Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Panning for Gold on the Eroding Bluff

As I do each morning, I started today by reading from The Book of Awakening, by Mark Nepo.  It opens with a quote by Lao-Tzu:  "How can you follow the course of your life if you do not let it flow?"  The reading goes on to talk about dreams "collecting like pollen" and then rain and living washing away what isn't possible.  Our dreams and memories, Nepo says, stay with us as long as we need them and then erode.  But we resist these processes.  He says, "in order to re-enter the flow of life, we need to be scraped back to our original surface."  That seems to me an apt metaphor for cancer treatment.  It felt very much like I was scraped back to an original surface, both physically and psychologically.  Even the loss of hair -- baldness -- and the destruction of all fast-growing cells in the body by chemotherapy drugs forces you to go through it, the scraping back, then the regeneration.  It's brutal.  I think of the seawall people built below the bluff in Homer to ward off storm damage that's been steadily eroding the beach, trying to save their million-dollar view houses.  It's natural to resist a force that wants to erode the foundation from under your feet.  But Mark Nepo, survivor of brain cancer and poet (so he should know) tells me this morning I mustn't resist the processes that scrape and scour and erode.  Some days, it's harder than others.  

Some days, I'd just like to move miles back from the bluff edge, back to safety, out of sight and mind of the encroaching ocean.  Some days, I'd gladly trade all I've learned for a day without a single thought of cancer.  Today, I admit, was such a day.  "The expressive journey," Nepo says, "allows us to release the accumulated grit from our journey."  This is true for me, the tears shed, the honest admitting of fear to another, writing this blog, all wash some of that grit out of cancer's psychological wounds.  It's best when I don't force it, when I let the grit of a day sift through, and wait until the water clears and I can see the gold.  It happened last night, I wrote about that runaway horse, but it wasn't until this morning that I considered my conversation with my friend Miranda.

After yoga yesterday morning I drove to her house at the end of a dirt road above town.  She opened the door before I got to the front steps, welcoming me home with her smile.  A writer, the author of a memoir called Tide, Feather, Snow, Miranda wrote me a real letter last fall, a descriptive letter pages long that felt like one half of a conversation underway between two souls.  In a letter like that, the other is entirely present as you sit with pen and paper.  At least it felt like that to me.  Remember that form of communication that was also communion -- the letter?  Like the sacrament of communion in the church I grew up in, the letter was both spirit -- thoughts, feelings, impressions -- and material -- that white envelop in the mailbox, the pages, the handwriting.  When I last saw Miranda, she and I left her infant Cecily with "the guys" and went downtown to see the film "Precious" (which traumatized us both).  Now, when I walked into the house, I saw a 1 1/2 year-old Cecily standing behind her "DJ booth," a square plastic table waist height to her tiny self, its top covered with buttons, spinners, lids, gee-gaws in bright colors, all of them sound-makers.  Cecily is one of those delicate girls, but not shy, big dark eyes in a fine-boned face with a ready smile, that classic rosebud mouth.  She's still crawling but bursting with words, some clear, some open to interpretation.  She's part mockingbird, part monkey, part flower's center, part petal, part otter.  As we talked, I watched Miranda in her new incarnation as a mother, that natural flit of attention to and fro, that innate skill to keep one ear highly attuned to her child, one ear listening.  She talked about writing, balancing writing and mothering.  She asked me how I decided to go ahead and write the book I'm writing.

The idea for the book, while always in the back of my mind, was moved to the front by an agent who heard me read a piece about orcas at a conference.  I resisted for a long time, not sure I could write a book "under contract," instead of in the organic out-flowing of each day's living that's my most natural writing process, that's the way I write this blog.  I finally consented, thanks to a push by another writer friend Nancy Lord, but the proposal dragged on.  Some time after my diagnosis, I asked myself what I'd regret not completing, not doing or experiencing, if I died.  If I only had a year to live, what would I want to accomplish?  The answer was unequivocal.  I knew I needed to write that book about the orcas I've studied for 24 years, a group of whales that's going extinct.  It's also a book about a place and a process of inner and outer discovery.  So I asked my agent to help me get the proposal done, even though I was in the thicket of chemo, and we worked together on my good days and got the proposal out.  And it was picked up by Beacon Press in Boston.  I asked Miranda what she'd want to write if she had only a year to live, but before the question left my mouth I knew the answer.  I looked in her eyes and said, "I'd bet you'd just want to spend every possible moment with Cecily."  And she did.  Who wouldn't?

I realize that something compelled me to answer my own question back in May in that particular way.  But the truth is, watching myself live these last few months, free of the cancer treatment regime, it's not so simple or singular for me anymore -- that book I want to write.  What I want most of all is to be present to the teachers and teachings that surround me each day, everywhere, if I can only stay alert enough to hear them, if I can stay off the runaway horse so the important moments don't flash by me so fast they become part of the general blur.

Thinking about my brief visit with Miranda, it strikes me that conversation can be communion.  Except unlike the Catholic sacrament, it's an exchange.  As a little girl, I knelt to receive the papery wafer on my tongue from the priest.  He held it between two fingers.  I opened my mouth.  I received what was supposed to be spiritual food, but it stuck to the roof of my mouth and left me hungry.  The best part of the communion ceremony for me was that it signaled the end of mass was near, and soon I'd be out in the sun, where the real communions awaited.

So maybe I'd answer my question differently now, after considering my time with Miranda and Cecily.  What I want is a life of communion, with writing, with solitude, with Craig, with our kids, with my friends, with the grocery store clerk, with the post office lady, my favorite one, who yesterday read the address on my package and asked about Lars, my stepson.  If I sit back each day, if I give myself breathing space, if I allow the water to flow over and wash off the accumulated grit and dust, those moments of communion sift out of the blur.  They're the flecks of gold in my dinged up metal pan.

After writing all of this out in my journal this morning, I got up and drove to my friend Jo's house.  We sat in her window seat with the purple and maroon pillows for and hour and drank tea and talked.  Then she put on a late Beethoven string quartet, and we danced around her living room, which has not one stick of furniture to get in the way.  It's part art gallery, part temple.  We danced our own version of ballet, the way I did as a child, when my sister and I dressed in slips and performed for my parents' dinner guests.  Later, she sent me an e-mail message, and it brought me back to the morning, to the idea of being scraped back to original surfaces by life.  Here is what she wrote:

Science is a point of view, religions are a point of view, philosophies are a point of view, the arts are a point of view: these are doorways, and I love to enter through them, delight in entering, have dedicated my life to unfolding their truths, and relish and bathe in the wisdom, the knowledge, the insight, the accumulation of the best of what humans carry through time.

But like fingers pointing at the moon, they are not bedrock.

Bedrock is bedrock.

You are touching bedrock now, Eva.

And that is what makes all the difference.

I finish writing this just before bed, thankful for the doorways I enter each day, even those that lead deeper into unknowing and fear, the greatest scouring force there is.  Fear is no longer a problem to be solved.  It is a dance partner.  Or, on harder days, that person in a contra dance that's called your shadow.    Some days I am a partner to the shadow.  Like the waves are a dance partner to the bluff.  But most of all, I'm grateful for the sacrament of friendship, which opens so many of those doors for me, doors to rooms in which my friend and I touch bedrock together.  

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