Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Little House on the Post-Cancer Prairie

The screen saver on my computer gives me a word each day to contemplate, a word and its definition.  Today’s is “pectoral.”  Pectoral flipper on killer whale.  Pectoral muscle on a human chest.  Pectoral, the site of my physical wounding.  A breast is to nurture, but also to protect.  What surprised me after surgery was how little pain I felt.  I only took Vicadin for a day.  I protected my arm and pectoral, of course, and perhaps I did it well enough to shield myself.  But the subsequent surprise, as I healed, was the vulnerability.  The lack of cushion.  How sore it is, ten months after surgery, how easily over-stretched by yoga or throwing a Frisbee for the dog.  Will I ever forget?  Will it ever feel simply natural, the natural state of my body?  A part of me is gone.  And I don’t even know where.  I work hard at yoga to build up the pectoral muscle, so I will be protected again.

Each day is new, a new metaphor, a new question, a new prayer.  Today’s question:  How do I see my way forward so this growth can continue, so I can keep walking on this pilgrimage?  How do I not stop here, where it’s comfortable and safe?  How do I keep pushing toward an unknown destination, hoping to find along the way the missing, broken pieces:  my true self, my voice, my freedom, my purpose on this earth?  I’ve been reading a book called Deepwater Passage: A Spiritual Journey at Midlife, by Ann Linnea.  At 43, she kayaked around Lake Superior, the first woman to do so, but her journey was as much internal as physical.  A third of the way into the voyage, she wrote in her journal:  “What I’m learning on land when I have some moments where I’m not focused on survival is the beginning of articulation about surviving the rest of my life.”  That’s what my friend was talking about in her e-mail yesterday, that transformation after illness.  It’s one thing to “survive” breast cancer, the disease, to survive surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, hormone treatment, the “cure.”  It’s another to survive the upheaval.  To not only survive but to absorb the shattering experience that cancer is, and to transform it.  Well into my tenth month away from Homer, my home, even though I fly north in less than a week, there is no subsidence in the sense of displacement I feel.  “I can’t breathe here anymore,” I write in my journal about Hawaii.  “I want the trail along the gulch, the cold air, a place to lie down under a spruce tree.”  Seven days from that trail, that spruce tree, that cold air, it feels impossible I’ll ever reach home.  It’s why I checked The Odyssey out of the library.  I won’t pack much for the journey north.  But it’s certain I’ll take all the questions with me, like this one, which I wrote in my journal today:

“Am I brave enough to listen to the voice inside me, brave enough to act on what it tells me?  Do I have the courage to break out?”

Today’s metaphor:  A bird perched at the open door of a cage.  Before I left Cape Cod, I sat on the bed in the cottage Craig and I inhabited last fall.  My sister sat beside me.  We spread a deck of Osho Zen cards on the bedspread.  It was a few days before my departure after eight months living with Mara and her family.  Both of us stood on a threshold, no going back to the life before cancer crashed into our lives.  But we stood on separate thresholds, transformed, going forward separately, shakily, into the future.  When we looked together at the image on the card I pulled, we laughed in amazement.  It was a tawny bird perched in the open doorway of a black-barred cage.  The bars at the top of the card were dissolving into the blue beyond, in which a flock of birds flew, as if calling the caged bird to join them.   I found that card today and stared at it, then opened the book that accompanies the cards.  It said this:  “You are out of jail, out of the cage; you can open your wings and the whole sky is yours.  All the stars and the moon and the sun belong to you.  You can disappear into the blueness of the beyond … Just drop clinging to this cage, move out of the cage and the whole sky is yours.  Open your wings and fly across the sun like an eagle.  In the inner sky, in the inner world, freedom is the highest value – everything else is secondary.” 

After a particularly grueling, stormy paddle, trying to light a fire from wet birch bark, Ann Linnea writes:  “I wanted to peel back my own skin, too.  My life felt as sodden and smoldering as the unburnt log.  I had set together every condition for ignition, and something in me refused to burn.”

The post cancer-treatment experience is a see-saw of flying and smoldering, burning and crawling back into the cage and closing the door behind me.  Like Linnea, I sense both the possibility of transformation and my limitations.  The cancer experience set “every condition for ignition.”  Some days I burn, fly up like a released spark.  Some days:  ignition failure, my heart a rain-doused fire.  But I feel the will, the want, pressing against my chest, my pectoris.  Half my chest now unprotected, maybe the bird has an easier escape route, if only she could find it.  Pent up, that agony of stuckness, is the want battering against the ribs, want bad enough, I must believe, to turn will to way, to turn cage to freedom.  That’s where prayer comes in:

Little house of my own, new life, I dream of you.        

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