy from a basket on the table.  Another kind of displacement behavior, maybe.  I see they got rid of the Lucky magazines.  Here we are in the waiting room, individual in our anti-anxiety drugs of choice:  paperback, Us magazine, cell phone, daily planner, New Yorker, arms crossed protectively over the breasts, and me:  tapping away on laptop.


Just got out of the mammogram room.  All those extra views because of a fibroadenoma, a benign nodule, in my left breast; it caused me a scare last time.  This time, I'm more prepared.  A very nice woman with a pink ribbon pin squished my breast between the machine's plates.  Hold your breath she said, as if I had a choice, while the machine whined and clicked and beeped.  She kept me chatting.  "We're here to reduce your anxiety," she said.  "Cancer hits good people in bad places," she said.  Actually, it's not like Santa, it doesn't care if you're bad or good, holy or profane, organic or chemically preserved.

A black woman who waited a very long time for her ultrasound grabs candy from the basket as she leaves.  We catch eyes, smile.  "Have a good day," she whispers.

White sneakers, shiny black rubber boots with yellow trim, running shoes with pink soles, two sets of clogs, my brown suede boots.  The current composition of the waiting room.  Individualized in this moment by our feet.  Our street selves.  Boots made for walking out this door, into the regular world of puddles and crosswalks, asphalt and cement and soggy fallen leaves.  On top, we're all the same in our johnnies.

The bald woman comes out of the ultrasound room, and a voice from behind the door trails after her:  "Good luck."


Called back for one more picture.  "Everything's okay, just need one more view," she says.  It's the same nice woman who did the first views.  Now things get really intense; I practically stand on tip-toes.  Breathing, neither notion nor option.  We chat some more, about the breast cancer walk she was in the other week, about Alaska.  And then I'm back out in the waiting room.  I realize the exit sign is pink.  I think about my clothes, none of them pink, damp form the rain, hanging in the skinny closet in the changing area.  Okay, now this is strange, unbelievable.  On the table beside me there's a New Yorker magazine open to page 65.  I scan down the columns, thinking, "Wouldn't it be cool to find one sentence that speaks to me right now, to this situation?  One sentence I could quote in the blog."  With the New Yorker, anything is possible.  And there it is, on that very page, 65, halfway down:

"And what's so great about work, anyway?  Work won't visit you when you're old.  Work won't drive you to the radiologist's for a mammogram and take you out afterward for soup."  I flip back to see who this is:  "Confessions of a Juggler" by Tina Fey.

Go figure.  I think about my sister.  A consummate juggler -- mother of three, doctor, volunteer, runner, yogi -- she rescheduled half a day of work today to drive to Boston for me.  She will be here mid-afternoon, in time for my oncology appointment.

Out of the "second view" room comes a woman, thirty-something, dark brown shoulder-length hair, jeans and clogs, and she sits down next to me.  I push the magazine toward her.  "Were you reading this?" I ask.

She says yes.  I say, "Did you see this paragraph?"  She picks it up, reads, laughs.

"Did you see who wrote it?" she asks me.

"Tina Fey," I say.

She resumes her reading, her waiting, every once in awhile even chuckling at something she reads.  I'm sure, in her regular life, she's a juggler too.  I saw her studying her daily planner earlier in the morning.

Thank you Tina Fey.


Now in the hospital restaurant drinking coffee and listening to bad pop music and loving it, loving every syrupy lyric and synthesized beat.  Is there anything more sweet than sweet relief?  Because the radiology doctor told me the fibroadenoma looks exactly the same as last time.  "Normal breast tissue," she said.  I don't need another mammogram for a year.  No more ultrasounds, unless there's some change.  Then she handed the wand to a trainee.  There were two trainees, actually, one from Harvard med school, one from the hospital program.  After the blur and exhaustion-fog of med school, what will they remember, those two?  Surely not the anonymous, relieved woman lying on the examining table, her boot-clad feet hanging off the edge, her one breast covered with gel.  Here's what I will remember:  Trainee 1, a head of intricate black braids, smooth brown skin, a look of eagerness on her face, taking the wand in her hand for the first time.  "Hold it like this, the other way," the doctor said.  Trainee 2, strawberry blonde tight curls, brown eyes, pale freckled skin -- she looks 12 or so -- staring confidently at the computer screen.  And the woman doctor, white coat, mannish gray short hair, stocky voice and frame, motherly, instructing them:  "Relax your wrist, stand up straight."  Off to the side, the true expert, the dark-haired Helena, technician, catching my eye, giving me a wink.  "You are still here," she seemed to say with that look.   "You haven't disappeared."

After I walked out of the ultrasound room, clutching my johnny over my chest, I saw the dark-haired woman, still waiting for some other test.  Done with Tina Fey, she just sat there, her eyes closed.  "Take care," I said.

She looked up, startled.  Smiled.  "You too," she said.

In the waiting room, with eyes and mouths and gestures, we speak a language under the language we speak on the street.

And in the hospital restaurant, another pop tune plays, a remake of "You're so vain."  I sip my coffee.  I'm so unreasonably happy.  I tap my suede-booted foot.